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Telecom: New Zealand’s leading Internet Service Preventer

Posted by steve on Jan 11, 2013 in international, internet, New Zealand

You don’t know, it is indeed true, what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. My family and I were reminded rather rudely over the last couple of days how much we rely on our Internet connection — the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe is a telecommuting web and print designer, and Teenage Daughter’s social life is mediated almost entirely via Twitter and Skype; I have been known, occasionally, to use the Internet too — when our ISP here in New Zealand, Telecom, suffered a series of rather catastrophic outages.

The first signs, for me, came when I tried to check my email. I opened up my MacBook Pro, only to find, by the names of mailboxes in my inbox, exclamation-mark-inside-triangle warning signs. Next stop was Safari, but attempts to view Web pages returned nothing more than an error message telling me “You are not connected to the Internet. This page cannot be displayed because you are currently offline.” Something, then, was wrong; it was time to figure out what.

This was clearly something a little more troubling than a Web page not wanting to load. If I find a page, especially a page from a site that I know is usually reliable, simply will not show itself, then I try surfing to the New Zealand Herald’s Web site. This isn’t because I expect news of my potential Internet outage to make headline news — even New Zealand rarely has slow news days that slow. No, I visit that site because I know that it is, typically, a snappy and reliable site. If the Herald’s front page shows itself, I know that the problem is likely with a sluggish server at the site I had originally wanted to visit; if the Herald similarly fails to show, then it’s time to start looking at my connection. When I lived in Florida, I used the BBC’s news site — it, similarly, tended to be quite responsive. Google, or Apple, or any other well-resourced, well-equipped site can serve as an effective test site; I’d avoid Facebook, though, simply because, in my experience at least, it tends not to be the absolute last word in speed and performance; at any rate, it is a good idea to have a mental list of reliable sites that can be used as a first step in trying to diagnose a problem.

Last week’s problem, though, was clearly much more widespread. My first step, then, was to check my local network connection. I have a WiFi network at home, powered by a couple of Airport base stations, and shared with the rest of the family. Teenage Daughter saved me the trouble of having to ask her if she was also offline — a cry from her room that “The Internet’s broken!” let me know quite unequivocally. Evidence was now pointing to the problem being outside my laptop.

In my home network, and likely in many similar setups, the next item upstream, and the first shared element, is an Airport base station. Rather than try to troubleshoot it, my next step was to eliminate it altogether. My thinking here was simple — if I connect my MacBook Pro directly to my DSL modem, and if I can then connect to the Internet, then the problem lies with my base station; if I can’t, then the problem is further upstream. So I unplugged the Ethernet cable connecting modem and base station from the base station, and connected it directly to the Ethernet port on the side of my laptop — still no joy. I opened System Preferences on my laptop, and selected the Network pane. My Ethernet connection had, apparently, an IP address, suggesting that my DSL modem was behaving itself.

The next step was one that I don’t enjoy having to take, for the simple reason that, due to constraints of space, my DSL modem is located in a rather inaccessible spot. As a result, I can’t easily see the state of the lights on the top of the modem. But, because it was now looking necessary, I reached the thing out from its cranny and saw that one of the four lights was out. Getting to know the standard state of your modem, be it DSL or cable — or, if you’re lucky enough, as we hope to be in a year or so, to have it, fibre — modem might seem unnecessary, but at times like this, it’s a useful little piece of knowledge.

The light that wasn’t lit was the one labelled PPPoE; this told me that all my hardware was doing its best to connect, but that the problem appeared to be not at my end but with Telecom, my ISP, an abbreviation which, in Telecom’s case at least, appeared to stand for Internet Service Preventer. “Have you turned it off and back on again?” is the usual question at this point. But there is a better step to take than that. Most modems such as this one have an embedded Web server for device management, and so I plugged the address of the device into a browser window in Safari. Typically this address will be something like 10.0.0.1 or 192.168.1.1. Again, it’s worth having this information, likely to be found in the instructions that came with the modem — you won’t be looking it up online, will you, now?

My modem’s configuration page confirmed that the thing was disconnected; attempts to reconnect failed. At this point, I was absolutely confident that the problem lay with Telecom. But how to find their phone number? This was not a problem, for I have an iPhone. A call to Telecom’s helpline confirmed that their network was down, not just for me but for the vast majority of their customers across New Zealand — a pretty major outage.

It was late, and work for the day was largely complete, so we decided to trust Telecom’s technicians to resolve the issue overnight. The next morning, though, as Mrs. McCabe fried eggs, a quick check revealed that maybe I had given Telecom’s engineers just a little too much credit. We still had no connection.

Neither, as we soon found out, did most of Telecom’s customers. In the cruellest of ironies, but one that is almost a commonplace in the tech world, an attempted upgrade to one of Telecom’s servers in Christchurch had, in fact, hobbled almost their entire national network.

