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Change We Can Believe In, XVII

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Drone Warfare

David Cloud’s story in yesterday’s LA Times on a US drone attack 14 months ago in Afghanistan is a must-read. (Hat tip: James Fallows.) Here is an excerpt from its opening:

Nearly three miles above the rugged hills of central Afghanistan, American eyes silently tracked two SUVs and a pickup truck as they snaked down a dirt road in the pre-dawn darkness.

The vehicles, packed with people, were 3 1/2 miles from a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, who had been dropped into the area hours earlier to root out insurgents. The convoy was closing in on them.

At 6:15 a.m., just before the sun crested the mountains, the convoy halted.

“We have 18 pax [passengers] dismounted and spreading out at this time,” an Air Force pilot said from a cramped control room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 7,000 miles away. He was flying a Predator drone remotely using a joystick, watching its live video transmissions from the Afghan sky and radioing his crew and the unit on the ground.

The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. “They’re praying. They are praying,” said the Predator’s camera operator, seated near the pilot.

By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. “This is definitely it, this is their force,” the cameraman said. “Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do.”

“They’re gonna do something nefarious,” the crew’s intelligence coordinator chimed in.

At 6:22 a.m., the drone pilot radioed an update: “All … are finishing up praying and rallying up near all three vehicles at this time.”

The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.

“Oh, sweet target,” he said.

None of those Afghans was an insurgent. They were men, women and children going about their business, unaware that a unit of U.S. soldiers was just a few miles away, and that teams of U.S. military pilots, camera operators and video screeners had taken them for a group of Taliban fighters.

The Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, technological marvels of surveillance and intelligence gathering that allowed them to see into once-inaccessible corners of the battlefield. But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

In a post on the war in Afghanistan last month, I raised the question of what our goal there is at this point, nearly a decade into the war. In revealing the horrors of drone warfare, Cloud provides further evidence that this is a war we can’t “win”, whatever winning would look like.

It’s Obama’s war now, drones and all. As Glenn Greenwald suggested in a tweet today, “The only sensible response to this story is to award a second Nobel Peace Prize.”

Categories: Technology, War

Third Generation Kindle

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

In mid-January, at the end of my post about Robert Crais’ latest crime novel, The Sentry, I said a few words about e-readers:

I started The Sentry Sunday night on my iPad, because it’s what I happened to have at hand. But yesterday, when I set about reading the book in earnest, I switched to the Kindle. It’s still my preferred e-reader, unless I actually want the distraction of being able to check my email and the blogs every few minutes. But distractions aside, it’s so much easier to hold for extended periods of reading. Holding an iPad with one hand isn’t feasible. Holding a Kindle and turning pages with one hand makes a huge difference. And just imagine how much better the experience must be with the third generation — lighter still, better contrast. In two days, I won’t have to imagine. My new Kindle will arrive.

I have meant since then to write about Amazon’s third-generation Kindle. I started a post a week ago, but got no further than pointing out that in the preceding six weeks, I had read four books on it despite lots of other obligations, concluding that I couldn’t seem to put it down. It’s one of the reasons I did so little blogging in February, and why unread New Yorkers and New York Reviews of Books are piling up everywhere.

I know this is difficult to believe, given that the new Kindle is only a little smaller (same screen size though) and a little lighter than the old one, but I felt as I read those four books that for the first time, I’d rather read a book on the Kindle than read the book itself. Before, I would read on the Kindle for the convenience, especially when traveling. And because it’s lighter and easier to hold when lying down. And because I save on the space the books take up in the house, and usually on cost too. But I never felt I preferred the Kindle-reading experience.

What’s different now? Here are my guesses. I mean, I know what’s different about the Kindle. The question is, what about its differences makes me enjoy reading on it more? And my preference for reading on the Kindle is an observed fact, but without immediately obvious explanation, so I must guess.

1. The reduction in size of the Kindle, and reduction in weight too I suppose, allows me to hold it in one hand more comfortably than I could its predecessor. Both are easy to hold with the thin dimension pinched between thumb and other fingers. Now, though, I can put my hand behind it and hold the full width in my palm, whereas before I could do so only with a bit of hand stretching.

2. The better contrast between the e-ink text and the background makes reading more natural, at least in good light. In low light I don’t notice an improvement in contrast. With sufficient direct light, the text pops out in a way it doesn’t on the Kindle 2.

