Saturday, August 23, 2014

ptel Real Paygo vs. H2O with data

We’ve had the kids on H20 Wireless, an AT&T MVNO, for two years. The only change over that time has been H2O extending the post-recharge expiration time from 60 days to 90 days — so we’ve been paying $40 a year for the boys minimal voice and text use (no data). Our daughter costs a bit more, maybe $60-$70 a year.

H2O worked well for us, despite the minimalist customer service. Recently, however, we had need of limited data services for our #1 son (primarily for Find Friends). With iOS 7’s awkward cellular data control settings we think we might be able to make 100MB/month work. I couldn’t get data working on H2O and got the impression (was told?) that they only did date for the postpaid plans - so I looked into ptel, a T-mobile MVNO (below).

I ended up switching #1 to ptel and I’ve summarized what I learned below. In the meantime, however, H2O now allows data use for iPhones [1]. I believe this is new, I learned of it via chat support as a last step check prior to migrating our daughter to Ptel [2]. The data service requires installing a new carrier profile from an ominous looking and quite mysterious web site: http://www.locusapi.com/pcs/apn.php.

I installed that carrier profile on an AT&T/H2O iPhone 4s and an AT&T/H2O iPhone 4. After the profile update the 4s gets 4G data and the 4 gets 3G. This is rather nice, since my #2 son has built up an $100+ credit over the past two years (it used to cost more than $40/year and he rarely texts and never phones). H2O Wireless rates are 5c/min, 5c/text, 10c/MB — but the real beauty is the 90 day expiration rates for even a $10 purchase. That’s the longest low cost expiration I’ve seen.

As I mentioned, I found this out after moving #1 son to ptel (he used to be on H2O). Enabling data on H2O stopped the migration for the other kids, but I’ll share what I’ve learned about Ptel. They’re a t-mobile MVNO, which means AT&T phones get lower data rates — 3G or E rather than 4G [4]. They also don’t support Google Voice voicemail on their PAYGO (prepaid) plan and they say “you will be able to send MMS from your iPhone, however, receiving MMS may require additional programming, which can be found through a simple search on the Internet.” [3]. On the other hand ptel is cheaper than H2O wireless for text — 2c/text rather than 5c/text. The MB rate of 10c/MB looks the same as H2O, but ptel says they “do not round up your data usage”. 

Both ptel and H2O have domestic long distance included in standard rate, but our kids only talk on phone when we call them because they didn’t answer a text.

Overall ptel is quite competitive with H2O for an AT&T iPhone — probably less expensive data and half the cost of text. On the other hand ptel gives you only 60 days of service for a $10 “Cash Top-up”, so the minimum yearly spend is $60 rather than $40. Ptel also has lower speed data and the MMS and Google Voice issues.

At the moment, now that I have data on H2O wireless, I’m keeping #2 and #3 child on H2O. On the other hand I’d already moved #1 to ptel and I’ll stay with that for the moment. Here’s are some of the things I’ve learned about ptel prepay:

  • I paid 0.00 on Amazon for a ptel SIM card. Yes, free. I think retail cost is $5.00. Comes in a nifty dual-size mode that fits 3GS or 4S.
  • We do a  “Cash Top-up” with any refill amount between $10 and $150. 
  • Unused balance from $10, $20, $30, $40 and $50 carries over for 365 days from date it was originally loaded onto the account. Unused balance from $100 carries over until depleted. To maintain your Real Paygo service, a new PIN must be loaded on/before service days expire.
  • You can turn off voice mail by working with chat operator. Our kids have no use for voice mail; they never check and it runs up fees.
  • Call 611 for support (usual)
  • #BAL# or #225# to check balance or send SMS with word BAL to 7801.
  • The web site is pretty decent, you can configure email balance alerts
  • ptel’s website says tethering is disallowed. I think it works, but it’s not economical.
  • Despite advice for CDN the iPhone 4s seemed to auto-program

Service day expiration for ptel:

  • $10 Top-Up: 60 days 
  • $20 Top-Up: 90 days 
  • $30 Top-Up: 120 days 
  • $40 Top-Up: 150 days 
  • $50 Top-Up: 180 days 
  • $100 Top-Up: 1 year

I believe when you add a Top-Up to money in the account the expiration date is actually based on the new balance starting from the time added, but I’m not sure about this. (IF you have $50 in account with 90 days left, and you add $10, does expiration date really drop to 60 days?! I am guessing it’s the balance.)

[1] AT&T iPhones can be used on H2O without unlocking — but that’s less relevant now that it’s easy to unlock a post-contract AT&T iPhone.

[2] It may not be new, I didn’t want data for them until very recently. The H2O web site used to be quite awful and support was nonexistent; they’ve recently improved the site and chat support is actually useful.

[3] Found through simple search? WTF?