This, of course, was bad. Mrs. McCabe, as I mentioned earlier, is a web designer; not too great a leap of logic is required to see that a sturdy Internet connection is somewhat crucial to her line of work. I would have taken this as a sign that I was meant to take a day off, that the Universe wanted me to spend a day on the sofa with a pot of coffee and a good book, but Mrs. McCabe, being infinitely more diligent and conscientious than I, wanted to be able to get some work done. So how to reconnect her?

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he described it as, inter alia, a “breakthrough Internet communications device.” Its first two aspects, touchscreen iPod and mobile phone, elicited near-orgasmic applause from the assembled geekery, but his reference to this third element, the ability to access the Internet from a pocket device, was met with — if we’re being generous — a polite smattering of claps and somewhat bewildered cheers. Six years ago, nobody really understood how “breakthrough” the iPhone’s Internettery would prove to be.

But when her Internet connection failed her, the Lovely and Talented Mrs. McCabe knew that all was not lost, because she knew how empowering her Breakthrough Internet Communicator 4S could be. She could, I suppose, have taken herself off to the McDonald’s down the road in Pukekohe and taken advantage of their free WiFi network, but this was less than ideal on a number of levels. Firstly, while she has a laptop, her serious working files, including those for the project that was engaging her at the moment, were all on her desktop computer, her primary working environment. Add to that the fact that many free WiFi networks are only free if you’re buying something else (I’m not entirely sure how true this is McDonald’s, but I’m not willing to go and do the research), and, at least here in New Zealand, are often limited in terms of how many minutes or megabytes are free. Additionally, not all protocols are enabled — fair enough, really, this one, since the operators of such networks don’t, for a number of reasons, don’t want punters bit-torrenting down their pipes. And, let’s face it, it’s bloody McDonald’s — hardly the atmosphere most conducive to Mrs. McCabe’s design brilliance. Free WiFi networks have their uses — a quick email check, say, or a lazy surf, but not serious work, or a Skype call to a client back in the US.

So let us return to the iPhone. Since early 2011, and the release of version 4.3 of the iOS, iPhones 4, 4S and now 5 have been able to share their 3G connections (and, presumably, their LTE, but, living in New Zealand, I wouldn’t know about such things) via the Personal Hotspot feature, which combines the iPhone’s cellular and WiFi components to make, well, a personal hotspot. And so it was that Mrs. McCabe was able to get back online.

This, of course, is far from an ideal solution. Our home office is in the very middle of the house, and cellular connectivity, when it happens, is spoggly at best. So Mrs. Mc’s iPhone had to be put on a coffee table in the lounge, where it could establish and maintain a reliable connection to Vodafone’s cellular network. But it also had to be put in such a place as would allow its WiFi output to reach her iMac in the office. Occasional signal drop were inevitable, but more an occasional nuisance than an actual work-disrupting problem. The simple task of tapping on Settings, then on Personal Hotspot — conveniently located in the middle of the screen — enabled her to connect to the Internet, and finish those bits of her current project that needed to be completed that day.

But no more than that, mark you. Every single byte that went through the iPhone — to her iMac or from — counted against her iPhone’s data allowance, the 250MB for which we pay NZ$65 every month. Fortunate, then, that Telecom had their network back up and running that evening.

And so, despite Telecom’s best efforts to give Mrs. McCabe some downtime, and to get Teenage Daughter out of her room and off her computer, all was not lost. Projects were finished, work was done. What started out as a simple Internet outage, and rapidly grew into a potentially quite compromising problem, was quickly diagnosed and very simply addressed.

Just as well, really, because Telecom’s network failed again the very next day.

 

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iBooks Textbooks: Not Exactly Innovation in Education

Posted by steve on Jan 23, 2012 in international, New Zealand, News, Reviews, Software, Software Reviews

No iPhone 5, no iPad 3, no update to the Mac Pro range, at Thursday’s Apple education event in New York. No, the innovations Apple were unwrapping at the Guggenheim were altogether more surprising.

Claiming to “re-invent the textbook,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for Worldwide Marketing, portrayed Apple as a crusader for educational innovation, and announced a new product range that, according to one of the talking-head teachers roped in to shill for iBooks textbooks, would “change my students’ lives for the better.”

This was intended to be, clearly, a spectacular advance, a leap forward in educational technology that would disrupt, innovate, surprise, delight; certainly, for me, a technology commentator, and a teacher since 1991, this should have been a revolutionary innovation. But it didn’t, and it wasn’t.

A company such as Apple should, surely, have the potential not simply to embellish and enhance the textbook as it exists in its current paradigm; they should have it in them, especially if they are to have the hubris to claim that they are “reinventing” the textbook, to introduce something utterly radical, something that turns the current understanding of the textbook utterly on its head.

Instead, Apple’s presentation should have been fronted by Rod Serling. I was watching the thing on a fast, powerful, modern laptop computer — an Apple MacBook Pro with a quad-core Intel processor, accessing fast Internet over a wireless connection, and downloading the new product as it was announced onto an Apple iPad — a tablet computer! — at the same time. And yet, and yet… what was being shown off, what was touted as a reinvention of the textbook, belonged back in the mid 1990s.