3. The black color of the body allows the Kindle to disappear into the background more than the white body of the Kindle 2 does. The less obtrusive keyboard helps too.

4. The quieter page turning buttons create less of a distraction, both aurally and in the way pressing them feels.

5. Having buttons on both the left and right sides to turn back a page is vastly more convenient. In the Kindle 2, one could move forward by pressing a button on the left or a parallel button on the right, but to go back, one had to push a smaller button that was on the left only. The new Kindle has mirror image buttons left and right — a larger forward button and a smaller back button. Since I usually turn forward with my right hand, I used to have to grab the Kindle 2 with my left when I wanted to go back, with the result that sometimes I just didn’t bother turning back even when I wanted to check something. There was some sense, conscious or unconscious, that doing so was a nuisance. Now going back feels as natural as going forward.

6. The surface of the new Kindle is different, a little textured, not smooth like the Kindle 2. At first, I didn’t think I would like it, but now I prefer it.

The next books I want to read happen to be ones I own in hardcover. And there’s a novel I want to read — Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad — that I almost downloaded for the Kindle in January, only to be 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.

But here’s the curious thing. I’m deferring reading these books. I’d rather read on the Kindle. Or maybe part of the point is that I’m deferring starting another book altogether, so I can get my work done and make a little headway on my magazine backlog. Whatever the reason, I miss the Kindle experience.

Categories: Books, Technology

Scan This

November 20, 2010 Leave a comment

My last post, written last Sunday night from the O’Hare Hilton, was a bit unfocused. Let me see if I can do better with this one.

Before writing the last post, I had planned for days to discuss the full-body backscatter scanners used at airport security by the TSA, the unattractive alternative of being groped, and the puzzle of what I would choose to do when I went through security at SeaTac on the way to Chicago. I never did write the intended post. And I had no idea the issue would explode into what might have been the most covered news story of the past week. (No, not the issue of what decision I would make. The issue of the idiotic TSA requirements.) “Don’t touch my junk” has become the phrase of the day, and even right-wing nut cases (I mean you, Charles Krauthammer) who traditionally adore all possible security measures — privacy, what’s that? — seem to have re-discovered their libertarian roots.

In my post last Sunday, I touched on the scanner issue only in passing, observing that I didn’t have to scanning and groping that morning because I ended up on a security line that used the traditional metal detectors rather than the scanners. But now I have a TSA story to tell, a different kind of story. I’ll get to it in a moment. Let me first review the circumstances of my trip.

I flew into O’Hare Sunday for the eighth consecutive November in order to attend the annual board meeting Monday for Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico. The meeting is always held in the Athens-Berlin meeting rooms on the mezzanine level of the O’Hare Hilton, with breakfast from 8:30 to 9:00 and the meeting itself from 9:00 to around 3:00. For years, I would fly home on a United flight that would depart around 5:30 PM, but United has dropped that flight. Last year, Gail and I took an American flight with a departure around 4:00 PM. (We were both there because we scheduled our France-Italy trip so that we could stop in O’Hare on our return to Seattle.) But this year the only options were a cluster of flights on assorted airlines around 3:00 or 3:15 PM or another cluster around 8:00 or 8:15 PM. One option would force me to leave the meeting at least an hour before its end; the other would give me 5 hours or more to kill at O’Hare.

I agonized about what to do for a couple of weeks, then went with United’s 3:20 departure. Hanging out at O’Hare didn’t seem too attractive, and I’m not so essential a participant at the meeting that I would be missed if I left a little early. But I knew another issue would await me — just how much time should I allow to get from the Hilton through the underground passageways to the United terminal and then through security? I knew in particular that I would be fretting about this in the closing minutes of my time at the meeting. To minimize fret, I decided ahead of time that I would leave at 2:00. No point fretting when my departure time was pre-ordained. I would enjoy the meeting until that moment, then rush over to United and allow the fretting to begin. Anyway, how bad could it be?

Well, I’m about to tell you. But one more piece of background first.

