Choosing an Incredible Verizon Smartphone

So I saw that Verizon Wireless is having a ridiculous promotion on the Palm Pre Plus ($49 with a second phone free) and the Pixi Plus ($29) right now, with a 2-year contract.  Which reminded me that my contract ended last year and I’m long overdue for a new phone.

Unfortunately the Pre has an uncertain future because Palm is rumored to be up for sale.  The Pre hasn’t “caught on” in the market like Android or the iPhone, which is a shame since all reports indicate the Pre is a nice phone.  For $49, it seems like a crazy good deal to me (and it has tethering!), if you’re willing to take the chance on the dying WebOS.

I also eyed the $69 Droid Eris, which is prettier and has quite similar features to the Pre (plus a 5 megapixel camera).  Unfortunately it lacks tethering, which I could see being useful in some situations (like troubleshooting the in-laws’ computer problems, which is painful over their dial-up connection).  Also, it “only” runs Android 1.6.  I’ve seen rumors it may be getting 2.1 soon, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.

Those were my top two picks on Verizon.  Until I heard about the recently unveiled Droid Incredible.  The Incredible (a seriously dorky name for a phone) is very similar to the Nexus One – which was my dream phone prior to this writing – but it’s on Verizon and it’s “only” $199 with a 2-year contract (as opposed to the $529 Nexus One that runs on Sprint).  It has all the cool smartphone features, a Snapdragon 1GHz processor, an 8 megapixel camera, removable micro-SD storage, and a micro-USB connector/charger.  Plus it runs Android 2.1, so I can start my Android app development career.

My Droid Incredible should be arriving 4/29.  Sweet!

P.S. Literally the day after I ordered the Incredible, I heard about Dell’s Lightning and Thunder, which also look like sweet phones.  The rate that cell phones are coming out now is crazy.  You have to hold your breath, make a purchase, and try not to be too envious when a better phone comes out a week later.

The Fight Against Monsanto

The other day my wife casually mentioned that she was going to use a Monsanto product.  Nooooo!  I said.  Not Monsanto!  We must not send that evil company any of our hard-earned money!

I heard about the evil ways of Monsanto (the makers of Roundup) last year on the No Agenda podcast – they often rail against their business practices.  I didn’t think too much about it until I saw a documentary called The World According to Monsanto (it is quite easy to find the actual video, but I’ve instead linked to the filmmaker’s page).

There is a long list of ethically questionable activities that Monsanto allegedly participates in.  I can’t say for sure if they’re all 100% true or not, but I’ve observed enough about human nature and big business to know that it’s entirely possible a giant multi-national corporation could put power and profits ahead of such minor things as safety.

As you may know, Monsanto originally advertised Roundup as biodegradable and completely safe for the environment (“safer than table salt”).  Some years later, Monsanto was busted for falsifying the research and convicted of false advertising.  But not before the entire agricultural world became completely dependent on Roundup.

Perhaps more disturbing is Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds, sold to farmers around the world.  These handy, genetically-altered seeds of soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets and cotton are immune to Roundup.  That means with a field of Roundup Ready corn, you can indiscriminately dump Roundup over the whole field to kill everything that isn’t corn.  For commercial farmer’s, it’s awesome – but now we’re all ingesting God knows how much glyphosate every year.

Monsanto says it’s all perfectly safe and the FDA agrees:  GMO food was approved for use in the United States around the time of the first Bush administration.  The World According to Monsanto, however, goes into some detail about how Monsanto pressured the government into declaring it safe without a whole lot of supporting evidence.  Personally, I don’t think we’re going to know for sure whether it’s safe until decades from now when we can observe how many people start dropping dead for unknown reasons.  Or see how many babies are born with two or more heads.

An article in CorpWatch summarizes something else I find loathsome about Monsanto:  Seed Patents.  Monsanto holds patents for all these genetically-modified Roundup Ready seeds.  In olden times, a farmer would re-use this year’s seeds to plant next year’s crop.  That’s not allowed with Monsanto seeds:  The “terms of service” strictly forbid it.  You have to pay for the use of the seeds every year.  And if you’re caught “infringing their patent” by reusing seeds, they have an army of lawyers waiting to bring the hammer down.