An iBooks textbook, we were promised, would be interactive. Interactivity in content has been a fundamental aspect of computer-aided delivery for as long as we’ve had CD-ROMs — I updated my Mac IIsi to a IIvx back in 1995 because I really wanted the CD-ROM drive, and immediately started playing with multimedia titles that were starting to appear. And what made these titles attractive was the fact that they could build on simple static text, offering, as it was known then, a multimedia experience — video, animation, audio.

This was, as I say, seventeen years ago — around the time some of the target audience of the iBooks textbooks were born. In those seventeen years, computer-mediated instructional materials (“textbook” is such an old-fashioned word) should, surely, have moved on. But what I find on my iPad today, in 2012 (for, at least, as long as iBooks 2 is usable; my experience so far is that it’s as unstable as a hippo on rollerskates) is an experience that, other than being on my ever-so-modern tablet computer, is, essentially, the same as that offered by multimedia CD-ROMs back in the early 90s.

It is true that iBooks textbooks offer a level of engagement that paper books are unable to match, and there is definitely evidence to suggest that novelty in presentation, especially when that novelty involves computers, will, at least temporarily, reduce affective barriers to learning. I know — I did some of the research as a graduate student, again back in the mid 1990s. But those years also saw an incipient movement to take the possibilities offered by computers to personalise and individualise the learning experience offered by technology and exploit the platforms available even fifteen years ago.

At a language-teaching conference in Japan in, I believe, 1999 or 2000, I listened to a presentation on adaptive language testing, a system that tested, observed student performance, and then selected the next instruction-testing sequence based on that performance. While this was, at that point, a somewhat rudimentary application of the principles involved, it at least showed that computers were able to make decisions on what to do next based on what had preceded that decision. iBooks 2 offers no such flexibility, as far as I can tell so far.

Partly this is due to the fact that iBooks textbooks are a product of iBooks Author, itself essentially the love child of of iWork’s Pages and Keynote. Absent, so far, are any programming tools, even simple ones, that can allow any form of data-storing scripting, which is a shame, since programs such as FileMaker Pro, SuperCard, even HyperCard (of sainted memory) allow solutions to be created that allow a degree of decision-based scripting. Had Apple incorporated such elements into iBooks Author, a whole new level of interactivity and personalised learning could have been generated: “Steve, I see you’re spending a lot of time on simple harmonic motion, but you’re not doing very well on the end-of-topic quiz. Would you like some extra help with this topic?” But while the student can interact with the content, the content remains unable to interact with the student, and this seems to be an opportunity badly missed; I can only hope that scripting will feature strongly in a future version of iBooks Author.

As it stands, iBooks textbooks offers very little that hasn’t been on offer for nearly twenty years. Far from reinventing the textbook, Apple have simply taken an existing concept and applied it to a new medium, with, it appears, relatively little in the way of points of difference due to the particular nature of the iPad platform. And so, instead of static text and static images on a page, we are now presented with static text and some moving images on a page. This is a small step forward in terms of paper textbooks, but, in terms of the state of the art with regard to multimedia presentation, it is, absent scripting, possibly even a retrograde step.

In terms of the pedagogy, too, advances are lacking. Beginning with Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences back in the 1980s, educational theory has emphasised learning modalities; it is impossible to escape a teacher-training programme in, at the very least, the United States or New Zealand, without having the concept of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile learners pounded deep into one’s brain; it is equally impossible to survive a lesson observation without some questioning of how much a teacher has addressed all of his students’ learning styles.

Textbooks, of course, by their very nature are limited to the visual modality; that is an inescapable constraint of paper. But this constraint, by and large, remains intact in an iBooks textbook, even though the technology no longer imposes it. The essence of an iBooks textbook is written text — everything else is an adjunct to that written text. Indeed, even though text-to-speech conversion is a global function of iOS 5, enabled through the General pane of the Settings app, there appears to be no easy way to use it in an iBooks textbook — this is as wasted an opportunity as exists in iBooks 2.

Being a physics teacher, I naturally downloaded a sample of McGraw Hill’s physics textbook, and played with the chapters on waves and vibration. This has never been the easiest topic in the world to teach in the classroom; springs, ropes and waveform generators can be rather temperamental, and while on a good day a standing waves can be fun, I’ve yet to see a teacher actually manage a third harmonic in a rope on demand. This is where the potential of iBooks 2 is teased to teachers, but even then not entirely brilliantly implemented, and this is a function of the file-size limitation set by Apple.

iBooks textbooks, we have been told, can be up to 2 GB in size if they are to be distributed through the iBookstore. This is reasonable — Apple is hoping to sell a lot of these books, of course, and so they need to make sure that their datacentres, already serving up iTunes, iCloud, and two App Stores, don’t suddenly start laboring under 15 GB behemoths. (This limitation, though, appears not to apply, for example, to the 2.77 GB of biology currently on offer from Pearson.)

