Sunday, September 30, 2007

Musical Chairs

A big shout-out to Andrew for recently giving me A Game of Thrones. He's been encouraging me for several years now to try out George R. R. Martin, but it's been sharing space with the other 100 or so books that I need to read, so he took matters into his own hands by gifting me the book. I blew through it and was really pleased... it's definitely up there in the pantheon of modern fantasy fiction.

I think I feel a semi-autobiographical musing coming on...

Fantasy was, hands-down, my favorite genre when growing up. I remember going to see a Children's Theater production of The Hobbit, and being utterly entranced by the book. I read and loved all of The Chronicles of Narnia; The Silver Chair was probably my favorite. I even struggled mightily with The Lord of the Rings at far too young of an age, and returned to the series three times before finally finishing it.

Early on, a lot of the fantasy I read was Christian fiction. In addition to the Chronicles of Narnia, I read Stephen Lawhead's books (the Dragon King trilogy, and later on his King Arthur cycle), Frank Peretti (who had some young-adult stories in addition to his more popular supernatural thrillers), and some other series whose names escape me at the moment. There was also a fair amount of juvenile fiction that I read and enjoyed, including the Prydain chronicles (Lloyd Alexander). Pretty much all the fantasy I enjoyed was post-Tolkien; I read some L. Frank Baum and George MacDonald, but just couldn't get into it.

I had a voracious appetite for reading in general, and fantasy in particular. Once I found something I enjoyed I would scarf up everything that I could. It probably shouldn't be surprising, then, that I eventually found that I had exhausted my immediate library of fantasy, and started searching abroad in order to get my fix. That meant heading deeper into the realms of adult fiction.

Honestly, one of the series I remember most clearly was David Eddings' Belgariad. Looking back, I'm pretty sure that those books weren't very good, but at the time I just ate them up. I even dressed up as Garion for Halloween one year (fourth grade, maybe?), complete with a blue cape and a plastic sword. I tiptoed into some of the Mallorrean, but my mother, who was pacing the series, censored the second through fourth books. Later on I tried some of Eddings' other books, and while they didn't grab me as strongly, I still enjoyed them... I remember being so excited when reading The Diamond Throne that I literally could not sleep, so I ended up staying awake for hours, reading it by the dim glow of my night-light. Ahh... obsession is fun.

In parallel with all that, I was also a big fan of the Lone Wolf books. I didn't have much expendable income growing up, but most of what I had went to getting those paperback game books. Some of my most vivid imagination was driven by that series. I would walk through the trees by Neil Park, and imagine that I was Lone Wolf; resting my hand on an invisible sword, I envisioned running through the hills, covering myself with a cloak to shield against prying Giak eyes, and rescuing villagers from the onslaught of the Darklords. Later on, they started writing novelized forms of these adventure books. I enjoyed them, but found them much darker than the games... even the covers looked incredibly grim, and the sense of death and destruction loomed over everything.

At some point, I ran across Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant Chronicles. Those were good books, but boy, were they ever a hard read. That's probably the first true "adult" fantasy I ever read, and the emotional content of the books was hard to ignore. Thomas is such an incredibly broken man, and his quest so overwhelmingly hopeless, that I couldn't derive the escapist joy that I usually get from fantasy. I kept reading, though, because of the powerful content and compelling characters.

At one point or another, I've read much of the blockbuster fantasy. Terry Brooks' Shannara kept me satisfied for a while, and Raymond Feist's various Midkemia books were fun as well. (Interesting note on that last one - I actually started reading those books after reading about "Betrayal at Krondor," the Sierra-developed RPG set in Feist's universe. I wouldn't actually get to play the game for many years.)

Oh, and how can I forget Thieves' World? Once again, I get the feeling that the books aren't that good, but I was delighted by the fully constructed world that they created, the soap opera-style plots that could span many authors and books, and the sheer breadth of content. I still think that the underlying idea was fascinating, and would love to see it resurrected, either in print or another medium. In keeping with the collaborative impetus behind Thieves' World, it's been the direct basis for at least two of my adventure games (neither completed), as well as an influence behind my huge fantasy system, and arguably influential in the creation of The Item (my memory's a little fuzzy on that last part). Also, Shadowspawn was a big influence on me, and I appropriated that handle for a few years.

OK, I have to stop now, there's just too many early influences to list them all...

The field started narrowing down while I was in junior high, and got even more manageable after leaving high school. Some of this was the inevitable result of becoming a busier person, with less time to spend enjoying books. Of the time I could still devote to reading, I was increasingly coming to enjoy other books, either in other genres or just straight-up literature. More and more I was getting my fantasy through gaming and not through reading.

That said, I kept going strong. I rediscovered my love of Tolkien, and at some point I stepped into the Wheel of Time. I still can't remember what exactly kicked me off on that... I think the seventh book had already been released by the time I started. As usual, once I was hooked I was in for everything, and I just delighted in that series. In general, I tend to enjoy things when they're more complex, more involved, have a larger world, and have more mystery. On all these points, Jordan excelled. Even more than reading about Rand's journeys, I enjoyed the complex political workings of Randland; organizations like the Whitecloaks and the Seanchan didn't map neatly onto a "Good versus Evil" axis, even in a world with an Ultimate Evil. I adopted the series and coasted on it for several years, eagerly awaiting each book as it came out.

All that came to an end, of course. Robert Jordan recently passed away and I don't want to speak ill of the dead. I'll say that the promise of the early books failed to be realized in the later ones. On a personal front, I came to realize that while I loved things that were large and complex, largeness and complexity are attributes, not virtues in their own sake.

While I've picked up the odd fantasy novel here and there, I really haven't dived into any series since giving up on the Wheel of Time. (My philosophy on that, after having been particularly disappointed in one book, was that I would wait until the series finally finished, and then ask people if it was worth it to read to the end.) All that to say, A Song of Fire and Ice is the first major fantasy series I've started in about a decade, though I have ample history with the genre.

So how does it stack up?


Quite well! These days, I tend to value things for being original even more than for the excitement of their content, and while AGoT falls neatly into the fantasy genre, it doesn't feel like a cookie-cutter story at all. For starters, the feeling of the book is much more medieval than traditional fantasy. I don't think the word "magic" is even mentioned until about four hundred pages in, and even then it's in the context of people wondering whether magic still exists. You do, however, have a really well-realized system of patronage, lords and bannermen, and a really realistic idea of how things fit together. Not "He's King because he found the magic sword," but "This person claimed the throne because he had the closest claim by birth; however, this other person comes from a much wealthier family, and so is able to strongly influence the king." That kind of believable political background for a fantasy novel is rare; Jordan was better than most at it, but even he occasionally fell into the Eddings trap of "Oh, this is the land where everyone is really crafty! And this is the country where everyone rides a horse! And this is the land where everyone is a religious zealot!"

Martin does a great job with the plot. Often times this felt more like a mystery than a fantasy novel. You get some feeling early on for who is "good" or "bad," but there is an awful lot of uncertainty, and much of the tension in the novel derives from trying to figure out who is up to what. Actually, there are multiple layers: you, as the reader, are trying to anticipate the future course of events; at the same time, though, each chapter is a third-person limited narrator tied to a specific character, and no one character knows as much as the reader does. So you will often run across a character who is thinking, "Man, I can't wait until Person X gets here!" and you think, "Oh, no! They don't know yet that Person X was caught in an ambush and won't ever get there!" I really like this structure, because it keeps the suspense strong while also making it clear that the author is very much in charge of what's happening. In a way, the reader just becomes another one of his pawns.

There are a lot of dichotomies set up in this first book, and it will be interesting to see how they play out over the rest of the series. The big divisions are between north and south, between nature and civilization, wildness and refinement, clear danger and hidden enemies. You have a tension between what is lawful and what is right. There is a line between children and adults, but already that is starting to be blurred. One of the major divisions in the first book is the classic clash between pragmatism and idealism. What's especially fun is the feeling that, as the plot continues, our feelings on some of these issues may begin to shift. Sure, we dislike absolute power, but what if it's the only thing that stands between us and our annihilation? What's fun about fantasy is the way that that can be an actual concern, and not just an abstract debate.

The characters are a high point of the novel. They are interesting, unique, and affect each other in involving ways. My favorite character in the early part of the book was Jon; later on, it shifted towards Eddard and, oddly, Tyrion. The non-main characters are often just as interesting as those whose names lead the chapters. I'm particularly drawn in by the intrigues of the outsized personalities at court. Littlefinger and the Spider and those dastardly Lannisters move in an intricate dance, and watching Robert's situation carries a dreadful fascination. It's also remarkable to have a book where so many significant characters are children, and actually see them grow and mature throughout the novel.

All in all, this has been really enjoyable, though honestly it's hard to "review" at this point. These sorts of things build on themselves to create their own force and energy, and I won't be able to properly appreciate each piece until I can finally see the whole. That said, I've enjoyed the scenery so far, and am looking forward to continuing the journey.

Friday, September 28, 2007

So, What Have I Been Up To Lately?

I'm almost finished upgrading to the latest version of Ubuntu. Why am I doing this, you ask? It's a perfectly valid question. I found myself asking it late last night while staring at my bash prompt. It took me a few minutes to reconstruct the answer.

This follows a standard pattern in my Linux experience. I love Linux, and have for years, but along with its cool open-source, open-ended, open-connection format, there's a strong tendency to fall into the Upgrade Cycle of Doom. This happens when you try to install a fairly new application or utility. You find that it has a dependency on a library. You find that that library, in turn, depends on another library. That other library only ships on an updated version of the kernel, or you can download the source and build it yourself.

