Vudu Disc-To-Digital Review

For those of you that just received this promo email…

vudu_promotion

I decided to give it a try with stack of old DVDs. The promo pricing is totally reasonable, but I doubt it’ll last. (50% off when you “convert” 10+ discs, then $2 off your total.) Your existing DVD/BD titles are $2 to convert, or $5 for upgrading a DVD to HDX. For the content I successfully converted, HDX quality is great. Some big caveats to considered before jumping in, though..

  • The Vudu To Go client necessary for the disc matching and verification process is buggy. On my Windows 8 Pro laptop — the only machine I have with a BD player — Vudu To Go would check for BD titles but outright refuse to check normal DVDs, displaying only a nasty error message. I had to use a secondary OSX machine (with a non-BD DVD player) to check DVD titles. I didn’t have any issues with my shopping cart when using two machines, but this was really inconvenient. I would think Vudu To Go on Windows 8 Pro would have the bugs worked out by now.
  • The disc-to-digital disc matching mechanism seemed to mis-match about 1 in 15 titles, such as my retail BD version of “Full Metal Jacket”.
  • Of my properly-recognized discs, Vudu only had rights to convert ~40% of the discs I tried. Understandable, but still a pretty low hit rate for users, especially for anyone like me that would really like to completely toss all discs in the trash, and don’t even have a DVD/BD player hooked up anymore.
  • For HDX quality, both machine and display *must* support HDCP. For example, “owning” Super 8 in HDX would only play in SD when web streaming due to my non-HDCP monitor.
  • Studios, of course, still place restrictions on your watching abilities, even though you’ve verified the disc. For example, I “own” 80’s comedy “Singles” in HDX, but “[t]his title is viewable on PC in SD only.” Lots of stupid crap like that.
  • Web streaming requires flash and uses a non-trivial amount of CPU. On my new brand new Dell Latitude 10 ST2 Win8 RT tablet, it’s totally unusable.
I hope Amazon launches an equivalent, because I’m already committed to an Amazon content library and really, really, really don’t want to keep another vendor. If you only have a few stacks of decent titles just taking up space, though, it’s worth considering!

10 Universal Weight Loss Tips For Men

I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in the “obese” clinical strata, and have only in recent years taken to caring about maintaining a reasonable weight. I am an American male, 5’10”, with Koren-Caucation ancestry and have ranged between 149 and 172 pounds in the past year. My bodies individual natural comfort zone seems to be in the 150-155 range. At my heaviest I capped out in the 200-210 range. In other words, my physical stature and default dietary habits are spectacularly unspectacular for an American, and I consider myself fairly representative of the “average American male”. I lost most of those excess pounds (180+) in a fairly short amount of time. Everyone is unique in many ways, but from my own research and personal experimentation I believe these points to be largely universal for adult men.

Weight And Health

Weight loss does not necessarily correlate to health gain. It’s possible to lose weight on a diet of Twinkies, but you would be seriously lacking in dietary components despite being lighter, and most likely put yourself at higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. Assuming that part of your motivation for weight loss comes from a desire for better health and longevity, remember to see the forest through the trees. It’s great to look healthy, and better to be healthy.

As a general guidelines, stick to eating actual foods. (Edible substances like high fructose corn syrup should not be considered “food”.) If you couldn’t produce the ingredient if you really wanted to, you probably don’t want to eat it. You have tons of zero-calorie sugar replacements–Splenda, Nutrasweet etc.–but these are not magic bullets and generally should be avoided as “crutch” substances. See Michael Pollan’s excellent Food Rules for guidelines.

