Saturday, May 28, 2011

The VoIP thing

So, I think after some consideration I can start posting details of the VoIP thing I mentioned a few journal entries ago...

The company's name is "voipo". Supposedly they're linked to a hosting company called Hostgator. I have no comment on the latter, the Wikipedia article is fairly neutral and Hostgator is one of those companies that publishes a bunch of its own "reviews" sites that mysteriously end up being the first group of Google search results. Never did like that practice.

Still, going to places like BroadbandReports I can't find anyone with anything bad to say about Viopo, lots of people with good stuff to say, and looking at Voipo's forums it looks like the people running the organization take a keen interest in customer support. They seem to be an honest bunch.

Here's my initial experience:

  1. Didn't take long to be set up, but I note they start your period of service from when you order it, not from when you get your device and start being able to use the service.
  2. The device they sent is a Grandstream HT-502. I tried it the way they propose, which involves putting it between your router and teh Interwebs. It didn't work, it sat there for 20 minutes with the various lights pretty much permanently on save for the occasional flicker, wouldn't make calls, and to add insult to injury it looked like it has its own built in NAT router which screwed up my network configuration. I then did it the other way, put the device behind my router, and everything came up.
  3. As long as my Internet connection is up, the device appears to work fine. When my Internet went down a few days ago, thanks to Comcast changing my IP address and my router not realizing it, the service rerouted itself properly, and came back up without me having to do anything when Internet access was restored.
  4. I have no idea what happens if you try to use other SIP services at the same time.
  5. There is a BYOD feature, where as long as you have the Voipo-supplied device online, you can redirect everything to a device of your own. The reasoning is that the Voipo device "proves" you have a working connection, and all diagnostics can be done on that. The Grandstream doesn't appear to have a SIP gateway built in or anything like that, which is a shame.
  6. Quality is OK. Not great. Not bad. Volume is very loud, which is fine by me. Latency is long enough to be noticeable. Sound quality was, I guess, similar to a 1990s pre-EFR GSM phone - which I always thought was fairly reasonable but obviously many disagreed otherwise we wouldn't have EFR or AMR.
In terms of features, as someone who's only ever subscribed to "basic phone" (OK, I usually got the call forwarding feature), I was a little surprised by the number of things that suddenly started working. My TV, for example, now shows the CLI associated with the number dialing in when the phone rings. My Siemens DECT system now displays the right time, and even stuff about missed calls, which it never used to.

One thing I haven't tried yet, and probably need to upgrade my DECT base station to support, is the two line feature. If you get an incoming call while you're on a call, it's automatically diverted to the second port on the Voipo device, and you can make calls from that while being on a call too.

There's a web interface which makes it easy to, for example, set up call forwarding when you're away. Also lets you send faxes.

Right now, I haven't used the service for long enough to recommend it, but so far, so good.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On networking, IPv6, and stuff

Remember a few years ago when I wrote my thing on my new network, which involved Xen servers to implement IPv6 and a host of other features?

Well, I decided I'm redoing everything... because I can. I bought a fairly low cost wireless router, a D-Link DIR-815, which does most of the things, including implementing IPv6 over IPv4 (6to4), all by itself. All I had to do was configure it.

What am I not using it for yet? Well...
  • DNS - while it contains the usual DNS proxy, it doesn't do internal DNS or anything like that.
  • DHCP - the thing contains a DHCP server, but the number of static IP nodes is actually more limited than the amount of hardware I have, which is hard to believe, I know. Actually, it might do it, but I need to do more analysis.
The DNS thing is something I'm thinking about, with a view to maybe building a business around a potential long term solution. If I can do that, really, I can start to move away from the way I've been doing things. I'm thinking of moving my domain to Google Apps, which would take care of email, although there are a bunch of other options too, but for now I'll keep a server around because there are a lot of other things I want to experiment with.

There were a bunch of loose ends when I set up my network last time. Specifically I never implemented IPsec, and I wanted to get Kerberos going but, frankly, Ubuntu and the Linux world have never really figured out what they're doing there. What I'm thinking of doing is using ApacheDS, which is an integrated LDAP/Kerberos server.

Anyway, I'll post my experiences as I set things up...