Back in the day, when I was running Mandrake, this cycle would take a long time, and the only reason I kept it up was because I was always doing it... when you're regularly installing stuff, you generally keep up with the latest versions of the libraries you need. These days I'm dual booting more often, and Linux is usually just running in the background to power MythTV or azureus.

However, after playing around with some iphone apps, I got curious about how hard it would be to write one of my own. I haven't written any programs for Mac OS, ever, but it seemed like a fun task. I found a project on Google Code to develop a cross-compiler for the iPhone, so I decided I'd try to play around with that.

I realized I didn't have all the tools I'd need to build the cross-compiler, so I went about updating them. This is far easier for Ubuntu, thanks to its use of debian's apt-get system. This is a wonderful replacement for the more traditional .rpm or "build it yourself" system: apt-get automatically checks all your dependencies, downloads necessary resources, and manages all of the configuration settings and other files for you. It kind of feels like cheating. The one problem, though, is that apt-get tends to only play nicely in an all-apt-get setting; if you start mucking around with raw builds on your own, apt-get won't know how to deal with things.

So anyways, I fire up apt-get, and that's when I discover that my ancient version of Ubuntu, Breezy Badger, has been discontinued from the apt-get world. Ubuntu releases new versions at regular six-month intervals, and gradually phase out support for older versions. That meant I wasn't able to get the tools I needed via apt-get any more.

At this point, I had two options: either return to the old way and track down and install the things I needed on my own, or do the upgrade. I knew the upgrade would be painful, but it's something I'd want to do sooner or later, and I'd rather do it now when it's not all that pressing than later when it's important.

And so I struck off into the unknown. It turns out that Ubuntu has two classes of releases, divided by the length of time they are supported. So I already had a choice: upgrade to the most recent version, or upgrade to the most recent version with long-lived support.

I decided at first to go with the one with more support. Since I had already gone for about two years since my last upgrade, it seemed logical that I might be able to wait about as long before the next upgrade, so it made sense to choose a version that would let me update my programs for a while into the future.

I jumped into the upgrade, which went very slickly. Even without downloading or burning CDs, I was able to easily stream down everything I needed using ubuntu's tool, and soon things were off. It wasn't a totally automatic process, but I was able to keep it running overnight or while I was at work and respond to queries when I returned.

Finally, everything was upgraded again! Except I now ran into the second rule of Linux upgrades: when you change something, expect other things to break. Again, I was expecting this, so I knew ahead of time what sorts of things to check: verify that mythtv was still working, make sure that I could use my remote, and so on. These are all things that had taken me several weeks to get working originally, and I had the feeling that they would behave the same the second time around.

My feelings were correct. Myth took a little bit of work - the backend database, MySQL, had been upgraded, and needed some manual reconfiguration in order to put it back into shape so the front end could talk with it. The bigger problem, though, was the remote control. I just couldn't get the receiver to work.

After poking around the forums a bit, I found a post from an Ubuntu developer describing an incredibly simple process to get lirc (the "Linux Infrared Remote Control" program) running. There was just one catch: it required a recent version of the Linux kernel. As in, a few weeks old. As in, more recent than the version that ships with Dapper.

So, back into the upgrade seat I went. I would have to go from Dapper all the way up to Gutsy in order to access the right kernel. Ubuntu recommends that you upgrade one step at a time, not skipping over intermediate releases; I did some calculations, and determined that spending a few days doing simple releases would be a better plan than spending one day forcing the version to Gutsy and then spending weeks tracking down all the problems it introduced. So I took baby steps: Dapper to Edgy, Edgy to Feisty, and Feisty to Gutsy.

And that brought me back to my screen. Throughout this process, I'd been monitoring progress via SSH on my main box. Oh, I should have mentioned before now that all this is taking place on my media PC, which is hooked up to my television. Small console text is hard to read on that screen, so I've really appreciated the ability to do remote administration. Anyways, after I was finally on Gutsy, I spent some time getting myth working again, and then moved my focus to lirc. I was delighted at this - it took less than half an hour to get my remote working, including the time I spent configuring the serial port and managing my startup options. In contrast with the weeks it took me to get the remote operational under Breezy, including manually rebuilding my kernel modules, I'd say we've come a long way.

However, we're not quite there yet. Somewhere along the line, I managed to mess up my Samba setup. At least, I assume that I did. All my configuration files look fine to me, but I'm no longer able to browse my media PC's network shares from my main desktop. That's something I've been able to take for granted for a few years and take much advantage of, so I want to get it working again as soon as I can.

After that, though, definitely going to be compiling for the iphone! You can count on it. After all this effort, I'll be crushed if I can't even say "Hello, world."

I may have to learn Objective C first, though. If it isn't one thing...

Hm, what else have I been up to? Oh! Big news this week was getting to see Terry Pratchett at Kepler's. I'm very glad that I went; I'm a pretty recent convert to his books, but I enjoy them immensely.

His talk was funny and a little bit odd. He started off by talking about his recent stroke and the death of his father - sad topics, to be sure. He segued into a discussion of his future plans for writing, which will lead off with some non-Discworld books but circle back around. There was also some discussion of a Discworld film, which is news to me; he sounded excited about it, but warned that he won't believe it's actually happening until he's walking down the red carpet. We'll be getting Hogfather in the States soon, though he dryly speculated that most of us had already arranged to see it. (Guilty.) I'm still a little unsure of how to best describe him in person... he's kind of elfin, but with a darker personality, but funnier. He doesn't seem to be as natural of a good speaker as Neil Gaiman was, but he's arrived at good public speaking through practice and patience.

He also gave a generous Q&A session. Some topics he touched on included:
  • What it's like to write for both adults and kids. He said that the adult fans read the kids books (I haven't yet, but I will), and he suspects that the kids read the adult books. Because of that, he's careful about what he puts in them: if you know the details of certain adult subjects, you'll understand certain references within the books, while if you don't already know about them, you won't be able to learn much from Discworld. He also said that, in his experience, kids who read come from families who read, and this makes him more comfortable, since he thinks kids tackling his adult books will have good support for anything they run into.
  • Whether he'll write another Discworld non-novel, like "The Science of Discworld." "My agent tells me that there's been a lot of new science since that was written," he dead-panned. He likes the idea, but doesn't know if or when it will happen - as usual, there are so many other projects going on, and that isn't a very high priority for him right now.
  • Whether he'll collaborate with Neil Gaiman again. "Now there's a question I don't get asked often." (I actually wasn't sure if he was being sarcastic - I think it was probably extremely dry British humor, but it was hard to tell.) They haven't ruled it out, but they won't write a book for the sake of writing a book; if they come up with a good idea, and actually both have time to do it, he'd be happy to. "Don't hold your breath" was the impression I got.
  • His favorite Discworld character. I was expecting him to say something political, like "They're all my favorite" or "I can't choose just one." Instead, he gave two. I forget the first one, other than that it was a female name. I don't think I've read about her yet; it wasn't Susan or one of the witches. The second name, though, was Sam Vimes, which actually got a round of applause. (Well deserved, too; he's probably my favorite character as well.) He said something like, "If I could, every Discworld novel I wrote would be a Guards novel."
  • (Some time later) His favorite book that he's written. "Wintersmith."
  • His feelings on technology. "It's fine, but there's no reason that things need to have developed the way that they did on Earth." He told an anecdote about an inventor in the 18th century who invented a design for an airplane, but was never able to make it fly, because he relied on a steam power engine. Several years after he died, petroleum engines were invented. If he had lived just a little while longer, it's very possible that we would have had airplanes long before they actually came. More broadly, I think he was getting at the point that things on the Discworld should be seen as alternate possibilities... we should be less Earth-centric, and have a bit more fun in how we consider the universe.
After the Q&A, there was a brief announcement (from a fan in attendance) that North America will be getting a Discworld convention! The bad news is that it isn't until 2009, but still, it's good to have something to look forward to. Titled The Turtle Moves, it will be held in Phoenix over Labor Day Weekend 2009. Mark your calendars!

Then he signed a lot of books for everyone. I thanked him for coming. "Oh, the pilot did all the work," he said. I laughed, and left. Have I mentioned before that I'm not good at talking with famous people? In addition to Making Money, I also had him sign my copy of Good Omens. Erik mentioned that he had previously had his signed by Pratchett, who wrote "Burn this book!", and later by Gaiman, who added an asterisk and wrote "Apply Holy Water Here." Gaiman did the "Burn this book!" part for me, but I guess they aren't trading off any more, since Pratchett just put his signature below Gaiman's. Ah, well. I'm definitely not complaining - it was very cool to just meet him.

It was also fun to do another literary event. I still clearly remember what it was like living in Kansas City, when it felt like book signings were the only real cultural events in the area. I could fill a shelf with the authors I picked up through Rainy Day Books (Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Al Franken, Azar Nafisi...) Out here I'm averaging one author a year. And you know something? I think that's OK. They're good authors, and perhaps just as importantly, people I wasn't reading before I moved to California. Great A'Tuin moves onward, and I'm just happy to be here for the ride.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

End of the Line

Well! It's been quite a long time since I started on this trip, but I think I've finally reached the capstone: after viewing the complete televised works of Joss Whedon and Cowboy Bebop, last weekend I watched (or re-watched) their theatrical manifestations. (In the case of Whedon, that means "Serenity" not the original "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which I had watched way back in 2004.)

