Archive for the 'Technology and software' Category

Checking my math

Posted in Technology and software on January 14th, 2013

Just a tiny little post:

I just saw an ad for a powerful flashlight. The ad said the flashlight had a 55 watt bulb and a rechargeable 3 amp-hour 6 volt battery.

By my calculations, that means that the flashlight should run just under 20 minutes on a fully charged battery.

Am I missing something? Have the formulas changed?

Comments, if any, welcome.

Kindle Fire HD 8.9: An update

Posted in Technology and software on January 13th, 2013

Three weeks ago, I slapped together a post about our very early experience acquiring a Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (on a one-day $249 sale that has yet to be repeated) to try out as a way of reading the San Francisco Chronicle for $71.88 a year instead of $559 a year (the current delivered print subscription price).

That early commentary was mostly positive.

I thought an update might be worthwhile–but I won’t repeat much of what I said earlier, so you’ll want to read that post first.

The cancellation

The last update to that post (which those of you who read it via RSS probably haven’t seen) said that we were happy enough with the Chronicle-on-Kindle experience to cancel the print paper.

We did. And I have to give the paper credit: the process took very little time, didn’t involve a lot of “can’t we get you to stick around?” stuff (especially since I pointed out that we were not dropping our Chronicle subscription, just shifting it to the Kindle), and was obviously processed rapidly: We didn’t see the paper the next day and haven’t since. And, after about two weeks, we got a check for the remainder of our current 5-week print subscription. Well handled all in all.

The device

We’re both happy with the device–and I think neither of us would be willing to deal with a lower-resolution display such as the Kindle Paperwhite or, in fact, most tablets other than the newest iPads, the Nook HD and HD+ and the Kindle Fire HDs. I’m guessing that 240-250dpi is about the point at which things become basically transparent–it’s just type, not pixels on a screen.

We figured out that turning it “off” to sleep mode, rather than fully powered down, only costs about 1% of battery life overnight and means the day’s paper is immediately available on an immediately-up device. Worth it–especially since we spend enough time on the paper so that its 10-11 hour battery life means recharging it twice a week anyway. (Yes, the 10-11 hour life appears to be accurate, at least for what we’re doing. We’re charging it on Saturday afternoon and Tuesday evening: the Sunday paper takes more time to read.)

I suspect there may be other gestures we don’t know about (there’s basically no tutorial), in addition to the touch, swipe, and pinch/spread gestures (the only multifinger gestures). But so far, I don’t know that we need any others. My wife has a little more trouble with screen insensitivity than I do (she’s frequently had trouble activating touch controls that rely on body chemistry, so this is nothing new) but seems to be getting along with it OK. Notably because she reads the comic strips on the Kindle (via the Seattle paper), she uses the pinch/spread gestures more than I do: I read the comics on my computer.

Being easier to read than a newspaper is, as already noted, a fairly low bar. If I had to guess, I’d guess that for me the Fire HD’s probably no more readable than a well-made trade paperback or hardcover book, maybe a little more than a really cheap mass market paperback–but for my wife, who sometimes wants enlarged type, she’s thinking the Fire may be a nice device for reading sometimes.

Other functions

This is still a device with a specific purpose for us. So far, neither of us has felt the desire to download or play games. I downloaded the free Complete Sherlock Holmes, but have yet to read any of it. We’ve tried Gmail…but until we start traveling again, the computer’s a whole lot easier to use than the Kindle. (And if I’m traveling separately, e.g. for the Washington/Oregon convention…well, with only one Kindle, it will probably stay at home. I’ll catch up with the paper via SFGate, as clumsy as that is.)

I’m sure the other functions work just fine. My wife listened to a sample piece of music; it was fine. But it’s not something we need at the moment: The use just isn’t there. Our limitation, not the device’s–we’re not so fascinated with it that we spend time trying out all the possibilities.

Work in progress

The Chronicle’s Kindle version still appears to be a work in progress. I’m hoping they’ll recognize a growing number of Fire users and add more pictures, restore the comics, etc. I’d be delighted if the story summaries were (at least optionally) in serif type (as the stories are).

But it works more than well enough. I continue to read more stories, read them faster, and get through the whole paper over breakfast rather than splitting it across the day.

It was unquestionably a good purchase. Yes, I’m pleased to see that the latest CR rates this device tops of the specialized tablets–but it doesn’t make much difference at this point. (If there was a Nook version–which there isn’t–I’d feel a little guilty about favoring the Amazon monolith over a competitor. But only a little.)

What’s next?

We’ll eventually choose a cover & stand (although my wife’s handcrafted cardboard stand is working remarkably well for now). We might get a stylus as part of such a deal. We might get a Bluetooth keyboard, but that’s less likely.

If we were both traveling separately to any degree, I suspect we’d get another one–and that it would be another Fire HD, albeit possibly the 7″ version.

Overall: It was a good decision, it’s a fine unit, we’re happy.

And, of course, I’m still reading mostly books in print form–partly because 90%+ of the books I read come from the library, and I find print books congenial enough not to seek a replacement. Again, lots of travel might change that.

