wrestling with the note II

Posted August 30, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I have inherited a Samsung Galaxy Note II, Verizon, that’s three years old. I don’t want it, but my Windows phone doesn’t support my workplace app, nor the app of our competition, nor even the mobile version of our website.

I put off thinking seriously about mobile for a long time, and am still not convinced it’s the future, the thing that eats everything else, at least when it comes to my line of work. Geography plays into it as well: up until now, my judgement was that we were in a backwater, even on Verizon. 4G LTE was slow to come to my area, and still isn’t available in some places, and you don’t get good mobile without 4G. But things are changing, and while it took me a long while, I can finally see phones for what they are, little computers with a strong bias toward the consumption side of things. Addictive.

But I hate giving up my Windows phone. Say what you will about Microsoft and the failure of the WinPhone in the marketplace, the fact remains that Windows phones represented the only real innovation since the iPhone debuted. Microsoft walked back some of the more radical (and very good) ideas between versions 7 and 8-8.1, but the big, live tiles remain, as does a fast, intuitive interface. It’s simply easier to do stuff on a Windows phone. If you can find an app for it.

Anyway, the Note II. Here’s what I spent the last two days doing:

  • finding all the settings inside Android’s many, many menus that affect things like battery life, volume, screen brightness and setting everything to modest.
  • Dumping the Samsung interface for Nova Launcher, and disabling as much animation as possible.
  • Figuring out that the Note II out of the box doesn’t give you a plain background option. Finding an app that does.
  • Loading apps, apps, apps. I’m a minimalist, but I find the number of apps on my phone creeping upward, all in the name of work.
  • Trying to figure out why my company’s app won’t play video on my phone, nor display the weather. Checked the app on a new phone running 5.1 (the Note is on 4.4.2) and it has the same problem, so I’m guessing it’s an app issue.
  • Getting a picture I want on the lock screen, which proved harder than I thought. Nowhere was it explained that if you stick a picture in the “pictures” folder (or “downloads,” apparently) the “gallery” – which is what you use to set the lock screen – will be able to find it. And I have to jump back to the stock “TouchWiz” interface to do it.
  • Dealing with battery life. I left the battery I got with the thing on charge overnight and it never got past 80 percent, so I figured it needed a new battery. Bought a replacement, but then realized last night that I was charging the phone with the same charger I used for the Windows phone – and the Samsung has a much, much larger battery. Retrieved the charger that came with the Note – it still took hours, but I got a full charge to start the day.
  • Transferring contacts. I do this by hand, because it forces me to edit and check things. Took an hour or so over two days.
  • Thinking about call quality. I tried to use the phone in a fairly, but not ridiculously, noisy food court Saturday and just couldn’t hear the person at the other end. On the other hand, talking to my office this morning I found call quality to be more than acceptable. I messed with a setting that supposedly mutes background noise at my end, have no idea if it makes any difference.
  • Shut off, uninstalled as much stuff as possible. I use a subset of Google services, and was pleasantly surprised to find I could remove some things. But I don’t think I can get rid of Samsung’s many fine applications without troubling myself to root the phone, which I won’t do. (I know, I know; real geeks root. I find it to be a PITA and somehow contrary to the appliance-like quality these things are supposed to have. I have no issue at all wiping a computer drive and installing Linux, but a phone? It’s just supposed to work without me having to break it.)
  • Figuring out how to answer the phone. I actually missed a call because it wasn’t obvious to me how to swipe at the thing to pick up. I’m now using the home button.

And that’s it, so far. I can see how people spend a whole lot of time customizing their Android whatevers – the system is obviously far more open on a surface level than either the iPhone or WinPhones. But to what end? So much of what you can change feels like rearranging furniture.

And it doesn’t have f.m., which just sucks.

So here’s what I don’t like: byzantine menu settings, the illusion of control without the real thing, the need to go get an app to do something that was built into my WinPhone, lots of junk I can’t get rid of.

Texting strikes me as much less friendly than my WinPhone. I can’t describe exactly how it works on my Nokia 822 (I’m amazed, but I’ve already forgotten a basic feature of something I used every day for the last year) but I know that on the Note II I have to get out of whatever I’m doing, and that I don’t get any clear indicator on screen about whether I’m getting a text or something else, let alone the actual content. Maybe I’m missing something, or switching to Nova has defeated the way it’s supposed to work.

What I do like: I can get all the apps I need, and they’re updated regularly. This is so different from the desert of WinPhone apps it’s actually hard to get used to. What, no weird third party workarounds needed?

What I’m thinking about: size. I’m one of those people for whom no phone is too big, in absolute terms. I have large hands, long fingers and managing the Note II one-handed is no big deal. Nonetheless, there’s a question of aesthetics here; the Note II is the Hummer or ’79 Caddy of smart phones. I look at it and about half the time I just think ugly.

