Sep 12 2010

Napster scrobbler for Chrome

Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 15:36

Last.fm Scrobbler logo

For those interested, I tweaked David Sabata’s Last.fm Scrobbler to make it scrobble Napster.

I have the Chrome Napster scrobbler up on github. I’m intending to merge it back into David’s extension, but feel free to play with it for now and leave comments with bug reports.


Dec 20 2008

Calling internationally with an iPhone

Tags: , , , , , , , , , Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 0:46

I recently started relying solely on my cellphone, and have been faced with the challenge of finding cheap ways to call abroad.

AT&T Wireless has a sense of humor about it:

AT&T International Package

AT&T International Package

They’re advising you to pick a package to call abroad for an affordable price. And they’re right, since they will charge you $1.49 a minute to call France if I don’t do so. In a way, they’re a little bit like the mob: give us some money or we’ll mug you.

It turns out that there are a number of VOIP solutions for the iPhone. However, because the Apple-AT&T gang has made sure that they’ll get as much money out of you as possible, you cannot use them over 3G. Either you’ll need to be connected to WiFi, or you’ll need to have the service call your phone – so that your voice plan still applies in some way.

WiFi solutions are interesting as they work worldwide and would allow to avoid roaming charges, although network latencies may decrease the quality of the call. Using the voice network doesn’t require you to be connected to WiFi, but uses minutes in your plan and only makes sense if you’re in the US as you wouldn’t want to pay roaming charges.

A look at the options

I have used calling France as a way to compare all those options as this is what I tend to do the most.

Using AT&T Wireless directly

AT&T Logo

The most natural way to call, and this is what AT&T wants you to do, is to use their service to call abroad.

This is the most reliable and the easiest solution as you can use it anywhere in the US, but without an international calling plan (which ends up being $3.99 per month), it costs a fortune: $1.49 per min to call a land line, and $1.62 per min for a cell phone.

With the World Connect calling plan ($3.99 per month), things actually become reasonable: $0.09 per min for a land line, and $0.22 per min for a cell phone.

The downside is that, if you are outside the US, this doesn’t apply anymore.

Using Fring with a VOIP provider

Fring logo
poivY logo

I got very excited when I discovered Fring as a native application on the iPhone. Beyond being a social application that allows people to talk to one another, Fring can be used as a SIP client to connect to arbitrary VOIP providers.

I did some research amongst VOIP providers, and found poivY, which seemed both cheap and to work fine in my original tests.

By adding money to your account, you get 300 minutes a week of free calls to US numbers and French land lines (as well as many other destinations), and this for 90 days. So, with $10, you can basically call more than you need for something like 4 months, which is a great deal. When you run out of free minutes, it’s still very cheap to call land lines, and calling mobile phones is not expensive.

They have a fair use policy to make sure that people don’t abuse their service; if they believe that you’re violating this policy, they will charge you for the call. However, their system for determining if your call follow the fair use policy is completely broken, as shown below:

2008-12-13 18:44:11 +xxxxxxxxxx (FUP exceeded) 00:27:11 € 0.420
2008-12-13 18:12:23 +xxxxxxxxxx 00:31:21 FREE!
2008-12-13 17:40:09 +xxxxxxxxxx (FUP exceeded) 00:31:39 € 0.480

As you can see, I was cut off twice (there seems to be a half hour limit somewhere), and my first and third call don’t qualify as fair use policy for some reason, while the second one does.

The sound quality is not great but OK. The Fring application is integrated fairly well with the iPhone native address book, and that makes it easy to place calls. However, it lacks a keypad during calls to navigate menus.

Unfortunately, it’s not always very reliable. Fring did a bunch of changes after version 2.2 of the iPhone software was released, but I still have problems sometimes. Also, when it cuts you off after 30 minutes, and you then need to exit the application, wait a few seconds, and rerun it.

When it does work, it’s a pretty good solution, and it’s cheap.

