First Tracfone Problem

I’ve had a TracFone for almost a year now and have been completely happy with it. The only problem I had was that the phone I was using was not the filp-phone type; it had the buttons exposed on the front and when it was in my pocket the coins, ChapStick, and other loose items would depress the buttons. (A couple of times it pressed the right sequence of buttons and actually called someone from my phone book. Imagine my surprise when out of the blue I started hearing that person’s voice coming from my pocket!) I decided to upgrade to a better model, a slick Motorola flip phone that is based on their RAZR design (but lacks some of the RAZR’s high-end features, none of which I need).

After purchasing the new phone I called TracFone customer service to transfer my phone number and unused minutes to the new phone. I had read bad things about TracFone customer service, but other than the fact that I had to wait about 45 minutes on hold it went fine. The customer service guy was friendly and everything transfered smoothly. Well, almost everything.

I had purchased one of their “Double Minutes” cards for my old phone. A couple of days ago I added minutes to my new phone and did not receive double minutes! Not wanting to wait on hold I submitted a support request through their website asking why I did not receive my double minutes. Two days later and no response. Today I did some online research and it looks like the double minutes cards do not transfer under any circumstances. This means if you upgrade your phone or need to replace your phone for some other reason you can transfer your existing minutes, but double minutes on future purchases is gone.

I suppose this is a case of caveat emptor and the information regarding the double minutes not transferring is buried in the fine print somewhere, but even had I known this in advance I still would have upgraded my phone. The thing that bothers me is that I purchased $40 worth of additional minutes without knowing I wasn’t getting double minutes. If I had known I would have purchased the double minutes upgrade first. Live and learn.

Follow-up (11/26/07): I got an official answer from TracFone today! It says:

The Double Minute benefit may only be used once; it only applies to one TracFone cell phone and may not be transferred to another TracFone. This only applies for the life of a single phone. This can only be transferred in cases like technology exchanges (phone technology incompatible n the local area), defective phone (TracFone will send the replacement) and for TDMA migration cases. If you happen to purchase a new phone to replace your old phone, then the double minute plan will not be transferred.

Although this reads like it was cut-and-pasted from a FAQ, I could not find this information anywhere on their website.

Marie Callender’s Feast Review

Thanksgiving was yesterday, which I celebrated with my parents and sister. My mom is getting to the point in her life where she doesn’t want to cook a huge meal, so we decided to go the Marie Callender’s Take-Home Feast route. We opted for the aptly-named Ultimate Whole Turkey Feast. Below is my assessment of dinner, with each element graded (in parenthesis) on a scale of 1 to 10.

  • Ordering: (10) You order over the phone and pay with a credit card when you order. The fellow I talked to was competent and polite.
  • Pickup: (10) They have a tent set up in the parking lot for you to claim your pre-paid bounty. Everything was exactly as ordered, and it came in a nice cardboard storage box that you can use for other things when you’re done. I remembered from when we had done this a couple of years ago that we ran out of stuffing, so I asked if I could purchase an extra side order of it. The guy gave me one for no charge. I tipped him the amount the extra side would have cost, and everybody was happy.
  • Turkey: (7) One thing you need to be aware of if you’re considering the Marie Callender’s Feast is that even though the food comes prepared you still need to heat it up; 2 1/2 hours was the recommended heating time for the turkey. It was reasonably tasty, not dry but not particularly juicy either. We were four big eaters and there was plenty left over.
  • Stuffing: (8) It was tasty, had a good selection of ingredients, and most importantly was not dry. It turns out the extra side of stuffing I asked for was not necessary, as the one included side was more than enough for the four of us.
  • Mashed Potatoes: (5) I was not crazy about the mashed potatoes. They were not very creamy and didn’t have a lot of taste.
  • Gravy: (5) It had a lot of flavor, but that flavor did not appeal to my palate. It was probably a personal-preference issue.
  • Yams: (2) The big disappointment. The yams were cut in squares and baked. They reminded me of those cubed “breakfast potatoes” but with harder skins. Sorry, I like my yams mushy and sweet. The only thing that saved them from me rating them a 1 was that they came with a sprinkle-on topping of brown sugar and dried cranberries, which gave this lame side dish its only taste.
  • Cornbread: (9) I love Marie Callender’s cornbread, which came deliciously complete with a side of honey butter.
  • Vegetables: (2) The other big disappointment. The vegetables were a mix of carrots and string beans that were tough and tasteless. I would have liked a better mix of vegetables and more pronounced seasoning.
  • Pumpkin Pie: (9) Marie Callender’s claim to fame is their pies. No disappointment here, other than the fact that I had to provide my own whipped cream.
  • Coffee: (10) This was the big surprise of the evening for me. The coffee was GREAT, a blended medium roast that was smooth and full of flavor. It came in a silver foil package with no marking, so I have no idea how to get more since Marie Callender’s apparently doesn’t sell their coffee packaged.

