Thursday, August 31, 2006

Using Vonage Overseas

I recently moved out of the United States and I needed to take care of two things in regards to my phone situation. I needed a way to retain my US phone number that I have been using for the past 10 years, and I needed a way for friends and relatives to call me without paying an arm and a leg. The best solution that I found was to use Vonage's Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service.

Vonage is an internet-based telephone service that allows you to get low cost phone service over an existing broadband connection. Basically, you connect a Vonage adapter to your existing router and then you plug a regular phone into their box. The adapter connects over the internet to one of their phone switches, which relays the audio to and from your phone.

Getting a traditional Vonage set up in a foreign country is a bit of a pain. If you follow the terms and conditions of their service, using their service is not allowed. I really don't think it's because they have a problem with people using their service in a foreign country. I think it is primarily because they don't want to have to deal with issues related to this set up from a customer service point of view.

I already had Vonage service in the US, so I figured it would be pretty easy to set up overseas. I contacted Vonage customer support and inquired about the voltage requirements of their adapter. My Vonage box has a 110 watt adapter, and my host country uses 220. Vonage does not have a 220 watt version of their device, so the customer support person suggested that I get a step down transformer. You can get these at Frys or Radio Shack for around $40. I got one, but it was much larger than I expected.

I was skeptical about getting this set up to work. I heard too many stories about fellow ex-patriates plugging in their 110 watt equipment and frying it beyond repair (even when using a step-down transformer).

Here's how to set it up:
  • Make sure your router is up and running and that you can connect to the internet from a connected computer.
  • Make sure you have a DHCP server running somewhere on the network. This is usually enabled by default on the router. This will allow your Vonage adapter to pick up an IP address and connect to the Vonage service.
  • Connect your step-down transformer to the wall, using the appropriate plug adapter (e.g. US to UK adapter). Make sure the main power is turned off.
  • Plug the Vonage device's AC adapter into the transformer.
  • Connect the Vonage adapter to your main router with a network cable. If the Vonage adapter is also a router, you can connect the "WAN" or "Internet" connection on the Vonage adpater to any regular port on your main router. You can also connect a regular port on your router to a regular port on the Vonage device if you have a crossover cable.
  • Plug your phone into the Vonage adapter's "Phone 1" port. In my case, I bought a UK phone, so I had to also use a UK to US phone adapter.
That's it! It's as easy as 1-2-3!

This set up is not a whole lot more complicated than a traditional Vonage set up. The only additional components are the US->UK plug adapter, the step-down transformer, and the UK->US phone adapter. After setting it up, however, I realized that this was much more complicated than it needed to be.

After setting up this monstrocity, I decided to go with Vonage's other product, the WiFi UTStarcom F1000. This is a WiFi enabled phone, which has a 220/110 watt charger, so I would be able to cut a lot out of the picture, including the Linksys adapter. After I recieve it, I'll be sure to post a review.

Slingbox Review by Televangelists

I saw this on YouTube. It is the married televangelist couple that Jimmy Kimmel always shows. They are raving about how awesome the Slingbox is. The YouTube caption is "Slingbox - endorsed by God?".

For the YouTube page, click here.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Slingbox Review

The Slingbox is an internet enabled device that allows you to stream video content from your Television to any other computer on the net. I recently set one up to allow me to watch American television shows while I am living abroad.

My review? Two thumbs up...way up. No, it's not perfect, but it fills a need that no other device even comes close to doing.

Who needs a Slingbox? I have compiled this list of people who could use one:
  • Expatriates who need to watch television shows not available in their host country (you must have a very understanding friend with broadband who will let you keep the Slingbox at their house!)
  • Business people who travel a lot and have extended stays in hotels
  • Commuters who want access to their TiVo via their mobile phone

Even though I think the Slingbox is great, it still has its shortcomings:
  • In order to stream the content reliably, the content needs to buffer for about one minute. The stream is not completely blank, instead, the content is streamed at a very slow rate (as low as 4 frames per second). The normal rate is 25 to 30 frames per second. The lag results in both stuttering and slowness. You can tell because when you start a TV show, the theme music will always sound really slow.
  • Since the content is buffered, the actual content being displayed on the TV is on a 10 second delay. When you press a button on the remote control, you can't wait for the content to catch up, or else you will have to wait 10 seconds between clicks. When you use the remote control, the player goes into "Control Mode", where the player trys to display the most up-to-date content. This also results in choppiness and slowness, and can become somewhat frustrtating as you try to anticipate the remote control prompts.
  • Since there is a bit of time-shift when using the remote control, it becomes very difficult to fast forward through commercials. If you have a TiVo, you should learn the "backdoor hack" that allows you to implement the 30 second commercial skip button. This is your best chance for skipping commercials, but even this becomes a bit of a game trying to hit the start of your programs perfectly.
  • The on-screen remote is also frustrating. For most navigation functions, you have to click on the graphic within the button you want to press. For example, if you want to press "Channel Up," you need to click on the triangle on the button, you can't just click the top half of the button. Since you often have to stay 2 or 3 clicks ahead of the player, this can add to the frustration when navigating through menus.

