Friday, March 22, 2013

The Opportunity to Dance

Most people who see me regularly have heard me talk about this issue, but I'm going to make some use out of my blog and put some of my thoughts into writing. Before I get into the issue at hand though, I want to give a little bit of backstory about my relationship with dancing. I hope that telling my story will make my end point clearer, so just stick with me for a while here.

I've always loved music. Deeply loved it. I was a bored kid in my earlier years because it was too hot to go outside and play, my brother was much older, and we didn't have cable tv, but the bright side of that is that it gave me time to sit in my room and listen to music. I almost never do that anymore because I'm so busy and music has become a backdrop for other activities, but I loved to sit there and do nothing else other than listen to my cassettes or CDs. As I got older, I looked forward to New Year's Eve with the family because there was always dancing to feed my need for music and I felt free to just freestyle dance. I was a terrible dancer, mind you. I had some rhythm but absolutely no technique. I just didn't care though - it always made me smile and laugh.

Then came the summer of 2006. I interned in Dallas and had probably the best summer of my life enjoying time with newly found friends in my free time, of which there was a lot. A couple of them were Mexican or Colombian and knew how to dance salsa - culturally, it's just something they grew up on. They taught us basic techniques and I remember struggling endlessly to not look like a robot and to stay on rhythm, but the music always energized me enough to make me want to keep trying. I learned through a student organization back at college more than just the basics and what drew me into salsa, aside from the music, was that there was a structure I could follow to dance correctly. Engineers aren't the most creative of people outside of our fields. I have creativity about me in specific parts of my life, but when I see advanced dancers I know that I'll never be quite at their level. Still, salsa gave me a ray of hope that I could grow my creativity and my love of music all in one!

Before long, I was actually going to salsa clubs. I hadn't ever been to a dance club I didn't hate because it seemed like clubs were places where desperate people go to try to do dubious things and it was always too noisy and too dark. Salsa clubs were almost the exact opposite - they were places where people went to be themselves, have fun, and be respectful (generally) of others. While I was always self-conscious about my novice abilities, I always felt welcome and was grateful for it. I'll never forget one friend I made who was clearly a way better dancer than me and I didn't understand why she, at her far superior experience level, ever wanted to dance with someone who fumbled around to do more than about 10 different techniques. I found out one day when we danced though - she laughed and said "you're always smiling! I love it!" That made me realize a couple of things. For one thing, I hoped I was smiling too much. For another though, it struck me that different people get different things out of dancing from different people, and that's a big part of what makes it magical

Once you learn one dance though, you just want to learn more and more - it becomes a slight addiction! From that same organization I picked up merengue, cha cha, and bachata, all much easier than salsa, granted. However, I lost my social group of fellow dancers when I moved to Seattle and was on hiatus for a couple of years. However, I came across west coast swing at an intro lesson to, ironically, re-kindle my interest in salsa where the teachers also knew west coast swing and started noodling around in it. I pretty quickly swooned for west coast swing because of the variety of contemporary music that worked with it (pretty much anything in 4:4 rhythm with a mellow enough tempo). And just last year I started on kizomba after being invited by my salsa instructor to try it out! What's interesting about that is how quickly it's catching on worldwide despite being so new.

What's so addictive about dancing? If you're not already a dancer (by that I mean someone who goes out and dance on some semi-regular basis), then it's probably not so obvious. It's a combination of a few things though. For one, it's beautiful to be in harmony with another person and with music all at the same time. I feel like whenever there is harmony in nature, there is God, and where there is God there is love - so can't we all use a little more love in life? Secondly, once you learn the ropes in your first dance style - it's much easier to do other stuff. It's like when you start working out regularly - the first couple of weeks suck, but then it's never quite so hard again. Thirdly though, and maybe most importantly, there's the sense of community. Dancing really helped me gain a lot of confidence in myself. There's no distinction among skin color or sex or economic class or age or anything like that in dancing. I've even danced with women well into their 60s and saw them light up on the dance floor like they were 20 years younger. There's few activities out there that brings people together in a positive way like dancing - all around you is smiling (possibly sweaty) people, laughter, and hugs.

Of course, as a lead it can be hard sometimes to find time to practice on your own enough to stay sharp out there and so sometimes you can get a little bit in your own head as you mess up details a lot and discouraged as I have recently. However, earlier this week, I went dancing west coast swing at Century and had an experience that reminded me of why dancing is worth it. A girl asked me to dance to a song that I didn't know and she said "oh, it's a waltz" to which I frantically replied "oh no! I don't know how to waltz!" Her more than welcome response to me was to just do whatever I wanted and make it up as I go because that's what she does. Amazingly enough, it really worked. For those 3-4 minutes, I felt like a real-life dancer. I took all that I had soaked up from dancing west coast swing and salsa and watching others and by roughly matching the beat I just did what came natural. I was on a high all night from it because it's such a rare experience to dance with someone and be on the same page the whole time where even your screw-ups and theirs come out looking superb. As I mentioned earlier with harmony, I think most dancers will remark that there are only certain people they absolutely click with when they're out there - you may have fun with lots of people, but it's a small number that you uniquely mesh with.

Why did I spend all this time explaining my interest in dancing? Because I believe the opportunity to dance is a right everyone should have. There's an antiquated law that the state of Washington is conveniently interpreting to hinder that opportunity. They've decided to shakedown Century Ballroom for an astronomical amount of back taxes they never before asked for but got negotiated down to $92,000, and while they've fundraised about $63,000 of that, they have until May 1 to come up with the rest. If you at all liked reading this post, I implore you to thank me by donating a few bucks to Century. I know there's a lot of great charities out there so maybe it seems silly to donate to a small business, but they help people right here in Seattle and create an opportunity to dance in a really positive way with their affordable classes and affordable social dancing. They've been a Seattle institution for 16 years and have earned our support - so please provide it. They're working on trying to get a bill passed to repeal this tax - it's a silly tax because it's hard to define who it's levied on so it's intrinsically unfair, but it also discourages a good activity. That's like charging a sin tax on fruits and vegetables - it doesn't really make a lot of sense. Please tell your representatives in the Washington legislature that you support dancing in Seattle and not this crazy tax. And last, but not least, get out there and dance your hearts out. Enjoy life - don't let it slip by.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Django Unchained

At some point I'd like to get back to writing about tech, but it has been a bit difficult because life has simple been busy! I've been loving life though and trying to fit in dancing and training where I can. In the meantime - look! A post:

Kunta Evolved

I watched the BET Awards earlier this year and at the end of the show Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington came on stage and introduced a montage of clips from Django Unchained and he set it up as what he wanted to be the most influential piece of Black cinema since Roots. He introduced it as "Kunta Evolved." I have to admit that I haven't actually seen the highly acclaimed Roots starring Lavaar Burton, though its power as a film is undeniable. (I'm putting it on my "movies to see" list, but I didn't want to delay this review on seeing it.)  So does it live up to such hype from Foxx himself? I think it's going to be near impossible for Tarantino to ever have an impact on pop culture like Pulp Fiction had, but I think this has got to be as close as Tarantino could get.

