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Kindle Serials

I’ve been reading two different Kindle Serials for the past week or so. A Kindle Serial is, in essence, a story published as a series of episodes; you buy the serial up front (they tend to be cheap; $1.99 seems to be the standard price) and then episodes automagically show up every couple of weeks as the author writes them. They harken back to old newspaper serials such as The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo.

While I like the theory behind bringing back serialized novels (it seems like fun, right? Get new sections of the story delivered regularly, building suspense as you wait for each new episode), in practice I have to confess they’re not as fun as I thought. Two reasons. One, I’m an impatient bastard and don’t like waiting. That wouldn’t be a major issue by itself, but the second reason is that I’ve usually always got a backlog of things I want to read. If I run out of episodes for a Serial I’ll switch to reading something else while waiting for the next episode. And when the next episode arrives I’ll probably be deep in that new book and it won’t be a good time to switch back to the Serial. So it’ll be awhile before I get back to it, at which point I may have forgotten some of the details for what was going on.

In short, I suspect Serials worked better when people didn’t have such easy access to so many great things to read. Good for the 1800s, problematic for today. I’ll finish out these two Serials, but I suspect I won’t buy any new ones. Unless I get them right before the last episode or two, at which point they might be complete by the time I near the end.

Fast delete would be awesome for Pebble

I posted my review of the Pebble watch two weeks ago. In my review I indicated that it would be nice if the Pebble gave you quick way to respond to notifications (“Ok”, “Busy”, etc.). But after a couple more weeks of living with the watch the two actions I really want to be able to take on email notifications are:

  1. Dismiss notification (which we currently have)
  2. Delete email message

Turns out that I get a fair number of email addresses where I can determine right from the watch notification whether I need to actually read the message later or whether I can delete it without looking at it further. Right now the latter case, which is more of my email than I expected, requires acknowledging the notification on the watch and then later deleting the message on my phone. One touch delete from the phone on email message notifications would save me a bunch of follow-up work. Hopefully they’ll include that ability in a future update.

The Pebble watch: two reviews

I was an early backer of the Pebble e-ink watch on Kickstarter, so I’ve now had my watch for a bit over 4 weeks. After using it nearly continuous for that time (with a short break for a vacation), I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the experience. In fact, I’ll share two reviews of the Pebble, since right now it offers a drastically different experience for iOS and Android.

I own and use both iOS (an iPhone 4) and Android (a Galaxy S3) phones in order to keep tabs on the user experiences offered by each platform. I typically split my time between them, choosing which to carry based on my expected needs on any given day. When I received my Pebble watch I chose to pair it with my iPhone first, so I’ll begin there.

The Pebble watch with iOS

In theory the Pebble should offer a great experience with iOS. It essentially ties into notifications at the operating system level, which means that setup is simple and should in theory allow receiving notifications across apps on iOS. And when you set it up at first it does exactly that. Plus you can use it to control music playback, act on calls, etc.

There’s just one problem: there appears a bug in iOS such that if your phone even temporarily loses the Bluetooth connection to the watch you have to manually toggle your notifications for each app off and back on in order to resume receiving notifications. So during that week the pattern I’d see over and over is that I’d get notifications on the watch for the first hour or two, and then suddenly I’d stop receiving them. It’d take me a bit to notice, and then I’d have to go in and toggle my notifications. That’d be good for another hour or two, and then…

So while in theory using the Pebble with an iOS device should be great, in practice it was downright annoying. And it’s not the Pebble team’s fault; they’re more or less at the mercy of Apple fixing the iOS bug, unless the team can figure out an application-level fix in the interim. And that’s going to be a challenge given the sandboxing in iOS. At the end of a week using the watch with iOS I was ready to write the watch off as “not ready for prime time”. But then I switched to pairing Pebble with my S3…

The Pebble watch with Android

Pebble’s integration with Android is a bit kludgier. Rather than tying into notifications at the operating system level, Pebble is instead largely accessing notifications on an application-by-application basis. And in some cases accessing data directly; you need to provide the Android Pebble app with your email credentials to allow it to check for and provide notifications for your email.

