Stuff

Colortrac SmartLF Scan review

TL:DR summary

Pros:

  • Scans very large documents
  • Easy to use
  • Packs away in a convenient carrying case

Cons:

  • So-so color fidelity
  • Hard to feed artwork straight
  • Dust and debris can easily get on the platen, ruining scans
  • Relatively expensive for home use

Review

One thing you do not lack for when your child enters preschool is artwork. They generate prodigious amounts of it, with gusto, and they are often large format pieces on 16×24″ paper (roughly ISO A2). The question is, what do you do with the torrent?

I decided I would scan them, then file them in Ito-Ya Art Profolios, and possibly make annual photobooks for the grandparents. This brings up the logistical challenge of digitizing such large pieces. Most flatbed scanners are limited to 8.5×14″ (US Legal) format. Some like the Epson Expression 11000XL and 12000XL can scan 11×17″ (A3), as can the Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 book scanner, but that is not fully adequate either. One option would be to fold the artwork up, scan portions then stitch them together in AutoPanoGiga or Photoshop, but that would be extremely cumbersome, specially when you have to do a couple per day. I do not have access to a color copier at my office, and most of these are only A3 anyway.

I purchased a Kaiser RS2 XA copy stand (cheaper to get it direct from Europe on eBay than from the usual suspects like B&H) and got a local framing shop to cut me a scrap of anti-reflective Museum Glass. This goes up to 16×20″ for the price of a midrange flatbed scanner, but it is tricky to set up lights so they don’t induce reflections (no AR coating is perfect), perfectly aligning the camera with the baseboard plane is difficult (I had to shim it using a cut-up credit card), and this still doesn’t solve the problem of the truly large 16×24″ artwork (stands able to handle larger formats are extremely expensive and very bulky).

I then started looking at large-format scanners like those made by Contex or Océ. They are used by architecture firms to scan blueprints and the like, but they are also extremely large, and cost $3000-5000 for entry-level models, along with onerous DRM-encumbered software that requires license dongles and more often than not will not run on a Mac. They are also quite bulky, specially if you get the optional stands.

That is why I was pleasantly surprised to learn British company Colortrac makes a model called the SmartLF Scan! (I will henceforth omit the over-the-top exclamation mark). It is self-contained (can scan to internal memory or a USB stick, although it will also work with a computer over USB or Ethernet, Windows-only, unfortunately), available in 24″ or 36″ wide versions, is very compact compared to its peers, and is even supplied with a nifty custom-fitted wheeled hard case. The price of $2,000 ($2,500 for the 36″ version), while steep for home use, is well within the range of enthusiast photo equipment. I sold a few unused cameras to release funds for one.

Once unpacked, the scanner is surprisingly light. It is quite wide, obviously, to be able to ingest a 24″ wide document (see the CD jewel case in the photo above for scale). There is a LCD control panel and a serviceable keypad-based (not touch) UI. The power supply is of the obnoxious wall-wart type. I wish they used text rather than inscrutable icons in the UI—it is much more informative and usable to see a menu entry for 400dpi resolution rather than checkerboard icons with various pitches.

After selecting your settings (or saving them as defaults), you load paper by feeding it from the front, face up. It is quite hard to feed large-format paper straight, and this is compounded by the lack of guides. On the other hand it is hard to see how Colortrac could have fitted photocopier-style guide rails in such a compact design, and they would be likely to break.

The scanner is simplex, not duplex, unsurprisingly at that price point. The sensor is on top of the feed, which helps control dust and debris sticking to it, but when scanning painted artwork, there will inevitably be crumbs of paint that will detach and stick to the sensor platen. This manifests itself as long dark vertical lines spoiling subsequent scans, something I occasionally also see on my Fujitsu ScanSnap document scanner. Cleaning the Colortrac is way easier than on the ScanSnap, as unfolding rear legs and releasing front catches opens it wide, and a few passes with optical cleaning wipes (I use Zeiss’ single-use ones) will do the trick.

By the manufacturer’s own admission, the scanner is designed to scan technical drawings, not art. It uses a linear contact image sensor (CIS) like lower-end flatbed scanners and document scanners, unlike the higher-fidelity charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors used in higher-end graphics arts and photo scanners. The light source is a row of point light LEDs that casts relatively harsh shadows on the paper. They do make CCD scanners for graphics arts, but they start at $10,000… Contex makes an A2 flatbed CCD scanner, the HD iFlex, but it costs $6,700 (at Jet.com of all places), their iQ Quattro 2490 at $4,500 is the most viable step-up (it uses a CIS, but offers 16-bit color, AdobeRGB and beyond gamut, calibration and magnetic paper guides).

The scanner’s resolution is 600dpi. Scanning 16×24″ originals at that resolution yields a 138MP file that is nearly a gigabyte in size. The 400dpi setting yields a much more reasonable 200MB or so, and compressing them further using tiffcp with zip compression (not an option on the scanner) yields 130-140MB files.

Unfortunately, I ended up returning it. There was a 1cm scratch in the glass platen, which manifested itself as streaks. It takes quite a bit to scratch glass (I don’t think it was Lexan or similar), and I wasn’t scanning sandpaper, so it must have been a factory defect or a customer return. When I looked at the color fidelity of the scans, I was not inclined to order a replacement, and got a Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 from Japan instead from an Amazon third-party reseller (25% savings over the US price, even if you usually forgo a US warranty on grey-market imports).

