Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Analog people in a digital world

Much has been said over the years comparing the original Star Wars trilogy to the prequels. Even more has been said about the digital fudgery of the older films. With the recent purchase of the Star Wars franchise by Disney, these discussions are back in the forefront. I won't elaborate too much on my opinion other than to say that:
  • Digital effects do not make up for a lack of storytelling.
  • Who said it was necessary for digital animators to keep all their work in focus and the screen constantly busy with effects, so that viewers can always see their shiny work? One thing I learned in Graphic Design is that, sometimes when people notice your work it can be a bad thing. Meaning that if you as a designer (animator, artist, etc...) do something that pulls the viewer away from the intended result, or they see your work rather than the intended message, then you messed up. Reign in the ego and start over.
  • The originals were much better at telling the story than their later, higher-tech counterparts.
  • Step away from the green-screen. Sometimes real is better.
  • We know who shot first, no matter how many times to try to explain it.
But, I digress...

For argument sake I would say that the original trilogy could be compared to “analog”, and the prequels could be compared to “digital”.

To put it another way. Audio engineers and audiophiles often attempt to describe the differences between analog and digital in how it affects the sound of music. Some will describe analog sources (vinyl, tape, live) as “warm”, and digital sources (cd, mp3, etc...) as “cold”. Others will describe analog as “muddy” and digital as “crisp”.
Sound is formed by waves that are continuously variable in frequency and amplitude. These would be considered analog waveforms. Digital is not continuously variable. It is either “on” or “off”. Therefore to recreate sound it must sample the analog audio at a specific sample or bit rate in order to reproduce the sound in numerical values. This creates a stepped waveform compared to the fluid nature of original. The higher the bit rate the more closely the digital signal will match the analog, but there are still steps. So, what if there is a sound at a value that is between these steps? That value is ignored. To put the concept more simply, imagine a fretted vs fretless bass guitar. Sliding your finger up and down a fretless bass will produce an infinite number of possible notes. Sliding your finger up and down a fretted bass will produce the notes of each fret in steps.

Likewise, the voice you hear at the other end of your cell phone is not the actual voice of the person, but a digital representation of that voice. When the vocoder (the device that encodes and decodes the sound of the human voice into and from digital format) encounters a sound it doesn't recognize, or if cannot filter out background noise or static, it ignores the information. This is often why you will hear voices cut out in low signal areas or other situations. Typically cell phone audio is also highly compressed to make efficient use of the networks. Compression is another advantage of digital technology. It allows more information to be transmitted with less size. However, it does come at the expense of audio quality, which can sound more robotic/mechanical or drop out completely, whereas the human ear and brain can detect recognizable voices through quite a bit of noise and static.

In most areas of technology digital is commonly marketed as “better”. Digital is “new” and therefore better than what is perceived as “old” or analog. Therefore in the minds of advertisers we must progress to the digital or be left behind in the analog. Digital has given us many great things, though it is not a replacement for everything. We have digital TV, digital radio, digital phones, digital cameras, digital music, and more. But a digitally synthesized cello is not a real cello. However, neither can a cello create the syncopated layers of modern electronic music, any more than a trumpet is a drum, a fork is a spoon, or a rice cakes is tasty.

This may sound like I'm coming down on technology (odd coming from someone who works in the technology field) but I'm not. Rather, I would suggest that analog and digital are two different ways of doing similar things. They both have their advantages and disadvantages.

So, could it be said that the constant push to make everything digital has filtered out the character, nuance, and sometimes the imperfections that are the “warmth” of an analog life lived by analog people? Perhaps. How many of us can remember the the top ten phone numbers in our contacts, without looking? How many of us can count change, or do math in our heads? How much do we know about our friends, other than what is strained through the social media filter? How many face to face friends do we have compared to our Facebook friends?

People are analog. Technology is often digital. Let's use technology responsibly, not simply for technology's sake. Let's remember the difference between digital technology and digital marketing hype. We don't have relationships with our email, or texts. We have relationships with the person on the other end who wrote them. In our quest for technology let's not forget the human elements.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A word about refurbishd phones

Refurbished cell phones (refurbs) are a common encounter in the electronics industry.  Many wireless carriers sell refurbished phones at a lower cost than new, or use refurbished phones as replacements for insurance claims.  Unfortunately, refurbs also have a fairly negative reputation amongst consumers.  In the sixteen years I've been in the wireless industry I would have to agree that this reputation is often well earned...with the possible exeption of factory refurbished.

