Month: January 2007

iPhone

Everybody is talking about the iPhone, and who am I to resist that kind of peer-pressure?

The iPhone is stunning, and as it stands, I will not be getting one. Here’s why:

  1. Closed platform: The idea of spending $500 for a phone with as much potential as this but zero extensibility is a flat-out insult to would-be customers. Steve Jobs explains this by saying “we can’t have one rogue app bringing the entire West Coast network offline.” This is disingenuous or a lie. Somehow Apple trusts me not to bring down the entire Internet with one rogue app on my Mac, and the Internet is a lot dumber than Cingular at&t’s network. I don’t know for certain what the real reason is, but here are some possible candidates:
    1. Cingular at&t doesn’t want people installing Skype and iChat, which would let customers circumvent the company’s comparatively expensive services (seriously, 10¢ for a text message?). I don’t discount this possibility entirely, but considering Apple’s successful wrangling with music companies, I’d expect Apple to negotiate that away if they wanted to.
    2. Steve Jobs is notoriously fond of closed boxes. Probably plays some role in the decision.
    3. Apple wants to be able to act as a middleman and get a cut for any software you install on your iPhone. I think there’s a decent chance that this is at the root of it, but of course, it subverts free/open-source software distribution—and some of my favorite software falls in those categories.
  2. Storage not upgradable: The “cheaper” model is currently spec’d with 4 GB memory. By the time the phone is actually available for sale, this may seem a bit puny, and by the end of the phone’s useful life, it will be positively laughable. The lack of a flash-card slot may be another example of closed-box thinking, but regardless of why it’s missing, it puts the owner of the awkward position of spending a hell of a lot of money on a device that should be useful for a long time, but won’t be able to take advantage of what should be an easy and cheap upgrade.
  3. Lack of Flash/Java: I’ll readily admit that many uses of both Flash and Java are crap (some are brilliant though). Jobs has equivocated on Flash, but deciding to leave out either one is making a decision for customers that they should be able to make for themselves.

There are other shortcomings, of course: many people have focused on the lack of HSPDPA support. Apple’s explanation that the network for it hasn’t been built out sufficiently is of debatable merit. On the one hand, it means many people would be paying for a feature they couldn’t use. On the other, it means that when the feature would become usable, they still won’t be able to use it.

Apple is positioning this as a phone that happens to run a version of OS X. I view it as a tiny OS X computer that happens to have a cellular radio, and I view its features and lacks of features in that light. Despite all of this, it’s still an exciting development, not so much for the thing itself perhaps as because of related products we may see coming out of Apple (unlikely though it is, I’d be interested in something with a larger screen that dispensed with the cellular radio—sort of like the “sidepad” I wrote about before.) and because it should serve as a massive kick in the pants to the rest of the industry, raising the bar* in general.

Old Man’s War

Just finished Old Man’s War. It had been favorably reviewed by someone whose opinion I respect, and it had received a certain amount of buzz for being picked up as a book after the author serialized it on his own website.

Didn’t do much for me. Admittedly, I now see that PNH refers to it as a “juvenile,” and I suppose it’s fine as juveniles go. As adult fiction, it’s flat and shallow.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Read What’s the Matter with Kansas? recently. The book homed in on and answered a question that has been bugging me for a long time.

The way I see it, the Republican party doesn’t seem like it should hold together as a single party. There are the country-club conservatives, people interested in laissez-faire economic policies (or blatantly favorable economic policies) and not particularly interested in social issues. And there are the red-meat conservatives, who seem more populist, but are mostly interested in social issues. The way I’ve always perceived it, each pays lip-service to the interests of the other, but ultimately their interests don’t overlap, and may even clash.

Kansas responds to this directly, and essentially portrays the plebian red-meat conservatives as the willing dupes of the country-club conservatives, who push on hot-button issues to get them worked up, without ever really throwing them a bone. People always talk about banning abortion, but nobody ever does anything about it.

And this is where I find a point of disagreement: over the past few years, right-wing triumphalism has led to more actual action on those issues. South Dakota did outlaw abortion. Most states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

And of course, over the past 6 years, a different wing of conservatism has achieved prominence, the neoconservatives, the foreign-intervention maximalists. Frank doesn’t really address this faction, but in the current political climate, it’s impossible to talk about politics without talking about that.

