Dragons Are Cool

I’m not a very ambitious person. In fact, I’m more or less living my dream right now. I’ve got a beautiful wife, two fantastic kids, and I’m out in the middle of nowhere with nobody around to bother me. Plus, I have an iPad. What else could anyone ask for?

Of course, having very little ambition doesn’t mean that I don’t have ANY ambition. One ambition that I do have is to write and publish a science fiction/fantasy novel. I believe I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s been on my mind lately, so I thought I’d write about it again. Why not, right?

I’m going to say up front that I have a project that I’ve been working on for some time, but I’m not going to give out any details about it here, because I’m excessively paranoid about somebody stealing my ideas. That and, you know, spoilers. But I’ll give a little background on my quest to be a published author.

I originally decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school. I spent a great deal of time in high school working on a project that I’ve since discarded.  The school newspaper did an article on me, which was pretty much the highlight of my writing career thus far. This was actually a bigger deal than it might sound like, since my high school’s newspaper was ranked, like, 2nd in the United States by whoever it is that ranks high school newspapers. In any case, they had standards. And apparently I met them. I suppose it’s not every day that a high school student starts working on a novel, although I feel that it would have been more impressive if I had actually finished it. Whatever.

In any case, my original idea was sort of loosely based around my own experiences. In the summer after 7th grade, I went with a group of kids in my church to some youth retreat/event in Gunnison, CO. A couple of summers later, I was part of the high school marching band when we went on a trip to the East Coast. We went to Boston, and we also marched in the oldest Fourth of July parade in the United States, in Bristol, RI. Somehow, these two trips got vaguely incorporated into a story about a post-apocalyptic war between the post-Communist successor to the United States and an ancient evil from beyond our dimension.

Confused? Intrigued? Well, allow me to fix that. This story began a little after the year 2050. Somewhere around the turn of the century (I had this idea in 1997, remember), the United States had broken up into smaller nations, one of which was ruled by Communists. Eventually the People’s Republic of America (or whatever) conquered all the other pieces of the old US, and proceeded to wage war with the rest of the world. This resulted in the PRA launching nuclear weapons at Europe, Asia and Africa. Fortunately for America, a rebel group was able to activate some sort of orbital shield that kept the radiation out of the Western Hemisphere. These rebels then proceeded to overthrow the Communist dictatorship and reestablish something approximating democracy. Unfortunately for them, the nuclear strike awakened an ancient demon that had been slumbering somewhere in Asia for millenia. This demon, of course, then decided to raise an army and conquer the whole world.

That’s the setup, anyway. I had the story pretty well sketched out in my head, and I had a whole timeline written up, but that’s as far as it went. Part of the reason why I never finished it is that I’m a lazy slob. But the main reason is that even while I was trying to work this story out in my brain, another idea was starting to form.

I’ll never forget the day I was walking home from school and the first tiny bit of my current project popped into my head. For some reason I was thinking about Batman, and I was thinking about how Batman is kind of lame, and how I wanted to write a story about a vengeful superhero that was way more awesome than Batman. And so I came up with the idea for an unstoppable being that lurked in the shadows and smote (smited?) evildoers and whatnot.

Now, in case you’re wondering why I shared that after I said I wasn’t going to talk about my current project, fret not. This project has evolved so much over the years that it has almost nothing in common with that original spark of an idea. The avenging superhero character is still in this book, but he’s not the main character, nor is he an avenging superhero anymore. But he does lurk in shadows a lot, so there’s that.

Also, I don’t think Batman is lame anymore. So don’t worry about that.

So yeah, this project has been in the making for a long, long time. I can’t remember exactly when the original idea popped into my head, but I was probably 16 or 17 at the time. And I’m 30 now. I don’t know whether it’s impressive that I’m still working on this idea 13 years after coming up with it, or sad that I haven’t actually written a book based on this idea after 13 years of thinking about it and working on it.

Well, I’m finally getting around to doing some serious work on this project. I have an outline that is 61 pages long and counting, and I have several lists and spreadsheets that help me keep track of various other aspects of the history of the universe that I’ve created. I haven’t actually started writing the actual book yet, but I’m getting there. Maybe by the time I’m 40, I’ll actually have something published. Maybe.

In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away at it. Maybe someday I’ll feel comfortable talking more about it on this blog. But you have to promise not to steal my ideas! Okay? Okay.

iPHONE MANIA!!!!!

