shortage of cell phone bandwidth

25 04 2011

Tonight we had several tornado warnings in my area, along with some damage from tornadoes, so I’m sure a lot of people were using their cell phone.  But why are we having issues where calls cannot go through?  This happened several times tonight, where an automated call for a tornado warning never rang but went straight to voicemail.  And some of the voicemails showed up much later (on AT&T, not so much on Verizon).  For a while, I was unable to access my voicemail on Verizon, which had accumulated several messages.  Why is this happening?  This is not the first time that cellular networks have become full.

I’m glad the phone companies are adding data bandwidth.  3G is good, and 4G will be great when it comes to this area, but we need to be able to make calls on our phones when there are emergency situations.  Actually, that’s when we need a phone the most!

This is yet another point in the debate for keeping a landline phone (besides call quality, which really needs to be improved also, IMO).

That’s all… just had to rant a little bit, and this is my soapbox.  🙂


Ultra High-Definition TV

14 09 2010

Is your HDTV going to be obsolete soon?  Probably not, but researchers in Japan are already pushing the boundaries far beyond what is normal now.  That’s not really a surprise, because they’ve been ahead of America for a while when it comes to high-definition television.  The Japanese have had high-def TV for many years, even having an analog transmission for HD back in the late ’80s.   So obviously they’ve beaten the rest of the world to it.

A couple of years ago I heard that only 10 percent of households in the U.S. had high-def TVs.  I’m sure it’s higher now, but probably not yet a majority.  Probably fewer people have true 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound systems.  While most of us are trying to catch up to that, the bar has already been raised for the future.  NHK researchers have announced Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTV), which blows away what we consider top-of-the-line in America.  It’s also known as Super Hi-Vision, Ultra High Definition Video (UHDV), and UHD.

Super Hi-Vision uses a crazy-good resolution of 7,680 x 4,320 pixels, at 60 frames per second.  The sound setup is getting upgraded, too.  The new standard features 22.2-channel surround sound.  (That’s not a typo!)  The speaker setup is composed of 9 speakers above ear level, 10 speakers at ear level, and 5 speakers lower than ear level, including stereo subwoofers.  (Imagine trying to convince your wife to allow that in the living room!)

For comparison, the top standard in the U.S. right now is 1080p, which has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels.  And our top sound standard is 7.1 audio (although 10.2 has been invented, but I haven’t heard of commercial uses of it yet).  I have a feeling that the latest emerging media standard of Blu-Ray isn’t sufficient for this task.  An uncompressed 20 minute broadcast would require about 4 TB of storage, although there is a compression scheme designed for it.

One benefit of 4320p is that it can accurately scale images of 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p, and 2160p, so there will be less picture distortion when viewing lower-resolution media on it.  That’s a big deal, which you may know about if you’ve watched a lower-res video on an HDTV and thought it looked worse than on a normal TV.

This is still a few years away, though, because the current infrastructure and technology is not capable of handling it.  But it has been demonstrated already — in 2005, a live UHDTV program was streamed uncompressed over 161 miles using a fiber optic network (at 24 Gbit/s speeds!).   It’s estimated to be ready for in-home use between 2016 and 2020, though I suspect only in Japan at first.  But that kind of technology could make it worth going to the movies more often, if they had a setup that awesome, which most consumers couldn’t afford.

how Apple’s iPad is like a TV

15 04 2010

You’ve probably heard that Apple released the iPad to much hype and many sales.  I know America consumes vast amounts of entertainment and is quite materialistic, but supposedly there were hundreds of thousands of iPads sold the first week, starting at $499 each.  (You can do the math.)  That’s a lot of disposable income (or credit card debt) for an item that no one needs.

Being a tech nerd, I initially found the iPad interesting, when I first heard the hype.  But then I realized it’s basically a big version of the iPod Touch.   And it’s similar to an iPhone, except it doesn’t make phone calls.  And it’s eerily similar to a portable TV.  (Yeah, you read that right.)   It’s hyped as the future of portable computing, but it’s not even a computer — it’s more of an interactive TV.  So I’m not interested.   If it were like a tablet PC, with a touch screen, and it let me run any apps and games I want, it would be great.  But it falls considerably short of that.  And if used as an eBook reader, it doesn’t even feature e-Ink technology (which has been combined with LCD screens) for reading that’s easy on the eyes.

