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Welcome to my home page. I became blind at birth. I started programming computers at a young age. I also earned my general class amateur radio license, KA3TTT, a hobby to which I have returned with great joy. I practice Qigong and consider myself a Taoist. I use Linux as my desktop and Android as my mobile OS. I eat gluten-free vegan meals. For the rest you'll have to read my blog. To comment on what you read here, visit Disboardia, my bulletin board system.

Operation FLAC

April 01, 2012

This equinox I had a profound revelation. MP3 sucks! I know others have stated this, but the full realization has really hit me. Now I feel obsessed with preserving my audio in a lossless format. Why won’t Apple play along?

At the start of each season I like to take a few days off and watch the Lord of the Rings. Since I don’t need the video, and since I use AirPlay, I figured I would just play it on my computer and enjoy it throughout the condo. I had a high quality MP3 rip of the DVD’s made at 320 KBPS. It sounded good when listening casually, but I had never done a while viewing this way.

It started out fine. I thought everything sounded fine. As things went on, however, I realized they didn’t. The levels sounded all wrong. The spacial component of the audio sounded less defined. The warm organic sounds of the movie sounded too electrical, too digitized, and not at all in the spirit of Middle Earth. The ringing of swords sounded muted, the firing of an arrow sounded like a phaser, and something just felt off.

As time went on I realized that last point more and more. Something just felt off. By the Return of the King I knew something had gone wrong when I didn’t feel impressed. Normally that movie transfixes me from beginning to end, but now I just didn’t feel it. SOmething had to change.

I did some quick hacking and whipped up a way to play FLAC on the Mac. I had a FLAC version of the movies. This would offer a perfect reproduction of the DVD’s audio. The next day I put my setup to the test and it worked.

I noticed the difference right away. The analog warmth returned. Sting sounded spectacular. The arrows sounded like arrows. The level of the music seemed proper. Everything felt right again. And most importantly my emotions had returned to expected levels. I had discovered something important, something others before me had also discovered, and now I understood. MP3 sucks!

Once you go FLAC you can never go back! Now that I knew, I also knew that I had to begin re-ripping my CD’s. I started ripping CD’s a long time ago, and still had many of my favorites in horrible 128K mp3 versions. This had to change.

I set up a temporary directory on my Linux machine and started using the excellent ABCDE. It does take some configuring and some shell scripting knowledge doesn’t hurt either, but once you get it working it works like a champ. Now I sit here feeding CD after CD into a Plextor CD/DVD burner and just let it go to town. I have tons of CD’s, and my recent move has made this even more apparent. It feels like the right time to do this. I call it Operation FLAC.

As I continued, I noticed that a pattern had evolved. I wondered if I should keep the old MP3 versions for any reason. Then I realized that I had copied all of my favorites to my iTunes library to put on my iPhone and iPad. This pattern has become undeniable: rip the FLAC, if I want the crappy MP3 copy move it to my Mac, then delete the MP3 and no going back!

While ripping CD’s, I enjoy comparing the MP3 version to the FLAC version. On some things it really shines, for instance with the works of Terry Riley. No matter what, FLAC preserves something lost to MP3. It preserves the feeling of the music.

We entered a dark age of audio about ten or so years ago when the MP3 standard became popular. All lossy compression sucks, but MP3 really sucks. If you must use a lossy compression, use OGG/Vorbis. Unfortunately, many devices do not support either OGG/VORBIS or FLAC. This includes all of Apple’s products if used with out of the box software.

Apple loves music! It says so in the Steve Jobs biography. He totally redefined the way we listen to music. Portability has come at a price. You could only have a thousand songs in your pocket if you compress the music, removing elements of the audio to shrink its size.

Apple has helped the AAC standard become mainstream, which does offer superior sound to MP3. They have also introduced their own lossless audio format and made it open source. In the lossy compression war, MP3 dominates, AAC contends, but many still feel that OGG/Vorbis sounds best. In the world of lossless compression however, FLAC has become the dominant standard. Would it really hurt Apple that much to include these standards natively? If they love music and they love open source standards so much, then why don’t they love open source standards for better sounding music?

