Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Notify NYC Announces Tomorrow's Annunciation

As a New Yorker who was here on 9/11 I was an early adopter of the City's Notify NYC alert system.  As the City explains on its sign up page:
Notify NYC is the City of New York’s official source for information about emergency events and important City services. What you need to know, when you need to know it.
Obviously a good idea.

Since signing up many years ago I've received dozens of messages from Notify NYC.  (You can have them sent as text messages to your mobile phone as well as email messages to your smartphone or PC.)  And they cover everything from a mundane June 23, 2008 advisory like this ...

Due to a traffic accident at Bowery and Canal Street, there may be traffic impacts throughout the area. Avoid the area if possible.

Emergency personnel are on scene.
to this September 6, 2008 alert ...
The National Weather Service has issued a TROPICAL STORM WARNING for The New York City area in association with tropical storm Hanna. Additional information to follow.
to the nutty message I got earlier today ...
Notification issued 12/6/11 at 12:00 PM. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will be conducting a test of the World Trade Center Site Annunciation System tomorrow, December 7, 2011 between 7:00 AM and 10:00 AM. There will be no evacuations or impact to the public associated with this test.
When I read this email I tripped over the word Annunciation and thought: Doesn't that have something to do with Christ?  (Confession: No, I'm not Catholic.)  That can't be the right word for this system, can it?

I had to look up the word to make sure I wasn't losing my mind.  Here's how Dictionary.com defines it:

OK: so definition #4 sorta applies as a name for what should probably be labeled (if it didn't sound a little too Cold War scary) an early-warning system.  But if proclamation works as a synonym for Annunciation, it still seems to me this isn't the best word to use.  What's wrong with calling it an Announcement System instead?

Announcement is such an obvious choice I'm left wondering what the motivation could have been for substituting the religiously loaded Annunciation.

If you think you know, please leave a comment and enlighten me.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Independent Bookstores: One Opens, One Closes

From my Twitter feed (@MindTheRant) this morning:

Is it a good time to open an indie bookstore?  Or a better time to close one?  (Long view: will the ereader craze end up devouring printed books so that by the end of the decade the only way to buy them, for most of us, will be online?)

In short, are location-based booksellers the blacksmiths of the 21st century?

You tell me.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About -D

Last night my daughter and I went to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50—a movie I'd been mildly interested in seeing but had resisted because of my natural disinclination to exploring the antic possibilities of cancer.  As it happens my daughter and I both loved the movie and I'd urge anyone—with the exception perhaps of those who've experienced cancer firsthand and don't need the refresher—to see it.  To my mind some of Seth Rogen's laugh lines are a bit raw for a young teen's ears but Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a direct, wrenching, wonderfully understated performance.

But I'm not writing a movie review.  I'm here to talk about -D.

At the multiplex my 14-year-old and I waited to buy tickets in one of those maze-like lines defined by black woven nylon bands attached to waist-high standards, and there were enough people ahead of us that I had a chance to study the multicolored movie board above the ticket sellers.  It displayed all the movie titles and remaining show times and I noticed some of the movies—including 50/50—had a -D next to them.  I wondered out loud what this notation meant; my daughter had no idea either.

I paid the $26 for two adult tickets (the ticket seller asked if I wanted one adult and one child, but I spotted my daughter the extra 3 and a half bucks for an adult ticket to spare her further humiliation with the employee at the bottom of the escalator who was about to tear our tickets), we bought another $15 worth of popcorn and sodas, settled into our seats, endured over 40 minutes of visual pap before the feature started (advertised start time: 8:40; actual start time: just after 9 PM), and finally began enjoying the movie we'd come to see.

But We Weren't Watching a Movie

I'm not sure when or why I noticed it, but well into the story I realized we weren't watching a movie; we were watching a video.  By that I mean, of course, that however the movie was shot—on celluloid stock or recorded to a binary file—it was being shown with a digital projector.

Luckily, the digital artifacts were rare and fleeting.  I doubt anyone in the theater noticed them, nor do I think old-fashioned moviegoers like my wife or mother-in-law would have detected them.  Which is to say that digital projection is functionally equivalent to film projection.

It wasn't until the movie was over and we were heading back downstairs that I made the obvious connection between the odd -D insignia next to the movie title on the multiplex's movie board and the digital means by which the movie was shown.  And it's been puzzling me a bit ever since.

Explaining the -D Tags

On the face of it, those -D tags suggest the theater chain wants you to know that some of the movies it shows are analog and some are digital.  It suggests the chain is providing you with important information it feels you may need to decide if you'd prefer not to see something shown with a digital projector instead of a film projector.  Is there any other explanation?

On the other hand, that -D is pretty cryptic.  Space is probably at a premium on those movie boards, so flagging these movies with the far more helpful (Digital) or (Digital Projection) may not be possible.

But on the third hand, who cares?  For whose benefit is that -D posted?

For the benefit of old duffers like me?  For people who remember movies that spooled through the noisy and elaborate mechanical pathways of enormous film projectors?  Movies that were occasionally shown out of focus, that developed scratches and attracted lint after being shown for less than a week, and that were spliced onto twenty-minute reels that required the theater to own two side-by-side projectors to allow one projector to start the second twenty-minute reel the moment the first ended (and to alternate until all twenty-minute reels had been projected in order, which usually but didn't always happen)?  In short, movies recorded on a perishable, deeply imperfect medium that began to degrade the moment it was run through this implausible Rube Goldberg contraption of motorized sprockets ... and that required the kind of loving attention not all theaters were inclined to bestow on it?

Because I don't miss those analog films at all.  And I question the honesty of anyone who says he does.

Which isn't to say I don't miss anything about film; it was the original HD film technology for nearly a century, and if it hadn't been those 20 foot high moving images would have been a blurry unwatchable pointillist mess.  Just the same, HD video is an extraordinary technology whose versatility allows it to mimic film with 99.9% perfection.  (Even software as prosaic as Google's Picasa photo editor offers a decent effect it calls "film grain".) And given the cost of everything these days, it seems almost irresponsible to suggest that movie producers buy film stock and then pay to have it developed with toxic chemicals, digitized for editing, and then struck as 2,000 or 3,000 or more fragile celluloid prints for maybe 6 weeks of theater showings.

So under the circumstances it's somehow quaint that a theater chain should bother, however obliquely, to notify its patrons they're about to watch a digital movie instead of a film one.

Still, there's a lingering mystery surrounding a movie like 50/50 that not even the chain's -D can clear up.  We know how the movie was projected, but how was it shot?

