Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

“Like Instapaper for Videos”

It has occurred to me more than once in the recent past that it would be neat to have a service like Instapaper, but for videos. A post appeared on Hacker News today announcing Instafilm, which seems poised to fit the bill after the site becomes more stable (I’m getting a lot of errors at the moment, probably due to server overload). In the comments section of the HN post, however, a number of alternative sites were mentioned, including:

They all appear to be free, at least for the basic service. Some of them, like Squrl, also have companion iPhone/iPad apps. Are there any others you’re aware of? Let me know in the comments!

Kindle 2 Review

I’ve had my Kindle for about three weeks now, and so I feel like I’ve used it enough at this point to be able to write an objective review. I’ll try to skip the things that you presumably already know from more general reviews and focus on my experience with it.

The Kindle Itself

For starters, let’s get it out of the way and admit that the Kindle’s user interface is just horrible. I am thinking specifically of the little 5-way joystick that you use to navigate around a page’s content. If you push the stick in a given direction and hold it, it will at least “repeat” and hop across the page until you release it, but it’s still very awkward to use. I’ve never had my hands on a first-generation Kindle so I don’t know if this is an improvement over how navigation worked in that model. The 5-way feels extremely fragile and I can easily imagine it snapping off or otherwise breaking. If a touchscreen like the iPhone’s wasn’t feasible for the Kindle 2, I wish they could at least found some other mechanism, such as a trackball or a small trackpad, to handle this need.

My other gripe has to do with the Kindle’s built-in web browser. To be fair, it’s labelled as an “experimental” feature, but it’s pretty lousy and it’s awfully slow. If you had some notion (as I did) that you might be using your Kindle as a web browser on any regular basis, you’re probably going to be disappointed. For occasional Google or Wikipedia searches, it’s fine, but anything more than that is an exercise in frustration.

Those issues aside, I’m pretty happy with it. The Kindle is a lot thinner and more lightweight than I would have expected. It is so thin, in fact, that it feels a little flimsy, and I’m worried that I’m going to accidentally snap it in half one of these days. But I do like the form factor a lot.

You have probably already read that the screen “flashes” when you turn pages in a book. It’s definitely distracting at first, but believe it or not, you get used to it after awhile. I also haven’t had any problems due to the lack of a backlight for the Kindle’s screen, but I try not to read too much in low light environments anyways. At any rate, for straightforward reading, the Kindle provides a really nice reading experience.

The Kindle Store

Buying a book in Amazon’s Kindle Store works very well, and it is as fast as advertised. Once you purchase a book, it’s typically downloaded and ready to read in a minute or so. I also appreciate that you can download a free sample chapter for most (or all?) of the books in the store.

The book selection is still hit or miss. If you’re looking for a current bestseller, you’re almost certainly going to find it. A number of older books that I was looking for aren’t yet available, however. For example, only one of Douglas Coupland’s books (Miss Wyoming) is available in Kindle format as of this writing. On the other hand, Amazon seem to be adding new books all the time. For example, when I did a search the night before last, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest wasn’t available, but I just looked again and it’s now available for pre-order. Their selection of technical books also seems to be improving, slowly but surely.

If you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you’re also the kind of person that already knows there’s a lot of free content available for the Kindle. I tend to stick with Feedbooks, but there are several other good sources out there, and there’s a lot of overlap between the various collections. To be honest, most of this free content is either (1) books you already read in high school or college and (2) books you wouldn’t care to read even if they’re free. But occasionally, you’ll run across something interesting.

Other Uses for the Kindle

One of the less hyped Kindle features is that you can e-mail documents directly to it and, if necessary, they will be converted to the Kindle’s native format. I admittedly haven’t tried this much yet. I do have a number of technical papers and documents in PDF format, and it doesn’t seem to do a very good job of converting those, so I’m not sure how much use I’ll get out of the document conversion service. This capability does however open the Kindle up to some interesting applications.

One of my favorite uses for the Kindle involves Marco Arment’s Instapaper service. You know about Instapaper, right? You should check this out even if you don’t have a Kindle. Instapaper provides you with a “Read Later” bookmarklet that you can drag to your web browser’s bookmarks bar. If you come across a long article, or one that you’d just like to read later, click the “Read Later” button and Instapaper will save it for you.

I had already been using Instapaper’s iPhone application to read saved stories on my iPhone, but Instapaper can also be configured to send unread articles to your Kindle on a regular basis. Every Friday morning, Instapaper collects all of my unread stories into a sort-of custom newspaper and sends it to my Kindle. This is a real killer app for me.