10 Tips

  1. Weight yourself daily at a consistent time with no excuses. It’s especially important to continue weighting yourself when you’re struggling to hold yourself accountable and to prevent prolonged lapses of judgement.
  2. Treat weight management as a lifestyle, not a program. Programs are things you do for a short period of time before going back to the status quo. Lifestyle changes are long-term investments made for the benefit of yourself and those you love.
  3. Drink water and tea when you are thirsty. Have other tasty beverages for enjoyment, not to quench thirst. Beer and other alcoholic drinks are unfortunately high in calories, as are many sodas and even fruit juices. Water first.
  4. Shop when you’re full. Plowing through the aisles on an omg-I-have-nothing-to-eat rampage is going to result in a cabinet full of snacks. You body evolved to crave certain foods to compensate for natural rarity. When you’re hungry, reason goes out the door, and satisfying cravings for those foods that are now readily available becomes the easiest fix.
  5. Visit only upper-tier merchants such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s when at all possible. In addition to higher quality foods, they do a much better job than conventional grocery stores of not barraging you with excess junk. Fruits and vegetables are also of notably higher quality and tastiness.
  6. Maintain the lifestyle because “nothing tastes as good as fit feels”, not to punish or deprive yourself.
  7. Talk about solutions with others doing the same. Being around others taking action is extremely encouraging and motivating. Keep in mind the exact opposite also applies.
  8. Focus more on diet than exercise. Both are necessary, but you’d be better served with a good diet and only 30 minutes of exercise per week than horrible diet and 4 hours of exercise per week. Many weight loss systems prescribe disciplined physical regiments, but remember that diet matters more.
  9. Weight train for weight loss. Additional muscle mass allows you to burn calories faster, even when you’re not exercising. Cardiovascular exercise is great for your heart and blood pressure, but doesn’t build the calorie burning, protein-consuming muscle like weight training does. Also remember that you cannot control where you lose weight: only where you build muscle. No one is going to see your rock hard abdominal muscles if your mouth can’t trade in the cheese sandwiches.
  10. Know when to break the rules. If you use a formal system such as Paleo or Atkins you may have strict guidelines. At some point, however, most foods are going to be ok in moderation so long as you can control yourself. It’s ok to not be perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good living and good luck. 🙂

Preston And AT&T Give Each Other The Finger

I made the jump the last day before Verizon stopped offering unlimited data plans. The delay for switching to Verizon was not lack of motivation–AT&T service has always paled to Verizon in Arizona and is nearly nonexistent at my summer home–but in desperate procrastination of dealing with the migration process. My longest conversation (highly abbreviated) with AT&T on the matter took about an hour and was so traumatizing that I can’t see myself ever returning. As far as I’m concerned AT&T is dead and buried:

Coverage map showing AT&T's miraculous ability to provide "Best" service without operational towers.

 

Me: I’m not happy with my AT&T service and would like to cancel my service plan.

Customer Service Representative: I’m sorry to hear that, sir. May I ask why?

Me: I’m in an area with about 1-bar service about half the time, no 3G data (EDGE only), and constant dropped calls. I’m not really getting “service” per se.

Rep: I’m very sorry to hear that. We can cancel your plan for $<huge fee>.

Me: Well… I really don’t think that’s entirely fair. The issue isn’t really that I don’t WANT service, but AT&T isn’t providing what I’m already paying for. I’m paying about $100/month for unlimited 3G data, <list of other features>, and I only get a few of them some of the time. Check the coverage map.

Rep: Yes, sir! I can see you live in a “Best Coverage” area. That is very good!

Me: 1-bar signal 50% of the time, no 3G and dropped calls the other 50% is “Best Coverage”?

Rep: The map shows we have multiple towers in the area! You should be getting great service according to the map.

Me: I understand what the map says; I’ve seen it many times, trust me. The issue is not just me, though. No one else with AT&T seems to get usable service here, either.

Rep: I’m very sorry to hear that, sir. One of the towers is not operational. That may have something to do with it. Would you like us to send out an engineer to test your hardware?

Me: Wait… what? First, my hardware is fine. It works fine in <other cities with service>. No one else’s phone works well here on AT&T’s network, either. Second, if you’re dispatching an engineer wouldn’t it make sense to fix the tower instead? …You know, the NOT OPERATIONAL one that is currently providing “Best Coverage”?

Rep: Unfortunately we cannot do that, sir.

Me: It doesn’t make sense to charge me for a service you just admitted you can’t provide. I understand I’m under contract and don’t dispute that, but AT&T has obligations, too, and if AT&T can’t meet them it isn’t right to punish the customer.

Rep: Unfortunately, sir, it is your fault for choosing to live in an area without good service coverage.

Me: ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS??? I checked your goddamn map before, during and after moving here, and the fucking thing says “BEST COVERAGE” despite having a non-operational tower. I’ve been here for some time now and it’s never been any better.

Rep: Yes, sir! Coverage in that area is strong. Would you like us to send out an engineering to test your equipment?

Me: YOU JUST SAID A TOWER IS NOT OPERATIONAL. SOME GUY WAIVING MY PHONE TO THE SKY IS NOT GOING TO MAKE IT CONNECT TO A TOWER THAT DOESN’T WORK. DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT THE FUCK A CELL TOWER DOES?

