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So smart, and shiny too!

Just before Christmas I got a new phone, the HTC HD7.  Every cell phone I’ve had before now has been a tool for making phone calls, sending and receiving text messages, and occasionally taking pictures.  I’d been content with this for years, and my iPod Touch filled the gap for when I needed a quick Sudoku game or email check.  But sometime last summer I started thinking that when my current phone wore out, it might be time to join the era of the smartphone.

I chose the HD7 for two reasons: my service provider (T-Mobile) carried it, and my workplace reimbursed its purchase.  I didn’t comparison-shop for the best plan or try out lots of different models, so I’m not the person to say whether this particular smartphone is definitively better than any other.  What I am is a brand new smartphone user, one who often doesn’t have both hands free to do things on the phone because I’m carrying multiple bags, or managing a small child, or driving to work.  (PSA: Washington State law prohibits driving while texting on a cell phone or talking without the use of a hands-free system.  So, y’know, don’t do that.)  I am merely someone switching from a “dumb” phone to a device that has the fancy bells and ringtones and requires a data plan.

So far? I’m loving it.

For the first couple of days I simply enjoyed the new-toy aspect of it.  But during our Christmas travels, I had a few “wow” moments that really drove home for me how a smartphone can make my life easier.

The first was just after we’d left the driveway.  My husband and I realized that we’d forgotten to call our hotel to reserve a crib reserved for that night.  We’d also forgotten to write down their phone number.  I launched Bing on my phone and typed in the hotel name.  I expected that I’d get a standard page of links, and that I’d have to scroll and click to find the phone number.  Instead, Bing popped up a contact card for the hotel, including a one-touch hotlink to dial the number directly from the contact page!  I was delighted.

Another neat moment happened on our return trip.  Kiddo was cranky after two days of car riding, and ripe for a diaper change.  I knew there was a rest area not too far ahead, but couldn’t remember whether it was twenty miles or forty.  With the Maps app I was able to pinpoint our position, search for “rest area” (it found three close by, including the one I was looking for) and check the distance from our current location.  Sure, our Garmin probably could have told us the same thing… if we could have remembered how to pull up that information on it without losing our current route data.

The ads for the Windows Phone 7 talk about how this OS was designed to make it easier to “glance and go,” so that you spend less time interacting with the device and more time interacting with the real world. While I can’t compare to the other smartphones they’re positioning themselves against, I have found that it’s much faster for me to triage new text messages and missed calls with this phone than it was with my old phone.  Dialing my frequent calls feels a little slower–I think it takes one click more than I’d like it to.  And I kept hanging up on people accidentally when I press the phone against my cheek, but that would be a hazard of any touchscreen phone.  Reviews and commentators have mentioned a few of the items this phone is missing, like the ability to view Flash websites (which I’m told is coming sometime this year) and basic cut-copy-paste functionality.  But in spite of those holes, I’ve found the HD7 to be extremely easy to use.  I don’t think I’ve looked at the manual or any how-to website since the day I bought it.

There’s plenty that I like about my new phone, but what I really love are the ways in which it brings useful things together like electronic chocolate and peanut butter.  Web search plus one-touch dialing.  GPS location plus directions lookup.  And my current favorite?  Well, that would be the one I had to use the other night.  We’d been out doing some evening errands, and on our way to pick up Kiddo from the babysitter I realized I’d misplaced my phone.  Crisis!  I revisited our stops after we collected the boy, but no one had seen it.  It might have been a miserable night, except that I’d added a Windows Live ID to the phone when I was setting up email accounts.  Once I got home I logged on to the Windows Phone website with that LiveID.  And sure enough…

Screenshot of Map it: See your phone's approximate location on a map

If only the rest of my life came with such guidance!


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Project Sunset

I’ve got a project for someone.  You’ll need a camera and a computer, and some programming skills, and a web site that can host about 400 photos.

A couple weeks ago I was driving from my office to downtown Bellevue shortly after sunset.  The sky and the buildings looked like a typical autumn evening around here.  And that got me wondering what exactly it was, other than my knowledge of the calendar and my view of the trees, that made me think it’s an autumn evening as opposed to any other season?  I figured it was probably something about the angle or quality of the light that did it, but since the sun had crossed the horizon a little while earlier it wasn’t direct light or shadows.  Whatever it was, it looked cold.  I was glad I had a warm car and gloves.

We take a lot of very subtle cues from the environment that help us determine where we are in the daily or yearly cycle.  Go take a nap in the park on some nice summer day.  When you wake up, don’t look at your watch, just look around you at the shadows.  Odds are, you’ll probably have a rough idea of how long you were napping based on how they’ve changed.  Most of us don’t deliberately try to learn this, but you see the world every day, and after several years of living year-round in the same place, you get an innate feeling for when the leaves will sprout or change color, and how long it takes shadows to crawl across the floor.

