ChEEp!

I remember my first mobile phone. 1999, an nk402 on the Orange PAYG network. A year before that I had a MiniCall pager – messages to that were 50p each!

I had been loyal to Orange up to late 2011 (Text Saver kept me keen), at which point they had merged with T-Mobile to form EE. I left Orange for a few reasons: the tariffs were now uncompetitive, the signal had suffered since the merge, and I was about to get my first smartphone and it seemed inevitable that I needed a contract to avoid getting fleeced.

I didn’t need a contract, turns out. I ported my number over to the ultra-cheap O2 network-leacher, giffgaff, and it was my network for three unlocked Windows Phones until a couple of days ago as they were starting to seem uncompetitive. The funny thing is that I have returned to my old network, now fully known as EE.

EE doesn’t have a reputation as the cheapest but they are known for having the best and most reliable 4G coverage. Turns out though, that, with a bit of research, they can also compete head-on with Three, who offer 1p/mb data and 3p and 2p UK calls and texts respectively. Vodafone and O2 were off my radar because they seem stuck in the 00s.

I actually tested Three and EE PAYG SIMs before making the leap. I found that I had a strangely-usable 0-bar signal on Three indoors and internet speed was on average H+, even out. EE’s signal was a tad lower than giffgaff’s but it was visible and I’ve never had anything less than 4G data connection.

It’s not very evident without a bit of digging that EE offers a 100mb/10mins/10txts pack for £1 week; this is enough for me because most of my surfing is at home and I can find free WiFi in most places, partly because BT broadband allows me free access to their very large WiFi network. I could visualise it as this: I pay £1 for 100mb of data (1p/mb, like Three, but data only comes as part of a pack/add-on on PAYG EE) and I get 10 free calls and 10 texts on top as a bonus. I class those as a bonus because data is all I really need; nearly everyone I know has WhatsApp and you can call and text through that.

At £4 per month it’s a quid cheaper than the most cheapest contract and you get free boosts of data/calls/texts after a certain number of packs are bought, thereby adding more value over Three in the long-run. Being able to tether, unlike on Three, for no extra fee, can also be handy on some occasions, and calls to voicemail can be from allowance calls.

True that off-pack rates on EE are much higher than on Three and giffgaff but I don’t anticipate going out of bundle often and I can buy add-ons for when I prematurely use up pack allowance (which will assuredly be rare). There’s no free EU roaming like on Three (with an All-in-One add-on), but a MiFi dongle and a local SIM card are still often better value.

EE, like its competitors, also offer free Virgin WiFi on London Tube stops, but this isn’t a big deal as O2 gives free WiFi to everyone there regardless, and it’s pretty decent.

So, if you’re looking at a good balance between quality and price on PAYG, I’m shocked to say that EE are a good choice. It’s nice to be back after a 5yr hiatus.

…For how long, though?

Xubuntu 16.04 LTS on black MacBook (2008)

I have a MacBook now.

Granted, it’s a almost obsolete as it’s 8yrs old and has an un-updateable version of Mac OS X, but I have one. And it’s one of the rarer black models from early 2008. A bit of spit and polish has made it almost as good as new. It also has extra value in being from a famous friend, who now has a gorgeous MacBook Air.

The battery doesn’t last quite as long as it must’ve but it’s been fun to tinker with OS X on my own, and it’s not hard for a nearly-25yr Windows veteran to get to grips with. But to really make this more usable I decided to mess with its metaphorical brain. I partitioned the disk and put Linux on it. Which is a bit sacrilegious to some.

I first used Ubuntu 10 years ago and last used it 4 years ago, the last iteration being the very lightweight Lubuntu for my sold-off netbook. I decided to put Xubuntu on this MacBook as it’s capable of running heavier than Lubuntu, but classic Ubuntu with the Unity GUI might be pushing it.

After a bit of reading, installation was pretty painless. I burnt a Xubuntu CD, got the MacBook to boot it up to test all was good (it was, apart from WiFi which needed a proprietary driver that was acquired on installing), told it to install to the free space from partitioning, and I was good to go. So as well as respectfully keeping OS X on there I can (with the aid of rEFInd) now boot in to a modern OS with modern applications. And it looks better than the OS X which was last updated in 2009!

