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December 12, 2004

Catching up on some old cactus photos...

Not sure whether I've put these out before, but posting them at Flickr gives me at least a fighting chance of them ever getting accurately labelled.

December 08, 2004

Telephony getting cheap... (and a brief overview of VoIP and my dalliances therein)

I haven't blogged much (at all?) about my VoIP exploits, so here's a top-level discovery, and maybe a little fill-in discussion.

I found a service, here, that has no-monthly-fee tollfree numbers. If you connect the toll-free number to a VoIP system, it only costs $0.02/minute. Wow. For emergency family access, this is cheap. I'm working on setting up the toll-free number they gave me so that anyone in my family can, knowing just enough of the “magic”, call this number and connect to anyone else in my family. Neat, eh.

So, on to a more general overview on my VoIP tinkerings. If you look around, there are tons of cheap services about (most of these services do require you or someone to run an open-source software tool to do call-control/routing for you):

Voipjet currently has outgoing US calls at 1.3c/minute. And they bill by like 6 second increments... they're call detail display has to use a lot of decimals to represent how much your call actually costs. This place seems to be a small, maybe single-man shop, but I have no complaints. Call quality is good, the control interface is geek-friendly enough, and it's cheap.

Sipura makes good ATA devices - the box that you use in the VoIP world to connect a phone to the network. Don't let the pics on their site deceive you - these boxes are teency little things. Linksys recently licensed their code (odd, since Sipura was created by employees leaving Cisco's IP phone group, and Cisco now owns Linksys), and is making some cheap Sipura-alike devices now, as well. I got a SPA-2000, which is a two-port box that currently sells for near $100. As a two-line device, though, it means two entirely separate “line presences” - two real extensions, not just two phone plugs like you'd find in a normal house.

I also have a knock-off X100P, essentially a software modem board that's used to connect a computer to a phone line (this is called an FXO, the ATA box above is said to have two FXS ports. FXS means “plug a phone in here”, FXO means “plug a phone line in here”). This means that my home telephone line, which otherwise was doing nothing (both my roommate and I use our cellphones as our primary lines, having a home phone line just because SBC doesn't yet offer Naked DSL around here yet), can be used to complete calls.

Alright, so, what's it mean? I'm still working to figure out what the killer apps are. At $100, or even $50 for the cheaper Linksys boxes, it's hard to justify buying one of these boxes for everyone in my family. Unless, perhaps, it would mean canceling a persistent telephone line, or doing toll-avoidance for everyone. Once you've got a VoIP bit of some sort, and a high-speed Internet connection, you shouldn't really have to pay to call anyone else with the same. You can now get cheap DIDs (Direct-Inward-Dial, the lingo for someone else selling you a real-phone-to-VoIP enabled telephone service) for as low as $1.49 (also at iaxcc). Heck, free, if you don't mind a number in upstate Washington Minutes are cheap. How many minutes can you possibly spend on the phone in a month?

In Cincinnati, I used to pay $30/mo for a telephone line. $30 buys you 2300 minutes (over 38 hours) of telephone time at 1.3/c/min. Why pay for the phone line anymore?

Of course, there are a myriad of ways to avoid paying at all, if you have the right equipment and only want to talk to others with the right equipment.

More VoIP tirades later. This one seems to have gotten long and rambling. (But, if you want to play with any of these services, I have a well-connected asterisk server up, and could make some arrangements for you)

December 02, 2004

ReAir, a refillable compressed air solution

Cute little thing, really. Just got it in the mail, after seeing it on MetaEfficient a few weeks ago.

Check out the second photo, with the contents list (you'll have to click through)... yes, it comes with some air, then you can put more inside, then, when you squeeze the top, you can, you know, get some of it back out. Think of it, really, as a portable, reusable air dispenser....

December 01, 2004

AnnualCreditReport.com - a good idea, but...

Wow, I read yesterday on Cnet or somewhere about annualcreditreport.com (no link, because they won't let you link to it directly, for some odd form of “security”), the jumping-off point for taking advantage of your new rights (now available to western states, staged rollout across the US) to a yearly copy of your credit report from each of the major reporting agencies.

Since the law didn't go into effect until today, I waited, but went ahead to try it out this morning around 10am.

Nothing worked. I went through the first questionnaire on the site, and selected getting a credit report from each of the big 3. The site basically kicks off a request at each credit agency's site, so you get redirected (with a frame at the top, so you can go back and continue).

Equifax's website gave me a “unknown partner” kind of error - presumably, they forgot to flip the switch to turn on support for the free reports for the new central site. Fine, disappointing, but fine.

TransUnion just was slow until it returned a non-descript “Communication Error”, stating that it couldn't process my request at this time. At least there was a useful back button, which got me back to the AnnualCreditReport.com, at least. This is useful, because the base site uses a lot of secure forms, so you get warnings from your browser if you hit the actual back button. But, still, no credit report for me.

Finally, Experian gave me a bonified, we-don't-know-what-we're-doing error, from the NSAPI plugin level (NSAPI is one of the in-server programming techniques, a bit faster but seemingly less common than CGI). Right, so they can't even make their error messages pretty. Perhaps they're under too much load, after maybe having been the only ones who had a working system at the outset, 'cause the error message says stuff about being unable to connect to a backend server.

In the end, I went back, manually, to annualcreditreport.com to see if I could try again, and got just a “Error 500: null” response. Really.

Anyway, sum result? Wasting 15 minutes of my time, and still no credit reports. I used one of the “free credit reports” sites that's really a loss-leader for a subscription credit monitoring service a few months ago, and it went far far better. Lucky us, the western states, getting to work out the kinks for everyone else....