Archive for August, 2010

Call 1-976-GOOGLE for a good time

August 31st, 2010 1 comment

There are several sites that many people really depend on, such as Facebook and the various Google services (Gmail, Docs, and so forth), and perhaps even Twitter. I’d include Yahoo in there as well, at least for some people. You could go further and add some of the big blogging services and media/photo sharing services to the list as well.

By “depend on,” I really mean depend on, both for business and personal use. You might be a heavy Facebook user who depends on the site for interacting with family and friends. You might have hundreds of hours invested in a photo-sharing site, or depend on Gmail to run your business. We can all think of very critical ways most of us depend on one or more of these type of cloud-based services.

While having a backup is better then nothing, it doesn’t make up for the serious interruption that could happen if you lose access to your account on one of these services, either through foul play or an unresolved technical glitch.

All of these services, including Google and Facebook, do not have any way for you to contact technical support. There’s no one to help you. Your only choice is generally to browse forums or send email in the vain hope that someone might look at it. The response times are awful. I know someone who was locked out of their Facebook account for weeks before the issue was resolved. Stories of people being locked out of their Google accounts are sadly common as well.

I can understand why sites like Google and Facebook do not provide free phone support – the cost would be overwhelming. However, I have often wondered why none of these companies have offered paid, premium support. I imagine if Google or Facebook offered “Red Carpet” tech support at say $50 per incident, it would end up being quite profitable, because most of the things people call about can probably be resolved somewhat quickly (I’m thinking account lockouts or very specific technical glitches). We’re not talking “Geek Squad” PC support questions here.

From the customer perspective, it would be a winner too. $50 might seem like a lot, but if your business depends on Gmail and you need to get an account issue resolved in an hour as opposed to a week, $50 (or even $100) would be cheap. You might be pissed that you had to pay, but at the same time relived that it will get taken care of and you have a real human, who has the power to fix and escalate things, at hand (needless to say, I would make the premium support domestically-based).

Setting the price high (or perhaps charging per minute) would discourage calls from “casual” users and would be self-limiting as to the types of people and problems that would be handled. It would prevent calls from people anxious because their Facebook account has glitched for a couple hours. Still, there are a few issues to consider. If the issue ends up being something that is truly the fault of the service provider, a (partial) refund might be appropriate. Authentication issues might also have to be handled properly, especially for account access queries.

Still, I think this is an idea whose time has come. What do you think?

Categories: Internet Tags:

It just (almost) works

August 30th, 2010 1 comment

I just picked up a new 27-inch iMac.
I went with the Built-To-Order option of the i7 processor and the Radeon HD 5750 GPU. This is a definite upgrade over my older (although still very capable) 24″ Core 2 Duo.

My upgrade process was about as flawless as possible. I used Super Duper to back up my old iMac’s entire hard drive to an external drive, then cloned that backup directly back onto the new machine. It was literally a brain transplant. All of my applications, settings, preferences, files…everything was just as it was on the old machine, except, you know, faster.

However, it was only 99% flawless, there were a few things that tripped me up, or could have tripped me up if I hadn’t been careful, and I want to share them here for any readers who might be interested in doing the Super Duper mac brain transplant route.

1. Don’t forget to de-authorize your old machine with the iTunes store prior to shutting it down. Since you need to authorize the new computer to play your iTunes content, you’ll need to remember to do this, otherwise the old machine will continue to use up one of your 5 authorizations even if it it never gets used again (or the disk is erased). This is because iTunes authorizations are based on the physical CPU, not the OS.

2. While almost all application settings get carried over automatically as part of the clone, a few apps store their settings in non-conventional ways and will detect that you are on a new CPU. Little Snitch, a network monitoring app, lost its registration in the move and I had to re-enter my serial number on the new CPU.

3. If you use any VM software, when you load your virtual machines, they will likely detect the new hardware and go through a Windows driver dance. My Windows 7 and XP VMs handled this without a problem, but Windows’ over-sensitive activation system may bitch at you and make you go through the whole “Genuine Windows” registration crap if it detects that too much of your system specs have changed.

4. If you are going to use Boot Camp, be sure to create your boot camp partition first, right after booting the new machine, and before you restore from your clone. Otherwise, you may have trouble creating the boot camp partition at a later time. When I forgot this step, Boot Camp complained that it couldn’t create a partition because certain files could not be moved (in spite of the fact I was trying to create a 100 GB partition from a disk with 500 GB free space). I ended up having to reformat the drive, install a rump OS just long enough to run Boot Camp Assistant, and then re-write my cloned drive – a waste of 6 hours.