Last Friday, the long-awaited iPhone 4S was officially released. The iPhone 4S is, if you don’t already know, the successor to Apple’s wildly successful iPhone 4. I don’t have an iPhone 4, but I do have a fourth-generation iPod Touch, which is more or less the same device, minus a few features. I love my iPod Touch, but I wouldn’t mind trading it for an iPhone 4S. Unfortunately, that won’t be happening, since I can’t afford smartphone service, but that sure doesn’t keep me from saying what I think about it.

As a die-hard Apple fan/gadget nerd, I followed along with the live coverage from the event where Apple announced the iPhone 4S. Frankly, my initial reaction was one of disappointment. Android and the many devices that run Android have been offering up serious competition for the iPhone lately, and it seems like every week a new Android phone is announced or rumored or released that blows all the previous Android phones out of the water. Because of this, I hoped/suspected that Apple was preparing a device that would completely obliterate the competition. The mythical iPhone 5 – the greatest invention since the light bulb or whatever.

After all, that’s pretty much what happened last year. Phones like the Droid Incredible, the Droid X and the EVO 4G were putting the iPhone 3GS to shame, at least in terms of performance and features, and it seemed like Apple might really start to struggle. And then Apple released the iPhone 4, and, for me at least, Apple had won. The iPhone 4 was way more impressive than anything Android could offer, and it became abundantly clear that Apple was not going to cede the smartphone market to Google without a fight.

But time passed, and Android devices kept getting better and better. Meanwhile, Apple held their yearly Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) this past June, which has traditionally been where they announce new versions of the iPhone. But this year, there was no mention of a new iPhone. The months ticked by, the rumors piled up, Android kept getting better and stronger, and it became obvious that Apple was preparing a real humdinger of a device that would put an end to Android once and for all.

Except, that didn’t happen. Instead, they announced the iPhone 4S, a minor revision to the existing iPhone 4. And much disappointment ensued.

But I feel like a lot of people, including myself, are really starting to rethink their initial reactions. The iPhone 4S seemed underwhelming at first, but the more I think about it and read about the upgrades that Apple made with this latest iPhone, the more I think that Apple made the right move here.

First of all, I should say that I don’t feel that the iPhone 4S is a necessary upgrade if you already have an iPhone 4. Most of what makes the iPhone 4S special comes from the new operating system that it runs, iOS 5. And iOS 5 is available as a free upgrade for anyone who has an iPhone 3GS, an iPhone 4, a third- or fourth-generation iPod Touch, or an iPad. There are basically three things that are exclusive to the iPhone 4S: a faster processor, a better camera, and Siri.

The processor in the iPhone 4S is the A5, which is actually the same processor found in the iPad 2. So when I say it’s exclusive to the iPhone 4S, I mean that in the sense that no other iPhone has it. I would imagine that the performance upgrade between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S is fairly substantial. I have a fourth generation iPod Touch, which has the same A4 processor as the iPhone 4, and an iPad 2, and the iPad 2 is significantly faster than the iPod Touch. Of course, the two iPhones have the same amount of RAM, whereas the iPad 2 has double the RAM of the iPod Touch, so that probably makes a difference. Anyway, it’s a nice processor.

The camera in the iPhone 4S is significantly better than the camera in the iPhone 4, which was already pretty much the best camera you could get in a smartphone. Apple put a lot of effort into making this camera as amazing as possible. I’ve seen pictures taken with the iPhone 4S, and it is mighty impressive. I would buy an iPhone 4S just for the camera, if I could afford one. It’s that spectacular.

I saved the best for last, and that’s Siri. Siri is a little bit difficult to describe, but Apple describes it as a “virtual assistant”. Basically, you can talk to your phone and it’ll do things for you. Of course, there have been other phones and apps that do this sort of thing. (In fact, Siri was originally a third-party iPhone app that Apple bought.) But the trick with Siri is that you can talk to it like you would a person. So instead of saying something robotic and mechanical like “Access weather information for Thursday, October 20 in New York City” if you want to find out if it will rain tomorrow in New York City, you can just say “Is it going to rain tomorrow in New York?” and Siri will pull up the forecast for you. It also remembers context, so you can then say, “What about Boston?” and it will show you the forecast for Boston.

So that’s the iPhone 4S in a nutshell. Is it revolutionary? No. Is it earth-shatteringly amazing? No. Does it blow away the competition and make every Android and Windows Phone device look hopelessly obsolete and worthless? No. But is it the best iPhone yet? Most definitely.

And that’s really what Apple is all about. They’re not trying to win some sort of spec war or feature race. They’re just trying to create the most simple and elegant user experience possible. Both Android and Windows Phone have specific advantages over iOS. For me, however, there’s no question that the overall experience of using iOS is superior to that of Windows Phone or Android. But hey, everybody likes different things for different reasons.