I’m not whooping too much though as I know that a machine approaching a decade is unlikely to last too long on the hardware side, but hey, it was free. I didn’t have a laptop. I didn’t have an Apple, and I didn’t have Linux. I have it all in one now. Let me enjoy my parade.

Sectarianism

Nearly 3 weeks ago an Ahmadi Muslim shopkeeper was murdered by a fanatical Muslim who claimed that the man, Asad Shah, had “disrespected Islam”. Mr Shah was known to wish Christian customers well on events and sometimes handed out gifts, and this was reasonably connected to the murderer’s motive. And today “Kill Ahmadi” leaflets were found in a London mosque. It goes without saying that killing over any sort of any sort of political or spiritual disagreement is stupid and barbaric, but I want to play the Devil’s advocate on an issue: Are Ahmadis Muslim? (For disclosure, I’m a religious heretic so I’m not on any side, fanatics would have my head cleaved too).

The premise of being a Muslim is based clearly on the statement that you believe in one god (Allah) and that Mohammed is his messenger, and that he is the seal of the prophets; that is, there can be no more.
Although Ahmadis are Muslim in that they put Mohammed as the primary prophet, therefore accepting the Qu’ran and Hadith (sayings), they put the Indian-born Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a secondary/returning prophet, and it’s Ahmad’s added influence that sets apart Ahmadis from Sunni and Shia Muslims. Though there is a dispute between the latter two it is not over the prophet but who should succeed in leadership.

The problem for Ahmadis is quite obvious (but, to repeat, not any justification for intolerance or violence). If being a Muslim requires you to believe that Mohammed is the final messenger of God, then believing a subsequent different-looking prophet makes you non-Muslim from the perspective of those who follow the majority orthodox pre-Ahmadi teachings. You can make an analogy: If a Christian says he believes in God and that Jesus is his prophet (or son), but adds on that he also believes in Mohammed, he cannot be a ‘Mohammedan Christian’; actually, you could say that, but pre-Mohammed Christians would not except that heresy. It would be easier if Mirza Ghulam Ahmad designated a new religious name, but then again his idea was to keep within the framework of Islam.

There’s an analogy with open-source software. We call derivatives of an original work forks, and it might be easier to think of Ahmadism as a fork of Islam. It maintains links with Islam but is a separate product even though it maintains much of the same belief and practice. It’s easier to respect upstream than downstream. Islam itself could be thought of as a fork of Christianity which was a fork of Judaism, and derivatives of each are what leads to sectarian clashes. With this in mind it is not irrational for Ahmadis not to be accepted as Muslims, in the same way that Jesuit Jews and Mohammedan Christians is a logic error for the other Abrahamic religions. Can you be a monotheistic Hindu? But disagreement’s not a good reason for discriminatory and violent behaviour (in fact, there’s no good reason for that); why dirty your hands with blood when your creator can sort that out later? We even see many women who cannot relate to or support men who have had a sex change. (“I’m a born-female, you’re not.”), but they’re not killed.

From the other perspective – leaving Devil’s advocacy – if Ahmadis want to call themselves Muslim that really is nobody else’s business. If there is a divine creator, only they know who is truly Muslim and self-definition is of little worth. You may call yourself Muslim and do little or nothing worthy, but your saviour, you believe, is that you were born under (or accepted) non-Ahmadism. I think it’s easy to see who wins between a murderer and an innocent.

There’s an easy truce. Sunnis and Shias don’t have to accept Ahmadis on an intellectual-spiritual level but they should treat them like human beings because that’s one thing we all are. Ahmadis, for their part, should probably abandon ever being wholeheartedly accepted by the majority as valid Muslims. I hold that thought with sadness. The pessimism is warranted because fanatics of totally different faiths don’t make life easy either.

Patty wars

I don’t eat much fast food, so when I do I think I might as well go upmarket because it’s a rare expenditure.

I was first introduced to Gourmet Burger Kitchen about a decade ago and since then I barely remember entering the Golden Arches. They have a wide variety of choice and it’s all fresh stuff. Likely as good as can be for the body as it is on the tongue. Of course it costs, on average 3x more than from a cheap place, but you feel satisfied. Habanero’s my fave.

GBK isn’t the only ‘posh burger’ place though as competition has been encroaching. However, they remain a favourite.

