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Turing’s Cathedral

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

turingcathedral

When Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, George Dyson’s history of the famous computer built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the late 1940s, was published last March, I resisted it.

I’m a sucker for Institute history. And, of course, for mathematicians. What could be better? On the other hand, could there be a story in the book that I hadn’t read three or four or five times? I feel like I grew up with these characters. Johnny von Neumann (the star of the book, its title notwithstanding). Alan Turing. Stan Ulam. J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Or, from the Institute’s early history, the Bambergers, who acquired a fortune by selling their department store to Macy’s and set out to do good with it by founding a medical school in greater Newark. Abraham Flexner—fresh from revolutionizing medical education in the US—whom they turned to for advice and who proposed an institute for abstract research instead. Oswald Veblen, the Princeton mathematician who helped Flexner with the conception of the Institute. Einstein, one of the founding faculty. Marston Morse. Kurt Gödel. Reading another book about these people and the Institute would be redundant.

But reading Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 earlier this month put me in a New Jersey frame of mind. Among his topics is the Battle of Princeton, which took place on what is now Institute and neighboring grounds. And then, two Fridays ago, as I was nearing the book’s end, the Wall Street Journal printed Marc Levinson’s survey of the best business books of 2012. Having enjoyed Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, I trusted him as a guide. My resistance to Turing’s Cathedral weakened when I read:

The Institute for Advanced Study is at once prestigious and obscure. Endowed in 1930 by the Bamberger family, which had owned the eponymous department store in Newark, N.J., the institute grew into an intellectual paradise where selected scholars came to think great thoughts. For a few years after World War II, its bucolic campus in Princeton was an improbable technological hotbed as a group of mathematicians and engineers built one of the first electronic computers and developed the concept of directing the machine’s actions by electronic instructions—what we now call software—rather than by repeated rewiring. In “Turing’s Cathedral,” George Dyson combines careful documentary research with oral history to uncover the story of how the programmable computer came to be.

Levinson confused matters, though, by recommending another history of science and technology set in New Jersey:

The laser; the semiconductor; the mobile phone; the very concept of digital communication: these fundaments of our modern world, and many others, were born in the corridors and cafeterias of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory” is a spellbinding account of the rise and fall of this remarkable research organization. By focusing on the work of individual scientists and tying their discoveries to the resultant improvements in communication, Mr. Gertner makes his story accessible to the nontechnical reader. As he shows, only the decades-long monopoly enjoyed by its parent, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., made Bell Labs possible. Once a 1982 consent decree began to turn telecommunications into a competitive industry, Bell Labs’ glory days were over. This is a must-read for anyone interested in economic history and innovation—and in whether technological advances will continue to power economic growth.

Three days later, Michiko Kakutani included Gertner’s book in her NYT list of ten favorite books of 2012. Maybe I could quench my thirst for New Jersey history with this and skip Dyson.

A few days ago, I downloaded the free opening portions of both books and started them. Gertner’s book was tempting, but reminded me of a book I had never finished and always intended to return to, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, with its overlapping history of the transistor. This tipped the scales in favor of Dyson, whose book I am now five-sixths of the way through.

Turing’s Cathedral turns out to be nothing like what I imagined. For one, it is not a chronological history of the IAS computer. The story jumps back and forth in fits and starts, often starting a chapter with a new character and following that character’s story forward, which may entail taking the story of the computer backward. For another, Dyson emphasizes the role played by the building of the atomic and thermonuclear bombs in spurring the development of electronic computing. The close link between scientists and engineers at Los Alamos and the Institute is a recurring theme. Hardly news, what with Oppenheimer leaving Los Alamos and taking over as IAS director in 1947. But more notable is von Neumann, leaving Hungary behind in the ’30s to come to the Institute as a pure mathematician, passing through Los Alamos during the war, and returning to the Institute as a committed bomb builder.

