Archive for April, 2010

Arizona SB1070 – My Thoughts

Earlier today, I was reading yet another Digg article on Arizona’s immigration bill. For the large part, most of the articles and comments I’ve been reading have accused Arizonans of either being gun-toting crazies or racist white elites. I’m sure (read: certain) there’s some demographic of the state that probably is, but the entire state people? What a way to typecast.

Anyhow, something about what I was reading there finally compelled me to write a bit, and what started small quickly ballooned to a huge comment I left on the post. I’m reproducing it below:


Epic Long Post:

It’s time we settle this illegal immigration dispute once and for all, honestly. I’m a native Arizonan, and I can honestly attest to how completely out of hand this situation is getting, and how completely misunderstood and misconstrued the current state of affairs are down here.

First of all, the majority of Arizonans support this legislation. Now, before you write us all off as being racially insensitive bigots and crazies, ask yourself what the rational reasons could be for passing such a sweeping piece of legislation. I’m shocked at the fact that this discussion is almost entirely centered around racial profiling (do you not show your ID for everything else already? Being pulled over? Getting on a plane? Buying something?) and the economy (albeit very superficially). The problem has gotten so immense that it literally has effects on almost every major issue.

To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about the bill, I just think it’s time this issue gets the serious attention it’s been sorely lacking for the greater part of two decades now. If nothing else, Brewer should be applauded for finally getting the border states in the limelight and *some* debate going, even if it’s entirely misplaced.

So just bear with me, put aside your misconceptions about the issue (because odds are, you don’t live here, you don’t follow the issue, and you’re probably not aware of the scope of the problem), and think.

1. The environmental aspect is being completely downplayed. This is something that has even the most liberal of the liberals supporting drastic immigration reform down here in the Sonoran Desert; the long and short of it is that Mexicans and drug traffickers are literally shitting all over the desert. The sheer volume of people crossing through these corridors in the desert, and the trash they bring with them, is absolutely stunning.

Example photo of waste in the desert

Don’t believe me? Look: http://www.tucsonweekly.com/tucson/trashing-arizona/Content?oid=1168857 Some of the locations in here are barely a 10 minute drive from where I sit now. Talk to me about the environment, and then look at the kind of mess being left out there. I don’t care what the solution is, this kind of dumping/shedding of stuff/massive ecological disaster cannot continue. It can’t. It’s literally devastating.

2. Drug trafficking. Has anyone even talked about this? It isn’t just about arresting working Mexican families, it’s about combating the completely out of control drug trafficking problem going on in our backyards. In fact, I’d say that probably the main catalyst has to deal with security rather than economical drain – in fact, there’s no arguing the fact that the Mexicans living here are probably helping us out with their labor and efforts, rather than draining the local economy.

In case you haven’t been following, the drug cartels are now nearly out of control in Mexico, in fact, it’s a problem that’s of more immediate concern to us down here (in terms of security) than terrorism. In fact, screw terrorism, I’m more worried about my family being shot or killed in the crossfire of this ongoing drug battle than some terrorist setting a bomb off. Read about how insane this is: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123518102536038463.html

“The U.S. Justice Department considers the Mexican drug cartels as the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Drug_War You better believe it. People are being killed in Juarez, Nogales, everywhere. This is literally next door, folks! Not a continent away! Full scale political unrest! Talk about a threat to national security.

3. The murder of Rob Krentz has galvanized support for serious, strong, kid-gloves-off reform in the state. If you aren’t familiar, this super high profile incident involved the murder of a well liked, peaceful Arizona rancher on his own property some weeks ago. http://azstarnet.com/news/local/crime/article_db544bc6-3b5b-11df-843b-001cc4c03286.html It’s now been found that marijuana was found on the site, and there’s definite drug trafficking ties as the ranch lies one of the numerous well-known migration and trafficking corridors that dominate southern Arizona.

Robert Krentz

I think when the history books are written, this guy’s shooting will be a real inflection point you can point to as leading to this kind of legislation. The sentiment for structured amnesty or some other kind of reform almost completely disappeared after a few similar incidents. Violent, often fatal crime near the border is literally making it a physical hazard to be down here.

Want more proof? Look no further than the concealed carry legislation that also just passed. It isn’t that we’re all a bunch of friggin psychos, it’s that we’re honest-to-god scared of being shot in our homes or out in the desert. I know I sure as hell wouldn’t go walking around out there when even the border patrol is worried about some parts of the desert even just an hour away.

