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.

A surprise on a road well-traveled

Oftentimes on a Friday afternoon, when U.S. 101 turns into a northbound parking lot, I'll opt for a leisurely drive home along some of the back roads connecting my place of work to my place of residence. I figure that if what should be a 30-minute drive is going to take an hour, I might as well spend that hour in more pleasant surroundings. My usual path leads me through bucolic Hidden Valley, down the grade past Cal State Channel Islands (formerly Camarillo State Hospital) and westward across the vast agricultural expanse of the Oxnard Plain, leading eventually to the city of Oxnard and the beach before turning northward again for Ventura.

It's a pleasant drive, taking in as it does homes, ranchland, farmland, a university, a brief glimpse of the Pacific Missile Test Center and even an onion-domed Orthodox church. (Well, sort of.) My favorite part, however, is Hidden Valley. It's well-named, hidden as it is from Thousand Oaks by the hills, and it's always made for a delightful drive. The oak trees, white fences and winding two-lane road are the sort of environment in which one can imagine oneself on a sunny day, riding along in a convertible with the top down. Hollywood seems to agree; it often does filming in the area, using it as a backdrop for everything from television shows to movies, and even a Rod Stewart music video. Just a couple of weeks ago, I followed a couple in an almost hundred-year-old Mercer Raceabout, without license plates, that was apparently in mid-restoration. Meanwhile, I do the best I can, rolling down the windows and sliding back the sunroof in my Hyundai Elantra.

Hidden Valley is the sort of place that is emblematic of those parts of Southern California that have the misfortune to find themselves on the periphery of the vast Los Angeles megalopolis. When I was a child, it was largely ranches and farms, reachable only by the winding road that led past Lake Sherwood. With the development and build-out of the Conejo Valley, however, came development pressure, first to Lake Sherwood and then to Hidden Valley itself. Homes came to be placed where homes probably should not be. Much of the rural charm of Lake Sherwood was destroyed when development brought McMansions to the area (and a hole was blasted through a hill to provide a route for a four-lane road), but a different kind of development has affected Hidden Valley.

As Westlake became more and more affluent, the relatively modest homes around the lake were no longer sufficiently grand for the legions of _nouveau riche_ who sought new ways in which to display their wealth. The development of the North Ranch area satiated the appetites of some for ever-grander housing, but it was inevitable that the largely empty canvas of Hidden Valley would be attractive to those who had visions of country manses and horse stables. There was a house on a wooded hillside that had once (briefly) been a monastery; this was purchased in the late 1980s by investors who christened it "The Chateau" and had a gold-colored sign placed next to the entrance gate to that effect. Some of the ranches were divided, with homes built on them. Others were remodeled.

The worst example of such remodeling was once a very attractive ranch house (as in a house on a ranch, not a ranch-style suburban tract home). It sat perfectly in its setting, slung low and wide beneath a canopy of trees, neither calling attention to itself nor disappearing into the landscape. It was purchased by Robert Nesen, who had been the local purveyor of Cadillacs, and who was a major contributor to the Republican Party. Because of this, he was tapped by Ronald Reagan to serve as ambassador to Australia. Upon his return to California, he apparently decided that he wanted a house modeled on the American ambassador's official residence in Canberra--and it was this house he chose for the project.

It was never terribly successful. It managed to look faintly ridiculous, a brick-and-mortar Georgian house, complete with pillared portico, with white clapboard extensions on either side. It neither did justice to its setting, nor did its setting do anything for it. It was an excellent example of what happens when the parameters of a building project are determined by the size of the owner's wallet and the owner has no taste. Any self-respecting architect should have shot down the project from the beginning, but this architect apparently had issues with self-esteem. I used to avoid looking at it, the way you avoid looking at the obviously disfigured or those with horrendous birth defects. It just seemed more respectful somehow to give this poor, violated house the dignity of not gazing upon it.

Bob Nesen may have eventually realized that. At some point after its completion, he opted for an even more ostentatious gated estate in the North Ranch area of Westlake. I suspect it may have been at least in part because David Murdock, who owns Dole Foods, had property--virtually a baronial estate--in Hidden Valley just a mile or so away that was larger, in better taste, and generally evidence of much, much more money. Piles of it, actually, the kind of money that makes the merely rich look like pikers.

