Comcast logo I recently switched from DSL (which I’d had since it first was invented) to Comcast Cable for my Internet connection (and TV and phone). By doing so I saved about a hundred bucks a month over AT&T and DirecTV. Of course as soon as I switched, AT&T started calling me with a bundle that was roughly the same price, but that’s a different story.

One of the things that happened a while back was that Plaxo was bought by Comcast. I have always been a premium Plaxo user, feeling that I wanted to support them since I find the product so incredibly useful. What I learned was that if you are a Comcast subscriber, you are automatically a Plaxo premium user.

Now, being a premium subscriber used to only mean you got VIP support and access to a couple of tools (like the address and calendar deduplication tool). But now Plaxo has announced that the Outlook synch is a premium member only tool. While I worry that this decreases the value of the service (since there will be fewer reasons for people to sign up, therefore fewer members, and decreasing the number of automatic updates I get), what is interesting is that every Comcast subscriber gets access to these premium services.

To activate this, first you have to make sure that you are signed up for Plaxo through your Comcast email account. First, log in to your Comcast email by going to http://www.comcast.net and clicking on the Email link in the “My Comcast” portlet:

My Comcast

If you’re logged in already it will go straight to your email, otherwise you’ll get the login screen, where you need to log in:

comcast login

Log in with your Comcast email address. This will be something like your last name and street address unless you’ve changed it. Once you have logged in, you’ll be at the Comcast email screen, which uses the Zimbra email client. From the tabs, you’ll want to choose the address book:

Comcast email tabs

The first time you go to the address book, you’ll be asked to build your address book:

comcast build address book

If you click on the “build your address book”, you’ll go to an initial Plaxo setup screen. Since they already have some of your information (name and email), they don’t have to ask you for anything but where you want to populate your address book from:

plaxo uab

So now it gets interesting. If you click on Plaxo, you can link an existing Plaxo account to your Comcast email. If you were already a Plaxo user, this will get your current address book and calendar.

Plaxo Link account

If you’re not already a Plaxo subscriber, you can choose one of the other options to build your address book by logging you in and pulling the address book from there:

Plaxo UAB Gmail

Note that the GMail synch only works for accounts ending in “gmail.com“,  and not GMail accounts that are using Google Apps. I suspect that Yahoo accounts would also be restricted to “yahoo.com“, but I don’t know that for sure.

There’s a shortcut to signup to Plaxo immediately by simply going to http://www.plaxo.com/ftue/activateComcast, clicking the Activate button will get you set up:

Plaxo activate

This one does require you to fill in your name and basic information (or link to your existing Plaxo account by following the link at the bottom right). Either way, once you have the account linked, you are signed up and active as a premium member. Now not only can you set up synch points, but you can also install the Outlook synch tool on any computer you use.

Along the way the steps will ask you to update your address book, and if you want to invite your friends. I always skip that step, since I send my friends enough email already.

At the end, you can validate that you’re a premium member by clicking on “Settings” at the top right of the screen, and then choosing “Premium” from the list at the left:

Plaxo Premium

This shows my account has premium status.

If you use Outlook, there’s a few more steps to get fully set up with the Outlook synch tool. There are multiple ways to get there, but ultimately you want to download the sync tool from http://www.plaxo.com/people/tools?src=tools

plaxo premium tools

Note that you have access to all of these tools, some of which are very cool (like being able to roll back your address book). If you aren’t a Plaxo premium subscriber, you can download and install the tool, but you won’t be able to use it, since the synch verifies the account status when you run it for the first time.

Plaxo has a nice walkthrough of the install process here: http://www.plaxo.com/downloads/outlook?src=pulse_tools_outlook〈=en, so I won’t duplicate that. One thing that I did learn the last time I did this for somebody is that you have to install it with an account that has admin priviledges. The install won’t fail, but you just won’t get the Plaxo tool bar in Outlook.

Once the install completes, and you start Outlook up, it will walk you through a wizard that will sync your Outlook and Plaxo address books. From then on, you should see the Plaxo tool bar at the top of your Outlook screen:

Plaxo bar in outlook

There are lots of other neat things about Plaxo, not the least of which is that you can synch between multiple machines. There’s a version of Plaxo for the Mac, and it seems to do a fair job of interacting with the built-in Mac synch tools (including MobileMe).

I’d definitely recommend you take advantage of this “free” service if you are a Comcast internet subscriber.

I am going to break one of the rules of social media and talk about politics. I’ve had lots of conversations with people I know who generally share my views on issues, but being disenfranchised and fear based, have the strong feeling that politics should never be talked about.

