I spend a fair bit of my copious free time exploring Ottawa, making photographs, using Skype to talk to the family, and studying Urdu for the next post. The fact is, however, I’ve got a lot of free time these days. Even with volunteering for non-consular duties, my work days are pretty much limited to eight hours. This will certainly change in Lahore, but until March, I’ve got a lot hours during the evening and week-ends with no pressing responsibilities. I read some, but I also watch TV.
I’ve got just about as many channels to watch in Ottawa as I had back home, including both East Coast and West Coast US network feeds. I find myself, however, spending most of my TV time catching up on old series that I completely missed when they were first broadcast. This appears to be a common pastime for foreign service folks living abroad, particularly those living without the plethora of other options. For me, it’s a way to turn the brain on neutral after the day’s stress (yes, doing visa interviews can be very stressful). It also provides a welcome distraction from missing the family.
Watching a series has been much more fun than a movie. I’m particularly drawn to a series if: (a) there’s a running plot, (b) it’s character driven, and (c) I haven’t seen it before. I’ve also found that it’s actually better if the show ended up being canceled after a couple of seasons. It’s far better to be left wanting more than to experience the “Jumping the Shark” moment which forever spoils the positive impression (I was 12 years old when the Fonz donned water skis to signal the beginning of the end for “Happy Days,” a TV moment forever responsible for the now ubiquitous phrase).
The key to determining whether the show works is that moment when an episode ends and I find myself doing the math to figure out if I can watch one more and still get enough sleep to be cogent the next morning. There is also the engrossing factor. I am a compulsive multi-tasker, particularly living alone for the first time in 25 years. It is not uncommon to find me with the TV on, the Giants game on (either a small window on the computer, streaming radio, or the GameCast silently updating), editing photographs, surfing the Internet, and playing Words With Friends on the iPad. A good show precludes most of that activity and requires me to watch (ok, maybe with the iPad on the couch).
Netflix provides a seemingly endless number of these shows. As a long-time TV addict, there were a number of shows that I followed when they first ran, but if you haven’t seen them, must see candidates in my book include The Wire, The Sopranos, and Friday Night Lights. That’s over a year’s worth of TV right there. The following list are those nuggets I’ve found and enjoyed since last October:
Jericho. Two seasons. Skeet Ulrich and Gerald McRaney provide strong characters and an unfolding plot that is far from predictable. Starting with the nuclear detonation of 23 U.S. cities, the show is focused on the fictional town of Jericho, Kansas, one of the few places far enough from the blast radius to still function. Definitely a show that made me want to watch just one more before ending the day.
Kings. One season. I’ll now watch anything with Ian McShane (Deadwood is on the short list for the future). He’s amazing in this short-lived but well-written one-season wonder. The production costs must have been too high for the low ratings as each episode looks like a well-done movie. The premise centers on the internal machinations of a modern-day absolute monarchy, the Kingdom of Gelboa. Using a long series of clever modern parallels, the unfolding plot is very loosely based on the biblical story of King David. The central character, David, for example, gains initial notoriety in the opening episode by single-handedly facing down the enemy’s indestructible “Goliath” tank. When this one ended, I couldn’t believe they didn’t make a second season.
Veronica Mars. Three Seasons. Very stylized father/daughter detective show set in the fictional upscale town of Neptune, California. Each season has a big plot (e.g., who killed Veronica’s best friend or who’s responsible for the bus-load of students flying off a cliff) and many smaller complex cases that resolve each episode. Once again, the common themes of good writing and solid acting make for an easy-to-watch distraction. Not sure why we haven’t seen more of Kristin Bell. Unlike most shows, they make the transition from high school to college without completely losing the show’s focus (as they did in two of my favorite guilty pleasure shows, the original Beverly Hills 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). They were smart to pull the plug after Season 3.
Prison Break. Four Seasons. Watching the first episode, I was thinking this would not be a keeper. It really sucks you in, however, to a core story involving two brothers: one on death row and the other a structural engineer. The engineer spends six months creating an intricate plan to break his innocent brother out, tattoos the encoded plan over his entire upper body, and holds up a bank to get get thrown into the same prison. It’s not quite Oz, but the mix of sadistic inmates and guards throws wrench after wrench into the well-oiled escape plan. I’m currently on Season 4 which I’m still watching mostly because of the strength of the characters, but this one might have been better served by shutting down after the third season.