While I was reading about the iPad, I saved a few quotes about it that made good points.  If you’re interested in reading those (which explains how the iPad is like a TV), here they are:

The iPad hasn’t brought us forward into the future. It’s taken us backward to a world of strip malls and televisions. So the iPad takes us back to the 1980s, or maybe even the 1950s. It’s likely to be a device that changes our future, but what that means is we’re facing a tomorrow where true innovation is sidelined by a device that represents a convergence of old media and shopping. ~ Annalee Newitz, 1/28/10

I know a lot of otherwise-savvy consumers and hackers who are already drooling over the iPad and putting in their orders. They hate the idea of a restricted device, but they love the shiny-shiny. I’m not saying that they should deprive themselves of this pretty new toy. What I am saying is that this toy represents a crappy, pathetic future. It is no more revolutionary than those expensive, hot boots I bought at Fluevog, and only slightly more useful. The only way iPads can truly become futuristic devices is if we hack them so that we can pour whatever operating system we want inside. We need to jailbreak these media boxes so we can install the apps we want, not the ones provided by the Apple shopping mall. Do not be content with a television when you can have a computer. ~ Annalee Newitz, 1/28/10

What Apple has done (again) is seize the moment with a combination of a device and a business model … even if e-ink provides a better reading experience for books (reading on an iPad will continue to literally mean staring into a lamp, just like reading on a computer screen), it doesn’t matter because it’s the total package of iTunes, iBookstore, 3G, games, apps, etc. that will pull ebook readers along with it. Consider that the iPad is a closed platform that doesn’t even multitask; if the technology mattered, those would be major considerations for the buyer. But they won’t be, because when you buy an iPad, you buy access to the whole Apple business ecology. ~ Karl Schroeder, 1/28/10

The App Store isn’t exactly the problem — it’s the way Apple runs and limits the App Store. … Rather than reject applications that it feels may confuse the user (like they claimed Google Voice or Google Latitude might), or applications that allow users to access naughty pictures, or even applications that it hasn’t had time to vet for the App Store proper, [Apple should] put those applications in the Restricted section. Before a user is able to install applications from the Restricted section, that user has to agree that the application may confuse their feeble minds, offend their delicate sensibilities, or even slow down their device. Is this such a problem? … Even better, [the iPad] could work like the package manager it actually is and allow users to add their own trusted repositories as sources for other applications … The point is, users should at least be allowed to flip some switch, somewhere on the machine, that says, “Hey computer, I’m an adult, and I take responsibility over how I use this machine.” ~ Adam Pash, LifeHacker, 01/2010

DRM is used by Apple to restrict users’ freedom in a variety of ways, including blocking installation of software that comes from anywhere except the official Application Store, and regulating every use of movies downloaded from iTunes. Apple furthermore claims that circumventing these restrictions is a criminal offense, even for purposes that are permitted by copyright law. If Jobs and Apple are actually committed to creativity, freedom, and individuality, they should prove it by eliminating the restrictions that make creativity and freedom illegal. ~ The Free Software Foundation, 01/2010

This is smart business. It is a corporate ruse designed to make users spend even more money in Apple owned stores on Apple products. It reminds me of the low cost of printers and the high cost of ink cartridges, or the subsidized portion of the cost of a cell phone dangled like a carrot in front of a 2-year contract. This is not an evolution in computing. It is only a logical next step in marketing media to consumers. Apple is attempting to gain a monopoly on digital media consumption, and they’ve had their foot in the door since the iPod. ~ DZeroStar, 1/29/10

If you want to read more, such as what goes around some of those quotes, here’s one of the articles I got some of that from: Why the iPad is crap futurism.  (Just be forewarned that the article has some “colorful” language in it.)

