Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Tablet Is A Bike

Google I/O is underway, and they've just announced their long-expected 7" Nexus tablet. Short summary: Is such a small tablet useful? Yes. Is it a replacement for a computer? No. Will I get one? Probably.

I bought an Andy Pad, a cheap 7" Android tablet, last September to see what this tablet thing was all about. The hardware is decent, if low-end by today's standards. It came with Android 2.3, which was pretty good for phones, but lousy for tablets. The tablet got updated to Android 4 this spring, and the difference is like night and day1. Suddenly it is decently fast and responsive, apps work fine, and it has gone from a toy to something I use on a daily basis.

Andy Pad
The Andypad. Cheap, but pretty useful.

At 7 inches, it's the size and weight of a largish paperback. I can easily use it one-handed on the train 2or while eating, reading in bed — it's light enough to hold without support — or keep on the desk in meetings, and it's small enough to slip into my coat pocket or in a side pocket of my bag.

The size makes it perfect for reading ebooks and keeping manuals and papers within easy reach. It is also very useful as a news reader. It downloads my news feeds at home in the morning, then I read them on the train. It's also very useful for web browsing, note-taking, games, Youtube videos, email, calendar and so on. I could do many of these things on my phone too, but the larger screen is much easier on my middle-aged eyes and clumsy fingers.

But is it a replacement for a laptop? let me give you an analogy:

A Tablet is a Motorcycle; a Computer Is a Car

IMG_2487 Corvette
This is a Motorcycle3. And this is a Car. Either will take you from place to place on public roads. But that does not make them interchangeable.

Motorcycles and cars are very different. They both have an engine, wheels and they both carry people on public roads, but that's where the similarities end.

A motorcycle is small, light, and inexpensive. It will take one or possibly two people where they want to go very quickly and effortlessly. Compact and agile, it excels in city traffic. Park it anywhere, glide right past traffic jams, and never get stuck behind some slow-moving truck. A bike is no good for transporting many people, or for bringing lots of cargo. Riding a bike in heavy rain is a miserable experience, and riding in winter is dangerous when it's doable at all.

You can use a bike to transport goods. That doesn't make it a good idea.

A car is excellent general-purpose transportation. It will take up to seven people, pets, luggage, garden cuttings, furniture, skis, diving gear and golf clubs and bring it all where you want. You're protected from rain, snow and high winds, and you travel safely when roads are icy or wet. In a pinch you can use the car as your office, meeting room or as a makeshift bed. But a car is big, clumsy and expensive; even a dedicated sports car will never approach the quickness and agility of a motorcycle on the road, and parking is always an inconvenient, expensive hassle.

Like a motorcycle, a small tablet is excellent on the go. If you're traveling and you want to keep a schedule, do email, look up info on your destination or check the news then a tablet is far easier to use than hauling out your laptop in a crowded airport or squint at your small phone screen. You can use it standing in line, in a cramped airplane coach or while in bed, and the screen is still large enough for casual gaming, web surfing and for pecking out the occasional email or memo. A laptop is simply too large and clumsy to use in the same way.

But if you go beyond the tablet comfort zone, the hardware and software limitations become a serious problem. It is frustrating to write more than a few paragraphs without a real keyboard. Illustrations, drafting and other precision work is difficult without a larger screen and a precise pointer. Even rudimentary data analysis is limited by the lack of memory and storage. Actual programming and most specialized tasks are difficult or impossible from the lack of even rudimentary tools. A tablet is great for consuming data, but generally not good for producing it.

Honda Goldwing with sidecar (picture from the Wikimedia Commons). You can get a roof for the sidecar, and add a trailer for luggage. The bike ends up as large, heavy and clumsy as a car — but more expensive, with fewer seats, worse weather protection and less cargo. It combines the worst of a bike and a car.

Now, you can add an external keyboard, stand, mouse, hard drive and so on. What you get for your trouble is a clumsy pile of hardware that takes more space, weight and money than a real laptop, and is still not able to do general computing nearly as well. You'll have the same problem going the other way: a sub-notebook or "PC tablet" remains too heavy, costly and too dependent on a keyboard and pointer to be a flexible replacement to a dedicated tablet. Either way you go, you end up with something that is neither a good tablet, nor a good laptop.

No, leave a tablet for tabletty things and a laptop for general computing. With two separate devices it frees you to get the best of both worlds. I used to get small, light — but costly and underpowered — laptops that I could bring anywhere. Now that I use a tablet I no longer need to do that. I can get a far better, more powerful laptop without worrying so much about extreme portability. And with a good laptop, I don't need a tablet with a large screen or a keyboard; I can use a small and light one that I can use on my commute and that fits in my coat.

