Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Apple iPhone as a Multifunctional Device

I recently acquired a first-generation Apple iPhone to use as a mobile multifunctional device. Before I recount my successes and failures in this endeavor, I should first define exactly what a multifunctional device is. Quite simply, it is a device that performs more than two functions within four broad categories: communication, entertainment, information, and productivity.

The iPhone operates in all four of these areas, and it does so in multiple ways. The implementation of this functionality isn’t perfect, which is partly due to the designed limitations of the device and partly due to the fact that I’m a cheapskate. Though it was intended to operate on AT&T’s premium voice and data networks, I am running my iPhone on an inexpensive prepaid voice plan, while relying solely on Wi-Fi for data.

Not unexpectedly, communications and entertainment are the iPhone’s greatest strengths, descending as it does from earlier music phones. Voice calling and text messaging are standard features alongside the built-in iPod audiovisual player. Wi-Fi connectivity adds the ability to send and receive e-mail, to stream video, and to download music, games, and e-books.

Ubiquitous access to information via the Internet would be the iPhone’s greatest value, if data plans weren’t so damned expensive. Wi-Fi helps to fill the gap here, but coverage is still far from complete. Nevertheless, the convenience of always having information at your fingertips can’t be overstated.

In my case, I’ve turned to off-line solutions for certain information needs. For example, when I can’t access Google Maps, I now use a mapping application that I downloaded from the App Store for a few dollars. While not ideal, it’s still far more convenient than fiddling with paper maps.

In many ways, productivity is the iPhone’s weakest capability, even though it has a dedicated piece of on-board productivity hardware (a camera). The failure is actually one of software, in this case the lack of a built-in editor for documents and spreadsheets. While boring perhaps, I think that an advanced productivity suite will be vital to future multifunctional devices.

Fortunately, there are already workarounds for the productive user. Notes and e-mails can be used to create content for later export to a document. Google Docs can be used to view and edit spreadsheets when Internet access is available, and Google added the capability to edit documents while I was writing this post. Finally, there are third-party productivity applications available to download, but I have yet to try any of them.

Overall, my iPhone has proved itself as a prototypical multifunctional device. Though so-called smartphones are just beginning to penetrate the market, I expect they will become commonplace as mobile computing technology grows and matures.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Right-to-Carry Progress in California

The Calguns Foundation and the Second Amendment Foundation have dropped their case against Sacramento County, now that Sheriff John McGinness is effectively issuing concealed-handgun licenses for the “good cause” of self-defense. Sykes v. McGinness will now continue as Richards v. Prieto in Yolo County, where a constitutional showdown may yet be required. However, for now at least, the civil-rights skirmish in Sacramento is over.

Coupled with the CGF’s recently announced concealed-carry compliance and sunshine initiative, the victory in Sacramento illustrates how right-to-carry reform will proceed in California. With support from a broad base of volunteers in every county and bolstered by the public disclosure of acceptable “good cause,” a series of civil-rights lawsuits will challenge unequal and/or unconstitutional licensing practices until all of the counties have reformed or until the question of constitutionality is settled in federal court. Should the constitutional issue be settled elsewhere in the meantime, a network for implementing compliance in California will already be in place.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Entertainment and New Media

I like movies and television as much as the next guy, but in recent years, some of the most entertaining productions with the most intriguing plots, the best acting, and the most beautiful design and cinematography have come not from film studios but from game developers. Yes, video games have come a long way since two rectangles bounced a square “ball” back and forth.

Though I have played video games off and on since the days of coin-operated arcades and the first Atari console, I’ve also mostly avoided or at least lagged far behind in the electronic arms race that is PC gaming. However, there were two notable exceptions for me. StarCraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998) and Half-Life (Valve Corporation, 1998) were both innovative in their respective genres (real-time strategy and first-person shooter), but they were also novel for me in that they had cohesive stories to go along with their pixelated mayhem. These stories moved the games forward and kept the action from becoming stale.

