Thursday, October 30, 2014

This Call Is Being Recorded

This call is being recorded for training and quality assurance. I don't think a single soul buys that line of BS, but yet we all put up with it. Your call is being recorded to use against you if some sort of conflict ever arises. And if in the course of that conflict, the recording shows any impropriety by that company, you  can bet it will come up missing. They will be really sorry it's missing, and the excuse will seem plausible.

Have you ever tried recording one of those companies who says they are recording you? I have. The first thing they will tell you is that you don't have their permission to record them. Yep, the same person who just glibly informed you that this call is being recorded will express righteous indignation that you are recording them.

But of course you don't need anyone's permission most of the time, just disclosure. The recording was hilarious, too.

"You don't have my permission to record this conversation."
"No one is forcing you to stay on the phone, and no one is forcing you to talk."
"You need to stop recording me."
"You are free to stop talking at any time."

Eventually it got boring and she did hang up, but I got to thinking about the complete disparity of it. These same people who care so much about their own quality assurance, don't seem to have any regard for mine, even though I spend half an hour listening to their recording tell me how much they value my business...

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Today I Claim Ownership Of The Planet Saturn

I'm not greedy. I don't want the whole solar system. Just a planet. Just Saturn. Earth is pretty much played out. The rings of Saturn are really cool looking, and I like how everything on the planet looks like it kind of just blends together. Seems like it would be a really great planet if people got to know it socially.

Which is why today I announce my ownership of the Planet Saturn for the whole universe to see. The Internet has a very long memory, so I'm entirely confident that some day the field of planetary law will evolve to the point where my legitimate claim will be recognized. Society will look back, and they will see that I was the first person to claim it. Sure, there are plenty of Saturn owners out there, but they own cars, where I own the actual Planet. Trust me, I Googled it.

So in case this isn't painfully clear, I call DIBS! on the planet Saturn. It's mine now. And I'm getting grumpy in my old age, so I'm going to ask that you kindly get the hell off my planet. And take your probes with you.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Search Engine Registration Scammers?

Most of my domains have been purchased through Google back when they gave you that option, so it wasn't necessary for me to tell the search engines that my new domain exists. Not to mention the fact that if you do everything right, the search engines will come to you.

I didn't think much of the emails that I assumed were from my domain provider, asking me not to skip the important step of registering my new domain with the major search engines. There was one domain I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with, so I figured in this one case, why not raise my hand and tell Google my site exists while I'm still deciding what will exist there.

So I clicked on this email with a subject of "Website Assistance" figuring that it came from GoDaddy or one of its affiliates. But I'm not so sure that it did. I wouldn't put it past GoDaddy to try to charge me an exorbitant price for something I can get for free, but my reasoning is that they would try to sell me that stuff at checkout, and not send me a generic looking email after the fact.

Like I said, it's debatable and probably situational that you would even even need to tell the major search engines that you exist. And in that case, it's a service these search engines offer completely free. So I was more than a little shocked that it wanted almost 100 dollars to provide me this service.

You can see the name of the company from the email below. I don't want to link to them or spell out their name, because that would increase their search rankings. Personally I consider it a scam to sell you something you could get for free with a few minutes of your time. They're not even really saving you any time, as there are lots of services that will submit your domains for free in one shot. And of course you're paying for something that many would argue you don't even need, since if you can't get one search-engine-visible site to link to your site, then you are doing something terribly wrong.



Pressing the Register button takes me to a screen where I put in my name and the domain name I want to submit. Sweet, I'm almost there! And then it tells me that I have a coupon code, and below the code it says "Congratulations, you have our highest valued coupon!" Wait, coupon? Oh well, maybe it's reasonable.


Whoa, they took 300 big ones off the price. That's just too amazing to pass up ... or not.

So is it technically a scam? I'll let the readers decide. It sure has some glaring red flags in the way they operate in my opinion. It seems like they are preying on brand new web site owners who are in over their heads and don't understand anything about search engines or SEO (search engine optimization).

You can also see the domain I registered above, which I didn't blur out. I think I'm ready to make some high quality privacy tools and maybe even release them as open source, since it's hard to tell which companies to trust with your data, especially when it comes to encryption. So I bought this domain and I haven't decided how it fits into my plans and there's not much of a reason for me to link to it from my other sites. And so in the mean time I guess it's OK that Google sees it, even if there isn't much to see, and that's why I manually registered it with Google instead of linking to it.

