Dead-simple way to check and see if one Twitter user follows another.

I love sites like this that build their functionality into the URI itself.

Is the world's food system collapsing?#

Our current food predicament resembles a Malthusian scenario--misery and famine--but one largely created by overproduction rather than underproduction. Our ability to produce vastly too many calories for our basic needs has skewed the concept of demand, and generated a wildly dysfunctional market.

Amazon Kindle

May 18, 2008

Yes, I realize that this piece is a bit "late," but I wasn't able to get my hands on a Kindle until just a couple of months ago.1

The five-second, 192-char review (inspired by Twitter)

I love the Kindle, and totally see myself using and enjoying it (and its progeny) for many years to come. I'm reading more because of it, and seriously doubt I'll ever read a paper book again.

Why I bought one

My explanation (justification?) is likely going to sound either abstruse or semi-reasonable, depending on both how well you know me and where on the luddite↔technophile continuum you fall, but hear me out.

I've always been a rather voracious reader (I'm that guy who has to read the side of the cereal box, etc.), but since becoming so completely caught-up in this web thing many, many years ago, almost all of my reading has moved to the computer. So, while I no doubt read much more than the average person each day, the bulk source of the words has shifted from books to Internet-based "news," and all that that has come to mean.

At the end of the day, I really wanted to get back to reading books.

You could obviously argue that I could read books without the Kindle, and you'd be right. Partially. Sure, I can go out and pick up a book (and I've certainly done that over the last decade, though probably only a handful of times a year), but these books are missing what I've come to really appreciate and enjoy about reading online — the ability to [re]search and easily switch between sources. The Kindle fills these gaps.

For example, you can immediately lookup the definition of a word by using the device's built-in dictionary (simply move the cursor to the line where the word is and choose "lookup in dictionary" from the menu). Relatedly, and given that the Kindle comes with a lifetime EV-DO Internet connection, you can use Wikipedia to easily lookup anything on which you'd like more information. It all works quite brilliantly and is obviously something that simply can't be done with a paper book.

As another example, consider the auto-bookmarking feature, which automatically remembers where you left off in each of your books (and yes, you can manually place as many bookmarks as you'd like). Such a nicety also finds a parallel in the computer world: my browser automatically remembers not only tabs and other session information, but also the position at which I stopped reading the pages within the tabs.

Another feature I really like is the ability to see, at a glance, how far along you are in a book simply by looking at the dotted line at the bottom of the screen (the dots are "bolded" as you go), which can be considered equivalent to the scrollbar on a web page. Moreover, when viewing your list of books, these dotted lines are made relative to all the books on your Kindle; it's kind of neat to see not only how far along you are in each of your books, but also how long each book is relative to the others on the device.

One of the best features of the Kindle is its storage capacity. Out of the box it can hold roughly 200 books, and that space can be expanded many times over using its available SD memory slot. It's so nice to have multiple books at your fingertips (as you have multiple tabs at your fingertips inside a browser); you can flip back and forth between completely different subject matter, all from a single, light device that automatically remembers where you left off the last time.

Finally, the Kindle lets you highlight certain passages and take notes along the way; and like a web page (or the Internet generally), these highlights, annotations, and even the books themselves are searchable.

All of this may seem perfectly obvious, not perfectly analogous to the web world, and completely inconsequential to you, but for me, in the aggregate, it's exactly what I currently want in a book.

The end result of all of these things is that I find myself not only wanting to read more, but actually reading more. A lot more.


Let's be honest, the Kindle looks like a crossword-puzzle device a grandfather might receive from his grandson at Christmas (and so it is with some trepidation that I use it in public), but the fact is, the design is actually very thought out, and well at that.

At first blush, the design seems irretrievably flawed. Indeed, when I first saw the pictures I couldn't believe Amazon went with what looked to be the worst type of design: ugly + impractical. In fact, I didn't feel too much better upon taking the device out of its packaging, but after some serious use I've come to really appreciate the way it works. Sure, even after nearly two months of use, I still find myself hitting the next/previous page buttons when I don't mean to, but I'm willing to look past that given that they work so well when you actually do want to move between pages, and which ease-of-use isn't predicated on the device's position.

I usually find myself holding the Kindle with one hand (i.e., near the bottom of the device with my thumb on top and fingers below), and switching back and forth between my right and left hands. The back cover is a rubber-like pad that actually feels pretty good and definitely makes the Kindle a bit easier to grasp.

