Monday, August 29, 2011

The Irene Retrospective

So I'm still alive! I'm sure you were all extremely worried.

Sarah and I took Hurricane Irene seriously from the get go: shopping for non-perishables, wrapping bungie cords around the Crepe myrtles in our backyard, that sort of thing. Our friends, Tara and Mike, took things a bit more seriously, because they live in Queen Anne's County and they had to deal with an evacuation order. So come Friday night my house was temporarily converted into a refugee shelter / hurricane party.

Despite the circumstances (read: a honking great hurricane bearing down on us), we had a great time hanging out together, and I heartily recommend getting together with friends if you know you're going to get hit with a big storm. Super Mario Bros. Wii filled a lot of time before the power went out: we actually were about 40 seconds from finishing off Bowser when the storm finally cut us off. There may have been a bit of screaming at that point (don't worry, we'll get him one day).

This is a marked dinosaur/dragon thing.

We should have known it was coming. Saturday was pretty much all rain and wind as soon as we woke up. We got through most of the day on our supplies (pancakes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), but we did end up ordering Chinese food from the local Joy Luck for dinner, maybe an hour before things started getting nasty. They were willing to deliver in heavy rain and winds with a massive storm incoming, and for that I salute them (and tipped well).

Irene took out our power around 8:30pm. We ended up playing a couple rounds of Uno (which I was stomped in unmercifully), followed by a team game of Trivial Pursuit (during which Sarah and I stomped our friends unmercifully). At one point Tara left the room for a moment, and when she came back in Lina jumped on her leg in greeting. Tara may have screamed, which may have caused Sarah to scream, which may have caused me to shout a bit when she dug her nails into my arm. I didn't see Lina chuckle, but I assume it happened.

The following morning was damage control, which mostly meant cutting up tree limbs that fell in our yard. Queen Anne's County lifted the evacuation early on, and Tara and Mike said their goodbyes once they got their power back. We figured we'd have our power restored similarly quickly.

Oh, how wrong we were...

As it turned out, Anne Arundel County was one of the hardest hit areas in Maryland in terms of power outages. Only Baltimore had more outages (the city, but the county came in third). Our local power company, BGE, had prepared for about 500,000 outages, but we ended up with close to 750,000 throughout the state. So even with a few advantages (i.e. living right off a major highway), it was 48 hours before we got our electricity back.

The details of the outage are inconsequential, to paraphrase Mike Myers. Suffice to say Sarah and I spent a lot of time reading, keeping our phones charged up enough to stay on the grid (which involved cannibalizing my laptop's power supply), trying to get Lina to stop barking at nothing, and plotting a takeover of our neighbor's generator.

A scenario we narrowly avoided.

I strongly recommend the Mighty Bright clip-on Kindle light if you need a good flashlight, by the way. It lasts for hours and hours, is bright enough to illuminate a room, and can clip into place if you want to read something.

We gave up on sitting in the dark early this afternoon, and visited my mom's house to recharge our batteries, both literal and metaphorical. Also to get out of the stifling heat of our house, which is what happens when you have no power in August. By this point Sarah was constantly tracking BGE's press releases, local blogs and her Facebook friends to figure out when we'd get our power back, and we'd half convinced ourselves that we'd be powerless until Saturday (BGE's worst-cast estimate for the county - and if anyone actually reaches that estimate, you have my deepest sympathies).

Fortunately reality trumped the ironically evil hand of Bad Luck, and the power kicked in just after Sarah went to bed. She sat up to try to figure out how the fan was running, and was treated to the sight of me dancing for joy in the bedroom.

I'm scared it looked like this.

So the power's back, the house is nice and cool again, and the dog finally seems willing to sleep with both eyes closed. All things considered, we got off very lightly. We spent a weekend with good friends and family, played a lot of cooperative games, and ate a ton of junk food. If I'd remembered to go get booze before Irene hit (and if the power hadn't gone out), I'd have rated it a 10/10.

The missing ingredient.

And happily, it doesn't seem like I missed anything major on the Internet while I was (mostly) offline. Oh, wait...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On

I was standing in the bathroom at my office, washing my hands, when the sink began to bounce in front of me. I felt dizzy and vaguely nauseous. "Oh holy shit," I thought, "I'm going to pass out in the sink." My chronic sleep deprivation was finally going to do me in, and in an office bathroom of all places.

