30 Days of Geek #8: Preferred method of communication with humans

I’ve decided to partake in Jethro Carr’s 30 Days of Geek challenge, so I’ll be writing a post a day on my geekiness for an entire month! You can find all the posts in one spot here.

Naturally, I prefer to communicate with other humans in person. Every other form of communication leaves something to be desired (and usually, that something is something big).

I’m quite sure that I’m not the only person in the world who has trouble picking up on the subtle cues found in all human communications. The hints of sarcasm (or, in my case, the never-ending stream of it), the smiles, the hand movements, the stances, the tones of voice. A lot of it falls under the umbrella term of body language. Body language is just something the Internet cannot do at all. The telephone, surprisingly, does it even worse (at least in my experience). So I like talking in person the best, because it gives me the best chance to pick up on all these cues.

So, my preferences as far as communications goes:

  1. Human contact one on one or in a small group.
  2. Human contact in a large group conversation (there’s a large gap between 1 and 2).
  3. Instant Messaging (I use MSN and Facebook chat the most). Simply because I can log it.
  4. Internet Relay Chat (IRC). If you don’t know what this is, just think chatrooms.
  5. Text messages (SMS).
  6. And, right down the bottom, in a dusty box underneath the staircase, talking on the telephone.

I think the reason I hate the phone so much is because the person who gets called (usually me) has no choice about when the conversation happens. I could be in the middle of something requiring a lot of concentration (such as programming or web scripting, which requires juggling dozens of variables and logical statements in your head) and the phone rings. Concentration lost.

Of course, if I like you enough, I’ll be happy to shelve whatever I’m doing to talk to you. It’s just that this category isn’t large enough for my boss to be part of it.

Review: Telstra Prepaid Wireless Broadband

Recently I just started house-sitting a house with no Internet connection at all. As a member of the generation who just refuse to be out of touch at any point in time, I needed a way to get the Internet. I’ve house-sat at the same place before, and in previous times I’ve experimented with no-contract dialup services (which turn out to be unreliable and expensive), using my mobile phone as a 3G modem (which worked fine until somebody rang or sent an SMS), and scanning the neighbourhood for open wireless networks (of which there are none, sadly).

So, this time, in an effort to remain connected for the duration of the stay (2 weeks), I’ve purchased myself a prepaid wireless broadband USB dongle, courtesy of Telstra. For those of who don’t know how these things work, they are basically a device (looks a little bit like a flash drive) that plugs into your USB port, connects to the mobile phone network, and lets your computer talk to the mobile network as if it was a phone. More specifically, it allows you to access the Internet via the mobile phone network and send and receive SMSs.

The Telstra Prepaid Wireless Broadband dongle costs around $150AUD retail, and with this you get $10 included credit (which isn’t much at all, trust me). For $89 you get 4GB of data usage, which is a fair hunk, and more than enough for most people just doing browsing and so on. It easily lasted me two weeks of browsing, email checking, Skype video calls (about 3 hours a day) and the occasional small download.

The box it comes in is the same rough size as a DVD case, but a bit thicker. It’s mostly empty space, but there is a manual (which actually tells you most of the things you need to know) as well as an extension cable for the dongle (roughly about 50cm long). The rest of it is filled with not-so-environmentally-friendly foam.

Installation was fairly simple, once I read the instruction manual. First of all I just tried plugging in the device (which picked up as a CD-ROM drive, auto installed some drivers, and then brought up a window with a ‘Connect’ button). This didn’t work. After reading the installation manual I found I had to ring Telstra to activate the SIM card. After doing this, the connect button worked as normal, and I could get on the Internet just fine. It works much like a 56k dialup modem, but with a custom interface.

On the night I bought the device, I couldn’t be bothered ringing Telstra to activate the SIM card. So I experimented with taking the SIM card out of my mobile phone (also a Telstra SIM) and stuck it in the dongle (it’s a fairly easy process to change the SIM card). To my surprise, it worked. I was then able to use the significant amount of browsing credit I had on my phone’s SIM card to browse the Internet on my laptop. A handy feature, I think.

Telstra (or rather, ZTE, the manufacturers of the actual device) had a few more handy tricks up their sleeves. On the side of the dongle is a slot to put a MicroSD card into. I wondered what it was for. This is a modem, not a camera. On reading the manual, I read that it is so you can turn the dongle into a USB flash drive as well (though it only supports up to 4GB cards). Cool idea, though I’ll probably never use it.

The software that Telstra have devised to control the dongle (connect, disconnect, send SMS, see credit, etc) is all proprietary custom-written stuff. While I hate it when companies do that (what’s wrong with using Windows’ dialup connection manager?), Telstra have actually managed to do it well this time. The software only starts when you plug in the device, there are limited things to go wrong (but you are still able to change the most important options), and it stays out of your way on the taskbar while you’re browsing the Internet. Compared to some of their older efforts at wireless broadband connection software (which I used to set up as part of my job occasionally), this software is brilliant.

