Monday, August 25, 2008


I finished the novel Empire, by Orson Scott Card, a couple months ago and had been meaning to write a review of it, or at least a commentary on it, since then. At this point, enough time has passed by that I'll not be including very much in the way of specific details from the book, though there will be some spoilers.

I think the title above succinctly sums up the book in a variety of ways. Let's start with what would typically be a minor point, since I doubt Card approved it. On the other hand, I generally look to the blurbs to give me some idea of a book's content, and thus a false and misleading blurb is something that will lead me to be less likely to buy other books from the same publisher. In a perverse way, the blurb is representative of the book -- not in terms of factual information, but in terms of being thinly masked propaganda.

So, what does the blurb say? Here it is:

The American Empire is growing too fast, and the fault lines at home are stressed to the breaking point. The war of words between Right and Left has collapsed into a shooting war, though most people just want to be left alone.

The battle rages between the high-technology weapons on one side and militia foot soldiers on the other, devastating the cities and overrunning the countryside. But the vast majority, who only wan tht killing to stop and the nation to return to more peaceful days, have technology, weapons, and strategic geniuses of their own.

When the American dream shatters into violence, who can hold the people and the government together? And which side will you be on?

So, I (naturally, I think) expected a cautionary tale set in the near future, with an imperial America, a civil war between extremists, and presumably a protagonist representing a large middle. Instead, what the reader gets is a political polemic in which all liberals (which, true to ultra-right-wing usage, is equated with extremism) are evil. Even the right wing "side" of the war ends up being (spoilers start here) a head fake by liberals. There's a token "good Democrat"; you know she's good because she sides with the Republicans.

What are we left with? A grand conspiracy to take over the government financed by a thinly-disguised George Soros character. A Bond-like secret headquarters underneath an island in a lake. The liberal conspirators have all sorts of neat, futuristic weapons, but their soldiers are all effete and unskilled (and sneaky backstabbers), eventually bested by virile, right-thinking true Americans (in fact, for some reason I either remember or misremember the liberal soldiers as being foreigners). Card making fun of Armand Hammer's name. A smattering of decent dialog and action. Some mild criticism of Fox News.

And then, to top off my disappointment, there's an angry diatribe written by the author at the end. Apparently, he's pissed off at criticism of his views. He rails against people seeking to rob him of his livelihood, though it's unclear to me that his income has in any major way been affected: he only makes the case for being excluded from SF conventions and the like. He doesn't mention his support for intelligent design as science, which I mention not as a religious comment but as a rather embarrassing lack, in a hard science fiction writer, of basic understanding of what science is.

What is apparent in his essay is that Card is one of those people who for some reason feel that their lives are affected, somewhat like action-at-a-distance, but the unrelated actions of others. Actually, not just their actions, but even their ability to act. In particular, he somehow thinks that the ability for people to marry others of the same sex affects the quality of his own marriage. His protestations aside, I fail to see the difference between this and opposition to interracial marriages. Some people just can't seem to let others live their own lives in peace, if they disagree with them.

And so, Card's closing essay at once clarifies the polemical nature of this "novel" and identifies him as an extremist, like the antagonists in his writing, who seeks control over other Americans' private lives.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

New use for old socks

Sock and Keys
Originally uploaded by stiber
No need to fret when one of a pair of socks goes through the interdimensional portal in your clothes dryer. Use the orphan for an iPod case or, as I've done here, to keep your keys from scratching up other things in your bicycle panniers when you commute to work.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

truphone: Killer iPhone app for international travel

Two days after the iPhone 2.0 software and the iTunes app store were released, I went on a family trip to Europe. So of course, in the days prior to my trip, I frantically installed, then reinstalled, the 2.0 software. This would make my phone much more useful during my trip, I reasoned. Well, it turns out I was right, and the main reason for that was the truphone application.

Truphone is a VOIP application, with one version running on Nokia phones and one iPhone version. The iPhone version appears as a separate application on the iPhone, providing buttons at the bottom of the display that provide access to your contacts, a keypad, a truphone web page for buying account credit, a list of recent calls, and a list of favorites (which, unfortunately, are specific to truphone and not copied from the Phone app). The application is exceedingly simple in operation:

  1. Sign up for an account and buy credit (when I signed up, they gave $8 credit for free; now they give $1 credit).
  2. Be someplace that has wifi that you can access.
  3. Make a call to one of your contacts, or dial on the keypad. These are calls to regular phones (landlines or mobiles), not to other other iPhones running truphone -- it's like SkypeOut.
  4. Pay $0.06/minute (now they've got packages that provide $0.015/minute to the US and Canada).

Perhaps paradoxically, this simplicity has caused some confusion among the commenters on the iTunes store. Part of this is truphone's fault, as they don't distinguish well in their online documentation between the Nokia and iPhone features. The Nokia app includes free truphone-to-truphone calling, SMS, etc. -- much more like a full Skype implementation. It also appears to integrate into the Nokia calling software, so that the phone automatically switches from regular cell to VOIP, depending on circumstances. The iPhone application is simpler, only including calls to regular phones and requiring you to consciously select wifi calling (by running the truphone app, rather than the Phone app).

I actually prefer the iPhone implementation. At this point, truphone doesn't have much market penetration, and besides I don't know that many people I might call who have iPhones or Nokia N95s. So being able to call other truphone users wouldn't have been useful during my trip (with one small exception: you know who you are). More importantly, I wanted to be 100% certain that I was making a VOIP call, and not a $2 or more per minute cell call. I didn't want my phone switching to regular cell calling because of a software glitch or because of some problem connecting to a hotel's wifi network. The fact that I was running the truphone application, not the Phone application, and that truphone only works with wifi, was very reassuring.

I spent at least a couple hours calling various phones here in the Seattle area, Philadelphia, south Florida, and China, from hotels in Prague, Venice, and Rome. Generally, call quality was quite good, equal to the best we've experienced using Skype, with the only issues being a weak signal in one hotel that required me to sit in a particular chair in the lobby that happened to be in a good spot. Also, I tried at one point to add credit to my account using my MacBook, but the truphone web site was abysmally slow; I connected to the mobile version of their add credit page and the transaction went off without a hitch. And it was great to be able to call relatives to let them know we arrived safely and keep them updated on our wanderings without having to deal with phone cards or similar unfamiliar contact methods.

So, is truphone useful for calls within the US? Probably not, unless you've somehow gotten yourself a plan with very few minutes and very high costs for additional minute usage. But, if you need to travel internationally, then calls using truphone are approximately 1/30 the cost of AT&T calls. You could easily pay for the purchase cost of an iPhone 3G with the savings from one international trip.