The Computer Whisperer – Part 2

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A Big Red Button Today

Lohan’s bar in the seaside resort of Salthill, where my friend Maja is playing jazz on the piano. I’ve eaten a pretty good seafood chowder, and I’m sitting on a stool studying Linux, occasionally looking out at the full moon over the night sea. Life can be all right sometimes, can’t it?

I say studying, more reading up on the very basics. I’ve long regarded Linux as a step too far into the dark woods of geekhood, but now that my darn phone is running the stuff perhaps it is time to try and understand. Also I installed Ubuntu on my work PC a few months back, as some sort of convoluted and probably unnecessary intermediate stage while I was shuffling Windows licenses around, and I was very impressed. It was a silly thing that really got me – you could apply amusing effects to the whole desktop, stretching it like a rubber sheet, with a degree of responsiveness and realism I’d have thought impossible for my basic graphics hardware. I’ve never seen anything like that on Windows or OS X. Also there was the fact that you could download programs to do what you wanted without even having to consider the possibility of their being evil.

My besmitten-ness faded however as soon as I hit a snag. If I have a problem on Windows I can usually fix it. Hell, I can always fix it, some way or another. I’ve used Windows for work daily these last ten years, I’ve had to. But I come across a problem in Linux, I have simply no idea what to do.

And part of me says, maybe it should stay that way… My phone has a nice user-friendly system for installing and uninstalling apps, if something goes wrong I can simply remove the offending article or, if the worst comes to the worst, restore the phone to its factory conditions. And really, that is all I need to know.

But it’s no good. I can hear the siren’s song, with its refrain of “What does this do?” Before my eyes, suspended, is nature’s Big Red Button.

What Phone Is Right For You? 5 – Apple Changes Everything

iPhone, Apple Inc.
Image by Cloud. via Flickr

Let’s get now to the ones people actually care about: The fun, fashionable phones – and the rivalry between Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

When Apple first launched the iPhone, nobody guessed just how big apps were going to become. Smartphones had applications before this of course. It was possible to download software both for Windows Mobile and for Symbian. But these hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. In part, this was because the phones came with all the software necessary for normal use, and more beside. Most additional programs tended to be either created by businesses for their own use, or were ephemera like games. The bigger reason though was that these OSes ran on a wide range of phones, all with different hardware. Not just different processors, but different control button layouts, different keyboards, different abilities. Some phones might have cameras, 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, others none of those. Anything but the most basic software was only really going to work on one specific phone, making the market unattractively fragmented for developers.

A big part of Apple’s success therefore was simply that there was only one iPhone, with a good set of hardware features for programmers to work with. Even more important though was the innovative touch interface. This seemed almost a gimmick at first glance. At second, it seemed brilliant – now all the area taken up on an ordinary phone for buttons and controls could be given over to a screen big enough for comfortable video or Web viewing. But even that was overlooking the real genius of the idea. One whole side of the iPhone was completely configurable – as display, as controls, or as any combination thereof. The whole user interface could be adapted to the intended task. This was what made the iPhone not just a clever phone, but a whole new order of device. A shape-changer. And this meant that as well as being a potentially profitable thing to develop software for, it was also – crucially – an interesting one.

So it’s a great phone for software developers. Is it the phone for you?

Good Pope Bad Pope

It’s shaping up to be a bad week all round for major religions, with the US letting its diplomatic mission be used to serve court papers on the Pope. These allege that he was involved in a conspiracy of silence over child abuse, which I think we might fairly say is about as self-evident as his Catholicism. He’ll never stand trial for it of course, but as empty gestures go it’s an impressive one.

It’s been better I suppose for the world’s second most famous head of a religion, the Dalai Lama. (Some describe Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion, but anything that claims you can survive death fits my definition.) Then again, is the Dalai Lama really a Buddhist leader? During his visit to Ireland we’ve had everyone from nuns to people who describe themselves as non-religious out to greet him. He is perhaps the figurehead of that fastest-growing denomination in modern society, the Not Into Organised Religion But A Spiritual Sort Of Person; people who want to believe that there is meaning to life, but are reluctant to speculate about what exactly it might be.

Of course, there is nothing vague about Buddhism. Like any religion it presents a blueprint for what it considers to be a well-ordered society. It is a set of rules, and indeed one with great emphasis on discipline. But the 14th DL is himself a likeable, diplomatic type with a reluctance to give offence, so he comes across as preaching little more than niceness. He’s become the Pope of Vague.

He does seem to be a nice person, it is true. And as nice people go, probably the one most likely to spark war between India and China.

France Unveils A Darker Side

Anti-Muslim and anti-women, or pro-freedom and pro-women? Or indeed, anti-Muslim and pro-women, or (here’s a combo) pro-freedom and anti-women?

It’s hard to take sides on this unusually crucial issue of French couture. I am against people hiding their faces in public, whether they choose to or are forced. I’m against Islam – and indeed religion in general.

