Neal Stephenson

Posted on September 26, 2011 by Steve

It was seven years ago that I snapped, with a CLIÉ, the photo that would become, for a while, the image for Wikipedia's article on Neal Stephenson.

Mr. Stephenson was back in D.C. this week for the National Book Festival, reading from his latest thousand-page tome, this one written not with a fountain pen but using Scrivener.

I was late for the reading but managed to catch the end and get in line for the Q&A session. The audio was a bit clumsy, with large loudspeakers pointed straight at the questioners, causing them to shrink away while Neal struggled to hear. I got the last question in.

NTS: Okay we're in overtime I'll just take one more real quick.
Q: Thanks, Neal. The word from Venezuelan state television is that Presidente Chavez intends to repatriate eleven billion dollars worth of gold reserves, most of which are now in London.
NTS: I can't hear what you're saying, sorry.
Q: [same volume, one octave higher] From Venezuela, Presidente Chavez intends to repatriate eleven billion dollars worth of gold reserves. Any comments on the logistics of that kind of a transfer?
NTS: I'm not somebody who is really competent to have an opinion about it. Interesting factoid; thanks for mentioning it.
Something makes me think Dubner, asking over a calibrated, burr-ground, skimmed and French-pressed coffee, would have gotten an answer. Commenters on both the news article and a referring blog made Stephenson connections. I'll have to settle for a chuckle from the audience.

I followed the ridiculously slow-moving author cart over to the signing table, thinking I would get one up on the other fans, only to find a hoard of them already queued up. Not content with my goofy question, I planned to present the author with my smartphone, freshly-purchased Kindle version of Cryptonomicon opened to the title page. I even brought a Sharpie in case his fountain pen didn't work on the screen protector. But the line was long, and one of the handlers mentioned that some of the authors are fussy and refuse to sign anything but their current book. I lost my nerve and bailed out.

At least I have a legitimate, searchable copy of a great novel now, so I don't have to rely on that pirate site with its copy of Randy Waterhouse's treatise on the challenges of massive international gold transfer.

Running hot

Posted on June 27, 2011 by Steve

A human being, like a factory, has a command and control system and a physical plant. The two work together, interdependent. The connections are complicated and wet, and we can more amusingly think about how they get along with a simplifying metaphor.

Imagine a person as a ship. From time to time, the commander will make extreme demands of the vessel and crew.
It is alleged that, when the admiral had finished his breakfast, he was apt to signal "All ships will strike topmasts. Report time taken and number of casualties."
--unsourced quote in Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down, J. E. Gordon, p. 228
But the body is not a sailing ship, passively waiting for a breeze, it's a self-propelled steamer, carrying its own fuel.

Let's observe the ship after the captain directs a half-marathon run on a warm summer morning. Things go well enough in port, as the captain makes departure arrangements, directs the loading of fuel, plans a measured out-and-back route, and anticipates a challenging and satisfying experience. The crew falls in silently and obediently, comfortable with practiced routine.

During the brief sally to the departure point, the captain senses some tightness in the calves, calls for some stretching, then does final checks of the entertainment and navigation system before leaving port. From his position on the bridge, he monitors operations at a high, abstract level, while continuing to plan and navigate. He can manually control many aspects of the vessel's maneuvers, but the capable crew can handle these details, leaving the captain free to direct. He even puts on some music to relieve the tedium of what should be a two hour journey.

The chief engineer answers a status request from the engine room. "As usual, Cap'n, some creaking and groaning as we get warmed up, but should be smooth sailing." Sure enough, in ten minutes cooling systems crank up, and the chief requests some of the supplemental coolant laid in at port; the captain approves.

It's warm out, and the ship doesn't make her usual speed, but the captain knows better than to push hard early. "Chief, the engines are still hotter than normal, why don't you put in some more coolant." "Aye, Cap'n, it's not so easy to get the cap off the bottle out here as it is in port but we're working on it."

Then, an accident. "Alert! All hands prepare for impact! Cap'n, we've struck a root!" "Dammit, I noticed! I thought we would capsize! Damage report!" "Alarms from the port hallux, Cap'n, but she's still seaworthy." "Carry on, but keep your watch. We can't stop for repairs, and a hallux will take at least a week anyway." "Aye, Cap'n."

