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Why is Skype’s Audio Quality Suddenly So Bad?

UPDATE on March 26, 2016
skype-logoNearly every Saturday morning since 2008 my pals and I from Minnov8 have recorded our podcast using Skype. We’ve been using it for our tech podcast recording and are now up to 355 shows so far. But over the last three months Skype has become absolutely unusable. The hiss is horrible, dropouts rampant, and we gave up and went to Google Hangouts last week. That audio is stunningly perfect and pristine.

So why not just bag Skype and use Google Hangouts instead? The issue for us using Hangouts for recording is being able to feed various audio sources into that recording and also isolate each track. With Skype and two computers (my iMac and Macbook Pro) connected to a Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 it was easy to do so AND record in real-time in Logic Pro (which really minimizes my time having to do a bunch of post-production on the audio). People were always amazed when they heard the quality we could achieve from a few people doing home recording, but we’re all geeks and know what we’re doing to achieve professional results.

Our ongoing question these last few months has been, “What the hell is going on with Skype and why does it sound like sh*t?” We suspect that it is due to Microsoft’s continual mucking around with the once-effective peer-to-peer audio routing to accommodate web and mobile calling, along with all of their other Skype-related initiatives. Here are just a few of the things they’ve rolled out in just the last couple of years:

too-loud2While none of that explains what has happened to the audio quality in peer-to-peer group calls, perhaps it’s no surprise that the computer-based desktop client—or Skype’s underlying, and formerly great, SILK-codec‘s audio quality—has taken a backseat to just entering a bunch of new markets and supporting a bunch of devices?

Or maybe they’ve widened the ‘backdoor’ for the NSA? Whatever the reason we’re intending to quit Skype forever because the quality of the audio is what matters to us and to our listeners! It’s just so bad that we are unwilling to continue wrestling with Skype.

What’s your experience?

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Seriously Minneapolis StarTribune? “U.S. security at stake as Apple defies order”

Click for an update - 4:04pm
iphone-in-handTo say I was stunned reading this editorial in this morning’s Minneapolis StarTribune is an understatement. I rarely get fired up enough to write a letter to the editor, but this time I felt compelled since they got this so wrong and I’m embarrassed for them that they published this editorial.

I just sent them my rebuttal and I reprint it below with the StarTribune’s paragraphs in italics and green. Also, since the StarTribune apparently did little-to-no research, I’ve provided them with helpful links.

Curiously the StarTribune changed the linkbait-like editorial title in the online version by toning it down, perhaps realizing that characterizing it as “Apple defies order” is wrong: National security is at stake in Apple’s faceoff with feds.

U.S. security at stake as Apple defies order

Apple Inc., the world’s largest info-tech company, now stands in defiance of a federal court order, saying it will fight attempts to force it to help the FBI crack the iPhone of a San Bernardino terrorist involved in a major attack on U.S. soil that left 14 dead and 22 injured. Apple says the government is overreaching and would be setting a dangerous precedent.

The company is wrong on both counts, but the world of encrypted information is a complex one. It is worthwhile to proceed carefully, because this could prove to be a critical showdown in the growing clash between privacy and national security.

Your editorial, “U.S. security at stake as Apple defies order” was one of the most stunningly naive positions I’ve read yet when it comes to the controversy over Apple’s stand on weakening the encryption of one, single iPhone. A weakening that would instantly open a Pandora’s box of cyber threat problems of which you are obviously clueless and seemingly dismissed out-of-hand.

First, it should be noted that the government negotiated for two months with Apple executives. When those talks fell apart, Justice Department officials turned to a federal judge, who ordered the company to create a way to bypass the security feature on the phone. The FBI had obtained a warrant to search the phone and, not incidentally, the consent of the employer that had issued the phone to Syed Rizwah Farook.

First off, it should be noted that the FBI permitted San Bernardino officials to change the password on the terrorist’s iCloud account (rebutted by FBI, now blaming official) and only then, obviously realizing their mistake, requested Apple’s help. Had they not done so Apple has stated publicly it would have been possible to obtain the shooter’s iCloud backup data. Since this mistake was made, the FBI then negotiated with Apple to recover what they could. Discovering that doing so was not possible, and subsequently failing in convincing Apple to create software to weaken iOS (the operating system that controls the iPhone and iPad) so they could break into the device without having it ‘wiped’ by its ten password attempt limit, the FBI then obtained a court order hoping to force Apple to create a method to do so.