It Became Bits—and Bits Is What We Saw

You may think I'm splitting hairs.  Who cares how it was shot?  In the end it became bits and bits is what you saw.

I suppose I'm veering into preciousness here ... like when an audiophile (and they tend to be old duffers too) bores you with details about the "warmth" of analog recording versus the cold precision of digital.  And then divulges that his LP turntable, tone arm, cartridge, and needle cost what you make in a month because they're needed to capture this warmth with exacting fidelity.

But for me it's simple.  It's like that infamous wounded robber in Dirty Harry who's confronted with Clint Eastwood’s largely emptied .44 Magnum and, though he’s surrendered, wants to be sure the odds were against him—that giving up was the right way to go.  So as Eastwood strolls away he's itching to find out if that revolver really is empty:

“Hey!” he says.  “I gots to know.”

That's the way it is for me.  Has the movie been shot with film cameras or with video cameras?  I gots to know.

Last Summer my wife and I went to see Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in Friends with Benefits.  We were in an old theater in upstate New York and it never occurred to me the place might be equipped with digital projectors.  But there was a moment in the movie—when Woody Harrelson leapt into his speedboat and began his cute commute home via the Hudson river—that I noticed an unfilmlike smear of sunlight streaming off the speedboat's windshield.  On film it would have been a bright, diamond-hard glint.  On video it was a soft, hot, undulating blob.

It was probably an hour into the movie and I'd only just noticed this video artifact.  Since the theater was anything but state of the art I concluded we were watching a projected film that was originally shot on video.

It bothers me that this dual life that films now lead has become a source of secrecy.  It doesn't matter to me—and I certainly doubt it mattered to Friends with Benefits' target audience—whether the movie was shot with film cameras or video cameras.  And perhaps it's less secrecy than indifference that keeps Hollywood from bothering to alert moviegoers which medium they're watching.

But either way, I gots to know.  And frankly I suspect that Hollywood is old-fashioned enough to want to keep these distinctions under wraps.  Mainstream movies featuring glamorous stars aren't supposed to be budget-conscious vehicles where film stock has been labeled a costly extravagance.

Not that budget need have anything to do with digital where effects are concerned.  Before my wife, daughter, and I saw the lavish popcorn thriller Super 8 I'd read about its puzzling overuse of lens flares.  I'd never thought anyone might deliberately try to distract an audience with horizontal streaks of bright light marring shots, but then it became apparent this effect didn't result from optical or lighting goofs: most had been carefully computer generated.

A bid for some kind of '70s era filmic authenticity to complement the movie's period setting.

Is It Cool to Fake a Lens Flare as a Digital Effect?

It's hard to know whether this kind of obscure attention to detail means anything to younger audiences.  Is it cool to fake a lens flare as a digital effect?  It was a wonder to me, but as someone who actually made Super 8 movies in the '70s my perspective is a little different from my 14-year-old daughter's.  (After watching the movie she sized it up concisely with an expression I'd never before heard her use: over the top.)

Of course, in the long run digitization is like death and taxes.  It's coming and there ain't nothing nobody can do about it.  It's only a matter of time before movie stock goes the way of Kodachrome and only museums in big cities will have theaters equipped with film projectors showing movies on celluloid.

Going to see them will be yet another baroque urban affectation—like listening to LPs or collecting 3D postcards for your 19th-century stereopticon.

But analog's long artistic shadow will inevitably leave a few disaffected duffers wondering about provenance.  Is this movie -D or -A?  Was it shot in -A and converted to -D?  You mean it was shot in -A and we're watching it in -A?  Far out!

As the world goes to bits, this core distinction between analog and digital will melt away.  But to me, it’s still a vivid divide that separates the tactile, the immediate, the comprehensible from the abstract, the opaque, the hexadecimally inaccessible.

Which do I get to see in that darkened theater?  And how did it start out its life?  Tell me, Clint: I really do gotta know.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Top 4 Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V Pleasures

Since I began my love-hate relationship with my Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V on this blog with my Top 5 Annoyances, I thought I’d give equal time to a few pleasures.

These niceties probably aren’t unique to the LG Optimus V—they likely apply to most if not all android phones. (NOTE: I recently discovered that the Super Tool Box Hotspot functionality I describe below appears not to work on a similar LG Optimus phone sold directly from Sprint running Android 2.3.3.  My Optimus V is running Android 2.2.1.)  But since the Optimus V is an android phone, they’re still relevant if not unique:
  1. Great phone/audio player integration I’ve only had one experience when my phone rang while I was listening to a podcast, but it was delightful to discover that the audio paused when the phone ring cut in, it stayed paused while I talked on the phone, and then resumed automatically the moment I hung up. Very civilized.
  2. You can send text messages to landline phones!  I discovered this capability by accident when my wife called me from our home landline while I was listening to a friend’s band—The Fancy Shapes—play at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village.  I’d long known about the option to deflect an incoming call with a generic text message: the LG Optimus V often presents a list of such “Sorry, can’t talk” text options by the time I’ve pulled the phone from my pocket.  This time I reflexively chose the first one on the list (“I am unable to answer the phone at the moment.”) without noticing that the call had originated from a landline, and when I recognized the number I assumed the message would bounce into the void.

    Wrong!  Later I inspected a series of text messages I received from Virgin Mobile, all triggered by my original generic text reply.  The first informed me:
    Your message was successfully delivered to someone at [my landline number].  Thanks for using Text to Landline!
    That’s right.  Virgin Mobile had converted the text message to a robo call and served it up to the landline.  But the next message was equally surprising:
    You’ve received a reply to your Text to Landline message from [my landline number].  Call 17815776804 to listen now.  Normal airtime charges apply.
    Note, too, that the 781 number is hyperlinked to the phone’s dialer, so all you need do is touch it to initiate the call and retrieve the voice message.