Along the same lines, such as why Apple locks down their products (i.e., iPod, iPhone, iPad) with DRM and restricting applications, here are some explanations:

Apple’s lawyers, led by David L. Hayes of Fenwick & West LLP, claimed in comments submitted to the US Copyright Office that the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) system on the iPhone is necessary to combat drug dealers, safeguard the cell phone network, and prevent you from hurting yourself. They submitted these comments in response to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s request that users be able to “jailbreak” their iPhones — which means circumventing Apple’s DRM system so that they can install their own applications, just like you can do on any other computer and many other cell phones already. Apple seems to have missed that last part — just like you can do on any other computer and many other cell phones already. Instead, they claim that users removing the DRM system are criminals, who should be prosecuted. … But Apple isn’t concerned with your safety or security anyway. They are concerned with their profits. On the iPhone, even programs offered at no charge by people who would voluntarily let you copy their work as many times as you want, that only do something local on your own phone, without accessing the network, are restricted by DRM. What does that have to do with network security, or copyright? As expert Bruce Schneier says, with iPhone, “security” is code for “control”. The real reason for DRM on the iPhone is exactly what he says it is: “Control allows a company to limit competition for ancillary products. With Mac computers, anyone can sell software that does anything. But Apple gets to decide who can sell what on the iPhone. It can foster competition when it wants, and reserve itself a monopoly position when it wants. And it can dictate terms to any company that wants to sell iPhone software and accessories. ~ John Sullivan, 7/30/09

Apple claims throughout their comments that if users can modify their devices, they might break them. They say, “The modifications to the bootloader and the OS made to jailbreak a phone result in those programs being used in ways that were never envisioned in their creation.” Yes, that’s called innovation, and creativity. It is true that when you tinker with things you can break them. While I appreciate Apple’s apparent concern for my well-being, I would request that they leave those decisions and their consequences to me. I’ve lived most of my life with a computer that I can tinker with, and while it leads to endless hours of frustration, it’s also the way I and many other people learn how machines and software work. People that don’t want to tinker don’t have to — but who thinks that all tinkering, or any meaningful kind of user freedom, must be made illegal to protect people from hurting themselves? ~ John Sullivan, 7/30/09

If we don’t choose freedom over fear in this situation, then we have a whole lot more to rethink than just DMCA exemptions. Ironically, if we had followed Apple’s advice and failed to choose freedom in the past, the iPhone and their OS X operating system might not have even been possible. Flip through the licensing section of the iPhone’s software. You will find numerous free software licenses. The iPhone is built on a core of free software. It is built using programs that were later modified by people around the world in “ways that were never envisioned in their creation”, which have now had their freedoms stripped away by Apple. This is a company happy to profit from the free software made available by others, and from the creative, innovative process engendered by software freedom and DRM-free computers, which now wants to kick the ladder away to prevent anyone else from doing the same. How is any kid supposed to learn to be a programmer if she can’t install her own programs on her own phone? How is the next Knuth supposed to make computer science breakthroughs if he or she can’t have access to a computer that will let itself be programmed? Greed like Apple’s, which will stoop to the lowest kinds of threats to justify crippling everyone else’s potential, is the threat to our fundamental security that we should be worried about. But you know what? I agree with Apple. Don’t jailbreak your iPhone. Don’t buy an iPhone at all. ~ John Sullivan, 7/30/09

The last 3 quotes are from the article: Apple says you can’t have freedom because you might be clumsy, evil, and a drug dealer.   For some reason Apple failed to mention market share and company profits…

Let me say in closing that Apple has the right to release their products in this way.   I will not buy it, which is in a small way making my voice heard.  In another way, publishing this is making my voice heard.   And in the end, it’s just my opinion and point-of-view on it.  You can buy an iPad if you want it, but hopefully this helps you separate limitations from hype.

TV demo with a pickle

8 10 2009

Do you understand how your TV works?   Even the older cathode-ray tube (CRT) technology may seem complicated to most of us, but scientists continue pushing the boundaries for future technologies.  You’ve probably heard of LED TVs, which are currently high-tech, but now there are OLED (Organic LED) TVs.

The video at this link explains how it works, using a pickle.   (No, that’s not a typo, and I’m not being silly.)  OLEDs are made of organic materials, and even a pickle is subject to the same properties used in an OLED TV.  Basically, electrons are sent to it, creating an electric current in it, and then when positive and negative charges hit the same molecule, it releases a proton, which makes it look like it’s glowing.  In the video, the pickle becomes a giant pixel.