I’ve been to Byron a couple of times and they really just seem a slightly more snobby McDonald’s. I think they’re alright but they would always be a choice below GBK and my other favourite:

Which is Honest. Honest don’t have a huge menu but the restaurant environment is pleasant and the food is just as good, maybe slightly better than GBK’s. I also can’t resist the cola bottle gums-like premium Karma Cola.

Yesterday I was at Boom Burger and I had high hopes for this Jamaican joint because the menu looked tantalising and I expected an explosion of flavour. But while perfectly edible I found the taste rather bland, on top of which the seating is limited and shoddy and you have to compete with fairly loud music when placing your order. I had to point to menu items in fear of being misheard. I tried plantain fries; too sweet for my palette. The mango sauce in the burger was nice though.

I think my days of trying new places is over (mainly as I don’t know anymore). I’ll stick with GBK and Honest.

Windows 10 Mobile upgrade

I’ve been a Windows Phone user for 5yrs now, from the nearly earliest days of WP 7.5. I’m not sure why I should admit that as iPhone and Android have been the phones to have due to their vastly bigger app stores.

The Lumia 640 is my third phone (oddly, the first two died after nearly 2yrs each) which I picked up at Xmas, and after a few months of continued use of WP 8.1 I’m now on Windows 10 Mobile. Not as catchy as Windows Phone but it reveals Microsoft’s plans for having a unified system for all their devices and services.

In aggregate, W10M doesn’t seem that different to WP, which most people will find comfortable. It looks a bit different but works the same. I, however, did have some upgrade niggles. My People/address book was emptied, and despite my Microsoft Account being tied to my email address and calendar, the Mail and Calendar apps kept asking to add my account details even though they already existed! I tried various things, sought official technical support, but in the end I just reset the device – which wasn’t too painful because a backup managed to restore apps, data and settings in largely one action – and the problem was solved. I don’t know what happened but it’s working. A friend of mine who joined WP last year also had a few upgrade issues, dissimilar to mine, so I’m sure there’s quite a few for whom upgrading was stressful. I remember the only hatred for going from WP 7.5 to 7.8 was that 8.1 wouldn’t given to my first phone (and WM10 wouldn’t have been given to my second phone).

I think W10M is a bit more of a battery drain on my high-capacity battery and there’s still some app niggles, but overall it’s doing all the things I want it to do. Of course, the reason for this upgrade is also to entice developers to make Universal apps that work on PCs, tablets etc. in order to ramp up the Windows ecosystem. Whether they’ll achieve this goal, I don’t know. I thought WP8.1 would make a big difference and it didn’t. I’d like to continue being a W10M user as I love the interface and I’m sold into all things MS, but I have to admit that I wouldn’t hesitate to leap to iPhone – at least the new, cheaper SE – if there’s no compelling long-term benefit, and it might be nice to have a change. But I do like WP/W10M.

I’m just sorry for all the people who won’t be getting W10M, it’s the second time old Windows Phoners have been abandoned. And who knows what the deal will be when the Surface Phone(s) replace the Lumia range later this year?

Anselmo’s gaffe

I was a 90s teenager. I liked (and still like, though not exclusively) my music fast and heavy. One band that I liked, casually, was Pantera. I think they peaked rather quickly, within the early 90s, but Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power remain great groove metal albums. It’s a shame that they couldn’t survive the new century, in part because of the murder of guitarist Dimebag Darrell.

In late January, the former singer of Pantera, Phil Anselmo, at a Dimebag tribute event, soured proceedings when at the end he shouted “white power” quite viciously in an inebriated state. He was quickly and deservedly rounded up on by the metal circle, but what’s worse is that this isn’t the first time Anselmo has behaved boneheaded, though you always hope it’s the last.

No one is naïve to the fact that heavy metal/punk rock has some racists because the music is by and large produced and consumed by white males and it’s easy for a subset to tweak the rage for a vile agenda. But heavy metal stems from the blues, black music – I call it blues on steroids – and when I was growing up you saw metal bands of white, black and brown; dare I say it, but metal was probably the most visibly diverse and now it’s not hard to find people with no penis playing that kind of music. I think metal probably has more work on being less homophobic but racism seems a dying problem.

