Ireland-bound

For the next two weeks, I’ll be pulling an Ian Hines and taking a trip to Ireland. While I should have nightly internet access, the last thing I want is to tie up my vacation with regular posts. Maybe there will be something written while I’m there, but likely the site will fall silent for a while.

Before I go, I thought I’d post a list of what technology I’m using to help with my trip. Everyone likes a setup picture, so here you go:

Essentially, I’m getting by with my iPod touch, my very first Moleskine softcover notebook, and a Uni-ball Power Tank Smart Series (High Grade) which I ordered from JetPens.

Why did I choose these items? I’m glad you asked, because I’ll tell you. The iPod touch more or less runs my life by now, so it gets included by default. My left hip pocket would feel truly vacant without its constant weight. The Moleskine, renowned notebook of the world’s greatest writers (or something like that) was more of a vanity purchase. I’ve always admired the smooth paper and lovely textured cover, but $10 is a lot for a pocket notebook. I previously used a recycled paper notebook but decided to spring for the Moleskine last week. It’s not every day you go to Ireland, after all. I chose the uni-ball Power Tank from a rather too large collection of writing instruments because of its reliable pressurized ink refill (sort of the slightly poorer man’s version of a Fischer Space Pen) which will work on the plane, in the rain, and anywhere else. Its ribbed aluminum body is comfortable to hold, and although I don’t prefer retractable pens as a general rule, the lack of a cap will make it easier to write on the go.

I’m also taking my new Nikon S8100, as near to the top of the pocket cameras as my budget allows. Between a healthy 10x optical zoom, 1 cm macro focus, and CMOS sensor for low light situations, I’m sufficiently impressed. I’d love to go higher of course, but the value this camera presents was hard to pass up. It’s not included in the picture for obvious reasons. No, it’s not ugly.

No trip would be complete without some great apps, so here’s what I’m using:

iBooks tops the list, as I’m traveling for the first time without any paper books whatsoever. My main reading material is Patrick Rhone’s new book Keeping It Straight, a collection of his online writings from the past several years. I’ve held off reading it in anticipation of this trip, but it’s gotten universally great reviews. He writes with a purpose, and I’m excited to glean some more of his seemingly never-ending wisdom. Besides, I think he’d approve of my decidedly minimal gear. The incredibly well-priced A History of Science Fiction compiled by Lance Chandler has been on my shelf for over a semester, and I’m still less than halfway through. It’s a huge tome, and well worth the $1 price on the iBooks store. Think complete novels by almost every relevant sci-fi author from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells through Andre Norton and Scott Douglas. Other prospective titles include various Heinlein novels and Cult of Mac by Leander Kahney.

Momento will handle my journaling, as it has for a while now. (That is, if I can keep my hands off the Moleskine long enough). It handles multiple input sources nicely, from RSS and Twitter to tagged photos.

I made my packing lists in I Do Lists, a beautiful and simplistic app that has one of the best UIs I’ve seen in a while. Too many list apps make it unnecessarily cumbersome to enter items, but I Do Lists never gets in the way.  My to-do lists are handled by SpeedTask, my favorite task app, also well-designed to enter tasks as quickly as possible.

Instapaper is cued up with the week’s best long-form blog posts for offline reading on the plane, and I’m eschewing Reeder while on the trip due to time constraints. A twice-daily email update from Summify should keep me suitably up to date with the tech world’s goings on.

My travel itinerary is entered into the free TripDeck, though I would definitely pay for the additional flight tracking if I was assured of airport wi-fi. Since the original purpose of my trip is tracking my ancestors and the historical farm where my forefathers toiled during the potato famine, I’ve also purchased the MobileFamilyTree app to sync with the excellent MacFamilyTree in which my mother and I record our history.

Last but not least, I’ve saved the last week’s worth of The Bro Show, The Talk Show, The B&B Podcast, and 11 Minutes for listening when time allows. Now if only the iPod would update them automatically!

That about covers my system for the next two weeks, but I will be sure to post a few photo galleries upon return, so stay tuned!

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iOS 5 – a not-so-modest wishlist

When Apple first released the iPhone in 2007, it was unlike anything the industry had ever seen. The elegant slab of aluminum that transformed into an email client, full browser, weather forecaster, stock ticker, or calendar leapfrogged to the forefront of mobile technology. It couldn’t run any third-party apps, but most people didn’t care – the built-in ones were amazing enough. What other smartphone could play YouTube videos or navigate Google Maps? The browser alone was miles ahead of anything else around.

