My top 5 books of 2011

Last year I attempted to to read 26 books in 52 weeks, but unfortunately life got in the way and could only manage to get through 16. This year I contemplated doing the same challenge, but figured I’d just read as much as I could and not look for a goal, but I managed to read 16 again this year anyway. Oh, these are my favourite books that I’ve read this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were published this year:

5. Between the Assassinations

Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations was the second book I reviewed this year and I was really pleased with his second output.

The book features a series of ‘day in the life’ stories from people of (fictional) Kittur, India, shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. With that lens it looks at many issues including: caste, sexual disease, drug problems, political corruption, the influx of villagers seeking a better life in the city, and much more.

As with many of the books that really speak to me, this one has very strong characters whose stories stick with you long after you’ve moved on from their tale.

4. Fall of Giants

Fall of GiantsIt seems like I’ve only read the biggest books by Ken Follett; first there was Pillars of the Earth, then World Without End and now Fall of Giants. Each of these were either a bit less or a bit more than 1000 pages, so they weren’t all that fun to read on public transit, but they were all very well written.

Fall of Giants is a fictional story based on history and takes place during the 13 1/2 years leading up to the First World War and it’s end. Each character introduced in the book cross paths at one point or another, whether it be an American diplomat coming to the aide of two Russian slum-raised teenagers, or Ethel the former housewife of Earl Fitzherbert of her village rising up in the political ranks and making an adversary of him in the process.

3. The Given Day

The Given DayWhen I saw The Given Day by Dennis Lehane I immediately picked it up. I’d read two of his other novels, Mysic River and Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed his writing style. This one was a bit different though – still set in Boston the others, but this time in the 1930s.

The novel follows the two main storylines. The first is that of Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer; the second follows Luther Lawrence, an African American man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The two become intertwined as we see them separately take on issues of unions and race. Lehane does wonders with mingling the two lives and his writing is full of imagery and the words jump off the page to take you back in time.

2. Steve Jobs: Biography

Steve Jobs I managed to get through Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson rather quickly (for my standards) and just posted my review for it a couple days ago, so have a look:

Review of the Steve Jobs biography

I was thinking it would make a great movie. Do you think any director could do it justice and live up to Jobs’s standards? There was a movie called The Pirates of Silicon Valley in 1999 and it starred Noah Wyle as Jobs. I haven’t seen it but I think this biography would make a bit more of an interesting story since so many of Jobs’s friends and enemies have spoken up about him. I also think Christian Bale would make a great Jobs.

1. The Help

The Help

The Help is set in the 1960s and looks at the issue of race relations in Jackson, Mississippi. The premise is ‘Skeeter’ a white woman is looking to the maids of the city to help her write a story from the point of view of ‘the help’. You just have to do a Google search and you’ll see it’s a book that has gotten as much flack as it has praise.

One interesting news article from September says Stockett stole her identity for the character of Aibileen. Her name is Abilene Cooper and she was the maid to Stockett’s brother for 12 years. Much of the similarities are the same, but the case was thrown out.

I feel at the very least the book is a great starting point for race discussions.

Review of the Steve Jobs biography

Steve Jobs“This bio is sh–!”

That’s all I could imagine Steve Jobs saying if he had read the biography he commissioned Walter Isaacson to write. Since I’m not Steve Jobs, I’d say it was an amazing read, though it could’ve benefited from a bit more editing.

While growing up I remember using Apple products in school, from the Apple II in Grade one, to the Macintosh throughout the rest of elementary school, and once again when I went to college. What I wasn’t really familiar with was the man behind those machines. Sure, I’d helped poke fun of Steve Jobs and Apple, and when I turned 180 degrees on that, I watched every product unveiling from the iPhone onward, but I never looked into the type of man he was, so this biography was quite the read.

Steve Jobs paints a picture of a man who is a quagmire. He was a narcissistic perfectionist who could bend people to his will and still garner deep respect and admiration. He was extremely emotional, often crying in public when happy or hurt, but callous when criticizing others for their work. There are countless stories of Jobs verbally abusing employees when they couldn’t come up with a design that he envisioned. He would catch them in his “reality distortion field” and get them to complete projects in unthinkable ways.

