Monday, December 31, 2007

Telemarketers, Be Gone!

You forget about these things. Changing one of our telephone numbers from a land-line to Verzion FIOS involved dropping the old number and getting a new one. One minor annoyance is that Verizon (copper) and Verizon FIOS don't seem to talk much, so Verizon (copper) never seems to put a change-of-number message on our old number. We've called, emailed, etc., it's been two weeks, and still nothing.

That, however, is not the major problem. The major problem is that we'd forgotten the persistence of telemarketers. Hence we didn't sign the new number up on the National Do Not Call Registry.


It took telemarketers about 10 days to figure this out. Since Saturday, we've had a bunch of telemarketing calls. Of course, once I realized the mistake I immediately registered the number, but since it hasn't filtered through the system yet, we still get a few calls, including the annoying machine call that was half cut off by our answering machine's greeting.

It makes you appreciate the fact that the Do-Not-Call list is a Federal program that actually works. OK, a few calls get through, but the volume of calls we got on the old number was next-to-nothing, and now we're getting them daily.

Now if there was just an enforceable do-not-spam law.

Note: Why, in the name of all that's holy, would any marketing firm suppose that anyone would respond well to a call placed at 9 am anytime between Christmas and New Year's Day? It's almost anti-marketing. Hint: I'm sure not going to buy anything from DISH network any time soon.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Gnome, Gnome on the Range

I'm playing with switching window managers. For maybe ten years I've been using FVWM in one or another of its incarnations. I'm thinking it might finally be time to change to a more “modern” window manager. No particular dissatisfaction with FVWM, but I'd like a different look to the screen. It's sort of in the same thing as my Comcast/Verizon switch, except that no one's offering me a TV.

Since the default Window manager for plain-old-vanilla Ubuntu is Gnome, let's try that. It's as simple as changing your session before you log in.

Of course, that gives you plain-old-vanilla Ubuntu Gnome. I like to make my desktop look like my desktop, not some office stiff. So modifications are necessary. Most are based on my belief that a Window Manager must perform tasks that I want it to do, not the way favored by some group of software designers, no matter how talented. In FVWM these modifications were performed in the $HOME/.fvwm/.fvwmrc file. In Gnome most things things can be done from menus, to wit:

  • Launch the applications I want opened on startup: Gnome does this in the Systems => Preferences => Sessions.
  • Move applications onto another part of the desktop: With FVWM, you drag across the screen. Gnome doesn't have a virtual desktop, it has several workspaces. You can move programs between workspaces by dragging them along in the Workspace switcher, which is usually down on the right-hand side of the screen.
  • Add applications to the Menu: and generally muck up the way information is presented. With FVWM you edit the menu. In Gnome the Menu edits you. OK, not really. Right-click on Applications and select Edit Menus. When you add an application, you can also select an appropriate icon by clicking on the default icon in the application editing box.
  • Change the wallpaper randomly: This isn't a property of FVWM, but I wrote a Perl script to do it. In Gnome get the Python script, and launch it on startup. What it doesn't do, at the moment, is change pictures at random intervals. That shouldn't be too hard to fix. Learning Python is one of my software goals for 2008 in any case.
  • Make programs appear in assigned workspaces: That is, I want Thunderbird to come up in workspace 1, Firefox in workspace 2, Emacs in workspace 3, etc. One application per workspace, and I can switch through them with ctrl-alt-arrowkey. To switch between windows in the same workspace, you use alt-tab.

    This isn't a part of Gnome, unfortunately. However, since this is Open Source, there are ways around it. The solution of choice here is Devil's Pie, available from the Ubuntu repositories. Install it, make sure it's running when you log in (see above), and create a directory $HOME/.devilspie that contains files like this:
    $cat ~/.devilspie/firefox.ds 
    (is (application_name) "Firefox")
    (set_workspace 2)
    which assigns Firefox to workspace 2. Note that this doesn't launch Firefox, you have to do that yourself. When you do launch Firefox, however, it will appear in workspace 2. (Note: I originally did cut-and-paste from a published tutorial. That led to the strange Unexpected token encountered: 226 error, which apparently is because the examples use Unicode quotation marks. If you get this error you might as well type in the script by hand, it's short in any case.