I would like to see every photograph in my physics textbook link to a video of a dynamic experiment. But while videos of projectiles, and animations of graphs of their motion, would be a valuable enhancement to a textbook, their creation will inevitably increase production costs for the book, and slow down the editorial cycle somewhat. I already use YouTube to demonstrate things I can’t readily demonstrate in the classroom, such as the brick-on-a-rope-not-hitting-your-face illustration of conservation of energy, but I spend a lot of time doing quality control on YouTube videos; having a ready-made bundle of content on an iPad would be enormously beneficial. Similarly, trying to draw, on a flat, two-dimensional whiteboard, a diagram of the three-dimensional vectors of Maxwell’s Laws is guaranteed to give headaches — so much easier simply to call up the relevant page on an iPad. But the more content you include in your book, the bigger the file will be, and the longer it will take to download.

And downloading is an issue for many people. As I have written about in “Paying by the Bit: Internet Access in New Zealand” (15 January 2010), outside the United States not everyone, including schools, has access to unlimited Internet connections. If my students were issued iPads next month, for the start of the new school year, they would then need to download their textbooks. Would they do this at home? Given that a typical home Internet connection in New Zealand, assuming it even has broadband (dialup is still quite widespread here), has a data cap of 5–10 GB per month, it’s fair to assume that most of my students will want to download their books at school. Perhaps the school would download one instance of each book, and syncing could happen centrally; this would, of course, require that all students sync their iPads with the school’s computers, of which there are not that many; the headaches are multi-layered. Or my school would have to set up and maintain a Wi-FI network for this purpose; that simply become another associated expense.

This is before the school has even provided the iPads. Given the uproar over plans by Orewa College, a moderately well-off secondary school north of Auckland, to require that all incoming students buy iPads or similar, I very much doubt that my school, in the poorer end of south Auckland, would fare terribly well in requiring that parents purchase. This would then leave the school having to buy the devices themselves, which would be difficult. My school, with its socio-economic decile rating of 2, receives almost no funding from the “voluntary” contributions that other schools raise from parents. As a result, it is dependent almost solely on its operating budget of around $1,000 per student from the Ministry of Education. Given that iPads start at $799 here in New Zealand, a very generous educational bulk-purchase discount from Apple would be required in order to make this an even remotely feasible purchase.

In American schools, too, where budget crunches are hurting badly, I question how many schools will be able to afford this technology. Pinellas County in Florida, where I once taught, is facing a budget crisissuch that teacher layoffs and furloughs are being proposed to try to make the books balance. Last year’s budget allowed for a per-student spend of $7,845; a $499 iPad would represent 6 percent of the entire funding allocation for each of the 103,000 students in the county. But while the per-student budget in Pinellas may seem significantly more generous than a New Zealand school’s funding, remember that out of that money must come teacher salaries, which make up 85 percent of the district’s budget; of the remaining $1,177, a $499 iPad is still a very big ask, and when teachers’ salaries are being considered fair game for budget reduction cuts, a five-million-dollar expenditure on iPads would not sit well.

So, in the end, is it worth it? Will students benefit from iPads with textbooks on them? Will they, indeed, benefit sufficiently to warrant the funds outlays involved? Yes, paper textbooks are expensive, and yes, they involve a buy-in that locks schools into using them for maybe five years. But, in physics, for example, the content being taught is not changing so rapidly that we need to replace our textbooks that often, even if wear and tear make it advisable. We can make do for another year; lock-in is not as terrible as it might seem.

But while iPads make it easy and relatively affordable to update content readily, how often will publishers offer free updates? By the time a publisher has updated a textbook to the extent that it actually exploits iBooks 2 and the iPad fully, will that then be a free update? In the meantime, the hardware costs of iPads is not one-off; once the up-front purchase has been made, there will be service costs. Do schools buy AppleCare? What happens to out-of-warranty repairs, in particular batteries wearing out? Will school insurance cover accidental loss, damage, theft?

Had iBooks 2 and iBooks Author been released back in 1996, when CD-ROMs were still a pretty neat idea, I would be writing a very different article. But today, when Apple are trying to claim that twenty-year-old ideas represent a “reinvention” of the textbook, I am less impressed. Schiller, see me after school. Grade: C-. Really must try harder.

[This article first appeared in TidBITS]

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1

The S stands for…same? The iPhone 4S review

Posted by steve on Jan 9, 2012 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, international, New Zealand, Reviews

The iPhone 4S was never going to be an easy piece of kit to review. Rarely has there been a more anticipated, and then more disparaged, hardware release from Apple. The original iPhone, unveiled five years ago today by Steve Jobs in a presentation now hailed as his finest on-stage hour, spoken of as though it were a sacrament and not a trade announcement, was Apple’s response to years of pleas from the company’s devotees (odd, really, to think of a company — a business, a for-profit entity — having devotees, but there you go…), and was hailed as little short of miraculous when it was finally handed down from on high. By way of contrast, the Motorola ROKR was pointlessness embodied in silicon — a device longed for by nobody, and loved by fewer; I’m simply not willing to do the research, but I strongly suspect that even the Zune, Microsoft’s turd-brown adventure in futility, sold better than the ROKR. Even Steve Jobs struggled to find anything beyond “It’s really nice.”

