Why I wish telecoms were more like the DMV

by Steve, October 20th, 2014

phonemessI’ve recently had some “fun” switching around our telecom service, mobile and home-based. I’ve also had some experience at the state DMV/DEQ, which offers and interesting contrast.

(Side note: I also recently switched to hosting our blogs in the cloud, and switched our business Internet service to consumer, since I am no longer hosting servers at home. But that’s a whole other story.)

The big, bad bureaucracy

First, let’s talk about how things work at the DMV. If you live in Oregon’s Portland metro area, you have to get your vehicle’s emissions systems checked by Oregon DEQ every two years in order to renew your registration. It’s pretty straight forward.

  • DMV sends you a renewal notice
  • You take this notice to one of several DEQ “Clean Air Stations” (this is funny, because it’s probably some of the dirtiest air around, what with all those vehicles idling while waiting and getting checked)
  • An attendant will check that you have the correct paperwork, then direct you to a lane
  • There is a large blue street sign on the building at each lane that clearly tells you how much you are paying for the emissions check: $21.
  • Once in a test bay, the testing tech will ask you to leave your car running, and direct you to an enclosed room where you can fill in your insurance information while the tech hooks up your car to the computer.
  • After a few minutes, you are finished, and you pay both the DEQ fee and your DMV renewal fee (in a single transaction), receive your DEQ report, new tags and registration, and head on your way.

I don’t know why people like to bitch about government bureaucracy; this most common interaction with not one but two massive state agencies takes all of 15 minutes every two years.

Anyway, let’s talk about telecoms.

You still have a land line?

Several years ago we switched our land line phone (remember those? We still have one!) from Qwest (now CenturyLink) to Vonage, a voice over IP (VoIP) provider. It seemed like a great deal; $15 a month with unlimited domestic long distance (this was at a time when Qwest still charged for long distance).But after a couple years I noticed the price had jacked up to $25. I remember trying to shave that down by a dollar a month by switching plans, only to find after making the switch that Vonage charged me $10 for changing plans. Pretty soon we were paying around $35 a month for service, after they tacked on close to $10 in various “taxes and fees.”

A coworker suggested checking out Ooma, another VoIP provider, which boasts “free” local service. The deal is you buy the box for $150 (Vonage gives you a box if you sign up for a 2-year contract), then just pay taxes and fees on a monthly basis. This is how I discovered that Vonage not only was overcharging for their basic service, they were also robbing us about six bucks a month on fees. We now pay $3.79 a month for our land line. Period. Quality of service? Same. There are a couple features we gave up from Vonage (emailed voice mail, etc.), but we can get those back for another $10 a month from Ooma if we want, and still save $20 over Vonage.

Shortly after the switch, Vonage had the chutzpah to send an email begging us to come back, offering a $10 discount per month for two years. Ha ha!

OK, so maybe the free market is working, right? Wrong. The deal is that it’s incredibly difficult to compare these two services, even though they are basically the same. Their pricing structures are so different, and the marketplace is so cluttered with unrelated technology that seems similar (but totally is not), it is virtually impossible for somebody like, say, your mother, to figure this shit out and not get robbed by some bastard company claiming your taxes and fees are $10 a month. Or the cable company that convinces you you need a land line to go with your TV and internet, because it’s somehow cheaper when you pay more.

Anyway, we got the land line sorted out, and even got to keep our number that we had originally ported from Qwest to Vonage. That’s how we’re still rocking that North Portland exchange out in the burbs.

Bite me, T-Mobile

So, how about mobile service?

Oh, let me tell you a tale, involving three service providers and one federal regulator who intervened on my behalf.

Way back when, my lovely wife declared she needed a cell phone. I scoffed. I resisted. But eventually I gave in. I searched high and low for the best deal, eventually settling on Qwest for a $30/month plan. This was a great deal. Until we went over on minutes, which was highway robbery. So we switched to Sprint. They had a flex pricing plan, which just bumped you to the next level if you went over minutes. This was pretty good. I eventually got a phone on that plan, too.  In the end we had five phones on that plan, and we were paying about $160 a month for 700 shared minutes, unlimited text, and a 2G data plan on one feature phone. Too much, considering there was not a smartphone in the lot.

