Don’t Use BackBlaze

It’s Wednesday. I’m sitting at my Mac listening to Elle King sing Wild Love. On Monday I wasn’t sure that any copy I had of that song would ever play again. You see, last Saturday morning I walked by my Mac to see the external hard drive indicator light blinking. Furiously. I thought nothing of it. Hard drive indicator lights blink. Saturday afternoon it was still blinking. Furiously. I sat down to see what was the matter. The computer woke up to hundreds of messages from a drive I had not touched in three days.  The drive had not ejected properly. Apparently 483 times. Long story short, my beloved decade-old Hitachi was in its death spiral.

As Alfred E. Neuman said, “What? Me worry?” All of my critical files were neatly backed up off site using BackBlaze. In this case, it was a blush less than a terabyte of files. Not much. But more than I wanted to jam through my internet connection. So at 8:00 PM Saturday, I opted to have Backblaze send me a hard drive. At the same time I had Amazon send me a brand new Seagate Pro 4TB drive and an Inateck enclosure. The fantasy world inside my head saw the two coming together on Monday night. Hard drive crash? It’s like it never happened.

But Backblaze had a different vision. When you start a restore—that’s what they call it, a restore—it prompts one of those swirly things that all computer programs use nowadays to tell you that something is happening. But that it hasn’t happened.

On Tuesday morning my tiny terabyte restore was still swirling. You didn’t have to be the geeky kid in school to know that much swirling was a bad thing.

I canceled my order explaining that if it was going to take more than 72 hours getting the files onto the drive, I’d be until the cows came home getting them off. Backblaze didn’t respond with so much as a “Sorry for the inconvenience. This usually goes pretty well.” In fact their response made it seem like this was business as usual.

So there I was. My Barracuda, or Cheeta, or whatever fast animal Seagate names their drives after, was sitting lonely in its enclosure waiting to be fed data. And I had none to feed it. I had no Wild Love from Elle King.

What BackBlaze had given me, then, was two days to think about my past and future backup options, I found an app on my Mac called Intego Backup Manager Pro. Ah. I once had a LaCie external drive. With that came the slickest little backup manager I’d ever seen. Like all things slick, it had its day. So when I got my new Mac, the backup manager informed me that we could no longer be together. But, it said, you can upgrade to Intego Backup Manager Pro. I decided to give the trial version a whirl. As a test I made a backup of my critical files onto some old external drive I had laying around. Wow! It was even better than its slick predecessor. Then I unplugged it and promptly forgot. Cuz, hey, I had Backblaze.

So I pulled that drive out of its shoebox and copied everything from it. That got me up to about a year ago. My music and photos came back from their safe haven in iCloud. My Scrivener files, and 2Do, get synced through Drop Box and so were safe. All of the Grand Canyon stuff was still in Google Drive. After that it was a matter of locating more recent files on Backblaze, painstakingly creating restores, and slowly downloading them to my machine.

Lessons learned? Always backup your data. But think about how you do it. A backup is only as good as your ability to recover your files. With BackBlaze my options sucked. Offsite backups seem great. And I did finally manage to wrest some files from Backblaze. But offsite backups for personal use are a little underwhelming. And business sites like Backblaze apparently care less about your little terabyte corner of the world.

You probably have some sort of cloud service. Maybe it’s from your internet provider; maybe iCloud; maybe DropBox or Google Drive. Use those for files that change daily. Long term, hard drives are cheap. USB 3.0 is fast. Apps like Intego Backup Manager Pro give you granular control over what you backup, where, and when. Files that change weekly or monthly can go there. So from now on I’m going to bake my own cookies. The advantage of offsite is fire protection. But I have to have a fireproof safe anyway. I just need a bombproof backup plan.

So thanks, Backblaze. Thanks for nothing. I’ll take it from here. Elle King, take it away…

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Making Spheres From Cubes

TAMU_prototype
Realization through visualization

The silvery thing in the photo above looks like a Christmas ornament. It is, in fact, a scale model of a sculpture now gracing the Engineering Quad at Texas A&M University. The sculpture, in gleaming stainless steel, is a repeating geometric pattern that makes a sphere from cubes. That’s clever. But also buried in the myriad of shapes along the way is a Texas star. Very clever.

