Sunday, 20 June 2010

I Should Read More Bad Books

Last night I finished reading a rather poor book, His Robot Girlfriend, by Wesley Allison. It kept me awake till 3am, too! How come? And why I suddenly think I should read more bad books?

Let's make one thing clear before I go any further. Bad book His Robot Girlfriend may be, it is in no sense as bad as some scribblings may be. What I mean is, it is nowhere near the top 10, maybe even not 30 percent of books out there. Yet, it did keep me awake through most of the night. Why?

First, as someone who writes (you did notice it's what I do here?), texts lacking in style are a very good guide to how not to write. It is a very good exercise reading something and thinking how it may have been phrased better.

And here comes the first saving grace for Wesley. While the above paragraph is true, it is only so for texts that are just verging on being well written. Truly poor writing is more often than not irredeemable. So Wesley, it's not nearly as bad as it can be. After all, you did teach English, didn't you?

Next, and much more importantly, His Robot Girlfriend raises a lot of very important questions that are lurking just around the corner. Robots. Yes, I too believe they are in our future, and very likely in a way not dissimilar to the one portrayed in Wesley's book.

So, where's the problem then?

The problem with His Robot Girlfriend is that while it does raise a lot of important questions and touches on a lot of important uncertainties, it rarely, if ever, resolves them. Of course, Wesley cannot have all the answers, but at the same time, reading a book such as his you expect at least some of the issues to be resolved, showing where the author stands on them. This, rather than a lack of a true conclusion, is what I find fails me the most in His Robot Girlfriend.

And yet, I found the read most fulfilling. It did really keep me awake until I finished. It held my interest so much I am now writing this, and also recommending reading books as failed as this one. Worse, I am not yet telling why... But I will, and it really is simple.

First and foremost, not every book need give us ready made answers to difficult questions. A lot of the time, it is a question that is more important than the answer. Some questions will have different answers to different people. I do not always want an author to tell me his. But I always want an author to make me think, and Wesley Allison does.

Furthermore, and much less importantly, any writing that is wrong stylistically, but only just so, really serves a similar purpose as questions described above. I had great fun thinking of ways to improve on Wesley's writing. In fact, I am quite confident I could revise His Robot Girlfriend and make it a more compelling read.

I am also sure Wesley would be able to do the same for me, and this particular missive. But anyway... The important thing is: I have been forced to think, and think deeply about both the future, and the present - in the form of writing, style, and suchlike. And that cannot be a bad thing. Everybody should let themselves be challenged thus.

In conclusion: Read. Read a lot. And also read amateurs, and book not universally acclaimed. Because perfect writing sometimes defeats its purpose. Do you always want to be told what to do and how? No? I thought so...

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Opera Mobile 10 for Maemo ROCKS!

It's now been a few weeks since I spotted and installed Opera Mobile 10 for Maemo, i.e. for my Nokia N900. Very quickly I found myself using it almost exclusively. It is probably the best application currently available for Maemo 5 platform.

If you've ever used Opera Mobile you are probably familiar with the interface and don't need any introduction. If you haven't, and have a device where you could, then go install it and give it a go. It'll give you much better view of it than I ever could. If you don't own a mobile device that can run Opera Mobile then, sadly, you may as well stop reading now.

So, what's it I like about it? Well, pretty much everything. The familiar interface is as responsive and smooth as ever, and works brilliantly with the touch screen. I don't think I have found any glitches, even with some quite small touch buttons - something I can't say for any other application on my Nokia N900 - at least the ones that do have small to medium size interface elements.

Speed of page rendering is very good, with or without using Opera's caching and pre-compression and rendering system. Bookmarks are seamlessly synchronised across all Opera Mobile enabled devices. Multi-tab interface is a joy to use, and the custom on-screen keyboard is very well implemented, probably even better than the redesigned one in Nokia N900 recent update PR1.2.

The only thing I'd like to see improved, that I've seen to date, is that neither the on-screen nor the physical keyboard respect Maemo system-wide settings for automatic capitalisation of sentences, and word completion. I am sure this can be fixed fairly easily.

So, in summary, if you have a Nokia N900 and browse the Internet on it you need Opera Mobile 10. Go and install it now. It's only your Application Manager away.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

We've Been Here Before

Anyone remember pre-historic times of 3G mobile telephony and all hype about how Video Calls will change the future of how we communicate? No? I'm not surprised. As it happens, sadly too often, with new technologies, it was much ado about, well, nothing. Or at least nothing much.

So, why do we suddenly have pretty much the same hype surrounding FaceTime feature of the upcoming iPhone 4?

It's a mystery to me, really. Changes everything? Again? I can surely believe the "again" part.

Oh, FaceTime, at launch, is sure to be working much, much better than video calls ever did - especially at launch. But this is not necessarily because Apple made any significant improvements to either the implementation or user experience. Because, you see, FaceTime is for the time being restricted only to WiFi connections, and only works between iPhones, and those have to be iPhone 4 at that (and presumably later ones, unless this "revolutionary" feature doesn't get silently "retired").

Yes, Apple made the FaceTime protocol available to all and sundry. But currently there are no other devices that have it implemented. Yes, there were hints, admittedly very strong, that 3G connections will support FaceTime in the future. But, especially with the sort of problems both AT&T and some non-US operators have with iPhones on 3G networks, I am highly sceptical the experience of FaceTime on 3G will be anything close to brilliant.

Finally, what about user experience? From what I've seen so far the only improvement on the original video call "experience" is that it's on a big(er) screen (and a full screen, too), and that it is better for the advances in CPUs (Apple A4 seem to pack a serious punch to be able to run both iPhone 4 and iPad).

Don't get me wrong. I am not knocking the user experience - yet.

First, what will happen when FaceTime calls are allowed over 3G (or even 3G to/from WiFi) is an unknown, but at the current state of 3G in general, and 3G networks in particular, I wouldn't be holding my breath. I am prepared to bet you it will not be significantly better (or worse, for that matter) compared to any two 3G phones with a front facing camera you can buy today (and could have bought many years ago, too - think Nokia N95, for example; oh, and it had WiFi, too). As a matter of fact - and as an example - days before world knew about FaceTime I tried Skype video call on my Nokia N900. It was over WiFi at both ends, the other end being an Acer One D250 netbook (no, not the one described here). And guess what? It looked every bit as good (or bad) as what Steve J demoed yesterday.

Second, and probably more important issue is whether the use case for video calls has changed in the past few years. I'll wager it hasn't. If it has, and there was a huge outcry from the users of - remember! - phones which already had the feature something would have probably happened already. But let's see what the use case is...

You take your phone and dial someone. Let's assume they also have a video call capable phone. For this analysis neither need be iPhone 4. You select a video call. But what do they do? They may be in a very public place (think busy commuter train). Do they want every single person around them to hear (unless they use headphone) or even see who they're talking to? Pretty much the same quandary applies to most public places (offices, sports matches, ..., you name them). Of course, the same applies to you, the caller - not just the callee. In any of these places you probably wouldn't even start a video call.

It seems that for a video call you'd require much more privacy than for just voice. And it's not just your privacy, but also the person's on the other end. You'll probably go somewhere quiet and private. But they must, too - and very often you don't know in advance where they'll be. If you did, maybe you wouldn't even want to call them in the first place? And then, they may not want you to know. Easy with just a voice call, obviously hiding something if they reject a video call without explanation. Are you sure you want to meet your husband's mistress?

So, it would seem that there wouldn't be that many sure-fire situations where a video call would be possible - or even desirable. And those situations where it would be will often be catered for by a much more comfortable piece of equipment than a phone. At least when using a PC you do not have to hold it in your hands - not even one hand. There also goes the supposed benefit for the deaf. I am quite sure that you cannot sign effectively using just one hand, while at the same time trying to aim the phone with the other so no part of a sign goes off screen.

The arguments in this vein just go on, and on, and on... If you don't believe me try it for yourself. Don't let yourself be wowed by slick phrases and demos. Just think how and when would you use a video call, and especially if the person on the other end of the line would even accept it.

To cut the long story short, for me, this FaceTime hype is just that - hype, and an empty one at that. We've been there Steve - and it didn't work out. At least the tablets were something a lot of people really, really wanted, but nobody managed to deliver (and you're not out of the woods with that either, yet). But video calling just fell flat on its little face. I suspect FaceTime faces a very similar future.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Not There Yet - Still

I've just read this, and had the following to say about it:

The fact even The Economist believes that any protests in Eastern (communist?) Europe were ever really about "the right to demonstrate peacefully, even for unpopular causes" shows quite well why Western democracies never seem to be able to handle countries that tick to a different beat.

The protest were ever only about what would not be classed as unpopular liberal (libertarian?) sort of belief system. Yes, the regimes were oppressive. But no, the populace was not necessarily pro-democracy in the modern Western sense. What people wanted was more money and freedom to spend it on more than was available.

This is well borne out by the Balkans recent history:

What is it we want? Money! When do we want it? Now! What do we want to give up in order to have it? Nothing! So you don't really want true equality and western style democracy? Nooo!

Ever since I changed habitat from East to West I see that the old adage is very true: the road to hell is paved by best intentions.

Most of the best intended policies West had towards East in the past twenty years have in fact backfired. I don't even want to go to West vs Muslim World issue, only partly because it's not something I've lived myself at the receiving end.

I have changed "Not even true equality?" to "So you don't really want true equality and western style democracy?" after I have realised it was not quite matching the paragraph and may have been misunderstood.

Windows - I Am So Fed Up!

I think I've now had enough of the joke that is MS Windows. The toll it takes on my time and mental health is quickly becoming unbearable. Consider the following:

At work I have a Dual Core 1.6GHz Lenovo laptop running Windows XP. I leave it on for as long as I possibly can, even if it means I waste so much energy it hurts. Why? Because it takes around 20 minutes for it to be fully on and usable when started from scratch.

At home I have an even mightier laptop, an Acer Dual Core 2.20GHz, with a much speedier hard disks, and no hard drive encryption to slow it down. It takes a more reasonable 5 minutes to be fully usable when turned on. I still try to leave it on for as long as I can since time (and especially my time - to me) is precious.

But it gets worse!

I have rebuilt my home laptop from scratch a couple of months back. I have formatted both hard disks, and installed Windows 7 Ultimate from scratch. I have also installed Microsoft Security Essentials immediately, and am updating the system as often as possible. I have also not installed a single piece of illegal, let alone dodgy, software. And what do I find since a few days ago? The system is crawling to nearly a halt while doing precisely nothing. A browser window or two open and it takes almost a minute to do anything.

I've checked all the usual suspects, including a careful look at Task Manager and Services. Nothing untoward there except from the fact Windows decided I want to have the whole contents of my hard disks indexed - including the actual contents of the files. That must be slowing things down, I thought. So, I decided to disable this "feature". It's now been around three (yes, 3) hours and Windows is still going through the arduous  process of disabling this - a file at a time. Come on!

Oh, and I still have the other hard disk to go through...

So, what makes me endure all this?

Mostly it is a few companies not bothering to create software for any other platform, and especially not Linux. Yes, Nokia, I'm looking at you. And to be fair most everyone else.

Luckily, I run dual boot with Linux on most of my machines. I am writing this on an Acer One running Mandriva. It took less than a minute to start, and it's paying all its attention to what I'm doing now, i.e. typing this. Nothing slows me down. I am adding dual boot to that Windows 7 machine ASAP, too. I had it before and gave it up hoping Windows 7 was at least a bit better that Vista. Same difference, I found. But now I've had enough. Really.

To summarise: Windows sucks - big time; Apple sucks - not quite big time; Linux rocks - big time, provided companies get off their rumps and start working with it, rather than against it.

Penguins are cool, and not just because they live in icy Antartica!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

iPad Spotted In The Wild!

This morning on the train I saw the first iPad in the wild, as it were. A youngish guy - let's say late 20s to early 30s - was cradling it on his lap apparently reading The Times newspaper. I don't know if he shares Ewan's opinion on the fact that The Sunday Times is not a part of the package - which by the way costs £9.99 a month - but the article I saw looked rather good.

By now you probably already know my previous opinions on this particular Jesus gadget. Has my view changed in any way now that I've seen it in vivo? Actually, no - not at all. Even if I also saw it on BBC Formula 1 coverage, and even before Ewan twigged to it.

Admittedly, it looks rather good as a presenter prop - certainly better, or at least cooler, than the venerable cards usually sported on British television. Also, the guy on the train seemed to be quite immersed in his reading, and the screen did look very bright, and clear. But then so was mine on a Sony PRS-600 e-book reader a couple of seats away.

The differences?

My battery will last for 3 weeks. His will need a re-charge in 6 hours. When it comes to recharging mine it will take a couple of hours connected to my laptop at work or at home - even shorter if I plug in the AC adapter. It may even be impossible to charge an iPad off a laptop, and it will take a very long time anyway.

And then, there's the comfort factor. Even on the train that was not busy, in his own seat, the guy with the iPad looked suspiciously uncomfortable balancing it on his knees, clutching it with both hands, bent over it with a quite intense expression. My Sony reader, even in its leather cover can be comfortably held in one hand, and that's including being able to flip pages.

Having seen how poorly it fits in the lap on the train I have to wonder how an iPad would fare if one wanted to type a quick e-mail on it while on the move. With the evidence I saw I'd confidently say: not very well. It obviously does not lie very well on the knees to provide two handed typing, and it seems too big and heavy if held in one hand, the other to be used for typing, or rather pecking. A similar short e-mail is much better composed on a mobile phone, probably even one with no physical keyboard (think Jesus Phone).

In summary, I think I have to agree with this analysis of the Jesus Pad. I think it squares quite well with my second opinion of the gadget, too. A promise, not yet fulfilled...