[4] "You may not get 3G data speeds in all markets. Since the iPhone does not support the 1700MHz band, which we use to provide 3G, there are some markets in which the iPhone will have EDGE data speeds.” 

See also

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Security is hard - where I realize my clone backups are browsable

I rotate my backups offsite, so I encrypt the drives using 10.9’s quite good drive encryption.

Which works fine — until I realized that every user on my machine can browse those drives. OS X provides drive access on startup, and it doesn’t have a concept of user-specific access for encrypted removable drives. So, again, every user can browse them.

So that means my if my kids login to my primary machine they can browse the Carbon Copy Cloner backups [1] on that encrypted drive. Which is not good, since the backups contain the holy grail — our credentials database (Still in FIleMaker, because I like the simplicity and flexibility.)

Happily the credentials database lives on a separately encrypted disk image. In my testing the child accounts cannot view that image, even when it is mounted from my account (because the physical image lives in a folder the kids don’t have access too). They can’t view the file in the backups either — because it’s not mounted from there.

Anyway, I decided to try double-encryption. I encrypt the CCC disk images as well as the drive. In my testing the kids can browse those only if they’re mounted, which is controlled from my user account. So that’s not too bad.

Damn, but security is hard.

[1] I use Time Capsule as well — backup should always be automatic, at least daily, and involve two completely different methods. The CCC clones are backups insofar as I rotate them every week or so, and because CCC puts changed or remove files into an archive.

Update 8/18/14: This wasn’t hard to fix. I just had to change the default settings on my encrypted external drives:

Original: Ownership was ignored and everyone had read privileges

Screen Shot 2014 08 18 at 8 20 37 PM

Revised: Enabled ownership, gave everyone no access but parents and admin read & write (System/wheel/staff stuff just happened, blame weird OS X permission behavior)

Screen Shot 2014 08 18 at 8 25 35 PM

With this configuration I can do backups and restores but the kids can’t open the drive — and they can’t see drives mounted from images on the backup drive. What about if I need to do a restore to a new drive? I believe anyone with admin privileges can change permissions or ignore ownership on an attached drive.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

iPhone Cellular data -- how to get by on only 2GB a month (for two people)

Apple’s settings for controlling use of cellular data are a weird mess.

A mess because they’re scattered over many screens, and weird because one of those screens (“Cellular Settings”) starts out empty and only gets entries as various apps try to use cellular data.

Here are some screens to look at and a few changes to be sure to make if you want to control your data use (Tip: The fastest way to get to these screens is to ask Siri to take you there. For example: “Show my settings for Podcast”.

Podcast app: turn off use cellular data

(Not everyone has this Apple app installed. If you don’t see it in settings don’t worry.)

IMG 4510

iTunes and App Store: Turn off use Cellular Data

IMG 4509 

Facebook

IN Settings tap on “Settings” then look at VIDEO and set Auto-play to Wi-fi only (or off)

Background App Refresh

Siri might not find this one. Tap on Settings General and its in there.

Turn off most of these unless you REALLY want it running in the background. Few things need to do that.

IMG 4508

Cellular

This is the weird one that only shows an app AFTER it’s accessed cellular data. It also shows data used (I tapped the reset link on this page TWICE recently, so most aren’t showing anything.)

It’s weird, but it’s the most important of the bunch. Some of my big offenders are Photos, Videos, YouTube, Podcasts, iTunes Store, Hangouts, FaceTime, Evernote, Dropbox, Google Drive, Camera+, and App Store. I turn them all off for both Emily and I.

To configure this on a new phone you need to turn off WiFi, connect via cellular network, then launch every app on your phone. Then you’ll see a complete list you can edit. Every time you add a new app to your phone you have to repeat this. Yes, this is a terrible user experience. 

IMG 4511

PS. You can lock Cellular Settings in Restrictions — handy for kids on, say, Ptel. Other settings, like App Store cellular data use, can’t be locked.

iPhone cellular data - what is iTunes Accounts and why does it use so much data?

You know those people who buy a hybrid car and go crazy trying to maximize their gas mileage?

That’s how I’m getting with our AT&T data use ever since Emily and I switched to the AT&T Mobile Share + “Next” plan. It has been saving us about $50 a month [1] but our typical usage is pretty close to our 2GB limit. (If we hit the limit we pay $15 for the next GB, we’ve never used more than 2.1GB so we don’t like this.)

So we’re paying attention to data use. I’ve a post pending on the various settings to adjust [3], but in the process of researching that I ran across a mystery that’s not addressed in Apple’s documentation on their bizarre [2] cellular settings panel or the iPhone documentation. The mystery shows up in the top rank of the almost-hidden Cellular System Services list.