When my daughter and I got smartphones last year, we dropped two lines from Sprint, and found the best deal on a data plan around (or so it seemed). T-Mobile has a prepaid plan with unlimited text and data (speeds capped after the first 5GB of 4G/LTE) and 100 minutes of talk time for $30 a month.

A word about mobile prepaid: These plans are set up for people with bad credit, mainly. You pay for your service in advance, instead of after a month, as is traditional. There are no contracts, so if you have your own phone, it’s an easy short-term thing to do. We don’t have bad credit, but the post-paid plans did not have this kind of deal on data. So we signed up.

When you set up your prepaid account, you pay for your first month of service. You can also deposit some additional money on account to pay for any overages on talk time. And you can set up this account to deduct from your debit card on a monthly basis and pay for the next month of service.  Pretty convenient, and what could go wrong? (Oh, just wait for it.)

Anyway, we had that service for about a year, and it worked fine except when it didn’t. (T-Mobile coverage is crap, in case you didn’t know.) I paid for a few extra minutes of talk time here and there, but nothing serious. We were getting more mobile data than we could use for two phones at $60 a month.

This year, the contracts on our three remaining Sprint lines expired, and we prepared to move everybody, in one fell swoop, to AT&T. I knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk, but as is my practice, I thoroughly researched everything and got all my ducks in a row before proceeding.

I bought a few unlocked phones, and took everything down to the AT&T store at the mall. This was on THE DAY that the iPhone 6 was released, so it was pretty funny to pass the hordes lined up at the Apple store on the way to the AT&T store (where they had about four linear feet of wall space dedicated to the lackluster new iPhones, opposite a dazzling display of LG phones and phablets).

We had to wait a little bit to get served. Once in, it was pretty straight forward, since I knew exactly what I wanted, and already owned the devices. It took a while, but we got all five numbers ported. Well, mostly. Major props to Allan at the Washington Square AT&T store, who was helpful all the way.

It turns out the T-Mobile numbers didn’t exactly port.

The next day, I called AT&T customer support. They said they needed the PINs for the T-Mobile accounts. I told them I never set up PINs for those accounts, and I had provided the passwords. The AT&T rep conferenced in a T-Mobile rep, who seemed a bit confused by what was going on. It took him a while, but after answering some security questions, he let me set the PIN to 1-2-3-4. Ten minutes later, the numbers were ported.

Whew! Now, I had the foresight to stop the monthly auto-deduct on the T-Mobile accounts. I left about $100 on  account in case the port took longer than it did (numbers can’t be ported if the account isn’t active, and prepaid accounts are suspended immediately if not paid up). Now that the port was complete, I thought I’d log in to T-Mobile and see about getting that dough back.

But my accounts were gone. There was no way to log in from the Web.

I called customer service. This did not go well. First, after punching in one of my numbers, the automated system informed me that the account was in collections for nonpayment. I hit “0″ and eventually got a live voice. I talked to a few people, got transferred several times, and after waiting on hold got a guy who told me that prepaid services are not refundable.

I patiently explained that I was not asking for a refund for a prepaid service, I was asking for the cash I had on account to be refunded. He again repeated that prepaid services are not refundable. I pressed him. Eventually he said, OK, you can get your money back, but you have to go to a T-Mobile store.

Are you fucking kidding me? “What do I need to show them to get my money?” I asked. “Just the card you used to pay,” he said.

OK, fine, sounds dubious, but I drove my ass to the nearest T-Mobile store. It’s a weekday, this can’t be too bad, I thought.

It was pretty bad. It was a small store, and all four staff members were busy with customers. I waited patiently for probably 20 minutes. Finally a staff member was available, and she proceeded to inform me that prepaid services are not refundable.

I patiently explained that I was not asking for a refund for prepaid services, but for the money I placed on account to pay for future prepaid services before I ported my numbers out.

“Oh, you ported your numbers out,” she said, and explained that prepaid services are not refundable, especially, apparently, if you port your numbers out. By this point I was getting pretty pissed off, and really didn’t want to make a scene. (Actually, I might have made a little bit of a scene, but I’m pretty sure I said “B.S.” and not “bullshit”, because there were children present after all.)

