Paying for Free Software

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There is a lot of free software available for every operating system. Some of it is open source, some of it is proprietary, but still free. Some of the free stuff comes with strings attached (shareware, for example). Some of the programs are amazing, many are just toys (or worse).

One relatively common theme in free software (at least on the Windows platform) is to give a relatively complete free version, but offer an upsell to a Pro version that does more. If the free version is too crippled, it’s likely to turn off potential buyers rather than create a demand for conversions to the Pro version.

Over the years I have used many free programs. If it was a shareware program (where you are legally required to pay for the software after a specified time of use, even if the program itself doesn’t enforce that!), then I always either paid for the program, or removed it from my system.

Examples of that are WinZip and Drag and File (later upgraded to Power File, from Canyon Software). While I felt good about both programs, for a very long time, buying them also had the perverse effect of psychologically locking me in to those programs once I paid for them.

Even when alternatives (often free!) became available, I’d feel that I needed to get my money’s worth with the one I bought, and I’d stick with it longer than I should have. For the record, I no longer use either of the programs, even though I own them, and could…

The best part about free, or shareware, is the ability to be sure that a program delivers what you expect (hopefully even more), before shelling out the money for it.

Early in 2008 I started feeling guilty that I wasn’t donating to a few of the software products that I was using regularly, even though they were truly free (not shareware). All three of my favorites were requesting donations (and deserved it!). The three programs I was using back then, on a regular basis were:

Of those three, only Vista Start Menu had a Pro version, enticing you to pay for more features (though the free product is quite awesome on its own). The other two have donation buttons on their websites.

I use Paint.Net whenever I upload photos to my blog. That’s the only time I use it. Even though I can go weeks without launching it, I still it use it regularly enough, that I should donate to the project, and I will.

At one point, even though I was addicted to Launchy, I deleted it from my computer, because it (in conjunction with other background processes) was slowing down my computer. At that point, I was happy I hadn’t paid for it. Then, after getting my computer back to normal, I tried it again, and was again happy with it, without any slowdown. Then I felt guilty that I hadn’t donated.

In the summer of 2008, before the financial meltdown, I decided that I would be more aggressive about paying for programs that I use even semi-regularly, just because it’s the right thing to do. And yet, I didn’t go out and do it right away. That’s because by then, I knew that I would be purchasing a new laptop within the next six months, and I wasn’t sure what operating system I would put on it, or whether I would carry over the same habits/programs even if I stuck with Windows XP.

In November 2008 I finally got my new laptop, and indeed, I switched operating systems to Windows Vista Ultimate x64. I no longer had a need for Launchy, because the basic functionality of Launchy is built right into Vista, and it works really well (Launchy is still awesome, and highly recommended for XP users!).

Paint.NET is still in my arsenal, still on an infrequent but regular basis. Vista Start Menu is no longer on my system. While I think it too is an awesome program, and there is a off chance that I will install at some point in the future, the built in Search in Windows Vista (the part that mimics Launchy) is so powerful, so fast, and always finds what I want instantly, that I just don’t miss Vista Start Menu (though it’s incredibly cool, both conceptually and in its implementation!).

So, now that I’m settled in, I’m ready to fulfill my promise to myself to start paying for things I use regularly, even if they’re free. Especially now, in this economy, I want to support innovative people who create useful software.

So, first up is my favorite VoIP Softphone, Zoiper. For many years, I used a softphone called Diax. I loved it. Unfortunately, I had a few minor problems with it, and at some point, the author stopped maintaining it (it was free). I discovered Zoiper (after trying quite a number of other softphones). I was very happy with it in general as well, though it too presented me with a few problems.

I reported those to the company that produces it, Attractel, and they were amazingly responsive to me via email, even though I was using the free version. Their next release solved all of my problems! At the end of 2007 I wrote to them and told them that even though I didn’t need any of the Biz (their name for a Pro version) extras, I was thinking of buying it just to support them.

As noted above, I ended up rationalizing not doing so for another year. On Friday, I upgraded to the Biz version. So far, the only feature that I have even tested is creating more than two accounts (which is what the free version limits you to). Until I install Asterisk 1.6 (which is still months off for me), I am not likely to even test any other Biz feature. Still, this is a great company, producing great software, and they deserve the support of anyone who uses their stuff!

Next up was backup software. On XP, I was using a combination of two programs. The first was Apricorn EZ Gig II. This is commercial software that came with a hard drive upgrade kit that I purchased a while ago. It can clone hard disks, or make image files that can be restored later on. It works very well, and is very fast. I used it semi-regularly, to make full-image backups of our laptops.

In between those backups, I used Microsoft’s SyncToy program to incrementally backup our most critical content (emails, documents, etc.). There were things about SyncToy that were a little annoying, but mostly, it worked well. It was a version 1.x beta at the time. The new version 2.0 is much better, and only has one annoying thing left (IMHO).

Over time, I started to dislike the EZ Gig II method of backing up, because the only way to access any file on the image backup was to restore the entire image to a disk drive, then pluck out the file(s) that you want. I found another program (free for non-commercial use) called Drive Image XML. It pretty much does what EZ Gig II does, but it also creates an XML file that maps the image to individual filenames (after the image is complete), and individual files can be extracted from the image via an Explorer like interface.

It’s slower than EZ Gig, but not too bad. I used it to image my old XP drive when I got my new Vista-based laptop. Then I copied the image on to the new hard drive. Then I used Drive Image XML directly on the new laptop to access the XP image, and pull out whatever files I wanted, knowing that the rest of the files were at my fingertips.

Unfortunately, while that worked well enough, I found a few files that were showing up in the Explorer interface, but that Drive Image XML couldn’t extract, thinking they were zero length. They shouldn’t have been zero length, so I realized that Drive Image XML wasn’t perfect. Thankfully, I was able to pull them over with a USB key from my old laptop, so they weren’t gone forever.

