Michael J. Thom Father. Nerd. Race fan. Musician.


Google Glass – A Brief Review

Google Glass Explorer. Glasshole. Michael.

Google Glass in its boxCall me whatever you'd like, but I just got done living with Google Glass for about three weeks, and I have a few thoughts to share. (Why only three weeks? That mess is $1500... so I just played with it while still within the window to return it, and I have now sent it back for a refund.)

Overall impression: WOW. The UI, the UX, just the overall usability of it is actually pretty stunning. They've really spent a lot of time refining the experience of wearing and using Glass, and it shows. We've all seen the videos online that show how it's supposed to work, but when you put it on and find that it actually works as well as the videos show, that's something.

Coolest feature today: Translate This. Really the only augmented reality app so far, the Translate app takes whatever you're looking at, translates it, and replaces it on-screen with the new text, in a font and color that closely match the original. It's a bit sluggish and finicky, but it's so impressive when it works. And yes, I said replaces -- it's not a subtitle, it completely deletes the original word from the live-view image and replaces it with the translated word. Too cool.


K6MJT is On the Air!

Ham radio. Amateur radio. I have seen no recent survey but I would imagine that few people my generation even know what amateur radio is. At best, maybe "isn't that something grandpa used to do?" Or, "yeah is that like CB radios?" These are a couple of responses I've gotten from friends... in addition to several blank stares: "What's that?"

To me, amateur radio is in fact a bit about the nostalgia. Do I fancy myself a tweaker? Yes, of course. However, I don't imagine I'll be building antennae and radios in my (nonexistent) "shack" anytime soon. It is true, though, that I have always found physics, wiring, electricity, radios, microphones, sound waves, and like all very fascinating.

Grandpa with my sister and me, July 1991

In truth though, I have joined the likes of the great Gordon West (WB6NOA) due largely to my family, specifically my late Grandpa Thom (WA6BLC). He was a ham for many, many years, and (among other activities of course) he used to communicate around Seal Beach, CA, with my Uncle Dan (WB6DYN). My dad is a ham (KB6FWM), and my mother even had her license for a while (though it's now lapsed). Though I can't say it was huge in my upbringing, it always existed, and I always thought it was so cool. Plus, Grandpa did it.

In the late '90s I got some of the Gordon West literature and studied some (and practiced my Morse Code, as that was still a requirement back then!), but for some reason never got around to actually taking the test. I suspect marching band and general high school busyness is largely to blame for that.

When my Grandpa passed in 2005, for some reason that I truly can't explain, I determined that I would pass my ham test. Even if I never did much with it, I wanted to honor my Grandpa by doing so.

It may have taken an additional five years for me to get around to actually doing it, but I have, and I know my Grandpa would be proud of me. My uncle was also a big help in getting back "into" ham radio, so I definitely want to thank him a bunch too. Plus, he's kept my dad and me supplied with radios and batteries 🙂

Does amateur radio service a daily purpose? For many, it sure does. The community they have built among hams is really cool. While I have not really dived in and joined that at this point, it's neat to know that the community does exist. And in times of emergency, I have the license as well as know-how to be able to assist.

Say hi if you see me on the road!

Since rediscovering my desire to get my license, I've been mildly surprised by just how many hams there actually are all around me. While I don't operate daily, I'm looking forward to meeting many more in person and on the air.

Initially licensed as KC9UQE (what a mouthful!), I knew (regardless of what random call I was assigned) that I wanted to apply for my vanity right away. My family runs the Bay Area Radio Fraternity - Beach Area Group ham radio club in Seal Beach, and the club has/had a handful of signs used at times by my Grandpa, by my uncle, and by others. K6MJT was one of these that was used by my Grandpa -- he and I both share the initials of MJT, so, to me, this was perfect for me. I get to carry on one of his signs, but it's also specifically meaningful to me (having my initials in it). Also, it has the region code of "6" in it, paying homage to the fact that I was born in California and that's still "home" for the Thom family, despite the fact that I was living in Indiana when I was licensed. I even went so far as to get the vanity plate for my car, I was so proud of the new call sign!

I will also add that the main reason I specifically had ham radio brought back to my attention was by none other than Leo Laporte... I've been a big fan and follower of his shows for years (dating back to the Ziff-Davis TechTV days), and when he started a new show on his network with Bob Heil called Ham Nation, I was hooked. I knew I needed to get serious about my studying again and finish what I started so many years ago. Though as any ham will you tell, you never truly finish.

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Review of Google’s Cr-48 Chrome OS Pilot Program

Author’s Note:

This article was to be posted on another blog in March. Unfortunately, that never happened, so it is a bit out of date. (Most significantly, production models of the netbook have been announced; see my note on that below.) Nonetheless, I liked my review of the product, so I wanted to post it here anyway. Enjoy!

I won the lottery recently. Well not actually, but it sure felt like I did: I received one of Google’s Cr-48 Chrome OS laptops as a part of their pilot program. Though I applied back in December 2010, I had nearly forgotten about it altogether, having just assumed I wouldn’t be selected. But alas, there it sat at my doorstep. I couldn’t wait to play with it.

