Kinivo Headphones RIP

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My Kinivo BTH240 headphones have been a workhorse. I bought them when my wired headphones died my first week of work at my current job, and have used them pretty much all day every day since then. After 2.5 years, they have about had it. First the left ear started going out intermittently. Now, they shut themselves off randomly. It could be every hour or sometimes after 30 seconds. I just can’t hang with them.

I am moving up a tier in headphones (these ones were < $25) and going with the ones recommended by The Wirecutter, the Jabra Move wireless. I went with blue, because I don’t care what color they are and those were the cheapest.

The only bummer is that I completed my order about 25 minutes too late on Tuesday night so I won’t get them until tomorrow. As it happens, today is the day the Kinivos just became unusable. I’m hoping the fully over the ear cup of the Jabra headphones will help to serve as a noise suppressor when I travel or am in coffee shop type situations. Here’s hoping for the best. I’m counting on you, Wirecutter!

Mobile Twitter Client Request

Does anyone know of a mobile Twitter client (preferably at least one each for iOS and Android) that allows you to point to arbitrary sites that implement the Twitter API? I know of some that let you use multiple services, but I want to use this with a demo of how easy it would be to replicate the API on our system. It can’t be a predefined system the client knows about, I want to point to the top of a hierarchy with the Twitter API under it and have the client work.

Anyone have any ideas for this? It is a remarkably hard thing to Google for.

Living in the Future

I still find it tremendously cool to SSH into my server box to iptables drop a malicious IP from my phone in a park. It is also cool to be able to blog about it at the same time.

Return of the Phone

The prodigal LG G2 has returned. In 7 hours, it hasn’t locked up or rebooted once so it clearly is better than it was before I sent it off. I’m glad to have it back but am now even more mad at LG. I wanted them to send me a refurb and just take the broken one back and refurbish it on their own time. Instead, they made me send this phone back, twice, and essentially gave me a refurb that was my own original phone. It had the same net effect as what I asked for except I didn’t have the use of it for 5 weeks. Screw you guys.

LG G2 Odyssey Continues

LG G2 Teardown

I called LG about my still broken phone late on Friday October 17th. They sent me a prepaid shipping label and I dropped it in the Fed Ex box on Sunday October 19th. The phone had finally made it back to me earlier today. I watched the Fed Ex truck pull up to my house while I was in a meeting with customers in Europe so I couldn’t jump up and answer the door (which I never heard a knock or bell, only saw the truck.) Despite having previously filled out the pre-authorization for Fed Ex to drop off signature required packages, they didn’t do it this time. I still don’t have my phone.

I basically begged LG customer support to just send me a new phone and let me send this one back to be refurbished, which they did not do. Bear in mind, I sent this off having gotten it back the weekend prior from sending it to the same facility for the same problems which were not at all fixed. From Fed Ex inexplicably not checking the box on Monday to then weirdly not delivering it today, from LG making me send it back twice, every step of this has been painful. It’s early November and the last time this phone was able to be used was the last week of September. Considering the average lifetime of a smart phone, that’s a good chunk of its expected life to be out of the game.

On September 20th, I was extremely happy with LG and this phone. Now I am strongly leaning towards avoiding LG in the future. Perhaps I’ve been trained to have a high bar with Amazon level support and their “we’ll send you a new one, you send us the broken one and we’ll sort it out” strategy. In the brochure, everyone touts the quality of their warranty and service but wait until you actually try to invoke it. That’s when the real test begins, and LG is failing this one for me.

Last Chance

LG G2 Teardown

OK, LG G2. You’ve been to the repair facility in Fort Worth and back. You disappointed me immediately out of the envelope and then kept your nose clean for days trying to lull me into a sense of security. I’m giving you the benefit of a doubt, setting you back up and using you normally. But I swear the very next time you lock up or reboot without provocation, I will call customer support again and this time not hang up until they promise to melt you down and give me a new phone.

Are we clear?

My Kindle Spanish to English Dictionary in the Wild

Early this year, I made available to the internet for free the Kindle formatted dictionary that does Spanish to English translation. I know that people continue to use it and that post still gets comments after nine months. Today I found a reference to Bill Ferguson’s blog about his efforts to learn Spanish. In it he credits the availability of my dictionary as the reason he finally bought a Kindle 3, and he includes some screenshots of his experience. It’s nice to see this kind of detail about the use to which people are putting the dictionary. This was always the principle but it’s good to see some concrete examples.

As an addenda, people ask me if I’m going to make this available in other languages. I have no plans to do that because I’m not interested in reading in any other languages. I will make my scripts available to anyone who wants them as-is to hack them into something that will do other languages (or the English to Spanish as others have asked for.) It’s not plug and play and will require some fiddling, so it isn’t for the faint of heart but you can have them.

