Review: iMito MX1

imitoI’m trying to regather some posting momentum with a series of short reviews about stuff I like.  Look for one every couple of days.  I’m not paid for any of this, I just like reviewing things.

The iMito MX1 is one of those pieces of technology that feels like it shouldn’t exist.  This is a full computer packed into a super tiny case.  If it helps with scale in that picture, the thing sticking out the top is an HDMI plug.  Connect it to a TV and you’ve got Android running on the screen.

It sounds a little odd to want to run a phone and tablet operating system on your TV, and admittedly the interface is a little wonky at times when using a keyboard an mouse.  Still, having access to the Android app store means a dead simple way to get Hulu, Netflix, my podcasts, Google Music, Youtube, and Plex (more on this in another post) onto the big screen.  All for less than $60!

Things I liked in 2012

I had plans to write a big extensive wrapup review of things I really enjoyed in 2012.  The specific plan was to write that before the end of 2012.  Oops.  In the interest of getting it posted in a somewhat relevant timeframe, here’s an abbreviated version.  Note that not everything here was released in 2012, but it was the year I encountered them:


The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read.  Listed as a young adult title, there’s deep insights here for adults too.  It’s got deep insights  into the nature of war and the cycle of violence it involves.  Bacigalupi excels at writing about terrible things in an extremely compelling manner.

The Magician King lets the characters from The Magicians grow up a bit, and the result is characters I found much less frustrating than in the series’ previous book.

Saga is my new favorite comic book series.  It’s space opera and fantasy and a whole lotta (sometimes graphic) weirdness in one package.  Brian K. Vaughan continues to be a must-read writer for me.

Hawkeye is a bunch of fun too, though more focused on small contained story arcs.  As the book describes itself, these are the adventures Hawkeye gets into when he’s not being an Avenger.  The minimalist covers push some nice buttons for me too.


The new Ben Folds Five album is everything I hoped it would be!  I also spent a bunch of time listening to Gotye and Of Monsters and Men.


I didn’t play as many video games this year as I have in the past, but the best two were Mass Effect 3 and The Walking Dead.  ME3 was an excellent capstone to the trilogy, and The Walking Dead gets a gold star for forcing some truly intense player decisions while building one of the best-written stories I’ve seen in a game.


I think about the cliffhanger at the end of Sherlock season 2 at least once a week, while for comedy nothing beats Parks & Recreation.


Three line menu

I try to keep an eye out for standards in mobile UI. With limited screen space available for the interface, I spend a ton of time thinking about how best to represent actions to our users. Are there standards of how users have come to expect mobile interfaces to behave? Lately I’ve seen this one popping up in a number of places:


The box of three horizontal lines is everywhere. Not too long ago Chrome ditched their wrench icon in favor of the lines:


It’s also in the Facebook app (twice):


And Feedly:


And on Youtube’s desktop site:


and even on my Kindle:


The standard for this icon seems to be that it opens a menu or navigation of some kind. Google Music’s Android app is a notable exception, where the icon opens the current playlist instead. But in the majority of cases, when users see three horizontal lines it leads to a menu.

Smashing Magazine spotted it before I did, and has a great analysis of how this icon can be used.   Personally I think using it is a win/win.  It makes it easier for me to design a page, and as an emerging standard helps users know what behavior to expect.

Web services I use, 2012 edition

Since I last posted this list, a few things have changed. First, here’s the things I used last year but don’t anymore:

For two weeks in October, Simplenote’s syncing service stopped working entirely. None of my notes propogated across devices, making it entirely useless to me. Even worse, their support was entirely silent on the issue. Syncing eventually returned, but I’m sufficiently spooked and don’t trust the service anymore. I spent some time exporting my notes, and moved on to greener pastures.

Spool’s killer feature was the ability to cache youtube videos for offline viewing. That put it above all other text-saving services for me. But in February, Youtube asked Spool to disable that feature. Then Spool shut down entirely in July. But by that time I’d already moved to another service.

Last year I questioned Flickr’s future usefulness for me. And when it came time for me to renew my Pro account in March, I let it lapse for the first time since 2005. It hurt my soul a little bit to do that, but the community I once valued so much on Flickr is dead silent now.

