Sunday, December 28, 2008

Google Reader Finally Working Right With G1?

I received a pleasant surprise today with my T-Mobile G1. It was acting flaky and I shut the phone off. I turned it back on and my old browser windows were gone. This is a pretty common problem with the G1. Applications like the web browser and e-mail program tend to forget information that they really should remember; like open web pages or worse yet, e-mail server settings. So when I typed into the browser, it defaulted to Google's iPhone RSS reader. I'd stopped using the iPhone version of Google Reader because it didn't update properly on the G1's browser—instead of marking items read and loading new ones, it would just keep reloading the same items—but this time it was updating properly. While I still like the classic mobile GReader a lot, fixing the iPhone style GReader only makes the G1 more comfortable to use.


Oops, spoke too soon. The next day, the iPhone Google Reader was back to its old flaky self. Back to the classic mobile GReader. Maybe Google should just make the old GReader the default for the Android browser.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On Corruption

Living in Chicago, I've been hearing and reading about political corruption all my life. These days it has become somewhat fashionable to talk about Chicago corruption. I don't think that anyone in Chicago, myself included, was hugely surprised by the recent scandal with Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich trying to sell Barack Obama's senate seat. Shocked by the shamelessness and brazenness of the attempt sure; but not surprised. There was a reason why the guy's approval rating was down to 13% before the scandal broke.

And this is the part that fascinates me about the whole scandal. It seems to me that while corruption has long been tolerated in Chicago, incompetence is not. Chicago mayor Richard Daley isn't exactly known for honest and open government. In fact the Daley name is widely regarded as synonymous with big city corruption. But Daley still enjoys relatively high approval ratings despite having been repeatedly battered by scandal. The difference is that Daley actually gets things done. When I think about Daley, I think about Millenium Park and the renovation of Navy Pier, huge projects which Daley used to beautify Chicago. When I thought about Blagojevich, if I thought about him at all prior to his current scandal, I usually thought about his last big scandal involving his father in law Richard Mell or of his mishandling of the Chicago Transit Authority's budget crisis. I literally can't think of a single positive thing to say about Blagojevich right now.

And in the end, that's the difference in the fate of these two pols. One is barely hanging on to his career and will likely be gone in a few months, the other is merely "vulnerable" despite repeated scandals. My brother is a suburbanite who loves right wing talk radio and a few years ago local talk show hosts were frothing at the mouth about the Daley Machine and why he kept getting re-elected. Any Chicagoan could have told them why—for all of his flaws, Daley has actually done a pretty good job as mayor—at least from the perspective of a city resident. While it may not seem like the best way to pick a local leader, it beats picking a guy who gets beaten by a snow storm.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dr. Who Meets Star Trek

It's been a while since I posted a video clip because let's face it, posting other people's clips is lazy. But The Bad Astronomer links to one of the most elaborate sci-fi mash ups I've ever seen so it's monkey see, monkey do time. Forget about Star Trek vs Star Wars. Dr. Who has come to the Enterprise!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Treo Versus T-Mobile G1—On The Inside

One of the greatest strengths of Palm's Treo smartphones has been their large, removable batteries. The large batteries are also one of the reasons why Treos tend to be so thick. The T-Mobile G1 also has a fairly large removable battery but the device itself is so capable that battery life takes a major hit. Moreover, while the G1's battery is removable, it's not nearly as easy to remove as the Treo's battery.

The Treo's battery compartment is very well thought out. As you can see from the comparison photo, the Treo has a nice little button near the bottom of the battery cover which allows you to easily pop it off and get at the battery. While it's not exactly a unique cell phone feature, it works so well that beginning with the 680, Palm decided to abandon the use of a reset button and now sets its devices to automatically reset when you remove the battery.

The G1's battery compartment is somewhat less elegantly designed. The G1 has a release tab which allows you to remove the back panel and get at the battery. In order to do this you must, "Slide open the display to reveal the keyboard." and "Pull the release tab out while at the same time peel the back cover off." (These are direct quotes from the T-Mobile Getting Started booklet.) In practice however once the release tab has been pulled out, the back cover is still firmly attached to the phone and must be removed using an uncomfortable amount of effort. While it's not exactly hard to remove the back panel, the amount of force you need to use tends to slightly deform the back panel causing it to creak slightly—a disappointing thing to see in a hot new phone.

Another problem with the difficult to remove back panel is that the SIM card resides underneath the battery. And the slot where the SIM card resides is just long enough to make removal difficult—not hugely difficult mind you but just enough to annoy. The Treo 680 by contrast, has a handy little tray for the SIM card which makes it easy to remove. The end result is that it is harder to switch back and forth between phones with the G1 than it is with the Treo.

One area where the G1 outshines the Treo is in terms of removable storage. The T-Mobile G1 has a tiny (fingernail sized) microSD card (a 1GB card ships with the G1) which fits into a tiny side door which is built into the device's "chin" which is revealed when you slide out the display to reveal the keyboard. It has all the same problems as the SIM card slot—tiny and hard to remove (I know it's sexist but I sometimes think that the G1 was built specifically for women with small hands and long fingernails). But the nice thing about the G1's microSD card is that once it's in, there is no reason to take it out because the G1 alerts you and offers to mount the card as a removable drive when you attach it to a computer. As a result, it is easy to get things on and off of the card. About the only problem with G1's storage scheme is that there appears to be no way to use the card to store applications which can run on the phone. As a result, you have to rely on the phone's own built-in storage which is somewhat limited. With the growing diversity of third-party Android applications for the G1, expect to see a lot of "low space" warnings.

Palm has always had problems handling removable memory on its devices and the Treo 680 is no exception. The Treo has a large battery door on its side which accommodates SD and SDHC cards. While it's never actually snapped off, the delicate plastic certainly feels like it could snap off easily. And this is a bad thing because there is no way to mount the Treo's SD card as a removable drive on your computer without resorting to expensive third-party software. This has been a problem with Palm devices for years going all the way back to m500 which debuted way back in 2001. It's simply mind-boggling that Palm never got around to fixing this problem in seven years. (Perhaps they figured that it wasn't important and best left to third-party developers but this ignores the fact that this feature has been available on Palm's Windows Mobile smartphones for years while devices based Palm's own, more flexible OS languish.) On the bright side, it is fairly easy to run applications directly from the Treo's SD card although some applications do need to reside on the phone if they handle alarms or are older and can't see the SD card.