Steve Jobs

I know that by the time this post goes up, the death of Steve Jobs will be old news. I know that this post will be but one of ten trillion tributes to Steve Jobs published on the internet. And I know that I have nothing to offer here that you can’t find on a million other blogs. But I don’t care. For anyone who cares about technology, this is a post that has to be written.

Where do I even begin? I actually feel a little silly, mourning Steve Jobs. I didn’t know the man. I never met him. I’ve never met anyone who met him. I probably have never met anyone who met anyone who met him. Steve Jobs and I have almost nothing in common. He grew up in California in the 60s, I grew up in the Midwest in the 80s. He founded one of the most successful and influential companies ever, I’m a stay-at-home dad in a double-wide trailer in rural New England. He changed the world and is now being eulogized by millions of people, I sometimes think that I’ll be lucky if my children remember me after I’m gone. He was a Buddhist, I’m a Christian. He was a vegan, I would be happy eating nothing but meat. He was passionate and driven, I’m kind of a lazy slob.

The list goes on and on. There is no logical, rational reason for me to mourn Steve Jobs. And yet I do. But why?

Is it just the natural sympathy that one human being should have upon learning of the untimely death of a fellow human? I think there’s something to that. He was only 56, after all. That’s not particularly old, at least in the context of modern society. He had fought a long and presumably difficult battle with cancer. It’s only natural to feel some distress at the news that any person has died in such a manner. But that can’t possibly be all of it.

Could it be the fact that he left behind a wife and children? Certainly I mourn for them and with them. I have no idea what it’s like to lose a spouse or a father. Both my wife and my father are still alive. I have no idea how old his children are. I think at least one of them is older than I am. But it’s got to be hard to lose a parent no matter how old you are. Was he a good father? Again, I have no idea. I imagine that he loved his children, but he had also dedicated his life to Apple, so how much was he there for his children? I have no idea. Either way, I mourn for the wife and children that he left behind. But there’s still more to this, I think.

What is my connection to Steve Jobs? In one sense, it’s a very limited connection. I own a couple of products that were designed and manufactured by the company he founded. That’s it. No big deal. I own a lot of products made by a lot of different companies. I own a Kindle, but I don’t feel any particular affection for Jeff Bezos. I use Gmail and search for stuff on Google, but I don’t feel one way or another about Larry Page and Sergey Brin. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like my Kindle or Gmail. I like those products very much. But I don’t love them.

I love my iPad and my iPod Touch. I know that love is something of a strange term to use in regard to inanimate objects. But it’s the only term that fits. I have an emotional attachment to these devices that has no parallel with the other devices I own. I use my Kindle and my laptop every day, and I would be upset if they were broken or lost or stolen, but only because I would then have to buy a new one. However, if something happened to my iPad, I would be upset at the loss of my iPad.

I don’t want to overstate this. I don’t love my iPad more than anything else in the whole world. My wife and children and the rest of my family are much more important to me than my iPad, and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is even more important to me than my family. But if I had to pick one object to keep while everything else I owned went up in flames, it would undoubtedly be my iPad.

Apple products are special because they look and feel like they were made by somebody who cared. My Acer laptop looks like it was made by robots and faceless Chinese slaves in a nondescript factory somewhere. I know that my iPad was also made in a nondescript factory by robots and faceless Chinese slaves, and probably the same factory as my laptop, but it looks and feels like it was handcrafted by someone who had a passion for what they were doing. That’s the magic of Apple, and it’s a magic that was imparted to this company by Mr. Jobs.

So it’s a selfish thing, really, but how could it be anything but? If I had known Steve Jobs personally, I would be upset at losing a friend (or maybe happy at losing an enemy, depending on how I felt about him). But I didn’t know him personally. I knew him through the products that he and his company created. And those products will live on. My iPad and my iPod Touch aren’t going to stop working just because Steve Jobs is dead. And Apple isn’t going to stop making new versions of those products just because Steve Jobs is dead. But there is a sense that the magic is gone now. Apple lives on, but will it be the same company? I imagine that Jobs did everything he could to make sure that Apple would carry on in his absence. And if it does, that will be the crowning glory on a long and spectacular career.

I Thought “Amazon Just Kindled a Fire” Would Be a Clever Title… But I Was Wrong

There are two multinational corporations that I love more than any other, and those corporations are Apple and Amazon. Perhaps it’s a little ridiculous to speak of “loving” massive corporate entities, but emotions aren’t always rational things, are they? Of course, I don’t “love” Apple the way I love my wife, and I don’t “love” Amazon the way I love my children, but the important thing is that you know what I’m talking about.