In case you don't know what the basic premise is (though in all their video ads and trailers they've actually done a pretty good job of explaining it),  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a bounty hunter who comes across a bounty for three brothers that Django (Jamie Foxx) has seen and is one of a few people who would be able to identify them. Hence, he recruits Django to help him with this in exchange for a small percentage of the bounty, his freedom, and later the opportunity to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). To make things more interesting, in true Tarantino fashion this film is a homage. It's a devoted dedication to Blaxploitation films with a nod to Spaghetti Westerns. It's a simple enough plotline that is painted with dialogue so crazy only Tarantino would have the guts to put it on the big screen, loads of suspense and emotion, and, of course, cartoonishly vicious displays of violence wrapped in a revenge story. Revenge is a common motif in Tarantino films (Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds), and I think his take in this film is actually a little different - but I think expounding out that would be a spoiler so I won't. As a film, I'd probably compare it most closely to Inglourious Basterds, but with lots more blood. And I mean a lot.

The acting in this film is, as expected, phenomenal. I don't know what Tarantino puts in his cast's water, but what excites me most about seeing his work is that no performance leaves anything to be desired. I was a little disappointed that he didn't throw any no-names in here or washed up actors - they were all actors that you'd already expect to be talented. Kerry Washington is probably the least familiar to audiences, and she is radiant. Though this film lacks strong women due to the time period, I still saw the scenes with her showed inspiring courage and immense beauty, even when dressed as a slave (to be clear: I'm not saying she was beautiful because she was a slave, but that it was crazy that even when she tugged on your heart strings for her deplorable state they could never fully destroy her beauty). I don't know what to say about Christoph Waltz that I didn't say in my review of Inglourious Basterds - he's a treat whenever he's on screen. You can't help but love him as an actor and his character as a person. Even though he kills people for a living, you still have to root for him. Jamie Foxx is an often underrated actor, but given the right material he can really do something special - and I think he does here. As far as the antagonists go, you can't help but love to hate Sam Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. I'm sure its hard as a human being to say some of the stuff they had to say in this film (especially for Samuel L Jackson), but they were such unique villains. While I did see similarities between DiCaprio here and Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, I liked how the movie almost made you forget at times what a terrible person DiCaprio is. His Southern sensibilities almost hid it away.

The set pieces and costumes in the film were really great, not much I can say here. The costumes really put you in the time period and the set pieces were nice gradients of muted plains versus elegance. I was a little disappointed that the set pieces didn't lend themselves to any exceptional cinematography. In past Tarantino films there are a number of scenes I remember specifically because of the images they conveyed that were burned into my brain, but I didn't really have much of that here.

The soundtrack is ridiculous - it's a must-buy. I'm actually listening to it right now and, per normal, it drums up in me memories from the movie. It's got Rick Ross, John Legend, 2Pac, Ennio Morricone and the standard bevy of quotable quotes from the movie. I love that there are theme songs for King and for Django - those are nice touches. Tarantino typically forms his soundtracks before he starts shooting his films, not the other way around. For a music-lover like me, this is not lost on me.

I know this has been an all-out lovefest, but this is far from my favorite Tarantino film. First of all, it's just too long. I know he's a really passionate director and he wrote the script so he's naturally very attached to it, but he needs to get a better editor.  Two hours and forty-five minutes is just ridiculous. The final act went on for far too long. I'd have to watch it again to tell you exactly what I think needed to be cut, but I think Tarantino had too many ideas he was trying to convey here. I really wish he would've picked a couple and focused on those, and then just given us the rest as deleted scenes later. I also thought there was also too much violence in this film. It wasn't hyper-realistic like in a war moving, but it also wasn't humorously ridiculous violence like in Kill Bill. At times the violence was definitely a little disturbing. Even when characters you're rooting for kill people, you may sometimes cringe. It was so much so that I walked out of this film not really sure how I felt about it. I only realized how much I liked the film as a whole hours later when I was recalling it and the scenes that struck me and emotions that were stirred up in me. It's just not a super easy film to re-watch again and again compare to his other work.

So, should you run out and see it? If you can stomach buckets of blood and being reminded of how awful slaves were treated, go for it. It's a worthwhile ride to be on even with its flaws. While it may not be Tarantino's best work, it's easily one of the best (maybe the best) I've seen all year. My letter rating is an A-. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kindle Paperwhite

Yeah yeah I know, I've been bad. I haven't been writing here and you're all heartbroken. By now, I'm sure you've gotten over it with minimal tears. This blog pops up in my mind but has just fallen lower in my priority list. I'm writing this post in hopes that it will energize me into writing posts with some regularity again!

Kindle Paperwhite Review

(Disclaimer: I do work for Amazon but I do not work for the part of the company that produces hardware or software for the Kindle. I'm sure in some indirect way your purchase of a Kindle does benefit me, but I only buy into Amazon products that I like. I'm certainly not being paid to write this review - quite the contrary, I paid out of pocket for the full price of this device.)

I bought my first Kindle a couple of years ago now. It was the Kindle Keyboard (i.e. the third Kindle release) and I had gotten it because I felt like the Kindle folks had finally hit their stride (see that review). The color was immediately attractive to me, the form factor and weight overall was ideal for one handed reading, and the speed was reasonable enough to where the black flashes on the screen didn't bug me. That being said, I almost never used the keyboard, navigating the screen on the directional pad was a chore, and I needed a $60 case in order to read in dim lighting in an elegant way (the first party lighted leather case). Last winter I jumped on the Kindle Touch bandwagon (see that review) for one primary reason: the infared touch screen. The idea of not having to use that stupid d-pad was very enticing. Additionally, there was X-ray (which sideloads Wikipedia content for characters, places, and terms in books and tells you where in the book they're mentioned), a greatly improved case (the old case had a serious issue with the connection to the spine), and a page refresh that didn't require blacking out the screen each time. Of course, the case was still $60 in order to read in dim lighting and the smooth leather case attracted scratches like a magnet. All-in-all, this was an evolutionary step forward that I only took because of how much more I loved the Kindle than practically any other device I owned.

Flash forward to two and a half weeks ago when I got my Kindle Paperwhite: there's no doubt that this is superior in nearly every way to every single Kindle ever made and now is the time to jump on the e-Reader bandwagon if you've been holding out. I'm very confident that if you enjoy reading or if you're like me and enjoy reading except when it means squinting for tiny text or lugging around heavy books, you will not regret getting a Paperwhite. I'll start out talking about the new features and what I like about it before I get to some of the areas for improvement.

