A Smart Phone? No Thanks!

Published at 08:35 on 30 April 2013

Most people who just met me assume I must have a smart phone, probably (a) because most people do, (b) I have plenty of technical know-how, and (c) I can easily afford one. They are mistaken in their assumption.

I really cannot see how having a smart phone would represent a net improvement in my life.

First, smart phones almost universally use touch screens, and I hate touch screens. They have abysmal tactile feedback (essentially none at all, in fact), and they force you to mess up the screen with fingerprints. Blecch and double blecch.

Second, I’ve never really “gotten” text messaging. If I want to send somebody a textual message, I’ll send them an e-mail. It will have no length restrictions, and I won’t be asked to pay a patently ridiculous per-character rate to transmit it. Moreover, my cheap flip-phone can receive (and, in a pinch, send) text messages on those rare occasions where I desire such functionality (generally related to interacting with someone who’s big on texting).

Third, I have little interest in a phone that also sends and receives e-mail. E-mail is for less-critical messages that can (and in my case, probably will) end up waiting for a response. If it’s really urgent or demanding of real-time interaction, make a phone call instead. I don’t want to be continually disturbed by incoming e-mail alerts wherever and whenever I am. I’ll get to it when time allows me to check my inbox, thank you very much.

Fourth, I have no interest in a clock or GPS which also sends and receives e-mail and phone calls. Most often, I don’t want to be pestered by either when I’m out in nature or even out and about in town, even though I often want a clock with me (and I’m about to start doing volunteer botanical survey work for which a GPS will be useful).

Those last two objections can be answered of course by configuring the smart phone to disable e-mail notification and to not ring for incoming calls. The problem is, those configurations are hidden away in a menu, and I tend to forget such things. So I’ll either forget to disable them and have unwanted disruptions from my watch or GPS, or forget to re-enable them and miss an important contact I was expecting.

It’s far simpler to just keep such devices separate, and to have one device serve one function. If I want to be in phone contact, I take my cell phone with me. If I want to know the exact time of day, I take a watch. If I want to know my geographic coordinates, I’ll buy and take a GPS. The technological functionality is mirrored by what I choose to carry. Simplicity itself.

Seattle and Naïveté

Published at 07:23 on 24 April 2013

I often wonder if the attractiveness of Seattle, particularly to young adults, is not based in part on those attracted being unaware of what large urban areas typically offer.

I guess that’s because in my case, it’s true. I first moved here from the Southwest. I hadn’t lived there all my life, but I had never lived in an inner city. So I could be wowed by the city things that Seattle does have, and not notice things like the sub-par mass transit or parks systems.

Such awareness came only later, and only got truly driven home when my first and only romantic relationship turned out to be a long-distance one which sparked many trips to another metropolitan area.

Naïveté doesn’t explain it all, of course. Seattle is in an unusually spectacular natural area for a big city. That’s a big part of the reason why I came back. But the region is more than the city, and if the city is dysfunctional and a poor match for my priorities, why not live elsewhere in that region if my job situation allows?

To that can be added, how, as I have gotten older, I appreciate more and more how much more important being in nature is to me than big-city cultural things.

… And One Thing I Won’t Miss

Published at 18:50 on 22 April 2013

I took a quick ride down to one of my favorite spots in the Seattle park system this evening, to the Arboretum where Foster Island ends and Union Bay begins.

Alas, it won’t stay as nice as it currently is for much longer. Seattle has acquiesced to the tripling of the width of the freeway they made the mistake of allowing to be built through that park in the first place. Naturally, the neighborhood of upscale homes immediately adjacent will have an expensive tunnel built to conduct the freeway under it. (Why preserve public amenities when there is private wealth to pander to?)

That is the sort of thing I am very glad to be bidding farewell to.

Not a Surprise, Sadly

Published at 07:59 on 20 April 2013

The Obama Administration is denying the Boston bombing suspect his civil rights.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, this is not a surprise. Obama’s poor record on human rights is the main reason I voted for a third party candidate in the past presidential election.

And spare me the rhetoric about how evil those two brothers were as an excuse. Sure they were evil. So were Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and any number of other violent criminals that come to mind. All of whom were successfully prosecuted without having to ignore the Constitution.

Missing Seattle Already, and I Have Not Left Yet

Published at 20:29 on 17 April 2013

Well, missing parts of Seattle, that is, particularly the wealth of historic buildings, which I’ve always appreciated. If only the City of Seattle didn’t have so many other aspects (already hashed to death in precious posts, so I won’t rehash them here) which I just can’t stand.

And that’s the rub: I’ve never really found a city that I can truly love wholeheartedly. I thought I had, back in my twenties, when I moved to Seattle. Eventually a long-distance romantic relationship opened my eyes to all the ways in which Seattle is just plain dysfunctional, things that had been grating on me but which I had accepted.

By then, I was in my thirties, and thought I had found another place I could love, Portland. I even bought a home there. Then discovered just how hellish a place it is in May and June when the grass pollen levels go through the roof, and just how difficult a place it is to find a good job.

All in all, I’m glad to be out of Portland and have absolutely no intention of ever moving back there; it suits me even less well than Seattle does.

Bellingham would be ideal, if I could find a good stable job there. But that’s an awfully big if, and past experience has taught me that a good job can degrade into an intolerable one quite easily as people come and go. Jobs are so scarce there that that would leave me with the dilemma of either moving yet again (possibly taking a bath in the real estate market) or sticking it out with a bad work situation.

Which pretty much gets me to where I am today, deciding that better access to nature matters more than most of the urban amenities of Seattle. Which, in general, it does — but an evening walk through the Madrona neighborhood reminds me that there still will be things I’m giving up that, all in all, I’d rather not.

