Week one: The GoodBerry and the BadBerry

It’s been a week since I got my BlackBerry Tour (for cheap) and I’m getting used to it. There’s lots to notice, but here’s the highlights:

The good

  1. The keyboard is nice. It’s easy to peck away at and lights up when dark.
  2. The camera takes good pictures. With 3.2 megapixels and autofocus, it’s light years ahead of my old Treos.
  3. The screen is beautiful. It’s bright, detailed and clearly visible even in broad daylight.
  4. There are plenty of apps. I have Google Maps, Facebook, SlingPlayer, Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo! Messenger, Amazon and bunch of games. They’re not as sophisticated as iPhone apps, but they’re sufficient. I can download them from anywhere without anyone (Apple) telling me whether or not I’m allowed to install them. Unfortunately, there’s such a wide variety of BlackBerries out there that you’re not guaranteed that any particular app will work, especially on a new device like the Tour. Some only work on the Storm or other devices. Some say they work, but once you run them, you realize you can’t use an app because you don’t have a touchscreen. That’s frustrating.

The bad

  1. It’s surprisingly bad at handling email. For a company that started making devices that originally ONLY did email, I’m startled at how bad it is. Messages are not threaded. When using an IMAP account, it doesn’t keep in sync with messages on the server. You can’t view folders.

    The built-in IMAP client is so bad, I moved all my work email to an Exchange server so I could use their push service and moved my personal email to Gmail so I could use the Gmail App. There are some third-party IMAP clients out there, but they’re very immature.

  2. It sometimes freezes for long periods of time. Inexplicably, it will just stop responding for 10 seconds or so every once in a while. It doesn’t crash, but it’s annoying to just have to sit and stare at it.
  3. It doesn’t have a touchscreen. This was obvious to me before I bought it of course, but it doesn’t make it less frustating when I can’t figure out how to do something that would be simple if I could just tap the stupid screen. It’s a hard habit to break after many years of Treos. RIM, you seriously need to fix this. It’s 2009 for crickes sake. The trackball is pretty agile, but it’s still limited in apps where you can use it to click anywhere.

I’m still working on getting it configured to all my likes. I prefer to have my phone always on vibrate except when it’s charging. I can’t figure out how to do that. The default seems to be for it to vibrate and ding for every email, SMS or calendar alert that pops up. If I left that in the morning, I would be throwing it out the window by noon.

I haven’t figured out how to get it to tether with my Mac for free. The best solution seems like the $50(!) TetherBerry.

It’s still a pretty nice device and for the price, you can’t beat it.

How I got my BlackBerry Tour for $11

Two years ago, I signed up for Sprint’s super-cheap SERO plan. For $30 a month, you get 500 minutes, unlimited texting and unlimited data. They’ve since discontinued the plan, but as long as you have it, you can continue to use it. Many of the newer high-end phones aren’t allowed (such as the Palm Pre or HTC Hero), but Blackberry and Windows Mobile phones are OK.

Since my 2-year contract was up and I was eligible for an upgrade, I did some research (mostly on SprintUsers) and decided on the BlackBerry Tour. With some finagling, I managed to get the phone for$11 and without changing my plan.

Here’s how

Step 1: Get your service credit. Call Sprint on your current phone (*2), and tell them you’d like to get your $70 service credit for renewing your contract. I got transferred a few times, but eventually someone will apply the credit, enslaving you to Sprint for another two years. You can still get the $150 upgrade credit after this.

Step 2: Get your Tour. I went to Best Buy because they had it on sale last week for $99. While the price was now $149, I talked them into honoring the $99 price (which includes the $150 upgrade credit). You could probably talk Sprint into matching their price too. There was no activation fee at Best Buy. The other nice thing about Best Buy is that there are no mail-in rebates for the upgrade credit, unlike Sprint.

They told me at first that my plan was not compatible with BlackBerry and I’d need to get a $30/mo data plan added. Pshhaw! I just told them I’d use the phone without the internet services. We’ll get that back later. They activated it and sent me on my way.

Step 3: Get your internet service. Call Sprint’s BlackBerry technical support at 1-877-654-9111 from a phone other than your new Tour. When you finally talk to a human, just tell them you need your “service books” pushed. They did it for me on my first try, but others have said it took several calls without them telling you that you needed the $30/mo extra plan. When it’s done, your icons for browsing the web, email and other stuff will show up.

So the final tally was

Phone cost $649
Upgrade credit -$150
Best Buy discount -$350
“Sale” -$50
Service Credit: -$70
MA 6% Tax $6
Activation 0
Total $36

I had a Best Buy gift card lying around that I hadn’t used in over a year, bringing my total to $11. Pretty good deal! If I was a real cheapskate I could have driven up to NH and save the $6 sales tax.

If you got a cheaper phone such as a BlackBerry curve for $49, you’d make money!

