Previous month:
May 2009
Next month:
July 2009

Kindle DX: Good Enough

I'm rapidly approaching the end of the return period for my new Kindle DX, so I spent some time this weekend to seriously consider whether or not I'm going to keep it.

As I wrote previously, the reason I purchased it was its ability to display PDF files. While I'm slightly disappointed with how it does this (see Kindle DX: First Impressions), I've decided the support is "good enough" for most uses. It bothers me some to settle for good, but it seems there is no better alternative at this time, so I'll live with the warts. (And accept the possibility that I've simply become spoiled by the polish of Apple's products.)

In a surprising twist, while I was initially dismayed by the over-the-air purchasing process, it turns out that Kindle-format books are what finally tipped the "keep it" scales. (See Kindle DX: Second Impressions.) I've found that many, if not most, Kindle books have free samples available. They're almost instantly delivered to the device and this really gives you a chance to see if the book is going to be worth purchasing, often at a lower cost than the printed version.

While I won't want every book in such an ephemeral format, there are many where the Kindle version is "good enough" for books that I just want to read and then never re-visit. One example is Ignore Everybody, a self-help/creativity book that I'd enjoy, and at about half-price for the Kindle edition, is easier to justify buying.

In addition to inducing me to spend money, the Kindle samples have saved me money too. I spotted Cabinet of Wonders in the San Jose airport a few weeks ago. It looked good, but I didn't want to travel a big hardback book so I didn't buy it. (Yes, it's a Young Adult fantasy book, so is Harry Potter, so stop giggling.) Well, I tried the Kindle sample version, and after reading the 1 1/2 chapters it provided, I found that the book wasn't what I expected. That's good, as I hate disappointing books.

I'm also currently sampling a free subscription to the Chicago Tribune and TidBITS magazine. Both automatically delivered every day. I might have more to say about those in the future, so far I'm enjoying them.

So now that I've decided to keep the Kindle DX, the next step is to procure a suitable case for it. I'm thinking that the Amazon folding cover is the best, as a separate slip case just seems like it would be another thing to keep track of. I'm going to pass, however, on the extended warranty. At 20% of the cost of purchase I think it's too expensive, and the requirement to purchase it within 30 days of the unit just seems like a high-pressure tactic that I don't want to support.

Book Review: The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

This review of The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice by Greil Marcus will be short because I only read about half of the book. I was drawn to the promise of insightful and surprising linkages between disparate parts of American culture, such as how Lincoln's Gettysburg Address influenced MLK's so-called "I have a dream" speech. Unfortunately, what I found instead was a flitting narrative that relied too heavily on cultural references with which I am unfamiliar. Songs, music, and movies that I've never heard of, let alone consumed, were used to draw analogies that not only didn't resonate with me, but were so vaguely explained that I couldn't understand the point the author was making.

Books that try to find something meaningful in popular culture have a hard row to hoe, but even more so when they use obscure artifacts and assume the reader is familiar with them. I tried to hang in with this book, but ultimately it was like listening to a stoned intellectual enthuse about topics I'd never heard of. I politely wandered away while he was ranting, and I don't think he even noticed.

Kindle DX: Second Impressions

I'm still deciding if I'll keep my Kindle DX. Today, while reading a sample book, I found a surprising new behavior. I very much like that most of the Kindle-format books have free samples available. While this isn't the equivalent of being able to thumb through a real book, at least it does allow you to get a feel for the work before you purchase it.

When you reach the end of the sample, there's a link to buy the book. My discovery is that when you click this link you instantly purchase this book, and just seconds later it's on your device.

Personally, I was expecting a confirmation step before the purchase was completed. But no. One click and your credit card is charged. Worse yet, there's no indication of how much the book costs. I supposed you're expected to remember how much it was when you requested the sample. I certainly did not, which only increased the anxiety I felt about this surprise purchase.

Fortunately, the screen that appears when you instantly buy the book has a link that allows you to un-buy it right away. This also works without confirmation, and the book is removed almost instantly, along with a message that your credit card has been refunded. Sure enough, when I checked my email later, I had two invoices from Amazon, one each for the purchase and refund.

So in the end, all was OK, but I found the lack of confirmation to be a bit rude, as well as the language around the refund where you have to click a link that says you bought the book "accidentally." That puts the blame on the customer, instead of on the device's interaction design, where it belongs.

See also Kindle DX: First Impressions.

Book Review: And Then There's This...

And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture is a study of contemporary Internet memes and our rapidly shifting attention span. Bill Wasik is an editor at Harper's magazine, and he has direct experience with creating and cultivating Internet "nanostories," including the phenomenon of Flash Mobs. {See Wikipedia's definition if this is new to you.)

In fact a large portion of the book describes how Wasik came up with the idea of flash mobbing, as well as other experiments, and presents data regarding how "memetic engineers" can attempt to create buzz and Internet activity around a piece of content. A definite pattern emerges, and it's a fascinating peek at group behavior online. One of my favorite anecodtes is from a study of the interconnectedness of political blogs. In brief, although the web clearly provides a home for many viewpoints, there is surprisingly little cross-pollination between viewpoint ghettos.

As an ethnologist, I applaud Wasik's practice of "submersion journalism" as a way to understand the culture from an inside view. As an academic, I'd like to have a more referenced and nuanced work, but since this is a mainstream book I understand that the emphasis is on readability and simple ideas easily spread. That's no accident given the subject at hand.

