Category Archives: Tech


Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about reading ebooks on my iPod Touch. At the time, the only two practical apps for this were Stanza and eReader Pro, with the latter being my preferred reader then. Interestingly, just a few weeks after that post there was a software update that rendered eReader useless on the iPod (it would crash on startup), and it took a few weeks for a fix to show up – I used this period to switch to Stanza, and I haven’t looked back (but it was only a few weeks ago that I finally uninstalled eReader).

In any case, there are a few more options nowadays, both for apps and for devices, and I thought I would write a bit about what I’ve been doing.

I have three devices I’ve been regularly using as ebook readers, none of which is a dedicated reader: my old iPod Touch (1st gen), an iPad (also 1st gen) and an Android phone (a Nexus S, which has recently replaced a Nexus One). I have (unfortunately) different readers in all three, and more than one on each, for the simple reason that not all readers will let me read all books, not all are available on all devices and, even when they are, not all features are on all devices. Also, the fact that my iPod is too old to run iOS 4 doesn’t help (fragmentation? what fragmentation?). Let’s look at them…

Kindle: the Amazon Kindle app is one of only two I have on all three devices (plus my desktop computer, in fact), and it is by far my preferred reader: the reading experience is great, the integration with a dictionary works flawlessly, annotations are very useful and the synchronisation between devices is very, very nice. But it could be better. Part of the problem is that it does not offer the same features on all devices: for example, you can use it to read books not bought from Amazon as long as they are in the MOBI format — but only on the iPad (and it won’t sync your reading position on those across devices); the integrated dictionary is only in the iOS devices; and, curiously, only the Android version supports reading periodicals (newspapers and magazines). I’m not a great fan of the DRM in the ebooks brought from Amazon, either, but that is more of a philosophical position than a practical consideration right now.

Stanza: this app now also belongs to Amazon, and I wonder whether it will ever merge with the Kindle app. It allows reading ePub books (and a few other formats, I believe) and it has some integration with a few books stores (including O’Reilly and Fictionwise, but this last one has been broken for several months now). This app is iOS only, but it works quite well on both the iPad and the iPod; loading external books is easier on the iPad, but that’s because of iOS 4 features (it would work equally well on a more recent iPod or iPhone). A big problem is the lack of synchronisation between devices, and (despite users asking repeatedly for it) I don’t think it’s coming any time soon. The reading experience itself is very nice, and the appearance is very configurable, so it is a very good app, and I use it for almost anything not in MOBI format.

iBooks: this is iOS 4 only, so I only have it in my iPad; I have never used the iBooks store, but this app doubles as a very good PDF reader, and that’s how I’ve been using it. Loading books is very easy (if you don’t mind iTunes) and the reading experience is reasonably good, but the app seems quite simple – there’s no progress indicator, for example, and I have no idea whether it syncs your position if you use it in multiple devices (I would be honestly surprised if it does so for non-Apple books).

Google Books: this is the other app I have on all devices (and the desktop computer, as a Chrome web app); one of the biggest advantages of this app is that allows one to see both the text of the books and the original scanned pages (where available), which then include all the original illustrations (but may be less readable for some older books). The biggest problem, though, is that for anyone outside the US this app can only be used to read public domain books. I haven’t used it long enough to form an opinion about it, but it seems aesthetically very nice. Another drawback: no way to load books other than from Google.

Kobo: I originally installed this app as a possible replacement for Stanza, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations — at least not enough to make me ditch Stanza on the iOS devices. The iPad app is very flashy, with social network integration, reading statistics, “badges” etc. However, just as with the Kindle app, on my iPod there’s no way to load books I already have other than buying them again (so I don’t bother running the app there); the non-tablet versions are also much less on the flashy side, but that’s not really a bad thing. No cross-device syncing of books not bought with the app, either. Still, it’s my app of choice for non-Kindle books on my Android phone.

And that’s it. I have to say that using the iPad to read has “spoiled” me and I don’t use the the iPod that much anymore (or the phone, but that one ends up getting more use simply because it’s always with me…). In any case, if I could have one wish it would be to be able to use a single app on all devices, with a reasonably similar experience on all of them (and syncing everything across them would be a bonus).

IPv6 ready

$ host -t AAAA has IPv6 address 2607:f298:1:130::29f:98ed

That’s all for now.


As most of Australia celebrates the WWDC-eve holiday, now in its final hours, I thought it would be interesting to mention that, over the last few days, my primary computer at home has been — for the first time ever — a Mac.

And, you know what? I’m very happy with it. It’s not a very powerful machine, just a lowly Mac Mini, and I don’t have one of those fancy Apple displays, but it simply works.

