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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 26, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Pansies, Tech Help, Beats Earphones

We're finally deep enough into autumn that we're not likely to have many more days with temperatures above 80 degrees. So it's time for the changeover from the spring-and-summer annual plants, like petunias and coleus, to our winter flowers: pansies.

I'm ambivalent about pansies. I have fond memories of my grandmother Parkee taking four-year-old me and my one-year-old brother on walks from our home on Canyon Drive in Salt Lake City to Temple Square. During much of the year, there were lots of pansies planted by the marvelous Temple Square gardeners, and Parkee would stop at a bed of pansies and sing, "Little purple pansies dressed in yellow gold, growing in the corner of my garden, old."

She knew the whole song, but my brother and I rarely allowed her to finish, because after you've sung to the pansies a couple of times in the four years of your life, you're pretty much done with that.

For many years since then, I've thought of pansies as being small and slight (which they are) and childish (which they are not). They're one of my wife's favorite flowers, so she rejoices when it's time to prepare for winter by giving the pansies a month or so to take root and start to grow profusely before the really cold weather.

And I've come to respect the pansies for their amazing hardiness -- how many flowers can last through repeated snowfalls, frost, and ice storms? -- and for their delicate beauty. I'm almost as sad as my wife every spring when it's time to retire the pansies and start the petunias and coleus again.

Now, there was a time -- when I was fifty pounds lighter and fifteen years younger -- when I loved to do all the planting myself -- at least in the planting boxes, because kneeling to do the in-ground planting has been too painful for my knees since I was in my early thirties.

But for the past ten years or so -- or has it been fifteen years? -- we've been relying on the same "yard guys" to keep our front- and backyard gardens well and wisely planted and tended.

These are the guys who helped us tear out our waterlogged lawn and replace it with interesting groundcovers (mazus, creeping jenny, wild strawberry) and some amazing decorative grasses, along with a selection of shade-loving and sun-loving plants.

We had tried various yard guys before -- like the one who stopped showing up because, as we learned from the paper, he had been busted for dealing; and the one who was the son of a family friend, who showed up to mow our lawn whenever he wasn't busy with real customers.

Right from the start, Byron Richardson of GLI Landscaping has been reliable and knowledgeable, helping us find plants that thrive in our climate and the soil in our yard. Not every experiment works out -- replacing a dying quadruple-maple has proved to be a challenge, since apparently other trees don't thrive well where distressed maples used to live. But through it all, Byron and the crews he has assembled have done the work that I could no longer do myself.

GLI Landscaping has become even better since Scott Goff joined, and soon headed, the crew that works on our yard. We like these guys and enjoy talking to them, especially because (a) they know how to explain things so we can understand them and (b) they listen to and remember the requests and instructions we give.

When we have a decade-long relationship with a set of "guys" who work to help us maintain our home, it's definitely enough time for us to be confident in recommending them to others. Of course they don't work for free, and there's no discount if you say that Uncle Orson sent you. But here's how you can contact Byron or Scott at GLI Landscaping:

Byron Richardson, Scott Goff

4016-h Battleground Avenue GSO NC 27410

336-908-9654

byronGLI@yahoo.com

www.GLIByronLandscape.com

*

Back in the spring, some perverse combination of iTunes and Audible.com (Apple and Amazon, respectively) made it so that any new audiobooks I downloaded would not play on my iPod Nano.

There was nothing wrong with the audiobook files themselves. When my Nano was plugged into my computer, iTunes could play the files stored on the Nano exactly as it played the files on stored on the computer.

But when the Nano was detached and I tried to play one of the new books through my earphones, it would begin the book with "This ... is Audible." Then there'd be a couple of random clicks, a few moments of silence, and then the Nano would jump to the next book.

This happened with everything I downloaded from then on -- even if it was a book that had been on Audible's "shelves" for many years. I could listen to old books, but I couldn't hear any new ones when I was out and about, and therefore there was no point in buying anything new.

Believe me, I tried everything I could think of. I updated the Nano's software. I stripped everything from the Nano and then reloaded a mix of new and old files, as always. I deleted the nonworking files from my computer, then downloaded them from Audible again.

