... seeking simple answers to complex problems, and in the process, disrupting the status quo in technology, art and neuroscience.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Significance of the Samsung Note

First posted 3-15-12:

Like much in the history of human affairs, technical advancement does not generally happen in smooth progression. It moves in fits and starts, and smart-phone technology has been on a tear for the last few years.

Palm was the first true smart-phone with a library of independent apps, but it was the iPhone that first found broad acceptance of the general public. Apple seems to have a way with tech fashion, even if they aren't always the first to market.  Or the best.

The next major fit of development was the Android family.  Motorola Droid offered the first significant competition to the iPhone.  HTC improved performance and over this last year Samsung has come to lead Android technology with it's large displays, yet light weight.

We now have the Samsung Galaxy Note as it's latest example, but is it too cool or simple too big?  I'll start with a comparison of my Droid which is what I know best.  The Samsung Note has:

100% more screen area.
50% taller
67% wider
250% more pixels
255% faster clock
80% more battery
60% more pixels in its camera
Plus a front camera
4G surfing and movies
4 times the RAM
16 times the ROM
Effective pen interface

So what's not to like?  Well, it is 8 grams heavier but that's too small to notice.  The Samsung Note also has no hard keyboard, but surprisingly, the screen is so large, I'm faster (and more accurate) on its soft keyboard than the Droid hard keyboard.  The Samsung Note is better in every way than the standard Droid and even better in most ways than the latest iPhone.  End of story?  No quite.

Surprisingly, the Note's best feature (the screen) is also the critic's biggest complaint, which is what this post is really about.  The Note is being panned as a "phablet" because of it's large screen. The logic is, it's too big to hold up to your face, and yet too small to compete as a tablet.  Here's an example review:

By: Jonathan S. Geller - Feb 13th, 2012 at 03:45PM

"The Galaxy Note essentially has everything you’d want in a smartphone: a great dual-core processor, a solid camera, a beautiful display and good build quality, and it runs on ATT’s new 4G LTE network that delivers incredibly fast downloads speeds. Plus the battery seems actually decent so far, which is a triumph for modern smart-phones.

Throw all of that right out the window.

The phone is too big. You will look stupid talking on it, people will laugh at you, and you’ll be unhappy if you buy it. I really can’t get around this, unfortunately, because Samsung pushed things way too far this time."

And it wasn't just Jonathan.  Here's what Zach at BGR had to say:

Samsung Galaxy Note review: The smartphone that ‘Samsunged’ Samsung
By: Zach Epstein | Feb 22nd, 2012 at 12:01PM

"Holding this beast to your face while on a phone call in public will result in awkward stares. Not “maybe” or “might,” but “will.” It just looks silly."

One more - PC World's review:

"For most, the Note will be too big for a phone, but too small for a tablet. Rather, it’s an awkward in-between device, and will only appeal to a niche consumer base. "

I'm here to tell you, PC World and all the rest are dead WRONG.  The Note will NOT be limited to a niche.  It has hit the sweet spot in size and will become the new standard in smart-phone technology.  Here's why.

As some of you may know, I've been a geek since before the word was widely used.  I've been interested in computers since the smallest ones filled up a room, which was long before they became personal.  It was much later that the first thing that could be considered personal technology was introduced, and it was a calculator.

If you think the lines are long for gadgets now, you should have been around in 1972 when HP introduced the original HP35 calculator.  It sold for $395 which was over $2000 in today dollars, but you couldn't buy it at any price (no eBay back then).  After placing only two magazine ads, the original HP35 calculator was back-ordered for more than six months.

This backlog was because the HP35 was SUCH a major advancement  in technology, it is hard to imagine even in today's new gadget world.  The closest competition to the HP35 calculator sat on a desk, weighed 25 pounds and cost more than $10,000 (or $50,000 in today dollars).

In contrast, the HP35 was designed to fit into William Hewlett's shirt pocket, which is the key to the issue at hand.

Even though back-ordered from their own distribution, I discovered from a friend at HP that I could buy their calculator at HP headquarters.  This outlet was for employees, but he said they weren't checking IDs.  I immediately flew my plane to Palo Alto, walked up to the front counter and bought two (an extra one for my cousin).

