BPA Bradley P. Allen

bradleypallen at gmail, twitter — +1 310 951 4300
cv (in pdf)

May 02

IPad vs. Kindle as a reading device

After several weeks with the iPad, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the iPad certainly provides the perception of a better user experience for sustained reading, it is in fact much less useful for this purpose than the Kindle.

The iPad is by design an enormously distracting device. Its extreme responsiveness leads me to constantly switch context between any of a dozen different compelling sources of content and interaction. It exacerbates my latent ADD and drives me to a manner of consumption that is at cross purposes to sustained, continuous reading. This is very similar to the experience Terje Hillesund reports for his subject “Adam” in his First Monday article on expert reading.

In contrast, the Kindle makes doing anything other than turning pages one after the other difficult, eliminating the distractions that exist on the IPad. On the Kindle, I find myself blowing through books that I want to read all of the way through very quickly as a result, with the Kindle seeming to fade from consciousness in the manner reported by many, including Nicholson Baker in his review of the Kindle in the New Yorker.

It’s not a completely black-and-white story. The Alice on the iPad app has received a lot of attention for hinting at a degree of interactivity for a certain class of children’s books that cardboard pop-up books can only dream of. The discontinuous reading described by Hillesund as performed by expert readers when engaged in learning or research is not well supported on the Kindle due to its ponderousness, yet could be on the iPad. However, I have yet to see such an app; the iPad version of the Kindle software simply reproduces the continuous reading experience of the Kindle device.

So to my mind, for the type of reading involved in consuming novels or authoritative non-fiction that should be read in whole, the Kindle is a better device. In fact, the less effort Amazon puts into emulating Apple’s apps and the more it focuses on providing the best possible sustained reading experience, the better off the Kindle and its users will be.

As it is a stunning day here in Southern California, I hasten to add that the combination of a superior sustained reading experience, the e-ink display’s ability to be easily read in direct sunlight, and the loss of perceived value of the Kindle compared to its shinier, glitzier competitor make it the device of choice for reading summer potboilers at the beach, an environment to which I would usually be loath to expose pricey computing devices.

Apr 07

Working with the iPad

Over the last several days, I’ve been working to determine if the iPad could be an effective on-the-road replacement for my notebook. Here’s what I’ve found so far.

I wanted the iPad to be a Kindle replacement that was easier to use and allowed me to use my personal research library of six thousand PDFs and eBooks without hassle. In this, the iPad has largely delivered, through the good services of GoodReader and the Kindle iPad apps. However, the lack of free-text search in GoodReader or the iPad in general is hobbling my ability to quickly find what’s in the PDF collection. Either I have to go through the data cleansing exercise of renaming all of the docs (something I’ve been avoiding for a decade, or I’ll have to come up with some other organizational scheme. I was hoping something like Papers would come in handy here, but it looks like matching is as manually intensive a process as directly editing the filenames.

I wanted to use the iPad as a presentation machine. Again, I’ve gotten this to work for me. I’ve managed to import my existing PowerPoint decks, edit them using Keynote on the iPad, and use the VGA adapter to display them on another monitor. For someone like myself who largely communicates to others in the organization through slide decks (sorry, Ed Tufte) this is great. However, the act of moving things back and forth through iTunes is painful. I can’t see this state of affairs persisting even if there is a walled garden for Apple to protect. The issues associated with being unable to roundtrip the edited content without formatting and fonts weirdness are real and annoying, but not showstoppers.

I also wanted to use Safari to get at my corporate email if need be through Outlook Web Access, and this works as well in this context as it does on my notebooks. I can’t get to sites on the intranet through the VPN, but that’s more of an issue with IT policy and browser support than with the iPad. But I’ll probably mainly be using my Blackberry for on-the-road email as usual.

As far as life streaming is concerned, both Google Reader and Tweetdeck work great, allowing me to aggregate micro content and links as I do with my notebooks. I’m using the Tumblr web interface to enter this; yesterday I was failing to be able to select the part of the form that allows me to type a post in for text, but that seems to be working now.

Anything involving actual coding depends on iSSH for iPad, which works adequately, better than using ssh on an iPhone or iPod Touch but still kind of cramped. Thirty years on and I’m still using Emacs through a terminal emulator.

I’m using JungleDisk’s iPhone app to provide access to my online Amazon S3 backups. This is useful to allow me to grab pretty much everything in the way of content that I want, but getting a document onto the iPad involves a pretty silly process of emailing it to myself. 

And the fact that Google Docs is read-only is hopefully only a temporary fail.

Anyways, we soldier on. The iPad seems really close to what I want for a road warrior device, but the inability to use the cloud aggressively across apps and all content types means that something like the HP Slate or an Android device could still win for this use case if Apple keeps things as they are. The fact is that the major innovation of combining the gestural interface with this particular form factor is not something that only Apple can deliver.