Rep: Like I said, sir, it is AT&T’s policy to charge cancellation fees according to your contract. We cannot even consider overriding them in such a strong service area.

Me: <Infuriated abrupt disconnect.>

So, I’m now staring at a ridiculous cancelation bill. On the bright side, though, I sold my old AT&T iPhone the next week via eBay for over $200, which not only covered the new Verizon hardware cost but activation fees as well. I’m not getting great 4G on my Mifi (which was disclosed though), but at least I’m getting ok 3G and voice service on my iPhone for about the same price. AT&T? Please.

I Bought A Grill At Walmart

Yes, I know, so you can withhold your scorn in the satisfaction that I’ve been promptly punished by the powers that be.

Upon initial assembly of my new $25 *Deluxe* propane grill, I assumed that the small Chinese boy manning the “‘L’ washer” machine at the grill factory simply hadn’t received adequate training from HR during the sweatshop orientation process. Or maybe he’s a union kid and was on a smoke break.. Or perhaps felt like leaving out the sixteenth washer in the knowledge that some American chump would eventually rifle though every inch of packaging looking for the part that never existed.

Approximately 2/3rds through assembly, I came to the realization that the shrink-wrapped parts smell funny: a contagious-like biological odor that I imagine a despair machine must smell like. While thinking about koala bears was much more fun than trying to remember what SARS stands for, I was brought back to sadness when I realized that Mr. NoPaidOvertime Jr. also left out a ‘C’ washer. GREAT. This wan’t going well and I still had a handful of parts left on the table.

Assembly completed. Wait… Nevermind, back to step six to add the metal thing to the other metal thing.

Assembly completed? Yes! And then, suddenly… EXISTENTIAL CLARITY.

This is, without a doubt, the worst grill I have ever bought, used, fondled and, possibly, ever set my eyes upon. It is not merely a poor devise, but in strong contention for *poorest* device. It is as if an investor found an abandoned warehouse of unrelated parts and had to decide between making radiators, fire extinguishers, or grills. The feet that are supposed to fold the damn thing into a tidy ball of grill were bent in six different ways out of the box, and the handle clearly didn’t come out of the sadness-injection machine correctly.

The whole supply chain here is crap. It’s not just the factory, but design, delivery, retail, economics, ethics.. Everything about this product and the devil spawn it came from is horrible for America. Is this news? No. But we all need a periodic reminder that the crap we habitually clamor for isn’t doing us any favors.

Please don’t shop at Walmart.

Textbooks: What Publishers Don’t Understand About The Internet

The Kindle 3G + Wifi eBook Reader
The Kindle 3G + Wifi eBook Reader

Textbook publishers in 2011 still aren’t fully appreciating the impact the Internet will have on their industry. A reasonably forward-thinking individual might optimistically assume the industry is self-correcting towards the wants and needs of consumers, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Let’s explore:

Electronic typesetting.

Physical textbooks obviously can’t be reissued every time a typo is corrected. That’s fine, so we can keep making large textbook changes via en-mass “editions” to save typesetting efforts.

But electronic textbooks have many not-so-obvious differences.

  1. Screen sizes of reader hardware/software vary dramatically.
  2. Even if screen sizes were the same, it is of tremendous value to allow the user to change font and text size.
  3. Some screens support color, while other don’t. A wonderful color graphic may appear a blobby mess on a monochrome reader.
  4. The concept of a “page” no longer exists, due to #1 and #2, above. Content cannot simply say “See page 32.” References must be dynamic links, instead.
  5. Content can (and should be) linkable. Obvious examples are tables of contents and figure references. External links need to be supported, as well as more sophisticated “interactive” embedded content items. (A mathematics textbook with an exercise that asks, “Y = 3X + 2. Calculate Y for the following X values: 0, 4, 5.7.” should also grade the assignment as well. Why do I need a completely different book for this?)
  6. Searching, highlighting, note taking, and content sharing are all critical “must have” features for electronic texts.
  7. Open data interchange is probably the biggest techno-political challenge. Retailers aren’t yet jumping on the opportunity to exchange data with the competition. (But they will need to conceed because it’s what the consumers and publishers will want.)
Adobe's portable document format is a dying beast, as is Adobe itself. PDFs just doesn't work well for textbooks.

