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Gearing Up

Our travel date nears, and so, as you might expect, preparations for said trip have just about reached fever pitch around here. Not that I’m spending 24/7 packing — I usually plan things far too elaborately to get caught in a flurry of last-minute prep work. Rather, a little bit of planning has been going into every day, woven inexorably into the fabric of the day’s events. A phone call here, a purchase there, a list made today and a schedule made tomorrow.

So far, everything is on track.

I’ve had a lot of things I’ve wanted to post about, but every time I’ve thought about sitting down to craft an entry about one of them, I decided that I would much rather leave the room instead. Absurdly, some days, temperature is one of the biggest deciding factors. After spending 8 or 10 hours working in this room, the combined heat of body temperature, dual-core computer, three widescreen monitors and related equipment is enough to send me scurrying for the relative cool of the opposite end of the house. (It’s no accident that said opposite end is home to my 57″ TV and bevy of game consoles.)

Speaking of games, we are almost upon the video game publisher’s favorite time of year: the Christmas season. After an almost completely dry year, in which I purchased only one video game (Grand Theft Auto IV, back in June), the fourth quarter has started to become home to a whole gaggle of extremely hot releases. To name but a few from my wish list:

Mirror's Edge: Faith overlooks the flow of the city
Mirror's Edge: Faith overlooks the flow of the city
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • Gears of War 2
  • Fallout 3
  • Silent Hill: Homecoming
  • Left 4 Dead
  • Tomb Raider: Underworld
  • Rock Band 2
  • Midnight Club: Los Angeles
  • Need For Speed Undercover
  • Resistance 2 (PS3)
  • CUBE! (Kidding.)

Mirror’s Edge is perhaps my personal favorite of the bunch. It’s an action game played from the first-person perspective, but takes the genre to a completely different place. Rather than playing the role of a muscle-bound guy with an over-the-top arsenal battling aliens or zombies, your character is Faith — a spry young woman whose proportions are actually realistic — ahem — and whose job it is to deliver covert information by hand. She’s called a “Runner.”

In the futuristic city setting of Mirror’s Edge, “Big Brother” government has come to fruition. All communications channels are monitored by the State. Faith and the other Runners exist as a human conduit of information, transporting hardcopied packets of data from one interested party to another via rooftops, tunnels and other roads less traveled. The game combines parkour, the French-originated extreme sport of free running, with urban exploration and political intrigue. And it does it all with a refreshingly bright and colorful style that takes the place of a typical game’s dark and gritty presentation.

Having played the “teaser” demo of Mirror’s Edge just this week, I can confidently say that this game has catapulted to the top of my “must-have” list for the year.

Oh, but I’m not done yet…not hardly. Klicken Sie hier:

Of course, the game publishers of the world would have to save all of their goodies for the Christmas season. Once we depart for Thailand, there will be no domestic gaming goodness for me. However, since our excursion to the East will this time be of longer duration than before, I have worked tirelessly over the last several months to save money for, among other things, an Xbox 360 console to keep and enjoy in our Asian home away from home. I just transferred the money to our checking account this week, and soon, it’ll be cash-in-hand.

So I’ll be able to buy and enjoy several of these new games while we’re away. There’s just one problem: Because some Xbox games are region-locked — meaning they can only be played on consoles sold in the region for which they were intended — I will not be able to bring most of these games home with me. This means not only two separate game consoles, but two separate game libraries in two parts of the world. However, in trying to look on the bright side, I simply remind myself that this means I can leave a complete gaming system in Thailand that will be ready to enjoy the next time I return — and I won’t have to worry about lugging it back and forth between locales. (God knows I wouldn’t put an already-fragile Xbox through a luggage check!)

But video games are only one small facet of my ongoing preparations for our journey eastward. In the past weeks and months, I’ve procured portable hard drives, books and eBooks, DVDs, software and other goodies to ensure this trip is a productive and entertaining one, even as we go about the personal business on which our travels hinge. To my delight, I’ve found a way to only drag one notebook computer along with me (and even better, it’s the smaller of our two!). Since I’ll be building a new desktop workstation in Thailand to make work more easy and efficient — God, how I hate laptops with their diminutive screens and tiny keyboards — I’m granting Apple the use of my Latitude D620. She was more than willing to accept, especially given that the construction of her 9-pound Inspiron 8600 leads to a very dangerous electric shock hazard when it’s plugged into the ungrounded outlets at her parents’ old house!

