iPhone Experience

Impressions after a few days with my iPhone:

First of all, realize that I think the most practical piece of computer hardware to come along in the last ten years are Palm PDAs, and the only thing they have over the Apple Newton is that they’re faster, and they fit easily into my pocket. I use them to store my calendar, my address list, and (most importantly) my extensive want list of comics, books, CDs, and other items I collect. And I can back up the data onto my computer (which is critical in all three cases).

By contrast, I have fairly little use for a mobile phone: I’ve had a low-end phone for a while, but I mainly use it to coordinate with Debbi, and in case of emergencies. I don’t use it for work, and I sometimes forget to take it with me, and rarely miss it. So it’s handy, but far from essential. I use my land line far more than I use my cell phone.

So I suspect I’m an unusual customer for an iPhone. On the other hand, since I was gifted with one I was certainly interested enough to activate it (and even paid an early-cancellation fee on my existing phone to do so!).

The hardware is nice: The form factor is fine for a handheld computer, a little taller and narrower than my PDA, and a lot thinner. As a phone it feels funky, a solid rectangular object, but I’m used to a clamshell enclosure that curves around my cheek and where the mike is closer to my mouth. I’ll probably get used to that difference.

The glass screen is surprisingly durable, I’d expected I’d scratch it within the first few days of use, but it’s still pristine. I tend to carry my stuff in my pockets rather than in a belt holster, so I bought a MarWare Sidewinder for it. It comes with a belt clip and a wrap for the earphones, as well as a clear film for the screen, which seems to work well. (Note to self and others: When applying plastic film to iPhone, do so in a cat-hair-free zone.)

Voice quality seems fine, although I think my old Verizon service was somewhat clearer. My impression is that voice quality will vary widely depending on where you are and, well, your personal preference. People seem very opinionated when it comes to wireless services.

Making calls is really slick and easy: Just find someone in your address book and hit their number. Or dial a number. And it brings up a palette of several options while a call is in progress, so you don’t have to remember what button to hit to put a call on speakerphone.

The user interface is responsive enough that I almost never feel like I’m waiting for the phone to do anything, although sometimes I do wait for it to get data from the network.

The “mechanical” aspects of the UI work well for me: My fingers aren’t small (though they’re not huge), and I find the general buttons and the pop-up keyboard to both be pretty easy to use. I’m getting better with the keyboard: Mainly I had to train myself to hold the phone level, rather than at a slight tilt to the side, and that made keypunching much more accurate. That’s a much easier hill to climb than, say, learning Graffiti. I rarely have to hit anything twice because I “missed” the first time, but I do sometimes. Not enough to annoy me. On the other hand, I have a hard time seeing myself doing extensive typing (e.g., journal entries of any length) from the phone.

Scrolling is simple, and the zoom gesture is really cool.

Network connectivity: WiFi connectivity is easy to set up (although if you have a 14-character password for your home network, like I do, then typing it in while you’re still getting used to the keyboard is a bit tricky; it took me three tries), and the phone is good at locating a network when it’s in a new location. EDGE connections feel (to me) to be about half as fast as WiFi, which is fast enough to look up maps, but a bit slow for surfing the web.

Google Maps is the killer app on the iPhone. It’s got the street maps, satellite view, traffic info (depending on your location), easy scrolling and zooming, directions, and bookmarks. It’s the first feature of the phone I used which made me glad to have the phone: When we went minigolfing on Saturday and found our destination was closed, I looked up the location of a nearby minigolf course which I’d seen, and found directions for it. It’s easy to envision finding other destinations in the same way (one of the iPhone ads already does so).

The Safari web browser is pretty handy, although I suspect it has some subtleties I have yet to figure out. I had some early problems with it crashing on me several times, but it’s stopped. I did reboot the phone when it happened, so maybe that cleared up whatever the glitch was.

Mail is a nice convenience, although it’s not something I really need. Since it doesn’t have mailbox filters, you’ll need server-side filters in order to make good use of it. Unfortunately, my Dreamhost e-mail (i.e., the address for this site) requires a security certificate to access, and I can’t find a way to set up such a thing on the iPhone. That’s a bummer.

