Posts tagged geek_stuff

Sublime Text is… sublime. Since most software is so bad, one doesn’t even notice it until something comes really good along. Running Sublime Text 2 for the first time felt like the first time I tried Google Chrome 1.0 and admired how a fully featured web browser was faster than Windows Explorer (Chrome did put on some weight in the last few years, though), or my warming up to Enso and finding the whole concept of a ‘Start Menu’ laughable and hardly to be missed when Windows 8 comes along. In fact, I gave Sublime Text’s developers their money after just minutes of minor tinkering which is probably a speed record in my opening-wallet-for-bits department. ST2 feels like an extremely good piece of palpable engineering, carrying the same transcendent Quality of intelligence and solidity one finds in a 1970s Bang&Olufsen stereo or a Voigtlander Bessa camera. One just feels respected by the makers of these things, and are given reliability and an ease-of-use of the intelligent and demanding kind (for instance, Sublime Text doesn’t have a UI for preferences and presents you with an auto-updateable configuration text file instead — but if you are a programmer who feels an UI is needed to set his editor’s preferences, perhaps you should take a good hard look at your choice of career or hobby).

Sure there are plenty of other programmer-oriented text editors. Notepad++ is okay and it was perhaps the piece of software I used the most until now, but always with a suspicion it wasn’t good. Vim on the other hand felt like it once was a good piece of software but is now locked in its community esoterica, while Acme looks like it might actually be good but at the same time like too little too late. How did I survive before multi-selection and without a command palette? Indeed.

Fifty years into interactive computing history a text editor attains greatness. How many centuries does this mean we’ll have to wait for good video editing software?

The Tablet

A couple of weeks ago I treated myself to a Sony Tablet S. I wasn’t very sure why I should buy it, and even though I managed to keep my gadget lust under control until I spotted a relatively cheap price, I still left the shop having weak rationalizations go through my mind:

“I make websites, multimedia and stuff — I need a tablet for testing.”

“Perhaps I’ll use my desktop PC less, thus spending less electricity.”

“Now I’ll finally be able to read those PDF documents I find so tiresome in my big desktop monitor.”

“I don’t spend money on cigarettes — I know people who could afford six of these tablets if they just gave up smoking for a year.”

Indeed, I find myself using my desktop PC less. A tablet is a convenient medium for consumption — checking news, RSS feeds and Facebook, watching short YouTube videos, reading (but not composing) e-mail, all while listening to Internet radio streams. In short: a morning computer (the bedtime slot is, for now, firmly in the grip of my Kindle).

Anyway, why the Sony S? Wouldn’t the iPad fit the “tablet for testing” scenario much better, on its market share merits alone?

Yes. The high-definition new iPad would be much better for that. Its screen is all the superlatives you’ve read about everywhere else, and I it wasn’t that much more expensive. Alas, there’s something the iPad doesn’t have, and it goes right to the core of my ‘religious issues’ against Apple:

A SD card slot.

Meaning: a way for me to put stuff in my computer (that’s what a tablet is) without being dependent on iTunes, some specific OS, or any cloud service. Seeing a friend struggle to watch some videos on her iPad made me feel good about my decision. If I download, say, the new episodes of Mad Men on my PC, I can save the files to a SD card, insert it into the tablet, and watch Don Draper’s birthday party right away. That is how I use my computers. Anyway, what other impressions did the Tablet S give me so far?


The Good:

Removable storage was my requirement, so I’ll reiterate: the Sony has a proper SD card slot, allowing me to check photos I take. It’d be a nice bonus to be able to watch videos shot with my DSLR but the tablet’s 1GHz processor lacks the horsepower to display 1080p video encoded at good bitrates without going into a severe stutter — oh well. SD cards are also much better to handle than the mini/microSD used by other tablets, which are too fiddly to handle on a daily basis.