Despite that kludginess (and the hesitation over providing the app with your login credentials), notifications are rock solid when the Pebble is paired with an Android device. I can’t remember a case where I heard an audio notification for email on my phone and didn’t have the notification pop up on the watch a few seconds later. And after a couple of weeks of using the watch with Android I really like the fast access to notifications that it provides.

Although I sometimes wear the watch on weekends, I primarily use it on weekdays. And there are a lot of cases (getting our daughter ready for school, taking public transit, meetings, getting work done) where I don’t want to pull my phone out but still want to be able to easily glance to see what a notification is about. In my case I actually need to see the contents for an item maybe 5% of the time, so the main advantage of the Pebble is to allow me to quickly (2-3 seconds) determine that I don’t need to pay any more attention to an item. The interaction reminds me of Ben Shneiderman’s contention that one way to design an effective user interface is to allow users to say “no” as quickly as possible.

The interactions that the Pebble supports are currently limited; you’re essentially restricted to acknowledging notifications. And in some cases it might be nice to be able quickly respond to notifications with canned messages: ok, busy, etc. But those are edge cases for my usage patterns, and since the Pebble team is actively adding functionality and will eventually open the watch to 3rd party developers I expect we’ll see the watch gain those capabilities down the road. But I don’t the current experiences suffers much from the lack.

There are two gaps that I’d like to see the Pebble team remedy quickly. First, the Pebble just shows the most recent notification; there’s no way to navigate between notifications if you get several at once. Second, there’s no way to check the current power level of the watch. After having the battery die while I was at work one day I now try to recharge the watch every 5 days or so to avoid that happening again. A current power level display in the Settings menu would address that issue. In general, though, charging the watch isn’t a big issue. Although I did decide not to bring the watch on a 5 day vacation because I didn’t want to tote around yet another cable.

Since the Pebble requires a Bluetooth connection there is a hit to battery life on the phone as well; my S3 probably ends up with 5-10% less battery at the end of the day. But since Android sucks at power management anyway I already have to charge my S3 daily, so it hasn’t really been an issue. It was more of a problem for iOS, since I could get 2 days of battery life out of my iPhone 4 and had to moving to daily charging when I had the Pebble paired with it.

So after roughly 2 weeks of actively using the Pebble with my S3 I really like how the watch augments my experience. Enough so that I’ve switched to primarily carrying the S3 during the day so that I don’t have to give up those notifications. If you’re thinking about getting a Pebble and plan on pairing it with an Android device, I strongly recommend it. If you’re thinking about pairing it with an iOS device, however, I’d probably wait until Apple fixes the iOS bug or the Pebble team figures out a workaround.

I can’t resist adding that my personal opinion is that the future of wearable computing looks more like the Pebble than it goes like Google’s Glass. A watch is inconspicuous, and it remains out of the way unless you explicitly glance at it, meaning that it doesn’t interfere when you’re not actively using it. It’s still fast to access, though; glancing at it requires just looking down and turning your wrist. Contrast that with Glass, which remains a distraction in your peripheral vision even you’re not actively using it.

The Pebble watch: Recommended (for Android)

Amazon’s AutoRip

Amazon opened it’s new AutoRip service. In a nutshell: for eligible albums (read: where the content providers let them) that you bought since 1998 (and going forward) they’re automatically adding a digital copy of the album for you to their Cloud Player.