    Finally, Virgin Mobile texted me a suggestion:
    Record your name for intro of Text to Landline message.  Call 1-781-577-6890 from your Virgin Mobile phone to make your recording.  Std. Airtime rates apply.
    Well, thank you, Virgin Mobile.  I can only wonder how many poor benighted souls like me have no idea you offer a service called Text to Landline that makes it easy to manage landline calls you can’t (or don’t really want to) answer.
  3. It’s easy (using Gmail on your PC) to turn an email containing the date, time, and place for a scheduled meeting into a Google Calendar entry on your phone I’ve found that when someone sends me a message with all the details for, say, a lunch date, Gmail will show something like this on the right side of the message:

    Just click this section and voilà!—you’ll go straight to Google Calendar and your lunch date will be added (then synched on your phone) for the date and time the message outlined. Cool.
  4. If you're running Android 2.2.1 it's easy to turn the phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot—no rooting necessary I owe my discovery of this sweet little capability to Rock That LG Optimus V & Rock That Moto T—a site dedicated to promoting Virgin Mobile’s top android phones. However, it's important to note that since late Summer 2011 Virgin Mobile has been selling the LG Optimus V with Android 2.2.2 installed and has apparently taken steps to prevent the phone from taking advantage of the hotspot functionality built into the apps I discuss below.  For those of you running Android 2.2.2 your only alternative—short of rooting the phone—appears to be to use a tethering app like Easy Tether.  Such apps at least allow you to get a laptop PC on the Internet with your Optimus via its USB cable when a 3G signal is available but Wi-Fi isn't (I've also read elsewhere that all of these remote access strategies likely violate Virgin Mobile's terms of service, so follow my suggestions at your peril):
  • Launch Android Market and pick up Super Tool Box. (Rock That recommends this app, and it’s the one I'm using. Don’t be confused if Android Market calls it Super aTool Box-cache battery—it’s still the app you want. Rock That also says that Quick Settings works, but I’m using Super Tool Box and it does the job.)
  • Once you’ve installed Super Tool Box, before launching it return to your home screen and hit the physical window button at the bottom left of your LG Optimus V:
  • When the window appears, select Settings:

  • From your Settings menu, select Wireless & Networks:

  • From your Wireless & Network Settings, uncheck Wi-Fi (if it’s already unchecked, you’re good to go):

  • Now you’re ready to launch Super Tool Box and turn on your Wi-Fi Hotspot. Begin by selecting Super Tool Box’s Settings menu:

  • From the Settings menu, make sure Mobile data shows Connected. (If it shows Unconnected, go back to your homescreen, push the physical Window button, hit Settings, and turn off your phone’s Wi-Fi as directed above. NOTE: turning off Wi-Fi from this Settings page in Super Tool Box will not allow you to enable your hotspot.):

  • Finally, turn on the Wi-Fi hotspot switch (once it’s on, you'll see the blue hotspot icon appear in the upper lefthand corner):

Your Wi-Fi hotspot is on and ready for traffic, but bear in mind it’s also open. So if security is important to you, Super Tool Box does allow you to enable WPA2 PSK to make sure those who want to share your phone’s network have actually been invited.

One last thing: bear in mind that as long as your LG Optimus V is acting as a hotspot you can’t actually use the phone’s own Wi-Fi to get on the Internet. However, as long as you’ve got 3G service—and if you don’t your Wi-Fi hotspot won’t be very hot—you can use it to surf the web or check your email.

Lastly, to check to see which version of Android you're running press your Optimus V's physical window key in the lower lefthand corner of the phone.  From the window that pops up press Settings, and from the Settings menu scroll down to the bottom and select About Phone.  From the About Phone menu scroll down until you find Android Version.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Amazon's Kindle Fire: Sneaky Faster

Okay, I'll make this short -- I can't compete with the 80 bazillion other tech blogs that are spilling plenty of digital ink right now about all the new Amazon Kindle tablets that Jeff Bezos announced this morning.

First, you'll notice that of the four devices Amazon rolled out today, only one, the $149 Kindle Touch 3G, offers cellular access to Amazon's Kindle store and your Kindle library.  The high-end $199 Kindle Fire, a tablet that promises to allow bandwidth-intensive video streaming, sticks to WiFi -- which is hardly surprising.  I doubt any cellular carrier would give Amazon a contract to carry its customers' Kindle Fire traffic without demanding a huge premium.  There's an enormous difference between downloading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Keira Knightley's Pride and Prejudice.

Still, I'm a little disappointed Amazon hasn't made a deal with a carrier to offer pay-as-you-go 3G data service for the Kindle Fire the way Apple does with the iPad.

Second, the Kindle Fire browser, Amazon Silk, is both an acknowledgment that color tablets are data hogs and a brilliant move to make the Fire both faster and more Amazon-centric.  Essentially Silk has been designed to do all its browsing via Amazon's EC2 servers, which act as a kind of enormous browser cache in the sky.  There's more to it than that -- if you watch Amazon's video about Silk there's some predictive hocus-pocus that seems to claim the browser will adjust itself to your browsing habits and, anticipating where you'll go next, pull those pages onto the EC2 servers, ready to deliver before you even ask for them.  Whether or not this strategy works consistently (and if it does Kindle Fire owners will definitely be expecting 99.999% uptime from those EC2 servers ... even though Amazon promises only "99.95% availability for each Amazon EC2 Region" in its service level agreement for third-party subscribers), it locks Amazon's customers just as firmly into Amazon's content universe as the older Kindles' proprietary ebook format did for the company's legions of readers.

Because you can expect those EC2 servers to be especially fast at serving up Amazon's own web pages -- including video, music, books, magazines, and whatever else Amazon can think to stream.  (And any other browser you install will obviously not benefit from the EC2 turbo boost.)

Come to think of it, Jeff Bezos may be thinking this innovative streaming strategy may be just as effective at keeping customers hanging around Amazon as Mark Zuckerberg's social media strategy is at keeping his members hanging around Facebook.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Does Android GPS Need Cell Service to Work?

Google Maps appears to use cell towers to locate a user indoors when the LG Optimus V's GPS can't find a satellite signal. But what if you're out of doors and a satellite signal's all you've got?

To follow up on my last post, Top 5 Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V Annoyances, I’ve uncovered interesting intelligence contradicting my Annoyance #4, GPS System Needs Cell Service to Function.

After searching on Android Market for GPS apps I found one, BackCountry Navigator, that’s designed for hiking in remote places where cell service is typically unavailable. BackCountry Navigator’s developer, Nathan Mellor, blogged last spring about the ability of his app to work far from cell or WiFi signals. He notes:
Android Apps can get a location with the help of cell towers.
If you look at the location settings of an Android phone, you will often see two different kinds of locations mentioned. One is called the network location. This is found using cell towers or wifi hot spots. It is only a rough location.
The other is the GPS satellite location which is what you need for navigation. Android phones, like many smartphones, also use Assisted GPS (aGPS). This allows them to compute satellite position using the network and get the location faster.