Avoiding counterfeit goods on Amazon: mission impossible?

I mentioned previously that I seldom shop for electronics on Amazon.com any more, preferring B&H Photo whenever possible. I now have another reason: avoiding counterfeit goods.

My company boardroom is in an electromagnetic war zone—dozens of competing WiFi access points combined with electronic interference from the US-101 highway just outside make WiFi reception tenuous at best, and unusable more often than not. To work around this, we set up a wired Ethernet switch, and since most of our staff use MacBook Airs, Apple USB Ethernet adapters purchased from Amazon. When I side-graded from my 15″ Retina MacBook Pro to a much more portable 12″ Retina MacBook, I wasn’t able to connect using the dongle, and the name of the device was interspersed with Chinese characters. At first I thought it was an issue with my Satechi USB-C hub, but I experienced the same problems via a genuine Apple USB-C multiport adapter as well.

Eventually I figured out the Ethernet dongles were counterfeit. The packaging, while very similar to Apple’s, was just a tiny bit off, like amateurish margins between the Apple logo and the edges of the card. On the dongles themselves, the side regulatory disclosures sticker was inset, not flush with the body of the adapter.

Counterfeiting is a major problem. By some accounts, one third of all Sandisk memory cards worldwide are counterfeits. In some cases like chargers or batteries, your equipment could be at risk, or even your very life. The counterfeit adapters we purchased from Amazon did not come from Amazon themselves but from a third-party merchant participating in the Amazon marketplace. To Amazon’s credit, we returned them for a prompt, no questions asked refund even though we bought them over six months ago, but it is hard to believe Amazon is unaware of the problem rather than willfully turning a blind eye to it.

My first reaction was to tell our Office Manager to make sure to buy only from Amazon rather than third-party merchants (pro tip: including “amazon” in your Amazon search terms will do that in most cases). Unfortunately, that may not be enough. Amazon has a “fulfilled by Amazon” program for merchants where you ship your goods to them, and they handle warehousing and fulfillment. These “fulfilled by Amazon” items are also more attractive to Prime members. One option Amazon offers is Stickerless, commingled inventory where the items you send are put into a common bin. Amazon still has the ability to trace the provenance of the item through its inventory management, but for purposes of order fulfillment they will be handled just like Amazon’s own stock. Some categories like groceries and beauty products are excluded, but electronics are not.

The implications are huge: even if the vendor is Amazon itself, you cannot be sure that the item is not counterfeit. All the more reason to buy only from trustworthy, single-vendor sites like B&H, even if shipping is a bit slower.

Heat sealers: organizer’s secret weapon

Professional Organizers will wax lyrical about label-makers, file folders, and the like, but one unheralded gizmo I have found surprisingly effective is a heat sealer, in my case the AIE-200C. It’s made right here in California, and very robust, although if I were to buy one again, I would probably spring for the 12″ version. You put stuff in a polyethylene bag (up to 6 mil or 0.15mm thick, but 4 mil seems like the optimum for robustness while remaining flexible and see-through), put the open end under the sealer, set the thermostat, press and cut the excess bag with the built-in cutter. It makes a 1mm wide heat weld in the bag, which is now airtight and water-proof. You can also buy rolls for massive capacity, but that seemed like overkill.

The great advantage of a heat sealer over ziploc bags is that you cut the bag to size, instead of having items floating around in an oversized bag, which means it’s much tidier, and also takes up less space. Cables are much more manageable when individually bagged so they cannot tangle together, for instance. They are also perfect for infrequently used supplies, random parts for the house or appliances, or infrequently used tools.

Organized Cables

My current approach to organizing random stuff is to bag it, optionally include a description written on an index card if it is not immediately obvious what it is, seal it then dump it in a Rubbermaid plastic bin. When the bin is full, I will take an inventory in a spreadsheet (more specifically OmniOutliner and Delicious Library). In a year’s time, I will cull them as needed.

This system is close in spirit to my paperless workflow: do not exhaust yourself attempting to physically organize the long tail of stuff that doesn’t fit in an established category with a well-defined home. Just put them in numbered containers and keep an index on a computer where they are much easier to search. There are also smartphone apps to streamline this inventory task like Home Inventory Photo Remote.

A Passel of Miniature Tripods

Miniature tripods are a handy thing to carry in a camera bag. While they cannot replace a full-size tripod, they can allow you to take a shot where otherwise impossible. Here are a few worth your consideration.

Tested but not shown:

  • Joby Gorillapod: total garbage, unfit for purpose.
  • Pedco Ultrapod: the tripod itself is reasonably decent, but its ballhead is poor

Wotancraft Etan review

Withings smart baby monitor review

One of the joys challenges of being a first-time parent is being exposed to a bewildering array of gadgets and equipment required to care for the baby, from baby car seats, strollers and diaper pails to 2-axis rocking robots (thanks Rohit!). There is an entire cottage industry of books like Baby Bargains that help you navigate through the confusing and sometimes questionable or outright unnecessary choices.

