Designing Presence: Mobile Weather and the N75

Yesterday I discovered just how useful having a solid connect to the “real web” can be. My partner and I were riding back to Seattle from the Methow Valley in north central Washington. We were about to head up the gorgeous North Cascades Highway (which summits at 5477 feet) and were wondering about rain gear. I went to Accuweather.com and shrieked with glee to see that I could access doppler radar images with my Nokia N75. With a couple of clicks, I could see visuals of the cloud activity in western and central Washington — and make an informed choice about the rain gear (unneeded until the other side of the pass.) Later I was able to discern quite accurately that the rain in Darrington, WA would end before we hit Lynnwood. This kind of real-time specificity is amazing when one is moving through the landscape, exposed to the elements.

The REAL mobile web is here.

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Mindfulness Presence: Pamela Weiss on Mindfulness

I’ve listened to a podcast from AudioDharma of Pamela Weiss on Mindfulness several times in the past few days. Here are some quotes and paraphrases that stand out to me:

“…in the practice of mindfulness, it doesn’t matter WHAT you are mindful of. This is the amazing thing … you can be mindful of a murderous rage, a sharp pain, calm and bliss. The CONTENT isn’t as important as paying attention to attention. Meditative practice helps us in cultivating a quality of attention which we are able to then attend to our experience. This is the heart of mindfulness.”

“Why is mindfulness such a great thing? How might it benefit me throughout my life? Mindfulness helps us to shift from REACTING to our lives, to being able to RESPOND to our lives. As internal or external events, people, experiences arise in our lives (every moment, every day) we immediately react…and usually not so skillfully. The practice of mindfulness helps us to insert a little bit of space between the event and the reaction. So instead you get: the event –> NOTICING –> response. Instead of habitual reaction, you get the possibility of choice. You get to choose how to respond. You can begin to live a life that is less reactive and more intentional.”

…Remembering usually connotates the structure of the past. But the practice of mindfulness can lend a kind of radical interpretation of remembering — which is to remember the PRESENT, remember NOW. (Editor’s note: Which is really the only truth. Now is all we got.) How much time do we spend remembering the present? Most of our time we are lost in thought, thinking about the future or rehashing the past. The word remember: “Re” means “again”. The implication of remembering is returning, coming back to again … making whole again. Remembering the present brings us into wholeness. The kind of fragmentation that happens when we are lost in thought, when we are spinning between past and future, doesn’t allow for wholeness. Remembering the present brings us back to wholeness.

Sweet.

Designing mobile presence: Customizing my Nokia N75

Since I last posted I’ve learned more about my Nokia N75. Like any new technology system, there’s a learning curve. I tend to take mine slowly, answering questions as they arise rather then, say, reading the owner’s manual from front to back. Today I was cursing that I had no control over access to my most favorite apps – that I had to do the same repetitive drilling every time I wanted to open gmail. Then I thought to check the owners manual and voila – turns out that there’s “an idle screen” mode, turned off by default (so you wouldn’t know it existed) and accessible only by drilling deep into the settings and configurations menu. This mode allows you to place 6 items in a little bar at the top of your idle (home) screen for one-click access. Cool! Later I also discovered I could change the default soft key shortcuts from “messagaging” and “MEdia Net” to my choice. OK – that’s cool too, but many users will never figure this stuff out because the settings are buried so deep.

Speaking of owner’s manuals, I discovered that the S60 web browser feature — the one that took me days to find — was also mentioned in the owner’s manual. Unfortunately, you had to stumble upon it, just as you have to on the actual device. There are two entries for “web” in the index and neither discusses the S60 browser. Likewise, the on screen help was useless. The key factor in both places was (somehow) understanding that the browser was located in a folder called “tools.” This is a seminal problem with hierarchical menu systems; functional pieces of technology are divided into applications, actions, settings, features, etc. and then lumped together into categories that are often not intuitive or even clearly descriptive. The current mobile UI is wedded to hierarchical menus due partly to screen limitations, but more to deeply rooted interaction paradigms. I think the iPhone will blow the paradigm to pieces. Bring it on.

Now that I’m understanding my phone multimedia computer better, it’s starting to become a pleasure to own. I love that I have one click access to my RSS feeds via google reader. Waiting in line for a latte becomes an opportunity to do a little reading. Checking the weather while motorcycling is now one click away as well, instead of a clumsy drilling process. (That would’ve been helpful two weeks ago when we were heading into severe wind in Central Washington.) I’ve yet to use the camera or video recorder much, nor listen to music, but I’ll probably venture into that territory soon. And I’m eager to try out nuTsie the new service that lets you “access your entire iTunes music library from your cell phone.” Glad I didn’t bother to download any of my own files into the device.

Designing mobile presence: The Nokia N75 and the web

I don’t use my cell phone for voice nearly as much as I use it for internet access. About a year ago I was ready to update my then two year old Samsung cell phone for many reasons; one was because it couldn’t run java applications. After working at Vulcan on the FlipStart for a year, I’d knew it was possible to access real time traffic and bus information, view rss feeds, gmail and and google maps, or run an app called Widsets (basically widgets for a mobile device), but you needed a phone capable of java. I also wanted a robust browser and was not impressed with what I’d demo’d on the Blackberry, the Trio and other cellular devices.

Sometime last year Nokia’s Symbian 60 (mobile OS) came out with a cool new browser that received rave reviews for it’s ability to display full size websites that could be selectively zoomed. I had fond memories of the Nokia UI from my first cell phone many moons ago and had read enough to believe they had the best UI currently available. I really hated the Samsung UI and hadn’t seen anything better on other brands of phones. Unfortunately, none of the US providers were offering S60 devices at that time and didn’t feel comfortable buying an unlocked phone that wasn’t supported through a carrier. So I waited. I’m good at that.

