iPhone Day: Observe the Tortured Believers

iPhoneWell, today is the day the iPhone goes on sale.  The 2nd generation sleek phone from Apple looks to be quite a bit nicer than the first, starting with improved Internet performance, and considerably better 3G battery lifetime than on any other telephone yet produced, and an open application interface for more applications.  Combined with a great user interface, a friendliness toward the enterprise, and a nice feature set, it will probably make a really good PDA.

If you want to be the first on your block with one of these gadgets, you’re going to have to get up early and wait in a long line.  Otherwise, stores will run out.  In some cases, stores have been allocated less than 20 phones.  Why is that?  It’s not that this device is a surprise, or anything.  And surely Apple could manufacture enough so that people needn’t have to bother with all of that hassle.

But for those few who buy hook line and sinker into the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field, it’s a ritual, and they love it.  Surely Steve Jobs wouldn’t want to deprive his followers of that “Joy”.  The Believers get to brag to the rest of us for a few days or weeks about their new gadget, and how everyone is going to copy them.  They are the trend setters for the day.  Of course they spent that day waiting in line.  They’ll spend the next few days figuring out all of the little bugs that Apple has assuredly left lying around.  And then they’ll realize, “Oh dear.  GPS doesn’t work in my home,” as if they didn’t know where home was.  And they’ll read their mail at the restaurant, and even off of their new toys right next to their old Apple monitors that are connected to a recent Apple of some variety.

What’s more, this phone isn’t really cheaper than the previous version.  According to the Wall Street Journal, AT&T in particular has jacked up rates in order to recoup their costs (and, they hope, more).

Still the iPhone is an important innovation, if for no other reason that they have brought to the cellphone market a refreshing jolt of competition that seemed absent.  Sure, LG was interesting, but aside from a few geeks, the rest of us bought Sony Ericsson and Nokia phones, both of which have had the same capabilities for what seem like eons.

So it’s iPhone Day.  Perhaps celebrate by watching your Believer friends suffer.  Don’t worry, Google Believers: you’re next.

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Bon Voyage and Happy Hunting

eclipseThere are those who think, “Oh cool, Eclipse.  Let’s all party and watch the {sun|moon} disappear for a few minutes.”  And then there are those who are serious about it.  While we all were celebrating the 4th of July (wherever we were), several friends of mine were busy getting themselves and a lot of provisions onto a plane to China in order to observe the upcoming solar eclipse in the eastern part of that country.  This is not the first eclipse for which they’ve traveled far and wide.  Two years ago March there was another solar eclipse in Southern Libya.  Do you what is in Southern Libya?  Sand.  Not much else.  That wasn’t the craziest place to travel.  In 2003, there was an eclipse over Antarctica.  Now the thing about Antarctica is that it’s not an easy place to stay.  And so what they did was charter a Boeing 747-400 from Quantas and flew it through the path of totality as fast as they could without the equipment being disturbed.

Why all the fuss?  What is so special about a lack of sun for a few minutes?  In the case of one of my friends, the answer lies in what’s near the sun.  He has devoted considerable effort to attempting to prove that volcanoid asteroids exist.  These little things come so close to the sun that on any normal day state of the art optics are unable to see them because of the sun’s rays.  And so, with the light turned off for a few minutes, one can scan the surrounds.

But if you thought this would be a purely scientific or humorous article, tough.  My friend brought with him a considerable amount of equipment with which to visualize the astroids, and some of it isn’t cheap, and some of it is custom made metal.  Knowing this, he went to the Department of Homeland Security to find out how to go about getting the equipment from here to China.  It took a Congresswoman to get DHS to meet with him in the first place, and then they provided him absolutely no guidance, saying that if the screener on duty (someone who is probably paid only a bit above minimum wage) decides an object doesn’t get on a plane, it doesn’t get on a plane.  There is no way to pre-clear anything.  And so he was told to ship the object through a known shipper.