There you see “Exchange Accounts” — you can’t disable cellular services for these. There’s also “iTunes Accounts” - which can use many MBs of data even when you don’t buy anything on the iTunes Store and you don’t listen to iCloud Music or Podcasts over cellular. 

IMG 4514

So what are iTunes Accounts — really? 

My best guess, based on a process of elimination and occasional rumors (Google failed me on this one), is that “iTunes Accounts” is a misnomer. I think this is referring to everything in “Mail, Contacts, Calendars” that is NOT Exchange Accounts and doesn’t have an entry on the Cellular menu. On my phone that includes my iCloud Contacts, Reminders, Safari settings, Notes, Passbook, and Keychain. Like “Exchange Accounts” these can’t be set to avoid use of cellular data, you can only tweak data use in “Fetch New Data”.

So why doesn’t Apple document this? My theory is they’re too embarrassed to cop to calling this stuff “iTunes Accounts”. 

I wonder if it’s renamed in iOS 8 or if these services can have cellular data use disabled.

[1] For many people this plan is moderately more expensive than the prior plans. We’re unusual, with our usage pattern it’s a savings even after we account for the lost subsidy and all of our future phones will be unlocked.

[2] Bizarre, yeah. This menu is empty on a new phone, entries appear when data is used. You tap TWICE on the reset link to reset the data records.

[3] I think those settings are going to keep us well below 2GB by the way.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Aperture to Facebook: making images visible to Friends by default

I’d long wondered why, when I shared to Facebook from Aperture, my images were shared as ‘Only Me’.

Looks like one can change that from Facebook’s app settings:

Screen Shot 2014 07 26 at 10 30 30 AM

“Visibility of app” in this case seems to be default visibility of the item shared by app…

PS. If you turn off Facebook platform to restrict misuse of data, you also turn off all app integration and lose all app settings. Ahh, Facebook, you are at least consistent.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

iPhone with sync error: restore from iCloud fixed when restore from iTunes failed

On the eve of a big road trip my daughter’s 4S was unable to sync more than four movies - despite having 15GB of free space. As is customary with iTunes sync failures, the process completed without an error message (there are no system logs for iTunes). Despite the lack of any error notices, on the iPhone only 4 movies appeared.

When I used iTunes to view iPhone contents I saw several movies with dotted circles and faded fonts - signs of an incomplete or corrupted transfer. I couldn’t sync tv either. It looked a bit like this:

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 9 02 47 PM

I tried all manners of fixes to no avail. Finally I wiped the phone and restored from backup — but the behavior persisted. An Apple Store hardware diagnostic didn’t show any problems or error codes.

When I wiped and restored as a NEW phone I had no problems syncing movies. So the problem was being propagated in my backup.

I really didn’t want to set her up as a new user. Lost game data, lost local files, lots of configuration…. ugh. So as a last ditch measure I switched from backing up to iTunes to iCloud backup. Then I did a wipe and restored from iCloud backup. Which worked until it got to installing apps and media, then told me I had to do that from iTunes. 

After this two stage restore, from iCloud then from iTunes, I could sync movies normally.

I still suspect there’s also something wrong with the phone’s hardware, but for now it’s working normally and it does appear that a serious defect was being propagated by the iTunes backup — but not an iCloud backup.

iTunes 11.3: In Our Time podcast isn't working

I’m not sure this is a 11.3 thing or an In Our Time podcast (rss) bug - but episodes after 6/27/2014 aren’t downloading to iTunes (“The Sun” and “Mrs Dalloway” so far). I suspect an 11.3 bug related to renewal of a subscription following auto-unsubscribe; the bug was probably triggered because I was traveling for two weeks.

After having walked through the problem I suspect I could have restored functionality by toggling this setting the newish “Subscribed Off/On” setting. I suspect there’s a usability bug related to the older way of Subscribing/Unsubscribing and the newer Subscribed Off/On setting:

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 3 30 16 PM

I didn’t do that though. Instead, as described below, I reduced my exposure to Apple’s bugs by creating an external archive of the IOT Podcasts that I want to keep around.

First I showed that 11.2.2 could subscribe and re-download the new episodes, it’s easy to find these in the iTunes store:

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 1 04 21 PM

Fortunately I also track the same IOT feed in Feedbin: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/iot/rss.xml. So I was able to download the missing episodes and manually add them to iTunes. Of course these didn’t show up when I synced to my iPhone — I’d have been disappointed if they had. Apple’s routine screw-ups are rarely so easy to work around. That’s because when one adds a Podcast mp3 file by drag and drop iTunes assigns a media kind of Music:

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 1 25 01 PM

and 

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 1 25 53 PM

That worked, they now show up in my “unplayed” Playlist on both iTunes and Podcast.app. Changing Media Kind to Podcast also moves the physical file by the way.

Not surprisingly if I use Podcasts.app on my iPhone and inspect the Feed for the IOT podcast the episodes are available there for cloud download. Which suggests it is an iTunes problem.

