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Journal: Google apps for your domain

Journal by jallison
I decided to check out Google apps for your domain to see if anything they offer would make my life easier. After looking through, I made the call to move my mail over there. It's a pretty straightforward process: you tell Google what your domain is, they verify that you really own it, and then you put in the appropriate MX records to direct mail to Google.

That's all fine and dandy, and mail started flowing in pretty quickly. Now I POP it to Thunderbird and use Gmail as an archival/search mechanism. I don't know why they don't just set up IMAP, but they don't. Anyway, this part is good, but I don't like the spam filtering. Google has gone with dirt simple spam filtering. If Google thinks that it's spam, then it goes in the spam bucket. You can go into the spam bucket and identify something that is not spam, but you cannot turn off the filter. Nor is there any whitelist capability. Nor can you POP down spam for analysis on the client side. If Google got 0 false positives, this would be fine. But of course they don't, so you're left hunting through the spam folder for false positives. That sucks, and is to me a major hindrance to accepting this solution.


Journal: Vonage 2

Journal by jallison
On May 3 I signed up for Vonage, my second "tour of duty" with them. The first time I dumped them after a couple of months because the DSL connection just couldn't handle the demand. We recently switched to cable, so I figured I'd try Vonage again with the additional bandwidth.

It's been pretty much a disaster. The quality of the service when it's up isn't bad. The price isn't bad. But the reliability is awful. In six weeks we've had five outages. The first time I called Vonage tech support and spent better than 90 minutes being talked through the rote "reboot this restart that plug this in" script. In the end, after finally getting transferred to second level support, I was told that it was a provisioning problem and would not happen again. Only it has happened again and again and again.

Seems that Vonage is all about attracting new customers (witness their TV ad campaign, which has got to cost pretty large $$) and not about improving or maintaining their infrastructure. There's no reason I can't get decent uptime with this solution. They're a freaking phone company, I expect 5 9's reliability. They don't come close to that.

Now it's a choice between abandoning the landline altogether and going pure cell or finding a different VoIP provider. Reading VoIP reviews is not very helpful, as it seems that every provider has fans and haters and it's really tough to tell who's going to be the most reliable.

User Journal

Journal: Cable silliness

Journal by jallison
In my ongoing quest for real communications satisfaction -- Internet, phone, and TV -- I called up Time Warner as they are replacing Adelphia here in SoCal. They can give you Internet service, digital cable, and digital phone. Sounds good. The phone's not available yet, but it will be in a few months. Having all that would allow me to dump Verizon.

So the installer shows up and starts gazing up at the nearest telephone pole. He's obviously stumped. "Where's the drop?" He asks me. How the hell should I know? You're the cable guy. So he hunts around for a while, and finally comes up with a few nuggets of wisdom:

  1. We'll need to pull the cable down from that pole up there (third pole up the hill from where I live, about 500' away)
  2. We'll need to "rewire the whole house." Meaning running cable along the eaves and drilling through the wall to get it inside.
  3. "This place isn't even grounded." I don't know what this was supposed to mean so I let it lie.

He offered to come back with a team of "3 or 4 guys" to do the job. I declined. I currently have Dish Network, and they've got the cable runs in the attic where I don't have to see them. Very nice.

All this, by the way, despite the fact that my neighbor down the hill, thus further from the magic pole, has Adelphia (now Time Warner) cable.


Journal: Firefox and Opera

Journal by jallison
I've been using Firefox for quite a while now and like it a lot. So why look for a new browser? Just because you never know what you might not even know you want until you see it. So I tried Opera 9, which is free just like FF. There's nothing wrong with Opera, but I don't see any reason to switch from Firefox. Opera does do some things that Firefox doesn't, but I don't really care about any of them:
  • Opera has an email client. But it's kind of a joke. I use Thunderbird for my mail.
  • Opera has a chat client. So what? There are plenty of chat clients.
  • Opera has mouse gestures. I don't care; others do I guess.
  • Opera treats tabbed pages as 'real' windows. I just find this handling annoying and I don't derive any real benefit from it. I like Firefox tabs just fine.

But it's the little things that keep me on Firefox. Flashblock, Adblock, and Noscript make browsing a pleasure. The Google toolbar puts the words I searched for on the toolbar so I can just click on them to find them in the current page. The Firefox proxy settings page lets me set a subnet that won't use the proxy. I couldn't figure out how to do that in Opera, and the help didn't.