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

The iPhone 4S, on the other hand, threatened to be little more than a small-to-medium-sized bucketful of meh. The iPhone 4, its immediate predecessor, was an almost obnoxiously successful device, and so the Apple rumour mill (an actual mill, by the way — when it’s not cranking out rumours, it grinds the flour that goes into the artisanal breads used for the unicorn-burger sandwiches upon which senior Apple executives lunch), obviously, decided that it had to be replaced. And it had to be replaced by an iPhone 5. For reasons that were never even remotely apparent, there was something frankly totemic about the number 5. The new iPhone simply had to be the iPhone 5. What, exactly, the iPhone 5 would be, or do, or look like, was secondary. Features? 5. Appearance? 5. Spec? 5. So long as the new phone had the magic digit in its name, it could be a rotary-dial device with a ten-foot spiral cord coming out of the kitchen wall.

And so, on October 4th, Tim Cook announced the iPhone 4S. It would have any number of very, very impressive features. The new camera, for example, would have an eight-megapixel resolution, up from the previous model’s five, with a five-element lens instead of four. The processor would be a dual-core A5 chip, not a single-core A4. Bluetooth would be the new, exciting version 4.0, not the 2.1+EDR of the iPhone 4. And, of course, there would be Siri, the little person inside the phone.

But it wasn’t an iPhone 5. The magic number was simply nowhere to be seen. 4S? What did the S stand for? Since the 4S looked all but identical to the 4 (the giveaway, by the way, is the absence, on the 4S, of a black line by the headphone jack), how could a fanboy show off his new toy? What, after all, is the sense in paying hundreds of upgrade dollars if your new gadget doesn’t scream “I’m new, I’m expensive and my owner is, ipso facto, better than you?” The iPhone 4S is an upgrade to the iPhone 4 — a compelling and persuasive upgrade, to be sure, but an upgrade, not a new model.

There was, as was repeatedly pointed out during the fallout from Apple’s failure to deliver something called the iPhone 5, a precedent to this naming scheme. The third iteration of the iPhone, the 3GS, looked essentially identical to its predecessor, the 3G, and nobody, at the time, used the 3GS as evidence that the world was about to come to an end. But the iPhone 4S, not being the iPhone 5, was destined to fail, apparently — and promptly turned out to be one of the fastest-selling smartphones in the admittedly rather short history of the class.

So I bought one. Apple released the 4S on 11th November last year, and I picked mine up that morning from the Vodafone shop in Papakura. I was ready for a new phone — I had considered an iPhone 4 until I discovered the contract-breaking fee Vodafone wanted from me for upgrading, and my 3GS was starting to show its age slightly. Despite the disappointing plans available in New Zealand, I signed up for a 24-month contract and took my new toy home.

I like the design. I was never overly enamoured of the styling of the 3G/3GS models, which always felt, to my sensibilities, just a little plasticky. There is clearly a reason why Apple decided to retain the 4′s design for the 4S — it looks right. It doesn’t always feel that right, mind — it’s a thoroughly beautiful device, but it feels rather thin in the hand, and so, while I very much like the look of the thing, it feels better in the rather natty case my daughter bought for me.

The screen, of course, is stunning. It is bright, and sharp, and clear, and lovely. It features the 960×640-pixel resolution of the iPhone 4, double the resolution of earlier models and so utterly crisp that, living up to its “retina” tag, it renders images and, in particular, text so smoothly and clearly that individual pixels are simply invisible. Combined with the faster dual-core A5 processor, it offers a graphical experience unlike anything else Apple sell.

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's Techblog

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's TechBlog

The camera does the screen justice. Photos taken on the iPhone 4s’s rear-facing camera are consistently of a high standard, with the possible exception of lower-light photos, in which graininess starts to become a little more visible. But increasingly the iPhone’s camera, once dismissed as an afterthought bolted on to the original iPhone, has now become a realistic alternative to a separate point-and-shoot.

The real fun of the iPhone 4S starts when you fire up Siri. Once all the silly games like telling your phone to beam you up (“WiFi or 3G?”) or to close the pod-bay doors (“Really? Again?”) are out of the way, actually using voice activation suddenly becomes something more than just a gimmick. The iPhone has supported voice commands for years, but only with Siri has this become meaningly useful. I’ve always been leery of claims of voice recognition on computers — it tends to work tolerably if you’re a TV news anchorman from Nebraska, or possibly a continuity announcer on Radio 4, but my northern vowels have always confounded such systems. But I’ve been extensively impressed with Siri. With rare exceptions, it understands not only the words I say (it’s clearly been watching Coronation Street), but also the meaning behind them, and so simple tasks like sending my wife a text message (“Tell my wife that…” is all the syntax I need) or setting a reminder (“Remind me to…”) become part of what I’m doing rather than something that requires me to stop what I’m doing, mess with my phone, and then carry on.

Siri on the iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

Siri on the iPhone 4S — Oh, will the hilarity never end?