When I checked in online from home Saturday night for the flight to Chicago, the United website gave me a choice. I could print a boarding pass, or I could have an electronic, scannable boarding pass sent to my mobile device. I thought — at last! I could use put the boarding pass on my iPhone screen and board that way. This isn’t new technology, but it’s not widely in use, and I was eager to try it for the first time. The webpage also had a link to click in order to find out what airports you could use an e-boarding pass at. I clicked, discovered that Seattle was in the list of airports where this feature was not yet available but would be coming. O’Hare was listed as having it already. Oh well. I dutifully printed out my boarding pass, but I looked forward to using the e-pass on my way back.

Sunday afternoon, in my room at the O’Hare Hilton, I checked in for Monday’s return flight, and this time I clicked on the option to have the e-pass sent to me by email. I checked the iPhone email, opened the message from United, and clicked on a link that opened on my iPhone browser. There was the scannable block pictured at the top of this post, below which were the flight details. I was in business.

Let’s move to Monday afternoon. At 1:55, with my 2:00 departure from the meeting approaching, I started to the process of checking the time on my iPhone regularly. I must have checked roughly every 45 seconds. When 2:00 came around, I got up, grabbed my bags and jacket, and left the room. Down the stairs to the lobby level, over to the escalator, down to the basement level, out to the main underground passageway, up to the United terminal baggage claim level, left turn, 50 yard walk to the up escalator (a routine that has become familiar to me over the years), up to the departure level. It’s 2:06. I think, what if the e-pass doesn’t work? Why not put my credit card in one of the United kiosks and print out a paper pass. Alas, the kiosk won’t read my card. On try four, it does. Then I push the buttons to the point where I ask it to print my boarding documents, and it says it can’t. Hmm. Maybe once one has an e-pass, one can’t get a paper pass. Anyway, time is passing. Let’s get through security.

I go to the main security entrance, show somebody there my phone with the scannable square, and he says that’s fine, just go through and make sure to go left. But there must be hundreds in line, and I had used United mileage to upgrade to first class, so I ask where the first class line is. Actually, I knew. It’s way down at the end of the building, which is where he points me. I race over there and discover a line that, while much shorter than the standard line, is not short at all. Priority boarding it’s called. It snakes back and forth about four times before leading to the lone TSA agent, who is doing that stare-at-your-pass-and-license thing. I’m starting to get anxious.

I suppose it took 10 minutes to snake through, during which time I got to study the options once one passes the ID inspection. There are two conveyor belt lines, to the left and to the right. Most people go right. Left is shorter. But right has a body scanner. The odd thing is, not everyone is going through it. Most go through the traditional metal detectors. A handful are directed to the scanner. I figure I’ll just choose the conveyor belt to the left when the time comes.

It’s maybe 2:22 now. I reach the ID guy. I show him my phone and he says he can’t read it. One needs to read it with a scanning tool, and he doesn’t have one. I should go way back to the left, toward the main security line ID checkers, whom I can reach by walking along a wall, squeezing past the main flow of people heading to the conveyor belts. And then, once my phone is scanned, I can return to the priority line’s conveyor belts.

Anxiety increasing. I do as I’m told, squeeze pass a hundred people, reach the regular ID checkers from behind, get the attention of one of them, approach (in effect cutting ahead of the line, except I’m coming to it from the other direction), and show him my phone. He looks at me like I’m out of my mind, shrugs, and says he can’t scan it. I explain that I was told to come this way from the priority line. He shrugs again, not too concerned, and says there’s only one scanner, and it’s at the other end. He suggests I go out and get a paper pass. I ask if I’ll have to get in the line again. I don’t know that he gave a clear answer to that, but I point out that I didn’t want to miss my flight. Again, not his problem. Finally he says he’ll have to get his supervisor. He speaks into some walkie-talkie, no response, takes the next person in line, then stands up, looks around, spots Connie over by one of the conveyor belts, and shouts to her. She’s busy taking people’s bags and orienting them correctly on the belt. She nods at him, spends another minute and a half handling bags, then heads in some big circle away from the conveyor belt and possibly toward us, though I can’t be sure. She has to pass through some area accessible only to TSA staff, then emerges near us, fusses with something on the other TSA ID checker’s counter, looks at my guy, finds that he needs a scanner, and then she disappears back to that private TSA area again. I have no idea what she’s doing, but she clearly is in no hurry to help me. I ask my guy again what my options are. He says look, he asked his lead for help, she’ll ask her lead, and her lead may have to ask his lead, and so on. I can’t tell if he’s serious or just being an ass. But he obviously isn’t too concerned about my plight. I ask if I could just be interviewed, answer some standard questions. No, my pass needs scanning. I explain that United said this would work. He suggests, in effect, that I should complain to United, it’s not his or TSA’s problem. I say okay, if I get a printed pass, can I come right back? He says sure.