As previously mentioned, it's hard to use the Kindle for anything other than reading without accidentally hitting the large next/previous buttons that make up most of its sides. That said, the layout of the buttons really does work well when you're reading; because they take up most of the sides, they are generally very accessible no matter how you hold the device, or even if you lay it down on a table, bed, lap, etc.

Many have criticized not only the large buttons, but also the combination of the "select wheel" and "scrollbar," used to highlight menu options and other controls. I quite like the select wheel and think it's a great compromise given the limitations inherent in e-ink. The wheel has a nice rubbery feel to it, and gives tactile feedback when you press down on it (not unlike the scrollwheel on a mouse). The one thing I'm not a huge fan of is the "cursor," which runs along a track parallel to the screen, and which corresponds to what on the screen you wish to select. It's a bit shiny (think reflective), and for reasons I can't quite figure out. I should note that the cursor also acts as a progress indicator in some instances, but I've yet to find that functionality useful.

One of the nicest things about the Kindle, and something that is inherent in such a device, is that, unlike a regular book, its orientation and weight aren't constantly shifting. With a paper book, you are made to move [it] around as you shift from the left to the right page, flip pages, etc. With the Kindle however, all of that shifting disappears and you can hold your chosen position indefinitely.

Such a "feature" generally allows you to expend less energy when reading. For example, I like reading in bed while lying on my side. With a paper book you have to constantly hold the book to keep it open and to move it slightly depending on whether you're reading the right or left page; with the Kindle, you can just let it rest on the bed and then tap the next-page button as needed. I realize that this may sound like a trivial thing to devote a paragraph to, but it really is amazing how such a device can change the way you read, or make the way you're used to reading that much better.

The e-ink display

If you haven't seen e-ink before, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It really does read like paper. Of course, this technology has been available to the public for quite some time (most notably via Sony's e-book Reader), but never has it been presented in such a perfect package (the Kindle's looks notwithstanding). Not only does the screen read like paper, but the viewing angle also mimics paper (i.e., it's limited more by your eyes than the technology), and it's very non-reflective, which means you can read it just the same in the bright sun as you can next to a lamp in a dark room (I've yet to find lighting conditions under which I couldn't read it, save no light at all). It's great.

Another nice side-effect of the e-ink technology is how little power it draws. Indeed, because there is no backlight, the only time the Kindle really touches the battery is when the screen is refreshed (e.g., when you go to the next page). Subsequently, the device can go for a very long time without a recharge, which, as you might guess, is incredibly freeing.

The Kindle offers six different font sizes, which is useful in ways you might not imagine. For example, lately I've been taking the Kindle to the gym if I know I'm going to be riding the bike, and if my arm gets tired from holding the device in a particular position for a prolonged period of time, I can simply increase the font size and set it on the control panel of the bike. Similarly, when reading at night, if my eyes start to feel really tired, I might turn the font size up a few notches to reduce the strain.

The refresh rate of the screen seems to bother some people, but my guess is that these complainers have either never used an e-ink device (and are commenting just to comment) or have only used one for a very short period of time. I'll readily admit that the first few times it was a little weird to have to "wait" for the screen to refresh, but given that it takes less than a second — roughly the same amount of time it takes to flip a page in a book — it's a total non-issue.

The included case is crap

The Kindle comes with a usable, but cheap case that uses one of those annoying elastic bands to hold it together (think Moleskine). Moreover, the device is secured to the bookcover-type case by just two flimsy braces located near the middle of the case. It's crappy.

Within two minutes of using the supplied case I started looking online for third-party options, but there were very few available. In fact, I could find only one company making Kindle cases, and I picked up their Slip Case. It's nice. It's certainly not going to win any design awards, but it gets the job done. It's very thin (fits well in the small pocket of my computer bag), is hard on one side (to protect the screen), and holds snugly the device. I definitely recommend it.

Buying books is addictive

I was amazed at how many books I bought within the first two weeks of owning the Kindle.2 It's so incredibly easy to buy books, either directly from the device itself, or through; either way, it's essentially a one-click process, and the book arrives on the Kindle within a minute of the purchase.

Using a similar process, you're allowed to download, for free, the first chapter of any book available in the Kindle store. A great move, which costs all involved parties essentially nothing, and in the best case may lead to a purchase.

Did I mention that there are currently ~120,000 books available, and most for $9.99 or less? I don't think you'll ever want for content.

The send-to feature

The ability to send to the Kindle, by email, long-form articles and other content (for 10 cents an email)3 is invaluable. If I come across a long article that I think I'll probably never actually finish reading on the computer, I simply email it to my Kindle address and seconds later it's on the device. OK, so the formatting is hit-or-miss, but what do you expect? Amazon obviously can't be expected to be able to parse perfectly everything you throw at it, and I'm sure this is something they're constantly improving.

