Monday, March 30, 2009

Try New Technology? VOIP? Thanks, But No Thanks!

For a while a friend had been touting the advantages of VOIP, saying he was paying $25/mo. for unlimited local and long distance phone service.

Since I have been looking to cut costs, like everyone else, the prospect of not paying AT&T for those services was enticing.

I called AT&T and confirmed that I could keep my DSL service going if I stopped my local and long distance features. They said yes; I should have asked them what the charge for just DSL would be, but I assumed (horrible idea ever) that my monthly DSL payment would cover it.

Then I looked at Vonage and saw that for $18 a month I could get 500 free minutes, which I figured would work for me since I also had the cell phone. I signed up online when I looked at their web site and saw that they could handle either a broadband cable or DSL connection—and they made installation sound like a breeze.

My first inkling of trouble came when I opened the package and noticed that in the middle of the easy installation instructions there was a blue square that said “DSL users, see other side…”

There it indicated that if the easy installation didn’t work, and the Vonage box couldn’t connect through the Internet, I should go t a V-Configure web page to sign on…

My Internet connection is fairly straightforward and common; I have a DSL modem connected to the Internet, and it also connects to my computer through a very reliable Belkin wireless router.

Again, Vonage suggested just connecting my router to the box and everything should be fine.

But predictably, it could not connect and I could not get a dial tone; the LED on the Vonage box indicated there was no connection yet. I opened my web browser, as the instructions suggested, put in, and was greeted with a page that had no log on, but instead told me that I had a lot more work to do: my Internet connection wasn’t functional.

At this point I was tired, but I made a few more attempts, this time bypassing my router (and thereby also removing wireless access from my network) and I still could not connect.

I tried a few more different ways, following the instructions carefully, to no avail. At one point I even had an Internet connection through the Vonage box, but still could not connect to the fabled

Forty minutes later I had restored my old Internet connection and my wireless network.
I was supposed to get another “welcome” phone call the next day, and perhaps an installation expert, but I contacted tech support by email, detailing my problems.

The first response referred me to the generic web support page, all of which I had already read and reread.

Three emails later, after a cryptic message about :
"I see that we have come up with an issue while transferring your number.
There is a feature (Internet) associated with your number. Hence, I would suggest you to contact your previous telephone carrier and have the feature (Internet) removed from your number. Once it is done, please reply to this email with the confirmation so that I will be able to assist you further."

After requesting translation service, here is what I received as an explanation:
“Your current phone company has placed Dry Loop DSL on your transfer number; The Dry Loop DSL must be separated from your transfer number. Please contact your current phone company to move your DSL service to a separate line, so that the number transfer process can be completed. Be sure to get a confirmation number that indicates your account has been updated with the change. We will need this confirmation number to continue your number transfer process. “
Easy, huh?

So in other words, the “seamless transfer” of my old phone number to Vonage now necessitated a call to AT&T to get them to separate it from my DSL, which obviously meant I needed another phone line for the DSL – cost? $35/mo.

Since my Vonage service for $18 really cost $25 (with fees and tax), this mean that the fiasco of moving service would yield little or no real savings.

Add to this the fact that on the Vonage site they have pages on “how to restore service after a power outage” and they barely acknowledge the existence of Microsoft Vista (support lists Windows 2000 and XP), except to say that one of their phones doesn’t work with it—and I was ready to cancel.

After all, I had a working DSL/local/long distance plan, at a pretty favorable rate, and a WORKING wireless network. Even if I got Vonage working, I still had no assurance that my router would keep broadcasting, not to mention the potential nightmare of resetting the network again after a power outage (summer is almost here).

Not surprisingly, my next “welcome” call never came.

I tried to cancel my “service” by email, but was told I needed to call, which I did right after the weekend. (Customer service is closed Saturday and Sunday).

After they tried to talk me out of it, they did cancel the service, but not before adding another $39 charge for return of the equipment, which would be refunded when my stuff arrived (not like they didn’t already have enough of my money for set-up of a nonworking service).
By the way, the confirmation email informed me that the $39 return charge was really $43—fees and taxes. Corporations are full of surprises, aren’t they? Tax and fees on something I didn’t buy, but was trying to return?