5. Some routers get very confused when a second machine with a different MAC address but the same IP and name gets connected to the network. This may cause things like port forwarding to fail. My 2-Wire U-Verse router got completely confused and I had to delete its list of “known devices” and recreate the port mapping from scratch. There’s no way around this, just make sure to test your inbound connectivity after you set up your new Mac.

So, that’s it. Other then that, so far, everything has worked. Moving into a new Mac this way is far superior an experience to the normal method of either running the Migration Assistant, or manually upgrading. However, keep in mind that this method is a true brain transplant – it brings along all the cruft and crap that is part of the old system too. If your old Mac is not shipshape, its sins will be visited upon the new one!

Categories: Apple, Computers Tags:

Only you can prevent bandwidth theft

August 17th, 2010 Comments off

This blog (and the other blogs and domains on my master account) are not very popular (in spite of the general awesomeness which pervades every pixel). Our monthly bandwidth is a couple gigabytes at best, which is why I was very surprised yesterday morning when I got an automated letter from my hosting provider telling me I was on a path to blow through my monthly allotment of 150 gigs of bandwidth and be liable for a big overage charge!

The culprit was one of those slimy, scammy “you won’t believe what this video showed the babysitter did when the parents were away” sites. They were direct-linking to the original of a tiny 25 k png image that Dave uses for his site (and he has copyright of the image, adding insult to injury!) Downloaded, oh, a few million times, that adds up.

There’s a few ways to deal with this. One obvious and fun way would be to simply replace the original image with one that perhaps contained a double bird and insulted the thief’s mother, but, as satisfying as that would have been, it still would take my bandwidth. Another option would be to simply rename the image, breaking their IMG SRC tag, but while this would stop this specific thievery, it wouldn’t stop them (or anyone else) from figuring out the new image name and using it instead.

I needed a way to stop all external referrer image linking to my account, but still allow images to be referred when the page was locally hosted (i.e. part of my blog).
In other words, this will not allow someone to use your image as part of their site, directly from your server (normal hyperlinks to your site work the same as always).

After a fast and intense Google-powered brain-bang, I had found the answer!

The way to do this is via an .htaccess file that utilizes a built-in feature of the Apache web server called mod_rewrite.

You create a file called “.htaccess” at the very top level of the web site you want to protect (or append the the existing one if it is already there), and put the following text in it:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} .
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://([^.]+\.)*yourdomain\.com/ [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://yourblogspotblog\.blogspot\.com/ [NC]
RewriteRule \.(jpg|gif|png|bmp|mp4|avi|mp3)$ – [F]

Replace “yourdomain” with the actual name of your domain (and obviously replace ‘com’ with ‘org’ or whatever if it is a .org site. The * is a wildcard, covering prefixes like “www” or whatever, as well as the naked, raw URL.

You can have as many lines as you have domains you wish to allow linking from. In other words, this is a whitelist of allowed domains, generally ones you own or post to. I’ve included a blogspot blog here too, for example, if you have a blogspot blog from which you link images you host on your main domain.

Make sure to keep the backslashes, carets and other goop intact, they are used as part of the regular expression.

The last line lists the file extensions that you are not permitting to be externally linked. In my case, I want to prevent links to common graphic, music and movie formats.

Save your .htaccess file and you should be good to go – it should take effect immediately.

Now, you will want to test your changes.

You will need access to a “non-allowed” domain. If you have a friend with a web site, ask to use it, or you can always use or something. To test, just create some HTML code that directly links to a file on your protected site, a normal IMG SRC or whatnot.

Save it, and clear your local browser cache – this step is very important, because if the image is in the cache somewhere, it will still be displayed even if the .htaccess file is working great. Then load the test page. You should see broken image indicators for the images.

If not, make sure again to clear your browser cache (or try on another machine), and check the .htaccess file to make sure the code is correct and it has proper permissions (644 – world readable, but only writeable by the owner).

Lastly, don’t forget to verify that images do show up properly from within your own site. If you made a typo in your domain name when editing the .htaccess file, this would be the result, so double-check with all the “whitelisted” domains.

Categories: Internet, Software testing Tags:

A comparison of Scrabble-like iPhone games

August 9th, 2010 12 comments

I like Scrabble-style word games. I like them a lot and I have gotten halfway decent, at least if you believe the anguished tweets of my friends. (on the other hand, I’m nowhere near these people either!).

