iOS 4 First Impressions

Posted from my iPhone 3GS running iOS 4:

Today was iOS 4’s release for iPhone (3GS and 3G only) iPod touch. I downloaded it a little after 12 p.m. and here’s my initial thoughts (running on a 3GS):

1. It takes iTunes a good while to prep your iPhoto library to use the new mobile Faces functionality. Your milage may vary, but it took about 20 minutes to process just over 3,000 images for me.

2. Ooh! New glossy dock! And new Calculator icon!

3. I’m totally going to forget I have apps “running” in the background…

4. Folders are pretty much the jam. I went from five app pages to one thanks to this feature.

5. Tap to focus videos are going to definitely improve video quality. 5x digital zoom for photos will not, however.

6. I love that orientation lock is now available. Now I can lay sideways and still be able to read my phone.

7. Being able to change the home screen background really isn’t that big of a deal.

8. Thank God for this major update. It makes me feel a little better about my phone no longer being the latest and greatest.

My first experience with Modern Warfare 2’s “Hardcore” playlist

I’ve been playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 2 for a while now. I am currently level 53 (no prestiges yet) and my favorite loadout of the moment is:

  • M16A4 + ACOG scope
  • .44-caliber revolver + FMJ (working towards the tactical knife)
  • Claymores and flash grenades
  • Scavenger Pro, Stopping Power Pro, and Commando Pro

I’ve been doing fairly well as of late. I played a lot of Team Deathmatch, Sabotage, and Domination. However, it wasn’t until this morning that I played my first game of Hardcore Team Deathmatch. I was lured into this by some good friends of mine I’ve played online shooters with for five years (since Halo 2, really).

Ho-lee shit.

No radar. No HUD. No teammate-death indicators. Nothing. Enemies would fart at me and I’d die. For a guy who has always been a unrealistic shooter fan (Halo vice Counter-Strike), I’ve never been conditioned to one-hit kills. I’m used to being able to run in, jump around like a maniac, take a shotgun blast to the face and still be the one teabagging dead bodies once the dust clears.

I quickly realized that the classes I usually use for Team Deathmatch were totally useless. Those jackasses that run around with Marathon + Lightweight with a tactical knife won’t survive here. In Hardcore, everyone has something that goes “boom,” be it a grenade launcher attachment, Thumpers, or RPGs.

You also have to be patient. If you’re not willing to sit, wait, and actually strategize, then you’re going to have a great kill-to-death ratio for Opposite Day.

Anyway, let’s just say Hardcore utterly destroyed me and turned a once-confident MW2 player into a scared little bitch once more.

Metablogging: Why blog?

I have been pondering the merits of blogging the past couple of days. Why would someone want to blog?

This is metablogging, or blogging about blogging.

The only real reason I can see for someone to blog is that they have something to offer the Internet as a whole; they’re either an expert on some topic or they are logging their progress through some interest event.

But why would normal people blog? And, more importantly, why would anyone care?

Take me for example. I have started dozens of blog posts between now and my last post (last August!), but never published them. There are a two primary reasons:

  1. No one really cares about my day to day life. In my humble opinion, blogs are not diaries. What you ate for breakfast, what you truly think of the guy that always plays World of Warcraft during your History of Sea Power class, or the odd shape of your toenail cuticles is not interesting nor does it effect anyone.
  2. Even if it was somewhat interesting, who is going to read it? There are thousands of other blogs out there like mine that people type books-worth of drivel that 99-percent of the world does not care about or simply cannot read (due to the fact that many people do not express English so much as they simply bang their heads on a keyboard). My blog is not special nor it it worth me paying money to actually promote it on the Web.

Meaningful blogging, to me anyway, is a blend of journalism and opinion editorials. At best, posts need to be researched and, just as importantly, well structured! In other words, there needs to be a point. This style of blogging takes time and energy, something that most people do not have or unwilling to use. In other words, blogging is hard and, personally, I do not have the aforementioned resources to pour into it.

I suppose blogs could be a good medium for people to spout off their personal opinions on things, but then most people just vomit all over a keyboard and think its prolific (much like my own stream of consciousness-esque posts).

Anyway, here’s to my first post in a little over half a year. Cheers.

Surviving Tokyo, Den of Xenophobia

xen-o-pho-bi-a: noun, intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries. -New Oxford American Dictionary

This entry is pretty lengthy, but please stick with me.

After our first period underway, the ship’s executive officer gave us permission to spend two nights in the legendary city of Tokyo. We midshipmen split into two groups: one group wanted to climb Mt. Fuji and then go to Tokyo for one night while the other went to the city for both nights.

