Tuesday, September 28, 2010

AT&T and Google Voice: a cautionary tale

Even though I don't have an Android phone (I have a Nokia Symbian phone), I decided to try out google voice this summer. The Google Voicemail service seemed like a fun service to try out, so I gave it a go.

And now I've found out that it cost me, significantly. Or at least in the form of 44 overage minutes and all of my rollover minutes. Why?

What isn't explained in the google voice voicemail activation steps is that you are actually setting up a call forwarding service. Instead of going to AT&Ts voicemail (which doesn't 'count' as call forwarding), the calls are forwarded to an external service (google) which does.

This is important to understanding why my minute usage soared after activating the voicemail feature of google voice on my phone. Every single time I had a missed that went to voicemail, it cost me 1 minute of call time in call forwarding minutes. Not checking the voicemail, but rather every telemarketer who simply called me and hung up cost me a minute of call time.

Add to that a significant other who will call upwards of 6 times a day, and a public listing of the number as a government contractor (a few years expired), and you have about 400 minute increase in usage over two months (200 per month). In other words, all of my rollover minutes are gone, and I got to shell out extra for some 45 minutes at 0.45 cents per minute.

I just wish the disclaimer on Google's end had been more explicit, including a warning that using their voicemail service (while free on their end) would cost call forwarding minutes from your carrier.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Making a Workable Computer on the Cheap

A couple of months ago I was in the position of having to mail in my laptop for repairs, so I took the opportunity to shop around for a small, cheap desktop-like model of computer that I could use at home in the meanwhile. I figured that when I got my laptop back, it could serve as the home media center.

Originally, I was considering the mac mini, but I found a nettop (a netbook architectured desktop) for $170. Since this computer was going to be a glorified stereo, I figured I'd give the nettop a try. This is what I got:


Acer Aspire Revo AR1600-U910H Mini Desktop PC - Intel ATOM N230 1.6GHz, 1GB DDR2, 160GB HDD, HDMI, Windows XP Home

The good surprise that came with it was the model I got was refurbished, and I'm pretty sure I got a slightly newer model of processor (namely the dual core model rather than the single core). The bad surprise was the installation of several of the drivers was corrupted so it took me the better part of two weeks to figure out that I needed to wipe and reinstall the drivers in order to get the HDMI working.

If you read about this model, you'll soon see that the video card has extra memory and processing capabilities, such that if programs don't use it, (e.g. flash videos in a website), the playback is terrible. Fortunately the flash and/or nvidia people fixed that pretty quickly.

So far so good. But you might notice that there's no wifi listed in the specs. What it doesn't say, is that if you pop it open, there's a mini pci slot that you can stick a wifi card in. And since I have several expired laptops floating around, I extracted a broadcom card out of one, and popped it in. Problem solved? Well, it still needed an antenna. This is where I could have done something elegant, but instead opted for the franken-computer look. There's something aesthetic about having the guts of a computer spill out onto the table like some kind of technologic squid.

So I snipped the antennae connector from the laptop and wired it onto the antennae from an old iBook, and poked it out the side of the aspire case. Voila. Internet. Which is a good thing, because the old external usb card I have is dying and makes anything I plug it into freeze after about 20 minutes. I really should just recycle the poor thing.

All in all, not bad for under $200.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sometimes the magic works...[opening a seagate expansion external hdd]

So I had to ship in my primary laptop for repairs this week. Being studious and all, this has caused me no end of anxiety, as if I were losing an appendage, or a child, or my brain. Probably the latter in my case.

Anyway, I removed my harddrive (a 250gb Seagate 7200rpm SATA drive) and figured loosely that I would be able to access my files via a magic ide/sata to usb connector cable. Note: that cable was one of the better $15 investments in computer accessories that I have ever spent. It doesn't always work well, but it is pure awesomeness to be able to run any drive that comes across my desk on the fly.

The problem? The magic connector doesn't supply power to SATA drives without a secondary dc adapter. And really, who wants to carry that around when there's plenty of power to be had on the USB ports?

