Archive for the ‘Technology and software’ Category

It’s obvious–once you know how

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

I see in this morning’s social streams a Mac-using librarian sneering at Windows and Microsoft–this time because shutting down a Windows 8 computer isn’t obvious.

I can sympathize. Sort of.

Several years ago, when my wife & I were visiting my father (now deceased: this was a while back), he was having trouble with his iMac (which I paid for one-third of: we three siblings agreed to buy him a Mac because my brother, a two-platform user who prefers Macs, would be doing most of the support). He wanted to shut it down entirely to see if a fresh power-up would solve the problem.

I looked for the proper shut-down button. Whoops. I looked for a Start menu. Whoops.

Eventually, I stumbled upon what I assumed to be a decorative element over in one corner, the Apple icon. Clicking on it brought up a menu, including shutdown.

Obvious, once you know how.

I’m not saying Windows 8 (which I don’t have) is better. And Windows 7, to be sure, has it under the little Windows logo–but there’s so much under that logo that if you don’t recognize it you’d be sorely hampered. (And I do remember how many people objected to the fact that Office 2010 and, I think, 2007 “hid” the file and print commands under…yep, that’s right, the Office logo. I understand that Office 2013 has changed that, but I haven’t moved.)

What I think I’m really saying is that “intuitive” and “obvious” are both tricky things to say about most any aspect of a PC or tablet interface. (Oh, c’mon, you tell me that swipe-to-unlock is intuitive or obvious: and that’s on a device, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, I rather like–as I guess it is on many other tablets.)

Oh, yes, I almost forgot the shutdown method for OS X that I found when doing a web search: you bring up a terminal window and use a “sudo” command. What could be more obvious? (There’s also a four-keystroke intuitive command…)

Too clever by half

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Sometimes companies seem to use technological improvements in a way that may be snazzy…but is also counterintuitive and even baffling.

We encountered one of those a couple of days ago. This isn’t a Serious Story, but it is a little bit of too clever by half.


Most evenings, we either watch a current TV show (if there’s one we’re watching–currently that means two nights out of seven) or an episode of a series we’re watching via Netflix (discs, not streaming). (Saturdays are movies.)

Currently, one of the two series we’re watching via disc, which we’d never seen when it was on, is Smallville.

We pay the Blu-ray premium for Netflix, ‘cuz we do see the difference, which means that anything that Netflix has in Blu-ray will be sent to us in Blu-ray. (If, for some bizarre reason, we wanted the DVD version of a movie, easy-peasy: there’s a pull-down menu on the disc line in the queue. That doesn’t work for series, because Blu-ray versions sometimes/frequently come on fewer discs than DVD versions.)

We finished Season 5 (with some gratitude for being done with it) and started Season 6 last Sunday. Season 6 is available in Blu-ray. So that’s what we got.


Put the disc in. No previews: Nice. Also no opening theme and episode menu…it just started in with the first episode.

Well, OK, that’s fine for the first episode. But we’re not marathon viewers: we watch episodes individually, the way they were intended. (Pounds cane on floor; yells at kids to get off our lawn…)

So, I figured, surely Top Menu will get us to an episode menu, as it does in Chuck (which we own in Blu-ray but won’t rewatch for a couple years yet, probably, and which does the same right-into-episode-one trick).

Nope. Top Menu brings up the extras menu.

Maybe Pop-up Menu. Nope: That doesn’t do anything at all.

Yes, sure, I can turn on the chapter display and skip chapters until we get to Title 2 (the second episode); fine for the first four-episode disc, not so great for five-episode or six-episode discs. And stupid.

I look at online fora. This question has arisen. The snarky response was “Use the pop-up menu.” Which did nothing.

The Big Finish

Last night, after skipping chapters to get to and watch the second episode, I thought I’d try something else.

I was aware that one of the Big Vaunted Advantages of Blu-ray is that you can make menu selections while the disc is playing. I guess that’s a big deal; normally, personally, I’d rather pause the picture, make the changes, and then go on. But hey, it’s a nice feature.

So what if I hit Pop-Up Menu while the episode was playing and not paused?

Oh look: There’s what I would think of as a Top Menu along the bottom of the screen. Episode list and special features. Click on the third episode, and shazam: the third episode.

But surely I must have screwed up on Sunday: Surely Pop-Up Menu would do this if you, sensibly, paused to make a selection.

Not so! In Pause, Pop-Up does nothing at all on this disc.