On the iTunes side I tried resubscribing — the Subscribe button shows as available. It didn’t work though — and neither can I unsubscribe. So my iOT podcast is stuck in limbo.

I could try waiting for a new fix, but I’ve grown accustomed to Apple’s genial incompetence — it’s a kind of longstanding congenial senility [1]. It makes me feel better about the corporate setting I work in. It’s because of this pattern that I expect the first year of Photos.app (Aperture/iPhoto replacement) to be a drug-addled disaster. So instead of waiting I moved all the IOT files I could find into my file system - just as I had to do with the iBooks debacle. I did this by looking for IOT episodes in the iTunes-managed Finder folders, and also dragging and dropping from smart playlists. I made a few extra copies just to be on the safe side.

In the process of marshaling my archives I found 39 episodes I once owned and had listened to, but that Apple had kindly turned into iCloud only references somewhere along the way. Oh, Apple you are just soooo bad [2]. There’s no UI method to force download of an arbitrary set of podcasts, so I clicked the odd (UX nightmare) hidden options box 39 times (I’m sure there’s an AppleScript for this but it didn’t take long to do by hand):

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 1 57 55 PM

When all was done my external archive had 411 Podcasts over 8GB of storage. I’m reasonably confident this is the complete set, less all that Podcast/iTunes has deleted. Next I deleted my current and older IOT podcasts (BBC changed podcast attributes a few years ago) — interestingly this was a 2 step delete process, I had to delete to remove the Podcast subscription, then delete to remove the files. Then I had to track down residual files using Smart Playlist and delete those. When I was all done, however, iTunes still had dangling and invalid references to 125 IOT podcasts. I used Doug’s Super Remove Dead Tracks to clean those up. (I’m glad Doug has found a way to charge for these super scripts.)

After all of the above iTunes was cleaned up, so I then synced my iPhone. I found I was still subscribed to IOT (various flavors actually) in Podcasts.app, but I expected that. So I removed those from the iPhones and synced again. Everything was gone.

And… I still couldn’t subscribe to IOT from the Apple Store. So I manually entered the Feed (http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/iot/rss.xml) the old way:

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 3 27 42 PM

That gave me a working podcast subscription in iTunes. I turned download episodes off (since I had my archives) and delete episodes off.

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 3 30 16 PM

When I dragged in my 411 archive files iTunes recreated the old Podcast entries (presumably based on metadata I can’t easily edit), so I made sure to turn off the deadly “Delete Played Episodes” feature and leave “Subscribed” turned off.

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 3 30 16 PM

When all was done, and various duplicates removed via Finder (iTunes would not delete them) and dead tracks recleared, I had 411 files in an iTunes smart playlist restricted to only local files:

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 5 42 58 PM 

Somehow (iCloud strikes), during all of this process, iTunes retained “Last Played” dates for many of the IOT podcasts I had listened to (though Play Count was not retained). So I created another Playlist:

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 6 32 29 PM

There’s no way to test for “Last Played” is NULL, but it turns out that NULL is > 99 months as far as iTunes is concerned.

From this list I drag and drop selected files to my IOT Next Up Playlist, which I sync to my iPhone. I also created a “Partially Played” playlist that’s populated by a manually run Doug’s AppleScript. That’s where I keep note of podcasts I’ve started.

So how does it all turn out in Podcasts.app on my iPhone? 

I’m so glad you asked. Because the newest episode wouldn’t sync there. It had a “media kind” of Music. There’s no iTunes list column for Media Kind, so I created another Smart Playlist:

Screen Shot 2014 07 20 at 6 42 02 PM

Out of my 411 episodes, 16 appeared in this Playlist. Since they all shared a Media Kind of music iTunes Get Info let me change them all to Podcast.

After that I did another iPhone sync and ….

… The newest episode still wouldn’t sync! My guess is that Podcasts.app is trying to match it with something on the IOT server, and there’s a bug there that prevents display. So I deleted my local copy from iTunes, and downloaded fresh copies from the current Podcast subscription on iTunes. Then I did another sync and this time…

… They all #$#@$@ showed up. So that’s yet another bug - and for now another workaround. Tell me again how Photos is gonna be wonderful.

Just as I do with ePubs and iBooks, I’ll maintain a podcast archive outside of iTunes — while both iTunes and Apple continue their long journey into complete dementia. 

PS. My iPhone is again accumulating “Other” space — an old CloudAssets cache bug I thought was fixed but has since recurred on several of our devices.

- fn -

[1] Apple is incompetent, Google is Evil, and Microsoft is dead. Long live the 21st century!

[2] I think this happened because Apple added the “delete played episode” feature to all of my Podcasts, including those that no longer had a subscription option. I knew to fix it on current IOT subscriptions. That wasn’t good.

