nook initial impressions

My birthday present to myself arrived yesterday: the new Barnes & Noble “nook” ebook reader.

As you probably know, ebooks and ebook readers have been a hobby of mine for a while now. I’m rather passionate about ebooks. So of course I had to get a nook to see how it stacks up.

nook

Design

The look of the nook is great. The front is smooth slightly glossy plastic, with a matte finish on the buttons on either side of the screen. The back is a slightly rubberized plastic that feels comfortable in my hand. The weight feels good, and it feels sturdy overall (though I wouldn’t want to drop it). The buttons don’t have seams, and have a nice click to them. The buttons are on both the left and right edges, so it’s good for left or right handed use.

The side buttons do have one major flaw in my mind – they are reversed. When I hold the nook, my hand is comfortable gripping it by the side, with my fingers on the back and my thumb resting on the edge. But my thumb rests on the upper button, which is the “previous page” button. To go to the next page, I have to bend my thumb down every time, which is uncomfortable, or hold the nook by the bottom edge, which is also less comfortable. Lying on my side in bed, I found myself holding the nook with one hand and tapping the “next page” button with my other hand, obviously not ideal.

This button issue isn’t a dealbreaker, but it’s such a basic error it makes me wonder what sort of person tested it – after holding it for one minute, my conclusion was that the “next” and “previous” buttons should be switched.

The screens

The e-ink screen looks great, same e-ink technology as in the Sony and Amazon devices. It has a gray tone to it, nowhere near as white as paper, but is very easy to read. No built-in light source, so you’ll need a reading lamp or some sunlight, same as a paper book.

As with other e-ink screens, the screen takes about a half-second to refresh, and does it with a sort of a blink, which some people find offputting. I’ve never had an issue with it, I find e-ink very easy to read from.

The nook’s particular hook is the second screen, a small LCD touchscreen. I found the initial brightness of this screen way too high, especially next to the non-light-emitting e-ink screen, so I turned the LCD way down, to 7% brightness.

This screen is an interesting workaround to the slow refresh rate of the e-ink, and not cluttering up the device with lots of buttons, like the Kindle. In fact, all three major ebook makers have their own solution for interactivity: Sony has a touchscreen surface overlayed on the e-ink screen, which some say makes the screen harder to read; Amazon has a physical keyboard; Barnes&Noble has the small LCD touchscreen.

The LCD looks good, but is somewhat unresponsive. Using it as an on-screen keyboard works fine, but scrolling vertically through the iPod-style menus is clunky. As an iPhone user I am used to the buttery-smooth scrolling of the Apple device, in comparison the nook’s touchscreen is barely working. It seems more like a software issue than a hardware one, so I’m hoping they can make it respond more smoothly with an update at some point. Right now though, it’s very clunky.

The store

The B&N store on the nook is obviously a first attempt. It’s not terribly well-designed, and in a lot of ways seems broken.

First and foremost, navigation is bad. Just going to “ebooks” gives a result something like “Page 1 (items 1-20 of 30,000)”. While I’m sure B&N wants to show off how many books they have available, putting them all in one long list (with no apparent order to it) is absurd, who is going to page through thousands of screens of random books?

Going to a category isn’t much better, I went to “reference” and the books there seemed to be random as well, there were things like “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” in there. In fact, most of them seemed to be fiction, not reference. So whoever categorized these (or wrote the category code) did a terrible job.

I think right now browsing the store is pretty unusable, I didn’t try searching for a specific book, but that’d probably be the best bet for locating content.

Overall

The nook is a nice little device. I really like the feel of it and the design, aside from the flaws mentioned above. It seems like most of the issues are software ones, so it remains to be seen how aggressive B&N will be in doing updates. If they step up and work hard, they could rival Amazon. If they sit back, I think they’re going to lose out.

nook

Car Sensors

Why don’t modern cars have more external sensors?

Sure, some minvans have backup sensors so it beeps if you’re about to run over little Timmy, but it seems like sensor technology hasn’t gone anywhere in a long time.

Why not a series of like 8 sensors arranged on the outside of the car, with a range of like 4 feet or so? I’m not sure the best sensor for the job, perhaps a laser tape measure type device, it just needs to return a reasonable directional distance to large objects.

This would give you a rough sensor sweep of the car’s immediate surroundings.

You could sort of visualize it in a force-field style display.

If a car or other object triggered the sensor’s proximity radius, the indicator would change color.

On the dash it would be a simple display, much like the door-open indicator on some cars.

This would not be a replacement for mirrors or anything, you would not rely solely on this indicator, but it would be an added safety mechanism to alert you to pay attention to that area, in case you didn’t know there was a car there.

Another similar idea, but one that might be more distracting, would be a roof-mounted camera system that would provide a composite overhead view of your car and the immediate surroundings, so you could tell at a glance if there were a car in your blind spot.

