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Kindle redux

In case you thought my last review of the Kindle was a bit harsh, I do like my Kindle quite a bit. I purchased the Kindle 2 as soon as it came out, and downloaded the Kindle App to my iPod Touch as soon as available as well. My wife is now using my old Kindle 1.

The Kindle 2 fixes a lot of my issues with the Kindle 1. The next/prev buttons are much better, I don't accidentally page anymore. The display is faster, though it could still be faster. There still aren't page numbers, still only location numbers. The progress bar is now very understandable. The on/off switch is now on the top, which is a better location, though its actually only a standby switch. The wireless switch is now a soft-switch. The Kindle 2 is also smaller, which is nice. I still think it wastes way too much real-estate on the keyboard, if the device was the same depth but only a little larger than the screen, that would be pretty nice.

Newspapers on the Kindle 2 are better, you can now skip to the next article from within the article, for instance, and you now get more images.

Since I got my Kindle, I've only bought books on the Kindle. It works well, and the convenience is unprecedented. The two biggest problems I have are availability of books on the Kindle, and the fact you can't read your book during take-off and landing because its an electronic device.

I also said last time that I wouldn't use a separate device if there was a reader for the iPod Touch. There is the Kindle App for the iPod Touch now, and I've used it quite extensively. One limitation is that they don't do periodicals on it, which is annoying. Otherwise, the page flipping is easier, its in color, its very nice. It doesn't have a built in store like the Kindle, but it does link to the web browser for Amazon's iphone store. One annoyance: the kindle version of books is only available this way, if I browse the mobile store from my Pre or G1, the Kindle version of books isn't offered. Obviously the battery life is much shorter, and the screen size is much smaller, and its an active display instead of the e-ink. That said, it also fits in my pocket, which is a big plus.

I have no particular interest in the Kindle DX, I've never felt that I needed more screen real estate.

The DRM issue is still annoying. We debated having Courtney keep the Kindle on my account so we could share books, but decided not to since we don't share that many books anyways.

Overall, highly recommended.

muni & nextbus

Nextbus for Muni would be the greatest thing since sliced bread... if it was more accurate. Maybe because the stop I get on from work (Folsom/Embarcadero) is only 3 stops from the beginning of the run, but the "next" times often seem random. They'll start at 4 minutes, cycle down to 2, then jump up to 6, cycle back down to 2, then jump again. I've seen it say 25 minutes (and I took the other train), but I hate waiting 20+ minutes when I expected to wait <5. I especially like how the other line running on the same track is sometimes slated to come later than my line... but arrives earlier. How is that even possible... well, it means that my line is stuck at the first stop, where it can be passed.

Ranks right up there with having the train not stop because the driver thinks its full... or having the N inbound turn into a J outbound at Church/Duboce. Thanks for forcing the entire train to disembark and have to hop on the next already full train.

Or the retards who insist on crowding onto the train during rush hour who end up breaking the door. Then the train goes out of service, everyone has to get off, and it takes like 4 more trains to even hope of getting everyone on these full trains.

The new translink is pretty cool, though it took me two trips to Walgreens to purchase one. The second time, I had 4 managers trying to figure it out before they finally called some customer service number to walk them through it. Only annoying thing: at my height, I can't read the display when I swipe my badge, so I have to stoop down to read it. Also, surprised that you can buy a fastpass for the translink... do you need to swipe your card then?

Amazon Kindle

My parents gave me an Amazon Kindle ebook reader for Christmas this year. I hadn't previously purchased one because I'm unsure of the whole ebook reader thing, and every once in a while I don't buy the latest gadget when I'm not sure about the utility of the whole market. Plus, there's the whole DRM aspect of ebooks that I'm not that happy to support. Hey, if I bought every gadget that came out, then I'd be like a junky with a habit, but if I (very) occasionally think first, maybe I don't have a problem...

One solution for that is gifts, then its like a free hit, and who can say no to that? I hadn't actually asked for the Kindle because they'd been out of stock and were expected to be out through the holiday season. My guess is they have a new version on the way, but missed the holiday deadline and got caught between models, which I'm sure sucks for Amazon. I had neglected that my parents shop really early, however, so my parents managed to pick up three Kindles for the kids this year.