You can already get OGG and FLAC working in some circumstances. A XIPH QUickTime component and a program called Fluke have brought support to the Mac in the past, but Apple keeps breaking them and they do not work with my current setup. VLC also includes these formats, but the program only has a small group of maintainers and it has bugs. I have also recently begun playing with AirFoil. It runs under Mac and Windows, and pipes any program’s audio through AirPlay. It also lets you select which audio output you want to use. iTunes does not have this essential feature. To play these formats on the iPhone or iPod Touch you can try oPlayer. No doubt jailbreaking also offers plenty of ways. Those who don’t feel an allegiance to APple should also investigate RockBox

What have we lost by using lossless compression? I can’t believe I’ve spent the last ten years listen to muted lifeless versions of my favorite CD’s. When I play a FLAC version, I can almost hear the CD saying: “Hi. Remember me? I’m a CD. This is how I should sound. Remember? You used to play me all the time.” Perhaps I anthropomorphize, but it has happened over and over again. Nietzsche said that without music life would be a mistake, and lossy compression removes that intangible thing that makes the statement true.

If this article strikes a cord, then you should start an Operation FLAC of your own. Just get into a rhythm and you can rip a surprising number of CD’s. Think of it as preserving the beautiful music which has changed your life in a lossless format. Hard drives have become cheap enough, and you can even rig up a system which automatically backs up your perfect priceless collection. Don’t you owe it to your music? It feels so good to replace an old lossy rip with a shiny new lossless version of a great CD. Don’t worry, you can always move the crappy MP3 version to your iTunes library.

Farewell to the Shire

March 19, 2012

I lived in Swarthmore pretty much all of my life. Now I have left the peaceful shire to move into the city of Philadelphia. I can hardly believe I have lived here for two months. My life has totally changed and I love it.

Things have come full circle in a way. I don’t remember my birth, which also happened in Philadelphia, but by all accounts it involved a lot of activity, given that it happened two and a half months prematurely. After surviving that, my parents moved around a little. I have a vague memory of making an alarm clock radio make a loud squealing noise in Georgia, but not much else. After that, my parents moved to a suburb of Pennsylvania called Balacynwyd. I have some pretty clear memories of that, but couldn’t tell you the layout of the house. I did get my first computer there, an Apple II/e, which I still have and which still works. Around my eighth birthday we moved into a big house in Swarthmore, and I definitely remember that.

We lived in that big house for many years. We all loved it, especially growing up and not having to take care of maintenance and other more adult concerns. One day, my brother and I woke up to discover bulldozers in our backyard. “We’re getting a pool.” our Dad informed us. That pool provided us with many fond memories, and by pool I often mean the Jacuzzi which adjoined it. We practically lived in it during the summer and still miss it to this day. That house saw us through our childhood, the birth of my twin sisters, and our growth through adolescence and the turbulent high school time. It also saw us through my parents’ painful divorce. We all loved that house, but it did take a lot of work to maintain.

I moved out when I turned twenty-three into a crappy apartment. Even though by all measurable accounts it sucked when compared to the big and beautiful house, it still gave me my first taste of living on my own and I still enjoyed it for that reason.

Within a year I began to feel cramped in my tiny apartment, and decided to start looking for options. I also began to realize that having real estate makes a good tangible investment. In the summer of 2002 I found a house also in Swarthmore that fit the bill. I planned to live in it, get it fixed up, then sell it for a profit. It seemed like a lot of house for one person, but I stuck to my plan.

The house definitely needed some work. My brother does carpentry and other such work, and we went through it. The kitchen looked old, but then we walked into the mud room in back. “Please let me take this down! This piece of shit is ready to fall apart. Oh please!” my brother begged. He and I both have the engineering instinct to just rip something out and start from scratch so I agreed. I also agreed to let him rip out a crappy wall in my crappy bathroom. He put up a sheet of plastic in its place.

Mom’s friend designs kitchens, so we had her design a beautiful new kitchen and my brother built it. It took months of agonizing on and off work. I had to use cardboard for a countertop and watch where I step. One day, my brother said: “The sound you are about to hear is us moving a wall of your house.” On and on it went. Finally they had done it, I had a beautiful modern kitchen.

He also did some other work at that time. He built a back deck which I called the tobacco deck because we all smoked tobacco in the sweltering heat. I really enjoyed that deck, though it did get direct sun. He built a shed sort of thing. We planned to put screens around it to make a nice screened area, but that never happened. And after falling down the basement stairs he built a solid new set. That seemed like enough work for the time, and I enjoyed the next few years with my new kitchen and deck. All of this happened by the summer of 2003.

