Monday, December 24, 2012

Windows - Now Cheaper Than Ever

NOW how much would you pay?

For months I've been watching the approach of Windows 8 with dread. Ever since I tried running one of the preview versions in a virtual machine it's been giving me the heebie jeebies every time I see an ad for that screen full of multicolored tiles.

Anticipating an "intuitive" experience I had attempted to blunder around in it like a normal user might and found myself completely stymied. No start menu. No apparent way to find my programs. No way to quit an "app" or switch between the ones that were open. No apparent way to even turn it off -- I had to force my virtual machine to shut down, the equivalent of pulling the plug, before I discovered that you have to 1) open the "charms" menu, 2) select Settings, 3) select Power, and 4) select Shut down. Or, alternatively,  1) figure out how to log out (click on your user name in the corner of the screen), 2) click in the lock screen to get back to the login page, then 3) click the power button in the corner. Sheesh! Who designed this thing?

But love it or hate it I knew I would have to deal with it someday. I might never run it myself, but sooner or later either my company or one of my family or friends would expect me to be able to help them with it, so I'd better get some familiarity with it. On the other hand, I was reluctant to actually pay for something I didn't want. But Microsoft had an answer for me. For a limited time I could upgrade for only 40 bucks -- and if I had purchased a computer running Windows 7 recently I could get it for even less: $14.99. Wow -- the only deal better than that would come with free steak knives! (Or a free Linux download, but don't get me started on that.)

I hesitated to sacrifice my Windows 7 dual boot installation on my desktop. Even though I seldom use it I have to be able to get real work done when I need it, and the last thing I wanted was those bloody tiles in my face. Anyway, I bought it too long ago to qualify for the $14.99 deal. But wait -- I bought another Windows 7 machine more recently, namely the Acer netbook that I wrote about, and which I wouldn't mind sacrificing to the cause. Especially since I still had the version of Windows 7 that it came with tucked away on the hard drive that I replaced with an SSD, so I could always downgrade.

Best of all, the Acer was purchased within the magic time period that qualified me for the lowest possible price, so it seemed to be a no-brainer. I proceeded with my online purchase, jumping through a couple of hoops to enter a promo code that I had to register for, and then downloaded the approximately 2 gig package for installation.

Right away I detected differences that told me Microsoft is really making an effort to get more hip. Download instead of CD or DVD. Offering ISO files that can be burned to disk, and even packages for USB flash drives. A software assistant that pre-certified my hardware and existing programs for compatibility -- it even cleared LibreOffice! This is not your father's Microsoft, even though Balmer is still at the helm.

First I tried out the ISO file, but learned it was not a "hybrid" image that would boot from a flash drive. So they are still one step behind the convenience of some contemporary Linux distros. But they didn't at all complain when I went back to download the flash drive version. There is also  no option to boot directly into a working version of the OS to try it out before installation -- the "live" disk is still the province of Linux. But this was the first time I ever made it through a fresh Windows installation without any complaints about missing drivers for the built in devices on my motherboard -- and this was on a netbook with wifi card, camera, and touchpad.

The only complaint I have is the amount of disk space it demanded. I had pared down the Windows 7 partition to 40 gigabytes, which gave me about 10 gigs for file storage. There was 8 gigs remaining, but the installation program insisted on having a bit more -- about 8.9. So I uninstalled LibreOffice, deleted files, and ran disk cleanup to increase it to almost 9 gigs free. But now the installer warned me that I "should" have at least 1.2 gigs more than what it told me in the first place. Ah, now this is more like the Windows I'm familiar with.

This disk space issue was just because I had asked it to do an upgrade instead of a fresh install, so it needed enough working room to do its business before overwriting my existing installation. I decided to do a clean install instead. Accordingly I used the partition manager to delete all my partitions -- even the Linux ones -- so I could start from scratch. (Integrating a nice graphical partition editor with the installer is another way they have caught up to Linux installers. Though naturally it only handles FAT and NTFS filesystems.) This time I gave 50 gigs to Windows just to be sure it had plenty of room. The joke is that once the installation was done it only took up 20 gigs, so my original partition would have been ample.

The installation itself was effortless and completed much more quickly than I expected, though I forgot to time it. OK, so installation done -- but how would Windows 8 feel about dual booting with Linux? I was encouraged that the Advisor told me my computer did not support UEFI Secure Boot, so that "feature" would not be available. Yay! And I was further encouraged that the installer told me I should use the Advanced option in case I wanted to dual boot with "other operating systems." But I still had to try it to be sure. So I reinstalled LinuxMint, and voila, I was back to where I started except with Windows 8 in my boot menu instead of 7.

There I was at last, face to face with the dreaded tiles of the Start screen. The touchpad on a netbook is not the best way to do the fancy swiping that the Start screen is designed for. But I knew that touching the Windows key would always whisk me back to the beginning, and that Windows+D would jump to the traditional desktop. And trial and error showed that scrolling up and down on the edge of the trackpad was equivalent to scrolling side to side on the Start screen. A little confusing, but better than click and drag. So I started playing around.

Gee, those tiles are pretty. I think the colors have been designed to appeal to something childlike in us which is attracted to bright geometric objects. They perform a function also, which is to add color coding to the white icons on them, making them easier to recognize. Google could take a lesson from this, since they seem to be seriously challenged when it comes to icon design -- they really prefer words. Apple is at the other end of the spectrum, creating eye candy that resembles 3D objects. The new Windows look is flat, clean, and simple, and there is certainly a design argument to be made for it.

People praise this new interface as "fluid." It does scroll fluidly, and when you click a tile (or touch it) it fluidly flips and expands to fill the screen. Even when you don't touch them they fluidly scroll information updates, such as emails or news feeds. Fluid fluid fluid. The problem comes when you actually try to, well, do something. It soon becomes clear that the apps have been designed for the child in us as well -- the toddler who can only bang on big buttons or Whack the Mole with a hammer.

Gone is the richness and subtlety that have won praise -- however grudging -- for past versions of Windows even from those of us who might prefer to use something else. Windows 7, for example, is about as nice a user experience as I've ever had. I certainly prefer it to OSX, and it offers conveniences that I actually miss when using KDE under Linux. For example, the ability to rename a file while selecting it as an attachment. It doesn't seem like a big thing until you find that without it you have to cancel out of the attach dialog, open a file manager window, find the file and rename it, then go back and select it again.

Then of course there is the schizoid nature of the two separate and competing interfaces that seem to be fighting for your attention. Just when you think you might be able to live in the new world of tiles, something as basic as the Control Panel flips you back into the old world, And you can't really stay in the old world either, because to start a different program you must go back to the tiled Start screen. The fact that third party "start buttons" are selling like hotcakes should be a big red flag to the MS developers.

Another frustration turned out to be trying to watch Netflix. I had just got the movie service to run under Linux using the Wine kludge that made it think it was really running under Windows, but on the netbook playback was so jerky it was unusable. Surely this was something Windows 8, with its fluid fluid fluid interface would excel at, right? Well, I grabbed the free Netflix app from the Store, and it started up smoothly enough. But when I tried to play a movie it failed to load and gave me an error message stating that my video card was not adequate and I should see if there was a new driver for it that was compatible with Windows 8.