In addition to material goods, we’ve been arranging, canceling and adjusting various services for our upcoming time away from home. For example, we wanted to dial back our auto insurance coverage to bare minumum, since neither of our cars will be mobile for the entire time. We also decided to go ahead and pony up the Early Termination Fee for Apple’s Verizon phone. Since it would cost about $100 to end the contract now, versus the $48 a month she’d pay for a phone she can’t use the whole time we’re in Thailand, the ETF obviously became the better deal. Besides, when we get back to the U.S., I’m going to snag a 3G iPhone and pass my first-gen down to her — an event for which she is already seriously stoked.

It was during the course of these “service adjustments” that I was introduced to just how stark a difference there can be between two American companies, when it comes to customer service level of quality.

Let’s take Liberty Mutual, our auto and home insurance company, as Exhibit A. When I called them to ask if I could reduce the coverage on our vehicles while we’re away, they not only readily agreed, but they also:

  • Clearly explained all the facets of coverage adjustments I could make on each of our cars, given that one is owned free and clear by us, and the other still has a bank lien on it.
  • Offered to automatically set an effective date for the coverage adjustments, so I wouldn’t have to call them again.
  • Informed me that I could permanently switch my GTO to a “pleasure driving” rate class because I drive less than 7,500 miles a year, thereby saving me money even after we return from Thailand.
  • Suggested they insert a note in my file to email me with any concerns that arise, rather than call me, since my phone won’t function overseas.
  • Told me that reinstating full coverage would be as simple as giving them a call on the day I return.

All of the above was either done or offered without my having to specifically request it. Not only did the phone call leave me feeling confident that everything would be taken care of properly, a printed confirmation of all my changes arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, indicating the exact money saved and which portions contributed to that savings, plus reconfirming the effective date I’d set up. There was nothing left to chance, and nothing for me to follow up on.

And this isn’t the first time. Doing business with Liberty Mutual has been nothing but a pleasure the entire time we’ve been their customers, even when one of our vehicles was totaled a few years ago. It’s a far cry from the service we got — or didn’t get — from State Farm during our first years in Florida.

Now, on the flipside of the coin, let’s take Exhibit B: Comcast Cable. Absurdly, I don’t even need to adjust our cable or Internet services before our trip — I want them functioning exactly as they do now. I want our DVRs to be able to record our favorite shows while we’re away, and I want the Internet online so we can use our Slingbox to watch those shows. Even though I would have been more than pleased if Comcast’s service simply remained status quo, that was not to be.

A few months ago, we switched our automatic Comcast billing from bank draft to credit card. Days later, we were erroneously double-debited — once from our bank, once from our credit card — and we’ve been trying to sort out Comcast’s shit for them ever since. When I called to have the initial double-charge corrected, the customer service rep (CSR) fouled up the coding in their billing system and cut off HD service to one of my TiVo HD’s CableCARDs. When I discovered the problem and called back to fix it, another CSR restored my HD service, but in doing so, erroneously billed me for a second HD outlet, adding nearly $25 in overcharges to my bill.

This wasn’t known to me, of course, until the next month’s bill, the high price of which shocked us. Again I called back. Again a CSR looked into the issue and explained the problem: Comcast provides a special billing option for “TiVo HD Second CableCARD” that’s supposed to simultaneously mirror the service level of your first card and charge you no additional fee. However, due to some endemic misconfiguration, that billing option does not work in our area. Specifically, it doesn’t mirror the HD tier. So, to make it work, you have to add a second HD outlet charge, then credit back $10 to the account to square everything away.

So the CSR got it all fixed up, but in the process, he discovered that we weren’t being charged the corporate-mandated $1.50 CableCARD fee and tacked it on, so immediately I felt like an oaf for calling — but then, what choice did I have? When I asked if a credit for our erroneously high bill would be applied to next month’s billing cycle, the CSR told me that the bill was “live” and that he could change it right then before it was charged to our card. In other words, we wouldn’t have to wait ’till the following month to see the credit.

Fast-forward to today. The original, too-high amount of that bill was charged to our card after all, so I had to once again call in and see where our credit went. I spoke to yet another CSR who explained to me that the credit would be applied to next month’s bill. Gee, isn’t that what I specifically asked the last guy? Now I’m worried, because I really thought the last guy I talked to had his shit together.