Randall, Elisha, Patti, Ryan and I were in the second group. We took a series of trains to get there. I was utterly amazed at the mass transit system. It was relatively cheap, extremely efficient and reached far throughout the main island.

For those who want to speed up the process of travel even more, two companies, Pasmo and Suica, offer Yen-rechargeable cards to pay for rides. The coolest thing about these cards is that you can keep them in a wallet and place it on the scanner and it will read the card without having to take it out. For a techno-geek, that is pretty nifty.

Once we arrived in Tokyo and surfaced on the street, the immense challenge of finding our hotel began. For those who do not know, Tokyo is divided into several different districts. Each one is like a little city with a unique feel and personality.

There are an electronics, red-light, club, financial, business and imperial districts, each with their own merits and attractions. This leaves tourists with something different to do as you can spend an entire day exploring what just one district has to offer.

We also found out that cab drivers rarely venture beyond their respective districts. This was particularly troubling since we arrived two districts away from where we needed to go.

For the first time in my life I was in a situation where communication with other people was next to impossible. As we wandered around the streets of Tokyo, we caught glances ranging from surprised to puzzled to disgust from the Japanese. It was like being on an entirely different planet.

Before I continue, let me share something about the Japanese with you: they are renowned for their xenophobia. They do not like foreigners and are taught from birth to never trust them (especially Westerners). They think foreigners will default on contractual obligations like paying rent, steal, murder and rape (at least more so than the Japanese). They will go as far as to refuse to rent apartments to foreigners or serve them in restaurants or clubs.

Now, please do not think that I slap this stereotype to all Japanese. I do know that foreigners that they know on an individual basis will receive a level of acceptance from their Japanese friends, but the above paragraph does contain truth about the population of Tokyo.

Once we finally arrived at the Hotel Monterey, found that our hotel was quite small; the bed covered 80-percent of the floor space with another 10 taken up by the desk/desser and small closet.

This was slightly annoying since we had rented a two-person bedroom to share with five people in order to cut down on costs (the hotel was 13,000¥ or $130 a night).

However, what the hotel lacked in size it made up in class. It was a 4.5 star hotel, so everything was deep brown woods, high-quality carpet and heated toilet seats.

Another interesting thing was the fact that they serve beer in the vending machines in the hotel. The drinking age in Japan is only 20, but it was still kind of alarming at how accessible alcohol was in Japan. I do not know the smoking age in Japan, but the fact that there were cigarette vending machines on every corner was just as surprising.

Japan is considered a smoker’s paradise in that there are no real restrictions on public smoking. We would see no smoking symbols on the sidewalks next to a group of smokers. In restaurants and arcades people bring their own ashtrays and sit there smoking cigarette after cigarette while eating or playing games.

With alcohol and tobacco so readily accessible, it’s obvious the emphasis the Japanese place on personal responsibility and accountability. One thing I noticed is that elevator doors close much faster and with much more force than in the United States. Security was light in the clubs and bars and there was only a light police presence throughout the city.

I also noticed subtle methods the municipality use to control crime and litter in the city. If you ever go to Tokyo, you will notice that public benches are few and far between. This leaves you with no where to sit and therefore no where to loiter. Sitting on the street is looked down upon (both literally and figuratively) and with all the walking a typical trip entails, you will be forced to hurry up to get to your destination rather than taking your sweet time.

By greatly limiting loitering through uncomfortability and peer pressure, you reduce the number of people on the street at any given time. While this will logically cause a reduction in the amount of litter on the streets, Tokyo’s profound lack of trash cans seals the deal. I pretty much only saw trash cans in the metro stations and a few scattered along the streets.

Initially, this may seem like a great way to have litter in the streets. However, since littering is also highly looked down upon socially in addition to being a criminal offense, it forces people to hold whatever trash they have in their hands. Over time, people will stop bringing bottles, etc., out on the street because they will have no where to get rid of it.

For those who want to keep a beverage on their person, they will naturally lean towards reusable bottles and stowing it away in a bag, cutting down on the demand for new bottles and the amount of trash overall.

This neatly segues into my next point: how Tokyo handles trash.These people are hardcore on recycling. In every McDonald’s (which tastes ridiculously better than in the States and your meal actually looks like the picture), Subway or other public place, there are separate receptacles for plastic, paper or metal.

This is obviously linked to Japan’s lack of space to store garbage. They’re on an island and can’t exactly go dig a new landfill every time they need one. Therefore, everything is reused as much as possible.

