Category Archives: Trube On Tech

Technology reviews, emerging trends, a programmer and device user’s perspective.

Working with tablets

Microsoft’s recent series of ads for the new Surface Pro includes the tagline “The tablet that can replace your laptop”. In the sense that the tablet costs roughly what 2-3 decent laptops cost ($899) I would agree. But this isn’t really a post about ragging on Microsoft (it’s generally not nice to kick someone when they’re down). Instead, I’d like to take on the notion of tablets replacing your laptop.

I’m a cheapskate when it comes to tablets. The idea of spending more than $99 on a single piece of tablet hardware seems silly to me when I can buy more power in a laptop. So most of what I own are 7″ tablets and eReaders, including the newest fifth generation Amazon Fire (which I discussed last week). Some of you with 10″ tablets or more disposable income may have different opinions, but listed below are some of the ways tablets have helped and hindered my writing work.

Reading (Superior to laptop, both superior and inferior to paper books): I am a voracious reader, and tablets let me bring a whole library books with me wherever I go. They’re not as good to flip through for specific bits, though tablets outstrip most eReaders in this respect. And physical books can’t travel as easily to the places I actually have time to read (I can’t plug a paper book into a car stereo and have it read to me).

Research (Internet research okay, Wikipedia good, not as good as paper books): The same principle of being able to carry more with me applies, and it is nice to not have to lug around 900 page programming books. But for fractal research, the real book is much better. Basic internet research can be slower especially for a multi-tab person like myself, but specialized apps like Wikipedia hold up to their laptop equivalents.

Writing new drafts (Terrible): Even with an external keyboard, tablets will never match up to the capabilities of even the most stripped down computer. And onscreen keyboards, even on larger tablets, feel unnatural and are prone to fat-fingering or auto-correct. There may be an argument that tablets slow you down in the same ways writing a draft by hand does, but I don’t have to fight my hand to write the word I meant to say.

Writing notes (On par, maybe even better): I’ve been keeping notes for my latest book on my new Kindle. It’s nice to have by the bedside, and I have more confidence the notes won’t be lost. Still slow going, but not bad.

E-mail (On par, more convenient locations): For complex or long e-mails it’s not as good as a laptop, but for a basic conversation it’s nice to just sit in the living room rather than having to go down to my office.

Sorting through files (Great): At the moment I’m going through several 1000 images selecting some for an upcoming project. This is tedious and necessary work, and something that’s nice to do when I’m watching a show or waiting on a program to run. My old tablets weren’t as good at this task, but the new Fire lets me toss 4GB of image files on without disturbing all of my personal entertainment media.

Revision (Helpful aid, but the real work is being done on the keyboard): I find it extremely helpful to always have access to my latest or previous drafts of a book on the tablet. It’s something I can easily put side-by-side with my computer, particularly when I’m re-writing new sections from scratch, or when I need to catch up by having a section read to me. But the idea of doing complex editing like rearranging paragraphs, words, or sections on a tablet just doesn’t work for me. I need the finer control of a mouse.

Social Media (Twitter great, Facebook okay, WordPress good for looking at stats and not much else).

Programming (N/A): If there’s a way to write code on the tablet I’d love to try it, but for now I like IDE’s on real machines.

My general conclusion is that a tablet is a great way to complement tasks I perform on the computer, or to allow me to work in odd locations at shorter intervals. But my real work is still done on computers.

Discuss.

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First Impressions – Amazon’s $50 Fire

My little Black Friday gift for myself arrived last week, Amazon’s latest Fire tablet, priced normally for $49.99 with special offers (I got mine for $34.99). So far I’m pretty happy with it (though considering I’m making the jump from a first generation Fire to a fifth generation, that’s not too surprising).

If you’re still on the fence about it, here’s my rough assessment after several days of playing with it:

The Good:

  • My big excitement for this tablet was the SD card slot. I put a 64GB card in mine, and I have never been able to carry around more entertainment (mostly comic books) in one device.
  • Battery life seems really good when just reading (with WiFi off). Getting around the 8 hours I expect. About 4-5 hours to fully charge.
  • Quad-core performance makes gaming and especially internet browsing practical for the first time (I judge tablets by laptop standards in this respect). Loving Monument Valley.
  • Hoopla, my library’s digital lending app for comics, magazines, books, movies and music works well. It didn’t work on my Android, Old Fire or my wife’s HD. Great way to read Batman’s No Man’s Land for free.
  • Speakers are loud enough so that I can listen to Car Talk even with highway noise. Manual volume control buttons are nice.

