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Some Weeks…

Android_BellyUp

…It ain’t easy being Geek.

I’ve had my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx cell phone for nearly a year and I love it. However, it shipped with an outdated version of the Android OS named “Gingerbread” when the next version, called “Ice Cream Sandwich” was already being rolled out. Verizon sent out the ICS upgrade within a couple of months; but by then the NEXT version, known as “Jelly Bean,” was being rolled out. I’d been waiting anxiously for JB for months when Verizon announced they were releasing JB a few days before Christmas last year. After a short time they stopped because the update was bricking their customer’s phones. (Oops.) Fortunately I didn’t get that upgrade. I settled back into waiting mode again and twiddled my thumbs.

Several weeks ago I heard that Verizon was rolling out JB again, this time for real. I checked for available updates on the phone and was told it was ready to download! I allowed the download (at about 40 minutes) and then attempted the upgrade. Everything looked good until I saw the picture of an Andy the Android on his back, chestplate open, with a red triangle with an exclamation point beside the hole in his chest. The phone rebooted and gave me a message that the update had failed. No reason given, just failure.

I went online and discovered that I wasn’t the only one. The main failure reason being posited was that the end user had disabled some apps on their phone. I’d rooted my phone after getting ICS and disabled a number of Verizon bloatware apps like their navigation service and music apps, so I re-enabled them and attempted the update again, still unsuccessfully. I was getting frustrated.

(Before I continue, a few words on rooting are called for. Rooting a phone gives the user access to areas of the phone’s operating system that they normally can’t get to. This allows a finer degree of control over how the phone operates. It also allows the use of utilities like “Titanium Backup” which allows me to make back copies of my phone’s data and apps. I also installed a WONDERFUL app called AdAway, which allows the blocking of streaming ads, including those within other apps. TB also allowed me to disable apps and, in some cases, completely delete them. Rooting also allowed me to transfer custom ringtones into the same directory where the phone’s ringtones are kept, which allows all ringtones to show up in the same list. I highly recommend the practice if you’re savvy enough to do it.)

Next, I decided to try a “sideload” installation, wherein you download an app (or an OS upgrade) and force an install from the phone’s SD memory card. I found the official Verizon Jelly Bean update and downloaded it, then tried connecting my phone to my PC after loading the necessary Motorola USB drivers. That was an exercise in frustration as I had to try several different sets of drivers. The phone had to be placed into USB “MTP” connection mode, and the PC didn’t find the necessary drivers among those I’d downloaded. After several hours I finally got the correct driver and Windows was happy. Then I copied the file to the phone’s SD card and powered the phone off. Then while pressing and holding the phone’s power button as well as holding down the Volume Up/Down buttons I got a special boot menu. I navigated to “Recovery” mode, and then chose the proper file on the SD card. The upgrade progressed as before, except this time I got verbose feedback on what was happening. The upgrade failed again (of course), but this time I got a long message with the phrase “assert failed: apply_patch_check” saying that the upgrade program couldn’t find an app called “Music2.apk.”  Now I was getting somewhere.

I remembered that I’d been playing around when I’d loaded Titanium Backup and used an option to completely remove a few programs. That had obviously been a bad idea. Now I had two options: I could either find the appropriate .apk files on the web (because I knew I’d get a different missing app error after this one was re-installed) or I could perform a “factory reset” and wipe the phone back to out-of-the-box condition. Because I didn’t want to do the latter, I found and installed a program called “Android Commander” on my PC. That program would allow me to look at the system file areas on my phone and copy programs into the normally-inaccessible system areas from the PC. Next I found and downloaded the missing Music2.apk file, used the file selection windows in AC to find the file on the PC side, then chose the appropriate directory on the phone side and tried to perform the copy.

