A couple months of Mercedes ownership

I’ve been adjusting to “semi sort of exotic” V12 ownership.  Early May I bought a Mercedes S600 with under 48K miles on the odometer.  If you’re unfamiliar, it’s an exceptionally opulent luxury sedan with a 510 HP, twin-turbocharged 5.5 liter V12 and an active hydraulic suspension system, among other things. It hasn’t been trouble-free, but I don’t think anything new has broken since I bought it — it just had problems that weren’t obvious when I looked at it.  If I’d have had a proper dealer PPI done, I would have screwed the price down a few more thousand — but the logistics of doing that in a distant city are difficult to say the least.  Next time (and there will be a next time), I’ll do it differently.  

The real adjustment is in how these things are serviced.  Got a problem?  Unless it’s something mechanical that’s obviously broken, you’re going to absolutely need the Mercedes dealer level software (at the very least), on a dedicated laptop, and the hardware to get it to talk to the car.  Period.  Or, you take it to a dealer that charges a $160 “diagnostic fee” per symptom.  Or, you find an independent shop and hope they’re as good as they claim.  The mechanical systems are very complex.  The electronics are far, far more complex.  Just an example: You turn the thumbwheel on the dash air vent to control airflow.  It’s not a mechanical control.  It’s a potentiometer, which is read by a control unit that sits on the CAN bus, and talks to numerous other control units, and a decision is made how much to move the electrically actuated damper behind that vent.  Oh, the potentiometer went bad and can’t be read?  No A/C for you, pal.

I’ll be about $3K deep in repairs, parts, and vehicle-specific tools by the time I’m done, maybe a little less.  The good news is, half of that is the one thing that the dealer HAS to do — the rest I can do myself with parts sourced from Fleabay or a couple of dealers that sell factory original parts at a deep discount.  By the weekend I’ll be equipped to do anything the dealer can do diagnostic-wise, which will pay for itself quickly.  

On the plus side…  the thing is over-built, and the level of engineering and the build quality is fantastic.  Even at 13 years old, this car has features most new cars don’t.  You can cruise all day long in ridiculous comfort (the massaging seats help), and if the mood ever strikes you to see, for example, how long it takes to go from 40 to 130 MPH…  it will happily and very quickly do it, without drama, and you’re nowhere near the top end.  This model is limited to 157 MPH, and it will easily do it.  It’s not going to be as cheap to own and operate as my F150, for example, but once it’s fully sorted out I don’t think it will be punitively bad, either.  You don’t own a car like this (or a Ferrari, or a McLaren, or a Bentley, or whatever) because it’s cheap.  

Props to Hulu.

We’ve caught up on all the Hulu shows we watch, no new ones for a couple of months. There is really nothing we need from them until the new season is available. Went to cancel my subscription, with the intent of re-starting in April or May. Hey — they let you “pause” your subscription for up to 12 weeks. Sweet!! Exactly what I needed to do. Thanks for anticipating our needs, guys.

Dumping Hulu

Hulu was more or less OK, but we’re switching to DirecTV Now. Same price, but they have AMC AND a program guide. How did I ever miss the fact that Hulu doesn’t carry AMC?? I have no idea, but that’s a deal breaker. And I got really freakimg tired of no program guide, and being forced to scroll through the crap networks we don’t EVER watch, every time I wanted to see what’s on.

DirecTV Now isn’t perfect but so far it beats Hulu for streaming live TV. We may pick up basic Hulu from time to time if we want to catch up on some of their series, but I’m not keeping them on the payroll any more.

Hulu Support contacted me via Twitter to say they do have a program guide. Let’s just say their idea of what qualifies as a program guide differs from mine. You can get a listing of what is on RIGHT NOW, and the next show on each channel. No indication of whether a show is new or a rerun. No time grid to see what’s on later. No way to filter the channel list other than very recently viewed channels, or scroll through all of them whether you want to or not. Don’t ever care what’s on BET, MTV, Cartoon Network or whatever? Too bad. Oh, and whatever you were watching is gone while you’re looking — no audio or background video, like with cable or DTV.

At this point we’re new to streaming our live TV, so my loyalty to any vendor is zero. We’ll switch until we find something we like, and if I find something better we’re gone.