Other things have stayed the same. I still use Pinboard, Tripit, Dropbox, ifttt and Google Reader extensively. I still don’t really like Google Reader now that the social features are gone, but I haven’t found a better replacement yet either. Dropbox added an automatic photo upload feature in their mobile app that makes me feel much more secure about my phone’s photos. Ifttt was forced to remove some of their twitter-related features, but it’s still a ton of fun to play with.

Lastly, there’s a few new tools I’ve picked up:

This has entirely replaced Simplenote for me. While I sometimes still miss Simplenote’s, well, simplicity, Evernote is undeniably powerful. I splurged on a one year pro subscription and haven’t looked back. It’s become a crucial part of my day to day workflow, keeping all my project notes and brainstorming in one place.

Formerly known as ReadItLater, the now better-named Pocket is my text time-shifter of choice. Whenever I find an interesting article during the day I add it to my Pocket queue for later reading. I load up the Android app when I’ve got time and catch up. My queue is never-ending, but I get to a bunch more articles this way than I would have otherwise.

I’m of two minds here. Picasa’s desktop version is an amazing photo manager & organizer, but I just can’t make their online photo sharing component work for me. It’s confusing, buggy, and has even less of a community than Flickr. With a baby on the way, I need to find a good way to share photos with distant family. Picasa isn’t it, and I still don’t know what service I’ll end up using for it. But back to the positive: Thanks to the desktop version of Picasa my photos are better organized than ever before.

While I don’t technically use Feedly as a service of it’s own, the Feedly Android app has become the way I most frequently access Google Reader. It has a wonderful gesture-based interface that makes it easy to quickly flip through articles and mark them as read.

New DMCA exemptions for 2012

Every 3 years since 1998, the Librarian of Congress has been allowed to issue new exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  The DMCA is the act which (among other things) makes it illegal to circumvent copy protection schemes and DRM.

The 2012 crop of exemptions (here’s the official document) goes into effect today.  The document itself is pretty lengthy, but Ars Technica has a great distillation of the important points.  In bullet point form, here’s the new things that the DMCA no longer outlaws:

  • Jailbreaking your iPhone (or any other smartphone) is now legal.  There’s a notable distinction here though: the exception applies to only phones.  Tablets are specifically excluded.  In the words of the rule, “…this aspect of the proposed class was broad and ill-defined, as a wide range of devices might be considered “tablets”…” Essentially, if it’s hard to define a tablet then how can it be made an exemption?  An interesting point, though I don’t agree with the results.
  • Unlocking your smartphone (making it compatible with a competitor’s cell network) without a carrier’s permission was previously exempted but will no longer be allowed if you buy your phone after January 2013.  Why?  Court rulings since the 2009 exemptions place more emphasis on the fact that we don’t own software – we just license it.  The new exemptions also note that “…there are ample alternatives to circumvention”.  The difference between jailbreaking and unlocking seems like splitting hairs to me, but it is what it is.
  • We’re allowed to rip DVDs (but if I read it right, not blu-rays) and use excerpts in noncommercial, documentary, or educational films.  That’s great, but I’m sad that the proposed exemption to allow “space shifting” of DVDs was denied.  That would have let individual movie owners transfer movies to their PC, home server, or mobile device.  Alas.
  • Visually impaired users who purchase an ebook can remove DRM to allow the text to be electronically read aloud.  The 2009 exemptions already allowed this one, but only in the case that content providers had specifically disabled read aloud functions.   Now that requirement is gone, so this one’s a slight win.  But it comes with a big caveat – the exemption does not include distribution of DRM-removal software to those blind users.  So as the Ars Technica article points out: the visually impaired are welcome to remove DRM, but only if they can write software to do it themselves.

