Password Requirements

I know I’ve ranted about this before, but people who implement password requirements should really be beaten with a clue stick:

That’s me trying to create an account on PhotoBucket. (Just for testing something at work. I prefer Flickr for real stuff.) Seems legitimate enough, right? But what if I wanted to use a dot as part of my password? What if I wanted spaces? Quotes? @#@$^#$& symbols? Why on Earth can’t I?

And don’t even get me started on the maximum password length at American Express of eight characters. No, I didn’t mean to say minimum. Your password can’t exceed 8 characters. For one of the world’s largest financial institutions. Yes, I’ve complained. No, they don’t seem to care.

Really, how does this happen? Minimum restrictions may have some value, but the only way I can think of prohibited characters coming in is if you’re not hashing passwords, or if you deliberately write code to reject certain characters for no good technical reason.

Information Wants to Be Free

It’s often said that information wants to be free. I think the Internet’s had a really large role in shaping that — not just helping information to be free, but in making people want information to be free.

For example, my roommate was talking a while ago about the song customarily played at Red Sox games, Tessie. Not the modern one, but the one from the early 20th century. I’m sure someone has a copy, but as far as what I found in an extensive search, there is one extant copy, on By the way, the song is terrible. I couldn’t even listen to it in full. (And the MP3 sounds like it was recorded on a Victrola in 1920 or something.)

Similarly, I heard this really great song when listening to an online radio station. It was so fantastic that I went to buy it right away. But it turns out you can’t. Not on iTunes, not on Amazon, not in FYE. Not on The Pirate Bay, not through Kazaa, not on Demonoid. Not anywhere. A few months later, after searching off and on, I eventually found it. Like Tessie, it seems to exist in only one place on all of the Internet. I purchased a copy from them, and was elated. I was a little weirded out that the place was an online music store in Korea or somewhere, but I was just happy to have my copy. Only later did it occur to me that the place almost certainly did not have the legal right to distribute the song. (I know this because subsequent research on the song has turned up a few posts talking about how it existed on a demo disk of which a few hundred copies were made. In 1998. The disk, although well-received, was a copyright quagmire.)

So I have two extremely rare songs in my collection. Not “hard to find in stores” rare, but critically endangered rare. The Tessie song is arguably extinct in the wild, although I find that a bit hard to believe. My instinct is that I have an obligation to help preserve these rare specimens. The problem, of course, is that I don’t have any legal right to distribute them, although I suspect that Tessie is in the public domain. But it drives me ballistic that I can’t do anything to “help.”

Telephones, Modern

My cell phone is sort an information nexus for me. All of my contacts and calendar items are in there, with two-way Google Sync. I get multiple email mailboxes on my phone. And, occasionally, I place or receive phone calls. I don’t have a landline telephone, either.

One thing I miss, though, is having a good phone on my desk. Something with a good speakerphone, and something with a receiver that’s comfortable to hold.

I’ve been thinking of setting up Asterisk, perhaps in a virtual machine, and getting a good VoIP handset. We have a bunch of Grandstreams at work, but the Cisco 7970 is about as sexy as a telephone can get. (It’s also, apparently, a real bear to get working with an open-source system.) Of course, most people with Asterisk probably do something normal, like running several phone lines, or even a T1 or two, into the box.

Here’s what I’m thinking, though. Skype works pretty well, although you need to pay a bit of premium for a dedicated incoming number. (Still, it’s quite reasonable compared to the phone company.) It’s only supported in a non-free Asterisk plugin, though. But what I’d really love is to be able to cram my iPhone into the middle of an Asterisk-based PBX. And it turns out it’s possible with chan_mobile, although I haven’t worked with it and their domain (not linked here) lapsed and was picked up by spammers.

CloudVox is also very cool, though I haven’t though of any good uses for it yet.

Straight Razors

I’m not sure what initially drew my interest, but the concept of learning to shave with a straight razor has been in the back of my mind for a while now.

It’s a bit scary, since they’re also known as cut-throat razors, since they’re something like a six-inch-long razor blade that’s kept extremely sharp for best results. Wikipedia notes that despite the name, you are “exceeding unlikely to cut anything vital” like your jugular. Somehow, that’s not entirely comforting. (In actuality, it seems that cutting yourself at all is fairly improbable with proper technique, and that, if you do, it’s a nick, not a huge hunk of flesh sliced off.)

Besides being nifty and old-fashioned and not as dangerous as I assumed, they have some other benefits. Many argue that they give a closer shave, and allow much greater precision. But the big advantage I see? They last forever. The blades on my Mach 3 last me a handful of shaves, and a 4-pack is about $20. A straight razor is much more money up front, but can be handed down for generations.

