Garrett L. Ward

The (not-so-)Great Dumb Phone Experiment

Around two months ago, I successfully defended my Master’s thesis and received my M.S. in Engineering. As there was still some work to be done on the project I did, I agreed to stay in my lab over the summer and work on finishing the project as well as a few other small projects that needed my attention before I leave for good. However, this meant taking a fairly hefty cut in pay, as I would no longer be a fully funded teaching assistant, but instead merely a part-time lab technician.

I don’t carry a lot of monthly expenses1, but I took a look at the ones I do have and one in particular jumped out: my $140/month Verizon bill. This was for a single smart phone and two tablets, as I kept my old iPad 3 on my plan when I gave it to my mom. Around this time I was also becoming increasingly disaffected with my iPhone and smart phones in general. I became increasingly aware of my habit of using my iPhone whenever I was bored, be it waiting for food, walking to my car, or even when involved in a particularly uninteresting conversation with my friends. The same sentiment towards social media led me to delete my Facebook (and later, Instagram and Twitter) account. I attempted to curb this instinct by removing these distractions from my phone, only to find I instead resorted to pointlessly checking my email or browsing mobile websites instead.

A growing dissatisfaction with my reliance on my phone to keep my mind occupied coupled with a need to reduce my monthly expenses naturally lead to the idea of “downgrading” my smart phone. This would also allow me to switch my cell phone plan to one less comprehensive–and, therefore, much less expensive. After a brief bout of research, I came across some interesting contenders from Nokia. These were recently released phones, in the classic candybar style. They were also capable of basic web browsing and email, should the need arise. I settled on the Nokia 301, as it was available on Amazon for around $90 shipped. Paired with a Straight Talk Unlimited plan, I would save almost $95 a month. After 4 years of Android and then iOS, I was back to using a dumb phone. Thus began The (not-so-)Great Dumb Phone Experiment

Initial Thoughts

There was not a particularly difficult transition to using a dumb phone. It took some time to adjust to using T9 instead of a full keyboard. Rarely did I miss my iPhone, though. Occasionally I would find myself needing a password or TFA token, and it was mildly inconvenient to go get my iPad or laptop instead of having it right there, but I managed. Perhaps the most difficult part of the transition was explaining to my family and some of my friends that no, I’m not (that) crazy, I’m just poor.

I found myself being very productive over the next few weeks, although that’s certainly attributable to a greatly reduced stress level from having defended as much as anything else. I still caught myself using my dumb phone to check email and mindlessly scrolling through text messages to kill time. It was something I was more cognizant of and actively tried to combat, somewhat successfully. I find myself looking at my phone much less now. I’ve also started leaving it in my office at night instead of in the bedroom with me; and there are many times I leave it on my desk at work when going out for coffee or lunch.

The biggest gain for me has been that I don’t use it mindlessly whenever I’m waiting for something. Now when I have to wait for food or service alone, I just stare off and think. Sometimes I actually think about useful things–designing something for work–and sometimes I just space out for awhile. I’ve also stopped listening to music when walking around alone. I can’t claim to be any more observant than I was before. I still tend to zone out and focus on a problem with or without music when I’m walking long distances. Still, it’s usually focused thought, not thought distracted by music or podcasts.

Two Months in

It’s now been slightly more than two months since I switched phones, and I’m still chugging along just fine. That said, there are two major things that I miss about having a less-dumb phone:

  • Having a full QWERTY keyboard. This is probably the biggest point of friction with my phone right now. T9 tends to fall apart if you don’t stick to a pretty simple vocabulary, and adding symbols and numbers is a giant pain of D-pad navigation and self-loathing.
  • Having a decent camera with easy exporting. The camera in the 301 is passable, but there’s no good way to upload pictures from it. The least painful way is to use bluetooth from my laptop.

The former is probably a non-issue for a lot of people. But my friends are mostly introverts who tend to use texts instead of phone calls–and writing out a wall of text on T9 is painful, especially on the 301 when a fat-finger miss of the 3 button hits the “end call” button… which immediately closes the messaging app without saving the message to drafts first. Typing words not in the T9 dictionary is also annoying. Having to go through three menus to enable “number” mode, which is the only way to type a 0, is just awful.

The latter isn’t really annoying so much as unfortunate. I used to take a lot of pictures on my iPhone. I’m no photographer–these were instagram-quality pictures at best–but it’s fun to go back and look at the old pictures I’ve taken over the years. I haven’t taken any pictures in the two months since I got my dumb phone, though. Not one. It’s something I’m really starting to miss.

