Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Oath—Attack of the Day Players

One of the difficulties of an episode like "The Oath" that involves a significant portion of the cast turning on the rest is that unless it calls for a series-ending bloodbath (which given BSG's track record and the fact that this is it's final season, is not out of the question), it will require a lot of little-seen day players to come to the forefront. Because of this, a lot of the effectiveness of such an episode will depend on people who normally get only one or two lines per episode if they appear at all. Luckily for BSG, this show has been around for a long time and has a large supply of day players and red shirts.

First and foremost among these secondary characters whom must rise to the occasion is Felix Gaeta. While Alessandro Juliani has always given a nice, nuanced performance in the role and Gaeta has been on the show since the beginning, until recently he has always been a second tier character who mostly labored in the background. Perhaps this is why he has slowly ascended in status and air time over the years, because the writers needed to build someone up to take the fall when the main characters would have to be put through the crucible. Ron Moore is a harsh master indeed.

Our story begins at 0620 hours in the Admiral's Quarters. In his podcast, Moore explains that the purpose of these chirons announcing the time and location was to make the episode feel more fast paced and to give viewers a sense of the scale of the ship. The latter worked very well for me, making the ship feel like a giant set of interconnected shooting galleries—sort of like the environment of a first person shooter. The former however was a little less successful, while Gaeta's machinations as he orchestrates the mutiny become fascinating upon repeated viewing, in the first viewing the action feels a little slow.

Last week's problems are still with Galactica, the civilian ships are still resisting the Cylon upgrades which Adama feels are needed to keep the fleet going. Roslin has effectively abandoned her post as president for the time being and Bill is shouldering the load by himself. But they are happy. Bill and Laura have essentially settled down and are openly a couple. Neither makes an attempt to hide their relationship despite Tigh's obvious discomfort with it.

Twelve minutes later Gaeta shows up in the brig to spring Tom Zarek and the mutiny is underway. As they plot, the first seeds of dissension are being sowed in the co-conspirators. In discussing the Quorum, Zarek without mentioning his name brings up the idea that Lee Adama will have to be killed and Gaeta balks suggesting that Zarek can "push his buttons."

While Laura is still reluctant to get back into politics, she can also sense Bill passively-aggressively trying to push her back. While she stands her ground initially, their conversation suggests that his silent prodding is starting to work. She'll be back sooner rather than later.

In the hanger deck, Racetrack complains about a fuel leak and has the deck evacuated to clear the way for Gaeta to take over. Laird complains that Zarek's shuttle has no permission to take off. While Gaeta tries to smooth things over, Zarek takes a more direct approach, killing Laird with a heavy wrench to the back of the head. Skulls has more lines here than he has had over the entire course of the series in declaring "good riddance" to the former Pegasus and now former Galactica deck chief. Gaeta and Zarek argue again as one of Baltar's chippies witnesses the murder from afar. Zarek's speech about how revolutions can be stopped by even the slightest hesitation suggests on possible way that this mutiny will end.

By 0704 hours, Gaeta is in CIC providing cover for Zarek's escape and setting his plan into motion. Gaeta suggests that the DRADIS is failing and convinces Adama and Tigh to take it offline for a diagnostic. By 0741 hours, Zarek is back on Colonial One claiming that Admiral Adama has backed down. In a gym on Galactica Seelix brings up her non-relationship with him as a ruse for the mutineers to kidnap our favorite Cylon ex-jock. The beat down is brutal but they let him live and take him prisoner in accordance to Gaeta's plan.

Back to CIC. It's now 0809 hours and Gaeta reports a fire onboard close to ship's main antenna array. This fake fire harkens back the series pilot where a fire onboard breaks out during the initial Cylon attack. Recall that eighty-five deck hands were killed in that scene when Tigh ordered the burning compartments to be vented and exposed to space to stop the fire. So shipboard fires are a serious matter on Galactica. Gaeta suggests that because of the location of the fire, which could potentially cut off Galactica's communications with the rest of the fleet, might be the result of sabotage. Adama agrees and orders that a Marine fire team accompany the damage control team and that the deck be evacuated.

There is a blink and you missed it moment in this scene as Adama calls a young crewman, Private Jaffe, by name. I missed it the first time that I watched this episode and it turns out to be an interesting if not critical reveal as this boy who has never been seen before is now marked for death because we know his name at a time when a lot of people are expected to die.

By 0812 hours Starbuck is making fun of Hotdog for his new son in the Jr. Officer's Quarters. Vernon Costanza (Vernon? Really?) comes back and Kara can't take what she dishes out. As the evacuation order comes in Kara is suspicious and talks to Narcho. His brusque reaction makes her even more suspicious and when she spots civilians raiding the weapons locker, it's pretty easy for her to put two and two together. She tries to report it to CIC but Gaeta gives her the brush off.

Back on Colonial One Lee tries to call Adama about Zarek's release and is again cut off by Gaeta who claims to not know anything about the release. Zarek makes an attempt to manipulate Lee into joining him but it's pretty easy for Lee to see through it. He chooses instead to return to Galactica and thus walk into a trap. This is something of a personality trait for Lee, clever insight and idealism mixed with impulsive stupidity. On Galactica Gaeta reports a crisis as the "fire" has spread and cut off Galactica's external and internal communications.

By 0902 hours, Lee is back on Galactica being beat up by Skulls and some marines. It seems that Gaeta's confederates aren't fond of Lee. Defending Baltar at his trial and cutting a deal with the Cylons can do that -- they prepare to kill Lee. Luckily for Lee, Kara has been itching for an excuse to start shooting people and kills the marine who has a gun to Lee's head. She also shoots Skulls and a Caprican stand off ensues. Lee and Kara escape as Racetrack tends to Skulls but she's eager to be followed.

Athena is feeding Hera when Helo hears some commotion. It's too late as the mutineers break in take Athena and the kid and one of Thorn's (Thorn was the torturer from Pegasus who tried to rape Athena and was killed in a fight with Helo and Tyrol way back in season two) friends has Helo beaten bloody and senseless. This is interesting as it's the first time that main character is really hurt in this episode. Normally, the viewer response would be muted as Helo is probably an important enough character that you don't expect him to die. But this is the final season of BSG and they pretty much announced that people were going to die when Dee offed herself two episodes ago. So there is some genuine concern that Helo might not make it out of this one alive.

It's still 0902 hours by the time Starbuck and Apollo make it to Dry Stowage 5-3A-01. A typo? Or is Dry Stowage 5-3A-01 merely right next to the hanger deck? Either way, it feels confusing given that we just switched from Lee and Kara to Athena and Helo and back to Lee and Kara. Presumably these events are happening at the same time but you'd think that more time had passed. Anyway as Lee worries that they might have already lost, Kara plants a big kiss on his lips as she signals that the original Starbuck, the hard-drinking, hard-fighting hotshot who likes to frak around is back and that Apollo needs to come back too. They decide to go after the president.

By 0908 Tigh is furious at the lack of damage reports and Mr. Hoshi is starting to report inconsistencies between the ship's own sensor readings the claims that a fire is ravaging the ship. Gaeta tries to finesse things by claiming that the sensors might have been damaged by the fire but Adama sends Jaffe down to check on the damage control team.

