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  • Michael Krakovskiy 8:09 pm on September 14, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: actual product, , , Artemy Lebedev, brilliant designer, China, , , , electronic devices, electronic products, , Frog Design, golf driver, golf driver head, , , immaterial products, input device, , Latvia, , , , , , , , Mouse Driver, non-skid rubber, , , Optimus Maximus keyboard, Optimus Mini Three, physical product, Pointing device, satellite offices, software preview, , , , , web design scene   

    Optimus Mini Three Full Review 

    I once read a book called “The Mouse Driver Chronicles: The True-Life Adventures of Two First-Time Entrepreneurs” about two guys who started their own company with an unorthodox business plan: making a real, physical product and selling it. This happened during the dot com era, when everyone was making money hand over fist with immaterial products: websites, content, synergy and such. At the very most, bits and bytes would overlap with physical world in online stores – you could order something online and get it delivered, but there were very few companies that produced an actual product. Well, there was one place that would send a real dog turd to a recipient of your choice, but they went under and I can’t even find their website. “Brick and Mortar,” a metaphor for physical world (as opposed to online) stores became a pejorative.

    So, these two guys embarked on creating a company with a single product: a mouse that is shaped like golf driver and selling it to big novelty stores and catalogs. Very not dot-com. Designing the product was easy: take a golf driver head, slap mouse buttons on it – there it is. Dealing with the manufacturer was a lot more difficult. These days most of electronic products are made in China, and flying there is pretty expensive. You have to deal with the language barrier, timezone shift, and cultural differences, while collaborating on making a physical product. A single miscommunication and a whole batch worth tens of thousands of dollars might be ruined.

    This is the reason why so many great product ideas go unrealized. A great example of that is SiliconFilm: a film roll-sized device that would convert your regular SLR into a digital one. Many people would want to buy one, but it’s been a stady winner of Wired’s vaporware awards.

    Mousedriver was a simple product: a stock mouse in a slightly different housing. When I’ve heard that Art. Lebedev studio was actually planning to make one an OLED custom input device, Optimus Mini Three, I had my doubts that it would ever become real, but plunked down 100 bucks (a special pre-order price, it’s $160 or so now) and was prepared to get my money back in a year or two. Instead, in less than half a year I got a parcel from Taiwan. Inside was a working Optimus Mini keyboard. A was dumbstruck.

    Now, Art. Lebedev Studio is a slightly more serious outfit than the mousedriver guys. It’s a large (about 150 people) design firm lead by a brilliant designer Artemy Lebedev. This guy:

    Artemy (aka Tema aka Art.) Lebedev is so notorious in Russian web design scene, that he goes by the moniker “Youknowwho.” The Studio is based in Moscow, with satellite offices in Latvia and Ukraine. Web design is their bread and butter, but lately they’ve been branching out into industrial design. Starting with a funky coffee mug called ColorShift Atmark, they’ve been steadily building their portfolio of actually manufactured objects.

    There are only two other design companies that excite me as much, IDEO and Frog Design. Lebedev Studio in my mind is destined to be as great as IDEO. One day I found out that my favorite toothpaste tube(Crest Neat Squeeze) and toothbrush (the “fat” Oral-B one) were both designed by IDEO, as well as many other wonderful things. Good design is very important to me, and Art. Lebedev Studio is finally starting to come out with things that I can buy.

    The concept design for a keyboard with buttons containing little OLED screens called Optimus recieved a lot press coverage. Lebedev would be crazy to attempt manufacturing something complicated like that, just as it would have been stupid to attempt to create Apollo spacecraft without building a Redstone rocket first. So Youknowwho decided to do a proof of concept – a three button OLED “keyboard” and called it Optimus Mini Three. As I mentioned before, mine arrived from Taiwan a short time ago.

    I opened the box, plugged in the USB cable, installed the software and was up and running in about a minute. USB devices are supposed to be plug and play, but can be very finicky – refuse to be recognized, fail to install drivers, etc. Wasn’t the case with OM3 – the usb communication code is rock solid.

    One thing you should know about the organic led screens is that they are extremely hard to photograph. They behave kind of like the old tv screens and computer monitors, having some sort of a refresh scan. Ideally, I would take pictures in a professional light tent with a camera on a tripod taking a lot of pictures with a slow shutter speed. I ended up taking a lot of pictures hand holding the camera with the exposure of 1/13th of a second. My lens has an anti-shake feature and I have very steady hands, but the pictures could be a touch sharper if I used a tripod. There are also problems with moire pattern that shows up in pictures, but is of course not visible to the human eye.