Ebooks From TV – My New Side Project

It’s true, I do not need Yet One More Side Project. Regardless, I have one. Talking to Paul Fischer at Balticon a few weeks ago, I was mentioning to him my ebook buying dynamic. I said that “If I see a book on Colbert or the Daily Show that interests me, I look to see if it is available for Kindle. If it is and at a decent price, I just buy it then. If not, I never think about it again.” Paul’s response was “What if you had a blog that collected all that information in one place?” Brilliant, said I. I offered Paul the right of first refusal on pursuing it since it was his idea. He passed, so I came home and set it up.

That site is Ebooks From TV. I’m trying hard to cover all the evening and late night talk shows, CSPAN Book TV weekends, and the daytime talk shows as I can. Ideally, if a book was mentioned on any of the national TV shows, you can find it in a post on Ebooks From TV. My goal is to get the post up the same day but occasionally it might be a day or two later.

If you run across a TV show where a book is mentioned and you don’t see it on the site, let me know via email at dave@ebooksfromtv.com . It could be that I’m not following that show, that the book doesn’t actually have a Kindle version available, or that it was published more than a year ago. I’ll make sure that at the very least I’m paying attention to that show, if nothing else.

Before the end of the weekend, I’ll set this up as a Kindle subscribable blog. My current understanding is that those blogs available on the Kindle must be at least $0.99 per month. I’ll put it at the very lowest price available whatever that is. If you frequently find yourself looking for books that you saw on a talk show, this might be a handy resource for you.

Using Calibre to Fetch Instapaper Documents

Today I was listening to Episode #81 of the Kindle Chronicles. It was especially interesting to me for three reasons:

  1. James McQuivey’s analysis of the Amazon/Macmillan dispute
  2. Len gave tips about using the great Instapaper service with one’s Kindle and
  3. Len mentioned me by name to reference this post on my thought experiment.

In the show, Len discussed the options in Instapaper to email documents to a Kindle but there is another way I’ll discuss shortly.

To back up, Instapaper is a great service that lets you mark long form articles to be read later. I have a bookmarklet in all my browsers that with a single click and mark any page as such. The service is good and seems to handle multipage articles pretty well.

If you are already a user of Calibre (and I suggest everyone serious about using e-reader devices should be), there is another option. Calibre already has functionality under the “Fetch News” option to pull down and create documents with a simple scripting language. There are a few hundred built in sources and the ability for you to create our own pretty simply, and then a scheduler to set up how often this news source is fetched.

Click the “Fetch News” button in the toolbar of Calibre. You can either type “Instapaper” in the search box, or navigate to the “Unknown” category at the bottom of the list and select “Instapaper.com”. Click the “Scheduled for Downloads” checkbox, select the frequency or schedule that you want to have it fetched. Below, enter your username (email address) and your password on the service. It’s that simple. Now, when Calibre fetches the news from Instapaper, it will assemble all of your “Unread” items into a document and also tell Instapaper to move those articles into the “Read” category so you don’t repeatedly fetch them.

I’ve had it set up this way for a few months now and really like it. If I see a blog post or link to an article that I’d like to read but is longer than I have time for currently, I hit the Instapaper “Read Later” bookmarklet and forget about it. At a future time, Calibre will fetch it and then it will automatically get moved to my Kindle and I’ll have it there to read – typically on the orbital trainer at the gym. It’s a nice, seamless way to keep from letting these longer articles drop through the cracks.

Update: I can see Len Edgerly has kindly linked to this blog post from the most recent Kindle Chronicles and will use this tip on a future show. Via email, he asked me a few days ago what the advantage is to this over having Instapaper just email it directly to you Kindle. My response in part was that I’m not sure I’d consider it an advantage per se. It’s just a different mode of interaction. I almost never email anything to my Kindle, and I do use Calibre as the central point in my book management, equivalently how you might use iTunes with music. All books from here on go into Calibre first for me, and from there to my Kindle or whatever future device I might have. Whether Gutenberg or any other DRM free source, I tend to get ePub and convert from there.

After I emailed Len I did think of some more explicit advantages. If one has a few different devices (like Len does) that you use interchangeably, whichever device you connect will automatically get the newest news content transferred to it. This means that you could hook your Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader et al to it shortly before you walk out the door and you’ll get the Instapaper document. It removes the Kindle specificity and makes it more of a total ecosystem tool.

In my case, I’m such a cheapskate that I’m not going to pay $0.15 per Instapaper push. I have to plug the Kindle up to charge it, so I just get the news when that happens. Different strokes for different folks.

More Kindle Stuff

I’m aware that most of what little I’ve blogged in calendar year 2010 is Kindle related. What can I say? It’s what I’ve been most interested in lately, which corresponds with me also not having a whole lot to say on much else. C’est la blog.

I got some nice traction on my Spanish to English dictionary, getting links from Teleread, Kindle World as well as assorted fora and other places.There appears to have been a few people with technical glitches but that were able to get them sorted out. I assumed correctly that a reasonable chunk of the feedback would be “Can you do another version for Language X to Language Y”. The answer there is “No”, as the only other language I care about at this moment is Spanish. What I did was not rocket science and anyone with minimal scripting and Google skills could easily duplicate the efforts in other languages if they desired.

