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April 17, 2014: Another Blackberry, or...?

Keywords: Blackberry, Z10, Torch 9810, T-Mobile, Nokia, Android, 4G LTE, UMA, WiFi Calling, Bluetooth, VPN
Blackberry 9810 and Z10 in holsters I normally have a backup for each vital piece of equipment - cellphone, laptop, etc. So, as I only have the one Blackberry - my last upgrade had a $50 discount provided I returned the "old" Blackberry I replaced - I had been thinking about getting another. An issue with Blackberry and T-Mobile is that only the Blackberrys T-Mobile sells itself have the AWS frequencies necessary to support 3G and 4G, not to mention its WiFi Calling (UMA) feature. I had been looking at the refurbished Z10s available from T-Mobile's website, but at almost $300 I found them a bit steep for my wallet, even though a new Z10 lists at $468. I was waiting for them to come down when RIM announced they would not renew their T-Mobile contract, and so April 25 turned out to be the cutoff date.

Like it or not, I ended up parting with $324, to make sure I had another Blackberry - part of the reason, if you're wondering, is that I have a Blackberry Playbook tablet, which talks to the handsets, so wanted to stay with the brand. Another reason is that I do not like the way Google has implemented Android - a phone whose every keystroke, call, location, word and sentence is reported to, and used by, Google is really a bit steep. I have a Galaxy in the car, one I use as a dashcam and engine monitor, it reports the car's location when I am not driving it, I don't have a problem with that level of reporting, but the idea that Google knows what I tell my friends, has their numbers and locations, and knows when I stop at what Starbucks for a coffee is way too much for me. It is actually anathema to me why there isn't more noise about this - the majority of consumers do not seem to care. As an aside, the picture on the right shows the way the Blackberry is worn, traditionally, in a belt holster that switches the handset to standby mode automatically. I love that - you never leave your phone somewhere, and it is hard to snatch,something that seems to be an increasing problem in major conurbations. One the left the Blackberry Z10 I just got, on the right my May 2012 Blackberry Torch 9810.

Starbacks Chaoyang Beijing For those interested, my T-Mobile lines are now all "paid up" - none are subject to contract any more, and I own the handsets on them. Unlike other carriers, T-Mobile switches its subscribers to month-to-month service when their contract is up, and they do not owe money on handsets, always has done. That means I don't have the very latest greatest Galaxys or iPhones, but then I really don't see what they would bring me. What apps I actually need I have on my Blackberry Z10 or Nokia C7 - one of the nice aspects of this is that I can use my Nokia as a GPS device, with Nokia's excellent maps, while still being able to use the Z10 to make calls while I am in the car. The concept of getting a super expensive smartphone on which I then have to do everything - dunno, ever tried to take a call while you're using your GPS device, which is downloading email at the same time? I can tell you, as a seasoned developer, that the people who write these apps do very shoddy work, don't test except on the highest end devices, and generally have little understanding of data security. I don't even want to get started on the amount of personal information they do not need their apps insist on, nevertheless - setting up LinkedIn, the other day, it insisted on having access to my phone book, and the details of my T-Mobile account - why?

I am not a good reviewer of smartphones, if you're looking for that, anyway - I have little interest in the gazillions of "apps" that are available, and think the news website reviews of apps are ridiculous - you can usefully review software if you use it all the time, for, say, six months, otherwise you have no idea how well it handles data, how good or bad the updates are, and so on. A friend show me an Andoid app that shows you crime in your local area, the other day - to be honest, that's something you can get from your local cop shop, carrying it around in your phone is completely useless, it isn't as if crime statistics change every other day. Similarly, I was using the Caroo vehicle performance monitoring app, only to find that update 11 or 12 no longer provided meaningful MPG numbers, for whatever reason, and the makers concentrate so much on large sized smartphones the app can no longer handle smaller screens, and that it was no longer possible to file reviews, because Google no longer lets you do that unless you do it via Google+. The latter is truly dysfunctional - you'd think that app reviews are important to all users, so if you restrict the number of people able to post reviews, your purpose is no longer information sharing and user support.