Then my brain flipped, and I realized I was in the middle of a damn earthquake. Not just any earthquake, mind, but a record-setting (for Washington, DC) 5.8 magnitude earthquake. The last one we had in my area was only a 3.X, and I never even felt it.

There is something profoundly disturbing about an earthquake that you're not going to understand unless you've been in one. It's not like being in a bumpy car or a carnival ride: reality itself is warping around you. The ground, that thing you understand as defining "solid", is now juddering like a living thing in the grip of a seizure. If you're indoors, your whole world could literally come crashing down on your head.

5.8 on the Richter scale. That's peanuts compared to what hit Japan, which was an 8.9. And Richter isn't linear: 5.8 to 8.9 is a difference of tens of thousands in terms of destructive power.

There wasn't any real destruction in the area: a few damaged chimneys, some minor bits and bobs that fell down. I think the only injury near my home was an older man who fell down in his shower (and I do hope he's okay). My office was evacuated and I was sent home as a precaution. A pipe may have broken on the first floor; I'll have to call in to see if I'm going to work. That's 5.8.

I'm going to send some money to the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund tonight; also the Red Cross. Late, I know, but still not too late.

I got to my cell phone half an hour after the quake ended, but the lines were still choked with traffic. By the time I got through to Sarah I only had 5% of a charge left on my battery. That was hours after the actual quake, and we only had enough time to make sure the other was okay.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Comics I Liked This Week

It's Wednesday, and that means another in my intermittent series of comic book reviews. I'm just focusing on what I liked this time, so if you don't see something here assume it got 3/5 stars.

Here Comes... Daredevil #2 is probably the best comic this week, and honestly I think the new series is the best Daredevil has been in years. Don't get me wrong, I'm not slandering the past couple of (much darker) runs, but I like Daredevil as a happy-go-lucky, witty, gymnastic... well, daredevil, and Mark Waid is nailing it. (And if you'll permit me a brief tangent, the same holds true for Nightcrawler. Marvel, if you bring him back, bring him back as the fuzzy swashbuckling elf we loved for so many years. Please?)

Legion of Doom #3 wraps up this Flashpoint tie-in miniseries in high style. If you don't know, Flashpoint is an alternate-reality crossover where heroes are villains, villains are worse villains, and you've seen this before. Legion of Doom follows longtime Flash villain Heat Wave as he attempts to escape from a supervillain prison (modeled after the Legion of Doom's headquarters) and take revenge on his nemesis (in this reality) Cyborg. The in-prison villainy is pretty cool, but the real standouts here are Heat Wave's crazy ass and a surprise guest star who isn't quite as heroic as he usually is. All three issues are well worth tracking down.

Journey Into Mystery #626 continues Loki's adventures behind the scenes of Fear Itself, Marvel's summer crossover. Having been reborn as a somewhat innocent child, Loki is trying to help Thor by wheeling and dealing with some of the most diabolic beings in the Marvel Universe - and somehow, so far, he's coming out on top every time. I've found Loki is much more interesting as a hero than he was as a villain, and this series shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

Abin Sur: The Green Lantern is another Flashpoint miniseries that wraps up with its third issue this week. For years, Abin Sur's only been the dead alien who gave Hal Jordan his ring (except when he was being manipulated into an early grave by demons under Alan Moore). In this series Abin is alive and well, and proving that he's a more than worthy predecessor to Jordan as he takes on his best friend, Sinestro, and tries to preserve life on Earth at all costs. A fine read for Green Lantern fans.

Avengers Academy #12 continues strong this week, as the kids take on two supervillains that have been turned into Asgardian demigods (Fear Itself again... I swear, tie-ins...). This book's traditional superhero action: fantastic settings, dangerous villains, and heroes trying to save the day while dealing with their own life issues, all done excellently.

Finally, Thunderbolts #162 sees the team of former supervillains start to fracture while battling an army of monsters. Baron Zemo, the original team's founder, is making his presence felt in the book again, just as half the team decides to break away and turn villain again. Whatever comes up in the next few issues should be damn interesting to read.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

From My Phone

Continuing with the Android theme, I'm writing this blog post from my phone. It's two-thumb typing with the slideout keypad, fairly quick but no PC keyboard. I sense that this will not be a regular occurrence.

