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.

The Land Shark

by Steve, September 8th, 2014

An Ode to the Bicycle, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the WalGoose

me and pixieThe bicycle is a really remarkable invention. Next to the piano, it may be the pinnacle of human ingenuity. I’ve had a lot of bikes over the years; I’ve probably taken them for granted.

The first bike I remember was hand-me-down Schwinn Pixie in 1972. It had hard plastic tires. No pumping! No flats!

I probably got Butch’s Schwinn after I outgrew the Pixie. Then I got my first 10-speed in 1974, a shiny new Raleigh Record, serial #7 (my sister still has hers, lovingly restored by our dad). I was the first one in my class to have a ten speed. I wasn’t allowed to ride it to school, so a lot of kids didn’t believe me. That was third grade. Getting used to hand brakes was tricky at first. I crashed into a guy wire at the end of our cu-de-sac on Kirkwood Court, back-pedaling madly. But I got the hang of it.

I was eight. My family took a two week bike trip from Iowa City to Galena, Illinois and back, by way of Dubuque. We got our picture on the front page of the Preston Times. The reporter chased us down on the highway to get the interview and some photos. I remember being in some Mississippi River town with a levy and somebody singing American Pie. I had an idea what whisky was, but I wasn’t sure about rye. There was some kind of junk shop that had hermit crabs at the checkout. They weren’t for sale. And I didn’t have any way to get them home if they were. One of our stops was Maquoketa Caves, I think. Sue probably remembers. There was talk of impeaching Nixon. I remember seeing an editorial cartoon about it. Ten-Speed Touring, 1974

I also remember stopping at a small town general store with a house attached. You could see into the shopkeepers’ dining room. There was a big zucchini on the table. We also went to a parade where they threw candy. They didn’t do that at the only other parade I ever went to, the University of Iowa homecoming parade. And we met a dirt track motorcycle racer named Charlie Brown. He showed us the metal plate he wore on the bottom of his left boot. We went to see him race at the fair ground.

I got another 10-speed around high school time. A chocolate brown Raleigh something or other. It was a Christmas present too big to fit under the tree, so my old man put it in the shower to surprise me. My buddy Mark and I took a bike ride up to Wisconsin one summer, probably 1981 or 1982. Or maybe 1983. We didn’t make it to Baraboo or Wisconsin Dells, but we had a good time. One night we had to camp out in the yard of the Sheriff’s office in Dodgeville because the campground was full at Governor Dodge State Park. I think that’s as far as we got. We had old county maps that we photocopied at the library. We were lost more often than we knew where we were, probably. Mark bought a sausage in Wisconsin as a gift for somebody. When we rode across the Mississippi, I think it was the Bellvue Bridge, it fell off his bike rack and skipped overboard. “There’s nothing funny about sausage” became our catch phrase for senior year of high school. One of our last stops was Maquoketa Caves, I think. Mark might remember. Actually, I think we were going to stop there, but decided to keep riding, all the way home. I think we rode 150 miles that last day.

After high school, it seemed like there were always beat up 3-speeds around. I dragged one out to Oregon with me in the fall of ’89, tied to the top of the ’63 Step Van with some old rope. I rode it around some in Portland that winter, completely taken by the fact that I could ride my bike in the winter. With a sweatshirt on. And only get wet (not frostbitten). I bought my first cruiser in 1990 or so, at a yard sale down the street from my house on SE 26th and Sherman. It was a black cantilever frame, with 2-inch wide tires and decals and stickers all over it. I rode it until I had replaced almost every part on it. When I finally gave it away to somebody I worked with at the food co-op, the only original part was the front wheel. I’d changed everything else, including the frame, part-by-part as they wore out or broke. I used to ride it three miles to work from SE Taylor, across the Hawthorne Bridge, to John’s Landing, then home, then, if I was feeling good, up Mt. Tabor and back. One speed. I was in pretty good shape.

