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Back in time with my Palm Treo (aka This old phone, part one)

October 14, 2018

What insights into my early life as a homeless person lurk on this old phone?

This is the first of a trio of posts looking at (of all things) my Palm Treo 680—specifically the contents of the 11-year-old smartphone’s SD card.

This post focuses on interesting miscellaneous documents on the SD card. The second post will reproduce a journal I kept intermittently on the phone from March of 2010 until February 2011. The third post will examine a spreadsheet I maintained of my daily earnings from collecting returnable beverage containers in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

These posts owe their existence to the fact that in December of 2017 I found (and then lost) a replacement proprietary charging cable for the Treo.

I held onto the cable exactly long enough to charge the phone but (old as it was) it was no longer a fully functioning device. It could neither recognize its installed SD card nor would it sync with the old Palm desktop app under Windows 8 (due, at the very least, to an absence of modern Palm USB driver software). Sadly, I didn’t have the charging cable long enough to see if I could use the Treo’s integrated Bluetooth 1.2 to send files to my laptop.

However, in the Treo’s salad days, I used a program called Resco Backup to weekly write select contents of the mobile’s 64MBs of built-in storage to the installed 4GB SD card.

So, while the Treo itself was a brick, the functional SD card still held a vintage backup of much of the phone’s contents. At first glance there were the usual difficult-to-deceipher proprietary PDB (Palm Database) files, as well as easily opened stuff, such as PDFs, doc and text files and spreadsheets.

What interesting things, if any, might I find, I wondered.

A fondly-remembered relic from the first age of smartphones

My old Palm Treo 680—scuffed, dusty and dead as a door nail.

I originally purchased the unlocked Palm Treo 680 secondhand at the East Vancouver store Foreign Electronics in 2007 for about $300. I proceeded to happily use it as my only phone (with 7-11’s SpeakOut as my first pay-as-you-go provider) until some time in 2013, when the phone stopped charging.

The fly-in-amber-like contents of the SD card date between 2009 and 2013 and offer glimpses of my day-to-day life, five, or six years into being homelessness.

The window of time preserved on the SD card includes the years 2008 and 2009, when I worked as a custodian, event organizer and sometime building manager, at the Vancouver Masonic Centre located in the 1400 block of 8th Avenue (and now being demolished). Many of the files, therefore, are concerned with that job.

By “masonic” I mean Craft Freemasonry (aka just “Masonry”)—that fraternal boys club that started in London, England, in 1717 and spread around the world by degrees, alongside the British Empire.

The bricked phone that knew all the secrets of B.C. Freemasonry

The Vancouver Masonic Centre in mid-demolition July 11th; looking as good as ever.

For the 40-plus years that the Vancouver Masonic Centre stood on the 1400 block of West 8th Avenue it notionally served as the regional focal point of Freemasonry. The four-storey, unadorned concrete edifice housed the offices of both the Grand Secretary and Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, as well as the Grand Lodge Library. It also housed four lodge rooms on two floors and was topped with a rather swell (if aging) fourth floor ballroom.

By virtue of the blinding expense of maintaining the building (always in excess of the dues and rents paid by the Masonic tenants and the lodges which held their meetings at the building) the Masonic Centre’s building society was forced to grudgingly rent out any room it could to almost anyone who would pay.

In my two years of experience at the Masonic Centre, working with the many renters was great and challenging fun; dealing with the Masons—not so much.

In addition to alcohol-drenched, post-Masonic lodge meeting “refreshments”, the fourth floor ballroom hosted similarly alcohol-drenched New Year’s and Halloween parties, glittering wedding receptions, earnest Vancouver School Board events and—once every three months—closed-door meetings of the Vancouver Police Union (which was only charged about $73 for the room rental but always ordered the very best sandwiches from the building’s in-house catering). And, this being Vancouver, there was a yoga group up there several times a week.

Of course the Masons chiselled-off the brass letters and sqaure and compass emblem above the entrance.

The rooms in the three floors below the ballroom played host to everything under the sun, from various New Age religious groups, remote viewing classes and gun safety courses—even the humble Vancouver Scrabble Club. A room on the main floor was invariably a voting place during municipal, provincial and federal elections.

The Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) notably rented exam space in the building twice a year—every space in the building, in fact.

It was always a treat to see both the RCM and the piano movers who followed them wherever they went. (who knew the legs were designed to come off a grand piano for transport?)

The Masonic directors of the building society displayed little sadness at my departure in January of 2010 but some of them joked that they would miss my phone.

And after all the Treo did contain the contact numbers and related details for every single service contractor involved in the Centre’s upkeep—from the elderly plumber who knew all the arcane secrets needed to look after such an old building (horse hair toilet seals), to the HVAC company that had a sweet extortion racket with its contract to look after the Rube Golberg boiler-slash-electrical room, not to mention the Otis Elevator call centre (in South Carolina by the sounds of the operators) that dispatched repair techs to coax functionality out of the two faltering, telephone switch-actuated vertical conveyances. (one of which—honest to gawd—was secondhand!)

While I do not miss working there, I believe that the Fairview neighbourhood very much misses having the inexpensive meeting space provided by the Masonic Centre.

