Kindle 2 Friday, Feb 27 2009 

Two things on Kindle:

1.  Why does a reader have a keyboard?
2.  The text-to-speech issue is fascinating

If Kindle was Classics in hardware but on a big, beautiful screen I would recommend it to my friends.  As it is, no*.

The Kindle is not the first device to offer text-to-speech of copyrighted material (stop laughing).  Why The Guild chose to go after it instead of every other device seems obvious to me, but I’ll reserve judgment until I learn more about all parties involved.

My first experience with text-to-speech

My first experience with text-to-speech

What I’ll say (here) for the moment is that it is going to be interesting to watch this play out and once I know as much as there is to know, I will do what I can to influence the way this snowball rolls.

*As of now I haven’t used either Kindle device, but I can say definitively that, in its current form, it can’t be what I love about Classics.  That is why, for me, it’s an inferior solution.  It’s entirely possible that once I handle one my opinion will change.


Beautiful original art fundraiser for PAVE Saturday, Feb 21 2009 

PAVE (People Against a Violent Environment), the non-profit that my wife Jamie works for is selling Mother’s Day cards as a fundraiser for their shelter. What’s unique about these cards is that they feature art by Amy Rice who has donated this work for use by PAVE for this card.

Visit the PAVE website for more information and even if you’re not in the market for Mother’s Day cards, check out the other work by this artist in her Flickr pool.

Interesting iPhone Security Tidbits sprinkled in Apple-vs-EFF article Tuesday, Feb 17 2009 

Prince McLean at Roughly Drafted has a post regarding the conflict between Apple and the Electronic Frontier Foundation on the subject of jailbreaking the iPhone.

More interesting to me are several quotes from Apple’s response to the challenge which include insight into some technical details of the iPhone’s protection mechanisms.

Griffin Clarifi Friday, Feb 13 2009 

One of the reasons I was anxious to switch from an iPod Touch to an iPhone was the iPhone’s camera.  Over the years I’ve carried various small cameras to capitalize on unexpected photo opportunities or to document the various project that I’ve been working on.  The idea of having one less thing to carry was very appealing, and with the added capabilities of cataloging, geo-taging and uploading the photos directly from one device was something I thought could really reduce my turn-around time processing and publishing these images.

I didn’t have high expectations (or requirements) for the camera since it would only have to hang with my most recent camera of choice, the VistaQuest VQ1005.  At about $25USD, this 1.2MP camera requires almost ideal conditions to take “good” photos, but it has allot of character and its small size and durability (as well as high level of compatibility, storing its photos on a regular SD card) made it almost ideal for my application.

I say almost idea because, like the iPhone’s camera, it lacks the ability to take close-up, detailed photos.

Almost immediately after I started using the phone I thought of several applications that I wanted to write using the camera, and a few of them would use it as a way to import printed information or drawings.  I carry a Molskine around that I use to sketch out ideas and I’d like to catalog some of these items so they are always with me.  Unfortunately, the phone’s camera lacks the focus range and/or resolution for this sort of work.  Since upgrading the resolution of the camera is out of the question, a change to the optics is in order.

I was aware of several DIY methods of solving this problem and some seem to do the job well.  However all of them seemed inconvenient enough that I would inevitably be without them at the times I need them the most, so I didn’t pursue it.  Then one day I came up with an idea for a new app so compelling that I needed to solve this problem, so I decided to come up with a product myself.

Once again I searched around for the latest DIY solutions to the problem to use as a starting point for my own research and this is when I happened across Griffin’s Clarifi iPhone Case.

For the most part this case is your run-of-the mill iPhone protection device.  There is the novel feature of being able to remove the bottom half of the case to allow for docking, but otherwise it’s a two-piece plastic sleeve and clear screen protector similar to so many others that I’ve seen.

The interesting difference however is that this case incorporates a small lens that can be slid into position in front of the iPhone’s built-in lens which provides the ability to take macro (i.e., close up) photos without loosing focus.

I’m not a big fan of cases for electronics, especially when they are well-designed products that are a pleasure to look at and hold, and coming from the iPod Touch, I already felt the phone was a little “bulky”, but if the case can provide such valuable functionality, in addition to protection, it might be worth the extra bulk.