Honeycomb. This is highly controversial, but I found the Android 3.2 shipped with the tablet much better than iOS. Apple makes the highest-resolution displays on sale at your local electronics shop, and what’s in it? A grid. No recent emails, no calendar, no weather widget or whatever — no, a grid of icons. Desktop widgets make perfect sense in a tablet, probably more so than in conventional computers (I sure don’t miss widgets in mine), and Android wins here. Android also supports multitasking, and it works well in the S, the processor being quick enough to manage things at that level. And while I’m not a big fan of its often-praised notification system (sometimes it becomes tedious to clear notifications one by one — strange since the Android 2.1 running on my phone has a ‘clear all’ button), I’ll stand and see what improvements the promised upgrade to Android 4.0 holds.

The shape. The Sony Tablet S is really comfortable to hold. All reviews I had read mentioned holding it was like holding a folded magazine, and they are right. It’s screen is slightly tilted if I set it on a table, making its handling more natural. Still, there’s a downside to the unorthodox shape though: many third-party tablet accessories won’t fit, so — finding it unacceptable to spend 80 euro in an ‘official’ case — I had to settle for a somewhat ugly folding case that covers the back camera (not that I would make much use of it).

GMail and Google Calendar. These apps had to be good and they indeed are good and easy to use. And feel solid, unlike Google Reader.


The Annoying:

The charger. After purchasing the tablet I must have said some loud expletive as I opened the box and came across the dreaded proprietary charger and its weird and fragile-seeming connector. The Sony S won’t recharge through its USB port or through some other ‘standard’ charger, so you’re stuck. Still, I found that the battery lasts long enough that if I just leave the charger in my little nest of chargers the whole process is relatively painless. But beware, if I traveled a lot and had to take that… thing on my luggage, perhaps I’d choose another tablet.

The apps’ look and feel. Android is true to its Linux roots when it comes to the fragmentation of its applications’ look and feel. Many apps just seem weird as some UI elements are resized, while others go into strange alignments, since most are developed for phones’ smaller screen resolutions. Still, consistency is one of the things I hope that will improve with time.

YouTube. The official app is great — except it won’t let me browse and watch my own Watch Later playlist. What’s the point, then?


The Despairing:

The web browser(s). What the hell? Just because the tablet is a ‘mobile device’ I expected more than a ‘mobile browser’ — the kind that resizes and reformats webpages for your ‘mobile’ screen. I mean, the Tablet S has a 1280x800 resolution, which the same as the laptop I had until recently. I want to be able to see websites’ real pixels, — I want those settings that pretend to turn off resizing to actually work. And the problem isn’t exclusive to the stock browser — Firefox for Android brings the same half-baked web browsing experience.

Google Play. There’s something I like about the app store: the ability to browse it on my PC’s (proper) web browser, and having the apps I selected already installed the next time I pick up the tablet. It’s ‘magic’ and convenient. So it’s a shame I had to browse through Play in the process. And to clarify, I am not talking about the ‘Wild West’ mentioned in Apple vs. Google debates — I am sure the iTunes store is also full of crappo apps, apps that’ll steal your data, and both. Outside of places with strict open-source rules (ex. Linux distributions), the whole App Store model is wrong because, among other things, all App Stores end up being like Tucows circa Windows ME. Google Play is a worse implementation of a bad model. Its search functionality is a joke (search! — this is Google we’re talking about!), most of the stuff in the ‘Staff Picks’ sections looks like stuff that’ll steal my data, and I invariably end up googling — proper Googling — for blog posts on “good Android apps for <X>”.

Google Reader. Really, really buggy. Google Reader reloads posts while I’m still reading them — sometimes marking that post as read and advancing to the next post. Sometimes posts marked as read completely disappear. This app had to be good. And it’s the very opposite. There are alternatives such as Feedly, obviously (it does look good but also has some minor quirks of its own — ex. for all Google Reader integration they forgot to add a way to ‘star’/bookmark a post — facepalm!) — but it’s a bit worrisome that such an important reading app by none other than the tablet OS’ manufacturer can be such a failure.