It seems odd, psychotic, to think of two voices speaking, and even arguing, in the same brain. But there's clearly at least one voice, that of the director giving orders, cursing setbacks. As the obstacles mount, there will be an undeniable struggle between the goals of the director and the resistance welling up from belowdecks.

"Chief, we've slowed down again, increase engine speed." "Aye, Cap'n, but there's trouble." "What's the problem, is it that hallux?" "No, Cap'n, halluces in order." "Fuel?" "Fuel supply adequate, Cap'n." "There's coolant all over, surely the engines aren't overheating?" "No, Cap'n, it's hot as blazes, but within operating limits." "Everything's in order. No excuses, let's pick up speed." "Aye, Cap'n."

There's more cursing in the bridge as the captain briefly forgets his route and orders two turnabouts. Before long the ship emerges from the woods and starts down the Washington and Old Dominion trail, frequently exposed to a blazing sun. Only five kilometers of the planned 21 are complete, and the captain is already starting to doubt his plan. He knows there are hard physical limits to his ship's performance, but also knows that he is nowhere near those limits, having pushed the ship harder and farther before, though not on such a warm day. The crew do not report details of the condition of the ship, only generalities and complaints, and he has to judge the seriousness of the situation by what he can see from the bridge and the volume of the whining. He commits to continue pushing unless there's a loss of fuel overboard.

"Cap'n, it's rough out today, perhaps we should slow her down a bit." The captain is trying not to focus on speed, but he is sure they are keeping no more than three-quarters of their usual pace. "We're just getting started, Chief. Carry on." The captain has been stranded before, far from home port and out of fuel, and he begins to calculate alternatives. They could turn around now, at a quarter of the intended distance, sail home, then go out again to complete the total. But he'll never convince the men to leave port once they see it. There's a source of fresh cool water at their turnaround point; perhaps a short break there would refresh the crew. No, once you stop you're done. But we wouldn't stop the clock, so we would pause ever so briefly. No, that's what you said last time, and we ended up lolling for ages.

"Cap'n, the crew requests a break, it's awfully hot today, I'm afraid we'll sustain damage if we push too hard." The captain ignores the chief. "Cap'n, we've used half our coolant, if we run out we'll surely be stranded out here." "Cap'n, we've never sailed in such hot weather." "Cap'n, it's so hot, and we've not even been out of port the last month. She can't take it." The captain gives in. "Turn back at the bridge over Difficult Run." "Aye, Cap'n." "At the end of the bridge." "Aye, Cap'n."

The bridge is visible in the distance. The ship sails to the end, and just a little further, as if to make a point, then executes a neat turnabout. Then, unexpectedly, the engines come alive and the ship speeds homeward, doing double time and throwing out a huge wake. "What's going on down there, Chief?" "Cap'n, we know you want to make good time. The men are pleased we're heading home." There's a hint of sarcasm in his voice, the beginning of open defiance. The captain is bitter about turning back, but the speed is exhilarating. "Just don't push her too hard, you know there will be a price to pay." "Aye, Cap'n." The ship slows down again shortly, indeed to a pace barely above drifting.

With nothing to do but continue toward home, communication dies down. The captain occasionally calls for more speed, and the chief sometimes responds and sometimes pretends not to hear. The captain is insulated from the engines in the air-conditioned bridge, but nevertheless feels irritable and seeks solace in a sailor's habits: frequent curses and fantasies of rich meals and indolence back in port.

"Cap'n, the men need a break. Just a minute of drift, then we'll make up the time." "Chief, if you idle the engines, we're finished. We'll drift all the way in." "Just a few seconds, Cap'n. We need a break." "Increase speed, we're practically drifting now." "Cap'n, we're back in the woods, rough seas. We could hit another root." "Increase speed." "Cap'n, someone is walking dogs ahead. We should slow down." "Increase speed." The ship stumbles along inefficiently, barely faster than idling speed. The captain knows nothing is seriously wrong, but the complaints are wearing him down, and his curses fall on deaf ears.

Finally, a minor obstacle brings the end. The ship drifts up a mild slope, smaller than one it sprinted up in defiance not long before. The captain neither authorizes nor openly acknowledges the cut engines. Predictably, the drift continues after the course levels. True to his promise, the captain stops the clock and declares the journey finished. He is disgusted, having covered just nine kilometers in an hour. The complaints from below cease, except for renewed alarms from the damaged hallux. It will soon sport a blotchy purple tattoo, an unwelcome souvenir from the journey. The captain uses the ample time drifting home to record observations in the log, the basis of an overlong allegory he might write up while back in port, itching for his next journey.


Posted on May 27, 2011 by Steve

A conversation about music left over from an old book review got me wondering if I really do have a song playing in my head all the time. The only way to find out was to keep track, so all last week I made a note whenever I noticed a song on my mind that wasn't playing at that time in my environment. There were a few I couldn't identify, but SoundHound got most of them. I think it's possible that there are times that I am unaware of a lack of internal music, but whenever I checked I seemed to have somthing going.

"If You're Happy and You Know It" - kid's swim class
Animal: "Neon Trees" - radio?
Simon & Garfunkel: "Homeward Bound" - Rite Aid
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Theme - TV
Meiko Kaji: "The Flower of Carnage" (Kill Bill soundtrack) - heard last week
Franz Ferdinand: "Take Me Out" - to scrub out a song heard in the toy store
Red Hot Chili Peppers: "Otherside" - heard on car radio this morning
Steam: "Na Na, Hey Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye"
GTR: "When the Heart Rules the Mind"

Confused morning medley after alarm clock
Tarkan: "Hup"
The National: "Mansion on the Hill"
Joe Jackson: "Stepping Out" - Big Bowl
The Doors: "Spanish Caravan" - shower
Matt Monro: "The Music Played" - YouTube
Red Hot Chili Peppers: "Otherside"

Simon & Garfunkel: "Homeward Bound"
Beirut: "A Sunday Smile" - mp3 walking to work
Coldplay: "Trouble"
Joe Jackson: "Stepping Out" - after reviewing this list
The Doors: "The Crystal Ship" - to block Joe Jackson
The Doors: "People are Strange" - followup track on The Best of The Doors
Nazan Öncel: "Atıyorsun" - overheard
Rokysopp: "Only This Moment" - association with video
Berlin: "Take My Breath Away" - dance class
Sezen Aksu: "Şu Saniye"

Natasha Bedingfield: "Feel the Rain on Your Skin" - unwelcome association with overnight precipitation, but at least a change from that Eddie Rabbitt song that always used to come to mind
Pink Floyd: "Time" - played at Swing's coffee shop
Black Eyed Peas: "I Got a Feeling" - morning drive (need to fix the CD player)
Basement Jaxx: "Where's Your Head At"
The Beatles: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" - comes to mind at every street crossing when walking toddler

Nazan Öncel: "Atiyorsun"
Wagner: "Tannhäuser"
Modest Mouse: "Float On"

Beirut: "Cliquot"
Tears for Fears: "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" - piped ambiance at Mall of America
"I'll Fly Away" - TV?

Genesis: "Guide Vocal"
Smashing Pumpkins: "Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans"
Nine Inch Nails: "Discipline"

Edwyn Collins: "A Girl Like You"
Phineas and Ferb theme - TV
Howard Jones: "No One Is To Blame" - radio
Journey: "Don't Stop Believing" - Safeway
Cake: "Short Skirt Long Jacket" - SportRock

Iron Stars

Posted on May 20, 2011 by Steve

Freeman Dyson put the zap on my head.

Halfway through a nerdy article about physics and the long-term future, I tracked down a 1979 paper it cited (3MB PDF). In it, Dyson observes that the early history of the universe is a respected field of study, but very little serious consideration has been given to the distant future. Given his inveterate curiosity and disregard for convention, he proposed to apply his understanding of physics to describe as clearly as possible the ultimate fate of everything, with a view to considering what challenges any living things will face.

Appropriate for publication in Reviews of Modern Physics, the paper includes plenty of formulae, which I mostly glossed over. I have found that authors are usually kind to their readers, and a slight effort to follow a formula is usually adequate to catch the gist. However, I am usually reading books that take the time to explain exponential notation early on. In this case the gist was hard to grasp, and presumably gets proper treatment in the cited external sources. Dyson merely provides cursory guidance like "where χ is a space coordinate moving with the matter," and other variables seem to be of the if-you-don’t-know-don’t-ask variety.

