In San Francisco

As several of my colleagues have reported, we’ve just concluded the SEC (Sun Engineering Conference) down in Santa Clara. I don’t have a lot to add to what they said, except to note that it’s nice to attend as a participant rather than an organizer. (I ran a number of similar conferences over the last few years: it’s hard work.)
With SEC over, I’ve shifted hotels, from the Holiday Inn Express in Mountain View to the Hilton in San Francisco. Obviously the Hilton is a much nicer hotel – I have a spectacular view from my window, looking out over the bay towards Oakland – but it’s odd that the little $95/night Holiday Inn Express can give me high-speed Internet access for free while the Hilton wants to charge me an arm and a leg…. (And the Hilton’s connection feels a bit sluggish – but perhaps that’s because of the hundreds of Sun geeks who’ve just checked in and are getting a much-needed fix of raw TCP/IP.)
Tonight is the opening session of the CEC. If you read or PlanetSun, you’re going to see lots of blogging from this conference. I shall be here all Saturday and most of Sunday; I’m flying home on the red-eye on Sunday night. Even though I dodged an eight inch snowstorm last night back in Boston, the weatherman is promising more snow and ice for Monday.


blogging on my Treo

This is my first attempt to blog using my Treo. The thumb keyboard is ok: the biggest problem is simply navigating around complex CSS-structured pages on a small screen.


Fleeing the snow

As yet another coating of snow gets dumped on the Boston area, I have fled to warmer climes – California, as is my wont; Silicon Valley, to be more precise. I shall be down in Santa Clara for a few days, then move up to San Francisco for the CEC conference that a number of my colleagues have blogged about. I return to Boston on the Sunday night red-eye.
A few more or less random observations. First, my ticket today was on US Airways, but the flight was actually a United one – ah, the joys of code sharing. I found myself wondering if I could use United FF miles to upgrade, given that I wasn’t actually on a United ticket. Of course that would require that I talk to a human being, and these days things like checkin are handled by robots. (Kiosks plus unskilled baggage handlers.)
The flight was uneventful, but spoilt by the presence of a number of small children who had not yet reached the age at which they have any sense of personal space. I gave up trying to sleep after being elbowed in the ribs by a 6 year old girl for the seventh or eighth time. Her father didn’t help: this was clearly a custody transfer trip (it’s his ex-wife’s turn), and he wanted this to be Quality Time the whole way. His voice droned on all through the flight, reading to his daughter, helping her with math problems, playing games (educational, needless to day), reading again (this time some wretched story-book in which the Fibonacci series played a key role – almost as weird as that TV program “Numbers” last week, where the plot revolved around a failed attempt to prove Riemann’s Hypothesis). My nice Bose noise-cancelling headphones do a good job of blocking out the noise of a 757’s engines, but they were no match for this dutiful father’s insistent voice. And on top of this there was a 4 year old behind me who relieved his obvious boredom by kicking my seat every so often.
Two technical notes. First, I find that I can read both my Sun email and my ISP mail through my Treo. This is very cool; I have only to sort out access to Gmail and I’m all set. I picked up both a case and an SD Card for the Treo today. (Memo: PalmOne asks $99 for a 512MB SD card; Fry’s in Santa Clara had a 1GB SD card for $89. A gigabyte cellphone…. /me shakes head in disbelief) Secondly, this is the first trip for many years when I don’t have my Mac (iBook or PowerBook); I’m using my Acer Ferrari running Solaris 10. I miss all my blogging tools, not to mention a decent PDF toolset. (I’m not impressed by the Gnome PDF viewer. Font substitution isn’t that hard.)