Of course now I will have to make sure the credit is put on my credit card for all of my charges.
I am not entirely sure that the rage focused on the banks and financial institutions is just about the credit swaps and economic crisis they allowed to occur. Truthfully, I think it is there beneath the service against all corporations and technology companies in particular, who promise something new and “easy”, and misrepresent the issues involved and end up costing us money, time and amazing stress.

Think about how “easy” it was to cancel AOL, to set up high definition TV for the first time, or to set up a home network after XP changed to Vista, and you’ll know why people are pissed off.
As for me, I am angry at myself for falling for the latest and greatest once again—from now on I will think not twice but four times before trusting anything a corporation promises—especially if it’s “easy.”

Friday, March 20, 2009

Why Is Software Getting Worse?

Just as there seems to be a class struggle in the political world between “Main Street” and Wall Street, so too is there an emerging conflict between end users and software publishers.

As usual, the main target is probably Microsoft; I’ve mentioned several issues in these blog posts relating to Vista and Office 2007, the gist of which is that once users are “programmed” to work efficiently on a given platform or suite of applications, pulling the rug out from under them with a new interface and removing features they’re used to is not cool.

Two quick frustrating Vista examples come to mind. During log in, even if you have de-activated your screensaver, you must log in promptly or the screensaver loads anyway. Then, when you do decide to log in, your Desktop configurations along with many of your user settings may be simply wiped out (you can retrieve them by running System Restore, if you’re lucky). More frustrating are the inconsistent View options in Windows Explorer; You can set the Date Modified option as many times and even in some default option screens as you want, but the view seldom comes up as the default, and it’s a crapshoot whether Date Modified will appear in any given window—you need to right click on the categories and add it manually in order to find files in a window by this very important parameter.

For both of these issues there is probably a very dangerous Registry fix or all-day workaround that might address the issue--for a couple of days--until Vista (or Office) revert to some default because they've been "updated."

Oh well.

But it’s not just Microsoft. Today there was a headline: 94% of Facebook users hate new design.
Combine that with the uproar over the Terms of Service recently, and users are not that happy with the world’s major social network.

For me, another painful example is Yahoo Maps. I loved the old maps and was able to go back to the “dial-up” version when the “new and improved” Maps were introduced. I preferred the ease of finding hotels and restaurants, and the new Maps really suck—the location is off in a corner if it is even found at all (it misses a lot) and zooming in and locating points of interest is an exercise in frustration. Finally Yahoo completely discontinued the old maps, and I found a lot of dissatisfied folks online. A Yahoo Customer “Care” rep told me the new maps were now the only maps.

Fortunately one dissatisfied user let out the knowledge that the UK/Ireland “beta” maps are still the original, and putting U.S. Addresses into them works just fine (but for how long)?

It goes all the way down to my Wells Fargo ATM. Out of the blue, without warning, a new “system” for scanning in checks was implemented, causing lots of delay at the ATMs and promising to “save thousands of trees” because deposit envelopes were eliminated. Given that the truth-telling record of banks is a bit suspect these days, I suspect the real reason was… money.

And that goes right back to the software publishers—if they don’t “upgrade”, what are they going to sell, particularly the shrink-wrapped dinosaurs like Microsoft? Marketing clamors for new features, even if they are irrelevant and destroy the sanity and productivity of end users.

Programmers need to come up with something different to justify their existence; product managers need an excuse to say the word “really” over and over again, as in “the new version is really, really scalable.”

The mission statement on the wall talks all about customer satisfaction, and focus groups and beta testing is supposed to address the end users’ concerns, but with the crap that is being foisted on us lately, one has to wonder whether anyone in the main office is really using these products?

(Don’t they notice that they can’t find files by the last dates on which they were modified? Do they really think that a slick “Aero” interface where you can see the open windows sideways is cool and more useful than finding the last saved version of a real file?)