The Android GPS can also get a location without cell towers. 
It is common to think that a cell phone can't get a location without cell service. In fact, if you ask the average employee of your cell service provider if you can use the phone's GPS without cell service, they will say no. It is often beyond their comprehension that anyone would want to, plus they want to sell you software that uses an expensive data plan.
An Android phone has a real GPS chip in it, which can get the location from GPS satellites.
But as you’d imagine, his comment that Assisted GPS using cell towers or WiFi hot spots lets smartphones “compute satellite position using the network and get the location faster” means that when cell towers or WiFi hot spots aren’t around pinpointing your location takes a little longer. Mellor goes on to say:
Getting a first location in the backcountry (a first fix) requires patience.
If you've used your Android GPS in urban areas, you may have to adjust to how long it takes to get your location the first time in the backcountry. Instead of ten seconds, it might be 1-5 minutes. It won't have the benefit of aGPS to get the satellite locations faster. Don't worry. The next time you start your GPS, it will probably take less than ten seconds.
So it would seem that’s why any smartphone, android or not, uses aGPS instead of plain GPS: to pinpoint your location in seconds instead of minutes.

Which means Virgin Mobile’s LG Optimus V actually doesn’t need cell service for its GPS system to work.  However, it does need an app, like BackCountry Navigator, that functions happily when cell signals are nowhere to be found.

Unfortunately, that also means an app that doesn’t use android's default Google Maps the way Google Navigation does. Google Maps clearly relies on cell service to locate users quickly and, when none is available, fails to resolve your position on your phone’s display ... as I discovered when I took my LG Optimus V to the wilds of western Maryland.

But BackCountry Navigator, while it doesn’t use Google Maps, is hardly a suitable alternative for car travel.  It's designed to use topographical maps from MyTopo.com or the U.S. Geological Survey -- useful for hiking over exotic terrain but hardly useful for driving.  (And since hikers don't need turn-by-turn spoken directions, it seems obvious BackCountry Navigator doesn't deliver those, either.)

I found an alternative, Sygic, whose Android Market product page boasts that its maps "are stored on the phone for offline use." I'd hoped that claim meant it would work without cell service, but, alas, I couldn't get Sygic to run on my Optimus V. And it may not have mattered, because before you can use Sygic you've got to download its maps -- and that turns out to be time-consuming.  For instance, if, like me, you're primarily interested in traveling in North America Sygic asks you to download maps state by state. I limited my selection to Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, but together they added up to 749 MB and took me more than 10 minutes to get onto the phone via home WiFi. And, of course, Sygic's à la carte map requirements mean you've got to remember to download additional maps before you can drive through states Sygic doesn't already know about. Pretty cumbersome.

Has anyone landed on a solution to this irksome problem? Is there another app that does what Sygic promises without the onerous map download requirements?

The easiest answer would be for Google to include an option allowing Google Maps to locate users using only their android phone's GPS chip. It occurs to me, though, that Google Maps also needs cell service to stream Google Maps details (some of which may be commercial, such as restaurant, store, or hotel locations) to your phone on the fly, so it can sidestep Sygic's heavy-duty offline map storage requirements.

If that's the case there may never be a solution for Virgin Mobile android phone users -- at least as long as we're using the LG Optimus V's less than perfect radio antenna on Sprint's less than ubiquitous network.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My Radio Shack Review of LG Optimus V for Virgin Mobile

Originally submitted at RadioShack

Get a smartphone without the hassle of a contract with LG's Optimus V from Virgin Mobile.

Top 5 LG Optimus V Annoyances
By MindTheRant from New York, NY on 9/7/2011
3out of 5
Pros: Durable, Actual Android phone
Cons: Freezes Up, Poor Battery Life, Weak Signal, GPS needs cell service
Best Uses: Email, Web Browsing, Making Calls, Games, Music, Texting
Describe Yourself: Nerd wannabe, Parent, Practical
Primary use: Personal
Was this a gift?: No
Please see my Top 5 Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V Annoyances at my web site: http://bit.ly/rad10shak

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Top 5 Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V Annoyances

Equal Time: To be fair to Virgin Mobile and LG I’ve also added my Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V Top 4 Pleasures.  Check them out ... or go straight to the bad news below.

Astonishingly, if you visit Virgin Mobile’s USA website you’ll find the LG Optimus V phone I bought last winter gets a user rating of 4.6 stars out of 5. I’m not sure I’d give the phone 3 stars and I certainly wouldn’t go to 4; 5 is out of the question.

And what about those glowing reviews?  If you click on the (1,414 Reviews) link above you're taken to a page that qualifies the love a bit:

The fine print, circled in red above, reads "Comments taken from customer survey. Customers may have received minimal compensation to participate in the survey." But more to the point, it doesn't appear to be possible to read these 1,414 reviews; click on the //See What People Are Saying link and you're taken to another page that displays only a sampling of testimonials, and those aren't about the LG Optimus V ... they're about Virgin Mobile's attractively priced android phone plans. Just as annoying, it doesn't seem possible for me to add my own review of the phone.

With these facts in mind, let's get back to my Annoyances.

