If So, I Move to Linux on a Commodity Machine

If Apple is really going to dump real keyboards, I will stop using their products.

Per the article, yes, Apple’s current keyboards have very little travel. As such, they have very poor tactile feedback and I find them unpleasant to use. I haven’t bought an Apple keyboard for a desktop machine in years, and if I’m using my laptop on a desk, I will plug it into a real (classic IBM Model M) keyboard using an adaptor.

If I’m traveling, I put up with the suckiness, because basically all laptop keyboards suck. The laptop form factor dictates the small travel that makes them suck.

But if Apple makes its laptops emulate the awfulness of a stupidphone, game over. The lack of real keys is one of the big reasons why I refuse to get a stupidphone.

And yes, “stupidphone” is a much more accurate term for the things, considering:

  • Non-existent tactile feedback, as already mentioned,
  • Very limited battery lifetime,
  • Bulky, awkward size,
  • Poorly-coded, software-based user interface that makes use as a phone more awkward than a traditional cell phone.

And I’m Back

Since the main focus of the trip was for volunteer work, which is actually work (just because work is unpaid does not mean it is not work), there is paperwork to fill out.

Encouraged by others, I decided to give the electronic versions of the paperwork a try. They’re all Microsoft Word documents, of course. Despite Word being a mediocre typesetting program, and being properiety, and being expensive, it is what virtually everyone uses. And may I add much to my annoyance due to the previously mentioned factors.

“Just use Open Office” they said when I mentioned not having (nor wanting to squander money on) Microsoft Word. I should have realized what the outcome of that exercise would be, but me being generous to a fault, I gave it a try.

Naturally it was an exercise in revealing just how low most people’s standards are when it comes to document layout. Neither Word, nor Preview, nor Open Office rendered the forms properly. All made messes of the layout which rendered any attempts at filling them out ambiguous. That may not matter to most, but it does matter to me: I don’t want my submitted forms to simply result in back-and-forths with multiple clarifying questions (or, worse yet, incorrect data being entered).

Three strikes and electronic document submission is out. I ended up printing the form out and filling it in by hand, as usual.

Silicon Snake Oil

This morning, I ran across two stories that perfectly illustrate the concept of silicon snake oil, the all-too-often-believed line that technology is going to change everything (for the better, of course) and you really have no choice but to be an enthusiastic adaptor of all of it.

  1. Duck Unchained, an article in Dissent magazine about a French newspaper that continues to be very successful despite being extremely judicious about the technology it adopts. It has no online edition; its web presence is limited to a small site that allows customers to purchase a (print) subscription online.
  2. The Tesla Model 3 cost $28,000 to build, German engineers say—and it still may not be profitable, an article in Quartz magazine about how Tesla’s enthusiastic and insufficiently-questioning embrace of technology it hurting its bottom line.

I’ve linked this article and made the point before, but in many ways the Amish are one of the most technologically sophisticated groups in the world today, because they neither unquestioningly reject new technology (as many think) nor unquestioningly embrace it. They evaluate it, then decide if it is a net benefit or a net loss to their overall society.

It’s why I’ve personally decided I want nothing to do with a “smart” phone, a “smart” home or “smart” appliances: any benefits I’d get would be extremely likely to be overshadowed by the harm caused by increased complexity and decreased reliability.

Well, That Sure Was No Surprise

The culprit for the failing aftermarket back-up camera in my truck was the solderless quick-connectors I used (per the recommendation of the camera manufacturer) to wire the camera to power.

This was so much not a surprise that I didn’t even bother to do any troubleshooting to pinpoint the culprit. I simply removed the solderless connectors, cut and stripped the wires in question, twisted them together, soldered them, and taped them.

Then I started my truck and put it into reverse. Bam! Fixed.

This has been consistent with the (crap) performance of virtually every solderless quick-connector I have tried in the past forty years, which is why I felt so confident attempting this repair without further troubleshooting. For some reason, I was willing to give them a try again when I installed that camera. Lesson learned: never again.

A soldered connection firmly and securely bonds two connectors together at the atomic level. Assuming copper wires, the molten solder actually partially dissolves the surface of the copper conductors before it solidifies, resulting in one seamless conductor (transitioning from copper to solder back to copper) that is virtually immune from oxidation or vibration induced failure. Nothing else even remotely comes close to this reliability, except a seamless connector with no splices whatsoever.

I am convinced that the only reason quick-connectors exist is: a) manufacturers who want to cut corners on their assembly lines in order to pad their profits, or b) people, usually do-it-yourselfers, who don’t know how do solder and who are unwilling to learn how.

The Key to Printing 19th Century Modern Serif Fonts

Use the highest resolution you can. Do not trust the defaults at a print shop to be reasonable. Do not trust the defaults for your software’s PDF generator to be reasonable.

Both defaults might well be reasonable for most of the fonts popular with contemporary tastes in typography, but the fonts popular in the 19th century were crafted in part to show off how the ink and paper technology of the day had progressed to the point where the fine details they employ were possible.