It’s a pretty nice phone and definitely an upgrade from my aged Treo 755p. I’m still getting used to and setting everything up. I’ll share some thoughts on that soon.

I’m sorry, we’re no longer friends.

I reached 500 Facebook “friends” today. My first thought was “I have 500 friends?” Really, for not being that social of a person, it seems impossible that I could know that many people and share a real mutual liking with them.

Of course, it is impossible. I don’t have 500 “friends”. I have 500 people comprised of a small number of real friends, along with hundreds of current and former coworkers, relatives, and people I’ve only “met” online.

Years ago, I was obsessed with “collecting” friends on Facebook. It wasn’t popular outside universities back then and you’d friend people you barely knew just to see what would happen. Now that everyone and their mother (literally) is on Facebook, it’s time to raise the bar.

500 people is too many to keep track of and I’ve decided to never go over that number. Every time I add a new worthy Facebook friend, I’m removing another. Here’s who’s on the chopping block:

1. You, who devotes all your status messages to promoting your product/company/service/religion. If I wanted to watch advertisements, I’d turn on a TV.
2. You, who does nothing but complain about your significant other/parents/pets/kids/job. I have my own problems and I don’t want to be constantly be confronted with all of yours too.
3. You, that person from high school who never wanted to talk to me in high school. Now you want to me my “friend”? No thanks.
4. You, who logs on to Facebook only to share your results of the “Which Potato Chip are You???” quiz.
5. You, the obnoxious, arrogant Yankees fan. At least until January. Win at least one recent World Series before you start talking about dynasties, OK?

I’m still in awe of the power of Facebook in connecting such an incredible number of people. It has truly changed the internet forever. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here, along with just 500 of my closest friends.

Audrey has flown around the world – twice

Audrey turns 2 tomorrow. It’s hard to believe. While it’s exciting to see her learn and grow, there’s one thing we’ll miss about her being under 2 – flying for free. It’s a perk we’ve taken advantage a lot and not just when we lived on the West coast.

I was curious how much we’ve actually flown with her, so I went through all our old itineraries and made a map.

View Audrey’s Flights in a larger map

How far has Audrey flown? Over 60,000 miles. That’s just straight line distance without connections, so the real number is even higher. That’s around the world twice. If it was all on one airline, she would have at least one free flight.

Her earliest flight was when she was 3 months and 2 days old. Her latest was at 1 year and 364 days. She’s been to 12 destination cities.

She’s been a pretty good traveler too. She loves to walk (or be walked) up and down the aisle and say hello to everyone.

I’m sure we’ll be going on many more trips with her, but I’d say she’s had a pretty good start.

Why is programming threads hard?

I keep reading stuff about most engineers being too stupid to understand how to program threads. I don’t get it.

I never used threads until I started programming in Java 10+ years ago and it seemed pretty easy. You create a new thread, let it do some stuff and join() on it if you want to wait for it to complete. It makes it easy to access things in memory across threads. Of course if you want to modify things in that shared memory, you have to implement some locking on those objects, but that’s not that hard either. Perhaps it’s a bit harder if you’re programming threads in a language that doesn’t manage memory.

So tell me, am I a programming genius that finds threads easy (unlikely) or am I missing some big usage of threads that makes it impossible for a mental peon like me (more likely)?

Creatures in the Attic

The other night I was awake at 4:30. I’m not sure if it was the pattering of rain outside, the occasional car or the heavy breathing of Audrey I could hear from all the way down the hall. Whatever it was, I was awake and not settling easily.

Then I heard a noise that was extremely unsettling – the distinct sound of crinkling insulation coming from the attic directly above our bedroom. Something was up there.

Immediately I thought of the venting holes under the eaves of the roof. Sometime during the winter, two caps had fallen out of them, leaving a hole right up into the attic. I saw a bird fly into there last week and who knows what else could be settling into our attic.

I got out of bed and went upstairs. I quickly noticed that the small door that led from the finished part of the 3rd floor to the attic was ajar. So whatever was in the attic could also now be in our house. Wonderful.

In the attic I turned on the light and crept towards the area where I heard the noise. There was nothing. Everything was quiet. Then, as I got closer, a huge animal suddenly darted across the attic in a blur of gray fur. It took me a second to process what I just saw. It was our cat.

I have no idea what he was doing up there, but I guess the door to the attic came open and he decided to explore. I wasn’t sure where he went, but he was heading towards the door into the house, so I closed it behind me and went back to bed.

In the morning I told Anne about the incident and went to work. As we were eating dinner that evening, I asked her if she had seen the cat. She said no. I immediately went up to the attic and opened the door. Sure enough, the dumb cat was still in there. He didn’t run out like I thought he had. He sheepishly wandered out and I jammed the door shut.

I still need to get those caps replaced.

Remains of the week

A few random things:

I hate Quiznos
I’ve never really liked Quiznos. They always seem to do something weird to the sandwiches and I end up regretting going there. Last week I went to Quiznos and found out they were giving away 1 million free subs. Hooray! I want back and filled out the form, giving them all my valuable data, and printed out my form.