Bike in the woodsAt some point, I’m thinking 1992 or ’93, I decided to make the move back into a geared bike. In the intervening years, they had gone from 10-speeds to 21. Some even had 24, I heard. Mountain bikes were starting to get popular, and my boss claimed to have been one of the originators of the sport (doubtful). He talked me into investing in one. I think I dropped $470 on mine, which I eventually converted into a cross bike with 1.5 inch slicks. I did a fair amount of bike-packing on it. When TriMet first introduced their bikes-on-buses program, I hurried to to Pioneer Courthouse Square to get one of the first permits. I would put my bike on the Estacada bus, take it to the end of the line, then ride up the Clackamas River and camp at Fish Creek or at Indian Henry or somewhere else around there. I also took that bike on the Pacific Coast Highway, from Cape Lookout to South Beach, then across the coast range to Corvallis and back up the valley to Portland.

I still have it, and it’s still my main city ride. It’s my sleek black beauty. I used to take it up to the Bicycle Repair Collective on SE Belmont to clean it and overhaul it when necessary. (I was really sad to hear the Bicycle Repair Collective closed down, when the owners decided it was time to retire.) It still has the original shifters, dérailleurs, brakes, stem, handlebars and front wheel. Probably the best $470 I ever spent on a vehicle.

Ready to cruiseNow, we recently started spending a lot of time at the beach, and I remember quite fondly taking my original Portland cruiser to Cannon Beach one summer weekend and riding it in the surf. That was fun. Really fun. So I thought I better pick up another cruiser. First I got a white one with pink wheels for Nancy (and Emmy!).

Then I got blue one for me. Craig’s list specials.

I rode them both on the beach, but our sand is pretty coarse at spots, and it was pretty hard going. Not at all like I remembered. Much of our beach was basically not ridable.Cruising

Then I saw something at Fred Meyer that stuck in my head. A bike with massive 4-inch wide tires. It was branded as a Mongoose Brutus, and despite some dorky paint and graphics, it just looked cool. And knowing what little I know about physics, I deduced that those tires would be just the ticket for our soft sand. But the price… $279 on sale. So I just filed that away in my mind, and probably started googling fat bikes while waiting for builds to finish at work.

What I discovered was that this same bike, with different paint and graphics, was being sold as a Mongoose Beast at Walmart for $200 (delivered), and there’s a whole subculture of people buying these things and modifying them in some pretty cool ways. (They’re also sold at Target as the Dozer, with probably the worst color scheme of all.) It turns out they’re all basically the same cheap Chinese-made bike, and most bike geeks agree, a couple Franklins is a pretty cheap entrée into the fat bike world (light-weight geared fatties start around ten times that).

Opinions on the Walmart Fattie (a.k.a. the WalGoose) vary widely from utter disdain to sheer glee. In fact, there is apparently some serious disdain for fat bikes in general in the mountain bike community. My sister, the mountain bike racer and coach, calls them “fad” bikes, and says there’s always some fat guy showing up with a fat bike for races, ready to start drinking beer. “What’s the point?” she asks, and rightly so. For the races, it’s hard to see any point carrying that much extra weight. (And talk about weight; the Beast weighs in at just under 50 pounds.)

BeforeBut for sand or snow, there is definitely a point. We don’t get much snow, but I’ve got miles of sand to ride on, and I won’t be deterred by the righteous, multi-thousand dollar indignation of the serious gear heads. I decided to make one of these beasts mine. I picked red (they also come in green and blue), and this is how it looked out of the box.

The first thing I should have done was pack the bearings. They come with very little grease, and they are clamped down tight. (I did loosen the headset a little when I put it together.)

But the first thing I actually did was strip off the department store decals — they peel right off — and apply a little of my own branding. I toyed with names a bit before coming up with Land Shark, a ’70s Saturday Night Live reference. I also considered “Beach Whale.” If I get another one, I’ll go with blue and call it that.
New graphics

(This was before I knew there was a high-end bike manufacturer in Oregon called Land Shark, but I don’t think anybody’s going to mistake this tank for a carbon fiber road bike.)