I knew at some point I would have to downsize. In the interim I did what I could to maintain the place and live my life in peace. I had gotten into the Lord of the Rings, and realized that Swarthmore reminds me a lot of the Shire, the peaceful idyllic region in MIddle Earth in which hobbits live. That felt just fine for me.

My brother had moved into the city to fix up a house of his own, a project he could really throw himself into. He told me of some new condos going up across the street and suggested I give them a look, but I brushed it off. Why the hell would I want to move into the smelly city with all that negativity? Mom and I continued looking for new places to live around Swarthmore.

As the economy worsened I knew that I could not sustain myself in that big house. Just keeping it clean and maintained cost a lot of money. The same held true for my Mom, who had also downsized. It cost a lot to live in Swarthmore. Things had begun to change.

In 2010 I knew I had to start preparing this place to sell. It wouldn’t happen immediately, but I had to do what I could to raise its value. First, I got my living room repainted. It didn’t look any different to me, but it did make the walls feel smoother, and everyone praised it.

Then, my upstairs bathroom needed replacing. The sheet of plastic still hung instead of a wall. It had become known as the ugliest bathroom in Swarthmore. So in May of that year we rebuilt it. My brother and some of his friends worked for a few weeks, and at the end I had a shiny new bathroom. We also fixed up the downstairs bathroom to have everything ready.

In september of 2011, my Mom’s stepsister Mimi, who also works as a realtor had a strange experience. One of her friends wanted to find a place to live. She expressed the same need. She also had all of us in mind. “Oh, I know the perfect place for you guys.” Her friend told her of these nice condos in the city, and pulled up right in front of my brother’s house. She showed her the very condos my brother told me to look at all that time ago. We could hardly believe it.

I admit that at first I didn’t really like the sound of living in a condo in the city, despite the amazing synchronicity. That all changed as soon as I saw it. I fell in love with it immediately. My crappy apartment felt too small, my house felt too big, but this felt just right. I knew I would live there. Mom and Mimi felt the same about the condos they had picked out for themselves. Now my whole family would move from the suburbs and live in the city.

Mimi also acted as my real estate agent. She told me a real estate saying: Buyers are liars. They don’t know what they want. They will say they will never live in a certain place then end up buying a house there. It happens all the time apparently and it happened with all of us.

Once I had made the decision, I had to prepare myself for the agonizing process of selling the house, packing, and moving. Packing and moving I had done before so had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but I had never sold a house. The process basically consists of having showings, where you let complete strangers and groups of strangers go through your house. They also like it if you leave the house, or at least keep out of the way. I did not enjoy this, but Mimi made things as bearable as possible. Fortunately, the process went as smoothly as it could have, and one day while watching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, my house sold. We had done it! We had sold three houses in the worst real estate market Mimi can remember. She really deserves the credit here. I could never have done this myself. I even made a profit, a difficult thing to do with any investment right now. My plan had worked!

We schedule settlement for the end of January. Mimi had already sold her house. Mom had sold her house, and her settlement would happen a week before mine. It would get pretty nutty, we all knew that. Still as nutty things go I think it went as well as it could have.

We threw out so much crap in my house. I’ve collected technology since childhood, and as any tech person knows, you hold onto things because, you know, you might, like, need them some day. You might need an original 8-bit Soundblaster. You might need an IDE hard drive cable. You might need a thirteen-year-old laptop with a broken CD drive slot and a 56K modem as its only method of connecting to the outside world. Sure.

While going through all this stuff, several things became apparent. Cassettes have become ridiculously antiquated, though my buddy Jason Scott might not agree. Optical media like cd’s and dvd’s will soon become similarly antiquated before long. Old technology weighs a lot. I found an old portable printer I used to lug around during high school, and it still felt heavy and unwieldy as an adult. Technology goes out of date fast, but adaptive technology goes really out of date really fast. I threw out pretty much everything outdated, except for my old Braille ’n Speak. I just did not have the heart to.

Bags and bags of crap went out to the curb. Mom went to Good Will every day between our two houses. We accumulate so much stuff over time. It actually felt good to get rid of it. Some of it even had some bad energy. Get it all out!

The day got close and it felt like we still had a lot to do. We had a few terrible days but by the night before we had done it. I still had my computer and stereo to pack, but I could do that myself. I buckled down and did that, and found myself standing alone in a quiet house. It felt weird.

I thought about all the things that went on in this house, and all the packed stuff that went along with the memories. In the living room, I thought about all the great times I had listening to music and watching DVD’s. I lay down on my cool couch for the last time, since it would not fit in the condo. I went into the dining room, taking in the ambience. I had my tobacco cabinet here.