It’s getting later and later. I race out some non-standard security exit, head to a machine, and this time it will let me print my boarding documents. I run back to the exit, the two TSA people there move to stop me. I point to the ID guy, say he knows me, he sent me out to get a printed pass. They look at him, he nods, they let me through, I run up to him. Connie is back. She starts to shout at me to stop, but I point to my guy, he nods to her, and she lets me be. I hand him my boarding pass. But now a new panic. Where’s my license? I can’t find it. It’s not in my wallet. Turns out, I had been carrying it up against my iPhone the whole time, the two held tightly together, and he sees it. He pulls it out of my hand, gives it a quick look, hands it back. I’m through.

Now back to priority security to get on one of the two conveyor belt lines. This time they are both far longer than when I left them behind. I choose one, which doesn’t move for about two minutes. Some problem with someone’s bag I guess. But I see myself missing my flight. Should I cut 15 people, say I’m about to miss the flight, and ask to be let in? It’s 2:30. My flight is 3:20, boarding at 2:50. I’m probably okay. The line begins to move. Slowly. I get through, get my laptop and iPad back in my bag, my iPhone back in my pocket, my shoes back on.

It’s 2:38. B-9. B-9. Where’s gate B-9. Ah, right in front of me. I have somehow come out of security directly in front of my gate. I’m going to make my plane! I search unsuccessfully for a nearby men’s room, then remember that in the B concourse, I need to walk a ways from the center to find one. To heck with it. I get on line at the priority boarding area, and 5 minutes later we’re boarding.

All that anxiety for nothing.

But really, how was I to know? When I got to the TSA ID guy and he got Connie and she came over, then walked off without a word, I was not convinced that I was ever going to get through security. They so obviously didn’t care about my problem, which was between me and United.

So, by the way, what’s the deal United? Why roll out e-boarding passes, offer the option of downloading one when you check in, but not tell you that your options for getting the pass read by TSA are extremely limited? There’s no apparent coordination with TSA to lead you to the right place. There are no signs directing you to a line that can handle it. You’re pretty much on your own.

I won’t have to think hard next time. I’ll just print my boarding pass. And maybe leave the meeting earlier.

Categories: Security, Technology, Travel

It Arrived

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I wrote a week ago about my extreme unhappiness with Apple, after learning that my iPhone 4 order had been put through wrong and there was nothing they could do about it. My only option was to cancel the order and make a new one. Gail and Joel had already been using their new iPhones for a week. The low blow was when Apple’s rep wished me a great day.

Well, life moves on. I decided to put through the new order with AT&T rather than Apple. The website said I had a two-to-three week wait. But you know what? Five days later, this past Sunday, I got email from AT&T that the phone was shipping via FedEx, overnight delivery. It left Fort Worth on Monday, headed to Indianapolis. Something went wrong somewhere along the line, as it sat in Indianapolis from just past midnight Tuesday morning to late Tuesday afternoon. It didn’t get here by 3:00 PM Tuesday, as it was supposed to. No big deal. It got to Seattle early yesterday morning, was put on a truck at 7:30, and arrived here 12:45 yesterday afternoon.

I opened the box, synced the phone with iTunes on my computer, activated the phone online with AT&T, and that was that. I never thought I’d like AT&T more than Apple, but I do now.

Is it great? You know, it has all these features that the second generation iPhone lacked, like video and speed. And it has a better camera, with both front- and rear-facing lenses. As Apple has been advertising, this allows you to have video chats with another iPhone 4 owner, using the new FaceTime feature, in which your partner can see you or, if you switch lenses, you can show other people or whatever else you want to point the camera at. This is pretty cool, but you do need another iPhone 4 owner to use it with, for now anyway, and you both need to be connected to the internet via WiFi, since AT&T doesn’t yet support FaceTime through their 3G network (too much data for them to handle). Once my iPhone was working, the first thing I did was try to FaceTime Gail and Joel, but it woudn’t work. I then called Joel, and he reminded me about the WiFi issue. They were out at a supermarket, without WiFi.

