Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Prepaid Cell Phones

So, what's the real deal with prepaid cell phones?

Although I have a regular cell phone with a post-paid account I bought a prepaid cell phone to check out its pros and cons for myself. If you don't use many hundreds of minutes/month, a prepaid cell phone could definitely be less expensive.

Like all telephone plans, it took some learning (and mistakes) - in the end I feel like I've become somewhat of a reluctant expert regarding Cingular's prepaid phone plans.

I bought the cheapest phone I could find which cost $29.99 (plus tax). This plan included $10 of prepaid minutes (airtime). So, effectively, the phone cost $19.99. It's a basic phone with a simple color LCD, wall charger, and instructions. It also has basic services including SMS (not MMS) text messaging and the ability to lock the handset and SIM card. The phone can be purchased anonymously.

For starters, you have to decide on which plan you want - you have two options. Do you want to pay 10¢/minute? If so, then you'll pay $1/day for each day you use the phone. Don't want to pay the $1/day fee? Just choose the other plan which charges a flat 25¢/minute.
So which plan is for you? Simple, do you plan on using the phone for more than seven minutes per day on the days you'll be using it? If so, then choose the 10¢/min with the $1/day access fee.
Since I only use the phone for text messaging, I chose the 25¢/min plan and I pay 10¢/SMS sent and received. (America is the only country I know that charges you for both sending and receiving text messages. But that's a different story.)

The next gotcha is the expiring minutes strategy. Since there aren't any monthly access fees for the phone company to charge you when you're not using the phone they have set an expiration date on the minutes you purchase.
$10 expires after 30 days.
$25-$75 expires in 90 days.
$100 expires in 365 days.
There's one saving grace: if you purchase additional minutes before your current minutes expire then your entire balance carries over.

Changing Phone Numbers
Here's a pain I'm currently enduring - I just changed the phone number on my prepaid cell phone. The rep in the store told me that it shouldn't cost anything to get the new number and it would be effective immediately. Within minutes my SIM card was updated, over-the-air, with the new phone number.
The only problem was that the minutes didn't carry over, so the phone was effectively useless - I could neither make nor receive any phone calls - until I added more minutes. The store rep told me that it might take a few minutes, up to an hour, (or maybe 24 hours). I returned an hour later and, since it was Christmas Eve, he added $10 to the phone to get me through the rest of the day. Two days later and the minutes haven't carried over - the store reps working today told me that it might take up to five business days. Stay tuned.
Updated 1/6/07 : I finally got the funds transferred to the new number. Dialing Customer Care was a waste - after three calls, over the course of a week, I gave up on them. A manager at the retail store was the way to go. He just gave me a prepaid card of equal value and we called it a day.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Outsource Blogging

This gave me a great laugh...

Too busy to keep up on your blog? Just outsource and offshore it with Rent A Blogger!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Is it illegal to use someone's open WiFi?

If the WiFi network is open (no password required to join the network) then it should be legal to use it. If you have to break encryption to get connectivity then that should be illegal.

Here's my reasoning via analogies.

Unlocked Front Door (Bad Analogy)
Even if someone leaves the front door to their house unlocked it is still illegal for strangers to enter because they would have to trespass without the owner's permission. This is why we lock our doors.

Bedroom Window Viewable From Public Street (Great Analogy)
If someone can see into your bedroom or bathroom window with the naked eye (pardon the pun) you would draw the shade for privacy since, like WiFi, it is something that can be accessed from a public street.

Think of adding a password to your WiFi network and drawing the window shades both as privacy/security.

Friday, December 15, 2006

First Woman Marine Officer KIA in Iraq

Major Megan M. McClung was killed in action in Iraq on 6 Dec 2006. Her service includes the distinction of being the first female graduate in the history of the Naval Academy (class of 1995) to have been killed in action and she's also the first female Marine officer killed in action in Iraq.

She was hit by an IED on her way back from the Government Center in Ramadi after escorting Oliver North and his crew out to see the Marines. She was killed along with an Army captain and Army specialist. Megan had about a month left in her year long tour in Iraq.

I was two years ahead of her at the Academy and I didn't know Megan personally - yet I certainly remember seeing her around the dorm and campus.

Fellow Marines I Served With
Since I've begun this blog only a few weeks ago, I feel that I should mention Rick Gannon (left) and Ray Mendoza (right) since they are two Marine officers I knew personally and served with at Second Battalion, First Marines (2/1). They were killed in action in Iraq on 17 Apr 2004 and 14 Nov 2005 respectively. I can't believe these two guys are no longer with us.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ethics in Journalism (Lack Thereof)

I was amazed to read Sascha Segan's unethical suggestions in this PC Magazine article about how to unlock your cell phone:

"Tell your carrier's customer service representative that you're traveling abroad and want to use a foreign carrier's SIM card."

"... say you've just bought a phone off of eBay and it turns out to be locked, or you want to use a phone locked to a foreign carrier, or you want to make a prepaid phone into postpaid – you have a bunch of different options."