    Here I loaded some sample images from the web. They look very crisp live, but even with all the camera artifacts, they look passable photographed. The contrast and resolution is very impressive. Also, the plastic that covers the screens gives off very little glare and does not hold fingerprints well. The only thing that shows up is light-colored specks of dust. I did not even bother wiping down the buttons after pressing them for the most part.

    Here’s an example of the silly slot machine game that comes with the software.

    Here’s a closeup of a single button. There is a bit of an issue with the pixels right at the top and bottom: they are a bit off.

    The memory and processor resource tracking application shows a \little artifact: a small stripe of dead pixels. This seems to be a software issue though: these pixels work in other applets and images, and actually show up in the software preview. In resource monitor mode the software itself takes about 10% of processor time for itself. This can probably improved, but this is not much more than I would expect from any resource monitoring application. Overall the “configurator” software is in a pretty solid beta. It does not crash, but certain features need some work: the Windows Media Player widget keeps scrolling “Winamp” messages, time and weather widget does not change the weather and is hard to read, etc.

    I could not resist opening the this thing up. I pried up the non-skid rubber and found two screws. Mr. Lebedev has a habit of leaving funny notes in code comments of most of his websites. I was looking for a message, or the design team’s signature on the inside of the case (like with the original Apple Macintosh), but did not find anything.

    The keyboard is not completely silent – when in operation it generates a very faint buzzing sound and the buttons are slightly warm to the touch. I thought that there might a little fan inside, but did not find one.

    The keyboard looks like it’s made out of metal, but it’s actually very high quality plastic. To make it more hefty, the designers used two strips of metal as wedges that hold the pcb in place.

    I did not take apart the screen assembly, but unlike most electronic devices these days, the mini keyboard seems to have been designed with future service in mind. Replacing the screens is easily within the abilities of do-it-yourselfers. As you can see, the key mechanism is the soft, rather than clicky one. This is a matter of preference, of course, but a click, as a feedback mechanism would be nice.

    A lot of message board nerds cry – “unlike the full keyboard it’s useless!” The usefulness of mini three is in the software, of course. Even in it’s present state with one minute of spare time I came up with at least one cool use for it – a three webcam viewer. The picture is worse than the original, but the idea is that the left button shows Mount Fuji (at the moment under the veil of the night), the middle one – the Empire State Building and the right one – a live seahore webcam that lets me know what the weather is at my favorite fishing hole. I haven’t played with the SDK kit that is available yet, but it seems to be super nice. “What can I do with this?” – whine some on digg and reddit message boards. A hacker’s reaction would be different – “what can’t I do with this!”

    160 bucks seems like a lot of money for a three button keyboard. I’ll admit, it’s not for everyone. The thing is, people spend a lot more on stupid case modifications and other blinkenlghts. And this well-designed gem of an accessory would be the coolest thing as far as the eye can see in your personal hell of a cubefarm. It’s a little hackable art piece. Practical? Not very. Cool? You bet your squeedly-spootch. Is it a good deal? Well, a much lamer lcd display goes for 80 bucks. A very neat laser keyboard goes for 180. Shiny is expensive.

    I have one gripe with the design. The keyboard is made so that it will lie flat. I’d like to have a little wedge, so I’d be able to see it at an angle (I think I’ll make one myself). What I do like, is that the screens are easily rotatable in software, so you can just lay it vertically.

    Of course, it’s a bad idea to program Optimus Mini Three to trigger self destruct, as it’s not cat-proof. But I think I’ll program a cat toy sequence in it though. So far the plastic stood up very well to cat claws.

    For sticking with this lengthy and rambling post, I’ll let you take a little glimpse in my geeky life. Here’s a snapshot of a part of my table, including my fancy input accessories, for which, as you might have noticed, I have a bit of a weakness.