Recently, I had noticed that some work was being done to the house. A few weeks ago, I saw evidence of windows being pulled out, perhaps in preparation for yet another overhaul. With that in mind, one can imagine my joy this afternoon at driving by and seeing that it had been reduced to a few piles of bricks, all other evidence of its existence having been hauled away. The lone survivor was a very small cottage in the back of the property, in clapboards painted white, looking slightly dazed, as if it was relieved that its preposterous neighbor had finally been demolished.

You can't stop progress. You can't go back again. I don't know who purchased the property, or what their plans are. I am certain that they won't be restoring the old house. Land hereabouts is simply far too valuable for that, and it seems that few people with that kind of money have the taste to recognize that sometimes restraint has its own elegance. But at least one example of ridiculous wealth, bad taste, and poor choices has been removed from my little corner of the world, and that is something that doesn't happen nearly often enough. Let the celebration begin!

Progress report: Living with the CR-48

It seems like high time I should take a few minutes and provide an update on what it's like to live with a ChromeOS laptop, specifically Google's CR-48, on a daily basis.

Here's one example: I'm writing this at Starbucks, using the built-in Verizon 3G, after having just posted an update to my parish's website, of which I am the webmaster. It's pretty crowded in here right now, and I frankly wouldn't be all that excited about using the free WiFi here. For one thing, there are at least a dozen people with laptops open, and I have no idea if any of them are running Firesheep. It's an unsecured WiFi network, so it's entirely possible for someone to be sitting in here grabbing usernames and passwords out of the air as the packets fly by. It's tremendously reassuring to be sitting here using the CR-48's built-in 3G connection, and not worrying about it.

But that's just an isolated example. The day-in, day-out experience of using the CR-48 is admittedly a mixed bag. The tricky thing is to separate the experience of the hardware from the experience of using the OS. The hardware is actually rather nice, although it has a few rough spots (the trackpad being one). The OS is, as everyone knows, basically just the Chrome browser running in full-screen mode, and is Linux behind the scenes. This is a good thing. It means no worries about viruses, spyware, and all the other bad things that you expose yourself to when you run Windows. As a Mac user otherwise, that's important to me. It also means, however, that things are just a bit rougher around the edges than a Mac user is going to be used to. If you're the type of person who finds that sort of thing maddening, you won't be happy.

Fortunately, that doesn't describe me. I'm not all that bothered by a few rough edges here and there if it does what I want it to, and ChromeOS definitely does what I want it to. My life is on the web. A laptop with built-in 3G is a dream come true. It means I'm free from the need to find WiFi when I'm out. Wherever I go, I have a solid mobile broadband connection available whenever I need it. I like that.

At home, I find myself using the CR-48 more and more. Compared to my MacBook Pro, it's lighter, runs cooler, and having both WiFi and Verizon 3G, it has a more reliable internet connection (yes, I'm looking at you, AT&T). Once again, I must note that I'm not doing video editing, ripping CDs, or opening multi-page Excel spreadsheets. I'm on Twitter, Facebook, and Seesmic Web. I'm posting via Blogger. I'm editing documents in Google Docs. I'm administering my parish website, managing domain registration and DNS records online. For what I need, it works, and it works tremendously well. The CR-48 will never be sold in stores, but when the first ChromeOS laptops go on sale later this year, I think they'll do quite well if they're sold at the right price. If it meets your needs, there are some real advantages to the ChromeOS model.

And that's really the question you have to ask yourself when considering something like the CR-48. Do you need a full-featured laptop, or can you live with something that is basically a gateway to the Web? I suspect that most people would do quite well with it. Increasingly, I think that people are going to be doing more and more of their tasks in the cloud. That's certainly my experience. When I consider cloud computing versus local offline computing, the negatives of doing everything locally far outweigh the negatives of always needing an internet connection. The reality today is that anywhere you can get cell reception, you can get internet access. That's huge.