The biggest weakness of the iPhone, for me, is that you can’t synchronize the Notes to your computer. As I said above, I keep extensive notes on my PDA, mainly for my collecting hobbies (but for other things too), so this is the biggest obstacle to my simply replacing my PDA with the iPhone. Because I simply can’t afford to lose this data. I could perhaps create a Web page with the info and access that with the phone, but then I couldn’t really add to it while I’m out shopping. Hopefully this will be one of the first issues to be addressed.

(To be fair, I haven’t dived very deep to see if there are ways to work around these issues. Maybe there are. I’m not real interested in “hacking” my phone, however.)

Syncing addresses and music is exactly as trivial as you’d expect it would be. Mail accounts, calendars and Safari bookmarks all gets synced, too.

I haven’t used the camera, photo albums, voice mail or text messaging much yet. I haven’t used the calendar at all (until I can replace my PDA with the phone I may keep using it for my calendar). I also haven’t really used it as an iPod yet, although Cover Flow is a pretty nifty way to scan through all your music on the thing.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the phone: It’s useful as a phone, it’s very useful as a map program, and its has a lot of other features come in handy from time-to-time. While I really wish it could sync Notes, it’s still very polished for a first-generation piece of hardware.

Oh, and the first software update for the phone is available.

Minigolf Outing

Saturday we went on a long-planned “fun day out” excursion with Subrata, Susan, Chad and Camille. Our original plan was to play minigolf at the Putting Edge indoor glow-in-the-dark course at the Great Mall, but when we got there it turned out that the course has gone out of business! The web page for this location still exists, but I suspect it’s an oversight that they haven’t removed it; the location was locked up and seemed to be empty when we arrived mid-afternoon.

Remembering that we’ve driven past a golf course off the freeway over there that I’ve never played at, we retargeted ourselves at Golfland in Milpitas, which turned out to be a fine choice: The course is fairly challenging and interesting to play, and was in good repair overall. The only downside is that it was quite hot out and we all got a little bit dehydrated by the end. We had a good round of golf, with several holes in one (Debbi and I both got ones on the same hole). Competitive fellow that I am, I worked to catch up to Subrata, but he beat me by one point. Sigh!

Afterwards we drove back to the Great Mall for drinks and games at Dave and Buster’s. Debbi had some cards for the games which still had a significant number of credits, so we played a bunch of games, won a bunch of credit tickets, and we were all able to end up with some prize toys to take home.

We wrapped up the day with dinner at a Mexican restaurant near home, which was yummy and filling as usual.

It was nice to relax with friends and just have a good time with no worries (especially since I ended up going in to work today to try to finish up a project), and to play some games that are completely different from my usual strategy-oriented games (like Magic, poker, and board games). We ought to do this more often.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 25 July 2007.

  • Countdown #40 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Tony Bedard, Keith Giffen, Manuel Garcia & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #26-32, by Mark Waid, Barry Kitson, & Mick Gray, and Tony Bedard, Kevin Sharpe & Dennis Calero (DC)
  • Annihilation: Conquest: Wraith #1, by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Kyle Holz (Marvel)
  • Annihilation: Conquest: Quasar #1, by Christos N. Gage, Mike Lilly & Bob Almond (Marvel)
  • Annihilation: Conquest: Starlord #1, by Keith Giffen, Timothy Green II & Victor Olazaba (Marvel)
  • Incredible Hulk #108, by Greg Pak, Leonard Kirk & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Hellboy: Darkness Calls #4 of 6, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
  • Modern Masters vol 12: Michael Golden (TwoMorrows)

Supergirl_and_the_Legion_32.jpgI decided I’ve been enjoying the current Legion series in paperback form to “upgrade” to buying the monthly book, especially since I only had to buy 7 issues to get caught up. Plus, with Mark Waid and Barry Kitson leaving the book after #30, this was one of those good jumping-on/jumping-off points for new/old readers. So I decided to jump on.

