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A Pleasant Comparison

I’m still trying out my Kindle, and loving it so far, but I still have many more technical hoops to jump through to see how I like it, but I have to admit that one thing has jumped out at me. The size is practically perfect, as illustrated below (Sorry for the quality – it’s from my camera):

Kindle vs. Moleskine

Kindle vs. Moleskine

On the right is one of my Moleskines. As this picture shows, in it’s case the kindle is only slightly wider and slightly shorted.  Given that the Moleskine is something I’m already very comfortable toting around, that makes the Kindle very easy to work into approach to carrying things. Specifically, i won’t need to find some new way to carry this new gadget – I’ll just keep it with my notebooks.  For more of a comparison, let me add my HP netbook and my ipod to the shot:

Clockwise from top left: HP Mini-Note 1000, Ipod Touch, Moleskine, Kindle in its case

Clockwise from top left: HP Mini-Note 1000, Ipod Touch, Moleskine, Kindle in its case

For someone who is trying to get everything down to one bag, kindle plus netbook already looks like a promising combination.

Embracing the Netbook

I’m not used to windows yet, so I’m still trying out a lot of software options, including windows live for blogging. It’s got a very Microsoft interface, for good an for ill, so if this post looks weird, please feel free to blame MS.

It’s now been a few weeks with an HP Mini 1000, and I remain pretty happy with it. Practically speaking, there’s only one thing it does that I couldn’t do with a smartphone, but that one thing is pretty important – writing.  I bought the HP because it has the best keyboard of any of the netbooks – the Asus EEE 900 is almost as good, but trying them side by side definitely came down in favor of the HP.

hpminijpg

The netbook is definitely liberating – I’ve already ditched my usual bag for a much smaller one, and it’s really, really nice to move towards a lighter load. A large bag tends to attract more stuff and get heavy pretty quick.  Restricting to a smaller bag heads that off at the pass.  Similarly, it’s a lot easier to grab in one hand and take up to the kitchen or bust out when I have an idea.  If my laptop weren’t so large (17”) the contrast would perhaps not be so pronounced, but as is the difference is night and day.

It’s not without quirks. With a 3 cell battery, I’m looking at 3-4 hours of battery life, which is kind of short. HP is theoretically releasing a 6 cell battery next year, and I’ll likely grab one, but it’s a shame to need it.  In fairness though, I knew what I was getting into picking this up before January.  Less predictable was the power adaptor, which is not well fitted to the charging port. A stiff breeze will disconnect it, and that makes it very frustrating to work while plugged in.

These are minor concerns at best though, akin to my gripes with windows XP.  For all that they may bug me a little, the device works just fine, and my ability to write anytime, anyplace without lugging around a huge block of computer has taken a turn for the better. For anyone else who really wants something small and portable but still friendly for writing, I would definitely encourage looking at a netbook. That said, if you’re not looking to do any writing more involved than the occasional brief email or IM then I must admit you’d probably be better off with an Ipod Touch,, Nokia n800/810 or a comparable device (unless, that is, if there’s some windows specific functionality you demand).  Similarly, you can get a more powerful laptop for the price of a netbook, so make sure you really want to pay for something smaller and lighter before you shell out. 

For me, this is just the sweet spot I needed, and when I close it up, I get a little rush of nerdy pleasure since it feels like I always imagined a cyberdeck to.  Crazy, I know, but if you’re not going to be excited about the device, then get something cheaper.

A Face of Panic

scream.jpg I like to think of myself as a pretty savvy guy, with a decent education, a good job and a good understanding of technology. This is well and good, but I think all of those things have contributed to the oddness of something I haven’t done in a while.

This morning, I clipped coupons.

It shouldn’t be that odd – it’s something I did growing up, and continued to do after college when my income was on the painful side. I think I stopped when I moved to California. There were new grocery stores (that sold liquor) and I was making better money than I ever had before, so it seemed kind of unnecessary. I fell out of the habit.

Now, in recent years I’ve gotten my financial habits under much better control. Paid off credit card debt, stayed within my means, saved, invested, all that jazz. I am perhaps not as frugal as I could be, but all in all I run a pretty tight ship. So, given that it was interesting to me when, in the midst of all the bad financial news, a little switch flipped and said “get the coupons today”.