Basically, their advice is to make up any story in order to get your cell phone unlocked.

Is PC Magazine really encouraging its readers to lie or is this just a stunt? Pretexting "is just lying" which lead to HP's problems in the boardroom. These comments by Sascha Segan are clearly stated with the intention to deceive.

I've laid out my views on unethical behavior here.

Zune vs. iPod

I've read some pretty iPod defensive articles on the Zune and I've read some pro Zune articles.

It's easy to point your finger at the Zune and laugh - too easy since it's such a big target. Of course, we all laughed at Windows 1.0 in 1985, 18 months after the first Mac and two years after the Lisa (Lisa was the first commercial computer with a GUI). But, who was laughing when Windows 95 shipped?

Obviously, the key for Apple is to make today's iPod obsolete with tomorrow's iPod and to keep putting distance between the iPod and Zune while learning from the Zune's successes and failures.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Net Neutrality

If I understand net neutrality correctly, it means that all people and businesses get the same service if they pay the same price. Although this might be an oversimplification it seems that the best measure of service is bandwidth and uptime.

Since most broadband downtime is unpredictable, let's just focus on bandwidth. If I want, say 1.5 Mbps up and downstream, I can purchase either DSL for about $120/month or a T-1 for about $400—$500 per month. Both advertise the same bandwidth, but, obviously, the T-1 is going to give me better service. Seems laissez-faire to me - the more I pay the better the service. What's the problem?

A good metaphor for net neutrality would be USPS vs. UPS vs. FedEx. But, if you're telling me that two people can pay the same price for the same service and get different results, well, then, that's very different.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Cheap Server Farm

Here's a cheap server farm using five static IPs (seven if you count the network and broadcast IPs) to run the following services:
Mail x2
App (WebObjects) x2

Uptime has been great over the past four years. It's amazing how long some old hardware can last when you really stretch it out. There are a couple servers not in the photo and one of the servers pulls double duty.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Hamachi: Free, Easy & Secure VPN

I started using Hamachi's VPN solution a few weeks ago and it's been great. It touts itself as "zero conf" which means it needs no configuration and you can just launch the client app and it magically works through firewalls. It runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Simply start the app and create a network with any name (up to 64 characters) and it will create a network as long as one with that name isn't already created. Passwords can be unlimited length. Anyone can launch the Hamachi client and join your network as long as they know your password.

The brilliance in Hamachi is two fold. First is the fact that it assigns each client a unique "public" IP address that looks like this: 5.x.x.x. The beauty of IP addresses which begin with 5 is that the IANA has reserved the entire block of 16 million IPs. This means Hamachi's IP addresses are valid but never assigned making them semi-private. Most private IPs are used on home computer's behind a NAT router which usually look like 10.x.x.x, 172.16.x.x, or 192.168.x.x, or self-assigned IP addresses like 169.254.x.x. The other nice thing is that the Hamachi Root Server is only used to initiate a connection by helping clients find each other. Once the connection is made each client on your VPN passes its encrypted traffic directly to other clients on the same network.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Parallels & Windows XP Activation Key

Anyone know how to deactivate a copy of Windows XP?
Using Apple's Boot Camp beta I installed Windows XP - things seemed to go well so I activated Windows XP. Then I saw that the latest beta of Parallels (3036) can access the Boot Camp partition of Windows XP. Parallels had to set up a separate configuration and profile of Windows XP in order to use the Boot Camp partition. It was working great, but I had to reactivate Windows XP. No problem there, however, when Parallels is accessing Windows XP on the Boot Camp partition the VM can't be saved - instead Windows XP has to be shut down when you exit Parallels. So, I created another Parallels VM and reinstalled Windows XP under Mac OS X. But, when it came time to activate this version it failed since I had just used the same key too many times. The last version I installed is great since the VM's state can be saved to disk and I don't have to wait for it to boot up. Obviously, the last version is the one I want to use.

Parallels Coherence
The new Coherence feature in Parallels is great. It makes it appear that Windows windows [sic] can run side-by-side with Mac OS X windows. I'm speculating here: but I'm thinking, to achieve this effect, Parallels simply has Windows XP run at almost full screen (the Taskbar is just above the Dock) and then it makes the Windows XP desktop window transparent. You can drag & drop and cut & paste between the two OS's too.

Parallels Installation Experience
Installing Windows XP via Parallels was simple and it worked like a charm. It's much easier to install Windows using Parallels than it is to install Windows natively on an Intel or AMD machine. Now I can fully enjoy Windows' pop-up windows on top of Windows' pop-up windows on top of pop-up balloons to constantly nag me.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Mac OS X vs Windows

I've worked on Windows computers much longer than I've worked on Macs. As a software engineer, I've realized a couple key issues with Windows.

