From atoms to bits: Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500

11 06 2010

A few years ago, I moved from Davisville and Yonge to my current place, and was shocked by the amount of stuff I had accumulated in the 6 years living there. This is a pic from that day, and it only shows a small fraction of our moving bins:


Lots of atoms

Prior to that, my diggings consisted of a very small bachelor unit. Back then I had to often choose between useless things or having some walking space at home. Most of the time, walking space won :-P

My current place is considerably bigger than the previous one, so the accumulation process continued, and – with a pre-schooler around – it just went into overdrive mode. I started dreading the day when I would have to move again.

About a month ago, when a new batch of comic books arrived via mail, it became crystal clear that something had to change. I am basically paying rent for keeping atoms around. Lots of atoms. The next day, I went to TigerDirect and bought the last Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 unit they had. It was very expensive for a scanner – about CAD$ 500, the Adobe Acrobat license accounting for most of it – but it was worth every cent paid. This is the beauty:


Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500

The product page at the Fujitsu website summarizes the S1500 features as follows:

Simply put the pages into the automatic feeder and ScanSnap will:

  • Scan both sides of the page
  • Detect the size of the page
  • Detect colour, grayscale or black & white
  • Detect blank pages
  • Detect page orientation
  • Straighten skewed images
  • Create a PDF or JPEG file

All at the speed of 40 images per minute (20 double sided pages).

My first ScanSnap “project” was to digitize all the school material from my MBA days. I did it while watching the NBA playoffs – it actually helped going through those endless time-outs and commercial breaks. The result ended up being better than the original documents, as the content is now searchable (after running Acrobat’s OCR), and I created a Table of Content to facilitate browsing through the materials.

So, in a few scanning sessions, 3 shelves full of binders and books:

Were transformed into a Stanza folder in my iPad, totaling about 1 GB of storage:

In other words, 27 sets of MBA course materials can now easily fit a data DVD or small USB memory key! By my calculations, a 2 TB external drive can store all my VCR tapes, music, photos, books and comics. Maybe it’s time to start looking for a smaller place to live, after all.

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iPad – First impressions

4 04 2010

Yesterday morning, I took my visiting family to Niagara Falls which is oh-so-convenient-ly close to the US border, so of course I *had* to pay a visit to the Apple Store at the Walden Gallery Mall and buy the iPad I had reserved “just in case” :-) . At least that’s the story I tell myself to justify traveling 400 km just to address this totally illogical gadget lust.

I have not had much time to blog or do much else actually over the last 40 days or so, being busy at both work and personal fronts – had a few folks staying with us and others visiting us too. So, this post is going to be a bit rushed, just collecting my first impressions on the most expected iThing of the year. On top of it, I’m typing this on the iPad itself, using the revamped WordPress app, so pardon the clunkness of this post. So, there you go, in bullet point format:

- Overall, huge thumbs up to Apple for adding a new category in the already crowded portable computing landscape. The person sitting beside me at the mall was completely unaware of what the fuss was about at the Apple Store, thinking they were giving away something. When I opened the box, she gasped: “OMG, that’s a gigantic iPhone”! It definitely looks like that, but after a day using it, I can honestly say that it’s much more than that. As biology has repeatedly shown us, small increments in features can sometimes drive major leaps in innovation – stand-up posture and opposable thumbs being just two recent examples. The iPad is not just a big iPhone or iPod Touch, not a laptop without a keyboard, not a crippled netbook, not a fancier Kindle, nor a Mac version of the Tablet PC. It’s in its own category, and will follow its own evolution branch path. Personal Computing speciation just occurred, and we witnessed it first hand. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the iPad will succeed in its current incarnation. But it will influence what others will be doing over the next few years.

- The big positives: the device is fast, the screen is crispy, the layout is gorgeous and it feels good in your hands. Battery life is just unbelievably long. Maps, iBooks, Photos, and the various comics/magazines/newspaper/drawing apps all feel brand new in the big screen. That’s just a glimpse of what’s coming. The iPad is the best portable device to consume content that I have ever used.

