A letter to audio gear-heads and music lovers

When I was in high school, I spent every dollar I could scrounge either on stereo gear, or records to play on said gear. [1] I always dreamed of high-end audio gear, but wasn’t willing to, you know, rob a bank. Then life caught up with me and the dollars went to far mundane and practical purchases and investments.

Until last week when I finally treated myself to a long-awaited audio upgrade.

For the gear-heads

I have a Synology two-bay file server. Just one bay is populated, with a 2 TB Western Digital disk. I’m loading it up with 24-bit lossless FLACs I’ve ripped off CDs with dbPowerAmp. [2] That’s patched through the internal wiring in the house (yes, the builders ran CAT-5 throughout) to a Netgear 8-port switch in the “smart panel” and thence to the Netgear router in the living room.

Attached to the Netgear router is a Sonos Connect box, which feeds via digital coax into a Rotel 1570 amp, and  into Revel f208 floor-standing speakers. In short, I can sit with the Sonos controller (on basically any device in the house) and cue up any CD that I’ve ripped onto the file server. And the audio quality is identical to the original CD.

For the music lovers

First movement – Flippen by the Punch Brothers [3]

Chris Thile is smack in front of me, with Chris Eldridge a bit to his right. Noam Pikelny’s banjo covers the stage and Paul Kowert’s arco bass lines in the middle of the piece growl from immediately behind Chris.

Critter’s guitar solo 2/3 of the way through is absolutely gin clear. You can hear just a touch of string noise.

As he finishes the solo, the entire band jumps in and the front of the living room explodes with acoustic energy (“How”, I think, “can it sound like this when there’s no drum kit?”). I can hear Thile’s maniacal grin and rolled eyes.

I am in the center of an acoustical storm and it’s glorious.

Second movement – Have You Seen the Stars Tonight by Paul Kantner

Paul Kantner is standing on the fireplace hearth. To his left, David Crosby strums happily on a jumbo acoustic guitar. He is wearing a leather jacket with fringes. And lord, Grace Slick’s percussive piano is stage right and grabs attention from the otherwise psychedelic groove. It’s so clear – it’s just 2-3 feet from me. You can tell she learned from Nicky Hopkins. But right now, I just want to hear her play piano and listen to her voice dance and echo over the top of the whole thing.

The twang of the lower guitar strings is unmistakable.

Third movement - Baba O’Riley by the Who

I never get past the first two minutes before I hit rewind. The volume is turned up to levels that we haven’t seen since we found out what it could do to our hearing. But for now… the synthesizer fills the room and my brain; various electronic licks race left to right to left desperately trying to hold my attention. But we all know that’s impossible, because out of nowhere, an 88-key thunderbolt strikes on my left, crashing I-V-IV chords through the living room. The only thing that can compete with that, dominating the space in front of me, is Keith Moon hitting every drum he can find.

I am no longer in Tennessee; I am on-stage on the Isle of Wight, as ten thousand fans scream and wave Union Jacks…

The voice that I was hearing was a million people cheering…


[1] For D.C. area folks: first Marantz receiver came from Myer-Emco. My turntable came from the stereo store at the southern end of Wildwood Shopping Center (corner of Democracy Blvd and Old Georgetown Rd). My go-to place for records was Discount Book and Record immediately off Dupont Circle or Waxie-Maxies (Montgomery Mall and Congressional Plaza).

[2] I’m incredibly impressed with this software. As the British say, “It does what it says on the tin.” The interface is straightforward, but it does cool things behind the scenes, such as check 3-4 databases for the track and cover art data of your CD. Then it compares the ripped FLAC file against previous rips it did of the CD and reports if there are any mismatches. You can edit the track tags before or after ripping. I paid for my copy – software this good should earn money for its developer.

[3] Watch this version live. Paul Kowert’s obligato at the beginning will make you rethink the string bass as an instrument. If you don’t believe me, watch Chris Thile and Noam Pikelny, both of whom are destined to be remembered as legends of their instruments. They are nodding their heads and smiling at Kowert’s playing. The clear thought is, “That, right there, is the shit.”

Comcast has found my breaking point

All I really want is Internet in my new house.

