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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Thoughts on the Apple iPad

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Apple has announced the iPad, and reactions from pundits of every stripe are now flooding the Web. The verdict is mixed at best. Apple cultists are of course proclaiming this to be the Second Coming. One of my Facebook friends shrieked, “EVERY e-book reader just became obsolete. EVERY tablet PC just became obsolete. EVERY netbook just became obsolete. EVERY low-end laptop PC just became obsolete.” Nicholas Carr declared that “the PC era ended this morning at ten o’clock Pacific time,” explaining that “what made the moment epochal was not so much the gadget itself – an oversized iPod Touch tricked out with an e-reader application and a few other new features – but the clouds of hype that attended its arrival.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person reminded of the euphoric hysteria that accompanied the launch of the Segway in 2001. Before the Segway’s unveiling, when it was still known only as Ginger, rumors ran wild. Some people speculated that it was an antigravity device. After the true nature of Segway was revealed, Steve Jobs said it might be more important than the personal computer, and that cities would be redesigned around it. Instead, it because a curiosity and the butt of jokes. And the investors who funded its development lost all that money.

For those of us who weren’t intoxicated by Jobs’s clouds of hype this time around, the iPad is distinctly underwhelming. Among the commenters at Gina Trapani’s Smarterware blog, the consensus was “Meh.” Jay Garmon dismissed the iPad as crippled by the iPhone OS, which he called “one feature that’s billed as a benefit but may prove to be more of a bug.” On YouTube, numerous people reposted videos of the CES demo of Lenovo’s U1 tablet, saying that anything iPad does, U1 does better. And after declaring the PC era ended, Nicholas Carr calmed down and admitted that the iPad has numerous drawbacks:

It still, after all, is a tablet – fairly big and fairly heavy. Unlike an iPod or an iPhone, you can’t stick an iPad in your pocket or pocketbook. It also looks to be a cumbersome device. The iPad would be ideal for a three-handed person – two hands to hold it and another to manipulate its touchscreen – but most of humans, alas, have only a pair of hands. And with a price that starts at $500 and rises to more than $800, the iPad is considerably more expensive than the Kindles and netbooks it will compete with.

In today’s announcement, Steve Jobs presented the iPad as a device that “bridges the gap” between smartphones and laptops. A couple of weeks ago, I might have agreed with him, but that’s when I was using a Windows Mobile smartphone with a tiny, non-touch screen and a difficult-to-use thumb keyboard. Now I’ve owned an iPhone for eight days, and if you ask me, there is no gap between it and my Acer netbook. In fact, there’s quite a lot of overlap. I’m already using my netbook less now that I have a smartphone with a multitouch display, WiFi capability, and apps that replace all of the functionality of my late lamented Palm PDA.

I don’t doubt that some people will find the iPad useful. But I can’t imagine myself as one of them. With no multitasking, no camera, no Flash support, and no tactile feedback for typing, it can’t replace a netbook for everyday tasks like surfing the Web, writing e-mails and text messages, or using Skype for a video chat. It can’t snap photos, place phone calls, or fit in your pocket like an iPhone. And the pundits who are calling the iPad a “Kindle killer” are mistaken. Yes, the iPad’s video display is gorgeous compared to the Kindle’s shades of gray — but in daylight, a backlit color screen is unreadable, while the Kindle’s e-paper display is bright and clear. And the iPad’s battery life of ten hours (according to Jobs) is no match for the Kindle’s two weeks of reading time. There’s also the price: for the $500 starting price of the iPad, you could buy two Kindles.

Sorry, but this oversized, overpriced iPod Touch just doesn’t live up to the hype it’s generated. The iPad is pretty, but it isn’t going to change the world any more than the Newton did.

UPDATE: Adolf Hitler has similar reservations about the iPad. I’m not sure whether to be pleased or deeply disturbed.

Video on demand

Friday, July 24th, 2009

I finally got around to watching the movie Serenity recently, and I was startled to find that it contained unmistakable references to Forbidden Planet. When I asked Ruth (our household’s most passionate Browncoat) if she was aware of this, she told me that she didn’t really remember FP. I had shown it to her at some point, but probably a decade or more ago.