Both movies were excellent and served their series well, although in different ways. In both cases there was a really comfortable feeling from seeing the cast again... it was almost like reuniting with old friends. Both maintained the themes from their shows while dramatically amping up the production values. One offered depth, the other heartbreak.

Let's dive in first with


I had known almost nothing about the movie prior to watching it, and was a little surprised that it takes place in the middle of the series. This was an interesting choice... one could argue that there really isn't any space for a movie after the series, and going the prequel route would mean losing half of the cast. That said, the move makes sense... it drops the viewer right into the middle of the action, without needing to go through the exposition of "who are these people."

I initially thought that the movie was probably much more rewarding for people who've seen the series than newbies. I'm less sure of that now, though... I'm almost tempted to say I'd use this movie to hook people into the series. Granted, new viewers might be a little bit confused about the characters, but frankly, they don't need to totally understand Faye or Ed in order to enjoy the kinetic force of the story. In all it feels like a good demonstration of what's best about the show without having a strong dependency on its backstory.

One final comment about the chronology: this has a big impact on the tension (or lack thereof) that one feels while watching it. I mean, think about it: you KNOW which characters are still going to be around for the television show, so you never really worry about any of them dying. That doesn't mean that there's no draw, of course... there's a compelling mystery, and plenty of surprisingly well-designed new characters to draw our worry. Still, it is an interesting effect.

As one would hope from a Cowboy Bebop movie, the music was EXCELLENT. The jazz themes seemed a bit less prominent than in the main show, but they made up for it with a variety of interesting pieces. As with the show, it simultaneously grabs your attention while fitting well with the action.

The animation was quite well done as well. The animation in the television show is good, but the movie adds an extra layer of polish and complexity that really benefits the show. There are some particularly compelling set-pieces, although frankly nothing that beats the amusement park setting from the show.

On the whole, this was a fully satisfying movie. It doesn't radically rework or extend Cowboy Bebop, it just serves up a particularly excellent offering. I'll gladly take what I can get.


This is the third time I've seen the movie, and the first time on DVD. It's less shocking now, but it still feels like a punch to the gut. Honestly, I would probably have watched this movie more often if it was less painful... it's incredibly good, but I always feel like a bit of a masochist when I see it again.

Many parts of the movie resonate more strongly and poignantly on subsequent viewings. Like the scene on Haven where Mal is talking with Book, and says, "One of these days, you'll have to tell me how a Shepherd gets to know so much about the Alliance," and Book says, "No, I don't." Or after they arrive on Miranda, and are standing in the middle of a dusty street, looking at the corpses that surround them, Jayne says something like, "They just died. Died for no reason," while the camera lingers on Wash.

It's bittersweet to view this movie in the context of its relationship to the 'verse. On the one hand, it's extremely unlikely that we will get to see that wonderful cast together again in... well, in anything. On the other hand, though, Joss's diverse interests and contacts can keep this extraordinarily rich setting from going entirely to waste. The first comic series was fine, but hopefully we'll have even more to look forward to. There's an MMO in the works that I personally don't have a lot of hope for, but it may well surprise me. There's a traditional pen and paper RPG that looks really cool, though I'm starting to despair of finding another good crew of RPGers. Actually, while looking for that last link, I stumbled across a page that shows an amazing collection of Firefly-related games. It's telling that so many of these are community-based, non-profit games. Telling, but not surprising. Throughout its (too bright, too brief) existence, Firefly has been marked by incredible fan devotion, as people embrace the 'verse and seek to make it their own.

The DVD itself is good. Video and audio transfer seemed great. The extras are decent - not amazing, like Lord of the Rings, but they do include interesting mini-features and such. It includes a gag reel, which I think I may start viewing at the end of the movie, to help lessen the sting.

On the topic of DVD: A few weeks ago they released a collector's edition of Serenity. It looks nice, though not revolutionary... a cast and crew commentary, the River Tam Sessions (which you can also find online), and some extra features and documentaries. They talk about "extended scenes", but I think that might be the same as what's on the disc I currently have. It's a superior disc so it's well worth picking up if you don't already own the DVD, but may not be worthwhile if you already have the old version. (If you do get the new one, let me know! I'd love to borrow it and check it out.)

It seems pretty remarkable that there's enough interest in this movie to bring out a new collector's edition, two years after the movie came out to disappointing performance at the box office. I don't know if that means Firefly fans are incredibly dedicated, or if we're just suckers. I'm sure there are plenty out there who feel, "If only I spend enough money on this, THEN the studios will bring back more Firefly and I can be happy again!"


See you, Space Cowboy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Park Here

We had some unusually early (and strong) rain this morning, so for the first time in months I passed on a planned hike. I was not too disappointed, though, since that meant I'd be able to attend a parks forum hosted by my councilmember, Pierluigi Oliverio. I randomly found out about this when looking up some info on the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and was reminded in an emailed District 6 newsletter from Pierluigi. I decided to become at least slightly civicly engaged for the day.

Some quick background: I voted for Pierluigi twice (in the first election and again in a runoff), and really like him on paper - he's young, comes from a technical background, and strikes an independent course without seeming disagreeable. That said, I hadn't actually met him yet, so this was also a chance for me to indulge in my nerdy political curiosity.

The forum was held in a Willow Glen elementary school. When I first pulled up, I thought, "Wow, this place is packed!" The parking lot was full, as was all the parking along the street. I soon realized, though, that almost everyone was there for some youth soccer games taking place in a park across the street. It seemed somehow fitting, although it also made me feel like more of a wimp for not hiking.

I parked around the corner and got to the event. It was fairly well attended, with a few dozen people in place. Pierluigi arrived a few minutes before we started, and there were also about eight people representing the parks district or other city offices. After quick introductions, we got a nice, brief PowerPoint presentation on the city's greenprint plan. This reviewed the city's goals, the current challenges (which are familiar to everyone - we've had a lot of capital expansions that are not being met with ongoing maintenance funds), and the need for community involvement in charting the future course of San Jose recreation.

By far, the longest and most emotional part of the meeting was a park-by-park review of District 6. Pierluigi led this section, and for each park people could give feedback about what they liked or (more often) disliked. Several areas kept coming up: for virtually every park, there were complaints about inadequate or improper watering, and graffiti was also a regular concern. Partway through the session, the issue of bouncy platforms came up (I forget the official name, but they're fairly popular out here - they're inflatable structures that little kids can jump around inside of), and there was a fair amount of education about where they are legal, what issues are involved with them, and so on. Some parks passed with very little comment, but a few received long and passionate attention. By far the most attention was directed to Cahill Park. I haven't been here, but apparently it's a large open lawn near a development area, and the list of issues was long: swampy ground, loitering, noise, trash, violence, and more. A lot of attention was also paid to Bramhall park, which is actually fairly close to my apartment and which I now want to visit. It sounds like a nice park that is severely over-used, and would probably be a good place to volunteer.

I was impressed with the way Pierluigi led the discussion. He kept things on track while ensuring that everyone had their say, and would move the discussion along when he could without cutting anyone off. He also has a really warm personality and a good sense of humor, which I think helped a lot... people who would show up to this are probably feeling emotional about their parks, and I think his attention and attitude really helped set the direction of the event.

After we finally got through all the parks, there was a presentation on the actual greenprint itself. This was the issue that had brought me out: I wanted to get a better idea of the City's plans for expanding and linking its network of urban trails. The person who presented this portion (I want to say his name was Dave, but could be wrong) gave a great overview of the current state of thing: he highlighted areas that the city is in the process of acquiring, spots that are being considered for future purchases, and gave really detailed answers to the many questions dealing with funding, negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad, and other things that are arcane to a lot of people but really crucial to some of us.

The last part of the program was a series of breakout sessions. There were four stations set up, each dedicated to a particular topic. People went from station to station, and at each place they could ask questions of city employees there, and also indicate, via placing stickers on a large sheet of paper, what their priorities were. One station was dedicated to trails; I stuck my green sticker next to the Los Gatos Creek Trail, of course (though the Guadalupe and Willow Glen Spur are well worth expanding as well). Another was focused on community centers and specifically which activities were most important; I've never been to one, but stuck a green next to "Dancing" (hey, why not?) and a yellow next to "Cooking". Another asked for our priorities in potential lands to acquire; on this one, I was selfish and asked for the Bascom parks (which would be close to my apartment). Finally, one board was asking for which specific improvements we'd like to see at which specific parks. A good two thirds of the stickers here went under Cahill.

And after that, I just left. It was really interesting to see everything, but I'm generally not one for much socialization.

This was the first small-scale civic community meeting I've attended, and it was an intriguing experience. I have to admit, I do like the feeling of being able to talk directly with my elected officials, and the kind of responsiveness and openness on display were good to see. I was also sort of struck by the relative power of community involvement. When you think about it, the several dozen people who came to this event will have a lot of influence over their neighborhood in the next several months: the comments of people who would come to an event carry more weight than those who stay home. I would be surprised if there weren't noticeable improvements at Cahill in the near future. I'm not convinced that other District Six parks aren't worse, but the clear message the city got from this meeting had to be "Fix Cahill." It's just interesting to think that, of the, I dunno, probably a bit under 100,000 people who live in the district, so few of us can speak and be heard. Then again, short of mailing surveys to everyone in the district, there probably isn't a better way for the city to determine our needs, and it's probably true that the people who make an effort to share their concerns are at least somewhat representative of the area as a whole.