Overall, the story of the Treo's internal hardware is one of thoughtful touches marred by one stunning omission. The G1 on the other hand is quite consistent in all areas, rough around the edges but consistently powerful. The G1 is bristling with radios: the obligatory cellular radio which also transmits 3G data, wifi, Bluetooth, and a GPS unit. It downloads email automatically and switches between 3G and wifi on the fly. While you can save on battery life by shutting down its various radios, the G1 uses them so well that there is a tendency to leave them on. If the back panel were easy to remove, carrying a spare battery with the G1 would be a no-brainer. While its battery life is generally poor in comparison with the Treo its hard to see how it could possibly be better given current battery technology, the device simply does too many things. I was going to write that the G1 struggles to get through a day of light usage the fact is that there is no light usage with G1 unless you start turning everything off and just use it as a phone (if this was all I wanted to do, I'd get a dumb phone), it will always be active in the background. The Treo on the other hand gets much better battery life but does less and does a lot of what it does do less well than the G1 does.

Treo Versus T-Mobile G1—Keyboards, Is Bigger Better?

One of the reasons why I've been blogging about the T-Mobile G1 is because of the transition that I'm making from my Treo 680. It's a big leap and it has forced me to think about the way I do things when I'm on the move. One of the biggest and most direct comparisons is between the keyboards of the two devices.

When making a side by side comparison of the keyboards of the Treo and of the G1, the most striking differences are the size of the keyboards themselves and the brightness of the keys when they are lit up. The Treo's key are much brighter than the G1's and this makes a huge difference when operating in low light conditions. When lit up, the keys G1's keyboard take on a dull grayish tint which greatly reduces the contrast between the keyboard characters and the silvery background of the keyboard this not only hurts the readability of the G1's keyboard in low light conditions; even under normal indoor lighting conditions the G1's keyboard can become a little harder to read when it is lit up.

The Treo's keyboard by contrast has always been its strength and is very well thought out. It has two different sets of keys, a white on black set of hybrid number/letter keys which also double as a tiny telephone keypad occupies the center left position of the phone. The rest of the keys have black characters on a pearly white backgound. When the Treo keyboard's bright backlight is turned on, the result is a very bright high contrast keyboard which is easily visible in almost any lighting condition.

The size of the G1's keyboard is deceptive. Or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that the lack of size of the Treo's keyboard is deceptive. While the G1's keyboard is much wider and taller than the Treo keyboard, its keys surprisingly enough are roughly the same size as the Treo's keys. This is mainly because the Treo's keys are packed tightly together and curve subtly upward allowing them to occupy about the same amount of space as the G1's more squarish keys. The Treo's keys are also domed and quite bulbous which makes them even easier to type with. While the size of the G1 keyboard is great, its flat keys tend to cause fatigue when you do a lot of typing on it.

Finally, the biggest change between the Treo and the G1 is the end of one-handed typing. It's easy to whip out a Treo and type away on it with only one hand which makes it perfect for use as a phone which after all is the device's primary function. The width of the G1's keyboard makes this impossible. While the G1 does have an excellent onscreen keypad with nice big keys which can be used to dial a phone number with only one hand, the Treo allows you to use its entire keyboard with one hand. More importantly for people who live in northern lattitudes, the G1's onscreen keypad forces people who wear gloves in the winter to take them off in order to use it. The Treo's physical keyboard (like the G1's) by contrast can still be used even while wearing a light set of wool gloves. Now this might not seem like a big deal at first blush but when the mercury dips below freezing, it becomes a huge advantage.

In the end, I'm forced to conclude that while the G1 does have a good keyboard, the Treo's keyboard beats it almost every way.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Google Reader Versus The G1

Of all the different Google Apps, my favorite is Google Reader. I haven't found a better application for reading RSS newsfeeds and I can access it from any web browser. I've been using the mobile version of Google Reader for over a year to read blogs on the go on my Palm TX and Treo 680. Now that I have a T-Mobile G1, the phone's web browser defaults to the iPhone version of Google Reader and it behaves rather strangely on my G1. Now when I mark items read in Google Reader, it often just reloads the same items. This annoying and really defeats the purpose of an RSS newsreader. I don't exactly know why this happens, maybe I'm doing something wrong or maybe the Android browser is doing something wrong.

The bottom line is that I've bookmarked the older mobile version of Google Reader and am now using it on the G1. It works better for me anyway since it doesn't launch a new window every time I use it to open a web page. It also allows me to quickly go through each item one at a time instead of repeatedly tapping on items and then refreshing the news feed when they run out. Basically, the iPhone version looks cool but the older mobile reader works faster. One disappointment is that the Android browser can't use the mobile Google Reader's keyboard shortcuts because it assumes that anything you type is part of a web search or that you are entering a URL but I can live with that.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Been Out Of Town

I've been out of town visiting relatives for about a week and while I didn't have much time (or inclination) to do much online, I did spend a lot of quality time with my T-Mobile G1 as my only consistent source of Internet access. It also gave me a chance to try out the G1's camera. The good news is that the G1 produces nice, hi-resolution images. The ones in this post were taken on a bright, sunny day at Union Station in Dallas, Texas. (I went from Chicago at 29 degrees Fahrenheit to Dallas at about 70 degrees in less than 24 hours.) The bad news is that the G1 absolutely sucks in low light conditions.

In between good and bad is the G1's shutter response. While pictures of my sister's nervous little dogs look pretty blurry on the phone itself, viewed on my laptop's big screen looked pretty good.

T-Mobile's coverage was excellent in urban areas but in rural areas it was bad to non-existent.

Monday, December 1, 2008

T-Mobile G1 Has a Great Sense of Direction

Ah, December in Chicago. No sooner does it arrive when we get the first significant snow and painful commute times. Still, good 'net access does help matters somewhat especially for CTA users. The CTA has been putting its buses online through its bus tracker which scales nicely on cell phones. Even on my older Treo 680, the web site loads well and is easy to use.

