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December 18, 2005

How to turn an empty Altoids tin into a Christmas present:

As a Christmas gift this year, I decided to make Joy's sister a cheap VoIP adapter. She's the perfect target for one: broadband, no land-line, but too-limited of a cell plan to be able to talk. Add to that, she's got a newborn, and a big family who probably wants to chat... well, wouldn't it be nice if she could plug in a phone and pay zilch to talk to family!

So, I set out to build a semi-consumer-grade device. My last model, which I eventually ported to a 2inch square card, is still caseless and kind of ugly. This build would need to be insulated, contained in a case, and, perhaps, attractive.

Here's the result:
Scene setting perspective

And here's the gag (though working) shot:
Action Shot!

(the whole set of documentary evidence can be found here)

It's another instance of this design, actually with much lower tolerances on the components, and a few more hacks, but it seems to work. Sorry, no build photos... but construction involved purple spray paint, an Altoids tin, 2 faux "Discover" cards, and about $6 (liberally) worth of parts from Radio Shack and Fry's. Unlike the last build, this one involves all acquired components - no old junk from my closet in this Christmas gift. Well, except the "Discover" cards, at least. Construction involved a soldering iron, a pocket knife, a Dremel tool, and way too many hours of pondering how to lay things out to fit them into the tin.

Sadly, it is a Christmas present, so I won't be able to gloat too much showing it to friends, since it will be halfway around the country in a few days. Hopefully, the photo set will serve as enough of a record.

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December 05, 2005

AdSense accuracy?

Ah, now, there's the rub. Last week, I explained how I was now tracking Google Adsense clicks using Google Analytics. Now, the method used is a little less than reliable, but it appears to record clicks accurately. Since then, I've been enjoying better Adsense stats than the Adsense site shows - Analytics lets you see the sequence of page views that led to each "goal" accomplishment. As well, it reports things like which keyword hits on search engines led to what percentage of ad clicks. Also, Analytics tracks user sessions, so I can see how many clicks per browsing session, vs. exposures and page views, which is usually all that's available.

My blog is fairly low traffic, and my traffic is bimodal - readers: people truly browsing the web or even specifically reading my blog, and searchers: people who are actively searching the web and encounter my page for one reason or another. I gather, based on the early Analytics reports, that my suspicions about these two traffic classes are both true: readers don't tend to click links, and web searchers have a pretty high tendency to do so.

Anyone, with such small numbers, it's easy to notice another problem. Remember, the Adsense+Analytics hack from last week should only report less or the same clicks than actually happen, since it just logs based on ad text clicks. It also does so without modifying the code (which might fall afoul of of the Adsense terms).

Any AdSense ad code, search box code, or referral code must be pasted directly into Web pages without modification. AdSense participants are not allowed to alter any portion of the ad code or change the layout, behavior, targeting, or delivery of ads for any reason.

At least, I take this to be true. The intermediary code doesn't change any of the pasted Adsense code, nor change the behavior of the ads - it does ad additional telemetry to the system. Perhaps this is why this clause sounds so broad: they want to prevent people from being able to notice what I have: Adsense-counted clicks are quite a bit less than recorded clicks. Since last Tuesday, Adsense has reported the following per-day clicks: 7,0,1,0,0,2, while Analytics has recorded 2,4,5,4,2,5.

I know Google discounts certain clicks, to prevent automated clicking from happening, and folks getting credit for clicking on their own links. Thing is, I never click on my own links. So, since there's no oversight, how am I to prevent Google from essentially never paying me for 1/2 of my ad clicks?

I'll be eager to track how this develops. I wonder if there's something wrong in my data collection, or if Google really thinks that such a high percentage of my scarce links are bogus. In which case, Google or its advertisers are probably getting a great deal on small-time blogs like mine which attract visitors which click on ads. I'll definitely post again once there's a larger pool of data to compare against.

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December 02, 2005

VoIP hardware hacking: the cheap telephone to computer soundcard adapter

Since at least the year 2000, I've been looking for a solution to the "how do I plug my phone into my computer" question. Several products have seemed to be moving too slowly toward a price point I'd've bought. I think the original idea was to use a real phone to make calls through the then-free Dialpad service.

Oh, sure, I've tinkered with hardware. I've got a pair of Creative Labs (supposedly, though it appears they were just repackaged Innosphere devices) VoIP Blasters I bought for $20+s/h, after Creative decided to dump inventory, just before the slashdot article that made them scarce. Of course, that's a fairly nice piece of hardware, with cruddy software (and, though there are open-source replacements, the built-in irrevocable g.723.1 codec is, well, a pain), and, consequently, has gotten almost no use.

After the VoipBlasters, I watched several line-level to phone adapter devices go by, often costing $80 or more. Just wasn't worth it.

Last year, when I really getting into VoIP, I picked up some good standalone hardware, a Sipura (now Linksys) SPA-2000, and later a SPA-3000. Those are great boxes, but they don't let you plug a phone into your computer directly, meaning, if you want to interact with software-only tools (like reigning champ Skype) you'd have to deal with a lot of hacks, or control a lot of the pathway to the other side.

Finally, enough hobbyists were getting into this stuff that I started seeing explanations of how to build the thing yourself. In particular, a company has put together a fairly cheap solution already, and, since they didn't have the software done when the put the product on the market, it's now widely used by people who home-build the same thing, meaning that you could build such a device and have it be more than just a telephone-shaped headset, but actually interact in the call generation (the Chat-Chord software even generates dialtone, er, sometimes...). I decided to give one of them a shot, the Grynx tutorial sounded easy enough. I ordered the parts, but, when they got here, it turned out that for one critical centerpiece, a phone-specific transformer, I had ordered not quite the right thing. Whoops.

Then, eureka, another tutorial came along. This one didn't appear to use any hard-to-find components, just a pile of resisters and capacitors. I dropped by Rad Shack on the way home tonight, and picked up what I still needed (I already had the female RJ11, and the 1/8" computer wires, cut from an old broken headset), and sat down to breadboard things together.

Amazingly, I wasn't missing any parts, and things went together pretty straightforwardly.... I bought too many resisters, and I'd bought a grab bag of potentiometers and capacitors, so I had to do some tinkering and measuring. Once I found the bits, and put them all together, I plugged it into my computer, plugged in a phone, and, without further ado, I had recording. Sound levels seemed fine, too. I thought I'd broken the line return part of the circuit, but then I checked my wires, and found I'd plugged the line return into the wrong plug on my computer.

Bottom line: It works! Here's a pic:
A working uber-cheap telephone to computer line level adapter

... now, to not break it while transferring it from breadboard to a case. I'm thinking an Altoids case, since that seems to be a popular trick lately. Anyone got an extra spare one?

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