Oh the places you’ll go

by Steve, December 18th, 2014

pinthehatonthecathatsIn 1999 I finished an associate degree at Portland Community College, and Nancy talked me into doing the commencement ceremony at the old Memorial Coliseum. The speaker was an up-and-coming local politician who condescended to the assembled hoi polloi by donning a red and white stripedy top hat and reading from Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the places you’ll go! (By the way, the stripedy top hat is from a different Dr. Seuss story. Just sayin.)

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to great places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own, and you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

I think she preceded the reading with a heart-warming story about a woman who overcame her addiction and completed a program at PCC or something. Look, PCC is a community college, not a rehab program. Sure, there are some feel-good stories about people turning their tragic lives around, but primarily it’s working class people of all ages getting a basic post-secondary education. I’m sure she was just trying to be ironic and cute, but I’m not the only one who detected a generous whiff of elitist paternalism.

We’ve joked about this pol’s failure to connect over the years. Whenever her name comes up we say, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” She married the scion of a deeply connected construction baron and later left local government in 2007. Last year she became the head of a local non-profit foundation which we’ve happily supported over the past few years.

When you give money to non-profits, their development staff become your best friends every December thereafter. (I always tell these guys they don’t have to kiss my butt, and politely decline all the perks and galas and wine buses and behind-the-scenes tours offered.)

The other day we got a voice mail message on the home phone, not from the development director, but from my erstwhile commencement speaker herself. Her unctuous tone was markedly different from her speech 15 years ago. She left her cell and office numbers. (I didn’t call her back.)

Oh.

The places you’ll go.

NOTE: That call left me conflicted like crazy. This has been one of our favorite causes over the years, and I don’t want to cast aspersions on their incredibly valuable work (which is why I’m not using names here; if you know Oregon politics, you already know who I’m talking about). We directed some money their way last year, and we’ll no doubt support them again in the future.

Late fall up a local ravine

by Steve, December 17th, 2014

The monoliths

Snow in the Oregon Coast Range

by Steve, December 2nd, 2014

Snow in the coast range

Looking across the southern tip of Wapato Lake Bed at the northern Oregon Coast Range.

Buddha’s Frog

by Steve, November 17th, 2014

The Frog’s Desire

The typical Oregonian

by Steve, November 5th, 2014

politicsJudging from last night’s election results, we can surmise the following about a mythical “typical” Oregon voter:

  1. He doesn’t give a shit about higher ed funding. Measure 86 would have helped people pay for college without raising taxes. It’s going down 58%-42%. This surprises me. State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, who spearheaded the measure, was philosophical about its defeat. “Measure 86 was a bold idea,” he wrote on Facebook. “In a state that can’t seem to prioritize higher education, we came up with innovative ways to leverage non-tax resources to get the job done. Sometimes new ideas take time to catch on.”
  2. Our typical Oregon voter is a racist with no understanding of how our broken federal immigration system requires agricultural workers to come into this country without papers. Measure 88 would have let these hard working, tax-paying people to get licensed to drive. It’s a public safety issue as well as a basic human dignity issue. They’re here, they’re not going away, and they’re going to be driving with or without a license and insurance. But the measure is going down 67%-33%. No surprise here. The white nationalist know-nothing opposition was well-organized.
  3. Hooray! He paradoxically thinks women should be constitutionally protected from discrimination. Measure 89, Oregon’s Equal Rights Amendment is passing 64%-36%.
  4. He’s perfectly content with an electoral system that, particularly with state legislative elections, is closed to anybody not registered R or D. Measure 90, the top-two primary universally opposed by the powers-that-be in both major parties, is going down 68%-32%. No surprise. I wonder how a measure to do top-two primaries for the state legislature would do. Because seriously, unless I register Democrat, I have zero say in my representation in Salem. This is not democracy, people.
  5. He might be a little conflicted about it, but damn it, he likes to get high. Marijuana will be legal in Oregon next July, with Measure 91′s passage by 55%-45%. Good. But the fact that this is the only significant bright spot is kind of depressing. And the fact that Oregonians value this more than higher ed and the public safety/human dignity issues makes this victory feel hollow.
  6. He doesn’t want labels on his food telling him if his corn has fish genes, because Freedom, damn it. To be fair, basically every packaged food in America has GMO ingredients (unless it is specifically labeled organic or certified GMO-free). Anyway, this one is still too close to call, but Measure 92 is leaning toward failing on a razor thin margin. The big money came out for this one. I figured this would go down hard, given how much fear, uncertainty and doubt was spread by big agribusiness. The fact that it’s too close to call is heartening.