Whatever else the Institute computer might do, its raison d’être was the calculations necessary for the development of a hydrogen bomb. Humans and calculating machines in tandem could perform the work at Los Alamos for the A-bomb. Greater speed and programmable flexibility were needed for the H-bomb. Thus, military funding came to the Institute. The famous split among Institute faculty for and against the project was not simply a matter of pure and abstract (in math or physics or history) versus applied and concrete. It was the freedom to do research unencumbered by external goals and pressures versus the need to achieve explicit benchmarks to meet external needs.

There’s more than bomb calculations. We learn about the start of meteorological forecasting via computer modeling. Of evolutionary modeling. And there are many interesting characters beyond the famous Institute mathematicians and physicists, such as computer engineer Julian Bigelow, meteorologist Jule Charney, and pioneering computational geneticist Nils Barricelli (who would later spend a few years here at the University of Washington).

Dyson tempts us with glimpses of von Neumann’s two wives, Mariette and Klára. The story of his courtship of Klára, divorce of Mariette, arrangements to get Klára out of Hungary to the US in 1938, and their marriage is stirring. But one wishes for more, especially on learning of Klára’s role as an early, self-taught computer programmer. As for von Neumann himself, here’s a quote about him that Dyson includes from a draft computer history written by electrical engineer Jack Rosenberg.

Johnny used to meet with each of us individually about once a week, asking what we had built, how it worked, what problems we had, what symptoms we observed, what causes we diagnosed. Each question was precisely the best one based on the information he had uncovered so far. His logic was faultless—he never asked a question that was irrelevant or erroneous. His questions came in rapid-fire order, revealing a mind that was lightning-fast and error-free. In about an hour he led each of us to understand what we had done, what we had encountered, and where to search for the problem’s cause. It was like looking into a very accurate mirror with all unnecessary images eliminated, only the important details left.

Judging from Francis Spufford’s review last March in The Guardian, the best awaits me. He begins:

At first sight – and it’s a long first sight, lasting a good 200 of the book’s 340 brilliant and frustrating pages of text – Turing’s Cathedral appears to be a project for which George Dyson has failed to find a form. Ostensibly the story of the building of one of the earliest computers at Princeton in the late 1940s and early 50s, it keeps digressing wildly. The Institute for Advanced Study’s MANIAC gets under construction over and over, in chapter after chapter, only for Dyson to veer off again into the biographical backstories of the constructors, and a myriad of alternative intellectual hinterlands, from hydrogen bomb design to game theory to weather prediction, by way of the café society of interwar Budapest. It’s not that these aren’t relevant. They are; but they aren’t introduced in the cumulative, surreptitiously spoon-feeding way in which good pop-sci writing usually coaxes a linear narrative out of complex material.

If this is a cathedral, it doesn’t have anything as geometrical as a nave. It’s a mass of separate structures joined by spiders’ webs of coloured string. But it isn’t a failure. It isn’t one thing at all. It’s three successes: three separate and different and differently impressive books Dyson might have written, all bizarrely shredded and mixed into a heap whose sorting is left as an exercise for the reader. Some of it is a painstaking oral history of MANIAC, built on an archivist’s certainty that everything is worth rescuing from entropy that can possibly be known about the dawn of the digital computer. …

Some of it is an intellectual biography of MANIAC’s chief architect John Von Neumann and the circle around him, determined to do justice to the polymathic range of his genius, and therefore dipping into everything he contributed to, from bomb design to game theory to robotics. … in comes the third separate thing the book is, a speculative, even visionary account of the philosophy of programming.

This last, marvellous element dominates the end of the book.

I am now getting into this third part. Spufford continues.

Is it worth persisting? Absolutely. Let me give you, appropriately enough, three reasons why.

One: no other book about the beginnings of the digital age brings to life anything like so vividly or appreciatively the immense engineering difficulty of creating electronic logic for the first time; of creating originally, and without a template, the pattern of organisation which has since become absolutely routine, and been etched on silicon at ever smaller micron-distances in chip foundries. …

Two: no other book has engaged so intelligently and disconcertingly with the digital age’s relationship to nuclear weapons research, not just as a moral quandary to do with funding, but as an indispensable developmental influence, producing the conceptual tools that would unlock the intellectual power of the computer. …

Three: no other book – this is where we get visionary – makes the connections this one does between the lessons of the computer’s origin and the possible paths of its future.