I started out with a test subscription to the New York Times newspaper. At the airport, I was reading Google Reader on my G1, and came across a book recommendation, so I used my Kindle to buy the book and started reading it on the plane. I continued reading it on my walk/subway to work this morning. The Kindle is fairly easy to use and pretty easy to read on. My notes so far:

  • The "next/prev" page buttons are really annoying. As in, there's almost no way to hold/move the Kindle without hitting these buttons. Once you have the Kindle in your hand and are reading, they're really convenient and work well, but you will hit them at in-opportune times and have to go back.
  • The display is really really slow to refresh. Flipping a page on a book isn't that fastest either, of course, but I have a completely different speed expectation here, and its not met. Combined with accidentally hitting the next page button, it makes it all that more annoying to wait to flip back. Another odd thing about this is that it feels slower to flip the page on the reader than actually going from page to page on the internet... though maybe not on my mobile phone, definitely on the computer.
  • The built-in web browser is next to useless. I'd rather use my G1, and did this morning (to check NextBus). Well, maybe if I was comparing it to any mobile browser besides Android or the iPhone...
  • Documents are partially hyper-linked, but poorly, partially because using the links is very slow (See slow refresh) and partially because the weird jog-dial to menu interface. With the newspaper, there are links to the next article, to the article list, and to the section list, but no easy way to jump to the next article when I'm "done" with an article half-way through, and going to the article list starts me back at the beginning of ~10 page list (see again the slow page time)
  • No page numbers. I have no idea how long the article I'm reading is, how far though the newspaper or book I've read. There are some bizarre numbers and progress meter on the bottom of the screen, but I certainly can't understand them by using the device, maybe I'll have to look at the guide to figure it out.
  • No clock. Seems silly, but so's having an electronic device in front of me and not being able to get the date/time from it. Ok, it does have it on the settings page, maybe that's enough.
  • Battery life seems fine. It lasted the first week on the charge from the factory, and that was with reading the newspaper every day.
  • On/off switch location, which is on the back, is weird, especially if you're using the case that it comes with. Just having to use the on/off switch seems weird, this thing should be almost no power even with the screen on, and it could just sleep completely. Instead, it has a screensaver which changes every couple minutes, which seems even odder.
  • Pricing. These things aren't cheap, and books on them aren't cheap either. Amazon is still discounting them (they show the publisher's digital price compared to their $9.99 price), but $10 for a book you can only read on their device seems expensive. I don't have access to any of the books I've recently purchased, I can only buy them through Amazon. The NY Times sub is $15/month, which is probably higher than its worth (when I'm not on vacation, I get all of my news from the web), but I'm happy to help subsidize the times. You can use the Kindle as an RSS reader, but at $1-2/mon per feed, that seems insane. You can send images and documents to your Kindle via email... but it costs $0.10 per document.
I'm most weirded out, still, about the DRM. The book I bought, if I'd bought the actual book, my wife might have read it next... or I might have passed it on to someone in my family. Can I do that with the ebook? No. And why isn't Amazon becoming the defacto ebook store instead of going the iTunes locked route? I guess it worked well for Apple, except they claim that less than 5% of music on ipods is from iTunes.

Overall, my main need for "real" books and the Kindle is that over half of my commute is underground, and I have no internet access there. Or, the rare times I'm on a plane, no internet access and often no electronic devices. So the Kindle was only partially good for the plane ride (well, 5 hours out of 6, so mostly good). I still feel that if there was a good e-reader solution for my G1 or iPod Touch, I'd probably never buy a specific e-reader, even though clearly the Kindle is better for reading large amounts of text than either of the smaller devices. The thing is, I always have my phone with me, though. Anyways, I'll probably continue to use the Kindle for a while, and if you have the money to spare, it might be worth your while to try it out.

Soda Selection

If you were to reduce the soda selection at a location to just three options, which one's would you pick?

Our new vendor here at work chose Diet Coke, Coke Zero and Canada Dry Ginger Ale.

Um... wow, that really wouldn't have been what I would have expected. Supposedly, this was done based on both a survey of the office and the stats from the old vendor on what was drunk. The old vendor had 20 different soda options, which was probably excessive.

Possible reasons for this choice:

  1. Some sort of weird "too many choices" voting issue where the 20+ options before hugely skewed the numbers such that the actual most used don't represent the overall preference.
  2. The new vendor has a special deal with Canada Dry
  3. The choices actually represent the new vendor's preferences
  4. Ginger Ale was the most popular caffeine free choice... but they weren't picking a most popular non-diet...
My old preference was actually for Caffeine Free Diet Coke, but I'm fine with just Diet Coke, but it just seems so strange.