Also, anyone interested could quickly do their own search engine submission if necessary, and some are completely free. This service isn't personally worth $397 to me, even with a $300 coupon, but if it is to you, then more power to you. And if you have that little regard for your money, there are always organizations like UNICEF which could probably put it to better use.

Search Engine Visibility


The best way to gain visibility and increase your ranking with the big search engines is by having other sites link to your site. It's that simple. And it's not called the 'world wide web' for nothing. When a site that's visible to search engines links to another site, the search engines crawl that link too, and in this manner they see most of the web.

Now, Google uses their own secret voodoo to determine a site's ranking, but most of a domain's search ranking seems to come from a) how many visible sites are linking to your site and b) what their search rankings are. So for example if you created 10 new domains and linked them all to each other, none would be visible to search engines and none would have very good ranking. Now, in this scenario all you would have to do is make one site visible to search engines and they would find your other 9 on their own!

The best way I have found to start from nothing with the the search engines is to make intelligent comments on blogs that relate to your new web site's subject matter. Most blogs have a field to put in your web site URL when you leave a comment, and search engines see this as a legitimate link. This not only makes you suddenly visible to every major search engine, but it also gives you a boost in ranking depending on the ranking of the blog you made a comment on. But be careful. The big blogs understand the power they hold, and may/will delete any comments they deem too self-serving or whatever their policy is. So make sure it's a legit comment, because "Hey, I loved your article and think you're awesome" only works on me.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Review: Alpatronix HX100 Bluetooth Headphones

There's a dizzying array of Bluetooth headphones available today. They're pretty much all made in China, even the high end ones. They all have similar features, similar specs and they all make similar claims. It's very hard to tell them apart, and the only thing that makes it a little easier is all of the reviews. But they seem to universally get mediocre reviews. This particular model, the Alpatronix HX100 only gets 4 stars on Amazon. I did have a pair of MEElectronics which gets 4.5 stars at least, but they were a little small for me and the wife claimed them before I could do a review.

Alpatronix HX100 Stereo Bluetooth 2.0 Headphones: Product Link


Product Description

Price: about $40 online

The HX100 are budget Bluetooth 2.0 headphones with the standard audio controls and a built-in microphone for voice calls.


Official Specs (From Amazon)


  • Overview: Functions both as audio streaming headphones as well as a hands-free telephone communication device. This headset allows the user to perform most of the audio functions related to tablets and smartphones. Functionality may vary with Windows notebooks and desktops.
  • Compatibility: All Apple iPhones - 5S, 5C, 5, 4S, 4 / iPod - Touch, Shuffle, Nano, Classic / iPad - 4, 3, 2, 1, Mini, Air (retina display) / Samsung Galaxy - S5, S4, S3, Note 3, Note 2 / Amazon Kindle HD & HDX / Tablets / Laptops / PC Desktops / MP3 Players & Other Android, Smartphone Devices - HTC, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Google Nexus & Amazon Fire Phone.
  • Features: Offers true stereo sound, a secure and comfortable fit, easy intuitive hands free controls (AVRCP), and quality audio delivery. The over-the-head pillow ensures comfortable fit, and the ear pillows not only ensure the ultimate comfort, but also isolate noise for better listening experience.
  • Functions: Easily pairs with your device for first time. Then it can automatically detect the device and pair in less than a few seconds. Integrated playback controls - play/pause, answer/hang up (hands-free function), skip forward/back, volume up/down, and built-in microphone directly on the headset.
  • Sound Quality & Battery Life: Covers high, low, and middle ranges well without too much emphasis on either end. The battery can last up to 4-5 hours of continuous playback or talk time, and the device can be charged in about an hour and ready to go.

Initial Impressions


These Alpatronix headphones came simply packaged with just a charging cable and the usual awkward instruction manual. The first thing I noticed is that it had a non-standard charging cable instead of the usual mini or micro USB charging solutions I would have expected. But it's the same cable as the little 7 inch tablet I use for reading, so I was already packing that cord on road trips, so it's not one more thing to carry. 

Mine came with enough charge to test with, so I paired them up to my PC which has a Bluetooth USB dongle, and my play list I was listening to switched from the speakers over to the headphones just as I hoped/expected they would.

