Friday, June 4, 2010

iPad Review

At my work, our department is starting to do some iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch development. This week I had the opportunity to check-out a company iPad to bring home and play with. They want employees to get better aquainted with the device, and who was I to argue?

I brought home the device, hooked it to my computer, then installed pretty much everything that I normally have on my iPhone (my apps, music, and videos). I checked w/ my boss to get the "OK" before doing so, of course. Before I took it back I restored it to the factory settings, wiping out all my personal data.

The result: for about a day I had an iPad with the exact configuration as if I had purchased one myself.

Most of the iPhone apps were as I expected: exactly the same as on the iPhone, but with the option to double the size. Peggle and Sudoku were a little pixelated, but fun to play on a bigger screen.

The iPad-specific apps were very interesting to explore. The extra real estate provided by the larger screen makes a huge difference. There are a lot of improved user interface controls that just aren't feasible on the iPhone's small screen. Apps like Safari, Notes, Calendar, and Email are beautifully improved.

Let's take Safari as an example. The larger screen means that you can keep the controls (address bar, search, next, back, etc.) constantly on the screen instead of scrolling them off like the iPhone does. That alone is a huge improvement in convenience! The larger screen also means you can get more webpage in at a time (less scrolling required).

I've always been impressed with the way Apple works to refine the user experience. The iPhone felt like having The FutureTM in my hands, and the iPad just improves on it. It's the little things that make the difference. I find it amusing that one of the "little" changes is making the screen bigger.

Some people have complained that the iPad is just a big iPod Touch. While this is basically true, I think it really misses the mark. To draw an analogy, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle isn't just an oversized moped. The UI changes "under the hood" alone make the device more than what it appears at first glance.

Probably my favorite feature of the iPad (and my iPhone for that matter) is the "instant on": when you press the home button it's ready to go. No need to wait around for the OS to boot up like on my laptop. If I want some information, to play a quick game, or to check email, the device is ready immediately. And the battery supports this model of use.

If I owned one, I'd primarly keep it on the end tables next to the couch and next to the bed. I'd use it as a convenience device more than anything. But in the end, it unfortunately falls into the category of "luxury item". I want one in the same vein as wanting any other new toy.

My wife also played with the iPad and also liked it. She basically agreed that it is a neat device, but not something we need to rush out and buy.

I can easily see how the iPad could be a perfect fit for some people. For example, someone who just wants to get their email and do some light web surfing. Someone who doesn't need to do much content creation but is a content consumer. Because the interfaces are so good, I could see it being great for a parent or grandparent who isn't so hip to computers.

So in summary, the iPad is a wonderful device. I love it and totally want one, but I don't have a real need for one. Maybe someday I'll get one, but probably not in the near future (I'm focusing instead on getting a new iPhone to replace my 1st-gen one).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Arrogant Scientist

I was recently reminded of a pet peeve of mine which I like to call the "arrogant scientist". Basically the idea is that sometimes "scientists" let their ego get so big that they think they are unequivocally right. Unfortunately this happens all too often.

You'll note that when I say "scientists" with quotes, I'm implying that they have departed from being actual scientists. To me, one of the fundamental principles of a true scientist is that he should always say, "This is the best explanation I currently have. It fits with all my data from experiments and observations. I will put this theory to practical use, but concede that later information or discovery may render this obsolete."

Under my definition, a true scientist must always be willing to entertain the idea that everything he "knows" is wrong. He must never say that any particular theory is non-negotiable. He uses the scientific method to better understand the world around him and form theories which explain the things he observes.

Now, before I get too far into this, I want to reiterate that I love science. It's awesome. I consider myself a scientist. It is extremely useful. For example, using science we've been able to harness electricity and create computers. That's awesome! And if tomorrow we discover that we've really misunderstood electricity, that's okay. We can probably still blog about it.

If that seems impossible to you, I submit that it has happened many times before and will continue to happen. For example, take gravity. Before Issac Newton, "No one understood gravity." And yet mankind still figured out how to utilize arcing projectiles (like an arrow), water mills worked just fine, and things mostly stayed on the ground. Newton helped us learn more and we could use mathematical equations to accurately predict how things would fall due to gravity. But that wasn't the end. Some Einstein came along and gave us Special and General Relativity.

So science is good and useful. But science cannot necessarily prove anything to be an absolute truth. Science can only be used to prove things within the bounds of our current understanding and human limitations. Once we start extrapolating then we can't prove it to be true.

For example, I hate hearing people dismissively say that we know the earth is (roughly) 6 billion years old. No! We don't know it. We weren't there, we don't have a time machine to verify it. We think the earth is 6 billion years old because that age fits our current understanding of radiometric dating. I'm okay with people saying we know it, just not that we know it as an absolute truth. The problem comes in how they say it (just as any type of arrogance comes from an attitue, even if the person is correct). [Edit: paragraph updated.]

Suppose that in 50 years we find out new information about radiometric dating? Maybe half-lives aren't fixed. What if there is a hidden variable no one accounted for — perhaps it hasn't been observable for the short time we've been studying it? Then suddenly the earth has a new age, possibly drastically different than we thought before.

In thinking about this topic, I stumbled across a blog post that I really liked. It really resonated with my way of thinking. But a disclaimer: I've only read that one post on the blog; I can't vouch for everything on the site.