Toddler Lock

One of the engineers here at Google developed an application for Android called "Toddler Lock" which turns the phone into a toy... and prevents the toddler from doing something like calling 911. Nolan played with it for almost 30m the first time we gave it to him. Highly recommended and available from the Android Market.

crush your enemies

What is best in life:

Crush your enemies
Crush your enemies
And see them driven before you!
Original quote from Ghengis Khan:
The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.

support and free/ad supported services

The support conundrum, or why a smaller company can have better support than a larger company. If you're an ad supported service, I'd say you're lucky if your company makes $1/year per user. A back of the envelope calculation for a friend's ad supported company puts that number closer to $0.04/year per user, so $1/year may be high.

Providing support is expensive. A support person is going to cost minimum $40k/year in the Bay Area, though maybe cheaper elsewhere. That means, one support person can support 40k people. We'll say that a support person working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year works 120k minutes, so they can spend 3 minutes on every user. In practice, only a fraction of users will need support, but they'll need way more then 3 minutes of it.

When a company is small, they'll start out with a small number of support people, say 1-4. They'll also start out with a small number of users and a small number of support questions. Those support people will work closely with the engineers, and problems will be quickly solved. As the number of users grow, they'll quickly out-grow the ability of a small staff, and the support department will grow... but eventually, someone realizes that support doesn't scale.

This is a fallacy, of course, support does scale linearly. What they're actually noticing is that support costs quickly overrun their business model. A single user without a real problem, just unable to understand the product and want severe hand-holding, could take 30 years to make back the support investment. A single real or perceived bug can result in a backlog of support tickets that can take days just to find and close as "known issue".

Or, they're noticing that even with linear scaling, they'll need 10k support personnel to support a million or 10 million users, and they object.

Its at this point, that changes are made to the support organization. Attempts are made to make even lower cost support, switching to email, hiding phone numbers, grading support on how many responses they can do instead of quality, trying to force users to figure out their own problems by reading the FAQ or having forums where they can pow-wow with other users to get the help they want. They'll switch from email support to web forms where they can try and force the user to read the documentation, or at least provide all of the information necessary to debug their problem in one shot, instead of a bunch of "please provide this" replies.

Often lost in this is how to get real bugs reported back to engineers, especially since companies as they grow are less and less likely to want to admit to the possibility of bugs, much less be open about their existence and fixing them.

Eventually, users will start to complain, they'll say there's no support available, they'll grown that they can't get someone on the phone, they don't have a way just to email their problem to someone... and they're right. They don't understand the support conundrum, they think the ads pay for everything.

The odd thing, to me, is that companies which do make real money off of customers, companies selling >$100 boxed software, or charging you $30-$60/month, are also incapable of providing support. That's probably due to another effect, which is the idiots drown out everyone else. They aren't trained to give support to people with real problems, they're giving support to people who think the mouse is a foot switch, or who can't be told that something isn't plugged in, they have to ask them to unplug and plug it back in.

voter guide inspiration

I wonder what it would take to get a ballot referendum passed in CA requiring any referendum that amends the state constitution to require a super majority. Say, 66%, at least.

Allowing a simple majority to take away rights from a minority... that's one of the reasons we have a republic in the first place.

Extra points for making all referendums require that. Remember, the default vote on any referendum should be no.

Licensing balooey

One for the pet peeve pile: tv networks who can't keep to a schedule, and so DVR users get the first couple minutes or last couple minutes cut off.

And that's just the ones who don't do it on purpose. A pox on the networks who do it on purpose to try and make you watch the show live. As if I'm going to correlate that this always happens with this show, therefore I'm going to start watching it live. Not.

A double pox on those networks who randomly make one of their episodes run 5 minutes late in a lame effort to make me miss whatever other show I might be watching/recording next and watch their next show instead.

This tirade brought on by the fact that the premier of House last night went about 30s too long, and so the big revelation at the end was cut off. But, that's old news. This time, I figured I could go online and watch the end. First, I tried Hulu, no luck. A bunch of episodes from last season, but not the new one. Fine, its too new. Next, try Nope, they want me to install some specialized player. Not. They didn't have the episode anyways. Try again today, now Hulu tells me the new episodes won't be online until 8 days after they air "streaming restrictions require an eight-day delay for this series." Lets ignore for the moment that its not streaming restrictions, its that the license under which they get this content has these streaming restrictions. So, in theory, its Fox that's retarded, and not Hulu. For some reason, they don't want you to be able to catch up on an episode you missed... before the next one airs. So, we'll try Youtube. Success. Pretty crappy version, from someone else who didn't get the end on their Tivo. Probably got it from Bittorrent or who knows where else.

