In case you've been living under a rock and having seen Google's announcement of Go here's a tip - it's designed by Ken Thompson. Ring any bells? He's the guy who along with Dennis Richie created this little thing called Unix (which virtually every one of the top 100 supercomputers in the world as well as at least half of the Smartphone market runs variants of) and another little thing call the C language. Yes, most every other language was either based on C or used parts of it. Even today Linux is written in C. Had Go just been yet another beta project from Google I wouldn't have paid attention but if Ken says there was a need for a new language then I'm going to take it serious.
Here's the link - golang.org. Since I've just started playing with it I can't tell you if it's any good or not. I also can't tell you whether it's worth learning or not since I don't know the answer to that yet. I will however, tell you that I'm going to play with it and depending on my thoughts I may or may not dedicate a sectin of this site to it. At first glance it looks like compiled Python. Anyway here's how to install it for x86_64 on Ubuntu 10.10.
As any of my readers know I travel a lot. I also blog a lot, take photos a lot and research a lot. That’s a lot of lotting. Thus when I’m travelling I need a computer. I know people who rely completely on Internet Cafes but I really like editing photos using my own computer late at night in my apartment in Paris, or Venice or Budapest or anywhere else as opposed to paying by the hour to use some age old slow Windows machine. Not to mention I can upload all of my photos while I’m sleeping via secure copy instead of having to babysit it.I also like to travel light thus I’ve always leaned toward small lightweight laptops.
My first travel laptop was a Sharp MM20 that I purchased in 2004 for my trip from London to Istanbul. This is probably my favorite still. However, it came to an untimely end in Krakow Poland when I left it running in our apartment while we went out to dinner. It was an unusually hot day and roof tiles peeled up on the roof followed by an equally unusual downpour. Our roof as you would expect only leaked in one spot - right over my Sharp MM20. The poor thing continued running under a direct stream of water for an hour. It took me a month to dry it out and then it continued to run for another year although in somewhat of a crippled state.If memory serves me the wifi card stopped working and it took several tries to get it to turn on. I still used it though until it finally gave up and died for good.
The Sharp MM20
The Sharp at .8 inches thick (at it’s thickest) and only 1.99 lbs was ultra-sexy. That 0.01 lbs was crucial in differentiating between sexy as opposed to ultra-sexy so I’ll emphasis it here - 1.99 lbs! It had 512 MB of ram which was a lot at the time and a minuscule 20 GB ipod sized hard drive. The battery as you can imagine was tiny and even if the Transmeta CPU was efficient I got about 2 hrs of life out of each charge. To solve this issue I bought the “9 hr battery” which lasted about 6 hrs. It added about half a pound to the size and protruded out the bottom like a large wart so I actually carried both batteries, one for transport and the other I’d swap in when I decided I wanted to work for a while. Not ideal but it did work. I also used a USB mouse and since the hard drive was so small I backed up all of my photos and videos on an external USB hard drive. The Sharp had no memory card reader so I had to use an external USB and it only had two USB ports so I had to carry a mini USB hub as well. The laptop, 9 hr battery, USB hub, USB memory card reader and external hard drive weighed 3 lbs, 5 oz. I paid $1850 for everything which at the time was a good deal. One year I took my USB DVD drive too and even a USB Dye Subliminal postcard printer. The latter was really fun since we could send out customized postcards with us in them but I couldn’t justify the extra more than once.
Pluses for the Sharp MM20
Small and Beautiful
Decent screen and keybaord for the size
PCMCIA slot in a .5/.8 inch laptop!
Minuses for the Sharp MM20
Poor battery life
Not enough USB ports
CPU not very fast
VGA port needed a dongle
Small slow hard drive
The MSI Wind
After the Sharp died a friend gave me an MSI Wind Netbook. Netbooks are wimpy little Notebook computers that go for a song - in this case free because my friend didn’t like the touchpad. It had a 160 GB hard drive, memory card reader and 3 USB ports so I didn’t really have to bring anything with me. Although the idea of having my photos in one spot still made me nervous so I carried the external USB drive anyway. Total cost was $0 but had I purchased it I would have paid about $299. Netbooks are an interesting breed. Technically speaking this thing had more CPU, more ram, way more hard drive and more expansion than my Sharp and cost ? as much. What 5 years makes in the IT industry. They are however built cheaply. It’s about twice as thick as the Sharp and all plastic. The Sharp feels like a really nice, well engineered product. The Netbook... not so much. Also battery life sucked and there’s not much I could do about it - 2.5 hrs tops. An added note is that the MSI screen was 10.1 inches. The Sharp screen was 10.4 inches but if you compare them side to side you’d think something is a little fishy. The Sharp’s screen was way more useful. With the MSI they went with the wide screen format and technically it is a 10.1 inch screen but vertically it’s nearly two inches shorter than the Sharp’s. The Sharp’s screen resolution was 1024x768 and the MSI 1024x600. That’s valuable screen real estate lost. A great example of why small 4:3 screens were better than small 16:9 screens.The netbook still works and still sucks the same. It’s slow, attracts fingerprints and the battery life is still poor. I might note too that the keyboard layout is less than desirable. I remember cursing the Sharp’s tiny keyboard but now in retrospect it was quite nice. Total weight 2 lbs 15 oz with the external hard drive.
Pluses for the MSI Wind
Lots of hard drive space
Minuses for the MSI Wind
Poor keyboard layout
Cramped wide aspect screen
Maddening touch pad
Poor expansion - 3 USB ports, that’s it.
The Toshiba r705
Earlier this year I decided that I needed to get some work done and it pained me to do it on the Netbook so I bought a Toshiba r705. This is the grown up successor to the Sharp MM20! It has a 3 inch larger screen (13.3) is still fairly slim in relation to it’s size and feels a lot like a bigger Sharp. It includes a memory card reader, 500 GB hd, 4 GB of ram, DVD writer (so I don’t have to carry an external USB drive now) and a 6 hr battery life. The Toshiba is all I need by itself and only weighs 3 lbs 3 oz. Travel weight was roughly equal to it’s 10” brethren but had a dual core 2.4 Ghz Intel i3, lots of ram, lots of hard drive and a writable DVD drive. I could actually WORK on it and it was light enough to travel with. It’s size is a bit of an issue because it’s quite a bit larger than the two smaller laptops but still manageable. With the Sharp I used to just slide it between my vacuum packed clothes because it was so slim. Neither the MSI or the Toshiba have this luxury as they’re a bit more than an inch thick.