Athena and Hera are hustled into a cell with Caprica Six and Sam Anders. Caprica is terrified thinking that they will be killed but Athena is confident that the mutineers need to keep them alive to use as bargaining chips against the rebel Cylons. As far as explanations of why these main characters have been spared go, it's a pretty good one.

By 0913 hours Starbuck and Apollo are fighting their way down Deck F Corridor 6. The scene is appropriately chaotic as they try to reach the president.

By 0922 hours Private Jaffe reports back there is no fire. Gaeta is forced to call on the marines loyal to him to take over the bridge and take Adama prisoner—likely sooner than he intended to do so—so he is probably improvising at this point. The marines have itchy trigger fingers and as the only named red shirt in sight, Jaffe is quickly cut down along with several marines who are not part of the mutiny. Gaeta is doing his best to keep the body count down but Adama isn't going quietly.

They confront each other. Adama talks about loyalty and the oath and how they've crossed a line from which there is no coming back. And Gaeta says some uncomfortable truths. He talks about Adama being blinded by sentiment and loyalty to his Cylon XO. It's interesting that while Gaeta is essentially right about Adama's blindness he picks the target wrong target. Adama is in fact much more blinded by his relationship with the Laura Roslin than by his relationship with Tigh.

In any case, Adama and Tigh are taken prisoner along with other senior staff, including Mr. Hoshi. The latter is curious as anyone who has seen the most recent BSG mini-sodes knows that Gaeta and Hoshi are a couple. Of course, the mini-sodes weren't filmed until after the series ended, so some continuity errors are to be expected. Of course one could argue that Gaeta and Hoshi's relationship ended following the mini-sodes and before Gaeta hatched his plot. As the mini-sodes are set after Galactica abandons Earth, it's a tight fit timewise. The only room for the mini-sodes would be in the week in between "Sometimes a Great Notion" and "The Disquiet That Follows My Soul."

By 0925 hours Starbuck and Apollo have reached the president and fill her in on the details of the mutiny. Laura's first thought is of Bill and it propels her to action. The steely politician is back.

By 0934 hours Gaeta's confederates are struggling to establish control of the ship. Many of them lack experience with the operation of Galactica's huge CIC and their progress is slow.

By 0942 hours Baltar is preparing his escape and making excuses to the members of his cult. Tyrol is helping to organize them to possibly defend the compartment. Being fanatics, they buy his cowardly lies hook, line, and sinker. Tyrol is considerably calmer and more organized. Starbuck and Apollo bring the president to Baltar's compartment where Tyrol informs her that the Admiral has been arrested. Tyrol offers to help get them and Adama off the ship, "the old man deserves a better fate than what he'll get from them."

By 0947 hours Adama and Tigh are still being walked down to the brig. Adama talks to one of the marines, Neward, about his role in the assault on New Caprica. The other marine, Maldonado, is less talkative. Adama works him over verbally, forcing a confrontation, daring them to kill him. Tigh attacks Maldonado and Adama takes Neward's gun and shoots Maldonado. They take Neward prisoner. If Jack Bauer and Tony Almeida from 24 were old men, they'd be Bill Adama and Saul Tigh.

Roslin talks to Baltar. She wants access to his wireless unit so she can address the fleet. Roslin talks smack about the sincerity of Baltar's conversion and Baltar points out that Roslin herself was rather religious when it suited her politically. She concedes that, "maybe we're both frauds and this is our last chance to atone."

By 0956 hours Tigh and Adama are prowling the halls of the ship, spying on the mutineers and interrogating Neward.

By 1012 hours the fleet is calling in to Galactica asking what is happening. Gaeta talks to Zarek. He's disappointed that Adama is still alive. They are interrupted by a wireless broadcast by President Roslin. She calls for peace with the Cylons, reminding the fleet that there supplies are dwindling and insisting that the alliance with the Cylons is humanity's last hope. Gaeta's co-conspirators are unable to stop the broadcast, forcing Gaeta to abandon his post to do it himself. The fleet starts calling for Roslin when her broadcast is finally cut off.

By 1017 hours Starbuck and Apollo find Tigh and Adama. Starbuck wants to kill Neward and they let him go instead. Starbuck is furious, "They are not you men anymore. They are your enemy!"

By 1021 hours Roslin and Adama are in a secondary storage bay where Tyrol is preparing their escape. Baltar suggests that they both chose their aides poorly when they were president.

By 1023 hours Starbuck, Apollo, Tigh, and Adama are in Waste Water Stowage. Apollo and Tigh argue, tensions between Cylon and human are high even in Adama's extended family.

At 1027 hours Baltar tries to call Gaeta. He begs him to stop and brings up Gaeta's reason for having attempted to stab him with a pen during Baltar's trial. Again, this brings us to the recent BSG mini-sodes which also address the pen attack. Gaeta notices an unaccounted for Raptor. It's Tyrol's escape ship.

By 1032 hours the Raptor has reached the Secondary Storage Airlock. And so have Starbuck, Apollo, Tigh, and Adama. Adama and Roslin share a disturbingly passionate kiss. Tigh and Adama arm themselves and tell Starbuck, Apollo, and Tyrol to leave. They prepare to make a final stand against Gaeta's people as Roslin and Baltar escape in the Raptor. It's an impressive yet incongruous sight, two badass old men arming up for a gun fight.

By 1041 hours Roslin's Raptor is in flight. Gaeta pauses before he orders it shot down.

As Gaeta's men begin to breach the bulkhead, Adama calmly opens fire and settles down for a fight. Gaeta's men through a grenade through the breach and it goes off as the screen fades to black and the words "to be continued" flash on the screen.

Other than Clint Eastwood in Grand Torino and the occasional Die Hard sequel by Bruce Willis, action movies are generally a young man's game. One of the advantages of Hollywood's emphasis on youth is that a lot of older movie actors often become available for television roles. It's hard to imagine Jamie Bamber and Katie Sackhoff—even though they are both good actors—pulling off this confrontation with the style and aplomb that Edward James Olmos and Michael Hogan show here.

And it's not just a man thing. Broadcast and cable television is full of older Oscar caliber actresses like Mary McDonnell and Glen Close. Who says there's no upside to ageism?

One last issue that I'm interested to see addressed is whether Roslin's absence from her duties as president facilitated and encouraged the mutiny/coup. I would say that it did, if there was ever a time when the fleet needed its president it was when Earth turned out to be a nuked wasteland. Of course, Roslin was hit as hard, if not harder, than anyone else by this and she had been weakened by cancer and chemotherapy. But it's hard not to think that her funk created a vacuum that helped Gaeta and Zarek's uprising happen.

In the end, "The Oath" is a powerful and stylish start. Whether the payoff will be as strong is an open question. I'll have to stay tuned.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Tick—A Superhero Show About Nothing

I'm not sure when exactly The Tick came out on DVD but I've been watching it recently. Based on a successful comic and children's cartoon, it was an ideal, if unsuccessful (it only lasted nine episodes) vehicle, for Seinfeld's Patrick Warburton whose clueless alpha male persona is perfect for the role of an indestructible but dimwitted superhero. Despite having been a relatively short-lived sitcom, The Tick in many respects fits quite neatly into the zeitgeist of it's day with a similar feel to that of more successful 90s sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends. You rarely saw its superheros doing anything heroic, they would usually just sit around at a restaurant talking about their lives, their relationships, and their jobs. (How exactly do you fill out a report explaining that you had to stop a fifty foot cow with flaming teats by throwing a dump truck at it?)

