Friday, August 28, 2015

Clawing out of the Abyss

As of this writing, we are into week two without cellular access on our iPhones (See “Cutting the cord and falling into the abyss” in last week’s Reader).

I think the biggest thing I miss is reading the Duluth News Tribune, Star Tribune, and the New York Times at breakfast and lunch.  To check email, statements, and other important and unimportant information, we have to go to the library or coffee shops.  I’m drinking a lot more coffee than I normally do.

The easiest is to walk to Chester Creek Café at the corner.  But we don’t want to take up a table when there are many lunch or dinner customers.

Perk Place is a quiet place, but for some reason I could not log on to their server.  Another Mac user had been successful.  I wonder if he was using a newer operating system.  A staff member did get me signed on using the coffee shop account.

Once upon a time I would walk to Bixby’s and other shops at Mt. Royal, but every year the hill up Woodland Avenue seems to get steeper, especially with a backpack with a computer.  And so I wimp out and drive.

The Mount Royal Library may or may not be crowded.  When I went on Thursday it wasn’t, but it did take a bit of effort to log in.  I was successful with my iPhone and iPad, but I never managed to click all the right buttons for my laptop.

A diversion at the library was looking for a follow-on book after viewing “The Young Victoria”.  The movie had a lot of follow-on summary information.  I wanted to know more about her reign and her successors.  I used my iPhone to sign on to the catalog and select some books.  Having the call numbers of the desired titles on my iPhone sure beat copying those numbers onto paper from the library computers.

Caribou at Mount Royal Market is spacious and quiet.  It’s biggest drawback is that there are no power outlets at the tables.

And at the cabin we are completely disconnected from the web.  At least, we can still use our phones.

So, I have to carefully plan all my work before hand.  I am writing this at home and will go to one of the coffee shops to email it to the Reader.  I have to write most of my email beforehand.  I have to plan ahead what web sites to visit.

One of those plan-ahead sites was the Apple Support Community.  While at a coffee shop I downloaded thirteen threads about excessive data usage.  It’s nice to know that I am not alone with this problem.  Some useful advice, some blaming the user, but no really clear cut advice.

I do know first hand that solving computer problems can be a long, arduous project.  Relevant information comes in dribbles from the customer and lots of digging by programmers.  I was the lead investigator of frequent crashes of a Univac 1108 in Sweden.  Many of the memory dumps showed a particular program was active.  I badgered to customer into giving me a copy of the program.  I took the copy to another site and the program crashed because it was putting data outside of its assigned space.  To make the story short, the problem was they were using an outdated library and that their computer had a memory protection failure.  I think it took three months from the first alarm to final resolution.  And those computers were a lot simpler than what we carry in our pockets now!

Once upon a time it was said that Mac owners never used a manual.  I did look up a few things now and then, mostly just what keys did I need to push to get å, ä, é, î, ö, and other western European characters.  The Mac’s were described as WIMPs: Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pictures.  Just about everything you needed to know was obvious from one of these.

Even then, many users came up with seemingly intractable problems.  Apple’s answer was to encourage user groups.  Unfortunately, often there was nobody at a meeting who had an answer.  I remember somebody asking why they couldn’t make their “Whiz Bang” printer work on a Mac.  The leader would ask if anybody had a solution and look around the room.  Not a hand went up.  This happened over and over again.

The human interface, the computing power, and the range of software has improved exponentially in the last 31 years (remember the 1984 Apple ad).  We can do many tasks quickly and easily just by poking the screen or dragging a finger over it.  But when things go wrong!  Hoo boy!

I think I caused my problem with an inadvertent reset.  My choices include going back to the last iCloud backup, but would that be done before the coffee shop closed?  By reading the manual, I found that I can double-click the home button, swipe up on the screen, and then slide through all the open apps.  I can close an app by sliding its image up.  This doesn’t remove the app from my iPhone, it just stops it from doing any harm.

Once September rolls around, we’ll have the data part of our Consumer Cellular contract restored.  I think the closing apps plan is my best alternative.  I’ll start with only keeping the supposedly harmless apps open: Weather, Mail, Calendar, and a few other standards.  Then I’ll have to wait until all the data is in for that six-hour period.  If usage seems normal, I’ll keep a few more apps open.  Either I’ll eventually find the run-away app or that the conditions are such that the app is now behaving.

Meanwhile, I’ll be drinking lots of coffee.  I thought of having beer instead, but it will be just my luck to knock over the glass…

Also published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth at

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cutting the cord and falling into the abyss

We received so many unsolicited calls on our land line that we stopped picking up the phone until we knew who the caller was.  Too often, no message was left.

