One Hot Tomato (#noapple)

I had started to notice that my home wi-fi performance seemed to be degrading. I use an Apple Airport Extreme and I’m not sure if it is just the new proliferation of Android and Linux devices in my house or if something else is going on, but I was seeing a lot of network drops and slow connections when wireless.

I figured I could continue on my #noapple quest and get rid of yet another Apple product if I decided to replace the router. I knew that whatever I purchased I wanted the option of loading FOSS firmware, so I did a little research and came across the DD-WRT and the Tomato projects (I’m sure there are others, these just seemed to be the most popular).

There was a pretty high profile case a few years back when it was realized that the base operating system of Linksys routers was Linux, and due to the diligence of the Software Freedom Law Center and others, device vendors using Linux had to be more transparent about it. The name of the DD-WRT project came, in part, from the Linksys WRT54G router that was the main focus of these early alternative firmware versions.

My requirements for a new router were that it had to support both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, it had to support SNMP (‘natch) and I wanted to be able to host a guest network. I live out on a farm and often I have people visit who want to access the Internet. Rather than give them the password to my network, the Extreme allowed you to create a “guest” network that had no local access but could connect to the Internet over wi-fi.

I settled on the Linksys E4200 and ordered it from Amazon. When it arrived I started playing with the stock firmware and found another feature that I quite liked: a built in UPnP server. This allows you to connect a hard drive to the router and then serve media content such as music and videos to devices that can access UPnP media servers (such as my TV and the PS3).

I didn’t like the way Linksys implemented the guest network, however. Unlike the Extreme, where it was just a separate SSID that you could leave open, this required a password, and you had to connect to a web page and authenticate first. I believe this was a feature brought in from legacy Cisco gear, but I didn’t care for it. Still, I figured that as little as that feature got used I could live with it.

No, the show stopper for me was the lack of SNMP support. For some reason modern consumer-grade routers just don’t support it. But, not to worry, I could load in an alternative firmware.

Or so I thought.

I had decided to use Shibby’s Tomato firmware since I really liked the idea of a UPnP server and I read that the one that ships with DD-WRT wasn’t very good (I’m not stating that as fact, mind you, but the limited amount of research I was able to do seemed to indicate it). I downloaded the version for the E4200 and hit a roadblock: the firmware wouldn’t install.

Turns out that I had the E4200 version 2, which uses the Maxwell chipset instead of the Broadcom chipset. None of the firmware versions I could find support that chipset, so I was stuck. I packed the router up and shipped it back to Amazon.

(sigh)

To replace it, I ordered the Asus RT-N66U. It seemed to be decent hardware and had solid alternative firmware support. I knew from my research that the default software did not support SNMP, so I immediately installed Tomato. The process was incredibly simple:

  • Download the proper firmware version from Shibby’s site
  • Put the router in “rescue mode”: first, turn it off
  • Remove the power cord
  • Press and hold the reset button (the small recessed button between the LAN port and the USB ports)
  • Replace the power cord
  • Turn on the router
  • Release the reset button once the power light slowly flashes (on 4-5 seconds, off 4-5 seconds)

At this point in time you can navigate to 192.168.1.1 and access the firmware reload screen. I set up 192.168.1.2 as a static address on my system since I read that this process can have issues if you are using a DHCP address, and then I simply uploaded the new firmware through the browser and installed it.

That was it – once the router rebooted I was able to access the Tomato webUI and it “just worked”.

The number of features are just staggering. Want to create a guest network? Just create a new SSID and associated it with a new VLAN. Need SNMP? Configures out of the box. The UPnP server was pretty easy to set up, but I had formatted the external drive as ext4 and it wouldn’t mount. I was able to ssh in to the router and look at dmesg to see that it was complaining about “extra features” so I reformatted as ext3 and it mounted just fine.

While I haven’t played with everything (such as QoS), I was really impressed with the IPv6 support. Since my ISP doesn’t support IPv6, I needed to set up an IPv4 to IPv6 tunnel. I signed up for a free account at Hurricane Electric and I was able to get IPv6 working rather quickly. However, since my public address is assigned via DHCP, any changes would cause the tunnel to break. However, Tomato comes with a built in Dynamic DNS client that talks to the Hurricane Electric site and updates the tunnel with any changes. Now that I have IPv6 working, I can configure the Juniper router in the office to allow traffic between the two networks with no need for a VPN.

Cool.

Once again I am impressed that not only is a complex open source application available for free, but that it trumps its commercial counterpart by far.

The Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu Edition

Over the last year or so I’ve managed to divest myself of most of my Apple products in a project I call #noapple. The last remaining piece of Apple equipment I used frequently was an 11-inch MacBook Air (MBA) that I would dual boot with OS X and Ubuntu.

I was able to use it mainly booted to Ubuntu, but there were certain things that were a little bothersome. For example, the trackpad driver under Ubuntu wasn’t nearly as smooth as it was under OS X, and it was extremely sensitive, having little of what is called “palm detection”. Quite frequently, in the middle of typing something, the cursor would jump to some random part of the document when my palm barely brushed the trackpad.

But in any case, it worked well enough that I could use Ubuntu when I was on the road.

Back in December I learned that Dell was releasing an Ubuntu optimized version of its XPS 13 laptop. This device is very similar to a MBA, and I was excited to read that Dell had worked hard with the vendor of the trackpad to optimize the drivers for Ubuntu.

I ordered one, and I thought I’d share my experience here.

The ordering process was pretty straightforward. Simply visit the website and configure your system. It’s very similar to ordering on the Apple store website. I ordered the laptop and a number of accessories, and in short order received a confirmation e-mail with links to track the progress of the order.

Here is where I hit my biggest issue with the whole process. Like Apple, some of the accessories I ordered shipped in advance of the laptop itself. Now, when I order things on-line, I have them shipped to the office since we have a loading dock in the building with a full time shipping manager who can sign for things. Dell decided to ship my packages to my billing address (my home), even though I had specified a separate location. I’m not sure if this was due to security reasons, but they were unaware of one thing: I own large dogs, one of which likes to gnaw on electrical cords.

So, when my first shipment arrived (a spare power supply and a VGA adapter) it was left on my front porch. I didn’t realize it had come, so I left it there. It wasn’t until I saw the packaging spread across my front yard that I realized what happened, and found that the VGA adapter had been chewed into two pieces.

This was on a Saturday and my laptop had not yet shipped, so I wanted to make sure they corrected the shipping address before that went out. I ended up spending nearly two hours trying to reach a human being at Dell. Once I worked my way through their automated system until I got to the question “is this for home or business?” and when I hit “business” I was told to call back on Monday during their normal hours. So I tried again and hit “home” which put me in a queue for about 30 minutes until the call was unceremoniously dropped. I kept trying but finally just bailed and sent in a request via e-mail.

I didn’t get a response to that request until Wednesday, but by that time my laptop had shipped. The support representative, Jeanette, apologized for the issues but I was pretty unhappy and pretty much ignored her e-mails and phone calls. Since they were using FedEx, I was able to divert the package to a local FedexKinkos office and managed to get it (sans teeth marks) with a little extra effort.

I wasn’t impressed with Dell support, but then Jeanette wouldn’t let it drop. She kept trying to call and e-mail. She arranged for a replacement adapter to be sent. She kept wanting to make sure I was happy. In fact, as I write this I have an outstanding e-mail I need to reply to but I wanted to write this up first. If this is the kind of personal attention issues get from Dell, then Dell may have a chance against Apple. But they really need to do something about their automated system. Overall, due to Jeanette’s persistence, I am satisfied with my purchase experience.

Anyway, what about the laptop itself? In the style of the Apple fanboys, I thought I’d do a little unboxing.

The laptop arrived in a Dell labeled box. I always liked the fact that Apple’s boxes are shipped inside a thinner, brown paper box since I like to keep the boxes around, but once I opened it up I realized that the “real” box was inside.

It was a very nice, heavy black box that felt more like opening up a precious jewel or a nice watch than a laptop.

When opened, the laptop takes up most of the box.

Underneath is the power adapter and a small black folder with basic warranty information. I will miss Apple’s power adapter design, I dislike the whole “brick” model and it makes it a little more difficult to use in other countries, but I’ll get over it.

All in all I think Dell did a pretty good job with the packaging “experience”.

Dell sells a Windows version of the XPS 13, but this one has a small “Ubuntu” sticker on the wrist rest (which I’ll probably remove)

but there is also a permanent Ubuntu logo on the back.

When you start it up for the first time, you get a nifty little “welcome” animation. I apologize in advance for the video quality.

The laptop is slightly larger than my MBA, but then again I bought the smallest MBA and there is a 13-inch version available from Apple.