It does require more upkeep, though. Every six months or so, you’ll want to hone the blade to keep it sharp. More notably, though, it’s recommended that you strop the razor after every use, to keep the edge smooth.

The problem is that I don’t want to invest a few hundred dollars to decide I like it, but investing in something cheap will almost certainly mean it’s either inferior quality or needs to be honed.


A lot of the books people praise are classics that have fallen into the public domain.

I find it odd that no one — that I can find, at least — has ever set up a shop to print these classic books in classic style, on good, thick paper and perhaps in leather-bound hardcover.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, for example, is seemingly in the public domain. (Although they have “revised” the editions so that they can sell something copyrighted.) Why is it a trashy-looking paperback? Why not make it look like a classic? And, of course, set the pages in classic style, too, though perhaps with a slightly-refined font so that it’s a little easier on the eyes.

While you’d certainly incur some decent costs to do this, you could also look at it as taking free books, printing them nicely, and selling them for $40-60 apiece. I’m positive that I’m far from the only one who would think this was insanely cool and buy a bunch of them.

Food for Thought

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and it’s really an amazing book. I’d like to share one excerpt that fascinates me. While discussing subatomic particles (pp. 145-146):

Perhaps the most arresting of quantum improbabilities is the idea… that the subatomic particles in certain pairs, even when separated by the most considerable distances, can instantly ‘know’ what the other is doing… Remarkably, the phenomenon was proved in 1997 when physicists at the University of Geneva sent photons seven miles in opposite directions and demonstrated that interfering with one provoked an instantaneous response in the other.

That’s really pretty crazy. There’s a bit more about it here. For what it’s worth, speaking of quantum entanglement, which is somehow related*, Einstein himself called it “spooky action at a distance.” A Christian Science Monitor article under that name talks about the concept of “quantum communication” a bit more, and references the 1997 experiment, plus mentions the implication I’d inferred: the effect on the other particles seven miles away was instant, not just at the speed of light. Theoretically, this could have tremendous implications for long-range communications, where the speed of light is an impediment, especially as modern technologies minimize the acceptable signal delay in some circumstances to microseconds.

* Without Bill Bryson explaining it, I’m pretty much lost.

FiOS – World’s Worst Customer Service?

First, let me start off by saying that I didn’t intend to blog about this, as much as contact Verizon to complain. But I can’t even figure out a way to do so. When I try the “Email Us” form, there is (a) no option to say “Complain about horrible experience,” or even to complain about anything, and (b) if I select something tangentially relevant, it redirects me to a page asking me to chat with a robot. If I call, I get routed nonsensically. I went to post on Twitter, but 140 characters is grossly insufficient. So here I am, ranting on my blog.

My credit card recently expired. I received no notification, but I’ve never gotten any email from Verizon. But I knew the card was expired, so I went in to renew it. The user interface was terrible and doesn’t work properly in Firefox (?!), but I was able to make do despite overlapping text and such. I finally found what I was looking for, buried in a submenu of a submenu. (Shouldn’t there have been an alert box – “Your card on file is expired! Please update it now!”?) The first time I put my credit card number in, I pressed Submit, and was taken to some wholly irrelevant page. I scratched my head for a minute, and navigated back to see if my changes were saved. Nope. In fact, I was told I didn’t have any cards on file. I tried again, but was told that my card wasn’t accepted and that I should verify the information. After checking it three times, I was positive that what I entered was correct, so I decided to call Verizon.

A robot picked up the phone and asked if I was calling regarding [my cell phone number]. This was kind of bizarre. I pressed 2 for “No,” and it then asked what number I was calling about. I hung up, thinking maybe I had Verizon Wireless. But I double-checked: the phone number I had was the one the site directed me to. So I called back, and this time said that it was the number I was calling about. There was some elevator music, a few rings, and then, a pre-recorded message telling me that Fairpoint has taken over for Verizon, and I needed to call Fairpoint at some 800-number. Then it hung up on me.

My cell phone number has a New Hampshire area code, and Fairpoint did indeed buy up Verizon in New Hampshire. But I live in Massachusetts, and do, indeed, have Verizon FiOS. So I called again, and said “No” when asked if I was calling about my cell phone number. Then it asked me what number I was calling about, and I cursed. Do I just make up a number? But then it added, “If you don’t know, say, ‘I don’t know.'” I thus claimed — twice in a row — that I didn’t know my own phone number, and eventually, rang through to someone.

