All posts by Mick West

Embracing the Kindle

I love Amazon’s Kindle.

I’ve had mine for about month now, and I’ve read four books on it so far:

1984 by George Orwell. (314 pages)
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (350 pages)
Sabriel by Garth Nix (496 pages)
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (983 pages)

product-descr-book_v15485687_.jpgAs a replacement for the paper versions of these books it is nearly flawless, and provides many advantages. The most obvious one being that the weight and space of multiple books is reduced to one slender 10.3 ounce Kindle. On the face of it this might not seem such a great improvement, but really it conveys two huge benefits.

Firstly it means no more shelf space is taken up by books you are never going to read again. We’ve got lots of bookcases in our house, full of books that we read once, perhaps as much as 20 years ago. It’s hard to get rid of books you have an emotional attachment to, but they are just taking up space – a lot of space. Look at how much nine books takes up.

You could of course get rid of your books after you read them, sell them, give them away, or only read books from the library. But one thing you can’t do with a book is make it smaller. Laying in bed reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth in hardback, is not a comfortable experience. It’s nearly a thousand pages, and weighs 2.2 pounds. Yet on the Kindle it weighs just the same as any other book. (See World Without End in the image above, same sized book)

Less obvious advantages abound. I read some Luddite suggest the Kindle would not be perfect until it had two screens to simulate the two pages of an open book. That’s just stupid. Two screens would weigh twice as much, would be greatly more prone to breaking at the hinge, and you’d have to shift your reading between the pages. The beauty of the Kindle is that you can read in one position, holding the Kindle in either hand (or both, or neither), and turn pages with an imperceptible press of a button.

People who scoff at this improvement over turning pages manually would probably have scoffed at the invention of the television remote control. “How hard is it to get up and change the channel”, they would laugh. This is a natural response, and it’s only when you’ve actually tried it for a while that you appreciate actually not having to turn pages yourself, and not having to heft a heavy book one way or the other so you can read each page. You appreciate being able to lay in whatever position you like, the Kindle conforming to your comfort, rather than your position being dictated by the weight and form of a traditional book.

Having a built in dictionary might not seem so great either, but I actually used it when reading Pillars of the Earth to look up “unctuous” (location 14409), which I originally took to be something like “uncouth”, and might have misunderstood the tone of the whole section had I not had the dictionary a few clicks away. It’s just very convenient.

The search function is nice as well. You can search all your books in seconds for a particular word or phrase. That’s simply impossible with traditional books.

The books are cheaper. Especially if you look at hardbacks. Look at Follett’s World Without End, which is $35 in the shops, $21+shipping online, and just $10 on the Kindle. It’s not available in paperback yet, but Pillars of the Earth is, and costs $14.97 for the paperback, and just $6.39 for the Kindle version.

The books are cheaper in part because of the obvious low costs of duplication. But another reason is the restrictions that are placed on the digital version. You can’t re-sell the book, or lend it to anyone. Since you don’t get a physical object, the value of what you receive is diminished.

This is not an issue for me. I rarely lend or borrow books. The only person I share books with is my wife, Holly, and this is something we can still do, as we now have two Kindles (Holly’s arrived today).

With two Kindles, you can share books if both Kindles are registered to the same account. This is a minor inconvenience to Holly, as she would have to be logged in as me if she wanted to buy Kindle books on her computer. But buying directly off the Kindle itself is exactly the same.

I also really like being able to download a sample of a book. That way I can read the first chapter and see if I’m going to like it before I buy it. It’s a simple thing, but ultimately could greatly improve the average enjoyment I get out of books, and save a lot of wasted half-read books that I’m only grinding through because I paid for them without reading any of them.

One major advantage is the VAST amount of books that are totally free because they are out of copyright. All you have to do it copy them onto your Kindle, and they read just like any other book. Here’s a list of some of the best free books available, thousands of dollars worth, from some astonishingly good authors:

So what are the downsides here?

The most obvious one seems to be the initial cost. $400 is a lot of money, but then again, if I save $10 for every book I buy, then I just need to buy 40 books to have it pay for itself. Certainly within a year or so I’ll be making a profit. In addition, you get all the benefits mentioned above – worth paying extra for, and yet we actually end up saving money. Not to mention the bookcases we don’t have to buy, and all the free books you are getting.