I walked into the kitchen, a real highlight of the house. I had many good meals here. It has an island and barstools, giving the whole thing a relaxed feel. The corion made for easy cleanup. It also has a gas stove, which sadly I would have to say good bye to. The condo only has electric. I felt a little sad about that.

I also felt sad about about a girl I loved who broke my heart, then broke my dishwasher. I know how to fix my emotions, but I don’t know the first thing about dishwashers. I got a repairman to fix it as best as he could, but it never quite closed properly again. I also thought about the Frigidaire refrigerator. I had a lot of problems with it. I even got a custom made braille sign that says: Frigidaire Sucks Balls! I wanted it to say something else that started with the letter F, but figured they’d never allow that so I compromised. Despite these imperfections, the kitchen has a joyful vibe.

I went upstairs and stood in my office. At least the people who bought my house would have a sweet FiOS connection wired for ethernet. I also did some work to clean up the power a little, since the house had a lot of old wiring and poor grounding. If you have never had to deal with a ground hum then you just can’t understand. Now the machines had fallen silent like a museum. Nothing hummed. I walked into the new upstairs bathroom and made sure I had packed all my toiletries. I knew the new owners would enjoy the new bathroom.

I walked into my quiet bedroom. I had just packed an overnight bag, a good idea when moving. I then took a breath, and walked into my meditation room. I loved this room. My friends loved this room. Steve Jobs loved his meditation rooms, as his biography pointed out. I knew i would really miss it, but the meditation technique I developed here gave me the internal tools to deal with this and know that something else would arise. Meditation comes from within, and a meditation space just mirrors this internal relationship.

After that jolt I lay down for a few hours sleep and then the most insane day ever began. I woke up at six o’clock or something. I quickly ate and the movers came right on time. They did not waste any time, and just kicked ass. While that happened, I went to my settlement. For a few hours I had no home. As we finalized things, we saw the moving truck going down the street. I had definitely moved.

We headed into the city. It felt weird. I arrived at my new condo and found the movers moving things in and putting my desk together. We made some decisions about arranging the furniture, and the unpacking continued. I felt so tired and things felt like a dream. Finally they had finished and left. We ate our first dinner together at Hawthorne’s Cafe, a good local place. I lay down in my new bedroom and prepared myself for my battle with Verizon.

While freaking out about moving, I talked to my awesome new friend Rachel. I told her that Swarthmore reminds me a lot of the Shire. She said: “I’ll bet you won’t go back to the shire. Frodo didn’t go back.” I could hardly speak. I knew she spoke the truth.

Having lived here a little while, I can already say that I love living in the city! It rules! It has so much authentic stuff. For example, we get real Italian restaurants instead of chain ones. I have a few health food stores within walking distance of me. I can get tons of vegetarian food either with a short walk, cab ride, or delivered. It really opens things up. Plus, the grid layout of Philadelphia makes navigation a lot easier. GPS comes in even more handy. I know I made the right move.

Interestingly, my cat loves it here too. I thought she’d feel scared, but she took right to it. Before she would just kind of hide out in my bedroom. Now she acts friendlier and more playful. She enjoys sitting in the loft, getting sun and overseeing the place. We both feel the same way.

Liberty Stew

March 17, 2012

Every St. Patrick’s Day I make vegetarian stew and invite friends over. We listen to Live Ireland and have a good time. Everyone requests the recipe, so I thought I’d whip up this article. I plan to add more recipes in the future. We call this Liberty Stew because my friend and I would make the stew, then watch a documentary while the stew cooked, then we could talk about what we had seen. I suppose today it could also refer to Irish liberty.

This stew uses whatever you have on hand. Gather some vegetables such as carrots, zucchini, and peppers. Use a few big baking potatoes. We also like capers. Prepare things ahead of time for the most relaxing experience. You will also need some meet substitute, such as Morningstar Farms Crumbles. You want something to imitate ground beef. You’ll also need garlic, onions, oil, and cooking wine. For an Irish twist you may enjoy using Guinness. You should also get the highest quality salt you can find. I like Himalayan salt, which you could always buy from here.

Start by putting oil in a large cooking pot. YOu want to make sure nothing will stick. Put in salt, pepper, garlic, and onions. Let then cook for a few moments then add the meet substitute. Let it brown, then add your vegetables. Potatoes take the longest to cook, so get them in right away. Mushrooms have lots of water, which helps things not burn. Add your liquid as needed.