Gee, thanks, Warner: In your infinite wisdom, you’ve hidden what should logically be the top-level menu where a submenu should be–and made it available only while episodes are actually playing and not paused.  Meanwhile, the submenu of special features is available as the top menu. That’s really clever.

Too clever by half.

Obligatory Google Reader post

Friday, March 15th, 2013

This post contains nothing of import.

Like many other library folk, I use Google Reader–in my case, not as a news source, but to keep up with liblogs (and a few dozen other blogs).

Like many others, I was saddened by Google’s announcement that, as with other Google services that don’t seem to bring enough $$$revenue$$$, it’s killing Google Reader. Hey, at least Google gave 3.5 months warning.

I’ve read lots of posts about the shutdown and alternatives. Several seem to have good advice. A special partial-hand salute to those who say “You shouldn’t use RSS anyway, social media are all you need.” Works for them: Fine. Telling me that if it doesn’t work for me, it’s my fault: Not so fine. Personal preferences matter.

Free services tend to go away. I know that. You should remember that. (Public libraries aren’t free: They’re community-funded on a prepaid basis.)

I don’t really have more to say that hasn’t been covered to death by others.

My own experience in getting out while the getting is good:

  • Restored my Bloglines account. And waited. And waited. And… Removed Bloglines from my Favorites list.
  • Tried Feedly this morning. I think that’s going to be workable; they sure have made from-Greader migration easy. We shall see. (I’m a Firefox user, and I think that helps.)
  • Haven’t tried The Old Reader because of other stories about the backlog. If Feedly turns out to be annoying, maybe I’ll try it later.

No great thoughts here.


Paint.NET and Pinta: One informal comparison

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

I’m not a big graphics person, but sometimes I need to do some graphics work.

I don’t do it often enough to justify one of the commercial programs (say Corel Paint Shop Pro, which my wife uses and likes, or Adobe Elements)–and, as I found when I tried to use Paint Shop Pro, if you’re not using them reasonably often, there’s a significant learning curve each time you use them.

I tried The GIMP–I guess it’s now just GIMP–and the learning curve seemed like a cliff in front of me. I gave it up fairly quickly.

Then I tried Paint.NET, and found that I liked it pretty well. I used Paint.NET for a couple of book covers, for example.

More recently, I heard about Pinta–which I mistakenly took to be a fork of Paint.NET. It’s not. It’s another open source software/freeware effort, “inspired by Paint.NET” but–like GIMP and unlike Paint.NET (which is Windows-only)–available for Mac, Windows and Linux. I downloaded it as well, without deleting Paint.NET


Recently, I prepared a report based on Give Us a Dollar… but specific to Oregon and Washington public libraries, as part of a speaking agreement (I’ll be doing two talks and, if people sign up, a preconference during the 2013 joint conference in late April 2013). Initially, I planned to make the report available exclusively as a free 6×9″ PDF. To make an interesting cover page without needing to be an artist, I decided to create two mosaic strips, each 3″ high (900 pixels) and 5″ wide (1500 pixels), consisting of graphic elements taken from Washington and Oregon public library websites and Facebook pages. That didn’t always mean pictures of libraries; some Oregon libraries using Plinkit for their sites use images evocative of where they are.

I used the wonderful Windows Snipping Tool [if you ever need to capture screenshots and you’re using Windows, I suggest you find this tool–key “snip” in the Start box–and make a shortcut to it on the desktop or, better yet, the taskbar] to capture images from various libraries. I think I used Paint.NET to normalize image sizes and then to fit the three dozen (or so) images into two mosaic strips. It wasn’t difficult, and I was happy with the results. You can see a smaller version of those results, and the rest of the cover page, in this post (which also discusses the three talks).


A bit more recently, I thought it would be nice to make the Washington/Oregon special report available to others as an example of what I could do for other states or groups of states, either as part of a speaking engagement or as a separate project. The person who I’m working with on the conference and I agreed that the following approach would be reasonable:

  • Beginning March 1, 2013 or thereabouts, the PDF–it’s a 73-page 6×9 PDF–will be available as a free download from Lulu. I’ll probably take it down around October 1, 2013. It will be available to anybody, and it’s the best example I have of at least one approach I could take.
  • When I do the formal announcement, I’ll also say how people can turn the PDF into a nice little printed book, albeit a book that’s just slightly smaller in each dimension (telling Adobe Reader to print it in booklet form, which puts two 6×9 pages–reduced to 91.7% of original size–on each side of 8.5×11″ paper and prints the pages so that, folded, they’ll be in proper order, then center-stapling the results).
  • I’ll offer a slightly expanded version of what I just said for a simple reason: Because 20 of the 73 pages include color graphs, a paperback Lulu edition would be expensive–the whole thing has to be printed in color, at $0.20 a page rather than $0.02 a page. Whereas a color laser printer or inkjet with, say, $0.03/page for black text and $0.15/page for 4% coverage in four colors (a lot more coverage than the color pages–except for the cover page–actually use), using $0.01/sheet paper, can probably print the whole thing for less than $6, maybe considerably less. (Actually, I’d guess around $3: since each “page” is really two pages, figure $0.03×37 plus $0.15×11 plus $0.36.)
  • But I’ll also offer a true book for those who might want it–and it will be a book, hardcover and all. It will probably cost around $30-$35, a couple of bucks more than production costs. (It will only be available while the PDF is available–probably March 1, 2013 to October 1, 2013.)
  • To do the book right, I needed to strip off the “cover page” and add a true cover–and I liked the idea of a wraparound cover with those mosaic strips wrapping all the way around. That meant having two strips each 900 pixels high by 4,260 pixels wide (front, back, spine and enough extra for the binding bleed). And it meant building a new cover 3,225 pixels high and 4,260 pixels wide.

I captured a whole bunch more images using Snipping Tool and normalized them (not all to the same size, but all to sizes that could plausibly be combined into a mosaic) with Pinta. I found Pinta a little less smooth than I was used to, but…well…OK.

If you’re wondering, which you’re probably not, both the original strips and the new strips are chosen to include a broad cross-section of libraries by LSA in both states; the new strips include roughly one out of three Oregon and one out of two Washington libraries–Washington has fewer libraries.

Then I wanted to paste the old Top strip into a new, much wider, Top2 strip and add more images to fill out the almost-three-times-as-wide strip. And immediately ran into trouble. Pinta would turn the bottom half of that large strip image into garbage. I “fixed” that by opening the strip, resizing the canvas to the new size, and going from there–but I ran into the part-garbage situation in a few other cases, when I was copying-and-pasting larger images. I also found that the copy-and-paste process was slow and difficult, enough so that I wound up with a few places where the pieces aren’t combined as carefully as I’d like. But since this was all just a frill, I accepted the results.

And then, wondering, decided to do the Bottom strip with Paint.NET rather than Pinta. It went much better–no problems with larger images, much smoother operation, some convenient info on the screen that Pinta didn’t offer and that made life easier… Well, it just went better. So much so that the Bottom strip became the Top strip for the new cover, since that’s more prominent. If this was a project where I anticipated lots of sales for the hardcover book (where “lots of” is significantly more than, say, 3 copies), I’d probably redo the other strip from scratch. I didn’t.

As you can probably guess, I used Paint.NET to create the full cover as well. Once I remembered the layer tricks to be able to get the spine text done properly (you have to put that text on a separate layer and rotate that layer–there are other ways, but that’s the most straightforward) and to have guidelines where I wanted them, it was a snap.


Here’s a small version of the cover (you’d never see all of it–the leftmost and rightmost 1/3 inch or so is swallowed up by the binding, as are the top and bottom fraction of an inch). As you can see even at this small size, the bottom strip is, well, a little ragged by comparison to the top.


For me, at least, and with a Windows computer, Paint.NET is the tool of choice. It just seems to be more polished, smoother, more powerful. I wish I’d used it for both strips. (But for various reasons, it would be a LOT more work to go back and redo the bottom one…)

That doesn’t matter if you’re using Linux or Mac OS X: Paint.NET isn’t available.

It might be the other way around for some other uses–there are aspects of Pinta’s UI management that seem to be clearer and more modern. I think.

Of course, you can have both: they’re the same price. Still…after using both, I’m more fond of Paint.NET than I was before.

Update, February 22:
As I was maybe procrastinating a little on preparing the Powerpoint slides for the talk that features this book, I found myself touching up that lower strip with Paint.NET. Not redoing it entirely, but doing a little selective modification. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better. And I found it easier to do on Paint.NET.

After which, I did do the PPT…

Checking my math

Monday, 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

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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

Wednesday, 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?

Wednesday, 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,

Wednesday, 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