So, while in the olden days having the latest greatest handset on a carrier subscription might have made sense, today this Z10 gives me all the networking I need, considering my plan includes overseas service, high speed networking (4G LTE), Bluetooth tethering, and UMA (a.k.a. WiFi Calling), all without surcharge. It is something we've waited for for many years, mobile carriers in the United States, unlike their overseas counterparts, have been using partial surcharges for just about any service they could, from 4G to overseas email, etc. T-Mobile has broken that mold, although it remains to be seen whether the mold will stay broken, or is just a sales gimmick.

For any business, being the largest is an expensive exercise, because everybody is competing with you, and growing larger than largest only works by investing disproportionally. There is a segment of the population that will automatically gravitate to "largest", but then there is a segment of the population that will sit down with the calculator and figure out which service gives best value - the largest rarely do. Yes, getting service on the Queensboro Bridge is really important if you're a limo driver, but beyond that, if you can save $12 per month by not having service on the Queensboro bridge, but you have good service in Queens and Manhattan and on Roosevelt Island, saving $12 just might be acceptable.

Perhaps T-Mobile has understood that offering things others don't pays off, down the road. I've stuck with T-Mobile for a couple of reasons. First of all, they offer UMA, which meant I could make free calls to North American destinations from any WiFi network, whether at home or in Beijing, and additionally gives an encrypted VPN connection for data, at least on my older Blackberry using BIS. Secondly, for a monthly charge of $15 I could use unlimited data and email while traveling overseas, something I could turn on per trip. Nobody else offered this combo - especially UMA, which effectively turns every Starbucks on the planet into a free calling zone for the price of a cup of coffee (in Beijing, add an egg salad sandwich, which is otherwise impossible to get in China) is brilliant. I am afraid I don't actually have a picture of a Chinese egg salad sandwich, but I do have one of a Starbucks cappucino with a Starbucks fried egg breakfast sandwich, and yes, that was taken at the Beijing Chaoyang Starbucks, next to Sanlitun, as you can see from the mug they believe in customer service over there.

So, briefly back to the Blackberry Z10, and my first impressions... The thin battery lasts a day, barely, but a spare is just $7. There are barely any buttons on the casing, and none that are essential, which is magic, because I have (had) quite a few phones that let you accidentally push buttons without realizing it. And by now, "bedside mode" has been implemented, so I am not losing my trusted Blackberry alarm clock. While I have not been able to get the Bluetooth modem up, the Z10 has Bluetooth tethering built in, as wel as Hotspot functionality, and those works very well indeed - there are both a Bluetooth VPN and a Bluetooth Personal Area Network available, still working out how all that works. All that, by the way, is included in my T-Mobile plan, which is not bad at all.

Tuesday February 18, 2014: Windows is losing it

Keywords: Microsoft, Windows, Google, Motorola, Lenovo, IBM
Toshiba laptop Whether I contracted a virus, Microsoft distributed a contaminated update file, I made the same mistake myself on both my Vaio and my Lenovo, I'll probably never know. I had to completely reinstall both of my systems, not in itself a huge deal as I like maintaining that skillset, and have a very complete backup system. The reinstall even managed to fix some problems I was seeing on the Lenovo since I had upgraded that to a terabyte drive, problems likely due to the way I had tried to clone the original 500GB disk to the terabyte version. Since the reinstall, the disk is much happier, and I am able to run normal maintenance and diagnostics on it, as well as automated compression, something the new disk refused to do, so something worked.