But the G1 has another weapon in its arsenal, GPS. Like most GPSes, the G1's functions poorly indoors but works perfectly outdoors. It was made for guiding people through the cold city at night. Thoughtful touches on the G1 allow me to use it even while wearing a pair of light wool gloves. While I haven't been particularly impressed with the G1's keyboard so far, I can really appreciate that its large size allows my to type even while wearing gloves. The trackball is also useful in this regard as the G1's touchscreen, like all touchscreens becomes virtually useless when you are wearing gloves. Finally, pressing the G1's home key allows me to navigate between my six most recently used applications, making it easy for me to switch between my browser and Google Maps. Awesome.

Of course this being the G1, things didn't go perfectly. At one point during my day, the screen just went blank and couldn't be turned back on again. I opened it up and popped out the battery and SIM card and the G1 roared back to life when I put them back. Why? Doesn't the G1 like the cold? Well it better get used to it, because winter has come to Chicago.

First (mobile) Post!

I've been playing around with the T-Mobile G1 as my primary phone and this is my first attempt to blog from a phone. I have two initial observations, really three observations but the first would seem to be rather mundane, I am using the full desktop sized Blogger page to write this post, not a cut down mobile page. Also, it leaves a bit to be desired. First of all the Compose form doesn't seem to work, the G1's browser seems to think that I am trying to type a URL. I am typing this in the Edit HTML form which seems to work just fine.

Second, I used to think that the forms on this page were small. But now, typing away on my phone they feel too big because they are too wide for my phone's screen. It's all a matter of perspective but flexible software helps too. I used the screen controls to make the page smaller so the forms would fit my screen. This made the text small and hard (but not impossible) to read. Then I made the fonts bigger. Now everything is just right....

Except that the Preview option doesn't work either....

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Chrome: Is This Your Father's Web Browser?

A couple of months ago I set up a computer for an older couple who had never used a computer before. It was an old laptop with busted hinge but it was in otherwise good condition and it was an easy matter of setting it up with an external monitor and wireless keyboard and mouse. Neither of them knew much about computers and they just wanted it for e-mail and web browsing—the same as most computer users these days.

When it came time to choose a web browser for the computer I wanted to steer them away from Internet Explorer. Besides being slow and bloated, IE is a magnet for hackers if for no other reason than the fact that it is installed on the vast majority of computers. So I installed Opera on the computer.

It seemed like a good choice at the time, Opera is small and fast—perfect for an old computer with only 512MB of RAM. Unfortunately, Yahoo! Mail didn't cooperate. Several days after setting up the computer, I began receiving calls about the a problem between Yahoo Mail and Opera. For some reason it kept redirecting Opera from its Inbox to the log-on page. I never figured out exactly why this was happening. So I installed Chrome—Google's then new browser—on the computer and the older couple has been happily using it for e-mail and web browsing ever since.

Chrome hasn't made much noise since the week when it was launched. A lot of geeks (myself included) downloaded it, complained about a lack of features and possible privacy problems, and quickly went back to Firefox. But from my perspective setting up computers for people—many of them older—who really know nothing about computers and don't care about cookie handling or security.

For these people, Chrome's shortcomings suddenly turn into strengths. Chrome was designed from the ground up to run javascript so temperamental web applications like Yahoo! Mail are more likely to run properly on it. Chrome runs in the background quietly updating itself through Google's Updater application even when it is supposed to be "closed." While more tech-savvy and paranoid people see this as a potential privacy risk, for people who neither know nor care about security or privacy issues, this is an invaluable feature since their web browser always has the latest updates and patches. While there is no way to control how javascript and cookies behave on a site by site basis, people who lack computer savvy won't know how to use these features anyway, so for them relying on Google to handle these potential threats makes sense. It all comes down to how much you trust Google—maybe you and I don't always trust Google but most people don't care one way of they other. For them Google's web browser is just another program that they run on their computer.

So for confused newbies, Chrome's lack of features and minimalist interface are an advantage. Ironically enough, Chrome's name comes from the term used by web developers for the buttons, menus, and other widgets that constitute the browser's interface. But Chrome has very little "chrome" compared to other web browsers; just front, back, and reload buttons, a combination address/search bar, and a couple of hidden menus which are easy to ignore. It even tucks its tabs into its title bar which further reduces clutter. And while Google has talked about producing add-ons for Chrome, there are currently none available. There are no toolbars or extensions for Chrome. But then again, too many extensions can slow Firefox down and toolbars are frequently more trouble than they are worth for Internet Explorer users.

So if you are a tech-savvy nerd who has been wondering what Google was thinking when they put out Chrome, maybe they were thinking about your mom and dad.

Monday, November 10, 2008

R.I.P. Mars Phoenix

The Mars Phoenix team has just frozen. It's a remarkable thing to feel emotions over the "death" of an inanimate object which I've never seen or touched or otherwise interacted with in any way except the occasional Twitter alert. But it was exciting to get these little updates on a mission that was pushing the boundaries of science and exploring another world. In the end, that's what we associate with the best of what we call the "human spirit." If that is the case, then that frozen slab of metal on Mars that we call Phoenix is more human than a lot of us.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Googling Usenet

This is the sort of post which I must admit is basically just something I'm writing down so I won't forget about it. It's so nice that blogging allows me to treat the Internet as my own personal napkin.

If there is one program that I use more than any other on my computer, it's Agent. Well, I probably use a web browser, any web browser more than anything else just like everyone else. But after a web browser, I use Agent for both e-mail and for reading Usenet newsgroups. Now Agent is a pretty complex program and it has many little tricks which many people never use because they don't realize that it can do them.

One such trick is the ability to launch your web browser and retrieve a Usenet post from Google's Usenet archive. This can be useful for older topics where you want to see the whole discussion as it happened.

Setting it up is a five step process:

  1. Under the Tools | Options menu item choose URL and MIME Settings | URL Types and select news:Usenet News as your URL type.