Perhaps this is the reason why this show was so short-lived—most viewers would expect to see superheros actually performing acts of heroism. But the show also had other problems. It could be uneven at times with some episodes trying unsuccessfully to use superheroes and their sidekicks as a metaphor for something else like homosexuality or relationships. But the show ultimately worked best for me when it really explored its premise—the mundane side of being a superhero.

My favorite episode, The Tick vs Justice, did this very well. This episode follows the trial of "Destroyo," a super villain captured by The Tick and Arthur. The preternaturally dense Tick is quickly found to be in contempt by the judge and put in jail. This leaves Arthur who has no super powers beyond the ability to fly with his winged suit vulnerable to Destroyo's henchman with no one except Bat Manuel (who is really only into the superhero thing because chicks dig the suit) to protect him. Destroyo meanwhile takes advantage of attorney client privilege to brag about his crimes and tries to convince his guards to commit suicide. But Destroyo meets his match in Captain Liberty, a needy super heroine who sees his psychological manipulations as a way of scoring some free therapy for herself. But ultimately Destroyo is foiled not by the Tick's super strength or by the justice system but by Arthur who uses his past as a doughy ballet dancer to get him to confess his crimes in open court. When Destroyo is freaked out by Arthur's taunts of "dance, fat boy, dance" it makes for a hilarious climax to the episode.

Overall, The Tick is hardly a classic TV show but it was an enjoyable little comedy that was always watchable and entertaining.

The World on a Pedestal

I've noticed this little sculpture a couple of times. It's in the park across the street from Holy Cross Hospital here in Chicago. I need to check it out up close sometime....

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Malware Comes to Android

Android Community reports that an application in the Android Marketplace called MemoryUp Personal destroys user data and spams users. A quick search of the Android Market as of 1AM Central Time turns up no such app but a quick search of the Android Community forums shows numerous threads dedicated to this app, mostly complaints and several comments about this application being pulled from the Android Market. There are too many threads for me to go over right now (it's late and I'm sleepy) but the point is pretty clear. Avoid this application, at best it doesn't work and at worst it can damage your phone.

As the original Android Community story points out, the fact that this application showed up in the Android Market at all raises some serious questions about Google's selection process for Market applications which seems to be to greenlight everything and only pull stuff later if people complain. It makes for a disturbing contrast with the iPhone App Store which is often criticized for being too overbearing and reluctant to approve apps. Presumably, a malware application would never make it into the Apple App Store which routinely rejects perfectly legitimate and useful applications. There has to be a middle ground between Apple's overbearing strictness and Google's not so benign neglect. I hope that someone at Palm is studying this incident because when the Palm Pre comes out with its App Store, they will be prime targets for these kinds of shenanigans.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Firefox Speed Tweaks

I've always been skeptical of tips for speeding up your software. So when The Boy Genius Report put out this set of set of tips for speeding up Firefox, I wasn't expecting much. Still I did try them and was pleasantly surprised to see that Firefox did perform a little better on my two laptops. As with all such tips, they require you to mess with files that are best left alone, in this case, Firefox's about:config settings. Anyway, the tips worked for me and if you know what you're doing, they are worth trying.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Disquiet Follows My Soul—Hard to Rate, Hard to Hate

Battlestar Galactica probably reached an all-time emotional low last week with Sometimes a Great Notion and they continue to wallow in that emotional trough this week as well. Despite its darkness, this week's episode is surprisingly quotable. I don't know how much of the dark humor in this episode was intentional—Ron Moore's podcast this week suggests that at least some of it was—but I found myself strangely amused by everyone's pain in this episode.

"Try looking with your eyes...eye."
Doc Cottle to the one-eyed Saul Tigh

Unlike last week's episode with its many revelations, this episode was a more slow-paced mood piece. And while the mood is largely foul, little things tended to stand out; little things like Bill Adama stooping over to pick up trash—quick trivia bit, in the podcast for this episode Ron Moore says that he had the wardrobe department fit Adama's costume with pockets so he'd have someplace to put the trash he was picking up and Edward James Olmos loved lording the fact that he finally had pockets over the other actors whose uniforms lack them (military uniforms without pockets, talk about unrealistic)—a sign that he's finally back after descending into despair last week. Cottle and Tigh smoking in front of a pregnant Caprica Six was particularly hilarious.

This brings us to Felix Gaeta who is about as bitter and angry as a one-legged man who has been systematically robbed of all his hopes and dreams and seen his die one by one can get. His increasing distrust of the Cylons builds gradually through this episode leading to a pretty impressive conclusion. His verbal brawl with Kara was hard to watch but helps to prepare us for the reveal where we see Gaeta cooperating with Tom Zarek. Zarek's return as a political antagonist is exciting both because of his history with both Bill and Lee Adama and because he is played by Richard Hatch who played Apollo in the original BSG. Hatch has grown a lot as an actor in the thirty years since the original series and it really shows in his performance this week.

"Their technology—our technology—is way ahead of ours. Yours."
"Maybe you'd like a chart to keep it all straight."
Tyrol and Tigh

Galen Tyrol has been on a pretty rocky road since discovering that he is a Cylon and has only become more and more isolated from his human crew mates as is seen by his pronoun troubles. This only continues as Tyrol advocates for citizenship for the Cylons in exchange for using Cylon technology to upgrade the fleet. It's interesting how as his arc has progressed, Tyrol has remained an advocate and an activist. When we first meet him in the pilot, he stands up to Tigh and is outraged when his plan to save the ship costs the lives of eighty-five of his Tyrol's own deck hands. On New Caprica he is a union leader as well a leader in the resistance against the Cylon occupation. Back in the fleet, he leads the Tylium ship when they form a union to fight for better working conditions. And here he is again this week fighting for the Cylons to be included in the colonial fleet. While the circumstances of the character have changed drastically since the pilot, the man remains the same. His trust and respect for Admiral Adama also remains the same.

Tyrol's discovery that Nikki isn't his son serves two purposes, it helps to further isolate him and push him into the Cylon camp and it keeps Helo and Athena's daughter Hera as the only Cylon-human hybrid.

Laura Roslin is still pretty low but as she stops taking her cancer drugs she finds that she has more energy and slowly begins to climb out of her pit of despair with a little help from Bill. She's basically neglecting her duties as president to jog, work out, and be happy and Bill is letting that happen. It's an interesting look at how the "old man" thinks. He's very sentimental and is willing to let the rest of the fleet suffer a little for the sake of his loved ones. Even from the first season, he deployed the entire fleet to look for Starbuck when her Viper was shot down. Now he is letting the situation in the fleet get worse to give Laura time to feel better. Even Tyrol trusts that he'll sacrifice the fleet to keep his oath as an officer.

"So I guess a pity frak is out of the question then?"
Felix Gaeta

If there is someone more bitter and angry than Gaeta, it's Kara Thrace. Starbuck is also perhaps the one person whose life is in greater turmoil than anyone else on the ship. She's angry and mean and bitter and it's not a pretty sight.

Zarek uses Roslin's absence to manipulate the Quorum into passing an anti-Cylon resolution which allows ship captains to resist Cylon upgrades. There is a lot of emotional appeal to his argument and not one bit of reason to it. But it works and Lee as the lone dissenter on the Quorum is outvoted. It's precisely this chaos which makes Laura's unwillingness to return to duty so critical. And while Adama tries to make her face this reality, he ultimately relents and lets her go on ignoring her duty a little longer.