That got me to search for a better (but similar) program. After reading a bunch, and testing some, I settled on the free version of Macrium Reflect. I was able to image my entire Vista hard drive (while still logged in!) to an external eSATA hard drive, in 55 minutes! It took 193GB and compressed it (with normal compression mode) to 133GB. To restore a file, it mounts the image as a virtual hard drive in Windows, and you use the regular Explorer to browse and copy files. Awesome.

This, in conjuction with SyncToy 2.0 would have been enough for me. I did not need to pay for the Pro version. But, in my new spirit, I wanted to pay for the upgrade. I ended up buying the Family Four Pack (pay for two licenses, get two free). I only need two (one for me, one for Lois), but why not get two emergency licenses in the bargain, just in case, for the same price.

Since the Pro version can do individual files in addition to complete images, and can do incremental and differential images as well (which the free version can’t), I may actually use this tool only, and abandon SyncToy (even though it works well). While my use of Reflect has been minimal so far, I’m really impressed and pleased with this program. If they didn’t have a free version, there’s no way that they would have me as a customer.

I expect to continue to pay/donate for software that I use on a regular basis going forward. I am promising myself that I won’t let that lock me in psychologically should better programs come out in the future. It’s a small price to pay to feel better about doing my bit in keeping these innovative developers going.

Update 1/20/2009: On Windows XP, I used WinPatrol for a reasonably long time. I never had a need for the Plus features, so I never upgraded. When I switched to Vista, I didn’t install WinPatrol. This morning, I decided to add this wonderful program to the list of software that I want to support. I installed the latest version of WinPatrol, and even before I did, purchased a Plus license (just to support the author!). 🙂

Who Needs Floppies

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Since I just wrote about my laptop spring cleaning, I may as well get one more geek post out of my system. 😉

I run many Asterisk servers. I love it. That said, I am still running the 1.2.x branch on all of the servers. They are up to on the production branch. I will never install the 1.4 branch. Not because I don’t believe it’s good, but because they are getting close to releasing 1.6 into production (they are currently at 1.6.0-beta6!).

So, I was interested in getting a test machine set up to install it (after it goes production), so that I can get to know it before committing it to production servers. I considered running it on a VM on my laptop, but I really want to avoid that if I can (read my spring cleaning post again for any number of reasons).

I considered buying a used machine on EBay, Geeks.com, Tiger Direct, etc. You can get pretty beefy machines for under $200, and reasonable ones for well under $100 on EBay, but you’re risking the seller, etc.

Last week, while at Zope Corp., I noticed that they were gathering old junk in an area for their own version of a spring cleaning. In that pile were two old machines. One of them was a Dell Dimension 4550, a 2.53Ghz machine, 30GB hard drive, with 256MB of ram. Not exactly the kind of ram you’d like to see, but otherwise more than adequate to power Asterisk. For a test machine, ideal!

I asked (multiple times) if anyone else hoped to snag it, or ever see it again. People laughed (rightfully so). 😉

Into the back of my SUV it went. I stored it for a week in our utility room and today I finally pulled it out. I wanted to install CentOS on it. The other day I downloaded the 3.6GB DVD ISO in a drop over an hour on my FiOS link. Yummy!

I popped the DVD in the drive and booted. Nothing, it just booted into the existing CentOS 4.2 (I wanted to install the 5.1 release). Hmmm. Thankfully I didn’t waste time figuring this one out. I quickly found out that the machine had a CD drive, no DVD. OK, moving on…

I downloaded and burned a CentOS net install CD (only 7.1MB) and booted again. Again, straight into the old CentOS. Hmmm. Somehow, the CD drive isn’t working (boot order was set correctly).

I didn’t have root access on the machine, and it can PXE boot (boot over a network, but I didn’t have a target machine for it to boot off), but it can’t boot off a USB device. 🙁

Floppies to the rescue! My second choice for an operating system was Debian. I downloaded five floppy images for a net install. I booted off of the floppy, and it failed again. This was getting very tiresome…

I booted into the existing system, and tried to mount and read the floppy. It took forever, but finally, I got a clean listing, so there was no hardware problem with the floppy. I tried that with a CD, but it was never able to mount that, so indeed, there is a hardware problem with the CD drive.

It turns out that even though I pressed F12 to change the boot order, and I picked the floppy, it failed. I pressed F2 (for yucks) to get into setup. Once I moved the floppy boot up the ladder, and saved, it successfully booted off of the floppy. Whew.

I now have a smooth running Debian system configured to my taste. I am now patiently awaiting the final release of Asterisk 1.6.0.

So, do we need floppies? Hopefully not going forward. But, as long as there is life in older systems (and clearly there still is), the fact that my four-year-old laptop has a built-in floppy drive ended up saving me some headaches. More important, are you impressed that I had five blank floppies handy as well? 😉

Internet Connectivity Insurance

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In the house, we have Verizon FiOS service (triple play, Phone, Internet, TV). In the apartment, we have Time Warner Cable (Internet and TV). Both services are very reliable (in terms of availability). Beyond that, Verizon FiOS is so dramatically better, I keep praying for when they’ll figure out how to deploy it to large apartment buildings in NYC.

The biggest difference in the service is the speed. On the FiOS link, I have 30Mbps downstream, and theoretically, 5Mpbs upstream (though no site seems to accept data at that rate, so it’s somewhat meaningless). On the TWC link, it’s between 4-5Mbps downstream, but a poky 364Kbps (yes, K, not M) upstream. Most of the time, that’s OK, but when sending large attachments, or updating a large blog posting 😉 it can be reasonably painful.