As panics go, I feel like that’s pretty restrained, but what scares me a little is that the behavior is bad in the big scope. I’m not entirely sure thrift is consistent with the needs of the economy in its current form. What I’m not sure of is whether that’s a strike against thrift or a strike against the economy.

The financial crisis is no trivial matter, no one would argue otherwise, but I can’t help but note how much it offends some people I know and think about it a little. Some of it is normal indignation, some of it is personal interest in the impact this has, but what’s curious is that I think no small part of it is hurt pride.
monycards.jpg

I know a lot of engineers and technology-oriented people. These are smart people, smart enough that it often makes for a bit of a chip on their shoulder. They have strong opinions on politics, but usually with a certain bit of disdain, as if mere politicians are not really smart enough to understand things.

The financial crisis takes a hammer to this because of it’s sheer complexity. These very smart people are obliged to face the fact that people in non-engineering fields might be smart too. Actually smart, not just touchy-feely emotionally smart. That the sources of these problems are something they cannot understand cuts to a pretty primal nerve.

I think it’s a good thing. Geeks are pretty complacent, even if they’re highly verbal and argumentative. Having these smart people get interested in and possibly even respectful of the intelligence required for other fields could be a great boon on so many levels.

Better

better.jpgI just finished Atul Gawande’s Better on a friend’s recommendation, and I owe that friend a drink (or perhaps one of those terrifying japanese sodas she likes).

Better‘s subtitle is “A surgeon’s notes on performance”, and that speaks directly to the hook. Gawande is a surgeon, and that fact shapes his perspectives and arguments as he makes the case that improvement comes from three main vectors: diligence, doing right and ingenuity. These are the three sections of his book, and each section is composed of a number of accounts which reflect the premise.

The section on diligence opens strong with the mundane seeming issue of hand washing. While it’s an interesting study on sanitation and infection, it is even more interesting as a portrait of how to go about solving a relentlessly mundane problem in a large scale environment. That focus on the mundane and practical drives the other two sections, one on a massive immunization campaign in India and the other on U.S. Army battlefield medicine, and the ways in which it has improved. While the nominal thread of these three is diligence, I would say the keyword is really logistics.

The next section, doing right, wanders the map a little bit, from malpractice, to doctor’s salaries, to how medicine is priced, to the death penalty (and the role of doctors in it) . This is, to my mind, the weakest section, but this probably speaks to my bias as a reader. I am less interested in the doctor’s perspective than I am in what it can tell me, so issues that are so strongly internal to the profession were not what I was looking for.

The last section, ingenuity, had been the one that had caught my interest, as I had been told about some of the findings about the treatment of cystic fibrosis, and I was curious to read more. This is where he absolutely knocks it out of the park, and these are the stories I’ll be thinking about for weeks.

First, he talks about the history of childbirth and medicine, and how deadly the process has been. This is interesting enough, but it takes a turn for the fascinating when he talks about the development of the Apgar score, a simple numeric rating of the health of a baby, taken one minute and five minutes after birth. In a magnificent example of getting what you measure for, the creation of a metric helped drive success by giving something to judge it against – how many children below a certain score can you save?

Next he talks about the treatment of cystic fibrosis and the bell curve. The kicker is this – when data became transparent, it became clear that there was a bell curve of outcomes in different treatment centers, with some vastly outperforming others. What’s more, when that data became available to all practitioners, they could look at the best practices of those best units and improve their own performance, thus improving the overall average.

Left at that, this would be a simple triumph of the virtues of transparency, but what gets very interesting is what happens next. Yes, the overall average improves, but the greatest improvement comes from the top group, not the bottom. Their improvement is so profound that the gap between the best and average becomes almost insurmountable. It seems those groups who were already on the lookout for any way they could improve applied that same drive to taking advantage of the new information.

The final bit, on doctor’s in India kind of ties it all together, and while it’s an illustration of a lot of the points in the book, one particular bit struck me, that these doctors in these sometimes terrible conditions still felt they had something to contribute to the wider medical world. That belief did not seem unfounded, but it also seemed that it was positively self-fufilling.

The book’s afterward, magnificently titled “How to be a Positive Deviant,” is composed of five simple points to follow, and it is probably the best such advice I’ve seen for the brilliant-yet-not-so-functional since Scott Berkun‘s section on office politics in The Art of Project Management (Now titled, Making Things Happen).

