Archive for category Gadgets

iOS8 and OS X Yosemite

A week or so ago I succumbed to the hype (and the nagging from my devices) and installed iOS 8 on a second iPad.  As far as updates go it was smooth although the post-install setup wizard crashed before it could ask me about things like iCloud Drive, which made me wonder whether I might be due for later problems.  For the most part I was proving immune to the “this feature only works with Yosemite” bait but I knew it was probably just a matter of time…

Call it serendipity, call it fate, call it whatever you will… but yesterday I was looking at my OS X desktop and thought “y’know, I’m a bit tired of that Apple font”.  You can probably imagine my wry grin when I surfed to Apple’s OS X Yosemite preview pages to find that one of the key features of the “new design” is a very clean replacement for the old Finder font!  So that, along with the nagging of the devices… and in the spirit of “better late than never”, I decided to join the beta of OS X Yosemite.

Signing up was incredibly easy and well integrated into the App Store.  It only took a login and a couple of clicks and Yosemite was being poured into my MacBook.  I took the opportunity during the download to make sure that my Time Machine backup was up to date, and let it do its thing.  Around 20 minutes later it was finished.  One weird thing I found though was that during the installation — while the big grey X was on the screen, and the progress bar was still counting down — my other iOS devices started squawking that a MacBook had “logged on to FaceTime”.  I even heard VoiceOver alerts from the machine itself, complaining about things in my auto-start that weren’t set up correctly, despite the OS X Installation progress bar reporting 7 minutes to go!  I guess I’m used to the installer for an OS being a different environment entirely from the running system, not just a wizard running on top of a user logon.

While I was poking around things in Yosemite, the iOS 8.0.2 update was released… and was duly applied to the old iPhone 4S and the main iPad.  I am concerned about battery life on the phone — for example the Facebook app seems to take 1% out of the battery every minute it’s running — but in honesty I was having battery issues while still on iOS 7.  I think it’s to do with the age of the device, but at this stage the best I can say is that iOS 8 doesn’t seem to be that much worse than iOS 7 for me, plus of course I get the benefit now of being able to see battery usage by app.

It hasn’t even been 24 hours in Yosemite yet, but I’m impressed.  The update to the look and feel of the OS X desktop is well overdue (although we still can only choose Blue or Graphite for Appearance?).  I really like the iOS integration features of Yosemite, but haven’t had a chance yet to see them in action.  I have to say though, at least for this Little Black Duck™, Yosemite and iOS 8 have reinvigorated my interest in the Apple ecosystem.  I mean I like the iDevices, but the “wow” of some of the Apple tech had faded for me in recent times…  If features like Handoff and the call and message integration actually work as designed, this could put Apple back into the lead position when it comes to “devices designed to work together”.

Tags: , , , ,

I lost my Fitbit… and found it

I have settled into a somewhat sedentary lifestyle.  My partner tries valiantly to get me involved in her personal training sessions, but I have a lot of inertia.  I know that I need to do something about being more active and increasing my fitness level, but have struggled to find a motivator.

While in Europe I succumbed to a bit of techno-craziness and bought a Fitbit One.  (The craziness wasn’t buying a Fitbit, it was where I bought it—the Apple Store in the Odysseum in Montpellier—and the resulting price I paid compared to if I’d waited and bought it at home, even from an Apple Store.)  I was enjoying the novelty of tracking activity, counting steps and calories, entering water consumption, and monitoring sleep.  I wore it almost constantly through France, in Amsterdam, and on the way back to Australia, thinking I might have finally found a way to motivate myself to exercise—that’s right: the path to a healthier life through good-old 21st century gamification!

I drove up to Brisbane a week ago for lunch with some work colleagues before picking up my kids; of course, the Fitbit was with me all the way.  The only problem was, my leather belt is too thick for the Fitbit’s clip so I instead clipped it into the coin pocket of my jeans.  It’s not so secure, and the Fitbit slid back and forth along the rim of the pocket, but I figured the seam along the edge of the pocket was thick enough to prevent the Fitbit from coming loose.

Almost over the jet-lag from coming back from Europe, I prepared for bed that evening looking forward to wearing the Fitbit to monitor my sleep—only the Fitbit was nowhere to be found.  Not on the jeans, not anywhere visible.  I decided that my method of clipping the Fitbit into the coin pocket was not so secure after all, and it had come loose during the day.