For all these reasons, please stop calling your PDF renderings “eBooks” and then calling it a day. PDF documents cannot “reflow” the way a web page does, and make reading extremely awkward because of reasons #1 and #2, above. In short, direct PDF conversions–such as those used by the University of Phoenix–don’t have any of the typesetting considerations or functional niceties of modern electron book formats, and should be avoided. Schools need to stop accepting cheap “Print To PDF”-style textbooks, as well as “eBooks” that can only be read through a web browser using special software that doesn’t support any of the above features. If your eBook implementation is less powerful than a physical book, you’re doing it wrong. Please improve!

Separation of form and content.

Typesetting concerns do not mean all is lost. If anything, it’s a wonderful opportunity to make revolutionary steps in improving the way written knowledge in transferred. As we’ve learned from the web, it’s entirely possible to design for dynamic layouts given you can make at least a few constraints.

Physical textbook typesetting needs to be optimized for a specific target. Electronic typesetting needs to optimize for overall good layout within a range of constraints. Web applications can generate multiple document types for the same content, and with such nimble requirements for electronic media, we can do the same with updated forms of typesetting languages like LaTeX.

eBooks don’t require a local sales representative.

It’s nice, I suppose, to have a rep on call to overnight you a textbook on a moments notice, but that’s not necessary when I can click a button on my iPad. The issue here is misaligned incentives in the payment of distributors.

Doesn't get where this whole Internet thing is headed.

To use a real-world example, my local Pearson rep seems to earn commissions on physical textbook sales to my classes, but not electronic copies sold through Pearson affiliate (or subsidiary?) CourseSmart. She’s always happy to help when I’m interested in buying paper, but suddenly goes unresponsive when I have a tangential question about an electronic book.

It’s not her job to help with online sales. That’s an entirely different business unit or whatever, so who cares about that, right? Here are some great properties of CourseSmart, Pearson’s chosen eBook sales system:

  • You can only access your electronic textbook for about 6 months. That’s right, you don’t own it. You’re essentially renting it for the semester.
  • The pricing is pretty high, especially considering you can often sell back physical books after the semester. You always get $0 after the rental period. Savings? Please.
  • You can’t really do anything neat with the electronic version, like download a simple effing PDF, even if you’re a legitimate, verified instructor that can already download content such as instructor solutions manuals and slides. (They don’t trust us. Trust me on that.)
  • Pearson and college sales/support infrastructure and personal incentives aren’t (yet) set up to fluidly handle electronic texts.
The Pragmatic Programmers offer DRM-free, reasonably priced technical books. Check 'em out!

In short, CourseSmart sucks. I thought it was going to be cheaper, simpler and generally better for students to use the electronic versions, but given the high cost “rent”-like nature and lack of features, it’s not great. Personally I’m looking to switch to publishers that understand ebook-oriented use cases and build their product to fully take advantage of the Internet, rather than just go through the motions. PragProg is a great example of a technical publisher that’s moving us in the right direction. (I send them a lot of business and highly recommend you check them out, too!)

I have to believe that the profit margins on selling an 800-page textbook as a $60 “online view only for 6 months only” product are greater than a $100 hunk of tree, especially considering the expenses of transporting, retailing, and commissioning (or marking up) every step. I suppose many of those people don’t want to go electronic due to fear of job loss, even though the jobs may simply change, instead.

Fast release cycles.

With properly designed exchange formats, textbooks and metadata can be pushed and pulled between publisher, retailer and consumer in under a second. The concept of “this years edition” starts to lose meaning if the publisher can fix a typo and push out a new revision with no more effort than updating a wiki page. This posses serious technological challenges with ISBNs, Library of Congress records etc., but all these things all fixable, and none of the solutions have anything to do with building a new PDF that gets emailed to me. (Even Amazon doesn’t do this right yet, even with their .azw format. When you agree to receive an optional update of a book you’ve purchased from Amazon, you lose all your notes and highlights from the original version. Lame.)

We need to embrace this idea of rapid content change, rather than cling to the idea of annual product releases. We can do it. Really.

Closing thoughts.

All the players in the textbook industry have different incentive systems, but all have much to gain. Rather than using the friendly neighborhood college bookstore as a primary retail outlet, the supply chain process… no, the entire industry, needs a comprehensive dose of cold water to the face. All is not lost, but in 2011? They still don’t get it.

Roku XDS Streaming Media Player Mini-Review

Click to buy one!