Still, these are isolated problems in what is otherwise an interesting and entertaining read. Frank does show how the embrace of laissez-faire principles has damaged Kansas, but those principles have become part of the red-meat faction’s holy crusade, even to the direct self-impoverishment of its members. And shows how the bizarre history of the state brought them 180° politically to where they are.

Children of men

Saw Children of Men. See this movie. Very powerful. It gets inside your head in a way few movies do. The visuals—the set dressing, etc—are all an important part of the story and deeply layered, and invite repeat viewings.

The Good Shepherd

Saw The Good Shepherd recently. Interesting but flawed movie.

Flaws:

  • It’s long. Really long. At 165 minutes, it can only be considered self-indulgently long (it’s been a pet project of De Niro’s for a decade). And it’s not exactly as if every one of those minutes is action-packed.
  • Matt Damon plays the part of Edward Wilson, a buttoned-down CIA man (a fictionalized version of the actual James Jesus Angleton), but his portrayal is so buttoned-down that it’s hard for the audience to get inside his head at all. Why does he join the CIA? Why does he do anything? He’s a cipher.

Still, there are worse ways to spend a cold and rainy afternoon.

The movie covers the life of Wilson from college through middle age, and it’s amusing to note that boy-faced Matt Damon looks the same throughout the movie, but Angelina Jolie, who plays his wife, has obviously been made up (or digitally rejuvenated in post) to look young in college-age scenes—when she first appeared on-screen, I was surprised—“that sounds like Angelina Jolie, and it looks like a younger version of her, but that’s not her.”

Imity

I just signed up for the beta version of Imity. I’m still not sure what to make of it, except that it is freaky.

The idea is a form of augmented reality, or embodied virtuality, or whatever you want to call it. It takes the idea behind social networks like Friendster et al and attempts to replicate them in meatspace (in fact, I suspect they are going to try to tie into existing social networks, so that you don’t have to re-enter all your friends yet another time).

Ok, that’s still pretty vague. Let me try again. You need to have a fairly snazzy cellphone for this to work: the phone is your “presence marker.” You sign up on their website, download a little java app to the phone, and whenever the phone gets in range of another bluetooth device, it logs that event. If that bluetooth device happens to belong to someone you know, maybe your phone will beep at you or something. And later, you can go back to the imity website, and see all the bluetooth-contact events that you logged, and you’ll slap your forehead when you realize your best friend was at the same movie as you, even though you never saw each other.

But the freaky thing is, your phone logs all bluetooth contacts. I went to a coffee shop and logged eight contacts while I was there. Several of these were clearly people using Macs (which all have Bluetooth as well), as they were identified by Apple’s default computer names, “John Doe’s Computer” and the like. So now I can take an educated guess at the names of several complete strangers in a coffee shop. And it will count every time you’re around John Doe’s computer, so that perhaps after you’ve been in the same place at the same time enough, you’ll break down and introduce yourself—”Hi, John Doe. You and I have shown up at the same place at the same time on 37 occasions, so I thought I’d introduce myself.” I don’t know. Maybe not. Like I said, it’s freaky.

It gets even freakier when you imagine matching these bluetooth events against a GPS breadcrumb trail. It’s one thing to look at your imity log after the fact and note “at 17:23, I was near John Doe’s computer” and then try to figure out where you were at that time. It’s another when you know “at 17:23, I was at Clementine coffee shop, and was near John Doe’s computer.” Super-freaky. Then you’d push all that data into Google Earth and develop a model of where people hang out.

Or maybe not you. Maybe Starbuck’s installs Imity-like Bluetooth sensors at all their doors, or better yet, a consortium of retailers that all share this data, so they can work out where people go and when. Even if they spend cash, or don’t spend anything, they can track you via your bluetooth device. Of course, you can also track that they’re tracking you.

We have nothing to fear but the absence of something to fear

I don’t respond to other people’s blogs often, but a post by Matt Haughey got me thinking. He begins When I was a kid, the future was filled with optimism. The year 2000 was 10-20 years away and it was this magical goal we were working towards.

I have a very different recollection of the 80s. After a decade of an unwanted war, domestic malaise, and the hostage crisis, we had an apocalyptic president, with his finger on the button of a nuclear arsenal that could wipe out human civilization. I didn’t see any way out of Mutually Assured Destruction except through it. The Reagan era gave us punk rock and a depth of nihilism I don’t think American culture had seen before.

The implosion of the Soviet Union, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the hanging of Nicolae CeauÅŸescu marked the end of that era. It was the 90s that was the era of optimism, at least for me. The economy was going like gangbusters, we had an intelligent and competent Democrat in the White House, and most importantly, we were not on the verge of blowing ourselves up. The millennium was near, and I approached it optimistically (many, of course, did not).

