Trying something new

This is my experiment with using Evernote to post to a blog.  

I'm still new at using Markdown, but if I got it right, this will be italicized, and this will be bolded.

I'm not sure what this will do.

Let's try a link!

So, it's been a while...

I haven't been around here much, for reasons that I'm not particularly inclined to go into. But there have been a few changes…

First, you've probably noticed a couple of "ads" over on the right.1 Yes, I've joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and I've also re-registered with the Green Party of California. Some of you will be surprised by this, particularly the latter. You shouldn't be. I've been somewhat disillusioned with our current political system for years now, and the revelations by Edward Snowden surrounding the NSA and Prism convinced me that both major parties have been complicit in a massive violation of the Constitution, and are hopelessly corrupted.

So, after thirty years of voting strategically, being sometimes a Democrat and other times a Republican, the time has come for me to do something different. I've arrived at a place where you can believe that the government has a legitimate role to play, without violating the Fourth Amendment and becoming the modern American Stasi. Where you can believe that corporations shouldn't have unfettered free reign, that we need serious electoral reform, that secret courts should not exist in this country, and that the environment really does matter. Simply put, I've decided to stop voting for the lesser of two evils, and to use my vote for something I believe in.

Similar feelings attend my decision to join the EFF. It's one thing to voluntarily cede a degree of privacy to Google or Microsoft in the name of convenience; it's quite another for the government to track your location, and to access the metadata of every phone call you make and every web site you visit, with no recourse available to you because it's all been authorized by the decisions of a secret court to which you cannot lodge an appeal. That is not what America is about. It is, in fact, the very diametrical opposite of what America is about. The EFF is fighting that and other battles on behalf of all of us. It is fighting for your rights as a free citizen, and it deserves your support.

  1. This was true when the blog was hosted on Blogger, but not now.

The measure of my uncool

This is not a post I ever expected to write. This is the kind of thing you're not supposed to admit in public, at least not if you want to be taken seriously by the cool kids. Fortunately, I'm at the point where I'm too bloody old to care what the cool kids think.

I'm switching my primary email from Gmail to Hotmail. I've been using it for a few weeks now on a trial basis, and I like it. A lot.

I know what you're thinking. If you're a serious tech-head, you're probably thinking something along the lines of "Good Lord man, have you lost your mind?" The answer is no, I haven't, but I understand where you're coming from. If you're anything like me, you had a Hotmail account back in the 1990s, and were driven away from it by the sheer relentless mediocrity of the experience. Microscopic storage limits, banner ads, and irritating taglines appended to all of your emails. I lived through it too…back then, we saw things that would make the kids today wet their pants. If you're under 18, you've probably always had Gmail, and you…have…no…idea. Trust me.

But you know what? A funny thing happened. Microsoft woke up and started smelling the coffee. Apple started eating their lunch in mobile and tablets, Google is going after their bread and butter by marketing Google Docs (now Google Drive) to business, and Microsoft is starting to get hungry. So…email storage is now measured in gigabytes, and you can get more if you need it. Banner ads are gone, and $20/year gets you Windows Live Hotmail Plus, with no ads at all. And those irritating "Get Hotmail!" messages in the signature line? They're history. And best of all, you no longer have to have an "" address. You can pick "" instead, or, as with Google, you can bring your own domain to the party and use that. Sweet.

And what's left for you to use with that domain is a really nice, functional and smooth webmail experience, one that I wouldn't have found out about if it wasn't for my irritation--and perhaps more to the point, my wife's irritation--with the changes that Google's been making to Gmail. Mind you, I've been a Gmail user since the days of the invitation-only beta, and I've sung its praises for years. But lately, it's seemed like the UI boffins have been too clever by half with their AJAX-y mouseover magic. Memo to the design team: it shouldn't move unless I click on it. Make it so.

