At last I have attained my heart’s desire: to trade in my 5 year old Treo 650 for a Palm Pre. I never thought I’d be the type of person to line up for a gadget — and as it happens I didn’t have to — but it would have been so worth it. I think it’s love, I really do. I’m not saying my tastes are universal by a long shot, but I think there are enough people like me that this phone will hit a lot of sweet spots.

The evening before the June 6 launch, there were unannounced launch parties at a handful of Sprint stores nationwide — including the one on University Avenue, where the Panda and I just happened to be lurking. We waltzed right in and allowed the pumped-up sales associates to ply us with beers, light wines, and bubbly water while they bagged up our phones. Interestingly, my new Sprint plan costs slightly less than the old one. I’ve had Sprint for almost 10 years now, and never particularly saw a good reason to switch so that was a nonfactor for me.

Basically my excitement about the Pre beforehand had boiled down to two factors: 1) using a touchscreen for the things touchscreens are good for, and a thumbpad for the things a thumbpad is good for; and 2) app development using web standards. The thing I didn’t really grasp was how WEBBY and asynchronous the user experience on this thing really is. It’s so much more like having your computer hooked up to broadband than I’ve ever experienced before — in some ways perhaps even better once you get over the initial pain (which can be considerable).

One example will suffice to demonstrate the pain AND the payoff. Obviously first thing I wanted to transfer my phone numbers from the Treo to the Pre. But this involves a conceptual shift rather than just a mechanical thing — because the Treo just has local storage with optional backup to a local computer, whereas the Pre relies upon remote storage using a complicated system of its own profile and third-party web services you were already using.

So I had to dig out the Treo 650 hot-sync cable and download the old desktop client which frankly doesn’t work so well any more. Export data to a vCard file, then import that data to Mac’s Address Book app. Then plug in the USB-to-MiniUSB cable that forms part of the Touchstone charger, download and run a helper app, and… I don’t see my phone numbers, hmmm. Plus now the phone will want to permanently sync with Google Contacts — which means you’ll instantly download 500 emails and zero phone numbers, which you can only reduce by cleaning out your Google Contacts list manually. Then the Pre will try to do some magic de-duping stuff to match up multiple listings from multiple sources into a single card per person, and sometimes it will work great but other times it will mysteriously fail. But at the end of this ordeal, if you change someone’s contact info on Google, it will automatically push an update to your phone forever — and you’ll start to wonder why no one else does it this way.

I underestimated how awesome it would be to walk around while getting notifications of everything I’d be getting if I were sitting in front of my lappy at home: Tweets, Facebook updates, emails, IMs — plus phone stuff like texts, calls, and voicemails. In fact sometimes it gets a little oppressive and you want to turn all that stuff off… but of course one feels that way sometimes online too. I’m also very pleased at the speed and usability of the apps even compared to the iPhone versions that I’ve seen.

What don’t I love so far? The hardware is a little “different” — especially the mini-USB port door which seems like it’s going to fall off at any moment. It took me forever to figure out how to change the backplate for Touchstone, and generally how to use the Touchstone adapter… which is cool but honestly saves you no time or effort for your $70. The thumbpad is REALLY recessed, and only has the shift key on one side. I’m not sure the browser on this thing is top-notch… seems to be a bit retarded about scaling. And maybe this bespeaks a unique mental weakness on my part, but I have had a hell of a time figuring out when I need to be scrolling through a long list by flicking up-and-down versus side-to-side.

But all in all, I am more than happy I stuck with Palm — and I hope the company really does well from this. It seems like one of those situations where they were so far down that innovation was the only option… and I’ve always loved those stories. Now if I can only get my SDK, I’ll be a truly happy camper!

Goodbye Billy

May 13, 2009

Billys dojo circa 1990

Billy's dojo circa 1990

As I get older I ever more value the friends I’ve had from my youth, the ones who stuck in there over many years. I always feel sorry for people who don’t have those old friends who can keep their heads from overinflating when things go well, or remind them of their innate strengths when circumstances turn downward.