- The negatives are well published already: the iPad would greatly benefit from a front-facing camera, multitasking, and more flexibility for applications to share context and objects, including files. All these limitations have one thing in common: they are related to content creation, not consumption. From a market perspective, it makes a lot of sense to target content consumers first, as they represent the vast majority of buyers. I also suspect those limitations are all part of overall Apple strategy to keep us buying the latest and greatest every few years or so. The Cupertino-based brain-trust creates products with enough features to make them desirable, but very rarely offers everything that’s technically feasible in any given release. This way, when an iPad with a camera comes next year, they will sell it in loads again. Furthermore, sometimes we waste too much time thinking about what we don’t have, as opposed to what’s there now for us to enjoy. That’s like being in Paris and complaining about not having a good beach to go to.

That’s it for now!





Felipe Machado and Andrew Keen: Thinking outside the social media echo chamber

7 02 2010

Back in November, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Felipe Machado, multimedia editor for one of the largest newspapers in Brazil, and a former business partner in a short-lived Internet venture in the mid-nineties. The get-together was brokered by Daniel Dystyler, the consummate connector in the Gladwell-esque sense of the word.


Felipe Machado and Daniel Dystyler

Felipe is an accomplished journalist, book author and musician, and I deeply respect his ability to connect the dots between the old and new media. I actually often disagree with him: I tend to analyze the world through a logical framework, and Felipe relies on intuition and passion. That’s exactly why I savour every opportunity to talk to him. If you understand Portuguese, you may want to check his participation in “Manhattan Connection” (Rede Globo, 4th largest TV network in the world), talking about the future of media:

During our lunch conversation, Felipe mentioned Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur”, as a book that broke away from the sameness of social media authors. Coincidentally, I had read an article about that book the day before, so I bit the bait and borrowed the book from the local library the first week I came back from Brazil.

This may come as a surprise to anybody who knows me, but if you work in anything related to new media, social media, Web 2.0 and emerging Internet technologies, I highly recommend you read Keen’s book. Make no mistake: the book deserves all criticism it got – you can start with Lawrence Lessig’s blog post for a particularly heated discussion on the limitations of Keen’s arguments. “The Cult of the Amateur” is ironically a concrete proof that having editors and a publisher behind a book does not necessarily make it any better than, say, a blog post.

The reason I recommend a not-so-good book is this: Andrew Keen represents a large contingent of people in your circle of friends, co-workers, clients and audience – people who hear your social media message and deeply disagree with you. They may well be the vast majority that does not blog, does not use Twitter and couldn’t care less about what you had for dinner last night. They often don’t say it out loud, to not be perceived as luddites, but are not convinced that social media is making things any better, or Web 2.0 is something inevitable.

Those are the folks you should pay attention to. No matter how much you admire the work by Chris Anderson, Clay Shirky, Jeff Howe and others social media luminaries, you are probably just hearing the echo of your own voice there. You need to understand the concerns, the points of view and the anxiety of the Andrew Keens of the world toward the so-called social media revolution. Failing to do that will prevent you from crossing the chasm between early adopters and everybody else.

Reaching out to the members of our social network who are not in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can go a long way for us all to realize that the real world is MUCH BIGGER than Web 2.0 and Social Media (as I learned from Jean-François Barsoum long time ago).





Buying cheap laptops

15 12 2009

Back in October, my wife and I decided to buy a laptop for my mother-in-law – who lives in São Paulo, so that we could have video conversations over Skype. Brazilian customs allow each passenger to bring goods not exceeding USD 500 in total value without incurring any tariffs, so my target price was about CAD 540.

A week before our trip, we found the HP Pavillion laptop below (with Windows 7) on sale for – guess how much – CAD 538.99! Regular price was CAD 649.99.


HP Pavillion G60-538CA

Our plan did not work very well due to some logistic problems, so we brought the laptop back to Canada, and it’s now our secondary home computer, at least for the time being. And since I’m not a Mac, nor a PC, having both at home is actually a good thing. I do run Windows XP on my MacBook using VMWare Fusion, but that feels a bit like trying to fit a foot AND a hand inside a shoe: they go better separately.

How can they make it so cheap?

I guess that, to some extent, you get what you pay for. I have no idea why HP designers decided to have the key with the vertical bar (pipe) and backslash available on both sides of the Pavillion keyboard. All the other computers I had to date, Macs and PCs, had a large left shift key beside the “Z”. I keep typing the backslash every time I try to press the left shift key :-( . Also, the vertical enter key takes a bit to get used to. Just compare the keyboards of the HP Pavillion with the one from the Thinkpad T600 that I use at work:

HP Pavillion keyboard

Thinkpad keyboard

Also, the Conexant Pebble High Definition SmartAudio microphone was unusable with the original driver and configuration. I had to upgrade the driver and change the setting to “2 channel, 16 bit, 48000 Hz (DVD Quality)”. It’s still not great, but Skype no longer requires screaming.