Pluses for the Toshiba r705
Great screen size - 13.3 is near ideal in my book
Great touch pad
Large hard drive
eSATA, VGA, USB, HDMI, Ethernet
Excellent weight for this size of laptop
Minuses for the Toshiba r705
Quite wide. Probably can’t get around that with a 13.3” wide aspect screen
Battery life could be better
Needed AES-NI (that’s the only reason I’m selling it)
The Lenovo X220
I mentioned I bought the Toshiba so I could work right? Now work required me to have a new thing in my CPU called AES-NI. This allows lightening fast hard drive decryption. Had I just paid another couple hundred dollars I could have gotten an r705 with it but at the time I didn’t know I was going to need it. By the time I knew the relevant Toshiba r705 wasn’t being sold anymore and it’s replacement was $1500. My search brought me to the Lenovo X220 - a mid 3lb laptop with AES-NI, lots of ram, decent hard drive, decent expansion and incredible battery life. I could have bought the lightweight 6 hr battery and my travel weight (and battery life) would have been identical to the Toshiba. However, there was the standard 9 hr battery or the extended 12 hr battery. Knowing that you never get as much as they say I bought the 12 hour battery which gets me 10 hrs. That’s still a LOT. It would allow me to use it on a trans-Atlantic flight or any cross country flight without plugging in! It also added about half a pound. Crap, I would work for an entire day just on the battery. This is the first practical laptop I’ve ever had in that regard.
The Lenovo’s screen is 12.5 inches (smaller than the Toshiba, larger than the others), has 8 GB of ram (!), a 320 GB hard drive, PCI Express slot (which I filled with an eSATA card), three USB ports (one of them ultra-fast USB 3.0), HDMI, VGA, SDHC memory card slot, ethernet and headphones. Basically everything I need. It’s a bit of a brute and as ugly too. The Sharp and Toshiba’s are pretty laptops, the Lenovo - only a mother could love. It is however durable and the keyboard has the best feel of any of them. It will make a great work laptop and I think a decent travel laptop as soon as I get a chance to take it somewhere. It’s a tad shorter than the Toshiba and would have less depth to if I’d ordered the standard battery. It’s a tad thicker though. I think overall the size difference is a wash. I kind of wish Lenovo would look over the trade show booth at just about anyone’s products though because this thing looks like an IBM Thinkpad from 1992. It even has the red rubber eraser pointer tool in the keyboard which is a bit irritating as I keep bumping it. I think I saw in the BIOS that I can turn it off. It also has a very strange bumpy touchpad and strangely shaped mouse buttons between the space bar and the touch pad in addition to the touchpad acting as mouse buttons. If you took all the input methods by ALL the other manufacturers and crammed them into one Laptop you’d have the Lenovo. However, the feel of the keyboard is great (like an old fashioned non-Chiclets keyboard!), the cursor keys, home/end/PgUp/PgDn and function keys are placed well. The shift, delete, backspace and enter keys are very large as well which is a huge improvement over other laptops.
Pluses for the Lenovo X220
Great screen size - 12.5 is near ideal
Battery life, battery life, battery life.
Even the light battery is great!
PC Expresscard slot, USB 3.0
Great keyboard feel
Decent sized hard drive
AES-NI - the reason I bought it
LOTS of ram - 8 GB. That’s more than my workstation or server
Great wifi reception
Minuses for the Lenovo X220
Weird keyboard layout
Weird red eraser pointer
Heavy and a bit bulky too
Ugly as sin
Extended battery protrudes
No optical drive!
Here are all four lined up in the following order (from left to right), Toshiba r705, Lenovo X220, Sharp MM20, MSI Wind. If you look closely at the screens on the Sharp and MSI you'll see that the Sharp looks to have a screen much larger than the MSI. This is what I was talking about earlier about wide aspect ration screens - you lose a lot. The Sharps 10.4" screen is as tall and nearly as usable as a wide screen 12.5. Also I think you can see from this photo how thin the Sharp is.
My Dream Laptop
If I could have anything I wanted I’d take an updated Sharp MM20. Stretch the screen a bit from 10.4 to 12.5. Expand the keyboard a tad, give it more oomph and increase the battery life. Yep, that’s what I’d order if I were Mayor for a day. Some people might think I just described the MacBook Air 13 and maybe they’re right so let’s look at that for a moment.
3 USB, Ethernet, SD card, VGA, HDMI, Expresscard, headphone, bluetooth
2 USB, SD card, Displayport, headphone, bluetooth
It’s interesting to see how closely Toshiba tracks the MacBook Air. Toshiba seems to have taken a 90/10 plan in that they will provide 90% of the coolness for a fraction of the price. It’s almost as light and thin ( ¼ lb and ¼ inch) but has far greater expansion and included equipment. Battery life is arguably better, CPU is faster, storage is double, plus it has a great deal more expansion for... wait for it... half the price!
How does my current choice stack up? It’s physically smaller in width and depth but twice as thick (thus half as sexy) and nearly a pound heavier. It’s clearly built for a different purpose. It has double the memory, more storage, double the battery life and double the expansion for …. wait for it... half the price!
So in short the MacBook Air is a neat bit of kit but it’s got some shortcomings - namely expandability. The other issue (and it’s a big one) that I haven’t even touched yet is running Linux on it won’t be nearly as easy. Yes, I’d put Linux where the Oh So Fancy MacOS was but I’m sure I could coax Linux on the MacBook but my options are more limited.
The other other really big issue is eSATA. I need eSATA for my current job and the Toshiba had it built in. The Lenovo has an Expresscard slot in which I placed a dual eSATA card. And the MacBook Air doesn’t have AES-NI in the CPU either which is the main reason I’m getting rid of the Toshiba. In short it wouldn’t work for my situation. However, for just a travel laptop it looks like a great deal if the price was significantly lower (or the Toshiba didn’t exist).
