skippy

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iSleuth

Tess lost her iPhone on Tuesday night.

She'd purchased this iPhone used with her own money, so the loss of the phone was a hit financially as well as a detriment to her lifestyle. Tess wasn't sure if she simply misplaced it, or maybe a friend had collected it for her.

On Wednesday morning she used Find My iPhone to discover that it was several blocks away from our house, either in an apartment building or perhaps somewhere along the wooded banks of the Alum Creek. Angela called the cops and explained the situation. The nice officer went over to the area in question, but wasn't able to identify which apartment might contain the phone. Interestingly, the phone's icon went dark on the Find My iPhone map about the time that the cop got nearby, so presumably someone had turned it off.

When Tess came home from school Wednesday, we were able to get some more details, and do some more investigating. She did have a PIN code activated, so it was unlikely that anyone had used the phone to do much. Looking at the phone's activity according to our Verizon account suggested that three texts were sent around the time Tess thinks she lost it. Additionally, some data had been used through the night.

At first, we thought that perhaps one of Tess's friends may have taken the phone and sent the texts. Several of her friends do know her PIN, and kids do silly things to one another. The recipient of the texts were Tess's ex-boyfriend, so conceivably someone could have sent something to him from Tess's phone trying to stir up trouble. Then they may have left the phone back where they found it, thinking that Tess would reclaim it.

A second look at the Verizon account indicated only a small amount of data usage. This was probably just background apps phoning home, and not someone actively using the phone to do anything. This was reassuring.

The location of the phone on Wednesday pretty clearly indicated that someone other than one of Tess's friends had possession of it. Or perhaps someone found it, discovered it locked and unusable, and dropped it by the creek banks no longer interested in it.

We consulted the Find My iPhone map again several times, and confirmed that the phone was reporting the same location. I decided to take the dog for a walk to see if I could spot the phone. The plan was that I'd call home when I approached the area, and Angela or Tess could activate the phone's ringer to help me locate it.

I got to the target location, called Angela, and asked her to activate the ringer. Almost immediately the phone's icon went dark on the map. I poked around for a bit, trying to see if anyone was obviously tending to an iPhone. I did see one homeless guy camped out by the water, but I was more than a little hesitant to approach him by myself. I asked Angela to again engage the ringer. This time she told me that the phone's icon was moving on the map!

It moved a couple blocks over, and then came to a stop. The game was afoot! Clearly someone had the phone in their possession, and were moving quickly: either on bike or in a car. I headed toward the new destination, and explicitly told Angela to not engage the ringer again. No reason to give away our activities.

I approached the corner at which the phone was reporting its location and saw a young boy sitting in plastic swing hanging from the branch of a tree. His shoulders were slumped, and he was clearly looking at something in his hands. As I rounded the corner, I saw that he was holding something white. Tess's iPhone is a white one, and is in a white case. Confident that I'd found the phone I approached the young boy.

"Hey, is that a white iPhone? My daughter lost her's," I said to the kid. He looked up at me a little surprised, but almost immediately held out the iPhone to me. It was definitely Tess's phone.

I didn't have much cash on me, but I did offer the kid a couple bucks for finding the phone. I've no idea whether this kid is the one who took it, or if he found it somewhere. Either way, I was perfectly willing to give him a small reward for returning it to me. He sheepishly said "That's okay" and lowered his head.

After getting the phone back, we tried to fill in the missing pieces of our theory. Tess reviewed her text history and found that the texts to her ex-boyfriend were in fact sent by her earlier that day. The time of these texts reported on the Verizon account was off quite a bit from when Tess sent them, which made our investigation a little more complicated. It also didn't help that she didn't remember that she'd texted with him on Tuesday -- that would have been a useful data point to have when building our theory.

Thankfully the story had a happy and non-confrontational ending. The phone was peacefully recovered, and was intact.

Jelly Bean

I bought a Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone this weekend. Last night I flashed it with the latest stable build of CyanogenMod.