On creating software that people want to use…

I stumbled across this piece in Jamie Zawinski’s blog pointing off to a longer article entitled Groupware Bad. He discusses the history of collaboration and calendaring software, and why it sucks. (There are a bunch of really interesting responses on the blog; see also here.) Direct and to the point (and, apparently, widely linked). Money quote:
If you want to do something that’s going to change the world, build software that people want to use instead of software that managers want to buy. When words like “groupware” and “enterprise” start getting tossed around, you’re doing the latter, [and] nobody would ever work on it unless they were getting paid to, because it’s just fundamentally not interesting to individuals.
So I said, narrow the focus. Your “use case” should be, there’s a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?
That got me a look like I had just sprouted a third head, but bear with me, because I think that it’s not only crude but insightful. “How will this software get my users laid” should be on the minds of anyone writing social software (and these days, almost all software is social software). [It’s] about making it easy for people to do other things that make them happy: meeting, communicating, and hooking up.

(Linked from Many-to-Many, which is fascinating in its own right.)


PS on the Treo 650

After getting my Treo 650, I found that I couldn’t access any data (GPRS) services – mail, messaging, web surfing, etc. This was odd, since the folks at the Cingular store had sold me a data plan to accompany my chosen voice plan. I spent several hours last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on the phone to Cingular [thank heavens for phone headsets – at least I could get on with my work while I was on hold], discussing why my data services weren’t working. Everyone I talked to assured me that they had the situation in hand, were working on it, would resolve it shortly….
On Thursday I finally got to talk to a Data Services Specialist. He immediately told me that the reason for my problem was simple: I’d been sold the wrong plan. I’d been offered a choice between an unlimited data plan ($29.99/mo) and a limited plan ($19.99/mo); feeling cheap, I’d chosen the latter. The DSS told me that neither of these plans would support the Treo; I needed a $29.99 $39.99 “PDA Plan”, which included unlimited data and some other stuff. Sigh. Several hours later (and a power cycle), I was in business.
At first I cynically thought that this was just a trick to get me into an unlimited data plan, but after watching the Blazer web browser doing its thing for a while I realized that it made sense. Unlike WAP browsers optimized for minimal feeds, this is a full-blown HTTP(S) browser. I can open my home page and suck down a quarter of a meg in a few seconds; clearly I would blow through any limited data plan in a couple of days. (Of course this doesn’t explain why a Cingular salesperson sold me an unusable plan, and why customer support failed to identify the problem for three days.)
The great news is that the email client supplied by Palm supports full SSL-secured IMAP and SMTP, which means I can access my Sun email through our “Edgemail” gateway. This is going to be phenomenally useful….

Film & TV

HHGTTG trailer and business opportunity is showing the trailer for the forthcoming film of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As is usual with such things, the trailer has a manic feel and seems to focus on special effects, but there are quite a few elements which I can’t place at all in the story. I’ll reserve judgment. (What the hell; I know I’ll go to see it, but I have an anticipatory pain in the diodes all down my left side.)
Speaking of HHGTTG, I see they’ve just published a Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition of the book. Now I think that this is a wasted opportunity. Some maker of PDAs should have taken the cue from Apple’s U2 Edition iPod, and produced a HHGTTG PDA, with preloaded multimedia Guide and Encyclopedia Galactica applications, e-books of Douglas Adams works, MP3s of the radio show, etc., etc. Naturally there would be a flip-down (peril-sensitive?) screen protector with the immortal words “Don’t Panic”. Maybe PalmOne could produce an SD card for their PDAs….


Salon on Iain Banks and "The Algebraist"

Salon‘s Andrew Leonard has a nice interview with Iain Banks today. Among other things, Banks explains why it’s taking so long to get The Algebraist published in the US – he’s switched publishers (again), and is working with a small outfit called Night Shade Books in San Francisco.
Checking their website, I see that they are also publishing Banks’ The State of the Art, including a $45 limited edition, signed by the author, with “material not in the trade edition”. Good grief! Are books going the same way as music CDs? At least I can tell exactly what the difference is between two different CDs – an extra track, or a video clip, or something. How do I know whether the added material in The State of the Art justifies replacing my existing paperback copy? I guess that a True Fan wouldn’t worry about such things….


What's on YOUR bookmarks bar?