Also, call quality. We’ll see where that goes. I’m old and still use my phone to, ummm, talk to people.


buying batteries at radio shack

Posted August 29, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I’m the new, hand-me-down and somewhat unhappy owner of a Galaxy Note II phone. I don’t care about the second-hand or old tech part: I just don’t like Android phones all that much and I do like Windows phones, as noted here at length. Plus, of course the thing doesn’t have f.m. – I’m doing this strictly because Android has apps, including several connected to my work, that WinPhones don’t have.

Anyway, the thing needed a battery. I left it on charge overnight and what was already in the phone peaked at about 80 percent, after eight or nine hours on the wall socket. So out I went out this morning, looking for a replacement battery.

Remember, this is the Galaxy Note II, the phone everyone wanted three years ago. So of course you can’t buy a battery for it now at Best Buy or the Verizon store in the mall where we bought the phone in 2012 for $325 plus a two year contract. Even the guy at the “we fix cellphones” kiosk shrugged.

Surprisingly, Radio Shack had one, with a charger (though only sort of). What interests me is what I paid: with tax, it was a hair under $27. Amazon routinely sells replacement Note II batteries in the $8 – $10 range, so I paid 2.5X what I could have.

Arright. I paid to get the battery right now, as opposed to waiting until Monday or Tuesday. And I paid to be able to return it locally if doesn’t work out. The thing has a 30 day guarantee. I can’t say I paid for the charger, which is really only half a charger and requires you to have the wall plug and USB cord already.

What I really paid for, of course, was the store and the guy’s salary. Assuming Radio Shack paid $6-$7 for the item – and I can’t imagine it being more – they probably made something on the order of $18 on me. If the guy is making, say, $11 an hour, that gets the store’s money down to $7. This is not a busy store. It’s tucked away in a plaza and…it’s a Radio Shack. If they do five of me an hour, they’re only putting $35 in the till, or a little over $300 a day.

I’m sure I’m missing some big piece of the picture here, but looked at this way, I don’t see how small retail goes forward. Amazon can aggregate demand on a vast scale – how many people wanted to buy a Note II battery this morning and were ok waiting? – and the merchant behind the sale doesn’t have to have a real store at all. Had I not felt I needed the battery now, I absolutely would have ordered through Amazon myself – and driven another tiny nail into my little town’s retail trade.

f.m. comes to more smartphones

Posted August 2, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

AT&T is asking Android phone manufacturers to activate the f.m. chip, starting in 2016. It’s apparently not mandatory, but it is the first real development in the NextRadio initiative in a while.

There are limitations: the request only applies to new Android phones, the ones coming out next year, so what you have in your pocket now may well not get the feature. And obviously, iPhones need not apply.

Still, progress, and if there’s no deep-seated opposition at work – as opposed to the ‘Why bother?’ that probably kept f.m. off most phones – we may yet see an activated f.m. chip become something like a universal standard.

satellite blues

Posted August 2, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I would pay Sirius/XM the same – or maybe even a little more – money, and take fewer channels, if they would improve the quality of the sound.

This isn’t a new or unique complaint; there’s been a cottage industry in lamenting/decrying/lambasting the sound the satellite service(s) puts out for at least a decade. Clearly, it isn’t in the S/XM business plan to do anything about it.

Which is a shame, because the internet-based service S/XM offers is pretty acceptable at 128 kbps. To my ear, it doesn’t sound as good as Pandora or good f.m., but it’s ok, listenable, which is more than I can say for the Sirius side of the operation as it comes off satellite into my car – and I have a decent car stereo. Off satellite, everything sounds tinny, compressed; the RealJazz channel, which is part of the reason I subscribe, is hard to pay sustained attention to. Every time the drummer hits a cymbal, the radio gives off a loud, sibilant hiss, like an angry cat was just dropped onto my dashboard – and in jazz, drummers use their cymbals a whole lot.

The spoken word channels are better than the music channels, but that’s not saying much. I listen to the POTUS political channel, and it just sounds…lousy. Not actively off-putting like the music channels, but lifeless.

Mind you, I’m not opposed to compression – it’s what makes the streaming world go ’round, and I’m convinced by the blind tests that show people can’t distinguish between music that’s well-encoded with lossy compression and “lossless” (which really isn’t).  S/XM doesn’t say what their compression rate is, though it’s reported in places as 64 kbps for music and 48 for voice. I know S/XM uses proprietary encoding, but there’s no way it can make up for what’s being cut in bandwidth. You get below a certain threshold and all the fancy compression algorithms in the world won’t fix things; you just remove too much of the original source material.

