Books — Life As We Knew It, Orphans of Chaos, Altar of Eden, Alexandria

* “Life As We Knew It”:amazon by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Total downer, post-apocalyptic story narrated by a teenage survivor. Really drug me down, kudos to the author for really establishing the tone. Amazon gives 4 stars, I agree.
* “Orphans of Chaos”:amazon by John C. Wright. The Greek gods are at war and it is spilling over onto Earth. Not a new idea, somewhat entertaining but lacks the mortal/immortal conflict that is at the heart of many of these stories. Amazon says 3.5 stars, that seems a little rich, but there is something that kept me engaged all the way thru.
* “Altar of Eden”:amazon by James Rollins. If you like Crichtonesque pseudo-science formulaic thrillers, then this is for you. Unfortunately I don’t like Crichton and this is a weak attempt at the form with depthless predictable characters. Amazon has a bunch of breathless 4 star reviews, I give this a 1 star. Didn’t bother to finish.
* “Alexandria”:amazon by Lindsey Davis. A very nice mystery set in Roman Alexandria. Very breezy modern tone, really brings the era to life. Enjoyable. Amazon says 4 stars, agreed.

Mech Eng basics on the web

Taking Finite Element Analysis this term which would be way easier if I actually had ever taken a basic course in mechanical engineering. Beams, trusses, springs, cantilevers are all foreign to me, I was learning about resistors and capacitors when the MechEs were learning this stuff.

Web to the rescue:
* “Cantilever calculator”: up at efunda.
* “Moments of Inertia”: and other basics for beams of any shape
* A ton of other basic calculations up here as well: “efunda engineering calculations”:
* Of course Wolfram Alpha has a wealth of info as well.

Just starting to look thru iphone and ipad apps as well. Wolfram ALpha I already have, there are several civil enginnering apps as well — Statics, Civil Engineering Calculations. May try some of them.

Stuff I want but don’t need, around the house

* “Using paint to save commonplace furniture”: These are freaking awesome, I absolutely love these.
* “Aspiral clock”:, innovation in timekeeping.
* “Shadow Bulbs”: These look super, can totally see using these in selected areas.
* “Philips Robust small appliances”: The warranty lengths are appealing and they look good.
* This “first mirror”: is fabulous. I would buy it tomorrow.

First iPad-only day trip

Ok took my first day trip today to San Jose with no laptop — iPad only. I can’t imagine ever taking a laptop on a day trip again. Massive reduction in bag weight, no need to pull the iPad out of carry on bags at security, good email and web access at airports and job site via free wifi, good rendering of board slide decks. Awaiting return flight and battery still at 63% after moderate use. The only thing I didn’t try out is the dongle for attaching to a projector.

My only dissatisfaction is with Numbers which has a pathetic set of spreadsheet features.

But otherwise this thing is a home run. I saw 3 others on the plane.

Books — Caught, The First Rule, The Fourth Assassin

* “Caught”:amazon by Harlan Coben. I love Coben and this book is ok but felt a little choppy. Some side characters introduced and discarded just to service the plot, and the ending felt a little scattered as if Coben toyed with multiple endings. Not his best. I’d say 3 stars. The Coben fanboys on Amazon give it 4.5 stars, they need to get out more.
* “The First Rule”:amazon by Robert Crais. Solid Joe Pike tale about Eastern European crime gangs in LA. Believable plot twists, much more compelling than the Coben above. I give it 3.5 stars, Amazon says 4.
* “The Fourth Assassin”:amazon by Matt Beynon Rees. A Palestinian visitor to the US is entangled in politics, crimes, and murders involving Palestinian emigres in NY. No idea how accurate the depiction of the Palestinian community is, but I found it engaging. Some of the plot leaps were a little unrealistic — I am not convinced NYPD cops would overlook a beheading in exchange for some information on a murder plot — but still good. 3.5 stars from me, Amazon says 4.

40 years of computing!

I’m using my iPad to remotely login to an XP machine at UW to run ANSYS, which still feels exactly like ANSYS from the 70s: painful syntax, all upper case, incredibly modal. Takes me way back — card punch machines, pin feed dot matrix printers, disk packs, paper tape. Man those were the days.