4. Sure the economy has something to do with it, absolutely. Hell, our economy is worse off than California’s by percentage and by capita: http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/stories/2008/02/25/daily29.html

The major public universities in the state are struggling for dollars to keep classes going, mandatory furloughs everywhere, and we’re paying for the rest in fees and still not going to break even. Hell yes, the economy has something to do with the perception that illegals are partly responsible. (however true or untrue that actually may be, since personally I’d wager Mexican migrant labor probably has a net positive effect on the local economy; let’s be honest, profiling them as lazy people really *is* racism)

So there are a few good arguments I don’t really feel have been emphasized enough online, anywhere. Sit around and discuss the finer points of constitutional law and whether this is “racial profiling,” honestly, that debate has already been beaten and played out enough already.

Meanwhile, the problems down here are getting worse, and worse, and worse, and the very real drug war raging in the desert just continues to get scarier. I think this will be a very interesting and potentially huge states rights issue. In the meantime, some of the points I touched on (I hope) are good food for thought if you think that Arizona suddenly just decided to “go insane” or “lose our collective shit.”

I promise you, it isn’t the case.

iPhone 4G – ‘HD’ Antennas Found?

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See the update at the bottom for the real deal, I was partly wrong about some of the antennas in iPhone 4, though I was indeed right about the connector locations for the bottom, and partly for the top.

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I’ve been following the iPhone 4G/HD leak saga like a hawk, and until now I haven’t been able to really add anything to all that’s been said. However, today, Gizmodo published pictures of the inside of the iPhone 4G hardware they obtained. They didn’t talk about much other than the absurd number of screws (upwards of 30), battery size, packaging, and potential ease of replacement. In fact, their primary aim seems to have been locating “APPLE” markings on the few ribbon cables inside, rather than picking apart Apple’s hardware choices. No doubt disassembly was challenging, potentially explaining why there aren’t any photos of the iPhone with the “connect to iTunes” lock screen (broken after disassembly?).

They neglected to remove the EMI shields atop the interesting bits on the PCB, what I would’ve considered the biggest news about the device. So we still don’t know virtually anything about SoC, how much NAND flash there is onboard, RAM, the hugely important baseband (and whether this thing is potentially dual CDMA/GSM and UMTS for it to work on Verizon/Sprint alongside T-Mobile and AT&T), WiFi or Bluetooth choices (likely the same as the iPad, however), or anything else you’d expect to glean without those shields in place. In short, all the squares in this diagram from the iPhone 3GS are big question marks for the iPhone 4G. Still, we can make very good guesses about what the likely choices are.

PCB components for the iPhone 3GS labeled by Phone Wreck

However, being the RF-obsessed dude I am, I scrutinized the photos for some time looking for other interesting bits. I think I’ve found some interesting things.

First and foremost, I think that there are two discrete antenna assemblies in the phone. One at the top, one at the bottom (as you’d hold it in your hand).

Red box is antenna 1, Blue is antenna 2. Source gallery

Note that the phone in this picture has been rotated; the red circled area on the hardware is actually the bottom. Now, look at the two places I’ve marked with the white arrows. You can very clearly see a pigtail and standard radio connector on the top one, and a connector pad at the tip of the arrow at right. This is 100% certainly an antenna, and it’s also in the same region of the hardware (at the bottom) as the 3GS.

Bottom Antenna - two connectors

Above is what I’m talking about at 100% resolution.

Bottom Antenna Connectors Plugged In

Above shows the antenna before being removed, with the pigtail clearly connected to the mainboard PCB. We can make an educated guess that whatever is under the EMI shield next door is the baseband.

Now, compare and contrast to the iPhone 3GS’s ribbon/kapton antenna assembly:

iPhone 3GS flex PCB

And see it inside the black plastic holder (only the trailing ribbon connector is visible at bottom left):

Flex PCB fits inside the black plastic case at bottom

If I’m not mistaken, the two connectors there are for discrete antennas inside, for cellular radio and WiFi/Bluetooth. I’m not infinitely familiar, but there only seems to be one antenna assembly in the 3GS at the bottom.

Now, on the iPhone 4G photos, there appears to possibly be a second possible antenna at the top.

Top antenna in place

Top antenna removed

I’ve labeled the connector that I can make out. Given the similar black packaging (possibly housing the flex PCB like in the 3GS), it seems likely this is another antenna.

I’ll leave you to speculate about why Apple might potentially want two discrete cellular antennas in their next generation phone…

Update:

After looking through the FCC OET internal photos of a huge number of other dual CDMA/UMTS design phones, all of which only require one antenna, I’m pretty sure the other top component is something less insidious. It’s entirely possible this is nothing more than a connector, some support structure, or perhaps maybe it is indeed an antenna, but for WiFi (N?). Whatever the case, I’m completely uncertain what this thing is, or if it’s part of the baseband. Obviously, the part at the bottom is an antenna, but the top part I’m more and more uncertain about.

