Archive for the ‘Review’ Category.

Christmas Attack

It was a fairly normal holiday at my parents. We did the important things – coming together, and left out a lot of ceremony – tree and decorations. We are so distant now that gifts are token – we don’t know each other enough to say what the other wants, and there are few material things I want to begin with. (Perhaps there will be more with the money running out.)

The morning was pretty uneventful. I brought over my Wii. My parents were thinking about getting one, and it was pretty much gathering dust as I focused on other things. So there was a bit of an adventure trying to sort out all the cables, especially with the nicely hidden cabling of their AV setup. In the end, there wasn’t a good port on the TV, and it went through the front panel inputs of another box.

Later in the afternoon, some of their friends came over, and we played Uno Attack. The random-draw mechanism has a few obvious effects. The draw deck is held by the machine, and it only has one button, which often gives zero cards, but often spits out 6+. This essentially destroys the feature which saved the basic game for me: the strategic choice to draw instead of playing, which is far less attractive with possibility of filling up your hand again. The chance of getting away with none is cold comfort in comparison.

What saves Uno Attack is a set of new cards. Some are the obvious adjustments – draw X has to be translated into hitting the button. An interesting distinction is made between ‘hit twice’ (which is also a color card) and ‘hit till you get’ Far more interesting are the really new cards. Two of them give you an opportunity to affect a player who isnt’ adjacent to you, a constraint which is often dearly felt when you hear “Uno” across the table. “all hit” is wild but depends on the gadget, which gives nothing more often than cards. There is however one targeted card – change hands. This is colored, so you often can’t play it when you want to. And of course, you get your hand stolen as often as you pull off a nice swap. The other new card is ‘discard all of same color’, which offers a new strategic choice – it makes it possible to go out without having to say “Uno” (and dare anybody with a trade-hands) On the other hand, it tells the other players that you really truly are out of that color.


I’ve had my sturdy JanSport backpack for several years. It was still in good shape, and can be expected to last a while longer – the last one went on the order of ten years with one stitching job, and only had to be replaced when the zipper became unserviceable. One thing I liked better about the previous model was the vertical arrangement of the outer pockets. The current backpack has them layered, so one being full affects the capacity of the other.

However, I was getting tired of shuffling things in and out of the one bag as I changed destinations and modes of transport. I also figured that this one will wear out eventually, and so buying a new one would just use them up in parallel, rather than sequentially.

The bike accessories were one challenge – air pump, elastic ties, rag in case the chain fell off, tire patch, and sometimes a headlight. Getting all that into a package would be a good start. At the bike store what I found was an under-seat bag. However, I had to get a fairly large one to accommodate the pump. It was designed for permanent mounting, whereas I wanted a quick release so I could take it with me when locking the bike up. The construction was also very stiff, making it awkward to carry or put into another bag.

The solution seems to be a simple fanny-pack. From my brief tour of stores, a simple fanny pack is a hard thing to find these days – the one I found has side pockets on both both front and back. It works well enough – the main compartment holds the bulky items, and the outer pocket takes the smaller things that would otherwise find their way to the bottom and require a search party to be sent out. The quick-release clasp is a huge improvement over the loop-and-velcro arrangement of the bike bag, and the default attachment is to me, so it automatically goes with me when I lock up the bike. (Downside being it doesn’t automatically stay with the bike in my garage.)

As to the backpack itself, the most common trips were tech events in Chicago, and Martial Arts. I have a messenger bag that I used to carry the laptop in, but I found that it was uncomfortable for long walks across the city. My alternate, a Twelve South laptop case for the backpack, was also rather bulky. It was awfully convenient having all the accessories (video adapter, remote, flash drives) in a dedicated bag, however.

A little searching determined that office stores commonly had computer backpacks, so I headed down to the nearby Staples. They had exactly one Swiss Gear backpack. It’s overpriced, overdressed, and overcomplicated, but it fit the laptop well enough, and I didn’t want to spend the opportunity cost of driving all over the fox valley searching for the perfect backpack. I suppose that’s what the store counts on.

Surprisingly, I found a use for most of the compartments. Most of them are still mostly empty, and I often find myself fumbling from pocket to pocket trying to remember where something is, or just grabbing the wrong zipper.

Most of the martial arts paraphernalia went into the sparring bag. There a few things I usually want at hand when I’m home, and I didn’t want to haul the unwieldy bag upstairs. I experimented with a drawstring backpack “conference freebie”, but it could have really used one small pocket, and didn’t fully close on top in the event that I hit with some light rain. In the end I observed that I was removing pretty much everything from it when I got home, so I might as well use my trusty old backpack for that task.