So I'll stick with Firefox. Trying beta 2 right now.

User Journal

Journal: Norton AntiVirus 2006 1

Journal by jallison
I've had Norton AV on the home computer since we bought it. Time rolled around to update the annual subscription, but when I went to do it I found that the version we had -- 2002 -- was no longer supported. I was told to 'upgrade.' So I got the 2006 version, downloaded it, and installed it. Then the day went straight to hell.

On final reboot (the 4th in the series required by the 2002 uninstall and the 2006 install) the Windoze screen came up with generic icons. No programs would launch. My registry had been completely wrecked.

I hunted around for an answer on the web for a while and finally decided that I'd call them. Well good luck finding a support number on their web page. I dug one up on an old message board and called in. After penetrating about 17 layers of menu I got to talk to someone. He had me reboot Windows into safe mode, run regedit, and give everyone under the sun full access to the registry. Nice.

That did seem to fix the problem, but what the hell is this? I did a simple install and it wrecked my system.

User Journal

Journal: DSL Extreme bummer

Journal by jallison
I want to dump Verizon DSL because of both the poor quality of the link and the ultra-crappy tech support. I have heard good things about DSL Extreme, so I checked them out. They advertise their ability to switch you off an existing DSL provier -- Verizon being called out by name -- with very little down time. Sounds great. Cheaper and faster than Verizon. So I sign up.

Today I get a call telling me that they can switch me, but first I have to cancel my Verizon service. Then they will get me up in 2-3 weeks. But I can get dial-up service in the mean time. Oh boy! I work from home and depend on my DSL service for everything. 2-3 weeks out of service is not an option.

Bummer. I was really looking forward to dumping Verizon. The DSL Extreme web site is pretty misleading IMO.


Journal: Home network complexity

Journal by jallison
The home network is growing in complexity. No shock to /.'ers there. I used to have one desktop plugged into my network connection. Now I have a desktop, a laptop, a Vonage phone, a Squeezebox music player, and two TiVos. I'm wondering if what others use for router hardware; what works and what doesn't. My network is a bit sluggish and I wouldn't mind upgrading the hardware if it makes sense.

Right now I've got an SMC Barricade router/wireless AP as the heart of the system, and a Linksys RTP300 that came from Vonage.

User Journal

Journal: Phone manners

Journal by jallison
I'm getting weary of having half assed telephone conversations with people. Talking with someone who is using a crappy bluetooth headset while making dinner and yelling at their kids is not having a quality conversation. You have about a quarter of their attention to begin with, then you can't hear most of what they say because the headset fades in and out -- although it does a magnificent job of picking up all the background noise. This goes for people in their cars as well. If you're operating your motor vehicle, don't call me. Wait til you're at home or in your office or wherever. It's disrespectful all the way around to do this multi-tasking; you aren't giving anyone your full attention.
User Journal

Journal: Crappy Vonage Service

Journal by jallison
Hmmm...why is there no Vonage category? Or at least a VoIP category.

I just signed up for Vonage to support a home office now that I'll be working out of my house most of the time. I needed a second line and thought I'd give Vonage a whirl instead of having Verizon set up a second voice line to the house. So far I'm less than satisfied.

I've had a variety of problems, some of which I've debugged and some of which persist. The major problem was basic failure to get a dial tone. I finally deduced by trial and error that if I disconnected my laptop from the Linksys router that Vonage supplied that this problem went away. The "quick start" instructions that you get give you no clue that you shouldn't plug anything into those four seductive ports on the router. I will say that the router docs do indicate that you shouldn't use the router to support additional devices. This, of course, raises the question of why the ports are there. If the thing can't do anything other than support a phone, then it should have two ports: Network in and Phone out.

After putting the laptop back on the wireless network I was able to make calls. But when someone called me I could not hear them. In some desperation I checked my firewall and saw that it was logging UDP flood attacks...hmmm. Apparently it saw incoming calls as UDP flood DoS attacks and blocked them. I changed the firewall settings and can now receive calls.