Apple has complied with what Justice officials characterize as “a significant number” of government requests in the past, including unlocking individual phones. Apple CEO Tim Cook has become increasingly concerned about customer privacy, particularly after 2013 revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about massive government surveillance operations. The company has continued to tighten its security systems and decided to no longer maintain a way into individual phones. Farook’s iPhone 5c was among those with a 10-tries-and-wipe feature that essentially turns it into a brick if too many false passwords are entered. Newer operating systems employ ever-more-sophisticated security features.

The government’s authority to get private information, such as texts, photos and other stored data, through a warrant is not at issue. The key here is whether the government can compel a private company to create a means of access that the company contends will weaken its premier product.

Cook maintains that creating a “master key” to disable security on Farook’s phone ultimately would jeopardize every iPhone. With more than 100 million in use across the country, that is no small threat. There are, however, technology experts who say Apple could create a bypass — allowing for what’s called a brute force hack — without affecting other phones.

With respect to your position on Apple’s creating this sort of “bypass” for this single iPhone, all while acknowledging this is not a “small threat” for the 100 million iPhones already in existence, you then opined, “There are, however, technology experts who say Apple could create a bypass” “without affecting other phones.” This is your supposed justification for minimizing the threat of putting in a backdoor (or what you euphemistically characterize as a “bypass”) for those 100 million+ iPhones already in existence? Who are these so-called “experts” anyway?  [Read more…]

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New Receiver Makes a Home Theater Awesome

PioneerElite_VSX-45Are you growing weary of having to constantly upgrade your technology? Me too, except for things I use all the time like my iPhone, computers, Wifi routers and items like those.

But upgrading home theater components is usually not top-of-mind when it comes to getting new gear. Even though we have a big Samsung TV, a phenomenal speaker system and devices like a TiVo, new AppleTV and Roku, my fairly expensive Yamaha receiver had not been upgraded for about five years. Still, it was good enough, or so I thought.

My head was turned by a hot price on the Pioneer Elite series VSX-90 receiver and I told my buddy Eric about it. Though it had a few more features than its little brother the VSX-45—and I know the Pioneer Elite series well since I used to work for the company in the early 90s—I didn’t need those additional features in the 90.

I’d told Eric since he also needed to upgrade two of his receivers. He did need some of those extra features, and he’d gone shopping at Best Buy. He purchased two of the VSX-45’s at a rock-bottom Best Buy sale price of $249 (now it is back up to $449.98) and had decided to take one of them back and get one VSX-90. So he called me and offered it to me at the same price so I bought the VSX-45 from him since the sale was off.

Why am I telling you this tale of receiver upgrading? Because your TV and movie watching experience—regardless of how good your TV is or your streaming box—will be A LOT better if your audio isn’t mediocre. If it is mediocre it will negatively impact your entire experience! [Read more…]

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Yet Another Reason Facebook Disgusts Me

fbmessengerDid you know you are NOT able to stop the slide up “Please turn on Notifications” nag from the Facebook Messenger app?

Last night at nearly 11pm, I was already fast asleep when a Facebook Messenger group message came in. A family member in Seattle sent out a group message to a bunch of we cousins and I was startled awake. Then two people replied until I then realized all 10 of us on the group message would probably start replying! I then messaged everyone to please respect time zones and only group message in the early evening. No one else messaged after that.

I then turned off Notifcations and went back to sleep.

fb-messenger-nagEarly this morning I launched the app to see how to permanently stop this nag from sliding up after I’d turned off Notifications for Messenger. It didn’t work. Then I turned on Notifications and selected “None”. The slide up nag continued to come up every single time I launched the app.

So I searched Google for ways in which to stop this slide up nag since I am NOT going to turn on Notifications. Guess what? It cannot be defeated.

You may ask, “Why don’t you just delete the app you big baby?” I would, but both my wife’s side of the family and mine use Messenger to communicate with everyone. That is the ONLY reason I have the app, even though I’m getting very, very close to deleting my Facebook account forever and saying ‘good riddance’ to Messenger.

Facebook really, really wants people to use Messenger since, by default, location tracking is turned on so they can help advertisers pinpoint and market to you geographically. In fact, TechCrunch published this post, “Facebook Messenger Wants To BE Your Phone Number With New Message Requests” which points out what the “payoff” is for a company to give a free app like this away (and remember the old adage that if you’re not paying for a product, then by default you are the product:

Facebook is already experimenting with ways to let you receive customer service, attain a quote on home repair, or contact Page admins via Messenger. And there’s already a payment system built into Messenger. Imagine one day getting a Message Request from a business you’ve interacted with, then being able to receive important updates or even buy things from them right from chat.

This is Facebook’s long-term motivation and why their messages-removal-on-mobile was set to MAKE you use their Messenger app and the slide up nag—coming up every single time you launch the app—is designed to FORCE you to turn on Notifications.

