Monday, 23 March 2009

Since my last post, in which I predicted the newly-minted Google Voice service would be a real positive impact in my world, my Grand Central account was enabled for the upgrade to the new application and I have migrated to the service.

Greg’s One-Line Review: It’s pretty darned awesome.

But you probably want a little more detail than that, so here we go…

First of all, I should explain that I’ve used Grand Central for the past couple years. Grand Central was the centralized phone service that Google acquired some time back, and it allowed one number to ring multiple phones, with centralized voice mail, call screening and recording, etc.

Google Voice builds upon Grand Central by adding a number of new features, including a couple killer apps in my book: Text/SMS messaging and conference calling. Other enhancements include automated transcription of voice messages and a unified inbox for all your text messages and voice mails.

I live in a very rural area, far from the nearest cell phone tower. Mobile service on my iPhone is – for all intents and purposes – nonexistent at my house. If I put the phone up on a certain window sill and avoid moving it or touching it, I can get marginal service and might be able to receive text messages. But sending messages and making/receiving phone calls is next to impossible.

By giving people my Google Voice number (which is 503-766-2258 by the way), my friends and colleagues can send me text message and call me at one number, regardless of where I am and what services are available at my location. When someone calls the number, Google Voice rings my cell and home phones at the same time. I can add other phone numbers to the ring list, as well – on the fly. So, if I’m working from an office number I can add it to the list, no problem. I can define time periods to each phone, so individual phones ring only when I want them to.

Google Voice SMS I rely on text messaging for a lot of things, and many of my friends, family members and colleagues also rely on it to reach me. Needless to say, with poor wireless phone service at home, there are times when I don’t receive and cannot send text messages. That pretty much defeats the purpose of using text messaging to reach people in real time. With Google Voice, text messages send to my number are delivered to my phone and to my Google Voice Inbox, meaning even if the phone service prevents delivery, I get the text messages in my web browser and can reply to them there. That’s huge for me – and I have already taken advantage of the ability to send and receive text messages from my computer.

There are a few things I hoped I’d find in Google Voice that aren’t there, at least not there yet. I’m hopeful they’ll be added in the future:

  • No support for sending text messages to groups – While you can create groups of contacts in the unified Google Voice inbox, you can only send messages to individual contacts. Since I lead a youth group at church, and we rely on text messaging to send out regular communications, I’d especially like to be able to send a single message to a group. As it is today, I can send a message to multiple contacts at once from my iPhone and just save the thread and keep replying to it, but when the group membership changes I have to start from scratch. It would be much easier and more reasonable to send to a single group managed in Google Voice.
  • I’m a Google Apps user and have an Apps email account under the same Google account as the one I am using for Google Voice. I’m not sure why, but behavior is not as expected when I click on the Mail link at the top of the page from Google Voice. Rather than taking me to my Google Apps email inbox, it takes me to a page where it asks me to sign up for a GMail account. All other Google applications seem to understand where to go when that link is clicked, but this one doesn’t yet. I’m sure this is just early/beta stuff that needs to be worked out, but it also means my contacts are not synchronized across my Mail and Voice inboxes, which is unfortunate (they’ve already enabled unified contacts sync with GMail account inboxes).
  • Support for syncing external contacts on the server side – While I was able to export my Outlook contacts, which are maintained on an Exchange server, as a CSV file and then import them without any issues into Google Voice, even better would be the ability to keep them up to date and in sync via the Google Voice service on the back end, maybe using ActiveSync or something similar. I’ll have to look for contact syncing software instead, since managing the sync effort by hand won’t really work for me.

All in all, Google Voice is a great app that’s already changing my ability to communicate. People in rural areas with marginal mobile service could really benefit from Google’s new offering. I’m looking forward to seeing what they deliver next!

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Mobile | Tech
Monday, 23 March 2009 12:03:17 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Sunday, 15 March 2009

I live in a remote location where you can barely get wireless service. I have to place my mobile phone on a window sill in just the right spot, and if I do that I will often get marginal service – enough to receive text messages most of the time, at least. Depending on the weather and atmospheric conditions, I sometimes get no signal at all.