With each Kindle, the team has gotten better at making the onboarding experience as pain-free as possible. The Paperwhite was no exception. While I do slightly miss the fact that in the past my Kindle already had my account information on it (could be that for some unknown reason mine didn't while others did), the onscreen tutorial as soon as you switch it on is awesome. You're ready to start using it within a couple of minutes as long as you have connectivity (WiFi or 3G if you got the 3G model). One key difference on the onboarding experience this time is that they no longer make you suffer as an existing customer - getting your content on there is much easier. They've changed the UI to be more like the Amazon MP3 Player UI (and I think even the Kindle UI on non-Kindles) where you have "Cloud" section and  a "Device" section with the major improvement of a drop down for type of content (Periodical, Book, etc). So now, you just scroll through your cloud content and tap the stuff you want to transfer over to your device. Since the Kindle Touch, any personal documents you've transferred to your device through Amazon is backed up in the cloud up to a reasonably high limit (books you buy through Amazon are backed up without limit). So I had over 100 items to transfer over, but because the Paperwhite is a bit zippier than past Kindles I was able to tap all the items I cared about (probably 3/4 of my library) in under 5 minutes, and over WiFi it was short work to get them all on there (notes, bookmarks, and all). What's even better though is that you can now sync your collections, as well! Once you've downloaded the content, you can sync that metadata and it'll organize all your content within seconds into their old collections. Cool, huh?

New Way of Indexing Your Content
Enough gushing about onboarding, let's move on to the UI. I like it, I like it a lot. Instead of the boring lists of text approach of the Kindle Touch that carried over from the pedigree of Kindles lacking a touch interface, there's now more of a cover flow-like interface (see photo to left) that uses the covers of purchased books or the first page of personal documents sent via "Sent to Kindle" (otherwise just some text in a box). It fits 6 covers on a page and it totally looks more polished to have this. You still get X-ray as in Kindles past, so nothing surprising there, and you still tap 3/4 of the right side of the screen to go forward (or swipe right to left), 1/4 of left side of screen to go back (or swipe left to right), and top 1/5th of screen for menu (including the home icon). However, there are three new features that are wonderful. The first is the time left in your chapter or book. It's actually quite accurate. If you vary the pace you read at or linger too much on pages caught up in daydreams then maybe it's not so good for you, but it seems to be adaptive. So if you start reading something slowly and then speed up a bunch, it will adjust, I've noticed. I'm still not sure if it's per book or per device, but I do know that information isn't stored in the cloud or anything - that math is done on the device itself and if you were to wipe the device it'd go back to defaults. The sacrifice is that you have to hit the menu area at the top to get to the page number, but if you tap the lower left corner it cycles between time left in chapter, time left in book, and Kindle proprietary location. The second main change is the addition of more fonts - I was taken aback at how cool this is. For certain books certain fonts really pop - I'm reading The Princess Bride right now, primarily, and using Futura makes it feel so much more like a real book to me. As advertised, you can go one font size smaller than before, which I don't ever use but it's just as sharp as you'd expect even at that size. Oh, and of course the physical home button is gone. I thought I'd miss this but I surprisingly enough do not at all. The last major change is in the upper right corner of the navigation screens - you can not only change how you sort but how you filter (collections, novels, periodicals, etc), which is a small detail but very nice to have.

Getting down to the screen itself, there are some real revolutionary changes here. First of all, it's capacitive touch. I thought this would never be possible and I could be totally wrong but I haven't heard of another e-reader pulling this off. The Kindle Touch IR touch screen was fine but took some getting used to and meant that objects other than your hands like maybe a piece of cloth from your blanket falling on the screen would turn pages. Now, much like your smartphone it requires your finger specifically to turn pages (or a sausage, but if you're reading with raw meats in your hand then you're an odd duck). Secondly, the lighting technology is phenomenal. While it's true that you can't see the light coming out of one side of the device like you can on the latest generation Nook, you can see around all the edges the slightest hint of the layer of light under the screen if you turn it at the exact right angle. Plus, at the bottom you see the tiniest bit of fading under dark conditions. Other than that, it's stunning. Everyone that I've shown it to has been equally impressed. Even better: even at its lowest brightness (which you control very easily via the top menu from any context on the device you're in), it's a good bit whiter than the Kindle Touch was. You'll notice this in the below photos with my old case light on versus Paperwhite max lighting and no light on either. For the first time ever, I really at times felt like I was reading a paper back book in high definition. In the past the e-ink has always impressed and been super easy on my eyes, but the grayish brown background always made it feel like an e-reader, which wasn't a big deal to me. However, it's a very nice touch that you'll almost immediately appreciate. I like how under well-lit situations, keeping the light somewhere in the middle just improves the contrast and feels nice on my eyes, and turning it up to the max it doesn't even seem like it's backlit at all, just even prettier than before. In darker situations, I can turn it down to the lower half of the lighting spectrum and read without issue or eye irritation versus a bright white screen. I've only done this for 20 minute bouts because reading in the dark a ton isn't great for you, but if your lamp just isn't that bright, the Paperwhite has got your back. One other thing you may notice in my photos is the contrast improvement. It's subtle, but it's there. I couldn't really tell between the Kindle Keyboard and the Kindle Touch, but I totally can now. Don't get me wrong, it's not a life-changing improvement, but within an hour or so of reading on my Paperwhite I could feel in my eyes that something was just different other than the whiter background, and on super close inspection realized it was the addition of more pixels.

Paperwhite Max Brightness vs. Kindle Touch with Lighted Case

Up Close with Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle Touch (no light added)

A recurring issue for me in the past was the case - so how does this one stack up? This is the first Kindle case where I'd give a five star rating. It's outstanding and a great value at $40. I loved that they brought back the textured leather - it doesn't scratch up and it grips so much better in my hands. The magnetic clasp is an inspired touch. It may have been inspired by Apple, but I'll take it. It's the perfect balance between the Kindle Keyboard strap and the Kindle Touch free-balling look. When held in funky positions or dropped it doesn't fly open, but it takes very little exertion to get it open. The best part for dorks out there like me is the auto on/off thing. I thought it was just a gimmick when I heard about it, but having used it for a couple of weeks now I'm just blown away by how much it enhances my experience. I can literally read a little bit while waiting on an elevator for a second because it turns on so quickly and I love that I can shut it without being worried about hitting the physical home button the Kindle Touch had or even the IR screen itself because I know there is no physical button and that it'll turn off immediately. I like that the inside of the front cover has a nice texture to it that looks really polished and that the side, top, and bottom are a little rubbery to absorb shock better. Just as before, the Paperwhite fits so snug that you'll never have to worry about it falling out of the case or getting damaged because of how solid the shell is.

