19 December, 2010

Anyone for a good book?

Something to say about Reading

Some of my many books

iPAQ software ebook readers

When comparing electronic reader programs for the PocketPC platform, I'm dismayed by the paucity of offerings. There aren't too many options available for free, and a lot of the programs are somewhat limited by the small amount of memory available to use on my iPAQ. For reading html, there's always the included Internet Explorer, for text, you can use Word, but those aren't usually what ebooks are delivered in. For example, there's epub, pdf, lit, pdb and a score of others. Programs that support one format don't usually support other formats, so to read all the formats, I have to install multiple programs.

I finally found something positive to say about Microsoft's Reader program - at least on my little iPAQ, it works better than the competing Freda and hasn't hiccuped once on any of the .lit books I've fed it. In contrast, every few pages or so in Freda, I'd have to drop into "Book Properties" and back to the page before I could view the next few pages, as otherwise I was presented with black screens, or the screen simply wouldn't refresh with the new page. What a shame I can't actually activate Microsoft Reader on my device, as Microsoft doesn't support running the ActiveX applet on the iPAQ. In addition, I'm stuck with the size of the font the program chooses to display some book text in, which isn't the same as the fontsize in the font settings page. If the .lit file specifies a font size, I'm unable to override that. Add to that, the only format the reader program seems to support is Microsoft's own .lit, meaning I have to go somewhere else for anything else.

Mobi software released Mobipocket, which supports some common formats (pdb, txt, html) but not others (pdf, epub); in addition, it costs. In comparison, Freda is free software, and supports reading epub documents, but doesn't support pdb or pdf. And to read pdf, I had to install PocketXPDF—thankfully it seems to work well if I use the "Plain Text" mode. This does the job much better than trying to run Adobe's official offering, which seems to assume we like panning the page back and forth to read a page, and seems to have been built for devices with screens that are 640 pixels wide, or even 800 pixels, and doesn't provide a "render in plain text" mode.

Other alternatives

I've been looking for an effective portable device to read ebooks in multiple formats; PDF, epub, lit, HTML or even plain text are the formats I seem to be dealing with recently, but I suspect I won't be dropping $299 on the local eReader—the Kobo. Nor would I be able to afford the Sony eReader, and the Amazon Kindle isn't available in New Zealand (though this has since been remedied)—and costs a bunch, just like the others. I suspect the disadvantage of all these eReaders is that they only read books (or occasionally play music in addition) and are expensive for what they do. If you add in the cost of the books, often you have a ebook solution that isn't much less expensive than a paper version, with the only real positives being the fact you can store multiple books on one slim device, and you can—depending on what country you're in—purchase and download books wirelessly. But you'd better not drop it, or you'll be paying out more money.

In addition, I could quite imagine having more than the thousand books capacity that the Kobo provides internally. Thankfully the Kobo designers included a SD slot, though when putting a large SD card into the Kobo you'd better be prepared to wait a while until the Kobo has finished cataloging the books. I put my 2Gb SD card into a shop's sample Kobo, but after three minutes I gave up waiting. Clearly, if you're going to put books onto a 2Gb SD card, you'll probably leave the card in the device. In addition, I quite often want to do other stuff with a portable device aside from just read ebooks—sometimes I want to browse the web, play some music, play a quick game of Sudoku to while away the time, or maybe even take some pictures. Devices that do most—if not all of these things—are available for nearly the same cost as the more expensive readers, and provide me with all the other stuff I want to do. About the only negative is the shorter battery life in comparison.

In addition, I want colour screens. Some of the books I read have (wow!!) colour diagrams in them, and I'd hate to reduce them to 16 greys. So colour is pretty much mandatory for me—one reason why the battery life is shorter. Nobody's made an e-ink device in colour yet, or not that I've seen.

Anyone for a book?

Books are dead, long live Ebooks, A debate?

I recently watched a debate whose premise was "From the book to the hard drive: books are dead", featuring some of our local literati and other notable presences. In essence, two teams of three members had to debate whether books in paper form were well on the way to being buried, or keeping pace with modern alternatives. Needless to say, the debate was adjudged a success for the team for the negative—that is, that the book has not died, and is still relevant.