The other first thing I did was take it for a ride on the beach (because of course I did) where I confirmed the still other first thing everybody says: You need to change the gearing. These things are geared way too high considering their weight alone, not to mention the extra rolling resistance of sand. The stock gearing of a 32-tooth crank and an 18-tooth cog was actually okay for dry pavement. (It turns out they had been shipping them with a 36-tooth crank, which would make it basically impossible to ride on any kind of incline.) So, anyway, the third first thing I did was put a 22-tooth cog on the back. It’s really easy to do, and only required crescent wrenches to remove the rear wheel, and a little screw driver to remove the springy thing that holds the cog in place. The stock chain is too short with these four extra teeth, so I picked up a chain at Fred Meyer and added two or three links from that. I already had a chain tool; you’ll need one if you don’t have one.

This made riding much easier. Or at least possible. It’s still a lot of work, especially on the coarser sand.

I eventually got around to pulling the bottom bracket apart and cleaning the bearings out and re-packing them. These are not sealed bearings, so the only tools you need to get the bottom bracket open are a big crescent wrench and a crank puller. I really should have done this first, at least before getting hit by a few waves. Yeah, the bearings were pretty trashed, but I cleaned them up and packed the hell out of them.

By now, I was able to actually ride this thing for a while, and the stock seat was making my ass pretty sore. So I picked up a cruiser seat at Freddies. Not the kind with springs; these jumbo tires running on five pounds of pressure (yes, five pounds) are all the suspension I need. It was worth it. I also wanted to ditch the narrow BMX handle bars (funny, the bike looks like a giant BMX bike out of the box, but that’s not the look or feel I wanted.) I got some cruiser bars, which give me a more upright, laid-back posture for cruising. (If you’re following along at home, keep in mind that the little BMX stem has a 22.2 mm handlebar clamp, and you’ll have to get some kind of whack stem adapter to go with standard MTB bars. I went with cruiser bars, and you can find them with 22.2 mm mounts pretty easily.) I took off the flimsy chain guard, and this is what I get: my Land Shark.
After
That’s the ticket!

Some guys are going all crazy trying to shed pounds off these beasts, drilling out the rims, changing seat post, saddle, stem, all that. But honestly, I can probably lose ten pounds off my arse more easily than all that, and for a lot less moolah. As it is, I’m into this thing for under three bills, and having a blast. It might just be my favorite bike yet.

Another thing everybody will tell you about these things is that you cannot go for a ride in public without getting comments from just about everybody. Kids are the funniest. I’ve had kids spluttering, trying to get the attention of their siblings. “Alex, look at the size of that guy the tires he has! ALEX! LOOK!” I wish I had videos of this. It would make a funny mash-up.

Here’s a small taste of what it’s like to ride on the beach, at a time when the only gawkers were sea birds. (I’m riding one-handed and filming with my phone, which is why it looks a little wobbly at first).

Nice to be back in Oregon after just a few days away

by Steve, September 2nd, 2014

Mt Hood, north side

Nature church is better at the beach part ∞

by Steve, August 11th, 2014

I love mountains and forests and alpine meadows and lakes and streams and wilderness backpacking and backcountry skiing. But this inland-bred landlubber is pretty high on maritimas vitae right now. This past weekend stands out as one of my favorites at the coast so far.

Saturday we saw a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flying over Highway 101 with breakfast in its talons (species unknown), closely chased by a western gull (Larus occidentalis) looking for table scraps.

Then we took a walk on Taft beach and had a gander at the local harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) colony across the mouth of Siletz Bay at the end of Salishan Spit.
The neighborhood harbor seal colony

Later Saturday, at low tide, I rode my bike north up Salishan spit to the end of the road. Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) are in abundance around Siletz Bay; I saw three on wing and one fishing in a lagoon.
Blue Heron

I had planned to ride to the end of the spit on the beach, but there was a stiff north wind blowing. Since I’d already said hello to the seals from across the bay, I decided to just head back south on the sand. The north end of the spit is in its natural state, with dunes, beachgrass, no riprap and only limited human presence. Even the southern, built-up end of the spit is quiet, since it is a gated community with no public access except by foot (or bike).

