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Odd Lots

  • Alas, we have lost my favorite country music star, Toby Keith, of stomach cancer, at 62. He had lots of hits, but may be most famous for “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” the most-played country song of the 1990s. (And if you’ve never seen my filk “Should’ve Been a Jedi,” you can find it here.) Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
  • Ever heard of Venus’ moon Zoozve? You say Venus doesn’t have any moons? Well…it’s complicated. And interesting. Not to mention funny as hell.
  • Orkin (the bug people) posted a list of the top 50 US cities for bedbug infestations. My home town is #1. My current metro isn’t even on the list. I guess I chose wisely.
  • February is National Grapefruit Month, and today is National Fettuccine Alfredo day. Alas, my birthday is National Mud Day—granting that when I was a kid, I played happily in the mud. How do I know such important things? Of course: There’s a website for it. Select a day, week, or month, and who knows what people will be celebrating?
  • Well, it’s not exactly a flying car, but…it’ll do, it’ll do.
  • Three million malware-infected smart toothbrushes were gathered into a botnet that tormented Swiss servers with DDOS attacks. Uggh. My toothbrush is smart enough to be dumb. And hey, it smells like Pepsodent. Can’t beat that!
  • Trout gonads can cure baldness when injected into your head. So just eating the trout doesn’t work? Bummer. I’m out.

Odd Notes on the Samsung Galaxy Note 4

Three ereaders - 500 Wide.jpg

Way back in my entry for November 24, 2015, I explained how we lucked into a pair of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphones. The Note 5 was out by then, but I didn’t want it. Why? It has a non-replaceable battery and no internal card slot. That was a deal-killer for me, and something I’ll go into more detail on a little later. We stayed with Verizon, because several people said Verizon has the best local network in Phoenix. (I’ll state from experience that they did not have the best local network in Colorado Springs.)

Why did we want a Note phone at all? I have a lot of Samsung gear, and for the most part it’s been reliable and delivers what was promised of it. The Note 4 is bigger than my 2011-era Droid X2 (a feature I wanted, irrespective of the ghastly coinage “phablet”) but still small enough to fit in my shirt pocket. (I made scale cardboard cutouts of all the major phones I was considering and did the test on several shirts.) More compute power was basically assumed, since my Droid was almost five years old. I wanted a larger, brighter, higher-res display. I wanted S-Health, a piece of Samsung software that does several useful things, like tracking steps and measuring blood oxygen. Carol wanted a stylus. Her fingers have a somewhat strained relationship with touchscreens, and unlike me, she texts a lot. The stylus works perfectly for her.

I didn’t really intend for this to be a review, because by this time I’m guessing it’s pretty hard to find anybody selling Note 4s. Several people have asked me what I think of it, and what I’m doing here is gathering my thoughts on its first ten or twelve weeks in my pocket.

I like the phone a lot, and most of that cooks down to one thing: It consolidates several functions into a single slab. Prior to getting the Note 4, I did most of my ebook reading on my Kindle Paperwhite, which is still a marvelous item. However, it’s another slab, and if I’m running around it has to be carried somewhere. I was poleaxed at how good the Note 4 display is for text, assuming you’re not out in the sun. It runs the Kindle app, and it’s in my pocket any time I’m awake. So if I need an e-reader to kill some time in an unexpectedly bad line at the Post Office, it’s always there. In the photo above we have, L-R, the Kindle Paperwhite, the Galaxy Note 4, and the Droid X2, all running the Kindle app. I still lean toward the Paperwhite when I’m sitting in my comfy chair at home, but the Note 4 comes very close to the same experience.

It has a surprisingly capable digital camera, which (given sufficient light) takes very good HD video. The pedometer/blood oxygen/heart rate monitor serve specific needs of mine right now. I’ve tested the phone performing those functions against other instruments I have at home, and it agrees with all of them. I actually measured out a two-mile walk on MapPoint and walked it with the Note 4 in my pocket and its pedometer feature active. It agreed with MapPoint on the distance to within a couple hundred feet. I’m guessing that GPS helps out a little, as S-Health makes no attempt to physically measure my stride.

On the downside, battery life is nowhere near as good as on the Droid X2. I suppose that’s reasonable, given the device’s greater compute power, but it is annoying. When I’m at home, I find myself plugging it into the charger no later than 3PM and sometimes sooner. I’m not entirely sure how well it would handle a full 14 hour day. When the battery falls below 40%, I simply stop using it. If I had to be away from a charger for over a day (unlikely but possible) I would carry an extra charged battery.

