Sunday, 15 December 2013

Fountain pens

My eyes can't cope so well with screens these days. So I'm starting to return to an earlier technology for communicating the written word.

It's perhaps ironic that someone who has spent his working life researching new digital technologies should now be forced to return to pen and paper. But this isn't just about avoiding intense luminescent glare. It's also a way of slowing me down: Using ink removes the option of continuous re-editing; and so I'm forced to look away to think more often, which lessens the strain on my eye muscles.

My concentration is also rather poor these days, and it's somewhat of a relief to forsake the stimulating, complex distractions of 21st century computers for the simplicity of drawing lines on paper. My mind is jumbled enough: it's time to try an aesthetically calming, more linear experience.

Of course I'm all too aware of what I'm missing. It was my job to find that out.

(I'm also surrounded by beautiful books that I can't read, but that's a story for another day.)

Anyway, to cheer myself up, and to convince myself that it's not technology I'm turning my back on, but screens, and to reward myself for 14 years of fighting drowsiness, dizziness and blurred vision, I've decided to treat myself to a posh fountain pen. My trusty Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint needlepoint rollerballs have served me well for 25 years, but they are for scribbled notes and hurried lists rather than the gently flowing script I'm after.

Recently I've been enjoying the cheap and cheerful Lamy Safari.

For smoothness I actually prefer it to the slightly more expensive and stylish Parker and Sheaffer pens I used at school.

But I could also do with a pen that has a little bit more heft and class... for that magnum opus, you understand ;-)

So here are some more fountain pens I'd like to try at some point, all of which I've heard good things about...

Lamy 2000
The Safari's big brother. The 14k gold nib is platinum-coated. A slightly more grown up pen, now that I've grown up a bit! I suspect I'd see this pen as my practical, no-nonsense workhorse.

Visconti Van Gogh
A lovely-looking pen, crafted in resin, with a steel nib. This version is inspired by van Gogh's "Bedroom in Arles", a print of which has hung in my bedroom wherever I've lived over 20 years. For that reason, I suspect I'd see this pen as tapping into emotions.

Parker Duofold
A modern version of Parker's 1921 classic. Has an 18k gold nib highlighted with Platinum. A bit more gravitas than my Parker from school days! I suspect this pen would come to symbolise rationality, efficiency, getting on with things.

Pilot Falcon
The nib is rhodium-plated 14k gold and has been made flexible to allow control over line width. A Japanese pen that seems almost painterly in the videos I've seen of it. I think this pen might for me come to represent creativity.

Visconti Homo Sapiens
A real luxury pen, the barrel is made from basaltic lava from Mount Etna! The nib is also rather different, being 23k palladium. For me, this pen would symbolise something more primal than the others, shaped by unimaginably powerful forces hidden under the surface. A soul pen.

Of course the symbolism of these pens is just a bit of fun, and might turn out to be nothing like my expectations.

Any other suggestions for pens I should consider would be gratefully received!

P.S. As you can imagine, given what I've said earlier about screens, blogging isn't something I'm intending to do in large doses in the foreseeable future. And most of my time is currently spent trying to keep myself fed and not overly decrepit. But I will be trying to keep up with old friends and new by dipping into Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Me and my Android

I'm typically a very late adopter when it comes to hardware. Software enthusiast, settings tinkerer, mash-up fan... but often on ancient hardware. Spot the erstwhile programmer.

And so it has been that I've clung to Windows Mobile far longer than than the zeitgeist deems seemly. The cool kids at work have been flashing their iPhones and iPads for years. But while I adore the wonderful design aesthetic and usability of Apple's hardware products, I've been happy to stick with the typically greater functionality of older and unfashionable devices.

More than this, though, I have a kind of horror of being locked into closed systems. A kind of "ClOStrophobia", if you like. ;-)

It probably goes back to early days learning to program on the Sharp PC1211. It felt like I was pushing to the limit what was possible within the confines of its architecture, before moving on to my next device, the ZX Spectrum. I missed the glory days of the ZX80 and ZX81 because of this obsessive tinkering with older hardware. But I still got to experience the joys of Z80 machine code, Pascal and C. And then trying to push the Amstrad CPC to its limits meant I arrived extraordinarily late at the IBM PC party (some Olivetti machine with a model number I've long since forgotten). But then I ended up working for IBM, so I was there at the start of OS/2.

