My Experience With Vonage (a.k.a. Why Vonage Sucks)

About half a year ago, I decided to go sign up for a Vonage account. This was mainly because I found myself needing to send faxes quite a bit, and it didn’t seem too expensive. So I signed up.

A week later, I got a special Linksys into which I’d plug a regular phone and my computer. Setup was pretty straightforward, and I was able to place a call over it immediately. Success!

But even over the first week, there started to emerge some weirdnesses. Like how the ringing sound would keep playing a few seconds into an answered conversation or into the beginning of a voicemail greeting. Or how the router itself would reboot about once a day, sometimes requiring a full power cycle in order to start routing packets again. Or how incoming phone calls sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, depending on the phase of the moon or something.

The worst part about it was that the primary reason for getting Vonage, sending long-distance faxes, fell through. About two thirds of the numbers I tried to fax to didn’t work. It wasn’t even that the fax didn’t succeed two thirds of the time – trying again to fax a number where it didn’t go through wouldn’t help. As soon as I plugged in the good old fashioned analog landline, 100% of my faxes went through.

I decided to cancel Vonage. I called them up, spent 10 minutes on hold, and explained I wanted to cancel. They transferred me to the account services department after another 5 minutes of holding. They then explained that they could have a technician call me back and talk with me about my fax problems to see if they could be resolved. I was dubious, since this didn’t really sound too much like a user error: there was no specially configuring the router for “magic actually working fax” mode as far as I could tell – it was just a matter of when I plugged my fax machine into Vonage, it usually didn’t work, and into the land line and it was happy. But all the same, I was plied into not cancelling with two free months of Vonage and a promise that next Wednesday afternoon, a technician would call me back to work out the faxing problems with me.

The technician never called. I forgot about Vonage, except for whenever my crappy Linksys Vonage router decided to reboot. Two months passed, and I started getting billing notices from Vonage again, despite the fact that I hadn’t made a call on Vonage in half a year. I called them up again today to cancel for real.

This time I spent half an hour on hold before I could get the chance to talk to someone who could cancel my account. And once I did manage to get a hold of someone,
they had this wacky bug with their phone system, such that it actually started playing out voice prompts on top of our conversation. It was stunningly unprofessional, if a little amusing in retrospect.

ME: Hi; yes, I’d like to cancel my Vonage account.

SUPERVISOR: Okay, I’ll start the process, I’ll just…
SYSTEM: THANK YOU FOR CALLING VONAGE; WE APPRECIATE YOUR…
Hello?
Hello, sir?
BUSINESS. FOR ISSUES WITH YOUR PHONE SERVICE, PLEASE PRESS
I WOULD LIKE TO CANCEL!
I’m very sorry sir, hold on just a second.
ONE. FOR ACCOUNT ISSUES, PLEASE PRESS TWO.
[sigh] I’ve been on hold half an hour.
[sigh]
TO SPEAK WITH A VONAGE REPRESENTATIVE PLEASE…

After all that, the supervisor didn’t actually cancel my account. No, no, that would be too easy. She instead merely indicated that she had initiated the cancellation process and gave me a lengthy numerical transaction ID to indicate that was now in their system queued for terminiation. She asked for my cell number and told me that in the next few days I could expect a call finalizing the cancellation.

I’m really missing something here.

When I log onto the Vonage customer interface, there should be a button labelled clearly “cancel”. I click it, my account is gone, presto. Instead, they try and put you through this ridiculous rigamarole. The intent is clearly to make it so painful to leave that you’ll just give up and let them keep charging you $20+/mo for a service you never use. If you make someone wait half an hour on their cell phone, make them jump through hoops and Interactive Voice Response Systems and multiple levels of call supervisors and processes, then it perhaps just becomes not worth someone’s time to cancel your service.

Where this works against them is that people, burned by experiences like this, will stop subscribing to similar services. And it will also hopefully work against them when annoyed customers like myself publish jeremiads like this warning customers about their company.

So I’ll just come out and say it – don’t use Vonage. It has a few neat features, but they’re not worth the price of admission and they’re absolutely not worth the price of trying to leave if you don’t like it. Use Skype or your cell phone.

-David Weekly
August 1st, 2005

 

UPDATE December 3, 2005

So Vonage tried to continue billing me, after they had swore to me twice the service was cancelled. I issued chargebacks on each one, which Vonage STUNNINGLY decided to rebut, including in their rebuttal the information that I had cancelled and that they had tried to bill me post-cancellation. I called my bank to block the charges from Vonage, to be told alternately that that was and wasn’t possible. After receiving two more notices that Vonage had continued charging my account in October and November, I finally was pushed over the limit and sic’ed the BBB on Vonage. It worked! Vonage refunded me my money, minus a surprise $40 cancellation fee. Amusingly enough, they tried to send me an email after that that asked if I wanted to terminate service with them, and if I did, to call a certain number. The tirade I launched in return seems to have guaranteed that I won’t hear from them again. Vonage is the worst company I’ve ever dealt with.

Consumption

a very rambling and awfully incoherent saturday writing, done without the benefit of breakfast, or even lunch.

I worry, perhaps, that the Internet is getting too good at what it is trying to do, which is to say, feeding people interesting information as soon as it happens; putting them in touch with interesting people and offering zero-latency discovery, communication, and dialogue.

Why would I worry about this? Because I feel it deadening my own capacity for deeper reflection upon the world. It’s the very reason for which I do not watch television. Television is simply too effective at capturing my attention – everything in me directs me, forces me to stare at this glass box with moving pictures. I resent such animalistic string-pulling, so I don’t have a TV and don’t watch one. In the same way that the television is graphically titillating, the Internet is information-titillating.

Every single random, weird, or funny thing that happens to anybody, anywhere, all within moments of it happening; it’s infinitely entertaining, and yet, infinitely dull — I do not know these people! And the rate at which the information comes in leaves little opportunity for quiet reflection upon their import.

This is the quintessential divide between knowledge and wisdom.

There is much money to be made in knowledge transfer – people will pay good money to consume information they are interested in. But a deep understanding of how to apply these facts to everyday life, how to actually live a fulfilling and active life – that has very little profit in it, because happy people without needs don’t tend to buy as much as people who are convinced that going shopping really is a good way to relax and enjoy themselves.

The goal would then be to create ever more information that is ever more valuable to a person while at the same time, giving them so much that they have no time to digest it. “The unreflective life is not worth living,” it is said, and yet this is what we are driven towards as information gluttons.