Waid and Kitson end their run with the Dominators trying to take over Earth with an electronic plague (which, oddly, is basically the same storyline going on over in Marvel’s Annihilation: Conquest series), and ending with Cosmic Boy making a fateful decision, and then leaving the Legion in a tantalizingly entertaining manner. Waid and Kitson’s run has been marked by serious, intelligent storylines which still always cycle back to the fundamental optimism which underlies the Legion concept. It’s probably the best Legion series since before Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Tony Bedard’s run begins in #31 with “The Search for Cosmic Boy”, in which Supergirl replaces Cos as Legion leader, and apparently is being played for a sucker by Brainiac 5. It looks like Bedard is going to use the search as a means to get into a larger storyline (or maybe a series of smaller ones), since it seems like they’re looking in all the wrong places. I hope there will eventually be a payoff there, but we’ll see. I guess Dennis Calero is going to be the regular artist, but from looking at #32 his style seems entirely wrong for the Legion: It seems strongly influenced by Butch Guice and/or Tony Harris, with realistic linework which would be more appropriate for a comic that isn’t all bright colors and action-adventure. So my first impression is one of disappointment, but I’ll hang around for several more issues to see if they hit a groove.

(It might all be moot, however, if rumors that the Waid/Kitson Legion is going to be abolished are true. Sigh.)

Starlord_1.jpgI somehow missed the first few Annihilation: Conquest mini-series issues, so I caught up this week. All three issues are just set-up for their respective 4-issue mini-series, certainly entertaining enough to keep me reading.

I got partway through the Quasar issue before I realized that Lilly’s artwork strongly reminds me of Norm Breyfogle’s. This is not at all a bad thing – at his best, Breyfogle is terrific, and I wish we saw more of his stuff – but he’s not an artist I usually see having a lot of influence on the newer generation. Kinda neat.

While I’m not nearly as entertained by Starlord as Chris Sims is (Giffen-the-plotter is pretty good, Giffen-the-scripter often makes me cringe), it’s still pretty good. Green’s pencils are smooth and distinctive, although many of his characters look a little drugged – I think he needs to vary his emotional range more from panel-to-panel. But when you get down to it, how can you not like a comic that brings back Rocket Raccoon? (You can see a sample of Green drawing RR here.)

12_Michael_Golden.jpgLastly, I’ve always enjoyed Michael Golden’s artwork, going all the way back to his work on Micronauts, but he’s never been prolific enough for me to become a big fan. Nonetheless, I enjoy him enough to pick up the latest Modern Masters volume from TwoMorrows, which is about him.

Coincidentally, this story about Golden doing an art commission for a fan showed up the same week on John Byrne’s message board. If it’s legit (and since the poster is claiming it happened to him and not a “friend of a friend”, I see no reason to assume that it’s not), then it’s pretty pathetic that someone would actually do this. (Comics Worth Reading has more on this.)

Gamed Out

I’m feeling gamed out right now. I’ll probably get over it soon. 🙂 But I’m happy for a break for the rest of the week.

Sunday I went over to Lee’s to play poker. We played our usual low-stakes no-limit cash game, with 5¢/10¢ blinds and a $10 buy-in. Five hours later I was out $20 (I rebought once). It’s not the loss of the $20 I lament, it was my crappy luck and my not-much-better play.

The defining moment of the evening came just half an hour in when, I drew a pair of Kings, and lost almost my whole buy-in to Lee when he slopped a set of Eights. Lee suggested that I should have re-raised him when he raised my initial bet before the flop, which makes sense; it would have been a reasonable pot to take down right there. But I didn’t, and I ended up pushing on the turn, and obviously didn’t river a miracle.

Anyway, I rebought, but things kept going downhill. I won a few small pots shortly after rebuying, and at one point I did flop a set of Kings. But those were small consolation.

Adam suggests that I should play more aggressively, and also loosen my standards of what cards I play, since he points out that when I open a pot, he knows I tend to have high cards, and he can play low cards against me profitably. So that’s something to think about. It’s awfully hard to look at Q-7 and play it, though; what sort of a flop am I hoping to hit?

Monday a bunch of us gathered at Subrata’s to play Magic. We did a Ravnica draft (one person arrived late and assembled a Ravnica sealed deck to play with us on roughly even footing). I ended up with what I usually seem to end up with in Ravnica: A blue-green deck with a splash of a third color. I ran out of energy around 11 pm, so I only played against Adam and Subrata, winning against Adam and narrowly losing against Subrata (who always seems to end up drafting the most powerful guildmages in the block – I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to grab one).

So that was fun. I’d like to do a 7- or 8-person Time Spiral draft sometime soon.

But maybe not this week.

