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October 2004





Phone service Phone service
VoIP and a dead goose

It's funny how some experiences give you a satisfaction that's disproportionately large compared with the overall benefit you derive from them – such as the implicit "fuck you" to MCI as I replaced them as my long distance phone service provider last week.

So what was so bad about MCI? I'd originally gone with them as a replacement for AT&T, because they had far better international rates to England, assuming I coughed up a low monthly fee. But over a couple of years they ended up being bad value for money; slowly and silently raising monthly fees, introducing fees for features that had previously been free, adding fees for things that took two or three paragraphs of small print to explain, all without any improvement in the service they were offering. I won't miss them.

I switched to Pioneer Telephone, a resale carrier operating over Global Crossing's network. Maybe I'll be cursing at them in the months to come, but for now they offer long distance and local toll service that is going to save me a bundle compared to what I used to pay MCI and SBC.

I still pay SBC for my local connection to the phone network, but not for anything else. A few people I know have recently dumped SBC and switched to Voice over IP (VoIP), a technology that seems to have been threatening to break out for the past six years and has now finally arrived in the consumer marketplace. I've thought about switching to VoIP but like many new (and cool) technologies, I don't think it's quite ready for prime time.

The first reason is one of cost, which is the primary argument used by most of the VoIP providers in marketing their product. It's true you can save a bundle on the traditional services offered by the likes of SBC, MCI, AT&T, etc. But there are far better deals to be had than those companies currently offer, such as those offered by resale carriers such as Pioneer. For me personally, there is little to be saved by switching to VoIP; I'd need to make far more long distance and local toll calls than I currently do for most vendors' VoIP packages to lower my monthly cost.

As for international rates, my calls to England using BigZoo cost me at least 30% less than the rates VoIP providers currently offer – in some cases it's closer to 60% less. BigZoo loses slightly in convenience; it's a pre-pay service that requires you to load an account via the Web. You also have to dial an access number and enter a PIN each time you call. But those are easily dealt with by use of speed dial buttons on your phone. I can also access the same service from my cellphone, so I call internationally for the same price I do when using my landline at home.

The second shortcoming of VoIP is availability. I live in California and, despite this state being at the forefront of technological development, the electricity supply round here seems a good deal less reliable than other places I've lived, such as England. The most recent power outage I experienced was preceded by a loud explosion as a goose flew into a pole-mounted transformer near my house. My computers, router and cable modem went down – I assume the goose did too – but my landline phone service stayed up, so I could call the power company.

In fairness, the same goose that wiped out my electricity supply could easily have wiped out my phone service, which in some cases is strung along the same poles. But the point is that the phone service has some redundancy that is currently absent from the VoIP infrastructure. Phone power rarely goes down when there's a local power outage, but with VoIP, you'd be hosed unless your broadband modem, VoIP phone adapter and your broadband provider's local infrastructure are all protected by some form of uninterruptible power supply.

Of course, there's always cellphone service, which would likely remain available when the local power goes out. (In fact, my cellphone service plan, which includes free long distance among other things, is one reason why my monthly spend on long distance is not sufficient to justify a switch to VoIP.) But cellphone coverage isn't stellar in my area, which is surprising, considering I live in the Bay Area, one of the most heavily populated metropolitan areas in the United States. But that's the way it currently is.

So for now I'm sticking with legacy phone service. I do use VoIP occasionally by means of Skype; it's useful for calling people when I'm sat at my computer (and their international rates are about the same as BigZoo's). I'll transition to VoIP when the cost and availability make it worth my while.

Microsoft Windows A Unix Refugee

A few years ago the embedded software company where I worked commonly referred to Windows programmers who found themselves writing embedded software as desktop refugees; the point-and-click crowd unaccustomed to a shell and make.

A far more common species today is the Unix refugee – someone like me, who grew up on SunOS and AIX, kicks around on Linux, but spends a significant amount of time working on Windows. And Windows isn't half bad; a well-architected kernel, a stable and relatively well-documented kernel API, and a kernel debugger that really ought to make the Linux crowd think again.

But old habits die hard – especially the muscle memory that has the most common Emacs editor key sequences instinctively coded into my hands. By comparison, most Windows native editors are entirely too centered on using a mouse; anything that requires you to take either hand off the keyboard to do any common task is just too damn inefficient. There's nothing for it but to use the Windows port of Emacs.

That's a good start, but to really feel at home you'll want the good old 6x13 font, and a suitable shortcut to get things started. (Save the font to your Windows installation's font sub-folder. Save the shortcut to your desktop, then edit its executable path to match where you installed Emacs.)

The more you use Emacs, the more you come to question why Windows keyboards continue to have a Caps Lock key, when something far more useful like a Control key could occupy that position under your left pinky. Use this registry hack to reprogram Caps Lock to function as Control; after you've applied it to your registry, you'll need to reboot for the change to take effect.

Alternatively, buy yourself a Happy Hacking keyboard (I bought mine from Linux Central). This is a minimalist keyboard with no numeric keypad and no Caps Lock key but, unlike the $20 pieces of crap sold in Fry's, it's well made with good key travel and tactile response. The worst thing about owning this keyboard is having to adjust back to a regular Windows keyboard at work; maybe you should buy two.

Finally, download Unix Utils – all the essential GNU command line utilities ported directly to Win32, so you can use them directly from a DOS prompt; no need to screw around with Cygwin.

© Andy Currid 2004-2005