New Shoes

I’ve been a bit preoccupied during the last several months. It was easy to ignore the wear and tear, long ago replaced laces, and undone stitching as I bounced from project to project, ran errands, or took a walk. The cracks in the bottom meant that I had to be sure to wear the boots if there was a chance of rain. Of course I’ve also found that if you’re out in the rain for any length of time, an umbrella really doesn’t cut it, and you want something water resistant regardless. But with winter coming up, I definitely needed solid soles.

Shoe shopping isn’t my idea of a good time. The last pair of Birkenstocks gave me a good 5-6 years. I choose those in part because I had read that they used fairly sustainable materials, though I drove to the other side of Chicago to find a place where I could try some on. I wasn’t too keen on doing that again. I’d also heard of Tom’s Shoes one-for-one program, and figured that if I don’t care that much, it gives me an easy decision criteria.

I still had to drive out to Woodfield Mall to actually try some on. One thing I discovered is that the standard Tom’s Shoe is more of a light summer shoe – usually worn without socks. Not so much use for winter, but something I could use next year. The other thing I discovered is that they don’t have wide sizes.

There was one day where it was warm enough to give them a try. Lots of space in the toes was pretty much expected. With socks, the front of my foot was definitely squished. Without socks, I feel like my heel is sliding around loose. As an experiment, it may not work out. Or perhaps I should get some low socks and cut off the front part.

Meanwhile, I needed winter shoes. Tom’s also makes some ‘Botas’ with a little thicker construction, lined interior, and raised sides. They also have laces, which I imagine helps take up the slack in the shoe size; I got these a half size larger to account for thick winter socks. I had them out in the rain; the seemed to survive the first 30 minute walk okay, were wet by the time I got home, but comfortable the whole time.

Tom’s also makes some lighter laced shoes, but I was hoping to avoid them since I generally leave the laces tied and slip the shoes on. The laces one the Botas (without the sides up) are huge and I’m not sure what to do with them.

I do have one concern with the Botas – either I stepped in something, or the soles are delaminating. Hopefully it’s just a surface layer leftover from manufacturing and won’t be a long term problem.


I’ve now got an iPad (first gen). I suppose I should have just ordered a second-gen online and waited 1-2 weeks. I may just be old fashioned, but I still have a certain attachment to making large purchases in person. And where did I find an iPad you ask, let alone a first gen?

Fetch is an online service that does local stock search. They are still somewhat limited in who they search (and I rather doubt the apple store will ever deign to connect with them), but it turned up a Fry’s in Downer’s Grove a few first-gen iPads in stock, including 16Gb wifi, which is pretty much what I wanted anyway (it turned out to be a return). It’s a bit of a trip, but only twenty minutes from ChicagoRuby’s Elmhurst meeting on Saturday.


The shopping experience was less than stellar. First I had to find the right section. Mobile? Nope. Computer parts? Nada. Finally, hidden way in the back of the store, were the laptops and tablets. iPad boxes, perhaps understandably, not sitting out on display (in fact it ended up in a cage near the registers). So I had to find someone. I then had to give my name and phone number in order to receive a quote to take to checkout.

When I got to checkout, I had a choice: my bank limits credit transactions to $500 without prior notice. Fortunately, as one of the cheaper models, it was under that, but it was close enough I went with a check anyway. I then waited a rather long time while they did a balance check, which I think included a web search to find my non-national-chain bank. And to top it off? The security at the exit door noticed that they charged the wrong price. Now, Milo said it was $399, The quote they handed me said $399, but the returned unit I got had a sticker on it that said $379. At this point I had been in the store about half an hour and was already running late for ChicagoRuby – since I had already seen and agreed to the higher price about three times, I didn’t really want to nitpick over the last minute discount, and just left.

Not so magical

The setup experience wasn’t so magical either – I was getting sync errors when the iPad was connected, and ultimately had to reinstall iTunes.

The to-read folder/graveyard

My main reason for looking for a tablet was that my latest book is running down, and I’ve got a backlog of PDFs that I never seem to get around to reading. This might be good material for the train rides, and hopefully a tablet is lighter than some of the books. It’s certainly thinner, but heavier than I imagined. I got the impression that dedicated readers like Kindle are designed for free flowing text, whereas I mainly have formatted PDFs of academic papers and technical books with illustrations. So, an iPad should be able read eBooks, but I’m not so sure an eBook reader could handle the PDFs well.