Aha, the dreaded driver issue. Unfortunately, the support site for the Radeon graphics reported that I was already using the latest driver. So out of curiosity I fired up my Chrome browser instead of the Netflix app, went to their website, and tried to run a movie that way. Result? NO PROBLEM. So what's the big deal with the app and special drivers? The difference is something to do with that new world of tiles, giving me one more reason to ignore and avoid it.

I fear that for all their bold efforts to strike out in a new direction Microsoft is going to experience the exact opposite of the "halo effect." With Windows phone barely making a dent in the smart phone market they have tried to force us to pay attention to their tiled interface by shoving it under our noses on the desktop. But after learning to hate it there, it is unlikely we'll learn to love it on phones and tablets.

Which is kind of a shame, since it is actually a fresh and interesting attempt at a tactile interface that could be useful on handheld devices, at least after it matures. Unfortunately it was rushed out the door half baked, and it really really REALLY doesn't belong on the desktop.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Exercise in Democracy

"Communista! Communista!" -- Romney supporter, yelling at Obama supporters across the street in front of our polling place.

The attractive, middle-class, thirty-something woman who was also in the group containing the above mentioned Latino loud mouth, called out to people passing by, "We don't want Communism!"

Communism?? Seriously? Like the same Congress that has been unable to agree on a budget for the last four years will suddenly agree to abolish the Constitution? I mean, hasn't the Cold War been over for twenty years now?

Some battles apparently need to be fought in perpetuity, so Saturday found us lining up along with thousands of our fellow citizens just so we could register our own individual drops in the bucket of public opinion. The wonderful thing about this is the way it demonstrates that we are all in this together, and that so many of us are willing to endure the ordeal of standing in line for five or six hours because it is that important.

Yes, we arrived at 3:15 and didn't leave until 8:20, an hour and twenty minutes after the polls had officially closed. Even more incredible is that when we finished the line of people still waiting to get in was only about half as long as it was when we got there. Wow! This is dedication! Some of them must have been there till almost midnight.

And speaking of dedication, how about the long-suffering poll workers, including many volunteers, who stuck with it for so many hours? These people were incredible -- patient, calm, orderly, and careful, even after countless repetitions of the same routine tasks. I was impressed, and didn't mind telling them so.

I know we could have sent in absentee ballots, but then we would have missed this experience. Standing in these lines is like being at a Fourth of July picnic. The County had people giving out bottled water, and there was a snack vendor whipping up hotdogs and arepas (local delicacy). My wife went for takeout while I stood in line and we took turns eating and resting in the folding chair we brought along.

And I have to mention the nice Republican supporter who stood behind us the whole time, and who we got to know a little bit. My first impression of him was not particularly favorable. When someone drove by and shouted, "Obama!" he sneered and said, "Yeah, keep going." So right away I knew where he stood. But over time as we talked about things -- like the bewildering list of State and local amendments, Charter revisions, judgeships, and "non-binding straw poll" questions on the 6-page ballot -- we came to the point where we could actually discuss the issues in a mutually respectful way, regardless of how much we might have to agree to disagree.

We even found areas of agreement. For example, when a pair of cement-mixer trucks made a bizarre appearance, circling the block with horns blaring in support of Romney-Ryan, we both wondered who could possibly expect to influence the votes of people willing to endure these long lines, who certainly must have their minds made up well in advance.

And how was it possible for people to declare themselves "undecided?" I, for one, can understand how someone could support any of the other candidates, including the Libertarian, Green, and Socialist, but how could they find it so hard to tell the difference? It's pretty clear, right? I mean, it's been on TV.

So all in all, I found the experience as uplifting as serving on a jury. I've done that several times, and have always come away impressed with the communal care and wisdom of a randomly selected group of fellow citizens. Given the responsibility, we rise to the occasion. And it's the same at the voting place. I still remember the Sikh gentlemen who shared our part of the line when we were voting for John Kerry. And the time our grandchildren voted with us four years ago. And I'll always have a fond consideration for this year's Republican who was willing to shoulder the burden with us and see it through to the end.

I think it was John Adams who was accosted by a woman on the street as he left the Constitutional Congress. "What kind of government have you given us?" she asked. To which he replied, "A republic, madam -- if you can keep it."

The ball is in our court. So get out there and VOTE!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Rachmaninoff Reigns

On hearing it Live ...

One of the wonderful things about classical music is the way you can develop a personal history with a piece over the course of a lifetime. Last week I filled in another blank in my live performances by taking in Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony on the stage at the University of Miami's Gusman Concert Hall. Guest conductor Leon Fleisher led the Frost Symphony Orchestra in a spirited rendition of this soaring work which has been a lifelong favorite of mine.

It all goes back to one of the first recordings in my collection, a handed-down copy from my father which believe it or not was on 78 rpm records. For those to whom this is too antediluvian a technology to even imagine, let me just say that back before 33 rpm and the invention of vinyl put the "LP" (Long Playing) in "records," we had to struggle with thick heavy platters that spun twice as fast and contained a maximum of about 4 or 5 minutes per 10-inch side. And they were constructed from a more primitive form of plastic that was brittle enough to break. The needles that gouged out the grooves of these beasts resembled small nails and went dull at an alarming rate.

But worst of all, for those who wanted to enjoy classical performances, the limited playing time meant that we could never hear even an entire movement, let alone a complete symphony, without changing the disc multiple times. Lengthy works came on a collection of disks packaged in book-like "albums," which is why we still use that word to refer to a collection of pop songs. If there was no suitable pause in the music to end one disk and start the next, the orchestra had to create one while making the recording. Thus my first encounter with this Rachmaninoff symphony contained a series of scheduled interruptions that became so ingrained in my memory that I can still tell you where some of them happened to fall.

In spite of this, the music was so incredible that it quickly became one of my favorites. Once I began acquiring my own recordings I replaced the 78 version with a Hi-Fi (not Stereo, which cost a dollar more) LP with Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Symphony. Imagine my disappointment when I rushed home with this lucky find only to discover that it was badly warped. Again, for the uninitiated, the vinyl used to warp if it got hot or bent in a disorderly stack. If you were lucky it would still play, but with an obvious distortion of the sound. My new Rachmaninoff warp was so severe that I had to increase the weight of my tone arm to keep it from jumping off the record completely.

Why not return it, you may well ask? A number of reasons. That would have involved going back to the store, which was difficult for a kid without a car, and then convincing the sales person that 1) the record really did come out of the sleeve that way, 2) I had not left it locked up in the sun in a hot car, and 3) I had not leaned it the wrong way on a book shelf. But the real reason was that I knew I had just bought the only copy they had. This was before the days of browsing for anything you wanted online, and we settled for whatever the store might happen to have in its bins on a particular day. I might get my five hard-earned dollars back, but I'd come home without the music. So I kept it. I learned to overlook the horrible wavering that afflicted the first few minutes of both sides, the first and third movements, and to revel in the beauty of the remainder.

Naturally once CDs came along I had to buy another recording. This one is by Andre Previn with the San Francisco Symphony, and of course benefits from the advances in technology that have made us accustomed to flawless playback, perfect acoustics, wide dynamic range, and absolutely none of the pops, clicks, and hisses that we used to live with. And NO WARPS. Sure, you can damage CDs too, but you do copy them to your hard drive first, don't you?