There are undoubtedly a lot of tutorials out there on how to use Gnome efficiently. They're probably useful. However, remember that this is software we're talking about: back up everything you want to save, then play around. If you hopelessly frak something up, go to your backup and start over. For gnome, the simplest backup is just:

$ cd
$ mv .gnome .old_gnome
$ mv .gnome2 .old_gnome2
$ cp -r .old_gnome .gnome
$ cp -r .old_gnome2 .gnome2

which preserves your original files. Now restart Gnome, and play around. If you find you're hopelessly lost, just:

$ rm -fr .gnome .gnome2
$ mv .old_gnome .gnome
$ mv .old_gnome2 .gnome2

and you're back where you started.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Vista Experience

Friend TK sent these along. Blame him, not me:

Vista True Info - For more funny videos, click here

And here's how to install Vista in two minutes or less (I can do this in about 30 seconds):

Monday, December 24, 2007

Cronic Emailing

So now Comcast knows we're leaving. I'm assuming that this means that they will eventually shut off my old Comcast email address. I could check this by logging onto my old Comcast account every day, but I decided it would be simpler to let the computer do it: Comcast currently forwards email to my Verizon account, so let's send my Comcast account an email. Either I'll get it, via Verizon, or it will be bounced, in which case I'll get an email from Comcast telling me to buzz off. I'd like this to be done daily, say at 1 am. Then when I check my email in the morning I know immediately if Comcast is still forwarding mail.

To do this, we need several utilities. First, we need a command to allow the computer to send mail, preferably from the command line. In Unix-like systems, this is called mail (Duh). Well, that's not quite right. First we need a mail server. We'll use Gmail's SMTP server, located at (Who thinks up these names?) Second, we need a program to access Gmail's SMTP. That would be msmtp, which we've discussed before. Finally, we need a command line program mailer. That would be the aforementioned mail, except that it's not the standard one that's loaded in with Ubuntu. Ubuntu comes with mail from the GNU mailutils package. That doesn't work well with msmtp. Instead, you want the simpler mailx package. So fire up a command-line prompt and type:

$ sudo apt-get install mailx

adding msmtp to that line if you don't have it installed. This will remove mailutils and install mailx.

Now that all our tools are in place, we just need to set things up. First, let's work on msmtp. We need to create, or edit, the file $HOME/.msmtprc. The contents have changed just a bit from the original install. Here, with some obvious changes, is my current file:

account default
auth on
password nuculer
tls on
port 587
tls_certcheck off

port 587 is Google's preferred email port, and tls_certcheck off tells the program to not bother about doing certificate checks — which means that you should probably not use this method to send anything of value. Also note that your password is in clear, so you'd better set the permissions of $HOME/.mtmsprc to keep anyone else from reading it:

$ chmod 600 $HOME/.mtmsprc

Now, let's set up the message. I want a script, basically, that sends a short message to my Comcast account. So I set up this little bit of code:

$ cat > $HOME/cmailtest
mail -s "Comcast Mail Forwarding Check" << endmail
Today, it's still working.
$ chmod 700 $HOME/cmailtest

Which creates a file, called cmailtest, in my home directory, that sends a simple email. The file is made readable and executable by me and me alone, just in case someone else stumbles upon it and starts sending it to me at random times.

Send the email by executing the file from the command line:

$ $HOME/cmailtest

That's fine, but how do I get it sent at 1 am every day?

That requires the cron and crontab commands. cron is a daemon that searches for things to do. Most of these are specified in the /etc/cron* directories, but you can add things to the list as well. In my case, we do this:

$ cat > cfile
0 1 * * * /home/dubya/cmailtest

$ crontab cfile

This creates a file, cfile, which will tell cron to run the cmailtest script at the 0th minute of the first hour of every (the “*”) day, week, and month. The blank line is to ensure that there is an end-of-line after cmailtest, otherwise cron won't recognize it. The command is entered into the system with the crontab command.

