Gear: August 2010 Archives


August 30, 2010

Last time I reported on my experience running with VFFs things were going pretty well. I wrote:
Bottom Line

I suspect I'd be able to run much longer in VFFs (and I'll try a 10 this weekend), but given how much trouble I had when I ran on grave [gravel --EKR] of the wrong size, I'm not sure I would want to do something like an ultra, where I couldn't turn around and didn't know that the surface would be good. In view of that, I'll probably start mixing it up more to make sure I still can run in shoes if I want to.

Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse. About 10 weeks ago I felt like my overall fitness was good enough to start introducing intervals back into my training plan. I started out relatively easy with 1/2 mile repeats and thing were going well. In keeping with my "mixed footwear" strategy I was trying to run something like:

DayWorkoutSurface Footwear
TuesdayIntervalsAsphaltInov-8 295s
Wednesday Easy 3-5AsphaltVFFs
FridayModerate 5-7 TrailsVFFs
SundayEasy (8+)TrailsInov-8 295s

This was going OK and then after one interval workout (note: regular shoes) I noticed pain in my right foot at the first metatarsal-phalanges joint (where the big toe intersects the foot) and spreading across the metatarsals towards the little toe. wearing regular shoes. I'd noticed some pain like this before right when I first started running in VFFS, but it went away. Figuring it would go away again and not wanting to interrupt my workout plan I tried my Wednesday run as planned, but only got about 1/2 mile before I had to turn around and walk back; every impact hurt.

At this point I knew I had an injury but not how bad it was. I limped around for a day or two but then it seemed to get better so I waited a week and then tried a two mile run which had a little bit of discomfort but was mostly OK. I decided to try my ordinary Friday run (you've probably heard endurance athletes are stupid) but with Inov-8s instead of VFFs so I got some shock absorption. Bad idea. About 2 miles in I was in bad enough pain that I couldn't run at all (thanks to Kyle Welch for convincing me that running in intense pain was bad) and had to walk the two miles back. I spent the next 3-4 days barely able to run at all. Since then, I haven't been brave enough to run more than 2-3 miles at a stretch and even after doing that, I have discomfort or not pain. Visits to doctors produced some nonspecific diagnoses—possibly sesamoiditis, possibly tendonitis—and the all-purpose referral to PT, the go-to-plan for hard-to-diagnose joint-related injuries. We'll see if that helps.

It's obviously tempting to attribute this to the VFFs. The evidence for that view is that you tend to push off a lot harder with your toes, that it's a new injury occurring after a change in training regime, that I was experiencing pain there even before the acute injury, and that walking around the house barefoot seems to hurt more than wearing shoes.. The evidence against that view is that the actual acute injury happened after running in regular shoes and that it happened after a substantial change/ramp-up in training load, which is often a cause of injuries. I don't have an answer here and it's clear that—since we don't even really know what the problem is—the doctors don't know either. Once I'm able to run again in regular shoes I'll reassess whether I want to try minimal footwear again. For now, I'm supposed to stop running and wearing stiff-soled shoes all the time, so the question is kind of moot.


August 14, 2010

One thing I've noticed about the Kindle is that it rebalances your reading priorities a bit. As any of my friends can tell you, I'm fairly cheap, so much of my pre-Kindle reading was either library books or used books (Bookbuyers in Mountain View has an excellent science fiction selection). But with the Kindle (and in particular the fact that it doesn't let you transfer books), my options have become a bit more limited. You can of course buy books from Amazon, but there's a lot less discount than you might like and you of course can't amortize the cost over multiple readers.1 (I'm assuming for the sake of argument here that you're not interested in breaking the DRM, though a little searching suggests this isn't that hard.)

As I mentioned earlier there are a number of sources of free Kindle books. However, due to the copyright situation they tend to be predominately older books, and since they generally have to be manually converted, this mostly means "classics". Unsurprisingly, I find myself reading a lot less modern fiction and a lot more "literature". Recently, I've read Jack London's "The Scarlet Plague", Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness", "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", and "Brave New World" (I actually paid $0.99 for this at Amazon). I don't think I'm alone here, either: on a recent flight back from DC I noticed the guy next to me reading "Moby Dick" on his iPad.

