Sunday, January 27, 2008

Kindle Review

I have seen the future of books, and it is the Kindle. Or maybe Kindle rev. 2 will be anyway.

Product Image

Having witness the repeated failure of several electronic book efforts in the past, I was pessimistic. But now I believe. Amazon's new approach to the electronic book has successfully tackled several of the key barriers that stymied earlier efforts with a very well-executed end-to-end service on top of an aggressive device design. And while there are still a few warts on the Kindle typical of most first-generation consumer electronics products, it is clearly pointing to a very interesting future.

As an avid reader with an extensive personal library of fiction, non-fiction, and technical books (as the numerous bookshelves scattered about the house and the 40 boxes of books in my garage will attest) the idea of forgoing the heft and ease of browsing and reference was a daunting one. And yet, I acknowledge having suffered under challenges of managing both the library and the habit, particularly while traveling. I have come to resign myself to allocating at least 10-12 pounds of luggage space to carry the books and magazines necessary to fuel a week-long trip when I might not otherwise have time to stop at a book store on the way.

So when the Kindle emerged, bolstered by the ~90,000 title library, I was intrigued. So I convinced a friend of mine with a similar early-adopter bent to loan me one for a couple weeks while I traveled in Europe and the US. I hoped to be able to load it up before traveling abroad, and so save some weight. I anticipated a few primary areas of potential concern surrounding usability, ergonomics, and the image quality and readability of the E-ink display.

The integrated 3-G wireless system (using Sprint's 3G CDMA network, which while fine in the US, fails to roam internationally---so I had to load it up while in the US before leaving the country.) was already pre-provisioned on the device and linked to my Amazon account, which made it completely trivial to download half a dozen books from various best-seller and "New and Noteworthy" type lists, and a built in search feature made it equally trivial to purchase a couple more esoteric science fiction titles for some brain candy. The wireless service, while not competitive with my snappy broadband connection at home, was perfectly adequate to the task of downloading the books, and had generally delivered ordered titles within about 10 seconds. But mostly, it just worked. I also purchased copies of The NY Times, SF Chronicle, Washington Post, WSJ, SJ Merc. News, Time Magazine, and the Atlantic Monthly. In the purchase process, I found the magazine library to be the most limited, but I did like the push-delivery feature of both the newspapers and the magazines, where subscriptions are automatically delivered to the device. It was nice not to have to stop by the news stand on the way to the plane. The stuff was just on the device without having to worry about it.

Even before I got on the plane, I was feeling pretty good about storing all the books, papers and mags on the 10 ounce Kindle, and enjoying the uncharacteristically light heft of my luggage. And I was feeling greener than ever when I realized how much paper I had just avoided purchasing, along with the fact that there was going to be no land-fill impact from my reading addiction, and perhaps even some jet fuel savings as well (there was a great article not to long ago on how one airline had saved something like $230 million in fuel expenses the first year they instituted a policy of removing as many magazines as possible from the planes between flights.). The titles were also about 1/3 the retail price of the books.

A couple quick mental calculations were illuminating. In terms of personal cost, even at the hefty early-adopter price of $399 for the Kindle electronics, at my rate of reading, because the electronic versions were significantly discounted from the paper versions burdened with production and shipping costs (magazines were roughly 1/4 to 1/5 the paper price and books were between 1/3 and 1/2 the paper price), I would recover the cost of the device purchase inside of 2 months. Yes. I read A LOT.

Moreover, I realize that in terms of potential national impact, if everyone in the US went electronic just in their newspaper habits, i.e. if everyone received their newspapers via Kindle instead of having them printed on paper and delivered to their door, the savings in fuel costs for distribution alone would likely fulfill the nation's obligations under the Kyoto accord. And there would obviously be further green benefits from leaving all the trees standing to help sequester more CO2. (My wife is probably having heart palpitations at the prospect of a greener husband.)

Yes, yes, sorry about the green diversion. Back to books and reading. My first flight with the device, a one-stopper from SFO to Zurich, was a resounding success. The size and overall form-factor of the device made reading books and flipping pages easier than with the real thing. Newspapers became manageable even in the cramped airplane seating which would otherwise require much folding, refolding, and apologizing the neighbors. I didn't even utter the obligatory curses when the person in front of me slammed their seat back up under my chin.

