The iPod Touch as the Ultimate PDA

I’ve turned my iPod Touch into the ultimate PDA. It wasn’t hard, because it’s pretty good out of the box. But I had to adjust a few things:

Enable Calendar Sync. Karen and I keep our days coordinated through Google Calendar. When we make an appointment, we enter it on our iPod Touch’s calendar immediately and “invite” the other person so they’ll know what’s up.

The iPod Touch will stay current with your Google Calendar (or whatever calendar package you use on your PC) whenever it’s connected to a wireless network. I really like Google Calendar, but the iPod Touch will sync with Outlook Calendar and plenty of others. It works great.

Enabling sync with Google Calendar is simple but uses an obscure menu on the iPod Touch. See the Google documentation for step-by-step instructions.

Shared List Manager. Another great applications is Zenbe Lists, a simple to-do list manager that runs on the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and costs $3.99. You can also use your to-do lists onlne. You can share to-do lists with other people, too. Karen and I have a shared shopping list, which is way more convenient than I expected! When one of us is in the store, we look at the list to see what’s on it, checking off things as we put them in the shopping cart.

I used to use a Palm PDA, but it was compromised by not having third-party apps and not having a wireless interface, so it basically only got updates when you plugged it into your PC. With all the free wireless around these days, I get updates in town as well as at home.

File Sharing. Another application I like very much is Dropbox, which allows you to share directories between your PC and your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad — and also between your PC and laptop. And it’s free! I use for all kinds of documents and files I like to keep around, including works-in-progress. For simple things like notes, I use a companion program, PlainText, a free program that I like better than Apple’s Notepad program.

Entertainment, too. I’m still using a first-generation iPod Touch, and it seems to run everything perfectly well. I even have the free Netflix application on it, so I can watch streaming video when I’m bored. I lust after the new fourth-generation iPod Touch, but even the oldest ones are good.

But mostly I use the iPod Touch for serious things — email, time management, to-do lists, Google Maps, and plenty of random Web browsing to find information.

Avoid Disappointment: Get the 3G iPad

If you’re thinking about getting an iPad, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by getting the Wifi-only version. Get the 3G version, even if you aren’t convinced you’re willing to pay for 3G. Here’s why:

I’ve had an iPod Touch for a long time. An iPod Touch is basically an iPhone without the phone — and without 3G. It runs iPhone apps wonderfully, and I use it for everything: email, appointments, note taking, music, audiobooks, movies, Web browsing, games, shopping lists — you name it.

The problem is that it only has wifi, and this means that anytime I don’t have a wifi signal, there’s a lot that I can’t do. This can be very frustrating, especially when I’m around people with iPhones, who have constant access to the Web over 3G, and who simply don’t have this problem. Having to drive to a different part of town to find free wifi so I can check email (or whatever) really detracts from the value.

With the iPad, you are given the opportunity to deal yourself the same kind of misery. People tell themselves, “I don’t need 3G, because I won’t use the iPad anywhere but home and work.” They’re fooling themselves, because the “use it anywhere” nature of the iPad is one of its biggest advantages. If you buy the wifi-only version, you’re likely to be disappointed, and also stuck with an expensive iPad that isn’t what you need.

With the 3G version, on the other hand, the worst that will happen is that you’ll pay more up front for the iPad itself. You don’t have to sign up for 3G service, and even if you do, it’s month-to-month with no contract. You can cancel it at any time and avoid the ongoing expense of 3G. Compare this to the wifi version, where you’re basically out of luck when you realize that 3G is mighty handy! And 3G on the iPad is a lot cheaper than 3G on my cell phone, oddly enough.

I’m very fond of my 3G iPad and I use it all the time when I’m away from home. A laptop is too heavy and klunky to take with me everywhere, but the iPad works just fine. I can do all kinds of work wherever I am with the iPad. I use the Apple slipcase with it (I think it’s indispensible), and also a small Samsonite netbook case to carry the iPad, a spiral notebook, and some other necessities.

The iPad is not a cheap device, so you need to make sure you get full value from it. And that means 3G.

Side-by-Side Testing: This is the Age of Science!

You have to make a choice: Do you want the truth or your comfortable illusions?

Frankly, I think most people prefer illusions, because of their comfort value, but there’s a lot to be said for truth, especially when the future is riding on it! One of the most useful ways of getting at the truth is the side-by-side test, which has lots of applications in everyday life. I’ll talk about farm-related ones here.

I frequently tell people that I have “the best eggs ever.” Is this true? Well, so far it is! But I don’t just rest on my laurels. Once in a while, I go out and buy other people’s eggs, then cook them up in exactly the same way and do a taste test. Ideally, this would be literally a blind taste test, since my eggs tend to have very dark yolks compared to other people’s. In a blind test, you don’t know whose eggs you’re tasting, so your preconceptions and wishful thinking are kept in check.