I’ve purchased four Roku devices so far: an XDS and XD for personal use, and several XDs as gifts. Given the relative affordability of Netflix and Hulu Plus services–as opposed to a cable or satellite television subscription–the XDS provides the missing link in the web-based television ecosystem, streaming solid commericial content across your existing broadband internet connection to your existing HDTV.

Roku XDS (and similar XD) are impressively tiny, low power, inexpensive devices that ship with a simple yet functional remote. To make best use of a unit, you must have all the following:

  1. Broadband internet connection.
  2. HDTV w/HDMI. (Not required as both XD and XDS also provides RCA connectors, but the quality would be seriously old school.)
  3. Netflix and/or Hulu Premium subscription. (If you have neither, I’d recommend starting with a minimal Netflix plan.)

I’ve tried the HTPC approach using PlayOn/Connect360 + XBox 360, AppleTV, PS3, laptop connection, Elgato EyeTV, MythTV, and gobs of other options, but Roku is currently my most frequently used set-top content solution. All the other streaming options are either constantly plagued by quirks (such as PlayOn’s fast-forward/rewind/resume bugs), or too vendor biased (such as the lack of streaming content sources on AppleTV and XBox 360).

Roku Pros:
  • Inexpensive.
  • Just works.
  • Netflix, Hulu Plus (free accounts won’t work), Amazon VOD, Pandora, and lots of other channels. (Some are free, other not.)
  • Remote works well.
  • Fast-forward/Rewind, pause, resume etc. all work fine.
Roku Cons:
  • Wireless goodness of the XDS is worthless if you’re using a wired ethernet connection.
  • Hulu Plus still has stupid ads. 🙁
  • Doesn’t connect to Media Center etc.
  • Very limited decoder options for media read off the USB disk.

Roku’s biggest current drawback is the lack of real-world support for your own media: either files manually attached via USB drive, or even better, streamed your my home media server. Hopefully this will be added in the future with either a new channel option or firmware update. Regardless, purchase either an XDS or XD immediately if you’re currently plugging a laptop into a TV for Netflix/Hulu Plus support. Ditch the jankyness and go for a Roku.

(If you’re going to buy one, please use this link to purchase the Roku XDS.)

Makerbot Thing-o-Matic 3D Printer Print Pictures & Product Review

The Makerbot Thing-o-Matic, fully assembled and ready to print.

[Update: Welcome back, Slashdot! 🙂  This site is in full lockdown mode, so comments may take a little while to appear, but please leave them anyway! You may also want to check out the previous assembly photos also featured on Slashdot.]

Overview

3D printing has attracted notable attention in recent years, capturing interests of both geeks and laymen due to the obvious potential of a machine that fabricates three-dimensional shapes at will. While clearly far from the visionary “replicator” technology of Star Trek: The Next Generation–which could recycle almost any object–the Thing-o-Matic (and the like) have already begun branching out from the 3mm ABS plastic spools used build the objects in the following pictures. (I’ve also included picture from a another project that requires custom mounting widgets for solar cells.)
I’ve had my Makerbot Thing-o-Matic working for about a month, and I have to assume it only gets cooler from here. If you’re a hardcore DIY’er, or your technical dablings tend to involve small, intricate parts required of custom robotics, circuitry, metal/woodworking etc., read on, and seriously consider a 3D printer investment in the future.
The Unboxening & Assembly
Unboxing of the Thing-o-Matic kit. (See links for assembly pictures.)

After a couple months of girlish waiting, my DIY Makerbot Thing-o-Matic kit arrived in December 2010. Pictures of the laborious assembly process went up several days after, and have been viewed by tens of thousands of people in the last few weeks alone. Makerboot does not ship a printed manual with the machinery kit, instead option for an online-only “Thing-o-Matic Assembly Instruction/Users Manual”: a living collection of wiki pages that is continually updated. A good thing, indeed! Take a look at the assembly pictures if you haven’t already gotten a feel for the level of assembly effort. (If you’re good with your hands, allocate about 16 hours.)

Software Installation
My 3D model of an identical pair of custom solar cell brackets, done in Google SketchUp.