Analog Man in the Digital Age

Analog Man in the Digital Age
-or-
The Engineer’s Dilemma

Being a Somewhat Rambling Musing on the Information Age


We live in an interesting time. We have come out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age. More and more the world is connected digitally, but paradoxically, people feel more lost than ever.

Partly, this is caused by a disconnect between the analog and digital world, and a loss of tangibility and analog character.

Let’s take the example of a letter. In the old days (not so long ago) a letter would be written by hand, pen to paper. Then came the typewriter, and here is where the engineer’s dilemma comes in to play. The typewriter, when it comes to the task of conveying text, is vastly superior to handwriting. It is far more legible and consistent than handwriting. From an engineer’s perspective, it is a better solution to the problem of how to record text. It’s pretty black and white, there are a number of advantages to type over handwriting, from an engineering perspective.

But there is a sterility, a loss of analog character, that takes place when transitioning from handwriting to type. The essence of the message is intact, but the flavor of it, the subtle changes in handwriting, the ability for non-linear writing, the insertion of non-textual doodles, the feel of the line quality from pen or quill as ink grows lower, all that is lost.

Take that to the next stage, and the typewritten letter becomes an email. In that transition, the look is more or less the same, black type on a white surface. From an engineering perspective, the gains are substantial. By making the information digital, it can be transmitted nearly instantaneously anywhere in the world, copied to other locations for redundant backups, and indexed and searched easily. But here, there is also a loss of analog character. The transition from paper to screen has come at a cost of tangibility.

This is more substantial than it might seem, because we are analog animals, and all of our senses are important to us. For example, a letter might have a scent, applied either accidentally or intentionally by the sender, which not only relays sensation to the recipient, but also helps form stronger memories. In an email the physical form is gone, which to means not only a loss of tactile sensation (the thickness of the paper, the flipping from page to page) but also a loss of potential context.

Emails are usually always read in the same place: while sitting at one’s computer. A letter is received at the same place, the mailbox, but might be opened and read in any number of places. This loss of context removes potential context that could form more meaningful memories, such as reading a letter from your lover while sitting at a kitchen table, the sunlight glinting in and the smell of fresh-baked muffins in the air, or reading the same letter while on a noisy crowded subway on the way to work. Memories are more solidly formed when they are associated with all senses at once, and can be triggered in the future by stimulus to any of those senses. In the subway example, years later you might be on a train, and the swaying motion might suddenly bring back the memory of reading that letter, and bring a wistful smile to your face. By homogenizing the letter-reading experience, each email is much less likely to have unique environmental context, or indeed much content beyond purely visual.

Digital content is generally higher-quality than analog content at this point (from the view of production value and perceived “professional” quality), it is slicker and better produced. In a few clicks, a person can create a pleasing slide show of high-quality images. But it is the analog character, the “fiddly bits” that makes people yearn for an old photo album, with photos stuck in slightly crooked, and handwritten notes on the backs. “Scapbooking” is a hyper-extension of this analog character, and the abundance of textures and visuals, the crunchy analog feel, has made this hobby incredibly popular.

So this is the engineer’s dilemma: how to preserve the analog feel in a digital world?

Arthur C. Clarke once famously said “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – and this is one place that engineers can look. Engineers are technology-minded, so will most often look forward for solutions.

An example of this is the digital picture frame. It takes the intangible digital photos on your computer and places them in a tangible item. Displayed on the digital frame, the picture can be used in an analog way, it can be picked up, brought closer for examination, and carried around. As technology improves, it could become more and more analog, to the point where the frame could be the size of a polaroid, and a special pen could be used to write on the photo and on the back of the photo, and calling up a particular image would call up the handwritten notes as well. It will essentially become a magic polaroid, almost exactly like the analog ones, but able to be changed at will, perhaps responding to spoken command or even your mood.

Another example is the Nabaztag, which acts as an analog bridge from your computer – it is a rabbit-shaped gadget that can flash different colors or wiggle its ears to indicate things like incoming emails, or the weather forecast. Silly and frivolous, yes, but by branching a tendril into the analog world, it allows the computer to interact with people more on their own plane, and in so doing, become potentially more relate-able, more lovable.

The loss of analog character and tangibility makes it harder to make an emotional connection to digital content than similar analog content. Although a child can form a connection to an animated teddy bear on a computer screen, that connection comes much easier if it is an analog teddy bear that they can touch. In the movie A.I., one character is a robotic teddy bear, designed to play with children. He bridges the digital/analog gap, like Nabaztag. He is a tangible conduit to digital data, a computer in the shape of a teddy bear, able to interact by engaging multiple senses.