It's been that way my whole life. I watch a given technology then buy the latest and greatest when it's introduced; not because it's a fashion, but because it's significantly better in some technical way. I bought the very first Palm Pilot the day it was released. I generally hold off upgrading until there is significant advancement. At their introduction I bought the first color Palm phone (also from Samsung), then the Palm Treo and Palm Centro in turn as they were significant advancements.

Just over two years ago I ended a long-term relationship with Palm and bought the original Droid on the day of it's introduction. I considered the iPhone but the first version wouldn't even copy, cut and paste text, which I can't live without.  Android has been amazing though there are still things the old Palm did that the Droid can not yet touch. But that's another blog post.

So why am I leaving the Droid behind so quickly? The usual reasons - significant advancement in technology which are listed above, but most importantly because of the size of the screen.  All of that visual real estate is wonderful.  For years now I've known the  the original HP-35 hit a sweet spot in physical size and weight.  It was as big as possible without being too big to fit in a shirt pocket.

As it turns out the Samsung Note is almost the same size and weight as that original HP-35. I've been carrying the Note in my shirt pocket the last few weeks and it feels just like the HP35 I carried from years ago. So according to the reviewers, the only problem is how silly we look if we hold it up to our head, which is my second point - a true geek is like the Honey Badger - he doesn't give a shit.

And that's how I know I'm authentic geek: I don't understand why it looks weird to hold a Samsung Note up to your head.  Why does it matter?  It's what it DOES that counts.  I for one believe it's the ultimate geek-cred to side with function over fashion.  And who's says Bill Hewlett wouldn't have looked cool talking on his new calculator, if only there had been a cell towers around.

Who wants to bet the next iPhone is not bigger?

And that in three years the Samsung Note will be the standard size for a phone?

And then it will be cool.

Email your wager.

03-28-12 Samsung ships five million Galaxy Notes in just five months

04-05-12 Samsung's Galaxy Note is a freak hit

06-01-12 Too early to say I told you so?

06--20-13 Time to note a problem with the Note - both the power and volume buttons are in the worst possible locations.  I had noticed this with other phones but hope for some reason it would be different with the Samsung, but alas... no.  The problem is, these buttons are in exactly the place where you are most likely to hold the phone, which means they are constantly and inadvertently activated.  It is a classic physical overloading fail.  And Power should be slightly recessed, so it doesn't bump on, whatever it's location.  Droid did this well.

Interesting survey about size:

10-14-13 Upgraded to the Samsung Note 3 as it's brighter, lighter, faster with longer battery life and better camera.  Also, the power button is no longer directly across from the volume buttons so both are inadvertently hit less often.  I'm not crazy about the hard Home button which also powers up when not asked for, but I'll reserve judgement until I get a few more miles.  Overall the device is a delight because of display, performance and battery.  More later.

02-12-14 Four months use and this is the best mobile device I've ever owned, mostly because of display quality, speed and batter life.  And the apps keep getting better.

09-24-14 Ultimate Vindication

11-01-14 Upgraded to Samsung Note 4 with faster charging and better battery life. This is the best portable computer I've ever owned.

08-22-16 I bought the Samsung Note 7 today.  Once again, this is a brighter and higher resolution screen. Wait a minute. That was an understatement. It's amazing how each generation of these Samsung displays is brighter than the last. Holding these two phones next to each other with displays on maximum, the difference is like night and day. But how bright of a display do we really need? Brighter. Here's why. When you get into your forties and your close vision begins to go, you notice you can either hold the content farther away, or you can increase the light level. Contrast is as important as (or more so) resolution or screen size. It allows you to see more detail on a given screen. It increases visual bandwidth. The new Note has the best display I've ever seen. Again.

Battery tech is also much improved (apparently, to the point of failure 09-22-16).  And with wireless charging a standard feature, it charges faster, easier and lasts longer. Another plus for the Note 7.

Physically, the device is also narrower and just a bit lighter, both improvements.

On the downside, I don't like the curved edges. Already I've had a condition where the "1" key on Hacker's Keyboard would not activate because the touch sensitive layer does not wrap around the corner where the majority of the key was. But then if it did, you'd be activating functions when only holding the device, which would be a major problem. Also, when dragging, the effect of dragging stops as you approach the edge and your finger prematurely leaves the surface as the surface drops away. The result is that you can't drag something up to the edge. You are stopped a character short of the margin. The rounded edge is annoying and seems to have little practical value.