And that's it. From now on, Hal will send a message to my old Comcast account early in each day. As long as the account exists, I'll get it at my Verizon email. Once the account dies, Gmail will get a bounce message.

So when that happens how do I turn the thing off? Simple. I just use the

$ crontab -r

to delete all of my cron jobs. Or, if I want to add other things to the list, edit the cron jobs with

$ crontab -e

For more examples, see the previously mentioned link, a more Ubuntu-specific page or, of course, try

$ man cron
$ man crontab

Comcast Unplugged

With no unpleasantness, really. Just a polite “why?” Not something I have a really good answer for. Corrupted by Verizon marketing, I guess.

Anyway, we have ten days to return the box. Let's see how long the web pages and email stay up after that.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Three Days With Verizon

And so far, everything's working pretty much the same as it did with Comcast.

This is not a bad thing. The best thing and ISP can do for you is to not be noticed: Just give me the Internet, Sir, and we'll all be fine.

We have two TVs, one connected to a Verizon High Def DVR box, and the other one, downstairs here with me, is just plugged into the cable. Comcast let the later TV access local plus about 40 cable analog channels, while Verizon only gives you local channels, plus, for some reason, Chicago's WGN. Probably some Cubs fans around. I only use the downstairs TV to watch local sports, anyway, so that's OK. The downstairs picture is clearer than Comcast provided, probably because Verizon put in a brand-new high-speed connection from the street, while Comcast used the cable left over from the 1970s, which was sensitive to interference from the local PBS station's tower. The digital connection doesn't seem to break up as much as Comcast's did, but then it's Christmas time, so there isn't a lot to watch right now. The OnDemand feature seems to respond faster than Comcast's did. This is a function of bandwidth, and we had problems with Comcast in that regard.

The DVR software is a little annoying, in that you can set a global option to record only first run TV series, but you can't set it for individual shows, unlike Comcast's system. I can't comment on how it actually works, because, again, it's Christmas, so there aren't any new shows to record.

The phone service has been perfect, except for the fact the Verizon still hasn't put a “this number has changed” message on our old phone number.

The Internet connection has been pretty stable. The hard-wired computers haven't lost connection at all, except for the moments after I accidentally hit the off switch on the power strip. The wireless connection: well, as you probably know, Verizon provides you with their own combination modem/wireless router. The router only has WEP encryption. I'm not terribly happy with that, but then again we live in a neighborhood with widely separated houses — signals we get from other wireless systems are pretty weak, and I don't think it would be profitable for anyone to try to hack in. If somebody drives up in a car close enough to access our signal, I think we'd notice the driver hunched over a keyboard after a while.

We did have one initial problem with the wireless connection: Wednesday night it just stopped working, as in wouldn't let you connect. This was frustrating, because I could see the router from Hal's Evil Twin, but I couldn't connect to it, no matter how many times I tried. The problem cleared itself up by Thursday morning. Spouse was talking to Customer Support about getting the message on our old phone number and mentioned the wireless problem. She got the response “sometimes that happens the first day,” which may be true but isn't exactly encouraging. Nevertheless, it has worked well since then.

I also had a slight problem getting logged on to the router so that I could change security settings. (I think we'll go to MAC authentication, just to help out against hypothetical war-driving attacks. It's not like we have a lot of people who need to hook up to our network.) I couldn't log on. Verizon provided me with the IP address of the router, and the administrative account name, but not the password. I looked up the router on the net and found the default password, but still couldn't log on. Eventually I called the Customer Support number. The “we're pretending to be a computer, ignore that man behind the curtain” help system kicked me over to a live person in about five minutes, and I was only on hold there for a couple of minutes — that may be how long it takes the signal to travel to India. Anyway, the tech figured out the problem in about thirty seconds — sometimes the default password has a “1” after it. I logged onto the router, which has a reasonably clean interface, and changed that password. This week I make it as secure as possible with a WEP system. If I get really paranoid, I suppose, I can turn off the wireless function of the router and plug in our old D-Link router, but I doubt I'll bother.