The fact that more than a generation of Vancouverites have happy memories associated with attending events at the Masonic Centre (and that I was a small part of creating that happiness) makes me smile, not the least because of the irony involved. Only the Mason’s grinding need of cash opened the doors to renters.

Most of the Masons disliked (some quite vicerally and vocally) having to let “cowans” (the Masons’ term for everyone else) into their building—both the renters and the custodians needed to set up and clean up after them.

The new four-storey Masonic Centre planned to rise out of the concrete dust of the old will be accompanied by a very separate 18-storey, mixed income, rental tower. Knowing what I know about both the building directors and the original planning and financing of the development, I am dead certain that whole thing has been carefully designed, first-and-foremost, to insure that the Masonic Centre building society will never again have to scrape for money to run their fraternal affairs.

Documents of a job well and truly done

Why it’s on my phone I cannot recall but there is part of a letter, dated March 4th, 2009, signed “Fraternally” by the then-Secretary of Lodge Southern Cross No. 44 (a notable Vancouver radio personality) and addressed to the members of the lodge.

The letter suggests that the lodge pay the $230 it owes the Masonic Centre (for March rent) and then form a committee “to look into the feasibility of finding a new meeting place”.

I was told that over 12 Masonic lodges met at the Vancouver Masonic Centre when it opened in 1973. But by the time I started working there, at the beginning of 2008, the number was down to no more than six and when I left at the beginning of 2010, the building regularly hosted no more than four lodges—Southern Cross and another lodge having made other arrangements by then.

The SD card also preserves a spreadsheet recording the 26 hours I spent in 2009, between April 15th and May 14th, sourcing and then installing steel-spined birdspike in the upper level of the building’s parkade.

The revenue-hungry directors of the Masonic Centre building society really wanted me to solve the problem of pigeons roosting on the piping and ducting and pooping all over the newly-established pay parking spots. But I recall that I had to push really hard to get paid for doing the work—all of it having been over-and-above my regular duties.

The last Masonic Centre-related document is a file titled “Musings on my job @ VMC.doc” containing a single entry dated August 29, 2009:

“I was opening the Scottish Rite’s Darby room for Red Cross of Constantine (a concordant body by invitation-only connected with the York Rite). I had a master key so I could open Regalia room. Came to mind that it was six months or so into the job before I was granted access to most closely guarded room in building—focus of so much interest & masonic activity: the liquor room.”

In the way of personal noodling, there are some text files containing fragmentary story ideas, including a a 2010 file of brief non sequiturs, the low quality of which can be inferred by one glib aphorism: “Liberals always underestimate conservatives, and conservatives always overestimate liberals”.

Back when “there’s an app for that” meant a Palm app

Gave up my MyWay email account after I discovered it was one of millions of password-compromised accounts being bandied about on the “dark net”.

There is a file on the SD card titled “Registrations.doc”, which records the details (dates, prices, registration/activation numbers) of some of the many online software purchases I made.

All of the purchases were facilitated by pre-loaded “gift” credit cards. And all of the software purchased was Palmware—for one of two devices I used concurrently: the Palm Treo 680 smartphone and a Palm T/X handheld.

I have to explain something here that may not be obvious to younger readers: Palm was a real mobile computing platform and Palm’s groundbreaking Treo smartphones taught that apps were critical to driving mobile sales. This was one of the lessons that Apple learned from Palm and applied with such success to its iPhone.

Back in 2005, Palm’s Treo 650 was the top-selling smartphone in the United States. It was like a precursor to the iPhone in that it had a touchscreen (resistive, not capacitive), a web browser, an easy-to-use touchscreen interface and—best of all—more of every kind of application than any other mobile platform in existence.

What the Palm Treo 650 didn’t have, besides a good web browser, or Wi-Fi, was a technologically sure-footed company behind it.

Palm was far too inclined to sit on its laurels and squeeze profit out of its depreciating handheld organizer tech. It only managed to pivot to cutting edge mobile telephony in 2003 by buying original Palm founder Jeff Hawkins‘s second handheld computing company called Handspring, which made far more innovative Palm OS-based handhelds than Palm.

Most signifigantly, Hawkins, at Handspring, had successfully combined the basic personal organizer with a phone, creating the original Treo smartphone.

The Handspring/Palm Treo was an amazing thing but what helped immeasurably to make it irresistible was all the apps it could run.

By 2005 online software seller Motoricity listed a whopping 27,861 commercial Palm OS apps. Additionally there were at minimum 5,000 freeware apps for Palm.

Of course, while the selection and quality of Palm OS apps was amazing and unmatched for its day, it pales in comparison to the present day, when there are at least 3.8 million apps for Android and over 2 million for iOS.

For a few years though, Palm provided one of the best mobile multimedia and productivity platforms.

I ran a very capable relational database manager on my Treo called HanDBase (which now develops for iOS and Android), My Palm video player in 2007 was at least as good as my Android video player is in 2018 and Palm’s PocketTunes was the best mobile music player experience I’ve had.

