Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Kindle 3 First Impressions

This morning before we drove down to the final meeting where our HR guy presented us the final legal papers related to the layoff, I got to pick up the package containing a shiny new Kindle as delivered to the town's local store (since I live rurally, the town store - Jaques 4 Square - or the town Post Office are where packages go). Overall, this kind of logistics - that I can have a physical object reach me so quickly from the other side of the world - still impresses me more than global networking, if only because I saw global networking evolve and even from the UUCP days there was an inevitability to it.

So, out of the box. Pull the indicated tab on the box, open box, and there's the device with a nice little pamphlet and what looks to be a piece of paper with instructions (1. Plug into USB port...) sitting underneath a plastic screen protection sticker. Except on plugging in the USB cable, those instructions go away because it's not paper, it's the E-ink which is the Kindle's lifeblood.

So while my partner drove, I read the manual included on the device, on the device. And having never seen a Kindle or E-ink before in the flesh, I was suitably impressed. Page turning wasn't crisp, but it was "just right". It felt like about 150ms for the repaint, in two passes (the display kinda inverts when showing a new page), but the time itself doesn't matter compared to the subjective feeling. It's remarkably consistent, and rarely feels wrong in the way that many mobile devices (for instance, Symbian S60 phones like the Nokia E71 which is otherwise awesome) often do.

And the more I read the manual, the happier I got... so many capabilities, and the more I read the manual and got used to the feel of the device the more I started to think I shouldn't have played it cautious and got the WiFi-only one.

Alas, for all that Amazon have nailed the out-of-box experience and then some - it even comes pre-connected to your Amazon account, so that the instant you let it touch a network you're ready to go - and the price is right and the display is awesome, there's almost immediate fail that takes some of the joy out, at least for a non-US customer.

Take a simple thing like blog reading. Discussed in the manual, doesn't exist. No there, no hint of it. When I eventually get to a regular PC with a browser and check it out - browsing Amazon changed completely as soon as I got the ship announcement e-mail, as then there was a Kindle in my account and what I saw adapted to fit that, which shows how someone at Amazon had worked to make this a great experience - is the fail: "Not available in Asia/Pacific".

Seriously, WTF? Via 3G, I can understand some of this; the language in the manual is fine about the limitations of 3G outside the US, and how for instance some content won't be delivered until you hit a Wi-Fi hotspot or will cost you. Given the way telcos work, which is nothing short of extortionate, I've been nothing short of amazed that even Amazon have been able to get as far as they have in terms of data service for a device like this, and I appreciate that services have to fit their business model to make the 3G capabilities work. But simple RSS feed reading doesn't exist on my device because I'm not in the U. S. of A, even though mine  is Wi-Fi only? Huh?

Looking at buying magazines is similar: my first pick is India Today which looks like good reading and great value, but what's this: no images. OK, maybe there's a territorial copyright thing specifically with that, but in fact the Kindle store on the device (and only on the device, not on the PC) tells me that images in any magazine will simply be unavailable outside the US. Whether that's a 3G-data-charge-business limitation or a territorial-copyright limitation is not clear, it's just a simple "no" and the price is the same.

So, hit the kindle store, look for e-books... but wait, no free content at all? E-books I know are just Gutenburg text files are paid purchases "delivered for free via Whispernet"? No, Amazon, paying you for this is not "free", when what you're charging is mighty close to what some of these things cost in paper editions via Penguin Classics.

Here too, I understand that Amazon's business model has limits; the toll road of payment systems is ... well, it constantly amazes me that Valve and game developers can make any money from selling things for the prices they do, given that what Visa and Mastercard will charge most people for payment processing is so close to ursury.

So, a few disappointments. But then...

The fact remains that the device itself is awesome, and that Amazon's engineers have mostly done the right things to make the whole thing full of win, and if I was resident in the U.S. I wouldn't have had to deal with the light coating of bitterness and failure I need to dig through to enjoy my purchase. As I browse the Kindle Store, temptation is ... well, everywhere, because even though relatively few books are available yet in Kindle editions (at least to me, thanks to territorial rights) there's still so much that I want to read there... so, sooooooo much...

