Friday, January 28, 2011

Nerd alert! Adventures at Macworld.

I spent a couple of hours at Macworld yesterday--my first time.  I have thought about going before, but having a free ticket pushed me over the edge.

Macworld is not the event it once was.  It used to take over the entire Moscone Center, and now it is merely the main hall on the west side--about a quarter of what it was.  Apple does not bother to show up in any official capacity, preferring to focus on more general trade shows.  This makes sense.  Why preach to the faithful when you want to grow market share amongst the heathens.

I saw a few interesting things.  I ended up buying a fancy charging stand from IDAPT that holds multiple devices of any sort and charges them.  I also got a protective thin film covering for my MB Air, which comes a bit too late as I scuffed it last weekend.

Vendors ranged from the very cool, like Dragon Dictation.
To the bizarre......
This will get you beaten up.

I am an Apple whore, and even I would not really consider using my iPhone as part of my BBQ apparatus.

But I bet this guy would use it, not probably not to roast a pig....

These "customizable" iPhone covers were cool....not available yet, but when they are, I will get one and let my kids decorate it.

One thing I was not tempted to try was any of the headsets/earphones that were available.  A couple of vendors actually had boxes of the little rubber ear nubs so that yours were unused, but most just laid out a pair for person after person to try on......yuck.

And here was something you need for your know, to use it as a phone, if the whole magic of wireless makes you confused.

The people watching at Macworld was awesome.  If you don't think you will survive a Star Trek convention, this is a good warmup.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Verizon iPhone?

Like many longtime iPhone users, I have grown quite unhappy with AT&T's service.  My iPhone is practically useless for data in SF, and I often end up firing up my Verizon MiFi.  For calls it is much better. A lot of people complain about dropped calls, but my experience is pretty good.  And, of course, the customer service rivals United Airlines.  Check out these happy missives from an AT&T rep.

Unfortunately, my iPhone fell out of my jersey pocket about a month ago while I was cycling at about 20mph.  This scenario is apparently outside of the design spec, but it handled it well.  It fell face down (ouch), so it popped out of the case.  The ziploc I carry it in provided little protection (too bad it did not fall in a puddle), but the glass was only dinged up by the corners.  Unfortunately, it appears that I concussed my little phone, and it has not recovered.  It runs at about 1/3 to 1/2 of normal speed, which has become maddening.  Click the home button, and it may or may not do something, but you have to wait a few seconds, before clicking again, or it might think you were double-clicking.  Folders open very slowly, and apps launch with a delay.  Typing sometimes freezes for 5 seconds.

It basically has had a stroke, and now has the mental faculties of my first generation iPod Touch.  To replace it with a new one will cost $700, or $500 if I use my upgrade eligibility with AT&T.  At those price levels, I can pay the outrageous early termination fee of $325 and get a new one on Verizon, and come out close to the same.

So how do the carriers stack up in my estimation?

Verizon iPhone


  • Reliable network with decent data speeds
  • Hotspot ability
  • Not AT&T

  • No calling and data usage at the same time
  • No roaming internationally
  • Network might get slammed over the next year

AT&T iPhone


  • GSM--works abroad, and can call and use data at the same time.
  • Rollover minutes--I paid for them, don't take my minutes away.
  • The Devil I know.

  • Serious network issues in SF
  • No Hotspot capability (a policy matter more than a hardware constraint)
  • No current unlimited data plan (but I am grandfathered in on my unlimited plan)

But, I think I am going to stay with AT&T.  I am presuming that over the next 6 months, as subscribers head for the exit to Verizon, that the network will improve.  Both because there will be a bit less traffic, and because AT&T will be forced to spend some money before it stock price completely craters.  Of course, there are probably all sorts of government impediments to getting more towers up in SF.  But, hey AT&T, this is the town of Willie Brown.  Money solves things here.  Also, my wife and I are on a family plan, so I would have to get her a new iPhone as well.

The ability to use GSM abroad is nice, but I don't really travel abroad any more.  And when I did, I had a separate phone to avoid getting gouged for roaming (and calls at 3am GMT from your buddies).  I do use the voice and data simultaneously reasonably often.  I may be on the phone in the car and want to check traffic on Google Maps to figure out a way around congestion.  Or I may be checking in to a location whilst on a call.  It is alleged that Verizon is working to fix this in 2011.