"What manner of forgiveness are you seeking? Is it that of disobedient children? Are you children? Obviously you're a child. We have some children here. But to the rest of you..."
Gaius Baltar

Baltar and his cult are back and with the recent setbacks, his hedonistic message is growing more popular. It also makes a fine backdrop for Tyrol to confront Hotdog, Nikki's real father. Emotions are already running high and Tyrol and Hotdog's fight triggers a near riot. Baltar just sits back and smiles at the chaos—a subtly masterful bit of gallows humor.

"I don't know anything about being a father."
"It sucks, except for the parts that don't."
Hotdog and Tyrol

Tyrol introduces Hotdog to his son. They will take turns watching him in the hospital. Hotdog gets the first shift which Tyrol informs him will last until he sobers up. Ah, alcoholism and child neglect—it's comedy gold!

"You know there are days when I really hate this job."
Bill Adama

Zarek's resolution triggers a crisis as ships start refusing Cylon help. The Tylium ship mutinees, killing a Cylon and two marines. The Tylium ship jumps away with Zarek's support. Adama has Zarek arrested. In the brig, a game of chicken ensues. Adama tells Zarek that he has enough dirt on him to ruin his reputation. His logic is that Zarek will happily die or go to prison as a martyr but is terrified of being outed as a corrupt politician. He wants the location of the Tylium ship and Zarek gives it to him. Again a serious scene ends with a comedic beat as Tigh takes a peak at the Zarek's crime file. "Laundry reports?"

But Zarek has one last card to play as it is revealed that Gaeta is planning a mutiny with him. But again the seriousness gives way to a moment of levity or at least relief. As the news of the Tylium ship's surrender arrives, Adama and Roslin are in bed to together it's both sweet and weird at the same time. Usually depicting sexuality among older people is used a joke on television. And the depiction of a cancer victim in bed with a lover is pretty unheard of. It's a remarkable end to a difficult episode. After having hit bottom last week, the crew of Galactica is slowly coming back.

Boing Boing links to an interview with environmentalist James Lovelock which is a curious mixture of pessimism and optimism but makes for interesting reading:

Do you think we will survive?

I'm an optimistic pessimist. I think it's wrong to assume we'll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It's happening again.

I don't think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what's coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing's been done except endless talk and meetings.

It's a depressing outlook.

Not necessarily. I don't think 9 billion is better than 1 billion. I see humans as rather like the first photosynthesisers, which when they first appeared on the planet caused enormous damage by releasing oxygen - a nasty, poisonous gas. It took a long time, but it turned out in the end to be of enormous benefit. I look on humans in much the same light. For the first time in its 3.5 billion years of existence, the planet has an intelligent, communicating species that can consider the whole system and even do things about it. They are not yet bright enough, they have still to evolve quite a way, but they could become a very positive contributor to planetary welfare.

Lovelock came up with the controversial Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s. It's a theory which suggests that our bio-sphere, that is every living thing on Earth, acts like one giant organism to regulate the planet's climate to maintain ideal conditions for life. The theory gathered a lot of attention from science fiction authors and from counter-culture types but has been strongly criticized by scientists. It's hard to know what to think when dealing with ideas which as far as I know are pretty far out of the scientific mainsteam. But sometimes it is interesting to keep an open mind and look at new ideas.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Wrath of Ron Moore

I think that if last night's episode of Battlestar Galactica proved one thing it's that Ron Moore is a heartless bastard of Whedonian proportions. After having ruthlessly dashed humanity's hopes last may with them finding Earth as an uninhabitable radioactive rock, the BSG writers pick up where they left off by examining the wreckage of what they created. No reset button here.

But it was more than just a really gloomy mood piece. This episode was fast paced and full of big, shocking revelations. If there had been a big space battle, it would have been the perfect prototypical BSG episode.

First we have Earth. Earth was nuked -- we found that out last year. Last night we got some more details. Earth was nuked 2,000 years ago and it was populated by Cylons. This works on two levels for me as a fan of the original BSG. First, it stays true to premise of the original and second, it gives it enough of a twist to provide the writers with wiggle room to get around the fact that the premise of the original series was flat out wrong.

We know that the human race evolved on Earth and that it wasn't seeded by von Däniken-style ancient astronauts which is part of the premise of the original Battlestar Galactica. So by making the thirteenth colony a race of Cylons, Ron Moore and company can have it both ways. Earth was a legendary colony of Kobol just like in the original series but there is wiggle enough room to push the origin of humanity back in time on a more ancient Earth.

It also works well with theme that "all this has happened before" that has been interwoven into this series. Humans on Earth build Cylons and they turn on them and Earth is abandoned. Humans on Kobol build Cylons and they turn on them and Kobol is abandoned. Humans on the twelve colonies build Cylons and they turn on them and the twelve colonies are abandoned. And now we learn that the Cylons who repopulated Earth turned on each other (or humans turned on them) and left the planet uninhabitable.

We also get Starbuck who continues her increasingly twisted journey. Everyone thought that she was dead and mysteriously came back but Kara Thrace herself was still certain that she never died. She went to Earth and could lead Galactica back. The latter was certainly proven to be true but the former, not so much. She discovers that the signal that led them to Earth is actually from her own ship. Kara finds the remains of her Viper along with her own corpse near the landing site. She cremates the body but there is no getting away from the fact that she has to be asking herself what she is and happened to her when she flew into that storm last year and was never heard from for months.

I'm actually pretty pleased with Kara's predicament because it fits well with a crackpot theory that I developed last year when Kara first came back. I believe that the storm that killed Kara last year actually concealed some sort of wormhole which was tied to Earth. It destroyed Kara's original body and ship but also duplicated them both and sent them back to Galactica's location. It's not exactly the most comfortable way to travel but the entity which set all this up probably wasn't planning with comfort in mind.

This development also opens up the possibility that Kara is actually a Cylon. It does fit in nicely with this show's emphasis on the numbers twelve and thirteen. There were thirteen colonies with a legendary thirteenth colony. The colonies worshipped twelve gods based on Greek and Roman mythology and feared a jealous thirteenth god who wanted to be elevated above all the others. And it has twelve humanoid Cylon models. So it makes sense for a previously unknown thirteenth Cylon to pop up.

But this episode is a lot bigger than its scifi tropes. Like BSG in general it is the story of human beings and an exploration of what it means to be human. They all deal with their hopes being dashed differently Roslyn is full of despair and burn the book of Pythia which she has relied up since the first season of this show. Dualla shoots herself. Adama wants to die as well. And the four Cylons begin to remember their lives on Earth 2,000 years ago.

Dee is especially poignant in this episode, breaking down in tears while on Earth, putting on a brave face, and finally blowing her brains out after having on last good day on Galactica. All in all, a pretty nice swan song for Kandyse McClure. Lee is the only one who seems to be holding up well, filling in for Roslyn before the Quorum and recounting his rousing speech to them to Dee during their date together. He is the only major character who doesn't have a major meltdown. It's and interesting choice as he is the one who was closest to Dee having been married to her. And maybe that's why he is holding up so well. With his father, ex-wife, and pretty much everyone else around him melting down, the ever passive Lee has too many examples of what wallowing in despair and is deliberately choosing to shut down emotionally.

