the workaround that wasn’t

Posted March 14, 2016 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

As much as I complain about Verizon not activating the FM chip inside the cell phones it sells, the company does have one Android phone with working FM. It’s the Moto E, the lowliest member of the E-G-X family, which is available for under $40 at your neighborhood

The Moto E is about as cheap as you can go and still get a recognizably modern Android phone. It has a modest processor, one gig of ram and out of the box, eight gigs of storage. The screen is not much to look at; the resolution is circa 2011. But, hey, what do you expect for $36? And yep, right there in the middle of the first apps screen, “FM radio.”

I know all this because I went to the trouble of acquiring one, briefly, and with it a surprising amount of trouble.

Verizon’s pre-paid phones fall into two categories – expensive popular phones (think iPhone) a generation or two back from the current iteration, and cheap phones designed specifically for the pre-paid market. Historically, Verizon has drawn a line between “pre-paid” and “contract” phones and did not want the two to mingle, but from what I found on the subject – including Verizon’s own customer forums – I could put a Moto E on my account, as long as the SIM was inserted into the phone before it was turned on and activated. I already swap my SIM among three phones on a regular basis, so I figured one more was no big deal.

I fished the SIM out of the phone I was using, moved it into the Moto E, powered it up. At first it looked like it worked – the phone found the network – but after I skipped through the activation screens I did get a “The SIM you’re using is not compatible with this device.” Well, rats. That didn’t work. I powered down the Moto E, extracted the SIM and cursed not having figured out a workaround that would give me FM radio on Android.

After I packed up the Moto E to return it, I slipped the SIM back into the phone I had been using, powered it up and all seemed normal. But when I tried to make a call, I was redirected to Verizon. Take the SIM out, reseat it, make sure I’m not overlooking something obvious. Same result.

I thought maybe what I was seeing was the result of using the SIM with an adaptor. Because two phones I use have “nano” SIMs, but one has a “micro” SIM, I have to put the nano SIM into a little cardboard tray every time I want to use the phone that takes the micro size. It’s a little touchy, but has worked so far. Last night though, I figured the cardboard tray might be damaged. So I took the SIM out of the tray and put it into one of the phones that uses a nano SIM. Same result – the phone powered up fine, found the network, but no calls would complete. This being a Sunday night, Verizon was closed so I went online and used the activation tool to try and set things right. The phone activated fine; there were no messages, warnings, whatever. But I still couldn’t make a call.

12 hours later, I was at my local Verizon mall store, talking to a helpful young lady. She grabbed a new SIM, flashed it for me and popped it into my phone after typing some Verizon authorization magic onto her tablet. Handed it back to me, said make a test call. I did, and…Verizon answered.


More typing, checking of various settings that I don’t have access to. Finally, she says ‘Because you tried to use the Moto E, your number was hotlined.’ I’m not exactly sure what hotlined means in this context, but it can’t be good. Some more typing, the phone powered down one last time and then back up, and whatever part of Verizon that was holding onto my account had been persuaded to loosen its grip. I could again use my phone.

Now, the young woman who helped me was very nice, didn’t charge me for the fix or the SIM card. Couldn’t be happier with the service. But it’s worth considering the underlying facts for just a minute: I tried to activate a phone that I couldn’t activate. The Moto E accurately relayed to me what the problem was. But rather than leaving matters there, Verizon went on to fry the SIM and leave me without cell service for half a day. And remember, it wasn’t clear or obvious from the start that I couldn’t use the Moto E; in fact, the helpful person at Verizon told me you can use your pre-paid phone on your contract – if you buy a month of pre-paid service up front. That’s right, $45 for the privilege of using a cheap phone to consume more of their service. Still, I suppose it beats the company’s old policy, which she informed me was to make you buy pre-paid for six months.

And none of it, none of it, would have happened if Verizon would just take the simple, decent step of activating the FM radio chip which is in most cell phones. Verizon: rather than treating me like a potential criminal, how ’bout you lighten up, turn on your radios, and let us all move on to more important things? I’ll send you just shy of $230 this month. Expressed over a year, I give you close to $3,000. What I want in return doesn’t seem like much to ask for.


tuned out

Posted March 6, 2016 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Dead though the platform may be, I still like Windows phones. (This is probably the same impulse that led me to buy an Amiga 1200, long after it was obvious the company wasn’t coming back.)

And because I like Windows phones, I did a modest upgrade this weekend, from my ancient-in-phone-years Lumia 822 to the Lumia 735, the Microsoft-branded version of the 735 which debuted on Verizon, my carrier, last year. The 735 is bigger, has a much better screen, is somewhat faster. Given how long I keep my cell phones, this one will see me until either a.) there’s a major upgrade in the WinPhone platform or b.) the platform dies. I’m not taking bets.