The solution: Since I was needing a temporary case for my SATA drive and my partner was needing a back-up drive, we decided to split the difference. We would buy an external drive, I would get the new one, she would get my old one (because I was planning on opening the case on the new one, and she didn't want to deal with that tomfoolery after I was done breaking into it).

How this works: My old external harddrive was an IDE drive, with a different connector than my new one. So we needed a new external harddrive with a SATA connector inside. The hard part is that external harddrives are rarely intended to be disassembled by the consumer, so they don't bother labeling themselves as SATA or IDE. Since I had disassembled a 3.5in Seagate external drive last summer, I figured another one in this vein might work as well. So we invested $60 in a 250gb seagate expansion usb 2.0 2.5in drive and came home to see if I could insert my laptop harddrive into the case.

The bad news: You pretty much have to break off all the plastic nubbins that hold the case together in order to open it.

The good news: The drive is pretty well shielded such that you aren't likely to harm it when removing the case. Furthermore, the drive is simple as pie on the inside, just a laptop size SATA harddrive and a usb controler-thingy. Once you remove the screws that hold on the shielding, the drive can be removed. If you can ever grab hold of it, the drive just slides back off the connector and a new one slides on.

In summary, for $60 we have a case that I can use temporarily to access my laptop files and an external drive that we can use in the long term.

So for all you folks wondering if you can disassemble the external drive and use it in something else, the answer is yes, at least for the model I bought, just don't hold out any hopes for the plastic case looking very good in the end.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

If the dataset is mine, then why can't I have it?

While I'm generally the pacifist type, I've decided that I really hate the software companies that offer fake interoperability for your data. I couldn't meet their gaze if we met on a deserted street. I would feign ignorance if they came up to me with a reference query. They're dead to me.

Over the past couple of months, we've been working on a project that requires keeping track of a heterogeneous group of stuff that we are going to put through the proverbial sausage grinder to end up with something more delectable. In other words: primary source documents for research.

This sort of thing requires lining up a selection of choppers and slicers, back to back, and having the pig go in one end and the spam come out the other. If the meat won't feed its output from one slicer into the next, then it leaves a mess of raw meat on the floor. It's not pretty.

So, as a result, I've been learning a lot more about databases and database connectors, and how amazing they are for lining up the choppers and the slicers.

These are the applications where I can make prodigious numbers of dataset love children and they will love me back, all the way from the slicer to the chopper. (Did I just mix those metaphors? That's just awful!)

These applications are the ones who love me back:
  • Zotero: with an API and an ODBC connector (via sqlite) I can spend hours immersed in your elegant data hierarchies, letting them wash over me, through me, and to me.
  • Filemaker Pro: as a fickle lover who only supports SQLserver, MySQL, and Oracle via ODBC
  • MySQL: as the plain faced lass who brings the water to the entire village, day in and day out (Man, now I'm really getting into trouble with the metaphors: pigs and babies being chopped up into spam by plain faced village girls? Why not just pull out a horror movie script?)
  • MS Access: I hate to say it, but over a decade ago, when I was just a wee noodle, I first learned about databases on Access. MS Access, you are the illicit, fickle lover who has a headache most of the time, but ah, when the migraine medicine finally kicks in, you have an ease of use that is all your own. You support ODBC connections that allow me to fetch and kick around data fast and loose, and then push it elsewhere before anyone notices.
These applications are dead to me, or at least dead-end in the flow:
  • EthnoNotes: You promote yourself as having an architecture that support ease of access to the data, but for how much work it is for me to actually get and use my data for outside analysis tools, you might as well just write it to a harddrive and drop it at the international space station.
  • Devonthink: Same as before, except that it is more possible, only that in order to get at the data, you have to be able to work extensively in AppleScript. Should I really have to take two classes in AppleScripting just to be able to do what any good ODBC connector can do in 35 seconds flat?
  • nVivo: You're different. You're dead to me because you have never heard of collaborative work. You have no version control, no way to merge files, no way to share a research project with more than one person in a way that isn't pulling teeth. And I can't get the data out either.
That's it for the rant today. Check back in later for more mixed metaphors of pigs, love-children, and the unrequited polyamory of software hacks.