Thursday, June 26, 2008

Do Not Disturb

I am anti-social. I hate crowds, meeting new people, meeting people that I already know. One of my biggest pet peeves is talking on the phone. If you call me, get to the point...don't just ramble on pointlessly keeping me tied up all night.

One of my dearest friends whom I love to spend time with is one of the worst offenders. She will often call and keep me on the phone for an hour or more. Last conversation that I had with her was to be short and sweet (as if I hadn't learned my lesson) so I called her back on my landline. This call cost me $11.20. She is "local long-distance" and my AT&T long distance is 10p per minute. If I called on my cell phone it would have been totally free. Next time I won't be so lazy.

Anyhow, I have had people enquire to me about Asterisk, the Linux-based phone system software. This is one piece of software that is probably worth its weight in gold.

Asterisk is a full-on software-based PBX; a phone system, if you will, just like those used in offices and businesses all around the globe. The difference here is that rather than be proprietary...Nortel Meridian phones only work on Nortel Meridian switches; they won't work on Avayas, NECs, Panasonics, Executones, etc. -- they aren't even interchangeable with Nortel's own Norstar PBXes...Asterisk can use standard analogue phones (with a proper adapter) or plain old IP phones from any manufacturer. I use Cisco 7900-series phones myself.

They system uses a powerful scripting language that lays out the call treatment. And believe you me, you can make they phone system do anything to a caller!

Here is a synopsis of what happens when a call comes in to my phone line...

First, the caller ID string is examined. If there is no caller ID string or if the string is "Private", "Unavailable" or something to that effect, the call is rejected with an announcement saying that we do not accept unidentified calls.

If there is a caller ID string, the call continues and the number is checked against a blacklist of numbers. If the number is on the list, the call is rejected with a rather rude announcement telling the caller they are blacklisted and to not bother calling back.

If that test is passed, then the number is checked against a graylist. The callers on this list may be mildly annoying and I may need to know what the call is in regards to, but not actually talk to anyone. These calls are shunted directly to voicemail.

In the final number test, the caller ID number is checked against a whitelist. These are calls of extreme importance and will bypass all further checking and start ringing the phones in the house for an extended period, up to one minute. This list is reserved for close friends, my parents and other non-annoying family members and people at work.

If the call goes through all these checks are is not rejected or shunted off to other places, then the call goes into what I call the generic tests.

First, the system checks the database to see if the "Systemwide Do-Not-Disturb" is turned on. If it is, then the call is shunted to voicemail. I can dial a number into any phone and turn this Systemwide DND on and off. This is especially useful if I am home from work early and want to take a nap.

Second, the system checks the database to see if the "Systemwide Time Restrictions" are turned on. If the time restrictions are NOT on, then the call proceeds through unhindered. If time restrictions are on, and there should be no reason for them to be off, the system checks the day and time...
  • Monday-Friday, 7am-6pm calls will be shunted directly to voicemail because I am probably not home.
  • Sunday-Saturday, 10pm-7am calls will be shunted directly to voicemail because I am probably asleep.
  • Otherwise, calls will continue unhindered.
If the call passes through all of this, only then will it ring the IP phones scattered throughout the house. It will, however, ring for only 30 seconds before going to voicemail.

During all this checking and ringing the phones, the caller will be treated to some pleasant music. If I do not answer, a pleasant voice will indicate that I am not available with a humourous reason why, before being sent off to voicemail.

Some of the funniest oneliners: Nobody is available to take your call...
  • they have been carried away by monkeys.
  • we're all busy with our hangovers.
  • we're off gambling and getting drunk.
  • Mike has been brutally murdered by the teletubbies.
  • all your base are belong to us.
  • abandon all hope ye who dial here.
It is a fun system to play with and surprisingly powerful. I have been able to do things with it that I could never do with my Nortel Meridian Option 11s at work. The best part is, all of the sound files for the annoucements are included and have been professionally recorded by a great voice.

If you would like more information about Asterisk, visit the project website at

Monday, June 23, 2008

New Blog Template

I was bored and started futzing around with the Blogger templates and created one based on one of my favorite artists, Piet Mondrian. I use this style on my personal webpage as well and I have grown to like it very much.

It is easier to make a Mondrian-esque webpage with tables than the way Blogger does its layout with DIVs, but it did not turn out too bad once I got used to what-does-what in the Blogger XML template.

Anyhow, enjoy!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Lilies of the Field

Here's some pics of the lilies from my front yard. They toil not, neither do they spin...but it would be nice if they would chip in on the house payment.

Fig. 1: 28mm Fixed (wide angle lens), f22 at 1/50", ISO400.

Fig. 2: 135mm Fixed (portrait lens), f22 at 1/50", ISO400.

Fig. 3: 135mm Fixed (portrait lens), f22 at 1/50", ISO400.

Fig. 3: 135mm Fixed (portrait lens), f22 at 1/50", ISO400.

Whenever I hear that parable, I always envision a field of lilies actually spinning. It is supposed to mean "spinning" as in yarn to make clothing, but hey, seeing a field of flowers whizzing 'round would be infinitely amusing.

