While completely practical (and probably wise), there’s something a bit sad about the fact that Barack Obama will more or less be forced to give up e-mail access upon his ascension to the Presidency. E-mail communication has, in many ways, completely supplanted telephone communication in the 21st century; to me, this would be like telling any of the 20th century Presidents that they had to give up the phones on their desks. It seems like there must be a way to figure this one out…

I frequently find myself attached to some public wifi hotspot trying to get work done, and while I try to make most of my connections via secure methods (e.g., all my email takes place over encrypted connections), most of my web surfing takes place in cleartext. Occasionally, I’ll read some weblog post about the various hosted VPN services and think that I should just use one of them, but never really get around to it. This week, I finally bit the bullet… but rather than subscribing to one of the services, I just set up my own VPN server at home to use.

I have a Linux machine in my home network, and I flirted with the idea of installing OpenVPN on it and using that as my server, but due to a few weird complexities in where that machine sits on my network, that wasn’t the most appetizing idea to me. It was then that I wondered whether someone had built a VMware virtual appliance with OpenVPN support, and it turns out that PhoneHome was just the ticket I was looking for. On my home Windows 2003 Server box, I started that puppy up in VMware Player; it took about a half-hour’s worth of tweaking to get it set up just perfectly for me, and another half-hour to get my home firewall (well, really a Cisco router with a detailed set of access rules) set up to play nicely with the server. Now, I have an easy-to-run, easy-to-connect-to VPN server that allows me to have a secure connection no matter where I am, and that just rocks.

One of the things I was worried about was that the VPN would massively slow down my network connection; between the bottleneck of encrypting all the tunneled traffic and the bottleneck of my home internet connection, I was pretty sure I’d be less than impressed with the speed of an always-on VPN. Surprisingly, the connection is pretty damn fast, though — I appear to have the full speed of my home T1 available to me.

speed test over VPN

If anyone’s interested, I’m happy to share details of the changes I made to the PhoneHome VMware appliance, and any other info you might want.

You might have seen the National Do-Not-Call Registry popping back up in the press recently — since the Federal Trade Commission opened the list in 2003, and numbers registered on the list expire after five years, there are a ton of numbers that’ll fall off the list next year unless people go and re-register them.

I discovered one annoying gotcha, though, related to how the FTC set up the online system for registering numbers and reporting violations of the list. Consider the following three bits of info:

  • the online system doesn’t make any distinction between registering a number on the list and re-registering a number that’s already on the list;
  • the law gives telemarketers a 31-day window to continue to call people after listing their numbers;
  • the online system doesn’t let you report a company’s violation of the registry if you’re within the 31-day window.

What that means is that even if you’ve had your number on the list for years, if you re-register it, you’ll start a 31-day clock where you can’t report any violations. It’s pretty annoying, actually — but of course, it’s certainly not a reason you should avoid making sure your numbers don’t fall off the do-not-call list.

Up until now, one of the larger reasons why I haven’t been too keen on Apple’s iPhone is that it’s locked to AT&T Wireless service, and in general, I’m a believer in the argument that AT&T is one of the more loathsome companies out there — the company has cooperated with the NSA, the RIAA and the MPAA to invade the privacy of its customers, it continues to charge iPhone users a $175 early-termination fee for canceling their contracts despite the fact that those users paid full-price for their phones (and thus, no argument about repaying them for a subsidized phone exists), and despite clear rulings that say it has to offer $10 DSL in certain markets, AT&T is doing everything it can to mislead consumers, bury the existence of the option, and generally obstruct people from signing up for the plan. Thus, when reasonable alternatives exist, I generally like to take them, and for that reason (and a few others), Shannon and I have remained Verizon Wireless customers. (Note that I’m not saying VZW is the paragon of greatness — but up until now, I’ve been pretty satisfied that the company’s efforts to screw me aren’t above the norm that we’ve come to expect in the cellphone industry.)