So, the new iPhone hasn’t much changed my life. At least not yet. I’m happy to have it, but most of what I will use it for I could as well have done with the old one. Except, that speed sure will be appreciated when I’m using the internet.

Steve, I can’t say all is forgiven. But I’m moving on.

Categories: Technology

Have a Great Day!

July 15, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve written a few posts about waiting for my new iPhone 4, most recently here, where I noted that Gail and Joel had received theirs and mine hadn’t even shipped yet. Well, it turns out there was a reason mine hadn’t shipped. I screwed up. But I can’t help feeling that the real screwer-upper here is Apple. And I’m finding that our relationship has been damaged.

Let me explain. Like over a million others, I rushed to order our new iPhones when buying season began last month. And like the majority of the others, I was unable to get my order placed. Nor could I the next day. When I tried again six days later, it worked, sort of. I logged in, ordered mine, ordered Gail’s, and was told by the system that something had gone wrong — I was trying to order too many phones. I understood that you can order only one phone per existing phone line, but I assumed I could buy all three in one order, provided they matched up with three lines. Once I realized that this was in fact not the case, that each phone order had to be placed separately, I went back to the shopping cart and deleted Gail’s phone order (or so I thought). Then I went into the store again and ordered a second phone, tied to Gail’s line, placed the order, started again, and placed a third order, tied to Joel’s line. Three phones, three lines, three orders. Done. I was told to expect shipment by July 14.

Early last week, email arrived announcing that Gail’s had shipped. Ten minutes later, Joel’s shipped. But not mine. And still not mine when theirs arrived last Friday. Still not mine Monday, but of course it wasn’t July 14 yet. I would be patient.

And then Monday night I got an email from Apple saying that as I had already been informed (I hadn’t), there was a problem with my order. Apple couldn’t get my phone set up with my phone number prior to shipping. Two possible explanations were given — a problem with AT&T billing, or the possibility that I had ordered multiple phones on a single line. Whatever the problem, the email said it was between me and AT&T and I was urged to call them to straighten it out. Apple would keep trying to complete the order through July 15. If they failed then, the order would be cancelled.

Yikes! I called AT&T immediately. After a long wait, I reached someone. He asked me to look up my order number and I stared at the three original order confirmations to see which one was for my phone. Only then, to my shock and dismay, I saw that two of the three orders had Gail’s phone number attached and the third had Joel’s. Somehow, at the beginning of the process, when I tried to order Gail’s and mine at once and was told I had ordered too many, I deleted the order attached to my line rather than the order attached to Gail’s. I then ordered Gail’s phone, then Joel’s, but really had inadvertently ordered zero for me, two for Gail, one for Joel. The AT&T rep said sorry, but this was between me and Apple, and I’d have to call them.

I called Apple next, but they were closed. The automated fellow insisted he could help me, only to throw up his hands, as it were. So I waited until Tuesday morning. The same automated fellow once again insisted on helping me, but eventually he relented and let me join the queue for a live customer service representative. I was then warned regularly about heavy call volumes. After maybe a little over half an hour, someone came on the line.

Okay, so, if you’re following, all I wanted to do was change the phone number on my order. In fact, all I needed was to change a single digit by 1. I had my doubts though. I was prepared to be told that this was impossible, that I would have to cancel my order and start again. My only hope was that Apple would take pity on me and put my new order at the head of the line.

Ha! The Apple rep’s first words were a statement about how we at Apple are committed to excellent service, or something even more emphatic than that. I then explained my problem, after which he immediately explained that he couldn’t correct the phone number. I would have to cancel the order and make a new one. Did that mean, I asked, that I would be put at the back of the queue. Yes. He didn’t offer to move me up, didn’t express sympathy or regret, didn’t express anything. Maybe he didn’t owe me any of that. I’m the one who screwed up, after all, though the truth is, I’m not entirely convinced I screwed up, by which I mean that I’m not sure I deleted the wrong order. But whether I did or not, I could have read the emails that came back to me confirming the orders and reviewed the phone numbers. I had it in my power, that is, to discover the error early on, whoever’s error it was.