The other difference (for me, not between the services) is that at the house (on FiOS), I’m wired the entire way. At the apartment, I use WiFi. Lois uses WiFi at both places, and it’s rock solid at the house.

At the apartment, the WiFi is often flaky, even though we’re not all that far from the access point (it’s in another room, and there’s one wall between us, but it’s not more than 20 feet away). At some times, it’s rock solid, at others, it can drop out completely.

It’s possible that the router itself (a Linksys WRT54G) is flaking out. On the other hand, sometimes, it can go for days on end without a problem. Slightly more likely is the fact that we live in a heavily populated area, and there is likely a crazy amount of interference of all types on the 2.4ghz band.

So, this past Wednesday we drove in from the house to the apartment because we had tickets to see Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood at MSG that night. (Completely unrelated to that post, here is my review of that concert…)

We got to the apartment mid-morning and immediately logged on. The weather was horrible outside, and it’s possible (though I can’t imagine how) that it affected the WiFi signal as well. Within minutes of being logged on, we were experiencing tons of dropouts on the WiFi. The TV signal was fine, and I was able to make VoIP calls (which bypass the WiFi) without a problem, so the basic Internet service was definitely up as well.

After about an hour of complete frustration on our part, I decided to put the backup plan into action. As the name of the post implies, I have insurance for just such situations. For a few years now, I pay for an unlimited data plan with Sprint to use each of our Treos (I have a 755p, and Lois has a 700p). It’s not cheap, and I would probably save a ton of money if I paid only when I used it (because it is, after all, just for emergencies), but I really hate metering, and getting smacked with out-sized bills, even if overall, it would be cheaper.

Years ago, when few hotels had free WiFi, it was a very good deal, as we often both used our phones as modems for hours on end. Now, it’s actually rare that we stay at a place that doesn’t have free WiFi. Therefore, it’s also rare that we use the Treos to connect our laptops to the Internet.

On Wednesday, I pulled out both phones, connected them with USB cables, and connected via Sprint. We both stayed connected for at least six hours, never had a single drop of the connection, and neither of us felt that it was sluggish in the least. I didn’t measure the speed that day, but in the past, in the apartment, it has averaged roughly 400Kbps downstream and 100Kbps upstream.

I would hate to see what that one day bill would have been, which is I pay the set amount each month. Ironically, this is the second time this month that we’ve used the service. When we were visiting my folks on February 6th, Lois needed to do a ton of work (thankfully, I didn’t). She was using the WiFi in their apartment, and it was working fine for everything, except sending mail. Obviously, it was critical that she be able to send emails.

I realized fairly quickly that Bellsouth (excuse me, AT&T) was likely blocking outgoing SMTP that wasn’t going through their servers, but I wanted to visit with my folks, and I didn’t want to dork around with her machine, or my server. So, I just plugged her in to the Treo, and connected to Sprint, and she was fine for hours.

The next day, I just changed her settings to send through Bellsouth and that worked fine too.

So, while I’m definitely overpaying, I’m very happy to report that at least on the rare occasions when I need it, it not only works, but it works flawlessly, and provides a very satisfactory experience in terms of speed as well. That’s exactly how all insurance should work. 🙂

Verizon FIOS TV

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So, I’ve been using Verizon FIOS for my Internet connection in the house for quite a while now, and I absolutely love it! When they first installed it, the tech said that they would be introducing TV over the same fiber connection, likely within 6 months.

Well, it’s been much longer than 6 months, but it finally became available.

Lois and I have relatively pedestrian TV watching habits, including not owning an HDTV (even though I think they are awesome). I had both a cable connection (just basic, no boxes) and a DirecTV satellite with a large-drive DVR connected to the satellite. Don’t ask why I didn’t get rid of the cable when I got the satellite over 12 years ago…

I also have a pretty screwy (but very reliable) wiring setup to allow the cable or the satellite to be displayed on either of our two TVs (one upstairs, one downstairs). That was (by far) my biggest hesitation in ordering FIOS TV.

I got the announcement of availability in my neighborhood in the mail, and then researched it online. As intrigued as I was, I actually decided to wait a while, just because of the pain. Then a few days later, while at Zope, I got a marketing/sales call from Verizon (almost definitely outsourced), pitching me on taking the FIOS TV package. What convinced me in the end was that they too (like the cable companies) are now offering “Triple Play” (phone, Internet and TV). Well, I already have phone and Internet from them, and adding TV will actually lower my combined bill (Verizon and Cable) by a reasonable amount, while giving me more channels plus a DVR for the FIOS stuff as well.


So, they installed it yesterday. The tech was great, and I only had to explain my screwy wiring once, and he got it right. Cool. But, in order to get the cooler services, they also had to swap the free WiFi Router that they had previously installed for FIOS Internet service with a better one that handled OnDemand TV as well. The old router was a Dlink 624. When first installed, I was apprehensive, because I didn’t think all that highly of Dlink stuff. It has been flawless for over a year, and I customized it to handle all of my special needs (notably VoIP and Slingbox).

The tech replaced it with a gigantic Verizon-branded router. Turns out that it’s an ActionTec model, clearly made for Verizon.

He told me that I really shouldn’t change the defaults. Yeah, right. 😉

Well, by default, it worked correctly (and well) for the Internet, but it didn’t work for my Sling and VoIP, because they were set up to do things in a special way.

The router has a very powerful menu system, which was not intuitive, nor easily discoverable. I struggled to find the right bits to make my changes. When I finally found the right bits, any change I made was “accepted”, but then the router simply stopped working. It would not hand out any DHCP addresses that weren’t the original default. It had no way (that I could find) to marry a MAC address to a DHCP address to “lock” a machine to a particular address.

Oh well, after doing a “Factory Reset” a few times, I gave up, and decided to live with their defaults.

