Monday, June 28, 2010

The Road Sifter

NO SIFT NEXT WEEK. Next edition: July 12

Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.
-- Benjamin Disraeli
In this week's Sift:
  • Minneapolis. This week's Sift comes to you from the best thought-out downtown in America.
  • Road Gadget: Three weeks with my iPad. I can't give you a nice simple justification for buying one, but I like it.
  • Short Notes. The wisest thing Robert Byrd ever said. A local Fox station has an open-mic incident after a Palin speech. Republicans vs. demography. McChrystal is almost famous. Fantasies of Hezbollah in Mexico. A simple depolarization scheme. Glenn Beck claims Thomas Jefferson. And if money is speech, then speech isn't free.

This week's Sift comes to you from Minneapolis, where I've been attending the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists. In general the conference is not very relevant from a weekly-sift point of view, but Minneapolis itself is.

Any city that is trying to figure out what to do with its downtown should come study Minneapolis, where the planners have managed to steal all the useful features of a big suburban shopping mall without bulldozing their history or losing the flavor of a traditional downtown. Downtown Minneapolis is bustling, accessible by public transit, pleasant to wander in, and environmentally conscious. It's the city's hub for business as well as entertainment.

Downtown (see map) is really two shopping districts overlaid. The heart of ground-level downtown is the Nicollet Mall, an 11-block long stretch of Nicollet Avenue that has wide sidewalks and two traffic lanes reserved for buses -- many of which are free for rides up and down the Mall. It's anchored at one end by the beautiful Hennipin County LIbrary and the light rail station (which will take you to the Mall of America, if you really think that's necessary), and at the other by the Convention Center. In between are a very un-mall-like variety of retailers, from unique local shops and restaurants to big chain stores like Macy's and Barnes & Noble.

But of course this is Minneapolis, the coldest major city in America. So at a second-floor level is the Skyway -- an eight-mile system of enclosed corridors that zig-zag across the downtown area. The Skyway connects the Convention Center, lobbies of the major hotels, atria of the big corporate and government office buildings, upper levels of the department stores, and another collection of restaurants and coffee shops. You can get almost anywhere without braving an uncontrolled climate, and the hotels and office buildings give you lots of fountains and other public art to look at. (Ground-level downtown has even more wonderful sculpture.)

Just outside the core of downtown -- either on the Skyway or an easy walk from it -- are the three major sports arenas for baseball, football, and basketball.

Many of the buses are electric hybrids that don't spew out dark clouds of diesel fumes. And Nice Ride automatic bike rental kiosks are all over the city. You just drop off your bike at a kiosk near your destination and forget about it -- another bike will be there when you want to come back.

And the most amazing thing is that it all works. America is full of failed downtown renovation plans that looked great on paper, but didn't attract either people or businesses. This downtown has plenty of both -- but isn't gridlocked with cars -- well into the evening, even on weekdays.

I can't say how packed downtown is on a normal weekend, because this was the Pride Festival. While walking from a conference event to my hotel Saturday evening, I suddenly found myself in the staging area for Dyke March. A peppy young woman explained that I didn't have to be a dyke to march with them, but I had somewhere else to be.

On the other side of the street (in more ways than one) I spoke briefly to a young man protesting by distributing free Bibles. (No thanks, got one already.) He clearly believed he was doing a brave thing, though as far as I could see no one had any interest in bothering him.

The most interesting thing I noticed while wandering through Loring Park was the number of vendor booths that had nothing to do with sexuality, be it gay or straight, for or against. One guy was publicizing the Automoto 3-wheel scooter (83 mpg and so cool-looking). It's a crowd, he's got a product to sell, so why wouldn't he want to be there? To me, that said more than anything else about the normalization of same-sex relationships during my lifetime.

Road Gadget: Three Weeks With My iPad
Just before I got an iPad, an even-earlier-adopter told me: "You'll love it, but it won't change your life."

That pretty well sums it up. Just about anything you can do with an iPad, you could have gotten done somehow with some other gadget -- a smart phone, Kindle, GPS, laptop, music player, game machine, or voice recorder. According to an e-book I downloaded, travelers in ancient times even used non-electronic tools like printed books, atlases, or watches powered by some ingenious spring device.

But although I have found no unique capability that makes an iPad indispensable, it hits a sweet spot of utility and convenience that has me carrying it almost everywhere I go and using it many times a day. I've been browsing the web, reading books, making notes, listening to music, checking maps, playing games, and sending email on it. No single reason justifies the expense -- "Now I can do X!" -- but I'm glad I have it.

Web access. I got the costlier 3G-enabled version, mostly because I hope to remain connected when I enter the Internet-free zone where my parents live. But it has also saved me the $65 that the hotel wanted to charge me for a week of WiFi access. I do my basic web browsing and easy email on the iPad, and then cart my laptop to Panera when I want to do something more complicated, like write and distribute the Sift.

And that's a good example. In theory, I could do the Sift on the iPad and travel without a laptop. At home I have synced an external keyboard to it, so the typing is no problem. The Pages app is reputed to be a decent word processor, and no doubt I could find some way to upload the text to my blog. But I haven't been able to make the iPad's version of Safari interface with Google Docs, so I can't just swap the iPad into the process I already use.

I think that's typical. There's a way to do almost anything if you're willing to be flexible and creative. But if you don't want to re-design your habits around the iPad, there will be times when you want a laptop.

That said, the iPad provides a near-ideal coffee-shop browsing experience. A laptop takes over your table and forces you to plan where you're going to put everything. An iPad picks up a WiFi network effortlessly and is as convenient as reading a book. The screen is large enough to be a good read, and the iPhone system of sizing and scrolling through a page is more convenient than anything on a laptop. Also, when I take a laptop to a coffee shop for an afternoon I have to search for a table near a power outlet. But the iPad's battery lasts longer than I want to sit in one place.

People who already have smart phones won't be amazed by the convenience of search for and booking a hotel room from the passenger seat of your car while whizzing down the Ohio Toll Road, but I hadn't done it before, so I thought it was pretty cool.

Also, the month-by-month 3G plan is very convenient. My 3G access will lapse at the end of this trip -- I'll go back to using the WiFi at home -- but I could activate it again any time I really needed it, and meanwhile I'm not paying for it. The speed is iffy -- better in some places than others -- and in general you're better off with a WiFi network if there's one around.

Email. The email reader is great when you need to go through a bunch of messages that don't call for long responses. The touch-screen keyboard is adequate -- much better than the tiny buttons on smart phones -- but two paragraphs is about the max I want to type on it. I mainly use the iPad email as a filter, leaving any lengthy replies until I'm at a computer.

Apple's MobileMe works just the way you'd want. When I go back to my main computer, the messages I downloaded into the iPad are still in my Inbox (but marked as read) and replies I send from the iPad are in the Sent folder.

Book-reader. I don't think the iPad kills the Kindle, for the reason I anticipated before I owned one: It's too heavy. The second day I after I bought the iPad, I was wondering why my wrist hurt. (Still, Amazon feels threatened enough to slash the Kindle price.)

A Kindle is like reading a light paperback, and an iPad is more like reading a heavy hardback; you need to think about how you're going to hold it if you're planning to read for a long time. The iPad is also a little larger, which doesn't seem like much, but makes a difference if the Kindle fits into your jacket pocket and the iPad doesn't.

Ignoring the weight, the iPad provides a great reading experience. As with the Kindle, I very quickly lose the "I'm reading on my iPad" awareness and sink into the book.

I wasn't sold on the iBook app when I first tried it, but it grew on me -- mostly because it downloads Project Gutenberg's free books more easily than the Kindle. (I've often paid $1 or $2 to get a Kindle book that is free on the Web.) All my Kindle books are available to me through the Kindle app and I'm continuing to buy new books through Amazon, but I'm accumulating a library of free classics in iBook.

The iPad has greater resolution than the Kindle, but it uses projected rather than reflected light, so which is easier on the eyes is an individual decision. (The iPad has an advantage over the Kindle if you want to read after your significant other has turned the lights out.) Both are hard to read in direct sunlight, and polarized sunglasses make the iPad almost invisible. So paperbacks are still the best beach reading, especially given the sand-and-water thing.

Games. I'm old-fashioned in the games I play: Free Cell, Sudoku, crossword puzzles. I put a Sudoku program on my Kindle, but the interface was harder than the puzzles. I don't play anything on the iPad that I couldn't play on a laptop, but given the choice I'll play them on the iPad, which for some ineffable reason promotes a more playful mood.

Deficiencies and disappointments. The main thing you need to understand about the iPad is that it's been optimized for consuming information, not producing it. Reading War and Peace on the iPad would be great; writing it would be difficult.

The lack of a Flash player means that a lot of embedded video on the web doesn't work. YouTube works, and I've heard good things about the NetFlicks app. But mainly you're supposed to buy your video from ITunes. The lack of Flash keeps out free competition like Hulu. And if I have the internet and a microphone, why can't I use Skype to make phone calls? It looks like the option has been designed out for Apple's reasons, not ours.

Other deficiencies (like the Google Docs thing) look accidental and may get fixed over time. But every now and then I run into a web site that expects some Java-enabled something-or-other than either doesn't exist for the iPad or I haven't figured out how to turn on.

The Marvel Comics app was a huge disappointment, because it's a totally new comic store (with a poor selection, at least for now) and doesn't interface with Marvel's digital subscription package. If they fix that, the iPad would be an ideal comic-book reader. (Reading comic books on a computer at a desk feels stupid; reading them in bed with an iPad is just right.)

Finally, the iPad comes with almost zero documentation, and the individual apps usually have less. It's all supposed to be self-explanatory, except when it isn't. For most of a day I thought my iPad was broken because the display wouldn't rotate when I re-oriented the screen. Then I discovered there was a screen lock switch that I had flipped by accident.

Friday's NYT looked into the future of e-readers. Nicholas Negroponte is planning
a slate computer set to be released in 2012 that will cost less than $100. Plastic and, he said, unbreakable, the computer will resemble the iPad and will “use so little power you should be able to shake it or wind it up to give it power.”

Short Notes
To honor Robert Byrd on the morning of his death announcement, Daily Kos recalls the most prescient thing he ever said:
If the United States leads the charge to war in the Persian Gulf, we may get lucky and achieve a rapid victory. But then we face a second war: a war to win the peace in Iraq. This war will last many years and will surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In light of this enormous task, it would be a great mistake to expect that this will be a replay of the 1991 war. The stakes are much higher in this conflict.

A Sarah Palin endorsement may help you win a Republican primary, but you'll have to hope everybody forgets about it by November.

Meanwhile, a local Fox station had an open mic incident after a Sarah Palin speech in Turlock, California Friday. As the crew packs up, they can be heard to say things like "Now I know the dumbness doesn't just come from soundbites."
Lots of bloggers are discussing the "Demographic Change and the Future of Parties" report put out this week by demographer Ruy Teixeira. The gist is that by riding white-working-class anger and white-Christian social issues, Republicans are pursuing a very short-term strategy. The white, Christian, and working-class shares of the electorate are all shrinking, and younger voters lack the anti-gay animus so many candidates are relying on.
The growth action on the religious front is among unaffiliated or secular voters, who are the fastest-growing "religious" group in the United States. From 1944 to 2004 the percentage of adults reporting no religious affiliation almost tripled, rising from 5 percent to 14 percent. Projections indicate that by 2024 somewhere between 20-25 percent of adults will be unaffiliated.

This trend, combined with growth among non-Christian faiths and race-ethnic trends, will ensure that in very short order we will no longer be a white Christian nation. Even today, only about 55 percent of adults are white Christians. By 2024 that figure will be down to 45 percent.
By coincidence, Teixeira's points were illustrated this week by polls showing neck-and-neck races in places you wouldn't expect -- Texas governor and North Carolina senator -- and for a very interesting reason: Hispanics have turned against Republicans after the Arizona papers-please law. And they seem motivated to get out and vote. (A more recent poll gives the Republican a 10-point lead in NC, though.)
In the big story of the week, a group of guys forgets a Rolling Stone reporter is around and makes fools of themselves. Didn't I see this already in Almost Famous?

Time magazine points out what ought to be obvious: People don't backstab each other when everything is going fine. Counter-insurgency strategy is all about protecting the people and so giving them confidence in their local government. And that's a great strategy -- if you have a local government that deserves the people's confidence. The government in Kabul doesn't.

The North Carolina congresswoman who bravely exposed Muslims working as congressional interns and warned of the dangers posed by Arab-owned convenience stores is protecting the public from a new imaginary threat: the connection between Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels.

Matt Yglesias notes that mainstream pundits love to complain about polarization, but you never hear them support any solutions. He proposes an obvious one: Elect representatives over larger districts and have proportional representation.
In any given election, Democrats and Republicans alike would have plausible pickup opportunities all across the country—even in New York City—meaning that it would make sense for the GOP to always at least think about trying to answer the concerns of American cities.

Then on the flipside, if Nebraska elected its three-member congressional delegation in a proportional manner you wouldn’t have the scenario where 41 percent of Nebraskans vote for Barack Obama but 100 percent of them are represented in the House by conservative Republicans.

Glenn Beck has devoted a bunch of time lately to "proving" that the Founders were all conservative Christians who never intended to separate church and state. These segments are typically nonsense -- there's a whole industry of fundamentalist "scholars" trying to make history more to their liking -- but Beck outdid himself recently when he tried to claim Thomas Jefferson. Chris Rodda (author of Liars for Jesus) debunks.
The NYT's Room for Debate blog discusses the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the law against giving material support to organizations that the government has labeled as "terrorist", even if that "material support" is your public-relations advice or your speaking out on their behalf.

Digby points out the logic connecting recent decisions of the Rogers Court:
If you believe that multi-national corporations are exercising a right to free speech by spending unlimited funds to influence elections to their benefit, then you would naturally assume that exercising your right to free speech to influence organizations is equivalent to giving them money. The consistent concept for this court isn't free speech at all, it's their belief that money equals speech.

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James Leonard Park said...

I was happy to meet you in person in Minneapolis, my home town.

James Leonard Park,
webmaster for FUUCI:

PS: There is no "h" in "Nicollet", our main street downtown.

Doug Muder said...

You are correct. (you'd think I'd have noticed that when i put in the Wikipedia link)

It was good meeting you too, James. And this time I won't forget about posting something to your site.

Jordan said...

Thanks for the link to Chris Rodda - I hadn't been following the inventions of the right regarding the founders, just fulminating about them. So it's always nice to find out that so often with these guys, if it sounds made up, it is. Kudos to Rodda for doing the leg-work, and to you for turning me on to him.

Ironically, I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant table reading the Sift on my netbook with my 3G card when I read about your experiences with the iPad. I find that Apple is one of those companies whose products I keep wanting to like, but just can't quite. I like my iMac well enough, but I hate the finder. Now that they've dropped the price on the data plan, I was thinking about getting a 2gb/mo iPhone 4, but can't guarantee that I'll hold it "just so". And while the iPad sounds attractive, do I really want to patronize the folks who vetoed James Joyce and Oscar Wilde in the name of "freedom from porn"?

I do't bother taking the power brick from my netbook with me since the battery lasts 6 or more hours. It certainly isn't taking up much space on my cafe-table, and I can read it without holding it up, since the screen is conveniently tilted for my reading comfort (g).

Mail synchronization? Actually, that works perfectly between the netbook, my iMac, and my iPod touch. And the iPad is way more slick. So it's not like I don't understand why you like it, but the proposing isn't compelling enough for me. Yet.

reader said...

Read today this essay on national economics and thought about your blog:

reader said...

Sorry, the link is:

In case of problems:
Date: June 29, 2010
Name: Money Is Not Real

John M. said...

Generraly agree with your review of the iPad, though long term I wonder if the balance between consumption and creation will shift. The iPad is much more physical than what came before it. For some artistic forms, like "painting", this gives iPad has a much higher potiental than a traditional computer. For other forms, like the textual arts it will get better over time as Apple, programers, and users understand the iPad/iPhone better over time.

btw, there is a Skype app for the iPhone that runs fine on the iPad, used it to call home from Taipei a few weeks ago.

Posted from my iPad (with some not trivial iPad/ interactions)

Josi Bunder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.