So I called Comcast in late May and said “I’d like to get Internet in my new house”. We went through the usual dance where they wanted to up-sell me 483 cable channels and we finally settled on a package that got me Internet and home security for cheaper than the same Internet package I wanted. Whatever.

At that point, things descended into a Kafka-esque nightmare. [1] The technician came out and said they couldn’t install Internet because there was no cable coming up to the house (it’s new construction) and that a cable had to be buried under the road from an access point across the street. So I called and asked for an appointment for the people to come out and bury the cable. It turned out that I couldn’t get that appointment for ten days. Seeing no alternative, I said that would be okay. The date for that appointment came and went – nobody came to bury anything.

I called and eventually got through to a customer care representative. I asked for compensation for the lost time and hassle I’d been through. She said that they don’t provide that because (and I’m not making this up) they use a third-party service to bury the cable so it’s not their responsibility. Of course, I tried to explain to her that from my perspective, it was all Comcast and I had no interest about whether they used in-house staff or a third party to do the actual work. Equally obviously I might as well have been talking to a stone wall.

In the meantime, two days came and went where they were supposed to come out and bury the cable. Neither time did they do it. This resulted in my spending more hours than I really care to think (8? 10? 12?) on hold, getting disconnected, speaking to people who had no control over the situation. It reached a point where the first words out of my mouth would be “Can I please speak to a supervisor?”

Worst of all, at one point, one of the agents said “I will definitely take care of this problem for you, sir.” And I lost it; I raised my voice and said “Honestly, I don’t think you really will, but I have no choice.” I’m pretty sure he hung up on me (or it was the universe giving me my just desserts). I mean, if you know me, you know I almost never raise my voice. I was pretty disgusted with myself – like, how could something stupid like getting Internet bring out that incredibly ugly side of me?

The other fun time was when I ended up with a completely different customer care representative and told him that I wanted a $200 credit for the time and hassle. I mean, suppose it was ten hours of my time – well, you get the point. Anyway, he laughed – literally laughed – and said (I quote) “Nobody ever gets a $200 credit – the very best we can do is $20.” I didn’t even bother – it wasn’t worth losing my dignity for $20 (though of course I’ve already lost my dignity with them anyway).

There was the one where I asked for a way to contact Comcast in writing. “We don’t have such a thing sir, but I can give you the address of the nearest service center – you can go down there and speak to them.” Seriously? Because I’d like to waste more time than I have already? You don’t have a way to communicate in writing? I’ve even tried the Twitter support option. It’s absolutely hysterical – they expect to have conversations via Direct Message – i.e. 140 characters at a whack. I did that a couple of times and then realized if I continued to do it, it was proof that I had completely lost my mind.

So I’m in a Catch-22. In this modern world, it’s almost impossible to live without Internet – certainly my job demands it. But trying to get Internet from Comcast has reduced me to some kind of weird Lord of the Flies state where I behave in a way that demeans and embarrasses me. I’ve found that adopting a passive victim-like affect when on the phone with them keeps me from flipping out. I hate being that sort of person but better that than some phone-rage bully.

If there were a decent alternative, I’d jump at it, but I keep thinking I’ve gone so far down this road I’d be insane to start on another road with a different provider (AT&T?), whose opening gambit would be “Oh, first we have to bury a cable…”

By the way, if anybody from Comcast is reading this, feel free to drop a comment here with a way to contact you and we can have a direct conversation. But not by Twitter or text message, for sure.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for Internet, if you have an alternative to Comcast, use it.

Because all I really wanted was Internet in my new house.


Update on 7/14/15

On Saturday the 11th, I spoke to a supervisor named Samantha at an off-shore customer call center (she wouldn’t tell me where). She promised that somebody would be out to install the Internet at my house by 10:30am the next morning (Sunday the 12th) and that she would call back to confirm that it had happened. That was ticket #030 286 742 if you’re keeping score at home. [2] Needless to say, neither the technician nor the follow-up call ever happened.

On Monday the 13th, I called, went through the same exercise, the same explanations, the same long hold times, and got Paul in the activation department to promise that somebody would be out to my house by 9:47am on Tuesday the 14th (“9:47?”) to install the Internet. No technician, no Internet, no phone call. Score it ticket #030 300 526.

