2010-01-28

The Apple iPad is the first tablet computer I would actually use


Yesterday, Apple announced its long-rumored tablet computer, the iPad.

This is not first tablet computer; there have been many devices that could fall into that category released over the years. But all of them, including the HP ‘slate PC’ hurriedly rushed to the stage by Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer at CES a few weeks ago, have suffered from the same limitations. These limitations are due in large part to the fact that these tablet computers have been based on PC operating systems. Mac and Windows apps are not designed to be used with a touch-screen; so instead of offering something new and better, tablet PCs have offered something worse—ungainly hybrids that didn’t work as well as the PCs upon which they were based.

Apple took a completely new approach to the tablet computer, and has made obsolete all that came before.

Unlike earlier tablet computers, the iPad does not run a PC OS like Windows or Mac OS X. Instead, the iPad runs a new version of the iPhone OS, an operating system built from the ground up with touch as the primary interface. There is no pointer or cursor; your fingers are the pointers. There are no command key shortcuts; instead, multi-touch gestures provide the vocabulary of human-computer interaction.

Apple is the only significant computer manufacturer that controls the whole widget: the battery, the CPU, the OS, and the core applications—Apple does it all. The results speak for themselves. Watch the iPad video or if you have a bit more time, the video from yesterday’s special event. Microsoft, Amazon, and others will have to work hard to match what Apple has accomplished with the iPad.

I’m convinced that the iPad will shortly become the first popular tablet computer. It will define new standards for touch-based interfaces that will be aped by Microsoft and other imitators.

The iPad is not without problems. There’s no way to add more memory; the 3G version cannot be used as a phone; there is no camera; and the pixel density is anemic for a device meant to be used up close. But these are minor nitpicks. Some of these features were no doubt left out intentionally due to cost or time constraints. Apple doesn’t include a feature until it can be done well. It’s certain that future version of the iPad will address some of the more obvious gaps.

I’m excited about the iPad and look forward to playing with one at the Apple Store on Bahnhofstrasse in a few months. Will I buy one? That remains to be seen. Ultimately, my decision will be based on whether I determine that the device provides a compelling capability that I don't already get from my iPhone 3GS and MacBook Pro.

2010-01-25

Worth noting

Some relationship advice given to a friend recently:

“Bad experiences are part of what make us who we are. If we are strong, we survive them. If we are smart, we learn from them. And if we have enough love in our hearts, we do not let the experiences harden us too much.”

2010-01-12

It certainly does... smart.

First they did it to the word green; now smart gets the same treatment. The marketing & business folks have resorted to using an adjective as a though it were a noun:


I think we can safely assume that the folks who thought this up are not simply ignorant of proper English, but are on the contrary entirely cognizant of their error, and hoping to grab the public’s attention for a time through the deliberately unconventional use of language.

There is a long tradition of this sort of thing. Apple’s Think Different advertising campaign is but one recent example.

It is a bit disheartening, however, to observe the effect this has on the language. It’s hard enough to encourage proper use of the language without advertisers’ abominable abuses to the language competing for people’s attention.

From the point of view of the language, using this type of deliberate error in well-funded ad campaigns can be seen as a short-sighted exploitation of a limited resource. The resource in this case is people’s attention, combined with the limited number of novel mistakes that the language can tolerably absorb.

What slash-and-burn agriculture is to the rain forest, so this type of deliberate misuse is to the language. Both yield short-term results, but also leave lasting damage.

There is a disproportionate influence exerted upon the language by commercial entities whose short-term interests have little to do with the long-term consistency, simplicity and beauty of the language.

I have observed a similar phenomenon when it comes to product names. Every few years, some new MBA will come along and decide to rename everything, under the guise of “establishing coherent brand identity across product families,” or some such thing. This inevitably leads to great confusion among sales and technical staff, to say nothing of the poor customers. Sure, the product lineup gets the shine and sparkle of a new name; but here too the unintended consequences are real and lasting: no one knows what anything is called anymore, and there’s the practical impossibility of finding coherent information about a product whose name has changed four times in the space of a few years.

