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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.

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

Lion Operating System

July 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Apple released its new operating system Mac OS X Lion, yesterday. A July released had been announced a few months ago, and I checked just two days ago, but it wasn’t available yet. When Joel got up yesterday morning, he asked if I had downloaded it yet, my clue that the release date had come. Since I was about to leave the house, I had to wait until last night to buy it.

Being able to download the new OS rather than having to buy a disk is a great convenience. In fact, in a first for Apple, one must download it. Disks are in the past. You want it, you go to the online App Store, buy it, and wait for it to download. And wait I did, for hours. It was the slowest download I can remember. As far as I can tell, this was due to the huge demand on Apple’s servers. I had two experiences today that were different. Last night’s download was for my iMac. This morning, when I tried to download it for my MacBook Air, I got repeated error messages — error 500 for their internal server. The demand, I gather, was so large that my request was denied. Late this afternoon, in contrast, I was able to download it in a snap. I should explain that once you’ve downloaded the OS, you have another wait for installation, a wait of maybe 20-30 minutes.

Is it worth it? I haven’t used the OS enough to have any strong opinions, but it’s a bargain compared to past OS updates, which typically have cost on the order of $100, or maybe $150 or $180 for a family pack that would allow installation on 5 machines in one home, or something along those lines. Lion costs $30, and this covers downloads to multiple machines. If there’s even one feature you consider a significant convenience or improvement and if you have several computers, you can’t go wrong.

Reviews can be found everywhere today: Jason Snell at MacWorld, David Pogue at the NYT, Walt Mossberg at the WSJ. I haven’t looked at Snell’s piece yet.

I’ll comment on four features I’ve been using so far today:

1. Scrolling. Lion brings multi-touch gestures to the Mac to make its use more like that of the iPad. Some of these gestures were already available, such as two-finger up-and-down motions on mouse or touchpad for scrolling. But the scrolling direction has been switched. This may seem like a puzzler at first, and I’m working to get used to it, but it makes good sense. Before, when you made the two-finger downward gesture in a window, you produced the same effect as grabbing the scrollbar on the right side of the window and dragging it down. Metaphorically, you were to imagine that you had grabbed that scrollbar and were pulling it down with your fingers. Of course, when you pull the scrollbar down, you advance toward the end of the page, so the page goes up: scrollbar down, page up. That makes some sense, but really, it’s counter-intuitive. And I believe I did find it that way some years ago when I would first make that gesture on my laptop. Why not think of your fingers grabbing the page and pulling it down rather than grabbing that thin scrollbar on the right and pulling it down?

With iPhone and iPad, on which you really do put your fingers on the page, the downward gesture of your fingers drags the page down, meaning the part in view moves toward the top. That’s the only sensible approach. Lion brings that approach to the desktop and laptop computers. Drag two fingers down on mouse or trackpad and the page goes down, revealing text or images higher up. You don’t even see a scrollbar anymore most of the time. It’s hidden. It only appears when you drag, at which point you see it slide up as you drag the page down.

This is much more intuitive, except for the fact that the more natural intuition has been beaten out of me for years. I now have to recover my intuition. But I like it.

2. Spaces and Mission Control. I was a big fan of the old Spaces in recent Mac operating systems. Instead of having layers of windows, I would create 12 “spaces” in a 4×3 array, then pin certain applications to certain spaces: Mail in one space, Safari in another, OmniFocus in still another, iTunes out of the way in a distant space so it can play in the background, LaTex in the lower left corner. Open an app and it reports to its assigned space. Move between spaces by various keyboard commands, including using Control and arrowing around or Control-# to go to the desired space number.

Lion discards this. Instead, it lays out spaces in a row and allows you to move through them with left and right three-finger gestures. Or, you can still jump around with Control and arrows, or Control and numbers. I was happy with the old system and didn’t think I wanted a change, but I have already adapted. Especially attractive is that the dashboard occupies the leftmost space, so you can slide over there easily. Well, the old way of opening the dashboard was easy too. What I like about this is that it’s a full screen in the background, rather than something that bursts open the way the old one did. I don’t get there any faster, but the metaphor works better for me.

