Monthly Archives: August, 2010

The e-book tipping point

There was a watershed moment for me a couple of weeks ago.

I was re-reading a book I bought many years ago: Melvyn Bragg’s ‘Credo’. Actually, I bought it just after it was published, and so it’s one of those really large-format paperbacks designed to make you feel that you’ve bought something substantial worth the substantial early-adopter price!

But I don’t really like big, heavy books. I do most of my reading in bed late at night, and in that situation I’m primarily after mental rather than muscular stimulation. So I looked – in vain, as it happens – on both Apple’s and Amazon’s stores to see if I could get it in e-book format.

And then it struck me what I had just done.

I’ve really started to value the fact that my e-books are with me all the time on a variety of devices. But here, in addition, I was willing to pay more money to replace a paper book, which I already owned, with an electronic copy, because I thought I would enjoy the reading experience more on my devices than on paper.

That, I felt, was pretty significant…

Sad news

I heard today that Sir Frank Kermode, whom I was privileged to call a friend, died yesterday. With his passing, I fear that the pleasing aroma of pipe tobacco has finally vanished from my life.

John Naughton has written an excellent tribute. I too have nothing but good memories of the time spent in Frank’s company.

I remember his surprised embarrassment when I discovered, after dismantling his computer, that the reason he could no longer push a CD into the CD-drive was that on some distant past occasion he had pushed a 5.25″ floppy disk into the same slot.

I remember discussing Tolkien with him after seeing the first Lord of the Rings film, and he said that W.H. Auden had once asked him, “Don’t you think Tolkien is a wonderful writer?” To which he replied that no, he didn’t really think so. “I respect you for saying that”, said Auden, “but I’ll never trust your opinion again.”

Many did trust his opinion, though. Frank was one of the world’s foremost Shakespearean scholars. Yet, as John once remarked, he wore his eminence very lightly. His autobiography, “Not Entitled”, is a delight, and somewhat self-referential: part-way through he drifts off into discussing the whole concept of autobiography, and, if memory serves, doesn’t really come back to his own story much after that, as if to say that we’d probably heard enough about him and the literary concept was probably more interesting anyway; that he wasn’t even really entitled to a full autobiography.

The last time I saw him was when I rounded a corner in Waitrose and our trolleys almost collided. His smile when he saw me lit up my day, as it always did. I shall miss him.

Update: here’s his obituary in the Telegraph

Magic mushrooms

Is there a good collective noun for radio telescopes? Any suggestions? A ‘peer’ group?

Death from the skies

Odds of dying by asteroid impact: 1 in 700,000
The overall risk of dying from an impact in your lifetime is 1 in 700,000
Somewhat less than being killed by a fireworks accident
But still more probable than being killed on an amusement park ride
Or by an act of terrorism

Lyrics from George Hrab’s fun track “Death from the skies”.

Don’t park your bike or chariot here

Spotted this wonderfully-Cambridge sign yesterday:

I’ve never studied Latin, but I think I can make out enough; it says something like ‘Two wheels, that have been left here, will be destroyed’.

Can anyone translate the Greek? I presume it says much the same.

Actually, the first dictionary I looked at listed perimo as ‘to slay, destroy‘, and I rather like the idea that Cambridge streets are kept in order by The Slayer of Bicycles…

This is the one

A friend has one of these digital watches. The digits are binary: LEDs which glow blue when you press the button. Love it. Ultimate retro geekery.

Parents should by these for their kids if they want them to grow up to be Computer Scientists…

More info on the manufacturer’s site.

Barcode reading on the iPhone

I’ve played with this a bit, and a friend asked me about it this morning so I thought it might be useful to write something up for others.

The more recent iPhones, those with autofocus cameras, can focus close enough to get good images of barcodes and there are several utilities which will recognise them. Some concentrate on 1D ‘traditional’ barcodes, others on the more interesting and capable 2D codes, the most common format being the QR code (shown here).

QR codes have long been popular in Japan, especially on business cards, so Japanese phones have tended to be able to focus at closer ranges than the typical western smartphone, which is only used for photos of friends doing embarrassing things in the pub. Now, though, the rest of the world is gradually catching on and the iPhone is rare in not coming with QR-code reading software included. Fortunately, that’s easy to fix. Here are some of my favourites of the apps I’ve tried:

Optiscan is, in my opinion, the best scanner if you just want to do QR codes. It’s fast and reliable and, when I first got it, was the only one I could easily configure to fill my particular need – I wanted a really low-friction way to scan a QR code containing a URL and view the associated page. Optiscan did that brilliantly – one tap on the screen to scan, and you could set it to open a URL immediately when it recognised it. Nice, simple, well-documented and only £1.19. And that’s the most expensive of these.

RedLaser is the kind of app that high-street stores probably hate. This is designed for traditional 1D product barcodes, scans them well, and then looks up other places you can buy them and tells you the price online. Now, it doesn’t look in very many places, so I wouldn’t suggest it’ll find you the best bargain, but it is a useful reality check before you make that impulse purchase. To be fair to high-street traders, too, it has more than once told me that the difference between their price and Amazon’s was small enough that I was happy to buy the item in-store.

I think the latest version of QuickMark is now my favourite of the apps I’ve tried. (Note that there’s a different version for the iPhone 4). Its big failing is that bits of the UI are rather counter-intuitive and the developer’s website is a mess and hard to navigate. But once you get over that it has several very nice features. Firstly, it will scan a range of different 2D formats including QR Code, Quick Code and Data Matrix. It will also scan 1D barcodes, but, and this is important, you need to configure it for the type of 1D code you’re scanning or it will just sit there failing to recognise anything. If you’re generally scanning standard product codes, go into Settings and make sure you select the EAN/UPC option.

It gets better. There’s now an option for 1D codes to redirect you to a URL based on the code, and you can choose the URL. I configured mine with
and sure enough, when I scanned a book it stuck the ISBN number on the end and took me straight to the right place.

And better. There’s a free utility called QuickMark Spot which you can run on your Mac and which will receive barcodes from the phone over wifi, and insert them wherever your cursor happens to be. So you can open a text editor, wander round the house scanning your books and CDs, and come back to find all the barcodes in your file. Very cute, and a better range than, say a dedicated bluetooth scanner.

There are many, many more apps out there, and many more functions to these ones – I haven’t touched, for example, on how some of them can automatically call phone numbers embedded in QR codes, or display barcodes to be scanned by other phones… but this should get you started if you want to explore.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser