Thursday, November 22, 2007

Cradlepoint CTR-350: Wifi Anywhere!

I've been coveting this little device ever since I first heard of it, earlier this year.


What does it do, you ask? Well, it couldn't be simpler. You take your Sprint EVDO USB modem, plug it into this small device (which is about the size of a pack of smokes), and boom, you've got an instant wifi hot spot.

Why would you want to do that? Sure, you can plug your Sprint modem into your laptop. But that means it only works with one computer at a time, and that computer has to have drivers and support for the Sprint modem.

What if you want to meet up with friends to do a bit of mutual geeking out? Starbucks has wifi, but it'll cost you. Wouldn't it be more fun to meet up at the local pub, even if the pub doesn't have wifi? Just bring along the Cradlepoint CTR-350 travel router, plug it into the electricity, and you've got an instant wifi access point.

Heck, if I ran a bar, or a coffee shop, I'd look at using this to cheaply and easily offer internet access to my customers. It's probably cheaper than what a cable or DSL provider is going to charge a business for a similar setup.

Let's break down what it actually costs. Sprint EVDO is $59/month. The Sprint USB modem will cost anywhere from $79-$279, depending on what your plan is and whether or not you're a new customer. And the Cradlepoint router is only $149. So for around $400 in hardware, and $59 a month, you've got an instant wifi hotspot for your business. That's got to be priced comparable, if not cheaper, than an actual commercial hotspot solution plus line and connectivity charges.

I'm not sure if the Sprint terms of service allow this, but I won't tell if you won't.

I'm not a security wonk, so I can't talk in great detail about the security capabilities of the device. At a glance, it seems to have everything you need, with support for WEP and WPA encryption.

It has an easy web-based control panel where you can configure all the relevant options. There are detailed settings that go far beyond whatever I'd need. So if you need to set up NAT, inbound port mapping, or special settings to give gamers' packets priority over others, you should be able to do configure the router to handle any/all of those requirements.

I've logged into the setup screens, but the only changes I've made were to change the SSID (visible network name) of the wifi network and change the default passwords. The device has separate user login and administrator passwords, of course.

I've left it configured so that it's open and unlocked, in a sort of “Starbucks-like” mode. By that I mean, anybody can connect, but they don't get internet access until they launch a web browser and enter a password.

This device doesn't have any flaws that I can find. I haven't done any serious throughput testing, but it seems fine and I managed to do a whole day's worth of work over a VPN connection through it yesterday. It didn't feel any better or worse than connecting directly over the Sprint modem via a USB connection.

The only problem I had at all was connecting my T-Mobile Wing cell phone to the wifi network. The web browser on my Windows Mobile phone shows the login screen just fine, but the submit button doesn't work. Maybe it's script based and not supported by the lite version of Internet Explorer found on my phone. That's a very minor issue as far as I'm concerned.

I see myself using this quite a bit in the near future. I travel quite a bit for work, and I'm always working out of different offices here in Chicago or elsewhere, coffee shops, or my home. This means just about every day I'm connecting to work from some different network, and subject to that network's flakiness or potential down time. And when our cable goes down at home, (as it has on occasion) I can turn on the Cradlepoint router, and both my girlfriend and I can jump back online and get done what needs to be done. Or, sometimes I'll have two computers running at the same time, one crunching big numbers for work, and the other with my email and RSS feeds open. Now I can keep this going, even if the network's down wherever I am.

Cradlepoint didn't pay me for this review, and I bought the device at full price directly from them. But, if they decide they like me for this, they should feel free to send me another one so I can send it to one of my friends in Minneapolis. I know he'd find it handy! :-)

(Random note: I wrote this review in OpenOffice on my new Asus Eee PC, while connected to the net via the Cradlepoint. I'm loving the Eee, and the Cradlepoint router makes it easier to share connectivity between my primary Windows laptop and the cool Linux-running Eee. Look for more thoughts from me about the Eee in the near future.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Asus Eee PC and Sprint EVDO? Easy!

Like every other UMPC-toting geek out there, I broke down and bought an Asus Eee PC. It has a form factor I love, plus an actually-usable keyboard on which I can touch type. And at $399, it's the absolute cheapest laptop you can with this small of a form factor.

I figured it's be pretty hard to get my Novatel U720 EVDO USB modem working with it; I've used Linux before, but I'm not very knowledgeable when it comes to system internals and modem configuration. But, after giving it a shot today, it turned out to be super easy.



Here's how I did it.
  1. Go download the Linux PDF howto guide from Sprint's download page. You actually might not need this, but it might come in handy. (The guide focuses on KPPP, which doesn't help us as KPPP doesn't seem to be pre-loaded on the Eee.)
  2. Start up the Eee, and open up a console window. (Home -> Work -> File Manager -> Tools -> Open Console Window)
  3. Type the following commands:
    sudo modprobe -r usbserial
    sudo modprobe usbserial vendor=[VendorID] product=[ProductID]

    For the VendorID and ProductID, get those from this chart, which came from the Sprint instructions. For example, I have a Novatel U720 USB modem, so I typed:
    sudo modprobe usbserial vendor=0x1410 product=0x2110
  4. Now we need to create a handful of PPP scripts. Run this command:
    cd /etc/ppp/peers
    This will move you to the directory where these PPP scripts go.
  5. Type sudo nano sprint and an empty text editing window will open up in the simple "Nano" editor.
  6. Paste in this info:
    #the USB serial device of the EVDO PCMCIA card.
    ttyUSB0
    #your login information
    user YOUR_NUMBER@sprintpcs.com
    230400 # speed
    #debug
    defaultroute # use the cellular network for the default route
    usepeerdns # use the DNS servers from the remote network
    -detach # keep pppd in the foreground
    crtscts # hardware flow control
    #lock # lock the serial port
    noauth # don't expect the modem to authenticate itself
    connect "/usr/sbin/chat -v -f /etc/ppp/peers/sprint-connect"
    disconnect "/usr/sbin/chat -v -f /etc/ppp/peers/sprint-disconnect"
  7. Use the arrow keys to move to where it says YOUR_NUMBER. Delete that out and replace it with your Sprint modem's phone number.
  8. Hit ^X (control plus the X key).
  9. Answer yes when asked if you want to save.
  10. Hit return when it asks the filename; it will already be specified.
  11. Type sudo nano sprint-connect to open a new Nano editor window, then paste in this info.
    #time out is 20 because sometimes the card takes a little while to initalize
    TIMEOUT 20
    ABORT 'BUSY'
    ABORT 'NO ANSWER'
    ABORT 'NO CARRIER'
    SAY 'Starting Sprint\n'

    '' 'AT'
    'OK' 'ATQ0V1E0'
    'OK' 'ATZ'
    'OK' 'AT&F'
    # Dial the number
    SAY 'Connecting...\n'
    'OK' 'ATDT#777'
    CONNECT CLIENT
  12. Save this file by hitting ^X, like you did above.
  13. Type sudo nano sprint-disconnect to open a new Nano editor window, then paste in this info.
    "" "\K"
    "" "+++ATH0?
    SAY "Disconnected from Sprint."
  14. Save it by hitting ^X, like you did before.
  15. Now, to connect to Sprint, type:
    sudo pppd call sprint
It should connect, then sit there doing nothing. If it worked, you're online. Launch a web browser and surf on over to Google.

If it didn't work, try rebooting with the USB modem connected. Also try disabling the Wifi or wired ethernet, if that's how you're connected currently.

When you're done using the modem, go back to this window and hit ^C (control + C). That should close the Sprint connection, and tell you that it has been closed.

Credit: I got much of this info from this Ubuntu Forums post. I copied and cleaned up the actual information to paste, as the forum post copy had curly quotes that kept it from working.

All told, this only took about 15 minutes to set up. If you're not afraid of creating a text file or opening a shell window, it probably won't take you any longer than that to get up and running.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

iPhone?

Gizmodo gets it right -- they sum up pretty well why I won't ever be buying an iPhone.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Megabus: My experiences

Duh: This has not been approved by Megabus, and is not authored by somebody associated with Megabus.

Somebody on another forum asked if anyone had ridden the Megabus recently. I thought you might like to hear the short version of my reply. Look for more detailed, in depth info, in the near future.

Yeah, I have taken the Megabus many (10+) times from Chicago to Indianapolis and back. This last time I took Amtrak, instead, though.

That was because during my last trip down here, the bus broke down outside of Lafayette, IN, on the highway, nowhere near an off ramp. This was at around 9pm at night. They called for a repair guy who came to fix the broken hose, but couldn't make it work. It took him 60-90 minutes to get there to fix it, and when it was clear he couldn't, they tried to get another bus to come get us. The next scheduled bus was going to stop for us, but broke down in Gary, Indiana, because of problems with the A/C. Then they were trying to get another bus to come get us from Chicago, which is a couple plus hours away. At midnight, when they still didn't have another bus on the way for us, and we were still sitting on the side of the highway, I called the cops, apologized for bothering them for the world's most minor emergency, and asked them what to do. The very helpful lady at dispatch called me back with info on how to get a cab to come get me, and it worked out perfectly. I ended up staying the night in Lafayette, and making other arrangements to get to Indy in the morning.

I was to the point where I was ready to flash a platinum card and say "whatever it costs to get me out of here, make it happen." Probably most people riding the bus don't have that ability, and I have no clue what time the rest of the riders actually made it in to Indy. Best guess at the time was that it would be 3 or 4 am before they arrived.

I've talked to Matt Eggert, manager for Megabus/Coach USA, about this, and when I explicitly asked for a refund, he offered one. Haven't seen it go through yet, and had to ping him a second time for it. This is after I emailed him asking him what the hell happened and what their plan is to fix it when stuff like this happens, and I got absolutely no response.

So, I'm not sure I'll never take the Megabus again. But my confidence in them is not very high right now. Sitting on the side of I-65 for hours, inches from traffic whizzing by in the dark, is not fun. They wouldn't even do anything to get us off the highway and to a rest stop. They don't seem to have contingency plans for when things go wrong, and that's a problem.

The train between Chicago and Indy is nice, btw. $18, and there's an electrical plug for your laptop. It's a bit slower than the bus because it stops more often, though.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

OQO Update

Just a quick note to let you know that I got a replacement OQO, and all is well. EVDO fine, no network issues, and it's working great for me on the road. Look for a more detailed update, and review, in the near future.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

OpenOffice to the Rescue!

Last night, OpenOffice saved my life....again.

I've got multiple computers. The main ones are my work laptop, which is huge and heavy, and my tiny OQO, which was out of commission for a bit.

Yesterday, I was tapped to come up with a quick Powerpoint presentation for a potential client. But, I was already at home, and didn't have the fat work laptop with me. So that meant that I had no access to Microsoft Powerpoint.

But, I'm a long-time user of OpenOffice. I primarily use OpenOffice Writer, as a substitute for Microsoft Word. I'm not much of a power user. Spell check, grammar checking, a bit of formatting, and away I go. I often use it to write blog posts (like this one) before pasting them into Blogger. OpenOffice Writer works great for what I need it to do.

I wondered if it would be the same for OpenOffice's Powerpoint-like tool, Impress? Well, I was about to find out, as I needed to make a slide deck fast, and it was the only tool I had at my disposal.

Turns out, it was just what I needed. As far as I'm concerned, it worked just like Powerpoint. Everything operated as expected. A colleague emailed me our PPT template file, I opened it in OpenOffice, built my preso, saved it back out as a PPT file, and sent it on to my colleagues.

They had no issues reading the file I sent them, and they had no idea that I built this with something other than Powerpoint.

And amazingly, OpenOffice is free. If you're looking for a word processor, or even a presentation creation tool, I'd strongly recommend it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

OQO: It's broken.

My OQO Model 02 is a door stop at the moment. More or less.

I've talked here very long windedly about the issues I've been having with the integrated Sprint EVDO modem. Every once in a while it flips out and says device not found, and you have to let it rest for a while it'll work again.

I tried a lot of things, some of them under guidance from OQO support. Setting up dialup networking entries, reloading the OS, fiddling switches in the modem configuration stuff. It seemed that ensuring that I never used the device while battery usage was set to “max battery” was the likely culprit. It might still be. After staying away from that mode, I've had significantly fewer issues.

Until late last week. I was using the EVDO while sitting outside my office, at a patio table provided by my friendly neighborhood Starbucks. This was during the great “Skype outtage” on Thursday, so to make a client call, I needed to go outside, where my cell phone reception was better. (Since I couldn't use Skype, which is all I have for my office phone.)

Anyway, I'm in the middle of this very long client call, and the OQO hard freezes. NOT GOOD. OK, I reboot it. It says “device not found” when launching the Sprint app. OK, I think to myself, this is a side effect of the modem misbehaving. I'm at Starbucks, so I figure I've got a good backup in their Wifi. (I have a T-Mobile cell phone, so I'm already paying for T-Mobile Wifi.) So, I disable the modem device in the OQO, and fire up the Wifi. I get online with the T-Mobile hotspot, and surf my way around for about 15 seconds, before the thing HARD FREEZES yet again. Still not good. Even less good. I can't even remember the last time I had a box hard freeze on me. Before today.

So, I think to myself, maybe it's overheating. I let it sleep for a while (this was quite the long call) then crank the performance control panel all the way over to “cooler” (it was previously near the middle). I get online again, and it hard freezes again. OK, I'm getting nowhere, so I turn it off and leave it be.

After the call I need to make another. While on that call, I fire it back up, and get online. It locks up again. I give up, finish my calls, then head back upstairs.

I fire the thing up, disable all the internal radios, and put it into the dock. It connects to the net from my office via ethernet and the dock. I open a browser. After a few seconds? Bam, it locks again. I think, okay, maybe Firefox is hosed. I reboot, run a disk check, reboot again, then try IE. Bam, it locks again.

Yuck. I gave up at that point and switched to my old office computer (the large HP laptop that the OQO is supposed to supplant), and get that one loaded up enough to finish up work for the night.

The next day I turn the OQO on long enough to copy all my work files to my USB flash drive. I keep the ethernet unplugged. After I copy the files, I leave it sit to see what happens, while I work on the other computer. The OQO hard locks again after a few moments. (I don't recall if I had plugged the ethernet cable back in.)

So, that's where we're at. The thing's just about useless, and I've switched to a different computer for the time being. I am not pleased.

I emailed support on Friday and they escalated it to a support engineer. As of right now, he hasn't gotten back to me. I called this morning to find out the status, and they think that somebody will be contacting me by the end of the day, with next steps/RMA info/etc.

I'm bummed. I love the OQO, but I need it to Just Work. I already was slightly unhappy every time the Sprint flaked out, and now I don't know what's up with the thing totally melting down.

Time permitting, I might erase and reload the OS (again) tomorrow. I'm not sure if I want to go through the effort – it takes forever to download applications again, set up drivers, passwords, etc. I really shouldn't have to reload the OS twice since June to keep the it alive.

If anybody has any thoughts as to what could be going on here, I'm all ears.

I'm not running very much on this thing, so I don't know what I could be doing to it. The applications I'm using are primarily just these: Avast (anti-virus), Open Office, Microsoft Outlook, Firefox, IE, PuTTY, Cygwin, and Trillian. None of this stuff has killed any of the other nine computers I've run it on, so I don't get what could be causing it here.


(Update at 4:39 PM central: OQO Support sent me RMA information; the computer is being replaced under warranty. I'll ship it their way tomorrow.)

Monday, August 6, 2007

OQO Sprint Mobile Broadband Update

So, I think I may have figured out what was happening with the OQO losing sight of the integrated Sprint Mobile Broadband modem.

What was happening was this: After some amount of usage, usually from 30-90 minutes, the computer would drop the Sprint connection and tell me “Device Not Found” or “Please Insert Device.”

I have a new theory: What if the power management settings are to blame? I often go to “max battery” mode, with the hope of squeezing every last drop from my extended battery, while I'm traveling (and I travel extensively). It dawns on me that the OQO has the ability to power down the device to conserve battery usage. It further dawned on me, that at least anecdotally, it seemed like every time I had the issue, I was on “max battery” mode. Starting last week, I've been careful to use “portable/laptop” mode instead, and I haven't experienced the issue since.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Blog Renaming Time?

So, is it time for me to rename this blog, "Problems with integrated Sprint EVDO on my OQO Model 02"? I've considered doing so, but that name is a bit too long.

I last talked to OQO Support about the issue on July 7th. They've made helpful suggestions all along and I'm grateful for that.

On July 10th I flew to Washington, DC. The EVDO modem was problematic at O'Hare here in Chicago, but worked like a champ the entire time in DC. I just don't get that. Could it be a coverage issue? The reason I think it may not be is that the device is not reporting no service - the Sprint connection manager is reporting no device found. When that happens the computer becomes very laggy, stops responding well, and you pretty much have to give up and turn it off for a while.

Prior to this, I had a Novatel USB EVDO modem for Sprint that didn't ever have this issue.

So today I've written back to OQO again with this and further information. I suggested that there is a hardware issue and asked what needs to be done to have it sent in for service.

It's going to suck being without the OQO for a while, but I need a 100% working device. If the integrated EVDO device just doesn't work well, I'll be disappointed -- that was a big part of why I went with the OQO. I still have my Sprint USB modem, but having that hang out of the bottom of the OQO is no fun.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Amphora Restaurant

Last week, we checked out Amphora Restaurant, a Mediterranean restaurant within walking distance of the Howard transit center. It was really good, and I'd recommend checking it out. We ended up with too much food; both the salad and the flatbread pizza I had were huge. They have a full liquor license, and a large patio.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

OQO Update

I'm taking a break from a conference to jot down a quick update on my OQO -- from my OQO.

I'm in a hotel room in Washington, DC, online via the OQO and the built-in Sprint EVDO.

I brought my dock, and a bluetooth mouse and keyboard.

The keyboard is a Think Outside "Stowaway Sierra" folding keyboard that works great. I just got it yesterday on the way out the door, heading toward the airport. As I mentioned, it's works via bluetooth. It's very easy to set up, and it didn't require a driver (though a CD came with drivers on it for various devices). It runs on one AAA battery (included). Don't know how long the battery lasts, too soon to tell. Thankfully, the keys are actually large enough and spread apart far enough that I can type on it without my hands cramping up. (The external keyboard for my previous Sony Vaio UMPC was just too small; caused a lot of pain trying to type). The Sierra comes with a little stand that probably works great for a smart phone, but is worthless for the OQO; it's just not strong enough to hold it up. Oh well. I hope to find a better stand soon.

So, my Sprint woes have been intermittent. The OQO will just seem to lose its mind for no reason once in a while and say that the (integrated) Sprint modem can't be found. It's worked flawlessly here in DC, but flaked out twice while sitting at the airport in Chicago yesterday. I don't know what to make of it.

OQO support has been friendly and helpful, but I'm just not sure what to do next. Keep pounding on it, I guess. It feels like it HAS to be a hardware issue -- my USB Sprint modem occasionally would lose the connection, but the modem device itself would never dissappear from the view of the computer.

Overall, I'm still happy, and today has been a really good day. At the conference, a lot of people have stopped to ask me about the OQO. Everybody assumes it's some sort of PDA at first -- nobody realizes it's a full Windows XP laptop in disguise.

The double capacity battery has been a god send. I got from 9:00 this morning until about 3pm today, with an hour off for lunch, and a few minutes off here and there where I put it into hibernation when I didn't need it. Now I'm back in my hotel room, and I'll leave the double battery to charge, and bring the regular battery along to the next conference session.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

iWhat?

I don't know if you were aware, but some sort of computer company released some sort of new phone yesterday. Haven't seen any coverage about it in the news, I wonder how it slipped through the cracks.

OQO update: Working well, but I haven't been using the Sprint service very much. Been working with OQO support, who guided me through some driver updates. I think the issues still exist and will likely be reaching back to support next week, as I get more time to pound on the mobile broadband service.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

OQO + Sprint Mobile Broadband woes?

So I love my OQO with its integrated Sprint Mobile Broadband service...



...when it works. Too often lately I have strange connection problems that I never had in the past with my previous laptop and an external Novatel USB mobile broadband modem. As you can see from the picture above, sometimes it works great. The signal is usually strong, and the connection speed is perfectly fine for this little device. I've used it multiple times to jump on to the work VPN, run Outlook, and catch up on emails while riding the train.

Except, once in a while, like today, the computer takes on a mind of it's own, and decides to be a complete pain in the ass.



Once in a while you get dumped off shortly after connecting. Invariably it tells you that the device can't be found. It sometimes helpfully suggests that I remove the device and re-insert it, which I obviously cannot do. As you can see from the screenshot above, I do have the device enabled in the OQO Wireless Dashboard control panel. So, why can't it be found?

It takes a reboot (or sometimes two) to make it start working again. And sometimes it'll only work for about fifteen minutes before complaining again. Not good, not acceptable.

It doesn't seem to be a coverage issue. As you can see from the top screenshot, I've got a good signal, and yet, this is where I am when the issue is occurring today.

What I don't get is that the connection manager software is laggy and slow. Every once in a while it freezes up for many seconds at a time. My previous sprint mobile device, the Novatel USB external modem doesn't do this (on the OQO or any other laptop). So, I'm concerned that this is hardware related, or that these things just don't work so well integrated into the OQO.

I've emailed OQO support just now about this issue, and hope they can nudge me in the right direction. The Sprint mobile broadband is a huge part of why I bought this device. OQO, don't let me down here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Migrating Your iTunes Library

Over the weekend I erased and reloaded my main desktop computer. It's almost three years old, still pretty fast, but it had never been wiped clean before, so I was starting to get paranoid about what malware I might have accidentally installed at some point in the past. The usual anti-malware/spyware stuff wasn't finding anything, but two plus years is a lonnnng time for a computer.

The computer was/is essentially my media hub, including iTunes to manage my iPod. I've been very careful to always back up my iPod and iTunes library. As far as backing up the iPod, I always allow the computer to be the master iPod library, and slave the iPod itself to it. In a few instances when I've loaded songs on the iPod remotely (usually because I'm traveling), I'll re-slave the iPod to the computer, and reload those songs, when I've later returned home.

That, plus allowing iTunes to maintain the iTunes Library folder for me, and having iTunes copy all songs that I load into the library, means that my hard disk has a perfectly backed up copy of my entire music collection at all times.

This has saved my bacon at least once, when my previous iPod was stolen on a business trip. That sucked, but all I had to do was stop at my local neighborhood Best Buy on the way home, pick up a new one, plug it into iTunes, and iTunes loaded my entire library on to the new one. (Which was smaller in size, had a larger drive, and a better screen than the previous one did, anyway.)

In preparation for erasing my desktop computer, I picked up a very large networked drive (one terabyte), and copied everything I cared about to the new drive. This includes my entire "My Music" folder, containing the iTunes folder, all the music, cover art, library data, etc.

After I erased the desktop, reloaded XP Pro, reloaded the anti-virus, installed 900 security patches, and loaded all my usual applications (Slingbox, iTunes, Open Office, Skype, etc.).

Then, before running iTunes, I copied the "iTunes" folder back from the network drive into the "My Music" folder on my desktop. There was no "iTunes" folder there yet because it hadn't been set up yet.

After copying the folder back, then I launched iTunes. Agreed to the EULA, told it not to search my hard drive for anything, and asked it to take me to my library. My library magically reappeared. It took a while to re-index everything, maybe a half an hour or so. I imagine it is reading the "iTunes Library.itl" and/or the "iTunes Music Library.xml" library data files.

Then, I went into the iTunes preferences, and set everything back to how I prefer to keep it -- allow iTunes to manage the library, copy files into the library, etc.

Next, I had to re-authorize this computer to be able to play my iTunes-purchased songs. This is a concern; I just used up my third authorization, out of five allowed. What happens when I run out? It's irritating that moving the library counts as a new computer being authorized. But, that's a rant for another day. To get the computer to ask me to authorize, I clicked on the "Purchased" smart playlist, and clicked on a song I had previously purchased from iTunes. The authorization dialog box popped up, I entered my username and password, and iTunes authorized the computer successfully.

At the end of this long (because of the 80+ gigs of data involved) but simple (did this take more than ten active clicks?) process, I now have my entire iTunes library, all my playlists, all my purchased songs, TV shows, and podcasts, working on my freshly-wiped computer. I couldn't be happier with how easy it was.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

ProcCGI for shell script postform handling

Note to self: If you're going to build shell script CGIs, you need ProcCGI. I've been using this thing for years, and it's invaluable. It's a simple C program that will convert postform information into variables that you can access from your shell script. It really is a shell scripter's best friend.

I'm dropping this note here, because every couple years, I start over on a new webhost, or new platform, and forget the name of ProcCGI. As it's invaluable, that's unacceptable! So, hopefully this will help jog my memory, next time.

(And maybe I'll even remember to do " apt-get install build-essential " on Ubuntu first.)

Friday, June 15, 2007

D-Link DPH-50U Skype Adapter

What does the D-Link DPH-50U do? Well, it lets you hook a regular telephone to your computer. Why would you do that? To use Skype, of course. If you don't already know about Skype, it's time to learn. Skype is an insanely neat telephone replacement software for your computer. If you and your friends all have Skype, calls between each other are free. You could be in Tokyo, your friend could be in Iowa, it's still free. I love it. I've been encouraging friends to get Skype accounts left and right.

Both my home and office phones are actually Skype accounts. To make them work with real phones, we use SkypeIn (buying a phone number) and SkypeOut/SkypeUnlimited (calling regular phones). If you want to be able to receive calls from ordinary phones, you buy a SkypeIn number. In any area code you want, or even in any country they have support for. Then inbound calls to you at that number are free. As far as making calls, you can either pay per minute (about 2.5 cents per minute in the US, I believe), or you can do SkypeUnlimited, which lets you call anywhere in the US and Canada with no long distance charges. That's what I do -- I got it for some amazingly cheap price as a starter deal. But even at the "full" price of $29.95/year, that's still an amazing deal.

The adapter isn't necessary to use Skype. You can use a normal computer microphone and headset. If you have a laptop with a microphone and speakers built in, Skype will work like a speaker phone (which comes in handy for meetings at work). There are also various cordless and corded USB telephone handsets available (I'm quite fond of the IPEVO Free-1). But with this adapter, you can talk on Skype over a normal phone, and even use it to dial out (if calling a regular phone).

If you have an incoming call (from another Skype user or from a phone), the thing makes your phone ring. The inbound caller ID works as you'd expect, unless you get a call from another Skype user -- then the caller ID actually shows their user name. Pretty neat.

There's only a couple oddities about dialing this thing that make me wonder, what were they thinking? (Or that it wasn't designed in the US.)
  • You need to dial 001 + (area code) + (phone number) + *. I assume 001 means US, then the area code and number are expected, but then you have to hit the asterisk. I know from a programming perspective, it would be very easy to set a "default" country, so you wouldn't have to dial the 001.
  • And why do you have to tell it you're done dialing by hitting star? Can't it figure it out, say, if you've stopped hitting numbers for 2-3 seconds, then connect the call? Seems to be a no brainer.
  • Out of the box, the thing plays a special information tone when connecting your call. You know, the three beeps you hear before a recorded voice tells you that you call cannot be completed? That's how the device tells you it's working. Very strange. Thankfully, upgrading the driver to the latest version (1.1 as of this writing) seems to address this.
These aren't deal breakers for me, but if you have somebody in your home or office who isn't tech savvy, these little quirks are going to confuse the heck out of them.

Even with all of that, it's still pretty neat to be able to plug in a normal telephone. We'd been having problems with our previous Skype phone (not the IPEVO one) at home, so today we wandered down the street to our local neighborhood Radio Shack and picked up a cordless phone with two handsets to use as our new Skype-based home phone setup. Took only a few minutes to set up, and so far, it's working great.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

More on OQO + Sprint Mobile Broadband

Figured I'd break this out to a short, second post with the hope that other new OQO Model 02 users will run across it.

If you purchased an OQO Model 02 with integrated Sprint Mobile Broadband, here's the shortcut path to easy activation.
  1. Completely ignore the activation card OQO sends along in the box. It will send you to a rep at OQO, not Sprint, who will try to do the activation for you. It's not necessary and it adds a third party into the mix.
  2. Make sure you're sitting somewhere that your cell phone would work (based on the assumption that coverage is also reaching the Sprint modem).
  3. Extend the tiny antenna.
  4. Launch the Sprint Connection Manager.
  5. It should pop up a dialog box telling you that activation is required. If not, click on the connect button, and then it will.
  6. This "activation required" dialog box contains a direct phone number for Sprint support. Call this number.
  7. Tell this rep you just bought a laptop with a built in aircard and you would like to activate it. (I started by saying "Sprint modem" and they were confused. After explaining, the rep said, "Oh, you mean an aircard?")
  8. They will ask you for the ESN of the device. The Sprint Connection Manager will provide this to you on the next screen.
  9. The rep may have to "translate" the ESN to the correct data he/she needs. If they ask you if it's in the correct form somewhere else, the answer is no. You can pull the battery off and check, if you like. The ESN number on the back of the unit is written the same as the one provided by the connection manager application.
  10. The rep will take all your details to set you up with an account, or in my case, attach the new service to your existing account.
  11. The rep will give you an activation code. Enter it as directed.
  12. The rep will give you two sets of phone numbers to enter on the next screen.
  13. After this is done, the device will attempt to connect to Sprint, confirm activation, and download whatever account data is necessary to enable service. Make sure you're in a service area when this is happening.
  14. In my case this only took a moment, and I was up and running online while on the phone with the rep.
  15. Make sure you disable wi-fi while testing the Sprint connection; you don't want to confuse them and think you're on Sprint while actually on wi-fi. Kinda defeats the purpose of making sure your Sprint connection works.
Sounds like a lot of steps, but it was actually pretty easy. The longest part was waiting in queue for the reps due to supposed call volume. Grr. Not counting that we were done in maybe 15-20 minutes, and mine may have taken longer than average because I had an existing account and the rep had to look up how to add/transfer service to the new account.

Friday, June 8, 2007

My OQO Model 02 is here!

Well, I did it. I broke down and bought an OQO. I just received it on Monday morning.

My first impression after playing with it a bit is one of amazement over the (lack of) size. Wow, it really is that small! It’s smaller that I ever realized from looking at pictures. And light! It weighs only a pound with the standard battery.


First startup, configuring Windows XP Pro.

Setting up the integrated Sprint service was a breeze – when I called Sprint directly. A card in the box says you need to call a number at OQO to activate that. I called the number on Monday and talked a very friendly rep who was not very technical, and I don’t think she was very sure of the script she was working through. Somebody (from OQO? Sprint?) was supposed to get back to me within 24-48-72 hours with activation info, but that never happened. I waited until Friday, then decided to call Sprint directly. When I did that, it was a piece of cake. Took a little longer on the phone than I would’ve liked, but the rep was helpful and knew his stuff. So now, I’m off and running with Sprint EVDO service, as of a couple hours ago.

This isn’t my first experience with EVDO (or with Sprint Mobile Broadband), so I think I know what to expect. Check in later to see if my expectations are satisfied. So far, I’m excited to have a computer, ANY computer, with integrated EVDO. No more bulky USB modem! No more PC card!



The OQO next to my work-supplied HP Compaq nw8240.

Other quick notes:

  • Lead time was about three weeks from order-to-do for just the computer.
  • I ordered a ton of accessories, including a case, larger battery, etc. These haven’t shipped yet, but the order status recently changed from “received” to “building to order,” so I’m hopeful that they’ll be shipping soon.
  • No pen yet. Doesn’t come with one, I ordered it separately. I used to use Wacom tablets in my past life, so I think I know what to expect here. I have to tell you – currently lacking the ability to use the active touchscreen has not been an issue yet. I might not end up being a heavy pen user.
  • I ordered an extra VGA/Ethernet adapter. Didn’t pay attention; didn’t realize it already came with one. Oops. Anybody want to buy my extra one?
  • No free case included. Not even a felt bag. What’s up with that? Even an iPod comes with a grotty felt case so you can protect it from scratches while it rides in your pocket. I ordered a Stronghold case, which I haven’t yet received, but I’d also like a snug soft case. Short of using a Crown Royal felt bag, what are my options?
  • I chose XP Pro as the OS. Am I going to regret that decision? So far, it’s been fine. Nothing is confusing, everything works, and I’m glad that I’m avoiding Vista. My other laptop came with Vista, and while the eye candy is nice, I found many interface/system changes confusing. My only concern here is that I’m missing out on tablet PC functionality. I didn’t want to order XP Tablet, because it felt like a step backward, OS-wise, in my estimation.
  • Battery life: I don’t know how long the battery lasts yet. Just got the thing on Monday, and have been so busy with work that I haven’t had enough play time to see. I should find out soon. I also ordered a double capacity battery, which I have yet to receive. If I get five hours out of that, I will be very happy.
  • This is my first computer with integrated Bluetooth. Nice. I’ve only tried connecting a mouse to it, so far. Can I use a Bluetooth headset with Skype? I’ll be testing that soon, as I’m a huge Skype user.
  • The small screen size is not an issue. The screen is sharp and clear and easy to read. I wear glasses already, so small type doesn’t bother me. I also love how you can zoom out to emulate a larger monitor. This will come in handy for some dialog boxes and other things that require a larger display.
  • Last but not least, it does really fit in a pocket. I’ve been keeping it in the inside pocket of my sport coat, and it also fits into the back pocket of jeans just fine. I’ve been careful not to sit on it.

The computer has already come in very handy when helping my coworkers check into their hotel here in Chicago a few days ago. The hotel couldn’t find the reservation, and my Gmail account (pulled up on my phone) didn’t have all the necessary details. I needed to log in to Expedia, but their website was too complicated for Windows Mobile to handle. So, I pulled the OQO out, logged in to Expedia, and handed it to the desk clerk, showing him the confirmation number and guest names. He wasn’t impressed, but I was.

After placing my order, and while waiting during the three week period between ordering and arrival, I ran across Hugo’s blog. Hugo had an OQO, loved it, but then went radio silent. It turned out he ended up going through three OQOs, for reasons that still aren’t 100% clear to me. Breakage? Build defects? Some other problem? No issues with mine so far, but it’s only a few days old, so I’m a little nervous. I hope Hugo’s issues were the exception, and not the rule!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

PSA: Without funding, CTA fare increases and service cuts are on the way

This is a public service announcement from Chicago Transit Status, and SaveChicagolandTransit.com.

As part of a contingency plan CTA has proposed in the event their budgetary needs remain unfulfilled due to inadequate funding and no changes made by the legislature, CTA, Metra, and Pace are facing $226 million in shortfalls this year.

CTA's shortfall is at $110 million, and, without that gap being filled, the Yellow Line would be abandoned and the Purple Line Express service discontinued (Purple Line Evanston Shuttle service would remain). Also, dozens of bus routes would be eliminated leading to overcrowding on remaining service (including the Red and Brown Lines), and fares would go as high as $3.25 depending on when you board and how you pay.

Visit http://www.savechicagolandtransit.com to learn more about the service cuts, the fare increases, and the situation that led to this proposal. Then, use the site to contact your legislators ONLINE!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mystery Partially Solved

So, the building I wrote about before has officially gone condo; there are now signs up advertising the new spaces -- which are exactly what this neighborhood needs, obviously. Off the top of my head, I can only think of half a dozen other condo conversions within 2 blocks of that one, none more than 75% sold. And hey, who needs affordable rental housing?

On the plus side, last weekend we saw them prettying up the outside of the building at the retail level, so maybe we'll actually get some new stuff in there soon.

(Written by Kate Harding.)

