Kyle Maxwell

Just me.

Archive for the category “Tech”

New toys!

A little over a week ago, I finally got my first tablet. And rather than follow through (for now) on my desires for a Honeycomb tablet, like the Motorola Xoom, I bought a refurbished low-end iPad 1. It came with 16GB storage and a Wifi-only network connection, but for me that does the job quite well since I can just set my Droid Incredible as a wifi hotspot. The Twitter app for iPad really rocks, unlike their Android app. And reading news (New York Times, The Economist, Flipboard, etc.) has become the pleasurable experience it ought to be. My primary complaints, so to speak, have to do with apps with minor issues (e.g. feedly) or the lack of a coherent way to manage settings (e.g. the browser).

Just as importantly – actually, more so – my new desktop finally came to life. Built from scratch, godel runs Ubuntu 10.10 on a 6-core AMD Phenom II and 16GB of RAM, with a pair of linked Radeon HD 5770 graphics card each holding 1GB of on-board memory, all wrapped in a black monolith Antec Three Hundred case. Yeah, it runs like lightning, although today I need to get audio working properly and perhaps find a way to cut the fan noise. (Plus this monster deserves a new monitor.)

Of course this machine can and will run games (think EVE Online), I didn’t build it like this principally for that purpose. Rather, I want to spend significant time delving back into development, perhaps including Android development or data science projects.

Thoughts on a tablet purchase

I’ve wanted to replace my Dell Mini 9 for a bit. As an Ubuntu netbook with decent performance, it got the job done for me when it came out. Now, though, I’ve had it for over a year and a half, so it probably can get passed on to a family member. And a tablet form factor would fit my use cases much better: lean-back computing, generally at home or a third place such as a coffee shop or book store.

This has led me to set up a few criteria for the device I’ll eventually get.

  • Android device. I’d rather not get an iPad and thus delve further into the Apple ecosystem at this point. (Though as I look at the probability matrix for the rest of the year, certain family events could cause me to re-evaluate that position.) Still, for my own needs, I’d like to stick with Android to the degree possible.
  • Hackable device. Specifically, I’d like something I can jailbreak. The idea of flashing the tablet with a custom OS appeals strongly to me, especially for running Android Honeycomb.
  • WiFi only. I vacillate a little on this particular issue, but given that I primarily expect to use it in locations that provide WiFi, the extra expense of 3G or such doesn’t really appeal to me. (And it should make the previous requirement a little easier to match.)
  • Decent quality hardware. Bargain-basement knockoffs with flimsy casings and low-quality touch screens don’t appeal to me. Not that I want to go drop USD 1000 on the device, but I don’t have to go get the Wal-Mart special, either.

I’ve started to look at my choices, but mostly in ruling some of them out (e.g. the highly expensive Motorola Xoom).

Maybe I should get the Honeycomb SDK in advance, too, so I could mess around with some “Hello, World’ stuff. Mostly, though, I want to prepare myself for the inevitable moments where I tell myself that I can’t find an app that meets my needs and decide to roll my own.

Any recommendations from my friends?

Citizen Astronomy

So now 2011 has arrived and we’ve moved past the years that fascinated me as a young man. I’ve started to think again about working on stuff that matters. While my day job does matter in its own way, it lacks the sort of purpose I need. Some of that sense of purpose, of course, finds fulfillment in family and other inner pursuits. Those latter commitments mean that I haven’t returned to formal education (read, “his wife didn’t want him in class and not at home every evening…”). Instead, I’ve chosen to take Mark Twain’s counsel and find other ways to further my education.

But where should I start?

I have strong memories of my childhood telescope. As telescopes go, it wasn’t much. I think it cost something on the order of $100 at a toy store, but it did its job. As I recall, we bought it around the time of the approach of Halley’s Comet in 1986. In reality, I had lots of exposure to astronomy (and other “hard sciences”). My father and uncle took their own particular interest in this science, of course, with their own telescopes and binoculars and observations starting in their youth. To tell the truth, my family has several generations of history with what many now call “citizen science“.

During my undergraduate years, I took a basic course in Astronomy but didn’t apply myself. That had less to do with the particular course at the time and more with my overall approach to my studies, a particularly significant regret. Since then, I’ve always kept informed and interested about astronomy more than any other science, whether through eclipse observation or just APoD.