Why doesn't the phone rate 3 stars, let alone 4 or 5?  In the tradition of O’Reilly Media’s Annoyances Series (except in this case I, unlike O’Reilly’s authors, have no useful solutions or workarounds for these frustrating glitches), here are the top 5 furshlugginer annoyances I’ve been up against with this phone:
  1. Subpar Battery Life            The LG Optimus V is my first smartphone—so it’s my first phone with a touchscreen and apps—and I knew walking around using an LED display all day long would take a toll on the power supply.  Sure enough, if I use the phone actively throughout the day the battery will last no more than 9 or 10 hours.  If I keep it quiet in my pocket and take or make the occasional call I may get 12.  (And yes, I have the phone configured to shut off the display after 15 seconds of nonuse—the default setting.  I also tend to turn off Wi-Fi if I’m out and about.)  10/5/11 Update: On 10/3 & 10/4 I used the phone minimally and the battery lasted for 1 day, 11 hours, 42 minutes, at which point the battery level was still at 14% (and the battery icon had turned from green to a thin slice of yellow, meaning it was time to plug it in).  So: battery life can be impressive when the phone gets very little use.  (On the other hand, using the phone to play music or podcasts can be hard on the battery, especially when using the phone's weak internal speaker. Ambient noise outside usually requires turning the sound all the way up, which likely doesn't help.)
  2. Unexpected Crashes            Mercifully these don’t happen often, but in the 5 months or so I’ve had this phone I’ve experienced half a dozen hangs where suddenly I could do nothing with it.  My first apparent crash happened barely a month into my subscription; finding I couldn’t get the display to turn back on by pressing any button I plugged the phone into a wall outlet and everything returned to normal.  Since then I’ve had a few encounters where the only way to revive the phone was to take off the back and remove the battery.  (Pressing the power button for 30 seconds to a minute had no effect.)  Not fun.
  3. Subpar Antenna            Recently I spent a few days in the wilds of western Maryland near the West Virginia border and found my Optimus was worthless for either voice calls or data transmission or reception.  I was prepared to blame Virgin Mobile’s owner, Sprint, for its scanty rural cell tower infrastructure, but I encountered a couple of Sprint subscribers who could use their phone—including one who had a Sprint Wi-Fi hotspot device that worked just fine.  So I’ll blame my Optimus instead.
  4. GPS System Needs Cell Service to Function            During this same trip to western Maryland (see Annoyance #3 above)—when my Optimus was worthless as either a phone or a data device—I made another discovery: the phone’s GPS system can receive satellite signals to its heart’s content but it can’t resolve them into an actual map location without help from earthly cell towers.  I’m not a telecom nerd and I have no idea whether this is an android problem in general or a cheap android phone problem in particular, but I’m satisfied the LG Optimus V needs cell service to enable its built-in GPS system to function properly.  Until my phone returned from the Maryland wilderness and began displaying 3G or 1x cell service my Google Navigation app would happily display its distinctive blue location arrow against a fuzzy white background that refused to resolve a single street, road, highway, lake, river, or anything else topographical.  Utterly maddening.
  5. Powerup Annoyances            More than once I’ve fired up my Optimus at the beginning of the day and noticed that some of the application icons on my main screen display as generic android icons and not as the distinctive icons their developers devised for them.  In this state, which may last for a minute or so, if I try to launch any of these generic-icon apps my phone will inform me they haven’t been installed.  (My suspicion is that I've moved these apps to my SD card and the phone takes longer to find them.)  If I wait a bit the distinctive icons usually replace the generic ones and everything returns to normal.  However, I once had the phone inform me that several apps I’d actually installed (and never uninstalled) were no longer there—I had to reinstall them.  Very perplexing.  10/26/11 update: last week I experienced the phone-still-telling-me-apps-I'd-installed-weren't-installed annoyance well beyond startup, so I decided to draw a page from the PC-user's handbook and reboot.  That did the trick, so in this one instance, at least, I do have a workaround to suggest.  When in doubt, reboot. 
BONUS Annoyance!: Inadequate onboard storage          It took me quite a while to figure this annoyance out -- mainly because it's a bit counterintuitive.  Check out this screen capture from Super Tool Box's Memory/Cpu information screen:

As you can see from the icon in the upper lefthand corner (the one that resembles a tiny hard drive with an exclamation point next to it), when I captured this screen the other day I was facing a low memory condition.  When these glitches first started to crop up and I had access to this Memory/Cpu information screen I couldn't figure out the source of the problem.  After all, the green-and-yellow pie chart at the upper left tells me that more than half of my memory -- 267 MB of 424 MB total -- is free.  So why am I low?

Not long after my first low-memory condition I discussed it on the phone with a friend who happens to be a computer scientist and he surmised that the bar graph in the middle, labeled Phone, held the key.  (You'll notice this graph is an ominous pink sliver, while the other two are cheerful yellow and green slabs.) He suggested the LG Optimus V had 179 MB of on-board storage and it was this kind of available storage -- not SD Card storage or regular green memory -- that determined whether the phone entered a low memory condition.

All my experience with the Optimus V bears him out.  Available memory means nothing; available on-board storage means everything.  The tipping point appears to be 18 MB; drop below that and you'll enter a low memory condition.

But here's the kicker: once you've entered a low memory condition your Optimus V will refuse to perform basic data tasks like sending or receiving text or email messages.  How's that for motivation to start cleaning out rarely used apps that soak up precious on-board storage?  (I literally couldn't mail this screen capture to myself until I deleted two apps that got me back above 18 MB of available on-board storage.)

Nearly as annoying is that attempting to solve a low memory condition by moving apps to the microSD card doesn't work, either.  First, not all apps can be moved to the SD card.  Second, my Optimus V shipped with apps that not only can't be moved -- they can't be deleted, either.  Twidroyd, Poynt, and Virgin Mobile's own apps -- Live, Downloads, and My Account -- might as well be etched in silicon.  They're there for the duration, unless I opt to root the phone and void my warranty.  And in any case I've found that even if I've got an app or two that I've forgotten to move to the SD card and I do so, it seems to have no effect on a low memory condition.  Deleting one or two bloated ones seems to be the best way to go.  (4/27/12 UPDATE: Got a low memory condition today and decided -- instead of deleting an app or two -- to reboot my phone.  Weirdly, rebooting worked!  So before you agonize over which of your installed apps to axe, turn your phone off and turn it back on again.  It may just do the trick.)

I find I can generally install about two dozen apps on the phone before I enter a low memory condition.  Your mileage will vary, of course, depending on the size of the apps you install -- and they vary quite a bit.  My B&N Nook reading app takes up a whopping 12.12 MB; Wifi Analyzer a mere 372 KB.

*         *          *          *          *
Because the Optimus is my first smartphone, android or otherwise, I have nothing to compare it to—so these experiences may be typical for smartphone owners.  Or they may be the inevitable result of going Virgin Mobile, paying a flat $150 for the phone, and going on an enticingly cheap $25/month plan with 300 voice minutes and unlimited text, web, and email.  (Alas, Virgin Mobile has generated so many subscribers for its android services in 2011 it’s upped the price for this bargain-basement plan to $35/month; I’m still grandfathered in at $25 but am waiting for the other shoe to drop.  My lower rate can’t last forever.)

Do you have an LG Optimus V from Virgin Mobile or one of Virgin’s other android phones?  If so, tell me if your experiences jive with mine—or if they’ve been stellar.  Either way I’d love to know.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nook: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?

Warning: picture swiped from unsuspecting blog. I'm currently reading the unexpurgated From Here to Eternity, not whatever happens to be showing on this Nook's screen.

The (frankly to me) stale arguments about the Kindle/Nook/Kobo readers versus the iPad/Galaxy Tab/whatever usually center on the user experience reading outside: the passive E Ink screen on Kindle/Nook/Kobo is easy to read in bright sunlight while the iPad and its android imitators use the same LCD displays that smartphones use -- and we all know what it's like trying to do anything useful on a smartphone in bright sunlight.

But since it happens to be Summer and I'm doing more than a little Nook 3G reading out of doors these days I've discovered an advantage and a disadvantage of using an ereader of any stripe while sitting on the porch or by the pool.