But that rather begs the question, doesn't it? Personally, I find I'll read an e-book in preference to a real book for one reason—portability. With a real book, it can come in any one of six different formats—fourteen if you add in children's book formats—and can be as thick or as thin as the pages allow. In addition, you have to remember to carry around some sort of bookmark if you can't remember the page you're on. I refuse to dog-ear my pages just to retain the current page number—eventually, folding those page corners will mean the corners start falling off. Then there's the weight, again dependent upon if the book's a hardcover, a trade paperback (my preferred format) or a smaller paperback, and—again—how many pages were put into the book. Occasionally, publishers will add extra pages in to promote further books either by the author themselves, or other authors that the company just happens to also publish for. Then there's the dustjacket if the book's a hardcover.

Then there's the quality of paper used—most books seem to use a paper that yellows readily, and very few books I own actually have the "white" paper so loved by booklovers. Leaving them in the sun—or even strong light—causes this yellowing that's impossible to reverse, and looks ugly. The paper becomes quite brittle, easily tearing and difficult to repair correctly. Using sellotape is a definite no-no, but there aren't many cheap repair tools that actually work. Also, if the glueing job isn't up to snuff, then you start losing pages from the spine almost as soon as you start reading. I have at least three paperbacks that run the risk of losing tens of pages this way.

Instead, with a portable device it's always the same size, it's always the same thickness and weight, has no corners to dog-ear, only has to be charged up every so often, and is eminently readable in most conditions if you've got decent hands. For the readers that have their own backlight, you can have the device in most lighting conditions, but with the ones that don't, you do have to consider ambient lighting conditions, but at least for the e-ink displays, you don't have much reflectivity of the screen. Then there's the fact that you don't have to break a book's spine—a pet peeve of mine, but rather easily done in today's books. In fact, you don't have to turn any pages, you simply press buttons or stroke the screen to turn pages.

My only regret is that the manufacturers haven't been able to bring the manufacturing costs down to the extent where a good—and I am talking good book reader won't cost you much more than it would cost to get ten or twelve books. Devices currently tend towards smaller page sizes because it's easier to produce a small display (or a larger greyscale display) than it is to do a full colour screen of say, an A4 page in size. Small screens also make for a more portable device—one that can be slipped into a pocket, instead of a bag. Indeed, with cellphones, there are already e-reader programs that duplicate what the Kindle and their kin do. And in addition, it's a computer and communications device. Wonderful!


However, in favour of books—and I am talking about paper and hardboard here—are some of those same things I have mentioned. Publishers are able to produce books in multiple formats, small for handbags, large for coffee table presentation and large format imagery. In addition, they can add in pictures from esteemed artists, cover the books in a protective dustjacket (mostly to market the books) or print directly on the cover—typical for paperbacks of any size—again, to market the book so someone would want to pick it up and buy it. Some publishers even add their own bookmark for hardcover books. And fold-out maps are a rare addition that you'll never seen on any electronic device—who has a fold-out screen on their e-reader?

They don't require batteries, don't require energy to operate—except when lighting conditions are poor, will often take a drop without damage unless you happen to be reading in the bath, in that case books of any type will get wet. The only storage they require is a space on a bookshelf, preferably not dusty, not flooded with light, and not prone to mold. In return, books give joy, tears, thoughtfulness, or in some rare cases, inspiration.

Vive la book!

05 August, 2010

A little success

Nothing left but air in the middle

A few days ago, I finally completed this little puzzle from Rubik that I'd bought back at Easter-time instead of a chocolate egg—I ended up with chocolate later of course, but I digress. It took me a while, but I finally sat down and worked on it during an afternoon, and while I'm not sure I can repeat the effort, I have succeeded this once, at least. The idea is to guide six little coloured balls into the cups on the outside of the sphere, the trick is, the two inner spheres are weighted, and are on pivots. The spheres also have a limited number of ways that you can get a ball out to the outer sphere due to the placement of the holes in each respective sphere. And you have to make sure that any of the balls you already got out don't fall back into the innards of the sphere.

It's the only Rubik's puzzle aside from the links and Rubik's Magic that I've succeeded with, my memory lets me down for the Cubes. It put me in mind of the fact that we can't all achieve the great things in life, because there simply aren't enough of us with the sort of impetus to achieve those. So, we have to make do with little stuff—the love we give to our partner, the achievement of a puzzle, the correction of somebody else's source code—all these are little things, but for those of us that do them, the fact that they are done at all means something.

