Well, that was easy…

I’m looking at grad schools overseas, mostly in Europe.

As part of the process, I need to make some calls to these universities to chat with faculty, administrative staff, etc.

If I were to call, say, Switzerland from my Verizon cellphone, I would pay about $1.49/minute. If I wanted to pay $3.99/month, the rate drops to $0.08/min to landlines and $0.32/min for mobiles. That gets expensive quick. Qwest landline rates are comparable. I used to use Vonage, and calls to Swiss landlines are free on their standard World plan, but I don’t have their service any more.

Enter Google Voice. I already use it as my primary number and for voicemail, so deciding to use it for international calls was easy. One simply pre-pays for credits in blocks of $10 (which don’t expire) and then places a call from the web or dial-in phone interface. Costs me a whopping $0.02/min to landlines, which is much more palatable.

Since each endpoint is an actual phone, rather than a computer (like Skype, which has slightly higher rates), call quality is consistently good. The calls probably travel over some IP connections at some point, but there’s no jitter/lag that I could detect.

Even cooler: inbound caller ID works through Google Voice when international callers call me, at least those from Switzerland.

Hey, big phone companies: Vonage and Google can offer the same (and frequently more) services you do for considerably less money. Nickel-and-diming people for things like Caller ID, call waiting, and voicemail is losing you money. Your infrastructure was paid off a long time ago. Get with the program.

FTC Disclaimer: Do you see any referral links? Does it look like Google pays me money? If so, I’d have some Scrooge McDuck-style money vault and fancy food and drink rather than eating Clif bars and Dr. Pepper.

Google: I’m sure I can find some room in my condo for a Scrooge McDuck-style money vault if you feel the need to ship me a railcar worth of gold coins. Just sayin’.

Transportation Independence

A few months ago there was a Teamsters strike in Tucson that resulted in the city bus service being interrupted for several days.

The newspapers reported that many thousands of people had no means of transportation other than their own two feet (and some not even that) and the bus. These people were unable to make it to work, to appointments, etc. A few of my college-age friends were among them. Bad Times ensued.

Now the BBC is reporting that Eurostar train service between the UK and Brussels will be interrupted due to strikes. I’ve had the pleasure of riding on the Eurostar and have noted that it’s usually filled with all number of people, including many business-types. No doubt there will be many people affected by this disruption.

While it may be difficult to find practical alternatives for long-distance transportation like the Eurostar (though one can make it from the Guildford, UK to Monte Carlo by ferry and car before a train can get you there, according to Top Gear), there’s really no excuse to not have one’s own local transportation.

At the very least, get a bicycle. While it might take an hour and a half for an average person to walk five miles, walking across town is more of a hassle, as there’s lights, intersections, and the like. It’s likely to take much longer. A bicycle, however, is much faster than walking, isn’t limited to roads like a car, is less expensive to purchase (my Giant Cypress was about $150 on sale), involves no insurance or expenses other than a helmet, at least one U-lock, and maybe a replacement tube or two in case you run over glass. A bike can fit in even the smallest apartment.

A motor scooter or motorcycle, particularly a well-maintained used one, is also a wise choice. Inexpensive to buy, inexpensive to insure (state minimums in AZ are about $75/year with Progressive, though I prefer full coverage at about $300/year), and inexpensive to keep fueled up and maintained, they’re great choices for both short-and-medium ranged travel. One also needn’t work up a sweat when commuting to work. Every European city I’ve been in has been chock-full of scooters for these very reasons.

While there’s not much one can do about fuel availability (see the fuel strikes in France) — other than riding a bike, owning oil wells and a refinery, or having a solar/wind charger for an electric vehicle — being completely dependent on a third-party for basic, everyday transportation needs is a Really Bad Idea. If one takes the bus or subway to work every day, that’s fine, but one should have an alternative available if the need arises.

[Update June 16, 2011: Due to an oddly large amount of spammers targeting this post with spam for limo services and the like, comments are now closed.]

Puerto Rico Gun Law Changes

Here.

Interesting part:

[Justice Department legal adviser Amid] Torres said the measures will include a requirement that shooting ranges keep logs of how much ammunition their members use and cap the number of bullets each client can fire in target practice at 500 per year.

Police Department legal adviser Estrella Mar Vega voiced support for the measures as “more specific and stringent controls to monitor whether people who say they acquire weapons and ammunition at shooting clubs are using them for such purposes.”The attorney deemed it necessary to limit the use of weapons and ammunition that licensed vendors can have and distinguish that from competitive target shooting and hunting.

I went through 150 rounds of 5.56mm ammo the last time I was at the range, and that was a pretty laid-back session. If I’m shooting .22LR, going through a brick at the range in a single day is not uncommon. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who go through 500 rounds in a day or two, let alone an entire year.

I fail to see what such restrictions would seek to accomplish.

In addition, this restriction stands out:

The measure will also limit the quantity of weapons that a person con posses[sic] to take to a gun club.