Unexpected absences of apps. I don’t really care about Instagram or other iOS app blockbusters. A browse through Play will reveal lots and lots of apps that will make your bad digital photos look like bad analog photos — Pixlr-o-matic alone will ensure Tumblr currency for generations. But there are some glaring omissions of good, official apps that don’t look like they’re going to steal your data: Facebook’s app really needs a proper tablet version, so does Twitter. But Tumblr! Still in need of an Android app that works (tablet or otherwise) — it exists, but won’t even install.


Anyway. Except for the dreadful charger, most of the Sony Tablet S’ downsides concern Android apps and the Android app market. The hardware is pretty good, and with the possible exception of a HDMI port (offered by some competitors) there’s not much else I’d want — aside from the new iPad’s screen resolution, that is. I expect the software to improve in quality, while fearing the inevitable bloat of newer versions (the app versions I had on my phone when I first bought it were pretty snappy too), and I hope to be able to revise some of the bad things I wrote here. Still, the main questions remain:

Did I need a tablet?

Probably not.

What will I use it for?

Procrastination. Only procrastination.

Misc. links Jan 1st - 14th

This is the Future, today: Bruce Stering and Jon Lebkowsky debate the State of the World. There’s the coming war on general computation, the reason why I think everyone should learn how to code, as that would be the only thing protecting free speech from enclosure in a walled garden of infinite bullshit. The same general movements, in turn, might also explain why fashion and style got stuck in a loop since the 80s, as having things looking the same is the best way, it seems, to have people accept the radical changes underneath the surface (as a petty example, look at the ridiculously retro Fuji X1Pro — nice to have hardware exposure controls by the way). And in the meantime, it seems that all you need to become a world-class arms dealer these days is a laptop and an internet connection (but screw that — you could do it with an iPad probably). After being busted you can sell the film rights and still make a fuckload of money.

Getting paid for what you love harms your love for what you do. Well, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise: Everyone who ever followed sports a bit has seen promising players lose their motivation despite becoming millionaires, and perhaps because of it. But still, this shouldn’t be read by greedy ‘employers’ as an excuse not to pay interns, for fear of damaging their priceless intrinsic motivations (this “we won’t pay you because you will love us” seems a recurrent theme among sleazy internship ads here in Portugal). On the contrary, the article is right to point out that a removal of an extrinsic motivation can also be damaging.

Mark Pagel on why we are, as a species, stupid plagiarists.

James Meek’s In the Sorting Office. Economic liberalism as Dutch housewives earning a pittance as ‘freelance’ postwomen, allowing their ‘employers’ to provide physical spam services to mail order companies at competitive prices. Among other nasty things, all in the mail delivery microcosm. An upsetting read.

Pico Iyer about the point of writing in long and winding sentences. My reading tastes are pretty strange for the ‘mainstream’ portuguese reader, as I like really long and difficult books that allow me to feel like a tourist in that world during the months they might take me to read, and I like long, tree-structured sentences that force me to pay attention. The vox populi here immediately associates long sentences with the writing of José Saramago and the mainstream consensus again is that his works are boring and impenetrable (both untrue), even if said consensus can’t explain how his books sell so well, and even documentaries about him get so many viewers in a country where no portuguese films have any viewers, let alone documentaries — it’s as if portuguese are secretive hypocrites in their appreciation of the long sentence (and it might very well be the truth that reading Saramago is a bit of a guilty pleasure — after all, forcing an author upon students in high school is the best way to make him unhip for life).

Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia by Colson Whitehead is a long and entertaining account of the writer’s experience as a player in the Poker World Series in Las Vegas.

