Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Robustek ; fragiletek

I'm in an old village in Russia, collectivized after the revolution but still a subsistence village today. There's a great "cobbling technology" tradition in these places ... new fences look ancient, even when they incorporate new materials. Well-made, sturdy, practical ... beautiful. There are lots of useful patterns here to study, lots of promising design/build sequences that lead to good results.

It's not just fences. The locks people use here, interestingly, are clearly modern, but have a very solid, reliable, medieval feeling to them. The soviet technologists didn't see a need to change these designs, I guess, so there are millions of locks in Russia that make western locks look ... very wimpy. They're fun to use. In the village, they lock some things up which they probably don't need to, I think partly because these big locks are just so handy & handsome. Robust technology.

Contrast this with modern commercial technology ... many Russian children have their own cell-phones. Young Vasya here has a new bluetooth Sony Ericsson phone-camera, which he knows like the back of his hand. So we linked it up to Olga's new Apple powerbook with built-in bluetooth, running Mac OS X 3.9. We were able to browse the camera's files, send files to it, and use the camera as a remote control for the Powerbook. And no doubt, if he had GPRS, we would get that working.

But it's demo technology only.

Once you try to actually use this pair for something, it gets horribly tedious. That's true of some basics on Mac OS X too. For example, the file browser gets stuck on the previous directory download, gets confused, and hangs up. Eventually, you'll have to shut down the powerbook to fix this problem. The phone may not be discoverable forever ... no matter how often you click the "discoverable" button. So you have to turn it off too. If you're trying to resize a photo so it fits on a phone, with the default software on a Mac, good luck to you. iPhoto can't do a genuine resize. And if you do it without creating another user account, and without importing the photos to that user's iPhoto, you may destroy your original photo trying to resize. Fragile technology.

Everyone in the computer industry knows what's going on here, and most consumers know too. Innovative, deeply robust technology can only be built under certain circumstances ... strong public funding, well-protected R & D laboratories, slow product cycles, etc. Even when this happens, and private industry moves in to capitalize on it, they inevitably screw it up. Apple spends far more money on advertising and industrial design than on functionality, engineering and QA. The same is true of Motorola, SONY & Ericsson. There have been pockets of exceptions, and this is promising technology ... But, seriously, bluetooth is just two radios sharing data. Why can't it be reliable, now? I'm sure the first locks worked pretty well, right off the bat ... There are plenty of engineers who would love to be given the chance to really make this technology work ... including those who created these products. But profits come first.

Which makes me wish that the people who made these locks, and the R & D lab cum factory they worked in, could have survived to make these products today. Because then, they would work.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Cell-band in Russsia: iBook, Mac OS X, Motorola v551, Beeline, Bluetooth, GPRS -- connecting to the Internet by mobile phone

Cellphones that seem cheap in the US are, in fact, worth less: they are locked, with something called a "subsidy password", making your phone only work with the SIM card you bought the phone with.

For some reason, of the two Motorola v551's with me (one is mine, one is my wife's), one phone is locked, and one is not. Just my good luck, I suppose, or maybe I'm part of somebody's experiment. These phones sell in Russia for 6,000 rubles just now, or about $200.

I went to Beeline, the most pervasive cell phone company here, and who's network my phone found immediately. I bought a SIM card, which fits under the battery. You pay into the SIM card's services ahead of time, like a rechargeable phone card.

Luckily the Motorola v551 GSM does work in Russia -- in fact the signal seems much stronger than Cingular's in the US (for comparison, I'm taking the I-5 corridor in the Pacific Northwest in the US, from Eugene to Seattle, against the Moscow-Tver corridor ... )

Beeline also has a pay-ahead internet connect option, and it uses a system known as GPRS. On the v551, at least, you can talk and stay connected at the same time. Just don't flip the phone closed ... this closes the connection for some reason.

Since I have an older iBook, I also needed to buy a bluetooth USB dongle for it ... the Motorola data cables are available nowhere ... even in the US I found dealers who didn't have them -- "too expensive", they said -- and no one, certainly, has them in Russia. But electronics stores do have bluetooth dongles.

Beeline's GPRS guide, which is in Russian, didn't have instructions for Mac OS X ... so that's why I'm including them here. It took an awful lot of experimentation to figure this out.

One thing: you'll need a Motorola Mac OS X modem script called "Motorola CID1". Nothing seems to work without it. It's available here. Put it in your Macintosh HD->Library->Modem Scripts directory.

On the iBook:
1. Put in your Bluetooth dongle. It should autodetect, and be ready, on MAC OS X -- I'm using the 3.9 version of Panther.

On the Motorola v551:
2. Click your 'menu' button (top middle).
3. Click the 'tools' image (Settings)
4. Click Connection
5. Click Bluetooth Link
6. Click Setup
7. If power is off, change power to 'on'.
8. Click 'find me' You're discoverable for 60 seconds. Run back to the iBook.