Obviously, I needed to screen it for her again, but we didn’t have a copy on hand. Netflix didn’t have it for instant viewing, and to my astonishment, they didn’t have it in their DVD inventory either. A search of the DVD department of Wal-Mart also came up empty. And when I went to the local Blockbuster, they informed me that none of the stores in the area had this particular film.

As a last resort, I went to Amazon.com. They had new and used DVDs for sale, but it occurred to me that I should check their Video on Demand first. (Yeah, I know “digital downloads” is redundant, but that’s what Amazon calls them.) Bingo! Amazon has the movie as a download that you can either buy or rent. For $2.99, I was able to rent the movie and send it to my Roku player without getting out of my chair. Five minutes later, Ruth and I were watching it in our living room.

I know some people have been using Amazon VoD for a year or two, but this was the first time for me, and it was awesome. I love living in the future.

Astronomically expensive

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Sending text messages costs too much. Compared to what, you ask? Well, a scientist at the University of Leicester points out that texting costs four times as much per megabyte as downloading data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Prophecies: long distance

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

In 2061: Odyssey Three, Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

The coming of the jet age had triggered an explosion of global tourism. At almost the same time — it was not, of course, a coincidence — satellites and fiber optics had revolutionized communications. With the historic abolition of long-distance charges on 31 December 2000, every telephone call became a local one, and the human race greeted the new millennium by transforming itself into one huge, gossiping family.

Clarke made that prediction in 1987. While it hasn’t come true in a literal sense, I think he’s not far off the mark. It’s been years since the last time I paid for a long-distance (LD) phone call. My family’s mobile phone plan provides us with an ample pool of minutes. And it doesn’t cost us anything extra to use them for LD calls. So we make all of our LD calls on our mobile phones, and we’ve come to think of LD telephony as free.
Do we even need an LD carrier? Well, not under normal circumstances. But the cellular phone networks can become unavailable as a result of either excessive demand or power failure. The most likely scenario for either of those events is a disaster of some sort; New York City experienced cellular network collapse on 11 September 2001, and again during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. Unfortunately, it’s in exactly that sort of situation that you most want to place LD phone calls.
So it’s prudent to have a backup plan for doing so. But it’s silly to pay a monthly fee for an LD plan that you hope never to use. A few years ago, I called MCI (our LD carrier) to find out what could be done about that. The customer service representative offered to switch us to a plan that had no minimum fee, and I agreed.
Yesterday, I received a card from MCI informing me of a new monthly minimum. Beginning March 1, we would have to pay a $5.99 per month even if we made no LD calls at all. It was time to cancel. At first I had difficulty reaching a live human at MCI, but after ten or fifteen minutes of listening to elevator music, I remembered the gethuman 500 database that I wrote about a few months ago. Following the instructions on that site, I reached a customer service representative in a couple of minutes. After verifying that it was no longer possible to avoid the monthly minumum fees, I canceled our account.
I assumed that our LD backup plan would now be to use a 10-10 dial-around service if the need arose. But when I started to research the available dial-around services, I learned that there are still some LD carriers that have little or no monthly minimum. The best of these seems to be ECG, which offers an interstate rate of 2.5 cents per minute (much better than the 7 cents per minute I didn’t pay MCI for the calls I wasn’t making). I signed up.
ECG does charge a “regulatory recovery fee” of 59 cents per month. That’s not quite the free LD that Clarke predicted, but I think I can live with it.

Wii sighting

Friday, December 28th, 2007

Ben points out that it’s been a long time since my last entry. Fortunately, I had an experience yesterday that is relevant to his recent article about the supply and demand of the Nintendo Wii.
I was in a Wal-Mart when an associate came on the public address system and said, “We now have the Nintendo Wii in stock.” I wasn’t interested in buying a Wii myself, but I headed for Electronics anyway because I was curious. I hadn’t actually seen Wiis for sale before, and I wondered if a mob would form and start fighting over them.
What I actually saw was rather anticlimactic. There were indeed some Wii packages visible behind the glass of the game-console display case, and a woman in that aisle had one in her cart. No other customers were there. I shrugged and went back to my shopping. When I was ready to check out, I swung by Electronics again just to see if anything had changed. The Wiis were gone, but when I asked an associate how many the store had received that day, she said “Four”. So it’s not surprising that they sold out quickly.
So that’s my firsthand experience with Wii demand: enough to make them disappear in short order, but not enough to draw a crowd.