Comments from the Original Post:

The North Coast said...
I blogged about this comic condo conversion on my blog. I live next door, at the beautiful courtyard on Pratt, and am glad someone closed this building for rehab, because when it was rental it was always a problem building, and I was placing calls to 911 constantly about fights taking place in front of it.

Having said that, I'll say the condos are jokes- impossibly small and outrageously overpriced little boxes, badly configured, with no closet space. $129K for a matchbox studio, $155K for a tiny one bedroom with 550 sq ft. That's about $280 a square foot, which is no bargain.

Sad part is I saw a buyer moving in with her pathetic belongings. I thought, it'll be a long time before you can buy furniture at that price, kid.

Worse, the prices are dropping. I am seeing much better deals for better places in better areas.

Buyer Beware.

July 12, 2007 9:08 PM
RP4Life said...
This building has always been a blight on the neighborhood. See ya. Starting to look much better. Looking forward to frequenting the new shops.

July 18, 2007 11:50 AM
The North Coast said...
I hope it doesn't turn back into a blight down the road, because only at the height of the real estate craze could you palm these tiny, badly-configured little places off on buyers, especially at the outrageous prices at which they're being offered.

They are, I see, counting on glossy, pretty new finishes and, of course, really insane financing to sell these places.

But once the rehab begins to age,and the glossy new finishes and appliances begin to wear out, people will see the places for what they are- squeezy little places with wierd floor plans, which was always that place's problem.

It will be interesting to see how things play out with the condo conversion now that the bubble has popped and prices are beginning to drift down.

..and I sure hope they do something with that plaza, which could be a focal point for the neighborhood. A new brick parquet pavement with new trees and plantings would be attractive and I hope that's what they have planned. I tried to ask, but found them tight-lipped and unfriendly.

Personally, I wish the place had been razed and an attractive 4 or 5 storey mixed-use building with real architecture and large, well-designed condo units had been built there. I always have visualized something built of stone and brick, or stucco, with a terracotta roof and balconies and french doors, configured like a courtyard building around a central garden, with retail on the ground floor.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sometimes I leave Rogers Park

Sometimes I leave Rogers Park, and sometimes I take my car with me when I do so. Then I get confused by the fact that the highways in the area are generally all referred to by names, instead of by number. Thankfully, this article exists to help guide me, in case I ever need to figure out where the "North-South Tollway" is.

Monday, May 7, 2007

What's Up With This Building?

Hi, I'm Kate. I'm Al's girlfriend, and I'll be an occasional contributor here. I have a personal blog and a book blog that take up most of my time, but hey, who doesn't need another blog?

Self-promotion out of the way, I'm wondering if anyone knows the scoop on this building, at the northwest corner of Sheridan and Pratt:


When I moved here in 2005, all of the retail spaces you see along the bottom there were occupied: a hardware/convenience store, a hair salon, a storefront church, a taqueria, a video store, and a liquor/grocery(ish) store. Now, only the last two remain, and nothing's gone in to replace the others. (How the video store stays in business when the others haven't totally baffles me.)

I'm assuming the building's owner must be deliberately refusing to renew leases or sign new ones. It's not exactly prime real estate, but similar small businesses on Sheridan right around there seem to be doing fine--I'm sure those spaces could move if they were on the market. Anybody know why they're not? My best guess is, the owner wants to sell the building off to condo developers--but some of those storefronts have sat empty for over a year now. It doesn't make sense.

Al and I fantasize about all the things that could go in those spaces: jazz club, yoga studio, dog groomer, pub... Hell, I'd be psyched for another taqueria and beauty shop, and maybe a liquor store that's not quite as grotty as the existing one. But as it is, there's practically nothing on that side of that block, and there hasn't been in ages. What's up with that?

(Written by Kate Harding.)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Spam in Rogers Park

Teaching people how to deal with spam, preventing spam, sanctioning spammers, is pretty much my full time job. So, I find it particularly disappointing that one of my neighbors seems to be spamming people with this DFA "open letter to Don Gordon," trying to get him to back off from his election challenge.

I'm reserving judgment on the whole Don Gordon aldermanic election challenge itself, for now. This isn't about the merits of the argument. This is about forcing your views on people who didn't ask for them.

Spam is wrong. It's the online equivalent of the unwanted garbage that litters our sidewalks. Why would somebody knowingly send spam?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Disable XT9 on T-Mobile Dash

The T-Mobile Dash (aka the HTC Excaliber) is a cool little smartphone that runs Windows Mobile. I've always been annoyed by the seeming inability to disable the T9/XT9 text autocompletion. Searching online found no easy way to do it. Lots of registry hacks and some broken downloadable app that's supposed to do the job but doesn't, but no easy info on how to just modify some setting on the phone and be done with it.

Well, today, I stumbled across how to disable the XT9 text autocompletion on my Dash.

Here's how:
  1. Go into messaging, and create a new text message.
  2. Hold down the alt key and press the space bar.
  3. A tiny menu will pop up: XT9 English, ABC, Language >, and About XT9.
  4. Select ABC.
  5. Now type. You'll notice that the auto-complete area no longer appears!
I think the setting stays that way until you hard reset your phone. In my case, it stayed in place until I upgraded my phone's operating system, then it reverted back to XT9. Once the Dash booted back up, now running Windows Mobile 6, I was able to change the setting back to ABC and disable autocomplete once again.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Here's why I'm starting this [Rogers Park] blog

Rogers Park is a cool and vibrant community. It also has a lot of active bloggers. This is awesome, and I love it. The problem is, there's a subset of bloggers who post weird, abusive and over-the-top things to try to get a rise out of their neighbors.

I've felt deceived a few different times now. Sucked into reading an interesting neighborhood blog. Learning about the politics of the neighborhood, what's going on, who's who, etc. Then, out of nowhere, a blogger posts something offensive or insulting, to make it very clear that THEY'RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT and everybody else is ABSOLUTELY WRONG AND SHOULD BE PUNCHED IN THE FACE. I think a blog's credibility is damaged when this happens. I think smart people usually act (and write) in a reasoned and restrained manner. When a blogger is doing the opposite, it give me pause. I think that when I don't know a lot about a given situation, that misplaced vitriol, hatred and screaming on a blog are stumbling blocks to understanding. In short, it doesn't help, and it doesn't sway.

I'm not sure where I'm going to go with this, but here's where I'm going to start, by sharing a couple of the crazy things that I've seen lately on local blogs that I thought were just, well, lame.

Tom at Rogers Park Bench posted this loving tribute to North Korea and tyranny in general, entitled "The Left's Historical Support for Tyranny." He seems to have thought better of it and yanked the post back. It had already been pushed out via RSS, so I was able to screen shot it from my Google Reader feed. Gee. Thanks for implying that everybody with even slightly differing politics than your own must obviously be supporters of communism and tyranny.

In a disappointing display of "do as I say, not as I do," Tom documents an instance of this happening on Thomas Westgard's Rogers Park Rake. In this case, Westgard tried to subtly sneak in a Nazi slam against Don Gordon, according to what I saw on my RSS feed. He also had a change of heart, and pulled it back, but not before it was seen by multiple readers. In the post, he compares Don Gordon to Vidkun Quisling. A Nazi reference (even 'subtle' or indirect) is something that I consider to be an argument of last resort. It says that one has no more words, no more brain power, no more ability to actually deconstruct somebody, or their argument, through intelligence. It's the online discussion equivalent of an eight-year old flipping out and throwing rocks on the playground, mad because he can't get his way and doesn't have the words to explain why.

I've been on the internet long enough to already be familiar with Godwin's Law. Apparently not everybody else is.

Comments from the Original Post:

Thomas Westgard said...
I'm familiar with Godwin's Law as well. In fact, if you go back on the Wikipedia post on Godwin's law far enough, you'll find the Westgard's Law analog I put up there several years ago (since removed). The Quisling post was a deliberate reference to Godwin's Law. Part of the point was that the epithets being thrown elsewhere had reached the point of absurdity, and by putting up a post that invoked Godwin's Law, it would point out exactly what you saw. Thank you for noticing, although you didn't carry the point over to the other blogs. Oh, well, can't get everything.

I'm mystified by your perception that the criticism of Gordon in the Vidkun Quisling post was either subtle, or quickly drawn back. It was about as unsubtle as a criticism could be (in fact, isn't that the point of Godwin's Law?), and it stayed up for days. First you think I'm Godwin-level wild, then I'm subtle. Which is it? Perceiving Godwin's Law was good, but Al - your only accomplishment was to read what I wrote! (albeit incompletely) By assuming that only you knew of Godwin's Law, you relieved yourself of the necessity of further thinking why I might deliberately transgress it. By using your own timeframe for how long a post "should" stay up, you set yourself up to see what you wanted to see.

Okay, fine. I'm looking at the future now anyway, which is why I took the Quisling post down (along with the rest of it). Unlike certain other people, I'm not interested in having these discussions follow people around on the web for all eternity. If Don Gordon wants to retire from politics, I suppose I'll let him, although his silly lawsuit needs to die before he can claim retirement.