Of course there is no “typical” voter, and money is always the decider in these things. But Oregonians have a long-standing aversion to funding education at all levels. And the nationwide tide of reactionary white nationalism is a strong undercurrent in lily-white Oregon, even (or especially) with its nominally one-party Democratic rule (protected by the defeat of Measure 90).  I hope Ted Wheeler’s right about changing attitudes on education funding, and I know looming demographic shifts nationwide will fundamentally alter the electoral landscape going forward.

So I have glimmers of hope. And a bong.

The MHLW 2014 Oregon Voters’ Guide

by Steve, October 22nd, 2014

electionHi everybody! It’s that time again, the time when I tell you how to vote! NO NO NO, only joking! I’m just going to tell you how I voted. I’m going to get the easy ones out of the way first, then spend some time on Measure 90 (top-two primaries), because that’s the toughest one (and it gets to the crux of so much that’s wrong with politics in Oregon).

Senate

Merkley. Merkley is consistently one of the most progressive voices in the US Senate. Wehby’s run as a “moderate” republican. But her campaign has been a hot mess, with repeated plagiarism on her Web site blamed on successively fired campaign managers. If a neurosurgeon can’t come up with her own health policy positions, well…

Congress, 1st District

Bonamici. Eh. Not much to say here. Our district is reliably Dem, Congress is reliably Republican, and Bonamici hasn’t done or said anything to piss me off.

Congress, 3rd District

Not my district anymore, but this is Earl Blumenauer’s seat until he retires or runs for Senate, basically. Despite his prog credentials, I would not vote for him based on his silence/complicity in Neil Goldschmidt’s child rape.

Governor

Jason Levin (Pacific Green Party). I’ve got issues with Kitz, who’s seeking an unprecedented fourth term. First, there’s an unsubstantiated rumor that he beat up his ex-wife, sending her to the ER. Second, there’s the substantiated fact that in our effectively one-party state, the ruling party, led by Kitzhaber, has repeatedly failed to reform our completely broken revenue stream resulting in a consistently starved education system. Bill Sizemore, the unelected, fraudulent and now-disgraced buffoon has had more influence on revenue and education policy in this state than over a decade of Democratic hegemony in statewide offices. I consider this a gross failure of leadership.

I also think the Cover Oregon fiasco is outrageous, and I speak as an enterprise software professional. This was gross management failure, plain and simple, and it cost taxpayers a quarter billion dollars (for comparison, that’s half the budget of our state’s largest school district).

Dennis Richardson, the GOP candidate, is so far out in right field (“A woman relinquishes her unfettered right to control her own body when her actions cause the conception of a baby”), he has no chance of beating Kitz. So this is protest vote #1 on my ballot.

State rep, 27th district

Wacky Mommy (write-in). I’ve got the same issues with Tobias Read that I’ve got with Oregon Democrats in general, which is mainly a lack of leadership. I also have issues with the fact that Read is running unopposed (the Libertarian candidate notwithstanding). Read is listed as both a Democrat and Republican on the ballot (he caucuses with the Democrats). This pisses me off. He also posts a lot of links to Tom Friedman columns on Facebook, which pisses me off further. He even posted a link to a David Brooks column. I’m done with this guy. Wacky Mommy for state rep!

Measure 86

Yes. This measure establishes an endowment for college scholarships. Hell yes.

Measure 87

Yes. Allows state judges to serve in the national guard and/or teach at state universities. Weak yes.

Measure 88

Yes. Driver cards without proof of immigration status. Hell yes. This is a public safety issue above all else.

Measure 89

Yes. Basically an Oregon Equal Rights Amendment. Too little, too late, but hell yes.