Disadvantage: I'm not inclined to take my Nook to the pool ... and that would go double for taking it to the beach.  A friend of my daughter's recently made the mistake of jumping into a pool while holding her cell phone.  Result: il ne marche plus!  (It no longer works!)  No, I've not yet reached my dotage and am fairly sure I wouldn't forget to put down my Nook before diving in, but forgetting it by the pool and exposing it overnight to a passing storm?  A definite possibility.  Or leaving it on a chaise near enough the pool so that my teenage daughter and her rambunctious friends (including the one who jumped in the pool holding her phone) might splash water all over it?  A definiter possibility.  And I don't even want to think how well my already obsolete but still fairly expensive to replace ereader would handle beach sand.  That's what mass market paperbacks were made for -- those suckers are beachproof. (However, the endearing disposability of mass market paperbacks hasn't saved their market share from precipitous decline as ereader popularity has exploded, as this  New York Times article makes clear.)

Advantage: On the other hand, while reading on the porch the other day and enjoying a breeze while sipping a drink I realized I didn't have to hold my Nook firmly in my hands or worry about the wind blowing the pages and losing my place. I could put the device on a table, read away, and from time to time bring refreshment to my lips without thinking twice about what a sudden gust might do to my place or my equanimity. Fringe benefit: no need to risk creasing the spine of a book you love in a vain attempt to windproof it by getting it to lie flat, lowering its profile, and minimizing sudden-breeze page drag.

Since these observations are, as nerds like to say, device agnostic (i.e., they apply universally to the ereading experience regardless of the device you're using), they're not likely to change anyone's mind about whether to go active or passive in choosing a display.

To me the E Ink/LCD decision remains largely monetary -- though I read somwhere recently that iPad buyers tend to be male and dedicated ereader buyers tend to be female.  Regardless of gender, is there any doubt iPad owners are likely affluent, while dedicated ereader owners, at least since prices have fallen toward the $100 mark, likely aren't?

No matter: I'm interested in knowing what you ereader users out there have found are the Summertime advantages and disadvantages to your device, regardless of whether it's a Nook, Kindle, Kobo Reader, iPad, Galaxy Tab -- you get the idea.  Please comment and let me know.  Thank you.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Quoth the Rowling, 'Pottermore.'

I'm posting this entry largely because I thought of the headline while walking the dogs yesterday and found it rather clever, since that repeated line in Poe's "The Raven" reads "Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'"

In case you hadn't heard, J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame is opening this fall a new web site called Pottermore (pottermore.com) that will, among other things, offer heretofore unknown ebook versions of all the Harry Potter novels.  At the moment it's unclear whether Pottermore will be the place you'll have to visit to get the ebook version of any of the seven novels in the series or whether you'll also eventually be able to download them from Amazon or BN.com or any other ebook retailer.

If you'd like to get the details from Rowling herself, check out her Olympian announcement on YouTube.  (What's Olympian about it?  Click through and you'll see.)

ADDENDUM: It hadn't occurred to me that if Rowling is going to sell Harry Potter ebooks direct to her Pottermore visitors there's an inevitable question: how will they show up on a Kindle or Nook or Kobo or Sony or other ereader?  After all, each of these devices is part of a walled garden ecosystem.  I've sideloaded my share of public domain titles into my (now quaint first-generation) Nook 3G, but doing so involves a level of techno gruntwork Rowling will certainly not expect of her fans.  Thanks to today's edition of Publishers Lunch, however, we learn that Barnes & Noble.com is "working closely with Pottermore to make Harry Potter ebooks available on our line of NOOK devices when the Pottermore store goes live."  (Amazon has no comment on its plans.)  Publishers Lunch also mentions that the Financial Times has reported that Pottermore will be selling downloadable Harry Potter audiobooks now sold on Apple's iTunes store -- and that iTunes will stop selling them when Pottermore begins.  (Curiously, I just fired up iTunes and could find only one Harry Potter audiobook, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, now on sale there.)  Meanwhile the planet's English-language brick-and-mortar booksellers are in despair.  Harry Potter has been a godsend for them -- generating foot traffic from millions of shoppers eager to claim the latest installment and, presumably, one or two other books plus maybe some stationery, a jigsaw puzzle, a board game, a DVD, and so on.  Pottermore seems certain to stem that revenue flow, perhaps irrevocably.

BTW: if you haven't read Poe's "The Raven" since high school when, like me, you found it a tedious and irrelevant 19th century fossil, by all means give it another look.  It's really an extraordinary poem: inventive, ruefully amusing, with a manic intensity, helped along by its meter and profuse rhyme scheme, that builds as it goes along.  When I first re-read it a couple of years ago -- only because my daughter was assigned it in her English class -- I could scarcely believe it was the same poem I'd sleepwalked through in 11th grade American Literature.  I doff my hat to you, O divine Edgar.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Proofreaders Need Not Apply

In space, no one can hear you scream.  And in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream “Typo!”

The disintermediation the Internet allows for publishing ideas or advertisements—requiring fewer and fewer steps and lower and lower expenditures to get the word out—has left corporations, governments, and the rest of us in a mad dash to promote ourselves early and often.

Along the way proofreading has become a neglected skill and an unnecessarily expensive and time-consuming step.  It is to the 21st century what blacksmithing was to the 20th.

Of course, typographical errors online come in a variety of flavors.  I may flinch when I stumble on one in the New York Times online or in print, but I acknowledge that it’s the price I pay to get reasonably good reporting on the 24/7 Internet clock.  I make the same allowances for the comments I read online attached to ecommerce product pages or news site articles, now that I know there are thousands who think the verb to lose is spelled to loose or that disappointed packs two ses and two ps or two ses and one p.

English orthography is a bitch.

Still, you’d think that image-conscious businesses or government agencies would take a slightly fussier stance.  Spelling stuff wrong on an authorized web site or official communication suggests haste or carelessness or indifference.  Those aren’t impressions you want to leave on customers or constituents.

But there’s a cost to correctness and clearly it’s too high for some entities in the information business.

Here are a few examples I’ve stumbled on over the last couple of months.  I didn’t set out to find these gaffes—they found me:

Citi Group Credit Cards
Now that Citi Group’s credit card unit has had a couple of hundred thousand customer accounts hacked I guess they’ve bigger fish to fry than running the nonword “dinning” through Spell Check and correcting it to “dining”.  They’re sure to spend so much money on boosting security—or at least on PR to promote the idea they’re boosted security—they won’t have a penny extra to spend on agency billings padded with frivolous proofreading charges.