While Bill Adama wants to die, he can't bring himself to pull the trigger. So he turns to his oldest friend, Saul Tigh. It's a heartbreaking scene. He taunts Tigh about his dead wife Ellen and accuses him of having been programmed to be his friend, daring him to kill him. But Tigh refuses. For once, he's the (almost) sober voice of reason. And he brings Adama back from the brink, giving him the strength to begin a search for a new planet for humanity to call home.

This sets up the ending of the show with its final and perhaps biggest revelation. Adama talks about how his uncle used to hunt foxes with his dogs. Some foxes would try to fight, some would flee and would try to escape by fleeing across a nearby river, but others would let the river's current carry them out to sea. Maybe they wanted to die maybe they were just tired of the chase but those foxes represent the entire human race and their Cylon allies in this episode.

D'anna, the Cylon model three makes this plainly clear as she's telling Tigh that she wants to stay on Earth, reminding him that Cavil and his Cylons are still out there hunting them all down and telling them that she wants out. We end as Tigh walks out into the ocean, like one of Adama's foxes and begins to remember his life on Earth 2,000 years ago during the great apocalypse. Ellen is there with him, dying in his arms. With her last breath, she tells him that "everything is in place. We'll be reborn again. Together." Ellen is or rather was the fifth and final Cylon.

It was a tremendous ending that really sets the tone for the final ten episodes of Battlestar Galactica. It also raises some exciting questions. How are these final five Cylons being reborn. The ending suggests some sort of resurrection technology that is very different from what the first seven Cylons were using. I'm actually reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about an ancient alien race that encodes a message in the DNA of many of the show's species. Maybe these Cylons learned some way to encode their memories and DNA in the human genome. It would be an interesting way to give the mystical and religious overtones of the show a scifi spin.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Will The Palm Pre Leave Me Cold?

Yesterday was a bitterly cold day in Chicago, with temperatures reaching as low as -11 degrees Fahrenheit. Today wasn't much better and it was fairly mild here compared to other parts of the Upper Midwest. That got me thinking about how I use my phone when I'm out in the cold which got me thinking about Palm's recent announcement of its new phone.

The Pre is a lovely phone with a cool new operating system and a sophisticated system of multi-touch gestures which promises to revolutionize smartphones. This last part is what concerns me on this cold day. One of the reasons why I never wanted an iPhone was because of the virtual keyboard. It was hard for me to type with and I really appreciate being able to type on my Treo and T-Mobile G1 keyboards even while wearing light gloves. Now the Pre does have a keyboard and its portrait orientation means that it would probably be good for one-handed typing—something that I've sorely missed since upgrading from my Treo to my G1. But the Pre is also going to be heavily reliant upon a system of gestures which will require bare hands. Without an alternative to these gestures for navigation, I'm not sure I'd enjoy using a phone like the Palm Pre during a cold January winter in Chicago.

My Favorite Android Applications

The great thing about my T-Mobile G1 is the power of its hardware combined with its Android operating system. Even though it has only been around for a few months, Android has already produced a handful of great applications which I love to use:

  • The Weather Channel—This a nice application which does exactly what its name implies, it downloads and presents weather information. It shows the current conditions and with hourly, 36 hour, and 10 day forecasts as well as video along with video and weather maps. It also allows you to designate several locations for which it can download weather, making it a perfect for travelers. It can even take advantage of the G1's GPS capabilities to report the weather at your current location.
  • Ring Toggle—One of the best features of my old Treo 680 was the ringer switch which allowed my to instantly silence the all the sounds on the phone. It really should be included on all cell phones. But the G1 doesn't have that feature. Luckily, Ring Toggle makes it easy to silence your phone with a simple menu of options for setting how your phone rings.
  • Tunes Remote—This is a simple application which allows you to control iTunes on your Mac or PC. It's great for use as a remote control for a home theater PC.
  • RemoteDroid—Couch surfing rules. This application allows your phone to act as a mouse and keyboard for your PC.
  • ShopSavvy—There are at least three barcode scanners available at the Android Market and ShopSavvy is probably the best. ShopSavvy uses your phone's camera as a barcode scanner and can search the Internet for the best value available (both at local stores and on the Internet) for any product.
  • WikiTap—A nice looking browser for Wikipedia. It has a built in keypad which uses predictive text for quick searches without opening your keyboard as well as links to videos about your query.
  • Sky Map—A planetarium for your phone, Sky Map uses your phones GPS to determine your location and show a map of the sky which is constantly being updated as you move your phone. Beautiful and perfect for star gazers.

Palm Reaches Out To Developers

Now that Palm is set to release a new phone with a new operating system, the work of recruiting developers begins. To that end, they've set up a developer blog and are asking for input on topics relating to developing on their OS. It's certainly a refreshing change of pace for a company which has kept its hardware and software hidden under a veil of secrecy for so long.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

My Favorite PalmOS Applications

All the hype about the Palm Pre and its new operating system has made me nostalgic for the old PalmOS applications which I've enjoyed on my various Palm PDAs and smartphones. These applications are the real reason why I still use my Pam TX and occasionally a Treo 680 even though their OS is ancient in gadget terms and I have a modern T-Mobile G1 which runs rings around them in many ways. One can only hope that when Palm's new OS premieres that it attracts the kind of developer support that leads to the creation of nice apps like these:

  • DateBk5—Palm has some great built in personal information manager (PIM) applications, its Contacts, Calendar, Tasks, and Memo applications are all excellent, but DateBk takes them a step further. Utilizing the same databases as the PIMs, DateBk5 expands on them by adding features such as templates, Floating Events which are to do items on steroids, the ability to link your appointments to contacts, to do items, and memos, and icons. The original DateBk application was so good that Handspring used a stripped down version of it as the default calendar on its Visor handhelds and later on the first Treo smartphones. Sadly, Palm dropped it in favor of its own calendar app on later Treos when it bought Handspring. But DateBk is has survived and has only gotten better over the years. It's a must have application for anyone who wants to get more from their Palm.
  • HandyShopper—A powerful shopping list which allows you to track your shopping by item, store, price, or even by aisle, HandyShopper allows you to estimate the cost of your shopping trip and can even account for local sales taxes. HandyShopper is a good example of what makes PDAs useful. No longer are you subject to the tyranny of your feeble memory or chicken scratch hand writing. You can just write down what you need in medium which is a little harder to lose than a piece scrap of paper.
  • PalmFiction—Probably the best e-book reader available for the PalmOS, PalmFiction features custom fonts, screen rotation, autoscroll, and good-looking skins. It can also be configured to maximize your screen real estate.
  • CorePlayer/TCPMP—CorePlayer spent a long time as a free beta called TCPMP but even in its beta stage, it was an excellent video player that could play videos off a Palm's SD card. I ripped a bunch of my old DVDs to watch on my LifeDrive during long commutes. This was at a time when the iPod was still new and still couldn't play video. Today, CorePlayer has added streaming Youtube videos to its repertoire and looks great a on my three year old Palm TX.
  • OliveTree BibleReader—I was raised pretty religious and one of my biggest pet peeves has always been expositor who would jump rapidly from one verse to another during a sermon. BibleReader was the solution to this problem. It allows you to keep a complete copy of the Bible on your PDA or Smartphone. With a wide variety of translations in a number of languages available BibleReader is a great tool for anyone who is religious or just interested religion.
  • Novii Remote—Back when everyone carried a Palm Pilot, it was a common sight to see business people "beaming" each other their business cards with the Palm's infrared port. Now that PDAs have declined and smartphones have ascended in popularity, the advent of Bluetooth and the fragmentation of mobile usage into different incompatible platforms, the IR port sees a lot less use. But it doesn't have to be that way. Most PDAs like the Palm TX have fairly powerful IR ports (smartphones on the other hand have fairly IR ports if they have on at all) and could be used as a television remote control if they had the right software. Novii Remote is that software. It's perfect for controlling multiple TVs and television accessories like TiVos, DVD players, and sound systems.
  • Diddlebug—A simple drawing, note-taking, and alarm application, Diddlebug is so good that Palm tried to copy it but I never really liked their version. So I include Diddlebug here, its a great little application.
  • PhoneSearch—Palm has always had very good search tools on it smartphones but this little application does one thing extremely well. It searches your contacts not by name but by number. It's a nice little simple application which can come in very handy.
  • McPhling—I almost forgot this application because it's so unobtrusive but I probably use it more than any other program on my Palm. McPhling is a task switcher which pops up a menu of favorite and most recently used applications. Most newer Palms and Treos pop up a similar menu when you hold the home button but McPhling is much more comprehensive. It's list is holds more programs, it includes favorites, and it includes support for Desk Accessories, little mini-applications which can pop up in front of your current application and allow you to perform tasks without leaving your current application. It's about as close as you can get to multitasking on the ancient PalmOS.