It is in the production of knowledge that we learn most; a subject is not deeply understood until it can be taught. For every hour we sit passive, consuming, we ought spend two thinking, producing. Even if noone is to read our words, hear our music, admire our paintings, the creation of them alone and the consideration put into their conception will help us think more critically about that which we consume and, in that endless cacophany of information, will give us a voice by which we may uniquely be heard.

work isnt wolf In a wood will not escape

I had a weird experience today chatting with a hacker on ICQ who had taken over my friend’s account. The conversation’s too weird to have made up:


343907: David do you want a digital copy of PC Magazine?
Think: ?
343907: Who such, why in a cap, why without a cap?
343907: russian joke
Think: er…i’m not sure i get it.
343907: Read the alphabet Study to think on russian
Think: This isn’t Phantom Joe, is it.
Think: why are you hacking his account?
343907: because I am russian HACKER
Think: you are lame
Think: you’re just being rude, not cool.
Think: it’s not like ICQ account-nabbing is difficult, either.
343907: ???? i` dont understend you
Think: you’ve gone and messed up this poor guy’s account
Think: he’s a nice guy – an australian.
343907: i`m badboy from odessa
343907: Terribly?
Think: no, but he’s had to go sign up for a new account and try to remember all of his friends’ UINs. it’s just a pain, that’s all.
Think: there are much cooler ways to use your talents.
Think: you live in Odessa?
343907: yes
Think: that would make you a Ukranian hacker, not a Russian hacker. 😉
343907: In soul I russian !! Odessa only there is on Ukraine and city this Russian
343907: Well what was frightened?
Think: frightened?
343907: Fright
Think: who is frightened?
343907: you
Think: of what?
343907: because I Ukranian HACKER
Think: [sigh]
Think: absolutely shaking, yes.
Think: truth be told, i think you are a little kid who is just desperately trying to impress others.
Think: you’re talking with me because you’ve got nothing better to do with your time.
Think: i think you should just hand the account back over to my friend and put yourself to productive use.
343907: Fuck OFF
Think: i’m sorry, child.
Think: get a job.
Think: there are better ways to make money and friends.
343907: work isnt wolf In a wood will not escape
Think: eh?
343907: [russian text]
Think: i’m sorry, but my client doesn’t display Russian, nor do I understand Russian.
343907: Search the interpreter
Think: i’m sorry, but i’m at work and am a little busy.
Think: i do hope you’ll use your talents in a more productive fashion
Think: than annoying nice people that you don’t know.
343907: ok

Server Issues (2005)

Some of you may have noticed that david.weekly.org was down last week for several days. Email to me bounced and there was general havoc in my online life. What happened? Did I get slashdotted? No.

I happened to notice that my email wasn’t working Tuesday afternoon. (I had been away on Monday.) I tried going to my website; nothing. I tried pinging my computer — clearly down. I biked over to where I keep my server, and that’s when I noticed that something was really wrong.

The power supply in my server had died hard at about 5:30pm on Monday night after over three years of faithful service. In plainspeak, it was out cold; not even the slightest response to pushing the power button. (This has nothing to do with the power problems on my Compaq client.)

I tore out the harddrives (lacerating myself several times and breaking a spare cable) and biked back to my dorm fast as could be. I got a spare server out from under my bed (doesn’t everyone have one of those?) and set to work transferring the soul of d.w.o to the new box.

As it turned out, I wasn’t entirely successful in transferring the operating system; just the website itself. This wasn’t too bad, because it forced me to upgrade my server components to the latest versions of things. It took me three days to get the whole shebang up and going, and even now my email is still a little weird (messages don’t get properly time/date stamped!), but the whole joint is (roughly) working.

RPM Find was an absolute godsend at finding the different files that I needed. There seem to be a good number of tools for helping someone update their server, although I’m a little surprised that they haven’t taken the next step in automation. (“Update Server?” *click*)

I spent too much time administrating, though, and am now looking to completely outsource all of my hosting. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a provider that can offer all of the flexibility that I have in running my own server at the same time as being cheap. I’ll let you know when I jump on anything definite. =)

In the meantime, it’s back to writing a cryptographically secure Instant Messenger, writing a book, learning TAPI, and structuring web data!

Bypassing Ad Blocking

This article describes modern ad-blocking technique, their effectiveness, and how advertisers are likely to work around them.

I’ve had some great degree of success in using the FireFox AdBlock plugin to pretty much wipe all ads from my web browsing experience. When I see an ad now, it’s a bug that I can fix easily – I just right-click on the image or ad frame, pick “AdBlock”, and the URL for the image/frame comes up, usually looking something like:

http://server1.myadfarm.com/servead.php?blah=1&blah=2

I’ll then replace all of the ad-specific bits with stars to create a pattern match:

http://*.myadfarm.com/*

What I’ve done is in one fell swoop eliminate any ads at all from an ad provider. Truth be told, there are only about a dozen big ad providers like this, so with a dozen entries in your filter list, you’ve already blocked a substantial percentage of ads on the Net.

Another class of ads is served by a site from generic ad-serving software. So if you’re on coolsite.com, reading some cool content, you might see some ads like:

http://coolsite.com/ad/serve.asp?foo=bar
or
http://ads.coolsite.com/serve.asp?foo=bar

These are blocked with still fairly simple filters:

http://coolsite.com/ad/*
or
http://ads.coolsite.com/*

The issues really start coming up when sites deliver pages that intermingle real content along with advertising within the delivered HTML. As long as the client has to do separate and distinguishable work in fetching valuable content versus fetching an ad, it will remain fairly easy for people to write ad blockers.

So what the server really ought to give the client is either ads already baked into the HTML (Yahoo already does this in placing ads for itself on its own properties!) or URLs for ads that are made indistinguishable from the URLs for content.

In the former method, the server performs the ad-fetch itself and injects the results into the returned document as part of a seamless, singular HTML file. This works fine for text-only ads, but to ensure the images render properly, they will have to be located at URLs indistinguishable from “real” images by a simple pattern match.

One solution is to have hashed / random directory and file names, tracking on your server which are ads and which are content. So a site could have images as follows:

the ad: http://coolsite.com/images/ab4ff192ac/612.gif
content: http://coolsite.com/images/fab2392101/513.gif

If you want to block ad images, you’ll have to block all images.

Now, with a finite number of ads, users could still in theory assemble a relatively comprehensive list of content vs. ad images and even coordinate these lists in realtime (so only the first user to see an ad would have to endure it). So ideally, the URLs would be session-based. Namely, every visitor to your website sees a different URL for fetching ad and content images, even though your webserver is internally mapping them all to the same images. As a side note, content images and ad images should be of the same format and size – some rudimentary ad blockers simply block out ad banners that match an industry standard ad format.

The latter approach of having client-loaded ad content is analagous to the image-cloaking above. Separate frames or loaded JavaScript should be at changing URLs that overlap with the same patterns as content. With JavaScript another option is to bake in the ad code with other critical site scripting (like navigation) in the same .js file. This makes it harder to block.