Which brings me to the second point of this entry: The mysterious disappearance of replaceable batteries and SD card slots in modern smartphones. I specifically wanted the Note 4 because the Note 5 has no SD slot, and a non-replaceable battery that limits the useful life of the phone to the life of a single battery. Some say it’s a cost issue, which is nonsense, especially on a $500 high-end phone. Some say it’s a security issue, which puzzles me, since the phone can be set not to deal with apps installed on an SD card. No, these are excuses. I am pretty damned certain that the carriers are putting enormous pressure on the manufacturers (who sell most of their phones through carrier upgrades) to get rid of the card slots. The reason is simple: The carriers want to charge you bigtime for network data, and if you can sideload all your music and movies onto a 128 GB SD card, they won’t get paid when you don’t have to pull them down from the cloud. The battery is collateral damage, because the best excuse for a missing SD slot is to give the phone a back that can’t be removed.

Planned obsolescence is a particular loathing of mine. When I like a piece of gear, I want to be able to use it as long as I choose. (We drove our 1995 Plymouth Voyager for almost 20 years. We’ve had our 4Runner for 15 years now, and intend to go for 20 there as well.) Microsoft’s enormously pesty Windows 10 upgrade offer falls into that category. I like Win7, and feel that it’s by far the best version of Windows yet. I see no reason to stop using it. Sooner or later, MS is going to make the upgrade mandatory, or at least slip it in under the door in the middle of night, rather like Congress did with Obamacare. What happens then I don’t know and probably won’t talk about, except to say that I will keep on using Win7. Or perhaps switch to a Linux distro that’s been tweaked to look just like Win7. I have Zorin (if not the latest version) and may consider something like RoboLinux that runs Win7 in a VM. We’ll see.

Carol and I have now had enough experience with our phones to decide that we’re just not going to have a landline put in down here in Phoenix. We haven’t had one here for two months now, and haven’t missed it a bit. That’s a first for us: Neither of us has ever lived for more than a few days without a landline. (We also bought an indoor TV antenna and so far have not missed cable, either.)

The note 4 runs all the apps I’m used to running: Voice Search, Google Maps, Weather Underground, Sky Map, Waze, GPS Test, SoundHound, a couple of dumb puzzle games, and whatever else comes with the phone. Response is more than perky enough for my needs, which are nowhere near as smartphone-centric as a lot of people’s.

Bottom line: It’s a good phone. It can be loaded to the gills with Flash memory, and you can keep a spare battery in your pack. If you have one, take care of it, because given the carriers’ data-based business model, we may not see its like again.

Odd Lots

Marvell’s SheevaPlug

Two years ago, I discovered PowerLine networking and have used it ever since, first to cover a CAT5E “dead spot” in my Colorado house, and more recently to finesse Wi-Fi outages at Carol’s sister’s house. The Linksys PLE200 Ethernet bridges work fantastically well within our house, and have sufficient bandwidth to stream HD video. With one unit near my router downstairs, I can take the other unit and plug in to the Internet anywhere in the house where there’s a power outlet, and there are power outlets every six or eight feet on every wall in the place. So whereas it’s not quite Internet Anywhere, it’s pretty damned close.

I remember thinking with a smirk back when I first got the units that it wouldn’t be too long before somebody made Linux run on it. And suppose somebody did? What would be the use of that?

Well, a use occurred to me a few months later, though it wasn’t anything I felt like discussing at the time. But this morning I saw something on Slashdot that made me change my mind. It’s the Marvell SheevaPlug. It’s an 1.2 GHz ARM-based Linux box in a wall wart, and bears a striking resemblance to the various PowerLine brick bridges that I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s got a gigabit Ethernet port and a USB 2.0 connector, but no other interfaces. You talk to it through the Ethernet port, and can use the USB port for external mass storage or whatever. It takes its power from the wall outlet it’s plugged into. It’s only missing one (obvious) thing: PowerLine connectivity.