17 July, 2010

Of penguins, cafés and mighty warriors

Café World is a massive time sink

Anyone who plays Café World already knows this, of course. Since we started playing it, I think I've watched the total sum of about two hours of television. And that's over eight weeks ago. Of course I wasn't watching a lot of television anyhow, but it was more than an hour a week. That's just one of the effects.
Businesses seem to want Facebook banned, and with somewhat good reason. The games that are
provided with Facebook are designed to get your face in front of the screen and hold it there for quite a while, with titles such as Farmville getting over sixteen million distinct users, or at least that's Zynga's claim. Café World isn't far behind, claiming over twelve million. All these games take time, energy and concentration to play, time that could well be spent actually doing the job instead of surfing the web. The good aspects of Facebook are unfortunately outweighed by the design of the games. And let's face it, if the games weren't great to play, they wouldn't have thirty million users just on two games alone.
Even the children have options these days, with online games such as Club Penguin keeping younger eyeballs on screens. This has the net effect of children pestering their parents for an online subscription so they can actually BUY stuff for their penguin and puffles (a creature you can buy in the game). Then there's miniclip.com, which also offers easy to run games that don't need anything much more than a browser and a relatively recent machine to play them. Of course, World Of Warcraft (WoW for short) seems to lead the world in numbers of people playing, and it's also subscription-based, though it's certainly not run from the browser. It has a DVD's worth of content that gets updated quite often, pushing the disk space requirements up even further.
I still don't know if I have to turn in my subscription to the DVD rental shop yet, I guess time will tell.

15 May, 2010

A computer without enough hardware

I walk the line

I finally did something with the machine I was having trouble with. Turns out I won’t be using it for a NetBSD machine after all—it’s been set aside as a machine to run Café World, from FaceBook. Why? Because it’s not running anything else except for Google Chrome, Xubuntu and Café World. It's not able to be pimped out any more than it already is, as I don't have the CDROM drive that goes in the multi-function bay. What were Compaq thinking when they released this range of machines? That people would not want to add a second hard drive or more memory? I’m guessing that at the time it was released, they thought nobody would want more than 512Mb of memory on their machine—where have I heard that quote before...

Anyhow I set the machine up as an attempt to try running Café World better than the last time I tried to run it on Windows XP. So far at least, it appears to have been somewhat of a success, even though it has less resources available than the 2.8GHz Celeron machine. To refresh memories, the machine has a 1.3GHz Celeron, 512Mb of memory, and (now) a 10Gb drive with Xubuntu on it. Nothing else to get in the way of running Chrome, and running Café World in that browser. I ought to retain most of the speed I saw on fatty (the 2.8GHz machine) without the game slowing down because the computer’s going to fetch something or rehash the stored files database or check out what packages need updating, or whatever. The only time the game slows down is when it’s swapping, which can really impact gameplay negatively. Currently the only other disadvantage is that I have to keep switching the monitor over between the two machines.

So, what else will happen to this machine? Other than me putting the CMOS battery back in (done), and figuring out what the weird GRUB2 error message is, there’s nothing much else to do to it. Aside from adding twin (a screen-like terminal multiplexer, but with window borders), that is. And no, I don't have the nice monitor any more—that went back to the owner.

12 May, 2010

No Competition, and cheap build quality.

Windows XP SP3, 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 (Celeron), 512Mb memory, Google Chrome, Flash plugin. And Café World.

In short, a bit of a disaster. You'd think that Microsoft should have been able to walk away with this one laughing. However, it was not to be so. The weird bit is, Windows XP (SP3) has been quite good at other stuff on my computer. It's competently executed Second Life clients better than I was able to run them under Linux, and of course, it's usually been easier to play games under Windows, especially games written for Windows. This time, I tried out Café World on Facebook under Windows and under Linux, and I think you can guess the result. Linux won. Hands down. No competition. Not even close.

I watched the hard drive activity while the game was running under XP, and the hard drive was running pretty much flat out all the time, I'm assuming that the computer was running out of main memory, so it was going back to the hard drive to grab a bit more space to swap bits of itself out, then requiring that piece about five seconds later, so swapping it back in, etc etc etc. In short, I was the victim of a concept known as disk thrashing, when the computer simply hasn't got enough memory to keep up with everything it needs to do.