We’ll see as time goes on and better pictures are made available what it is, but I’m not confident it’s an antenna anymore.

Update 2:

Of course, we now know the real deal with the iPhone 4. I was wrong about what the antennas were, but right about the connectors. Up at the top, if you scrutinize iFixit’s teardown, you can see a small gold pad right above a test junction for the WiFi/GPS/BT 2.4 GHz antenna. There’s a trace on the EMI shield which leads to a contact screw (gold, so it’s visible) leading directly to the antenna. So the connector for the 2.4 GHz antenna is up at the top near that seam.

iPhone 4 Top Connectors

For the UMTS/GSM antenna, the connector snakes across from the PCB to the left side of the phone facing up (facing down, it snakes to the right, like in this photo):

Inside the red square is the contact point

You can see the test point and connector at the left, the pigtail leading to the right across the EMI shield, and the gold screw which connects the whole deal to the aluminum antenna.

Of course, the interesting part is that this becomes the most active region of the antenna. It’s a monopole, rather than a dipole – in this configuration. The result is that for 1/4 wavelength, that part of the aluminum is very active at radiating RF. This is also the location your palm rests, interestingly.

I’m going to talk about the real deal on AnandTech shortly, so stay tuned…

It’s live here now: http://www.anandtech.com/show/3794/the-iphone-4-review/1

Roger Ebert: Don’t feed the troll

If there’s one rule on the internet I find truer than all others, it’s the one on trolling. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s simple; don’t feed the trolls. It’s almost an anthropic approach to argument or discussion resolution, but for the sweeping majority of internet disputes, it’s the only higher-road way to approach those topics.

That said, what I’m going to do here by acknowledging and refuting something (that I consider trolling) directly breaks that rule. But bear with me.

Fishing for publicity

There’s been a lot of that going on this week, but what really started the week out for me was movie critic Roger Ebert’s second assertion that “games are not art,” and later that games can never be “high art.” It’s another attempt to fish for publicity and generally incite a wave of semantic debate stemming from a completely incorrect pretense of his. He did it five years ago, albeit in a very small blurb on his website:

I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

That was in 2005. Flash forward to 2010, and what does he decide to address just a month or so after his return to work from battling cancer? That very topic. Except, this time, his assertion is even more definite: video games can never be art. But never is a long time, so he hedges later by noting that games will never be art within our lifetime. Perhaps he refers to his own, admittedly shorter lifetime (seeing as the majority of gamers are at a median of 30 years old), but the clarification is nevertheless a “you know, just in case,” type of cop-out.

First of all, the timing of his post is telling; it’s obviously a publicity stunt to draw more attention to his recent return to movie reviewing. But I think it’s a relevant discussion to have at this point, whatever Ebert’s possibly misguided, possibly earnest motives for bringing up such an academic issue again.

His argument

Ebert is confused about what kind of argument he wants to do battle with gamers. In fact, if you break it down, there seem to be three.

  1. His claim in 2005 was that nothing truly interactive can be artistic like “serious film and literature.” He makes this claim again in his 2010 piece, in so many words, by claiming that games can never be art in principle because gamers actively participate in the outcome. He argues that art is, because it guides one’s experience through a singular, common vision or experience crafted by the artist. It doesn’t rely on decision making or input from the user to convey its message; a novel or painting appears – at a superficial level – the same way to everyone. It’s static and timeless, not interactive.
  2. The purely academic side of him wants to see formal, academic citations and comparison, like a critical essay or critique. He challenges, “no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” Perhaps Ebert is waiting for someone to write a really good critical essay with numerous citations and academic form. I’ll show in a few moments how absurd this point is.
  3. He takes issue with videogames as a money-making industry, noting that art cannot be commercial. He quips, “I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.” Apparently, art isn’t art if it requires the infrastructure a business does.

Theses are Ebert’s primary theses.

I’m going to tear them down.

Argument 1: The folly of a straw man

Ebert builds a classic straw man argument in his first argument. He claims art need to be static for it to be art. For example, that The Return of the Native ends the same way regardless of what the reader does; you can’t change the outcome, you can’t win, you can’t lose, you can’t stop Eustacia from drowning, and you can’t influence characters outcomes. You could tear pages out of the book, write a critical essay about how different Thomas Hardy’s message might have been if several small events happened differently, or even burn the novel and mail him the ashes – but the novel’s story, plot, and message are immutable and common. It isn’t interactive. Much the same way, painting, photography, and sculpture – other perceptual art forms – don’t rely on user interaction superficially. They just exist however the artist finished them, and remain that way. They aren’t interactive either.