Now again there is lots of talk about Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 8, with Office 14 due out a bit later next year (if they manage to make it work “in the Cloud”), but the only ones really excited about these prospects, I dare say, are the tech journalists who make money reviewing the new versions and figuring out their features and explaining them to frustrated end users.

The end result of all of this is alienation, discontent and inevitable rebellion on the part of end users. There may not be a guillotine in store for software publishers, but there are a lot of people running clandestine installations of Windows XP, and web-based versions of Office like Open Office and Zoho are definitely gaining market share.

I know you Mac-heads are claiming a religious experience that insulates you from this trend, but I know people frustrated with Macs just like others are with Windows and Linux.

It’s the nature of the beast, upgrade, change or die.

And you can make the point that change is not welcomed in our society, particularly by old fogies like me. But change for the sake of change is a recipe for frustration and disenchantment.

I particularly dread my next cell phone, which will come with a manual of 12 pages printed in tiny fonts with the 12 pages divided into four languages, and I will have to figure out a new software platform when all I want is a consistent dial tone.

This is the real Terminator and Matrix—machines taking over and driving their creators (us) literally insane.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Do Your Own Ning Thing Now Available

A bit of shameless self promotion: my new eBook on creating your own social network is avalable on my web site. Or click the widget in the right panel.

Monday, March 16, 2009

How is Computer Programming the Same as the Genome—And What Does It Mean?

From my first blog on the topic of genetics, based on an amazing video on TED by Juan Enriquez, I speculated that the presence of programming as an underlying feature of Life means that an intelligence is ultimately the source of all being.

In the video, Enriquez uses the analogy of an apple, which executes code (DNA) when it receives enough energy from the sun, and drops from the tree. He adds that by modifying the code we can change the nature of the apple, or any organic life form.

The genetic code itself is being sequenced (decoded) according to the patterns of four letters, AGTC—which represent the names of the nucleotide bases, adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine, in a molecule of DNA. (Wikipedia).

As Gina Smith explains in her book, The Genomic Age, “Scientists figured out, in 1967, how DNA specifies the building of protein... Recall that in every life-form, the letters A, C, T, and G (i.e., the bases) perform the same function. They build proteins by instructing another chemical, called RNA, to put the proteins together one building block after another… The building blocks are called amino acids, and there are precisely twenty of them.”

So there is a code that gets executed that can be represented symbolically that underlies all of our life functions—physiologically and presumably also psychologically.

More recently there have been advances in the field of epigenetics, which is the study of the chemical reactions that turn the genes on and off, and do so apparently on the basis of complex interactions with the environment.

Now bear in mind that Enriquez merely doesn’t use the apple as an analogy—he states literally that the code in the apple is the same as in files or programs you can move on a flash drive.

But even if you are viewing this blog in a web browser, you may not be aware of what code or programming really represent.

For example, if you click on the setting in your browser that lets you “View Source”, under Page in Internet Explorer, you see a symbolic representation of this blog page that informs the browser on how to display it.

It’s pretty obvious that a conscious mind had to create the program that does this, at least to me.

A billion monkeys, even if they had a Windows PC each, would not produce the code or the program that could enable this to happen in a trillion years.

Let’s look at one more example—a macro in Microsoft Word. This macro runs the commands upon the click of a mouse that creates a red rectangle in a document.

Notice in this macro that if you change the language by changing the numbers representing the RGB (color) values, you change the nature of the rectangle—it changes color.

This is precisely like the Enriquez example—if you change the genetic structure (code) of its DNA, its nature is changed.

In programming this is called the object’s properties. In life it might be called the qualities of the life-form. What it is capable of doing is called its method in programming; again in life it may be called its being or nature.

So what does this mean?

Well for one thing, it means that we created computer software "in our own image"—consciously writing its code according to various intentions we had predetermined as meaningful and significant (displaying a web page, writing and editing a document, running a macro).
The internal logic of both the genetic code and our computer code is precise; if I change the code of the macro I change the rectangle, or if I screw up, I put a bug in the program and the result is an aborted macro and an error message.