I had three reactions upon hearing the announcement:

  1. That’s pretty dang cool. I got approximately 40 albums added to Cloud Player as a result of this service, broadening the set of music I can easily access across any of my devices. Of course, it’s not perfect; it added a number of albums I’d actually bought as gifts for other people, since they can’t distinguish between stuff you kept and stuff you gave away (although a mechanism to transfer ownership to someone else’s Cloud Player would be nice).
  2. I can’t believe the content providers agreed to let them do it. Actual useful functionality agreed to by the music companies? I wonder what the terms of the agreement Amazon worked out are.
  3. Having been given an inch, I immediately want a mile. Similar access to digital versions of movies I’ve bought on DVD would be awesome. Access to ebook versions of books I’ve bought from Amazon would be even better. Heck, I’d even consider a limited service charge per book for the sheer convenience of access to much of my library in digital form. I suspect I’ll have to keep hoping for that one for awhile, though. Book publishers are sadly still working out that whole DRM thing…

Visiting Alcatraz

Last weekend, as part of our ongoing quest to catch up on things we think we should do as good Californians, we finally made it to Alcatraz (courtesy of my wonderful wife, who gave me the tickets as a Christmas present). I’d been agitating to go for awhile, but my wife was lukewarm and my daughter downright reluctant (although amusingly the latter ended up having a blast and really wants to go again).

All I really knew about Alcatraz before visiting was that it was a maximum security prison for a time (obviously) and that it had previously served as a military fort. And that it’s prominent in the Bay, visible from many points within San Francisco.

Alcatraz the island

The National Park Service contracts with Alcatraz Cruises for transportation to the island. I knew the National Park Service has been pushing on more sustainable energy use, but I found it interesting how far they’ve gotten with Alcatraz (although in retrospect it probably shouldn’t have been too surprising that they’re further along near San Francisco…). Several of the Alcatraz Cruises boats are fitted with both wind turbines and solar panels, and those boats also have batteries that they can charge using landlines when docked. In addition, they’ve put solar panels on the old Alcatraz Island power plant to provide an alternate power source to the plant’s diesel generators (and as far as I could tell the generators were not running on our visit.

You arrive at the island’s dock, the only easy way on or off the island, and immediately get a quick briefing from an NPS ranger. The short version is essentially “stay out of blocked off areas, walking tours times are posted, and the path to the cell block is that way”. Unfortunately we missed the walking tours (our tour time was 12:45, and at least on the day we went the walking tours were earlier in the day); apparently on ranger or volunteer-led tours you can visit parts of the island that are otherwise off limits.

The dock

Building 64, the main building at the dock, is partially a Civil War-era building with (in places) 10 foot thick walls. There’s a small bookstore, some exhibits about life on the island, and a short (roughly 15 minute) film from the Discovery Channel that provides an overview of Alcatraz. It’s worth catching as a quick overview of the different eras of Alcatraz.

Roughly speaking Alcatraz has four eras of interest. The first is its use as a military fort (and eventually military prison), starting roughly in 1853. There are still signs of the original military era construction, particular on the lower levels of some of the island’s buildings (in additional to Building 64, the cellblock is build on the old fort’s citadel, which must cause all sorts of interesting civil engineering challenges.

The second era was its use as a federal penitentiary from the 1930s to the 1960s. This era is obviously Alcatraz’s most famous, most of the construction dates from this era, and the audio tour focuses on this period.

The third period was roughly 18 months between 1969 and 1971 when the island was occupied by Native American protesters from several tribes protesting, and drawing attention to, the ongoing mistreatment of their people. While I initially thought the protest was a rather minor thing, apparently it actually had a noticeable impact on public opinion and led to a number of government policy changes toward the Native Americans. I also discovered that damage to a number of buildings (the warden’s house, lighthouse keeper’s house, and the recreation hall) date to a fire that occurred in 1970 (during the occupation), rather than a simple combination of time and weather.

I must admit that I do find it amusing that the graffiti added to the buildings is now considered historical, the extent that the NPS appears to have re-applied the graffiti after repainting the island’s water tower.

The recreation yard and water tower

The last period was its use as a National Park (part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area) since the 1970s. In addition to preserving the historical buildings, the NPS has also been working to restore the gardens and protect the island’s wildlife. Alcatraz is now home to a fair number of nesting birds, to the extent that the NPS actually blocks off access to parts of the island during nesting season. The island is thus a good place to see, in the right seasons, gulls, cormorants, pelicans, night-crowned herons, snowy egrets, and other birds.