One thing I have not done is re-upgrade to Windows 8.1. Having used that for six months or so, I found some of my old trusty windows tools were removed - no more Windows Image, no more performance measurements, and, in general, Windows 8.1 is aimed more at tablets than it is at laptops. Especially the inability to do a full Windows image, so you can reinstall your system, is a major bitch. While you can kind of kluge it using WBAdmin under Windows Powershell, that won't back up your disk hierarchy or your boot partition under 8.1, the mind really boggles what made Microsoft take that away. Not upgrading is not as easy as it sounds - once you're up under Win8, a banner will come up "inviting" you to upgrade to Windows 8.1, a banner you cannot turn off or bypass. It directs you to go to the Microsoft Store, which is on your desktop, from where you're supposed to upgrade. Turning off the reminder is not possible (unless you go into Windows' innards to change settings). Having done that update before, you lose so much functionality, not to mention being forced to connect to Microsoft with your Microsoft email address, that I have decided to decline for now - I need (and paid for) an operating system, not a personal information collection engine.

At any rate, whatever the problem was, I have now reinstalled both my computers, one with Windows 7, one with Windows 8 - the Windows 7 variant because I have several software packages that won't run under Windows 8, unless I spend money I don't have to upgrade them. Besides, when I ran Windows 8 on the Vaio I had to tweak a lot by hand, and noticed that, amongst others, the DVD drive would not get recorgnized. Before too long, the Vaio will expire - the motherboard battery died already - and then I'll be able to upgrade whatever I buy next to Windows 8 Pro, all payed up, backed up and waiting to be used.

So: Google sells Motorola, and Facebook makes massive profits on "mobile advertising" using bandwidth its users pay carriers and ISPs for. It all just boggles my mind. I never really understood why Google bought Motorola, at one time a serious contender in the mobile market, but then ours is not to reason why, Google branches into lots of fields just to test the waters, or so it seems. But then the mobile advertising... of course, I have to realize "mobile", these days, means smartphones that are almost as large as tablets, and tablets that are almost as large as laptops. And, probably, very many users have just the phone, or just a simple phone and the tablet, because having a PC as well likely gets a bit expensive. If you grow up "on" the smartphone you can pretty much do everything on that. Just because I don't means I haven't transferred certain functions to the mobile world. I do have Microsoft Office on one of my mobiles, I've just never had any inclination to use that on a small screen. All it gave me was an understanding why Microsoft eventually bought Nokia. Even Skype runs on my Nokia, which I think I got just before I moved to Washington State. That's right, I got the C7 in 2011, because it came with a free navigation application and free maps. I didn't want to drive right across the country with just one older (2007) GPS phone, and no backup.

Lenovo, the Chinese chappies who now bought Motorola, are a truly fascinating outfit. Buying IBM's PC division, back in 2004, was a bit of a coup, but they've gone from strength to strength, this without the apparently "tainted" financing that hampers other Chinese companies, Huawei is a good example. I am writing this on a Lenovo laptop, still with much of the IBM Thinkpad engineering that made that line such a hit, but too expensive for Big Blue to maintain.

But I cannot help but wsonder whether Nokia will leave Microsoft the same way Motorola left Google. Between the Surface tablet and Nokia, it seems Microsoft is positioning itself to become a player in the mobile space, but then Apple and Google, both of which have based their operating systems on UNIX, seem to have solid control in the mobile world, and all I can see for Microsoft is its bloated Windows operating system, great on servers and PCs, not so great on a small mobile device. The Windows 8.1 "hybrid" iteration is so horrendous I am not using it.

Wednesday January 28, 2014: From China to Sochi, they want your money

Keywords: Microsoft, Windows, shellfish, Safeway, Express-Scripts, medication, BBC
Frozen shellfish from China Those intrepid Chinese export lots of foods, especially fish, in bulk, and recently I've noticed bags of mixed frozen seafood, with crab, mussels, shrimp, clams, a mix of shellfish, quite reasonably priced, around $6 per bag or so. You defrost the bag in the fridge, and then you can do whatever, here is an example of a simple mix of seafood and veg. Season to taste, it is quickly cooked and should be healthier than burgers 'n stuff. As you look at what the Chinese make and export, you can tell their response to the global recession is one of innovation - until they came up with this I'd never seen mixed seafood like this, they tried it out last year, now there is a freezer section for it. The crab? Not surimi, but the Real Thing. That should send some seafood lovers running for Safeway, where I noticed it.