2010-01-11

Beyond race

Some folks have recently claimed that James Cameron’s Avatar contains racist themes. This is absurd. If anything, the film is about the need to move beyond the self-centered view that any one group of people is special. Cameron wants us to expand the circle to include non-humans. This enlightened viewpoint is the opposite of racism. The race (within the species) of the human characters is largely irrelevant, made to seem all the more insignificant by the larger inter-species conflict between humans and Na’vi.

I do not see see Avatar as the story of a white messiah saving a primitive tribe. On the contrary, it seems clear to me that one of the main points of the film is that that race—and even species—is not what makes people special.

2010-01-10

On the way to the Alps


On the way, originally uploaded by Michael A. Lowry.

I’m joining a couple of colleagues for a day of skiing at Laax, a ski area just 1 ½ hours’ drive from Z├╝rich. The weather is not forecast to be particularly good, but one can always hope that it’s sunnier at the higher elevations. This’ll be my first day on the slopes this winter. I had considered going ski touring today, but opted for good old downhill sking instead because I’m still tired from a long first week back at work. I also did sporty things every day of the week, so I need to do something comparatively relaxing today. I’ll try to post more pix from the mountain!

2010-01-08

Gender identity and ID cards

An article in The Local describes an effort underway in Sweden to offer alternate identity cards to those considering sex-reassignment surgery. The thinking is that those who self-identify as a gender other than their biological gender will be able to present themselves as the person they want to be.

I find this topic fascinating, because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about what it means to be male or female. People ought to be able to be whoever they want. However, we must also recognize that the presence of people in society who don’t fit into our neat little categories poses some problems.

People like to be able to make assumptions about others. These assumptions save time and offer the illusory comfort that we live in a stable and predictable world. Sometimes though it becomes clear that certain time-honored assumptions are outdated and must be discarded, even at the expense of eliminating this source of comfort and challenging people to abandon their long-held prejudices. Most people today would agree that it is wrong to make assumptions about a person based on the color of her skin. However, it took a long and difficult struggle to get to this point. Along the way, many people were made to feel very uncomfortable, precisely because their assumptions were challenged.

Any time you challenge people’s basic assumptions, you’re going to make them uncomfortable.

One of the most basic assumptions people like to be able to make is that there are only two genders, and that it’s easy to tell who is a man and who is a woman. The presence of transgender people challenges this assumption.

I’ll give one specific example. Imagine a person who is biologically male, but prefers to identify as a woman. Should this person be allowed to share the same public facilities (toilets, changing rooms, etc) as other women? I dare say some erstwhile open minded women might find their open-mindedness challenged upon encountering this situation in real life. And what would be a solution to the problem that would be fair to everyone? I suppose one might suggest that separate facilities for men and women could be outlawed and that the state could enforce unisex facilities. That would eliminate the need to categorize oneself at all, and would be consistent with the trend toward blurring of the boundaries between the sexes. But although fair, that solution too would upset a great number of people, most notably women who like to feel safe in the assumption that their facilities are free of men.

Which assumptions are sacred, and which must be challenged? That’s not an easy question to answer.

2010-01-04

Eagle Scout Stories: my contribution

As a lifetime member of the National Eagle Scout Association, I was recently invited to contribute a short statement about how my experiences in scouting had contributed to my life. Here is the full text of my submission:
Scouting was a very important part of my youth, and I will always look back upon those days with fondness. The discipline and skills I learned in the pursuit of the rank of Eagle have served me well in life, both in my profession and in my personal life. Scouting instilled in me a spirit of adventure that eventually led me to move to Sweden, and later, Switzerland.
I feel it is my duty to acknowledge my disappointment in the BSA’s regrettable decision to exclude gays and atheists from scouting. Scout organizations in other parts of the world do not discriminate on the basis or religion or sexual orientation. It is high time that the BSA take a more enlightened view, and respect the rightful place of all who wish to participate.

It is my sincere hope that the NESA include my contribution in its entirety in the publication, to be entitled Eagle Scout Stories: Tales from the Trails of Scouting’s Highest Rank. The Boy Scouts of America holds that atheists and agnostics are incapable of being good citizens, and that homosexuals are morally crooked and unclean. The BSA’s position is not just controversial; it is indefensible.