The most surprising aspect to all of this is that I'm the one switching. I ran away screaming from Microsoft products ten years ago, fleeing to the world of Apple (and later Google), and I've never regretted the choice. But if Microsoft ain't what it used to be, neither is Apple or Google. Apple has become enraptured with its own aluminum-skinned coolness, becoming to phones and tablets what Microsoft was to computers fifteen years ago: dominant, a bit arrogant, and successful to the point of being dangerous. Google is similarly entrenched in search, is rapidly becoming a force in mobile with Android, and would really, really like me to tie everything into their pseudo-Facebook social network, Google+ (they asked me again when I signed into Blogger to write this post). Thanks, but no thanks.

So Hotmail it is. This is not your father's Hotmail. This is good. It works. It's nice. No, it doesn't tie into anything like Google Voice or Google Reader, but it does come with built-in support for Messenger and SkyDrive, and the calendar works well with iOS. When Windows 8 come out, it will work as a Windows Live ID for device sign-in and other assorted goodness.

And if you just want to send and receive some email, it's a damn fine choice for that too.

Living with Fire


Yes, Fire. Kindle Fire, to be precise.

It's been a couple of months now since I got mine, and it seems like a good time to talk about what it's like living with it, and how it's changed my thinking in some ways about e-readers, tablets, and the ways they intersect--and also a good chance to do something with my long-neglected blog.

To start with, I ordered my Kindle Fire (hereafter referred to as "Fire") about thirty seconds after Jeff Bezos finished his keynote at the Kindle product intro last September. Mostly, I was completely blown away by the low price point for what appeared to be a relatively capable Android-based tablet. I was able to further limit the hit to my wallet by using some accumulated points on my Amazon credit card, so my final price was more like $120 than the list price of $199\. How could I resist?

Waiting for it was the hardest part, the longest six weeks I've had in a while. Patience wins in the end, however, and it was delivered to me at my office the day after release. I'd already set up the Personal Hotspot feature on my iPhone, so I was able to connect it to the Internet immediately--or almost immediately, after first downloading the available update to my work computer and transferring it to the Fire via USB. The update went flawlessly, and soon I was connected to the Web and ready to go.

Without going into excessive detail, I will say I was--and am--pleased. The Fire performs about as well as I expected it to. It isn't packing the latest processor, or the most onboard storage, and it isn't based on the most recent version of Android, but it works well enough. Several updates since release have addressed some of the more glaring shortcomings, and the overall feel is now much less jerky than before, with books opening more smoothly and things just generally feeling more together (as an aside, hiding every trace of Android from the user was the right thing for Amazon to do). And the size is perfect, at least for me. The iPad is just a bit big to schlep around everywhere, but the Fire is no bigger than a trade paperback. I like it. In a very short period of time, it has become the one device I would hate to be without, and the one I use more often than any other.

That said, it's not made by Apple, and those expecting an iPad will be disappointed. But for those people, I have just one question…


A little perspective: I bought the first-generation Kindle shortly after it was released for $369\. All it did was read books (OK, it did have a built-in Sprint 3G connection, but you wouldn't want to surf the Web on it. Trust me. I tried…). The Fire, on the other hand, has immediate access to Amazon's Kindle Store, Amazon Instant Video, a damn fine Web browser, email, the Amazon MP3 Store (and all the music I have stored in Amazon Cloud Storage), limited document capabilities, and the ability to run anything that will run in Android 2.3--and yes, you can sideload apps onto it. Is there something you want that Amazon's Appstore won't sell you? Fine. If you can find the .apk file on Google, you can download it to your computer and sideload it via USB on the Fire. Or you can go to on the Fire and download it directly. Pro tip: make the Dropbox app and a good file browser (like ES File Explorer) the first things you sideload, then anything you stick in your Dropbox folder on your computer becomes instantly available on the Fire.

I'm pretty sure that Amazon didn't intend to build a tablet that runs the Nook app or Aldiko, but the Fire runs both admirably. The Nook app is just for show, mostly; they don't really have anything that Amazon doesn't, but it's nice to have. Aldiko, however…well, more on that later.