So far, the results have been very encouraging — nobody’s eggs taste better than mine — though as a side effect I discovered that many of the bad things that people say about supermarket eggs just aren’t true. I’ve heard a lot of claims that supermarket eggs are old and have weak yolks, so I was surprised by the results of my first test, where the el cheapo eggs from the supermarket were just as fresh as mine and had really strong yolks, too. So don’t believe what you hear from others. Test, test, test!

With broilers, the results have been more mixed. Our non-irrigated pasture browns off in the late summer, and in one late-summer taste test, our broilers were not as good as another pastured poultry outfit’s, one which I suspect grows their birds on irrigated pasture. And some of the faux free-range chicken from California was surprisingly flavorful, considering that their “outdoor access” was more or less mythical. Normally I expect that it’s green pasture plants that give the chickens their flavor, but I suspect that there’s another way of doing it…

One interesting side-by-side experiment we made happened when Karen took a Poultry Science class at Oregon State University. One lab involved butchering chickens from the university’s broiler barn. Karen butchered the chicken using methods that were equivalent to what she uses at home, but this well-cared-for confinement broiler tasted far blander than a grass-fed broiler of the same age that we tested at the same time, and the confinement broiler had an unpleasant manure-y aftertaste that could only be blamed on growing conditions, not processing. Ewww!

The reason people don’t do more side-by-side testing is that it raises the possibility that their cherished beliefs will be proven false. Of course, this is exactly why you should do it! Great ideas only get you into the ballpark. You’re probably up in the bleachers somewhere, not on base at all. But it’s a start. You get on base when you get the details right and drop some of the baggage that we all bring to a new venture. You’re going to lose your illusions one way or another, either by refining your ideas until they actually work, or by failing. Using denial is the more natural and comfortable option, but it sends you straight down the road to failure. Testing and refining are less comfortable at first, but they reveal the path to success — reliable, ongoing success — the path that leads to a reality that’s far better than any illusion.

If you look around, you’ll see many opportunities to use side-by-side testing. The experiments are often very easy. For example, it took me less than half an hour to test half a dozen kinds of coffee, from which I discovered (to my surprise) that I don’t appreciate fresh-ground, gourmet coffee — something that has saved me a lot of money over the years.

Go forth and test! This is the Age of Science!

Off to the Big City I go

I’m spending about a week in California, on a visit to my day job, Citrix Systems. At one point I was flying to California every week (which was exhausting!) but tight budgets have kept me at home for nearly two years!

That’s left me more disconnected than is good for my work — I write the user documentation and kibitz on improvements in our super-spiffy network accelerator, Branch Repeater (and if you were wondering, no, I didn’t write the product description the link points to).

Actually, I’ve spent my whole career in something of a stealth mode — a computer engineer by training, technical writer (or writing manager) by job title, general guru and architect by inclination. When I was at Activision back during its glory days, my job was discovering all our game designers’ design secrets, duplicating them, and distributing what I’d learned to our other designers. Heaven! Pretty soon I wasn’t just writing up what had already happened, but was making things happen. And it’s been like that ever since.

(Trivia note: I wrote the last piece of code for the Atari 2600 game system ever shipped by Activision.)

Karen will be holding down the fort while I’m gone. I used to live in the Bay Area, where Citrix is, and I’m sure I’ll be hooking up with some old friends.

Got Windows 7 Installed, Finally

I upgraded my desktop PC to Windows 7, which I’m very happy with, but it gave me more grief than it should have. I’ve owned computers since 1980, when I got my first Apple II, and I’m a bona fide computer wizard, so it should have been easy, right?

Well, not quite. The first hurdle was dealing with Windows 7’s insistence on wiping out your “Documents and Settings” — the only indispensable things on most PCs! Do you have any idea how much data I’ve accumulated over the years? Messing around with backing it up and restoring it was Not Fun. It was just as hard as if I were transferring my stuff to a brand-new computer, which I wasn’t.

The other hurdle was with mirrored drives. The more spendy versions of Windows 7 allow you to do disk mirroring, so all your data lives on two drives simultaneously. If one dies, the other keeps going, and you can slap in a replacement drive and get back to mirroring. No prob. And it doubles the speed of disk reads, which is nothing to sneeze at. (Disk mirroring is also called “RAID 1.” Don’t ask.)

But it’s amazingly difficult to figure out how to set it up. Why, Microsoft, didn’t you provide step-by-step instructions?

Some motherboards have the same capability in hardware, but they, too are always incredibly ill-documented.

But I’m up and running again, and Windows 7 seems quite a bit snappier than XP, though it seems to have some teething troubles, with the occasional odd bit of behavior.

A while back I bought a bargain-basement computer for under $300 at Staples to use as a secondary computer, and even el cheapo machines are pretty usable these days. So you might want to do it the easy way and get a new computer when you decide to switch to Windows 7. That’s called a “forklift upgrade” in the biz.