On the iBook:
9. Click the bluetooth symbol on the top bar
10. click "Set up bluetooth device ..."
11. the setup assistant starts. Click 'continue'
12. click 'Mobile phone' then continue
13. When it finds your phone, click continue.
14. It shows you a 6-digit passkey on the screen, run back to your cellphone

On the Motorola v551:
15. it says 'Bond with your computer name'? Click yes.
16. It says 'Enter Bluetooth passkey'. Type in the passkey, click OK. It says 'bonded'.
Nothing else to do here, but leave the phone flipped open.

On the iBook:
17. It gets some more info from your phone. Then it asks if you want GPRS. Make sure it's clicked, and click continue.
18. Bluetooth Mobile Phone Setup values:
username: beeline
password: beeline
GPRS CID String: internet.beeline.ru
Modem Script: Motorola GPRS CIR1
Check 'Show bluetooth status in the menu bar'.
Click continue
19. Click Quit
20. Open System Preferences. Click Network. If you haven't already, create a new location, say, "GPRS Beeline".
Under TCP/IP:
Select "Using PPP" but also use these DNS Servers:
Under Bluetooth Modem:
Check everything
make sure Motorola GPRS CID1 is selected
Under PPP
Account name: beeline
Password: beeline
Telephone number: internet.beeline.ru
(... and that is not a typo)
PPP Options:
I checked everything, except the top three options.
20. Click "Dial Now ..." this opens up the Internet dialer.
All the settings we've typed in should be in place. Click "Connect".
21. At some point, a blank terminal screen comes up. Click "Continue"
22. After a minute or so, some send/receive bars should show up. You're connected!

The big surprise is that only step 20 gets easier, unless you know applescript. Still, it works! Fast enough ... dial-up speeds.

A note on the Motorola V551 -- not my favorite cellphone. The little plastic tabs on the back are terribly made, and will fail if you change your SIM card too often. And there are definitely times when you have to power down, and back up again, in order to connect with bluetooth. On the other hand, the bluetooth setup assistant also has a tendency to crash, with the spinning pinwheel of death.

A note on the iBook ... my favorite mac notebook ever. It's very sturdy ... as opposed to the Powerbook's 'titanium' shell, which seems to carry a light current all the time when plugged in ... I don't know if this is an artifact of using Russian power ... perhaps the power transformers aren't as clean as they could be ... but it definitely 'buzzes' when plugged in. I'm in a village (a poor one, yet it has cell coverage) and the humming powerbook on recharge seems to attract more flies than either I or my cup of tea ... I guess flies like that sort of thing. The Powerbook has more sleep mode failures than the iBook does, and the Powerbook's bottom gets more overheated ... and yet it costs more. I'm talking about the model that came out earlier this year.

Note that both the iBook & the Powerbook can get damaged in travel ... the notorious 'keys-through-the-screen' problem. Buy a hard notebook case that does not let the computer torque at all.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Stalin's buildings

The first thing you notice about almost any city in Western Russia, is that aside from modern International-style construction, its buildings look like a cross between those of St. Petersburg & old Paris. Outside of Moscow, they are mostly falling apart, like everything else. But almost everywhere they are beautiful and touching, with everything done right, and often with great sensitivity to people's needs.

However, these buildings are modern. They were part of massive work-making building programs of Stalin's. They look 18th century, but many are from the 1950's. It's incredible, especially if you've spent any time tracking architecture in the rest of the world. It's as if an entire country is trying to fool you ... very successfully.

Of course, the Metro is a major example. Each station looks like a palace. But it is a metro station, so you know it's not very old ... this contradiction makes each trip on the Moscow Metro extremely surreal.

Stalin was a monster, but his construction people really knew their stuff. The horrible International style movement in the USSR, in the post-Stalin era, was obviously a reaction to Stalin, avoiding anything he would like ...

This avoidance is similar to the situation 10 years earlier, in post-WWII Europe, when people stopped building in the old manner, partly to escape association with the war, but partly to join the US-led new world order.

The good news is that these buildings are mostly protected in Russia (loopholes aside). The bad news is that, outside of Moscow, there's no money to maintain them.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


In a city of half-a-million, you expect to find some internet connectivity. But very few parts of Tver are ADSL-ready, so don't expect to create a high-speed nest for yourself. Internet 'Salons' come and go quite easily here. Right now, after a pretty exhaustive search, it seems like there are two active salons in Tver -- one in the back hallway of the third floor of the "tourist hotel" across from the train station -- that's the nicest one. The other one, though, is downtown ... in a hot basement, on a street just off the main pedestrian promenade. Not very pleasant to work there, but ok. Neither salon has WiFi. Even the Internet Salons in Moscow don't have WiFi. That's not their game. (Games are their game, from what I've seen of the Moscow scene).

