Busy making things: github, links, photos, @mc.

Those annoying AT&T “free reminder” SMSes

Posted: August 28th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Mobile, Web Services | 5 Comments »

ATT SMSI’ve recieved an AT&T “free reminder” SMS twice now in two days. I know I’m not paying for it, but these messages amount to SMS spam to me. It may not be a big deal to most people, but for me most of the time I recieve an SMS it means a server is down and needs my attention. There’s a certain stress level associated with my incoming SMS sound, so it really irks me when I check the message and it’s spam from my carrier.

The first one I ignored, but I called up customer support as soon as the second one came in. I let them know that these messages, while I know that I’m not paying for them, amount to spam in my inbox and that I never received any such messages while I was a Cingular customer and that these messages made me very unhappy. I was as polite about it as I could be, because the person on the other end of the phone deals with a lot of angry customers during the day.

She asked me if there was a long code as the sender of the message, and after checking my phone I confirmed that yes indeed it was (in this case it was 1 111 301 000). After looking that up in her knowledge base she let me know that the easiest way to unsubscribe from these messages is to reply to the message with the word “stop” or “unsubscribe”. There were a few others, but these are the two that I remember.

My phone UI (S60 2nd edition) didn’t allow me to directly reply to this message, but I composed a new text message to “1 111 301 000″ with the word “stop” as the message body. We’ll see if this works. If it does I’ll be happy. If it doesn’t, I’ll be quite unhappy.


There is an Erlang community, it’s just smaller than you’re used to

Posted: August 26th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Erlang, Open Source | 78 Comments »

I thought I’d pick a nit with something that Ted Leung mentioned in his response to Sam Ruby’s response to Russ’ original post about Java needing an overhaul.

Particularly this comment about the Erlang community:

This is actually 2 problems. There’s the issue with the libraries, and there’s the issue with the community that did/didn’t produce the libraries. We don’t just need a technology, we need a community. Hmm, Erlang lab, anyone?

I’d like to assert that there is a vibrant Erlang community, it’s just smaller than you’re used to, and might be a little harder to find than most.

I’ve been lurking, participating, and sharing what I’ve learned in #erlang on irc.freenode.net since the Erlang movie blew my mind. I started tinkering with Erlang and the PDF for Programming Erlang came out a few days later. I still consider myself an Erlang noob. I still ask questions with obvious answers, spend hours trying to do something that should have taken 5 minutes, and sometimes don’t do things in the most Erlangish manner.

But the Erlang community has been great to me. Whenever I ask a question in #erlang, I almost always get the answer I was looking for, whether it’s a pointer to a specific part of the Erlang docs, a snippet of code, an opinion on the best way to do something, or a link to a blog post that has the answer. I’ve been around long enough that I can offer the same to people who are just picking up Programming Erlang and are running in to the same things I was a month or two back.

If you don’t think there’s an Erlang community, please come by #erlang and spend some time. They’ve been one of the most helpful communities I’ve ever been a part of. Activity is currently skewed more towards the European timezones, but as the community grows and more people across the world pick up Erlang that’s changing.

There’s also a pretty huge community outside of IRC. I’ve been subscribed to erlang-questions, the most active Erlang mailing list for a month or two too. The solution to one of my problems with bit syntax was asked and answered before I even knew that’s what I wanted. I’ve also learned a lot of things about Erlang that I wouldn’t have otherwise from the mailing list.

The community doesn’t stop there. Head over to trapexit.org and check out the Wiki and the forums. When you’re done there, check out the packages available at CEAN (the smaller Erlang counterpart of CPAN). There are lots of libraries included here if that’s what you’re looking for. Anything in CEAN can be installed from within the Erlang shell.

If you’re looking for libraries, don’t forget to check out Erlang’s module documentation. It’s far from Python’s batteries included, but there’s more there than it gets credit for. Aside from a distributed database there are TCP and UDP socket libraries, an http client and server, an XML library and support for SNMP and SSH. You’ll find many more protocol implementations at CEAN while the building blocks reside in Erlang’s standard library. Other places to look for sample code or libraries is Jungerl, a loosely knit collection of useful (but sometimes aging) libraries and applications, or Google Code.

While many third party Erlang libraries feel like they’re at the 0.1 stage (and many are simply because their authors are new to Erlang), don’t forget about the polished apps and libraries. I’m specifically thinking of ejabberd, RabbitMQ, YAWS, and Wings3D to name a few. Also worth a specific mention is ErlyWeb and the several libraries that it is built on top of.