I personally wanted to see the island both because I was curious about the prison’s history (and the tour did not disappoint, providing both a glimpse of life at the prison and details about some of the escape attempts) and because I found the three-dimensional arrangement and structure of the buildings on the island so interesting. If Alcatraz were just a flat 2D plain it would be rather boring, but instead buildings and paths are tucked everywhere they would fit. I would imagine that there are also a number of hidden passages, likely build during the island’s military days, to support hidden troop movements between parts of the island.

On a switchback path up Alcatraz

The warden's house

Some of the island's gardens

I was definitely not disappointed; my biggest regret was that we didn’t have even more time to look around (we got to the island around 1 and the last boat back was at 4:25). But since my daughter had such a good time I’m pretty sure I can talk her into going back. In future trips I’m curious to catch some of the walking tours, and one of these days I’d like to do one of the night tours. I bet the Rock in the dark is quite a different experience.

The lighthouse on Alcatraz

Two weeks with a Galaxy Note 10.1

Samsung gave us Galaxy Note 10.1s as Christmas presents, so in the spirit of trying out the company hardware (I usually use an iPad 3 as my go-to 10″ tablet) I’ve been using it as my primary tablet for the last two weeks. Overall I like both the hardware and software more than I expected, but the Android tablet ecosystem is still pretty sparse compared to the iOS tablet ecosystem.

I was initially a bit concerned about the Note’s build quality; I’d read a number of reviews claiming that the plastic back was too compressible. Either the reviewers were exaggerating, there were initial build quality control issues that Samsung straightened out, or my fingers aren’t that strong, but I found the case sufficiently rigid. The hardware is also plenty fast, and the stylus very responsive when used for input (although since I’ve been off work for most of the last two weeks I haven’t used it much for taking notes yet).

I found two advantages to the Note hardware over the iPad 3, both linked to the choice of plastic for the body over aluminum. First, the Note is lighter, so it’s a bit easier to hold for sustained periods. Second, the Note is more comfortable to hold in winter; I find the iPad’s aluminum enclosure somewhat chilly when you first pick it up on cold days.

However, the iPad 3 has its own advantages. I like the 4:3 aspect ratio better than the 16:9 aspect ratio of Android tablets (I use tablets much more for reading than for watching movies, and the 16:9 aspect ratio is awkward for reading long-form content. The iPad 3 is also a retina-quality display, while the Note 10.1 is not. And I hadn’t realized how much I took it for granted until I went without it for a couple of weeks, but the automatic wake-sleep behavior you get with a Smart Cover on the iPad is just freakin’ awesome. Who knew how annoying it could be to have to press the power button to start and stop using the device?

On the software side, Android as an operating system is getting close to par with iOS these days (although I still wish it was better at power management). But the application ecosystem is still pretty lousy in comparison to iOS. The built-in email client is pitiful. The New York Times app is designed for Android phones, as is the Facebook app. The Twitter app also appears to be a scaled up smartphone app, but it’s hard to tell (the iOS Twitter app is more or less a scaled-up iPhone design as well, since Twitter back-tracked from Loren Brichter’s more interesting tablet design). I couldn’t find a task management app on par quality-wise with Things. And Amazon doesn’t yet have a version of their Instant Video app for Android.

I did manage to find fairly good equivalents of two iOS apps that I commonly use. Marco Arment worked with Mobelux to create a version of Instapaper for Android that’s decent. And I finally found a decently designed RSS reader for Android: Press.The fine folks at TwentyFive Squares may have drawn inspiration from Reeder, but I’d count that a good thing.

Google likes to tout the number of applications in the Android ecosystem, but to my mind a better measure of the quality of an ecosystem is how many of the best applications aren’t built by the ecosystem creator. Most of the best Android experiences are still built by Google. Contrast that situation with iOS, where most of the best iOS experiences are not built by Apple (although they do build some fine applications). I have some theories as to why the quality of Android apps continues to lag that of iOS apps, but that’s a post for another time.

