Apple iPad or rather Microsoft Courier?

Apple just announced their new tablet computer iPad (see the New York Times’ B.I.T.S. blog for coverage from the event).

My first impression based on what I saw and read there: not impressed. Sure, it is a beautifully looking device and probably a fine piece of industrial engineering (as are all of Apple’s products), but at the end of the day it’s just an iPod touch with a bigger screen.

With its 9.7 inch screen, just like similarly sized netbooks, it occupies a weird niche: too big to carry on you at all times and too small to get any real work done. I can’t really come up with a use case that such a kind of device would be ideally suited for and that would justify spending $500+. For my on-the-go computing needs, something like the iPhone or – for a Windows guy like me – the HTC HD2 works great. And if I want to watch movies, organize photos or do some work in Excel, I am better off with a small laptop, something light-weight in the 13 to 15 inch category. At least I can put such as device on my lap or table and don’t have to hold it in my hands all the time, as one would have to do with a slate type device like the iPad. The iPad might be nice as an advanced eBook reader, but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

I think if there was one device to fill the niche between smartphone and small laptop, it would be the Microsoft Courier. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to finally write about it, because my urge to tell the world how great this device is, was what made me start this blog when I first came across a video of the Courier last September. This booklet style computer is something I could certainly picture myself carrying in addition to a smartphone. My new Scott eVest Quantum Jacket already has the perfect pocket for it. On this device Microsoft uses the form factor with the dual-screen and the fold in the middle in really innovative ways to create a great computing experience. You really have to check out the video and pictures, though, to see what I mean.

Presumably, the Courier will ship in “mid 2010” (ZDNet via Gizmodo) so I might not have to wait for too long to own one of them. That is, unless Microsoft decides to do it the Zune way and not offer them in Europe. Let’s hope they have come to their senses and they won’t deprive the rest of the world of the most wonderful piece of hardware ever to come out of Microsoft.

Advertisements

Theater Know-How Link Clearance

The other night I spent a couple of hours at my old high school, the Goethe-Gymnasium in Düsseldorf. When I was a student there, I was one of the kids in charge of all the technical aspects of the school’s drama group productions. I did this between 6th and 13th grade and really learned a lot during those days. So when the teacher heading the drama group asked me to pass on some of that knowledge to the next generation of students, I gladly complied.

I only had about two hours to cover the basics, so for further study I want to recommend the following pages from the German Wikipedia. This list is by no means exhaustive and I am sure there are other great resources besides Wikipedia, so feel to free to comment with additional links that you find useful.

Additionally, check out Stage Lighting Design 101 for an introduction to the basics of stage lighting (in English).

Lighting

Audio

Video

Miscellaneous

Goodbye Google, Hello Bing and a Bonus Firefox Tip

I have recently switched to Bing as my primary search engine. And according to this TechCrunch article, I’m not the only one. I remember my first searches on the internet were with AltaVista in the computer lab of my high school. But soon thereafter I like so many others switched to Google and have been a loyal Google Search and GMail user since. Until about mid 2009 shortly after Microsoft had announced it was replacing its awful MSN Search with something that could take on Google. I figured I already use Microsoft’s products for most of my computing needs, I might as well give this a try. Especially, after I couldn’t find my blog via Google (they have added it to their index in the meantime, though).

And I certainly have not regretted tht move. Sure, internet search is still synonymous with Google for most people, but there are a couple things that I think Bing does a lot better than Google.

First, there is the start page. Sure, Google’s simplistic “just a search box” design was a neat feature back when we all had dial-up connections and Yahoo’s bloated front page took for ever to load, but nowadays I have broadband and my 16MBit/s connection doesn’t mind loading a large and pretty image such as the one gracing the Bing homepage.

As far as search results go, I think Bing is pretty much on-par with Google. I haven’t had a single instance were I didn’t find the information I was looking for on Bing, but did on Google. Also, Bing’s preview feature where it displays a longer excerpt from the page on the right hand side when you hover over a result has proven invaluable to me. No more clicking on an irrelevant link when I can already tell from the preview that the page doesn’t have what I’m looking for.

Next, there is image search. Google displays the results of an image search as a static page with 20 images in a grid. If you want to see the next 20 search results, you have to click through to the second page and wait for it to load. Bing on the other hand has a scrollable content area that dynamically reloads images as you scroll down. Nice!