So yes: the Erlang community is quite small. Think Python 10-12 years ago or Ruby before the Rails. But don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, because while tiny, it’s vibrant and extremely helpful.


On the internet, everyone can hear you scream

Posted: August 21st, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Web Services, Weblogs | 12 Comments »

When I first read this story on techcrunch about Grand Central snubbing customers and changing their numbers with very little notice, it seemed like the kind of thing that was affecting thousands of users. Perhaps it was a problem on the same scale as the recent Skype outage. That’s a big deal right?

Wrong.

The problem affected exactly 434 users.

As explained by founder Craig Walker in the comments of the techcrunch post, the problem occurred when one of their partners stopped providing service in a particular part of the country. They were able to port the majority of customers to a new provider but were unable to do so for 434 people.

Unfortunately two of those 434 people had a blog. Then it got picked up by Techcrunch and all of a sudden it’s not a problem that affected 434 people, it’s a problem that affected the entire internet.

It’s unfortunate (for Grand Central and Google) that some of those 434 people were in Northern Virginia. The blog per capita there is off the charts. If those 434 people had been in rural Iowa, the internet would have never known.

That brings me to the other takeaway from this incident: When designing a product or service (especially for alpha geeks) you have one and only one chance to get it right. You’re never more than one power outage, one service outage, one information breach, bad decision, misstep, misquote, or mess up away from loosing your customers or potential customers forever.

Are people going to remember that this issue affected 434 people a few months down the road? Nope. The conversation will go something like this: “Grand Central? I dunno about them. I remember hearing that they changed phone numbers on a ton of people after promising them ‘one number for life.’”


The state of the US 3G market

Posted: August 20th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Mobile | 3 Comments »

Last week there was an interesting discussion about 3G penetration in the US on the mobiledesign yahoo group. I put a bit of thought in to my response and defense that the 3G market here is further along than we’re given credit for. I thought I’d cross-post it here because I think it’s interesting.

I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but my gut tells me that 3G has more penetration in the US than this, but not in the smartphone market.

In the US the featurephone rules, and I wouldn’t expect any different in terms of 3G sales and availability. Right now AT&T has about 8 different models (some with color/configuration variations) that are 3G capable. I’m guessing that’s a mix of UMTS and HSDPA but I haven’t checked too closely.

In-store they seem to be pushing the RAZR (4 colors with 3G), Sync (4 colors with 3G), and other featurephones such as the Samsung A717, A727, and the LG Trax. Also in the lineup are a few smartphones: the N75, HTC 8528, and Samsung Blackjack. All of these devices support 3G data.

The bottom of the line is still dominated by EDGE devices, but there are several 3G options at the free to $100 price range on contract. All of the in-store RAZRs are now 3G, and I have a feeling that they’re still selling quite briskly.

I’m personally holding out for the US N95 and my wife just picked up an N75 at the store with a contract renewal, but from what I’ve observed most US customers are concerned with which color RAZR they want or what their favorite phone in the free to $100 range on contract is.

I haven’t spent a significant amount of time in Verizon or Sprint stores lately, but I believe that you would find a similar selection of EVDO-capable devices in those stores. Their branding gets in the way a bit, but for Sprint I believe that you are looking for “PowerVision” and for Verizon you’re looking for “BroadbandAccess.” Again, I’m guessing that you’ll see a handful of featurephones and a few smartphones.

As Gautam mentioned, T-Mobile are still rolling out their 3G network but the top 3 carriers all have 3G networks in many (most?) areas and at least in AT&T’s case a solid selection of devices that take advantage of them.

–Matt


The all-S60 family

Posted: August 13th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Mobile | 8 Comments »

Newest member of the phone family

Today we became a completely S60 family.

I’ve been an S60 (previously “Series 60″) guy ever since I grabbed myself a 3650 on T-Mobile a few years back. Actually, S60 had me the first time I heard Russ talk about his 7650

After that 3650, I picked up a taco for $60 at GameStop and I’m currently using a 6682, though it’s getting a bit long in the tooth. We had set aside money for me to pick up an N95 a month or two back, but we’ve temporarily funneled that money in to the “we’re buying a house” fund. I think I’ll end up on the winning end of that, though, as now I’m saving for a US-HSDPA N95.

This isn’t a story about me and my somewhat unhealthy obsession with mobile technology. This is a story about how today we became an S60 family.