I'm curious, though, if you can defend your analysis of the Quisling post from where we sit today. You described it as the (forgive the paraphrase) argument of last resort, when the mind fails and the words become the functional equivalent of foaming at the mouth and undermining whatever rational argument may have gone before. The irony of you calling me stupid, then claiming the intended meaning of my post as your own invention, within the same sentence is an irony I've wallowed in a bit too much already, perhaps.

But looking forward - do you perceive that Craig and Mannis have themselves not gone into a Godwin-like foaming zone, most recently e.g. pursuing the operator of a laundromat with righteous indignance, or taking the time to reveal to the world that I sometimes possess drywall?

And more importantly, the things that you truly can control, namely your own blog: If the other blogs are "bad," however you choose to define that, what have you written in your blog that overcomes or outpaces them/us? Whether I, or Craig, or Mannis, have fallen into a pit of blogger foolishness that you alone are able to perceive... Unless there's an irony in this post that I myself am failing to perceive, you started this blog and put up this post with grand intentions of setting it all straight with the writings of Al Iverson.

How's it going?

From the looks of your blog, I would say not very well. There are thousands of people who do nothing, who don't even try, but most of them refrain from passing judgment on others, at least publicly. It's easy enough for you to snipe from the sidelines and pass judgment on the qualities of others, without putting out the work, or taking the chances. But I hope you don't feel yourself to be greatly elevated by the accomplishment of attending no meetings and producing no work. The dead fish stuck to my aquarium filter is accomplishing that much, and it smells better than the logic of your arguments.

Come to think of it, the fish does attend the meetings that occur in my office. The fish also keeps its blogging commitments, which in its case are none. The fish passes judgment on no one, and thus is never wrong. Now, that's worth thinking about.

May 22, 2007 12:09 AM
Al Iverson said...
I love how this turns into a debate about Craig and Tom Mannis, like I secretly must be some stooge of theirs because I take you to task.

As far as taking down old posts, doing so denies a new reader the opportunity to get a sense of history. Regardless of what you wish it would say about you, it very strongly suggests that you're unwilling to stand by what you write. If you're so sure that it needs to be taken down to move forward, get past the anger, "you've made your point," etc., then I would suggest that it wasn't appropriate to begin with.

I patently reject any sort of 'how dare I question you' because I supposedly have yet to do anything that outshines you. When you're the yardstick of how I should be measured, I'll care. Until then, I don't.

Actually, that reminds me. Could you let me know when you do something that outshines me? I'd hate to miss it when/if it finally happens.

May 22, 2007 9:45 AM
Kate Harding said...
Also, you should probably remove that dead fish from your aquarium.

May 22, 2007 9:51 AM
Jocelyn said...
I think your take on the use of Nazi rhetoric is spot on.

Also, I was not familiar with Godwin's law so thanks I just learned something new.

June 13, 2007 9:42 PM
Fargo said...
Welcome to the neighborhood! I hope that you don't think all the verbal nastiness represents the 'hood as a whole. There are lots of good people and cool places to eat and hang out. That's why it's one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city.

C'mon over to
http://fargocats.blogspot.com/2007/08/on-blogging-and-civility.html

Your $0.02?

August 4, 2007 4:40 PM

Monday, April 16, 2007

Ten Tips on How To Blog

Everybody should have a blog. Everybody knows something. Get out there and show the world what you’re a subject matter expert on. Knowledge deserves to be shared, and blogging is an excellent (and easy) way to share it.

Here’s my top ten list of dos and don’ts when it comes to blogging. I see a lot of blogs that don’t follow this guidance, and it amazes me. Don’t they want to be taken seriously? I’ve only been in the game for, oh, six or seven years, and I’m still honing my craft, but it’s already clear to me that there’s a right way, and a wrong way. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Publish an RSS feed. If you’re coding pages by hand in HTML and expecting people to come back to your site every week to look for new pages, you’re trapped in the twentieth century. Feedburner’s a bit coy regarding the number of RSS feed views they see, but the number’s large, and growing larger every day. Feedburner’s publishing over 663,000 feeds, all of which were set up by somebody wanting to read a site, or publish info from a site, using RSS. That’s just published feeds – the number of page views for all of these RSS feeds is undoubtedly in the many millions. It’s not hard to publish an RSS feed, either. Most blogging tools (like Blogger, which I use) already come with this feature built-in.

  2. Optimize your content display for RSS. Sign up for your own RSS feed in something like Google Reader, an easy-to-use feed reader. Make sure the content is presented in a way you’re comfortable with. Just about every day I read some blog post in a non-descript deliverability blog posted by “Matt” or by “Bob.” Sometimes I think, ‘pff, what is this guy thinking,’ then I click through to the actual article and find out that it was posted by the CEO of a very well-known company. Does your RSS feed say your article was “posted by bigal” or does it say “posted by Al Iverson”? Which do you think better conveys who you are and better presents your image?

  3. Add a footer to your messages (or just to your RSS feed). This actually can help you overcome limitations with how your content is displayed in an RSS reader. I add a footer to my anti-spam blogs that says, “Posted by Al Iverson. I welcome your feedback, contact me at .” It helps brand my content as written by me, and helps to get my name out there. I think that’s very important if you want people to know who you are. It also helps for people who just casually stumbled across your blog, people who don’t already know you. Make sure they’re able to recognize you and give you credit for what you’ve posted!

  4. Use your real name. I read (but generally don’t take too seriously) a few anonymously-registered blogs. It gets confusing when some of those sites describes itself by saying “I and me,” but they hide who “I and me” actually are. Professionalism and ethics demand that if you’re going to share something with the world, you should put your name on it and stand behind it. Hide your name, and you’re telling me (and the world) that you’re afraid of criticism, afraid of people knowing that you’re saying a certain thing. It definitely makes me think twice about why somebody wouldn’t want to publish something under their own name.

  5. Have a feedback/contact me link. You’ll learn from your readers. Sometimes what you’ll learn is that they’re morons, but that’s fairly rare. Most of the time, they’ll share something insightful. It might even make you reconsider your point of view, or give you ideas for other things to write about. I go so far as to actively solicit questions via email. I don’t always have time to respond to each one personally, but it helps keep the “idea well” full of things I can write about.

  6. Argue with data, not with emotions. If there is one thing I am tired of, and won’t listen to anymore, it’s sturm and drang from other technology geeks about how a process MUST be implemented a certain way, BECAUSE IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO (even though they have no supporting data to prove that it works). If it’s the right thing to do, prove it to me. I realize that it’s not all about business ROI, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to tell me that I’m wrong, or I need to change my thinking, the case is not made via anecdotes and warm fuzzies. People in cults “just believe.” Smart people want proof. Show me what % lift in clicks process X gets you, or show me how Y% of spam is blowback when measured against your mail stream. Not all data is perfect, but data is a far better starting point for a discussion than, “this one time this guy had this problem and it was blocked because of Z.” That will only occasionally reproduce well as shared knowledge.

  7. Stay on topic. Print this one out and tape it to your computer monitor. Tattoo it on your forehead, backwards, so you can read it in the mirror when brushing your teeth in the morning. Stay on topic!!! When I read your blog about spam (or VoIP), I want to learn about spam (or VoIP). Not what kind of cereal you had today, the fact that you sat next to an ugly girl on the plane, nor your thoughts on religion and bar fighting. Nothing drives me away from your blog faster than off-topic ramblings that have nothing to do with the professed topic of the blog. Sure, an offhand comment in the context of an on-topic article is to be expected here and there. But save the “I ate cereal today” posts for your “Cereal and Ramblings” blog. Link to it from your topical content blog if you must, but don’t confuse the two, as you’re talking to two vastly different audiences. Those audiences are not as compatible as you think.

  8. Post regularly. Yeah, I suffer from this, too. I get distracted and don’t have time to write something for weeks on end, sometimes. But I try. And I try to stay ahead by writing new posts and articles ahead of time. Saving them up, and releasing them once or twice a week. That way I am slowly building up the content of my site, but can take a break here and there when I need it. More than half of the time you see me post something over on Spam Resource, it’s really something that I wrote a few days ago and saved to publish out at a certain time, or at least a few days after my last post.

  9. It’s OK to link to stories by other folks, but don’t steal. One of the biggest bummers I’ve had to personally deal with as an aspiring web-based author is people ripping off my content. It’s not okay to republish my entire article, just because you kept my name on it. You’re taking traffic away from my site, which I can track, and sending it to your site, which I can’t track. Quoting a few sentences and linking to my article is acceptable. And I welcome it! Send traffic my way and I’ll try to return the favor. But duplicate my content elsewhere and you’re going to confuse Google into thinking we’re trying to search engine spam, or people are going to visit your site and think it’s my site. Not cool.

  10. Link to other sites (create a blog roll). Google ranking (where your site shows up in search engine results) is based on a complex variable equation, but one important component is how many sites link to you. Link to good sites on topics similar to yours, and encourage those sites (and others) to link back to you. Show readers what sites you read, to give them options of other things to read that they may find interesting. It’s friendly to your readers, and it helps your ranking in search engines.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Credit Card Charge Minimums

QUESTION: Is it legal or allowed for a store or restaurant to require you to spend at least X dollars if you want to pay by credit card?