American List Council

{Sigh}  I’ve been there, American List Council.  You’re typing along, you enter a short word like “with”, and a few words later you’re supposed to enter an entirely different short word starting with “w” (in this case, “who”) but, because your brain’s on autopilot and you’re really thinking about where to go for lunch, or what you’re going to do on vacation, or how much your kid’s orthodontics bill is going to be, you absently enter “with” again.  Happens to the best of us.

Mark Ecko Enterprises, Unlimited

Here’s a twin killing from the Mark Ecko Enterprises web site—two goofs in two years on the company’s historical timeline.  These are classic Internet-age errors: Spell Check will never find them.  (Note that the subhead in red for the 2006 entry is also fouled up.)  Guess that’s what happens when your hip-hop web creative crew is so busy making your site look fly they’re not going to do that proofreading shit for you, man.

IPC Systems
IPC Systems’ slogan, “Absolutely Indispensable” (mercifully sidestepping the common misspelling “Indispensible”), describes its goal of building essential high-tech electronic trading solutions for financial services firms.  But proofreaders were absolutely dispensable when the company’s web team laid out the site’s promotional copy.  And no, a word needn’t be misspelled to qualify as a typo: breaking it and misplacing the hyphen on the turnover line is, in my view, just as embarrassing.

Paul Krugman's New York Times Blog

I've never encountered a typo in Paul Krugman's blog writings, so I suppose neither the Nobel laureate nor the New York Times can be blamed for a mistake that crept into a Federal Reserve Board Bureau of Economic Analysis graph caption on this blog entry from May 2, 2011.  If you’re Ron (or Rand) Paul, though, this is one more reason to hate the Fed: flabby proofing.

TiVo Guide Listings

My wife and daughter and I love to watch Modern Family—so we’ve naturally got a TiVo Season Pass.  And I admit that, whatever the show, on the rare occasions I read the one-sentence show recaps on TiVo’s right nav I've never noticed a typographic error.  In fact, I didn’t notice this one: my wife did.  (Yeah, she used to work in publishing, too.  The industry attracts literate fussbudgets.)

The Supermarket

Let’s leave digital behind and go analog.  The supermarket is as analog as it gets—and with miles of colorful packaging, exploding type, and fine print it’s not only as visually noisy as the web it seems to be just as errorprone.  So savor this irony as Budweiser’s marketers dutifully (and I’m sure hastily) alerted customers to a “printing error” on its mail-in rebate coupons:

Yep, another goof Spell Check won’t help you find.  Well, at least Budweiser apologized for the inconvenience—and they really mean it, since they ended their apology with an exclamation point.

As it happens, I once used a web site’s comments tool to point out a typo in a sample passage from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad posted at avisitfromthegoonsquad.com.  All comments on the site are moderated, and while mine was never approved and released by the following day the typo I mentioned had been quietly corrected.

No need to thank me, Ms. Egan.  On the Internet information wants to be free, especially if it costs something to make sure it’s spelled correctly.

P.S. I apologize for the inconsistent leading afflicting the subheads in this post.  Looks like it's not a good idea to compose your rant in Microsoft Word and then copy it into the Blogger editor.  Too many mysterious Microsoft tags come along for the ride.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Amazon: Sneaky Fast

Sportscasters have a phrase they use to describe a major league pitcher whose lazy windup and delivery gives hitters no clue that a 94MPH fastball is humming their way: sneaky fast.

Lately that phrase has sprung to mind about Amazon, the ruthlessly efficient web retailer that effortlessly fires emails across my Gmail inbox and leaves me no time to wonder, “How did they know this would interest me?”

So it was yesterday morning when I found an email whose subject line, Free Today: Plants vs. Zombies Android Exclusive, notified me about an Amazon store I’m not sure I knew existed—or why.

Amazon selling Android apps?  Isn’t that what Google’s Android Marketplace is for?  And if you wanted to compete with Android Marketplace, how would you sell Android apps from the Amazon web site?  Everyone with an android phone knows you download them from your phone to your phone—no annoying web intervention required.

Was Amazon sneaky fast or was it hanging its pitches out over the plate?

(This intriguing question prevented me from asking myself an even sneakier one: how did Amazon know I had an android phone?  I’d bought mine at a brick-and-mortar Radio Shack.  More about that later.)

Get a Great Paid App for Free Every Day

I headed over to Amazon’s Appstore for Android (which promises “Get a great paid app for free every day”) and, as I eyed the zero dollar offer for the popular Plants Vs. Zombies adventure game, still couldn’t see how I was going to download it (or any other app in the store) to my phone.

Then I noticed the header Get Started in the right nav above an icon for the Amazon appstore app.

OK, I’m thinking, there’s an appstore app—but how do I get that on my phone?  Google isn’t going to permit Amazon to post an app on Android Marketplace that lets Marketplace customers shop the Amazon appstore instead.  (That competitive reality hasn’t stopped android phone users from visiting Android Marketplace to look for the Amazon appstore app.  Fire up Marketplace, enter the word “amazon” in the search tool, and the phrase “amazon app store”, presumably crowdsourced, appears in the drop down list of suggested search terms.  Pick it and you won’t be surprised when your results fail to bring up Amazon’s app.)

Only 8 Simple Steps

So while pondering the mystery of the appstore app icon I clicked on Amazon’s inevitable Learn more link.  Then watched the inevitable Get Started with the Amazon appstore for Android video starring a bespectacled metrosexual marketing genie named Paul Hochman.  And inevitably discovered that getting started involved “only 8 simple steps.”

Since Amazon’s marketers must have realized 8 simple steps might not sound simple enough, Paul quickly adds that “In fact, fewer than 30 seconds stand between you and thousands of apps for Android.”

If you’re now wondering whether Paul and his fellow marketeers work in an irony-free zone—most android phone users already know they can find thousands of android apps without having to bother following anyone’s 8 simple steps, or installing the Amazon appstore app—you’re not alone.

In fact, just about all the advantages Paul extols for the Amazon Appstore for Android apply to Google’s Android Marketplace: the ability to test drive select apps (which is what the free “lite” version of a paid app usually offers), get recommendations (Marketplace supplies plenty of starred user comments for any popular app), and buy using Amazon’s secure 1-Click payment technology (except in this case it’s Google’s 1-click payment technology).

But then Paul hit me again with the one sneaky fast advantage Amazon had thought of and Google apparently hadn’t: a great paid app free every day.

That’s something I’d never noticed browsing Android Marketplace.

