Copyright ©1997-2011 Glenn Fleishman except as noted otherwise. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, contact Glenn Fleishman at glenn at glennf.com. Photo © 2008 Laurence Chen; used with permission.
Turning technology from mumbo-jumbo into rich tasty gumbo
My name is constantly misspelled. In an effort to be the clearinghouse of places to find misspellings of my name if you’re looking for me, here it is: Glenn Fleishman (correct!), Glen Fleishman, Glenn Fleischman, Glen Fleischman, Glenn Fleishmann, Glenn Fleischmann, Glen Fleischmann, and Gleason Sackman (don’t ask).
I’ve had service from Cingular for well over a year, and due to their unique policy of offering a rollover of unused minutes from one month to the next with most of their above-basic plans (with an expiration of those minutes after 12 months), they’ve proven to be a good carrier in terms of managing my ongoing cell cost.
My wife has had AT&T Wireless, almost by default, for a couple of years because they had a decent inexpensive plan. We decided to move her number and service to my account because we’d save at least $20 per month, and we’d save even more minutes with Cingular’s free mobile-to-mobile feature since we talk to each other fairly often during the day, and we’ll save another $10 to $20 a month on home long distance by both of using some of the 5,000 weekend and evening minutes. All in all, I sound like an ad, because the offering fits our needs so well.
In the process, I picked up a new Sony Ericsson T616 cell phone, an upgrade the T68i which Lynn was happy to use (have I said I love my wife?), for just $99 with a two-year contract. Given that AT&T Wireless has a full-blown EDGE cell data network and that Cingular is buying them out, I figure that I’ll be sticking with them for some time unless prices drop enough that it’s worth buying our plan out.
Here’s the rub. We had to spend an hour in a company store in Seattle with an extremely competent, nice, helpful guy who managed to switch Lynn’s number from AT&T Wireless on the spot (we got confirmation there and the ring-through happened within two days), get us a new phone, and set up the account. He had to enter a few thousand keystrokes to carry it out.
What’s most interesting about what the fellow did is he had to use extremely specialized database software with unique screens and code-based entry not too far off from the world of airplane reservations. But I believe with a little work on a Web site, I should have been able to carry out the same tasks.
Switch plan: family plan. Switch over: end of month to preserve rollover minutes. Transfer phone: yes, here’s the number, check a “we certify” box. New phone: yes, with a 2-year contract. And click OK. Cingular’s site isn’t this sophisticated yet, but I can add and remove features, change my plan, and buy new phones. Wouldn’t it be worth making their site better and removing an hour of a staffer’s time that could be better spent?
I’ve made my Cingular minutes go farther, by the way, by switching a few months ago from a $135 (with tax) 1350 minute per month roaming plan to a $115 (with tax) 1250 minute per month roaming plan. (Go figure: why 100 minutes is worth $20 less has to do with competition, not sensibility.) I’m spending $27 (with tax) per month for a limited Vonage account that has unlimited incoming and local calls and 500 minutes of long distance. I also pay Cingular $3/month for Fast Forward, which lets me plop my cell phone in a cradle at the office and have its number forwarded at no per-call charge to my Vonage line.
This propane-powered weed burner lets you crisp the buggers that you can’t remove without herbicides (none for me, thanks) or breaking up the concrete. Works great. It’s especially cool that it requires multiple treatments to kill them off, so more opportunities to use fire.
For our anniversary, she got me a crême bruleé torch. Did I mention that she lets me use fire?
I’ve been looking into how to make Voice over IP calls from a Macintosh with a good VoIP software client without being tied into a specific service. Most of the Mac clients I’ve tried are fairly poor. The Xten X-Lite and X-Pro clients are fairly fantastic to use (though annoying to configure), and they have Lindows (now Linspire), Windows, Mac, and Pocket PC clients. The X-Pro client is particularly interesting because you can conference up to six VoIP lines.