And to a point I agree. People are so strongly aligned along party lines, that if you say the wrong thing, you will alienate many people. The weird thing for me is that most people don’t even know why they follow those party lines.

I spoke to a very smart young man a while back and asked him which party he belonged to.

“The X party”, he said.

“Why did you choose that party?”,  I asked assuming he would have a logical reason for why he joined that party.

“Well, I guess mostly because my parents were in the X party”, he replied.

And even stranger, the lines shift based on what the other party is saying. An idea that one party comes up with is immediately opposed by the other, even if that idea is a plank in the opposing party’s platform.

Take the recent rhetoric about the healthcare reform work. From everything I’ve seen, what is being proposed is almost exactly the same thing that the Republicans proposed when Clinton was trying to get them to move on universal healthcare. A sort of modified version of what we have today that tries to fix the biggest fiscal problems with our current system.

But who is labeling this “Obamacare” and calling it socialism? It appears to me that it is the same people who caused Clinton to crash and burn, and who proposed the approach of universal health care combined with capitalism.

This is but one example, but there seem to be endless times that  opposition is simply a tribal fight. The Democrats reject all Republican ideas, the Republicans reject all the Libertarian ideas, and they all view each other as bad and wrong. It’s one reason I don’t declare a party, and would probably still be independent if I didn’t want to vote in primaries.

I often wonder if we just got rid of the parties, could we have an intelligent discussion about the issues. Are people just naturally unwilling to consider other viewpoints?

For me, health care is broken, and there are simple things we could do to fix some of the big problems. By making sure people could actually see doctors when they need to, we would reduce the burden on emergency rooms and hospitals caused by people who have either had to forgo care that would have been less expensive.

Add to that fixing some of the corruption in the insurance industry (which also prevents people from getting care early with things like “pre-existing condition” clauses), and not only would  health care costs go down, but productivity would go up, due to a healthier population.

It’s not rocket science, it’s what we need, and anything is better than the current system that is bankrupting the country.

GTUG CampoutI recently attended the Google Technology User Group Campout at the Googleplex in Mountain View. This was a three day sprint to build something interesting with the latest Google product: Google Wave.

Google Wave, as it turns out is a very interesting experiment in social interaction. Google is trying to reinvent collaborative communication with a piece of software that is one part chat, one part Wiki, and one part WebEx.

I’d seen this product at the Google I/O conference a few months back and was impressed with the demos. Basically you get these shared documents (called Waves) that all of the collaborators can update at the same time. You can watch the hour and a half demo at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_UyVmITiYQ

The demo included things like interaction with blogs, Twitter and other web technologies, as well as interesting programming doing things like on the fly grammar checking. I signed up for a sandbox account the day of the presentation (using my iPhone of course), and got set up a week or so after that.

Wave was written by the brothers Lars and Jans Rasmussen, who are the architects of the Google Maps API. In some sense, this is an experiment in building software caused by the lessons they learned with the immensely popular Maps API. By giving the developers access early in the build process, they hope to build a more solid platform that will serve the developers needs.

So Friday came and I drove over to Google with Bennett Fonacier (a friend I met through Job Connections some time back). After the 50+ people got through with their 5 minute pitches, we networked for another hour forming teams. There were many ideas that were very similar, and for the most part these groups joined up into a combined team. Bennett and Steffen Frost (CEO of Carticipate) both came up with the idea of matching people for ride shares using the Wave.

I’d originally thought I would join a team doing something health related, but since my goal was to get a working piece of code, and I was sitting with the car pool team, I joined that effort. We became one of the roughly 50 projects teams, and quickly talked through what we’d be building over the next 48 hours or so.

The other members of the Wave Rides team were:

  1. Steffen Frost was a great concept guy, and had an existing product we were going to try and emulate.
  2. Bennett Fonacier has some development background, but he was short a computer, and would be doing QA.
  3. Andreas Koll who had some experience with the Google Maps API volunteered to build the Gadget for our interface.
  4. Hannie Fan offered to provide some design expertise and CSS coding.
  5. Robert Herriott was a quiet supporter, offering constructive criticism

I took on the task of writing the Robot, which is the part of the Wave that would take the input from the Gadget and match the participants with ride partners. Andreas had a working Gadget in short order, and was able to embed it in a Wave.