Okay, no big deal, farmers can avoid all that trouble by buying regular seeds.  Good idea!  But wait:  As that article points out, Monsanto now controls most of the seed business.  It’s hard to find regular seeds anymore.  And if you manage to find seeds to start a regular crop, the wind could blow some of your neighbor’s Monsanto seeds into your fields – and then you have to pay for them or get sued into oblivion.  (Just for fun, here’s another article on CorpWatch about Monsanto bullying a farmer.)

It’s madness, I tell you!  The only way I know how to fight back against The Evil Monsanto is to avoid buying their products.  And maybe plant a garden with regular seeds so you don’t have two-headed children.

What To Do With An iPad?

I saw an iPad the other day.  It’s very slick and stylish, but I don’t quite know what I’d do with it (other than show it to people and say, “I have an iPad”).

I wouldn’t use an iPad for gaming, because I’m a “hardcore” gamer.  I wouldn’t use it to read magazines, because I don’t read magazines.  I wouldn’t use it to read newspapers, because I get my news from RSS feeds with Google Reader.  I wouldn’t use it to read books because I only read books to fall asleep and I wouldn’t want to drop an iPad on the floor.  I wouldn’t use it to play videos, because I’d rather use the television so my wife could see it too.  I wouldn’t use it for blogging, because typing a lot on the virtual keyboard would be a pain.  I might use it to read email but I wouldn’t use it to write email.  I definitely wouldn’t use it for software development or word processing or editing photos and video.

What does that leave?  I could use it to browse the web or Google Reader on the couch, but that’s a small part of my day, and I have a netbook anyway.  I might use it to write Twitter posts on the couch, but again, I have a netbook for that.  I might sit it next to my desktop computer and load it with an e-book version of a programming reference, if such things are available for it.

Most likely an iPad in my house would sit on the end table by the couch, where I would occasionally pick it up during a TV show to either play some mindless casual game or look up something on the web.  Both of those things can easily be accomplished with my netbook – which has a keyboard, USB ports and even a webcam, and was cheaper.  For the shockingly rare occasions when I’d want a handy mobile device while traveling, I’d want something considerably more portable like a smartphone or an iPod Touch or a Zune HD.

So if it’s not right for me, who would it be right for?  From what I’ve seen, I’d only recommend an iPad for “collectors” (who would buy anything new), or for casual users that want to play simple games (along the lines of Solitaire), email short notes or surf the web — who have good vision to see the small screen — and aren’t very good at typing so the virtual keyboard won’t frustrate them.  Other than that, I can only see an iPad being useful for really niche applications or remote data entry tasks.  Like, for example, an input device that a UPS driver or a nurse would carry around, or a control surface for music production or performance, or something like that.  Single-purpose stuff.

It’ll be interesting to see what other tablet devices appear on the market.  Unlike after the iPhone launch, I think competitive Windows and Android tablets will appear very soon.  But I’m not sure what they could do differently to interest me.  Some USB ports would definitely be a nice starting point.

Mission: Earth Accomplished

I recently finished a series of 10 pulp sci-fi books (allegedly) by L. Ron Hubbard called Mission: Earth.  The books were terrible beyond belief (worse even than Dan Brown – at least Brown novels have an interesting story idea), and I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone.  Wikipedia has it right:  “It is frequently cited within science fiction circles as one of the worst science fiction novels ever written.”

I’m not really sure why I suffered through all ten books, except that I had started them long ago and never got around to finishing them.  Also, as someone who secretly wonders about writing a novel, it was a great confidence-builder.  (“If somebody published this piece of crap, surely somebody would publish my writing.”)

The main themes of Mission: Earth, as you might expect from a Hubbard book, strongly resemble some of the themes of Scientology:  a) Earth is populated only by deviants, perverts and drug addicts, b) Psychology and psychiatry are used by the power elite to control the population, and c) “PR” (public relations) is a destructive force more powerful than any weapon.

The first two could be argued either way, but that third theme really struck me as prescient.  The books were written in the mid-80s, before the Internet, but Hubbard’s vision of a “PR man” that could shape and direct worldwide public opinion isn’t far off.  It’s really easy to imagine – and not very difficult to find it in action – a nefarious marketing campaign manipulating today’s press with exaggerated, if not completely made-up, news stories.