I’m not being picky here – the difference between what I hear off satellite in my car and what I hear in my home off the internet is close to the difference between a.m. and f.m. It’s that big.

I assume S/XM’s ultimate solution to this problem is to get those of us who care about what the service sounds like completely off satellite and onto streaming, but I live in a rural area and doubt that will ever be much of a solution, even setting aside the increased expense associated with paying for bandwidth. So I keep renewing S/XM every six months, but it’s always on the bubble, I’m always dissatisfied and one of these days the dismal reality of what it really sounds like will once and for all outweigh the enticement of more than a hundred channels at my disposal, even though I couldn’t care less about most of them.

what the blues aren’t

Posted July 28, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

If you write you’ve done it: you try to describe something and no matter what, the words don’t come. Or much worse, the slightly wrong words come, but you can’t think of better so you, ummm, let it go. It’s the old ‘difference between lightning and a lightning bug’ thing.

For years, I thought about how weirdly bad most blues-rock sounds, how disconnected from anything it is. Blues-rock was in its terrible prime when I was 14, 15 years old, and as much as I tried to like it back then – hey, I had to have something in common with the guys I went to high school with – I can clearly remember nodding off from boredom  listening to bands beat blues riffs to death for 15, 20 minutes at a time.

And as I got older, I developed a weird revulsion to things like beer brand-sponsored “blues festivals.” People seem to enjoy them and I should leave well enough alone, but they always seem, at best, beside the point, and at their frequent worst, the exact opposite of the blues. They make the blues into nothing more than good time music, with hard-hearted men and mistreatin’ women as comic book characters. But finding the right words to explain all this? Not me.

Thankfully, Amanda Petrusich‘s “Do Not Sell At Any Price,” does the job. The passage below is incidental to the larger themes of the book, which concerns itself with collectors of rare 78 rpm records and the nature of collecting in general, but I’m awfully glad she wrote it:

“The commercial presentation of “the blues” is often disastrously corny, wholly divorced from – even antithetical to – the grimness of the songs themselves. It’s a young woman at an open mic night, oversinging “Chain Of Fools” with her hands in the air. It’s a guy with a T-shirt  tucked into his shorts, nodding appreciatively at a bar band with three shrieking electric guitars. It’s bright colors and branded guitar slides and old, pinkish-white guys bellowing about women. It’s three squat, wonky statues in a fountain in Wisconsin.”

Exactly. Couldn’t have put it better. When it comes to culture, we kill things without meaning to, when our intent is to preserve, hold onto, support, but we kill anyway by making the thing not-quite-itself. That’s what Petrusich catches.

microsoft – and verizon – get it right

Posted July 26, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I complain a lot about Verizon Wireless, but they’re getting better.

This isn’t a “goodness of their hearts” thing, of course. But they are an example of the benefit of even mild competition; all it took was somewhat better offers on the price of a gig of data, and a few promotions that paid people to switch from Verizon, and Verizon got a little more reasonable about their monthly charges.

They’re still egregious, but somewhat less so now, especially if you do what I do, run with older and/or cheaper phones.

However, getting a cheaper phone – as in, one that doesn’t extend your contract, tack monthly charges onto your bill – remains challenging. You want a Verizon iPhone or Android flavor? eBay or Amazon for you, and you’re taking on added risk in the process. If that $280 5s dies nine months after you bought it, well, sorry.

Up until now that’s been true of Windows phones as well. Even very, very mediocre phones on a platform almost no one uses would have a full list price of $400-$500. It was a pretty obvious play to make sure no one ever outright bought any phone, and thus continued to rent/be contractually bound to/pay higher monthly charges to Big Red.

Which is silly, given the plethora of dirt cheap Windows phones Nokia Microsoft has turned out over the last couple of years. I’m doing this from memory, but a few months back at the Microsoft store at the large mall about 60 miles from me, I saw AT & T Windows phones for $50 – $60 full price which weren’t…horrible.

Well now Microsoft has somehow talked Verizon into putting an inexpensive, mid-level Windows phone into its line-up, the Lumia 735. I’m assuming that’s how it worked because I can’t imagine Verizon caring much whether it has any Windows phones, so the dealing would most likely come from the Microsoft end.

I played with one for a while today, and came away impressed. It’s reasonably fast, has a nice screen, is mid-sized, (specs, details here) and most important, costs just under $200 without a contract. True, 99 percent of Verizon customers won’t directly care; they’re not going to switch to Windows phone, which continues to suffer from not having many of the basic, important apps the other platforms have. But it could be the start of resetting the value proposition in smart phones on the Verizon network – if you can buy a not-low-end, competent, nicely appointed phone for $200, what are you doing paying double or triple that? It’s a good question.