There are two pieces of forthcoming technology that I plan to use to improve my situation as soon as they are available: Google Voice and the at&t 3G Microcell.

493252364-GoogleVoice_02 Google Voice was just announced late last week, and is an upgraded version of the services I already use via Grand Central, which Google acquired about a year and a half ago. Grand Central gives you one number and voicemail box for calls, and Google Voice expands in that by enabling SMS messages to the common number, with web and email access to the txt messages. I should note the service is free. The new features will be huge for me, since my ability to send and receive txt messages from home is limited at best, and often unreliable. I already have Grand Central routing voice calls to my home-office and cell phones at the same time, so the SMS addition will be welcome. Google is also adding voice mail transcription (machine transcribed) and some other nice features like built-in conference calling. They started upgrading people who already have Grand Central accounts a couple days ago, but mine has yet to be enabled for an upgrade. So, I am impatiently waiting. they say new users will be able to sign up in the coming weeks. More information about features available on Google Voice can be found here.

MicrocellOn another front, month or so ago, the tech news/rumor world was all excited about the pending at&t wireless 3G Microcell, which is a device that a user can plug into their broadband connection at home or in an office to create what amounts to a short-range personal wireless tower. I am luck enough to have terrific fast broadband service via a rural wireless transport provider called Cascade Networks, so I’ll be able to take advantage of the new at&t hardware when it’s available. Unfortunately, there’s been no news recently about availability of the 3G Microcell, but I’m hopeful it will be available soon. Having that available would enable me to consider shutting off my home phone service and possibly saving that monthly cost. The 3G Microcell is rumored to support data and voice for a few devices at a time, and who-knows in the cost department. All I know is it would improve my ability to communicate, which would be a welcome change.

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Mobile | Tech
Sunday, 15 March 2009 12:25:18 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Wednesday, 04 March 2009

More than once someone has asked me if there is a way to get Google to change their search results to exclude mean, inaccurate, defamatory, rude, or otherwise hard-to-swallow web pages. Often the desire motivating the question is legitimate, as someone has been smeared unfairly or - even worse - in a completely fabricated and malicious fashion, sometimes by anonymous online personalities.

The short answer is, "Probably not."

Now, before you think the proper solution is to have Google block the pages from their search results, it's important to understand that Google is not the Internet, and that it's not really making recommendations to you when it lists web pages that match what you're looking for. Rather, it's showing you an extensive list of links to content out there on the Internet that seems to match what you're looking for.

And that's what Google's search engine is: A way to find information created by other people and displayed on the Internet. It's not a filter that's meant to decide good from bad, who's right and who's wrong, who's lying or telling the truth, etc.

That said, there are things that Google works hard to avoid showing you. Spammy pages (especially ones that try to game Google's own advertising systems) are filtered out, and there are a couple topics that won't return results in their adsense and adwords advertising systems (just try to set up adsense on a site that sells or promoted firearms, for example). So they're not completely hands off, but for the most part they don't discriminate.

When you want to have a web page removed from the search listings at Google, the most effective (and almost the only) way to do so is to convince the person controlling the web page to change the information or remove it. If you can't get them to do that, it might be time to go to a court - assuming you have convincing proof that the page is inaccurate and/or malicious, etc.

Granted, if a judge sends Google a legal notice requiring them to take action, they'll probably do so. But good luck getting a judge to agree to do that.

Always go after the source of the problem. It's not Google's fault that some mean person posted a page that says you're a jerk and thief (even though you're not). But you might be able to convince a judge that the person you claim is defaming you should change or remove the page. If that happens, Google's indexing bots will automatically update the search results the net time they crawl the offending pages and see the content has changed.

Matt Cutts has a good article (with a great graphic) discussing this. Here's a brief excerpt of what Matt tells people when they ask him the same question:

We really don’t want to be taking sides in a he-said/she-said dispute, so that’s why we typically say “Get the page fixed, changed, or removed on the web and then Google will update our index with those changes the next time that we crawl that page.”