I find these companies fascinating, because they both have the same goal, (an integrated and compelling combination of hardware and content), but they take very different paths to get there. But in both cases, the end result is a happy customer, at least in my case. And judging from the success that these two companies have enjoyed, I don’t think that I’m alone.

Let’s start with Amazon. For obvious reasons, Amazon is very much in the forefront of my thoughts this week. And the announcements that they made last week epitomize what makes Amazon great. Amazon is all about convenient access to anything you want. That’s been the name of Amazon’s game since the very beginning. I remember buying CDs and books and video games from Amazon way back in the early part of the 2000s. Amazon has long been my go-to website for buying anything online. And in the long (for an internet company) history of Amazon, they have continually improved the ease with which products can be procured from them. Between One-Click and Amazon Prime, if anything it’s TOO easy for me to give Amazon my money.

The Kindle Fire is, in many ways, the culmination of Amazon’s goal to make it super-easy to obtain any kind of content you want. If you don’t already know, the Kindle Fire is a 7-inch tablet that looks very similar to the Blackberry Playbook, only it’s somewhat more stripped down. Oh, and it only costs $200. Unlike the iPad, the Kindle Fire isn’t designed to be a jack-of-all-trades. Instead, it’s more like the Kindles of old, designed to do one thing and do that one thing very well. Only in this case, that one thing isn’t “reading”, but rather “consuming content of all kinds”. Music, movies, TV shows, books, magazines, newspapers, apps, websites… they’re all there for your consumption contentment.

The Kindle Fire comes linked to your Amazon account, making it almost ridiculously easy to start buying stuff on it. Even better, although the Fire only has 8 GB of internal storage, everything you buy from Amazon is automatically backed up in the Amazon Cloud, so anytime you want to re-download something, you can.

I’m very excited about the Kindle Fire, not so much for myself, but for my wife. Earlier this year, I talked her into buying a new desktop computer so that we could store all our pictures and home movies in one place. Before that, we each had netbooks with tiny hard drives, so our stuff was scattered between the two, with some of it on an external hard drive. Part of the deal upon getting the desktop was that we would sell our netbooks to help pay for it. Well, I’ve always felt a little guilty for convincing my wife to give up her netbook, especially since I bought a laptop shortly after. Now she’s stuck using the desktop whenever she wants to do anything “computery”.

But with the Kindle Fire, she will have a cheap way to do most of the computing that she needs to do. She mostly uses the computer to look at Facebook and shop for stuff on Amazon, so a Kindle Fire would be pretty much perfect for her. And the price is certainly right.

The Kindle Fire really illustrates the difference in the approaches taken by Amazon and Apple. This won’t be the first place you’ve heard this, I’m sure, but Apple’s strategy is to sell content in order to give you an incentive to buy their hardware, whereas Amazon is selling hardware to make it easier for you to buy their content. Here’s what I mean: an iPad costs at least $499, and tops out at $829. These are premium devices, with prices to match. You have to really commit to an iPad purchase, but Apple makes it easier to do so because they have ridiculous amounts of content for sale to go with it. Music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, apps, books, audiobooks… they’re all right there and easily accessible from your iPad at any time.

Conversely, Amazon offers a whole bunch of content. That’s their business, that’s what they’re trying to sell you. Music, movies, TV shows, books, apps, blah, blah, blah. But how do you get at that content? Well, that’s easy. Jeff Bezos will just sell you a cheap tablet that allows easy access to that content anytime you want.

Two different ways to get to essentially the same end. Which I’m more or less content with. As long as the stuff they’re selling continues to be of good quality and easy to obtain, I’m quite happy to keep sending all of my extra money off to Cupertino and/or Seattle.

Here’s another interesting difference between the iPad and the Kindle Fire, and I’ll close with this. The Kindle Fire is a companion device. It’s not designed to take the place of the computer you already have. It’s designed to give you easy access to stuff, and that’s all it does. The iPad is positioned as the future of computing. You’re not supposed to buy an iPad in addition to a computer, you’re supposed to use your iPad as your computer. Most tech nerds will tell you that this isn’t really possible, and I admit that I still use my laptop for some things, but I think if my laptop ever died completely, I could get by just fine with just an iPad.

The weird thing is, you need a computer to use an iPad, and you don’t need a computer to use a Kindle Fire. I wish I had some great insight to offer about this, but I don’t. It’s just weird.