The Clarifi retails for $34.99 but I was able to get mine from Amazon for about $25.00 including shipping.  Here’s the results:

Shot of my notebook with the standard iPhone lens

Same page, with Clarifi lens in place

This is a shot of some notes I had for release 1.1 of my iPhone app “Horsepower”. The paperclip is just holding the page flat because the depth-of-field of the macro lens is shallow.

Here’s another page with some future concepts for Horsepower, apparently the auto-rotate of the phone’s camera doesn’t work so hot when you’re not parallel to the ground.

Another "before" shot (you'll have to rotate it in your head)

...and after

I definitely recommend this case, you can get it for the cost of a plain-vanilla iPhone protector with the bonus of being able to take photos of small or close-up things. For my application this is a requirement, but even for more casual purposes it’s very nice for getting shots in close quarters.

Acer Aspire One Thursday, Feb 12 2009 

I’m testing these out for Jamie’s office (Slashdot mug included for scale, old-school baby!).

…more to come…

Guitar Jar Wednesday, Feb 11 2009 

It seems like a year ago, but I’m sure it was less.  Matt mentioned to me the idea of a Guitar Jar.  Simple enough, just a change jar but with a goal.  I loved the idea and started one immediately.

Around Festivus, I had some gift money and decided to cash in the jar as it was becoming quite full; to my surprise there was more than $70.00 accumulated in there!  This paid for most of the Crate V5 amp I picked up awhile back.

The beauty of the jar is this:  I don’t need a new guitar, and I didn’t need a new amp, so it’s hard to spend money that could be allocated to more justifiable things on them.  I do, however, want, no, desire these things, so the guitar jar provides a way to placate that desire, moving them from the “never” category to the “eventually” one.

Something profound changes when you move your desires from the former to the latter; hope springs from this and that hope is a powerful fuel to get you through the things you have to do and on to the things you want to do.  It’s funny how something as simple as an old coffee can can change your life, if you apply the guitar jar philosophy to your more ambitious goals.

…like becoming a filmmaker, or an independent software developer, or a motorcycle mechanic.

Now that my guitar jar has been emptied I need a new target for it to fixate on and I believe I’ve found it in the new ESP LTD EX-400.  I’ve wanted an ESP ever since I first laid eyes (and fingers) on one but always considered them out of reach.  I don’t know all the history behind it, but with the LTD line there is finally something that fall within guitar jar range, without giving up the characteristics that make it the descendant of the legendary ESP guitars.

ESP LTD EX-401 (black)

ESP LTD EX-401 (black)

I just started plunking change back in the jar a week or so ago, and based on even the impressive accumulation rate from before, these guitars will no longer be new by the time I’m ready to pick one up, which is good, maybe I’ll get a price break eh?

…I’m also on the hunt for an affordable (under $40) used Boss Metal Zone, if you happen to have one…

Black & Decker VPX Cut Saw Monday, Feb 2 2009 

Black & Cecker VPX Cut Saw

Black & Decker VPX Cut Saw

When I first saw the VPX line of tools (Black & Decker’s entry into the consumer-grade Lithium-Ion cordless tool market) I wanted them. The white plastic and shininess, along with the slightly-futuristic lines drew me in. Fortunately I wasn’t in the market for any of the tools offered at the time and managed to resist the purchasing urge long enough to do some homework on the subject.

The reviews I read were all over the place, but over time I gathered feedback from the more reliable sources and the consensus was that some of the tools were OK, but for a little more money you could do a lot better. This lead me on a search for the perfect (for me) subcompact driver, ultimately deciding on the Milwaukee.

(which of course I can’t afford, so that’s in a holding pattern for the moment)

Anyway time marches on and I forgot about the VPX tools, sexy as they are.

Fast-forward to about six months later. I’m at Menards checking out these cool new (Plano?) cases and at the end of the isle they have a display clearing out the VPX gear. I think to myself “looks like everyone caught on”, but out of curiosity I check it out. Nothing really jumps out at me, but they have the little “cut saw” (what other kind of saw is there?) for only $15.00.

I figure it must be an add-on with no battery, charger, etc. Nope, that’s the saw, a battery and the charger, for $15.00.

To put this in perspective, according to this saw MSRP’s for $114.00, and is currently available on their site for $40.19. The reviews are all over the place, but I remember hearing that of all the VPX tools, this saw was a decent one.