Alpatronix HX100 Stereo Bluetooth 2.0 Headphones: Product View 2

Alpatronix HX100 Stereo Bluetooth 2.0 Headphones: Product View 3



Build Quality


These headphones seem fairly well built. The fit and finish are even above average. The plastic pieces where the ear cups rotate look to be a little flimsy, but I am abusive towards all my gear and no problems so far. The buttons seem a little cheap as mentioned in one of the Amazon reviews, but every pair of Bluetooth headphones I own have cheap-looking buttons on them.

Overall I am satisfied with the quality for the 40 bucks I paid for these.

Pairing


My thought on Bluetooth devices is that if you need to read the instruction manual to pair your device, then you bought the wrong device. As expected, holding the power button down for a few seconds powers the unit on, with a flashing green light. Leaving the button pressed down past that point for a couple seconds more puts the unit into pairing mode, as indicated by alternating green and red blinking.

I've paired this unit with a PC and several other devices such as Android tables and phones, all with no issues. The device shows as "HX100" on everything I pair it to.

Fit


The fit on my largish head is acceptable. They are a little on the tight side but other than that are pretty comfortable. The foam could be a little thicker but it's OK. The headphones feature a left and right length adjustment which seems to be a good design. It also has a good feel adjusting them--it doesn't feel like I'm going to break the headphones by adjusting them, like some other models I have looked it.

Sound


The sound quality is pretty decent considering the price. It has some pretty good volume, too. Having donated most of my hearing to a dozen or so heavy metal concerts in the 80's, I can still turn them up high enough to hurt my ears.

Low and mid frequencies are pretty good. Most people only seem to care about the bass, and those people won't be disappointed. Highs are a different story, and I have yet to mess with the graphic equalizer on my devices to get these headphones to sound like I want.

All things considered, these headphones have a rich sound that is completely acceptable.

Range


The HX100 utilizes the Bluetooth 2.0 specification which allows for extended range supposedly up to 30 feet. What I've noticed is that the range is affected both by the headphones and the device they are paired to, but I seem to always get about 30 feet of them, more or less--it's kind of situational.

Alpatronix HX100 Stereo Bluetooth 2.0 Headphones Unboxed


User Interface


The user interface on the HX100 is actually pretty decent. One the left ear is play/pause in the center with the track buttons on either side. On the right ear is the power button in the center with volume controls on either side.

When you start playing music, it will start at low volume for a couple seconds before it goes to full volume, so you have a little bit of time to prepare to get blasted or reduce the volume.

Voice Calls


In the words of the late Tony Soprano, fuggetaboutit. The few times I tried to use this unit for voice calls, the folks I were calling kept saying "can you speak up?" and "what's wrong with your phone?" and so forth. The microphone just isn't sensitive enough for people to hear you, though you can hear them just fine.

The ability to make voice calls isn't why I purchased these headphones, but it would be nice if it worked right, since the manufacturer claims it works and all. In fact, I don't think I have a pair of Bluetooth headphones that work properly for voice calls. I have a small ear bud for voice calls, but I have to switch to it if the phone rings while I am listening to music.

Usability


For daily use, I'm satisfied with these headphones and their performance. Sound is decent, range is decent, and they only become uncomfortable to wear after a couple solid hours of use. They connect quickly and the controls are responsive. Once in a while I catch a reflection of the green blinking light, which is a little annoying. I wish the LED was positioned a differently or turned off with the headphones in use.

Battery life seems decent, and so far I have not managed to run the battery dead, even with using them several times between each charging session.

Conclusions


 The HX100 is a passable set of Bluetooth headphones, which I find myself using often. My other sets of wireless headphones all seem to like to randomly cut out or disconnect completely, and these headphones do not have that problem. It would be nice if they had slightly better sound but I also look at other factors such as range and ease of connectivity, so all things considered, I am happy with my purchase and would recommend this model. 



Sunday, July 20, 2014

You Deserve Privacy

There's a growing movement not only to take away your privacy, but to convince you that taking your privacy away is no big deal. You've probably heard some of the arguments, like "why do you need privacy if you have nothing to hide?" and so forth.

First, look at who is saying these things and notice that they have a vested interest in trashing your privacy, whether it's governments or corporations. Both want to erode your privacy for different reasons but the net effect is the same. So are their rationalizations. It all boils down to hollow rationalizations: It's to improve your shopping experience! It's to catch terrorists and pedophiles! Think of the children!

But it's all BS. There's no evidence that bulk data collection or corporations aggregating data on you has done anything but trample your rights in the name of some cause, or worse, in the name of profit.