The main place that Dell loses some points is in the screen resolution. It has the same 1366 by 768 pixels as my smaller MBA, and by comparison the equivalent MBA has a 1440 by 900 screen. I like having more pixels, and I get so frustrated when vendors brag about the “HD” quality of their displays, especially with external monitors. To me, 1920 by 1080 is not sufficient pixel density on a 27 inch monitor, for example.

But after using the XPS for awhile, I’ve found that my old eyes tend to prefer the larger screen.

The XPS is fast. I thought the MBA booted fast, but the Dell boots so fast I don’t mind shutting it down completely vs. suspending it.

Now granted, I have rEFIt running on the MBA, but even with that you can see the difference. Note that in fairness the MBA does boot to OS X a little faster, but the XPS still wins on the overall speed issue.

And, yay, the trackpad actually does work well on the XPS. It has the same kind of “natural scrolling” that I’ve missed. Swipe faster and the scrolling speeds up, etc.

Overall I’m happy with the XPS 13 so far. I have yet to take it on the road for a full workout, but I’m happy that Dell is making this available.

While I wasn’t unhappy with my MBA, I like to vote with my wallet and so I was happy to encourage Dell to cater more to the Linux crowd by buying this machine. Only by patronizing Linux friendly vendors, early and often, will we see them pay more attention to pretty much the only free and open desktop alternative available.

Uber

I spent last week in San Diego. I like San Diego and I like the client so I expected to have a good time. While that part came true, I also expected nice weather. While it was beautiful for the first half of the week, the second consisted of rain and an earthquake.

What I didn’t expect was to be exposed to new tech, specifically tech-enabled changes to established business models. I already talked about Stacked, so now I want to mention Uber.

Since LISA was in town I was able to meet up with some friends from Chicago. We ended up at a restaurant called Craft & Commerence (good food, great mac ‘n cheese, excellent cocktails). As we were leaving to head back to our respective hotels, I was asked if I had ever heard of “Uber”.

Uber is a system for hiring a “livery service,” or as they say in the biz, a “black car,” to drive you around. While more expensive than a taxi on average, they tend to be nicer and driven by a more skilled driver (again, on average, I’ve ridden in some clean regular cabs with very talented people at the wheel).

You access Uber from your phone, and after you confirm your pick up location it will tell you how long it will take the closest available driver to get to you. If you choose to be picked up, it will associate your request with a driver and you’ll get both the driver’s name and the option to call them. When you set up your Uber account, you configure a credit card and everything else is cashless.

While I didn’t use it that night, I decided to try it out on Friday when we headed down to the Gaslight district to eat at Seersucker (too “hip” of a place for me, the food and drink were too good for most of the clientele to appreciate). The downside was that it had been raining, and this is so unusual in San Diego that it was causing a lot of traffic problems. Because of that and the fact that it was Friday night, I was informed that “surge” pricing was in effect and I would be charged twice the normal rate.

(sigh)

Still, I wanted to try it out, and since I had received a $10 credit when I signed up, I went ahead and called for a car. I was immediately told that my driver was Leeban and that he would be there in 10 minutes.

I went downstairs to wait, and I could track Leeban’s progress on a map in the app. When he got close the map updated to show his picture (a nice security touch) and I received several text messages throughout the process, including one when he arrived.

The car was nice and clean, although not new. Lincoln no longer manufactures Town Cars and so the livery industry is having to make due with old stock. Leeban was very friendly and knowledgable – while my Google Map app suggested taking 163, he said it was a total mess because of the rain and he took me a different way. After a few congested stoplights, it was a straight shot into downtown and I arrived ten minutes earlier than I thought I would.

I asked him about Uber, and he loved it. Many people don’t realize that when you pay a normal taxi driver with a credit card, not only does the taxi service take a large amount of that out for “processing,” (in addition to their share of the fare itself) it can take months for the driver to actually get paid (I always try to pay for cabs with cash). Uber takes a flat 20% fee for setting up the ride and while he didn’t tell me the details, he seemed happy with the speed of payment. But he mainly liked Uber because the clientele tended to be nicer and safer overall, and he never had to worry about getting stiffed on a fare.

When we arrived I asked him if there was anything else I needed to do, specifically did I need to add a tip, and he said no, it was all taken care of. Within five minutes I received a text with the total fare and an e-mail with a detailed receipt.

While most car services charge a flat rate, this is more along the lines of a taxi, with charges for time spent waiting as well as distance. I thought the fares were very reasonable with the exception of the “2x” surcharge and figured I’d use Uber again to get to the airport in the morning, but only if it wasn’t “surge” pricing.