That last contradiction reinforces my belief that the DMCA is a fundamentally broken piece of legislation.  It’s nice that it allows for periodic exemptions, but that process is too narrowly scoped.  Looking at Ars’ excellent analysis again:

“The space-shifting ruling is a good illustration of the fundamental brokenness of the DMCA. In order to convince the Librarian to allow DVD ripping in order to watch it on an iPad, a court would first need to rule that doing so falls under copyright’s fair use defense. To get such a ruling, someone would have to rip a DVD (or sell a DVD-ripping tool), get sued in court, and then convince a judge that DVD ripping is fair use. But in such a case, the courts would probably never reach the fair use question, because—absent an exemption from the Librarian of Congress—circumvention is illegal whether or not the underlying use of the work would be a fair use. So no fair use ruling without an exemption, and no exemption without a fair use ruling. A classic catch-22.”

Quickly share screenshots with Snipping Tool++

I’m going to try posting more frequently with shorter items. So here’s a good start: Snipping tool ++ is my new favorite bit of free software. Windows 7’s built-in snipping tool is great, but I often need to quickly share a screenshot with someone else online. ST++ auto-uploads it and puts the link in my clipboard all ready to paste into a chat. Ta-da!

Here’s a screenshot I uploaded while composing this post. It’s a no-doubt fascinating view of my taskbar, and took just one keypress and one mouse click to create:

My taskbar

You can get the tool here:

(Found via Lifehacker)

A post-scarcity world

Last week I watched a printer spit out a skull. While I worked on a project at our local TechShop, another member was testing their new Makerbot. Bit by bit, a flawless four inch plastic skull grew before my eyes. I’ve read and thought about 3d printers before, but seeing one in action pushed some buttons about the future of physical items. In particular, I got thinking about what role libraries might play in a world with commonplace 3d printing.

Musician Jonathan Coulton was somehow thinking about the same ideas at the same time. In his reaction to an NPR blog post about young people’s attitudes toward paying for music, Coulton took his analysis in a fascinating direction. He theorized heavily about what might happen to many industries in a post-scarcity world.

What happens when a product can be reproduced by consumers with marginal effort? The music industry and the publishing world are facing early signs of that reality now, but won’t be the last. Coulton goes on to talk about the imminent rise of 3d printers, and the pile of industries they stand ready to disrupt. (There’s an especially fascinating look at a man who printed his own adapters to connect legos, k’nex, and lincoln logs)

Coulton’s post should be required reading for anybody in the library world. While he’s not talking specifically about us, his vision of a post-scarcity world is right up our alley. Libraries have built our business on reducing scarcity – we took a relatively uncommon item like a paper book and made it available to more people than would have access to it otherwise. Now we face the possibility of scarcity itself dropping off a cliff.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the post-scarcity world is upon us. Physical objects which can be easily digitized (books, music, etc) have become virtually obsolete. Most other common 3d goods are now printed at home. What industries or services would be left with viable business models? Here’s a few off the top of my head:

-Support systems for the printers. Raw materials to print with, repairs, etc.

-Food services like restaurants and grocery stores would probably be largely unaffected.

-Other services based around the human body would likely survive relatively unaltered as well. Travel, salons, massages, gyms, etc.

-There will likely be a boom in services related to information management.

I want to focus on that last item a bit, because I think that’s the only place for libraries in a post-scarcity world. If scarcity dies, we would no longer need to be a place to distribute most books, music, or movies. In some ways, that excites me. We’d be able to stop focusing all our efforts on these physical and digital objects! Those objects’ shortcomings have always been something we routed around.

Remove those roadblocks, and we could focus our services on what we’ve always done very well: organizing information and helping people access it. With scarcity gone, the resulting glut of information would be paralyzing if left unsortable and unfiltered.

Libraries which solely manage a flow of non-scarce digital information would admittedly be unrecognizable compared to their current form, but it would still represent a way forward for the profession and a valuable service to society. We might actually be better off than many other industries in the long run, but only if we can convince ourselves to get past the lending of physical objects as the way we justify our collective existence.

OK, Sorry, I went kind of sci-fi crazy there for a minute. I’ll reel it back in: I don’t know if we’ll see society dispense with most scarcity within my lifetime, but I do know that we’ve already seen it decrease in some sectors. Many libraries (both public and academic) face questions from their users here and now: why is a library necessary in an ebook and netflix world? We’re tied to distribution of objects which face an impending removal of scarcity. Can we shift away from them, while we still can?