That was four years ago, and the iPhone is no longer the uncontested king of the hill. Android phones routinely best the iPhone on hardware specs, and practically every new smartphone follows the same basic style (except Blackberries). Suddenly, the iPhone has real competition. So what makes it stand out form the crowd? The apps.

Apple does not like to skimp on its default Mac applications. Safari, Preview, TextEdit, iLife, the entire utilities folder – all at or near the top of their class. The iPhone apps, on the other hand, have fallen behind. The immense third-party ecosystem that has built up around the iPhone has spawned some fantastic alternative apps, like calvetica, Soulver, and Simplenote, that put the defaults to shame. It’s a very different game, but the core apps of iOS haven’t changed a bit in 4 years. It wouldn’t be so much of a problem, except those lackluster default apps can’t be deleted. Who wants two calendar or notes apps when one will do? The iPhone has always been all about apps above, so I’m hoping to see some love for the built-in ones this WWDC.

Here’s how I think Apple could make the classics great again, giving us a reason to put them back on our home screens:

Safari: Apple likes to brag about the speed of Safari on the Mac, but it’s still slower than Chrome. Apple also likes to tout its new Nitro enhancements for mobile Safari, but it’s still slower than the Android 2.3 default browser, as well as the lowly Windows Phone 7’s Internet Explorer-based browser. How embarrassing is it to be bested by IE? I do appreciate the speed enhancements of Nitro, but Apple needs to pick up the WebKit development again and take back some ground there. Safari is light on features, but I’m ok with that – it’s meant to be simple. But with more feature-filled browsers on the App Store and Android’s Flash support, it could use the title of “world’s fastest mobile browser” again.

(Note: I do not want Flash on my phone in any way, but not everyone feels the same. For better or for worse, people often shop by specs, and it’s a “feature” that’s often thrown in the face of iPhone users.)

Mail: This app is still tops (maybe because third-party email clients aren’t allowed in the App Store) but it can still use a touch-up. Some UI streamlining wouldn’t be amiss, like an easier way to mark messages as unread. Expanding the list of recipients (which can be quite long at times) then tapping “mark as unread” at the bottom is a hassle. Make a gesture, maybe an option at the bottom, anything. It can be easier.

Along the same lines, a pull-to-refresh would be nice. I’ve often pulled down on my inbox to no avail, and I’d imagine that I’m not alone. What are the chances of Apple ever including this? Practically zero, but I can hope.

Multiple signatures are something people have asked for since the beginning. We have multiple accounts, why not more than one signature? It can’t be that difficult to include.

Weather: I get the feeling someone at Apple threw together this app by copying the Dashboard widget as closely as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t even fill the screen for goodness sake. Why is that? As far as I can tell, there’s no real reason. Sure, the clouds or the sun hangs off the top a bit, but the border could just stretch higher. No other app does this, and it’s needlessly inconsistent.

The main request I have is a live icon. That would take some work, since changing weather and temperatures are more complex than Calendar’s dynamic date icon. But, I’m sure Apple can find a way. I’m just sick of staring at “Sunny and 73°” when it’s clearly cold and rainy outside.

I also want more info about today, not necessarily the whole week. Tap today’s weather to expand into a daily forecast, or rotate into landscape. It doesn’t really matter, but I’m usually more concerned about if it’s going to rain later today rather than next Wednesday. See Ben Brooks’ absurdly detailed review of just about every alternative app and see how much more they can do. I’m not asking for much.

Notes: I’m going to put my credibility on the line here and declare the Notes app to be pretty darn good. We’ve been freed of Marker Felt (though I don’t mind it as much as most), and it even syncs to any IMAP email account. Yes, it really and truly does, though no one seems to care. The thing is, that part doesn’t really work very well. Gmail seems to work well, but my college @wisc.edu address produces sporadic results at best. Apple needs to fix that.

And why in the world are notes bundled in with Mail in the first place? Who seriously thinks to themselves: “I think I’ll write myself a to-do list or jot down some ideas. Time to fire up my mail client!” Obviously somebody at Apple makes that cognitive leap, but I don’t. Based on the sheer volume of syncing notes apps on the App Store, I’m not alone either.