I don’t go around photographing scale models. I took this photo because I helped get this project built. But before we got to that point somebody had to make heads or tails of just what the artist was trying to do. I have been reading fabrication blueprints for over 40 years. Yet, I could only look at the prints from our customer and say, “Well, isn’t that nice.” So it fell on our company’s Vice President of Design, a guy who has forgotten more about custom metal fabrication than I will ever know, to come up with the above scale model. I’m going to let how he came up with this be his little secret and move on to my small contribution to this project.

Most of my projects go into private industry. Private competitive industry. Our customers don’t want mug shots of their tanks, vessels, gantries, mix trucks and process piping in the wild. It’s not secret stuff; it’s just proprietary stuff. But I sometimes land a project that goes into the public domain. This is one of those.

I avoid art projects like the plague. But this one was different. Unlike other art projects, it wasn’t a fabrication problem. A wizened, bespectacled welder in a leather apron wasn’t going to solve this one. It was a manufacturing problem.

It was a manufacturing problem for the very reason that the sculpture was an array of regular shapes. This was the goal of the artist, Olafur Eliasson of Studio Olafur Eliasson. He wanted five geometric shapes in the sculpture. He began with a cube—as far from a sphere as you can get. Cutting the cube into a diamond gave triangles and hexagons. Arranging five diamonds around an axis yielded circles and pentagons—and the Texas star. Assembling the stars gets you a sphere. The sphere, I might add, needed to be twenty feet in diameter. And it needed to be open to reveal triangular mirror panels inside. (Olafur Eliasson loves putting mirrors in public art.) That is to say that the sculpture was the framework of those geometric shapes—not the solids. Here is a picture of our framework prototypes:

TAMU_Parts2
Getting the basics right. It starts with parts.

On to the manufacturing problem. You might not have enough psilocybin on hand to know how to transform a cube into a sphere. But, tripped out or not, you do know how a dozen small mistakes can add up to one big mistake. So I’ll begin there. We needed to start with the smallest plane geometry feature in the sculpture and build all the other shapes from it. That was the triangle. From there we needed to make the smallest, most logical assembly component possible. That was a diamond. These needed to go into the largest shipping piece possible. (Assuming you are shipping by truck.) That’s your star.

Our mantra became “Triangles make diamonds. Diamonds makes stars.” So we began with 360 pesky triangles. Pesky? Pesky because they all needed to be almost identical. That’s the problem. You can never make two things identical. Any two things you try to make identical will vary just a bit from each other. It doesn’t matter why, they just will. So our triangles were going to vary. The trick is managing variance enough to keep it from adding up. In manufacturing you set up a means to check your parameters. Any number of gages and fixtures tell you that your parts are right. Other fixtures and jigs ensure your assemblies go together.

Now… this is easy in a world that comes together in right angles. If you are sitting in a room right now, look around. It’s all right angles. The planar floor is horizontal. The planar walls are vertical. Those two things come together at a right angle. The corners where the walls come together? Right angles. The four corners of the doors and doorframe? Right angles. It is no accident that we’ve built our world on this theme. Euclid made it easy for us. And that was the problem. Diamonds have no right angles. A prototype of ours looked like this:

TAMU_diamond
Our diamond-in-the-rough prototype

So how do you fixture it? I puzzled over that for awhile. A few of us did. We hatched three or four schemes—all bad. And it looked for awhile like this was going to end up a fabrication issue after all. But plumb bobs and levels and chalk lines on the floor were not going to let us meet our schedule. We needed to build diamonds fast and without variables.

