Archive for the ‘scitech’ Category

Is PDF a good thing?

Sunday, January 4th, 2004

My translation of Dogen’s “Bendowa” uses lots of footnotes, so I put it up in MS Word .doc format, but that’s not very friendly. So I thought I’d put it up in PDF. Adobe has a 30-day free trial for Acrobat Professional so I wouldn’t have to fork out the $300 price of the product just for my little experiment.

But the download is 200MB! That might be the largest thing I’ve ever downloaded in my life. Took at least 20 minutes.

Acrobat did a good job of PDF’ing my document. But it took a good 10 minutes to do a little 40-page document. This seems way too slow if Adobe hopes for PDF to become a widely-used distribution format. And although Adobe made my footnote numbers “hot” so they jumped to the footnote text, why can’t do they do the same for index entries? And the Japanese text, although it came through OK, is all sort of grayed-out looking; why is that? (The PDF is here.)

I’ve heard that Adobe wants to push PDF as a means for archiving entire web sites, and in fact the verison I downloaded apparently can do this, although I didn’t give it a try. But that seems like a weird attempt at positioning the product. In terms of people today trying to display a web site, any computer that can run Acrobat can run a competent web browser, so there’s no reason to Acrobatize web sites for people today; the idea must be to do it for people in the future. Aside from the fact that that seems like a very narrow niche to be aiming at (“Preserve your web pages for the ages with Acrobat!”), my guess is that fifty years from now someone will have at least as good a chance of viewing a website saved as its original HTML/CSS/JS files as they would trying to view a version frozen five decades ago in time by Adobe Acrobat 2004 version.

I think Adobe is in complete, if understandable, denial about the fact that the weird FORTH-like language called Postscript invented 30 years ago by John Warnock that ran on a 10cps teletype, which was not a very good language to start with, even for laser printing applications, is not and cannot and will not ever be, no matter how gussied up or repositioned into a workflow tool or secure document environment or collaboration system or forms product or whatever else, the lingua franca of computer-readable information in the 21st Century. We already have one, and it’s called HTML and related W3C standards.

Come to think of it, it also seems weird that a company whose mission in life is bridging the worlds of printed documents and computing would not have figured out that we need better ways for computers to help us read on-screen documents. Here’s a quote from a 1994 Warnock interview:

Q. Will people in fact learn to read onscreen the way that they read books today? A. I think that the more personal computer displays become like lightweight books, the more people are going to feel comfortable reading from them. A PC that you can open up and physically handle easily, that has the right kind of battery and display, will give the same visual impression as a page.

The only thing he can think of to make the on-line reading experience more rewarding is the form factor. That’s pretty limited.

Gadget report (II) — PC-to-stereo device “Squeezebox”

Sunday, January 4th, 2004

We just bought the most useful piece of home electronics gear ever—Slim Devices Squeezebox, which lets you play all your ripped MP3s on your home stereo system.

I guarantee this box will change your music life. You’ll listen to lots more music because it’s so painless. You’ll listen to more different kinds of music. You’ll have more fun listening to music.

I love this product. It works perfectly. It keeps surprising me with cool things it does. Like yesterday I found out it can stream Internet radio stations to the stereo.

Here’s the basic way it works. There’s a small box which you attach to your stereo. It talks via WiFi to a piece of software called SlimServer, which runs on any computer you’d like. Which it can do more easily since its interface is through a web browser—a brilliant, if obvous design approach which means you can control the player from any device that has a browser, including your Palm. The server scans your music collection and provides a competent juke-box like interface.

I especially like the feature that multiple people can access the server and all add their own favorites to the current playlist!

This ultra-clean architecture also allows the server to communicate with multiple Squeezeboxes. So you can play one song in the bedroom and another in the living room off the same MP3 collection. And since you can hook a Squeezebox up to powered speakers directly, you can put a full-fledged jukebox stereo system in your bedroom for the price of the speakers and the Squeezebox.

Some vendors say they try to make their devices look like the other black boxes in your stack of stereo equipment; not SlimDevices, whose product is a little rounded unit with a nice display showing the current tune. You can also control it with a handy remote control device, which provides surprisingly rich functionality including the ability to search your entire music library.

The installation took about three minutes; the only minor glitch was figuring out that the wireless network name was case-sensitive. Beware—WMA is not supported, no great loss there. Don’t worry Scott, it does support AAC, through server-side transcoding.