So, if I have a tablet already, why do I want the Nexus? The Andypad just has too little memory; switching apps takes a few seconds of stutter every time. The Nexus has a better screen, a faster processor, and a newer OS version. Also, it's a Nexus — a Google reference design. That means it is unlocked, first to get OS updates (it comes with 4.1) and receives the "pure" version of Android, unburdened with carrier- and maker-specific "improvements", extra applications and other junk. I have a Galaxy Nexus phone, and it's by far the best phone I've ever used for exactly these reasons.

The 8Gb model will cost $200 or an even 1.6k yen; well within my "get it for fun" budget. A nice autumn gift to myself, I think, once it is released in Japan. Given Google's track record on international releases that may be a while of course.

#1 Just try standing up and reading something in a crowded train with a larger tablet. Try this: stand in a doorway at home. Hold onto the post with one hand, and hold your tablet or laptop in the other. Now, ask half a dozen friends and family members to crowd right around you, jostle you and push you around while you try to keep your balance and not drop your laptop as it, too, gets pushed around. Do this for fifteen minutes. A small, light tablet will start to look very tempting at that point.

#2 Seriously, don't even think of getting a tablet — or a phone — with anything older than Android 4. The improvements are just so significant. If they are promising an update to Android 4 then that is good — but wait until the device is actually updated. Some makers and carriers are notorious for promising a lot and then never delivering.

#3 More precisely, this is me of ten years ago and my former bike, a pearl-white BMW R80 G/S 1981. I still miss that bike, sometimes. Different times, different life. Apparently I was already well on my way towards dandruff immunity even then.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How About a Plate Of Fake Raw Liver With That Beer?

Japan is about to prohibit the sale of sliced raw liver at restaurants, after a few food poisoning incidents at cheap chain pubs where raw meats were improperly prepared and patrons got sick as a result.

It may sound reasonable top you, but raw liver is a very popular side dish, and considering how many people eat it every year the number of incidents is very small. Look at fugu, the poisonous puffer fish, fir a much better approach than a ban. Improper preparation of fugu can be lethal, but selling it and serving it is allowed as long as the cook has a license to prepare it. As a result, fugu poisoning is all but unheard of; the only incidents are with amateurs trying it at home and failing.

Why not institute a license for preparing raw meat dishes in the same manner? It would put the responsibility for the safety squarely on the cook and restaurant with no wiggle room for deviation from best practices. And the cost — licensed cooks are sure to command higher salaries — would keep the dish away from the cheapest chain eateries where the risk of cutting corners is the greatest.

"Raw liver" made from konnyaku. Good,but not a substitute for the real thing. This, by the way, shows the limits of phone cameras; the Nexus is fine in good light, but really starts to fall apart when light levels drop.

Meanwhile, an enterprising company has produced a variety of konnyaku (plant-based chewy stuff; good in stews and side dishes) with a texture and color similar to real liver. Some chains are now serving it spiced in the same way as a substitute for the real thing.

I tried it this weekend. Not bad at all, and it certainly resembles the real thing both in texture and flavour. But it is obviously not the same thing — nobody would be fooled by it — and real liver is much tastier. The real thing isn't as uniform; both texture and flavours are a lot more varied and complex throughout each bite. I certainly prefer the real thing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


The first typhoon of the year hit the mainland — and unusually early too. It really looked as if it would go right over Osaka this time. Some trains have stopped, classes were cancelled and we got sent home this afternoon. In the end, though, it seems it veers off and will pass just south of here.

Still, that doesn't mean we're not affected. There's plenty of rain and wind; still a pretty good summer storm. Now, if my new computer had arrived this would have been the perfect time to set it up...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

No, No, No


I'm still struggling with the whole Blogger-Google+ balance thing. Lately I've posted short bits only on Google+, but I'm not happy with that. I like my blog here and I don't want to feel I'm abandoning it. Google+ is great for short texts, and the blog good for longer stuff. In fact, this post was meant to be just a short note, nothing more, but somehow it grew into this. Might not be a good thing, overall, as I'm too wordy as it is. If there was a way to synchronise G+ and Blogger better I'd be happier about the split.

Anyway, Mainichi had another one of those "The Internet is Destroying our Society!"-style crap pieces, conveniently in English for me to link to. They argue that the internet is destroying critical thinking and killing the attention span. It's the usual mix of "the printed word is fundamentally better than the screen", "Stuff that was difficult for us should be difficult for young people too" and so on. Then liberally sprinkled with authoritative-sounding, but completely meaningless statistics:

According to a 2010 national survey conducted by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute on people's daily lives, the average amount of time men in their 20s spend online on weekdays apart from the workplace was 1 hour and 8 minutes a day, while that for women in the same age group was 41 minutes. The survey showed a 39-minute and 25-minute increase, respectively, from the previous survey conducted in 2005. The average result for male and female respondents in their 50s and 60s, on the other hand, was no more than 10 minutes.