High praise. Had I read that to begin with, I never would have imagined that the book might be redundant.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning somewhere along the way that the author is the son of retired IAS faculty member Freeman Dyson, an outstanding physicist and mathematician in his own right. Having grown up there, George writes about Institute life with authority.*

*And, for what it’s worth, I write with a tiny bit of authority myself. Really tiny, having been an IAS member twenty-five years ago, living with my family in Institute housing on von Neumann Drive. And having an office for half of my year there in the ECP (Electronic Computer Project) building, the very structure built (with military funds, as I now know, the IAS chipping in to cover the cost of the brick facade) to house von Neumann’s computer. When visiting the Institute, von Neumann’s daughter Marina would stay in the vacant apartment below ours and we would say hi.

One more thing. Below is the video of a lengthy conversation with Dyson about the book last March at the Computer History Museum.

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Categories: Books, Computing, History

A Visit from the Goon Squad

July 5, 2012 1 comment

I don’t know why, but I’ve been having a heck of a time getting started on this post, causing a sequence of other post to go unwritten. I had it sketched in my head two weeks ago, but I was too busy reading the book to stop and write it. With each passing day, my sense of urgency drops. Let’s see what I can do.

I have to backtrack a bit. In December 2010, the NYT listed Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad as one of the year’s five best works of fiction, prompting me to add it to my list of books to read. (I passed on the other four.) In January 2011, I almost bought the Kindle version. But, as I wrote in a March 2011 post about the purchase of my then-new third-generation Kindle, I was

warned by an Amazon reader review that this would be a big mistake. The reviewer explained that there are chapters written in Powerpoint, and that these “chapters are extremely difficult to read on the Kindle. The print is so small and the back grounds so dark that even a magnifying glass was little help. The font size selection feature on the Kindle did not work on the ‘slides’ for those chapters.” As it turns out, the novel comes out in paperback in two weeks, and at a lower price than the Kindle price, so I’ll order the paperback edition.

I did order the paperback. It came. And it was awful. As a physical object that is, not as a work of literature. Judgement on that would have to wait.

You can see part of the problem in the picture above. The front cover is not as wide as the rest of the book, having been designed to reveal that idiotic NYT best book announcement, which sits on the first inside page. Below the announcement on that page are quotes about how great the book is. More annoying, the front and back covers and the spine have a creepy texture that makes the mere act of holding the book unpleasant. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to survive reading it.

A month later, Goon Squad received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Not that that makes it any better a book, but the award suggested I would enjoy it.

One evening, I read the first chapter, and I had my doubts. We quickly learn that the chapter’s featured character, a quirky young woman, has a behavioral problem, one we watch her struggle with. I had no understanding yet of the book’s organizational structure, but I wasn’t convinced I wanted to spend several hundred pages in her company. Plus, holding the book was torture.

There was an obvious solution to the physical problem: buy the Kindle version, turning only to the print version to read the powerpoint pages. If the book is that good, buying it twice would be worth the cost. However, I couldn’t bring myself to pay twice. Nor, for over a year, could I bring myself to pick up the physical book again.

That’s how matters stood two and a half weeks ago, when I finished Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I had other books in the queue, but I regretted letting Goon Squad go unread for so long. Perhaps the time had come for a return visit.

Oh, one more point. I happened to learn a couple of months ago, I don’t remember where, that Goon Squad‘s powerpoint chapter is available — as a slideshow — at Jennifer Egan’s website. Plus, there’s a special edition iPad version. Boy did I ever up! I never needed the physical book. I would have done better going electronic, especially because some of the slides have audio, unavailable (obviously) in the physical book.

Sigh.

Well, anyway, I decided I would read the physical book up to the slideshow, which turns out to be the penultimate chapter, then watch it at Egan’s website, then read the final chapter in the book.

