The Price of Cheap

I have just had the most thrilling experience of the last few months.

Three years ago I got myself a silver Ikea halogen balanced-arm lamp. It replaced an old wooden desk lamp that worked great, but was not exactly what I wanted (to be able to read a reference book open in a darkened room next to my displays).

So an Ikea lamp it was; partly because it was cheap. Partly because it was easy to get, it looked ok and it was more or less what I wanted.

Last month the light flickered a few times; I didn’t pay much attention — the power company has most definitely forgotten my neighbourhood as the power supply is erratic at best — especially in the summer months when air conditioning units bring the power stations to their knees. Then a few days ago the lamp went off all of a sudden. I flicked the switch once or twice and it came on again. All was well.

This morning the light was off, as it should; but apparently the switch was still at the on position. You can’t easily tell which position is ‘on’ or ‘off’ if the bulb doesn’t turn on as there is no indicator near the switch; it’s a matter of remembering the actual physical position of the flip switch. It would be very hard to explain how the lamp started fuming and after a few seconds a small flame appeared from the switch compartment near the bulb.

Needless to say, a flaming lamp sitting 20cm away from your face is a thrilling experience, especially when excitement usually means null pointers and segfaults. Thankfully I reacted quickly, pulled the plug on the lamp and the small flame disappeared, the lamp still fuming and filling the air with the horrible smell of burnt plastic/rubber.

I think I learnt my lesson: I will never, ever, ever buy an Ikea electrical appliance in the future. I was extremely lucky this time; being around, being awake, reacting calmly.

I generally like Ikea products. But a cheap bookcase, living room table or desk is one thing. It can fall apart after a few years, flake, break or what-have-you. That’s fine. It cannot, however, ignite all of a sudden.



On Feeds and Fads

In 2004 ‘web feeds’ were becoming extremely popular in the tech community. People were keen to label ‘web pages’ as old, obsolete, clumsy and resource ‘heavy’. It was the time of ‘Web 2.0’, the time when web ‘surfers’ were gradually getting rid of Internet Explorer 6, when Ajax was starting to make its appearance on more and more web applications.

Suddenly everyone started expecting feeds. Everywhere. Feeds for everything any site had in store: calendar/event information, news, media, archives, categories, tags, software updates etc. Feeds were demanded (and almost exclusively found) in loosely defined quasi-machine readable formats, like RSS and Atom: immature syndication formats ‘abused’, tasked to provide functionality not originally envisioned by their authors. Functionality that people ‘wanted now’, that was tangible, contrary to the elusive dream of a Semantic Web, an abstract notion that perhaps only Tim Berners-Lee might try to explain. From a tech-only convenience, feeds became mainstream.

Feeds gradually became the ‘de facto’ medium through which millions of people around the world found and consumed information — a use well beyond their original purpose (syndication and notification of new or updated content, not consumption of said content). Many companies touted RSS support in their products and services in 2005. Among them, Apple, when Steve Jobs, in his typical used-car salesman fashion, touted Safari’s support for RSS. The incorporation of RSS in desktop applications and the browser never worked for most of us; web aggregators and feed readers soon became the dominant medium through which feeds were accessed. Among all feed readers, Google Reader, rapidly became the most popular; part of the daily routine for the vast majority of people and the main source of their text media consumption.



Kindle and Parochial Thinking.

A few days ago Amazon presented the new Kindle and started taking pre-orders for the device. On the frontpage of both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk, Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of the company made the announcement in typical Amazon fashion.

I always liked the Kindle, but was — for a long time — convinced that the amount of money Amazon was asking was way too much. I also wanted the ability to load my own PDFs and other documents, so the early models were not particularly attractive; I always believed that the price of devices of this class would go down significantly as the world shifted to an e-book based economy (vs the old paper format). Indeed this happened, and the new Kindle seemed like a decent step forward for an already interesting device.

As a European, living in an EU country that doesn’t have its own ‘national’ Amazon store, I depend on Amazon.co.uk for most of my purchases; the reasons are twofold and pretty common sense: the shipping cost from the States is much higher and the Import Duty levied for any products shipped from countries outside of the EU makes any such purchase unattractive. This is currently the case for all customers in European countries; except for those having their own ‘national’ Amazon stores, namely Britain, France and Germany in which case they just order from their local stores.