I found that when using Monotype Modern, the thin parts of the strokes showed up so poorly with 10 point body text at the default printer resolution, that the readability of the resulting text was seriously compromised. This might be part of the reason why such fonts have a bad reputation for readability: modern print technology can fail them.

Do everything at the highest resolution possible. An output of 1200 DPI is the bare minimum, with 2400 DPI being better (letterpress printing with hot type had an effective resolution of around 2000 DPI). By “1200 DPI” I mean 1200 DPI in both axes, on a black and white printer. (Color printing uses clusters of 4 dots, and printer makers use weasel wording to flatter their products, so a “2400 DPI” color printer has only the resolution of  600 DPI black-and-white one.)

Using the highest resolution the printer can print should not typically cost more; most shops charge the same per-page fee whether you tell their laser printer to print at a degraded resolution or its best resolution. If you can’t even get 1200 DPI, take your business elsewhere; the shop you are using has substandard technology.

There Is No Shortage of High-Tech Workers

There is a shortage of decency in the high-tech industry.

I base both these assertions on my experiences at the symposium today, where I met not one but two other individuals in basically the same situation as I am. As long as the high-tech industry considers the following non-qualifications to be job requirements:,

  • Male,
  • Between the ages of twenty-five and fifty,
  • Thinks coding is the most fun thing in the universe,
  • Thinks coding is about the only truly fun thing in the universe, really, and
  • Outside of role-playing games, martial arts, and science fiction and fantasy fandom, thinks there’s basically little else of interest besides computers.

Then, yes, that industry will continue to suffer a “shortage” of “qualified” people.

On Facebook and Bicycle Head Lamps

Washington Monthly has a new article out detailing how harmful Facebook is and some ideas for liberal, big-government fixes for that. (Personally, color me skeptical about it; I’m not sure I want to give a government selected by populace stupid enough to select Trump more power to manage the information I see.) That’s after Facebook’s former chief technologist came out and said the platform is designed to promote addiction, and another Facebook techie boldly told his audience they were being programmed.

None of this is much surprise to me after having tried Facebook under an assumed name. My initial hopes of being able to follow what friends were doing via that platform were quickly dashed when I realized how fundamentally useless it is for such a purpose. Well, useless if one’s desire is to quickly keep tabs on what friends are doing; it buries that signal under a huge amount of noise.

It was pretty easy to tell the “noise” was there in an attempt to maximize the time I spent on the platform. In fact, I fell for the clickbait more than once. The overall impression it created was one of frustration at being suckered into wasting my time instead of accomplishing my initial goals for being there. Overall it lends a stench of sleaze to the whole site.

I occasionally check in, maybe once or twice a week, but that’s it. I can’t really imagine Facebook ever doing much to create significant improvement in my life.

Contrast that to the bicycle headlight I bought when I first moved to the Island. I knew I needed a different sort of light for my bicycles, one that lights up the road so I can see as opposed to one that mainly exists so I can be seen by others. I didn’t want it to depend on changing or charging batteries; I really liked my generator lights and how they were just always there, ready to be used when it got dark, much like the headlights and taillights on an automobile.

The obvious solution involved LED’s, because light-emitting diodes turn approximately 90% of the energy fed into them into light, instead of 90% into heat like for incandescent lamps. And sure enough, some research showed that such things had become available since I last researched the issue (and found to my disappointment such things didn’t exist).

They weren’t easily available in the USA, but I found a dealer for them that very conveniently was closing out the previous generation of such headlights, which lessened the cost (somewhat; they were still not inexpensive). And they worked as well as expected.

One piece of new technology has little or nothing to offer me, so I eschew it. The other fit nicely into my existing life, so I embraced it. I don’t have much use for religious superstition in my life, but I do have a great deal of respect for how the Amish have decided to deal with technology, by evaluating it and deciding if it offers a net improvement instead of mindlessly embracing it.

New Cell Phone

No, it’s not a smartphone. To that, I strongly suspect the answer is “only when there’s no alternative”, as I have written many times before.

It’s a Nokia 3310 3G. I’ve been hoping HMD (the firm Nokia sold their cell phone business, together with branding rights, to) would come out with a version of the same that works with US cellular networks ever since reading that they were attempting a reboot of a classic dumb phone.

We shall see how well it works. One annoyance is that it is incompatible with the Apple headset I use (although I say “phooey” to their smart phones, Apple’s headset is very well-designed, and I strongly prefer to use a headset so as to distance my cranium from the radio transmitter in the phone). That is mostly counteracted by Nokia’s headset having a design that is distinctly better-than-average, and being included with the phone.

One plus is that it has an FM broadcast band receiver in it. That’s something I know I will be using from time to time. The ability to listen to news and music programming without encountering network congestion issues or paying any data charges: what’s not to like about that?

Actually, most cell phones have FM receivers in them; the makers of the chips for such things put them in because a) it doesn’t cost that much, overall; and b) the broadcast radio industry pressured them to do it. It’s just that the broadcast radio industry hasn’t been quite so successful at pressuring the phone manufacturers in enabling these receivers.

