Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

August 13, 2007

We continue to get mail about the telephone system. It's pretty clear that within a few years everyone will carry a pocket computer that contains a wireless telephone, so it's hardly surprising that many find the subject interesting. Many want to tell their personal stories...

First, views about the iPhone:

The Mailbag: Comment on iPhone Outside of U.S.

Jerry,

I am in Austria for a week. The WiFi only works for a few seconds before A1, T Mobile A, or One takes over. Then WiFi no longer works with Safari or anything else (turning off the carrier makes no difference). I have to use Edge at a cost of $0.019/KB. Thanks a lot, ATT and Apple, for a crippled device. Needless to say, my iPhone is off. My old Treo 650 has its own local SIM card and works just fine for a lot less than the ATT international plan. Skype is even cheaper.

The iPhone is not the end all, at least, not yet, when you go out of the U.S. It is an iPhlunk.

Cheers, Craig Douglas

The moral of the story being, when you go overseas, use something other than today's iPhone. Understood.

We previously had horror stories about activation. Here's another experience:

Subject: iPhone Activation

Hi Jerry,

I'm a second year subscriber. Your computer/technology musings are great.

I'm sure there have been problems activating iPhones but my experience was flawless.

My wife was looking for a small new internet device to take on a trip. She was after something smaller than a laptop, but not necessarily after a new phone. My initial impression of the iPhone before using one was pretty low. It seemed over priced and too limited.

We did a lot of online research, looking at many different companies but in the end we headed out to the mall. The Apple store had about 20 iPhones out for people to play with. We got in line to use one. We both played around for about 10-15 minutes and said "These are cool!". I just bought a Treo 680 earlier this year so I could not justify getting a new phone for me, but my wife was ready for a new phone after her iPhone "test drive".

We bought a 8 Gig iPhone. The sales rep asked if we had a Mac or a PC with XP service pack 2 or better, which we did. We already had an AT&T wireless account so there was no switching of wireless carriers. (We were PAC Bell -> AT&T -> Cingular -> AT&T customers without ever switching service.)

At home we loaded the latest version of iTunes, created an iTunes account for my wife, connected the iPhone, typed in our phone number, accepted that AT&T would have the rights to our first born, and the phone was activated. The whole thing was less than 20 minutes. We now pay $20 more / month for unlimited Edge service on the iPhone.

I hate to say it but, "It just worked".

Vince

The moral of this story is, pay attention to what you're doing. Learn about your options. That's true for more than just iPhones.

Subject: Old Phone Plans

I went though this a couple of months ago, when AT&T was still Cingular. Your phone company is not going to upgrade your phone plan unless you ask them to. Our new family plan has free nationwide coverage, unlimited nights and weekends, plus unlimited calling in the Cingular network. When my Dad who was also a Cingular customer, didn't want to talk to me because he was burning minutes, I decided to add him to our plan.

I found out that the only way to transfer a phone number within the Cingular network, was to do it though a Cingular store. The downside to this is that you can get a much better deal on a phone online. However, the people who work in the stores can apparently do just about anything. I just gave them the phone number and he was immediately added to our plan, without even bothering to get permission from the account holder.

Now I was fortunate that his contract was expired. If your contract is not expired, changing your plan might be considered "upgrading" you plan, and maybe you might have to commit to a contract extension. But you have the upper hand when dealing with the salesman, since you can easily call a different store and get someone else to help you.

Hope this helps,

Cynthia

Thanks! I need to add Roberta and Larry Niven to my plan anyway.

On International plans:

Subject: We're the phone company (int'l roaming)

Not for attribution--my employer has to act civilized to carriers, whether they deserve it or not, though this is just about my personal experiences.

1) Zero sympathy for the web developer with the multi-K$ roaming bills. [see last week] Web developers need an appreciation of how much cruft they make us download, and his education was cheap at the price.