Of course, you clever kids in the front row are already on this. (Well done!) And that’s the answer I crawled to. The artist had started with a cube. A cube! You know, a special geometric solid in which all of the corners are right angles and all the sides are the same length. And that was the key to the project. So after we all banged our heads together for awhile, I finally managed to come up with this fixture:

TAMU_Fixture
A diamond inside of a cube

Of course, the fixture doesn’t matter. What matters is that it ensures that the assembly goes together. In our case, we had to bring 180 mating surfaces together using almost 1100 screws. In most welded structures that involves a lot of prying and pounding. This assembly, though, went together in our shop like LEGOs® and looked like this:

TAMU_assy
Our final shop check

Exactly what are the details that make this work? Well, if I told you that you could build your own stainless steel sculpture, twenty feet in diameter, in your own backyard, replete with repeating patterns of cubes, triangles and circles. That would make Studio Olafur Eliasson unhappy. That would make my employer unhappy. And that would stop me from getting to share once in awhile. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

Anyway, our project manager was on the job site in College Station to make sure everything went well. He was kind enough to share this photo of the sculpture freshly installed on the university’s Engineering Quad:

TAMU_Sphere
Studio Olafur Eliasson sculpture installed at Texas A&M University. (Photo by Kevin Stout)

If you want more,  here is a link to TAMU’s web page for the finished quad: Zachary.TAMU.edu

And, here is a link to a great photo: iBeam Systems

(At the iBeam link, You can select a tab named Timelapse. From there you can set up a timelapse from July 21 through August 14 to see our part of the project being erected. Or, there is link to the righthand side of the timelapse page that let’s you download that timeframe.)

Computing Is Broken

My iMac took a dump over Thanksgiving. Merry freaking Christmas. Vertical stripes on the display. Probably the graphics card. The question is, where to go from here?

Once upon a time, I had no doubt. Once upon a time, computers were cool. Once upon a time, I used them to create things.

Creating on a machine hales back to my childhood. As a kid, I would peck away on my parent’s old mechanical Underwood typewriter. No, it wasn’t one of those black, enameled two-story jobs. Then I would have thought I was Mickey Spellane. It was low profile, and standard secretary-issue beige.

Anyway, I would sit at the dining room table tapping away with both index fingers. At intervals, I’d stop to think—pushing my glasses up on my nose. Sometimes I’d think about what I was writing. Sometimes I’d think about how cool it would be to have a job putting words on paper. I would put a manuscript in the mailbox. The mailman would come back with a check. Sometimes I’d think about how hard it was to fix typing errors.

Eventually, I got a job. I never even thought about buying a typewriter. Not even one of those cool IBM Selectric jobs. The world was on the cusp of change. I didn’t know what it was. But I knew that the Selectric, and the nascent word processors popping up, were already behind the curve.

One day, years on, I was walking by the desk of the secretary in our engineering department. She was typing. But the letters didn’t appear on a piece of paper. They were on a green phosphor screen. I paused.

“Whatcha doin’?”

She didn’t look up.

“Typing a letter.”

Hmm. Interesting. She was typing on a computer.

The boys back in the lab had computers too. Portables. Made by a company called Compaq. The face was the size of a keyboard. Literally. The keyboard snapped over the face when you carried it around. On the left side of the face was a tiny green phosphor screen. On the right, a slot held a 5-1/4” floppy disc. The whole thing was about 20” deep and weighed about 20 pounds.

I don’t know what the lab boys did with them. But before long, one or two broke. The hard drives failed. So they sold them. I bought one. The secretary gave me a floppy with the typing program on it. WordStar. She showed me how to start it up; and how to run the program, type a file, and save the whole thing back onto the floppy. That’s right. The floppy was the boot drive. It held the program. And it stored the files. That’s the efficiency you get from folks who had been writing programs on punch cards.

I was pretty excited. I had a computer. I was writing again. At the time The Tucson Weekly had a challenge: Dust Devils. A dust devil was a novel written in no more than 75 words. I mailed a few to them. They never mailed back a check.

After a time, the Compaq gave up the ghost. Vertical stripes on the screen. Probably the graphics card. Haha. So we tossed it in the trash. The neighbors sneaked by that night to retrieve it. I don’t know what they thought it was.

