Back in grade four, something miraculous happened. Our class at Isabella Street School descended down to the library, which was nestled in one corner of the unappealing, rather dingy cement and concrete basement. I already loved the library, and reading in general, by that time. It was through this library that I devoured those Hardy Boys books that my dad did not have, read my way through Nancy Drew, had my first experiences with Tolkien and Lewis and, in later years, Agatha Christie. There were several shelves full of colourful books on mythology when I went through that phase, and even a pop-up book about Star Trek, a copy of which I bought for $10 on Abebooks during a bout of nostalgia in the summer, which has not actually arrived yet, and now it occurs to me I should probably ask someone about that….
But I digress. On that fateful day, my grade four class was not there to browse the bookshelves and sit at our octagonal tables in chairs now much too small for me. No, we instead turned left at the doors to populate the “computer lab.” This must have been 1998 or 1999, so the computers were all still MS DOS, although they had this nifty feature where you could “boot into” Windows 3.1. (Even back then, I was pretty adept at getting the system to do what I want, if I do say so myself.) We had all the cool games back then: Treasure Mountain, Cross Country Canada (both of which I now have on my computer, and play using DOSBox), and, of course, Math Circus. Unlike other visits to the computer lab, however, we were not there to play games.
We were going to learn how to type.
We learned using the Almena method. I think we watched some videos, and there was a retired teacher and expert typist who volunteered at the school and helped our teacher instruct us. I still remember the mneumonics to memorize the placement of keys: “Quick Ask Zoe, What Stops X-rays, Even Dogs Can‘t. Red Fish Vanish, Then Grow Bigger. Yaks Hear Noises, Under Jack’s Mattress. I Keep commas, Over Long periods. Peanuts!”
It sounds a little silly, doesn’t it? But for those of you who used this method, you know what I’m talking about: it really works. And as my rendition above attests, for I did not have to look those up, I still remember those mneumonics after all this time. It is inculcated into my very being. I didn’t realize it then—I did realize how cool being able to touch type was, but I didn’t realize how much a part of me this ability would become.
It’s like having a superpower. That is the only way I can describe it, especially to those few people reading this who themselves have never learned to touch type. On a good day, I can type about 100 WPM (less if I‘m pausing to consider what I shall write, as I am doing now). Like many people, I use a computer every day, and I spend a great deal of time on my computer. So typing is an essential skill for me. Looking back, after a decade more experience, I am very grateful that my elementary school, or the curriculum, or whoever was responsible for that decision, chose to teach me how to type.
Oh, I’ve dabbled with alternative keyboard layouts, like Colemak. But I‘ve always returned to QWERTY, that faithful keyboard mistress. Why? Because it’s a part of me. Colemak is, in my opinion, a much superior layout, and I enjoyed using it. But the QWERTY school got to me when I was young, indoctrinated me, and now I can’t escape.
And it’s only natural, with such a dependency on this interface, that we begin to port it to other devices once they need text-input capability. After all, QWERTY itself is a port from typewriters to computers. Now we have QWERTY keyboards on so-called “quick messaging phones,” as well as smartphones. But is this really the best way to type on a phone? The small screen means either a keyboard with physically smaller keys or a rather daunting, at least at first, touchscreen keypad—and let’s face it, you’ll be typing with your thumbs either way. Given time and practice, people do tend to master it and become proficient. But is there any better alternative?
That’s what Swype offers. I was skeptical at first: so you swipe (hah) your index finger along the QWERTY keypad, passing through each letter in the word you want to spell, then Swype predicts the word you want? Sounds too much like that abysmal T9 software that came on my former phone! But no, it’s completely different. And it’s rather awesome. Watch some of the videos. It is impressive how fast you can get; I’m not nearly that fast yet, unfortunately.
Swype is in beta, and it was just recently released to the general public. I was lucky enough to have it pre-installed on my new Samsung Galaxy S. I was drawn to it for a simple reason: the default Samsung keypad, which replaces the apparently perfectly capable Android keypad on most other Android devices, sucks. Samsung has crippled essential functionality—in my case, a strong need for accented characters and diacriticals. Swype, in addition to its unique input method, restores my ability to use accented characters with ease.