  2. Check the following items:

    • Enable highlighting and launching

    • Remove URL prefix when launching

    • Use custom settings (below)

  3. Click Browse and point Agent to your web browser. Not every web browser works nicely with Agent to launch itself and go exactly where Agent tells it to go. Firefox works perfectly, Chrome does not. I haven't tried this trick with recent versions of Opera or Internet Explorer but based on previous experience, I would expect them to work.
  4. Check Use DDE. Use the message,"%1"
  5. Fill in the other DDE settings:

    • Application: Firefox (or whatever the name of the browser happens to be)

    • Topic: WWW_OpenURL

    • Method: Request

From here on, every time you double-click on the Message-ID of a Usenet post in Agent, Firefox will open a Google search for that message and go directly to it.

This kind of Google integration has been available in Agent for years and it's a good thing because Google's own Usenet newsreader is pretty bad as is its search function. Luckily, there are a number of tricks which can be used for searching Google for old Usenet topics. One of the nicest, most overlooked features of Firefox is its Keywords feature which allows you to save a custom search template and then invoke it directly from Firefox's address bar. I have a number of keyword searches for Google's newsgroup archive.

Both of the searches below can be bookmarked and used to search for a specific Message-ID. Basically, they run the above trick I use with Agent directly from Firefox's address bar.
The following search is a little more practical:
It searches Google's Usenet archive for any term just like a search from Google's search box. Adding the following term &as_drrb=b to that causes a snazzy set of drop down boxes to appear which allow you to narrow your search to a specific set of dates
Google's newsgroup URL can be customized with a wide variety of terms for saving a custom search. A full list of these terms is here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What Will It Be Like to Have a Black President?

FARK takes a look at that question with this classic Richard Pryor clip:

Election 2008 In Photoshop

As the election draws to a close, I thought I'd post some of the many photoshop pictures that I've collected )mostly on FARK because it's so much easier to post a bunch of silly pictures than to make cogent, logical arguments to justify your political opinions.

From the hard fought primaries:

A charismatic young leader emerges on one side:

And a grizzled veteran on the other:

And the election had begun in earnest:

Most of the 'shops were pretty geeky:

Others were tailored to the headlines and sound bites of the day:

Some of the 'shops were truly elaborate:

Not all of the funny images were photoshops, some were just unfortunate:

Going negative:

But in the end, a final winner had to emerge:

Mars Phoenix Speaks

NASA has been posting first person accounts of the Mars Phoenix lander's mission via Twitter for some time now. It's basically the only reason why I got a Twitter account—in order to follow Phoenix. It's cool and sometimes even poignant to receive these little messages from Mars. Now, nearing the end of its life, the Phoenix Lander saying goodbye as a "guest blogger" on Gizmodo.

Now another NASA mission, New Horizons is jumping on the Twitter bandwagon as it makes its way to Pluto. If nothing else, it seems like a great way to get young people interested in science.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ben Affleck Versus A Total Unknown

It's pretty common for people to say that Saturday Night Live is no longer funny. The truth is that SNL has always been wildly uneven in quality and today's SNL is about as funny and unfunny as it has ever been. But I did notice in an interesting thing in Allen Sepinwall's review of last night's show. He mentions a skit done by a guy I've never heard of which he enjoyed much more than a similar skit done by Ben Affleck last night. Both skits make fun of Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's sportcaster turned pundit turned professional Bill O'Reilly puncher. Affleck's skit builds slowly from a dull start to a funny over-the-top finish. The unknown guy's skit is much shorter but I think that it is much funnier overall. That is SNL's biggest problem in my opinion, in order to fill the show's ninety minute running time, they tend to pad out their skits causing them to run way too long. 

Here are the two skits.

First Ben Affleck's Olbermann:

And now the guy you've probably never heard of:

Friday, October 31, 2008

It's Like West Side Story For Nerds

Crunchgear brings us a violent Mac vs PC musical. Very well done. Caution: extremely violent.

Open Congress Voting Record Comparison Tool

Open Congress has a new tool for comparing the voting records of House and Senate representatives side by side. Another great tool for voters in this election.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Acer Aspire One—Small is the New Black

I have been using the Acer Aspire One for about a week. It is one those "netbooks" that are so hip these days with the techie set. Although netbooks themselves as are a new category, the concept of a tiny notebook computer isn't that new. Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba were all making tiny laptops for sale ten years ago. But usually these little notebooks would cost upwards of $2500 and were for the most part only available in Japan.

Originally uploaded to Wikipedia by Rico Shen

But things have changed recently. As computer hardware prices have fallen and the Linux operating system has improved to the point where it can be seen as a viable alternative to Windows, it has become possible to build a really small and really cheap laptop computer. My Acer Aspire One cost me $399.

A Little History

The netbook trend has been building for about a year and a half. It sort of started when Palm, looking to revitalize its line of smartphones, announced the Foleo, a simple Linux-based laptop which was meant to be a large keyboard and screen for its Treo smartphones. Palm is primarily a cell phone and PDA maker not a computer company—and it showed with the Foleo. Equipped with wi-fi and a lightweight Linux operating system, the Foleo was capable of being a useful computer in its own right but Palm had primarily meant for it to be an accessory and marketed it as such. Because of this, the Foleo was woefully underpowered and had very little storage of its own. It was also very expensive for a phone accessory—$600, about the same price as a big clunky laptop. While its small size (which it achieved despite having a keyboard and screen which were larger and more useful than what has become the standard on netbooks) was attractive, the Foleo lacked the functionality to justify its price and Palm pulled the plug on it days before it became available for sale. I personally suspect that if Palm had tried to sell the Foleo at half the price they originally intended (in other words for $300 instead of $600), it would have been reasonably successful.

After Palm's embarrassing face plant, Asus came out with a little notebook called the EeePC. Running a lightweight version of Linux and powered by an Intel Celeron processor with a tiny screen and keyboard, the original family of EeePCs cost just $300-$500 and they were a rip-roaring success selling 355,000 units in six months. This just opened up the floodgates with competitors coming from MSI, Acer, Dell, HP, and others.