The imagery, however, is arrestingly clear. Never mind the inconvenient destiny of the sun to swell up and engulf our planet; that's just a few billion years off. The real problems come later. Planets will be ripped from their orbits by close encounters with other celestial bodies, or gravitational radiation will cause their orbits to decay until they plunge into their mother stars. Stars will be torn from their home galaxies, and eventually fizzle out and become inhospitable white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes. Solid objects will lose their shape -- as Dyson puts it, on a long enough time scale, "matter is liquid at zero temperature." Atoms in a rigid structure occasionally shift and rearrange themselves. So asteroids, planets, Voyager I -- all will eventually flow into spherical shapes under the force of their own gravity, like water droplets. But wait, there's more. Radioactive elements relatively quickly break down into smaller atoms. But the product elements are not perfectly stable either. Over the time scale of 101500 years, "ordinary matter is radioactive" and decays. Smaller atoms tend to fuse and larger atoms split, and all of them settle on a middling stable element: iron. So the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Orion -- if they avoid other fates all will become cold perfect spheres of pure iron, sailing through the darkened reaches of space.

By now the reader is not surprised to learn that even this is not the end of the story. Matter in an iron star is not in its lowest energy state, and could release a spectacular amount of energy by collapsing into an ultradense neutron star. This takes quite a while longer, and may result in either a supernova or at least a vigorous outburst of neutrinos, x-rays, and visible light. These "occasional fireworks" will light up the universe after a passage of time too large to be expressed with a single level of exponentiation.

Skinner woke once, or seemed to, and struggled to sit up, calling, Yamazaki thought, for the girl.
“She isn’t here,” Yamazaki said, his hand on Skinner’s shoulder. “Don’t you remember?”
“Hasn’t been,” Skinner said. “Twenty, thirty years. Motherfucker. Time.”
“Time. That’s the total fucking motherfucker, isn’t it?”
Virtual Light

I read the paper two weeks ago, and it rather upset my habitual focus on ephemera. Earlier that week I missed a big news story while watching a ten-minute video of mesmerizing ballistic impacts which span, in total, a hundredth of a second. I watched it twice -- a welcome distraction from a 30-year mortgage, domestic responsibilities, and a looming midlife crisis. First Dyson turned my time perspective inside out, then someone close to me suffered a spasm of ennui and started asking those impossible, existential questions, all of which seem to be variations of the sentiment, "What's the point?" Even on a good day, I'm not well-equipped with satisfying answers. My head began a long, slow spin.

Dyson's paper, like the man, is upbeat, playful, irreverent. He can tell his wife, concerned about global warming, that "the polar bears will be fine," while knowing that every existing milligram of polar bear is destined to become a bit of iron near absolute zero. The second half of his paper is a quite optimistic analysis of the prospects for life, in some form, in the same distant future which had just appeared so gloomy, despite the occasional fireworks. There are good future prospects not just for life, but also for communication, the essential ingredient that makes our species social, that preserves our shared memory, that is the basis of every relationship. I took hope in this hope, felt new appreciation for those close to me, and recalled a touching passage written by a man I used to associate with hopeless doomsday scenarios.

Perhaps there is scarcely a man who has once experienced the genuine delight of virtuous love, however great his intellectual pleasure may have been, that does not look back to the period as the sunny spot in his whole life, where his imagination loves to bask, which he recollects and contemplates with the fondest regrets, and which he would most wish to live over again. The superiority of intellectual to sensual pleasures consists rather in their filling up more time, in their having a larger range, and in their being less liable to satiety, than in their being more real and essential.
Thomas Malthus

Memorize: Forster

Posted on April 14, 2011 by Steve

There was a time when I could claim to have memorized several hundred words of various texts that I cared about. These have mostly faded, and I even missed a word of the pledge of allegiance when I tested myself. Memorization, like penmanship, has become an arcane skill in today's ever-connected lifestyle. I aim to start with some passages I love well enough to recall roughly and build up an inventory of internalized language. You never know when such stores might come in handy.