Not only is the source organic, which would presumably be better for the environment, but it also uses 50 percent less power than LEDs.  And this technology allows TV screens to be very thin (as shown in the video).  It’s already being used in some new (high-dollar) cell phones, which is a great use for it.

Can you imagine how people figured this out?   Try to picture someone figuring out how electrical current affects organic materials and then realizing they could make TV screens with it…

the cost of sending text messages

1 01 2009

Most likely no one would be surprised if I said the cell phone companies are ripping us off with fees and various charges.  But someone has done some research into the costs of texting and I think you’ll find it interesting.  How much do you think it costs the carriers to send a text message from one cell phone to another?

Before, I tell you, let me present the fact that about 2.5 trillion text messages were sent in 2008, and it’s expected that about 3.3 trillion will be sent in 2009.  The price per text message went from 10 cents to 20 cents for all four major carriers in the past few years, unless you have a package plan that includes a certain amount per month.  This increase led Senator Herb Kohl (who is the chairman of the Senate antitrust committee) to investigate why this happened.

Senator Kohl wrote the companies about their pricing plans and they all replied, but they conveniently “forgot” to explain the cost of conveying text messages.  There is a reason for this…

Now let me explain what prompted me to write on this.  I learned that text messages are free riders on the network, using what’s called a control channel that’s reserved for operation of the wireless network.  That’s why text messages are typically limited to 160 characters per message — they have to fit within that space.  And here’s the kicker — the channel uses that space whether or not a text message is inserted.  See, that channel is used for the communication between the tower and your handset to set up calls.  So, in effect, text messages costs the carriers NOTHING.  Whoever thought to include the 160 extra bytes in the control channel was a genius…

Sure, the companies have an initial cost in setting up storage and transmitting equipment, but they’re doing that anyway for cell phone service.  So really, it costs them NOTHING to transmit a text message from one cell phone to the next.  So their text messaging charges and package plans are pure profit to them.  Think about that the next time it sounds like a good deal to get unlimited texting at $15 or $20 a month.

Doesn’t it make you wonder why our cost for sending text messages went up?

my adventure in upgrading to Windows XP

19 02 2008

This past weekend I decided to upgrade my home computer from Windows 2000 to XP Professional.  I had put this off for a while now (obviously), because I didn’t need it, and I had 2000 customized to be stable and efficient.  But now two of the programs I need to use require XP, and I couldn’t find a way around that (unlike some programs, which claim to need XP but really run fine on 2000, since they are very similar).  This upgrade should have been simple, but there were some unique, unexpected circumstances that made this very complicated.

Before I explain what happened, let me add that I’ve had my own computer for over 15 years, and I’ve been a professional programmer for over 10 years, so I know what I’m doing.  I’ve done quite a few upgrades and fixed a number of things manually before, so it doesn’t scare me to “get under the hood” of an OS (Operating System).  But this latest upgrade really threw me for a loop.  (It also explains why I haven’t posted in a few days.)

Before my upgrade, I backed up the files that were new or modified since my last backup.  (You should always do backups before any major upgrade, and really, backups should be done on a regular basis if you have anything you wouldn’t want to lose.)  So after the backup, I started the upgrade to XP.  I was really hoping to not have to reinstall all my programs, and the XP upgrade suggested that I wouldn’t have to.

The night I started the upgrade, it was stormy outside.  I was aware of this, but not concerned.  The power hasn’t been out for an extended time in the four-plus years I’ve lived here, because our power lines are underground.  Also, I have a nice UPS with AVR, so even if the power blinked, I would be okay.  But as you might have guessed already, the power went out and stayed out for about an hour, and my UPS didn’t last that long.  Also, the install was delayed because of a request for a certain driver for my hard drive.  Here’s my first mini-rant about Microsoft — the RAID/SCSI driver for my SATA hard drive is loaded by the BIOS (when the computer turns on), and obviously XP could read and write to my hard drive, because it was doing the install.  I couldn’t find the disk at first for it, so I skipped it.