Even though, the E-ink screen re-write was slow (about 600 ms) compared to LCD panels, it was still faster and easier to click the button your thumb was resting on than to flip a real paper page. The screen resolution is fantastic, and the text is very readable even at the smallest font size, which makes an electronic book mimic a regular paperback in terms of words-per-page. The contrast could be better (only about 100:1 because the high-res black text sits on a background that is gray rather than white), but in the proper diffuse lighting (standard plane lamps were fine) I had no difficulties whatsoever even with my aging eyes. The fact that the display appears to be only black and white with no grayscale limits picture rendering to dithered images. So I think there are going to be delays in the transition for many media that are more image dependent, like Wired, or Cosmo, say, but the model clearly works for most text-centric media, and it is simply a matter of time until future generations of the device/service expand to support the entire industry.

paper-like screen

After using the device all week in Switzerland, and making the return flight to the US without having had to recharge the unit even once, I said a short mental eulogy to the paper books and magazines. Their days are numbered. From now on, I'll be doing as much reading on the Kindle and its progeny as possible. In several years, I might not even need a bookshelf anymore. How about that? An electronic gadget that enhances Feng Shuei!

Here are a few observations on things that should, and will likely, improve in subsequent versions of the product.

1.) There are too many next and previous page buttons, and their current positioning makes them too easy to press accidentally. There is no easy and obvious way to hold the device or hand the device to someone without advancing a page unless you are REALLY careful. Smaller and fewer buttons, placed on the front of the device where thumbs naturally rest would be sufficient.

2.) The current buttons look designed to be really cheap and simple to manufacture, but are open to dirt and look easy to break off with rough or extended use because of overhangs at the device edge and open gaps between the buttons and the overall device chassis. Future versions should take note of lessons from the mobile phone industry which now have closed single-membrane front faces or continuous touch screens with no gaps for dirt or mechanical failure.

3.) I would have preferred a slightly larger screen, along with the possibility of having that extra horizontal and vertical real estate potentially reduce the thickness or depth of the device.

4.) A simple anti-reflection coating on the front surface of the e-ink panel would substantially improve the display performance and readability with more specular lighting.

5.) the qwerty keyboard would benefit from being virtual on a larger touch-screen display, because you really only use it in the purchase phase, and not at all while reading, which is how you spend the majority of usage time. It would be nice if it could go away when you're not using it. I realize, however, that the current E-Ink display is too slow to offer UI feedback, so some development will be necessary there.

6.) The power and wireless buttons need to be moved to the front or sides of the device. It's a pain in the ass to have to flip the unit over to find the buttons.

7.) While the white plastic unit case does evoke the color of a regular book page, it also collects dirt and smudges from being in a briefcase. And while it does come with a leather cover, my inclination was to discard it because of the extra size and weight it adds. Again, lessons from the cellular phone and PDA industry would be instructive regarding enhanced metallic and textured finishes that are more attractive and wear better at little additional cost.

8.) The overall UI design was generally utilitarian, but clearly suffers from the slow update rate of the E-ink display. Menus take too damn long to load because they require a complete screen re-write cycle. There is a clever hack using a small PDLC display and scroll wheel on the side of the main display, but it is clearly a hack. I would recommend looking at figuring out how to do partial screen refreshes at faster update rates, i.e. only re-write the menu window to see if there isn't some way to speed that up. (the current version seems to gray-out the contents in the main window to forward the menu, but I think there might be a better trade-off in leaving the background and speeding up the menu refresh to improve navigation. This would be a nice area to explore in conjunction with making a virtual keyboard using a touch-screen interface.

9.) Regarding the e-book format, it would be nice to have this be an open format that I could read on any device. While I don't expect my laptop battery to over a competitive platform to well-designed Kindle-type tablet for extended reading sessions, I would love to have electronic reference books available for my laptop.


Keep in mind here, that I'm notably particular about gadget design, and that even with these first-generation flaws, I think the device is a winner. I'm definitely looking forward to the next revision. In summary, if you're a casual or infrequent reader, I'm not sure this is a device or service for you. But for the avid reader, particularly you mobile ones, don't wait. Get one now.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Flagging Economy Needs Science Investments

A very topical Op-Ed piece from Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle by Intel Chairman Craig Barrett. I liked it so much I include it in its entirety here.