The real problem with the Kindle is the lack of available books. Not that there are not a lot of books; there are currently 110,704 books available on the Kindle. But of those, only 38,357 are fiction, and within that, 2,465 are “Literary Fiction”, which seems to encompass much of what I like to read.

Of course that’s still a lot of books. The problem is there are books I want to read that are not on the Kindle. There’s no Iain M. Banks, and he’s my favorite author, with a new book out in hardback (Matter) that I really want to read. There are others as well, books I’ve seen recommended, but which are not on the Kindle. It’s very annoying to have this wonderful way of reading books, but not all books.

So what to do? Right now I feel like I’ll just read the books that are currently on the Kindle. Eventually the other books will be on there, and I can wait a year of so for that to happen. There is certainly enough reading matter there, and while it rankles somewhat, I can wait. If I really need to read a book, I can buy it in paper – but I don’t think it’s likely.

Other things are mostly minor. The screen is a little gray, and so needs slightly more light to comfortable read than a traditional book. You can’t easily just riffle back a bunch of pages (but it’s easy to go back one page). I sometimes turn pages by accident (but you stop that fairly quickly, and it’s no worse than loosing your page in a traditional book). It’s perhaps a little slow and cumbersome in going through your library, but then you can’t search your bookcases while laying in bed.

The version of 1984 I read had several typos in it. This is obviously because of OCR errors from scanning the book in. This is not going to be an issue with any modern book (none of the other books had similar problems). However, cheap old scanned books might continue to have some errors. This is really a problem with the individual publishers, and will diminish as e-books become more mainstream.

It’s not great for reference books. While searching is great, the small screen, the low resolution, the lack of color, and the slowness of page flipping make it unsuitable for many kinds of reference book. It’s best for the type of book that you read once, from start to end. Those books occupy many feet of my shelf space, and cost me hundreds of dollars.

So the Kindle is great, I love it. It’s only going to get better as well. In three or four years I’ll probably buy a Kindle 2.0, with a crisper, faster screen, maybe color. All my books will transfer over to it and I’ll continue to save space and money, while reading more, and reading better.

Copy DVDs onto iPhone for free (Windows)

Very easy to do, you just need to install two free programs:

1) DVD43:
(Reboot after installing)

2) Handbrake:
– More specifically, install the Windows GUI version.


3) Insert DVD, cancel any auto-play

4) Run Handbrake, under Source, browse to the VIDEO_TS folder on your DVD drive

5) Under Destination, browse to any folder on your PC where the converted video will be stored, pick an appropriate name for the movie.

6) Under Presets, click on iPhone/iPod Touch, do not adjust any other settings.

7) Click Start, and wait 30 minutes to 2+ hours (depending on computer speed, and DVD length)

8) Drag the converted (.mp4 or .mpv) video file into Movies in your iTunes library

9) On the iPhone in iTunes, click the “Video” tab, then select the Movies you want to sync.

10) Sync, done. Movie will show up on your iPhone’s iPod “Videos”.

Tip: When playing, double tap to adjust the zoom in letterboxed movies.

Wiring the house with Cat5e for Gigabit Ethernet

I’d been using wireless networking at home, and generally this worked fairly well. But a couple of things were problematic. Firstly it would occasionally go out for a few minutes at random (which I ascribed to the neighbor’s wireless phone). Secondly it was rather slow using Media Center Extender for the XBox 360. It seemed to work for streaming regular definition video, but anyhing higher was dodgy, and navigating menus of content (like photos) was painfully slow.

So I decided I’d upgrade from the podunk 54Mb/s to a stunning 1000Mb/s fully switched network.


This meant I had to install six wall sockets. One for the internet connection (in the kitchen, for some odd reason), one for the new switch (in a cupboard, out of the way), and four outlets (3 in the bedrooms, one in the living room for the Xbox. That means I have to lay five Cat5e cables, each one going from the switch to an outlet.
Having never done this before, I was a little uncertain how to go about it. Luckily many have gone before me.

Cutting the holes in the wall was not something I was looking forward to, as patching drywall always seems to go badly for me. I thought at first I’d have to cut large chunks out so I could install junction boxes to the studs. But I eventually figured I could just cut small holes in the wall (see pic), and then mount the faceplate with self-drilling drywall anchors. This worked out really well. Just pre-drill 1/4″ holes for the anchors to avoid crumbling the edges of the hole. It’s pretty solid.