The price of this love is how painful it is to lose one of these few longtime friends. Twenty years of constant caring and encouragement came to an end last month when Billy Hinton — he’s standing directly behind me in this photo, holding my shoulders — died after a long period of ill health. He went out like a man, exactly the way everyone who knew him would have expected from him, with a final display of courage and soul that was astonishing by any standard. He also had a few snide words for the Boston Celtics ;-), who at the time were locked in combat with his beloved Bulls.

I was so HONORED to have been gifted with his unstinting friendship for all these years. He was never afraid to challenge me to be better and stronger than I knew myself to be, and he had the power to connect me to an authentic self that sometimes felt long-lost indeed.

When Tim was 11 years old, his aunt Connie — a talented but unknown singer-songwriter — packed up her old VW Bug and drove off into oblivion, never to be heard from again. 35 years later, in quasi-miraculous fashion, her first album has been released due to the long-time devotion of two 80-year-old men and the energetic work of two new 20-something fans who happened to be in the music business.

Listen to the hour-long NPR feature on Connie (I take back every mean thing I’ve ever said about public radio) and read the SF Chronicle’s feature story (which uncharacteristically does not suck).

I’m SO thrilled for Tim and especially his father Philip, who at age 80 finally gets to discharge his duty as Connie’s artistic executor in the most lovely, serendipitous way possible.

Two words

April 5, 2009

I don’t even understand anyone who doesn’t like Kanye. Watch this and weep, haters. Anyone who’s lived in Brooklyn or the South Side of Chicago will get a little hit of nostalgia. Note the credit for “catering”.

HP Mini 1030NR netbook

February 22, 2009

For years I ran Linux on Thinkpads, until I was forced to go Macbook Pro for my work machine. In everyday life it’s fine, but when I travel it’s sure easy to get tired of a lappy that weighs 10 lb and has to be carried around in a padded backpack approximately the size and shape of a human torso. I can’t in good conscience not have a computer with me all the time; but the 15″ sure seems like overkill for days when I’ll be spending 2 hours on the computer rather than 12.

I think some personal quirks might make it easier than average for me to go netbook. For one thing, I’m female. That means smaller hands, but it also means I reliably carry a purse around and a form factor that fits in there is a big win. I’m not a huge consumer of digital media — my whole iTunes collection is only 1.23GB, and I’ve almost never watched a DVD on the lappy — so I don’t need much in the way of storage or multimedia. Especially now that I do all my coding on a remote dev server, all I need locally is Firefox, Thunderbird, an IM client, and a decent terminal.

I almost got the Dell Mini 9 (cherry red!) but time pressure pushed me in the direction of the HP Mini 1030NR. For a gig of RAM and 16 gig solid state disk with a black lid, the price is almost identical right now ($399.99 vs $374 plus shipping; I think HP will soon be shipping a slightly cheaper version without Windows) The HP has a slightly bigger screen (10.2″ vs 9″) and supposedly a near-fullsize keyboard, but honestly I think that’s all pretty much a wash. The biggest practical difference is the pointer device: the HP has the buttons on each side of the trackpad, while the Dell has them below.

I am not exactly a Paganini of the pointer — in fact someone once told me I was a drag-n-drop idiot! — but I’m not sure most people would be able to use the side-button trackpad effectively. You can configure it to allow mouse clicks, and then every time you double-tap the pad it will register as a click; or you can put it in left-hand mode, in which case the button on the right will become what is normally the “left-click” button. I’ve never mastered the art of using my thumb on the trackpad, but it seems like that technique might work well on this hardware. I personally brace my thumb against the bottom edge of the Mini while using my forefinger to move around, and cross the forefinger over the thumb to left-click — but I suspect those without years of piano lessons might find that movement annoying. Also, I should mention that for some reason the HP’s trackpad gets smudgy very easily; in fact, overall this machine shows fingertip oils badly on every surface.