Added Monday, January 14: We do use some other apps once in a while, although we have yet to add any. Specifically, we’ve used the IMDB app at times–and boy, is it more colorful and sleek than the web version. (Unfortunately, it’s also slower to use, but I think that’s inherent in the smaller space.) IMDB is, of course, Amazon…

Kindle Fire HD 8.9 as a newspaper substitute

Posted in Media, Technology and software on December 23rd, 2012

Consider this both an informal review and some sort of groundbreaking post, at least for me.

Prelude: The Use Case

I love a good print newspaper. I’ve subscribed to the San Francisco Chronicle for decades. The broadsheet format gives me a way to scan a lot of stuff at once, I almost always read something at least twice a week that I would never have thought to look for–call it serendipity, call it broadening my horizons, call it being involved in the broader world.

But…two things happened over the past few years. Well, in addition to the paper getting thinner, due to lost ads and the need to cut pages.

  • The management–now Hearst, which bought out the family that had always published the Chron because the latest generation wasn’t interested–decided that subscribers/readers needed to pay 40% of the cost of the paper, not the 10%-20% we had been paying. They dropped outlying areas entirely and raised subscription costs. A lot. Enough so that, with our current lack of earned income, it’s a serious factor.
  • Due to carrier problems, the arrival of the paper has become irregular (although it’s getting better now). I count on it being there by 6:45 a.m. (and, except for Sundays, you can call if it’s not there by 6:30)–and too often it wasn’t. (They have until 8 to deliver it on Sundays. Of course, I still want to start reading it at around 6:45 a.m.)

So…we decided to look into alternatives. Not “taking the local paper instead”–the so-called “local” daily (really a slightly modified version of a San Jose paper) isn’t all that good. (The local weekly is just fine, but it’s a weekly.)

I knew that the Chronicle had an iPad version for $60 a year (with or without a print Sunday paper thrown in). I knew there was a Kindle version, although I hadn’t heard much about it. And the paper was starting to promote an e-edition (as with the iPad version, free if you’re a print subscriber; in this case, $100/year if you’re not).

We considered whether we could reasonably switch to some sort of tablet to read the paper over breakfast and lunch. Neither of us have ever owned an e-reader or tablet, for the same reason we don’t own smartphones: We haven’t felt the need, and we’re not interested in spending money for something we don’t feel a need for.

I’ve always said that, if and when I had a good use case for an e-reader, a tablet or a netbook, I’d probably get one. For some time, I’ve said that if I was still doing six or more speaking trips a year, I’d probably get a netbook or something else…but I’m not, and I haven’t.

Here was a use case: Given that the print Chronicle is up to $559/year, and certainly not likely to get cheaper any time soon, we could even pay for a current-generation iPad in a little over a year. My brother and sister-in-law both have iPads (one not currently in use, one first-generation, I think, one current/Retina); we’ve certainly seen them in use and played with them. Neither my wife nor I is especially anxious to become part of the iTunes hegemony, but if that was the way to proceed, fine.


So there we were, a few weeks ago, deciding that we really couldn’t afford the print Chron any more but weren’t willing to lose the paper. Which way to go? Well, the web-based e-edition was/is a very good rendition of the print paper in small (using Olive software); if that would work on a tablet, that would be a possibility–but it would clearly need to be a large-screen tablet. The pictures we’d seen of the iPad version made it seem like a somewhat cruder “reimagining” of the print paper, but it might be OK too. We hadn’t seen the Kindle app.

We knew we wanted high resolution–after all, reading the paper involves a lot of reading, easily 10,000-30,000 words a day, maybe more on Sunday.

We shopped around. The obvious choices seemed to be the current iPad, the Nook HD+, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, the Microsoft Surface, and whatever the best Android 9″-10″ high-rez tablets are called.

The obvious choices that we could actually see were the iPad, the Nook HD+ and the smaller Kindle Fire HD (the 8.9 wasn’t in the stores we frequent yet).

There’s an obvious and substantial price difference between the two “HD” units and the others: they’re around $300, the others are $500+ (as far as I could see).

We were pretty sure what we wanted and didn’t want:

  • High-quality, easy-to-read renditions of all the stories (and preferably more) from the San Francisco Chronicle–the primary use case.
  • When we do start traveling again, the ability to check email once in a while (Gmail for both of us, with separate accounts).
  • Maybe, when we start traveling again, the ability to play a couple of games (e.g. video poker) and probably to read stuff, either stuff we already have or free books and the like.

We didn’t want to pay more than we needed to: Especially given the Fed’s insistence on punishing retired folks who don’t like to gamble with their savings (by making it impossible to get decent CD rates), we’re not throwing the dollars around.

We didn’t plan to do a lot of video streaming or music purchasing–our broadband’s not fast enough for video streaming to work well, and we’re not vidiots anyway. As for music, we seem to have enough CDs for now. We’re not hotshot gamers: video poker does not make big demands on a system, and my wife almost never games at home anyway.

We concluded that if the Nook HD+ or the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 would do the job, they’d be good, economical choices. My wife was, however, worried about the Nook–mostly the lack of market share and recognition for the HD+ and its implications for the future of the device and support.

Then things got more interesting in two ways: Target was offering $50 back as a giftcard with iPad purchases (and we get 5% off for using a store charge card)…and Amazon had a one-day sale on the Fire HD 8.9, selling for $249 instead of $299, thus making it still $200 cheaper than the iPad. So, since we also knew that Amazon (and Target) allowed return on these items until the end of January, thanks to the holidays, we decided to order a Fire HD 8.9 and see whether it would do the job. (Yes, we also ordered the “$10 discounted from $20″ fast charger that really should be included with the device. Let’s talk about nickel-and-diming.)