Ultimately, I think that the web will follow TV trends, where advertising becomes more thematically baked into commercial sites. If advertising is truly visually and programatically separable, it will be separated, and site operators will end up operating at a tremendous loss. To avoid this, and to save free commercial services, I think we’ll see operators deploying techniques like this commensurately with the rise in popularity of sophisticated ad blocking tools.

In some twisted sense, both sides want this arms race to stop. People who already have a good ad blocking solution don’t really want to many other people to catch on – otherwise the gig’s up as content providers are forced to bypass users’ blocks. They’d like to remain an elite of people getting an ad-free experience. And the advertisers certainly would rather not have to dramatically ramp up their spending on technology to outwit the blockers; they like the status quo just fine. Frankly, as long as quality ad blocking requires pattern matching comprehension and installing FireFox with a plugin, everyone’s probably fine. The issue will be if next-gen browsers try to make ad blocking technologies more accessible – a short-term win but a long term unpleasant war.

The PS3 & Blu-Ray

The PS3 will be significant for Blu-Ray. And vice versa.

The PS2 sold very well in Japan when it was released for a simple but amazing reason: it was one of the cheapest DVD players on the market. And oh, by the way, it could also play thousands of games and was a next-gen video console.

If Blu-Ray looks to pass muster with the court of public opinion (Goodness knows how people are eager to show off their HDTVs in ways that DVDs just can’t), then the PS3 will probably sell like hotcakes, since the console is likely to be coming out just as the first commercial Blu-Ray players are being launched in the US. This puts those initial non-Sony player manufacturers in the unenviable position of having to undercut the PS3, since it’s not likely that their devices will also be able to play thousands of video games.

Folks considering buying a Blu-Ray player will consider getting a PS3 now, as folks on the fence about a PS3 versus, say, a Nintendo Revolution might be nudged into getting the PS3 just to be able to play Blu-Ray discs.

Microsoft is, of course, playing a similar card with HD-DVD and the XBox360. But I would personally bet on Sony over Microsoft when it comes to consumer hardware: about the only consumer hardware Microsoft has done well has been their mouse. (Apologies to fans of the Microsoft Natural keyboard. And maybe to Halo fans. But no apologies to the clueless monkeys who bought things like the MS cordless phone.)

Like many of you, I’m eager to see what develops when technology giants spend billions to outdo each other in making shiny, fun toys.

David’s Two Rules of Business

I’m still a business newbie, I’ll admit it. I haven’t made a million dollars yet and I haven’t been on the cover of a magazine in a while. (Although I was the subject of a Fortune cover article back in the day.) But it’s been my sense that beyond the typical business schtick that I’m busily trying to catch up on, there are two solid rules for getting ahead with a company that others haven’t really just come out and said. So here goes.

Rule One: Employ Monkey Armies.

As an individual, you are only worth as much value as you create. And there’s only so much value you can create alone! This is why many businesses have more than one employee. To gain leverage, you’ll need minions to do your bidding. Ideally, armies of unpaid servants. The best (and arguably most ethical) way to do this is with servers. Get your hands on some servers to leverage the heck out of yourself. Write scripts to automate your work. Automate everything – let your army of servers take care of things for you.

If tasks cannot be automated by computers and aren’t critical, find bored people on the Internet and make your task into a game. A lot of people like playing games and, like Tom Sawyer, they may end up gladly doing your work for you, producing content and categorizing it, rating it, editing it, all for their amusement and your benefit.

If it’s critical, find someone else to do it. You should deal primarily with either people who are inexpensive (as contractors) to do relatively simple work or with people to whom you’d trust your life to partner seriously. You’d be amazed at the kind of help you can get for $10-$20/hour, even in the Bay Area. In the grand scheme of things, this is not much money. Spend it and give yourself leverage.

Rule Two: “Steal.”

I don’t mean this literally. Don’t run around looting or robbing people. But if there are services, software, or resources that you can use for free, you really should do so. Run on Linux (or *BSD). Use MySQL (or Postgres). Use Perl, PHP, Python, and Ruby. With the tools you will be scaling, make sure they’re free. (It’s okay to spend good money for productivity software or software that doesn’t need to scale, like Photoshop.) Find cheap servers for sale and negociate a good hosting contract. You’ll be in charge of your own cluster in no time. It’s not as hard as you think – just do it!

Google spends huge amounts of money making AdWords easy to use; but nobody said you have to use them longterm. This means that you can very quickly try a dozen different slogans, put them in front of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, see how they fare against each other, and change your messaging dependently. You’ve paid Google about ten bucks for what otherwise would have been tens of thousands of dollars of market research.

Why Blade Servers Aren’t Smart

This article explains why thin form-factor servers like blades may not be a good idea.

You may have heard of the superthin form factor of Internet servers called blades. They’re designed to be packed to the gills in a datacenter, so hundreds of servers can be squeezed into a single rack. This sounds like a good idea for people who are short on space.

The truth is that most people are not actually short on space. Space at a colocation facility, while not free, is very cheap. That’s because most of what actually costs money is power and bandwidth. Power has to be charged doubly since every watt of electricity given a server has to be spent again to pump the server’s heat out of the facility. With the dramatic recent increases in fuel costs, we can probably expect electricity prices to continue climbing at a rate that will make it a significant portion of the cost.

Since the goal is to save money, someone considering purchasing a blade system should ask if it is likely to save them real estate costs (yes, since you can squeeze more servers in), electrical costs (not really, since blade servers are not necessarily more power efficient on a computations-per-watt basis), aquisition costs (MUCH higher per computational unit than for a standard server), and maintainance costs (MUCH higher, since you’re locked into a rare-vendor solution). Plus, since there’s no real standardization on blade form factors (deliberately!), upgrades are going to be expensive and support might simply vanish a year or two down the road if the vendor decides not to engage blades anymore.

Blades offer a mild savings in real estate costs for a huge penalty in upfront costs plus a great deal more risk with support and future expansion. While they’re sexy, blades are just not a good idea.

VoIP Colorizing Logger

This article describes a system for making useful transcripts of Voice over IP (VoIP) chats.

If you already have a VoIP based conferencing system that’s taking and mixing several users’ voice inputs and rebroadcasting the result, it would be handy to have an automated transcriber that could record the conversation in a useful format for later reference. Transcription results could be available on a website after the call, on a website in realtime, streamed over IM in realtime, or emailed out to participants as the call terminates.

A speech parser process is attached to each incoming line, and as each word is completed is appended to a shared buffer with a tag corresponding to the voice line being parsed. Results are colored per the voice line, and preliminary output could be as follows:

Hi. Jim here. Anyone else on this line yet?
Ted here. John is here too. Let’s begin.
Hi Jim.
Great. Are we a go for the presentation tomorrow?
We’ll need to update the Northeast numbers. They’re off.
Mary said she’d fix that tonight. I think we..
We’ll actually just be presenting West Coast numbers.
Oh.
Okay, great.