My second Uber ride was similar to the first. I was paired with Abdillahi (both drivers were originally from Ethiopia but had lived in the US for decades). Unlike Friday night, there weren’t too many options, and I had to wait for him to come from the airport in order to take me back. This took about 15 minutes, which is somethiing that I didn’t plan on happening, but I still made it to the airport in plenty of time. Leeban was able to arrive in around 5 minutes (quicker than the initial estimate), so I need to remember to order ahead during off-peak hours.

Abdillahi had a slightly nicer Town Car and was just as professional as Leeban. The fare was $30, which is what I paid for a cab to get to the hotel when I arrived. He also was very happy to be a part of Uber.

I plan to use this service again, especially if I happen to be in one of their foreign locations (it looks like they operate in Amsterdam, London, Paris, Sydney as well as a couple of cities in Canada). Since I plan to be in London for the OpenNMS training at Red Hat, I’ll have to try them out there.

Stacked and iPads

I’m in San Diego this week, and the client took me to Stacked for lunch yesterday.

The Stacked “dining experience” starts off pretty normal: you are greeted by a hostess who takes you to your table and hands you a menu. But it changes a bit from there, because on every table there is an iPad running a custom ordering app. When you sit down, you scan in a credit card and then you can start the ordering process.

Once you have decided on what you want to drink, you navigate through the app and then add it to your order. When everyone at the table has chosen, you hit “send to kitchen”. A few minutes later the drinks arrive.

In the meantime, you can start on your food order. It follows the same process, with the added feature that you can customize nearly everything on the menu. Again, once everyone is finished, you hit “send to kitchen”.

We did have a waitress, but she was mainly there to make sure we understood the system. As there were no prices on the printed menu, I wondered if they changed on the tablet, and if so how frequently. It also raises a question about the amount to tip. Since a good portion of the job of a waiter is to get your order correct and in a timely manner, should you tip less?

It was an interesting dining experience. As a frequent business traveler and no stranger to “table for one,” some of the most frustrating aspects of dining out involve the ordering process. For example, on Sunday I went out for sushi, and after getting a seat at the bar and being left with one of those “check the box” papers, I was pretty much ignored for 20 minutes. I wasn’t given anything to write with, and since all I wanted was the regular sashimi tray there really wasn’t much to do. I finally caught the eye of the sushi chef and got my ordered started.

I like nothing more than having a long dinner with friends, but when I’m alone, eating is more of a chore and I just want it done as efficiently as possible.

Which was a big plus for Stacked. While the Greek Salad I had was nothing special, it was good and when I was ready for dessert I was able to order my ice cream sandwich when I wanted, and I didn’t have to catch the eye of the waitress, etc. I’m not ready to replace my favorite wait staff with a tablet, but for certain dining situations it makes a lot of sense.

What didn’t make a lot of sense was the fact that they used iPads instead of Android tablets. The case covered up the home button to prevent people from exiting the app, but you could still see some of the default border (with the signal strength indicator, etc.) An Android tablet could have been used to create a truly dedicated device.

The final thing that bothered me was that their case, which was probably custom, featured the all too common “cut out” so you could see the Apple logo.

I believe this is Apple’s greatest weakness. They used to compete on innovation, but now their products have become both status symbols and fashion statements. The problem with fashions is that they tend to change, and change quickly. Once everyone has an Apple device, those that drive the fashionable adoption will switch to something else and the herd will follow. It won’t be cool anymore. And when it comes to innovation, I find my Android phone much more innovative than my old iPhone 4.

Dump your stock now. (grin)

Anyway, I’ve seen iPads being used to take orders at restaurants before, but this was the first time I’d seen a tablet of any sort being used by the consumer in a retail transaction. Any other notable cases out there?

Lands' End Redux – Back from the Dead

Okay, last week I was very upset with Lands’ End. They are in the process of implementing both a new ordering and a new production system, and this has resulted in long, frustrating delays in processing orders.

The worst part was that prior to this I’d had always had extremely good service from them – so much so that I just expected it. If they had just had average service, I probably would have been a little more tolerant, as strange as that may sound, but after waiting a month I was a little upset.

Anyway, I canceled a fairly large order and was looking for another provider when I got a voicemail from a Ms. Ferrone. She’s a Senior Manager with Lands’ End’s Customer Care Services, and apparently they have a group within the company that searches the Internet and social networks for comments about the company. One of them discovered my blog entry and brought it to her attention, which I think is pretty amazing since I don’t believe any of my three readers works for them, but she tracked me down and wanted to try to make things right. I was off in Oregon and really didn’t have time to talk, but on Monday she caught me in the office and we had a nice chat.