We ordered the unit on December 10, the day of the one-day sale. It was shipped on December 15, apparently using a special via-mule-train USPS option reserved for super saver shipping (which usually gets stuff to us two days after it’s shipped, sometimes the next day). It arrived on December 22, yesterday.

This isn’t a full review, and it’s not quite final–but I thought I’d give my impressions.

Act 1

Amazon did a nice job of minimalist packaging once inside the not-too-large shipping box: a black angled cardboard box with a tear strip that opens nicely and has very minimalist instructions, including the one touch gesture that’s neither obvious nor optional (unlocking the screen).

Unpacked the charger, plugged the device in to finish charging (it had about a 50% charge).

While it took 15 minutes to connect to our wifi, that was partly due to the long passphrase we use–it involved a lot of shifting back and forth between the virtual keyboard’s modes and backing up from accidental doublestrokes–and partly due to our router’s deciding to be grumpy: After the third try to validate, I finally unplugged the router, plugged it back in and, voila: We had wifi. (Good antennas, by the way: It spotted three or four networks in all, all secure, and at least one not in our house.)

The high quality of the display was immediately obvious. As was the ease of adding fingerprints and smudges to the GorillaGlass.

Once fully charged, I decided to try the e-edition of the newspaper, which is on their website (after all, it’s free since we still have the print subscription). Silk, the Kindle browser, is sometimes leisurely, and the virtual keyboard is finicky (more so for my wife, who has a low body temperature or something else that makes it generally difficult to use touch-sensitive devices), but I eventually managed to get there and log in and say I wanted today’s (Saturday’s) e-edition. It said it was loading the Olive software.

And loading. And loading. And loading… After eight minutes, I gave up. Best guess: Olive simply isn’t compatible with Silk or the device, but Silk isn’t smart enough to tell me that. Since Olive takes at most 5-10 seconds to load on a 5-year-old notebook on the same network, I find it impossible to believe it was ever going to successfully load.

Let’s see. So far:

  • Packaging and startup: A-
  • Screen: A
  • Virtual keyboard: B-
  • Wifi performance: A
  • Web browser performance: C
  • Web compatibility with newspaper software: F

That last was a disappointment–although we weren’t sure how well that full mockup of newspaper pages would work on a 9″ screen anyway.

We looked at reviews of the newspaper’s Kindle app. They were mixed–but we noticed that most of the negative ones were a couple of years old. And it came with a 14-day free trial. So…after I turned on 1-click ordering at Amazon (which seems to be mandatory to get anything at the Kindle store, even if it’s free):

Act 2

Went to the Kindle store, newspaper section, found the San Francisco Chronicle, verified the 14-day free trial, clicked on it.

About 15 seconds later–this being Saturday, December 22–we had a screen full of story headlines and brief excerpts, not in any way trying to emulate an actual newspaper, with a “Sections” option above. The page all in boring sans serif, and that type is not changeable (as far as I can tell), but it was easy enough to navigate. Touching any story summary brought up the whole story–and the full stories, frequently with one (but only one) photo each–were very easy to read. I’m guessing they use the standard Kindle book-reading method–or something very much like it. I could change the type (to any of three serif faces, all of them very good; I mostly left it at the default Georgia), change the type size (but the default “4” was extremely readable), even change the background color. I probably should reduce the brightness somewhat, but didn’t yet.

Reading the stories was immediately just fine, and it didn’t take long to figure out navigation back to the set of stories and sections. In practice, the Fire HD 8.9 is much more readable than a daily paper: that’s hardly surprising, given that the paper is in small type on the cheapest paper stock available.

On the other hand, the Chronicle does a good job with color photos, especially in two slick-paper Sunday sections, and the little pictures in the Kindle version don’t compare. But that’s minor.

Going through Saturday’s paper, I found that all the stories were there–but the obituaries, weather page, lottery summary and TV listings weren’t. Neither were the comic strips and surrounding games and horoscope. What? No comic strips? Boo!

We were both wondering how much of the Sunday paper would be included…and when it would arrive (since some reviews had said the paper wasn’t there early enough, and late physical delivery was one reason we were considering switching)…

For this act:

  • Overall interface for the paper: B (I’d like a choice of typeface for the overall interface)
  • Story reading quality and navigation: A+ (crystal-clear type, intuitive navigation)
  • Battery life: A- (It was looking as though 10 hours was a good estimate.)

Ah, but we also tried Gmail. It worked–once I was able to log in–and Gmail recognized it as a mobile device and simplified the interface, perhaps a little too much so. (No, I didn’t try the email app, at least not yet: After all, two of us would be using it if we’re on vacation, and I don’t see any way to set up separate email accounts for the two of us.) I found it clunky to use Gmail, partly because Silk’s a little clunky, partly because the virtual keyboard is, well, a virtual keyboard. But it worked. We also looked at one of the two built-in books, a dictionary. Text quality was great there as well, and finding worked more than well enough. I’ll stick with the A/A+.