After the conversation has been completed, a third party, like a secretary, could go over the results and fill in which color corresponded to which name. This could be especially useful if subsequent conversations were to be stored in the same database – searches could then be performed, such as finding out what Ted said about Q3 numbers in the last few conversations. Having pre-filled “likely participants” available as a drop-down list selection could make quote assignment particularly easy. It is understood that this system might not work ideally for situations where multiple parties are on a single line. But as offices become increasingly virtualized, it’s more likely than ever that none of the participants are actually in a room together during a meeting.

The Intellectual Property Wage Slave

The Intellectual Property Wage Slave
or
Why You Should Quit Your Job
A study of the productivity of software programmers shows the most talented coders to be over 100 times more efficient than the meanest. It is clear, however, that there is nowhere near a commensurate increase in pay.

Common programmers may expect to earn at least $60,000/year but it is rare for even superstar programmers to command above $150,000, excepting very specialized markets like kernel driver development.

If we are to assume that companies would not generally hire employees
not worth their keep, the talents of the most elite of programmers are
going almost wholly unrewarded. The first lesson from this is that
companies should seek the brightest programmers as the brighter the
programmer, the more efficient the returns. Put another way, it is
well worth a company’s money to pay 30% more annually for an engineer
who will accomplish many times more work. A secondary discovery is
noting that, if all this is true, outsourcing to lesser-skilled
programmers as a small cost savings is a foolish conservancy and must
only be a short-lived fad.

As a programmer, however, the most powerful corollary is that wage
labor for my skills is insensible. The advantage of software is its
easy replication: once formed, a service or product may be readily
resold without further expense. The financial success of my labors is
scarce limited by anything but the quality of the marketing
performed. Consequently, for most markets we find software development
has almost infinite leverage – in exchange for a fixed amount of
labor, there is a nearly unlimited upside. The programmer who accepts
a salary for his endeavors sacrifices the leverage of his own work for
the comfort and security of a regular check, which as already noted
must but for the lowest-skilled far underestimate the value provided.

In a small sense this is allayed by stock options and the like, but
these are principally to give the appearance of offering the
wage laborer a slice of the success of his efforts; after the first
dozen employees, it is rare to find an engineer not a VP or CTO to be
in possession of anything but the shyest portion of a company. The
feeling of ownership, however false, usually suffices to content the
laborer that he is being treated justly.

Much of the preservation of the status quo in intellectual property is
owed to the mild complacency that accompanies a reasonably safe and
secure existence. In truth, while the expert engineer may only be
seeing a small portion of the value he creates, he does not find
his station unbearable. With six-figure salaries, stock options, large
bonuses, retirement plans, and rich benefits, few luxuires of modern
life evade his grasp. It is therefore only the most greedy or
adventurous that care to break these golden shackles, taking in their
place the gritty tackle of a life of uncertainty and profligate
challenge.

But in taking the full risk and reward of the enterprise upon himself,
the programmer who is not sorely wanting in skills of business
or marketing must soon find himself enjoying the fruits of
his labors, albeit many times only after years of difficult and
uncertain unpaid labor. A quick look at many of the most successful
entrepreneurs shows this model to be practically the norm.

The discovery of wealth is thus to be found at the temporary expense
of comfort and security. But, while there may be intervening poverty
while the entrepreneur’s first efforts are underway, with success is
found the ultimate in job security – the freedom to survive without a
wage. The freedom enjoyed by the wealthy and self-sufficient in this
world is equalled only by the fierceness of the slavery forged by
debt. For while there exist industries around multiplying the fortunes
of the rich, many more exist to multiply the debts of the poor and
those impatient of luxury. Wages and debt go hand in hand – for
creditors only make loans which can be repaid regularly. Consequently, the
singular most important question they ask when ascertaining credit is
one’s present wages. The consumer is then set in a delicate balance of
monthly income to monthly expense. Such a balance can ill afford the
years of poverty required by independent enterprise, especially when
the financial burdens of family and higher education enter in. The
wage slavery of intellectual property workers therefore has as much to
do with the requisites of servicing debt as it does the soft comfort
of a regular paycheck.

It is a bittersweet tale of modern capitalism that so many should,
under pressures of debt, dispose of their freedom and leverage, so
sacrificing the gains of their labors almost entirely to one, who
through prudence or happy circumstance, finds himself to have the time
and disposition to form a new endeavor. The further gains of this
cycle repeat themselves, excepting a few choice workers who themselves
through chance or talent came early to join an endeavor and partook,
by way of stock, of a not inconsiderable portion of a success. It is
this fleeting and elusive happenstance, not entirely unlike a lottery,
to which graduating and aspiring engineers are exhorted, though the
chances of anything but modest gains are slim.

To my fellow programmers and knowledge workers, I beg of you to then:

  • AVOID DEBT
    Debt is slavery; having to service debt removes your freedom and flexibility to pursue wealth & happiness.
  • TAKE RISK IMMEDIATELY
    There is no time like the present; while you have plausible reasons
    why you should not take risks at present, these reasons will only
    multiply in the future. The sooner you take risk upon you, the easier
    it will be.
  • STRIVE ALONE OR IN SMALL GROUPS
    While a large company has much to offer in comfort and
    infrastructure, most IP work doesn’t actually require vast amounts of
    in-house experience. Much can be outsourced. Having a small group or
    working solo will let you see a healthy portion of the value you are
    creating.

It is terrifying and gratifying to live off of the fruits of your labors alone, not coddled or ruled by another.

This, truly, is the American dream. For engineers, there has been no other time better to seize upon the travails and rewards of entrepreneurship than the present.

Go get ’em!

 

‘Pull’ Devices

A few days ago, it occured to me that it would be useful if my alarm clock knew to awake me an hour before my first appointment of the day, as automatically pulled down from my Yahoo! Calendar. All the alarm clock would really need to do is to have a net drop (wifi / ethernet) and every half hour or so attempt to establish a connection to a central server and ask if there were any updates to my schedule. The alarm clock itself wouldn’t need any additional interface itself! When the user first buys the alarm clock, they go to the central website, punch in the serial number on the bottom of the alarm clock and configure their clock on the remote website, such as configuring synchronization with Yahoo! (or other calendaring services). When the alarm clock checks into the server, it self-identifies with its serial number and pulls down your information (as well as the current time, accurate to microseconds, properly adjusted for daylight savings).

As Ethernet/WiFi chips become cheaper and more common, we should expect to see this level of integration in a great number of devices. This differs slightly from previous visions of the “networked home” in which smart devices, such as refrigerators, coffeepots, etc, would have either their own user interfaces or where they would be running their own little HTTP servers responsible for the logic of the device’s operation (similar to how many NATs work these days), since the user interface would not only not be physically on the device (with knobs and buttons and displays), but it wouldn’t even logically be on the device (with a website hosted on the device).

