This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

November 2007 Archives

November 30, 2007

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids, a review of a growing realization about theories of intelligence. One of my biggest hopes for my kids is that they avoid belief in the myth of "natural ability." I'm almost 30 and I'm still un-training myself of that crap.

November 28, 2007

XO Development: Running Sugar on a Mac

The XO laptop runs a custom version of Linux with drivers and libraries for the fancy hardware and an impressive simple user interface called Sugar. For getting a sense of what it's like, or for developing applications that don't necessarily need the fancy hardware, you can run the XO operating system in an emulator. The general recommendation is to use Qemu, a free PC emulator for several operating systems, with the latest image.

I couldn't get build 625 (the latest as of this writing) to work with the Mac port of Qemu, called "Q": I could create my user account, but then X would crash and restart repeatedly. I had a similar-looking issue using the 625 build directly with Parallels 3.0 and this old technique of creating an empty VM and replacing its hard drive with the .img file (already reported not to work with recent builds).

Thankfully, Bert Freudenberg got it working it Parallels and offers build 623 as a Parallels VM. It works great, and anyone with Parallels Desktop, an Intel Mac and the interest should download the VM and give it a whirl.

For serious Sugar Activity (application) development, a good option for Mac users with Parallels is to create a VM and install Fedora Linux: Download an install DVD ISO image and tell Parallels 3.0 that you want to install the OS from the image when Parallels asks. I had a weird issue where the first time 'round it couldn't find an obvious .rpm file on the image, but stopping the VM, setting the options to boot from the "CD" image again, and restarting the installation procedure finished it fine.

Once Fedora is set up, run these commands to install a few more packages, and don't forget the final sudo yum install popt-devel if you're running Fedora 8. My Fedora 8 install didn't give my user account sudoers access by default, so I just jumped to superuser mode with su then ran those commands. Also, there have been 137+ package updates since Fedora 8, so expect the first sudo yum -y update to take a while.

Once all the packages are installed, proceed to these instructions for using sugar-jhbuild. The result is not the full XO software suite—not all of the XO's default applications are part of the default developer source for Sugar—but it's enough to get started with developing Sugar apps.

More XO emulation options. More Sugar options, including running Sugar on Mac OS X native, which sounds tricky, provides no advice for running PyGTK on a Mac (I assume X11 is involved), and even includes a little diatribe at the end on how setting up a development environment ought to be easier.

Another hands-on review of the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. I like the note about not having to hold it in your hands while reading. Having to hold pages open is a design issue with paper books that doesn't get talked about much. It's not a huge win for e-book readers, but it's something. This reviewer even tries reading while on a treadmill, with success.

Also good to hear that the Kindle supports the Mobi e-book format, and that PDFs can be converted to Mobi pretty easily. I'm assuming it's not a pixel-perfect conversion of the layout, but it's something.

November 27, 2007

Custom templates in Pages. A simple but much needed tutorial on getting started with layout in Apple Pages.

November 26, 2007

The OLPC Foundation has extended their Give 1 Get 1 program through December 31st.

Recent versions of the Mac OS X web browser Safari do an excellent job of displaying PDF files inside the browser window, much better than the Adobe Acrobat Reader plugin or standalone PDF viewers. Assuming you agree with that sentiment and want PDFs displayed in Safari, you might discover that upon installing some Adobe products (I presume Acrobat specifically), Safari no longer does its own thing. In my case, not only did an Adobe product install a plugin that subverts the built-in viewer, but the plugin fails to function, complaining it can't find Adobe Acrobat Reader.

To disable the Adobe Acrobat Reader plugin for Safari (working or otherwise), find and delete /Library/Internet Plug-Ins/AdboePDFViewer.plugin, then restart Safari.

November 23, 2007

PC World's review of the Amazon Kindle. Nothing surprising based on already published specs, though it did answer a couple of my questions: You can indeed shuttle files between the device and a PC using the SD card or the USB cable, but those files will only be in either plaintext (including your highlighted clips) or their proprietary AZW format, so you can back up your purchases locally. You can also re-download purchased files any time.

Wired has an e-book reader comparison chart that reminds us there are several readers on the market with similar dimensions and technologies (e-paper), but also support PDF and cost less. Amazon's free cellular data and store are still a big deal in this light, but if what you want is a way to carry a stack of academic papers and free PDFs around, there are options. I'd be curious to know more about the Jinke HanLin eBook reader V3.

One thing I keep thinking about regarding the Kindle is how Amazon can promote Kindle versions alongside paper versions. My Amazon MP3 Store addiction has everything to do with the ability to discover that CDs I want are available as MP3s for substantially less money and substantially more convenience. Hopefully the "substantially less money" bit will eventually apply to the Kindle.

November 22, 2007

Outside In [Google Video], a 21 minute video on how to turn a sphere inside out.