Note the hideous blue-patterned indoor/outdoor carpet on my porch visible in the pictures. Eeewww. Whoever thought of indoor/outdoor carpet should be brutally murdered.

All images were taken with my Sony alpha 200 Digital SLR.

Please stop setting fire to my neighborhood.

I live in a strange neighborhood. Well, really, all neighborhoods have their black sheep, outcasts, weirdos, but we seem to have more than we need.

Now, don't get me wrong...I am strange in and of myself. I have quite more than my fair share of antennas and satellite dishes on and around my house. Some have compared my homestead to SETI. I just tell everyone that I'm waiting for contact from the mothership.

There seems to be a phenomena in my neighborhood with people liking to set things on fire. Specifically, setting fires for communal enjoyment. What I mean by this is open burning. Several times this week and numerous times since spring began, several neighbors have had open fires going in their backyards.

The people across the back of the churchyard across the street from me have had an open pit fire going nearly every night this week, the college frat house behind me set one alight about twice a week and the neighbors to the east of my parents tore out and burned their entire privacy fence.

Within the city there is a law against open burning. One would think that with the gestapo in our town as active as they are that the pyromaniacs would be sanctioned for their crimes...especially since we live about 1/4 mile from the fire station. But, no, the fires continue.

It would not be so bad if the fires were done safely (as in not at all) in a fire pit. At our local home and garden shops they sell numerous varieties of fire containment vessels from large terra cotta vessels to small fire pit tables, all of which are available inexpensively and have provisions to prevent the fire from actually escaping and burning down a house or entire neighborhood.

The pyromaniacs in my neighborhood do not use such vessels. They only have short rings of bricks set up on their backyard lawns. I think this is so that once the inevitable drought sets in, any fires they set will surely spread.

Thankfully my homeowners insurance is paid up.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

R.I.P. Water Heater

It had to happen some time. My old water heater gave up the a rather violent way.

Some back story...
There was one particularly warm day, back on May 14th, when my air conditioner was running. The A/C makes a rather distinctive, though rather quiet, hissing sound. This is the compressed refrigerant coursing through the copper piping from the compressor to the coils in the furnace. Since there is little insulation between the basement and first floor, I can pretty much hear the distinctive sounds that emanate from the basement.

When the A/C turns off, there is a louder hissing sound as the refrigerant relaxes and turns back into a gas. This hissing, louder than when the compressor is running yet still relatively quiet and undisturbing, lasts only for a few seconds.

The event...
On this hot day, the A/C was running as per usual. When sufficiently cool, the A/C kicked off I heard the usual sound as the freon in the piping relaxed. This hissing sound, however, continued for longer than normal. This caused me instant concern and I strained to listen.

Sure enough, the hissing continued for 30 seconds, then a minute. I became quite concerned. Going into "Uh-Oh!" mode, I made a beeline for the basement stairway where I listened further.

Still there was the continuous hissing.

I thought the worst, that something had happened to the piping from the heat pump to the furnace and that I was leaking freon into the basement. For a split second I was worried that this freon would add to the hole in the ozone layer since the furnace and A/C unit are over 15 years old. Then I came to my senses...who cares about that!? This may cost me billions of dollars to fix! OMG! WTF?

I crept down the stairs preparing for the worst as the hissing continued. I arrived to a scene that I will not forget. (Why did I not have a camera available?) There was a geyser of hot water shooting out from around the top vent of the water heater as the water heater continued to heat!

I quickly shut off the water to the house, cut off the gas and pulled the pressure vent lever and the geyser subsided. I was certainly semi-relieved at this HVAC system was safe, but of course I now had no hot water.

That being said, I had not planned on buying a new hot water heater just now. I had hoped to eke a few more months out of the old heater before going ahead and replacing it. So much for hoping, I had to get everything in order now!

I keep my usual checking account as close to $0 as I possibly can, preferring to save most of my money (what little there is) in a high-yield money-market savings account. The unfortunate problem with this is that if I need the money, I have to transfer it (it is at a different, large multi-national banking institution) to my checking account (which is at a local credit union) to use it. This, unfortunately, takes a couple of days. And I sure as hell wasn't going to use any credit cards!

Not only did I have to wait for that, but I was certainly not going to tackle putting in a new water heater by myself. Why?

1) I have a car, not a truck. Dad has the truck, but he is gone all week.
2) Natural gas. I can do water plumbing quite well. Gas, uh, no thanks.

So my plan was thus: transfer the money, shower at mom-n-dad's until the weekend, get and install the new water heater, done.

This, thankfully, worked quite well. I went to Home Depot on the 21st with money in hand, bought a new 40 gallon gas water heater and all the requisite piecesparts to install it. All in all, the bill came to about $595, with tax, title and tires. Dad and I had it installed and working in about three hours.

While waiting for the transfer, the $600 "stimulus" check appeared in my savings account, so I'm not actually down any money. Thanks GW!

Fig. 1: The new water heater.
GE SmartWater 40 Gallon Natural Gas Water Heater (12-year Warranty)

The new heater should be significantly more efficient than the old, and I am waiting on my next few gas bills to see how it impacts my usage.