All in all, it was well worth attending. They announced that a future meeting will specifically address the Los Gatos Creek Trail and other future developments, so I'll be attending that once they settle on a date. Until then, it was fun and encouraging to see my city, and my councilmember, in action.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The iPhone Got Cooler

So, almost since when the iPhone first came out, there were reports that people had been able to hack it. Lots of fun tutorials sprang up online, filled with descriptions that varied from vague to clinical, from fuzzy ("It's so easy!") to terrifying ("I hope you know how to use a soddering iron, and aren't afraid of wrecking your $600 phone!") Much like with the PSP homebrew community, I've been interested in following these developments, but haven't seen fit to risk my own hardware.

Until now, that is. The state of development has reached the state where I'm comfortable to step off the Steve Jobs Approved path, and thrash around in the thicket a bit. The biggest thing is that the has gotten almost absurdly easy to use. You don't need to do anything with your iPhone at all; just download a patch for iTunes, and poof! A new icon, labeled "Installer", magically appears on your home screen, and it serves as your gateway to a world of applications.

What kind of apps are out there? I personally went ahead with this because, in answer to my fervent desires, a third-party developer saw fit to add LBS to the iPhone. This is a great little product from a company called Navizon, and it manages to work without assistance from the carrier. The system is called "assisted GPS", and it's actually a rather admirable community-based approach: people submit the GPS coordinates of various cell tower and WiFi access points; the app determines where you're connecting from, maps that into its database, and reports back a best guess of where you're calling from. It doesn't give the same level of precision that you can get from true GPS, but in my opinion, it's more than good enough for my purposes. You just pop open the application, and after a few seconds to do the lookup it shoots you right into the excellent native Google Maps application with your location highlighted From there, of course, you can do local searching, get directions, whatever.

There are a LOT of other applications available as well. We're still in that exciting early period where the market hasn't firmed yet, and as a result any person sitting in their bedroom can make an iPhone app and have it show up. Let's just say that the quality at this point is quite variable. Games seem to have the worst of it - there are ports of an NES emulator and Doom, which sounds cool, except for the fact that there's no good way to control the input for either game, so you can't do anything but watch the pretty screens.

On the "wow, cool!" side is the fact that there is a complete (albeit slimmed-down) BSD environment, and an Open SSH client and server package as well. I'm such a nerd, but already I'm thinking of how I'll be able to tunnel into my web server, update my azureus queue of downloads, heck even reboot my machine if I need to, all without bringing up another box. Sigh... way cool. They even are bringing over whole development toolchains, though the thought of programming on the iPhone keyboard pains me.

The coolest game I've played yet is a thing called Tap Tap Revolution. As you might imagine, it is a rhythm game like DDR, but it seems particularly well suited to the iPhone. You can download free tracks, or else have it search your iTunes library for songs that have been game-ified. When you start playing, you're listening to your actual .mp3 or .aac file, and as you see beats come streaming down the screen, you need to tap each one in time. It's a very simple game, but really quite fun, and nicely brings together the unique capabilities of the iPhone (music player, touch screen, large display, and network connection).

I'm still in the exploring phase now, but things look promising so far. I won't necessarily say "Start installing apps if you have an iPhone," but I will say that my experiences so far have been positive. It's very encouraging to see the development community step up and fill a gap that Apple left in their product.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Time is the wisest counsellor of all

I've just wrapped up my first game of Beyond the Sword. Even though I was most excited by the prospect of the scenarios in this expansion, I ended up playing a regular game, for reasons that escape me at the moment. It was fun, and ended rather well.

I ended up with a cultural victory, though I was also half way done with my space ship. I'd come within striking distance of winning a religious victory through the Apostolic Palace on a few occasions, and may have squeaked out a diplomatic victory if I'd finished the United Nations.

A few random thoughts on the expansion:
  • Espionage is a cool system. I never really focused on any particular opponent, so it wasn't until later in the game when I was able to have enough points to get a lot out of them. Still, I like the mixture of active and passive missions. That said, I'm really glad that espionage didn't ship in the original game. It's a complex system that adds a whole other aspect to the game; it can be ignored, but at your peril, and would have been hard to master while trying to learn the game in the first place.
  • The other major addition, corporations, are really interesting. I had a sizeable tech lead near the end of the game, so I was able to found all of them except for Standard Ethanol and Aluminum Co. They are EXPENSIVE - the maintenance payments are huge, and also a bit puzzling to me; I never did figure out the math for how much each city has to pay. I ended up being very selective in the way I spread them within my country - most stayed in one city, except for Mining Inc., which provided a much-needed production boost to a wealthy peninsula. However, I spread them like mad to to the rest of the world as much as I could, and my coffers were overflowing. In my next game, I might be more careful to be selective about the ones I spread - I got Mining Inc. early on and spread it, but it probably wasn't too wise to give a huge production boost to all my rivals. Sid's Sushi Co. or Standard Ethanol would probably be safer. Regardless, though, the money adds up. And an advantage of Mining Inc. is that the other civs LOVE it, so after spreading to one or two of their cities, they'll pour out corporate executives to convert the rest of their empire.
  • The more things change, the more they stay the same: winning strategies in Civ IV seem to still be good, but you now have more tools at your disposal. Example: I pursued a variation of the religion+commerce strategy that has served me well in the past. Found a religion, spread it to all your cities, then all your rivals. Build the holy building and all the commerce improvements you can. And - this is the key - discover all the alternative religions that you can; if you keep a rival from having their own holy city, it's far easier to have them convert to your faith, and to some extent they'll do your evangelism for you, plus you won't need to invest in expensive holy wars. After you found Islam, build the Spiral Minaret, and then you'll be able to set your tax rate down to 0% - that one city will generate all the gold you need. Eventually, build Wall Street there, and you'll have more gold than you'll ever need. Now, with BTS, found your most successful corporations in the same city. (There seems to be a limit of 2 per city, in addition to the no-shared-resources rule.) Each city that has your corporation will bring you 5 gold a turn, and with your city improvements that will transform to 15. What's really funny: in this particular game, I never switched from Representation to Universal Suffrage, so the gold really was totally useless to me. I just get a warm feeling when I see it pile up.
  • The new animated leaderheads are really well done. In this game I played against Stalin and Hammurabi, and played as Pericles, and all three of them were interesting and realistic. Pericles in particular has a great opening animation.
  • The modified tech tree is organic and fits in well with the flow of the game; that being said, it does feel like Aesthetics blocks off a good chunk of stuff. Also, I miss Nimoy.
  • Yet again, I played an entire game without a single battle against another civilization. I am awesome and craven.
  • On a related note, I wonder if there's a bug in the AI. After I bumped my espionage to 20% and started getting great visibility, I noticed that Stalin had built up a HUGE stack of units right on my border. Like, thirty or forty knights, catapults, crossbows, the whole story. I was nervous - I was a bit ahead of him technologically, but had a bare minimal army, with a freaking warrior still defending my capital. So I started building some defenders, but - here's the weird part - he did nothing at all. They just stood there for several hundred years, staring at me, until my culture enveloped their city and they got kicked out. Very odd. It seems like if the AI has invested that much time in building up an army (and he had obviously slipped behind in technology and infrastructure as a result), it NEEDS to do SOMETHING to capitalize on its investment. If it doesn't like invading me because of the whole religion thing, fine, but march that glorious army of yours across my land and invade Carthage or Babylon or something.
  • Random events are REALLY cool. They actually had something like this way back in the original Civilization, which makes it the second feature from that game to be recently resurrected. (The other one is the idea of a city revolting against its owner and joining your empire.) However, the old events were always disasters - floods, earthquakes (which could even destroy wonders!) and the like. The new ones are generally positive, although there are some bad ones. Someone has GOT to do something about mine safety. I especially enjoy the ones that let you make choices, as well as quests - I don't know how many of those there are, but in this game my quest was to build seven Coliseums (or in my case Odeons) before entering the Modern Era. In both cases, it makes me fondly remember Castles, an old DOS-based game that combined aspects of Sim City (except you're designing a castle), Warcraft (lead your English warriors against the Celts who want to tear it down), with fun once-a-month dramas in the throne room. Often times this was something simple, like being asked what a woman should name her baby, but there were also really intricate plots involving powerful noble houses, the Church, various native clans, and questions of honor, strength, and expediency. Anyways, I'm really excited to see what the mod and scenario designers can do with this... the one-shot events are great, but I love the idea of an overarching narrative where your decisions have lasting consequences that lead to future queries.
Overall, I'm really impressed. The expansion brings some interesting new systems that enhance the game without breaking the core fun aspects. It has a really high level of polish, which integrates nicely with what's already there.

I think that's enough for now. I'm kind of civ'ed out for the moment - that game took longer than I had expected - but I look forward to trying out some of those cool-looking scenarios. Be warned, God of Winter! The time of wrath draws near!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Take my love, take my land

Sigh... yeah, Buffy was a good show. Angel was a good show. But watching Firefly reminds me of what a wonderful show is like. I knew that it was good, but it seems to get better each time I view it, and I don't hesitate to call it Joss Whedon's masterpiece.

This is a show that everyone should watch. Even if you don't enjoy science fiction, even if you don't enjoy Joss Whedon, the pure quality of the show demands recognition. I'm struck once again by how it WORKS on all fronts. The acting is great, with possibly the best casting I've ever seen in a show. The storyline is really cool, gripping and fun. The tone is pure Joss Whedon, a wonderful mixture of drama, mystery, humor, and just a twist of horror. Watching it again, I particularly appreciate the structure of the show. I've grown used to serial dramas, like "Lost" or "Battlestar Galactica", as opposed to episodic dramas, like "House". Firefly strikes a wonderful middle ground, with each episode completely standing on its own as a thing that can be appreciated, but combining to create a marvelous kinetic energy. There is so much I missed the first time around that I've been picking up on second, third, or fourth viewings. I love how Kaylee is complaining about an engine part in the early episodes, and later on, the captain's refusal to pay for a replacement leads to an entire episode of pain. As Whedon proved with his two earlier series, he is a master at constructing rich, intricate worlds that follow their own logic.