Feb 27
Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.
— Samuel Johnson, Letter to Francesco Sastres, 1784-08-21
Jul 19

Twenty years later

July 20th, 1989. For several years now, I’ve been involved with a variety of contract research projects with the Mission Planning and Analysis Division at NASA JSC. This has given me the opportunity to actually meet a lot of the old timers at NASA who, back in the day, were the guys behind the guys in the trenches in Mission Control. I’ve met Jack Garman, who made the call to ignore the alarms and press on with the first moon landing. The guys I work with on my projects remember hacking together solar compasses for use by the Apollo 12 crew during their mission in the fall of 1969. They work in Building 10, the original Mission Control. In these post-Challenger days things are quiet, and on one visit they take me onto the very floor of that room, in the process of being refurbished with new workstations, the old mainframe consoles being torn out and discarded.

It occurs to me that it might be kind of cool to show up for a visit on the 20th anniversary of the first landing. I schedule a meeting at the center for that day, not really knowing what to expect, if anything.

In the middle of the afternoon, one of our sponsors, Bob Savely, asks me if I’d like to stick around later. They’re having a celebration at the Bob Gilruth Recreation Center, and I’m welcome to join them, if I’d like.

So in a bit, Bob and I and another old-timer pile into Bob’s station wagon, drive off the center grounds across NASA Route 1 to a beer distributor, buy a case of Lone Star, and drive back onto the center grounds, driving around sucking down long necks and passing the time until the party starts.

Eventually, we park next to the Gilruth Center and pile out of the car. Everyone is pouring into the surrounding area. There are kegs and kegs of beer, a swing band is playing, and a ton of people are welcoming each other and having a grand old time. I see Air Force tankers in the sky, making low passes and waggling wings in salute.

Bob takes me aside and says that he’d like to introduce me to some people. Two men in suits are working the crowd of NASA lifers, and Bob steers me to meet them as they come by.

"Brad," he says, "I’d like you to meet my friend Neil." I shake hands with the first man on the moon, completely at a loss for any other words than to say "hi" and "congratulations." Next up is Buzz. As Buzz moves on, I overhear a couple of women saying that he looks better, that he’s clearly dried out a bit.

Bob then steers me over to a more causally-attired man in sweater and slacks. “Brad, this is my friend Gene,” and I shake the hand of the man who, twenty years before, had ordered the doors of Mission Control bolted shut and delivered the greatest pre-game pep talk in history, unfortunately unrecorded, but which from his memory went something like this:

Okay, all flight controllers, listen up.

Today is our day, and the hopes and the dreams of the entire world are with us. This is our time and our place, and we will remember this day and what we will do here always.

In the next hour we will do something that has never been done before. We will land an American on the Moon. The risks are high… that is the nature of our work.

We worked long hours and had some tough times but we have mastered our work, Now we are going to make this work pay off.

You are a hell of a good team. One that I feel privileged to lead. Whatever happens, I will stand behind every call you make.

Good luck and God bless us today!

By this time the band is cranking it up, people are dancing, it’s just a big office party with people who’ve been working government jobs and dealing with contractors and putting up with politics and bureaucracy, but every so often, making progress on building a bridge to the stars.

It was the best business trip of my life.


Memories of the landing

July 20th, 1969. I have been avidly following the space program since for as long as I can remember. Cutting out every article in Time and Life, building a four-foot high Revelle model of the Saturn V, showing friends the mechanics of rendevous and docking with the plastic models, watching each successive mission for hours and hours on the black and white RCA television in our home.

Living in Cleveland, the landing happens in the middle of the afternoon. Hours later, Neil Armstrong emerges and my family strains to see his form descend the ladder to the lunar surface.

I don’t remember all of that so well. What really persists in vivid memory to this day is the following.

It’s late in the evening, well after midnight. I come to, propped upright against the wall, in my jammies, in bed, where I have fallen asleep. My folks have taken the one television set in the house, knowing how much this moment means to me, and set it on the desk next to my bed. It’s been left on, and in the continuing 24/7 coverage of the event, what’s on the screen is the live but static tableau of Tranquillity Base, long after Neil and Buzz have ascended the ladder at the end of their brief foray outside the lander. They’re inside, trying to get some sleep. All that’s visible is the image of the lander, the flag, and the lunar surface baking in the sun. Nothing is moving, and news anchors on the late shift are speaking intermittently in hushed tones in the middle of the night.

I gaze at the picture from the lunar surface. No one else in the house is awake. It’s just me and the glowing black-and-white transmission from the moon.

At that moment the future is the most natural thing in the world.

Jun 07
May 03
Apr 18
Mar 01

Inadvertent re-discovery of an Invader installation at Randy’s Donuts

Inadvertent re-discovery of an Invader installation at Randy’s Donuts
Feb 23
Feb 15