Slack vs IRC (or how I learned to stop worrying and lock the slack)

For many years the local Linux User’s group has had an IRC channel on Freenode (#cialug) and it has always had about the same small number of lurkers who occasionally go active to make a comment, i.e. “Good Morning LUG!”.
A new attendee of the Lug suggested slack as a possible avenue for communication. Reluctantly we stood up a channel and got to work inviting people to join. I also launched a Slack/IRC bridge to help keep the lug wide discussions from being a permanent netsplit.
So far I have the following observations about the current situation.

  1. Slack has a nice user interface, (yes I know that IRC is a communication standard, not a UI)
  2. Slack keeps a history of what has been said, unlike IRC where if you were not in the channel it is lost (both good and bad)
  3. with the IRC Slack bot, it is impossible to tell all who may be in the channel on the other side of the bridge
  4. Slack is an invite only system. (I need to get around to automating this process.) This kinda goes counter to the free and open environment that we try to foster.

Time will tell if this slack thing is a good idea. Stay tuned for updates.

My experience with Fi Customer Support

As a cool way to save money a while back, I switched my cell service over to project Fi, google’s cell phone service. As with all things in google’s semi permanent beta testing my experience has been that it is not always quite as smooth sailing as one of the main stream cell phone providers. The main reason this has been is because Fi is made up of Us Cellular, Sprint and Tmobile. Through vudu magic, your phone decides which network it needs to be on for the best signal etc. and then it will flip between them.
A while back I noticed that when I was on the US Cellular towers and my Internet was turned off (to save data costs), text messages would not go through. They would fail with the message “Message not sent, Tap to try again.” I also noticed that people would complain that my phone calls were showing up as “Unknown Caller.” This meant that most people would dodge my calls as they thought that I was a telemarketer.
Finally on a slow Saturday night, I dialed 611 (your cell phone company’s number). It was impressive being directly connected to a support technician. With his soothing Australian accent, he walked me through some initial tests to see if it was an easy solution. Unfortunately it was not, and he informed me that he would have to kick it up to the next tier of support, what would be a good time for them to contact me? We agreed for a time on Sunday at noon (the next day) central time.
It was about 1 PM the next day when a supervisor called me back to ask if it was alright to email me some debugging instructions. They involved me taking bug report snapshots in each cellular environments, emailing them to support and sending suggestion reports from the fi app with the hashtag #fisupport. It was all a bit more then what I would expect from a non technical user, however those users probably don’t use fi!
The support email replied thanking me for my report and that they were forwarding it on to the engineers for debugging. Unfortunately it has now been a week of crickets, on Wednesday I called 611 again and asked for an update, unfortunately they had none to give, but that they would email me when it was resolved.
Other than this one minor hiccup, fi has been great and if you want to try it out here is a referral link to take $20 off your service after 30 days

2016 Christmas Letter

(PDF version)

December 16, 2016

Dear Friends and Family,

It is hard to believe that another year has passed. This year we are writing this letter from the sunny shores of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, where the sun is warm, the food is good and the drinks keep flowing. We also were exposed to a bit of culture shock with some of the wild driving and non-drinkable tap water. The trip has not all been sun and lounging on the beach though, we toured Santo Domingo, the capital. While there we saw the old colonial city, the first cathedral and the first paved road of the new world as well as the final resting place of Christopher Columbus. We also toured a small family farm and got to see how coffee, cocoa, and coconut oil is made as well as their house and the local school. We ended the tour at Macao Beach.

In other traveling this year we also took a weekend trip to Thunder Bay, Ontario. We enjoyed hiking in the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park as well as the Fort Williams historical fur trading post. As well as our other souvenirs, we also brought back a pound of canadian bacon.

Finally, we traveled with Andy’s family to the National Music Museum in Vermilion, SD where we saw an amazing variety of instruments from one of BB King’s Lucille to precursors to the tuba (the serpent). We even saw recorders created by a Denner.

For work, Jess has gotten around as she has had to travel back and forth between the Houston plant and also took a trip to audit a supplier in Mexico City. Andy also traveled to San Jose, CA for a Hadoop Conference.

Jess continues to be the Quality Manager at Caremoli and Andy is still a Senior Software Developer for Dupont Pioneer. Jess competed in the State Fair food competition again this year where she won 2 first place ribbons (pineapple upside down cake and gluten free cake), and 4 second places. This year her entries were somewhat decreased as she was a bridesmaid in Megan’s wedding (Andy’s sister) that was in the middle of prime baking time. Andy also entered the fun by getting a photo exhibited in the fair’s photo exhibition.