However, over the past week or two, bits of info have come out that might force me to rethink things a bit. First, I got a notice in the mail two weeks ago to let me know that Verizon wanted to share my personal info and calling habits with “authorized companies”, and that if I wished to prevent this, I had to call them and opt out of their plans. That was a little annoying. (Consumerist mentioned the notice in mid-September.) Then today, the Washington Post reported that Verizon has been turning over calling records to federal authorities without warrants for years, claiming that it doesn’t investigate the “legality or necessity” of the requests, because “to do so would slow efforts to save lives in criminal investigations.” While I understand the sentiment, I’m somewhat aghast at this — if Verizon really claims that see no need to evaluate whether a request to share their customers’ information is valid and legal, then I’m not sure I have a need to give them my money.

Unfortunately, though, with every day’s news it becomes clearer that all of the various telecom companies are both doing everything they can to screw their customers and get as cozy with federal law enforcement officials as they can. Thus, I’m not sure that privacy concerns constitute a reason to rethink a telecom choice anymore… food for thought, indeed.

If the two-day Skype outage from last week was the result of a flaw in Skype’s own software, why did the company only release an updated Windows version of its client? What about the Mac and Linux users — does the robustness of the software on those platforms not matter?

I’ve got a few short takes today, to try to assuage my guilt for being a bit swamped these days (and also to get rid of a few of these tabs in my browser).

Remember the lawsuit Verizon filed against Vonage, threatening to bankrupt the upstart VOIP provider over technology the Baby Bell claimed was its own? It looks like Vonage might have finally rolled out workarounds to all the disputed tech, and also posted better-than-expected financials — which makes me pretty excited, being that I’ve been nothing but satisfied with our service from the company.

I’ve been slowly working my way through Jane Mayer’s amazing New Yorker piece on the CIA “black sites”, and it’s pretty clear that this is a must-read article for those who wish to learn how far our government has taken its torture of detainees in the all-important war on terror. The worst part of it is that at this point, there’s no question that what the public knows only scratches the surface, and that when tomorrow’s historians uncover the full details of this administration’s assaults on fundamental American liberties, we’ll either be aghast or will have long ago given up the right to express our outrage. (Let’s hope for the former.)

It’s amazing, but Apple really does look to be violating the script.aculo.us license on every single page that’s generated by the .Mac photo gallery. Either that, or they’ve struck some licensing agreement with the tool’s author, Thomas Fuchs — but seeing as how script.aculo.us is released under the extremely permissive MIT license, that’d seem unlikely for Apple to have done.

Cool — I hadn’t put two and two together, but Movable Type 4.0 is using Codepress to provide inline syntax highlighting in its template editors, and has extended the tool so that it recognizes all the Movable Type template tags. A long time ago, I bookmarked Codepress so that I’d remember to come back and take a look at it… looks like I don’t have to do that anymore. :)

Finally, this page might be dangerous for me. That is all.

For everyone who seems confused about what I used to do for Sports Illustrated, Microsoft put together a series of two great articles (first, second) that show exactly what I did every time I went on the road with the magazine. (Well, I worked there before the photo world went entirely digital, so imagine a bunch of film processors, slide mounters, light tables, and high-resolution film scanners added to the mix, along with the ever-present smell of the chemicals used to develop the film!) Our road setup was amazing for the time — we travelled with around 150 custom-built padded cases, one- or two-dozen computers and 17-inch monitors, huge (and incredibly delicate) flatbed scanners, a truckload of networking equipment, and countless cases full of cables, power adapters, keyboards, mice, printers, slide carriers, and other assorted loose equipment. It took nearly a day just to unload the equipment, much less set it up — and another day to break it all down and pack it up for shipment back home. We always brought special connectivity lines into the event venues, and spent days and days trying to convince telcos that adhering to their normal troubleshooting procedures would mean that they’d show up to fix some problem long after an event ended and we’d returned home. The most amazing part of it was how magical it felt to most of the editing staff when the images appeared on their desktops back in NYC within an hour or two of them being shot in some arena on the other side of the country… this was way back before everyone took the internet for granted. In any event, I’m super-impressed with the detail that MS put into these two articles. (Thanks go out to Sam for the pointer.)

Ah, crapola: the Vonage verdict is in, and it bars the company from signing up any new customers during the ongoing patent fight with Verizon. Seeing as how Vonage loses 650,000 customers a year, and now can’t gain a single one for the foreseeable future, I’m pretty sure this is the sign of the apocalypse for the VoIP company.