The Previn recording came with a wonderful story. He performed it with the same orchestra on a trip to Moscow back when it was still the capital of the Soviet Union. Kind of nervy, performing the music of an expatriate Russian right in their faces. Not only that, but Previn made a point of performing the unedited version, without the cuts that used to be made to shorten it from nearly an hour to a more comfortable 40 minutes. After the concert, one man from the audience came up to him to say, "THANK YOU for the Rachmaninoff!" So we know at least one person got it.

All these years later, I finally got my chance to hear it performed in person. Leon Fleisher is the pianist who famously lost the use of his right hand, turned to conducting and commissioning works for the left hand alone, then miraculously recovered the use of the hand after many years, and earned an award for his debut comeback album, titled Two Hands. Now 83, he's still going strong, and still conducting. I don't know what it's like to work under him, but his relationship with the Frost ensemble appeared humble and loving. He must certainly be the kind of guy you'd try to do your best for, and that was the case this night. Despite some trepidation in the French horns, the soaring strings and gutsy brass, aided and abetted by the rest of the winds and a four-person percussion section, brought the work to fiery life.

There's the first movement that begins in murky darkness and builds to towering crescendos. Then the scherzo-like second movement with its fugal busyness, played at a rapid clip under Fleisher. Then the lyrical slow movement with a theme so song-like that I heard one woman actually singing it on the way out. Then finally the last movement that begins at a run and never lets up -- save briefly, when quoting that lyrical theme from the third -- until it pounds to a cataclysmic conclusion. Breathless! You gotta hear it!

[In this earlier blog post I wrote about Rachmaninoff's other symphonies, and how the Second has recently been transformed into a Fifth Piano Concerto.]

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Geek Heaven, Part II: Hardware

But I don't DO hardware ...

I'm predominantly a software guy, not hardware. I know this from my worst failure ever, when I tried to assemble my own motherboard, CPU, and graphics card, and ended up shorting them all out and turning them into a recycling project. Since then I've done nothing more challenging than swapping out a hard drive, adding memory, or replacing an expansion card -- tasks which could be accomplished by anyone who can follow some simple instructions.

I've especially steered clear of daring to open a laptop computer case. Those things feel as if the components packed inside them are going to spring out like Slinky toys when you lift the lid, never to be reassembled. Don't you have to have the careful fingers of East Asian assembly line workers to deal with all those fragile connectors and tiny screws?

Necessity, the Mother

But necessity, as they say, is a mother. I was driven to the attempt by my inability to find a netbook computer with the exact specs I wanted for a price I was willing to pay. I wanted a solid-state drive instead of a hard drive, for the durability and extended battery life, but for marketing reasons they are only selling those preinstalled on high end "ultrabooks" priced from $700 on up. This is due to the cost of the SSDs, which currently runs around $1 per gigabyte, compared to only 10 cents per gig for a hard drive. (I remember when hard drives cost $16 per gig, so progress is being made!)

Instead I bought a low end netbook for $279 and added my own 128 gig SSD for an additional $119, saving half the money while getting what I wanted in a smaller package. (Ultrabooks seem to need larger keyboards and screens to justify their price.) For an extra $20 I also doubled the memory capacity from 2 to 4 gigs. Worth a bit of effort.

The case in point is an Acer Aspire, 722 series, which came with an AMD dual-core 64-bit low-power processor, Radeon dedicated graphics, and a 250 gig hard drive running Windows 7. Performance out of the box was surprisingly good, even with only 2 gigs of RAM. I played with it a bit just to be sure everything was working before I proceeded to jeapordize my warranty.

Compatibility Testing

Assured that the hardware was OK, I next tried running Linux on it to check compatibility before installing it. This is another huge advantage that Linux has to offer -- the Live disk. You can boot up a fully operational desktop directly from a CD or DVD without doing any installation whatsoever, so you can find out in advance if there will be any problems with your hardware. Contrast this with a typical Windows install, with its multiple reboots and requests for drivers that you may or may not be able to find. (Most people never make this comparison because they never had to install Windows, it just came with their computer.)

I used Linux Mint 13, KDE version, which is based on Ubuntu 12.04. The netbook did not come with an optical drive, but the Mint ISO files are "hybrid" images that can be burned to a USB flash drive and will happily run from there. I just had to go into the BIOS settings to be sure the Acer would try to boot from any USB drive before falling back to the hard drive, then plugged in the flash drive that lives on my key chain.

The Hack

As expected, almost everything was properly detected and "automagically" configured in the boot process. Within a minute I was looking at the familiar Mint desktop. The only exception was the wifi connection, but I had looked this up in advance and knew how to work around it. The system would detect available wifi networks -- even the very weak ones emanating from my neighbors' houses -- but if I tried to connect to mine it would freeze the whole computer. Not a problem, due to an inspired hack published online.

The Acer netbook also has the option to boot from a network server, and if you place that option first in the boot hierarchy it will initialize the wifi and look for a server to connect to. In a matter of moments, not finding one, it gives up and proceeds to boot from the next available device. But now, with the wifi properly initialized, it works perfectly under Linux.

True, it may not be pretty to have to look at a routine error message each time you start up, but it seems a small price to pay for the ability to run my software of choice. Likely this shortcoming will be addressed in future releases anyway, and I'll be able to eliminate the hack. One of the things said about open source is, "We'll fix it for you while you sleep!" Thanks to the tireless efforts of programmers around the globe, in the fullness of time most everything is eventually resolved.

Attack of the Clones

Finally ready to begin, my first step was to "clone" the Windows installation from the hard drive onto the new SSD. I could have just installed Linux onto the blank drive, but I hate to throw anything away. Somewhere in that $279 price tag was a fee I had paid for Windows, so why not keep it?

There was one difficulty in this, namely that the SSD was about half the capacity of the hard drive, which complicates the process because you have to deal with resizing the partitions on it. You also need to mount both drives at the same time so you can copy from one to the other. I opted for the easy way out by getting an SSD from Crucial that comes packed with a SATA to USB cable and software that does the cloning for you in one simple step. (They sell the kit separately for $18, and Corsair sells one too.) I thought that cable might come in handy for something else some day, so it was worth paying a bit extra for it.

One of the photos shows my keychain plugged into one USB port so I could run the cloning software from it, and the SSD plugged into another. The copying process took about 35 minutes at around 20 MB/sec. I might have been able to speed it up by monkeying with the settings, but hey, I only had to do this once. With that complete I finally came to the hardware portion of the evening.

Outpatient Surgery

All it took was removing the battery and a single tiny screw to slide the back cover off. Underneath, the hard drive and memory card were readily accessible. Also visible were the wifi adapter and cooling fan. Releasing the metal clips on each side of the memory board, I popped it out and replaced it with the new one. Then I had to coax the hard drive out of its snug fit between the rubber cushions that serve as shock absorbers, and remove two more tiny screws to unhitch it from the connecting SATA cable.

The photo shows the new memory installed and the empty hard drive bay. Truly, the hardest part of all this was making sure not to lose those teensy screws or drop them into the innards of the computer. A magnetic Phillips screwdriver was helpful for that.