I've been watching the Android ecosystem mature over the last couple of years. For reasons I can't really recall now, I opted several years ago to purchase an Apple iPhone instead of an Android phone. I've never really regretted that decision -- the iPhone is indubitably an excellent product -- but I've chaffed at many of the decisions that Apple makes on my behalf. As a long-time Linux user, I'm comfortable poking around in options screens to tweak my systems to operate in ways that I like.

The initial transition to the Galaxy S3 was fairly seamless. I've been a long-time Google Apps user, so all of my email and contacts defined in GMail simply showed up on my phone when I authenticated my account. The friction of finding where the various UI buttons were located was minimal: smartphone UI and UX design is sufficiently sophisticated now that finding the "compose" button on any screen is pretty intuitive. The biggest mental hurdle for me was getting used to the two "physical" buttons on the Galaxy S3: the "menu" button at the bottom left of the screen, and the dedicated "back" button at the bottom right of the screen. After a day of use, these buttons became second nature.

Samsung's TouchWiz interface lies atop the stock Google Android experience. I didn't find anything terribly problematic about Samsung's efforts here. While I might grumble about the quantity (and relative uselessness) of some of the pre-loaded applications, the actual interface controls were very friendly. I particularly liked the camera application's use of the entire display as viewfinder.

But the reason I bought an Android device is because I wanted the "pure" Google experience, unmarred by carrier bloat. I'm a Verizon subscriber, which means that the new Google Nexus 4 smartphone is unavailable to me. In order to truly experience the native Google experience, I am required to flash a custom firmware onto my phone. CyanogenMod is the leading contender here, so I spent several hours researching my options, and the process for each.

There is an enormous community of Android enthusiasts using and developing solutions for doing exactly what I wanted to do. I'm not trail blazing, by any stretch. Indeed, I'm actually quite late to the game, and this has caused me no small amount of frustration. The enthusiast community has developed its own lingo, and currently assumes that all users are equally familiar with the ins and outs of flashing. This presents a major hurdle to new participants like myself.

I understand the concepts behind rooting, flashing, and superuser privileges, as well the different between locked and unlocked bootloaders. I do not, however, have any immediate understanding of terms like "ODIN" or "CWM". Nor am I intimately familiar with version numbers of existing Samsung firmware, or the differences between them (or, indeed, the sequence of their releases). Many of the tutorials I've found for flashing my phone presume a level of understanding that I am demonstrably lacking. This was frustrating.

After reading several tutorials, watching a number of YouTube videos, and performing an inordinate number of Google searches, I finally found what I thought was the best process for me.

Since mine was a brand new phone, with no data on it that I didn't already have somewhere else (ie: my GMail data), I didn't feel compelled to perform any kind of backup. If you're reading this because you want to flash your phone, you'll need to decide for yourself if you need to backup anything.

Since I was using a MacBook, many of the guides I found did not pertain to me. The guide that most applied to me was Mac Root Tool for S3 [Casual for Verizon S3]. This involves a Java application that roots the phone and optionally installs an unlocked bootloader. Notably, this solution does not install the CyanogenMod custom firmware. It merely performs some (but not all!) of the steps necessary to make such an installation possible.

The instructions state:

  1. Open this file
  2. Select Root with DebugFSRoot and Do It
  3. Select Flash Unsecure Aboot and Do It
  4. Use Odin or CWM to flash kernels to your device

The first two steps were easy enough. The third step confused me for several minutes until I realized that the "Flash Unsecure Aboot" required me to scroll down in the selector list. Once located and selected, this option gave a number of dire warnings about rendering my device unusable. I spent a good chunk of time trying to confirm whether this tool would work with the current version of my phone's firmware. This required a number of visits to various Android forums, and an awful lot of scrolling up and down. Finally satisfied, I clicked the "Do It" button, and felt remarkably underwhelmed when nothing much happened.

Step 4 didn't make much sense to me. Now that I've successfully flashed my phone, I do understand what they mean, and probably could have used them to finish the deal. But on my first attempt through this process, I didn't know what to do.