  • Gmail via the web: B

Act 3

This morning (“this” being Sunday, December 23), after getting up and feeding the cats and putting on coffee, I checked for the paper at 6:45 a.m.

It wasn’t there.

I turned on the Kindle, clicked on the SF Chronicle picture on the home page–and noticed that it changed from December 22 to December 23 as soon as it was live. Waited 15-20 seconds for it to load (I’d had the Kindle fully off, not in sleep mode, overnight: figure 5 seconds to start up in the morning). By 6:47 a.m., I was reading the paper.

At 7:45 a.m., the physical paper arrived–on the light side for a Sunday paper, especially in ads (there aren’t a lot of flyers on the last weekend before Christmas), but still a pretty big hunk. And by that time, I’d already read the whole thing–probably more stories than I usually read in the physical Sunday paper, and looking at summaries for every story.

After doing the usual Sunday shuffle to segregate ads we don’t care about, ads we do care about, and paper sections in some workable order, I checked the physical paper against the Kindle paper.

Missing: The obituaries, the comics, the ads, the weather two-pager (on Sunday), TV listings, real estate listings and houses sold, etc. Oh, and Parade Magazine, for what that’s worth.

There: Everything else. Every story in every section, including sections we thought might not be included.

Just for fun, I tried going into airplane mode–turning off wifi to save battery life. It worked for a little while, but as soon as I tried to change sections, it said it needed wifi: It doesn’t download the whole paper, at least not the whole Sunday paper. That’s minor.

I realized that I’d been reading stories for a solid hour, without fatigue, and that I’d almost certainly read more of the paper than I usually wood (in 90 minutes or so). I still needed to skim through the ads and read the comics, but that was OK.

And, to be sure, I could read the paper as soon as I got up, not have to wait until it arrived. On an inclement day, not having to brave the rain for the paper also helped.

My wife’s now read it as well–but, unlike the daily paper, she reads very little of the Sunday paper other than actual news. She’s happy enough.

I’ve now checked the comics carried in the paper. About one-third of the ones we care about are on SFGate, in a separately-bookmarkable comics section with lots of other comics, although that’s still a separate step on the computer (or, I suppose, very clumsily on the Kindle). The others are on GoComics, and for $12 I can set it up to get the ones I want all show up as a daily email… Again, not as clean as having them over breakfast, but workable. (And I might add some other comics, and can ignore certain gems that neither of us read anyway.)

I’m guessing–although I don’t know–that the iPad version would have the comics. I’m also guessing, given the lower price, that it would have the ads. I know it would be on a much more expensive device. Just for comics, it’s not even close to being worth it.

I also tested a couple of other things. For example, my assumption has been that a 6×9 PDF would look pretty good on a 9″ or 10″ tablet. Was that assumption correct? Let’s go to (the shorter URL for C&I), click through to the one-column version, and see…

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the C&I home page looks and works great on the device. I knew it didn’t use fixed coding (I hand-coded the page), but it flowed into the smaller space more effectively than I’d actually expected. (On most webpages, including that one, the apparently standard spread-and-pinch zoom-and-unzoom gestures work just fine. I still don’t know where or whether Kindle has an actual touch tutorial, but I think I’ve picked up enough to get by pretty well.)

As for the one-column PDF…I touched the link. Nothing seemed to happen. Then I touched it and noticed the URL in the address bar changing…but immediately changing back again. I tried this three or four times (well, seven, apparently), saying “What the hell?” I’d already checked: The Kindle Fire HD has a built-in PDF reader. Why wasn’t it displaying?

Because, it turns out, Silk doesn’t display PDF. It downloads the PDF. Silently. When you go to the menu, there’s a “Downloads” option. Touch that, you get a list of all downloads–oops, eight of them, with Kindle-supplied differentiators. Touch one of them and…

Yes! The 6×9 PDF looks great on the Kindle screen. No need to mess with settings: It just looks great as is. That’s what I was hoping, and it’s clearly the case. That should also be true for any 9″ or larger tablet with PDF-reading capabilities (which, I believe, is almost all of them).

The HTML separates: Not so much, because Silk doesn’t pick up “serif” or “Palatino Linotype” from the CSS in such a way as to render serif type: It’s all in sans. Otherwise, fine.

Oh: We haven’t purchased any books yet. We did go to the Kindle store looking for free books. There’s no easy way to browse free offerings, but if you look for a book (e.g., Pride and Prejudice), free versions do show up. I guess I can’t fault Amazon for preferring to sell stuff, as long as they do offer the freebies.

Also haven’t downloaded any other apps yet, but will be checking the Free App of the Day. And a couple of quick searches suggest that there are a lot of free apps for games and the like, and probably for other things. Not as much as the Android Store or Google Store or iStore (or whatever it’s called), but enough for what we need. [Skype is builtin, as is an office viewer of some sort. Haven’t tried either one.]