After attaching the cable and screws to the new SSD and fitting it into place, I replaced the cover and rebooted to make sure it still worked. When you change the size of a partition that Windows lives on, it insists on "checking the disk for errors." You just have to let it do its thing so it will stop complaining, then all is well again. No errors were found, and I noted that the bootup process was noticably smoother and a bit quicker than before, though I didn't time it.

Almost done -- all that remained was to boot up again from the USB drive with the Mint install disk on it. Once you're up and running from one of these Live disks, you just double-click the Install icon to launch the installation process. If you're setting up a dual boot with Windows the only tricky part is deciding how to partition your drive.

A Drive Divided

One annoyance was that the Windows installation itself, with hardly any extra software added, was occupying almost 30 gigabytes. Compare that to my 1 gig Mint install disk that was going to end up at about 4 gigs after installation. 30 gigs is only about 12% of a 250 gig drive, but almost 25% of the SSD I put in its place. On top of that I was going to cut the drive in half to accomodate the two operating systems. And on top of that, the hard drive had come with two additional partitions that were taking up some of the remaining space. I was running out of room, and I hadn't even started yet!

But I hit on a simple and elegant solution. Those two extra partitions were not necessary. One was a sytem diagnostic area for testing hardware issues. The other was for restoring Windows in case it became hopelessly scrambled, a substitute for providing a Windows install disk. The diagnosic area didn't matter since it was only a few measly megabytes. But I didn't need the Windows restore because I had the entire hard drive I had removed as a backup. So I used the 10 gig restore partition for my Linux root -- where everything would be installed except my own personal files -- leaving the rest up for grabs.

I told the installer to resize the Windows partition to about 40 gigs, which left me 10 gigs for file storage under Windows. That small limit was no problem because I only need it for the occasional Windows-only program that I have to run, while most of my files live under Linux. This left me with the lion's share, about 66 gigs, to devote to my /home folder, plus the satisfaction of seeing my Linux root come first in the list of partitions, with Windows sandwiched between that and  /home. I created a swap partition too, equal to the 4 gig size of my RAM as recommended.

But don't let all this scare you off. If you're not as picky as I am you have the option of letting the installer resize your Windows partition for you and assign the rest of the space automatically. Or, just wipe the whole drive and use it all.

[And before anyone points out that the 100 megabyte diagnostic area would have been big enough for a Linux /boot partition, I considered it. But again, why throw anything away?]

Life is Good

The Mint install went smoothly and created the dual boot loader for me, naturally respecting my wishes to keep Windows available. So life is good. While happily installing my favorite software -- Chromium, LibreOffice, Dropbox, et. al. -- I paused to marvel. Balanced on my lap in this 2 pound (1 kilo) book-sized package was more computing power than I would have dreamed of in a desktop unit just ten years ago. Software has advanced, but hardware is sure coming along too.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Life in Geek Heaven, Part I: Software

I don't usually get all geeked out here, but indulge me for once ...

In the Beginning

Way back around 1996 I first tried installing Red Hat Linux on my home computer. At that time Windows 95 had recently replaced Windows 3.1 and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 while Microsoft server functions, such as they were, were still being addressed by Windows NT 3.51. The ever more bewildering mishmash of versions yet to come (Windows NT 4.0, 98, 2000, Me, 2003, XP, Vista, and 7) were still pipe dreams in the head of Bill Gates and his numerically challenged marketing staff.

 After years of watching DOS boot on my screens and then various versions of the Windows GUI, it was unbelievably cool to see a totally alien set of status messages scrolling across my 12" CRT monitor and terminating in a cryptic command prompt. I felt as if in the middle of the Cold War I'd been given a computer from the Soviet Union, something with an entirely different heritage. From reading the documentation I knew enough to type "startx" to launch a graphical desktop. Unlike Windows, I learned that you had a choice of such environments in Linux. One of them, called FVWM, bore a resemblance to Windows 95 with its flat teal background and bottom task bar. It was a new project, a bit half baked, but seemed like a way for the programmers to say, "You want something that looks like this? We can do that."

In the years since then Linux has grown by leaps and bounds. FVWM never really went anywhere, but soon enough there were not one but two premier user environments to choose from -- KDE and Gnome -- with still more to try if you cared to. On the server side, Linux and the related open source software that ran on it, like the Apache web server and MySQL database, were largely responsible for the explosive growth of the Internet. Now, 15 years later, it powers the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Skype, not to mention everything from Android phones to wireless routers to more than 95% of the fastest supercomputers in the world -- even the Large Hadron Collider. Don't you want some of that?


In those early days it was often a struggle to get Linux running with your particular brand of hardware -- especially on laptops with their custom touchpads, graphics, and network interfaces. Linux user groups would hold "install fests" to help people over the technical hurdles, just for the fun of it. But once you were up and running, there wasn't a lot of software available for the desktop user. Unless of course you wanted to built a web or file or database server, in which case your tool set was second only to the big commercial versions of Unix. That too has changed. So much free software now comes along with most Linux distributions that someone has claimed, "If Microsoft put all this stuff on one disk the Department of Justice would be all over them for monopolistic practices."

Over the years I've installed various flavors of Linux on a succession of ever more powerful hardware. Starting with an old 486 processor with 16 megabytes of RAM and a 10 gig hard drive, and ending up with a dual core beast with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a full terabyte drive. This thing has enough horsepower to run one or more extra operating systems in their own virtual machine windows while hardly breaking a sweat. (Of course, dual core processors are now so last year. Any self respecting video gamer is running an i7 with 8 cores.)

The Challenge

Until recently, though, I have only tried installing Linux on one laptop. This was a reconditioned machine purchased by a friend that was delivered for cheap without an operating system. Rather than blowing over a hundred bucks to add Windows, it turned out to be a simple matter to get a free Linux installation working on it. There was only one challenge. The friend wanted to use a cellular data card to access the Internet, and the system refused to recognize it as a valid network connection. Finally I realized that it worked like a dialup modem -- it was basically making a cell phone call to get online, like in the old AOL days. Naturally, Linux has had dialup support for years, so all I had to do was configure PPPD (for Point to Point Protocol Daemon) to make the connection, then write a simple script to connect, and another to disconnect. Voila, le Google.

This was not a task that an average user could be expected to perform. But luckily things have progressed even further now, to the point where I can pretty much recommend that installing my favorite operating system on your laptop -- even the most basic netbook -- is a thing you should really try. I know because I just did it myself.

[Next time -- my own netbook experience.]

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The New Relativity

This happened WHEN?

Ever since Einstein convinced us that time is not the absolute thing it seems to be, but rather varies from one observer to another, it has continued to appear safe to ignore this fact at the level of everyday reality. As Woody Allen's mother told him, "Brooklyn is not expanding!" Nor is it accelerating to the speed of light. And throughout the 20th century our communications continued to grow ever more instantaneous and global. The assumption of simultaneity became second nature to us, as we came to expect to see and hear events from anywhere in the world "live" as they happened.

The telegraphy of the 19th century gave way to an interlude of radio, when we settled for people describing distant events to us while they happened. The Hindenburg went down in flames, and Edward R. Murrow got bombed in the London blitz. But then suddenly we could see those events as their images were piped through transatlantic cables. Satellites went aloft and we could see the weather down below. TV brought the Vietnam War and the moon landing into our living rooms -- something that the most imaginative science fiction writers had never predicted. Now everyone with a cell phone can be a broadcaster, and revolutions half a world away have become instantly self-documenting.