Falling Behind

So let’s see:

  • I don’t have an iPhone yet. Hopefully we’ll get them by the end of the month.
  • I don’t have the new Harry Potter book yet. Mainly because I ordered the U.K. edition and didn’t pay for express shipping.
  • I haven’t seen any of Doctor Who season three, since I don’t bother with Internet downloads, and we don’t get SciFi in my town unless we overpay for digital cable. But Subrata‘s recording it for us, so hopefully I’ll see the first episodes soon.
  • I’m finally caught up on Analog, still 6 months behind on Asimov’s, and much further behind than that on Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’m making progress, though; I’m hoping to be caught up on Asimov’s by the end of the month.

Something tells me August is going to be a busy month, hobby-wise.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Review of the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

This afternoon we went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I was not enthusiastic about seeing this entry in the film series because I hated the book. Fortunately, the film is quite a bit better than the book. Unfortunately, the story still isn’t very good, and the movie is, like the book, the weakest of the series.

Director David Yates thrws down the gauntlet at the beginning of the film that he’s a director, dammit with a fade-in to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) marking time in London and being tormented by Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling) and his cronies: The playground Harry’s in is bleak, Harry’s sitting on a swing, and there are various dramatic camera angles and pans during the opening sequence, when Harry and Dudley are attacked by Dementors. On the one hand it all seems a little too ostentatious, but on the other hand given how easy it would be to do a rote adaptation of Order, I appreciated anything Yates did to liven things up.

And actually Order is the most visually appealing entry in the series after Prisoner of Azkaban: Hogwarts and its environs look beautifully rural, in a dangerous-looking, untamed way. The Order’s safe house is crammed with decor and stuff. The Ministry of Magic is large and imposing and by turns claustrophoic and paranoiac. The thing is really very pretty to look at, and the camerawork fits in pretty nicely.

The film jettisons a lot of the chaff of the book – as it has to, in order to finish in under 12 hours – and at its core are two truths: That the story works best when focusing on Harry’s relationships with his friends and allies, and that the plot feels basically entirely superfluous to the overall arc of the series.

The plot of the story, basically, is this: In Goblet of Fire Harry saw Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes without a nose) come back from the dead. While Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and his allies believe him, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) and the Ministry of Magic do not, and they believe the Harry’s pronouncement is both a public nusiance, and that it’s part of a power play Dumbledore is making towards the Ministry. Consequently Fudge installed Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) at Hogwarts to push Dumbledore out and squash Harry’s spirit.

In other words, the larger plot boils down to Harry trying to convince those in charge that what really happened, happened!

This leads to some character bits that are both good and bad: Harry spends the early part of the film brooding and feeling alone, which is pretty annoying and just rings false for the character. On the other hand, he ends up in the middle of the resistance against both Umbridge and Voldemort, putting him in a position of authority and trust, where he’s an admirable figure. Radcliffe is much better at playing the hero than the petulant young man, so the latter scenes are a lot more fun. (Radcliffe, by the way, is filling out and looks quite buff – rather different from the stringbean that Harry is.)

The film also points out that the Potterverse is getting weighed down with an awful lot of characters, many of whom no longer get much screen time: Ron (Rupert Grint) has hardly anything to do in the film, Snape (Alan Rickman) has only a small role, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) appears for just two scenes, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is also only in a few. Evanna Lynch is quite good as Luna Lovegood, but the character feels irrelevant. Staunton is appropriately nauseating and loathesome as Umbridge, but she never really gets her comeuppance on-screen, so all the build-up doesn’t have an appropriate catharsis. Even the film’s best moment – the Weasley twins’ kissing off to Umbridge, to a fantastic bit of music by composer Nicholas Hooper – feels like it was tacked on awkwardly.

All things considered: Order does its best to make order out of Order, it’s pretty to look at and has its moments, but it’s still pretty much a mess, mainly because of the source material. It should delight plenty of Harry fans, but I think Azkaban is going to end up being the apex of the movie series.

My Reviews of Earlier Harry Potter Films:

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Kelly Link: Magic For Beginners

A short review of the collection Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link.

This collection of stories was our book for this month’s Kepler’s speculative fiction book group. I enjoyed the first story in the book, “The Faerie Handbag”, and figured it would be a charming collection of little modern fantasy vignettes. Unfortunately, I didn’t like any of the stories in the rest of the book!