Once the machine is assembled, you’re ready to install the software, connect the machine via USB, and calibrate the system. Rough high-level steps are as follows:

  1. Install the Arduino driver, if not already installed. (Easy)
  2. Download and run ReplicatorG, and try making a software connection to the machine. (Easy. You’ll spend a lot of time in ReplicatorG.)
  3. Use ReplicatorG to manually control all the machines widgets, and test each one for proper function. (Medium.)
  4. Measure the the Z-axis height and change an obscure config file in your ReplicatorG software that you won’t understand for a few more days. (Medium.)
  5. Load up some plastic filament. (Easy.)
  6. Skeinforge interaction can be a frustrating chore.

    Within ReplicatorG, launch the embedded Skeinforge configuration application, which is used to take 3D design files in .STL and “slice” them in tooling paths that a machine can follow. This is necessary since 3D printers usually print in layers, starting with the lowest. Skeinforge is an extremely configurable system with an extremely shitty GUI. It is not immediately clear what most of the hundreds of settings do, and you’ll spend many trial iterations configuring options to dial in the best general settings. Even after calibration, you will need to periodically revisit Skeinforge to address build-specific issues. (Hard.)

  7. ReplicatorG build platform positional and orientation. Perfect!

    Use ReplicatorG to either upload a compiled .S3G files to the on-board SD card for disconnected printing, or stream the commands on the fly. (Easy.)

  8. Run the test job!  (Medium.)
  9. Go to #6. (Daunting.)

The workflow is initially very daunting and cumbersome. It starts to make more sense after a while, but needs major work. This is technically not Makerbot’s issue, but given that it’s a necessary component of the overall system I would suggest major effort be placed in unsuckifying the interaction before ReplicatorG and Skeinforge.

ReplicatorG
Once many initial configuration jobs are complete, your time in software will generally be spent across two applications:
  1. 3D design software package such as Google SketchUp (free), which is used to design your own objects. Once you’ve designed an object, you export an STL file that is imported into ReplicatorG, which is then sliced by Skeinforge into .gcode files and then by ReplicatorG into .s3g files that the Thing-o-Matics onboard Arduino understands.
  2. ReplicatorG (and included Skeinforge application), tweaking, compiling, and babysitting.
Materials
The Makerbot MK5 plastruder turns 3mm filament into hot, sticky plastic goo.
The mechanism that feeds, melts, and dispenses plastic on the Thing-o-Matic, Cupcake, RepRap and other 3D printers is called the “extruder”: often referred to as a “plastruder” for those designed to extrude plastic. Thing-o-Matic ships with the “Makerbot MK5 Plastruder“, designed to feed solid 3mm spool of plastic filament into a heating element that melts and dispenses a thin stream of melted plastic.  ABS is essentially Lego plastic, and solid at room temperature. (Grab a handful of Lego bricks to get a feel for the weight, texture, color of ABS.) At the melting point slightly above 220 degrees Celcius, ABS turns into a half-solid, half-liquid ooze that is melty enough to extrude into the shape of your choice, while remaining solid enough to hold form long enough to cool back into a solid.
Many different colors of ABS filament are available. These 1 lbs. packages of red, yellow and green plastic were purchased for $15 each as part of a larger order.
In my area (Phoenix, Arizona, apparently the 5th largest city in the United States by population), I’ve yet to find a local source of the stuff. I’ve called sales departments of several local plastics suppliers, and none have even known where to find it. I’ve also failed in contacting several other online suppliers; my requests for quotes have all gone unanswered. While happy with the two ABS shipments I’ve received from Makerbot, but it would be nice to have competitive options in the low-volume market. Makerbot sells 5-pound spools of “natural” (off-white) colored ABS for $45 (USD), and a variety of colors for $65 (USD) plus applicable taxes and shipping. And shipping is not free.
Assessment
Solar cell bracket revisions.
Revisions 1, 2 and 3 of the solar cell bracket, from left to right.

Given the complexity of the machinery, you have a lot to consider before making the investment.

Thing-o-Matic Pros
  • Extremely cool. You will almost definitely be the only kid on the block with this toy.
  • Makerbot maintains the Thingiverse: a user-driven database of open source 3D objects.
  • Semi-automated batch jobs via the included Automated Build Platform.
  • All needed parts and come with the kit. (BYO tools.)
  • Supplies (such as ABS) are also available from Makerbot.
  • Some parts, such as this pair of brackets printed simultaneously, need trimming and/or sanding.

    Documentation is 4 of 5. The 5 is for comprehensiveness and getting me through the process, but -1 for ocassionally erronous images, ambiguous text, or omission of step.