StarCraft was one of the first video games with a coherent plot.
I also completely missed several intervening generations of video-game consoles. While these systems were much more powerful than my old Atari, I felt that they still fell below the bar set even by my perpetually outdated PCs. That finally changed after the arrival of the Sony PlayStation 2.

Star Wars: Battlefront (Pandemic Studios, 2004) was the title that brought me back to console gaming. It was a straightforward action game (with the trappings of the popular Lucasfilm franchise), but the detailed graphics amazed me. In between blasting enemy troopers and robots, I found myself marveling at tree rings, blowing leaves, and waterfalls.

At the same time, I also picked up Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004), which was then the latest entry in that controversial series. This was my first experience with an open-world game, where the player is largely free to move throughout the entire game environment and to experience the story in a nonlinear fashion. In many ways, it remains the most ambitious game I have ever played.

The story itself (despite its dubious morality and sometimes ridiculously over-the-top action) was also emotionally engaging. Set in a fictional southwestern American state (complete with three major cities, several small towns, and the countryside, waterways, and airspace between them) in the period leading up to the 1992 riots, San Andreas deals with family, friendship, betrayal, poverty, crime, and corruption. Excellent voice work by the main cast (including Chris “Young Malay” Bellard, Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods, and the late Chris Penn) sells the tale completely.

However, San Andreas pushed the limits of the PlayStation 2’s capabilities. Indeed, the developers made many technical compromises to achieve the game’s breathtaking scope. I wondered what the next generation of gaming consoles might bring.

Once the winning format for high-definition video had been determined, I quickly bought a PlayStation 3. This versatile device features Blu-ray playback, wireless Internet connectivity, and many gigabytes of on-board memory. Oh, and it plays video games too.

Soon, the Uncharted series (Naughty Dog, 2007–09) brought back the action-adventure magic I hadn’t experienced since Raiders of the Lost Ark (Lucasfilm Ltd., 1981) or The Mummy (Universal Pictures, 1999). There were puzzles to solve and enemies to fight, but sometimes I simply had to stop and admire the scenery as I followed lovable rogue Nathan Drake (voiced by Nolan North) through his improbable but engaging adventures.

Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar San Diego, 2010) took me to the dying days of the Old West and into another gorgeous open-world environment. In the game, reformed outlaw John Marston cuts a bloody path across several fictional border states in search of redemption for his past crimes. The fact that virtually every other character he encounters is morally flawed (and often deeply so) tells the player how successful Marston’s quest will ultimately be.

The world of Red Dead Redemption is fantastically detailed, rivaling San Andreas in ambition and far surpassing it in execution. The sparsely settled countryside ranges from deserts and mountains to prairies and forests, and it lives and breathes with the activities of people and animals. The graphics are beautiful, and the animation is mostly fluid and realistic.

Honorable mentions are also in order for Dead Space (Electronic Arts, 2008) and Prototype (Radical Entertainment, 2009). While these two science-fiction/horror games lacked the overall attention to detail offered by most of the others that I’ve described, they made up for it with singular focus on brutal combat gameplay. They also had better plots than most movies within the genre.

Video games won’t replace movies any more than movies replaced books, but they have certainly established themselves as a powerful new storytelling medium. As information technology and computing power continue to advance, I expect that we will experience some truly amazing interactive entertainment.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Information Revolution and the Advent of the Multifunctional Device

I never really wanted a cellular telephone. The convenience of mobile calling wasn’t enough to justify the expense—not to mention the fact that I mostly loathe phone calls. However, when our daughter was born, my wife insisted that I get a cell phone, so I grudgingly bought a basic phone and activated it on the least expensive pay-as-you-go plan that I could find.

Even then, it was already clear that mobile telephones, personal digital assistants, digital cameras, and portable media players were on a collision course that would integrate these technologies into a single multifunctional platform. (Indeed, my basic LG C1300 phone was a better PDA than my old Palm m125 in most respects.) This was a trend that interested me! Personal productivity, communications, and entertainment were about to become ubiquitous, consolidated, and portable.