If you want to see the Slingbox in action, take a look at these video samples (from YouTube):
Slingbox over Windows Mobile
Watching Slinbox from China
Slingbox on a Motorola Q phone

I think most people will be happy with the Slingbox if they can use it in conjunction with a TiVo. Simply trying to watch live TV would just be too frustrating. You can't use the Slingbox if you like to channel surf, because the video choppiness would make you want to shoot yourself in the head. Using the Slingbox with a TiVo (or any other supported DVR) is great because when you press play, you can "set it and forget it" and you will experience very little performance issues.

Setting up my Slingbox

I recently moved out of the US and I needed a way to get my daily 5 hour dose of American television while abroad. I found that Sling Media's Slingbox was the best solution.

The Slingbox allows you to stream content from any video source over the internet. While away from your TV, you can view it using their media player, which is available for the PC, Mac and even Windows Mobile enabled phones.

I would wager that most people use the Slingbox to watch their own live TV remotely. On the other hand, I chose to use attach mine to my TiVo. This means that I can queue up hours worth of content and watch it at my own leisure. I couldn't bring my TiVo with me anyway, since the video format for my host country is PAL, and my TiVo is NTSC.

The Slingbox comes with an IR blaster, which allows you to control a number of devices, most importantly a TiVo DVR. The software even includes a TiVo remote control which works just like the real thing.

Here are the components that I used:
  • Broadband internet connection at the video source
  • Time Warner Cable television service with HBO
  • Slingbox with a non-wireless connection to a router (they do have wireless adapters available, but I would guess that the quality would degrade quite a bit)
  • Series 2 TiVo with lifetime subscription and expanded 456 hour capacity and wireless NIC
  • Broadband internet connection in the destination location
I found sympathetic relatives who allowed me to park my equipment in their home and leech off their broadband bandwidth. They had a cable modem and router. I just got a coax splitter and plugged one end into my TiVo and the other into their cable modem. Then I configured their router to allow entrance through a specific port so I could access the Slingbox.

The setup worked fine at their house, but I needed to test it from outside their network to be certain that it would work for me overseas. I wouldn't want to find out that it was screwed up after my 10 hour flight! I would have been up shit creek, since my relatives are not technical enough to fix the problem without me present. To test the remote viewing, I drove to the nearest WiFi enabled coffee shop and fired up the player. It worked!

I am extremely happy with the Slingbox. I would be dead without it. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement, but I can't think of an easier way to watch my shows. Yes, I could pay $1.99 for some of them on iTunes, but that would get very expensive. I could also BitTorrent them all, but that takes lots of time and is illegal anyway. The Slingbox allows me to watch the shows that I normally watch with very little change to my daily routine.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Poker Tournament "Alternates" Part II

I had some questions regarding my post on Poker Tournament "Alternates" so I turned to Excel for the answers. I made a spreadsheet of the chip distribution numbers by table for the WSOP tournament that I entered. It shows how different the average chip stacks vary depending on what table you are seated at. As expected, the players with the worst situation are the ones who come in as alternates near the end ot the end of the alternate entry period. In the worse case scenario, the non-broken tables are a 5 to 4 favorite over the table of alternates (T1927.25 to T1500).

View Spreadsheet

The left column displays the table number. The columns to the right of that indicate the number of tables that have been broken up to let alternates come in. The data at the heart of the spreadsheet shows what the average chip stack at each table should be.

It is pretty easy to determine the average chip stack per table. The new alternate table's average chip stack is always T1500. All of the other 199 tables share the chips from the table that was just broken up.

If you want to maintain the best advantage in a tournament that allows alternates, you want to be one of the last tables seated. Seating is random for large scale tournaments such as ones in the WSOP, but I believe that the randomness is confined to groups of tables. For example, the first 110 players might be randomly seated in the tables 1 through 10, and then the tables 11 through 20 are filled in a similar fashion. My brother and I registered back to back for the same tournament and we were seated within 2 tables of each other (both tables in the 150's). If you see anyone registering for your tournament, ask to see what table they got. You can gauge what table group you will fall into if you register shortly afterwards. Anything after table 100 should be acceptable.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Poker Tournament "Alternates" Part I

I recently played in a World Series of Poker event in Las Vegas. The WSOP is the largest series of poker tournaments, with 45 total events and it boasts the largest poker tournament (the "Main Event") year after year. The fields are so large that the casino cannot accommodate all the entrants at the start of many of the events. Typically, the tournament area can hold up to 2000 starting players. This year, the WSOP Main Event was so large that the "first day" was broken up into 4 first days (day 1a, day 1b, day 1c and day 1d) to accommodate the 8500 entrants. Harrahs, the casino operator that manages the tournaments, has implemented several other changes to satisfy the public's desire for these large tournaments.

One thing that they did is sqeeze 11 players per table instead of the typical 9. This makes play rather uncomfortable (11 players plus the dealer!), but it is probably a necessary evil. Casinos have to compete with online poker rooms, which typically seat 10 players per table and can easily accommodate HUGE tournaments, with 5000+ players.