Granted, there are some teething pains (or “gotchas”), especially for someone who comes from the Windows world:

  • why, why, why can’t the Home and End keys move the cursor to the beginning or the end of the line? and, on a related note, why don’t Page Up and Page Down move the cursor at all? this is very annoying when editing text (yes, I know what key combinations to use to go to the ends of the line; my fingers still go to the “obvious” place, though)
  • command-tab switches between applications, but not between different windows of the same application; confusing at times, ultimately understandable
  • but the key combination to switch between windows of the same application is usually command-` — this is convenient because ` is just above tab on the keyboard… but it doesn’t work at all if you are using an international keyboard configuration similar to Windows’ US-International, with “mute” accent keys

But enough gripes for now. What I like:

  • it is so incredibly silent! not only the computer itself, but the keyboard as well (the DVD drive, though, it’s one the noisiest I know)
  • installing and uninstalling applications is a breeze
  • boots in less than 30 seconds, shuts down even faster
  • I haven’t seen it crash yet (but neither have I seen Windows crash in a long time)
  • I can’t say enough good things about Time Machine; I wish there was something similar for Windows (and Ubuntu)
  • iPhoto — lovely
  • Spaces — I can’t believe Windows still does not ship with something like this out of the box

That’s it for now. I am sure I will have many more things to comment on in the future… maybe even about Snow Leopard, hopefully coming out tomorrow (the WWDC keynote is at 3am on Tuesday, Melbourne time).


We still can’t have Kindles in Australia, and the price Dymocks is charging for their e-paper based reader is outrageous… so lately I’ve been reading a lot on my iPod.

I didn’t expect it at first, but ebooks are very convenient. You can have a wide selection in a small and light device (real books are heavy), you get the ability to search, you never lose your page because the bookmark fell off… one downside, of course, is that battery life is not that great.

Another is the screen size. The iPod Touch has a relatively small screen (which, of course, can be a good thing — it makes it very easy to carry it everywhere), but I found that you get used to that. Granted, you’re turning pages every few seconds, but that is not that much of a problem. What is a problem is that you do need books that are stored in a way that can be reformatted for your device, and that rules PDF out, as that file format was not made with reformatting in mind. There are PDF readers for the iPod, but you can’t realistically read a PDF file formatted for A4 on that screen; it’s ok for a quick glance on a reference manual, for example, but not for continuous reading. And that has some implications for content availability: lots of free content is distributed in PDF format (ebooks, scientific papers, e-magazines etc.), but that is not an usable format for the iPod.

I have been using two different applications: eReader and Stanza (see screenshots below; click to enlarge). They are both very similar, and they both offer the ability to easily download books straight into the iPod from a variety of sources, with both paid and free content; Stanza does seem to offer a much larger selection of sources, including technical books from O’Reilly, while eReader is more tightly connected to their own bookstore, (which includes the mostly SF-oriented; both are owned by Barnes and Noble).

The free content, which makes up the bulk of what I’ve been reading, include mostly out-of-copyright classics and Creative Commons-licensed books, but you do get the occasional surprise, such as Random House giving away free copies of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars”. As an aside, Stanza offers a desktop companion application that supposedly can convert PDF files into something readable on the small screen; my tests show that this definitely does not work well for most PDF files, even those that are text-only.

Both applications are very comfortable to use, and as a whole the experience is very good (although I have to say that I like eReader’s interface better, and I really like the little “progress indicator” for each book in the main window). Without a doubt, what I like the most about reading in this way is the portability, even if that means that the screen is significantly smaller than a typical book page; unless the book has relevant illustrations, that is not a problem at all. Battery usage does worry me a bit, though, since the backlight needs to be on at all times while reading (that is the main difference with electronic paper devices; in those, you only use power while changing pages); this is not a problem in normal day-to-day usage, but it may be if I try to read during a long flight (does any airline offer USB power on their seats?).

Canon EOS1000D – final thoughts

As I mentioned a few months ago, I was contacted by Canon Australia and offered the chance to “play” with their new DSLR camera, the EOS1000D, for a while as part of Canon’s Blogger Product Review Program. This is probably a good time to repeat my disclaimer that I’m not being paid anything by Canon; my agreement with them states that I have to disclose the fact that I’ve been approached by them and that I’m using a camera they provided me with, but it does not dictate what, if anything, I should write about it.

Well, now it’s been almost three months since I’ve started using that camera, and it’s time both to return it to Canon and to post my thoughts about the experience. In short, I like it — but not as much as I like the Sony A200. Do read on.