In addition to that, ZTE have actually bothered to sign their drivers. If you’ve read my review of the PreSonus AudioBox, you’ll know how much unsigned drivers piss me off. They have also distributed updates to the drivers via Windows Update. This is a miracle; the number of smaller hardware companies bothering to do this is far too few.

I’ve been using this device for the last two weeks as my sole Internet connection. I was located in the suburbs of Hobart (where mobile coverage is fairly good), though I experienced three dropouts during that time (mostly during the peak evening time). Speed is fairly good. According to speedtest.net, I got 1840kb/s downstream from a server in Melbourne, and 384kb/s upstream.

Overall, I’m very impressed with this device. While the data is hugely expensive for the amount you get, that’s the only problem I can pick with this device. Other than that, it’s a well thought out, well implemented piece of hardware, backed up by some good software and a decent user manual. 4.5 stars.

Update 21/11/09:  You might also be interested in my look at various high data-usage mobile phone plans, here.

Trip to Berlin: Part Two

This is part two of my trip to Berlin. For part one, see here. The next day (Friday) we went in to the city and walked around a bit (well quite a lot actually). The first place we went was Unter den Linden, which is a big long boulevard (about 1.5km) with the Brandenburg gate at one end at a huge statue of a guy on a horse at the other. After walking through the gate whilest simultaneously trying to avoid a large group of American tourists, we turned left and visited the Holocaust memorial, which is I think the saddest place I’ve ever been.

There was a huge amount of material in the information centre under the memorial, which we took about an three quarters of an hour to look around. It was a sad place, it felt like a never-ending funeral. Every person in there, even a few younger children, were silent as they walked around, and you could feel respects being paid. One room told the story as a timeline of events, and a few more rooms (three, from memory) told stories of individual people, families, and concentration camps. It felt strange as I came out the other end, perhaps it’s not something I can really describe. I feel deeply saddened for those who lost their lives, and even more so for those who lost somebody they knew.

Our walk around central Berlin

After coming out of the Holocaust memorial we walked North to the Reichstag and the other government buildings. We didn’t go into the Reichstag, the lines were long and we couldn’t be bothered. Instead we walked through a few of the parks around that area. We skirted around the edges of the Tiergarten, and through Spreebogenpark. We walked over the bridge to the Hauptbahnhof where we caught a train to the next station, Freidrichstaße. From there we walked South to Unter den Linden again. Here we got hungry, so we ate some donuts. We then walked East along Unter den Linden looking for a drink to wash them down with, and also at a few of the sights (the opera house is on the south-east side of this boulevard, near the word Mitte on the map). A word of advice: the south side of Unter den Linden has no food shops at all. The central island had a few sights on, mostly museums, as well as the Lustgarten (which apparently gets it’s name because it’s full of couples in the summer months).

Crossing over the next river we came to a couple of nice cathedrals: one on the side of the river we had just come from, and one to the East of us on the main bank. After a suitable pause looking up at them (much more impressive than the two cathedrals in Hobart), we walked towards the tallest building in Berlin, the TV tower (368m). I was surprised to find a casino lying at the bottom of it. After this we walked to another train station, Alexanderplatz, where we caught a train back to Freidrichstaße again. This was for the purpose of going to the biggest bookstore I’ve ever seen (and as such, how can I resist). On the 5th floor I found the English-language computer books, which I had a great time looking at. Stephanie could eventually be dragged away from the English-language literature as well, and so that wrapped up my second day in Berlin.

On Saturday (the 7th) we visited the second largest department store in the world (if I recall correctly), KaDeWe. I had a look at mobile phones, since my current one (a very nice HTC Touch) is dying. Battery life is now somewhere around 2 hours. After buying some Earl Grey tea flavoured chocolate on the top floor, we left for the cold weather outside. We walked along to see the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche church, which was bombed in the second world war, before catching a random bus and seeing where it would take us. We rode it across the centre of Berlin before catching a tube train home.

On Sunday we started by walking along the East Side gallery, which is a remaining section of the Berlin wall, now covered in drawings and paintings. The wall stretches most of the way from the Warschauer Straße station to the Berlin Ostbahnhof, about 1.5km. From there we went to Checkpoint Charlie, the point where officials and foreigners crossed between West and East Berlin. The original checkpoint has long been demolished, but in its place has been put a replica.

Next to the checkpoint is Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a museum dedicated to the history of the wall. It was previously used as a place from which people viewed the happenings at the checkpoint: comings and goings of guards and so on. Now it’s the most confusing museum I’ve ever been into. The rooms are all over the place and are filled with all kinds of stuff. I guess it’s what happens when you build a museum out of old apartments. It is filled with all sorts of information though. I found the most interesting part was the details of the escape attempts from East Berlin to West: people used hot air balloons, hang gliders, flying foxes, tunnels, all sorts of things.

Those three days were the ones we did the most sightseeing in. I’ll write next about some of the other random things we’ve done!