Another apparently popular service is Kindlefeeder, which is an aggregator that collects up all of the stories from a given news feed and sends them to your Kindle on a scheduled basis. I haven’t tried this yet, but if there are any feeds that you typically read every story from, you should find this extremely useful. It sure beats paying for a blog subscription in the Amazon Kindle Store.

Summary

There are a number of problems with the Kindle that have nothing to do with its lack of a color touchscreen or its high price tag. It certainly lacks the polish that I’ve become accustomed to with, for example, Apple’s products. But I’m getting a lot of use out of my Kindle, and I don’t regret purchasing it. If you read a lot, I think that you will get your money’s worth out of the Kindle too. And if, like me, you do a lot of your reading on the web these days, the combination of a Kindle with services like Instapaper and Kindlefeeder is very handy.

First Few Days with the GPS

It was somewhat of an impulse buy, and one that’s a little difficult to justify considering how little we actually travel anywhere by car. But at lunch time last Tuesday, I gave in and bought a Garmin nüvi 200W.

I was getting ready to head out of town for a few days and knew that I’d be driving in an unfamiliar place, so this seemed like a good time to try it out. Worst case, I could return it within 14 days for a full refund. One of the problems with these things is that there’s no good way to evaluate how well they work, other than maybe finding someone who already has one and asking them to let you borrow theirs for a few days. I have yet to be inside an electronics store where the display models can actually pick up the GPS satellite signals, and even if they could, what are you going to do? Walk around the store with it?

So I’ve been using it on and off for the last three days, and I thought I’d share my initial impressions for the handful of people who read this blog.

While I was still inside the store, before checking out, the salesman told me that he also owned a nüvi, and assured me that I would be able to just take it out of the box and start using it. He was right. Within a minute or so (as long as it took to assemble the little suction-cup mounting bracket thingy), I had it plugged in and attempting to acquire the satellite signal for initialization. It takes it a minute or so that first time, to get acquainted with where in the world it is, but after that it just works in real time.

The thing that has surprised me most about the nüvi is how scary-accurate the thing is. Never having used a GPS before, I guess I figured that a less-than-$200 GPS would be more of a toy, able to keep up with your approximate location (give or take a block) but certainly not able to pinpoint your location within what seems to be a few feet. I really noticed it when I was driving around some of the neighborhoods in Madison, where the streets are fairly close together and it would be easy for a less precise device to get confused about exactly how far you’ve gone past Front Street, and how far you have to go until you get to Arnett street just a few yards away.

The navigation also seems to work reasonably well, and (knock wood) it hasn’t gotten me lost yet. Other GPS owners had warned me that these things will sometimes give you directions that can seem incorrect, especially if you already think you know the best way to get where you’re going. For example, when I was heading south on I-65 through Nashville, at one point I had the option (as indicated by the road signs) of bearing to the right to stay on I-65 South (towards Huntsville), or bearing left to take I-24 East/I-40 East (towards Chattanooga and Knoxville). The nüvi unexpectedly told me to bear to the left, and since I had some time to kill anyways, I went along with it to see how long it would take for the nüvi to realize its “mistake”. What I discovered was that after a few additional turns, I was once again headed south on I-65, and decided that the nüvi had probably determined a slightly quicker way to get me there (even if it was less obvious).

Speaking of the navigation aspect, one of the features of the more expensive nüvi models (and one that’s not included with the 200W that I bought) is that they offer a text-to-speech capability. This means that instead of merely telling you to “turn right in 0.4 miles”, the voice will tell you to “turn right on Gillespie Street”. The advantage being, I suppose, that you don’t have to look up at the map to see the name of the street that you’re supposed to turn on. Personally, I haven’t missed that feature. The name of the street for the next turn is always displayed very clearly at the top of the screen, and a quick glance is enough for me to get that information.

I’m undecided about the quality of the maps at this point, and I’ve obviously only used them in a handful of states so far. Actually, it’s not the maps themselves that I’m worried about so much as the “points of interest” (POI) listings that they incorporate. My nüvi came with the 2008 edition of the maps, but I noticed that they were missing a number of places (e.g. restaurants and stores) that I would have expected to find in the listings. I’ve read that a newer edition of the maps has just become available, and so I’m planning to download those when I get home. It’s worth noting that trying to obtain a new user account at the myGarmin web site (Garmin’s customer portal) can be an exercise in frustration. After attempting to sign up with a number of my usual choices for user names, and being told that they were already in use, I started just making up nonsense words, but it told me that those were taken as well. I finally found a posting at their support site that recommended entering your e-mail address as your user name, and once I tried that it let me in.