My first impressions of the EOS1000D, it turns out, were quite accurate: one of the most striking features of this camera is how light it is. It makes a lot of difference when you are carrying it around the whole day (hanging from your neck or in a shoulder bag), and it makes it very comfortable to use. The impression of fragility goes away after you get used to the camera, and it doesn’t seem to be any more fragile than any other model (I managed not to break it, at least, which is always a good sign).

I have changed my mind about the user interface, though: with a bit of practice, it becomes very easy to use, to the point where I was a bit confused when going back to my own camera. For many functions, you need to push fewer buttons in the Canon than in the Sony, and the sequence of steps makes sense for more complex operations.

However, I did not change my mind about some limitations of this camera. I still find it a bit odd that it won’t shoot RAW images (or even JPEGs at the highest available resolution) in any of its more automatic modes (the so-called “basic modes”), including full auto. Granted, this forces you to think a bit more about what you’re doing, but it seems very much an artificial limitation; is there a technical reason for this behaviour?

Another of its distinctive features (for an entry-level DSLR) is the “live view” mode, which allows you to use the LCD screen instead of the viewfinder to frame images when shooting. I may not be the best person to talk about this feature, as I found out that I don’t actually like doing that — it seemed to me to make things harder rather than easier. It might be more useful if the LCD screen could be tilted, but that’s not the case (the screen is also not bright enough to be used in direct sun light, but that’s the case with any camera I’ve ever used). In the end, it’s probably a matter of habit — I tend to use the viewfinder even in point-and-shoot cameras.

The easy-to-use interface makes it very easy to play with the settings until you get your desired result, as shown in the series below: this is the same water feature taken with different exposure times in the “shutter priority” (Tv) mode (click images to enlarge).

1/8s, F/32, ISO 640

1/8s, F/32, ISO 200

1/40s, F/14, ISO 200

1/40s, F/14, ISO 200

1/1000s, F/5, ISO 640

1/1000s, F/5, ISO 640


The automatic white balance did not like some types of lighting, though, as the pictures below show. The first one is the picture as recorded by the camera, and the second shows the result after I adjusted the white balance manually using the desktop utilities that come with the camera (which, I might say, are very good); the picture was taken under regular residential halogen lights, with automatic white balance turned on (RAW, exposure of 1/8s, f/5.7, ISO 800), and the images below were cropped and resized.

Original picture

Original picture

After adjusting WB

After adjusting WB

To sum things up: in general, I’ve been very happy with this camera and it will be a pity to send it away. Image quality is consistently good, automatic exposure levels work well and the automatic focus is very fast. Or, I should say, the camera is remarkably fast as a whole; it turns itself on very quickly, and the shutter is instantaneous. Also, the image stabilisation deals very well with long(ish) exposures without a tripod (in low light and no flash; say, up to half a second or so). It has an excellent performance at high ISO levels, by the way, and the battery seems to last forever (I used the flash very sparingly).

Why do I still like the A200 better, then? Well, that issue with the image quality limitations annoys me quite a bit, to be honest. I also like (very much) the finer-grained information on battery charge provided by the Sony (even if that does mean that batteries for it cost a bit more), and it is much easier to transfer photos to a PC with the Sony than the Canon — if I were to keep the Canon, I’d consider getting a card reader ASAP. By the way, with the introduction of the A300, you can find the A200 around for very good prices — cheaper than the EOS1000D, probably.

Speaking of which… despite this being marketed as an entry-level DSLR camera, when it first came out a few months ago it was a bit too expensive, hovering around $1200. This price has gone down significantly since then, and it is in a much more competitive range now: you can find the standard kit (the one I was using, with the Canon EFS 18-55mm Zoom lens) for less than $850, and in the lead up to Christmas you can probably get an even better deal with a twin-lens kit — I’ve seen it for under $900. At this price, it is a very good camera for someone being introduced to DSLRs, and will give good results even to beginners. Also, it is a Canon, and that is something that should not be overlooked; you will find the enormous array of accessories (made both by Canon and third parties), software, literature, discussion boards etc. etc. that should be expected from a leading brand.

Canon EOS1000D

A few months ago, I wrote that I was looking for a new camera and that I was reading about several DSLR models. I eventually chose one of them, and during a recent trip to the USA I bought a Sony A200. It’s a 10.1 MP camera, based on the old Minolta line that was acquired by Sony a few years back, and it came with a 18-70mm zoom lens. It has a number of very good features (image stabilisation, dynamic range optimisation etc.), and I have to say that I’m very happy with it so far.

More recently — two weeks ago — I received an e-mail from Canon Australia asking me whether I’d like to give their new camera a shot; they’re apparently reaching out to Australian bloggers and they saw my article about my search for the perfect camera. I thought their offer sounded interesting, and last week I received a box containing a shiny (well, black) new Canon EOS1000D for me to play with for three months (tip to Canon: next time you might want to send a memory card with the camera). This model is known in the USA as the Rebel XS.