So as I alluded to earlier, I do have a couple of minor gripes. I'm bummed that they did away with the swipe up and swipe down gestures. Formerly, these gestures let you skip chapters and I loved it. I'm probably going to write in to the Kindle folks and beg them to bring back this feature. I don't know why it went away. Speaking of cut features,  why can't I toggle WiFi on/off from the top menu? I have to go to settings now to switch airplane mode on/off. That makes it harder to conserve battery life because of the added work so I'll probably sync less often. One other lost feature: text-to-speech. They cut the speakers and headphone jack out very quietly (coincidentally), so you'll have to opt for the cheap Kindle model if you're visually impaired, which probably makes more sense. I'm not a fan of the black color. My favorite Kindle color is still the graphite from the Kindle Keyboard. It's nice that the back is more rubbery than the smooth Kindle Touch back, but the bezel being black means that it retains your hand grease more easily (the screen itself doesn't seem to, mainly just the bezel). The fact that the home screen has a bottom row dedicated to recommendations and hot titles is kind of cool, but I wish it was opt-out. I'd prefer to use the screen real estate for more collections. Plus, it doesn’t even exclude books I've already bought, which is disappointing; hopefully that'll get fixed later. Speaking of ads, the ad-supported device only saves you $20 and requires a swipe-to-unlock (because of the new case, I'm guessing). I think going ad-supported is silly now because of this - it was a lot more sensible in past Kindles.  One last gripe: the Paperwhite still isn't lighter. I'm guessing they compromised here in favor of the battery life. With the case on, it actually does feel a little easier to hold in one hand than the Kindle Touch, but still not quite as nice as the Kindle Keyboard.

A couple of last notes: the jury is still out for me on battery life. It's doing pretty well overall, but after decent usage for a week and some change the battery is at maybe 70%. So I don't think it'll hold up to the two months I was promised (even with WiFi off), but I think it'll easily meet at least the month that my old Kindle had even with the lighted screen, and I'm perfectly satisfied with that. It's slightly zippier overall than the Kindle Touch. Page turns are a little faster and the black screen flashes are so quick that you really barely even notice them. Web browsing is a little better, too, but still nothing to write home about.

Ok, I think I've said enough here - as a whole, I hope I've given you a pretty good idea of what the Kindle Paperwhite is like. If you own a Kindle 1 or 2, you need to upgrade to this. Even if you have the Kindle Keyboard and Kindle Touch, I'd say this is a nice upgrade but probably more valuable for the Kindle Keyboard users. Personally, I don't at all regret my upgrade from the Kindle Touch. I really feel like it was much more sensible than my upgrade from the Kindle Keyboard. Book lovers unite - you finally have a device truly worthy of your affection.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Avengers, Assemble!

I'm a little bummed that I haven't had time to blog in a while, but I decide to make some time tonight to at least put up a quick review about a little movie that came out last week called The Avengers.

In case you've lived in a cave for a while, Marvel had this almost absurd plan that they were going to make individual films about each of the superheroes that are part of the team in the Marvel Universe known as Avengers who assemble in the comic book world when there's a really big threat. They were created in response to DC's Justice League and had a rotating cast of heroes/heroines, but the movie sticks with the most popular ones. The only members to not get their own films were Black Widow and Hawkeye, though they received cameos in Iron Man and Thor, respectively. The premise of this film is that Thor's brother, Loki, is trying to enslave humanity with the help of an alien army that enters the planet via a portal created by an extremely powerful cube called the Tesseract. Naturally, the Avengers reluctantly assemble to stop the threat.

I decided to see the movie at midnight on opening night, which was actually a lot more comfortable than I imagined it'd be, and I was shocked that this movie wasn't awful. Joss Whedon being on board made it seem pretty likely that it'd be a great film, but to take so many larger-than-life characters that bring a lot of backstory baggage from their own movies and put them together just seemed exceedingly difficult. Especially considering that these were the same actors (except for Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton as Bruce Banner) from each superhero's own film - there was no guarantee that they'd work well together. This movie worked on many levels though, and I think the main reason is the fact that this movie didn't take itself too seriously. In modern superhero films, these's a pretty clear dichotomy between films that really strive to exist in a grounded, real world (like The Dark Knight or Chronicle) and those that fully embrace the comic world without going overboard (like X-Men or Spider-Man). The Avengers falls in the latter category, and I think we should all be glad for that because it manages to appeal to the comic book fans with lots of subtle, inside jokes while still being accessible to mainstream audiences and building a storyline that everyone can get on board with. It doesn't try to adhere too strictly to the comics aside from the characters themselves, but rather it's a very creative take on what happens when you throw all these different elements together.

If you're expecting a groundbreaking film here, you're going to be disappointed. At its core, it follows a very standard formula. I don't see anything wrong with that though - it executes on this formula very well with the added benefit that there's no need for a prolonged backstory on the characters. It doesn't bother re-hashing what's happened in previous movies except very briefly giving you just enough so that you can still follow along. Sure, it slightly penalizes the people who haven't see the previous four films, but not nearly enough to keep you from seeing this one. I didn't see Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger and yet I didn't feel lost at all. In effect, it was refreshing that the movie could move at such a brisk pace keeping the audience really engaged with loads of humor and fight scenarios that geeks normally have to put a lot of brain power into daydreaming about. The humor really is pretty impressive - subtle, dry, and timed very well.

The acting is as solid as you'd expect. Nick Fury is Sam Jackson, so it makes sense that he'd do the character justice and obviously plays a much bigger role in this film than any of the previous ones. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with Scarlett Johansson - I think the screenplay didn't really give us a clear picture of Black Widow. There were bits and pieces, and it was probably somewhat intentional that she be a bit of a mystique, but I don't think Johansson helped - the character just seemed a bit flat. She's still gorgeous though. The rest of the cast knocks it out of the park, especially Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr (for the third Tony Stark movie in a row - he's on fire). I didn't think I'd be happy with re-casting Edward Norton because I love him as an actor, but when you see Ruffalo it's clear that he should've been Bruce Banner all along.

The action sequences are grand and well done - with very minor exceptions that I won't get into so as to not spoil the film at all. The production quality is as top notch as you'd expect, and I was especially impressed by the sound editing. Maybe it was just the theater I was at, but the seats would literally rumble at the appropriate times and more so than any movie I've seen in a while I thought it was quite an immersive experience, despite being in a packed auditorium where every single geeky thing got lots of applause and/or laughter.

My score for this movie would probably be an A-. I loved it, would highly recommend, and would definitely see it again (it survives the test of me still reminiscing about the movie 3 days later), but there's nothing especially extraordinary about it. It's just a super fun action film that's well worth the ride if you're willing to tolerate being in an entirely geek driven universe and can suspend disbelief on a few things (e.g. there were definitely some anachronisms with Captain America).

P.S. There are not one but two post-credits bonus scenes. So don't let the janitor kick you out - stay in your seat until you see the second bonus scene. I only saw one, myself, because I didn't know there were two.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Goodbye Pre, Hello Galaxy (S2)!