Take a quick look  at that paragraph and tell me: 1) is this a lot or a little; 2) what activities did the internet use displace; 3) how does this compare to, say, television or presumably "appropriate" activities such as reading or listening to music; 4) how does this compare to other countries? There is no context to get any meaning from these numbers. Data without context is just noise.

Oh, and  5) what does "internet use" even mean — reading long-form essays is very different from gaming is different from shopping is different from email and chat is different from wikipedia is different from Youtube couch-surfing is different from… Should we compare this to "paper use" time, including cardboard boxes and toilet paper?

Then add a liberal amount of talking heads with an axe to grind expressing personal opinions; don't forget to prominently mention their degrees to increase the impact, but conveniently don't mention that it is just opinions unmoored from any actual research. This, by the way, is a particular pet peeve of mine: it is disgraceful to use an academic degree or professional job title to bolster a personal opinion that has nothing to do with that degree or title. More often than not it's the writer that is guilty of it, not the interviewee, of course.

For instance, if you look up Masahiko Fujiwara, quoted as professor in the article, you'll find that he's a mathematician. A fine, upstanding profession to be sure. But not one, I would hazard, that makes you particularly competent at analysing the cultural impact of technological advances. So why is he prominently labeled "Professor emeritus", not "widely read essayist" — which is apparently also true, and rather more relevant to the subject at hand.

And then I stumbled on a bit of research showing that no, no, attention spans are not getting shorter. See how easy that was? If you are an article writer, the net makes it really easy for you to fact-check things. It's so easy to take a quick look at actual research that actually, really tries to find out if what you are writing is true or not.

Whenever you read a piece like this, remember that if it consists only of 1) statistics without context, presented to alarm you rather than inform; 2) short quotes from people presented as experts, but whose expertise has little or no connection to the subject;  3) a string of opinions presented as fact but without a single link to studies or data backing it up, then you should probably shrug and skip to the next story. Do take note of the author, though; more often than not they specialize in this kind of sensationalism and you'll soon learn who you can ignore altogether.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A New Computer (Yet Again)

So, I've ordered a new computer, only two years after the previous one. As you may have seen lately, the Panasonic I have has developed a few problems over time. The internal fan stopped working a while ago, a few keys are getting wonky, and yesterday the wired Ethernet port stopped working, leaving me with only a Wifi connection.

I still average well over three years of use for a laptop, so failing after only two years is fast. But I use my laptop more than any other thing I own — over ten hours a day, every day, on average — so no wonder it wears out over time. The build, the screen and the keyboard quality is important when I spend so much time using it, so a budget laptop is generally not a good idea. I try to stay within 100k yen per year for all my electronics; that is, computer, phone, tablet, peripherals and so on. It leaves me with about 200k for a new computer, with room to spare for other gadgets over the next few years.

I'd use the laptop on airplanes and trains, airports and stations, and I'd use it on the go to take notes and check my itinerary, email and other stuff. Low weight and a small footprint were both important, and the Panasonic Let's Note series I've been using are full laptops in a very compact, light form factor. But lately I use my phone and Android tablet on the road while the laptop stays in the bag. I can look for a larger, more featureful computer with fewer compromises in the name of size.

When I checked Lenovo's Japanese site this morning, they had an all-night sale on the T430 Thinkpad model I was interested in — perfect timing, and it took me only a few minutes to customize and order. I managed to squeeze in just below my 200k budget with a better machine than I could ever have hoped to get. Main points:

  • 16Gb memory. Because that's the maximum they offer. Can you have too much memory? No. No, you can't. Nothing else does more to improve your computer. For work, I need 8Gb to run my simulations, so with less than that I can't even use the laptop for development. Your operating system will use any remaining memory as a disk cache, speeding up everything.

  • 128Gb SSD and a 500Gb secondary disk. Next to memory, a solid-state disk will give you the most performance improvement. 128Gb is technically enough for me — I use about 110Gb on my current drive — but it's rather tight. With the secondary drive I can put archival stuff such as old projects and most of my pictures on it and free up lots of space on the SSD. SSDs have a reputation for sudden failures, but I can set up the computer to back up the SSD to the secondary disk once or twice a day; I'll lose no more than a few hours of work in case something happens.

  • NVIDIA 5400M discrete graphics card. I'm taking a chance with this one. Support for both discrete and integrated graphics is not well developed under Linux yet, so I may have to mess around a bit to get things working. I still wanted a real, discrete card, though, for Minecraft work-related OpenCL development.

