Friday, November 30, 2007

Naked DSL

High-speed internet access is a must these days. The low cost option is DSL, but for the cell-phone generation, this requires people who don't need a land-line to get one anyway. This obligatory phone line at our house is basically just a lightning rod for telemarketers. I can hear your cry: "Oh, if only there was only a way to get cheap DSL without forking out another 30 bucks a month for a regular phone line." ($30/month = $360/year = a good road trip somewhere interesting).

Friend, I feel your pain. Since I'm a natural born value-shopper (cheapskate?), I thought I'd look into "better value" internet. "Better value" meaning a Basic (768 Kbps) connection without a land-line for less than a Basic connection WITH a land-line (currently ~$45/month).

Happily, a lot of phone companies are starting to offer "Naked DSL", which is basically DSL without an activated land-line, or "dry-loop DSL". I checked with Verizon and they freely admitted that you can in fact order DSL without ordering regular phone service. But don't be fooled into getting more than you need. You could pay up to 2x as much for the "popular" 1.5 Mbps plan, instead of the basic 768 Kbps plan. Unless you're a media pirate (argh!), the Basic plan is fast enough for e-mail, google searches, and even full-screen youtube videos (I want my youtube!).

Since we're moving to an area serviced by AT&T, I checked to see if AT&T offers similar plans. Turns out they do, but they only market the "popular" plans, which includes the "Express DSL" which is 1.5 Mbps for $44/month. That's about what it costs for Basic connection WITH a land-line. What a crock.

It gets better: I recently found out that AT&T has been REQUIRED by the FCC to offer BASIC DSL without a land-line for $20/month (see HERE for the story). Of course they don't market this plan, since it's not as big of a moneymaker as the "popular" plans. According to an anonymous AT&T employee, if you're area is serviced by AT&T and you want BASIC DSL without a land-line, here's what you need to do:

•Call the AT&T Dry Loop department directly at 888-800-4095
•Ask to switch to "DSL direct"
•If they give you a hassle, say it's a "retention offer"

So that's what I intend to do. And if you wish you didn't have to pay $30/month for a phone line you don't use, you should too.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Phone Patch Test

There a good chance you're thinking one of three things right now:

1. Not another post about telephones!
2. Sweet! Another telephones post!
3. This guy posts about telephones?

(There's also a good chance you're either hitting the "BACK" button on the browser, or the "NEXT BLOG" button at the top of the page).

Either way, I finished my phone patch a while ago, but never got around to posting about it. A phone patch is little electronics gadget that routes audio from a phone line to the LINE IN of, say, a computer sound card. Then you can capture telephone audio digitally with your PC (or MAC, if you're into that sort of thing).

Short story is that it works! For a quick demo, and to hear my favorite telephone company recording, click HERE.

And, if you're still with me, here's the long story. I built this phone patch with parts from Radio Shack for under $20. Now that I know what I'm doing, I could probably make another one for about $10. Here's the schematic:
C1 is 1 uF capacitor rated for up to 250 V.

T1 is a 1:1 isolation transformer (primary coil is 80 ohms, secondary is 60 ohms). This is to protect your computer sound card from potentially damaging surges from the phone line.

MOV is a metal oxide varistor. If the voltage spikes on the line above 150 V, it shorts out protecting the rest of the circuit.

D1 and D2 are 1N4001 diodes. Above 0.7V and they are supposed to short out through the loop if anything dangerous gets past the MOV and the isolation transformer.

v(in) is the audio signal from the telephone company. I don't know what the value actually is. But the voltage out is line-level; enough to power a pair of standard headphones without an amp (~100 mV max?)

v(out) goes to the male phone jack that plugs into the sound card LINE IN input. If you want to use the MIC input, you'll need to add a 100kOhm resistor in the v(out) loop series.

This is optimized to run right into the PC sound card LINE IN; to pull audio OFF the phone line. But it can also be run in reverse; to put audio ON the phone line. You know, in case you want to add background music to an otherwise dull phone conversation.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Culture club...

I got into a discussion with some co-workers about culture (or lack of) in the bustling metropolis of Richland, WA.

One guy's idea of culture is drinking beer and going hunting with his buddies. He was also the first to admit that this doesn't exactly fit most people's definitions of culture. But it's a "cultural" activity that is pretty important to him, and one that is well within his reach, even in the western Washington desert.