I was at a neighborhood pub the other day and overhead a disagreement between a patron and the bartender. The patron had a single beer and wanted to pay for it with his VISA card. The bartender informed him that there's a ten dollar minimum for credit card charges. He countered that this was not legal, and expressed frustration that this requirement was not posted anywhere. The bartender held firm, and the guy left after paying ten dollars for a five dollar beer.

I see this taking place at different places I visit. Grocery stores, the neighborhood dry cleaners, bars, etc. It made me wonder: What ARE the rules for credit card charge minimums? So, I did a bit of research.

ANSWER: No. It is not allowed for VISA and Mastercard transactions. It's a violation of the agreement the merchant (store or restaurant) entered into with VISA and Mastercard. It's less clear what the rule is in the case of American Express.

Here's what I found:

VISA -- According to their website, merchants that accept VISA are "not permitted to establish minimum transaction amounts, even on sale items."

Mastercard -- According to their website, merchants may not ever require a minimum purchase amount when paying with Mastercard.

American Express -- I wasn't able to find specific information by way of a cursory Google search. I found info that suggests it's against policy in Australia.

This accountant website clearly indicates that it's against policy for merchants to require a minimum purchase amount for a VISA or Mastercard transaction. It also says that it's less clear in the case of American Express.

Penn State (for some unknown reason) issued a press release in November, 1999 that explains that merchants can't require minimum charge limits with VISA and Mastercard.

I understand why a merchant would want to require a minimum purchase amount for a credit card transaction. Credit card fees, especially for small merchants, are significant. Some merchant agreements (the agreement between the store and the bank) have per-transaction minimums that range from $1 to $6 plus. That means you can end up under water if somebody uses a credit card to pay for a twenty-five cent stick of gum. However, if you want to take credit cards, you have to agree to abide by their policies, and these are their policies.

Some merchants choose not to take credit cards, and that's absolutely their right. But lots of others choose to take credit cards, because they like the convenience. In exchange for sharing some amount of money received for every transaction, the merchant gets an easy, single point of record keeping for all or most of their transactions, and they end up not having to keep as much cash on hand. If you don't take credit cards, especially if you're a restaurant or a bar, you miss out on the opportunity to serve a large segment of the population who no longer walk around with cash in their pockets.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

CTA Bus Schedules

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) means well. They have a useful website with all possible bus schedules available, in PDF format. Unfortunately, to select a bus route from that site requires Javascript -- which a lot of phones don't support (including mine). It's no big deal that the maps themselves require Acrobat Reader to display -- most fancy PDA phones nowadays come with a PDA viewer, or one can be downloaded. But lacking that crucial Javascript support, there's no way for me to even select which bus route schedule I want to view.

Who remembers which bus schedule they need when they're sitting in front of the computer? I take so many different buses lately that I can't keep all their schedules straight. Or, I'm standing at a bus stop, wondering how long until the next bus is supposed to come through, and wishing that I could look it up on my PDA phone.

That's why I created this page, with a simple link to each bus schedule on the list. Click on a bus route name/number to download the schedule, in PDF, directly from the CTA website.

Chinatown/Pilsen Weekend Shuttle
1 Indiana/Hyde Park
2 Hyde Park Express
3 King Drive
X3 King Drive Express
4 Cottage Grove ----- OWL
X4 Cottage Grove Express
N5 South Shore Night Bus ----- OWL
6 Jackson Park Express
7 Harrison
8 Halsted
8A South Halsted
9 Ashland ----- OWL
X9 Ashland Express
10 Museum of Science & Industry
11 Lincoln/Sedgwick
12 Roosevelt
14 Jeffery Express
15 Jeffery Local
17 Westchester (PACE Route 317)
18 16th-18th
19 United Center Express
20 Madison ----- OWL
X20 Washington/Madison Express
21 Cermak
22 Clark ----- OWL
24 Wentworth
26 South Shore Express
28 Stony Island
X28 Stony Island Express
29 State
30 South Chicago
33 Magnificent Mile Express
34 South Michigan ----- OWL
35 35th
36 Broadway
38 Ogden/Taylor
39 Pershing
43 43rd
44 Wallace-Racine
47 47th
48 South Damen
49 Western ----- OWL
49A South Western (PACE Route 349)
49B North Western
X49 Western Express
50 Damen
51 51st
52 Kedzie/California
52A South Kedzie
53 Pulaski ----- OWL
53A South Pulaski
53A South Pulaski Limited
54 Cicero
X54 Cicero Express
54A North Cicero/Skokie Blvd
54B South Cicero
55 Garfield ----- OWL
X55 Garfield Express
55A 55th/Austin
55N 55th/Narragansett
56 Milwaukee
56A North Milwaukee
57 Laramie
59 59th/61st
60 Blue Island/26th ----- OWL
62 Archer ----- OWL
62H Archer/Harlem
63 63rd ----- OWL
63W West 63rd
64 Foster-Canfield
65 Grand
66 Chicago ----- OWL
67 67th-69th-71st
68 Northwest Highway
69 Cumberland/East River
70 Division
71 71st/South Shore
72 North
73 Armitage
74 Fullerton
75 74th-75th
76 Diversey
77 Belmont ----- OWL
78 Montrose
79 79th ----- OWL
80 Irving Park
X80 Irving Park Express
81 Lawrence ----- OWL
81W West Lawrence
82 Kimball-Homan
84 Peterson
85 Central
85A North Central
86 Narragansett/Ridgeland
87 87th
88 Higgins
90 Harlem
90N North Harlem
91 Austin
92 Foster
93 California/Dodge
94 South California
95E 93rd-95th
95W West 95th
96 Lunt
97 Skokie
X98 Avon Express
100 Jeffery Manor Express
103 West 103rd
106 East 103rd
108 Halsted/95th
111 Pullman/111th/115th
112 Vincennes/111th
119 Michigan/119th
120 North Western/Wacker Express
121 Union/Wacker Express
122 Illinois Center/North Western Express
123 Illinois Center/Union Express
124 Navy Pier
125 Water Tower Express
126 Jackson
127 Madison/Roosevelt Circulator
129 West Loop/South Loop
132 Goose Island Express
134 Stockton/LaSalle Express
135 Clarendon/LaSalle Express
136 Sheridan/LaSalle Express
143 Stockton/Michigan Express
144 Marine/Michigan Express
145 Wilson/Michigan Express
146 Inner Drive/Michigan Express
147 Outer Drive Express
148 Clarendon/Michigan Express
151 Sheridan ----- OWL
152 Addison
155 Devon
156 LaSalle
157 Streeterville
165 West 65th
168 UIC-Pilsen Express
169 69th-UPS Express
170 U. of Chicago-Midway
171 U. of Chicago-Hyde Park
172 U. of Chicago-Kenwood
173 U. of Chicago-Lakeview Express
174 U. of Chicago-Garfield Stations
192 University of Chicago Hospitals Express
200 Main Shuttle
201 Central/Ridge ----- OWL
205 Chicago/Golf
206 Evanston Circulator

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cygwin and fetchmail

I've been a frequent user of both Cywgin and fetchmail for rather a long time.

For a project I'm working on, I found that it would be very useful to be able to download messages from Gmail to shell scripts running under Windows. So, that means getting fetchmail to work under Cygwin.

This article gives you a pretty quick and easy overview of how to get fetchmail running under Cywgin. Problem is, it doesn't work. Not on fetchmail on my laptop, anyway.

I kept getting an error: "nodename nor servname provided, or not known" whenever running fetchmail with fetchmail -v (the -v meaning verbose -- I recommend always calling fetchmail with -v)

After a bit of Googling, here's what I found: You need to add the following to the /etc/services file on Cygwin:
pop3s 995/tcp

The error message is apparently specific to sites that require SSL to connect. The wording apparently indicates that fetchmail and Cygwin don't know how to establish a POP3 SSL connection, because it's not specified in the services list with a port entry. After I did that, it worked like a charm.

Here's another tip. Check out my .fetchmailrc file:
poll pop.gmail.com proto pop3 and options no dns
user 'randomusername@gmail.com' password 'pwgoeshere' options keep ssl
fetchlimit 1
mda "/usr/bin/tee incoming.txt > /dev/null"


Note some of the things I've changed around here. I set "fetchlimit 1" which downloads only one message at a time, and I set an "mda" setting. This stands for "mail delivery agent." It's made for forwarding inbound mail to some other script or process, like procmail. Here I'm tricking it by using the "tee" command (which simply takes stdin and outputs it to both stdout and the file specified) to take the inbound piece of mail and put it in the file incoming.txt. I added the "> /dev/null" to not bother with the stdout output.

Remove the word "keep" if you don't want it to leave the mail on the server. (I'm using the "keep" option just for testing. I'll have to remove it as I move forward.)

There's probably a fancier way to take a single email via pop3 and put it into a text file for further processing; but this quick and dirty method is serving me well.

If you find any of this information useful, please let me know!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Which Is Better: Blogger or Google Pages?