The final chapters of the book provide a great wrap-up and a surprisingly humane message. In them, Wasik asks serious questions about the value and ramifications of our flitting attention spans and recommends strategies for better dealing with rapid information consumption and dissemination. Until I reached these final chapters, I was planning to discard this book when I finished it--much like the viral messages it discusses--but now it will become a useful reminder about how to discern what truly matters online. And for this reason, it's worth reading for anyone interesting in a better understanding of online culture.

INSTEON window and door sensors

The steady stream of useful INSTEON modules continues to flow out of Smarthome. And although I haven't had a chance to try some of their latest, it's great to see the momentum grow. A missing piece has been wireless window/door sensors, and now the TriggerLinc is shipping, which fills that gap.

I was slow to add these kind of sensors to my X10-based automation because they required a different receiver. But when I finally bit the bullet and deployed them, they made a huge difference in the responsiveness and sophistication of my system. They're much better than motion detectors (faster and more reliable) and they have energy-saving implications too. For example, when your a/c turns on, have the system check to see if all the windows are closed. Simple and effective.

Mac Pro hard disk vanishes during sleep

Several weeks ago I junked an iMac G5 whose USB ports had somehow gotten fried. But before I recycled it at the city's e-waste center I pulled out the SATA hard drive, figuring I could use it elsewhere.

I wanted to use it as a time machine disk, inside a new Mac Pro. I was very impressed with how easy it was to install the disk--the Mac Pro is prettier on the inside, from a form follows function perspective, than the outside.

However, I found that the disk would unmount every time the computer slept. Upon waking it was simply missing. Not even System Profiler could see it. Restarting the computer would cause the drive to reappear. Clearly this wasn't going to work as a backup strategy, the time between restarts on my computers is measured in weeks.

It turns out the problem is that the Mac Pro requires a SATA 3 GB drive. (That's the data transfer speed, I believe.) A quick visit to Fry's and I had a 1.5 TB SATA 3 GB to replace the one I pulled, and it's working perfectly. (And it only cost $140, amazing!)

For now the drive I pulled from the iMac is sitting unused. I'll probably get an external enclosure for it at some point. But if you've got a Mac Pro, and finding that a drive disappears when the computer sleeps, check to see if the drive is up-to-spec. If it's an older drive, chances are its not.

Kindle DX: First Impressions

Upon returning home from WWDC I found a just-arrived Kindle DX waiting for me. I'll spare you the über-geeky "unboxing" details, but I was surprised to see that Amazon ships the device in a box that clearly identifies its contents; which probably explains why UPS required a signature for receipt of delivery.

Overall the Kindle DX feels very solid. It's quite thin, with smooth edges and solid buttons. Other reviews have noted its weight, but so far it hasn't seemed excessivly heavy and I think overall it has a pleasant feeling of heft.

My primary interest in the Kindle DX is using it for carrying and reading PDF-based reference material. I had a disappointing experience with using the Sony Reader with PDFs, and frankly I'm still bitter about it, so the PDF capability of the Kindle DX remains my primary criteria for evaluation.

My initial experiments reveal that the Kindle DX is very capable of displaying PDF files. I've tried about 30 so far and I've only found one that the device refused to open. (Unfortunately, the error message wasn't at all helpful, it simply said that the file required PDF features that are not yet supported.)

The larger screen of the Kindle DX, compared to the Sony Reader and Kindle 2, definitely helps when it comes to displaying PDFs in a readable fashion. The device automatically uses a "zoom to fit" strategy so many of the PDFs were enlarged enough to be readable with just a little strain. Rotating the display to landscape mode helps significantly, but only half a page is visible at a time so it requires a bit of scrolling up-and-down to read a document, particularly if it's in a multi-column layout. But on the positive side, this mode makes most PDFs quite readable. The only exceptions have been a few layout-heavy files that are already formatted for a landscape page--they aren't improved significantly by using the wider-screen mode.

It's clear that Amazon has optimized the Kindle DX for their own text-based books. This is evident because Kindle-format books have significantly more features than those that are available with PDFs. For example, annotations and word definitions are not supported in PDF. Additionally, device-wide searching only examines PDF metadata fields, not the actual content of the files. When you have a PDF book open, however, you can search within that book if the PDF was created with searching enabled.

I'm not yet sure if I'll be keeping the Kindle DX. While I'm mostly pleased, aside from the nifty graphics displayed in sleep mode, it lacks any sort of "wow" factor. In fact, several things about the way it works feel clunky to me. And while I love the crispness of the screen, just as I experienced with the Sony Reader, I'm not sure its PDF capabilities are strong enough to justify its price. But I'll be putting it to serious work over the next several days and will make my decision soon.

Hollywood's Characters

One of my favorite parts of Hollywood is the seedy collection of star characters that gather in front of the Chinese Theatre. They're there to hustle tourists for a buck while posing for photographs. Two of the favorite shots I have taken are Ragged Chewbacca and Heroin Elmo. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of Spider-Bum, but he does appear in this video about another favorite, The Saga of Homeless Jack Sparrow. It's short and illuminating. If you're a fan, or not, of Hollywood Blvd it's worth watching.