While he was doing that, I was working on getting a Robot built using the guidelines in developing Wave extensions slides. I got a working “Hello World”, built the extension.xml file, and with help from the Google crew, got it so we could create a new Wave with my Robot added.
Carticipate Logo

I got the icon from the Carticipate site, added a bit of code, and the Robot was adding the Gadget to the Wave. So far I had gotten a working Robot, and Andreas had a working Gadget. Now all we needed to do was clean them up a bit and get them talking.

This turned out to be a bit tougher than expected. The current state of the world is that the Robot can add a Gadget, and send data to it when it is added to the Wave, but can only read the state from the Gadget, and not actually set anything after the Gadget is running.

Anyway, I eventually got some debug code going in my Robot that would dump out the properties of the Gadget, which helped Andreas to debug some issues he was seeing with the state of the users accessing the Gadget.

A Gadget is basically a snippet of HTML and JavaScript that gets embedded in an XML file for inclusion in the Wave. Because the working code is inside an XML document, it gets wrapped in a CDATA element, which makes editing and debugging the Gadget a bit challenging. Andreas approach was to cut the HTML code out of the Gadget and edit it as an HTML document, then paste it back into the Gadget. Not ideal, but it works.

Our original plans for the WaveRides robot was that it would behave roughly the same way as the Carticipate application does: ask the user a few questions about where they are going, if they are driving, and then show a list of everybody who is travelling in the same area and time. So as we worked, I kept prototyping closer and closer to that goal.

By the late Saturday night, we had a working prototype that launched the map gadget, and displayed back the data from the users interacting with the gadget. The gadget was displaying the location of all of the users on the map, and we were feeling pretty good about the progress (especially considering none of us had ever built anything with the Wave API before). Bennett and I headed home, expecting to finish up the next morning, leaving Andreas coding away on his gadget.

The next day we arrived at the Googleplex and found that Andreas had solved some of his remaining problems, and the gadget was looking good. I went to work on the Robot, trying to get it to match up the user data. Of course, since there was little time left, the Wave kept misbehaving (probably due to all of us pounding on the sandbox with untested code), and we kept running into walls.

My original design had been to add a blip with the map gadget and gather my data from there. I soon realized that it was difficult to keep track of the gadget that way, so I changed my code to add the gadget to the root blip, and started removing debug code. At some point, we decided to put the code up on code.google.com for safekeeping, so I spent a few minutes figuring out how to do that (you can see the code at http://waverider.googlecode.com).

It was still fairly early on Sunday morning, and Andreas had been up until the wee hours of the night, so he wasn’t around for us to ask him to make changes to his gadget. We had separated the development of the gadget and the robot, so they were actually being served by two separate app server applications. The gadget only provided input for one point, and to complete the robot to the point we could demo something interesting, we needed it to have a “from” and “to” for each participant.

So rather than reinventing what Andreas had done, I decided to change the robot to create a “from” and a “to” gadget in the Wave, and use that. Interestingly this turned out to be fairly painless. I was able to add the second instance of the gadget, and give them each a name. The Wave kept track of them separately, so I got the data from both separately.

I spent the last few moments before we were supposed to present, trying to get a simple match working. The nice thing about this was that I could version the app on the Google App engine, and keep a known working version deployed while continuing to test. As other teams presented, it became obvious that this had been a good decision, and I eventually dropped back to one of the earlier working versions for the demo.

We got to demo the concept, and explain what we would have liked to have done. I accomplished my goal of learning how to code a basic robot, and learned a lot about the API. We were by no means the slickest or coolest app there, but we had fun building it.

We’ve got the start to an open source project that could eventually be used to match people locationally, and used for all sorts of purposes, and we got to see some of the challenges in building apps for a piece of software as new as Google Wave.

Team picture

From left to right above: Steffan Frost, Fannie Han, Rob Weaver, Andreas Koll, Bennett Fonacier.

Steffen created a really cool video over that weekend as well that you can watch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkmuBmBZkBo

Since last week, I’ve been immersed in coding and development education about various cloud applications.
Google Wave

First there were a couple of meetups about the Google Wave product that gave me a overview of some of the capabilities and requirements for developing applications around the Wave product. Google Wave is an interesting piece of social media that is a bit like chat and MediaWiki combined with WebEx.

The first talk on Monday, was about the federation server, which is the open source implementation of Google Wave. The idea is that you could have a Wave server inside your firewall that could protect your data, while also allowing for communication and interaction with other federated servers. The code is so new, that it is actually using a different protocol than the Google Wave servers are using.

This is a very early prototype, but the idea is that it will use standard XMPP servers to communicate between domains, and use typical certificate based trust mechanisms to authenticate between domains. The internal server could be implemented with rules to (for example) prevent patient data from being sent outside of the firewall in a conversation between a medical team and a provider at another institution.