The advantage of this approach is that it reduces to an absolute minimum the intelligence that needs to be on the end device; the server interface could be accessed many different ways in theory (web, email, phone, IM, etc) without any added need for complexity in the end device. As long as there is a simple protocol that exposes to the server the capabilities of the device, the problem is solved from the device’s standpoint and has been future-proofed without needing any dangerous “flash upgrades”.

This methodology works particularly well for simple pieces of equipment that benefit from being synchronized with a digital lifestyle. I’m pretty sure a toaster wouldn’t qualify, but alarm clocks and coffeemakers could plausibly fall under this category. Another variant of this approach could involve first using Rendezvous-like technology to have the alarm clock seek out a local “calendar server source”; failing that, the alarm clock would fall back to attempting to contact a central calendaring server. That way, local resources could be used as appropriate (if the clock is at home), but there is useful operation away from a local calendar server (if the clock is on the road).

On Podcasting

A number of friends have asked me of late what my take is on podcasting. It’s certainly a hot new buzzword; but is it really the “next step for blogging”? It doesn’t seem obvious to me.

Now, from the one perspective, it’s just blogging audio, right? It’s just like blogging, but for your ears, so you can take it with you in the car or on a jog, and it’ll make the blog experience even more immersive. Microphones are cheap and sound editing software isn’t that hard to come by, go the arguments, so with a few more tools and maybe a telephone gateway or two, you should be able to blog your voice!

I’m not sure this is going to fly.

To see why I have my doubts, I’d like to explain why I think blogs work. Call me an optimist, but I think many people have the potential to become passably good writers with but little training – perhaps even a half-day with Strunk & White’s classic “Elements of Style” could suffice for a good many. Text on a screen can be easily scanned for nuggets of interesting insight, indexed and searched, cut-and-pasted for easy quoting, and trivially edited and revised to improve its quality. Comments are left in the same medium as the
content, and an article can be hyperlinked to allow blogs to perform “metareporting” and to cite and draw users to interesting articles and/or discussions going on on other blogs. You can stop reading a piece of text when you get interrupted by something else and can
quickly scan to recover your place, regain context, and continue reading.

Podcasts, aka audioblogs, have none of these advantages. To produce a high-quality audio recording, a quiet sound room is needed with a good quality microphone and, more importantly, a great voice. It is my humble opinion that people can be much more easily trained to be serviceable writers than they can become even approachably pleasant to listen to in monologue. It’s considerably more difficult to edit audio to reword or restructure things; more often than not, a segment needs to be wholly rerecorded in a second, third, or fourth take. The audio itself cannot contain hyperlinks that can let a user dig into a story,
nor can the audio be quickly skimmed – it must be listened to at the rate it was recorded. Comments, if offered, are in a different medium from the podcast itself and are therefore much less likely to be active or seen by those consuming the podcast. The content of the
podcast cannot be searched or indexed in a meaningful fashion (at least until Google supports voice recognition to auto-transcribe podcasts). If you get interrupted while listening to a podcast (likely, especially since hearing words tends to be a much slower
process than reading them, saving the case of a dyslexic listening to an auctioneer), it’s much more difficult to recover your place and recall the context in which your listening was interrupted.

So, with the exception of some professionally-styled productions like Engadget‘s podcast or KenRadio.com, most of what’s out there ends up being poorly-delivered longwinded rants that have very little connection to each other and can’t be skimmed. Think the very worst of AM radio and then some. Not exactly the sort of thing you’d put on over music when going for a jog or driving down the road.

I don’t see it as likely then, even with much-enhanced tools, that “podcasting for the masses” will ever have the same weight, influence, or quality as blogs, given that podcasts lack nearly all of the qualities that made blogs endearing and popular. This is not to say
that we won’t see a handful of professional, targeted podcasts winning out the “morning talk radio” demographic, but I’m baffled at the notion of thousands of listeners tuning in to hear Grandma go on for fifteen minutes about how her hairdrier got stuck on HIGH in the morning. It could be that I’m just being too optimistic about people wanting to spend their time well and that podcasting will actually become tremendously popular, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Nobody Makes Good Cell Phones

The cell phone market bugs me. It seems to have been taken over by marketers utterly out of touch with the reality of what people are looking for in a phone, their singular focus instead on a cheap game of one-upmanship with the competition. In recent talks with others and their pleasure or displeasure with their phones, I’ve found that I’m not the only one who’s annoyed here. So what’s got my goat?

Modern cell phones try to be good at everything and are good at nothing.

First and foremost, a phone should be good at being a phone. My personal principles on what makes a good phone are that it should be easy to make & receive calls, the battery
should last a long time, it should be easy to look at the screen and see who is calling, and the phone should be hard to break. Furthermore, the ideal phone should be lightweight and easy to carry, feel good in the hand, and limit the amount of radiation to which your head is exposed. Modern cell phones have compromised exellence on almost every one of these basic principles in order to offer extras which are of almost no benefit to most cell phone users.

Useless Feature 1: Color Screens
So you might be thinking that I’m a Luddite here; how could I possibly be opposed to color? Isn’t it cute? Well, color screens are cute, but I think that not all cell phone buyers find them worth the tradeoffs incurred. Most color cell phone screens are wholly unreadable without backlighting even under the most generous of conditions. Active backlighting is a huge drain on the batteries and generally requires that you press
some button, making it a little bit harder to just casually glance at your phone to check the time or an incoming call. Color screens are more delicate and complex, and are therefore are more susceptible to breakage and cost more to manufacture. The color screen adds no utility to the phone (i.e., it does not improve the ease of making or receiving calls, etc) while driving up the price, down the battery life, removing the ability to glance at your phone, and reducing your phone’s life expectancy. Color screens add a small amount of cuteness in exchange for making your phone less useful as a phone. Whether or not you agree with me here (you may be particularly enamored of your color screen), perhaps you could agree that those who don’t want a color screen on a new phone should not be forced to buy one? But when I go to the cell phone store, I can’t find non-color screens.

Useless Feature 2: Cameras
Some people might actualy want to have the ability to take 160×120 grainy little photos and pay $10 a month to send them to their friends. But many of us don’t. Adding a camera adds cost to the phone and adding in support for the camera’s functions tends to add complexity to both the software and hardware interfaces of the phone, especially when
it comes to the ability to transmit pictures over the network. Devices with cameras, including cell phones, are increasingly not allowed in certain locations; having a cell phone without a camera lets you take your phone more places. And it’s getting hard to find cell phones without cameras. (Ridiculous invention du jour: a white LED on the back of the phone that turns on a second before the picture is taken allows the cameraphones to be dubbed “comes with flash” despite the fact that the LED does almost nothing to illuminate the scene.)