(Eli Neiburger made very similar points almost two years ago in his “Libraries are Screwed” presentation. It should be required viewing for every librarian everywhere.)

Seeing a 3d printer in action, I noticed something that I’ve never seen mentioned about them before: They’re musical. Think of the noise an old dot-matrix 2d printer made, but somehow more tuned to random notes. So as a musical skull appeared out of thin air in front of my eyes, that’s what triggered the sci-fi thinking. I couldn’t help but wonder about a future in a post-scarcity world. As a group, libraries understandably fight today for ways to lend digital items. But will that even matter in the long term? What if we’re barking up the wrong tree entirely?

The good news is that we stand a chance for survival in a post-scarcity world. The bad news is that we might have to let go of a core part of our identity to get there.

Status Check: Public Library Ebook Friction

I’ve been asked to speak later today on a panel about ebooks in public libraries. Thanks to the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough for the opportunity! While my day-to-day work is in an academic library, not public, I still try and keep current on the issues faced in our sibling institutions. If we learned nothing else from a recent ebook survey on campus, it’s that our students bring their perceptions of popular-fiction ebooks and apply them equally to academic ebooks.

I’ve been asked if my talk would be recorded or streamed, and I don’t think it will be. But here’s my slides:

I admit many of them don’t make much sense without my accompanying narration. So here’s a summary:

-Popular Fiction publishers love the word ‘Friction’ when applied to ebooks. They’re terrified that if it becomes too easy to get an ebook from a library, customers won’t have any motivation to spend money to actually buy ebooks individually anymore. So they want to introduce friction into the process. I can understand this fear to a point. But major publishers’ reactions is so swift and violent that they don’t seem willing to even experiment and see if their fears are justified. They’re shutting libraries out without a second thought. There’s also other arguments like the idea that libraries create lifelong readers, who turn into publishsers’ best customers. But others have made that argument much more coherently than I can.

-Why are libraries different? Why can’t we just buy a Kindle book like anyone else and then lend it out, the same way we do with print copies?
For one thing, when someone buys an ebook they’re not purchasing the book itself. We’re purchasing a license to use that title for personal use only. The terms of Amazon’s license, for example, specifically note that “…you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party.” So, no library lending is allowed. Barnes & Noble and other ebook vendors all have similar language in their licenses.
Even if we could negotiate a better license for library use, we’re still limited by Digital Rights Management in the books. DRM is programming which restricts each purchased ebook title to use on the original purchaser’s device. I could email you a Kindle book I bought, but you couldn’t open it on your own device. Some publishers like TOR are toying with DRM-free ebooks, but their licenses still prohibit library-style lending.

-What’s left for libraries? We have to rely on vendors like Overdrive and 3M. These are companies who act as middlemen; they negotiate with publishers for a license which allows lending, then sell a license to the books (laden with DRM) to libraries. But even that isn’t simple. Let’s look at six of the major publishers and how they sell to libraries through middlemen:

  • Penguin used to sell ebooks to libraries, but stopped in February. If a library previously bought an ebook from them, they can keep lending it. But Penguin disabled the option which allows a Kindle to directly download the title. They introduced the ‘friction’ of requiring a user to download the book and move it to their Kindle with a USB cable.
  • HarperCollins sells ebooks to libraries, but limits them to 26 checkouts. After that milestone is hit, the ebook evaporates and must be re-purchased. I think this is crazy. HarperCollins argues that no print book lasts forever, so why should a library be able to lend an ebook in perpetuity? This is true, but most print titles last much much longer than 26 checkouts. A popular HarperCollins ebook will expire in just one year.
  • Random House sells ebooks to libraries, but at significantly higher prices than individual users pay. Titles average a 35% increase in price, and some go as high as 300%.
  • Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and MacMillan won’t sell ebooks to libraries at all. This is why you won’t ever find Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs in ebook form in a library, among many other titles.

Think this is wrong? The San Rafael Public Library has a great webpage with contact info for all the publishers mentioned here. Let them know how you feel.