The sad state of application programming

The Hulu app froze again yesterday and required a force stop. We had another episode of the house phones (the Panasonic DECT6.0 cordless set) not seeing the line from the Ooma, and the Ooma Telo box needed to be power cycled to fix it. I’ve had to power-cycle the Fire TV Cube a couple of times since I installed it a couple of weeks ago. It seems that the Fire TV Cube and the Ooma box will just need regular power cycles to keep them from hanging. This kind of stuff is becoming more and more common… apps are stable for a few hours or a few days, but past that your chances of things working as they should decline rapidly.

I think software development is really being taken over by people who are only marginally competent. You probably know the type. They’ve been to all the classes, got the degrees, can write the code, but really don’t understand how things work, and their code is functional only under ideal conditions. I work with these types daily. They’re unable to think about what happens when things don’t work exactly as they should. The typical conversation consist of me asking one of them what happens when X breaks, which results in a puzzled look. X isn’t supposed to break, you see, and if it does then X is at fault and should be fixed. Never occurs to them to allow for X breaking as a known possibility. Problem is, the guy who wrote X is also a marginally competent idiot, so in the end everything breaks and no one understands why.

We seem to be accepting this as the norm. I talk to people a generation younger than myself and either they are incredibly lucky, or I’m incredibly unlucky, or I’m the only one in the world that ever has an application misbehave. They seem to just accept it as normal and move on. A quick power cycle, a quick reboot, force stop and move on, whatever. As do I, but I do notice it. I can remember when applications being unstable was not unusual, but everyone understood that it was a problem and something to be fixed. Now it just seems that no one cares. OK, if we’re talking about some time sucking game, I don’t care either… but we’re not. We’re talking about systems that should be at least as reliable as what they replace, but turn out to be a pile of crap. I can’t count how many working hours are wasted on bad phone connections, twitchy chat sessions breaking, crappy remote meeting sessions, and slipshod work by people who should know better.

Cord cutting update

Well, we’ve been watching Amazon Prime and Hulu Live for a week now. We have not yet needed to switch back to cable, which is good. It has not been quite the seamless transition one would hope for, but it’s not a complete pain in the ass either. Compared to watching cable, it’s a lot more labor intensive. Lots of button pushing, menu navigating, and we seem to have a disruption of some sort on average at least once a night. Wrong video streams, app crashes, Fire TV reboots, etc. It may not be a deal breaker, but then again it may be. It certainly is a pain in the ass.

My short take on it is, this whole thing is great. Or it would be, if the apps were written by people who actually gave a damn whether things actually worked for more than a few hours at a time. I’ve started doing a power-on reset of my Ooma box once a week to keep it from wandering off the path of righteousness; it looks like the Fire TV Cube may need that once a day or so. Unfortunately, there is no way to force reboot either one remotely so it turns into me remembering to go unplug the stupid things.

Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly so far…

The Good:

  • The shows we watch are automatically recorded, so we can watch them whenever we please.
  • Video and audio quality seem to be very good. I haven’t tried any lower quality settings to see how it impacts things.
  • So far, I don’t think we have found any of our shows that we can’t watch.

The Bad:

  • Navigation is just clunky, there’s no other way to describe it. There’s lots of button pushing, and you have to be careful of lag and slow response.
  • Different apps for different shows. Amazon Prime for Jack Ryan and a couple of others, Hulu for most things. Not a huge deal, but integration could certainly be better.
  • Data burn. We’re on a 1TB/month plan. We had been using 2-5 GB/day; now we’re hitting peaks of 25GB or more. Average seems to be around 15, which is still OK… but we’ll actually need to pay attention to our data usage, which is not ideal. Obviously streaming video is going to burn bandwidth; this was not unexpected.

The Ugly:

  • Alexa commands are a joke. Tell Alexa “Tune Discovery on Hulu”… no dice, Alexa says Hulu can’t find that channel. We use the remote for most everything.
  • The Hulu app is not what I would call stable. I have started force terminating it once a day, just to keep it from crashing at inopportune times.
  • The Fire TV Cube is also not what I would call stable. roughly every other night or so, it will just spontaneously crash and reboot in the middle of a show.
  • Hulu’s inexplicable and stupid lack of a program guide. It’s idiotic, there’s really no other way to describe it. Guys, you’re selling this as a LIVE TV service, why not act like it and put up a damned program guide?
  • Occasionally, our sound bar will simply power itself off in the middle of watching something. What turned it off? Why? No indication, it’s a mystery. And of course, that means you have to grab another damned remote… unless you tell Alexa to turn the sound bar on, which Alexa will, and then you lose the audio stream from the Hulu app.