A few months back my wife’s tried an true Motorola v551 went for a brief swim in her cup of water. After a few days of trying to dry it out, we declared the phone dead and went on a hunt for a replacement. Of course we were some 18 months in to our Cingular contract which meant that even the cheapest of phones were running upwards of $100-200. After a couple of missteps, we found a refurbished Nokia 6030 gophone online. A few days later we popped her SIM in the 6030 and she was on her way.

This is where we get to the point about S60 being a bit of a hard sell for normal people. My wife appreciates a phone that can, not surprisingly, make a call. She also appreciates phones that look and behave like phones. Needless to say neither the circular keypad of my 3650 or the “you do what?” talking configuration of the N-Gage were very appealing to her. She did borrow my 6682 when I was playing with the N95 and seemed to get along with it pretty well. Over the weekend she realized that we were now 20+ months in to our contract and it was time to look closely for a replacement for her really-low-end 6030.

After looking on line for a bit, her decision came down to either a Nokia N75 or a Samsung Sync. The Sync seemed to have darned good specs but the N75 was a S60 flip phone with a solid camera, a combination that’s been too long in the making. Both phones were free after rebate on a new contract at letstalk.com. Armed with that knowledge we hopped in to the car to check out the phones in person at our local AT&T dealer.

We were expecting to take a look at the Sync but were surprised to see the N75 on the shelf too. The N75 beat the pants off the Sync when we looked at them side by side. We scooted home expecting to order a pair online.

This is the part where I get really annoyed at AT&T in particular and wireless carriers in general about how poorly they treat customers that hurl a hundred or more dollars at them every month. The same N75 that was free after rebate on a new contract was $199 on a contract extension through letstalk.com. My wife and I grumbled for a bit while I recalled the number of $300-400 Sprint phones I had purchased over the years. Then we decided to double check the in-store contract extension price on the N75 that she had already fallen in love with.

It turns out that the N75 was $150 after rebates at the AT&T store. That was just cheap enough that I was able to talk her in to it as a birthday present. We made another round trip to the AT&T store, this time coming back with an N75.

I have to say that it’s a sleek little phone. The size is not-too-big-not-too-small, the screen is huge, and there’s a decent sized external screen that acts as an itty bitty S60 UI via the external softkeys. I was pretty blown away after we figured out that you can use the external screen as a viewfinder for the camera. It’s another evolution of the phone being a particular type of device depending on how you use it. When you plug headphones in and use the music player softkeys, it’s a music player. When you open it up, it’s a phone. When you hit the camera button and use the external screen as a viewfinder, it’s a camera. I’m really glad that Nokia have figured this out. Some of the first attempts (such as the 3250) were a good concept implemented poorly. These days Nokia has pegged it.

One thing that I’m constantly reminded of is that S60 and Symbian fall down completely during the configuration and setup process. Finding which sub-sub-menu a particular option is on is a complete nightmare. I can’t remember how many times we said something along the lines of “I know I saw that option somewhere” or “I was just there!” Ease of seatup and configurability is definitely something that Symbian/S60 can improve on.

After getting the basics set up, we spent the afternoon entering contacts and playing with the phone. It seems quite capable with excellent fit and finish.

I’m quite happy to finally be able to buy an S60 flip-phone for my wife, and I hope that she’s not too embarrassed at how excited I am to be an all-S60 family.


Erlang bit syntax and network programming

Posted: August 10th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Open Source, Projects | 74 Comments »

I’ve been playing with Erlang over nights and weekends off and on for a few months now. I’m loving it for several reasons. First off, it’s completely different than any other programming language I’ve worked with. It makes me think rather than take things for granted. I’m intrigued by concurrency abilities and its immutable no-shared-state mentality. I do go through periods of amazing productivity followed by hours if not days of figuring out a simple task. Luckily the folks in #erlang on irc.freenode.net have been extremely patient with myself and the hundreds of other newcomers and have been extremely helpful. I’m also finding that those long pain periods are happening less frequently the longer I stick with it.

One of the things that truly blew me away about Erlang (after the original Erlang Now! moment) is its bit syntax. The bit syntax as documented at erlang.org and covered in Programming Erlang is extremely powerful. Some of the examples in Joe’s book such as parsing an MP3 file or an IPv4 datagram hint at the power and conciseness of binary matching and Erlang’s bit syntax. I wanted to highlight a few more that have impressed me while I was working on some network socket programming in Erlang.