This is a book I would suggest to anyone who needs to do things which are bigger than themselves. While the premise may be medical, the bulk of the book is clearly applicable to almost any endeavor which requires diligence, judgement and ingenuity.

Some Kind of Success

I stopped by Staples today to pick up some paper for my new printer (a Brother HL-5250DN, which I am very happy with) and took a little bit of time looking at the planners. Now, I had actually been looking to find a case that would suit the iPDA, and had no luck on that front, but I did make a curious discovery – the 2009 Action Day Planner.
actionday.jpg
I should also note that that label is set up in a band across the middle of the planner, which is black and closes with an elastic strap, so that the whole visual effect is not unlike a moleskine. Compounded by the trademark dodging “Get Things Done” it looked all the world like someone had decided to knock off the current hotness of personal productivity and sell it through Staples.

It turns out that impression was pretty much right.

Now, I should note that this planner files the serial numbers off a number of very good ideas, and as such it’s actually a pretty well designed planner. The layout is functional, (one week spread over two pages, with room for separate types of lists) and the introduction is more detailed than the average day runner, so in and of itself, it’s a decent little book.

However, if you have any familiarity with Getting Things Done or Franklin Covey, the introduction promises to be at least a little bit humorous, especially when you get to the action flow chart, which begins with your “In Tray” and looks strangely familiar.

So, I went to their website, and there’s not a lot there. I apparently missed these guys in 2008, and it seems that they do have windows software, with an Outlook plugin for $23 (the price is not listed on the site). Since the David Allen product costs about three times that, I feel more secure in my impression that this is really a generic product filling a niche.

I admit to mixed feeling about that. One on hand, when the generics start showing up, you know that a product has reached a certain critical mass. On the other, it can really end up muddying the water for new and interesting products. For comparison, I really like moleskines, but I feel like their success has lead to too much emulation and not enough new and interesting products.

For now this is just something I found on the bottom shelf of a Staples, and it may be nothing more than a flash in the pan, but it’s something I’ll keep a curious eye on.

todo150.jpgFor my birthday, I received an Ipod Touch, which I have been using as a PDA (and iPDA, if you would). The release of the 2.0 firmware, and the new software capabilities this added to the machine was enough to drive me to make the leap.

So I’m two weeks in and it is so far the best PDA I have ever had, knocking out the previous contender, a Nokia n800. While the n8oo was more powerful (since it was effectively a small linux box) the iPDA simply works more smoothly, has better software (with some specific exceptions) and is a vastly better media player too.

That said, there are a few lessons learned, and good and bad things that have come out of this that might be useful to people looking to go the same route.

Impressions

  • I dropped an extra $20 on the fancy pants screen protector at the Apple store and I can only say this: Totally. Worth. It. An unfortunate collision with my keys has now marred the surface, but the damage is limited to the screen protector, and that is much easier for me to replace.
  • More than anything the utility of iPDA is going to depend on how comfortable you are with the keyboard. Personally, I like it, and the fact that it works with my oversized thumbs is a big point in its favor, but it’s not like any other keyboard I’ve ever played with. That means it may or may not be to your taste, and I really strongly suggest playing with one for a while – either a friends or one at an apple store – to see if it’s something you think you could get used to. If you can’t, I would honestly say don’t bother getting one unless you want it for the media side. Without the ability to enter data comfortably, you will quickly find that it is not a useful pda.
  • If you are comfortable entering data, you may find this has one benefit that other PDAs do not – you may want to carry it around. The utility of an iPod is something you can come to take for granted, and in situations where I might forget my PDA, I still want to bring my audiobooks. As someone who has left many a PDA to gather dust in a drawer, this is huge.
  • Be sure you really don’t want an iPhone. Even setting aside the phone component and always-on connectivity, the iPhone has a few features that the touch does not, notably the camera, GPS, a good external speaker, and a built in microphone. For me, Camera and GPS might be nice, but always-on connectivity would mean I never turn the thing off, so I’m just fine without them. I do begrudge the speaker and the microphone though. I would love to be able to use it as a voice recorder or to trust that I won’t sleep through the puny alarm.
  • In one of the more baffling bits of software, there are about a dozen third party to do list applications, some of which sync with web service, but none of which sync with the to do lists in ical. I have no idea if this is a problem with apple’s sdk or with the list developers, but it’s a gap I find highly annoying.
  • I don’t use it for work mail because our exchange install is sufficiently crotchety that I don’t want to risk it. But I do use it with gmail, and it works pretty much seamlessly.

