Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New Blog By Me :)

I've started a second blog, this one is going to concentrate on something new that I'm doing?

The blog just opened, and you can see all the details at This Is Rob's Century.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Neat Separation Anxiety Hack

So the big news is that my dog, Terror, has finally returned home. This requires some explanation. Last year, when the divorce process was started, my ex and I agreed that she should keep Terror. Basically, she was staying in the house and I felt it was better for him to stay there... further he would provide a certain amount of protection since she was now living alone. It broke my heart, but at the time it seemed to be the best choice for him. So, when I went apartment hunting I found an apartment that would allow cats (I got the cats) but not dogs (since I didn't have one). Well, after about a month, the ex called me and said she was moving to Austin, TX and couldn't bring the dog with her. There was a mad scramble and I finally found a family member who would look after him until I could move. I moved in July, but after much discussion, it was decided that Terror should stay put until I got back from my Wales trip. Last weekend was the first chance I had to meet up and get him back.

He's mostly doing great, and is enjoying my more active life style... specifically that we go for a run most mornings, a walk at noon and the dog park in the evening. (Although how long that continues being an everyday thing....) And I'm just thrilled to have him back. What is not going so well is his separation anxiety. He's always had a touch, but the upheaval of the last year has brought it back in spades. Even when I go to get the mail, I can clearly hear him for quite some distance.

I knew this would be a problem, and have actually been using my computer to record him so I can hear how he is doing. The first time I left him, it was almost continuous barking.... its getting better and I think I hit on something that might do the trick.

I checked a number of websites on how to deal with this. Several suggested crating your dog about 30 minutes prior to leaving or hanging outside the house waiting for the barking to start... then throwing pebbles against the window to distract the dog.

So last night I tried it. I took Terror into the bedroom and shut the door and just puttered around the apartment for a few minutes, clearing my throat every time he barked. And he did great, until I left. Then the had him clearly barking once every two or three minutes. Much better, but I'm sure my neighbors would prefer NO barking!

This morning I got a brainstorm. I sat down and recorded about 3 minutes of me working on the computer, occasionally clearing my throat. Then when I left to get the mail today, I put him in the bedroom and then started that "song" on iTunes and cranked the volume. I also started recording, so I could hear the result.

Then I stood outside the door for maybe 30 seconds and every time he started to bark, I tapped the window sharply with my finger. After two or three times, I decided to walk away.

So how did he do with my "Play When Terror Is Alone" song playing and the distraction technique?

When I got back and looked at the recording, there were two faint barks at the beginning and that was IT.

I will update in a week or so to let everyone know how it is going, but the initial reports are very hopeful!

And of course, I couldn't end this without a picture...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Final Thoughts On Trip

So, the trip home was fairly uneventful. I had a 12 hour layover in Amsterdam which consisted of me going to a hotel room, reading for a bit and then going to sleep. I finally got home around 6:00 last night and Carrie and I settled in for a night of TV watching.

The trip itself was the perfect way to end a period in my life where it was changed completely. Losing weight (150 pounds), moving to Pittsburgh, getting divorced and meeting Carrie all in 18 months. While all of the changes were for the good, it was a lot of upheaval and having this trip to look forward too (and then doing it) was a huge help. Additionally, getting to go with my sister Alice made it extra special. Over the last few years we haven't seen each other as often as we'd both like because our holiday schedules never seem to line up.

When we were in Builth Wells, we were talking to a nice older couple who were in town as vendors at an antique fair. Out of the blue, the woman said the trip must be incredibly spiritual... and I was completely taken aback. Only one other time in my life have I had someone say something to me so innocently that was also exactly what I needed to hear right at that moment.

The other time, I was working at a job I was miserable at in downtown Pittsburgh. The stress at the job was giving me acid reflux and insomnia very badly. It was a perfectly miserable time in my life. I was in the elevator coming back from lunch and feeling bad for myself and the doors suddenly opened and there was an woman there who appeared to be in her 90's and very, very frail looking. She looked up at me with cloudy eyes and said "What are YOU doing here?" And then, as if on some kind of cue, the doors closed immediately.

Clearly, she'd mistaken me for someone else... but that innocent mistake really took me for a loop. That day I started looking for another job, and within weeks I'd found one and had moved on to a better, less stressful life.