“So,” I said, “I have to file a complaint to get my money back?”

“OK,” she said, deflecting me out the front door. (I’ve done customer service, so I understand the difficulty of dealing with pissed off people. She handled me like a champ.)

By now I’d blown probably a couple hours trying to get $100 back. Time is money, but principle is principle. That’s what this was coming down to.

I spent some more time searching the Web, trying to figure out how to proceed. I found lots of stories of being transferred and dropped on the customer service line, with nobody reporting any luck. Surely this couldn’t be legal, even if I did “agree” to terms of service which may or may not have spelled out that any money I deposit with them for future service would be confiscated if I chose to discontinue their service.

All of my T-Mobile love had turned to hatred and rage at this point. Their Web site, which I tolerated before, now was a maddening maze. The only options for customer service are Web forums (no account; no access!) and phone, which I’d already struck out on. No email contact, or even a Web form to submit queries. Just a USPS address. I imagined carts of paper mail in a warehouse somewhere gathering dust, and a couple underpaid office drones tasked with opening a few letters each day and sending out form letter responses.

Feds to the rescue

So I filed an online complaint with the FCC. That’s right, Fuck ’em. I sicced the feds on their thieving asses. I honestly did not expect anything to come of this. I figured I’d just write the whole episode off as a hard-learned lesson, and maybe provide T-Mobile with $100 worth of negative publicity along the way.

Two weeks later, I got a call from a passably contrite T-Mobile rep saying they she had a letter from the FCC, and even though my terms of service said that prepaid services are not refundable, they were going to send me a refund and just needed my address.

Her tone was notably straight-forward. Even though T-Mobile was not going to acknowledge they were in the wrong, they were going to give me back my money. And they weren’t going to transfer me, drop my call, or send me to a retail store.

I resisted the urge to explain to her that I was not asking for a refund of prepaid services. After all, it appeared I had won. It took more than a few hours of my life, but I was successful in prying my money back from a company that had attempted to steal it from me under cover of a murky customer agreement and a prepaid system designed to prey on poor people.

A week after the call, I got a copy of the letter T-Mobile sent back to the feds, explaining to the Acting Chief of Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Federal Communications Commission, that I had signed an agreement acknowledging that prepaid services are not refundable.

“Nevertheless,” the letter continued, “in an effort to amicably resolve this matter… T-Mobile agreed to refund $100.00″ to me.

The day after that I got a prepaid MasterCard worth $100 in the mail, so I didn’t feel obligated to give T-Mobile $100 worth of bad publicity after all. (Oh, wait, too late.)

There you have it. Once again, the invisible hand of the free market works great! (But only with a slap from the very visible hand of federal regulators.)

We left Sprint, on the other hand, with a balance due, and they decided to threaten us with collections or disruption of service(!) if we didn’t pay up immediately. (Phone number portability is something telecoms are required to facilitate, but they really don’t seem to like it very much when they’re on the losing end of it). We were at least able to log in to the Sprint Web site to take care of their final bill.

So why didn’t I stay with Sprint? Their network isn’t compatible with our phones. Why didn’t I stick with T-Mobile? Their coverage sucks. (Also, ahem, it turns out they have some questionable business ethics.) Why didn’t I go with Verizon? They support some of our phones, but not others. Why don’t I just let the cell providers gouge me for “free” phones that actually cost $20+ a month? Because I don’t want my phone to be locked to one provider, and I sure as hell never want to sign up for a two-year contract with any telecom ever again.

It’s a damn jungle out there, that’s what it is. And the people getting screwed over the most are poor people on prepaid plans, and people who don’t have the tech savvy to compare plans from different providers and tease out costs of phones vs. costs of service, etc.

This is why I want telecoms to be like the DMV. I don’t want to spend hours doing cost analysis. I don’t want fancy mall stores with mood lighting and big graphics and solicitous sales clerks. I don’t want bullshit contracts and terms of service with hidden clauses. I don’t want to compare apples to oranges. And I sure as hell don’t want some unscrupulous behemoth of a telecom literally trying to steal my money.