The Bad:

  • The comics I have loaded on the SD card  (PDF’s) do not save their place when re-opened. I may be able to side-load onto the card to correct this problem, but the old Fire never had this issue.
  • Took my computers a WHILE to recognize this device and communicate with it for transferring files. Still doesn’t see all the files transferred even though the device shows they are there.
  • There are a lot of tracking features that I had to turn off. The “Find my Fire” feature is a nice idea, but Amazon doesn’t need to know where I am or what I’m doing at all times.
  • Brightness on the low setting is still very bright in bed. Blinding my wife is not received well.
  • The ads are pervasive, present not only on the front screen, but all the sub-category screens as well. There are some direct links for taking you only to content on your device and I would highly recommend using those instead (books, videos, music icons on the home screen NOT the text at the top). I am honestly considering paying to get rid of them.

The Meh:

  • All Fires (including my old one) seem less inclined to recognize .MOBI’s or even AZW3’s bought from other places as books (they get consigned to the Documents folder).
  • Shopping icons cannot be removed from front screen (but they can be consigned to a folder I’ll never look at).
  • The resolution is not HD (1024×600) which is the same as my old Fire. However, since I optimized most of my comics for this resolution I actually saw this as a benefit (this is why having DRM free backups from Comixology rocks). I’ve seen higher resolution tablets, and they’re very nice, but I don’t feel like this is lacking.
  • $34.99 was a great deal, but I needed to add a purchase to get the $35 free shipping. No surprise there.
  • The interface is closer to Android which is probably a good thing. There are some things about the original Fire interface that I thought were simpler and easier to use, but the Android is more universal.
  • Camera’s not great, but taking photos with a 7″ tablet of any stripe is kinda clunky anyway. Good for Skype. Probably not something I’d use that much.
  • Apps drain the battery faster, as does a lot of internet usage. But that’s been true with almost any tablet that exists.
  • Case back is plastic, but seems really solid.

Verdict:

Even at $49.99 this is a great deal, and at $34.99 it was a no brainer. Be prepared for Amazon to try to make up that cost by selling you something. This is a loss-leader, no doubt about it. For most users this will be a great device, some may want to spring for the higher resolution HD’s or HDX’s.

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First Impressions

Haven’t had a whole lot of time to play with either of these new Amazon wrinkles yet, but thought I’d give you my off-the-cuff, fifteen minutes of research opinion:

Amazon Giveaways:

If you use CreateSpace and want to give away copies of your book as a promotion, then this might be the service for you. Amazon allows you to create a giveaway by specifying the quantity you’d like to give, the odds of winning the prize (1 in X, 1 every X, or first X), and conditions for entry (i.e. Follow you on Twitter, watch a video, etc). They administer everything, and they’ll ship the prize to lucky winner, all you have to do is pay the price of the prize, minimum shipping and tax.

Pros:

  • Nice way for authors to promote their book.
  • Easy to setup and use, separate messages for winners and losers.
  • Flexibility in odds can be scaled to your expected audience.
  • Instant win or lose.

Cons:

  • Requires physical copy, can’t give away digital.
  • Cost to author is list price, not production price (what the author can order the book for on CreateSpace).
  • Can only take advantage of free shipping if price is over $35. If the winner has a prime account it doesn’t mean free shipping costs to the giveaway provider.

Verdict: Might be nice to try, but could get expensive quick.

Merging your Comixology and Amazon account:

Comixology has been an Amazon company for a while, but they just now pushed out the capability to use your Amazon login on the site instead of creating a separate login. For existing Comixology customers, you can merge your Kindle Comics and your Comixology comics into one account.

