Archive for Technology

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Monthly subscriptionitis is a deadly disease and one that is difficult to avoid.  Our house currently has monthly bills for internet access, land phone, unblock-us (ip spoofing), Netflix, Mercy’s cell phone and my cell phone.  It all adds up to a lot of cash.  The cell phones are especially expensive we pay about $180/month.  That gives us 400 minutes of talk time ($30 each), 6gb data ($30 each), system fees and some extras (call display, text messaging).  Over the past couple of years I’ve used my data for tethering my computer at work, but I think I’m done with subsidizing public education. So I looked into how we could slim down the cell phone bill by cutting back to 2gb of data.  Amazingly, it gets more expensive.  Our 6gb for $30 has been grandfathered in and is way better than anything offered now.


Checking out Fido or Koodo, I determined that they really don’t offer anything cheaper.  However, Wind Mobile does offer a much reduced rate.  Reviews on Wind are pretty mixed though, with a lot of complaints about coverage.  Their monthly no-contract rate is so cheap that I thought it would be worth checking out for a month.  The only problem is that I would need a phone that works on Wind, because my current Note 2 does not.


This is where Microsoft enters the picture.  They just started selling the 640XL, a mid-range 5″+ phone for $340.  It’s not the greatest phone in the world but the size is good, the battery lasts a long time and the processor is fine.  And they have a 30 day money back return policy.  So I bought a Lumia 640XL, took it to Wind, and then got a 1 month 2gb package for $35.  This package gives unlimited calling, messaging, voice mail and call display.

Wind data is only 4G, so I expected it to be quite a bit slower than my Note 2 on LTE. I wasn’t disappointed.  I also found lots of places where the data didn’t work very well, such as at Main and Terminal and Broadway and Commercial.  But whatevs.  I decided to stick with the phone, cancel my Rogers phone, and save $45/month.

The day after cancelling my Rogers plan I went to Spanish Banks.  Lo and behold, Wind wasn’t great there.  And you know what? The world didn’t end, no one got hurt and I didn’t get lost with no way of contacting the outside world.

So far I’m really happy with Wind.  Sure, their service sucks in places but that’s a compromise I am glad to take.  I’m acquainting myself with free WiFi hotspots and it’s all good.

Postscript: my wife called Rogers to cancel my phone and it had already been canceled from when I ported my phone. I couldn’t believe it would be that easy.  Rogers also tried to offer my wife a sweet deal.  They told her she could have unlimited talk and 5gb of data for $95.  Uhmmmm…. their best deal was worse than what she (and I) already had.

Hard Drive Death

Sometimes I wonder if I get a bit paranoid about backups and using my NAS. This usually happens on the occasion that I have to do some maintainance on it. Most of the people I know do not have a NAS, which of course begs the question of whether we need to have one or not. As more and more Cloud storage and services are available, perhaps a NAS becomes less relevant. In any event, it’s not often that a friend will tell me about a hard drive crash and them losing data.


Well, yesterday I almost had another one of those events. The hard drive on my NAS, the one that holds the OS, died. I’ve been using NAS4Free for almost a year now, after the FreeNAS project switched over. It’s been a pretty seamless solution for me, but with the OS pooched I was worried. You see, I use a software RAID with the NAS and it’s the OS that makes me able to read my storage drives. I can’t take the storage drives out of my NAS and get data from them using another computer. So it’s pretty important that my NAS keeps on working. Luckily I have a saved copy of my NAS4Free configuration, which is the key to all of this.

I didn’t have an extra drive, so I decided to run the OS from a USB flash drive. It’s a painless process to set it all up, but it did take a bit of time. I re-downloaded the OS, downloaded a USB image writer, created a Live USB OS and then booted into NAS4Free. I then had to grab another blank 4gb Flash USB, and use the “Live” version to install a “Full” version on the 4gb drive. Simple, but a little time consuming. Once the full version was running, I uploaded my configuration file, rebooted, and then all of my old NAS4Free information was there, including access to my storage drives.