But I am in favour of the freedom to practise whatever religion you choose, no matter how strongly I disagree with that choice, as long as you do no harm to anyone else. And I can’t really accept that hiding your face in public is harmful to others. Rude certainly, but France isn’t introducing any law against rudeness.

I will have no truck with When-in-Rome arguments. In this Rome, they do religious freedom. Or did. And it is a matter of religious freedom. There is no point claiming that the veil is not a genuinely Muslim practice. Are you really going to say to someone “Your religion is not what you think it is”? Your beliefs are what you believe they are, I think.

Does the veil oppress women? Certainly if someone is forcing a woman to veil herself that is oppression, but there is no need for a law against forcing people to do one specific thing. Indeed, it’s a very poor precedent – do we need separate laws for everything you can’t force people to do? And if she chooses it herself, then this law is oppressing her. In practice there will be winners and losers. While some may seize on this as an opportunity to unveil, it will make others prisoners in their homes. No one can say that the net effect will be liberating.

When it comes down to it, the real motivation for this law is discomfort. France is uneasy with the number of Muslims who live there, but is willing to tolerate them – as long as they aren’t too blatant about it. So they ban the practice of a small minority, basically because it’s highly visible. A country has a right to outlaw things it considers foreign to its way of life I suppose. But rather than protecting France’s revolutionary ideals, this betrays them.

No Banks, Thanks

What are banks for now, anyway? A while ago you would have said they were in the business of lending money, but now they’re so in debt themselves they can’t afford to.¹ When we were innocent we were told that they were for keeping our money safe, but there was a woman on the radio this morning whose bank – ‘Permanent’ TSB – allowed someone to set up a direct debit that withdrew the maximum amount from her account each day until it was emptied. Yet they had the audacity to tell her that policing the account was not their responsibility. In other words it is up to us to protect our savings. Apparently, now from the banks themselves.

I don’t want to have an account with any of these bastards, but I am forced to – and they are forced to make money from me. Money they can then blow on unfinished luxury gated communities in Romania. They are clearly useless overfed pigs of organisations, and rationalizing them into a duopoly is hardly going to improve the situation.

You know what is going to replace banks in this country? Not NAMA, not state-run ones, not foreign banks either. Phone companies. O2 now offer a service which is essentially a debit card you can use internationally; something the banks, with their rather half-arsed Laser system, failed to provide. I can go into one of O2’s shops – probably more numerous than banks these days – and put cash onto that card instantly. (You can transfer from a bank account too, but you don’t have to.)

Meanwhile, there are other systems that allow purchases made over your phone to be added to your phone bill, and are therefore new alternatives to credit cards. As phones are becoming all-purpose electronic devices, it is pretty obvious that they are going to be our wallets. And the lovely thing about this is that our fat, useless, greedy banks will be entirely bypassed.

 

  1. The government is actually talking about turning NAMA into a lender, on the (perhaps flawed…) logic that if it does one thing our commercial banks have disastrously failed to do – manage assets – it can do the others as well.

I Finally Come To My Census

Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (right) and Padawan O...
Twats

Still trying to fill in that damn form. My problem is that a cousin and her boyfriend were visiting, and I’m not sure if they left before or after midnight. Maybe I should compromise by putting them down as one person of indeterminate gender who is related to me by both blood and marriage, but that might give a whole wrong impression about our village.

It strikes me that as a lot of these forms will have been filled en famille, many people will have come out to their parents last night as non-Catholics. I hope that went well. Incidentally, the form is actually a handy tool to help you decide whether you’re an atheist or an agnostic¹. If you happily ticked “no religion”, you’re an atheist. If you left the question unanswered, you’re an agnostic.

If you wrote “Jedi”, you’re a twat.

Another one I hope people take care over is the Internet access question. Please, don’t put down “broadband” if the only connection you can avail of is 3G mobile. Though I love the portability of it, such an unreliable connection is in no way broadband. Could you imagine running a Web server over that? Preposterous. Don’t help the government pretend that net access in this country is anything like adequate.

 

  1. Actually I think it is logically possible to be both an agnostic and an atheist, but maybe we’ll get into that some other time.

 

Daytrip to Damascus

So as I write I’m taking a walk, trying to work yesterday’s mountain out of my bones. That was… something. An eye-opener. You can fool yourself into thinking you’re a lot more fit than you really are. When you have to lie on the rocks every ten minutes just to get oxygen back into your brain, while boisterous schoolgirls, families with children, and sprightly old gentlemen in brown suits are ploughing on past, you eventually come to accept that you’re not in peak condition.

But is it so surprising, when up until a few years ago I was a heavy smoker, until a year ago this week I was a heavy drinker, and even now live an almost heroically sedentary lifestyle? That I am alive at all is really the puzzle here. But it is time to be nicer to my body. And there’s no better way to start being nice to your body than with the meatgrinder of a six-hour trek up a pile of loose rubble. Or so my girlfriend believes.

I don’t know, she might be right. As I walk here – typing as I go, thanks to my curious phone – I begin to feel a lot better. The knots are coming out, and I have a sense of somatic integrity I haven’t felt in a long time.

