Wednesday, November 11, 2009

First Story, Part 1

I have an accomplishment to announce. To you it won’t seem like much, but really it’s quite something. I finished a book. No, really. I did. Ok, so, yeah, you’re right. It’s not much. But you have to understand why, for me, it’s bigger than you might think. I’m a terrible finisher. I can start a *ton* of things. But finishing things is another story altogether. I just don’t like the idea of that particular experience being over. So I leave stuff unfinished. Now there’s a lot of stuff that I leave unfinished that I just hated.  But there’s also a large number of things that are unfinished because I like the idea of having some of it left.  I’d much rather delete something from my harddisk than have to deal with running out of space. I keep buffers for everything. My dresser has empty space in it… well it had empty space in it.  My wife makes sure to fill all available storage.

Long and short: When I really like a book and when I really don’t like a book – it looks the same. I have a hard time finishing it.

So it’s somewhat remarkable that I finished a book that I really, really liked. The book is called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Don Miller. It’s about story. And, in particular, how the elements required to make a good story might also be the elements required to make a good life. Miller asks us to imagine a character who isn’t likeable, pursuing something that isn’t worthwhile, in a setting that isn’t memorable, against minimal conflict, and then wonders if anyone would ever consider making that story into a movie. Imagine the final scene of this movie where the character finally drives his newly acquired BMW off the lot, and rides it into the sunset in tears. I can only imagine this scene being actually produced in something like Scary Movie, or the other comedic mockeries of other movies.

Miller’s point is that if the only thing we strive for in life is as trivial as getting the BMW (or a cell phone), then that’s just as much a mockery of real life as the above scene is a mockery of a real movie. It should be no wonder that amidst that type of living, we find people who are dejected and overwhelmed while living in a society with more money, leisure and luxury than any other in the history of the world.

When I look at my life, I see a pretty comfortable life. I love my wife. I love my children. But I also see a life that would make a terrible movie. Let’s compare me to the elements in a story:
  1. Likable – check (at least I think I'm likable)
  2. Wants something – check (who doesn’t want something?)
  3. …that’s worthwhile – BZZT (a different cell phone really doesn’t count)
  4. Overcomes conflict to get it – BZZT (I lead a pretty easy life)
  5. In a memorable setting – BZZT (I sit in front of a computer or TV screen most of the time)
All told, I’m not telling a very compelling story. My life as a movie would be boring. And, it turns out, my life as a life is pretty boring, too.

It’s with this backdrop that I tell you what I really want to tell you with this post. I’ve started doing something about it.

A friend of my wife’s sent us information about an organization (here after referred to as "the organization") that works with orphanages in the former Soviet Union, specifically Russia, Ukraine and Latvia.  Twice a year, this organization arranges for families to host the orphans in the US. The reason is that the government run orphanages close down for 4 weeks around Christmas, and 6 weeks in the summer. Kids who are not placed with host families are sent to “camps”. I don’t have any idea what these camps are like, but the image that comes to mind is not pleasant.

Normally, I would look at something like this and think, “Gee, that’s too bad. Bad government really sucks. It creates poverty and these poor kids are the victims. I should write a blog post about how government is the cause of this kind of thing, and maybe influence a small number of people, who influence a small number. Then maybe, at some distant point in the future, this will change the world.”  This reaction would not be entirely unlike my previous reaction to reading one of Don Miller's books.  About the last thing I’d think is, “Hey, let’s host one of these kids.” But that’s what we’re trying to do.