Urg. I think I need to reinstall Windows on that fancy new big disk, because I can no longer install updates. That's kind of the news of the week - I tried everything I know how (and there are a lot more tools today than even a year ago, to the point of confusion), but nothing worked. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the changes Microsoft made to create Windows 8.1 to facilitate faster disk management may have something to do with this, possibly in combination with the way I moved my Windows install from the old disk to the new. When you try to use WBADMIN to create a system image, you find that it is no longer possible to create a full "bare metal" image, one that will let you fully reinstall. The command string that forces WBADMIN to back up your main partition as well as your boot partition no longer works. So what you end up doing is reinstalling Windows, and then moving the C: partition image back. Several folks on the Microsoft forums think that works, and it did - except now I've got a problem, although I don't know if that is or is not related. I did find a spurious user on my system that I can't place. That's always a problem - that could be a virus trying to "own" bits of the OS, it could be my other system, since I have now mounted my main disk on the other PC - perhaps I should not be doing that, and just export individual directories, rather than the entire root of C:. Hmm. Let's do that first - I mean, I do have to reinstall, but I might as well see what is different when I turn off the main "share". Windows is such a mess, after all of Microsoft's attempts at creating its own networking environment, over the years. Urgh.

Not, otherwise, a brilliant week for me. Especially having a hard time with the medicos and pharmacies - Medco, now Express-Scripts, in particular gives me a hard time. The latest episode has it that, as of last January 1st, Medicare D patients have to confirm they want a medication after it has been prepared. To make things hard, Express-Script's call automation does not work properly, and that means you get only the tail end of a voicemail message, without any indication who it is from - I'll see if I can post a link here.

Because Express-Scripts' subsidiary Accredo makes nuisance calls by the dozen, this to try and force the patient to order medication ahead of time, so they can bill your employer sooner, they use dozens of rotating numbers without caller ID, so you cannot program in who calls you. The consequence is that you don't get Express-Scripts' messages - "we can't by law mention your medication in a voicemail" - and they will not email about this. They will email you if your doctor has not renewed your prescription, they will email you when they ship something, but they will not email you if you need to confirm something. Especially their service calling you, for months on end, about medication you no longer take, is astonishing. They will happily ship you conflicting medications, even though, as a pharmacy, they are supposed to prevent that from happening, something high street pharmacists do routinely. I ought to really do some research about how much medication they ship unnecessarily, and, if they can manage it, without an order from the patient, a.k.a. the consumer.

Sochi. Watching Justin Rowlatt and Anita Rani trundle all over Mother Russia on BBC, I wonder, as I often do, how much Western folk really understand about Eastern cultures. Not just Russia, when I watch the China reporting I get the same feeling, both countries with a Marxist underpinning, both countries with a strong Asian ethnicity, which is very different from ours. I don't really have the words to explain this - that's an unusual thing for me to say - I suppose I could write a book, but I always feel that if you need more than a couple of paras to explain your point, you've just lost 98% of your audience. It is something I learned long ago, working in the Dutch journalistic elite, you're preaching to the converted, which is, basically, indescribably boring. Perhaps that is why the Jew does a mitzvah, when the deed counts, not the word. I've always liked that about Judaism, it is a practical religion, not that philosophical.

This disconnect is clear, though - and I must say again that our propensity to talk about democracy as if it is something we invented, and have ownership of, annoys the heck out of me. I think it is probably one of the most ill-defined philosophies extant, and when I see how our version of it shuts out vast armies of impoverished citizens from the basic needs of human society - basic technology, advanced education, medical care, healthy food - I can't say we do much better than all these folk we look down on.



The time machine from December 15, 2013, with linkbacks to October, 2008, is archived here

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