But Tver itself is fascinating.

The Volga river promenades & parks are especially lovely. The thousands of old buildings make it look like a potential UN World Heritage site -- sometimes I think of all of Russia should become one. The beautiful 18th-century art museum, which is falling apart, and whose scaffolding for repairs has fallen apart, is in real need of rescue, both for the building and its priceless collection. Of course, no help comes from Moscow, which assigns governors to Russian regions with the sole purpose of extracting as much wealth as politically possible.

Power converting in Russia

All notebook computers sold in the world today come with a "brick", a step-down-transformer/power-supply which transforms wall voltage and frequencies to something appropriate for the notebook. All notebook computer bricks will say something like "110-240v, 50-60 HZ". They are non-polarized, and non-grounded. So all you have to do is make the plug fit in the wall. This is done with $10 gadgets, "universal plugs", available in many flavors even at Staples, and they always include the "two big round prongs" which fit into the wall in Russia & elsewhere. You can probably get these in Russia, but I haven't seen any at the many electronic stores I've been to so far, so it's best to get one or two before you leave.

The converters are probably not available because it is hard for russians to travel outside of the country ... not many countries let Russians in unless they have some money. The EU apparently has a "$10,000 in the bank" rule for Russians, so the average Russian can't travel to countries their parents saved from Hitler. The minority of rich Russians can, of course.

Note that not all electronic devices have "good bricks"! My cellphone and my wireless router had them, but my razor, and my Altec-Lansing iPod speakers did not. Luckily, electronics are cheaper in Russia than in the US. That includes things like batteries and blank CD's & DVD's -- it is absurd to bring these to Russia. They are everywhere. A good electric razor will only set you back a couple of bucks.

If you have a few US electronic devices, it's a good idea to bring a little power-strip, or a three-way plug -- anything that lets you plug more than one US device into a single US socket. You won't be able to get such a thing here. The Russian equivalents are available everywhere, of course, and they come in handy for other reasons.

Note that it's no problem to bring these things into the country, if you go through the green "nothing to declare" line at customs. There's a "personal use" allowance ... or that's what I read on the Internet. There's no sign anywhere here of such an official policy. Of course, I haven't left Russia yet ... maybe that's when they tell you the rules.

Wifi Moscow

Don't expect to randomly find Wifi outside of Moscow. Even within Moscow, you need to know where you're going. Even with companies actively unwiring the cafes, like yandex.ru, your chances of bumping into WiFi are slim.

The Hard Rock Cafe has free wifi -- go have a quesadilla, download your e-mail, and check out the ragtag commercialization of the beautiful pedestrian street of Staryi Arbat.

Business visa for Russia

You should get your visa before your airplane ticket, but it's possible to go the other way around. I can only say what I did, which is apparently quite normal. I ordered a 90-day business visa.

I used an "agency", this one, in my case, which sends you an image of a certified "business invitation" for you, which you've paid for, and which you then print out and send to the Russian Consulate near you (with application forms etc.). Mine had an error in it, but it didn't seem to matter. The Consulate sent me back a visa in record time (I paid the extra fee, and provided the registered Fedex envelope for returning my passport). In moscow, I went to the address of "the agency", within three business days of coming to the country, and the agency called the government and stamped my migration card.

Things seem pretty relaxed in Russia, immigration-wise. Just read the instructions carefully, and you'll be ok.

stream.ru ADSL in Moscow for Mac OS X

For those with Mac OS X who want to connect to the stream.ru ADSL service in Moscow -- you don't need to do anything to your ADSL modem. If you were playing with it, it's safe to reset to the factory settings.

In my case, the ADSL modem Stream.Ru sold me was an Aus.linx AL-2007VA, which is also a router/DHCP server. In your OS X system preferences, make a new location, set TCP/IP to DHCP, apply, and set the PPPoE section to the second username & password pair in the little secret tearsheet given to you by the stream.ru people. Apply, and PPPoE will connect for you. This was a useful link, from the major Mac people in Moscow. I can't read all the instructions, but I found that I didn't need to do anything to the modem. I did need to get the username/password from the tearsheet.

Hooking up a Wireless Access Point is much easier. Hook the ADSL's ethernet out into the uplink for the WAP, connect wirelessly in the normal way, surf to the address for your WAP: mine was a new linksys wireless-G broadband router, with address, default username: WRT54GC default password: admin. Select PPPoE, give it that second Stream.Ru password, save settings and wait. Then apply your normal "DHCP through airport" setting, as you would anywhere, and you'll be live.

The Stream.ru ADSL is quite fast & robust ... I can SSH, FTP, Workspot ... all ports seem to be available. This is not true at all WiFi & Internet Salons around Moscow. The Workspot demo is a particularly good test, because if it can't connect, the only port available is 80 (HTTP). My ADSL line was the first Workspot connection I managed to get here. I don't know why ... this isn't China, there's no Internet censorship. I don't see the point. Anti-hacker precaution, perhaps?