I received almost only junk email on my cpinternet account through our CenturyLink account.  Besides offers of garage door openers and of sex, I received messages in Japanese and Turkish.  Very rarely did an old contact use this account.

Besides, our nominal 7Mbps speed was often under 4Mbps.  We were eligible for an upgrade to 12Mbps, but we had to call an 800 number to find the details.  Once upon a time, Qwest, the predecessor to CenturyLink would state on its website how much 256Kbps, 512Kbps, and 1Mbps would cost, exclusive of taxes and fees.

A digression on telecommunication taxes and fees: the telecommunication companies (telcos) can’t give these accurately because the vary widely from locale to locale and narrowly from month to month.

We also had an iPhone 4s through Virgin Mobile (VM) because we got a deal a few years ago from Best Buy.

Along the way, we started using cell phones through Consumer Cellular: you can’t miss their ads, especially if you are an AARP member.  Consumer Cellular (CC) stated on its website the exact cost of each service and its level that you requested.  You could change these at any time, either up or down.  I eventually bought an iPhone 5s from CC.  They piggy back on the AT&T network (at 3G rather than 4G).  Not only could I use the iPhone in Brimson, but I could use the phone as a hotspot for my iPad or MacBook.

With all of these providers, our total monthly payments seemed to be getting out of hand.  I did a small spreadsheet to compare using only CC instead of multiple providers.  If we bought another CC iPhone, our costs would drop about a thousand dollars per year (not including monthly payments for new phone.  Even then, we would still save hundreds of dollars a year.

One problem was our wireless printer.  How would we access it without our DSL modem?  I pulled the phone cord from the modem and found that the printer still worked.  The DSL modem was our router, even if it was not connected to the phone system.

We ordered a new CC iPhone 5c, and when it arrived, we set it up for my wife’s use.  We could also use it as a hotspot, and so she wouldn’t have to depend on my iPhone if I was elsewhere.  Also, because it worked in Brimson, we could use our phones as walkie-talkies.  We would have much better reception, and nobody else would be listening to our calls.

Except, we couldn’t get her phone to work because we couldn’t transfer the VM number without an account number.  None of our VM bills had an account number, only the phone number.  We had to call VM, and of course, the first person we talked to couldn’t do it.  We were switched to someone who suggested we might get a better deal.  Unmentioned was the cost.  After I don’t know how many minutes, we were told our account number.  Then we called CC with it and they activated my wife’s iPhone.  We didn’t have this hassle when we dropped our land line at our cabin and put it on a Home Base wireless system.

Next step was to call CenturyLink to cancel our phone and DSL.  Again, we were routed to someone who tried selling us faster service.  We declined, and sometime in the next day or two the phone no longer worked, but the modem still accessed the network.

Ah yes, we had separate ISP, CPinternet, from the bad old days when we had only 56Kbps dial-up (56 Kilo bits per second for those too young to remember dial-up).  When we started with QWest at 256Kbps we kept CPInternet as our provider.  CPInternet really had great customer service, too.  Then CPInternet was bought by Hickory Tech of Mankato.  Then Hickory Tech bought Enventis and assumed its name.  Still great customer service.  Then Consolidated Communications of somewhere bought Enventis.  I didn’t have much need to call customer service, until we wanted to cancel our ISP connection.  My first attempt got the automatic wait message of something like “Enventis is now Consolidated Communications”.  On the ninth reiteration of this, I hung up, and tried another time.

Then new problems started, some of them my own doing.

The printer works from my wife’s iMac, but not my MacBook, the one I tested printing from.

I attempted to reset my wife’s old iPhone to erase all our data before recycling it.  It needed the password for her Apple ID.  We thought we knew it, but all the variants we tried were rejected.  I spent over a half-hour with Apple Support trying to resolve it.  Terry cheerfully assured me that he had seen many problems like this. Unfortunately, he had to admit defeat and suggested we take it to a Genius Bar in an Apple Store.

In all my attempts to reset her phone, I picked up my iPhone and clicked reset.  Ah! My Apple ID.  My password worked.  Dummy!  You just reset your own iPhone!

I’m running out of space, but I’ll give the short story on the next problem.  We used up our quota of CC data and were automatically cut off.  I finally figured out that my iPhone was still trying to load the one program that was no longer available from iTunes, over and over and …!


This also was printed in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2015-08-20 at

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Why buy a ticket to the Bluesfest?