Plants Vs. Zombies Vs. Android Marketplace

Sneakier still, its free Plants Vs. Zombies game app claimed to be an Amazon exclusive.  And sure enough, when I grabbed my LG Optimus V and dashed over to Android Marketplace I couldn’t find a free or paid version of Plants Vs. Zombies.

Amazon had done it again.  They’d found a brilliant marketing edge to jump start an Android app store that most executives would have said had no chance against Google’s firmly entrenched original. Indeed, by opening its own store Amazon can play off of Android Marketplace by promoting discounts and exclusives—such as its Plants Vs. Zombies offer.

And, of course, they’re free to formulate more agreeable terms for app developers.  At the moment it appears that Amazon’s Android Appstore requires a $99 program developer fee to sign up (which it waives for the first year) and offers members “70% of the sale price of the app or 20% of the list price, whichever is greater.”  Google charges a $25 registration fee and “the transaction fee is equivalent to 30% of the application price.”

Offhand I can’t figure out Amazon’s advantage in pegging its payments to either the sale price or the list price, since a list price would have to be arbitrarily high (and subsequently discounted to the sale price?) to make 20% more lucrative than 70%.  I also can’t find details about whatever incentives Amazon may offer to developers for securing exclusivity.

But none of that matters unless Amazon can convince the rest of us to follow their 8 simple steps.  For a free copy of a popular paid game app they’re clearly betting the effort is worth it.

And how did Amazon know I had an android phone?  A few weeks ago I’d bought some LG Optimus V accessories from Amazon Marketplace.  And as those Marketplace vendors know, Amazon’s sign-up terms entitle the retailing giant to all Marketplace customer data.

Amazon knows all, sees all, and wastes no time marketing accordingly.  Sneaky fast, man.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New Ereaders Giveth, and Taketh Away

As the price of ereaders falls—Barnes & Noble’s just-announced touchscreen device goes for $139, while Kobo’s, announced the day before, shaves ten bucks off that (yet both still cost more than Amazon’s months-old Special Offers Kindle, which weighs in at a mere $114)—they’re all giving up a feature that once seemed essential to these read-anywhere, buy-anywhere gadgets: 3G cellular service.

[We interrupt this rant to admit that Amazon has just announced a 3G version of the Special Offers Kindle for $164. So Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos clearly feels this trend toward Wi-Fi only ereaders offers an opening in the market for those who know they need 3G.]

When the Kindle debuted in 2007 its true disruptive genius—what allowed it to trump the seemingly sleek ereaders Sony had been selling for years—was its free 3G connectivity. Suddenly it was easy to imagine buying and reading a book most anywhere: while commuting to work on the train, waiting at the airport to board a flight, vacationing at a resort, eating lunch in a city park. The possibilities were so tantalizing I remember doubting at first that Amazon really was offering 3G at no cost. (It's easy to forget that at the time 3G cellular service was state of the art.) Then, when I learned it was true, I decided the Kindle was so expensive because fully $100 of its initial $399 price must have been subsidizing that lifetime AT&T 3G contract.

And I still think having 3G on an ereader is a powerful plus. That’s because I spend a lot of time in upstate New York out of reach of free Wi-Fi or reliable 3G service. Rural New York has shown me that my year-old refurbished Nook 3G, which uses the same AT&T network as the Kindle, somehow manages to connect in areas where even my first cell phone, which used Verizon’s venerable network, typically gave up.

More to the point, I’ve learned that outside an urban center cellular data networks are far more reliable than cellular voice networks—they obviously require a fraction of the bandwidth to function. The telcos are certainly aware of this advantage, because they’re happy to tack on added-cost 3G data plans for just about any portable device—phone or tablet—that can benefit from them.

Yet ereaders, now that they’ve lost their free 3G cellular function, appear unlikely ever to gain the kind of optional cellular data support AT&T and Verizon offer for Apple’s iPad.  I surmise that the big ebook retailers don’t want a buyer worrying that an attractively priced ereader has the added cost of a perpetual 3G data plan weighing it down. They recognize that such marketing gambits are strictly for brazen telcos hawking tantalizingly cheap, heavily subsidized smartphones.

It’s easier to tout Wi-Fi capability, since affluent ereader buyers almost certainly have a wireless home network, bought and paid for, ready to do the heavy data lifting. (Of course, none of these devices supports Wi-Fi’s state-of-the-art 802.11n spec. Since downloading a text-centric book is fairly undemanding, Amazon and B&N and Kobo deem it sufficient to go with the slower, middle-aged 802.11g spec. Whenever cool technology is for sale, you can be sure the seller is rationing it somewhere.)

So we’ve come to a crossroads. Since today’s sexiest mobile devices are all data capable, we’re leaning harder than ever on carriers’ data networks. That turns Wi-Fi into a convenient fallback. I suspect when Virgin Mobile’s marketers decided to pair an all-you-can eat data plan with a tightly restricted voice plan (mine gives me 300 minutes a month for $25) for their android phones they consoled themselves that subscribers would get most of their data via the phones’ integrated Wi-Fi—either at home or on the road in a Starbucks, hotel, or the like. (My android phone has revealed that even supermarkets offer free Wi-Fi.) Sprint’s 3G network would thus take less of a hit, especially from Virgin Mobile’s inevitable android data hogs.

Certainly I go Wi-Fi whenever my phone tells me there’s a wireless access point available.

Then, too, even a pedestrian Wi-Fi network is visibly faster than a good 3G network—and good 3G service, at least from Virgin Mobile’s parent, Sprint, isn’t that common. (Not long after getting my LG Optimus V I found myself unable to text my daughter from a parking lot on 9th Avenue and 33rd Street in Manhattan.) So users like me naturally train themselves to prefer Wi-Fi hot spots for surfing the web, streaming a YouTube video, or using a data-intensive app.

There’s just one problem.  The more mobile data we use, the more we want.  Getting it at home and at Starbucks and (amazingly) at the supermarket just makes us pine for it wherever we can’t have it—on a highway, at a rural park, in the wilds of upstate New York.  (Places where, maddeningly, your mobile phone’s GPS system has no trouble finding you.)

The Victorian art critic Walter Pater once wrote famously that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”  My take: all technology constantly aspires towards the condition of real-time.

Real-time data, data on the run, data whenever you want or need it—whether it’s the latest bestseller on your ereader or an emergency text message from someone you love on your mobile phone—continues to be elusive. With the exception of that new Kindle 3G with Special Offers, these latest low-cost ereaders aren't aspiring hard enough towards the condition of real-time.