Sunday, October 19, 2008

Is This How Hester Prynne Felt?

I'm cursed. I readily admit it. I mean, when you're a Cubs fan, you learn to take the bad with the good. Or, as is usually the case on the north side, the bad with the lousy, the inept, and the brutal.

Like most Cubs fans, I've grown accustomed to failure. However, I think all of Cubdom thought this year would be different.

And, as usual, we were wrong.

Thinking that this year was going to be the year, I decided to grow a playoff beard. Sure, the playoff beard is a hockey concept, but heck, the Blackhawks hired John McDonough from the Cubs, and he immediately won over the NHL to turn the Friendly Confines into the Frozen Confines on 1/1/09. Why not make a further connection, however tenuous?

So, I stopped shaving on September 20th, the day that the Cubs clinched the division. That day, I was smiling big, because the Cubs were in the playoffs, and I might have an excuse to not shave for as long as six weeks. As I boarded a plane at SFO bound for Tokyo on October 1st, I was bummed that I'd be missing that day's game. But, as I stroked my still-filling-out beard, I took consolation in the fact that the Cubs had their most competitive team in decades, that they matched up well with the Dodgers, and that they had a solid pitching staff and offense which could hopefully offset a bad performance from one or the other.

(As an aside, I found that stroking one's beard prompts a surprisingly contemplative mood, which I'm guessing contributes to the high percentage of renowned bearded philosophers. That, or sheer laziness.)

Again, I was wrong. Wrong. I'm obviously not The Fonz.

When I woke up a couple of hours before landing at Narita, I asked one of the flight attendants if she could ask the flight deck to find out what the Cubs had done. Needless to say, I wasn't happy with the news, but this was a rock-solid ballclub, one which could (and should) bounce back from this temporary setback. Heck, they'd be sleeping in their own beds, then playing in front of their beloved fans, at the most historic park in the National League. The game two effort would obviously be much better, right?

Wrong. Instead, the Cubs turned into the Keystone Kops. Decent Little League teams don't make 4 errors in one game. Unfortunately, when the clock strikes October and the Cubs are still playing, they turn into something much worse than a decent Little League team.

I spent that Friday (Thursday evening U.S. time) at a trade show outside Tokyo. When I bumped into one of my colleagues, he asked what the beard was about. I explained that it was a playoff beard, that I wouldn't be shaving until the Cubs exited the playoffs, and that the Cubs needed every little bit of help they could get. Shortly thereafter, I used another colleague's computer to hop on the web, where I saw that the unraveling had begun.

By the time the final pitch was thrown at Chavez Ravine on Saturday (a rainy Osaka Sunday), I was ready with shaving cream and a razor. For a few minutes, I actually thought of keeping the beard through the end of the World Series, as punishment for being a Cubs fan. My own personal hairshirt, if you will.

That idea lasted about 30 seconds. However, I did leave the mustache intact for Sunday evening. If you've ever seen me with a mustache (and I can all but guarantee you haven't), you'd know that I look like hell with a 'stache; with a face made for radio, the last thing I need to do is call any more attention to myself. Walking around Kyobashi on Sunday night, I kept touching my upper lip, reminding myself that this was my own little form of penance for being a Cubs fan. As soon as I woke up Monday morning, the mustache came off, too. So much for the penance. I really wanted pennants.

When I jumped on the Internet Monday morning Osaka time, I learned that my mustache wasn't the only thing that'd come off--Cubs fans' gloves had, too. Cubdom is well-accustomed to failure. Unlike Daniel Burnham, who crafted Chicago's master plan and made it the beautiful city it is today, Cubs fans have a well-earned tendency to make very little plans, not the big ones of which Burnham spoke.