Android Commander told me I needed ROOT level access. What? I was already rooted, you stupid program! Indeed, TB said I was rooted. Android Commander didn’t believe I was, and it wouldn’t allow me to copy a damn thing to the phone. An investigation led me to a FAQ on AC’s site that explained there were two types of root access. The first type gave apps on the phone itself root access to the phone’s system areas. The other type, which I needed and didn’t have, allowed access to the phone’s system areas from a connected PC. To get that type of access, the FAQ explained, I’d have to download the phone’s boot image, decompile it, change a line in a configuration file, then re-compile the boot image and upload it back to the phone. While I have some ‘mad skillz’ this is not one of them at this point in my life and I did not have the time to learn. By then I had gone into the next phase in my frustration, one that a careful geek avoids at all cost if they want to be successful.

I was pissed. I just wanted to load the damn OS upgrade, and I was tired of being denied. I decided to do the factory wipe. At least I had the foresight to load the Verizon Backup Assistant to dump my contacts to the cloud, but didn’t give a thought to my pictures or any other data on the phone. I was syncing with Google so that should be taken care of, right? I knew that my apps would automatically download back to my phone from the Play store so I believed I was set. I booted the phone again using the Vulcan Nerve Pinch, then chose Recovery mode and the option to do a factory wipe. I clicked through the warnings and let the wipe proceed. After all was done and I was back with a working phone with ICS again, I decided to attempt the sideload upgrade again. You can probably guess what happened next.

The upgrade failed. Again. With the same missing app error. When I deleted the apps from the phone using TB, they were completely wiped from even the backup image. I was right back where I started. Why the hell was this program attempting a selective “upgrade” rather than a complete OS install? Then I realized it was probably to ensure that the customer’s data was retained.

Now I knew what I needed. I’d have to find some way of installing the OS, this time as a complete load regardless of what was on the phone. It took a little while but I eventually found what I needed. A user with the handle mattlgroff on droidrzr.com had written a program called “Matt’s Razr Utility” that would do just what I needed. Version 1.82 is for the Verizon Razr and Razr Maxx ICS version, but I wanted to go right to Jelly Bean so v1.83 was what I needed. I downloaded and installed the program, then followed the prompts and connected my phone when told to do so. The utility did its magic, and in no time I was running Jelly Bean v4.1.2. Hooray, finally. Now I could re-install my apps, contacts, and calendar.

Well, my apps and contacts at least. It seems that the phone’s OS comes with its own Calendar app which stores information on the phone itself by default. The Google Calendar app, which is downloaded from the Play store, will sync with Google. I had inadvertently been storing all my schedule information on the phone and it was totally gone. I made sure to download the Google Calendar and set it up to sync with Google, then disabled (not uninstalled!) the phone’s calendar app. It took a while to re-enter my schedule but I was finally good. Over the next few days I had to open some apps and re-accept their terms-of-service as well as reset their preferences.

I also discovered that AdAway hadn’t re-installed. After more research I found that Google very recently had removed all ad blocking apps from the Play Store, sending their developers a notice that they had violated a clause in their Developer Distribution Agreement.  Apparently they didn’t like the fact that these programs interfered with the possible revenue stream from streaming and in-app ads. That explained why I couldn’t find Adblock Plus in the store either. Fortunately I discovered a link for the F-Droid App Repository which allows the download and installation of AdAway. Adblock Plus can be downloaded directly from the company’s website and sideload-installed, so I got that program next.

After going through this hell I now have my phone loaded with the “latest” version of the Android OS, Jelly Bean. I used the quotes because, as it happens, v4.1.2 is NOT the latest version of JB. Version 4.2 has increased speed and more features—and Verizon blew an opportunity to get their users current. Well, I’m done with waiting on Verizon. When I can find one of the Razr enthusiast sites that has version 4.2 of JB I’m going to install it. I might as well get used to it; I seriously doubt that the next iteration of the Android OS (known as Key Lime Pie) will be made officially available for the Razr / Razr Maxx.

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An Inexpensive Upgrade To Your Stereo System

…and you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

The front of a record store.

It isn’t really the Last Record Store, but it’s probably close.