I also got some traction in my head to head comparison between the Kindle and the Nook. I still am wiling to love future versions of the Nook, particularly the screen contrast. The hardware is quite nice and if they ever fix the lagginess of the UI and the weird counterintuitive menuing system, it has a whole lot of potential.

I personally am excited about the upcoming release of a Kindle Development Kit that allows for putting apps on there. I and a lot of my kindred spirits had two immediate thoughts on hearing this news: 1) I’m not sure this is a good idea because the strength of the Kindle is that you don’t have much going on but reading books and 2) I’m signing up to join the developer program anyway. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of ideas that would use little or no bandwidth and would also play into the strengths of the Kindle. These fall into two classes: apps that one might want to spend a lot of time immersed with that don’t require huge amounts of screen refreshing and plugins that extend the existing functionality of the device. If one is allowed to do things like add extra menu options such that you can leave a GoodReads or LibraryThing review from inside a book, for example, that could be a hot bit of functionality to extend the device. I’m looking forward to seeing the KDK once it is available.

I’m an AAPL shareholder who has done awfully well with my stock, and as such I love whenever people get excited about mythical upcoming products. However, I’m completely sick of iTablet speculation and will consider it a sweet relief tomorrow when whatever announcement is finally made. I think most of the “Kindle killer” talk is by gadget headed techno-insiders who consistently fail to understand how ordinary consumers actually use devices. Like I said above, I think the affordance of the Kindle actually make it better for reading than an iTablet will be. When I sit down on the couch with the Kindle, books are not competing with videos, email, Skype or the panoply of distractions offered by your average online laptop. I’m looking for less distraction in my life and more time with words, and I think that key bit is beneath the notice of tech pundits who evaluate from every angle except for how a non-early adopter might actually incorporate this stuff in their lives.

This is a random half-baked thought that I’ve been wanting to blog about but am still ruminating over, so I’ll stick it on the bottom of this post like a tail that isn’t quite pinned on the donkey. With the coming of Kindle apps, the possibility of Nook apps, and the very real present of much money moving through the iTunes App store it occurs to me that in a large part these devices – an object with an account/open wallet attached to them – is a working manifestation of the dream of micropayments. Even though BitPass and other parts of the Scott McCloud-ian vision never worked or came to fruition, in their own way these apps represent a way micropayments can actually work. As I think about what things I could develop for Kindle apps, it’s never far out of my head how to tap into that. Assuming developers are given a way to invoke additional purchases from in app it could be very direct, but even having an app on a subscription is still a form of that. I have no walloping insight on this, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Kindle Vs Nook: My Experience

Nook and Kindle

Update: Since this post seems to have gotten a lot of traction and still gets hits and comments, I should point out that whether you choose the Kindle or the Nook, my new project Ebooks from TV is great for either!

I am blogging this from a Barnes and Noble cafe (specifically, the one at Market Commons in Myrtle Beach.) I meant to come in and do a final head to head comparison between my Kindle 2 and the new B&N Nook. I have previously done tests where I set the two of them side by side and done the same operations to get as close to a controlled test as possible. I can’t do that today because at the customer service desk where the Nook has been, there is now an empty anti-theft cable dangling. I’ll do what I can without the refresher. (Update: They put it back, and I did do another few minutes of fiddling and took this photo with my camera phone. Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t show the screen differences well.)

As ground rules, because this kind of post is always a lightning rod for haters: I took the time to gather data and am posting dispassionately my first-hand experiences with both devices. Any comments of the form of “Device X sucks, you are stupid” will be summarily deleted. I brought data and science to the table, knee-jerk comments without them are valueless. I am very far from an Kindle fanboy and advocate. I did this comparison because one day my Kindle will die and if the Nook impresses me it could well be the next device. I did not approach this with a foregone conclusion and then gathered data to support my prejudice. My experience thus far is that talking to the very few Nook fans is a lot like arguing theology with a Branch Davidian. It doesn’t matter how much sense you make, the conversation is going the same way every time. Nook fans, rise up and be reasonable please. You have a stereotype to overcome, with me at least.

Now the results: When I first did this a week ago, every single operation on the Nook was slower. The opening of a book was very slow on the Nook (15-30 seconds), compared to less than a second on the Kindle. Turning pages in an already open book was slower on the Nook. I’d hit the button on both simultaneously, and the Kindle page would have been finished refreshing before the Nook started. Interestingly on the Nook, paging backwards was faster than paging forward. Both operations were slower than on the Kindle, but compared to itself, the Nook can page backwards more quickly.