But, holy cow. Cubs fans were PISSED. It's one thing for your lover to not show up at the church, as has been the case for the Cubs and their fans for the last century. It's an entirely different thing altogether for the lover to be at the altar, just about to utter the sacred vows and slip on the ring, and have that lover go screaming from the church like a frightened kindergartner with his hair on fire. Notwithstanding the Cubs foldo in 1969, Chicago hasn't witnessed a collapse on this scale since October of 1871. I was surprised to see the vitriol not just in the Chicago papers, but spread out across the Internet--coverage from national media outlets spoke volumes about the mindset of the Cubs fan in October, 2008. Hell hath no fury like a lover scorned, and oh, was Cubdom scorned.

Luckily (?), I was spared the ignominy of actually being in the Windy City when the Cubs collapsed. Regardless of my physical location, having my brain still inside my head was self-flagellation enough; I didn't need to be in the U.S. to be annoyed with the team (for their lackluster play), myself (for being a Cubs fan), or my parents (for not dropping me on my head when I was a child, in hopes that I might've rooted for, uh, the Reds or something). I was despondent enough, even though I was more than 6500 miles from Wrigley Field.

By then, the e-mails had started to pour in, expressing condolence over the Cubs' loss (my loss!), and asking how I was going to cope. Well, being so far away from Chicago helped, just as being in Stockholm (4300 miles away from Comiskey Park) helped me cope with the success of that other team a few years ago. That, and scotch. But, I think the toughest part was when my colleague I'd been speaking with in Tokyo saw me in Osaka on Tuesday morning; his first words were "Huh...the Cubs lost?" He wasn't looking for a fight, and he wasn't trying to be a smart-ass--he had no idea that the Cubs had washed out of the series, but by seeing me clean-shaven, he knew. THAT hurt...having a guy who's not a baseball fan recognize, 5500 miles from where we both live (the Bay Area), that all of Cub fandom was in for another long winter. Ugh.

At the time, I hadn't given too much thought to what things were going to be like when I returned home. Certainly, Hurricane Manny and his brethren had decimated Cubdom, but this wasn't a real hurricane. However one might categorize a broken heart, any pieces we as fans needed to pick up were virtual, not physical.

Returning home on October 10th, the League Championship Series was underway in each league. As a baseball fan, I've certainly been watching over the last week, but with no real sense of attachment. I mean, I'm a baseball fan. This is what I do--watch baseball (although I've found it more enjoyable to use the SAP button during the Fox broadcasts...I prefer a language I don't really understand to Tim McCarver).

Theoretically, my own personal season and involvement in baseball in 2008 ended almost two weeks ago in L.A. But, realistically, I never stop being a baseball fan. By the time the holidays roll around each year, I'm already counting the days till pitchers and catchers report--and by "holidays", I mean Halloween, not Christmas. While I expected that this off-season might be a little tougher than every other since I've been old enough to realize I'm cursed, I really hadn't given it any thought.

Until Friday.

I went to the gym to do my regular Friday morning group exercise class. The mix of the 30-35 attendees is mostly women (with a few guys scattered in for good measure), and is probably half American-born, half overseas-born. Generally, not what I'd consider a room of knowledgeable baseball folks--which is why I felt no compunction about wearing my 2007 Cubs playoffs t-shirt.

Now, I'm going to assume it's merely coincidence, but the word "CUBS" is written in dark red capital letters on the shirt. Not precisely scarlet, but close. In typical Cubs fashion, we get four times as many chances to be recognized as that other gal--Hester Prynne only had to carry a single letter. Our burden, fourfold. I'm going to guess that in Chicago, whether your mood as a Cubs fan over the last two weeks has been misery, angst, or anger, at least Cubdom has had a chance to commiserate with each other. Here in the Bay Area, that's a little tougher to do.

So, back to my point. Before, during, and after the gym class, people kept staring at my chest. (Likely the closest I'll ever come to knowing what it feels like to be a woman.) This wasn't the comedic equivalent of wearing "kick me" on my shirt. This was genuine pity. I might as well have been wearing a flashing neon sign saying "sucker", although even then, I'm not sure I would've drawn the same attention as I had from my fellow gymsters, a mix of folks from early 20s to their 70s; big, small, and everywhere in between; natives, migrants, sports fans, and not.