Book Readers

However, I was faced with the challenge of finding a PDF reader application. The iPad does seem to have a PDF viewer, but the main way to get to it is to open email attachments. After poking around, I found iBooks is serviceable, but lacking. The issue is that I’m generally looking at full size pages, so I want to use portrait and zoom in. iBooks (and most other readers it seems) use horizontal ‘page flip’ scrolling, which usually resets the zoom level. PDF-notes is fast (after waiting for a first-time pre-process), but scrolls horizontally and can’t maintain zoom while doing it. Currently I’ve bought Goodreader, which can at least maintain an even-odd margin crop and scroll vertically.

iPad File Management is a Disaster

Trying out all these different readers was a royal pain. Each application has to have it’s private copy of each and every document (at least they aren’t movies or something equally large)

An app for what?

The last few days have been a slow process trickling in new apps as I think of things, get back to the computer to search, and perhaps try out several (when free) then sync and experiment. There are various apps with metra schedules, Remember the Milk, and the infamous Flipboard. Just when I thought I was done Saturday night, I remembered the Reactables app It’s not nearly as nice without rotation – the double-tap-drag motion just doesn’t have the same tactile pleasure to it. I suppose a two-finger rotation was too easy to confuse with volume setting and other edge controls.

Fingerless Gloves

As my old, fairly light duty, gloves have been wearing out, I have been trying out various pairs. The first set I tried was a dense material that make it nearly impossible to use my camera, lacking tactile feedback. The next set permitted some tactile sense, but overall seemed too heavy for mild weather. And, though I try not to get caught up in appearances, the forest camo patterns isn’t my favorite.

My latest experiment (after several times having to remove a glove to fit in a tight space or do something that required greater tactile perception) is fingerless gloves with a pull-over mitten cover.

So far I’ve only had them out on two fairly mild days. I think the wrist may be a little short, permitting a small draft; this could probably be addressed with greater care to layering with the jacket sleeve. The mitten hand is just about useless, if for instance I want something from my pocket, but it converts easily, and overall I really like the feel of them. Perhaps it’s just the novelty, but I almost want to leave them on indoors.

This pair, by Rothco, is rather cheaply made however, and the wrist drawstring broke the first time I went to cinch it up – I don’t think it’s fatal since keeping the ends together is mostly a convenience.

Meraki – Make a Wish

input box asking make-a-wish

Every page in Meraki’s control console has a text box labeled “I wish this page would” with a button labeled “Make a wish”. Companies have tried A/B testing, surveys, or just listening to support forums to see what people complain about. Something as simple as putting a small form on every page allows Meraki to harvest customer requests in-situ, right when the user is looking at page and realizing it doesn’t have something he wants, and they have made the process about as painless as it can possibly be.

Meraki itself makes wireless access points with an internet based cloud controller. The devices also do mesh networking, saving a few cable runs. It’s best suited to large installations where one would normally need a separate controller device – I ended up passing for a small single-building manufacturer. The interface is pretty well designed, and as something of a visual thinker I appreciated the maps and color/shape indicators.

The major downside is that the cloud controller becomes a single point of failure. It’s provided as a service, and to get full features you have to pay per access point. For large scale installations, that may compare favorable with controller devices, which may need to be replaced every few years. The other issue with a service is that if Meraki ever went out business, you would lose the ability to configure the APs.

Live’n la vida electronica

@wondible is now on twitter (So is @SandhurstCondos, for kicks) Wondible is the “wonderful, terrible things” commonly known as hacks. Given the popularity of twitter in the tech community, I figured I ought to be findable for my presentations to JS.chi and ChicagoRuby. And no, I won’t be syndicating tweets to LJ; I see LJ as a medium for longer thoughts.

I also started reading Getting Things Done and experimenting with online todo lists. I only got started on the book during one of my train rides. Then I stumbled across Slide:ology and shortly thereafter got on the hook for one presentation (and then two) so priorities got shuffled a bit.

By this point I had already started trying to implement the core idea of GTD: get everything out of my head and someplace manageable. After poking around a little I started with and began dumping in my mostly failed todo.txt. Remember the Milk has been working out fairly well; it has a useable keyboard interface and publishes webcal that I can view in 30boxes. (Though I had to hide the repeating events – those daily ones really spammed the calendar.)