A lot of time consumed, for nothing.

Well, if wasting my time wasn't enough, let's try wasting my money. I bought one of the new generation of Nanos (Gen 7 or 8, depending on how you count), even though I despise Apple's revisions of the Nano since they started using touchscreens.

The old circular dial allowed you to change loudness, back up a little, fast-forward, or skip to a previous or later volume -- all without interrupting your walk or run. You didn't have to look; your fingers could easily find the right position on the wheel.

In other words, Apple had a user interface that was perfectly convenient when you were using the Nano for its primary purpose: listening to recordings while doing something else that involved moving around.

But with the touchscreen, you don't know what your finger is going to land on unless you stop your walk or run or errand or drive, remove the Nano from wherever you have it attached to your clothing, and look at it.

Then you must press or swipe with steady fingers. And since Apple thinks that completely non-intuitive gestures are intuitive because, hey, the iPhone uses them, you often have no idea of how to get the result you used to be able to get by simply burrowing down into the menu structure.

That's how Apple turns aerobic exercise anaerobic, since, while you stand there fiddling with the touchscreen, your heart rate slows and you lose all your exercise momentum.

However, if the touchscreen Nano would play those new book files, then even with the horrible new interface it would be better than my second-generation Nano with its better controls and inability to play new books.

Guess what? The Gen 8 Nano failed on exactly the same books as the old one.

To add to the frustration, Audible was apparently tired of having such a dependent relationship with Apple, so what Audible.com really wanted me to do was to listen to my audiobooks using the Audible App.

The Audible App works on computers, tablets, and smartphones. It does not work on any iPod. So I didn't bother trying to contact Audible.com or Apple, because I knew, after thirty-plus years of working with computers, that Audible.com would tell me it was Apple's problem, and Apple would tell me it was Audible's problem.

And, if they functioned true to form, both of them would start by having me do a lot of time-consuming tasks like deleting all the audiobook files from my computer (there are thousands) and then download them again (several weeks' work).

I remember this from the days when Microsoft would carelessly make it so that the newest iteration of MS-DOS or Windows could not run any of the software that I depended on for my livelihood. Microsoft's help line people would always start by asking, "Do you have Stacker running on your computer?"

In those days, when disc space was expensive and precious, Stacker was an ingenious program that intercepted all disk calls, so that anything you saved to disk would be compressed, and then when you wanted to read a file from disk, Stacker would uncompress the file. It was so efficient that it felt as if there had been no delay -- and, in effect, you more than doubled the size of your disk drive.

So yeah, I had Stacker running on my computer, just like everybody else. This was such a well-known fact that it seemed incredible to me that Microsoft would hate its customers so much that it would bring out a version of MS-DOS or Windows that was incompatible with Stacker.

But sure enough, your first instruction from the help-desk people was, "Uninstall Stacker and see if your programs work then."

Even if they did work, it wouldn't help because, without Stacker, I wouldn't have disk space for any data. Besides which, uninstalling Stacker meant doing a complete uncompressed backup of my entire Stacked drive. Days of work, at best. Days of meaningless work, because I quickly learned, as did everyone else, that Stacker -- one of the best-behaved programs ever created -- was never the source of the problem.

We all would have to wait until the makers of the software we depended on came out with an update so it would work with whatever new operating system Microsoft had inflicted on us.

Besides, I had been working with microcomputers at the machine-language, system-call level almost since they began. I knew what kinds of things were going wrong, and I had no patience with "help" personnel who knew way less about their own company's software than I did.

But if you didn't obey them, you got no help. And I'm too weary and old to want to waste time with dueling help desks, especially now that the argument is invariably between some woman in Dakha and a man in Mumbai.

So I downloaded the Audible app to my Android phone, and after I finally got past all the attempts to make me stream my audiobooks (like that would work when I'm out walking through the neighborhood or driving on a long trip with no available wi-fi and intermittent lapses in cellular coverage), I was able to persuade the software to download one of the new books that I had been unable to listen to before.