There are several mind-boggling examples in Applications, Implementation and Performance Evaluation of Bit Stream Programming in Erlang (PDF) by Per Gustafsson and Konstantinos Sagonas. Here are two functions for uuencoding and uudecoding a binary:

uuencode(BitStr) ->
<< (X+32):8 || <<X:6>> <= BitStr >>.
uudecode(Text) ->
<< (X-32):6 || <<X:8>> <= Text >>.

UUencoding and UUdecoding isn’t particularly hard, but I’ve never seen an implementation so concise. I’ve also found that Erlang’s bit syntax makes socket programming extremely easy. The gen_tcp library makes connection to TCP sockets easy, and Erlang’s bit syntax makes creating requests and processing responses dead simple too.

Here’s an example from qrbgerl, a quick project of mine that receives random numbers from the Quantum Random Bit Generator service. The only documentation I needed to use the protocol was the Python client and the C++ client. Having access to an existing Python client helped me bridge the “how might I do this in Python?” and “how might I do this in Erlang?” gaps, but I ended up referring to the canonical C++ implementation quite a bit too.

I start out by opening a socket and sending a request. Here’s the binary representation of the request I’m sending:

list_to_binary([<<0:8,ContentLength:16,UsernameLength:8>>, Username, 
<<PasswordLength:8>>, Password, <<?REQUEST_SIZE:32>>]),

This creates a binary packet that complies exactly with what the QRBG service expects. The first thing that it expects is a 0 represented in 8 bits. Then it wants the length of the username plus the length of the password plus 6 (ContentLength above) represented in 16 bits. Then we have the username represented as 8 bit characters/integers, followed by the length of the password represented in 8 bits, followed by the password (again as 8 bit characters/integers). Finally we represent the size of the request in 32 bits. In this case the macro ?REQUEST_SIZE is 4096.

While that’s a little tricky, once we’ve sent the request, we can use Erlang’s pattern matching and bit syntax to process the response:

<<Response:8, Reason:8, Length:32, Data:Length/binary, 
_Rest/binary>> = Bin,

We’re matching several things here. The response code is the first 8 bits of the response. In a successful response we’ll get a 0. The next 8 bits represent the reason code, again 0 in this case. The next 32 bits will represent the length of the data we’re being sent back. It should be 4096 bytes of data, but we can’t be sure. Next we’re using the length of the data that we just determined to match that length of data as a binary. Finally we match anything else after the data and discard it. This is crucial because binaries are often padded at the beginning or end of the stream. In this case there’s some padding at the end that we need to match but can safely discard.

Now that we have 4096 bytes of random bits, let’s do something with them! I’ve mirrored the C++ and Python APIs as well as I could, but because of Erlang’s no shared state it’s going to look a little different. Let’s match a 32 bit integer from the random data that we’ve obtained:

<<Int:32/integer-signed, Rest/binary>> = Bin,

We’re matching the first 32 bits of our binary stream to a signed integer. We’re also matching the rest of the data in binary form so that we can reuse it later. Here’s that data extraction in action:

5> {Int, RestData} = qrbg:extract_int(Data).
{-427507221,
 <<0,254,163,8,239,180,51,164,169,160,170,248,94,132,220,79,234,4,117,
   248,174,59,167,49,165,170,154,...>>}
6> Int.
-427507221

I’ve been quite happy with my experimentation with Erlang, but I’m definitely still learning some basic syntax and have only begun to play with concurrency. If the above examples confuse you, it might help to view them in context or take a look at the project on google code. I have also released an ISBN-10 and ISBN-13 validation and conversion library for Erlang which was a project I used to teach myself some Erlang basics. I definitely have some polishing to do with the QRBG client, but isbn.erl has full documentation and some 44 tests.


Google Analytics for project hosting

Posted: August 10th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Web Services | 5 Comments »

Google analytics for project hosting

This must be a relatively new feature because I remember thinking to myself “if only Google project hosting supported Google Analytics.” I kept meaning to send someone an email about it, mostly because I was curious how many people had been taking a look at my two little Erlang projects. I’m guessing that the answer is “not many,” but still.

Thanks, Google, for knocking out a feature before I could even ask for it. As a happy Google project hosting user, I’d highly suggest using them for open source project hosting big and small. The administration UI is minimal but intuitive, it includes a subversion repository, issue tracker, download manager, and it’s easy to link out for other resources that your project might have.