Siri’s anthropomorphising of the iPhone raises an interesting philosophicolinguistic question. My wife, being American, uses the American English setting for Siri, and so her phone answers her using an American woman’s voice. I, having had the enormous good fortune to have been born in the northwest of England, use the tautologically- and somewhat meaninglessly-named British English setting, and so my iPhone talks to me with the voice of a bloke from the home counties of England. (There is a third English option, Australian English; the default setting for an iPhone 4S bought in New Zealand is British. Of course.) So is Siri a he or a she? Such are the things that keep a technopundit awake at night.

So all is right with the iPhone 4S, then? Well, no. There is a flaw, a very major flaw, with the phone. Its battery life is, frankly, dreadful. And this is odd, since even better battery life than the iPhone 4 was touted by Tim Cook as one of the 4S’s big selling points. But I struggle to get a single day of moderate usage out of mine. I’ve had it replaced once (and that was a struggle), and my replacement phone isn’t a massive amount better. I’ve never managed the 7 hours of video, or 8 hours of talk time, that Apple advertise; I certainly don’t see the “truly better battery life” advertised on the Vodafone website. Apple’s release of iOS5.0.1 (featuring both interCaps and multiple decimal points) was supposed to address this issue, but, on my phone at least, hasn’t. A complete restore to factory defaults improved battery life somewhat, but neither completely alleviated the problem nor actually allowed me to use the features I paid for on my new iPhone — hardly a success on either count, then.

But I’ll stick with my iPhone 4S. I’m happy with it. There will be an iPhone 5 released one day, I’m sure. But until then, the iPhone 4S, despite its lack of the magic number 5, is a strong update to an inordinately successful product.

Rating: ★★★★★

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3

Making power while the sun shines

Posted by steve on Aug 26, 2011 in Hardware, international, network, New Zealand, Personal

Tech, let us not forget, is not simply limited to Apple and the internet. You could be forgiven, to be fair, from reading this blog, for thinking that the world of technology begins in Cupertino and ends with the ‘net. But my most recent tech project is possibly the most spectacularly techie I’ve ever done. And it has no specifically Apple element in it, although it does involve the Web.

As has been documented quite extensively elsewhere, I moved a couple of years ago to New Zealand, where I find life to be, in so very many ways, a thoroughly pleasant experience. One of the few entries, however, in the debit column is the cost of living, and one of the most significant aspects of this headache is the price of electricity. While I’d never wish to return to living in Florida, among the few aspects of life there that I miss is the low, low cost of electricity.

As I said, we’re not going back, and so we — the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe and I — decided that we needed to find a way of reducing our monthly spend on electricity. Back there, a unit — a  kilowatt-hour or KWh — cost, typically, around 8¢. Here, it’s more like 23¢. This does not, of course, please us, particularly when we were paying for electricity to heat our home. But what does please us is the abundance of sunlight that streams down on New Zealand much of the year, and so we have, finally, commissioned our very own solar-power installation.

The system is fairly straightforward. On our north-facing roof (this being the southern hemisphere), we have sixteen 190-watt solar panels. What this means, then, is that when the sun shines, and especially when the sun shines directly on the panels, we can expect to see up to 3KW of electricity being generated. Of course, we don’t expect to be getting that much power constantly, and, of course, we only get peak output when the sun is high in the sky, but we’re still optimistic that we’ll see plenty of power being generated.

The panels feed a 3KW grid-tied inverter, which takes the DC output from the photovoltaic panels and converts it to AC. This is essential for two rather critical reasons. Firstly, our home is, like most homes, an AC installation, full of appliances that are designed to take a 240V AC input. Secondly, and this is a rather cool and groovy consideration, the national grid in New Zealand is also a 240V AC system.

The practical upshot is simple. During the day, when our panels are generating a stream of as much as 3KW of power, whatever we need is used to power the house. Any surplus is sent off to the grid. When the sun either goes down or hides behind a cloud or two, then any shortfall is supplied by the grid. Meridian Energy, our new power supplier, will give us 23¢ for each unit we sell them — the same price they charge us for electricity they generate. In effect, we’re using the grid as our battery, storing any surplus we crank out during the day so that we can then use it back up at night.

So far we’ve had the system running for three days, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen. It’s late winter, or, if today is any measure, very early spring in northern New Zealand. We’ve bought about fifteen units from the grid, generated a dozen, and of that dozen sold five back. In other words, we’ve used, in total, about 22 units today, but only actually paid for ten. That’s a positive step; when the months and months of golden sunshine that characterise a New Zealand summer roll around, we expect to be, on a daily basis, net exporters, and, if we’ve done our calculations right, we expect that, over a year, what we buy from the grid should be, within a significant figure or two, pretty much what we sell back.

And let’s not forget the Web aspect. The inverter that converts our solar array’s DC output to an appliance-and-grid-friendly AC also contains a monitoring system and a web server, which, as soon as it was up and running, I patched into my own home server system, so it can be monitored worldwide. My very own personal power station is now online at threelionstech.com:81 — take a look at how much electricity we’re not paying for!