Cover and let it cook for a few hours. Stir it every twenty minutes or so, and make sure nothing sticks. You can add more seasonings or anything else as the stew cooks as well. After enough time has passed, let it cool and serve.

As with anything, practice makes perfect. You will learn the right proportions of things from experience. Hopefully this will get you started. After you’ve done it a few times you can make a great stew and clean out your fridge. Enjoy!

The First Philadelphia VoiceOver Event

March 12, 2012

The Philadelphia regional chapter of thePennsylvania Council of the Blind partnered with Apple to put on the first VoiceOver event in this area. The event took place at the Philadelphia Apple store, 1607 Walnut St. The Pier Apple store in Atlantic City, New Jersey also helped organize the event. It took place on Sunday March 11th from 07:00-09:00 PM.

My friend Angie and I gathered earlier in the day and relaxed. We ate sushi, drank jasmine green tea, and thought of Steve Jobs. I ordered a cab to pick us up at 05:45. They never asked me for my number, and called my landline when I had gone outside, so we missed them on the first go around. I called and they tersely told me that they would come back. The cabby asked for the address several times. When he said we had arrived, i asked my friend if I should check my GPS. We decided not to, since we figured how could someone miss a big Apple store? I should have checked. He had dropped us off at a random location! We had to get strangers to help us to our destination.

We stepped inside the store feeling relieved. A cool guy told us to wait for the event to start. He brought us over to a high table and brought us stools. That helped. We got our MacBook Airs ready for the event, and just sort of mingled and had fun hanging out.

Even before it started, we could feel the amazing energy. I have never come to the Philly Apple store before. I felt welcome, and this felt like quite a way to spend a first time in one. While just listening to our surroundings, we heard people come up near us. They said the entire agenda, and the different groups they would offer. We would pick a product to focus on: iPhone, iPad, or Mac, and they would divide us up into groups. It sounded like they would have a presentation, then let us play with equipment. We talked about how much you can hear if you just listen. Sure enough, soon after they came around and asked us our name, basic info, and which product we wanted to learn about. I didn’t even think about that, but Angie answered Mac so I figured I’d just say mac also and go with her. We both had our Macs and it seemed like the most hardcore choice.

The time had finally come for the event. They moved us one group at a time. A girl even brought over my MacBook Air. How nice! We found ourselves at the Mac table with MacBook Pros scattered around. We got out our Macs and felt right at home. I put on my Aftershokz and prepared myself. I said hi to a few people and showed one how to turn on VoiceOver. They asked us to quiet down and the event began.

A few people spoke, including Lynne Mayleaf from the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind, and a few Apple trainers. This event had 80 attendees, and involved 20-30 Apple employees. Consider what this means. Companies that just make equipment for the blind have to go to a convention to get 80 attendees, and Apple just had an event at a local store open to the public. They even had a waiting list. Steve Jobs would feel proud.

Linda described this event as her dream. When she wanted to know more about Mac, she went to an Apple store and met a trainer named Bobby. He said that everybody knows somebody that Apple products can touch. We did a lot of clapping and building enthusiasm. They announced that the ACB/PCB offers discounts. More clapping.

Bobby has a blind father, so this meant a lot to him. He wanted to help people have that wow moment like his father had. He gets it. This seemed like the theme. It felt more like an exciting show and less like a boring tech event.

A Keynote presentation about Voiceover followed. It showed the different products including Macs, the iPad, the iPhone, and an iPod Touch. They went around each of he three groups and had the trainers introduce themselves. I really tried to project a lot of enthusiasm for the Mac group. Better to be a pirate than to join the navy! It became clear that the iPhone group had the most people. The iPhone got me back into Apple products. I originally wrote that it changed my universe as soon as it entered it. That still holds true. My enthusiasm has not waned. I felt so glad to consider all the people considering this wonderful technology. Nothing makes me happier than seeing someone considering going from Windows to Mac.

Our two trainers gave a nice introduction to VoiceOver. I felt impressed. When I first tried to buy a Mac at an Apple store, the employees knew nothing about how to use VoiceOver. This delayed my purchase for a day and that bothered me. Seeing employes with more of a practical knowledge about VoiceOver shows Apple’s continuing commitment to accessibility. My friend and I already knew this stuff of course, so we just enjoyed the experience.

