Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
July 24, 2007

The User's Column, July 2007
Column 324, part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from two weeks back...

The Phone Company

"We don't care. We don't have to. We're The Phone Company." Lily Tomlin's skit was famous, and that plus the movie The President's Analyst probably had an influence on Judge Green's decision to break up the old AT&T.

A year ago I pointed out that The Phone Company was coming back. I concluded that column this way:

I may be the last mourner of old Ma Bell, but I frankly wish we had the old AT&T, a regulated public utility, with Bell Labs and a public utilities commission. I'm pretty sure I'd be paying more than $100 a month, but I'd be paying less than I do now for my combined cable, cell phone, telephone, and Internet access. And we'd have Bell Labs, where they discovered the transistor.

Good night, Judge Green, wherever you are. I can't say I wish you well.

With that introduction, I have a tale to tell.

Pacific Bell ⇒ Cingular ⇒ AT&T

I have had a cell phone for years. I began with Pacific Bell, which was then a local company, largely because Pacific Bell was also my landline telephone service provider. I signed up for whatever "plan" they had at the time, and I haven't changed it over the years.

Pacific Bell cell phones became something else, and that became Cingular. Each time the "service" sold my cell phone coverage got worse. When I first signed up I could call from my office. Just after it became Cingular I could only call from one corner over by the window. I was ready to change when, suddenly, Voila! I found I had five bars all over my house. I was grateful.

During all that time I was paying about $44 a month for whatever "plan" I had. This seemed a bit high, since I seldom used that phone, but on the other hand when I made trips to Washington or New York or Maxwell AFB and used my phone there to call home, my phone bill didn't change much. It was a fixed budget item.

About a year ago Cingular became part of AT&T, and then AT&T became the "new" AT&T. I may have the order wrong, but it hardly matters. Nothing seemed to change. My phone still says "Cingular" when I turn it on, and "Pac Bell" at the top of the screen before I dial. My bill is normally $44 a month, I don't use the phone a lot, but when I do it works well. Sometimes I use it a lot, as for instance a couple of months ago when Microsoft held WinHEC here, and after that I went to Phoenix for Henry Vanderbilt's Space Access Society conference (link); indeed, during those times it was about the only telephone I used. When I was out of town I consciously used my cell phone to call home in preference to the overpriced hotel telephone service. My bill remained $44 a month.

I don't do "texting" — I don't think my little Nokia, which fits into a breast pocket - can do "texting". It doesn't have a camera. It doesn't do web browsing, or email, or calendar and PDA services. It doesn't play games. A couple of years ago I did try some of that - it only required that I take the SIM card out of my Nokia and put it into the iMate JasJam (link) I bought at a deep discount at that year's WinHEC. That worked well, and I rather liked the iMate.

Alas, it had this problem: it didn't work very well as a telephone. The battery didn't last very long, it wouldn't fit in a breast pocket, and it really needed an external headset (Bluetooth or wired).

While all those other services were interesting, I was much more interested in having a telephone I could use easily as a phone, so I put the SIM back in my ancient Nokia which I only have to charge once a week or so, and I've carried that ever since. And all that time my wireless phone bill has been about $44.00 a month, which includes monthly charge, usage, taxes, mysterious fees, and the rest of it, and it didn't change no matter where I went or how much I used it.

One of the Roaming Kind

Now we have the New AT&T and I have my bill that includes my trip to Washington DC, Fairfax, Baltimore, and back to DC. The bill is over $200. Of that, nearly $150 is "Charges Incurred While Roaming in WASH/BALT, DC". There were 83 such calls. More than a third were INCOMI CL. I presume that means incoming calls. The calling number is not specified, so there's no way to determine who called me or if anyone called me. I am simply to trust AT&T. They couldn't possibly make a mistake or be out to skin me. Those calls were $0.79 each, except that I have one, caller unspecified, for $6.32, which is the largest single amount of the 83 "roaming" calls. I have no idea who it was from.

Then there were many calls I had made back to California. The minimum of these was $1.58. A few were over the minimum. One, made the night before I left, was to Roberta who had gone home two days before I did. That one went to $5.53. In no case was the duration of the call given. At least I know I made those calls. It's also clear I'd have done no worse by using the hotel phone system.

