Monday, January 21, 2008

OLPC -- The Dog Ate My Laptop

I tried to get through to OLPC again today. I tried the 1-800-201-7144 number and got through. Interestingly: they jump you directly to the "problem" line part of the decision tree. Obviously they know that the only reason people phone them is to ask they they've been scammed. Dial and you immediately get their Muzak. ah.... Seventies-dining-porn music.
After 45 minutes on hold, I got through to someone thoroughly confused. She did confirm my name (good, after 45 min. I forgot my name). Where beforce I got a "FedEx tracking number" that wasn't a number for tracking FedEx shipments, this time I got a clarification-- they aren't giving out FedEx tracking numbers.
I asked when my laptop would be shipped: they didn't know.
I asked why there was a delay:
OLPC scammer: "It because we are having a hard time getting laptops to Canada."
Scammed OLPC victim: "So, what you're saying is that can only ship to the US?" (ironic, as these laptops are intended to benefit the world at large)
OLPC scammer: "It's because of the Customs. They are making a delay."
Scammed OLPC victim: "Customs would only cause a delay after the laptop was shipped. Are you saying you've shipped my laptop?"
OLPC scammer: "Please hold." (five minutes later) "Your laptop has not been shipped. We are sending another batch to you."
Scammed OLPC victim: "I didn't order a batch. I ordered one laptop."
OLPC scammer: "Please hold..." (five minutes later) "We are sending another batch to Canada."
This pointless dance went around and around for a while and both of realized we weren't going to get anything out of the deal. She ended the call. I fished out my credit card statement. After some consultation with the family, I am going to have that charge reversed; then cancel the laptop order.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Brother4070CDW - One Sweet Ride

To me: printers are milestones.

As a boy, we snuck into the University computer lab to work on our project and use their printers to generate reams of documents every day. The first thing I financed was a dot matrix printer from Radio Shack. Ten years later, my first major purchase with my wife was a Canon inkjet printer. I bought a new printer (regrettably another Canon—an S400) to output the book from my first book deal. Each step of the way, it seems like the dollar-to-feature ratio improved, but the quality of the experience dropped. My Radio Shack printer spit out hundreds of clear and salable pages—by the time I got to the S400, the pages were crisp and clear but for every page it output, it mangled another one and spit out three blanks. Radio Shack: go to the video arcade and come back to a manuscript. Canon: ride it and baby-sit it for three days for 400 pages. To me: “printer” had become a 4 letter word (I can prove it—at least once the printer smeared the word into a 4-letter tangle).

Fast forward to 2007. A couple months ago I was given the chance to try the Brother 4070CDW color laser printer. After years of inkjets and end-user support for temperamental HP laser printers, I was skeptical. Part of me was excited—part of me feared a laser-equipped beast with a penchant for paper.

It arrived. It Arrived. The courier (a guy who spends his days dealing with all sorts of boxes of all sizes) knocked on the door empty-handed. “Oh, good. You are here,” he said, relieved. He went back to the truck and began to unload something the size of a mini-fridge and the apparent weight of Mini-Cooper. The Brother 4070CDW. We lumbered it into the house, I signed for it and he was off. That night, the two of us manhandled it up to the office. It’s a physically imposing printer, but it’s not like it’s a Soviet contraption: it has a generous tray, a manual feed slot, duplexing capacity and four large toner cartridges. Add in the heavy-duty machinery and you net a big, heavy, battle-ready printer.

This was not your mother’s inkjet printer. The hardware set-up instructions were a little cryptic but still I followed them with faith—the cartridges were color-coded and numbered. It was a 20-minute paint-by-numbers experience. At the end, we found the power switch (not in the most obvious spot) and powered it up. It hummed and churned and committed itself to a self-diagnosis.

We tasked it to spit out its self-diagnostic reports: everything from part usage, toner life and paper trays to its IP addressing and receptive services. The amount of detail it provides of itself is impressive.

We plugged it directly into the Ethernet hub (good-bye to needing a print server of any variety). Between the set-up guide and the easy to navigate console options, we were able to set-up the IP address and subnet mask in a few minutes. It was clear, flexible and easy to use. We had a wealth of options available: from IP address, Ipv6, printing via WLAN to an option to print from SMTP—mail your print job to the printer (somehow). Set-up right, you could park it on your network, open a hole through your firewall and any one could deliver a print job via the Internet. Beyond that, the mundane options are open to us: parallel port and USB printing. For us, this network ready printing was a Godsend. Otherwise, we would have to get a uni-tasker computer; making our print jobs dependant on the status of one of our computers (“sorry I crashed your Photoshop—I have to print this through your machine”); or spending $80-150 for a print server unit.