Changing fonts between the two is radically different. In the Nook’s favor, it allows the choice of different fonts where on the Kindle there is no choice. In the downside, because of the increased complexity of the menuing and the very long refresh time of the book itself when you do change fonts, it is between 20 and 40 seconds between deciding to change fonts on the Nook and looking at the changed fonts. This is the same whether changing the font itself or just the size. On the Kindle 2, there is a dedicated button for the font menu. One can hit the button, use the 5-way controller to select a new font size, select it and looked at the refreshed page in about a second, two if slow. With the 2.3 software update, you can do the same for changing between portrait and landscape modes. I just timed myself and that was about 3 seconds total, which includes having to navigate a few rows down on the menu.

I’ll have to say that I find the menuing and the controls on the Nook pretty unsatisfying and significantly harder to use. The Nook is trying for a dive with a higher degree of difficulty here, it is true. However they aren’t executing on it. I found the touch screen very difficult to select the correct thing consistently, the swiping of the book covers to not work very well, and the menu structure organization to be convoluted. In March 2009 when I took my Kindle out of the box, it took maybe a minute to figure out every common operation and bit of navigation. I’ve spent half an hour over several trips fiddling with the Nook and still am not always certain where I should be navigating to. It completely perplexes me when at any list screen, such as the library management page (equivalent to the Kindle’s “Home” screen”) that one can only move up and down the list from the touch screen. The page up and down controls do nothing in that case. You are looking in one spot but the controls require you to manipulate from a different spot, one on a touch screen with a target narrow enough that me with my fat fingers must pay attention to exactly where I’m trying to click. It is not a good experience.

It felt this way from isolated tests, but setting the two devices makes it clear that the Nook has better contrast on the screen. The “print” is darker and the background is lighter. That is the one aspect that I think is clearly in its favor. The devices are of very similar weight and dimensions. The Nook is slightly shorter, and barely thicker. I think for most real users, you wouldn’t notice any difference in size or heft. For myself who occasionally likes to Tweet from the device (having no iPhone and using my Kindle as my own ubiquitous connection) the keyboard is awesome and even if the Nook adds a web browser then it will be a soft keyboard at best to type in URLs, which seems like it would be a drag.

In the final analysis, I’d recommend against buying the Nook 1.0. This is not a final, durable recommendation. I didn’t buy a Kindle 1.0 or any other Gadget 1.0 either. I find it best to let other people break in the worst problems and I’ll swoop in later when those are fixed. For the identical money and with the differences in usability, I don’t think $259 today is a good investment for a Nook 1.0. The good thing for Nook users is that most of my problems with the device are potentially fixable in software (B&N demo I used had 1.1.0 version on it.) Just like the Kindle’s 2.3.0 update made the device significantly better, a future software update could make the Nook much better. If I were an undecided consumer, I’d make B&N fix it before I gave them my money.

Let me finish with one point beyond the head to head comparison. A lot of talk is floating around with the possibility of an Apple iTable or future apps going on the Nook because of the Android operating system. One thing that gets lost in all this talk is that I consider it a strength not a failing of the Kindle and Sony Reader and Nook that they are not general purpose devices. Even with the web browser on the Kindle, this whole thing only really does one thing well, and that’s display text for you to read. It’s about sitting down and reading. You can tweet or check email in a pinch, but it will never be your first choice to do it on the Kindle the way you would on a laptop or iPhone/Blackberry. It’s possible but not fun. What it is best at is being a device you can sit down with on a couch or a beach or the middle seat of an airplane and read. And read and read. I have enough reading material on mine today that I could read for 2 solid months before I exhausted it, and there is still 1.1 Gigabyte free. A tablet, or adding more apps on these devices is the wrong direction in my life. I say I’m a reader and that I enjoy reading, but if you look at my actions the last 10 years I don’t actually read for pleasure that much anymore. Haivng a device that enables reading but doesn’t enable much else is a plus for me, and being an e-ink version of a laptop or an iPhone isn’t good for my particular needs. Milage varies, but for what is important to me today, that’s it.

Final score: I prefer the Kindle 2, but I’d love it to have the better contrast of the Nook. The Nook has a lot of potential but I’d seriously recommend that at the very least, you make the software get better before you give B&N $259 of your dollars.

Update: Since this post seems to have gotten a lot of traction and still gets hits and comments, I should point out that whether you choose the Kindle or the Nook, my new project Ebooks from TV is great for either!

My Free and Open Kindle Formatted Spanish to English Dictionary

Over the holidays, I took upon myself a challenge. I’ve been fiddling around creating a Mobipocket format dictionary consisting of Spanish words and their English translations. I wanted to be able to set it as my primary dictionary on the Kindle and then use it for on-demand word translation as I gut through trying to read documents in Spanish. A few months back, I couldn’t find any unencrypted ones for sale although now apparently some do exist.