And that brings us to the Acer Aspire One which I am using now. Over time, netbooks have gravitated to a common set of specs and the Acer Aspire One is no different. It has an Atom processor which is Intel's new mobile friendly chip which has become almost ubiquitous in netbooks. It has a small but above average for netbooks 8.9 inch, 1024x600 pixel screen and a fairly small but usable keyboard—you won't be composing any novels on this keyboard but it's fine for e-mail. What separates this particular version of the Acer Aspire One from other netbooks is its 1 GB of memory and 160 GB hard drive. This is enough storage space to comfortably run Windows XP instead of the sometimes quirky Linux distributions which other netbooks use. As a result, my Acer Aspire One feels more like a normal laptop than like a "netbook."

Size Versus Speed

Without a doubt this notebook's number one feature is its small size and weight. At only about 2.5 pounds, lifting and carrying it is effortless. Here are some pictures of my 8.9" Acer Aspire One together with a 15.4" HP Pavilion dv6000 notebook and a Palm Treo 680 smartphone for comparison.

The small size of this notebook mitigates a lot of its shortcomings. I've heard people complain about the heat produced by the Acer Aspire One but I've never had a problem with it in part because it's too small to cover my entire lap. I can just prop it up on one knee for hours and barely feel any heat. This is in start contrast to my larger HP laptop which runs at least as hot, if not hotter, than my Acer netbook and because of its heat and weight quickly becomes uncomfortable in my lap. While in its default configuration Windows XP runs a bit slowly on the One, turning off its visual styles and other eye causes it to speed up considerably. (I never cease to be amazed at how much useless, performance-choking crap Microsoft adds to its operating systems.) Turning off Windows XP's visual styles also allows you to make better use of the One's small screen as XP's default styles tend to take up a lot of room on your screen.

The One also has some other useful little tricks. Intel's underpowered but useful graphics hardware comes configured with keyboard shortcuts which allow you to rotate the screen. Normally this would be a useless little trick but on the One, the screen rotation allows you to comfortably read long web pages and documents like a hard cover book. Unfortunately, when you rotate the screen, the keyboard and mouse axes remain the same which makes anything other than scrolling text awkward.

Despite all these nice little tweaks, the One still feels a little slower than a typical full sized laptop. Note that by full sized laptop, I'm referring to my two beefy HP laptops which run on dual cores and have 2 and 3 GB of ram respectively. So the One is about as fast a single core laptop with 1 GB of ram. Having said that, web browsing does "feel" a little slower on the One. I'm not sure exactly why that is, maybe its the Atom processor or maybe it's the wi-fi chipset. Or maybe it's a problem with Windows XP.

When I installed Ubuntu on the One, it detected two processors. Since most personal computers have only one processor this is usually a sign that you have a dual core processor or a processor with hyperthreading. In fact, it does appear that the Atom processor is hyperthreaded. But does Windows XP handle the Atom processor's hyperthreading? I'm not particularly knowledgeable on the issue but if I'm not mistaken, Intel abandoned its hyperthreading technology in its desktop processors in part because Windows didn't handle it well. If this is the case—and I don't really know enough about the issue to say that it is—then it might be the part of the problem. (If someone actually reads this blog and does know about this issue, I'd appreciate an e-mail on the subject.)


Like most Windows laptops the One comes with a lot of crappy third party software although it comes with less than what is preloaded on HP laptops. In any case, it's nice to have PC Decrapifier around to get rid of the cruft. (Why did Acer include a copy of InterVideo WinDVD on a laptop with no DVD drive?) The idea behind netbooks is that they are lightweight both in terms of size and software and rely on Internet-based "Web 2.0" "cloud computing" to get work done. I am actually finding that I use much the same software that I would use on a normal PC. In fact at least one Web 2.0 application, Yahoo Mail actually complains that my One's screen resolution is too low even though I think that it looks just fine. Another Web 2.0 application, Google Groups gives you a full, unfiltered view of Usenet which is a little like giving you unfiltered sewer water to drink. Sorry cloud, I think I'll stick to the same e-mail and Usenet application that I've been using for over a decade thank you very much.

I was expecting that Google's Chrome browser with its minimalist interface would be ideal for a netbook. In fact I've found that good old Firefox when used in full screen mode is the best choice for me when browsing the Internet. This is great for me since I can use Foxmarks to synchronize my bookmarks between the One and my home computer which is just a really big laptop.

Beyond that, I use the One very much the same way that I would use a normal laptop. I use Firefox to surf the web, Agent for e-mail and newsgroups, GOM Player to watch video, TightVNC to log into my other computers, and Synergy to seamlessly share my mouse with my bigger computers.

Final Notes

I've only been using my Acer Aspire One for about a week but I'm already very comfortable with this little notebook. It has a glossy dark blue finish which looks great when you take it out of the box but which is also a magnet for fingerprints. It has a six cell battery which delivers about five hours of battery life. This changes the way I use my laptop. I don't worry much about battery anymore. I keep it next to my bedside for use on sleepless nights and lazy weekend mornings. It slips easily into my backpack when my older HP laptop needed some elbow grease to fit. I can take it anywhere that I expect to be able to find available wi-fi access.

This computer certainly isn't perfect. It's a little slower than what I'm used to. The touchpad has awkwardly placed buttons and is bad even by touchpad standards. The keyboard is usable but can't be recommended for long typing sessions (I'm typing this review on my big HP laptop). I've seen netbooks positioned as computers for younger people—college students, teenagers, even children. Well, with their smaller hands and sharp eyes, younger people will almost certainly be less bothered by the shortcomings of netbooks than older people.

But the bottom line is that its small size and long battery life give this computer a degree of freedom that bigger laptops can only aspire to. So as one of the first netbooks that seems to really hit the sweetspot in terms of usability for me, the Acer Aspire One is aptly named.

Atlas of Cyberspace

A Usenet posting alerted me to a blog post which alerted me to the Atlas of Cyberspace, a colorful book which visualizes and explores the infrastructure of the Internet. If you are curious about the design of the tubes which bring you your cat pictures and spam, this free downloadable e-book is a must read.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Media Is In The Tank For Mad Men

John McCain is wrong. The media is not in love with Barack Obama. It is actually in love with AMC's show Mad Men. The show's star John Hamm recently hosted Saturday Night Live and they eagerly promoted his show with not one but two skits (on a side note, it sure looked like Hamm and the SNL cast were having a great time during these skits which also featured other members of the Mad Men cast). And now TV Squad reports that The Simpsons will do a parody the show. All this comes after Mad Men won a fistfull of Emmy Awards.