That’s it. I’m off to buy a new belt!

Amazon.com MP3 Downloads

Bottom line: Two big thumbs up!!!

I’ve used many different methods to store music over the years, but recently that method has been digital. I have converted (over the course of several months) my entire CD collection to MP3 format and store it on a portable hard drive.

There are many ways to purchase new music that’s already in digital format, but most of these involve what’s known as Digital Rights Management (DRM), commonly called “copy protection.” I don’t like DRM, primarily because there is no uniform way it’s implemented. If I buy music from one service, I may have to use their proprietary software to play it instead of the software of my choosing. Further, portable digital music players (like the iPod) only support a limited set of DRM, so if I buy one of these devices from a particular manufacturer I am limited to purchasing music from services that support the DRM of the hardware I purchased. Additionally, DRM restricts how I can use the music I purchased by limiting what I can do with it. I need to burn music to CDs to listen in my car, but with DRM I’m limited in the number of times I can do that before the music “locks” and becomes useless. I know all of this DRM stuff probably sounds confusing; in my opinion it is.

MP3 eliminates all of the hassle and confusion. The MP3 format is universal, and supported by all modern digital music software. MP3 files can play back on almost everything that can play digital music, every computer, every portable digital music player, even my low-end DVD player can play disks with MP3s on them. MP3 files never “lock,” and allow me to use the music I purchased in the manner I choose.

I’m not a market researcher, but I think people are tired of the DRM. Companies like Apple have been talking about selling music without DRM. Amazon.com is stepping up to the plate and actually doing it, and they’re doing it right by using the MP3 format. They have a huge library of MP3-format songs already available for sale on their website, and I’m sure this will only grow. The MP3 format is versatile in that it can encode music at different levels of quality; Amazon.com is using a high-quality level which is indistinguishable from listening to a CD. Additionally, the price for their DRM-free music is the same as other services which use DRM.

Amazon.com allows purchasing of individual songs or an entire CD in MP3 format. So far I’ve purchased a couple of full CDs this way. When your purchase the entire CD, you have to use Amazon.com’s software application to download the music. Although I was hesitant at first, their software is easy to install, very convenient (it is a toolbar application which downloads the music in the background and requires no coddling), and works perfectly.

I could not be more pleased with what Amazon.com is doing and how they are doing it. Downloading an album in MP3 format is less expensive than purchasing a CD, and since I simply encode CDs into MP3 format and store them in a closet anyway Amazon.com is saving me time, storage space, and money. I hope their MP3 downloading service flourishes. I suspect other music downloading services will either have to follow suit or go out of business.

Here are some links of interest regarding digital music:

Amazonmp3.com – You can search for MP3 downloads from Amazon.com’s regular search box (they will show up in searches for music), but they have set up this special domain name to take you directly to the MP3 area of their website.

I Hate DRM – As you can tell by the title, the owner of this site doesn’t like DRM either. I Hate DRM focuses on the business ethics of DRM, and while I personally dislike DRM primarily for the technical aspects rather than the ethical I do agree with a lot of what this site has to say.

emusic – For the sake of completeness I should mention that other services have always offered music downloads in MP3-format, notably emusic. However, in my experience the selection of music they offer is limited, and in the case of emusic you are required to purchase a monthly subscription instead of purchasing the songs you want on an individual basis. While I applaud these services for using DRM-free MP3, I much prefer Amazon.com’s sales model. Hopefully Amazon.com will break new ground and allow other MP3 services like emusic to grow.

Wollensak Reel to Reel Magnetic Tape Recorder – My parents had one of these! In fact they still have it! It was my first tape recorder. Completely DRM free!