I’d love to see what other products this company is going to come out with to really make home convergence happen. Picture albums on the TV is an obvious one that they could do easily.

Gadget report (I) — MP3 players, Creative MuVo^2

Thursday, January 1st, 2004

I did some research on MP3 players in preparation for making a special request to Santa. It seems the MP3 market has bifurcated into low-end memory-based devices running around $100 and high-end disk-based devices running around $300-400. The low-end products are really small now, but almost all support only the slower USB 1.0 spec, meaning you spend several minutes downloading a single album. I guess the thinking is (1) the low price point doesn’t support the extra cost of USB 2.0 and (2) with such small capacities—like 128MB—there’s no real point in faster downloading. But spending five minutes downloading an album is never any fun if you’re on your way to the gym, even if it’s only one album.

The disk-based high-end products, of which the new Dell device is the prominent example, have capacities of 5 or 10 or 20 or 40 GB and they all support USB 2.0, but they’re also HEAVY, and not entirely robust in an environment where you’re moving around like the gym.

What’s needed is a memory-based device with larger capacity and USB 2.0 support—and I found it: the Creative Nomad MuVo^2. With a capacity of 512MB, it holds a dozen or more albums at a time. Santa heard my prayers and brought me this nice toy. But I do have some minor quibbles.

1. The LCD display is too small and hard to read. It should fill the entire front of the device.

2. The controls are hard to manipulate in a gym environment. Too often, the device confuses a press on the right edge of the main control knob with a click on its middle.

3. The player looks like a mountable disk and you copy music to it by just dragging and dropping; but files downloaded from MusicMatch don’t know they are being copied to a portable and end up copy-protected and unplayable. I can copy to the portable from within MusicMatch Jukebox but it doesn’t realize that there’s a USB 2.0 connection and apparently limits itself to USB 1.0 speeds, and doesn’t know how to create new folders on the portable device. There’s a jukebox/library manager that comes with the device that can copy files fast and deals correctly with the copy-protection problem but the last thing I need is another music manager right now. But it’s the only way to create playlists choosing from among all the music on the device. MusicMatch Jukebox creates playlists in the right format (M3U) and in theory I could copy those to the device but they all contain absolute paths to the MP3 files as stored on my music server. Sigh.

Other than that, this is a cool device—the MP3 player I look foward to having as my second-generation music companion in the gym for the next couple of years. The first generation I had was the Nike PSA I bought a couple of years ago for $300; it held 64MB, served me well, and finally died a noble death a month or two ago. What will the third generation bring?

Why $9.99 is too much for an album bought on-line

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

The new on-line music services charge only $9.99 for an entire album—gee, what a bargain, right? Just compare that to prices almost double that in stores.

But wait a minute. Leaving aside the fact that the music companies have no production or retailing costs other than the cost of running their on-line store, has anyone considered the fact that the average consumer holds on to a physical CD for 10 years or more, but will have to buy the album they bought on-line all over again the minute their hard disk crashes, they forgot where they put the music, or they toss their computer without remembering to salvage the music from it?

Combine this with the fact that all the services selling on-line albums for $9.99 continue to put various types of copy restrictions on them—for instance, MusicMatch, the service which I’ve started to use, allows you to play music you bought there on only three PCs at any given time. You can burn the albums to physical CDs but are people really going to do that?

Given all that, isn’t the sweet spot for on-line album prices $4.99 instead of $9.99? And by extension, 49cents a track instead of 99cents?

Why not to make hotel reservations through Expedia

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2003

I recently made a 3-night hotel reservation in Las Vegas through Expedia. Had to pay the whole thing in advance. But then I had to leave a day early. Come to find out, there is no way to cancel or refund the third night. And it wasn’t that I was getting an especially good rate—checking the same hotel rates on-line now, it seems that if anything Expedia was overcharging me a bit.

I had a discussion with a gentleman at Expedia about this issue, and asked him the obvious question—why should anyone reserve hotels through Expedia? He finally admitted that reserving directly with the chain would be better in many cases.

Google’s real competitor: Amazon (part 2)

Saturday, December 20th, 2003

Following my prescient post from last month, entitled Google’s real competitor: Amazon, it’s amusing to note that Google wasted no time in coming out with a copy-cat service. Meanwhile, Amazon has created a new subsidiary called A9 to steal some of Google’s thunder in the search area, as regards e-commerce in particular.