One of these plugged into a wall is cute, but not a major win. Equipping them with jelly-bean PowerLine logic changes everything: One plugged into a wall downstairs with a terabyte hard drive on the USB port, and three or four plugged into the wall upstairs acting as USB peripherals to computers, and you’ve got a media distribution system for cheap, with no dependence on CAT5 or even Wi-Fi. You can do that now via Wi-Fi, piecing together a system from components. Products based on the SheevaPlug (which is actually an OEM-able hardware platform) already allow this, with more or less kafeuthering, usually more. (See HipServ and PogoPlug.) My take is that if the idea is in fact to make a cheap and simple media distribution component for home use, PowerLine is a no-brainer.

The SheevaPlug does not have PowerLine connectivity, but someday it or something like it will. And a cheap (in my view, ~$80) implementation could turn an entire hotel into a LAN party–a LAN party where nobody knows precisely who or where anybody else is.

I’m not sure if that’s important to gamers or not. I’m not a gamer and have never been to a LAN party. I have read online, however, that there are LAN parties at which the games are almost a secondary attraction, behind the unusual ability to share files at high speeds with few (if some) concerns about Big Media’s enforcers. At public LAN parties, it’s always possible that the MPAA could plant a mole at the party. But if everybody’s sitting quietly in their hotel rooms either gaming or sharing files (or both) any moles tuning in with their own Sheevas would have a hard time knowing whom to call the cops on. Unlike Wi-Fi, it’s hard to get a directional fix on a PowerLine node, and without routable IP addresses, there’s no way to connect a node to a particular person.

This may or may not be technically feasible; it’s an SF concept for me, and I have a couple of story ideas that follow from it or at least make use of it. Much depends on how hotels are actually wired–and if something like this catches on, I’m guessing that they’ll begin soldering a low-pass filter on the 110v feed to every room.

But in the meantime, it’s cool to see my long-time prediction that computers will eventually become bulges between peripherals moving toward actualization. (I did not guess that computers would become their own wall-warts.) And there’s much more to say about what I call “backnets,” which are networks that happen in unexpected ways, often parasitically on other connections. Backnets may be the third coming of pirate radio, in which tweaking the Man is often more important than accomplishing anything useful. (Is there any fiction about pirate radio out there that you know of? Drop titles in the comments if you’ve got any. Thanks!)

Odd Lots

  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: “charcuterie,” meaning cured meats like bacon, ham, prosciutto, and the preparation thereof.
  • I talked to the realtor who’s handling the listing of the old Heinlein house here in Colorado Springs. What she said astounded me: Heinlein’s 1950 custom house is still in there. They built that ugly thing around it in 1995 or so. Parts of the original structure were removed, but most of it still exists, although it evidently was used as framing more than anything else.
  • And further relevant to the Heinlein House is a report from elder SF fan Bruce Pelz, who not only visited the house in Colorado Springs in 1963 when the Heinleins were still living there, but he slept in their legendary fallout shelter. (Cool photo there–definitely click through! And thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Needless to say, I haven’t visited the Heinlein fallout shelter (I stood in line to shake the great man’s hand at MidAmericon in 1976, and that was the only time I ever met him) but I frequently visited the 10-foot-deep underground fallout shelter of the late William A. “Bill” Rhodes in Phoenix, which he was using as a cool (literally) computer room until his death in 2006. It was culturally jarring–people of my parents’ generation took fallout shelters for granted, and people of my generation (for the most part) found them appalling.
  • CFLs may not be the big environmental win that they’re being touted as, because the power factor of the lamps is very low. Thery’re still a win, but the hype needs to be pruned back a little.
  • The whole idea of a CAPTCHA may be flawed, and although there are a number of objections to CAPTCHAS, this article pins down the primary and probably unfixable one: You can pay people to solve them. There are apparently some porn/pirate sites that charge for access in solved CAPTCHAS. And if nothing else works, hire a CAPTCHA-breaking firm in the third world. It looks to me like CAPTCHAs are becoming at best speed-bump hindrances to bots. If I had to guess, I’d say make it slower to establish accounts, and certainly slower for one IP to sequentially attempt a CAPTCHA. Could teergrubing make a comeback?
  • For the benefit of those who asked, here is the Web site of the people who did my crowns over this past year. They are artists, especially Dr. Frank Seaman. The 15-month project was actually a collaboration between two independent offices in the same building. Dr. Jeanne Salcetti did the periodontal portion (gingivectomy, tooth extraction, bone graft, and implant) and she was wonderful too. I recommend both of them without hesitation.