Personas searches the web for a person’s name and creates a graph to “characterize” the person. For my name, it seems to be latching on to the phrase “ALESH HOUDEK IS DIMWITTED AND SAD.”

Apple Tablet

Apple Tablet. Pretty cool, and very close to what I requested in an e-reader. But the problem with this is the same problem the iPhone has (exacerbated by the big screen) — you forget that you’re not using a “real” computer, and you keep getting frustrated by the stuff you can’t do. Which is anything to do with real typing. And forget about plugging in an external keyboard, because then the touch-screen becomes very awkward to use. Also, the big piece of glass that makes up its face is going to make this a very fragile object in any situation other then sitting on the couch. If this is really what’s coming, I worry that it’ll be Apple’s Segway — a beautiful and inspiring device that isn’t useful beyond a few specific niche markets.

iPhone notes

iphone I’ve had my iPhone less then a week. Here are some observations

  • fring is a key app. It connects with your regular phone address book as well as your Google Talk, Skype, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, etc. It allows you to receive messages from the chat clients even while the app is closed via push (there are apps for Google Talk, Skype, et al, but they only work while the app is open), so you’re always online. And fring lets you call your regular phone contacts over WiFi when you’re in a hotspot, so you save your minutes.
  • There is a weird secret trick that lets you get a couple of hundred zany Japanese-schoolgirl-style emoticons.
  • The packaging is just absurdly luxurious, like opening something from Tiffany’s in the Matrix. Activation was also stupid easy — download iTunes, punch in phone #, zip code, and the last 4 digits of your social, and you’re done.
  • The industrial design is a little of a split personality — slick glass and metal front, crappy plastic back. My old phone had a rubberized metal exterior that was much nicer.
  • The app thing is just ridiculous. You download them from your computer or from the phone itself, and there’s an app literally for anything you can think of. RunPee tells you when to go pee without missing an important part of your movie. Pandora and give you customized radio stations on the go. Yelp shows you nearby restaurants sorted by how well users rated them. RjDj is something between a musical instrument and a game that I can’t even begin to explain. Google Earth gives you an alien/god’s view of the planet. Live stock markets, weather radar, twitter, the locations of all your friends. And games. Oh, the games.
  • On the other hand, certain things are not as easy as they should be. I wanted a special e-mail account for on the go, but getting the iPhone to recognize it took quite a bit of fiddling, and it still only receives new messages when I’m in the mail app (it’s supposed to receive notifications). And this guy figured out how to sync Google Calendar with the iPhone’s calendar app, but it’s an ugly hack (and, again, I haven’t gotten it to work yet). Reports of “everything just working” on Apple have been somewhat overstated.
  • Because lots of the apps you end up using are free and ad supported, there’s something somewhat surreal but extremely futuristic and slightly dystopian to the whole experience.
  • Yes, you can make a ringtone out of any mp3. But you do it with a slightly shady desktop program.
  • Because of licensing bullshit, yes, you can play Tetris on it, but it’s a lamely dolled up and overcooked version of Tetris, and it costs a shocking $5.
  • On the other hand, while the Wall Street Journal website is the last bastion of for-paid online content, the free WSJ-created app lets you read the whole newspaper free (for now).
  • Battery life is abysmal. If you want to go a whole day on a charge, you need to ration your use.
  • As nice as the apps are, lots of them speak to the difficulty of the internet on iPhone. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the Safari browser — there are just limits to how usable a 3” screen is for the web, so lots of sites are more usable through dedicated apps than directly.
  • Whatever. Phone calls sound good, and you can sync Google Maps to your location with one button and look up anything anytime. I’m happy.

Is the space program a massive waste of money?

space! NicFitKid asks, “Is your beef with the shuttle program, or with manned spaceflight in general?”

Well, I mostly think that both the space shuttle and manned spaceflight the space program in general are super cool, but I do not trust my reasons, with what them (the reasons) hinging entirely too much on little-boy “wow” appeal. Meanwhile, when you look at the costs involved your mind really does reel (even putting aside “you could feed X hungry children” lines of argument, which strike me as naive).

Said reeling is particularly vivid as pertains to the space shuttle program; it was supposed to be a more-cost effective (reused vehicle = recycling) way to get to space, the costs end up averaging out to $1.3 billion per flight.

Same goes for just about everything NASA does, right? You wonder just where the money’s going, and can’t help but think that this could all be done a heck of a lot cheaper. And maybe it can, but probably not without making the program even less safe, and anyway, don’t the costs of all large-scale projects seem impossible to wrap head around? (Maybe not?: quick, how much would you guess that the Hoover Dam cost to build in today’s dollars? Here’s the answer, which I found surprisingly low.)

NASA’s budget over its 50-year history has averaged 1.23% of the federal budget, though it’s been under 1% since the early 1990’s. It’s .55% of the 2009 budget, or about $17.2 billion. In the 1960’s, while the Apollo program was being developed, it spiked to 5.5% of the budget, over $33 billion (these dollar figures are in 2007 dollars).

So, what have we gotten for this money, other than the undeniable fun of watching it all slowly, slowly unfold? Well, precious little actually. There are some scientifically useful things, e.g. the Hubble space telescope. And there is the list of advances that came about as by-products of getting stuff into space. Lots of useful stuff on that list, but it all could — and probably would — have been developed (and much cheaper) outside the context of a space program. Scientific experiments done in space mostly consist of testing the effects of weightlessness on various things. The results are rarely particularly interesting, and in any case almost completely useless to us here on earth.

One day, maybe, we’ll be a space-going civilization. The argument that we should be working towards that holds some water. Yet I wonder if the challenges of going into space wouldn’t be better tackled later, when advances from pure science and other scientific endeavors make them far easier to solve. We weigh the money it would cost to work this stuff out later not just against the money we’re spending now, but against all the missed opportunity cost of what would have otherwise been done with that money. If all we have to show for the difference is the entertainment value of the space program, then it seems difficult to justify rationally.

Update: See also The Economic Value of the Space Program.