Our trainers knew this and periodically came up to us and asked if we needed anything. One told us that she first found out about VoiceOver when she accidentally turned it on and had to take it to an Apple store to get it turned off. That sparked her curiosity and now she does basic training. She asked if we knew that when we type a password, clicks happen to indicate hidden characters. We said we did. “Yeah, and it randomly clicks so someone listening doesn’t know how many characters you’ve typed.” said Angie. “Really? I always thought that was a bug.” I said. Then Angie and I said the old programmer’s saying at the same time: “It’s not a bug it’s a feature.” The trainer told me what I’ve heard from a few other employees: “You should work at Apple.”

I do have one suggestion for the introduction to the Mac. They need to at least introduce the concept of interacting. You have to understanding interacting to use VoiceOver on a Mac. Other than that, they did a great job getting everyone going. I hope it will convince some JAWS for Windows users to take the plunge.

After the demonstration, they had a question and answer session. This included a demonstration of Siri. They had a few people speak about their experiences. Everyone seemed interested in learning more. I hope they do.

They ended it with something nice. Steve Jobs always liked to have one more thing. And one more thing: ACB members get product discounts. The Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation will give a $1000 lone to buy APple products at 0% interest. This went over well. They also let people keep their Apple earbuds. The event ended on a high note. It reminded me of the ice mint mango drops I had purchased for the event, the mango providing a sophisticated balance to the coolness of the mint.

Given my experience with the cabby on the way up, I sort of dreaded the journey back. As they concluded they said that they would help us with anything we might need, such as finding the restroom or getting a cab. I needed to do both. One of the Mac trainers named Lindsay said she’d help. We walked into the bowels of the Apple store. I had never gone here and it felt exciting. We took an elevator up to the second floor and she showed me the door. I went to the bathroom then we went back downstairs. Another trainer named Ashley if I remember right hailed me a cab and the two of them walked me over. Leave it to Apple to take their of their customers until the end.

They will have more of these VoiceOver events in Philadelphia, so stay tuned. Lynne wants to start having them on a national level, so you never know where one might pop up. I would recommend going, you have nothing to lose and so much to gain. No other consumer electronics company has done what Apple has done for the blind.

My Battle with Verizon to Save Money and Retain Power

March 09, 2012

I just fought an epic battle with Verizon. I thought I would document it here, and give some tips for power users. Get ready for a confusing and ultimately victorious account.

My Mom and I both moved into condos wired for FiOS already. When Mom called them to move her services, they told her they did not offer FiOS and to install a satellite dish on her roof. She informed them that condos don’t have roofs and called back. The next person told her that in fact they do offer FiOS and transferred her over. Since she had standard residential services things went easily. They did not go so easily for me.

I got FiOS in my old house as soon as it came out in 2009. Since I run a number of services on a Linux machine, I wanted a static IP. They did not offer that through residential and still don’t, so told me to get my internet through their business center. For a while I had that arrangement: a phone and cable bundle through residential, and my awesome unrestricted internet through business. It got a little confusing having two bills, but it worked.

When I moved, I wanted to see about trimming things down, consolidating things, and saving money. They told me what they told me before, and I left my services intact and just had things transferred. I figured I would deal with modifications after the move since I had enough else to deal with. In retrospect I should have just switched everything over to residential then. It would have saved me a lot of problems and money.

The Verizon techs came at 08:30 A.M. on the day after I moved and installed my services. They did an awesome job putting up with my weird demands, such as wanting to use my own router. I also asked them to run an ethernet instead of a coaxial connection, which they did. They also ran a phone cord so I’d have it by my computer. The poor guy expended the most effort installing the stupid cable box. I kept telling him I could hardly use the damn thing anyway since I can’t see its visual menus, but it didn’t matter. He wanted it working! It just would not work and they did not give him the right tools. Verizon take note: your techs feel under-equipped unhappy! Still, the guy did his best and finally left at around 05:00 in the evening.

About a week ago, I got my bill for the business internet. It had a $99.99 charge for the stupid router they give to everyone that I won’t use anyway. It also had a $149.99 activation charge for the internet. I did not want to pay either of these charges. The activation fee seemed especially annoying. They never said anything about that!

The calls started on Monday. I took care of the router easily enough. They said they would send a return kit and I just can send that back and they will refund the charge. Good enough. The activation charge came from the fact that I had a single service on business, the internet. I explained my configuration to them but it mattered not. So it begins.