This seemed straightforward enough, so I did a little Ruby scripting (getting a crash course in Unicode characters in the process). I found these lists of Spanish word frequencies and wrote a script to parse them into one word per line. I then wrote a script to take lists of words from STDIN, check to see if they existed in the map and if not look them up from various online sources and add it, and then save it as a YAML file. It was most of a week including false starts and do-overs to finally run the whole list against online translating tools. From there, I created another script to take the YAML file and rewrite it as a (roughly) alphabetically sorted and tab delimited text file. With that done, I used these already available tools to take that file and create files suitable for Mobipocket Creator.

The upshot is that this Kindle formatted Spanish to English translation dictionary is available now to download, for free. [Update 2012/05/11 – I’d recommend you use Marc Sturm’s version as of today.] In order to use it, place it on your Kindle via USB or emailling it to your device. Go to “Home->Menu->Settings”, then “Menu->Change Primary Dictionary.” From that point, moving the cursor over a word will work like the dictionary used to with definitions, but with English translations of Spanish words.

I offer this to the world, for free, no strings attached. In fact, because of the Creative Commons license on it (described below) you are free to take the files and do whatever you want with them as long as you comply. Be aware of the following caveats with this dictionary:

1: This is a machine generated translation from various online sources. There is no guarantee of correctness for any given term. I did find and scrub some bogus racist translations that have been put into some online repositories, and there may be other erroneous or malicious terms submitted that have ended up in this dictionary. I warrantee nothing and can pretty much say there are some translations or source words that can offend delicate sensibilities. Over time I might try to find ways to improve this file, continue to fill out the dictionary word list and maybe even improve the translations that are already there. Keep watching this blog for future revisions.

2: There are still formatting issues for the dictionary popup lookup. While you will see your term first in the list, it will not stop at the following term. Any feedback on how to engineer the source files to make this work correctly can be sent to dave@evilgeniuschronicles.org or left as a comment on this post.

3: This book is offered with a Creative Commons license: BY-NC-SA For the required attribution, please provide a link to http://www.evilgeniuschronicles.org

4: This is a word-by-word dictionary, so you won’t get a translation for idiomatic phrases. That’s a downside. An upside is that because this was done word by word from frequency lists, conjugated Spanish verbs get their own entry and each get translated individually.

I’m glad to get any feedback on this dictionary, particularly on point #2. If anyone can describe how to reformat the HTML input files to make the dictionary popups not run together, I’d be highly appreciative. Beyond that, roll and have fun with it and let me know how it works for you. If someone can point me to directions on how to turn these source files into the equivalent version for the Nook, I’d be happy to publish that as well, although I’ll need volunteers to help me test it.

For me, I’m off to take another crack at Don Quixote.

[Update 2011/12/01] The long asked for source files have been committed to this repository at github. I don’t blame you if you can’t make heads nor tails of that as it stands, I certainly couldn’t. At my next available opportunity, I will document the process and try to improve the scripts. No timetable is promised nor implied, mileage may vary, secure your own mask before helping others.

Also, if you want to say thank you for this I ask for nothing other than clicking the Amazon ad in the upper right corner of this blog before you make a purchase sometime. It costs you nothing and kicks a few affiliate percentage points back my way. Thank you.

[Update 2012/05/11] Marc Sturm is the first person I know of to make a modification to this dictionary. He figured out how to make it work with the newer Kindles and has published his version. If you have a Kindle 3 or greater, I’d recommend using his version.

Kindle Tools I Am Using

I got my Kindle in March 2009 and shortly after that I installed Calibre, mostly to test out its ability to convert PDFs and other documents into Mobi format. It wasn’t until the holidays that I really worked with it a lot and realized what a sophisticated library management tool it is. I’m too lazy to look at the release history to see if a lot of this functionality is new or I just missed it last spring. It doesn’t matter, I’m using it now.

A really cool bit of functionality is the news fetching and conversion functionality. I had experimented with subscribing to some of the Kindle blogs via Amazon but to be honest, none of them excited me enough to pay $1/month for them. The news fetching is cool and Calibre converts to very readable books. You have the option to configure the program to email the converted books to your Kindle but that’s really not necessary. I have it configured to automatically move the news books to my device and then delete them from the library on the laptop. It works really well, and then when I read them on the Kindle I just delete them.

Because the conversion is so good, I changed my strategy in how I deal with Project Gutenberg books. I used to download those books in MOBI format but I’ve started defaulting to getting them in EPUB. SInce EPUB is an open format with rich metadata it converts well so I’m treating it as my “lingua franca” format. Should I ever end up with a Nook (unlikely as that seems today), it’s a matter of one sync and I’ve got the same library of books on the new device.

Calibre is now the center of my Kindle experience. I don’t move documents to the device via file copy anymore. I add them to Calibre and let it be the transport mechanism, the catalog and format manager, and in the case of the news the RSS fetcher. It truly rocks and I’m very happy with it.