I don't know if I was more surprised that this motley crew of exercisers knew about the Cubs and their collapse; that they seemed to feel pity for me, which I could see in the eyes of each person who read my shirt; or that I ended up being so self-conscious about all those eyes upon me for wearing my own version of a scarlet letter.

Regardless, until now, I've never before been ashamed of being a Cubs fan, and I saw some brutal baseball in the late 80s and early 90s, when I'd be one of only a few hundred fans in the bleachers during rainy, 45-degree mid-April games. But hey, we were Cubs fans. We were there to watch baseball. We didn't expect to see good baseball (from the home team, at least), nor did we have any kind of expectations for our beloved club. Sure, division championships in '84 and '89 gave folks a little bit of hope, but it was more a case that we were happy we'd received an invite to the party, rather than they'd run out of booze after we'd been there awhile.

But man, this sucks. The biggest problem with setting expectations is that you gotta live up to 'em. Tampa went into the season with no expectations, and they're going to the World Series. The Cubs need to start living up to their expectations, and soon.

I don't have another century to spare.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hands-on with the Google G1

One of the neat things about living in Silicon Valley is that sometimes mere proximity enables experimentation.

I've been doing a ton of work lately with DD-WRT and Tomato, two versions of open source firmware for consumer networking devices. I'm absolutely geeked about how much cool stuff I can do with these community-developed pieces of software. To think that there's a huge crowd of developers around the world contributing to projects like DD-WRT is pretty awe-inspiring.

Closer to home, equally awe-inspiring is how many innovate tech names, both big and small, are within 15 minutes of me. I'm fortunate that living in Mountain View, I have access to the Google Wi-Fi network which blankets the community. No, it's not my primary connection at home, but it's pretty cool to be able to fire up my MacBook just about anywhere in town and get on the Internet, for free. Just for giggles, I set up a router/AP running DD-WRT to serve as a repeater for the Google Wi-Fi network, to get signal into the house. The standard mechanism to do so has been the use of a Ruckus Wireless access point, but I found that I could do the same thing (and more) with a $30 router instead. Way cool.

So, back to my initial point about living here in Silicon Valley. I wouldn't have been able to do this in a lot of places, but yesterday I managed to get my hands on the Google G1, which ships on the 22nd. Many others have commented on features and limitations of the G1 from a services and connectivity standpoint, so I'll stay away from those topics here. I didn't have nearly enough time to do what I'd consider an exhaustive review, but a few items immediately come to mind, particularly from an ergonomic standpoint.

First, the device itself isn't as big and clunky as I'd expected it to be. Having owned a number of HTC devices (running Windows CE/Mobile), I've found HTC's typical industrial designs to be anything but alluring. And, while I wouldn't call the G1 sexy, I would call it reasonably cool. When the G1 was announced, I read something about this being a 2 1/2 year old HTC hardware design. I'm not sure I'd call the design that dated, but in a world of iPhones and Bolds, I think that the G2 (and other Android-based devices from HTC and other manufacturers) will catch up with the rest of the market soon.

Second, the screen's swing-out-and-up mechanism screams "Andy Rubin" (the man behind Android), in a good way. I was a huge fan of my original Sidekick, despite its shortcomings. Having used a bunch of HTC, Palm, Nokia, and BlackBerry devices, I still believe that the Sidekick (designed by Danger, which was founded by Andy Rubin and Joe Britt) was the best-designed device I've ever used. From the way the G1 screen slides out and up, I'm a little concerned about the long-term durability of the screen-device connector and interface, but only time will tell. After only a few minutes of playing with it, I liked it.

As a number of other reviewers have said, the G1's screen isn't particularly compelling from a visual standpoint. The size is decent, and the touch capabilities are nice, but the resolution is pretty underwhelming--having spent time on a BlackBerry Bold a couple of weeks ago, the G1 pales in comparison. Then again, so does everything else, including the iPhone--the Bold's screen is that good.