  • Michael Krakovskiy 7:52 am on April 15, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Art Deco building, , China, Darren Aronofskiy, Dead Sea, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hebrew language, Hides, , , Judaism, mathematician, Maximilian Cohen, , Mezuzah, , , , orange paint, , Scott Adams, Scroll, Sefer Torah, Sofer, , ,   

    The Torah Code 

    There’s a sequence in Darren Aronofskiy’s “Pi” when the protagonist, mathematician Maximilian Cohen is induced by a Hasidic Jew to on something called Tefillin. Here’s a frame from the movie:

    For an ancient Jewish religious artifact, the two black leather boxes and straps used in prayer, are very strange looking and science-fictiony. I decided to do a bit of research on them, and came upon a lot of very interesting stuff. I’ve made a lot of notes, but for years I did not have the time to sit down and actually write this post.

    Tefillin is a very curious Jewish religious artifact, similar to a few others, such as Sefer Torah and Mezuzah. What they have in common is the exactitude in which they reproduce holy texts in hand-written form.

    Scott Adams nicely summarized the problem of propagating holy writing in his recent post:

    I never knew that there are about a zillion different versions of the Bible because (and I am summarizing Ehrman’s entire book here) it was copied and recopied by hand, by semi-literate, opinionated morons for hundreds of years. Sometimes the copiers left stuff out, sometimes they added their own explanations where things didn’t seem to make sense, and other times they simply made errors.

    This, of course, brings to mind the old joke about a novice monk who asks his superior about the possibility of mistakes in the holy books that the monks in his monastery have been copying by hand for centuries. The head monk goes to check the originals hidden away in a vault. Having not heard from him for days, the novice monk goes to check on the old monk and finds him hunched over the old books crying and saying the same phrase over and over. “The word is ‘celebrate‘ !”

    The Hasidic Jew from “Pi” was a Torah numerologist. See, the Torah is considered to be the literal word of God as given to Moses, exact to a letter. Hebrew letters have numerical values, so Torah can be treated as a string of numbers that might contain hidden patterns, encoded messages, maybe even computer code. Exactitude is very important here – a single letter might change everything, like in a computer program or a cyphered message. Or like removing the letter “r” from the word “celebrate”.

    The practice of using Tefillin comes from a literal understanding of a passage in the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:8.

    “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

    And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.”

    What seems to be a poetic metaphor about the importance of the holy writing, is taken literally here, prompting the creation of an artifact consisting of two black leather boxes containing scrolls with passages from the Torah to be worn bound to a hand and forehead with leather straps.

    If you’ll go shopping for a set of Tefillin, you might be surprised at how much they cost. The cheapest set from a reputable place will set you back at least several hundred dollars, with better made ones costing in the thousands of dollars. Why? Because of the excruciatingly exact way they are supposed to be made.

    The leather cases and straps need to be made from Kosher parchment and to pretty exact specifications. The cheaper ones are made from glued pieces of leather, the more expensive ones are made out of single pieces of leather, either folded using what one website calls “Jewish origami” or pressure-molded by special presses. The latter are considered more kosher.

    But the cases are a small part of the value of the Tefillin. The handwritten scrolls are what’s expensive. Scribes (Sofer) who are qualified to make kosher Tefillin are few and far between, and not only because they are supposed to a God-fearing, religious Jews of high moral fibre. The letters on the scrolls are small, but have to be perfectly formed in a rather complicated font, of which there are several varieties. There can’t be a single mistake, not even in a part of a letter.

    There are certain prayers that have to be said. Letters have to be written in a precise order. They can’t touch each other, holes or edges of the parchment. Parts of the letters can’t be erased and they have to be perfectly formed. The parchment has to be properly prepared, a proper quill pen and specially formulated ink has to be used.

    These are just some basic rules that I gleaned from various websites. Apparently they rules are so complicated that even experienced scribes are sometimes baffled at subtleties of writing these scrolls. When in the middle of a laborious process of writing a scroll, they sometimes come to consult a specialist called a posek rather then throwing away their work and starting anew. Even a specialist is sometimes not sure if a letter is correctly formed. What happens then is rather interesting:

    “Shailos tinok is a query presented to a child. Occasionally a posek will be in doubt how to render a decision, psak. […] He will suggest that a child […] who knows the letters of the Aleph – Bais but has not yet learned to read, be asked. Such a child sees nothing other than the form before him and can judge without any influences.”

    There are literally thousands of ways in which the tiniest imperfection can completely invalidate a Tefillin. And religious Jews take this commandment very seriously, so making of Tefillin is in no danger of being outsourced to China despite the high availability of good calligraphers there.