Finally, the DVD drive is very sensitive to scratches in the media. It was not able to read some of my DVDs, even though they ran smoothly on the Mac.

Are there any positives?

Overall, I think it’s been a good purchase considering the cost-benefit ratio.

Windows 7 is pretty good in my opinion. I still find Mac OS X better overall, but the gap is narrowing. My wife has never been a big fan of the MacBook, especially the Finder and the way Mac OS X deals with special characters. Just try to type “bênção” (blessing, in Portuguese) in your Mac. It did not help that I never bothered getting MS-Office for the Mac. NeoOffice is OK, but not a substitute for a commercial suite yet. I also rely a lot on freeware, and having 2 operating systems always running gives you more choices.

HP support was also surprisingly good. Earlier this week, the Pavillion went completely dead. I visited the HP support website and found that they provide support via chat:


HP Canada Support Website

I clicked on the “chat online” link and in a few seconds was already talking to their support rep. In about 5 minutes, everything was solved, with courteous and efficient service. In case you’re having a similar problem, here’s what I did:

  1. Disconnect the AC adapter and remove battery
  2. Press and hold down the power key for 1 minute
  3. Connect the AC Adapter to the notebook
  4. While turning on the laptop keep tapping F10 key… See More
  5. You’ll see the “Windows Resume Loader” screen
  6. Press ENTER to “continue with system resume”
  7. Shutdown the computer properly this time
  8. Put the battery back in
  9. Turn the computer on again

I suspect the problem was not because the battery was faulty, just a loosely connected plug, but I’ll keep an eye on it.

Finally, my son loves the CyberLink YouCam that comes with the Pavillion. It’s like the Mac’s Photo Booth, but by default it’s integrated with your other applications using the webcam. So, you can talk over Skype using all the special video effects like this:

CyberLink YouCam

Calling home on Christmas Day will be much more fun this year!





Kindle in Canada: first impressions

11 12 2009

The Kindle and my first e-book purchase

Despite Farley‘s well-reasoned arguments on why buying the Kindle is a bad idea, the Inspector Gadget within me succumbed to the temptation and ordered the #1 bestselling, most-wished-for, and most gifted item from Amazon. My brain simply stops working and reverts to its basic geek mode when it comes to new electronic toys.

“New”, of course, is relative. Following the well-walked path set by the Chumby, the iPhone, Hulu, Pandora and Google Voice, the Kindle was also off-limits for Canadians until very recently, despite being available in 100 other countries, including Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Albania. I don’t mean any disrespect to those 3 countries, the point here is that we are next door neighbours to Amazon’s headquarters, so it puzzles me why it’s easier to get legal wrinkles solved in other continents than here.

Even when the Kindle finally arrived in Canada, on November 17, it was not fully featured: web browsing and blogs are not available North of the US. Not even the iPhone Kindle app is up for Canuck’s grabs yet, unless one’s willing to be a bit, err, adventurous. But we Canadians can always get the KindleCandle app for 0.99:

While you wait for the Kindle App in Canada...

Ok, end of rant.

A few months from now, when the elusive Apple tablet is finally revealed, I’ll regret this purchase, but for now, I’m actually very pleased with it.

THE GOOD

  • The screen is very readable, much better than I expected. I read about the e-ink a million times, played with the Sony e-reader for a few minutes, but only when you go through several pages on an e-reader you start noticing why it’s better than your laptop screen.
  • Battery life is really good. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the iPhone.
  • It’s much easier to carry and handle than a regular hard-cover. If you are a subway warrior, you know the importance of being able to hold a book and move to the next page using the same hand.
  • The dictionary feature is handy for folks like me, whose English vocabulary came mostly from reading Wolverine and Spider-Man.
  • I could spend days browsing Wikipedia in the Kindle.
  • Amazon finally gave in to a no-hassle PDF support. Competition, we love you.
  • Being able to clip excerpts and annotate your favourite paragraphs change the reading experience. No more dog ears or chicken scratch.
  • Ability to download sample chapters of books for free.
  • Text to speech is a nice touch, but I don’t see myself using it much.