In life, this might be deemed a mutation, or in the case of cells that don’t know what they should be doing, or do the wrong thing, cancer.

But we know how the computer and software “evolved”—it was no accident. No lightning bolt hit a bog or pile of primordial sludge and shot it awake like Frankenstein. Many brilliant scientists created increasingly sophisticated ways of switching on and off (zeroes and ones) various devices to make calculations and run programs, and increasingly sophisticated programs (instructions) were consciously created to run on these hardware devices, after being translated (compiled) from symbolic (English) language into machine language.
So based on the evidence, how and why do any of us presume that life is any different?
Increasingly all branches of science are coming up against the barrier that what is knowable must account for the presence of us—that the observer or consciousness is intimately involved in not only our perceptions of reality, but literally in what reality is. From quantum physics, to bio-physics, to particle physics, there is nothing (literally) that does not ultimately come up against the reality of consciousness.
But what is consciousness? We know it as we experience it—it courses through our brains or more likely through our entire mind/bodies—and informs our perceptions and as biology has recently found, our thoughts and our health.
But suppose that the meaning of our science (and computers are our signpost or living metaphor) is that our deeper consciousness may literally connect us to whatever may be our programmer.
If we call the programmer God, it doesn’t explain anything—in the parlance of computer programming God is simply a variable for an unknown value—a mystery or a container for a value that is manifest through our existence.

But if we put aside our theories about God, or the programmer, what we can still say is that there are two ways for our program to run—programmed externally according to principles we barely understand, or possibly programmed by our “Self”.
But what is our Self?
If we meditate or self observe, we might reach the conclusion that it is not the bundle of thoughts that comprise our ego.
Rather, our true Self, at least in my humble opinion, is that part of us which is increasingly conscious of our connection to whatever (or whoever) is our programmer. While that connection is difficult if not impossible to define in words we can and do try (remember what there was “In the beginning”--the Word), but to the extent that we recognize that we are not in charge (our own programmer) and align ourselves with Life, Being, God, Higher Intelligence, Energy or whatever we might call it, we can manifest Its intentional higher consciousness through us.
This then would point to a split in what we do. If we act in alignment with what our higher intelligence suggests is true, we do good. If we remain oblivious to and disconnected from higher intelligence, and act unconsciously, that may be a pretty decent definition of evil.

And when we try to judge one or the other logically, with our left brain, we are caught up in paradoxical loops. The only way to truly know is through a higher center, probably in the right brain, that connects us with a higher logic—to our essential program and its Creator.

(In that sense, prayer or meditation might literally be "logging in...")

I remember when I first came to L.A. and needed a job, I worked at night at a law firm where an IBM word processing machine literally “trained me” in its internal logic, by going through a series of disks. Not surprisingly there was a bug in the program, and I needed to supersede it in order to get from disk 5 to disk 6. I got angry at the fallibility of the programmer, and yet I was in awe of the “mind in the machine.”
A similar insight can happen when you get pissed off at Windows. You can’t figure out why it’s doing what it’s doing—or what you’re doing “wrong.” Then through tech support, a friend, or by a miracle, you see the answer—and what’s clear is that by its internal logic—its “meaning”—the program is doing exactly the right thing. Now that you “get it”—you recognize the logic. But the intelligence behind it, until you got it, was literally “alien.”
We as a species are clearly at a crossroads. We can stay disconnected to the apparent higher source of our consciousness (unconscious) and become increasingly automated and mechanistic. As a recently heard, when Treasury Secretary Paulsen asked for the first TARP appropriation, and he was asked how he knew it was necessary, he replied, “the computers said so” [that without the funds the economy would collapse.]
Or through our science, technology and realization of the link between our creation (computers) and ultimate creation there is a higher intelligence (true consciousness) which we can connect with through our entire being (mind-body), and that by aligning ourselves with its truths (instead of our own imagined inferior (logical/ego) truths, we can not only survive, but truly evolve.

Now that's a program I'd like to download.