Over the long haul, phones like the Lumia could bring some equity to the relationship between Verizon and its customers. Up until now, that relationship has been a lot like what cable companies have with people, basically, “Screw you, you’ll take what we give you, pay what we ask, and like it.” The more people are able to buy their phones outright, and are not legally bound to Verizon, the more it has incentive to keep costs down, offer more for the same price, improve service.

And while I couldn’t test it today, it appears that, yes, the f.m. radio is activated in the 735. It’s mentioned in the owner’s manual. Nice.

(Noted – After I wrote the above, I took another look at Verizon’s web site and discovered they’re now offering a couple of Android phones in the $200 and down range, off contract. I have no idea if they’re any good, but it certainly looks like Verizon is changing, at least a little, in response to the market.)

augmented intelligence

Posted June 20, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I used to turn on a computer and feel, if not smarter, then at least like the thing had the potential to make me smarter, extend my reach.

That feeling’s gone missing, but I got a little of it back when I went to the library this morning to return an overdue book and renew three others. I had a nice conversation with the librarian, who asked me what I thought of “Turing’s Cathedral.” I did my business and made a quick scan of the new releases on my way out.

All of which has me thinking about what a library is and does. I’ve just started, and there’s probably not an ounce of anything original here, but it occurs to me that you could view a library as a kind of active – though slow – intelligence augmentation device. We already think of libraries (to begin beating the computer metaphor to death) as networked, searchable storage, and the people coming in and out as the very rough equivalents of users logging into and out of various aspects of the internet.

But I think that may put the emphasis in slightly the wrong place, by calling the library “storage” and treating the “for who” question as incidental. That’s what I’m chewing on now – whether heavy library users self-select, or (more likely) whether the form and technology of the library dictates who it is most useful for, the user strikes me as oddly deprecated, and more important than you’d expect.

Libraries aren’t created equal for everyone. You can get on a computer there and use Facebook, but it’s less than ideal for that purpose. You can’t always be on – your turn is limited, the library closes – and that means means social media, which relies on ubiquity, is limited. You also can’t get up and buy anything. Again, you could use a computer, go to Amazon, but libraries themselves are pretty much marketing-free zones, one of the few left in public life. So shopping – which is a lot of things including a form of intellectual activity – is not very effectively done from a library, and I could probably add a few other non-fits if I thought hard enough: video games, extended bouts of TV watching. All forms of knowledge, but not really library knowledge.

So what strengths does a library have? I’d say three things – or one thing with three sides: constrained searches, relatively high signal to noise ratio, a useful environment for drift. Let me explain.

Constrained searches: a library isn’t Google. It only holds so much, and mostly it holds books. That means you have an inherent bias in what you’re seeing – you won’t get blog posts and tweets on the subject you’re interested in – and there’s a kind of presentation bias as well: you have physical objects, with heft and size, to examine. Hard for them to not occupy an outsized place in your judgement.

Obviously, you can borrow a library computer and hit Google. Also obviously, what I described above can leave you with some big blind spots. But on balance, I’d guess a competent library can get you up to speed on most topics pretty quickly, at least in part because so much is left out.

Signal to noise: along the same lines, the library discriminates in what kind of information it considers valuable, by what information it chooses to hold. It’s mostly the realm of the extended text, presented without someone trying to steer you – obviously, the texts themselves can hold lots of opinions, but the library isn’t trying to get you to buy anything, or vote one way or the other. (That’s not entirely true – with its relative quiet and strong sense of order, libraries are machines built for considered thinking, so I suppose you could argue that, say, science gets a fairer shake than superstition.)

A good place to drift: many people have had this experience at their library: you start out looking for one thing, and something else interesting catches your eye. And if you know even a little about how a library is organized, you can run down whatever the new thing is fairly easily, which leads to a bunch of other related stuff and then, maybe, yet another new thing. Also, if you have a general idea of what you’re interested in, you can go to the section in question and get a fair idea of the size of the subject. This is the experience the internet sort of duplicates with linking, but linking seems more directed to me; when I’m drifting through the music section at my library, I’m not serially looking from one book to the next. I’m taking in several at once and making some quick, imperfect decisions about which to open first, knowing that there’s not much cost associated – I can get a good feel for if I’m interested and if not, move on to the next. There’s no exact web or app version of that, at least in part because books aren’t free, and because there’s still no great way to randomly dive into a book you have online. That experience, at least, remains superior in the physical world.

I don’t want to overstate the case for libraries; obviously I spend a whole lot of time on my computer and understand how to use some pretty marvelous tools to do things. But when it comes to getting smarter, the old ways still have much to commend them.

(Aside: has anyone ever treated a library literally as a peripheral and tried to figure out in a rigorous fashion just what kind of bandwidth one provides, at what speeds?)


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