Speed: we're paying for 5MB/s download and 2MB/s upload, and we're getting something close to that, if you believe all those Internet Speed Test sites. It's fast enough that I don't notice any difference from Comcast. For what it's work, the sales people at the kiosk in the Mall said that we'll be upgraded to 10/4 in a month or two.

Oh yeah, the same sales people mentioned that we'd get support to forward our email for a month after leaving Comcast. No one else seems to know about it. There is something that lets you copy your email from one web service to Verizon's, but we pop our email to the house, so that isn't particularly useful. Well, we've notified friends and family, and we'll get to our customer service emails this week, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

All in all, and so far, I'm happy with the service. We'll see how it goes over the next few months. I'll be particularly interested to see how the battery handles our phone service the next time the power goes out.

One more note: I still haven't activated Verizon's oh-so-generous 10 MB of web space. Hopefully later this week. It may be that the links to our old Comcast web space on the right may die before I get things changed. If so, my apologies, but remember that everything except some of the cat pictures is still here in the blog.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Seven Step Program

The Washington Post's tech columnist Rob Pegoraro has some advice for those of you that get a new computer this Christmas: 7 Steps to Get Your New Computer Running Right. It's heavily Windows oriented, of course, since that's where the major problems come from. However, here's the Linux version:

  1. Virus Protection: Not necessary. There isn't one Linux virus in the wild, and, even if there was, not running as a user, not root, will keep your operating system safe from harm, if not your datafiles.
  2. Security Updates: Available more or less automatically with any modern Linux distribution, just as for Windows.
  3. Update Flash, Java, and QuickTime: For Windows, you've gotta do this separately for each program. Depending on your Linux distribution, and how Free you want to be, Flash and Java updates might be available at the same time you perform the previous step. There's no QuickTime for Linux, of course, but there are programs that play QuickTime files, again depending on your definition of Free.
  4. Get Rid of Unnecessary Programs: According to Rob, “Most Windows machines arrive loaded with junk programs that mostly waste space.” You think? Anyway, that's not a problem with a Linux distribution. Just choose the programs you want while you're doing the installation. No “trial” versions of programs on a Linux CD, either — you get a fully working, fully paid-for (i.e., free) version of every program.
  5. Selective Upgrades: Uh, Rob means dumping IE for Firefox and Outlook for Thunderbird. Of course, Linux has a veritable plethora of web browsers and mail clients. Pick the ones you like best, or go all-in-one with SeaMonkey.
  6. Don't Rush to Reinstall Old Programs: For, verily, some of them won't work on your new computer. This happens, occasionally, with Linux, but in most cases you don't have to worry about restoring old programs — there will be an up-to-date version of each of your programs with your new Linux distribution.
  7. Pick Up Some Inexpensive Hardware: Like Pen Drives, UPS, ... Agreed. The Sunday Supplement advertisements for Best Buy, Staples, Office Depot, etc., have some amazing loss-leader bargains, like the 500 GB external disk I got for $50, after rebate. Check out the ads religiously every Sunday — you might just find what you need. Just remember, you don't have to buy anything else when you go there. You are permitted to drool over the 96" plasma screen.

You'll note that many of these points apply to Linux users as well as Winnies or Macophiles. You'll also note that the Linux version of the solution is mostly faster, easier, and cheaper. Not to mention more secure. And, if you don't want to install it yourself, you can buy a preloaded machine. What's that about Linux not being ready for the home?

Here endeth today's sermon to the choir.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Well, It's Done

We're running on Verzion FIOS. The installation process actually went pretty smoothly. Well, the Tech couldn't get Hal's Other Twin's Windows XP account to register with Verizon. I have no idea why. So we went upstairs to Hal's Evil Twin, an XP machine, and she couldn't use the D-Link card to connect to Verizon's Wireless router. I suspect that she just didn't know how to do it, and I'll fix it later, but she gave us a USB-port wireless router, which works just fine. I didn't have any trouble connecting the Mac via wireless, either.

Initial setup was done with Windoze, but I've done all the account tweaking at from Hal, using Firefox. I even have the email accounts set up.