I don't usually pay much attention to my phone bill. As I said, it has been about $44 a month for a long time. This time I looked more closely - and found that while I was home I was also being charged for incoming calls marked "roaming"; no calling number specified. They don't amount to much, about $0.15 each, but two were over a dollar. I have no idea who any of these calls are from. I suppose they are real. I try not to give out my cell phone number, but my family and a few friends and advisors have it. Which of those were "roaming" when they called me and caused me to pay "roaming" charges for taking calls at my own house I don't know.

I sent in a check for this bill on Monday when I paid my other bills. It went out from the Studio City post office Monday morning. It was due Wednesday.

I also set the bill out where I could find it because I was annoyed by the "roaming charges", particularly charges made for incoming calls. When I signed up for cell phone service my first demand was that I did not pay for incoming calls, and I have always presumed that one reason my bill has been $44 a month is that it covers incoming calls. I don't get a lot of incoming calls, but it irks me to have to pay for them. Why should someone else be able to cost me money by calling me?

So I paid the bill, but I put it aside with the notion that I'd do something about it: discuss "plans", and look into alternatives to AT&T. Inertia being what it is, I hadn't done anything at all about it by Thursday afternoon, and it's likely I never would have. Inferno II needs a lot of rewriting: our editor thinks it's promotable and a potential best seller, but in saying that he sent ten single-space pages of notes. Alas, my wife, my agent, my partner, and I all agree that he found things that need doing, even if it will be a lot of work. Much as I hated those "roaming" charges, particularly incoming "roaming" charges for calls I receive at home, it wasn't likely I'd actually do anything.


Thursday afternoon I was driving out to Kaiser to pick up my new spectacles. My cell phone rang. I fished it out of my breast pocket, and a nearly unintelligible voice said something about *&%$&$# Services. It sounded to me like "Emergency Services," so I didn't hang up as I normally would in receiving a call from a stranger. I very nearly had an accident, but I managed to pull off the street into a cul-de-sac, and listened again.

The voice was horribly over-modulated. I protested that the caller should move away from the microphone and got a spiel about the headset.

"All right. Why are you calling me?" I asked.

"This is AT&T. What is your password?"

I protested that I never had a password and don't know what a password for a cell phone would be. So why are you calling me?

She - it turned out this was a female creature although at the time because of the awful voice quality I thought it was male - insisted she could not tell me why she had called unless I gave her my password. I insisted I didn't have a password, why was she calling. By this time I was a bit upset: I'd nearly had a traffic accident because of this call. I asked for the caller's name. I was told "Connie." I was also told she couldn't tell me why she had called unless I gave her my password. I protested that I didn't know the password.

Connie told me to call 611 and get customer service; they could deal with this. She couldn't. She knew what she had called me about, but she wasn't going to tell me until I gave her the password.

I was a walk-in for my spectacles adjustment at Kaiser, so I had a bit of time: I dialed 611. I got through to a human being in about 5 minutes, which may be a record and may not. This time I got a pleasant young lady who was apologetic - but although she knew why they had called me, she couldn't tell me unless I gave my password. I asked if there was any way out of this impasse.

There was: I could go to a Cingular or AT&T store and show my photo ID, and they would change my password for me. She even looked up where the nearest store was. I already knew because it was where I had bought my wife's Cingular telephone for her birthday a year or so ago. Clearly a bad decision, but at least I knew where the store was. It would cost some time to do that, so I asked for a supervisor.

Big mistake. Whereas the first young lady was polite and sympathetic, the supervisor had scripts. One of the scripts was that if I would go to the phone store I would be working to solve the problem, while complaining to her would get neither one of us anywhere. And no, she couldn't tell me why they had called me unless I gave her my password.