Sitting in a pub in Builth, I had a similar feeling. It really hadn't occurred to me that this was a spiritual thing but in reality it was. Seeing the mountains that seemed so permanent, and going through towns that had been settled since the 1200's or earlier. (One town on that day had evidence of being settled since Neolithic times.) Even the path we were following the Las Lon Cymru is mentioned as far back as written history. That night I dreamed of the mountains from their perspective... sitting there for millions of years, and then in a few seconds (from their perspective of time) these strange little two legged creatures moved in, built homes, hunted the forests, turned to agriculture, shaved the tops of the peaks for pasture land and built castles using the skeletons of the mountains themselves. Right up to the present day...

It really put things in perspective for me. We don't have long here and we should enjoy the time we have with each other as best we can, but we should also remember the effects of our stay can last and last.

Just a last note. If you've been following this, its pretty clear that I had a great time. The company I worked with to organize all of this is Drover Holidays, and they did a just fabulous job of organizing everything, booking us into some just fabulous B&B's and getting our luggage from place to place and perhaps most importantly giving us easy to follow directions and maps for each day. The do both walking and cycling holidays, and I just can't recommend them enough. So if your interested in seeing Wales up close, these are the people I would recommend.

Day 8 -- Brecon to Cardiff

The last day was both the easiest and the hardest. We started by climbing the Brecon Beacons and heading into the Valleys, the most populous region of Wales. By this point, the 1200 foot ascent seemed like nothing until the last 100 or so feet where we had to dodge some construction equipment.

After the peak there was some good trail riding, and all seemed happy. Suddenly, there was pavement under our wheels and we were both disappointed that it looked like the trail was going to end. We where wrong, shortly after the pavement started, we were going down what seemed like a 45 degree hill. It was so steep, it really felt like we would flip over our handle bars at any moment. It was gorgeous though, with a waterfall to the right, and old trees all around. Then we looked down and realized that the path took a sudden left hand turn. So slamming on the brakes, we took the 90 degree left hand turn, followed by an immediate 120 degree right hand turn, over a bridge and then up an equally steep hill. It appears that the pavement was there as a safety precaution.. if it had been a normal trail, we would have either been thrown from our bikes or fallen into the river (about a 10-20 foot drop). We named this the Bridge of Death.

After the trail riding, we were assured that it was "all down hill from here" both by the card, and by several people we talked to. Of course "all down hill" just means 'no more mountains' because we still hit plenty of decent hills from the top of the Beacons all the way into Cardiff.

Once we were in Cardiff, there was some getting lost and what was supposed to be a 54 mile ride turned into a 60. We finally dragged ourselves to the bed and breafast, showered and headed out to find Roald Dahl Plas, also known to Torchwood fans as "The Hub."

What appeared to be a short walk on the map ended up being about 5 miles, but we not only got our picture at the end of route 8 (the trail we'd followed from Holyhead), but we also got some pics from the Plas and some good thai food while we were at it.

Then we had to get back to the B&B, walked about half way and gave up and got a taxi.

Day 8 Pics

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pics!

D'oh, I forgot to link to the pics!

Day 5
Day 6
Day 7

Day 7 -- Builth Wells to Brecon

Today was fairly uneventful... we didn't get lost, no massive winds and finally a rain free day! The ride was gorgeous as always, with just one steep climb in a town called Llanifo. (Rough translation, the parish of St Bilo...)

We arrived in Brecon around 2, and the B&B we were booked at said it was closed on Sunday! After an inital bit of panic we figured out that the cafe attached to the B&B was closed and were able to get all sorted out.

I'm pretty tired now, having now blogged the last three days... and having cycled roughly 210 miles since Monday. So, even though its only around 9 here, I'm off to bed!

Day 6 -- Llandiloes to Builth Wells

The terrain today was much gentler, just one or two big hills. There was one point that we were on single track, on very muddy ground which was a little errr, intense. But over all the calmest day so far.

At one point, there were 4 sheep in the road that refused to let us pass them, for roughly 3 miles. Eventually they did find a hole in the hedge, and we were able to pass. At the next town, we stopped and asked what we should do, which the people there thought was quite funny... sheep are stupid animals, they said, just keep going and they will find their way back.

In the evening we met another couple, whose names I'm sad to report I'd forgotten, but they were antique vendors at a local antique show. The husband had originally trained in France as a chef, and taking up antiquing after retiring.

One thing that we've noticed is that alot of the stuff that is seen as a new trend in the US, such as alternate energy, eating organic, locally grown vegtables is just assumed here which is really cool.