Measure 91

Yes. Legalizes, regulates and taxes marijuana. Hell yes. Prohibition doesn’t work. Marijuana is safer that alcohol or tobacco. The drug war failed. Get over it. Move on. Take a little revenue from it. Keep it from kids. Get high responsibly. Be creative. Make art. (When I was a teen in the 70s & 80s, with easy access to MJ, I had a bet with my best friend Jhon that it would be legal by the time we were 21. I was an optimist.)

Measure 92

Yes. Requires labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. Hell yes. Monsanto has dumped much money into opposition of this, and it will probably fail because of that. Opponents whine that if GMOs are so bad, they should be outlawed. OK, let’s do that next. They also claim that no studies have shown them to be harmful. But one of the main benefits of Monsanto GMOs is their resistance to pesticides. Pesticides are harmful to consumers and the environment. So is monoculture. Fuck Monsanto, fuck GMOs. Label the food, raise awareness, and start moving to large-scale, sustainable ag.

Measure 90

Yes. Top-two primaries. I saved this for last, because I spent the most time thinking about it. This is one of the rare times you will see me voting against organized labor, which is the biggest voice against this measure (though both major parties are opposed).

This measure would set up a single ballot primary, like in California and Washington, with all candidates for an office listed together. The top-two vote getters would advance to a runoff in the general election.

This is currently how many local elections are held, for example Portland city council and mayor.

I totally understand Democratic Party opposition to this measure (and, by extension, their biggest financial supporters in public sector unions). Republicans have not won state-wide office since 2002, which means registered Democrats have chosen every statewide office holder since then. That’s a lot of power to voluntarily give up.

But I would argue that the Democratic Party hasn’t served its working class contributors all that well in that time. In the 90s, due to ballot measures pushed by libertarian Republican Bill Sizemore (funded by out-of-state richy-rich Loren Parks), we embarked on a path of ever dwindling resources for public education. Democrats have held the governor’s mansion the whole time, and controlled the state house for big chunks of that time, but have done absolutely nothing to fundamentally alter this downward spiral in tax revenue.

Yes, Dems have been better for public employees than Republicans might have been, but they’ve also been incredibly lazy in the “vision” department, utterly failing to correct course on the revenue front. So I see no reason to protect their monopoly on power (even though this measure probably wouldn’t actually threaten it).

Our current system of three different primary ballots (one each for registered Democrats and Republicans, and a third for independents and minor party members) guarantees that the Democratic Party gets to hand pick all state-wide office holders, and over half a million voters are disenfranchised.

Opponents of the top-two system argue that this is voluntary disenfranchisement, since it’s so easy to change party affiliation. But that’s beside the point. I should not have to register as a Democrat to have my vote count in Oregon. (And, seriously, do these people not get how Orwellian this argument sounds?)

Opponents also claim this measure would limit voter choice, and bemoan that some races might have two Democrats or two Republicans. In current Oregon House races, 31 of 60 races are unopposed. These races were decided by party faithful in May. I would gladly take a second Democrat on my ballot for my state house race, because the incumbent Democrat is significantly to the right of my values. Elections for city office in Portland are non-partisan, but virtually every candidate who makes the November runoff is a Democrat. Same for Portland school board. This represents the electorate, so what’s the problem?

Opponents claim that Measure 90 would kill minor parties. Well, my minor party, the Working Families Party, has endorsed Measure 90. Protest candidates would still have access, and protest voters could still cast their votes for them in the primary. But let’s be honest: having minor party candidates with insignificant constituencies and no chance of winning on the November ballot isn’t democracy. It’s democracy theater.

This measure isn’t perfect, and it’s probably going to fail. Instant runoff would be better. Proportional representation would be even better than that. But this is the best thing that’s come down the pike in a long time for independent and minor party voters.

Why I wish telecoms were more like the DMV

by Steve, October 20th, 2014

phonemessI’ve recently had some “fun” switching around our telecom service, mobile and home-based. I’ve also had some experience at the state DMV/DEQ, which offers and interesting contrast.

(Side note: I also recently switched to hosting our blogs in the cloud, and switched our business Internet service to consumer, since I am no longer hosting servers at home. But that’s a whole other story.)

