In Lieu of a Picture of the Week

To the scores (small handful? one?) of you who rush here every Sunday to see what photographic miracle I’ve managed to wrest from my surroundings each week, I regret to report that there will be no such wonder this week. It seems that Thursday night’s upgrade of Mac OS X led to Friday morning’s difficulty starting my computer, followed by Friday evening’s failure to start my computer at all, likely the result of a defunct video card. Whether or not that’s a strictly causal chain will remain a question for the ages, but regardless of the answer, I don’t currently have a working computer. I have taken many pictures this weekend (perhaps more than usual), but they sit on the SD card in my camera, unprocessed.

My initial experience of these problems was almost jaunty. Once it became clear Friday afternoon that my computer wouldn’t start, I was able to bring up the Apple Store app on my phone and get an appointment at the Genius Bar of the closest Apple Store for an hour an a half hence. Lugging the sixty or so pounds of the computer down to a cab and from the cab down to the Genius Bar in the store’s basement wasn’t all happiness and light on such a muggy evening, but once there, I was able to check in from my phone, grab a stool, and begin e-mailing and tweeting. In fact, I was able to continue to do so right through my appointment, when the video card issue was tentatively diagnosed. I just had to sign some paperwork, and was on my way home, trying to imagine what the analogous experience would be for the owner of a Windows-based (or even more unfathomable, Linux-based) computer. Where would they go? How many phone calls and discussions would arranging such assistance require?

I went home feeling somewhat smug knowing that all of my data–pictures, music, movies, everything–was archived at least two or three times over, and that everything I would need in the interim–e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, 500px, and all that the Internet has to offer–would be easily available through both my phone and my iPad. It would be like being on vacation, reading, staying in touch, and taking all of the pictures I wanted until I (or, in this case, my computer) got home.

But as the weekend’s worn on, I’ve found habit’s need to resume a bit stronger than is comfortable. It doesn’t help that I was in the process of revisiting and revising selected pictures dating from last fall to the present in preparation for moving a selection of my stronger (for lack of a more suitably subjective adjective) pictures to the newly discovered 500px. I was more than halfway through that process, and was looking forward to seeing it done. My sense of deprivation only increased as I took more and more pictures (several of which I’m really looking forward to seeing on a screen larger than that on the back of my camera) that I wouldn’t be able to process until some as yet undetermined date. I keep walking past my computer monitor, surprised that the screensaver isn’t on.

I’m taking advantage of the opportunity, if you can call it that, that having to reinstall everything will provide. With 2 TB hard drives now under $100, I can further increase my redundant storage capacity with fresh, new drives, and I can get rid of some detritus that, as geekily impressive as it is to have, really isn’t useful. That will certainly include VirtualBox, and maybe even Eclipse and XCode (finally signaling what is likely the irreversible entry into the post-developer phase of my life). But opportunity though it is, I’m not looking forward to restoring all those terabytes of data and backing them up anew before I can really get back to work. So pardon me if I’m a little grumpier than usual for the next week or two.

Follow the Bouncing Mind

I first heard of Maxwell’s Demon in Thomas Pynchon‘s The Crying of Lot 49. In the novel, a character builds a box that seeks to exploit the apparent intersection of the fields of thermodynamics and information theory, implied by their similar use of the idea of entropy, to create a perpetual motion apparatus. His device, a box to all appearances, employs Maxwell’s Demon inside along with a “sensitive” outside to cause one half of the box to become warmer, allowing a piston to be driven. The upshot of all of these abstrusities is the suggestion that information or attention can be used to do actual work.

The idea of the attention economy, with attention replacing money as the basis of exchange, that was all the rage during the first Internet bubble of the late 1990s sounded similar. I don’t know that many of the theory’s adherents from a decade ago still hold out the same hopes for it, but it was from those ashes that Google and other clever Web-based companies arose, and now we’re beginning to see the possibility of doing interesting things with attention. Weblogs were perhaps a first, clumsy step in this direction, and things like Twitter and Tumblr are refinements of the concept. But what I’m finding most interesting these days is the sharing built into Google Reader.

