it’s not an ipad, but it’s not bad at all.

So Tamara brought her Kindle Fire along when she came up to Upper Cryogenica to house-sit. I got to play with it for a while (and watch an episode of Archer on it), and I was fairly impressed with the little thing. It’s handier than the iPad, and it does most of what I do with the iPad on a regular basis—browse the web, read e-books, do Facebook and Twitter, listen to music, and watch movies.

(My main bookreader isn’t the iPad, but the basic Kindle with the e-ink display. I prefer the look of e-ink to text on an LCD, and the readability in sunlight is kind of a big deal when you often take your e-reader along to the playground.)

The iPad is more capable, and the interface feels faster and more responsive, but I’d seriously consider a Kindle Fire if we didn’t already have an iPad. It’s definitely more portable, and covers 80% of the iPad’s functionality for most users. If there’s anything I dislike about it, it’s the shiny plastic bezel that picks up fingerprints like mad (and makes the device feel a bit cheap), and the limited storage space. Cloud or not, I want to have the option of putting a bit more than a few playlists of music and two or three movies onto my portable media tablet, especially when I travel to locations where Wi-Fi coverage may be spotty or expensive. Also, the 8-hour charge is a bit on the short side. On the whole, though, it’s a neat device and a perfectly cromulent budget tablet at less than half the price tag of an iPad. Only our ownership of an iPad is keeping me from buying one to supplement the e-ink Kindle.

totally ergo.

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My one problem with the standing desk was the height of the keyboard. If I put a keyboard on the lower part of the desk, it’s too low for comfort, because the desk surface is about three inches below my elbow, and I have to bend my wrists up to type. Placing the keyboard on the higher part of the desk where the monitor sits is better for the wrists, but I have nothing to rest my hands on as I type. I tried putting a riser under my regular keyboard, but the angle was still all wrong.

Then I saw this thing at BestBuy and took it for a little test drive. It’s a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. Say what you want about Microsoft, but on occasion they come up with some decent hardware. (Their Optical Trackball, now discontinued, was the best trackball on the market, and used models fetch crazy-high prices on fleaBay whenever they surface.)

At first I hated it. Not the feel, mind you—this is one comfortable keyboard. It has a padded faux leather palmrest, and the size and shape are just right. What I couldn’t get used to at first was the split design. I’m not a touch-typist, and the split layouts are pretty awkward when your fingers routinely cross the center line of the keyboard. But I loved the feel, and Newegg had them on sale for $24.99 with free shipping, so I decided to give one fair shakes for a few days. I put a standard keyboard in front of the monitor as frustration insurance, and gave my hands and fingers some time to readjust to the new keyboard.

On Day Two, I put the other keyboard back in the parts bin, because I was constantly reaching for the split type instead.

The split design works very well (it keeps your hands at their natural alignment angle instead of forcing them to bend to conform to a straight line board), but the killer feature for me is the negative tilt. It comes with a detachable riser piece at the front of the keyboard that tilts the whole affair downward at a reverse slope angle:

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That’s the ideal angle for this particular keyboard shelf on this desk for someone my height.

It’s not perfect—I prefer mechanical keyswitches, and I could do without all the extra buttons at the top that make an already large keyboard about the size of a park bench, but the damn thing is so comfy and works so well that I can forgive its shortcomings. Now I can run around in Skyrim dominate noobs in BF3 compose epic prose in total wrist-and-hand comfort.

p-p-p-powerbook.

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This past weekend, I engaged in some mutually beneficial voluntary exchange of property with friends. They wanted to set up a home theater PC for their big-screen TV in the basement den, and they had a nice PowerBook G4 they no longer needed. So I traded them my Zotac HTPC, which had been hooked up to our TV but rarely used because we stream Netflix through the Wii.

Looking at the PowerBook, you wouldn’t be able to tell it’s a 5-year-old machine. They look deceptively like the current MacBook Pro models. It’s clad in aluminum, and the keyboard is backlit, which is a nice feature for someone who often writes in low-light conditions—say, early in the morning before the kids get up, or late in the evening when everyone’s in bed. The very last PowerBook model made before Apple went to Intel chips and renamed the line “MacBook”, it still has capable hardware under the hood. It has 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive, and a really nice high-res display. The G4, being retired technology, is not suitable for HD video streaming or gaming these days, but it’s perfectly capable when it comes to running Scrivener or Word, and it browses the Intertubes as fast as anything else out there.