DRM issues aside, one objection people have to digital books is the experience. The screen is capable of displaying text very similar to printed text, but the tactile experience is a flat, cold device, with buttons and menus and plugs and wires. But it is not inconceivable that in the not-too-distant future, you could pick up a book and say “I would like to read Homer’s Odyssey” and the cover would change to Homer’s Odyssey, and all the pages would magically fill with the text. Perhaps a bookmark would even unfurl, showing where you left off last time.

But that is the not-too-distant future. One thing that can be done relatively easily, and right now, is personalization. Allowing data to be displayed in the manner a user wants allows a digital experience to have a more analog feel, without electronic rabbits or nanotechnology. This is clearly evident in cellphones, where users can change the ring sound, background, menu, and other things to make the device more unique. This customization imbues the device with some analog character. Recently Google added an option to customize the look of your Gmail account, which gives the interface a more analog feel.


It’s a situation that arises again and again, as newer technologies try to supplant older ones.

Current computer operating systems represent the ongoing struggle to provide analog metaphors for digital content. “File Folders”, icons that look like pages, tabbed and windowed documents… all symbolic representations to give things a more analog feel.

It’s an interesting problem, from an engineering perspective. And not just in an academic sense. This problem, in fact, is what I currently do for a living, as I try to convert print catalog production systems from sheafs of paper and handwritten notes in a folder into a database with a (hopefully) user-friendly front-end.

It’s very difficult to supplant an analog system with a digital one, even if the digital system will speed production and reduce costs. Even though the system being used is now the web-based application that I am working on, some users still pass around folders with catalog section names written on them, even though the folders are now empty, and only symbolic. They persist because we are analog creatures, and tactile, physical things are more meaningful to us then digital representations on a screen.

It’s my dilemma.

Mail Woes

If you tried to email me at my tev (at) tev (dot) net account in the past two weeks, I didn’t get it – there was some kind of glitch at Points South that resulted in my mail bouncing instead of getting through.

Should be fixed now though, Alex started looking at it yesterday and figured it out today around noon. I tried a couple tests and they got through ok.

Since mail was bouncing, I think that two weeks of mail is gone forever. Snooj mentioned they might have the last day or two in a buffer, but I’m not counting on that, since it was bouncing in a weird way.

Which sucks… I was wondering why I never got an email notice when my E*Trade stock purchase went through, or when I tried that RealAge thing…

I’ve been toying with the idea of handling my mail through google, which would make sense since I use the gmail interface to check my mail anyway… I think I just have to get my mxrecords to point to gmail or something. Maybe I’ll look into it this weekend.

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On the plus side, my E*Trade stock purchase cleared today, might take another day or two to transfer it into my bank account, but then I can pay off my discover card and car, and I’ll be debt free! Yay!

OLPC 2.0

As excited as I was about OLPC, I’m even more excited about OLPC 2.0.

It takes the OLPC design and makes it smaller, sleeker, and hopefully, more usable.

Instead of a screen and a keyboard, it’s two touchscreens on a hinged design.

It’s still 2-3 years off, but hopefully by then battery technology will improve, and the price of touchscreens will come down.

So it’s still in the concept stage, but looks promising!

Going off the (cable) grid

So tonight Adam and I messed around with the new antenna, we disconnected the Charter Cable connection and hooked the antenna up in its place. Tivo and Adam’s new TV recognized several digital signals. Olde TVs without digital tuners (the one in my bedroom, and the one in Adam’s livingroom) will need digital tuner boxes, but with Tivo working with the antenna, we are pretty much ready to pull the plug on cable, saving ~ $130 a month.

We’ll have to find alternate sources for some channels like cartoon network and sci-fi channel, but for the most part we should be covered.

For now the antenna is in the spare room upstairs, it might not even need to go on the roof. Could always put it up there at some future point though, I have the pole and stuff to mount it.

One laptop per child

So the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) program finally launched!
Yay for Nick Negroponte!

XO computer

For two weeks they are running a “give one, get one” program. The OLPC machine isn’t available to consumers, just developing nations – but for these two weeks, if you order one for a developing nation, you can also buy one for yourself at the same time.

They didn’t hit their mark of the “$100 Laptop”, ended up coming in at $200, which is still damn cheap for a laptop. And I would think costs would come down over time.

While not at slick as the $400 Asus Eee PC, the OLPC XO machine is still pretty nifty.

It might seem silly to some people to supply laptops to children in developing nations, but think about it this way: $200 would only buy, what, 10 schoolbooks? You could easily put 100 books on a laptop. There are thousands of public-domain and otherwise free texts that could be used.

Not only that, but this will be the first step in connecting them with the world.

I’m not saying it’s a panacea or anything, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to give some education technology resources.

So I put in an order, and bought one for me and one for a child somewhere.
Hopefully they’ll make good use of it.