Things I haven't tried yet

I'm so preoccupied with reading that I haven't spent any time at all connecting it to my computer (I've done everything over-the-air), adding music (much less listening to music through either the built-in speaker or headphone jack), adding memory by way of an SD card, or downloading and listening to audiobooks. I have spent a little time playing around with the "experimental" web browser, and while it's usable, I don't see myself ever actually using it, save for Wikipedia lookups (web pages just aren't meant to be consumed on a device like this, with non-scrolling e-ink).

What I'd like to see in future versions

I'd like them to offer different colors, or at least one other color (i.e., anything other than bright white).

It would be really nice to have my highlights (i.e., book passages that I've "circled") available to me through my Amazon account. Amazon currently keeps track of the books you've bought (and will allow you to re-download them at any time if, for example, you've removed them from your Kindle to make room for other content), but doesn't offer a way for me to use the highlights I've made, without plugging the device into my computer (though I think they're saved together with the book, and come along with it should you re-download it).

I use the keyboard so infrequently that it might be nice to have it slide in/out or otherwise hide itself, so as to bring down the overall length of the device. Then again, I'm not quite sure how I would hold it if that extra space wasn't there.

The behavior of footnotes can be inconsistent, even within a single book. I think this needs to be a bit more standardized across all books. When it works, it works great, but when it doesn't, you can be made to figure out where you left off (which may be next to impossible in some cases).

Should you buy a Kindle?

Yes, assuming you like to read books (or simply want to read more of them), I can't recommend this device highly enough. Amazon has made the entire process — from searching for and buying books, to reading and annotating them — effortless and fun. They really do have something special in the Kindle.

  1. Six months ago, Amazon sold out of Kindles within 5.5 hours of making them available, and only recently has supply caught up with demand; yeah, that's right, it was basically "out of stock" for six months (you could order it, but it was still taking, in some instances, a month+ to actually ship out). So, what's the fallback option? Right, eBay. The problem though is that for a very long time they were going for ~$1000 on eBay (2.5 times their retail cost of $400), and only a couple of months ago did the prices start to fall below $500 (which is when I finally grabbed one).   

  2. Rodney Brooks' Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, David Levy's Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, David McCullough's John Adams, and Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World.   

  3. It costs you 10 cents each time you send content to your Kindle email address, but to save some time and a little money, you can actually zip up a few different files and send the archive to your Kindle address; the file will be unzipped and the individual documents will be sent to the device, all for just 10 cents.   

Belkin CushTop

May 11, 2008

Earlier this month I wrote about my quest for a new laptop stand, and commented on the stand I had recently purchased, the Allsop Cool Channel Platform. I also referenced the iLap, which I had been using for years, despite some fairly serious flaws.

While the Allsop was OK, I very quickly resigned myself to continuing the hunt for a better solution. Just a few days after publishing that piece, I came across the Belkin CushTop, and while I had seen it many times before, it always struck me as a bit too bulky and cumbersome, but this time I decided to give it a shot, and I'm really glad I did.

There's no getting around the fact that it's a little large, but I'm here to tell you that it works very well besides. In fact, I liked it so much, that after just one night's use I picked up another so that I could have one at my girlfriend's place when I was over there.

I was worried that the fabric covering the CushTop would not be sticky enough to keep the MacBook Air from sliding around on its four rubber feet, but the Air actually sticks to it really well, which allows you to work in a lot of different positions; in other words, you don't have to sit perfectly still with the stand flat against your thighs, but rather have some real freedom to move around a bit.

Part of its large volume has to be attributed to its slightly unusual height, but that it's so tall is actually good for a couple of reasons. The first is that the heat from the bottom of the laptop is that much further away from your body; this, coupled with the inch-plus hole in the middle of the CushTop, means that you feel no heat from the notebook. Very nice.

The other advantage of the increased height is that the screen is moved closer to your plane of sight (i.e., you don't have to bend your neck as much), and with protracted use this can make a huge difference. As a corollary, the keyboard is also raised a significant amount (when compared to other stands, which usually raise the back of the laptop much more than the front); while some people might not like the extra height, I actually prefer it — I can generally type faster and for longer periods of time when the keyboard is raised a few inches above my lap.

After using the CushTop for a few days, I'm no longer actively searching for a new laptop stand (that's right, all of you can breathe a heavy sigh of relief, and sleep well knowing the hunt is over — my gift to you).