I didn’t think about this very much until about ten years ago, when I visited South Africa for a week in June.  We got off the plane around 10 a.m. local time, but as we drove out of the city into the more rural areas, something felt really off.  Logically I knew it was morning, but my brain was convinced it was six or eight hours later.  I’m sure part of it was jet lag and the unfamiliar countryside, but there was something different about the way the light was hitting in the Southern Hemisphere that just looked out of whack.  I was aware that we were in a different season and therefore the length of the days and nights would not be the same as what I’d just traveled from.  But I couldn’t figure out why I’d have the sensation that east and west were opposite of what I was used to, or that we were a couple hours away from sunset rather than a couple hours past sunrise.  Over the years since that visit, I’ve tried a couple times to work out the geometry of the problem in my head but I only end up confusing myself, convinced both ways at once.

Anyway, the project.  Set up a camera pointed at a fixed location outside–preferably one without too many natural cues like trees and grass.  Find the sunset tables for the next 12 months.  Program your camera to take a picture a set interval after sunset every day, say something in the range of 15 to 30 minutes.  It needs to be after sunset so that ambient light is reflected rather than direct, but I think the priciple would also work if you take a picture a set number of minutes prior to sunrise, just as long as the sun is below the horizon.  Then upload that daily picture to a web site where I (and anyone else who’s curious) can compare pictures taken several weeks or months apart, and see whether there really is a difference between the look of a spring evening and a fall evening.


Becoming (Silver)enlightened, Part 1

We’re in a sort of in-between time at work, so I’ve decided to learn Silverlight programming.  I’ve got programming experience but I wouldn’t call myself an experienced developer by any stretch.  It’s kind of like being just fluent enough in a foreign language that I can read or listen to it and get the gist of the conversation, but if I had to jump in to add my own thoughts, I’d be stumbling a lot and needing help with some of the translations.  I understand programming concepts backwards and forwards, I just need a little help at times converting them from the theoretical to the practical.

I have a project in mind that I’ve been toying with for a while, and decided to take a shot at programming it myself, rather than relying on someone else to implement my ideas.  While I do have some friends who could probably teach me, I’m going to see how far I get trying to learn it on my own.  I thought it might be fun to document the process as I go.

My first step was to hit the Internet.  I launched Bing and typed “learn silverlight” into the window.  Voila, a bunch of handy resources, the first of which was Learn : The Official Microsoft Silverlight Site.  Right in the middle of the screen was a handy box that said “New to Silverlight?  Visit the Get Started section to get up and running quickly.” Hey-o, and away we go!  I had already installed Visual Studio 2010, but needed to install the Silverlight 4 Tools for Visual Studio.  For some reason this didn’t go smoothly the first couple times.  The first time I had to cancel the installation altogether.  The second time, the installation completed, but reported errors.  Third time was the charm and I was good to go.  I started up the video.  Got partway in, and realized I’d learn this best if I worked on it along with the video.

Tangent: I’ve heard there are different types of learners: visual learners who need to see things written out to understand them best, auditory learners who grasp concepts more quickly when they hear them explained, tactile learners who need that hands-on experience to really take it in, and logical learners for whom the “why we do it this way” is equally as vital as the “how to do it” itself.  (In parallel with that, there are different types of teachers, and it’s not uncommon for a person’s learning style and teaching style to be different.  But I’ll save that discussion for another post.)  I feel that I’m primarily a hands-on learner, but at the same time I like to have someone explaining things so that I know I’m hands-on-ing correctly.  So doing this on my own without a guiding authority is something a little outside my comfort zone.

However, this video was playing right to my preferred learning styles because it was telling me, showing me, and letting me get some hands-on time by working right alongside it.  Oh, wait.  Did I say “alongside?”  Actually no; I was trying to watch the video and walk through the tutorials on the same computer.  Flipping back and forth between them wasn’t working out for me.  I tried installing Visual Studio 2010 on my laptop, thinking that I’d want it there anyway so that I could take my work home, but the installer doesn’t seem to be working right.  (In fact, it’s trying again even as I type this, but the progress bar isn’t showing even a single pixel of advancement.)  As a final resort I copied the video to the laptop so that I could run it from there while doing the tutorial on my desktop computer.

Once I got everything set up for smooth productivity, I re-started the video and got to coding.  When you create a new Silverlight application, it automatically give you a working mockup, so you can run it like a real web page right out of the box.  I ran into a few confusing steps where what was shown in the tutorial didn’t quite match what I was actually seeing in Visual Studio, but that’s likely because something had changed since the tutorial was published — not an uncommon occurrence in the software world.  I was able to follow along and create my little Hello World web page and application, even if I did have to stop and rewind a couple times to make sure I’d typed things correctly.  Oh, and I kept trying to scroll around inside the video itself.  Kind of like trying to interact with a TV show from the couch side of the screen.  Yeah, good one, me.

The tutorial doesn’t just show how to lay out buttons and text fields and get them to interact with each other.  It even includes a demo for connecting your web application to a database on a web server.  I didn’t try coding that part because I’d neglected to download the sample database, but it looked straightforward enough that I think I’ll be able to finish it out later (with help from the video again, I’m sure.)  For the moment, I feel like I now have the skills to lay out the user interface for the project I’ve got in mind and possibly get started on hooking up the various elements to each other.