Usage caps for solving problems that don’t exist

If you haven’t read, Southwestern Bell AT&T is solving a bogeyman problem of network congestion by imposing usage caps of 150 GB per month for standard DSL, and 250 GB per month for U-Verse (fiber). Use of AT&T’s own IPTV, VOIP, etc. are exempted from the usage limits, of course.

They cite network congestion, but really, this is more about making certain that non-AT&T services like Netflix, Skype, Vonage, etc. have a competitive disadvantage over AT&T’s costlier services.
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Misguided security, episode 14

I was working in a data center, where we had a couple of Cisco VOIP phones. I don’t know who put them in or when–it’s possible they predated me. We never got them working, but nobody ever really tried, either.

The idea was that two guys working on servers in different datacenters across the WAN might need to talk. The reality was that we didn’t do that very often and usually had other ways to do it–a cellphone being the most obvious option. Our networking guys always had much more pressing issues than getting the VOIP phones working, so the phones just sat there and looked pretty. Until the wrong guy noticed them one day, that is.

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Insourcing time

Here’s a recycled idea: outsource to small towns instead of overseas.

It made sense in the 1930s and it makes sense now.The reason salaries are high in large cities is partly because the monthly rent on an apartment is higher than the mortgage payment on a modest 3-bedroom home in a smaller metropolitan area. I remember being at a financial seminar where the speaker counseled somebody who hated living in Chicago. He didn’t want to move because he’d make less money. They talked about why he needed the salary he was making, and he realized the only reason was so he could continue living in Chicago.

Needless to say, he found a lower-paying job in a city with a lower cost of living, and ended up much happier.

Since high cost of living makes for high salaries, high cost of living is expensive for corporations too.

Manufacturing jobs–back when anything was actually made in the USA–tended to herd in cities. But some companies put their factories in rural areas, where the labor was cheaper, in order to undercut their competitors’ prices.

In the so-called Information Age, nothing keeps companies from locating call centers and other facilities in small towns. It may or may not be cheaper than India–but the cost of doing business in India is increasing–but, let’s face it, there are issues with going overseas.

When I was in college, even the most liberal students I knew complained about foreign teachers’ assistants, who were graduate-level students put in charge of teaching the weedout classes freshmen have to take. Besides the thick accents, cultural differences–ranging from figures of speech to simple expectations–could get in the way of understanding.

Add a VOIP line to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. Not that shareholders know anything about any of this. (Most of the shareholders who make the biggest racket probably didn’t go to a public university.)

The company I work for (no, I won’t give its name) does it right. Not only are the call centers in the United States, there are several of them. A customer from the South is going to talk to a representative from the South. Accent and all. Customers from the North are going to get the Minnesota call center more often than not. Westerners will speak to a Californian.

That’s important. I’ve been called a Southerner exactly one in my life–by someone from Detroit–but my in-laws definitely consider themselves Southern. When I told them that my Dad was saying 15 years ago that biscuits and gravy causes colon cancer, their response was, “That’s just a Yankee doctor talking. No Southerner would ever say that.”

Suffice it to say they don’t consider me a Southerner.

So I like this idea. Outsourcing closer to home will neatly solve the cost problems of the big city and the cultural problems of offshoring. Some people prefer living in a small (or at least smaller) town anyway.

The article I linked says this could be the renaissance of small town USA. It might be too early to say that, but I don’t see how that could be a bad thing.

How to make your laptop more reliable (or at least die trying)

People have been asking me a lot of notebook/laptop questions lately, so I figure it’s probably a good time for me to write about them. I’ll tackle reliability first, then I’ll tackle upgrades. Here’s how you can make your laptop more reliable.

About five years ago, I wrote and published a newspaper column titled, “10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Buy a Laptop.” I still think the best way to get a reliable computer is to skip the laptop and get a desktop, but since people are going to buy laptops anyway, here’s what I’ve learned about keeping them reliable.

Buy the extended warranty. My normal response when people ask me if I want these is to say, “I fix these things for a living. I am an extended warranty.”But most laptops have no technician-serviceable parts inside and few technician-replaceable parts inside, let alone user-serviceable stuff. Aside from swapping a hard drive, RAM, or optical drive, a laptop might as well be a car with the hood welded shut.