I’ve been doing a lot of OS installations recently (Solaris, various kinds of Linux, even WinXP), and I’m gradually coming to realize that the shift from “preparing a system” to “using a system” comes after I’ve populated the Bookmarks toolbar of the browser (Safari or Firefox) with my favourite links. While there are usually a couple of system-specific things, the basic pattern is constant:
– Basics: My Yahoo, Gmail, my ISP webmail, Amazon, Sun’s internal portal
– News: BBC, Salon, National Weather Service, and the Register and Inquirer
– Blogging: my blog, its admin page, and Planet Sun
– Fun: User Friendly, Doonesbury, Dilbert
– Academic: the Tufts Blackboard portal
Obviously that lot won’t fit without some data compression; each link is just a favicon plus a couple of characters: “Y!”, “UF”, and so forth.


Book notes: Death of an Ordinary Man

ordinaryman.jpgDuring my day trip on Friday I was reading Glen Duncan’s Death of an Ordinary Man. I was drawn to it by the review in last week’s New York Times, and found it totally mesmerizing. The story is simple: the disembodied spirit of a man who has just died floats above his funeral, and follows the mourners to his wake, privy to the thoughts of (almost) all, repeatedly drawn into vortices of memory. He gradually realizes that he’s in this state in order to understand how and why he died. But to achieve this, he needs to understand how he lived. An unvarnished post-mortem examination of the minutiae of life: of relationships, family, children, love, passion, and loss. I find myself thinking back over the story: I think that I’ll have to re-read it, soon, to revisit some of the (appropriately) ambiguous passages with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Highly recommended, though not for the emotionally fragile (or the prudish).


Treo 650

As I blogged a couple of days ago, my experiment with a “back to basics” cellphone didn’t work out. treo650.jpgSo today I stopped by the Cingular store at Coolidge Corner to replace the Motorola V551 with a Treo 650. Herewith a few comments, observations, complaints.

  • First and foremost, it’s a PalmOS device. Over the years I’ve owned various Palm Pilot and Handspring devices, but none recently. (All of my devices had Dragonball chips, which dates them.) The Treo felt instantly familiar.
  • It feels like a nice phone, though I’ve only made and received a few calls; I haven’t really explored it yet. The address book only contains the few entries I’d stored on the SIM card in the V551. I haven’t yet figured out how to juggle the info in the PalmOS Contacts app and the SIM. Similarly I haven’t tried voice or speed dialling.
  • Synchronization with the Mac went just fine, first with the supplied USB cable, and then via Bluetooth. The Palm Desktop is a bit prettier than I remember it, but it’s not what I’m planning to rely on. I want to sync with the OS X apps – iCal, Address Book, iPhoto, and so forth. So…
  • I bought a copy of MarkSpace‘s Missing Sync, a vastly superior synchronization solution. Speaking of which…
  • Missing Sync supports the mounting of the Treo’s SD card on the Mac desktop, making it easy to export a bunch of MP3 files from iTunes or grab a video clip from the Treo. SD card? What SD card? Hmmm… I had read several stories about how Palm was going to include a free 64MB SD card with every Treo 650, because of the bad publicity they got over the device’s limited storage. (They changed the memory management model, so that storage of small objects became much less efficient.) I guess their embarrassment was short-lived, because no SD card was provided with my unit. Oh well, 512MB cards are getting pretty cheap….
  • Another cool feature of Missing Sync is Internet Sharing: connecting to the Internet from the PalmOS device through your computer. Of course this would bypass Cingular’s (revenue-generating) network, so I was disappointed, but not really surprised, to find that the Cingular-supplied Treo 650 was restricted: you couldn’t create an Internet Connection profile other than the predefined Cingular GPRS set-up. Shucks….

Overall, I’m delighted with the unit. It’s pretty much what I imagined as the perfect hand-held device a few years ago. I guess my expectations will always run ahead of my budget; I’d like to see more memory, 802.11, and a better camera. But the screen is gorgeous, the keyboard is really easy to work with, and the fit and finish is superb.