  • Completeness of Sunday paper: A- (no worse than daily, also no better)
  • Promptness of paper: A+. It was there when I wanted it.
  • PDF quality: A
  • Browser transparency: C. It really should let me know that it did, in fact, download something. You could use up a whole heap of disk space trying to download something when it’s already there…especially because it just silently keeps appending new numbers to keep copies unique.
  • Battery life: Still A-/A: I was reading and using wifi for at least a full hour, and it showed 90% at the end of that time. That translates to 10 hours life as far as I can calculate.
  • Overall impression: B as a web device, A as a reader.
  • But as a newspaper replacement? Probably B+/A-

Which is to say: We haven’t entirely made up our minds. We’ll try it for another day or two. Then, unless something big makes it look bad, I’ll cancel the print Chronicle subscription, see whether there’s a cheaper annual Kindle subscription, set up GoComics and SFGate/comics accounts/favorite lists, make sure I have the stores bookmarked where I do want to check the weekly ads (yes, ads do count)… If the Chron was $100/year or even $200/year and I could count on consistent early delivery, we’d probably keep the print paper. As it is: Times do change.

I’d say the odds of that happening are between 95% and 99%. The use case was there, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 seems to satisfy the use case, and that makes it a good purchase. See note below: The odds of that happening are now 100%, since I just canceled the print newspaper.

Can I emphasize again that the high-resolution display really is a joy? Even as I probably should turn down the brightness. (I think it’s a *little* on the bright side;l my wife thinks it’s more than a little brighter than it needs to be.)

One oddity along the way: Every newspaper story has a word count. I never thought about the actual length of news stories…today’s feature restaurant review, for example, was just under 1,800 words (or about 1.5 newsprint pages). And this non-review is just about 3,450 words.

Another oddity that I hadn’t thought about: Front page stories don’t have cutovers on the Kindle. That means it’s far more likely that I’ll read them in full and without interruption. That’s a good thing.

Followup, Monday, December 24

So today I assumed that the Kindle was the newspaper–I didn’t check for the print paper until I’d finished breakfast. And it was fine, but with an unexpected twist: I read more stories, and I was done by 7:30, where I usually leave part of the paper for the afternoon. Maybe because it’s Monday (a slender paper); maybe it’s because the screen (now on auto-brightness) really is easier to read than newsprint–not a high bar.

Oh, and SuperLotto results are there now (but badly formatted; since other tables are now showing up well-formatted, that’s probably a matter of time).

So: We’ll set up ways to get the comics we want (from two sources), and I’ll probably cancel the print newspaper today or tomorrow. But I’m still a daily newspaper reader–maybe more so, if reading the actual stories is what counts.

Final update (I think), 8:50 a.m.: I’ve cancelled the print newspaper. I’ll get around to setting up GoComics and sfgate.comics for the comic strips we want.

314GB plus 20TB

Posted in Technology and software on April 25th, 2012

The context isn’t that important, but that was recently noted as the RAM and hard disk basis for a particular database.

For some reason, it struck me two ways:

Today, that isn’t all that much

Checking Fry’s for PC-level prices, for name-brand equipment, I see that you could get 314GB of high-speed name-brand RAM (actually 320GB, since it’s  8GB cards) for $1,600 (40 cards, each $40)…and 20TB of internal 7200RPM hard disks for $1,090. If you wanted solid-state storage, it would cost a lot more (not surprisingly): $27,300 (at $350 each for 256GB SSD modules).

So figure $2,700 for 314GB RAM and 20TB storage. Oh, plus a modest amount for the computers to hold the RAM, the RAID enclosures (and extra drives–let’s add another $500 for 50% redundancy)…maybe, what, $10K altogether? Of course, that’s PC-level equipment, but still…

And it wouldn’t take up that much space.

Just 24 years ago, that would have been essentially impossible

Looking back at 1988 prices, I find $63/megabyte for RAM (but on three megabyte cards, so you’d need a bunch of cards, so figure $5.12 million for the RAM (to say nothing of what you’d need to mount 100,000 cards).

Hard disks? A 2008 PC World story claims that a good price for PC-level hard disks in 1988 was $8,755 (in 2008 dollars: figure $4,990 in 1988 dollars) for a 150MB drive. That might be true, but that’s because 150MB was a huge disk for 1988 PCs. More realistically, the Seagate 251 offered 40MB for $400.

You’d need a mere half million of those Seagate drives (which sure didn’t spin at any 7200RPM!) for 20TB total capacity–and you’d spend $200 million to get there.

Let’s say $206 million total.

Consider the ratios

RAM prices pretty much follow Moore’s Law, since they’re integrated circuits. So the price for 314GB in 1988 was 3200 times what it is in 2012. (Ignoring inflation…let’s just do that for now.)

3200:1–a pretty impressive ratio!

Except that hard disk development has consistently been faster than Moore’s Law. Even with today’s shortage of hard disks (those 2012 prices are higher than they should be, thanks to weather-related issues), the price for 20TB in 1988 was 183,486 times what it is in 2012–or, including 50% more storage in 2012 for RAID reliability, call it 125,000.

125,000:1–now that’s an impressive ratio!

[Want solid-state storage instead? Figure about $27,300 in 2012–a lot more than $1,090 or $1,600 with 50% overage. Which suggests that the real Moore’s Law change should be about 7300:1, not 3200:1.]

Still, 125,000 is impressively more than 7,300.


Ignoring the much faster performance of those 2012 hard disks, each of which has a RAM cache almost as large as the Seagate 1988 disk (32MB).

Ignoring the much faster performance of that 2012 RAM.