Maybe I get an apparent higher rate of dead hard drives simply because I have more hard drives that can screw up. There are 5 in my NAS (1 dead drive which used to be the OS, and then 4 drives for storage), and 1 each in my laptop and desktop. Oh, I also have two external hard drives for backups. I really only use one of these now, it holds 3 TB. As data storage goes up, the old backup drives get too small. My hold external backup was only 500GB…

Moving forward, I can still see a place for the NAS at home. We can download torrents and keep them on the NAS, and have them show on our computers or TV in the front room. The NAS is also good for storing and streaming music, tv shows and movies. However, the increased popularity of services like Netflix has decreased much of our tv and movie streaming.

Web Tracking

There is something twisted about the public being used for marketing purposes in their every day lives. We do this all the time when we wear branded clothing. Granted, there are lots of people who want to show the world that they are wearing designer clothing. On the other hand, many of us don’t like the idea of shelling out $45 for a Nike running shirt and having to advertise for their company while wearing it.

The internet and web are no different when it comes to public marketing. When people sign up for a service such as Facebook, they are agreeing to have their (once) private data used for the commercial benefit of companies. In particular, I found Facebook’s privacy statements to be far too onerous and even outrageous, and decided to delete my account last year. In particular, I think it is outrageous that public photos posted on Facebook immediately hands the rights of the photos over to Facebook. I also learned that Facebook places a tracking cookie on computers that tracks web traffic even if you are logged off of Facebook. I first heard about this on CBC and confirmed it myself.

A friends of mine pointed out that it was hypocritical of me to treat Facebook as my only privacy concern, when other services such as Google do similar things.  They were right, although my argument at the time was that at least Google doesn’t hide their marketing and advertising machinations. That, and I found Google’s services to be really useful.

Having just read an article by Janet Vertesi, a prof at Princeton who recently broke up with Google, I’m now tyring to scale back my use of google as well.  The obvious first step was to replace Google’s search engine with something that doesn’t track my useage.  Duck Duck Go seems to fit the bill (ha ha) quite nicely.  Next steps would be to move my online videos from youtube to Vimeo, and stop using Google Drive (which I dislike and don’t use much).  However, google plays an important part in my mobile computing right now because I use their cloud services for syncing my contacts and calendar across devices.  I’ve thought about replacing some of these cloud services with Microsoft’s but I’m not sure that’s an improvement.  If MS collected data for only their internal sales, that would be a step in the right direction though. But if they’re selling data to companies then it would be no better.

The other thing that I learned about in this process is that we can turn off data tracking in our web browsers, by way of the “do not track” initiative.  To learn how to enable Do Not Track on your web browser, see this link.

Summer Viewing

Yesterday I had a pretty good night of viewing with my 6″ newtonian telescope. I managed to see many galaxies including M51 (the Whirlpool Galaxy), M101, M106, M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy) and a cool look at the pair of M81 and M82. The Ring Nebula (M57) wasn’t very clear but the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) was decent. M13, the fantastic globular cluster in Hercules was easy to find in the NW, and I think the highlight of the night was the double cluster NGC869 and NGC884.


This was no doubt the most productive night of viewing I’ve had, with the reason being that I’ve gotten good at using my Telrad finder. Prior to this I used star hopping, which is difficult in light pollution areas, as well as using a “push-to” system. Push-to is a play on words with go-to. Go-to systems are electronic finder systems where a person keys in the desired coordinates of where they want to look, and the go-to moves the telescope there. With the push-to, I have a compass on the mount base and a protractor on the scope itself. I then look up the azimuth/altitude coordinates of what I want to see, and adjust the telescope accordingly. It works pretty good, but relies on real-time input of object coordinates and the mount base needs to be absolutely level.

Tonight I should have a good view of Jupiter from my back deck at around midnight, so I think I will check that out. I wonder what moons I will see?

Samsung Focus Review

I have been borrowing a new Samsung Focus Windows 7 phone for a couple of weeks and thought I would give some thoughts on the device. Overall I would say that the phone is quite impressive. It has the largest screen on a phone that I’ve used. Combined with its extremely thin body, the Focus is not only visually appealing but it is also comfortable to carry and hold.

From Just Stuff
From Just Stuff

As for the OS, Windows has made great strides from their previous mobile offerings. W7 seems very stable, and it has a nice UI which makes it fast and easy to operate. I liked having the large icons on the home screen, as it is obvious to me that most smartphone users typically use a small number of apps for the majority of time. It was easy to jump to other screens to access all of the installed apps.

