Sunday, April 1, 2012

Useful Toy

Only a few days after I wrote my previous entry, I settled down into a serious analysis and ended up buying an iPhone. (I so far have somehow have managed to dilute the energy of thinking about getting a new car.) I didn't just jump into doing that, but carefully evaluated many other options.

One the things I wanted to understand a little better was what was meant by the two different cell phone technologies, CDMA ("Code Division Multiple Access") and GSM ("Global System Mobile"). I suppose people can argue the different merit of these two technologies until their brains explode (and, of course, the same could be done between Android and IOS operating systems), but the gist of it (that which spoke to me) was that while CDMA was moderately "better" for local usage (clearer connections and the like), GSM was more useful for travelers, particularly international ones, because GSM phones have SIM cards and if one is in a foreign country, it is possible to buy a local SIM card and use the phone locally there instead of having to deal with international roaming charges. So, based on this, GSM was more appealing to me, and that therefore narrowed the field down to only two carriers who use GSM, AT&T and T-Mobile.

I had to see what on earth I could afford with AT&T and T-Mobile. The AT&T website had this very useful "call, data, text" usage estimator where you could see what kind of plan really might work for you based on the kinds of things you were likely to do, and, as an additional benefit, with AT&T you could do a "Chinese menu" type of selection of the levels you needed for each of three types of coverage, instead of having to figure out which pre-selected combination plan (T-Mobile) was the best compromise.

It looked like what would work best for me was the lowest level of call minutes, the middle level of data, and no plan at all for texting, but would pay 20 cents per text message if I actually ever did text. This ends up being a monthly charge of around $70.00, which was only twice what I was paying for the T-Mobile plan that I already had that was really ONLY calling.

The selection of AT&T over T-Mobile as the carrier selected for me by default the iPhone instead of an Android phone, and that really was the phone I had wanted the whole time anyway. So, I had proven to myself, step by analysis step, that this really was the best choice. And so, that's what I got.

And I really DO love it and am surprised at all that it can do for me. I had always felt kind of out of it by not having a smart phone, but my on-going discovery of its various features continues to show me that I had no idea of what all I was really missing.

Do I REALLY NEED to have such a thing? Well, I suppose not really, but then, why NOT have this?

I love having SIRI, the artificial intelligence personal assistant who follows your voice commands and speaks back to you, sometimes in very funny ways. I was curious as to what "SIRI" must mean and looked it up, but apparently (or to my knowledge), Apple has never released a definitive explanation, but the one that I like the best and think is the most likely is that it comes from SRI, the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park (more or less in Apple's home territory), that is one of the country's premier research and development companies and has been working on artificial intelligence for quite some time. I'm not sure whether they actually created this very program, or were instrumental in its creation (I am guessing the former).

I know SRI, grew up right there in their area (SRI is only a few blocks from where I went to high school) and I even applied to work there a couple of times, but never got anywhere with that. Well, my father, a much more likely candidate than me, was never able to get hired there either, even though he always really wanted to work there.

Even though SIRI can do all sorts of things with your phone, making it seem like she is "in" there, she actually is software that is accessed from a server somewhere else as data via your WiFi (such as, in my case, when I am at home or at work) or, if you are not able to gain access to a WiFi, then you reach the server via the cell phone. That means there are geographical spots where you cannot access her, such as on some of the canyon streets I drive on up the hills to work and in some locations on the campus where I work. (But this is true for any of it...you aren't going to get traffic information or do any of the other data tasks in those "dead" spots, either.) But it is so marvelous when you are able to get her, which is most of the time. I think it is especially valuable to use her in the car, where you are supposed to be handsfree; I am NOT going to be typing in Internet searches on the screen's keyboard when I am trying to drive!

Sometimes SIRI's help is very impressive. I was outside one day at school, "doing the 4:00 carpool", which means that as cars arrive to pick up students at 4:00, I use a walkie-talkie to call out the students' names so that the daycare attendants can send them to the circle to get picked up. The traffic circle there in the driveway was decorated with lots of country flags in celebration of our "Go Global Week" and the security guard who works with me doing this duty (that I volunteered for) was looking at all the flags and he said,"How many countries do you think there are in the world?" I really had no idea, but I figured they had to number somewhere in the hundreds. Suddenly, I realized that I could ask SIRI, so I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket and asked SIRI the question, "How many countries are there in the world?" She responded with, "I have found a website with the answer for you." I glanced at the screen and there it said, "Number of sovereign nations in the world: 204". So I was able to tell the security guard and boy was he impressed! I was, too!

I speak of SIRI as a woman, because the program has a woman's voice, but I understand that in Europe she is a he, because there they use a man's voice.