1.My other big source of books was loaners from Kevin Dick, who is rather less cheap. Unfortunately, he bought a Kindle.


August 4, 2010

I recently bought a Kindle DX. I've only had it for about 10 days, but after taking it to the Maastricht IETF, I'm ready to report some initial impressions.

The best part of the Kindle is the screen. The new high-contrast display just looks fantastic. Even on the smallest font size, it's still very readable, and you can easily take your average academic paper (typically Times Roman or Computer Modern in 10-12 point), copy it on the Kindle and read it there with no adjustments. When you're reading books, which aren't really formatted for this display, you do have to compromise between number of words on the page and line length, but I find that the smallest size usually works well. And of course, you can always use a bigger font size.

All e-paper displays are fairly slow to change, and when you change pages, the entire screen goes black briefly and then you get the new page. This is annoying at first but eventually you stop noticing it. The new display refreshes much faster than the old Kindle display and it makes a big difference here.

Since the display isn't backlit, you need some light source; most sources will do, but there is enough glare off the screen under really direct light that I can't use a headlamp to read in bed, the way I sometimes do with paper books. This is a minor flaw but is obviously something that could use some improvement.

The worst part of the Kindle is the UI. To some extent, this is dictated by the performance of the screen. Because the response is so bad, you just can't build as responsive a UI as you can with an LCD. So, whenever you want to do anything complicated, you end up waiting for the UI to do stuff, which is annoying. The UI is better than with the first generation Kindle. Amazon (or maybe the display manufacturer) has figured out how to change parts of the display without blanking everything and so you can at least tab through links on the page at a reasonable pace (though there's still a fair amount of ghosting).

The UI problems can't be laid entirely at the feet of the display, though: for instance, I'm right handed but I like to hold books left-handed while I'm doing other stuff (brushing my teeth, making an espresso; yes, I'm that guy). Unfortunately, the navigation buttons are only on the right, so this doesn't really work out. The original Kindle had buttons on both sides but Amazon seems to have given up on that. Regardless, it's annoying.

Another irritating feature is the keyboard, which just stinks, even by the standards of cruddy chiclet keyboards. Just typing a search term using the keyboard is annoying and using it for actual annotations is out of the question (at least for me).

Other Ergonomic Factors
The balance of the Kindle DX is a little off. You tend to want to towards the bottom, but then there is a long lever arm and this puts some stress on your hands which you don't get with pocket-sized paperbacks. The situation isn't any worse than with hardcover or trade books, so you just need to find somewhere to rest the device if you're going to do any really extended reading.

Kindle Store
Amazon, of course, runs a Kindle e-book store. You can access it via your Kindle but because of the aforementioned UI issues, that's kind of a last resort thing. Instead, you want to use the online store, which is just like Amazon's ordinary book store, except that when you buy something it gets wirelessly delivered to the Kindle (the thing about "around a minute" is no lie, btw. I ordered a book from my PC in Europe and had it downloaded in a minute or so.) That's all fine, but to be honest Amazon's prices aren't that great, with Kindle books generally running at between 6.99 and 9.99, so more than the corresponding paperback but less than a hardcover. Obviously e-books have advantages, but it's annoying to be paying more than you would for a physical book which you could lend to a friend when you're done. Of course, I knew this was the situation going in and planned to mostly use free books (see below).

Free Sources
There is a really excellent supply of free e-books for the Kindle. Mostly what's available is books (classics and otherwise) which are out of copyright. Some authors have also made their work available under Creative Commons or other free licenses. The best place to start is probably Feedbooks, which provides a "book" called the Kindle Download Guide. Really, the Guide is a meta-book, since it consists mainly of book descriptions and links to where you can download the books from Feedbooks. This all works relatively smoothly. You can also apparently get books from Project Gutenberg and The Internet Archive, but I haven't really tried either. There seems to be a fair amount of overlap between these sources. For instance, many of the books on Feedbooks come from Project Gutenberg. See here for a more complete page of free Kindle books.

Amazon also provides a selection of free books in the Kindle store, but unfortunately (though unsurprisingly) it's not really that easy for me to browse through; in particular, the organization into categories is kind of messed up. For instance, it thinks Lorentz's "Einstein's Theory of Relativity" is fiction.

