Why unlocked smartphones and no-contract plans are a much better deal

Hello, unlocked Nexus 5 + no-contract plan! And as for Verizon, well....

Hello, unlocked Nexus 5 + no-contract plan! And as for Verizon, well….

I am so, so sick of the way U.S. wireless carriers totally rip off smartphone users by locking them into expensive 2-year contracts — with the lure of getting a high-end smartphone for only a couple hundred bucks up front. For most customers, the math just doesn’t work.

So I’m casting off the financial and technological shackles, to be a mobile consumer on my own terms. I will never again buy a subsidized phone or sign another long-term carrier contract.

This month I bought an unlocked Nexus 5 smartphone direct from Google, and I’m now switching to my first no-contract plan. Yes, I paid more up front for the phone, Plus I’ll have to pay a hefty “screw you” early termination fee to ditch my Verizon contract. It’s still so worth it.

Why? Here’s the short version: Considering all costs to make this switch, and the savings I’ll get, I’ll see about a 4-month payback plus savings of nearly $70/month thereafter! Plus I’ll have tons more flexibility in devices, carriers and plans from here out.

Hell yeah! Here’s the math behind this choice… Continue reading

Expanding my comfort zone, part 2: 2012 personal reflections

NOTE: This is the second, and far more personal, part of my 2012 reflections. If you’d rather hear about my experience with coding class, read Part 1.

Aside from taking my first coding class, this year I dealt with several more personal excursions outside my comfort zone.

The biggest one was triggered by the abrupt and painful ending of a three-year relationship I’d treasured, which happened this summer — just a couple weeks after I moved from Oakland back home to Boulder.

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Expanding my comfort zone, part 1: 2012 reflections on life and code

My motto for 2012. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt!

My motto for 2012. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt!

I know it, you know it: the obligatory end-of-2012-reflections blog meme is coming. So I might as well get a jump on it. It’s partly geeky, partly personal. And it’s not at all professional. Roll with it.

For me, 2012 has been a year of expanding my comfort zone by stepping outside it. Sometimes by being booted unceremoniously beyond it. I’ve walked the talk of one of my favorite pithy t-shirts of the year: “Comfort zone = dead zone.” At the ripe old age of 46, I’m finally learning how to be more at peace with being uncomfortable or uncertain, even for extended periods of time; and how to temper this discomfort with the kind of comfort that feeds my soul and keeps me sane.

One uncomfortable but important advance I made this year was to knuckle down and really start to learn how to code.

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Coding practice, making new neurons, and the trouble with analogies

It may not look fancy, but this class exercise, executed all in HTML and CSS, was a success for me.

It seems that a big part of learning to code is simply spending lots of time practicing it — getting things wrong, getting frustrated, asking for help, and getting them a little better next time (hopefully). In that sense it’s like learning to play a musical instrument — you can think and talk about it all you want, but if you really want to learn it you need to get your fingers moving and be willing to sound really crappy for quite awhile.

Yeah, I know: Duh. But it’s one thing knowing that piece of obviousness, and another to really knuckle down and do it….

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Gangnam/Klingon Style + Kim Jong Un?

Since I don’t have cable TV, I’m forever behind on pop culture. This weekend my sister Lynn tweeted me:

Hey, @agahran ! The perfect blend of Korean pop and Star Trek! http://t.co/bi4uM4EL

That link took me to a HuffPo story about a Star Trek-themed parody of a smash Korean Pop (K-pop) dance rap hit, “Gangnam Style.” I’d never heard of or seen the original by K-Pop rapper PSY, so I decided to check it out — because you can’t appreciate a parody until you see the original. Here it is:

And here it is again, in Klingon!

It struck me when I watched the original: Doesn’t PSY bear a suspicious resemblance to the new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un? Hmmmm…

…See what I mean? I sense a coup coming across the DMZ. Perhaps they’re attempting to emulate this Coup, from Oakland?

My pop-culture education for the day is now complete. I can return to unraveling the mysteries of the Box Model now….

Coding lesson 1: The tiniest things will drive you batty

comfort zone shirt

First off: As I writing this it’s about 5:30 am. I’ve been up since about 1:30 am. Welcome to Codeville.

Wednesday I attended my first Da Vinci Coders class in web front-end development skills. I started a little behind; I missed the real first class on Monday because I was away giving a presentation in Chicago.

