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    December 2011
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Product Declaration

“New material only” or “25% recycled content”?

Seventh Candle

Catching Up With Hugin

Yesterday I caught up with Hugin.  I stopped active contribution four months ago to focus on my new life and have not had much time for extra-curricular activities since.

Over the holidays I took some pictures again; and a few of them needed stitching.  Using Kubuntu’s Software Management System Settings in two minutes I was up and running with the version of Hugin that ships with Kubuntu 11.10.

However, I wanted the newest version, so I added the Hugin PPA to my sources list and within five minutes the newest and best Hugin was running on my notebook.

Like a real typical user, I did not read the manual, did not read the release notes, did not follow the conversation on the mailing list.  As a consequence, I missed on the new tool, a vertical line finder, until I found it mentioned in the thread announcing the new release.

Upgrading users (the vast majority) has to go through a manual process of questionable utility and usability, possibly losing their preference settings to get access to the new functionality.  Itchy.  Scratch.  Commit.

Boxing Day

What a decadence!

And this is not even all:  I took the picture too early, before my mother in-law came home from mass and doubled the volume of presents for her grandchildren.  My biggest present is also not here:   I bought it online, at Best Buy’s Boxing Day sale that started at 8PM EST December 24.

Besides Boxing Day front running the Christmas Mass, I found the online Boxing Day experience rather dull and unappealing.

Throughout the day the website was closed with a place holder count down stating that the site can be browsed from 6PM and the actual shopping starts at 8PM.  While I find it perfectly acceptable to take retail sites down for major upgrades rather than trying to keep up the mythical 24/7 standard at unnecessary extra cost, scheduling the upgrade for one of the busiest times of the year is IMHO a bad idea.  And I think downtime should be kept to the necessary minimum and not serve to mirror the drawbacks of the brick & mortar experience of the event.

I logged in at 6PM, made my choice, took the time to register a profile, a credit card, and a shipping address.  I was hoping to make the shopping experience smoother later on.  I was wrong.

When finally the time came and the “add to shopping cart” button was activated at 8PM, I added the item to the shopping cart, headed for the check out and the bad surprises started.

First, I was asked to log in again, even though I was logged and made sure that I am logged in a few minutes earlier by editing my account’s settings.

Then the site recreated another piece of brick & mortar experience I would have gladly done away with:  waiting in line at checkout.  A message asking to wait patiently displayed for a few long minutes, accompanied by a warning that hitting the reload or back button will forfeit the position in the queue.  Neither the internet nor the site itself were clogged: on another browser window product pages were responsive.

When I finally got through check out, I still had to fill in the credit card security code (why not asking for that when registering the credit card in the first place?), and a step through the “Verified by Visa” thing added to the cumbersomness of the process.  Have those responsible for the site ever shopped at Amazon?

Then there was this weird feeling at the end of the transaction.  Did it come through or not?  The web page said something about a transaction number, but a confirmation email arrived only the next day.  Too little too late in an online real time world.  Moreover those emails are in HTML format and reference bandwidth-heavy graphics.  This is a complete lack of respect for the circumstances of the shopper:  I could have been on prohibitively expensive wireless roaming.  Nowhere on the profile there is an option to select the faster and cheaper plain-text format.

Shopping from the comfort of the home is a blessing.  It’s nothing new – I have placed my first orders with Amazon in 1998; bought my first Dell PC in 1998; and have been hooked ever since.  It would be much better if those designing and implementing the processes would be mindful of the consumer’s circumstances and prioritize user comfort over self-satisfying gimmicks and features.

Best Buy’s online shopping: barely recommended.


Swiss Comfort

Thank you Costco for bringing to Canada this Swiss comfort.

Hard Disk Shredding

One of my holiday projects was to streamline my storage needs.  The recent floods in Thailand have affected global hard disks (HDD) supply.  The 3TB drive I bought four months ago for $129 goes for more than $300 now, and the shortage / high price period is likely to continue throughout 2012  as supply catches up with the shortfall. Hence the need to be even more careful than in normal times.