I pondered the title of this article for a bit because we're currently struggling over the future of trains in America. One party wants to break up Amtrak into the NEC or Northeast Coridor (40% private) and then leave the current Amtrak to die on the vine trying to manage the rest of the non-profitable lines. The other party put 8 Billion into HSR (high speed rail) lines and wants to spend more. Amtrak has said it will cost about 100 Billion to rebuild the NEC. So having readWaiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across Americaby James McCommons I know a few things about the history of passenger rail in America. For those of you who don't want to read an entire book about the history and current state of passenger trains in America I ran across a PDF entitled On the Wings of the Zephyr The Rise and Fall of America’s High-Speed Streamliners (click to download). This tells the story of the Pioneer Zephyr an advanced high speed train in America. It left Chicago in the evening and arrived in Denver first thing in the morning. The average speed was 77 mph and it topped 116 mph. These numbers look a great deal like our current Acela high speed train in the Northeast Coridor. They also look a lot like the proposed high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa that was refused by the current Florida Governor. As we struggle to get even single lines built it's hard to imagine that at one point in time the United States had 49,000 miles of high speed rail lines. The top 10 fastest scheduled passenger trains in the world were American. The year? Nineteen thirty-four! Yes I said 1934. Steam engines gave way to diesel and American wanted to prove it's chops so we built (using private money) a high speed rail system with entire trainsets engineered in America. The Pioneer Zephyr trainset (97 ft) weighed a total of about 200,000 lbs including engine. That's about what the engine on a modern Amtrak weighs by itself! Weight costs money - the more a train weighs the more stress on the tracks, the more diesel fuel it uses, the more it costs to pull. The freight railroads say it costs $1 to pull one ton (2000 lbs) 50 miles. With this train weighing about 1 million pounds less than our current Amtrak Superliners it makes sense that it would be drastically cheaper to run.
It all came to an end for various reasons. Diesel locomotives were required to have a fireman onboard even though they no longer had fires to tend to. A days pay was calculated by 100 miles traveled so the Zephyr engineer and fireman were paid for one week every day they worked. This was good for the engineer and fireman but bad for the railroad. To discourage traveling during WWII 15% was added to train tickets. Between 1945 and 1953 this raised 1.4 Billion dollars for the US treasury. The tax wasn't lifted until it was all over. Speed limits of 79 mph were placed on trains without specialized switching gear that would cost 500 Million dollars (current dollars) to install. During this same period of time the US Government started directly subsidizing airlines and indirectly subsidizing the airline industry with fixed airmail prices. In 1946 the Airport Development Act called for construction of 2000 new airports and provided 500 Million (1946 funds) to build them. By 1960 they'd spent more than 2 Billion on airports. The Federal Aid Highway act of 1944 authorized $500 Million per YEAR for highways. This however, wasn't enough so Vise President Nixon (yes tricky Dick) proposed a 50 Billion dollar highway plan (remember this is 1954 money equivalent to 1 Trillion dollars today). The entire United States budget was 71 Billion so 50 Billion on one project was immense. This would be roughly equivalent to us spending 2 Trillion today on one project. In 13 years the Airlines portion of intercity travel went from 6% to 39%. After 28,000 miles of interstate highway was opened 49,000 miles of passenger rail track was closed.
Was it even possible for passenger trains to compete with the deck stacked against them? Probably not. By 1971 the private passenger rail companies wanted out of the business and the government handed them a carrot. Amtrak would be created to relieve them of the burden as long as they let Amtrak run on their rails. So the next time someone complains about Amtrak's subsidies remember that the entire airline and car infrastructure was built on trillions of dollars of tax money. Ironically the political party pushing in those days for tax subsidies to create this infrastructure and ultimately kill off an entirely independent private industry were the Republicans. Quite the change of philosophy in relation to now. Now the same party wants to end subsidies to Amtrak. Maybe the goal is the same but it can't be about dollars can it?
Current Amtrak trains average about 45 mph and have only a fraction of the track that we used to have. Most every small town in America had a passenger train station. It doesn't bother me so much that one technology would replace another, what bothers me is how much it cost American tax payers to unbalance competition and how much it's ultimately cost us in the end.
While demonstrating that you can use BASH for more than system administration I put together this script that accesses OneBusAway's ReST API to show what buses are coming to your stop next, their scheduled arrival time and their real arrival time (for King County Metro). You can download it from the Downloads section if you wish -
This script was made on Ubuntu Linux using BASH 3.2 and requires wget and xml2. Wget is usually installed on Linux but I had to install xml2 so I have the script checking for that. wheresmybus3.sh (1 kB)
Syntax: wheresmybus.sh stop_id
Example: wheresmybus.sh 1_400
Route Number: 358E
Destination: DOWNTOWN SEATTLE VIA AURORA AVE N
Actual Arrival Time: 0 Minutes Scheduled Arrival Time: -8 Minutes
Route Number: 2
Destination: MADRONA PARK VIA E UNION ST
Actual Arrival Time: 0 Minutes
Scheduled Arrival Time: 4 Minutes
If you don't know what the agency number is (and who does?) just leave it out and wheresmybus.sh will give you a list. The example above would show the arrival times for King County Metro's stop number 400. Output will look like this.
I started out with Virgin Mobile cell phone service this year because they had an unlimited Internet/Texting plane for $25/month. It was limited to 300 minutes of talk which is a great deal for me since I don't talk on the phone much anyway. This plan was contract free as is all of Virgin Mobile's plans and uses Sprint for the carrier. I've had good luck with it but the one caveat is that you have a limited number of phones you can use. When I bought mine they had some crappy cheap phones, one Android phone and a Blackberry phone - I chose the Android unit. It's served it's purpose but not satisfied with Android 2.1 and later 2.2 I really wanted to try a Nokia n900 which is a GSM phone and I really didn't want to sign a contract especially since I was just trying it out. After some searching I found Simple Mobile which uses T-Mobile as a carrier, has contract free plans from $40-60/month and worked with the Nokia so I jumped in. I've decided to write this article because unlike Virgin Mobile it's not "Simple" to get Simple Mobile to work. Here's what I had to do.
Buy a Sim Card (Called a Sim Kit on their website). I bought mine off of Ebay for $4.
Buy Re-Up money on the Simple Mobile website.
Activate your Sim Card by going to Simple Mobile's website and
Inserting your 19 digit SIM card number
Inserting your 15 digit Phone ID number
Inserting a 16 digit pin number (Re-Up minutes)
Inserting a numeric 8 digit password
Once that's done you should be able to make phone calls. Data (Internet) however, will not work quite yet. With Sprint/Virgin Mobile your data and cell connection appear to be the same thing. With T-Mobile/Simple Mobile your cell connection is seperate and your data connection looks like a WIFI hot spot connection. However, you can't just select the 3G data connection quite yet.