Calendar: What can I say about Calendar? That it’s the most complicated, tedious way to enter an event since carving stelae? I think that about sums it up. A drastically easier way to enter events is desperately needed, and that goes for iCal too. It looks like they’ve fixed that in Lion, but the iPhone is a mobile device. No mobile device should require you to type in that many different fields unless you’re writing a novel in the middle of South Dakota. I can forgive iCal for being clunky, but the iPhone is all about getting out of your way so you can move on with your life. Calevetica figured it out, so it isn’t impossible. Oh, and is a landscape week view too much to ask? The app is practically begging to be turned and expanded. It frustrates me just thinking about it.

Contacts: This app is fairly useless, what with autocomplete email addresses and the duplicate contact list found in the Phone app. But let’s just accept that Apple wants it there, so it’s staying. How about adding a picture in list view? Scrolling through lists of text is not a good way to find anything quickly. And no, I don’t want to search; scrolling is more fun.

Maps: This is one area where Android really wipes the floor with iOS. 3D maps? Turn-by-turn GPS? Such things are mere dreams to us iPhone users, yet standard for our Google phone friends. Considering that Apple has hired map experts and absorbed at least one mapping software company, I’ll go ahead and predict an improved version this WWDC. They’d better have something to show for all that talent acquisition.

YouTube: Last year, YouTube released a very good web app, saying that the web was better than native apps anyways. Ouch Google, that hurts. But in this case, they were totally right. The web app has better video quality, a simpler and more intuitive UI, and a far more relevant icon. Where was the last place, other than an iOS springboard, that you saw YouTube represented by an old CRT television? Never. Either bring the native client to parity with the web app, or give up. Don’t stick iPhone users with an inferior native app when there’s a superior one online. Especially one they can’t get rid of.

App Store: The only problem I have with the iPhone App Store is that it continues to say “Buy” when you select an app you’ve already downloaded but previously deleted. It doesn’t cost more to re-download it, and the iPad’s App Store just says “Install.” Apple doesn’t even have to update the app for this to change, just the iTunes backend. Simple sloppiness and very misleading and scary phrasing for most people.

Clock: Quiz- what did the old click-wheel iPods do better than any iPhone? (other than play music and have tactile buttons). They let you play your music as an alarm! I couldn’t believe this was excluded when the iPhone was released, and I’m still incredulous. It can’t be that difficult, and numerous third-party alarms exist to do just that. It’s not terribly important, but it is a head-scratcher.

I don’t think it would be unreasonable to limit the alarm picker to 5-minute increments either. I have yet to meet anyone who sets an alarm for 7:03 AM exactly. Scrolling through the minute picker is needlessly tedious – just reduce it to 12 choices and save us the trouble. Oh, and a live icon would also be pretty magical.

Photos: The photos app does a very simple job rather well, but I crave more from a multi-touch interface. I’d prefer not to mess with the Photos app per se, but the iPhone is in need of an iPhoto. We’ve got iMovie and Garage Band (at least on the iPad), but a photo editor seems like a no-brainer at this point. What’s easier than cropping and resizing with multi-touch? The A4 and A5 can clearly handle some impressive graphics, so filters and retouching would be easy enough. Let’s hope Apple either adds some meat to the Photos app or, better yet, comes out with iPhoto for iPhone.

iPod: The iPhone is the only phone with an iPod built in; the commercials make this very clear. Unfortunately, it’s not all that great for listening to music. It’s impossible to alter albums or songs, but you can delete playlists. That’s not confusing at all. The biggest problem is podcasts though. Why can an internet device with full access to the iTunes store not update the podcasts you subscribe to? This is not the sort of detail-oriented thinking we expect from Apple.

Voice Memos: This is a good, simple, reliable app, with one tragic flaw. How did the icon change get past Steve Jobs? The app has a dark red color scheme, with a silver skeuomorphic microphone. So did the first icon, but it changed to yet another blue generic icon with iOS 4. Why? It simply makes no sense.

Compass: Last but not least, we come to the Compass. Never mind, it is least. Why do we need this? Put it in Maps or throw it on the App Store. This does not need to come included with the phone.