Plus, a common malady of laptops is a busted screen. The manufacturer’s warranty won’t honor that. I wouldn’t cover it if I were offering extended warranties either, but most extended warranties do. If the warranty costs $150 or less and covers a busted screen, get it. At $300 it’s a tougher sell, seeing as entry-level laptops cost about $600, but I’d even think about them at that price.

Brand matters less than it used to. I used to look at PC Magazine and PC World reliability ratings. Usually people who asked already had their mind made up and bought something other than what I recommended anyway (and then regretted it), but the difference in manufacturers is evaporating. Most laptops are designed by the same engineers and made in the same factories these days regardless of whose name goes on it. And most support is outsourced to India too. I specifically recommended IBM primarily because their support was still U.S.-based, but with the sale of its PC business, that could change at any time now.

So no matter what you buy, you’ll get something of questionable reliability supported by technicians of questionable experience and ability, not that that’s going to matter much because you won’t be able to understand him or her anyway. If the terrible VOIP connection to India will get you if the accent doesn’t.

Buy a really good laptop bag. My laptop has lasted five years. I know at least one person who knows as much or more about computers than I do, but his laptops generally have a shorter life expectancy. The only difference I can see is the laptop bag.

He (along with everyone else I know) uses the typical laptop bags. My bag is an oversized, overweight leather bag. When the bag hits something, it usually leaves a mark. It weighs more than the laptop does, but seems to do an outstanding job of protecting it. I live with the weight. I’d rather have a laptop that works, and besides, I can use the exercise. I’m not exactly buff.

The bag discovery isn’t anything I can take credit for, by the way. The manufacturer messed up the order and included that bag with the laptop as appeasement. So a $150 bag to protect a laptop, whether it costs $600 or $4500, seems to be a good investment. Remember, you can always use the bag for the next laptop, so you only have to buy it once.

On the other extreme, I’ve seen people carry laptops in plastic grocery bags. They deserve all the troubles they get. That’s usually a lot, if you’re wondering.

Don’t put your laptop in overhead storage bins on airplanes. This should go without saying. But I’ve seen people with PhDs do it, so maybe that’s a truth that’s only obvious to computer techs. When the other stuff in the compartment shifts, the bag will get crushed, and that’ll be the end of your laptop screen. When the screen breaks, it’s usually cheaper to buy a new laptop.

Take the laptop as carry-on luggage, and stow it underneath your seat. There’s no other safe place for a laptop on an airplane.

Be aware of the hidden costs. Assuming your laptop makes it beyond its warranty period, there are two things that are as certain as death and taxes: The battery is going to die and need to be replaced, and the same goes for the hard drive.

Batteries aren’t cheap. If it’s under $100, count yourself lucky. And don’t be shocked if it’s $200. Don’t bother buying an extra one now to save for later; it’ll be dead by the time you need it. You might like having a spare to keep charged and swap in when the other one dies though.

Fortunately, laptop hard drives have gotten cheap. You can still spend $200 on a laptop hard drive if you want, but has drives starting in the $60 range.

Make backups. Buy yourself a nice, big memory stick and copy over anything you care about (certainly your My Documents folder at the very least) every day. Laptop hard drives die all the time and usually without warning. So be ready for it. Or get yourself an external USB 2.0 hard drive. A copy of Ghost or a similar program for making images of the internal drive is also useful–that way, when the drive dies, you don’t have to spend all weekend reloading everything.

Get a good laptop surge protector. A portable single-outlet surge protector sells for $10-$20. Get one and use it. Those summertime hiccups that cause your lights to flicker aren’t good for your laptop either, and laptops are a lot more expensive than light bulbs.

Most people buy APC units, but Belkin offers a unit that costs a little less and offers a lot more protection. Expect to pay anywhere from $7-$20. It’s money well spent–you’re protecting a delicate machine that costs several times that.

When looking at a surge protector, more joules (the equivalent of one amp traveling through one ohm of resistance for one second) is better. And if you use the modem in the laptop, don’t forget to plug it into the modem outlet in the surge protector, since surges coming through the phone line can damage the laptop and, in my experience at least, are more likely to do harm.