But as our horizons continue to expand the mutable nature of time is beginning to appear at the level of everyday experience. We're all familiar with the lag in transatlantic TV interviews, due to the few seconds that it takes for the signals to make a 48,000 mile round trip to a satellite and through a battery of sending and receiving equipment. We accept, reluctantly, that we won't know if the Mars lander has landed until about 15 minutes after it has, or has not, occurred. But at least we'll hear about it at the same instant as everyone else on our planet, won't we?

Well, maybe not. And it won't be Einstein's fault, either. It's because a Pause button has been added into the mix of our communications gear. This came home to me recently when I was catching part of a basketball game (go Heat!). I did some personal exulting over an incredible 3-pointer. Then a couple of minutes later I heard a barrage of cheers coming from my next door neighbor's house. I wondered what other game they could be watching. Then it happened again. Another 3-point miracle shot ... wait a minute ... two minutes ... another chorus of hurrahs from the house next door.

The explanation dawned on me. They were watching via ATT's Uverse service which includes a DVR that lets you pause anything you're watching, even "live" TV, so you won't miss a second of it. Someone next door must have gone for a bathroom break, maybe earlier in the day so they forgot, and their service was dutifully delaying all subsequent shows so that not even a commercial interruption would be left out.

Which kind of brings us back to time being relative to the observer, but in a new way. My neighbor and his game-party certainly believed they were watching "live," and I'm sure their excitement was in no way diminished by the delay -- especially because they may have been unaware of it. But from my point of view they were getting crazy about a replay. And for all I know, ATT might have been delaying the show at least a few seconds just in the process of pumping it through their vast network of copper and fiber, so my point of view might have been as divorced from real-time as theirs.

The situation is even more pronounced with the Olympics, normally taking place at a great distance -- the current games being 5 hours ahead of us, and the previous ones in Beijing about half a day out of sync. Since most of us have lives and can't watch during the day, we have to settle for digested replays in the evening hours. It's understood that some of us might like to watch without knowing the outcomes, so news reports come with spoiler alerts to warn you to turn them off, or at least plug your ears and go "LA-LA-LA-LA" for a few minutes.

The other night I watched some gymnastics with my grandchildren, and had to explain that what we were watching had happened hours ago and all the athletes were in bed by now. They readily accepted the explanation and were completely OK with the delay. All that mattered to them was that they were seeing it for the first time. Maybe they have been born into the age of relativity as much as us older folks were born into simultaneity. For better or worse, the nation will no longer cheer for anything at the same moment.

Just something to take note of, another fact of our ever-changing digital lives. If you want to put it all in perspective, all you have to do is go out and look up at the night sky: all those stars, looking just as they looked dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of years ago ... but not now.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Still Giving After All These Years

What can you say about a performer who continues to give fresh insights even 30 years after his death? That's what Glenn Gould did to me recently, even though he passed away in 1982, and even though I've been listening to him since I was a high school student in the 1960s.

One of his most enigmatic recordings was Bach's Art of the Fugue, the treatise on that form that Bach himself did not live to complete. Gould left us with a recording of it which was maddening on two counts. First, the record did not even contain all of the fugues that Bach had written as part of this opus, including the last one that abruptly ends right where he happened to leave off composing. I suppose there was going to be a volume II someday with the rest of them, but it never happened. So this was an incompleteness of an incompletion, doubly frustrating to those of us who admire Bach's work and who doted on Gould's every performance of it.

But second, what Gould recorded was not even on the piano. Instead he chose to make this his only performance on the organ. Not that there was anything wrong with that in itself -- Bach, of course, was a renowned organist in his day. And in fact, he wrote this work on four separate staffs rather than the usual two for the keyboard, leaving it up to future performers to attempt it any way they liked. Since then it has been performed by string quartets, brass ensembles, and various other instruments besides the harpsichord or piano or organ.

But the piano (no pun intended) was Gould's forte. His phenomenal touch on the keys gave him an unsurpassed ability to accentuate the various lines of polyphony, to literally give each line its own unique voice, from a thumping bass pizzacato to a vibrant mid-tone to a bell-like clarity in the high notes. For him to limit himself to the elements of phrasing available on the organ was like painting with a limited palette. Though the performance was excellent as usual, and though he characteristically selected a small church organ whose voice and acoustics would not muddy the sound, still it left many -- including me -- wishing he had just bowed to expectations and done it on the piano.

So the years passed. Gould left us, entirely too soon, like Bach before him never returning to complete this piece of unfinished business. The recordings he left behind continue to sell voluminously to the present day. His reach is ubiquitous. One occasionally comes across an item like an interview with rock poet Patti Smith where she describes herself, "listening to Glenn Gould." Or hot Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who lights up at the mention of the name and says, "I love Glenn Gould! I think he is great genius!" At least half a dozen biographical films have been made about his life, and one of these led me to a wonderful discovery.

The film in question is Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey, a documentary in which various Russian musicians including pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sviadoslav Richter are interviewed about Gould's visit to their country in the midst of the Cold War. It's hard to overstate the impression the young Canadian made there. No one had ever heard of him, and his first concert in Leningrad was only half full. But at the intermission everyone went out to the lobby to call their friends. The interval was lengthened to an hour and a half to allow time for people to get to the concert hall. One man who received such a call reported that his friend said simply, "Stop what you're doing, get dressed and get down here, you have to hear this."

So the second half was a sellout, and the subsequent concert in Moscow was standing room only, with barely enough room for those standing. One man said that he went to hear Webern, a modern composer on the program who was rarely performed in the Soviet Union because all that atonal music was considered elitist and decadent. What he remembered instead was Bach, sounding as new and modern and fresh as anything from the 20th century. Richter, himself a giant as a piano virtuoso, said: "I could play as good as Glenn Gould. Do you know why I do not? Because I would have to work so hard."

But I digress. After watching the DVD (thank you, Netflix), I thought to look at the "extra features" on the disk. One of them was a performance of one of the fugues from the Art of Fugue -- on the piano! Could there be more of them, I wondered? A quick search online revealed that in the process of re-releasing Gould's entire catalog, Sony had given us some "lost" recordings of him playing the same fugues -- with typical beauty and perfection -- on the instrument he was born to play.

I rushed to get the full set, which includes both the organ and piano versions. Two of them are very poor quality, sounding like they must have been done on a casette recorder during a practice session, but of course we're glad to have even those. Let me be clear -- it is only the recording quality that is lacking; the playing as always is amazing. The rest of them are in studio quality sound, and the subtlety of expression, the nuances of touch, are as impeccable as anything he ever did.

Again, they are not complete, and they are not even all the same ones that he did on the organ, but at least it does include the last one, the one that ends breathlessly at the beginning of a phrase ... You might call it the completion of an incompleteness. It will have to be enough, because it's all we're ever going to get.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Miami Book Fair 2011

A belated report on last year's book fair -- quick, before it's time for the next one ....

I've certainly taken my time about posting this account of Miami Book Fair International, 2011 version, but it's not from lack of interest. As ever, there was much to appreciate, and a few new wrinkles.