All the way down the beach on Salishan Spit I saw just one other house ape (Homo sapiens sapiens). This common invasive species was in much greater abundance once I got to Gleneden, but not enough to harsh my nature church mellow.

The tailwind made the four mile beach ride home a giddy pleasure. My face started to hurt from so much grinning. I made the four mile sand ride in 22 minutes, including a stop to pick up a nice chunk of amber agate. At the end of my ride I picked up a pocketful of smaller agates.

Sunday we got up early to watch the full moon set into the sea, but were fogged in and instead treated to a minus-tide walk on the sea bed and a sunrise from behind the shore pines (Pinus contorta contorta).
sunrise

Later in the day, we saw a number of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) heading north out beyond the breakers. (Apparently they’re back from their annual spring/summer mating party trip to California. What a life.) Then we saw a couple of our resident gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) lazily swimming south a little further out, spouting as they went. They were too far out to get a picture of, but here’s a little video from last spring of what I now believe to be two mothers and two calves feeding and frolicking in the shallows.

Summer Project

by Steve, August 4th, 2014

The Land Shark
I got a “fat bike” this summer, and I’ve been making some mods. I plan to do a post about everything (where I got it, how cheap it was, mods, etc.), but for now let me just say that fat bikes are fu-u-un. Biking on the beach at sunset is sublime. And covering 2 miles of sand in 15 minutes (vs. an hour by foot) is awesome.
Fishing Rock
Fishing rock is just under two miles from our front door. It takes about an hour to walk there, which you have to plan in advance if you want to hit low tide.

At a normal low tide, there are some nice tide pools. At minus tides, the whole wall is exposed, with layers of barnacles, anemones and sea stars.
Fishing Rock tide pool

Heading north instead of south, it’s about five miles to the end of Salishan Spit, where a pod of harbor seals is known to hang out. For that kind of distance, I’ll probably ride surface streets home. This bike is quite heavy, and even with the 26×4.0 tires floating on the sand and a reduced gearing, it’s a lot of work to pedal.

Layered Cake

by Steve, July 11th, 2014

layered cake

Somehow I missed it, but my last post was the 700th post on this blog in 8 years. I don’t do much public writing these days (I’m mainly retired from local politics), but I hope somebody appreciates the pictures.

Salty life

by Steve, May 19th, 2014

We saw a bunch of whales — the big kind, gray whales, not the transient pod of orcas also sighted nearby recently — a block or two from our house on Saturday. There were probably 4 or 5 in the pod, feeding just off shore. I got some stills and video (stay tuned), neither of which capture the feeling you get being so close to such huge mammals. I told Zeke, “I feel like I can feel their consciousness.”

“You can,” he said, “and it’s probably the biggest consciousness you’ll ever feel.”
California grey whales

They fed for a while in front of the Cavalier condos, then we followed them as they swam north toward Schoolhouse Creek. They stopped just before the creek, and fed some more. They were around all afternoon, and we saw them again that evening, further south toward Boiler Bay. There was at least one calf among them, which means they’re probably migratory, on their way up to Alaska for summer feeding, and just stopping for an opportunistic snack in our plankton-rich waters.

You can see the whole set on flickr.

We also saw several harbor seals popping up in the surf.
Harbor seal

And we found our first fishing float on the beach, and came to the realization that to take them home to decorate your yarrrd you have to murder a lot of barnacles. Gooseneck barnacles in this case. We left it where we found it.
Gooseneck barnacles

Speaking of barnacles, I took a walk down to Fishing Rock at low tide Sunday morning and said hello to some of our invertebrate neighbors: anemones, sea stars, sea snails and several kinds of barnacles. I don’t get that whole “massive consciousness” drift from these guys, but they’ve got their own trip going on and it’s pretty damned cool.
anenomes
low tide
sea stars and anenomes
Barnacles, sea stars and anenomes