With a rooted phone, I now needed to unlock the bootloader. The recommended procedure was to download an app from the Google Play store called "ez_unlock". Once installed, the app simply showed me a white screen. Clearly something was wrong. I tried steps 1 and 2 from the Casual app again, but each time the ez_unlock app simply showed me a white screen.

More Google searching revealed that the way to tell if your running device is rooted is the presence of a new application called "Super User". I looked, and indeed that application was now present. I had not previously executed it. I clicked on it. It launched. I poked around, but couldn't find anything useful to do within in.

After launching the Super User app, I then tried the ez_unlock app again. This time it worked! It's (still) not clear to me if one needs to launch Super User first, but it seems probable. At the least, it can't hurt. ez_unlock allowed me to unlock the bootloader, which means I was now ready to install a custom firmware.

From the Google Play store I installed ROM Manager, and performed an in-app purchase to get the ROM Manager Touch upgrade. (An aside: I'm more than happy to give a couple dollars to the ingenious folks who produce tools to make this process easier.) This allowed me to download the latest stable version of CyanogenMod and the latest versions of various Google applications. This all worked without a hitch. My phone rebooted, and I was delighted to see the CyanogenMod splash screen.

After three or four minutes of the CyanogenMod splash screen, my delight turned to concern. Clearly something hadn't worked correctly. Several attempts to remedy the situation proved fruitless.

More Google searching took me back to the official CyanogenMod wiki for Galaxy SIII Full Update. This page specifically recommends using a microSD card to store the CyanogenMod image. I had not done this, because I do not yet have a microSD card for my Galaxy S3.

I used Angela's phone to download the latest stable CyanogenMod for the Verizon Galaxy S3, as well as the latest version of Google Apps, and copied these files to her microSD card. I installed this card into my phone, and followed the instructions for Flashing CyanogenMod using the Recovery Method. This worked flawlessly.

After a reboot, I was presented with the CyanogenMod splash screen, and then with the setup process for new devices. I set up my device, added my Google account, and within moments had a fully functional Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" installation.

The tl;dr moral of the story here is to use a microSD card when attempting to flash your Verizon Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone.

Fatigue

For the last couple years I've had a Mac Mini attached to my television. This has served as our DVD player and content streaming device. To this Mac Mini I had attached an external hard drive. This drive contained several movies I'd ripped as well as my entire iTunes music collection. I set up a wireless keyboard and mouse so that we could use the computer from the couch, but the reality is that using a web browser from 10 feet away is sub-optimal. This meant that we were often standing directly in front of the TV to find and start some show. The Mac Mini has been good enough, though everyone in the house will agree that it's not a stellar solution.

Last night, the external hard drive attached to the Mac took a plunge off the mantel, and stopped working. I'm frustrated that I lost all my media. But in reality, none of it is irreplacable. Moreover, I didn't avail myself to the bulk of that content with any regularity so most of the time it went unused.

The last couple of months have been bad for the hardware in my life. I clobbered my laptop's hard drive and shattered my iPhone. And now the external drive. I'm growing increasingly tired of hardware. Too much can go wrong, too easily. Too much maintenance is required, or too many ancillary purchases.

I don't consume enough media to feel compelled to own much of it. It's been years since I last bought a CD or DVD -- and almost as long since I last watched one -- and I'm not particularly interested in Blu-Ray. We're already Netflix subscribers, and we use Amazon Video On Demand with some regularity. Most of the time something like Last.fm or Pandora is sufficient for listening to music. I'm not enough of an audiophile to be able to justify Spotify's monthly fee. And I don't have a stereo system: all music gets played through my television's speakers.

I've been eyeing a Roku box for awhile, wondering whether it would be sufficiently easy to use without being annoying. It would allow us to continue to enjoy Netflix and Amazon VOD, as well as the various music streaming services. But a Roku would still be another piece of mostly fragile hardware that doesn't demonstrably make my life any better. Yes, it might facilitate distractions, but it's not really doing much to improve my quality of life.