Anyway, the experience out of the box was uniformly positive, with one weird exception that is almost a deal-breaker. First, the good news: it took me under a hour to kill all the apps I didn’t want, update what was left, then update the phone to the latest version of 8.1.

Better still, moving to Win 10 was easy, unlike some of my experiences with the 822. From download to reboot and upgrade of various pieces of software, maybe an hour, probably less. If you’re used to iPhone or Android upgrades that may seem like a long time, but believe me, for a WinPhone it’s the Indy 500.

And Win 10 mobile just works. Like a lot of WinPhone fans, I mourn the loss of some of the things that made Windows phones unique, but the big thing, the tile-based interface, is still there, as are live tiles, though they don’t get used enough.

Once I had a working Windows 10 phone, and all the built-in apps were updated (and I deleted Facebook and a few others again – die, dammit) I began downloading the handful of apps I use. One of the things that makes me an ideal Windows phone user is the fact that I just don’t need a lot of apps – in fact, I’m always looking for an excuse to delete what I have. And as it turns out, WinPhones have most of what I need – Kindle, Audible, Amazon shopping, NY Times, PocketCasts (a fine company, not least because its podcast app runs on iOS and Android and Windows phone), a few others.

And importantly, very importantly, the 735 supports FM radio. This is a huge deal for me, since I walk when the weather is nice, and if I’m not listening to a podcast or a book, I’m listening to radio. Having an actual, real honest-to-god radio inside my phone is enormously comforting to me. I wouldn’t have gotten the 735 without it.

But…there are times when I need radio by other means, and for years my go-to application has been TuneIn Radio. Of late, TuneIn has branched into streaming books, language lessons and major league sports, but the core has always been the radio stations you can listen to through the app. TuneIn isn’t perfect – sometimes streams refuse to play for no good reason – but it’s the best of its kind. I’ve kept a list of favorite stations – like WFMT in Chicago – in TuneIn for years.

And it’s cross platform, always has been. I’ve used TuneIn since WinPhones were on version 7.5, and I had an HTC Trophy. It’s one of my most called on apps, and it ran just fine on the 822, which is a four year old phone.

But it doesn’t run – excuse me, “isn’t compatible with” – the 735. This makes no sense. According to the Windows store, the 735 is missing some piece of hardware TuneIn needs in order to run well, which doesn’t seem likely, given that the phone is in all ways newer, faster, better than the 822. Granted, it’s a mid-line phone, but as far as I know, it’s not missing some common component that used to be in cell phones, but isn’t now. And TuneIn supposedly runs on other mid-level Windows phones.

My guess is this has something to do with Windows 10. TuneIn ran on the 822, but then it was on the phone when it running 8.1 and just came along for the ride when I upgraded to 10. Doesn’t make sense, but that’s all I can think of. In the meantime, I’m looking at other “radio” programs, all of which seem to promise a lot, but aren’t likely to be as good as what I’ve lost. Here’s hoping it’s temporary.

(Yes, I know Microsoft talks about universal apps and Windows 10 Mobile. I know the lingo. For the purpose of talking about Windows phones, I use WinPhone as shorthand for all of that.)


rethinking hd radio

Posted January 3, 2016 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve been skeptical of HD radio for a long time. It strikes me as a solution in search of a problem; the technology is completely controlled by one company and has been a black box that no one could hack or otherwise improve on; what I heard of it sounded thin and…not good.

But I never heard HD in a car until we got our new Passat. Surprisingly, it’s not bad. Driving around today, I listened to WCNY-FM out of Syracuse, a well-engineered station that primarily plays classical music, and when the signal slipped from HD to regular FM, I didn’t hear much difference. That’s good, because HD is almost universally regarded as worse than FM. Bonus: the signal didn’t slip from HD often; WCNY has an FM translator in my little town, (a small ‘repeater’ station which takes the signal from the mothership and rebroadcasts it over a more distant territory) and it apparently is passing HD as well.

If problems didn’t show up on the main channel, I would certainly expect to hear HD’s weakness on the sub-channels (WCNY operates two – an oldies channel and a jazz channel) under the theory that bandwidth starts to run out, but listening to the jazz channel, it sounded decent. Caught Michael Feinstein’s public radio show, and I was struck by how the thing HD proponents have pushed – more channels, and sometimes those channels represent niche interests – is an actual, real advantage.  In my little town, you can now get classical music and jazz, sounding pretty good, for free.

By way of comparison, everything I heard today sounded far better than the SiriusXM service in my wife’s car, including Symphony Hall, which is the best sounding satellite channel.