Apple is a particularly egregious example; in their iPhones, they deliberately omit making any connection between the lead going to the headset jack and the antenna on the chip, thus permanently crippling their phones by design. Even if you jailbreak your iPhone and install your own software to enable the FM receiver, you’ll still get a whole lot of nothing to show for your efforts.

Chalk it up to pure greed: most phone makers are in cahoots with cell providers, most phones being sold by the providers themselves and being locked to that provider’s network. They want their customers to stream audio and rack up network charges; it means more money for them.

The broadcast industry is naturally upset about that. Greed is in play there, too, of course. They want to have cell phone users deciding to listen to their stations and the commercials they broadcast. More listeners means higher ad rates and more money for them.

I end up squarely on the side of enabling the receivers. First, it’s a matter of choice. Nobody can force anyone to put their phone into radio mode. If one thinks broadcast radio is a vast wasteland*, one is free to not listen to it and to instead choose to stream audio. Second, is a matter of efficiency: broadcast radio has no problems scaling; it’s intrinsically one-to-many. Using it eliminates the problem of servers going down on big news days.

But the biggest argument is emergency preparedness. Broadcast radio is an older, low-tech technology. As such, it tends to be more robust than cell service. At least some stations stay on the air after a disaster takes the cell network down due to a combination of damage and subsequent overuse. Cell phones are battery-powered devices, enabling radio receivers in them to be operated without commercial power. It’s simply in the interest of public safety to have as many cell phones as possible be able to act like broadcast radio receivers.

* When one is talking about commercial radio, I tend to agree. But that’s not the only option; virtually everywhere I’ve visited there’s been non-commercial stations on FM. In my own area, there’s three very good ones.

Sodium Sesquicarbonate, the Best Floor Cleaner?

Some years ago, I was renting a room in a house. In the utility room was a box of a product called “Dirtex,” which could be used for, amongst other things, a floor cleaner. Because I needed to clean a floor that day, and it was handy, I tried it. It worked wonderfully.

A glimpse at the ingredients showed that it was mostly “sodium sesquicarbonate,” a compound new to me at the time. It’s basically a double salt of sodium carbonate (a.k.a. washing soda) and sodium bicarbonate (a.k.a. baking soda).

I couldn’t find that product after I moved to Bainbridge Island, but the grocery store here sells both washing soda and baking soda, and I have a gram scale. So it was a simple matter to weigh out 286 grams of washing soda (being a decahydrate, it has a high molecular weight) and 84 grams of baking soda, and mix the two.

No, that’s not making true sodium sesquicarbonate unless I dissolve and recrystallize the result, but given that I’m just going to be dissolving it in a bucket of mop water, it makes no difference to the resulting solution. And yes, I’m sure there’s a little bit of variation as the powders separate and settle, but mopping the floor isn’t a precision science. It works well enough.

Which, to the best I can recollect, is about as well as the commercial product worked, which in turn is quite well indeed.

More Curmudgeonly Smartphone Bashing

A few months ago I had the opportunity to use an iPhone. Unbelievably, the thing took eight keystrokes to simply hang up an in-progress call. Eight! I am not making this up:

  1. After 30 seconds or so of idleness, the phone locks itself due to security measures. (The phone for some reason considers itself to be “idle” even though it is actively in use for a call at the time.)
  2. Given virtually all calls last longer than 30 seconds, that means you must first get the attention of the now-locked iPhone. Press the one and only actual mechanical button offering tactile feedback the device has (1 keystroke, 1 in total).
  3. It is now time to enter the unlock code for the phone (4 additional keystrokes, 5 in total, and counting).
  4. Despite the device being a phone, and a phone call being actively in place, for some reason you are now in the phone’s default mode, which has nothing to do with making or managing telephone calls. Tap the icon that puts the phone in phone mode (1 additional keystroke, 6 in total, and counting).
  5. Despite there being a phone call actively in place, when you enter phone mode you are placed in the mode where you can make an additional call, not for managing the existing in-progress call. You must manually select the current call (1 additional keystroke, 7 in total, and counting).
  6. You are finally now presented with the desired icon to click on that will end the call. Click on it (1 final keystroke, grand total of 8).
  7. Congratulations! You have at long last managed to hang up.

By the time that’s all done, odds are at least 50-50 the other party has long since hung up already and the call has timed out before you could hang it up.

Why would I want to have a device that packs so many non-phone duties into itself, and implements its total set of duties so poorly, that using it for its primary intended purpose is then severely compromised? The nearly 40-year-old 2500DM set on my desk never has firmware to update, will never radically and unexpectedly change its user interface, and has a set of hook switch buttons that are always there waiting for me to use them on a moment’s notice whenever I want to hang up on a call. Even the cheapest flip phone has an END button that’s always there waiting for me to use it. Neither phone decides in the midst of an in-progress call of all things that it’s “idle” and now needs a password to be unlocked.

The killer came when I realized that this is an iPhone, and Apple has a well-deserved reputation for the best-designed system software. That is how the best smartphone on the market implements its user interface. The other smartphones are almost certainly worse.