Now, I say “trying” to do, because it turns out to be more difficult than you’d think. There are a lot of obstacles in the way.
  1. The host families are the ones who pay for the kids to travel to the US. And it’s not cheap. The fees start out at $2350.
  2. We have to agree that the $2350 is a donation to "the organization". This allows it to be tax deductible. But it also means that under no circumstances will the donation be refunded. So, if for example, something in our application process goes wrong, or the child gets sick and can’t travel, or who knows what, it’s still a donation.
  3. The documentation required to do this is really quite a lot. "The organization" and the originating countries have to ensure that we won’t
  1. Abuse the kids
  2. Sell them into slavery
  3. Sell them into prostitution
  4. Or do any of the other myriad of awful things that humans do to each other
  1. So this means that my wife & I have to:
  1. Give away our social security numbers, potentially to a foreign government
  2. Get ourselves fingerprinted and request an FBI criminal background check
  3. Complete a psychological examinatio
  4. Pay for all of the nickel & dime fees associated with completing all of this paper work
  5. And a ton of other things that I’m forgetting right now
  1. We will attend an 8 hour training session.  Prior to that, we are required to read (and remember) 35-pages of single spaced, small print rules associated with hosting a child.
  2. A huge part of what we will try to accomplish while he’s here is to get vision and dental care for the child.  This is either paid for by us (but can’t be covered by our insurance since he’s not a member of our family) or we will have to call around and ask doctors to provide this care pro bono.
  3. All of this is complicated by one fact: Most of the children (including the one that we’re hosting) don’t speak English… at all.
  4. When the child arrives, the sum total of the possessions he will likely have are the clothes he’s wearing. So, we will provide him with a carry-on size suitcase which we will fill with stuff. Primarily clothes and a few toys, etc. However, we have to be careful to provide things that are not “too” valuable. Because if, for example, we gave him an iPod, some authority where the child lives will likely take it to sell.
  5. Which means, that we have to readjust what we are going to give our children for Christmas. Because it’s be incredibly gauche to be giving elaborate gifts to our kids while our guest got socks.
  6. Which means that, in addition to rearranging their sleeping so that we can give our guest a private room, we also have to explain to our kids that this is going to be a very different experience for them - and that Christmas is not going to be what they've come to expect.
  7. And on top of that, no one that he meets – neither us, nor our kids, nor our friends, no one – is allowed to utter the word “adoption”. "The organization" calls it the “a-word”. There are two reasons for this:
  1. "The organization" is not an adoption agency, and if the established adoption agencies hear “adoption” spoken of by the kids, "the organization" could lose their ability to arrange these hosting opportunities
  2. More importantly: we can’t set the child up for thinking that he’s going to be adopted. There are even *more* obstacles in the way before that could happen.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  All of the paperwork has to be completed very quickly… almost immediately. The child we hope to host will arrive Dec 13. All of the paperwork has to be completed and processed by both the US government and the foreign government. If you’ve read my blog at all, you know that I’m not confident that anything can be done efficiently by any government, least wise a former soviet state.

Long story short: we’re putting great time, effort and money into something that may not happen. During which we will struggle mightily to figure out how to overcome the language barrier, and at the end of which, whether we want to or not, we’re going to be forced to confront the idea of the a-word. I’ve heard enough of what these kids futures might hold to know that I can’t not consider it.

So this is what we’re doing. I consider this to be a test story. A trial run. Something that’s worthwhile and hard, but not impossible.  It may open the door for future stories that are harder yet more wonderful. And while I’m doing this, primarily for this child, I'm also doing it (in part) to make my story more interesting. But I’m also doing it for my children – the one’s we gave birth to. Read Chapter 9 from Miller's book. It's short. And as I re-read it, it nearly brings me to tears.

Pray for us, please. There is much to do and much uncertainty.  But there is one thing I’m certain of: the next 8-10 weeks will not be boring.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Re: HTC Hero vs Palm Pre

By request, I am posting an update to what I think of as my "phone commitment issues" and my decision regarding whether to stick with the Palm Pre or to switch to the HTC Hero, which I've been evaluating.

When it comes down to it, the question that I have to answer is which decision will I regret more.  It's not that I won't regret one over the other.  It's that, no matter what I do, I'll have to give up something.  Economists call this opportunity cost.  Since I can't afford to keep both phones, I have to give up one of them.  Which one will I regret giving up more?

So below are two lists. The first is what I'll miss if I decide to stick with the Pre.  The second is what I'll miss if I decide to stick with the Hero. On balance, I think I'll miss more if I stick with the Pre.

If I stick with the Pre, I'll miss the following from the Hero:
  1. Hero’s 1500mAh battery.
  2. Android’s ability to completely swap dialer, sms and other standard apps.
  3. Widgets
  4. TONS of apps in Android Market
  5. Hero’s much faster calendar
  6. Hero’s Voice Google search
  7. Astrid – a significantly better Tasks application, that syncs with Remember The Milk.
  8. Notes - a better memos app that includes categorization and backup
  9. Visual Voicemail
  10. The definitive nature of the “back” and “menu” operations on the Hero. As compared to the Pre's back and menu gestures, which work, but I do them wrong frequently enough to make it annoying.
  11. Hero’s much more solid hardware build vs. Pre’s fragile slider. (I am, after all on Pre #4)
  12. Video
  13. MicroSD slot
  14. The Trackball as a much more precise way to go backwards and correct a typo as compared to Pre's holding the orange key, and gesturing.
  15. The cool stuff in Android 2.0, especially google's turn by turn navigation
If I go with the Hero, I'll miss the following from the Pre:
  1. Pre's physical keyboard that I’m much better at compared to Hero’s virtual keyboard.
  2. The significantly better Twitter apps (Twee and Tweed) that are available for the Pre
  3. Pregame's LED Flashlight which isn't even possible on the Hero since it doesn't have an LED.
  4. The Pre's NFL & NASCAR apps are able to stream audio while the screen is off. The Hero versions cut the audio as soon as the screen blanks.
  5. Synergy’s more accurate and flexible ability to link multiple accounts into a single contact entry. The Hero has something like it, but it is rudimentary by comparison.
  6. Pre's support for IMAP IDLE enabling real time push email while conserving battery. The Hero can only poll on specified intervals.
  7. Pre's full HTML rendering in email vs Hero's not.
  8. Pre's browser starting up at bookmarks instead of Hero's requirement that I open a homepage that I didn't want to open.
  9. The sheer potential of WebOS, which is rumored to be getting GPU support in release 1.3.1, which is rumored to be due soon.  This would likely increase the Pre's responsiveness dramatically.
The commenter requested that I expand a bit on the contact linking features of the Hero.  In general, I think that the Pre's contact linking w/Synergy is superior to the Hero's contact linking.  On the Hero you can link an existing google contact to facebook or to flickr but that's all. You can't link an existing google contact to another google contact. Coming from previoulsy using PalmOS, this is significant. Under PalmOS, I had several contacts who I had duplicate entries for. The reason? I couldn't support enough phone numbers for them in a single contact. So I had to create multiples. WebOS contacts allow me to link all of those together into one contact.

