Cellular And IP Telephony Update

I’m now a Sprint PCS customer for the next 12 months. Despite not having quite the plan I wanted, and despite a very limited selection of phones (which do not support bluetooth), they do have a decent nation-wide plan, as well as adequate local service in northern Michigan. Almost as important, it saved a friend a $150 contract termination fee by taking over her contract.

For my purposes, data access is as important as the cell coverage. Sprint PCS has what they call “Vision”. Vision encompasses many things such as web surfing on your phone, picture exchange, etc. The short version is simply that for $15/mo I get internet access at ISDN speeds, anywhere Sprint has vision coverage (most everywhere). This is quite cool.

Today I purchased a $23 cable at Radio Shack. I plugged the cable into the phone and the USB port on my powerbook. Right now, Jen is driving 85mph down US-131 on our way to a Third Day concert in Ypsilanti. At the same time, my cell phone is charging (via my laptops USB port) and I’m typing this blog entry on my Powerbook, connected to the internet through my Sanyo 8100 cell phone. Slick.

Oh, and one more question just got answered. I can also receive calls from telemarketers on the cell phone while connected to the Intenet.

On a related note, my Packet 8 IP phone has a useful “forwarding” feature. Instead of doing a “normal” forward like your traditional (POTS) line, it forwards the call to a number and rings in on the IP phone at the same time. Whichever phone picks up the call first gets it. Now, should you call my home phone, after I fail to answer in two rings, it rings my cell phone. Very slick. πŸ™‚

I am fairly pleased with Packet 8 but their call quality leaves a bit to be desired. As soon as VoicePulse provides service in my area, I’ll be jumping ship. Their service costs $5 more for unlimited national calling but offers a many more useful features in addition to better call quality. If I lived in an area where I could get my number transferred to VoicePulse, I’d do it poste haste.

NicTool announcement

NicTool is a project I’ve been slightly involved with for a few years. I happened upon it while searching for a DNS management application while working for HostPro in Bellevue, back in 2001. We liked it more than the commercial DNS management suites and purchased a license for it, essentially funding development of some features we needed. After that, the founders went their seperate ways and development ceased.

I approached them earlier this year, petitioning them to allow me to Open Source the code and give away NicTool under GPL terms. They agreed so I built the new NicTool web site, made some minor enhancements to the code, and have spent a fair bit of time writing documentation for it. The initial effort is complete. The code is available, documentation exists, and NicTool now has a future.

Cell Phone Conundrum

I need a cell phone and service, and getting the right deal has proven suprisingly difficult. Maybe you can help?

My reprieve from being married to a cell phone is nearing it’s end and I have a choice to make. Because of my personality, I have already done some research to determine what’s available that will suite my needs the best. I have found exactly what I want, I just can’t get it. My ideal service plan is as follows:

AT&T Shared GSM National, two lines with 900 shared anytime minutes (from anywhere, to anywhere), two bluetooth equipped phones (Nokia 6820, Motorola T616), unlimited nights and weekends, nights begin at 7pm, unlimited mobile to mobile, $0 setup, and $80 per month.

For my needs, this is absolutely perfect. We already have unlimited free long distance with our IP phone so it’s highly unlikely that we’d ever exceed the 900 minute plan and AT&T has fantastic coverage all over the country. The only problem with this plan is that I can’t buy it. AT&T doesn’t offer “local” coverage in Northern Michigan and willl not sell a service plan for use here.

I have exactly the same problem with T-mobile. They too offer a very similar package but once again, do not offer service here. I’ve checked with the regional cell phone providers in the area (Cellular One, Alltel) and neither offer a calling plan that I want to be limited by for a year. Cingular doesn’t offer service here, so the only option I see is Sprint.

I dislike Sprint for several reasons. The coverage up here is very spotty, I don’t like the phones they offer, their data service is expensive, and I’d have to pay a fair amount more to activate service and buy the phone. With AT&T and T-Mobile, I can get a cheap data plan, free phone & activation, and a good service plan.

Ideas for a solution anyone? Ideally I could get an AT&T plan but as far as I know, I cannot do so without crossing ethical boundaries.

Compact Flash – Finally!