Finally, there is Bing’s Visual Search. Visual search is great when you are looking for something, but don’t know what it is called. Say you saw a movie poster and want to know more about it, but don’t recall the movie’s title. In that case you would be lost with a traditional Google search that always requires a search term. With Bing you could try the Movies in Theaters section and scroll through the images until you find the one of the movie you were looking for.

If you want to see for yourself, I should mention that many of the newer features are only available in the U.S. version of Bing. If you live outside the United States, however, you can add “?mkt=en-us” to the end of the URL to have Bing default to the U.S. version. So instead of http://www.bing.com just bookmark http://www.bing.com/?mkt=en-us and you are good to go.

Bonus Firefox Tip: In a related matter, I have finally figured out how to use Firefox’s “search keyword” feature properly. If you don’t know this feature either, here’s the deal: open bing.com in Firefox, right-click in the search box and click on “Add a Keyword for this Search…”. This let’s you create a special kind of bookmark that is linked to a keyword. Use “b” (without the quotes) for the keyword for simplicity. Until now, I had to find my Bing bookmark, wait for the page to load, enter my search term, hit enter and then wait again for the results to come back. Now, I just need to go to the address bar (for instance by pressing Ctrl+L), enter “b StefanH Nexus”, hit enter and I am taken directly to the Bing search results for this blog (i.e. “StefanH Nexus”). As I rarely take my hands off the keyboard this is sure going to save me hundreds of unnecessary mouse clicks every day.

Fantastic Read: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely is a truly fantastic read. I haven’t read a book this insightful and captivating in quite a while. Even though it’s a non-fiction book I was sucked into it like by a good thriller.

In this book Ariely describes several experiments from his research that revealed some very interesting insights into the way the human mind works. even though I consider myself a pretty rational personal there a couple of situations described in the book that I too would have fallen victim to. Here are the two experiments I found particularly striking.

The first was about pricing and how objectively irrelevant pieces of information influence our decisions (I can’t recall the exact numbers and have lent my copy of the book to a co-worker, so this example may not be exactly as described in the book). Suppose a magazine offers two types of subscriptions: either (A) online-only for $80 or (B) online and print for $125. Given these options, some people would chose option (A), others would chose (B); The exact numbers are irrelevant. In a variation of the experiment, a third option was introduced: (C) print-only for $125. Obviously, (C) is inferior to (B) so nobody would ever choose (C), as they can get more value for the same price with (B). And this exactly what happened, when people were asked to choose between the three: nobody chose (C), but – and here is the interesting part – this seemingly irrelevant offer made people more inclined to pick (B) and less people ended up opting for (A). Even though the decision people had to make – whether the print edition is worth an additional $45 to them compared to the online-only option – thanks to the newly introduced option, (B) now looked more appealing in relation to (C) and this in many peoples minds also made it look better overall.

The second experiment I found most noteworthy is concerned with cheating. Ariely set out to see what students would do when given an opportunity to cheat on an exam. On the exam, four different groups of students were given a list of questions to answer. For every correct answer they were paid a small amount of money. The first group had their answers checked by the proctor, so they had no chance to cheat (this was the control group). On average, this group got x% right (again, the exact numbers have escaped me, but they don’t really matter anyway). Group #2 graded their answer sheets themselves and then destroyed them. Consequently, the proctor could not verify their claims of how much they got right and just paid them for what they claimed they had gotten right. As one might expect, on average they claimed to have given more correct answers than the first group. The set-up for the third group was the same as for group #2 (self-grading which allowed cheating without a chance of detection), except that they were asked to recite the Ten Commandments before taking the test. They didn’t have to get them right (that wasn’t part of the test), but apparently merely thinking about these moral guidelines made this group more honest and they reported scores approximately equal to that of the first group (who had no chance to cheat). Even more surprising were the results for group #4: Instead of reciting the Ten Commandments – which might not be a workable solution to cheating in a secular school or university setting – they were asked to sign that the test was subject to their school’s honor code. And again, the results were about the same as for the non-cheating group #1, thinking of honor made the students more honest. The interesting bit is that MIT, where the experiment was conducted, doesn’t even have an honor code! The mere thought of one apparently made the students more honest.

