Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I'm a switcher

I don’t know whether this is a record of any kind, but the last Apple computer I owned was an Apple ][+ in 1982. Here I am 26 years later, about to switch from my trusty ThinkPad to a MacBook Pro. This feels like a divorce – I love ThinkPads, have used them exclusively since 1999 – but my love of ThinkPads does not equate to a love of Windows.

Ultimately this switch comes as I’ve finally realized just how much time I spend grappling with Windows. Long reboots, inconsistent behavior resuming from standby, sluggish response times, I could go on.

Over the last two years, I’ve moved almost everything I do to the browser. I moved from Outlook to Gmail, from Word/Excel to Google Docs. Still, I ridiculed my co-workers. And I don’t mean teased, I mean ridiculed. I gave them endless amounts of shit for playing with a Mac. Serious computer users used ThinkPads.

When FeedBurner was acquired, we were given the choice: did we want a ThinkPad or a Mac. Like that was even a question! A ThinkPad, of course. (Making it my 10th ThinkPad in as many years.) But then a crazy thing dawned on me about a month ago: save a few apps that I used on my PC (TiVo Desktop, for instance), almost nothing that I use on a regular basis was PC-specific. After my office-mate switched, my defenses started crumbling.

The 11 minute reboot, increasingly sluggish resumes from standby, and overall slow system responsiveness convinced me that it was time to ditch Windows. (A few hours with Vista at the in-laws convinced me that I definitely didn’t want to stick with Windows any longer.) Yesterday I finally bit the bullet – and less than 24 hours, IT had a shiny new MacBook Pro waiting for me. It’s clear I have some learning to do – but already I can tell that this is a long-overdue switch. I will gladly put up with all the abuse that’s sure to follow from my co-workers who I’ve mercilessly teased over the years. Don, you have a standing invite to heap scorn in my direction… ;)

Now for some questions:

  • Why didn’t anyone tell me how pretty this OS is?

  • Am I the first to make the observation that the Mac just works? Because seriously, it just works.

  • Where’s the Registry on this thing? autoexec.bat?

  • It’s pretty here.

Consider this an open thread. What do you wish you knew when you switched? Any shortcuts? Which apps should I be installing? What cool stuff can I do with this OS that I couldn’t do on Windows?

Most importantly, if there’s a handy guide to how to show disdain for the poor, lost souls stuck on Windows, let me know. I promise, I’m a quick learner.

Obama campaign is hiring

My friends at the Obama campaign are eager (to put it mildly) to fill a number of tech positions. For those reading this blog, chances are that you have an interest in politics and you know something about technology. If you have some time on your hands and want to help ensure Barack is our next President, then drop me a line. I’ll put you in touch with the right folks.

Specific positions they’re trying to fill:

  • Web developers (PHP, CSS, AJAX, MySQL experience all pluses)

  • Online media buyer

  • Graphic designer

  • Search engine marketer

  • Ops director, Internet advertising

Drop me a line if you or someone you know is interested in helping out. Thanks.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Do you have a lower court case in need of judicial review?

If so, Tom Goldstein would like to talk to you:

In chess, all that matters is the king

At Dulles the other night, the couple that sat down at the table previously occupied by the defense contractors saw my Barack Obama t-shirt and struck up a conversation. While they were enthusiastic about his candidacy, the husband wondered whether Barack could do well “in the states that matter” – i.e., California, New York, Pennsylvania, etc.

You have to hand it to Hillary – that people are still holding on to this line of argument indicates the degree to which public opinion can be shaped by an oft-repeated argument, no matter how little that argument makes sense. Will Barack win in California? Yes. A Democratic ham sandwich would likely beat John McCain in California in November. Ditto New York.

But Clinton’s argument goes deeper than that. It’s as if she’s trying to paint Barack as a lesser Democrat because he wasn’t able to win in those states. And that argument is simply nonsensical.

Dial back the clock to late 2006, early 2007. Barack and a close circle of advisers are looking at the primary calendar, the nominating process, and Hillary’s all-but-certain campaign. Several things become clear obstacles to Barack securing the nomination: Hillary will raise a boatload of cash. Hillary has near-100% name recognition. The primary and caucus calendar is accelerated – leading almost everyone to conclude that the race will be over by February 5 (Super Tuesday). The bulk of the party infrastructure (party leaders and elected officials) still has warm feelings for the Clintons (indeed, many of them came to their current position during Bill’s 8 years in office).