Formerly existing socialism

I saw the most extreme version of the Russian alcoholic today. They tend to hang around in children's playgrounds, which are between and around all apartment buildings. They dig through garbages, competing with the wild dogs. But today I saw one who had become one with the garbage. He was covered in dirt, and was moving from garbage to garbage. He looked like he'd become a worm. No social safety net for him ... but he's free to buy a rum & coke or a gin & tonic in a pull-tab soda pop can.

I also saw an armless & legless veteran, crawling on the metro, asking for help. No social safety net for him. But he's free to beg, and compete with people hawking handbags on the metro.

Saw a boy, about five years old, playing accordian and singing soulfully on the metro. The boy was quite good, a natural musician/performer. Who might have been nurtured twenty years ago ... today he's free to pursue a career as a street urchin.

Back in the ссср

When here, it's striking how much of modern Russia is obviously the Soviet Union. You can feel it ... all the buildings, all the social relationships, the culture, the Dostoyevsky depression, the Moscow snobbery, the Moscow/non-Moscow divide ... this is the USSR. What's different?

Less social expenditure, of course. More violent crime, certainly. More corruption too. People more extraordinarily enriching themselves at the expense of others. The death of manufacture & agriculture. A deeper distrust of people. A torn social safety net. A general reduction of happiness ... note that there's a small percentage of the Moscow population who might disagree with me. And, I'm comparing it to the 1980's of course, not Stalin's day.

These are huge changes. But the USSR is everywhere, pervasive, and it's not going away. But it's completely lost what little was left of a people's ideology.

Town & country

Moscow is extremely well maintained, when you compare it with the rest of the country. 145 million people in Russia, and 80% of the resources go to a small percentage of the population of 11 million in this city. You can feel it. Modern neoliberal capitalism is doing quite well in russia.

I went to Tver, a city of half-a-million outside of Moscow. It looks like a gigantic squatter village ... unmaintained public spaces, rubble falling off the buildings, a kind of wild west with a Baroque backdrop. I'm told that St. Petersburg is very much the same. Parts of Moscow, off the beaten track, are similarly abandoned-looking, but not for long, with property so expensive there.

People feel rather unempowered, as they do in the US and elsewhere. "Moscow is a train" and old communist director told me "it sets a direction, and you either get on, or you stay off the train." Happily, there's lots of people very interested in staying off Moscow's train ... in the same way that most of the US doesn't give a shit whether Manhattan thinks it's the center of the universe or not.

Even Moscovites get off the train.

Every weekend, the road from Moscow is packed with people headed towards country life -- either villages or dachas. It's a major part of modern russian culture to return to the country, whether an old village that was collectivized in the 1920's, or a settlement of dachas (country houses). The culture in these places can be extrordinarily bucolic, almost a subsitance level of existence. And people love it. With good reason -- it is very real, and very wonderful: fetching water from the well, taking wood-fired saunas, jumping into swimming holes, making tea in a samovar, drinking homemade liquor, eating fresh vegetables, using the outhouse, keeping a garden and barnyard, interacting with your neighbors etc. This movement is the great hope of russian culture, really. It's an aboriginal culture, a native one, that is deeply ingrained, and which acts as a counterbalance to the anti-people policies of the national government. It makes russia seem more ripe than the US for, I dunno, a "green revolution". Combine the people in the country & cities outside Moscow, with those who want to escape Moscow, and you have a super-majority ready to demand social expenditure again.

Aeroflot - Аэрофлот

Аэрофлот has flights from Seattle to Moscow. New Boeing 767's, bought no doubt with US government & World Bank guarantees & loans. Very nice Russian staff at baggage check in -- 32 kilos was our baggage limit, and we were two kilos over -- it would cost a fortune. But the check-in girl told us to move some stuff to the carry-ons ... quite nice of her.

The London bombings happened the day of our flight, and while we were waiting to board, we had to listen to the extreme, virulent, US news propaganda about the bombings. The fact is, you're more likely to die being hit by a cab in London. But no government reacts to the 'cab crisis' by tearing away our freedoms and spending billions invading auto companies & slaughtering the workers. The death of these commuters, and the abuse of the catastrophe by the powerful militarist publicists, was quite disgusting, and a disturbing way to leave the US.

But the media response was indentical in Moscow. The russian government has it's own agenda, indeed, almost every government in the world has its own agenda, its own abuse to squeeze from this explosion. Every state needs to scare it's people into subservience, and needs to invent an enemy. But the governments, of course, are by far the biggest sponsors of death and destruction.

The flight was lovely. A beautiful trip over the north pole. Arriving in Moscow ... the immigration people silently stamp your passport, and the customs people are no where to be seen, if you follow the green lane.