I changed jobs. The company bought a CAD program. It ran on Windows. The screens were brightly colored. Then, walking home from the bus stop in the evening, I began noticing the same brightly colored glow in the windows in houses along our street. I thought again about a computer of my own.

I came home one night to a huge box in the living room. I was excited. Then I realized it was a wrong delivery. It was addressed to someone named Dell. My wife gently guided me to the idea that it was from Dell. And it was. And it was a freaking computer!

The first thing I did was load AmiPro. It was way cooler than WordStar. And it should have been. It took twelve 3-1/2” floppy discs to load it. But fixing typing errors became easy. Fixing entire documents became easy! Before long, I was sending long-winded newsletters back home. The second thing I did was buy a modem. It connected me, first to a BBS, then, later, to a thing called the Internet. The third thing I did was learn HTML. I pushed my glasses up on my nose. I formatted those newsletters in HTML. I uploaded them to a server. I had a website: The Flypaper Chronicle. The world could see it. Now I wasn’t just writing. I was finally a writer.

And it wasn’t just about writing. The 80486 chip brought a lot of power to the party. It could easily handle sorting and editing massive photo shoots, in-depth video editing, and multi-track recording. So I jumped into those too.

It was all fun then. The Internet was new. The possibilities seemed endless. Computers seemed to be more about creating than consuming. Now, just like those nascent word processors, the desktop computer feels like it is behind the curve. Both Apple and Microsoft assure us that the post-computer age is here.

For writing, that’s definitely true. I’m writing this on my phone. But I’ve used iMovie on iOS and Final Cut Pro on a desktop. It’s no contest. Likewise Photos on iOS versus Capture One Pro on a desktop. Something like an iPad Pro, or a Surface, has the oomph to do the heavy lifting. Both lack two things. One is mass storage. It’s hard to imagine any serious music or video editing being done from a cloud. You need huge files sitting right there. Maybe it could be done with photography. Music and video? Not so much. But the other thing lacking are the apps themselves. Software developers have no incentive to create heavy-duty apps for handheld devices. There’s just no market.

There’s no market because, while they sell these as creative devices, they are really consumer devices. Now it’s all about everybody sharing the same dumbass meme while a slew of music, photography, art—and, yes, writing—go undiscovered. So, maybe it’s time to leave the desktop and move on to something lightweight. Maybe my computer can just stay broken.

Comment below. I’d like to know what you think.

2013 Simon Awards

The 2013 Simon Awards

Simon thinking hard about beauty and design
Simon thinking hard about beauty and design

As you know, Simon the Weimaraner has had a pretty good run at besting John C. Dvorack when it comes to predicting the success of Apple products. This has little to do with Dvorack being a miserable technologist, scarcely removed from his antisocial existence in his mother’s basement, and everything to do with the fact that Simon pours his heart and soul in to discovering the new and beautiful things designed by our friends in Cupertino. And so we come to that time of year when Simon points out some iPhone apps that truly shine. While Simon prefers apps that do not require opposable thumbs, he’s willing to ignore that if it meets the goals of beauty, simplicity and functionality.

Waking up in the morning
Winner: Rise. Rise does one thing: it wakes you up in the morning. It doesn’t do multiple alarms, multiple time zones, sequential days or anything like that. But its elegant no-nonsense interface makes it a joy to use. This falls squarely under the adage of do one thing and do it with beauty and grace.

Rise Alarm Clock
Rise Alarm Clock

Checking the weather
Winner: Weather Underground. This is a crowded field and your actual winner may vary depending on what weather means to you. For me, weather became the first thing that let the Internet replaced TV. Back in the BBS days, I had a little macro that woke my PC, logged into the BBS, fetched a weather forecast and sent it to my printer, ready for me to look at when I woke up. When we got web browsers, Weather Underground became the go-to source. It turned me into a weather junkie, looking up worldwide weather just because I could. Now we weather junkies have a weather app for every purpose.