To further add to the quagmire that is Jobs, his personal life is equally odd. He speaks extensively about his personal life, with stories of him experimenting with LSD, strange dieting, traveling to India for months to seek enlightenment, and not stepping up to the plate to father his first child Lisa, among other things. We see a man who is a product of his generation, a bit of a hippie searching for inner peace, but also someone so cold as to not recognize his own daughter as his. The closest we get to an explanation of the reasoning behind why Jobs was the way he was, is through Isaacson’s interviews with others saying that he was trying to cope with abandonment issues at birth. It’s strange because Jobs was raised by loving parents who did nothing but make efforts to see him succeed. For all I know he did, but I’d like to have seen Isaacson press Jobs more about his feelings toward his birth parents.

For someone who is lauded as one of the great technology minds, Jobs was never really an expert at anything. He had this innate sense of how things should be, and worked off the genius of people like Steve Wozniak, designers at Xerox and Apple designer Jony Ive (and many others) to make the great products that Apple is so known for today. Each one of those that worked with him says that yes they did the work, but that wouldn’t have been possible without Jobs pushing them to do the unimaginable.

Throughout the book I couldn’t help but think that I was happy Jobs was never interested in running for public office. Imagine him as President of the United States? I’m pretty sure he’d rival, if not be worse than some other notorious world leaders of the past. Luckily he was focused on changing the world through computers, not politics.

As I mentioned at the top, the book could have been given an extra round of editing. There is a lot of repetition, especially in the latter half that became distracting at times. If it wasn’t for that, I would have given it a perfect score, but instead I give Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson a 4.5/5.

iOS 5 is nearly here

iOS 5

Today Apple announced the launch of iOS 5, the new operating system for its devices, at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). Many Apple fanboys and girls are going crazy over the iCloud announcement that lets you basically do everything over the air (OTA); for me it’s not that mind blowing, but I may come around. What I did like was many of the new functions that the OS offers me, the regular iPhone user. Here are the ones that stand out to me the most:

iMessage: This addition is clearly competing with BBM and the many apps out there on iTunes already. Without using your valuable text messages, you can now text, send phones/videos, locations and contact info to anyone using iOS 5. I’d like to see how many more people make the switch to the iPhone after this because the majority of people I know are with Blackberry only for BBM or the keyboard.

Notification Centre: Making great use of the lock screen, you can now view all pending notifications just with a quick glance. To access an individual one, like a text for example, just swipe it and you can compose a message. This also solves an annoyance of mine by sending you non-intrusive notification when someone messages (and calls, I presume) and you’re playing a game – I hate being interrupted.

New Camera functionality: There have been many times where I wanted to take a picture, but have missed the opportunity because I had to wait for the camera to load. Another way Apple is taking advantage of the lock screen is by letting you take photos with the volume + button. Also eliminating the need for many apps, you can now edit the photos as you take them, and…

Twitter everywhere: You can send those photos links, videos and maps direct from your phone. As a heavy Twitter user this is great!

That’s the majority of the updates, but you can also watch the video below (for those without Quicktime) or visit Apple to see the rest of the specs.

Thanks to pspfano for posting the video to Youtube.

10 of my must have apps for the iPhone

Apps are what make iPhones, iPads or iPod Touches worth owning. With my iPod Touch I had quite a few, and I’ve been able to add some others that only make sense to have on the iPhone. Here’s my list of apps that I can’t do without:

1. Twitter for iPhone – When this app was first brought to my attention I was skeptical. I use Tweetdeck on my Macbook and I did use it in my iPod Touch, however there was a glitch that prevented horizontal typing, which is my preference. After looking at a few apps I decided on Twitter. I like it because it actually works for me, for starters. It’s simple and I’ve gotten used to the one column, compared to the many on Tweetdeck.

2. Foursquare – Putting a smart phone in my hands means I’ll check-in everywhere. I have no clue why I’m such a fan of Foursquare, and I’m sure many others feel the same. I guess it boils down to it being a fun app. It’s fun to compete with others for mayorships. It’s also fun to get deals at participating retailers from time to time too.

3. TTC Mobile – A simple app that takes the arrival times listed on TTC.ca and allows transit-dependent people like myself to quickly find out when the next bus is coming. I use this one often and now I can check wherever I am.

4. Tim Hortons – I haven’t had to use the locator yet, but if I’m ever in a need when I’m jonesin’ for a Timmies coffee, then I’ll know what app to bust out.