Anyway, for indulging this little experiment and because I ought to test out the image feature, here's a picture of my Corgi Lina in a bee costume. You're welcome.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

I Love My Droid Apps Too

Yesterday I discussed some of the reasons I bought a Droid 3 instead of an iPhone. Today I'm going to talk about why I really wanted a smartphone in the first place. Apps, baby.

But first let's talk about the Droid's hardware. It's a fairly hefty phone, probably the biggest I've ever owned, but it's not oversized; to fit in a full keyboard and a touchscreen, the Droid is just as big as it needs to be.

I already wrote a love letter to the keyboard. The touchscreen is also nifty. It's responsive, and most of the things you'll press give you a little jolt of haptic feedback to let you know you've pressed the thing correctly. It can be a little tricky to hit a button on the very edge of the screen, but I've never had to press anything more than three times to get it to respond, and that very rarely.

There are four buttons on the bottom edge of the touchscreen: a Settings button, a Home button, a Back button, and a Search button I've never had cause to use. They all change their function based on what you're doing with the phone - for example Settings gives you a way to edit phone settings by default, but if you're running an app it'll let you change the app's settings instead. These buttons aren't full keys, but haptic feedback again lets you know when you've pressed something.

What else? The keyboard slides out with little difficulty, though I get a bit of a squeak every time I do it - I may need WD-40. The camera works fine, and is a massive improvement over my old phone's camera, but I haven't played around with it enough to say anything conclusive. Battery life is good enough to get you through a day. The phone charges very quickly from an outlet, and very slowly from a USB port. And I think that sums up the hardware.

I said I'd talk about accessories, didn't I? I'm not sure why. The case snaps on and protects the phone adequately, and I've got a clip for my belt if I want to use it - mostly I don't. My old Bluetooth headset still works with the phone, though the sync isn't 100%. I don't really have anything else for the phone except chargers. Let's move on to apps.

Most everything on the Droid is an app, even basic functionality like an alarm clock. Once you figure this out it's all very intuitive. The Droid ships with a selection of starter apps and Let's Play Golf 2, which is just one piece of the bloatware Verizon curses your phone with. It's easy to hide, but good luck getting any of it off your phone entirely - if someone figures out the trick to this let me know. I never even liked Let's Play Golf 1, and I'm pretty sure that game doesn't exist!

All of the Google and social networking apps work great. I've got Gmail, Google Reader, Google+, Facebook, and Twitter at my fingertips. The Twitter app even does you a favor and memorizes where you are in the stream, which is a huge plus if you're prone to losing your place. It's also very easy to upload photos - I needed to use my old phone's crappy email client to do it before, so this is a big improvement.

Games are great so far. I've got the whole OMFG ANGRY BIRDS library already - all free, though there's a bit of advertising included that can get irritating. Words with Friends is also free, and I've already found myself in four games at once. So far I'm holding my own, though I've already been stomped into the ground by my Aunt Susan. Cut the Rope, the third game I was looking forward to playing, is not free, but it is dirt cheap and I'll get around to buying it any day now. But, y'know. OMFG ANGRY BIRDS.

A brief aside on ringtones. I was worried about getting my iTunes library onto the Droid. For videos this is indeed a pain in the ass, and one I've given up on fixing. But my actual music is, for the most part, the DRM free stuff Apple switched to a while back, and plays on my Droid with no problems.

I've got a Final Fantasy victory fanfare set up as my main ringtone, and I get to wake up to Ke$ha's Tik-Tok in the morning. I originally wanted to use Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf as my alarm clock - that's the Kick from Inception, if you were wondering, and if you still don't know what the hell I'm talking about go rent the movie. Unfortunately the first time I tried it my wife wanted to know why the hell I was playing music from a horror movie on my phone. When I explained where it was from she got the joke, but I'm still forbidden from using it. So I wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy.

Back to apps. I downloaded FBReader, a free eBook reader app, and after using Calibre to convert a ton of .mobi files into .epub files, I'd turned my phone into a perfectly functional eBook reader. The screen size is problematic (it's a phone, this is a given), but the text is clear and readable regardless. And, since the screen is backlit, my phone makes a useful substitute for my Kindle if I'm in a dark space.