The Nokia 301 is pretty great as a phone. It’s fairly solid, gets a week of battery life, and unlike a lot of dumb phones, it has threaded conversations for text messages and a fairly large message memory. You can check email on it, although I wouldn’t recommend it. But for what I want, I feel like it’s falling short. The experiment has failed. Not a major failure, but several cumulative minor ones.

The Future

I’m now at a crossroads. I’m not particularly happy with my phone–there’s too much friction to do the things that I want to do with it. I’m not sure what the solution is. I would rather not go back to a smart phone. I’ve grown fond of the week-long battery life and small size of my 301. That said, a smart phone, used smartly, may well be the correct solution here–a phone without the unnecessary apps, without email accounts or shortcuts to irrelevant news sites. Something simple, that can text and call and take pictures, that I can actually type on easily and that makes it easy to actually use the pictures I take. For now, I still have the 301, but I’m looking for better options.


  1. Living at home does have it’s benefits

Leaving Facebook

I deleted my Facebook account today. Not just deactivated, mind–that’s too undo-able. I actually deleted everything. Spent about 2 hours last night deleting all my old posts by hand, mostly to see if there was anything worth saving before I took the plunge. Aside from a few articles I had shared before I started using Pinboard, there was nothing of value. After purging content and connections, and making sure I revoked all application tokens, I requested a permanent deletion, an option which is not easy to find.

This is something I’ve debated doing for awhile, but never pulled the trigger on. I justified keeping my account for several reasons, including the relative usefulness of Facebook Messenger as an SMS replacement, the occasional event invite, and (by far the silliest reason) the fact that I had the Facebook username “glward” and I didn’t want to lose it. Over the last few months I had taken steps to try to increase the signal-to-noise ratio on my newsfeed. I unfollowed a large number of my “friends” so my news feed was basically just my closest friends… who (with two or three exceptions) never really posted at all. At the end of the day, there was hardly any signal to be found, just noise.

Truth be told, Facebook wasn’t worth it for me anymore. I’m not sure that it ever was. It certainly never helped me keep in touch with anyone–the people I still talk to I talk to via SMS/iMessage, IRC, or occasionally Google Talk/Hangouts. Facebook doesn’t do anything meaningful for me. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t want vapid, byte-sized chunks of human interaction. I want something meaningful. If I want to know how my friends are doing I’d rather just sit down to dinner with them, or hell, even just text or call them. So, goodbye Facebook.

I may lose touch with people because of this, but honestly, if my not having a Facebook account is reason enough for me to lose touch with someone, it was probably inevitable anyway. To be truthful, I’d rather have a dozen or so really close friends than 200 or more acquaintances. And you can’t foster that kind of relationship with someone by reading all their statuses and liking all their pictures.

On Vim

Vim is a complicated beast. Although the recent trend has been away from megalithic IDEs in favour of simple text editors such as Sublime Text, the classic “simple” text editors (emacs and Vim) don’t seem to get much love–mostly because their arcane nature scares off any new users long before they begin to appreciate their true power. But, those brave (or foolhardy) enough to tackle the asymptotic learning curve become gurus of text manipulation, able to fling any ASCII text around with a mere handful of screenshots.

I am not one of those gurus.

What I am is a little bit crazy, and a little bit nostalgic for an era of computing that was largely over before I ever even learned to speak, much less type. I won’t try to convince anyone that Vim is awesome, or that they should chose to learn it over a more modern text editor–the days of Vi being the only thing available on remote systems are long over, so there’s really no justification for even learning basic Vi motions. What I offer here is just a glimpse into the mind of someone who consciously chose to learn a text editor that was already archaic, and a helping hand along the way should you choose that as well.

Get a drink ready. You’ll need it.

Goodbye, Tumblr

I’ve moved my blog (with all, what 5 non-image posts) to Octopress. I’m not entirely sure why (boredom, I suppose), but here we are. Perhaps this will give me the motivation to post some of the posts I’ve had brewing in my Dropbox posts directory for the past year or so.

In the meantime, I suppose I’ll be learning about Octopress themes and Jekyll’s static site stuff. Yay.

That One Post I Do at the End of the Year

2011 has been a interesting year, to say the least. I graduated college and, deciding I hadn’t had enough pain and suffering, came back for grad school. There’s been a good deal of turmoil in my personal life, which I’m not going to get into here, but overall 2011 was a pretty up-and-down year, mostly down. At least there was some good music to cheer me up. Unlike last year.

In the spirit of retrospective, and in clinging to tradition, I’ll close this post with a look back at technology, music, movies, and games that came out in 2011.