Rollover minutes are philosophically appealing because I paid for those minutes, and I like the idea that I have some flexibility about when I use them.  Of course, having multiple data devices because I can't use the iPhone as a hotspot overcomes the financial savings of rollover by a long way.  The pinch with Verizon's iPhone hotspot is that you cannot be on the phone at the same time.  So you are working away in a coffee shop with a couple of colleagues, and the phone rings, so you have to end the data session.  Or you want to be on a conference call at the same time.  Free wifi is getting scarce, so this is a real problem.  But, I did read today a rumor that AT&T will offer the same thing in March.  However, AT&T's tethering plan does not make much sense.  It includes tethered use in your measly 2GB monthly bucket of data.  Verizon gives you a separate 5  GB allocation for tethered data (though they charge more for it).

The good news for me is that I suspect there will be a bunch of pissed off AT&T iPhone users who will move in February to Verizon.  This will create a flood of used GSM iPhone 4s, and I can pick one up to replace my crippled unit without extending my contract period.

I think that next year, when we might see an LTE-capable iPhone on Verizon, will be a more compelling case to switch.  LTE is a GSM-based standard, so it will definitely support simultaneous data and voice.  And, it will be faster.  Mind you, raw download speed is rarely a limitation for me.  Pulling emails and simple browsing is more about network latency and the strength of the data signal.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rants on bureaucrats

A recent ride on the Queen K Highway on the Big Island got me thinking about some of the stupid decisions made by bureaucrats and coin-operated politicians.  Granted, many private company executives make stupid decisions, but they often get fired for them.  And, as a taxpayer, I feel like I can gripe about how my dollars are spent.

Here is Exhibit A.  Road Shoulder Indicators

These gouges in a perfectly good road surface are there to let motorists know that they are deviating from the road.  The reflector on the left performs the same role.  Both are annoying to cyclists, and in the case of the gouges, actually are so bumpy that they bounced my water bottle out of its cage.

Now, if you are so drunk, stoned or stupid that you don't notice the thumping from the reflectors, you probably won't notice the gouges either.  And, in any case, as a society don't we want you to run off the road and perhaps remove yourself from the gene pool, instead of recovering so that you can wander into oncoming traffic and take someone else with you?

Headset requirement

In many states, including California, there are now laws in place that require you to use a headset when you are driving whilst on the phone.  This seems like a good idea at first examination.  If you are a politician, it certainly seems like a good idea when the lobbyist for the headset manufacturers (which pushed the bill in CA) takes you to nice lunches.

The problem is that with real science, this turns out to be exactly a bad idea.  You see, the problem is not that holding a phone causes distracted driving and leads to accidents.  The problem is that talking on the phone causes distracted driving.  A University of Utah study showed no difference in the cognitive distraction between talking on the handset or handsfree.  A Nordic study show the same result.  But here is the rub.  Using a headset is more comfortable, and therefore you spend more time talking on the phone.  So........using a headset is more dangerous.  Apparently the lobbyist failed to mention that.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Our esteemed politicians continue to use my tax dollars to provide generous subsidies to corn farmers.  This makes corn super cheap, and an end result is that High Fructose Corn Syrup is cheaper to use than sugar.  Well, our bodies evolved to process sugar efficiently and with minimal disruption, but HFCS is like sugar on meth.  Many pediatricians believe it is a leading cause of child obesity.  Your body just does not deal with it well, and it creates a blood sugar spike, followed by an insulin reaction, followed by feeling hungry.

The irrationality here is made complete by Mexican Coke.  You see, Mexico does not have ridiculous corn subsidies.  With the artificial subsidy, good old sugar is still the sweetener of choice.  So Coke in Mexico is made with sugar, not HFCS.  Even better--I pay extra to get Mexican Coke, that has to travel all this way, in order to avoid HFCS.  You are now starting to see it in a lot of upscale markets and at Costco.

We talk about reforming health care costs, while our government promotes a childhood obesity epidemic with subsidies for poison.  Nice.

Things I still use (almost) every day

At the suggestion of a friend, I am updating my post from a year ago about the gadgets I use frequently.  I was thinking not much has changed, but there have been subtle adjustments.  This is because I think the past year has been mostly evolutionary in terms of technology.  The only big change is the iPad--of course I have one.  I got it on launch day and have used it almost every day since.