2) Thanks for the heads-up about Ma Bell Mark II. They've been OK for simple domestic pay-as-you-go (which doesn't allow them to rip me off), but as soon as I needed to talk to them about anything complicated (enabling international roaming for a family trip to Canada, which according to my Account Details page was already enabled), it was a Lily-Tomlinesque Catch 22 nightmare, as you predicted. Since I've had the plan a while, I am permitted to supplicate for international roaming, though they warned me that they are under no obligation to provide it. Indeed, the first employee I was connected to hung up on me rather than transfer my call. The second employee (in Canada, oddly enough) tried to be helpful, but the Technical Services employee she connected me to told me unsympathetically that since I already had an unlocked phone (which I got from my employer) I could not get the required 'Subsidy Unlock Code.'

3) My mother's experience was even worse; she was sold a too-expensive new phone & pay-as-you-go plan _just_ to use on the trip to Canada (her existing phone & provider were fine for the US), only to find, when she landed and it was too late, that int'l roaming was _not_ enabled, and as a matter of policy could not be enabled for at least 90 days.

Conclusion: Needless to say, my mother will not willingly associate with Ma Bell again, in this life or the next. My needs are more complicated, and getting even more so; I hope to avoid both ATT (my wife is happy with her bare-bone T-Mobile GSM pay-as-you-go service) and indentured servitude (a.k.a. a service contract), but my employer encourages us to get an unlimited data plan. The only such GSM pay-as-you-go plan I've heard of (without an expensive voice plan, which I don't want) is the iPhone Bad Credit Risk Plan. I suspect an attempt to make pay-as-you-go customers into second-class citizens, presumably because they're free men and can't be revenue-enhanced via billing 'errors.' But pay-as-you-go is sounding better and better, the more I hear about how carriers treat their serfs.

I suppose being labeled a "Bad Credit Risk" is preferable to giving them a blank check. But is there any downside to that? Does it affect your ability to borrow money for a car purchase?

And one more unhappy customer:

Subject: AT&T: The Return of Darth Vader

I was an AT&T loyalist for years because, when modems became important, AT&T always had the best connection. I left them when I needed customer service one day several years ago, and discovered that their phone menu for "homeowners" had NO options to talk to a human being, and none of their categories fit my problem. (To get help I had to lie and key in that I was a business, and got a human right away. She helpfully connected me to a human who could resolve my problem. But that was the ONLY way I could talk to a real person.) I decided they really didn't need this homeowner's business, and switched to Bellsouth (I live in Alabama). Now, AT&T has bought Bellsouth.! I'm already getting obnoxious sales calls from AT&T reps in India pushing me to upgrade my internet service. And I had always bragged on Bellsouth for their excellent internet support; doubtless that will be one of the first cost-saving measures.

We disassembled the 800-pound gorilla years ago, and damned if the gummint isn't letting it reform. It's as despair-making as watching the droplets of the killer robot in Terminator 2 coalesce back into their killer machine.

Is there ANYONE out there who thinks we could have accomplished the Internet with AT&T in charge?? Christ, they couldn't even deal with bootleg devices to help deaf people communicate.

- Larry Anthony

I won't comment on that. My experiences haven't been that bad. My latest Cingular phone bill says it is now AT&T. It also shows I never paid last month's bill (the one that caused all the problems) and doesn't show any change in my Plan, so I'll have to wait another month to find out the end of my story.


Subject: eBooks and all-in-one phones

I've been looking for an good, inexpensive ebook reader off-and-on for a couple of years. I started reading ebooks on my Handspring (Palm) Prism PDA, but the battery life was so low--about two hours--that I often ran out of juice just when I was really getting into my reading.

A couple of years ago, I got tired of carrying both a PDA and a cell phone, so when I switched cell providers--more on that below--I upgraded to a Palm Treo 650. This is essentially a Palm OS pocket computer with a cell phone built-in. (Yes, it comes with a camera, but for the /same/ price, you can get a camera-less model.) As did the Prism, the Treo has different fonts to suit the user, and the lithium battery in it gives me about six hours of reading before needing a recharge, which is just about right for me. Of course, using the phone will drain the battery faster.

A Treo is certainly not an inexpensive option for just reading ebooks. However, you mentioned wanting to combine your phone, camera, and voice recorder into one device. Among other programs, I've installed software on my Treo that doubles as a call recorder and voice recorder, so my Treo does the three things you said you'd like to combine, albeit the camera is suitable only for web snapshots. I do have extra flash card memory so I don't run out of space for my ebooks and voice recordings (or my games).