A good exchange of value is when both parties walk away from the transaction happy, and they did. My friends have a sweet HTPC and can stream Netflix to their TV, and I have a nice portable writing rig that runs all the software I need to chip the prose from the walls of the word mines.

dispatch from castle frostbite.

(looks up from breakfast)

Oh, hi there, imaginary Intertubes pals!

I’ve been kind of sparse on the Twitters and the Interblogs for the last week or two. To those who got concerned enough to check up on me via email: NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. I AM FINE. Just a little busy with Real Life, that’s all. I was most emphatically NOT kidnapped by a gang of rogue Girl Scouts and locked in the basement dungeon in their troop’s secret HQ, fed a diet of Twizzlers and flat Mountain Dew, and forced to crank out reams of Twilight fanfic. NO, SIR.

The Munchkin Wrangler wordsmithy has a new primary computational device—a store-bought Gateway box running Windows 7. When I put Robin’s machine together a few months back, I ordered a parts kit from TigerDirect and put together a really fast budget rig with a quad-core processor for under $400. I wanted to repeat the process for my new machine, but our Windows and Office family pack licenses have been distributed among the existing computers in the house, and the added cost for even an OEM license of Windows 7 Home Premium would have made a parts kit system just as expensive as (or only very slightly less so than) an off-the-shelf store computer. So I went out and bought the ready-made solution, which means that the Nerd Club will be by very shortly to collect my club card. (“You bought a STORE BOX? And it’s not even running LINUX? FOR SHAME.”) The new box is a Core i3, one of the new Sandy Bridge processors, and much faster than anything else I’ve owned so far. I took it home, replaced the wimpy 300W PSU with a 500W Antec unit I had in the parts bin, and stuck a GeForce GTX 460 into the PCI-E slot. It runs like a Geiger counter near Fukushima, and it’s so quiet that you have to actually put your ear against the case to hear that it’s on.

(Plus, it has running lights along the front of the case, and the Gateway logo lights up. That’s how you know it’s a fast rig, you see.)

(TL;DR: New computer, yay!)

Things at the Castle are hectic and in a permanent state of low-level stress with occasional spikes of OMGWTFBBQ—in other words, business as usual. But hey! Next month the winter will start full throttle, and then I get to put “Snow Removal” on my daily plate of chores as well. Grown-ups have SO MUCH FUN. They get to do WHATEVER THEY WANT. It’s not fair!

(Lyra and Quinn have discovered that delightful phrase despite only a very nebulous grasp of its meaning. To them, “It’s not fair” means “I don’t agree with it”, which—come to think about it—is also how a lot of grown-ups understand it.)

Anyway: the state of affairs here at Castle Frostbite. Not captured by girl scouts—busy as fuck—new computer—looking forward to shoveling snow (“New England Home Gym: FREE HOME DELIVERY”)—life’s not fair. That’s all for right now. Carry on, then.

iMessage: like texting for grown-ups.

So Robin has an iPhone 4S, I got her iPhone 4 as a hand-me-down, and I updated the iPad to iOS5, so all three devices can bounce iMessages between each other.

iMessage, for those not familiar with it, is the new Instant Messenger feature built into iOS5. It’s designed to be an alternative to SMS, and while it works only between devices that run iOS5, it’s a no-cost alternative to SMS. If all the people you routinely message are on iOS5, you can drop the SMS package from your cell phone’s price plan altogether and save a chunk of change every month.

iMessage is my favorite iOS5 feature by far. When I roomed with Tamara, we used to joke around about the pointlessness of SMS. (“Why, I can communicate with another cell phone user via text! It’s almost as efficient as MAKING A CALL! Revolutionary!”) And prior to iMessage, I’ve never sent a single SMS to anyone. (This is mainly due to the fact that all my phones thus far had keypads, and tapping out a sentence with the number keys is an exercise in swear word generation for me.) But now with the iPhone? Holy cow, does this ever work well.

The nice thing about iMessage is that it fits exactly the brief kind of status update or information I share with my wife throughout the day–stuff like “I’m on the way home”, or “Stop and pick up milk”. It’s the sort of data for which email is too clunky and voice-calling is overkill. iMessage fits the niche perfectly. It’s instant, fuss-free, and provides discrete notifications. Email does that too, but you have to start the email program, address the message, type it out, and send it through the respective mail systems, which is a bit more involved than just tapping the message out and hitting “send” for instant direct delivery.