The Japanese have interesting systems to take care of their basic needs and this continues into Japanese entertainment. I watched some Japanese TV and was blown away by it, but not in a good way. A lot of things are over exaggerated, silly, cheesy and corny. Bright colors adorn everything and everyone talks in that loud, high, nasally voice typical of a small child or excitable puppy.

The camera work is spastic and high energy. For example, when a commercial for some product comes on, the camera will zoom in and out rapidly when looking at it, which is the visually equivalent of putting on a hotdog suit, drinking a case of Red Bull and running a 12-year-old girl’s party screaming Monty Python and Adam Sandler movie quotes while carrying a lighter and a can of hairspray (please don’t think about that analogy too much, I certainly didn’t).

However, the Japanese love this kind of TV so much that it is common in even basic cell phone plans to offer TV minutes along with talking minutes. When you get on a subway, you’ll notice that if they are not sleeping, the Japanese instantly whip out their cell phones and start texting, listening to music, playing video games, watching TV or browsing the Internet. They do not talk to each other much or make eye contact, however.

Now, as anyone that watches technology in this country will tell you, you can already do these things with a modern U.S. smartphone such as a Blackberry, iPhone or Palm Pre. However, there are two main differences: high-speed data networks (like the U.S.’ 3G or EDVO networks) are far-reaching and reliable in Japan and the Japanese telcos do not charge users several hundred dollars a month to use these functions.

Another difference in cell phone use is the fact that everyone (from older businessman to elementary school students) has a phone. This is the primary tool of communication here in Japan. Also, everyone that owns a cell phone has a little charm that hangs from the phone itself. This a fashion-based method of self-expression, one that I believe the Japanese hold very dear considering how strict social dress codes and behavior standards are.

Women often have what we’d consider gaudy charms and pop-culture figure miniatures hanging from their phone while men will stick with nondescript clear plastic gems.

They say that the U.S. is five to six years behind Japan in technology and I would believe it. I visited a duty-free (meaning no taxes) electronics store and my head almost exploded. There were gadgets that haven’t come out in the U.S. and laptops that sold in the States for at least $1,500 going for 8,500¥ or $85. It was crazy!

Video gaming is much more prevalent and mainstream in Japan than it is in the U.S. as well. It is perfectly acceptable for Japanese adults to go to the arcade and play video games as a way to relieve stress.

There is also a game called Pochinko, which an amusement game that spits out ball bearings instead of tickets like we’re used to here. The bearings can be cashed in for money, so I guess this qualifies Pochinko as gambling.

People will go in and play this game literally all day. They will have food and drinks brought to their seat so that they don’t waste time.

The Japanese will also carry around a PlayStation Portable or Nintendo DS (handheld gaming systems). While they ride the metro, waiting for a ride or simply killing time, the Japanese will whip out their system and play. Even grandmothers and grandfathers were playing!

Also, for those of you who would like to visit, know that Japan uses the same size outlets as us, but the outlets often do not have a ground socket (the straight, rounded part of the plug). Also, their outlets do not kick out as much voltage as U.S. sockets do, so things like charging your computer take longer and American DVD players may not work because the motor cannot get enough power to spin up the disc.

Now, while the electronics are cheap, the town is not. Restaurants can be quite expensive unless you go to a beef bowl place (a beef bowl is a restaurant where you put money into a vending machine, pick a meal, get a ticket, give the ticket to the worker and get your food). Anything you do out in town will cost you a lot. A normal meal, for example, will set you back at least 2,500¥ ($25). Cab rides are necessary and very expensive. I’ve spent the equivalent of three days out between Yokosuka and Tokyo so far and easily went through 30,000¥ ($300).

As you can probably tell from the above paragraphs, I’m completely drawn in by Japanese culture. There are a lot of things I hate about it (xenophobia, primarily) and lots of things I love about it (emphasis on personal responsibility). Also, there is a legend that if you are a foreigner and you do not climb Mt. Fuji during your visit, you are destined to come back.

That’s fine by me.

Haze gray and underway

I recently got back from my first three days underway aboard USS Curtis Wilbur. They were an interesting and informative three days, but not without their boring periods, much like any time on a U.S. Navy war vessel is.

This is where the blogging bit will become kind of dry considering I cannot talk about most of what I saw; a lot of what goes on here is classified. I’m not allowed to even see some things with my own eyes because I only have secret security clearance, not top secret.

However, I can comment on the social dynamics within the ship. As you’d expect there is a definite pecking order aboard the ship: junior enlisted, noncommissioned officers, senior enlisted, junior officers and the senior leadership. These words probably have little to no meaning to you, so allow me to explain:

When someone enlists in the military and goes to what is commonly referred to as “boot camp,” they are an E-1, or the lowest level of the enlisted ranks. As you spend time in the military, receive training and subsequent qualifications within your job and perform up to standards, you will eventually progress to an E-4, or the lowest noncommissioned officers.