Day 5 -- Macllyneth to Llanidloes

The ride was fairly intense today, mostly due to the wind. There were some steep ascents, local residents call this ride "going over the top." The only real standout incident was that at one point we stopped to sit down and catch our breath because we were going up a very steep incline, against the wind. After realizing that stopping just made us cold, Alice stood up and was literally knocked back down by the wind!

Today were at the highest point of our trek, or at least would be if we'd following the directions correctly on day 3.

In Llanidoles, we met Richard and Alison, a very nice couple who invited us into their home for tea and biscuits. Richard had researched his family back 200 years and they had all lived in the area. He currently resides at the Old Roundhouse, or what we would call the Old Jailhouse which was built in the either the 1600 or 1700 to deal with the influx of Chartist related arrests. (Llanidloes was a center of both Non-conformist and Chartist movements in Wales.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Day 4 -- Dollegelue to Macyllen

I know I'm not spelling these correctly, and after my vacation is over I'll go back and correct them.

Today started fairly calmly, we rode back down the estuary that had ended our day yesterday. Stopped off in Dollegelue at a bike shop to clean our bikes and pick up somethings I needed. For the last 2 days, I've had a recurring problem with my shoes slipping off the pedals, and last night it occurred to me that the shoes I brought with me probably had something like 2 or 3 thousand miles of combined cycling and walking on them. So, I picked up some cycling shoes, a thermal shirt, some gloves and some additional socks. Let me tell you, the new shoes totally rock!

From there, we headed up a hill that was fairly steep (Pittburgers can think of Greenfield Ave) that never seemed to end ( think Greenfield, but 10 miles long!). Then we had a pleasant jaunt downhill to a farm called Hafotty-fach. There we got on what was described by our tour company as the hardest ride of the trip... but compared to what we did yesterday was a piece of cake.

However, about 1/2 between Hafotty-fach and the next farm, Bryn Gwyn, there was the Sheep Hill of Death. While not the steepest grade we've done this trip, it was just steep enough and quite long enough to take us about an hour to get over it. The view was, as always spectacular, and given the ride we had yesterday and the angle of ascent we decided to walk amongst the sheep and cattle to the top of what I can only think of as a mountain.

So, this brings me to something that I haven't mentioned. All along this trip, we keep coming to gates. When we arrive at them we have dismount, open the gate, walk our bikes through and then close the gate before remounting. For a while, we thought this might be some kind of property designation or something. Finally it occurred to Alice that these gates were actually keeping the sheep in. That's right, we really are cycling through sheep pastures, and have been since day one.

So as we ascended the Sheep Hill Of Death, we really were surrounded by sheep, close enough that we had to dodge their errr.... leavings on a regular basis.

Finally we reached the top, and from there it was a quick descent with a few hills in into Macllyenth, the home of the old Welsh Parliament. Basically, back in 1401-1406, there was a rebellion against English rule that was, for a time, quite successful. The last Welsh Prince Of Wales, built a Parliament building and ran an independent government from here. The town is just stunning with a large clock tower at the center of town.

This is such an adventure, and just so much fun. The weather until today was bad, and I don't mean 'oh, I think it might get a bit wet' but rather 'Is it possible for it to rain so hard that you drown?' Today was better though, and it is almost like a different country when the sun in shining. In the rain it is amazing because all the colors stand out so vibrantly. It is almost like everything has gotten a dash of neon paint. When the sun is out, then you get to see just how vibrant the green is and how majestic the mountains appear.

Pics from Day 2


Pics from Day 3/4


(The first couple of shots on Days 3 and 4 is the birth place of T. E. Lawerence, also known as Lawerence of Arabia.)

Day 3 -- Porthmadog to Dollegleu

So, this is the day from which most stories will arise. I don't think I can even remember them all.

There are apparently two ways to get between these two towns that are still "Bike Route 8"... we took the hard one.

It started off with a nice mountain, then we entered Snowdonia National Park, home of the biggest mountains in Wales. In here we hit a massive 20% grade hill, that must have been something like 5-9 miles long. It was brutal, and I have to admit that some of the hill was walked, rather than biked... but I am proud that I did perhaps 3/4ths of the hill.

Soon, we were treking through what must have been Tolkien's inspiration for the Old Forest (the border of the Shire for those who have only seen the movie). I saw a tree that I SWEAR was an Ent, really!

