Muriel Maffre dances farewell

Two days later I’m still emotionally exhausted. Sum up a great dancer’s career and a century of choreography, throw in a sellout crowd. The orchestra sent home after the first half, but orchestra members stand in the pit to watch the second half (no standing room in back).

See the principals and corps dance their hearts out with Maffre performing her best and favorite pieces and finish with ten minutes of standing O. Unbelievable.

What struck me later was how good the music was. Glass, Bach, Ligeti, Saint-Saens … Maffre’s artistic sense and taste on display.

Breakthrough device

The Sony PRS-500 reader is a breakthrough device for the use of electronic documents. It is the first device of any kind that makes it unnecessary to print out documents to make them readable or portable. The Sony reader’s E-Ink display is not equal to paper, but it’s close enough for general use – unlike any CRT or LCD display in existence.

There are a lot of problems with the PRS-500.

It can be intolerably slow, especially when opening documents or entering menu commands.

There’s a horrendous blink when you turn a page. It goes totally black, then back to normal with the new text.

It was obviously designed by Japanese engineers who read books backward from the way Westerners do. There are two page-turning buttons on the left side of the device, where a Japanese reader would instinctively reach to turn the page of a book or magazine. There are none on the right, where I want to reach.

There is no hierarchy or other way to organize books and other files. If you use an SD card or memory stick you can use directories to store your files, but the PRS-500 displays them all in alphabetical order.

There is no way to search files or search within files.

In theory, it handles Word document files, Windows .rtf files, and Adobe PDF files in addition to Sony’s proprietary BBeB format and text. In practice, anything except text or BBeB is probably unreadable. Even at the maximum magnification, most PDF files display with spindly, grainy fonts I need to squint to read. Word documents with tables, graphics, or other formatting features become incomprehensible messes on the Sony reader’s screen.

Depending on the file type, there are only two or three different font sizes.

Word document files are listed according to their metadata title, not the document filename. This is all too often meaningless.

The joystick / menu wheel has limited functionality – for example, you can’t use it to turn pages.

Most damning, the proprietary, DRM’d file format means that any investment in books for the Sony reader is doomed to be a relative waste.

Its display is not the equal of paper. Its contrast is lower than white paper, more like black type on grey or strongly off-white paper.

For all that, it is the first new device in years that has significantly improved my life. What’s so good about it?

Mostly, the display. The default font is sharp and readable. The E-ink display depends on incident light for illumination, and that is its key advantage. It eliminates the eyestrain and fatigue that backlighting produces. It is good enough to read for hours at a time.

Battery life is certainly adequate. Sony rates the unit for 7000 page turns. I have not achieved that, but I have not run the unit down to failure either. I can easily get in two weeks of moderate reading (3 or 4 books) before recharging.

Text-file handling is good. Text files are listed according to their filename without extension. Text wrapping honors linefeeds, which can be a problem with some older e-texts that are formatted with long lines and linefeeds – the result is short orphan lines in the display. I have written a short Perl script that helps with some texts.

Some lonely engineer or product manager at Sony managed to battle the corporate droids and add the feature of supporting SD cards as well as Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick. Whoever it was deserves a gold medal, because supporting cheap and ubiquitous SD memory is a major advantage.

The Sony reader makes it possible to use Gutenberg.org e-texts as real substitutes for the paper books.

Here are my suggestions to improve it:

  1. Put page turning controls on the right, where Western readers expect them. This would make the reading experience more like handling a real book.
  2. Accept HTML – even a limited subset. HTML is designed for constrained devices and most sophisticated behavior is optional. Many e-texts are available in HTML format. It’s easy enough (for me) to convert them into text, but it would be far better if the reader could try to approximate the formatting without giving up on readability.
  3. Recognize and display folders / directories. This would let me organize my reading – “Fiction”, “Classics”, “Light Reading”, etc.
  4. Get rid of PDF and Word document support. If they can’t be made readable, don’t waste my time.
  5. In addition to selling e-books at a discount to paper books, why not just include the e-book for free if I buy a paper copy? Collect the Amazon affiliate fee and you don’t need to bother with logistics; since I’m not paying extra for the e-book I won’t mind Sony’s brain-dead copy protection nearly as much.

That’s it! Any other significant improvements would take increases in processing power, improvements in the E-ink technology, or vastly more complex software to implement. But is Sony did these five things, I predict the Sony reader could become as ubiquitous among serious readers as the iPod is among heavy music listeners.

Word 2007

I’ve been using Office 2007 since the next-to-last beta and it is terrific. One great feature is blog posting from within Word 2007. It supports two of my favorite blog providers – TypePad and WordPress.

This should really help with getting well-formatted posts including pictures and other content. For example, here’s a picture of a Hamar woman from our recent trip to Ethiopia:

I can take advantage or Word’s autocorrect and other proofing features. And I don’t need to use a web form or other editor that may be less familiar or less powerful than Word.

LS_COLORS: how to change the colors of file listings in Linux shells

Quick Linux tip: Linux interactive terminals (e.g. for ssh or console login) automatically color-code files, directories, symlinks etc. when you list them using ls or other commands. These colors are set from the file /etc/DIR_COLORS, which is read by the scripts in /etc/profile.d on login.

The default blue for directories in RH Linux (and clones) is almost impossible to read on some monitors. Change it to yellow:

cp /etc/DIR_COLORS ~/.dir_colors

This copies the DIR_COLORS file to your home directory. It will be read when you login to set your personalized colors.

nano ~/.dir_colors

this opens an easy-to-use editor with your personalized color file. Page down to the line that reads

DIR 01;34

change it to

DIR 01;33

save the file (control-O), log out and log back in again. Your directories will now list in high-contrast yellow instead of the unreadable dark blue.

Incompatible

I’ve been a PC guy since I bought my first IBM PC in 1983. I have some familiarity with Unix, but mostly through its PC-friendly clone, Linux. But I decided I wanted a Mac Mini.

After a few weeks I took my Mini to the genius bar at the Apple store to because it frequently injected doubled characters into my typing. This happened in TextEdit, in Terminal, in other applications. Here is what would happen:

there is noot any chance I’m hitting the keys twwiice, it is just doubliing on

more or less random keys.

I was using the cool transparent lucite Macintosh keyboard. I want to use that keyboard; its minimalist aesthetic completely outclasses anything available from the likes of Microsoft, Dell, HP, or even Logitech.

I did all the usual things to fix the problem: rebooted, messed with the keyboard repeat settings, even tried a PC keyboard. Nothing worked. I was sure I had a defective Mac. Google found a few others with the same problem, though nobody reported a solution.

The guy behind the genius bar was patient and reassuring at first. He executed recondite procedures and invoked obscure modes (Macintosh zealots like to pretend that Macs don’t have that sort of thing) but the problem still occurred. It even happened once or twice while he was typing.

But after consulting with even more exalted “geniuses” at the back of the store, he pulled out a battered Mac laptop and said “try this.”

Surrounded by concerned “geniuses” and curious customers, I typed a few lines on the laptop only to find that double characters happened there too. The laptop was known to be good, so it must be that I was defective: incompatible with the Macintosh. I left the store with a puzzled frown and my useless Mini.

I don’t know what the problem is. Perhaps I let the keys linger at a critical point, resulting in a bounce that sends two keystrokes instead of one. I don’t think so. Perhaps Macintosh keyboard de-bouncing routines are subtly different, but everyone who uses Macs accommodates to the difference.

But I’m not one to give up. I thought things over: Anything Macintosh combined with me results in doubled keystrokes. My system was as Macintosh as you can get – Mac keyboard, Mac mouse, Mac computer and operating system. I could tell that I would need to introduce a little of my own world into the mix to achieve a solution I could work with.

Most everyone has probably figured out the solution by now: I had to add a little PC-ness, for example a PC keyboard, to tilt the system in my favor. But not just any PC keyboard would do: I had already tried a generic USB PC keyboard and it hadn’t helped.

The solution is probably the finest keyboard ever made, an original IBM PC AT keyboard. On the back it says “(c) IBM 1984″. This keyboard is so old, it takes two generations of adapters just to connect it to the Macintosh. It has a heavy, coiled, rubber-covered cable leading to its large DIN connector. Over half an inch in diameter, this connector looks like it could supply power to a small subdivision. A PC/AT to PS/2 mini-DIN connector makes this keyboard compatible with modern PCs, and a PS/2 to USB connector is required to use it with a Macintosh.

That’s a lot of connectors, but it’s worth it. Each key in this keyboard has a key cap with a separate label cap over it. Beneath each cap assembly is the spring and precision mechanism needed to create a perfect key press: increasing resistance followed by a mechanical break that tells your fingers the character has been typed. It makes a clackety-clack noise that makes typing feel like achievement.

And it’s an IBM. The blunt IBM logo reminds me of the generation of engineers who made the computer part of our everyday lives. It’s overbuilt like almost nothing is overbuilt these days: not ostentatious but simply. I like this keyboard, better even than the slick transparent Macintosh keyboard I used to envy. And it never, ever, ever types two characters when I only want one.