Living Earth should win here for sheer, stunning beauty, showing, as it does, a spinning planet with near real-time cloud cover. With a few simple taps it can show you the time and weather forecast for anywhere and wake you up. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dark Sy. Dark Sky does one thing: it uses local doppler radar to guess when it is going to rain at your exact location. (Warning: this requires your GPS to be on constantly, a huge battery drain.) In between, Swackett carves out a niche as the hipster of the weather app crowd. It has a cute, simple interface that lets you get more detail by swiping screens or rotating your phone. But surprisingly, Weather Underground is what made it to the top left corner of Simon’s screen. The paid version. (Simon wonders about people who would rather clutter their screen with ugly ads than shell out a few bucks.) For years, Weather Bug Elite was the supreme ruler of this corner. It offered incredibly detailed weather data in an easy-to-use interface. But the last update was a step backwards and while the detail remains, the simplicity suffered. Like its early web counterpart, Weather Underground offers all the data you could possibly need, unless you are a pilot, in a relatively easy to navigate system of screens.

Weather Underground weather app
Weather Underground weather app

Figuring out where you’re going
There is no winner in the map category. To be a winner, a map app needs several things: 1) Detailed accurate data. All maps have errors and none should ever be a substitute for what you see right in front of your eyes. The problem with most map apps is that they rely on someone else’s data. Except Google. Google works tirelessly to bring it’s data up-to-date. For that we thank you. And, Apple? You need to step up your game. We know you have the resources. Let’s rock this thing. 2) Use of your contacts. It’s idiotic to have to look an address up in your contacts and then type it into a search bar. Google, no one is looking at you. 3) Preloaded maps. If you think you’ll never be anywhere you won’t need pre-loaded maps, you have never been to Iowa. Take a look at I-80 running from Omaha to Des Moines. There is only one reason a road can be that straight. Believe me, you won’t have a data connection out there in the fields. If you’re wondering why preloaded maps would work without a data connection, it’s because your iPhone’s GPS system is separate from its data connection. You can lose cell service and still know where you are. Thank you Motion-X for this great feature. Google? Apple? Take note. 4) Mixed-mode sensing. Nothing is more disorienting than getting off of a bus or subway in a strange city and starting to walk to a destination. The ultimate map app would sense this change, alter it’s interface and turn-by-turn, and get you through this process. Shame on all map app makers on this score. 5) Vector graphics. Raster graphics on a Retina display is just idiotic. Thank you Apple for taking the lead in this. And no Google, you get no credit for being the me-too in this scenario. 6) Core voice turn-by-turn. Google showed near complete idiocy by withholding this technology from the biggest revenue stream in the mobile phone world. Yeah they have it now. But in the process they woke a sleeping giant. The Google maps group should be shitting a brick now. So, yeah, Google you were a day late. Luckily, you aren’t a dollar short yet. But just wait.

All that said, I’d like to offer a shout out to Motion-X Drive. I’d pick it as my winner were it not for one thing. No, it’s not that live voice turn-by-turn is an in app purchase that costs $10 a year. In the several years I spent traveling it proved to be worth every penny. What gets me is that there is also a Motion-X GPS. This is designed for everything but driving: hiking, biking, backpacking, maybe even sailing. With little trouble at all, Motion-X could combine these two apps. Then, with the addition of vector graphics, it would be the winner.

Getting a new groove on
There is no winner in the music search category. Neither Shazam Encore nor Soundhound Infinity–both paid versions–can ‘find’ songs as well as they used to. I don’t know, but I think this may be because the source of that data is more closely guarded. I noticed that these types of data searches on the Mac apps CDpedia and DVDpedia also fail more often. So maybe there is no way around these failures for now. However, Soundhound sucks a little more because they charge you for the app and then still show you ads. Plus, they are far too insistent on wanting to shove a social network connection down your throat. A music search app needs to 1) find almost any song, and 2) if it exists on iTunes or Amazon let you click to buy it. For that, Soundhound Infinity is very nearly a winner, but still fails far too often.