She apologized profusely for the delay and she felt confident that the new system would result in a better experience for everyone, but in the meantime they were going “old skool” and manually handling account issues like mine. She asked if I would reconsider my order and offered a nice discount for the inconvenience, and I found I couldn’t stay mad at them, especially considering the effort they took to get in touch with me (take heed American Airlines and Centurylink).

So I gave her my order number and as she was investigating it, she told me it had already shipped. In fact, it had shown up in the warehouse the day after I posted the rant on my blog. Now, I would have known this if I had gotten my usual “shipped” e-mail from Lands’ End, but I still felt a little bad about it. I offered to return some of the discount but she insisted that they wanted to compensate me for the trouble.

The whole conversation lasted nearly an hour (those who know me won’t see this as unusual) and she seemed nether rushed or in a hurry to end the call. It was a wonderful customer service experience and had definitely won me back as a customer.

I have said in the past that the measure of a company is how they react when things go wrong even more than getting everything right, because if you work with anyone long enough something will go wrong. By that scale, Lands’ End is tops.

Lands' End, You Are Dead to Me.

[UPDATE: Lands’ End contacted me and went to great links to rectify the situation, so be sure to click through to the link if you decide to read this.]

I can’t stress how important computer systems are to today’s business world. Here is an example of a company who is doing it wrong and one who is doing it right.

For years I’ve used LandsEnd Business Outfitters for our OpenNMS polos. The shirts are high quality, the ordering process is simple and on the occasion that I do need help, a human picks up in three rings and solves my problem with that one call.

Then, they “upgraded their system”. Now, my orders don’t get processed, when I call I sit in queue for a half hour (thank goodness for speaker phones) and when I do get to speak to a human, they don’t have any visibility into the order process so they can’t tell me a valid status. Then they make stuff up, like “well, your order was placed a month ago so it should be shipping by the end of the week”. When the end of the week comes and goes and it doesn’t ship, I have to repeat the process.

To add insult to injury, they are offering people who place orders now free logos. The order I canceled this morning was for nearly US$3000, over US$500 of which was logo fees. If I restarted the process now it probably wouldn’t take a month and I’d save a ton of money, but if I had remained “loyal” it would cost me. Did they offer some sort of concession due to the delay? No, so I’m looking to switch companies (perhaps Brand Fuel – anyone have a suggestion?).

Contrast this with Amazon. Amazon consistently under promises and over delivers, which two day orders arriving in one, and offering one day Saturday delivery in some places.

Recently I had to place orders on amazon.co.uk and amazon.de. Not only did my US login work on those sites, all of my account information was also available. Heck, even their “Prime” shipping service worked for me in Germany. The order I placed on the German site was done totally in German, which I don’t speak, yet the process was so similar to what I experience on the US site that it took me the same amount of time to process the order.

Guess who gets to keep me as a customer?

The Centurylink Amateurs Are At It Again

Hey, #centurylink, if you want to play with the big boys, you are going to have to invest in qualified people. Not people who take out business networks for hours at a time.

I was looking forward to starting my Labor Day vacation a little early today, but that’s not going to happen. About 2am this morning Centurylink made some changes to their network (both my home DSL circuit and my father’s, who lives an hour away, got new DHCP address) and the network at the office went down completely.

When I called, the automated voice told me that they were aware of the outage and that it would be fixed by 4pm.

Now:

a) in what universe is a business class circuit allowed to have a 14 hour outage?

b) who does a major network change on a Friday?

c) who does a major network change on a Friday before a major holiday?

d) If you can’t plan an outage, including disaster recovery, to last less than an hour or two, get out of the business.

This was on top of a routing loop last week that almost cost me a major customer (since we had a demo planned and couldn’t reach the server we needed).

I waited a couple of hours and then decided I wanted to vent. So I called Centurylink back. I didn’t expect it to get anything fixed faster but I figured I’d at least get a “mea culpa” and a little “we screwed up – sorry”.

The monkey in first level who answered the call not only did not apologize, but seemed to act if 14 hour outages were normal. When I explained to him that my business depends on that circuit and in fact we’d flown a guy up from Atlanta in order to work today (but that couldn’t happen from the office, now could it) he dismissed my concerns with “well, it’s an area outage, not just your circuit”.