But are they?

In fact, I would argue that interaction and perception is one of the bases of art. In fact, the unique interpretation of some art form – the ability for something to be singularly and dynamically interpreted by a viewer in a personal way – is what makes art powerful. Sure, superficial and first-order art is important, but what makes good, high-level artwork powerful is that it can be dynamically interpreted. The experience of viewing some real piece of art, I would argue, is that it can be dynamically interpreted in different, meaningful ways for different viewers. The message can indeed be timeless, but art doesn’t exist in a vacuum – there always will be context, and that context continually ensures that the mere thought of viewing it makes real art an interactive experience.

I’m confused why Ebert, or any critic, would want to define an experience that isn’t engaging as being desirable.

What decade are you living in, Ebert?

Can a painting of chess be an art?

But all of this is beyond the point! Ebert is so out of tune that what he considers videogames are primitive constructs that existed, perhaps at latest, in the late 1980s. The vision of videogames he is stuck on is one where games existed solely to be won or lost, where perhaps the only secondary reward or outcome was some arbitrary high score. If you don’t believe me, consider this: Ebert constantly uses the example of someone playing a game of chess as an example. Yes, chess. Or mahjong. Or other basic board games. He’s so out of touch that at one point he brings up sports at one point. Yes, as in athletes and commercial competitive activities. This absolutely couldn’t be further from what gaming is or is about today. This isn’t “gaming,” it’s gaming, and this is where Ebert built his straw man. He’s arguing about an entirely different kind of video game than what people are thinking about; he’s talking about videogames that are little more than evolutionary progressions of board games. He’s thinking of things like frogger, tetris, or pac man. They exist to be played, not experienced. But videogames have changed completely since Ebert stopped paying attention and formed his misguided conclusions.

The irony, of course, is that telling a common, linear story for each player is actually a negative characteristic of a modern videogame. Titles like Crysis, for example, were lauded early on for allowing players to experience a game world in a unique and distinct way. Players can decide to charge enemies head-first and be destroyed in the uphill battle, or flank through the jungle, surprising an entrenched enemy force from the side, or perhaps snipe, miss the shot, and find themselves being flanked from both land and sea (since the entrenched force since radioed their buddies for help).

But at the end of the day, the game’s story remains the same. The outcome of the level is guided, and although the player’s decisions might have been unique at a small level, they still arrive at the same inevitable outcome. If you’re so inclined, it’s like a path-independent line integral – it doesn’t matter how you go through the scalar field, between two points, the difference is still the same. In the game, at a level-level, the beginning, middle, and end remain the same. These levels then (hopefully) tie together and lead to a story that ties levels together, giving the game a story that gives it some purpose.

To put it simply, modern games have a plot, a story – a beginning, middle, and end. In fact, you can extend the novel analogy further: Game levels are essentially chapters. The game itself is like a novel. There are even trilogies or series – look no further than Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Bioshock or hundreds, perhaps thousands of other spectacularly well put together, coherent game franchises.

Argument 2: It isn’t recognized by academia

It’s obvious to me that Ebert is living in the past, in a world at least 20 years ago. If he was willing to do some research, read an academic paper, or just use google scholar, he would’ve heard of Ludology by now. If you’re going to write about something, guy, do your research, or you just get caught with your pants down looking patiently ignorant. Here, Ebert looks just that: confused, outdated, and misguided. Nobody has engaged you, Ebert, with serious arguments about why videogames constitute a true artistic form, probably because they’re too busy out making their art. Even more likely, because, until now, you wouldn’t entertain the dialogue. You’ve picked your battles against a straw man, and against titles that nobody has ever heard of or cares about. That modern videogamers have never heard of. That they don’t identify as art, or are so crude and basic that they’re a mockery. They aren’t mainstream. They aren’t good.

I could go out, shoot a 20 minute movie of the sky, write a couple hundred words about how it lacked story, purpose, plot, or thought – and then claim that all movies aren’t art. That they’re for children. But you know what, I wouldn’t, because that’s not a valid argument. Just like movies, games span the gamut when it comes to quality. It doesn’t do justice to make claims about any medium solely on the basis of a few bad examples.

So you know what, fine, I’ll give you a list of some games worthy of comparison “with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” (poets must be awesome in Ebert’s 1980s world, because he mentioned ‘em twice. Freudian slip?)