Then we ended up going through some intense growth (ferns and nettles) as well as sheep pastures. At one point, I scared a sheep which in turn scared to squirrels... at that point (less than 1/3 of the way into the day!) Alice and I were so tired that we couldn't stop laughing.

After the pasture, we ended up in Coed y Brennin, a just absolutely indescribeable pine tree forest. In there we encountered more sheep, including one that kept trying to out run us, would sprint for about 1/3 a mile and then look back at us. Finally we stopped (because there is little that is more pathetic than a panicked sheep), and let it wander back into the woods. After the sheep we went through an active logging site. (Mind you this was all in the rain, at times with the rain pelting us horizontally.)

We finally arrived in Dollegleu around 6, and started following the directions to the hotel. It was then that we discovered that we'd followed the wrong '8' and we were actually starting the next day's ride (today's). So consulting the maps, we realized that instead of the crazy intense ride (I left out some of the mountains... there were 3 or 4 total.), we should have had a calm ride along the coast!

So, we had to back track from Dollegleu to the actual town we were staying in, cold, tired and pedalling almost like robots. We went through an estuary, but can't really remember it. Finally arrived around 7:30.

Day 2 -- Caernafron to Porthmadog

So I haven't posted in a few days since I've not had much in the way of internet access.

Some things I've learned: if you are ever offered a beer called Strongbow... don't take it. Its an IPA with about 20 tbls of sugar added! Welsh Smooth and Brains Smooth are good though.

The people here are very friendly and always interested in what we are doing. However, when they say "hill" that is a big hill to an American from the east coast. When they say "big hill" they mean basically a mountain... and when they say mountain... well, lets just say that my legs formed a committee to figure out how to secede from the rest of my body.

The trip from Porthmadog was breath-taking. Other than rain, there was not much to report this day. There was "the sheep farm hill" (not to be confused with the sheep hill of death which comes later), a steep and I mean STEEP hill that dumped us out into a working sheep farm... so we couldn't even enjoy our sense of victory due to the smell. (It was by FAR the steepest hill I've ever successfully climbed.)

I'm having problems posting pics right now, but as soon as I get that resolved I will post some gorgeous pics from this day.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Greetings From Caernafaron!

I didn't get a chance to post yesterday for two reasons. 1) The trip to get from Pittsburgh to Holyhead took about 26 hours and I was tired and 2) there was no internet at the Bed & Breakfast we stayed at.

So, after a year of planning and ridiculous travel times, I am on my cycling tour of Wales, HURRAY! The first day was supposed to be about 36 miles from Holyhead (which is on the Isle of Anglessy) to Caernafaron. However, we got lost and ended up on the wrong side of Anlessy, and then lost again and lost one more time as we entered Caernaforon.

The ride was excellent, despite the remenents of a hurricane whipping us around and generally making life very, very wet. Saw a standing stone, a burial mound, several fairly nice estates... and saw my first haha, or is it hoho? Anyway, these are earthworks that some people put between their house and the road so that the road is not visible from their house.

Last night the accomadations were splendid, and the breakfast this morning was fantastic. Tonight the rooms are smaller (I'll post pics), but it is inside a walled village. So yes, for all intents and purposes I'm staying in a FREAKIN' CASTLE!!!!!!

I'm not going to upload individual pics, but just give a link to my photos for the day. I didn't take that many mostly because of the whole getting lost thing... that and it was raining like mad and I didn't want to get my iPhone wet. My sister Alice took some photos as well and I'll post those when we transfer them.

Pics

Friday, August 28, 2009

Follow Up On Kindle Review

Re-posted from my facebook pages, again....

Thanks everyone for the positive response to my review. Several people thought I should try to get it published which surprised me.

I just wanted to follow up with something. One feature that I did not test was syncing. This is a a feature that lets you read a book on kindle enabled device, like say a kindle, and then on another device go to the furthest point you've read in the same book. I had a chance to test it last night, so I thought I would add a bit about it.

So last night I was waiting to get my hair cut, and decided to try out "Kindle For IPhone", Amazon's app that lets you read your kindle books on your iphone. So, I pulled out my phone and fired up the app. I was presented with only one option, "Archived Items" which in Kindle-speak means "books that you've purchased but haven't downloaded to this device." The name is confusing, and really should be changed to something like "Items Not On This Device", but whatever.