The media and politics are places where we find a lot of arrogant scientists. They take information and extrapolate it to meet their needs. Is global warming real? Will there be another ice age? We don't know for sure. I'm not saying ignore it. I believe it is wise to continue studying it and strive to make things better. I also believe that there are a lot of arrogant scientists involved.

So please, don't be an arrogant scientist. Don't tell me that you know something based on science. Don't tell me your phlogiston theory is not negotiable. Sit yourself down to some nice, home-made humble pie. Then once your ego is in check, I'll be glad to hear all about your theories and extrapolations with the caveat that it is based on our current scientific understanding.

I don't mean to imply in this post that scientists should constantly go around saying "think" instead of "know". I don't believe we need to be constantly wasting time couching all of our statements. I don't think that most scientists are arrogant.

When a scientist says that they know something, I understand that the implicit (but usually unvoiced) caveat that it is based on our current best understanding. I have no problem with that.

The issue comes up for me when the way in which something is said or written comes off as arrogant. When people talk about science in unequivocal absolutes. When what they say implies (at least to me) that they are no longer entertaining the possibility of being completely wrong. When they dismiss people's ideas for no other reason than it doesn't fit with their viewpoint (i.e. without considering it or comparing it to established science).

I've updated the above paragraph about the earth's age to try to clarify this.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Musings on the English Language

I've long been a fan of the proper use of the English language. I'm not sure if that comes from the love of good literature which my mother fostered in me, or perhaps as a reaction to the appalling misuse (or even slaughter) of the language on the Internet.

I should hasten to add a disclaimer: I am definitely not an expert of the English language. I don't claim to have perfect grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Instead I prefer to think of myself as a student of language. The most important aspect of this, to me, is that I try to be cognizant of my usage. I try to think about what I speak and write.

To that end, I try to increase my vocabulary by adding new and interesting words. One excellent word that I've recently learned is recalcitrant. Isn't that a great word? A few days ago I encountered the Daily Writing Tips site. Already I've learned many interesting little tidbits.

It irks me to see misuse of language. One of the amazing things the Internet has provided is a lowered barrier to entry for people to publish their writing. But unfortunately, this has also allowed people to publish without going through a formal editing process. Sadly, most Internet denizens seem oblivious to the fact that they are communicating at a rudimentary level. With some, it is hard to tell if they are, in fact, actually communicating anything other than their own illiteracy.

There are also minor quips I have. For example, I feel like people often misuse the related words yay, yea, and yeah in writing. Phrases are shortened so repeatedly that I fear the origins will be lost, as in the phrase "speak of the devil." How long until no one remembers "and he shall appear?"

I recently listened to an interesting TED talk by Erin McKean. She talked about the tendency people have to use the dictionary to judge whether or not any particular word is "real". Her argument was basically that all words are "real" inasmuch as people use them to communicate. Also, today I learned that Erin McKean has gone on to create an interesting site called Wordnik.

I mostly agree with the points that she makes in her talk. I think it is important to capture the evolution of our language, because like it or not, it's not set in stone. No living language is -- even French isn't, despite their best attempts. But on the other hand, I worry that many wonderful existing words with rich heritage are being left by the wayside as popular culture and the Internet spawn gaudy new ones.

I really like a quote from the interview I linked above. In it Erin says:

Also, whether words are right or wrong can vary according to use. I might say to a friend , “That movie was awesomepants!” But I would not lead into a movie review in The New York Times with the word awesomepants. That would be inappropriate. People expect that one size fits all with words, when that doesn’t work in any other area of their lives. I hope that we can change that view.

I agree with this quote. But I fear that like with so many other things, society is trending away from what's appropriate. There is a growing sentiment that "it doesn't matter" and that "nothing is true, all is permitted." Refined English is becoming a thing of the past. And that doesn't even address grammar or punctuation!

I worry that the English language is becoming too casual. It is becoming too simplistic. Instead of choosing just the right word that carries nuanced meaning, people are using too many basic words or are creating shallow words. For example, awesomepants is a funny word. I imagine that most people get the gist and emotion of the word right away. In that regard, it's great because it allows you to quickly communicate that feeling. But it doesn't communicate a depth of meaning. Essentially, it is just a variant of awesome, but ostensibly more awesome than just the "vanilla" awesome.

But notice the subtle shift of meaning if you instead say that something is exceptional, extraordinary, magnificent, marvelous, outstanding, remarkable, or singular (to choose just a few synonyms of awesome). It's amazing that there are so many different words to choose from. In my opinion, the only reason to use awesomepants would be for the contemporary humor.

My second language is Khmer (a.k.a. Cambodian). I learned it while living in Cambodia for two years as a missionary. (I've also taken some Japanese classes. That's a language I'd love to be fluent in. Sadly my k12-schooled Spanish is all but gone.) It's a simple language in many ways, and this came in handy since I was trying to learn it. But once I was fluent, I found it sometimes difficult to really express myself. I know that much of this came from me not being a native speaker. My vocabulary wasn't vast (though I wonder how large some of the word sets really are in that language -- especially those commonly used), and my accent made it hard to be understood sometimes. I'm sure there were other factors as well, but the simplicity of the language was a setback in that area.

I just hope that the English norm doesn't become one that is too simple. I'd miss the fabulous variety of words. I'd miss the intellectual process required to write and speak "correctly". Thus I will continue my quest to improve my language. And I'll try to assist others as well, even if they don't always like it.