Up in the attic there’s a whole mess of wires. It took me a while to find out the correct spots. I mostly went by existing wiring, and hence my network outlets ended up next to my cable outlets. I drilled 1/2″ holes in the header beams where needed. 1/2″ can take four Cat5e cables (so I needed 2 for the switch).

img_4409_400.jpgc184-03791.jpgIt took a few hours to get all the cable in place. Then it was simply a case of wiring the sockets. These use a standard “keystone”, which is all color coded, and very easy to wire (just double check it). The sockets come with a little plastic tool to set the wires. You don’t need any special tools, just remove an inch of the blue outer insulation (from the cable, not the wires). Then keep the wires as twisted as possible, and push them into the color coded connectors, and push them down with the tool. (Same color configuration at each end – the keystones have an ‘A’ and ‘B’ config, just use ‘A’ for everything).

I used a six outlet plate at the switch (five outlets, one cover plate). If you have more you’d use a patch panel, but this looks very neat. One problem was that the hole had to be larger, so the large anchors did not work very well. I used plain 1″ drywall screws, but you could possibly use smaller wall plugs (or actually stick a box in there). When everything was wired up, I hooked up patch cables to all the devices, and the gigabit switch, and turned it on. Everything worked first time. Woo hoo, 80 wires set in place without mistake.

Of course it’s not actually gigabit, since all the devices are actually 100Mb, but the 5-port gigaBIT switch (a D-Link DGS-2205) was only$30 or so. If I get some gigabit devices in the future, then all will be well. The cable runs were pretty short as well (like 25 feet max) so it could probably do 10Gb later.

Results? Well, the internet now no longer goes out. Media center is a lot faster – actually very usable now for browsing through photos. Everything went according to plan. Very odd.

Parts List:

Tools used

  • Drywall saw
  • Wire setting tool (comes with keystone sockets)
  • Drill with long 1/2″ bit for drilling through headers
  • Fish tape for pushing/pulling wire, especially through walls with insulation.
  • String (sometimes easier to push string through with the fishtape, then pull cable)
  • Screwdriver

Took about six hours of work.

Fire from afar

We could see Malibu burning across the bay for the past two days.  Here it is going up Malibu Canyon.  You can see some fire-fighting aircraft.

This is a few hours later, the fire has almost got to the top of the hill.

This is a closeup of the top of the hill in the above photo:

It seems all fairly clear now, although there are lots of fires burning elsewhere, filling the whole sky with hazy smoke.

Six Minute Mile Training

Today was a good day in my inexorable progress towards running a six minute mile. I ran the 1.1 miles to Original Muscle Beach at 6:45 pace. This is quite a leap from my previous record pace of 6:53 a week ago, which in itself was a huge leap from the record before that, 7:02, set just five days before that.

My “training program” is approximately:
Monday – 2 x 1.1 miles, divided by 30 minute low intensity circuit training
Tuesday – Day off
Wednesday – 2 x 1.1 miles, divided by 30 minute low intensity circuit training
Thursday – 3.2 miles
Friday – 2 x 1.2 miles, divided by 30 minute low intensity circuit training
Saturday – 3.2 miles
Sunday – Day off

So really I don’t have a training program. I just do the runs a few times a week, and each time I try to do the best time possible. This is not what the books recommend, but it seems to be working so far. I think this is what is referred to as “low hanging fruit” – I’ve led a sedentary life for so long that my mile time started out so slow that it was inevitable I would make great strides initially. I still don’t feel like I’ve reached any kind of plateau, but I will, and that will be the time for a more structured training program.

For reference, I’m 40 years old, 6’2″ and 160lb. I’ve been running about nine months. I was sat a desk with very little exercise for 15 years before that.

Cooling Overheating PS3 Cabinet

The Playstation 3 is a very powerful machine. So powerful that it needs a lot of electricity to run, and that means it produces lots of heat. It has a very efficient built-in fan to keep it from melting down, but when it gets too hot, the fan starts to run very fast, making a noise something like a small jet taking off.

My PS3 is in a cabinet with a glass door, and I use mostly for watching DVDs. If the door is closed, then the PS3 will overheat in about 30 minutes which makes it hard to hear, but if I leave the door open, then all is cool, except you can now hear the normal fan noise from the PS3. I did not like this state of affairs – for one thing I would forget, and half-way through watching a DVD I would hear this horrible high-pitched roar coming from the cabinet, and I’d have to either ignore it and hope it did not explode, or open the door and listen to it at full volume until it cooled down.