The other measure that they take is the notion of "alternates." The casino will initially seat as many players as possible and then the rest of the entrants are designated as alternates. These players will fill the empty seats as the seated players bust out of the tournament.

When I first heard of this, I thought that these alternates would be at an extreme disadvantage. This is because I assumed that the alternates would come into a table where a seated player was just removed, with his chips being spread around the 10 already seated players. Since (with all other factors being equal) players with more chips are more likely to win, you would usually be at a disadvantage to these 10 players. This would very likely result in the alternate player being eliminated and the next alternate player would have to take your seat, where he would be at an even greater disadvantage. This would result in somewhat of a "black hole seat," where each alternate sitting in this seat getting sucked into the netherlands of space.

This was not the case. As players are eliminated, the dealer hands a card representing his seat to the tournament director. The tournament director would wait until he had 11 of these cards and he would go to the first unbroken table (first table #1, then table #2, etc) and distribute the 11 cards randomly to the players seated there. All 11 players at this table would have to move to the seats designated on the card they received.

After this, 11 alternate players would be seated at this empty table. They start with the same amount that the non-alternates started with, so they are at almost no disadvantage. There is very little chance that they will fall into a "black hole seat" like the situation that I described earlier. Yes, they are at a slight disadvantage compared to the rest of the field, but the disadvantage is greatly mitigated by this method.

If you want to know why, you can consider the tournament that I entered. My tournament started with approximately 200 tables, each 11 handed with each player starting with $1500 in tournament chips (T1500). That was approximately 2200 seated players, with around 800 alternates waiting at the rail. During play, I heard the tournament director introduce around 50 new tables, or 550 alternates.

Let's consider the very first alternate. After the first player is eliminated from the tournament, the average chip stack for the table would be (11 initial players x T1500) / 10 players left = T1650, but you would only have T1500. Instead of having 9.090909% of the chips at your table, you would only have 8.333333%.

On the other hand, with the "fill new tables with alternates" method, you are at an even playing field with the rest of the table. There are only two ways that you will be affected by the fact that you are an alternate:
  • A player from another table is moved to your table.
  • You are moved to another table.
If a player from another table is moved to your table, in the best case scenario, you will actually have an advantage over this player. This is usually true at the beginning of a tournament when a player is eliminated from your table. This is because you will have T1650, but the average chip stack will be (200 tables x 11 players x T1500) / (199 tables x 11 players) = T1507.54. Of course, your advantage would have been negligibly higher if you were amongst the initial field of 2200, but not by much.

It is very unlikely that you will be moved to another table if you are an alternate. You would only be moved if there are more alternates than non-alternates, since tables are not broken up a second time (alternates only sit at broken tables) until all non-broken tables have been broken.

A few things are true when considering alternates. The alternates brought into the tournament near the start have the smallest disadvantage compared to the rest of the alternates. You might even say that they have somewhat of an advantage because there is almost no chance that they will have a seat change. This gives them the opportunity to study their players more. When you are moved to another table, you have to re-learn who the weak and strong players are.

Alternates brought into the tournament near the end of the eligibility period are affected much more. Not only do they have to contend with bigger blinds, but their relative chip size is greatly affected by the rest of the field. If you are the 50th alternate table, you start with T1500, but the players not at your table will have (249 tables x 11 players x T1500) / (199 tables x 11 players) = T1876.88. This means that when you eliminate someone from your table, the person who sits at your table will most likely have more chips than the rest of you.

I think this method is very well thought out and it is good for live poker. If you play in a WSOP event, I would try to enter late in the registration period to ensure either a high table number or a low alternate number. Don't register 5 minutes before the tournament starts. Try to register 1 or 2 nights before. This will put you in the best position to stay in the same seat throughout the tournament (or at least the majority of the first day).

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

ANOTHER eBay Con Artist Buyer!

Another friggin' eBay buyer tried to scam me this week! I sold an old laptop (purchased in 2000) for $81. The buyer ignored the details of my listing and requested the following two things:
  • He wanted to ship the item to Russia via EMS (I stated continental US only)
  • He wanted to make the payment through Western Union (I stated PayPal only)
First of all, I was pissed that this asshole bid on my auction without reading the clear instructions that I took the time to write. I was enraged when I realized this guy was trying to scam me.

Both of his requests were red flags to me. Furthermore, his account only had two positive feedback responses and he was only an eBay member for 6 months.

I was willing to compromise on shipping the item to Russia, but I was not willing to budge on using Western Union. I was completely unfamiliar with using Western Union and I was not willing to get out of my comfort zone to accommodate this illiterate ass-clown.

I told him "no dice."

Upon further investigation, I found this posting:

It basically says that in cases like these, you will recieve an email from Western Union stating that a payment has been made to you. The buyer will then request that you ship the item immediately. Of course, the email is fake email sent from the con artist OR it is a real email from Western Union that requires a special code to redeem. If the case is the latter, the con artist will never send you the special code.
Ok, cancel deal, i leave good fedback for you, and hope you leave good for me. Usual americans agree sent to Russia, but as you wish.
Regards Oleg
Gee thanks, ass-wipe. Consider yourself reported to eBay Safe Harbor.