After a lot of talking, the people in the business center said I could bring my phone over to business, then pay $127.99 a month for those. I would lose cable but I would save money and I don’t watch cable much anyway. That sounded good. They said they would transfer me back to residential, where I would cancel my order for those services. Then, business would pick up that order and move them over to their side. It sounded a little complicated but I did.

It took them ten minutes to disconnect everything. I felt kind of amazed and the tech in business agreed. He had given me his email address and this remained my sole way of correspondence through this madness. At least that worked. He asked if I could move it to Thursday. This happened on Monday. He said they needed 3-5 business days. I called back Residential, but everything had gone through. Business told me that they would proceed as fast as they could.

On Tuesday I got another email. “We have a problem.” I could not have my old phone number, the number I’ve had for over twenty years. It seems residential uses digital voice and business does not. He gave me a choice: either proceed and lose my beloved number, or cancel the order. This would mean reverting to the previous billing configuration as well. I decided to revert and consider my options. I felt angry and needed dinner.

After some time I realized what I had to do. I had to transfer my internet to residential so I could take advantage of a bundle. I would just have to put up with the stupid limitations of a residential connection, including a dynamic IP and port 25 blocking. I’ll go over how to circumvent these problems later. The more I thought about it the more sensible it seemed.

Wednesday came and I had no phone services. I would have to use a low quality cell connection to do everything. The iPhone rules, but a cell phone sounds like a cell phone. I emailed my contact in business and told him I had no phone service, and asked if he had cancelled the order. He wrote back that he had. I figured they just had to get everything connected or whatever. The day ended, but I still had no phone service.

By Thursday I had enough! I got an email back saying that business had cancelled the order, but I would have to call residential to get my service turned back on. Now that I look through previous emails it does say that I would have to call residential, but the full meaning of this didn’t quite hit me until then. So I sat for a day without service just because of this little misunderstanding.

Verizon has a serious communication problem between their departments. The residential side cannot access the business side, and the business side cannot access the residential side. This proved an increasing source of frustration. I began getting bounced around so much I don’t even know what happened or who I talked to. I remembered that part from The Pirates of Silicon Valley when Steve Jobs yells: “You people are a bunch of clock punching morons! I need Artists!”

At one point I found myself talking to someone in residential about my plan. She told me I could do it, and that she would conference us in with the retention department in the business center. This would coordinate the cancellation of my business internet with the activation of my residential internet. That sounded great. The phone rang. A woman from business picked up. The woman from residential had vanished! No! I felt trapped and alone. I could hear Hunter Thompson yelling: “You scurvy shyster bastards! I’m a doctor of journalism!”

The woman in business listened to the story so far and seemed to offer a ray of hope. She said that they could transfer me to business after all, but it just takes a little more work. I began to get excited. She put me on hold. She came back and said some encouraging things. She put me on hold again. She came back and told me that she didn’t realize I had a phone number from another area and that in fact they could not do it after all oh sorry. I told her of my plan to transfer my internet to residential, then get a bundle and have the activation charge waved. She said it would work, but that I would have to talk to someone in residential to get the activation fee waved. Finding ourselves back at square one, she transferred me back to residential. At least she had a good attitude.

I found myself talking to a new woman in residential. I explained my story for the seventy-eighth time. She sympathized, and we talked about the various bundles they offer. She sold me the fastest internet they offer (35 mbps up/down), telephone, and cable for $99.99. This sounded great. SHe understood about transferring the business internet. She gave me a temporary phone number, and assured me that I would have my old number back in a day or so. She told me I could keep the DVR I already had. This sounded great. I asked her about getting a refund for the activation charge. I told her what the business people had said. She told me that I had to talk to them since the charge happened on my business account, but they would do it now that I had placed this order. I began to get a headache. This did not sound so great. Back to Business.

The guy in business seemed to have a problem with his computer. It “crashed” for lack of a better word. I sat on hold for a while looking at dynamic DNS providers. After a while, he came back on and said that he had to reboot the system. After more time past, he said that he would have to try to place the order later. He assured me that he would have it placed by 08:00 AM, in time for the residential internet. I could only hope for the best, and say a quick prayer to Goddess. The image of a crazy woman goddess of confusion ruling over the material world made perfect sense, completely reaffirming my faith in Discordianism.