Yeah, SMS has done that for a long time, but SMS plans cost money. If we had phones on different platforms, we’d have no choice but to buy an SMS package for each phone for the same convenience. With iMessage, we get the capability thrown in with the device and OS, without any monthly fees, and we have the ability to send pictures and videos the same way as well.

(The saleswoman at the Verizon counter was a little crimped that Robin knew about the iMessage feature and turned down the offer of adding a $30/month “Family Unlimited” texting package to each account.)

So yeah, I’m probaby sounding like a breathless Apple fanboi, but iMessage is really turning out to be a “how did we live without this?” sort of feature for us. It has all the convenience of instant messaging without the cost of SMS or the need for setting up and maintaining separate IM clients on the phones, and it has made it much more convenient and easy for us to stay in touch during the day, when phone calls are not a option much of the time.

(Yes, I’m aware of Google Talk/Chat which lets you do the exact same thing on Android ZOMG!, but platform war debates make me feel all stabby. It’s a phone, not a religion, and there is no One True Way. We just happen to have–and like–our iPhones, and with a huge chunk of change invested in a lot of specialized apps–we’re not likely to switch to Android any time soon. If your Android phone does the same thing as iMessage, wonderful.)

it looks like an akhibara sidewalk sale in this house.

Just for the hell of it, here is the current inventory of Intertubes technology here at Castle Frostbite.

Wife’s computer: AMD Phenom x4 quad-core beastie, put together by your correspondent from a barebones kit. 1TB HD, Geforce 9800 graphics for EXTREME WARCRAFTING. Runs Windows 7.

My computer: Apple Mac mini (late 2009), upgraded to 4GB RAM and a 320GB 7200rpm HD. Runs Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

Office computer (wife): Gateway Core 2 Duo workhorse. 3GB RAM, 750GB HD. Runs Windows 7.

Office computer (mine): Zotac ION nettop box, put together by your correspondent and etc. 2GB RAM, 320GB HD. Runs Ubuntu 10.11.

Travel computer: Asus Eee 1001PX netbook. 1GB RAM, 250GB HD. Runs Ubuntu 10.04. Came with Windows 7 Starter, but runs much better with Ubuntu.

Kid computer: Dell Inspiron 1200 laptop. 256MB RAM, runs Windows XP, perfectly sufficient for Reader Rabbit and iSpy.

Miscellaneous internet-capable tech: one iPhone 4S, one iPhone 4, one iPad, one iPod touch.

In the attic: one eMac G4 running OS9 and OS X Tiger, one Pentium 4-based PC running Windows XP, two large plastic storage tubs full of assorted peripherals, cables, connectors, drives, and other computer-related flotsam.

I swear, if I dragged all our tech out for a yard sale, our driveway would look like a Radio Shack collided with a Best Buy.

on standing desks (again) and the superiority of the minivan.

Great success! Sweet-talked the manager of the local Borders and got to pick up my new standing desks today, even though the store is still open and running. The desks were bereft of computers, so I figured I’d ask nicely if I could get my stuff ahead of time, and they said “hokay.”

(I had to get a furniture dolly from Home Despot for the job, which made the transport a piece of cake. Fifty bucks for a device that lets me transport a 200lb. desk with one hand? See, dolphins, this is why we still run shit around here—superior tools.)

I didn’t get back until 7pm this evening, so the desks are still in the van. Tomorrow morning, I’ll dismantle the old desk, haul in the new stuff, scrub everything down, and set it up. Maybe I’ll go back for some bookshelves and signage, and make my workspace look like a miniature Borders. Then all that’s left to make it feel authentic is paying my wife four bucks per cup of coffee and letting her scan my Borders Rewards card.

In related news, I have once again reaffirmed my belief that the humble minivan is by far the most flexible vehicle on the road. There’s no other car that could have done that job except for a pick-up truck, which—while having equal or better cargo capacity than the Grand Marnier—doesn’t match it in passenger space, or the ability to reconfigure the ride on the fly for a mix of both. Six passengers, 143 cubic feet of cargo, or any combination thereof, plus driver. Those standing workstations are pretty large pieces of furniture, but they fit into the Grand Marnier with room to spare. Yes, yes, it’s a boring Dad ride with juice stains on the carpet and cookie crumbs in the seat cracks…but it hauls people and stuff better than anything else I’ve owned.