Other restrictions further impact how easy it is for libraries to lend ebooks. When an ebook is purchased from Overdrive, it won’t appear in the library’s catalog. Borrowers must know to go to a whole separate catalog to browse ebooks. Libraries also can’t re-sell ebooks, a fact which could impact fundraising efforts down the road. Overdrive and other library ebook vendors also limit checkouts to a two-week period with no renewals. That simply isn’t long enough to read many ebooks, such as the 1000+ page sequels to A Game of Thrones. Alternatively, if you finish a short ebook quickly there’s no way to return it early. The next person in line has to wait for those two weeks to be up before they can get the ebook. More friction.

So that’s the state of things. I don’t claim to know what the solution is, or where we go from here. Some libraries boycott ebooks under these limitations, and others want to provide any limited service they can. I go back and forth on that debate. But at the very least I think library users should be informed about the issues. I think public libraries of 20 years from now will be almost unrecognizable from today’s branches in a number of ways. Ebooks represent only one of those changes, but it’s a big one.

Maxing out the curve on ebook adoption

Last week Melissa and I visited the Wake County Public Library’s annual fundraiser book sale. I’d heard the legends, but never actually attended: 400,000+ books laid out on tables in a giant warehouse at the state fairgrounds. It’s pictured here. Think of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now fill it with books instead of crates. That’s what it was like.

We went on day 1, with prices at a relatively high $4/hardcover and $2/paperback. We came away with a good haul of 15-20 books, all stuff we’ve legitimately wanted to read. Things were orderly and dignified in the warehouse, with staffers calmly directing shoppers to their preferred genre. I took my time and pieced together William Gibson’s entire Bridge trilogy, among other finds. We left feeling happy and encouraged. But then, based on that encouragement, we foolishly returned on the final day of the sale. By that point everything drops to $5 per box (and it’s a big box).

A certain kind of madness had set in. I witnessed shoppers indiscriminately shove whole rows of books into a box. It didn’t matter what kind of book, who the author was, or even what condition it was in – they wanted them all. Others jealously guarded a stack of empty boxes, keeping watch while a partner filled them one by one. The Children’s section looked like the aftermath of a bomb, and the sci-fi tables in particular were picked to the bone. Only the sad Reference section remained quiet (and if you ever wanted a copy of the 1997 NC Statutes, boy was that your chance). Trying to browse was chaotic at best, and we came away with only another half dozen books that we really truly wanted to read and own. Still a deal, but I’m not sure it was worth the ordeal.

The whole experience popped back into my head this morning when I saw Pew’s new report on ebook adoption and use in the US. Between PDF journal articles at work and my Kindle at home, I spend most of my reading life in the e-book world. But Pew reminds me that my habits aren’t yet normal at all. Just 21% of adults have read an ebook in the past year. Granted, Pew also found that the number of people who read an ebook each day has increased four times in just the last two years. But as noted in the summary:

“The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers.”

Now I’m thinking back to the hardcore book grabbers at the sale: what will convince them to adopt e-books? Or would anything at all conceivably push them past the tipping point? Will they give up their feeding frenzy sales and packed bookshelves for a little convenience? Personally, I could see myself hitting that point someday. But the sale truly reminded me that I’m not the normal here.

I think what Pew left off at the end of that sentence above is “…for now.” That 21% will certainly continue to grow, but not forever. At what point will it eventually level off? At what point will we max out on the adoption curve? Will we be left with a few book-preferring holdouts, or will it be a more equal division? What will fundraiser book sales of the future look like, if they exist at all?

And, as always: Where do libraries fit into this picture?

