Andrew Carol, an engineer at Apple, has rebuilt a model of the ancient Antikythera Mechanism entirely out of Lego blocks. Watch this amazing 3-minute video:
A fuller story behind all this is here. I feel like running out and buying out the entire stock of Lego from some unsuspecting toy store.
I was just talking with an older colleague of mine yesterday — he’s been teaching math at my college for over 50 years — about how technology has changed since he started, and I remarked that in many ways I’m more amazed by the mechanical calculator technology of the 50’s and 60’s than I am by modern digital computers. I remember my Dad bringing home an old mechanical calculator from his work and opening it up to reveal gears upon gears inside. Watching this video reminds me of that.
Longtime readers will remember that I’ve owned an iPod Touch for a couple of years now, and it’s a marvelous device. The only things that kept it from being the perfect handheld, for me, were the lack of a camera and the lack of a microphone for taking voice memos. For a couple of months, though, other issues came forward. I began to think about how having 3G connectivity to the internet would be nice. I realized that my ages-old Samsung phone was way past its prime. And most seriously, iOS 4 was slowing my iPod Touch down to a crawl. All these things, plus the fact that my college has a discount deal with AT&T, finally pushed me over the edge into iPhone territory.
My wife and I both ordered iPhone 4‘s, mine a 32 GB model (to match the capacity of my iPod Touch) and hers a 16 GB model. The 16 GB model is apparently more popular, because it was put on indefinite backorder; so my wife, who lacks my techno-lust, opted to cancel her order and get a 32 GB iPhone 3GS instead. But my 4 got here in about a week, and I’ve been using more or less nonstop since then.
Yes, I know Apple has become the new Microsoft in terms of monopolistic, closed-system approaches to hardware and software. Yes, I know Android is the platform that all the cool geeks are flocking to. Yes, I know AT&T is supposed to be horrible and that if I would just wait a few months, the fabled Verizon iPhone will appear. However, these did not deter my purchase in the slightest. While I did my homework on Android vs. iOS devices, I never got very close to going Android. I’m an Apple guy the whole way, for better or for worse.
So, how’s the experience been?
- I have not had any experience whatsoever with the much-publicized antenna and reception issues. In fact, the quality of the reception and voice clarity on the iPhone 4 is probably better than that of any phone I’ve ever had. (Which isn’t saying much, since I think this is only the third cell phone I’ve owned, but still.) We live supposedly in an AT&T dead zone, if you go by AT&T’s coverage map, but right here at my desk I get 3 out of 5 bars. And the reception is crystal-clear, and I have had no dropped calls at all (so far). For the record, I am using a case — I got a free case from the AT&T store for signing up, and now I’m using the free bumper I got from Apple. (I prefer the bumper because it maintains the phone’s slim profile.)
- I signed up for the basic 200 MB per month data plan. At first this seemed like a sure bet for overages. On my laptop, there are sometimes single files that I download that are bigger than that. But I was surprised to find that by the end of the month I had only used up about 50 MB of that allowance, and that was not because I was stingy with my 3G internet usage. Indeed, it seemed like I was using the 3G for connecting to the internet a lot more often than I thought I would. I was way under my limit because 90% of the time, I am connected to a WiFi network. I just don’t need 3G that often — when I’m in the car or waiting in the dentist’s office, maybe, but these are not typical situations. Others may find themselves in more frequent need of 3G, though.
- The retina display is very impressive, especially on apps that are optimized for the iPhone 4. (My current addiction is Real Racing.) It does a particularly good job of rendering text (for example, in ebooks or PDF’s) to be very crisp and clear.
- The camera’s impressive too. It doesn’t have the megapixels of our point-and-shoot camera, but it’s also faster on the draw than that camera, and I like being able to take a photo or video and then send it directly to Facebook, Twitter, or to an email or MMS recipient. So I can really see the iPhone taking the place of both our still and video cameras.
- The hardware is very fast, very nice and crisp. It’s pretty clear to me that iOS 4 simply wasn’t intended to operate on hardware less than the iPad or iPhone 3GS, and the 3GS is pushing it.
- Most of the other features of the iPhone are identical to those of my iPod Touch, which is fine by me.
The iPod Touch has been turned into a gaming device and handed off to my giddy 6-year old, who can’t believe that after two years of telling her to get her hands off my iPod, she gets to use it all she wants (within certain parenting parameters).
I’m looking forward to more uses of the iPhone, especially as classes start soon and I can use apps like Attendance that really benefit from the camera and other iPhone features. The more I use it, the more I realize just how much of a game-changing device the thing really is.
Dave Caolo believes that students are one of the four groups of people who will make the iPad huge, because:
Students are on a fixed budget, and e-books are typically cheaper than their paper-based counterparts. Also, consider all of the money publishers lose when students buy used books from the campus bookstores. Additionally, Apple can distribute textbooks through iTunes U — an established and proven system that students, faculty and staff already know how to use.
Suddenly the iPad is a device that follows a student from his/her freshman year of high school all the way through graduate school. Why buy a laptop when every student has a device that can be a textbook, reference tool, Internet appliance and whatever else the imaginations of developers can dream up?
I do believe that the iPad’s success will be closely tied to its success in the EDU sector, but Caolo’s analysis misses some important points about students and their educational computing needs.
- The argument about used books explains precisely why students, and conscientious faculty, will resist textbooks on an iPad. Already textbook companies charge full (and overly high) price for products that are speciously “revised” every couple of years, even though the revisions are virtually identical to the prior versions. If using the iPad as a sort of universal textbook locks students in to using only the most recent version at the highest possible price, then how is this a step forward? Students would be better off purchasing used versions of textbooks. (One way to ameliorate this problem is for textbook companies to take my advice and give away previous versions of their textbooks whenever a new revision comes out.)
- Students need more from their computers than just email clients, ebook readers, and web access. They need to be able to run spreadsheets and word processors simultaneously. They need to be able to run sophisticated scientific computing software. They need to be able to install and run legacy software that their universities may have purchased — or even developed in-house — decades ago. (For example, in our math courses alone at my college, we use Minitab, Winplot, and even Derive. The chances of these being ported to the iPad are basically zero.) They need to be able to do video chats with Skype. These are just a few of the things that the iPad cannot do right now.
- The above argument assumes that textbooks are the center of a student’s education. I would argue that the best thing about an iPad in education is that it provides a great platform for getting away from textbooks as the center and focusing on existing, web-based information sources instead. Why invent a whole new class of technology only to have it perpetuate a rapidly-outmoded means of instruction?
I think the iPad is a neat-looking device, and it does have the capacity to change the entire landscape of computing from a user interface point of view. The next time I’m up for an upgrade to my work machine (in 2014, sadly) I fully expect to be getting an Apple device that has all the guts and power of my new Macbook Pro but with a sleek form factor and intuitive touch interface like the iPad (apparently) has. This kind of device is probably what students need. The first-generation iPad, not so much, not right now at least. Although I am sure students will buy it.
For the last couple of days I’ve been trying to install some new software on the Ubuntu Linux machine that my kids use in their playroom. Being able to get a real computer for the kids for about $75 (about half of which was spent on the monitor; the box itself is a castoff desktop from the college that I bought for $10) and run all the software they could possibly want to use at their age for free has been great. But having to deal with the technical side of Linux and the usability issues in software reminds me of why I no longer use Linux in my daily life.
Back in 2001, when I started my new job at my current institution, I took the plunge and installed Red Hat Linux on my school computer rather than Windows. I had a colleague at my former work who was a Linux zealot and I figured I would take the transition period to my new job to switch operating systems. At the time, one of the driving reasons for doing so was the simple realization that, although I used computers all the time in my work and at home, I really didn’t understand how computers work. I figured running Linux would allow me a chance to learn, as well as expose me to some very good open-source software.
…I got one.
The story left off with me giving up trying to justify spending $399 for the 32 GB model, even though I’d saved up for it. Cheapness is in my DNA, and I’ve never been able to spend money on anything without feeling like I should have stuck it in a savings account instead. But, one day, my wife comes home and informs me that the daughter of one of her co-workers works at the Apple Store in Indy and gets a 15% “friends and family” discount. After trading a few emails, the deal was set up, and a few days later I had my grubby hands all over it (you see just how grubby your hands really are with this thing) with $60 knocked off the price. So, you see? It pays to wait.
I’ve been using it basically nonstop for a week now, and here are my overall impressions:
- It’s incredibly thin and light, yet it also feels very sturdy, and despite having an all-shiny-aluminum back I haven’t seen any big scratches on it yet.
- The screen is just unreal. Such crispness and clarity.
- Wifi speed is quite decent, and the Safari browsing experience is just fine even on sites that show up in very tiny font.
- The built-in apps are hit and miss. Besides Safari, I’ve really liked using the Mail app (although our stupid MS Exchange server at school can’t be accessed off-campus except through a web page…), and the Maps app is absolutely killer. The Calendar app will be really useful once I figure out how to get my iCal calendars to sync with it. The YouTube app just seems really slow. Weather is OK. Calculator is cute. Stocks, Notes, Contacts, and Clock are unnecessary.
- As a straight-up music player, the whole informatics/human-computer interface aspect of the Touch is amazing. What I mean is that it’s not so much the high fidelity of the sound reproduction that blows me away but the ability to quickly browse and access songs and videos. Not a square millimeter of screen space is wasted; everything is logically laid out and easy to use. This was the same kind of feeling I had when I first used a second-generation iPod with a click wheel.
- Videos are a real treat to watch on this, and it’s been lots of fun exploring what video podcast content is available out there.
- I’ve downloaded some free apps: IM+ for instant messaging, a WordPress app for blogging (haven’t tried using it yet), Pandora (where has that been all my life?), Facebook, WeatherBug. I’ve downloaded a few more that I immediately deleted because it was crap. There seems to be a lot of good free stuff out there and a whole lot of good paid stuff and about an equal amount of crap (free and paid). I’m hopeful that the app selection will keep growing and growing so that although the crap-to-noncrap ratio might stay constant, the amount of non-crap will increase.
- I also paid $20 for the iPhone/iPod Touch version of OmniFocus, the “desktop” version of which I use religiously for GTD on the Macbook Pro. I’m still getting used to it; the main advantage is that I can synchronize tasks to and from the Macbook using MobileMe (we still have 4 months left on the subscription we got for Christmas last year). But it’s nice — rather than carting around a stack of 3×5 cards or a Moleskine for on-the-go task collection, I can just use the iPod.
- I’ve gotten surprisingly good at using the little pop-up thumb keyboard that you get whenever you have to enter text.
- The battery charges a lot faster than my old iPod (about 60-75 minutes from 0% to 100%). And if you leave the wifi off, it seems to get a lot better battery life too. But if you use the wifi, the battery life drains out fast. Not surprising.
I could go on, and I probably will, but here’s something that sums up how much of an impact this little device is having on me. I had to go to an ATM to get some cash, and when it prompted me to enter “OK”, I started tapping the screen. It took me 10 seconds or so to remember that I had to push a button instead. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d tried to pinch and zoom on the ATM screen. So I’m very glad to have waited until I was capable of getting exactly what I wanted, and comfortable in getting it.
So at the end of the comment thread on my iPod lust decision process about whether or not to buy a new iPod touch, I concluded somewhat glumly that I had probably better wait until the gap between what I’d saved up and what the 32 GB model costs is made up somehow. I am happy to announce the gap has been closed, and then some, thanks to the dude that comes around every now and then to buy back textbooks. He just happened to drop in this afternoon, and I freakin’ unloaded, to the tune of three dozen books sold back. (My shelves are happy too.)
In case you’re unfamiliar with this process, there are people who make a living off of coming by professors’ offices and purchasing unused books for cash (at a rate far less than their retail value) and then selling them to the open market. Ever wonder where those used books in the college bookstore come from? Some of them come from students, but a lot of them come from the buy-back people.
But there’s an ethical dilemma. A lot of the books I am selling back are review copies which were sent to me, gratis, by the publisher. This practice of sending out free books all the time is a major contributor to skyrocketing textbook prices. I’m having some guilt pangs about taking the money I get from selling books, which I received for free but for which students have to pay exorbitant amounts, to buy an iPod. On the one hand, I feel like I am profiting from students’ misfortune. On the other hand, by selling books back to the book-buying dude, who will then sell them at a cut rate to campus bookstores, I am providing a robust supply of lower-cost pre-owned books to students who would otherwise have to pay a lot more for the new versions. And let’s face it, I really want that iPod.
Am I overthinking this?
Apple today announced the newest iteration of the iPod nano and some changes to the iPod touch, among other things. This has been an eagerly-awaited day for me, since I took the honorarium from my April gig at Benedictine University and salted away most of it to get an iPod touch once the updates came out. But I must admit that I was really hoping that the 32GB model would be under $300; I was $100 off. So I turn to the blogosphere to help me decide how to blow my stash.
Constraints and preferences: I have $232.50 saved up. I have 12 GB of music (just music, no video) in iTunes and I would like to carry all of it with me plus some video. I would like — really like — to have mobile access to wifi in a handheld device. I currently have a 20GB photo iPod (second generation? third generation? something like that). And coming up with a whole lot of extra money — OK, well, really any amount of extra money — right now is doable but difficult to justify in the family budget.
- Go for the 16GB iPod touch at $299, which is pretty close to what I have saved, and just deal with having 4 GB less space on the device than I currently have?
- Somehow (!) come up with $150 and go for the 32 GB iPod touch?
- Forget the iPod touch and go out and get one of the new nanos, which at $199 I can buy right now with no extra funding required and still have some left over — and muddle through without the mobile wifi?
- Do nothing and just wait around for the next round of upgrades?
Go ahead, spend my money for me!