The big, bad bureaucracy

First, let’s talk about how things work at the DMV. If you live in Oregon’s Portland metro area, you have to get your vehicle’s emissions systems checked by Oregon DEQ every two years in order to renew your registration. It’s pretty straight forward.

  • DMV sends you a renewal notice
  • You take this notice to one of several DEQ “Clean Air Stations” (this is funny, because it’s probably some of the dirtiest air around, what with all those vehicles idling while waiting and getting checked)
  • An attendant will check that you have the correct paperwork, then direct you to a lane
  • There is a large blue street sign on the building at each lane that clearly tells you how much you are paying for the emissions check: $21.
  • Once in a test bay, the testing tech will ask you to leave your car running, and direct you to an enclosed room where you can fill in your insurance information while the tech hooks up your car to the computer.
  • After a few minutes, you are finished, and you pay both the DEQ fee and your DMV renewal fee (in a single transaction), receive your DEQ report, new tags and registration, and head on your way.

I don’t know why people like to bitch about government bureaucracy; this most common interaction with not one but two massive state agencies takes all of 15 minutes every two years.

Anyway, let’s talk about telecoms.

You still have a land line?

Several years ago we switched our land line phone (remember those? We still have one!) from Qwest (now CenturyLink) to Vonage, a voice over IP (VoIP) provider. It seemed like a great deal; $15 a month with unlimited domestic long distance (this was at a time when Qwest still charged for long distance).But after a couple years I noticed the price had jacked up to $25. I remember trying to shave that down by a dollar a month by switching plans, only to find after making the switch that Vonage charged me $10 for changing plans. Pretty soon we were paying around $35 a month for service, after they tacked on close to $10 in various “taxes and fees.”

A coworker suggested checking out Ooma, another VoIP provider, which boasts “free” local service. The deal is you buy the box for $150 (Vonage gives you a box if you sign up for a 2-year contract), then just pay taxes and fees on a monthly basis. This is how I discovered that Vonage not only was overcharging for their basic service, they were also robbing us about six bucks a month on fees. We now pay $3.79 a month for our land line. Period. Quality of service? Same. There are a couple features we gave up from Vonage (emailed voice mail, etc.), but we can get those back for another $10 a month from Ooma if we want, and still save $20 over Vonage.

Shortly after the switch, Vonage had the chutzpah to send an email begging us to come back, offering a $10 discount per month for two years. Ha ha!

OK, so maybe the free market is working, right? Wrong. The deal is that it’s incredibly difficult to compare these two services, even though they are basically the same. Their pricing structures are so different, and the marketplace is so cluttered with unrelated technology that seems similar (but totally is not), it is virtually impossible for somebody like, say, your mother, to figure this shit out and not get robbed by some bastard company claiming your taxes and fees are $10 a month. Or the cable company that convinces you you need a land line to go with your TV and internet, because it’s somehow cheaper when you pay more.

Anyway, we got the land line sorted out, and even got to keep our number that we had originally ported from Qwest to Vonage. That’s how we’re still rocking that North Portland exchange out in the burbs.

Bite me, T-Mobile

So, how about mobile service?

Oh, let me tell you a tale, involving three service providers and one federal regulator who intervened on my behalf.

Way back when, my lovely wife declared she needed a cell phone. I scoffed. I resisted. But eventually I gave in. I searched high and low for the best deal, eventually settling on Qwest for a $30/month plan. This was a great deal. Until we went over on minutes, which was highway robbery. So we switched to Sprint. They had a flex pricing plan, which just bumped you to the next level if you went over minutes. This was pretty good. I eventually got a phone on that plan, too.  In the end we had five phones on that plan, and we were paying about $160 a month for 700 shared minutes, unlimited text, and a 2G data plan on one feature phone. Too much, considering there was not a smartphone in the lot.

When my daughter and I got smartphones last year, we dropped two lines from Sprint, and found the best deal on a data plan around (or so it seemed). T-Mobile has a prepaid plan with unlimited text and data (speeds capped after the first 5GB of 4G/LTE) and 100 minutes of talk time for $30 a month.