Pros:

  • Amazon purchases that would include a DRM free backup if bought from Comixology (such as any comic from Image), will now be available in your backups. If you bought Saga or Chew from Amazon, you can now download CBZ’s and PDF’s from Comixology.
  • For those who prefer Comixology’s panel by panel view this could make your Kindle books much easier to read.
  • One easy account to remember.

Cons:

  • Not all Kindle Comics covered though more coming. DC, Marvel and Dark Horse do not offer DRM free backups.
  • Not all Kindle Comics have exact Comixology matches (may result in different content).
  • Kindle Comics do not register as owned in Comixology store. I own Vols 1,2 and 6 of Scott Pilgrim from Amazon and 3-5 from Comixology, but only 3-5 show as owned in the app (when I do a search). Downloads for all are available.

Verdict: No harm, might get better with time.

Has anyone tried either of these services?

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Writing Technology Fiction

Want a free copy of my latest book? Nominate Surreality on Kindle Scout and if Kindle Press decides to publish it, you get a free advance copy. Thanks to everyone who has voted so far. Because of you, Surreality was a “Hot and Trending” book yesterday. But there’s still a lot of time in the campaign left and every vote helps more than ever. Read the first two chapters and vote here:

https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2VSHAGFXNJ50T

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The hardest part of this picture was selecting the color of the floppy. I still have about 100 of those things.

There are two kinds of technology books: ones that take place in the present day, and those that take place in the distant future. Both present a unique set of challenges to the author. Anybody who’s watched a technology film from the 80’s – 90’s that involved long disk write times to floppies or command lines knows what I’m talking about. Those movies seem so adorable now.

Future technology isn’t much easier. Sure, you can swing for the fences with things like cloning, teleportation, robots, etc. But you never know when the real world is going to catch up to you. And if you go for really over-the-top tech, well then you’re basically playing with magic.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned from writing a technological mysteries:

Characters carry stories, not keyboards: First and foremost, your readers must care about your characters, no matter what they are doing. Write characters who end up in a different place than where they started, who possess flaws and have goals and you’ll keep people coming back even if the tech eventually looks out of date.

Not everyone has a smart phone: I worked at the library my senior year in high school (2002-2003). That was the year we were just beginning to phase out VHS tapes from the collection. DVD players weren’t much more expensive than they are now, but not everyone has the money for extraneous entertainment. People still use the library for the free internet and computers, even if they have an active social networking life. Just because something new and shiny has come out doesn’t mean everyone will have it.

Software can do anything, except it really can’t: I’ve been binging old NCIS episodes on Netflix. It’s kinda cute how McGee breaks through complex encryption in a few seconds, something that would normally take a supercomputer a couple of years, or even centuries. Most hacks of major corporations involve human, not technology, failures. Skipping some realism allows your plot to move forward, but you often can get a lot more out of setting a few rules. One of my editor Brian’s best comments was asking me what video game avatars could and could not do. Avatars at the end of the day are puppets operated by someone at a keyboard, meaning that in emotional moments we’re not getting the same facial cues as if we were talking in person. That can set up some real moments of disconnect that drive the narrative in new directions if you follow the rules.

No techno-babble: A lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation solutions to problems can be summarized this way. Really complicated, possibly nonsense, technical explanation from Data or Geordi, followed by simple analogy the audience can follow from Picard or Riker. Sometimes Troi, who apparently doesn’t know the difference between quantum strings and filaments. Our relationship with technology raises a lot of interesting questions that can be addressed in fiction and non-fiction alike. It shouldn’t just be intelligent sounding filler in-between moments of plot. You don’t use big words you don’t know do you? Then why would you talk about a Hisenphram Gigaplexer Automonatron? Not a real thing, unless making up technology words counts as a patent. Then it’s mine.

Feel free to make a few jokes that only 10 (Base 2) people will understand, but keep it under control, okay?: I’m an engineer and I like engineering jokes. My current favorite is PEBKAC = “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”. That’s funny to some of you, and inside jokes can engage your core audience. But too much and your average reader will just feel lost. And even with smart phones and ubiquitous internet, nobody is going to take the time to look up all your obscure jokes. They’ll probably just put the book down, or ask for a glossary. This is a rule that can be a little hard to follow.

What’s your favorite technology book or movie?

