Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mobile Network 101 Finale

Back to the question I asked at the beginning, why are the pre-4th generation iPhones no better off than a cheap Nokia in New Zealand?

The answer is simple: When the iPhone was first sold in NZ, Vodafone was the only carrier with a GSM service so Apple had no alternatives. However, iPhone was designed for AT&T's 850MHz 3G frequency instead of the European 900MHz that Vodafone uses. While the older iPhone models are able to get 3G service in urban areas where 2100MHz masts are the mainstream, they are out of luck in less populated places as their phones will only get 2G/GSM signal. Ironically XT had the right frequency nationwide, however Telecom opted to offer iPhones through its subsidiary Gen-i only. 

The same issue is not limited to one brand. Motorola A855 or Sholes came in several versions that are nearly identical except for the radio module. The GSM/WCDMA version is called the MILESTONE, which is further divided into European (900/2100), Commonwealth (850/900/2100) and North American (850/1900) flavours, causing much confusion when users move across national boundaries; and the DROID line is CDMA2000 only and without a card slot, making them effectively unusable outside the US, unless you have a friend of a friend to unofficially register your phone with a non-US carrier.

Sometimes it is harder to determine if a certain phone is XT-compatible since 850 and 900 versions may be offered under the same model/part number. A friend working with parallel imported handsets often had to literally sail out, with his newly arrived stock, to a spot in Hauraki Gulf that he knew has only 850MHz coverage.It may sound ridiculous but there are no other ways to tell.

Apple has certainly learned something and the iPhone 4 is given a pent-band 3G baseband; theoretically it should work in any place with some form of WCDMA service.(The FCC documents included a 800MHz band however Apple choose not advertise on this, probably because there are not many 800MHz networks out there) iPhone for CDMA2000 is also due to be released shortly. Motorola has also recently introduced a range of Global phones with both GSM, WCDMA and CDMA2000 hardware, however these phones are programmed with a new type of SIM lock not to work with GSM carriers in the USA while they work without restrictions elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Blackberry has been selling truly global phones for many years so it must have never been a major technological hurdle to combine several radios in one device. The true motivation lies in the lucrative practice of carrier subsidy.

My conclusions from the history of mobile telephony

  • Like all other forms of infrastructure such as electricity and railway, mobile networks are costly to deploy and convenience decisions often lead to many headaches later. Example: Telecom took the hard pill in giving up CDMA2000 altogether,however many telcos elsewhere are still spending billions of dollars every year to expand their present CDMA2000 network and upgrading them to EV-DO Ver.B for commercial reasons with the full knowledge that the system is minimally compatible with successor standards and in a way, already obsolete.
  • Homogeneity created through monopoly is bad, too much diversity is worse.
    • Conforming to the general patterns in industrialisation, latecomers often have considerable advantage since they are not already committed to maintain legacy support. There are many examples: Japan, once they got over the general ineptitude for much of the 2G era, successfully developed a global standard and currently has several of the best and most profitable 3G netoworks world-wide.
    • Theoretically superior technology does not always lead to better results. Example: Telecom's XT is definitely faster than Vodafone's older UMTS stations, however XT is still struggling to catch up with its own precedents in terms of coverage and reliability, the two essential criteria of any good mobile service that appears to have been overlooked in the last 10 years. 
    • Lysenko may have been dead for several decades, his spirit still lives on as purely scientific matters are often swayed by political and/or ideological influences. The same farce is ongoing with the entire WiMAX vs. LTE debate.
    • Tanenbaum noted that public interest (and investment) in scientific advancements usually arrive in waves, hence the evolution is more or less stochastic. Example: 3G was almost killed off following the .com bubble, and it is still struggling to return a profit amid the recent recession.
    A lot of poorly developed science remained alive and well through pure luck, while the most ingenious inventions may easily slip into oblivion if it was born around the wrong time.

    By the way, his book Computer Networks is an essential read for those with further interests in this area.

      Mobile Network 101 Part 3

      In the beginning, Mobiles networks acted just like the wired phone system however over the air. Yet because each base station had limited capacity, it is not practical to maintain dialup-esque uninterrupted data sessions over analogue lines as it uses frequencies badly needed by everybody else. 