And there's the rub. The tragedy of watching Firefly is not just that it was so short-lived, but that it would have only gotten better as time went on. Just think of how much better Buffy Season Four was from the first season, or the last season of Angel was from its spare beginnings. Part of that is the accumulated potential a show acquires as it further expands its boundaries, but another part is Whedon's genius at playing with convention and digging into his characters. And frankly, this is a genre that would have gained greatly from the experience. While I enjoy a lot of sci-fi, it is generally not known for much experimentation within the medium: a show tends to set its place and conflicts early on and not vary far from them. By contrast, Firefly embodies Mal's free-spirited ethos, and one gets the feeling it would never stop wandering.

I should probably speak a little to the Firefly/Bebop link. You can't argue that it doesn't exist, but watching the two back-to-back, it's actually a weaker connection than I would have thought. Both series have the same two-word summary of "Space Cowboy," but beyond that, they seem like very different beasts. Spike is a man running from dishonor and searching for redemption; Mal is a good man who is trying (and failing) to become bad. Both ship crews function as families and are mildly dysfunctional, but the crew of Serenity tends to ultimately function as a unit, while the division within Bebop never ends. The messages of the show are ultimately different as well... Bebop ends with one man ultimately acting alone against all odds. Time and again, Firefly stresses the value of friendship, family, and community. That's probably the thing that struck me the most on this viewing of the show. While Firefly is, at its surface, a fiercely libertarian work of fiction (good folks fleeing the big bad government), the people who form close bonds with one another always win out against those who mistrust and go it alone. It seems to have an overall philosophy that, in an odd way, could almost be labeled family values. The key is that, in Whedon's world, everyone chooses their own family.

Thoughts on the show:
Favorite episode: Ariel. They're all really good, though.
Episode I'd show a newcomer: The pilot, ideally ("Serenity"). Failing that, "Shindig." (Why not "Ariel"? I think it's the one episode that demands some prior knowledge - specifically, you need to understand River and Jayne.)
Favorite character: Mal is the obvious choice. I have to go with Wash, though. He fits so neatly into my Horatio ideal of the sidekick.
Favorite villain: Badger is villain-ish, right? If he doesn't count, I'd have to go with Saffron.
Favorite supporting character: Badger is kind of supportive, right? If he doesn't count, maybe Nandi... she had spunk.
Favorite weapon: I think it's hilarious that the laser pistols always break. That's part of the genius of the show - sure, technology may be very advanced, but when you're scraping your existence off a rock, with years between contact with the rest of the 'verse, you'll want to stick with something that works. Horses don't break down or require fresh oil, and while you have a shot at repairing a jammed pistol you probably won't be able to repair a laser power cell. That being said, my favorite weapon is probably the pistol that Mal uses to pistol-whip people. Or the jet engine.
Favorite location: Besides "Serenity," of course, though that is one of the best-realized spaces I've ever seen on the screen. Hm... either the creepy Reaver-hit ship in "Bushwhacked" or the whorehouse in "Heart of Gold."
Favorite song: "The Hero of Canton."
Favorite fictional word: "Rutting." (Or, as they always say, "Ruttin'".)
Favorite line: Oh geez, how can I choose one? This show has some of the best writing ever. That being said, I'm partial to, "Dear diary, today I was pompous and my sister was crazy. We were kidnapped by hill folk, never to be seen again. It was the best day ever!"
Favorite costume: Jayne's cunning hat.
Favorite dynamic: I really like the Mal-Kaylee relationship. Zoe-Wash is great as well, and very unusual to be portrayed on television. Simon-Jayne is a great source of laughter.

Sigh... farewell, Firefly. Take me out to the black.

Next up: Space cowboy double feature.

Mo Mo, Mo Problems

I usually don't write about Mobile Monday events, but last night's was pretty memorable, so I will.

It was held at Nokia again, and I guess word about it has spread, because the place was PACKED. I arrived roughly on time, around 7, and had to wait for fifteen minutes to get through a line to sign an NDA and get inside. People kept pouring in, and about half ended up needing to stand during the presentations, with a few dozen being barred from the event entirely. That's the first time I've ever seen that happen at MoMo, and I felt a little bad for them.

On the other hand: more food for me! Nokia puts on the best spread this side of Google, including heavy hors d'oeuvre, sweet nibbles, and free booze. I loaded up my plate, found a seat next to a woman from a French operator, and started munching away.

The Bebo presentation was good, and made me feel a little guilty about canceling my account last week. (I had only joined because one of my friends has a blog there, but they keep sending me notices, with no way to unsubscribe that I can find, and any time you try to change your account settings you need to click through a half-dozen ads.) Jordy, the presenter was really cool... I think he's done a MoMo presentation before. Oh, I should probably mention here that the topic of the night was mobile social networking. Anyways, Jordy focused a lot on the logistical challenges to developing in this space, and came up with the memorable rule, "If it doesn't run on three billion phones, forget it." He had some good insight into the relative stickiness of different technologies, the way you can move a user up the chain to more compelling content (with GMail being Exhibit A), and the nuts and bolts of SMS pricing.

Next up was loopt from Mountain View. I'd heard of them, but hadn't seen their app before, and must confess that it's incredibly cool. Not the sort of thing I would use, but I could see people like my sister becoming addicted to it. It's now available on boost and Sprint/Nextel, so if you're on one of those carriers and have a supported phone, it's definitely worth a demo. It's basically a really powerful location-aware friend tool. You can, say, pull up a map and see where your friends are; you can send an SMS to everyone you know in a two-mile radius; and it hooks from the app into some great facebook-style networking tools so you can share photos, do public chat, and more. Besides a cool app, they had a great presentation. Continuing with a theme raised by Jordy, loopt talked about how interoperability was a huge need; they also discussed the state of LBS in the US. As I tend to really enjoy in the MoMo events, the presentation was casual and honest; the presenter was candid about working with different carriers, their frustrations, and how cool they thought the app was. Oh, and the speaker (who is loopt's co-founder and CEO) looks about 16 years old. Needless to say, this is awesome. I love living in Silicon Valley.

Last, our Nokia hosts presented MOSH, a new community portal and content distribution framework being pushed by the company. It looked interesting, though what I'll most remember came at the end. When ready to demo the product, he walked over to a large plasma TV and plugged a cable into his N95 (at least I think that's what it was - wasn't close enough to see for sure). The screen immediately popped up on the display - and at a fine resolution, too. He continued to navigate through the phone, then paused and said, "By the way, I suppose that you've noticed that, like any decent smart phone, I can display my output on a standard video monitor." There was appreciative laughter. He added, "Also, you'll notice that I can hold this microphone in one hand while using my phone with the other, which is how any decent phone should operate." More laughter followed.

For those not as obsessed with the industry as me: both were not-so-subtle jabs at the iPhone, which is being increasingly positioned as a competitor to Nokia's lucrative top-shelf offerings. People laughed not necessarily because they hate Apple, but because they love conflict, and he had good points. The iPhone doesn't have real video out, and any complex task demands the use of two hands. That said, it may not have been a great idea for him to bring up the iPhone comparison at that point. Yeah, he got some good points off of it, but then we were all thinking of the iPhone for the rest of the presentation. Like when he was uploading pictures, and you saw that every one of them had a name like "MV7J63W.JPG", with no thumbnails, dates, or other ways to tell what the heck you were sending. For better and for worse, Nokia feels like a company driven by engineers, not by product designers... the quality is top-notch, and they're among the best at exposing hooks, but it just doesn't carry the same level of polish and thoughtfulness that the iPhone demonstrates.

There were some good announcements at the end, including a bunch of companies pleading for applicants, which made me feel good - it's always nice to be in demand. I grabbed some more food and did a tad more socializing, before I turned into a pumpkin and rolled back home.

Seriously, what's the deal?

I've been to three grocery stores - Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Safeway - and not a single one of them carries large pasta shells. You know, the big ones that you use for stuffed shells? Nada. Not a one. And it's not just that they were out - from what I can tell, there isn't any space on the shelves in any one of those for large shells. Other than TJ's, they don't even have the excuse of a limited selection... Whole Foods and Safeway both had around thirty different varieties of pasta, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, yet somehow managed to totally neglect this crucial element.

So, what's the story? Am I going to find out that stuffed shells are a Midwestern delicacy, unknown on the west coast? Does the Bay Area have some philosophical objection to the practice? Or have I somehow managed to create a specialized pasta vortex that annihilates what I'm looking for?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Breaking News: Chris Wants Money

I'm not sure if this was awful timing or just funny timing. After my recent couple of posts praising the virtues of my iPhone, Apple has decided that it's ready for the big time, and is acting accordingly by slashing a huge $200 chunk off the price.

Needless to say, I'm a tad annoyed. At myself as much as anything... if I had held off for just a couple of weeks, I could have snapped up a new one at a lower price. (Now, I only paid $500 for mine so the pain isn't quite as bad, but still, 'tis annoying.)