Useless Feature 3: Web Access
Nearly every cell phone on the US market today has some set of web accessibility features built in. This means that you can read websites in 120×180 pixel glory, slower than over dialup. It feels kind of like trying to carve out your own eyeballs with a spork. This is really one kind of thing if we’re talking about a real PDA with a keyboard and stylus, like a Treo (in which case web features make sense), and a different thing altogether if we’re talking about a small phone. The worst part about this is that if I get certain kinds of text messages on my Sprint phone from people, I have to do the 30+ second “connecting to network” dance and navigate through their painful web UI to read and delete the message. It usually takes me about two minutes and costs $2 of “network transit” time. The biggest gripe I have with web accessibility built into a phone is that it factors promiently into decisions about the screen size. You can’t have a truly tiny phone that delivers a comfortable surfing
experience. Consequently (and perversely), phones have actually been getting larger in the past four years, despite the increased capacity to make them smaller. I don’t want the UI or the buttons for browsing the web to factor into my phone and I certainly don’t want a bulky phone because some marketer thought everyone should have the ability to surf the net from their phone (and pay through the nose for it). I want a phone that is an excellent
phone.

Useless Feature 4: DRM Ringtones
For the price of three full songs at iTunes (with accordant lifetime playback rights and
permission to sport the songs to an iPod), Sprint will give me an amazingly poorly rendered five seconds of the main chorus to a single pop song. And…here’s the mind-blowing clincher…only for 90 days. That’s right: $3 will buy you 90 days of access to a MIDI snippet of a pop song. In case that wasn’t enough, you can’t actually listen to a preview of it on your phone before buying it. In order to try and drive sales of these ringtones, newer phones have actually made it harder to enter your own ringtones. The phone I had four years ago (the incomparable Ericsson T28) made it easy to do this; I composed my own little melodies on it. The T28 is no longer for sale and newer phones have almost wholly removed this feature.

Useless Feature 5: Bluetooth
Bluetooth captivates people with its futuristic visuals – wirelessly interfacing with your computer and having a slick looking wireless earpiece that looks right out of a sci-fi movie. But wait; why do you need to interface your phone to your computer? And doesn’t that need an extra $50+ of hardware and software setup time? How is that more convenient than a simple USB cable? And aren’t the earpieces expensive and in need of separate, frequent recharging? Why not just use a wired earpiece? Not to mention the fact that this
merely incrementally-useful addition to cell phones makes it easy for someone else to read through your phonebook, calendar, and more, all without your permission. (This is called snarfing.) Bluetooth adds cost and complexity, increases the user’s RF radiation
exposure, decreases battery life, incurs extra hardware expenses externally to support it, and exposes the user to a profound invasion of their privacy; all for very little actual improvement in the cell’s utility as a phone.

So what would be the ideal phone? One that focuses on being an excellent phone at the expense of auxiliary features. It would be a clamshell design (to protect the screen/buttons); would work on GSM 900/1800/1900; could send and receive phone calls
easily; could send and receive SMS easily; have a small, grayscale screen (with subtle backlighting when needed in dark conditions); have no camera, bluetooth, or web access; easy-to-program ringtones; a battery that could last a week of normal usage without needing recharging; and fit comfortably in my front shirt pocket. The closest I’ve ever had
to this was my T28; the thing was tiny and could last close to a week without a fill-up. Does your phone offer 10.5 hours of talk time and a week of idle? It could, if manufacturers
were looking to make you the best phone.

Technologically, it’s gotten easier than ever for manufacturers to make great phones.
But caught up in the competitive fervor to make the phone with the most features and one that outdoes the competition for whizbangs and doodads, companies have lost sight of the things people actually want out of a phone and have forgotten how to make a phone great.
The company that figures this out first, goes back to the drawing board, and whips out a phone that is actually excellent at being a phone will probably capture a good slice of the market. I know I’d buy one.

Bush Won: Let’s Wake Up

So here we are, post-election, and George Bush has won. A lot of people, Bush supporters and otherwise, are dumbfounded by the numbers. The Republican party
absolutely and surprisingly spanked the Democratic party to a degree that nobody really expected.

I think a lot of my liberal friends felt like the issues were just so amazingly obvious that nobody could possibly vote for George Bush. While Kerry wasn’t the shiniest of all possible candidates, he was a reasonable contender and could certainly do a better job
than Bush. “What argument needs to be made? Isn’t it just obvious that we should toss Bush out of office?”

But the kind of religious Anti-Bush fervor into which the left has been whipped up blinds them to the reasons why people would vote for Bush. And while it’s great for rallying Democratic voters and getting hefty donations, that kind of zeal alienates the
very people that Democrats most needed to reach: undecided centrists.

And the fervor is at a religious level. I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun horrifying people by just implying that I might be Republican (I’m actually an independent). In some parts of San Francisco, a “Bush / Cheney” T-shirt might get you killed. Ironically, by being so sure of the evident nature of their argument, Democrats failed to convince those in the middle, leaving them open to the Republicans, who successfully swooped in and carried them off. (You may love or hate Carl Rove, but he is inarguably effective.)

I hear a lot of people bemoaning our countrythinking about leaving, or complaining that maybe things need to get worse before people wake up. But these are the very sorts of
strategies that cause the Democratic party to shoot itself in the foot. What Democrats need to realize is that if things do get worse in the country, it’s not going to make people vote for them. In fact, it will just serve to encourage rightist, conservative momentum, since people who voted for Bush for security reasons will feel even further justified in voting for more protectionist neo-conservatives in the same thread if they feel further threatened.

What needs to happen instead is that Democrats need to take their head out of the ground and stop whining. Dems didn’t lose this election because a horde of evil election workers decided to disenfranchise them. (I was an Elections Inspector myself for a precinct.) Dems lost the election because more people voted Republican. And they did so because they like Bush.

You can plan on Democrats getting soundly spanked until they can understand why people like Bush and why they’d pick Bush over Kerry. And all of the whining and wars in the world are not going to change that. One of the only reasonable attempts at driving the point home for the common man was a series of “Switchers” ads by the same guy who did the “Switch” ads for Apple. By focusing on people who did like Bush but then were turned off, the ads get under the skin of those likely to vote for Bush. Anything short of a refocusing of the Democratic party towards thinking along these lines – sympathising with (and not belittling) the mid-West and understanding Bush-love – will be permanently disastrous for the party and its beliefs.

And regardless of what your particular political stance is, I think we can all agree the system is healthiest when two strong parties are competing for the hearts and the minds of voters. So for the good of the country, would the Democratic party please wipe its tears off, climb down from its tower, and get to work at understanding and embracing the American people?

Your Blog Is Evidence

Your blog can and will be used against you in a court of law.