The next talk on Wednesday was about writing extensions for Google Wave. These extensions are UI widgets (called Gadgets), and Robots, which add capability to Google Wave.

A Gadget is basically an HTML and JavaScript snippet that does something useful when added to a Wave. A Robot is a bit of code that interacts with the Wave as if it were one of the collaborators in the wave. The Robot can add participants, Gadgets and edit the contents of the Wave.

As an example, you could have a voting Gadget, that allows the collaborators to vote. A Robot could add the Gadget to the Wave,  tally the results, and write them out to a database.

A Robot can also do interesting things like watch the wave for keywords and make changes or respond. Some of the examples are a grammar checker that corrects grammar as you type, a code formatting and highlighting robot, and the classic Eliza conversational robot.

Next was the weekend long GTUG Campout at the Googleplex. This was a heads down coding adventure where the idea was to get a workable Google application up and running in 48 hours. I signed up for the campout a while back, with the intent of learning how to work with Google Wave.

I had signed up for a Wave sandbox account when it was first announced at the Google I/O conference, so I was able to play with it a bit, but hadn’t really had time to get started with developing anything. After the talk on Wednesday, I had a pretty good overview of how to get set up, so at least I had all the bits installed to parcipate.

So Friday came and I returned to Google once again. The idea was that we form teams to develop applications using the Wave extensions, so the first task was to come up with ideas and pitch them. After the 50+ people got through with their 5 minute pitches, we networked for another hour forming teams. There were many ideas that were very similar, and for the most part these groups joined up into a combined team.

After the teams were formed, the Google team gave another talk about developing Wave extensions, which was a great review and contained some things that aren’t really documented elsewhere (since the API is still changing). The slides from that talk became my guide to building my first robot, an experience that I’ll talk about in another post about the GTUG Campout 2009.

This weekend, AT&T finally fixed my visual voice mail. I still don’t know what they did to fix it, but I’m pretty sure it’s related to a hack that I’ve been reading about which lets the phone do tethering.

Now I didn’t try this hack on my newly replaced phone, but when I asked the AT&T people about it, they said they were working on a fix on their side for a wider problem (meaning I wasn’t the only one who had gone without visual voice mail for some time).

I’m hopeful that this problem won’t recur, but I wonder if perhaps it was caused by AT&T trying to block the tethering hack. Now my phone is happy again, and I’m no longer missing calls (at least as far as I can tell).

Working visual voice mail

A couple of weeks ago, I notice that my iPhone was not receiving voice mails, and I seemed to be missing calls on occasion. In fact, I hadn’t received a voice mail since around the time I upgraded to the 3.0 firmware.

Since I use this as my primary business phone, I was a bit concerned.

I had been seeing occasional error messages about being unable to connect to the network like:

iphone network error 2

So of course I called AT&T to find out what could be wrong. The first time I called, I followed the path that took me to an Apple representative, and they had me reset the network settings (From the Settings icon, General/reset/reset network settings). After doing that, all of my voice mail from the prior month flowed through into my visual voice mail box.

In the next few days, I was told by a couple people that they had tried to call me, and I again didn’t see any voice mail. I also started seeing the odd network errors again, sometimes in my email or browser:

cell network error

So I called 611 again, and this time I talked to the AT&T  people. They walked me through resetting the network settings, recreated my voice mail box, and a number of other things. At one point, I even got the screen that asked me to setup my voice mail. But still I wasn’t getting the new voice mail messages appearing in my inbox. Finally after bouncing back over to the Apple guys, we made an appointment at the Apple store so I could have the phone checked out.

Somewhere along the line, the visual voice mail simply stopped working. Now when I hit the voicemail icon, I wouldn’t see the list of voice mails, but instead the phone would dial my voice mail:

visual voice mail dial

No matter what we tried, we couldn’t seem to get the visual voice mail to come back. We even tried restoring it as a new phone without any luck. The support people thought that perhaps this was a result of the phone hardware failure, and maybe the Apple Genius could find a fix for it.

So I waited and went to my appointment at the Apple Store Genius bar. They ran some diagnostics, asked a few questions, and determined the phone did need to be replaced. They didn’t have one in stock, so they ordered one, and told me that they’d call when it was ready.

A couple of days later, I went to the store, and they activated my new phone. Naturally the first thing I tried was going to visual voice mail, and what did I see ?

visual voice mail dial

So back home, more hours on the phone with both Apple and AT&T, now I have a case open with the AT&T network group.

To be continued ….