The U.S. does recognize a distinction between known shippers and just the average Joe.  This is one of many circumstances where a positive reputation is required to get something done.  Now unless you’re going to buy your own airplane or cargo ship, you are going to use a shipper fo some sort, so why not use a known one?  Well, the story doesn’t end there.  In the passing the buck, each shipper is looking to limit their liability and hence want to know exactly who and what they are dealing with.  If you are an published astronomer as my friend is, you must put an extraordinary amount of effort into seeing that your goods arrive intact.

Personally, as someone who has had belongings stolen due to DHS policies I find all of this a bit rich.  If a baggage handler can rip off my stuff out of my bag and get it out of the airport, what’s to stop them from putting stuff in?

Think about it.

Anyway, I wish my friends on their trip happy hunting for objects that are extremely elusive, to the point where they might not actually exist.

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The CIA’s torture teachers: Communist China

Continuing our theme from Independence Day, let’s talk about freedoms and rights.  For those such as Alan Dershowitz who advocate such things as torture warrants, or for simple apologists for the Bush administration’s shameful behavior, now comes this little ditty from the New York Times about how the CIA took a crash course in rough interregation techniques for Guantanamo Bay just after the Towers came down.  What they probably didn’t know was that the material was derived from a 1957 Chinese training manual that an airforce psychologist discredited as generating false confessions.  Of course, even if the method did work, we now know who this administration turns to for guidance: a discredited regime used by a form of government we despised.  This brings me to a point that I’ve always believed: fasism, communism, whatever: each can be used to subjugate citizens in just the same manner.  It’s just a slightly different rationale.  Yes, that says that it can and has happened in the United States, and it goes back to what Benjamin Franklin said: Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. We’ve already seen that U.S. Senator Kit Bond was a perfect example.  Of course, Franklin was defending against a different King George.

With our King George and in this case, we have to worry about what moral authority we have lost.  Those Americans who happen to be abroad and in the wrong place and the wrong time will be the sorry beneficiaries of this president’s legacy.

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The Hazards of Coffee

Christine got turned off of coffee when she was a young girl.  Her grandmother served it, and so that’s what she drank, but she didn’t like it, and still doesn’t.  I, on the other hand, am a Coffee Achiever.  But I can only achieve so much.  As many of you know, I like a half cup of coffee and a whole lot of milk.  Usually, there’s a lot of hand movement to demonstrate only this much coffee and THAT MUCH milk.  In Switzerland I’ve achieved Coffee Nirvana in two ways: first, the regional favorite is something called a Schale (a bowl).  In Schwiezertütsch that means “a half a cup of coffee and a whole lot of milk.”

Second, I’ve gotten addicted to Illy moka coffee that I make using one of those octagonal espresso brewers.  I remember percolators from years ago, and the coffee never really did thrill me.  But these octagonal thingies are better than the french press I’ve been using for eons.  The only problem is that there is no automatic “off” button.  You put it on the flame (or electric burner if you must), and then wait about seven minutes for it begin to boil, at which point you snap the thing off the heat so that you don’t burn the beans (something Starbucks does with stunning consistency).

I discovered Illy when we were in a villa in Roccastrada, Italy last summer, and after a week I learned how to properly brew the stuff AND that I am not 17 anymore, and two cups of that stuff will keep me awake for two days.  So that is hazard number one.

Hazard number two happened yesterday.  I made myself a reasonably good cup of coffee, went into my office, sat down at my desk, and knocked the coffee all over two disk drives, a computer, numerous power cords, my MacOS Leopard Install disk, the wall, the curtains, and the carpet.  I spent the next two hours cleaning, and nothing is quite right.  The Leopard disk was most easily dealt with because it got rinsed and placed in the drying rack.  Christine probably knew something was amiss when she saw a DVD in the dish rack.

This spill (if you can call it that) was above my daughter’s pay grade.  I couldn’t have hit more targets if I had tried.

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