Please please please bring this idea to the iPad and iPhone. Let me swipe left and right to switch between apps. Palm’s final OS, for the Palm Pre, had this, or so I read. Now HP, having bought Palm, has introduced it to their mobile OS. Apple, surely you plan to do the same, yes?

3. Full screen. The reviews suggest that this is another idea carried over from the iPad. The point is that you can click on an expansion arrow on the upper right corner of a window (for suitable apps) and it fills the screen, covering up the dock and the menu bar and the background. This allows you to focus on one app at a time. Of course, I already do this by moving my apps to different spaces. But you can focus even more sharply, with nothing else in sight, and you give more space to the window/app itself. On my iMac, this isn’t such a big deal. The feature may be more useful on the MacBook Air, with its tiny screen. I’ve tried it there just for a few minutes, will experiment some more.

4. Mail. There are several changes here, but the one I’m already in love with is the ability to “bookmark” mailboxes. This works just like bookmarks or favorites in Safari. You drag mailboxes to the favorites bar (or whatever Apple is calling it) and they stay there. Or you pull them off. Now, when you want to look up emails in that box, just click on it in the favorites bar at top. If you have only a few mailboxes or a flat hierarchy, who cares. But I have hundreds of boxes and a deep hierarchy. So far I’ve grabbed about a dozen boxes and favorited (?) them.

Now, here’s the real beauty. Just like in Safari, I can hit Command-1 and go to the leftmost favorite box. Or Command-2 and go to the second one. And so on. No need for the mouse. Just as I now go to the NYT and Sports Illustrated in Safari with Command 1 and 2, in Mail I can go to my Comcast and work email inboxes the same way. In the old version of Mail, some of these keyboard commands were fixed — Command 1 went to all inboxes combined, Command 4 to sent mail, and so on. Now I can go to specific inboxes, specific sent mail boxes, or any other boxes.

Complementing this feature, one can toggle between seeing the list of all mailboxes and hiding them, either with the mouse or with Command-Shift M. I’ve already found that with just 10 or 12 favorite mailboxes, I rarely need to see the mailbox list. Note that you can drag an email into the box listed in the favorites bar and it will go in that box. Or, if the box has many boxes within, it shows up in the favorite bar with a dropdown arrow that allows you to see all the subboxes, open one of them, or move an email into one.

So far so good. I’m happy.

Categories: Computing

A Slave to Apple

July 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I wish it weren’t so. I resent Apple for controlling us so. When Gail and I walked into the Apple Store after dinner tonight, I cursed them in my mind. Yet, I don’t have a choice. We’re so invested in Apple gear that I see no way to change.

Our Apple Time Capsule took a turn for the worse this afternoon. This may have something to do with a dumb maneuver on my part, but let’s not dwell on that. The Time Capsule, as you may know, is really two completely different items in one: a wireless router — essentially the equivalent of what they call their Airport Extreme — and an external hard drive. Why combine them? Because it automatically puts at your disposal a networked external hard drive, ready to connect to any computer that is connected to the internet via the companion wireless router. Perfect for backups, especially of the automated kind.

The thing is, the hard drive connection has been flaky from almost the beginning. So when I ruined the hard drive today, I wasn’t too disappointed. That meant we could get the Airport Extreme for wireless routing duties and an altogether different, separate hard drive for our backup needs. I know, one can buy far cheaper wireless routers these days. The prices have dropped to almost nothing. But why mess with Apple?

So there we were, at the Apple Store. We bought the router. We bought a smart cover for my iPad. And after staring at all the third party external hard drives that the Apple Store carries, we chose one.

As we headed toward the door, I began an inventory. Here’s what we have. I’ll include not just what Gail, Joel, and I use in the house, but also some equipment we’ve passed on to Jessica.