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Paying by the Bit: Internet access in New Zealand

Posted by steve on Jan 17, 2010 in international, internet, network, New Zealand, Personal

For reasons that would take too long to explain here, I moved to New Zealand about six months ago. I brought my life with me, including, among goods and chattels more varied than I had realized, my trusty Mac mini, which has been doing sterling duty as a Web and mail server for a year or more. My life also includes a wife and daughter, and they, not surprisingly, came with me too.

This has been an almost entirely unqualified success. The people in New Zealand are friendly, the food is astonishing, and the wine is spectacular. But, even in God’s Own Country, nothing is perfect. New Zealand is a truly splendid place to live in many, indeed almost all, regards. But for a techie – and I am, quite unashamedly and unabashedly, one of that number – there are definite quibbles, of which by far the largest is bandwidth, or the lack thereof.

When I lived in America, I was undeniably spoiled, as many Americans tend to be. Life, however shallow it may have been in other regards when one lives in Florida, was certainly easy from a connectivity point of view. My home office had a broadband connection with, as I simply took for granted, took for my birthright, unlimited data. I could slurp down, and throw up, all the data I wanted. The Internet was mine, all of the time.

But when we signed up for our New Zealand connection, we were stunned – stunned, I say! – to discover that the Internet, in New Zealand, is a highly limited and finite resource. We went from “all you can download” to “you get 20 GB a month, you’ll pay $100 a month, and you’ll be grateful for it” in the time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to Auckland (which is, now I come to think about it, a horrendously long time). This was a most atrocious imposition for the Internet junkies that my wife and daughter had become (not me, though, of course – I was far too virtuous, too self-restrained). For all that New Zealand had to offer, the narrowness of its Internet pipes was simply intolerable.

We opted for the “double your data” option (and the additional $30 per month that wasn’t optional), but we still find ourselves limited by 40 GB per month. I check the online usage-meter every few days (using, in the process, a few more precious bytes; oh, the cruel, vicious, bitter irony!), and issue imprecations to Wife and Daughter, reminding them that Facebook is a luxury, not an absolute necessity; they, as addicts always do, try to justify their endless status-checking as being entirely reasonable, indeed essential. I calculate the bandwidth usage of Skype and of YouTube; I flinch when I see Daughter download another Mary-Kate and Ashley movie from iTunes (that’s not really a bandwidth issue; that’s just on general principles – I’d cringe if that were happening if we had a free and entirely unlimited T3 connection direct to the trans-Pacific backbone). I have developed new and careful Internet habits: I use the “Open link in new window” option if I think there’s any possibility that I might want to visit a second link from the same page, to avoid potentially having to load the original page a second time, and Apple Mail no longer checks automatically every minute – each check uses several dozens of bytes, I’m sure, and they all add up. I even avoid visiting Japanese or Chinese sites, conscious of two-byte character sets using more than their fair share of bandwidth.

I check my Google Analytics numbers with conflicted emotions: every page view for our various blogs and online presences is, on the one hand, a cause for celebration – more visits, more revenue, more Internet fame and glory. On the other hand, those page views are also an occasion for more hand-wringing, since they were served up from my Mac mini, over my desperately and mercilessly limited Internet connection. I post photography from the beautiful country we now call home, but wince when I see that I’ve had visits to my site. Even the very act of visiting the Google Analytics Web site eats up a handful of kilobytes that I can scarce afford. Even writing this article is a painful experience; while the catharsis of venting about the primitivity of our connection is undeniably therapeutic, every adjective, every atom of invective, every single character I devote to letting the world know how abjectly deprived we are is one fewer byte that can be used elsewhere.

The reason for this caution is simple. As soon as we reach our allocated 40 GB – think about that for a second; it’s only a gig and a third per day, and the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe, with whom I share everything, including my bandwidth, is a Web designer – a Gollum-like finger, somewhere in a dungeon buried deep in darkest Auckland, reaches out in the gloom, flicks a switch, and says “It’s dial-up for you. Your bandwidth is mine, it’s mine, my precioussss.” And that’s it. We’re reduced to an Amish connection, one so slow it would be more efficient to hand-write packets of data and strap them to the legs of carrier pigeons. Web pages load – if they load – in minutes, rather than seconds. YouTube is a pipe dream. Downloads, well, downloads don’t. There has been much discussion around the blogosphere in the last month about when the first decade of the 21st century will end. Here in New Zealand that discussion is academic – we’re still, at least in terms of Internettery, stuck back in the 1990s. My connection today is so slow that I half-expect to hear the dolphin-screech of a modem actually dialing in to Vodafone as I try to connect, and I’m grateful that I’m not on deadline for this article. Looking at the cave paintings of Lascaux would represent a faster data transfer than the one I’m hobbled with right now.