By and large, these are plotless stories with obscure endings (and sometimes no endings at all): A family in an increasingly-haunted house (or are they just descending into madness?); an all-night convenience store frequented by zombies; a nested collection of semi-horror stories. None of them really go anywhere. The characters are occasionally just-barely-interesting, but are often flat and dull. The stories take odd turns for no reason and have no resolution or explanation. Many of them feel like set-ups for novels by Tim Powers – but only the set-ups. (Powers, of course, would carefully tie up all the details by the end of the story, which is exactly the opposite of Link’s tales.)

Other than “Handbag”, the title story comes the closest to being a satisifying story: A boy and his friends are fans of a bizarre fantasy television show, “The Library”. When he and his mother inherit property in Nevada from a late relative, a protracted goodbye leads to them heading out to Nevada. The story has a variety of interesting bits, and a build-up of “What the heck is going on here?”, but the story abruptly ends with no sense of a conclusion, leaving the reader entirely befuddled and frustrated. (Why the story is titled “Magic For Beginners” also seemed entirely obscure to me.)

Link does have a playful way with words, and many of the stories contain numerous humorous lines worth quoting to your friends. But beyond that element, I didn’t enjoy them, and I struggled to finish reading the book.

A pity, since I’d heard such good things about Link’s writing, but it’s clearly just not for me.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 18 July 2007.

  • Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #54, by Tad Willians & Shawn McManus (DC)
  • The Brave and the Bold #5, by Mark Waid, George Pérez & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • Countdown #41 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Adam Beechen & Dennis Calero (DC)
  • World War Hulk #2 of 5, by Greg Pak, John Romita Jr. & Klaus Janson (Marvel)

Brave_and_the_Bold_5.jpgI still can’t say enough good things about The Brave and the Bold. This time around we get Batman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Legion being one of the very few team books that George Pérez has never drawn regularly; other than a few covers and in Crisis on Infinite Earths, I’m not sure he’s ever drawn them professionally. Here he gets to draw the current version, and he does a bang-up job, as you’d expect: Futuristic cities, two dozen costumes, lots of debris, all the stuff you love from George Pérez.

Waid sets up the scenario perfectly: Batman arrives in the 31st century by accident, his body merged with the villain Tharok. Brainiac 5 splits them, but Batman’s travels have resulted in some unfortunate side-effects, which all the heroes have trouble dealing with. Batman gets tired of Brainy’s sanctimonious nature (this version of Brainy is an egotistical prig), cold-clocks him, and escapes, leading the Legion on a merry chase through the future Metropolis. While I get tired of the “Batman is just so clever he can take on anyone” stuff that DC puts Batman through these days, it’s still a lot of fun when done well, as it is here.

We also get to check in on what Supergirl, Green Lantern and Adam Strange are up to, and the series ends up a big cliffhanger, presumably to wrap up next issue. I can’t wait!

World_War_Hulk_2.jpgWorld War Hulk continues, with the usual gambits by the Hulk’s adversaries being tried and exhausted in pretty short order.

Given what a mess the Marvel Universe is these days, I’m really curious to see how this resolves, but I know that if they use one of the usual Hulk gambits (turning him back into Banner, or send him to another dimension, or make him revert to being a brute, or whatever) then it’s going to be a big waste of time.

Anyway, another good issue of ass-kicking. I have a suspicion that Doctor Strange isn’t going to come out of this series in very good shape, which would be a shame since he’s the one admirable figure of the ones the Hulk is hunting in that he resisted the Superhero Registration Act. He’s also the one who’s probably fairly expendable from a marketing standpoint. But we’ll see.

Incidentally, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort posted Mark Millar’s original pitch for Civil War. Although the thing is really wrong-headed all around (I’m no fan of Mark Millar’s writing, I freely admit), it’s interesting to see that World War Hulk was part of the plan from the get-go. I sure am glad they avoided an invasion of “Hulk Babies”, though. Anyway, Marvel fans might want to give it a look. (via Comics Should Be Good)

Summer Shower

The common wisdom is that it doesn’t rain in the Bay Area from April to November. Not so: Since I moved here in 1999 we’ve gotten a summer shower around the beginning of August most years. We got one this morning, for about 15 minutes, a couple weeks early. Not enough to alleviate worries of a drought, but still pretty nice.

Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get another one next month.