UV’s Guide to MMORPGs

This is a brief summary of my opinion of the pros and cons of each fantasy MMORPG I’ve played or re-played in the last few months.  Keep in mind that I haven’t played every character class or experienced any end-game content in any of these games.  Also, I am somewhat biased toward melee classes, solo adventuring and PvE (player vs. environment) gameplay.

World of Warcraft (played: ~11 days, max level: 47)

Pros

  • Everybody in the world plays it
  • Staggering amount of content
  • Lots of different races and classes and starter areas
  • PvP battlegrounds are fun and risk-free
  • Good gathering and crafting system
  • Runs on low-end systems (eg. netbooks)

Cons

  • Plain, cartoonish graphics
  • A lot of content requires a group or guild
  • Difficult to solo more than 1 mob at a time
  • Inventory management is a pain
  • Death is a pain
  • Potentially lots of downtime between kills
  • NPC vendors aren’t identified
  • Traveling long distances takes forever
  • Everybody cheats with add-ons and macros and so forth 😮

Notes

I haven’t played BC or WotLK, just the original.  WoW sets the standard, for better or worse.

Warhammer Online (played: ~3 days, max level: 21)

Pros

  • Good, clean, scalable UI
  • Eclectic mix of classes
  • NPC vendors, quest-givers and quest regions are easy to find
  • Nice inventory organization options
  • Almost no death penalty
  • Public quests!
  • Easy to get into PvP and RvR
  • Quest goals are summarized so you don’t have to read all the text 🙂

Cons

  • Impossible to avoid RvR
  • Limited graphics engine settings
  • Slower level advancement
  • Can be downtime between kills
  • Uncertain future of the game

Notes

WAR definitely caters to group RvR gameplay.

Age of Conan (played: ~3 days, max level: 47)

Pros

  • Excellent melee combat gameplay
  • Realistic graphics, models and animations
  • Mounted combat
  • Super fast leveling
  • Solo instances
  • You can create a 1-person guild 🙂

Cons

  • Needs higher-end computer
  • Really slow patcher startup time
  • Same starting area for all classes and races
  • World traveling can be a pain
  • Nobody playing PvP scenarios or Massive PvP
  • Runs low on content after level 45
  • Uncertain future of the game

Notes

If you like playing a melee character (as I do), AoC is the game for you.  Otherwise, this probably isn’t the game for you.

Lord of the Rings Online (played: ~2 days, max level: 28)

Pros

  • Come on, it’s Middle Earth!
  • Gorgeous landscapes and scenery
  • Lots of quests to choose from
  • Good crafting system
  • Solo instances
  • Housing

Cons

  • Robotic, mechanical model animations
  • Not very many race/class choices
  • Melee combat feels weird
  • Tiny inventory tiles are hard to see

Notes

This is a surprisingly immersive game.  I found that playing a Rune-Keeper (aka. mage) was much more satisfying than playing a Champion (melee), which is unusual for me.

EverQuest II (played: ~3 hours, max level: 7)

Pros

  • Huge selection of customizable classes and races
  • Kind of cool to find mystery items lying on the ground

Cons

  • Completely unfamiliar (to me) lore and terminology
  • Drab, watercolor-esque (and occasionally glitchy) graphics
  • Default mouse button actions are backwards 🙂

Notes

I have a hard time getting into EQ2, but I don’t know why.

Dungeons and Dragons Online (played: ~20 hours, max level: 2 rank 11)

Pros

  • Free2Play
  • Runs on low-end systems (eg. netbooks)
  • Combat is easy
  • Solo instances

Cons

  • Really slow level advancement (but that’s how D&D is)
  • No corpse loot; it’s all in barrels and chests 
  • Tiny inventory tiles are hard to see (same as LotRO)
  • Have to pay for some classes (Monk, etc.)
  • Have to pay to create a guild
  • No /played command??

Notes

The game really “feels” like D&D, with a dungeon master voiceover, tricks, traps and even a 20-sided die roll on the screen.

Runes of Magic (played: ~4 hours, max level: 11)

Pros

  • Free2Play
  • Lots of things to do
  • Can choose a secondary class
  • Housing available right from the beginning

Cons

  • Primitive graphics, similar to WoW, but still doesn’t run on low-end systems
  • Grindy quests (probably on purpose, to force people to buy stuff)
  • Inventory space runs out quickly before needing to “rent” more
  • Mounts are only “rented”
  • Sometimes the quest text is in Spanish 🙂

Notes

If you’ve never played an MMORPG before, this might be one place to start, although DDO feels more polished.