Help, I need a new laptop stand

May 01, 2008

For the past four years I've been using an iLap to keep my laptop away from, you know, my lap, but a few weeks ago I decided to pick up an Allsop Cool Channel Platform. I had been looking for a new stand for a while, and just happened to notice the Allsop model while waiting in line to return the BlueAnt Z9.

While there was nothing particularly wrong with the iLap, I was getting a bit bored with it (yeah, I know, I know, it's a laptop stand), and I've found the front pad, which connects to the stand by velcro, pretty annoying all along (something I kind of touched on in my original iLap piece). The whole setup never felt very solid, yet for whatever reason I stuck with it for years.

As far as the Allsop platform goes, it's generally alright, but definitely suffers from some problems, especially if you are using a MacBook Air.

My favorite feature of the stand, and indeed the main reason I bought it, is the "lip" in the front, intended to keep your notebook from slipping off the platform.1 This feature allows you much more freedom to place the laptop in various positions on your lap, stomach, etc., and knowing that it can't slip off the front is pretty liberating. The problem though is that the platform just isn't rigid enough; it bends very easily. In fact, with just the lightweight Air resting on it, and it on a slightly less than perfectly flat surface (e.g., your lap a lot of the time), it will bend. This desire to bend, coupled with the Air's super-low profile, means that the front of the Air often finds itself on top of the lip, instead of behind it, which obviously completely defeats its purpose.

I've also had a problem with heat dissipation, even though Allsop says the platform "uses a non-slip woven surface with engineered channels for passive air circulation to help keep your notebook computer cool." With the Air, the heat vents are located on the bottom of the notebook, near the back where it starts to curve. Because the platform is slightly cushioned, and because the Air's feet are very short, the entire bottom of the Air tends to touch the surface of the platform, which inhibits the heat's dispersion. My Air tends to run 10-15 degrees hotter when on the platform (as opposed to a table). So, while it does keep the heat away from your lap, it actually causes the Air to become hotter than it otherwise would.

Long story short, I need a new laptop stand. Any recommendations?

  1. The iLap effectively has a lip (i.e., the front pad extends above the top of the metal), but given the annoying velcro fastener and that the front pad is easily disturbed even when it is on a perfectly flat surface, the lip just isn't very sound.   

Humans nearly wiped out 70,000 years ago#

[Researchers estimate] that the number of early humans may have shrunk as low as 2,000 before numbers began to expand again in the early Stone Age.


Tiny bands of early humans, forced apart by harsh environmental conditions, coming back from the brink to reunite and populate the world. Truly an epic drama, written in our DNA.

Multi-inflection-point alert#

Near as I can tell, we're simultaneously at inflection points in programming languages and databases and network programming and processor architectures and Web development and IT business models and desktop environments.

Interesting insight(s) from Tim Bray.

Jawbone > BlueAnt Z9

April 16, 2008

Last week I purchased a BlueAnt Z9 Bluetooth headset, all the while knowing that I would likely return it. And that's just what I did.

I'll keep this ‘review' really short, as it's the same story you've heard me tell a million times before, namely that — and this is a real shocker — the <insert headset name> simply does not eliminate background noise as well as the Jawbone. The Z9 just continues the streak. It sounded OK (both on my end and the receiver's), fit my ear fairly well, and offered decent noise isolation, but really, we've been spoiled by the Jawbone.

I'm not sure why I even hold out hope anymore; you'll remember that I was similarly dissatisfied with the nXZEN nX6000 and the Motorola MOTOPURE H12, among many others. Speaking of the H12, allow me to quote from that piece:

I'll be honest, I'm kind of tired of buying these things and always being disappointed (what is this, like my 20th Bluetooth headset?). Here's to hoping Aliph can use its recent $5 million cash infusion to remedy all of the original Jawbone's shortcomings; if they make it smaller, louder, and impervious to wind, it's going to be untouchable.

As it just so happens, the next-gen Jawbone made its way to the FCC a few days ago, and so it may be soon that we'll be able to see how far they've come in the last year and a half; my uninformed guess is that the issues I have with the current version (see above) have been resolved (OK, maybe not the impervious-to-wind thing, but I bet they've addressed the problem to some extent).

That said, I'm hoping the design of this second version isn't an indication of its technical capabilities; if it is, they may be in trouble. I'm not sure what the diamond pattern on the model supplied to the FCC is all about, but I'll assume, for at least my own public-use reasons, that flat, smooth versions will be offered (right?!?). Maybe they're just bad pictures. Let's hope.

The end of Mowser#

I don't actually believe in the "Mobile Web" anymore, and therefore am less inclined to spend time and effort in a market I think is limited at best, and dying at worst.