I've been with Palm since the first Palm Pilot, so I can't speak for Blackberry or WindowsCE PDAs, but I find my Treo to be all I've wanted. You may find a WindowsCE smartphone (as they're called) more fitting to your needs.

One final note. My current cell service provider is Cingular. I changed from Sprint because most of my family and friends have Cingular. While I'm satisfied with its area coverage, I've never experienced worse telephone customer service than Cingular's. It seemed to me that its entire customer service system was poorly designed and unable to communicate among its different sections. Plus, when a service representative told me something had been done, it turned out it hadn't . . . more than once, with more than one service representative. I recommend going to the local store rather than using the web or telephone, and I recommend that for any of the service providers.

Cheers. Mike Groman

I don't think we have yet seen the universal pocket computer and cell phone, but I would bet reasonable sums we will see it within three years. I think I will go to my local Cingular - now AT&T - store and find out what plan I am on. Perhaps they know. Stay tuned.


On CD collections, first a comment from Chaos Manor Reviews Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey:

Subject: Regarding Cynthia's question about a digitized CD collection...

I'd move away from the whole concept of watching DVD's on a dedicated DVD player. When our current Cyberhome unit dies, we won't replace it. We'll just use the Mac Mini that's already connected to the TV to watch movies, too. We may migrate that way sooner rather than later. It goes to sleep, so doesn't use much more power than the dedicated DVD player does.

We don't have a DVR. Does that make us neo-Luddites? There isn't much that appears on television that I want to watch enough to skip commercials through. Whatever it is, is going to be available on our Netflix queue soon enough.

Oh, right, so back to the question. There is a home server in Cynthia's future. All the other systems can (and should) backup to that box. All digitized media (photos, movies, music, etc) should be centrally stored there, available for desktops, laptops, the Mac Mini connected to the TV...

Then I can play those tracks through the home stereo, or on the speakers in my home office. I can transfer some of them to my portable player (well, I could if I had one of those).

That's what we do. During parties, I set the Mini to playing tunes through the stereo, and doing a random slide show from our several thousand digital pictures. I take enough strange pictures that there's rarely an awkward silence - a wide-screen closeup of a praying mantis is enough to liven up nearly any group.

When all the data either ON or backed up TO the home server, well, then, the home server can be backed up to an encrypted portable drive and taken offsite on a regular basis (which I also do, disks in rotation - I'm never without offsite backup, even during refresh cycles).

Yes, the server is always on. It's not a workstation. It's a headless box. It *could* be running a Microsoft OS, probably will be in most homes. Mine is Linux, because I don't want an OS to tell me which media it will let me play, and which it won't. It's always on, so that whenever someone wants to listen to a song, the machine is ready. Everything else can sleep as appropriate, wake up for middle-of-the-night backups, and go back to sleep.

best,
.brian

Thanks. I expect there's a server in everyone's future. Eventually. It may take a while for Aunt Minnie to acquire one. On the other hand, there's no real reason why the server has to be a separate box, what with silicon disks and multi-processor cores. We do have to teach Aunt Minnie not to turn the system off when she's done looking at pictures of her grandnieces.

Another solution:

Hi Jerry,

I just read the mailbag about an audio jukebox. My recommendation for a dedicated solution is a Mac Mini with external storage, and (as a bonus), an Airport extreme and Airport Expresses for remote rooms.

Using iTunes, you can rip the CD's to the external storage (750GB Seagate is $225 at Costco at the moment). Either rip as 320 kbps (which is darn near CD-quality on all but classical and jazz), or Apple Lossless which is CD quality. The former is about 90MB/CD, the latter is about 300MB/CD. I chose 320 kbps so I can still fit a decent number on my ipod and don't kill my battery.

The MacMini has an optical digital out, which bypasses the digital->analog converters in the Apple hardware and uses the much higher quality A/D converter in your amplifier, but can also use an analog out from the MacMini. Either way the sound is wonderful, and you use iTunes to manage the library.