It was extremely painful to make the changes to my Asterisk machine (Red Hat 9), because I can’t easily log in to it, and I couldn’t ssh to it because it was on a different network. 🙁

I had to boot a Rescue CD, enable ssh, ssh in, mount the internal drive, edit the networking startup scripts, and then reboot. Finally, I got all the right bits working, and the machine (and VoIP service) was working again. The Sling was slightly easier, but painful as well.

Anyway, Lois asked if it was worth it to have upgraded, and the answer yesterday was clearly “No”. Now that’s it’s done, I’m feeling less negative, and we’ll see wither the FIOS TV stuff makes up for the hassle…

A very Wicked Sunday :-)

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If you read my last post, you know that the highlight of yesterday was going to see Wicked for our fifth time. In addition to that specific highlight, the day turned out to be spectacular in a number of other ways. Therefore, this post will likely be very long, and I apologize if you’re only tuning in to hear what we thought of the two leads in Wicked. You can either search or skim to find out the $64k answer to that question. 😉

Amazingly enough, I have checked off every single category that I have previously used in this one post. Well, it’s only amazing because there is something about each category in this post. Clearly, I could just check them all off every time if I felt like it. 😉

We debated going in on Saturday night, but that decision ended up being made for us when I won a free entry into the nightly 7pm Omaha Hi-Lo tourney, which I played in the house. Since we’re less than a week away from the monthly poker update, I’ll just say that I came 10th (they paid the top 10 only), so it was a “good” result, but economically, far from first place (first was 15 times larger than the prize I won!). Also, because of Wicked on Sunday, this was going to be the fourth straight week that I would not be around to even try and play in the big Sunday weekly tourney. OK, that accounts for the Poker and Gambling categories being in this one.

When we woke up on Sunday, we both checked email on our Treos, and neither of us turned on our laptops. When we got home, we didn’t turn them on either. That made yesterday one of the only days in recent memory when we were in NY, didn’t have company, and both of use chose not to log on the entire day. Not sure it ever happened before, but if so, it’s a rarity. That also meant that there was no poker played yesterday, which is also unusual for a day in NY without company, but not as rare as not logging on. So, this qualifies as being in the Computers, Poker and Gambling categories.

We drove in on the early side, straight to the apartment. On the way, we listened to the latest CD from Girlyman (previously reviewed here) Joyful Sign, and loved it the entire way in. Shortly after arriving at the apartment, I went on my 8+ mile walk around the city. The weather was nearly perfect. 100% cloud cover (the sun didn’t even peek out for a second), and not too hot or too humid. Ten degrees cooler and it would have been perfect. My typical time (average would be a misnomer here) is 2 hours and 15 minutes. Yesterday it took me only 2 hours and 5 minutes, so the cool weather helped. Of course, I listened to my iPod the entire way, and it didn’t freeze this time, adding to the nice day. This qualifies for adding Music as a category, and of course, the entire post qualifies for Personal.

After a shower, we relaxed and watch Friday night’s episode of Monk (on the DVR). We always love Monk, but this episode was weak in comparison to most. We still enjoyed it, but aside from sharing with you what we did the entire day, it also qualified as one of only two things during the day that also correctly put this post into the Frustration category.

We debated what to do about lunch. Both of us were hungry enough to do a big meal, but after the gorging that we did last weekend, we were both glad to have slowed down this week (amazingly, I lost all of the weight I gained last weekend!). So, we also didn’t want to go too crazy. We finally decided to go to the Palm, across from the theater, but not over do it. Yeah, right. 😉

We got to the theater, picked up our tickets at the Will Call, and crossed the street, only to find out that the Palm doesn’t open for lunch on Sundays. Perhaps they don’t open for dinner either, but a passerby told us they did, so they might. Marginally disappointed, we decided to find another restaurant. I spotted an Applebees 1/2 a block away on Broadway and 50th. We decided to head there. Serendipitously, when we got to the corner, I spotted the other Ruby Foos on the corner of Broadway and 49th. I previously blogged about how great Ruby Foos is, though I’ve only eaten at the uptown one before. Clearly, we both felt that we were meant to eat there. 🙂

The menu is identical to the uptown location, and the decor is as well. The building itself uptown is two floors, so the layout inside is much more opulent, but there’s nothing wrong with this location. We both thoroughly enjoyed our meals. That’s not entirely true. Lois actually didn’t like the filler and sauce for her main dish, but we so enjoyed the calamari appetizer, that eating just the grilled shrimp and scallops off of the top of her dish was good enough. This paragraph qualifies for the Food and Dining categories.

At the end of the meal, our waitress asked us if we were going to see a show. When we told her it was Wicked, she said that she was really interested in seeing it, because whenever her sister comes to visit her in NYC, she goes. Her sister has seen it five times, but our waitress was working each time, and hasn’t gotten to go yet. Omens anyone? I mentioned to the waitress that we were about to catch up to her sister. 🙂

We strolled over to the theater, and were blown away by how good our seats were. It turns out that EE is actually the 4th row, not the 5th, as the AA row is only right and left orchestra. Essentially, the real orchestra is in row AA. 😉

Of course, the omen of EE (5-5) for our fifth time, wasn’t lost on me. 😉

We knew we would love the seats, and the performance, but we were both nervous about the abilities of the stars. I don’t want to turn this into a mystery novel, so I’ll dispense with the suspense. We knew within the first few notes that Glinda (played by Kendra Kassebaum) sang, that she was not going to cut it, by our standards. She has an excellent voice, but she doesn’t put it together for this role. Not even all that close. She’s by no means awful (like the understudy I wrote about), but it was passable, at best. OK, we still had anticipation of how Elphaba would sound.