In the end, it's actually kind of interesting. When you read science fiction novels from the 1940s and 1950s, computers are usually depicted as huge central processing units that people access through terminals. With the advent of the personal computer in the 1980s, that model changed radically. But now, the internet is bringing everything back to where we started. It isn't exactly the Univac, Multivac and Galactic AC that Asimov wrote about sixty years ago, but it's functionally the same thing. The CR-48 is essentially a terminal to a huge central computer called the Internet, and I'm perfectly happy with that.

I love living in the future…

Dear AT&T

I'm tired of seeing this at random intervals:

Switching over to my CR-48 and Verizon 3G for the evening. And I'm putting you on notice: you can be replaced.

My best,

A Gift From Google

Out of the blue, Google just sent me some bookmarks for my dead-tree books. I love this company…


I was witness yesterday to an argument. Not an in-person argument, the kind that leads to blows, but an online argument, the kind in which two people carry on an exchange over multiple posts, finally ending when one person simply gives up and stops posting. Sometimes it's because they despair of convincing the other, and sometimes it's because one person realizes that the other is not going to ever understand what it is he's trying to say.

This particular argument had elements of both. Without naming names, let me lay out the particulars for you. The first person, whom I shall call Mr. A, is a choir director at a church in the Midwest. The second person, Mr. B, is someone I know personally. Mr. A had posted a link to an article written by a priest that essentially invalidated whatever reasons a person might have for missing church. Mr. B replied, saying that circumstances are complicated and the article posted was really just so much self-righteous crap. And with that, the argument was off and running.

As it progressed, it became evident that Mr. A was simply not understanding what it is that Mr. B was trying to say. It seemed fairly obvious to me that Mr. A was simply too entrenched in his own world view to be able to make the leap to where Mr. B was coming from. Both people had very good reasons for what they were saying, and it was possible for me to see the validity of both arguments, but in the end I have to side with Mr. B. Let me attempt to explain.

Mr. A's argument was basically that as a choir director, he needs to be able to count on people to be there, not only for church but for choir practice and so forth. The point being, of course, that if you make a commitment you should honor it, and that your failure to do so can impact others adversely--in this case, Mr. A himself, because if choir members don't show up then he has to sing the service all by himself, and that's not fair, and he frankly doesn't know if he could keep on keepin' on were that to be the case.

Mr. B's point, boiled down, was that sometimes it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. Yes, Mr. C might  say he'll be in church to sing in the choir and not show up, but we don't know the particulars of his situation. Maybe he has a sick wife and a screaming child at home, and he's really needed there. Maybe it's one of a million other reasons, but it's not for us to judge, and we need to all calm down a bit and focus on what's truly important. It makes no sense to rush off to church if by doing so you're leaving someone else in the lurch. Hardly Christ-like, that.

From my own perspective, Mr. B is closer to the mark. As an example, I've been tasked by my own priest to coordinate the altar servers on Sundays, to make sure that there are people lined up to serve when we need them, and to try to rotate people so that everyone participates. It's tricky, because not everyone wants to serve, everybody has their own scheduling issues, and I don't want to lean too heavily on any one person, because then the load is unfairly borne.  My own solution is to simply let people sign up for when they want to be there. Occasionally, I do have to simply put a sign-up sheet in front of someone and give them a pen and tell them to pick a date, but at the same time I tell them that if for any reason they can't be there, to just tell me and I'll take care of it. No stress, no worries. For the most part, it works. In fact, it worked like a charm just a couple of weeks ago when that exact situation happened.

Yes, there are times when people don't show up. There is at least one person in the parish who will simply not come behind the iconostasis if he thinks there are enough people back there, regardless of whether or not he's signed up to serve. At the same time, he's an absolute rock upon which the parish has been built, is extremely faithful, and he's always prepared to serve if asked to do so on an emergency basis, so how can I complain? I can't.

The fact is that I took on the job voluntarily. Nobody forced me into it. I've also voluntarily taken on the job of being a sort of reader-in-training to handle the Epistle reading on Sunday morning. This means that I almost always do double duty as both server and reader. So be it. The world's not going to end if I have to hand the incense to the priest, walk out and do the epistle reading, then come back in and pick up a taper to act as a server for the gospel reading. It's a small parish, everybody plays a part, and that's mine.