Yeah, it's been a while. I'm not even going to try to make any excuses, life has just been busy. However, I did get a new phone! So I thought I'd write a little something about that experience. Anyone who's known me for the past couple of years knows that I've been a pretty unapologetic fan of webOS and the Palm Pre. My cell phone history is shorter than I'm sure most people my age - I went from a non-color Sanyo clamshell, to a color Smasung clamshell, to a slightly better LG clamshell, to a Palm Treo 650 (2007), to a Palm Pre (2009), and finally a Samsung Galaxy S2. For someone who loves technology so much, you'd think I'd be a little more eager with my gadgets, but I'm nothing if not a passionate person, and I act on that passion. So unless you can get me really passionate about your next big thing, I'm too pragmatic to jump ship. Once I got the Pre, I finally felt like I had a phone that matched my lifestyle. It multitasked (much like I do), it had a qwerty keyboard (that I could get up to 40 WPM on), and the UI was simple and elegant. Back then, Android was pretty ugly, Blackberry was starting to decline, and the iPhone was still an unstoppable juggernaut. The tide has really turned now. Palm has gone under, Blackberry has one foot in the grave, the iPhone is as commonplace as a clamshell phone was about 5 years ago, and Android is finally a major player in the race (sorry Microsoft, Windows Phones still haven't gotten much traction despite an excellent redesign). I'd actually posit something pretty, controversial: Android has overtaken the iPhone.

Let's pull back a bit though so I can talk a little bit about my decision to leave the Pre and why I chose the Galaxy S2. The funniest thing turned me from a webOS fan to a deserter: HP replaced Google Maps with Bing Maps. It seems pretty minor, right? I had endured Palm being bought out, I endured the lack of developer support, I endured the fact that using the headphone jack would totally hork the phone's audio, I endured having to trade in my phone about 4 times due to hardware issues, and I had endured practically total abandonment from HP, but I was annoyed beyond repair that they'd take an app that I actually liked overall and forced me to use an app that just didn't work as well and I had no choice in the matter. Soon after that, I noticed that my battery life was getting much worse as were speeds in general on my device. I stopped overclocking to deal with battery life, but now it was too slow. I hated to say it, but I was going to have to give up on phones with physical keyboards. Much like a Joss Whedon television show, they've been going extinct. Cut down in their prime (ok, maybe not, but I still liked them).

I walked into my friendly neighborhood Sprint store (the one on Union seriously is pretty friendly) in November to browse what they had and the only phones that piqued my interest were the Motorola Photon 4G, the iPhone, and the Samsung Galaxy S2 Epic 4G Touch (clearly they were high when they decided on that name). Pretty much all the other phones sucked. There was one Android candybar phone with a keyboard that was ok, but not thrilling. The iPhone was at the bottom of my list for a couple of simple reasons: I really dislike the UI and the keyboard. The Android UI may not have been intuitive at first when I played with it, but I liked what I saw online of Ice Cream Sandwich and I was blown away by the keyboard for the Photon 4G and the Galaxy S2. Swype is the coolest thing since sliced bread. I was aware of it before and thought it was gimmicky, but when I played with it in the store it worked immediately for me - I was shocked how intuitive it was. I could type on par with a physical keyboard, and the phones are big enough that turning it to landscape mode gives you a usable keyboard with two thumbs. I gave an edge to the Galaxy S2 because it was a little thinner and the screen seemed a little prettier than the Photon 4G, and comparing speeds to the iPhone I was sure that the Galaxy S2 was on par. I was hoping to wait a bit longer before jumping ship, but the Pre speeds were really getting to me and I lost my Zune HD at the end of December so I had no mp3 player. In the end, I decided on the Galaxy S2 3 weeks ago because Motorola announced that the Photon 4G would not see Ice Cream Sandwich but leaked ROMs confirmed that Samsung was working on it for the Galaxy S2.

So how was the switch from webOS to Android? I have to admit, a little rocky. I was happy as soon as I had the Galaxy S2 in my hot little hands because the screen was so impressive, the phone was running at speeds I didn't realize were possible on phones, and it was so thin that I could keep it in my pocket rather than getting a hip holster. The webOS UI took me maybe 30 minutes to figure out everything for - Android took me a few days to really sort out. The learning curve is pretty steep. As much as I love the Swype keyboard, you do have to learn some of the tricks to be really proficient at it. The stock launcher (even with TouchWiz) is meh - you get a lot more usability out of something like GO Launcher EX. That was only the tip of the iceberg of tips and tricks to using Android. Whereas webOS just worked right out of the box, Android Gingerbread only worked at a very nominal experience. The synergy that I came to love on webOS wasn't available on Android - I had to hand manage merging duplicate contacts. App backup was all on me to deal with, as well. Most of all, it took me a few days to get used to not multi-tasking. What's funny is that I can operate faster because of the fact that I can context switch even faster on this hardware versus the Pre hardware, especially by holding the home button to get to recently used apps. What I learned through it all was one key thing: Android is really only for people who are tinkerers or technologists. If you want something that just works, you really don't want Android. I've come to really enjoy it and it provides an awesomely customizable experience, but I'm shocked at how many normal people are using it. I'm sure a lot of them aren't happy with it either and that's where the iPhone succeeds.

People I know who have gone from Android to the iPhone have really hated it and it's because the experience is so curated. There's no swype, there's no JuiceDefender (this thing seriously doubles my battery life - it's ridiculous), no Dolphin Browser HD, no widgets, no lock screen customizations, and the list goes on. Meanwhile, Android has pretty much everything on the iPhone, and then some - the upcoming version even has more attractive multi-tasking, face recognition unlock, NFC support, and a few other fun things that you previously needed apps for (like panoramic pictures and lock screen customization). I should adjust my statement earlier: Android has overtaken the iPhone in technology. I think the iPhone rightfully should have more market share because it's such a simpler experience. You don't have a fragmented platform where certain things only work on certain phones - there's a few iPhones and it's pretty clear which features are new and not available for older models. It's kind of interesting that we're now pretty much in a two party system when it comes to phones and I think both platforms are great competition for one another - 5 years ago I would've said that cell phones really haven't been going anywhere but now I can say that I think we're really going to continue to see a lot of innovation.

Personally, I'm glad to be on the Android bandwagon. I've been able to use it for podcasts and music effectively (unlike the Pre), the browser is surprisingly usable, the games are surprisingly engaging, and there's so many fun productivity apps (like depositing checks and HeyTell and many more). I hope to see Samsung (who I think has really been doing the best job of producing high quality phones across all carriers) and Google continue to deliver high quality products continue to raise the bar set by Apple.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kindle Touch

Standard disclosure: I work for Amazon but I do not have any non-public, relevant information about the Kindle in any capacity. In fact, I purposely try to avoid learning any such information. I don't have any special insights into product directions, decisions made regarding Kindle devices, etc. This is merely a collection of my thoughts as a technology enthusiast/consumer.

Sorry it's been so quiet here. I think about this blog regularly, but whenever I come up with a good topic I realize that I have to recuse myself because I don't know if my thoughts on certain subjects would accidentally count as yielding secrets. I've also been a little behind on news so I figure that very untimely commentary wouldn't be valuable. I'm hoping to have more time in the next couple of months though to come up with fresh topics for blog posts on a somewhat regular basis. Anyway, on to the topic at hand...