Regarding the touch screen, I've found that the trackball on my BlackBerry Curve provides me more than sufficient navigational capability, so much that I never yearn for a touch screen. When I made the move from a Palm device to a BlackBerry a few years back, it probably took me two weeks to fully break the habit of touching the screen. When I moved from my 8700 to my 8320 a year ago, it only took a couple of days to shed the habit of the scroll wheel in favor of the trackball. Net-net, I'm not really a touch screen guy, and don't find myself wanting one.

But, after about two minutes with the G1, I found myself instinctively using the touch screen for icon-based navigation. The G1's trackball is well-located, and readily enables one to use the trackball, touchscreen, or both. After three years or so of not using a touch screen, the design of the G1 had me thumbing away merrily.

Not so merry for me is the design of the keyboard. I'm a little surprised that with only a couple of exceptions (notably Walt Mossberg, as you might expect), other reviewers haven't mentioned this. Any transition to a new device requires some time to get used to; whether it's a new computer, cell phone, or TV remote, anything that necessitates input is going to have a learning curve. However, I'm a little fearful that the design of the G1 is going to result in repetitive stress injuries. Seriously. Typing with the left hand is pretty simple; coming over from a BlackBerry, getting used to key placement would take a little while, but I have no qualms that I'd get used to it. Typing with the right hand is my concern. If you look at the picture, you'll see that the navigation base (my term...I have no idea what it's really called) that's the bottom of the phone when held vertically makes for a big speed bump when held horizontally. Just about every QWERTY mobile device I've ever used has been balanced, with a reasonably even 50/50 weight distribution between hands. Not so with the G1. Because the G1 has the navigation base between your thumb and the keyboard, you end up having to reach waaaaay over to get to the keys, particularly the space bar. I'm a fast, accurate typist on my BlackBerry. And, while I'm certain that I'd get used to the G1's keyboard over time, I fear that I'd end up with a dislocated wrist and a really long thumb--the latter handy for hitchhiking, but not so helpful otherwise.

So, while I'm not going to run out and get a G1 on launch day, I do have a couple of final thoughts.

First, this is really an admirable 1.0 product; congratulations are in order for the Google and HTC teams. Delivering a product this comparatively well-designed at launch is no small effort; hell, look at how long Motorola has been making cell phones, and they still can't come up with a decent user interface.

Second, the fact that this is a six-band phone should be useful for a lot of users. My cell coverage at home on T-Mobile's 1900 MHz band is absolutely abysmal, but my 1700 MHz coverage on their new 3G band (which I've been testing with a Nokia handset) is really solid. Plus, inclusion of the 2100 MHz band makes the phone functional in Japan, which remains an Achilles heel for most U.S. cell phones.

Third, have I mentioned I really don't like the keyboard ergonomics?

Finally, and most importantly, I'm totally stoked about the potential for the worldwide developer community to deliver Android-based applications which pervert (in the best possible sense of the word) the G1 and future Android handsets for the customization and benefit of all. If you'd told me 5 1/2 years ago when I bought my first Linksys WRT54G that in late 2008 I'd be loading the router with newly updated open source firmware, enabling VPNs, VLANs, wireless repeating, Xbox connectivity, and much more, I'd've probably said you were crazy. But, lo and behold, that's what I'm doing. And, with 5 more routers sitting here waiting for experimentation with OpenVPN, wireless DLNA DMS serving, and much more, I'll continue to reap the benefits of the open source movement for years to come.

So too will Android users. A truly open platform enabling innovation from a worldwide community of developers will lead to awesome capabilities, more consumer choice, better carrier competition, and (hopefully) lower monthly phone bills. The G1 is a shot across the bow of the iPhone 3G, the Bold and the Storm, and every other smart (and dumb) phone. No, it's not perfect yet--far from it. But, just as my original WRT54G wasn't perfect, it's gotten a lot better with time. You've come a long way, Baby.

Android has a long way to go, but it'll get there. It's off to a great start.