The Barcode Scanner app is technically impressive, though I can't see myself getting much use out of it. I was able to use it to scan a QR code at my bank and download a mobile banking app, at least. The banking app is nice, but too much like the bank's normal website to be truly excellent.

I've just now set up HBO Go, HBO's free streaming app for, well, pretty much every series they show, and a bunch of movies too. So far it works great, much better than it does on a computer, though I'd never dare use it without a wireless connection. I may end up watching every episode of Game of Thrones on my phone. This is weird, but also pretty cool.

What else? I've got the Kindle app, but with all the non-Amazon books I buy FBReader is the better option. Text messaging looks very nice. Contacts include all the information you might want, although there is a wrinkle in that the phone will automatically import your Gmail contacts along with any numbers you already had in your phone - for me, this meant merging quite a few contacts to get rid of duplicates.

Overall I'm very happy with the Droid 3 and with Android, and if you're looking for a smartphone I'd recommend them. As of this moment, the only thing I can think of that I'm missing out on from the iPhone is Futurama's "Put Your Head in a Jar" application. I'm pretty sure I'll live.

Monday, August 1, 2011

I Love My Little Droid

Look there, to your left. Say hello to my new little friend. Hello new friend! See the red eye-looking logo? It is staring at you. It is staring into your soul.

I've been interested in a smartphone ever since I heard the iPhone was coming to Verizon. Well, that's not true, I've been vaguely interested ever since my coworkers all got some and started bragging about the cool shit they can do on a smartphone. And I listen to Tech 411 which is always going on about some cool new app of the week. And OMFG ANGRY BIRDS!!!

This bird will fuck you up.

So I've had an interest for awhile, and two weeks ago my phone plan discounts finally vested. If you don't have a cell phone plan, understand that the bastards phone company likes to lock you in for two years at a time, and charge you ruinous early termination fees if you jump ship early. To sweeten the incarceration deal, they'll give you a discount on your next phone if you stick it out. Well, Verizon used to, they don't do that anymore because they sell smartphones and they know that people who buy smartphones are like crack addicts for hot new technology. Luckily I was still grandfathered in on the fabled "New Every Two" deal, so I got the discount this time (for the last time).

I was dead set on an iPhone, but my wife suggested that I might like one of the new Droid 3 phones instead. This sounded like blasphemy, but she convinced me to listen to her before I broke out the rack. Why would I want a Droid?

"They've got a real keyboard, and they're on a two-for-one sale."

Compelling arguments for a heretic, it must be admitted.

I went to the store two days before Purchase Day and checked out the two phones. Now, iPhones are famous for not having a physical keyboard. There's actually a cottage industry of massive bluetooth keyboards being built into cases to make up for this shortcoming. But they do have a touchscreen with a keyboard. Surely, I thought, Apple would be an improvement on the touchscreen keyboard I was used to, the one on my enV Touch, which is a sort of short-bus smartphone. Right?

Well, no... I can't get the hang of a touchscreen keyboard. Haptic feedback helps, but I still end up fouling up one button press in three when I'm trying to type. I'm also reduced to two-fingering on a touchscreen, which is a real pain for someone who's been trained in the deadly art of touch-typing.

(As an aside, since this is still nominally a writing blog: Take a fucking touch type class. I don't care how much you like writing longhand. That goes for any programmers who might be reading as well. It's a simple skill to pick up and it will massively improve your output.)

As for the Droid, it does touchscreen too, but that slide-out keyboard is nice. It's full QWERTY, with numbers in a row on top and no squirrelly space-saving bullshit. They keys feel nice under your fingertips, soft and rounded and vaguely like leather. Mmm...

Plus I'm familiar with Android as a smartphone OS. I'm up to my neck in Google as-is, so I'm not shy about adding something else to my omni-account. Plus it's pretty easy to develop Android applications on a PC, if I'm so inclined, and of course there's a great app library in place with OMFG ANGRY BIRDS:

Seriously man, just walk away.

Sure, I miss out on iTunes syncing, which is a pain. I've got more music in iTunes than I could sync to anything short of an iPod Classic, not to mention a few movies I'd like to have available on the go. But then again, I've got the iPod Classic. I don't need my phone to play movies for me; I've got that covered.

And I mentioned that one of the Droids would be free, right?

Next up: Apps, accessories, and using French music to terrorize my wife.