After the power came back on, I booted up my computer, wondering what to expect.  The initial chkdsk (check disk) revealed that some files and registry entries needed to be cleaned up, which is something to be concerned about.  The XP upgrade started over, and seemed okay.  Again, it asked for that driver for my hard drive, but I skipped it because I didn’t have it.  Then the upgrade failed on 13 files, saying it couldn’t copy them.  The installation continued and finished successfully (supposedly).  But upon reboot, XP would “blue screen” before getting in, even in safe mode.  It turns out that it requires that driver for my hard drive, even though it installed the upgrade without it.  I finally figured out how to get that loaded without reinstalling the upgrade.

I was concerned about the 13 files that wouldn’t copy, though.  I thought that the power outage had caused some bad sectors on my hard drive (which is less than a year old).  I ran some scans, which didn’t find anything.  So I started applying the security patches.  When I got to Service Pack 2 (SP2), it would load about halfway and then fail, saying, “An error occurred while copying file dataspec.xml”.  Then the next error said, “The filename, directory name, or volume label syntax is incorrect”.  I was afraid this was due to bad sectors, so I ran a full disk scan, using both Windows tools and Western Digital’s Data Lifeguard Diagnostic software.  Neither found any problems.  I tried different methods of running the SP2 patch, but it always failed in this same spot.  So it would uninstall what it had done, then give me a message of “Windows XP has been partially updated and may not work properly”.  That’s really comforting…

I researched the situation online, figuring someone else has had this problem before, but none of the solutions worked.  I happened to notice that one person said the upgrade from Windows 2000 to XP can damage the “Help and Support” tools (and that this can also happen when upgrading to Windows 2003 Server).  Then I realized some of the files that had failed to load were related to that.  Then I learned that the dataspec.xml is related to the “Help and Support” tools, in that it’s stored inside the PCHealth subfolder in the WINNT directory.  Here’s where I see a glimmer of hope in fixing this situation, and simultaneously I grow more frustrated with Microsoft for having such a bug in the XP upgrade (which also prevents SP2 from loading).  You’d think Microsoft would’ve learned of this and documented it.  Maybe they have, but I searched all over their site for info on this and found nothing.

I tried to manually load the PCHealth files (which includes msconfig.exe and HelpCtr.exe), but Windows Explorer couldn’t find the PCHealth folder.  I couldn’t create the folder, because Explorer said it already exists.  But it didn’t show up, even when showing all hidden and system files.  So I went to DOS (Command Prompt), and it was listed there, but if I tried to go into it (using the “cd” command), it said the directory is invalid.  Obviously bad things have happened.  But I was able to delete the directory from the Command Prompt.  (And on a side note, who says knowing DOS commands is obsolete?!?)

After I got the corrupted PCHealth folder deleted, I reinstalled it using the pchealth.inf file and letting it copy the files from the CD.  Then after rebooting to let the registry update and the service start naturally, it worked fine.  Then the SP2 upgrade also worked correctly.

And so I spent many hours thinking my hard drive might have become corrupted or damaged because of the power outage while it was in use, but the reason XP and SP2 weren’t loading correctly was because of a bug in the upgrade process.  But at least my frustration with Microsoft is overshadowed at the moment by the excitement of having figured this out and fixed my computer.

video of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

28 01 2008

Being a programmer, I’ve always dreamed of creating video games for a living.  However, that’s not my calling in life, so that’s not going to happen.  Nonetheless, I still enjoy hearing about the aspect of programming games.  Here’s a video by the developers of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, where they discuss how they combined three simulation engines to create the environment for the game.

The video also shows quite a bit of gameplay and it looks like it’ll be really fun.  It’s been confirmed that it will be released on the Nintendo Wii, and I hope they integrate swinging the Wiimote with swinging the lightsaber onscreen.  If they make the gameplay as fun as it should be with this environment and story and simulation techniques, this game will easily sell millions of copies.

The story is about a secret apprentice of Darth Vader.  The character of the apprentice is based on how it would’ve been had Luke Skywalker been brought up on the dark side.  But it’s designed to fit within the movie trilogies, to fill in unclosed parts of the story.

I wanted to embed the video here, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t working with my blog theme, so here’s the link.  The video is a documentary called The Technology of the Force Unleashed.  If you watch the other documentaries, you can see how they created the story of the game like they would a movie.

Also, you can watch the teaser trailer at the homepage of the official site.