If you're asking what else I had running in the background, there was pretty much nothing aside from what would be running on a Windows XP Home computer with most of the services turned off. In short, there wasn't any other computing activity that would have impacted on Chrome, which was the only application running with an exposed window.

The astute among you would have noticed I didn't state what version of Linux, but for argument's sake, it's the latest Ubuntu. Of course it's got all of the fixes from the 2.2 series right up through the later series of 2.6.32 kernels. In comparison, Windows XP has had whatever fixes have been applied to the NT kernel throughout the years it's been around (since about 2000 or so). Is it fair to compare these two operating systems purely on the basis of one admittedly hard-on-the-system game executed through the web browser running the Flash plugin? Maybe, maybe not. However, the stats are there.

My wife has a very old machine (600 MHz Pentium 3, 384Mb memory, running Kubuntu) and put simply, her system lagged seriously when she tried Farmville. It lagged even worse when she tried Café World. So I tried out a wee experiment, because I can do this on a local network system, you see. I ssh'd from her machine to my machine running Ubuntu, and turned on X forwarding, and compressed the link too, just to smooth things out a bit. Then I started Google Chrome, and pointed it at Café World. Put simply, it still worked, although the connection was a little laggy as would be expected with an encrypted SSH link. Given I couldn't try the same thing from her Linux box to my Windows XP setup I didn't even bother trying that scenario, given the way the game had misbehaved under Windows.

Hardware failure

A good long time ago, I bought a set of headphones with a microphone. At the time, I loved the sound I got from these headphones—needless to say, I still love the sound, but some of the aspects of hardware build quality are starting to show their weaknesses. I've had to open up the volume control again for the third time, this time to replace a broken earth wire in the microphone lead. It used to be that if you had a microphone lead, you could almost run over it with a truck and the darn thing would still keep trucking. That's not been the case for a couple of decades. Cheaper prices have seen off the evil demon of quality. These days, if it breaks, you just go out and buy a new one, as it's typically cheap enough to buy. What a shame, except I can't even afford (usually) the cheap, poor quality leads, so I have to patch them up myself. Luckily I'm reasonably handy with a soldering iron, so I had that apart, and crossed my fingers as I tied down two connections again. It seems to work well now, but I don't know how long the fix will last. I hope it lasts longer than the previous fix.

06 May, 2010

What is this I see before me?

  I don't quite know why I took notice of this, but I did rather wonder where the rest of it went...
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23 April, 2010

What, Windows again?

Install woes

Yep. I finally got sick of the fact that my Solaris wouldn't boot. So I turned the 10 Gb drive into a Windows XP Home install. The install worked well enough, but the Windows installer needed to put files onto the first drive into a special partition. Linux lost a bit of swap space in the end, but I figured it was worth it. It had been the first time I'd spotted an install where the system drive wasn't the boot drive. The other weird thing to get my head around was that my Windows drive was called H: and not C:—which was the boot drive.

I soon found out that 10 Gb was nowhere near enough for the games I wanted to add. So I retired a 40 Gb hard drive out of brick, copied my Windows install over to the drive using gparted, then tried to get it bootable using the Windows CD. Unfortunately for me, the Windows installer insisted on putting boot files onto the first hard disk, and wouldn't continue unless I allowed this to happen. In the end, I gave up, toasted the copy, and created three partitions. One partition had grub and Linux kernels so I could still boot Linux from the first drive, even though the rest of the Linux files were held on the second drive, I just had to do the normal twiddle with the file system tables. The second partition was for the Windows files, and the third partition was for Windows virtual memory.

Hardware issues

I stuck the Windows CDROM back in and booted the computer. The Windows Setup program merely said "Setup is examining your hardware configuration", then the screen went blank, and the drive activity light started flickering about six times a second. In the end, the only way I was able to get Setup to continue was to pull the power plug out of the first hard disk while Setup was examining the hardware, then plug the power back in while Setup was loading the rest of itself into memory. I don't recommend doing that, of course. But I finally got Windows XP installed last night and spent the rest of this morning, and most of this afternoon installing all the updates, along with SP3, Quicktime, Adobe Reader, and so on, as well as Quake 4 and the Command & Conquer games I bought.