For those three or four of you that are interested in standing workspace setups, I’ll have some pictures tomorrow, once everything is put together.

tablet for cheep! wurks reel gud!

If you don’t have a tablet device yet, and you don’t want to drop the $499 on an iPad, here’s a cheaper way. BestBuy is blowing out their massive stock of HP TouchPads for $99 a pop for the low-end 16GB model.

HP launched the Touchpad as an iPad competitor, but it failed to gain traction. Reportedly, BestBuy only managed to sell 10% of their stock of a quarter million TouchPads so far. Now that HP has killed the TouchPad, BestBuy is getting rid of inventory. I’ve played with the TouchPad at Best Buy before, and while it’s no iPad, webOS is actually kind of nice. And hell–for $99, it’s practically an impulse buy now.

(They’re sold out online, so you’ll have to hit your local BestBuy and see if they still have any in stock.)

standing desk, attempt the second.

In a previous professional life, I was a help desk guy and then a systems administrator. With minor exceptions, that means I’ve had a desk job for the last sixteen years. I’ve probably spent six hours or more in a chair almost every day since 1996.

Well, it turns out that the body isn’t really made for sitting in a chair all day long, and my body has increasingly made it clear to me that I’m not treating it with the care it needs to get me through the next twenty or thirty years without regular applications of anti-inflammatory drugs and cortisone injections. If pain is nature’s way of saying “You’re Doing It Wrong”, then I’m doing it Very Wrong, Indeed. I’ve had recurring sciatica episodes since at least 1999, but they’ve increased in severity, so when the last (thankfully brief) episode tapered off last week, I figured it was high time to take firm measures, lest I find myself walking on a crutch by the time I hit 50. I can’t change what I do–writing and wrangling kids around the house–but I am certainly able to change the way I’m doing it.

At the follow-up visit with my doctor last week, I requested a referral to a Physical Therapist, discussed a bunch of options, and had her show me exercises and such. Then I went to modify my work space arrangement, to keep myself from sitting at a desk most of the day and relapsing back into the same issues every ten or twelve months.

I’ve tried the standing desk setup for a day, but took it down again because my feet were getting too tired–and, truth be told, because we do what’s comfortable and familiar, and go back to the old ways as soon as we have an excuse. This time, I wanted to make sure that cheating would be more difficult. They make lovely hydraulic desks that change from sitting to standing height at the press of a button, but knowing myself, I’d use it as a sitting desk 90% of the time if adjusting it is as easy as flicking a switch. So I moved the sitting chair out of the room altogether, put a cheap coffee table from the WalMarts on top of my regular desk, and put a bar stool in front of it, to have a place to perch my derriere when my feet start aching. I used a monitor riser to boost the screen to eye level, and a footstool underneath the desk to change leg positions as needed.

It’s not pretty, but it works for now:

Eventually, I want to get a dedicated, purpose-built standing desk that doesn’t look cobbled together, but until I fully get used to the arrangement, the coffee table trick will have to do.

I spent all day working in front of the standing desk yesterday, including the customary evening World of Warcraft session with the wife. When everyone went to bed, I kept on working some more. The key to the new setup is the little bar stool–it gives me a place to sit down for a moment to take the load off my feet occasionally, but it doesn’t invite slumping onto it and just vegging in front of the monitor. After thirty seconds or so on the stool, I find that I actually want to get up and move again.

So far, I’ve identified two major differences in the standing desk’s favor. One is the ability to move around in front of the desk. You shift the weight on your legs, you can take an easy step back from the desk, you can walk away easily altogether and pace as you think something through–the standing desk feels a lot more liberating from a movement perspective. The second difference is more of a mindset thing. When I sit down in a regular chair, there’s a certain inertia that makes me want to stay there, and getting out of the chair is a bit of a hassle. Also, sitting and looking at the screen is passive to the point of trance sometimes, to the point where you end up sitting and clicking on stuff just because you’re sitting down. With the standing desk, there’s no effort involved in stepping away from the screen, so you do it more often and with less inertia.

I’m going to give this setup a week or two and see how it goes. I’m on Day Two now, and the feet are like “WTF?” on occasion, but my back is holding up fine. I’m definitely moving around much more, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just sitting down to get sucked into the Intertubes for hours. If my body finds that it prefers the standing desk, I’ll look at buying a permanent solution that doesn’t look like, well, a WalMart coffee table on an old desk. Stay tuned for more exciting tales from the ergonomics front…