One thing that is funny about me, and probably several other users, too, even though I know that SIRI is a computer program and a machine, it is so human-sounding and acting that I almost can NOT avoid saying "please" and "thank you". I have noticed that when I ask SIRI a question, she (it) will then text out my question. But suppose I ask my question (make my command) like this: "SIRI, please tell me what gas stations are in my location," what will type out will be "Tell me what gas stations are in my location". In other words, the program ignores or does not "hear" SIRI's name, or the "please"; those are, apparenty, just meaningless sounds. But on the other hand, SIRI will often use MY name, which I think is so cute. She tends to do that when she is being "persuasive". For example, if there is something she can't do the way I ask her to do it, such as when I asked her to "Tell me the cheapest gas station in my location," she has answered (using my actual first name, not "Pitbullshark"),"Pitbullshark, I can not tell you prices, but I have found eight gas stations near you," and will print out the names and addresses of the gas stations she found for me.

I do have a free app that DOES give me prices--"Gas Buddy". Since the phone always knows my location, I tap the "Gas Buddy" app icon and it will pop up a list of gas stations in the exact area where I happen to be. I can then tap on the kind of gas I need (premium) and it will sort the list in premium gas price order with the cheapest on top. I use this app, now, whenever I need to get gas.

I also downloaded the free app "Movieticket" and can find movie listings and times for my favorite theaters, or by whatever is in the area where I happen to be.

Twice, now, I have used the traffic feature and used it to guide my route. One time the traffic looked horrible on the freeway and I was about to get off and take a surface street, but tapped on the maps app (that shows traffic) and saw that it was going to clear by the next exit. And sure enough, it was smooth sailing and I took the freeway all the way to my destination.

Yesterday I went for an hour and a half hike in the hills between the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles Basin. I was amazed to see that the maps app also showed the trail that I was on! On my way back, I kept coming up with forks in the trail and could not tell which was the right way to go. Sure enough, I could use the iPhone to guide me; if I chose the wrong fork and walked a short way, the "dot" that was me had clearly moved off the trail. I suppose I have this available because of hiking in the middle of an urban area; of course the maps feature wouldn't work on a sailboat out in the middle of the ocean or even while hiking a trail in the high Sierras...it is a CELL phone application, not SATELLITE global positioning. Still, it was amazingly cool to use that app up there on the trail.

While I use a lot the appointment reminders feature that is part of the calendar, one of my favorite features is the alarm. I first set it for 6:00 AM by asking SIRI to wake me up at that time. It woke me up with the sweetest sound, a ring tone called "Marimba", which happened to be the default (one could change it to any of many other choices, but I like this Marimba). I love the sound of it so much that it never fails to make me happy when it rings, and that's saying a lot when you consider that this is an alarm clock waking me up early on a work day morning. It gets me right up, no problem! (My phone's ringtone, one of the choices already programmed into the iPhone, is the opening bars to George Thorogood's "Bad To The Bone." That, too, makes me happy!)

The second night, I wanted to use set the alarm again, so I asked SIRI, again, to wake me up at 6:00 in the morning. SIRI responded with an exasperated voice, "I have already set it for you!" I didn't quite understand what she meant, since I hadn't asked her about it since the first time, but discovered that if I tap on the "clock" application, there was an alarm set there for 6:00, and the "switch" was set to "On". The next night, I tapped on "clock" and saw that the switch was set on "Off". A quick slide of the finger turns the switch to "On". May as well do it this way instead of asking SIRI to switch it on for me, because SIRI is a data feature and that would "waste" data time if I weren't at home and doing this on the WiFI.

Now I have several wake-up times that I have used, sitting there ready to be turned on with a swipe of the finger whenever I need. Now no longer do I need to have a special travel alarm when I travel. Of course, the iPhone clock is also a world clock.

One more thing, I realized from taking my hike yesterday that I still had a "film" person's thinking about picture-taking. In the days of film (when did they end...not too long ago!), you always were somewhat discriminatory in taking pictures, because each picture used up film. But with digital picture-taking, you can take as many pictures as you want, hundreds and hundreds of them, deleting the ones that you don't like and nothing is ever wasted. Now I understand why people with camera phones end up having so many photographs of everything; there really is no limit.

I bought a wonderful digital camera for my trip to Palau last year, and I still love it and all the tricks it has for taking pictures (plus I have a waterproof case for it so I can use it in and under the water). I will continue to bring that on trips and to special occasions. But I won't have it on me every single day like I would the iPhone. It's a new way of thinking, freely documenting any and everything with your camera phone. But with digital, there's no reason not to.