One thing I found out rapidly is that Windows requires reboots after most of the updates I'd put in. Take Acroread as an example: I installed the latest copy of Acroread, and was fine. Then I told Acroread to check for updates, it then downloaded the update, installed it, and required me to reboot the computer. I even saw that same issue with Windows 7. I seriously don't miss that aspect of Windows.

So now I have two copies of Windows XP, one Pro and one Home. The main reason for installing XP Home is so that I can actually play games on a machine with an AGP video card. The machine's also considerably faster than the 1GHz Duron, although it doesn't have as much memory. I'd probably add some other 3D programs too, such as blender, OpenCobalt and Second Life clients. I have a lot of older games that might work under Windows XP that won't work under Vista (or Windows 7) so my machine will be good for that.

That machine, part two

Yes, that one

About a week before, I'd received a computer to analyse. It had ... issues. After typing up the article, I tried installing SP2 again, and got a warning that WGA had not been installed on the machine. When I installed WGA, and tried to reinstall SP2, I got a warning that the version of Windows that had been installed, got installed with a Volume Licensing Key that had been subsequently de-allocated (rendering it invalid). As a result, the machine no longer had a Windows install that could have any other updates applied to it, if those updates depended upon WGA. I duly rang owner, and suggested that they either get themselves a valid Windows license and CDROM, or consider the purchase of a new machine. They got back to me, and told me I could (effectively) keep the machine, though they did take the monitor back.

So, that was the end of the line for that install of Windows XP Pro. I nuked the install, copied my wife's copy of Kubuntu to the hard drive, stuck it back inside the machine, and added another memory stick for good measure. Powered it up, and struck the first problem. The machine wouldn't accept more than 512Mb on the motherboard. So, haul out the added memory, powered back up, and down, and up several times while I tried getting the hard drive grubbed, before finally growing a clue and hauling out my Ubuntu 9.04 CD, putting the drive into my main machine, booting the CD, running "Reinstall grub" and so on. Then I pulled out the drive, rinse repeat, into the Compaq. Booted, but was really really slow. I couldn't understand this, because it was a 1.3GHz Celeron, so it should have been faster than my main computer. Also, network was really slow, and only 30% of the packets were getting through. Rapidly realising that the machine wasn't a working one, I put wife's drives back into her original machine, and left her to it, feeling rather cheesed off that my attempt to help out hadn't gone at all well.

Thinking on the problem

Next day, I hauled the hard drive back out, stuck it back in fatty, copied my Windows XP Home installation (which I'd installed less than three days before) over to the drive using gparted (nice tool, by the way), and did the futzing around required to boot Windows. Except it only got so far before stopping. Thinking that it was just Windows playing silly with me, I booted it up again, and got the same reaction... it would only get so far, and then stop. Giving up on that for a moment, I flipped the machine over to boot Linux, and did a speed test on the drive. Unusually, I got some seriously divergent results, from 8Mb per second up to 17Mb per second. I decided to eliminate the cabling, and tested the other three drives, which all varied by less than 0.1%. So, I suspect that not only was the OS giving trouble, but so was the hard disk. I've uhm, retired it.

I think what I'll do with the machine finally, is put a NetBSD drive back into the Compaq computer—which only takes one drive anyhow—and simply use it as a networked NetBSD. I don't know what else to do with a machine with Intel 815 graphics, 512Mb maximum memory, room only for one drive, and a proprietary CDROM which I don't have. So the machine doesn't show much chance for expandability. Ah well, so much for trying to help someone else out—but at least this time I got something for my troubles.

13 April, 2010

Twelve games and a drenching

A ‘new’ old adventure

I finally tracked down a copy of “Command & Conquer - the first decade.” I’ve been looking for a while for this version, rather than the original Command & Conquer game that doesn’t work on Windows XP (or it doesn’t for me, anyhow). This collection is the first twelve "episodes", i.e. C&C, Red Alert, Tiberian Sun, Generals, the expansion packs, and so on. I’ll let you know how much fun I have. I wasn’t having much luck finding it until EB Games had themselves a sale, and finally brought some in. The last time I saw the collection was over three years ago, and I had to turn it down at the time because I didn't have the money—nearly $90. Thankfully I didn't pay that much today, due to the special, I only paid $35.00

The key to future typing

Anyhow, I’m typing this on a new cheap keyboard, because somehow my keyboard got drenched in tea when my teapot overflowed onto it. It feels quite different from my keyboard, so no doubt it’ll take me a while to get used to it. I had to go for a bargain keyboard, and I can feel it. My finger memory will need to be retrained as my previous keyboards were a different feel, with keys in slightly different places than this one. The Enter key is flaming huge in comparison, and the pipe symbol ‘|’ and backslash ‘\’ are down beside the right hand shift key. I haven’t had a keyboard like this for years!