Allods Online (played: 5 minutes, max level: 0)

I’ve heard good things about this Free2Play game, but I cannot evaluate it because THERE IS NO INVERT MOUSE Y-AXIS OPTION!  No, I’m not kidding.

Summary

My recent favorites were Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online, although I unsubscribed from both before the second month.  Currently I just pop into DDO now and then.

NoSQL is Coming

There has been an explosion of talk about “NoSQL” lately (ie. I’ve seen a few posts about it), and since it is every blogger’s obligation to follow the crowd and re-write what everyone else is saying, I shall now present my thoughts on NoSQL.

My first thought about NoSQL was:  What the heck is NoSQL?

Wikipedia (as of this writing) defines NoSQL as “a movement promoting a loosely defined class of non-relational data stores that break with a long history of relational databases and ACID guarantees.”

Word salad.  To translate, NoSQL (also known as “structured storage”) is a new kind of database — popularized by such big name companies as Google, Amazon and Facebook — designed to store and quickly retrieve bajillions of terabytes of data, something that is challenging to pull off with your average enterprise relational database.  Another attractive feature of a NoSQL database (to places like Google, Amazon and Facebook, at least) is the inherent ability to scale up to accommodate bajillions of simultaneous users.

The NoSQL concept also seems to focus on a “non-fixed table schema.”  Presumably, that means columns (or whatever the NoSQL equivalent is — “keys,” I guess) could be added or updated at any point in the life of an application without too much trauma.  I could see this being useful for rapid software iterations, where you don’t necessarily know what the final schema is going to be when you start out.  (Eg. you roll out a version with a new table, and then in the next iteration a week later you find out you need to add or delete a column, which can be a massive pain with a large relational database.)  In olden days, the schema would be ironed out in the “design” and “alpha testing” and “beta testing” stages, but obviously we in the industry don’t have time for that stuff anymore.

From an application developer perspective, NoSQL databases appear to shift the burden of data integrity from the database to the application.  To the application, I presume the NoSQL database would look like a big dictionary or hashtable (key/value collection) – ie. a big dumb storage area whose only purpose is to read and write bits.  (Similar to, you know, a hard drive — see The Daily WTF’s April Fool’s Joke)  I wouldn’t think there’d be any need for a database administrator or database developer in a NoSQL shop; only application developers and system administrators.  There wouldn’t be any “query optimization” or “stored procedures” because there’s… wait for it… NoSQL.

My second thought about NoSQL was:  Why should I care about NoSQL?  I’m not writing Google, Amazon or Facebook.  My database of choice works fine.  I already know how to build columns and tables, and I already know how to write applications against them.

If you’re an IT veteran, you’ll know the answer is:  Because someday your gullible CEO will drop by and say, “A 20-year-old consultant told me about how great this new-fangled NoSQL is, so we’re paying him tons of money to migrate our data warehouse to it.”  Afterwards, when your whole system is lying on the server room floor in shattered pieces and angry customers are jamming the phone lines, you’ll be the one that has to undo everything the consultant did, so knowing about NoSQL will help you do that.

Of course I kid.  There are plenty of cases where I could easily see this being a good idea.  (Like, say, if you’re writing Google, Amazon or Facebook.)

But I’m a Microsoft .NET developer, so that’s about as far as I can go in researching NoSQL.  Every available server implementation I’ve seen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structured_storage) runs on Linux, which means Mono or Java or some other Linux-capable language as a client.  So I won’t be firing up Visual Studio 2008 to check out Cassandra anytime soon, and I don’t have the motivation to setup a Linux development environment just to play around with NoSQL.

It may not sound like it, but — unlike most new whizbang trends in the industry — NoSQL appeals to me because I’m primarily an application developer.  I’ve often found myself wishing (rashly, in most cases) that the database (or the DBA) would get out of my way and let me handle the data storage.  Generating SQL to feed to the database has always been a pain, even if it’s disguised behind ADO.NET or LINQ or some other ORM.  NoSQL sounds like it should integrate better with applications.

So I say, bring on the NoSQL!