To setup Internet access for your phone
Point a web browser to http://simplemobile.wdsglobal.com/phonefirst
Insert your phone number, the make and model of the phone and a security code
Insert the pin number shown into your mobile phone, select Internet connections and choose Simple Web
All of this in comparison to just entering the number off a Virgin Mobile card bought online or at any Best Buy or Walmart. I think Simple Mobile has something to learn from Virgin Mobile. However, once you get it working you have unlimited T-Mobile internet for $60/month without a contract. A straight T-Mobile plan will cost you $80 for "truly unlimited" (plus taxes and fees) which includes up to 2 GB of data and requires a 2 year contract. How they can call it truly unlimited and then limit to 2 GB is a mystery to me. To be clear they won't shut you off after 2GB but they will throttle you back. My other choice was to use AT&T since they use SIM cards too. Their cheapest unlimited plan with data (200 MB) was $85 and also required a contract. To bump up to 4GB of data the price goes to $115 and also requires a 2 year contract.
For the chart below I tried focusing on my needs which are primarily Internet access everywhere and enough minutes to call home and ask if we need milk. I've included the cheapest plans to offer some sort of data and some minutes and then also Unlimited plans for reference. Some plans don't actually include unlimited data plans no matter how much money you pay. Some have unlimited data (T-Mobile) but throttle your speed after you star abusing it.
Limited phone selection, 3G only
Limited phone selection, 3G only
Limited phone selection, 3G only
Any GSM phone, 3G only
Any GSM phone, 3G only
Any GSM phone, 3G only
Any GSM phone, 3G only no matter what they claim
Any GSM phone, 3G only no matter what they claim
Any GSM phone, 3G only no matter what they claim
Not clear what data isn't included in Unlimited Web, 4G
Not clear what data isn't included in Unlimited Web, 4G
Any GSM phone
Any GSM phone - supports tethering
Any GSM phone - supports tethering
Any GSM phone - supports tethering
So a long story short I'm saving $480 over Sprint, $720 a year over T-Mobile and Verizon and $900 over AT&T and they require 2 year contracts. Even though Sprint and Verizon are not compatible with my N900 I compared their plans just out of curiosity.
It's worth noting that for Virgin Mobile and Simple Mobile you have to buy your phone ahead of time. Is it worth it to have a restricted set of phones to choose from (Virgin Mobile) or a lengthy setup (Simple Mobile) and having to buy your phone seperate? After buying my n900, an extra 32 GB memory card (for a total of 64 GB), a new case, screen protectors, extra stylus and 2 extra batteries I have hundreds of dollars left in my pocket at the end of one year. Yes, I think it's worth it.
I've been very excited about Android for quite some time. It's nice to see a form of Linux take over the mobile device market. Until the beginning of the 2011 year though hadn't personally experienced Android. For the couple of year before I got my phone I'd been using Nokia's Mobile Internet Devices (n800/n810) which have served me well outside of not having Internet connections everywhere. Nokia understood this and made the n900 a cell phone and released a new more finger friendly Maemo 5 operating system for it too. Because they needed to get the phone out as soon as possible they kept Maemo 4's Hildon (gtk) based gui with the idea of going to a QT based GUI for Maemo 6. Nokia had just purchased QT for millions of dollars. And then something happened, Android started to gain traction so Nokia did what any smart company would do - join resources with another large corporation getting the snot beat out of them - Intel. Intel had a mobile operating system called Moblin which was designed primarily for tablets. Nokia's Maemo had largely been a small tablet OS and since both were based on Linux it made sense to merge and form MeeGo. This however, put an already late project (Maemo 6) an additional year behind in the merging Maemo and Moblin into MeeGo. This resulted in Nokia being in a bad position as their Symbian OS was getting very long in the tooth.
Years ago I had a Psion Revo+, the forerunner to Symbian which I liked a lot. I wrote applications for it in the included OPL language. Then Psion spun off the OS and every major cell phone company jumped on the bandwagon but it was really Nokia that carried the torch. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when a company called MobilePC accidentally sent me a Nokia N97 instead of a Nokia N900.
Without knowing it was a mess-up I took the Nokia from the box and immediately I thought I'd been ripped off. The phone said N-Series and felt very very cheap. My first thought was that it was a Chinese clone of the N900. I powered it up and the operating system looked like it was from a different era, it felt very clunky and not very intuitive. It was only then that I looked under the LCD screen and saw that it was a Nokia N97. Having only dealt with the Nokia MIDs I was shocked that this hunk of junk could be a Nokia. Looking at the specs it looked great - 32 GB of flash, 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss lens, 3.5 inch screen, Quad Band cell radio and more. This appears to be a thoroughly modern phone - however, I'd be ashamed selling it. Without thinking (or doing a proper review) I put it back in the box and sent it to MobilePC then waited patiently for way to long for my N900. In hindsight I probably should have spent a day or two with it so I could give it a proper chance but since I didn't my opinion that it's a hunk of junk stands.
As soon as the N900 arrived I took it out of the box and immediately knew I was dealing with a completely different animal. Even though it is only 1 ounce heavier it feels good. It feels like it was made of good solid materials. The screen is sharp and clear, the keyboard slides with a satisfying clunk and the plastic case even feels better. They clearly are spending more money making this phone than the N97. The specs look similar with a 3.5 inch screen, 32 GB of flash, Quad band, same lens and so on but boy is there a difference. Powering it up introduced me to Maemo 5 which is definitely different than Maemo 4. A lot of the same applications are available in updated versions, the gui effects show off the beefier hardware and it's way faster than my old N810 tablet. It however, doesn't have the "start menu" for lack of better term. Instead it has desktops not unlike Android and it has a "view all applications" mode just like Android. What's different though is how widespread widgets are and how easy it is to switch between running applications. I'll be doing a video later but for the record Maemo is a breath of fresh air after using Android for 5 months. My biggest concern going back to Maemo was that Android has about 160,000 apps and Maemo has about 400. What I'm finding out is that if an OS is designed properly you only need about 10 apps. With Android I spent a lot of time just trying apps and finding out none of them did what I wanted. Things like having a weather widget on the desktop showing the next 4 or 5 days weather forcast. I can glance at it while I'm getting ready to launch an app without having to start a weather app, then leave it running because Android doesn't shut anything down. With Maemo I have more than one weather widget that does exactly what I want. There will be apps I miss though like Yelp and OneBusAway. I'm looking into writing a version of the latter for Maemo though.