Get a human

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

We’ve all had the experience of being trapped in an automated telephone menu system, cursing and pressing buttons at random in a desperate attempt to get a human representative to talk to you. But what if you knew exactly what buttons to press? The gethuman 500 database gives you that information for hundreds of companies and government agencies: the number to dial and which buttons to press in order to reach an actual live human being. Once you’ve done that, you’re on your own.
Source: American Digest

Prophecies: calculators

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

From 1941 to 1949, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of science fiction stories about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire. These stories were published in the magazine Astounding Stories, and in 1950 were reprinted in three volumes titled Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Collectively, the three volumes became known as the Foundation Trilogy.
When the first four stories were assembled into the book Foundation, the editor complained that the story began too abruptly, and asked Asimov to write a fifth story to precede the other four. Asimov complied, producing an account of how mathematician Hari Seldon establishes two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve the knowledge of the human race and serve as nuclei for the formation of a Second Empire. At one point in the story, Seldon is shown using the tool of his trade:

Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red symbols glowed out from the gray.

In 1950, the standard calculation tool used by mathematicians and engineers was the slide rule, but Asimov described a future in which the slide rule was replaced by something new: a handheld electronic device.
As luck would have it, I read the Foundation Trilogy for the first time in the early 1970s, just as the first pocket calculators were appearing in stores. They looked exactly like what Asimov described, right down to the belt pouches and glowing red symbols (the earliest calculators had displays that used red LEDs). Two decades before its invention, he had predicted the calculator with virtually perfect accuracy. And it did completely replace the slide rule.
A few years later, Asimov wrote a short story (“The Feeling of Power”) in which pocket calculators are so ubiquitous that people have forgotten how to perform calculations without them. This idea seemed farfetched in 1958, but today . . .

Too hip for CDs? Give me a break.

Friday, September 21st, 2007

A breathless Gizmodo post announces that CDs are dead, thanks to a Blaupunkt car receiver that has a Secure Digital memory card slot, but doesn’t play CDs. The “sweet little player” sells for $180.
Apparently I’m supposed to be impressed by this, but my reaction is “Big deal.” My car has had a receiver with an SD slot for the better part of a year. It’s a VR3 unit (from Virtual Reality Sound Labs) that I bought at Wal-Mart for $80, and it has a USB port and a CD player in addition to the memory card slot. (Gizmodo’s claim that the Blaupunkt receiver “accepts USB devices” appears to be just plain wrong; there’s no USB port in the picture, and the Technical Details on the Blaupunkt site do not even mention USB. It’s SD or nothing, unless you want to plug an external player into the AUX jack on the front panel.)
I don’t see what’s so “sweet” about a car receiver that costs more than twice what I paid for mine, but has fewer features. Perhaps the “hipness” of this unit is worth an extra $100 to some people, but I didn’t buy my car receiver to impress people. I bought it so I could listen to audio recordings in my car. As for Gizmodo’s suggestion that I take a shovel and bury my CD collection: sure thing, guys. Just as soon as you provide, at your own expense, MP3 replacements for every CD track I own. My CDs are DRM-free, so of course I’ll only accept DRM-free digital files to replace them. Good luck finding those.
Source: Instapundit

Content-aware image resizing

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

This video from the SIGGRAPH 2007 conference demonstrates some amazing new image-editing tools. I would try to describe what this software can do, but there’s no point in trying to convey it verbally. Just watch the video.

Be very afraid

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

Scientists are continually finding new evidence that everything is trying to kill you, and I do my best to point out new findings of this sort. In the past, I’ve warned you to be afraid of church air and flip-flops. Today I’m also warning you that laser printers and microwave popcorn are deadly. As a precaution, you should wear a hazmat suit at all times while in your office — and at home, too, if you have any laser printers or microwave popcorn there. No need to thank me; I’m just posting this information as a public service.
UPDATE: In order to better highlight this sort of news, I have created a new category of blog posts called “Things that will kill you.”