Additionally, on the Hero, when you do link to facebook, the Hero only allows you to link two things from the facebook account: birthday and profile picture. That's it. If the contact has a phone or email listed in facebook, that he/she maintains, Hero won't import it.

There are a couple of thing that the Hero contact linking does better than Pre's contact linking. First, when you've linked to contacts on the Hero, it actually writes a record into the Notes field on google. What this means is that your contact linking survives wiping the device.  That's not true for the Pre.  If you manually link a contact on the Pre, then wipe your device, that link will be lost.

The other thing that the Hero does is it imports each facebook contact's facebook status and offers a way to see it from contacts.  The Pre doesn't import facebook status at all.

There is rumor that the Hero is inline to get an upgrade to Android 2.0. Contact management in 2.0 is supposed to be improved. So perhaps contact linking and imports will also be improved so that it catches up with the Pre & synergy.

All of this said, I've attempted to switch.  I think I will regret less going with the Hero. But it's not going well. On the phone, I spoke with the  "Sprint Multiple Device Return" group.  They told me to take the phone into a corporate store and to deal with a manager, who would have the discretion to be able to switch me to the Hero. But when I went to the store, they told me that they have no discretion and that perhaps Sprint customer account services has some way that I can switch.  I called Sprint customer account services, and they re-iterated what the multiple device return guys were saying.  So I will, again, go back to the store and attempt to switch.

I'm not terribly hopeful that it'll work. Such are the pitfalls of being an early adopter. On the other hand, I could simply attempt to sell my phone on the market, then use the proceeds to buy the Hero. It would almost certainly involve buying a new phone on a new line, then canceling the line and paying the early termination fee. I'd rather not do that, but it's something to consider, although I don't know what the market is for the phone.

Monday, November 02, 2009

HTC Hero vs Palm Pre

Below I compare two cell phones that I currently own: a Palm Pre and an HTC Hero. Both of which are on Sprint. I am trying to decide which of these phones to keep, and which to get rid of.  In June, I bought the Palm Pre.  And I've gone from being extremely excited about it to somewhat disappointed.

Sprint recently released the HTC Hero. And I thought maybe it would do a better job for me than what the Pre did.  So I currently own two phones.  The Hero will be going back to Best Buy before the 30 day no questions asked return policy expires. If I like it more than the Pre, I'm going to pester Sprint until they let me tradein the Pre in exchange for a Hero. I can be a real pest. Just ask my wife & kids.

Below are the notes that I've been taking while running this experiment. Some notation explanation.  A minus sign (-) means that in my opinion, the Pre wins that point.  A plus sign (+) means that the Hero wins it. And an = sign means that they tie.

- Virtual Keyboards (VK) suck. Hero's VK is better than Pre's VK by a Texas mile.  But it's can't replicate tactile feedback of a real keyboard.  Hero's calibration tool helped, but still can't compare to a physical keyboard.
- Virtual keyboard takes up too much screen realestate making the effective screeen size of Hero much smaller when typing than Pre.
- Hero has no proximity sensor to turn off screen when putting phone to face. Accidental button presses happen.
- Hero doesn't come with headphones in the box. Say what?!
- Hero's charging cable is not microusb. Nor is it miniusb. It appears to be proprietary to HTC. All other phones in my house charge on microusb making chargers interchangeable. Disappointing.
- Hero has no LED flash on camera. I (rarely) use Pre's flash for pictures. I have an app installed that turns the phone into a decent flashlight.