As I had assumed, listening to an audiobook on my smartphone chewed up battery power worse than game-playing did. Worse, it was inconvenient physically. While my Nano clipped easily to my shirt pocket or the neckline of a t-shirt, so that the cord to my earphones had only a short distance between the Nano and my ears, the smartphone was way too heavy to carry in a shirt pocket. If I bent forward at all -- to get a drink of water, for instance, or pick up an Amazon box from our porch -- the phone would fall out and hit the hard, hard ground.

So I had to carry my smartphone in my pants pocket. But then I had a whole new set of problems. Now the earphone cord had to be extended to its full length, ready to snag on anything I walked close to -- like doorknobs. Whenever the cord snagged, it either ripped the earphones off my ears -- not pleasant -- or pulled the plug out of the phone.

But the clincher was this: When I walk for any length of time, I generally wear exercise pants. All of the workout pants I own have an elasticized waistband with a drawstring backup.

Smartphones, however, are heavier than my pants. So when I tried to walk with the smartphone in my pocket, within ten steps my pants would be headed for my ankles. Along with the phone, which would unplug from the earphones on its way down.

I could walk with one hand holding up my pants, but that semi-crippled posture would defeat all the arm movements that are part of a brisk walk for exercise (plus I'd look even stupider than usual).

Or I could, as several people suggested, simply carry my phone. "It'll be better exercise for your arms," I was told, "like having weights on them."

Yeah, right -- a weight on one arm. And the necessity of maintaining a steady grip on the smartphone for an hour or so. Ever since my stroke, my grip isn't always reliable.

But I tried it, of course, and learned how irritating it is to swing your arms while holding a smartphone, making the earphone cord snap back and forth, tugging at your ear, bumping against your body like a persistent large insect.

So I tried throwing more money at the problem. This time, I bought the AnsTOP Silicone Sling Lanyard Necklace as sold by Amazon. It arrives looking like some kind of weird bondage equipment for a Barbie doll, but when you stretch the corners around the smartphone, by jiminy it works.

I could hang the lanyard around my neck and then use a shortened earphone cord with no snagging and no flapping. If I were in good enough shape to run, maybe I'd have had a problem with the smartphone banging into my chest, but I'm only a walker these days (and sometimes barely that), so the AnsTOP lanyard worked exactly as promised.

I didn't even have to uninstall anything to make it work. So if you want to carry your phone with you on a walk, I recommend the AnsTOP Silicone Sling.

Meanwhile, though, I still had the battery problem. Listening to audiobooks on my phone makes it so that when I need to use it to make a call, receive a call, or look something up, I'm nearly out of battery.

By now, I was getting sadder and sadder, because I remembered how dull and empty my life was without constant audiobook listening: I actually had to think my own thoughts.

Though of course that's not what happened at all. Without the audiobook in my ears, I would get some horrible earworm of a song that I could not stop playing over and over in my head. Would I be back to that? All because Audible.com and Apple couldn't get their acts together?

Audible wouldn't care, because they want me to use their app and stream everything. Apple wouldn't care, because they probably regard the iPod users as a shrinking customer base and they only want to cater to iPad and iPhone users now. Despair!

I saw various ads and crowdfunding campaigns for cordless bluetooth earbuds, and even though earbuds have never worked well for me (the smallest pads are too big for my extremely narrow ear canals and so the earbuds fall out), I ordered several that made various attractive claims -- like "fits any ear" and "long battery life" and the one I had the most hope for: "Includes microphone that picks up your voice using bone conduction" so that there didn't have to be a microphone (or "mike," the correct abbreviation, never "mic," which is pronounced "mick") dangling in front of your face or along your cheek in order to talk or record on your phone.

Here's the outcome of that experiment: Most of the earbuds fell out within a dozen steps, so that I had the privilege of bending over and picking them up off the ground. Those went into the reject pile.

The one with the bone-conduction mike did stay in my ear. But it was jammed in so tightly that my ears started hurting after about fifteen minutes. Maybe I would have got used to them, but there was another problem. Within forty-five minutes of (somewhat painful) listening, the earphones started cutting out intermittently and then they just went dead.

