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October 13, 2005

Profit assurance, modern day

I recently decided that, given my various VoIP experiments, and the resulting affect on number of cell minutes I was using, that it was high time I ditched the expensive, though gadget-friendly cell-phone service plan I'd been living with.

My solution was to find a decent replacement. At the rate I was paying, I'll come out multiple hundreds of dollars ahead on the year using a phone like this for my mobile cavorting. And, with fun automated dialing hacks, who needs to give anyone their cellphone number anymore anyway?

Unfortunately, pay-as-you-go phones come at a price... they are sold without credit checks, so there tends to be a lot more, er, scrutiny, in transactions associated with them. When I went to T-Mo's website tonight to put my first recharge on the phone's minutes, I wasn't expecting nearly the process that follows.

  1. Fill out form on website. Technically, anyone who wants to can buy me cell minutes, if they know my cell number. Of course, you'd have to go through the rest of this process, too.
  2. As a matter of course when filling out the online requests, you, as payer (not as recipient of minutes) are asked for a number you'll be reachable at during the next hour, for “fullfillment” purposes. I assumed this meant a number they could use if the destination phone number for credit was wrong. Not so...
  3. After waiting almost 2 hours, and wondering where my $100 had just gone, I called the number provided in the “confirmation” page from the website:
    1. Identify self.
    2. Explain what has happened (or rather, hasn't).
    3. Get put on hold while the friendly representative checks to see if he can find the “representative” who was handling my order.
    4. “That representative is busy, I'm going to help you”
    5. Round one of personal credit questions. Check address. Check partial SSN (mind you, I've never given T-Mo, or the web order form, any of this information - so it seems a little odd that they even can corroborate such information). At this point, I ask who I'm talking to, since I don't normally start handing out SSN info without knowing why. The guy sounds totally understanding, and explains he works for a company that does these kinds of checks for several other companies in the business... I think he said “Besta”, but I'm having a hard time pulling up a Google reference. In the very least, they handle Cingular and T-Mobile, though I think he mentioned others, as well.
    6. After providing the basics, I'm put on hold again. In another minute or two, the guy comes back. This time, he's asking questions that could only have been pulled from my credit record.... only, in a very interesting format. One of the questions identified where I had had a previous address. The question was “Answer yes or no to the following question” followed by the names of several counties (all in the general vicinity of previous addresses of mine, though scattered around two of the previous states I've lived in). After passing that question, I was asked an age-range question regarding someone who I'm closely related to... same format, “24-31”, “31-45”, etc. Pick the right answer. Not hard, amusing for the way they build in the ability for people to answer correctly, without having to remember/know the exact details anymore. Contrast this to Safeway who's always asking me my telephone number. Like I remember exactly which telephone number I've ever given to Safeway?
    7. After all of that, my payment was processed immediately, and I was assured that future transactions using the same card would go through without delay.

Now, I understand this process. Companies are always trying to avoid getting hit for a pile of services on a stolen credit card, since they generally eat much of the cost of services rendered in such situations. And, I did purchase the biggest and baddest unit of currency - also, of course, the one with the most appropriate rate: also the easiest unit of retail for a would-be-theif to negotiate without having to constantly go re-up the plan.

Was it necessary? Perhaps, in the long run, this is the right thing to do. But, I gave them the same personal information, and credit card, when I bought the phone at the local (company) retail store. It all got put into the computer (anyone thinking prepaid phones are anonymous is likely to be sorely mistaken). I was buying currency for my own phone. Seems like they could short-circuit this process. The ~13 minutes of operator time involved costs them money, too.

Amusing aside: On prepaid plans, you can rarely get into Voicemail and other services without using up (relatively expensive) minutes. VoIP to the rescue - dialing the Voicemail number directly won't allow access, even for leaving a message. But, calling the voicemail number with caller ID set to the number of the cell phone - well, that works much better. And it only costs me 1.1cent/minute, vs. 10 cents or more. Woohoo for phone hacking.

October 11, 2005

Followups on parade: Gizmo Project

Well, may as well continue my posting for continuity. A while ago, I commented on the early version of Gizmo Project.