Here's my first attempt.
Titular pretentions, I know it well, are a vanity. But they do no harm when uttered on a laughing lip, and in any case serve to distinguish one Jack from his fellow. Remember me, therefore, as Sir Thomas Moore.
And the correct original, with some context:
"Mr. Browne, I've left my purse behind. I've not got a penny. I can't pay for the ticket. Will you take my watch, please? I am in the most awful hole."

"Tickets on this line," said the driver, "whether single or return, can be purchased by coinage from no terrene mint. And a chronometer, though it had solaced the vigils of Charlemagne, or measured the slumbers of Laura, can acquire by no mutation the double-cake that charms the fangless Cerberus of Heaven!" So saying, he handed in the necessary ticket, and, while the boy said "Thank you," continued: "Titular pretensions, I know it well, are vanity. Yet they merit no censure when uttered on a laughing lip, and in an homonymous world are in some sort useful, since they do serve to distinguish one Jack from his fellow. Remember me, therefore, as Sir Thomas Browne."

Occultation miss

Posted on January 31, 2010 by Steve

My lifetime to-do list includes seeing a total solar eclipse. I made it to Paris for the August 1999 event but was foiled by clouds. March 2006 provided another chance, but I couldn't mobilize travel to Turkey. So the North American eclipses of 2017 and 2024 are already in my calendars. These long-term appointments help to balance my usual last-minute planning, I think.

Meanwhile, lunar occultations provide a compensating, if pedestrian, alternate spectacle. When it first occurred to me that the moon would eclipse stars now and then just as it does the sun, I imagined how cool it would be to see a bright star wink out behind a nearly invisible new moon, only to reappear some minutes later. Unfortunately, while this sort of alignment does occur regularly, it usually happens during daylight hours when stars are inconveniently invisible.

Predictions and timetables for lunar occultations are not easy to come by (at least compared to those provided for solar eclipses and Iridium flares). The International Occultation Timing Association provides some resources. Amateur observers make scientifically valuable contributions by providing accurate times when an asteroid or the moon blot out a star from their location. The forums at the pessimistically named Cloudy Nights site have been most helpful, especially posts by Curt Renz, who generates astronomical diagrams on his site worthy of the Mayday Mystery (examples: 1 2 3 4).

A news alert recently informed me of a major North American event, the occultation of the Pleiades. This famous cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, has been celebrated since ancient times. God, played by a whirlwind, taunted Job saying "Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose the belt of Orion?" It also features in the Subaru logo.

That evening, I parked on a rural side road on my way home from work and used an app (screenshot) to help time the alignment. The moon was several diameters from the cluster (labeled M45), and I estimated that I had half an hour or so before the event. When I got home and checked again, I confirmed the sad news that the app seemed to be indicating: the moon was actually moving away from the cluster. Of course! The moon drifts eastwards along the ecliptic (towards the cluster in my screenshot), but so do all the stars in the background, since it's mostly the earth's rotation causing the apparent movement. The moon's orbit causes it to lag behind the stars. The occultation had occurred the night before, and I had missed it!

Oh well, it was a familiar feeling. I relived the moment in Celestia (screenshot) and rechecked my 2017 calendar.

Digital detox

Posted on November 01, 2009 by Steve

Last night at midnight I completed a week offline. Not completely offline, though that was the goal. Conversation over the obligation to share one's experiences via Twitter, Facebook, blogging and messaging, rather than simply experiencing one's experiences, led me to wonder how much I would miss a connection to the online world. Saturday night I did a whirlwind tour through my Bloglines subscriptions, the most popular YouTube videos of the week (always a disappointment), and a glance at Facebook. Then I disconnected and went to bed by midnight.

Early on I realized I would have to check e-mail if I wanted to remain functional in society, and decided that ten or fifteen minutes of personal e-mail a day would do no harm. By the end of the week I had expanded that allowance, and had cheated a bit, but overall spent just an hour or two on the net, far less than the self-reported national average of twelve.

Unsurprisingly, I didn't miss much. Google News, a favorite downtime filler, turns out to be mostly filler. I get better conversation starters from podcasts, especially the reliably worthwhile Radiolab. I finished a novel, completed a cryptic crossword, and did a bit of artwork. A friend asked if I was watching more TV than usual, and I confessed that I was. I saw a Subaru ad with Basia Bulat's "Before I Knew" (once linked here!) and resisted a needless urge to confirm the fact online, or mention it there.

Last night, I used a bit of the time shift to catch up, and felt a little more than usual the pointlessness of the Facebook Wall. It goes without saying that I'm online again, but I plan to put my new perspective to good use and resist the impulse to validate my existence over TCP/IP.

Bottled water: Part 2

Posted on September 11, 2009 by Steve

In the first part, we celebrated the economic benefits of extracting fossil water from exotic islands peopled with locals who sometimes get thirsty. But what about the environmental impact? Are we destroying the Earth by manufacturing innumerable plastic bottles from petroleum, trucking them and tons of water all over, and finally burying most of them in the ground? (Probably more than half, anyway -- see the EPA fact sheet, 506KB PDF.)

As is common with questions of values, the values in question are rarely elucidated. To me, the most important consideration is human happiness and well-being. With this in mind, I have to wonder whether a clean portable drinking water craze is such a bad thing. When bottled water was no longer provided at my office, I didn't see lines form at the tap, but various flavors of high fructose corn syrup in solution remained popular. Public water fountains get about as much use as public telephones.

To assuage the guilt of the water-craving and increasingly green masses, bottlers have started using extra lightweight bottles. Careful observation shows that these cannot withstand two drops from a high chair, and indeed beg to be trashed when empty. After buying my first six-pack of Fuji, I refilled the heavy duty bottles from our Brita and carried them around for weeks.

Not everyone has gone bottlephobic, thankfully. Lisetta, the accused hand-wringer of two years back, still enjoys a green bottle habit, even dismissing her carbon footprint on special occasions.

And Penn & Teller have not missed their chance to weigh in.

Review: iPhone

Posted on August 21, 2009 by Steve

After nearly four years of loyalty to T-Mobile, it was time to replace our cell phones with models that were not physically falling apart. In their thirst for new customers, the carrier has insultingly poor upgrade offers for existing customers. We were satisfied with the service, and I maybe could have gotten a better deal if I begged for one, but we ended up making an impulse switch to AT&T at a Costco.

It turns out that Costco was the right place to buy. All activation fees were waived, return periods were generously extended, and a small number of quite nice handsets were on offer, free after mail-in rebates. (Which I forgot to mail in, of course. I realized this on the day they had to be postmarked, naturally a Sunday. Happily, the rebate processor informed me that there's a 15-day grace period.) Not least of all, Costco handled paperwork, number transfers, and credit checks with dispatch.

The iPhone, with its budget-busting data plan, had been a temptation for some time. After putting up so long with a Nokia that was nothing special even before it went to pieces, I decided to take the plunge. I would have to go to Apple or AT&T for the handset, and the Costco guy suggested sotto voce that I wait until the following Monday to buy. Sure enough, Apple announced the 3G S that day. I had to wait until the following Friday to score one, but the end was in sight for my rundown candy bar.

I had little intention of camping out overnight outside a retail store with fanboy dorks, and was happy to make an online reservation. This turned out to be worthless, as it did not promise delivery of a device, but merely guaranteed a flood of reminder e-mails lest I forget my intention to buy the gadget on release day. So around 11:30 a.m. on Friday I started calling AT&T locations to check on stock. The Potomac Mills store had a few units left, but they were going fast. I sped over, only to find that they were fresh out. They called a nearby location and told me there was one in stock. With sketchy directions and my trusty, mapless Garmin, I circled around for a while and eventually located the store. There were several people in line, and I waited anxiously, straining to overhear transactions at the front. But eventually I did score that last iPhone, making my extended lunch hour worthwhile.

Here, then, are the pros and cons after two months of use.