Trollin’

Albums that came out in 2011 that are better than A Dramatic Turn of

Events1

In no particular order:

  • Rise Against - Endgame
  • Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
  • Bon Iver - Bon Iver
  • Explosions in the Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
  • Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
  • Daft Punk - TRON Legacy Reconfigured
  • Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
  • Jay-Z/Kanye West - Watch the Throne
  • Foster the People - Torches
  • 3 Doors Down - Time of my Life

Albums that came out in 2011 that are not better than A Dramatic Turn of

Events2

  • Theory of a Deadman - The Truth is…
  • Lady Gaga - Born This Way
  • Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turns of Events3

  1. First Listen ↩

  2. First Listen ↩

  3. Subsequent Listens ↩

2010 in Entertainment

Well it’s 2011 now1 and since the #gfax morons aren’t doing a best albums of 2010 poll, I thought I’d write out my own personal choices, and maybe include a few other entertainment mediums in there as well, while I’m at it. So, here’s my top n lists for 20102, and a few miscellaneous awards too.

MacVim Font Settings

For future reference, using the experimental renderer:

defaults write org.vim.MacVim MMCellWidthMultiplier 1.1  
defaults write org.vim.MacVim MMCellWidthMultiplierKey 1.1

and then in gvimrc:

set linespace=1

Why Do I Have 5 Computers, Anyway?

As I sit here surrounded by 4 computers, with a fifth waiting to be returned to service, I have to wonder… why? I’d guess most (sane) people only have maybe 2 computers, something like a laptop and a desktop, that they actually use regularly. I’ve got my MacBook Pro, my gaming desktop, my “server” desktop, and my SheevaPlug all in use, and will probably add my old Dell D630 back into the mix soon enough. And though I do actually use all of them, some of them may be just a bit less necessary than others.

My “main” computer is my MacBook Pro. It’s the only one I have any input devices hooked up to, and I do all of my day-to-day work on it: web browsing, listening to music or watching videos, schoolwork, etc. It’s where most of my important data lives, and if I set up one of my routers with a USB HDD I could probably get by with just using it, if I could find a way to reliably drive a second exernal display off of it. It’s probably the only computer I couldn’t do without.

My server rig is a fairly beefy (read: power hungry) machine, which currently has 5 HDDs and will probably be growing a few more sometime next week now that I’ve gotten softraid5 to work. At this point, though, it’s little more than an overpowered NAS with occasional virtualization and HTPC aspirations. My webserver is now running fairly reliably on the SheevaPlug, and I don’t access anything on the server regularly aside from backing up with time machine. All the other access, mostly video files and the occasional game image/steam backup file, is sporadic; I could move time machine to a USB HDD attached to my laptop or router and only power up or wake up the server when I need it. However, it will probably still remain on most of the time– I need a second computer to drive my second monitor for the time being. I may look into sleeping it at night and when I’m not at my desk; I don’t pay the power bill yet but it’s probably best to get in the habit of saving power when possible for when I do. Plus, getting WOL and Suspend to Ram to reliably work on it will probably prove to be just the sort of hair-pulling technical challenge I love so much ;p. This is one computer I might could do without, but the alternatives have too many drawbacks to make it worthwhile.

The SheevaPlug, now, functions as my main server. I run this blog on it, as well as my irc client and rtorrent, and it does quite well. Blog page loading or anything else involving mysql can be a bit slow, but caching plugins are considerable help in that area. With an external HDD and running ArchMobile, it does most of the things I used to run on my big server. I could, and have in the past, offload NAS functions to it as well, but between USB and network file IO actually maxing the 1.2GHz ARM proc it was far from an ideal solution. Overall, though, it’s a great little box for a low power server and wouldn’t be going anywhere.

My gaming rig actually gets the least use of all of my computers these days; right now it’s driving my secondary monitor since I don’t have a video card in my server yet. Overall, though, I find myself gaming less and less and spending what time I do game on my PS3. Really, were it not for the occasional game of Left 4 Dead 2 I’d have little reason to keep using it but my take on PC vs Console gaming is aa topic for a later post. My gaming rig is probably the last PC I’ll build with gaming specs, though, unless something changes. Depending on how my gaming habits change over the coming months it may go away sometime down the road.

I also have my old D630 that I’ll probably put back in service as an HTPC in the near future. I had it driving my secondary display for a time, but two laptops on my desk was clunky and had issues so I pressed my gaming rig into service until I could get a video card for my server. I’ve used it as such before, and it works pretty well. It’s a bit awkward to fit near my TV, but I’ll figure something out. I’ve considering replacing it with something else, either a shuttle PC or even a Mac Mini, and I may end up using the latter at some point down the road, but for now it’ll do. The HTPC, though, is far from necessary as little time as I spend watching things on my TV, and I may scrap the idea altogether.

Is 5 computers too much? Probably. Could I get rid of one or two? Maybe. But for now, it works. And since I’m, y’know, me, that won’t do and I’ll inevitably break one or more of them in the coming weeks :p.