Web services I use, 2011 edition

Someone recently asked me about tools I use for my own personal infnormation management. I guess I haven’t posted about that kind of thing in a while, so here’s a list:

Simplenote syncs text notes across devices. For example: I can create a note on my home PC and know it’ll be waiting for me when I get to work. Notes can be tagged and searched. Simplenote has a great web interface, but I find it most useful when accessing the service via one of the numerous offline client options. I use ResophNotes on PCs, and FlickNote on my Android phone. The official iPad client is nice too. Simplenote is invaluable to me, and is absurdly useful for both complicated project planning and simple tasks like getting a grocery list onto my phone. It works with unformatted text only, but I view that as a feature. Similar options like Evernote have always been too complicated to draw me in. (P.S. I’m drafting this post in Simplenote)

I initially signed up for Pinboard‘s bookmark storage service as a Delicious replacement, but have since grown to use it far more regularly than I ever used Delicious. Pinboard monitors my twitter feed and automatically pulls in links from both my own tweets and my list of marked favorite tweets. For $25/year it even archives a copy of what the site looked like when I bookmarked it, with fulltext searching available! Signing up for Pinboard requires a one-time fee, which is currently $9.54 but very slowly increasing.

Tripit is one of the most useful travel tools I’ve ever encountered. I forward all my confirmation emails to Tripit – plane tickets, hotel reservations, event confirmations, car rentals, etc – and Tripit parses the emails to build a simple custom itinerary. Pro level users can even have Tripit monitor their airfares for price drops! I once used Tripit for a complicated trip involving 4 countries, 3 cities, 3 airlines and a train ticket with zero problems.

As far as reliable ‘it just works’ services, Dropbox can’t be beat. After installing Dropbox on a computer, it creates a folder. Any files you put in that folder will be synced across the web to any other computer you’ve also installed Dropbox on. I use it all the time for moving files back and forth between work and home, and have never had a single issue with the service. There’s even phone apps to access your files on the go. Shameless self promotion: If you want to sign up for Dropbox, please use this link. You and I will both get some extra space in our accounts if you do.

I’ve migrated a bit between cached reading services, but at the moment I use Spool. Here’s the idea: If I find an article online that I want to read later, I click the Spool button in my browser. Spool caches a copy and pushes it to my phone or tablet for later, offline reading. It’s often able to grab just the text of an article, stripping out unnecessary ads and sidebars and such. I previously used Instapaper and ReadItLater, which accomplish the same goal and are pretty good. But Spool has a far superior Android app to either of those options.

Those are the services I love. Here’s a couple that I’m on the verge of dropping:

Flickr, while undoubtedly still popular, doesn’t have the appeal or engagement for me that it once did. I had a bit of an epiphany a few months ago when I realized that most of my photo metadata like descriptions and tags existed only on Flickr’s servers – I had no local copy of any of that. I was eventually able to get most of that data out of Flickr and onto my hard drive via a program called Bulkr, but I’m still not entirely happy with the experience. Flickr feels stagnant to me, and I’m no longer sure I’m getting money’s worth out of my pro account. It still has immeasurable value as a place to search for creative-commons images, but it doesn’t serve me well anymore as a place to describe, store, and share my personal photos. I’m currently looking into Picasaweb (soon to be rebranded as Google Photos) as a replacement.

Google Reader is almost dead to me, and if you’d told me just a few months ago that I’d be this dissatisfied with Reader I’d never have believed you. Google recently merged all of Reader’s social functionality into Google Plus, but didn’t do a good job of it. What was once a very active community where my friends shared and discussed links very quickly dwindled to almost no activity. Without that social component I find myself much less motivated to return to Reader to consume articles and find more things to share. My unread count has skyrocketed. I have yet to find a replacement that even approaches the niche that Google Reader once filled for me.

Lastly, here’s one service I can see myself using a lot in the future:

The awkwardly named ifttt (“If This, Then That”) lets non-programmers easily tie various web services together a bit. After authorizing Ifttt to access various accounts I’m able to set up simple triggers and responses. For example:

  1. Every time I’m tagged in a photo on Facebook, Ifttt automatically saves a copy of that photo to a folder in my Dropbox account.
  2. Every time I star an item in Google Reader, Ifttt saves it as a bookmark in my Pinboard account.

There’s a browsable list of tasks other people have come up. They range from simple (if your profile photo changes on Facebook, change it on Twitter too) to slightly more complex (if an RSS feed indicates a tornado warning in my area, send me a text message). The possibilities are pretty endless, and don’t require any programming knowledge at all to accomplish.