  • A decent 14" screen, with 900 pixels vertical resolution and a matte, not glossy, surface. The vertical resolution is important (and I'd have wanted even more), as that limits how many lines of text or code you can see at once. I'm not against the current trend toward wide screens; I like to compare text side-by-side, for instance. But it shouldn't happen at the expense of vertical resolution. At the same time, you don't want too high resolution either, as it uses more graphics memory, power and other resources. For instance, games apparently sometimes run in lower quality on the newest iPad than on earlier models because its graphics engine can't keep up with its high-resolution display.

    A matte screen is a deal-breaker. With a glossy screen, everything — ceiling lights, bright walls, people, your own face — is reflected back at you. It's distracting, and bright backgrounds can completely obscure the screen contents; besides, I'm not narcissistic enough to want to stare at myself for hours every day. It's less of a problem on a phone that you can easily angle away from distracting lights, but the large screen of a laptop is almost impossible to shield properly.

It's a Lenovo (former IBM), a premium brand alongside Apple and Panasonic, so the build quality is likely to be quite good1. They are justly famous for their keyboards; I know people who swear by Lenovo machines simply because of the keyboard quality and feel. A lot of people love the trackpoint — the little red nipple — while others hate it. It's easy to ignore if you want.

It comes with Windows 7 installed apparently. I'm going to install Ubuntu on it, so it doesn't matter one way or another. I wonder, though, if it shouldn't be possible to reinstall or move Windows into a virtual machine under Linux somehow? It could be practical to have now and again, I've got ample memory to run it in a VM, and I have paid for the license after all.

The looks are typical Thinkpad — dark and utilitarian. Me, I rather like it; it has an industrial no-nonsense feel to it that sets it off from the shiny metal cases that is all the rage right now. There's microphones, a camera and a memory card reader, none of which is likely to see much use (my phone and tablet are both more convenient for video meetings). There's an assortment of other ports, some potentially useful, others less so. At least I remembered to deselect the fingerprint reader.

The downsides are mainly weight and size. At over 2.2kg it's almost a kg heavier than my current machine, and a fair bit larger. Oh well. That's the price for getting a good, large screen, lots of memory, two drives and a full-size keyboard. Battery lifetime is likely a fair bit less than the 8 hours I get on the Let's Note, though you can add an insane amount of battery capacity to it if you want. Nowadays I don't use the laptop unplugged for more than an hour or two so I doubt it matters a lot in practice.

The system will ship in a week or so, and probably take another week or two to actually arrive. Plenty of time to prepare, though I'm a bit weary of yet another OS install so close after upgrading or reinstalling my current machines so recently. Just hope the Panasonic holds up until then. I thought it would be fine well into autumn, but with the Ethernet card suddenly breaking I'm no longer so sure.

#1 "good" is not "perfect". My current Panasonic is failing before its time after all, and we've had one Apple notebook literally falling apart (the touchpad was coming loose) right out of the box. You get what you pay for, and nobody wants to pay enough for a guaranteed trouble-free machine.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Business Trip Pictures

A few pictures from a business trip I did a while ago. How long ago? The guy in the last picture sports a woolen muffler, that's how long. Film photography is a lot of fun, but when time is tight it really takes forever to go from film roll to uploaded image file.

I finally picked a new book to read, by the way, and started on "Drip of Death". It's not Miyabe Miyuki of course, but so far it's a well-crafted, fast-paced mystery; the first victim is already dying on page one, and the second body appears after another 70-odd pages. If I hadn't already seen the TV-drama, I'd fear the hospital would be eerily depopulated by the end of the book. And it's not Miyabe Miyuki difficult either. This one won't take more than a few months to get through — much less if I take a few solid hours to read now and again.

Early Morning
Early morning. Really early — the sun's not up and the subway has only just started running. The normally crowded Shinsaibashi shopping street is empty and echoing. The only people around are first few early-morning commuters and the last sloshed stragglers from the previous night.

Mt. Fuji
Get a seat on the left side of the morning Shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo, and you'll get a good view of Mount Fuji if you're lucky with the weather. The train really is a little too fast to get a good picture without blurring the foreground a bit.

Shinagawa, Tokyo. A large cluster of modern high-rises around the station, but the buildings quickly become older, smaller and more run-down as you move towards the coast. Kyoto University have offices and seminar rooms here; very convenient for research team meetings and things like that.

The meetings are over, it's already dark outside and it's time to catch a train home. Here Shinagawa stretches out towards the sea in the background.

It's night, I'm finally back in Osaka and I catch a late train on Mid┼Źsuji subway line. This guy, another long-distance commuter, looked the way I felt: a bit tired, a bit worn, but happy to be on his way home.