American ways

Driving along the Mississippi River today, my wife and I listened to Muddy Waters singing "I may be getting old, but I got young-fashioned ways." We drove past coal plants, record stores, lock-and-dam installations, and plenty of historical markers. We saw cell towers, hybrid-electric cars, and a small town with "No Frac Plant Near C-FC" signs in what seemed like every single yard.

America is changing.

Of course, that's completely fatuous; it's always changing. That's what makes America America. But the changes happening now -- environmental, technological, infrastructural changes with local and global impact -- are so significant and so tidal that they'll happen without our encouragement. We either let loose the mooring, or that tide leaves our collective boat swamped -- or run aground.

We'd spent the first half of the week in the Twin Cities, visiting Kristine's extended family. The dogs were boarded until Thursday morning, so we had a little slack in the line that allowed us to take a slight detour. It was a jaunt south, to tiny Stockholm, Wisconsin, that I'd wanted to make on numerous trips in the past. Today was my day, and it turned out to be a scenic route dialed in perfectly to the Independence Day holiday.


Stockholm (pop. 66) is home to the appropriately-named Stockholm Pie Company; it has received no shortage of praise, even over the legendary Norske Nook. The trunk of our car was filled with Minnesota beers, and the pie stop was a no-brainer. As it happened, the entire trip took place on the Great River Road, one of the US Department of Transportation's America's Byways routes.

A few observances felt germane to the American Idea as we drove along this road that the US government thinks is scenic and important. We saw some signs in Maiden Rock (pop. 119) that read "Save our bluff!" I assumed this was just due to development and soil erosion. But later, when Fountain City (pop. 859) yards repeated the exhortation, "No Frac Plant Near C-FC," I gathered the two campaigns might be one. For the couple dozen signs we saw opposing the project, only one sign read, "Sand = Jobs."

In Alma (pop. 781), there is an old coal-burning power plant operated by the Dairyland Power Cooperative. The Alma Station plant was built in 1947, and utilizes five units of operation. The last went online in 1960. It's a massive facility, and would be an imposing sight on its own -- if it wasn't paired with the John P. Madgett Station right next door. (Indeed, they now comprise collectively-titled Alma Site.) JPM has been operational since 1979.

The coal comes from Western states, to be burned for Midwestern states' energy needs. It might be easy to see the temptation in exploiting local resources like oil sands for energy, environmental impact be damned. And it might be easy for local workers, perhaps desperate for steady employment (most towns we drove through are bleeding residents), to think that frac mining is the answer.

But one looks at the US Army Corps of Engineers' lock-and-dam setups that dot the Mississippi River (and many, many other waterways), and one is wise to remember that the federal government can do some pretty significant work when it is encouraged and allowed to do so. The interstate highway we'd left in St. Paul, Minnesota (pop. 285,068), and would return to in Onalaska (pop. 17,736), is another example. The Trempeleau National Wildlife Refuge we passed, yet another.

We can save the things that deserve saving, and we can connect the people and places that want to be connected. We can do these things by employing Americans and training them to succeed at these tasks.

As we were leaving Stockholm, miniature triple-berry pie in tow, our cell signal disappeared. An indecipherable symbol (a lonely 'o') appeared where 4G might show up otherwise; the only meaning we could discern from this strange little donut was that it meant "try again later." I hoped we were still on the right highway. (We were.)

o as in "nooooo"

Eventually, the signal returned -- slow, but at least present. When it disappeared again -- completely -- near Holmen, Wisconsin (pop. 9,005), and didn't reappear until we were at the doorstep of the outermost businesses that surround this growing town of nearly 10,000, we'd come to the conclusion that all of these issues -- energy, jobs, connection, environment -- should be addressed in harmony. Cellular networks and wind power both proliferate via towers; certainly there's a way to make that commonality work to everyone's benefit.

Our infrastructure is changing even as its bones stay the same. Cell towers line the same old interstate, but signal strength is still questionable in many areas, and short-sighted politicians still think that less access to data networks is the answer. Our representatives still allow mining companies to write broad-sweeping legislation with big payouts for narrow interests. The federal government is still maligned by many as incapable of any good deed, unless one considers big explosions and unmanned drone warfare to be good deeds.

No, the federal government is the backbone of this country. It's what we celebrate on Independence Day: the day we said we'd be our own country, thanks. "To institute a new Government," the Declaration says. And all the old stuff shouldn't be thrown out because it's old; indeed, the physical infrastructure of America is in serious need of repair and refitting. Flying cars aren't coming any time soon.