Flagging Economy Needs Science Investments

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Two years ago, the National Academies published the seminal study on U.S. competitiveness entitled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." The study identified major shortcomings in U.S. investments in basic scientific research as well as in math and science education for our youngsters. The suggestions contained in this study were immediately picked up by the Democratic House Leadership as their competitiveness strategy and later by President Bush in his State of the Union message under his American Competitiveness Initiative. Legislation in the form of the America Competes Act was passed in the House and Senate in 2007, and it appeared the United States was finally going to move forward after years of neglect to increase investment in math, science and basic research. All parties agreed that our competitiveness in the 21st century was at stake and we needed to act.

So much for political will.

The recent budget deal between Republicans and Democrats effectively flat-funds or cuts funding for key science agencies. Excluding "earmarks," the Department of Energy funding for fiscal year 2008 is up only 2.6 percent, thus losing ground to inflation. The National Science Foundation is up 2.5 percent, with the same result. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is up 11 percent, however the labs where research happens only get 2.3 percent, again losing ground to inflation. Key national laboratories, such as the Fermilab, which focuses on high-energy particle physics research, face the likelihood of hundreds of jobs being lost and the closing of some facilities, helping to shortchange defense research. Predicting the impact of such funding cuts in basic research on future job creation is difficult. Who could have predicted a $300 billion semiconductor industry from the invention of a transistor? But our kids who are heading to college are very smart. They will make their career decisions based on where they see the priorities of our government and economy.

The funding decisions on the America Competes Act took place a few days after Congress passed a $250 billion farm bill. In the eyes of our political leaders, apparently, corn subsidies to Iowa farmers are more important for our competitiveness in the next century than investing a few billion in our major research universities. The president expressed his happiness with the budget and Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said, "The president didn't get his priorities, we got ours."

At a time when the rest of the world is increasing its emphasis on math and science education (the most recent international tests - NAEP and PISA - show U.S. kids to be below average) and increasing their budgets for basic engineering and physical science research, Congress is telling the world these areas are not important to our future. At a time when we are failing our next generation of students, politically charged topics such as steroids in Major League Baseball and the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes command instantaneous congressional hearings while the seed corn (no pun intended) of our future is ignored and placed lower in priority than billions of dollars of earmarks.

Perhaps this would all be a moot discussion if we could continue to import the best and brightest minds from around the world to start and staff our next generation of high tech startups. But Washington can't even get that strategy straight, as legal immigration - the process by which bright, highly educated workers immigrate to the United States - is being choked by our inability to control illegal immigration. While the EU has proposed a simplified and expanded program for importing highly educated talent from the rest of the world, we continue to make if more difficult for the same talent to work in the United States, even when some of these knowledge workers have received their education in the United States at partial taxpayer expense.

Where are the voices in Washington to bring reasoned debate and action to these topics? Where are the voices among the presidential candidates to propose solutions to these challenges? What do we elect our political leaders for if not to protect our long-term future?

The United States stands at a pivotal point in our history. Competition is heating up around the world with millions of industrious, highly educated workers who are willing to compete at salaries far below those paid here. The only way we can hope to compete is with brains and ideas that set us above the competition - and that only comes from investments in education and R&D. Practically everyone who has traveled outside the United States in the last decade has seen this dynamic at work. The only place where it is apparently still a deep, dark secret is in Washington, D.C.

What are they thinking? When will they wake up? It may already be too late; but I genuinely think the citizenry of this country wants the United States to compete. If only our elected leaders weren't holding us back.

Craig Barrett is the chairman of Intel."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Twinkle Twinkle Little Variable Stars

My astrophysics professors always TALKED about variable stars and how particularly important the Cepheid and RR Lyrae variables have been in helping establish interstellar and intergalactic distance scales. They would show "Light Curve" graphs like this one from McMaster University in Canada that depicted the changes in stellar brightness over time.