“It is imperative that we control the transfer from one place to another of the firearms that are owned in Puerto Rico. With this measure we avoid possible tragedies by gun accidents and thefts,” Torres said.

Yes, they want to limit the number of firearms one can transport from home to the range. What the hell will that do?

Despite some of the tightest firearms restrictions in the United States, Puerto Rico also has one of the highest homicide rates, with drug-related gun violence blamed for the majority of the killings.

Gee, ya think?

Violent crime is a symptom. Get rid of drug smuggling, and violent crime drops through the floor. Being that the drug smugglers have no qualms about violating prohibitions on drugs, I suspect they will continue to have no problems violating firearms restrictions. Once again, gun control only affects the law-abiding.

One good thing, however, is mentioned. They say that after the Heller case, there’s now 800 registered gun owners in DC. Yes, it sucks to have to jump through the outrageous hoops they put in the way, but at least some people are standing up for their rights.

Be Handy, Save Money

Problem: Motor scooter idles rough, frequently stalls at idle, and generally runs poorly. It wasn’t always like this.

Spendy: Mechanic wants ~$70 for diagnosis and repairs.

Handy: Open carburetor access hatch. Inspect for obvious defects. Find cracked vacuum hose.

Cheap: Spend $1.39 for new vacuum hose. Replace hose. Scooter runs great.

While being specialized skills can be a definite perk, just having a base level of “handiness” can be…well…handy. Knowing how to troubleshoot, find, and fix problems with commonly-encountered things (e.g. computers, guns, vehicles, home electrical appliances, plumbing, etc.) can be rewarding, useful, and cost-effective.

Just don’t hurt yourself too badly while learning. :)

Ben Avery

Last weekend I went to the Ben Avery range, which is located a bit north of Phoenix.

For the price of $7, I was afforded access to one of the crown jewels of shooting ranges. The main rifle range has 67 firing positions, and allows any firearms (including full-auto, which several people were shooting that day) with caliber restrictions on the .416 Barrett, .50 BMG, tracers (fire risk), and AP. The main range has target positions from 5 yards to 200 yards, with other ranges including excellent shotgun facilities and a 1000 yard range, not to mention archery facilities.

Each firing position has a sturdy, stable concrete table and steel-and-wood seats that are well-maintained, sturdy, and comfortable. There’s a screen between each position that prevents shooters from being struck with brass from the neighboring positions. Every aspect of the main public range was well-maintained, in good repair, and modern.

There’s a substantial number of attentive, well-trained safety officers that routinely walk the line, check that guns are cleared during cease-fires, and answer questions. I was extremely impressed by the safety officer’s professionalism; in my experience it’s not uncommon for RSOs to be somewhat curmudgeonly, old-fashioned (“Why do you need an ‘assault rifle’?”), and the like, but the Ben Avery staff was excellent. Even the cashier (they take Visa and MasterCard, in addition to cash) was polite, cheery, and professional. There’s a hot dog and drink vendor in the parking lot, right near the grassy field and playground for children.

While I was there, I was also impressed by the extreme diversity of people there. The staff was a mix of men and women of all types, both old and young, and the shooters included a mix of just about every conceivable group: men and women of every skin color, age group, size, shape, and experience level were there. There were women in their 20s who were training with expensive match rifles, a grandfather teaching his grandson to shoot a .22 rifle, a middle-aged black couple shooting what looked like a matched pair of revolvers, a couple who looked to be in their early 30s shooting a suppressed .308 rifle, and some folks shooting full-auto at the extreme end of the range. I overheard several languages being spoken. In the parking lot, vehicles ranged from pickups to Priuses. Open carry was common, but by no means ubiquitous. Truly, a cross-section of humanity, all coming together for a fun, safe afternoon at the range.

I’ve written about a few ranges in the past, many of which were well-equipped and praiseworthy, but I’ve never been as impressed with a range than I was with Ben Avery. The Arizona Department of Game and Fish runs a fine range, and I’m glad such a place is not terribly far from where I live. Like the Swiss, Arizonans take shooting seriously.

One of the best experiences of the day was being (politely and cheerily) told to “please take a number and we’ll call you when a lane opens up” — even with the economy not doing so hot, there’s evidently enough people interested in shooting that they’ll take the time and resources to head out to the range that there’s a waiting list to get in, even with 67 public firing positions. Truly, this is why we win.

In addition to being so massively impressed with the range, I also got some shooting done. I re-zeroed one of my ARs for a new ammo and was shooting some targets at 25 and 100 yards. While the rifle is as accurate as ever, I’m woefully out of practice and my groups were embarrassingly large, especially considering I was shooting from a bench. I really should go to an Appleseed shoot at some time.

Anyone in the Phoenix area want to go shooting on a semi-regular basis?

Football Fun

Football Ref on TV: “Neutral Zone infraction…”

Me: “Neutral Zone? What the hell? Isn’t that what separates the Romulans from the Federation?”

Wife: [laughing, followed by detailed, informative explanation]

I love being married to a nerdy, intelligent woman who likes football and beer.