It came with this sticker in the box (I then added the gdgt and ThinkGeek stickers).
It came with this sticker in the box (I then added the gdgt and ThinkGeek stickers).

The Hardware – A Brandless Black Beauty

From a hardware standpoint, I’ll join the rest of the blogosphere in admitting that my first reaction – before even turning it on – was “wow this looks and feels a lot like the original black MacBook.” No wonder: it has a matte black finish, nicely separated “Chiclet” keys, a 12.1” display, a large touchpad (with built-in click ability, no separate button), and very few ports on the outside of the case: only VGA, USB, headphones, power, and SD card ports. One of each. Nothing more.

Just SD card, headphones, USB, and power ports here (with a power indicator light); VGA is on the other side.
Just SD card, headphones, USB, and power ports here (with a power indicator light); VGA is on the other side.

The real magic to the hardware, though, is the 16 GB SSD. The nature of a solid-state drive is that there are no moving parts. The physical movement of the read head and spinning platters of a typical hard drive is the biggest limitation to seek time and overall performance – the drive has to literally find the data on the drive before serving it up to the system. With an SSD, this seek time isn’t decreased, it’s eliminated. Thus, a complete system boot-up takes roughly 10 seconds. Ten. Seconds. Close the lid and it goes to sleep almost instantaneously, and it wakes just as quickly. It’s worth noting, of course, that even with 2 GB of RAM, actions on the web are still limited by bandwidth (a page will only load as fast as it can be downloaded and rendered, neither of which are primarily reliant on the hard drive) and processing speed (a high-definition movie on YouTube playing in Flash still puts a huge strain on the admittedly under-powered 1.66 GHz Atom N455 processor on board).

Three more quick comments on the hardware. First, it ships with a Bluetooth radio, but it is not yet activated in the current version of OS. Second, there is also a CDMA-enabled 3G broadband radio on board, and the pilot program comes with 2 years of (100 MB per month) Verizon Wireless broadband service included. Last, the removable battery is actually fairly sizeable, both in physical size and in capacity (63 Wh); I do see actual 7- or 8-hour performance out of it, running on WiFi (I haven’t really tested the battery much with the 3G yet, largely because I would likely empty my 100 MB usage long before the battery would run out!).

The Software – Chrome OS

This is the most intriguing part of this experiment, and it’s clearly the part that Google is interested in getting feedback on. I am no stranger to the Google Chrome browser, and I have it installed on all of my computers. However, I had never made it my primary browser; I have been a disciple of Mozilla Firefox for as long as I can remember. I’ve been tempted at times in the past to leave Firefox for Chrome, but my extensions in Firefox were reason enough to stay where I was comfortable, despite some of Chrome’s great features and speed.

My Cr-48 booting up.
My Cr-48 booting up.

But turning my Cr-48 on for the first time, I was introduced to a login screen for a Google Account. You cannot create an account on this computer without having a Google Account. Once I entered my login information, it immediately updated the computer’s bookmarks with my bookmarks (because they had been synced from one of my other computers using Google’s Chrome Sync). I had not previously used any Chrome extensions, so there was nothing to import, but reportedly it would have imported and activated my Chrome extensions as well. So there I was, staring at a Google Chrome browser. Or should I say I was looking at Google Chrome OS? Hard to decide; they are one-and-the-same. For example, the wrench menu in Chrome: on a desktop computer, that menu has an “Options” choice; in Chrome OS, it is instead called “Settings” and is the closest thing this computer has to a “Control Panel” or “System Preferences.” There are not many settings available here, but all the system settings you’d expect (such as Date and Time, Networks, Users, etc.) are available here, in addition to Chrome browser settings (ahem, Options) such as Basics, Personal Stuff, and Under the Hood.

That’s it! No other software to run whatsoever. You cannot minimize the browser, because the browser is the OS is the browser. To quit the browser (Ctrl-Shift-Q) is to log out of your account. It’s odd, but powerfully simple.

The Experience – I’m a Google Guy, in a Google World

Using a Chrome OS netbook such as this is definitely an experience best approached from the perspective of a diehard Google adherent. I suppose that you could say that I am just that: I use Gmail for personal email, I have a Google Apps account, I use a Google Nexus One phone (running Google’s Android OS of course), I manage all my calendars and contacts through Google, Google Reader is my RSS reader, and I use Google Documents. Even so, I had yet to make the actual switch to using Chrome full-time on my personal computers. However, the receipt of this Chrome OS netbook was all the encouragement I needed. From wanting to take advantage of Chrome Sync to simply wanting continuity in my day-to-day browsing, I took the plunge and relegated Firefox to backup duty only.

How significant is this? For me, it was only mildly impactful. Using Chrome is not an incredibly different experience from using Firefox. More importantly, I had already set Google as my default search engine in Firefox (and Internet Explorer, for that matter), so I was already sending all my queries to the Goog. So in that sense, my experience (and my daily contribution to their ad revenue) did not change considerably. However, I am not one of those people who searches Google for Facebook, but instead I use Ctrl-Enter to go straight to the site. Again, with Chrome, this is even one step easier (it auto-fills the www. and .com without even having to press Ctrl-Enter).