Overall it's a very nice piece of hardware. I LOVE the stylus (any screen under 5 inches needs a stylus no matter how clever the interface designers are), the OS is fast and shows no noticeable slowdown when multitasking, it doesn't need to be "rooted" to work right, it's Linux so if you want to overclock the CPU to 1100 mhz you can, it has Video Out, FM radio, FM transmitter, 32 GB built in memory and expansion for another 32 GB, decent audio, a really nice camera for a phone and it seems very stable.
Update two weeks later:
I've now been using my n900 for a couple of weeks and I'm very frustrated, not with the n900 or Maemo but with Nokia. Are they really that stupid? Their plan was to move to QT for Maemo 6 then that got shelved for the MeeGo joint venture with Intel. The reason I'm frustrated is that Maemo 5 is a very very nice product. Once in a while you'll find an app screen that doesn't look finished (the app manager) but it's rare. The overall user experience with Maemo 5 and the apps built into it is so much nicer than Android (I have 2.2) that I'm just speechless as to why Nokia couldn't make a decision or stand behind a product. I just don't know what to say. Really Nokia, are you on drugs? I'll do a proper review of the n900 when I calm down. :-)
I've had my Samsung Intercept for a week now and my first impression is that Android is a beta project that's not ready for production. This might be a bold statement since it's had 7 major updates since inception and phones manufactured by many different companies are being sold on all four networks in the states but it's true. I don't think Google has spent 5 minutes on usability testing. I'm a huge Linux fan and 100% of my income comes from Linux and open source so I'm really stepping out saying this but the fastest growing Cell Phone OS is a bit of a pile. It's not that I think the underlying OS is bad it's just that the interface leaves a lot to be desired. Since this is my first Android phone I also need to separate what may be Samsung Intercept issues, MY Samsung Intercept issues and Android issues. I've reset my phone to defaults twice in 4 days because after installing a few apps it just stops installing them. You'd think that I'm out of space for apps but I get no error message and even after uninstalling all the apps I still can't install apps. Other Android users are not experiencing this and I don't yet know if it's a Samsung Intercept problem or MY phone is bad or Android is shite.
Without considering this I have to say the notification system on Android is a pile of cow dung and the installed apps remind me a bit of Linux in the early days where multiple apps of the same type would install in the hopes that ONE of them worked. I have by default an email app and a gmail app. I use a standard gmail account and then I have accounts on two google apps for domains accounts. The email app I like a lot and it makes it easy to look at my labels but I can't get the google apps for domains accounts to work. The gmail app however, picks them right up and they work perfectly. Why have two apps that do the same thing? Because you need both of them because neither are that great. The settings are all over the place too, to reset your phone you will probably have to google it - seriously. I found the reset to settings to default under Settings -> Privacy. Privacy? Why in the world would it be under privacy? Notification is another story. If you have multiple email accounts and you click on a notification that says you have email on one of them it clears the notifications for all of the others. I could go on for hours but I'll end here. I used to thrash on Maemo 4 saying it was old, slow, buggy and disorganised. In comparison to Android Maemo 4 is a wonderful OS. It makes me very interested in MeeGo on a Nokia n900 replacement.
Thinking of the n900 brings me to the topic of finger friendly interfaces too - they suck. I spent 10 minutes trying to make a lesson in Moodle visible using Android, had I had the nokia n810 on me (and Internet) I would have been done in 30 seconds because you can just click links - no reason to zoom, zoom, zoom, click on the wrong one, go back, scroll down, zoom, zoom, zoom and then repeat as needed. Thats enough for now but so far I'm fairly disappointed in Android to be honest.
After using a nokia n800 then an n810 for the last few years I've wanted a couple of things, more speed, more applications and internet everywhere. The n810 Wimax would have given me at least one of those things but they pulled it after Clear/Sprint took too long to roll out Wimax. Maybe the handwriting was on the wall for Wimax anyway since it's pretty clear now that it will probably be steamrolled by LTE. Nokia released the n900 which is a very interesting device and I considered it but at $400 and requiring a $60-$100 a month cell phone contract it's a big decision. Since I really only want to call once in a while I really need cell phone access that gives me unlimited data, some call minutes and as low of a price as possible - enter Virgin Mobil. The Virgin brand has been very disruptive overall especially in airlines. Virgin Mobile USA is a contract free cell phone service which is a boon to the cell phone industry. I really really hate the idea that my cell phone provider can lock me in for two years. We used to do this with dial up internet and thankfully that practice has gone away. I can remember having to sign a 2 year contract for modem access to the internet. Crazy. So if you buy an iphone/n900/droid etc and you add up the costs of the service for 2 years you're looking at somewhere between $2000 and $2500 just to have internet on a bus.. This to me is a bit steep but until recently Virgin Mobile wasn't a good choice because they just had crap phones. Recently they added the Samsung Intercept, an entry level Android phone so I bought one. It's not a high end phone but it does have an 800 mhz cpu, 3.2 inch screen, up to 32 GB of flash storage, Android 2.1, 3.2 MP camera and can record video. A year ago this would be a kick butt phone, now it's entry level. It's good enough for what I want and the cost of entry was $219 at Best Buy plus $25 for a month of service. Yes, $25 a month for unlimited data with limited minutes. I get 300 minutes of call time which isn't much but I hate phones anyway so for me it's fine. For an extra $15 a month that goes up to 1300 minutes and add another $15 again and it's unlimited everything. For $60/month you get unlimited calling and Internet with NO contract and a fairly decent phone.
So far so good. Later I'll do a review of the phone and service.
I've already posted my Regional Transit Plan and will have an update in the future. I put a bit of emphasis on the Seattle Monorail because this article was supposed to be published before the Regional Transit Plan but I didn't get it out. With that in mind I'd like to review the Seattle Monorail and give my additional thoughts on it's usefulness and where it falls down.
Many people think of the Monorail as a tourist trap and not an important transit link in Seattle. I too have thought this way but then I also thought the Tacoma Link was worthless until I went to Tacoma to ride it and realized that it's a very useful train that takes the stress out of going from the Tacoma Dome to anywhere downtown. Being free you just hop on and hop off whenever you want. It's like having one long escalator along downtown Tacoma. Is the Monorail as useful though as a transit option?