Naturally, playing Scrabble on the iPhone with actual friends is a lot of fun. There are really only three Scrabble-like word games I know of for the iDevices, and I thought I would briefly compare them, focusing on iPhone gameplay and the fun factor.

You’ll note I did say “Scrabble-like” – there is a reason for this. Scrabble (i.e. Hasbro) owns the rights for actual Scrabble. Therefore, it’s two main competitors, Lexulous and Words With Friends, have had to make some subtle alterations to stay legal. These alterations are not severe, but they do change the game a little bit, kind of like the differences between Canadian and American football. However, all three of these games have the basic template – you take turns making interlocking words on a board with point values for letters and spaces.

Scrabble ($1.99 for iPhone, $9.99 for iPad)

First, the original, Scrabble. This application is the real deal, with the official borad and rules, exactly like you’re familiar with. For the most part, the developers have done a really good job translating the gameplay for the iPhone. You have a choice of several modes of play, including solo (against the computer), turn-based (pass the phone to a friend), and most fun, competing electronically with your friends via Facebook.

The latter option works with the Scrabble Facebook app, meaning you can play either via the Facebook web site or on your phone. This is a really great option because it lets you compete with any friend who has Facebook – you are not limited to iPhone-owning buddies. You can also challenge and accept games against random strangers, which is a good way to build your skill. Integration with the iPhone notification system will let you know when its your turn in any of your active games.

The Scrabble back-end keeps track of your statistics (games won and lost, best bingoes, so so forth), and the iPhone version of the game comes with some useful features, including a dictionary and somewhat controversially, a “word-builder” assistant which will show you (after your turn) what the best word you could have played.

Unfortunately, the official Scrabble app is by far the slowest and most difficult to start up of all its brethren. Even on a new iPhone 4, it takes a solid ten or more seconds to start the game up, and creating a new game is a slow, multi-step process. Additionally, unneeded animations make the game feel slower yet and it seems like even the most simple tasks in-game take a half-dozen taps to accomplish.

Words With Friends ($2.99 for iPhone, $2.99 for iPad, or free ad-supported version)

Words With Friends is a lean, mean Scrabble-like game, which focuses on one task: getting you playing as fast as possible (and showing ads if you’re using the free version). Unlike Scrabble and Lexulous, there is no Facebook integration, Words With Friends uses their own account system. After signing up for an account, you then have to find your friends on the system or you can play a stranger. Integration with the iPhone notification system will let you know when its your turn in any of your active games.

Load time and game play is fast. You see a list of all your active games and tapping on a game lets you play. Words With Friends eschews many of the features of its competitors. There’s no dictionary, no way to see the value of a word before playing it, and the game doesn’t keep track of player statistics or past games (beyond your most recent). As such, it is clearly designed for the quick, casual player, but is still a lot of fun for anyone who enjoys these types of games. There is also an in-game chat feature so you can talk smack to your opponent. The game is also easier on the eyes then either Scrabble or Lexulous – alone among these three games, Words with Friends has been partially updated for the Retina Display on the iPhone 4.

Rule-wise, the main difference between Words With Friends and traditional Scrabble is that the location of the bonus squares on the board are different, and the point value for some letters is slightly changed. I do have a small beef with the location of some of the bonus squares, specifically there is no double-word tile for the first move, which automatically gives whoever goes first a slight disadvantage. Furthermore, some of the triple word tiles are placed in a way that makes them too easy to double-up upon.

Regarding gameplay, the main downside to Words With Friends (beyond the missing features) is that the back-end server can sometimes be very slow in the evening, resulting in long waits when you try to load the game or play a word. Furthermore, the reliance on its own account system means it is difficult to find existing friends unless you know their screen name in advance. Still, of all three games, Words With Friends is probably the one I’d recommend for a new player who wants to have some fun quickly.

Lexulous ($3.99 for iPhone)

Lexulous is the grand-daddy of Scrabble knock-offs, and used to exist on Facebook as “Scrabulous” before the Hasbro lawyers got sicced. Like Scrabble, Lexulous can be played both on Facebook and on the iPhone, and is by far the leanest, fastest of the three games discussed here. Unfortunately, the developers of Lexulous have been giving the game some not-so-benign neglect in the past year and it has grown very long in the tooth.

Rule-wise, Lexulous has tweaked the original Scrabble rules to make for a higher-scoring game. Players have 8 tiles rather then 7, but you get a bonus for making a 7-letter word (as well as a true 8-letter bingo). Furthermore, many letters have higher point values, making games with scores in the 400s and higher common, and allowing for big comebacks. This freewheeling style of play can be a lot of fun.