The print jobs it did were superb: they were clear and crisp. For simple text runs, this printer spits out pages like a paper-powered machine gun. For color, it chews on it for a while longer (not crazy long, just maybe a few seconds longer than black text) then starts to fire clear and vibrant pages. We tested different paper qualities and thicknesses and the Brother 4070CDW stood up to the test. Coming from inkjet land, I am gun-shy of printing color-saturated pages—they so often emerge like used blotchy, paper towels. Not so with the Brother: as long as you used 20lb. paper or better, the colors held fast. That said, photo paper experiments did look better than regular bond—but both looked impressive. The printer handled duplexing like it was second nature—it took a 200 page duplexed e-book and output it in less than 20 minutes.

Where I was impressed was with the direct printing options. Though this will not accomplish every imaginable task—it will do quite a bit. I took my Canon XTi camera and plugged it directly into the printer via a USB cable. The Brother4070CDW recognized its connection to the camera, I scrolled through photos on my camera and found the image I wanted to print, set it to print and the Brother did the rest. I was impressed with the interoperability of the two devices. I was impressed with the quality of the output. What I didn’t like—and I lay blame at the feet of the Canon people—is that all of the pictures came out in landscape on a portrait page leaving the top and bottom thirds of the paper un-used. This included photos that I had reoriented on the camera prior to this experiment. Next, I plugged a USB flash drive directly into the printer. A moment later, the Brother’s LCD display showed me the first item on the drive—a directory. I had the option of scrolling down the list of files and directories, or descending into a directory and working from there. When I found the file I wanted, I hit okay. It merrily interpreted it and output it. It handled PDFs flawlessly. It took my JPEGs and filled the page with the best match of paper to image possible—it did a much better job of working with the file than it did with the Canon XTi output. What it couldn’t do: it could not process GIFs, Word documents, HTML files or text files. What it does, it does great; but it couldn’t work with a lot of common formats.

The Brother4070CDW stood up to what thought was a punishing regimen of large print jobs, high quality jobs and different paper formats. It handled its jobs better than the HP Laser printers I had become accustomed to. I felt I could have drilled deeper into the potential of this printer, but it frankly had features I would rarely tap into. Is that a weak point? No: it comes bristling with capability and capacity. As a home printer, it is much more expensive than an inkjet but I think the Total Cost of Ownership is much closer: factor in the endless babysitting; the perpetually empty inkjet cartridges and the anemic results you see from most inkjets. The price for the Brother4070CDW is worthwhile—even for the home user who has modest to heavy print demands. For business, it’s a no-brainer: if I were to set up an office, this would be a de facto purchase. I used to be someone who avoided work that involved a print job. The Brother4070CDW has turned me into a printer-user again. Ctrl-P.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Jan 30th-- the day "Silentbanker" wrecks Victoria

Symantec is reporting the threat of the "Silentbanker" Trojan. That's not the concern. My concern is that a local TV channel, A-Channel News, reported it as a sky-is-falling catastrophe. Symantec reports it as a low-level threat. According to the news report, we're all doomed; and in a life imitiating art example, we actually be doomed.
The reporter went to a "security expert" who said that the trojan fouled up midi playback. His suggestion: go and download a midi player, test a midi. Yup: free software from unqualified websites-- they're always the safest place to go.
So here's how this will play out:
Thursday at dinner: Chicken Little reports that Silentbanker will destroy us all.
Thursday night: Following the suggestion of a guy with an office in the back of computer store warehouse, Vancouver Island residents flock out to the Internet. They get the good midi players and test their systems.
Friday morning (10:00-10:30): Water cooler talk spreads this story through the government offices peppered around Victoria.
Friday afternoon: Hackers, get out of bed, ask their mothers/girlfriends to bring a Coke up to their room. They figure out that you should distribute Silentbanker disguised inside of a midi player. Hackers find code from 1995, combine it with some ActiveX controls and upload Midi players to download sites.
Friday night: Victoria residents look online for a midi-player to download and test for the precense of Silentbanker. The test passes (the hacker figured a workaround).
Saturday: Throngs of Victorians do online banking since the test passed.
Monday: Local credit unions notice that alot of their customers bought lottery tickets in the Ukraine and zeroed out their accounts. They try to make good and restore the balances of some of the accounts. Unfortunately for them, their wealthy customers are also their stupid customers-- they lose large balances. Big banks, experiencing the same problem, add a menu option to their toll-free support: "Press 7 if your live in Victoria"-- that sends you to a voice mailbox that no one at the bank listens to.
Tuesday: Scandal rocks the local credit unions.
Thursday: All of the credit unions have gone through emergency mergers. By the time this is done, all of our credit unions are rebranded as "Walmart Credit Store"
Friday: the big banks have liquidated their locations and laid off their staff. In their place, MoneyMarts.