= Hard to get the balance right on Hero when trying to type while laying down in bed. Getting the right balance could be something I'll learn, like I learned it w/Pre.
= Hero's charging cable doubles as USB data cable, just like Pre.
= Apparently the Hero has a builtin hardware compass. Ok. I haven't figured out any uses for it.  It doesn't seem to impact orientation of maps in google maps like on iPhone 3GS. Not sure how useful it is.

+ Hero's battery is bigger than Pre's (1500mAh vs 1150 mAh). And Hero software does good job of managing battery by sleeping CPU when not in use.
+ Hero's dedicated buttons for menu and back work better IMHO than Pre's gestures. It's just too easy with the Pre to think I've executed the gesture, but have the phone not agree with me. This problem doesn't happen with buttons.
+ Trackball is brilliant. Pre should not get rid of center button, but replace it w/Trackball. Very useful for getting precisely to the character I want to erase and correct.
+ Hero feel's lighter in pocket than Pre, despite both being 135grams. Slightly larger distributes weight making it feel lighter
+ Hero has a much more solid feel w/o the slider action of Pre, at the cost of no physical keyboard
+ Back cover material feels great. Similar to touchstone battery cover. Much better than Pre's standard battery cover.

- On Hero, contact linking to facebook only imports birtday & picture.  No phone numbers, email addresses or other contact info that Pre dutifully collects.
- On Hero, pulling up standard app drawer and pressing search seems to bring up voice search - I can't type in app I'm looking for. Will be a big problem if I install a large number of apps, some of which I only use infrequently. Pre's universal search (including applications) works very well.
- Hero's autocorrrect seems to not work in every keyboard input situation. E.g. entering a URL into browser

- HTML email is readable, but images aren't loaded. Is there an option to turn on full HTML email?
- Calendar has no week view.
- Calendar doesn't compress unused time in day view - Palm has done this right for years.
- Applications are *HUGE* compared to Pre. I'd grown accustomed to seeing 50k & 100k apps in App Catalog. It was shocking to see 1MB & 2MB apps. This points to different application models in each phone.
- Pandora app has advertisements. Yuck.
- Pandora app can't go back and look at previous song to see what it was or rate it.
- Changing phone orientation is slow. Also it appears to only be able to do it in two directions.  Portrait mode only seems to work with trackball below the screen.  Landscape only works w/trackball to right of screen.
- None of the twitter apps that I've tried comes close to being as full featured as Tweed or Twee.
- Browser feels slower than on Pre. But may be related to the fact that it will load more data than Pre because it understands flash and Pre doesn't.
- Browser requires a home page. Why? When I start the browser, I reall don't want to wait for it to load some page that I didn't want, so that I can start typing in the page I did want. No option for blank home page.
- Mail app doesn't support IMAP idle. It sets defined polling tmes for determining new email.
- NFL / Nascar radio turns off when screensaver comes on.

= No default notes/memos app - lots of good & free option in Android Market - I like "Notes" by Yuli
= No default tasks app - lots of good & free options in Android Market - I like "Astrid Task/Todo List" by we <3 Astrid
= Automatic process management is IMHO, more advanced multitasking than swiping away cards. Unfortunately, it causes problems with 100% awake time as mystery apps can keep your CPU loaded. e.g. Messages
= Automatic screen brightness adjustment. I can't figure out where the light sensor is. Good idea. Mostly works well, but it's also pretty random when it adjusts, and I'd like to tweak the adjustments slightly brighter.

+ Widgets rock. WebOS has no equivalent and these are simply fantastic. And if you don't have enough screen space left, folder widgets, FTW.
+ People centric is really nice. Facebook status updates, email messages, etc notification of some communication from a person no matter where that comm originates.
+ "Locale" by two forty four am, LLC in Android Market has a *ton* of potential. It's an app to change your settings based on your location.  E.g. I'm at church, automatically turn on silent mode.
+ Awake Time Calculator
+ Calendar has built in agenda
+ Calendar is much faster than Pre calendar, making it actually usable.
+ Visual voicemail rocks
+ Ability to completely replace builtin apps (e.g. messaging & phone) is awesome
+ Notifications on Pre are very good. Notifications on Hero are even better.
+ IMHO, general OS responsiveness is better than Pre. It does get occasionally laggy - something that I've never seen on any iPhone - but no where near as frequently as Pre.
+ Voice google search is super cool and works really well. I suspect I'll use this more as I get used to the idea. But for now, I'm not using it much.
+ Voice control. Pre has no (zero, zilch, nada) for voice control. 'Nuff said.
+ Video. Also 'nuff said.
+ Browser understands flash. Can't play all flash, but can play some.
+ Browser text rewrapping based on screen dimensions is very nice. Makes for less "pan and scan" type reading of web pages.

My conclusion, at this point, is that I think I prefer the Hero.