The tricky part is that Xten makes the client but they don’t resell service. It’s a standard SIP client, so if you can find a long-distance provider that provides its SIP gateway settings, you should conceivably be able to use the best client with an affordable long distance service. I found that iConnectHere, part of Delta Three, offers inexpensive long distance (about 3.5 cents per minute for continental US long distance, no monthly fee; lower rates with small monthly fees) — and they provide details on using their SIP gateway from another VoIP soft phone or hardware adapter.
I still think that Apple needs to modify iChat to allow voice calls through a long-distance partner. I’ve already got the software; it already supports SIP and voice over IP. Just add a gateway option or let me configure it myself, and iChat becomes iPhone.
This will mark me as the biggest cartoon/sci-fi geek in the world, but on rereading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle I noticed some similarities with my current favorite “kids” cartoon program, Kim Possible.
Kim Possible, a red-headed popular cheerleader with some humility and the usual high-school programs, saves the world on a regular basis. Meg Murry, a gawky but someday beautiful high-school math genius, saves the universe on a regular basis. Tenuous, right?
Meg has a set of raucous twin brothers who turn out to be smart. Kim has the “tweebs,” her twin brothers who are always bedeviling her. Meg’s father? Physicist or maybe rocket scientist. Mother, a brilliant doctor of some sort experimenting in chemistry and medicine. Meg’s mother is a red-headed knockout. Kim’s father? Rocket scientist. Mother? Neurosurgeon and knock-out redhead.
Now Meg has a younger brother who is quite precocious and brilliant named Charles Wallace. Kim has her buddy Wade, a super-genius who, although a teenager, is smart than most of the people on the planet.
The missing piece is Meg’s friend-later-husband, Calvin, who doesn’t have a direct analog in Kim’s world unless you count Ron Stoppable. They’re both tall, lanky, and loyal. But Calvin is popular at school and Ron is not. Oh, wait, this works: Meg is unpopular, Calvin is; but flip it over and Kim is popular and Ron is not! QED.
Did I mention I was a geek?
I’ve been testing Google’s Gmail, a free Web email system with one gigabyte of storage that’s currently in beta. Brad Templeton recently wrote an extensive and interesting essay on the current flaws with Gmail’s privacy and storage policies and how to address most of them. I’m hoping that Google takes actions as he suggests, as I’ve found so far that Gmail has a number of practical benefits for my email routine that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.
First, I delete a reasonable amount of mail, but file most of it. I leave everything archived in Gmail.
Second, I run my own mail server, but my DSL network and my server sometimes go down. I’m currently exploding all of my inbound email to my local mailbox and to Gmail. This means that I have a copy of everything that’s arrived up to the minute the server or network connection goes down.
Third, by cc’ing all of my outbound messages from whatever service I use to Gmail, I have a full searchable copy of whatever I’ve sent wherever I am, freeing me from the local mail store’s outbox.
Gmail does have its problems in beta, although they’re relatively few. It has no substantive spam filtering, for instance. SpamAssassin left in its default configuration catches a few hundred spams a day that Gmail misses, but I dutifully mark and report all the spam to Gmail as I’m guessing they’re building something behind the scenes that will rely on some seeding of all the bad bad email out there.
Undocumented secret for current Gmail users. Want secured SSL-based Gmail? Enter https://gmail.google.com/gmail.
I’m in a unique relationship with Google. While I don’t have a direct relationship with the company—I have just one colleague there that I know well—they feed an enormous percentage of the traffic I receive at Wi-Fi Networking News and isbn.nu. Because those sites receive so much traffic, I make a fair amount of money from Google AdSense ads on those pages, and from selling books at isbn.nu through affiliate programs.
I’m definitely somewhat dependent on Google because of the inbound and outbound traffic and revenue, and thus this restricts me in some of my journalistic endeavors. I can’t write about the company without disclosing that they cut me checks every month based on clicks.