    There’s even a dispute as to in what order the scrolls need to be put into the cases. Most rabbis agree, but still, there are some who put two pair of Tefillin at once, made in two different ways. Kind of like Ned Flanders who “kept kosher just to be on the safe side”.

    On the cynical side, there’s a phenomenon referred to as “Tefillin date”. Some hypocritical Jews take their Tefillin with them when they go on a date, planning to spend the night, and while breaking the pretty clear “no sleeping around” rule, not breaking “pray with Tefillin in the morning” rule.

    Sefer Torah is a full length Torah (about 300,000 letters) written on a scroll in to specifications that are similar to the making of Tefillin. While writing Tefillin scrolls might take experienced scribe 2-3 days, Sefer Torah is often a lifetime project. Their cost ranges from tens of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars.

    This exacting standard of copying is what made the modern Torah scrolls match almost exactly the texts dating back to before 100 BC found in the Dead Sea scrolls.

    If you ever lived in New York City, you must have seen a mezuzah, the third and simplest of the Torah scroll artifacts. It comes from a literal understanding of Deuteronomy 6:9

    “And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.”

    Mezuzah takes a form of a decorated case containing a scroll nailed to a doorpost. On almost every floor of almost every apartment building in New York you’ll find at least one door with a mezuzah. In some, like in mine, almost every door has one. The variety of the decorative cases is astounding. There are big ones, small ones, ornate ones, simple ones. They are made of plastic, wood, metal. Most are left by tenants of long ago. Many are painted over. In many cases I see voids in paint where mezuzah used to be.

    The one left to me seems somewhat old, probably left by the original owners of the apartment. On the back it has the original orange paint which is not out of character for my Art Deco building. I bet it dates to the 50s or 60s (can’t be much older than that because it’s “Made in Israel”).

    What makes it absolutely invalid, of course, is the lack of the handwritten scroll inside. In fact, this is the case with most mezuzot you’ll find in New York. The case might be pretty, but the scroll inside takes at least a few hours of scribe’s work and costs from 30 to 100 dollars.

    Even though I am not an observant Jew, one of these days I’ll replace my mezuzah case with a titanium one and buy a real scroll. Also, I want to put on a Tefillin once. All I have to do is find the nearest mitzvah tank, but Hasidim make me feel uneasy.

  • Michael Krakovskiy 1:29 pm on January 28, 2006 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , China, , , David Bull, , embezzling accountant, energy drink, , , , , Greenpeace, , , , , Japan Swimsuit Association, Japan's New Year's Day, Jeffery Rowland, , lance corporal, Livedoor, Livedoor President, maid, , Mainichi Shimbun, , natural gas, , news site, North Korea, Osaka, people, , , , , store chain, Takafumi Horie, , The Livedoor news, the US news, , , , , Vader, Yamato   

    “Dear Japanese Newspeople” 

    “No news is good news” – that’s what one of the old Usenet newsreaders used to say when there weren’t any new articles to read in your subscriptions. Is that a coincidence that CNN, one of the two evil companies that employs Lord Vader himself as its mouthpiece, is so obsessed with violent, fiery death? Cartoonist Jeffery Rowland even felt that he needed a special new word coined for this phenomenon.

    CNN.com is a news site that I frequently visit, mostly because the url is so much nicer than http://news.bbc.co.uk, which is superior in all regards to CNN. As far as news goes, I am mostly interested in what’s happening in five countries: the US, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Israel and Japan. Why Turkmenistan? Because of the Great Serdar, of course. In any case, not many interesting things happen in Canada or the UK, and I could not care less for France, Germany and the rest of the Snootyland. Communist China and North Korea do not let out any interesting news and news from the entire African continent are usually too depressing.

    Japan, on the other hand, is very close to my heart. Recently I found an outstanding English language Japanese news source, MSN Mainichi Daily News. There’s even an RSS feed for it.

    What’s different in Japanese news? Well, first of all there’s a lot more sex-related news. American news are heavy on violence, but light on sex. MSN Mainichi Daily News are full of headlines very much in the spirit of one famous hacker’s “Dear Japanese People” posts.

    Right now, the headlines are full of stories about a 57 year old fortune teller living with a “harem” of “about 10 women.” An older popular news story featured an embezzling accountant who spent stolen money on 17 mistresses.