I have always felt somewhat cold towards Mad Men. I've seen most of the first season and plan on eventually watching the second but I'm in no hurry finish. Yes, the acting is great, the production values are great, and the women on the show are beautiful but I still can't get into this show as much as the media wants me to. And it's not like I'm being a contrarian here, I've fallen in love with critically praised but low-rated shows before. But not this time. I just can't identify with Don Draper, he's far better looking and more charming than I can possibly ever be.

Oh well.

Google Quotes the Candidates

Neatorama links to a neat new service from Google which tracks quotes by the presidential candidates and other politicians on the issues. Just choose a pair of politicians and type in an issue like the economy and Google pops up quotes from each of them along with links to the news articles which quote them. An excellent tool for voters.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Carbon Dating

A rather snarky post by Millard Fillmore's Bathtub reminded me of an excellent post over at Aardvarcheology explaining the ins and outs of radiocarbon dating. It's a must read for anyone who is interested in archeology or simply in how scientists come up with the dates for ancient artifacts that you read about in the news.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Conflict Between Google Reader and Firefox?

So I fire up Firefox to read my blogs and what happens? Google Reader comes up as a blank page. I'm not sure exactly why this is the case but I do know that Chrome and Firefox 3.1, Beta 1 are not affected by this problem. Just Firefox 3. This is disappointing as many of my Firefox extensions still haven't been updated to work with the new Firefox Beta.

It's weird and disappointing but on the bright side, the new Firefox Beta is very nice—fast and stable.

Updated: In the end, I just cleared my private data and Google Reader came back. I must have had a corrupted cookie or something.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Death of a Meme

Watching Rocketboom's Know Your Meme segment on the word "FAIL" and it's use on the Internet, it occurred to me that it has become so common use this word to express contempt on the Internet that I am beginning to reach a point where I grit my teeth every time I read it. FAIL is everywhere, on every blog and on every large posting site like FARK and slashdot. It has even begun migrating to Usenet. It has its own blog and it has numerous images to illustrate it. All that's left is for a major New York Times columnist to use the word FAIL in the same context that people use it on the Internet.

This is leading me to a single conclusion: FAIL has Jumped the Shark. It has reached a point where it has peaked and can no longer be considered interesting or creative. It has become a cliche. It is used by people who simply disagree with what someone says but are too lazy to explain why. Keep that in mind the next time you use want to use FAIL on the 'net. You are no longer being cool, clever, and funny—you are being lame.

This is nothing new. Memes become used up all the time. The phrase "Jump the Shark" itself jumped the shark years ago.

There's only one thing left to do, pay tribute to the fallen meme and move on.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Debate Deja Vu

Somebody on Youtube seems to think that The Penguin from Batman was a Republican. Looking over this clip, I'm definitely seeing some similarities between the talking points of the Penguin and of John McCain.

OnionMap Looks Cool. But Is It Useful?

The Red Ferret Journal links to the coolest looking map website I've seen in a long time. OnionMap gives a great-looking 3-D overview of a number of cities, highlighting tourist attractions and showing hotels, restaurants, businesses, transportation, and local events. The cities are not complete yet but the tourist information seems good. 

Checking out my own home town of Chicago, I was a both impressed and disappointed by the completeness of the map. OnionMap only shows a few of the city's tallest historic buildings and some buildings are hidden behind taller ones because there doesn't seem to be a way to change the angle of the view. OnionMap does however give a surprisingly good overview of Chicago's downtown "El" train system and the 3-D view makes it easy to locate train stops.

But ultimately, all these features are fairly meager compared what you'd see on Google Maps. OnionMap's 3-D view gives you a good way of orienting yourself in relation to well-known landmarks. But Google's street view seems to make more sense as a tool for helping lost tourists and even locals find their way around. 

All-in-all, OnionMap seems like a great idea whose time came and went a couple of years ago. Today with Google Maps and its competitors being so richly featured, it's hard to see where OnionMap fits in as anything more than a pretty toy. But it sure is pretty.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Politics Just Got a Little More Negative...

...and a lot more hilarious. As much as I keep telling myself that I hate negative campaigning, I just love For all your hockey mom bashing needs.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Political Ads Got You Down? Take a Break

Here's a great idea. A Youtube channel full of completely apolitical ads which let you take a break from the usual partisan mudslinging.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Web Therapy

Boing-Boing links to a new web series called Web Therapy starring former friends star Lisa Kudrow as an online therapist who finds herself treating an old boyfriend. The first episode feels a little long as it sets up the show's premise but overal it's a very amusing show.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

On John McCain And Earmarks

In his recent debate with Barack Obama, John McCain took him to task for his earmarks. He specifically singled out "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois." This isn't the first time McCain has mentioned the earmark and a number of science bloggers have complained about McCain's complaints.

There's an insteresting twist to the earmark story. The Adler Planetarium recently released a statement (PDF link) on the debate and it turns out that they never actually received an earmark:
To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support – which was not funded – to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere. The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector – not an overhead projector – is the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential planetarium experience. The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It is only the second planetarium projector in the Adler’s 78 years of operation.
However, the Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama's efforts. This is clearly evidenced by recent transparency laws implemented by the Congress, which have resulted in the names of all requesting Members being listed next to every earmark in the reports that accompany appropriations bills.

It's interesting to see how the presidential campaign has unfolded over the years (that's right, people have been running for president for two freakin' years). John McCain seems determined to find specific examples of government waste that to attack. Besides the planetarium, McCain has also complained about an earmark for studying bear DNA. But we are talking about relatively small amounts of money compared to the overall federal budget. $3,000,000 may seem like a lot to you and me—and to John McCain but it's nothing compared to the almost $3,000,000,000,000 total federal budget. All of the total earmarks in the federal budget amount to exactly $16,501,833,000—a large number to be sure, but only a fraction of our country's entire federal budget. 