If you are building a new PC now, I strongly recommend a solid state drive (SDD) instead of an HDD for the system drive.  60GB SSDs sell nowadays below the current price for the lowest cost HDD of $100 and 60GB is more than sufficient capacity for the system drive of most users. Even the least of the SDDs outperforms HDDs by a magnitude of factors. Larger capacity HDDs are still critical for the storage of large quantity of data such as photo, audio and video, but this data need not be stored on the system drive.  I will try to stretch my existing storage capacity until the shortage is over and prices are back to normal.

HDDs have a limited life span.  The question is not whether an HDD will fail, but when.  The secret for data preservation has been known to the monks in the monasteries of Europe long before the introduction of Gutenberg’s press: replicate, replicate replicate.  RAID is an automated, modern incarnation of the monk’s painstaking manual process of replicating books to preserve their content in time.

While most HDDs come with a three years warranty, and some are even warranted for five years, the warranty is a false sense of security.  It does not cover the stored data and is only indicative of the expected useful lifetime of the device before data is lost due to a failure.  Most failures don’t result immediately in data loss, but the recovery becomes prohibitively expensive. On my desk I keep a 120 GB HDD that is more than ten years old and still working despite intense 24/7 usage during many years and a transatlantic move.  But I have also had HDDs that failed after less than a year.  If this happens in a RAID, it is not critical.

My strategy is to use only fresh HDDs for critical data; to store such data redundantly; and to replicate it to fresher / newer HDDs within a maximum of three years.  After their first job in the RAID is over, I re-purpose older HDD for non-critical purposes such as scratch or cache disks, but at some point they fail and the question is what to do with the waste. I bring old electronics to the municipal recycling station, but I take the HDDs out of them before doing so.  The abounding stories of sensitive data being retrieved from the HDDs of second hand PCs sold on eBays makes me reluctant.

Disassembling an HDD is not a difficult task. All you need are a couple of torx screwdrivers.  This was the occasion for a little bit of son-dad quality time.  My son was fascinated by using a real screwdriver rather than his toys.  He learned about magnetism from the two magnetic blocks of the drive’s actuator and he was fascinated by the mirror polish of the platters. Now all the parts can go to the recycling station, except the platters themselves which I will take care of rendering unreadable.


The first week of the break is gone.  I baked a few cookies with my son.  No time to even attempt to break the quantity record of 60 eggs from last year.  Indeed, we only managed one batch.  I had forgotten to buy butter, so no Milanais.  The first an only batch of cinnamon stars ended up being too liquid.  Only the Brunsli and Chraebeli met the quality standard to be taken on the family trip.

After driving a full day, 1000 Km to the North-East I was reminded of what real winter is.

Snow covered car and a day to fiddle with another holiday project:  Snow Leopard inside Virtual Box on the Acer Aspire Timeline X 1830T – stepping stone for an even more ambitious one.

Happy Chanukah

This video has been shared with me and I’d like to share it on.

SONY Reader WiFi

The fall term is over, and so is the first batch of exams.  I now have a two weeks break, and I need it.  After the gratification of single malt scotch and cigars with a few discerning classmates; after a night at the movies; it is time to catch up with all the things that have passed me by during the last three months in school.  It’s geeky techno time again!

One of the most intense activities in law school is reading.  A lot of reading.  Most casebooks are still of the heavy old fashion variety.  Paper rules.  But we were also assigned about 2000 pages in PDF format to read, and in the spring there is a similar quantity coming.  A few weeks into the term I decided to buy an eReader to help me digest the stuff.  Time is a scarce resources and the eReader helps me make the most out of it.  It fits in my pocket and I can read anywhere anytime there is an opportunity.  And the eInk display is easier on the eye than the best LCD displays, enabling faster reading.  I timed myself 40%-60% faster.

eInk displays are not yet mature.  I wish my display was larger than 6″ and I wish it had higher resolution than 600×800.  The slow refresh rate is acceptable for reading books, though.  I found only two e-readers with larger displays:  the old Amazon Kindle DX (9″7 768×1024) and the new iRiver Story HD (7″ 768×1024).  Both had enough shortcomings for me to decide that they are not for me.