E-4 through E-6 are the backbone of the Navy and the ones who do the majority of the hands-on work. Anything below that are still learning how to effectively do their job.

E-7 and higher are the enlisted leaders, the ones who supervise and ensure that the work is getting done. These are usually older Sailors and command a lot of respect and authority from the more junior enlisted. They’re basically that manager at your job who has “been doing this forever” and will let you know where you are messing up.

For officers, the pecking order is pretty much the same, O-1 through O-10. As a junior officer, you’re in charge of a group of Sailors headed by an E-7 or higher. That senior Sailor is basically the one that makes sure the job gets down while the junior officer is still discovering the subtle differences between his head and a hole in the ground.

As for the Sailors I’ve spent time with, the differences in rank weren’t readily apparent in their behavior. All of them cracked jokes on one another and pretty much goofed off when they weren’t doing anything. However, when there was a task at hand, I could of swore a team of midgets came in and switched out the Sailors when I wasn’t looking. All of them were locked in to what they were doing and getting the job done (note: my measure of “getting the job done” was this: Chief not yelling = good).

Seeing this greatly increased my confidence in the Sailors of this ship and the fleet as a whole. Also, it’s also a rare opportunity to see inside the enlisted culture as it truly is, something I’ll never do again once I enter the Navy as an ensign.

Arriving at USS Curtis Wilbur

After Randall and I got off the 777, we were utterly exhausted. It was around 1 a.m. EST once we got off the plane. Considering we got up at 3 a.m. the previous day, we had nothing left in the tank.

After going through customs and walking through a H1N1 virus informational pamphlet parade (complete with complimentary face mask), we walked into the main terminal of Tokyo Narita Airport. The culture shock hit immediately when all the Japanese began staring at us. I suppose a 6’2″ white man isn’t something they see every day.

All the signs were in both Japanese and English, which was a Godsend. We made our way to the Department of Defense Liaison Officer’s kiosk just as our instructions dictated. An older, short Japanese man popped out and led us to a bus stop that would take us to Yokosuka.

Along the way we met Ryan, a second class (read: rising junior, just like me) midshipman from Tulane University. For the first 30 minutes of the ride we all talked, comparing the policies and practices of our respective universities and also what would await us on the ship. After that, we napped the remaining 90 minutes of the ride.

Once we arrived in Yokosuka, we didn’t really know what to do. We didn’t have any additional instruction. So there we were, on base with absolutely no direction or way to call the contact numbers we had been given (my iPhone wasn’t set up for international calling).

However, it wasn’t really a problem; the Navy takes care of their own. A few minutes after we got off the bus, a Sailor driving the most narrow van I had seen in my life pulls up and asks if any of us were headed to USS George Washington, the aircraft carrier stationed in Yokosuka. One of the Sailors who was on the bus was headed to the GW and the driver offered to help us find our ship, USS Curtis Wilbur.

This is when I found out that, like the British, the Japanese drive on the left side of the road. Also, the roads are very narrow, making all vehicles really small as well. Even the transfer trucks are narrow, but make up for it by being pretty tall.

We found our ship and were escorted aboard. We were met by the Sailor in charge of processing in all new personnel and taken below. This began the extremely fun series of papers we had to fill out.

Things we had to do included: getting our racks and storage locker assignments, getting our personal and professional information put into the ship’s database, getting our Navy Cash cards (rechargeable debit cards used for the ship’s store and vending machines), applying for our liberty cards (which are color-coded to indicate how late you can stay out each night we have liberty, or the privilege of leaving the ship), and setting up our accounts on the ship’s intranet. In other words, a lot of administrative hoop jumping.

During this process, I met the other midshipmen: Christina and Shane from the Naval Academy, Alex from Iowa State, Elisha from Savannah State, Patti from Mississippi State and Brynn from Holy Cross. It’s a good mix of classes, backgrounds and experiences. All of us get along pretty well; I don’t foresee any personality problems between us (but then again, you only need three people to have drama and we have three times that).

During our time on Curtis Wilbur, we are intended to learn out enlisted and officer life aboard a surface ship. However, since we are soon-to-be officers, the ship gives us a lot of leeway in how much training to receive. Nothing is mandatory; you could stay in your rack (bed) all day, only coming out to go to the head (bathroom) or the mess (cafeteria). The other opposite is clinging to your running mate like glue, doing everything they do and standing every watch with them.