There was still the issue of the awful texture. What to do? Something I’ve never done before. I tore the front and back covers off. I don’t usually treat books as disposable. But with this one, who cares? It’s better read electronically in any case.

On re-reading the first chapter, I didn’t find the featured character so disturbing anymore. Then I discovered that the second chapter focused on an entirely different character, at a different time. And the third chapter still another character, at a still-different time. Each character related directly or tangentially to the previous ones. The book’s structure had become clear. Moreover, as the first chapter’s disturbing character emerged as incidental in later chapters, she grew beguilingly charming and I longed for a fuller account.

I don’t think I’ll be giving too much away if I explain that the slideshow turns out to be the e-journal of the beguiling woman’s twelve-year-old daughter, the time now being a few years in the future. Rather than keeping a traditional diary, the daughter records her thoughts in slides, with text embedded in diagrams of various shapes and colors, and with music added on occasion. It’s brilliantly done. The daughter comes alive, leaving you hoping for more, much more.

There’s one last surprise, which I should have seen coming. To the extent that it’s a surprise, maybe I should say no more. Well, it’s not about the plot or characters, just the structure. I’ll put it in the next paragraph, which you can skip if you prefer.

The last chapter introduces a character we haven’t seen since the first one. As you finish it, you realize it leads you in a circle back to the first chapter. Indeed, inasmuch as the book has a circular rather than linear structure, one closes it with the realization that any chapter can serve equally well as the opening. I believe so anyway. I can’t really run the experiment in any sensible way.

A fabulous book. I never should have waited so long. If you’re of a mind to read it, whatever format you choose, just make sure to turn to a computer for the slideshow.

Categories: Books, Computing

I’m Tethered

April 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Let me take a break from the posts I’ve been writing in which I describe some of the sights we visited when we were in North Carolina last week in order to insert a travel note of a different sort.

In preparing for our trip, I knew we would stay for three nights in a New York hotel where we have been dozens of times. I have learned from painful experience that their wifi internet connection is of variable quality. Sometimes it works seamlessly. Sometimes I can’t get a page to load for minutes. And I pay for this of course.

We would then spend four nights in The Carolina Inn on the University of North Carolina campus. Free wifi was promised. Given the university connection, perhaps it would be just like home. Or better.

Was it time to tether?

Let me explain. Tethering is the process by which you convert your internet-enabled smart phone into a wifi hotspot to which you can “tether” other devices — a laptop, a tablet, whatever. No need for those stand-alone “mifi” devices that various cell phone companies offer with separate monthly plans, but that end up being one more object to travel with, one more item to charge. Just let your phone do it all.

The history of iPhone tethering is a painful one. Long after Apple introduced the capability, long after one could tether in other countries, AT&T didn’t allow it. When they finally did, there was a twist. Those of us who bought iPhones long enough ago and have stuck with AT&T have unlimited data forever for our monthly data charge of $30. Somewhere along the way, AT&T ended unlimited plans, requiring new iPhone buyers to choose between two plans that, I think initially, were 200MB/month at $15 and 2GB/month at $25. Looking at the website now, I see that the deal has changed — 300MB/month for $20 or 3 GB/month for $30. So here I am paying $30/month for unlimited. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

The reason this is an issue is that in order to enable tethering on the iPhone, one has to change one’s data plan, thereby giving up unlimited data forever. In addition to the 200MB and 2GB plans, there’s a 5GB plan, for $50/month. If one wants to tether, one must choose that. You can choose it, travel, come back, and switch to a smaller plan. What you can’t do is switch back to the unlimited plan.

Thus, if I want to tether, I sacrifice unlimited, something I’ve been loath to do.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter, for two reasons. One, under no imaginable current circumstance would I ever go over 3GB/month. I don’t download and watch movies on my phone. Two, AT&T has recently imposed a slow-down on big users with unlimited plans. If they go over 2 or 3 GB, download speeds decrease drastically. Thus unlimited isn’t so unlimited.