Elsewhere in the world: this won't happen. Victoria is the Mecca for stupid people. It's why I live here.

OLPC -- Please call later... or never... your choice...

So, OLPC-- the XO laptop people have two phone numbers--
1-800-201-7144-- still a piss-off number that reports "All circuits are busy".
1-877-705-2786-- when you try to navigate through the phone tree you get recorded messages. When you try to do a follow-up on the laptop you've ordered, it comes back with a "all our operators are busy. Please try your call in a few minutes." then hangs up. So, you are no longer in a queue-- you're punting to the street until you can magically call in when their lone operator isn't on the line to her local suicide prevention line.

I wanted to know:
  • can they give me a real FedEx tracking number?
  • has my laptop already been delivered and re-donated? Supposedly, in Canada FedEx is just dropping them at the door and taking off. Are they knocking first? Couriers suck, so who knows
  • WTF?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

OLPC -- We have computers?

A few weeks ago, I emailed one-laptop-per-child:

When will my laptop arrive?
I tried to track my shipment via the Shipping Status function on the site. It said that I was using an invalid number. I ordered this on November 12th, I was promised that it would arrive before December 25th. When will it arrive?


Eventually, a reply arrived:
Please contact our Donor Services so a representative will be able to assist you with your inquiry at 1-800-201-7144. Please obtain your donation information in hand so the representative may.

Thank You

Donor Services

I replied:
I'm sorry-- do you have a relationship with the organization that accepted our money for this donation and G1G1 program? I have to ask because you do not seem to know what your organization is doing with this transaction. Asking me to call another number within an organization tells me that no one in your organization knows what is going on. Have you thought of using a computer to track orders?

Thank you,

So what's the deal? They want me to contact their phone number? They don't know what they're doing? They don't know what they're doing.
"Please obtain your donation information in hand so the representative may."... What? They're in such a panic, they can't even finish their automated piss-off messages.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

OLPC -- Here's your "tracking" number

Eventually, I got through to the One Laptop phone line. They give you a number: 1-800-201-7144-- that's a piss-off number that reports "All circuits are busy". I tried
1-877-705-2786: after 30 minutes on hold, I got through. They gave me a shipping number for my laptop. When it's shipped via FedEx, I will be able to track the order. Here are two great gotchyas:
  1. They give you a tracking number-- that doesn't mean it's been shipped. It means when its shipped it will carry this number and you can track it.
  2. They gave me a 10 digit tracking number. The problem: FedEx tracking numbers are 12-digits. So the tracking number is as useful as Confederate Currency.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

OLPC -- Scheduled to Arrive the Day After the Developing World Gets a Fair Shake

In our continuing saga to get an XO laptop, here is the latest non-news:
We are in receipt of your email. Due to the public's overwhelming
response to the Give One Get One program, there may be a delay in the
handling of your inquiry.

If you have not yet received your laptop, we are working hard to get
it to you. If you live within the United States, you should receive
your laptop no later than January 15, 2008. If you live in Canada, you
should receive your laptop in the January/February 2008 timeframe.

If you have received your XO laptop and need help getting started or
for technical questions, please visit To
learn more about T-Mobile USA's offer to provide one year of
complimentary access to T-Mobile HotSpot, please visit our website at

Please expect to hear back from us within 3-5 business days.

Thank you again for contacting One Laptop Per Child!

Here's the summary:
  • they cannot deliver to countries outside of the US. That's ironic. While much of the US is destitute, the goal was to get these computers to people outside of the developed world.
  • alot of laptops are arriving broken; or the boxes are arriving empty. Shouldn't more of these laptops be working?
  • while cannot give me an XO laptop, eBay can. And the eBay procured laptop costs less than the $400 we shelled out.