Desktop computers: 2 iMacs. Maybe 3 if you count one Jessica has that I assume she stopped using when we gave her my used MacBook Air.

Laptops: 1 old MacBook Pro, likely to be replaced soon when Joel heads to graduate school. 2 MacBook Airs, an original model when it was introduced and a smaller new one.

iPads: 2 new ones for Gail and me, 2 hand-me-down original iPads for Jessica and Joel.

iPhones: 3 iPhone 4’s.

Wireless routers: 2, counting our new one but not the Time Capsule that ran into a bit of difficulty today. A third may enter our lives soon, when Joel heads off to school.

And there’s another iMac in my office, but that doesn’t count, since we don’t own it. It is due to be replaced soon by a new one. Plus assorted generations of iPod that remain functional, from hard-drive iPods to a first generation iPod Touch and two aging iPod Shuffles.

It would be interesting (for me, not you) to figure out all the Apple products we’ve owned going back to our 1986 purchase of a Macintosh Plus. I never should have taken that first bite.

Categories: Computing

Husky Fan?

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

In my last post, I wrote about my iMac woes, which culminated in the trip Gail and I took to the Apple Store yesterday for the final resolution of my problems. We had a 10:00 AM appointment at the Genius Bar, 10:00 being the bar’s opening time, and we arrived a few minutes early, allowing us to watch the geniuses come out one by one from the back and take their seats at the bar. Then fellow supplicants began to take their seats across the bar from the geniuses, and soon it we were called to face Nate.

I already explained that Nate got started on restoring data to my once-ailing iMac, at which point he suggested we take off for half an hour while the files were transferred from Joel’s hard drive back to the iMac. On our return, Nate was busy with others, giving us what turned out to be about a 6 or 7 minute wait. Which brings me to the point.

Two genius locations down from Nate, a woman was on her genius bar stool being helped. Behind her, sitting up and looking for attention, was a hairy white dog, on the large side, though not super large or anything. He was on a leash, which was tied to the stool. I was standing about 5 feet away, and he seemed to have taken an interest in me. I didn’t want to get him worked up, but Gail assured me that I should go over and return his interest.

So I did. I put my hand out to his nose, then petted him. His tail was wagging furiously. I was a little puzzled about what breed he was, and was thinking of asking the woman, who at this point turned around to look at me. I said something, like maybe that the dog was a lovely one. Gail, still a few feet away, said something too. Then the woman asked, “Are you a husky fan?”

Now, I have to tell you, this was no husky. I don’t know much about dogs. I’m learning. Watching the Westminster Dog Show every year for the last decade has helped a lot. But I don’t need a dog show or a book to know what a husky looks like. I know huskies. Dog sleds, Alaska. Yup, I know huskies. And, of course, I’ve been associated to the University of Washington for three decades now. No one can be a part of UDub and be ignorant of our husky mascot.

So, why the heck was she asking me if I’m a husky fan? And here I was going to ask her what kind of dog it was. If I were a husky fan, I sure had chosen the wrong dog to pet. I was mystified. Then again, we were just across the street from the UW campus, so maybe the question had something to do with UW sports. Am I a UW sports fan? Well, sometimes. A little. Not entirely, because being one would mean I support the corrupt industry of big time NCAA sports. Still, this was no husky, and was she really asking me out of the blue if I root for UW?

I finally responded. “Not entirely.” That seemed about right, whatever she was asking.

And then she elaborated. Well, you see, she had taught the dog to respond to the UW fight song, Bow Down to Washington, by getting down flat on the floor. She could say “bow down” and the dog would obey. Or, I gather, she could play the song and he would do the same. She added that her boyfriend was a UW football player, and he loved this trick.

Okay, so that explained the question, and assured us that she didn’t think the dog was a husky. Gail finally asked just what the dog was. A labradoodle. And what a lovely labradoodle he was. Gail thinks we should get one. I’m thinking we should look at poodradors instead.

Categories: Computing, Dogs, Sports