In other happenings, Andy was the speaker at his brother’s Eagle Scout ceremony. Jess continues to be our church council secretary and Andy continues to be the president of the local Linux User’s Group.

We hope everyone has had a great year this year and look forward to more adventures next year.

Merry Christmas,

Andy & Jess


Cell phone coverage in Europe as a US Tourist


Woman with Mobile Phone; Night

Since both Jess and I had Straight Talk cell phone service (a low cost MVNO partnership between Telemovil and Walmart) data and talk coverage was not going to extend beyond the US border. In order to save the time and trouble of finding a sim card in country as well as having to figure out settings and language barrier issues we got two 3UK sim cards that were prepaid. They ended up costing us about $50 for a British cell phone number with unlimited calls in the UK (we didn’t use this part of the plan) as well as unlimited data. To make sure we would have enough cash on the phone to make emergency texts and calls I also made sure to load about 10 pounds on the phone as reserve. The sim cards arrived quickly (actually they were shipped from Australia) and it was only a minor hassle to install them in our iphones. Pro tip for later, pack a paperclip to open the sim card slot. Because of the unlimited data we were able to use google hangouts to make free US calls. (This was especially helpful calling American express’ concierge to help set up details) We also tried to use google voice to call European numbers for cheaper however the connection was terrible with high latency. (Apparently traveling through England to the us via data on 3g HSP+ data and then back to Europe via POTS was just too much.) Thankfully for most of the calls we needed we were able to use the Amex Concierge to call and set up our reservations.

The two big benefit to having data was the use of google maps to figure out public transit (it was great and rarely let us down). The other was being able to fall back to google translate when our language skills failed us.

Data speeds were generally great as most places were 3g HSP+ speeds of about 20mb/s while they weren’t quite LTE speeds they were more than enough for our purposes. It was also rather odd that most of the apartments that we were staying at via air b&b had cellular based Internet with the same 3g HSP+ data that our cell phones were using.

If/When we go back I will now take advantage of Google Project Fi that only charges $10/gb for data and now also uses 3UK and tmobile’s international roaming agreements.

“One percent” matters or my experience with Google Project Fi

SIM card rejected
Lately sprint has been trumpeting that they have a network that is within 1% of the “other” networks. This claim seems to surround measuring the network only where a majority of people live. The only issue with this is that people often travel outside of those cities. There is another world outside of those small paths around the interstate and urban centers.

Companies like sprint and tmobile save large amounts of money and trouble by not having quite as much coverage out in the sticks. TMobile is one of those companies that you want to root for because of some of their more rebellious and wild ideas, however they are problematic in Iowa due to their partnership with iWireless. Outside of cities the coverage quickly falls to 2G.

Does this mean that there is only a couple of choices like verizon? No, not quite… I have had good luck with Google’s MVNO answer to cell phone service, project Fi. It uses sprint, Tmobile and US Cellular and will pick the best coverage for your location. Is it perfect, No. It sometimes has issues sending text messages and some outbound calls show up as “Unknown”. I have also noticed that sometimes calling my grandparents that are on a ILEC phone line the calls will fail or just ring through to nothing. Calls to Fi support end with them blaming the ILEC (Butler Bremer telephone company). The biggest attraction is their low cost coverage. It is only $20 a month for talk and text and then $10 a gb for data. At the start of the month you set a slider for how much data you expect to use. If you go over, it is $10 a gb, If you go under your guess you get the remainder of the money back as a credit. The other nice benefit is that international travel is also covered by Fi.Text is free, talk depends on the country but is usually $.20 a min and data is still the $10/gb that it always is. Internationally it uses TMobile’s network as well as Three.

If fi is a little too experimental or you plan on using more data, there are other options. My wife (the data hog) has an Iphone that is connected to Straight Talk wireless a MVNO partnership between telemovil and Walmart. For $45 a month she gets unlimited talk/text and 5gb of data. Her phone is currently on the AT&T network.

Want to see what coverage looks like near you? Most providers have a map (That shows a rosy picture of their coverage) as well as third party maps.

Travel to Europe and a layover at YYZ (Toronto)

Waiting at yyz

I am finally getting around to posting some of the information and experiences that we had on our 5 year wedding anniversary trip to Italy and Spain.

On Day 0 We started off in Minneapolis MN due to a lack of affordable and reasonable flights from our local airport (Des Moines).  Thankfully our friends Andrew and Kelsey put us up for the night and kept an eye on our car for the couple of weeks we would be gone. After a uneventful trip through security at MSP we hopped a Air Canada flight to YYZ. As a surprise we had to fill out full immigration forms for entry to Canada and pass through customs just to stay in the international wing of the airport. Canadian customs were quick and efficient as there was not much to talk about for our 6 hour stay with our great neighbors to the north. We rapidly found out that the £20 of credit on the 3UK sim cards we had gotten for the trip were exhausted as Canada was not a part of their free coverage (oops). This was due to the rather crappy wifi coverage in the airport.