My single biggest annoyance with my Nikon D70 camera has been swapping flash cards. I shoot in JPEG Fine so I can fit about 75 photos on a 256MB flash card. I have two of these and am quite adept at swapping them as soon as I’ve filled up the first. Having two 256MB flash cards just isn’t enough. When I shoot panoramas, I burn through 10-20 shots each. Shooting just a few of those will leave me in want of space.

On our Alaska trip I toted along my PowerBook to offload the photos as I filled the flash cards. I also took it to have a full darkroom at my disposal but there are occasions like our Isle Royale trip where it’s impractical to take the PowerBook, or even an iPod with Griffin’s media reader.

Until recently, the options for solving this problem have been: a) pay through the nose for a big (1GB +) flash card, buy an iPod mini or Nomad 4GB mp3 player for $250 and rip the 4GB flash card out of it, or just wait for the prices to become reasonable. Now that fast 1GB cards can be had for under $100, there’s no reason not to upgrade. Pick a fast card from Rob Gilbraith’s site and then use PriceGrabber to find it cheap.

I picked up a SanDisk Ultra II 1.0GB for $89 shipped to my door. That’s a far better deal than buying more 256MB flash cards locally for $60 each.

I’m stepping out of Point and Shoot

I’m selling my beloved Nikon Coolpix 995, so if you know of someone that’s interested in a good deal on a great little camera, have them take a look here. This is the camera that I’ve been carrying around for the last two years and enjoy so much. Why would I sell such a great camera?

As you may know, I forsook film long ago and will not ever again touch it. Not because it’s not good, because results can be achieved with film that will likely take at least 5 more years to accomplish with digital cameras. However, I’m a computer guy, so I want my photos to all end up on the computer, and I’m more than satisified with the performance of digital versus 35mm film.

In the digital camera world, there’s two classes of camera: P/S (point and shoot) and SLR (single lens reflex). Point and shoot digicams are ones that do nearly everything for you. You point them at something, push the shutter button and wait while it captures a good picture. SLR are the “pro” cameras. They’re big, heavy, require seperate lenses, and are terribly expensive (thousands of $). You do most of the work, push the button and it instantly captures what you are looking at.

The lower end of the digicam P/S market (~ $200) are selling like hotcakes and you seem then everywhere. They’re cheap, the photo quality is good for the price, but if you ever want to do anything with the photos, like say, print them, you will almost certainly be disappointed in the results. It’s generally accepted that quality is closely related to price.

The midrange of the market is the “sweet spot”. For $300-500 you can get a fantastic P/S camera that takes great pictures, even in the hands of a novice. The 8×10 prints are every bit as good as a 35mm enlargement. That’s the class my Coolpix 995 lives in, a great camera that makes it easy for photography amatuers like myself to take great shots you can print and share.

The high end of the P/S market pushes from $700-1000 and includes some excellent cameras that take fantastic photos. For the last couple years, I’ve patiently watched these cameras rapidly evolve, anticipating an upgrade when a camera significantly better than mine arrived. This would have been the next logical step in my photography growth.

However, something outside the Point and Shoot world finally happened that changed the rules. In the DSLR (digital SLR) world, the price point finally crossed the high end of the P/S market. Now, instead of spending close to a $1,000 on a high end P/S, I can buy a Canon EOS-300D or Nikon D70 for that same money. These new SLR cameras have nearly all the functionality (and more in cases) of a $3,000 DSLR camera a year or two ago.

What this means is that instead of packing along two pounds and a tiny bag of camera gear on my trips, I’ll be toting along a substantially bigger bag that weights more. I used to shake my head at pro photographers packing 10-15 pounds of photo gear into the outback. To get a photo you can blow up to hang on the wall, that’s the price you had to pay. Fortunately, the newer DSLR cameras are quite a bit lighter and so are the lenses so it won’t be quite so bad.

So, can you expect to see better quality photos on my web site soon? Not because of the camera upgrade. πŸ˜‰ The 995 is more than capable of capturing excellent photos for that purpose. The studying that I’ll be doing, the books I’m reading, and the time I spend practicing my photography skills will make that difference and my skills will continue to improve.