I had a bit of an adventure when I bought the keyboard though. I need a PS/2 dongle to connect to a KVM I’m using. The first keyboard that I bought didn’t have the dongle in the package, so I had to take the keyboard back and get another one that had the PS/2 dongle. Now I’ve got it home, and it works well aside from the squashy keys. Let’s hope that this keyboard doesn’t have another spill, though the price is at least cheap enough to afford a replacement in a reasonably short space of time. I know I’ll hang onto the dongle though, so that I don’t have to go through the hassle of buying a keyboard just for the dongle.

Repair of an older computer’s OS

Some days, it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed. Someone I know had one of those days recently. They got given a computer by their boss, that had Windows XP installed onto it, but nothing had been updated since. They requested that I come over to help them as they couldn’t get email or the Internet going. When I got there, I immediately pulled the USB cable out of the DSL modem, which at least fixed the Internet problem, but only in part. I even managed to plug a printer in, plug a digital camera in, and print photos, all without issue. But I got stumped on the email, so I left it for the owner to talk to the ISP about. Yesterday, they spent most of the day on the phone to the ISP, trying to sort out the email problem, with the eventual decision by the ISP that the computer must be somewhat broken. That’s when I suggested they bring it over here, so I can work on it at my leisure. So far, it's got to me with these symptoms:

  • Updates won’t install onto it, due to the OS being not patched.
  • Google Chrome can’t be installed on to the OS, as it hasn't been brought up to SP3
  • Service Pack 2 won’t install on the OS, claiming it can’t be installed on this version of the OS
  • The web browser won’t go to Skype.com, the browser sits and waits, but doesn't go any further. The same thing happens when the user clicks the “webmail” link on the ISP’s home page—the browser simply sits there and the progress bar moves up to about five bars, then seems to stop.

Frankly, I smell a rat, and no doubt I'll be spending a fair amount of time just getting the computer to “do email”—I’ll let you all know what luck I have.

25 March, 2010

Another calculator, same as the first?

A new purchase

I recently got another calculator for $10 from an online store. I saved $19.95, so I was happy. There was a reason not to be happy, but more about that later. It's still my first honest-to-goodness modern Hewlett Packard calculator—my previous HP was a HP34C and died long ago. But something struck me as soon as I received it in the post. It's another one of these calculators with a display that has two lines, one for the input calculation, the other shows the output from previous calculations. The display's almost exactly like the Casio FX-82MS with the same characters and annunciators, and the HP 10s even has a very similar keypad layout, only the occasional keys have been transposed, and the directional keypad is in a different position.

As well, the internal menu system is exactly like the FX-82MS, to the extent that if I compared the HP documentation and the Casio documentation, I'd find no mistakes on either calculator. Their documentation certainly differs though, even though they've both printed their respective instructions on a single sheet in multiple panels, the Hewlett Packard documentation is separated into distinct pages, and those pages don't take up an entire column as the Casio instructions do. I also found that the self-test on this calculator is almost (but not quite) identical to the FX-82MS. The key combination to start the test off is even the same: Shift-7-On. Once starting the test, keys in the keyboard test are pressed in exactly the same order as they would be on the MS, which makes for a slightly odd order on the HP's keypad. And I still haven't found out what all the numbers mean at the end.

So, is it a clone?

It's not absolutely a clone, and it has the advantage of being solar-powered like the FX-85MS, though I haven't seen one of those in this country. Nice for when you've got some nice bright sunshine, it keeps the watch-cell battery topped up with solar power, and makes the battery life a lot longer as a result. It also has a slide-on case just like the Casio, but slightly differently designed. The fit is tighter, for one, so the top's not quite as likely to fall off inadvertedly. It has exactly the same default ranges too, so if you couldn't find the FX-82MS, this HP 10s would do fine and be literally a drop-in replacement for it.