So it was sad to see Anselmo doing a Nazi salute because there were a couple of Pantera songs with very clear anti-racist lyrics. They had a very aggressive look but that was the thing of day, it went with the music; to then get it tacked by boneheaded racism is a bit sad. Sad because the other members of the band, and even Anselmo’s current band members, don’t espouse that. Heavy metal and music within that sphere has always been about rebellion, maybe only sonically, maybe also politically, and when someone within that who’s respected shouts “white power”, the first thing you think is: dumb fraud.

Some people say that rap and hip-hop espouses black power statements but the tuned in know that’s in response to the power structure. Black power is a defiance against oppression, stemming from X and MLK. White power is oppression; it’s thinking that there’s a master of race. What’s odder is that Anselmo is hardly Aryan with his brown eyes and black hair, and his Sicilian ancestry alludes to Moorish/Arab roots. His ex-wife had a Jewish surname.

I’m hoping that Anselmo’s outbursts are just braggadocio, that he somehow thinks that it’s interestingly edgy to do sometimes (as he approaches 50yrs of age), but I’m hoping that he learns that it’s pretty sad and pretty vile.

I just don’t know how you can shout “white power” while playing music which is so obviously indebted to black guys with guitars. Then again, racist skinheads also took their look from anti-racist ska fans. Logic error!

 

Review: Straight Outta Compton (movie)

I wanted to see this when it first came out but somehow never got to it. I haven’t been to the cinema for quite a while, in fact.

A tempting offer for digital purchase allowed me to see this on my tablet on New Year’s Day.

I’m not a hard-core NWA fan, in fact my ears lean much more to rock, but I absolutely loved their debut album Straight Outta Compton. It actually has the attitude of rock and roll but the sonic sensibility of fine pop music. I was too young too listen to their unarguably best album at the time of release, but I knew about them, I was a teenager during the “aftermath”.

With decades having passed (approaching 30yrs), a documentary movie was timely. Also because the white band rock biopic needed a challenge from black guys with attitudez…

Though there’s no real big name cast to the film I was surprised by how decently acted it was. There was a nice balance in that no one cast member stood out too much (maybe Easy-E was more foreground, though) and it told the story well. Embellishments with the truth have been acknowledged, but that’s not exclusive to this part-fictionalised film. NWA don’t claim to be angels but the experiences they faced did not allow them to be so, but when they channelled it into making beefy-beated clever raps they made something amazing that they weren’t able to sustain collectively.

I found it scary how much Ice Cube’s son looked and acted like his father in his role. And it was nice to have an insight into the band making their music; this must be authentic with members of NWA being on-set to advise. One of the villains, NWA’s manager, also comes across as a bit 3D. You’re allowed to judge to what percentage he was crucial to their success and demise.

Perhaps the one dud note is something I question.

Easy-E was said to have died of AIDS and this was dramatised with E coughing a lot, collapsing and ending up in hospital with a diagnosis of HIV and a low T-cell account (said to be a hallmark of AIDS). But as testified by family and friends his disease was rather sudden for AIDS which is marked by many gradual immunity challenges. His partner and child (to be born) tested negative, and his promiscuity did not create an HIV/AIDS cluster (else the media would’ve jumped on it). What happened was that a young black man was given the test against his will based on assumptions of his publicised life. Drearily, Easy-E had a respiratory infection and the film was quite implicit about his drug use as NWA fell apart. If he was treated properly he would have lived. I don’t doubt that.

Overall a good film. You might prefer to just rent it than own it.

Review: Microsoft Lumia 640

I think I’m cursed.

On Christmas Day morning I was listening to a bit of music on Spotify mobile when my 2yr and 1mth old Nokia Lumia 925 froze, crashed and tried to restart itself several times before going to smartphone heaven (or hell). This was a high-end phone when it came out, but I saved a bit of money by getting it as a Chinese import (I get SIM-free phones because I’m with a primarily SIM-only operator). I know that smartphone life isn’t very high because it’s an immature technology, but I wished I could get one more year out of it. I think I’m cursed because my first Windows Phone died after 2yrs too, the HTC Titan.

For smarter people this usually is a cue to go to Android, Apple, or maybe even BlackBerry. But I’ve been a fan of the tile interface for 4 years now and I’m not in a hurry to leave. Maybe the Lumia 640 I have now will be a bit luckier; maybe it’ll be my last WP if Windows 10 Mobile doesn’t do what Microsoft hopes it does.

