good enough

Posted July 27, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I ended up with a new phone about a month back; I didn’t want one, didn’t want to spend the money and bought on price.

So how is it? Like the headline says, good enough.

Here’s what happened: I was coming in from walking the dogs and somehow – I have no idea how – jammed the on/off switch on my HTC 8x, the stylish Win 8 phone I’ve been carrying for several months. The thing sat in a spare bedroom and buzzed every 30 seconds or so for hours as it cycled between on and off, before the battery finally gave up. It’s a beautifully shaped and styled phone, but there really wasn’t much force involved and the fact that it broke so easily is disappointing.

Anyway, I was now phoneless, so I dug out the HTC Trophy I used a year or so back. It remains a surprisingly competent phone even though it runs the deprecated Win 7; I could get almost every program on it that I could on the 8x, which maybe also says something about how slow progress is on the platform. But I wanted 4G, which meant a new phone was necessary.

Obviously, I could have bought an iPhone or a top line Android phone, but that would have meant either handing Verizon several hundred dollars of my money, or giving Verizon another two year commitment. Since one of my goals is to get all the phones in our family off contract, I did neither.

That left me with three choices: buy a very old iPhone, buy a newer used Android phone or buy another Windows phone. I could have bought an iPhone 4s for roughly $150 on ebay, with no guarantee other than the likelihood that the phone has already seen hard use. Nope. That left Android or more Windows. If I shopped it, I could find a used Moto X for about $200. That’s better, because the Moto X is a very recent phone and got strong reviews, all of which said, basically, “This phone is a bargain, both on price and design.” I was tempted, but again I wasn’t going to get a guarantee, and given the fact that  I’d be gambling that the phone was both in good shape and cleared for use on Verizon’s network, I passed.

So that left buying another Windows phone. Because the platform isn’t very popular, you can get great deals on refurbs and excess new stock. I ended up with a Nokia 822, a phone that’s about a year and a half old, brand new in a Verizon box. The screen took a little getting used to; it’s not nearly as high resolution as the 8x. It’s also boxy and not at all stylish, and it feels ever so slightly loose, like you could rattle it a little. (You can’t.) However, it’s every bit as fast as the 8x and has two things the other phone didn’t – a memory expansion slot and a battery you can replace. Not glamorous, but nice.

Because the screen is wider, and the resolution is lower, everything’s a little bigger, which suits my eyes just fine. Plus, the Nokia is better at making calls – reviewers criticized the audio quality, but the people I call like what they hear from this phone better than the 8x. And because it’s a Nokia, the company (now part of Microsoft) most invested in the Windows phone platform, I have a better chance of getting updates and fixes. (The only problem I’ve had was today, when plugging in headphones, and the right channel wasn’t there. A reboot fixed it.)

And the price? $134 shipped, with guarantee. I avoid extending my Verizon contract, which makes this a very good deal for me. The larger point is – Win phones are the best value out there for ordinary human beings who just want a phone and who can compromise a little on app availability, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Microsoft seems committed to the platform – the company just killed what many people believed was a “Plan B” Android phone that substituted Microsoft’s online services for Google’s – but most of the growth is reportedly taking place in low end phones, and in “developing countries,” where cheap tech rules. That means we can expect a few more years of slow growth and bargain prices.

keyboard blues

Posted July 27, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve been struggling lately with computers and more specifically, what to do for a laptop. My daily driver is a Win 7 Lenovo T61, and it’s getting old. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the cpu isn’t powerful enough to run some software I want to run, so I’m looking at replacements.

(I don’t buy tech often, and when I do, I buy old/used/refurb and cheap as a rule because nothing devalues faster than a computer/tablet/cell phone.)

First up was a Dell XPS 12, one of those “flip it one way and it’s a laptop, flip it the other it’s a tablet” things. It’s a lovely machine, lightning fast, but the trackpad was not great and the high resolution small screen was just a little too small for me. On top of that, the flip function…didn’t. The physical part works fine, but if I wanted to use the computer in what I think of as “stand mode,” I would have to manually adjust the software so it’s right side up. So the XPS went back.