  • Visual voicemail [screenshot]. Listen to any message immediately, delete and undelete messages without listening to them or that DTMF woman.
  • Physical silent mode switch.
  • Maps with GPS navigation. The interface is a little bit weak compared to a dedicated device (no voice prompting; turn-by-turn steps and rerouting require interaction), but integration is a big win. Click on an address in your contact list and go. Copy and paste an address from a web page. Satellite images, street view [screenshot]. Compass-based map orientation fails in the car, but is great when navigating on foot. Assisted GPS uses cell tower triangulation for an instant fix and improved coverage.
  • iTunes not required. I didn't sync to a computer for weeks, and haven't again since. Loading my music library and backing up my data are the only benefits I got from syncing.
  • Smart, responsive, intuitive interface.
  • Nice touches: ambient light sensor brightens the display outdoors. "Oleophobic" fingerprint-resistant screen. Standard headphone jack.
  • Automatic location lookup for unrecognized incoming calls is a great idea, but it only appears in the call history, not at ring time.
  • The silent mode switch allows no fine tuning, the way my Nokia profiles ("airport," "meeting," "night") did. You have to navigate the settings and request ring/vibration separately for calls, messages, and reminders.
  • Undroppable.
  • Battery not user replaceable.
    That's about it. This is the first cell phone I've had that didn't annoy me in many ways. I get most upset at unnecessary behaviors, like a useless "unlocked" message after you turn off keyguard that just slows you down. This phone was obviously tested extensively under all kinds of conditions. For example, if you put the same phone number in for two contacts, when one of them calls the Caller ID shows "A or B."
neither here nor there
  • The shakes. The accelerometer enables goofy games and an app that lets you use your phone as a level. Shaking the device sends an "undo typing" command. Whatever.
  • Form factor. I can't deal with corded headsets, far less with Bluetooth cyborg accessories, and pressing a pocketsize computer against my face doesn't feel right. But I can't imagine a better way to package the gorgeous display, which is fully half the size of VGA. The proximity sensor helpfully turns off the screen so your earlobe doesn't conference Grandma in.
  • Virtual keyboard. This almost made the "pro" list, but I recognize that it is a compromise. Unlike some, I find the on-screen keyboard completely usable, and can enter text faster that I do with a 12-key keypad or a full Blackberry keyboard. The secret is to blunder forward and allow the software to interpret your typos, which it does with impressive accuracy. Occasionally an unwanted correction appears on-screen that you have to cancel, but the custom dictionary transparently learns your personal keywords and doesn't repeat an unwanted suggestion.
  • The GPS receiver seems to drain the battery quickly -- at least the device gets noticably warm when it is on. I generally leave "Location Services" off.
  • Landscape mode. This is a great feature, almost necessary for the web browser, and it is perfectly intuitive that it would switch on and off depending on how you turn the device. But it sometimes switches to landscape when I don't want it to (e.g., in bed), and I would prefer manual control or the option to disable it.
The inimitable Edward Tufte offers his opinions on the user interface in a video, and a fair summary:
The iPhone platform elegantly solves the design problem of small screens by greatly intensifying the information resolution of each displayed page. Small screens, as on traditional cell phones, show very little information per screen, which in turn leads to deep hierarchies of stacked-up thin information--too often leaving users with "Where am I?" puzzles. Better to have users looking over material adjacent in space rather than stacked in time.

iBook update

Posted on August 03, 2009 by Steve

Much like our European sedan, the "sleek Euro-styled" iBook we picked up in 2005 has proven a disappointment. The sleek looks were marred early on by a crack in the top corner of the screen housing (a common complaint, and likely the cause of the display backlight turning off sometimes). The charger, with the orange/green indicator I praised in 2007, also fell prey to a common problem -- fraying wires at the plug end (we missed the class action settlement). This is probably why the current design uses magnetically-attached charging plugs; we had to buy a replacement (aftermarket, but indistinguishable from the original). The new one arrived cracked and fell apart in days, and its warranty replacement now fits loose, sometimes sending us to battery power unawares.

The original battery put in a respectable career, but had to be replaced in March 2008. Despite paying the full $116 to Apple for a replacement, the new battery soon showed signs of early retirement.

More significantly, inopportune crashes became a regular feature. These were hard shutdowns with no warning, and we sometimes could not power back on without removing the battery first. At first I suspected a faulty solder on the main board (for which Apple was scolded in Denmark), but then I noticed overheating. The fan would not come on even when the CPU temperature rose to menacing levels. Someone cobbled together an interface to reduce the temperature threshold before fans kick in, and this seemed to help a bit, but it's still hard to convince the thing to turn on. With the unreliable battery, a flaky power supply, and fear of unprovoked shutdown lurking, the iBook has become mostly a coffee table ornament.