The next day I did the usual “retrace your steps, check behind the couch, blah blah” routine but still came up blank.  During Sunday however, for some reason I decided to start up the Fitbit app on my phone… and was rewarded with a message telling me it was “Syncing”!  I looked around where I was sitting, but still couldn’t find it.  By this time I had convinced myself it really was gone, and the sync message was the app on the phone syncing with the web site.

It got the better of me again today however.  I started the app again, and again was told it was “Syncing”.  I went to the “Devices” list, and sure enough beside my One it said it had synced just then.  Knowing that it had been over a week since I had last seen it, and that the battery was good but it wouldn’t last forever, I decided to pull out all the stops to locate it.

The BTLExplorer screen as it detects my Fitbit One.

The BTLExplorer screen as it detects my Fitbit One.

I figured there had to be an app similar to those I’d seen for scanning Wi-Fi and Bonjour but for Bluetooth, but searching for “bluetooth locator”, “bluetooth search”, and so on led to nothing helpful—there is a growing number of apps that help you search for headsets or objects to which you’ve attached a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tag, but I couldn’t find anything that did a simple scan of Bluetooth devices in range.

I turned to Google at that point, and decided to search for “locate lost fitbit bluetooth”.  The second item in the results was this blog post, which turned up a free app called BTLExplorer.  I installed it, ran it, and straight away it detected my Fitbit!

What followed was an ultra-modern version of “Marco Polo” or “Hot or Cold”.  I wandered around the house watching the indicated signal strength rising and falling, trying to get closer to where it was hiding.  Eventually, I found the room where the strength was intermittently rising above -60dBm, and sure enough, under a cushion, was my Fitbit One!

Now I can resume the monitoring of my activity levels.  In addition, my fruitless searching of the Apple App Store has made me realise that the App Store app on the iPhone is pretty useless for searching for apps: turns out there are a few other apps similar to BTLExplorer, but because I didn’t search for “bluetooth scanner” or “bluetooth explorer” I didn’t find them.

So far I’m pretty impressed with the Fitbit technology, even though it’s not that much more than a fancy pedometer.  While the device is pretty cool most of the intelligence of the system is in the app and the website, which analyse and interpret the data gathered by the device itself.  It is pretty nicely integrated: the device itself gets the movement data and syncs to the phone, which you can use to do basic display of the data while entering additional data like weight measurements and food and water consumption; the phone app syncs all that data to the website which does additional analysis and provides more of the social aspects of the system.

I’ll report back on how the Fitbit and its application environment helps me with my health transformation!

Tags: , ,

On global roaming for data

Like most international travellers in the Internet age, during our recent travel through Europe I was confronted by the ridiculous situation that exists for mobile data access.  By ridiculous I mean ridiculously expensive.

Telstra SMS warnings

Warnings from Telstra when a customer connects to a roaming network.

Look, don’t get me wrong: the technology that allows GSM/UMTS global roaming is pretty magical[1].  But it’s not exactly new!  It’s not like mobile networks are breaking new ground in how this should be done!  As I understand it, GSM was designed almost from day one to support the interconnection of networks in the manner that global roaming requires, so why are we consumers gouged so aggressively for it?

Telstra goes to great lengths to warn their customers about the high cost of data when they roam overseas.  Nice.  So let’s say I want to buy one of these International Roaming Data Packs—how much does that cost?  On Telstra’s website I find the answer: in fact I find several answers, since it would be unreasonable to expect one simple, easy-to-budget rate from a telephone company.

The cheapest data pack is A$29, which gets you the princely total of—wait for it…

20MB of data.

Wait, what…?

Twenty megabytes?!?!?

Packs range all the way up to 2GB, which costs an unbelievable A$1800.  I have a Telstra mobile broadband service which costs around A$39 per month and has a monthly allowance of 3GB—that comparison puts the roaming data rate at almost 700% more expensive!

The kickers though are in the fine print:

If you use all of your data allowance, we will charge you 1.5 cents per kB you use which equates to $15.36 per MB.

This is the rate for roaming data if you don’t have a data pack.  An order of magnitude again more expensive than data in a data pack!  Let’s look at the SMS they sent though: “we’ll SMS you every 20MB of data” — which means, if you don’t have a data pack, you’ll get your first SMS alert once you’ve already spent A$307.20!  The next one is the absolute best, though:

Any unused data allowance will be forfeited at the end of the 30 day period.