5. Facebook - Even though it’s not the best app, in terms of design, it’d be a lie to say it wasn’t a must to keep Facebook on the list.

6. The Edge - Each morning I like to listen to the Dean Blundell Show, but having the window pop up on my computer screen at work is distracting, especially when I have many others on the go. This app is perfect because now I can listen to the radio from my iPhone 4 without clogging up my workspace.

7. Yelp – The monocle feature makes this app worth downloading on its own. You can turn  in all directions and see where restaurants are, click through, and read/write reviews. So far it’s been a bit more effective in higher density areas like downtown.

8. Maple Leafs - Here I can find the latest on my favourite hockey team, along with other hockey scores.

9. Rogers My Account - From what I’ve been able to see with this app, it looks pretty sleek and it’s definitely something I’ll keep coming back to to check my data usage (though with my 6GB plan I likely won’t come near it.)

10. TD – I hopped on this app as soon as it came out because I really like the chance to find out my account balance and pay bills with the click of a button, should I need to.

I’ll always be picking up newer, fancier apps as they’re released so be sure to watch out for my future recommendations. Also games are something I can also make a list for..

What are some of your favourite apps out there? Paid/Free – doesn’t matter.

After a week with the iPhone 4…

Last Friday I was leaving a work event and headed up Yonge street. I was at Queen so I figured I might as well head into the Eaton Centre and check if, by some stroke of luck, the Rogers store had any iPhone 4s. I went up to a guy demo’ing a Samsung device and he told me they’d just got a shipment in and had ran out. Dejected, I headed back the way I came, on my way to Queen station.

Randomly I noticed a small store called Batteries n’ Gadgets had a lineup. I thought to myself, they’d only be lining up for one thing, and one thing only. So I took the chance and headed in. The guy at the back of the line told me he was the cutoff point for iPhone 4s and that there was no more stock left, so I’d better check with the employees to make sure. So I walked up to the cash, where four guys were behind the counter trying to process orders, and asked if there was enough in stock for me to grab a device. He told me I might be able to get one, which was good enough for me. I hadn’t been this close to nabbing one so I figured I’d wait around a bit.

A few Fido customers weren’t able to upgrade, so I got pushed into the running for a device – I was quite excited. Eventually my turn came and I got my first smartphone, even though it was 32GB, which was a bit more than I wanted to spend.

That was the long background to the story. Now after a week with my iPhone 4 I’m sure many are sick of me talking/tweeting about my iPhone 4, so here’s a blog post to let you know my thoughts a little more. Because it’s new to me some of the following may be technology that’s common place now, so bear with me. And while I rave about it, it’s not all sunshine.

Pros

  • All-in-one device: I don’t have to walk around with my ipod touch and cell phone anymore. Pocket space saved!
  • Flash: Not Adobe’s Flash, but flash for the camera. One of the things that made me hold off on previous idevices was the lack of flash.
  • Amazing camera: Related to “Flash” above, the quality of pictures is astonishing.
  • Face Time: While I haven’t used it yet, it should prove to be quite fun, and if the commercials have taught me anything, it’s a way to break some pretty intense news.
  • Social media: Now I can take part in Twitter when there’s no wifi, or check-in on Foursquare (which I have been doing like a crack fiend).
  • Great apps: Yelp, The Edge 102.1 radio, Rogers MyAccount.. just some of the apps that I couldn’t get with the iPod Touch.
  • OS: The OS upgrade actually works with the device. The Touch was haggard after upgrading.
  • Multi-tasking: Not sure if the old one did this, but it’s great to receive a call while playing music and a game, and have that all come back after the call’s over.

Cons

  • Freezing/shutting off: Three or four times now it has shut off after a call or when trying to unlock it froze. This happened with my last cell so while it sucks, it’s likely not limited to the iPhone 4.
  • Cases: The cases I’ve looked at are terrible. It doesn’t appear that a good one was made, so I ordered from Apple. However it won’t get here until September.
  • Ear jack: The jack being on top really throws me off. On the Touch it was on the bottom, which makes infinite more sense.
  • One-touch dialing: I may have found a solution, but until then I’ll still feel like a newb, typing in the number or searching though my contacts to call them.
  • Heat: It gets much hotter than I thought it would, while charging or playing a game (while listening to music).

So there you have it, my review of the iPhone 4. If you’ve recently purchased one, let me know your thoughts, or for things I should be on the look out for.

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