So, for the next few months I will be using this new camera and writing about my experiences. Keep in mind that I am not a professional photographer, nor do I have a lot of experience with digital SLR cameras – therefore, I’ll be mostly offering “consumer” opinions and comparing it to my A200 (and I guess that is ok, since neither of these cameras actually targets professionals and — I think — they are more or less in the same range). The EOS1000D is also a 10.1 MP camera, and the one I received came with the standard lens kit it is sold with — that is, an 18-55mm lens with auto-focus and image stabilisation.

Also, for the record, I’m not being paid anything by Canon; my agreement with them states that I have to disclose the fact that I’ve been approached by them and that I’m using a camera they sent me (which I’m doing right now), but it does not dictate what, if anything, I should write about it.

First impressions:

  • it’s light; very light, compared with A200, and that does make a difference after a few hours carrying a camera around (the EOS1000D weighs 500g with the battery and no lens, against 636g for the A200). However, that also gives an impression of fragility (and that is exacerbated a bit by the texture of the camera body, in fact)
  • the manual is much better than the one that came with the Sony, but the user interface in the camera is a bit less intuitive for the first-time user
  • there are several options for image quality, but you can’t use the highest (finest) JPEG setting or record RAW images if you’re using the camera in full-auto mode or any of what Canon calls “basic modes” (macro, landscape, portrait etc.); this is a bit annoying
  • this model includes “live view”, the ability to use the LCD screen to frame pictures before shooting (that is not a common feature for SLRs), but I haven’t tried using it seriously yet
  • the PC software that came with the camera and starts up when it is connected, CameraWindow, claims that the EOS1000D is not a supported model, which is a bit strange; also, the drivers don’t quite expose the camera to Windows as a simple disk device, and that makes it a bit harder to operate than it should be, in my opinion (another piece of software that was included, EOS Utility, did work properly)

I will definitely have more to write about after I go out with the camera a few times and play a bit more with it, so expect more posts in the near future…

Too much information

So, I’m planning to buy a digital SLR camera in the near future. I currently use a film SLR which is almost 10 years old (a Minolta Maxxum 300si) and a digital point-and-shoot that is almost as old (an Olympus D200Z, I think). I’ve been doing a lot of research online to try to decide which camera to buy, and herein lies the problem.

The fact is, there is an amazing amount of information available about all models on the market. There are manufacturer brochures, specs, reviews, owners’ comments, side-by-side comparisons, “walk-throughs”, videos, audio recordings etc. etc. etc. But the problem is that there is way too much information. I have now read enough material that I would almost be able to write the user’s manual for the Canon EOS400D, the Nikon D60 or the Sony A100, and I’m nowhere near actually deciding for one of them. (At least I narrowed it down to these three models — plus the Sony A200, which is the almost identical twin to the A100, only two years younger)

The Nikon seems very good, but the auto-focus depends on the lens being able to do it, so the lenses are more expensive and the selection is a bit more limited. The Canon is, by far, the most popular of them, and it’s almost the “default” starting DSLR camera out there, but it is a 2006 model (its younger sister, the EOS450D, seems to be a bit too much for what I want) and the lenses included with the camera are universally described as crappy (yes, I can always buy the body only and get decent lenses separately, but this brings the price up). The Sony is, at its heart, an updated Minolta, and in fact it can use any Minolta lens (and I do have a Minolta); in fact, I can’t think of anything bad about the Sony models, but I’ve read much less about them than about the others, so I might have some surprises later. If no surprises show up, I am leaning towards an A200…


I really like GPS; it’s one of the cooler “general use” technologies out there.

GPS is the closest thing we have to a worldwide information network. Granted, it doesn’t really give you that much information: it will tell you where you are and what time it is (assuming you know your time zone), but nothing else. And, ok, it doesn’t really work indoors and accuracy is not great in urban areas (because of shadows and reflections caused by buildings), but it’s still very cool. Think about it: I can be (almost) anywhere in the world and a small handheld device will be able to tell me, in just a few seconds, exactly where I am using only information from a constellation of satellites flying overhead, unseen and ignored by most people. Fifty years ago this would be the stuff of sci-fi.

The reason I’m mentioning this is that I recently bought a handheld GPS receiver, and I spent a few hours playing with it yesterday. The reason for that is that I’ve recently started engaging in bushwalking (or “hiking” for those outside Australia and NZ) with the Melbourne Bushwalkers. After my first somewhat “serious” walk, in the area of the Lorne waterfalls (about 13km downhill in the rain…), I tried to identify the path the group followed on a map and failed miserably. So, I thought “wouldn’t it be nice to be able to record the track so I could, later, trace it on a map?”. Well, a GPS receiver is a good way of doing that.