She comes on in the second song, but doesn’t sing until the third. In the second song, it was obvious that Elphaba (played by Julia Murney) was an excellent actress. We were not disappointed in the acting of any of the previous leads (other than the understudy), but we typically sat much further back, so you don’t really appreciate facial expressions, etc. In fact, everything was far more interesting this close up, and I was painfully aware that it would be easy to get trapped into only wanting to see shows where the seats were this good. Given how much we’ve enjoyed so many other shows, and Wicked in particular, from much worse seats, that would be a real mistake!

Then we got to song #3, the first of many that showcase (or can) Elphaba’s talent and range, “The Wizard and I”. As with Glinda, it was obvious in the first few notes that Julia didn’t have it. She’s not bad either (though I believe that the raw vocal talent between the two lies in Kendra, not Julia). There are two problems with Julia’s voice:

  1. She can’t transition ranges smoothly. She might be able to sing in a particular range (high or low) reasonably well, but when she switches (which this role does frequently), her voice often cracks, or does something else that is less than stellar.
  2. She has no power, and when she pushed the notes that require it, I felt badly for her. Also, she couldn’t hit the highest of notes required by the role.

The last problem, though it was relatively minor, is that each of them brought their own special little styling or phrasing to their solos. None was over the top (as was the case with the oft-mentioned understudy), but it’s annoying nonetheless (I’ll expound momentarily on that theme). That said, one surprising positive note was that there was little fooling around when they sang harmonies together, and for the most part, it was pleasant and reasonably done, but most certainly not spine chilling!

The closest I’ve ever sat before yesterday was 22 rows back (so 18 rows further than yesterday). Lois had a single seat in row L once, when we bought an extra ticket for a surprise visitor from England. I sat with our other two friends in the balcony that day. Even in row L, which was only 12 rows further than yesterday, Lois says she saw so many new things from the close-up seats. That’s not a major statement though, since those of you who know Lois, know she’s essentially legally blind (no, for those of who don’t know Lois, that’s not a joke, or a crack at my wife). So, she was particularly thrilled to see things that I had easily seen before, even from far away. I think it made the performance magical for her, even though she felt the same way (if not even more critical) about the singing of the leads.

Now my exposition on styling and phrasing. Feel free to skip this rant, or the rest of the post, if all you came for was a review on this performance of Wicked. You’ve gotten that already. 😉

I completely understand (but don’t like!) when a musical group that has been around for ages gets tired of playing the hits in exactly the same way each and every day. From my perspective, it’s still incumbent upon them to deliver what their paying audiences expect, but at least I understand it.

In some cases, they have good reasons/excuses. Bruce Hornsby is now teamed with Ricky Skaggs. When they perform, it’s mostly a Bluegrass theme, and it gave Bruce the opportunity to update some of his big hits in a radical way, but perhaps still appreciated by the fans who came to hear Bluegrass!

For a different perspective, I always love to listen to the live version of Mr. Bojangles by David Bromberg. The song was written by Jerry Jeff Walker. As an aside, Lois and I attended a benefit in Austin, TX in May 2006, with a lot of famous people presenting and/or performing. One was Jerry Jeff, who sang Mr. Bojangles (wonderfully!), and we were about 15 feet away from him! David tells (in the middle of the song) how he and Jerry Jeff used to play the song together live every night (forever), and how he (David) never tired of it. On the other hand, Jerry Jeff did, and after they would perform it for the audience, they’d play it for themselves, and “do horrible things to it“, so I really do understand.

The other excuse/reason to muck with a song would be if you were playing it to the same audience frequently, and you might expect that they would appreciate hearing it differently.

Unfortunately, none of those situations applies to a Broadway play. The overwhelming majority of theater goers are seeing any given show for the first time (and likely only time for that show). Second, the cast didn’t write the songs, and rarely have been in a given role for that long, and shouldn’t have the need for artistic freedom with the piece. Not to mention that there is (or should be!) a director involved, ensuring the quality.

Theater goers should easily fall into one of three categories:

  1. Never seen or heard the show/music before. While you can argue that they might like the stylized version, or least not know or care about the difference, I doubt you could argue that they would like the original (often Tony-winning!) version any less.
  2. Been to the show. Well, they’re coming back for more. 😉 Unless they saw this specific cast, doing this specific stylized version, odds are that this group will be at least somewhat disappointed.
  3. Never been to the show, but listen to the CD. This might be the largest group, but certainly is second behind #1 if not. This group only knows the gold standard for how the music is meant to be sung. If they’ve listened to the CD more than once (or, in my case, over 1000 times, no exaggeration), they have no choice but to be disappointed. The correct version is imprinted on their brains. 😉

There must be thousands, if not 10’s of thousands of ultra-talented actors/singers out there who would kill for an opportunity to star in Wicked. Here’s why I simply can’t comprehend the way the show is being performed (and I’m sure there has to be something wrong with me, or my thought process):

For the auditions, tell people that they have to listen to the Original Cast CD 1000 times, and come back when they can sing it note for note. Only then, do you audition for the acting part of the role.

What could be simpler? No styling, no phrasing, no ad-libing of any kind. You can either nail the songs or you can’t. If not, then Next!

But, for some reason, perhaps that the Director is bored hearing the same show every day, they allow the improvisations to continue, and they continue to recruit sub-par singers…

OK, it’s finally off my chest (sort of). Both Lois and I are decidedly against seeing it again with these two ladies in the lead. Here’s hoping they get swapped out sooner rather than later. That said, both of us thoroughly enjoyed the experience yesterday, and got to concentrate on other aspects of the show, which were delightful from our up-front perspective. I’m still laughing at the woman who reviewed the story as weak, the sets as weak, and the singing as fantastic. Oh well, that’s what makes the world interesting. 🙂

So, is there a lesson learned here? Yes, trust YouTube! Seriously, it was obvious even from the really poor quality of the cell-phone made YouTube videos of both leads that this was not a role they could handle. The seats were too good, and everything else about the opportunity as it unfolded was awesome, that we really couldn’t pass it up. But, I know to trust my instincts in the future, and go with the force, Luke…

Both Fiyero and The Wizard were played by actors new to us in their respective roles. The Wizard is a character actor whom we’ve seen on TV hundreds of times! Both were outstanding, and added thoroughly to our enjoyment of the show.