In January the iPhone buzz began. Apple was redefining the user interface for a mobile device. The product was stunning. So although I was still waiting for a US carrier to offer a S60 device, I briefly considered buying an iPhone six monthes hence. The thing is, I never buy the first generation of anything – especially something as revolutionary as the iPhone. I’d much rather let the early adaptors blow the big bucks on the first gen device while I wait for the bugs to get fixed and the price to come down.

Finally word came down in April that Cingular the new AT&T was offering the Nokia N75. This was precisely the phone I wanted. And since Cingular had a five year lock on the iPhone, I could rationalize the two year contract, as I can switch to the iPhone next year. So I bought the N75 for a sweet $150 from Wirefly.com

I’m now three weeks into my experience with the phone. And although I do think the UI is far superior to my three year old Samsung, I’m sadly not blown away. I’ll provide one example for this post with more observations to follow.

It took me DAYS to locate the S60 browser.

Cingular places MEdia Net, their internet portal, on the top level screen via a softkey. The UI for their service is – well – uninspired and clunky, with a design that looks straight out of 2002 (and that’s generous.) Their goal, one assumes, is to keep you in a walled garden of content — not really let you explore the wild world of the web where their chances of monetization are greatly reduced.

So where was the GOOD browser – the one that would burst me free of mobile web constraints? Nokia has about 12 categories in their top level menu. One is called “Games and Apps”, and that’s where Gmail landed when I downloaded it so you might think it would live in there. Nope. I finally stumbled across a link called “Web” in a folder called “Tools” There’s nothing to suggest this web link is any different from the Cingular MEdia Net link as the icon is exactly the same, so imagine my surprise when it indeed launched a new browser with the S60 zoom capabilities. Days after desiring and searching for this well touted feature, I’d finally FOUND it.

What’s wrong with this picture? The primary driver for my purchase took my hours to find. And I WANTED to find it. The user guide didn’t tell me where to find it. An hour’s worth of research online didn’t tell me where to find it. Cingular’s website didn’t tell me where to find it. I had to stumble across it and take a stab after having already taken many other stumbling stabs that hadn’t found a target. This experience did nothing to enamour me to either the new AT&T (there, I said it) or Nokia. While I would love to build some brand loyalty to a manufactor and/or a carrier, it hasn’t happened yet.

More observations to come.

Future Presence: Planning a motorcycle trip

My partner and I “vacation” by touring the west on our motorcycle.

The art of riding

Our trips generally cover 9 days/8 nights and 6-7 states or provinces and are intensively planned.We depart with an itinerary that covers daily mileage, motel reservations, highway construction reports, and where we’ll gas up (only relevant if we’re traveling through a remote stretch that could suck our 3.5 gallon tank dry.)

The trip planning is my job and I love it. When I was a kid I used to plan imaginary trips for my family and our trailer using a road atlas and a KOA or Good Sam directory — so clearly planning is in my DNA. The tools I use now are far more sophisticated thanks to the internets, but the process can still easily take 8 – 12 hours spread out over several days or weeks.

My planning begins with paper maps, Google and/or Yahoo maps, Kayak.com, TripAdvisor.com and the websites of the chain motels. Google and Yahoo have made great strides in the past year, incorporating features that link together a string of routes. What they both still seem to be lacking is an easy way to save these routes. Kayak is awesome for providing a list of available hotels with real time data about room availability and price. TripAdvisor is invaluable due to it’s user reviews; many times I’ve chosen say the local Comfort Inn over the local Best Western because of customers (like myself) taking the time to encapsulate their experience.

I’ll have an idea of one or two places we want to visit, but the trajectory of the trip is wide open at the start. Our main variable is seat time, which varies dramatically depending on road type. We can cover 450 miles on the freeway or 300 miles on smaller highways in the same 7 or 8 hour period. The second variable is a destination with a motel that provides high speed internet access, a flexible cancellation policy and a paved parking lot. The interplay between these two variables is the creative element of trip planning.

The first iteration of the trip takes 4-6 hours. There are only so many ways to leave Seattle, but once you get a day or two away the 360 degree arc opens up endless choices. Sometimes I’ll have two possible legs going simultaniously, waiting to see which will have the more interesting resolution as we begin to head towards home.

Once the trip circle is complete, I’ll sit down with my partner to get her thoughts. She invariably brings up gas and construction questions that I haven’t thought about in the excitement of planning. These are not sexy questions, but of course crucial to real time enjoyment once we’re on the road. Gas is usually pretty easy to ID; I’ll type in a location + gas into google and get a pretty clear answer either through a business listing or a recreational site.

Construction is trickier due to the variety of approaches state highway departments use for imparting this information on their websites. Montana for instance, provides one long scrolling page with highway numbers in one column and a description involving mileposts or towns in another. This is a cumbersome format to scan and interpret — especially if you aren’t from Montana. Wyoming on the other hand, starts with a map that drills into regions where helpful icons display construction spots. Even with Wyoming’s easier UI, getting a clear description of the actual road conditions can be impossible without a phone call. I dream of the day where a cadre motorcycle riders will snap photos or real time construction conditions and geo tag them to a common flickr map along with a quick statement.

Just bad

The truth about trip planning though, is that one key element can never be planned in advance: Weather.

“Isolated thunderstorm” in utah

For all my intricate planning, we have so far only successfully completed 1 of 4 itineraries. (The successful trip was the first trip of course, leading us to believe it could always be so easy!) So far all my hours spent crafting the perfect trip, usually the moment arrives where I’m in holed up in the hotel room re-routing the remainder of the trip to avoid wind or rainstorms (although we seem to get caught in both anyways!) This is why broadband is essential for our travel. Wifi is getting easier to find on the road (even McDonalds offers it) and is essential for making daily and sometimes hourly choices about our next move.