So I started looking around for areas somebody with my academic background (bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a strong computer science component) and skill set (UNIX, data analysis) could get involved. At the moment, I lean towards the Texas Astronomical Society. Conveniently, it meets at my alma mater which also sits along my work commute, and several of their upcoming events take place even closer to my home.

Whether not what I do matters, this definitely counts as working on stuff that matters.

Real-time fiction

I’m laying in bed thinking about all sorts of things. That period just before sleep always provides great opportunities for guiltless free association. The melding of many topics led me to think about the possibilities of real-time fiction.

We’ve already seen things like the Fake Steve Jobs and lonelygirl15. What about real-time fiction using microblogging or even life-streaming? That is, using Twitter, maybe a blog or even a vlog, perhaps a social network like Facebook, all for a fictional character to tell a story.

One of the keys to good, interesting storytelling is immersion. When you’re reading a book or watching a movie and completely forget who and where you are, that sort of compelled immersion creates something new, and the essence of that ephemera binds itself to you in ways that potentially change you, the observer, as you interact with and integrate the text.

So if we then embed that story in the “real world” using the tools and media that permeate our lives, what sorts of stories can move us? What structures do we need to build into the narratives so that we move from that self-contained work to something much more natural and connected?

Netbook running Linux

I really want to get a netbook (think very, very, very small laptop). And for various reasons, it’s important to me that it run Linux. Right now, I’m looking at the Asus Eee PC 900 as it costs under $450, has 1GB of RAM, runs Linux (Xandros, though I’m curious how easy it is to run other distros on it), and uses a 20GB solid-state disk. This makes the IO really fast, though speed will never be a major consideration for this sort of device.

But any other suggestions are welcome. I don’t expect to actually buy anything for a couple of weeks, unless I just see something that I can’t miss.

New Facebook layout

I really like the new, cleaner Facebook layout. The older layout causes a great deal more confusion and management difficulty. Emphasizing the activity feeds really moves it closer to solving the difficult problem of centralizing my web activities; FriendFeed accomplishes some of this but feels far less polished. Finding various tools seems easier because of this redesign, though occasionally it still hangs up on me. As it opens up more, though, it’s poised to really take over the world, I think. At least mine, anyway.

(More at Ars Technica.)

UPDATE: Is it just me, or does the new design not really work properly in Firefox?

Staying mobile

Lifehack says:

[W]eb apps can make you truly mobile. It will no longer matter if you forget to bring your flash drive with you.

Understanding this is key to understanding cloud computing and where the mobile web is taking us now. That is to say that with the continued expansion of wireless networking (both 3G cellular networks and wifi everywhere), you really don’t need too much in the way of portable storage. Sure, you might want to carry around some larger files with you on a flash drive or iPod, but storage out on the web is so cheap that there’s no need to carry much around with you. Dreamhost, my web host, offers half a terabyte of online storage to new users. That’s not even counting Files Forever. In fact, I’d say a useful hosting service is just as key as many of the other (highly useful) apps they list, particularly if you are a UNIX head. It’s almost as important as a good wireless phone and unlimited data plan.

Of course, Lifehack misses the biggest of them all: Google. Yes, they list Google Documents (and Google Talk in a very quick and passing mention), but what about Notebook? Also, Checkout looks like it could be useful in some circumstances, though maybe not for web freelancers. The list of Google services I use grows weekly, and the novel uses people find for their services grows far more quickly.

Note taking in the cloud or on the desktop

Why would I use a local note taking app over one on the Web? A recent Linux Format article covered a number of such apps on Linux, but I really can’t see why I’d use one over Google Notebook or Backpack. Availability with these two has never been an issue for me and I don’t have to synchronize any devices. This includes my mobile, which has great access to both. They could stand some improvement, like editing existing notes from my mobile, but overall this weakness is overcome by the ability to easily access them from anywhere.

I might give one or two of the desktop apps a spin to see what’s missing, I suppose.

Firefox Add-ons

This is largely for my own reference but might be useful to others. I generally install these on any Firefox install that I’ll be using for a significant length of time.

Flock

Flock is a “social browser” based on the Firefox 3 code base with additional support for Web 2.0 baked into it. That is, it has sidebars for social networking sites, detects media streams, comes with support for blogging (this post is being done from inside the Flock tool), and more.

It does the job pretty well, but it feels overly heavy. The UI is really busy and sometimes arcane. I’m not sure what it gains me other than avoiding installing some Firefox add-ons that I’ve already grown to know and love.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

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