Apple ID associated purchase records have jumped again: partly back to my old Dev account

Every year or so I like to check which of my four known Apple IDs has my many Apple hardware purchases associated with it. Two years ago, for example, they all jumped from one Apple ID to another. I assume Apple has a very broken distributed database system, and they try to associate records based on metadata like phone number, mailing address, email addresses, etc. Move a key around, or change the matching algorithm and purchases hop.

Today I’m pleased to report that they’ve now settled into two accounts. For a while they were all with the Apple ID I use for iTunes purchases (but not for iCloud — due to technical bugs/issues with Apple’s id infrastructure). Before that they were with an old dev account. Today 3 purchases are associated with my iTunes Apple ID, zero with my iCloud Apple ID, and 17 with the old Dev account. There’s no obvious logic for which purchase has gotten which Apple ID. Note that the old dev account is never used for anything; it’s completely inactive.

I guess I better tighten up password security on the dev account. I’ll try associated a phone number with it, that ought to really mess Apple up.

If you want to know when Apple lapsed into incompetence, just track their identity management issues. (Hint: well before Cook took over.)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The iBooks Categories and Collections fiasco - and the Google Drive fix

Seriously, this might be worse than Podcasts.

iBooks for OS X

This list of Collections is editable in OS X

Screen Shot 2014 06 14 at 4 40 23 PM

This list of Categories is not. Only iBooks Store items get Categories now, all other items are Uncategorized.

Screen Shot 2014 06 14 at 4 43 05 PM

iTunes for OS X

iTunes no longer allows Category or Collection assignment or viewing by Category or Collection. It only knows Books and PDF. All materials that go to iBook.app on iOS need to pass through iTunes, there’s no Cloud sync. So they all appear in an undifferentiated mass from which one must select to sync.

Smart Playlists can be defined in iTunes using Media Kind of Book (but not PDF), but they are empty if one has moved media to iBooks for OS X.

iBooks for iOS 

Here again the Categories are fixed, they show up as the Gray items. Uncategorized show at top and anything that’s not purchased through the iBooks Store has is “uncategorized” (category is null). Wait, Collections are worse.

Photo

Here’s the list of Collections on iOS.They don’t match the $%$#% list of Collections on OS X.

Photo  1

Yeah, Really. Collections metadata doesn’t synchronize between iBooks.app for iOS and iBooks for OS X. They’re two independent sets.

I’ve read a lot lately about the glorious renaissance of post-WWDC Apple. I’ll believe it when I experience it myself. Until then … pathetic.

Update 614/2014 - How I dealt with this

A few things I learned about iBooks for OS X and iOS Google Drive

  • If you select all books, you can drag it the files to the desktop and create PDFs and ePubs with names that match what shows in iBooks. After you do this iBooks shows only Cloud purchases, including Cloud purchases for removed items.
  • Once iBooks knows about an iBook Store item there’s no way to forget it. You bought it, so you have it forever. Bit of a shame if it’s something like “How to pick up women” — and you’re a married man (or woman). So iPhone User Guide for iOS 5 is there forever.
  • If you view an iBook using iBooks.app on OS X it gets added back to the Library (copy).
  • Once you’ve enabled iBooks you can’t add ePub back into iTunes (There’s a way to do this by completely removing all traces of iBooks.app from OS X but I didn’t try that.)
  • If a PDF or ePub is present in Google Drive on iOS and you tap it, you have the option to open it in iBooks for iOS.
So this is what I’ve done …
  • I moved everything from OS X iBooks into my Mac’s file system — specifically to folders within Google Drive. So they’re available anywhere I reference Google Drive, including on iOS. I can tag items and organize those folders anyway I want, create Smart Folders and so on. Pretty powerful, though I don’t think I have access to author and other metadata.
  • On either iPhone or Mac I open items I want to read from Google Drive. They do get copied into iBooks, periodically I go into iBooks on my Mac and delete everything to clean it out.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

eBook library use 2014 - the curse of FairPlay DRM

Goes like this...

From Mac

  1. Browse public library Overdrive site.
  2. Download Adobe ePUB .ascm files. Launch to download ePUB into Adobe Digital Editions Library
  3. Right click show in finder
  4. Drag and drop file onto Mac DeDRM.app. Rename new desktop file with extension of due date.
  5. Place files on Google Drive (I use Borrowed folder)

On iPhone

  1. Open ePUB file from Google Drive.
  2. From prompt choose to open in iBooks.
  3. Read.

When done reading or at due date.

  1. Return from Adobe Library if prior to due date, otherwise expires there.
  2. Delete all the files.

This is all very annoying. Apple needs to adopt a non-FairPlay DRM process for eBooks, make it available to publishers, and give up on their $#$^#$ 30% cut.