Once I confirmed that he could do nothing to help me, I asked how exactly Apple was demonstrating their commitment to excellent service. He didn’t have much to say to that. He did ask if I wanted him to cancel the order for me. I said he may as well, since it had to be cancelled. He then said it was done and I would receive confirming email within 24 hours. Anything else? No. He then closed with, yes, you guessed it, “Have a Great Day!” That put me over the edge. I asked him how exactly I was supposed to do that, now that my phone order of three weeks earlier had just been cancelled, and pointed out that this might be a time when he shouldn’t follow the script, that it was patronizing and gratuitous. He acted offended, letting me know firmly that he followed no script. There was no useful direction for the conversation to go, so at that point we said goodbye.

If Gail and Joel didn’t already have their iPhones, and if I weren’t eager to share the pleasures of Apple FaceTime with them, I might just have ordered an Android-based phone next. I didn’t. I went to AT&T, fed up with Apple, and put through a new iPhone 4 order. Two to three weeks. We’ll see.

Categories: Stupidity, Technology

Our Master Speaks

June 7, 2010 Leave a comment

I couldn’t make it down to San Francisco for this year’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC10). But thanks to live bloggers, I can follow Steve Jobs’ opening keynote address, which started 45 minutes ago. Right now I’m following via Engadget’s Joshua Topolsky.

What a great experience! We get to learn, virtually live, about our lord and master’s next gift to us. These days, Gail and I spend our evenings side by side, iPads in hand. (She got hers a week ago.) Soon we will be able to replace our second-generation iPhones with iPhone 4’s, which is what Steve is revealing to us now. And Topolsky’s live blog includes photos, such as the one above.

Gotta go. I’m missing the latest.

Categories: Technology

Tweeting my Posts

April 17, 2010 Leave a comment

It worked! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s supposed to work. I noted moments ago in my last post that just before writing it, I had “tried to link my twitter and wordpress accounts so that each time I publish a post, an accompanying tweet will appear.” I wasn’t confident that it would work. I had spent ten minutes looking for such an option within my wordpress settings, then found a couple of third-party plug-ins that were designed to link the two accounts. I downloaded one, but couldn’t figure out how to install it. I signed up for the other, but couldn’t get it to work either. And then I found a simple box to check in my second search through wordpress settings that purported to send my posts to twitter. I checked it, was taken to a twitter page to give the wordpress application permission, and that was that. The thing is, how did twitter know who I was? When wordpress sent me over there, twitter didn’t ask me to identify myself. It just asked for my permission to tweet URL’s for my blog posts. That was the principal source of my skepticism.

Rather than think too deeply about this puzzle, I decided I should simply test the link. If it works, who cares why? I wrote a post, published it, and checked my twitter page. There it was, a new tweet — Nocera Returns: http://wp.me/pkHKn-Cb — consisting of the title of my post and an abbreviated URL for the post.

WordPress also provides the option, with another settings click, of having my posts appear as facebook updates. A number of my FB friends, whose blogs I already subscribe to, do that. But I’m not ready. I’ve been a passive facebook user, posting a status update only once, two Septembers ago, and deciding I had gone too far. I’m not ready to change just yet.

Categories: Technology

Antietam, Gettysburg, Books, Kindle

April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ll be in DC the week after next for some business. Gail will join me at the end, and two weeks from tomorrow we will take our first Civil War battlefield trip. That Saturday, we’ll drive up to Antietam National Battlefield, where we hope to get a tour with a local battlefield guide. We’ll then continue on to Gettysburg, where we’ll be staying at a bed and breakfast for two nights. The next day we’ll spend visiting Gettysburg National Military Park, where again we hope to have the help of a local guide. (I called this morning for guides and may be too late for Antietam. I’m awaiting a call back on Gettysburg, which seems to have an army of guides, so I assume we will succeed in reserving a tour.) I’m excited. This is long overdue. Perhaps it will be the first of many such trips.

Yesterday afternoon I looked into books we might read in preparation. Many years ago, I read James McPherson’s mammoth Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. I could try re-reading it. It’s so physically large that it would be a candidate for buying again in its Kindle version, though the Kindle is a disaster when it comes to displaying maps and photographs. Instead, I looked for books focused specifically on the two battles. For Antietam, I found another of McPherson’s books, the slim Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: the Battle That Changed the Course of the American Civil War. And what do you know, he has an even slimmer book on Gettysburg, Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, in the superb Crown Journeys series of travel books. (I wrote about another member of the series, Frank Conroy’s Time & Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket, in one of the first posts for this blog.)