So we have here what is essentially an Android tablet at a bargain-basement price. And that is where it gets very, very interesting, and why I have been doing some serious ruminating _(strokes beard thoughtfully…)._

After living with the Fire for a couple of months, here's what I've concluded, and some of it is surprising:

I'm done with E-Ink. Yes, E-Ink is lovely for brightly lighted rooms, outdoors, and long airplane flights. It needs no backlight, uses very little power, and has ridiculously long battery life. But most of my reading isn't done outdoors or on a plane. It's done in my house, in my recliner, for a few hours at a time. Battery life isn't an issue. Neither is overly bright lighting. I don't find my eyes bleeding after a few hours of reading the Fire's LCD screen, and I like not needing a clip-on book light when the ambient lighting is anything below the level of Artificial Sun. And while the Fire is heavier than my Kindle 3, it's no worse than a paper book--and when I get tired of reading, I can flip it to landscape mode and watch _Star Trek: Deep Space Nine._ Or browse Twitter.

Amazon Instant Video is awesome, but not perfect. As an Amazon Prime member, I've been having a lot of fun watching some of my favorite old TV shows and movies for free, but as it turns out, there's one movie that won't play on the Fire for some reason. Unfortunately, it's one of my favorites. If I want to watch it on the Fire, I'm going to have to rip the DVD to my iMac and sideload it. Arrgh.

Amazon is handling magazines on the Fire the wrong way. You can buy magazines on the Fire, but they're basically PDFs of the print version, and you're going to find yourself zooming in and out constantly, which is annoying. It would be better to have magazines in app form, which would make them more usable in this form factor. Case in point: the Kindle version of the Economist on the Fire is almost unusable, but the Economist Android app, which runs fine on the Fire if you sideload it, works brilliantly (you need to be an Economist subscriber for full access).

Amazon is no longer my exclusive (or even preferred) source for e-books. Amazon has a wonderfully extensive e-book catalog, but with Aldiko on my Fire, I can read EPUB books as well. This means I can buy from Google Books, Feedbooks, Smashwords, Books on Board, the Kobo store, even the Nook store…anyplace that sells EPUBs (which is most of the rest of the industry besides Amazon). Amazon is often cheaper, but not always…and there may be cases where a book isn't available in the US, but can be obtained (legally) from an overseas bookstore that sells the EPUB version. And with Dropbox on the Fire, I can have access to my entire EPUB collection anywhere I have an Internet connection, which somewhat mitigates the lack of a Whispersync equivalent (although not completely).

(Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "What about DRM with all those other stores?" Yes, DRM is there. But the Nook app runs on the Fire, Aldiko can handle Adobe DRM, and if you feel diffident about having EPUBs with DRM, you can Google a nice man called Apprentice Alf and he can help you rid your stuff of that particular infection. Not that I recommend that, mind you. Heavens, no. After all, that would be illegal in the US, and I wouldn't want to be responsible for encouraging such a thing. Perish the thought. But if it's legal in your country, or you just don't care, then…)

From now on, I'm archiving all my e-books in EPUB format. I like flexibility. I want to make sure I can read my books years from now, no matter what. Amazon is unlikely to go away, but you never know. Also, I want to be able to read them on any device I have, and as an open standard, EPUB is the most flexible in that regard, and the most likely to be readable years from now. If you think that Amazon's size and market domination mean that its proprietary format will automatically be around in ten years' time and available for whatever platform you're using, try using your iPad to open a document created by Microsoft Works sometime.

I prefer reading on the Fire to reading on the Kindle 3…but I prefer reading in Aldiko to reading Kindle books on the Fire. I've found that to my eyes, the typographic choices made by Aldiko look better than those made by Amazon, and I like its user interface better, including its ingenious method of adjusting screen brightness (if you've used it, you know what I'm talking about).

My next Kindle may not be a Kindle at all. Amazon offers Kindle apps for iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, etc. This means you can read Kindle books on non-Kindle devices. Got an iPad? Got a Samsung Galaxy Tab? You can read your Kindle books on it. This should keep Amazon honest; if they lock down the next generation of the Fire too much, I can go find a 7-inch Android tablet and move on from there. Which leads me to my next point…

Multifunction is better than single-function. I have loved my E-Ink Kindles, but they only do one thing (which they do very well). A tablet, however, does a lot of things, and does them well enough to make up for their shortcomings. Unless I'm about to board a trans-Pacific flight and I need the battery life, I'd rather have something that can do email and Twitter and video in addition to reading. That's just me; your mileage may vary.