PS. I really like iBook.app as an app, but Overdrive supports Kindle. I may try the Kindle app if it works with the Library books.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Unable to remove item from Time Machine Exclude list - switch to user account

If you click the Options button in Time Machine preferences you can specify items to exclude from backup. I’ve found it can be impossible to remove those excluded items; even deleting com.apple.TImeMachine plist (preference) files didn’t remove the item. It seemed to go away, but on return it was back.

It appears to be a permissions problem in Mavericks. I’d added the exclusion from a non-admin account, and I was working on Time Machine preferences from my admin account. I had to switch to the non-admin account to remove the item. I don’t know how to fix this if the originating account no longer exists. I don’t think Time Machine is storing this string in its preference file.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

ViewTV At-163 OTA Digital TV recorder - my review

Remember the great American Digital TV Transition of 2008? Our elected representatives explained that while some would see more channels and far better image quality, those who did not have “a properly oriented, high-gain antenna mounted 30 feet in the air outside” would lose free access to broadcast television. They told us that, sadly, a combination of patents, the DMCA and the burgeoning power of cable TV would vastly increase the cost of time-shifting broadcast (OTA) television. They hung their heads and admitted they were completely corrupt …

Ok, so they didn’t say any of those things. We had to learn most of them the hard way, though we knew about the corruption bit. I’d mostly ignored television from 1997 to 2013, so my light bulb only lit up when I bought a Samsung Smart TV and learned that the USB digital output was disabled [1]. Suddenly, everything made sense.

Ever since then I’ve been looking for a sane way to record OTA TV without devoting my life to hacking MythTV. Sure, we could afford to pay the monthly Tivo tax (which presumably goes to the cartel patent holders), but this kind of thing bugs me.

Alas, this is harder than you’d think. A legitimate manufacturer is going to be hit with the patent/cartel tax — turning a $50 product into a $600 (over 5 years) monster. There’s no Chinese market to draw from, I assume they just stick a USB device in their TVs. There are several startups that do sort-of-interesting time shifting things with OTA DTV, but none of them connect easily to, you know, a television. Presumably to dodge the cartel they have to connect to everything BUT a television (so you use AirPlay to get signals from an iPad to a TV).

The only source is going to be shady, something from China sold under a range of disposable brand names for a few months at a time. That’s what I found on Amazon, the home of things that fell off the back of container ships. Alas, the quality was incredibly low — it’s easily the crummiest product I’ve bought in decades. Even so, I was tempted to keep it. It kind of worked…

Amazon.com: John G … s review of Viewtv At-163 ATSC Digital TV Converter…

This is a FASCINATING device in so many ways. It is pure Chinese manufacturing of absolutely the lowest possible quality (one of the four base pads was missing), but it’s only of interest to the US market. The rest of the world doesn't need this -- they simply stick USB devices into their TVs and record directly. It's only in the US that a combination of cartel patents and corrupt politicians makes recording of OTA TV extremely expensive and difficult. When we buy a Samsung TV, for example, the recording features are disabled.

In China this is probably used to convert digital signals for the few analog TVs left in China. It probably costs $10 to make, including what I assume is a very low quality (risky!) internal switched power supply (no power brick). In the US it's sold, somewhat covertly, as a low cost no-subscription simple digital TV recorder.

The good news is that if you ignore the manual, and work through the incredibly crude displays hacked to to show English labels, and convert from the strings on the weird remote to the screen, it's not hard to configure this. You can even set up the antenna as pass-through so the signal goes to the ViewTV and is also available for TV input. It does record (!) and you can play back the recording. It even shows a list of available TV shows.

The bad news is that the tuner in my device sucked. OTA Digital TV barely works in many US settings -- we need top notch tuners. The one in our Samsung Smart TV gets barely enough channels to meet my son's sporting thirst. The tuner in this device missed most of them.

I also worry about the internal switched power supply. This ships with all the usual inspection/certification labels, but I'd be amazed if any of them were legitimate.

If only they'd shaved their profit margin a bit. It costs nothing to build what's in this box. We actually own a decent (Chinese made of course) Digital TV converter box that cost $45 — it’s much higher quality than the “ViewTv" with a far better tuner.

I hope someone else will do that -- but we have to remember the reason these features are disabled from US TVs. Anyone doing this properly is going to be hit by the US OTA patent cartel -- and forced to charge high subscription fees.

There may not be anything better in the near future. So if you have a strong antenna and good signals, and you're feeling lucky, it's worth a shot. Just be ready to return, and if you're feeling nervous leave it unplugged when you're not using it.

I tried to make this thing work, but the tuner was just too crummy. I had to return it.

Sniff.