These are just two examples of the great and often surprising experiments Ariely describes in Predictably Irrational. There are plenty more in the book, so I recommend you order your own copy; the paper back is currently on sale at Amazon.co.uk.

February 2011 Update: I can also highly recommend Ariely’s follow-up book The Upside of Irrationality.

YouTube “Feather” for more instant video playback

I just came across YouTube’s Feather Beta. Once activated, you will get watch pages that are somewhat reduced in functionality, but where the videos start playing nearly instantaneously. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on all videos yet, but once you have activated feather here, you can try it out with this video on how to lose weight with AYDS [sic]. Enjoy!

A quick Shout-Out to LibraryThing

In addition to watching TV shows I also spend a lot of time reading. I actually try to set aside half an hour every night for reading. I have by now assembled a small library of some 200 books that I’m very proud of. It is currently growing at about three books a month (see below for how I know this).

If you know me, you know I am a super organized person and a total sucker for statistics. Hence I had been looking for a way to properly organize my books for quite a while. One of the ways I pondered for doing this was to set up a little Excel spreadsheet and write down title, authors, year of publication etc. for every book I owned. Even though my library was considerably smaller back then, this approach was too laborious. I briefly toyed with using Amazon Web Services for retrieving my books’ authors, titles etc. in order to reduce the amount of manual work required, but this solution would still not offer the kind of rich statistics and analyses I was looking for.

Thankfully, I stumbled upon LibraryThing last year. This site is truly amazing. For one, it reduces the amount of cataloging one’s books to simply typing in a list of ISBN codes. Once you have input (and possibly tagged) all your books, LibraryThing generates a cloud of the authors showing how many books you have from each of them. There are a bunch of other cool statistics, too: like a distribution chart of when your books where originally published, what languages your books are written in, when you added them to your library and many, many more.

But what really makes LibraryThing great are its social features. For instance, you can see which other LibraryThing users have libraries similar to your own. I have found a couple of interesting books as I was looking what other books people with libraries similar to my own have. Also, you can compare your library to “legacy libraries” such as the library of Thomas Jefferson. Apparently, he and I share six books. Didn’t know that. Finally, other users can add your library to their “interesting libraries” list. I’m not quite sure what that entails, but it appears there is one LibraryThing user who thinks my library is interesting. Thank you, Doug Cornelius, I guess.

So, if you are interested in what books I have, check out the picture below (not my complete library, though) or simply go to http://www.librarything.com/catalog/StefanH which contains a complete and regularly updated list of all my books.

Book Shelf

No more Household Chores for Me

Household chores suck. Seriously. They are tiresome and I’m not very efficient performing them, so it takes me forever to clean my apartment, even though it’s not that big. Also, I don’t see a lasting benefit to me cleaning, as soon enough the apartment will be dirty again. Thankfully, somebody at iRobot felt my pain (I assume) and invented the Roomba.

I don’t know why I have been waiting this long to get one, but a week a go I finally took the leap and ordered a third generation Roomba 555 from Amazon. This isn’t the high end model, so it doesn’t support the Lighthouse mode on the virtual walls, but it does have all the features I think I am gonna need: it can be programmed with a schedule to clean during the day and when I come home from work, my apartment will be clean. Also, it automatically finds its base station and returns to it when it is done with its work or it is running out of power. Its infrared sensors detect obstacles reliably, so it touches them gently instead of bumping into them like early generation Roombas. So basically, I should be able to have it do its thing automatically and never again worry about vacuuming.

And the best part, unlike some cheaper robots I had read about in reviews that promise all this too, the Roomba actually makes true on these promises. The other day, I just turned it on and went a way for an hour. When I came back, it had cleaned all rooms whose doors I had left open and was back docked to its base station recharging. In fact, it had done a much better job at cleaning than I would have with my old vacuum cleaner in a couple of hard to reach spots under the kitchen table. After its first tour through the apartment, it had already collected much more dust than there could possibly have been on the floor. So either the dust bin came pre-filled with some dirt (possible, but unlikely, I would say), or the Roomba is much better at cleaning than I am.

Additionally, the Roomba has made vacuuming fun again. I mean, just watching this thing work its way around obstacles and finding its way around the apartment is worth it. Vacuuming has never been his enjoyable before. Thank you iRobot.