Using Fring with SkypeOut

Fring logo
Skype logo

Fring allows you to talk to people who are on Skype as well. And it also allows you to use SkypeOut to call standard phones just as you would with the Skype desktop application, for which the rates are fairly good.

The problem is that Fring’s integration with Skype is average at best. First, calls frequently fail, so you need to try over and over again before it works; they fail maybe 9 times out of 10. Second, there’s actually quite a bit of echo in the voice, which makes it difficult to have a long conversation. The problem, as I understand it, is that you don’t connect to Skype servers directly, but through Fring servers, which adds an extra delay and some echo.

So, this is definitely not a recommended way to call as of today.

Using Truphone

Truphone logo

Truphone is another VOIP native application. The difference with Fring is that it doesn’t allow you to choose the SIP gateway that you want to use, and is tied to Truphone.

The application itself is very nicely done, allowing you to add top up your account. It also has a keypad during a call (which is good to navigate phone systems, which Fring doesn’t allow you to do).

The phone quality is great, similar to a normal call.

So, what’s the downside, you might ask? Well, the downside is that, despite their moto, Slash the cost of international calls, they actually don’t slash prices that much. If you compare with AT&T’s World Connect package which is only $3.99 a month, calling a French landline is $0.06 per min (vs $0.09 with AT&T) and calling a cellphone is $0.30 per min which is more expensive than AT&T ($0.22).

They used to be only usable via WiFi, but now offer an option via the voice network.

Using Vopium

Vopium logo

Vopium is not a native applications for the iPhone, but they have a Web application which looks a lot like a native application, with a keypad, buttons, etc.

Their rates are interesting, and they use a local phone number to connect you to your call. You use the Web interface to dial a number, hit the Call button, your phone then dials the local free number (for which you’ll have to pay minutes to AT&T out of your voice plan), and it connects you to your destination.

The interfacte being a Web-based one, there is no integration with the address book, which means that you need to know the phone number that you want to dial. That’s a pity. They are planning a native application as I understand it.

The big drawback is that it’s extremely unreliable. I tried dialing a number in France on 3 occasions. Twice, after I pressed the Call button, my phone tried to call an 866 number, but never managed to connect. I tried repeatedly and it always failed. The one time I successfully managed to use them, the sound quality was good.

The other downside of Vopium is that is also uses minutes from your voice plan as it uses a normal call. It has its upside though, since it means that you can place a call wherever you are in the US.

PennyTel

PennyTel

PennyTel is an Australian VOIP provider. The functionality of the iPhone application seems very close to Truphone’s, but with much better rates. However, given they’re Australian, the roundtrip to their SIP gateway is 180ms from my place, which is likely not going to be good for voice communication. I haven’t been able to test it however, as they don’t offer free minutes and I have credit with a lot of other providers at this point. I’ll update this when I do test them.

Summary

Being able to place a call whenever you want/need to, and being able to have good enough quality to have a conversation is important. For this reason, both Truphone and AT&T’s World Connect plan are good options.

I tend to give Fring with poivY a try, and if it doesn’t work, I revert to Truphone which is both reliable and is a good quality provider even though it’s more expensive. I wish Vopium worked better; maybe that will change.

Here’s a summary of costs and features:

Service Connection Fees / Free minutes Cost to call France
(land / cell / SMS)
Reliability Voice quality
Land Cell SMS
AT&T Wireless w/o any plan Voice None $1.49 $1.62 $0.25 + +
AT&T Wireless w/ World Connect plan
Voice $3.99 / month $0.09 $0.22 $0.25 + +
Fring w/ poivY Wifi 300 free minutes / week $0.03 $0.09 $0.10 = =
Fring w/ SkypeOut Wifi N/A $0.02 $0.23 $0.15 - -
Truphone Voice + Wifi $1’s worth of free calls $0.06 $.030 $0.20 + +
Vopium Voice 30 free minutes + 100 free SMS for the first month $0.03 $.019 $0.10 - +
PennyTel Voice + Wifi N/A $0.01 $.015 ? ? ?