(note: this is a repost; I accidentally deleted the original while doing maintenance)

Search Providers in IE7

Microsoft has made it easy to change the default search provider in IE7 — but only if you use IE as your default browser.

Pick Tools->Internet options from the toolbar, then clic the “Settings” button next to “Change search defaults”.

The dialog that pops up has a list of search providers; the only option in the list is Microsoft’s Live Search.

This should be OK; at the bottom of the dialog is a link saying “Find more providers …”

The problem is, it really is a link: it goes to a web page that uses JavaScript to update the list of providers. This is nice for Microsoft, since they can change the list that’s available for everyone by changing one central location. But it isn’t nice if you use FireFox as your default browser: the link opens in FireFox, so the JavaScript can’t make changes in your IE configuration.

A workaround is to open the link in FireFox, then paste the URL into IE7. Ugly.

People developing browser-based software and features really need to be aware that users have different configurations ….

Yolla Bolly July 2005

This was a three-day, two-night trip at the end of July. I just wanted to get back into the groove of backpacking and camping. It had been at least five years since I had done more than a day hike.

I drove up through Paskenta and camped near Long Lake. I had meant to do a loop, but I lost time by taking the wrong trail and ended up staying at the same campsite twice. It was a pretty good spot, though.

I spent a fair amount of time hiking off-trail, which is pretty easy to do in Yolla Bolly, but still much slower than trail walking. But you see things you wouldn’t see otherwise, like this mandala I found off-trail near a ridgetop (I won’t say where).

Yolla Bolly is not spectacular country, but there are wonderful traverses that make you feel like you can take mile-long steps.

On the third day I walked up to the peak of Mount Linn before hiking out. I could see from Mount Shasta to the Sutter Buttes.

I didn’t get back up there this year, but next year, with luck, I’ll go again.

2004 in England

A week in England, including two days of hiking in England’s Lake District, which is actually also as close as England gets to a Mountain District.

I bought a big umbrella at Cotswolds in London. It was heavy as a walking stick, but its shelter was welcome more than once. It survived blasts of wind that crumpled the “windproof” umbrella I bought at REI.

Two good hikes, one on a day of hard rain and blustery winds.

There’s always lots of water in the Lake District.

The second day was as fine as anyone could ask for – temperature in the 60′s, mild breezes, partly cloudy with just a few minutes of haze in mid-afternoon.

We started from the tiny village of Seathwaite and climbed to the peak of Great Gable.

It is a marvellous hike up a steep trail, along an isolated glacial valley, and up to the peak of Green Gable and a stirring traverse across Windy Gap with incredible views of the bold rock face of Great Gable. Then a steep scramble to the peak.

We came down a different route through a valley with a large tarn giving out into a swift-running stream.

Changed servers

For a number of years this blog (and three others) have been served from an IBM Intellistation workstation of 1998 vintage. Today I moved them all to a different server that I hope will be their home for at least as long.

The IBM is a workhorse machine with a 600 MHz Pentium III running Solaris x86 9.0. I have never had unplanned downtime on that machine, except when the dog pulled out the power cord. 200 days of uptime was routine.

I’ve now moved everything to a box based in a VIA ME6000 motherboard. This board is about 7 inches square (Mini-ITX form factor), and has a 600 MHz Via Eden C3 processor and no fans. It’s installed in a Cubid/Morex case that is 11-1/2 by 10-3/4 by 2-1/2 inches, with a 512MB stick of PC2100 SDRAM. It has an external power supply and two 40mm case fans, which are not connected to the power supply – it seems to run fine without them. An old IBM 4GB laptop drive is in the drive bay, its vibrations isolated by suspending it in a web of 1/8 inch shock cord I bought at REI. This system is very quiet.

For an OS I’m using CentOS 4.3, a Red Hat Enterprise Linus 4.0 clone that comes in an i586 version, which is necessary for the C3 processor. Given the great performance of Solaris 9 I would have liked to have used Solaris 10, a superior operating system which is also available free, but I didn’t have time to mess around with the install procedure. I actually got as far has having Solaris 10 installed on the new system, but none of the open source components I need were included in the minimal network install, and all the other options were too big for my 4GB drive. With CentOS I was able to follow Johnny Hughes’ easy guide to installing a LAMP server. This gave me a a minimal install that has everything I need and nothing else, with almost no glitches.

The Kill A Watt showed the old system using about 71-72 watts on idle (its usual state). The new box uses 20. This is 70% less power, and at current commercial rates will save me about $100 a year in electrical costs.

So the new system has about the same processing power and twice the memory of the old in less than 1/8 the volume, and uses only 28% as much electrical power.