As a latchkey kid in the sixties the radio was my constant companion. It was the only source of entertainment that offered nearly infinite variety. When I grew older and got a paperboy gig I saved my money and bought my first good stereo system. I purchased my first CD player, a Magnavox’s FD-1000SL top-loader, about 1984 and I’ve been collecting CDs ever since. For years audio buffs like myself had put up with the snapping and popping of vinyl records as well as tape hiss from cassettes. The new format was quiet—no clicks, no hiss (except from the master tapes themselves). With the introduction of the “portable” CD player as well as in-dash mobile players you could take that wonderful sound quality anywhere. Audiophiles had a problem with the format, however. They complained that the sound was too “cold,” “lifeless,” and “sterile.” Further, prolonged listening made some people’s ears tired, a phenomenon called ‘listener fatigue.’ Audio nerds raved about the warm sound quality of vinyl and clung desperately to their collections even as turntables became ancient relics and vinyl records ceased production. It turns out they were on to something.

As time went on and recording engineers learned more about the CD format they realized that they had to master the material differently than if they were prepping it for a vinyl release. Mastering is the final phase in music production where an engineer makes subtle tweaks to the sound—adding a little compression or equalization, for instance—before the music is submitted for physical production and release. Vinyl records didn’t have the dynamic range of digital so some frequencies needed emphasis while others were cut, and equalization was applied in order to play nicely with the mechanical medium. If you know what good audio is supposed to sound like and you dig out CDs released in the eighties you’ll find the overall sound to be somewhat irritating. Over the first ten years or so the sonic quality of new CD releases gradually improved, but millions of those first poorly-mastered CDs were pumped out.  Sadly, many older titles on store shelves are still made from the original poorly-made masters.

There is a saving grace for audiophiles like myself who like older music offerings, known in the industry as catalog titles. As stocks of these older titles ran out, music companies realized that these items were gold. They’d recovered the original production costs years ago and incurred minimal expense in making more. Nearly every cent was profit! They also realized that the older master tapes were deteriorating and their golden eggs needed transferred to a newer high-resolution medium for safekeeping. For years now the music companies have been quietly remastering their older catalog titles and re-releasing them to an audience eager to buy the older tunes they’ve heard on the radio for years.

The “Disappearing” CD

But as sales have slowed, the music biz has been predicting the end of the CD. In the February 29, 2012 Rolling Stone an article titled “Is the CD Era Finally Over?” quoted an exec as saying new CDs would probably stop being introduced in two years, although stores like WalMart could keep them alive for as long as five years. WalMart is re-expanding their music department after shrinking it a few years ago. They’re getting a flood of reduced-price CDs to sell for $5 each, and they’ve found that people who come in to browse them are staying longer and buying more. After reading the article I visited my local Wally World and fished in their “bin-of-death” to see what turned up.

I was pleasantly shocked to find a number of classic titles I already owned in remastered versions. Some of them had bonus tracks and the sound quality of these newly remastered classics were far superior to the older copies I owned. I could even tell a difference on the factory stock CD player in my truck. As I shopped in other stores like Meijer, Kmart, and Best Buy I realized that they were also getting these $5 classics to sell. Additionally some of the stores have multiple price tiers of these older titles, usually at $7 and $9. I’ve been in sonic heaven and have bought many upgrades as well as a number of titles from artists I’d passed by over the years. I couldn’t bring myself to spend over $12 each for them back then, but at $5 each they’re a bargain. Thanks to careful shopping I’ve added titles by Rush, John Mellencamp, the Dixie Chicks, Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. I’ve also seen more recent titles from newer artists like Coldplay and The Fray. In the past five months I’ve spent more on music than I’ve spent in the past five years, and I love it.