May 09 2008

Looking for HTTP / Web services people

Tags: , , , , Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 18:18

My group at Yahoo! is looking for talented people to join our team. We build tools and infrastructure for developing Web services in the company (the HTTP kind, not the SOAP one), and we also set standards and provide guidance to developers when designing them. We are part of the Yahoo! Open Strategy group.

We’re looking for different profiles:

  • People with knowledge of Web services technologies and concepts: XML, JSON, HTTP, resources, etc.
  • Developers coding in C/C++, who understand HTTP; knowing how to write PHP, Perl, Java extensions a plus
  • Developers coding in C/C++, who understand HTTP and in particular authentication; knowledge of Apache internals a plus
  • A product manager for those tools and working with the rest of the company

If you’d like to join the fun, drop me an email.

If you want to learn more about Yahoo! Open Strategy, here’s the presentation from our CTO at the Web 2.0 Expo:

And below is a deeper look provided by Neal Sample:


Apr 12 2008

Healthy diet in the US

Tags: , , , Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 14:00

While obesity is progressing worldwide – in France for example, we talk about obesity epidemic –, it seems that the US is still sadly ahead of everybody. The Department of Health and Human Services has a scary animated map showing the evolution of obesity in the US showing this.

I received by mail an advertisment booklet a few days ago called Living Well. Feeling Great. Helping you make healthier choices:

Living Well. Feeling Great. Cover

However, the booklet doesn’t focus on fruits and vegetables. The first page of contents shows diet sodas and lists participating items such as M&M 100 Calorie and Twix Caramel Bar:

Living Well. Feeling Great. Page 4

The second page talks about low calorie / low fat snacking and ice cream:

Living Well. Feeling Great. Page 5

The rest of the booklet goes on to talk about skin care, low calorie canned dinner and deserts, one salad suggestion (with light dressing, of course), etc.

Essentially, eating healthy in the US means eating crap, but in fat free and low calorie form. This is particularly interesting in light of a recent study conducted Duke University showing that sweet taste and calorie consumption considered independently by the brain. Here’s a 60-second summary from Scientific American:

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

It looks like we’re on a slippery slope!


Apr 06 2008

Quicken 2008 versus Money Plus 2008: Quicken is not the worst

Intuit Quicken

Microsoft Money Plus

I spent a good chunk of my weekend figuring out what program to use to track personal finances, and was that a painful exercise! You would think that in 2008, with Money and Quicken around for about 20 years, you were going to be blown away by those programs. You could not be more wrong.

I decided to give Money a try, as we had a Money 2007 around. The problem is that I couldn’t find my Money 2007 CD, so I went online and downloaded a free 60-day Microsoft Money Plus 2008 Deluxe trial, until I locate our copy.

Since I’m a newbie, I was after something fairly basic: have Money download my statements from the banks’ Web sites, and have the transactions categorized to have a vision of what where our money is spent, projections for the future, etc. Nothing really fancy, but that was way too much for Money.

First, Money gives you the choice to store passwords locally, or in the Windows Live vault. I chose to do this locally, even though it promised me a pessimal experience. It quickly took a stronger tone while I was setting up one of my accounts by telling me that if I wanted to download transactions automatically, I had to use Windows Live. That was the first turn off for me.

But the next one was even stronger. Money can consolidate transactions based on variations of the name of the payee. However, it does not support any kind of wildcarding. Let’s take an example. I have auto bill pay at my bank. Those get reported as: Payee Date Time. So, I get:

JOHN SMITH FEB 28 21:03:02
JOHN SMITH MAR 28 21:06:43
…

I couldn’t figure out how to tell it that all of those ought to be in a specific category. Actually, it was not obvious how to assign default categories to transactions. The combination of all that made me reconsider using Quicken.