The above obviously qualifies for both the Broadway and Music categories, thus rounding out all of my previous categories (with one exception, which I’ll get to next). Hopefully, it was obvious to you that the performances of the two leads was the second reason that this post qualified for the Frustration category…

If you needed any proof of why Lois and I are together after so many years, I’ll share an honest-to-goodness story from yesterday, which is not as uncommon as you might think. During the performance, I was thinking that if I were Bill Gates, I would rent out the theater on a Monday when it was dark, pay Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel (the two original leads, and both are on the Original Cast CD) to join the remainder of the current cast and chorus (or, if I really was Bill Gates, probably bring back the entire original cast for the night), and invite 2000 of my closest friends, to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime good time.

At intermission, Lois turns to me and says: “Wouldn’t it be great if we were rich, and we could pay Stephen Schwartz (the creator of the Wicked Musical) to get Kristin and/or Katie Kate Reinders back together with Idina or Eden Mendoza Espinosa (thanks very much to Steph for correcting my hurried mistakes in the comment below!), for just one night, and invite all of our friends?”

Folks, I’m not kidding. We’re too alike for our own good. The difference between us is that Lois only wished to be rich enough to pull it off. I wished to have the kind of money Bill Gates has, so that pulling it off wouldn’t make a dent, or seem even a little unusual for me to do. 😉

I’m telling this next part out of order, because it is 100% inconsequential, other than it is a perfectly valid reason to tag this post with the final category, VoIP. 🙂 While I was out walking, Lois called my cell phone, something she rarely does. She let me know that she couldn’t dial out normally from the apartment, but had to add a prefix of “9”, which routes through our external VoIP provider (see, a legitimate use of the VoIP category). Turns out that calls routed through our house line (which is our default) were failing because the house router got a new dynamic address from Verizon FIOS that was not in the previous ranges, and the firewall at the apartment didn’t like the new address. Problem solved easily this morning…

So, you think you’re done reading? I beg to differ. Our day was not over yet, as this was about Sunday, not just Wicked. 😉

We went back to the apartment, packed up, and headed back to the house. On the way home, we listened to another Girlyman CD (Remember Who I am), and it too is excellent! Just as we were pulling in to our cul-de-sac, a car pulled in behind us. Our neighbors two doors down were coming home from the movies. We’re nuts about both of them (and their daughter), and even though we live 200 feet apart, we rarely get to spend quality time with them given each of our schedules.

So, after 10 seconds of schmoozing in the cul-de-sac, we unpacked our car and walked over to their house. We hung out for nearly 2 hours, and then got home and collapsed, watching two 1/2 hour comedies to unwind (both were hysterical), and then dropped off on the early side.

Finally, something not really related to Sunday. Aside from Wicked yesterday, which was a last minute thought, I have been unable to play in any of the weekly Sunday big tourneys in August so far. This has been marginally disappointing, given my excellent (if lucky) results in July. I did play in a number of qualifiers during the month, even knowing I couldn’t play that week, because you are permitted to unregister a seat, and get Tournament Dollars (TDs) which you can use to register into a future tournament. That said, since I knew I couldn’t play, I didn’t enter many qualifiers. I didn’t win the seat in any of them…

Today, while writing this blog, I decided to try my hand at a qualifier, given that I’m likely to be free (for the first time in a month!) this coming Sunday. I put up $15.50, and top three players out of 40 would win an entry. I came third, and won the seat! So, in the first try to win a seat in the first tournament that I can actually play in, for the least amount I could realistically spend to get in, I got the seat. Woo Hoo. Happy endings all around. 🙂

P.S. Even though this post is incredibly long, somehow, I feel that I’ve left out something important from yesterday. Oh well, I should have logged on last night after all. 😉

New Machine

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On April 23rd I announced the christening of my new server. At the time, I put the percentage of services that had been ported over at 95. It’s been at least 5 days since I’ve been at 100%, so the new machine is definitely “official”. Everything has been updated to point to the new machine, and all but one thing are running as expected.

The only problem I have is with one VoIP provider. I can’t get any audio to work between us, and the problem is definitely on my end, which is the main reason for not naming the provider. I can still connect reliably to them from my old server, from a different server that I control, and from a softphone as well, so something is broken on my new server in the config for them. That said, all other providers work, including identically configured ones, so it’s not a firewall problem, nor generically a broken Asterisk install. I’m not happy with this, because I can’t think of anything more to test. I’ve written twice to the Asterisk mailing lists, with no useful suggestions left to try. 🙁

I could probably write for hours on the experience of building the new machine. Very few people would maintain interest in that, I’m sure. I also don’t need it for a cathartic release, because I took very copious notes on the whole thing in a Google Notebook.

So, I’ll try to boil the essence down here, with the hope of not losing your interest too quickly. 🙂

The purpose of the change was to upgrade the OS from Red Hat 9 to CentOS 5.0. That worked well. I actually installed CentOS 5.0 Beta first, and then did an upgrade through yum, which worked fine!

My first real disappointment was attempting to build OpenPKG on the new box. The concept sounded really cool to me. The biggest reason for moving from RH9 to CentOS5 was that newer RPMs were harder and harder to find for RH9. OpenPKG held out the promise that one wouldn’t have to worry about this in the future, with the added benefit that you would never accidentally step on the operating system’s packages.