Speaking of apps, the Windows offerings seem okay. Most of the usual suspects are present, including facebook, twitter, maps, and whatever else floats your boat. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the significance of having the largest selection of apps is one of the greatest marketing charades and red herrings that I’ve ever seen. I continually ask people what apps they use the most, and it almost always turns out to be the various social network apps (which are readily available on ALL OS’s), internet browsing and messaging services. Yet we all download apps that we forget about or never use. For what it’s worth, I like how Windows approaches the handling of apps and how different settings are reached through horizontal scrolling. The interface allows for a nice graphical layout with nice big fonts and a consistent and sensible navigation scheme.

With the Focus, it is becoming apparent to me that maybe the single biggest attraction to a smartphone is a nice big, bright screen. If you get that right, then you then just have to get your marketing right. Speaker and mic quality don’t seem to matter, and the Focus sits somewhere between a Blackberry and iPhone in this regard (iPhone being the worse of the three). Battery life is probably about the same as any other 4″ screen with similar processing power. I really liked how well the OS integrated with Google’s mail, contacts and calendar. It worked extremely well. Another nice bonus is that the phone can also sync up with msn/live accounts and access mesh files along with Skydrive documents.

From Just Stuff

Overall I would say that the Focus is a big winner. The hardware is great, the UI experience is very nice, and the integration with google and Microsoft services are useful. I’m not a mobile device expert, pundit or researcher, but I see no reason why the Windows platform will not eclipse Android offerings for the same reason that the iPhone does: they both offer a comprehensive line-up of devices and services based around established home computing operating systems. Microsoft has a polished and slick mobile OS that works with their existing computer ecosystem. I think Windows 8 will be even more interesting as Microsoft moves forward with embedding mobile affordances into their desktop systems.

Playbook Review #2

About a month ago I started a new term for my masters program. With a big load of reading required from week 1, I decided it was time to try the Playbook again. My desire to “get out from behind the computer” was very compelling at this time. I was already impressed with the Playbook, but I wasn’t sure of its purpose. Within a week of owning it again though, I clearly saw its usefulness for me.

I’m traveling to a clinic every 2nd day, spending time on public transportation. Having the playbook with me has allowed me to read through a high amount of literature for my masters course, and this has saved me a lot of time. As a mobile device, it’s been great. The small size of the Playbook means that I can actually put it in my jacket pocket. This compares to another person I saw reading from an iPad while on Skytrain. Once he got to his stop, he had to pack the iPad away in a small shoulder bag. I suppose other people may choose to carry an iPad in their hand though. The smart UI of the Playbook continues to impress, and is being validated by Apple’s decision to incorporate RIM’s border swipe into their new IOS5.

I’ve also started to take my Playbook to school and use it to present material on the lcd projector. Its small size and weight make it preferable for carrying to school compared to my laptop computer. The screen resolution continues to impress me (1024×600 vs the iPad2 1024×768), and battery life is very good: it lasts all day and I imagine it easily exceeds 8hrs (I’ve never timed it).
As well, I’ve used the Playbook with Adobe Connect for my masters course. Video, sound and mic work great and didn’t present any problems.

I guess the Playbook still struggles in the App department and I continue to be baffled by people’s fascination with apps. While I have installed more apps recently, I almost always use the same 4 or 6. In talking with other tablet owners it seems that this is very common. I think the Playbook currently fails as being a gaming device or platform because of game app availability, so if gaming is your thing you probably want to look elsewhere. It would be interesting to see what tablet users use their tablet for, in percentage of use. I imagine the breakdown goes something like this, from highest use to lowest: web browsing, gaming, social networking (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogging), eReading, email, other app.

I haven’t had any OS crashes, although I have had to restart the browser a couple of times. Other than that, hardware and software reliability has been excellent for me.

For those thinking about getting a tablet, the Playbook offers an excellent alternative to the iPad 2. Each person would have to weigh the importance of size, screen quality, UI and app availability in their purchasing decision. If I was a mildly demanding computer user wanting to replace a desktop, the iPad 2 may be a very compelling laptop alternative. The Playbook may be more interesting for mobile computing or eBook reading, because of its smaller size and better screen. I think the browsing experience is arguably superior to the iPad due to the inclusion of Flash. The expected Java update will heighten this advantage. In either case, I still think the app availability is completely overstated. Again, other than gaming, I think the Playbook offers a very competitive device.

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