But on this Independence Day, as this county creeps closer and closer to 250 years old, it's clear where the tide is pulling us. It's not coal, oil sands, dial-up data speeds and isolation. It's common purpose, interconnectivity, and sustainability. We may be getting old, but we should embrace those young-fashioned ways.

I'd Tap That: comparing the merits of four Twitter apps

I have something of a problem. I collect Twitter apps--and not the obvious, freebie ones like Seesmic and Echofon (though I have tried those as well). My collection of Twitter-related apps is made up of Tweetlogix, Tweetbot, Osfoora, and the official Twitter app, plus Trickle (a boutique app that only displays your timeline without allowing you to post) and Boxcar (a notification app for the unofficial apps that do not offer push notifications). I've been on the verge of buying Icebird, too, but have so far resisted.
I bought most of these in a short span of time at the beginning of the year, when the official app delivered a real flaming turd known as the Quickbar, aka Trending Topics Bar, aka Dickbar. (No one liked it, and I truly hated it.) I eventually settled on Tweetbot, but since all of them have updated multiple times since February, I thought a revisit was in order.
The four-day Independence Day holiday weekend provided a nice opportunity; I invested one 24-hour span to each app, and tried to be cognizant of the pros and cons of each app in relation to each other. Here are my thoughts, from worst to first. NOTE: these pros and cons are relative to the way I use Twitter apps. YMMV.
I had really high hopes for this app; it was the first one I turned to after breaking up with the official app. Its interface is stylish, its icon is simple and non-cute--not to mention reminiscent of the old Tweetie app icon. But not long into using Osfoora, I noticed that the developer was kind of MIA, despite a blog and a Twitter account designed to receive and respond to feedback.
Pros: Aesthetically pleasing; full landscape support; smart(ish) gestures distinguish a single click from a hold-down when tapping individual tweets.
Cons: Dates are only shown in generic relative time (old tweets read as "months", not even "months ago" or "x months ago"); no symbol in profile view for protected or blocked accounts; no tappable links in timeline view; Boxcar notifications point to a blank composition window rather than the notified message; not all @-replies are shaded differently in timeline view; color preferences for menu screen are still flip-flopped after multiple updates (selecting 'Pink' results in blue icons, and vice versa); no composition from one account into another; graphics refresh in a clunky and inelegant fashion when updating list timelines, and switching from landscape to portrait mode; accessing conversations is relatively user-unfriendly; trying to view what the Twitterverse is saying about Osfoora is almost impossible thanks to the self-aggrandizing #nowplaying feature that adds an Osfoora mention in every generated post--you have to weed out the Bieber and house music tweets to get to the user conversation.
Verdict: Can you tell I've become quite disillusioned from Osfoora? The developer emerged from his hidey-hole to remind everyone he's a grad student and doesn't have a lot of time for the app right now; he might as well have said "delete this app now, or learn to live with disappointment." Not only will I not use this app, but I'll probably delete it. (I'll still keep it on the MacBook, and apparently this new cloud functionality will preserve my purchase indefinitely, but still.)
The official app of Twitter used to be Tweetie. It was the first Twitter app I purchased--the first one I used, in fact. I bought Tweetie 2 when it came out, even though rebuying kind of irked me. And when Twitter acquired it and rebranded it, I thought, "You go get 'em, little guy!" Even Facebook bit Tweetie's style with pull-to-refresh (they actually copied Tweetie's code wholesale for their iPhone app); now every Twitter app employs this how-did-we-live-without-it functionality. But now…now. Well, absolute power and all that.
Pros: Lateral swipe for a variety of functions (RT, star, reply, profile view); useful Profile view with an intuitive layout; built-in push notification; free.
Cons: Lateral swipe function doesn't always work when selecting multiple actions on the same tweet (say, starring, then RTing, then replying); extremely laggy and sluggish; DMs have proven buggy in the past, resistant to deletion or marking as read (I don't know if this is still the case, as the 24-hour window provided no chance to test); truly obnoxious Top Tweet window in the Search view; fun and occasionally useful third-party integration with Overlapr and Followcost has been removed with recent updates; visually boring; the tone-deafness of developers too far removed from the users they're serving (see: Quickbar).
Verdict: Barely worth it, but it's free, and it's got push. If you can deal with the ways this app panders to the silliest uses of Twitter, and the occasional slogging performance, then you could certainly tolerate this app overall. This is the kind of endorsement third place earns.
When Osfoora was hit with a case of the crashsies, I switched to Tweetlogix. It was stable, offered similar functionality relative to the official app, and the developers were acutely aware of their user base and replied quickly to Twitter questions. The icon kind of stands out on your iPhone's screen, but it's okay; apparently, the old one was worse. (One GIS later, I learn that it was at the very least uninspired, but by no means horrid.)
Pros: Lateral swipe function similar to the official app; tappable links in timeline view; responsive developers; truly useful organization of followers/followees.
Cons: Thumbnails in timeline view can take up a lot of real estate (like when @gachatz live-tweeted 25 pictures from his Thai menu practice dinner at Next); usernames the same color as links in timeline view makes things kind of melt together visually; either show the username of the retweeter, or the thumbnail profile pic overlay--but not both; bubble view of tweet detail doesn't wow me, nor does the amount of space the conversation view takes up; still no ability to compose for one account while in another, though the developers say this is coming in the next update.
Verdict: Tweetlogix takes second place over the official app almost solely on its size. By this, I mean both that it's slimmer and sleeker than the official app, and the developers actually pay attention to what their demographic wants in a Twitter app--this is due in large part to the size of the operation, and how much it needs to keep users happy. A responsive developer will always pay off; you can do much, much worse than Tweetlogix.
This is the baby of the family, having only been officially launched in the App Store in April. It's pretty slick, utilizing smart gestures as well as a multi-tap functionality that is absent in the other apps in this test, if not every other Twitter app out there. There are cool, robotic sounds that accompany various functions in the app, and the icon is charming if cutesy.
Pros: Swiping one way to see conversations backward in time, or the other way to see conversations forward; tappable links in-timeline; compose to one account while in another; fairly smooth Boxcar interaction; updates have provided significant improvements.
Cons: Seems to use up API hits faster than other apps (quick-hitting Boxcar notifications won't always show up right away in the app, and while this is true of all four apps, it seems worse with Tweetbot); very occasionally crashes; notification lights in-app sometimes don't come on when new tweets appear in timeline; landscape has been slow in implementing--still not available in timeline view; drilling into Search function is both unnecessarily laborious, and sometimes slow due to all the audio/visual foofaraw; double-tap access to hashtags/links/mentions in timeline view can be a bit haphazard when a tweet is crowded with multiple tappable phrases.
Verdict: The winnah! There are things I like about other apps, like Tweetlogix's Contacts-style organization of followers and followees, but Tweetbot does everything I want it to do, at least reasonably well if not excellently. My complaints are fairly picayune compared to the major failings of Osfoora and the official app.