Big Science

My first event involved getting tickets in advance. It's always wonderful to me that a writer can command a sellout audience. In this case it's even more amazing because the stage was shared by a pair of science writers: James Gleick, author of the landmark book about chaos theory that did as much to popularize the concept as anything else, including Jeff Goldblum's character in that Jurassic Park sequel, and whose intriguing new work is called The Information; and Dava Sobel, who had just published her biography of Copernicus titled A More Perfect Heaven.

Reviews of both books are too abundant to need repeating here. I'll just add that Gleick made me want to know more about Claude Shannon, the "father of information theory," who was a contemporary of Alan Turing and swapped ideas with him during World War II. In Sobel's presentation I was most taken with her account of inspecting the original manuscript of Copernicus' book, with it's famous diagram of the sun-centered solar system. She noticed a tiny pinhole in the center of the sun, the place where the point of the great man's compass had pierced the page while he drew the concentric orbits of the planets. If that doesn't give you goose bumps, then you're in the wrong room.

During the question session that followed, I appreciated Gleick's point that science "is about uncertainty, not truth," that it is as much about asking questions as giving answers. Let's please keep this in mind when debating Darwin with the people who don't understand him. Which reminds me that Sobel mentioned a notable parallel between Darwin and Copernicus: both of their theories were widely accepted before they were actually proved, a sure sign that they were ideas whose time had come.

Another interesting point was raised about online sources of information such as Wikipedia versus traditional authorities like the Britannica that are falling out of use. (Anyone want to buy a used encyclopedia? No? It weighs about 90 pounds and was out of date the day it was printed. Still no takers?) The questioner feared we will end up only with sources we can't trust. But Gleick expressed the hope that we are in a transitional period where we have not yet learned to vet and trust the new media, which are ephemeral through the necessity of constant update.

He is, he says, predisposed to be "optimistic without justification." And perhaps that's how he could respond to a query about the looming "singularity," when machines will take over the earth, by saying simply, "by the time they take over we will be so attached to them that we won't care." Incidentally, there is another theory about the singularity which says it has already happened and we didn't notice.

All This And Noir

After these weighty matters I made my way to the bizarre and noisy tent where Akashic Books was previewing New Jersey Noir, the latest in their series of story collections that demonstrate there is a dark side to every locale on earth. I couldn't pass this up because one dark side of my own past is that, like the panellists, I also hail from the Garden State -- so called, I believe, because they created Newark and left the rest of the land comparatively unscathed.

The panel included former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, native of Long Branch, casually clad in a black T-shirt that became him, and Alan Cheuse of NPR fame, substituting for Joyce Carol Oates who couldn't make it. Alas, my notes don't tell me which of them repeated the old gag about how they say their ABC's in New Jersey. ("Fuggin A, fuggin B, fuggin C ...") Which kind of shows how informal the whole thing was. But Pinsky did wax poetic when he spoke about depicting "the beauty of the broken, sordid, and low class" -- material which they found in abundance right there at home.

What's China Doing Here?

This tent was right across from another, larger one featuring China. Yes, the country. I confess to being nonplussed by this exhibit, which was like walking into one of those places at Walt Disney Epcot where the various wares and cultural oddities of some foreign place are on display -- except here none of it was for sale, which left us all wondering what we were doing standing around and looking at shelves and tables full of Chinese export bric-a-brac. No answers were forthcoming. But I guess since our Chinese friends are everywhere, doing everything, they might as well be here too.

If You Can Read This, Thank Your Reader

The last presentation I went to was on ebook publishing, a topic dear to me as both a reader and a hopeful author. Back in the 1990's I once asked a publisher at a writing workshop what impact he thought digital media and Internet distribution were going to have on his business. His appalling answer was a single word: "None."

As evidence, he asked, "Would you curl up in bed with a computer?" I was dumbstruck. Even though there were no ebook readers in existence back then, I already knew people who were perfectly happy to take their laptops to bed with them. How could this guy not see the writing on the wall in giant letters?

Fast forward about 15 years and it's all history -- but history that is still unfolding, as purveyors of the written word, from newspapers to magazines and books, continue to deal with the biggest disruption since the invention of the printing press.

I was very impressed with the chipper young Canadian woman representing Kobo. You may recall that they had a brief affiliation with Borders Books just before the chain went bankrupt. The Kobo reader was going to be Borders' answer to the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook -- but Borders just got there too late and too many dollars short. B&N proved they were nimble enough to get into this game, but Borders just couldn't make it.

In the aftermath of the Borders collapse, I was concerned about Kobo, who were making a very nice collection of reading devices every bit the equal of the Kindle family, but with the added virtue of supporting open standards like PDF and ePub as opposed to proprietary ones like, well, Amazon. But my concern might have been premature. Kobo managed to get a major investment from a company said to be "the Amazon of Japan." They have a very serviceable (and completely open) tablet that sells for under $200 and a thriving online bookstore. So we'll have to see how it goes.

Another feature Kobo offers is unique. Kobo Pulse is something they call "social reading," a way to instantly share your take on what you're reading with your online buddies who are similarly equipped. A show of hands revealed this optional feature was not universally appealing to the audience, which tended to split along predictably generational lines. Us older folks were squirming in our chairs and thinking "oh no, not that," while the younger ones were all like, "I'm down with that."

Whether this "gamification" of reading will take hold and eclipse the traditional reading experience is something we will have to watch as it develops. On the one hand, media companies are salivating over producing "books" for the iPad and its ilk full of embedded videos and interactive features. On the other hand, I note that writers like Neal Stephenson can continue to churn out 900 page novels the immersive experience of which beggars anything Hollywood has to offer.

So the jury is out. Maybe the next chapter, so to speak, will be written, as it were, at the next version of the Miami Book Fair, coming in November.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The First Church of Bach

The story goes that at the end of his life J.S. Bach had been working on The Art of the Fugue, which was to be his definitive treatise on the compositional form he raised to a higher state of perfection than any composer before or since. But knowing his time was limited, he set this work aside in order to put the finishing touches on his great Mass in B minor. Apparently it was so important to him to get
this right that he even used colored inks and drafting instruments to make the manuscript as clear as possible. The result is that his final testament is a deeply emotional religious work rather than the secular and more coolly detached set of fugues, which is perfectly appropriate in view of his habit of inscribing "to the glory of God" at the top of his compositions.

While those of us who admire his fugues will forever fret over what might have been had he been able to finish both of these monumental projects, we can be grateful that at least the Mass is complete. Though it may never have been performed in its final form while Bach was alive, we have made up for that since. Modern music afficionados have a plethora of recordings to choose from, and it is widely performed around the world. My own current favorite is by the Dunedin Ensemble, which uses a very small group of vocal soloists to bring unusual clarity and emotive power to the different voices.

Recently, in the company of a few friends -- and about 750 others -- we got to hear it done by Miami's Seraphic Fire ensemble. This was actually the second time we've heard them tackle this work, since one of their first concerts years ago was the same Mass. The only flaw in that first performance was the venue: a gargantuan Catholic church that somewhat swallowed the sound of the small, Baroque-sized group of performers. This time it was in the more intimate First United Methodist church in Coral Gables, the lofty ceiling of which allowed the music to breathe without becoming entirely lost in space.

I've been accused of not being critical enough of performances where I'm fond of the work being performed, so let me say at the beginning that this one was not entirely without flaws. One of the male vocal soloists did sound somewhat lost, without the ability to fill the hall. And in the later movements there was a recurring intonation problem in the upper strings that was atypical of the normally polished standards of the Firebird Orchestra.