And moving outside Amazon's "no free lunch" built-in store gives us sites like http://www.feedbooks.com/ where there may not be gold, but there are gems like Rudy Rucker's Ware series; I read Software and Wetware and  lots of Rudy Rucker, Sr's other work (Spacetime Donuts and Master of Space and Time and Saucer Wisdom) in paperback.

And, well, the more I look the better things get. The potential of this device really is astounding, and everywhere I look I can see why the U.S. customers love it; if only we second-class citizens of the world could actually experience the full thing.

In the meantime, The Steep Approach to Garbadale awaits, in library book form, and I'd better finish that before starting on what the Kindle can deliver me. I can already feel the urge to read The Illuminatus! Trilogy again (probably for about the 4th time, but it's such a classic), or maybe China Mieville's new book Kraken, or... damn you, Amazon, don't you know I'm unemployed now?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Baby's First Textbook

Ah, the 1980's. For some it's the age of synth-pop and legwarmers, but for me it opened with entering high school; on the first week we got to choose some after-school activities, and one of the options was a computer, a brand spanking new Apple ][. The school only had to one, and we had to share it by writing programs using mark sense cards very similar to the "Educational Basic" ones shown in that collection, which we'd colour in at home and submit and run during our shot at the machine.

Of course, I "cheated" a little bit; at the time my father ran the immunology lab at Auckland Hospital, and in 1979 they'd purchased a TI-59 calculator (plus the Stats Pack, a small ROM chip) for the lab to use. During my school holidays (and eventually by pressuring my father to bring it home on the weekends) I had learned how to write programs for it. Just simple things to start, but from the Stats Pack especially I learned about things like how to write programs to compute standard deviations and so forth, so I had a good head start on assembly language.

So given the chance to access the Apple ][, I quickly proved myself a determined nuisance to the school's teachers (and probably the other students). Applesoft Basic was not just a great starting point by itself, but it came with one particularly awesome feature:
Particularly helpful for programmers was the foresight to include a simple extension called the “ampersand hook”. If Applesoft came across the “&” symbol while interpreting a line, it jumped to a known location in memory and left it to the programmer to insert the correct code to add a machine language extension to the language. With the publication of important information about the internals of Applesoft in 1980, assembly language programmers were able to add statements to do things that could not be done with the language as it was originally created.

With that, it wasn't just a matter of writing programs in BASIC, but the door was open to the rest of the machine as well: learning the machine language of the 6502 processor and the innards of the machine, which of course was all thoughtfully documented by Apple - the Apple ][ Reference Manual (the second one, not the original Red Book) which contained an assembly listing of Woz's monitor ROM (which had some amazing code and was a great way to learn the ins and outs of the 6502) and a circuit diagram for the motherboard I spent many hours poring over.

Of course, being 13 the other great attraction was games; playing them, and learning to write them in more-or-less equal measure. The games are a topic for another post, learning to write them is an interesting story too. Hires Graphics on the Apple ][ was a strange thing indeed, but at the time I had nothing to compare it to. As there were no built-in graphics primitives, we all had to learn how to write our own, and this lead me to one of the first textbooks I ever bought: Newman and Sproull, Principles of Interactive Computer Graphics, from which I learned the basics of vector math, DDAs and splines and Bezier curves.

Aside from being huge fun, all this had a particularly useful side effect: already knowing a lot of basic statistics from the TI-59 and 3-D math from Newman and Sproull meant that I absolutely demolished the maths parts of all the standardized achievement tests, and as it was the science and maths teachers who looked after the computers for the first couple of years at high school I got to trade writing programs for them after hours (including a scheduling system for the school itself to timetable the classes) for access to the school computer and the other nifty things inside the Maths resource room where it lived: the old textbooks, including the ones I would use to teach myself calculus from.

Here's a link to a site with some great trivia about early versions of Microsoft Basic (including AppleSoft), and another to some information on Steve Wozniak's SWEET-16 system, which at the time I didn't know about as it was part of the original Integer BASIC and not really documented at all.

Unemployment doesn't look cheap

Aside from expenses like the aforementioned vacation we'd scheduled, there are many other little things that I'd come to take for granted and I now have to think about. Clothing, for instance; I've basically never worn shoes, a consequence of growing up in what was at the time a rural area, and a habit which I'd been able to continue into adult life by virtue of being something of a prodigy and working for people who happily accepted such a minor eccentricity in trade for my ability to make them money.