  • Minimal soldiering, and much less than I’d anticipated.
  • Minimal number of “only one chance” assembly instructions such as cutting and gluing,
  • Open Source hardware design. You can print many of your own replacement parts if some break.
  • Science!
Thing-o-Matic Cons

Four solar cell bracket are shown partially assembled into a larger structure.

  • Generally not robust enough to run unattended.
  • Post assembly calibration gets fuzzy, as there is no 100% Right Way to do things.
  • I’m 90% sure that something about the Arduino driver is unstable. I regularly make my entire Mac greyscreen (the OSX equivalent of a Windows BSOD or a Linux kernel panic) during plug/unplug process of connecting/disconnecting the USB from the Makerbot to my computer.  Something, somewhere, is dying a horrible death and taking my whole operating system with it.
  • Skeinforge–the software that converts your 3D models to tool paths–has an absolutely atrocious (and ofter unstable) user interface. Few of the 100+ configuration options are clearly documents within the app, which is buggy to start with.
  • The machine can be somewhat loud and obvoxious. In my case, the XY axes aren’t bad, but the Z axis stepper motor can be very irritating.
  • If you do this, you are making a very big time commitment.
  • Questionable electronic sub-component failure rates, and one of my biggest complaints. The motor on my MK5 Plastruder was dead on arrival, and my power supply went out after less than a dozen prints. I could just be unluckly, though.
Costs & Competition
Lots of small custom components.

Many small pre-fab printer shops have materialized in the last couple years, ranging from laser-cut wood frames (such as Makerbot), to clear acrylics, metals, and, of course, printed plastics. Regardless of your chosen path, the electronic components are currently not printable in any high-quality manner, are best purchased from a vendor. This includes mainboard microcontroller (the Thing-o-Matic uses as Arduino MEGA), stepper motor controllers, stepper motors, power supply, end stop sensors, extruder controller, cables etc. You can, of course, build these yourself, but in the case of highly available parts such as the Open Source Arduino, it’s far more cost effective to buy the $30 part than spend a day manually fabrication a PCB and hand soldier $20 of mail-order components.

20mm Test Cubes
Four iterations of the 20mm test cube: A, B, C and D.
Makerbot’s pricing ($1K-2K per machine) targets the small power user. Competition is available, but thin and very fragmented. A RepRap kit from one company may not be 100% compatible with the electronics kit from another. That’s just the nature of Open Source hardware. I love the idea of Open Source standards implemented and supported by commercial vendors, and Makerbot’s staff has done a great job so far. (Special thanks to Ethan H. for being the unfortunately soul responsible for handling both of my failure reports as well as one incorrect shipment. You’re awesome, dude!) You can also grab an older model at significant discount.
20mm Test Cube Print
Another 20mm test cube being printed.

In short, unless you have a Richard Stallman-level of commitment to F/OSS, try to buy all your components from only a few vendors. Makerbot is a good choice for U.S. buyers as though they only sell their own designs–a good thing, IMHO–but then, they don’t sell RepRap parts. If you want a RepRap, the choice is more difficult. I have not built a RepRap, but suspect that even with a larger vendor ecosystem it would be difficult to bring the total price tag for a laser cut or milled non-clone machine to under $1K for quality parts, electronics and components.

Closing Thoughts & Recommendations
The biggest barrier to entry is not price, but difficulty. No fabrication, assembly, software, design, calibration, of troubleshooting process is theoretically undoable by any able-bodied person, but the same can be said for rocket science.
You need a decent understanding of robotics, hardware, software, electronics and mechanics, need a little hand dexterity and a ton of patience. (Without these skills, you’ll definitely get frustrated.) You can do it, but if you can’t sit at your workbench in 2-hour stretches assembling (and occasionally reassembling) a part, going through many print iterations (over the course of days) to get it just right, you may want to consider having a shop print parts for you, or looking into a commercial laser cutter or milling machine instead.
Consumer 3D printing is still in its infancy, but the Makerbot Thing-o-Matic (and ancestry) are clear and decisive steps towards a day when all forms of matter can be assimilated from raw materials as easy as loading a coffee maker. Despite a few questionable design choices of electronics components, I give the Thing-o-Matic an overall 4-of-5 star rating and highly recommend either a fully compiled kit (like I did here), or pre-assembled kit for a few hundred USD more, assuming you’re comfortable with the prerequisite knowledge, time and money commitments.
Score Breakdown
  • Documentation: 4 of 5
  • Ease of Use: 3 of 5
  • Coolness: 5 of 5
  • Price Competitiveness: 4 of 5
  • Support: 5 of 5
  • Quality: 3 of 5
—————-
Overall: 4 of 5
Recommended for:  Hardcore geeks looking for a ton of fun in a challenging meta-project.
Additional Media
Thing-o-Matic First Prints
Blurry Thing-o-Matic Up Close
My power supply has an fatal failure after a handful of prints. Makerbot has sent a replacement free of charge.
The blow-out seems to be a capacitor. I believe that the power supply may not have enough kung-fu to power all the components.
I hacked in a new power supply with higher specs, but it didn't fit perfectly. 🙂