Google’s real competitor: Amazon

Saturday, November 1st, 2003

Amazon has released a full-text search capability. I already used it to do some research on my upcoming biography, searching for books containing the word “Saptian”, the language spoken the by the Indians of the Columbia Basin. It has all the pages of most books on-line, and even highlights the term you were searching for—how on earth do they do that? They prevent you from browsing more than two pages in either direction, because they don’t want to become a free on-line book reading service, obviously.

Sure, a few people will buy a few more books from Amazon due to this cool new feature. But more basically, this is a shot across Google’s bow. Google has been sitting there saying, well, we own the index to all of the world’s information. Amazon is saying, wait a minute, there is also a little of information in this other medium called, uh, books. And guess what, we now own the index to books, so take that, Google.

I’d predict that Amazon will be monetizing this feature within six months, via the obvious routes such as ads, or possibly even with a subscription that lets people do more on-line browsing—although that would probably require some kind of agreement with the copyright holders, a-la-iTunes.

TRON takes over the mobile phone world

Wednesday, July 16th, 2003

Ken Sakamura is the legendary founder of Japan’s claim to operating system fame: TRON. A quick Google reveals a robust web presence for Sakamura and TRON. Sakamura is also, of course, Bob’s professor from his ill-fated two-year sojourn in a doctoral program at Tokyo University.

Joi Ito recently posted a brief note about his dinner with Sakamura on his ubiquitous blog. It seems like Sakamura still has his endearing fixation on all kinds of cute little devices.

CNN reported on Sakamura and his TRON project. This was also picked up at Slashdot. Their bottom line: TRON is wildly successful, running on hundreds of millions of devices, and Sakamura is an unassuming genius who left billions of dollars on the table in the interest of seeing his technology benefit the world’s masses.

Well, sort of. What’s happened now is that the part of TRON they used to call ITRON, the real-time OS, has indeed become the OS of choice for lots of embedded devices, particularly phones. That’s because it’s small and fast and robust. But actually Sakamura didn’t invent ITRON —it came from another group at Tokyo University. As with all the parts of TRON, Sakamura was mainly responsible for finding the technology and sprinkling it with the TRON holy water—a laudable contribution not to be sneezed at. The notion, though, that Sakamura would have been a billionaire had he charged one cent per device is a bit illusory. First, clients used the product exactly because it was free. Second, Tokyo University professors at the time weren’t allowed to have side jobs. Third, I don’t knew who does the math at CNN, but to reach Bill Gates’ level of wealth at one cent per unit there would have to be 4.3 trillion TRON devices, something that even the visionary Sakamura, who has long dreamed of massively ubiquitous computing, could not imagine.

The other pieces of TRON did not fare nearly as well. The TRONCHIP was one of the most CISC-y chips ever designed, with the further bad fortune to come out right as the RISC winds were blowing strongly in the late ‘80s. CTRON was an NTT-sponsored OS for telephone switches that saw only sporadic use. BTRON was the poster boy of the TRON movement—a cool desktop OS clearly inspired by the Macintosh, and with some truly useful features like a network-shaped file model. Its technical merits aside, BTRON lost in the same way that DesqView lost the desktop wars. It simply could not make it past the barrier posed by the massive installed base, hardball marketing, herd mentality, and critical mass of Windows.

We all love Ken Sakamura. We love his TRON house. We love his TRON toilet (I still remember narrating a video about TRON where I had to explain the toilet in English). We love his cool toys, his unbridled imagination, his almost child-like amazement at neat technogadgets. He is certainly in line for a spiffy award from the Japanese Emperor once he gets a few more gray hairs. He unquestionably is the single best symbol of Japanese computing over the last couple of decades and the next couple of ones. It’s just too bad that neither Japanese computing nor Sakamura could accomplish much more during this period, all the ITRON phones out there notwithstanding.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Better Dog Drawings

Sunday, June 22nd, 2003

The New York Times Magazine on June 22nd, 2003, in the article Savant for a Day, reported an interesting experiment in transcranial magnetic stimulation.

The before and after pictures of this subject’s ability to draw a dog tell the story. This technique has also been used to dispel schizophenia patients’ inner voices. What is the neural basis of this?

Orbits around Lagrange Points as Space Highways

Monday, June 9th, 2003

Talked to a CalTech mathematician who told me he was working on highly robust methods for calculating “Lagrange points” and their associated orbits. See the NASA page for more info. Apparently orbits around these Lagrange points can be used as a kind of space highway! He is working on a project which will use these highways to get stuff to the moon easily, from which it can be launched to Mars or elsewhere.