Let's review last year's list:
  1. Canon S90
  2. Vibram Five Finger Shoes
  3. Evernote
  4. Google
  5. iPhone
  6. Motorola BT715HS bluetooth headset
  7. Dropbox
  8. RSS & Twitter
  9. 1Password
  10. Xmarks
Of course, as I go over the list, I realize a few things have changed.

Let's add the iPad to the list.  While I am actually underwhelmed by the iPad as a laptop replacement, I still use mine every day to read the newspaper, scan RSS feeds and show videos to the kids.  I can now read the Economist, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and HBR on it.  With Hulu I can watch TV on it (though I don't bother).  You can read more about my thoughts on the iPad here and here.

The awesome portability but crippled power of the iPad led me to get a MacBook Air 13" in November.  The Air is an amazing machine.  It has almost all the power of the MB Pro 15" I purchased only 15 months ago, in half the size.  The difference in the weight of my bag is more dramatic than I expected.  Between the laptop itself and the smaller power brick, I have probably dropped about 3 pounds, but it feels like more than that.  See my review here.

The Canon S90 was in regular use until it met with death by Diet Coke three weeks ago, at the start of our family vacation.  It had seen some hard use and was not the camera it once was--picture quality was definitely waning.  I was going to replace it with the newer S95, but ended up getting a $100 Canon something or other at Target instead.  This was due to a combination of factors.  In the summer I purchased a Canon T2i DSLR, which takes amazing photos and is my go-to camera when I know I will be taking pictures, and can be bothered to carry it.  So I used the S90 less, and it was really my wife who was using it.  She just throws gadgets in her purse, which, judging by the abuse dished out to said gadgets in a short time frame, must be filled with sharp rocks.  The lens was covered in fingerprints, and the casing and LCD were scratched.  So, when I thought about what fate awaited the new camera, I decided something more disposable was in order.

Another factor is that we are both carrying the iPhone 4, which has a pretty decent camera on it.  It does not work well for poorly lit shots, but for everything else it is quite decent.  Add the ability to upload to Facebook or wherever immediately, and it becomes a compelling snapshot machine.  I am still thinking about getting an S95.  They can be had for $370 now, and carrying the DSLR is a pain.  Olympus just threw the XZ-15 into the same ring, with an even better lens, but it will be $500 and looks to be a bit bigger.  I have also considered getting a Micro 4/3 camera, but halfway in size between a point and shoot and a DSLR is kind of no man's land--you can't put it in your pocket, so why not carry the big iron?

Speaking of the iPhone, it obviously stays on the list.  The iPhone 4 was a nice, but not necessary upgrade from my 3Gs.  It is not really any faster, but I like the display and the better camera.  I also use the LED flash as a flashlight (using LED Light for iPhone).  Having a connected camera is really a game changer, and we are just starting to see the camera manufacturers figure that out with some of the products being launched this week at CES.  Sadly, my iPhone 4 tumbled out of my jersey pocket on a ride a month ago.  It survived with a few scratches, but it seems to be running at half speed, which is infuriating.  I have considered downgrading back to my 3Gs.  I have also considered waiting for the Verizon iPhone and swapping carriers if I have to get a new phone anyway.  For now I am in wounded iPhone limbo.

I have even considered getting an Android phone, but it still feels like the OS is not as slick as iOS, and the app ecosystem around it is certainly less developed.  Ultimately, I think that Android will be 3/4 of the smartphone market, but it will be the bottom 3/4.

I still have my Vibram Five Finger shoes, and they are still my preferred footwear for going to the gym.  I do a lot of my exercises from unstable positions (to activate my core), and these shoes really help you feel planted to the ground.  I don't wear them every day, though.  Mine have no insulation, so they are not great outside in winter (there are models with insulation).

I still use Evernote for taking notes and storing key articles.  Other options have come on the market, but Evernote for me is still the king.

I have further entwined myself into Google's web in the past year.  I still use them for mail and contacts.

All is not rosy, however, in my marriage to Google.  I was a bit disappointed that the Exchange integration for the iPhone requires that you enter your security code if you have not used the iPhone for 5 mins.  There should be more flexibility in those settings.  I also can't accept a meeting invitation from my wife, who is still using iCal, on my iPhone.  I can only seem to do it from the desktop browser.