Interestingly, I got a phone call (a phone call) yesterday from Andrea in the “Executive Customer Support” (is this customer support for executives, or she a customer support executive?). As an aside, I am 100% persuaded that the reason I got this call was because I had tweeted a link to this blog to @ComcastCares. More on that in a minute.

She said “Do you know we have an appointment to bury the cable for you on the 18th?” In fact, somebody had (while I was out of town) buried the cable. But they hadn’t done it correctly. They had run it around the back of the house which meant that (1) there would be signal degradation affecting speed and reliability, and (2) the first time we do any kind of landscaping, that cable is going to be toast.

So I told Andrea all this. Honestly, I don’t think she believed me. She was looking at a ticket to get a cable buried and the customer was telling her that the cable was already buried. Inconceivable! [3] She said that she would look into it and call me back or that the “technical supervisor” would call me back. It’s been 24 hours and I’ve heard nothing. However, I have Andrea’s phone number. I have called and left her a message once – I will be calling back in four hours.


I am still struggling with my emotional response to this. It’s the frigging Internet we’re talking about, not my child’s liver surgery. However, I think I understand part of what’s going on:

I am incensed about their attitude toward my time. Take my money – please – I can find more of that. But my time is valuable – irreplaceable – and they are squandering it. And it is that careless, sometimes seemingly intentional theft of my time that infuriates me.

Comcast has very cleverly set up a support infrastructure that doesn’t permit written communication. There is no email address to write to. No snail mail address. No internal messaging system. In short, they’ve made it impossible to create a paper trail of the trials and tribulations that their customers endure. Every time you contact them, you’re starting from scratch and have no proof of how long you’ve been at it, what steps you’ve taken, what mistakes they’ve made, promises they’ve broken, etc.

So in fact, this blog has become my paper trail – and I am very sure that its public existence is the only thing that got me a call from “Executive Customer Support” person Andrea. He who shouts the loudest gets heard, and it’s a crappy way to run a railroad.

Update 7/15/15

I have been exchanging Twitter Direct Messages (yes, I’m out of my mind) with the people at @ComcastCares. They tell me they’re getting in touch with the local market, but so far, nobody has called me. I’ve made repeated calls to Andrea in Executive Customer Relations, but I get her voice mail every time.

I’ve just written and printed out a letter to Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast. I’m going to drop it by the post office (god, this feels so 1990′s) and send it certified so I know it’s signed for. Obviously I don’t expect Mr. Roberts to actually read the letter. I do, however, expect somebody on his staff to read it (I reckon they don’t get a lot of snail mail personally addressed to him).

Brian Roberts 1


Update 8/28/15

So, on July 16th, the guys actually came out and got the Internet up and running. This was a miracle. Only two months after I’d first asked Comcast for Internet. However, after they left (yes, I’m an idiot for not checking while they were there) I discovered that they’d made a connection between the interior wiring in the house and the exterior cable and just left it hanging outside the house where animals will gnaw on it, the weather will destroy it, etc. I estimate the life expectancy of this connection to be less than six months.

Cable connection 1

I have been sending a constant stream of emails to my contact at Executive Customer Support. This person, who I will call “AF”, has been telling me for weeks that they would get somebody out to look at my situation. And their office area code is the same as my house – they are in my town. No matter how much I beg, plead, or threaten, they just keep telling me that somebody is going to come look at it “soon”, or whatever.

In the last email, astonishingly enough, they described to me in some detail the health issues their spouse was having. The health issues are certainly serious, but aside my concern, as a decent human being, for their spouse, I don’t care. It would be perfectly appropriate for AF to hand their responsibilities off to a colleague so AF could care for their spouse. However, this “your problem is not being fixed because my spouse is sick” is completely unacceptable for a Fortune 500 company such as Comcast.

I am continuing to update this in the hope that somebody at Comcast will read it and pay attention. And I’ll tweet a link to this blog to the @ComcastCares people on Twitter. Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to put some good news into this never-ending post.


[1] Okay, maybe it’s not fair to call anything related to getting Internet into your house “Kafka-esque”. This is perhaps the canonical “First World Problem”.