The multifunctional device combines productivity, information, entertainment, and communications.
A few short years later, so-called smartphones began to become widely available and relatively affordable. Among these was the Apple iPhone. With its multi-touch interface, application support, and Wi-Fi connectivity, I soon recognized the iPhone as a prototypical multifunctional device.

I usually eschew Apple products, but as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I purchased a decommissioned first-generation iPhone for a fraction of its original retail price. I then set about bending it to my will. This is not an uncommon practice with iPhones, which suffer from Apple’s typical insularity, but I was trying to do something even more basic than most.

I needed to reactivate my iPhone as a telephone on the default AT&T cellular network. What I didn’t need was to be forced into expensive long-term voice and data plans. I spend most of my time under Wi-Fi coverage, and my GoPhone account already meets my calling needs for less than $10 per month.

It should have been simple enough. I removed the SIM card from my old LG phone and installed it in my new iPhone … and was immediately greeted with an error message. The phone had detected a “different SIM” and didn’t want to play nicely with the new subscriber card. Actually, I could still make and receive calls, but I couldn’t access the iPhone’s operating system with the SIM in place.

That is when the power of the information revolution came into play. Once I stopped overthinking the problem and focused on the specific error, I quickly found that a solution had already been provided by the Internet guys, those anonymous heroes and villains of the information economy. Once I had installed a couple applications and patched some files, my iPhone was operating in all its multifunctional glory.

Friday, July 16, 2010

“Good Cause” Challenged in New York

While waiting for California’s own right-to-carry challenge to move forward, lead counsel Alan Gura has filed a similar case in that other bastion of gun control, New York. Like our own Sykes v. McGinness, the new complaint challenges the constitutionality of “good cause” requirements for the issuance of handgun permits. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that we have a fundamental right to keep and bear arms, Mr. Gura writes in Kachalsky v. Cacace that “[i]ndividuals cannot be required to prove their ‘good cause’ for the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights” and “cannot be required to demonstrate any unique, heightened need for self-defense apart from the general public in order to exercise the right to keep and bear arms.”

“Good cause” requirements violate the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Elders and New Information Technology

What is the world coming to? Both of my parents are on Facebook now.

Of course, I shouldn’t be too surprised. My father was an early adopter of personal computers and taught me the basics in turn. By comparison, I’ve ridden the wave of the information revolution at its crest more often than on its face.

However, in my line of work, I’ve seen many of the elders in higher education struggling with or even resisting new information technology. This can be very disconcerting in an institution where “learning is preeminent.” I can understand the difficulty faced by those who’ve had long, fairly static careers, but those who teach should also be willing to learn.

Now, if I could just get my parents onto the PlayStation Network for some “Old West” gaming in Red Dead Redemption.…

Monday, June 28, 2010

Beyond Chicago and Incorporation

And the Second Amendment has come back to California … again … and to the rest of the several states as well.

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McDonald v. Chicago wasn’t the historic victory for civil rights that it could have and perhaps should have been, but it was a victory nonetheless. The court failed to breathe new life into the 14th Amendment’s intended protection for the “privileges or immunities” of American citizenship, but it still found that the Second Amendment applied to state and local governments, restoring the right to arms to its proper place in the pantheon of American civil rights. That is cause enough to celebrate for many reasons.

So what happens next?

Even after Chicago’s handgun ban is dismantled, many details about the nature and scope of the right to arms will still have to be defined. Many gun-control laws will be challenged. Some will pass constitutional muster, and some will not.

Legal challenges that have been on hold here in California can now proceed. The state’s concealed-carry licensing system and certified-handgun roster are clearly discriminatory and violate equal protection under the law. These are the low-hanging fruit. The optimists at the Calguns Foundation expect these to fall within two years.

Meanwhile, the usual batch of gun-control legislation has been moving forward, despite the fact that some form of incorporation has been widely expected since the ruling in D.C. v. Heller two years ago. California legislators and officials are either too ignorant or too disingenuous to avoid the oncoming train of constitutional law.