Now, those of you who like to look at Cat Pictures, be warned: when I shut down the Comcast account, some of the pictures will vanish. I'll do my best to replace them, not on Verizon's server, which only gives me 10 MB of “Personal Disk Space” unless I want to pony up extra money per month. Until I find a cheaper alternative I'll move as much as I can to Verizon-space, and the rest will just have to stay on Hal's disk and live on in DVD backups. I'll do my best to change the links from Comcast to Verizon, but it'll take some time, and some links might never be updated. If you see a dead Comcast link that you'd like to view, let me know and I'll try to expedite matters.

How's it work? Speed seems the same as Comcast, meaning, “faster than I need.” The analog TV picture seems clearer than Comcast, which was always getting interference from the local TV tower. Of course, the analog signal is only good for the local TV channels, unlike Comcast, which gave you 30-40 cable channels as well. Eventually I'll have to get another TV box.

Verizon also seems to have fewer free movies, but that might just mean I haven't found all of them yet. The OnDemand feature seems to respond faster than Comcast's did.

And the phones work perfectly: One copper, one fiber.

Undoubtedly there will be problems, and I'll bitch about them when the time comes. But for now, everything looks good.

Still Here

Remember a few days ago, when Verizon came over and installed the fiber line from street to house, shredding (and repairing) the coax and copper lines in the process?

Well, they didn't install the fiber correctly, so they've spent the last few hours redoing that. They do have the box installed in the garage, and we're only about 45 minutes from finishing, once they have the fiber line dug.

The Verizon tech's pretty cool about all this, he's doing as much as he can while the line is being dug up.

Fortunately, my lawn is 90% trees and weeds, otherwise I'd be rather upset by all of this. Instead, I'm just bemused. I've got the whole day off, and the most stressful thing I'll have to do is cancel the Comcast subscription.

And They're Here

No sooner posted than the Verizon truck showed up. Some things I sort of knew, but hadn't really worried about before:

  • The box lives in the garage.
  • It needs to be plugged in — OK, I knew that, but I didn't realize the implication: We really should have an outlet on the inside of the garage's outside wall. We don't. So probably another long extension cord snaking around the ceiling of the garage. Must get an electrician in here to rewire the place.
  • It'll take 4-6 hours.
  • The tech assures me we'll keep the copper line we're meant to keep.

Waiting for FIOS

Well, it's 9:30 am, and Verizon isn't here yet.

The morning is not lost, however. We're putting in some new doors off the den. The delivery man got here right at 8 am, well before he said he'd arrive. So one visit is taken care of, just not the one I'd expected.

Verizon's FIOS page hints that they will only support Win$ and Macs. The people I talked to at the Mall, however, assured me that there would be no problem, and the comments to this article seem to suggest that. I just need to hook up to DHCP, and find out where the smtp and pop servers live, right? The consensus seems to be that some Techs will be happiest checking out the connection using a Windows machine. That's OK, Hal's Other Twin has a Windows XP partition, used only to play Pinball. If I have to re-install that to remove any Verizony software it's not big deal. In fact, it might even motivate me to try getting Windows running under QEMU. If it's fast enough, I can play XP's Pinball game right here on Hal. If it's really fast, I can convert Hal's Evil Twin to Hal's Nice Twin with Windows on QEMU, one small step towards moving the house out from under the Shadow of Redmond.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fear and Trepidation in Davidsonville

Verizon FIOS is coming tomorrow morning, “between 8 and 12 a.m. (sic)” I'm going to stay home for the event, mainly to insure that the copper line that Verizon restored (after cutting) (1) stays in the ground, and (2) stays connected to our AT&T phone service.

After that, make sure the new computer, phone, and cable connections work, then say “bye-bye” to Comcast and send out emails to all friends and family describing the change of address.

Some of the links in the right-hand column are on Comcast's web space, I'll move them when I get the Verizon-equivalent, or find another host for the pictures, descriptions, and accounts of my weblife.