Switching to VoIP

Now that we're using cable Internet I decided now would be a good time to switch phone carrier to a VoIP service. Which one? Well, not going to say, except:
  • It's not Vonage. Woo-hoo. Woo-woo-hoo. Yeah, I can't go with someone who advertises like that.
  • It's not MagicJack. I have no great desire to have a computer running Windows permanently hooked up to the 'net somewhere in my house.
  • It's not, from what I can figure out, one of the zillion cookie-cutter VoIP companies that all appear to be fronts for the same organization.
  • I'd never heard of them until I started researching.
  • They made a big deal about having their customer support centers being in the US, which is a good thing (jobs, jobs, jobs), assuming they're not working under Indian Call Center conditions anyway.
  • They are backed by a company that I can't find anything overly negative about, and they have been around for a few years.
As it was, I ended up using the reviews on Broadband Reports to find and pick the company in question.

I will let you know my experience in a few weeks. Thus far, I'm waiting for the ATA (the thingie that hooks up to your router) and they're in the middle of porting my number too. While they allow BYOD, I can't do that until I hook up the official ATA, apparently. I may experiment with Asterisk at some point in the future, but for now, one step at a time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ubuntu: Is Natty the last great Ubuntu? Or the first?

Having used it for a few days I'm in two minds about Ubuntu 11.04.

This is reportedly the last version that will support the "classic" GNOME 2 environment. Having used GNOME 2 since I switched back to GNU/Linux from Mac OS X half a decade ago, I'm sorry to see a good friend go. And GNOME 2 really is a good friend, probably the best user interface anyone has put together for Unix (well, aside from Mac OS X, but I'm not sure if I really feel that counts.)

GNOME2 is intuitive, quick (on my hardware), slick looking, friendly, and the builders of it took the time to understand concepts like Fitts law and muscle memory.

Natty gives you the choice between GNOME 2 (called "Ubuntu Classic") and an environment originally intended for netbooks, but substantially improved, called Unity. And Unity is...

...well, it's not ready yet, really, is it? Now, don't get me wrong, it's got a huge number of excellent ideas. Some of these are clearly borrowed from others - the dock, for example, is clearly inspired by the equivalent feature of Mac OS X. The top-of-the-screen menu appears to owe much to the Amiga environment, funnily enough - displaying menu only when it's needed, but title information otherwise. And we still have many classic GNOME elements, such as the Nautilus desktop/file management environment, and virtual desktops.

On the other hand, good ideas or not, sometimes the whole can be spoiled by a few glaring issues, and that was my problem with Unity. In fact, the major issue is the way to launch applications that are not in the dock. I think the assumption made by Unity's developers is that if a user uses an application a lot, they'll put it in the dock, but in reality the dock just isn't large enough, and you still have to start somewhere. Launching an app means going through a system that's laid out like the search feature of a really bad retail website. Finding the apps you want to run requires an enormous amount of clicking around.

Still, the system has enormous potential. If it's true that the next release of Ubuntu doesn't have GNOME 2, then it'll be interesting to see what the result is. A fixed Unity would make the next Ubuntu awesome. The danger is that it won't be.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Well, actually, I think it's a good idea

A bizarre allegation has surfaced. Obama plans to install a device in every car in the country, that'll measure the number of miles you drive. Then you'll have to pay per mile. What an evil genius!

It's bollocks, of course, Obama has no intention of doing anything of the sort. It's too unpopular, of course.

But, here's a question. Is it reasonable to charge road users by something related to the number of miles they drive? Is there a cost to each mile driven, and if so, is the way we raise the revenue needed to pay that cost fair?

Right now, roads are massively subsidized. Absurdly subsidized. Part of the reason why people live in the middle of nowhere, by default, in most parts of the country is because taxpayers pay a fortune to have roads built to the middle of nowhere, so that homes can be built in those locations and people can live there.

In the US, there's a small amount of revenue collected at the pump that in theory is related to the number of miles driven, but it doesn't cover the full costs of road building, which generally comes out of a basket of local, state, and federal taxes, and while anything that reduces oil usage is a positive thing, the costs of road usage aren't lower simply because you drive a Prius. What are the costs? More than you might think. Railroads are worth mentioning here: they're privately owned in the US, and so we can look at the costs involved and ask what equivalents there are with ordinary roads.