I just want a drab facility in a run-down strip mall with a unionized workforce hooking me up with what I need, nothing more, nothing less.

I want a big blue sign on the wall that says: “Mobile Broadband: $30. Take a number. Please have forms filled out and documents ready.”

“It Just Works”

by Steve, October 7th, 2014

techApple released it’s latest shiny toy last month, and the faithful lined up to buy a phone with tech specs roughly equivalent to two-year-old Google phone that sold for $350 (the current generation Google Nexus 5 has even better specs, and also sells for $350). Apple’s “new” phone ranges $649-$949 depending on storage and screen size, and that’s before accessories.

Now, let’s pause to give Apple props for finally giving in and making phones with screens big enough for grownups to use. But it’s kind of funny that they’re hyping it as “bigger than bigger” after years of pretending people didn’t want large screen phones. You’d think they were the first phablet on the market. (Samsung released it’s 5.3″ Galaxy Note in 2011. It’s third generation Galaxy Note 3, released in 2013, leaves the iPhone 6 in the dust in virtually every technical category. And it costs $600.)

Apple fans get defensive about their two-years-behind-the-curve tech specs, usually falling back to the old saw that Apple products “just work” and non-Apple products require constant care and feeding. It’s pretty much the same old Mac vs. PC argument that Apple is for cool creative people and everything else is for nerds who would rather tinker with tech than be cool and creative. People really buy into this.

One thing that Apple is indisputably good at is marketing.

Anyway, our family recently became an all smartphone household, evenly split between iOS and Android. Up to this point, I’d had the joy of setting up two iPod Touches and two iPhones (a 4 and a 4s).

It never “just works,” at least for me. Please don’t think I’m belittling you if you’re an iPhone fan. Two people I love very dearly like their iPhones very much, and I understand why. There are definitely good things about iPhones. It’s just that those things are not economic or technical, so they don’t persuade me.  Also, I suspect I know a little too much about technology for my own good, and that this leads me to difficulties with consumer tech that is designed to be set up and used by non-technologists. The whole Apple experience chafes me, and makes me fell like I’m being talked down to. True fact: I experience less stress setting up a Linux server in the cloud than setting up an iPhone in my hand.

But I digress.

Last month, after the iPhone 6 was released, we picked up what has become the  ”bottom-end” iPhone, the 5c, with the goal of moving the old 4s user to the 5c and erasing the 4s as a new phone for another family member. We also got a Blu Advance 4.0, an $80 Android phone with a 4″ screen, dual-core 1.3Ghz CPU (roughly the same tech spec as the $500 iPhone 5c, but with lower quality screen and cameras).

Anyway, let’s set up the iPhone 5c. Should be easy! Right? It’s gonna “just work,” right? Well, let’s see.

  1. Open iPhone 5c. Try to distinguish stylish packaging from things you need to keep. I’m being serious here.
  2. Turn on. Won’t turn on. Battery has no charge at all.
  3. Put on charger. Oh, yeah, it’s a new charger, the old ones don’t work. Unpack the new charger, plug it in. Wait half an hour before you can turn it on. Spend that half hour contemplating the hundreds of dollars you’ve already spent on Apple-specific chargers and docks that will not work with this new Apple phone.
  4. Turn on phone, begin setup.
  5. Enter wi-fi pass phrase.
  6. Enter Apple ID and password.
  7. Wait.
  8. Get error: no SIM. “Insert valid SIM to continue.” Well, we haven’t started with the new carrier yet, so let’s just grab the SIM from the 4s.
  9. Oh, crap, the 5C has a different SIM (nano) than the 4s (micro). We’ll have to wait till we get the SIM from the new carrier. Can’t we just activate it and use it on wi-fi? No, we cannot. Why not? No reason. We just can’t. Search Apple help online. No answers there. Find same question on forums, with no answers anywhere: Why can’t we do this? You can search the totality of human knowledge on your smartphone and not find an answer to this question. Steve Jobs took the answer to this question to the grave with him.
  10. (a week later) Get the new SIM, insert it. Repeat setup 4-6.
  11. Yay! it’s ready to restore a backup from iCloud from the old phone!
  12. Oh, wait, the backup is from a phone running  iOS 8, and this phone is running iOS 7. Upgrade required before restoring this backup.
  13. Can we just install that? No. We have to start setup. Again. Redo steps 4 and 5. Again. Skip the Apple ID bit, since we just want to set it up long enough to upgrade.
  14. OK, it sets up without the Apple ID. Now let’s upgrade it. Start download. It’s 1.3 GB. Looks like it’s going to take forever. Go to bed.
  15. Get up a 5 am. Download has failed. No reason given. Restart download. Go back to bed.
  16. Get up at 8am. Screen of phone shows an Apple icon and a progress bar about 75% complete; apparently the download has completed and it is installing.  (Side note: The “progress bar” is hands-down the stupidest, most useless widget in GUI design, and it’s not just Apple). Two hours later, progress bar hasn’t moved. (Somebody with a degree in UI design please explain what purpose this widget serves!) Two more hours later, it still hasn’t moved. Try to turn off phone. Nothing. Hold down power button and home button together. Nothing. Eventually get it to turn off. Not sure what made this happen. Maybe the cursing?
  17. Turn phone back on. It boots to a home screen, as if nothing happened. It “just works!” But… is it fully upgraded? Did something go wrong? We may never know.
  18. Erase phone. “Are you sure you want to erase phone?” Yes. Erase. “Are you sure?” YES, FFS. Erase. OK, it erases
  19. Repeat steps 4-6.
  20. Restore backup from iCloud. It “just works!” Hand over phone. Take some deep breaths.