Unfortunately, I ended up wasting a ton of time on it, and it eventually failed to install itself, claiming that gcc couldn’t create executables on the system. Of course it could, as I built quite a number of packages from source… So, great concept, just not right for me at this time…

Had a minor glitch with SELinux (first time I’ve been on a system that was running it). Had to temporarily disable some of the checks to get a package installed and running, but was able to turn it back on afterwards, and haven’t had a problem since.

I have been a very happy user of Courier-IMAP for years, and felt guilty about even considering an alternative (just a loyalty thing). But, I’d read a number of nice things about Dovecot, and it just went official 1.0 a few days before, so I decided to try it. I’m really happy with it. It worked correctly the first time, and configuration was as straightforward as I was led to believe. On the other hand, it wasn’t a quick config, because there are so many things that you can (and sometimes should) set. The single config file (which I like!) is huge, because it’s so well documented, that the choices are relatively simple. You just have to read all those darn docs… 😉

Also installed the latest Postfix 2.4.0. I’ve been really happy with Postfix for years, and had little intention of switching that.

One minor nit about Linux in general. It’s a little annoying that dependencies can get out of whack quite easily. Some system thing depends on openssl-0.9.7 (for example), and you know that 0.9.8e fixes some bugs, and perhaps some new software you’re installing wants that. So, now it needs to go in it’s own directory (’cause you can’t mess with the system one), and then every package has to be told where to find the new one, etc. It all works, but it’s still a PITA.

Installed the latest WordPress (which of course meant MySQL and PHP, etc.). This time, the email config problem that I had on the old machine just disappeared (hooray!). I didn’t config it any differently, so who knows what was wrong before…

Installed the latest Zope (2.10.3, not Zope 3), and had remarkably few problems slurping up my old Data.fs file from a Zope 2.6.x installation. Very cool.

Switched from one webmail client to another, even though I had been happy with the former for years. The latter does more, of which I’m sure I won’t partake of the additional functionality anyway. It works, so that’s all I care about. I rarely use webmail, but when it’s necessary, it’s also ultra convenient (and, as stated, necessary). 😉

One of the bigger odysseys was the installation of a Jabber server. This should probably be its own post, but if it was, I would never condense it, so I’ll do my best not to go on too much here. On the old machine, I was running jabberd-1.4.3 for years. Jabberd2 was just out at the time that I first installed 1.4.3 (they are not the same project). I was able to get jabberd2 to work at the time, but I could not get the AIM and ICQ transports to work, so I reverted to 1.4.3.

The jabberd14 project is still alive and kicking, and I could have saved a lot of headaches if I had stuck with it. But, for a while, I wanted to try ejabberd. It is the official server of jabber.org since February 2007, which seemed impressive to me. 😉

Ejabberd is written in Erlang, and is supposed to scale like crazy (not that I have the slightest need for scale). The concept intrigued me. I’ll spare you all of the insane problems I had getting it to work right. Suffice it to say that it was not my fault, which is rare in these situations. 😉

When I finally got it to work stably, I installed the Python-based AIM and ICQ transports (PyICQ-t and PyAIM-t). The AIM transport worked correctly, and the ICQ one was flaky (solution later on).

Then Rob Page asked me to take a look at Openfire (previously called Wildfire). It sounded cool, and since I was having a problem with the ICQ transport, I figured I’d give it a shot. Man, it installed so easily from RPM, didn’t touch a single file on the system, could be uninstalled trivially, etc. In summary, I liked it instantly. I wasn’t crazy about running a JVM on the system full time, but the load would be negligible, so I decided to switch to it. Of course, while it worked well, and the administration was wonderful, the ICQ plugin was experimental (the AIM one is production), and it behaved like an experimental plugin, which put me where the other one did. There were a few other small annoyances in Openfire as well.

That made me decide to go back and beat my head on the ejabberd server and transports. Long story short, after investigating my setup on the old machine (prompted by Z_God in the Python Transports conference room), I noticed that I didn’t understand how transports speak to the main server. I had them both speaking on the same port (which the sample config file showed!), but on the working server, each transport spoke to the server on its own port! I switched ICQ and AIM to speak to ejabberd on separate ports, and voila, it has been rock solid ever since. I have retired Openfire, and am a very happy ejabberd and python-transports customer! 🙂

That’s pretty much it (at least at a high level). I’m happy with the machine. As usual, more twists and turns than one hopes for, but also more learning experiences than I expected, and interesting ones at that, mostly ending in success. Now if I can only figure out that one SIP provider audio problem, I could get back to some serious poker playing. 😉

I’m a Phone Weenie

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OK, I admit it. Rob Page, CEO of Zope Corporation officially coined me a phone weenie a number of weeks ago. He’s right. Of course, he also directly benefits from that feature in me, since I am the primary Asterisk PBX administrator at Zope Corp. 😉

So, what does it mean to be a phone weenie? Basically, it means that I get excited about every possible way to interconnect phone systems, even where there are little practical uses for doing so. 😉

For example, here are a variety of ways that I have at my disposal to “speak on the phone” (and by phone, I often really mean headset connected to my laptop). First (and in this case foremost), I run multiple Asterisk PBX servers. One in my house, one in my apartment, one on opticality.com which is in a data center in Virginia, one at Zope Corporation (which I’m in charge of), and one or two other ones that I’ve set up for friends. This is my primary way of getting phone calls. It’s also the only way (other than her cell phone) that Lois makes phone calls.

I (on the other hand), rarely make PSTN outgoing calls via Asterisk any longer (though I certainly used to, for years). In addition to Asterisk, I’ve had accounts with a variety of VoIP providers (mostly SIP) for years, including: FreeWorldDialup (FWD), SIPPhone (also providers of the Gizmo Project), etc. Of course, I’ve also had a Skype account for years.