todo.jpg

Applications I use


  • Appigo’s ToDo – Given the number of free task lists, it may seem odd to have paid for one, but ToDo’s interface matches my personal style of input. I would encourage others to try out as many of the lists as they can and find the one that suits them best.
  • Instapaper – This is a web service that grabs interesting web pages for you with a click, and sets them aside for you to read later. I tried it on the web and quickly discarded ti in favor of other options. However, the (free) app that supports it has made me into a regular user. When I find an interesting article, I just click the bookmarklet and it gets saved. Then when I take the iPDA online I just free it up and it pulls down local copies of these articles for me to read at my leisure.
  • NetNewsWire – I use netnewswire for my regular RSS reading, so getting the iphone version was a no-brainer. Managing multiple locations (I read only a fraction of my feeds on my iPDA that I do on my computer) took some getting used to, but it’s a feature I love. People who use google reader might look into using “Byline” for similar purposes, but it will run you ten bucks.
  • Times and Mobile News – As far as I can tell, a company called Verve Wireless has been coming up with a standard platform for taking newspaper distribution wireless. The New York Times and the AP seem to use the platform, and as a result are both pleasantly easy to read when I’m online. I’d love a few more features, but they’re nicely utilitarian at the moment.
  • Remote – Ok, this isn’t hugely productive, but turning my iPDA into a remote for itunes is incredibly handy. It would probably be even cooler if I had an apple tv widget.
  • Twitterific – This is the app that makes me glad I don’t have an iphone. This is so perfectly the medium for twitter that if I had full time connectivity, I would probably go down a very dark hole of tweets.

Where it falls short


  • Seriously. How hard is it to sync to ical’s To Do list?
  • If you go the iPDA route, you will be a second class citizen. The iPhone gets all the love, and some app developers don’t even think about how their apps are going to work if you don’t have connectivity. Other apps will be of limited utility to you because they depend on functionality you don’t have, like a microphone or GPS. This does not mean you won’t have great stuff, but seeing what you don’t have can hurt a little.
  • The cases are all terrible if you are not a teenager. I would not feel this way if I viewed this primarily as a media player, but I’m using it as my pda, and is it so much to want a grown up case? I’m still looking for something that can double as a wallet so I can reduce the number of things I have to carry, but I am frustrated at every turn.
  • Syncing files back and forth is still pretty weak. I currently use filemagnet to push documents across to the iPDA, and it’s functional, but I can’t say more about it than that. The developer has promised the usability is going to improve soon, and I look forward to that, but right now the offline document viewing options require jumping through hoops.
  • You apparently can’t talk about this without mentioning that there’s no copy and paste. So there.
  • There are a lot of apps and ideas that are more promise than delivery at this point, so it’s important to remember that this is a fairly immature market.

Conclusion

So, warts and all, the iPDA is holding up very well indeed. It does everything I need without connectivity, but then offers additional features when there’s wireless to be had. For me that’s about the right balance – I don’t like depending on connectivity, but I don’t like it as an afterthought either. It’s also clear that this is an experience that is just going to get better and better with time, as the applications mature.

It’s worth noting that with the many options available to me via the app store, I have not felt any need to jailbreak my iPDA. Partly this is because if I was really concerned with getting into the guts of the device, I’d stick with the n800, but partly because I;m not sure what jailbreaking offers me that I need. I suppose it would be nice to have an SSH client, I really don’t see that as being worth all the hassles.

I do admit that this definitely leaves me looking curiously at the iphone when my Verizon contract runs out. Are all these advantages (and the prospect of one less device in my pockets) enough to switch to a carrier whose local service is spotty at best? Probably not, but we’ll see.

