Monday, July 31, 2006

And things break again

The saga of my sweet little Audi S4 convertible continues. I took it into the dealer today for the trunk shelf and antenna problems. The trunk shelf was broken, they need to order a new one. The antenna problem is actually a shorted cable harness -- the one that runs all the way from the radio up front to the antenna in the trunk lid. They have to order one of those, too. I asked if these two trunk-related problems were in any way caused by them disassembling the convertible top storage compartment in the trunk, and they said no. Of course not. Just a coincidence. Maybe I hit something, they suggested -- or snagged something in the trunk. Sure.

So I drove the car home, sans on-order parts, with the top up. That's the way they handed it to me, and it was too hot today to take the top down. Until this evening, that is, when I pressed the "top down" switch and -- lo and behold -- the top wouldn't go down. Again. It just unlatched and stayed there, no motor running. Had to do the manual operated top secure thing. Again. Just like a few weeks ago. Probably another bad microswitch. Related to the other problems? One wonders.

In any case, at least I'm not missing any prime top-down days. It's too damned hot around here to bake in an open-air cockpit. I am, for once, enjoying the cool comfort of an air conditioned sedan.

And I want my car fixed.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Things get fixed -- and break again

With all the strife around us today, the problems of one little man don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But still, they're my problems, so they matter to me.

Last time out, I wrote about the rash of technical problems I'd been experiencing. Well, what goes down must float up, so here's an update on how things worked themselves out.

First, my cable box problems, which amounted to a firmware update breaking the HDMI connection. No fix from the cable company (nor did I expect one, those technical morons), so my workaround was to switch from HDMI to component video. No big deal, aside from having to reprogram my remote to a different input on my TV.

Next, my Audi, which had a bum convertible top. The dealership fixed it right up, although it took two days, since they had to order the part (a bad microswitch). However, here's where things keep happening. I'm not sure whether it's related to the top fix or not (although it probably is, since they had the whole trunk assembly taken apart), but now the little shelf in my trunk that raises and lowers to accommodate the convertible top is broken; it won't raise to give me the extra trunk space when the top is up. Then, a day or so after I noticed that problem, the antenna on my car audio system (which is located in the trunk assembly) went bad. The AM/FM is completely unlistenable, and while XM satellite radio still has reception, I get an "ANTENNA" error message on the display. The Audi goes back to the dealership on Monday for additional repairs.

The dishwasher repairman made it out to repair my Bosch dishwasher. I thought a bad control panel was the culprit, but apparently a stuck latch was causing all the problems. A little jiggling with his screwdriver and everything was back to normal. And it only cost me $85. (Hell, I could have jiggled the damned screwdriver myself for a lot less than that.)

The folks at Niveus took good care of me concerning my broken Media Center PC. I had to pay to ship the hog back to California for repairs, but they took care of everything else. The problem was a bad power supply, which apparently fritzed the BIOS as it was going out. I got the monster back on Friday, but then more problems ensued -- no component video after boot up. Taking the advice of my contact at Niveus (who happened to be working over the weekend), I connected a second VGA monitor, set the video card for dual-monitor "clone" operation, and reset all the video settings for the big-screen TV's component connection. Not sure why it got bumfoozled, or how exactly I fixed it, but it's now working. I had an additional scare when the whole system started moving at a snail's pace, but that eventually worked itself out; it was almost like it had to take an hour or so to settle back into its old routine. (Actually, I think it had more to do with performing all the background maintenance -- spyware and antivirus updates, and so on -- that it hadn't had a chance to do over the past two weeks.) Anyway, it's back up and running, and I can't tell you how much I missed having my music. Kudos to the folks at Niveus for the exemplary service.

So, aside from my car radio and trunk thingie, I'm back in business. (And my Windows Vista installation continues to stay up and running, which is another plus.) All I want is my stuff to work. Is that too much to ask?