So I switched to it, and at first I just typed on the keypad like normal (because you can do that). However, the keypad comes with a tutorial, and I decided to go through it and see what the hype about Swype was. The idea of swiping through letters is intriguing, and it does seem a lot nicer than thumb-typing. Indeed, Swype shines most in portrait mode—prior to using it, I had a lot of trouble typing on the skinny keys in portrait mode; landscape was and is not much of an issue. With Swype, I just slide my index finger around, and that’s it.
Of course, deliberately smudging my screen while typing seems a little wrong. Then again, “dragging” icons and images around the touchscreen is a perfectly acceptable user interface mechanic, so this is not that much of a departure. The most serious obstacle I have encountered lately is a lack of lubrication on my fingers; if they are too dry, there is too much friction against my screen, so swiping through keys becomes both slow and rather uncomfortable!
Nevertheless, on a conceptual level Swype makes a lot of sense for smartphones. I‘m not sure it would work well for larger devices, like desktop workstations, although you might be able to make a case. It is interesting to see people come up with new input methods that capitalize on the benefits of a capacitive touchscreen (dragging/swiping fingers) to mitigate a disadvantage of the device (small screen size, small keyboards). And Swype is still QWERTY, so the layout of the keys haven’t changed, nor are you forbidden from touch typing as per usual, which makes the learning curve virtually nothing. It may indeed be a good compromise between the backward compatibility to which QWERTY has enslaved us and the need for innovation in input on smartphones.
Anyway, that’s my Android thought for today.
It is snowing outside. This is both wonderful and terrifying. Wonderful because snow is awesome. I love living in a country, and a part of the country, that experiences all four seasons in vibrant technicolour and Dolby Digital surround sound. Winter here means minus forty below, winds, snow in the air and on the ground, and plenty of shovelling. Terrifying because this means I may have to shovel in the future—I like shovelling; I hate contemplating the future acts of shovelling. Once I‘m doing it, I’m OK.
School is over now, for two weeks. I had my last examine a week ago. It went well, I think, though I don’t have my marks yet. I feel good about it (Complex Analysis), and I feel good about the one prior to it as well (Medieval and Tudor Drama). The rest of the week could have been relaxing in theory, but in practice it was consumed by invigilating an exam on Thursday and then helping the instructor to mark said exam on Friday. Oh my. Six hours of that—and yes, I know, I will have to do this when I become a teacher. But I’m not a teacher yet.
As I tweeted on Friday, some of the students have very creative answers:
“The interior angle of a regular polygon with 15 sides is…” Student answered “octagon.” WTF.
My friend Vivike and I have decided that “octagon” is the new answer to everything. Octagons and cats. Together they will take over the world. Or they would if my cats didn’t spend so much time sleeping.
My cats spend so much time sleeping that watching them sleep makes me sleepy, but at the same time, it reminds me that no matter how tired I might be some days, I don’t want to spend so much time sleeping. I genuinely enjoy being awake and experiencing the world (through my comfortable Internet connection, obviously).
I‘m on break now, as I said above, nominally for two weeks. It isn’t really a break, however. I still have to work. Also, this year I am doing an honours seminar project, and the first draft of my paper is due at the end of January, so I need to start reading about the Banach-Tarski paradox and see if I can comprehend the proof. My game plan is to spend this week relaxing, playing Mass Effect 2 and reading Umberto Eco. Then I will spend a few hours every day next week focusing on this project.
Next term I‘m taking Advanced Calculus, Aboriginal Education, Philosophy of the Internet, and hopefully Topology. With only one education course and an online philosophy course, I’m hoping this term will not be as stressful as last term (which wasn’t really that stressful, except for that week in November). By which I mean, I hope I have more time to do other things in between. Because I also have to think about applying for an NSERC USRA again. And my supervising prof from last summer has asked me if I’m interested in giving my talk at a conference the university is hosting in January, so I’ll need to put some time aside to prepare for that if I decide to do it.