After a little more searching, I decided to buy McPherson’s two books. Now what? Buy the physical book or the electronic Kindle version? Or, maybe buy my first electronic books from the Apple store, for the iPad. Well, I eliminated the last possibility quickly — they aren’t available. But both were available for Kindle. Then I remembered that the Kindle is a map-viewing disaster, and surely I would want to study battlefield maps. On the other hand if I got the books on the Kindle, Gail and I could read them simultaneously. And I love the Crown Journeys series so much that maybe I would buy the Gettysburg book in both forms, one for maps and as a keepsake, the other for immediate access and simultaneous reading. As a starting point, I might as well get both for the Kindle, and that’s what I did.

I read the opening material of both and soon found myself looking at a map of Antietam. It was terrible. Useless. Ah, but the iPad has a free Kindle app, which I downloaded last week when I brought the iPad home. (Once one buys a Kindle book, one can download it to the Kindle itself or to the iPhone or the iPad). I downloaded the Antietam book, paged through it for the map, and it worked! I could do the usual two-finger expansion motion, as one would with photographs or webpages, getting the map to fill the screen, and it was entirely legible. A win for the iPad. On the other hand, the iPad is sufficiently heavier, and larger in size, that it’s not comfortable to hold with one hand, so for basic text reading I’m sure I will prefer the Kindle. If I’m willing to travel with both, I can use the Kindle for most reading, switching to the iPad version for maps and photos.

This may not be the best solution, but it will do. Another weakness of electronic reading, even if I’m satisfied with the quality of the graphics, is that it’s not as easy to return to reference items — maps, photos, family trees — as in a book. You can’t just flip back to a particular spot. You can mark a page. I’ll have to do that with the maps. But still, just turning to the desired page in a book seems a lot easier. Or maybe it’s just more familiar. Maybe I’ll get used to the electronic equivalent.

I didn’t mention it, but before I headed east at the beginning of March, I bought Kindle versions of two new travel books whose reviews convinced me that I had to have them: Peter Hassler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory and Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today . I thought they would be perfect reading on the trip. I got on the plane to Philadelphia to start the trip and immediately started reading Conover’s book. (One problem with electronic reading — when the plane’s doors shut, you have to shut the device until you’re 10,000 feet in the air. But there’s always the airline flight magazine.) I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I ordered the books. I just figured I could carry both on the trip easily, thanks to the Kindle, but I forgot about the map issue. Each chapter of Conover’s book recounts a different trip, opening with the tracking of the source of mahogany being used for expensive furniture in New York, from New York backwards to the Peruvian coast, over the Andes, and down into the Amazon basin. As I began to read, I realized that a map would be useful. I then saw that the author helpfully provides one. But on the Kindle, forget it. Amazon is going to have to figure out a way to improve its graphics presentation. As a start, a higher-contrast touch screen would help, with the ability to zoom in and out by Apple-style pinching moves. No doubt this will appear in time.

Categories: Books, History, Technology, Travel

Gathering For Gardner

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I wrote two days ago about buying an iPad, mentioning in passing that one of the apps I had downloaded for it was the WSJ app. Yesterday I explored how it works. It’s really good. What it does is download and keep on the iPad the last seven days of the paper. The next day — if you bring up the app the next day — it deletes the oldest of the seven days and downloads the current day. You select the day you want, choose the section of the paper you want, and then start reading. In one mode, all the articles of that section are listed in a column on the right. When you tap on one of the articles, it comes up, with the column still there on the right so that you can go straight to any other article you wish. To continue reading a multi-page article, or to go back a page, you do the standard horizontal swipe.

Of course, this isn’t free. I don’t know what it costs to subscribe anew. As a print/online subscriber, I get iPad access, for now, at no additional cost. Apparently the WSJ will soon charge print subscribers.

Anyway, since we were back in New York a week ago, we didn’t get last Friday’s paper. As I explored the iPad edition of the WSJ yesterday, I realized I could look at Friday’s missed paper with just a tap. So I did, heading straight to the Weekend Journal, where I happily discovered an article on Martin Gardner that I would otherwise have missed. It’s a rare day when any major newspaper has an article with mathematical content. I’m glad I found this one.