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Things break

I've had a streak of bad luck this past week regarding the reliability of some of my most cherished possessions. And these aren't cheap and shoddy possessions. Cheap and shoddy was okay when I was younger and less well-to-do, but now that I have a bit more disposable income I try to buy nice things. Things that look good and perform well and are supposed to last. Supposed to, that's the operative phrase. Let me elaborate.

It all started about a week and a half ago. My cable company pushed a firmware upgrade down to my SA8300HD cable box/DVR, which promptly broke the HDMI connection between the box and my Sony big-screen TV. (Every time I switch inputs on my TV, the cable box video goes blank; it gets confused.) I promptly called my local cable company (after switching boxes on my own; this -- and some Internet research -- is how I determined it was a firmware problem), who sent a friendly enough guy out to take a look. He didn't know any more than I did (and, in fact, knew a little less -- thank you, Internet research), and pretty much said that I'd have to downgrade from HDMI to a component video connection, which I did. It now works okay, but it's not the way I'd like it to be -- nor is it the kind of performance I expect when I'm paying a hundred bucks or so a month to Big Cable.

Then, a few days later, I was up in Minnesota, visiting my girlfriend. The weather was nice, so I pushed the button in my high-performance, overpriced Audi S4 convertible to put the top down. Except it didn't go. The top unlatched, but the motor didn't activate, which left me with a half-up/half-down top that we had to manually put back in place -- something that wasn't intuitive, wasn't easy, and in fact was the exact opposite of how the instruction manual described it. Not cool. A few days later I drove back to Indianapolis, visited my friendly neighborhood Audi dealer, they ordered the proper part (a malfunctioning microswitch), and now everything is back in working order. Still, not something you expect to happen on a $60,000 automobile; I'm just glad I had the spare 15 minutes it took to get things manually latched down, instead of being stuck at a stoplight trying to get the top back up.

Back home again in Indiana, I came home last night and found my expensive and totally silent Bosch dishwasher acting funny. The front panel wouldn't function properly, the door wouldn't latch, and it appears that the electronics are all goobered up. So I put in a call to my friendly neighborhood Bosch repairman, who'll be out in five days to charge me $85 just to walk in the door and say hello. Again, not something you expect to happen with at top-of-the-line $1,000 dishwasher.

And it got worse. Over the past few days my extremely expensive (see a trend?) Niveus Media Center PC had been throwing off odd error messages about a missing CPU fan. (It doesn't have a CPU fan; it's a totally silent design.) I powered it down when I left the house yesterday morning, and when I tried to power it back up last night, nothing happened. Nada. Zilch. Dead dead dead. So I called my friendly not-so-local Niveus technical support line, left my message on their answering machine, and promptly got a call from their VP of Marketing. (That's one of the perks of being a technology writer; personal service when something breaks.) I described my problem, and the current thinking is that while I might just have a bad power supply, it's more likely the motherboard that's gone south. In any case, I'll have to pack up the monster and send it off to California for (free) repairs. Once again, not something you expect to happen with a uber-high-end $5,000 PC.

Like I said, it hasn't been a good week. About the only thing going my way is that I finally got the Windows Vista beta working on my desktop PC so it doesn't crash every 10 minutes. (It took a combination of upgrading to a new video driver, disabling User Account Control, disabling the automatic background hard disk search, and uninstalling the Vista version of Computer Associates' anti-virus program; now it works just fine, thank you.) I guess it goes to show that just because you spend a lot of money to buy nice things, those nice things can still be pieces of crap that break down when it's least convenient. Almost makes me wish for the days when I drove a cheap and shoddy AMC Gremlin; yeah, it broke down all the time, but at least I didn't pay an arm and a leg for it.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Superman returns

I went to see Superman Returns last week, and I liked it. It's kind of funny how a lot of fanboys are picking nits at it, as well as how a few big-time critics (such as Roger Ebert) are finding the film to be something other than what they expected. But that's the problem with Superman; he's so many different things to so many different people, it's difficult for one single interpretation to please everyone.