Intuit Quicken Deluxe 2008

I read a few more bad Quicken reviews on Amazon (note that Money’s are actually worse), and decided to give it a try. The problem is that the only trial advertized on Intuit’s Web site is for their online version that I didn’t want to use. With a few Web searches, I discovered that there actually is an unadvertised Quicken Deluxe 2008 60-day trial.

I gave it a try, and Quicken looks much better than Money. First, all the account information is kept locally. It doesn’t seem to support as money banks as Money, but it’s pretty good at giving instructions when it fails. Second, it’s really easy to set up automatic categories for transactions. Not only that, but in my example above, Quicken automatically recognizes that all those transactions are for JOHN SMITH.

So, for now, I’m pretty happy with Quicken, and I’ll order the full version if things stay this way.

That being said, I’m enthusiastic about the basic functionality, when I was looking forward to being blown away. Reading the various reviews, all those new versions of Money and Quicken are barely fixing bugs, and that’s very disappointing. It seems that people who invested in one solution are stuck with it, and they seem to be very little incentive for Microsoft and Intuit to innovate; it’s sufficiently bad that You Need A Budget, a program written by one guy in his spare time, is seen as a viable alternative. Worst, Quicken seem to be deactivating copies of Quicken after 4 years, forcing people to upgrade to marginally better versions.

So Quicken is not the loser of the game, but there’s no winner.


Mar 30 2008

Finding the best camera / music / PDA / phone combination

Tags: , , , , , , , , , Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 8:14

I’ve been increasingly unhappy with my Treo 680. The battery life sometimes drop rapidly (I can’t figure out why), and The Missing Sync has more and more trouble synchronizing my information. It actually is bad enough that I do not synchronize my work calendar anymore.

I have actually been waiting for the next version of the iPhone to be released, and am happy to see all the recent rumors about it. However, I’m wondering how long I’ll be able to wait with my Treo making a pain of itself almost daily.

Casio Exilim EX-Z200

Thinking about changing phones, I realized that I’m taking more and more photos with it, despite the crappy quality of the Treo’s camera, and the fact that I need to reinstall a PRC regularly in order to be able to download them to my computer. In order to make my life easier, I have been looking into buying a small camera that I could carry with me all the time. The Casio Exilim EX-Z200 looks really cool, but it means carrying a camera in addition to my phone, and I’m not really imagining myself carrying two devices.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that the new iPhone will have a good camera. The current iPhone seems to be taking pretty nice photos, but it seems technologically pretty far from what its competitors can do in this domain: 2 megapixels, no auto-focus, no flash.

Looking at the competition, there are a few interesting 5-megapixel cameraphones:

Sony Ericsson K850i

Sony Ericsson K850i

Sony Ericsson’s K850i seems pretty nice, but it does not have WiFi capabilities.

Also, after I had two Sony Ericsson phones die days after their warranty expired and had similar problems with a Sony Clié, I swore not to buy crappy Sony products anymore.

Nokia N95 8GB

Nokia N95 8GB

Thomas showed my his Nokia N95 8GB which is really neat. It has WiFi, GPS, and the Flickr gallery for the N95 looks promising, though the photos taken with an iPhone look better to me. Maybe iPhone users are more artistic than Nokia owners.

Nokia N96

Nokia N96

The Nokia N96 is the successor of the beloved N95, and it looks very promising.

Sony Ericsson C902

Sony Ericsson C902

Finally, the Sony Ericsson C902 seems to be closer to a camera than a phone, which might be what I’m really after.

Apple, Sony Ericsson, or Nokia?

The problem is that I’m picky: I also want an adequate music interface as I listen to podcasts daily, good PDA capability, good connectivity, and a decent Web browser. Maybe I’m asking too much.

I feel like the iPhone is falling short in terms of storage and camera quality, while the others have a much lower usability – the interface of the iPhone is really the killer feature – and not as good Web browsing capabilities. But then again, it’s really the camera that I’m after, and since all phones can play music these days, as long as I can sync my podcasts from iTunes and that it can synchronize my events, to-dos and contacts, I should be fine.