So, Architects Online magazine has an article about how five teams of architects might reinvent Starbucks. It’s an interesting read (and also an illustration of why flash slideshows make terrible, er, illustrations) but the thing that’s intriguing is that there’s a clear divide between the designs that go in two different directions. Two of them (neither of which I can really clearly envision) are all about slipping coffee dispensing into the landscape, while the other three all have a common theme of creating more common seating, like a bar or a community kitchen.

coffee.jpg

That split is kind of fascinating since it cuts right to the heart of what Starbucks is. Are they a coffee shop, or are they the much ballyhooed “Third Space”, that place that people can go that is not their home or work? It’s not surprising that the designs that lean towards the latter look more like bars, since that’s the classic third space. Still, when I go to Starbucks I admit I don’t see a lot of broad socialization. Small groups at tables, but mostly it’s individuals with their laptops (and most of those are going to Panera Bread these days). I’m not sure there’s a desire for true socialization as much as there is a desire for a place to go to be alone. With other people.

Discovered via Brand Autopsy

Twitter is a curious service. It obviously has a lot of appeal, just judging by the number of people using it, but it’s always been a little hard to justify. Conversation tends towards the trivial, and the characterization of twitter as “blogging about what you had for lunch” has more than a bit of truth to it. Still, I use it (rdonoghue), and people sometimes ask what the point of it is, so I like to have a better explanation than “it’s shiny”.

twitter1It’s actually pretty easy to clarify in specific situations. If you have a product or service, it’s an excellent way to get information out to interested people. It’s a perfect example of opt-in (dare I say, “permission”) marketing. The customer must take an active interest, so he only gets what he wants, but twitter – especially if it’s already being used – makes the opting in barrier trivial while still leaving the user feeling secure.

To really understand how powerful this is compare it to signing up for email notifications. When you submit your email address (which may require clearing other hurdles) you start with a degree of apprehension that your address will be shared or lost, and you’ll get that much more spam. Even if there are no spam problems, there’s a good chance that the email newsletters will be too frequent, irrelevant, or so loaded with images and trash that they choke your inbox. Worse, if the day ever comes that you want to stop subscribing, you are pretty much at their mercy. If their automated unsubscribe process works, that’s great, but if it doesn’t? It’s a huge headache. Even under the best of circumstances it’s one more piece of email to process, and a lot of us are already pretty swamped in that category.

On the other hand, consider sending those same notifications out via twitter. The opt in process is trivial and does not reveal anything about you except your own twitter id. You won’t be getting any tweets from anyone else and you can stop following the feed any time you want. Perhaps most importantly, the character limit means that the message requires a little bit of thought, not just more graphics. Certainly, that makes life harder for the broadcaster – brevity is harder than it looks – but it makes for more rewarding communication.

That’s great if you’ve got a product or idea you’re selling, but most people don’t. Unless you’ve really embraced the “you are your brand” philosophy, twitter is a social avenue, not a marketing one. So in what other context might twitter be useful?

twitter2I’ve occasionally made the case for the power of twitter in the workplace. For a team it provides a fantastic view of what everyone is working on at any given moment, and does so a lot more smoothly than vastly more expensive project management software. I think that’s a great use for it, but it is a it limited in scope. I’d never considered it a big argument in favor of twitter until yesterday, when I discovered it was only the tip of the iceberg.

A friend of mine works from home for a pretty big company. She has a team that is spread across the U.S., and for formal communications they have email, fancy phones, conferencing software and all the shiniest of technical toys. That works just fine for the majority of day to day business, but these tools work poorly for the kind of informal communications that comes from sharing an office with someone. Subjects as simple as how the weekend was or what a co-worker’s kids are up to don’t tend to work their way into formal communication, but they’re the bread and butter of office communication, and they’re something that you miss out on when your team is remote or you work from home.

My friend and her team have started using twitter, and it’s really increased the sense that she’s working with these other people. That may seem like a very small thing, but the sense of isolation is one of the hardest parts of working from home, and anything that breaks that up is a big deal.

(I suppose one might extrapolate some larger sense of isolation for people at large that explains twitter’s success, but that seems a bit facile.)

This is not to say that twitter is for everyone. It can be overwhelming, and it’s very hard to strike a balance between Metcalfe’s Law and Metcalfe’s Train Wreck. While it may seem trivial on the surface, this hopefully illustrates that it’s not limited to sharing with the world that cute thing your cat just did.

Ipod test

I’ve installed the wordpress app on my iPDA and just want to put it through the paces. The limitations of the keyboard is an obvious limiter on its utility but it should work in a pinch.

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