There are several advantages of train in general over their street bound bus equivalents - they're consistent, they're more comfortable and they usually have right of way.
These are not constants and can be said for certain types of bus travel as well but for the most part trains trump buses because of these three things. Consistency is a very important ingredient - one the bus people don't get. People will ride transit if it always does what they expect it to do without surprises. Nobody likes the feeling of being on a bus going the right direction and then have it suddenly take a turn and you don't know if you should have gotten off. Buses cause stress. I have many bad stories of riding buses in foreign countries where I didn't know exactly where I was going (and can't ask the driver). I don't have one similar bad train story - trains are consistent. If someone says "get on the number 8 and get off at the commerce station" it's easy and works every time. This should not be ignored. Trains generally have more room so more comfort. Buses can be pretty awesome though and a quick trip to Mexico would prove this. However, there's something about the motion of a train that just can't be equalled by buses. A bus lurches forward then back on acceleration and braking, then makes 90 degree turns, wallows over bumps etc.. A train rocks side to side and clacks down the tracks - which tends to be very soothing and welcome. The worst trains are about as nice as the best buses. As for my last point trains usually have right of way but in the case of Portland's MAX, Tacoma Link, the S.L.U.T. and parts of Central Link they might be in the streets with the cars which is unfortunate. Monorail however, by design always has right of way which returns us to our subject.
The Seattle Monorail was put in 50 years ago as part of the World Expo in 1962 and goes from Westlake Plaza to Seattle Central. There's been many plans to extend it but none have prevailed. Now the monorail soldiers on as a tourist attraction and to be honest is a bit run down. The train cars are no longer being made but Seattle has a copy of the plans if they need to manufacture any new parts. Malasia recently built entire trains from those designs although you'd think they could have just built a new style monorail had they thought about it for a moment. Let's take a journey on the Seattle Monorail then we'll talk about it's usefulness.
The reason we decided to use the Monorail was to go to Pikes Place Market. You might be thinking that we could have just parked at the Market but parking there is extremely expensive and hard to find. You do get about an hour free I believe at a parking garage near the market but an hour gives you just about as much time to get to the market, take on photo of a flying fish and get back. We were there for the day to enjoy the Artisan Food Festival and it was Sunday so street parking was free. It's fairly easy to get street parking on Sunday near Seattle Center so instead of feeding a greedy parking garage we decided to park near Seattle Center and pretend the Monorail was a valid form of transportation. Following is our experience.
We bought round trip tickets at Seattle Center Station near the Center House for $13 ($4 adult, $3 for youth and $2 for seniors I think) total. That's about what we'd pay at the parking garage near the Market but this way we get to see Seattle Center, ride a Monorail, peruse Westlake Plaza AND go to the market. More bang for our buck. Since the Monorail is elevated you wait on a platform high above the ground under a covered roof. What makes monorails different from other elevated trains (Central Link light rail) is that it has one "rail" that the train straddles as opposed to two rails that it rides on. The Monorail is also a rubber tired train so the ride is different. I'm not endorsing rubber tired trains as I have my gripes about them (reverberations at speed) as well but just noting it. The loading platform is completely level and to board you have to zig zag through two levels of railing separating you from the train. This I'd assume is to keep people from falling off the platform when the train is not in the station. Since the Monorail only goes back and forth there's a drivers seat on each end. When it pulls into station the driver walks from one end to the other to drive it back the other direction. The Seattle Monorail controls have been updated over the years and include an LCD screen and other goodies. Part of me wants to know why there's a driver at all though in this modern day. the Toulouse Metro and many Airport skytrains operate just fine with no driver on board. I'd envision a modern version of this to not have a driver. It's not like you're going to run into anything on the route.
As the Monorail leaves Seattle Center station it passes through the strange metallic blob of The Experience Music Project and makes a right turn toward downtown Seattle. The EMP was a later addition and built over the already existing Monorail. As the Monorail gains speed it makes it's biggest turn to the left and leans several degrees over the side of the rail so you can look straight down out the left side of the car. For this reason I always sit on the north side (left going to Westlake, right going to the Seattle Center). My mother however, sits on the opposite side for the very same reason. Along the straight away the Monorail approaches 45 mph and because of it's rubber tires I don't think it could do anymore even if the line was longer. I've mentioned rubber tired trains reverberations earlier. At slower speeds they're a bit smoother than metal tired trains or maybe the bumps are just more rounded. Metal tired trains do the clickity clack think and the bumps are sharp. I've decided though through experience that a rubber tired train does NOT improve the experience, just change it. The ride on the Monorail is surprisingly bumpy.
At the end of the journey which comes far too soon the Monorail makes it's last right turn and pulls up next to Westlake Plaza. The old station used to be in the middle of the street but they later squeezed both tracks up against the building and they're so close together that only one monorail can be in station at a time or they'll collide. Because of the nature of a monorail you can't just walk across the tracks to exit like you could a metal wheeled train so a very strange metal walkway extends to meet the train. This walkway has enough moving parts that it causes the maintenance crews never ending grief. It might also cause some people who are afraid of heights grief.
As you leave you have the option of taking an elevator to the street level two floors down or entering Westlake Plaza and using the escalators. Westlake plaza is a shopping mall with restrooms and a food court so we usually dash through it, use the facilities and gawk at the Seattlites in their flannel shirts, sandals with socks and nose rings. Just kidding about the flannel.
The point of this experiment was to see if the Monorail could be a valid form of mass transportation in Seattle and I say it is or at least can be with some slight changes. One criticism toward the Monorail is that it doesn't go anywhere. I think this is a bold statement since the Monorail only goes to the two most touristic spots in the city. I'd consider that somewhere. I think what people are getting at with that statement is that you can't commute with it and unless you're a tourist or just going between Westlake and Seattle Center it's mostly worthless. This is true to a degree and following is my solution.