Cutting the cord? Or part of it…

So the Cox bill has been getting out of control.  After the latest package deal ran out, the bill bumped up to nearly $240 per month, mostly for crap (in the form of TV channels and phone features) that we don’t want.  That’s a ton of money.

The requirements are:

  • Landline with caller ID
  • Live TV with the channels WE watch.  Local channels, Fox News, History, Discovery, AMC, HGTV, several others. 
  • Internet to support full time telecommuting

I already switched the phone service over to Ooma.  I bought a Telo and signed us up for Ooma Premeir service.  That gives us caller ID, voicemail, and unlimited calling in & out.  That will reduce the monthly phone service spend from $53.62 (I shit you not, that’s what Cox was charging me) to less than $20 per month — for more service.

Now, next up is cable TV. Cox’s bill comes to a little over $154, including taxes and fees and surcharges.  I could reduce that by about $24 by dropping HBO and Showtime, which suck anyway and we only have because they were included in the discount package that has expired.  Still WELL over $100 a month for, quite frankly, an awful lot of crap.  200+ channels, but of course they include crap we’d never watch in a hundred years just to try to justify the insane price. 

The last time I looked at alternatives like Hulu, Netflix, Sling, etc. — and it was not that long ago — they all fell woefully short of meeting any of our requirements.  We stuck with cable TV simply because there was no other way to watch, for example, The Walking Dead, or Fox News, or Nebraska football games, live.  A few hours or days or a year after the fact, sure.  Or not at all, depending on the service.  And we’d probably need to sign up for several, resulting in a total bill exceeding what we were paying for cable in the first place.  Oh, and get an antenna up that would work for the local channels, since NONE of them covered those.

Well, it seems the picture has changed significantly.  For about $40 a month Hulu will give you all their stuff, plus live TV covering all the channels we watch (BTN for Husker football included, woohoo!) and a DVR service.  It’s worth a try.  We already have Amazon Prime, mostly for the shipping.  The decision to go with a Fire TV Cube was pretty simple.  I received and installed that yesterday, and signed up for a free trial week of Hulu with live TV.  Oh, and as a side benefit…  it looks like this may also negate the need to try and find yet another “universal” remote control, potentially saving another few rubles.

Last night was our first night watching Hulu on the Fire TV Cube.  Overall the user interface ranges from “fair, needs improvement” to “frustratingly clunky” to “ridiculously obtuse”.  Some of that’s the Fire TV, some is Hulu.  It’s bearable, and I hope it improved with future app updates.  We also had not one, but THREE screwups while trying to watch live TV.  The first was innocuous and not a big deal — watching the news, but the program guide listed it as some oddball foreign cartoon name.  OK, no big deal.  Then we tried watching Vikings on History Channel.  Several minutes into the episode it restarted,  restarted again, and when we tried to get back to the live stream it switched to some episode of “Forged in Fire”.  Horrifically frustrating.  10-15 minutes later we got back to Vikings, but of course missed part of the episode.   We’ll have to watch it again.

Then we tried watching another show, “Curse of Oak Island”.  What we got was an old episode of “Stargate SG-1”, which most definitely has not improved with age.  It would have been funny if it were not for the fact that we couldn’t watch the damn show we wanted to watch.

I will say that non-live streams seem to work perfectly, and the video quality seems to be great.  And we can watch some channels for hours with zero issues.  I chatted with Hulu support today, and the agent says it’s a “known issue” that they’re working to resolve.  IF they resolve it soon, and completely, we’ll have a winner.  If they do not, we’ll need to decide whether we stick with Hulu and adapt (watch things delayed a little), or scrap it and pare our Cox cable back to the minimums and deal with the expense.  Or something else entirely. 

Once we have a final solution to this question, I’ll post a monthly spend and savings analysis.  I think we can probably save about $100 a month, to be honest.  I’m glad I don’t own stock in Cox or any other cable company.  We’ll still have to use them cor Internet access, of course, but who knows how long that will be true?


Re-lighting the basement

Our basement has a bunch of recessed can lights in the ceiling.  Like, 16 of them total, if you count the two in the stairwell.  Originally they were all populated with 65 W incandescent flood lamps.  Quite a while ago, I replaced them with CFL bulbs that only required 15 W each.  Since I was using the basement as my home office, that was quite a savings.  Assuming the lights were on around 12 hours a day, it saved roughly 9.6 kWH of electricity daily.  Those CFL lamps were not cheap, about $14 each as I recall…  but they paid for themselves in under a year, if I remember the math right.