Loading Your Own Files
Finally, you can load your own files, which is useful for papers, documentation, etc. The Kindle DX will process PDF and as I mentioned above, it doesn't need to reformat them the way that the smaller Kindle does. All you need to do here is download the PDF onto your computer, then plug the Kindle in via the USB cable, where it appears as a hard drive. You just copy the files into the Kindle's document folder and they're available as soon as you unmount the Kindle.

The major drawback here is organizational. The basic Kindle interface is just that you have a pile of documents which get sorted in some order (like most recent). They recently added a "collections" feature where you can tag documents as belonging to a particular collection, but the UI for this, like all the UI, is clunky, and there's no official way to manage it from your computer. (More on how to make this work later).


August 2, 2010

I do a lot of reading and I'd been thinking for a while of buying some kind of e-book reader. The advantages (light weight, no need to compromise on selection, etc.) were obvious, but so are the drawbacks (lack of content portability, no real ability to mark up), so I'd been holding off in hopes that something better would come along. But faced with 30,000+ miles in 6 weeks, I just couldn't face lugging my usual pile of books and decided I better do something.

I do two major kinds of reading on the road: books and papers. Any of the major devices seems to do reasonably well on books, though there is some variation in how extensive the available library is. For papers, what I really want is the ability to copy over my own PDFs and then mark them up on the device; my existing workflow was to print everything out, mark it up, and then transcribe from the marked up ms., so ideally I would want the same workflow on a device. I don't need any kind of OCR, just to be able to see my marks (which are mostly circles, strikeouts, etc. anyway) and transcribe them. Unfortunately, none of the major devices seem to have this kind of capability, and while there are some fringy devices that seem to (e.g., the iRex), they're expensive and I didn't want to deal with some device that nobody else had and that I couldn't try before I bought.1

This left three major options:

  • An iPad
  • The Kindle (either regular or DX)
  • The Sony reader

I never even really considered the Sony reader. I do a lot of buying from Amazon and it just seemed convenient to have something integrated with an existing popular library. Also, I'd seen early Sonys and wasn't that impressed. This may have been a mistake, but that was my decision process.

This left iPad versus Kindle. I tried a friend's first generation Kindle on one trip and was pretty impressed with the battery life and general readability. The UI is pretty kludgy but eventually I got used to it. Obviously, the regular Kindle is nowhere near large enough to display a full page of text, but if I couldn't annotate onscreen I thought it might be worth sacrificing a full page view for size. Ultimately, though I tried a DX and was pretty impressed with its usability and concluded that there were lots of times I would want to read papers and only do light editing, if any, where the DX would work well. Ultimately, I bought one of the new Graphite DXs.

So, why didn't I buy an iPad? Obviously an iPad is a far more capable device, but I already have a Macbook Air, so if I want to play games or watch movies, Apple has already sold me a perfectly good general computing device which isn't annoyingly handcuffed to their App store, so that extra capability doesn't buy me a lot. The iPad also has a number of drawbacks. The screen is bright and clear but in terms of readability for a long book I prefer the matte unlit Kindle display (though of course the e-ink display lag is annoying). Also, the iPad is quite a bit heavier (about 4oz/20%) and the battery lifetime is significantly worse. I used my Kindle quite heavily over a week with the wireless on much of the time and only ran out of battery at the very end. This doesn't match what I hear about people's iPad experiences.

Finally, there's the issue of price: the Kindle DX is $389 and the bare bones iPad with 3G is $699, but then you have to pay for the data plan. By contrast, you can use the Kindle internationally for free; I had several books wirelessly delivered to me in Holland and didn't even think about the cost. This is a huge advantage for me, since it's precisely in settings where I don't want to pay hefty 3G roaming fees that I most want to be able to read for free. And of course you can use the Kindle as a free (bad) Web browser if you get desperate enough.

All in all, I'm reasonably happy with the Kindle (full review to come later) though I wouldn't have paid $600 for it. If a device that lets me mark up directly appears, I'd definitely seriously consider that (heck, if there is one now, I'm still within my 30 day return window) but in the meantime the Kindle seems like a reasonable compromise.

1. A friend of mine recently attempted to order an iRex and reports that it's more or less eternally back-ordered. After talking to me he decided on a DX.