Currently the Monorail is run as a separate entity for the City of Seattle. It's also supposedly the only transit solution in America that actually makes money. Curiously it's also one of the only transit solution in America that doesn't serve the populous of the city it resides in. Maybe that's why it makes money. Most of Seattle's transit systems take payment in the form of the ORCA card. If you take a ferry, an Everett Transit bus, Community Transit bus, Sound Transit Bus, The Sounder Train, Link Light Rail, Metro Transit bus or Pierce Transit bus you can pay and more importantly transfer with your ORCA card (Tacoma Link is free). There are a couple of transit options left out – The S.L.U.T. (but if you flash your ORCA they'll let you on, I think it's just that they don't have ORCA machines), InterCity Transit (Why InterCity? Why?) and the Monorail. I believe that these three need to get on board and I'll explain why. InterCity needs to take the ORCA because being a rebel only works for certain movie actors, it doesn't work for bus companies, especially ones that connect two other transit options that both use ORCA (Pierce and Metro) so wake up and smell the coffee. The S.L.U.T. Doesn't take them because of a lack of vision on the part of King County Metro – they just didn't put in the pay stations. The Monorail is run like a tourist attraction and is making money so why would they even want to take ORCA? Because the trains aren't full and we are finally getting serious about transit (and trains) in Seattle. Does adding one mile of rail to the ORCA when buses already cover that route make sense? Yes, for consistency. I see buses driving down 4th avenue and I'm sure they go to the Seattle Center but I've never ridden them. I'd rather pay the $4 or walk the mile than get on a bus and possibly end up somewhere else. People will probably tell me to consult a bus schedule but with the Monorail I don't have to – I just get on and this is my point. Allowing the ORCA would allow people from the North Suburbs to arrive via Sound Transit 510/511 buses at Westlake Center and transfer to the Monorail to Seattle Center. It would allow people coming from the Link Light rail or South of the City via the Sound Transit 594 bus or even from the Sounder Commuter train (with a free transfer via Link Light Rail) to transfer at Westlake to the Monorail to go to Seattle Center.
As short of a ride as it is this IS an important link for residents – not just tourists. Just by adding an additional turnstile and an ORCA reader at each end we could add the ability for locals to transfer. Tourists will continue buying round trip tickets for $4 just like they do now because it wouldn't make sense to buy an ORCA card just for one ride. Not only would the Monorail make the money they're currently making but they'd also keep a portion of the money paid on the ORCA card. They'd be even more profitable than they currently are and ridership would go up. Current headways are 10 minutes which are shortened to 6 minutes during special events. With increased ridership and very little additional overhead headways could be shortened to 6 minutes with one train. For special events the second train can be deployed to shorten headways to 3 minutes.
In summary, if you're heading to downtown Seattle on a Sunday when street parking is free then parking near Seattle Center and taking the Monorail may be a great option. You'll still pay for the Monorail but the ride is fun and it helps support a historic icon. However, if they ever start accepting the ORCA you can then just leave the car at home and ride other forms of transit into the city to take the Monorail. I urge Seattle to make this move.
So while I'm dreaming let me express a couple of my negative feelings toward the monorail and my proposed solutions. From the train the view is excellent. From the ground the views pretty bad. The Monorail tracks from the ground are ugly so let's just get that out of the way. The way I look at it is the Monorail will NEVER be extended and as such the ride will never be any longer. Because it only takes 90 seconds to get from one end to the other and because the ride is so short we have options. In Toulouse the metro doors stay open 15 seconds exactly and trains come by every 60 seconds. We can't have headways like that unless we run two trains but I don't think that's necessary. If we have the train in the station for 1 minute on each end we could run about 3-4 minute headways using one train. With 185 passenger per train load we could move 3600 people per hour which is roughly what the Central Link light rail does with 10 minute headways. Granted, that would be max capacity for a single beam monorail but I'm not sure it's a problem since it's just between two stations. The reason I'm yammering on about a single beam monorail is the aesthetics factor of our current system. in order to support two trains we have two parallel beams end to end and the supporting columns are quite large. This all creates a very heavy, industrial visual statement that is neither appealing or pretty. I think that if the current dual beam monorail was replaced by a single beam and the supports halved in size we'd have a very unobtrusive system that would blend into the view of the sky. A single beam is very narrow and without the V shaped supports supporting two beams and the massive pillars holding it up would be a great visual improvement. Am I talking about replacing the current monorail with a new one? Isn't the same idea as the Green Line that was going to cost $125 million dollars a mile? No, all I'm talking about is a concrete job of replacing pillars and beams. The trains stay the same, the stations stay nearly the same etc... I don't think the cost would be that huge.
Another change I think should be made at the same time is to bring the Westlake Center station nearer to the ground. As the train rounds the corner on 4th and Stewart the train should dip down along Westlake Center to second story level and there should be an escalator to street level then another escalator down into the transit tunnel to ease transfers from the S.L.U.T., surface buses and the Central Link. Also with just one beam the radius of the three curves could be lessened so it can maintain a bit more speed. Maybe it would only amount to a 15 second savings but in combination with 45 second boardings one train could push a 3 minute headway. One of the reasons we have two trains on two beams though is so they can do maintenance on one train while using the other. With one beam and one train we'd lose this advantage so all maintenance would have to be done at night when the monorail isn't running.
That's enough dreaming for one day. None of it will ever happen because this is Seattle and we Seattlites revel in transportation misery.
Lately I've been spending an increasing amount of time thinking about Seattle Area Transit. The answer to most transit questions is 100 Billion dollars (imagine Dr. Evil saying it). In my interest to find a different answer I've wandered around the Puget Sound area riding the mass transit that we do have with an interest in how we could improve our transit situation without spending the aforementioned 100 Billion dollars. We have many half ass transit solutions - buses that act like trains and fail, trains that go nowhere near where they're needed, light rail that only services airports, light rail that only services businesses within walking distance and monorail that only has two stops - neither of which are very far apart.
Seattle is known for a couple of things - the Space Needle, Grunge Bands, Coffee and the Monorail. There's been many debates about the monorail and we even came very close to expanding it all over the city. It's loved and hated but most of all it's just a tourist attraction for many. People who drive or walk say the monorail is ugly. People who want to use it are frustrated that it goes "nowhere" and they can't transfer to it. Most agree that it's dilapidated and in need of repair. Some think it needs to be torn down. All are probably right. I set out to see if the monorail had any value at all and below is my experience with it.
