Thursday, December 30, 2010

In Love With My iPad

I'm writing this blog on my iPad. This device has been a revelation. Not since my first microwave oven has a piece of technology so changed my life.

I waited until ten years after microwaves came on the market to buy my first one, due to concern about leaking radiation. When the iPad was first introduced, I waited because I already had a Kindle and felt I couldn't justify the expense. Since my primary interest in the iPad was its iBook capability, it seemed ridiculously self-indulgent to purchase a second electronic reader.

I enjoyed my Kindle and appreciated its light weight. It was easy to tuck into the pocket of my purse when traveling or when I had a dentist appointment. With my Kindle in hand, I almost looked forward to sitting in the waiting room.

I never had a problem giving up print books; it's the content I care about. Years ago, I stopped reading print editions of newspapers and found I preferred the online versions, especially as the websites improved and slide shows and videos added an extra dimension to the news. So, I wasn't surprised that I made the transition to electronic books easily.

However, there were some aspects of print books that I missed with the Kindle. The device uses locations rather than pages and I found this perpetually confusing and annoying. And the contrast was poor, making it hard to read in dim light. (The contrast issue has been improved in the next generation Kindle and the device has been made even smaller and lighter without sacrificing much screen size.) I knew the iPad was heavier, but its screen size was commensurately bigger. I'd also heard that it had backlighting, a feature that really appealed to me.

For years, I'd bothered E. with my penchant for reading in bed after he'd turned out his light. We'd tried various fixes—bedside lights with dimmers, overhead pinpoint lights, even tiny book lights mounted on my book or Kindle. Nothing helped.

Then one evening a few months ago, we had dinner with my nephew and his wife. They both had iPads and were enthusiastic about the iBook backlighting feature, whose brightness they said could be adjusted. Plus, they told me, the iBook background could be reversed from the normal black-on-white to white-on-black, which can be easier on the eyes in low-light situations.

This really peaked my interest. I decided to visit the Apple Store and take a look. Two hours later, I walked out with my new iPad and quickly became a convert.

Here's what's so great: First, the backlighting in the iBook application is fantastic. With all the lights off, I dim the backlighting and activate a feature called Sepia. This makes the print appear brown on an off-white background and is even better for me than the white-on-black option. It's easy to read and the light doesn't bother E. at all! This alone makes my iPad a worthwhile investment.

Second, the iBook uses regular pagination. I find it easy to go backward or forward without losing my place. Also, the touch mechanism for turning pages is simple, silent, and elegant. Designed to look as if you're turning the pages of an actual book, the iBook acts as a wonderful transitional device for people raised on print books. Like the Kindle, the iBook enables you to adjust the font size, a great advantage over print books.

All these iBook features are terrific and have exceeded my expectations, but what's really surprised me are the other ways I'm using my iPad. After many years of reading the newspapers on my computer at my desk, I now check out the news over breakfast on my iPad. I have a nifty stand originally purchased for my Kindle but equally effective for the iPad, and once again I can enjoy my cereal with the New York Times or the Boston Globe. The Kindle also enables newspaper reading, but the screen size and color photos on the iPad provide an optimal experience.

I bought the 3G version of the iPad so I can travel with it and use it to respond more easily to emails than with the smaller iPhone. And I can even write a blog on it! My iPad is noticeably heavier than the Kindle, but its greater versatility makes it a worthwhile tradeoff for me.

The most exciting new use I've discovered for my iPad is as a radio. I regularly listen live to WBUR (Boston Public Radio), WHYY (Philadelphia Public Radio), WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio), and WEEI (Boston sports radio). The sound quality is great and I can choose from a variety of programs. Since the iPad is so portable I can listen in any part of the house.

As I write this, my PC is in crash mode, having been infected by a trojan virus. Hopefully it will be up and running soon. Meanwhile, I feel very fortunate to have my iPad handy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Year's Eve, 1974

1974. The year Richard Nixon resigned. The year Mohamed Ali regained the heavyweight boxing title by knocking out George Foreman during the "Rumble in the Jungle." The year Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for Best Actress for her title role in Martin Scorsese's first major Hollywood film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

In 1974, the country was in a recession and inflation was high, but E. and I were enjoying life in Los Gatos, California. We'd returned there after a year in Connecticut and had both gotten jobs at a music publication company, Guitar Player. We lived in a pleasant garden apartment complex and while we didn't have much money, we had enough for simple pleasures. We loved to stroll to Old Town in Los Gatos for ice cream at Mimi's Rooftop Cafe. A big spurge was dinner at Mountain Charley's.

Los Gatos was a backwater in those days. No one had yet heard of personal computers, let alone the notion of Silicon Valley. As New Year's Eve approached, E. and I didn't have any special plans—no big party or fancy dinner. Instead, we decided to see the latest disaster blockbuster film, Earthquake. We may have gone with friends or maybe we went alone. That detail has been lost in the mists of time, or at least in the fog of my memory. But I do recall the film experience vividly.

I was only 25, but I was already a world-class worrier. The fact that I lived in a major fault zone had hardly escaped my anxious attention. I became especially nervous in confined or crowded places—in an elevator or a crowded theater, for example.

When Earthquake came out, I felt some trepidation about seeing it. But I had read that the action was set in L.A., so I hoped it wouldn't hit too close to home. The film was playing at the Century 25 Theatre on Saratoga Avenue in San Jose, not far from Los Gatos. The theater itself was a marvel of sixties architecture, a domed structure with state-of-the-art seating and technology. New Year's Eve was the first and only time I saw a film there.

2005 photo of the Century 25 Theatre (by Kevin Collins)
The dome was impressive, but the real thrill was Sensurround, a sound system that utilized a series of large speakers and a 1,500-watt amplifier to pump in sub-audible "infra bass" sound waves at 120 decibels (equivalent to a jet airplane taking off). The idea was to simulate the sensation of a real earthquake. For me, it succeeded almost too well. As the on-screen destruction got underway, with Charlton Heston in the leading role, I couldn't help imagining that the Bay Area had actually been hit by a quake and that the enormous dome would soon crash in on the audience.

Sometimes the best antidote to fear is confronting it. Earthquake may have showcased Hollywood at its most melodramatic and over the top, but sitting in the darkened theater with all those decibels rumbling around me proved cathartic. I emerged from the theater exhilarated and delighted to be on solid ground. I didn't stop fearing earthquakes but as 1975 began, my concern faded into the background.

I never did experience an earthquake while I lived in California. Ironically, the only time I ever felt one was in Boston, when I was jolted by a small quake whose epicenter was in nearby New Hampshire.

Now that I spend time in Miami, I've got a great idea for a disaster film—Hurricane. If that film ever gets made, I'll be the first person in line for a ticket.