The LCD display and the colours selected for the fascia and keys mean that everything can be read clearly, and is easier to read than the MS, and it reminds me of the other white calculator body I have from Casio (the FX9750G Plus). However there's a slight anomaly when you look at the M+ key, the DT is supposed to be associated with it, but the way the design was done for that key isn't quite as together as for the 82MS. However, I can certainly live with it. The keys have a good positive travel and don't have a tendency to offset, unlike the keys on the Casio body which can on occasion look a bit higgledy piggledy. All in all, the Hewlett's quite a good calculator, though the lack of programmability is reflected in its price. It seems strange that somewhere in the documentation on the HP web site, there is mention that the calculator has 128 Kilobytes of memory, I'm trying to figure out what on earth uses up all that space, given there's no programmability.

And the reasons for being unhappy?

About the only problem that I had was when I first received the calculator and turned it on, the display wasn't quite right. In that top line of the display, there was a missing line of dots. I'd normally have shrugged this off, but in the case of this calculator, there's little enough font information as it is, as the font on the top line is only six pixels high by five pixels wide, with an additional pixel's worth of space between each character cell. So having every single character missing its second line of pixels was a bit disconcerting. If it wasn't so cheap, I'd have probably returned it to the retailer by now, asking if I could have another one of the same value. But the cost of return is nearly as much as the calculator cost me to begin with, so I probably won't bother. And as it was, using the self-test cured the missing line of pixels, so I don't have to send this back to the company after all. I would have felt like a charlie if they'd slung it back my way saying "It works, deal with it". I was also hoping like anything that this calculator was programmable, but it was not to be. Ah well.


For simple tests, it shows roughly the same degree of accuracy as other models, though there are some differences. For example, this test:

(asin (acos (atan (tan (cos (sin(9)))))))

results in the figure

being displayed, instead of the FX-82MS' result of 8.999998637. So maybe there are differences after all. After taking away the 9.00000000 and then multiplying by 1E9, we get 2.124, which makes me wonder if this calculator has an extra couple of digits of precision up its sleeve. Weird.

17 March, 2010

Where are the corners?

A new toy from the Rubik stable

You’ve heard me talking about my Rubik’s Cube family, not once, but several times and also about the other non-cube members of the puzzle family. Well, today I bought another non-cube puzzle. This one contains three clear spheres that are hooked together with pivots, and if you look through, you can see six little coloured plastic balls, nestling in the centre sphere. The outside one’s got knobs on, and there’s a steel ball bearing on each of the two inner spheres. So not only do you have to fight logic, but now you have gravity to contend with too. It’s called the Rubik’s 360°, and it's not like any other puzzle I've ever played with.

Why another puzzle?

I’d like to use the excuse that I was getting ready for Brain Week, but frankly that’d be a bit pointless after Saturday. No, I simply liked the look of this puzzle, and thought I’d add it to my collection just because I like it. It also happens to be my equivalent to purchasing an Easter egg—except this one will last much much longer, after the chocolate has become a dim and distant memory. It's also better for my waistline, not that I have much of one anyhow. In addition, I would like to add a couple of other puzzles that I don’t already have, the Megaminx and the Holey Megaminx. I suspect the second will be easier to do because there’s no centres to match the rest of the face against, but I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before... anyhow, they  both have twelve faces, each  face shares its pieces with five other sides, and they do look quite difficult. One variant has six colours, where opposite sides have the same colour, but the other variant has twelve colours, to remove the chance that two pieces with the same colour pairing can get mismatched. No doubt there'll be other puzzles I want to lay my hands on. Not only are there single-layered versions, but there are double-layered Gigaminx, three-layered Tetraminx, and four-layered Petaminx, though I've no idea what the last one looks like. I've also seen online versions of the Megaminx, and it's easy to use but hard to get used to without the real thing in my hands.

13 February, 2010

Have camera, will snap

A new dawn

A few months ago, someone I knew was finishing a course, and I was invited to the leaving ceremony. That was fair enough, except his mother, with even more unsteady hands than me, wanted me to use her camera to take some pictures of the ceremony. It was at that stage that I found out how badly I sucked at photography, and how badly the camera did its job. It was a little point-and-shoot camera, but I don't remember it having any optical zoom.