That is the conclusion that I’ve reached today after finding out that our local police department actively reads and comments upon the personal websites of the members of my house. Not only that, but they freely placed allegations gleaned from a resident’s site in a threatening letter sent to our landlord.

One part of me is happy; law enforcement is not naive and is actively keeping tabs on the publicized happenings of their neighborhood. It’s good to know that the good guys have powerful tools at their disposal and aren’t afraid to use computers.

At the same time, it *feels* like a violation of privacy. It’s technically public information, but in the same vein as having photos covertly taken of you in a public place, it does not seem to respect me as I should hope a citizen should be respected.

Now we could go the paranoid route and put a username and a password on our personal websites, just as we had to do for our house website, but that wouldn’t be just. And I still feel upset that the police managed to cow us into locking off our house website; especially when even after we had done so they made several demonstrable attempts to email us personally in the guise of people who had friends who had enjoyed previous parties, all for the purpose of trying to get us to give them a username and password. I think there is a fine line between clever investigation and entrapment here. Not cool…and possibly not legal.

But all said, I don’t see what is going on between us and the police department as warfare. They clearly do serve to protect us. I feel like we have done our utmost to respect them, show them courtesy, and done all we can to promptly address their wishes. We’ve even resolved to no longer throw any big parties at our home, which is a terrible loss to the Bay Area community. (Our house threw the only sizeable private house parties for Bay Area professionals in at least a 50 mile radius.)

But except for one or two officers who treated us kindly and directly as peers (the watch commander should be commended for her work here), I don’t feel we’ve been treated as anything close to first-class citizens. The message is clear – “You don’t belong here. We don’t like your types.” We were even lectured by one officer as to how we were worthless and weren’t even worth listening to because we don’t pay his salary. I suppose this was ostensibly because we don’t actually pay property tax ourselves, but instead pay someone who pays the property tax. To make matters verge on the farcical, he followed this up almost immediately with a threat to bill us for their services. Crazy.

So I feel like we are not at war with them; we have alerted them ahead of time as to every party we were intending to throw, have given them our cell phone numbers, and have worked hard to reduce noise levels, keep to alchoholic beverages on the premeses, and to keep folks from driving home drunk…but all to little avail. They seem to be at war with *us*. And I think that taking content that was written by a resident of a house for his friends to read and using it against him in a letter written to his landlord steps outside of the bounds of propriety for law enforcement.

I write these words knowing that they can and will be used against me by officers of the law. That’s a little scary. If you have a blog, you must now ask yourself if you would be willing to send a copy of whatever you’re writing to the police. Because, if you live in an area where the police force is well-funded, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Ghana Wrapup

So I’m back from Ghana, safe and sound minus a nasty cold I picked up on some continent. (I never get sick!) The camp was a resounding success; sorry for not posting more here earlier, but it’s been a total zoo. I got back last night at 2pm and, shortly after explaining to someone how incredibly important it is to keep awake until it’s nighttime lest jet lag kick your butt. Oops; woke up at 3am, which is always interesting. The camp ended well; the last two days of the camp (Thursday and Friday) the Internet actually behaved reasonably well, so we got to walk the kids through search engines and our Internet Scavenger Hunt, which I think the kids just loved. Saturday was largely spent sleeping and recuperating and Sunday we dropped by the market to do a little shopping. I got myself a cool little twisty-bracelet made out of three metals; it looks pretty sweet, like a secret bangle of power. Then we checked out through Amsterdam, where we got to duck out into the early morning of the city for a little non-airplane-related exercise, walking past porn supermarkets and “coffeeshops” named “Reefer”. Not much was open, but it was wonderful to explore the architecture and frankly just to have a walk around in
the fresh air.

I’m very happy I did this camp; I learned a lot about Ghana, Camp Amelia, ICT, and myself. We were written up in Pravda, interviewed live on Joy-FM twice, and were on Ghana state TV (GTV) twice! I’m really excited that it sounds like I may be able to help work with the Ghanaian government to improve their ICT infrastructure; yay! But for now, I’m back, and am trying to launch my for-profit (Coceve), keep my non-profit (CommunityColo) from running out of funds, get better, write a press release for the camp, throw a huge party, prep for and take my GMATS, apply for business school (HBS & Sloan), and setup our house as a 501(c)(7) non-profit association. Hooray for tax-deductible parties. As a funny side-note, I can’t believe how many business books I managed to polish off during my downtime in Ghana; I read at least half a dozen! Anyhow, it’s back to the thought-zoo for me. Think cold-going-away thoughts for me.

Ghana Update V

Oh, every day has such ups and downs! It’s hard to compress it all here. Immediately after the last update, I think I gave the talk of my life – the kids in the afternoon were a lot more jazzed up than the morning kids, which shouldn’t be surprising – I mean, if you had to
get up at 8:30am during your summer break to sit inside, would you be excited? I was so exhausted at the end of the day that I went right to bed without dinner at 8pm. Part of the reason why I crashed so early was that we had to get up at an insanely early hour to get on TV. That’s right, we were on “The Breakfast Show” live at around 7:00am local time. Woot, state television! After the interview, we went to the ICT Centre to get setup and also to welcome Ghana’s Minister of Education (who actually came today instead of as planned
yesterday). Peter managed to run out and grab some pastries for us, which was a real Godsend considering that I hadn’t eaten since the prior day’s lunch.

After the minister left, all hell broke loose. I was trying to teach a class about email, and a media team from GTV was very loudly navigating the room and asking people questions. Then the DNS server at the ISP died and nobody could do anything. Then it came back up and the power promptly went out. For half an hour. It is *hard* to teach email without power, but Clara and I gave it a valiant tag-team shot; I joked at the end that we should have a David-and-Clara Technology Show…which would be great provided we don’t kill each other first. Then the power went back up and I was walking kids through registering for Yahoo Mail. Which doesn’t have an option for “Ghana”. And which keeps kids under 13 from registering — which is most of our campers. Oh, and when we finally worked around all those issues and started registering campers, Yahoo blocked our IP from new registrations, probably suspicious of a bunch of new registrations from a singular, African IP address. Augh. And all of this is with web pages with load times that make modem access in the US look like broadband on steroids. 🙁 I just wanted to cry, especially when we ran across campers that were having trouble registering for Yahoo Mail because they couldn’t even read the word “cat”. literally. 🙁 Clara pointed out that it’s possible that things
like email are just a little too advanced for some of these campers. I guess I do have very high expectations for these kids; I have a general philosophy that people will rise to the hopes and expectations you have of them, but in some cases, she may be right. I am pushing these kids pretty hard, even while trying to be as fun and goofy as possible.