A word about mobile prepaid: These plans are set up for people with bad credit, mainly. You pay for your service in advance, instead of after a month, as is traditional. There are no contracts, so if you have your own phone, it’s an easy short-term thing to do. We don’t have bad credit, but the post-paid plans did not have this kind of deal on data. So we signed up.

When you set up your prepaid account, you pay for your first month of service. You can also deposit some additional money on account to pay for any overages on talk time. And you can set up this account to deduct from your debit card on a monthly basis and pay for the next month of service.  Pretty convenient, and what could go wrong? (Oh, just wait for it.)

Anyway, we had that service for about a year, and it worked fine except when it didn’t. (T-Mobile coverage is crap, in case you didn’t know.) I paid for a few extra minutes of talk time here and there, but nothing serious. We were getting more mobile data than we could use for two phones at $60 a month.

This year, the contracts on our three remaining Sprint lines expired, and we prepared to move everybody, in one fell swoop, to AT&T. I knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk, but as is my practice, I thoroughly researched everything and got all my ducks in a row before proceeding.

I bought a few unlocked phones, and took everything down to the AT&T store at the mall. This was on THE DAY that the iPhone 6 was released, so it was pretty funny to pass the hordes lined up at the Apple store on the way to the AT&T store (where they had about four linear feet of wall space dedicated to the lackluster new iPhones, opposite a dazzling display of LG phones and phablets).

We had to wait a little bit to get served. Once in, it was pretty straight forward, since I knew exactly what I wanted, and already owned the devices. It took a while, but we got all five numbers ported. Well, mostly. Major props to Allan at the Washington Square AT&T store, who was helpful all the way.

It turns out the T-Mobile numbers didn’t exactly port.

The next day, I called AT&T customer support. They said they needed the PINs for the T-Mobile accounts. I told them I never set up PINs for those accounts, and I had provided the passwords. The AT&T rep conferenced in a T-Mobile rep, who seemed a bit confused by what was going on. It took him a while, but after answering some security questions, he let me set the PIN to 1-2-3-4. Ten minutes later, the numbers were ported.

Whew! Now, I had the foresight to stop the monthly auto-deduct on the T-Mobile accounts. I left about $100 on  account in case the port took longer than it did (numbers can’t be ported if the account isn’t active, and prepaid accounts are suspended immediately if not paid up). Now that the port was complete, I thought I’d log in to T-Mobile and see about getting that dough back.

But my accounts were gone. There was no way to log in from the Web.

I called customer service. This did not go well. First, after punching in one of my numbers, the automated system informed me that the account was in collections for nonpayment. I hit “0″ and eventually got a live voice. I talked to a few people, got transferred several times, and after waiting on hold got a guy who told me that prepaid services are not refundable.

I patiently explained that I was not asking for a refund for a prepaid service, I was asking for the cash I had on account to be refunded. He again repeated that prepaid services are not refundable. I pressed him. Eventually he said, OK, you can get your money back, but you have to go to a T-Mobile store.

Are you fucking kidding me? “What do I need to show them to get my money?” I asked. “Just the card you used to pay,” he said.

OK, fine, sounds dubious, but I drove my ass to the nearest T-Mobile store. It’s a weekday, this can’t be too bad, I thought.

It was pretty bad. It was a small store, and all four staff members were busy with customers. I waited patiently for probably 20 minutes. Finally a staff member was available, and she proceeded to inform me that prepaid services are not refundable.

I patiently explained that I was not asking for a refund for prepaid services, but for the money I placed on account to pay for future prepaid services before I ported my numbers out.

“Oh, you ported your numbers out,” she said, and explained that prepaid services are not refundable, especially, apparently, if you port your numbers out. By this point I was getting pretty pissed off, and really didn’t want to make a scene. (Actually, I might have made a little bit of a scene, but I’m pretty sure I said “B.S.” and not “bullshit”, because there were children present after all.)

“So,” I said, “I have to file a complaint to get my money back?”

“OK,” she said, deflecting me out the front door. (I’ve done customer service, so I understand the difficulty of dealing with pissed off people. She handled me like a champ.)

By now I’d blown probably a couple hours trying to get $100 back. Time is money, but principle is principle. That’s what this was coming down to.