More good:

  • Fixed the SIP buddies thing. You can also makes a quick-dial of a SIP destination. Since I have a magic IVR system on my VoIP system, this makes for easy access.
  • Conferencing. Gizmo added a function with freeconferencecall.com. Now I can make conference calls where the VoIP-supported legs into the conference are free, but still have quality service for the rest of the folks calling in on normal phones. Before this, such conference calls involved the VoIP legs terminating to POTS first, introducing more lag, if nothing else. Would, of course, still be nice if Gizmo had built-in quick conferencing, like Skype has had since the beginning. I'm sure they're working on this.
  • Fixed the Mac sleep/resume issue.
  • IM Support, though a little poorly integrated at this point.
  • SIP URL can be used from any SIP device to call a Gizmo phone.

Bad:

  • No keyboard access to DTMF.
  • DTMF still appears to be sent inbound.
  • DTMF doesn't work unless you're on a really fast connection, and Gizmo detects as such. If Gizmo detects a lesser quality connection, it'll choose a lesser codec (usually iLBC or GSM in my experience draining calls into Asterisk), which, of course, can't transmit DTMF inband. Geeze, guys, support one (both! All!) of the out-of-band DTMF techniques already.
  • The Windows version is seemingly broken. I guess they list it as a bug, but on both my work machine and my home machine, I get the dreaded “timeout” condition on login. My home machine has only the default Windows firewall, and is otherwise on an open network. This should be easy/simple guys. The Mac version continues to work, reliably, everywhere, both behind a finicky UDP-denying corporate firewall and at home, always with a software firewall enabled.

Bottom line, as I said last time (and they picked up for their testimonials): Gizmo could be a Skype killer.... eventually. Right now, they've got some issues to work out. I'd like to see them fix all of the problems, above, in some way. Until then, Skype is slicker, more well-integrated, more reliable. But Gizmo opens the door to the walled garden, which makes it far more attractive in the long run. The only way into Skype's walled garden costs money each time, and that makes the cost of an integrated solution too high. The point of VoIP-enabling/replacing technologies is to drastically reduce the cost of the communications.

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October 03, 2005

Checkpoint on environmental “tinkering”

Regular readers here will remember my previous posts on environmental projects that I've undertaken. Since it's easy to talk about things when they start up or fail, but not so easy to remember to talk about them otherwise, I thought I'd post a little catch-up note on how things are going.

Since starting our worm bins last fall, Joy and I have had fun with our new little “pets”. Friends we see regularly know how we'll stop them from throwing away tea bags and fruit rinds, squirreling them away to later feed our worms. Since things changed around here, Joy and I combined our worm bins, initially providing enough worms to start a friend's bin, and, after several more months, a slow start for my recently-married sister, as well. We've also fed our worms enough that we've now harvested one tray... providing compost to our rather ridiculous garden of potted plants.

Speaking of which...

Another recent project has been the growing columns. I say columns because we built a second one on Joy's balcony. With two towering piles of growing potential, we've eaten dozens of helpings of salad, several sides of collard greens, a couple of stir-fry's with home grown bok choi, and an occasional meal spruced up with other plants, most of which we had a harder time keeping around, like the spinach which never seem to grow for long before going to seed. And all of it's been organic, and uber-fresh.

The growing columns are a lovely project, but not without their concerns. First of all, as the weather (and ongoing watering) has gone on, concerns about how we'll reinvigorate them next year reign - there's not much hope that these things will hold up for many years, for instance. And things tend to go to seed faster, if only because we try to water the things a lot, but not so heavily as to leave their cardboard outer layer soggy.... but, this also depends on the season. We've been refilling the columns every few months with new plants, depending on what we've been able to get to come up from a separate plant nursery we're also squeezing into our balcony. As a result, we currently have predominantly collard greens growing, for instance, since we've had trouble getting any romaine or other plants to germinate in the last couple of months.

The last project, the most ongoing and lifestyle affecting one, has been well covered here. Bottom line: Joy and I both still regularly (>>4x each week, average) ride our commutes, and typically other trips, on our scooters. My car, now fully paid-off, gets very little driving, outside of trips to the airport and other beyond-scooter travel distances. By contrast, I've put over 2600 miles onto my scooter since March; Joy almost 1000 since May. Yes, I do tend to gloat whenever someone brings up the price of gas.

Anyone have any other fun environmental-friendly projects to suggest?

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