Tech Talk For Low Lives – What Are You Paying For Electrons?

I’m going take a little break from street talk to do some tech talk, the tenuous connection being that there are unadvertised ways to free yourself from corporate shackles in the digital word.  They are unadvertised because they are free.  No one profits except you, the erstwhile consumer.

First up is a simple way to escape from Microsoft’s prison by breaking through the Windows.  (Groan).  You’ve probably heard of it.   It’s called Linux and not only is it free, as in free beer,  it’s also free in concept and welcomes anyone with the coding chops to participate in its development.  That’s called Open Source, not to be confused with the OS, or operating system, which is not the only free part of it.   All of your applications are free as well, most as good or better than Windoze equivalents, and can be installed from a simple one-stop-shopping application called a Software Manager, or “package manager” in geek speak.

Tux, the Linux penguin

Yes I know, you’ve heard that Linux is just for geeks, far too complicated for the casual user.  Nonsense!  That old saw comes from the prehistoric age when Linux was a pure command line OS like DOS which all of you geezers will remember was an exercise in illogic and frustration.

Modern Linux versions are, to varying degrees, about as user friendly as anything can be while calculating PI to the quadrillionth degree and simultaneously downloading email and playing porn videos.  One caveat.  Windows comes in three flavours — lite, basic, and ludicrously high maintenance.  Linux, on the other hand, is a veritable cornucopia of versions — distributions or distros in geek speak.  You got your Ubuntus, your Debians, your Fedoras, your Gentoos, your Redhats, your Mandrivas, and so on.  And within those classes you’ve got distros with all sorts of cute names like Crunchbang, Damn Small, EasyPeasy, and Puppy Linux.  Nerds are really just kids at heart.

IGNORE ALL OF THAT!   Pick one single,  popular version to start with.  You can geek out later if you want.  I’d suggest Linux Mint with Cinnamon.  (And, geeks, please don’t write in with your opinions on the best beginner distros.  That’s an argument destined to continue to infinity and beyond).

Play with it awhile and you’ll soon find that it is more stable, less complicated, less prone to malware, prettier, more intuitive,  smoother, faster, and just plain better than Windoze.  You’ll never buy software again.  And, yes, you can write documents in WORD format, surf the net, and do anything you can do in Windows except invoke the big blue screen of doom.

One of my Linux Mint 13 Cinnamon desktops.

Let’s move on to TV.

When cable began snaking its sinuous way through North America,  most people ditched the rooftop antennas not so much to get more channels but so as to watch the ones they already got without headaches, blurred vision, and searing eye pain.  Since then we have “evolved” to the trillion channel universe where you can watch the same old tripe 24 hours a day, in every global time zone, in interactive, on-demand, high definition.  And your eyes don’t hurt.  Isn’t progress wonderful?

A year or so ago, for reasons entirely unrelated to the consumer’s interests, the governments of North America accidentally made things better.  The mandated switch to over the air (OTA) digital broadcasting, also known as ATSC, allowed people with relatively new  TV’s to receive HD broadcasts with a simple antenna.  (It’s retro, but the good kind).  Unlike the old analog (NTSC) broadcasts,  OTA digital provides a clear, clean, HD picture as good and usually better than anything cable or satellite can offer at absolutely no cost.  Nada.  Zilch.

A digital signal is either on or off.  No snow or psychedelic fuzzies.  It’s either perfect, or it isn’t there.  And that’s the trade-off.  No matter where you live you won’t get a trillion channels over the air and you won’t get channels that are cable-only.  No Jersey Shore or Honey Boo Boo.  In most cities, however, you will get all of the major networks and all local channels plus some from as far away as 150 km.  (That’s a theoretical distance under optimum conditions and placement that depends upon tropospheric reflection.  In other words, not bloody likely.)

In Ottawa, for example, a moderately sized market, I get 13 channels on a good night and at least 10 all of the time.    I no longer subscribe to cable and probably never will again.  The few shows that I miss, I watch online at my convenience.  I save $700 a year on TV alone.