Kindle 3G Upgrade: Mini Review, Recommendations

The "Home", "Menu" and "Back" buttons are now to the right of the keyboard.

I’ve previously expressed my love for the Kindle family of devices, and on a whim decided to upgrade from the Kindle 2 to the new Kindle 3G with 3G and wifi. For others contemplating the upgrade, here’s what you need to know:

Pros

  • The new button layout is way better. Next/Previous button are on both sides of the screen, and Home and Menu buttons have been moved to the keyboard area, along with a new direction pad (“d-pad”) design that is easier to use, albeit different.
  • Smaller device footprint. Kindle 3 feels more compact and portable than Kindle 2.
  • The screen update time is noticibly better, but only slightly so. It’s definitely noticable and a welcome improvement, but don’t expect LCD-level performance here. It’s still e-ink.
  • Wifi! Not that on the more expensive model, you have both wifi support as well as the free 3G access.

Cons

"Next" and "Previous" buttons are now on BOTH sides of the device. A welcome change!
  • $189 for a bunch of marginal upgrades is a tough sell.
  • Keyboard is still ghetto. It feels like typing on a 1990’s scientific calculator.
  • The Next/Previous buttons depress easier than before, but they’re also smaller and don’t have any nubs to identify the button by touch. This seems stupid.
  • Sharper screen. It’s a subtle improvement, but definitely feels crisper.

Recommendations

  • New users should go for it, and light readers should be perfectly fine with the Wifi-only $139 model.
  • Existing users with heavy usage patterns (at least an hour a day on average) should go for it. You’ll love the small speed improvements when highlighting and flipping pages.
  • Existing Kindle 2 owners with light usage patterns should skip this revision. Future models will certainly see further improvements and lower costs.

Amazon Kindle Customer Service Experience

Kindle 2 with M-Edge Leather Platform Jacket and optional e-Luminator 2 book light.

About a month ago I noticed the top of my Kindle 2’s e-ink display starting to go out. Starting from the top of the screen, row-by-row slowly ceased to display “ink” until I could no longer see the battery indicator area. I could surely have lived with this, but given that the device is less than a year old I gave the Kindle support number a call.

I purchase a lot from Amazon and have used pretty much every service they offer, including long-time Prime delivery service membership and I’m fairly certain that my Amazon book purchases would put me in their 99th percentile of perfered consumers–so perhaps the call handler knew to treat me better than the average Joe–but regardless, the process was a true 5-star experience. Abbreviated transscript of the call:

Me: The screen on my Kindle 2 is going out.

Rep: I’m very sorry to hear that. <additional scripted apologies designed to make me feel better> How about we overnight you a replacement?

Me: Srsly?

Rep: Sure. It’ll be delivered tomorrow morning.

Me: Sweet!

And that was it. The replacement arrived the next morning as stated. It took me less than 5 minutes total to deal with the issue. For a unit of anything under warrantee this is the level of service I would hope for. Bravo, Amazon!

TOMS Shoes

I recently won one of a thousand pairs of TOMS shoes courtesy of a joint promotion in conjunction with Gowalla and AT&T to celebrate TOMS 1 millionth “shoe drop”. (It’s basically like the “One Laptop Per Child” program, but for shoes.)

From the TOMS website:

“TOMS Shoes was founded on a simple premise: With every pair you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of new shoes to a child in need. One for One. Using the purchasing power of individuals to benefit the greater good is what we’re all about. The TOMS mission transforms our customers into benefactors, which allows us to grow a truly sustainable business rather than depending on fundraising for support.”

Thanks to TOMS, AT&T and Gowalla for the free shoes and I wish you the best of luck in the program!