I spent some more time searching the Web, trying to figure out how to proceed. I found lots of stories of being transferred and dropped on the customer service line, with nobody reporting any luck. Surely this couldn’t be legal, even if I did “agree” to terms of service which may or may not have spelled out that any money I deposit with them for future service would be confiscated if I chose to discontinue their service.

All of my T-Mobile love had turned to hatred and rage at this point. Their Web site, which I tolerated before, now was a maddening maze. The only options for customer service are Web forums (no account; no access!) and phone, which I’d already struck out on. No email contact, or even a Web form to submit queries. Just a USPS address. I imagined carts of paper mail in a warehouse somewhere gathering dust, and a couple underpaid office drones tasked with opening a few letters each day and sending out form letter responses.

Feds to the rescue

So I filed an online complaint with the FCC. That’s right, Fuck ’em. I sicced the feds on their thieving asses. I honestly did not expect anything to come of this. I figured I’d just write the whole episode off as a hard-learned lesson, and maybe provide T-Mobile with $100 worth of negative publicity along the way.

Two weeks later, I got a call from a passably contrite T-Mobile rep saying they she had a letter from the FCC, and even though my terms of service said that prepaid services are not refundable, they were going to send me a refund and just needed my address.

Her tone was notably straight-forward. Even though T-Mobile was not going to acknowledge they were in the wrong, they were going to give me back my money. And they weren’t going to transfer me, drop my call, or send me to a retail store.

I resisted the urge to explain to her that I was not asking for a refund of prepaid services. After all, it appeared I had won. It took more than a few hours of my life, but I was successful in prying my money back from a company that had attempted to steal it from me under cover of a murky customer agreement and a prepaid system designed to prey on poor people.

A week after the call, I got a copy of the letter T-Mobile sent back to the feds, explaining to the Acting Chief of Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Federal Communications Commission, that I had signed an agreement acknowledging that prepaid services are not refundable.

“Nevertheless,” the letter continued, “in an effort to amicably resolve this matter… T-Mobile agreed to refund $100.00″ to me.

The day after that I got a prepaid MasterCard worth $100 in the mail, so I didn’t feel obligated to give T-Mobile $100 worth of bad publicity after all. (Oh, wait, too late.)

There you have it. Once again, the invisible hand of the free market works great! (But only with a slap from the very visible hand of federal regulators.)

We left Sprint, on the other hand, with a balance due, and they decided to threaten us with collections or disruption of service(!) if we didn’t pay up immediately. (Phone number portability is something telecoms are required to facilitate, but they really don’t seem to like it very much when they’re on the losing end of it). We were at least able to log in to the Sprint Web site to take care of their final bill.

So why didn’t I stay with Sprint? Their network isn’t compatible with our phones. Why didn’t I stick with T-Mobile? Their coverage sucks. (Also, ahem, it turns out they have some questionable business ethics.) Why didn’t I go with Verizon? They support some of our phones, but not others. Why don’t I just let the cell providers gouge me for “free” phones that actually cost $20+ a month? Because I don’t want my phone to be locked to one provider, and I sure as hell never want to sign up for a two-year contract with any telecom ever again.

It’s a damn jungle out there, that’s what it is. And the people getting screwed over the most are poor people on prepaid plans, and people who don’t have the tech savvy to compare plans from different providers and tease out costs of phones vs. costs of service, etc.

This is why I want telecoms to be like the DMV. I don’t want to spend hours doing cost analysis. I don’t want fancy mall stores with mood lighting and big graphics and solicitous sales clerks. I don’t want bullshit contracts and terms of service with hidden clauses. I don’t want to compare apples to oranges. And I sure as hell don’t want some unscrupulous behemoth of a telecom literally trying to steal my money.

I just want a drab facility in a run-down strip mall with a unionized workforce hooking me up with what I need, nothing more, nothing less.

I want a big blue sign on the wall that says: “Mobile Broadband: $30. Take a number. Please have forms filled out and documents ready.”

“It Just Works”

by Steve, October 7th, 2014

techApple released it’s latest shiny toy last month, and the faithful lined up to buy a phone with tech specs roughly equivalent to two-year-old Google phone that sold for $350 (the current generation Google Nexus 5 has even better specs, and also sells for $350). Apple’s “new” phone ranges $649-$949 depending on storage and screen size, and that’s before accessories.