So what’s next after Prison Break? I haven’t decided yet. Let me know if you have any suggestions.
Since I’ve arrived in Ottawa, I haven’t really driven anywhere. Before arriving, I found a place to live that is walking distance to both the Embassy and the downtown Byward Market area. Restaurants, bars, shopping, coffee shops, dry cleaning, and music venues are all within a 15 minute walk from my front door. Thus, other than grocery shopping and the occasional run to the airport to pick up visitors, the car has remained in the garage.
So, what could motivate me to jump in the car on a beautiful Saturday morning and drive over an hour into the countryside, over a nerve-wracking rickety metal bridge over the St. Lawrence River, to a small town that promotes on the front of its web site a petition drive to “Save our Prison“? A UPS store, of course. More specifically, a UPS store just over the border that took delivery of my new Apple iPad.
Yeah, a little twisted, but I love gadgets. I pre-ordered the day it was announced with complete confidence that it’d be a hit. At least for me.
I won’t bother writing a general review of the iPad. Just do a Google search (or use Bing if you think Google has become the new Microsoft) and you’ll find scores of in-depth reviews making conflicting conclusions. It’s the best thing since sliced bread. It’s just a big iPhone. It’s wonderful. It’s awful. You’ll find an opinion to match your own gut reaction to Apple products and marketing.
After a few days playing with it, I think Slate got it right. You don’t need an iPad, but once you try one, you’ll probably want it. For me, the iPad does everything I was expecting (books, photo display, email, newspapers), along with a couple of surprises (Netflix). It does not replace a laptop or the iPhone, but that’s not the intent.
The new buzz-phrase used to describe the iPad’s core functionality is “content consumption.” If what we do now is consume newspaper, books, magazines, TV shows, movies, and web sites, then Apple has just invented a pretty damn good fork. I like the feel of chopsticks (newsprint and books) every once in awhile, but I can see myself sticking to the Apple’s new-fangled fork for most meals. Here’s a quick run-down of my initial key apps:
iBooks. I’ve been using an e-reader for several years, but my first generation Sony died a few months ago. I filled out the online order form a couple of times for an Amazon.com Kindle and a Barnes and Noble Nook, before deciding to hold out for Apple’s entry. I was not disappointed. For the geeks out there that know and care about e-ink vs. backlit LCD, I actually like the iPad better for reading. Between work and home, I have already spent more time reading from a backlit screen than from paper and my eyes haven’t yet felt tired as a result. I’m not even sure what “tired eyes” means.
Reading books is the one function that I required of this device and the experience is very satisfying. It took less than a minute to download my first book from the Apple bookstore (Ali Sethi’s The Wish Maker). It launches very quickly and brings up the last page I was reading when I left the book. Screen brightness can be lowered for bedtime reading (it is very bright, even at half-power) and the font can quickly be adjusted, both size and style, to match what I find most comfortable. I can search for specific passages (not necessary for a novel, but very useful for non-fiction), and set multiple bookmarks that create an instantly accessible index. All this, and it still feels like I’m reading a book.
Newspapers and Magazines. This is a category rather than a specific app. Every morning over coffee in my dining room, I can finally read pieces from the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, the San Jose Mercury, and the BBC. It’s not perfect, but give them time. The New York Times’s Editors’ Choice app is beautiful, seamlessly merging the paper’s traditional layout with color photos and video. It’d be perfect if the app provided the entire paper rather than just a few regularly updated pieces. The iPhone app actually has more content and the website has everything so it’s just a matter of time.
Magazines will be revolutionized by electronic distribution. Some have their own dedicated app (Men’s Health, Time, Outdoors, and more to come) while others distribute through an app called Zinio. Again, the interface is very intuitive to swipe through pages or use the more interactive options. It will only get better as publishers and advertisers maximize the technology (wait for Wired‘s app — the description looks amazing).
One app that I haven’t read much about but has the potential to catch on is Fluent News which aggregates news material from a variety of sources. It organizes the content in sections the way a newspaper would and let’s you decide which sources to promote or eliminate (e.g., more content from the Washington Post and none from Fox News).
Photos. At work, the iPad provides an amazing photo frame, cycling through hundreds of family photos at my desk. The interface to sort through photos is beautiful and the screen really shines.
