Gear: December 2008 Archives

 

December 28, 2008

Check out this NYT infographic on the distribution of the world's fastest computers. Of course, the Times doesn't tell you why this matters. They just say:

While the U.S. has the world's fastest supercomputers, it faces increased pressure from countries like India and China.

As I've argued before, it's more or less irrelevant who has the world's fastest computer. Computers are a tool, and a faster computer is just a faster tool, which may or may not be relevant depending on what job you're trying to use the tool for. There are jobs where having a faster computer is important (e.g., climate simulation) but there aren't that many of them (especially as many of these machines get their performance from extreme parallelism and many problems can't be parallelized efficiently) and even then having a fast computer is more a signal that you're mounting a serious research program of the type that requires that kind of computational power than something that's important in and of itself. Instead, though, having a fast computer has become a national prestige issue; sort of the 21st century equivalent of having the world's tallest building.

 

December 25, 2008

Just skimmed Wired's predictably wacky Top Technology Breakthroughs of 2008 (Flash Memory? The Speedo Freaking LZR? I mean, it's cool but it will affect like what, thousands of people worldwide?) and came across the following at #2:
But the G1 scores with its operating system. It runs Android, the free mobile operating system from Google. It's the first mobile OS to make its debut in years and the G1 is just the first of what will be many phones that use it. With its open source base, growing developer community and dozens of cellphone manufacturers pledging to make Android phones, Android has the potential to reshape the wireless industry in significant ways.

And by "in years" we mean "since June 2007 when the iPhone was released".

 
One of the problems with buying running shoes is that it's very hard to get a good sense of fit just wearing them in the store. Obviously this is an issue with any consumer item, but running shoes are especially bad because of the unique combination of breakin time, repetitive friction induced blistering, and the sheer misery of running in shoes that give you blisters. I've had shoes that took several runs to break in and similarly I've had shoes which seemed fine at first but after several runs become clear would never fit properly.

For this reason, really good shoe stores will not only let you take the shoes outside and run with them but will let you return them even after you've taken them home and done several runs. For instance, I usually buy my shoes at The Runner's High in Menlo Park, which would let you return up to 30 days, even if the shoes were clearly worn from running. [Note: TRH has recently been acquired by Fleet Feet, so I don't know if they still maintain this policy.] [Full Disclosure: I'm a friend of the former owner and at least before the sale got a friend discount, which is another reason to shop at TRH at least for me. I haven't needed to replace my shoes since the sale.] The big running shop Road Runner Sports offers a similar policy:

60-Day Perfect Fitâ„¢ Shoe Guarantee
With our unrivaled Perfect Fitâ„¢ Guarantee you can run in your new shoes RISK-FREE for up to 60 days (from your purchase date). If they're not a perfect fit simply exchange them and we'll be happy to help you select another pair. No questions asked.

And of course, a number of the big outdoors retailers (REI, Backcountry.com) offer unlimited no questions asked return policies for every purchase.1.

This is relevant because lately I've gotten interested in trail running and after trying some of the more common trail shoes, and finding they didn't fit well, I started hearing good things about Inov-8s. Unfortunately, neither TRH nor RRS sells them, and REI and Backcountry only have a very limited selection of models and sizes, so I'm stuck buying from someone with a less flexible return policy. I don't really know what goes into setting this kind of policy, but it's kind of a bummer. I'd be happy to (as RRS wants you to do) commit to spending a certain amount of money with a merchant in order to avoid getting stuck with shoes which totally don't fit and I can't return. Especially since almost everyone carries my standard shoe (ASICS 2130) and so I could presumably always just get another pair of them. I'd certainly choose such a merchant if they were available. Unfortunately, apparently not.

1.REI will even accept returns for items which they have no ability to resell, like climbing ropes and carabiners. They can't tell if you've treated them correctly and since they're safety equipment they just have to destroy them.

 

December 16, 2008

If you work with technology you probably occasionally need to unscrew, pry, or snip something. If it's only occasional, the usual approach here is to carry some sort of multitool, and I've been on a years long quest for a capable multitool that isn't a huge brick in your pocket. I already have a Leatherman Wave and a Charge XTi, but they're way too heavy, so I thought I would try the new Skeletool CX. The Skeletool is a stripped down multitool that nominally offers "7 tools":
  • 154CM Stainless Steel Clip Point/Sheepsfoot Combo Knife
  • Needlenose Pliers
  • Regular Pliers
  • Wire Cutters
  • Hard-wire Cutters
  • Large Bit Driver
  • Bottle Opener
  • Carabiner Clip

Yeah, I note that that's 8, but I guess they're not counting the biner.

Really, though, you'll note that four of those tools are part of the pliers, so this is 4 tools: a knife, pliers, screwdriver, and a bottle opener. On the other hand, there are two double-ended screwdriver bits, so you could argue that the screwdriver would count for 4 tools, so maybe this is 7 tools after all.

Anyway, the Skeletool weighs in at 5 ounces and feels pretty slim in your pocket. The first big problem I noticed is that the outer corner of the knife blade is pretty sharp and so every time I jam my hand in my pocket, it scrapes my hand, which is kind of unpleasant. On the suggestion of Kevin Dick, I tried putting it in the change pocket of my 501s, where it just fits and which puts the edge of the knife against the cloth rather than against my hand. This isn't perfect, but it's pretty good and doesn't overweight my pocket and doesn't involve jamming my hand.

This isn't to say that the knife doesn't do a perfectly good job of slicing your hand open, however. I unwisely ignored the advice not to cut towards yourself when cutting apart a pair of socks (you know the little plastic "T" that holds them together? just pulling it out can damage the sock) and managed to slice a cm or so gash in my finger. Some crazy glue on the cut seems to have solved that problem at least temporarily, though. I understand that the ethyl cyanoacrylates sometimes cause irritation, but I haven't found it to be a problem.