I then pointed out that my home DSL line was fine, and since I live 10 miles from the office it obviously wasn’t an “area outage”. His suggestion? We needed to upgrade to a T1.

A T1? Was is this, 1993?

When I pointed out that a T1 was only 1.544 Mbps he told me I was wrong, that it was much faster than the 10 Mbps I was getting now. I suggested that there might be some sort of technology one could run over a T1 that would result in higher realized speeds (i.e. DSL over a T1 versus a POTS line) and that must be what he was referring to, he continued to insist that a T1 was much faster.

(sigh)

I then asked to speak to a manager, and was told I couldn’t but that the monkey would be happy to relay any concerns I had.

I’m going to do it myself after the Time Warner guy gets back to me with my new office circuit. I recommend that anyone running a business that depends on Internet access stay as far as possible away from Centurylink, and that probably goes for voice service as well considering the level of customer support they find acceptable.

Some Thoughts on the Apple/Samsung Silliness (#noapple)

My indentured servitude to AT&T ended recently and I decided to use that to jump in for another two years but also to get rid of my iPhone 4.

As my three readers are aware, last summer I decided to move away from Apple products toward freer alternatives. I still have a Macbook Air (running Ubuntu – natch) and up until last Thursday I had an iPhone.

I pretty much liked the iPhone, but it was mainly a consumer device (i.e. I didn’t create much using it) so I didn’t care so much, but I did get frustrated with the terms of service. It was easier for me to freakin’ buy the OpenNMS app than it was to spend 30 minutes or so every other month trying to update my project keys so I could check it out and build it. I settled on the Samsung Galaxy S3 as a replacement.

Having used it now for several days, I have to admit that I’m a little pissed at all of the talk about how Samsung (and implicitly, Google) ripped off Apple. Using the S3 is a greatly different experience from using the iPhone.

I almost wrote “totally” but I have to admit that, yes, there is a virtual keyboard, and yes, you can have a page of icons that you press to launch apps, but outside of that there is little in common between the two.

First, the phone just feels different. It is bigger, thinner and feels lighter to me (although in the interest of full disclosure I have a case on the iPhone 4 since without it my calls drop when I hold it in my left hand). The iPhone felt like a dense, solid slab whereas the S3 feels more like a bar of soap, all smooth and round edges. I am afraid that it might squirt out of my hand one of these days.

Next, the user experience is different. The way one navigates Android takes a little bit to get used to coming from iOS, but the fact that in addition to a physical home button I have two soft buttons (one for contextual menus and one for “back”) seem to make the UI experience a little cleaner (since there doesn’t have to be so many menu icons in the apps). Notifications are different, the way you can control placement of icons is different, and the idea of widgets seems pretty unique to Android. Widgets let you display information without having to actually open an app.

The one disappointment I’ve had is that the S3 doesn’t work with Banshee or Rhythmbox, so it is harder to organize my media files. I am hoping this gets fixed soon.

Android 4.0+ uses the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) instead of just mounting the filesystem like a USB disk. I can get Ubuntu to mount the phone just fine, but when I launch Banshee it umounts the phone and then hangs. Under Rhythmbox it shows up as a Media Device, but the moment you try to access it (say, right click on it and choose Properties) it kills the app. There is an open bug on that one, but despite its use of Mono I much prefer Banshee.

Now, the S3 ships with the usual amount of kruft that you find on modern technology. Samsung has their own sync technology called Kies (no Linux client of course [sigh]) and I thought it might be interfering with libmtp. So less than 24 hours after I bought the phone I’d rooted it and installed Cyanogenmod (CM9 – not comfortable playing with the CM10 betas just yet).

Cool.

Now I don’t have any apps I don’t want, and I understand what all the apps I have installed are actually supposed to do. I haven’t seen any real performance problems with the exception of the camera crashing once and some browser issues that went away when I switched to Chrome.

With the exception of the issue managing my media, I am quite happy with this phone. The screen isn’t as crisp as the iPhone 4 but its large size really makes a difference with my aging eyes. But how anyone could confuse the two is beyond me. I hope this patent silliness goes away soon and in the meantime I’m going to vote with my wallet.

Digger and the Hugo Awards

Okay, no OpenNMS or open source content today, but since most free software geeks also like fantasy and science fiction literature I figure this might be of interest to the three people who read this blog.