All the other apps seem more-or-less solid to me, but I think that’s enough for the devs at Apple to work on for now. A more streamlined and upgraded set of built-in apps would really make the iPhone a more attractive option. Along with upgrading them, why not allow them to be removed? Just include a copy in iTunes and there’s no danger of reinstallation problems. A lot of people never use the default apps, so why force them to hide the offending icons away in a folder? Surely there’s a way to accomplish this.

And that’s my lengthy wishlist for iOS 5. Of course, there are other things I’d like to see, like the rumored Nuance partner`ship, better notification support, iCloud, a better Game Center service, and a more useful lockscreen. But to me, iOS is less important than the apps that run on it. A quintessential information appliance, its true strength lies in its ability to “turn into” the app you’re using at any given time. It does so much, but the functionality is very rarely part of the underlying operating system. Improvements to the OS are certainly always welcome, but I also don’t want Apple to neglect the system apps that made the original iPhone an industry standard.


Justice at last

We finally caught him. That’s right, I’m happy to report that renowned terrorist and known rebel conspirator Obi-Wan Kenobi has been brought to justice. Speaking from the East Room of the Imperial Palace, Lord Vader confirmed that Imperial intelligence discovered he was living under the pseudonym “Ben” Kenobi on the Outer Rim planet of Tatooine. After a concentrated strike team composed of the 501st Legion eventually brought down the dangerous outlaw in a firefight near Alderaan, his body was immediately disposed of in deep space according to Jedi tradition.

I, for one, feel much safer knowing the Empire is capable of bringing down one of the most dangerous Jedi scum to haunt our spaceways, though I wonder how the struggling Rebel Alliance will react. Despite his increasingly marginal role, Kenobi was a powerful figurehead. I fear that to the Rebels, his legacy could be more powerful than we can possibly imagine.

– Via Daring Fireball


Fear the teddy bears

Avanaut’s latest photo is just about perfect. He achieves the sense of early morning light, and the plant background works surprisingly well. I wouldn’t have thought that a full-size plant would scale so well to a minifig, but the giant flora of Endor make it believable. Very difficult to tell this isn’t a movie still from a distance.


Happy Mothers Day!

I said I’d write about it when schfio made his next holiday sculpture, so here it is.  As usual, I’m not disappointed – the leaf technique and the way he hollowed the flowers is impressive. I hope all the mothers out there had an excellent day, and I’m eager to see mine next weekend!


Terry Lucy’s empty MacBook Air

I envy Terry Lucy. I really do. Somehow, months after purchasing his first Mac, he’s only installed 8 third-party apps. After an Enough-inspired purge of my Applications folder, I’m still left with a whopping 99. This does include the built-in applications, but still. Here’s what he has, simply because I find it fascinating. I have several of these, but not every one.

Spotify — Music player. If it weren’t for iOS updates, I would delete iTunes.

Twitter for Mac — Can’t find anything else as unobtrusive and easy to use.

Linkinus — IRC client whereby I talk to my fellow Macgasm contributors.

Google Chrome — For Flash sites and for being logged into two WordPress accounts at the same time.

Dropbox — Best Mac application. Period.

Droplr — Currently trying it out, though it will be deleted soon due to lack of use.

Skype — I’m a Podcaster, I need it.

FaceTime — Because video calling on Skype is lame.

Best quote from his article has to be this:

It’s worth noting that it really doesn’t matter what any of us say. Good advice is there to be had but computing is very much a one-to-one task. No one can tell you what you need or what you should like, you have to figure that out for yourself.

I take that to heart every day – no one can use my computer like I can, and I feel like a foreigner on anyone else’s. Many of my friends wouldn’t touch a Mac with a 9-foot pole, and that’s fine. I don’t tell them what they should use, and (for the most part) they don’t argue with me. It’s an argument no one can win.


1-Bit Ninja

I’m a huge fan of old-school platformers. I freely admit bias in that area of gaming, but nevertheless I think this new iOS game looks incredibly fun. Not only does the developer stay true to the old monochrome palette and chiptunes, but someone finally understands how to make platformer controls! So many of the classic old games are ruined on a touchscreen by tiny virtual buttons, but this game needs only a tap on the right or left side of the screen. So simple, but so commonly overlooked. Will this sell like hotcakes? Most likely not, but I’ll buy it. Oh yes, and the 3D gameplay twist promises to make it play like a unique game, not just another Mario clone.

Via MacLife