With the former, you basically waste the Navy’s money and resources by not learning anything. You’d get paid to sleep, read and watch movies. With the latter, you’re constantly in the way, slowing down the ability of the crew to get their work done.

The key here is to find a good balance between learning and being courteous. I’m attached to a group of pretty hilarious and intelligent guys in sonar, but I also have a copy of Don Quixote. I’m prepared.

Technical difficulties


I apologize for the lack of updates during the past couple weeks. It’s been roughly a week and a half into my cruise and you still don’t have anything in regard to what’s it’s like over here. I am working on that! Give me a few more days and you should have a few more entries.


Dan Ballance

Aboard the 777

Written while flying over the Gulf of Alaska at 533 m.p.h. ground speed at 33,999 feet:

First, let me just say that my flight experience aboard this 777 has been quite an amazing one. The luxuries afforded to you are quite good: free drinks, snacks, a half decent meal  (a literal chunk of beef, rice with gravy and carrots, a small salad with delicious dressing and a fancy cookie) and access to a plethora of free movies, TV shows, music and video games. I’ve enjoyed myself so far and would gladly do it again…

…several months from now. I have been on this plane since 11:15 a.m. EST. It is now 6:40 p.m. EST and I’m not even halfway to my destination. Just like my flight to Houston, I am in the middle seat. I have since discovered that the ends of the headrest will bend to cradle your head, but a 6’2″ man really has no where to go in the middle seat. Can’t sprawl out into the aisle nor lay up against the cabin wall. You are simply stuck in whatever quasi-comfortable position you can contort yourself into.

However, I am by far more inclined to people-watch on this flight. There is a man sitting one seat ahead and to the right of me. He’s been rather interesting to watch. He was the only person in my general vicinity to order an alcoholic beverage at take-off (or since for that matter) and proved his social ineptitude when conversing with his rowmate.

The most interesting thing about Keith (this is what I’ve decided to name him) is his choice of video entertainment. He spent the first three to four hours of our voyage watching the documentaries available from the back of the headrest in front of him (Pimp My RIde ain’t ever seen so many mini LCD TVs). After watching how oil is refined and a special on the U.S. presidents of the past century (the content is old; didn’t mention Bush 43), he has since moved on to black and white films starring Carey Grant or the Three Stooges.

On a geek note, the system that runs the in-flight entertainment is based on Red Hat Linux, an open-source operating system. Nice to see a big corporate entity like this airline actually use something other than Microsoft Windows.

Randall is currently sitting next to me watching FIght Club, a truly outstanding movie. As I glance over at his screen, I notice another across the aisle tracing the journey. So far, I flew northwest from Houston, crossing into Oklahoma, then back into Texas, to only return to the panhandle of Oklahoma. From there, we continued over Denver and near Salt Lake City. We flew straight over Vancouver and now are flying a certain number of lines along the southern Alaskan coast.  The International Dateline is not too far off now. Apparently, this is truly where East meets West considering it will magically be tomorrow (July 19) once I cross.

First impressions of my destination once I land.

Live from the USO in Houston

Randall and I have landed i’m Houston. We made a beeline for the USO to take advantage of the free drinks and incredibly comfortable leather sofas.

The flight from RDU was uneventful, but unrestful. Chatty neighbors, crying babies and cramped spaces permitted only short naps. My compatriot and I didn’t sit together since it was a short flght.

Now, I have a question: why must people grab the seat in front of them when they get up? I was shaken out of a decent sleep no less than four times (I counted) by the woman behind me. The armrests serve two purposes; use them!

Although Houston’s airport is rather large, our next gate was literally across the room from where we arrived. The proximity of the gate and our fairly lengthy layover has given us a chance to relax and recoup for our next flight.

More after we land.

And the journey begins

Today I begin my travels around the globe in the name of naval training. Yesterday I drove to Wake Forest to stay at my fellow traveler and midshipman’s grandparents’ house.

Randall and I got up at 3 a.m., showered and made final preparations before his mother drove us to RDU. We ran through the TSA checkpoints without a problem.

Waiting at the gate, I realized RDU doesn’t offer free wifi to passengers. AT&T powered the hotspot and, in true evil telco fashion, wanted me to pay some outrageous fee to access the Internet.

Determined to undermine this, I whipped out my iPhone 3GS, complete with cracked carrier profile, to tether to my MacBook. This was also a fail; I couldn’t even get my iPhone to connect to my laptop via Bluetooth.

Well, now I sit on the plane, Randall a full 10 rows ahead of me. This flight shouldn’t be terribly long; in the neighborhood of 3 hours. More to come once I hit the deck.


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