Right away I was in over my head. But I expected that. Hence, the motivational t-shirt.

Our instructor, Richard Jones, did a pretty good job of catching me up on what was covered in the first class. I like his approach — he sets the context with the higher-level concepts so we first learn to think like developers, to think very carefully about the nature and purpose of content on a page, and make our decisions about how to use HTML5 and CSS based on that assessment.

For our first assignment he gave us a PDF file exported from a webpage that was a very textbook-like discussion of the Pacific Temperate Rainforest. The topic doesn’t really matter, though. I was really only paying attention to the structure of the content. I do a lot of writing and editing work, so it was somewhat of a relief not to have to consider whether the content made any sense. I only had to pay attention to the structure of the content — what sections, figures, and other major elements it comprised.

That relief didn’t last long….

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Learning to code: My next adventure

It’s been a very busy summer since I moved back to Boulder, which is why I haven’t posted here in a while. (All my writing energy has gone to client projects.) But I’m excited to announce that I’m about to embark on a new adventure that I will be blogging on Contentious.com:

I’m learning to code.

Took me long enough to get around to it, I know.

Specifically, starting next week I’m taking an intensive 3-month full immersion course offered by the Da Vinci Institute in nearby Louisville, CO in front-end development skills: HTML5, cascading stylesheets, and Javascript. It’s part of their Da Vinci Coders program, aimed at bringing beginners quickly up to speed with useful, in-demand tech skills. (They also offer Ruby on Rails training.)

The training isn’t cheap. But serendipity struck: Local tech startup Callisto.fm offered two full scholarships for women, to encourage more diversity in the Front Range tech scene. And I won!

I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity, since (because my move from CA back to CO this year ate the lion’s share of my discretionary budget for Major Life Changes) I otherwise would’ve had to wait until next year to do this course. And I feel like I’ve put off learning to code long enough.

Financing is also available for Da Vinci Coders. Had I not won this scholarship, I would have gone that route next year. But this time I got lucky.

Admittedly this adventure involves seriously stepping outside my comfort zone. While I know a lot about technology and know many coders, I’ve no prior programming experience. But I’m sick of getting tech ideas that require coding, and then having to either let them go or else beg a developer to help me even start to test out my idea. Both of those options frustrate me.

My goal is to learn enough front-end technology to be able to build simple, functional mobile web apps — that is, interactive app-like functionality delivered through the web browser on a phone or tablet.

Why mobile web apps? Because I’m passionate about mobile technology and what it can do for people’s lives. But I think the current overwhelming focus on platform-specific “native” apps (which users must find in an app market, download and install, and remember to run) is complete overkill for many of the interactive things people want to do on their phones and tablets. To back this up, research shows one in four mobile apps never get opened more than once, and 75% never get used more than 10 times.

Since mobile users are so fickle (and, let’s be honest, most mobile interactive features are things you’d only want to use a handful of times anyway), why not deliver more of this functionality via the mobile web? It’s low-overhead, inherently cross-platform, cheaper to develop, and — thanks to newer browsers and the growing penetration of smartphones (by the end of this year, half of all cell phones in use in the US will be smartphones) — pretty damn nifty.

My goal is not to become a full-time programmer. I’m a good journalist, writer, and editor, and I think that will always be my mainstay. But I realize that coding has become a key literacy skill, and I’m sick of being illiterate. I don’t expect to do anything fancy or impressive with coding, but I think it will give me more options and allow me to work on even more cool projects.

Plus, when I go to hackathons, I’ll be able to really pitch in and help. I hate standing on the sidelines.

And if Lisa Williams can learn to code, I can do it too. Seriously, she’s one of my best friends and mentors, and I’m inspired by her example.

Wish me luck! And watch Contentious.com for my observations, frustrations, and triumphs from this project.

5 affordable ways nonprofits can use mobile technology: presentation

One reason mobile technology fascinates me is its ubiquity across all levels of society. That makes it potentially a very powerful tool to engage and empower people who don’t necessarily sit at the top of the U.S. privilege food chain.

On Thursday, July 26, I’ll be delivering the following presentation at the Social Media for Nonprofits – Silicon Valley conference: 5 affordable ways nonprofits can use mobile technology. (Follow the conference hashtag: #sm4np)

This presentation is meant to be just a quick overview, to let nonprofits know what’s possible today, and where they should focus their attention.