There are two common ways that electronic items are refurbished.  One way is that the manufacturer refurbishes the unit (or sub-contracts to a refurbishment company to refurbish the units to the manufacturer's specification or quality).  Another way is that third party companies buy defective units in bulk from various sources then refurbish and resell them.  But, do these third party companies have access to the original specifications?  What are their quality control methods?  Those are answers that are rarely, if ever, available to the consumer... that is until the consumer gets a refurb that doesn't work properly, or a series of refurbs that don't work, then the answer is pretty obvious. 

Another issue is how companies choose to define "refurb".  To some it means "remanufacture", or to repair and return the phone to like new function and condition.  To others it means to make the phone "look" new.  In other words, slap on a new coat of paint and send it out the door.

The final issue is how much time a refurb company can afford (or is willing) to devote to testing and repair and still maintain a profit.  Labor is expensive.  Cheap overseas labor has made profit and quality control more difficult.

Combine the above and you can see how refurbs have received a bad reputation.  Ultimately, they are only as good as the company doing the work. 

So, are refurbs a good deal?  Unless your carrier is willing to divulge how their phones are refurbished, it is anyone's guess.  Should you get a refurb?  As in everything, there are levels of risk.  The decision is yours.  But remember, forewarned is forearmed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Strangest cellphone repair story

When people find out that I am in the wireless industry one of the first things they do is hand me their phone to either fix a problem or show them how to use it.  That's what started me in the repair side of the industry many years ago. 

In the course of conversation people usually end up asking about strange cellphone repairs.  So, I thought I would share one that was encountered while working with a rural carrier.

Seems that a farmer had been talking on his cell phone while feeding his cows.  After ending his call he put his phone in his bib overalls and continued tossing hay to his livestock.  Apparently at some point he leaned over too far and his phone fell into the hay.  A couple of stalls later, the farmer realized his phone was missing.  He goes back to look but can't find it.  Fearing that one of the cows swallowed it he immediately fenced off the 3 or 4 cows he suspected then called his veterinarian.  The vet comes out to examine the cows.  In the process, one of the cows starts ringing.  Yep.  The phone was on and someone was trying to call.  They never said how they extracted the phone...bring it up or let it pass through.  Frankly, I didn't really want to know... :-)  Ignorance is bliss.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Drying your phone in rice: Myth

The myth of drying your phone in rice.

Getting your phone wet is extremely common.  Perhaps it's happened to you.  C'mon, admit it...we use our phones everywhere.  At the beach, by the pool, in the bathroom...  It's bound to happen.  When it does we scramble to our old friend, the internet, to figure out what to do.  What does it tell us to do?  "To fix a wet phone, put it in a bowl or bag of rice."

We've seen this little bit of advice on the web. We've heard it from salespeople and customer service representatives. It's even been published in books...

Like many myths and urban legends there is a component of the tale that always sounds logical or reasonable. After all, rice absorbs many times its weight in water when we cook it, so it would seem reasonable that it would be able to absorb water from your phone, wouldn't it? However, once again myth lets us down. The technique of using rice is not only ineffective, but can actually cause additional damage to your phone or other electronic device.

How? Let us find out.

Rice has little effect as a desiccant (moisture absorber). It will absorb many times its weight in water, but only while in direct contact. It will not effectively "draw" moisture out of the air or out of your phone.

Additional causes of damage:
1. Rice often gets lodged into charge ports, headset plugs, keyboards, and data connectors, potentially breaking these vital components.
2. Liquid isn't the only thing that causes damage when your phone gets wet. It is also the minerals and trace element present in the liquid (such as salt, calcium, sugar, acids, soaps, etc...) that cause damage and corrosion. Corrosion will spread even without liquid present. Desiccants may absorb water but they will not remove any of these deposits that are left behind. Even if rice had desiccant properties it would only address a fraction of the problem.
3. Most rice is "enriched" with...wait for it...
Vitamins and minerals... which can leech into the liquid you're trying to absorb, only adding to the overall problem.
4. Creepy-crawlies. Grain mites and weevils are common pests that love rice, grain, and flower. Do you really want them infesting your phone too? 'Nuff said!

So, what can you do if your phone has gotten wet?

1. Remove the battery. Do not attempt to charge the device or plug it in. This may cause a short circuit and permanent damage.
2. Remove any face plates, cases, or covers to help the phone air dry. We do NOT recommend using a hair dryer or compressed air to speed drying. These will often push liquid deeper into the phone and spread the damage.
3. Contact us for repair as soon as possible. Rust and corrosion will continue to spread even when dry. The sooner a device is professionally treated, the better the chance of a successful repair.

As a wise man once said: "If rice actually worked, I'd be selling rice, not fixing phones."