Lexulous caters to the “serious” player by keeping very detailed statistics and archives of past games. Well, I should say “catered” because these features are only available in the Facebook version, not on the phone, and the archive functionality has been broken on Facebook for months with no fix. Furthermore, the interface on the iPhone has seemingly been copied from another mobile platform, and doesn’t use any iPhone conventions – for example, instead of a scrolling list view of friend, you have to move page-by-page with a “next” button through all your friends. Furthermore, Lexulous stands alone among these three apps in not making use of the iPhone notification system, so there’s no way to know when it is your turn except by opening the app and checking manually.

In spite of these bugs, actual gameplay works fine, and is very zippy. Fast load times and quick move recognition cover for a multitude of functional and UI sins, but still it is frustrating that Lexulous gets so much right and yet the developers have seemingly abandoned it. As it stands, I can’t recommend Lexulous to anyone unless they already play friends in the Facebook version and want to check on games from the Phone.

Categories: Computers, reviews, social media Tags:

How you can tell when a restaurant is failing

August 4th, 2010 1 comment

I noticed today over lunch that the old Zig and Macs restaurant at 15th and Wakarusa has gone out of business and has been replaced by some Italian place, which I will need to try in due course.

Zig and Mac’s used to be really good. When they first opened, myself and a bunch of people from work would go there several times a month. They were fast, the food was really good, and we enjoyed eating there. However, in the past six month, it was clear the place was on the way out. This got me to thinking, what are obvious signs that a restaurant isn’t long for the world?

This is what I came up with…if you have any additional ideas, please leave them in the comments

  • The quality of the ingredients noticeably changes for the worse. An obvious sign of cost-cutting. This was actually very noticeable at Zig and Macs as a few months ago they changed from Romaine to iceberg lettuce in their salads and replaced the home made croutons with the crappy little cube-shaped ones from a bag.
  • A buffet is offered where none was before. Buffets aren’t automatically a sign of problems, but if a restaurant switches from, say a normal menu lunch to buffet only or otherwise adds a buffet where they didn’t used to have one, it’s a sign that they are circling the drain.
  • A radical menu change. Restaurants add new items all the time, and have specials, and move items from special status to menu status and back, but if there is a wholesale menu overhaul, then be worried.
  • Portion shrinkage. If you notice the size of portions is being reduced, it’s probably not because the management is concerned about the epidemic of obesity in America.
  • Out-of-date seasonal beer. This isn’t a sure thing and may only be noticed by beer connoisseurs, but if a restaurant has an “old” seasonal still on tap long after it is gone from most places (think a Christmas beer in late January or an Octoberfest in December) then it’s probably because they just aren’t selling much beer, and they don’t have many customers, and they don’t want to lose money by getting rid of a half-full keg.
  • Staff reduction. A consistent under-staffing, with long waits and poor service, especially if it’s not an obvious cause (like they are ridiculously busy) is a sign that perhaps the management is cutting back on staff to save money, to the detriment of customer service.
  • Categories: Food Tags:

    Getting to the root of the matter

    August 1st, 2010 2 comments
    iPhone 4 root

    SSHed into my iPhone 4

    Yes, the long-awaited iPhone 4 jailbreak is released. Even better, it is now definitely legal (although Apple will not provide warranty service to jailbroken phones…you gotta restore a stock OS before bringing it in for service)

    It is both the best and worst jailbreak I’ve ever used.

    It is the best because by far it was ridiculously easy to use. You visit a web site in Safari on the iPhone, and the jailbreak is done right there, in userland, no reboot required, no restore, no patched IPSW, just a minute of churning, and you are jailbroken with Cydia and ready to go. It’s an amazing piece of programming – an elegant exploit that I would be shocked if Apple doesn’t close in a hurry with iPhone OS 4.1 (which might make this a short-lived jailbreak).

    It’s also rather buggy. The jailbreak killed Facetime (which I could care less about) and MMS messaging (which I really don’t care about either), so if you rely on these features, I would definitely hold off on the jailbreak.

    Furthermore, a lot of the major jailbroken apps (like SBSettings) aren’t fully compatible with iOS 4 or the iPhone 4 hardware. Cydia crashes if you try “fast app switching” to it. Still, most things mostly work, and I was able to at least my all-important custom Legend of Zelda SMS tones and BiteSMS for instant SMS’ing from the lock screen installed.

    I am also really looking forward to trying Notified which promised to bring the (much better then iPhone) Android-style notification system to the iOS.

    And hey, it’s nice to have root on my phone.

    Categories: Apple, Computers Tags: