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28 December, 2010

Seattle 520 bridge construction promises more bad transit decisions

For years, they've been talking about "fixing" the situation with SR-520, the "highway" that serves as one of the two commute paths across Lake Washington, connecting the Eastside to Seattle. Every time it appears in the news, I imagine the horror that is going to occur when that road goes under construction. But it fades from the news, and I forget for a little while.

This week, I was reminded once again that the tolls (Phase 1 of the insanity that will ensue) will commence in a few months. Even though major construction will not start for some time after that, the tolling is going to immediately disrupt the tenuous excuse for an "equilibrium" that currently keeps traffic at a manageable level. After much debate and deliberation, it appears that they have decided to only put a toll on SR-520 itself, and not charge drivers who go across I-90, located a few miles south. Makes sense, right? We should only make those who use the road pay for its improvement.

I'm hoping that you can detect the sarcasm in that assertion.

Apparently, those who make the decisions about such things must prefer checkers over chess, because they're clearly not in the business of thinking more than one step ahead. It does not require a doctorate in statistical analysis or civil engineering, or even a college education to know that if you only tax (I mean, toll) one of the two bridges across the lake, it will result in a percentage of traffic diverting to the other bridge to avoid the toll. On the surface (again, only one move ahead) you might think this is a good thing, because SR-520 traffic tends to be a bit worse on a daily basis than I-90. Fair, right? But if that flux of cars avoiding SR-520 is great enough, it will lead to a traffic nightmare on I-90. There are already issues with that road due to its lane arrangement, with frequent backups passing through Mercer Island, even when traffic would otherwise be moderate or light. If you throw 20% more load into that system, it is probably going to break. Similarly, the I-90/I-405 interchange is extremely poorly designed, with on-ramp and off-ramp positions too close together, resulting in unnecessary backups every day, even in light traffic, just trying to sort out the cars who are getting on the highway from those getting off the highway. If you add 20% more traffic, it will have a dramatic impact on those bottlenecks first.

I'm not even considering the fact that the construction itself (as it always does) will cause rubber-necking pandemonium on SR-520, likely nullifying the hypothesized speed-up of traffic due to imposing of tolls. In fact, maybe they are thinking 2 moves ahead. Maybe they know that SR-520 is going to be nuts, and they're trying to dump traffic onto I-90 just to keep things balanced. But if that's the case, they should not be touting expected increases in travel speed by imposing tolls. They should come out and say "For 2 years, it's going to be the worst imaginable nightmare. We know it. And the only thing we can do is try to distribute it evenly, so we're putting a toll on SR-520 to get the cars off that road." At least that would demonstrate some integrity. But politicians who make decisions don't like to make unpopular statements. They'd rather live now and pay later. One thing politicians are good are is apologizing and informing the public that said circumstances were unforeseen.

The last part of my rant relates to the utter selfishness of the whining residents of Mercer Island who, in their aloof upper-middle-class land of delusion, are under the impression that they should be protected from the ills of infrastructure improvement, unless it directly benefits them. These folks are insisting that tolling I-90 is unfair and will disrupt businesses, and unfairly tax them, and potentially impact their school system by making it difficult for their teachers to get to and from work. Seriously? I'll bet that if we look at the median income of a Mercer Island resident, and the number of hours per week that the average Mercer Island resident spends working and/or commuting, as compared to a Seattle resident, we'll see that a) they can afford to pay a toll, and b) they can afford to cover the cost of their teachers' tolls and give them a pay raise to compensate their inconvenience, and c) they can afford to spend a little more time sitting in traffic (which they'll do if we don't put a toll on I-90, for sure). If they want idyllic island life, without confronting the reality of being within a stone's throw of a major metropolitan area, let them pack their bags, load up their Lexus SUVs, and move to Whidbey Island.

A final note about the entire project. Apparently, the city has not yet settled on how they're going to finish the project. They haven't completely sorted out where the money will come from. And they haven't sorted out what the design will actually be for the section of SR-520 that connects Montlake to I-5. This is a rather shocking detail, considering that it involves major complicated connections, with political pressure from neighborhoods about where there should or should not be on-ramps. Beginning to replace the bridge across the lake without a plan for connecting up to I-5 is like launching the Space Shuttle without equipping it with the appropriate shielding for reentering the atmosphere.

Well, it's not exactly like that. But I'm at a loss for a suitable metaphor.

23 December, 2010

Foray into Windows Phone 7 ends with iPhone relapse

If you read my post below about the Samsung Focus, and my month-long experience with it, you probably won't be surprised to know that I caved and went back to the iPhone 4. Sadly, I realized that for a gadget geek, it just makes no sense to wait, dissatisfied, hoping and praying that Microsoft does enough to make their phones a viable alternative with updates over the coming year(s). The promise of "copy and paste" as the big January update just didn't cut it for me. And if one reads the available rumors on the internet, it sounds like there won't be much else significant to speak of until at least late summer or early fall when WP7.5 is supposedly scheduled to be released.

The thing that made it so hard for me to decide to leave the platform was that everybody else seems so happy with them. All the reviews online are talking about how fabulous it is. People have referred to it as at least a Droid killer, if not an iPhone killer. How could I be so out of alignment with consensus? Or is it just that I always have buyer's remorse over every decision?

Then, one day last week, my officemate came into work with her new Samsung Focus. She'd been an iPhone 3G user, previously. And the first words out of her mouth were "Oh my God! I am so incredibly frustrated with this new phone!" We talked about it a bit. And her description of the WP7 pretty much hit the nail right on the head: "All of the fancy, beautiful animations and fonts are impressive for like the first fifteen minutes. After that, I was like 'Where are all my apps?'"

Indeed.

Now, I recognize that it would be completely unfair to expect a brand-new platform to have a good selection of applications. Though, we should pause for a second and note that Microsoft is not really a brand-new player in the mobile device industry. Microsoft has been making operating systems for mobile/portable devices for between eight and ten years, depending on exactly where you start counting, with the first Windows Mobile smartphones in 2003. I recognize that Windows Phone 7 represents a new platform. But that doesn't change the fact that Microsoft has been in the mobile phone business longer than Apple or Google. The company chose to start over again with WP7, in the hopes that it will take them further in the long run. This is a bold move, and likely signals a commitment to becoming a real contender.

But the conversation with my colleague made me realize that, for those of us who have been enjoying the rich experience available on phones such as the iPhone or the Droid, it is a huge step backward to adopt a new platform. For some users, this may not be a problem; namely, those who really just use a phone for email, text, voice, and occasional directions or web browsing. But I'm a user who has typically pushed the phone to the limits, always wanting to have the coolest and most extreme functionality.

Long story short, I found myself on Craigslist, sent half a dozen emails, and found a seller of an iPhone 4 who worked on campus. He had just purchased his Samsung Focus, and was cashing in his iPhone. I paid him $500 cold hard cash for the privilege to reenter the comfortable world of iPhone. I'd sold mine 3 weeks ago for $450. I decided that a $50 penalty was an acceptable price to pay for a valuable lesson learned. Leave well enough alone.

I'm not really sorry that I experimented with the WP7. And I wanted to like it... I really did. Some of what it does, it does very well. I can't doubt that in a year or two, WP7 may kill the Droid. It is a little harder to believe that Apple will slow their innovation to the degree that it would fall behind WP7.

Now that I have my iPhone back in my hand, with the solid substantial feel of glass and metal, the gorgeous and tantalizing sensibly small icons for dozens of interesting applications, and the confidence that anything cool that is ever made, by anyone, will be available to me on this platform, I feel a sense of relief. And I also feel a lot more forgiving of the shortcomings of the iPhone. If you read way back through my posts (such as this one or this one), you'll hear me rant about the things iPhone didn't do right. But I can see now that I was selectively ignoring the 95% of what Apple did right.

Last week, my girlfriend's new HTC MyTouch 4g Droid phone seemed like a space-age wonder device. I was having such phone envy, I wanted to yell at her, because of my jealousy as she happily poked away at tiny cool icons of neat little apps. Now that I have my iPhone again, I look at the latest Droid, and have a slightly different take. The Droid now looks like a powerful, but slightly chaotic, glitchy, non-cohesive experience that emulates the Apple iPhone, but feels more like a story that's composed by passing a notebook around a campfire with each person writing one sentence. That's the place where WP7 has a good shot at overtaking the Droid, because Microsoft does appear to have a consistent experience so far, even across manufacturers and providers. That will go a long way. I look forward to seeing just how far, and hope that I'll find myself giving WP another chance, whether it be WP7, WP7.5 or WP8.

20 December, 2010

Free healthcare for children

The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend about healthcare for children.

Guess what? Healthcare isn't free for children. Who knew?