Getting things done
Winners: TeuxDeux and 2Do. To-do lists should be the killer app of the iPhone. Unfortunately, most of them want to be full-blown time management systems based on Getting Things Done. If you are into that sort of thing, you have all kinds of options. ListPro touts itself as the ultimate list making tool. It really is. Sadly, it is complicated enough that using it efficiently requires a desktop version. When I used ListPro with my Compaq iPaq, they had such a thing and I just loved it. But there is no Mac version of ListPro, so it has to get simpler to be a winner. ToDo is also great, but also complicated. If they gave some serious thought to their interface, they’d have a shot at this. 2Do almost wins here except for money. The iPhone version is $10. Okay. It’s interface lets you make fairly complicated lists and organize them efficiently. But it’s just complicated enough to want a desktop version. And there is one. For another $30. Seriously? You really have to be a super-duper, hardcore, time management, list making freak to justify that kind of money for the combo. That said, I use 2Do on my iPhone as a stand alone app and its pretty good. But sometimes you just need a simple tool. That is where TeuxDeux really shines. TeuxDeux is a simple, straightforward, date-based list tool. Put something on your list for Monday. If you don’t cross it off it simply rolls over to Tuesday. If you want to get it done someday, just put it on the Someday list. There is no desktop version. But there is a web-based version that lets you access your list from a desktop or share it by giving another person your log in information. TeuxDeux: Simple, easy, fun.

TeuxDeux List app
TeuxDeux List app

Calculating your share of the rent
Winner: Soulver. For solving math problems I still like a handheld calculator. I use a Casio FX-115ES Plus. Maybe I’m just getting set in my ways, but no interface matches the logic, function and tactile sensation of a calculator keypad. Gesture-based computing has its advantages though and Rechner Calculator was a notable attempt to bring that to the iPhone. Sadly it falls short. My issue is that they use the wrong gestures to solve problems. You swipe right to add, left to subtract. So far so good. (Though to be nit-picky the swiping seems backwards thinking in terms of what would happen on a number line.) So swiping up should multiply, down should divide. But that doesn’t work: division and multiplication are in a hidden drawer. Sorry, they should be considered primary functions. Likewise, seeing the result of your calculation should just be a tap, not a swipe, in the result screen, just like a double tap there clears the results. But it doesn’t work that way. So, close but no cigar. I hope they keep working on it; it has a lot of potential. A mention should also go to Pemdas. PEMDAS is, of course, the order of mathematical operations, and Pemdas is a very nice advanced calculator that does intermediate math in an orderly and very clean UI. The clear winner, though, is Soulver. Soulver is a fairly powerful calculator coupled to a very simple spreadsheet interface. This lets you easily use the results of a calculation in another calculation as well as add relevant text to your calculations. As an added bonus, there is a Mac version and the two can be synced.

Soulver Math app
Soulver Math app

Writing about your day
Winner: iA Writer. Since journal keeping is writing, but writing isn’t always journal keeping, there should probably be two entries here. So I’ll make a shout out to Day One. Day One does a great job of keeping the software out of your face and letting you focus on your thoughts. It is also nice enough to remind you to write if it hasn’t heard from you for awhile. There is a Mac version so that you can keep track of your thoughts at your desktop, and the two sync. But for straight-up writing, iA Writer comes out on top. Writing is not page layout or desktop publishing. And yet no app, including Apple’s wonderful Pages, lets you write first and arrange later. So iA Writer, the app I am using to type this, lets you get down to the nitty-gritty of getting thoughts, and words, and phrases in the proper order. The basic interface is clean and simple. No cluttered visuals get between you and your words on the screen. In the Mac version, a basic markdown language lets you add italics and underlining for transferring later to HTML. It’s best feature, though, is one called Focus Mode. Focus Mode lets you concentrate on one sentence at a time, a great tool for paring and honing your words. I highly recommend both the iPhone and Mac versions, and using them together.

iA Writer text editing app
iA Writer text editing app

Relaxing
Winner: Fragger. Very few games are enough fun for me to want to keep playing for hours. Fragger is loads of fun. Like Angry Birds, you win by correctly calculating the trajectory of something that explodes. I just find Fragger’s trajectories to be more accurately calculated and the puzzles more logical to solve.

