Archive for February, 2008

Dell Watch: The Amazing Disappearing Gift Card

Friday, February 29th, 2008

Remember my $3000 paperweight with the cool Dell logo on it? The story isn’t over yet.

Indeed, I’ve never had such a highly concentrated collection of problems with a single purchase in my entire life. First of all, let me point out that after waiting for a replacement XPS 720 for a month, the new machine exhibits exactly the same bluescreen behavior as the first system. I’ve spent the last 2 months troubleshooting this system, and it still bluescreens on average once every 1.5 days. I’ll post more information about that soon — looks like I’ll be returning it to Dell for a refund, if they will let me. Jury is out on that right now.

But in the meantime, Dell has found another way to screw me!

When I ordered my original XPS 720, the Dell web site promised a $200 gift card with the system. To make a long story short, it never came. So about a month ago, I called Dell XPS customer service (which is awesome, because unlike standard Dell tech support, you always seem to get a North American call center rather than somewhere in New Delhi) and got a wonderfully polite, helpful person who promised to rectify the situation. She said that she would get my gift card sent out to me soon, but if I hadn’t received it by the time I wanted to place an order, I should just e-mail her and she’d credit my account $200:



Now, I wasn’t too enthused about relying on that offer of crediting my account, so I figured I could wait for the gift card to arrive before ordering my 500GB external USB hard drive.

A month passed, and no gift card. So I sent the nice lady an email to see what happened to it. I got this terse, gruff reply:


Wow. Dell customer service reps are no longer allowed to communicate with customers via email? That’s odd, because I still get this message in e-mails from Dell:


If they won’t reply to emails anymore, you’d think they’d stop asking you to, you know, reply to emails. But okay, fair enough — Dell is erecting even more walls preventing customers from getting a satisfying customer service experience, and they seem to take some perverse satisfaction in frustrating users in the process. Makes sense. Kids like to set ants on fire. It’s the same principle, I suppose.

So I called customer service, and was told that I didn’t qualify for the system because I ordered it over the phone. But I didn’t order it over the phone — I ordered it via the web!

Nope, apparently I didn’t. As soon as I talked to a customer service rep about the order several weeks later, it became a phone order. No one told me that by picking up the phone, I had suddenly forfeited $200. Lesson learned: Dell is evil incarnate. Now I know. And that external hard drive? Obviously, I’ll buy it elsewhere.

Buy this book. Abraham Lincoln would have wanted it that way.

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

htde-camera5 Well, I’m pleased to announce that my latest book has hit the stores. I’ve revised How to Do Everything with Your Digital Camera to its glorious 5th edition. I should point out that Osborne McGraw-Hill has decided to drop the grammatical connective tissue "with your" from the title, so now, it’s apparently just called "How to Do Everything Digital Camera."

I’ve pointed out to anyone who cares to listen that revised book title now sounds like a self-help volume aimed not at digital camera owners, but instead at the digital cameras themselves, packed, perhaps, with advice on empowering these little electronic marvels to do anything they set their minds to. As if the titling editor was inspired by Phil Hartman’s classic "Let’s Fix, Robots" sketch.

Well, that’s neither here nor there. The book is available, and I’ve extensively updated it with all sorts of new information–it’s the biggest update this book has ever gotten. There’s now a chapter dedicated to Digital SLR owners, with advice on keeping the sensor clean. There are details about how to create hyper-realistic images with High Dynamic Range, infinite (or stacked) focus, false close-ups, and more. The file format chapter has been dramatically reworked to include the most up-to-date information on working with RAW images (as well as JPG and others). The book talks about managing photos in both Windows XP and Windows Vista. And, of course, many of the photo examples are new, including the entire color section in the middle of the book. You’ll still find essential information like understanding exposure, how to compose a photo and control lighting, as well as how to edit a photo on the PC. This book is ideal for beginner and intermediate photographers.

It is available at Amazon as well as your neighborhood book store. Go buy a copy for yourself, and get a few more for friends and neighbors. Remember: not only is this an awesome book for anyone new to digital photography, but buying enough copies might bring forth world peace, cure cancer, and summon magical unicorns that will fly us to work each day without the need for carbon-emitting automobiles.

Do you want to save the planet? Show it by buying my book.

The Beat Goes On

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

pedal1 My family got Rock Band for Christmas, and it’s something of a hit. We all play it quite a bit, both as a Partridge Family-eque family band and on our own. Evan tends to play guitar; Marin usually sings. Kris switches between guitar and vocals, and I play guitar and drums, though, as is my real-life proclivity, I tend to stick with drums most of the time.

Why, you ask, am I mentioning this now, in mid-February, when Christmas was so long ago that I was still in the early stages of trying to get a working Dell XPS 720?

Well, here’s the thing: as cool as Rock Band is, the kick drum pedal is a horrifically bad example of engineering. Mine broke after just 3 weeks of use, and based on the volume of information about this on the intertubes, it appears to be a reasonably common occurrence. The problem is that the pedal itself is a wafer-thin strip of plastic, and if you tend to put the ball of your foot near the top of the pedal, you end up putting fatal amounts of stress on an un-reinforced section of the assembly. Inevitably, it cracks and then shears right above the spring.

Now I should point out that Harmonix is pretty good about replacing these things under warranty, and I got a new pedal pretty fast. But guess what? About 3 weeks after it arrived, I noticed it was already cracked, meaning it was within days of failing yet again.

At this point, I considered modifying a real kick pedal for Rock Band as documented on Metafluence, but I didn’t want to invest quite that much energy into the problem. Nor did I have a spare pedal to donate to the cause, and I certainly wasn’t going to buy one just for Rock Band — pedals aren’t cheap. pedal2

So I took my own cheapie road to fixing the problem. After all, the real problem here is that if you tend to thump the pedal much higher than where the spring contacts the pedal, every downbeat flexes the footplate. It’s only a matter of time before it cracks. So I cut a new footplate out of spare half-inch plywood and then secured it to the top of the pedal with enough epoxy to fasten an elephant to the roof of my house. 

Marin pointed out that since I tend to play Rock Band while wearing socks (which is odd, because I always wear shoes when playing “real” drums), I should sand it to avoid getting splinters. So, after a few minutes with a belt sander, I ended up with a kick drum pedal that has a smooth footplate with gently rounded edges, and which should be virtually indestructible.