The router still freaks my phone out from time to time. I have a Panasonic 2-line phone (a KX-TS3282). From time to time it will just do odd things, like beep, flash all the extension lights in unison, or turn on the intercom. I can only theorize that it's getting spurious signals on the input line. I have no idea how to fix this.

Vonage has been of absolutely no help in all this. Their web page's help is useless -- it's really just a FAQ. I submitted a service request from the web site and have heard nothing. I followed this up with two different emails on the two above problems and have received nothing more than an automatic "we got your mail" message.

This is really poor. I would guess that most anyone would plug a device into the router and would thus have the dial tone problem. The incoming call problem is even worse, because it requires some degree of network sophistication to look at the firewall logs, realize what a UDP flood attack is, and configure the firewall to deal with it. Is John Q. Public going to do this? No, so I guess Vonage is either for geeks or it's for people with very simple home networks that don't have a firewall.

Lord of the Rings

Journal: Dupe

Journal by jallison
My A Guide to Middle-Earth desktop calendar has the same entry for August 8 and August 9. I feel ripped off.
The Almighty Buck

Journal: Ticket Tax

Journal by jallison
I recently purchased two airline tickets to fly from Los Angeles to Baja California on Alaska Airlines. The base price of the tickets was $164.00 each, round-trip. Not bad. But each ticket had $84.79 of taxes added to it! That's a 52% tax. WTF???

AFAIK this wasn't an advertised price, but it could be. This is the sort of thing where you see the ad, think "hmmm...300 or so bucks for two of us to fly...not bad." Then it turns out that it's 500 bucks for two. What am I getting for that $169.58 of tax?

User Journal

Journal: Banks

Journal by jallison
I wrote to Bank of America to point out a few things about their ATM system and have put the note here for kicks. BofA's been running commercials here in SoCal about how wonderful their ATM system is going to be. As I point out in my note to them, the only thing I care about is the ability to deposit a check and get cash. Everything else I'll do online, or in extremis, inside the bank. Anyway, the note's below.

As a long-time BofA customer I have a couple comments on the evolution of ATMs in your system. This morning I swung by your La Habra branch (200 E La Habra Blvd) and saw that you have new systems installed there. I had intended to do a deposit/withdrawl, but all six envelope drawers were empty. So I settled for a plain withdrawl. Anyway, my comments on the new ATMs:

* I was asked if I want to use English every time, which I do. I assume this setting will be remembered. I never did understand why you did away with the old system of having dual English and Spanish prompts for "Enter your PIN and press this key." That got two operations with one key press.

* Fancy LEDs around the card slot. Do we really need this? I think most people will figure out where the card goes.

* Touch screen. This has got to cost more than the old softkey approach, and there's only one place this money comes from (me, the customer).

* Giant receipt. The new receipt is about 3.5" wide, which means I have to fold it to get it in my wallet. I think as a rule your receipts should not be larger than a piece of US currency.

Upgrades are great, but they should have a purpose. I suppose the touch screen enables a bunch of new features, but I doubt that I'll use any of them. For me the ATM is for deposits and cash dispensing. Everything else I do online.

Thanks for listening.

- Jeff Allison

Lord of the Rings

Journal: LotR Extended Editions and Complex Backstories 1

Journal by jallison
I recently purchased the full-blown Extended Edition of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings on DVD. So far I've watched The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and I'm very happy with the extended versions. I've been a huge fan of the book since my high school days, some 25 years ago, so I originally approached the films with a mixture of hope and fear. Seeing them all in the theater I was pleased. Jackson and the cast did a wonderful job bringing Middle Earth to life. There were changes from the book, of course, some of which bothered me and some of which did not. Excising Tom Bombadil was no big deal, as he doesn't affect the story. I was bugged by what they did to Faramir, however, as it seemed to me that his character changed for no good reason. The extended edition of TT deals a bit more with Faramir (and there may be more in RotK, but I haven't watched it yet). In general the extra stuff in the first two movies is very good, and really adds a lot to the richness of the story.

I was pretty surprised by how well these films did a the box office. Being intimately familiar with the books I had no trouble following what was going on, but if you hadn't read them then I have to believe you were lost a good part of the time. When the fellowship have to decide between Caradhras, Moria, or the Gap of Rohan, do people who have not read the book and have no mental map of Middle Earth really know what this decision is about? More importanly, do they care?