You begin to understand the pilgrimage, and why it was so vital to go up such a difficult and dangerous hill. It reminds you to appreciate the little things in life. Standing. Breathing. Moving around. Being without pain. These are things I value much more today.

Mountain Tension

You can actually see it quite well without the telescope

A break from all the phone stuff, for today my girlfriend and I are climbing a mountain! That’s the bugger in the first pic there. In truth it is not so high. It’s really just a walk. But a punishing walk. Or I should say, penitential. For this is Croagh Patrick, one of Ireland’s most venerated places of pilgrimage.

You can imagine why. Though not so big, the reek (as it’s called) is strikingly pyramidical. Despite being among mountains of similar size, it dominates the landscape. Clearly it’s the one you are supposed to go to the top of.

But my God, it’s not easy. Virtually all the way up you are scrabbling and sliding and stumbling on loose stones. It’s insane. I didn’t think I’d make it. Sometimes I didn’t think I’d survive.

Too tired now. I’ll finish this later. If I don’t die of exhaustion in my sleep.

What Phone Is Right For You? 4 – The Business End

Let’s deal first with the fact that there are two kinds of Windows phone. Microsoft got into the smartphone business early on by adapting the OS they had created for PDAs to be phone-capable. This ran mobile versions of their Office applications, designed to integrate seamlessly with a workplace PC. Useful to some, but of little interest to the general public – especially as the intentionally desktop-like interface makes it the least finger-friendly OS available. The latest version of this is Windows Mobile 6.5, and you are not likely to want it unless you have specific business needs.

Appreciating that the iPhone had changed the game completely, Microsoft came out – surprisingly quickly – with a whole new OS. They started afresh, with one eye firmly set on a pleasant user experience, and the result is an interestingly different interface made up of ’tiles’ that both indicate the status of and act as shortcuts to services like e-mail, SMS, Facebook and calls. Argument will rage over whether it is aesthetically appealing, but it is clearly highly usable.

What else does Windows Phone 7 have? Pretty much everything the iPhone does actually, including an integrated market for music and video downloads. But though this may make it seem just an imitation of the Apple product, a Zune to their iPod, it does have some real advantages. Microsoft are better at games. Each Windows Phone 7 device is a little gaming console, connected to their Xbox Live service. And of course they have taken care to retain their key strength: mobile versions of the Office suite of apps.

So it’s like an iPhone but with some great advantages. Where’s the catch?

Well the big one: it’s not finished. Aside from the fact that there are far fewer apps yet than for iPhone or Android, it’s lacking features that fans of the old Windows Mobile or of Symbian take for granted, like full multitasking, video calling, VoIP (Skype, etc.), cut-and-paste, or tethering (using it as a broadband modem with a laptop).

Intriguingly, similar features were also lacking in the first iPhone. So it’s expected that they will be added fairly quickly. But unless you are a business user with a pressing need for Microsoft Office, it might be better to wait and see what happens. Things should really get interesting when the first Windows Nokias come out next year.

But if you are a business user – or if you just fancy a touch of that urban professional chic – you’ll also be considering the BlackBerry. Manufacturer RIM first made it big with those two-way pagers that send and receive text messages. (Remember them?) This genetic inheritance shows in the fact that BlackBerries as a rule sport full qwerty keyboards and are designed to integrate with your corporate email system. They’re trying to escape the business ghetto too though; the number of apps available is shooting up, and they’re advertising on TV. But for the general user it’s hard to see any real reason to prefer it over its rivals.

Except one: BlackBerries can make an unbroken encrypted link all the way back to their home base, wherever in the world that is, preventing any possible interception of communication. Which is why some governments have banned them as being far too useful to spies and criminals – or to dissidents.

Which, you have to admit, is cooler than most.

Well that’s the businessy stuff. Tomorrow let’s look at phones we might really buy.

Windows Phone 7

What Phone Is Right For You? 3 – Enter The Gladiators

When you buy an advanced smartphone, the choice is less about the manufacturer than it is about the operating system (OS), the software framework that manages the phone and its apps. Each of the contenders has its way of doing things, each its benefits and pitfalls. Right now, you basically have a choice between these six:

Android – On an ever-increasing range of phones, most notably those from HTC and Samsung.

BlackBerry OS – On RIM‘s BlackBerry devices.

iOS – Apple’s iPhone (As well as the iPad and iPod Touch)

Symbian – Particularly on Nokia’s high-end phones, but also ones from Sony Ericsson and various Japanese manufacturers.

Windows Phone 7 – Currently found mainly on phones from HTC, but should be appearing on Nokias later this year.

Windows Mobile –  On many devices, again perhaps most notably those from HTC.

There are a couple of others like HP’s WebOS and Samsung’s Bada, but these are the ones you are likely to meet. How then do they differ – and where do they excel? We’ll begin, later today, with the more business-orientated. You know, the ones you can justify buying by pretending they’re for work.