- fn -

[1] The only explanations I’ve read are something like "Disclaimer: Only European TVs have USB recording. US models have the feature disabled due to legal issues.” I presume the “legal issues” are DMCA and patents. Explaining the full story would take a real journalist — would be a fun article for, say, The Atlantic. Might run into some dangerous characters though…

See also:

Update: I updated my 12/2013 Samsung Smart TV post with notes on hacking it to restore recording functionality.

Using your Apple bluetooth keyboard with your iPad or iPhone: Unpair it first

A friend and I were debugging a Bluetooth problem with his iPhone 4S [1] and we didn’t have a Bluetooth peripheral to test with. So I tried using my iMac’s Apple bluetooth keyboard - but I couldn’t get it to show up.

It turns out there are some tricks to that, but my Google searches found mostly garbage [2]. The trick is you have to unpair the keyboard from your Mac before the iOS device can see it. The easiest way to do this is from your Mac’s Bluetooth Preferences. Click on the Keyboard icon, hit the X to remove it.

Screen Shot 2014 05 17 at 11 25 11 AM

Now it will be visible. Once it’s paired to the iPhone I assume you’ll have to unpair it again — but I didn’t research that (we couldn’t fix his problem) [1]. It’s easy to associated an unpaired keyboard with an iMac, just shows up in the Bluetooth prefs. (But if you do unpair, it’s nice to have a USB kb around just in case).

The other way to do this is Force Unpairing. Search is always easier when you know the answer, I found this well described in a Mark Wagner post

On the Apple bluetooth keyboard, press and hold the power button. After about 5 seconds the keyboard power indicator (LED) will begin to flash indicating the keyboard is in pairing mode.
To force pairing: Keep pressing the power button as you continue.

The Mac unpair is faster and smoother, but Force unpair is a nice trick to know.

Once I knew the answer I found some good references on this topic. Note that the best references are either from Apple Support or from quirky individually produced blogs that you’ve mostly never heard of. Which has to do with why Google search sucks now [1]. They all do a good job saying similar things:

[1] Reset Network settings didn’t work — I think his old Flash memory has some bad spots. A wipe and restore might do the trick. Maybe I’ll write about that.

[2] I have a theory (of course) about why Google’s search now sucks and why Microsoft and Apple could change the game — if they want to. Maybe I’ll write about that - it’s kind of a fun ecology and AI story. For now, restrict your Google searches using the “site:support.apple.com” operator and/or site:superuser.com and/or site:http://apple.stackexchange.com/ or create your own Custom Search engine. I’ve added some of the above link sources to my own custom search engine for Mac searches.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why Facebook won't sort the News Feed by time (Most Recent) - and how to live with it

Facebook has once again taken another small step to making it more difficult to sort one’s News Feed by time (most recent). On their premier platform, Facebook.app for iOS, they’ve pushed the “Most Recent” option down into an obscure “more” setting, under “Feeds”. On the web app it’s moved to a drop down on the left side (News Feed) and always reverts to “Top Stories”.

My friends are upset. They want to see Feed items by date. Almost everyone does. So why does Facebook do this? And what can  you do about it?

Facebook does this because they feel a desperate need for growth. They’re so big they can’t grow by adding bodies, so they need to extract more money from the bodies they have. They have a few ways to do this, but they seem particularly keen on charging Page owners (Ex: Pepsi Cola, Minnesota Inline Skate Club, City of Saint Paul, Avalon Charter School [1]) for Top Page status. If you think about it, this means users cannot be encouraged to sort the Timeline by date. If we were able to sort by date, there’d be no incentive for Page owners to Pay to Play. [2]

So it doesn’t matter that most users prefer to sort by date, the Top Page sort is here to stay. We might as well get used to it.

So what can you do?

Well, you could switch to Twitter. Except Twitter’s share price is looking ugly. Their user base is flat and increasingly old. They stick ads in the stream now, and that’s only going to get worse. Then there’s Google +, but then you’d join an entity so Evil it makes Facebook seem the soul of innocence. Besides, when GooNet goes sentient you’ll be the first to be absorbed (by a few milliseconds anyway).

Or you could sign up with App.net, the elite version of Twitter. A calm culture of mutual respect, free of ads or commercial exploitation, sustained only by membership fees. That’s where I hang out. Too bad it’s now post-mortal (on life support, though we believe in resurrection).

Yeah, there’s pinterest and others like that, but they’re all going to die, be bought by Facebook, or turn into similarly evil shadows.

So you can’t leave. What can you do to make the News Feed less annoying?

First of all, unlike all the Pages that you don’t love [3]. When they’re gone the Top Stories are more likely to be ones you like, and they’ll be sorted roughly by date.

Secondly, if there are people or non-profit Pages (the non-profit bit is important) you do want to see, be sure to “Like” their stuff. That brings them up on the News Feed; you feed now behaves more like Most Recent.