Google also messed up my two tier identity.  I have a gmail that I use for lower priority emails and things like this blog, Picasa and YouTube.  When Google went to their single sign-on system, it made things harder, not easier.  Now when I log into a Google service with my Gmail handle, it logs me out of my primary Google Apps email.  So, I end up using a separate browser for my Gmail stuff.  That seems retarded, and hopefully they are working that out.  I know that they are focused on the problem, because a lot of people have a similar setup with a Google Apps account and a consumer Gmail account.

I generally use the browser client for Gmail, but when I feel like going desktop, I use Postbox.  It is miles better than Apple Mail for Gmail or Google Apps mail.

Chrome is now my default browser.  Firefox works a bit better for extensions and a couple of websites I use (eg. Strava), but it is slow, and seems to churn the processor incessantly.  And, it crashes.  With Chrome, each tab is a separate instance, and so only a single tab will crash, without taking down the whole browser.  A key enabler for me was 1Password (for filling passwords and forms) getting their Chrome extension sorted out, which really only happened towards the end of 2010.

Speaking of 1Password, I still use it, obviously, but I have been thinking about moving to LastPass, for two reasons.  First, I received one of the Google CR-48 netbooks with the ChromeOS, which I also use just about every day.  1Password does not work with ChromeOS yet, but that will presumably change soon.  LastPass also bought Xmarks, which is use for syncing bookmarks across browsers and machines.  Xmarks has been a bit balky lately, but I think that is because I was syncing Chrome with its built in synchronization option as well as Xmarks, and they were conflicting.  Roboform has also moved on to the Mac side.  Roboform was my choice for filling passwords and forms until I went to the Mac, and it was Windows-only until recently.  So now there are 3 good choices.  I need to play around a bit to decide which I like best.  That is not high on the to do list.

The ChromeOS is interesting, and almost to the point that I could use it as my travel machine.  The hardware is crap, especially the trackpad, but that will be fixed by the public release.  My bigger issue is that I am not ready to go 100% web-based yet.  I still use MS Office for a few things where I need more power than Google Docs can provide.  So the daily use prize goes to the MB Air, and the ChromeOS netbook gets used often, but out of curiosity as much as anything.

The Motorola headset has been replaced by a Jawbone Icon.  People complained constantly about the sound quality of the Motorola.  People still complain about the Jawbone, but not as much.  Basically bluetooth headsets seem to be a half-baked technology.  I use old-school Jabra ear gels on my headset to get it snug in my ear.

Dropbox is also still a huge benefit for me.  I work across multiple machines, and Dropbox makes it easy, as well as providing an additional backup for key files.  Speaking of backup, I should also add my Drobo to the everyday list.  My old external backup drive crapped out, leaving me feeling very vulnerable.  The Drobo is basically a faux RAID array.  It is not cheap, but it is very flexible and I can upgrade capacity as I need it quite cheaply.  I use a multi-layer backup strategy, which I will detail in a separate post because it is boring, and the Drobo is a key element.  Apple betrayed me in November when an iPhoto upgrade corrupted my wife's iPhoto file, causing much consternation.  I, of course, took the brunt of the blame for attempting so foolish a thing as an upgrade.  I learned a few things from that.

And that gets us, finally, to RSS and Twitter.  Despite some recent articles that RSS is dead, I still use it as my primary source for consuming news.  I use Google Reader on the desktop, and MobileRSS on my iPhone and iPad (which syncs fully with Google Reader).  Twitter has become more useful with Flipboard on my iPad, which dramatically improves the readability Twitter by previewing the content--most tweets now are just a headline with a link.

So I guess I should add Flipboard to the list--it is awesome.  And, it can now integrate your Google Reader feeds.  I still prefer an RSS Reader for this, though, because I find it more efficient, but that may change with time.

And we can add my Garmin cycling computer.  I use it every day that I ride, and that is most days.  I am a data geek, and I like to know everything.  The Garmin tells me where I have been, how long it took, my heart rate, power output, temp, speeds, etc.  What has made it cooler is being able to upload it to Strava and compare my performance against myself and others.

So, where does that leave us?  We lost a camera, but we gained an iPad.  The rest is mostly the same or swaps for incremental improvement.