  • Bioshock is gaming’s Citizen Kane. It’s as simple as that. It’s literally a game that retells Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy in a reimaged form.
  • Zork - An awesome text adventureZork is often cited as one of the first text-based interactive video games. It’s an immersive, engaging story without flashy graphics or artwork. The interaction and story are the game.
  • Half Life is a narrative epic famous for being told almost entirely through the first-person perspective of the player. It’s a classic that’s nearly unrivaled in its genre. Doom, Quake, Return to Castle Wolfenstein – these are equally as epic.
  • System Shock. This is a classic. System Shock is “the benchmark for intelligent first-person gaming”, “[it] kick-start[ed] the revolution which … has influenced the design of countless other games.”
  • Fallout is an RPG staple that I would cite largely for being an example of great storytelling that isn’t linear. In fact, that’s the point of RPG – the story is almost your own.
  • Knights of the Old Republic, the Jedi Knight series, X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance are some of the best examples of games crafted from a movie world. Ebert seems to only consider video games that are awful adaptations of movies. Perhaps he’s under the impression every video game adapted from a movie is as godawful as the Back to the Future game, which has nothing to do with the movie. Or perhaps his mind closed with the E.T. Video Game, which many seriously cite as the tipping point that led to the video game crisis of 1983.
  • Mass Effect is literally what Bioware (who developed Knights of the Old Republic) wanted to make when set loose. It’s a fully developed future universe, complete with characters, environments, races, and plots that are fully immersive. It’s amazing that movies like Avatar can be lauded over and over again for being so comprehensive in their vision, when games like Mass Effect have been doing the same for nearly a decade. Anything less would be half-baked.
  • Heavy Rain is literally a game-novella for adults. It’s an absolutely amazing experience that plays like a movie, much the same way Metal Gear Solid IV plays just like a movie.

You want the modern equivalent of poets? The authors of prose presented in modern form? Look no further than:

  • John Carmack
  • Shigeru Miyamoto
  • Cliff Bleszinski
  • Casey Hudson
  • Stieg Hedlund
  • Sid Meier
  • Yuji Naka
  • Gabe Newell
  • Will Wright

This list is only a 10th of the numerous acclaimed videogame designers, writers, programmers, and visionaries. Perhaps Ebert never ventured to this wikipedia page of famous videogame visionaries, or looked at any of those titles. Almost every single one is art. He’s paid to do write these pieces, why does it take me to find peer-reviewed sources of acclaimed examples that rival his acknowledged novelists, directors, and poets. Is it honestly beyond him to do research before writing? Or is his expertise so limitless that it needs no foundation?

Argument 3: Videogaming is an industry

Wait, and film-making isn’t? This point is so pleasantly confusing, conflicted, and wrong that anyone with a room-temperature IQ can see right through it.

  • There are indie film-makers.
    • There are indie video game designers. (look no further than the App Store, Xbox marketplace, Android marketplace, or homebrew communities)
  • There are independent movies.
    • There are independent game developers.
  • There are huge companies making movies.
    • There are huge companies making videogames. (Electronic Arts, Rockstar, Blizzard, e.t.c.)
  • The bar of entry for making movies is as low as having a computer and a video camera.
    • The bar of entry for making videogames is as low as having a computer and possibly a console, iPod Touch/iPhone/Android Phone.
  • There are cult classic movies.
    • There are cult classic videogames.

See what I did there? What the heck kind of argument is it that videogames are an industry? Last I checked, movies and film-making is also a huge industry. In fact, both are subsets of the “entertainment” industry. So is music, yet nobody is blue in the face or 1,400+ comments into an argument about those mediums.

If running a successful industry (and thus “Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management”) makes an entire medium not art, then movies, music, and videogames are all not art. This is the classic argument fine-art photographers use to exclude photojournalism from being true art. Are we really going to have this argument again?

Concluding Thoughts

I guess what I find alarming really isn’t that Ebert doesn’t get it, it’s that he’s seriously vehemently engaged in killing the perception of videogames as an art form.

For the longest time, movies, cinema, film, whatever you want to call it (it’s the same thing – images presented in rapid visual succession to give the impression of continual video, perhaps accompanied with audio) fought an uphill battle to be considered art. In fact, cinema seemed no more of an art form than perception itself – it merely existed. No doubt some of the very first directors and cinema visionaries fought and argued with established critics of the time for the respect and accredited art form that Ebert takes for granted now.

Take a step backwards, and think about how long and how hard painters and photographers argued about which form was truer art. Which form was better. Is something captured, rather than crafted, artistic? Or can anything be crafted? Aren’t photographs taken with some form? Which one is art?