The difference moving up to the D70 will make is in what I can do with the photos. I have several “Wow, I show those?” photos in my library that are of sufficient quality that I’d like to blow them up and put them on my wall. However, the quality they were captured at is insufficient for this purpose. By stepping up to the D70, the capabilities are enhanced significantly beyond even the most expensive of the P/S cameras.

Real Work

While building mail servers and computer consulting pays well, it’s not very physically demanding. This allows certain muscle groups to atrophy. This is never more evident than when a bout of charity strikes. Some friends are opening up a store and phase one is getting the building set up.

I stopped by and, signed myself up for some rather serious manual labor. “Why sure, I love crow bars! I’ll help tear up your floor”. In a flash of red-hot wisdom I also called my cousin Solomon and invited him to help out as well. I didn’t tell him what we were doing, and bless his heart, he just came. We spent all morning and part of the afternoon tearing up plywood and carpet.

The plywood was very thin (3/8″) and extremely well nailed. Excessively so. That made getting the plywood off the floor in sheets very difficult as the nails ended up pulling through the plywood instead of coming out of the floor. Once we had the carpet & plywood layers peeled up we spent several hours with crow bars pulling nails.

All that is little more than a good days work. However, combine that with the aforementioned atrophy of working muscles and that I’ve had a sore throat for the last two days (I think I’m fighting off a virus) and I’ve got some really sore muscles. I should sleep well tonight. πŸ™‚

MT is the way to blog

In case you weren’t away, a blog is a Web Log. All the good acronyms were already taken so the term “blog” is what was left. I’ve been maintaining my web log for quite a few years and in the last year or so, it’s become a very popular thing to do.

A few of my buddies from INLD now have blogs. Jason has one, Deven has one, and even not so geeky people like my buddy Mike Barker has one. Who is next, my dad(s)?

Taxes.

The due date for tax returns for a Michigan S Corporation is March 15. Thus the pressure has been on to get the corporate taxes completed. There’s also the matter of getting them to the shareholders as early as possible for use on their personal tax returns.

In the past I’ve contracted with an accounting firm to do the returns. In retrospect, this has always been a good idea. It only costs a couple hundred bucks and it’s a legitimate business expense. However, this year the business operations were fairly simple, some tax laws have become more favorable, and I just felt confident that it wouldn’t be that bad. I decided to do the corporate taxes myself.

The 2003 “S Corporation Income Tax Package” arrived back in December and consists of 55 pages of instructions (not including all the forms). Having read these before, I immediately turned to the “Paperwork Reduction Act Notice” page to see the “estimated average times” to complete the tax forms. These are, if you haven’t ever seen them, a bit humorous themselves. An example just for the basic form 1120S consists of the following time estimates:

Recordkeeping: 65 hr, 45 min
Learning about the law/form: 25 hr, 11 min
Preparing the form: 47 hr, 44 min
Copying, assembling, and sending to IRS: 5 hr, 54min

That’s just for the 1120S, it doesn’t include the accessory forms like the Sch K-1(s), Sch D, etc. Record keeping is something that needs to be done for business purposes and I’d say that 65 hours is a reasonable average. I scoffed at the other time estimates. Twenty five hours to learn about the form? Over 47 hours to prepare the form? Another 5 hours to assemble it and send it to the IRS? If it’s that bad, it’s well worth paying a CPA to do it. But then how will I know if I really am an above average idiot?

I started the taxes one boring day in January. I read the first half of the instructions, fillng out the forms as I went. In quite a few instances, I had to pay a visit to the IRS web site to download publications. Ah yes, the paperwork reduction act. I feel for people without high speed internet. After spending the better part of the day, I had enough and dropped the forms into my inbox. Taxes are like visiting inlaws, they are best done in small doses.

This afternoon I (finally) aroused the courage to spent another 6 hours making Uncle Sam happy with me. I completed the corporate taxes and in total, I have about 16 hours spent in the “learning, preparing, and sending” stages of tax preparation. That compares quite favorably with the “average” of over 78 hours. I can sleep better now.

I imagine some of the reason for the difference is my accounting system which makes it easy to arrange the books so that I can spit out a few reports that have all the information I need to fill out my tax forms. Folks with filing cabinets full of ledgers must be looney or suicidal after 77 hours. I can’t imagine wasting two full work weeks on taxes.