But they look closer, and they see a ray of light. If they can just get an early win and hold on through Super Tuesday, the DNC’s proportional delegate assignment means that no candidate can score a knock-out punch. Indeed, a surgical campaign that looks at how every delegate is assigned – and a marrying of message and ground operation to those delegates – means that maybe, just maybe, they could compete. To do that, they’d need to match her cash without any national fundraising infrastructure, execute a flawless campaign where it mattered most (ground operation) without any benefit of party machinery, and overcome a sizable gap in name recognition. It was still a longshot on par with Abraham Lincoln being the Republican party’s nominee in 1860 – but it was a chance.

Securing the nomination for President as a Democrat is a ridiculously convolted process. But the rules were established years ago, and both candidates agreed to abide by them in an effort to win the nomination. Barack Obama looked 18 months ahead, and plotted out a strategy by which he neutralized every one of her advantages, while he surgically acquired delegates regardless of the state in which they were located. The result? The Clinton campaign planned ahead to February 5, assuming they’d lock things up. Barack planned ahead to the convention, and not only won 12 straight contests after February 5, he raised $55m without attending a single fundraiser. It was his February performance – after Super Tuesday – that made the difference in this contest.

While the Clinton campaign continues to try and move the goalposts (she won the primaries or at least the big primaries, she won the big states or at least the ones without caucuses, she won more votes if you count the states that don’t count, she won the swing states so long as you don’t count Virginia or Colorado, she wins more old people, she wins more white people…), there is just one metric by which this contest should be judged: who has more delegates. Tonight, Barack Obama secured the absolute majority of pledged delegates. That he leads Hillary in superdelegates, votes cast, money raised, states won is secondary.

In chess, nobody cares how many pawns you take. Or whether you sacrifice the queen early. All that matters is who gets the king at the end. When you really want to win, you think several moves ahead, no matter how strong you think your opening moves might be. Barack and his team planned ahead and won. Hillary’s team is trying desperately to get you to focus on entirely irrelevant factors like pawns captured, how many knights are still on the board, or whose rook is better positioned.

Barack’s the nominee. And I think the method of his victory – the precision with which the strategy was executed, the utter lack of drama from his campaign to get us to this point – says volumes about the bold, strong and capable leader he will be when he’s in the Oval Office.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Overheard at Dulles

At the table next to me at Max & Erma’s in Terminal B last night at Dulles, I heard this voicemail left by a guy who is apparently with a defense contractor:

“Jim, hi. Meeting went well today, we’re still on track for next week’s presentation to the President, Vice President and the Joint Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs will like what they see. The President won’t have any idea what he’s looking at, but he’ll like the pictures. It’s the Vice President we have to be worried about, he’ll be all over this.”

Think about how much better of we’d be if we’d been able to hear that voicemail 8 years ago.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Your nominee

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

This has always been my favorite photo of Senator Obama; I recall seeing the Ali print in the office during the 2004 campaign and for me it captures the thinker and the fighter in one shot.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Kindle hacks

I’m a week in with the Kindle, and I am thrilled with it so far. It’s a bit pricey – $399 – but Amazon got a lot right with this device. Initial reviews talked about form factor (several techies pronounced it ugly), price and Steve Jobs famously dismissed it pointing out that nobody reads anymore.

As far as form factor, the Kindle comes with a leather cover which makes the Kindle feel very much like a conventional book. It’s not particularly heavy – it feels substantial without weighing as much as a hardback book.

I love that the books I download are fully searchable – I just read Stephen King’s latest (Duma Key), and at a plot development with a particular character, I couldn’t recall a detail about the character. Searched on his name, went back to the page that talked about the character, and then flipped right back to where I’d been. It’s a minor point, but lots of little points add up.

Much has been made of the bundled “WhisperNet” – not wifi, but built-in broadband wireless. Not only can you shop wherever you can get a cellular connection, but any book (currently more than 110,000) can be downloaded to the Kindle in under a minute.

Battery life is great – even with heavy wireless usage (browsing the store, using the built-in browser) you’ll go several days without needing to recharge. Without heavy wireless usage, you can get 5+ days between charges.

Here are some things I didn’t know about the Kindle when I got it, which I’ve found quite useful:

  • Attachment conversion/delivery. Your Kindle not one but two e-mail addresses. The first ( allows you to e-mail files that are converted to the Kindle format and then delivered wirelessly to your device in just a couple minutes. You’ll get charged a dime per conversion/delivery. For e-mail newsletters which publish in PDF (or Word), you could subscribe your Kindle’s e-mail address for delivery direct to your Kindle. Long PDFs, lengthy Word files, etc. – now you can read them easily on your Kindle instead of on your computer screen. (I can’t imagine reading 100+ page files on my PC at one sitting – the Kindle, on the other hand, is no different than reading a paperback book.) The second e-mail address is – instead of converting and delivering the file to your Kindle, it’ll convert it and e-mail it back to you, where you can sync it over the included USB cable. You’ll avoid the $.10 delivery fee, but you need to manually copy the file over. (PDF conversion is claimed to be ‘experimental’ – but several PDFs I’ve e-mailed have worked perfectly.) To prevent spam, you must explicitly whitelist senders so that no unauthorized content is sent to your device.
  • eBook compatibility: If you’ve got sensitive docs and don’t want to e-mail them to Amazon for conversion, you can download Mobipocket’s eBook Creator software for free. It will create a Kindle-compatible file that you can drag to the Kindle over a USB cable. I tested it out with a couple contracts in Word format, and the formatting was perfect.
  • Google Maps. Yeah, I’m a sucker for a simple Google integration… but check this out: while in the Kindle’s (somewhat limited) browser, click Alt+1. That’ll use the built-in broadband model to get your location and plot it on Google Maps. Alt+2 will get you gas stations nearby, and Alt+3 will get you nearby restaurants.
  • When reading, if you’d like to know what time it is, hit Alt+T. In the lower left corner you’ll get the time… and in a quirky twist, you won’t get the numbers. It’ll say something like “Twenty-two till Eleven”.
  • Newspapers and Magazines. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Atlantic and many others are available. Magazines are in the $1-2/month range, newspapers range from $5-15/month. For newspapers, the Kindle downloads the full contents overnight, so when you’re off to work you have the entire electronic edition of the paper ready to go. (Some papers are more complete than others from what I can tell.)
  • All first chapters are free. Similar to browsing in a bookstore, you can download the first chapter of any book in about 20 seconds. Read the chapter, decide if you like it, and if you do, a purchase is less than a minute interruption before you can go to chapter two. Smart.
And I have a few things for my Kindle wishlist. In no particular order:
  • Better browser. While the browser supports javascript, it doesn’t handle pages with sophisticated layouts. Mobile pages work great, but I really want to see Google Reader in a browsable interface. (The mobile G Reader interface gives me just headlines, and requires multiple clicks to browse multiple stories… I’d prefer an interface closer to the existing G Reader interface.)
  • Better conversion of formatted docs. While text formatting translates pretty nicely, tables, images and heavy layout can get borked when displayed on the narrower and shorter Kindle display. Given that the iPhone has pretty well nailed dynamic resizing of browser pages, I figure this is a doable thing… but I’ll readily confess I’m in way over my head in terms of identifying the work involved. I just know that the end result – better fidelity in the display of the original doc – would be welcome.
  • Blogging My Clippings. I think I’m going to use the highlighting/clipping features of the Kindle. (You can flag passages by highlighting them, or annotate pages by typing in your own comments in the margin.) Brilliantly, Amazon syncs these clippings up to the cloud – Amazon’s servers – making them readily accessible in your account. I’d love to experiment with this feature by posting these clips to a reading blog – what a great way to share your thoughts about a book with a broader audience!
  • Group collaboration. I originally thought about this in the context of work – if co-workers had a Kindle, it’d be great to see their markup of a doc while I looked at it (similar to Word’s native Track Changes feature, for example). But I see equal (actually, possibly greater) value in this for book clubs or classrooms: if you and a small group of others are reading a book together, the Kindle could easily aggregate everyone’s comments and make those part of the text. Given the Kindle’s always-on Internet access, this could sync up throughout the day/week, and give users a great way to share their thoughts while reading, making subsequent discussion more fruitful. (Hell, Amazon could even insert themselves into the middle of this: for a few bucks a month, a virtual book club service that brings together buyers of the same book?)
  • Backlight. This is probably a non-starter given the e-ink display, but a way to read the Kindle in low light (or darkness – think a plane, bedroom, etc.) would be a nice improvement. For the time being, Amazon’s recommending standard book lights… which I may look into if I find I’m reading a bunch at night.
Bottom line, Amazon’s got a winner with the Kindle. The price point is likely confining them to early adopters like me and folks for whom $400 is little more than an indulgence… it seems like they’ll need to find a way to get the price down in the sub $200 range ($149 would be even better) . And the frequently updated content (particularly newspapers) should be cheaper… Amazon might want to underwrite the cost. After all, the more dependent I am on the device as my morning/evening reading device, the more likely they are to get me to make the impulse book purchase.

What are you waiting for? Pick one up, I think you’ll like it. And if you buy from that link, I’ll get a few free books for the Kindle.


Update: Scott Simpson suggests that perhaps the Kindle is just what we’ve been waiting for to make reading uncool again. Noted without comment.