What exactly is the point of a curved edge? You do get to see a message arrive when the phone is face down, but does this relatively rare case make up for the UI failures? Hardly. Is this a case of fashion over function? Is Samsung looking for a physical branding device? If so, they should first make sure it does not impair the operation of the phone. In any case, the curved screen does not work for me. Give me a flat screen any day (with a little bezel to hold on to so I'm not activating features inadvertently).

Now for the surface. The glass back is slick looking but also quite literally slick. It's like holding a bar of soap. Do they want these things dropped so they can sell you another one? I added egrip phone strips which helps a lot, but why should I have to geek up such a premium device? Everything except the screen should be a high friction surface. The glass back is another design fail.

On the plus side, the camera operation is much improved. As for quality, I'll let you know when I get time to work with some of the images.

Adding the Samsung Gear VR is a blast, but much lower resolution than I expected. Perhaps that is the cost of fast and smooth response. Or do they spread those pixels over such a wide field of view that our fovea only gets a relatively low res?

Notwithstanding the battery issues, the Note 7 is two steps forward, one back, but that's still a net improvement.

(09-22-17 - As everyone knows by now, the Note 7 was major failure. Guess I'll have to wait for the Note 8. Or something else.)

05-31-17 - What was radical in 2012 is now mainstream:

Smartphone screens find their size sweet spot

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Master and His Emissary - A Review of the Divided Brain

Originally published on 5-14-14:

Like many, I've been skeptical of left / right brain theory for decades.  The data seemed fluffy, with too many exceptions.  Then I encountered this video of a TED presentation:

Finished?  If you're like me, the value and concentration of the content were overwhelming.  But watch it again.  This time keep your hand on the pause button.  Pause if his words get ahead of the pictures.  Pause again if the pictures get ahead of the words.

Yes, there's a lot of detail here, both in hard data and concept, but that's not the main reason for this second viewing.  This video nicely demonstrates the theme of its own content.   It's been biologically established that as you watch, the presentation is going into BOTH sides of your skull at the same time.  Your eyes and ears are collecting two similar copies, but your divided brain is creating two DIFFERENT experiences, one dominated by image and animation, the other by text and verbal logic.  Your brain is running in parallel, and the only time you notice is when one half's recognition gets ahead of the other. Your control of the pause button shifts smoothly from side to side.  Your left or right brain inhibits the other when needed.  This shifting control allows both experiences to be captured.

The moving images provide right-brain meaning through visual metaphor. Dr. McGilchrist's precise left-brain verbalization and text nail down and allow you to "grasp" these ideas. Though I'm over-simplifying, this is an example of the very thing being presented - that it takes BOTH sides of the brain working as asymmetrical and largely unequal specialists in delivering the result that is ultimately the human mind.

The other reason this video is important is that the book is extremely detailed and thoughtful.  "The Divided Brain" takes some digesting.  But it's worth it.  And it's good to have a "both-brain" outline to fill in his very deliberate, precise and comprehensive written presentation.   This video covers literally 500+ pages which are well summarized in only a few minutes. Much of it is profound. I watched it at least a dozen times. Then I read the pages:

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by Dr. Iain McGilchrist

The Divided Book

This work is both brilliant and maddening.  What it presents is a major advancement in our ability to understand human behavior and our behavior's contradictions.  It contains both hard data and insightful observations, but also wild conjecture. From a wealth of brain studies over the last few decades, the author has crystallized a new model of left and right brain functionality, which is by far the book's greatest contribution to the topic. Then he describes the left brain's evolving impact on western culture.

The result is both logically and intuitively convincing.  Each of us is literally of two minds, creating a single subjective experience.  We are driven by two largely complimentary engines of evaluation, each seamlessly yielding control of the mind and body from moment to moment depending on which side is most likely to be effective in dealing with the current challenge.  Asymmetry of functional realms is the key to minimizing obvious dynamic conflict. The realization of this fact has wide-ranging implications for all of human behavior, but especially personal relationships, politics, religion, and economics. I shall address these consequences in separate blog posts. But let's get back to the book.