Being a phone weenie, I eschewed the use of Skype for a long time, and only launched it when someone else specifically asked me to have a conversation via Skype. Why? Because Skype isn’t standards compliant and therefore can’t interact (easily) with other systems, including SIP, Asterisk, etc. That said, everything that people said about Skype was also true, namely that it was easy to use, had great sound quality, could get through most firewalls (which is why corporate America rightfully hates it!), etc.

Last year, Skype offered 7 months of unlimited calling to any US or Canadian land-line or cell phone (using their SkypeOut service), if you were a US or Canadian based caller. Who could pass on free calls? So, I used Skype a number of times for that. For the most part, the quality was good, so when I remembered to, I’d use it for long-distance calls. The only downside was that I wasn’t sending my own Caller ID. To some, that’s a positive, but since I am not a telemarketer, I don’t mind people knowing that it’s me that’s calling. 😉

In January of this year, Skype stopped the free service, but for $30/year, gave the same unlimited calling. But, if you act now (or rather before January 31, 2007), you could get the same service for $14.95 for all of 2007. I did. It works. I like it.

But, I still didn’t launch Skype unless I was about to make a long-distance call, or someone asked me (typically via email) to get on Skype. Lately, I’ve been doing some business with a company in Europe. Of course, no one wants to pay for International calls. It turns out that they are all Mac users, and all had Skype installed already. So, rather than fighting the tide, I now launch Skype regularly (still not automatically at login), and I speak to them on the phone frequently, and use Skype IM more than I thought I would. It’s still a very nice package with excellent sound quality.

But, that’s not really the purpose of this post. As usual, I type way too much before getting to the point. I don’t mind, because I’m only blogging for myself at the moment, and these are the specific thoughts that I want to capture for myself for posterity, for now…

Here’s the point of this post 🙂

When it was first announced, I got very excited about Google Talk (Gtalk). I thought it would be a formidable opponent to Skype, but would be more standards compliant and therefore interoperable. Well, there may be a ton of people using it, but none of the people that I interact with have ever asked me to have a conversation with them via Google Talk! Ironically, Gtalk licensed the same codec that Skype did (from Global IP Sound) so their sound quality is pretty exceptional as well.

In any event, Gtalk was supposed to be more interoperable because they were based on XMPP (which is the protocol underneath the fantastic Jabber IM service). That has finally turned out to be true, but it was a long time coming. The fact that it can interoperate with other Jabber servers is of minor interest to me personally. I run my own Jabber server, and can interact with any other Jabber server on the planet that turns on that feature.

What has been interesting to me (in theory) is whether Gtalk can be a client with critical mass distribution (like Skype is already), but be able to work seemlessly with things like Asterisk (and other existing and as yet to be developed services). Google has the brand and the muscle to move as many free clients as Skype, so my dream lives on.

So, the latest version of Asterisk (1.4.x, which just became 1.4.1 this week) has support for Gtalk built in. I don’t know whether it works well or not, because I run the more proven 1.2.x branch (now at 1.2.16 as of this week). That doesn’t have the support.

Today, I read a posting on the Asterisk mailing list by someone who used a new service to connect the two, without installing any software on my server or my client! What? Yes, that’s right, and I have to say that I got it working pretty easily, and it’s usefulness is much greater than simply connecting Asterisk to Google Talk.

The service is called gtalk2voip. It’s extremely cool, and completely free for basic services, which is all I am interested in! It is a gateway service that knows how to communicate with Google Talk, MSN Live Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger. In addition to being able to send IM (through gtalk2voip) between the services (I know, big deal), they can connect voice calls between the three services. That alone would be cool, though I suspect that over time, the services will connect to each other (as many IM services have done in the past, reluctantly). But, what this service can do (and trivially!), is connect any of the three services to any SIP address on any arbitrary SIP provider (including Asterisk, which has built-in SIP support).

So, I clicked one button on the home page of gtalk2voip.com and typed in my gmail address (which is tied to my Gtalk service). One second later, I had a message in Gtalk asking me if I wanted to add a new Contact “service@gtalk2voip.com”. Once I said yes, the new service IM’ed me with instructions on how to use the service (cool). I made a 2-line change to my Asterisk configuration (many wouldn’t need to even do that), and I was able to make a call from Gtalk to my home phone, entirely through SIP (Asterisk controls all of my phones).

I was then able to add a new extension in Asterisk, and when I dialed it from my home phone, Gtalk started ringing. It just worked. No downloads, no real work. If you have a SIP address on any service (FWD, SIPPhone, GizmoProject, or your own server, etc.), then you have zero configuration after you’ve accepted “service@gtalk2voip.com” as your new contact. I wasn’t publishing a SIP address to the world, since my Asterisk gets called when people dial my real PSTN number, so I had to add a few lines to expose a SIP address…

OK, so this is way cool, except that I still don’t think Gtalk has really caught on yet. But, if it does, I’m already ready, which is wildly exciting.

Now for a bit of irony to conclude this long post. For the past 10+ years, perhaps closer to 15, I have been a member of a computer book club which has had a number of names, now called Computer Books Direct. It’s a pretty darn good book club, but since I stopped working as a programmer, I haven’t bought a book from them, which has been 9 years now. I haven’t canceled my membership because I have 38 member credits which I can use for either free books, or greatly reduced pricing. Some day, I suspect I’ll use them. In the meantime, I have to watch my snail mail like a hawk, to ensure that I don’t forget to cancel this month’s selections. I haven’t missed in at least 8 years, so I’m good at it.

Today (that’s right, today!), after I started writing this post, but before I finished it (obviously), the mail came, and in it was my monthly selection that I needed to cancel. There were two selections today, both about Google. The top selection was a book called Google Talking, I kid you not! Here is a link to their page. I’m not buying it, but somehow, somewhere, the universe is nudging me in that direction… 🙂