One of the immediate appeals of a Weblog to me was being able to draw connections, and thus potentially convey a great deal more information than the few paragraphs I have the time to write every now and then. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been such a heavy user of hyperlinks since I started my first Weblog. I’ve never believed that what I have to say is interesting or complete in and of itself, but I do think that what I have to say about what others have said or the connections that I can draw might be of some interest to a handful of people. Yet even then, as this entry attests, I still have to do a fair amount of writing to accomplish this in a Weblog. But with Google Reader sharing, I can, just like Maxwell’s Demon, simply point (and maybe add a note for context) and others are able to follow my train of thought without my having to write it out (which has always been frustrating even at the best of times).

So like Eric before me, I invite you to follow along. You can use the Google Reader link at left, under “Currently Reading,” to see the articles I’m sharing, or you can use the “Subscribe in Google” link at right, under “Details,” to subscribe to this Weblog and set up a Google Reader account if you don’t already have one. I recommend setting up an account of your own if you can. It’s the best way to read the Web, and it works very nicely across platforms. (As an aside, Google–ironically, given their guise as a competitor in the form of Android–has done considerably more to make my iPhone useful than a Mobile Me account and all of the non-Google-driven applications in the App Store.) And if you have a Google Reader account, or you set one up, share and share alike. I want everyone to know what I think, but to think, I need to know what others are thinking.

Three Out of Three

Yesterday, I asked sardonically, as Dick put it, teasingly even, of my plans to get my phone fixed, “How can anything go wrong?” Dick rightly pointed out that I was needlessly tempting fate. Somewhere in the midst of my attempts to restore my dementia-riddled phone’s firmware, I managed to corrupt the Apple Mobile Device Service on my desktop computer. Luckily, a quick Google search yielded a relatively simple solution, and at least my desktop computer was working properly again. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the restoration did nothing for the phone. So I left things as they were for the night, and took the subway down to keep my Genius Bar appointment this morning.

I was there a little early, and the Genius saw me at about 9:25 for my 9:30 appointment. I walked out of the store at 9:37 with a working phone. I showed him the phone’s addled behavior and explained what happened. He examined the phone’s various openings with what looked like an otoscope (where have I seen one of those recently?) and couldn’t see any water damage. Therefore, he said, the phone was defective through no fault of my own. Had it still been within the warranty period (which it would have been three weeks ago), he would have given a free replacement. As it was, I had to pay $200 for the replacement, which was a solution I was pretty happy with.

I didn’t know first generation iPhones were still available, but getting one meant I wouldn’t have to commit to a new two-year contract with AT&T. The iPhone 3G contract options are more expensive than the first generation options, I don’t really need the boost in network speed given the way I use the phone, and my existing contract will end next summer, just in time to get next year’s version of the iPhone without having to convert an existing contract, or maybe even see what sort of Android phones will be available. I was worried that I’d be faced with the choice of either paying a termination fee on my existing contract or paying $400 for an iPhone 3G (since I was still under an existing contract) and committing to a new two-year contract. Given what others have lost to tropical weather lately, I’m going to count myself lucky on this one.

From Our Correspondent in the Field

I thought I’d try the new WordPress app for the iPhone. I’m at the Shambhala Center almost a half hour before class, and no one else is around, so why not? The app is simple to use, and it allows me to write, tag, categorize, and post entries, as well as allowing me to edit already posted entries. It even allows to post pictures taken with or otherwise on the phone. Except for the frustrations of typing on a phone, especially the near impossibility of entering HTML, this seems to work pretty well.

I went back to the ear doctor yesterday. This was a follow up from last week’s appointment, at which we discovered a setback. About a quarter of the tissue in the ear has become mucosa. The rest is becoming healthy, mature skin–that’s the good news. The bad news is that ultimately, all of the tissue in the ear (including the eardrum) will be either mucosa or dry skin. If we can’t win the battle for this quarter of the tissue, we’ll lose the war for the whole ear canal.