Old guys talk like this.

Until recently, I was a follower of Roger Ebert on Twitter. His political jabs were just that: quick and painful for the recipient. And his essay on losing the ability to eat still stands as a testament to his skill as a writer. But after a while, it was like he turned into a social networking version of Humbert H. Humbert, unable to share in the endeavors of a younger generation, and only hoping to soak it in through his pores while he shuffled slowly through the crowd. He started engaging younger readers in a bizarrely juvenile fashion, and then just wouldn't. Stop. Posting. I had to cut him loose.

Now I see that Roger's gotten himself into hot water with that very same youngish crowd he'd been digitally communing with. He has published an essay titled, "Video Games Can Never Be Art," in which--well, you can guess what point it is that he's making. Video games aren't art because there's user choice; art demands a creative voice that is immutable by the observer. It's obvious he knows very little about video games, but it's his opinion to hold.

I compare this with sports commentator Tony Kornheiser. I've listened to Mr. Tony for years. Since he was on ESPN Radio proper, and not just on a local Washington, DC, affliate. And let me acknowledge: he was old then. But lately, with commentaries on how he doesn't trust ATMs, and how he never even keeps, much less uses, debit cards, and how self-checkout frightens him, and now his relentless ridicule of a science he doesn't understand and therefore cannot value (vulcanology)… Well, I'm not ready to unsubscribe from the podcast, but I'm getting close.

I suspect that Kornheiser would espouse the same sentiment as Ebert about video games. Kornheiser regularly rails against movies with blue people and furry short people, and cannot imagine that animated films could have anything to offer him. His default position, which takes much shaking to dislodge, is that anything drawn is for children. Anything colorful is for children. Anything with children, dare I say, is for children. He is working his way past the wisdom that comes with age, and is now setting up shop inside the unexamined life. It might still be worth living, but it's not as much fun to listen to.