I went out and got my new glasses: a pair of bi-focals in what we used to call Photo-Grey and are now called photochromics, with anti-glare, made of polycarbonate which is lighter and stronger - they say - and is said to provide additional UV protection. The other pair are what I call "computer glasses": they have a focal length of 28", which is about how far I sit from my screen. To be precise, it's how far I sat from the screen on old Ezekiel, my original S-100 Z-80 who now resides on display in the Smithsonian (I am not making that up). I can make a pretty good claim to having invented "computer glasses"; certainly I thought of them independent of anyone else. I had some made in 1981 and wrote about them in the old McGraw Hill BYTE, and I think I was the first one to talk about such things. It's pretty well established that I wrote the first published work of fiction written on a computer, and I have a claim to have done the first actual published book done on a home computer. But enough: back to the story.

On the way home I stopped at the AT&T Cingular store, waited in line for ten minutes, and showed my photo ID. They couldn't tell me my password, but they could change it. I told them to do that, and carefully wrote down what they had changed it to. Then I asked why AT&T Cingular had called me. They didn't know, and had no way to find out. I'd have to call Customer Services.

I went home and used the land line to call AT&T Customer Services. This may have been a mistake: I sure waited longer in a queue than I had when I had called earlier on my cell phone. Perhaps it made no difference which phone I used. Eventually I got someone who would tell me why they had called me.

My bill, which was overdue on Wednesday - this was Thursday - had not been paid.

"I see," I said. "I paid that Monday. Check your records." Long pause. "Oh. We're sorry."

"Let me ask you something," I said. "Suppose you were the customer of a tailor. You have been a good customer, paying your bills, some of them considerable, for forty years. Then one week you take a trip and are three days late paying a bill that is not very large compared to what you annually pay the tailor. The tailor then calls you, not at home, not at your place of business, but on your cell phone, to annoy you about that unpaid bill. Would you find a new tailor?"

Of course it did no good to ask this young lady who has no power to do anything about it. One may have to smite a tyrant's minions, but it's pointless merely to annoy them.

I then wanted to discuss the "roaming charges" which had driven my bill from the normal $44 a month to over $200. She couldn't do that. I would have to speak to someone else. She'd transfer me.

The transfer produced a recorded voice that told me it would be a thirteen minute wait. I translated that into reality, concluded I didn't have half an hour more to waste on this, and hung up.

The Moral of This Story

The first moral of this story is obvious: They're back. They don't care. They don't have to. They're The Phone Company. The New AT&T has most of the monopoly power of the original AT&T, and all of its arrogance. At least the old Phone Company responded to the Public Utilities Commissions. The new one is not a regulated public utility. It doesn't care. It doesn't have to. And it doesn't even support Bell Labs, which we used to get in compensation for having to deal with the Old AT&T.

The second moral of this story is also obvious. Don't do as I did and just sit there paying your bill. Pay attention to those "plans", particularly the cell phone plans. Fortunately there is still competition for cell phone business. I am probably stuck with the New AT&T for my land lines - I really don't want to change all my lines to VOIP - but I am not required to deal with the New AT&T for my cell phone service.

What I must do now is study the alternatives, including New AT&T Cingular "plans". Of course that comes at an awkward time. I have to finish Inferno II, I have to get back to Mamelukes and finish that, and Roberta wants us to spend a week or two at the beach house while I do all that. And of course I have the new Harry Potter book, which I haven't read because I have to finish this column and do an hour or two on Inferno.

I am open to suggestions on cell phone services and plans. What I want is a predictable bill over which I have some control. What I do not want is for someone to be able to call me and add a "roaming" charge to my bill by doing that. I hate that a lot.

I also want to know just what it does cost me to make calls from distant places. I want to know the coverage area of my cell phone provider. Clearly, if I am "roaming" in DC, then Cingular must not have service there. Apparently the New AT&T despite its near monopoly status isn't so big in cellular coverage, so that if you go far from Los Angeles you are "roaming" and outside their service area. Surely there is a cell phone service for fifty bucks a month that is truly national? Perhaps even international?

It will take me a couple of months to deal with this, but I don't intend to let go. Suggestions are welcome. Clearly I shouldn't have let this go for so long.

Cell Phones and the Future

I don't believe The Phone Company and its allies (Schumpeter called this kind of arrangement an Oligopoly) will prevail in dominating cell phone communications pricing: it's far too important. It's true enough that the US is way behind other countries in established wireless capabilities for consumers, but there may be some advantage to that since the potential grows exponentially.