Thus far, we haven’t had any success getting mucosa in my ear to turn into dry skin, probably, my doctor speculates, because of an underlying case of eczema. Sort of at my suggestion, we decided last week to put wicking in the ear and use steroid and antibiotic drops. When we checked back yesterday, things looked better–the same tissue was mucosa, but it was a much thinner layer of it. We have managed to get to this point in the past, at which the normal course would be to stop treaemt, and after which things would be expected to heal normally. But that’s never been what’s happened. My doctor actually looked at me yesterday, palms up, and asked, “What do you think we should do?” I suggested continuing with the wicking and the drops and checking back next week, which is what we’re going to do.

I’m ambivalent about having such a significant say in my ongoing treatment. [And that’s as much as I can type on a phone in half an hour. Now I’m on the subway home.] On the one hand I like having real influence over what happens, and it does really seem that the critical thinking and problem solving that I use in the various facets of software development are broadly applicable. On the other hand, I’d really like to be taken care of. But given the situation, I think this is evolving as well as I could hope. I’m mildly optimistic. We’re trying something new in extending this treatment further than we have in the past, and because three quarters of the tissue healed properly this time, more air can get into the ear, giving it a better chance of healing properly. We’ll find out next week if my optimism is justified.

Stalking Made Easy

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reorganizing my Internet persona. I now have things organized into three interconnected sites. I have this very site for general writing, including the Pages section, which contains longer, more formal pieces. I have a .mac site for pictures and music (the pictures probably being of much more interest than the music). And I have a MOG for writing about music. I’ve been updating things a little more frequently lately, but I can’t make any promises that I’ll continue at even this modest rate.

And all of these sites include RSS feeds–the writing, the pictures, the music (which would technically be a podcast), and the writing about music–so you can subscribe and never miss any of it. If I get really organized, I might even create a Dashboard widget, so that people with a Mac can keep up with all of it in one place. But that will take a bit more work.

Macbook Air Revisited

My attempt to install OS X on a Macbook Air over a wireless network was ultimately unsuccessful. Five hours into the process, with roughly 2 GB transferred and the install process still less than half done, my desktop computer dropped its wireless connection. The desktop had dropped its connection a few times yesterday while I was syncing movies over to the AppleTV, but I was able to achieve much higher throughput for those transfers, moving over 2 GB in less than half an hour (a feat that I’m repeating while writing this). I think the dropped connection is actually a different problem than the excruciatingly slow installation, but I’m hardly a wireless expert.

Rather than trying again, I physically connected the laptop and my wife’s desktop to the Airport base station, and did the installation that way. That worked flawlessly, and it didn’t take any longer than an installation from an internal DVD drive. With the operating system and iLife installed, I then tried installing iWork and Aperture from my wife’s desktop using Remote Disc over the wireless network, and that also worked flawlessly. So it seems that the networked installation options for the Macbook Air can work if the other computer and the wireless base station are in the same room as the laptop. But I do I think those alternatives would benefit from better status reporting. If I knew exactly how things were going and what was slowing things down with the initial installation attempt, I would have been in a better position to correct things or to know that I should give up.

Having gotten through the initial configuration of the computer in less than a day, I was able to begin using it today, and as I expected, it does everything I need in day-to-day use. Again, it’s really small. Carrying it back and forth to work was much easier than carrying my old Macbook. Two pounds makes a big difference. But despite its size it has a great keyboard and monitor, and it seems snappy enough. I didn’t notice any pauses or delays as I was using it. I think it’s probably viable as a second computer if you’re patient, but I don’t think it would work as someone’s only computer, and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who’s not comfortable with the inconveniences that seem to go with the newest technologies.

Macbook Air

Today I received my new Macbook Air. I pondered for a few weeks before getting it. My mind was finally made up by the fact that my brother-in-law could use my current Macbook, so I decided to upgrade. For day-to-day use, it offers everything I need and nothing I don’t, making it 40% lighter than the Macbook that I was lugging back and forth to work every day.

The first experience is that it’s small. It starts with the box it comes in. And the thinness and lightness of the computer itself aren’t adequately conveyed through the Web site or the television commercials, or even by seeing it in person. You have to hold it to get an adequate sense of just how compact and portable it really is. So it’s small, which I haven’t heard anyone deny.