Another tool I found (via Teleread) is Neotake, an ebook search engine. I followed the link from my Teleread news ebook (as per above), and it took me to the mobile version of Neotake in the Kindle’s web browser. I searched for “George Eliot”, which gave me a very easily readable list of results. I followed the link to The Mill on the Floss and downloaded the MOBI version from the browser. In a few seconds the book showed up in my list in the home screen. It was basically about as easy to use as the Amazon store. I made sure to add Neotake to my bookmark list. It looks to be a valuable tool in the Kindle and other e-reader toolkit.

Google Contacts and the G1

I have not been the slightest bit tempted by the iPhone but I’m a little interested in the idea of the G1 Android phone. Our AT&T contracts aren’t up until this spring so I’ve got lots of time to mull over the decision but I’m beginning to like the idea of it. I’ve been reading up some of the reviews of the G1 such as these from Download Squad and Engadget.

The reviews mention how easy it is to set up the phone, particularly if you are already using the Google services. I spent years resisting them because I hated to give up so much of my information to them but eventually I said “screw it” and stopped fighting. I’ve started keeping my to-do lists and scratch pads in Google docs, using Gmail for all my various accounts and so on. One of the things I did not have, though, was my address book from my MacBook in Google Contacts.

A little research showed that it is possible to sync contacts from OS X to Google. There is a catch though. It only works if you have (or have ever synced) an iPhone or iPod Touch with your computer. Luckily though, there is a workaround. If you have entries for any iPod (like I do for the Shuffle I once owned until it died) you can do a hack to make your Mac think you have an iPhone. I tried this early this evening, and then synced my Address Book to my Nokia phone with iSync. While it never showed Google as a device and gave no indication it was syncing to Google, when it was done I looked and sure enough, my contacts were up there. That’s a big win. If I do ever get an Android phone now, simply setting up my GMail should download all my phone numbers into the phone. The cost of migrating is essentially nil. Because iSync is set up, I don’t have to think about it. Whenever I sync my current cell phone, Im uploading contacts. It’s a sweet deal. Even if I never get a G1, it’s not terrible to have a backup of all that information somewhere outside the house, especially somewhere easily accessible via a kiosk or any internet device.

This may go nowhere, but I’m glad I did this.

Making a Zune Holder Out of Trash

Zune Holder: Starting Materials
Zune Holder: Assembly
Zune Holder: Done

I’ve been doing a lot of video watching at my desk at work since Ken Kennedy was kind enough to give me his unused Zune. One of the downsides of watching at my desk is that the viewing angle is really bad when it is sitting down. Laid flat it is way to low and standing up on its edge it is too high. What I really want is for it to sit back at around a jaunty 15 or 20 degrees. I’ve been leaning it up against things but nothing really worked very well.

I tried to bring out my inner Maker to create what I wanted out of only materials available easily at hand. My original attempt was a pretty miserable failure. I tried to bend the cardboard from a cup of instant noodles into the shape I wanted. It worked for about 20 seconds and then fell apart. I tried to add a little Buckminster Fuller tensegrity to it with some rubber bands but it never really got anywhere and eventually I had to give up on that.

Today I was making a cup of coffee from our little instant Keurig cups, and I used the last one out of the box. I started to throw the box away and then noticed that the cut of the opening was very close to the angle I wanted the Zune leaning at. My original inclination was to use the rubber bands I had procured for the first shot to make some kind of cradle for the Zune to hang in. As I fiddled with it, I realized that the width of the box was really perfect for the Zune. It was exactly the same width. I was thinking about making slits, sliding rubber bands through and anchoring them. After a little thought, I discarded the rubber band idea. If I was slitting anyway, why not just stick a plastic knife in there? I measured the depth, marked where I wanted the back to sit, and made the two slits. The knife slid right in. I set the Zune in it to test the stability and it seemed to work fine. The viewing angle was just about perfect, it sat in there perfectly and I was able to work the controls. I think I might add a second knife towards the bottom just to keep the Zune in there solidly so I can mash the buttons vigorously without worrying I’ll push the player into the box.

Total time spent on this project, including the failed first attempt; about 15 minutes. Total cost of materials: $0. It was all break room trash. Should this one ever wear out, I have a pretty ready supply of empty coffee boxes to fashion future holders. I’m pretty pleased with this. Thanks to the crazy guys at MAKE for making me think in these terms at all times. “What useful things can I make out of the items I would discard?” is a good question to ask oneself frequently.

Update: When I came in this morning, the janitor had thrown away this Zune holder! Man, what a bummer. I made a second one this afternoon, this time using two plastic knife crossbars. It works even better.

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Thoughts on the Zune

Thanks to friend of the blog/podcast Ken I now have a 30 GB Microsoft Zune on indefinite loan. I got it the day before Thanksgiving. Because of all the videos I had in my backlog it took two days of syncing and transcoding for it to be completely ready to go. I started actually using it on Sunday and have some thoughts on it.