Maybe it's not hardware fatigue I'm suffering, but digital fatigue. All the apps and web sites and servcies and doo-dads we consume every day are all mostly distractions. They don't improve my health. They don't do much to bring my family together. They often distract us from things that are arguably more important.

It's also entirely possible I'm just becoming a curmudgeonly middle aged man.

Shattered

Shattered

Unlike Owen, who lost the use of his iPhone by following the explicit directions of a support representative, I lost the use of my iPhone when it slipped from my fingers and landed squarely face down in a parking lot. The glass shattered pretty spectacularly. The phone still works, interestingly, but I'm afraid of the lacerations I might get just trying to unlock it.

I didn't have insurance on this phone, so the full-cost replacement would have been close to $700. No phone is worth that much money. I hemmed and hawed a bit, trying to decide if I should just downgrade to a flip phone and give up smartphones. I finally decided not to go the flip phone route.

Instead, I searched Craigslist for a suitable replacement. I found considerably more than I expected, with prices ranging from $250 to $500. Some of these postings suggested less than reputable provenance for the phones in question, so it was with some anxiety that I called one of the sellers to ask about his reasonably priced white iPhone 4. The story he told me was if not legit at least sufficiently well rehearsed as to sound fairly convincing, so I agreed to meet him in a parking lot to buy his phone.

It was a mildly surreal experience to buy a used iPhone from a college kid in a parking lot in the mideast United States. It felt like something out of a William Gibson novel. A quick inspection of the phone suggested that it was fully functional, so I gave the kid cash. I didn't haggle, as haggling has always proven to be a waste of my time: some people are good at it, indeed enjoy it, but it always just makes me grumpy and sullen.

So late yesterday afternoon my replacement iPhone was activated without incident. Indeed, everything seems to be working just fine.

Now I need to buy a screen replacement kit for my old phone, so that I can try to resurrect it. Assuming I'm successful in that endeavour, I'll then have two iPhone 4s I can sell to fund the purchase of the iPhone 5 that is being released next week.

iPhone

I bought an iPhone yesterday.

I've been a long-time Sprint customer, but have recently grown dissatisfied with the CDMA technology used by them. After my trip to Barcelona, I realized that a GSM phone would be much more useful to me, should I do any more traveling abroad (something I very much want to do!). I recently renewed my contract with Sprint, though, so canceling my contract to change carriers would likely incur a hefty penalty. Needless to say, I was quite pleased to read about how to avoid the Sprint early termination fee, and began planning my transition to AT&T.

As previously stated, I'm interested in smartphones. A phone-only cellphone doesn't have much appeal to me. I'd been looking at purchasing a Blackberry Bold, and had done a fair amount of research on the device. The convergence of GSM, WiFi, and GPS really appealed to me. The only thing holding me back was the cost: with a purchase price of $299 online, or $399 in-store, I found it excruciatingly hard to justify the purchase.

Last weekend I spent some time at an AT&T store playing with the demo model of the Bold. I took Mike along with me for moral support, and his comments and observations were well received. Mike poo-pooed the Bold pretty quickly, mostly because he found the interface to be lackluster. "Everything looks like a web page. They could at least apply some CSS to spice it up!" he opined. I didn't entirely share his view, but it did make me look a little more critically at the device. On the way home from the store, I realized that the Bold's interface is, in fact, pretty boring.

That's not necessarily a bad thing; but a smartphone is as much a mobile computer as it is a phone, and I don't like boring computers. I like my computers to have some personality. I like to customize my computer interfaces to reflect my sense of playfulness and my aesthetic. I'm sure I could find some ways to do that with the Bold, but out of the box it's a very staid device.

I didn't spend much time considering the Blackberry Curve, the previous model of Blackberry. I know someone who has one, and who loves it. He uses T-Mobile, and thoroughly enjoys the UMA feature, which allows him to make calls over a WiFi connection. (Why more carriers don't support this, I don't understand: it still consumes plan minutes, and lessens the burden on the cellular radio infrastructure. There must be a lot of back-end routing that makes this less-than-desirable from the carrier's perspective. Pity.) The lack of GPS really turned me off from the Curve. The soon-to-be-released Curve 8900 does offer a GPS, and presumably a more modest purchase price than the Bold; but alas it's not yet available on carriers in the U.S., and I only had a couple days to play the get-out-of-Sprint-free card.