If you use an Apple Airport Extreme base station, you can stream music from iTunes to up to three (plus the local digital-out) remote rooms via AirPort express stations - all in perfect sync. It streams in lossless format, so you don't lose anything there, and the sound from the Express' A/D converter is darn good. You need a separate amp in each remote room, but it's a great way to have music throughout the house.

An alternative to the MacMini is to use any other Mac (or PC actually) that you might have. The Airport Extreme can mount a NAS disk (AirDisk) which can be accessed wirelessly by any computer on the network. Then you can stream from your Mac/PC to any of the amplifiers, and get great sound while avoiding the need for a dedicated machine for the CD jukebox.

This is my own setup: my wife and I can each choose what music is playing in whatever room we're in - we both share one set of audio files on the AirDisk via our Mac's and stream to the amp in the room(s) we want. For 99% of our music it's great, but for true Hi-FI, I pull out the SACDs, DVD-Audio or DTS Audio disks (none of which can be ripped, and all are far superior to CD sound).

Like everything else Apple - this stuff just works.

As for video, you could get an Apple TV attached to your TV. There's software widely available to rip DVD's and store them, but to get decent quality is about 2-3GB per movie (4GB is lossless), and you do lose some of the advanced audio. For audio, the technology has hit prime time - for video, I'd wait a couple of years.

Cheers,
Doug

Mac Mini's are wonderful. So are the brand new iMacs. "Get a Mac" seems to be the answer to a lot of questions now.

Subject: CD collection

Hi,

Re CD collections and MP3, I'm unsure I understand the problem. The discussion reminds me of the people who want a great stereo for their car with hardly any THD and a perfect 20Hz-20KHz response and then put this in a noisy vehicle and listen to country western. As if.

In real life what _most_ people listen to is rock, country and so on. This generally isn't known for dynamic range. On top of this most people don't have the ear to tell quality, and even if they did, most people listen to their music whilst working, entertaining, or driving. They're not listening so much as having a filled background: FM is still popular. 128 bit compression should therefore be way more than enough for most needs.

Sure, you can find an audiophile out there who claims to hear differences in lossless vs compressed, but then again this person is also listening very intently to orchestral music or something else with major dynamic range, and even then I'd seriously question whether they could tell in a double blind test. Especially an audiophile over 50, when hearing loss at certain frequencies gets more pronounced for all humans.

And most people aren't audiophiles. A 30 GB MP3 player ought to be able to hold pretty much everything that anyone wants to hear. Make this an 80 GB player (give it a year or two) and you probably have 99% of the population covered. My father's entire lifelong collection (70 yrs) has been turned into 128 bit MP3 format and he puts collections on cheap 2 GB SD cards. He's as happy as a clam.

In short, 128 bit MP3 format on a 30 GB player is eminently practical for the average person.

Sorry about the novelette and rant. Thanks for your time!

Gary Alston

I am the wrong person to ask. I turn my fairly high quality audio receiver to KUSC and leave it there, unless I want to switch to AM and listen to talk radio, as I am doing now. When I go out I don't have any compulsion to have noise in my ears at all times; I'd rather use my walks to think about my current novels, and if I am lucky I can dictate some lines into my Olympus digital voice recorder.


Subject: Re: The changing World of Publishing

Hi Jerry,

Given what you said about paperback publishing in your latest "Chaos Manor Reviews", why aren't we seeing a move to printing-and-binding on demand ?

Just ship one (electronic) copy of the book to each store, and let them print as many copies as they need. The New York Public Library has apparently recently installed the necessary machine : see this link. Large up-front costs, no doubt, but no more shipping - ever. Also, no more out-of-print books (long tail economics on the high street).

When I fly, I always wear pants with a side pocket large enough for my paperbook or newspaper.

Chris Brand
Canada

For those who don't know, Chris Brand has done considerable work on IQ and the g-factor (see his blog), and one of his major works was "depublished" by Wiley: that is, due to a storm of PC protests, his book was withdrawn from publication. It is available free on the web.

All of which is relevant here: it is much harder to suppress books now. Depublishing didn't work.

Stefan Possony used to say that you either believe in rational discussion or you don't. If you do, you should find this trend encouraging no matter what your beliefs in IQ and heredity.