As a point of reference for people who haven’t been paying attention or are drive-bys, I have never owned a hard drive based iPod. I had never owned an MP3 player until the podcast era, and I suffered through the first six months of it without any player at all. Since then I have owned in order: a 512 MB iPod Shuffle (broke twice, once under warrantee); a 512 MB mobiBLU cube (broke); a used 512 MB Lexar LDP (never really used and now is DOA and won’t power on); a 4 GB Creative Zen V Plus. The last is the only one that played video and the only one that still works.

First, a rundown of pros and cons. Here’s what I like about the Zune:

  • The screen is quite nice for watching video
  • The playout to a TV also works fine and is quite watchable
  • Ummmm
  • Yeah
  • I can’t really think of another thing

The downsides are plentiful:

  • The UI is not very good, and requires navigating in places that it really shouldn’t
  • The podcasting support is not only ridiculous, but is a value subtraction – more on that later
  • The wifi sharing is useless since I’ve never once seen another person with a Zune
  • Neither videos nor audio marked as podcasts can be put in playlists
  • The videos require transcoding to WMV format, and some fraction of them result in unplayable files on my device. I’m not as bothered as some by the transcoding process, which seems fairly transparent and which I score a draw
  • It’s pretty clunky and ugly, as some have remarked it seems like the kind of MP3 player the Soviets would have invented
  • The fast forwarding is not progressive, ie it doesn’t get faster as you go along so going to minute 60 of a 80 minute file takes forever
  • Only podcasts and videos can be resumed, regular audio files can’t and there is no bookmarking functionality that I can find
  • The management application is pretty flawed and setting up and editing playlists is really cumbersome
  • The delay going from file to file is noticeable. When playing songs that should be gapless, it pauses up to 5 seconds going from one to the other

Like I said in Twitter a few days after getting it, “This is not an iPod killer. It’s not even an iPod hurter.”

Since I use this almost exclusively for podcast listening, you’d think I’d be happy that it has podcasting support “baked in.” Well, I’m not. There are three classes of files on the Zune, “Songs”, “Video” and “Podcasts” with the last having audio and video subclasses. You can add songs to a playlist, nothing else. You can resume videos and podcasts, not songs. The weird discrepancies in what you can do from different classes of files is puzzling because it makes the way the device handles change from file to file. Worst of all, I can’t find any sort of way to do continuous playback of files it marks as podcasts. It’s worse than just having to navigate with the device from show to show. You have to do it between every single episode even within the same series. Considering that I and most people who listen to pocasts do it in part or entirely while they are driving, having to constantly futz with the player to get to the next file is a complete no go.

Now, in an apparent effort to be helpful, the Zune software will mark as a podcast anything you have downloaded externally if the ID3 genre tag is set to “Podcast.” This means that the stuff I had downloaded went about 80% into the audio file collection and 20% into the podcast category. It was so annoying that I had to turn the Zune software off, download the files, and run a script that set every genre tag to something other than “Podcast” in order to prevent them from automatically added to the podcast section.

There is a podcast directory component of the Zune marketplace that seems like a complete clone of iTunes. It’s hard to search, not very complete at this point and generally cumbersome. I know Rob Greenlee is in charge of this portion of the project but as it stands today I can’t imagine it being useful to anybody. Even if it was, picking something to subscribe to means it will come down in the unusable portion of the device and thus I don’t really want to do it.

My brother was telling me how cool he finds it that the iPhone and iPod touch both know their orientation and adjust accordingly. The Zune is the opposite. When you play a video, it switches from portrait to landscape automatically. When the video ends, you are back at the UI always because it won’t play continuously. However, it automatically goes back to portrait which leaves you looking at it sideways like a dolt. You can either turn the device, navigate to another video and turn it again or you can operate the UI sideways. Neither of these are great user experiences. Why the hell doesn’t the UI turn sideways until you leave video mode? Why doesn’t it just play the next video unless you stop it? Either would be more satisfying than the way it is. I am, however, getting caught up on my Something to be Desired which is a positive.

Here’s what they could do to make me happier. Make both video files and podcasts playlistable, so they could be set up for continuous playback in an order I specify and make the track to track transitions happen seamlessly. Improve the playlist handling of the management application. The way Creative does it is just fine, look at that and copy it. The former seems like it could be easy to fix in firmware without even being that dramatic.

I got so frustrated with the audio handling that I decided to continue to use the Zune to watch the videoblogs I’m subscribed to but to go back to my Creative Zen for audio podcasts. Being able to just set up my playlist on a tiny device and listen to them was such a relief after trying to make the Zune do what I wanted. It was only 4 days but it seemed like so much more. That’s right, the biggest joy I got from it was when I stopped using it. Now mind you, for video it is way easier than the Zen plus has a screen of much higher resolution and much larger size. Now I’m doing the two device thing. I watch videos on it at my desk at lunch or on the couch at home, which is pretty much it.