I have a Withings body weight scale that I really like and I was excited to learn they were going to release a networked video baby monitor. It took a while to get to market in the US, however, so in the interim I purchased a Philips Advent DECT digital baby monitor, which ended up unusable in practice, because its microphone sensitivity is so poor that you can barely hear anything. When the Withings baby monitor finally became available in the US, I immediately ordered it.

Withings is clearly taking design cues from Apple, from the lavishly designed packaging to the glossy white plastic RoundedRect aesthetic and the use of a magnetic clip to attach the baby monitor to the crib. The clip is serviceable, but the magnets are not quite strong enough to hold the unit firmly onto the crib. I would not trust it to keep the monitor from toppling when the baby grows and kicks at the crib. Fortunately they also include a flip-out tab on the base of the unit that can be inserted into a slit on the clip to prevent sliding, although it is not obvious and it took me a while before I discovered this key feature.

The wall wart is a generic black model with swappable AC prongs for international markets, and detracts from the overall package, but since the monitor has a micro-USB input, you can always use another standard AC to USB type A adapter like the iPhone’s, with a USB type A to micro-USB cable. A rechargeable battery is included, with 2 hours’ claimed life, I did not verify that spec.

The initial out of the box experience is good: you connect to the device from your iPhone or iPad using Bluetooth (no messing around with a USB cable as with the Withings scale), enter the WiFi settings in the Withbaby app, and then use WiFi to access the device afterwards. It is as streamlined an experience as you can expect without a keyboard on the unit. There is also an Ethernet jack (it is unclear whether it supports power over Ethernet), but my house was built in 1928 and is not wired upstairs where the baby lives.

Once you enter your credentials into the app, it connects to the monitor and shows you the video and sound. If you put it in the background, you have the option of monitoring audio. Withings will also send you alerts via push notifications if the temperature or humidity is excessive, or if it detects noise or motion. The default settings are way too twitchy, however, and you will find yourself disabling audio notifications as the deluge of alerts is just too much.

The device includes a night light with selectable color, a lullaby player, and the ability to speak to your baby, all controlled through the app. At the front you also have touch controls to turn some of these features on. This is actually a bad idea, as on two occasions I started the lullaby by accident as I was fumbling with it in a dark room, and woke up my baby as a result. Another design flaw is the pulsing blue night light when the unit is rebooting, the Airport Express like amber/green status LED in the back is quite sufficient. Frankly the only one of these features that is useful is the speaker, and the ability to stream from your music collection, such as Dr. Harvey Karp’s white noise selections would be preferable to the canned lullabies.

The video camera is advertised as having a 3 megapixel sensor. It has a wide-angle lens and you can “pan” using the usual iPhone or iPad gestures. The lens is a fixed-focus plastic one, and optical clarity is so-so at best, optimal focus seems to be at 50cm or so. One great feature is the monitor has a normal and night vision mode, similar to the one on some Sony HAD camcorders, with an IR illuminator that provides light for the night vision mode. This means you can watch your baby toss and turn in an otherwise pitch-black room.

You can use the baby monitor from outside your network, and it works fine, even over a 3G connection. Withings allows you up to 15 minutes per day, anything beyond that requires paying them $6 for each 100 minutes. Coming on top of an already expensive device, this seems like a naked money grab from anxious parents. (Updated 2012-09-29: remote monitoring is now free and unlimited).

When the unit works, it is absolutely great: good sound sensitivity and the video feature mostly works as advertised. Unfortunately it frequently does not function, and I find myself performing a hard reboot by removing the battery far more often than I would like. Among the pathologies:

  • Once it falsely reported the unit was closed and thus video inaccessible
  • Once the camera was in a frozen state, it took a power cycling to get the video moving again.
  • Yesterday I could not connect at all, no matter how many times I rebooted my Airport Extreme, the monitor and my wife’s or my iPads. Some detective work using a packet sniffer showed the app was trying to connect to babyws.withings.net using HTTP, which is aliased to s11.withings.net, and that server was down. Some of the documentation suggests you can use the Bluetooth connection to access the monitor, but I was not able to figure out how to do this.

This brings me to a crucial point. The baby monitor is a safety device, and it is utterly unacceptable for its functioning to be dependent on a cloud service, which can and will be a single point of failure. It should use Bonjour or similar discovery methods to work on the LAN, and rely on Withings’ servers only when accessing it from outside the home LAN’s perimeter. I wonder if Withings’ eagerness to nickel-and-dime users by charging for outside monitoring led to this critical design flaw.

The bottom line is the Withings smart baby monitor is a very frustrating device, with its obvious potential marred by failures of execution. If it worked consistently, it would be a top-notch product worthy of its Apple inspiration and lofty price tag, but the general lack of reliability means I cannot recommend it until the bugs are ironed out. Consider it an alpha release at best.

Update (2012-09-17):

Here’s how to make the Withings not-so-smart baby monitor more usable:

  • Remove the battery from the unit and hook up the micro-USB power adapter to a Belkin WeMo remote-controlled power switch. This allows you to power-cycle the baby monitor remotely from the same iPhone or iPad you are using the monitor software on.
  • Hide the blue led with gaffer’s tape. This prevents the blue light on reboot from waking the baby. Unlike duct tape, gaffer’s tape can be removed without leaving glue residue, although the aesthetics of dark gray gaffer’s tape on the gleaming white unit are questionable at best.
  • I haven’t tried covering up the touch controls with gaffer’s tape, which would eliminate the risk of triggering a jingle and waking the baby. The WeMo eliminates the need to enter the room and tinker with the baby monitor.