In the case of Superman Returns, the choice was made to make the movie a sequel of sorts to the original Superman and Superman II movies. (And, in some eyes, a blatant "reimagining" or remaking of the first movie.) That set up direct comparisons between the first movie and this one, and between Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh as the Man of Steel. Some moviegoers found this new film lacking in comparison with the first; I found it superior.

To understand my take on the new movie, you have to understand that while I liked the original Superman movie in general, there were lots of pieces of it that I didn't like at all. I liked Chris Reeve's portrayal of the Big Blue Boy Scout, but thought his turn as Clark Kent was a bit too broad. I liked the Smallville scenes, but thought the Krypton passages boring and unnecessary. I didn't much like Margot Kidder as Lois Lane (too ditzy, not aggressive enough), and I hated Gene Hackman's portrayal of Lex Luthor (way too comedic). In general, I liked the Superman parts of Superman, but disliked just about everything else.

In Superman Returns, they took similar situations and played them more seriously -- which I think worked quite well. Routh's Superman is just as earnest as Reeve's was, but his Clark Kent is more believable -- mild mannered as opposed to nerdy. I also thought that Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane was a lot more believable as an aggressive reporter and independent woman, and Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor -- while still a tad too comedic for my tastes -- had the requisite amount of menace. Obviously, the special effects were a few generations improved on the 1978 version, and the subtext of Supes as the ultimate loner and reluctant savior added depth to the entire production. In short, I thought this movie was everything that the original Superman could have been, but wasn't. I liked it.

But I can understand why some people wouldn't. For those who really liked the 1978 version, Superman Returns was maybe too serious. And for those fanboys who stick to the comics canon, there was a lot to find offensive, most notably the apparent closure to Supes' relationship with Lois, and the (spoiler alert!) introduction of what appears to be the Kid of Steel. Not only was none of this in the comics, it also goes against the general trajectory of the comics version of the character.

Of course, everyone has their own idea of who and what Superman is. For folks of a certain age, Superman is Superman the movie, and the Man of Steel is Christopher Reeve. For folks of another age (myself included), Superman is The Adventures of Superman TV show, and the Man of Steel is George Reeves. For yet other folks Superman is the animated character from the 1940s Fleischer cartoons, or from the 1960s New Adventures of Superman cartoons, or the 1970s-1980s Superfriends cartoons, or the more recent Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League cartoons. Still others see Superman as Dean Cain in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, or as Kirk Allyn from the old 1940s serials, or as Tom Welling in Smallville, or as one of the two relatively anonymous dudes from the syndicated Superboy TV series in the late 1980s.

That's not even counting the many ways Superman has been presented in the comics. Depending on when you grew up, the comics Superman might be Siegel and Shuster's squinty eyed crusader for social justice, Wayne Boring's barrel-chested Son of Krypton, Curt Swan's realistic-looking father figure, John Byrne's revamped Man of Steel, Alex Ross' older and grayer legend from Kingdom Come, or any one of dozens of other legitimate pencil-and-ink portrayals.

And that's the point. Superman is something different, and something personal, to everyone. To me, Superman in human form is always George Reeves from the 1950s TV series; in comic-book form, he always looks the way that Curt Swan drew him. That's because those are the versions of Superman that I grew up with as a kid. If I were born a little earlier or a little later, my personal Superman might have been from the Fleischer cartoons or the Christopher Reeve movies.

So I can understand some of the criticism of Superman Returns. My big beef was the choice to tie the new movie to the old ones, thus missing the opportunity to start things really fresh, as Batman Begins did with the Dark Knight franchise. I'm also not that down with Superman as such a young guy; I've always thought Supes was somewhere in his thirties, not his twenties. A younger Superman, as portrayed by Routh, Cain, or Welling, simply lacks authority for me. It's a personal thing.

Those minor annoyances aside, I did enjoy Superman Returns, and look forward to the inevitable sequel. I figure after they've done one or two more, they'll give Big Blue a few years' off and then reboot the franchise with a fresh take from a new team. That's ten years to wait for a truly new Superman -- just about enough time to give another generation its due.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.