In summary, my two weeks with the Note 10.1 went better than expected. I’ll be bringing my iPad back into my regularly used devices, but the Note and associated apps are of sufficient quality that I’ll keep them as part of the mix.

San Diego trip

We traveled down to San Diego between Christmas and New Year’s to spend a few days checking out the sights. Kate and I had been to San Diego before and visited the Safari Park back when I interned at Disney Imagineering in 1999, but we didn’t make it to the zoo or SeaWorld. And we hadn’t yet taken Anna down to San Diego, so it seemed like a worthwhile trip.

When figuring out how to travel, we went back and forth between driving and flying. Flying is more expensive but faster, while driving provides an opportunity to see more of the country and is significantly cheaper but takes significantly longer. In the end, we figured we weren’t in a hurry, we wanted a car to get around San Diego anyway, and it’d be fun to see some of the country in between, so why not drive?

One thing I remember from living in LA for 5 months: you can get traffic jams anywhere, at any time, for no apparent reason. And sure enough, when we got to the LA sprawl we ran headlong into traffic. Google Maps optimistically suggested it’d take a bit over 7 hours to travel the 471 miles, but it was actually more like 10 by the time we actually made it to the hotel (by contrast, we barely hit any traffic on the way back and made it back it something closer to 8.5 hours). The trip wasn’t awful (thank heavens for audiobooks borrowed from our local library for helping to keep our daughter entertained), but I think we’ll lean heavily toward flying and renting a car next time.

For our stay in San Diego we opted to stay in the Hotel Solamar, both because it was conveniently located in the Gaslamp District relatively close to both the zoo and SeaWorld. While there are disappointingly few gas lamps in the Gaslamp District, there are a ton of good restaurants within a short walk.

We hit SeaWorld our first day, in large part because one of Anna’s friends was also in San Diego that day and was also visiting SeaWorld with her family. So the two of them ran around together catching rides and shows. I was the only one brave enough to sit with them in the splash zone of several shows, so I don’t have too many pictures (I gave my smartphone, wallet, and everything else that didn’t play well with water to my wife to carry; I’m glad the day was pretty sunny…). But I did sneak in some during a few of my drier moments.

Orca leaping at SeaWorld

The next day we hit the San Diego Zoo, which was indeed impressive. It’s definitely the largest zoo I’ve been to, both in physical size and in the number and variety of animals they had. We spent the whole day walking around and checking out the exhibits, even during a few afternoon showers (thankfully we had packed a hotel-provided umbrella and my rain coat). I think my favorite exhibits were the red panda (which I personally find much cuter than regular pandas) and the mountain lion (which was clearly checking out the babies in the crowd to try to figure out which one it should try to consume first).

Red panda

A mountain lion considers which child to eat first

We visited the Safari Park on our last day. One of the things I remembered from our 1999 trip and was reminded of again on this trip was how much more I like the Safari Park than a regular zoo, in large part because most of the animals have much more space to move around in. Even in the San Diego Zoo, which is world-renowned, many of the animals are restricted to relatively small spaces. But in the Safari Park, they have a couple of valleys to move (and run) around in. I particularly liked seeing the crash of rhinos (the first time I’ve seen enough clustered rhinos to merit actually calling them a crash) and all the newborn animals (the zoo has roughly one animal born a day, and on our second ride on the tram we saw a Cape Buffalo that was roughly an hour old).

A crash of rhinos

One of the Safari Park's valleys

One other cool but weird thing: seeing the circling swarm of turkey vultures throughout the day. Made me wonder what they knew that we didn’t…

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All in all the trip was a lot of fun, if not quite as sunny as we’d hoped (the weather hovered more in the 50s than 60s, although luckily we chose to visit SeaWorld on the sunniest day). We’ll definitely be back, but next time I’m voting to check out the USS Midway.

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