That's right. The "long" battery life was, in my real-world test, about forty-five minutes.

That's not long enough.

So I had a solution -- phone on lanyard, short earphone cord -- with its own set of problems, the most important being the way listening to anything on your phone sucks up battery life so it isn't as reliable in its function as a telephone or email receiver.

This long, long story is not, however, the tragedy that it seemed to be. (Tragedy = "bad stuff happening to me"; comedy = "bad stuff happening to you." Just so we're clear on our definitions.)

That's because one day, on a whim, I contacted Audible's help line after all.

Just so that my fears of vast inconvenience would be justified, it turned out that when you ask to talk to somebody, you don't get connected to some kind of live chat. Instead, you provide them with your phone number and they promise to call back "real soon."

Was I skeptical? Yes, but I was also spoiled. When I shop for JORD wooden watches at www.woodwatches.com, a request for information or help gets you an immediate text chat with a completely knowledgeable human being, and if you need live conversation, presto -- you get the call right then.

No way would Audible -- a company owned by Amazon -- have that kind of service.

Except ... I sent in my phone request and within thirty seconds my phone rang and it was a live person at Audible.

Not only a live person, but a person who actually knew what I was talking about when I mentioned the devices on which my recent Audible downloads were failing.

And this live person actually believed me when, with every suggestion, I replied wearily, "Yes, I already did that, twice." I'm so used to helpline personnel assuming that all users are idiots (as I, sometimes, truly am) that it was a complete surprise that my "been there, tried that" was taken seriously.

Still, my problem was beyond the knowledge of the first person I talked to, so I was told that I should wait on hold while a technician was contacted.

Oh, yeah. Like that would work.

It took less than two minutes and bingo, there was a technician on the line. During those less than two minutes, he had been fully and accurately briefed on everything I told the first helper.

He immediately had questions I hadn't thought of. What file format was I using for my downloads? "Format 4, every book for years -- including the old downloads that were working and the new ones that weren't." I had switched to format 4 as soon as it was available.

"Have you tried 'enhanced format'?" he asked.

"Uh, whazzat?" I replied.

"All the other formats are gone," he said. "It's either format 4 or enhanced format. Try downloading something in enhanced format -- one of the books that isn't working."

I did. He actually waited while I did it, while iTunes recognized it, and I then copied it to my Nano.

Just as before, the new download played while the Nano was attached to the computer, but not when it was not.

"That's fine," he said. "Now let's try doing a reality check on your Nano's software. It will delete everything that's on the Nano right now, but I assume you have other copies."

I obediently told iTunes to update the Nano's resident software -- the iPod equivalent of reformatting the hard disk.

Then -- with the technician still waiting patiently during this operation -- I copied over the new enhanced-format audiobook, then detached the Gen 8 Nano and played the book and ...

It worked.

I would not have to use my phone to listen to audiobooks. I would not have to use the Audible App. I could use the Nano clipped to my clothing just like always.

I thanked that technician profusely, especially for his miraculous patience in staying on the line while I followed his instructions -- and for knowing what I should try that I hadn't already thought of myself.

I then went to Audible.com and downloaded, in enhanced format, every single book I had bought since things started going south back in the spring. I used my own directory software to delete the old-format copies of each book as soon as the new-format file had been recognized by iTunes.

The new enhanced format eliminated one of the old problems. In downloading a full-length book from Audible.com, each volume was often split into two or three (or more) files, "to make the download faster." When you reached the end of one of those parts, you got a little message and then the Nano would bump you to the next file and the book would go on.

But the new enhanced format maintains each book as a single long file, with only one entry on the Nano's directory and no break in the middle, while you listened to "You have reached the end of one part ..."

So now I do all my downloads in enhanced format and my Gen 8 Nano can play them all without hassle. I also learned, through trial and error, that I can do the two most vital controls on the Gen 8 Nano without having to use the touchscreen.

I can change volume with a rocker switch -- press the top, it gets louder. And if I press the plain metal section between the louder and softer positions, the playback pauses until I press it again.