It’s quite sad to have to pay an extra $50 to work around buggy hardware and software, but it makes a big difference.

Update (2013-05-20):

The micro-USB connector failed and the baby monitor is now essentially a doorstop. Not surprising given how flimsy micro-USB is, compared to mini-USB, for insignificant space savings. Micro-USB was a Nokia design rammed through the USB-IF. In theory it has better insert-remove cycle life than mini-USB, but in practice I’ve never had mini-USB fail, whereas it is a frequent occurrence with micro-USB.

Update (2015-08-17):

USB-C is an improvement over micro-USB, hopefully some future version of the baby monitor will use it. Still nowhere near as robust as Lightning or tip-ring-sleeve, though.

Organizing with Delicious Library

Delicious Library is one of the slickest apps on the Mac, and won countless design accolades. Essentially, it is a database for your books, CDs and DVDs (version 2 added gadgets), and it looks glorious on a large monitor like mine. It seems like a novelty for collector-fondlers, and I myself unfairly dismissed it as a toy in 2008, but behind its playful user interface lies a remarkably powerful organizational tool, and the new 2.5 version has made major improvements in stability and performance after 2 years of relative neglect.

Screenshot of Delicious Library

My wife and I are both avid readers—one of our common dreams is to someday have a home with a dedicated room for a library. We are squarely in the demographic for the Bookshelf porn website. Here is a montage of mine alone, not including the books I reluctantly had to consign to storage, or those in my parents’ basement back in France:

My bookshelves

With well over 900 books, I needed a system to manage. At some point I discovered Delicious Library has a writeable location field in its database for every item, and you can create virtual shelves to organize your books. I literally have one DL shelf for each shelf in my bookshelves, one for each box in storage, and one for all the books I keep at work. This way, I can browse shelf by shelf or box by box, or conversely look up the location of a book I need.

Location data for a book

You may think recording the location of each book would be a mind-numbing task, but Delicious Library makes it effortless. It can read ISBN bar codes using the iSight camera included in most Macs, but a better option is to use the Microvision RoV Bluetooth barcode scanner they sell and support. It is quite inexpensive at well over $200, specially compared to the inexpensive Symbol CS1504, but the convenience makes it well worth the price if you have a serious library to wrangle.

If you select a shelf on the right sidebar, then scan a barcode, the book is automatically added to the selected shelf. I filed a feature request with them in 2008 for precisely this, and I do not know when they added it, but it makes a world of difference. The scanner has a memory, so you can zip into an adjoining room, scan all the barcodes on a shelf, zip back and let the scanner pour the shelf’s inventory into DL. It even reads out the titles as they are added. Repeat the process and quite quickly you can compile an inventory of your entire library.

The search function in DL is somewhat primitive, but Smart bookshelves (similar to iTunes’ Smart playlists) help. I have Smart Bookshelves for:

  • Books I have already read
  • Books I have yet to read
  • Books that now have significant resale values on Amazon, to identify candidates for decluttering (you would be surprised to see the markups some art or technical books can fetch once they go out of print, even temporarily, such as my old copy of De Marco’s Peopleware).
  • Books signed by the author
  • Science-Fiction and Fantasy books, using Amazon’s (probably Bookscan’s) categorization
  • Computer books, similarly

Delicious Library tries hard to use cutting-edge functionality in OS X, which is why version 2 only supported Snow Leopard and later. It has a top-notch AppleScript implementation. I am no AppleScript guru, but I relatively easily wrote my own scripts to:

  • Copy the bookshelf name into all the books it contains. This essentially eliminates the data entry, but you have to be careful to make sure a book is not misfiled into two shelves at the same time. The sample script Highlight shelves containing selected media is helpful in this respect.
  • Find the BookMooch entry for books I want to give away.
  • Find the book in the San Francisco Public Library, in case they do not have it and might be interested in a donation.

Thanks to the user interface, browsing books on the Mac is almost as fun as doing so on the bookshelves, and infinitely faster. Of course, this is true of most book catalog programs, including many fine free options available for Windows and Mac, but most others do it with less aplomb.

Ginormous iPod to go

The hard drive in my October 2006 vintage 80GB iPod 5.5G died a few weeks ago.  I wasn’t keen on upgrading to the iPod Classic as:

  1. With a maximum capacity of 160GB, it is still too small to house my entire 220GB music collection
  2. Apple introduced encrypted audio outputs on the dock connector, to force accessory makers to pay royalties, thus making it incompatible with many accessories and forcing you to buy new ones.

I use my iPod mostly in my car. The classic hard drive iPods have one key capability iPhones and iPod Touches lack—the ability to shuffle by album, which is essential when you listen mostly to classical music and where an opus maps to an album.