In other words, I think anyone currently developing sites using XHTML-MP markup, no Javascript, geared towards cellular connections and two inch screens are simply wasting their time[.]

Let there be no doubt.

Gmail Redesigned#

Gmail Redesigned is, by far, the most complete and usable Gmail skin I've ever seen. I'm not entirely sure why I like it so much — especially given that I initially found the color scheme to be a bit jarring (I've since come around to it) — but surely much of my adoration has to do with the author's dedication and attention to detail; he leaves no aesthetic stone unturned, updates/tweaks the skin almost daily, and, well, the whole thing just works.

Relatedly, I have confirmation from Evgueni that he plans to skin both Google Reader and Calendar (once he finalizes Gmail). I can't wait.

US war robots in Iraq turned on American troops#

[T]here had been chilling incidents in which the SWORDS combat bot had swivelled round and apparently attempted to train its 5.56mm M249 light machine-gun on its human comrades.

Last August, I linked to an article discussing the deployment of the SWORDS bots to Iraq, which, in light of these events, now reads even creepier than before. From that piece:

[Though declared ready for duty in 2004,] concerns about safety kept the robots from being sent [to the] battlefield. The machines had a tendency to spin out of control from time to time.


So the radio-controlled robots were retooled, for greater safety. [...] A three-part arming process — with both physical and electronic safeties — is required before firing. Most importantly, the machines now come with kill switches, in case there's any odd behavior.

Hugh MacLeod on Twitter

April 10, 2008
Twitter Twitter Twitter

This cartoon sums up well the impact Twitter is having on a lot of people. Hugh says he found Twitter to be "too easy," and I can't disagree. Though I don't want to admit it, the service has likely influenced, at least indirectly, the rate at which I post things here. But, unlike Hugh, who quit Twitter, I'm in for the long haul, both here and there.

Of course the upside to all of this is that the barrier to entry for [micro-]blogging is now negligible at worst, and inviting at best.

Google App Engine#

Google App Engine "enables you to build web applications on the same scalable systems that power Google applications."

Very, very cool, but what I want to know is when I can start using the "scalable systems that power Google applications" to host this web site. I'm only half-kidding, and something tells me it's coming.

The paradox of perfectionism#

[T]he perfectionist's creative process is so tiresome that he or she will lose motivation fast. If each blog post takes three hours to be written, formatted, and thought-out perfectly, you'll publish less often and you'll discard a lot of ideas that could've been great. This is the paradox of perfectionism: your best work is produced when you're not striving towards perfection. Being a perfectionist is so de-motivating that you'll wind up producing less and never create the masterpiece that realizes your full creative potential.

I don't remember Rob interviewing me for this piece, but, umm, he must have. If one thing — other than work — affects the rate at which I post here, post-process photos, etc., it's the perfection-is-attainable pipe dream I've been holding on to since the day I was born; it can be overcoming.

URL as UI#

If people use your site enough, they'll want an even faster way to reach the content they want. They're not browsing anymore. They are power users. They know what they want. Give them a nicely hackable URL to do this.

Scientists want your MacBook for earthquake detection#

[Seismologists] have made use of the sensors built into many new laptops that sense when the computer is being dropped, and turned them into earthquake monitors. They hope to sign up thousands of users to act like a grid of detectors that can sense an earthquake before it does too much damage.

Incrementalism and the new new thing#

When Facebook doesn't deliver world peace, and FriendFeed fails to be better than sliced bread, what will we do?

An astute observation from Jeff Nolan, and something I've been feeling for a while now, namely that the web space is becoming a bit boring and everything is starting to bleed together.

Consider Twitter, arguably one of the simplest, most talked about web services of the last year. While I love the service, and use it constantly, it's not all that exciting from a technology standpoint, and to that end it offers little novelty over similar services that have been around for years (think of it as one-to-many IM, or IRC with public channels collapsed into a single user). In fact, Twitter's 140-character limitation is, debatably, its only real (consumer-facing) "innovation."

The deltas are approaching zero.

Bush's War#

Bush's War is a must-watch, four-hour Frontline special about the Iraq war.

A two-part special series that tells the epic story of how the Iraq war began and how it has been fought, both on the ground and deep inside the government.


Quotably aggregates the "@username" replies associated with a given tweet. Very cool, and useful.

Relatedly, I'm still waiting for a site (or Twitter itself) to let me link to multiple (and probably related) tweets using a single URI. It's often the case that someone — who doesn't follow me on Twitter — asks me about something I've discussed there, and instead of having to explain myself again, it would be nice to be able to link to the relevant tweets (as a group).