The question that has stimulated all of the discussion, much of it remarkably petty and acrimonious, is does it achieve that smallness in a reasonable way? And that discussion generally centers on the exclusion of an optical drive and a FireWire port. While a Mac laptop will handle pretty much all day-to-day tasks without those, they’re very useful for initial set-up, installing new software, and diagnosing and recovering from various sorts of failures. In their place, Apple offers a variety of wireless alternatives. They also offer an add-on optical drive. So are the wireless options in a world of high bandwidth wireless connectivity sufficient? No. In my experience thus far, not even close.

When I opened up the box and pulled the computer out, the first thing I did was begin to reinstall the operating system. I generally do this when I get a new computer anyway, but in this case, I especially wanted to do it to be sure that, on an 80 GB hard drive, the operating system and bundled software took up as little space as possible and to see how the remote installation process works. So far, it’s simple and robust, but it’s unbelievably slow. On an 802.11n network using all Apple hardware and with only other 802.11n devices connected, I’m about 10% of the way through the installation process after two and a half hours. Where Apple was able to successfully do away with floppy drives before other hardware makers, it looks like they’ve been a bit premature in their attempt to do away with optical drives in favor of wireless alternatives. This just isn’t viable yet. I don’t know if it’s a hardware or software issue, but for now, the external optical drive should be considered part of the price and, perhaps, carrying weight of the Macbook Air. I hope it’s a software issue, so that I’ll see the benefit of its resolution.

Winner by Default

Apple went a little crazy with the iPod announcements today. There’s the iPod touch, for when you want to carry something larger than any previous iPod in order to have 16 gigabytes of media with you or when you find yourself in a wi-fi hotspot without a computer. And there’s the iPod nano, which is much bulkier than the previous iPod nano in order to accommodate video, but still isn’t large enough to actually watch video on. The iPod classic, on the other hand, with 160 gigabytes of storage in an enclosure just over half an inch thick, is damned impressive.

The three trends that I see emerging from these announcements are the whole line (with the exception of the screenless iPod shuffle) offering video playback, the touch screen interface from the iPhone moving into the iPod line, and wi-fi moving from the iPhone to the iPod line as well. On the basis of sheer Apple-focused consumer hysteria (an increasingly widespread phenomenon) alone, I think these will all prove successful, but I’m not sure if they really should.

I see a lot of iPods on the subway, which really is the ideal environment for iPods, and it’s very rare that I see anyone watching video on them. If they’re not being used to watch video there, where is this demand for video playback on iPods coming from? Are people watching their iPods while they drive? Or are they watching in their living rooms and ignoring their televisions? And the touch screen interface really only makes sense for video playback and other operations (such as browsing the Internet or reading and writing e-mail) unrelated to music playback. It only works if you hold the iPod out in front of you, and most people listening to music seem to prefer to manipulate playback (control volume, skip songs, etc.) with the iPod in their pockets or in a case, for which the click-wheel is great and the touch screen is pretty much useless. And finally, until wi-fi availability becomes much more widespread than it is now, I’m not sure how often one will find themselves with wi-fi access but no computer.

But my misgivings aside, Apple is now far ahead of anyone else in the portable media market. As one commenter on Gizmodo‘s liveblog of the event put it, “Zune is going to have to step it up juuuust a little bit,” and I don’t think today’s $50 price cut will be quite sufficient. And in this context, NBC’s move from the iTunes store to Amazon’s Unbox looks especially badly timed. Those two non-Apple announcements say, I think, more about why Apple has been so much more successful than its competitors in this market than any announcement Apple made today. They represent two efforts to undermine Apple’s nascent digital media monopoly, they’re both Microsoft-based, and they’re not even compatible with each other. Content providers, seeking alternatives to Apple’s iTunes store (and still insisting on the illusion of protection from piracy), are providing their content through one version of Windows Media, and Microsoft, seeking to compete with the iPod product line, is providing media through a different, incompatible version of Windows Media.