Go backwards again and consider the evolution from one media to another time and time again. Was realist art a truer art form than impressionism? Is modernism, pop art, or contemporary art less of an art form than photography? Than sculpture? Than cinema?

What makes art, art? Wikipedia defines art eloquently, as:

Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, sculpture, and paintings. – Wikipedia

So how is a videogame – which arguably is what you’d get if you convolved all of these together – not art? Modern videogames include all of those, well, arts. Musicians for directing soundtracks, scores, and guiding the player’s emotions and the game’s feel. Literature for the game’s story and plot, tying it into a cohesive experience. Film for cutscenes, directing, posing, and when the player isn’t in direct control. Sculpture for the artists crafting player models, environment models, scenes, levels, and objects. Painting for those creating textures of virtually everything mapped on the models. All of these aren’t just part of the process, they are the process. So isn’t the sum of a videogame greater than its parts?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course. My theory? Ebert is jealous. Video games are already dwarfing all of the other entertainment forms. Music, literature, and cinema. Look no further than Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Halo. Fallout. Unreal. Half-Life. All huge blockbuster titles dwarfing mere cinema.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s semantic. What is “art?” I’d argue, art is that feeling left stirring in you after you’ve left the experience behind. After you’ve put down the controller, left the museum, closed the novel, or exited the theater. It’s that nagging presence you can’t ignore after you’ve been presented with something compelling. It’s obvious, really. Maybe video games aren’t art to Ebert – fair enough, but don’t presuppose that they can’t be art for everyone else, that art is something only you are equipped to appreciate, unless you really are arrogant.

Pundits can argue for all eternity; artists will still be out there practicing their trade – and real connoisseurs will appreciate their work, whatever the medium.

iPhone OS 4.0 – How close was I?

A few months ago, I made a post about what changes I would love to see in iPhone OS 4.0 when it rolled around, if it ever rolled around. Flash forward to today, where iPhone OS 4.0 is an officially announced, almost ready for release platform update. In the spirit of conclusion, let’s see how much I wanted that actually made it into the update:

1 – Google Voice Integration: No Go

This still remains a no-show. Apple and Google relations have only continued to sour, despite the Steve-Eric coffee shop PR stunt meeting that was hugely popularized a few weeks ago. In fact, because Apple has repeatedly demonstrated no motivation to popularize any Google services anymore, it’ll likely never happen. This is yet another unfortunate artifact of the ongoing Google and Apple divorce process, and it just ends up stifling innovation. Apple and Google both give end-user focused experience an awful lot of lip service, up to the point where they have to integrate with other competitors offerings.

Google Voice is just one such example, but there are others. Mail on the iPhone still lacks support for Google’s unique organizational methods, and for the same token, Google refuses to this day to make their own iPhone OS gmail client. It works both ways, and both are equally guilty.

Back to that lip service I was talking about, you can really see just how far that philosophy goes from both companies actions – they still speak louder than words. As an end user, I don’t care about corporate bickering or what the political reasons are for Google not making a Gmail app for the iPhone, or Apple not integrating Google Voice – I just want the best experience.

2 – Google Latitude: Maybe

I’m not sure how to mark this one down. On one hand, there is indeed multitasking present in the operating system, as well as the ability to have certain applications periodically get location through location services. Thus, it’s finally possible for some enterprising third party developer to make their own google latitude updater, or for Google themselves to do it. We’ll probably see the former much earlier than the latter for the reasons I mentioned in part 1.

Of course, the software to do continual scheduled Google latitude position updating already exists through the Cydia store. It’s called Longitude, and it work fabulously. I’m relatively puzzled by Apple’s claims that getting a full GPS fix requires too much battery, since I already run Longitude on a 15 minute update interval and have experienced negligible battery degradation. In fact, even with updating set on a 10 minute schedule, there was no perceptable difference in battery life.

Longitude - You know, opposite of Latitude

Longitude - You know, opposite of Latitude

I really have to wonder whether location services through Skyhook without using AGPS (eg only WiFi triliteration augmented with cellular positioning data) will be accurate enough for services like Foursquare. Time will tell, and arguably GPS won’t solve everything since users that are already inside those locations can’t get a GPS fix anyways.

3 – Better Gmail Integration: Sort of

So the Mail application is getting a definite overhaul in this new revision of iPhone OS – more than one exchange account, faster switching between each inbox, unified inbox, and support for threaded conversations. These are long overdue features that the competition has had almost forever. WebOS has had it, BlackBerry is famous for it, Android has it alongside even a Gmail-specific version, and even Windows Mobile had multiple exchange account and fast switching integration.