I tried out Toodledo briefly. I like the built in calendar, importance sort, and orthogonal folders, tags, and goals. But I missed the interactive keyboard interface and left it the same night.

So far task tracking:
- I’ve made progress on some projects which have been long on hold, such as wiping my 12-year old computer in preparation for recycling, or something better if I can find it. (Many things are on hiatus again with the presentation rush.)
- It may have kept me from dropping the ball as I attempt to juggle the presentations with everything else.
- I’ve not felt any listless tendencies, though now I may need to watch out for the other extreme.
- But it’s not magic; there are no more hours in the day than there ever were.

I’ve been using TweetDeck so far, but the scrollbar to get to a bunch of empty columns annoys me. Suggestions for twitter or todo applications welcome.


The first actual audiobook I got through was Dune. I really only have two observations. The first is that the beginning does a pretty good job of weaving the background information in at a steady pace, preventing the reader from getting overwhelmed. The other could be a very minor spoiler if there’s anybody else who hasn’t read it.
Continue reading ‘Dune’ »

Another new toy.

Years ago I got a tape player and started playing audiobooks while driving or doing dishes. After two tape players broke for no good reason, I kind of gave up on the idea for a while. I was also wondering if, for all the new information I was taking in, I was leaving myself starved for thinking time.

In the end though, I’m hungry for input. I could see by the changes in the library shelves years ago, and more dramatically by the bookstore shelves, that tapes were on the way out. I toyed with an mp3 based CD player, which would handle library CDs well while giving options for other content. In the end though, I was looking to move a few podcasts into the dead time instead of a distraction when I was at my computer, so I got an iPod.

It’s a blue 8GB Nano. It works fairly well, but I’ve got no shortage of nit picking. To start off with, I got thrown a bit by the total lack of an internal speaker. The tape players had one, and it was quite handy to just be able to hit play anywhere without any cables involved, even though I was on power must of the time. For the first few days I made do with loopback on my computer and the speakers from my old computer. I’m underwhelmed with the ear buds, which don’t stay in very well. I assume they are a cheap add in to make it barely useable, and I’ll need something real if I want it really portable. One place I was clear was the car power/radio adapter, which works quite well.

Even when I did get fully set up, it’s a little clumsy. Where the tape player took one button to start, the iPod needs three (and again to stop) – speaker power, wake up the iPod, and then play.

There are also some mysteries of operation which I’ve not penetrated. If I have a backlog of podcasts, all the same series, it will stop at the end of each, making me select the next. This is just fabulous while driving, since the screen require attention to navigate, whereas it was pretty easy to change a tape blind. I also have to select episodes individually; if I just hit play on the series, it plays the first one over again. On the other hand, when it got to the end of a 20+ hour audiobook, it started playing the next, unrelated, one. I must be missing something here.

I got that big file by using Doug’s Track Splicer Applescript Books on CD are chopped into tracks of around five minutes. I couldn’t imagine have to stop, change tracks, and hit play every few minutes. Of course now it appears that they might have played. In any case, although iTunes will group together files identified as the same work, the iPod will show each of them as a book, so separates would be very hard to manage.

I almost wonder I if I would have been better off picking up an earlier model used. The tilt/shake sensor turns it on (even when supposedly off) at the slightest provocation. This applies even when the input lock switch is on. It will turn the screen back off in short order if their is no activity, but I can’t imagine this being good for the battery life while jogging (thankfully not my application) The color screen is an excess for my purposes, but I didn’t quite like limited navigation of a shuffle either. I find it novel that it includes games, but I don’t really have a need for them.

I got the smaller of the Nano models, figuring most anything would be excessive for audiobooks. My first attempt at the library being defeated by the holiday, I started out with some podcasts, and then figured that it would be amusing to load my music collection into the empty space. The irony is that together these actually filled up most of the memory. The podcasts will eventually get whittled down, and then there should be enough space for at least two books, which should be enough to trade out. Still, other than an emergency fallback, I don’t have much use for the music.

Interactive Art

So, years ago (if I recall and it’s been a while) someone posted a comment on my journal. The person had some interesting ideas, so I started following rinku. A while ago he entered a valentine’s game design competition, and posted the result. While I couldn’t try most of the entries (windows) none of the the ones I did try really seemed to… say anything about love. Rinku equated the properties of a particle simulation to aspects of human relations.

But maybe I have a slight soft spot for this kind of simulation because I’ve done something technically similar (albeit with a total lack of profundity.)