Railroad operators, at least today, need to buy land to build their tracks upon. They have to pay property taxes to compensate communities for the land they continue to use. They also have to build and maintain the right of way. And each decision about where to build a line to has to be taken using a full cost benefit analysis, they can't build lines to the middle of nowhere on a whim that the road might be useful one day.

For governments building roads, very few equivalent costs exist. Governments don't pay property taxes, they collect them, leading to the absurdity that railroads in the US actually subsidize normal roads. Generally, governmental entities will measure the cost of a road simply in terms of the cost of building it, and the cost of maintaining it. And if nobody uses that road, well, the road will be undamaged, and so it'll be assumed that the "cost" of keeping the road around is negligible.

Now, suppose you want a sane transportation policy. Wouldn't a "users-pay" philosophy make the most amount of sense, with the "cost" associated with each transportation system being measured in a consistent way? You'd limit the road budget, forcing road builders to actually weigh the costs of building out roads when doing so. You'd prevent one form of transportation system dominating others for any reason other than superiority.

Now, before I go any further, I want to emphasize I'm not talking about Obamodometers. Leaving aside privacy concerns, I don't think such a system would necessarily produce the fairest outcome. What I'd like to see, instead, is a system based upon a combination of private and community road ownership. Essentially, roads would either be owned by their users (usually in the form of communities owning their local roads), or owned by private entities who'd use whatever revenue generation method they wish.

I'm not talking about raising taxes, rather redistributing how we collect them. Making road users responsible for roads reduces the need to make local, state, and Federal governments involved in them, which means other taxes can be cut. In the medium term, you'd see, over-all, a lower tax burden, because the stupidity of building bad roads, and penalizing companies that take traffic off of roads, would be drastically curtailed.

These kinds of reforms can't be done in isolation. They have to be accompanied with planning reform so that the absurdity of requiring businesses be housed in buildings built miles away from the employees and customers they serve can be finally ended. You can't simply require road users pay the costs, you also have to ensure they can escape high road costs by reducing their cost burden.

That's what I think anyway.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Death of Osama bin Laden, an apology

In common with a number of newspapers, we may have mislead our readers on Monday over the death of Osama Bin Laden. Headlines like "Whoopie!" and "USA! USA! WOORRGGH!!! AWWLRIGHT!!!" may have lead readers to believe that we were 100% sure of our facts before we published them. We apologize and would like to issue the following corrections:

  1. Mr Bin Laden did not have machine guns in both hands when he was shot.
  2. Nor was Mr Bin Laden sitting on the toilet at the time.
  3. Mr Bin Laden did not yell "You'll never take me alive, see? Yeah, yeah!"
  4. Mr Bin Laden did not attempt to protect himself by making himself a bulletproof vest out of babies.
  5. Mr Obama did not say "Yippy-ky-yay motherf-r" just before ordering Mr Bin Laden's death.
  6. Mark Twain was not in the war room during the firefight. Nor was Martin Luther King.
  7. Chloe from "24" was not in the war room during the firefight, and never "downloaded" the "schematics" to Mr Bauer's PDA, whatever that means.
  8. Jack Bauer was not involved in the firefight. Contrary to our report, Mr Bauer was not shot during the firefight, and did not have to escape Al Qaeda goons by stabbing them in the eyes with a pencil. Mr Bauer is, in fact, a fictional character.
  9. As is Jason Bourne.
  10. John McCain was not involved in the firefight either. In fact, the report of his presence was caused by a typo when a breathless editor mistyped "McClain"
  11. John McClain was not involved in the firefight. Like Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, and Chloe, Mr McClain is, in fact, a fictional character.
  12. Mr Bin Laden's body does not, as reported, have a titanium-alloy frame covered with human tissue.
  13. Mr Bin Laden's home was not surrounded by a moat filled with sharks. Given sharks are a saltwater species, our factcheckers should have picked up on the impossibility of such a security measure.
  14. Mr Bin Laden was not shot by a baby. The baby did not then yell "And don't let me catch you in Quohog" before defenestrating himself.
  15. Mr Bin Laden did not attempt to flee the house in a 1971 Dodge Charger.
  16. The SEAL team that found Mr Bin Laden did not also find a map of the United States covered in pushpins with dates attached to each one. Nor did they destroy a computer that was displaying a countdown.
  17. Exactly how Bin Laden was found has been only partially reported. Our story that a shoe-shine boy outside of Langley provided the information in exchange for a dollar bill appears to have been inaccurate.
  18. It is also entirely untrue that Nicolas Cage found Mr Bin Laden after he attempted to steal the Declaration of Independence.
  19. It is not true that Donald Trump, upon hearing the news, pounded the desk and yelled "Damn it, foiled again! Implement Plan B!"
  20. There was no ceremony afterwards, and the Queen of England's ability to bestow knighthoods is limited to British subjects - she would not have been able to give Mr Obama such an honor, especially not within a few hours of the events that lead to such an award. It is also unlikely the Queen would call Mr Obama "One awesome dude".