So why do people still pay increasingly outrageous fees for cable?  Well, some people really do like Honey Boo Boo,  some can’t live without 24 hour Australian rules football,  but most simply don’t know about it.   Since no one gains additional profits from OTA (the same ads are on cable) no one advertises it.  The government and the cable companies made sure you were aware of the switchover so you could buy the proper converter if you happened to be using an ancient TV, but they neglected to give you the good news.   Naturally, cable companies avoided even hinting at the possibility there might be an upside to the switchover, while governments did what governments do when there aren’t any votes in it.  Nothing.

TV Antenna Overload, Hong KongOddly, but predictably, cable companies still charge extra for HD despite that fact that all feeds are now digital and overwhelmingly HD which means they actually DEGRADE the signal for you to watch it in glorious low def.

On to the internet.

The situation surrounding ISPs and wireless provider is incredibly complex, in constant flux, and subject to all sorts of regional contingencies.  While not technically a monopoly, the market is structured so as to be almost impenetrable by the free market forces cynically extolled by those who control them .   Any advice I can give is only general, unless you live in Ottawa, but I’m sure there are similar options in most major markets.

Ottawa Canada June 2010 — Nepean Point Views  2

In Ottawa and surrounding areas, there are a few gargantuan corporations that control internet access, the same ones that control TV and wireless — Rogers, Bell Media, Videotron, and Shaw.  Smaller wireless companies and ISPs depend upon the big boys for access to their infrastructure (much of it built with our tax money) and Big Infotainment shares reluctantly, and only when ordered to do so by the government.  Nonetheless, a few rebel upstarts have defied the cartel and tried to provide decent service for modest profit.

The two mice that roared here in Ottawa (and across much of the country) are Mobilicity and Wind Mobile.   Both offer wireless packages with relatively cheap and “unlimited” data.  (More on that later).  They also sell USB “data sticks” (3G Modems) and separate data plans for internet access for your computer.  What many people don’t realize — and the little guys don’t tell you lest they be shamed by the big boys as poor businessmen — is that you don’t need separate plans for cellphone and computer access.

Both Wind and Mobilicity allow “tethering”.  More accurately, they don’t insert unenforceable “no tethering” clauses in their contracts.  This means that you can “tether” your computer to your phone via USB cable, Bluetooth, or wireless hotspot and gain access to the unlimited data you paid for.

Caveat.  Wind mobile has a strict cap on monthly bandwidth which, once exceeded, will slow your internet to a crawl.  Technically it’s unlimited, it’s just severely slowed down.

Mobilicity has a less arbitrary approach.  There’s no specific cap.  Instead, they run your usage data through a secret algorithm that slows or speeds up your connection depending upon current traffic and/or overall daily bandwidth usage.  In practice, this means that after extended periods of heavy usage the throttle kicks in leaving enough bandwidth for comfortable surfing but not much else.  After an unspecified period of time (a few hours?) the throttle is opened and it’s business as usual.  I have yet to figure out the magic formula but I do know they frown upon anything much more than 3 gigs in any one day.

Neither company can match current cable plans for speed.  It’s more in the range of ISDN so, if you’re a dedicated online gamer or big on true HD streaming video, this solution isn’t for you.  For most of us, however, it can be a huge savings.

A few years ago I had all of my electromagnetic contracts with Rogers and paid, at minimum, $210 a month.  Extra data, long distance calls, excess local calling, on demand services — all extra.

Today I pay $40 a month, no more no less, for unlimited local and long distance calling, txt messaging, and internet access for both phone and computer.  I pay nothing for TV and nothing for software.   At the very minimum, that’s a savings of over $2,000 dollars a year and $260 in taxes.  Add the late payment fees, long distance, and overcharges and it’s probably over $3,000.  That’s a huge chunk of change for a freelance writer on a disability pension.

So there you have it.  Street smarts for social misfits, couch potatoes, and incessant talkers.

Do me a favour though.  Keep this word on the street.  If the Big Info-Tainment Corporate Headquarters gets wind, she may just lobby to make it  illegal.

About Drakakis

Street Poet scribbling to your tired, your poor, your huddled masses; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, the homeless, tempest-tost ...
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