Incidentally, the stark contrast between the philosophies of OS/2 and Windows at that time probably reinforced my strong preference for open systems over closed systems. IBM's corporate vision for OS/2 at that time was that it would lock customers into a pathway up its huge hardware product range, with PCs (technically IBM PS/2s) at the bottom, and massively expensive mainframes (and service agreements) at the top. The technical vision was also about increasing control over applications, which had been running rampant over the IBM-compatible hardware specification and the DOS operating system. At the same time, OS/2 was fundamentally weakened by having to support legacy IBM hardware, and being slow to support new hardware by other manufacturers. Windows, on the other hand, was all about enhancing the user experience of existing hardware and software, so openness was vital. It wasn't about locking users anywhere, or about controlling applications. It was about making using a computer more pleasurable.

But my main point is that my love of programming meant that when PDAs and smartphones arrived, I became rapidly frustrated at being locked into unmalleable interfaces without open programming environments or even APIs. A "Mickey Mouse device" was what I called such hardware, although I've no idea why.

So I have long been resistant to Apple and its locked-down approach to technology, despite (as I said before) adoring, slightly shamefacedly, the beauty and usability of its products. It's amazed me for 25 years that open, creative, free-thinking types have almost universally worshiped Apple as the rebel against the hegemony of first IBM, then Microsoft and now Google. OK, yes in relation to design; but surely not in relation to a philosophy of openness?

Yet Apple is vital to the technology world, because it sets a terrifically high bar for look-and-feel. This challenges other manufacturers to make their products more aesthetically pleasing than they would otherwise be, and not just as feature-rich, as fast, and as cheap as they can. So I want Apple to succeed. And I don't want it to be eaten by Android, as so charmingly depicted in the image above.

But that doesn't mean that an iPhone or iPad is right for me. So when my 4-year-old Windows Mobile HTC Kaiser began to die slowly in subtle and distressing ways, I finally turned to Android. And even then I've hardly been very bold: a £20 bottom-of-the-range phone (yet somehow with Eclair, Wi-Fi, GPS, 3.2MP camera with flash, accelerometer, compass, FM radio, Bluetooth, USB, HSDPA, MicroSD, and a MS Exchange client).

I was sorely tempted by the Samsung Galaxy S II, but Android still seems very much work-in-progress, so I didn't feel investing too much while its upgrading processes are still so haphazard. The screen and CPU are rubbish, so I'm not going to be playing games on it, and my regular apps (browsing, office, geocaching, file sharing, note-taking) can't be expected to be speedy. But while my Kaiser still has life in it (albeit now unable to support a SIM card) I couldn't see strong enough reasons to spend £450 rather than £20.

I'd also like to explore the tablet form factor, primarily for reading / listening to documents on the move, maybe with some note-taking and commenting. So I've splashed out on an oh-so-last-season-hence-massively-discounted Samsung Galaxy Tab 7".

I've been playing with these two devices on holiday. I've already encountered some accessibility issues, so I might blog about those, although I'm not sure how many people have my particular needs (speech output, weird colours). And Android lets me simplify my geocaching technology considerably, so I might blog about that.

In the meantime, I'll be summoning up all my energies to try to blot out from my consciousness what I'm sure will be a cool and tantalising iPhone 5... ;-)

Image "Android vs Apple" by Saad Irfan.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Various images

Images from previous projects that seem to have rapidly disappeared from the web...

Monday, 2 November 2009

Why is it so hard to find an RSS reader for Windows Mobile?

RSS readers and mobile technologies were almost made for each other. A spare moment at the bus stop? Check what's new from your favourite sites. So why is it so hard to find a decent RSS reader for Windows Mobile?

My requirements are a little more stringent than most perhaps, but surely not much. So, in the hope that this might be useful for others in the same boat, here's what I've found so far...