Lack of 3G connectivity is a non-issue. At the very least, it's a non-issue if you have a phone to which you can tether the Fire. Tethering to my iPhone 4 is trivially easy, and where I live there's no shortage of places offering free WiFi. Why pay for yet another internet connection? fire.jpg

My iPhone Gets It Right


RIP Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.” --Steve Jobs

May his memory be eternal…

World's oldest running car for sale

The world's oldest running car is up for auction--an 1884 De Dion Bouton Et Trapardoux Dos-A-Dos Steam Runabout. This is a most fortuitous occurrence. You see, about 35 years ago, I first ran across the following piece of doggerel in an article by the late, great Henry N. Manney III, and have been waiting ever since for an opportunity to use it. I now share it with you:

I ran into some trippers
In my swift DeDion Bouton.
Squashed them flat as kippers,
Left them aussi mort que mouton.
What a nuisance trippers are;
Now I must repaint the car.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled evening. :-)


Anybody got any crow?

Back in February, I wrote this blog post talking about how I was basically transitioning from being an entrenched Apple user to being firmly in the Google orbit. At the time, I'd just received a CR-48 from Google and was fairly well enraptured with how well it fit my needs. I was using an Android phone, the Droid X from Motorola, and managing my contacts, email and telephony through Google Contacts, Gmail and Google Voice, respectively. Google was making my life better, Apple was yesterday's news, and I was feeling pretty smug about having moved on to another phase of my digital life.

Well, today I'm using an iPhone 4, getting more use out of my iMac, preparing to buy a MacBook Air for my wife, and thinking seriously about an iPad as a laptop replacement. What happened?

It is, as they say, complicated, but things started to go south for me in the Googleverse about a month and a half ago. Back in June, I received an over-the-air update from Verizon that upgraded my Droid X from Android 2.2 "Froyo" to Android 2.3 "Gingerbread." At first, I was happy.

A few days into it, though, some odd things started happening to my phone that hadn't happened before. Random reboots. loss of signal, decreased battery life, and what I referred to here as The Problem. Simply put, The Problem was that my phone would immediately hang up after I placed a call. What the…?

Shortly after I figured out that The Problem was recurring, I started digging around online to see if anyone else was experiencing it. What I found was disturbing. It appeared that Motorola had pushed out an incredibly defective update to the OS. Further investigation led me to the Motorola owners' support forum, where I confirmed that the problems I was experiencing were not unique to me. I also discovered that people had been screaming about problems ever since the update, and Motorola was not being particularly responsive, with no timeframe for when a bugfix might be pushed out. Not even an indication that a bugfix would _ever_ be pushed out. Silence. Not cool.

Around this time, I got wind of Verizon's plan to discontinue unlimited data plans in favor of tiered pricing. Since my wife was showing interest in the iPhone, I decided that the time was ripe to get her one while I could still get her grandfathered into unlimited data. Then the wheels started turning…if I get one for her, I really should get familiar with the iPhone myself since I'll be the primary tech support. And we did have cross-upgrades available from two of the other lines on our family plan…hmmm….

After putting two and two together and finding that it did indeed add up to four, things moved pretty quickly. A quick trip to the local Apple Store to play with the hardware, a visit to the Verizon website, and in a couple of days there were two nice, shiny, 32 GB white iPhones in the house. I found out that iOS really _is_ much smoother than Android (at least on the DX), and while the screen was smaller it didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. There's no non-removable carrier-installed crapware to clutter it up. And in true, Jobsian Apple fashion, the bloody things really do _just work_. End of my Android experiment. will even give me a hundred bucks or so for the Droid X, which makes the switch a bit less expensive, and I can use the Droid X power cord to recharge my Kindle, so it's not a total loss.