Kindle Touch Review

I'd ideally start off with my backstory about the Kindle and how I thought it was initially a silly idea and all that jazz, but I've already spoken about all that in my review of the Kindle 3. My opinions on the Kindle and e-Ink in general remain the same. I probably read 2, maybe 3 books in all of last year (I'm not counting reference material I flipped through at work). In the past 11 months (since I got my Kindle 3) I've read six novels, half of another novel, four travel books for a vacation, a short book that's really a collection of essays, more than a fourth of the Bible, and a few white papers (not to mention several samples of books I intend to read). It's definitely made a big difference. What I'd like to talk about in this review is my experience with the Kindle Touch compared to the Kindle 3 (I'll refer to it as the Kindle Keyboard to be more consistent with the slightly confusing re-branding).

I got a Touch because as much as I loved my Kindle Keyboard, I also had a few nagging frustrations with it. Namely, I didn't like using the d-pad. I called this out in my initial review and I stand by it - it's too easy to hit other buttons and takes a while when you use it to navigate around a page for things like looking up words, highlighting, or referencing footnotes, all of which I did regularly. Even navigating a large collection of documents was a bit of a chore. Additionally, it was a bit sluggish when reading some PDFs and could even be unstable if I flipped around too much. Plus, the keyboard wasn't all that easy to use - it just felt awkward. Anyone I know can vouch for my love of physical keyboards - I've been hanging on to my Palm Pre for dear life and may soon have to part with it because I'm getting sick of HP's abandonment of it (but that's a story for another post). Reading on the Kindle Keyboard was still great overall, but I moved to the Kindle Touch in the hopes that it would polish some pieces that I felt needed polish. Did it? Let's explore.

We'll start with the hardware: it's a very attractive device. I thought the Kindle Keyboard looked nice, but the Kindle Touch makes it look like yesterday's news. I was initially concerned that the silver color would be unattractive because I really liked the graphite of the Kindle Keyboard as it just looked nice and made it harder to retain natural wear and tear, but I actually like the body of the Kindle Touch even better. Not to be vain, but it looks like a more expensive device than it is - it's not gaudy, just polished. The bezel is smooth, slightly metallic (not enough so to weigh it down), and mildly reflective but not shiny enough to produce excessive glare. The back matches the color on the front except for being more rubbery for an easier grip and having a darker silver border. At the bottom of the front you've probably seen what looks like a speaker grill in pictures, which seems silly in a device primarily targeted at reading. Well, it's actually a home button. I actually think it's a neat home button - it's different from most devices in this form factor and it's at the perfect stiffness to press. I know that sounds weird, but I mean that you can rest your thumb on it for while you're reading without accidentally pressing it, but it's not necessarily hard to press when you need to press it - it's just right. At the bottom side there's the standard micro USB port, headphone jack, a very tiny light, and the power button. I don't actually like the new power button. They designed it small to save space, but it's easier to press as opposed to the Kindle Keyboard where you had to slide it and it hid a cleverly placed light. I don't find myself accidentally hitting it much, but it seems quite easy to do so. At the bottom of the back are the speakers - not all cases have holes cut out for these, but I rarely use them myself. There's also two connectors for the leather lighted cases (which are still on backorder *grumble*). Overall, I love the way it feels in my hands - the weight and size are just perfect. It's slightly lighter than the Kindle Keyboard (trivially so) and not really thinner, but I do appreciate that it's shorter since it's no longer supporting a physical keyboard.

The big question when you start talking about the software is the touch sensitivity. This was my biggest reservation as this is not your standard touchscreen technology. Back in the old days, we started with inductive, or resistive, touchscreens (think back in the days of using a stylus). Pressing down on a screen wasn't elegant, but it worked. The iPhone popularized capacitive touch in consumer electronics and it's become an industry standard ever since. The problem with capacitive touch, as I understand it, is that it requires glass, which sucks if you want to eliminate glare (as any of you with a modern smartphone is well aware). Hence, the Kindle Touch uses infared technology, much like its Barnes and Noble competitor. The screen is sunk in just a tad more than the Kindle Keyboard, and on closer inspection one may notice a really thin line cut into the edges of this framing where the IR field is created. The good news is that this means you don't need human hands or sausages to interact with the screen - you can have gloves on and it'll still work (great news for those of us in colder climates). The bad news is that it's not as reliable as most modern smartphones. It can be a bit temperamental. It's actually much more accurate than I had predicted it'd be, but you do have to be fairly deliberate in what you do. You can't be as liberal as with capacitive touch - even though you don't have to press down on the screen like inductive touch, you do have to make sure you get enough surface area contact to register touches. Also frustrating: there's no feedback that a touch was registered. At times, there's enough lag in specific operations that you may accidentally do something twice and cause yourself frustration. It's not a common issue, but it can happen. I don't know why they couldn't have button presses black out the button to show that it was touched - maybe that'll be in a future update.

That all being said, I still prefer the touch interface to using the buttons on the Kindle Keyboard, overall. While I never minded previous page and next page much, it's so much more intuitive to tap things than to use the d-pad. And small touches were added to the UI to account for this, which I love. The keyboard is way better than the physical keyboard - while there's a bit of a delay in showing what you typed if you're a touch typist like me who's used to cranking out 80-100 WPM (or 40 WPM on my Pre's physical keyboard), the accuracy is impressive. Nothing fancy like swype on Android or anything, but you really shouldn't need that stuff anyway when you're taking notes or searching. Gestures are really intuitive - page forward and page back are swiping left and right, respectively, and next/previous chapter are swipe up/down, respectively. Looking up words, checking footnotes, and highlighting text is faster and easier before (there was actually random delays sometimes in highlighting with the Kindle Keyboard that I no longer experience on the Touch). Tapping for previous page and next page work great, too, and one handed reading is overall just as easy or perhaps easier than before. Getting to the context menu is easy, too, just tap at the top of the screen. That will also show you what page number you're on in the book, which reminds me of another note: the screen real estate is used a lot smarter. Aside from just where you tap, I feel like the top and bottom of the screen are used more efficiently to maximize space for reading - reminiscent of the experience of using an iPad and having Apple maximize the available screen space. Very smart.