      Soon it is found that some bands reserved to control messages can be re-used to send small packets of data, namely 160 latin characters of text. By setting up separate facilities called Short Message Service Centre (SMSC) to route packets, the service could be put into use with little overhead to the network.

      The design proved to be simple yet very efficient;similar protocols were developed for most rival standards such as D-AMPS and CDMA. However just as SMS went viral worldwide, US carriers were unwilling or uninterested in co-ordinating SMSCs that allow text messages to be transferred between different networks. Such handicap resulted in a persistent lack of reliable SMS service and consumer interest in north America, leading to third-party services such as BIS that works independently across all networks. Texting between carriers is no longer an issue in US(quirks do remain, such as non-latin messages routinely gets corrupted should they cross network barriers), SMS is often not a regular service for mobile services but a paid add-on.

      For a while, SMS was the only method of data transmission over GSM networks. People even wrote protocols to control remote devices via SMS. Fortunately, it did not take long before someone realised that a packet-based layer would be placed alongside voice in the digitised radio. By the time GPRS standard has stablised, it is capable of 80kbps download and 20bps upload, faster than dial-up on copper wire. However to achieve this speed, five concurrent TDMA timeslots must be used, hogging up a large portion of scarce network capacity. To furthur increase bandwidth, the need for new technology could not be any more obvious.

      Numerous submissions were made, and the winner turned out to be a surprise to everybody. NTT DoCoMo's W-CDMA, a hybrid protocol using a CDMA air interface for capacity, while preserving the GSM core network to minimise transition costs and allow handsets to move seamlessly between 2G to 3G. Bearing in mind that Japan never had any commercial GSM service, we could only assume that NTT designed W-CDMA (soon to be known as UMTS), to be a global standard.

      Legacy support was proven in its value such as in case of Vodafone NZ, which operates both WCDMA and GSM network. The latter is available in case the former fails. Whereas Telecom runs to incompatible standards (XT and CDMA2000), disruptions in XT service turned out to be a major flop.

      CDMA was designed to be data-compatible from ground up. It underwent its own evolution into CDMA2000, and became fully 3G with the EV-DO extension, which happened before any other standards were formed. While CDMA2000 uses a much smaller channel which means it hogs less frequency, the smaller bandwidth meant that there is little room for expansion, and voice call cannot exist simutaneously with an active data session. 

      3G was, shortly before the millennium, touted as the greatest thing that was ever invented since the lightbulb and sliced bread to "change the way we live forever". National authorities put 3G frequencies for auction and netted billions of dollars. However, the .com bubble promptly went burst thereafter and the hype suddenly died away. For many years, 3G was considered nothing more than combination of gimmicks like video calling; nobody took it seriously. 

      Some of the players like Nortel never recovered from the damage and went out of business in another bad cycle. With the rollout of 4G and 4G-ish networks imminent, most operators have so far failed to recover their cost from the entire 3G fiasco.

      One of the main reason was that few handsets were truly taking the advantage of 3G before 2007. Yes, I am talking about the iPhone. Before that, most phones are optimised for GPRS: messages were text only and browsers only return stripped down WAP pages. We all dislike iPhone for many reasons, but it is truly the game changer as everybody realised that how much rich media they could provide on people's everyday carry.

      The slow transition to 3G is accompanied by the decline of two 2G-era giants: RIM and Nokia. I will write more about them in another post.

      If it was not for the recession, three independent standards would have played out for 4G: LTE for the GSM/UMTS camp, UMB for CDMA2000 and WiMAX as an extended 802.11 protocol. Qualcomm, reacting to not-so-favourable financial conditions, decided to ditch UMB and concentrate on allowing present CDMA2000 networks to migrate to LTE.

      Right now, most 3G carriers are planning for LTE while brading their HSPA+ compatible networks as 4G in all advertising material to attract attention. WiMAX has been deployed in a few places, however it's future as a major standard remains unclear.

      Tuesday, January 25, 2011

      Gantz Live Action Movie

      Thanks to personal circumstances and endless piles of stuff from work, I have epically missed all the movies I was supposed to see since the start of the break. Well, I am not going to miss this one. The few pre-release reviews I have read has been generally positive. Although I have a few doubts about the cast, the trailers look pretty delish.