THE BAD

  • The contrast of “e-printed” text and the gray background is not as good as the old black text on white paper.
  • The screen is smaller than it needs to be. That physical keyboard is a waste of real estate.
  • PDF reading is still poor: you can’t zoom in or annotate.
  • Colours, or lack there of. It has that first generation iPod feel.
  • The first 2 books I tried to buy were not available in the Kindle store: “The Wisdom of Crowds” and “The Cult of the Amateur”.

THE DREAM (or: is that what they call the iTablet?)

  • Touch screen, no buttons, gestures
  • Colour
  • Comic book viewing
  • Web 2.0 features: sharing reading lists, recommendations, annotations with my network
  • Bookshelf-like interface
  • Voice recording for commentary/annotations

In summary, I give the Kindle thumbs up for now, at least until the next Apple event, when Farley will I-told-you-so me.





Iomega Screenplay Pro HD Multimedia Drive

11 12 2009

Well, that’s a mouthful. I first saw it at my friend’s Daniel Dystyler apartment last month, and after some research, I decided to bite the bullet and got this from Amazon yesterday:

Iomega Screenplay Pro

It’s no Apple TV, but it does something that I couldn’t find in any of the mainstream multimedia drives: record TV. My PVR is close to capacity, and using a DVD recorder is just too awkward. It’s been only a day with it so far, so take my first impressions with a huge grain of salt. Here’s the just of it:

PROS

  • 1 TB of storage!
  • Plugs into your home network (to do it wirelessly, you need to buy a WiFi Adapter). This means you can easily transfer files and browse photos in your home computers.
  • Composite video input allow you to convert old VCR tapes.
  • According to the user manual, you can play back a movie from a DVD folder just like playing back a DVD disc. I haven’t tested that yet, but if it works, it’s a great feature.

CONS

  • It does not support the H.264 video format used by iPods and the Apple TV.
  • The remote sucks – pardon the language, but there’s no other way to describe it. It’s small, cumbersome and the IR signal is very weak – reminds me of the Apple remote, the one that Steve does not use during his presos.
  • User interface is poorly designed.
  • Can’t record HDTV (but I didn’t find any other product that can do that).

If you’re feeling brave, there’s even a wiki with some advanced hacks you may want to try.





Individually smarter, collectively dumber?

8 12 2009

In my first corporate job back in Brazil, I was part of a large cohort of interns who end up all being hired together. We were young and well-connected, and always on top of everything that was happening in the company, from official stuff to the proverbial grapevine telegraph. Rumour conversations used to start like this: “I’ve heard from 3 different sources that…” My pal Alexandre Guimaraes used to joke that none of us had 3 different sources as we all shared the same connections.

Likewise, I often hear from my Twitter fellows that their RSS feed reader is now abandoned, as most of the interesting online things they find now comes from their tweeps. A quick experiment seems to confirm that trend. Here are the results of a Twitter search for “twitter feed reader“:

Search results for "twitter feed reader"

Search results for "twitter feed reader"

In my recent re-read of The Wisdom of Crowds, the following excerpt called my attention (highlight is mine):

(…) the more influence a group’s members exert on each other, and the more personal contact they have with each other, the less likely it is that the group’s decisions will be wise ones. The more influence we exert on each other, the more likely it is that we will believe the same things and make the same mistakes. That means it’s possible that we could become individually smarter but collectively dumber.

The first time I read that was many years before Twitter even existed, so it didn’t mean much to me. Now I can relate: I do feel that Twitter is making me individually smarter, as I can quickly consume a whole lot of info from news sources, geeks, NBA players, celebrities, friends and others. I find the Twitscoop cloud in TweetDeck a particularly good way to find what’s going on around the globe right now.

Twitscoop cloud

I used to see that cloud as a visualization of our collective intelligence. But perhaps that cloud is actually something much more humbling: the visualization of our own echo chamber, our herd’s brain. By being so intensely connected, we may be losing one of the most basic conditions identified by Surowiecki’s for a crowd to be wise: independence (the other 2 are diversity and decentralization).

Should we all stop using Twitter and Facebook now? Of course not. But maybe we should invest a bit more of our time going after the unusual, the unpopular, the offline, the old and the out-of-fashion. The core is boring, and the fringe is where real innovation and change tend to appear first.








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