OK, that sucked. (Now, maybe there was a better way to do this without constantly repeating steps, etc. But Apple docs treat users like complete fecking  idiots, and offer no help whatsoever for anything outside of the most basic scenario. There is no “troubleshooting” because Apple products “just work.” Except when they don’t, in which case I guess you’re expected to go see one of the “geniuses” who works at the mall selling overpriced pocket computers to passionately credulous conspicuous consumers.)

OK, more deep breaths. Let’s set up the Android.

  1. Open nerdy, unstylish packaging and remove phone.
  2. Turn on. Battery at about 39%. Plug it in, just so it doesn’t die while going through what surely will be an hours-long process (right?).  It uses the same micro USB charger as virtually every phone on the market (except iPhone), so just use the nearest one handy. (We’ve got lots of them, because all the cheap-ass phones we’ve burned through over the last several years came with them. They’re not all sleek and white like a 1969 vision of what the year 2001 would look like. But they’re everywhere, and they’re basically free.)
  3. Enter wi-fi pass phrase.
  4. Answer a few basic setup questions. (No SIM? No problem.)
  5. Set up a new gmail account for cloud backups, address book sync, etc.
  6. Done. Wait, what? Yes, that’s it. Five minutes total, if that.

Now, I wasn’t trying to restore a backup to the Android, so it’s not a totally fair comparison. That might have taken another five minutes.

With all the phones are set up, we start to bicker about which is better.

    Kid 2: ”Name one thing the iPhone has that the Android doesn’t.”
    Kid 1: “Emoji.”
    Kid 2: “Look, I’ve got emoji.”
    Kid 1: “Those aren’t emoji, those are just little pictures. How about iCloud backups?”
    Me: “Google backups.”
    Kid 1: “Facetime.”
    Me: “Google Hangouts.”
    Kid 1: “Nobody uses Google Hangouts. Everybody uses Facetime.”
    Me: “Google Hangouts is used in business every day. Nobody uses Facetime for business.”
    Kid 1: “The camera on the iPhone 5c is so much better.”

There is no arguing with that. The $500 phone has a much better camera than the $80 phone.

Wait, we’re actually having this argument?

Pop quiz: what’s the least-used feature on a teenager’s telephone?

Answer: The telephone.

True fact. Teenagers today generally do not make phone calls. The phone has been replaced by a device that is capable of making phone calls but rarely does. It can even make video calls, that holy grail of mid-century modernist telecom dreams. But social media has taken over the phone and killed the phone in one fell swoop.

The joke when the first iPhone came out was that some people had actually figured out how to make phone calls on it. Or: the iPhone is just a really small iPad with a crummy telephone app. Or: the iPad is just a really big iPhone with no phone. These are no longer a jokes.