First post tomorrow will undoubtedly be “Verzon isn't here yet.” What, or when, the next post will be depends on how well things go here.

See y'all tomorrow.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Best Place to See a Basketball Game

We could go on about the Mitchell report, and the fact that a couple of newly acquired Nationals are on it. But let's not.

Instead, let's celebrate what The Sporting News calls the Trip of a lifetime: Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse.

I spent many a happy hour in the Phog from '69-'73. Some not so happy ones, too, as KU wasn't all that good in '72 and '73.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Simpler, Gentler Times

It's often thought that in the past people were nicer to each other. In particular, people didn't use “four letter Anglo-Saxon words.”

This turns out not to be the case, at least among baseball players.

Note: if watching shows on BBC America offends you, then you don't want to click on this link.

Note2: Otherwise, be sure to click on the images of the original document.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I, For One, Welcome Our New Telecom Overlords

I'm filled with wonder, hope, excitement, fear, and dread.

Yes, my children, we're changing our broadband, cable, and ½ of our phone service from Comcast (broadband & cable) and Verizon (phone) to Verizon FIOS.

Specifically, we're getting the Verizon package for all three services, which is supposed to cost $99/month, but actually costs about $135/month when you factor in the DVR, and the movie package (we chose HBO) that they require you get in order to get the installation charges dropped. That's about what we pay now for Comcast's cable and broadband service, and it allows us to drop a copper phone line.

Of course, Comcast has its own “Triple Play” which costs about the same. However, that all goes through the same coax that provides our service now, and which is sometimes inadequate (it was first laid over 20 years ago, what do you expect?). And friends have Verizon's FIOS phone and broadband, which seems to be decent. No one I know has the TV yet, as far as I know. We're pioneers. Hence my dread.

But we get this really neat $200, 19 inch high def TV, which I plan to mount right by my computer, so that I never have to leave this chair — OK, maybe to go to work, but otherwise. (Or we can get a $200 Best Buy gift card, for a down payment on a really big HDTV.)

Anyway, installation is scheduled for Wednesday next week, so I'll let you know how it goes.

Such as today: Last Friday Miss Utility came out and painted orange paint on the snow in our yard, along with flags marking various cables. Today, the line-digging crew came out and installed the fiber from the street to the house.

Along the way they cut the Comcast cable — unfortunate, as we're still using the cable until Wednesday next. They did manage to repair that.

The Verizon-owned copper phone line, however, they shredded.

This does not comfort me.

I'm sure it was unintentional, as we told them that we wanted to keep one of our copper phone lines, because we've had many power problems in the past. True, the FIOS box comes with an 8-hour telephone battery, but there have been times when I'm sure we would have run through that. Hence we want to keep the copper.

Verizon is supposed to come back tomorrow and replace the copper. If the don't cut anything else I'll report later in the week.

Oh, yeah, the deal's for two years. We'll see what kind of offer Comcast has then.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


The other day I had to convert the quantity 150 wavenumbers (the inverse of the wavelength of a certain frequency of light) to meV (the energy of a photon of that wavelength, in milli-electron Volts). I have a spreadsheet somewhere that does this, as it has the values of Planck's constant and the speed of light encoded. I could also have gotten the current best value of these constants and done the calculation on a calculator. However, this time I had an epiphany: I opened up a terminal window and entered:

$ units
2438 units, 71 prefixes, 32 nonlinear units

You have: 150 wavenumbers
You want: meV
        * 18.597628
        / 0.053770298

A yes, I'd finally remembered the old unix command units, available in Ubuntu with the command

$ sudo apt-get install units

It's a pretty powerful program. It has some weird roundoff errors, though. For example

$ units
2438 units, 71 prefixes, 32 nonlinear units

You have: 1 mile^2
You want: acre
        * 639.99744
        / 0.0015625063

Instead of 640 acres exactly. But you can ask the age old question of what is the speed of light in a somewhat popular unit:

$ units
2438 units, 71 prefixes, 32 nonlinear units

You have: 299792458 m/sec
You want: furlongs/fortnight
        * 1.8026175e+12
        / 5.5474886e-13