[2] Back in the old days, baseball geeks used to sit at home, listen to the game on the radio, and keep a box score of all the action. So you might hear an announcer say (after a double play) “That was 4-6-3 if you’re keeping score at home.”

[3] You all know your line…

Wherein I help to end smoking at the Prague Hilton…

It sounds like something out of an inspirational book, or an article on the power of social media, but it just happened to me in the last 24 hours…

The European Poker Tour is being held at the Prague Hilton, which is a wonderful hotel on the edge of Prague. It’s a 10-15 minute walk into the main town square (Christmas markets, huge trees, hot apple cider, etc). The Charles River runs immediately alongside the property. Inside the hotel is all modern chic, with an 8-story atrium in the middle, wonderful appointments, great rooms and comfortable beds. The tournament is literally in the basement of the hotel, and there’s good cheap sushi a 5-minute walk away. What else could you want?

Well, no smoking. You see, the Czech Republic hasn’t really caught up with the rest of the world on the smoking situation – there are no laws against indoor smoking. So this has been the last venue in the EPT where there’s smoking in the public areas of the hotel. So of course, everybody smokes, and it gets into the hallways, the rooms, your clothes, etc.

Last night, I finally got fed up and sent out this tweet:

My tweet to the Hilton

My tweet to the Hilton

Within a few minutes, I saw this:

Their tweet back

Their tweet back

And I thought “Sure – this is an auto-reply from Hilton. That’s the last I’ll hear about it.” Which it was, right up until I got back to my room after breakfast this morning. There was a note under my door “Dear Mr. Jones, please contact the duty manager at the hotel at your earliest convenience to discuss the comment you made on twitter.”


I mean, it’s kinda cool that they responded so quickly – I just wish the language they used wasn’t so “go to the principal’s office”. And it’s a little unnerving that they stalked me into their registration database, but what did I expect, right?

So this morning I go down and meet the hotel manager. He explains that they allow smoking because “Your people requested it.” “My people?!?! PokerStars!?!?!” Then I thought… well, we were here first in 2007, and I bet the guy who brokered the whole deal for us (a chain smoker) wanted to permit smoking, and they’ve just been doing it ever since – nobody bothered to say anything. Manager continues “We have events in here all the time where the organizers ask us to prohibit smoking in the public areas, so we do.” “Easy as that?” “Easy as that.”

I walked over to the PokerStars staff office and explained this to event manager extraordinaire Victoria “Tid” Sinclair. Tid put an email on the wires, and within a couple of hours had permission of the senior EPT management to take the request to the hotel management. The next time I came out of my room, I noticed something. I couldn’t smell cigarette smoke. I walked down the halls not really believing what was happening.

Got out to the atrium, and where there had been hordes of people smoking, constantly, every time I’ve been here, there were a few people milling around – the smokers were outside. Sure enough – two discreet but unmistakable “No Smoking” signs were posted in the main lobby of the atrium.

Even my colleagues who smoke say that the situation is far better and the newly pregnant receptionist at the cash games was particularly pleased. So I tweeted:

All better

All better

I mean, one tweet. Who knew?

The apocalypse is upon us

And it just don’t come no better than a bear…  –Steven Fromholz

Those of you who know my recent history in North Carolina know that when I moved to Asheville in 2008, I was sure I would see a bear. I mean, Asheville sits smack in the middle of a huge forested area of western North Carolina that is home to hundreds (thousands?) of black bears. We sit virtually in the shadow of Mount Mitchell (the highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi), which is basically bear heaven. Surely I’d see bears everywhere.

Now to be fair,  I’ve seen (in the wild) whale sharks, tiger sharks, shoals of hammerhead sharks, elephants, lions, and cape buffalo (one very bad-ass animal). So maybe it shouldn’t be a big deal, but there’s something about the idea that bears are living right among us that makes me really happy. So I just wanted to see one.

Fast forward three years, until I returned to the Isle of Man. I’d attend poker games, and everybody had a story about the bear they saw (including the cub that came in through Kenny’s dog-door to steal the tub of dry dog food). Tom and Brandi came across a big bear while walking their dogs at the base of Mt. Pisgah. Lisa’s friend Richard had bears in his back yard every other day it seemed like. And I won’t begin to talk about the video that Lisa took after I’d moved back to IoM – two bear cubs wrestling in the back yard of our house.