The six hours in the airport went quickly as we spent most of the time at the American Express Plaza Premier Lounge. They had nice comfy chairs, newspapers and magazines as well as an open bar and a good spread of food this included a really good Garlic and lentil soup and Teriyaki Chicken with Boiled Cabbage and rice. The only other complaint was that the lounge was a little warm and stuffy as it was an open air area above the rest of the international wing. While we were stuck at the airport we also took advantage of a little shopping including a Canadian moose with a I ❤ Canada shirt on.

We finally left YYZ at 20:00 and continued on our 8.5 hr flight to FCO (Rome).


It’s Complicated and has layers… Like an Onion. Or How I  learned to stop worrying and love the tor.

With the latest outcome of the election and roughly half of the nation waking up to the fact that their “guy” was not going to be in the white house, people have been reminded of a need to keep their private lives a little more private. Of course this is outrageous because no matter who is in the Whitehorse the various security and spy agency of the world are always watching almost everything. One of the “easy” low cost ways of helping to secure your Internet presence is using Tor. Tor allows your Internet traffic to bounce around the Internet from volunteer to volunteer secured all the way before either landing on an exit node or a tor hidden service. In theory this prevents your traffic from being observed and monitored. Tor was originally designed by the US Government to allow spies, freedom fighters, and the oppressed to securely and communicate without fear of oppression. This in theory defends against most attacks up to massive brute force, possible flaws in the program, or if the bad actor has control and is observing a majority of the nodes in the network. (In theory these are possible by various three letter agencies owned by Uncle Sam).

Of cause, the big issue with using anything secure is that to be truly secure, you have to give up all of the nice to haves like Java script, goggle services and cookies. All allow you to be tracked by various parts of the Internet. One of the nice low hanging fruit that can quickly be secured through tor is Facebook. They have a tor service that will ensure that your Facebook traffic will be routed only inside of tor. The other easy way is to enable tor in android. The only additional software needed is orbot. The biggest thing to remember while signed into Facebook is that you just tied your tor persona to a named identity that allows you to be tracked. This is just bad opsec but would allow you to communicate out of oppressive countries elsewhere in the world. The other shortcoming to Facebook over tor on android is that push notifications of events will not work.

Vidalia Onions

Now Andy, what good is Facebook over Tor for you, you may ask. Almost nothing… even while connected via insecure wifi Facebook is already secured via https/tls encryption, and the fact that I am posting on Facebook via android is no secret, Nor am I trying to share state secrets. Plus Facebook is a US owned company, one National Security Letter and Uncle Sam has a copy of all of my actions. Plus to quote one of my friends who works in the field, “you are not that interesting.” I do it to make Facebook better for the people who need to use the service, plus to keep encouraging Facebook to continue improving the service. If no one uses the service, then it is easier to get rid of it. I also use it to help provide some additional cover to those who need it. If the TLA groups are bruteforcing the traffic, this adds yet another set of packets that they have to work on. Finally, it is so easy to do for androids. All you need to do is install orbot and click the “enable tor” option in facebook’s setting menu.

In the end, it may be just whistling in the dark, but at least it is something. Plus it ups my geek cred just a little bit. The only downside that I have found is that tor burns the battery far faster than the regular network.

Express Scripts or the value in failing the right way

FAIL stamp
System outages and maintenance are a reality of the computer driven world that we live in. The key to a good user experience is how you handle the failures that will always eventually happen. If you fail early in the process as possible, provide a meaningful error and provide the expected time until resolution it can go a ling way to keeping your users happy.
In todays example I had to call Express Scripts (my employer’s health plan’s mail order pharmacy) for a simple refill. I knew that I was in for trouble when the computer voice repeated “please wait” for several minutes while it was looking up my account. This was only confirmed after entering the prescription number and being greeted with “please wait” again. Eventually it transfered me to a human who said “The system is down, you will need to call back tomorrow after 6am. After I used the agent as a bit of a human verbal punching bag for wasting my time, I went on my way to try again successfully the next day.
What should have happened? The moment I went into the refill voice prompt, it should have greeted me with a message that the system was down due to maintenance rather than the 10 minutes that were needed to get to that information. In the end it also would have cut down on the support time and costs as the automated self service system would have been able to handle the problem with out any human intervention.
Failure happens, the trick is to plan for it and use it for the better.