I realize this doesn’t make sense to everyone. “Why buy discs and clutter up your house when you can download anything you want from the Internet?” There are two reasons. First, I want the highest available sound quality for my music. Most digital formats aren’t lossless, meaning they throw away data in order to make smaller file sizes. (This translates into the ability to have 2000 songs on your portable player rather than 500.) If I want to rip lower quality copies to play on my phone I can do it myself and, if something happens to the copy, I can rip a brand new one. Second, I want the additional features of having the album art and booklets with my music. Album art was once considered a high (but popular) art form that has all but disappeared in the digital age. To me there’s nothing more enjoyable than playing my favorite music while looking over the album notes or following along with the lyrics.

Some Shopping Tips

If you’d like to try your hand at upgrading your sound system my way, here are five things I’ve learned through my shopping jaunts which may help you in your music purchasing:

Examine the packaging carefully.  How can you tell if a title’s been remastered? Some things are obvious, like a sticker that says “Digitally Remastered from the Original Tapes” or something similar.

— Some remasters have clear spines, viewable in the area immediately to the left of the CD booklet, and printing in that clear area may say something like “The Definitive Remasters” or “Original Masters.”

— Titles on Warner labels will say “Flashback” for older un-remastered titles but read as “Flashback Remasters” on the reworked titles.

— The back of the package may say something like “Digitally remastered at Northern Recorders, Los Angeles by Peter Piper.”

— If you see a logo that reads “HDCD” it’s a definite remaster.

— A section listing bonus tracks is also a good indicator.

I picked up a copy of Linda Ronstadt’s “Simple Dreams” that had an older black spine and no mention of remastering on the package, and took the chance because of the newer Asylum logo on the back.  A copy of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” on the same label that I’d bought had the black spine also, but carried a ‘remastered’ sticker on its front so I thought my chances were good. Unfortunately my gamble didn’t pay off as I found out from the muddy-sounding first track.

One retailer’s $5 CD is another retailer’s $9 CD. Remember, many retailers that have the $5 CDs have three strata of discount CDs with price levels at $7 and $9 also. The CDs that are priced at the higher levels will eventually trickle down to the lower levels while some are already at lower price points elsewhere. Rush’s “A Farewell to Kings” was $7 at WalMart but only $5 at Best Buy.

Don’t limit your shopping to the bargain section.  At WalMart you can find the bargain CDs in the bins of death and in a specially priced section with the CDs. However, if you look in the regular-priced CD section you can often find the bargain CDs mixed in with the regular-priced selections.

Don’t see it locally? Look online.  My hunts led me back to some artists like Harry Nilsson and the Carpenters whose works aren’t turning up in the bins. I’ve found some of the titles I want from Amazon and Deep Discount DVD, at the lower price points, but eBay and Half.com are also fruitful hunting ground.

Are you lucky enough to still have music stores nearby?  Whether they’re new-only or carry used titles too, these shops can be a bargain hunter’s dream. I scored a number of titles from Chicago at FYE in the mall, as they carry used CDs for $4.99 and up. They’ve been inspected and are guaranteed to play. We also have some used-media stores in the area (Half Price Books, 2nd and Charles, Game Swap and BuyBacks) that provide occasional surprises but you need to know what you’re looking for.

Congratulations, you did it! What now…?

So you’ve decided to perform this sonic upgrade—but what will you do with your older, non-remastered CDs?  You could visit the local media ‘recycling’ store like Half Price Books and sell them for pennies on the dollar. You could make them into an art project (remember the wild things people used to do with the AOL install CDs they were constantly sending out?). You could try dumping them in a garage sale or at Goodwill, but I have a recommendation.  Find some young people who enjoy music, perhaps your own kids. Give them a CD or two and tell them that many of today’s recording artists were inspired by the music you’re giving them.  Sure, the sound quality isn’t up to your standards but to today’s youth, who are used to lossy compression and low bitrates, your old CDs will sound like a revelation. Perhaps you’ll give an aspiring musician of tomorrow a better influence than Jay-Z, Chris Brown, or Katy Perry. And if you give those CDs to your kids, maybe you’ll be able to stomach the music coming from their computers. That’ll make for domestic bliss that’s worth all the money in the world.

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