I replaced a great deal of plumbing from the mains to the water heater, too, as the existing valves were leaky inside. I had the water in and out shut off at the water heater and opened the pressure vent and drain to let the water tank drain out while waiting to get the new one...and it drained all week! The input valve was not shutting off properly (which I did not figure out until we got the old heater disconnected) which kept a small trickle running. There was also a great deal of strange sediment being drained out as well. I am sure it is fallout from the nasty city water that went through the old heater for years.

So, now I have a new water heater with all the trimmings in addition to the new water softener I installed to replace the old, decrepit one in place when I bought the house. Now I just need to replace the rest of the plumbing bits in the house and I'll be all set!

I guess the old heater had a good was nearly 25 years old!

There is still some worth to the old heater. A friend of mine from the amateur radio club I belong to had the bright idea of having members collect recyclables to cash in to build up our coffers so we can be more self-sufficient. In the past a select few of us (myself and three others) would band together to pay the club line to control the repeaters and yearly insurance premiums...which was getting expensive and tiresome.

He came by and got the old water heater and the old, decrepit washing machine that was in the house when I bought it to take away for recycling. I am not sure of how much he got for it, but if it helps the club and declutters my basement, I'm all for it!

From what I have gathered, the plan has been so successful that our next insurance premium is paid, as well as the next six months of phone bills. Hurrah!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I've a Picasa album now and uploadified some of my favorite images.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I Hate BlackBerries

Yes, I hate BlackBerries. No, not blackberries as in the fruit...though they are not my favorite fruit and I could take them or leave is the handheld cellular telephonic device by the same name (with the exception of the capital "B"s) that is the focus of my ire.

Our CEO was having trouble with is cellphone, a Samsung Windows-based smartphone. Rather than have us get him a replacement, since we can get them cheap, he desired a, Black...Berry.

In order to facilitate this vilest of handheld devices, my boss suggested that I get one as well. Joy. In all fairness, my contract with Verizon Wireless is up and I had thought about getting a CrackBerry to play with when I reup just to see what they are all about. My getting one through work was just a happy coincidence...happy in that I now don't have to waste my money.

I'm not exactly sure about what my issue is with these evil devices. Perhaps it is that I am so used to having a Windows-based smartphone, which I have had several over the years, that I cannot possibly use anything else. Perhaps it is that all these yuppie-scum bluetooth-headset wearing douchebags (you know the self-important that they wear them like jewelry) that tend to have them. I don't know.

In order to get a BlackBerry or two, we had to buy two devices WITH completely new, separate contracts outside of our regular corporate contract. They are, obviously, more expensive now because we have voice AND data on them. The data portion of the service is an extra $30 per month! Add to that the $99 license fee to get it connected to our Exchange mail server...

Just for giggles, I decided to try setting up my current personal smartphone, a Samsung i760, to get email and calendar from our mail server. I already get email for my personal accounts from my linux mail server at home, but never tried to connect to my work server. While I use my personal phone for both myself and work purposes...rather than carry two phones and a pager...I never thought about syncing it to my work email.

I set about getting it configured, and after a short while and some minor configuration tweaks on the exchange server, I was getting my work email, calendar and contacts on my phone and keeping them in perfect sync. After setting mine up, I sent a little bit of info to my boss (who, likewise, has a Windows-based smartphone) and he got server synchronization to work instantly on his phone.

This would not normally seem like a big deal, however I was impressed with the Microsoft solution because it kept everything work-related separate from my personal emails!

With the BlackBerry, after setting it up to sync with my work email account through the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, I also set it up to get my personal emails from a few accounts that I have on my servers at home. This was one of my biggest issues with lumped everything together in one big email jumble! How annoying is that? There were, as I discovered, a few ways to distinguish the various accounts like color coding and separate windows. However, to get the corporate email, you have to take everything together...color-coded emails, voicemails, all of it.

What is even more annoying is that in order to support this device, you have to run the BlackBerry Enterprise server software on top of the Exchange server. As if Microsoft software wasn't bloated enough on its own, now you have to have RIM's Java-based monstrosity running as well. Thankfully, the "professional" version of the software that supports up to 30 users can reside on the same server as Exchange with little impact in overhead. The full-blown BlackBerry Enterprise server requires its own if we had a couple of kilodollars to throw down for a server to support a handful of CrackBerry addicts...

This would not normally be a big issue, but I have been aggravated by this software for the past day. One seemingly simple issue...synchronizing calendar items...has turned into a nightmare of epic proportions. First, it is the CEO's CrackBerry that is affected so it immediately becomes a hot-button issue with my boss. Second, I have a million (quite literally) things that I should be doing rather than messing with this stupid thing. Third, I would really rather not mess with an already fragile Exchange server that is (was) working perfectly up to this point.

I swear if this CrackBerry software damages my Exchange server I will go up to the CEO's office with a hammer and destroy that phone. Kudos to Microsoft, for a change, for making smartphones and server software that function exactly the way you'd expect. My smartphone is, essentially, a BlackBerry that doesn't suck.

I think I need to up my meds.