When searching for phones I knew I wanted to go midrange now, but I was surprised at how limited the options were. At the time of searching I could only find actively sold phones by Blu and Microsoft (previously Nokia). I’m guessing other manufacturers are reloading for Windows 10, but, anyway, Satya Nadella seems to have trimmed down the Lumia range. Though the price of the 5″ Lumia 640 approaches budget, it’s actually midrange in what they have. It’s several hundred pounds cheaper than the standard Lumia 950 which features retinal recognition, Continnum (connect to a dock and use almost like a PC) and a 20MP pixel camera. These are features I don’t care for and won’t use so I was glad that the best option was cheap.

But it doesn’t feel cheap. Sure it has a plastic body and quite a faceless look but it feels like “hey, did you misprice this?”. I do miss the AMOLED of my old phone for deeper blacks (off pixels), but an IPS LCD gives whiter whites. The 2000mAh battery of my 925 wasn’t lasting long (requiring at least 2 charges per day) but the 2500mAh here is giving me a full day and a half on average, and it’s replaceable!

Even though there’s only 8GB of internal memory, you can pop a micro SD card in (mandatory for sufficient use really), so I have a 32GB card for my apps and photos etc.

At this price range I was also surprised to see the glance screen which allows me to see time and notifications without taking the phone out of standby. This was a feature I’d lose by going to Blu. Though other WPs, like my deceased 925, have capacitive navigation buttons I was absolutely fine with them being on-screen now. You can swipe them out when not needed, so the front of the phone is virtually just screen (Gorilla glass too).

With HD resolution it’s easy on the eyes. Not quite Retina class, but good enough to not really care. There’s no physical camera button here, just power and volume. A headphone socket is on the top and a micro USB port on the bottom (you don’t get a charger with a detachable cable though, for connecting to your computer; I have one from my last phone though).

Upgrading from my old phone was easy. On signing into my Microsoft Account it found a backup of my old phone and restored everything it could. I just needed to adjust the tiles to fit this bigger screen, which is not uncomfortable to use. Though the phone is a bit thicker than my last, it’s certainly not too chunky.

A competing phone, the Lumia 550, has a lower spec but Windows 10 already on it. But I’m happy to wait for that upgrade as I hear it’s still a bit buggy and I’m fine with 8.1 for the time being.

If you’re looking for a midrange WP this is probably the best choice at the moment. Professional and consumer reviews are allied in that you get a lot of feature and quality for the price. It doesn’t feel such a downgrade from the 925; certainly it is an improvement in some areas (not the camera though, though it’s respectable enough here).

The box it comes in is not swish as Nokia used to do (which was aping Apple) but it’s nicely minimalist. Reading the short getting started leaflet is not mandatory as it’s very intuitive.

If you have more dough, you could go for the 640 XL which has a bigger screen and a better camera. But this is the one for me!

Review: Swees 25600mAh power bank

Nice weather we’re having?… I’m from England.

Speaking of weather, last month I was sitting in an airport boarding gate waiting for my outbound flight. Though there had been some flight cancellations the previous days at Heathrow – thick fog – I thought I’d get lucky because some flights were leaving. However, the flight time on the display board kept on showing later numbers until eventually everyone sitting there sighed at the speaker announcement.

I wasn’t panicked at the flight loss because I was able to rebook easily for 2 days later and was offered accommodation, but my phone battery had died and all the charging ports around me were in use. Like most, I don’t know most peoples’ numbers by heart to contact via a phone booth, and I had converted all my currency (not a single coin on me). People in contact were tracking my flight but I couldn’t communicate until a little while later (finding a plug back in the departures entrance). Should I just travel back to the house I was staying or wait to be collected? Those questions couldn’t be resolved quickly and at a relaxed pace because my phone was dead (it held enough charge to get home if I had no delay or cancellation).

I resolved to get a power bank, the biggest capacity you could get for a good price! I actually didn’t need to go over the top, but when you’re annoyed by a situation you can overcompensate, and I did. But the model I got would be useful in long-haul situations too (not that I’m planning on that anytime soon).