With this in mind, I paid a visit to amazon.co.uk’s Kindle page looking for the pre-order button. And there is was, along with a sign telling international customers to visit the international page of Kindle at amazon.com.

And that’s the problem; I don’t want to use amazon.com to get my Kindle, but I really want to get one. It is available on amazon.co.uk, but that’s only open to customers ordering it from the UK. Which is a shame, as there’s several hundred million people in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Poland, Scandinavian countries, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the other EU27 countries that don’t have their own amazon stores that might want to get the Kindle but will not pay the premium cost (additional shipping from the US and import duty — sometimes as high as 20%) that ordering from the US mean.

On the same day I called Amazon (US) and talked to ‘Chad’ about this. He was very friendly and polite, he explained to me that this was a valid concern and that he understood it. He promised that he would take this up with whoever was responsible about Amazon’s policy regarding the sale of Kindle in the European market.

A few minutes after hanging up with Chad, I got an automated email from Amazon asking me whether Chad was helpful. Sadly such systems are more often than not totally incapable of reflecting the real issues with customer support. Chad was as helpful as he could’ve been; he was polite, friendly and competent. But no matter how nice and good he was he couldn’t help me, because that’s not his job. It’s the job of an executive that doesn’t get ‘rated’ by customers and whose parochial thinking in marketing the Kindle in Europe will probably cost the company a lot of money in the near future.

I hope Amazon realises this and allows Europeans to order Kindles from their EU stores. Sadly, while I am sure that Chad will forward my message and explain the situation to his supervisor, I seriously doubt whether those responsible will realise their mistake in time. Let’s see if they prove me wrong.


» Nokia. A Company in Denial.

Arrogant. Disoriented. Unfocused. Accurate characterisations of Nokia? Perhaps. Still, who’d have thought in the early 2000s that the market leader of mobile phones, one of the most innovative companies in its field that owned the European market would be the dying king of the 2010s; high volume sales of silly feature phones, low profit margins, a chaotic software ecosystem, little to no mindshare in the most important, lucrative segments. Perpetually in denial about its ageing Symbian stack, its schizophrenic Maemo/Meego stack, its unstable, ever-changing APIs and the amateurish, mediocre, unpolished user-experience its products provide. So many unappealing devices. A nervous acquisition of Navteq in 2008 for $8.1bn upon that the company never capitalised, while Google and Tomtom keep offering less while gaining so much more from their users (e.g. Ovi Maps has had free navigation for a while and no one seems to care). Its repeated failed attempts to create a mobile service ecosystem/platform (n-gage, MOSH and now Ovi).

Prediction: With the N8 not being out until later this year and already looking like a device that should’ve been out in 2009, Nokia’s future certainly looks bleaker than it thinks. Unless it wakes up, ditches Symbian for good and makes Meego something more than the mickey-mouse platform it currently is soon, I can’t see how it will ever manage to compete with the super-polished iOS or the lightspeed-evolving Android. (The verdict is still out on Windows Phone 7)



Δύο μήνες με το Android

Το οτι το Android αποτελεί βασικό στόχο στην ανάπτυξη τόσο του AthensBook όσο και του GEO|ADS είναι κάτι που δεν έχουμε κρύψει, εδώ και αρκετούς μήνες. Ετσι, στις αρχές του περασμενου Απρίλη, επενδύσαμε σε ένα HTC Desire, μια συσκευή που βρίσκεται κοντά στην κορυφή της αγοράς γα τη συγκεκριμένη πλατφόρμα και παρέχει πλήθος δυνατοτήτων που λίγες άλλες συσκευές μπορούν να προσφέρουν σε αυτό το μέγεθος, ανεξαρτήτως πλατφόρμα. Σε αυτό το άρθρο θα περιγράψω τις εμπειρίες μου με τη συσκευή, αλλά και κατ’επέκτασή την πλατφόρμα, τόσο αυτή καθέ αυτή, όσο και στην μορφή που την εμπορεύεται η HTC, το περιβάλλον Sense, ως χρήστης και όχι ως μηχανικός λογισμικού.