For the first time in my entire 12+ year history with Linux, the install was a snap. I installed from USB, and for some reason it didn’t like the first stick; but we tried a different USB drive and the second one worked like a charm. I threw a stock Intrepid Ibex Ubuntu on there, plugged in an Ethernet cord, said yes to all the defaults, and just sat back while it did its thing. I can honestly say I’ve never had a Linux laptop that had perfect X11, wifi, suspend to RAM, and suspend to disk right out of the box. What makes it even more astonishing is that this is fairly new and quirky hardware.

Oddly enough, my problems came when I tried to use the Canonical Ubuntu Netbook Remix that is supposedly specific to these little lappies. Ume-launcher was horrifically buggy for me, and without that the other pieces are basically unusable — Maximus in particular is annoying without a launcher, since it deliberately removes all the title bars and resizing elements. I rolled back on that stuff and went back to a normal Gnome desktop, which seems to work fine although I might try a more compact theme.

I’m off on my trip tomorrow night, and will update this post when I see how the HP Mini worked out for me in the field.

UPDATE: So after a bit over a month, I’m quite happy with my purchase and have in fact replaced my Thinkpad with the HP Mini as my main Linux box. Away from the office, it’s fast becoming my favorite coding machine.

The main problem for me has been that I’m a “banger” on the keyboard… just a really fast, hard typist. Someone once told me my typing sounded like a machine gun when I was mad. The Mini really DEMANDS a delicate touch on both keyboard and trackpad, and it will punish you if you get too rough.

Also, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you get the “normal” hard disk on this thing. Go solid-state or stay home! The SSD stays very cool and makes almost no noise; the non-SSD has a super noisy fan that seems to run all the time.

Leaving Facebook

February 16, 2009

(I promised Josh Elman I would say something nice about Facebook, so here it is: thank you Facebook for obviously never giving a toss about how your site looks in IE6. Every webdev in the world thanks you, Mark Zuckerberg, for delivering us from the former market leader’s crappy CSS model. Those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about need to check your Analog stats for the Facebook version of your app versus the standalone version.)

OK, with that out of the way… I’ve recently realized that not only do I think Facebook itself is trivial and stupid — but it’s starting to make me think my friends who are on Facebook are also trivial and stupid. Every time I read that someone became a fan of something, or posted a link with a one-word recommendation (“Neat!”, “OK”), I loathe that person a little more.

I miss blogs. The really alarming thing is that many of my Facebook friends are perfectly capable of writing genuine, fascinating blog posts… they just can’t on Facebook, because the stupid textareas are the size of a postage stamp. It’s a perfect example of how UI affects overall usage. As the actress said to the bishop, “Small textarea, small text”.

The other day I was on Caltrain when the entire car filled up with drunk (or even worse, pseudo-drunk) Stanford undergrads going to some kind of stupid costume party. The thing that astonished me was how INCREDIBLY LOUD they were, and how INCREDIBLY LITTLE they had to say — nothing came out of their mouths but pre-chewed catchphrases. They also mentioned Facebook in like every other sentence. Then I realized that they WERE Facebook. When I got home, I started working on disengaging from my “Facebook friends”.

It’s nothing personal, and I’m sure you’re actually just as profound as you think you are in those 140 characters. I just want to read, like, essays rather than tweets. See ya on the real interweb! Or not.

2009 New Years resolutions

February 9, 2009

After a couple of years of existential gloom, I seem to have come out the other side in my ability to embrace New Year’s resolutions (a month late, but… uh, I’m on the lunar calendar… yeah, that’s it!). I’m always pleased when I manage to do something life-affirming and forward-looking.

In 2009 I will:

  • Improve my vim skills. I could always use it for little things like checkin comments and config changes; but this year I’ve committed to using it as my main programming editor. And did you know that my posse rides with vim?
  • Build and cook with a solar oven. This is exactly the kind of project that I fail at, because it ends up having a LOT of dependencies that turn into yak-shaving exercises.
  • Continue to slowly divest myself of extraneous possessions, especially books.
  • Complete one major knitting project.

And I think I’ve learned from mistakes of the past because I’m not going to try for too many resolutions this year.