Of course CFL lamps don’t turn on at full brightness immediately.  They took a few seconds to get up to snuff, maybe half a minute or so after they were installed.  It was OK, not great, but not bad at all considering the energy saved.  Over time, though, they took longer and longer to turn on.  They were also getting dimmer and dimmer over time.  Lately it’s been turn on the lights, then go do something else for five minutes or so — and the light is still not great.  It was time to replace them.

I ordered a batch of Feit 90+ CRI 75 W replacement, dimmable LED retrofit kits.  These replace the lamp and trim, and give substantially more light for roughly the same power consumption.  They’re rated at 14 W and 850 lumens.  So far I’ve installed 10 of the 16, and the difference is striking.  Of course they reach full brightness as soon as you flip the switch, which is nice.  They’re also quite a bit brighter than the CFLs ever were, so the amount of available light as gone from inadequate or barely adequate to “plenty”.  And these were cheap, at an average of less than $7.50 per fixture after shipping. 

The real surprise was how long those CFLs had been in place.  I didn’t realize it, but I found a notation on one that it was installed in mid-2007.  I’m pretty sure that was a replacement for one of the failed original lamps, because they were supposedly warrantied for a few years.  I’ll say this — after eleven years, those CFL bulbs owe me nothing.  If I get the same life out of the LEDs I’ll be a happy guy.

Now to figure out how we’re supposed to dispose of CFL bulbs.  I’m pretty sure they’re not supposed to go in the garbage, and I’ve got a pile of them now.

How I became Citröen’s least favorite person

So, how the hell was I supposed to know that the rather mundane looking car getting its rolling glamour shot in the street in front of our hotel was a super secret new model?  I was as shocked as anybody, especially when the video producer and the lady from the ad agency tracked us down in the street in Copenhagen and explained that they were about to lose their jobs because of a tweet I posted… and the numerous bloggers who had copied my video to YouTube and were blogging about he “secret spy photos” of the new Citröen.

I have a French lawyer now…

It started out innocently enough.  Lisa and I were on vacation in Copenhagen, and after a fantastic week this was our last night in the hotel (actually a studio apartment) where we were staying.  I had stepped out to get a few things at the little grocery store around the corner.  When I tried to return to the apartment, there were some people in high-visibility yellow vests keeping everyone back from the street.  After a few minutes I figured out that they were there to shoot footage of a car for a commercial.  The car didn’t look like anything exotic — a little Citröen wagon style like we’d seen dozens of times around Copenhagen, although this one lacked the bumpy plastic panels in the doors.  Eventually there was a pause in the preparation and they let a few of us who had been patiently waiting cross the street.  I saw the camera truck, a well used vehicle with an articulating arm from which hung the video camera on a stabilizing mount.  The car wasn’t terribly interesting but the camera rig was pretty cool, actually; my geek side liked it.

A little later on, up in the third floor apartment, I watched from the balcony as they made a couple more passes down the street.  The camera truck and the movie star Citröen would drive down the street in tight formation, then they’d come back and do it again.  Before I came back inside I shot some video with my iPhone of the process.  Seeing the camera swivel on the end of its arm was pretty slick, and now I knew how some of the moving vehicle shots we see all the time in commercials and movies are done.

Knowing that my son would enjoy seeing the process as well, I tweeted the video and tagged him.  Unfortunately, I mentioned Citröen as well.  That was a big mistake, as it turns out.  If I hadn’t done that, this probably wouldn’t be a story.  Probably only two people in the world would have seen that video, and neither live in a country where many people pay much attention to Citröen, who hasn’t sold a new vehicle in the US since Ford was President.

The next morning we checked out and headed to the train station, dragging our wheeled luggage along.  We’d been walking the entire week in Denmark, averaging between 5 and 6 miles a day, and the train station was a little under a kilometer away.  We were about halfway there when a car pulled up to the curb along side.  In it were a woman and a man, both looking a little concerned. They asked if I was Dale, I said yes, and they both got out.  They had been shooting a car commercial the day before, they said, and now they had a big problem.  I was a little puzzled…  if I’d accidentally gotten into a shot, they could just work around it.  No, it was “the video I had posted to YouTube and the blogs”.  What??  I didn’t post anything to YouTube.  Well, Citröen was livid, her boss was about to fire her, and there was a huge problem because, unbeknownst to me, that was the new and as-yet-unannounced refresh of that model.  No one was supposed to see it, and now people had.