Boing Boing Gadgets: 15 Things I Just Learned About the Amazon Kindle. Real (non-speculative) info about how to get different kinds of data onto the Kindle, for free and for pay. Joel says the meager built-in web browser can see the whole web, and is free, despite the existence of $1/month blog subscriptions. Also, it will accept files transferred over the USB cable (no email required) as long as they're plaintext or in the proprietary file format (AZW). The service that takes files of various other types by email and beams them to your reader also performs a conversion to AZW—and Amazon offers the conversion without the automatic transfer by email for free, so you can convert files and transfer via USB later.

Of personal interest: "Kindle also features "Kindle NowNow," a human-powered search query system powered by Amazon's Mechanical Turk distributed work system. NowNow is free."

November 21, 2007

6 days remaining for the One Laptop Per Child XO Laptop Give 1 Get 1 program. As mentioned here previously, Give 1 Get 1 means you pay $399 for 2 units, one of them goes to you and the other goes to charity. The $200 charity portion is tax deductible, and gift matchable.

T-Mobile pledges 1 year of free wi-fi hotspot use to all Give 1 Get 1 Participants.

Also mentioned here before, but I'll link it again because it's a great brief intro: David Pogue's video review of the XO. Not linked here before, an April '07 Google TechTalk on some of the technical aspects of the XO.

I'm looking forward to sharing my XO with my kids. After I've had a chance to play with it, of course. Maybe I should have ordered 2 after all... Or 3...

Sciral Consistency, a simple application for tracking completion of regular or semi-regular tasks. Reminds me of the Jerry Seinfeld "don't break the chain" story. For Mac or Windows.

November 20, 2007

OmniFocus, the new productivity app from Mac software superstars The Omni Group, is now in public beta after an extensive closed beta period. They're also taking pre-orders at 50% off the final price of $80, with an additional discount for OmniOutliner Pro users.

Amazon Kindle,'s new proprietary-store-backed portable e-book reader and audiobook player. No computer required for books, it gets data directly from a subsidized cellular network (Sprint's EVDO network, no subscription required). You can email documents to the device, but it only supports MS Word, plaintext and a few image formats, no PDF. Emailing yourself a file costs 10 cents, which makes sense since you're otherwise not paying for cellular data transfer. It does have a USB cable for transferring audio books, and it looks like you can't use it for other file transfers. It also has an SD card slot for expansion, though I'm guessing you can't use it for shuttling files either. You can access over the cellular connection, or Wikipedia (for free), but it's not a general purpose browser.

The business model is restrictive, but since freedom is exchanged for convenience, it might work. I'd compare it with iTunes if it weren't for the lack of PDF support: iPods rose to power on a widely adopted standard format, MP3, which is still an essential feature of the device even with the popularity of the iTunes Store. It looks like Kindle's layout engine isn't powerful enough for PDF, and plaintext doesn't have the same utility. I'm not that keen on paying $10 a pop for e-books that go straight to a device where I can't access, back up or manipulate the files. (You can re-download files if your device breaks.)

That $400 price tag has to go. A device like this ought to be less than $100, or include a lifetime supply of books. I'd pay $400 for a quality reader with free file transfers and PDF support. I'm tempted to assume Amazon will drop the price to $199 within a year, but that may just be because the device looks cheap, and the terms suck. Then again, full-featured ultra-portable laptop computers are already this cheap, so that's gotta be a forcing factor.

I also doubt a company like Amazon would iterate on the hardware unless the business model is a home run, and it won't be with their terms and selection. And the longer they go without improving the product line, the more likely they are to ditch it altogether. And when they ditch it, everyone who bought the device and paid for content will lose all the books once their device dies, if not sooner.

Overall, what's exciting about Kindle is what has always been exciting about the idea of an ideal e-book reader, and the technology combinations we've been talking about for years: electronic paper, wireless data, low-power portable devices. That excitement evaporates pretty quickly when you discover Kindle isn't anything like an ideal e-book reader.

Also: Mark Pilgrim: The Future of Reading.

Final Cut Express 4 is out with new support for AVCHD, a mixed-format timeline (put HD and DV on the same timeline), and the ability to import iMovie '08 projects.

November 19, 2007

Live on Stage in Chelsea, It’s Saturday Night! Striking Saturday Night Live writers, cast members and production crew assemble to perform a show without cameras, using material rejected or otherwise withheld from the live broadcast. Included host and musical guest. Article includes pictures.

A sold-out live episode of 30 Rock is scheduled for tonight.

November 17, 2007

Not the Daily Show, by writers of the Daily Show:

November 14, 2007

The Pilot Dr. Grip 4+1 Multi-pen

My Pilot Dr. Grip 4+1 Multi-pen ($15, still in stock at as of this writing) arrived today. It's everything I expected: a Dr. Grip-style barrel and rubber grip, no wider than a single-function Dr. Grip, but with 5 functions: black, red, blue, green and mechanical pencil. The inks are comparable to single-function Dr. Grip pens, which make this an easy must-have for fans of those pens.