No thanks Facebook. Stop the nag or my (and many other’s) disgust with your business practices will continue to grow toward hate. Here is the Facebook page where you can give them feedback if you hate this too.

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Dropbox Delivers FTP-like Uploading Anyone Can Use

baby-dropboxing

Everyone’s favorite file syncing service, Dropbox, just announced one of the simplest, most powerful file uploading capability I’ve seen yet. So simple that anyone with a Dropbox account (except a Business one…that’s coming soon) can create a request, and the person (or multiple people) they send that request to can upload files, each up to 2GBs in size*.

Providing access to your files in Dropbox to another person or persons is already simple. You can copy a shared link to that file and email it to someone. Couldn’t be easier. But enabling others to send you files has always been very difficult.

At my companies, it turns out that many people at our clients don’t have Dropbox (or Box)  or are unable to use it due to corporate security policies that disallow the use of third party file sharing services. Asking someone to set up a file upload-and-email service sounds good, but if they have to send you either one huge file (like a video) or multiple files (e.g., compressed in to a Zip file) then they will likely have to buy a subscription to that service in order to be able to send it to you.

But Dropbox has made this entire file sending adventure a no-brainer for anyone to use. [Read more…]

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Your Mom DEMANDS That You Backup Your Computer!

mom-n-kidI know, I know…when someone gets after you for not backing up your computer, it sort of feels like Mom is badgering you to brush your teeth and wash your hands, right?

Mom was right. Clean teeth are happy teeth and don’t you DARE touch anything with those filthy hands! If your Mom had included data backup in her admonishments to you, she would have been right about that too.

forgotWhen it comes to backing up your personal computer—you know, the one that contains all your digital photos, videos, music, important files and more—you probably think to yourself, “I’ll do it soon” or “Maybe I’ll use a cloud backup service someday” or “I have a solid state drive and, um, they don’t crash?” Unfortunately your best intentions, procrastination, laziness or nonchalant attitude won’t save those ONLY COPIES of precious baby photos, images from your wedding, videos of a family vacation, or those critically important, now-digital documents you’ve already shredded, when your hard drive crashes and can’t be recovered.

You have four options when it comes to backing up your one-and-only copy of a digital file:

  1. Buy a cheap drive and backup to it. Cheap drives don’t last long and aren’t that durable. I’ve had several go bad on me over the last 10-20 years.
  2. Backup to the cloud with a service like Crashplan. If you have multiple terabytes of data, however, it could take weeks to backup (and use a lot of your internet bandwidth) or you’ll be sent a big drive and you’ll have to backup to it and then ship it to the cloud service (to get a headstart on future backups and save both you, and the cloud backup service, a lot of bandwidth cost).
  3. Buy an ioSafe secure vault drive (more on that below).
  4. Do nothing and hope your computer’s drive never crashes, a power surge or brownout doesn’t fry the drive, your house doesn’t start on fire, or some burglar doesn’t come in and take your computer and its files for a joy ride in his stolen car.

Option #4 is like not having homeowner’s, auto, or health insurance. You may never need any of them, but if you do and aren’t insured, you’ll likely lose big or lose everything.

[Read more…]

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Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime (Unless You Use Apple)

webrtcAs more of us work virtually, it is imperative that we can communicate with each other easily, seamlessly, and that the web browsers we use support standards vendors agree upon.

One such browser-based technology already exists. With it you launch a web browser that supports this technology and “call” anyone, anywhere who has internet access. You could see them on video. Share your screen with them. Get in to a chat or a group chat. Share files with each other. Plus, since web browsers run on virtually every modern mobile device, this ability would extend to your communications anytime.

Unfortunately, the #1 most promising technology, WebRTC, is only minimally supported at this moment. A standards battle is underway and is yet another one amongst giants hoping to dominate the next wave of unified communications…to our detriment IMHO. Seamless, easy, ubiquitous communication capability—with anyone, anywhere and anytime—should be in our hands already. The technology exists and works well.

[Read more…]

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Napkin: A Surprisingly Powerful Communication Tool

napkin-logoGoing through my news reader early this morning I came across this one sentence post by John Gruber at Daring Fireball. It referenced a Mac app called “Napkin” and Gruber said that it’s a “great update” so I thought I’d check it out.

Wow. How did I not know about this app? Napkin allows you to essentially create a mashup of media that you can annotate and quickly share.

Huh?” you may ask. What do you mean by “annotate and quickly share” Borsch?

napkin-pip

An example of a screenshot annotated in Napkin and immediately exported to my desktop and imported in to this post. Time to create was about 1 minute.