Of course, the person who picked up began by asking me my phone number, but at least I had a human who I could try to explain the situation to.

“603? Are you calling from New Hampshire?”
“No! The system kept hanging up on me and telling me to call Fairpoint. I’m in Massachusetts, but I kept my NH cell phone.”
“This is a cell phone? I need your landline number. I can’t look up a cell phone number.”
“I don’t have a landline! This is the number I used on the account.”
“Oh, huh… So you have a New Hampshire number but are calling about Massachusetts?”
“Yes.” (Well, I’m not calling about Massachusetts. I’m calling about my billing information, but whatever.)
“I see. What can I help you with today?”
“My credit card for AutoPay is expired. I tried to update it with a new one online, but kept receiving an error message.”
“Oh, this is about billing? I need to transfer you to [gibberish].”

[Several minutes go by on hold, before someone for whom English is clearly not their first language picks up]

“Thank you for calling Verizon Wireless. What is your phone number, starting with the area code?”
[I tell them]
“603? It says that is New Hampshire. You need to call Fairpoint.”
“No! I don’t live in New Hampshire. I live in Massachusetts. My cell phone just has a New Hampshire prefix.”
“This is a cell phone? I can’t do a cell phone. What is your account number?”
“Umm… Well, I’m on your website, and it only shows the last four.”
“Do you have a bill?”
“No, you guys have never sent me any mail. I’m looking more on the site now.”
“Okay…” (with a sigh)
“Oh, here it is! [I read off a 20-digit number]”
“I am not finding your account.”
“What is your email?”

Reading my email took — no joke — five minutes, because she misunderstood most of the letters I said, and then we started reading them back phonetically. (I used NATO Phonetics, she used some sort of custom ones that were hard to understand in her thick accent.) And she still got it wrong the first try.

“Okay, there we go. Your phone number is 787- …. Is that correct?”
“No! That’s not even close.” [I quickly Google “787 area code” and find out that it’s Puerto Rico]
“That is your old phone number?”
“No! It is completely wrong.”
“Okay. What is your phone number? I will update it.”
“Do you have the right account? Does it say Matt Wagner?”
“Okay… Huh.”
“Oh! I see now. You have FiOS?”
“The account is different.”
“Oh, okay…?”
“What can I help you with?”
“I need to update my credit card on file. My old one expired and the website gives an error when I try to do it.”
“It says your credit card is expired?”
“No, my credit card IS expired. I am trying to put in my new one.”
“Okay, what is your dog?”
“Pardon me?”
“What is [complete gibberish]?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand what you’re saying at all.”
“I am asking you a security question! What is your dog’s name?”
“Oh! [I answer]”
“Thank you. Please go to”
“What website?”
“W. W. W. Dot. [complete gibbersish]”
“I’m sorry. I can’t understand you.”
“W! W! W! Dot! V-E-R-I-Z-O-N! Dot! Com!”
“Oh! Verizon! That makes much more sense. But I’m already there and having trouble. That’s why I’m calling.”
“Please log in with the username [my username]”
“Yes, I’m already logged in.”
“Do you remember your password?”
[clenched teeth] “Yes. I’m logging in now.”
[I tap idly on the keyboard, take a few deep breaths, and reply] “Okay, I’m logged in!”
“Please click on Account Overview!”
“Okay.” (In actuality, there is no “Account Overview” on the interface I’m using, but since she’s not listening to me anyway, I pretend to follow along]
“Now, do you see Pay a Bill?”
“Okay. Click on that and put in the amount.”
“I did that earlier. It told me my credit card was invalid. That’s why I called.”
“Don’t put your credit card in the first box. Put in the amount. Only put in the amount of money you owe.”

I again stop trying to explain and just go along with the flow.

“Okay, I did that. Now what?”
“Do you see Select Payment?”
“Put in your credit card information.” [She reads off all the fields rapid-fire]

Even though I have done this twice and failed, I go along anyway.

“Okay, I just did that and pressed Pay Now. And it says, ‘Invalid credit card.'”
“Did you enter your credit card number?”
“Yes! That’s the whole problem! It keeps telling me it’s invalid! It’s not!”
“Okay, you need to talk to billing. Their number is [rattled off way too fast for me ot even comprehend]. Thank you. Good bye.”
“Wait! What was the number again?”
[rattled off even faster]
“I’m sorry, you’re going too fast. Can you read it one more time?”
[she now reads it one number at a time and waits for me to acknowledge each]
“Okay, got it! Thanks.”
“Please hold. I’m transferring you.”
“Oh…” (I wish you had told me that sooner. But, come to think of it, I’m glad you didn’t, because now I can skip over this horrible step next time I need to call.)