While investigating repair options, I found out Toshiba now makes a two-platter 240GB (224 GiB) hard drive. The iPod Classic won’t recognize the second platter (a third strike against it) but the 5.5G will. I sent mine to RapidRepair for repair/upgrade and received it back yesterday. The flip side of such an enormous drive is that the sync takes forever: I started it around 10PM yesterday and it is till running, over 9 hours later. They handled the repair very professionally, there are no marks on the casing, and I now have a fully functional 224GB iPod for less than the price of buying a new 160GB iPod Classic. The only feature it is missing is the ability to play 24-bit/96kHz ALAC files like those I made out FLACs purchased from Linn or the B&W Society of Sound.

I can’t understand why Apple does not make this new high-capacity drive available in iPods or the MacBook Air.

Why I will never buy a Kindle

One of my bosses got a Kindle 2 a few months ago, and was wondering how an avowed gadget lover such as myself did not have one already. I am perfectly comfortable reading books in electronic form on the small screens of PDAs or phones, but I have little interest in carrying yet another device with its bevy of chargers and accessories, so I just humored him. As far as I am concerned, the Apple iPad pretty much killed the e-reader market. E-ink technology has a place in digital signage, but a general-purpose computing device with Internet connectivity like the iPad wins over a unitasker any day.

My main objection to commercial e-books as they are mooted today is digital rights management. e-books cannot be resold or even given to family members. Even if DRM were acceptable, the value of a restricted e-books is a fraction of the value of a real book, but pricing today is much higher, despite massively lower costs of production, and short-sighted publishers want to take them even higher, to the same levels as hardbacks.

All tech companies fall somewhere on a spectrum of evil. Microsoft is on the bumbling side—their products are inferior and their marketing practices sharp, to say the least, but they are a fairly open company when it comes to developers using their platform, and Bill Gates is a modern day Robin Hood of sorts, taking from rich Westerners and giving to the poor in the Third World. Apple embodies the seductive dark side—superior products but a company that has no compuction in stabbing developers in the back, and with a demonstrated penchant for control freakery as shown with the iPhone App Store. Google is on the undecided side, ruthlessly violating privacy, but still capable of the odd principled gesture such as facing down Chinese censors.

Amazon as a company lies quite far on this spectrum. Good customer service does not excuse their behavior:

  • Jeff Bezos is personally listed as an inventor on the obviously frivolous “one click” patent and has been using it to extort royalties and stymie competitors.
  • At one point they removed all gay themed books from their search listings by classifying them. Faced with a firestorm of controversy, they unconvincingly claimed it was an operator error. Why do they have a bulk blacklisting facility in the first place?
  • In an example of life imitating art, they pulled e-book copies of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” from Kindle users who had paid for them. Apparently, they had never bothered to check if they had the rights to sell them. The simple fact Amazon has the power to pull books back from electronic bookshelves is unacceptable.
  • They are trying to leverage their dominant position in online book sales to monopolize print-on-demand publishing by refusing to carry books not published by their own on-demand imprint, BookSurge, even though the latter is higher priced than competition and has serious quality issues.
  • This is only the tip of the iceberg. Publishers speak in hushed tones about Amazon’s thuggish “negotiating” tactics, but never publicly out of fear of retaliation.

Since the launch of the Kindle, which is estimated to have 70% market share in e-readers, Amazon has been trying to leverage its market power in paper book sales to corner the market in e-books. One of the prongs in their strategy is to keep the legacy model where the publisher treats the e-book store like a dead-tree book reseller, rather than a model and revenue share more in line with the true costs of e-books (which are obviously much lower than for physical books, as the bandwidth required is piddling).

Apple’s iPad and its associated iBooks store has changed the way the debate is framed, and offers publishers an attractive agency model to counter Amazon’s diktat. It is not surprising that five of the big six publishers (all but Random House) signed up for the iBooks store.

Last Friday, in an escalation of mind-boggling arrogance, Amazon decided to punish Macmillan, the smallest and weakest of the big six (at least in the US) by withdrawing every Macmillan book from sale, including paper books, not just e-books. Among others books by Macmillan affiliate Tor, the leading label in Science Fiction and Fantasy, are not available for sale by Amazon (although they are still available from third-party sellers via Amazon’s site). Essentially Amazon is trying to use its dominance in printed book sales to twist Macmillan’s arm. As far as I am concerned, this is racketeering.

Disclaimer: my wife used to work for Macmillan in the UK. Not that it matters, Amazon’s behavior would be just as reprehensible with any other publisher.

I do not approve of the publishing industry’s doomed attempts to impose premium pricing on e-books, or their attempts to impose unacceptable DRM, but customers are perfectly capable of voting with their feet, as I do, and a middleman like Amazon behaving this way is intolerable. Booksellers censoring books or limiting supply is not an innocuous act. Norman Spinrad is in self-imposed exile in Paris because B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, the dominant booksellers in the 80s, would not sell his more controversial books (like Journals of the Plague Years) out of fear of offending conservative audiences in the Bible Belt.

Small independent bookstores are failing everywhere, and even the large Barnes & Noble and Borders chains are in dire straits. A company like Amazon with a demonstrated history of abusing its market power cannot be permitted to continue. I always buy my SFF books from the lovely Borderlands Books in any case, and my classical CDs from Arkiv Music, but I will henceforth abstain from buying books from Amazon altogether.