I still have objections to HD: I really don’t like how closed the system is (one of radio’s greatest values lies in how well understood the technology is) and I’m still not sure why most people should care. I’m going to bring the little SONY (the semi-legendary XDR-F1) out of retirement to see if I can get the same channels in my family room. My guess is the sound will disappoint me; still, most people listen to radio in their cars, and now that I’ve heard HD that way – and enjoyed having extra channels – I’m willing to admit there may be a point to it after all.

a cold friday night

Posted December 22, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

It was cold in my little town Friday night, and trucks and cars poured in and out of the municipal parking lot downtown. Technically, the lot is there for city hall, but on weekends people park and walk to the bars half a block away. City hall doesn’t get a lot of business at 10 PM on a Friday.

Except I was standing there, waiting for the police to show up with three people – two of them charged with murder, one with robbery. The accused killers were 19 years old.

I used to do this a lot – stand some place, wait for something to happen. I don’t do it any more, except for rare one-offs like Friday night.

A car pulled up. The window rolled down, a woman looked at me and said “Is there an arraignment here tonight?”

Yes, I said.

“Are you the judge?”

No, I said, press.

Much earlier Friday, a young man had been stabbed to death inside his apartment on a city street four or five blocks from where I live. The street’s been going downhill for 30 years, but if you drive just a block or so, cross over one of the main streets in my town, you’re on an old money street, where you can still find doctors and such maintaining large houses built for the era when a family of six was small.

Back in the 90s I ended up in New York City one afternoon, looking for the family of a notorious murder suspect. I was working with a freelance crew that specialized in getting footage of crimes and fires, most often in rough neighborhoods. But as we got close to the address, the neighborhood didn’t seem to be getting worse – in fact, it was a little better. Two blocks, one block, one of the guys remarked how nice everything was, we turned a corner and…everything went to hell. It was like rounding the back of a Hollywood set. What was propping up the nice neighborhood we saw on the way in was not nice at all. The guy not driving turned around, looked at me and said, Get in, get out.

You could get something of the same effect here Friday. You’re on a decent, ordinary street and all of a sudden there’s police tape and flashing red lights blocking your way. And the neighbors a block over are no doubt wondering why they haven’t gotten out before now.

The woman looking at me out the car window was the dead guy’s mother. I didn’t say I was sorry – one of the things that grates on me most is the  way reporters tell the families of victims how sorry they are, right before grilling them – not that I haven’t done it myself. So I just answered her questions – Yes, you can be here for the arraignment. Yes, this is a parking lot and you can use it.

The newspaper’s reporter dug in with her for a bit. It sounded like a tough life all the way around. Then it was time to go in. The D.A. and the detectives made weary, professional small talk with each other. It had been a long day, but from their point of view a good one – three people in custody and in court at 11 PM for a killing at 5 AM.

The court appearances were almost over before they started; no one had lawyers yet, so there wasn’t much for the judge to do besides say, You’re charged, you’re in jail, come back Monday.

The suspects were smaller than I expected – they looked like three-quarter size scale models of themselves. They were younger looking in person than their mug shots, and you could imagine them each in their last year of high school. When the lead suspect, the guy who allegedly did the stabbing, came out, the victim’s mother said loudly “Go to hell.” The cops and the D.A. kept trying to quiet her, like a teacher quiets a recalcitrant child. They looked like they knew it was a losing proposition; when the last of the three had appeared, the mother stood up and announced “See you Monday.”

As for whether any of the three gets what they (allegedly) did, or how thoroughly they’ve wasted their lives, I have no idea. They didn’t look especially one way or the other – not visibly afraid, but not making a show of bravado either. If, as seems likely, drugs were involved, then this killing may be no more complicated than business dealings gone bad,  unremarkable except that it ended in a death in a town where such things are still rare. What days like Friday do is add a small increment of doubt: is this the way we’re headed? (To the extent there’s a ‘we’ at all, or that there’s one direction.) It hasn’t happened so far, and it’s hard to see there being enough potential business here for things to get really bad. But they have elsewhere – an even smaller mill town a hundred miles from here has struggled with foreclosures and drug dealers from out of the area. The word that comes to mind is tenuous – we can’t fully put into words how broken things are, our tools for fixing it don’t seem up to the task, and we’re stepping very carefully, hoping the 19 year olds with knives and guns don’t get too close.


considering paris II

Posted November 21, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

It should be obvious by now that we are drowning in bullshit, as politicians, partisans, spooks, alleged journalists try to turn what happened a week ago in Paris into an all-purpose 9/11 part II.