Eat, Pray, Love may very well be the worst movie of all time. I haven’t seen the film, read the book, or even watched the book author’s TED talk, but I find the notion of rich people going on ‘self-discovery’ vacations and attaining ‘an enlightment’ through self-indulgence without the slightest bit of self-sacrifice (i.e. do these people ever give away their fortunes, or stay in a refugee camp for life?), then lecturing everyone about it while making an arms dealer’s fuckload of money in book and film deals, to be truly an insult to the rest of humanity. So yes, I agree with the article, on the basis of the film’s repulsive premise and my realization things like Sex and the City at least are honest in their depictions of self-indulgence. Ennui is something that only afflicts the well-off, and if you can plug the big hole in your soul with — let’s face it as that’s what it is — a big pile of money made manifest in sex tourism and shopping abroad, good for you. Some of us are only lucky enough to use Tumblr.

The Ballad of @Horse_ebooks: endless Zen, avant-garde writing, and humour from a Twitter spambot.

The Physics Factbook. Might be useful.

Here’s a very realistic Adobe Photoshop ‘simulator’. It really captures my experience using Adobe software. Nice.

The Restart Page. Really, are we nostalgic about rebooting our computers now? What the hell is wrong with us? I’m almost ashamed to admit I did get nostalgic when I ‘rebooted’ the Amiga Workbench. But why? Why?

Again, because it deserves its own entry: Become a Programmer, Motherfucker. You really should. Here’s a list of free books to get you started.

Almost one year on, people are doing all kinds of crazy stuff with the Kinect. This video is probably the most impressive demo I’ve seen so far (the ‘most impressive’ stuff starts halfway through, so be sure to stay with it). (via CDM)

Misc. links Aug 3rd - 18th

Paul Krugman suggests reacting to a fake alien invasion as the cure to our economic troubles. Mind you, this guy won a Nobel Prize, so the subtext is perhaps the only cure is some kind of global war (and so, of course it better be against a fake enemy from Mars). But the suggestion also implies that the whole of global economy runs on will, and we are in crisis as long as They want us to. So while we’re at it, we could pull a Civ and direct the whole global economy towards sending a giant robot to Alpha Centauri, or maybe towards building a network of 2km high vertical cities, or — I dunno — actually fixing things?!

Criticising a brand lowers the self-esteem of its adherents. Well, duh! Just consider sports fans, the penis-extension jokes about certain brands of cars, the way Apple computers somehow feel like a prerequisite to many in the creative industries, and the implied criticism when a brand itself ‘declares’ your computer/car/etc. to be last year’s model.

The Objective of Education is Learning, not Teaching. As a cynical would put it, institutions’ survival depends on their own lack of effectiveness, which is why the educational system is thoroughly broken. A very worthwhile read.

An useful side-by-side comparison of PHP, Perl, Python and Ruby. (via Kottke)

Smartass responses to ‘well-meaning’ signs.

xkcd has a good lesson on password strength.

This 2001 article from The Onion shows how predictable these last ten catastrophic years actually were.

The Assembly 2011 archive means it is time for my annual demo watching marathon.

The trailer for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sends the film straight into my Must Watch list.

Backupday. I always make a point of having at least two separate copies of every single digital file I have, ever since I lost my entire digital life up to 1998 in a thunderstorm. It was mostly kid stuff, PaintShop Pro doodles, Doom level designs, etecetera, but it hurt, becoming one of the things I’m somewhat paranoid about.

Anyway. It’s incredible to look at all the years past since I started producing videos (depicted is one of my two video backup external drives), while at the same time it is depressing all my work fits in a single drive (I only backup the final exported video files, not the sources, but still).

The paperlike device

So I finally lost it and bought a Kindle. Sure I have blogged against Amazon’s stupid policies in the past, and the Kindle seems the nexus of such. But on the other hand, I did want an e-reader that doesn’t suck, and nowadays it’s indeed hard to find electronics/internet companies not behaving like assholes in some ways. It’s easy to choose some lesser evil over Apple (I also bought an Android phone recently, and intend to post some remarks soon), but in the e-reader landscape the choice seems between the proprietary and good, the (little more) open and expensive, and the cheap and utter rubbish. So I did order a Kindle 3, and I’m keeping backups just to be on the safe side.