I have said this before: pocket computers connected through broadband wireless will be the wave of the future. These pocket computers will replace cell phones. The first step toward that is the iPhone but that's very much just the beginning. In the not very distant future, our pocket computers will be cell phones; cameras, both still and motion; GPS location unit; Internet browser; Calendar, phone book, task manager, and general Personal Data Assistant; Blackberry; primary means of dealing with email; blogging tool; and the instrument on which you do all the reading of mass market paperback books, and over time, more and more of the reading that you now do from hardbound books.

Pocket computers will change fashions. Instead of hanging phones and Blackberry and other stuff on the belt, men will have some other means of carrying the pocket computer. Women's bag fashions will change to accommodate these.

The pocket computers are coming; and they will be so important that not even the New AT&T can stifle them or suck us all dry with "roaming"charges.

The iPhone is just the beginning.

Relearning Old Lessons

One of the first things we learned in the old S-100 buss days was to clean the air filter. Dr. Godbout - the beloved Uncle Billy of CompuPro - actually had warning messages about cleaning air filters put into the PROM BIOS of CompuPro systems.

I was reminded of this when my main communications system began rebooting itself without warning. The system would come back up all right, but then I would have the Microsoft Window telling me my system had recovered from a serious error, and did I want to report it.

I consider it good citizenship to contribute to the troubleshooting data base, so the first couple times I did that.

Trouble reporting trouble.
[View larger]

I use Firefox as my default net browser. Since my system had just shut itself down and been brought back up, Firefox had closed itself. When you report an error to Microsoft, it gives you no choice; it wants to go on line to show you an entry in the Microsoft Data Base about that error. Unfortunately, at least in my case, with Firefox as my default browser but shut down, Microsoft got unhappy and showed me that screen at right.

Alexis crashed several times, and each time I reported the error I got this message, so I stopped reporting the errors.

Meanwhile, Firefox opened, having first asked me if I wanted to restore the previous session. The screen Microsoft sent me to said that a device driver had caused the errors, and told me about blue screens. Since in fact I had not seen a blue screen of death - the system had simply rebooted itself - this wasn't a lot of help. I also knew I hadn't changed any devices or device drivers, or added any new hardware or software. I just got spontaneous reboots.

Spontaneous rebooting hasn't happened to me for a long time. It seemed pretty certain that must be a hardware problem, so I opened up Alexis. It didn't take long to find the problems.

Two fans were not turning. One of them was in the main compartment, and I have no idea why it wasn't spinning: when I touched it, it began to turn, and periodic checks on it show that it's still working. The other fan was in the lower compartment of the Antec P-180 enclosure. The P-180 has a separate compartment for power supply and disk drives, and a main fan that pulls in air across the disk drives (as well as the usual exhaust fan in the power supply itself). This compartment is separated from the main CPU compartment, but of course cables have to run from the one to the other through a cable run. Those cables had shifted - I don't know how, because Alexis hasn't been moved in a long time - and one was blocking the fan in that power supply/disk drive compartment. That was the fan that drew air across the hard disk drives. Those disk drives were very hot to the touch.

The remedy was obvious, of course. First I adjusted the cables. Then I got my canned air and blew out the entire compartment, including all the fans. I also unblocked the air intakes, and got half a pound of dog hair out of the machine. Canned air gets cold, so I used a good bit on the hot disk drives. Then I let the system sit for a few minutes and turned it on.

All's well. Indeed, I wonder if this wasn't the source of some of my Outlook problems. Outlook is still stealing the focus when I'm working in Word and a message comes in, but the freezes are less frequent and shorter than they used to be. Outlook is its piggy old self again, so I suspect that Alexis has been getting progressively hotter over the past couple of weeks, the heat caused slowdowns, and Outlook is the only program that noticed.

The moral of this story is obvious: if you have filters, clean them regularly. If you don't, inspect your fans and air flow at regular intervals. Keep canned air around and use it once in a while. It couldn't hurt.