Now I’m trying another Dell, a 7000 series, 14 inch machine. It has decent specs; an i5 chip, six gigs of memory, a 500 gig hard drive. The screen is a little dim, but I can live with that, and the battery life is tremendous. However, the keyboard is a deal breaker; it’s chiclet style, which is bad enough, but far worse is the action – writing this note has been an exercise in frustration. Almost every sentence has one, and often more than one, word with extra letters or skipped letters. Also, the track pad – which was supposed to be a highlight of this machine – isn’t good. The “track” part is fine, but the click function is terrible; you really have to bear down, and even when you do, it’s hard to tell the click was successful. One of the most common tasks, left clicking on the track pad and holding it down while swiping through copy, is far more difficult than it should be.

Laptop manufacturers appear to regard good keyboards and track pads as premium items. I spent 20 minutes in a store Saturday trying out various machines, and none of them were very good at the most basic distinction between laptops and tablets, the ability to type a lot, easily. That includes cheaper Lenovos – the decent keyboards seemed to be reserved for $1,000+ models. What this means is – I’m going to have to buy T series Lenovos (or maybe Dell Latitudes) going forward, which also means either spending more than I want to, or buying older machines than I want to. I really hate spending money on technology.

(My Lenovo’s keyboard and track pad is so far better than anything else I’ve tried as to be in a completely separate league. My experience with Latitude keyboards/track pads is they’re good enough.)

All that said, Dell’s Chromebook is great value for the money. I’m using the four gig version and even though the 11.6 inch screen is a little small for my 58 year old eyes, as a content consumption device it beats tablets in most respects, though I’m disappointed I can’t listen to Audible titles because the cloud player requires a Silverlight plug-in, unsupported in ChromeOS. And no small irony, it’s a lot better machine for typing as well.

 

pleasures of the pod

Posted July 2, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Here’s what I missed about podcasting, what I thought was a weakness – or at least I had trouble getting used to it – and now understand it as podcasting’s chief strength: it meanders.

This is no news at all to the millions of people who listen to podcasts already, but it is to me, who loved the idea of podcasting from the start but was annoyed by the implementation, the way people just, ummm, talked to each other.

My background in broadcasting doesn’t help, especially because I’m a product of commercial tv news where you don’t use many words, so everything has to count. You’re very goal-oriented. So 45 minutes of drifting in and out of a topic struck me as grossly inefficient and boring.

What I missed was the way a good podcast mirrors a good conversation in the real world, how you turn over an idea or an item from the news or you-name-it from a bunch of different angles. I find myself absorbing more about a given topic and, I think, getting a fairer take on the matter at hand.

A good podcast isn’t seat-of-the-pants of course; there’s preparation in the background. Windows Weekly, a favorite, alludes to the show notes, which get passed around in advance among the three hosts. It’s their ability to animate those notes, to digress from and return to them, which makes the show work.

I also like podcasts which are repurposed from radio – like the Fresh Air and Radiolab shows – but they don’t strike me as the main event. I know, I know – I’m laughably late to the party, but I tend to be this way about tech. I didn’t care about Twitter until I understood it as a highly personal wire service. I still don’t care about Facebook much because  I don’t value what it does best, work at the personal level.

I have yet to find the ideal podcast client; I finally understand Stitcher, and like it better than anything else, but it doesn’t let me download shows for offline listening and has some gaps which suprise me – Dave Douglas’s A Noise From The Deep isn’t on there, and neither is The Committed podcast with Kirk McIlhearn. So I’m using Stitcher, TuneIn Radio (I hate the new interface though) and Podcasts! on my Windows 8 phone.

 

new (to me) releases

Posted June 8, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

A decent Saturday at the record store, mostly used stuff. Some details for my future self:

- Wynton Marsalis, “Hothouse Flowers.” His third album, a ballads and strings affair; it came right before two of his greatest records, “Black Codes From The Underground” and “J Mood.” “Flowers” is generally regarded as inconsequential; it’s not Clifford Brown or Charlie Parker with strings, certainly, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it – it was the first “pretty” jazz I fell for, and it taught me there’s value in all well done music, even when it’s basically mood music.

- Dr. John, “Gumbo.” Somehow, I never owned this back in the day, and coming to it new in 2014 is a subtle disappointment. Not for the music itself, which is as wonderful as everyone has said down through the years. The difference is, back in 1972 no one was making this kind of music – New Orleans funk/old time rock and roll – on major labels. It’s so much less special now, with Americana and roots music a staple of concerts, CDs and public radio. Hard to unhear what came after “Gumbo,” to hear it fresh.