Elsewhere, some good progress has been made during the last year. Iowa joined the ranks of right-to-carry states, while Arizona became the third state to allow concealed carry without a license or permit. Federal regulations prohibiting firearms in national parks have also been lifted.

Why is this all so damned important? That I will explain in a future post.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Business as Usual at the Supreme Court?

So oral arguments in McDonald v. Chicago were made before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday. While the court is widely expected to rule that the Second Amendment does apply to state and local governments, attorney Alan Gura arguing for the plaintiff received a somewhat hostile reception as he made the case for reviving the original intent of the 14th Amendment’s “privileges or immunities” clause, which had been mostly nullified by a previous ruling in A.D. 1873.

This seemed odd, since the High Court’s dicta in D.C. v. Heller appeared to invite a new look at this very issue. The more cynical observers were quick to suggest that the whole thing might have been a setup. Perhaps, they argued, the “conservative” members of the court wanted the issue before them specifically to kill “privileges or immunities” for another century or two.

Why? Because a fully realized 14th Amendment would revolutionize the civil-rights movement. That the Bill of Rights applies in all its glory to the states as well as to the federal government could no longer be denied. Minority groups still fighting for their share of American liberty would also have an easier time of it.

On the other hand, one well-educated correspondent of mine pointed out that the exchange resembled an academic thesis defense. The faculty may savage the student, but if his arguments are sound, his diploma will be secured. Viewed from this perspective, the proceedings can look much more promising for a reading of the 14th Amendment that is finally right and proper.

In any case, it looked like business as usual at the Supreme Court, but we probably won’t know for sure until June.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Perils of Charity

Hundreds of thousands dead or injured. Millions displaced. Billions of dollars in damage. How can we respond to last weekʼs devastating earthquake in Haiti? Americans are generous … and wealthy, so we give. How can we not?

But charity can also be dangerous to its would-be beneficiaries. Too much giving can destroy local economies. How can the farmer sell his produce when food is given to the hungry? How can the manufacturer sell his goods? The merchant his wares? When they canʼt, they too end up in line for the dole. If and when the largess comes to an end, its recipients are left without the means to support themselves, permanently dependent on the fickle generosity of others.

Haiti poses an especially difficult problem in this respect.

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was one of the poorest countries in the world. It was and is also one of the most corrupt. Nearly 40 percent of its national budget was already based on foreign aid, while just one percent of the population controlled half of the nationʼs wealth. With that in mind, how much of our charity will really go to those in need?

How can we truly help Haiti and the similarly troubled nations of this world? Neither our generosity nor our military might can fix their problems—at least not without more money and time than we will ever be willing to invest. Maybe the best we can do is to lead by example, which means fixing our own problems and achieving our full potential as a nation of freedom and opportunity.

But thatʼs enough cynicism for one day. Besides, I have a donation to the relief effort to make. How can I not?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Airway Insanity

It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

We should have learned at least two lessons on September 11th. First, our conventional security measures donʼt work. Second, informed passengers are more effective at fighting airway terrorism than even the mighty U.S. Air Force. Instead, President G. W. Bush created the asinine Transportation Security Administration to execute the same failed procedures under federal control.

Ironically, it took the likes of anti-gun Senator Barbara Boxer to push for something different. Eventually, the Congress enacted the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, with the Bush administration resisting all the way. This program allowed a handful of pilots to be armed with handguns for the defense of their aircraft. It was inadequate, but at least it was something new … and a step in the right direction.

On Christmas Day, A.D. 2009, a would-be Nigerian terrorist attempted to detonate an explosive device hidden in his underwear while on a flight to Detroit. He was “subdued” by other passengers. Again, conventional procedures had failed, while travelers who acted in their own defense had prevented something terrible. The lessons of September 11th had been taught once more.

Of course, as before, we learned nothing.

The TSA under President B. H. Obama has responded by doing more of the same. Invasive and useless screenings have increased, while those who actually foiled the December 25th attack—the passengers—have been ordered to stay in their seats. They could be stripped and caged, but that won’t stop our enemies from finding ways to kill us.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.