    Swimwear photo specials are frequent and highly detailed. Booth bunnies also get photo coverage. Sadly, Japan Swimsuit Association does not have its own website.

    There’s some coverage about “maid cafes” for “otaku” in Akihabara (you can see Kitya’s post for photos.

    Unhealthy Japanese obsession with schoolgirls is clearly present in the news: not a day goes by when there isn’t a schoolgirl sex-related article on Mainichi. Here’s a typical one:

    “A man who licked the tongues of more than 30 young girls after making them open their mouths, telling them he was checking for tooth decay, has been arrested, police said”.

    It gets more complicated than that:

    “The two 18-year-old, third-year high school girls, whose names are being withheld under the Juvenile Law, threatened on Dec. 29 to reveal that the 19-year-old private 1st class had sex with one of them unless he handed over 2 million yen, local police said.

    They forced a 21-year-old lance corporal who was accompanying the private to withdraw 400,000 yen from an automatic teller machine at a convenience store in Sasebo and received the money from him.

    The girls subsequently demanded 1.6 million yen from the GSDF soldiers. However, the soldiers consulted police, who arrested the two girls.

    A fisherman and two other men were earlier arrested for giving the girls advice on how to extort money from the victim.”

    US military men are frequently in the news for murder, rape, tresspassing, and robbery. This is not good, and mostly unreported here, in the US.

    Japanese news agencies are no stranger to violence. A particularly unsettling trend that I noticed is an abundance of stories about family violence in Japan: “Man stabbed parents because they wouldn’t drink his miso soup“, “Man arrested for leaving bed-ridden, elderly mother to die“, “Woman nabbed for fatally kicking boyfriend“. It gets weirder, too: “Jobless man sets fire to futon in house after mom refuses to buy him dolls.” Overall, all these stories feature jobless people.

    Violent (“Homeless man stabs abusive youth in stomach“) and non-violent homeless people (“Homeless man can officially register a public park where he lives as his residence, a court has said“) are often in the news.

    We all think about how safe life in Japan is, but according to the news that I see, if the jobless, the homeless and the US servicemen won’t get you, train crashes, heavy snow, natural gas or sticky rice cakes will: “4 die after train blown off tracks in Yamagata“, “Elderly woman trapped in heavy snow freezes to death“, “Natural gas kills mother and children at hot spring“, “4 Kanto residents choke to death on sticky rice cakes“.

    All those people got killed in heavy snow, yet mount Fuji was missing it’s snow cap last year. Strange.

    The conflict of Japanese whalers and Greenpeace activists gets a lot of coverage: for some reason I’ve never seen this picture of a Greenpeace dude nearly harpooned to death anywhere else.

    Two Japan-specific stories that don’t get much play in the US news is the Livedoor scandal and the badly constructed “twin” condo buildings. The Livedoor news get funny sometimes: “Convenience store chain am/pm Japan has decided to pull an energy drink developed by former Livedoor President Takafumi Horie off its shelves because it doesn’t want to sell items associated with scandal-tainted people, it has been learned“.

    New Year’s cards (“nengajo“) are apparently a very serious business in Japan. From what I understand, they are supposed to be delivered exactly on January 1st. There was a flurry of news items like “Feces in 2 mailboxes stain 140 New Year cards“, “Post office to redeliver New Year’s postcards that arrived too early“, “Post office in Osaka to deliver 35 New Year’s cards a year late“. Big whoop. By the way, while we are on the subject, check out Japanese New Year’s prints by master woodblock printmaker David Bull.

    There’s a section called “WaiWai“(with its own RSS feed). I am not sure what it means, as Wikipedia tells me that “Wai Wai” is a noodle snack.

    The headline writers for Mainichi are prone to using puns and old-fashioned American slang, although not always very smoothly: they really overuse the words “nab”, “pinch”, “clink” (prison). Sometimes it feels like you are reading an old detective story.

    This quote also is kind of unsettling:

    Foreign sex workers get dirty digging for Japanese roots: “Gentlemen may well prefer blondes, but Japan’s not-so-gentle men seem to, as well, sparking a rapid increase in the number of South American sex workers with more yam than Yamato running through their veins to claim Japanese heritage, according to Spa!”

    “More yam than Yamato”? What the hell?

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