I think that earmarks are a lot like the Mad Magazine cartoon which I've inserted in this post. Most people have trouble visualizing really huge numbers. I certainly do. Earmarks are smaller but nevertheless large chunks of cash which often turn out to be wasteful. They are also highly visible because they are often spent on a things like museums, roads, and bridges. Because of this, earmarks are easy to visualize and can be easily turned into symbols of government waste. But ultimately, they are little more than symbols because most of the federal budget is spent elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Usenet, From Past to Present

PC World has a nice article on the history of Usenet and its current state as many ISPs use the New York Attorney General's crusade against kiddie porn to drop or significantly water down their Usenet service. It's a good read and nicely explains that the elimination of Usenet service by ISPs has less to do with protecting children from porn and sexual predators and more to do with side-stepping legal challenges related to porn and copyright infringement. Binary Usenet newsgroups which allow users to exchange files are usually full of copyrighted music and movies (not to mention porn) and by eliminating them, ISPs avoid lawsuits by copyright organizations like the RIAA which love to sue people for "stealing" music and movies.

Removing binary groups supposedly also helps ISPs save on bandwidth but I don't think that this is the case. Most heavy binary users—the ones most responsible for driving up bandwidth usage on Usenet—will likely move to a third party Usenet provider if their ISP cuts their newsgroup service. And because these third party services tend to be better and faster than their ISPs service, these people will use them even more heavily than they ever used their ISPs Usenet service. And ultimately, the ISP will still have to move all of the bits to the end user even if they don't reside on their servers. My own intuition suggests that bandwidth usage will increase instead of decreasing.

But at least they won't get sued by the RIAA....

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Transformers

IO9 recently put up the pilot of the original Transformers cartoon, a show which I loved as a kid. It brought back some good memories. Even if the toys were kind of lame, I loved the show so for no reason at all here it is:

Friday, October 3, 2008

Google's CAPTCHA Cracked?

Slashdot reports that spammers are now claiming to have cracked Google's CAPTCHA system. This comes after reports that Microsoft's CAPTCHA system has also been cracked. And here I am always needing two or three tries in order to read Blogger's CAPTCHAs. It's a depressing state of affairs. It is now almost easier for spam-bots to send out penis enlargement ads and get rich quick scams than it is for legitimate users send each other pictures of cats....Now that I think about it, no one will ever notice the difference anyway.

Harder, Better Barack

I guess it's no surprise that Barack Obama supporters would be hipper than John McCain supporters. But this is probably the coolest of the pro-Obama videos I've seen so far.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Firefox Extensions: An Embarrassment of Riches

One of the great things about the Firefox web browser is the rich mosaic of extensions which are available for it. I recently excitedly installed an extension called Hyperwords which promises to pop up a wealth of references from any word which you highlight. It looked awesome but once I restarted Firefox and had a chance to play with it, I realized that I already have several extensions which already do much the same thing. CoolPreviews does the same thing on a smaller scale—it only pops up results from Google, Google Images, The Free Dictionary, and Wikipedia while the list of references is Hyperwords pops up is too long for me to list. But CoolPreviews also pops up a minimalist window on top of my current one with a preview of any url without opening seperate page. This is a huge time saver for me which allows me to go through web pages more quickly but it's still a duplication of functionality.

And it's not the only one. Ubiquity is also an extension which I installed enthusiastically and it too replicates a lot of the functionality of Hyperwords. But it is also one of the most ambitious extensions ever created for Firefox. Essentially a command line for the web, Ubiquity can bring up everything from maps to the weather and email, twitter, slice, and dice them in many different ways. It's tremendously fun to play with and useful and it promises to grow more sophisticated as it continues to develop.

But in the meantime, I have a growing list of extensions (twenty four in all) and Firefox no longer loads instantaneously as it did when I first installed it. In fact, it actually takes about thirty seconds to start which doesn't seem like a lot but it means that Chrome, which is Google's web browser, loads instantaneously but it lacks the powerful extensions to which I've become accustomed to on Firefox. It's an interesting conumdrum, speed versus power. It's compelling enough that I often run Firefox and Chrome side by side. But that's life on the modern Internet I guess, tons and tons of information and tons and tons of ways to use it and manipulate.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

FARK on the Subprime Meltdown

FARK is one of the wildest places on the Internet. The most amazing thing about it is that even though by design it's a frivolous site that usually consists of a bunch of jerks shouting at each other from the safety of their keyboards, a lot of useful information gets posted to it. They recently had a pretty interesting discussion on the country's recent economic troubles. In addition to the original submitted article, many useful links have been posted in the discussion including this link to an amusing but informative Google Docs presentation (warning, gratuitus use of the "F" word) which explains the subprime mess with stick figures, an episode of This American Life devoted to the subject, and the FDIC's statement on what will happen to the Washington Mutual now that it has failed. All in all, a lot of pretty useful information buried underneath a lot of shouting and insults.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Tip For Old Gamers With New Computers

One of the few things that really makes Vista stand out from previous versions of Windows is the cool Aero 3D interface with its flippy windows and thumbnails of all your applications. Unfortunately, the Aero interface is a huge resource hog. I'd been having performance problems running Diablo II with Direct3D on my new HP laptop so I tried running it with DirectDraw. This solved the performance problem but created a new problem -- suddenly it now took Diablo II several minutes to start up. It wasn't ideal but I lived with it for a while.

Suddenly one day, the Aero interface disappeared for some reason (I think it was a related to a new video driver that I installed) and suddenly Diablo II was starting up instantaneously and running great in Direct3D mode. So I did a little experimenting and found a familiar looking dialog box in the Window Color and Appearance item in the Personalization application under Vista. This box made it easy to switch between the different color schemes in Vista. In other words it made it easy to turn the Aero interface on and off.