As for the Kindle, it can go to hell. I would not take one if they gave it to me for free.

Update (2010-02-04):

Like the SFWA, I replaced all the Amazon links on this site to Indiebound, a website that helps support independent booksellers.

Update (2014-05-28):

They are employing their racketeering tactics again, this time against Hachette.

On the Toyota accelerator fiasco

From 2000 to 2007, I lived and worked in downtown San Francisco, and did not need a car to commute, so I never bothered to get one. When Acxiom purchased Kefta, they moved us to Foster City, 23 miles away and with no credible transit options, so I ended up buying a BMW 525i. I considered getting a Prius or a Lexus GS 450h hybrid, but opted not to. The Toyota faulty accelerator pedal fiasco makes me glad I passed.

In the eighties, Audi lost two thirds of its sales due to an unjustified rumor that its cars were prone to “sudden acceleration”. It took them 15 years to recover. The damage to Toyota will be even worse, since in this case there is in fact a problem, and the company’s damning slowness in responding will be excoriated in the court of public opinion, destroying a mostly deserved reputation for building reliable, if ugly cars. Ford, Hyundai and Honda must be licking their chops right now.

To my surprise the recall was brought home to me. Two months ago, I was car #3 in a 4-car collision (I braked in time, but the car behind me did not have as good brakes and tires as mine and rear-ended me into the car in front of me). My car has been in the garage since then and I rented a car from Enterprise Rent-a-Car (I try to patronize my clients whenever possible). The car is a Pontiac Vibe, which is essentially the same as the Toyota Matrix, both made right here in the Bay Area in the recently shuttered Fremont NUMMI plant. It has the faulty part, and Enterprise called me to exchange the car (kudos to them for being so proactive).

On August 28, 2009, California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor died in a horrendous car crash in San Diego county, along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, while driving a loaner Lexus ES350. The brother-in-law actually called 911 to report the accelerator was jammed. This was a different issue, one of incorrect floor mat causing the accelerator pedal to jam in the fully opened position. The car was traveling at over 100mph before the driver lost control, the car went airborne, turned over and crashed with an explosion, killing all the passengers instantly. The dealership bears a heavy responsibility in these deaths for fitting the incorrect mats, and failing to respond to a previous driver’s report of a similar incident. The rubber mats on my BMW have bolts that lock them in position with no chance of slipping, and I am surprised Lexus had such shoddy engineering in the first place. Perhaps the reputation of German engineers is not overdone, after all.

On modern cars, the brakes and even the handbrake have enough stopping power to counter the engine’s maximum torque. There is the option to switch the car to neutral gear, assuming there is no malfunction of the transmission. Shutting down the engine is not recommended, as that would also cut power to brakes and power steering, but in any case this car had a keyless ignition system, which requires pressing and holding the ignition button for three seconds. If you are in a panic situation with an unfamilar car, it is highly unlikely you will get this maneuver right, assuming you have three seconds to spare in the first place. I have a similar system in my own car, and had no idea what the procedure is to shut down a running engine.

Modern carmakers are integrators, assembling parts made by their subcontractors. It is not an exaggeration to say the German carmakers are mostly Bosch OEMs. The accelerator pedal involved in the Toyota recall is made by CTS, a US telecom gear maker who only incidentally makes auto parts. Historically Japanese companies have been resistant to using parts from non-Japanese suppliers. In many cases this was due to the keiretsu system of companies interwoven by complex cross-holdings, a successor to the zaibatsu system outlawed after the post-war US occupation of Japan. In other cases, it was due to objective factors — Japanese electronics manufacturers use high-speed power screwdrivers to speed up assembly, and US-made screws used inferior alloys compared to Japanese screw makers, stripping too easily. It took severe pressure and the threat of sanctions from US trade representatives to convince Japanese carmakers to give US suppliers a chance. This incident is likely to harden Japanese executives’ suspicion of gaijin suppliers.

On modern cars, the accelerator pedal is “drive by wire”, i.e. it is an electronic peripheral that feeds the engine control computer. Airbus introduced fly-by-wire controls in its aircraft as more conservative Boeing stuck to hydraulic controls, and this was a significant factor in Airbus overtaking Boeing in airliners. Change takes time, and carmakers are understandably hesitant to change a critical safety organ like brakes. The brake pedals are still hydraulically linked to the brakes, but have an electronic sensor to control the rear brake lights and disengage cruise control.

BMWs, Audis, and even cheaper cars like Volkswagen or Chrysler have a feature called brake override where the engine control will disable the accelerator when the brake pedal is applied. Toyota deliberately chose not to implement such a system, which would have saved Mark Saylor’s life and his family’s. This refusal is particularly incomprehensible since the hardware is already here, and the change should only require a software change and the ensuing QA and certification cycle. The software was not bad per se, but the requirements were incomplete, and this is yet one more case where bad software kills.

Update (2014-03-19):

Toyota was hit today by the Department of Justice with a record $1.2B criminal fine for its attempted cover-up, and admitted guilt. GM is apparently next.

Matias Tactilepro 3.0 review

The decline in computer prices in the last 10 years is not an unqualified blessing. Something had to give, and component quality is one of the areas where manufacturers skimp. There is no room in a $500 computer for a $100 CD-ROM drive, even a quiet yet ultra-fast one like the Kenwood 72X drives.