I realized intellectually, that many of the variable stars had periods on the order of a day and rather large changes in magnitude, but for some reason, nobody had taken any decent movies to really highlight the ubiquity or true visual impact of these stars. But contrast this traditional static image of the M3 Globular Cluster

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download  the highest resolution version available.

with this relatively recent four-frame movie take by Krzysztof Stanek and Andrew Szentgyorgyi over the course of one night in 1998 on the 1.2 m. telescope at F.L. Whipple Observatory in Arizona.

M3 Color Movie

Wow. That really gets the idea of variable stars across. And now with the temporal information across field of view, you start to notice other things that weren't obvious before, and that leads to new questions such as, " why to several of the stars separated by many light years seem to flash in synchrony? What is the mechanism for synchronization?"

If you like that action, you'll love what the forthcoming LST telescope will turn out. Stay tuned for more.

Images courtesy (APOD)

Politicians Speaking in Code

Who says encryption is only for mathematicians, geeks, or credit card transactions?

Generally, I am used to politicians dodging questions they are asked while trying to "stay on message" to push their specific agenda. But there seems to be a new trend in political communication of sending "secret" messages to core constituent groups that are very strategically and specifically encoded or worded so as to not put-off others outside of that core group. Otherwise they might otherwise seek alternative candidates if directly confronted with an open message. And I really do mean code, as in encrypted messages that only those who have, or figure out, the appropriate key can understand. My favorite recent example was pointed out to me by Josh Marshal and his blog readers.

One of Mike Huckabee's core campaign messages this season is that he thinks America needs "Vertical Politics" rather than "Horizontal Politics," and a "Vertical Thinker" for its next President. Here are a couple of examples from his speeches and his web site.

Being reasonably well-informed politically, this sort of verbiage didn't even register with me as anything unusual or even noteworthy. It didn't appear to me as anything more than a typical no-content type positioning statement much like "We need change," or "The urgency of now." (More on this last code later).

But it turns out there was a very important message embedded in what sounded, at first blush, to be otherwise meaningless positioning verbiage. I, however, being outside of the core group of intended recipients, did not have the key to decrypt the secret message. If you happen to be an evangelical Christian, or a faithful church-going Baptist, you probably already know what Mr. Huckabee is talking about because you have the key to his secret code. "Vertical Thinking" has become part of the common evangelical vernacular (see here on "Vertical vs. Horizontal Thinking" and here at the "" blog for explanations and the general philosophy).

The real message turns out to be a very clear statement to those "informed" that the US as a whole would be better off with a leader who holds God as the origin of all inspiration, morality, and, well, everything, and uses that to guide his leadership. This is in contrast to "Horizontal Thinking" wherein man figures things out without looking to God; it is this "Horizontal Thinking," according to Huckabee, which has gotten the US into so much trouble.

Now it's certainly true that Mr. Huckabee has been completely open about his history as Baptist minister, and I have to say that in the end, the message is completely consistent with his background. And I have nothing against any candidate who would clearly state a religious political agenda. But I find the wording that was so clearly calculated to pass innocuously beneath the notice of the unaligned moderates while still reassuring the faithful to be both a stroke of genius and rather insidious at the same time. It demonstrates a realization that if his agenda were completely out in the open, and the candidate were forced to speak clearly and openly without obfuscating their position in order to placate a conflicted constituency (i.e. the evangelical vs. fiscal republican bases) they could not actually garner winning support.

In all fairness, Huckabe isn't the only politician speaking in code. Sean over at Cosmic Variance pointed out Obama's "Urgency of Now" type code words taken straight from the civil rights movement.

My personal preference would be to support a candidate who is completely open in his communication, without depending on codes or secret messages decipherable only be specific constituent groups. I want to understand what other constituencies I might be supporting inadvertently by supporting someone like Huckabee, and where their agendas differ from my own.

I would also prefer that a candidate support such "horizontally" conceived issues such as stem cell research, family planning strategies based on real historical performance data and research, support for abatement of climate change. Lately, I have begun to contrast candidates who look backwards through tradition and religious adherence, and favor candidates who will openly accept the world as it is based on open scientific inquiry and look forward to how things might be. Is there such a visionary candidate?

Well anyway, I have a couple new code keys now, and so do you. What other sorts of secret political codes can we winkle out? How would you construct a clever political code?