Will we still be running ANSYS in another 40 years?

Books — Reliable Wife, Flight from Monticello

* “A Reliable Wife”:amazon by Robert Goolrick. You know what sucks? Sending away for a mail order bride, only to discover she is your estranged son’s lover and has come to poison you, and so you allow her to do so, believing it will provide absolution for how you treated your son, and then things get really complicated. Cures you of nostalgia for the good old days. Amazon says only 3 stars but I found it much more compelling.
* “Flight from Monticello”:amazon by Michael Kranish. The tale of Jefferson’s days as governer of Virgina during the Revolutionary War. Makes you wonder just how we won the war, given the general ineptness of the Virginia government. And certainly makes you question the moral basis for the war — we were fighting to preserve the Virginia slave economy? Amazon says 4.5 stars, it is a very good book. I’d love to read a British perspective of the war after reading this…

New MacBook Pros — 15″ or 17″ ?

My current MacBook Pro (17″) has been ridden hard and put away wet. The hard disk is laboring, the screen has a bad defect, the motherboard wifi seems to have given up the ghost. And I’ve been riding up against disk limits and ram limits from the day I got it.

So thank goodness the new machines are out. Now I am trying to decide — 15 or 17″ ?? I love the 17″ screen but it is a beast to carry around and I’d like to think that I can get by with 15″ for mobile use. Especially since I can bring up the iPad next to it and use that concurrently. The key things to consider:

* Weight. The 15″ is a pound less. That is significant.
* Processors. A wash, you can get the same processors with either.
* RAM and Disk. Also a wash, same 500G drive options available either way.
* Video. Same video card, the 17″ obviously has much higher resolution
* Ports. The 17″ has a 3rd USB port (useful) and an expresscard port (yawn). The 15″ has an SD card slot (this is way better than expressport).
* Battery life. Both claim 8-9 hours.
* Price — the 15″ will be about $300 less.

All things considered, I am leaning towards the 15″. I’ll miss the bigger display surface but I honestly only really need it occasionally. I’m also thinking that for my most intensive computing work (matlab, aperture) I may want to step up to a full desktop machine anyway and so can get the big screen there.

iPad apps — first week likes, dislikes

So here is my first week of good and bad apps, I have spent way too much trying things out. My motto — “Buying iPad apps so you don’t have to!”

These look good and I actually use them:

* “iAnnotate”: As “previously discussed”:, the user interface is byzantine, but it works largely as promised — i’ve read and annotated close to 100 pdfs now. One commentor says it dies on large PDFs so not perfect yet.
* “WordPress”: Really a much better interface than the iPhone version. It is not bugfree, a lot of people including me are having problems with copy/paste. But nice.
* “Evernote”: Solid effort, works well.
* “Wolfram Alpha”: Now that the price is no longer insane, this is a great app to have. I wish it failed a little more noisily when the wifi connection was lost, but still good.
* “Pages”: Nice looking and adequately featured.
* “Kayak”: Nice extension of iPhone app.
* “Tweetdeck”: I find the portrait display to be a little odd but in landscape mode does a nice job of using screen space.
* “Weather HD”: Doesn’t display nearly enough forecast data, but it is beautiful. The night scenes make me feel like I am getting forecasts for a moon of Jupiter.
* “NPR”: I’m not a major NPR junkie but a lot of useful info in here.
* “Bloomberg”: Don’t know if this is the best stock app but it is free!
* “Soundhound”: Nice looking and faster than Shazam.
* “Minigore HD”: Beautiful, my timewaster of choice on the iPad.
* “Statsmate HD”: Might all be available in Wolfram Alpha but I find this useful as a way to quickly get stat table info.
* Apple’s calendar app. It looks beautiful.

Close but…

* “Papers”: I really really wanted this to work but I cannot get Web of Science access to work via UW proxy. Sigh.
* “Kindle”: and “iBooks”: Both look fine and I am glad I have them, but I will still do most of my reading on the Kindle, better battery life and easier on the eyes and lighter.
* Apple’s mail app. OK it works and in landscape mode has a nice message list, but not much else featurewise.
* “Marvel”: Beautiful and I could see using this, but difficult to figure out what to buy/try.
* “Crosswords”: Looks nice but fatally fatally fatally flawed. Won’t download the NYTimes daily puzzle here on the west coast at 7pm the previous evening when it is available. Pisses me off. I will stay with 2 Across even tho it is lo-res because it downloads at the right time.