Fragger Game app
Fragger Game app

Gazing at the stars
Winner: Star Walk. Your iPhone doesn’t just know where it is on this planet, it knows what time it is, what direction it’s pointed in, and what angle it’s tilted at. In other words, it knows everything it needs to accurately show you constellations in the night sky. Star Walk has been a perennial winner in this category by being the first to take advantage of that and continuing to be the very epitome of the function and beauty that nets you a Simon Award.

Star Walk constellation app
Star Walk constellation app

I hope you enjoyed this little romp through the exciting world of iPhone apps. I’d very much like to hear your choices in these categories. When Simon wakes up from his nap I’ll let him know what you think.

More Bars In More Places

If you get why engineers wear t-shirts that read “Talk nerdy to me” you’ll understand the next sentence. Engineers like math. I’m talking real honest-to-goodness math, the kind you use to fly a space probe to another planet and land it there, not magic-wand Wall Street math used to separate suckers from their money. So while it’s true that engineers can be seduced by beautifully designed objects with no quantifiable qualities—women, for example—for the most part they want to see the numbers.

A year or so ago our engineering department discovered that although one guy denied being a cousin-kissing hillbilly his mobile carrier of choice was Verizon. Weird, I know. Rather than dwell on that anomaly, and being a well-traveled group, we took the opportunity to compare cell phone coverage. As it turns out, the Big Three each have you pretty well covered everywhere except Tarboro, North Carolina, where, surprisingly, not even having Verizon is much help. There are always pockets here and there where one carrier has a better signal than another. If a particular pocket is critical to you, the only way to be sure of your signal is by testing the spot with the handset you intend to use. After kicking that around for awhile we arrived at the most interesting question of all: with a particular carrier, using a particular handset, do a certain number of bars mean anything?

No. No they don’t. And if technical explanations make your head hurt, this is all you need to know. Go back to watching Honey Boo Boo. Otherwise, read on.

I had some time off over the holidays so I set things up to spend a month seeing what bars actually represent. To do this I changed my iPhone’s signal strength display so that I could switch it from from bars to dBm—the actual measurement of signal strength. Then I loaded Ookla’s mobile version of their vaunted network speed test.  This made it possible to look at actual signal strength compared to voice quality or data speed. (If you want to switch your iPhone to display dBm, follow the instructions below.)

Wireless network signal strength is measured in dBm, or a decibel related to a milliwatt signal. Basically, 0 dBm, is a one milliwatt load at 600 ohms of impedance. It also is the strongest signal used in cell phone communication. The scale is logarithmic and, for cell phone communication, goes down from there. So a -10 dBm signal would be one-half of full strength. A -20 dBm signal is one-quarter of full strength. And so on. Typically what you are going to get is a -80 to -90 dBm signal, which is somewhere between 1:250 and 1:500 of maximum. Or, in telephony terms, a normal signal. If you are getting less than -130 dBm, which is 1:8000 of full strength, there is a good chance you have spotty reception.

So what does this mean in terms of bars? Nothing. Five bars does not mean that you have a 0 dBm signal. It might mean that you have an -80 dBm signal, which would normally be the strongest signal you would expect to get. But it might not mean that at all. In my checks, a -100 dBm signal was sometimes three bars, and sometimes one bar. Likewise, five bars would sometimes be a -70 dBm signal, and other times a -80 dBm signal. There is no standard that requires your phone manufacturer to relate bars to actual signal strength. Bars are just a pacifier for you to suck on.

Then there is the question of how this relates to data speed or voice quality. When it comes to voice quality signal strength may be meaningless. The network algorithms used to code and decode voice are important. These definitely determine the quality of the transmission between the devices. The devices themselves are important though. A good microphone with noise canceling technology on one end, and a good speaker with noise canceling technology on the other end, go a long way toward call clarity. So if voice quality is bad, it could be either device, or the algorithm connecting them. But it’s probably not signal strength.