One of the highest honors a writer of this genre can receive is a Hugo Award. They are given out every year by the World Science Fiction Society at their annual convention. This year I learned that anyone attending the convention can vote for the Hugo Award winners. I thought it was something like the Academy Awards where only other people in the business could vote. I was wrong. Better yet, I learned that by becoming a supporting member, anyone can vote even without attending the convention.

How great is that?

This is important to me, since a friend of mine, Ursula Vernon, has had her graphic novel series Digger nominated in the “Best Graphic Story” category. I think it would be awesome if someone who lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina, won a Hugo Award. Plus, her work is pretty fantastic on its own. And if Patrick Rothfuss can pimp out his editor, I can pimp out my friend.

Before I lose more readers with another “TL;DR” post, I just want to encourage anyone with a love of science fiction and fantasy to sign up as a supporting member and to vote. It’s US$50, but you get digital copies of most of the nominated work (DRM-free, and no, don’t ask me for a copy). If you bought just the “Best Novel” nominees it would be way more than fifty bucks, and you get exposed to amazing shorter work that rarely finds a market.

I always like to be an informed voter, so I am making a dedicated effort to read all of the nominees. Well, except for “Best Graphic Story” since my mind’s made up on that one. (Well, and Betsy Wollheim for “Best Editor – Long Form” since I trust Patrick’s judgement)

Digger is about a wombat. Wombats are marsupials native to Australia that dig extensive tunnel systems. The story starts out with our heroine digging (as wombats are wont to do) but she gets lost and emerges in a world both like and unlike her own. In an attempt to find her way back home, she enlists the help of a talking statue of the god Ganesh, unintentionally partners with a childlike shadow being (who gets her out of a couple of tight places involving hyenas) and listens to the prophecies of an oracular slug.

Cool huh?

The comics are available online, but I plan to buy the printed volumes. I am rationing them, one a month (I just ordered Volume 2 from Amazon). Check them out and then remember to vote! I also want to point out that the other nominees involve teams of people – Ursula both writes and illustrates her work – so that should be worth some extra consideration.

As far as the other Hugo Award categories, I’m working my way through the “Best Novel” nominees. The one to beat will be George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons which is the fifth book in the Song of Fire and Ice (Game of Thrones) series. I pre-ordered this and read it the day it came out and I wasn’t disappointed, so while it is a bit cliché it has my vote at the moment.

I just finished Embassytown by China Miéville last night. I enjoyed Kraken, but didn’t like this one as much. It starts off a lot like Stephenson’s Anathem, with a lot of linguistics that don’t make a lot of sense until you just plow through it for fifty pages or so. Unlike Anathem it is much more a book focused on the link between language and thought. Like pizza, when Miéville is good he’s really good and when he’s bad he’s still pretty good, I did enjoy the book and read the second half pretty much in one sitting, but if I am honest with myself I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as A Dance with Dragons.

Tonight I start Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey. I’ve never read anything by him but perhaps since he has two middle initials he can give Martin a run for the money. (grin)

UPDATE: Leviathan Wakes is awesome. At the moment it is my choice for the Hugo Award. I read it as non-stop as I could.

In part it was due to the writing style. “James S. A. Corey” is the pen name of a pair of authors, one who worked for George R. R. Martin. There is Martin DNA all over this book. It starts off with a rather brutal and shocking scene, but then they don’t return to it for several hundred pages. Every chapter is written from the point of view of one of the two main characters (although in third person) and most end in cliff hangers which makes you want to read the next one.

I ordered Caliban’s War, the second book in the series, halfway through this one.

Although this may make me sound a little like Harlan Ellison who, in his dotage, seems to be claiming to have written every science fiction story, I find myself making comparisons between any modern space opera that involves genetic mutation with Donaldson’s Gap series, Leviathan brings enough uniqueness and style to the genre that I’m certain I’ll devour the series.

Ready Player One

Note: This is a somewhat long review of the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. The short version is that if you are over 40 and you self-identify as a geek, you’ll love this book. Even if you are not over 40, you should check it out, but it will really resonate if you were a teenager during the 1980s. The following is as spoiler-free as I can make it, but if you are a purist, you might want to skip it.

I was first introduced to Ready Player One on the blog of Patrick Rothfuss. Usually, that is enough to make me at least check it out, but it was also item number three in Entertainment Weekly’s top ten list, and that surprised me since EW isn’t exactly known for its coverage of science fiction/fantasy.