So, congrats to Fox. You just had to get that one last commercial in, so your hit show got cut off for everyone not watching it live, and then you couldn't be bothered to make it available online, so the internet routed around your idiocy and made it that much less likely that you're attempts to work with the internet to work.

And to top it off, I think all I actually missed were two words and House watching Wilson walk away, hardly worth the effort.

Speaking of VC equipment...

At Google, a majority of our conference rooms are equipped with some pretty top of the line VC equipment. Someone once told me that all new conference rooms had to be VC equipped, but maybe that's just a rumor. I do know, that once you start using VC, audio conferences seem like the stone age. I looked into personal VC equipment last Christmas when my newborn son made it clear I wasn't going to be traveling home for Christmas for the first time in my life. The professional stuff is outrageously expensive, making the dual projectors seem like a cheap part of the standard big room VC equipment at work. Even a "TV Top" setup runs to $1500 to $2500.

This struck me as insane. Practically everyone I know has a large flat screen TV and broadband. Webcams are $100 and PCs are $400. The latest Webcames from Logitech claim "HD" quality, and I can tell from experience tha their RightLight technology works amazingly well. A consumer level device should be easily under $500, possibly half that with work.

I only found one consumer level device at a reasonable price point, the D-Link i2eye DVC-1000. It was a piece of crap, partially because its a little old at this point. It didn't support upnp, so I had to manually open wholes in my firewall... and then help my Dad do the same on his end. Then, the picture was crap. It desparately needed the RightLight style auto-contrast fixing software that my Logitech Webcam has. Even after that, the picture quality was poor and the frames per second was near useless. Instead, we used Skype video chat and just hooked PCs up to the TVs. That ended up not working so well either, though we've routinely used Skype for video chat other times without issue. Skype mostly just works, though its interface is too focused on audio... time to make the switch, Skype.

Going back to the conference room equipment, it has one major failing: the software sucks. They get the video and audio quality right, but two things are major fails: the addressbook and the layout choices. The default interface is to dial a number... right. Instead, try to use the addressbook. We have 40+ offices, thousands of conference rooms and people's desktop computers... and it present it all as a very slow alphabetical list. No hierarchy. You can prefix search, sorta. You can bring up a search box which does substring search... except random strings can't be searched for. It should take an engineer a week to fix this.... The other major issue is layout. You can have multiple locations called in, plus locations can project a separate screen (usually a computer). And one quirk of current VC, you really kind of need to see yourself, to make sure you're on camera, or that the group of you is on camera. With the equipment we have, you can keep hitting the layout button to shuffle all of these things on screen, but it never does what you want. I don't need to see myself twice (one local, one echo), and I certainly don't need my picture to be the largest. In some modes, it tries to make the currently talking location the largest, but often it fails to do that. It has no concept of room size or anything, so often a single person location is as large or larger than a location with 20+ people. White boards really don't work, since either their "off screen" to one side or the other, or they're at the far end... and you either zoom in on that and ignore all the people, or you see the people and can't see the whiteboard. And then someone taking minutes decides to project... and you lose half your screen real-estate to something you don't care about, and you can't tell the VC equipment to minimize or hide anything.

All of these are fixable, though some are harder than others. The hardest is that everything should just work, as easy as the telephone, at least. Some things, like the white board and large conference rooms probably require multiple cameras, possibly even cameras which automatically focus/zoom in on the speaker. If you've ever seen a broadcast conference... or awards show, what you basically want is multiple camera angles and intelligent cameras, but all automatic, no one working all of that. The AV crew for our larger "all hands" style multiple location conferences is easily 5-10, what we need is software intelligent enough to give us a close approximation. And for the prices of this equipment, that's what I'd expect.

But personally, all I need is a box that has an HDMI output, a good wide-angle camera with intelligent assist for contrast, that can auto-scale picture/audio quality based on connection speed, and a good intelligent mic with echo cancellation, etc... for about $250-300. I even debated started a company just to do it...

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Copyright (C) 2009 Brandon Long. All Rights Reserved. / Terms of Service

The "I work for a big public company" disclaimer:
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.
I am not now, nor have I ever been employed to speak for anyone.
Well, except my own company, but that's gone now.