So yesterday I walked into the AT&T store and purchased an iPhone 3G. The fact that it was half as much as the Blackberry Bold was probably the largest factor in making the purchase. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I completed the sale: I had not forgotten my complaints against the iPhone from last year. I was also torn as to whether to pay full price for a new phone at the store, or to buy a refurbished model online for half the price. In the end, the thought of a full one-year warranty on a new phone, coupled with my intense desire for instant gratification, won out.

Not to be underlooked, though, was my intense fear of losing my current phone number. I didn't want my number to get lost in the shuffle were I to complete the transaction online. If something were to foul up in the number porting process while at the AT&T store, at least I could feel better by having a human being at which to yell. Thankfully the transfer went off without a hitch, and Larry, the AT&T store employee, had to bear no such abuse from me.

As for the iPhone itself, I like it so far. The form factor makes it not unpleasant to hold. I like the easily customizable home screen. Most things are extremely intuitive, if not downright enjoyable. The mail application is acceptable, but not great. It's much easier to read mail on the iPhone than it was to use ChatterEmail on my Centro. I find the browser interface to be absolutely superb, and using the iPhone-optimized versions of the various Google services on which I rely is vastly superior to the mobile versions served to the Palm. The on-screen keyboard is convenient, but not entirely easy, to use. I suspect that it will take me some to really gain proficiency with it.

As a long-time Palm user, I found it somewhat unsettling that the iPhone calendar application doesn't seem to support categories. I categorized all my calendar items on the Palm with "personal" or "work". After a moment's reflection, I realized that while I categorize events, that categorization doesn't really help me too much. I don't think I've ever filtered my list of calender items by categorization, so why was I doing it? Similarly, the lack of categories or tags for phone contacts is also a real mental hurdle. I really, really like to organize my contacts, and have a dozen categories defined in my Palm address book. I do often find myself listing all contacts from a certain category, so there will be a learning curve to adapt to the iPhone.

My biggest concern about using an iPhone is that I use GNU/Linux on my computers, so I don't have an officially supported mechanism for syncing the iPhone with my computer. In essence, the iPhone will be a stand-alone mobile computer that supplements, but does not entirely integrate with, my primary laptop. I think this will be okay because the iPhone App Store works pretty darned well from the iPhone itself. The only shortcoming I experienced thus far was that to use the App Store one needs a valid iTunes Music Store account. Luckily I had such an unused account from some time ago. (Unluckily, I had forgotten the password, so I had to install iTunes onto a Windows XP virtual machine in order to recover it. And then I had to supply credit card details so that I could actually gain access to the store. As John observed when I complained about this, "Welcome to their world. This isn't Ubuntu, Scott.")

I have no doubt that the iPhone will be a mixed blessing in terms of conveniences and headaches. I'm approaching it with an open mind, and a real desire to make it work. It might be the "gateway drug" to get me to purchase a Macintosh computer so that I can enjoy full synchronization, though I'd like to avoid that expense for as long as possible.

I've just successfully terminated my Sprint account, and managed to have the early termination fee waived. The support agent with which I originally spoke claimed that not all customers would be assessed the increased administrative fee, so I couldn't use that as an excuse to break my contract. Further, since I had already ported my numbers, I had willfully broken the contract and had earned the early termination fee. It's important to note that the Sprint surcharges, taxes, fees, and other charges support page says this:

ALERT:
Effective 1/1/2009, the Administrative Charge will increase to $0.99 per line.

It doesn't say anything about the fee increase being selectively applied to some customers. I was finally able to use the Sprint web-based support chat to have the early termination fee removed from my final bill. I explained that I had ported my numbers preemptively in order to ensure that I didn't lose them when the Sprint account was terminated; and I pointed out that the fee increase notification says nothing about selective application to some customers. With no further fuss, the early termination fee was rescinded.