  1. Canon S90--killed.  Missed but not replaced.
  2. Vibram Five Finger Shoes--still here.
  3. Evernote--still here.
  4. Google--still here, and more entangled than ever.
  5. iPhone--new version.
  6. Motorola BT715HS bluetooth headset--ditched for Jawbone Icon
  7. Dropbox--still loving it.
  8. RSS & Twitter--yep.
  9. 1Password--yes, but under review.
  10. Xmarks--yes.
  11. iPad
  12. Flipboard
  13. Drobo
  14. Garmin Edge
  15. MB Air 13"

Back 'em up!

Apple betrayed me a couple of months ago, and in doing so laid bare some erroneous assumptions about my data backup strategy.

When I got my MB Air, which came with iLife '11, I bought the new iLife for my other machines as well.  When I upgraded my wife's machine, it blew up and corrupted the iPhoto file.  This, as it turns out, happened to a lot of people.  This was inconvenient, to be sure, as her iPhoto file was 80 gb, and so recovering it would take a while.

Well, it was worse than that.  I had what I thought was a foolproof backup strategy.  That turned out not to be the case.

My backup strategy is layered:

  • Google for mail and contacts.
  • Dropbox--primary working files go here.
  • Time Machine (on a 1TB Time Capsule) for incremental backups of everything.
  • JungleDisk backing static files like music and photos to an Amazon S3 account.
  • Super Duper! making a clone of my hard drive every month or so to an external drive.
So far, so good.  The problem lay in the fact that Kate only has the Time Machine component.  She has external hard drives, but neglects to back anything up to them.

Time Machine has some problems.  If you never properly quit out of iPhoto, it can't back up the library.  Kate usually closes the window and assumes that the program has quit.  This is how it works in Windows, but not on the Mac OS.  You have to actually quit the program.  So, iPhoto stays open, along with Mail and other frequently used programs, all the time.  She did not have a recent Time Machine backup of her iPhoto library.

Also, recovering files from Time Machine turns out to be hit or miss.  In this case, it was mostly miss.  I could see the file I wanted, and start the recovery.  But it would always fail before finishing.  Perhaps this was because the file size was so large.  And, to make matters worse, it would work on recovering for about 24 hours before failing.

So, 3 days later, I am in ever increasing trouble with the wife, and not sure how to get her photos back.  Apple, had, in the meantime, 'fessed up to the fact that iPhoto '11 was a cluster, and issued an update.

Using third party software to browse the Time Machine backups, I was finally able to get her iPhoto file from about 2 weeks prior.  The whole process took almost a week--ugh!

A second thing happened that had me thinking about data backup.  My 1TB LaCie external hard drive failed.  I did not lose any data, but I felt a bit naked for a week.  I took the thing apart to see if I could recover the data from the hard drive inside.  It turns out that there are 2 500 gb drives, and some sort of control mechanism that meant I could not get the data off of the drives.

I replaced it with a more industrial grade solution--the Drobo.  The Drobo is basically a consumer-level RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) device.  It has 4 slots for drives.  With multiple drives, it replicates data across the drives so that when one fails, you don't lose any data.  You just replace the drive and keep on truckin'.  I got the lowest level, which is still $400 without drives--ouch!

So now I feel pretty solid on my backups.  My email and contacts are in the cloud with Google, and replicated locally on my machines.  The files I work on consistently are on Dropbox and replicated into the cloud as well as across my machines in real time.  JungleDisk backs those up again to the cloud plus adds my media, every 24 hours.  Time Machine is backing everything up, and may or may not let me recover it, every hour.  About once a month I copy media files to the Drobo, and make a bootable clone of my hard drive.

If I lose my laptop (likely), then I just change my Google passwords (even though I run 2 factor authentication), get a new one and I am back to normal within an hour.  In fact, I just assume that at some point someone will steal my laptop and I make arrangements accordingly.  That was the impetus for setting up my original layered backup system, when my laptop was my only machine.  Now, I really have data in too many places--I need to go through and prune stuff off of older machines that I don't use.

If someone cleans out my whole office, including the iMac, Drobo and Time Capsule, I can still recover my important data files easily, but it would take me a bit more time to set up my computers with all the software I use.

Overkill?  How valuable are the photos of your kids?  Can you recover them if someone steals your computer?  Your emails?

Speaking of which, how secure are your passwords?  If someone has access to your computer, do they have access to your usernames and passwords?  If you save them in your browser then they do.  Use a secure password manager like 1Password, LastPass or Roboform.