His post prompted me to think about this again since I get this type of question several times a year. Just keep in mind that while it's an emotionally difficult thing to have someone write mean things and lies about you for all to see, it's a relatively clinical process to try to get that information changed or removed. Just make sure you stay calm and look to the right people to help with driving those changes.

Google's official page that addresses how to remove content from the company's search results is located at:

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IT Security | Tech
Wednesday, 04 March 2009 07:12:27 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Monday, 02 March 2009

As of this evening, I am among the ranks of those who call themselves licensed pilots.

"Wow, what a day! I woke up this morning and started in on some non-flying related stuff that I had on my list, and at about 8:45 this morning my instructor, Kelly called me. Turns out one of the local FAA examiners that conducts check rides for private pilot candidates had today open and so he wanted to see if I could be at the airport for my FAA check ride at 1pm today. It wasn't quite where my mind was focused at the time the call came, but I quickly started shifting gears in my brain and agreed to be at Twin Oaks Airpark to meet Kelly at noon so we could make sure all the paperwork was in order."

Read the whole story about the exam and check ride on my flying blog.

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Personal Stories | Random Stuff
Monday, 02 March 2009 23:40:39 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Monday, 09 February 2009

I dropped into a Starbucks this afternoon, all prepared to get some emails written and to get some work done between my Sunday afternoon and evening commitments. Everything was fresh in my mind and ready to go via the keyboard and onto the screen. I fetched my grande two-pump sugar-free vanilla skinny latte and sat down in the chair, opened the laptop and watched it wake up and connect to the AT&T wireless access point.

But much to my dismay nothing would load over the network. The AirPort icon in the status bar showed the name of the network and indicated that I was connected to the access point, but I had no connection to the Internet.

After a brief bit of trying over and over to load a web page, I checked the network preferences in the apple system preferences panel and found that I was not getting an IP address. The Mac was self-assigning a 169.* address, which is a non-routable local-only address. I tried restarting the AirPort card in the Mac, but that didn't help. I then found I was able to connect normally with my iPhone to the AT&T WiFi network and get a "real" IP address (192.x), so I quickly deduced that something was wrong with my Mac.

I had to give up on troubleshooting and head back out into the world, but I spent the rest of the day wondering if maybe there was something about the MAC address for my wireless card that AT&T had chosen to hate. After finishing my day of activities, I drove home this evening and fired my laptop back up. It connected to my home wireless network. But again, no IP address assigned. Hmm, definitely the laptop.

I started thinking now. What could be happening? Powering the AirPort on and off, shutting down the Mac and powering it back up, manually telling the network stack to renew it's DHCP lease - all these things did no good.

I finally decided to take a look at the Mac firewall logs. You'd think that would be the first place I'd look, being a security guy. They're kind of hidden in plain sight, a few layers deep in the Mac's preferences dialogs. You go to the System Preferences panel, in the Security section, then the Firewall tab, then click the Advanced button, and finally click the Open Log button. If logging isn't already turned on, you can enable it there, as well.

Sure enough, I looked in the log and found several examples of this (emphasis mine):

Feb 8 23:02:04 greg-hughess-macbook-air Firewall[39]: Deny configd data in from uid = 0 proto=17
Feb 8 23:02:26: --- last message repeated 2 times ---

Ah hah... Apparently the firewall was refusing inbound connections initiated by the router as it tried to set up the DHCP address being requested by the laptop. The configd daemon is a service that handles configuration changes for various pieces of the system, mostly all network-related. Great, I had something to fix!

I first confirmed configd was in fact running, then deleted the firewall configuration file (located at /Library/Preferences/ and configured the firewall to temporarily allow all connections, and then back to allowing essential services. Sure enough, as soon as I made the changes the Mac was able to get a DHCP address from the router, and the network was back up and working.

I have no real idea how the firewall got messed up. At one point I had it set to configure access for specific services and apps, so that might have had something to do with it. But it's strange that this problem only started today. It's possible the configd process was denied by a rule, I suppose. Perhaps I hit a key on a pop-up dialog to deny firewall access to the daemon without even realizing it while typing?