That spirit ended on 9/11, of course. And as I’ve lived long enough to have a chance to watch some history happen, I wonder if this country doesn’t have a hunger for bogeymen. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, which had served in that role so reliably for so long, it was clear that the country was hunting for a new one. Oh, we had (and still have) the War on Drugs, and Clinton himself became the target for much of the country’s paranoia and loathing (remember Whitewater? Vince Foster? Travelgate?). But these were poor substitutes for the menace of International Communism, and I think everyone knew it and at some level was waiting around for something better to get worked up about. We have found a truly worthy successor in International Terrorism: the threat has been played up and used to justify government malfeasance to an extent not seen since the 50s, if ever. Not because of the gravity of the threat (which cannot seriously be held comparable to MAD, though whether MAD itself was a legitimate doctrine is another question), simply because of our own need for something to fear. Part of this may be genuinely wrapped up in the national mood. Part of this may be cynical business manipulation, after all, Rule of Acquisition #34 states War is good for business. I don’t know how much to attribute to which.

Idea for an improved cordless mouse

Up until recently, I was using Apple’s mighty mouse. I liked it, but like many people, I was frustrated by gunk getting on the scroll-ball, requiring frequent, baroque, and only semi-successful attempts to clean it. Eventually it just stopped working, despite all my efforts. Logitech’s MX Revolution has been enthusiastically reviewed, and Amazon was offering it at a discount, with a rebate on top (making the price merely high, rather than absurd), so I took the plunge.

Aside: For years, I managed with a plain one-button mouse. Then I got a cheap two-button-plus-scrollwheel mouse. Then I got the mighty mouse, which can scroll both up/down and left/right. With each upgrade, my minimum expectations ratcheted up, so the idea of simply doing without scrolling, and then doing without two-axis scrolling, became unacceptable. Funny how that works.

The mouse requires Logitech’s fancy driver software to customize all its various buttons and wheels, and I have found this software to be artificially limiting, and buggy to boot. I’m hoping that’ll eventually shake out. I realize there are 3rd-party drivers one can use, but I’m loathe to lay out more money to make this mouse work the way I want, and it’s not clear to me whether those drivers can interact with the mouse’s marquee feature, the scroll-wheel clutch.

From a hardware standpoint, the mouse itself is pretty nice. Despite the wacky shape, it feels good in my hand—good thing I’ve always been a right-handed mouser, even though I’m a lefty. It’s a little disappointing that this requires both a charging stand and a USB transceiver dongle. It would be more elegant for the charging stand to run off USB power and include the transceiver in it (I’m guessing the reason this is not done is because AC adapters that step down to the right voltage are readily available off the rack, and DC step-down converters would be custom parts). Even still, you’re using up a bit of desk space for the charging base.

But that’s not my idea. I’ve never had a cordless mouse before, and the one obvious drawback is that the mouse needs periodic recharging—every 2–3 days in my experience. That’s not unreasonable, but if the mouse craps out on you in mid-day, you’ve got to fish out your old corded mouse and use it while the wireless one recharges. Bummer.

So here’s my idea. The wireless mouse kit would consist of the mouse plus two transceiver dongles. Each dongle would include a battery. One dongle would be plugged into the host computer’s USB port, and the battery would charge while plugged in. The other dongle would plug into a socket in the mouse, and that battery would power the mouse. When the battery in the mouse-side dongle was exhausted, you’d swap the two. Zero wait time, zero desktop clutter. Obviously two sets of batteries would tend to increase costs, but countervailing efficiencies might negate that. Another benefit to this design is that the same mouse would work with a USB cable instead of the dongle twins—the user could make the substitution in a pinch, and the manufacturer could sell the cord-only variant as a lower-cost model (which would streamline manufacturing), sell the dongle twins as an upgrade, and use the same dongle twins across models (further streamlining production).

According to this guy’s take-apart, Logitech appears to be using a 1700 mAh 3.7 V battery. That’s roughly equivalent to three high-quality AAA batteries ganged together, which would be half the size of a 9-volt battery (like the one in your smoke detector). Not an unreasonable size for a dongle. Each dongle would also need charging circuitry, and that might be a problem in terms of size or cost—I don’t know enough to say.

Instead, it would also be possible to power the mouse during use through a special mousepad with an embedded induction coil.