The model I bought is a Magellan eXplorist 400. It’s a discontinued model, but it is fairly decent and there’s a healthy market of new units on eBay for very good prices. It can track up to 12 satellites and will use ground-based (WAAS) and satellite-based (EGNOS) auxiliary signals to increase accuracy where available; none of those are available in Australia, alas. It has a grayscale LCD display with a reddish (amber?) backlight and can display fairly detailed background maps (it won’t give you address-based directions or convert addresses to positions without additional software), and it uses SD cards as additional memory to record tracks, routes, points of interest and maps. It’s also fully waterproof (full immersion of up to 1m for up to 30 minutes), which is great for rainy days… And it comes with a USB cable to upload and download data from/to a computer.

I haven’t yet used it “in the field”, so I can’t talk much about it’s performance there; I hope to remedy this soon enough. I can’t talk about battery durability either, for now. I did try to use it in central Melbourne yesterday, with sort of mixed results… it does well in areas that are somewhat open, but “canyon-like” streets (with tall buildings on both sides) are usually blind spots (I wonder how it does in real canyons…). I uploaded the track log to Google Earth, generated a KML file and made a public Google Map from it, which is here; the recorded path is in a barely-visible light blue, and it actually covers about half of the path I followed; I guess it lost the signal in the other areas. The receiver was inside my backpack, which may also not be the best possible position for it.

I will be using it in future walks (and in a trip to remote areas later this year, where I plan to use GPS data to geotag the pictures I’ll take — and to not get lost, also), and I’ll write about how it does later on.

Driving directions

I don’t usually drive around Melbourne; I don’t own a car, so I take the public transport or simply walk to wherever I need to go. However, in recent weeks I had the need to drive to a few places, and I’ve made extensive use of the “directions” feature of Google Maps.

In short, it works quite well. It got me to my destination every time. But… the directions needed some retouching every now and then. That is, it does make some interesting mistakes.

For example, this path, part of a trip from Point Cook to the city:

Point Cook to City path

It seems very reasonable, and it is indeed the shortest possible path. The only problem with it is that the area shaded in dark grey is a Royal Air Force base, and they don’t really like random people driving through their roads. Granted, there is a road there, but there’s a heavy barrier and an armed guard on the way…

Or this, which is how Google Maps suggest you drive from the city to the western suburbs using the West Gate freeway:

Kings Way to W Gate Fway

One can see in this map a very sharp right turn from Kings Way onto the freeway, which seems odd. It seems even odder when you switch to the satellite view:

Kings Way to W Gate Fway

It looks like they’re suggesting that you drive over a barrier and across four lanes of traffic to enter the freeway. Hardly the best possible route.

One more: a path from the Franklin Street, in the city, going south to the Eureka Tower (which is at 7 Riverside Quay):

City to Eureka Tower

See that sharp left turn from Queensbridge onto an unnamed street just south of the river? Well, look at the satellite view:

City to Eureka Tower

The proposed path takes one onto the footpath and over a very tall barrier (the large red thing) before reaching the destination. Again, it’s a very good path, but not legally – or physically – doable. I guess you could do it on foot, of course…

Don’t get me wrong, Google Maps is very useful and helped me a lot. But, if I found these problems in just a few weeks, I guess their maps need some serious revision…

Google Developer Day

I attended the Google Developer Day, “Sydney edition”, yesterday. There were lots of interesting announcements: the first session was about Google Gears, and it was very exciting. The demonstration (achieved by, literally, unplugging the laptop from the network mid-presentation) went very well, and gave everyone ideas. Soon after, Mapplets were also introduced (well, actually they had been mentioned briefly at Where 2.0 the day before); they’re sort of gadgets for Google Maps, allowing the creation of “instant mashups”.

Also interesting were the “non-announcements”. Everyone got a brochure at the beginning of the day with a list of several Google products, and one of them was the Google Mashup Editor; when I read it, it sounded like it was something new, but it wasn’t mentioned by anyone during the day, so I kind of assumed it was actually something “old” that I hadn’t heard about. It turns out it wasn’t.

It was a great event, and it was interesting being the first ones to learn about Google Gears (as one of the presenters mentioned, usually Australia wakes up to news from the US; yesterday, it was the other way around). It was a bit ironic that, being at the event, I couldn’t play with the tool (or even write about it) yesterday, while everyone else who got the news online could start right away. But they didn’t get the great free food Google gave us 🙂