My main requirement is this: Often when travelling I don't have access to a fast reliable 3G or Wi-Fi signal, or (if abroad) I don't want to be paying the extortionate mobile roaming charges for data. So I need an RSS reader that can work offline: it needs to download a dollop of RSS feeds when I've got a mobile signal, and let me read them when I haven't. That means caching images (ideally pre-rendered for the mobile screen so that they're fast to download and display) and, in the case of feeds that don't show the full text, also giving me the option of caching the webpage.

Of course not all posts lend themselves to offline mobile viewing. Those that rely on real-time interactions between client and server, for example. Or extensive use of links to other sites, or video. Or where I'm likely to want to make comments or notes beyond a few sentences. So I want to be able to read my feeds at desktop machine too. This means the mobile RSS reader syncing what I've read with either a desktop client or a web-based service.

I used to use Newsgator, which did the job well: a reasonable mobile reader linked to a web-based server and a desktop client. But they went all corporate, failed to invest in the consumer mobile client (which eventually seized up), and then pulled out of hosting a web-based service altogether in favour of Google Reader. Now I'm a big fan of Google Reader - been with it since the beginning. But Google doesn't do a Windows Mobile client for Reader.

So I've been on the hunt for a suitable RSS reader. And here's what I found...


I investigated a succession of possibilities, including viigo and Yahoo Go, but these did not provide a proper offline experience. Kinoma, BeyondPod, FeedMe and Ilium Newsbreak, for example, don't yet cache images for offline reading. Others tried to provide a "walled garden" of channels that had to be set-up by the developer, rather than allowing any RSS feed. These didn't last long.

So what's left? I've only been able to find five RSS readers for Windows Mobile that properly support offline reading.


pRSSreader has almost all the RSS features you'd ever want, including the caching of webpages. I've been using it for well over a year now, since Newsgator Go seized up. It's lovely to use, slightly slow when having to download huge numbers of feeds and large images, but very reliable and customisable. It's one of my favourite apps of all time.

Unfortunately the developer has discontinued development, and the syncing with Google Reader doesn't work yet.

SPB News

SPB generally make great Windows Mobile apps, and recently launched version 2 of SPB News (previously called "Insight").

However, this app lacks the ability to sync to an online or desktop client. That wouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker, if it were possible to flag posts for bulk email or online bookmarking, but it doesn't do that yet either. It also doesn't let the user sort feeds into folders, hide read posts, show the read/unread count, and handle opml. Given the quality of SPB's other products, I think they'll probably get there with this one eventually, but it's certainly not there yet.


I had high hopes for SBSH GoNews. Along with a suite of well-crafted apps, SBSH have thriving support forums. In principle, its feature list has everything I need.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the Google Reader syncing to work, and feeds entered manually were extremely slow to download. According to the forums, this experience is shared by many, it seems. I do hope they can resolve these issues soon.

GarishKernels Egress

Egress looked to be a feature-rich contender, including syncing with Google Reader and caching of webpages.

I had downloaded the app and was about to install it when I came across this from Twitter user Daft Apeth (who kindly confirmed the info with me):
"Windows Mobile users, do not, repeat DO NOT, install Egress RSS reader - bricked my phone twice. Hard resets are very upsetting..."
In the absence of a support forum, and any updates in over a year, I wasn't willing to risk trying this candidate. A shame.

Speeed Reader

Finally, Speeed Reader is a new kid on the block. Unlike the apps above, this one has been designed from the ground up to be a Google Reader client rather than an all-singing all-dancing RSS application. This shows in a pleasingly simple interface and a blisteringly fast speed. I also really liked the facility for quick tweeting of a link to an article.

Now the downside: it's still in Beta, and there are quite a few things to be fixed, particularly its propensity to crash, the caching of images, and use of external browsers (such as Opera Mini. At the moment there's also no caching of webpages, and no "next article" button.

However, this app does have the big advantage of being actively beta-tested via the site xda-developers, so I'm hopeful of rapid improvements.

So what did I find? As of November 2009, nothing that does the job. Speeed Reader will probably get there soon; in the meantime I'll continue to use pRSSreader for feeds that are generally easy to read offline, and Google Reader for the rest. And I'll also be looking out for new possibilities. Feel free to let me know.