Windows Registry
This is a single point failure on Windows. The registry database is used to store the settings and options for Windows' users, applications, preferences, and hardware. When Windows boots up, it reads this database of settings. If the registry gets corrupted, it can render Windows unbootable. When applications install and uninstall themselves they update the registry. When a program fails to uninstall correctly, it can leave cruft in the registry which can lead to performance and stability problems. This is why Windows computers really do slow down, over time, as you install and uninstall more and more applications.

How does Mac OS X get by without a registry? Simple, each application has preferences which are stored in preferences folders. For user specific preferences, the folder is stored under the user's home folder. For system wide preferences, the folder is stored in a globally accessible location. The preferences data is a human readable file (called a plist which is short for property list), which can be edited by hand - but manually editing a plist is rare. The plist file is only read when needed - unlike the Windows Registry, which must fully load to complete the boot up process. If the plist file becomes corrupted it can usually just be deleted and the respective application will create a new one the next time it loads.

On the desktop computer there are basically two operating systems: Windows and Unix.

Windows 98, ME, NT, 2000, etc, are different flavors of Windows with roots that go back to MS-DOS circa 1980. Free BSD, Linux, Open BSD, AT&T, Solaris, and Mac OS X all have their roots in unics [sic] circa 1969.

In the world of high-tech, new usually means better, but that's not the case when it comes to security. MS-DOS got its start on PCs in the early 1980s when there was no local area network and there was no need to log into a PC. Unix, on the other hand, ran on mainframe computers which were accessible by multiple users at once. So, from the beginning, unix had the concept of users, permissions, and security.

Retrofitting security into Windows has been its biggest Achilles' heel. Of course, with more than 90% of the desktop market share it's also a big target.

I joke that Windows is an "open system" in that all of its ports and services were left wide open for attacks.

Design & Marketing

That's the single word that best describes Apple. Not just industrial design, but UI design, software architecture design, design through layers of abstraction. The product of this is elegance and simplicity.

It's about the marketing. Microsoft is, first and foremost, a marketing company. Although they lose when it comes to innovation, they clearly win when it comes to marketing and, obviously, money. Simply put, you cannot gain 90+% of the desktop market share without being the marketing king.

Apple vs Microsoft?

"Apple should have licensed the Mac's operating system."

No, not really.
Direct comparison of the two companies' business models is - pardon the pun - like comparing apples to oranges. Seriously, Apple is a hardware company, like Dell or HP, and Microsoft is a software company. Just to be clear, hardware companies make their money selling hardware and vice versa. Not to mention, changing business models of this magnitude is not simple. (IBM, who successfully did this in the mid 1990s after a near death experience, is the rare exception.)

Apple appears to be the personal computer company that's been around the longest. Although a big chunk of Apple's revenue comes from the iPod how many other multi-billion dollar computer companies, after 30 years, are still selling what they sold on day one?

As an Apple shareholder, I much prefer comparing Apple, with its $78B market cap, to Dell, with it's $61B market cap.

(Yes, I know Apple did license its OS in the mid 1990s.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Lousy Safari Experience Fixed

I've been getting a little frustrated with Safari since moving to a machine with an Intel processor due to the spinning beach ball popping up way too often. But, I think I figured out what the problem was... the problem was especially noticeable on Web sites that made heavy use of Flash.
To fix the problem, I downloaded the latest Flash plug-in from Adobe. I'm thinking that my version of Safari, which was moved over from my PPC box, may have had a Flash plug-in that was compiled for the PPC; hence, it had to use Rosetta to translate the plug-in from PPC to Intel.
I haven't confirmed this scientifically, but I'm definitely noticing an improvement. Or maybe, the plug-in version I downloaded, dated 11/14/06, just had some big improvements. Either way, I'm happy.

PS- To take a perfect screen shot on Mac OS X, just press CMD-Shift-4 and, when you see the cross hairs, press the spacebar. Your cross hairs will turn into a camera icon. As you move the camera icon over each window it'll be highlighted. Just click the mouse on the window and the screen shot will be saved to your desktop as a PNG file. To save the screenshot to the clipboard, press CMD-Shift-CTRL-4 instead.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

New MacBook Pro Data Migration

Whenever I get a new computer, my biggest problem is migrating all my old stuff to my new machine. Usually, I just use Carbon Copy Cloner to mirror the old hard drive to the new one, but that won’t work since I’m moving from a PowerBook with a PPC processor to a MacBook Pro with an Intel processor (my PPC version of Mac OS X is not Universal).
Of course, Apple has already solved this migration problem for me. The first time I turned on the new MacBook Pro, it asked me if I wanted to move my data from another Mac. I simply connected the computers using FireWire and everything was moved to the new computer including my home folder, preferences, apps, and network settings. There was one minor exception: I had to manually install Apple’s developer tools since that folder isn’t kept with the regular applications.

Disclaimer: I’ve worked for Apple for eight years. Not only had I never used a Mac before coming to Apple, but for my first three and a half years at the company I only worked on Windows NT and Windows 2000 on a daily basis.