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“We are biological creatures”

The two-part TED Radio Hour series on screen time has been a fascinating listen for the last two weeks, and you owe it to yourself to listen to the whole thing. There are countless inspirations for stories or blog posts in that tight 120 minutes.

One of my favorite segments was from Abha Dawesar, discussing how computers distort our sense of time and our presence in the now. You can find her full talk here.

Dawesar speaks of a “digital now” separate from the physical present. The “digital now” is made up of all the connections trying to distract us or lead us down the rabbit holes of the internet, the trending topics on twitter, books our friends our reading, all the little places we spend our time online.

I have a fairly mid-90’s or early-00’s experience of the net. While I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, I use Facebook primarily for amusement, and Twitter largely for puns with my friend Brian and a few links to interesting writer posts. But I have experienced the “digital now” and how fleeting it can be. Often I will want to write a blog post about something going on in the physical or digital present, but by the time I’ve reflected on the event and formed an opinion the moment to discuss it has largely past.

I don’t like being a reactionary writer. Quick writing ends up being sloppy, half-formed, far more arrogant and self-righteous than I ever intend to be, and pisses people off more people than I’d like. Every time I’ve posted something without really thinking about it, I’ve regretted it. Thankfully those regrets have been few and self-contained.

But my sense of time is still governed by computers even if I’m not the most outgoing or plugged-in sort of person. Anyone who has spent time transferring a lot of files from one place to another has felt what it is like to be slave to a machine. I carry these little black boxes around with me, or little colorful fingers, and they all have to be organized, categorized, equipped. Just because I don’t have a smartphone doesn’t mean I don’t like my tablet, or my laptops.

My grandfather had a desk under his stairs he called the “nerve center of the whole operation.” No computer, not even a typewriter if I’m remembering correctly, just papers and pens. My nerve center is more akin to the 90’s stereotype of the hacker, sitting in my dark basement lit up only by screens surrounding me on all sides. I go to sleep with a tablet at my bedside and my morning routine is governed by checking my websites as much as it is emptying the dehumidifier.

Here’s where I can confirm some of Dawesar’s assertions. Few of the memories I’ve formed in the last year that are lasting and meaningful have had anything to do with computers. They’ve mostly had to do with my dogs and my wife. And I have “lost time” many times when using the computer, frittering most of an evening away working on one project or another without realizing it was almost time for bed. Technology is another thing in our lives that demands attention.

I don’t know if I share her faith that people will pull away from technology of their own accord. While I can acknowledge that a walk outside is more physically restorative than sitting in front of a computer for hours, I really have to force myself to do it. Sometimes writing is refreshed by a change of venue, but it is still staring at a screen, just in a place with lighting that induces glare, with plugs that are too far away and chairs that aren’t quite as comfortable.

But we owe it to ourselves and our children to strike some kind of a balance, to not stare at a screen all of the time. Maybe that means leaving your screens in one part of the house, and not bringing them into the others. Maybe that means deliberate and scheduled time with those you care about.

There’s an old cliche that says nobody ever died wishing they spent more time at the office. I suspect the same rule applies to spending more time on Facebook.

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Be nice to Alexa

My wife and I spent much of this weekend re-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Hulu. One of the disadvantages to binging shows on Hulu is that you are subjected to the same commercials again and again. I have a newfound hatred for Draft Kings and any other fantasy football league websites.

One of the other recurring commercials was for Amazon Echo, the next generation Siri or Cortana or whatever Google calls its talking computer. Echo is a small cylinder with an omni-directional microphone and speaker that can respond to voice commands. It’s the closest thing we have to standing anywhere on the starship Enterprise and asking “Computer?” I definitely want one.

Echo’s avatar is named Alexa and all queries are prompted by saying “Alexa … turn on the lights” or “Alexa … tell me the news.” Having seen this commercial at least twenty times, something began to occur to me about the user’s behavior. He was being rude.

I’m not just referring to commands like “do this”, “do that”. That’s part of Alexa’s job. The part that bugs me is where Alexa is telling him the news and the user hears an interesting tidbit about NASA and new planets. He cuts Alexa off and asks “Alexa … do aliens exist?”. On topic, but still cutting her off in the middle of a sentence.