Now before you start teasing me about reading EW (or even referring to it as “EW”) I don’t do it to keep up with the latest antics of Brittany Spears (she’s such a little scamp, isn’t she?). In my job it is sometimes a good idea to have some handle on popular culture, so now I know about that nice young man named Ted Situation who lives in New Jersey with his sister Snookie and they do that charity work on the coast. Plus, I keep it in the bathroom, and I find that the articles are the perfect length for the amount of time I spend there. Assuming I’m eating right, I can get through an issue in about a week, which is how often it is published.

Anyway, the basic plot is as follows: it is the year 2041, and the world is not a pleasant place. World economies have collapsed, the environment is a wreck and energy is scarce. Most people escape the drudgery of their lives in a online simulation called the OASIS (think Second Life crossed with World of Warcraft with a dash of Gibson’s Cyberspace). The creator of the OASIS is videogame designer James Halliday, who quite naturally is also one of the world’s richest men.

When the story opens, Halliday has just died. Having no heirs, he has placed his entire fortune, including a majority stake in the company that owns the OASIS, into an Easter Egg (extra, undocumented code put into a game or application) hidden in the simulation itself. The first person to find it, gets it. The story follows one such egg hunter (or “gunter”) as he searches for clues, all of which are based on things from the 1980s.

With that premise, I expected a nice little stroll down memory lane with nostalgia.

I did not expect nostalgia to punch me in the gut.

The book brought up memories of things I haven’t thought about in decades. For example, Halliday’s first video game console was an Atari 2600. My first video game console was an Atari 2600 – which I still have, by the way (and in the original box). At one point in the novel the plot involves Dungeons and Dragons, specifically a module called Tomb of Horrors. I can remember playing Tomb of Horrors. I didn’t remember it before reading the book, but as the scene was described I was thinking to myself “isn’t that the module with the sphere of annihilation at the end of the first corridor?” and sure enough, there it is, in the next paragraph.

I can also remember coming home from school and turning the antenna toward Charlotte to bring in this UHF station that carried Japanese shows (yes, kiddies, back in the day television came in over the air and not in on a little wire). One I remember involved a giant gold robot/rocketship named Goldar and his wife, a silver robot/rocketship named Silvar. Apparently that was The Space Giants. There was also an animated show involving a World War II era battleship flying through space. That, apparently, was Space Battleship Yamato.

There were also copious references to 80s music and movies, all of which really resonated with me. At one point the video game Tempest is referenced, and I was once part owner of a Tempest machine when I was at Harvey Mudd.

Cline even uses the term “open source” on a number of occasions. The bad guy in the novel is the IOI corporation, a services provider that has made a lot of money in the OASIS. From the book:

Like most gunters, I was horrified at the thought of IOI taking control of the OASIS. The company’s PR machine had made its intentions crystal clear. IOI believed that Halliday never properly monetized his creation, and they wanted to remedy that. They would start charging a monthly fee for access to the simulation. They would plaster advertisements on every visible surface. User anonymity and free speech would become things of the past. The moment IOI took it over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I’d grown up in.

Now the OASIS is in no way an open source product or platform. It just isn’t, but I so much prefer someone misinterpreting the term to mean “freedom” instead of “well, all I have to do is just expose the code”. The heroes in the book do embody a lot of what is sometimes called The Open Source Way in their behavior, goals and interactions with others.

Cline claims that the first ever Easter Egg can be found in the game Adventure for the Atari 2600. He states that back then, game designers were never recognized or given credit for their creations. This changed when Warren Robinett hid his name in Adventure.

There is a secret room in the game. In order to get to it, a number of things must happen. First, you have to retrieve a tiny, one pixel object hidden in a maze. Second, in the room next to the hidden room, you have to bring a number of objects (I think it is three). When you do this, the objects will start to flash. That has nothing to do with the Easter Egg but is instead an artifact due to the processor in the console being so slow that it couldn’t refresh more than two objects at a time. It is the same reason that the aliens in Space Invaders sped up as you kill them – the processor could then make fewer aliens move faster.

Once the barrier on the side of the room is flashing, and you have the “grey dot”, you can pass into a room that looks like this:

That was taken from my Atari Flashback machine – I didn’t want to have to dig out the old CRT television to hook up the original one I have.

Since so much of my enjoyment came from the fact that I lived through this time period, I am not sure how younger people will find the book. At one point in time I thought I’d figured out a plot point that would have really disappointed me (think deus ex machina) but I was wrong. I think the story stands enough on its own that geeks of all ages will enjoy it.