I think Facebook may also use relationship information in their Top Stories algorithm (it changes!). It’s probably worth telling Facebook who you care about - their posts may (for now) show as Top Stories. If you visit someone’s FB home in the web app, you can change “friends” to “Close Friends”. If you’re a real guru you can find the special Friends List and Family List and add names there.

Ok, so far so good, but now it gets interesting. [4] In the original version of this post I didn’t distinguish between Liking non-profit and for-profit Pages. Later, when I thought about this more, I realized the most obnoxious feature of my News Feed is that it’s now infested with for-profit Pages that my Friends “Like”. (yeah, lots of Title case concepts here). It’s diabolically clever [4]; everything a Friend of mine Likes turns into a Top Rated de facto ad in my Feed disguised as a Friend item. It’s as though my Friends had been captured by evil brain-eating Fungi (I love eco-econ.)

So given this new move by our friendly Facebook Ceti eel [5] is there any hope left? Well, we do have to remember that Facebook doesn’t really want to kill us. It just wants all our money. So there are ways to manage this as well. Most importantly, we shouldn’t ever Like for-profit Page posts unless we want all our friends to see them as ads. So in addition to Unliking for-profit Pages that you personally don’t love, you need to avoid Liking the posts of the Pages you do love. [3]

Think of this as a (hah-hah) little game we play. For Profit (sponsored) Pages are … dangerous. Like these Pages carefully, Unlike often, and never Like the Posts (unless you want to be a Ceti-eel).

Additionally, for the keen gamer, there are things one can do to get rid of some of the Friend-masked ads. In Facebook web you can tap on the the inverted caret next to the “Like Page” button and hide the source as though it were an ad — because it is.

Screen Shot 2014 05 17 at 8 55 30 AM

On the iOS app it takes more taps. You start with the inverted caret, the “I don’t want to see this” and navigate taps until you get the same sort of “hide all”. Fun!

Or you can keep playing the “where did they put Most Recent” today game… 

- fn -

[1] Facebook /web has a Pages Feed. You’ve probably never seen it, but that’s where you can find all the Pages updates that don’t make it into your timeline. I love my Pages — nonprofits, city government, clubs, bicycling advocacy. Great stuff.

[2] BTW, Facebook may be kicking this up a notch. My Page feed today had “Studio 110 Salon” as something I’d “Liked”. I don’t think so.

[3] This is what’s known as an unanticipated or perverse consequence. Facebook certainly doesn’t want you to Unlike Pages or stop Liking sponsored Page posts. Tough on them, but they’ll evolve an adaptation.

[4] I’ve revised this from my original post; the more I thought about this topic the more interesting it became. Facebook’s user relationship are a great example of 21st century eco-econ - an uneasy relationship that veers from mutualism to parasitism. Facebook’s diabolical machinations fascinate.

[5] Intestinal parasites have been used to treat inflammatory bowel disease.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

iMessage "waiting for activation" - things you can try while mold grows on your fur

Hundreds of billions in the bank, $70 million gift for a new head of retail operations, and Apple still can’t make iMessage work. Maybe Apple needs to pay their top execs a lot less make up for their employee wage suppression cartels — because it’s clear they have a morale problem.

Yeah, I’m tired of seeing “waiting for activation” on the kids iPhones whenever we have to switch SIM cards or restore from backup. This time around it was both a 3GS running iOS 6.x and a 4S running 7.1.1.

I walked through Apple’s Troubleshooting FaceTime and iMessage activation. I love the final step: ”If you’re still unable to resolve the symptoms above after performing these troubleshooting steps, please contact Apple for assistance.” I guess they mean through the Apple Support Page or the Apple store. 

Apple’s steps didn’t work, but this time “reset network settings” worked for the 3GS device. (I’m still working on the 4s. I might just give it overnight.)

Other things you can try:

  • In Settings:Phones confirm your number is listed as phone number. (It used to show up at top of Contacts, but I no longer see that on any of our phones.)
  • While “waiting” send and receive iMessages to another iPhone (you typically can until activation fails, then you’re stuck) or to a Mavericks or Mountain Lion machine.
  • Play around with FaceTime — iMessage and FaceTime activation seem to be linked.
  • Make sure Date/Time are correct
  • In Settings:Messages:Send & Receive try removing all email addresses, so it’s just phone number.
  • Flip in and out of Airplane Mode
  • Sign out and in of iCloud account

Note Apple says you need a SIM card and SMS services to activate iMessage. That wasn’t always true but it may be true now.

Oh, and be sure to go to Apple iPhone Feedback and tell ‘em what you think of iMessage activation.

Update: I couldn’t get the 4S working tonight, but I was swapping SIMs so I gave up. Maybe it would have worked in time. I wonder if Apple’s iMessage system depends in some way on carrier cooperation, and if the carriers aren’t always cooperative.