So I went into my archive and selected "Death From The Skies!" because, as I've said the Bad Astronomer rocks. The book downloaded in less than a minute over the 3G connection I had, then I had to go back to my "Home" and enter the book. I was immediately taken to, and this is a little confusing, the last page in the book that I was reading the last time I had my Kindle's wireless turned on.

This of course makes sense, its just hard to describe. Basically, when your wireless is on, the kindle updates Amazon's servers to tell it the furthest page you've read. So, if your wireless is off and you read, say 10 pages, when you sync you'll be taken to the last page -10... or the furthest page you read when the wireless was on.

In this case, I had read about another 10 pages after I'd turned off the wireless to conserve battery power, so I had to go manually "flip" through the pages. And yes, on the iphone that is exactly what you do. Flicking your finger from right to left takes you forward a page, and flicking from left to right takes you back a page. Of course, with the iphone's screen, a "page" is really about 1/5 of a printed page. So I had to flick... and flick and a just when my finger was getting tired I had to flick some more.

Reading on the actual iPhone is ok, although it is not as easy on the eyes as the Kindle, and the fact the you can only read a few sentences before flicking again gets annoying. I also noticed that whenever a negative temperature was mentioned (say -273 Celsius), instead of a negative sign there was a little square. So there is some strangeness in the display on the iphone. Where it really shines though is in the use of footnotes, which unlike the kindle you can simply tap to activate... much, much easier.

Over all the app is pretty well written though, especially for a freebie, there is a slider bar that you can grab and pull through the book so you can fast forward. Other than the little square for negative signs, I really had only 2 complaints. 1) When you get in to the book, there really is no clear direction about what you are supposed to do. I only figured out how move from page to page after a bit of playing around, and a menu is available but it took me a few tries to find it. (You have to tap the screen and it appears... and then retap to make it go away.) The other complaint I have, and perhaps this options exists but I couldn't find it, is that there is no way to go forward a full page. So to get to page I wanted, I had to flick something like 40-50 times. Very annoying.

Now for the cool bit. When I got home and picked up my kindle, I tapped "Menu", navigate to "Sync to Furthest Point Read" and after a few seconds I was taken to exactly the page I'd gotten to on my iPhone.

What is great about that, is I now have whatever book I'm reading with me at ALL TIMES, for all those unexpected little delays in life. Waiting in line at the bank (do people still go to their actual bank anymore?), post office, doctor's office, whatever, I can just pop out my phone and pick up where I left off in whatever book I'm reading.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kindle Review

Posted this on Facebook but figured I would add it here as well.

So, as anyone on my friends list knows, I'm going to Wales this weekend. I'm very excited about getting there, getting on a bike and cycling the Los Lan Cymru for 8 days. What I'm not excited about is the journey from the US to the UK. My flight leaves Pittsburgh at Noon, arrives in Detroit around 1 and then my second leg takes off at something like 7. On the way back its worse... in addition to a multi-hour layover in Detroit, I have an overnight layover in Amsterdam. (I'll be getting in too late to go out and see the sights unfortunately, otherwise this would be an awesome layover!)

Anyway, back in May when I started figuring out what books I'd bring along I realized that with all the layovers I would need to bring a small trunk's worth of books.... or just keep popping into airport book shops and picking up something from the best sellers list. When June rolled around, I found that I had a little extra money in my vacation fund, so I started thinking about getting an e-book reader. And eventually settled on the Kindle, largely due to the periodical delivery service they rolled out this year. I've always wanted to the get the Times delivered, but didn't want to haul pounds and pounds of paper down to the recycling every week.

To give you an idea of how this review will go, let me state up front that my original plan was to get the Kindle, use it on my trip and then sell it on ebay when I got home. That plan has changed.

So, let's start the review proper:

The order process was the standard Amazon order process, nothing fancy and since I'm a Amazon Prime member it arrived in 2 days. All that was great. What was not so great was the packaging. I don't know, maybe I've been ruined by the packaging on Apple products lately, but what I got was a greyish black box made out of what to appeared to be recylced egg cartons with a a matte black label. All the printing was in glossy black, it was readable but didn't really give a good impression. The good thing is that the packaging was clearly made from recycled materials. HURRAY! The down side was that it was clearly done on the cheap, so it gave a poor first impression.


The day it arrived I had to drive my nephew from Pittsburgh to Erie after I got done with work, so I didn't get much of a chance to look at it. I played with it a bit, downloaded a few books from http://www.manybooks.net and put them on, and read one or two pages of "Alice In Wonderland." But I didn't get a long look at it since I was, as they say, at work.