We wanted to go into the city for the Artisan Food Festival at Pike Place Market. The problem with Pike Place is there's nowhere to park. If you want to park in the parking garage you'll quickly find out that the normal rates don't apply during special events and the "deal" they give you is about 3x more expensive than usual. This means you're looking at between $10 and $15 to park your car for half a day. Ideally we'd have light rail from the suburbs to downtown Seattle but we have to wait another 20 years for that. Being Sunday the Sounder train and all Community Transit buses aren't running so we have no other choice but to drive. It would be nice to park somewhere else and ride transit to Pike Place market and since it's Sunday we could park on the street for free - enter the Monorail. Parking at the Seattle Center is fairly easy on Sunday and the Monorail goes from the Seattle Center to Westlake Center very near Pike Place Market. The cost for a round trip ticket on the Monorail is $4 for an adult. The total cost for the four of us was $12 or roughly what it would have cost to put the car in the parking garage but this way was more interesting and fun.
We parked on the street near the Seattle Center and walked to the Monorail near the Space Needle. Tickets are bought at a booth and boarding is done on an elevated platform. The Monorail is just that, it's a rubber tired train that rides on one tall concrete rail. On leaving the Seattle Center Station it passes through the Experience Music Project and flies through the city at speeds up to 45 mph. The Monorail was built nearly 50 years ago and is showing it's age. The concrete pillars holding it up are massive and ugly, it barely goes anywhere and yet there's something about it that only riding it will reveal - it's by far the best way to see the city. I feel sad now that they didn't expand it years ago. There's an emotional element to the monorail that you just don't have riding a bus, streetcar or light rail - you feel like you're flying.
The Monorail is a success from an economical standpoint. It's run by a private organization for the city of Seattle and is reported to be the only mass transit in the country to make money. The reason it makes money is it's not integrated into any transit system, it's only about 1 mile long and it's mostly tourists riding it. This is all fine and good but is it a solution to ANY transit problem? I think yes, but with reservations. It does go somewhere - Seattle Center to Westlake Plaza. Westlake is the terminus to the Central Link Light Rail and also a major bus station, a Sound Transit stop and the terminus for the South Lake Union Train (S.L.U.T.). Seattle Center on the other end is of course a very popular destination for Seattlites and tourists alike. The Monorail is fun to ride, reasonably comfortable (in a early 60s futuristic sort of way) and definitely fast. The downside is that in typical Seattle form it's not integrated into the transit scene. Because Seattle has so many different transit systems it's hard to figure out who you're supposed to be paying. Downtown alone you could catch the Waterfront Trolley (run by Metro), Metro buses, Sound Transit buses, Link Light Rail (Sound Transit), South Lake Union Trolley (Metro), Pierce County transit buses, Community Transit buses and the Monorail (private). Crazy or what? We now have the ORCA card which is supposed to allow one form of payment for all of these and transfers between systems. The Waterfront Trolley no longer exists, Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Pierce Transit and Link Light Rail all use the ORCA card. But InterCity Transit does not and the 603 bus shared by Pierce and InterCity does not. The Monorail and the South Lake Union Trolley also don't take the ORCA card. Less crazy? Perhaps but it's still a mess. Here's what I think should be done.
The Seattle Monorail needs to take the ORCA
The South Lake Union Trolley needs to be expanded to the U District and take the ORCA
The Waterfront Trolley needs to be brought back, extended up the hill to Seattle Center and take the ORCA
Let's think about this for a moment. Buses from the eastside and North of Seattle all converge on Westlake Plaza. Buses, Central Link Light rail and Sounder commuter rail converge at the International District. These two areas are connected via Central Link Light rail and the bus tunnel.
Popular destinations for residents AND tourists with the form of transit that would service it under my plan.
Pioneer Square (Central Link light rail, Waterfront Trolley, Sounder Train)
International District (Central Link light rail, Waterfront Trolley, Sounder Train)
Waterfront (Watefront Trolley)
Westlake Plaza (Central Link light rail, Sound Transit Buses, Monorail, S.L.U.T.)
Pike Place Market (Central Link light rail, Sound Transit Buses, Monorail, S.L.U.T.)
Seattle Center (Seattle Monorail, Waterfront Trolley)
Tourists coming from the Seatac airport on Link Light Rail would go to International District or Westlake. Tacoma Residents would ride the Sounder to the International District. Northend residents would ride Sound Transit buses to Westlake or the Sounder to the International District. From these locations all 6 of the popular destinations could be reached.
In order for this to happen the Waterfront Trolley would need to be brought back. I think too that it should have it's tracks lengthened to the Seattle Center. The Monorail needs to accept the ORCA card. Since most of the current 7000 riders a day are tourists this will not impact locals and if anything would increase ridership. This would also allow us to transfer from other forms of transportation. With these changes we'd have Light Rail/Monorail from the International District to Seattle Center through the center of town and Waterfront Trolley from the International District to Seattle Center along the waterfront.
The odd man out is the S.L.U.T.. Outside of having an awesome name it's mostly worthless. It too meets at Westlake Plaza but only goes to South Lake Union and the reason it even exists is still a mystery. It's slow, it goes nowhere and it doesn't take the ORCA. My opinion is that they need to extend it along Fairview Ave to the University District and connect with the University Link Station that's currently under construction. When the extension to the Light Rail to University Station gets completed we'd have a light rail line from Westlake to Capital Hill and then the University of Washington. The S.L.U.T. would provide a link from Westlake to University District by way of South Lake Union. All of these changes are fairly small (in comparison to the billions being spent on Link Light Rail) and would substantially improve on what we have. First Hill and Queen Anne Hill would not be served but there's a plan for a Streetcar on First Hill that would connect Capital Hill Link station to Union Station. I haven't decided whether that's a good idea or not.
Another interesting development is the purchase of the Eastside Rail Corridor by the Port of Seattle which gets us rail lines from Woodenville to Renton along the eastside. If those tracks could be lengthened to Tukwilla they could connect to the Sounder/Amtrak tracks. In combination with the East Link Light Rail we'd have a connection from Renton to Bellevue, Seattle to Bellevue, Bellevue to Redmond and Bellevue to Woodenville.
My main motivation for wanting the Monorail to take the ORCA card is so I can transfer. What are the negatives to the Monorail taking the ORCA card? None really since most of the passengers now are probably tourists. I think taking the ORCA would increase ridership, allow northerners to transfer from the 511 bus to the Monorail and allow southerners to transfer from the Link Light Rail to the Monorail. This I think would be a win/win situation.
What will probably happen is the Monorail will get torn down, the Waterfront Trolley will never run again. the S.L.U.T. will continue to be useless outside of t-shirt sales and the Eastside Rail Corridor will be made into a bike path - sigh.