The problem is that there's also a weird position that I was pressing accidentally, which causes a mechanical voice to talk over the audiobook narration, telling me the title, author, narrator, and what they had for lunch. I couldn't figure out how to get that extra information to shut up, but within a week I had schooled myself to press the middle pause bar nearer the top, so I usually don't have to deal with annoying-robot-voice. Sometimes I get him, but pausing usually shuts him up when I bring the book back.

So I must applaud Audible.com for having a help system that is actually helpful. This is quite rare, bringing my current total of great help systems to two: JORD watches at woodwatches.com, and Audible.com.

Do you think the saga is done? Oh, no. Far from it.

I had experimented, as I said, with bluetooth earbuds, but the only one that stayed in my ears (painfully) had too short a battery life.

But I knew that one of the features of the Gen 8 Nano is built-in bluetooth. So when I happened to be in the AT&T store for another reason, during a long wait for sales help I saw "Beats bluetooth headphones." They looked stylish and the packaging was cool, but there were two key pieces of information that made it impossible for me not to buy them and try them.

1. The Powerbeats3 In-Ear Headphones had a hook, so instead of staying in place by being jammed deep into my ear canal, I could use them the way I used my beloved Sony earphones -- by hooking them over my ears.

2. The Powerbeats3 In-Ear Headphones promised 12 hours of battery life. And the Beats Solo3 bluetooth headphones (which look like studio headphone except: no wires) promised 40 hours of battery life.

OK, 40 hours is longer than I ever plan to exercise in a row. Even I can walk a marathon in less time than that. I didn't know whether those cup-the-ear headphones would be too heavy for me to use on a walk through the neighborhood, but it was worth a try. And the in-ear phones, with their 12 hours, would probably work fine if the actual real-world battery life was only half what they promised.

Real-world results: I haven't yet managed to run either headphone out of battery life. I prudently plug them in to a charger at night, so I probably never will exhaust the batteries during a normal day's use.

The volume controls for the Solo3 are on one of the earphone cups, easy to reach when walking or working, so I rate them a complete success. Oh, yes -- the sound quality is also excellent, and they fit comfortably even on my oversized (hat size 7-7/8) head.

It was a warmish day when I took my first neighborhood walk with the Solo3, and yes, it was a little sweaty -- but the headphones stayed in place and if that were the only choice I had, it would be good enough for constant use.

However, I then tried the Powerbeats3 In-Ear Headphones and they are, of course, lighter, less obtrusive, and less sweat-inducing. They stay in place perfectly; the audio quality is good enough for clear hearing, and the volume control is on the cord that goes under the chin (or, if you prefer, behind the neck), so it's an easy reach.

Both sets of earphone have an on-off switch, so I can save battery life. If I'm just talking to a sales clerk or a person asking directions, I'll pause the Nano but leave the earphones on because why bother when it'll only be a minute or less?

But when I'm riding in the car with somebody and we intend to have a conversation, I pause the Nano and switch off the earphones. The Powerbeats3 gives audible feedback tones to let you know when you've successfully turned it off or on.

So after a dreadful, desperate, tragic (see definition of tragedy above) summer of not being able to find out how boring the latest Sara Paretsky novel is (answer: very, and therefore abandoned after several chapters), I now have a perfectly usable Nano, with the ability to play any audiobook from Audible.com, and wireless earphones that are comfortable, clear, and reliable for many hours in a row.

The Powerbeats3 has passed the airplane test: I didn't run out of batteries after continuous use during flights from Greensboro to Atlanta, a long layover, and from Atlanta to Salt Lake City.

For once, a change in technology did not work out badly because some things work as advertised, and some technicians really are helpful.

Oh, I almost forgot. These bluetooth headphones are not cheap. If you're only a casual user, stick with Sony's cheap corded hooked earphones. I still carry them as a backup, just in case. For me, though, audiobook listening is such a deeply embedded part of my life for the past ten years that it's worth paying more to get the features and quality I value.

That's the kind of choice that everybody has to make for themselves. What seems too costly to one person is too costly; but if it seems to another person to be worth the cost, then the price is not too high.


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