At any rate, it seems to be working now (as evidenced by the fact that I am able to post this blog entry, of course) and hopefully it will continue to work as expected. Maybe this will help someone else troubleshoot a similar issue.

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Apple | IT Security | Tech
Monday, 09 February 2009 00:04:44 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Saturday, 31 January 2009

Good or bad, we live and work in an increasingly binary world.

More and more I notice our collective bipolar mentality. Everything is completely one extreme or another, with no time or thought put into the idea that there might be something much more realistic and reasonable in-between. It's black or it's white. You're conservative or you're liberal. It's all the way on or it's shut completely off. It's awesomely great or it's despairingly terrible.

What happened to the various shades and levels of gray, moderation and good? Perhaps this is a result of our increasingly computer-centric boolean society, where everything at it's core can be distilled down to one's and zero's, on and off, yes or no - with nothing in-between. But the organic world has never worked that way, and I think maybe we're seeing the signs that people have forgotten to look for the compromise.

One case in point, among many: A blog article today at TechCrunch reports that management at a large company, Nielson, has decided to remove the Reply-All button from all instances of outlook. Apparently some executive committee decided this would reduce waste and increase productivity. Certainly they must be right: It's a technology problem, right? Whoever the person was that thought of the reply-all concept originally couldn't possibly have been thinking about the consequences of including this feature. They must have been misguided, unknowing and wrong.

Or were they?

To take such drastic action as to completely remove the reply-all button from Outlook seems - well - misguided, unknowing and wrong. It takes a people problem, assumes (incorrectly) that it's a technology problem, and in the end creates a new - and potentially larger - business problem.

Don't get me wrong. I hate rampant reply-all email threads as much as anyone, maybe even more so. I especially dislike the passive-aggressive, nasty, insolent and rude behavior that people often use (often, ironically, in a reply-all email) to try to tell people how much they dislike email spam. If I'm copied on a business topic thread that I don't feel the need to review and would especially like to avoid, I don't like it. But I really hate it when people include me on their angry extension of the thread where they insult the original sender and complain. At least the original thread had a business purpose.

As a senior manager, several times I've replied-to-all to say "This thread is closed, please restrict the distribution of future info those those who are needed." In every case, the goal was to get people to stop and think. It almost always worked.

Now, I can see where accidental reply-all's and excess email would business and technology people to look for a way to just make it stop. I'm not saying there's not a problem to be solved - quite the contrary. But reply-all also provides a legitimate and useful piece of business functionality, one that makes people more efficient and in many cases ensures all the right people are in the loop.

The real problem here is people-related: There's a time and a place for using reply-all, and when people get lazy or don't think things through, the situation can become spammy, annoying and time-consuming. When it's useful it's very useful. When its misused it's a real pain.

Given that fact, taking the all-or-nothing, binary technology approach and removing the functionality entirely seems to be a poor method for dealing with is - at it's root - a people behavior problem.

In fact, for years there have been other options available. One example is the Reply to All Monitor (pay software, try code RA26BA50 for a possible 50% price reduction). There are other apps out there, as well. If you don't want to buy software, you can also program some VBA code to modify Outlook's behavior and prompt the user before they can send ("Are you sure you want to reply-all?"). Plus, there are a variety of ways to configure all your Outlook instances to use a plugin or your own VBA code. Of course, if you're removing the reply-all button from all the Outlook instances at a company, you probably already know this.

Imagine: Someone else might have had this problem and found a smart way to solve it. I guess the thing that really bothers me is what looks and feels like a reactive decision, likely made by people without complete information. Do you really want to completely disable all reply-all's, or is the true intent and desire to try to get people to think before they send, while allowing reply-all in cases where it makes sense?

Anyhow, I think you get the point. You can't really solve people problems with technology. Instead we should use technology to try to support people in behaving in the way we need then to. But in the end, it's all about the person's behavior, not the computer's.

Or you could say, "Buttons don't reply-to-all, people reply-to-all."

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Tech | Things that Suck
Saturday, 31 January 2009 13:20:41 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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