We saw a middle aged guy standing in the parking lot at the grocery store the other day, staring at his iPhone 6 Plus. At first I though, damn, this guy is really into his new phone. Then it occurred to me: he’s probably trying to figure out how to call his wife to ask her what the hell he came to the store to get.

London Diaries

by Steve, September 26th, 2013
Palace of Westminster
Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) from the London Eye

Emmy and I first started planing a London trip almost two years ago. We can thank Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and the rest of One Direction for the inspiration of the destination. They were a gateway for Emmy getting into other British acts and British fashion. Emmy says, “I was thinking of London as this perfect place. And it was.”

Other than Canada, I hadn’t traveled internationally since 1997, when Nancy and I got engaged in Lisbon and Wesley and I traveled to Prague.

To be honest, the UK was not the top of my travel bucket list for travel. But it should have been. We had an all around great trip. I was very pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to travel in London, and how much I enjoyed the green spaces alongside the cosmopolitan urban culture and amenities. Public transit is extremely convenient; we took the tube everywhere except a cab to our flat on arrival and when we took the train to Windsor and to the Harry Potter studio tour.

Untitled
Greek lunch in Windsor

We were both especially pleased at the ease (and quality) of vegetarian dining in London, something that is always stressful while traveling, particularly in continental Europe (maybe it’s better there now) and Latin America. It seems like almost every restaurant in London has a selection vegetarian items, all nicely marked with a “V” or in their own category on menu. (Even in supposedly prog Portland, we often don’t get this courtesy.) I assumed we’d be eating a lot of Indian food (no complaints there, mate!), but we never did, and we didn’t find the need to look for vegetarian restaurants, either (of which there are plenty). Somebody even rated London the number one vegan city in the world. I would have scoffed at that notion prior to this trip.

For a while we considered splitting the trip between London and Paris, even entertaining the crazy notion of a day or overnight trip to Paris. We decided this would be too much hassle and not enough time in either city, and decided to focus a full 10 days on London. We rented a flat instead of a hotel so we could just unpack and move in and have a full home base. This turned out to be a really good decision. It was less expensive than a hotel, still very conveniently located, and extremely comfortable and convenient (separate bedrooms, kitchen, laundry, and a huge terrace overlooking the neighborhood).

If you’re not me or Emmy or directly related to us, the rest of this may be boring. I’m just recording it from my hand-written journal for posterity. If you just want to see photos, you can see them all on Flickr (pictures of me and Emmy are protected; if you’re family drop me a line and I’ll send you a special link so you can see us).

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It’s okay, it’s not like I need my computer in the next 2 days…

by Steve, March 24th, 2013

DSC_3231

Windows 8 FTW!

Stupid, stupid Oregonian

by Steve, May 17th, 2012

You know I’ve repeatedly dinged The Oregonian for failing to “get it” with new media. Like that time back in 2009 when they were experimenting with Reddit (right about the time the rest of the world was big time on Twitter and Facebook) and everybody got excited because they could get their links on the front page of the local daily’s Web site.

All the SEO morons were loving it, because they could drive a ridiculous amount of traffic to their clients’ sites really fast. Many people clicking through links on the Oregonian Web site didn’t even realize they were going to third-party content, as evidenced by this comment on a post I wrote about buying a new car (for another crappy outfit that didn’t really get new media).

Sure, it was juvenile, but when I punked The Oregonian (and their hack reporter Bryan Denson), there was a point to it. We also had fun putting other links on the Oregonian’s front page under the heading “Today’s hottest links,” like “No Arguing With Assclowns On The Internet Day” (Nancy’s brainchild) and “Oregonian: a Day Late and a Dollar Short”.

(Reddit, by the way, is owned by Advance Publications, which also owns The Oregonian and its ugly Web step-sibbling, OregonLive. No wonder it sucks so hard.)

Some time in the past few years (I don’t know, I don’t bother with their clunky Web site much), they got hip with the Twitter program. I noticed this yesterday when checking election results.

Take a closer look at that Twitter feed:

Heh heh heh. Ohhh…. You fracture me, Oregonian.