I'm being facetious, of course. Everyone with a child knows. And most everyone else knows, too. If you're dismally poor, then there are provisions in the government to provide. But otherwise, a child's healthcare is in a similar bucket to an adult's healthcare. It must be either paid for, at least to some degree, by some adult, or it is provided, at least in part, by some employer of said adult. This strikes me as "wrong." Children are not required or expected to work, of course. Nobody disputes that. Likewise, children are not expected to provide for themselves. It is expected that someone will provide for children. And proper healthcare might be imagined to fall under the general category of things that should be provided. And yet, it seems that parents are needing to make very tough choices about how much and what type of healthcare to provide, in cases where there isn't an employer-based plan to take care of everything.

I recognize I'm oversimplifying this issue dramatically. I recognize that someone needs to pay for it. I recognize that our taxes already have deductions for children that could be construed as provision toward healthcare costs, or other living costs associated with raising a child. It's a complicated one.

The problem I have is this: in much the same way that children are at the mercy of what their parents feed them, and how their parents discipline them, nurture them, provide for their education; children are also at the mercy of how their parents provide for their healthcare.

As I am writing this, I am recognizing the futility of my point. Healthcare is just one of many ways in which children are at the mercy of their parents' ability to provide. The truth is, children must enter the world, and develop in the world that is largely defined by the environment that the parents create. Children start off "innocent," and it would be nice to think that they have all the best things afforded them: great food, a great home, education, social opportunities, travel, healthcare, love. If they did, one can imagine that outcomes would be better in this world than they are. The part that is difficult for me is the idea that socioeconomic factors play such a major role in defining the nature of this childhood experience. It really comes to the question of "Is it the government's responsibility to level the playing field?" and if yes, the next question would still be "Is there an approach to leveling the playing field whose measurable success justifies the overall cost to society of doing so?" And the answers to those questions may define the fundamental difference between the left and the right. The left would rather see the effort made, even if it is a failed one, even if it is immeasurable or inconclusive, even if there is massive systemic abuse, in order to assert that the government takes responsibility for the welfare of citizens. The right would say that it is not the responsibility of government to do so, and furthermore, that there is not evidence that the cost to society outweighs the benefit.

Sometimes, I try to compare us to "the animals" and see if we're the same, better, or worse. The rationale in my mind is that we should at least be "the same" and hopefully "better" when it comes to how our civilization operates. Animals that are stronger, more genetically fit, more fortunate circumstantially, tend to thrive over those who are less so. And the animals that are more fit will have no hesitation whatsoever about exercising this dominance to provide for their own. For some animals, this occurs at the individual level. For some, at the group level. In most cases, a given species will exercise whatever actions it must, at the expense of another species, for its own survival. Humans don't really appear to operate at much different level, on average, than the animals do. The key differences are the presence of extreme outliers (altruists, barbarians), and the diversity of fashions in which one human or a group of humans may demonstrate "fitness." For humans, to be "fit" is no longer just a biological phenomenon. And fortunate circumstances can come in far more forms than exist in the animal kingdom.

I'd like to see society operate in a more altruistic fashion. Partly because I am idealist, I realize. But also, because I believe we have the capacity and the means to do so. But therein lies more idealism, I suppose.

16 December, 2010

Samsung Focus Windows Phone 7 Review

I hate to go "techie" in this blog, but I cannot resist the need to review this phone here. I am doing it for two reasons: (1) to vent my frustrations and (2) to counterbalance the overly positive reviews that seem to be appearing elsewhere online.

I've been using the Focus for about 1 month now. This is my second Samsung Focus, because I had to return the first one due to problems with the device.

Industrial Design

The Focus does not look as expensive as an iPhone and it does not feel as substantial as most other phones in its class, including T-Mobile's HTC HD7. The reasons for this are its light weight, rounded soft corners, and the lack of any metal on the body of the device. It just feels and looks flimsy. In the first week or two of ownership, I dropped the phone several times (which interestingly never happened with my iPhone in years of ownership). Each time, the cheap plastic back of the phone fell off, and the battery fell out. Cheap.