I feel that I’m going to ponder about this a little while longer, until the N96, C902 and the new iPhone come out.


Mar 30 2008

Blog facelift: WordPress 2.5, new theme, avatars

Tags: , , , , Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 6:06

I just finished giving a facelift to my blog. I upgraded to WordPress 2.5 very smoothly, played with CSS and JavaScript to adapt the Stardust theme to my needs. As part of this, I added avatar support very easily:

<?php echo get_avatar($comment, '32'); ?>

So now I have little faces next to comments:

Screenshot of avatars

The new interface to write posts is also pretty nice:

Interface to write a post

In particular the media library functions:

Media library

Go and get it!


Mar 29 2008

What the #!*& is wrong with train ticket controllers?

Tags: , , , , , Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 5:10

Caltrain

So this morning, I arrive at the train station as the train is stopping. I run on the platform, and see that nobody is going in nor out anymore. I quickly think: either I run to the ticket validating machine, and I’m pretty sure I’ll miss my train, or I just get on the train without validating my ticket. I go for the latter. It turns out that the train stays in the station for an extra 30 seconds, so I might have had time to validate my ticket.

Anyway, as the doors close, I go straight to the ticket controller and explain that I didn’t have time to validate my ticket, and ask him to validate him for me.

Ensued a 5-minute lecture about Caltrain rules; some highlights:

  • Can you see the sign there? It says that you cannot board the train without a ticket.
  • I should really be writing you a ticket.
  • Do you know that it’s not my job to validate your ticket? My job is to get you to your work on time. Your job is to get to the train station on time, and validate your ticket.

Caltrain ticket validator

I did have a time management lecture once as well, but this guy, behind his sunglasses, was just out of control.

When I mentioned that I could have just gone hiding into a corner and not pay for my ride, he just went on and on about how I was making him waste his time. At some point when he was talking about how his job was to bring me to my work on time and how he should fine me for being late to the station, I wanted to ask him what were the consequences of him bringing me late to my work, but the discussion was getting more and more absurd, so I decided to just smile and nod, and he finally validated my ticket.

Interestingly, years ago, I had a similar experience in Paris. I had bought a ticket, failed to find the validating machine, and boarded the train with my freshly bough – but not validated – ticket. When I got off the train, I tried to exit the station, and the machine wouldn’t let me out because it rejected my ticket. Instead of tailgating behind a passenger with a valid ticket, or jump over the doors, I thought: hey, there’s a controller back there, he’ll sort my problem in no time. The guy assessed that I had cheated on purpose (nevermind my proof of purchase from 1 hour beforehand, and the fact that I was the one that came to see him), and proceeded to fine me.

Something’s seriously wrong with ticket controllers!


Mar 26 2008

Making money with your problems

Tags: , , , Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 15:37

Money by TW Collins - Downloaded from http://www.flickr.com/photos/twcollins/751221191/

There are many ways one can make money with a Web site: you can add ads around some content you produce (e.g. by publishing photos), point people to some products that they may be interested in buying as a result of visiting a site (e.g. by reviewing items), help people save money and take a cut (e.g. with Web hosting coupons).

However, all of this really works when people coming to your site are motivated enough that they’ll click on anything to get answers.

That’s what’s happening on my wife’s Web site right now. We had a bed bug issue in Paris a few years ago. That was an awful experience, and it was really tough to get rid of them (that required having a professional spray some very nasty chemicals twice, and we were not so far from throwing our bed and bedding away and moving apartments). You can see from the comments how desperate people can be when facing this problem, and they’re very happy to follow any link that could be helping them.

So the key is: write about problems. My dog pulled me off of my bike two weeks ago, and I hurt my hand and knee. I should have taken a photo…


Mar 26 2008

101 empty on a weekday!

Tags: , , Filed under: Written in Englishhugo @ 6:03

101 South was completely empty last Thursday at 10am South of Menlo Park:

Empty 101

Empty 101

I’m not sure why that was, but that was very weird.


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