The upshot: I’m giving up essentially nothing by giving up my unlimited plan. If I’m not traveling/tethering, I can pay the same $30/month for 3GB of data usage and I’ll surely be fine. It’s virtually unlimited, given my usage patterns. And by going to $50/month, I’m paying $20 but saving the daily hotel charges. A bargain, actually.

But is the tethering connection fast? Is this really a bargain? I decided to find out.

I went online, signed in, and clicked the box changing my data plan to $50/month for 5GB. I then got an error message, something about a conflict in what I was trying to do. Tried again, same message. Called AT&T. The person I spoke to had no clue, but after a long hold she explained that it turns out AT&T wouldn’t let me keep my text message plan if I changed my data plan. Bizarre. I could pay per text or pay $15/month for unlimited. You know, I don’t text much. I was paying $5/month for 200 texts. Forget it. I said go ahead and make the change. She put me on hold, came back, said it was done. I now have no text plan, but the big data plan and tethering.

This was two Thursdays ago. I went to the iPhone settings, turned on wifi hotspot, tested it on my MacBook Air, and it worked. I was set.

Ten days later, what do I think? It’s great. At the hotel in New York, I did everything I usually do, except maybe watching videos, and I was using about 100MB/day. (I didn’t explain, but once you tether, all the devices that use the iPhone’s internet connection have their data usage counted against the monthly iPhone limit.)

When we checked into The Carolina Inn, I opened my MacBook Air, connected to the free hotel wifi, and got an amazingly fast connection. I wasn’t going to need tethering. For a moment, I had doubts about my decision. But that night, after dinner, the wifi didn’t work. Same in the morning, after initial success. That was the continuing pattern. When it worked, it was fast. But it was completely unreliable. Back to tethering.

I have to say, I prefer free hotel wifi to the $20/month additional cost of the AT&T tether-enabled plan, but only if the hotel wifi works. If it doesn’t, that $20/month beats free. And just knowing that option was there whenever I needed it was a pleasure.

I only wonder why I didn’t make the move earlier. I was so worried about sacrificing my unlimited plan. Big mistake. Another attraction is that I could bring my iPad (wifi only) and use that too through the hotspot. I didn’t bring it on this trip. Why carry everything? I chose the iPhone, the MacBook Air, and my lightweight Kindle. Next time, though, now that I know how well tethering works, I might bring the iPad rather than the Kindle.

I now need to decide whether to stick with the current data plan or switch down and wait for the next trip to return to the tethering plan. I have no need for tethering at home or work. I suppose I could use it to connect my iPad if I find myself somewhere without free wifi, like driving in the car. But I can just as well use the iPhone itself then. Anyway, I recommend it. It worked smoothly, saved me money, and ensured a good connection at all times.

Categories: Computing

Full Circle Searching

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Three weeks ago, I wrote about Scottish writer Ian Rankin’s latest Edinburgh-based crime novel, The Impossible Dead, which had been released already in the UK and whose delivery I was eagerly awaiting. I explained that I had gotten into the habit a decade ago of ordering new Rankin books from amazon.co.uk rather than waiting for months for the US release. Downloads of the e-version in the US are not permitted before US publication, so the only way to get such books ahead of US publication is to order the print copy from the UK.

A week later, just as I had begun to read Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, The Impossible Dead arrived, prompting my post about the dilemma of what to read.

In case you’re wondering, I kept on with the memoir for a couple of days. With its wondrous tales and beautiful language, I was sure I would stay with it to the end. But then I remembered my discovery last month, when I first wrote about The Impossible Dead, that in contrast to previous Rankin titles, it would be released in the US with only the briefest of delays. It comes out November 21. I know this isn’t entirely rational, but I didn’t want to postpone my reading of the British edition until the US version appeared. In a panic, wanting to justify the extra expense of paying for overseas shipping, I set Alexandra Fuller aside and started in on Rankin.

I finished The Impossible Dead Wednesday night. How was it? Well, that’s not actually the point of this post, so let me just say that I quite enjoyed it. Though based in Edinburgh, the principal character, Malcolm Fox, in only the second novel Rankin has written around him, spends most of his time across the Firth of Forth in Fife. Both Rankin and his greatest character, John Rebus, are Fife natives. It’s not unusual for some action in any Rankin novel to take place across the way, but this time Fife is the center of the story, especially Kirkcaldy, which is essentially due north of Edinburgh across the firth. Fox makes daily crossings of the firth on the road bridge (you know, of course, that the Forth Railway Bridge is one of the world’s great, historic structures), even walking across it once, as he tries to unravel a mysterious death in the 1980s and its connections to violent Scottish nationalist groups of the time. The plotting is intricate, engrossing, and ultimately surprising.

David Stenhouse, in his Stotsman review, writes that

Fox is shaping up to be a formidable creation in his own right. The first few chapters of this novel are models of terse, compelling storybuilding.

[snip]

Intricately and ingeniously plotted, this novel builds to a compelling climax in a the Fife wood where Vernal’s body was discovered. A purist might complain that a few of the revelations strain credulity, but Rankin’s world is so meticulously created that this barely seems to matter.

Rankin shows again his unsparing eye for the contours and ironies of modern Scotland. The scope and political force of this novel recalls James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still.

Reviews for the first Fox novel, The Complaints, were overshadowed by the absence of Rebus. The Impossible Dead should put to bed any doubts about Rankin’s new series. Unlike Conan Doyle, Rebus’s creator has shown that he can step out of the shadow of his most famous creation. This is the finest Ian Rankin novel for many years. You won’t miss Rebus once.

And now, at last, I get to the point. How did I find Stenhouse’s review? I did a google search, of course. But here’s the thing. After finishing the novel Wednesday night, I thought it would be interesting to see what the British critics thought of it. I entered “The Impossible Dead” in Google’s search field and didn’t find much on the first page of results. Several links to Amazon, UK and US. The Guardian’s review. Another review. Off I went to page two of the search results. Down the page I scrolled. And there it was, the eighth item. My own post from three weeks ago! Why would I want to find that? I wanted to know what other people’s thoughts, not mine. And I hadn’t even received the book at the time that I wrote the post.

It got me to wondering, would others have found my post that high up in the search results, or was Google somehow using data about me to rank it so high? I don’t know.

Tonight, in preparation for this post, I once again searched for “The Impossible Dead” and headed to page two. I wasn’t there anymore. Nor was I on page three, or four, or five, or six. I had disappeared. Just as well, though I wished I had taken a screenshot on Wednesday.

I looked back at the page one results, which I had skipped over, and what do you know? I’ve moved up to third place! The first two results are to US Amazon. I’m third, the publisher’s site is fourth, and the Guardian review is fifth. This time I took a screenshot. Here it is:

So what’s the deal? Why is my post ranked so high?

Categories: Books, Computing

IT Support

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I love Apple and all, but it’s never fun when I have to put on my IT hat and pretend I know what I’m doing, especially without Joel around to calm me down when I get frustrated. This was quite the IT week for Apple captives around the world. I seem to have survived.

I got home Wednesday evening and immediately set about updating my iMac, preparatory to installing the new operating system, iOS 5, on my iPad and iPhone. I had to update the iMac with the new version of Lion, then the new version of iTunes, then sync my iPad with the iMac, then download iOS 5 onto the iMac, then install it on the iPad. Success. On to the iPhone: sync, download iOS 5, install. Success again. Then put the new Lion and iTunes on the MacBook Air.

Yesterday, more of the same. Gail’s iMac was stuck back in the Snow Leopard days, so first I had to do a new install of (the updated version of) Lion. Then iTunes. Then iOS 5 for iPad and iPhone. In parallel, off in North Carolina, Joel performed the same operations on his MacBook and iOS devices.

Now that we’re all lionized and iOS fived, we can take advantage of the new features. Like what? Well, iMessage should prove useful. It’s the text messaging emulator that’s built into the text message app on the iPhone and installed as well on the iPad, allowing you to text fellow iOS 5’ers through the internet. This may allow us to drop our AT&T message plan, depending on our usage levels. I don’t know yet. More important, I can text from the iPad, then leave the house and switch the conversation to the iPhone. I like that.

And I like being able to use the volume-raising button on iPad or iPhone as the camera shutter release. The virtual button on the screen has been an ongoing nuisance. It’s about time.

Also in the “about time” department is tabs in Safari. It’s always a pain when I accidentally hit a link while browsing on iPad or iPhone and a new window gets launched, forcing me to hit the window icon, close it, and return to the original window. Now such errors won’t be so annoying. I can just close the new tab and be back at the old one.

I’m still playing around with the split keyboard capability on the iPad, not sure whether I like it or not. The halves that open up within thumb’s reach of either side are small, necessarily so, that being the whole point, but maybe too small. I make more errors, so far anyway, and have to depend more on the built-in spelling correction. It’s a good idea in principle I just have to see how well it works for me.

What else? I know I’m forgetting something. I’m glad the music app is finally called just the music app, rather than the vestigial “iPod” app. Not that that is important functionally, except that when I wanted to play music, I had to take an extra couple of mental steps to realize that “iPod” meant “music”.

The big question is, when do I get an iPhone 4S? How long can I live without Siri? In just two months, I’ll be eligible to update at the base iPhone price.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Computing, House

Convergence

September 1, 2011 Leave a comment

The all-in-one solution?

I was one of the last people on the block to get a laptop. Among the last, anyway, within the circles I travel in. And I was late to PDAs. I got a Palm in July 2001. I could even tell you the date, since it marks the start of my electronic calendar. I ate at Wild Ginger that night. It was the first event I recorded besides the purchase of the Palm itself. I already had a cell phone. And it was Christmas 2001 that we got our first digital camera. That’s also easy to remember, because the first digital photos we have were taken at my sister-in-law’s place on New Year’s Day 2002. Most notably, there is a great photo of Joel with his grandfather (my father-in-law), the last photo of them together before Stew died that March.

Every time I traveled, I would have five pieces of electronics to bring with me. The phone, the Palm, the camera, the laptop. Let’s see. What am I forgetting? Oh, the iPod, though I didn’t get one for another few years. It was the original iPod shuffle. So there I was, carrying five things onto the plane whenever we flew somewhere. How long would I have to wait for that glorious moment of convergence, when I could do everything on one device?

You know what happened. PDA and phone? Sure, combining them happened quickly, with the further convenience that you didn’t have to maintain separate contacts lists on them. Even better, in due course, you could sync the contacts between PDA/phone and computer, as well as the calendar. I waited until July 2006 to join that world, with my Palm Treo. But I still needed a separate iPod and laptop, and a camera too, since the Treo camera wasn’t so good.

The iPhone came next, though I didn’t get one until my Treo contract with Sprint expired. Now I had the phone, PDA, and iPod functions all in one. And a camera, but still a lousy one. On the other hand, the email and web browsing weren’t bad, so the laptop wasn’t essential.

Then a newer iPhone came, with better camera and even a video camera. And faster web browsing. My five objects had converged. Except by now a sixth object had shown up on the scene and become part of our lives: the Kindle. Well, there was Kindle convergence too, thanks to the iPhone’s Kindle app. I could have all six functions — phone, PDA, iPod, camera, internet-connected computer, e-reader — on one. Convergence at last.

So one might think. But as I start to lay out my electronics in order to decide what to bring with me on our upcoming vacation, I’m having a heck of a time letting go of anything. Here’s my thinking:

1. iPhone. Gotta have it. It’s my phone after all.

2. Kindle. Gotta have it. I can’t read books outdoors in bright light on an iPhone or iPad. And I sure hope to be sitting outdoors in bright light. No choice. The Kindle is coming with me.

3. Laptop. Gotta have it. When I’m away awhile, email accumulates. I don’t want to be responding on the iPhone. Or the iPad. And what if I want to blog? I need the full keyboard. It’s coming.