The years just fly by

by Steve, February 8th, 2012

techThe wife and I have been at this Internet publishing thing for quite a while. Fourteen years, to be exact, since we experimented with a Web-based literary arts magazine called the LuLu Revue in 1998.

More Hockey Less War, which turned six-years-young this month, is one of our more recent endeavors. Wacky Mommy was the first fully-featured blog hosted on our own servers, going live seven years ago this month. We also ran an experiment in citizen journalism with PPS Equity from 2008-2010.

I started ranting from the left with our first “Wacky” domain, Wacky Monkey, in 1999. I also developed (for hire) a Web-only vintage clothing store in 1999, and developed and hosted various political and public service Web sites throughout the aughts.

As we enter the twenty-teens, we’ve counter-intuitively stepped into the realm of book publishing, both e-book and paperback. Yes, despite our mad tech skills, we’re bibliophiles at heart, and we’re working on tools to take advantage of (and help define the direction of) this disruptive phase of publishing.

We’ve consolidated all of our publishing endeavors — Web, books and soon music — under the imprint of New Deal Media. We’ve got other things we’re dealing with (family life, working for a paycheck), so this publishing thing is (so far) a side project (or, more accurately, a series of side projects). I can’t wait to see what the next 14 years bring!

Holy crap

by Steve, November 14th, 2011

What a beautiful planet we live on.

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael Knig on Vimeo.

Take me to your leader

by Steve, September 28th, 2010

techYes, the United Nations has an Office for Outer Space Affairs (who knew?). No, its director, Malaysan astro-physicist Mazlan Othman, is not being named the world’s first alien ambassador, at least according to the UN. And former air force officers are coming forward with some pretty interesting stories about UFOs and nukes. And there were more mysterious lights over Phoenix last week.

Garage Band sound check

by Steve, May 30th, 2010

I think I can get used to this, but why the heck doesn’t Garage Band come with a trombone (or any brass at all)?

Salsa Groove (Where’s my Bone?)

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God help me, I drank the Kool-Aid

by Steve, May 23rd, 2010

techBeing a hard-core server guy, I always scoffed when people would ask “PC or Mac.” Neither, of course, I actually prefer Solaris. At home, I typically have maintained a Windows desktop or two for the fam, running on commodity intel hardware (the kind Dell and HP dump as loss leaders for $400-500 a pop, including a decent monitor). Our Web server runs Linux, of course, and it serves as yet another desktop, running OpenSUSE with the KDE desktop manager.

The kids have become equally comfortable logging on with their Linux accounts or using the Windows desktops. I always figured someday I’d just convert the Windows machines to Linux, but as long as they’re working, why borrow trouble.

Now, I’ve dabbled in digital recording, and I decided I’d set up the Web server to do double duty as a home recording machine. That didn’t work out so well, for a number of reasons.

  • Installed Rosegarden from packages using Yast.
  • Had to get a real-time kernel from a non-standard repository.
  • Had to get jackd properly installed, and talking to alsa
  • I think I’m finally getting somewhere, but alsa keeps forgetting about my sound card, and, worst of all…
  • I recently upgraded to OpenSUSE 11.2, and with that came KDE 4, which totally borked the desktop. Xorg will run at 100% CPU if you have more than one desktop session logged in. Tried to downgrade to KDE 3. That didn’t work. Tried to just switch to Gnome. That didn’t work. Tried to reinstall KDE 3. That didn’t work. Tried to reinstall KDE 4. That didn’t work. Removed monitor and put unit back under the desk to be a dedicated (headless) Web server. That works.

So, while I really appreciate the spirit of open source software, and have long been a proponent of it on the back end, I’ve also been patiently waiting for it to be ready for the desktop… it’s closer, but still not there.

On the other hand, Apple has had the creative arts as a captive market for decades. Since what I really want is a machine that I can plug in and use as a recording studio, Apple is the logical choice. From hardware to drivers to OS to apps, there are no disconnects or mismatches.

It comes loaded with RAM and a really nice, built-in monitor. It’s not the first Mac I’ve owned; I had a Quadra 604 in the 90s and the University put a first gen Mac in my dorm room way back when first gen Macs were brand new (yes, 1984).

Now do you think I’m cool?