Monday, January 29, 2007

Throwing the Book at Sony’s Reader

I recently saw a Sony Portable Reader System, a new device for displaying electronic versions of books. It failed to sell itself to me, and that was before I saw the price was $349.

Yes, I like the idea of doing for books what an iPod does for CDs: putting a whole collection in a single, portable device. (Actually, I don’t care whether the device stores the stuff or streams it from a network, just so long as I have access when and where I want it. However, like iPods so far, the Sony Reader requires the user to download and store full files on the device, via a connection to a computer; there’s no WiFi.)

Yes, I am intrigued by the Reader’s E Ink display, based on tiny microcapsules that can be controlled like pixels. Think of an Etch-a-Sketch displaying a computer screen, and you’ll have the general idea.

The E Ink display’s key feature is, once a page is drawn, it requires no further power. Like a book, it does not need to be turned off.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, the display is monochromatic, with four shades of gray. Although the text looks pretty good, contrast is diluted with a grayish background. And when the display refreshes, as when you go from one page to another, it does so inelegantly, taking perhaps a second to wipe and redraw itself.

As for usability, the device was fine for turning pages, but everything else was somewhere between awkward and absent. For example, you apparently can’t specify a page number you want to go to, or search for pages containing specific keywords. But, strangely, you can push dedicated buttons to reach the pages that are 10%, 20%, 30%, etc., through the book. Also, the unit I saw somehow ended up in the “Utilities” section of a particular book, and no one could get it out of that state.

Finally, Sony’s e-book store only has on the order of 10,000 titles, although you can supplement those offerings with text files, Microsoft Word documents, and PDFs from anywhere else. You apparently can read RSS feeds too, although I assume clicking links in feeds gets you nowhere except frustrated.

Bottom line: I can imagine reading books on a Reader-like device, but not this one. E Ink’s big advantage in power efficiency just isn’t worth the color, contrast, and refresh limitations. Give me a high-contrast, color LCD screen, and I’ll recharge it at night, thanks.

And while you’re at, I’ll take a more complete computer on the inside, so I can follow those RSS links to Web pages, play videos, and do all the other things that now come with the online “reading” experience. However, since this is a portable media reader, I don’t need a keyboard or a full slate-style Tablet PC; a beefed-up PDA is probably the closer cousin.

Am I asking too much for $349 worth of today’s technology? If so, then let’s just call the above my threshold for when a Reader-like device will get interesting. Maybe Sony’s Reader will evolve there. In the meantime, perhaps it will find niches (school textbooks?) where the current version can take hold. I wish it luck, because I think it will need more than its share.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

CMU’s TrafficSTATS

Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for the Study & Improvement of Regulation recently introduced TrafficSTATS (STAtistics on Travel Safety), a Web tool for analyzing traffic-fatality data. It is based on two U.S. government databases, one that tracks all accidents that involved a fatality, and another that estimates the total amount of driving done in the U.S. by various characteristics such as region, vehicle type, and such. The time range covered was 1999 to 2004.

I took a quick look, and here’s what caught my eye:

  • Accidents with fatalities were extremely rare—much rarer than I would have guessed—in terms of the amount of driving done. On average, an accident with a fatality occurred once in 100 million “person miles.” (A person mile counts one mile for each person that traveled that mile; if a car with three passengers travels one mile, that’s three person miles.) A fatality could be anyone involved, including nonmotorists.
  • That said, if you multiplied the number of people in the United States by the number of person miles they traveled, the result was on the order of 40,000 traffic fatalities per year.
  • A motorcycle was 30 times as likely to be in a fatal accident than the average personal vehicle. (That’s in terms of person-miles traveled, so the metric is something like the risk per mile traveled.)
  • Females were less than half as likely as males to be in a fatal accident.
  • The average weekend day had 35% more fatal accidents than the average weekday (although Friday was a well-above-average weekday, enough to look more like Saturday and Sunday than its weekday peers).
  • In terms of person miles, people in the “East South Central” region (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee) were more than twice as likely to be in a fatal accident as people in the “New England” region (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont). Those were the two regional extremes.
  • In terms of person miles, age groups 16-20 and 75-84 were each more than twice as likely as average to be in a fatal accident. 21-24 was slightly less than twice the average. Between 25 and 64, everything was under the average.

There are hints of messiness in the underlying data, but for simple analyses like the above, it’s probably not a big deal. For those that want to work with the raw data sets, they are available.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Air Sickness Bag Collecting

There are some topics that you can only discover through a random occurrence.

To wit, on a flight today, as everybody was getting on the plane, the guy next to me called the flight attendant and nervously said, “There doesn’t seem to be an air-sickness bag in here,” pointing to his seat pocket.

He was quickly awarded a bag, which he thankfully did not need.

Later, Jacqueline said, “Maybe he was a collector,” in that postmodern tone that decodes to, “This would have been a joke in the relatively recent past, but in all likelihood there are actually air-sickness bag collectors.”

A Google search immediately surfaced several sites, including the Yahoo directory’s official recognition of the subject at:

Directory  > Recreation  > Hobbies  > Collecting  > Air Sickness Bags

And where there is collecting, we can also expect buying, selling, and trading. Indeed, an eBay search for “air sickness bag” had 28 active auctions for air-sickness bags as of 8:30pm PST on 1/8/2006. (It was a nice touch to see several listings qualify their items as “new” or “mint.”)

So the cat—or whatever it was—is out of the bag. I, and now you, know about the secret world of air sickness bag collecting and commerce.