You can hear the Bluesfest and many other Bayfront programs over two miles away, even with all the windows closed.  Why spend money on a ticket, find a parking place, be jostled by the crowds, and have your ears in pain, when you can listen in the comfort of your home?

Or you could find a spot on the Lakewalk or in Canal Park and hear the music just fine.  I bet you could even hear all the words sitting in Amazing Grace.

On the other hand, you won’t see the performers and you won’t enjoy sharing the music with hundreds or thousands of other fans.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve listened to music of many genres willingly at a wide range of volume.  I prefer to decide for myself when I will subject my ears to loud music.

I’ve listened to Mu Daiko at Hamline’s Sundin Hall.  I described listening to the pounding of the Japanese drums as fun way to go deaf.  I’ve enjoyed listening to Max Dakota and his group blast forth in Beaner’s.  And I’ve gone to several concerts at Bayfront.  But as I’ve grown older, much of the over-amped music is painful to my ears.

We used to go to the Chester Bowl concerts, enjoying Willowgreen, the Upbeats, and many other groups.  We would sit in the middle rows without much discomfort to our ears.  But over the years these concerts have gotten much louder.  We can often hear some of the words about a half-mile away.  A few years ago we decided to go to a Chester Bowl concert.  When we got to the entrance to the park, the music was so loud that my ears hurt.  We turned around to go home and never went to another concert there.

I actually wonder why small spaces need microphones other than to make conversation difficult.  I’ve sung at Beaner’s and feel that I could project my voice without a mike all the way to the front alcove.  But do any of the people sitting in the front alcove really want music?  Maybe they are there to read a book or have conversation with a friend.

Even as a so-so singer I’ve been able to project my voice quite well.  I remember once practicing in the farthest corner of the social hall at the UU Church on College Street and having somebody in the garage tell me they could hear my voice.

How did the Greek actors project their voices in the amphitheaters without mikes?  How did the great orators of the 19th century project their voices without mikes?  How many operas and plays have been performed in all kinds of spaces without mikes?  At one of the school plays I remember, the teen-age actors projected their voices to back rows of an auditorium about the size of many theaters in Duluth.

Now actors have funny-looking gadgets by their cheeks.  When the UMD Theatre first used mikes I remember my disorientation of hearing their voices from the center of the ceiling.  Now it seems the speaker placement has improved so that it seems the voices are coming from where the actors are standing.

It seems that many people can’t have a moment of silence.  There has to be music on all the time, even if nobody else is interested.  Sometimes I don’t mind, especially those Essentia Health departments that play Vivaldi while you are on hold.  I just wish the playback wasn’t so erratic.  And I appreciate the sometimes piano playing in St. Mary’s Hospital lobby and the classical music that is played in the lobby of the Essentia Second Street building.  But I do mind that music that is played in the Essentia Fitness Center.  In certain places it can make conversation difficult.

Years ago I bought an iPod to drown out the Fitness Center music.  Since then I’ve moved up to an iPhone and prefer listening to podcasts.  Even then, if I stand in the “wrong” place, the ceiling speakers make it hard for me to hear the voices on the podcasts.  Besides the audio distraction, the Fitness Center has added the visual distraction of flat screen TVs, generally tuned to Sports Central or whatever SC means.  How many times do I have to watch the same touchdown?

But worse are the people that crank up their earbuds so loud that they drown out earbuds of people on neighboring machines. I haven’t done this to these “deaf” people, but I’ve pulled out my own earbuds and asked friends if they can hear them.  The answer is always “No.”  I’ve sort of learned not to call people on their loud music impinging on others; too often they get mad rather than apologetic.

My final gripe is about drivers who have their car radios so loud that one can hear them two blocks away.  And of course, very heavy on the bass.  Boom! Boom! Boom!  I have cranked up MPR when waiting at a light next to one of these people, but I can’t match them and they don’t even seem to notice.   I wonder what would happen if I cranked up the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. It can be screechy.  Listen to  Actually Diane Damrau’s voice is pleasant (if you can say an evil character has a pleasant voice) and she has none of the screeching that I’ve heard from other sopranos in this role.  Another good performance is by Robin Schlotz, a 14-year-old boy soprano.  Not a single screech!  See

Enjoy whatever you like, but consider that those around you may have different tastes or just want quiet, say for sleeping.

This also appeared in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2015-08-13 at

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Quote of the day: Coal vs. Solar

"There are now more than twice as many workers in the fast-growing solar power industry than there are coal miners."
- "Coal Industry Wobbles as Market Forces Slug Away", James B. Stewart, New York Times, 2015-08-06

Are the likes of Sen. Mitch McConnell preventing jobs in solar while protecting jobs in coal?  Also, does he think of the lives destroyed by lax safety standards and the contaminated air and water around towns near coal mines.