Now, let’s pause to give Apple props for finally giving in and making phones with screens big enough for grownups to use. But it’s kind of funny that they’re hyping it as “bigger than bigger” after years of pretending people didn’t want large screen phones. You’d think they were the first phablet on the market. (Samsung released it’s 5.3″ Galaxy Note in 2011. It’s third generation Galaxy Note 3, released in 2013, leaves the iPhone 6 in the dust in virtually every technical category. And it costs $600.)

Apple fans get defensive about their two-years-behind-the-curve tech specs, usually falling back to the old saw that Apple products “just work” and non-Apple products require constant care and feeding. It’s pretty much the same old Mac vs. PC argument that Apple is for cool creative people and everything else is for nerds who would rather tinker with tech than be cool and creative. People really buy into this.

One thing that Apple is indisputably good at is marketing.

Anyway, our family recently became an all smartphone household, evenly split between iOS and Android. Up to this point, I’d had the joy of setting up two iPod Touches and two iPhones (a 4 and a 4s).

It never “just works,” at least for me. Please don’t think I’m belittling you if you’re an iPhone fan. Two people I love very dearly like their iPhones very much, and I understand why. There are definitely good things about iPhones. It’s just that those things are not economic or technical, so they don’t persuade me.  Also, I suspect I know a little too much about technology for my own good, and that this leads me to difficulties with consumer tech that is designed to be set up and used by non-technologists. The whole Apple experience chafes me, and makes me fell like I’m being talked down to. True fact: I experience less stress setting up a Linux server in the cloud than setting up an iPhone in my hand.

But I digress.

Last month, after the iPhone 6 was released, we picked up what has become the  ”bottom-end” iPhone, the 5c, with the goal of moving the old 4s user to the 5c and erasing the 4s as a new phone for another family member. We also got a Blu Advance 4.0, an $80 Android phone with a 4″ screen, dual-core 1.3Ghz CPU (roughly the same tech spec as the $500 iPhone 5c, but with lower quality screen and cameras).

Anyway, let’s set up the iPhone 5c. Should be easy! Right? It’s gonna “just work,” right? Well, let’s see.

  1. Open iPhone 5c. Try to distinguish stylish packaging from things you need to keep. I’m being serious here.
  2. Turn on. Won’t turn on. Battery has no charge at all.
  3. Put on charger. Oh, yeah, it’s a new charger, the old ones don’t work. Unpack the new charger, plug it in. Wait half an hour before you can turn it on. Spend that half hour contemplating the hundreds of dollars you’ve already spent on Apple-specific chargers and docks that will not work with this new Apple phone.
  4. Turn on phone, begin setup.
  5. Enter wi-fi pass phrase.
  6. Enter Apple ID and password.
  7. Wait.
  8. Get error: no SIM. “Insert valid SIM to continue.” Well, we haven’t started with the new carrier yet, so let’s just grab the SIM from the 4s.
  9. Oh, crap, the 5C has a different SIM (nano) than the 4s (micro). We’ll have to wait till we get the SIM from the new carrier. Can’t we just activate it and use it on wi-fi? No, we cannot. Why not? No reason. We just can’t. Search Apple help online. No answers there. Find same question on forums, with no answers anywhere: Why can’t we do this? You can search the totality of human knowledge on your smartphone and not find an answer to this question. Steve Jobs took the answer to this question to the grave with him.
  10. (a week later) Get the new SIM, insert it. Repeat setup 4-6.
  11. Yay! it’s ready to restore a backup from iCloud from the old phone!
  12. Oh, wait, the backup is from a phone running  iOS 8, and this phone is running iOS 7. Upgrade required before restoring this backup.
  13. Can we just install that? No. We have to start setup. Again. Redo steps 4 and 5. Again. Skip the Apple ID bit, since we just want to set it up long enough to upgrade.
  14. OK, it sets up without the Apple ID. Now let’s upgrade it. Start download. It’s 1.3 GB. Looks like it’s going to take forever. Go to bed.
  15. Get up a 5 am. Download has failed. No reason given. Restart download. Go back to bed.
  16. Get up at 8am. Screen of phone shows an Apple icon and a progress bar about 75% complete; apparently the download has completed and it is installing.  (Side note: The “progress bar” is hands-down the stupidest, most useless widget in GUI design, and it’s not just Apple). Two hours later, progress bar hasn’t moved. (Somebody with a degree in UI design please explain what purpose this widget serves!) Two more hours later, it still hasn’t moved. Try to turn off phone. Nothing. Hold down power button and home button together. Nothing. Eventually get it to turn off. Not sure what made this happen. Maybe the cursing?
  17. Turn phone back on. It boots to a home screen, as if nothing happened. It “just works!” But… is it fully upgraded? Did something go wrong? We may never know.
  18. Erase phone. “Are you sure you want to erase phone?” Yes. Erase. “Are you sure?” YES, FFS. Erase. OK, it erases
  19. Repeat steps 4-6.
  20. Restore backup from iCloud. It “just works!” Hand over phone. Take some deep breaths.