The delivery of these ideas is fascinating in spite of his formal style, which is necessary for such a demanding topic.  Dr. McGilchrist does an amazing job of precisely navigating very deep waters, but like any project this ambitious, he reaches a bit too far now and then, which is perhaps his most important lesson. This work spans credibility from solid conclusion to obvious speculation.  But even in speculation, there is very little that is patently wrong.  These ideas are not some new-age theory, though this book may literally become the bible for left / right brain enthusiasts.  No, I haven't lost my bias for the rational, but I have gained a new appreciation for the intuitive, and it's genesis.

Like the brain, the book is presented in two parts.  The first part is well-founded scientific documentation of the physical and behavioral differences between the left and right brain. Taken alone, it's of tremendous value in understanding the brain's obvious bicameral nature.  The second part is dominated by the selective ascription of art and history to one side of the brain or the other, and its impact on our modern culture.

Though dense with useful data, each chapter raises important issues, which are then addressed by the next. Step by careful step, he builds a coherent model of the mind based on cross-supported observations of brain physiology and actual human behavior.  For the most part, it rings true.

The later section on paradox is brilliant, and sets the stage for what he presents in the second part: the "Achille's heel" of the rational mind, which is that our more logical left brain denies anything not within its framework of simulation. This means that the left misses a lot, virtually anything that can't be "proven".  He describes this shortcoming as a hall of mirrors.  A sharp focus and "single-minded" objective is the left's strength, but also its weakness.  The left brain is blind to, or otherwise demotes obvious leaps of intuition, such as casually stepping over a paradox.  He uses Zeno to nicely make this point.

The second part of the book is all about the impact the left-brain has had on the realm of the right.  He uses examples of music, art and philosophy from the last few thousand years.  Much of this is based on McGilchrist's impressive knowledge of our culture, and some intuition.  This part is as subjective as the first part is objective.

The first half of the book is a pleasant intellectual challenge.  It's also a ride in the park compared to the second half, which is like hitting a bog on a dirt bike, well at least it was for this rational mind. I had to gear-down even to drag my way through, probing for the hard ground of logic, and finding little.  He seems to ascribe behaviors to one side of the brain or the other almost willy-nilly.  And he freely admits, "These thoughts are inevitably contingent, to some extent fragmentary and rudimental."  Though I tried to understand his literary leaps, my mind kept reverting to the rational. This probably says more about me than the writing, but I wonder how many other readers gave up at this point and never finished the book.

To be fair I chased down a few of these wild ascriptions using his comprehensive bibliography.  Each provided a reason to believe, if not actual proof.  You'll have to decide for yourself. Though useful data are more rare in the second half, if you grind through, the pearls are there, and worth the effort. Plus there's something more useful than merely data.  If you tend to the rational, the first half will be the most meaningful. If you're more intuitive, I suspect the second half will be the most insightful. This intuitive approach in the second half also creates doubt in the rational mind.  For me, conjecture about so much subjective art, and evidence such as which way a subject of a painting was facing, left my mind reeling and yearning for the science of the first part.

Another way of saying this is that the first part contains lots of observations, science and hard data.  It makes sense.  It makes you THINK.  The second part makes you wonder about the validity of the author's many right-brain speculations.  And it gives you the FEELING he just MIGHT be right - but he can't prove it.


Dr. McGilchrist presents a rational left-brained model for what our right-brain has secretly known all along, but could not say.  Our right side feels the truth of the presentation, but doesn't have a voice. Our left side can put it into words, but won't accept a new model of the mind without reasonable proof.  This book provides both proof AND conviction. It makes you think.  And it makes you feel.

This is where the parallel with the video comes in.  The book is also a Rorschach's test of left and right brain conclusions.  The medium IS the irony.  Though the book is mostly words meant for the left brain, these words are inspired by right-brain imagination.  Though tedious at times, even the more wild ideas are hard to indict.

I've probably re-read fewer than ten books in my entire life.  I'm a slow reader, but once I read a book, I know it.  This book is an exception.  The moment I finished (and it took months), I flipped to the front and immediately started reading again.  Like the video, reading the book whet my appetite for more.  Perhaps it'll do the same for you.  If you have ANY interest in the brain or human behavior, "The Master and His Emissary" is a must read.

05-09-17 An excellent interview of Dr. McGilchrist