My standards of deportment have declined further since Symantec closed it's Auckland development facility early last year, and since then I've been working at home. I think I have one pair of jeans that doesn't have large holes, and maybe two very old shirts with collars, but nothing in the way of formalwear or anything else suitable for, say, interviewing.

Thoughtfully, my home PC (used pretty much only for gaming) decided to have its power supply expire the day before we were notified of our layoff, and since it was just a collection of mismatched parts some of which were very old, it really needs replacing. And a laptop would be kinda crucial too, preferably one that I can actually do at least some development on without it melting. A decent phone too would be nice - at least something I can tether for back-up internet access when the DSL goes down, as it regularly does here, so probably a Nokia with the most basic plan I can get.

By the way, anyone who reads this from somewhere like the U.S. may not be aware that almost any piece of technology here in New Zealand, from a TV to a phone, normally costs between two and three times what it does in the U.S. on a PPP-adjusted basis. PPP adjustment also doesn't speak to affordability differences based on median incomes. Telecommunications are ruinously expensive here too, although at least on that point cruise ships are even more extortionate than we Kiwis are used to.

Perhaps the only device that doesn't come with that kind of price premium is one I had mostly forgotten about, until the e-mail arrived yesterday to tell me it's on the way here - since we were going on the cruise and it was just announced, I decided to splurge on a Kindle, just the basic model. Amazingly enough, to get one costs the same as anyone else in the world pays, modulo a reasonable USD$20 for shipping.

Of course, even though this version is actually sold as supported in NZ, buying things for it is not quite seamless; Kindle editions of books are caught up in territorial rights and so it remains to be seen what, other than Project Gutenburg freeware, I can actually get for it. Even so I'm still looking forward to the device; unlike the iPhone, it's a kind of device that I'd at least like to think about developing for, even if just for fun.

Unfortunately the 6" Kindle isn't really suited for the kind of thing I might like to get back into if I do have time to enrich my mind a little before having to prostitute myself to naked commerce once again. Textbooks on things like metric spaces or the Zeta Function, or one of my favourites from an earlier edition I read some 15 years ago, Forecasting: Methods and Applications, don't just tend to be eyewateringly expensive - none of that kind of thing even has a Kindle edition, and even if it did they'd really only work on the larger DX form factor.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

On the Road Again

As I'm about to become a free man again after many years of employment with Symantec, one of the great benefits is to return to being a normal Internet citizen and not to have to suppress all self-expression lest I invite the wrath of my corporate masters. While most employees don't have to self-censor to quite the degree I did, as the individual most associated with such a well-known brand name (and being quite proud of it), it's hard to be open about what you're doing without running afoul of one of the vast numbers of things Forbidden By Company Policy on Pain of Instant Dismissal.

Not that I have much desire to talk about my time there; after all the recent years of struggle and stress I'm quite happy to draw a veil over that for now. Instead, I'm savouring the ability to just be a normal human being again, or at least as close to human normality as I can manage.

The other thing I have to consider now having been laid off is what employment to seek. I'm not considering that particularly deeply yet, though: one of the things my significant other had planned for November was that the two of us would go on a cruise. Having been the sort of person who never takes all his allocated vacation time, I was a little unsure when she proposed it but the idea had been growing on me.

Since we'd scheduled this months ago, and it's all paid for and non-refundable, quite how to fit starting new employment around the trip will be an interesting exercise. Browsing around job sites shows that as you'd expect there appear to be very few companies in New Zealand who are doing things that require the kind of ability I have, and fewer still where the work could provide the kind of challenge I desire, so that will probably mean either going back to some kind of start-up venture or applying to a firm based (or at least with offices) in Australia.

As I'd been contemplating that, an interesting link appeared in my feed reader this morning: an article from Cal Newport's Study Hacks blog (which is always interesting, and whose philosophy of developing excellence fits well with how I've been striving to attain mastery in my chosen field for the past 30 years) mentioned this:
In other words, when you go through life thinking “if I can make it through this, things will be better later,” you eventually forget what “better” means.
Given where I'm at now coming out of years of stressful, grinding slog, maybe that's something I should be thinking about. I've never got the "life" part of "work/life balance" particularly well sorted out, so I should probably start thinking about that for once.