Though not himself a mathematician, Gardner is one of history’s great popularizers of mathematics, through his long-running “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. He is as well one of the great debunkers of pseudo-science. The WSJ article describes the 9th annual conference in honor of Gardner, held two weeks ago in Atlanta. From the article:

. . . a four-day conference in honor of Martin Gardner, 95, a public intellectual whose most famous pulpit was “Mathematical Games,” written for Scientific American between 1956 and 1981. Mr. Gardner’s column illuminated the beauty of math and logic in discussions of fractals, origami, optical illusions, puzzles and pseudoscience. It challenged readers to discover how finely math and logic are interwoven through the world.

. . .

Puzzles are instructive, Mr. Gardner found, for they teach us to appreciate hidden structures of the world that are not owned by any particular discipline and are potentially useful to all. He saw the world as resembling not a magazine, where the subject of each section bears little relation to that of the next, but a well-written novel, where ideas introduced in one chapter are apt to reappear—transformed, modulated and extended—in others. He taught his readers to see the world in the same way, inculcating in them an openness and alertness to the often surprising possibilities of the world, and the desire to seek them out.

Categories: Math, Newspapers, Technology

iPad Fever

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Yes, I succumbed. I knew I would. It was just a matter of when. And when came late this afternoon.

I have known for a long time that I wanted an Apple tablet computer. Whenever I sit around the house with my MacBook Air, I realize it’s the wrong product. If I want to type, I’ll sit at my desk. When I carry it around to other rooms, I use it to check email, read the NYT or other news in the browser, look at my calendar, maybe look up some statistic as I watch a sporting event. Holding my laptop is awkward. There are two planes, two flat surfaces, and I want only one.

I had a tablet PC for a couple of years. It had its own problems. It got too hot to hold comfortably when I used it for an hour. It was too heavy. It had no touch screen, so I had to click on websites or emails using the tablet pen.

I knew what I wanted. I wanted a lightweight touch screen tablet computer with no physical keyboard. Once I got an iPod Touch (and later an iPhone), the model was clear. And of course, I wanted Apple to make it, since all my other computing is done on Apple products with Apple operating systems, and since I sync my calendars and contacts and browser bookmarks through Apple’s MobileMe cloud computing service.

In effect, I had conceived of the iPad long ago, as it filled the major gap in my computing needs. I was simply waiting for it to appear.

I intended to be patient. At the least, I figured I would wait for the 3G version to come out later this month.* And since we were in New York over the weekend, there was no danger that I would buy it right away. But the more I read, the more tempted I became, and then I realized yesterday that Apple Stores had stock. If one ordered online from Apple, one would have to wait, but one could drop by a store and walk out with one. I was on campus this afternoon for a meeting. Afterwards, I went down the hill to the University Village Apple Store, tried one out for about 15 minutes, discussed the memory options with an Apple iPad expert, and made my choice (32GB).

What do I think? Well, I’ve been focused more on setting up tonight than enjoying it. I’ve downloaded Amazon’s Kindle app so I can read my Kindle books on it. Netflix. An app that lets me transfer documents from my computer hard drive to the iPad via our WiFi network and then read them on the iPad. My RSS reader (NetNewsWire). The WSJ app and the weird NYT app that lets you read just a small portion of the NYT, though in a convenient format. The Weather Channel’s app, which seems to think my location is Boston.

Oh, that’s another problem with not waiting for the 3G version. The WiFi version lacks not just 3G connectivity but also GPS. I figured I could do without. I have GPS on my iPhone. I don’t expect to be walking down the street with the iPad in hand, trying to find a restaurant. But maybe with GPS the Weather Channel app might have realized I’m not in Boston.

Do I love it? Not yet. But then, for the most part, it does what I expected. No surprises. Happy? Yes. In love? Maybe not.

What I take on our next trip will be the subject of a future post. The contenders: iPhone, iPad, Kindle, MacBook Air. Do I need all four? I sure hope not.

*The version released on Saturday connects to the internet by WiFi only. It comes in three forms, the only difference being how much flash memory it carries — 16 or 32 or 64 GB. The version yet to be released will connect through AT&T’s 3G cellular network as well as WiFi. It too will come with three memory options, and each one will be $130 more than the WiFi-only version. To use the 3G network, one will have to pay AT&T for a data plan, but unlike with the iPhone, no contract will be required. You can pay as you go.

Categories: Technology