Ignoring the reality: The system mentioned is certainly not running on PC-level equipment, although my understanding is that Google, at least, does use vast arrays of PC-level hard disks (my understanding could be wrong). It’s not realistic to have that much RAM on a PC for physical reasons, for example…

Ignoring the limits: Well, actually, the only limit even in PC terms is that Windows 7 [Ultimate, 64-bit version] can “only” address 192GB of RAM. (The limit for hard disks is apparently 256TB, so that’s not an issue…)



Unplug or not?

Posted in Technology and software on March 21st, 2012

It seems that Shabbos this week (that is, sundown Friday through sundown Saturday) is the National Day of Unplugging. I’d seen it mentioned, ahem, online, but was taken by the story in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, which I take as a daily print newspaper. The story, in a business column that appears regularly, is headlined “Confessions of a tech addict” and you can read it from the link.

So: Do I participate or not?

Based on the story, there’s no reason I should: I’m not a “tech addict” according to those anecdotal signs.

I don’t even own a smartphone, much less cycle through email and all the social network sites first on the computer…and then again on the smartphone in case I’ve missed something.

I’m almost always off the computer (and the internet) entirely from around 8 p.m. to around 7:45 a.m., and frequently from 6 p.m. to 7:45 a.m.

When I am on, I don’t compulsively check social networks and email. I probably spend more time on Friendfeed than is really good for me, but otherwise…not so much. I’m mostly either writing on the computer or visiting sites to help whatever else I’m doing.

Still…the idea of staying off the internet entirely for 24 hours is almost appealing. Not that I haven’t done that. With the exception of our most recent cruise (when I checked email once a day at the request of, and expense of, my then employer), I was entirely offline from the time I left for vacation until the time I returned. That’s even true for conferences: With rare exceptions, I’m off the internet when I’m away from home. And that’s fine with me.

How do I feel about the national day of unplugging? I’m not sure. The idea that it’s extraordinary to pay attention to the people in your real world and less attention to your virtual acquaintances strikes me as unfortunate, but I suppose it’s a start.

Most likely, I’ll follow typical Friday evening/Saturday day patterns–which means the only time I’m likely to check email or social networks is for about an hour Saturday morning and maybe three hours Saturday afternoon.

Frankly, if you exhibit the signs that the Chronicle writer does, it might not hurt for you to join the unplugging. But that’s your call.

Dear Lexmark,

Posted in Technology and software on February 22nd, 2012

I’m sending you this (which you may never see!) this way because, as far as I can see, there’s no way to send email–and after my experience with your telephone tech support yesterday, I’m not trying that again.

Here’s the situation: I have a Lexmark Pro205 multifunction printer, purchased just over a year ago after my previous all-in-one (a different brand) stopped working, I purchased the Lexmark because of your five-year warranty, given that my all-in-ones of various brands never seem to last more than two years.

Given that I mostly use black ink (I normally have color inks locked out) and was printing a fair amount at the time, and that the black cartridge seemed to be about half used up in late March 2011, and that you have an innovative recycling rewards program for supplies ordered directly from Lexmark, I ordered two black 100XL ink cartridges so I’d have them on hand. Then my printing slowed down, and I got better at saving ink. (I must have purchased another cartridge with the printer; it doesn’t seem possible that the first one lasted this long.)

Long story short: The black cartridge finally give out  a couple of weeks ago. I replaced it with one of the two cartridges I’d ordered, both still in original sealed foil packaging (within cardboard).

The new cartridge never worked properly. Sometimes a page would have one or two rows of dots missing (just enough to be annoying), sometimes a page would have whole sections missing. After trying the test page and deep-cleaning routines, with no luck, I replaced the cartridge with the other cartridge. Which is working perfectly.

It was at that point, looking back through receipts, that I realized I’d ordered the cartridges so long ago. So I thought to send you email saying “I have this problem, but if cartridges really only have a limited shelflife–even though there’s no expiry or sell-by date that I can recognize within the mass of nearly-unreadable tiny black-on-grey type on the package–then I guess I’m just out the price of a cartridge.”

But you don’t have email support. So I wound up calling. After being transferred twice, each time being given a new more direct 800 number, I finally wound up at what I assume to be an India call center, with a person whose phone was apparently so bad that I had to shout into my landline phone, held half an inch from my mouth.

And who, after I’d repeated the printer model number for the fourth time, and explained the situation, and said yes, I’d gone through the standard diagnostics…then said “we only guarantee the ink for four months after purchase” (again, with undated packaging). It was apparent that no RMA would be forthcoming. I’ve put the useless cartridge in one of your postage-paid recycling envelopes and will send it back.

Then, the tech wanted to lead me through a list of Steps To Take To Solve Problems–and simply would not accept my assurance that I’m literate, that I know how to use computers and printers, and that I had the manual. After a little while, I hung up on the tech.

The monetary loss isn’t big. I guess I’ve learned a lesson: Don’t ever buy Lexmark supplies in advance, and don’t buy them from Lexmark (since that requires advance planning). Go to the local store (unfortunately, the OfficeMax that shafted me on the purchase by reneging on its MaxPerks offer) and buy the ink only when the printer runs out.

What would be lovely: if you replaced the cartridge, but since I use the printer sparingly, the new one might even be worthless by the time the one I just installed is used up.

What would be nice: If you had an email option for support, for those of us who can wait for a response and are just fed up with dealing with phone techs who go by the book and waste our time and energy.