As I sail farther into my 30's, I'm reminded that there's a lot more old ahead of me. I hope it doesn't sink its teeth into me like it appears to be gnawing at these two old newspapermen.

The Ten Apple Commandments

With the pending announcment of the Apple Tablet--the worst-kept secret in computing--shouldn't we expect a gray-templed Steve Jobs to descend from the mountain to deliver a new Ten Commandments? Here's what they might look like.

1. I am Apple, your Lord and God. You shall have none other than iPods before me. You shall not misrepresent the brand or fashion false representations of the brand. Unless it’s a really cool Touch commercial that we really should have thought of first and then we’ll take it.

2. You shall not take the OS’s name in vain; “Snow Leopard” is a fine name for an OS, thank you.

3. Remember the Time Machine and keep it running at all times.

4. Honor your father and your mother; after all, they humored you when you begged for an Apple II for Christmas to play Cranston Manor back in ’82.

5. You shall not jailbreak.

6. You shall not port unauthorized Windows applications to a shell OS.

7. You shall not violate DRM without first paying extra in iTunes.

8. You shall not tell your neighbor that your unibody MacBookPro still has the open Apple logo on the Command key.

9. You shall not connect your AirPort to your neighbor’s wireless network.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s 3GS iPhone; we’ll be introducing the next version soon enough and he won’t get a subsidized price like you will anyway.

A gadget junkie unmoved by Android

I've had my iPhone 3Gs for a month or so now, and of course I'm loving it. Running the battery down to the dregs, playing with the voice-recognition of the Google app, tossing enemies around in Knights Onrush, and of course posting to Twitter. Sometimes I even call people with it.

But before getting my Apple fix, I'd given serious attention--if not consideration--to Android phones. I like Google. I like competition. And there's a lot of geek chatter in praise of the Android operating system.

I gotta say, I just don't get the hype.

Android, to me, suffers from the same back-patting niche marketing as Linux. I know my way around technology reasonably well, but I don't know a kernel from a piece of popcorn. An open-source operating system isn't that much of an attraction to me, and I have yet to really hear a cogent argument for what else Android can do that iPhone 3.0 can't.

I'm gonna break it to you, Google developers. Most people don't really know how to modify computer settings. Of those people, I'd venture to guess that most don't want to learn how to modify settings in a complex or elegant way. Sure--I do sometimes, but not to the point that I want to void my warranty and jailbreak my iPhone.

I'm not a consumer who's looking for a project. Don't tell me what I could do with an open-source OS if only I knew what the hell I was doing in a computer's (or smartphone's) guts. Tell me what it will look like and what it'll do for me right out of the box. Say what you will about Apple, but they package their product slickly and show you what it'll do as soon as you charge it up. If I can't install third-party apps, boo hoo. There are already more apps than I'd ever need.

Ultimately, Android just doesn't speak to me except that the name sounds cool. If I want the Android name, I'll buy a watch. All I have to do then is set the time and I'm ready to roll.

Microsoft embraces its uncoolness on a new level


I've been seeing a new Microsoft commercial in the last few days. It's another in the line of "Pepsi Challenge"-esque, blind use ads. People like Vista when they don't know it's Vista, MS alleges. Otherwise, all they can picture is John Hodgman, and then they don't like it anymore.

These ads, titled The Mojave Experiment, are probably doing more for Microsoft's reputation than the ill-conceived Bill Gates/Jerry Seinfeld Odd Couple campaign, or even the "I'm a PC" series that has wishing he'd thought of it for a YouTube meme.

The most recent spot took me a few viewings to interpret, but I've come to the conclusion that it's the smartest MS ad yet. Not that it'll work, but it's at least smart.

Parents of teenaged kids are shown using Vista. They love it! They love how you can tell the computer to turn off when the kids need to get outside or to bed. They love how you can control your kids even when you're not around. The kids, understandably, hate it. They're aghast.

And that's the genius. Who, other than the TV, is the entity/entities most likely to complain to parents about how uncool Windows is, and how cool Mac products are? The damn kids and their damn iPods. Windows is trying to empower those parents, telling them that Microsoft is just the next thing in the line of broccoli, vaccinations, and curfews: stuff that your kids hate on principle.

Of course, it's still not going to save Vista. But it's smart.