Another co-worker represented the opposite end of the spectrum when he described how revolting it was to go to a live production of "the Nutcracker" that used -- are you ready for this? -- a pre-recorded soundtrack instead of a live symphony. (seriously! What kind of neanderthals!)

Anyway, my idea of culture are things that 1) make me think 2) open my eyes to something new 3) bring people together 4) represent the very best people have to offer.

For me, the first thing that comes to mind is good music. While there's a special place in my heart for pop music that brings people together, I usually retreat into more esoteric musical adventures that say things that I wish I could say (thoughtful lyrics are a MUST!) or amplify a mood. Ooo: amplify a mood! Like blasting Tick Tick Boom by the Hives after kicking some butt at an interview or getting pumped up for the bike ride home from work by listening to Eye of the Tiger (my evening ritual as I'm filling out my time report). And watching a home movie that shows everyone growing up to the song "100 years" by 5 for fighting has a way of making me appreciate the little things in life.

There's a lot more to culture for me, but now I want to hear from you. So, all right, audience participation time: What is culture to you? (this is the part where you click the "Comments" button at the end of the post).

Friday, November 09, 2007

Intestinal Fortitude

It's almost Veterans Day and I'm in the middle of Inside Delta Force by Eric Haney. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, written by a guy who has driven life into a corner and reduced it to its lowest terms. "If it's not hard, it's not worth it" seems to be his mantra. The book is full of real in-the-trenches-and-don't-ever-forget-you're-mortal action, not unbelievable Hollywood special effects. Amidst the action and intrigue, he's also got some great gems that inspire you to "go for it":

"It is important to realize that we have the ability to manufacture our own fate when we want to. We can summon up intestinal fortitude and proceed when things look bad, or we can find plenty of reasons to quit if we don't want to go forward."

(Eric Haney, Command Sergeant Major, USA (ret.) 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment--Delta)

Intestinal fortitude. That'd be somethin'. Carpe diem.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Worst Ideas Ever!

This list is bound to be long, and grows with each passing day. But the top of the list (today anyway) is dedicated to the yahoo who said to himself "Hey, I've got an idea. Let's put carpet in the kitchen and dining area. It'll be so easy to clean and will never smell bad!" Seriously, who wants to rent the rug-doctor every time you spill some milk ... or applesauce? There ought to be a building code against that. Carpet just happens to have the same absorption properties of a dishwashing sponge (bacteria farms) that should be replaced every couple of weeks. And have you ever tried to clean sticky rice off of carpet? Whoever thought of this definitely does not have kids.

But, I'm sure there are worse things though. Any ideas? Bad ideas only!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A 2nd Postdoc?

For those who don't know, my family and I are moving to Northwestern University in Evanston, IL (just north of Chicago). I'll be working as a postdoc in the Chemistry department. It's the chance of a lifetime, and we are really excited about it!

So, in honor of our move to Northwestern University, here are some Fun Facts:

1. You'd think a "Big Ten" school would be bigger, but in 2005-2006, there were only 7,826 undergrads, and almost as many grad students (5,640).

2. Founded by 9 Methodists from Chicago, including 3 ministers, religious symbolism from its birth persists. The latin phrase in the seal means "Whatsoever things are true" (Philippians 4:8), and the greek phrase means "The Word...full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

3. Every school I've ever been affiliated with had BLUE as a school color (including elementary school!). Northwestern's colors are refreshingly different: Purple and White.

4. Home to the best women's Lacrosse team, Northwestern's Lady Wildcats captured the NCAA championship title for the third time in a row this past year.

5. The football team, though improving in recent years, has a well-deserved reputation of futility.

6. Famous alumni include: Charlton Heston, David Schimmer, Zach Braff, and Steven Colbert.

7. Another less-than-famous alumnus: Graham Spanier!

Great things to come. Stay Tuned! (By "stay tuned" I of course mean that I might update my blog sometime in the next month...)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The meaning of life?

Wikipedia has like 2 million or so articles on the meaning of just about EVERYTHING, so I thought I'd check out the meaning of life, according to Wikipedia:


From Wikipedia,

the free encyclopedia

This article is about life in general. For life on Earth, see Organism. For other meanings of "life", see Life (disambiguation)."