It rings a bit, and finally someone picks up. She speaks perfect English and, it turns out, is only a few miles away from me.

“What is your phone number?”
[I give the cell phone number on my account]
“603? Are you calling from New Hampshire?”
“No! I live in Massachusetts. I kept my cell phone when I moved.”
“This is a cell phone? I can only look accounts up by landline.”
“I don’t have a landline. This is the number I used on the account.”
“It’s not showing up in my system… Can I have your account number?”
“Okay, I still have it up from last time, I think… It’s masked out on the website, by the way. Oh, here it is!” [I read it off]
“Okay. Let me update it with your cell phone… It looks like she tried to change it earlier…”
“Okay, I’ve updated it. What can I help you with?”
“I’m trying to update the expiration date of my credit card. It rejects my card if I try online, and the previous two people haven’t been able to help.”
“Okay, let me pull up your billing information.”
“Huh… It’s not letting me edit it. It’s like nothing is working right here today.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean!”
“Let me transfer you to billing. They close in a few minutes, so I’m going to go fast.”
“Oh God. Okay.”

Fortunately, though, the fourth person I spoke to was able to help me, in maybe 60 seconds’ time. The third person was polite, but I’m not sure why Verizon thought to set her up without the ability to actually do anything customers need done. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If someone calls from an area code indicating that they live in an area you don’t serve, you might verify that they actually live there before hanging up on them. Numbers have been portable for a long time. You might also train your CSRs about this fact.
  • I’m not one of those people that gets hot and bothered that I talked to an Indian. However, when the person I’m speaking with can’t communicate in English, there’s a problem. Especially when they can’t even pronounce your company’s name.
  • It would be awesome if your site worked in Firefox.
  • It would be awesome if your system didn’t consider my credit card — which was already on file, just with an old expiration date — to be invalid.
  • It would be awesome if the person I talked to the first time could help me. I talked to four people to update one piece of basic billing information, and it took me 28 minutes.
  • If I need to give my account information, why is it masked out on the website?
  • It would be awesome if there were some other way to contact you about these things. Live Chat is with a bot. The email form forcibly diverts me to someone else. The phone system hangs up on me.

Google Maps

Even though I like to think that I’m smart and good at math and science, I can’t help but admit that I have a hard time truly grasping huge numbers. I used to find Boston an improbably large city, but now I kind of think of it as a small town. Even though part of me recognizes that it’s intuitively off by orders of magnitude, if you asked me how many buildings I think are in Boston, some part of me — the part that’s trying to get a mental picture and make a ballpark guess — would say there are about a thousand.

Google Maps, of course, reveals just how absurdly bad a guess that is. And even though I consider myself pretty intelligent, I’m utterly incapable of even beginning to fathom the true scale. (And yes, a good eye will spot that Boston is just a tiny bit of the very bottom, and that it’s mostly Somerville and Cambridge that you’re looking at.) And then you realize that this is just a tiny, tiny little bit of the Earth.

But then I think back to home, and am equally as amazed by just how much of the land is completely untouched.

And as long as I’m posting random babblings about Google Maps, here’s another one for you… Here’s the Merrimack dump. The big spiraly thing at the top is where we used to dump our trash, and the buildings are the transfer station we use now. But looking at the lower right, what on earth (literally) is this and why are those roads/clearings so loopy? The coloring implies some sort of massive drop-off, too.

But then other optical oddities abound. Just to the left of the dump, we find this. What is with the big loops? Irrigation ditch? And then, in the lower left quadrant, I can’t even tell what I’m seeing. It almost looks like a bunch of fallen trees. Bing Maps provides a much clearer picture shot form what I presume is an airplane, and I’d really like to link to it, but I can’t for the life of me find a way of directly linking to what I’m seeing.

Customer Service

I’ve been doing a little online shopping, and just saw this graphic for a shoe company’s customer service department:

Not to be crude, but there are ways tout your great customer service without leaving customers confused about whether you’re a phone sex line or not.

What a Difference

I pay for a pretty fast pipe here. Lately, videos have been stalling as I tried to play them, and I’ve been getting extremely annoyed.

I just tried, and got these atrocious results:

I was incensed, and decided I’d call and complain. But first, I decided to rule out wireless as the cause, since I knew they’d ask about that.

I’m pretty sure I’m paying for 25/15, but I won’t complain that wired actually surpasses that.

Think the landlord will mind if I run some Ethernet drops?