Why the focus on “affordable?” Well, mobile technology isn’t free…

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Stop whining! Lisa Williams on journalists learning to code

Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams is a media person who taught herself to code. That does not make her a magical unicorn. You can do this too -- and you probably should.

Why should journalists and other news/media professionals learn to code? More importantly: HOW can they learn to code?

Today my good friend, mentor, and fellow ass-kicker Lisa Williams (founder of Placeblogger.com) gave a great presentation on this theme at TEDXPoynter, a one-day event at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL. I watched the livestream, and I’m sure Poynter will post the video online later. (I’ll embed that when it’s up.)

Lisa is a media professional who took the initiative to learn how to code — in part so that she wouldn’t be totally dependent on other people to realize her ideas, and also because “Corruption sucks!” Having basic coding skills gives you the power to visualize data and create other resources which make it harder for the powers that be to claim that the problems you’re spotlighting are mere “isolated incidents.”

(More from Lisa about this and other reasons why media pros (or anyone) should learn to code: Code to make a point; code to make change; on newshacking. Plus her learn to code resources guide.)

Lisa observed that when she talks to journalists about learning to code, they often ask her, “But isn’t storytelling important? Do we really have to learn how to code?”

Her response: Stop whining!

I’m totally with Lisa on this. Which is why this summer, after I move back to Boulder, CO, I’ll be devoting regular time most days to learn how to code. And you can do it, too…

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Why Facebook’s mobile apps suck: A developer’s view

I’ll admit it: Contrary to my own expectations I’ve grown to  use Facebook much more than I thought I would have — mainly because it’s the most common point of connection across my many social and interest circles. And I use it more despite Facebook’s persistently horrid user interface.

But Facebook is especially horrendous on mobile. For instance, the Facebook Android app won’t let me share items from other people’s streams, the way the Facebook standard website does.  Also, on the Facebook Android app I can’t tag someone in a status update (like saying “Joe Schmoe loves this kind of sushi.”) — I can only indicate whether I’m “with” someone, which often isn’t the case.

Argh. Gah….

Anyway, today while I’m researching and writing about Facebook’s various mobile problems, I found Kevin C. Tofel’s May 15 GigaOm post: Does your Facebook mobile app suck? here’s why

He summarized findings published in the Mobtest blog. These only looked at problems with Facebook’s iOS app, but they’re interesting even though I’m an Android user. In a nutshell, Facebook’s app relies heavily on web technology (HTML) to deliver content.  There are good reasons for this, but on iOS devices it causes problems.

Here’s how Mobtest summed it up:

Why would Facebook use HTML technology inside a native iOS app?

HTML is easier for displaying fluid content. Objective-C really sucks when it comes to fluid display. An image with text around it, buttons with varying text labels are really hard to create yourself in Objective-C as you have to calculate dimensions and positions of all elements yourself. In particular for a timeline HTML will be much easier.

Creates code that can be shared across different platforms. iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone are all different technologies and a developer’s nightmare. Sharing some content/functionality in the form of HTML makes sense.

HTML is much more in line with Facebook’s continuous deployment process. FB developers are responsible for their own QA, and part of that is to push code out to a limited set of servers, see results and then push it out to more and do this each day if not more often. With Apple taking as least a week of review, rolling back a code change is a nightmare.

They can get away with it. Yes Facebook is not a bank, there are no other iOS FB apps out there and we will still use the service as it has a virtual monopoly on social networking with 900 million users now. We just have to suck it up.

Feature phones is where growth is. A very high percentage of iPhone and Android users already have the Facebook app installed. The next frontier is feature phones, in particular in non-western parts of the world. These new users will first encounter Facebook on their mobile, and it will not be a shining iPhone.

OK, that doesn’t explain the boneheaded lack of key features in Facebook’s Android app that I noted, but it could help explain some of the poor performance I’ve experienced — slow load times, lagging updates and push notifications, and lots and lots of crashes.

Tofel, an iPhone user, closed his GigaOm post with this observation:

…For the time being, I’m going to switch to m.facebook.com in my smartphone browser. I did some testing this afternoon and the experience is far faster, up to date and generally offers the same features as the native mobile app.