What I expect: Nothing.

Why I’m writing this: Frustration. Companies that take orders on the web really should have email support as an option.


walt crawford, waltcrawford at gmail dot com

FWP: Why can’t a browser just work?

Posted in Technology and software on January 2nd, 2012

Yes, I know it’s a First World Problem–and yes, I know these are just annoyances, not Big Fat Serious Issues…but still, in the spirit of the new year, why not?

The Past

I’d been a happy Firefox user for years. I dealt with recent changes in the layout. I like the flexibility of multiple search engines (in a separate search box, please, not in the address bar), and the ease with which I could add them and customize my list (which currently has more than half a dozen, including IMDB, Wolfram|Alpha and Wikipedia, although I mostly use Bing and Google). I like the fact that I can select my own typeface and size, with the typeface applied throughout. I like the addons, although I miss a word-count addon.

And I liked the speed and stability. Until Version 9.

The Present

Version 9 has been crash-prone ever since it installed itself. It seems like any time I hit a page that might have media on it, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll get a “we’re sorry” message and have to restart Firefox. Sometimes that happens twice in an hour, sometimes twice a day, sometimes not at all for hours or a full day.

It’s really annoying, especially when I have four tabs open to carry on a project–and at least once, I’ve had to force Firefox to abandon the tabs that were open in order to get back to work at all, as it kept re-crashing on a perfectly ordinary website.

So I thought I’d try Chrome again, even though I’m loathe to yield too much of my life to Google.

Not so much. It wouldn’t let me choose my own typeface (and enforce that choice), I found its control system and layout a little mysterious, and it didn’t seem to want to behave the way I wanted.

So back to IE? Well, maybe, but here again, the layout seems to confound me. What do I mean by the layout? I’m not sure; I just feel/felt clunky working with IE, especially if I tried to add search choices and use them.

The future?

For now, I’m back to Firefox, hoping some mini-upgrade will reduce the crashes.

Yes, I’ve (tried to) inform(ed) Firefox, twice. No, I haven’t received any response.

I know, I know: It’s freeware, open source software, and I shouldn’t really expect support. Guess I’m spoiled by WordPress.

I don’t plan to grump that much this year; I hope this is an exception. And, hey, despite this, I’ve finished revising Chapter 3 (for the first post-metrics draft, that is, not the final draft), and I’ll move on to Chapter 4 shortly…


When grandpa used 80 column cards…

Posted in Technology and software on December 27th, 2011

There’s a cute little item on engadget today, showing an IBM 305 RAMAC hard disk subsystem from 1956 being unloaded from a cargo plane.

This 1956 HDD was composed of 50 24-inch discs, stacked together and taking up 16 sq ft of real estate. The once-cutting-edge monstrosity was capable of commanding an annual fee of $35,000 and stored up to 5MB of data. Sure, by modern standards it’s a pretty modest capacity, but the RAMAC still weighed in at just shy of a ton.

The RAMAC was way before my time (as a programmer/analyst, although I was certainly alive in 1956). Notably, when some of us library nerd types tried to compare contemporary disk storage with “historic” disk storage, we looked at the first really widespread removable-cartridge drive, IBM’s Winchester (3340), a 1973 design for use with the System/370 that stored 35 or 70 megabytes. (It wasn’t the first removable drive–but it was the first sealed disk pack, so that it was removable in ordinary use.) The name Winchester–IBM’s code name during development–was supposedly coined because the original design had two removable 30-megabyte modules, thus 30-30, like the famous rifle. (For lots more on removable and other IBM mag disk drives, see Wikipedia–this is one of the kinds of things that source does exceptionally well.)

Ah, the comments

As is frequently the case, the comments on the engadget piece can be more interesting than the article itself. (I haven’t looked at the discussion page for the Wikipedia article, but I frequently find those more interesting than the articles as well).

Ones I found particularly interesting:

You would think that storing the data on punch cards would take much less physical space.

That’s where the “grandpa” comment came in–the first response to that odd comment is:

According to my grandfather who worked with punch cards. This was much, much better.

I used Hollerith cards (the IBM 80-column cards that most people mean by “punch cards,” although there are several other varieties as well) for my first library automation system–the Doe Library’s circulation system, installed in 1968 and used until some time after I left UC (apparently because IBM could no longer maintain the collator)–and I prepared programs  on Hollerith cards in Basic Assembler Language and PL/I for years in the 1970s, submitting the boxes of cards at the computer center to be compiled at UCSF, the closest IBM System/360 available at the time.

Yes, hard disk was much, better–but it’s also true that 5MB worth of data on punch cards would take up less space. That would require roughly 12 boxes of 2,000 cards each (assuming 80 bytes per card–that is, character-based storage). The problem, of course, is that retrieval of the data you want from 11 boxes of cards is excruciatingly slow. The circ system only worked because I designed a keypunch algorithm that meant that the couple of hundred thousand cards showing circulating items could be sorted into absolute call number order (combining Berkeley’s five or more call number systems in use at the time), so that pages could look up individual books by hand. That was feasible; finding an individual book “by computer” wasn’t, at the time.