I spent about a week considering the saw (and the box that I was actually there to buy). I decided to buy the box, and in a moment of inspired consumerism picked up the saw as well. I figured even if it sucks, I could probably make use of the battery, charger and motor and come out ahead.

Enough with the back-story, here’s my review of the saw.

You can tell that a lot of attention went into the packaging, at least the design of it. This seems to be a trend in the consumer tool space which shouldn’t be a surprise because it’s a hallmark of most consumer-class products. Anyway the box looks nice, but is somewhat awkward to open because the whole thing is glued shut instead of using a tab/slot arrangement you would expect.

Once the box is open the interior packaging is what you would expect, organized and plain. The instruction manual (I read these for things that come with rechargeable batteries, I don’t want any excuses from the manufacturer if I end up having trouble with the battery) is the same as every other BD manual, and that’s not a compliment. It’s complete, but small and organized poorly (instructions refer to diagrams that are not on the same page as the text, etc.) it would be nice to include a “getting started” card that shows you how to start charging the battery immediately so you can then spend the 6-8 hours of charge time reading the manual.

Not that you need instructions to charge the battery. As it turns out, you plug in the charger, then plug the battery into the charger. The blinking red light is good, it means it’s charging the battery. When it’s done blinking, it’s time to play with the saw.

7.0v VPX battery in charger (right), 18v NiCd and charger (left)

The saw itself was larger than I expected and seems to be fairly solid. One complaint I have about my 18v B&D drill is that under serious torque the sides of the case feel like they are pulling out of alignment and may let loose at any moment. I haven’t had any actual problems with this, but the feeling doesn’t inspire confidence. Based on the feel of this tool (and the application), I don’t anticipate that problem here.

The saw un-boxed (SpinalTramp included to illustrate scale)

I actually did read the manual while I was waiting and even learned a thing or two, but ended up calling it a night before the batteries were charged. The next morning I slapped the pack into the saw and took it for a spin.

The saw comes with two blades, marked with “wood” and “metal” labels in text, which is nice. The blades are the same quick-change type that my jigsaw uses which is convenient as well. They are loaded and unloaded from the saw by pressing a lever and sliding the blade in or out, no tools required.

The first thing I noticed about the saw was how quiet it was, and how little vibration it produces. The best way I can describe it is that it feels and sounds like a sewing machine, and if you’ve used other reciprocating saws before, you can appreciate the contrast here.

The first thing I could find to try it out on was a short piece of quarter-round trim I had laying on the floor. The included wood blade made very short work of this piece and left a reasonably smooth edge. Next found a piece of half-inch-ish plywood and tried using the “keyholeing” technique I read about in the manual.

The idea here is to cut a hole out of the inside of the board using only the saw. I would have used a drill to punch a hole in the board first, then cut out from there, but this is apparently a common technique and thinking about it I remember seeing my father do this with a jigsaw before.

Placing the saw’s guard against the board with the blade free (not in contact with the wood), I spun it up to speed and slowly tipped the blade into the wood. When it first comes in contact with the board it jumps around a bit and requires a little more pressure than I immediately felt comfortable with but sure enough, it grabbed hold and began to burrow through the wood. Once the tip was in the saw tilted easily to a 90 degree angle and I was able to continue on in a straight line with little effort.

1/4 plywood cut with and cross grain

The second test I conducted cut across the grain of the board and required a bit more force and left more of a mess (the first cut was very clean) but this is to be expected. I imagine a less general-purpose blade could do a better job, as well as less haste on the part of the operator.

I didn’t get a chance yet to try out the metal blade, or try the saw with the assortment of blades I have available from my jigsaw. When I get around to this I’ll post an update.

Overall I think this saw performs well within the range of applications appropriate for a tool of this type. As an alternative to manual handsaws, for very light/precise demo work, low-volume jigsaw work (especially in tight quarters or awkward positions where its light weight is a significant advantage), low-speed cutting (plastics come to mind) or as a saw that you can throw in a smaller toolbox and use anywhere this tool shines. I don’t see it as a replacement for high-volume jobs that would tax the lifetime of the battery or for heavy-duty jobs more appropriate for a full-sized reciprocating saw, but for around the house or in the workshop, this is the kind of tool that might get you out of situations where other tools are too large, too heavy or too imprecise.

Is it worth $114.00? Definitely not, and for $40.00 I would still pass but for $15.00, it’s probably one of the best tools for the money that I’ve found.