About Induction Stoves

Published at 12:50 on 14 April 2013

Hardly any apartment on Bainbridge Island has a gas stove, so I’ve purchased a portable induction cooktop so that I won’t have to fight with a conventional electric stove on a daily basis. Of course, I wanted to test it out as soon as it arrived to make sure it wasn’t defective.

Executive summary: induction works much better than a conventional electric stove, but it’s not going to unseat gas as the best cooking method.

First, the good news. It’s true: induction is at least as responsive as gas. When a pot reaches the desired temperature, just turn it down and it will go down. Instantly. Gone is the feeling of driving a car where you have to turn the steering a quarter-mile before the next turn you wish to make.

Now, the quirky stuff. There’s actually less temperature memory then even gas, to the point where you can’t just turn the stove off when you’re done, unless you want the food to get cool right away. An induction stove doesn’t get hot, so if you turn the burner completely off, the cool stove top will quickly suck much of the heat out of the pot via conduction.

Now, the negatives. First, the one everyone already knows: you can’t use any old pot on an induction stove; only magnetic ones will do. Moreover, you can’t use round-bottomed things like woks; only a flat-bottomed cooking vessel has enough metal close enough to the induction coil.

Not so well known is that induction stoves are noisy. Because they contain lots of heat-sensitive electronics, and there’s a hot pot bottom in contact with them, they need cooling fans to stop that conducted heat from building up inside and shortening the lifetime of that electronics. Cook with induction and you will have the sound of a fan going in your kitchen whenever the stove is on. What I find most annoying about this is that I’m used to using sound cues to know when I need to turn the heat down (or up), and the fan noise makes it much harder to hear the boiling or simmering noises.

Take those disadvantages, and to them add that induction stoves are by far the most costly kind (costing at least twice what conventional electric stoves do), and it becomes clear that they will never have more than a niche market.

Just look at electric stoves: there’s enough of a penchant for sacrificing quality in the name of lower price that the extremely modest savings (compared to the total cost of a home) of not running a gas pipe to the kitchen and installing a range that maybe costs 10% more means that there’s a huge number of homes with natural gas service yet which have electric stoves. In a market dominated by that sort of mentality, why would one expect builders to install a stove that costs at least 100% more?

Induction’s niche will be customers like yours truly: people who appreciate just how poorly conventional electric stoves perform, want nothing to do with them, yet for whatever reason do not have gas available in the kitchen as a cooking fuel.

It’s Not Just DMR, Either

Published at 12:21 on 14 April 2013

Pretty much all communications-grade digital voice protocols sound awful, for the same reason that DMR sounds awful. Probably the least awful-sounding one, from the samples I’ve heard, is NXDN. Even that can’t hold a candle to plain old analog FM, however.

It all leaves me wondering if digital is just plain the wrong answer to cramming a voice signal into a smaller bandwidth. I’m inclined to thing using something like SSB plus an intelligent, software-defined receiver (with sophisticated noise filtering and precise, automatic carrier insertion) might be better.

Noise tends to be not a super-big issue at VHF and above, anyhow, so losing a degree of immunity to it might not be such a big deal, particularly if one uses digital signal processing techniques to remove as much of it as possible. SSB can sound as good as AM (which, unless noise gets in the way, blows digital out of the water when it comes to audio fidelity and overall intelligibility), provided you insert the carrier at just the right spot when receiving.

As a further plus, a voice-quality SSB signal uses half or less the bandwidth per channel of any of the digital protocols currently out there.

Sometimes the right answer to a question about employing a new technology is not to employ it at all (or, in this case, to employ it, but in a significantly different way than originally proposed).

Digital Mobile Radio Sounds Awful

Published at 21:16 on 10 April 2013

Somewhat obscure geeky things that other ham radio operators generally overlook tend to interest me.

It’s one reason I bought a 900 MHz transceiver at the Puyallup swap meet last month; it’s a band with almost no equipment built and marketed to ham radio operators. It took some searching to find something suitable (in this case, an HT marketed to business and government users which could be unlocked and programmed on that amateur radio band).

Probably for the same reason, DMR (Digital Mobile Radio, commonly known by its Motorola trademark MOTOTRBO) piqued my interest. Unlike 900 MHz (which is very quiet), there’s actually a smattering of operators using that mode on the 70cm band.

The downside is that the audio sounds positively awful (I’ve been listening to it on the net here). Think cheezy sci-fi voice effects from the 70s, sometimes so heavy that one must strain to hear what is being said.

Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. Unlike digital home entertainment audio, greater fidelity was never a goal for DMR. Instead, the goal was to cram as many channels into as little radio spectrum as possible.

If that’s your main goal, quality is going to suffer. There’s nothing particularly magic (or evil) about digital technology in this regard; one can use analog techniques to compress signal bandwidth, and those have a negative effect on audio quality as well.

I haven’t done much listening to it, but I’ve heard the “official” digital protocol for amateur radio in the VHF and UHF bands, D-Star, suffers similarly.

I think the chief upshot of this awful sound is that we cannot expect any such digital mode to last nearly as long as analog voice modes have lasted. As technology improves, ways will be found to make audio suffer less as it is compressed into a digital signal. It still won’t be high fidelity, mind you, but it won’t leave the listener straining to discern speech, either.

Because of present poor audio quality, the high likelihood of rapid obsolescence, and the significantly higher cost of digital over analog, digital voice is unlikely to be more than a bit player on the ham bands in the near future.

To that can be added adoption issues. A business licensee is a single organization; it can decide to go digital, make the investment in equipment, and issue all employees new radios. We amateur radio operators are individuals making individual choices; this creates a high path dependency in favor of the status quo.

Moreover, the commercial and public service bands are much more congested, so being able to cram in more signals is more important there. Even so, I wouldn’t expect present-day digital technologies to have comparable longevity to, say, analog FM.