The Coffeemaker Of My Dreams

CV1 One-Cup Coffee SystemI went to Sacramento a couple of months ago for the Jazz Jubilee, and stayed at the Hyatt (a very nice hotel if you don’t count the expensively lame parking). In my hotel room I discovered an unusual single-cup coffeemaker. The ground coffee and filter were pre-packaged, and the coffee emptied right into your cup—no carafe. What did all this mean? It meant there was absolutely nothing to wash. I had truly found the coffeemaker of my dreams, and I had to have one.

I didn’t write down the model or manufacturer, but no matter. After a little Googling I learned my discovery was the CV1 One-Cup Coffee System from Courtesy Products. I ordered one, plus a 40-count box of their Colombian Supremo single-serving coffee packs. Everything arrived in short order and worked perfectly right out of the box.

It’s been a month since I first received my CV1 coffeemaker, and I could not be happier. Although the individual coffee packs are a little expensive, I discovered you could buy “coffee pods” at the supermarket. These work just as well (provided you save the used plastic brew baskets to use with the coffee pods), are less expensive, and provide a wide variety of flavors and choices. My favorite thus far is the Black Mountain Gold Costa Rican.

There are other single-cup coffee “systems” on the market like the Senseo and Tassimo, but these are expensive, take up a lot of counter space, and have parts that require cleaning. The CV1 was only about $30, is compact with a small footprint, and requires no cleaning. It is truly coffee convenience heaven.

Foam Soap

When I was young we used bar soap. It was time-consuming to use—let’s face it, it’s just plain boring—but at least you felt like you were getting your hands clean.

Then liquid soap came out. I have never been a fan of liquid soap. It’s slimy and runny and it just doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything. It feels like I’m washing my hands with egg whites. It’s really not that much quicker than using bar soap, and you can’t bathe with it, so what’s the point?

Not long ago I discovered some fancy hotels and restaurants were using foam soap. It’s something like shaving lather, but much less dense. I immediately fell in love with the foam soap. It’s light and fluffy and disperses easily over your hands. It gives the same feeling of clean as bar soap, but it’s pre-lathered so you save time. What’s not to love?

Japanese Foam SoapI thought foam soap was something reserved for swanky establishments and not available to commoners like me (you know like how you can never get meat in the supermarket that’s as good as the kind you get in a nice restaurant?). Then when I was in Japan last year I discovered you could buy foam soap in any supermarket! And several different brands no less. This further confirmed to me what I always knew: that Japan is ahead of the USA in technology that consumers can actually get their hands on.

I don’t have anything else to say, I just like foam soap.

Block Private Callers

I often get “Private Caller” on the caller ID, and when I answer it usually turns out to be someone selling something or trying to send me a junk fax. After a quick Web search I figured out how to block these: Pick up your phone and dial *77 (1177 also works). If successful (i.e., if your phone company supports this—most USA companies do) a person trying to call you with a blocked caller ID will instead get a polite message that you do not accept blocked calls, along with instructions on how to temporarily unblock their caller ID if they really want to talk to you.

If you one day decide that you want to receive blocked calls after all, you can reverse the process with *87 (or 1187).

Everyone who reads their phone company documentation will probably already know this, but since I don’t I didn’t.

I’m Using a Tracfone

I was tired of paying $50+ monthly for a cell phone, especially considering I don’t use it all that much, so I decided to give Tracfone a try.

I bought the $14.95 model from Walmart. It works! I get the basic stuff like voicemail and text messaging, and I’ve always had a full signal when I’ve looked at it.

To add minutes I bought a few refill cards off eBay. You can buy them for about 40% less than what they sell them for at Walmart. I was careful to buy them from someone with a good history of selling these cards (based on their feedback) and didn’t have any problems. I received the PIN code via e-mail so I didn’t need to wait for the card to be sent to me. I now have a cell phone that will probably last me a year for the about same price as two months of the major services.

I do miss a lot of the niceties of having a “real” cell phone. I can’t browse the Web or check my e-mail, I don’t have a camera, and the monotonic ringtones hurt my ears. The nice thing about a Tracfone though, is I can ditch it any time I choose.

In the one-extreme-to-another department, I will probably get an iPhone when they come out. And I will very likely regret it.