Yesterday, seeing it expired that day I went back to get my free sub. It was a cold day and Quiznos is a bit further than our usual lunch places, but I went anyway, alone. I got there, the sandwich lady yelled at me for my order (which she always does) and then told me they didn’t take the free sub coupons anymore because they were no longer a “participating location”. So you can be a participating location one day and not the next? I paid for my sub, feeling duped.

Congratulations Quiznos, your brilliant promotional plan failed. I used to have only a mild dislike for your stores. Now I hate you and will never go back.

But it’s a dry heat
We’ve been looking at getting a humidification system installed in our house. After months of heating, the wood floors are separating, the paint is cracking and the static is enough to make one spontaneously combust.

You would think that in this economy, heating and cooling installers would be desperate to get our business. We’ve had four companies come to the house and in a week, only one has bothered to get back to us with an estimate, and he did it right there.

Even more disturbing is that none of them seem to agree on what we need. Some say we need multiple units, others say one. I know nothing about humidifier systems and I have no idea who to trust. Sigh.

UPnP is a PITA
I’ve spent way too many hours recently trying to set up my parents’ Slingbox. It worked fine inside their network, but you could not get to it from the outside, despite the setup assistant saying it was working. Through some strange series of reboots, I was able to get it to work, but not in any deterministic way.

What I was relying on was Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), which is a system by which the Slingbox can tell the router “Hey, let anybody on the outside talk to me if they talk on these channels.” What seemed to be happening is that UPnP is not persistent and the router would forget that it was supposed to let outside machines talk to the Slingbox. The solution? Don’t use UPnP. I set the Slingbox to use a static IP and set the router to forward port 5001 to it. Works beautifully.

How to Download your LAUNCHcast Ratings

Since I wrote about the demise of LAUNCHcast, many people have written panicked comments about losing LAUNCHcast and all their ratings.

While I can’t help with LAUNCHcast, I can assure you that all the ratings will be preserved on Yahoo! Music. Better yet, I now have a way for you to download all your ratings.

Now I don’t know if downloading these ratings are actually useful because I don’t know of any service where you can import them, but at least you’ll have them in case such a service does become available.

Anyway, have at it. I hope you find it useful.

And thanks for all the kind words left in the comments about how you loved LAUNCHcast. Me too.

If you appreciate this tool, or enjoyed LAUNCHcast, please consider donating to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. My wife is running a marathon to raise money!

My Productive Weekend

What we did this weekend:

  1. Inflated the tires on the jogging stroller
  2. Moved a very heavy treadmill from the 3rd floor to the basement – at midnight, no less.
  3. Assembled an elliptical machine without instructions (they were missing).
  4. Installed Linux about 4 times, finally settling on Mythbuntu
  5. Installed a rather large mirror in the living room
  6. Moved a lot of stuff around in the basement
  7. Wired up my Wiimote charging stations and Wii component output
  8. Fixed a couple of loose doorknobs
  9. Unpacked and set up two new lamps for the bedroom
  10. Went to music class with Audrey
  11. Tried out a new rug for the kitchen. (It’s going back.)
  12. Fixed my parents’ email
  13. Tried to fix my parents’ printer.
  14. Tried and mostly failed at getting Audrey to nap in her crib in the afternoons.
  15. Chopped up most of the remaining ice on the driveway
  16. Reposted some furniture on craigslist
  17. Took advantage of an awesome sale on Amazon and bought Audrey a new carseat
  18. Watched the SuperBowl, mostly for the commercials (Hulu’s was the best), but it turned out to be a pretty good game, even if you didn’t care who wins.
  19. Actually updated my blog. 🙂

On one hand, my life seems to have become incredibly boring. On the other hand, it was nice to stay home and get things done.

Farewell, LAUNCHcast

In April of 1999, I left Microsoft, 1 year and 1 day from when I joined. I had the bug to create something new with online radio. Todd Beaupre and I were shoved in a conference room in Santa Monica. Six months later, we introduced the world to LAUNCHcast, the customized and social online radio service.

I learned a hell of a lot from my years at LAUNCH and I never worked harder. LAUNCHcast built up quite a following, especially after we were bought by Yahoo!.

From literally day one of the service, the music industry tried to kill LAUNCHcast. I went to court to defend it. Well, they finally won by raising the rates services like LAUNCHcast pay to play music to an amount that makes no financial sense. Every online radio site will now lose money. As a result, Yahoo!, decided to get out of online radio, instead sending users off to CBS Radio. There will no longer be any customized radio.

Nice job, music industry. Instead of collecting money from these services, you’ve shut down any chance of revenue. Nobody buys CDs anymore and Apple is in control of all your music distribution. Way to go.

Farewell, LAUNCHcast. You introduced me to so much music and many friends along the way.