We hope this clears up any confusion our initial reports may have caused.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How it happened

"It's been seven years!" the President said, throwing his hands in the air in exasperation. "Seven years! And what do we have to show for it? That man, that evil, evil, man is still out there somewhere, and nothing we've done has brought him any closer to justice."

Sam Bucket, the President's top, secret, national security expert nodded his head. "I understand your concern Mr President, but we've tried everything and..."

"I'm aware of that, and some of those ideas were pretty good, but we need to go in a different direction! Do you have anything else?"

Sam sighed. "Only... well, the only one I've heard is, frankly, ridiculous but..."

"I'll hear ridiculous. It's got to work better than the so-called "serious" plans we've tried so far."

Sam went to the door, and popped his head into the corner.

"Mr Lester, can you come in please?"

An older man, wearing a shirt and tie with shorts and long socks, stepped in.

"This is Mr Herbert Lester, Mr President."

"Mr Lester, I've been told you have a plan to help us capture Osama Bin Laden", said the President.

"Why yes", said Herbert. "I most certainly do. I most certainly do. It's really very simple."

The President nodded. Sam sat, his elbows on the table, and let his head rest in his hands. "Oh brother", he thought, "Here it comes."

"I have developed a theory based upon the concept of a universal conscience. Using the interconnected nature of human beings on a higher plane, we can discover many facts by relating opposites. Such as, if I want to discover, say, a new form of energy, all I need to do is apply my concept to a lazy person sleeping in a recliner."

"And what is your concept?" said the President.

"Well", said Herbert, "I find groping yields the most amount of information."

Sam coughed. "OK, well, uh, thanks for your time Mr Lester, if you could just follow me" said Sam, but the President waved him down.

"Do go on Herbert", said the President, "May I call you Herbert?"

"Absolutely, Mr President Sir." said Herbert. "Now, you need to discover the whereabouts of a specific individual? Correct?"

The President nodded.

"Well, to find where a person is at rest, is at a fixed location they call home, we merely need to apply my method to a large group of people who are in motion. Say, passengers at airports."

The President glanced excitedly at Sam, "This stuff is Gold, Sam! Gold! Why didn't you tell me before?!"

"Mr President, can we have a... private word?" said Sam, but the President rebuffed him. "Not now Sam, Herbert - please continue, what do you suggest?"

"It's quite simple", said Herbert. "Just train a group of agents to grope random people at airports. You must be fair and without favor, grope everyone from the most guilty adults to the most innocent children. Mmmm. Children."

"Mr Lester!" said Sam, but the President waved him down.

"But how do we do this? Surely people will protest if they're grabbed by complete strangers and groped at random."

"Quite so", said Herbert, "I usually find being in a position of authority. A teacher perhaps..."

"Or a TSA Agent" exclaimed the President.

"Yes", sighed Herbert, "I guess that would work."

"Sam, put this plan into motion immediately." said the President, shaking with excitement.

"But sir!"

"Do it! Take Mr Lester, and have him train our elite TSA Agents in groping techniques. I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel Sam, I really am, we'll have Bin Laden in our sights in next to no time, I just know it!"

And that's how they found Osama Bin Laden.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama been Livin

So he's gone. Finally.

I'm in two minds about it. On the one hand, a man who funded one of the worst terrorist attacks in history - an attack on ordinary people with no involvement in the wars he wanted to fight - is no longer with us, he's not someone we need to worry about any more.

On the other, I really didn't enjoy the celebratory air. And while I understand it was impossible given the circumstances, I'd have really preferred to see him arrested, given a fair trial, and left to rot in a jail cell for the rest of his life, underlying the civilized values we stand for, that he wanted to destroy.

If there's an afterlife, I hope Osama gets to spend a little quality time with his victims.