This evening I poked around online for a bit, and found that Apple offers a price protection for its online store. The bad news: it's only good for 10 calendar days, and I bought mine 14 days ago. Dang. On the other hand, though, several people report having called Apple for purchases at or under the 14 day mark, and having them honored.

The upshot being, I'm currently on hold for Apple customer care. Have been for close to half an hour. I'm guessing I'm far from the only person - methinks plenty of people are annoyed at the situation, and there's a lot of vitriol on the forums about the "early adopter tax."

One thing strikes me: the music that plays while you're on hold is excellent, but the quality is HORRIBLE. For the first time ever I can understand why everyone else uses Muzak: it degrades gracefully. Cool rock songs, though, are just about the most painful thing to hear in scratchy lo-fi audio.

I'll update this post with the result of my plea. Wish me luck...

Update 1: I can see from my large, gorgeous iPhone call info screen that I have spent more than an hour on hold. Thank you, iPhone! Some random thoughts: first, boy oh boy am I glad for hands-free operation. I've been able to surf the web, edit a friend's personal statement, brush and floss my teeth, and rearrange my subversion repository setup during this hour. It's still a pain to be on hold, but it would be unbearable if I was cradling my phone to my ear the whole time like with old-fashioned handsets. Second, it's kind of funny (but less so each time) that the friendly recorded voice keeps telling me that "Your wait time is more than five minutes." I'm curious if that is the maximum time they usually need to worry about people staying on hold - if so, their system is seriously overloaded. Third, their music choice continues to be excellent - I've even heard Massive Attack and Paul Oakenfold - but it's so choppy that it's really hard to sing along to. Three-point-five-th, they interrupt the music at random intervals for a recorded reminder to stay on the line, which wouldn't be so bad, except that (a) there is about five seconds of silence between when the music stops and the message starts, meaning that I'm constantly kept on my toes at the thought of being transferred to a live person; and (b) that uncertainty is exacerbated by the random timing of the thing... if it was, say, every minute, I'd be ready for it, but sometimes two come shortly after each other, and I keep thinking, "Oh, this must certainly be an actual person!" No luck. Well, I just passed seventy-five minutes. Time to post and continue the wait...

Update 2: SUCCESS! (Big happy grin!) I finally had my call answered after about eighty minutes. I explained my situation to the rep (stammering the way I always do when speaking with strangers), and he told me that, quote, "You just made it." The 22nd is apparently the official internal cutoff date. He put me back on hold for about two minutes, after which he told me that I'd be receiving a refund of $150, plus refunded tax of $12.38 (hooray California!), for a total savings of $162.38. (Price differential is 150 due to it being a refurbished rather than new item.)

I have to say, the whole experience was extremely pleasant once I got to an actual person. He was polite and thorough, and didn't talk as though he was reading from the script. Of course, I might not be quite so pleased now if I had bought the thing just one day earlier. That's one of those things that really grabs my attention, sort of a "There but for the grace of God go I..." sort of thought. If I had bought my phone just one day earlier... if I had been just a little more impulsive... if I had spent time playing with Ray's phone when he first got it instead of a month later... any one of those, and I'd be bemoaning my fate. (Current rumor is that Apple is planning some sort of refund for "qualified purchases" in the next few days, but I'd much rather be in the camp of check-is-in-the-mail than maybe-you-will-get-something.)

So. This all ended well, for me at least... I gave up an hour and a half of my life, but walked away with what feels now like free money. (I love the way the mind works: I'm focusing much more on what little I've "saved" than how much I'd spent.) The good vibes I feel about my iPhone will likely continue without the shadow of me seeing large dollar signs every time I look at the thing.

And with that, I'm signing off. Have a good night, everyone. And next time you see a cool new product that you just have to have, maybe check the calendar first and ask yourself if you really need it NOW.

Update 3: Pat just pointed me to a story about Apple providing a $100 credit to early iPhone adopters. I'm glad to see that - it's a really classy move on Apple's part, and it directly cuts into their bottom line. It's encouraging to see a company move to protect its long-term brand image (taking care of customers) and against its financial interest. Of course, I'm still glad that I got the better deal... much happier with my refund than a credit. (That being said, I'm really curious what people will do with their credit. The obvious answer is to buy a bluetooth headset. It would be fun to blow it all on iTunes, though.)

My State

Two items which are not at all related, other than both taking place within the State of California:

First of all, there's a huge wildfire in Henry Coe park. That kind of makes me sad. I love this park, although it is so far away that I don't make it out there often, despite it technically being in the same county as me. Fortunately, it seems like the fire is only affecting wilderness areas, so there isn't much risk to the human population out here. Still, I am worried about what it will do to the park. I'm following the news, but the stories are (understandably) more focused on the property risk than any effect on trails in the area. After the fire has burned its course, will the park reopen for business, or will it be out of commission for a while? I wouldn't be shocked if at least parts of it stay open - this is a HUGE park, with immense wilderness areas that don't even have primitive trails, so even with huge damages parts may still be accessible.

From northern California mountains to southern California freeways: there's an oddly gripping video on YouTube showing a man splitting lanes on his motorcycle in Los Angeles. Another one, which is less kinetic but more amazing, shows him splitting lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard for about seven minutes. Now, you know the really amazing part? This is completely legal in California. I hadn't realized that when I first moved here, but I've now grown accustomed to it. I'm fortunate enough to not be stuck in traffic often - I ride my bicycle when I can, and I have a short counter-commute when I drive - but I do feel envy when I'm creeping along 880 towards Oakland and have cycles passing me. The ones I see tend to be safe and courteous, as is the guy who took those videos, which I'm sure helps keep road rage down. Anyways, yet another oddity that California has contributed to the civilized world. I'm curious if this is something that will catch on, like right turns on red, or if it will stay confined to this side of the continent, like hyphy. Time will tell.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Cell Out

For quite a long time, I detested the idea of having a cell phone. More than anything, I disliked the thought of being instantly available to other people. I imagined a horrible world where I would regularly be INTERRUPTED in what I was doing by someone who demanded my immediate attention. I couldn't think of a single good reason why such communications couldn't wait until hours later. Add to that the fact that I dislike phones in general (I much prefer email, IM, or face-to-face conversation), and have had a very mild phobia of speaking on the phone since elementary school, and you can see why I thought I could live my entire life without ever getting a cell phone.

My philosophy remained essentially unchanged during the summer I spent in Kansas City at my internship with Raviant, even though the software I was working on was aimed at least partially at the cell phone market. Pretty much everyone there had a cell phone, and used them much more often than anyone I had met before. I noted how the phone instantly became the most important thing to them; if we were eating lunch and a call came in, they would excuse themselves to answer the call rather than let it go to voicemail and call them back later. I didn't think that this was wrong or bad, just really strange; how could someone far away be more important than the people you were sitting with?

I finally "caved" and bought a cell phone in the summer of 2003, after I graduated from college and moved to Kansas City. It was a pay-as-you-go, strictly-for-emergencies Virgin Mobile phone by Kyocera. It proved to be a great gateway mobile, getting me used to the idea while removing most of my objections. I didn't give my number to anyone other than my parents, so I didn't need to worry about getting contacted. Most of the time the phone was turned off and in my car's glove compartment, available for emergencies but not even accepting any calls. It was pretty cheap, too... I needed to make payments every 3 months to keep the account, and never used up the previous allotment of 20 dollars before the next "top-up" was due.

Once it was in my life, I came to realize how handy it could be. By far, the most useful application was during travel. I could arrive at the airport, give a call, and within minutes arrange to meet with my ride; this was greatly superior to the previous method which required a lot of planning and faith in the airline schedule. The phone felt good to have in general when away from home; even if I didn't use it, it was comforting to know I could reach my hosts or otherwise contact who I needed. On the flip side, suddenly I began to understand the appeal of being called as well as calling: of course I would want to know as soon as possible if my ride was stuck in traffic and was going to be half an hour late.

That Virgin phone didn't get much use, but it did work its way into my heart. Honestly, it was kind of an ugly thing, squat and with a bizarre purplish color; it had a monochrome display, and thanks to the youth-oriented theme, the automated voicemail and payment systems subjected you to the unbearably perky "Amber". But it did exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, and didn't cost too much.

Fast-forward to 2005. In the first truly daring move of my career, I joined with a mobile software startup company, and as one of the quirky perks they (1) bought me a phone, and (2) paid the monthly contract on it. Technically, the phone was a hand-me-down, but a good one just a few months old: a Sanyo 7400 with Sprint service, it seemed worlds better than my old Kyocera. It was a flip phone with a nice-sized screen and full VGA colors. Even cooler from my perspective was the fact that it was also a mobile data terminal, complete with a crippled browser and full TCP/IP support. Since our applications were networked and regularly updated over the net, I had Sprint PCS Vision as part of my plan, which provided unlimited data for $15 a month.

This was the coolest feature of my phone, and also the one I used least often. Because, let's face it, CDMA 1XRTT is not exactly speedy, and I would never choose to use the phone's cramped keyboard when I could use a real browser. It really shone, though, when I was on vacation: once again, the mobile proves most useful when I'm away from home. The usefulness was drastically extended through two beautiful applications released by Google: Google Mail for Mobile, and Google Local (later Google Maps). I was just stunned at the great engineering that came in these apps: they translated existing, rich-feeling web applications to the form factor and limitations of the mobile phone. Google Maps in particular came in useful when I was looking for something in a strange place. The maps were dynamic and far more readable than any web-based one, particularly because they would show the street named in the right places; they also had good driving directions and even showed traffic speeds before that feature was added to the primary web-based maps application. So, together, those google apps were workhorses for me, but in a pinch I could use the web browser to look up a phone number or otherwise get information I would usually get from my computer.