They had gone back to the shoot location, figured out the balcony from which the video had been shot, and asked the desk clerk who was staying there.  The hotel staff told them we’d just checked out and were headed to the airport, and they drove around until they found us.  If it had taken them ten minutes longer, we’d have been long gone and out of touch for the next 18 – 20 hours or so.

I showed them the tweet, and the woman (who was French — the man was Danish) asked if I would delete it.  Sure, absolutely, I don’t want to cause them any trouble.  Tweet deleted.  Unfortunately, some jackass had copied the video and posted it to YouTube — with my name included in the video title.  Great.  And a bunch of bloggers were now claiming to have “exclusive spy photos”, which were actually still frames taken from my video.  No one had asked me to use or copy it, of course.  No one other than the first guy had even bothered attributing the video to me at all.  Honestly I was feeling mixed emotions — a little embarrassed for having caused these poor people so much trouble, and a little pissed off that these other jackasses were using my footage, AND claiming credit for it to try to make themselves look like more than the simple scavengers they are.

We had to get to the airport, but I promised to work with the woman to get the copies removed wherever we could.  I knew we were going to be playing Whack-A-Mole…  once that kind of stuff is in the wild, your chances of suppressing it are slim.  I sent an email to the guy who had posted the video to YouTube, and sent YouTube a takedown notice.  It’s all we could do before we had to get on the plane home.

Over the next few days, I spend a couple hours a day following up on various places where the video and stills from it were posted.  Twitter accounts popped up like zits on a high schooler.  Some jackasses were making new YouTube videos with slideshows of still images captured from the video.  There were blogs in France, the Netherlands and India, all using the same three or four stills — meaning they were late to the party and just copying images from other people’s Twitter posts, which were using images swiped from the YT video, which was swiped from my tweet.

The French woman’s daughter is an attorney, and I gave her permission to defend my rights to the video and still images in the EU, pursuing whatever action she needed to in the courts over there.  Not because I’m worried about the video — I’m not making one single penny from it or the pictures I got.  I don’t want to cause Citröen any problems; they’ve never done anything to me.  I had no idea that the commercial shoot involved a model that no one had seen (more about that later), and I don’t want my video to cause the ad agency or production company to incur the wrath of their customer.  I’m just trying to minimize the damage.  And to be honest, it pisses me off that these other jackasses are basically stealing my work, claiming it as their own, and profiting from it through ad revenues.  Not a single one of them has once asked permission to use the footage, given any credit or attribution, offered one cent of compensation, responded to a request to remove it, or cooperated in any way.  In fact they are mostly claiming credit for the “spy photos” of the new model — taken in New York.  Screw them.

Citröen’s outrage, however, has been slightly disingenuous.  While searching for more copies of my stuff, I came across many other photos of the same model — the exact same, in fact.  Different color.  Apparently Citröen had accidentally enabled the new 2018 model configurator on its web site at some point – allowing people to see exactly, in high resolution detail, what the 2018 model looks like.  They pulled it, of course, but again — once that stuff is out there, it’s not going to disappear.

 

Failed voltage regulator

A loot at the picture below should tell you all you need to know about why this replacement John Deere style rectifier-regulator failed.  Typical of low end Chinese goods, an effort was made to make it look like the original, but there was apparently either no comprehension of the design, or they just didn’t care.  You have a large, thick aluminum body that is supposed to act as the ground and the heat sink.  So look at the orientation of the high power semiconductors on the board.  That heat sink isn’t really providing much benefit, is it?  There’s nothing in contact with it, other than a ground wire…  the parts were potted in a rubber compound that insulated them both electrically and thermally.  No wonder it fried after less than 10 hours of operation.

How difficult would it have been to mount those parts on the opposite surface and put them in contact with the aluminum case, perhaps with a dab of thermally conductive grease?  The cost may have increased by a few pennies, and you’d have a fairly reliable part.  So either the manufacturer intentionally produced a defective design, or they simply had no clue what the hell they were doing.  I’ve seen a lot of that coming from China.  I’m sure there are a lot of very sharp, conscientious engineers and business people in China…  whoever produced this piece of crap wasn’t one of them.