So it’s nice to see everything finally getting revamped. Apple’s interface still is minimalist though; there’s no font settings or style options to be found.

4 – Notification Overhaul: Nope

This is probably the most sorely lacking area, and simultaneously the most inexplicably neglected. Every single other mobile platform has better notifications than iPhone OS. Every one of them, even old and exiled Windows Mobile. In fact, during the Stevenote today Apple showed off some local application notifications (from applications running in the background) that still resulted in annoying centered blue bubbles – and touted them as being a good thing!

I don’t know what more there is to say here other than that with a more robust multitasking framework needs to come a better notification framework. The two go hand in hand completely: if you lack the screen real estate to show more than one thing at a time, but can still run it on the hardware, get information to the user effectively. That shouldn’t still equate to pausing and interrupting the current interaction with a gigantic blue popup that needs to be dismissed before interaction can continue.

5- Background apps done right: Yes

Apple needed to nail this one, and they did. There’s no arguing that the multitasking framework they’ve demoed is the way things should be. I’ve argued a few times with developers that the best way to deliver multitasking without sacrificing performance is to open APIs for the most common use scenarios. Apple enumerated all of them: music in the background, task completion, location-specific scenarios (turn by turn GPS, Google Latitude, e.t.c.), and a few others. This is effectively what I’ve heard described as a secondary “lite” binary running the core services in the background, using fewer resources and a few background specific APIs the OS can manage. That way, the background experience is consistent across use scenarios.

I think that this will work really well in the long run. In fact, Apple really did have little choice but to adapt a scheme employing lite binaries; they’re limited to 256 MB of RAM on the 3GS and iPad. Steve Jobs gets it – giving the user a task manager might appeal in the short term for how much control it offers, but it’s just too much. If the user is honestly expected to micromanage application launches and closes, they’ll eventually forget and nuke the battery. It just happens.

6- Better App organization: Yes

Thank goodness this is finally being addressed. I’ve almost reached the 180 application limit for the iPhone 3.x’s page specific interaction schema, and getting to applications on pages at the very end is as frustrating as it is time consuming. Finally getting some high level organization in the picture, even if it isn’t forward thinking, revolutionary, or something new, still is valuable.

Folders - Kind of ad-hoc, but better than nothing

7- Better power management: Nope

Definite no, in fact, we’ll probably never see this, at least on the iPhone OS. This particular platform is all about lowest common denominator usability – it’s simultaneously what makes the platform so alluring and magical, and the subject of so much griping. You can’t build something a baby can use, and then expect them to understand how to manage their power.

At the same time however, the option should be there for those of us that are knowledgeable about it. I realize I’m asking too much, but it’d be amazingly cool to see hardware reports on projected battery longevity, current draw from individual hardware components, and a trend of power use.

Conclusions: 4/7 ~ 57% Nailed

So Apple implemented 4 out of the 7 things I outlined, if we’re pretty generous about our criteria. You know, on the whole, 57% isn’t bad, but it simultaneously isn’t a slam dunk on my part.

In fact, that’s what makes this industry so interesting. Unlike the desktop, we haven’t yet settled on a paradigm user interaction model – each major platform is actively innovating and evolving, and it’s happening rapidly. Even in the last two years, we’ve seen Android go from being an iPhone OS wannabe to a seriously polished, worthy competitor. We’ve seen that cross carrier availability is hugely important for success (people just don’t want to switch, and they’ll convince themselves that their network is best). We’ve seen that none of the platforms have it all worked out. Apple’s iPhone OS platform is too closed, while Android’s might be just too open (a-la Windows Mobile). It’s a rapidly evolving market out there folks; I’m enjoying scrutinizing every bit of it.

App Store: My Must-Have Applications

iPhone Apps

The other day, one of my Twitter followers asked if I could post a list of iPhone applications I have installed that are useful. Right now, there are quite a few (145 icons by my count).  I’ll share a gallery of all of them, and post a list with links to the ones I really like or use a lot.

It’s a definite goal to reach the installed application limit, and admittedly the organization of just a bunch of tiles on a grid is already stretched thin. I originally did a better job organizing applications by page such that similar tasks or groups were all consolidated. For example, games are all on one page, utilities are on another, e.t.c., but it’s fallen apart lately.