The Books

One of the most impressive and original groups that I’ve listened to in the past few years, I’ve been meaning to write something more substantial about this for ages, but never got around to doing it. Difficult, but warm, exceptionally rich in sounds and meaning and at the same time simple, even minimalist in structure, but above all uncategorisable, The Books [on Wikipedia] make music that I’ve come to love more than most in the few years that I’ve been aware of them. It’s not just the rhythmic patterns, the exceptional sampling of natural sounds, the vocals and dialogues, the instruments that are presented in such a subtle, refined way, but the extreme attention to detail and extremely artful manner in which effects, speech samples, sounds and acoustic instruments come together in a glorious reminder of how great real music can be, no matter whether it is the result of natural or artificial means. This is not a band keen on posturing or interested in demonstrating technical prowess; their music is timeless precisely because it focuses on what matters and does away with trends. The music of The Books has soul, but at the same time retains a musical sophistication that’s rare. Open minds and open ears required.



Ο Δρόμος του Τσαγιού στα Ιντερτιούμπζ!

Πάει ένας περίπου χρόνος από τη πρώτη μου παραγγελία — και το σχετικό άρθρο για το δικτυακό κατάστημα τσαγιού tsai.gr. Οι εντυπώσεις ήταν ως επι το πλείστον θετικές, με μεγάλη ποικιλία τσαγιών και βοτάνων, άμεση εξυπηρέτηση και εξαιρετικό πακετάρισμα των προϊόντων. Μεγάλη (και σημαντική) εξαίρεση οι τιμές του καταστήματος οι οποίες ήταν περίπου 20% ακριβότερες από αυτές του Δρόμου του Τσαγιού, ενός ‘φυσικού’ καταστήματος που εδρεύει στην Αθήνα και τη Θεσσαλονίκη και επίσης ειδικέυεται στο τσάι. Αν συνυπολογίσει κανείς και το επιπλέον κόστος των μεταφορικών, οι τιμές για ένα αμιγώς δικτυακό κατάστημα ήταν ανεξήγητα υψηλές.

Την πρώτη μου παραγγελία από το tsai.gr ακολούθησαν αρκετές άλλες όπως και κάποιες επισκέψεις στον Δρόμο του Τσαγιού στο Κολωνάκι. Η ποιότητα των προϊόντων των δυο καταστημάτων ήταν παρεμφερής με κάποιες διακυμάνσεις ανάλογα με τη ποικιλία και το είδος του τσαγιού.

Τις προάλλες συζητούσα με κάποιους φίλους για το tsai.gr και στη συζήτηση αναφέρθηκε ο Δρόμος το Τσαγιού ως εναλλακτική. Αναζητώντας πληροφορίες online, με μεγάλη μου χαρά διαπίστωσα την ύπαρξη νέου δικτυακού τόπου για το εν λόγω κατάστημα.



Upstart in Ubuntu 9.10

Upstart is the ‘new’ event-based sysvinit replacement by Canonical, that has been widely adopted in the linux world ever since it first appeared in late 2006. The idea is centred around causality, that is, defining relationships that are not loosely defined by some measure of time, but by the presence (at runtime that is) of processes that a service depends upon. For example, if you need service X to run after service Y, you shouldn’t have to ‘wait’ for Y to start before starting X, but, instead, you should be able to specify that X depends on Y in some canonical form and the system would try to start X as soon as Y was up and running. In other words as a user/administrator of a machine you shouldn’t have to go through all that S?? and K?? silliness from SysV.

Upstart is by no means the first such service management system; Apple has incorporated its own version of such a system, called launchd, since the mid 2000s and so has Sun Microsystems with SMF. In fact, launchd was considered as a sysvinit replacement for Ubuntu 6.10, before Upstart was anything but a crude replacement for the /sbin/init daemon, but the idea was scrapped due to licensing issues (launchd was at the time licensed under the somewhat controversial Apple Public License; it has since been relicensed under the Apache License).

In the upcoming Ubuntu 9.10 release Upstart has reached another milestone, ‘just’ three years since it first made its appearance as a project; a number of core scripts have been rewritten as Upstart jobs (yay). Despite the fact that Upstart has been adopted by a number of systems (including Fedora, Maemo and — soon — Debian, among others) there are numerous issues (and practically no documentation for most of the system) as well as extreme volatility in both the format and structure of Upstart jobs and — alas — the aimed featureset. The only thing that’s been ‘stable’ in Upstart is the actual daemon, while the configuration/job format has been changing (and being moved around) every few months.


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