I tried tofu last night for the first time! With Vivike over for dinner, I bought tofu (without even asking her if she liked it first). My dad prepared it, as well as pork, so I had both meat and protein-providing substitute. I must say it’s pretty good. The texture is very unusual, and I can’t say I like it better than real meat. But it is not as icky as some people find it, for sure.
After dinner we watched Pirate Radio, talked about books and writing, exchanged gifts (I received a very nice copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections), and even played a bit of DDR. Oh, and many chunks of dried papaya were consumed, because dried fruit tastes like candy but is marginally healthier.
It is still snowing, but the wind has granted us a temporary reprieve. I am going to finish this cup of tea and prepare for work, which is an eight-hour shift today. Hopefully I shall return later this week with more posts about Android and Christmas holiday musings. Until then, stay warm.
As I have mentioned in the past, I am a fan of Android, Google’s operating system for smartphones. I’m a fan without having ever owned a smartphone, let alone an Android phone. As of last week, my friends, that has all changed.
My carrier, TbayTel, recently signed a deal with Big Bad Teleco Rogers, in which TbayTel takes over all of the Rogers customer and infrastructure in the area, and everyone gets access to HSPA phones and a 3G network. The upshot of this, as it relates to me, is that TbayTel now has a good many more smartphones, including several running Android. Cue the drooling.
Last Monday, my father and I braved the crazy lineup at the store to purchase me a Samsung Galaxy S Captivate, which was $150 with a three-year contract. It is running Android 2.1, Eclair, and so far it is awesome.
I debated getting a new phone for all of three hours when I heard the news. My old phone, which was my first phone, was an LG 6200. It worked fine, aside from some interesting glitches with the contact management, but there were two drawbacks: firstly, I had no way of connecting it to my computer; secondly, it wasn’t a smartphone.
The reason I want a smartphone is simple: I don’t have much use for a mobile phone. I don’t call very many people. I do use my phone for that purpose, but with a smartphone I envision myself spending more time reading and composing email. What I want is not a mobile phone, but a mobile computing device that also happens to make phone calls. So while I felt bad about discarding my old phone while it still worked, I also felt like the time was right to upgrade.
And I don’t regret my decision. Android is every bit as awesome as I anticipated it would be (maybe even more awesome than I anticipated). Everything I ever dreamed of doing with a smartphone I can now do—or, at least, will be able to do once I figure out how to do it. There is a learning curve, but it’s an enjoyable one.
I’m going to write a slew of blog posts about my experience with my new phone, which I have christened Noether, after Emmy Noether (I like to name my devices after mathematicians—my USB thumb drive is called Leibniz). For now, let me talk about my impressions of the hardware, at least as I have experienced its performance thus far. Keep in mind that I have never had a smartphone before, so I’m still at the “gee golly this is awesome” phase of my experience.
The Galaxy S has a 10.16 cm screen with an 800x480 pixel display. It is a very nice touchscreen interface. The whole front of the phone is flat and covered by the capacitive surface, which makes it look slick and makes the whole screen easy to wipe (because touchscreen, especially now that I‘m using the Swype keyboard, means smudges). The resolution is great. I’ve watched several short YouTube videos with it, and the contrast and tones look as good—or better—than my computer monitor. It helps that the phone also automatically adjusts the screen brightness.
I haven’t done too much reading with it yet, though I have loaded WordPlayer and used it to transfer several eBooks from my Calibre library. Reading blog posts, tweets, or web pages is fine. Contrary to some people’s complaints, I don’t find the backlit screen annoying, and I suspect the most limiting factor when it comes to reading with Noether will be the insane amount of scrolling required. So we’ll see.
If its video capability impresses, audio capability of the Galaxy S does not. The sound quality from the media speaker is poorer than I expected (call quality is fine though). But this isn’t, for me, a big deal—I don’t really intend to use my phone for playing music aloud in a room. That would, after all, drain my battery.
On that note, battery life is about what I’ve been told to expect from a WiFi-enabled smartphone. I was surprised at how quickly it went from fully-charged to 23% just on standby, with WiFi disabled because I was at school. But I won’t really know how significant an issue this is until I’ve developed usage patterns. Then I’ll be able to gauge how often I need to charge it. Just having a USB charger that works with an AC adapter or plugs into my computer is a new thing for me.