The irony is that there isn’t an app you can install that will tell you what other apps are installed because of sandboxing reasons and App Store restrictions. Oh, Apple…

Favorite Apps

Some of my favorite and most used applications are:

  • Speedtest.net – This is the iPhone version of Ookla’s speedtest.net. It used to be absolutely positively horrible. I mean not just totally false – but boldfaced staring you in the face wrong. They’ve improved it a ton in recent updates, and it now supports exporting to CSV as I’ve mentioned before, including all the geospatial, test results, and other relevant data. Makes analysis possible for end users, not just them.
  • Xtreme Speedtest – Before Ookla got off their collective arses and made the speedtest.net application work, this was my favorite. I’m ashamed to admit I ran it as much as I did. Lately there haven’t been any updates or any love for even the paid “pro” version.
  • Jaadu RDP – Hands down the best remote desktop application. It’s also the most expensive at $24.99, which is annoying, but it truly does work the best. Integration is just extremely smooth and well executed. There’s also Jaadu VNC.
  • Mark the Spot – This should come preinstalled on every single iPhone. If you’re on AT&T, this is your best friend. It’s both a way to report bad connectivity and vent when coverage sucks too.
  • BeeJive IM – All around best IM application. It was one of the first to really leverage push notifications well, and keeps you logged in for as long as you’d like. It’s a brave new world being logged into IM on the phone all the time, but if you want it, this is what’s awesome.
  • Gass Cubby – Keeps track of gas mileage. It does an awesome job, and is fast and easy enough that I do it every time. It even syncs back up to the cloud for backups and storage, or if you have multiple drivers on a car. The graphical visualization and ability to correlate fuel economy changes with service is what really makes it stand out.
  • iStat – Although the real beauty of this application is that it ties into the dashboard widget and server daemons of its namesake, it also works great as a simple resource monitor and informational view. There’s more info about everything here.
  • SpaceTime – This is the absolute best computer algebra system for the iPhone. It’s that simple. There’s 3D plotting, derivatives, integrals, and just about everything else you can get from a Ti-89. I still like my 89, but this is the next best thing.
  • Pi Cubed – Another really good mathematical tool, this one finally leverages the full capacitive touch screen of the platform. There isn’t a virtual keyboard or buttons, but rather a more intuitive interface with pretty print that’s better. I really like that it can export to PDF and LaTeX dynamically.
  • iSynth and Seadragon - These are both awesome Microsoft Research Labs applications that exist on the iPhone. The former is a photosynth viewer created by a software intern as an independent project, and it works surprisingly well. The Seadragon viewer lacks the photosynth code and just displays images using the same sort of algorithm.
  • iRa Pro and IP Vision – If you have a network camera that has MJPEG streaming outputs, these should be on your phone. No excuses. iRa Pro is an $899 application (last I checked, the most expensive in the App Store) but delivers absolutely unparalleled integration with the big enterprise camera setups including PTZ and up to 6 camera streams at a time. If you don’t have a fancy enterprise setup, IP Vision lets you view one MJPEG stream and 2 stills at a time, which is totally adequate for most everything. It’s what I end up using most of the time, and is considerably cheaper at $7.99 – there’s also a more expensive version that works with PTZ cameras.
  • Pocket Universe – This was the first augmented reality application, and for its purpose, the implementation is superb. It’s designed to be an aide for amateur astronomers trying to find a particular celestial body of note. It uses compass and accelerometer data to point you in the right direction, toward finding it.
  • JotNot – It’s a document scanner using your iPhone’s camera. The beauty here is that it removes the distortion based on edge detection, works for large documents, posters, books, and other rectangular, er, media. The other awesome part is that it tightly integrates for output over email, evernnote, WebDAV/iDisk, Google Docs, Dropbox, and Box.net. Either PDF or JPEG output with optional OCR to boot! I use this one a lot.

There are a ton of others that are installed, but these are the ones that really stick out to me as being relatively undiscovered. If you’ve got others you think are useful or related, I’d love to hear about ‘em in the comments section!

AT&T 3G MicroCell Review

In case you missed it early, early this morning, my AT&T 3G MicroCell review is up and live at AnandTech here.

I played around with the product all last week and finally think I know all there is to be gleaned about it - undoubtedly in time the handover performance (which is pretty abysmal) will improve. It’s something that I talk about a lot in the article itself, but exists across all the major femtocells, and T-Mobile’s implementation of UMA. From a technical standpoint, the problem seems to be that the phone almost treats the femtocell like a roaming tower – implicitly disabling soft handovers to the public network. It’s handled this way most likely for a billing segmentation reason, but that’s unclear.

I learned in the comments that there are enterprise picocells, although I’m not sure what kind of carrier interaction is required for installation. I’d really like to investigate those for something future. Whatever the case, if you’re interested definitely give it a read!