      Gantz is probably the most realistic manga I have read. Not only is it extremely graphic and blasphemous, but also for the lack of voyeuristic/philosophical nonsense that seems to be the norm today.

      Most people suffer more or less from the Pygmalion Syndrome where they fall in love with their creations and it becomes too hard for them to let go. Oku, however, has taken a rare kind of apathy in Gantz. I mean, his characters may not be very likable, but which other author kills 90% of the main cast in two chapters of a single story arc that is not even halfway into the plot?

      The anime adaptation shared a lot of similarities with Fullmetal Alchemist, with the weekly episodes progressing too fast on the storyline, eventually getting to a point that it runs out of material from the still ongoing manga. Both productions decided to supply original story to finish off the season. This is where the Gantz failed as the new segments were badly written and stripped of the realistic aura. Although FMA's divergence from the original was much better executed and received, a new anime had been made later to recreate the story as intended by the author.I seriously look forward to another Gantz anime; in the meantime the movie will help to fix my cravings.

      Sunday, January 23, 2011

      Tomorrow I will hold a bottle against the sun

      if the weather is good and the following is true:

      "Tonic water will fluoresce under ultraviolet light, owing to the presence of quinine. In fact, the sensitivity of quinine to ultraviolet light (UV) is such that it will visibly fluoresce in direct sunlight."

      Thursday, January 20, 2011

      My $0.02 on the CIE vs. NCEA debate

      I was in Year 10 when the government pulled the plug on Bursary and my school seniors back then were the first hatch of guinea pigs fed to the burgeoning monster called NCEA. The principal of the school I went to at the time was one of the chief architect of NCEA. The other high school in the area up the road reacted by offering Cambridge International Examinations, to which the chief architect (who unsurprisingly works for NZQA now) made some rather personal and unpleasant attacks in front of the entire school during an assembly. Although NCEA formally starts at Year 11, we were given plenty of mock assessments in order to prepare for the real deal.

      With a twist of fate, I ended up in the other school and took up CIE for the next three years. Hence I feel qualified to speak for the pros and cons of both.

      One persistent criticism of NCEA from parents is that it is "too easy" compared to other "tried and true" systems. This is more of a misconception. Well, every system has loopholes that can be exploited to make academic load as light as possible without compromising an UE. The curriculum is actually similar and CIE is hardly more advanced than NCEA in terms of content.

      Like this editorial have judged correctly, the consistency issues NCEA had has largely been fixed. Schools resent NCEA because of the sheer amount of internal assessments to manage and process. The issue is more acute in schools offering alternatives to NCEA since two details of staff must be maintained.(Initially teachers taught both, however it was soon found to be unpractical)

      A more serious problem is that once the student population start going to separate sets of classes, they effectively split into two cliques, with the NCEA kids accepting some baseless inferiority. Some subjects such as art or PE maybe taught in combined classes, where the division turned into open hostility as the two groups blame each other whenever something went wrong. The bipolar-ness even seems to take precedence over the usual socio-economic or lingo-ethnic lines.

      On the other hand, the real risk of taking CIE is the development of bad studying habits. Since everything that matters is this one big exam at the end of the year, it is not too hard to slack off for most of the time. Once at university, many papers have a significant proportion of marks allocated to in-course assessments, which took me almost two years to actually adjust to. 

      Putting things in context, the early- and mid-noughties were such a good time when the economies were soaring, the All Blacks seemed invincible and Sister Helen ruled the nation with a firm hand. Republicanism was also flying high. The shift to NCEA happened concurrently with the vote in Parliament to abolish rights to appeal to the Privy council, not a coincidence. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why Auckland Grammar, the most reactionary of public schools out there, to ditch the blighted national standard, with many whitebread high schools rallying under the same banner.

      Saturday, January 15, 2011

      Sometimes I miss Dr Wily

      “Don't ever become a pessimist, Ira; a pessimist is correct oftener than an optimist, but an optimist has more fun--and neither can stop the march of events.”

      Somebody I know had the line in his MSN signature for years. Despite being a generally curious person, I have been reading this line over and over without ever wanting to know where it came from. I could have found out in a few seconds but I had always been afraid that it could have meant something totally different. Indeed, when I read the book from where this line was quoted from, it is actually a lot less powerful in context

      Anyway, I have stopped worrying about thing once I realise that it will never end.