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Lwaxana Troi is addressing the ship’s computer (a bit meta since Majel Barrett voices the computer in addition to playing Mrs. Troi). She says please and “thank you dear” to the computer, or herself depending on how you look at it. Her justification is that computers are making us all impersonal and just because it’s a machine doesn’t mean she should be rude (an attitude Dr. Pulaski had to learn gradually with Data).

Alexa is actually better than the Enterprise computer (no offense to Majel). The Next Gen voice has a “computer-y” edge, more akin to Siri’s delivery. Alexa, at least how she’s portrayed in the commercial, is conversational and clear. We get visual feedback of her talking through the light circle. Echo is really an advance in interactive computers. Not an AI yet, but with sophisticated programming.

So why does this matter? Well for starters if we want to bring gender politics in briefly, Alexa is a female voice. She’s being ordered around by a man, and not allowed to finish telling him about NASA’s new discovery which frankly is more interesting than his dumb question. Now some of you careful studiers of the commercial might have noticed that he does at least seem interested in what she’s saying (we hear a “huh” after the initial news tidbit). Again I need to emphasize how many times I saw this damn commercial.

If you were in the next room, and you didn’t know Alexa was a program, maybe you’d think our user was talking to someone on the phone, and that would be perceived as rude. If you were a child, and impressionable about gender roles and how we should treat other people, you might pick up on the exchange. And this is before we even consider the possibility of sentient artificial life, which seems far-fetched, but is still a very real goal of programmers. Computers are wonderful tools, but someday they may be more like equals (if we’re looking at the human race generously).

Now I’m the kind of guy who yells at computers when they don’t work. I don’t slam my monitor screen like Rosa Diaz, but I’m pretty close (given my tower a thwack or two). But maybe Echo should get us to reconsider that behavior, or at least change how its advertised.

And oh yeah, Menards, commercial metal roofing looks terrible. Last roof we’ll ever buy, my fanny. Seriously, Hulu, would a little commercial variety hurt you?

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The Old Ways are the Best Ways

I just want to watch a little TV at the end of my day. Why must it be so hard?

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See if any of these stories sound familiar:

  • The Netflix app on both the Wii and the Wii U “gums up” (for lack of a better term), after a while and needs to be uninstalled and reinstalled to be watchable.
  • After futzing with trying to get John Oliver to stream on the Fire TV stick, I plug in my computer which works, but only after I stop streaming in Opera and use Chrome instead. Ironically, the quality is much better than even when the FireTV is working.
  • I increased my download speed, which I’ve tested, yet shows seem to stream worse. Why don’t shows let me set the quality rate instead of trying to calculate what they think is best? They are almost always wrong!
  • A show on Netflix becomes randomly unplayable two minutes from the end and will not reload even after you reboot all your hardware.
  • A video on YouTube is easy to find on a computer, and impossible to find in an app.
  • I try to use my Roku and the TuneIn radio app to listen to the 24/7 stream of This American Life, only for it to stutter and fail after five minutes.
  • Both my Roku and FireTV stick are hot and can only be turned off by unplugging them which causes a really slow boot the next go around.
  • Hulu shows me that damn Windows 10 commercial for the 100th time. I am not going to raise my children to “lick the internet”. It’s just an OS, get over yourself! Also some weird girl who likes “orange crem” yogurt.

That last one might just be me.

I love the convenience of being able to pick any episode of Star Trek and watch it without having to pull out my DVD’s, and I’m kind of bummed the same service doesn’t exist for Babylon 5. My wife and I started watching MASH because it came on Netflix, even though I also own all the episodes on DVD. And I’m glad I still have those disks because there have been several nights where I’ve had to use them instead when Netflix was being a butt.

I have yet to find a dedicated streaming device that is the equal of even a rudimentary laptop. And none of them compare to actually having the physical media. For all our cord cutting, we still aren’t getting the same reliability we used to get for free over the air, or for an exorbitant fee over the wire, or for a mid fee for a spinning disc. Don’t get me wrong, whenever I go back to over the air I’m shocked by the quality dip. But at least I can watch. I like solving computer problems for fun, but not network issues. That kind of stuff just needs to work, or I get cranky.

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