OK, that sucked. (Now, maybe there was a better way to do this without constantly repeating steps, etc. But Apple docs treat users like complete fecking  idiots, and offer no help whatsoever for anything outside of the most basic scenario. There is no “troubleshooting” because Apple products “just work.” Except when they don’t, in which case I guess you’re expected to go see one of the “geniuses” who works at the mall selling overpriced pocket computers to passionately credulous conspicuous consumers.)

OK, more deep breaths. Let’s set up the Android.

  1. Open nerdy, unstylish packaging and remove phone.
  2. Turn on. Battery at about 39%. Plug it in, just so it doesn’t die while going through what surely will be an hours-long process (right?).  It uses the same micro USB charger as virtually every phone on the market (except iPhone), so just use the nearest one handy. (We’ve got lots of them, because all the cheap-ass phones we’ve burned through over the last several years came with them. They’re not all sleek and white like a 1969 vision of what the year 2001 would look like. But they’re everywhere, and they’re basically free.)
  3. Enter wi-fi pass phrase.
  4. Answer a few basic setup questions. (No SIM? No problem.)
  5. Set up a new gmail account for cloud backups, address book sync, etc.
  6. Done. Wait, what? Yes, that’s it. Five minutes total, if that.

Now, I wasn’t trying to restore a backup to the Android, so it’s not a totally fair comparison. That might have taken another five minutes.

With all the phones are set up, we start to bicker about which is better.

    Kid 2: ”Name one thing the iPhone has that the Android doesn’t.”
    Kid 1: “Emoji.”
    Kid 2: “Look, I’ve got emoji.”
    Kid 1: “Those aren’t emoji, those are just little pictures. How about iCloud backups?”
    Me: “Google backups.”
    Kid 1: “Facetime.”
    Me: “Google Hangouts.”
    Kid 1: “Nobody uses Google Hangouts. Everybody uses Facetime.”
    Me: “Google Hangouts is used in business every day. Nobody uses Facetime for business.”
    Kid 1: “The camera on the iPhone 5c is so much better.”

There is no arguing with that. The $500 phone has a much better camera than the $80 phone.

Wait, we’re actually having this argument?

Pop quiz: what’s the least-used feature on a teenager’s telephone?

Answer: The telephone.

True fact. Teenagers today generally do not make phone calls. The phone has been replaced by a device that is capable of making phone calls but rarely does. It can even make video calls, that holy grail of mid-century modernist telecom dreams. But social media has taken over the phone and killed the phone in one fell swoop.

The joke when the first iPhone came out was that some people had actually figured out how to make phone calls on it. Or: the iPhone is just a really small iPad with a crummy telephone app. Or: the iPad is just a really big iPhone with no phone. These are no longer a jokes.

We saw a middle aged guy standing in the parking lot at the grocery store the other day, staring at his iPhone 6 Plus. At first I though, damn, this guy is really into his new phone. Then it occurred to me: he’s probably trying to figure out how to call his wife to ask her what the hell he came to the store to get.

Nutreahenge

by Steve, October 6th, 2014

Nutrea-henge

The neighborhood whales on the Tee Vee

by Steve, September 22nd, 2014