I then brought up the $149.99 activation charge, since now I had proof that I had internet through them in the form of the order number. He brusquely told me that they could not just credit my account. I explained that I had simply transferred my service, and at no point did anyone mention anything about a $150 activation fee. If they had, surely I would have just gone with residential to start with. He insisted that he could not credit me, since I had purchased a new installation of a single service. I insisted that residential told me that business had to credit me, since the charge happened on a business account. That made logical sense, so it meant nothing. After bantering back and forth, he finally agreed to roll back the order to the beginning of the month, which would credit me for that month’s worth of internet, around $109. We said our good byes. By this point I had to take a shit, so did.

On Friday I woke up and to my delight, found all my services working, though with a few little glitches. I had to reconfigure my router which went flawlessly. I also had to update addresses in a few servers, perfectly normal. I still had my temporary number, but that would get resolved. I had done it. I had won the battle and with a few easy technical tricks, retained my power. Now I will show you how.

First, I will share a tip anyone can use. It involves updating your DNS server. If you don’t know how a DNS server works, then for the sake of the internet’s freedom please learn. Basically, a DNS server takes an internet domain name such as “behindthecurtain.us” and resolves it into a string of numbers called an IP address like “97.107.140.179”. To find out these numbers, your router contacts a DNS server. By default, Verizon FiOS routers come configured to use special Verizon servers with some nasty little surprises. Thiese servers give Verizon an easy way to know every single domain name you visit. They also help target the advertisements you see when you type an incorrect URL. Fortunately, you can fix this rather easily.

First, log into your router. You do this by going to a web browser and opening its address. If you don’t know the address try 192.168.1.1, or check the documentation which came with it. Now find where you enter the DNS servers. If you use the shitty router they give you, just go to the My network icon, and then click Network Connections on the left menu. Now find your connection. Look for something like “Broadband” which shows as connected. Go down to settings and choose the DNS servers from the drop down menu. I ripped off these instructions from this article. By contrast, if you use Tomato USB as I do, go to Basic, then Network. So simple. If you have a different router, just find where you’d enter the DNS. If you used the settings Verizon gave you, then you will see a sequence of numbers ending in “.12”. Change the 2 to a 4 so it reads “.14”. This uses Verizon’s DNS servers without the nastiness. You could also use a service like Open DNS. if you wish. Bottom line: get off the default servers.

Now we will discuss IP addresses, the things domain names resolve to. Business FiOS offers static IPs. This gives an easy way to refer to a machine which would never change. Residential does not offer this service. It offers dynamic IPs. These addresses come from a pool, and renew often. I knew I would need to use a service which would give me a constant domain name which would resolve to my changing dynamic IP.

A number of these Dynamic DNS services exist. I worried about using one. Would a stream of data continue without interruption? Could I get it working easily? Would it cause everything to break? I wrestled with these questions and battled with CAPTCHAs. I finally settled on NoIP, because they had a number where I could talk to a human who helped a blind user set up a free account to get free services. Very nice! Tomato once again came to my rescue, as it has a NoIP client built right in. THis means that I do not have to run some program on a computer which could fail, it runs right on my router. And I feel pleased to say that everything works flawlessly.

We will now dive into the mysterious world of port 25 blocking. Most residential internet service providers, including Verizon, block port 25, used for sending email. They had to start doing this when lots of Windows machines began getting infected by malware which turned the machines into hapless little spam zombies, running their own miniature mail servers and pumping out spam. Once again Windows caused the problem! THis block means that you can send email through Verizon’s servers, but cannot connect to any other mail server. This means if you use your own mail servers you run into a problem. I did not invest hours of my time just to use some other mail server, so I resolved to fix this.

The easiest way around this problem involves not using port 25 at all. Using SSL uses alternate ports, and gives you a more secure connection. If you use Postfix, just uncomment these lines in /etc/postfix/master.cf. This will allow you to connect on port 465 and 587. Remember to update your mail clients to use SSL.

smtps inet n – – – – smtpd

-o smtpd_tls_wrappermode=yes

-o smtpd_sasl_auth_enable=yes

-o smtpd_client_restrictions=permit_sasl_authenticated,reject

-o milter_macro_daemon_name=ORIGINATING

If you use another mail server, you could always write a port forwarding rule in iptables. To do this just run:

# /sbin/iptables -t nat -I PREROUTING -p tcp –dport 465 -j REDIRECT –to- port 25

Which redirects all requests from port 465, the alternate SMTP port, to port 25 internally.

That will do it for the tech tips. I hope you enjoyed them and learned something useful. I also hope you learned something from my battle with Verizon. You know you’ve talked to them too much when you have their hold music in your head.

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