That initial drive through did give me some basics of controlling it, and helped me get over my tendency (after being an ipod touch and iphone user) to try and move around by moving my fingers across the screen. Yup, even though I *knew* it was not a touchscreen, my first instinct was to try and use it that way. Guess I've just been well trained. :)

What I came away from on that initial drive through was a sense of disappointment. "I paid $300 for this? It looks like my old Palm III!" The display was kind of nice, but there was a flash each time I turned a "page", and the layout of the buttons was odd. On the right hand side is "Next Page" and on the left is a small "Prev Page" and a big "Next Page." Still after 20 some days of use, I still make the mistake of hitting "Next Page" on the left when what I mean is "Prev Page."

There is also a little joystick that you can user for navigating on the page. Pushing up or down on the joystick will pop up a cursor on the page. You can then either move to a word to get a definition (really cool!), move to a footnote, or move anywhere on the page and start typing on the chintzy keyboard and leave a note. (Just like writing in the margin.)

Finally, when the screen refreshes (like when you turn a page) there is a flash as the entire screen becomes a negative of the current page, then turns black, then grey and finally shows the new page. Its very jarring when you first experience it, and worse yet the display is a light grey color, kind of like cheap grey recycled construction paper. Not the brilliant white that I'd expect from an LCD screen in this price range.

So yeah, first impression was bleh, but I went ahead and ordered my 14 day trial subscription to the Times and then headed off to drive my nephew to Erie.

The next day, I woke up, made breakfast and sat down to the Times. The layout of the delivered paper is kind of cool. When you first enter it, you are given the story on the top left of the front page. You can then either continue to page through the rest of the paper using Next/Prev or you can go to the "Section List" From there you can pick the various sections (National, International, Sports, Arts, etc) and either flip through summaries of the articles by selecting the number of articles in the section, or page through them by selecting the name of the section. The joystick can also be used to jump from article to article. So if you have some time on your hands you can leisurely peruse the paper, or if your running late you can zoom through only hitting the articles of interest.

Granted, you can get all this content on line these days... but there are no ads in the Kindle edition, and the layout makes it very easy to navigate. Worth $13.99/month? For me yeah, < 50 cents a day for an easy to read, no advertisement paper is well worth it.

So that was cool, I decided to press on and try reading an actual book. It was a Saturday and I had no plans so I purchased a collection of Charles Dickens books and started reading "Great Expectations." I started at some point in the morning, perhaps 10ish... the next thing I knew I had to turn on a light because it was starting to get dark. (For those who don't know, there is no back light on a kindle for technical reasons which I'll explain later.) Yup, I had read for something like 8-10 hours solid and no eyestrain or headache. Also, at some point, I stopped noticing the page refreshes. If I thought about them as I went from page to page I would notice them... but if I was just reading along they just didn't register anymore.

Clearly, if I can sit and read a novel that demands attention like this for 8-10 hours with 1) no eyestrain or headache and 2) not noticing that the time is flying by then there is something to this device!

Since then I've finished reading "Great Expectations" and moved on to "Death From The Skies!" by the Bad Astronomer, selected because 1) the Bad Astronomer rocks and 2) I knew it would have lots of pictures, figures and footnotes.

Pictures are rendered in greyscale, and are pretty high resolution. If you want to see a better view of it, you can maneuver down to the image with your joystick and see it full screen. Overall, the quality is very satisfying although color would be preferred. :) The only down side is that the viewing software won't show you half an image. So if you are reading a page that has a few sentences and the rest is a picture, you may end up with an almost completely blank page followed by the image. I'm sure that makes the most sense, but takes getting use to.

Footnotes work, you move the joystick down to the number then select it and you are taken to the footnote. Its nice, however it would be nice if the navigation cycled you through the footnotes first, and then let you navigate around the page. If a footnote is half way down the page, on the left hand side, it takes a while to get to, so either changing the navigation or enabling some form of touchscreen on the next model would be preferred.

And I think that gets to one of the core issues with the Kindle. It is in the uncanny valley of user friendliness. On the one hand, it is very easy to use. On the other, for most tasks it is so easy to use that when you are faced with doing something more difficult it seems like a bigger hassle then it really is.

Take emailing an article to someone. I recently found an article in the Times that I wanted to send to a friend. Now, you think with a device that is connected to a 3G network, this would be simple, right? Perhaps pop up a menu and select "Email To..." Nope, I had to find the article online *using my computer* and then email a link. WTF? I have the article here on my internet enabled device, and I can't even send a link to article to a friend. That is just silly.