And, just for the record, here in the first week of August, Motorola _still_ hasn't pushed out a patch. The people on the Motorola forum are still grasping at straws, with lots of vague talk about a patch that will go out in September. Or maybe October. Even if they do manage to push out a fix then, users will have gone through a third of the year without a properly functioning phone. Even _Wired_ reported on the whole debacle. Noting that you can't just roll back the previous version easily, and that Motorola was being noncommittal about pushing out a fix, they ended their report with this:

So unfortunately for frustrated Droid X owners, they’ll have to play the waiting game with Verizon and Motorola until a fix is released — or shell out the cash for a new phone. Was that the plan all along?


Some of you might be wondering why I didn't just get a different Android phone instead of jumping to the iPhone. Apart from wanting to gain some iOS experience so I could be the tech support guy for my wife, it's simply because I have come to believe that Android's success carries within it a fatal weakness, and there is no guarantee that my Droid X experience wouldn't be replicated with my next phone. You see, a few hardy souls have managed to get stock Android 2.3 running on the same hardware, and those phones work fine. The difference between those phones and my Droid X? Motorola's proprietary "Motoblur" interface, and the crapware that Verizon installs on the phone, some of which cannot be removed.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that the problems I and others have experienced are somehow related to the modifications made to the operating system by Motorola and Verizon. Otherwise, phones running stock Android would be having the same problems, which they aren't. And here lies the fatal flaw of Android, in my opinion.

It has been observed that the Android vs. iOS contest, is a replay of Windows vs. Mac, and while it's not an exact parallel, it's close enough. Like Mac vs. Windows, it's a bit of a religious war. With iOS, Apple has replicated its business model with the Mac--producing both the hardware and software, and keeping tight control of each in order to guarantee a consistent user experience. With Android, Google has taken the Windows model of allowing anyone to use it on their hardware, and then gone one better by permitting manufacturers to modify the OS as they see fit. This is why no two Android phones have identical user interfaces. HTC adds the Sense UI, Motorola adds Motoblur, Samsung does something else entirely, and if you want the "Pure Google" experience, you either have to get a Nexus S (which until recently was only sold through T-Mobile) or root your phone. Even the hardware buttons vary from device to device.

This ability to modify the hardware and the OS is a big reason why so many phone manufacturers have embraced Android. It's a ready-made OS that they can then modify to suit themselves, and there's no persnickety Steve Jobs to tell the carriers that they can't install six tons of crap on the phone. This has encouraged both growth and fragmentation; there are lots of Android phones out there, with significant market share, but not all running the same version of the OS, and the differences between a high-end 4G phone like the Thunderbolt and a low-end phone running 2.1 are profound.

Meanwhile, the same things that make Android attractive to carriers and manufacturers hold pitfalls for the consumer. With an Apple device, you only have to wait for Apple to push out an update. With Android, you are at the mercy of the carrier and the manufacturer, who in turn have to wait for Google to release the stock version that they base their variations on. And, as I found, they are somewhat less obsessed with perfection than the boys and girls in Cupertino. It makes upgrading a bit of a crapshoot.

It boils down to what you want. Do you want something you can play with and modify? Do you require an extra-large screen? Are you willing, or eager, to get under the hood and tinker? Then you might like Android. Do you want something smooth, something refined, something that just works? Do you want an ecosystem that is so well developed that you can buy accessories from vending machines at the airport? You'll be happier with an iPhone.

A few years ago, in another place, I wrote the following about Linux, on which Android is loosely based:

It's kind of like driving an Alfa Romeo with twin carburetors: you can tinker with it to your heart's content, it makes you feel good and look cool, and you have the satisfaction of knowing you've gone your own way, but you better know how to get under the hood and fix it, because it's likely to give you the opportunity to do so at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes, you just want to get to work, and at those times you'll be a whole lot happier in a Nissan 350Z, particularly if it's 34 degrees F and it's raining and you're running late. God bless the man who invented fuel injection.