I was further disappointed that the Agnus Dei near the end, which is generally recorded with a counter-tenor singing the role, was performed instead by the alto. She did a creditable job, although her style with its warbling tremolo is, to my ear, more suited to operatic works than to Baroque oratorio, where a clear and pure tone brings out the harmony with the instrumental accompaniment.

This gives a segue to what was commendable in the performance. One of the standouts was the counter-tenor (yes, they had one), a young man named Reggie Mobley who unbelievably started out his career by singing baritone before moving up (literally) to tenor and then alto. His ability to project this nearly-falsetto male voice throughout the hall was equalled by his perfect timing and nuances of expression. His two duets were marvels of perfectly pitched and balanced harmony, in which neither voice overpowered the other. All the more reason for me to anticipate what he would do with the Agnus Dei, and the greater my disappointment when I realized he would not be doing it.

But let's set that aside and continue the compliments. All the instrumental soloists were wonderful -- the flute, both oboes, violin, trumpet, horn -- am I leaving anyone out? -- you too, bassoon. The Firebird uses modern instruments, not antique ones, but I have to think Bach himself would be happy with them. After all, in his day he pushed for the adoption of equal-temperament for keyboard tuning, and was interested in the latest and greatest harpsichords. Surely if he were with us now he would want to take advantage of such modern conveniences as nylon "quills" in his instrument, which last so much longer than the ones made from bird feathers in ages past.

Director Quigley was absent at the Grammy Awards (alas, they didn't win), but his touch was evident in the interesting staging. The small chorus, including soloists, shared the space with the orchestra, and the choreography of bringing the soloists to center stage, while the chorus stood or sat, was done with a minimal amount of interruption to the musical flow. Also interesting was the placement of the timpani at stage front, rather than in the normal rear -- a fact that gave them additional punch.

So, all in all, a wonderful and devotional evening. Another thing said about Bach's great mass (he also wrote some shorter ones) is that it contains a giant anomoly, being sung in Latin, like the Catholic mass, but following the form of the Lutheran one, making it suitable for neither of them. Or, you might say, for both. But I think it's really for the First Church of J.S. Bach, and we are all allowed to become members.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Glass From The Past

It's never too late to recall a great performance ...

Are you one of those people who saves their theater programs, and maybe tickets, as memorabilia? Me neither. But I did save a postcard advertising a performance by Phillip Glass that was given at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach perhaps ten years ago. It popped up among some papers recently, and it seemed I could instantly hear the reverberations of that night echoing through time.

I'm fortunate enough to have seen three performances of Glass's music, including the one I wrote about (here and here) at the University of Miami in 2008. The first time was back in the 1990's at Gusman Hall in downtown Miami, when Glass performed solo piano pieces and a duet with a soprano sax.

The piano playing that night was interesting in its use of expressive devices normally considered the realm of more traditional, even romantic, music. Variations in volume and phrasing, rubato (subtly modulating the tempo), and song-like lyricism -- all gave the lie to the perception of Glass's music as mechanistic or automated. The duet was notable for the use of a row of ten or twelve music stands that held the unfolded score for the saxophonist. Throughout the performance he gradually moved his way from left to right across the stage rather than turning pages. It was a practical solution that also served to let us know how far through the piece we were, rather like the progress bar at the bottom of an Internet video (which didn't exist yet at the time).

Glass has been known for some interesting collaborations, such as the ones in Songs From Liquid Days which includes Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, and the Roche sisters. But an especially fruitful partnership is the one that brings us back to that Miami Beach concert. The music for The Screens, a play by Jean Genet, introduced the rest of the world to Foday Musa Suso, Gambian master of the kora. (Jazz fans may have noticed his collaborations with Herbie Hancock on the albums Village Life and Jazz Africa.)

The kora bears a resemblance to the Indian sitar. Both use large gourds as a soundbox and have long necks with multiple strings. But they are held and played in entirely different ways. The sitar player cradles the gourd with the sole of one foot, strums the strings with a plectrum worn on the finger of one hand, and selects and bends the notes by pressing the main melodic string against a metal fret, somewhat like a guitar. The kora player, on the other hand, holds his instrument upright before him, grasps it by a pair of handles, and plucks its 21 fixed-pitch strings with the thumbs and index fingers of both hands. It's really more like a European zither, and its native music is like what we know from the kalimba, or thumb-piano, which is also from Africa.

Blending and extending this instrument through the addition of other Western instruments, including piano, flute, synthesizers, bass, and reeds, is the task that Glass undertook in order to build a unique sound for The Screens that would resonate with its Algerian setting. No doubt it helped that the kora's forte is exactly the sort of hypnotically repetitious, rhythmically based "loops" that Glass himself is known for. Suffice to say that the experiment was a resounding success -- so much so that they occasionally got together in performance to reproduce it long after the recording was widely known.

Glass informed us that night that we shouldn't expect an exact reproduction of what we might know from the album. Incorporating large elements of improvisation, the performances varied widely. So much so that he said they had more or less decided between them that whenever they got together to play, whatever came out would be The Screens.

So there it is, a flow of music still flowing after all these years like a river in its bed, drawing its wavering line in the sands of my memory. Here's a sample. Enjoy. (And look for the website fmsuso.com on the gourd.)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Phone Envy, Phase Two

If you have any doubts that the pace of technological change is still accelerating, just upgrade your phone ...

Less than two years ago I first joined the smart-phone world (as I recorded here). The gizmo that accomplished this was an HTC Aria running Android 2.2. It was no iPhone, but it had the advantage of a 100% subsidized price from AT&T at a time when a reconditioned iPhone was going for $99. In other words, it was free.

This little jewel became my constant companion, singing and reading to me as I made my way to and from work each day, answering my questions, finding my way, sending my emails and messages, uploading the photos I took with its camera. Its weight in my shirt pocket became as familiar as the feel of the wallet on my hip.

Then about 8 months ago it slipped out of its comfy perch and landed face down on a pebble on a concrete floor. Don't talk to me about Gorilla Glass. If you hit it right, it breaks. It's GLASS! Miraculously, the pieces of the screen held together, and with a plastic protector over it the thing still worked almost perfectly -- which was just as well, because replacing this free phone before my 2 year contract was up would have cost me $350. Ouch!

Since then I've been peeking once in awhile to see how close I am to the end of the contract and what phones I might be able to get as a replacement. Last week the time came, and the result -- while not as revolutionary as the whole smart-phone concept -- is another leap in performance and usability.

The case in point is an HTC Vivid (certified reconditioned), which came out in the last quarter of 2011, and was available at the same price point (0.00) as the old Aria. Of course, out of gratitude for this free gift I spent $52 for two pieces of plastic. One is called a "case" and the other is a "screen protector."

While you might argue that the screens should come with protection, and that a case around the case should not be necessary, these items qualify as "personalization" and give you the opportunity to customize the look and feel of your mass produced device. Needless to say, these purchases also subsidize the "free" phone, along with the $480 I will spend over the next two years for the required data plan that comes along with it -- which of course is on top of the monthly phone charges.