- Nick Cave, “No More Shall We Part.” You can either live with Nick Cave’s words or not; Robert Christgau rated this a bomb. He finds Cave pretentious, and he has a point. Even Cave’s best stuff can come off as someone trying too hard to write. But when all that seriousness works, Cave can take you to some unexpected places. This album does that a lot.

- “Hold Me To This: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead.” Second of two volumes of O’Riley transmogrifying Radiohead’s tunes to solo piano. I really like Radiohead, and really like Brad Mehldau’s jazz takes on Radiohead songs. O’Riley’s a classical player, so he’s coming at the songs from a different angle. From what I gather, what he’s doing here is similar to what classical composers did before there was a bright line separating serious and popular music.

- Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate, “Kulanjan.” Ok, yes it sounds like something you’ll hear at your local Panera Bread. I don’t care; I’m beginning to think Taj Mahal, despite how well known he is and how many albums he’s recorded, is under-appreciated. He’s not purist enough for blues specialists, not modern enough to be truly popular, and too polite for hipsters. By my count, that only leaves truth and joy.

- Madlib, “Pinata Beats.” The instrumental version of his hit album with Freddie Gibbs. I don’t listen to a lot of rap – the storytelling usually does not move me – but I love instrumental hip-hop tracks and have bought a lot of Madlib and J. Dilla over the years. It reminds me of John Cage and John Zorn, the way sounds can collide with each other and end up sounding like they were supposed to be together all along.

Also, from the box set, the Kronos Quartet’s “Flood Plain.” That bright line between serious and popular music is obviously going away at this point, and it’s an amazing time to discover music that doesn’t care at all about categories.

Reading: (I mention because of the subject matter) “Dance of Death,” a biography of John Fahey. Fahey’s music from first to last fascinates me; he led a sad life and I guess the best thing you can say is he got some redemption toward the end with the record label he created, the last few years of public performances and his last album. After moving from what he called “American primitive” guitar – the beautiful acoustic work for which he’s best known – to the noise of his electric guitar excursions in the 90s, toward the end he seemed to find a new balance. It wasn’t pretty, but it was approachable. The book is a decent balance between biographical detail and critical analysis of his albums, emphasis on the biography.

 

 

 

 

 

 

song of the young and dead

Posted June 1, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I worked in the yard a little this weekend, weeding, and since it was a beautiful day I took my Tivoli PAL, (the very radio seen at the top of the blog) a book and a chair out to the shade of a big tree. WCNY-FM out of Syracuse  came in fine, and I caught the end of the still-wonderful Leo Rayhill’s jazz show.

(I learned a lot from listening to Leo, when I lived in Syracuse and his show was on the main channel every night at 6. I usually caught a good 15 minutes after I got off my reporting shift at WTVH.)

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting what came next: WCNY still plays old Syracuse Symphony concerts on Sunday afternoons. Today it was a 1978 show with the late Calvin Custer conducting (Christopher Keene was the marquee name, but Custer carried a lot of the load). A young Yo Yo Ma was the featured soloist. and the whole thing opened with Webern’s “5 Pieces For Orchestra.” Don Dolloff, one of the great voices of WCNY, hosted.

It seems impossibly long ago that Syracuse had a highly regarded symphony, one that was confident enough to begin a program with something as tough as Webern’s music, and smart enough to bring a pre-superstardom Yo Yo Ma to town. The local classical station did live recordings of the symphony’s concerts, and played them a couple times a week.

The SSO went bankrupt a few years back; musicians, at personal cost, have tried to keep a “something-like-the-symphony” running since. I root for them, but still. For a long while, a medium-sized American city could have its own orchestra, and the extraordinary thing looking back from 2014 is that it didn’t seem extraordinary at all. We just figured it was a permanent part of the town, and if you asked me back in the 80s if the SSO could just go away, I wouldn’t have gotten the question.

A note about the Webern:  my least favorite music for a long time, no contest, was the music of 12 tones and serialism which dominated classical music during the first half of the 20th century. It was never heard, let alone enjoyed, by most people, and has  been entirely out of fashion for a long time – which is a good thing. Having the movement washed up, wrung out, exhausted and then largely ignored and passed over makes it easier to hear the individuals involved. So over the last year, I have learned a little about classical music in general, and the 1900-1950 high modern period in particular. I never really heard Webern before listening to the “5 Pieces” today, and I was instantly hooked. They’re tiny little things, each a few minutes long at most and sometimes shorter and there’s a precision to them  which grabbed me. It’s not easy going, but in its own odd way, it’s entrancing.