Are you absolutely @#$%!$ kidding?!?!?  Seriously?!?  Let’s think this one through:

  • You have concocted an astronomically exorbitant rate for data usage
  • You’ve made me pay up-front for my expected use
  • If I get the estimate wrong, I’ll either pay through the nose at the casual usage rate until I decide if I want to buy another pack OR I’ll get no compensation of the up-front money I paid for data I didn’t end up using
  • You’re still collecting on my contract monthly plan fee, which includes domestic call and data allowances I can’t possibly use because I’m overseas!

The whole situation is unbelievable to me.  Unjustifiable.  If Douglas Adams was writing Life, The Universe, And Everything today I believe “bistromathics” would have instead been “phonemathics” (except that it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well).  I can just imagine it:

“Just as Einstein observed that space was not an absolute, but depended on the observer’s movement in time, so it was realised that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer’s mobile phone’s movement through roaming zones.”

It’s only a problem because mobile technology is so embedded in our lives today.  We tweet, we post pictures, we e-mail, we navigate, we live connected in ways that we didn’t even ten, or five, years ago.  I know this, because I did without mobile data even as recently as 2009 (when I was in the US and China for a total of seven weeks).  The ironic thing is that we are most likely to want to do these sharing activities, such as checking in on Foursquare and sharing photos, when we are travelling—and even more so when we are in new and exotic places, such as a foreign land.

I call BS on the whole international roaming data scam.  I defy anyone from a telecommunications company to explain to me why it can be three orders of magnitude more expensive to access bits in a foreign country compared to accessing those same bits from home.  It is nothing more than a money gouging exercise, and I reckon I’ve got proof:

Amazon Whispernet.

I have a Kindle, for which I paid about A$100 when the local supermarket had a 25%-off sale.  It’s the 3G and Wi-Fi version, and I take it with me most places I travel.  I’ve had that Kindle in the USA, New Zealand, France, and of course here in Australia, and in every place I’ve had Whispernet come on line and I’ve been able to at least browse the Amazon store.  Now, if roaming data really did cost what mobile networks say it does, how does it make sense for Amazon to make Whispernet available internationally on my Australian Kindle?  I mean, if I browsed the Store for half an hour before buying a A$2.99 book (pretty-much exactly what I did last trip, in France), the transaction would have cost more than it made!  To me, Amazon Whispernet is the proof that there is minimal cost in roaming data and that we’re being taken for a ride.

Needless to say, my phone has Data Roaming disabled.  I became a free Wi-Fi junkie—one of those pitiful souls hopping from one café to the next looking for open access points.  It wasn’t too bad when we were in Paris and Montpellier, but before leaving for the back-blocks outside Toulouse and Bordeaux I knew we’d need a better solution.  In a Geant Casino store in Montpellier I happened across a prepaid 3G Wi-Fi access box from Orange for about 45€, which included 500MB of data valid for one month.  It came in handy too, thanks to the GPS unit in the car getting confused about the location of our hotel at La Pomarede and us having to use Google Maps to find the right way.

Come on mobile networks, get with it.  Stop pissing off your customers and forcing them to do cruel and unusual things when they travel.  Just charge reasonable rates.  You’ll get more business, and guess what—happy customers.  Well, happier.

[1] By magical I refer to Clarke‘s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Another IPv6 instalment (subtitled: Watch Your Tech Library Currency!)

I made a somewhat cryptic tweet a little while ago about how I spent a crazy-long period of time researching what was, I believed, the next-big-thing in DNS resolution for IPv6 (or so my 2002 edition of “IPv6 Essentials” told me).  I could not work out why I saw nothing about A6 records in any of the excellent Hurricane Electric IPv6 material or in any other documentation I came across.

The answer should have been obvious: DNS A6 records (and the corresponding DNAME records) never caught on.  RFC 3363 recommended that the RFC that defined A6 and DNAME (RFC 2874) be moved back into Experimental status.  If I hadn’t been using an old edition of the IPv6 book, I might never have even known the existence of A6 and not have wasted any time.

In my previous post on IPv6 I theorised that we are in the early-adoption phase of IPv6 where things aren’t quite baked, and yet now I’ve picked up a 9 year old text on the topic and acted all surprised when it got something wrong.  It was a bit stupid of me; had I bought a book about IPv4 in 1976, might it have been similarly out of date in 1985?