Of course not!  Adam Smith warned about those who live by profit over 200 years ago.  They deceive and oppress the public.  See "The Invisible Adam Smith".

You thought your grandparents saw a lot of change!

We ain't seen nothing yet!

My maternal grandfather was born in 1890 and died in 1974.

By the time he was an adult, cars were starting to be everywhere, but most people still got around by walking or taking a streetcar.

He managed to stay out of “the war to end all wars”, but one of his brothers died in France during the flu epidemic, less than a month after arriving.

When he was in his forties, airplane travel was available, but most long distance travel was by train.

When he was in his sixties, 25 miles away was a long distance call.  I remember him calling us in Cleveland from Chagrin Falls when area codes were introduced for direct dialing.

When he died in his eighties, his grandsons had been flying here and there frequently, including in Europe or to Hawaii.

My own life has seen dramatic changes.

One of the admonitions to get me to clean my plate was that I was taking food from a kid starving in China.

The “starving kid in China”?  Well, unfortunately, there are still hungry kids in China and too many other places.  On the other hand, the middle class is getting larger in almost every country, with India and China each having as many middle-class citizens as the United States has citizens of all classes.  The New York Times just featured a Chinese female billionaire who had to feed pigs as a child; her company makes most of the glass for smart phones.

My first car was a 1940 Chevy coupe, bought from a friend for $20 about 1958.  It had manual transmission, no windshield washers, no air-conditioning, crank windows, and no turn signals.  I had to stick my arm out the window, no matter the weather.

Now lot of people won’t even consider a car without GPS and a Bluetooth connection.

When I learned to drive, the only freeway I knew of was the Lakeshore Drive in Cleveland.  Then came the Ohio Turnpike, a wonder of safe driving built so you would not be blinded by headlights in the other lane.  Now entire neighborhoods have been wiped out by freeways.  I’m not sure, but I think when I drive one of these freeways in Cleveland that I had a paper route 50 feet above where I am driving.

My first commercial flight was in a DC-3.  When I moved to and traveled in Europe I flew in either Boeing 707s or Douglas DC-7s.  I remember standing outside an office building in Rome watching a 747 fly over.  Do I really want to fly in an aircraft carrying that many people?  Now they are even bigger (with far less space per passenger).

I grew up on AM radio and no TV.  Now there are so many AM and FM stations, it’s hard to find an empty frequency to use for an iPhone podcast on the car radio.  I remember when a TV station filmed me going down a sledding hill; we had to watch the news in the window of a store.  Now TVs are ubiquitous conversation killers with large flat-screens in restaurants and fitness centers.

My first computer job was on an IBM 650, about the size of two refrigerators plus a card reader and a card punch, each about the size of an office desk.  It had 10,000 characters of memory.

When I left Univac over twenty years later, we were starting to use internal email from cathode-ray-tube monitors: green letters on a black screen.  Many programmers were being dragged kicking and screaming into using compilers instead of assemblers.  A compiler takes a set of statements and converts them into code the computer understands.  An assembler takes a symbolic representation of each individual instruction.

Some will disagree with me, but I find that the languages now used to program computers are more obtuse and overly complicated from the elegant languages I used when I first programmed a Macintosh.

Now we can put the equivalent of a very large mainframe in a pocket, plus we can make wireless telephone calls, take and view photographs, and send those photos and more to people anywhere in the world.

When we first hooked Teletype machines to mainframes, the sending/receiving speed was 110 bits per second.  Now we get irritated when our 7 megabits per second service only sends at 4 Mbps.

Some of those early mainframes had a memory capacity of about 3/4 million characters.  Now we can buy smart phones with 64 billion characters.

One summer while in high school, I had a job with a surveying crew.  I got to hold the rod while the surveyor looked through his transit or I held one end of a steel tape.  Now surveyors bounce light beams to get the distance.  On one of the construction sites I was told that, by union agreement, the carpenters had to use hand tools.  Now almost all commercial carpenters have a huge array of power tools including power saws and nail guns.

As for the “war to end all wars”; it didn’t work.  There are still wars to keep people in power who don’t want to give it up, wars to make sure others have the “right” religion, and wars to protect a country’s influence on others.  On the bright side, I have read that the number of conflicts are less than ever.  Think of Western Europe, no wars since 1945.

Here’s hoping our grandkids can write similar articles about more techno-wonders and about far fewer wars.

Also published in the Reader Weekly 2015-08-06 at