My workflow consists of communicating with people every single day that are not in my office and some I’ve never even met personally. I have to communicate concepts to people at our clients, on my team, to subcontractors, and to friends and family. If I write up a bunch of text about a concept, often people just don’t get it. Creating a quick screencast is very time consuming so I only do that when my communication to one or more people absolutely requires it.

For my high value concept communications, let me tell you about the steps I went through before, and then after, I used Napkin.

[Read more…]

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Telzio: An Amazing & Powerful VoIP Phone System

Visit TelzioIf you are a startup, small business, non-profit, or any organization that has employees demanding that their calls go to multiple phones since they’re traveling or remote, you owe it to yourself to look in to my new VoIP phone provider, Telzio. I continue to be blown away with how easy Telzio is to configure, use, and manage. Plus it is very affordable which I’ll tell you about in a moment.

MY POTS TO VOIP ADVENTURE
When the global economic crash occurred in 2008, one of our businesses dependent upon the home furnishings industry took a huge hit. Slashing costs became absolutely necessary and one of the easiest costs to lower was our plain-old-telephone-system (POTS) providers: AT&T long distance and our landline provider, CenturyLink (formerly Qwest).

After some due diligence I chose RingCentral (RC). I’m a geek and I personally set it all up. Unfortunately it took me about 50 hours to set up our internal phone system and fax machine, doing so with the help of RC’s only-somewhat-competent Philippines-based technical support. It was quite painful and taxed my technical skills to the limit, but we finally got it up-and-running.

As such I successfully brought our telephony costs down from $500-$600 per month to well under $170 per month. Those savings, along with a bunch of other cost-cutting measures we made, really helped us at a time when we had to fight to keep that business going like so many others had to do across our nation and the world.

Our home furnishings trend business is flourishing now, so why would I make a change to move away from RC?

Because making a change to equipment, or the plan, at RC is such a pain-in-the-ass, I just couldn’t go on. After investing 20-30 hours a few months ago with RC’s Philippines-based support folks to configure new VoIP phones we’d purchased so they actually WORKED, I was so mad that I wrote this Open Letter to Vlad Shmunis, CEO, RingCentral. He obviously read it and had someone on his team respond, so I finally got some help from a U.S.-based technical manager and everything was working.

But it was too little help, far too late to keep me as a customer.

WHY I DECIDED ON TELZIO
Knowing we were making a change for certain, I started analyzing every other VoIP provider that indicated they supported and encouraged small businesses to use their service. After looking at many options I set up a trial account at one that looked the most promising, Nextiva. To make a long story short they were just as complex and cost about the same (just under $170) so that wasn’t an option and I canceled the account.

telzio-decisionNext I looked at Vonage business, Ooma business, and even buying a bunch of these Obi200 boxes and using Google Voice accounts (which I do personally with my personal Google Voice account and it works great…but this wasn’t a business-ready solution). In fact, I even thought about setting up my own open-source Asterisk phone/communication server in-house, but then I realized it would burn up far too much of my time.

There just wasn’t any sort of system I could find that was easy to set up and use, was simple to edit and reconfigure, and a breeze to upgrade and add phones to over time. As I looked at all of these systems and tried them out, I continued to think there had to be some startup somewhere who had solved the VoIP complexity and tear-your-hair-out frustrating use of a hosted telephone system.

Then I discovered Telzio.

[Read more…]

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Thank you, Apple, for iPhone Encryption

ip6-under-the-hoodThough our national security is an absolute imperative, the Edward Snowden revelations about mass NSA surveillance—and what most of us see as a direct violation of our Constitution by them (as well as their practice of passing that data to the DEA, FBI, IRS and local law enforcement)—the intelligence community made their bed…and now they have to lie in it.

From Wired’s article called Apple’s iPhone Encryption Is a Godsend, Even if Cops Hate It:

It took the upheaval of the Edward Snowden revelations to make clear to everyone that we need protection from snooping, governmental and otherwise. Snowden illustrated the capabilities of determined spies, and said what security experts have preached for years: Strong encryption of our data is a basic necessity, not a luxury.

And now Apple, that quintessential mass-market supplier of technology, seems to have gotten the message. With an eye to market demand, the company has taken a bold step to the side of privacy, making strong crypto the default for the wealth of personal information stored on the iPhone. And the backlash has been as swift and fevered as it is wrongheaded.

Though this is clearly the right thing for Apple’s business—especially if they continue to hope to sell in countries like China (see Apple iPhone a danger to China national security)—I still want to say, “Thank you Apple…seriously.