In the same arena, while it is great that you can annotate the text of a book or article at anytime, and retrieve that annotation later, it would be much more useful if you could share your annotations with other people reading the same book. If I'm reading War And Peace, you can bet that there are at least some readers out there who would have interesting things to say. So why not wiki-fy these annotations?

Neither of these are technically difficult tasks, for both I could probably whip up a prototype in a week or so. But again we see unrealized potential, Amazon isn't pushing an SDK for the Kindle... so I can't through something together and let other users download and install it.

Ok, back to the good stuff. Lets talk about this display.

Amazon and other ebook manufacturers like to talk about their displays. The truth is that most of them are using some variation of electronic paper. In fact the Sony e-readers and the Kindle use the exact same display. There are several variations on the basic technology, which can be read about at wikipedia.

At the simplest level, electronic paper works just like regular paper and ink, only the ink is able to reform itself into to new shapes (say moving from one page to another) fairly easily. It sounds kinda Harry Potter-ish, doesn't it? For most forms of EP (or maybe all, I'm no expert), the ink can hold its shape when the display is turned off. So, for example, when you put your Kindle to sleep it displays a picture of a famous author, scientist or piece of art.

The result of this is that rather than have an image that is lit from behind and is refreshing every 1/60th - 1/120th of a second, when you are reading an EP display you see a constant image that relies completely on reflected light. In other words, when using an e-book reader you *are* looking at a printed page. So there is no eyestrain (unless it is too dark to be reading) when you sit a read for hours on end. And for perhaps the same reason, there is no urge to skim the material. (I don't know about you, but when I come across a 10 page long email or blog post, I tend to skim... often without realizing that I'm doing it.)

Once you get use to the fact that the background is light grey and the flashing as it changes pages, the display is truly amazing. Images and text appear crisp and clean, the only time I've noticed any pixelation is when I've looked *very* closely at the display... with my nose a centimeter or two from the screen.

Battery Life

There isn't much to say here, the battery life is adequate. If you leave the 3G network on, the battery will last between 3 days and a week (depending on how much you read). If you turn it off, I've heard other users say that they charge their Kindle once a month.

The Network

The Kindle comes with 3G service provided by Sprint, and is primarily used for the delivery of books. You can also email documents to your kindle, but depending on the format of the email you may get charged for it. (I have not tried this feature.) So far, in the Pittsburgh area I've gotten good reception.

For international travelers, the wireless network will not work outside of the US and Canada. So for me, on my trip to Wales I will be without wireless for the entire trip. (Not entirely true, there is a way to share your computers network with your Kindle.)

The Browser

Buried in the menus there is an option for browsing the web. If you want to relive 1996, this would be the way to do it. The browser in its default mode is little better than Netscape 2.0. It has an advanced mode that makes things a little better... but not much. For techies, the default mode ignores CSS and javascript. The "advanced mode" seems to apply CSS 1.0, but still no javascript. Its functional, and interesting in its own way... but not very useful if you have any kind of laptop or smartphone in a 10 mile radius. I can only hope that it will improve as time goes on.

Text To Speech

One of the big additions with the Kindle 2 was the addition of Text To Speech, meaning that you can have your Kindle read to you. Some people seem very excited by this, but I'm not sure I see it. Yeah, as one reviewer pointed out it could be useful if you are reading on your porch and the light is getting dim but you still want to finish the chapter you are on... or if you are riding on the train, arrive at your station and want to continue hearing the story while you walk to your final destination.

However, like pretty much all Text to Speech it doesn't capture the inflections that someone actually reading the text would imbue into their reading. While the voice sounds pretty good, it is still fairly mono-toned. While it might be useful for short bits (like the scenarios above), it is hardly a substitute for a good voice actor or just reading the book yourself.

The Store

Amazon makes many boasts about the number of titles in its store, and its wireless delivery. Basically, if you've shopped at amazon with 1-Click on, you know what happens. You find your book, click a button and within a few minutes the book is on your Kindle (or ipod touch/iphone). You can also download samples of books and then purchase them after you've read 10-30 pages. This part of the experience is very nice, you can shop from your computer or your Kindle, and it all just seamlessly works.