A colleague just suggested that I try Ecto, a Mac OS X application, as a way of better integrating images into my posts. For instance, this image was just a matter of punching in some values and clicking upload. It does syntax coloring for manual HTML editing or you can use prefab items from an HTML menu. With Movable type, which is my preferred blogging platform, the software works over XML-RPC and can upload images to subdirectories and let me retrieve and revise posts I’ve already made.
I wrote a couple of months ago about Nigerian fraudsters using a relay service intended to aid deaf people in making phone calls to rip off bookstores. It’s more widespread than that as this article in City Paper makes clear. The telcos who contract to run this service are paid based on the minutes and don’t advise operators to disconnect obviously fraudulent calls.
The fraudsters use one of two techniques: either they send a fake money order for a too-large amount and have the extra cash sent elsewhere (thus bilking the person out of the cash, if not also the goods); or they use stolen credit card numbers.
I’ve been using a free eFax incoming fax number for several months because I receive so few legitimate faxes. I didn’t realize there was a 20-page-per-month limit after which I would be obliged to upgrade to their now-$12.95/month basic service. Last month, I received 25 pages of faxes, about 20 of which were junk faxes.
I wrote eFax explaining that I can’t control the receipt of junk faxes, that I had saved them and could send them to prove that the faxes were, in fact, unsolicited, and noted that their other free customers probably are seeing the same volume of illegal faxes.
Their response? Unfortunately, an extension of your eFax Free subscription cannot be provided, even if you reduce the number of fax pages you receive. If you wish to keep your eFax Free number you will need to upgrade the account. However, since there is no long-term commitment required for eFax Plus, you can terminate that account at any time.
I’m not sure if they read my message and this is just boilerplate or they read it and responded in this fashion. Fortunately, my wife has a paid, underused eFax account that I can share with her. But when someone like Vonage adds not just a fax line option, but an incoming fax receipt option as part of their package, companies like eFax will disappear.
I’ll state it clearly: by counting junk faxes which are mass-dialed into free eFax numbers against the monthly limit, eFax is benefitting directly from the perpetuation of faxes that contravene federal law.
I just spent ninety minutes trying to understand why my MySQL server wouldn’t allow queries (seemingly) from another system. I run ISBN.nu from two Linux rack-mounted systems at my co-location host, digital forest. An alert from my monitoring system said the system was down.
Sure enough, I couldn’t run queries from the Web server to the MySQL server. I tried many tricks that have worked in the past — flushing the host count for rejecting hosts that have too many errors, restarting both systems, etc., etc.
I read dozens and dozens of posts, trying to find something comparable. And I finally did. The thread_stack setting of 128K is inadequate when you run up against certain domain name resolution queries. Of all things. The solution: put the remote host’s name in the /etc/hosts file to avoid a get_by_host request.
Yes, it’s obscure, but I could never have figured this out without the collective, archived wisdom of smarter (or more desperate) people.
Someone I believe associated with (or in support of) the Maine laptop program pointed me to three downloadable studies archived here under MLTI Research Reports that evaluate the ongoing performance of the program’s effects on students and teachers.
I’ve read the reports, and I’m still seeing the same problems that I write about before:
* Significant, objective, quantitative results are absent from the reports (see below)
* Subjective surveys are useful as a touchpoint, but they don’t address the actual performance changes, just the subjective experiences; these must be correlated. If 90% of teachers who report that laptops have made a significant difference in students’ attendance can be correlated to show that yes, in 75% of those 90% reporting, absenteeism was down by a significant factor (5%? 10%), that means something.
* Obvious correlation apepars to be missing. Couldn’t a random sampling of student essays be taken from classes in which there are high and low laptop use over the period surveyed and evaluated using standard tools for language skills? If laptop-using classes showed an average improvement in grade level of writing and thinking by a half a grade, or any significant amount, that would be phemonenal.
The report from March 2003 is forward looking: it asks for anticipated outcomes. The general report from Feb. 2004 has subjective questions of teachers, principals, and students up until we get finally to roman numeral page 27 (not the PDF number, but the page number):
>Of the 154 schools who
>responded to the survey, 114 report that they were able to track data for at
>least one of these three areas. However, due to time constraints at the school
>level, as well as difficulties gathering non-computerized information, data was
>received by the evaluation team from only 8 schools.