But how can I complain? Just look at the difference between the old and new phones:

Speed: My old processor poked along at 800Mhz with a single core. The new phone has a Qualcomm Snapdragon dual core. Twice as good, right? No, actually more like three times as fast because the Snapdragon cooks at 1.2Ghz.

Space: With only 256 megs of RAM, 512 megs of ROM, and a dinky 2 gigabyte SD card, my old phone was cramped. I quickly ran out of space for apps, and the SD card could hold only about a dozen albums from my vast music collection. The new Vivid has 1 gig of RAM and 16 gigs of onboard storage, or about 4x the memory and 8x the storage even before I add an optional SD card, which can increase it by up to 32 gigs more. I can still recall paying $160 back in the 1990's for a whopping 10 gig hard drive to add to my PC. The cost per gig of the thumbnail-sized SD card is now about $1, and this phone will fly loop the loops around that old desktop computer.

Size: First a 2G network connection, then 3G, now 4G -- faster, yes. More power consumptive, yes, that too, but not so much. The real power hog on the new beast is the screen. According to the Vivid's own confession in its statistics, the screen uses over 60% of the power, at least the way I use it. But at 4.5" it sure is easier on the eyes than the old one which was less than 3". At 540x960 it's bigger than an iPhone, though not quite as high res. The iPhone claims 326ppi while the Vivid is about 245ppi -- but after all, 300ppi is good enough for laser printing, so what do you want? With my eyes I can't see the dots anyhow.

Video: Speaking of the screen, it's suddenly big enough to make watching videos interesting, so I've added Netflix and Ted Talks to my list of apps. And while my old camera was 5 megapixels, the new one has dual cameras, 8 megs rear and 2 megs front -- so necessary for those Skype video calls. (Another SciFi dream comes true. Back in the 1960's comic-strip cop Dick Tracy traded in his old 2-Way Wrist Radio for a new 2-Way Wrist TV. That happened because radio was no longer fantastic enough.)

Audio: And speaking of media, the Vivid comes with Beats audio -- which as it turns out is only a marginal improvement in sound quality. As far as I can tell it's just a kind of equalizer setting that you can't even adjust. (That, and a way to sell really expensive fashion-statement ear buds.) As soon as I get around to it I'll be looking for a new media player with a more complete equalizer that I can adjust for different kinds of music. But I guess after investing $300 million in Beats, HTC is pretty much obligated to include it with all their products.

Android: Which brings us to the operating system itself. Online specs seemed to indicate this phone ran Android 2.3 but could be upgraded. I felt a little dubious about that after my experience with the old Aria. That came with version 2.2, but when an upgrade was offered by AT&T (via email and text message) it involved downloading an update package to a PC, then installing an installer program (Windows only), connecting the phone to the PC with a USB cable, being prepared to lose everything on the phone if it didn't succeed, and praying. After reading the instructions I said to hell with it and continued using the old version for the rest of the phone's short (see above) life.

The first pleasant surprise was that the Vivid arrived with Android 3 (perhaps as a result of being "reconditioned"). And then as soon as it woke up it immediately offered to install an "important security update" right over the air. Still not completely trusting this process, I figured the time to try it was before I wasted hours tweaking the settings and installing all my apps. But nothing could have been simpler. Truly, a COMPLETE IDIOT could do it. Just touch the button and wait for the process to complete. At the end the phone reboots, and voila -- not version 3.1 but 4.0 instead!

One Ring to Rule Them All: Yes, one major version per year since 2010. And the newest one is really pretty nice, very smooth animations, easier screen manipulations, and improved media experience. One footnote here -- HTC and Android ran into patent problems with Apple over the use of the "slide to unlock" feature, so they came up with an alternative where you "pull a ring" instead. Which kind of demonstrates how small the nits are being legally picked. But I like the ring. It also offers shortcuts to the most likely destinations, such as Phone (after all, underneath all the bells and whistles it is still a phone). The moral of this story is that if someone sues you for patent infringement the best thing to do is to invent something better.

The Future: If such progress continues I expect that in 2 years I will be able to upgrade to a quad-core processor running at 2.5+ Ghz, with 4 gigs of RAM, 250 gigs of storage, Android 6.0, a high-def 3D screen with optional goggles and surround-sound headpiece, and further wonders we can only imagine. And the price? Still zero.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

To Blog, Or Not To Blog

Why Oh Why ...

As I rededicate myself to these posts in the new year I've been thinking about why any of us do this. Why engage in this new form of self publication? What's it all about, anyway?

For one thing, it fills a need for something otherwise missing in our society: the need to express fully formed thoughts, and to have them fully heard.  Everywhere else in our lives there is no time or place for such things. We communicate in single words and short bursts of them, constantsly under pressure from our pace of life to do more in less time. A sentence or two is about the upper limit before someone will interrupt us to reply, or to say something about their own experience, or to change the subject.

"I saw this thing on the news yesteday ..."

"I never watch the news myself."

"So, it was about this guy who was like a member of parliament or something, and --"

"So this was in England?"

"Yeah, and anyway he died in a car crash, and no one recognized him at the scene of the accident."

"Wait'll you hear what happened to me. I was driving to --"

"I was thinking it reminded me of some old song ..."

So in place of wonderfully thick books we gravitate toward magazine articles, the more concise the better. We don't write letters, we email or chat -- more brief because the immediacy of reply makes it like a conversation rather than the outpourings of soul that used to go into letters. Many of us don't even email to a friend; instead we tweet, pouring out fewer and fewer words to a larger and larger multitude. And don't dare to dream of posting more than a couple of sentences in your Facebook update, because they will be lost in the stream like one more leaf floating down the river.

Or try to give a "customer service representative" the complete history of your technical problem, and see how long it takes before your monolog is replaced by a question and answer session in which your replies will be given in as few words as possible, mostly yes and no.

How hard it is even for the famous among us, people like artists, singers, or politicians, to find time in which to fully elicidate their ideas. The event is so rare it serves as entertainment -- a Charlie Rose interview for example -- and even then relatively few of us pay attention.

Yet the need to be heard is a universal one. We all want to believe that someone, somewhere, and as many as possible of them, really knows us. And it is through conveying this impression of ourselves that we learn to know ourselves more fully.

Few of us may find an audience for our novels or songs or essays, and very few indeed will be able to command hundreds of people to make a movie and millions of others to pay to watch it. But millions of us can express our thoughts to the full, just by putting the words together, and can cast them into the great sea of the Internet to wash up where they will, like so many messages in bottles.

Unlike email or tweets, and rather more like books on a library shelf, each encapsulated blog entry hangs suspended, waiting however long it might take for someone to discover it, or for its contents to come up in a Google search result. One of the most-read things I've ever written, an In Memoriam piece about local musician Arnold Grayson, has lived on my blog for many years. It still gets hits each month, and occasionally someone posts a comment from their own remembrance of Arnold. It has become a long conversation, a grave visited at long intervals by mourners who have never met one another.

So I like to think I'm doing my part. And if you read this you will be doing yours, though your only reward will be to learn more of another human being. You will actually come to know me more fully than many people I have only lived and worked with, though we may never meet. You might even start a blog of your own. Hey, let me know. I'll look at it.

Coming Soon: 

  • A Belated Report on the Miami Book Fair 2011
  • Why we need Max Headroom now more than ever
  • more!