Lie to Me—It's Like House With Perp Walks

The trouble with police procedurals is that there are so many of them that it's hard to stand out. Some resort to gimmicks to stand out. Fox's new show Lie to Me is a case in point. It centers around a police/FBI consultant played by Tim Roth who specializes in "deception analysis" who uses body language and facial expressions to tell when a witness is lying and his team. Tim Roth plays a cynical House-like character who likes to use his skills to shove peoples lies on their face. He's quite brilliant and always right. His team functions mainly as researchers and as a sounding board—a lot like House's team of doctors.

I don't think that this is a coincidence, House is one Fox's most successful scripted shows and it makes sense that they'd look for shows that duplicate it formula in some way. But does Lie to Me work the same House does? I'm not sure. House is very much an acquired taste. It took me a long time to get into it. And judging by the long time that House took to catch on with viewers I'm not alone.

But House did catch on and clearly Fox hopes that this show will catch on as well. And therein lies my problem with this show. Part of House's appeal for me is Dr. House's misanthropic personality. Dr. Cal Lightman by comparison is a fully functional human being with a precocious daughter and happy home life. His only real personality problem is that he doesn't seem able to turn off his knack for reading people's lies. While this makes abrasive and annoying at times, it doesn't make him particularly interesting.

Shark vs Zombie

Damn Cool Pics brings us the one of the coolest things things ever:


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pandora Developer On Palm webOS

Palminfocenter interviews Tom Conrad of Pandora Internet Radio. He talks about Palm's upcoming Pre phone and its webOS operating system and sounds excited about the new OS and its possibilities.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Think That Beta Is Greek For "Crash"

Windows 7 Screen ShotWell, I've finally done it. I installed the Windows 7 Beta this morning and have just recovered from my first crash. In fairness to Microsoft, I've had the same problem on Windows Vista as well on at two computers including the old laptop on which I installed Windows 7. It seems that nVidia's drivers don't always play nicely with full screen flash videos. While this is bad news for Youtube and Hulu fans like myself, it at least is a predictable and reproduceable problem which has nothing to do with Windows 7.

So far I've only spent a couple of hours with Windows 7 and I certainly can't outdo ars Technica's excellent coverage of Microsoft's OS but here are some thoughts. So far, everything seems to work except for Daemon Tools which mounts disk images. I mostly just use it for playing Diablo II without having to look for my play CD. Since I mostly play Diablo II on a different computer than this one, I'm willing to overlook this problem for now. 

I think that I'm the only person on the Internet who actually liked the old Vista sidebar—on a widescreen laptop like this one it was a good way of organizing the Vista gadgets so it's a shame to see it go. On the other hand, the extra screen real estate does sometimes come in handy. Sometimes. Most of the time it goes unused; there seems to be a conventional wisdom among web designers than no one uses a screen wider than a 1024 pixels so Windows 7 web browsers can now double as a way for users to test the way their computers display the color white. Still, Windows 7 provides a couple of ways expose your desktop, by hitting the Win+Space keys or hovering over the edge of the task bar, so it's easy to show your desktop and the gadgets that reside upon it all the while maximizing screen real estate. Now if only Microsoft would make some decent gadgets.

For decades Mac fans have accused Microsoft of ripping off the Macintosh while ignoring the fact that Apple pretty much stole the Mac interface from Xerox PARC. Now, with the Windows 7 Beta, Microsoft has stolen more directly from Apple. With its big, shiny icons the Windows' taskbar looks like it has swallowed a Mac OSX dock. This is both good and bad. While Windows duplicates the way Apple indescriminately mixes running applications with quick launch shortcuts, it does  a better job than Apple of helping users distinguish between running applications and shortcuts. It also has bigger, more detailed thumbnails which show a full screen preview of their windows when you hover over them. I think that a lot of the positive reports of Windows 7 being faster than Vista or even XP are due to these little refinements which make the workflow of using your applications smoother. All these little changes make for a smoother, more pleasant experience.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Windows 7 Beta: Now With 15% More Aggravation

Microsoft has done something new with their new version of Windows. They are allowing people to download a beta copy of their upcoming new Windows 7 operating system. While this is likely a reaction to the tepid reception that their current operating system received, it's a refreshing and forward thinking thing for Microsoft to let people take a look at their software and play around with it before plunking down dollars for it. But this being Microsoft, the download process is full of hoops to jump.

First you have to get a Windows Live ID. Fine, Microsoft has been trying to get people to use this service as a single log-on for websites for a long time and it actually has a useful purpose as it can reduce the number of usernames and passwords that you have to remember if it catches on with a lot of websites and services. Of course, Google has pretty much the same service and it's way more popular than Windows Live (I can actually go to a lot of websites and use Google Checkout to buy things through my Google Account but have never seen a website that allows you to buy things through Windows Live) but I digress.

The real annoyance about downloading the Windows 7 Beta is that it doesn't support web browsers like Firefox or Chrome. You have to use Internet Explorer to download it and you have to install an ActiveX extension in order to download the Windows 7 Beta. Huh? I had barely gotten a third of the way through Slashdot's Windows 7 discussion before finding direct links to disk images for Windows 7 residing right on Microsoft's servers. Just out of curiosity I clicked on one of those links and it started downloading right away. Thanks Microsoft.

Interestingly enough, the direct linked download is downloading much more slowly (Firefox estimates that the download will complete in anywhere from ten to twenty hours) than the download that went through Microsoft's hoops and is downloading through an ActiveX control (the download manager installed by the control estimate that its download will complete in about two and a half hours). So there is a method to Microsoft's madness after all. Poking around the download manager a little more shows that it is making four connections to make the download. Kewl.