4. iPad. Gotta have it. Yes, I can’t read the screen in that bright outdoor light. But it’s great for lying in bed and checking email, reading through my RSS feeds, browsing the web. Holding the laptop up whie lying down is a pain compared to the iPad. Plus, OmniFocus on the iPad is so much better than on the iPhone or laptop. I better take it.

5. Digital SLR. Gotta have it. You don’t really expect me to take photos with the iPhone or iPad do you? I bought a new prime (fixed focal length) lens for it earlier in the summer that is so much lighter than my behemoth wide-angle zoom lens or my long-range zoom. And the new lens is fast. I don’t even need to bring the flash, since the lens will work in fairly dim light. I figured I would have no reason to leave the camera at home anymore. One small lens. No lens changing. No flash to attach. This is my chance to try it out.

Where have I gone wrong?

Categories: Computing

Tethered

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

[James Martin/CNET]

I mentioned last night that Joel headed off to North Carolina yesterday to live there for a while. This meant he would have to deal with the dreaded cable company, which in this case is Time Warner. We went online a week ago to set up an appointment to have cable TV and internet set up in his new place, only to get word a couple of days later that his two choices for an appointment wouldn’t work. Things went downhill from there.

Perhaps there will be some good news tomorrow, the best possible news at this point probably being that he can get internet and cable before the end of next week. In the meantime, the lack of internet access (except on his iPhone) is a huge inconvenience, not just for news and entertainment, but to shop and get his new place set up. At least I imagine so. I shouldn’t speak for my son.

What to do? I suggested over the weekend that he might want to take advantage of the tethering feature of the iPhone. Tethering, as you probably know, is the process by which you take advantage of your smart phone’s internet connectivity to hook it up to your computer and connect the computer to the internet as well. It’s not a new idea, and the iPhone has been capable of tethering since iOS 3.0 came out a couple of years ago. At the time, AT&T chose not to permit tethering in the US, no doubt for fear of being overwhelmed by the data demands on its network. That changed a year ago

Of course, one pays more. Plus, in a cruel twist, AT&T announced that if you had an unlimited data plan and added tethering, you would have to give up the unlimited plan. This was part of a larger change, in which AT&T stopped offering unlimited data plans to new customers, allowing those who had contracted for such plans in the past to keep them. We, for instance, pay $30/month on our iPhones for unlimited data. We can switch to the $25/month plan for 2GB of data monthly, paying $10 for each additional 1GB or part thereof. I suspect I don’t use anything close to 2GB (I know, I can easily check), so I could save the $5 by switching. On the other hand, you never know, and once I switch, there’s no going back.

For tethering, one has to make the same sort of decision. Tethering costs $45/month, and with it you get 4GB of data monthly. Thus it’s on a par with the $25/month plan for 2GB plus $10 extra per GB. But again, once you switch, there’s no going back to unlimited. You can switch from tethering and $45/month to the ordinary 2GB data plan at $25/month. But you can’t return to unlimited for $30/month. So even if you just want to test tethering for a week or two, then switch back, you’re locked out of unlimited.

It’s a risk, but life is full of risks, and this isn’t such a huge one. In any case, the option offered Joel a way out. While he waits for Time Warner to schedule him, he can tether his iPhone to his laptop and get internet access. We spoke on the phone tonight and he said he was ready for tethering. As we spoke, I went online and made the change.

I have to give AT&T credit. They make it extremely easy. Up comes our family plan on my computer with our three phone numbers, I click on Joel’s, all the plan options are listed by category, with the current choice in each category marked. I mark another choice, click a couple of next buttons to see and confirm what I’m doing, and that’s it. Within moments, he has a text on his iPhone saying he has tethering and I have an email confirming the change to the account. And moments later, his computer is connected to the internet. He’ll have to be careful how much data he uses on his computer. But in a week or two (yes?) he’ll have his cable modem, at which point he can turn off the tethering feature.

Now I want tethering too. It sounds like fun. Except that I don’t actually need it.

Categories: Computing