I could move the PS3, but there is really nowhere for it to go in a way that my wife would find aesthetically pleasing, so it’s kind of stuck there. Adding an aftermarket PS3 fan such as the “intercooler” is pointless, since the problem is the air inside the cabinet getting too hot, and having nowhere to go. The PS3 is quite capable of cooling itself, so long as it is “well ventilated”. So I decided what I needed to do was mod the cabinet by adding a cooling fan that would blow in cold air.
Continue reading…

Todo: Six Minute Mile, Seven Minute 5K

I think I’ll try to run a six minute mile this year. Today I just did an official 7 minute mile. (The GPS claims I did 1.13 miles at a 6:53 pace). Since I started running last October, I’ve knocked two minutes off my pace. This means I only have to knock off another 53 seconds in the next seven months. Seems possible, with a bit of effort.

The Seven Minute 5K means run a 5K at seven minute pace, meaning 3.11 miles in 21:46. This also seemed rather ridiculous when I first ran that distance. It took me 32 minutes. But now I’m down to a 7:39 pace, which is around 23:30.

These are not unrealistic goals. Lot’s of fairly casual runners can do a 5K in around a 7 minute pace (see the first 220 runners (10%) in this race, including one 68 year-old. I’d place in the top 20%). The winner of the race, Chris Chisholm, is 42, and did a 4:59 pace. Anyone of reasonable fitness can do a 7 minute pace, simply by improving their time one bit at a time. That’s what I’m going to do.

I think the seven minute 5K is actually going to be easier than the six minute mile. Nobody really runs the mile for fun either, so I won’t get the pleasure of beating anyone but myself.

A seven minute 5K is 21.44. I suspect that as soon as I do that, I’ll be wanting to do a 20 minute 5K.

Running Progress

There’s two runs I do now, a run to Original Muscle Beach (OMB) and back, with a workout between the runs, and then a run that’s 3.2 miles, slightly over a 5K.

The OMB run is 1.1 miles, so I treat it as a mile run, and judge the run by my mile pace. I started doing this run back in October 2006, and the first time I recorded was 10:34. Actually the first time I tried the run I actually did not make the full mile, and had to stop half-way with legs hurting.

Now (May 2007), I’ve got my time down to 7:57, which is about a 7:13 mile pace. I just need to knock it down to 7:42 in order to have run a seven minute mile. I’m very confident I’ll be able to hit this target within a few weeks.

I’ve had on and off problem with my knee. The worst problem seem to come if I miss running for anything more than a few days. Like when we went to vacation to Japan, and Hawaii, both times I had horrible painful runs the first time I did it on returning. Yet now if I run every day, I don’t seem to have any problems. Running almost seems to act as a pain killer. My left arm was giving me problems from OMB workouts, but after todays run it seemed fine.

The 5K run has also improved a lot. I did my first 5K run in 32:59 – had to walk a little bit. The next time I ran the whole way in 32:12 (Nov 12th 2006). Then the very next day Holly challenged me to a race I I did it in 29:52. By February I was down to 27:29, and three days ago I got to 25:30, a pace of 7:56. My goal for the year was pretty much to do 5K at a 8:00 pace, and I’ve already done that. I’ll probably aim at getting my run under 25 minutes, then 24, 23, 22 …. Eventually I’d like to run 5K at 7 minute pace and do a single mile in 6:30. Maybe next year.

Taking off Shoes in Japan

We had heard that you have to take your shoes off a lot in Japan. I even got some slip-on shoes (Clarks Privo, very nice). But actually, excepting the Ryokan, there were not that many places on the stay where we did. Here’s the list:

1) A Japanese restaurant in Kyoto, on the street up to Kiyomizudera, we had to sit on cushions. Delicious food.
2) Nijo castle in Kyoto, where you get to walk on the “nightingale floor” in your socks.

That’s it! Or course in the Ryokan you have to change slippers ever five feet, but if you are not staying at a Ryokan (or someone’s house), then I’d really not worry too much about it. Brad advised us to favor comfort over ease of removing, and I totally agree. Luckily my shoes were both comfortable, and removable, just make sure you break them in. You walk a lot in Japan – even if you taxi everywhere, the temple-type sites are big, so good shoes are a must.