My son pointed out to me that the one-step-away-from-not-breathing language we’re hearing is exactly like what we heard as the reaction to 9/11 morphed from grief, shock, anger and resolve into something worse. “This time it’s different” is a phrase uttered in haste, regretted for a generation.

So language counts, a lot. And this paragraph, from a longer, angry piece by George Packer in The New Yorker is worth doing the digital equivalent of cutting out and pasting on the bathroom mirror.

A lot of people in this country are disgracing themselves this week. They include politicians of both parties—though many more Republicans than Democrats—and all regions. Their motives vary: deep-seated bigotry, unreasoning fear, spinelessness, opportunism, or some unholy mix of them all. During the House hearings, Republicans kept demanding guarantees of absolute security. “I haven’t heard a single one of you say there’s no risk,” Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told Administration witnesses. There’s no such thing as no risk. Parisians could stop going out to cafés, Germans could turn back every single Syrian at the border, Americans could stop admitting anyone as a refugee, and there would still be risks. It’s absurd, and infantilizing, to demand that our officials promise to keep us absolutely safe. We don’t live that way, nor should we. Instead, we have to find the balance between safety and a decent life in a free society during an age of terror. Like every compromise, it will leave us unsatisfied. But the alternative is unfreedom and injustice.

Yes, exactly. In a sea of bull, pieces like Packer’s are life rafts. (Paul Krugman had a good one too.)

considering paris

Posted November 15, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

In the wave of news about the terrorist attacks Friday night in Paris, I was struck by a reference to a book – not available in English, unfortunately – from the French philosopher André Glucksmann.

Glucksmann wrote a book called “Dostoevsky in Manhattan,” in which “he insisted that modern terrorism, including Islamic terrorism, is nihilist before it is religious and even before it is political.” That’s Adam Gopnik’s description of the book, in a post for The New Yorker.

Gopnik continues, channeling Glucksmann:

He attached its motives to the terrorism of the century before—to the violence, which Dostoevsky and Conrad dramatized so well, which redounds not to a political end but with a wild vengeance and the existential message, “I kill, therefore I am.” Certainly, the communiqué in French from ISIS, taking responsibility for the mass murders—the blind assaults on the stadium, the rock concert, the cafés, none of them exactly haunts of the wealthy—had, for all its apparent political logic, a deeper ring of unleashed rage and blood madness, down to the ancient fury at the existence of Paris as a place of pleasure.

When George W. Bush posed the question in the wake of 9/11 “Why do they hate us?” he answered “They hate our freedoms.” Implicit in the former President’s answer was the idea that no rational, sane or decent person could hate freedom. Therefore, the terrorists of 9/11 were irrational, and the question of “why” was really a question of pathology, a way of diagnosing sickness.

Of course, there is another, more disturbing way of looking at this.

We wish to believe that freedom, secular society, progress, music, science, sport make up the natural tendency of humanity. The Islamic state is the most extreme incarnation of the counter-argument: if you take Glucksmann seriously – and you should – then the question is unavoidable: what’s behind “a deeper ring of unleashed rage and blood madness?”

Perhaps this. An alternate vision of how the world works, one awful to contemplate but with its own cold rationality. George Orwell’s 1984 is, as always, prescient. Here, the key speech of O’Brien, as he tortures Winston Smith:

Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything.

Movements like the Islamic state will eventually fall apart, implode; they are inherently unstable. But what if they aren’t and don’t? What if they gain strength from the slaughter?

the not so great migration

Posted November 9, 2015 by collectedobsessions
Categories: Uncategorized

Missed this: the estimable John Anderson, writing at the end of October about the F.C.C.’s order on AM revitalization, the most important part of which is that AM station owners get more opportunity to grab FM translators in their markets – in other words, to effectively move their business from one band to the other.

Anderson, who is very smart and experienced on this issue, sums up AM’s future this way:

Once all the relatively minor technical tweaks to AM engineering have been exhausted, AM-HD proponents give up the ghost, and rising environmental interference functionally overwhelms smaller AM stations, we’ll begin to see the sunsetting of the band entirely. Broadcasters will argue that the economics of running an AM station are no longer sustainable, at which point they’ll lobby to “upgrade” FM translators into stand-alone primary stations along with a loosening of local market ownership caps to keep this ploy within the bounds of legality. In the end, these policy efforts should be categorized more accurately as migration, not revitalization.

He’s right, of course. There’s an inevitable quality about all this, a gravitational pull of money and incumbency which will end with yet more dross on the FM side, and an AM band mostly abandoned. Oh, well. One can hope that once AM is left for dead maybe squatters will move in, throw up some junkyard furniture and find new use for it.


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