Another comment says “5MBs would have required 65,536 punched cards”–in other words, 12.5 boxes–that would be a stack of cards 12-18 meters high. That’s silly, of course: You’d never store cards in one vertical stack. You’d have a stack of boxes, and that stack would be manageable, but absurd for individual retrieval. (We had a U-shaped space in the circulation area with tub files–open card drawers–on two of the three walls, the equipment on the third. The set of tub files was the equivalent of, I think, 100 boxes.)

But then there’s this:

An 80 column punch card held 960 bytes, so this replaced over 5,000 cards.

Um…no. An 80 column punch card used for binary data would hold 960 bits (80×12), not bytes, so it would take around 44,000 cards to hold that much data in pure binary form (and it would be even harder to retrieve it, since each card would be meaningless).

The 30-year difference

The multiperson effort to compare size and cost of today’s hard disks with those of the 1970s was not entirely successful, as I remember. Here’s a 30-year comparison, however, based on the inclusion of prices for later IBM disk drives.

The IBM 3380 began shipping in October 1981 and was apparently IBM’s first multi-gigabyte disk drive. A 2.52-gigabyte unit cost $81,000 and up.

If I drop by Fry’s Electronics I can pick up a name-brand external 3TB hard drive for $200; it would be less, but prices are high because flooding has affected the factories of most manufacturers.

Let’s see. Assume that “2.55GB” uses traditional 1,024 orders of magnitude, so we’ll round that capacity up to 2.7GB. So you’d need about 1,100 3380s to offer the storage of one Seagate GoFlex external hard drive. Those 1,100 drives would cost a bit more than $89 million dollars. I won’t even begin to speculate on the space required for those drives, the amount you’d pay for controllers to make them all work together, or the cost of power to run them.

Today’s external hard drive gives you 445,500 times the storage per dollar–and consumes almost no space or power. (The GoFlex has to be plugged in, I think, but there are certainly external drives that don’t cost much more and rely on the USB connection for power.)

Do I miss Hollerith cards? Not so much. (Am I old enough to be a grandfather? Yes indeed. Am I procrastinating slightly on rewriting the second chapter of my next book? Well, yes, but I’ll go work on it now…)

Hat tip to Michael Sauers for tweeting about the engadget item.

Some Work, Many Don’t

Posted in Technology and software on July 30th, 2011

My wife, the wise person and actual librarian in our household, asked me the other day why I was doing this at all—since libraries surely aren’t buying new CD-ROM titles. I gave her a response similar to what I said back in July 2010 (Cites & Insights 10:8), and I think that’s still valid. Briefly, since libraries don’t automatically discard books from the late 1990s, and since many of these title CD-ROMs were “expanded books” in one way or another, I thought it would be worth seeing whether they still run on contemporary computers, whether they still seem worthwhile, what’s replaced them and so on—along with some notes from when I first reviewed them.

On the other hand…the first six CD-ROMs I tried out this month wouldn’t install at all. Period. In no case was this terribly surprising, but in some cases it was disappointing. After writing up earlier notes on three of them that had been quite interesting (if flawed) “virtual museums,” I realized I no longer had the heart to track down possible web alternatives and that, indeed, recounting how these titles used to work was mostly a history of things lost and a trifle depressing. Remembering when title CD-ROMs were touted as the Next Big Thing, possibly even replacing books, I will note this: Any book I purchased in 1995-1999 is still readable—but many title CD-ROMs purchased in that period are now entirely useless. [I was going to qualify “any book” with “except mass-market paperbacks”—but all the mass-market paperbacks I have from the mid-90s are entirely readable, as are ones that date back to 1965, cheap acid paper and all.]

For the rest of the story… or read The CD-ROM Project as part of Cites & Insights 11:6

Google TV

Posted in Technology and software on July 29th, 2011

The first couple of Google TV products emerged in early 2011—Logitech’s Revue set-top box and a Sony Blu-ray player with Google TV built in. A fairly long writeup in the February 2011 Home Theater is interesting—including an odd little slap at both devices for requiring wall-wart power supplies, which—for devices that are always plugged in—“always screams cheap, off-the-shelf design to me.” The main conclusions: Google TV isn’t there yet, partly because none of the three main networks will allow streaming of their shows, partly because in the process of passing your other TV signals through the Google box, you lose surround-sound capabilities. We do get a sideswipe from a writer who’s clearly an Apple fancier—as made clear in this passage: “If you’re one of those staunch opponents of all things Apple, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, and you’ll forever be subjected to complex hierarchies and poorly integrated UIs…” Wow. Nobody but Apple is capable of producing good UIs!

For an amusing contrast, there’s “Kill Your Cable, If You Dare” by Jeff Bertolucci in the December 2010 PC World. Bertolucci was spending $85/month on his cable service, and of course the only solution was to get rid of cable entirely. (Since, you know, moving to limited-basic is clearly out of the question.) He concludes that “Google TV…is the best way to find content online.” He also discusses lots of other options…and admits that, well, “if you live in an area where the over-the-air broadcast channels are difficult to receive through antenna,” maybe you shouldn’t cut the cable. What I notice consistently throughout the article: There is never any discussion of video quality. None. (At the very end, he does mention limited-basic cable.) So on one hand, Google TV is the way to go; on the other, it’s not ready for prime time.

For the rest of the story (21 other products & ideas)… or read Interesting & Peculiar Products as part of Cites & Insights 11:6

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