Video. I have a bunch of video files ripped from DVDs that I can drop straight onto the iPad through iTunes and they look great. The speaker is surprisingly full and loud so headphones are not necessary unless you’re in a public space. The NetFlix app was a fantastic bonus. There’s a ton of content, movies and TV shows, all of which loads in about 25 seconds at the tap of an icon. Same with the ABC Player (although the content is limited by that network’s offerings, there are a couple of my guilty pleasures like Modern Family and V).
WordsHD. I’ve already blogged about my obsession with this Scrabble game. The iPad version is a bigger/slicker version of the same thing that allows me to continue playing my friends and family who are using the iPhone version.
No doubt there will be many more apps that I’ll find useful and entertaining in the months to come. The bottom line is that the device provide a very convenient way for me to stay current on what I find important from home while being thousands of miles away.
Suddenly my iPhone screen feels puny.
I’m a complete gadget fanatic. Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley made it easier as it is a very common affliction. Walking down University Avenue in Palo Alto, you’ll marvel at the latest, greatest phones, e-readers, and other electronic gizmos on display, in use by patrons of the numerous coffee shops and sidewalk cafes. The iPhone seems to have become ubiquitous just about everywhere now and I’m one of those folks that have 4+ screens of icons, filled with little time-savers (which, of course, require so much MORE time to play with and maintain).
Some apps are kind of useful or fun, but not critical to my day-to-day life (FML, Yelp, and Fandango fall into this category). Others actually make life easier or more pleasant. I tend to use these core apps daily or as part of my regular routine as I try to maintain some semblance of regularity despite living 3,000 miles from home. Here’s a quick summary:
USAA: Other banks have iPhone apps and some are just starting to implement the same technology, but USAA was I believe the first bank to offer a “deposit by iPhone” feature. I didn’t believe it when I first read about it, but it’s been fantastic. One you log in, you can deposit a check (up to $5,000/day) directly through the iPhone. After entering the amount of the check, the app prompts you to take a photo of the front and (endorsed for deposit only) back of the check. A few seconds of processing and, voila, the deposit is made. Void the check and keep it for a record. For those of us banking long-distance (or abroad), this is a revolutionary tool. For those in, or about to join, the foreign service, definitely check out USAA. It is a bank dedicated to serving U.S. military and a few select federal agencies, as well as their families. The service has been unbelievably good.
Words Free: Really great Scrabble game that allows you to play with other iPhone users even if you are not both in the app at the same time. It prompts you when the other person makes a move so that a game can go on for a week or more with turns going back and forth whenever time allows. It also has a nifty built-in chat feature. E and I always have a game going — just one more way to stay in touch.
Path Tracker: I hate going to gym, but I love to walk. Pathfinder is essentially a fancy pedometer, but it maps your wanderings on a live GPS map, tracking your distance and speed. You can save each walk to an online site for free.
NPR News: Great free app that keeps me up to date and allows me to select which stories to hear when I can’t catch All Things Considered or Morning Edition in their entirety. It also has links to most public radio stations around the country, include my beloved KQED in San Francisco so I can listen to a live stream, as well as on demand streams of a huge list of NPR shows.
NYTimes: I dearly miss my paper NYT every morning, but this app is the next best thing. It allows me to save stories to read later, even if on the metro cut off from any signal. I use it, in particular, for long features from the Sunday Times.
Lose It!: Amazing free app that helps record what I eat everyday and how much I burn from exercise. It’s the only method I’ve found that works for me to lose weight consistently. Once you’ve done a week, it really isn’t that hard to keep up with because you can quickly duplicate entries from prior meals. It also has a pretty large database and a very easy method of providing the caloric, fat, carb, etc. data that’s on every label.
ESPN ScoreCenter: Best sports info app (although a tad slow to load). It allows me to configure it so I get updates tailored to my favorite teams (Giants, 49ers, and Sharks).
Metro Map: It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in Washington, and having an easy-to-find metro map is a necessity.
GroceryIQ: Much easier than having scraps of paper grocery lists, this app keeps track of what I need to buy, with separate lists for different stores. When something is running low, I just add it to the list so on the weekend, when I’m out and about, I can always detour on the way home and pick up what I need without having to make a special trip or having to try to reconstruct on the fly what I need for the upcoming week.
Let me know if you have your own daily-use treasures.