I think they do not care. I think the majority of movie-goers want to see attractive people in exciting situations, and that's it. Define the good guys and the bad guys and let them have at it. So you get Orlando Bloom riding an orc shield down the stairs at Helm's Deep. That's just the price we pay to get a decent treatment of a great book on the screen. It just seems odd to me that the audience doesn't demand more. Peronally I feel annoyed if I don't get the backstory or if it doesn't make sense. If the characters have no motivation for doing what they are doing, then why should I care about it?

The same thing showed up in the prequel Star Wars movies. Neal Stephenson wrote an op-ed piece about this for the New York Times that wound up generating a /. article. The Stephenson piece has gone to NYT archive hell, but you might be able to find it out there somewhere. He poses the question, "Whose ship are Annakin and Obi-wan on at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith?" I think most people would have no f'ing idea. And in this case it's not really their fault, because a bunch of the Star Wars prequel backstory is not even in the movies, it comes from the ancillary material on line and in various print forms. The point is that the audience doesn't care. They just want some bad guys there to cross lightsabres with Annie and Obi-wan.


Journal: Logitech Harmony 880 Remote

Journal by jallison
I was finally able to procure a Logitech Harmony 880 remote control, stories of which have been circulating since early this year. I have owned an early Philips Pronto for several years, and like it quite a bit. However I found that when watching the TiVo or using the Squeezebox I would use the native remotes rather than the Pronto. Since the point of a fancy remote is to have one remote, it seemed that the Pronto was not living up to its duties. Part of this is the touch-screen interface. While nicely flexible, the touch-screen does not have the tactile feedback that a real button has.

Enter the 880. This promised to be as flexible as the Pronto, with a cool web interface for programming, while using real keys to do the controls. Sounds great, so I bought one. Found it online for a bit over $200 US, so this is not a cheap toy. List price is around $250, but as of mid-July you just cannot find these in stores.

The unit showed up yesterday and I'm pretty pleased so far. The remote feels great, and works as promised. The online programming tool knows about scads of devices, so the onerous task of learning from your existing remotes is gone. Instead you go to the Logitech web site and work through an online package to set up your device. Now here's the first drawback: it doesn't work with Firefox. Big bummer.

The second drawback is that the unit doesn't seat in the cradle much of the time. You have to jiggle it a bit to ensure that the batteries are truly charging. That could be a drag.

Final complaint: as an enticement to register your product, you are offered a 20% discount off a new Logitech product. OK, sounds good. I go through the registration rigamarole and get the discount code. With an expiration date of July 18, 2005! That's weak, guys. If you want to give me a discount, give me a discount. Don't make me use it that same day. Boo.

User Journal

Journal: OpenOffice revisited 1

Journal by jallison
I worked for Sun Microsystems for three years, during which time I was forced to use StarOffice/OpenOffice on a regular basis. Like most people I cheated -- I would use MS Office to create docs and then simply import them into SO and save with a different format. The reason everyone did this was because the SO programs were just so kludgy, slow, and prone to sudden death. Seeing that the 2.0 Beta of OpenOffice is now available, I figured I'd give it a shot to see if it is any better.

Early reviews are not good. I loaded up a basic Word file and it looked fine. No problems there. Then I loaded up a moderate Excel spreadsheet. This is about 180 rows by 40 columns or so, single sheet. It has lots of references in it: cell A42, for example, might have a value that depends on the value in A40, which depends on the value in A39, etc. Excel has no trouble with this, but OO Calc choked on it, putting 527 errors ("Interpreter error, too many references" according to the help) everywhere.

That's pretty much a show-stopper for me. That and the fact that it takes sooooo much longer for OO to load as opposed to MS Office. Maybe there's a way to pre-load OO that I haven't found, but it needs to load a doc in less than 30 seconds.

Thunderbird is good enough to get people moved off of Outlook and Outlook Express. I wish I could say the same for OpenOffice versus Microsoft Office, but I can't. I didn't spend a lot of time with it, but if the spreadsheet can't deal with a pretty simple Excel file, then I don't see any point in learning more about OO. There may be a better way, or at least a different way, to do what I'm doing. But so far my post on the matter in the OO forums has gone unanswered.

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite. -- Bertrand Russell, "Skeptical Essays", 1928