The camera, from what little I’ve used it so far, works great. It really emphasizes the fact that megapixels are not the best way to measure camera quality. It is “only” 5 MP. Brightness and contrast control is more of an issue here, since unlike a dedicated camera, the Galaxy S has a limited ability to compensate for various lighting levels. Here’s a photo of my cats on my reading chair—and this is just an amateur snapshot, so I’m sure my ability to use the camera and to take better photos will only improve.
I want to talk about two things when it comes to the Galaxy S software: the default apps and the input methods. Samsung has seen fit to load my phone with various default apps that range from useful to annoying. It is nice to have a Gmail client out of the box—not that I expected otherwise, since it is a Google Android phone. Samsung has seen fit to replace the default Android Contacts app with its own homespun version, and as you might guess from this turn of events, the replacement app sucks. Organizing my contacts is a huge pain, because I can’t control syncing with my Google accounts on a group-by-group basis; indeed, the phone doesn’t even recognize the labels attached to each contact as groups. I hear this has been fixed in Froyo, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to get that.
Likewise, Samsung decided to replace the Android keyboard with its own keyboard (or “keypad” if you like, since it is a touchscreen keyboard and not a physical device). At first I had no problems with this, because I didn’t know what I was missing, and the Samsung keyboard worked fine. However, as soon as I started looking for ways to insert special characters, such as letters with accent, I was stuck. Apparently the Android keyboard—at least on most devices—presents accented characters when one long-presses on a letter. That behaviour makes sense. Samsung keyboard? Not so much. Fortunately, my phone also comes pre-loaded with Swype. It exhibits the special-characters behaviour just described.
Now, I was hesitant about using Swype at first. The interface is unusual for all of us who were trained to touch-type in elementary school: instead of tapping each letter, you start with the first letter of a word and drag a continuous path that goes through each subsequent letter (hence the name “swipe”). Swype then uses the magic of software to determine which word you were spelling, and if it isn’t sure, it presents some alternatives to you. It also does automatic capitalization and spacing and whatnot. Plus, if you really want, you can just use it like an ordinary keyboard (and type in words unfamiliar to Swype).
My first reaction was “hmm, that’s odd, but kind of cool.” My second reaction was: “holy wow, this is so much nicer to use in portrait mode than the default keyboard.” In portrait mode, the keys are thinner, which makes touch-typing impossible and hunting-and-pecking frustrating. I tended to just flip to landscape mode unless I was entering a very short phrase. Swype makes portrait-mode keyboard entry painless. However, the touch-typist in me is still kind of leery about this whole “rub your finger against the screen to type” school of thought. Not only does it cause yet more smudging, but it feels weird. And it goes to show how trained I’ve been when it comes to touch-typing (which I am doing now as I type this post) that any other mode of keyboard entry just feels wrong, anathema, to the very core of my being.
Finally, let me close with a reflection on the truly amazing nature of the technology that we put into our devices these days. It is easy to write off smartphones as “Internet-enabled phones” and view them as a bagatelle. As somebody who didn’t have a smartphone until recently, I tended to take that perspective (when I wasn’t busy complaining about how much I want one). With the obsession over touchscreen technology and voice-activated features (which are noticeably absent from my Eclair-powered phone), it is easy to overlook some of the cooler ways in which our smartphones make our mobile experience that much better.
Yes, I‘m talking about you, accelerometer, and you, gyroscope. I never gave you guys any credit until I realized how much you do for me. Sure, you tell my phone when I want it in landscape mode instead of portrait. But that’s expected. What I didn’t expect was how, when I’m on a call, you tell my phone to turn the screen off when I bring it up to my ear and turn it back on when I bring it down so I can enter on the dialpad or otherwise use the phone. This is a very minor but useful trick, and I’m grateful some developers and user interface designers somewhere decided to include it.
So there you have it: my first smartphone, and my first impressions thereof. Tune in next time for thoughts on Android, apps, and being constantly connected.