To sum up, the pros are that it’s really easy to set up and use, and it just works. The only “con” so far is that the POI listings are pretty limited, and you’re probably not going to be able to rely on that to find places for you. Overall, though, I’m feeling pretty good about the purchase and I do think I’ll keep it.

False Positives for Gmail’s Spam Filters

A word to the wise.

There’s some anecdotal evidence that Google has recently modified the Spam filtering algorithm for Gmail. This afternoon, I checked the Spam folder for my primary e-mail account and discovered that over the past two days, six legitimate messages had been flagged as Spam. All but one of those were “bulk mail” messages, sent to mailing lists, but none of them were unsolicited. I’ve received similar messages (from the same senders) before without them getting flagged as Spam.

If you’re like me, you’ve come to rely so heavily on Gmail’s excellent Spam filtering that you just “set it and forget it”. For the time being, however, you might want to keep an eye on what’s ending up in your Spam folder—at least until the problem is corrected.

The Search for Decent Headphones

My latest travel experience has convinced me that I need to invest in a good set of noise-cancelling headphones. I couldn’t turn up my iPod’s volume loud enough to drown out the voices of those two people sitting behind me on the two-and-a-half hour flight from Colorado Springs to Atlanta. It’s not that they were talking all that loudly, they just had those nasally voices operating at just the right frequency to pierce glass.

I knew that for a small fortune I could probably get some Bose headphones that would do a fine job, but I was hoping to find a compromise that would work almost as well. As it turned out, Googling for “noise cancelling headphones” led me to a recent review (by David Pogue) of some notable alternatives. The problem is that, so far, I can’t find two of his top picks in any local stores. There’s no hint on the Audio-Technica web site about where you can find their ATH-ANC7 headphones in stores, and it’s not clear to me that the Panasonic RP-HC500 headphones are even being made anymore.

I could order either of these off of Amazon.com (or some other online dealer), but I really want to try them out in person first. I have a history with headphones not fitting me very well.

Busted

Not me. But somebody. From ars technica, via Shelley Powers:

[Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows] actually leaked out through the tubes last week as some enterprising soul took photographs of every single page of the book and made them available through BitTorrent…

The EFF took a peek of its own at the leaked photos and did some cursory detective work. They found that the EXIF metadata attached to the photos contains the serial number of the camera used to take the pictures, along with all the other technical details about the settings used to make the image. That unique serial could be the leaker’s undoing if Scholastic can find a way to link it up with an individual, and the EFF suggests that (perhaps) they can.

If the camera (a Canon Rebel) was registered with the company when first purchased, then Canon potentially has the information that Scholastic needs to make a bust. If this goes to court, expect Scholastic to go after such information.

TMBG: The Else

The Else, the new album CD release from They Might Be Giants, is now available exclusively from the iTunes Store.

AppleTV on Standard Definition TVs

Paul at Rogue Amoeba has posted about his discovery that AppleTV will work just fine with some standard definition (i.e. non-HDTV) televisions, as long as they provide component video inputs and a simulated widescreen display mode.

My television definitely has component inputs, but I don’t know whether it has a “simulated widescreen” display mode. The owner’s manual doesn’t mention it, but the article’s author writes that his owner’s manual didn’t mention it either (despite the fact that his television apparently does have said mode). So now I’m thinking about picking up one to try out. I’m not uninterested in buying an HDTV, but we have a furniture problem that makes that an undesirable choice right now. Our “entertainment center,” which weighs approximately 4000 pounds and will never again move from the spot where it’s now sitting, has a 34 inch-wide space in which to put a television. That means the largest HDTV that would realistically fit would be one of the smallest available models (a 27″ screen), and I’m guessing that that just wouldn’t be worth bothering with.

I’m in the camp that wishes that Apple had added DVR capabilities to this device, but I think I understand where they’re coming from business-wise — Apple wants to be your content provider, and they want you purchasing (or at least downloading) your content from the iTunes Music Store. If I decide not to try out Apple TV — say, because Denise won’t let me get one — I am still interested in converting our old PC to a MythTV server; and that might turn out to be the best option in the long run anyways.

Artic?


Artic Refrigeration
Originally uploaded by quailwood.

At some point before you pay someone to decorate your delivery truck, don’t you check a dictionary to see how “Arctic” is spelled?

Dave Thomas on Writing

Dave Thomas of the Pragmatic Programmers has written the first of what he promises will be a series of articles on writing books. Given that Dave has yet to write a book that wasn’t widely appreciated and wildly successful, this seems like a good series to keep an eye on.