I gave up in the end, only having taken about five shots. I've no idea how any of them turned out, nor have I asked since. It was way before then that I decided I wanted to get into digital photography, but it was at that leaving ceremony that I decided I was never going to pick up one of those little cameras again. At least, not without a much better idea of how to get the best out of it.

I finally entered the age of digital photography today, with the arrival yesterday of my first proper digital camera. No, I'm not talking about those hosey little webcams, that can barely reach 640x480 for motion, and maybe 1024x768 for still pictures. Nor the webcam that happens to be on my cellphone, at 1.3 Mpix, which only does 1280x1024 for a maximum size. Instead, this little camera (the Fujifilm Finepix S5600) which was first released five years ago, features 5 Megapixels on the CCD. That doesn't sound like a lot in these days of 10/11/12/14 Megapixel cameras, but it still manages to show a respectable 2592x1944 pixels in 4:3 mode, or 2736x1824 in 3:2 (the same format as 35mm film.) That allows for a full size print roughly A4 in size, and that's without enlarging it.

A picture of my cat.

I have a whole lot yet to learn about how exposure, aperture, shutter speed and ISO rating all interact to produce the perfect picture, but with this camera, I get to find all that out, as I'm able to tweak most of these settings by hand. Of course, the camera has a really good automated mode for those point-&-shooters that don't want to fiddle, but I decided early on that if I wanted to get into photography, I wanted what I see through the viewfinder to be exactly the same as the picture I get in the camera. Unfortunately, this camera doesn't provide that, though it's pretty darn close. There's two reasons. First, it's not a dSLR, though it looks like a baby brother of one. I have to admit though, that a lot of the reviewers that reviewed this camera when it came out said that it's pretty close in features to the bottom end dSLR cameras. The second reason is the failing that all cameras have: the viewfinder. In this case, it's a 115,000 pixel 1.8 inch display, and though it's crisp and clear, the resolution and its size really lets it down. The viewfinder is no better, though you at least have the advantage of sealing out the remainder of surrounding light, pretty useful when it's bright sunlight and you can't see the screen even with the brightness pushed up a bit.

Looking up the first review of the camera, with its impressive (for the time) optical zoom basically decided me on it. All the previous cameras I had looked at in the same price range featured 3x optical zoom and maybe a bit better digital zoom. There's plenty of things on the Internet already steering us away from digital zoom, as it typically reduces the number of pixels it initially captures. So I wanted high optical zoom, even with the need for something to stabilise the camera with. My only remaining problem was how much I was going to have to pay for it. Luckily, I stumbled across two things. One: somebody to sell it at a price I could afford. Two: something I could sell that would give me that much money. I sorted those both out, now I have the camera in my hot hands. I was exceptionally lucky, as the owner basically threw in everything with the camera that wasn't any use with other cameras they already owned. The fact that it is a second-hand camera helped to drop the price too. It's not ancient, which means that it has more of the modern technology inside of it to help out.

In addition to the camera unit, and the two cables that came with the camera, I also got a camera bag, a 2 Gb xD card, a 256 Mb xD card, a circular polarising lens, and a lens hood that also features a 52 mm thread and an additional 55 mm thread for adding other filters or lenses. All of this means that if I can find further lenses (whether 55 mm or 52 mm, or larger if I purchase step-up rings), I can actually make the S5600 the core of my own little optical warehouse. This comes with a qualifier though, they have to be suitable for digital cameras, and they have to work with the lens that's there already. The large 10x zoom can be expanded further by a 2x telephoto lens that can be added, which makes my total optical zoom ratio up in the low 20s. And that's before I kick in the digital zoom, not that I ought to be using that anyhow. If I want to go in the other direction, I can screw on a wide angle lens, which gives me a slightly wider field of view than the admittedly underpowered native 38 mm minimum focal length of the camera.

But first, I need to learn the ropes. That means getting to grips with all the features this camera has, before I start adding bits to it that I don't understand why I'm adding them for. So, needless to say, I'll be a happy snapper. No, there won't be too many pictures featured out of this camera that'll actually make it onto the Internet, but I hope you'll be happy with the ones I do show you all. And with that, I'm off to go get another shot.

26 January, 2010