Kind of a waste:

* Apple’s Contacts and Maps apps. All this new screen space and nothing notable feature wise. Yawn.
* The iPad store. I use this a lot but boy does it need work. With a kajillion apps, it is hard to find what you want, hard to remember what you’ve already mentally discarded, etc.
* Numbers. Does not have enough spreadsheet functionality to be useful.
* USA Today. No depth.
* Twitterific. All this screen space and I get one lame list.

Never used — what does that say?

* Apple’s iPod and iTunes apps. I just don’t use this as a music consumption device.
* Apple’s Notes app. This one is so lame compared to so many of the other billion alternatives.

No shows: Facebook, Byline, Tripit, RTM, Echofon

The size of our gadgets

Some smart guys have noticed that “internally, the iPad looks more like a battery with a computer than a computer with a battery”: This is a pretty fundamental point.

I remember back in my first job, working on automotive electronics strategies, someone asked me “how small can a CD player be” and to me it was clear — size would be dominated by the media and the controls, not by the internal electronics.

When we started buying PCs and TVs and cellphones and other gadgets, their sizes were dominated by internal considerations — tubes and motherboards and drives and power supplies and electronics and antennas and all kinds of crud. And we are still in the last stages of this — desktop computers are still big boxy things, many laptops are big chunky things. But thanks to Moore’s law, the electronics are in the last stages of disappearing, and with them the big clunky power supplies, and awkward big antennas, spinning disks, etc. The gadgets we carry will have their sizes driven by human interaction needs, and those damn batteries (getting batteries down in size/weight is a hard problem).

Which is why I think questions like “Which will win, the Kindle or iPad”, or “Will the iPad replace notebooks” are ultimately not very interesting. When gadgets all are lightweight and no bigger than they have to be, and electronics are basically free, and connectivity is ubiquitous, you’ll carry all kinds of these things around or have them in your house and not worry about it, just like we never worried about books vs magazines vs newspapers.

iPad file management blows

Hoisted from the “comments”:

For all the great things on the iPad, file management is currently a disaster. I’ve got two different apps that can connect to my ftp server and my iDisk, but neither one can get the downloaded documents to Pages or iAnnotate. I have to use to get files into Pages, and the desktop app for iAnnotate. If we can’t have a complete Finder on the iPad, we at least need a set of common folders that can be shared between applications.

Boy is this dead right. I can use Safari/Web Of Science or Papers on the iPad to find journal papers, but I can’t download them to the iPad and then use them with iAnnotate — I have to go to my desktop, download them, and sync them. I can comment on papers with iAnnotate, but I can’t important the comments into a Pages doc — I have to sync the annotated PDF back to the desktop, copy comments over to a doc, and then sync that back with iTunes to edit on the iPad with Pages. Geez even MS-DOS 1.0 had shared file storage.

This is way more important to me than multitasking. And in fact, I’m not even sure I care about multitasking without this.

The Nook dude at the Barnes&Nobles looked forlorn today

How bad would it be to be a Nook pusher right now? The Kindle has its adherents, the iPad is out there, why would anyone buy a Nook? I have to think that B&N is going to bail on this strategy at some point.

Amazon on the other hand I think is playing its hand well. At the end of the day, I doubt that Amazon cares that much about maintaining control over the Kindle hardware — it was just a vehicle for jumpstarting ebook sales. If people prefer to consume ebooks on phones or iPads or PCs or whatever, Amazon is there with the Kindle software and nice sync’ing of state across all your bookreading devices. I’d expect to see them continue to invest in the software and service asset, and it wouldn’t shock me if they sold the Kindle asset to some hardware company at some point.

Apple faces an interesting conundrum — why would you buy a book in the Apple store which can only be read on the iPad, when you could just as easily buy it in the Kindle store and read it in a dozen places?