Digital Rights Management

Here is my biggest complaint with Amazon and the Kindle, the DRM or Digital Rights Management. When you buy a book pretty much anywhere in the world, you can lend it out, re-sell it, tear it up to tiny bits and jump up and down on them... whatever. You have what is called "The Right Of First Sale" (I think I got that right.) It is through this right, which as a fine and long legal history, that we can have used bookstores, libraries and all kinds of other cool things. The Kindle and other e-book readers put additional restrictions through the use of software to prevent me from, say, going down to my library and loading up on books for my trip. Nope, can't do that, have to actually *buy* each book. (Or get public domain books for free through Amazon or ManyBooks.net.)

I have many issues with DRM both technical and political. I don't appreciate being told what I can and can't do with an item I purchased, as long as what I want to do is legal. DRM puts a straitjacket on the content I've purchased, and many free/open source, consumer rights and other organizations are working to try and prevent the spread of DRM. They should be supported, however ultimately DRM is a losing battle for the companies that provide it. They spend a good deal of money creating these software based solutions, and numerous hackers around the world spend their time trying to crack the same solutions. It ends up being a very costly arms race, and one that the hackers are almost sure to win.

So while I am concerned about DRM, I think ultimately it will be phased out for movies and books much like it is currently being phased out for music. The rewards for cracking these technologies is great enough that hackers will crack them, so then a new version must be developed which will be cracked, and so on. Eventually, the ebook producers will have no choice but to give up and find other solutions to the problem.

(Yes, I know many people disagree with that point of view. I'm not saying not to worry about it, in fact I urge you to give to any organization that is fighting it.... various open source/free software coalition such as the Free Software Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation or your local library. I'm just saying that I don't see DRM as a reason to not buy the Kindle per se.)

Conclusion

As I said, I'm going to be keeping my Kindle when I get back from Wales. Why, you might ask, would I do that if I have a long list of issues with the machine?

When it comes down to it, I have been reading more since I got my Kindle than I did before. I've always been a reader, but now rather than watching cable news in the morning, I read the New York Times... rather than watching 2 hours of television a night, I'm watching 1 and then reading the rest of the evening. For all of its faults, it is serving its purpose... I enjoy reading with it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

This is a test...



I'm just testing...

My vacation in Wales starts this weekend, and I will be posting photos and stories here as I cycle from Holyhead to Cardiff. This has been more than a year in planning, and I've been training myself so I can cycle the average of 36 miles a day. It's been a long time coming and I am very excited.

(BTW, the actual photo is a panoramic I took at the West End Overlook in Pittsburgh.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Celebrity Morph by MyHeritage

Yeah, had a few minutes at work today and found this....

MyHeritage: Family trees - Genealogy - Celebrities

Friday, January 2, 2009

Mighty Mouse Has Fallen and He Can't Get Up

So, this Christmas I received a number of gift cards and decided that since my laptop spends a lot of time connected to my TV while I stream netflix, I should get a wireless keyboard and mouse. Looking around I decided on getting an Apple Keyboard and Mighty Mouse. (And yeah, they are over priced... and yeah Steve Jobs is the devil. Whatever.)

Anyway, they arrived today, and all was happy. I was playing with Boxee, and watching various TV shows when nature called. So, without thinking, I got up from my recliner and my new Mighty Mouse was catapulted across the room. This was of course endlessly entertaining to my cat, and very frustrating to me. The mouse looked fine, but it would no longer turn on! "Gah," I thought, "this does not bode well...

So, I searched around and found nothing. So, I looked at the mighty mouse and noticed that the slider that covers the mouse's lens (which turns the mouse off) has a bit of metal connected to it. Under, the metal is a little button that if I pressed it would turn the mouse on. Further, I noticed that the metal was folded back on itself right near the lens cover. Clearly, from looking at it, I could see that when the lens cover is in the "on" position, it is supposed to drive the metal down into the button and turn the mouse on. However, due to the fall the metal had folded back on itself. So, being brave and figuring that if it failed I could get a cheaper bluetooth mouse, I took a knife and bent the end of the metal back into a position that would push the button down.

And it worked! The mouse turns both on and off, although it does take a little more pressure when to do so.

So, if you dropped your mighty mouse and it stopped working this MAY work for you. However, I don't recommend it as it may void your warranty, steal your children or cause radioactive mutants to setup a workshop in your basement. You best bet is to talk to the store you bought it from or to Apple directly. However, if you are impaitent and want to give it a shot leave a comment and tell me how it worked for you.