Another area where components have been cheapened is keyboards and mice. The impact on mice is lessened by the simultaneous transition from gunk-prone mechanical ball mice to more precise optical ones. The latter are cheaper to manufacture because they use solid state circuitry and far fewer mechanical components, but they are still pitched as a premium product.

Keyboards are another story. Anyone who writes or codes for a living (i.e. anyone who uses a computer for anything but games) benefits from a good keyboard. Longtime Byte Magazine columnist Jerry Pournelle used to rave about his Northgate OmniKey with a layout customized specifically for him. There are basically two main technologies: mechanical keyswitches and rubber dome ones. The first give that old-fashioned “clickety-clack” feeling, the second are quieter, but often a bit mushy (although there are some excellent rubber dome keyboards as well).

A few years ago, I bought the excellent Matias Tactilepro 1 keyboard. It uses premium Alps mechanical keyswitches, and has all the Macintosh special characters combinations silk-screened on the keys so you don’t have to remember that the copyright sign © is Option-g. I liked it so much that just to be on the safe side, I bought two.

At Macworld 2007, Matias announced its replacement by the Tactilepro 2, which replaces the Alps keyswitches by ones of Matias’ own design. They claimed the change was due to Alps discontinuing the manufacture of its keyswitches. By Macworld 2008, the 2.0 was itself discontinued, and the promised version 3 replacement kept being postponed until they finally announced a release date of January 2010. Interestingly, they are said to use Alps keyswitches. I guess they were not so discontinued after all…

While my version 1 Tactilepros are still working fine, the silk-screening on some of the keys has faded, and they have accumulated a fair bit of gunk like hairs under the keys. I ordered two version 3 replacements (I passed on the version 2, and read many reports complaining about it) and received them today.

Matias Tactilepro 1 (top) and 3 (bottom)

Matias Tactilepro 1 (top) and 3 (bottom)

The differences are subtle:

  • The top of the keyboard is now a translucent milky white instead of transparent. That should help reduce the visibility of hairs and other crud that lodges itself under the keys, and is very hard to eradicate afterwards, even with canned air.
  • The power key on top is gone, replaced by a dual-use Escape and power key.
  • The warranty was dialed all the way down from 5 years to 1 year, hardly consistent with the claims of improved build quality.
  • They now claim the keys are laser-etched and thus more resistant to rubbing out the labels. Obviously it is too early to assess the accuracy of that statement.
  • The feel of the keys is slightly different in a way that’s hard to describe. They seem a little bit quieter, but just as precise.
  • The 2-port built-in USB 1.0 hub was replaced by a 3-port USB 2.0 hub
  • There is no tacky tactilepro.com URL on the space bar any more.
  • The typeface is no longer italic and somewhat less elegant. I am a fast hunt-and-peck typist, not a touch-typist, and they feel canted backwards, much like early flat-screen monitors seemed concave compared to convex CRTs.

The warranty change is a bummer, but the keyboard is still a huge improvement over standard ones, specially Apple’s nasty laptop-style chiclet keyboards that have been included with all recent desktop models. For people who have to type a lot, it is well worth the expense.

Update (2012-03-05):

Sure enough, the space bar on mine failed after 14 months. I contacted Matias last week for support, with no response so far.

One alternative worth considering is the upcoming Das Keyboard for Mac, which uses Cherry gold keyswitches. It doesn’t have option characters engraved on the key caps, however.

Update (2017-10-05):

I replaced my Tactilepros with the CODE Keyboard. It’s not perfect either, the black coating on the keys wore off on some keys like the corner of the space bar on the one I keep at work, but the backlit keys are a god-send and my colleagues find the quieter yet still very tactile key action much less objectionable.

Interestingly, Cherry, the maker of the key switches in the CODE and many other premium keyboards, is a sister company of ZF, the makers of the automatic transmissions in BMWs.

Lego Store in San Mateo’s Hillsdale Mall

Withings scale

I received today a Withings networked body scale. This gizmo measures your weight and estimates body fat ratio using an impedance bridge, and uploads it over WiFi to their web server, where you can watch trends and monitor your progress. The scale itself is quite thin and elegant, quite unlike my older Tanita scale. The top is glass with a metallic underlay that makes it look like a large slab of photovoltaic cell. It runs off 4 AAA batteries, they must use a remarkably power-efficient microcontroller.

withings

Since there is no UI on the device, you hook it up to your computer via a USB cable, and the installer (available for Mac and Windows) will upgrade the firmware, set up the WiFi access point and authentication parameters, and associate the scale with the account you created on the Withings website. That’s pretty much it, the process is very smooth.

Using it is simplicity itself — just step on the scale (there is no clunky recalibration scheme unlike my Tanita). The weight measure is near instant and shown on a very legible backlit LCD display that is far easier on the eyes than Tanita’s thin numerals. A progress bar starts as the bridge measures your body impedance (used to estimate body fat content) and in a few seconds the process is complete and the results uploaded. It can track multiple users as long as their weights are not within half a kilo of each other. The user interface uses more Flash than I would like, but is perfectly serviceable, there is also a free iPhone app and a JSON-based API to access the data.