This is exactly the information I’m curious about, and there is a statistically tiny sample. The report states:
>amount of concrete evidence to support these claims indicates substantial
>further research is needed in this area.
Which is my point. The response rates from school employees note on page 7 are totally unacceptale for producing results. The subsample of responses isn’t balanced against all schools in any way that I can see, so the results charts and graphs can’t reflect the true range of response and behavior.
About teacher training, another concern of mine:
>One message heard consistently by educators during
>the 15 month Phase One evaluation is the lack of sufficient time for teachers to
>become more skilled technically in using the laptops, and more skilled
>pedagogically in integrating the laptops into their instruction.
There is a lot of discussion of technical problems, but there is no comparison of the hours used to deal with them and the disruption of education balanced against the many anecdotes citing the improvement in efficiency in getting to the heart of the lesson by bypassing mechanical computation and repetitive tasks.
My conclusion from reading the three reports is that teachers, students, and administration love the currency of information that laptops connected to the Internet provide, and that it’s extremely clear that students are being better educated as active participants in the information economy: they have a better sense of what’s happening now and around them, and teachers are much better able to introduce material that is the most accurate, complete, and comprehensive.
I wish more of the reports focused on ways to measure whether having more current information and more information in general produced students who became better lifelong learners, earners, and citizens.
This is my hobbyhorse, I know, but the program in which 7th graders in Maine public schools received Apple iBooks for the year, later expanded to include 8th graders (as those 7th graders moved up a class), is being discussed for expansion.
No discussion took place during a legislative hearing about whether test results and non-quantitative measures make it more worthwhile to spend an additional $72 million between now and 2008 instead of spending that money on new instructional materials (books, movies, etc.), computer labs, and teacher salaries.
“By any measure, the Maine laptop program is a success story,” David Brenerman, board chairman of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and father of a seventh grader, told the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. Unfortunately, there are no measures. Previous stories on the “success” of the program hinged on very fuzzy results. I talked about that here back in February.
Even worse: The success of the laptop program, which was first proposed by former Gov. Angus King, did not come into question during Monday’s hearing, and opposition to the expansion was muted. So…they put a program into place without metrics of any kind to determine the success, and anecdotal evidence makes them want to spend $73 million over five years in a state that’s cutting other budgets.
I’m all for spending $73 million additional on education — but not on individual computers. Not unless they can show substantive benefits. Test scores aren’t enough (and they aren’t being cited). Reduced absenteeism, increase in quality of student’s written and visual work, less disciplinary activity (suspensions, principal visits), higher qualitative results from parent surveys about their children’s focus on school and learning — aren’t there any results like these?
[Update] I received email on April 8 from someone involved in the program who directed me to read the actual reports from Maine Learns that detail the objective and subjective work done to date. I have, and I address them in a later post, here.
I spent my birthday a couple of weeks ago at the zoo. Some photos. Especially good one of a hippo. (You know, hippo birthday to me?)
If you’re in the market for the $300 Sophisticated Circuits PowerKey Pro 650 Admin version ($200 retail for the SOHO version and $100 for the Admin software upgrade code), I’ve got one that I’m selling on eBay. The PowerKey can individually control whether an outlet is turned on or off or power cycled through software on a Mac. You can set triggers, schedules, or have the unit respond to touch-tone signals if you dial into it. (It even works on a fax line: you punch in digits between fax tones.)
I own two of these puppies, necessary at one point in the past, and am selling one. If you’re a Mac head and ever need to remotely power cycle a system, you need this. Here is the auction listing. The bidding is up to $75 at this writing, and my reserve has been met.
I’ve tried to find a good Mac auction site, by the way, to no avail. eBay is too large to have the right market for specific Mac-only items outside of computers and a few peripherals. Any ideas for sites that work?
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