There are a few other bonuses, too. Pinch to zoom works - it will increase or reduce text size by 1 in normal books and will actually perform zooming in PDFs. This makes reading PDFs much easier. Given the restrictions of e-Ink technology, there's still a delay as before, but I feel like it's still a slight bit faster. Plus, PDFs fit on the screen better now, aside from the improvements with zooming. Unfortunately, you can't change screen orientation, but I'm hoping that enough people are providing feedback on this that they'll fix this oversight (the Kindle org has been good about this in the past with customer feedback). The screen savers are significantly better than the Kindle Keyboard. Not only are they not ugly renderings of famous writers, but they're, dare I say, cool. They actually kind of make you excited to turn on your Kindle because they represent the Kindle brand well in clever ways (like pencils up close or wooden blocks with Kindle letters prominent or ink) and they're super sharp. Unlike with the Kindle Keyboard, I don't see myself getting sick of them. As far as device performance compared to the Kindle Keyboard, it's slightly faster. It's not enough of a difference for them to have marketed it on the product page, but it's noticeable to me. It's not just the fact that you can choose to have it only black out the screen for page loads once every four screens (which, amazingly, doesn't leave artifacts of the previous page like the Kindle Keyboard would), but I feel like boot up/shut down is slightly faster, opening books are faster, definitions lookups are way faster, etc. It's little things that I notice that I'm pleased with with performance, but it's nothing dramatic. The Kindle Store works a lot better on this device - it's just a better interface overall. It makes more sense and it's prettier. I'm really happy with it.

The biggest bonus, aside from touch, is X-ray. I love this feature. I can't believe how awesome it is. I have it on a few of my books (including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, if you want to try it on a free one), and it's coming in quite handy with The Girl Who Played with Fire, which I'm reading right now. I find myself turning to it quite a bit to recall characters that haven't come up in several chapters or Swedish places/terms I'm not familiar with. It loads excerpts from Wikipedia for terms and short bits from Shelfari for some characters. It also shows you a blueprint of where mentions of the character or term occur in the book and you can easily browse these selections. It's quite fast and quite accurate as far as figuring out what people and terms are relevant. You can show these lists for the current page, chapter, or whole book so it's easy to find what you're looking for. It's not available for all books, but all my purchased novels seem to have it so it's not that uncommon on popular novels.

I have a couple of quick negatives that haven't fit in any of the categories above. Not all games ("active content") work on the Touch that worked on the Keyboard. If this is a dealbreaker for you, check your games' detail pages to see the "Available on these devices" text that has an arrow you can hover over to list the supported Kindles. I'm hoping that publishers can modify their games to work on the Touch, but I haven't seen official word on this. If someone has an answer on this, please leave a comment because I'm curious. Additionally, when upgrading to a new Kindle you have to download all your items one-by-one and re-create your collections. That's super annoying. Hopefully, the Kindle folks will fix this in the future since they already made a change to back up your personal documents to the cloud just before the announcement of the new Kindles, which makes downloading those to new devices easier, at least. (By the way, there's a sale until Jan 2 where top selling games are $1, several of which are Touch compatible - I'm not big on the Kindle games, but some of them are rather entertaining)

Alright, I've said enough - time for a verdict. Should you get a Kindle Touch? If you don't have a Kindle Keyboard, it's a no-brainer, in my opinion, that you should. If you have an older Kindle, you're due for an upgrade anyhow. If you don't have one, then you should embrace e-Ink. If you're really scared, pick up the cheapest Kindle and try it out - I really don't think you'll be disappointed. I've played with that one and while I prefer Touch, it's still an improvement over the Kindle Keyboard (though it doesn't have X-ray or speech-to-text). The ads aren't very intrusive and you can easily pay later to turn them off if you hate them so that it'd end up being the price of the ad-free version. If you have a Kindle Keyboard, it's really a judgement call. Are you sick of the d-pad? Do you want one of the new leather cases where the Kindle fits nicely rather than having to fit it into two hooks? Do you want a smaller device? Do you wish reading PDFs was easier? If these things really bother you, like they did for me, go for it. I think for many people, the answer will be no. In fact, I'd recommend for gadgets with annual releases to buy every other iteration. It's the holiday season though so you may consider gifting your Kindle Keyboard (de-registering and wiping is easy) and upgrading to the Touch. I don't at all regret my decision - the more I use it the more I love it. Opinions out there are somewhat mixed, but seem to be leaning positive. Feel free to go to a Staples, Best Buy, etc. and try it out for yourself. I really feel like they kept all the stuff about the Kindle Keyboard that was great (like the ease of use, display, form factor, battery life, etc) and evolved in fixing some of the key misses with the user experience. While I still think there's some touch ups that can be left for future iterations, I'm really happy with the direction that it has moved in.

Addendum: I spoke to a Kindle rep about my frustrations with regard to active content and I was told that Amazon is actually working with publishers to make their games Touch compatible. You won't need to re-buy your games for the Touch (unless you're using the games on 6 Kindles already), they'll just get fixed to work and you'll be able to download them from your archived items.

Addendum #2 (5/10/2012): The latest over-the-air software update adds support for text-to-speech, landscape mode, and some other nifty additions like a modal dialog for the table of contents of a book and translation of words to a few different languages.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The End of an Era

I brainstormed several titles for this post and nothing I come up with seems to be substantial enough. I have to admit that when I heard the news a couple of days ago that Steve Jobs was stepping down from being CEO, I got a little emotional. Part of it was the way he worded it:

"I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come."

Given his medical complications in recent years, there's something really haunting about those words. What really got to me though was the sudden thought that two of my childhood idols were no longer sitting in the seats of power they once held: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are now both down for the count. Even typing those words scares me a bit - aside from the fact that it makes me feel old, it's really the end of an era.

I think my posts make it pretty clear that I'm not a fan of Apple products - I believe that they're high quality, I just don't agree with their some of their key philosophies and I think most Apple products are overpriced. As a person, I don't care much for Steve Jobs either. There are plenty of good stories about him but I'm more familiar with the ones where he manages his employees with praise and fear (moreso than sounds healthy). However, as Elle Driver would say, that shouldn't suggest that I don't respect him. His impact on technology is incontrovertible - he really made making technology beautiful stick. When you look at the history of gadgetry, Apple was the first major player to successfully focus on external design just as much as internal design. Even Mac OS was known for being one of the first pieces of a software with a usable GUI. I even first learned how to type in grade school on Apple Macintosh IIs (and fondly remember playing the Oregon Trail - if I was lucky I got to play on the one computer with a CD-ROM drive). A world without the innovations and risks taken by Apple with Steve Jobs at its helm would be a scary place (much like the one depicted in their 1984 ad). A lot of moves that Jobs has made over the years have been really ballsy, and while I know a lot of people make that possible past just the CEO, I would not underestimate the importance of a CEO with strong vision.

With someone like Steve Jobs, you take the good with the bad. His biggest flaw, in my opinion, is his hubris. You don't have to watch Pirates of the Silicon Valley to observe this (fair warning: that movie is very much a caricature of all its characters). His 2005 Stanford commencement address is pretty famous and definitely an incredible speech, and yet it still reflects that he can really be a jerk sometimes. He lets loose a bit at a few points in his speech and leaves out pivotal details in his speech that paint him out to be a hero in situations that weren't so black and white. He's green lit ads that have held no punches in obviously attacking competitors, a practice that I remember not being so common once upon a time. He runs press events that extol the virtues of perfectly mundane evolutions to existing products. However, it's for all these things that people love Steve Jobs. All these things have made him a fascinating CEO and a generational icon.