I paid $159 for it on Amazon. Considering the amount of technology and design that went into the product, it is relatively inexpensive.

After using it and trying to find out more about the company, I realized it is French and the CTO, Frédéric Potter, was in my alma mater the class before mine. It’s always great to see innovative startups thriving, and I hope there are more connected devices forthcoming. I’d love to see WiFi-enabled thermometers, power meters and remote power switches using the technology.

Cocoon Grid-It review

I spied a medium-sized Cocoon Grid-It organizer in the Flight 001 store on Hayes Street last Sunday, and bought one. This is a board, roughly letter size, with a criss-crossing web of elastic bands. there is a zippered pocket in the back (not shown).

SDIM0182

You just find a section the size of the gizmo you want to fit and slide your item in. The elastic has non-slip rubberized dots that will keep it in place. In this case, a Hypermac battery pack for MacBook Air (with cable), Novoflex Mikrostativ mini-tripod, lens-cleaning brush, spare Leica M9 battery, pencil and small bottle of sanitizer.

SDIM0183

The good: works as advertised, useful for people who change bags often—just grab the whole thing and transfer it.

The bad: rather heavy at slightly over 300g, quite thick at 5mm or so (the stiffener inside is probably corrugated cardboard or plastic rather than a thinner material).

Conclusion: given the bulk and weight, you would be better off with a conventional zippered multi-pouch organizer

Yet another bag company in San Francisco

Women’s handbags have become the mainstay of the luxury industry, generating well over $10B a year in revenues. San Francisco has no dearth of companies designing, and sometimes manufacturing, bags locally, but most have an urban, not luxury sensibility. We have more manufacturers than any place with the possible exception of Australia. To mention but a few:

There is a newcomer to this list: Rickshaw Bagworks

Update (2012-07-13):

Add to the list:

Update (2013-08-07):

And some more:

Pablo Designs Brazo LED lamp

I bought one of these beauties from Room & Board (also available from Design Within Reach) in the bronze finish.

It’s a task lamp with 18 white LEDs. Light intensity can be controlled via a rotary knob, although the lowest level is still fairly bright. The Brazo can be adjusted in 4 degrees of freedom for maximal control. The base and arm are aluminum (available in bronze, natural silver, white and black) with a machined concentric reticular pattern that looks impressive, although I am concerned it will also be a very effective dust trap. Best of all, it’s designed locally in San Francisco by a Venezuelan-born designer.

Highly recommended.

Real-world tire fuel economy

I recently replaced my squeaky Dunlop SP Sport DSST run-flat tyres with high-performance Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 non-run flat tyres often recommended on E60.net. I am now noticing a 3-5% drop in fuel consumption as a bonus.

Audiophile snake oil

For some reason the audiophile electronics market is full of vendors selling wares with dubious claims supported with pseudo-scientific technobabble, in a way other expensive hobbies like photography are spared from. It’s one thing to charge a premium for overbuilt metal chassis that look good in a rack but do little for sound quality, another altogether to claim improvements in sound quality from tweaks that simply can’t make a difference.

“Audiophile” power cables are an example – somehow a $500 IEC power cord blessed with pixie dust will make up for the miles of bog-standard copper or aluminium power lines from the utility. Peter Aczel has made a convenient list of the top frauds perpetrated by the so-called industry. Of course, it would be unfair to tar an entire industry with a monster brush – there are ethical cable manufacturers like Blue Jeans Cables.

Audophiles who buy into those scams also tend to become rabid supporters (cognitive dissonance in action) and will get quite upset if you point out basic high-school science makes those claims unsupportable.

Usually these shady practices are limited to the ghetto of cable manufacturers, but when a supposedly reputable firm like Chord gets into the act with their “Indigo Plus Digital” digital S/PDIF coaxial digital interconnects, the only sane approach is to boycott the company altogether. I had considered their Chordette USB/Bluetooth DAC, but you’ve got to doubt any claim made by a company that will stoop to a transparent fraud like purportedly premium digital cables.

Where is the Flip of digicams?

Last week, I helped an aunt of my wife pick a digital camera. She is a community activist, and used a wonderful Olympus OM-1 until it gave up the ghost, then a not-so-wonderful Kodak Advantix APS camera, but it is becoming hard to find film processing labs in India. The mere act of taking a photo tends to deter the kind of misbehavior she fights against. You would think she would be afraid of being assaulted for taking a photo, but this is a person who discusses death threats made against her as matter of fact.

I ended up recommending a Panasonic Lumix LZ8 as that was the model DPReview recommended in its budget camera group test and fit within her 5,000 to 6,000 rupees budget. It is a decent camera, if not particularly sexy, but it has far too many buttons and options, and I can see how a digital photography novice like her might be overwhelmed.

Pure Digital took 13% of the camcorder market with the Flip, a radically minimalist device that is simple to use. There doesn’t seem to be a similar equivalent for still cameras. Such a camera should really have auto-everything, only four buttons (on/off, shoot, play and delete) and a zoom rocker. Interestingly, digital SLRs come closer to this than most compact digicams because they do not have a record/play modal interface, and use shooting priority instead (the better compacts also offer this).