As for the Palmware purchases I recorded on the Treo’s SD card, I can tell you that the program I used to backup to the card—Resco Backup 2.21—was bought on July 9, 2008, for USD$14.95. The registration key was “17312” and the app was bonded by device name—allowing me to run it on both the Treo and the T/X.

Other listed software that I purchased to clutter one or both of my Palm devices included:

  • Virtual Piano Enhanced 1.6 ($10.05)
  • CallBlock 1.53 (later upgraded to CallBlock 2.0)
  • BugMe Notepad
  • Stand Alone, Inc.’s Room Builder 1.5 ($14.95)
  • Slap from Hands High Software
  • DataViz Docs to Go
  • Northglide’s Uninstall Manager ($26.82)
  • FontSmoother v2.30 ($12.95)
  • eReader format of David Mccullough’s The Path Between the Seas ($20.00)
  • eReader format of  Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age ($9.95)

The Palm Docs to Go registration number and activation key do not allow me to get the pro version of Docs to Go for Android. But that’s okay, I still prefer the interface of the Palm OS 5 version.

Documents-wise, everything else on the card dates from after January 1. 2010, when I left the employ of the Masonic Centre.

There is, for example, a spreadsheet, titled “Swing-top sales.xls”, which tracks how I financially exploited a demand among home-brewers of craft beer between 2011 and 2013.

A profitable beer bottle fad was brewing in 2011

In 2011 I discovered that the then-owner of one of the bottle depots I used to cash-in my returnable beverage containers was quietly reselling all the ceramic swing-top beer bottles that I and other binners brought in. The depot owner paid us the usual 10-cents-per swing-top bottle and then turned around and sold them for something near $1-each, to home beer brewers, who (it turned out) were crazy to get the comparatively-inexpensive and easy-to reseal style of beer bottles.

This only became clear to me after I finally registered the regular recurrence of well-dressed gentlemen wandering table-to-table through the bottle depots I frequented—all offering to buy any swing-top bottles at par.

After a bit of canvassing on my part, I found a home beer brewer in the Fairview neighbourhood who happily agreed to pay me 50 cents for every swing-top beer bottle I could find. He set aside a drop box on his property where I could leave the bottles as I found them—or sometimes bought them.

I immediately made it known to other binners that I had a customer who would pay me 50 cents for a swing-top bottle and, as part of that trade, I would pay 25 cents.

According to my meticulous, Excel-compatible, Docs to Go spreadsheet—between September 20th, 2011 and February 25, 2013, I sold a total of 610 swing-top bottles for revenue (less what I paid other binners) of $263.20. This works out to just over 43-cents-per-bottle, or more than four times what the recycling depots paid.

In addition to recording the bottles I delivered and how much I earned from each one after expenses, the spreadsheet kept track of any overpayments, as well as brand frequency.

My swing-top bottle arrangement with the Fairview resident finally ended because, for one thing, he decided he had more than enough of the bottles and for another, he and his young family moved to Tsawwassen, where—with what they were paying to live in a Fairview apartment—they determined they could finance a house with a small yard.

Of course, the fellow still worked at a software company in Fairview but he decided that the long commute to and from work (35 km) was a price worth paying, in return for the better housing his family could afford in Tsawwassen.

A particular prize I found on the SC card were PDF files of the famous unfinished satirical novel, The Fateful adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk (During the Great War), written in the 1920s by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek.

This is a fantastically good English translation of the novel which I purchased online in 2009, from a website that is still up.  I recall how I had to crack the PDF encryption so that I could run the files through Adobe’s PDF converter for Palm. I’m frankly amazed and grateful that the files open as regular PDFs.

The Good Soldier Švejk, by the way, follows the hilarious misadventures of its namesake, a fat, easygoing, nebbish of a fellow, press-ganged into the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War of 1914-18. Everywhere Švejk goes he caused pandemonium and destruction, simply by cheerfully following, to the letter, the orders of his superiors.

To say that Švejk has been popular in Eastern Europe is a gross understatement. And thanks to its universal theme it has been translated into at least 50 languages.

Something else on on the SD card that was useful to me in its day but is of only slight historical interest now, is the 2011 Vancouver recycling collection schedule.

Well, that’s it for interesting miscellanea. Part two: Twenty days of my life, backed up for posterity. Click the images to enlarge them.

Didn’t need this to remember the pickup schedule but I kept it, just in case.

  1. A well of info in that SD card. The masonic might want to buy whatever records you have and you will be rich!


  2. Sharon permalink

    does this mean you found your SIN #?


    • I believe I mentioned to you in December of 2017 that I found it in a document on my Palm T/X handheld. Unfortunately the investigation of the T/X meant that it was in the laptop bag (along with the Palm charging cable) that went “walkies” just before Christmas. By that time, though, you had already emailed me my S.I.N.—remember—on October 19th? You acquired it from a mutual acquantance. I still have that record of my S.I.N. because Gmail is forever. (until Google decides to pull the plug.) Thanks.


      • Sharon permalink

        Your memory is much better than mine. Don’t even joke about Gmail!


      • Apologies. I guess that’s even more verboten than talking about flat bicycle tires.


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