With a little more experimentation, I realized that it was easy to find this handy little dialog box. Just create a shortcut on your desktop with the following command line: "C:\Windows\system32\rundll32.exe" Shell32.dll,Control_RunDLL desk.cpl,Appearance,@Appearance

Every time you click on this shortcut the Appearance Settings box will appear and you can easily switch off the Aero interface so your games will run at full speed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Can I Borrow a Meme? Microsoft's New Ad Echos the Election

Maybe I was a little harsh when I suggested that Microsoft is irrelevant. Listening to Leo Laporte's TWiT podcast, I was struck by how thoroughly Leo and his merry band of nerds discuss Microsoft's recent ads. They are after all the same tech journalists who talk about nothing but technology, so in that respect, Microsoft has hit its real target quite effectively. 

Another thing that struck me when listening to Leo's podcast was the tone of the new commercial where the panelists agree that Microsoft sees Apple as elitist. That is indeed how Microsoft contrasts itself with Apple. Apple's "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads are fairly simple, a young hipster represents the Mac and a stiff middle aged man in a cheap suit represents the PC. Microsoft's new ad turns that idea on its head with the "PC" guy introducing all of the "common" people who use PCs. The message couldn't be more clear—Macintoshes are for elitists, PCs are for real people.

That's not the first time we've seen this argument made in an advertisement. In fact, we are seeing this argument in John McCain's ads against Barack Obama. Just about every McCain ad and every utterance from every pundit is calling Obama an elitist. It's the exact same argument you are seeing in the new Microsoft ad—Microsoft has just been more subtle about it. 

Unfortunately for McCain, he is not the first person to try this argument. Hillary Clinton made the same argument against Obama in the primaries and lost. Fortunately for McCain, that argument did work to a certain extent for Hillary as was able to close the gap between Obama and herself using that same argument. McCain also benefits from the fact that the elitist argument has been a successful one for Republicans in the past. George W. Bush used that argument against John Kerry and his father used it successfully against Michael Dukakis.

In the end, all politicians tell the people that they are one of them. The most successful politicians are usually the ones who make the most people believe in "I'm just like you" argument. It's a compelling emotional argument. And it's the reason why every politician styles himself as an outsider—fighting for you against the "establishment" in which they have entrenched themselves. Really, it was only a matter of time before some computer company figured out this moldy, hypocritical argument and used it to promote themselves. Congratulations Microsoft, you've gone where everyone has gone before.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The New Season of Chuck

It's fall and the new television season is beginning—slowly. Hulu has been trying to speed things up a bit by hosting sneak peaks at returning shows. So far the pickings have been slim but they just put up the first new episode of one of my favorite shows from last year, Chuck. It started a bit slowly as the first half of the episode was essentially a recap of the show's premise for newbies. But things picked up quickly and packed plenty of action and character development for all the characters. 

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Google Evil? It's More (And Less) Likely Than You Think

Slashdot reports on a mistake by Google which resulted in an entire domain being blacklisted by Firefox which uses Google's list of bad website for its anti-phishing filter. The top comment by on the website encapsulated an increasingly common reaction towards Google:

"In my mind giving this power to Google is the most objectionable thing related to the company. I know somebody who has had his legitimate business ruined because Google mistakenly added his site to this list. Why? Because it was hosted on the same physical server as a truly objectionable web site.

People need to stop childishly sneering at Windows users and take their focus away from Microsoft. The terrible Goliath is clearly Google now. Even when it's not being evil it causes trouble just by being *clumsy*."

Whether or not you agree with this sentiment, there is still an undeniable kernel of truth to it. Google is now more powerful than Microsoft, the traditional big, evil boogyman of the computer industry. While Microsoft flails about trying to convince people that it is still relevant which weird ads, Google has quietly built an advertising and software empire which affects all of our lives. People instinctively use Google to search for information so much that the word has become a verb in popular culture. The ads on almost every website on the Internet are powered by Google. I personally use Google every day. I'm typing this blog post in Google's Chrome web browser and it will be posted on Google's Blogger website. And when I'm not at my computer, I still access Google on my cellphone. Clearly, Google is no longer the little company started by two graduate students at Stanford running on a computer made of Lego.

Because of this power, when Google makes a mistake, it affects people heavily. A couple of months ago, Google decided that I was a spammer and now I have to solve a CAPTCHA every time that I want to post something on my blog. Some of the twisted, mangled words that make up the CAPTCHAs can be surprisingly difficult to recognize. This can be discouraging at times and as a result, I'm posting a lot less these days. On the hand, spam blogs are a very real problem and Google would be doing a poor job if it didn't try to do something to stop them from proliferating.

As Google continues to grow larger and more powerful, it is natural that people will grow to distrust it. And the consequences of mistakes at Google will become more serious. I doubt if Google will ever be as "evil" as Microsoft whose hardball tactics are notorious in the software industry and which has been fighting off federal anti-trust and patent infringment suits for almost a decade. But Google's actions whether good or evil now have a very direct effect on people and often that effect can be felt directly in the pocketbook. With all this at stake, it's natural that people are going to get upset at Google even as they continue to use its seach engine and software every day—just like Microsoft.

Fox News Goes Into Reruns

Normally, I hate to bring up politics on the Internet because the arguments get so obnoxious and interminable. You never manage to convince anyone of anything. arguments degenerate into shouting matches and pretty soon Godwin's Law must be invoked. But I just couldn't resist this Daily Kos video which captures perfectly how talking points are recycled over and over again by political pundits. If this were from The Daily Show, it would be part of a hilariously funny segment. But instead it's by a partison website and instead is a devastating bit of political propaganda.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

PC Caught Using iPhone

So much for truth in advertising. Crunchgear catches John Hodgman, "PC" from Apple's "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ads using an iPhone.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chicago Pictures

It was a beautiful day today in downtown Chicago so I took a little walk....I noticed the coolest decorative sculptures along the Roosevelt Street bridge between Clinton and Canal Streets. They look old and yet I've never seen them despite having grown up in this town. I really need to get out more.

An elephant, a tricerotops and a t-rex standing on a globe set on a pedestal of books.

Zooming in a bit.

A bit more and now the shortcomings of my crappy camera phone are really becoming evident.

A compass, or an astrolabe, or whatever this thingy is called.

Similar to the first one with dolphins replacing the dinosaurs and elephant.

Another close up.

The corner of Roosevelt and Canal.