Once again, though, I could go for months without using a single one of these features, even though I was shelling out the fifteen dollars a month for them. I was really glad to have data services when I was using them, and otherwise didn't think about it. On the voice side, though, I was increasingly using the phone as, well, a phone. Now that I no longer had a pay-as-you-go plan, there was less financial reason to avoid using the phone. Even better for a cheapskate like me, my plan had unlimited night and weekend minutes, so as long as I was careful about when I called, I wouldn't need to watch the clock at all. I felt like I should take advantage of this, and so I started regularly calling my folks on the weekends; at heart, though, I still don't really enjoy talking on the phone all that much, and so even if those weekend calls were not free I would not have exceeded my 300 minutes a month.

Brief coda to the Virgin Mobile story - there was no reason to hold on to this phone once I switched to the Sanyo. By this time, my limited calling habits meant that there was somewhere around $150 in prepaid time left on the phone, so I donated it to my younger sister.

There were a couple of interesting developments in the next few months. First, when I moved, I decided to not bother hooking up a landline telephone. This was a surprisingly liberating feeling: I detest SBC with an eternal passion, and so the thought of freeing myself from the local monopoly brought a warm feeling to my heart. I was surprised at how little difference this change made, and came to realize that I'd been paying a monthly fee for little more than the privilege of receiving telemarketing calls. Second, the Nexgenesis job ended, and with it that nice monthly reimbursement. I was now personally on the hook for the full charge of $45 plus taxes and fees. This more than wiped out what I had saved by getting rid of the landline, but I came to realize that the mobile was worth it.

Over the years, the way I use my phone has evolved into something slightly different from the way a "typical" user might interact with it. My phone is always turned on, but generally only on my person when I'm at work or out and about; when at home, it's charging or lying on a table. When carrying it, the phone is always in my front pocket except if I'm riding my bike, in which case it's in my messenger bag. I don't like my phone to make noises, even when not in a theater or restaurant, so it's always on vibrate. (My iPhone is currently set to ring, but I'm sure the novelty will wear off soon and it'll join the vibrating ranks.) I very rarely text people. When I get a call, I'll check caller ID; if I don't recognize it and I'm not expecting a call, I'll send it to voicemail. If I do recognize the caller, I may or may not pick up depending on what I'm doing. If I'm sitting down to dinner, playing a video game, or at a particularly good part of a novel, then I won't interrupt it. I'll check any message when I finish what I'm doing, and return the call (or email, IM, etc.) if appropriate.

My intellectual appreciation of mobile phones has continued to grow as I've burrowed more deeply into the mobile development field. Even though I personally spend very little time on my phone (other than time I'm paid for), I daily see some amazing things that people are doing with them. When I look at a phone, I don't just see a device for speaking with distant people: I see a node in the network, a node that travels with you and links you with the knowledge and resources of all humanity. I think that mobile phones are a crucial branch in the future evolution of computing; twenty years from now, we won't carry devices we would recognize as cell phones, but the most important computers will be descended from today's RAZR, BlackBerry, and iPhone. Devices are growing smaller, more capable, and more powerful: this has been true of computers in general from ENIAC onwards, but mobile technology is permitting pervasive, always-on and always-ready computing that has changed, and will continue to change, the way we live our lives. It's an exciting field to be in.

With all that in mind, here's my current thoughts on the iPhone:

It takes the potential of the previous generation of phones, and realizes it with a wonderful interface. As an engineer, I recognize that under the hood, the browser is still just pushing bytes across a wireless network; where it succeeds brilliantly is in creating an interface that works in an inches-wide object in the palm of your hand. Previous phones felt like they started with the PC experience, then tried to come up with adequate substitutions for items which weren't available on the mobile. By contrast, iPhone has that Apple thing where it was clearly designed from scratch to provide the best interface possible.

The keyboard is probably the best example of that. Up until now, everyone has had a physical keyboard, with two main options: either a smaller telephone-style keypad, which has fairly awkward typing but permits a smaller form factor and/or more space for the screen; or a QWERTY-style keyboard, such as what you see on BlackBerrys (BlackBerries?), which takes up more space, is still inferior to a real keyboard, but is the only real choice for someone who composes lots of email on the go. Apple was roundly criticized for going with a software-only keyboard, and prior to launch received a ton of criticism about how awful the lack of physical feedback would be, but after playing with this for about a week I have to admit I am really impressed by what it came up with. First of all, it gives them the best of both worlds by having what is essentially a dynamically resizeable context-sensitive keypad: it can show you twelve large buttons if you're manually dialing a number, a full QWERTY-style keyboard if you're composing a message, a modified QWERTY keyboard what includes "/", ".com", and other useful items if you're entering a URL, and so on. So right off the bat, there's an advantage over the traditional boards.

As a software engineer, I'm automatically in favor of software approaches to problems. Having an entirely programmatic keyboard also supports better mechanisms for input on a limited device. Ultimately, the keyboard on iPhone is smaller than for a PC, with the keys smaller and closer together, so it's inevitable that you will make mistakes. iPhone, though, has a really impressive autocorrection feature. Suppose you type in "Momkey" when you meant to type "Monkey". The word "Momkey" isn't in iPhone's dictionary, so it assumes you've made a mistake. Searching through the dictionary, it discovers that "Monkey" is only one letter away from "Momkey", and further that "m" is next to "n" on the keyboard, and so deduces that you meant to type "Monkey". It floats "Monkey" under your input, and if you press space, period, or other punctuation, it makes the substitution. You can also decline the suggestion; do it twice, and it will add "Momkey" to its dictionary. Combine this with another cool, feature, predictive text: because this is a software keyboard, they aren't limited by physical keys. What does this mean? Well, in the previous example, suppose I type "monke". "monke" isn't a word, so iPhone knows I'll be adding extra letters; furthermore, "monkey" is a word, but there are no words that start with "monket" or "monkeu". So iPhone actually expands the sensitive size of the "Y" key - it doesn't grow larger on the screen, but even if you're slightly off when you hit it and you accidentally cross partly over to a "T" or a "U", it will still register the "Y" that you probably meant to put in.

See, that's a prime example of where iPhone's design shines. They actually took what was widely presumed to be a limitation - lack of a keyboard with physical keys - and replaced it with an experience that I believe is superior to what they had before.

There was a bit of a learning curve for the keyboard, which was mainly to unlearn what I had gotten used to on previous phones. The secret is to learn to trust iPhone. This is hard for me as an engineer - when I make a mistake, I want to correct it immediately. Instead, if you hit the wrong key, you should just keep on going. 95% of the time, iPhone will come up with the right word in the end, and if it doesn't, you can easily correct it later.

Gosh, I get the feeling this whole post (well, the review portion at least) will end up being about the keyboard, which is a bit of a shame, since that's just a tiny part of the phone. Really, a big part of the advantage of the touch-screen interface is that you don't need to use a keypad unless you're actually inputting text. One more thing, then: editing text. This has been a huge pain on earlier phones. One thing I periodically need to do for work is enter 1000 characters of text into a message; if I ever need to edit that text, I use the arrow keys to scroll around in this tiny little window until I get to the right spot, where I resume typing. iPhone has a really good substitute that allows it to ditch the arrow keys altogether. Just hold your finger over the part of text you want to edit; this will bring up a magnifying glass showing a cursor, so you can position it in just the right spot. This, in turn, lets iPhone use non-fixed fonts and still be usable for editing: if you want to insert something before the period, it'd be hard to nail that gap using just your finger, but with the magnifier it's actually pretty easy. Once you're in the right spot, you can edit in place, and touch the screen again to jump wherever else you need to go.

Okay, that has been far too much detail. Let's conclude this with a rundown of the phone features:

  • Power. It's been really good so far. I usually leave it in the dock while I'm at work, and it can last through the weekend without any charging and still have plenty of power. (Keep in mind that I don't use the phone much for talking, though; I do play some media, and spend too much time browsing the web.)
  • Calling. Very good. There is occasionally a soft background hiss that I notice when calling from home, but not elsewhere. This isn't iPhone-specific, but I seem to be getting much better coverage from AT&T than I did before with Sprint.
  • Sync. I'm pleased with it, especially once I realized that you can sync different components with different computers. So, for example, it can only sync with one calendar, but I can sync my calendar from work and my music from my home computer. Sync works beautifully. Music and movies work just as with an iPod; I'm finding that it's most useful to create a special playlist that I'm calling "iPhone" and syncing that, since my library is much larger than my 8GB (really 7.2GB) of storage. Syncing of calendar, contacts, and bookmarks works wonderfully; I can add or delete from either my PC or my iPhone and have it reflected the next time I connect. I haven't tried syncing email yet; it only syncs settings, not actual mail.
  • Form factor. Well nigh perfect. It just feels right: perfect heft, high quality materials (real glass on the front, smooth metal on the side and back).
  • Screen. Also excellent: large and vivid. Brightness has been good for me. It has a cool feature where it will dynamically adjust the screen brightness based on how light it is outside; so, if I'm in a dark garage, it will shine more dimly than if I'm in sunlight. You can also manually adjust the brightness.
  • Music. Quite good. One thing I really like is that, unlike the iPod, if you don't have headphones plugged in it plays music from the speaker; granted, the sound isn't as good, but it's still a cool feature. With the headphones, the sound quality is as good as my iPod nano.
  • Video. Best quality I've seen on a device this size outside of UMD on the PSP. There's a great variety of sources, too... you can convert your videos to H.264 or MPEG-4 and sync them to iPhone; or you can watch YouTube videos using the native application; or you can watch supported quicktime video in the browser. I watched some movie trailers from Apple's site and was impressed by the clarity and warmth of the image. Some YouTube videos are too dark, but I think this may be due to the source material. I converted an episode of Robot Chicken to H.264 using Videora iPhone Converter and was blown away - I was noticing stuff on a 3.5 inch wide screen held a foot away from my face that I had missed when watching a 24 inch television from across the room. On the downside, I downloaded a free Battlestar Galactica special from iTunes, and found it almost unwatchable. The combination of dark colors, black backgrounds, and rapid movement do not hold up well. I was eventually able to watch it, but it required tilting the screen at a particular angle to keep the colors from being washed out. So far, it seems like animation will be the best, followed by bright live action with lots of contrast; the darker and faster the image, the worse it will look.
  • Apps I don't use: Stocks, Clock, Calculator, Camera. I've fooled around with each a bit, and they look cool and seem well laid out, but I don't see myself doing much with them. I will call out how well they are integrated with the rest of the phone. The Stocks app provides a rich and regularly updated look at your selected stocks, including price history; if you want to see textual information, you can touch the "Y!" icon, which will launch Safari to Yahoo's investment page, where you can find news, analyst reports, and more good stuff. As another example of good integration, within the Clock application, you can set a timer to shut off the iPod when it expires; you could use this to, for example, set up some music to play when you go to bed and automatically shut itself off.
  • SMS. Honestly, I haven't used this that much, but I do really like it. The plans come with 200 messages a month, and you can buy more if you need them. This app may be the single best demonstration of the keyboard on the phone. Messages are displayed in a great chat view that interleaves your sent and received messages so you can view the back-and-forth of an entire conversation.
  • Weather. It's a really simple, handy app that I use a lot. You can add your cities, it provides a very readable seven-day forecast. Once again, you can link to Yahoo for more detailed information including news and flickr photos. My one complaint comes from my software guy identity - the icon for "Weather" always displays as a sun with "73ยบ" displaying. I would love it if the icon would be updated with the actual weather for the city you last viewed. They already do something similar with the "Calendar" icon, which always shows the day of the week. Anyways, if they were to add this, it would just be one less screen I'd need to visit to learn what I wanted.
  • Notes. I haven't used this much, but I wouldn't be surprised if that changed. It's a cool little app, and I can see it eventually replacing my system of notebooks for a lot of little things. Presentation is top-notch as well. There's a fun font that is unique to Notes and is quite stylish while remaining very readable. You can easily email notes, to yourself or other people. The notes are simple and effective, displaying the first few words when you browse them, and giving pretty much the entire screen to compose them in. There are nice Apple-ish touches as well, such as the way the pages "flip" when you move between notes, approximating the appearance of having an actual notebook in your hand. The deletion animation is pretty fun, too.
  • Screen rotation. This is good, although it's occasionally a little puzzling to figure out when it does or does not apply. The most important rotation is in the browser. I'll typically view traditional sites on the side, so I can get a decent size font without zooming in, and I'll view custom sites vertically, since that's how they're usually designed. Rotation for photos also works very well. Videos do not rotate, which makes sense but doesn't keep me from trying to do it. The iPod does support rotation if you're in music mode, although this just controls whether you are in Cover Flow mode or not. Almost all the other screens in the iPhone are fixed in portrait orientation. I suppose this makes sense, since unlike the Web or photos, there's no particular benefit to seeing, say, widescreen Weather or Stocks. That being said, it would be cooler if all of the native applications could support rotation. For example, I can imagine a landscape Weather app that shows two cities at once side by side. Again, this wouldn't really be more useful than what they have now, but it would be cool.
  • Volume controls. EXCELLENT. This phone has an amazingly simple feature that every phone should have - a hard on-off switch to silence volume. Most phones I've seen require you to tap "Volume Down" repeatedly in order to turn off the sound, or search in the software for an option to "Mute". The iPhone, though, has a tiny switch that you can flick which will turn off all the sounds on the phone. Theater patrons everywhere rejoice. On the more mundane side, there is a standard volume control just below the switch to adjust the ringer volume. Multimedia has a separate volume that you can control while watching videos or listening to music; here, it's a bar that displays across the screen which you can adjust using the touch feature.
  • Visual Voicemail. I'll let you know as soon as I actually get any voicemail. :-) It sounds cool, though. I had been confused before about just what this did, so here's the story: on iPhone, voicemail is actually downloaded to your phone. You can see all your pending voicemail, along with caller ID information so you can see what messages you have. Since these are all local files, you can listen to them in any order that you want, and can pause, rewind, fast-forward, and jump to specific points in a message. THAT is a great idea. I do get messages where I need to listen to a phone number or name two or three times to make sure I've got it right; it's a big pain if that information is blurted out at the end of a two-minute message and I need to listen through the whole thing multiple times. Again, I personally don't get enough voicemail for it to be that huge of a feature for me, but I love the technology behind it.
Missing features:
  • Voice memo. Non-existent. I'm putting this here because I thought of it while writing about the Notes application. My previous Sprint phone, and many other mid- to top-tier phones, have a feature where you can record messages to yourself for later playback, much like the small tape recorders that used to be so much in vogue. I never used this feature, and am fine with Apple's decision to omit it. Voice memos have the same problems as traditional voicemail, where you need to play through the whole message to hear it, and there isn't a convenient way to back up to an important part. I personally prefer written to oral communication and so am inclined to stick with Notes. I can imagine some people who would prefer the convenience of just talking into their phone, though. I just now did a Google search, and found a page which seems to indicate that Apple may be adding this feature in the future.
  • You can't record video. I don't miss this feature, though I am curious why they omitted it - it has a decent camera, a microphone, and obviously plenty of storage.
  • No GPS or LBS. Tangent time: GPS stands for "Global Positioning System", and is a mechanism that uses satellites to help pinpoint a particular location; it can be accurate to within feet or inches of a person's location. LBS stands for "Location-Based Service," and is a more generic term used by mobile companies to describe services that take advantage of knowing where the subscriber is located. A phone may use a GPS chip in order to provide LBS, but it also might rely on other factors - for example, the tower might know where it is located, and provide this data to connected phones so they can get a rough approximation of where they are. Now, there is a perception out there that GPS is better than non-GPS LBS. It's true that it is certainly more accurate, but the question of whether it is better is debatable; GPS requires a lot of time in order to establish a "fix" on your position, and it drains relatively more power. As a result, when someone first requests a position, it will usually take some time for it to become available, after which their movement will be more quickly tracked. The best modern systems will use non-GPS methods to provide some initial data to the user - for example, by showing them a map of the San Francisco Bay Area - and, as GPS comes online, provide more detailed information - for example, showing the user's location on a street in San Jose. All that to say, since the iPhone shipped without GPS, it will never be able to achieve that level of accuracy. However, I think it could profit a great deal with the addition of simple LBS. The most obvious benefit is in the Maps application. Suppose that I'm searching for "Car wash" - I don't necessarily need to know precisely where I am, but it would be helpful for the phone to automatically find results in my general vicinity, without requiring me to first look up my current location. So this would be a very nice future feature; that said, I miss this much less than I had thought I would when I first got the phone; in almost all cases, I can quickly move to my general area, then use the excellent search to pinpoint what I need.
Finally, let me leave you with a few usage stories.

Last weekend, I went hiking at Mount Madonna County Park. On my drive down there I saw gas for sale for $2.63 a gallon. That seemed really cheap to me, but I haven't bought gas lately, so I wasn't sure if it was any less than what I would spend at Rotton Robbie's in San Jose. I'd previously bookmarked the web application, so on my way back, I ran a quick search on gas prices in the 95126 area code. The very cheapest gas, which was a few miles from my apartment, was $2.75, so I confidently filled up my tank. I also looked up the park - I didn't have a street address, but I scrolled the map into the general vicinity and then searched for "Mount Madonna". I then got driving directions back home, which guided me out of the twisty roads into the park, and also revealed that it would be a bit shorter to stay on 101 up to 280, instead of taking 85 like I had on the way down. This is a little thing, but the sort of thing that I love doing, and is a great example of how access to information and pervasive computing can help people make smarter decisions.

And yesterday, I went on another hike, this time to Sanborn Skyline County Park. The hike took me to a reservoir about thirty minutes back from the road. For fun, I took out the iPhone. I saw that I actually was getting a signal, but no Edge access... if I broke a leg, I could call for help, but I couldn't surf the web to relieve boredom. However, after later hiking up to the crest of a nearby hill, I suddenly did get Edge coverage. So I hopped online, and in a few seconds updated my Facebook status to inform anyone who cared that I was hiking. This was a totally marginal act, but at the same time, it was a little cool. If and when I ever hike the Pacific Crest Trail, it would be tempting to bring the phone along... I'm sure I would be out of coverage most of the time, but every once in a while I would probably get close enough to a populated area so that I could get coverage. I could send out status emails, upload some photos I'd taken, check out trail conditions ahead, and then put the 4.8 ounces back in my pack and not think about it for the next several weeks.

I guess that's it for now. I'll probably keep learning more about my iPhone as I use it more, and before long won't even think about it any more... it will seem totally natural that I keep my grocery list on my phone. For now, it's an incredibly fun toy to play with. I can't say that iPhone is the future, but it is the direction we're moving in.