I'm pleased to say the push-button design works better than a Bic 4-color. The buttons are very easy to push, and not easy to release accidentally, though I did trip the release on the mechanical pencil once when I didn't intend to. The U.S. mini-cultural bias against multi-pens as being for children combined with the unusual diameter common to all Dr. Grip pens gives this pen the appearance of a toy, but it's as solidly built as others in the Dr. Grip line.

The pencil's button also doubles as the clip, which is both clever and counter-intuitive. To advance the lead, you push the clip down further than its active position, which wouldn't be so bad except there's some give between the resting ("on") position and the catch for advancing lead. I wasted a good 60 seconds ticking the clip between those positions with no lead coming out before realizing I had to push harder.

Loading lead is simple but not as easy as most mechanical pencils. With the Dr. Grip 4+1, you remove the tip to expose the cartridges, then remove the metal end of the pencil cartridge. I worried I'd break it, but didn't have any trouble in the end. Surprisingly, my pen did not come with lead pre-loaded, nor did it include a supply in the box. (Thankfully, I have more .5mm lead than I'll ever use in my lifetime.)

I now own 3 somewhat expensive imported multi-pens. One is too short for my hands, but writes fabulously. Of the remaining two, the Platinum Double 3 Action is thinner, sleaker, and has a cooler switch mechanism than the Dr. Grip 4+1. The Dr. Grip has the famous rubber grip and smooth ink of the Dr. Grip line, and more colors. Compared to the Platinum, the Dr. Grip is comically wide, but since it's the same size as a single-function Dr. Grip (which is also quite wide), Dr. Grip fans aren't likely to notice. Those who don't like the grip, the width, or the Bic 4-color push-button aesthetic might prefer the Platinum.

I had planned on doing a silly series of fawning "unboxing" photos, but I tired of the gag before I got to the text. Here are some photos anyway.

The box:

The Dr. Grip 4+1 multi-pen box.

The pen:

The Dr. Grip 4+1 multi-pen.

The eraser cap removed:

The Dr. Grip 4+1 with eraser shown.

The cartridges exposed:

The Dr. Grip 4+1, refills exposed.

A brief writing sample:

A brief writing sample of the Dr. Grip 4+1.

The instructions in the box:

The instruction manual for the Dr. Grip 4+1.

TidBITS Macs & Mac OS X: Spotlight Strikes Back: In Leopard, It Works Great. Another reason to have a really large hard drive and fill it with useful stuff: you can find it with complex Spotlight queries!

November 8, 2007

The Office on strike:

Via the excellent screenwriting blog of John August, who is currently blogging (and picketing in) the Writers Guild of America Strike. See also the official blog for the strike at I guess it's not surprising that self-coverage of the WGA strike would be well written.

Pilot Dr. Grip 4 Color Multi Pen + Pencil now in stock at As of this writing, anyway. Recent experiences with twist-style multi-pens make me less jazzed about the Bic-style buttons, and I doubt the Dr. Grip multi-pen will feel any more robust than other plastic multis. But still, whah, eh?

The real trick with the pen fetish is finding opportunities to use pens, since I've rather accidentally relegated all paper out of my life. Shopping lists on the iPhone, meeting notes on a laptop, and there's no time for red-pen editing in the high pressure world of technical writing.

November 5, 2007

Designing FiringSquad’s Reference Home Theaters. Looks like a great detailed overview for the current state of the art of reasonable home theaters.

When I mentioned how I couldn't imagine using the Uniball Signo Bit 0.18mm pen I got the other day, Charles expressed interest, so I sent it to him. Charles wrote an insightful review of the pen on his blog. He had better success with the ridiculously fine point on finer paper than I did with a cursory test on typical American notebook paper, and notes that it seems best suited for very very tiny lettering.

November 2, 2007

Apple just refreshed the MacBook specs to max out at 2.2 GHz Intel Core Duo, 4 GB RAM and 250 GB disk. And Leopard, of course. Don't forget to save hundreds of dollars by getting the 1 GB RAM config, then upgrading with third-party RAM from If you're getting a white one and don't need to burn DVD-Rs, save hundreds more by opting for the 2.0 GHz model, because .2 GHz don't mean a hill of beans in this crazy mixed up world.

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard's install of Python is much improved. Python 2.5, a bunch of new packages installed by default for tons of out-of-the-box functionality, and easy_install to easily install additional packages to the built-in library.

It's Make My Logo Bigger Cream!

November 1, 2007

More multi-pens! The Writers has a few multi-pens, most notably a black/red/pencil/stylus that uses pressurized Fisher Space Pen cartridges. If you like the way the Space Pen writes, here's a multi-pen for you, $35. For robust multi-pens, their black/red/pencil Spalding 3 Function Pen (no direct link available) is all brass and steel, for $56. Includes eraser and compartment for extra lead. They also carry a few $20 Quad 4-Way black/red/pencil/stylus-or-green with a personal review from the site's owner.