As always though I’m richer for the experience!  Or so I thought…  Like many, I’m becoming increasingly time-poor.  When I bought a book on IPv6 some years ago I thought I was making an investment, but it turned out that my investment actually lost for me in several ways:

  1. The book took up physical space in my bookshelf for all that time I wasn’t using it
  2. I didn’t actually use the information at the time I acquired it
  3. The time I could have got value from it was wasted by it idly sitting on the shelf
  4. Once I did try to use it, it actually cost me time rather than saved time

I came to think about the other books on my shelf.  It’s pretty easy to recognise that a book that proclaims to be up-to-date because it “Now covers Red Hat 5.2!” will be anything but.  Also, from the preface of a Perl programming book that says “this was written about Perl 5.8, but it should apply to 5.10 as well” I’ll be forewarned that things will be fairly applicable to 5.12 but maybe not to Perl 6 when it’s out.

Technology usually has a somewhat abbreviated lifespan, so therefore the corresponding documentation will have a lifespan correspondingly short…  Here, however, is an example of a technology that will have a far greater lifespan (we hope) than much of the documentation that currently exists around it.  I emphasise “currently exists”, because it won’t always be that way: IPv4 was pretty well-baked by the time I had anything to do with it, so I could have bought a book on IPv4 with next to no concern that it was going to lead me astray (indeed, I bought W. Rich Stevens’ TCP/IP programming texts during the 1990s, and still use them to this day).  I keep forgetting that I’m on a completely different point of the IPv6 adoption curve, and the “experts” are learning along with me.

So, a new tech library plan then:

  • Reduce dependence on physical books (okay, this one is already a work-in-progress for me) — they don’t come with you on your travels as easily, and (more important in this context) they’re harder to keep up to date.
  • Before regarding the book on the shelf as authoritative, check its publication date.  If it’s more than three years old, depending on the subject matter it might be out of date.  Check if there’s a new edition available, and consider updating.  If there’s no new edition, check for recent reviews (Amazon, etc).  Someone who just bought it last month might have posted an opinion on its currency.
  • If you have to buy a paper book, don’t buy a book on any technology that is a moving target.  On the same shelf as my copy of “IPv6 Essentials” there is a book entitled “Practical VoIP Using VOCAL”.  I never even installed VOCAL, and I’m sure many current VoIP practitioners never heard of it.  (Side note: I think it’s strange that I bought that book, and a Cisco one, but still to this day have never owned a book on Asterisk.  Maybe I have some kind of inability to pick the right nascent-technology book to buy.)
  • Use bookmarking technology more! I have a Delicious account, and I went through a phase of bookmarking everything there.  I realise now that, if I was a bit more disciplined, I could actually use it (or a system like it, depending on what Yahoo! does to it) as my own personal index to the biggest tech library in existence: the Internet.

That first point is harder than it sounds (especially for someone like me who has a couple of books on his shelf with his name on the cover).  My Rich Stevens books are littered with sticky-note bookmarks for when I flick to-and-fro between different programming examples.  Electronic readers are still not there when it comes to the “handy-hints-I-keep-on-my-lap-while-coding” aspect of book ownership.

I have a Sony Reader which I purchased with the intent of making it my mobile tech library.  It’s just not that great for tech documents though, since it doesn’t render diagrams and illustrations well (it also isn’t ideal for PDFs, especially in A4 ratio).  This may change as publishers of tech docs start releasing more titles on e-reader formats like ePub.  The iPad is working much better for tech library tasks; I’m using an app called GoodReader which renders PDFs (especially RedBooks!) quite well and has good browsing and syncing capability as well.

More on these topics later, I’m sure!

Update: I omitted another option in my “tech library plan” — since IPv6 Essentials is an O’Reilly book, I could have registered with their site to get offers on updating to new editions.  Had I done so, the events of this post might not have happened!  Now that I’ve registered my books with O’Reilly, I’m getting offers of 40% off new paper editions and 50% off e-book editions.  Also, in line with my reduce-paper-book-dependence policy, I can “upgrade” any of the titles I own in paper to e-book for US$4.99.  If you haven’t already, I encourage anyone who has O’Reilly books that they rely on as part of their tech library to register them at members.oreilly.com.  (This is an unsolicited endorsement from a happy customer, nothing more!)

Tags: , , , , ,