It looks like Microsoft is using this ActiveX control to break up the original file into pieces which it downloads through different servers, tracks them, and reassembles them on my PC. Congratulations Microsoft, you've invented Bittorrent, a technology which has been around for years and which is currently being used to pirate your software. Maybe if you had actually used this technology for allowing people to download music and video instead of for hiding your beta software behind it, you might have become the media powerhouse which Apple is today.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Palm Finally Delivers A New OS...

...along with a shiny, new device on which it will run.

And they're calling it Palm webOS. It certainly looks cool and shiny enough to compete with the iPhone and Android. All I have to go on is what I'm seeing on the web but without having actually touched the thing (hey, this is the Internet, we don't need to know what we're talking about) here are my quick impressions. I love the sliding QWERTY keyboard. The lack of hardware buttons, not so much. It also has cool touchscreen gestures, sophisticated search capabilities, and a real web browser.

But what I'm really concerned about is backwards compatibility and migration. Palm has made no mention of whether or not webOS will be able to run older Palm applications or even if it will be able to import data from older Palm devices easily. In theory, it should be easy to import data between devices using .csv files. In practice, importing my Treo 680's contacts into my T-Mobile G1 by feeding a .csv file through Google Contacts turned out to be a huge pain. If webOS could do both these things, it would be a no-brainer for me. Without those things, it's just another of several competing platforms to me.

This is quite a change from the old days when nobody cared what OS their phone ran. Now we've got the iPhone vs. RIM Blackberry vs. Google Android and now Palm webOS. I began to realize this a few days ago when I powered off me T-Mobile G1 and turned it back on again and realized that I was actually rebooting my phone. Now this is no new thing for me. Every Treo I've ever owned used to crash all the time. But in that case rebooting—or rather resetting since that's what it's called in the mobile device world—was and is a massive annoyance. Google, to its credit has created an OS that is stable enough that it almost never crashes (my G1 has never crashed). Under these circumstances, the reset process becomes a rather painless way to perk up your phone when it's feeling sluggish. If nothing else, it's some form of progress.

Android and Palm webOS look to be fairly similar in many ways. They're both based on Linux, they both have powerful web browsers. Palm is apparently so confident in their web browser that they are developing their applications using a mixture of HTML, CSS, and Javascript. These are all web applications and it appears that Palm wants your phone to be a pocket-sized web browser.

The next few months should be interesting to say the least. Palm Pre running Palm webOS, which was formerly codenamed Nova, will be introduced on Sprint—possibly as late as June and Sprint will have an exclusive contract with Palm which will prevent the Pre from appearing on other carriers for months. Sprint is pretty bad in Chicago and I got a new two year contract with T-Mobile to get the G1, so I'm not going anywhere. Of course the most recent Palm device, the Treo Pro was released as an unlocked GSM phone. That would be perfect for use on T-Mobile but there's no way I've paying upwards of $500 for a phone. Of course I probably won't even have an opportunity to buy a GSM Pre for a good nine months and a lot can change in that time. Whether or not Palm forces me to eat my words, they've finally done something exciting. And as someone who has been using Palm devices for over a decade, I'm excited.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Good Day Moon

I snapped this picture walking out the door as I was leaving my house this afternoon. I looked up and there was the moon already out and looking quite big and beautiful at least an hour before sunset. I couldn't resist the urge to take a picture....

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

T-Mobile G1—Size Comparisons

I've been meaning to post these pictures for a long time, just so I could compare my new T-Mobile G1 to my other gadgets. It's not much of a surprise I suppose. The G1 is a little taller, a little narrower, a little thinner, and a little lighter than the Treo 680 and a little shorter, a lot narrower, a little thicker, and a lot heavier than the Palm TX. Overall, the G1 strikes a nice balance in terms of size which makes it more pocketable than my two Palm devices. But I love the sheer size of my TX's screen.

Bottoms up so to speak. Palm's big "Athena" connector dominates the bottom of the Treo and TX while the G1's tiny micoUSB connector is hidden behind a little plastic door. One of the first things that I told the T-Mobile store sales rep. was, "That [door] is going to break off fast." But a month later, the little door is still attached. Curiously enough, even though both the TX and the Treo can recharge throgh the Athena connector, Palm has also included a second, tiny recharging connector right next to it. This is great for traveling as you can leave the regular Palm USB cable with its tiny, delicate wires at home but it makes the devices bulkier.

The right side of the G1 features a dedicated camera button, something the Treo 680 lacks (of course the 680's buttons are fully customizable so it's easy to assign the camera a dedicated button on the 680). It's actually a pretty nice placement for the button since it allows you to turn the G1 on its side and use it like a point and shoot camera. Sadly, the G1 camera's slow shutter response negates this cool factor somewhat. The 680 has a door for its SD card on its right side which feels pretty flimsy but it does keep the SD card from popping out the way the SD card my old Treo 600 would pop out on occasion (such as when I dropped it). The TX is the thinnest of the three devices here and its stylus is exposed through almost the entire length its right side. It's a nicely weighted metal stylus which allows for good precision use of its touchscreen, allowing you to write comfortably on the screen. The G1's screen is optimized for finger use and it has no stylus; while I rarely miss being able to use a stylus, there are times when I can't quite control the G1's screen and scrolls too fast for my taste.

The left side. Both the G1 and the 680 have their volume buttons here. The 680 also adds a side button which you must press to confirm that yes, you really did mean to raise or lower the volume, the phone didn't just get jostled in your coat pocket. The side pocket can also launch an application when it is held down which makes it perfect for using the Treo's camera or voice recorder. The TX comes with a flip cover which attaches to its left side. This is a fairly unique feature to Palm PDAs as it allows you to protect the device's screen without using a bulky case which helps maintain a nice, thin profile. Unfortunately, the flip cover tends to tear over time which makes the TX look a little shabby.

The top of the G1 is pretty boring compared to that of the G1 and TX. You can just barely make out the release tab for the G1's battery cover but otherwise there is nothing of note atop the G1. The 680 and TX by comparison have headgear that rivals Carmen Miranda's.

The 680 has a switch that shuts off all sound on the device. This feature is so brilliant and so simple, that it should be mandatory on all cell phones. With the G1 by contrast, I must use the Ring Toggle application. While this application which is available for free from the Android market is wonderful; I have to turn on the phone, unlock the screen, and tap on a radio button in order to silence the phone. There is simply no substitute for a physical button for this important function. The 680 also has an infrared (IR) port and a small but usuable stylus. Thanks to Palm's optimizations for one-handed use, the 680's stylus rarely leaves its nicely hidden stylus.

The TX's top is even busier. While the 680's IR port is more for backwards compatibility with older Palm devices, the TX's IR port is much more powerful and when paired with Novii Remote, the TX becomes a universal remote capable of controlling almost any TV, TiVo, and a whole crap load of audio and video equipment. The TX also adds a recessed SD card slot which for the most part does away with the whole card popping out of its slot problem. The on/off switch on the TX is somewhat squishy and unreliable, it's one of the most annoying aspects of this device. The TX's stylus extends to the top of the device. The TX also has 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, something that both the Treo 680 and T-Mobile G1 lack, forcing you to make due with bulky adaptors or non-standard headphones. It has quietly become one of my favorite features on the TX because even though I usually carry an iPod, the TX has a much bigger, prettier screen and is great for viewing movies with CorePlayer. It can also function as an MP3 player in a pinch if your iPod dies. In fact, with the advent of Dmitry Grinberg's PalmSDHC driver, the TX can use newer high capacity SDHC cards and can be a compelling alternative to the iPod and other MP3 and media players. In many ways, the TX was a device ahead of its time.