The 6″ format is great for reading e-books, e-newspapers, and e-magazines crafted for it.  But it is barely enough to read full pages PDFs scans, and even if the PDF book is not a scan, when selecting a larger font size the SONY reader slows down considerably when paging.

Nevertheless, the  SONY PRS-T1 is the only reader I came across who I did not qualify as useless, even though I like to think that my selection criteria are plain simple:

  1. Form factor.  I was looking for the most comfortable reading conditions possible.
  2. Must sync easily, ideally without extra bloatware installed on the PC.
  3. Good zooming function (to compensate for the small display).

Some readers would not connect with my Ubuntu Linux.  I was pleasantly surprised by the SONY Reader: once the USB cable is connected, it exposes the relevant storage areas as simple drives, like a USB key, and I can simply drag and drop or otherwise copy the e-book files onto it.  I can even back up the books I bought in SONY’s store, although they are DRM-crippled and if I want to access them on my PC, I must install Adobe Digital Editions, which luckily runs well on Linux with wine.  I ended up installing Calibre as well – it manages my daily news fix from the web and it even gets The Economist on my SONY Reader WiFi.

If it was not for the front bezel, SONY’s hardware feels perfect.  Robust build,  lightweight,  fits in one hand when reading and in the inner pocket of a suit jacket when not.  I can read on the bus, in the car (when my wife drives), in the elevator, and in any quiet corner.  Even in the evening, when fatigue starts showing and I would be tired of holding up a book, holding up the SONY Reader is like holding a feather.

The bezel though is extremely annoying.  SONY’s own marketing calls the Reader WiFi “the world lightest 6″ e-Reader with a lovably glare-free, paper-like display designed for hours of comfortable reading, even in direct sunlight.”  I wonder if the product designers actually tried to use it in direct sunlight, or even just under a bedside reading lamp.  The interference from the glare of the glossy plastic bezel is not conducive to “comfortable reading”.  The brushed aluminum plate with the SONY logo feels cold and uncomfortable under the thumb.  I wish they had used the same rubber as on the back for the whole front bezel too, it gives a comfortable warm grip.  My quick solution: stop the glare with opaque transparent cellophane tape.  The guys at the store tried to sell me a case or a jacket.  What for?  it would just make the eReader bulkier and heavier, and my wallet way too much lighter.  No thanks.

The software is a different story.  I wish Apple designed eReader software.  Like all other eReaders I’ve tried (and like all phones before the iPhone, and MP3 players before the iPod) the software is disappointing.  Navigation is awkward.  I can organize books in “collections”, but to do so I have to browse through the whole collection linearly.  The Reader patently ignores the best and simplest way of sorting things: the folders hierarchy that I have created on the flash memory when transferring the files from my PC.  For music (a nice extra on the SONY reader is the music playback functionality) it is even worse:  rigidly organized by albums, I think based on the MP3 metatags.

Sure, pinch and zoom works on the responsive touch screen, but it would be nice if the reader remembered which book I prefer to read rotated; what zoom I have been reading each book individually; and if it would keep the same position of the magnified window when paging.  Simple basic stuff, I think, and yet the SONY Reader, like all other eReaders that I have tried, can’t do it properly.  Sad.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel:  This SONY Reader is an Android device and indeed one of the criteria that tipped me to buy it were the first positive rooting reports.  Once rooted, it is possible to install alternative reader software and alternative bookstores, including Amazon’s Kindle for Android app.  Long live variety and long live competition.  So far I did not have time to toy with rooting.  Maybe over the holidays…

Despite the beautiful hardware, the SONY Reader made an unpolished impression on me. After a few weeks of use, the music player started randomly skipping from the middle of one song to the middle of another.  It became so annoying that I have stopped listening to music on it all together.  Maybe it is fixed with the most recent  upgrade.

Reading on the eReader is really a pleasure.  I even rediscovered recreational reading.  In a moment of despair at the complex legal texts, I hit the buy button and bought this book.  It was refreshing to find out that I can still read at decent speed and retain what I read.

Overall, the device does what I needed it for: it enables me to read in places and at times where I would not have been able to read conventional reading material.