So I ordered a Naxos cd, which has the Webern in question along with a few of his other compositions. It was $7.90 for the cd through Amazon, shipped in two days. The iTunes download is $9.99. Why is the one in which no physical product is delivered more expensive? This continues to make no sense to me.

 

 

 

neither helplessness nor unbounded enthusiasm

Posted April 20, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Nicholas Carr has a must-read note on technology which begins with a wonderful quote:

“Neither helplessness nor unbounded enthusiasm and indifference to consequences would have allowed humans to inhabit the earth for very long,” observed Bruno Latour in a lecture in Copenhagen in February. “Rather a solid pragmatism, a limited confidence in human cunning, a sane respect for the powers of nature, a great care invested to protect the fragility of human enterprise — these appear to be the virtues for dealing with first nature. Care and caution: a totally mundane grasp of the dangers and of the possibilities of this world of below.”

To which Carr adds “When technological progress comes to be seen as a transcendent, implacable force, a force beyond human fashioning, it begins to foreclose opportunities at least as often as it opens them. It starts to hem us in.” My own sense is that technology as either utopia or dystopia peaked a while back, but the point’s still worth making.

nine years and counting

Posted April 19, 2014 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Although I surprised myself over the last year or so by taking to Windows, I’m never without at least one machine running Ubuntu Linux – including my oldest laptop, which up until today was running 12.04, the last long term support release from Ubuntu.

(If you don’t know what Linux is, take a break and read up on it here.)

This machine, a 2005 Dell Inspiron 6000, is old and wasn’t much to start with – a 1.5 GHz Celeron processor and low end graphics. I upgraded the memory and hard drive over the years, had the hinges repaired a couple of times, bought batteries every couple of years. I think I paid around $450 for the machine refurb’ed from Dell, and probably put another $100 in parts into it, plus another hundred in repairs. Call it $650 all told.

You can argue that repairing the laptop once it was six or seven years old was not a good investment, but from my point of view it was incremental money, no more than $50 or so at a time. It didn’t feel like I was spending a lot.

Of course, Ubuntu was the reason why it made sense to me to keep the laptop going. The economics of owning a computer change once you’re not paying for the software – look at older used laptops on ebay and note the price differential between identical units with and without legitimate Windows software installed. The price of the software can easily equal that of the computer. At a minimum, upgrading the Inspiron from XP to Vista to Windows 7 to 8 would have cost me $250 (I’m doing this from memory but I think the pricing would have been $99 + $99 +$49, assuming I stayed with the home version). And that’s assuming the Inspiron would have run the later versions of Windows adequately, which is unlikely.

Ubuntu changed all that; it’s free, and the Inspiron has run long term support releases since 10.04. (Formally, “long term support” refers to how long  the company backing Ubuntu, Canonical, will provide support; in this case, six years. Informally, long term support releases have a reputation for being the most stable, bullet-proof releases of Ubuntu – I can vouch for that.) From the start, Ubuntu was lighter in its resource demands than Windows, and the folks behind Ubuntu have been careful to not let it grow bloated. 14.04, the new long term support release I upgraded to today, runs just as fast as 12.04 did.

What can’t Ubuntu do? Well, no iTunes, nor Word (though LibreOffice, the free office suite in Ubuntu does a fine job with most Word documents) and a lot of high end productivity tools aren’t available for Ubuntu – no Adobe Creative Suite, for instance.

That still leaves about 98 percent of what you need in a desktop or laptop computer – and there are workarounds for those things you don’t have direct access to. For instance, there’s the aforementioned LibreOffice and a number of programs that can play your iTunes (aac) files.

Most of all, as the computer gets older my relationship with it changes. I now have something that’s hard to have with electronics these days; I’m invested in the damn thing, which means that as long as it can do useful work for me – and I see no reason for that to change any time soon – I have no reason to recycle it, which is probably good for both the planet (repair is better than recycling) and my wallet, which requires no further explanation. With the new Long Term Support release, the software is good to go until 2020, and the computer really can’t get much more obsolete. Barring some catastrophe, the Inspiron could see 15.

 

 


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