I could say much the same thing about Android. You can customize it, you can tinker with it, you can have the satisfaction of knowing you're doing it your way, not Steve Jobs' way, but someday AT&T-Mobile/Verizon will push out a half-baked update that messes with your carburetors, and you'll be on your own. As for me, I'll take the fuel injection, and that is why I switched to the iPhone, and I'm never going back.

(To be continued…)

More on Gingerbread and the Droid X

Hot on the heels of yesterday's rant, I found this article in my news feed this morning. Apparently, it's not just me; Verizon and Motorola really did push out a defective OS update.

The question now is this: what will they do about it?

The one thing that might drive me to the iPhone

For the past several months, I’ve been a very happy Android user. My Droid X has been, for the most part, everything I could hope for in a phone, and is my constant digital companion. As a heavy user of Google services, it’s been about perfect for me, especially the Google Voice integration; now, I can hardly imagine using a phone that isn’t tightly tied in to GV. I’ve looked at iPhones since getting my Droid, and have been mostly unimpressed. If nothing else, the smaller screen is a disappointment. After using the huge touchscreen on the X, the iPhone looks, well, kind of dinky. I like the tough construction of the X, which makes a case basically unnecessary. I love the fact that I never, ever have to connect it to my computer for anything unless I want to. I love not needing iTunes. I really love the Swype keyboard. I could scarcely imagine a reason to switch to the iPhone.

Then I received an over-the-air upgrade to the latest Android version, 2.3 (Gingerbread).

Gingerbread has been a mixed bag. Some things work a little better; other things, not so much. I like the revamped color scheme, and Google Listen seems to work a bit more smoothly. But there have also been random reboots, loss of signal, and seemingly decreased battery life. And then there is The Problem.

From time to time, for no reason I can detect, the phone will now sometimes hang up immediately after I place a call. At first, I thought I was doing something wrong, but then I realized it was a software issue that requires a reboot to correct. After perusing a few Android board posts, it seems I’m not the only one with this problem. And a problem it is; I don’t want to find myself having to wait through a reboot to make a phone call in an emergency situation. Back in the days of AT&T exclusivity with the iPhone, I heard it jokingly said (referring to AT&T’s notorious network problems) that the inability to make and receive phone calls was actually a feature. As someone who would much rather text or email than make a phone call, I am not entirely unsympathetic to that point of view. But it does point out a problem in the world of Android that simply doesn’t exist in the world of iOS, and it also goes to the heart of why I purchased an Android phone on the Verizon network in the first place.

Taking the first point first, Google faces the same problem with their OS that Microsoft does: they don’t control the hardware on which that software is run. Consequently, there is always the possibility of unexpected glitches when an update is rolled out. Compounding the problem is that due to the open nature of Android, carriers are free to modify the OS as they see fit, which means that carriers become the ones responsible for rolling out OS updates. Additionally, the crapware that the carriers add to the OS can add its own problems, and who’s to say that something in Verizon’s build of Android 2.3 isn’t causing a conflict, and is therefore responsible for the hang-up problem? Contrast this to Apple’s world, where they control both hardware and software, and need only test against a limited number of hardware configurations. It makes it much simpler to push out an update, and to guarantee that it will Simply Work.

As for the second point, I bought a Verizon phone because I need my phone to be a phone. I need to be able to make phone calls. If this wasn’t the case, I would have settled for an AT&T iPhone a few years ago. But because AT&T’s network basically sucks in my area, I went with Verizon and chose an Android phone, having gotten tired of waiting for Apple to make a CDMA version of the iPhone that worked on Verizon’s network. I gladly overlooked the rough edges of Android—battery life, slight delays in touchscreen response, etc.—because of its manifold benefits.

Now that there’s a Verizon iPhone, the equation has changed somewhat. We’ll be buying my wife an iPhone soon, and I’ll be watching her experience very, very closely. I’m not saying that I’m going to ditch the Droid for an iPhone just yet; I still generally like my phone very, very much. But I’m going to be keeping tabs on how often The Problem happens, and if it persists, I’ll be looking at the iPhone with new interest. In the end, a smartphone that balks at making calls is just a handheld computer with a crappy phone attached, and there’s no room in my life for that.