Google offers two easy-to-use tools that make it so just about anybody can create a website: Blogger, and Google Pages. Both have their strengths and weaknesses; I’ve created and hosted different sites with each tool.

Here’s a quick, bullet-point rundown of my likes and dislikes for each, followed by a bit of in-depth discussion of what you can and can’t do, with some tips and tricks for each.

Google Pages -- Pros:

  • Create and host up to five websites with one Google account.
  • Comes with 30+ neat looking templates to choose from.
  • Just write-and-go, don’t need to know HTML.
  • Can host regular HTML files if you’ve got an already created site.

Google Pages -- Cons:

  • Websites created have to be hosted under googlepages.com. This means your website has to be mypage.googlepages.com instead of www.mypage.com.
  • As you add more pages, you have to link to them manually. No overall index is created automatically.
  • If you use a redirecting trick to make your webpage show up as www.mypage.com, your organic search engine placement seems to suffer.

Blogger -- Pros:

  • The latest version of Blogger can host custom domains directly. No redirect trickery needed.
  • Easy, word-processor style interface for writing new entries.
  • Built-in RSS feed support.
  • Blogger’s layout modification editor is slick, allowing drag and drop modification of page elements.

Blogger -- Cons:

  • What order each page is displayed in is determined by the time/date it was posted.
  • Blogger only offers a few templates. The default ones are kind of boring.
  • Manual template editing is tricky and NOT for the faint of heart.
  • All sites have the Blogger Navbar at the top, by default.

Templates and “Look and Feel” Modification

The latest version of Blogger only comes with a few templates, while they’re okay, there’s not a ton of them. If you use a default template, your blog is going to look like a thousand others. (Probably far more than a thousand others.)

The template format is open and people can create their own, however, it’s not for novices. I modified spamresource.com’s template to add in a logo and additional graphics, and change the overall look and feel slightly. It took me a long time to do, and I couldn’t figure out everything I wanted to. And I’m not afraid of code. If you’re a superhero with CSS, you’ll feel right at home. However, nobody’s mom is ever going to be able to edit a template or create a new one.

Editing the elements within your template, however, is smooth as silk. Click on add a page element, select what you want (list, title, picture, etc.), then drag it around on the page to where you want it to display. This makes it easy to create things like additional sidebar navigation links on the fly. Even if you’re not a power user, it’s still easy to add things like a SiteMeter and AdSense advertising.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to modify the overall look-and-feel of a page created with Google Pages. You can upload your own HTML files to Google Pages and link directly to them, however.

Content Creation

Creating new content is very easy with both sites. Just click on new post (Blogger) or create new page (Google Pages), type in what you want, and away you go. Blogger is very “post” oriented – it’s all about taking your written content and flowing it into a pre-existing site-wide template. With Google Pages, it’s more of a page-based environment, where different pages can have a different template, different navigation links, etc.

Blogger automatically creates archive links for you, so people digging around on your site can link to older pages with little trouble. It’s different with Google Pages; no page is explicitly linked to, unless you choose to link to it. So if you have a lot of pages, and you want everyone to be able to find all the pages, you have to manually create an index that links to all of those pages. (It’s not an unwise idea to do that with Blogger, either, but it’s definitely not necessary.)

Adding Advertising to Your Site

Speaking of AdSense, Blogger has built-in integration with Google AdSense. If you don’t know what AdSense is, it’s a neat program from Google that allows you to opt-in to their advertising program. You donate some amount of space on your website to showing ads. Google determines which ads are appropriate, and automatically takes care of serving and tracking them. Google tries hard to target ads appropriately for your site, and it seems like it’s usually pretty spot on. You get paid based on ad clicks.

Blogger’s AdSense integration is a bit limited. It’s a great way to get started, but if you’re even the slightest power user, you’ll probably want to download AdSense code yourself and manually add it to your Blogger-hosted site. I’ve done that on www.spamersource.com, so that I could manually configure it so two ads show up in a specific place in the left navigation. (The default Blogger options for putting ads along side templates can result in a big blob of empty space, or only one ad showing up.)

Using Standard HTML

If you’ve already got a website you’ve created elsewhere, and you want to move it to Google Pages, it’s very easy to do. Just go to the “Uploaded Stuff” section on the right side of the Google Page Creator interface. Click on the “upload” button, specify the file you want to upload, and hit upload. Repeat this for every file you want to upload. It’s not as fast as FTP, but it’s only going to take a few minutes, even if you have a few dozen files to upload.

Most people creating a website this way use “index.html” as the name for the front page (default page) of their website. Google Pages is not smart enough to know to display index.html as the default page. To get around that, you create a “home page” (/home) in Google Pages. On that page, click on a content area, switch to “Edit HTML”, and paste in the javascript redirect below.

<script type="text/javascript">
<!--
window.location = "http://aqphilhey.googlepages.com/index.html"
//-->
</script>

Of course, change “aqphilhey” to the name of your site, otherwise you’re going to redirect people to my friend’s site, instead of yours. After you save this, people who visit http://(yourname).googlepages.com will be automatically redirected to your index.html page.

It’s not possible to host already-created HTML files with Blogger. Blogger manages and creates pages for you; your only control over this process is turning it on or off.

Using a Custom Domain Name

This is an area in which Blogger excels over Google Pages. If you own a domain, you can make it point directly at your Blogger-hosted site by creating a CNAME record pointing to ghs.google.com. This sounds harder than it actually is. My domain registrar (joker.com), the company I purchase domain names from, offers an easy control panel where I just have to click in, select my domain, select “Create a CNAME entry” and then type in ghs.google.com. You don’t know even have to know what a CNAME is. (It’s an alias that makes one server name point at the same place as another.) Most domain registrars offer something functionality similar to what I have available to me as a user of joker.com.

It’s not possible (at the moment) to purchase a domain name and make it point directly at a site hosted at Google Pages. However, there are hacks you can use to work around that limitation. See www.philhey.com for an example of a site I host with Google Pages. In my domain registrar’s control panel, I created a web redirect so that www.philhey.com points to aqphilhey.googlepages.com (the “real” address of the site). This is necessary because sites created with Google Pages have to be hosted under googlepages.com. I use a “frame based redirect” to mask this fact as much as possible. That way, the site appears (to most users) as being hosted under philhey.com, instead of under googlepages.com.

Search Engine Placement

This is really important, and you’re about to find out why I just spent a lot of time and effort transitioning some of my sites away from Google Pages and over to Blogger.

Having my website show up only under my preferred website URL is important to me. I don’t want www.aliverson.com to actually be aliversonchicago.googlepages.com (which was the case for a while). There’s two reasons for this: branding and search engine placement.

By branding, I mean the look and feel of the site. When people visit my site, I want it to show up as “mine”, and not as a tiny little portion of Google Pages. If people look in the address bar when visiting my site, and see “aliversonchicago.googlepages.com,” they see the latter, not the former. With the redirect tricks I talk about above, it’s possible to mask this association to some degree. Using a frame-based redirect, most users never notice that a site is actually hosted under googlepages.com. However, doing it this way has a huge negative impact on your organic search engine ranking.

What’s organic search ranking? It’s how your site is ranked and rated by search engines. I’m focusing on Google, because that’s the one that’s most important to me.

When you use redirect tricks to make a website show up as a URL other than the one it’s actually at, Google can’t easily follow the link between the top level of my domain down to where the actual content is hosted. I don’t know why this is the case, but the net result is that when I hosted my sites with redirects in front of them, the majority of the text content of the sites did not show up in Google’s search results. (Note to the nerds in the audience – yes, I know it’s technically possible to still categorize and rank the content in spite of this link – it’s just that it clearly was not happening until I stopped using the frame-based redirecting.)

Google is how people find your website nowadays. If your content doesn’t show up in Google, you’re nothing; you’re going nowhere fast. I write lots of articles on technology-related concepts, pretty specific stuff on narrow topics like spam and blacklists. I expect (and hope) that people find my articles when they search on those topics in Google. If Google’s not adequately cataloging my content, those people never find me. Sure, some people know to go to my website address directly, but those people already know about me. This is more about growing my readership. People search for information on a specific topic, come to my site, and then hopefully like it enough to bookmark it and come back to it later to learn more.

That’s why I’ve moved even this site (which really isn’t something I consider a blog) over to Blogger. With Blogger’s ability to have a domain name point directly at my Blogger-hosted site, the connection between my domain name and my website is made in a way that Google’s much more easily able to catalog my content and return it in response to Google searches on topics I write about.

Which one Wins?

So, which tool am I recommending over the other? That’s a tough call; it really depends on your goals and skill set. If you’re an HTML neophyte and just want to write up articles and post them, Blogger’s the way to go. If you have an already-created site with HTML files and supporting images, Google Pages is a better fit. If you’re a super hard-core CSS nerd and want to create a bang-up template to use with Blogger’s easy text content management system, then that’s the way to go. If you want to play around with static pages and host specific content (images, MP3s, PDFs, etc.,) then Google Pages is likely where you’ll want to start. I use both, and which I prefer for a specific project depends on how much time I want to spend on a site’s look and feel, how much content I have created already, etc.