I have, I would like to stress, been more than diligent in my attempts to figure out where our precious data might be going. My first thought was Skype, given that Daughter spends much of her time video-chatting with friends back in the Northern Hemisphere. I installed iStat Menus; as far as I could tell, a two-way video conference was using only around 120 KBps. But Vodafone’s (for they are our current Internet provider) online “check your usage” tool was reporting that there were days when we used as much as 6.5 GB of data. The day we reached this number (our record so far, by the way) was a school day – I doubt, then, that Daughter’s Skyping can be the culprit (she would have needed 15 hours of non-stop chatting, and while she’s good, even she’s not that good).

I suspected that it might be my server. I was reluctant to give up running my own server after moving to New Zealand because I’ve localized a handful of my domains – mccabe.net.nz, threelions.co.nz, astralgraphics.co.nz – and it’s hard to find U.S.-based hosting services that handle .nz domains. I host my personal site, stevemccabe.net, as well as my clients’ sites, through a European hosting-and-reselling service, but they don’t offer anything in the Kiwi domain space, so I’ve bought my domains through GoDaddy. I’ve become familiar with GoDaddy’s DNS setup system, and so, frankly, it’s just convenient to register with them and then host myself. That said, GoDaddy’s pricing structure for hosting is Byzantine beyond belief (I’ve had clients in the past want me to set up their sites on GoDaddy – oh, the power of advertising, especially if it involves scantily clad ladies with large chests – and I now make it a condition of service that I provide hosting as well as design) and life was so much easier when I knew that I had all the Internet connectivity I wanted.

So I looked at the traffic stats on my server. This was a bittersweet experience because on the one hand, no, I wasn’t ploughing through my data, which was good, but on the other hand, this meant that my sites weren’t getting the traffic I would have liked. Still, at least that was another possible culprit struck from the list.

I issued the sternest of imprecations to my girls, and, to all intents and purposes, stopped using the InterWebs. But no matter how much we cranked back our usage, we still found that we were using – or, at the very least, we were being reported as using – at least several hundred megabytes a day.

It was time to talk to Vodafone. I contacted them several times, and received several different bogus explanations: I had viruses (_ahem_, my network is Apple-only), I had moochers (WPA2 password, a house built of brick, a large garden) – basically, it was my fault, one way or another. It certainly couldn’t be Vodafone’s fault. I pushed a little further. I was told to install a data tracker – I was even sent Vodafone’s recommended monitor, SurplusMeter. I installed it across my network, and it reported, of course, that I was using monstrous amounts of data. The reason was simple – it meters not only wide-area, but also local-area network traffic. My iMac, for example, was pushing through megabyte after megabyte, even though I had no applications open at all. Well, none that would use the Internet.

Except iTunes. But I wasn’t downloading anything. What I was doing was streaming music to my AirPort Express. SurplusMeter was recording every last packet that went out of the data port it was charged with monitoring – in this case, my AirPort card. I called Vodafone again, and explained that the numbers SurplusMeter was reporting were meaningless. They said I should shut down my local network for a day and see what my numbers were like. I did – and on that day my wife’s iMac managed not to report a single bit going in or out. Not bad for a Web designer who telecommutes between New Zealand and Florida.

Vodafone’s next suggestion was that we had a line fault. This was a possibility – I live in a very old house (we think it’s pre-war, but we’re not sure which war; my money’s on the Boer War) – and one of the call-centre people I spoke to noticed that, while a DSL modem typically reconnects four or five times a day, mine had already reconnected over a dozen times – and I still hadn’t finished my first cup of coffee. They assured me that they would look into this, but in the meantime I’d need to disconnect my phone line (a service, mind you, that I pay for) for a day in case there was a problem with my DSL filters. This may, or may not, have been the problem; I have no way of knowing. Maybe they’re still running tests. At the very least, they haven’t replied.

Finally, I wrote to Russell Stanners, CEO of Vodafone NZ, at the end of last month. A week or so later, I got a phone call from Vodafone, and, after a long chat, the rep who called me (also called Russell; hmm…) agreed to waive the $199 early termination fee and release me from the one-year contract that we would have been bound to until June 2010.

We’re switching to TelstraClear. I’m not doing this because they’re particularly brilliant, but because they do one thing that Vodafone don’t – instead of dialing us back to pecking-out-bits-on-a-Morse-Code-tapper speeds, they’ll keep on selling us more gigabytes. I’m willing to pay for a service (especially a service that I actually receive), but the idea that I only get my 40 gigabytes, and, regardless of whose fault it is, that’s it, I’m cut off like a naughty schoolboy, well, that really chafes.

So now we’re waiting. Our Internet connection went back to last-millennium speeds after only a fortnight this month, so we’re struggling – some evenings we can’t tell whether we’re offline, or just really slow. And although I signed up to TelstraClear over a week ago, I just had a phone call from one of their reps letting me know that, because of the Christmas and midsummer holiday backlog, they won’t flip our switch for another week.

I’ll be emailing this article off to TidBITS World HQ shortly. I have no idea when they may get it. The Word document that contains this piece is 41 KB, which, at my current Internet speeds, could take until March to send. It might be quicker for me to save it to a CD, swim to California with the disc between my teeth, walk across the country, and hand it to Adam Engst personally.

[This article first appeared in TidBITS]

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