Here’s a write up on the deficiencies of the Zune. What I noticed and find hilarious is that one guy wonders why, if the Zune is so bad why were people stampeding to get them? What he fails to point out is that the 30 GB regularly $250 MSRP devices were on sale for $79.99. That’s much cheaper than the cost of the components, I’m sure. I’m pretty happy with it as a video only device for free but even at free, not happy enough to continue using it as a podcast listening device. Had I paid $250 for this device, I’d be outside Steve Ballmer’s office with a pitchfork and a torch trying to storm it with a mob. I’d love to see Rob Greenlee whip their podcast support into shape because as it is presently, it would be better if all of it was removed.

My final analysis: At $80 for the 30 gigabyte version, it is a marginal buy. At $250, you should not even consider it.

Headphone Keeper

I saw this link on the Make blog about a project to make a headphone cord organizer out of an old credit card. I’ve been meaning to put it together every day for the last month, because my Zen V Plus becomes an unruly mass of lanyard and headphone ever single time I put it in my pocket. It only took 5 minutes to do when I finally sat down to do it. I haven’t road tested it yet but now my cord is an organized bundle on my coffee table. This just might do the trick.

Creative Zen V Plus and My Podcast Enjoyment Workflow

So after a few weeks of using it, I have to say that I’m pretty happy with my new Creative Zen V Plus. After the pain in the ass of getting a Windows XP box set up to handle the syncing, all is well. I have Juice running on the box but have also installed Danny Boyd’s Happy Fish. I might cut over to the latter at some point and see if it will handle some things a little better. Although I haven’t used it as such, theoretically Happy Fish can use the MTP syncing to put the files directly on my device. That would be quite slick.

The device has enough capacity that I have all my audio podcasts and some of the video on it as any given point. It’s a little cumbersome in that I don’t know a good way to delete the listened files off the Zen quickly. When I first plug it up I spend a little time managing the files and deleting the listened files or moving the ones I want to permanently archive off to another place. It also takes a little bit of time to set up the master playlist. That’s how I keep things in roughly chronological order of old to new. I do occasionally bump things up higher if it is timely or I more want to listen to it. Right after the end of the World Series of Poker, for example, I moved all my poker shows to the top of the list to get the news and analysis of the final table. Overall, it is working as well as any MP3 player I have owned.

Getting videos to work on this device was a little trickier. The sync program will automatically convert on the fly and was working on something like 60% of the files. It was a pain trying to figure out why the others wouldn’t convert, so I just went brute force. I installed Super and now I take every single video that is downloaded and use it to convert to an AVI file. When I do this preprocessing step, almost every file will correctly convert. I’ve been watching Channel Frederator and Command N and such over my lunch hour today. I’m keeping about even with new stuff as it comes down. If I ever get ahead of that game, I’ll start working on my videoblog backlog. Between April 2006 and July 2007 I kept downloading all the vlogs I was subscribed to, but only watched Tiki Bar TV regularly. I’m so far behind on Rocketboom that I have about 50 episodes of it with Amanda Congdon that I still haven’t watched. Yowza!

In summary, if you are willing to do a little bit of hand tweaking, I’ll recommend the Creative Zen V Plus as a podcast consumption device. It’s not as simple as just using a video iPod but it is a hell of a lot cheaper. For a dork like me, I’m happy with it.

More on Gadgets

On Friday, I had my first stint watching videos on the Creative Zen V Plus. I wasn’t completely sold, but I have to sat it was quite an agreeable experience. When I synced it up, I let it move and transcode every video I had downloaded on the XP box, so there are about 25 of them. Because they get bigger with the uncompressed AVI format, that almost completely filled up the 4 GB device. I watched 5 or 6 of them during lunchtime Friday and thought it was quite pleasant. Even though the screen is small, it was perfectly watchable. I’m looking forward to making this a normal part of my podcast workflow and being able to watch vlogs on the go.

The downside: the revived Win XP box which worked for a day and a half seems convinced to take a dump and now won’t even restart. I’m going to try to find the install disks from somewhere and just start this box over again. If nothing else, my brother-in-law has them and I can get them from him the next time I see him.

Also, we went ahead and got upgraded cell phones last week. We had served out our 2 year contract and were eligible for new ones, so I got the Nokia 6126. It seems nice enough. It takes fairly lousy video, better photos and generally seems like a decent device. I haven’t made a lot of phone calls yet to judge quality of the telephony. Nowadays it seems like call quality is at best a tangential issue in picking a model, since it is all the gee-whiz features that one uses to make a decision.

One nice thing is that I was able to transfer the numbers from my old phone to my new SIM card. I had always thought they were automatically there but that’s not the case apparently. I had to do delete a few to make my address book small enough to fit on it, but that saves me a huge amount of rekeying of data. I think I’ll miss the automatic syncing of the old cellphone with my iBook. I don’t think the new one will do it, at least with my un-upgraded 10.3.9 box.

So, for a guy who wants to stay off the eternal nerd treadmill of reaching for the newest and shiniest thing, I seem to have a lot of new stuff. Of course, none of it is that new and all of it was pretty cheap (or free.)