And finally, just because its keyboard makes it look like a tiny laptop, here's my T-Mobile G1 with a 15.4" HP laptop and an 8.9" Acer netbook.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Milky Way Galaxy Puts On Weight, Turns Up Speed On Treadmill

Slashdot links to a Cosmos article about a new study which shows that our Galaxy is about %50 more massive and that the sun rotates around it much faster than previously thought. Even though it's a pretty fascinating article with some rather profound implications for our very distant future, I must confess that I'm mostly writing this up as an excuse for the cheesy title I could give to the this blog post.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Treo Versus T-Mobile G1—Software

Walking out of church last night, I was stunned at the sight of Venus in the night sky. Nights when you can really see the stars are rare in a big city like Chicago with its many lights. Being the nerd that I am, I whipped out my T-Mobile G1 and tried to see what I could see. Sky Map is powerful application available for the G1 on the Android Market. It uses the G1's GPS and accelerometer to create a tiny planetarium in your phone. The view changes as you move the phone around providing what is at times a mind-blowing effect. I also used Sky Map a bit during my trip to Texas to watch the night skies in a more rural setting and it was a pretty cool experience.

But Sky Map is slow that Android sometimes thinks that it has stopped responding an offers to force the application to close. I usually just tell Android to wait and Sky Map responds just fine once it has updated all the information that it needs to calculate to show its interactive star map. That's just the price of working with a complicated application right?

Actually I have a similar application installed on my Treo 680, Astro Info. It's a much simpler application which shows a globe with the positions of the stars plotted on it. It takes a lot of work to set up, you have to install the application along with several other databases which contain the stellar data that it needs. Then you have to figure out your geographic coordinates and enter them into the application. While Astro Info does allow you to define several different locations, if you find yourself out on a country road at night and the mood to do some stargazing strikes you better have a map or a compass or you won't be able to get much information out of Astro Info. Sky Map on the other hand, is still good to go.

Still Astro Info is a simple and powerful application once it is properly set up. You still have to know if you are facing north, south, east, or west but if you know that, it's pretty easy to use Astro Info for stargazing. In some ways it's easier than Sky Map because you don't have to wait for it get a GPS fix (actually Sky Map does have a manual mode but I rarely use it). I can usually find any star Astro Info by using the moon as a reference point.

These two applications are a good example of the differences between the Android and Palm OSes. One is extremely modern and can leverage just about every technology you can name to form powerful platform. The other is old and tired but simple and flexible enough that it has allowed many powerful applications to be created despite its limitations. One allows for extremely simple, easy to use applications but all this simplicity is build upon a complex foundation. The other is inherently simple and easy to use but its age has made it increasingly difficult to create easy to use applications since developers must work hard to get around its flaws.

Another good example of the difference between Android and PalmOS can be found in their contact applications. This one area where Palm after all these years is still ahead of most of its competitors. Creating a new contact in Android opens a busy window full of boxes, buttons, and icons which wastes tons of space. The G1's 480x320 screen allows you to enter six pieces of information in your new contact: a picture, full name, cell phone number, e-mail address, ringtone, and a checkbox to tell Android whether or not to send this contact's calls directly to voicemail. Scroll down and you also see a More info button which allows you to enter a wide variety of phone numbers, e-mail addresses, IM addresses, and other information like an organization for the contact or a note.

The Treo 680 by contrast produces a much starker, more elegant, and efficient window. Despite its smaller 320x320 screen, the 680 actually shows more information in the new contact window than the G1 does. It shows eight pieces of information: separate first and last names, a picture, ringtone, company (note that Android buries this option in the More info menu as Organization), title, and work and home phone numbers. Scroll down and you see fields for a cell phone number, e-mail, another phone number, IM address, website, a physical address with separate fields for number, city, state, zip code, and country. Scroll down a little more and you see fields for a birthday, anniversary, and four custom fields which you can define yourself. And Palm also makes good use of its limited screen real estate by putting a category menu (in a tremendous contrast with an Android phone which as far as I know cannot assign a contact to a different group even though Google Contacts does support organizing your contacts into various groups), and icons for creating a note (an option which Android buries at the end of its More info menu), and an icon for adding still more phone numbers, e-mail and IM addresses, physical addresses, and even more custom fields. The Treo's Contacts and other PIM applications really do typify the "Zen of the Palm" the simplicity which once made Palm's PDAs and smartphones so popular.

I could go on comparing the software available for the Android to software available for the Palm. But I think that comparing these two applications make my point. I have two problems with the software on my T-Mobile G1, one which I am confident will be solved with time and another which I fear will never be solved. Android lacks a full suite of applications before it can be a legitimate mobile computing platform, the big one is an office suite. But Dataviz has announced plans to port its excellent Documents to Go application to Android so that problem will be solved soon. Similarly, Android e-book and PDF applications are already in their infancy and will only improve over time. The other problem is less serious but is also less likely to be remedied. Android does not seem to have a design philosophy beyond "make it colorful and pretty." This emphasis on style over substance makes Android applications clunkier and dumber than they should be.

Can Palm Come Back?

PalmDoc shares his excitement over Palm's upcoming CES presentation and has a rather nice wishlist of what he wants to see from them complete with a pretty snazzy mock-up. I've owned ten PalmOS devices over the past ten years and would love to see Palm get its act together. But it's hard to say if I should be enthusiastic or not given how tight-lipped Palm has been about its new OS. 

And yet, I look at my old Treo 680 and Palm TX and think that they are pretty good devices. I still use my TX as a PDA, PDF and e-book reader, and as a universal remote. For all my T-Mobile G1's powerful hardware and sohpisticated Android OS, its software library lacks the breadth and depth the third party software that is available for the PalmOS. The way I use my TX is a perfect example of this—there are PDF and e-book readers available for Android but they are slow and clunky in comparison to Palm's offerings. 

And that's part of the reason why I worry about Palm's new OS. Will it be backwards compatible with older applications? Palm won't say. Historically Palm has been very good about supporting older apps on its newer operating systems but Nova is expected to be a huge leap from earlier versions of the PalmOS. Without its huge software library, I would see no reason to abandon my shiny new Android phone for a new Palm Nova OS with little or no third party software.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Chromium: For Those Who Like Their Chrome With Less Google

While Google's Chrome browser is a very nice, fast web browser some people are uneasy about the amount of power that Google has over your web experience. Enter Chromium, a web browser which is based on same Chromium source code which Google uses for Chrome but omits the Google Update program. This may help quell the fear that some people might have about Google while allowing them to enjoy Chrome's features.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bigger Battery For T-Mobile G1 Available—Even Bigger One Wating In The Wings?

Crunchgear reviews a new battery for the T-Mobile G1 from Seidio and they are pleased with it. Seidio claims its battery improves the G1's battery life by 15%. While this seems good, the battery's $43 price tag seems a little high (to me, the Crunchgear guys think it's a good price). There is a rumor floating around that T-Mobile will ship a much bigger battery to G1 users but it is only a rumor at this point and this huge battery would come with its own battery cover which would make the G1 much thicker. So I guess it's a classic trade off; do you want to pay for a bigger battery now or hope for a much bigger free battery later which will turn your phone into a brick?