I am here to tell you that everyone deserves privacy. It's even built into the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees us the right against unreasonable search and seizure. The next time someone gives you that line about "if you have nothing to hide", hand them a slip of paper and ask them to write down their personal banking information. Yeah, I thought so. Everyone has something to hide, and everyone has something to lose when their privacy is trampled on.

You deserve privacy. The fact that bad people use technology to do bad things has nothing to do with you, the law abiding citizen. And the fact that taking away everyone's privacy could make it a little easier to catch those bad people also has nothing to do with you. The Constitution does not say "unless terrorism" or "unless quarterly results".

It's time for all of us to collectively reject the notion that if you want privacy, you must be a terrorist or pedophile. The more people who don't reject that philosophy, the easier it gets for the masses to believe the socially engineered lie--the lie that we do not deserve privacy.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

E-Commerce Spammers

In the course of creating an e-commerce site for my outdoor blog, I noticed something really strange. Only a few minutes after setting up my Drupal Commerce Kickstart software, users started registering. Which is strange because the new domain does not point to the server yet. The spam bots must be connecting straight to my IP address.

I do have my outdoor forums pointed to the server, so maybe it's the same spammers that normally attack and try to spam my forums. Maybe those robot spam toolkits have the ability to register with e-commerce sites as well as Internet forums and blog comment pages.

It seems really sophisticated but I'm not sure what an attacker has to gain by registering for an e-commerce site. Either way it's clear that I will have challenges running an Internet store that I never considered.

A long list of robots waiting to shop from my store?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Scam of Most VPN Services

Having a VPN (virtual private network) service is one of the few things you can do to actually increase your privacy. While it won't shield your activities from people and governments with massive resources, like some TLA (three letter agencies), for the most part it is a very effective privacy tool.

Over the last few years I have used a few different services, I have noticed that most of the ones that offer month-to-month billing have a flaw in their systems that they have no desire to fix. The subscription-based services which auto-bill you every month for the most part don't have this problem, but I'm not one to trust a company until I have some experience with them, so I always start month-to-month on these services.

Example


Let's say that I pay on 1/1 for a full month, which gives me a period of service from 1/1 to 2/1. But on 1/20 the service starts spamming my email, informing me that my month is about to expire. So I pay the service on 1/20 and think everything is fine and I'm good until 3/1, right? Wrong. Now on 2/10 I'm getting those spam emails, telling me my service is about to expire on 2/20. Where did those 10 days go?

The answer is they took those 10 days of service from you. If you call or email to complain, chances are they will credit your account those 10 days. But they won't fix the problem, and next month you'll be in the same boat. What's worse, if you don't say anything or don't notice it, they will happily keep shorting you service. Once company refused to credit me the difference so I was forced to file a PayPal claim.

I can hear someone saying "just let it expire before you pay it again" but nope, most of these services charge you a late fee if you let it expire first.

Solutions?


1. Use a subscription-based  VPN service that auto-bills you every month and keep an eye on them.

2. Use a VPN service that doesn't charge you a late fee if you let your service expire.

3. Use a VPN service that lets you pay in advance but defer the activation until after it expires.

Conclusions


I've been writing this type of computer billing code for insurance companies for decades, and it's not rocket science. The logic to bill and adjust for money by date is very straightforward. No, the real reason these companies do it is because they can. They assume right off the bat that you are doing something shady by using their service, so you will not complain too loudly. So they have no incentive or reason to fix the problem, which probably makes them a lot of money.

For this article I will not shame the bad services I have run across, because they almost seem to be universally bad. What I will say is that my current VPN service BolehVPN allows me to wait until my service expires to re-up with another payment. They also let you defer the activation of your payment for up to 60 days, so I can pay for it when it expires, and then just activate the next billing period when I'm ready.

There are a whole lot of folks out there who have a personal or profitable interest in shaming you into believing that you are not worthy of privacy. You must be hiding something, right? We're all hiding something. I doubt anyone has their banking site passwords taped to their front door. You deserve privacy, and the folks who have a vested interest in profiting from it or taking it away will do everything they can to make you feel like a second class citizen.

The answer is to hold these shady companies accountable for screwing you over 10 days of service at a time. You are not a second class citizen. Treat them how you would treat your phone or cable company and don't cut them any slack for assuming you are too ashamed to ask for your money back!