But never once did I see one.

So here I am up in Ashe County, three hours away at our family cabin. I’m headed into town for groceries, getting near Sturgills (less than two miles from the house), and there, by the side of the road, is a juvenile black bear – maybe a year old. Now bears are actually substantially more rare up here than they are down Asheville way (why, I don’t know). But there he was. Briefly. He took one look at me and my Prius, and he bounded up into the bushes. Of course, I pulled over just past where he’d been and jumped out. As I jumped out, he bounded up into the bushes again. That is, I think his curiosity got the better of him and he wanted to get a better look at whatever that big white thing was. Then either he lost his nerve, or his mama told him in no uncertain terms to get his ursine ass back up the hill into the safety of the bushes.

Visualize a bear right there

Visualize a bear right there

My first thought, you know, was “C’mon out and let me get a better look at you! I’ve got my camera right here!” But look where I was standing – a major thoroughfare through the county and up into Virginia. There are houses just a hundred yards in either direction. And more guns in those houses than I really want to think about.

So I chuckled and thought, “You know what – you just head back on up that hill and into the forest; you’ll be way safer up there and your mama will be a lot happier about it.” I’d seen him, I knew he was there, and that was plenty.

Anyway, I got to see my bear, and then he was gone to somewhere way safer and more out of the way. Kinda like catch-and-release bear sighting. Just wished I coulda got a picture first.

But he looked kinda like this

But he looked kinda like this

I met some heroes yesterday

Most of you are aware that a few days ago was the 70th anniversary of D-Day – the Allied landing at Normandy during WWII. I happened to see a tweet from the city of Asheville that a bunch of D-Day veterans had taken a bus trip up to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. They were returning yesterday afternoon, and the city asked people to show up and welcome them home. Those of you who know me know that I’m a left-leaning war-mistrusting type whose attitudes toward American military activity overseas were largely shaped by Vietnam. And I’m definitely not the flag-waving anthem-singing type.

But I thought I needed to go down and see these guys – they probably won’t be around for the 80th anniversary (even if I am).

Bus arrives

Bus arrives

I guess there were maybe a hundred people waiting at the steps of the county registrar. Lot of Boy Scouts, Army Reserve, motorcycle groups, American flags being waved. It’s not my normal crowd, but these aren’t normal men that were showing up on the bus.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Asheville – exactly the sort of weather you’d want for a such an event. It woulda been nice if the whole town had turned out, but it was only because of a random tweet that I even knew about it.

First interesting thing… the buses pull up and people start cheering. Some guy in the middle of the crowd starts chanting ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!” I thought, “Oh man – I might have to leave.” Guess what – nobody else picked it up, and he quit pretty damn quickly. Any jingoism that was present was well hidden. The men started coming off the bus, along with one or two helpers for each. Lot of walkers, wheelchairs, and oxygen tanks were being deployed. But man, the crowd went wild.

D-Day vet steps off the bus

D-Day vet steps off the bus

The vets made their way (walking, pushing, being pushed) through the crowd, and however far they went, somebody would come up to them, say a couple of words, and let them move on.


After I got a few pictures, I put the camera away and went up to as many as I could reach. It’s one of the few times where I found myself at a loss for words. So I’d shake their hand, look them in the eye, and say “Thank you.” Invariably, they’d look me right back in the eye, and say “Thank you.”

Two more heroes

Two more heroes

This is where our language comes up a bit short. They were saying thank you to me for coming out to meet their bus. I was saying thank you to them for storming a beach while a powerful army tried to kill them, while their friends died in every possible awful way around them, so that, well, so that western democracy as we understand it could continue for another while longer.

Dday soldier 04

I’m sure they were very tired; relatives and friends were whisking them away, aided by what looked like half the Asheville police department (many of whom stopped to shake the vets’ hands). But even the ones who looked awfully tired would smile at every person who approached them, and say “thank you”.

I’ve not gotten to meet many real heroes in my life, so I’m glad I took a few minutes out of my day to meet the last of a dying breed of true American heroes.

Dday soldier 05