Ah, such highs and lows! It’s great to see the excitement that these kids have for computers, how cheap everything is, and the passion the adults and government have for getting technology into the kids’ hands. But Internet connections that regularly drop, power that is not at 100%, and 1500ms ping times make life on the Net very difficult here in Ghana. I think some software would have been written differently if it were to better accomodate connections like these; a great example is DNS, which has a 2 second timeout by default. But if the server takes more than 500ms with a request from a connection with a 1500ms RTT, it’ll count as a no-answer. So many websites are actually wholly inaccessible from Ghana, crazily enough – DNS simply doesn’t allow their names to be resolved. I’ve gotta go – time to eat a quick lunch and prep for the afternoon session. Wish us luck!

Ghana Update IV

I just got done teaching the morning session; with two classes a
session and two sessions a day, I have to lecture the same material
four times, all while trying to keep the kids excited and engaged. My
first tack was to try and give them a brisk walk-through of the
entirety of computing, but this proved a little much – simply giving
them some time in front of the word processor was one of the most
valuable things that I could do. So I decided to keep my lecture short
and sweet and get kids hacking as soon as was reasonably
expedient.

This place still cracks me up – the large painted signs
indicating “DO NOT URINATE HERE” give me the giggles. People show up
an hour late to things – or more – the minister of Education was
supposed to meet us at noon, but it’s 1:45pm and there’s still no sign
of the minister. Ah, well. And we ordered too much food and not enough
drinks; we can adjust for that tomorrow.

Last night we realized that
the relatively low cost of Internet access at BusyInternet meant that
we could possibly hand out “five hour” cards to all of our pupils for
pretty cheap. The total cost for this would be around US$500, but we
might be able to do that with our leftover “lunch money” from the bank
and if that could be enough to make the difference in the program’s
long-term impact, it would be well worth it. (thinking like a drug
dealer here: first five hours are free, kid – then they’re
hooked).

The quality of the Internet connection here bothers me,
though. Not only are web pages slow (and some are altogether
inacessible due to the way their servers are configured), but IM will
suddenly drop off every few minutes, making teaching IM to teachers a
frustrating task. We got cut off several times in the middle of saying
“So IM is much easier to use than email!” Oy. Thankfully, the IT
center pulled a surprise out of its hat with a huge, high-quality,
modern projector. It’s been very useful in helping our teaching. I
gotta go; second session’s coming in. See ya! 🙂

Ghana Update III

Busy Internet strikes again. Internet here is 12,000 cedis per hour. The exchange rate is (very roughly) 10,000 cedis per dollar. (It’s actually more like 9k and change) So that’s around $1.25/hour, which isn’t so bad and certinaly doesn’t seem so punishing that it’s keeping locals away – this place is busy and provides Internet, so no false advertising there. The bills start at 1000 cedis, or about ten cents; this means that when you get a $20 changed for a stack of 5000-cedi bills you feel RICH, which is fun; I’ll be kinda sad to not walking around with a huge fistful of money. 🙂

We start the camp tomorrow; I’m excited. We’ve finally got the basics of our curriculum picked out and we grabbed some more volunteers from church (yeah, I was the only non-black person attending), so we’re up to around 20 volunteers for 100 kids. Pravda and BoingBoing have posted our press release, and we’ve got interest from several other news organizations – more press will definitely help us out with fundraising and finding volunteers for next year.

I definitely get the sense that Ghana is a very entrepreneurial country – there are almost more startups than in Silicon Valley! Everyone has a little hut-business. The cultural intermix here is pretty funny, too. Korean trucks driving by Indian restaurants blasting American hiphop – and trashy English-redubbed Spanish soap operas are all the rage, despite the fact that there are basically no hispanics here. If there are one or two, they’re good at hiding.

Had goat for lunch; I guess I can check off another animal. My favorite is still moosemeat, which I had in Quebec; tasty stuff, that. It’s odd, because the smells from the cooking are actually not that pleasant, but I find the meals quite tasty.

Driving, or being driven, is basically an exercise in your faith in God. Everyone drives very quickly, doesn’t pay attention to vagaries such as “the correct side of the road” or “stop signs” and the roads themselves are full of fun surprises like giant potholes. Only the most major of roads are paved and street addresses basically don’t mean anything – people use PO Boxes for everything.

Getting out the camera was very funny; a crew of soccer players getting out from practice spotted me riding in the back of a truck with my camera and started cheering and posing when they saw me taking pictures of them. It was getting dark, though, so I’m not sure the picture came out.

Anyhow, all is well, I’m off to prep the last parts of the lesson plan for tomorrow. Please wish me luck! Hugs to all!

Ghana Update II

I’m at “Busy Internet” in Accra right now. We’ve been calling the people who did and didn’t manage to make the program. It seems that instead of taking 50 kids, we’re going to try and take 100 kids, doing two sessions a day. Clara had indicated that we’d be “totally fried” trying to do just 50 kids, so God only knows how intense this upcoming week will be. It sounds like I’m going to be doing the technology teaching, so I have to prep for doing four presentations a day (!) for Monday-Friday. Thankfully, we did manage to find a local sponsor for our lunch money, so the kids will be able to eat.

One thing that really amazes me here is that even though most of the streets are dirt
(and all are unlit) and everything’s a hodge-podge insanity, a full THIRD of the local businesses are computer-related; either offering IT classes, Internet access, computer repairs, computer sales, etc. These people are clearly stoked for computing, which is a tremendous boon. Teaching people who want to learn is a bajillion times easier than trying to persuade folks that they want to learn.

The food is really good; I was honestly a little worried, since I had never sampled Ghanaian fare, but the sauces, plantains, etc, are all very yummy. It’s pretty funny being the only white guy around. I think everyone should go somewhere where they’re a stranger – it helps give you perspective on strangers in your own land.

Everyone has cell phones and TVs. As might be expected, labor and food are much cheaper than the US; gas is about the same price in $US and electronics are considerably more expensive. Taxis, surprisingly, are *everywhere* and are at least as common as cars. The taxis are uniformly in just-about-to-fall-apart condition, with seats tipping as you sit
down, doors mostly-closing, and the exteriors having clearly endured more than a few dozen knockups. It seems that everyone is selling everything by the streets – coffins appropriately intermix with motorcylces on roadside displays, and throngs of men and women approach the car to knock on the glass and present everything from the daily paper to hubcaps to chewing gum to yams. Some of the more entreprising streetsalesmen tape their product to themselves; one man approached our car with a tie freshly fronted by taped-on Gillette razor blades. There are a wide variety of streetside stalls hastily erected wherever a wide-enough sidewalk permits. Measuring about three or four feet per side, you can buy phone cards, questionably fresh fish, cooked meals, or even haircuts in these little huts. Several have dire warnings spraypainted on by the police about when the huts must be removed.

I’m very happy to be here and I hope we can make a difference. These people want to learn about technology and we want to teach it, so it feels like a match. 🙂 Keep your fingers crossed for us (or pray, if you do that). We need it.