      Monday, January 3, 2011

      My (belated) farewell to the noughties

      I decided against creating any New Year's resolutions because I know that I will not be able to adhere to them. The goals I set for December was a huge disappointment: Running exercise seem to have hit a wall at 3km per day, I am still making the few staple dishes, this blog was hardly updated at all and I have made no effort towards touch typing at all.

      What was the positive spirit back then must have escaped me, and I will blame humidity/government/arsenic/cosmic radiation. Apologies if this does not make any sense, it is not meant to.

      The rest, you may ignore kindly.


      Do you like crumpets?

      Yes, I actually do. Crumpets are like beer or L&P: it tastes horrible at room temperature but like heaven when toasted/chilled.

      So what are you doing here?

      I am writing my first blog post in the year of 2011. The majority of readers reached this blog through search engines looking for specific information, you know, the objective stuff.  I am aware that my life is not exactly Shortland Street material and this is exactly another post about someone else's life that few would be interested in.

      To sound like a grumpy old man is probably the last thing I wanted to do, however I am already losing grip on things that happened in the last decade. What I have crammed so hard for my last exams has already been completely forgotten and today I opened a book only to realise half an hour later that I have read the very same title four years ago. Psychology, I have long since learned and accepted memory as mutable and unreliable, however the experience still upsets me greatly. 

        “You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
      “But the Solar System!” I protested.
      “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

      You can read all about everything and still not get, in fact you will never get it until the moment you live it. The people who wrote those books are not necessarily making things up like Neil Gaiman prefers to boast, instead they are relying on their own life-experiences and a certain degree of psychosis.

      "What sets the ordinary apart from the extraordinary is the nirvana of literature, the state in which the characters acquired the ghosts of their own. For the authors had no control nor prediction to what will happen the next page, they had stalked their own brainchild with restless curiosity to every minor detail of their life. From Shakespeare to Balzac to Tolstoy, the sacred womb of creativity is no different to the obsession of the lowest voyeur."


      Do you remember the first time you changed your tyre?

      One's life is not complete without a tyre change, but that is not my point. The first time I changed a tyre I did so without help, which is not too hard anyway. You park the car on a flat piece of land, jack it up to free the wheels, remove the cover, unscrew the bolts and the rest should be self-explanatory. It would not have been such fond memory if it happened with someone's aid.

      Asking for help is more humiliating than begging for money. I can read and search all night for the solution, however the acts to call for help  is to admit that you have failed to figure out yourself. Classroom learning is an issue, for teachers are hired to teach and a student's occupation is to learn; similarly I have no problems whatsoever calling a plumber because he get paid to get his hand dirty in my place.

      For some reason people often come to me with their questions, and on numerous occasions these questions were so basic that I am annoyed and astonished at the same time, not only because the answer can be found on the first page of a relevant google search, but also they don't see anything wrong with a (by my standard) stupid question. I would have been able to get more done with the same amount of "shamelessness", right?

      A “critic” is a man who creates nothing and thereby feels qualified to judge the work of creative men. There is logic in this; he is unbiased—he hates all creative people equally.

      This is not quite the case: I don't hate creators; I am jealous. Not because they are better at what they are doing (some of them are, the others are not), but all for their seemingly inexplainable confidence in what they are doing.

      Or probably we are all the same, just hiding it so well that we cannot tell from each other's faces.


      If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn't want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn't want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.

      But in fact I didn't, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things.

      At the time I never tried to separate my wants and weigh them against one another. If I had, I would have seen that being smart was more important. If someone had offered me the chance to be the most popular kid in school, but only at the price of being of average intelligence (humor me here), I wouldn't have taken it.

      The predicament for me and the likes of myself is that we assume everybody else think and behave just like us: sensitive, considerate and calculated, yet they are not.

      We all know that the world does not cease to exist when we close our eyes, however I suspect there had been plenty of thoughts and prayers, from people who lost all their will to live, that the sun shall not rise tomorrow if they die today.

      I am not suicidal or trying to be vague-smug. Sometimes there are so many voices in your head to be let out. I must write these down, hence I write.

      Do you like crumpets?

      Not that it's any different from pikelets.