The Swees 25600mAh power bank is huge! You can get smaller – often sensible – ones that look like lighters that will charge an average smartphone a couple of times, but this one looks like a small hard drive and weighs nearly half a kilo. It charges my 2000mAh phone 9.5 times alone and my 7000mAh tablet 2.5 times alone. Though you could get away with putting it in a coat pocket it is more appropriate for a bag. It has 4 dim blue lights which signify 25% charge each, but these aren’t very accurate as the last 2 lights disappear quicker than the first 2. A micro USB to USB cable is included, but you’ll want a 2A wall plug to charge this in about half a day. A 1A plug will take more than a day. I’ve had this unit a month now and it’s doing fine. It charges all devices I have, including a Kindle and data dongle.

I’ve found that as well as for travel it’s great for use at home. If I want to use my phone or tablet while it’s charging I don’t have to be chained to the wall as I can put the power bank everywhere, and you’re recommended to at least charge it once every 4mths to keep the battery working well.

If you really need a whopper of a power bank I have no reservations in recommending this.

Btw, season’s greetings.

Data roaming in Ireland for the UK traveller

Roaming charges! Though they’re less extortionate than before, they’re still high enough to warrant enabling the ‘do not roam’ switch on your smartphone. Fortunately, many of us know that we can save money by obtaining a local SIM card from the country you’re travelling to, but that will mean getting a new local number, which can be a minor hassle if you use WhatsApp (and who with a smartphone doesn’t?) as you will need to give your friends that local number and re-register that number for the service.

One way to get around that, which requires a bit of investment, is to use what is called a ‘WiFi dongle’ (or a mobile broadband router) and put the local SIM in that and connect your phone to it via WiFi (known as tethering) to use data. Not all network operators allow tethering, some may allow this on specific packages (“add-ons”), but it’s not easy for them to detect you’re doing this. You’re liable to get a warning if the amount of data you’re using is suspiciously high as to make them reasonably suspect tethering.

For Ireland, I’ve worked out that the simplest tethering option is via Tesco Mobile Ireland. TMI are an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) who use O2’s network capability, so being part of a huge network you can be assured of good coverage in the country. You don’t have to go to Ireland first to obtain a SIM as you can find them very cheap on eBay, and you can register them online from the UK and top-up via a UK debit/credit card. And they allow tethering, full stop!

Internet packages can be activated via text (so, if you have a spare/dual SIM phone you could put your SIM in that and do it from there, or temporarily from your main phone). For €2.99 you can get 350MB of data for a week while €5 gets you 1GB for 30 days, there’s also 1 day 50MB and 30 day 5GB options for 79c and €10, respectively. Peanuts, really.

You’ll need to enter the APN settings on your dongle to be able to use the internet, and the APN is tescomobile.liffeytelecom.com (with no username and password). You can find phone-specific help here.

With your TMI account topped-up, your package activated, and your SIM in the dongle with the APN selected, simply turn it on upon arriving in Ireland, tether to it, and there you have it – mobile internet at a fantastic local rate. Tell your friends to call you via Skype, if they must.

Alternatively, if you’re on pay-as-you-go, the Three (UK) network seem to be the most competitively-priced operator in the UK with 3p calls, 2p texts and 1p/MB data, all on 4G with no extra charge, and 150MB of gratis data with every top up (at least £5). Now, if you go to Ireland (and, in fact, a number of ‘Feel At Home’ destinations) you’re not charged for data roaming if you convert some top-up to a £10-£25 package add-on, which lasts 30 days. If you’re on pay monthly you don’t need to pay for this. Irish Three customers seem to need to pay €2.99 as an add-on regardless of contract type to be able to get the same benefit in the UK. You can’t, however, tether at all abroad (you’ll get error messages) and what is “all you can eat” in your home country is capped to 25GB (still plenty). You’ll need to make sure you’re connected to a roaming partner (most times you will) or you won’t avoid roaming charges.

The latter is probably the best idea if you plan to move to Three permanently (something I’m considering), whereas if you’re not, Tesco Mobile Ireland is the other best choice. If you’re not too fussed about dongles and price you can also find a Vodafone shop in Dublin Airport and ask for a SIM card as a traveller there.

If you’re from Ireland and coming to the UK you can get a 1GB 30-day data SIM from Vodafone via eBay for less than a tenner.