My cursory research of other options for our home VoIP phone service brought me to the doorsteps of Packet8 and AT&T CallVantage, and then to two smaller companies, SunRocket and BroadVoice. Does anyone have experience with either? Specifically, the features I like a lot with our Vonage service are its rock-solid reliability (we’ve never had an outage or problem), the free calling to England (my sister and her family live there), and the feature where it attaches voicemail messages to email and sends them to us. Looking at the feature sets of all four of these options, it looks like the voicemail thing is pretty universal among them all, but only BroadVoice has a reasonable plan with free calling to England, and (of course) there’s no way to know about reliability other than asking for users’ experiences.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve only tangentially been paying attention to the lawsuit Vonage is involved in with Verizon — I knew that Vonage was found to have violated a few Verizon patents, but I had no clue that my home phone company might be forced to shut down its service this coming Friday! Apparently, in an effort to avoid a court-ordered shutdown, Vonage struck a deal with VoIP Inc. today to carry all its calls on VoIP’s network, a move that both companies claim routes around at least two of the technologies that Verizon has patented. But in the end, we still have a phone company that is a quarter of a million dollars in debt, now owes Verizon over $50 million for the use of its patents, and is churning through subscribers at increasing rates. So even if Vonage makes it through Friday — hell, even if the company makes it through the next few months — I’m not naive enough to think that I don’t need to be doing any research on who our next phone provider will be. Anyone have any suggestions?

Update: Clint Ricker has a bit more about the patents involved in the dispute over at IPUrbia.

Holy crapVonage announced today that its premium plan now includes unlimited calls to a big chunk of western Europe! Shannon and I have been thinking about using Vonage for our phone service; with my sister and her family moving to London in a month, I think that this announcement seals the deal.

There’s no question that I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about claims that cellphones can cause problems with airplane guidance and control systems; I’ve always seen it as existing in the same class of claims as ISPs claiming that voice-over-IP might “disrupt their networks,” claims that are as much about protecting control as they are about ensuring safety or quality. This month, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are publishing results of a study of in-flight cellphone (and GPS receiver) use that validates their continued furtive in-flight use, and reviews a sizable chunk of retrospective data about interference, and the editorial board of IEEE Spectrum has referenced the article in a call for a systematic study both of portable electronic use and interference aboard airplanes before any changes are made to the current use bans. (Sadly, as is generally the case, most news reports and weblog posts about the article aren’t doing a good job of explaining the findings; most of them either make the direct claim or appear to want readers to make the conclusion themselves that the study found clear evidence of navigation or control system interference, something the study very definitively did not do.)

Sure, my personal stake in this is that I don’t want to be on an airplane that crashes as a result of someone’s need to stay on their cellphone for the duration of the flight — but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m also very interested in any finding that might prevent having someone screaming details about their personal life into their cellphone in the seat next to me.

Having recently finished the fabulous book The Victorian Internet (recommended by Rebecca, who clearly has a handle on what I might like!), I’ve spent a little bit of time obsessed with how amazing the telegraph must have been back in the mid-1800s, and imagining how surreal it must have felt to those who watched it happen. One day, communicating with family across the country might take weeks — and then a year or two later, the same messages might only take minutes to travel back and forth. Before the telegraph, businesses which shipped products and materials internationally might not know whether their shipments made it to their destinations for months; after the telegraph, the same businesses might know within hours of arrival. People had the vision to run telegraph cables along nearly every railroad track in the world, through frozen tundras, and even across seas and oceans, all in the name of making the world a little smaller. I really am in awe.

Of course, this all makes me that much sadder to learn that Friday, Western Union discontinued their telegram service, after 155 years in the telegraph business. (Just to clear up some word confusion: telegraphy is the process of sending messages using Morse code, and early on, the term “telegram” came to refer to the messages themselves.) Western Union was pretty much critical in the development of the telegraph network in the United States; it strung the first transcontinental line in 1861, introduced the first stock ticker in 1866, created elaborate schemes which allowed the secure transfer of money beginning half a decade later, and beginning in 1974, was the first company to send aloft its own batch of communications satellites (the Westar system) to handle its messaging needs. Alas, electronic mail and instant messaging dealt the telegraph system a death blow, making Western Union’s move unsurprising.