Another thought — so many people look at the Kindle vs iPad battle as if it is some head-to-head winner-take-all cagematch. In fact tho, as the cost of electronics keeps driving down to zero, I’d suspect that rather than one unified device in my bag, I’ll have many smart devices all sync’ing to shared data in the cloud. Magazines, books, and newspapers all coexisted just fine in the old world, I carried them all in my bag. No reason why I won’t carry several different smart devices in my bag with different form factors and benefits. As long as they all sync data to the cloud, I’ll be happy (again, nice job Amazon).

iPad and remote desktop

I am trying out my iPad as a remote desktop client to my mac, my windows machine, and an appserver at UW. The net is — it works, but I would never use if for any kind of depth work.

There are a number of rdp/vnc clients for the iPad. I went with “Desktop Connect”: because it offers both rdp (to connect to windows boxes) and vnc (to connect to my Mac) (though you can of course install vnc servers on windows and rdp servers on the mac if you want to get complicated — see “wikipedia guide to remote desktop software”: And Desktop Connect offered both for $11.99. There are a lot more expensive solutions available, this is not an app area with a lot of cheap options.

On the Mac you have to turn on your vnc server — “a slightly outdated and wrong guide to doing so”: — but it will point you in mostly the right direction. On windows you have to turn on remote access, I think this is somewhere in the computer properties page.

Anyway, all the connections worked. I’m able to remotely view my Mac, my Windows box, and the Windows box at UW I access for various pieces of engineering software. But the interplay of touch screen and mouse control is a little unnatural. Maybe there is a better way to implement it, but I found it super awkward. In this app, you either have to use the default mode in which case you have to use your finger as a mouse and drag the pointer around while keeping in constant screen contact — it is awkward. Or you tell it to act like a touch screen and the mouse pointer jumps to wherever you touch — maybe better but then some things are awkward/impossible, like the dock popping up as i drag over it on the Mac.

Net impression — in a pinch I will use this, but as a regular thing, forget it. Better off to walk upstairs to the Windows box or across the room to the Mac laptop.

An aside — why am I reading bunches of PDFs?

I finally officially matriculated last fall as a part time grad student at UW and am studying nanoengineering. For the moment I am sited in the mechanical engineering department tho I could just have easily been in the electrical engineering department, materials science department, chemistry, physics, or several other places. And in fact I am taking no traditional mechanical engineering courses, but am entirely focused on nanoscale problems and technology.

My long term interest is in industrial-scale production of nanoscale devices. Many great things have been made in the labs, but to scaling up to industrial scale production requires discovery of methods to automatically produce and assemble nanoscale devices, accepting the inherent error levels in these devices. Photolithography has been an amazing technology for creating computer chips but is a top-down approach — the entire chip is exactly designed and then carved out of silicon. The next wave of devices at the nanoscale will be organically assembled bottoms-up and there are whole new classes of problems to solve.

I’ve been reading a ton on nanowires and carbon nanotubes and the manipulation of them via various methods. And also thinking on the side about chip/circuit architecture based on these inexact, nondeterministic elements. Just got a pointer to “RelXLayer”: which is a nice launch point for thinking about.

The iPad and PDFs — conclusions for now

Several comments have asked for my recommendations. After two days of tinkering, here is what you should do if you’d like to use your iPad to read and annotate PDFs.

* get the “iAnnotate”: app. Its UI needs a lot of work, downloading and uploading are clumsy, but it does a fine job of letting you read PDFs and annotate them, and those annotations are usable back on your Mac/PC.
* install the “iAnnotate PDF service”: on your Mac or PC. This is a lightweight server that passes PDFs back and forth between your desktop and the iPad. Just point it at the directory where you have your PDFs on your desktop.
* on the iPad now in the iAnnotate app, you can connect to the desktop machine and download PDFs. Unfortunately one at a time. Please Ajidev, add batch transfer capability. UPDATE…hmm batch transfer seems to be happening now. Something I did wrong? Updated app? Either way, awesome.
* Annotate away on the PDF. Personally I use the highlight tool to mark a section, then select the highlight and add a note.
* When done annotating, upload the annotated version back to your PC. This is where the UI really blows. With the doc open in iAnnotate, hold your finger on the doc name in the upper left for a while. You will get no visual feedback. Lift your finger and a properties dialog will appear with an upload option. Upload away.
* Back on your mac/pc, your annotated doc will be in your pdf directory with the words “annotated” appended to the name.