Furthermore, the woman I’m now speaking with says she doesn’t see any evidence of the “$10 credit manual billing hack” I’m supposed to receive. She seems shocked by the complexity of my explanation of the workarounds that are necessary for Comcast to simply charge me for the services I use. But when she quotes me the total cost of my services, it adds up to the correct number — as if that $10 credit were built-in as it should be. So I guess all is well. Meanwhile, I’m flipping channels and tuners on my TiVo HD like a mofo, trying to monitor it to ensure they don’t screw up my services in their billing system while they have my account open. For all I know, simply looking at my account screen craps the whole thing up. But all appears to be OK, so I end the call.

But next month, I almost expect to have to make a long-distance call from a prepaid GSM phone in Thailand to sit on hold with Comcast support and work through yet another A) interruption of service, B) billing error or C) both of the above.

Now, class, let’s compare and contrast Exhibits A and B.

Exhibit A: Liberty Mutual insurance. I made one call, spoke to an informed and knowledgeable person who’s local to our region, and who made all the necessary changes instantly — which were later confirmed in writing. Almost everything was done, and done correctly, without my asking for any specific processes whatsoever.

Exhibit B: Comcast cable. Their billing system doesn’t work. Most of their CSRs are clueless and you never speak to the same person twice. If you so much as touch your service — make a call, change your payment address, whatever — something is almost guaranteed to become terminally screwed up. And to get them solved, you have to become intimately familiar with Comcast’s inner workings so you can explain to Comcast’s employees exactly how to do their jobs. At the end of the day, all you can hope is that you’ll be able to go a single month without losing part of your services or receiving an astronomically high bill.

Oddball Verdict: Comcast should immediately take a long walk off a short plank. Liberty Mutual, meanwhile, could raise their rates 100% and I’d have a hard time quitting them.

Do you understand that, Comcast, and all you other greed-headed corporations of America? That is the power of goodwill-fueled customer retention. Isn’t it amazing, when you treat customers like people instead of a percentage of your revenue stream, how those customers seem to retain themselves? Imagine that.

Perhaps the issue is one of competition. The insurance industry is hotly competitive, after all. If I left Liberty Mutual, there are scores of other companies who would happy to insure my vehicle. (Being a Florida resident, my home might admittedly be more problematic.) Comcast, meanwhile, knows they’ve got the market in a headlock. At my address, there is simply no alternative for high-speed Internet. I could get a satellite dish, but not without literally going through committee with the HOA, and even then, my TiVo HD only works with cable, not satellite. I’m a Comcast slave, and I’m sure they know it. By contrast, it’s almost comical to see the blazing fast Internet speeds and huge spectrum of HD channels Comcast trots out — for the same money I pay — to customers in other regions, where Verizon FIOS or some other TV competitor operates on the same turf!

In the end, it’s like Clark Howard says — there’s an awful lot of American companies who seem to ask “How can we screw our customers today?” first thing every morning, and that’s about as sad as it is disgusting. It’s just one of the many things about our nation that could stand a serious dose of change right about now.

Speaking of change, I voted today — in Florida’s final day of Early Voting. I decided I didn’t want to take a chance with exorbitantly long lines at the polls on Tuesday, especially during business hours. So I went over to our local library headquarters this afternoon and waited approximately 70 minutes to cast my ballot, which I did only after spending the last week carefully researching the various race and initiatives.

Once again, there were a handful of amendments to the Florida state constitution on the docket, more in the long line of ridiculous proposals that I’ve lampooned previously on this very site. Admittedly, most of this year’s crop of amendments were fairly reasonable — no amnesty for pregnant pigs this time — but I noticed the Christian coalition trotted out another anti-gay rights amendment that proposed to add language, to the state constitution mind you, that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman only.

Now, Florida already bans gay marriage by separate law. Why we need a state constitutional amendment that amounts to little more than piling-on is beyond me. As a Libertarian at heart, this strikes me as unneeded fluff. If government need insert itself in issues such as this, it should do so in the most minimal way possible. The laws already on the books are sufficient to prevent legal marriages from being consummated between anything but heterosexual couples, if that’s what the people of Florida apparently want. Anything more, in my opinion, is abusive.

In the end, I probably voted for about half of the amendments, and against the other half. Other than the high-stakes race for president, I’m perhaps most interested in the outcome of these ballot initiatives — will the people of Florida approve every single amendment this year, too, like a punch-drunk partisan voting straight-ticket? It’s like a sideshow you can’t look away from. God knows I’ll be parked on the couch watching the election coverage on Tuesday night.

All right, I think I’ve been at this long enough. I could probably keep going, but it’s getting late, so I’d better be off. Time to set the clocks back an hour…mmm, one of my favorite days of the year. More sleep!