Anecdotally, let me relate what happened between two friends I’ll call Dilbert and Ditzy. Ditzy was on Verizon. Dilbert was on AT&T. Ditzy had a seven-year old something-or-other flip phone that had been dropped more times than a Sprint signal. Dilbert had the latest iPhone. The voice quality was variable, but it was always bad. The problem was, as Ditzy often pointed out, Dilbert’s poor taste in cell phone carriers. Then, Ditzy bought a new HTC Droid and the problems vanished. I call this parable Your Carrier Doesn’t Completely Control Voice Quality.

Data speed is an even sketchier problem. Signal strength and data speed should have a direct corollary. Better signal equals faster data throughput–in theory. In fact, all other variables being normalized or accounted for, this is actually how things work. But those variables are the problem. There are far too many factors that determine actual data speed: the number of users sucking up bandwidth (such as at a concert); the connection speed on any number of routers on the way to your data’s server and back; the response time of the server itself. And so on and so on. Even worse, signal strength tells you nothing about your carrier’s overall data speed. For example, you and your buddy can both be sitting in the park with five bars—and let’s say that means -80 dBm for you both—each using the latest model iPhone; you’re on AT&T; they’re on Sprint. Their data rate will be slower just because they’re on Sprint. (According to Metrico, Sprints moves data at 1/5 the speed of AT&T.) The -80 dBm signal means nothing; bars mean even less. Finally, there is the question of network type. If you have -70 dBm on, say, an Edge connection is that faster data or better voice than a -90 dBm connection on a 3G connection?

All in all, bars come down to what the Joyce Davenport character on Hill Street Blues called, “a crock of the well known article.”

As you can see, this is all complex and difficult to sort out, which brings me to the crux: Consumer Reports is populated by ninnys. Sorting through all of these variables in some statistically meaningful way, and coming up with a method of deciding objectively which carrier has the best network quality would require a lot of testing and some math wizardry. Hell, it would require Nate Silver-level math wizardry. So Consumer Reports, which essentially hired the same gorillas that once tested Samsonite luggage and dressed them in lab coat coats, doesn’t even try. They just do a survey asking people how they feel about their mobile carrier.

I don’t care how you feel, Poopsy. I don’t care that you didn’t read the fine print in your contract and AT&T won’t give you the upgrade price on the new Apple Wünderfon, and now you are butt hurt and crying into your cereal bowl. I don’t care that you were in Bum F–k, Egypt planning a date with your cousin and Verizon dropped your call, and she thinks you hung up on her and it started a feud unmatched since the Hatfields and McCoys. I don’t care if you are more attracted to the phrase More Bars In More Places than the phrase Can You Hear Me Now? Because that’s what a survey tells me; it tells me how you feel. What I want is for Consumer Reports to be the scientists that they pretend to be and tell me how well a network works.

In actuality they probably don’t understand phones or networks any more than they understand the bridge on the starship Enterprise. And the media reports on the report like a flock of myna birds because they don’t understand it either. And since you and I don’t understand it, we are left with no better idea of what to do than if we just rolled a pair of dice. There’s some math involved in that, but it won’t fly you to the moon.

Here’s how to display dBm:

Step 1: Dial *3001#12345#* on your iPhone then press Call.

Step 2: The call puts you in field test mode. Notice that the bar indicator in the upper-left corner of your screen has been replaced by a negative number. (You can toggle between bars and numbers by taping on it.) If you would like the feature to be permanent, follow the instructions below, otherwise hang up. (You can reverse this later if you want.)

Step 3: Hold down on the Power button until the ‘Slide to power off’ bar appears. Do not power off.

Step 4: Press the Home button until the app closes and returns you to your home screen. This might take a few seconds.

That’s it! Now you can tap to toggle the signal strength indicator between bars and numbers. The number will probably always be negative; but the closer to zero you are, the stronger your signal.