Continuing on with the ID flaws, perhaps the biggest problem is the button placement on this phone. Windows Phone 7 already (in my opinion) made some bad decisions by using all softkeys for the main controls on the face. I constantly find myself accidentally pressing the back button or launching Bing, because of my hands resting on the phone. While this is likely an issue with all WP7 devices, I suspect it's exacerbated on the Focus because of the extreme rounding of corners and positioning of the buttons very low. But the softkeys are not the worst problem. It's all of the other buttons. If you look at other WP7 devices (or the iPhone, or most Androids), the Power button is positioned on the top of the phone. And there's a really good reason for that: So you don't accidentally shut off your phone when you don't mean to. But Samsung messed this up. They put the Power button on the right side, opposite the Volume controls. Consequence? When you're trying to increase or decrease volume while gripping the phone, you're likely to press the Power button. Even worse, is that the Power button is on the same side as the Camera shutter button. Consequence? When you're holding your phone in various orientations and you want to activate the camera, it's easy to get confused and accidentally shut off your phone instead of launching the camera application. This was a completely unnecessary problem, and it was introduced because Samsung decided to do things differently than most of the other manufacturers.

Performance and Experience

The phone has great headphones. I will tell you that. Compared to the HTC HD7 or the MyTouch 4g Android (which my girlfriend just got), these are really good quality. The phone also has very good sound quality for calls and for music.

The camera in the Focus is great - from what I can tell, it takes better pictures than the iPhone 4. Of course, there is no front-facing camera, which deprives you of the self-portrait capability, but if you only have your phone with you for picture taking, you probably won't be disappointed with the Samsung Focus. Even when zooming in, the images do not become pixelated. And, comparing this phone with the other WP7 models that I've seen, it has far more features and controls in the camera settings menu, including some very useful things that make it a bona fide digital camera.

Now for the negatives... some of which may be WP7 issues, and some may be Focus-specific.

Facebook is painfully slow (usually 15 seconds to load, and then continues slowly loading pages after that). The internet browsing experience is absolutely abysmal. Sometimes pages don't even load, it just times out and sits there. If this is an indication of what we can expect the application experience to be, I think that WP7 is in for some big challenges, since they don't come close to competing with iPhone or Android at this point.

Maps are slow, awkward, and the GPS can be horribly inaccurate. With the iPhone, I always found that the "Current Location" parameter worked quite well for obtaining directions, and it would update incrementally with decent precision. In contrast, the Focus' GPS is routinely off by over 1 mile in a major urban area, resulting in the "My Location" parameter being useless for obtaining directions, since it will give you directions from somewhere other than where you are. If you are on Wi-Fi, this problem goes away, but I don't think we can rely on Wi-Fi connection for mobile mapping applications, nor should we be expected to do so. Final comment on maps is that Bing Maps are far behind Google in terms of quality, and for some reason they are not privy to the same data that Google has for satellite views - but that's a WP7 issue, not specific to Samsung Focus, of course.

Problems, Glitches, Defects

I had to return my first Focus because of an audio problem. I am not sure if it was hardware or software, but almost every day it was necessary to reboot the phone in order to listen to music. It seems like some other application (Bluetooth? YouTube? Other?) was stealing the audio path, such that when I played Zune, the counter would indicate that music was playing, but no sound would emit. Reboot solved the problem, but it was a daily occurrence.

My second Focus does not have the audio problem, but it does suffer from a number of freeze-ups and glitches, where the screen goes black, or flickers, or applications become unresponsive. Another frequent occurrence is that I will try to launch an application, and after about 5-10 seconds delay, it will return me to the home screen without launching. This has happened for Zune and Marketplace.

Summary

I'm stuck with a Windows Phone 7. That's the bottom line. I'm stuck for X amount of time with a Beta-quality phone, when I had a fully-functional, application-rich, fast iPhone 4.

I've thought about bringing this Samsung back and swapping for the HTC Surround, but I'm not sure it's worth it. From what I've seen, I'll be sacrificing in camera quality, and getting crappier headphones. The Surround does have a sturdier design, but it also has a smaller screen. There just aren't many good choices.

The phone will receive updates in January and February, we're told. Features will be added. But will the glitchiness and poor performance be addressed in any of these patches? That remains to be seen.

I don't think I'll ever get over my frustration with the button placement, both of WP7 (softkeys) and the Samsung Focus (Power button). Likely, I will "suck it up" and live with this for a year, until AT&T decides I'm eligible for an upgrade. At that point, I'm not sure what I'll do. I've never been a fan of AT&T as a company, and now that I've hopped off the iPhone bandwagon, perhaps Android is next? And if that's the case, I'll probably go to either T-Mobile or Sprint.