This isn’t bad. It is all very functional. I’ve done 15 papers already and it is becoming natural. How can it be better?

* Integration with Web of Science or other paper sources. The Papers app on the iPad promises to let you download papers directly from WEb of Science and others (tho I can’t make it work with the UW ezproxy settings). This would be very nice.
* Integration with endnote??? I don’t know about this. I use Endnote Web within Web of Science and that works fine, I don’t know what else I need.
* Integration with Pages. Would be awesome to be able to slurp annotations and citations into the Pages app.
* Integration with Papers on the Mac? Don’t know, I’ve just installed Papers, and while I like its organization features, the lack of annotation capabilities makes me wonder if I will ever bother with it.

iPad Day 2 — PDF reading and annotating

One of primary use cases I am testing out on the iPad is reading and annotating PDFs. I am in the process of reviewing 200-300 papers on nanowire/nanotube manipulation via electric fields. Printing them all out would be horrendous and unwieldy — I did print the first 30 and it was a 2 inch stack of paper.

If I could replace 20 inches of paper in my bag with an iPad, that would be awesome. Obviously I need to be able to annotate, extract annotations, etc. Major pluses would be easy downloading from Web of Science searches, and integration with Endnote.

Attempt 1: iAnnotate PDF from AjiDev on the iPad. To make this work, you install a little server app on your Mac/Windows machine and point it at all your PDFs (which you downloaded previously from Web of Science, no integration with, sigh). Then on the iPad, you pull all the papers over (1 at a time, yuck) in the iAnnotate app (the developers say they hope to improve this once they have more time with the iPad). You can then annotate, and upload the annotated papers. Pros: this all actually works, I have done my first 5 papers, I can see living with this. Cons: no integration with Web of Science or EndNote, no integration with Pages on the iPad (that would be killer). And the UI of iAnnotate is incredibly obtuse. Dialogs, toolbars, ribbons, popups, with key commands sprinkled through them all with no rhyme or reason. Figuring out how to upload my annotations took forever (when you have an annotated doc open, hold your finger on the doc name for a while, when you let up a properties dialog will appear, and there is an upload button there).

Attempt 2: Papers by mekentosj. OK this looks so freaking promising but I have been dashed on the rocks. Papers has direct integration with Web of Science and many other paper search tools, and I have tried to set up access. Access is tricky because Web of Science access is limited to subscribing institutions, so you have to go through an institutional proxy, in my case UW. I can configure the logon correctly and see the Web of Science webpage in the app and do searches in the webpage etc. But I can’t get the ezproxy setup right which allows the Papers UI to do searches and downloads. This would be so awesome but I am failing. Apparently if I buy Papers for MacOSX it will automagically sync my collection so that is up next.

UPDATE: OK so I bought Papers for MacOSX and now have tried that. The good news — sync between Mac and iPad is great, much better than iAnnotate. The Mac Papers interface is very nice for organizing PDFs, tagging them, keeping track of read/unread, etc. HOWEVER you don’t seem to be able to markup PDFs in the Mac app or in the iPad. You can add global comments to a paper but no highlighting etc. This is a major downer.

iPad day 1

Really really slow on first sync. I’ve purchased a ton of iPhone apps over time and the iPad insists on installing all of them, even crappy ones that I have uninstalled.

* Kudos to: The calendar app is gorgeous. The Book app is beautiful but so what, I’ll still read most books on the Kindle, and the Kindle app looks good. Zillow looks nice. WordPress app has been nicely rewritten. Soundhound looks good. Wolfram alpha looks good and at the new pricing, is now a reasonable buy.

* Yawns: The Mail app, blah, nothing really new. Maps, disappointing, nothing new.

* Disappointments: almost all games, few have been ported: Civ Rev and Catan, this is your chance. 2 across, I may have to find a new nytimes crossword app. Facebook?

* Need a great texting app, the first two I tried sucked.

I am working now to download a bunch of PDFs to evaluate the device as a PDF review/annotation tool. iannotate from ajidev is the tool.