The era I'm referring to as ending is not that of Apple - the Board is leaving the company in good hands with Tim Cook, now former COO, at the helm. Plus, Steve Jobs has set things in motion for at least a year or two, so we won't see Cook's direct impact for a while yet. The era I'm referring to also involves Bill Gates. I find it tremendously ironic that Gates is often marred for the antitrust issues with Microsoft and forgotten for his philanthropic efforts whereas Jobs is lauded for his sometimes questionable tactics with Apple and forgotten for his lack of philanthropy. At the end of the day, both men have done some incredible things and basically built personal computing. Gates had just as much vision as Jobs, but he handled it totally differently. He's not the pretty face of a company, he's the understated nerd that turns wheels in the background. Maybe the things he's led at Microsoft aren't as sexy as what Apple has done, but definitely equally important. I mean come on, the man invented bold text! Let's face it, the world would be a very strange place without Office and Windows. Apple would have you believe that Windows is a complete knock off of what they've produced over the years, but the truth is that Windows has made significant innovations, as well. If you need a more recent, obvious example: how about the Kinect?

I feel like with Gates and Jobs out of the picture, the model of technology that's worked for decades really is dead. Shrink wrap software has been gradually losing ground to digital distribution and web applications. The most talked about tech companies these days are now Google and Facebook. The world is a very different place. People don't care about the next Windows or the next OS X - they care about the next smartphone they can get. The era that Gates and Jobs eschewed is over, and I feel like we're now fully underway in a whole new phase in the history of technology. Needless to say, I'm excited to be at a company that's a big part of that timeline, as well, but we can never forget our roots. For all the above reasons and more, Mr. Jobs and Mr. Gates, I salute you. We'll do our best to take good care of what you started.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Google +

I know it's been a while since I've posted, but I promise I've been thinking of the blog! I listfully look at my computer every night before I inevitably crawl into bed because life has been so busy. Today I finally got some time to jot down my thoughts about Google Plus! If you haven't checked it out at all yet, now's as good a time as any to spend a couple of minutes with the demo.

If you had two scoops of ice cream, let's call the flavors Facebook and Twitter, and you smashed them together but then you decided to share your concoction with that oddball at work you don't like for whatever reason, you'd have Google Plus. It takes the best from both worlds, but then it integrates with other services, even if they are competitors, via our old friend Google Buzz. Google Buzz was a half-baked Twitter-like experience from Google that all but the most devout Google fans were quickly turned off of because of the several issues Google simply didn't think through. What's different between Google and some other tech companies is that a lot of people there tend to think the same over time. I'm not saying they're not smart people, but without natural discord you can't develop the ideas that appeal to a mass audience, and that's what I feel like went wrong with Buzz. With Google Plus, they took a different approach - they started it out as a very limited release (like back with Gmail and Google Voice) and are opening the floodgates over time so that they can iron out the kinks. This strategy, I feel, is working much better for them. It feels like not only did they learn from Google Buzz what people were really looking for, but they managed to fix user concerns very quickly before everyone and their mom started hearing about Google Plus.

So anyway, you might be wondering - why should you care about Google Plus? You've stuck with Facebook, in spite of Twitter and Google Buzz and whatever else - why jump ship? A friend of mine shared this (on Google Plus, no less), so I'm going to share it with you:

Pretty elegant way of putting it, isn't it? Google should definitely hire those people to help them pimp their products. At first, I totally agreed with what I think is the reaction of most people: why do we need another Facebook? The interface was a pretty big change from Facebook and there wasn't an app for it on my phone. To be honest, I really hated it. I was surprised at how quickly my opinion turned around of it though. The main things I liked is that it's the first social networking site I've seen that has really put privacy at the forefront and it has a clean UI. It's a well known fact in the security world that convenience comes at the cost of security and privacy, so it is an issue that whenever you share anything on Google Plus, you have to choose exactly what circles you want to share it with - but if you keep your list of circles small it's not such a big deal. Granted, it'd be better if there was a circle hierarchy but that's not hard to add in. I say that the UI is clean because, let's face it, Facebook has gotten too busy. It almost hurts my eyes now to go to the PC site - it's just too much. With Google Plus, as weird as it sounds, I just feel like it's a more laid back experience. Maybe it's just because I have less friends on Google Plus, but I'd like to think that Google had something to do with it.

Before I move on - there are a couple of other things I think Google Plus really got right. I love how you can share with people who aren't on Google Plus by just using their contact profile in your Gmail (i.e. just their e-mail address). I think it's smart that they just rely on e-mail for messages rather than creating a stupid hobbled way to send private messages. Another thing I like, which most people may not like, is that you don't have a wall for people to post on - they can only comment on what you post. This means people can't post immature things on your wall that you have to monitor so that your mom doesn't see them or something - you have full control over what people see (people can re-share what you've said, granted - but that's a risk in real life, too).

Press-wise, I've seen mixed things. I think the technorati (that's what I like to call the tech journalism celebrities, at least) are skeptical but appreciate the chance to start fresh since their Facebook friends list has really gotten out of control. There's still a few things to complain about though. There have been some stories about people having their Google Accounts totally deleted because of the name they're using on Google Plus. It sounds like there's a glitch in Google's algorithm for this, and it really sucks that there's not a good appeals process in place. Google has always had awful customer service, and that doesn't stop here, I'm afraid. ZD Net has a really good editorial about this. Google Plus still isn't ready for businesses to jump in and make their mark. I don't shed a tear for companies like Pepsi or McDonalds, but social networking sites are really great for helping promote local businesses and artists, and I do hope Google Plus makes way for them someday soon. Though they do have 20 million accounts so far, so it's a pretty strong start anyhow.

So Google Plus has an energized initial user base but also has had a few black eyes from the press - do they have what it takes to become a major player? I think they definitely do. The older I get the more pessimistic I become about technology (I'm not the wide-eyed optimist I was back in my older posts when I was in college), but something rubs be right about Google Plus. Google has had a number of misfires over the past few years, but I think this one just may stick. If anyone can compete with Facebook, it'll be Google Plus. I don't think they'll be able to overtake Facebook like Facebook overtook MySpace or MySpace overtook Friendster simply because Facebook has really hit critical mass now. However, I think Facebook has alienated its users enough over the years that Google Plus can really gain some ground, even if it ends up catering to more of a niche audience like Gmail. I think it's a really smart move for Google and I hope they really invest fully in making it a solid product. It clearly has a lot left that they can do with it (why can people on Picasa but not Google Plus not see the pictures I shared with them?), but I'm definitely impressed that they've managed to innovate so much so far. At the very least, it's nice to see someone rattle Facebook's cage a big, isn't it?

PS This is my 900th post. Happy 900th to me! :)