 

Why the Kindle is the best device ever: the screen. It’s exactly like paper. After a while, you forget you’re holding electronics. It’s paper, even if a bit on the glossy side (but no worse than the stuff many magazines are printed on). It’s crisp, it’s easy on the eyes, it’s magical. Of course, it’s so much like paper you’ll need a light, but it’s okay: because it’s like paper. So good, I find myself turning it on and off and on and off again just to look at the gorgeous random ‘screensaver prints’ that come up when you turn it off. The refresh-only-on-demand paperlike screen also comes with another benefit: battery life. I charged the thing once when I got it two weeks ago, have been using it every day, and the battery indicator is only down one notch. Amazon claims one-fucking month of battery life, and they seem to be telling the truth. The Kindle also has decent WiFi connectivity (I didn’t go for the 3G version, and even though Amazon provides free 3G Internet worldwide, the browsing experience is so bad I don’t regret it — more on that later), which enables me to get stuff on the Kindle over the Internet. I’m already used to an automated daily Instapaper digest — the morning newspaper for the 21st century, and I doubt I’ll ever run out of stuff to read. The Kindle also comes preloaded with two dictionaries, and I love the nice touch of being able to navigate to any word in a text and having a definition pop up. Truly useful. And best of all, it all comes in a light package: the device along with the (by the way overpriced) cover weights less than an A5 Moleskine.

Why the Kindle is a piece of crap and deserves market death: The screen is too damn small. They say the Kindle is the size of a paperback, and they are right. But paperbacks don’t have oversized bezels and keyboards. In fact, the reading area is pocket-book sized. But still, there’s the larger Kindle DX, so I guess this one’s on me. The Kindle opens PDFs, but unless you format them for the small screen you’ll be scrolling a lot and zooming in a lot or reading really teeny tiny type. Perhaps the DX PDF experience is better, but then again, the PDF reader is so slow Adobe Reader in a malware-infested Pentium III feels zippy by comparison. Ditto for the Web browser. Even though it’s Webkit-based and capable of rendering modern websites pretty accurately, it’s an usability nightmare. And to make it worse, even though one wouldn’t actually expect tabbed browsing on a Kindle, a target=”_blank” link is all it takes to hit a brick wall, with a dreaded error message to the effect of “The Kindle browser doesn’t support opening multiple windows”; with no way to open the link in the same window. Amazon may have even put the browser under an ‘experimental’ menu (despite the fact many regular Kindle functions will automatically open the browser), and they may be worried about the cost of the whole “free worldwide 3G Internet” thing, but do they need to punish users connected via their home WiFi networks?

The Kindle is so full of ergonomical nonsense it’s ridiculous. The browser may be the worst of it, but usability WTFs are a Kindle staple. The menus and the navigation feel like an afterthought, as irritating as a MS-DOS productivity interface. The keyboard manages to be too big and small at the same time, and the relegation of numbers to the ‘symbol’ menu really made my day when I had to enter passwords, the ironic thing being cellphone QWERTY keyboards a quarter of the size are endlessly more pleasant to use. Not to mention the awkward position of the Menu, Home and Back buttons; and the way the D-pad is not only bad but seems placed wherever the designers found a place it would fit.

However, 95% of the time, you’ll be looking at the gorgeous-but-small paperlike screen, and using the big and rather well placed (in comparison with the ergonomical bankruptcy of the rest) page-flip buttons. And that’s what counts. If you look at the Kindle as electronics, it’s an infuriating piece of shit. But if you look at it as a reading medium, it’s quite swell. I’ve been taking mine with me every day.

Wired: Photo Enlargers Loom Like Dinosaurs of the Film Age. Requiem for a technology. Even if film is still marginally hip, making color prints in a home lab is just insanely difficult, compared to scanning and (eventually) printing on an inkjet. And since you can’t flaunt your enlarger in public, unlike that old FM of yours, why put up with inconvenience?