The Settings screen is concise and easy to use.
The Settings screen is concise and easy to use.

Chrome OS ships by default with a Search key in place of a Caps Lock key (though this is reconfigurable to Caps Lock). I’ll admit it’s not difficult to press Ctrl-T (to open a new tab) and then enter a search query, but it’s even easier (and still somewhat novel) to just punch the Caps Lock (I mean Search) key and bring up a new tab to enter your search. I often find myself sitting in front of the TV with my Chrome OS netbook in my lap, and now I’m even more likely to hit the Search key and look up an actor, a show, or a product.

How Might This Impact the Industry?

Google already has a significant stronghold on the search industry. In January ComScore indicated that Google had almost exactly two-thirds of the search market, with Bing actually increasing its share to about 12% and Yahoo! dropping its share to 16%. Bing is the default search engine in Internet Explorer, and many people leave this setting when they get a new computer. But if a Google Chrome OS-based netbook was a popular commercial option, then this would encourage a further shift toward Google picking up the last few percentage points of market share, as these default-setting people would just leave Google as the default search engine on their Chrome netbook. Further, as indicated from my own experience, I’m even more likely now to search Google for random things as I think about them, since it’s an even more readily accessible experience.

Will Google eventually come to market with a commercially-available Chrome OS netbook? I believe they will, but it may be a while still. If they can price it competitively (I’m thinking between $200-300 for a netbook like the pilot machine I have), then it could be a huge success. There is a large portion of the population for whom this type of machine (a “netbook” in the truest sense of the word) is perfect: those who are new to computers and/or really only ever do email, Facebook, and internet or those need a light-duty second (or third or fourth!) machine. Those people are hesitant to spend the $400, $500, or $600 for a low-end Windows PC (and especially $1000 for the cheapest Mac) because those computers simply are more powerful than they need and offer features they’ll rarely use. Google’s purpose-built Chrome OS netbook, though, could be a game changer for them. Here’s to hoping it becomes a reality!

Gmail on my Chromebook.


Google has now, of course, announced the first production Chromebooks: one by Samsung and one by Acer. Other than what’s posted on Google’s website, I don’t know anything specifically about those models. They do look intriguing, though I feel the price points are too high. I still believe that these will never be anyone’s primary (or only) computer. Therefore, I’m not sure the price point is low enough to justify a purchase for most people. Nonetheless, it’s a very interesting concept, and it will be fun to watch the sales figures!


Building a New HTPC

So it’s been about a year and a half since I built my last computer. That one was a dual-purpose business and personal machine. It was a desktop, running Windows and Mac OS (a legit copy – it’s another story altogether as to how I got that to work). 8 gigs of memory, quad-core processor, 4 hard drives, a Blu-Ray burner, and 2 21.5” full-HD displays. Yeah, it’s pretty killer.

But now it was time to overhaul the 2.5-year-old home theater PC (HTPC). The old one still works fine, but it’s big, loud (it has 4 or 5 fans, which is way more than it needs, as it pretty much only sucks dust in anyway), and I wanted to upgrade the HD and add a Blu-Ray drive (the old one only had DVD, though I could play Blu-Ray rips at full HD). The parts were delivered early this week, so I built it mostly Monday and Tuesday. Here’s the part list:

8-softwareinstallationThe largest impetus behind the rebuild is the fact that for my recent birthday I received a new 42” LCD TV. This was a huge step up from the 23” LCD computer monitor I had previously been using. While functionally the system was the same, this was a great opportunity to get a Blu-Ray drive in play and just revive the system a bit. Who doesn’t enjoy a good system refresh every year or two?

I put all the parts together last night, installed Windows, and began the process of reinstalling all my programs and settings. With one major exception, everything went together without any serious trouble, and it’s all good to go! So exciting to have a new system, and a good-looking one at that.

That “one major exception,” though, was brought on by an odd confluence of the tiny, small-allowance design of the case and an odd design choice by the motherboard manufacturer. As I discovered, the SATA ports on this mobo aren’t the typical top-down kind, that you plug the cable into vertically (perpendicular to the mobo). Instead, each pair was located in a small tower that turned them 90°, such that you plug into them horizontally (parallel to the mobo), from the back. The huge problem with this is that the case was designed such that there wasn’t even an eighth of an inch of clearance on the back side of the motherboard once installed, and so there was almost no space whatsoever to plug in a cable, certainly nowhere near as much as a cable needs.

2-drillingwallI ran to Fry’s and bought 90° SATA cables, to minimize the space required. Then, I tore the case down as far as it would go without popping rivets out, and took to cutting a hole in the interior wall in question. I realize this wasn’t the optimal way to go about it, but it was the best I could do with what I had handy. I took my drill and made a whole bunch of pilot holes – essentially a connect-the-dots pattern around the perimeter of the hole I wanted to create. Then, I took my tin snips and cut between these, opening it most of the way up. Next, I took my needle nose pliers and bent and twisted the piece back and forth until it snapped off at the bottom. Last, I used my bastard cut file and evened the cuts up a bit and smoothed them out as much as possible. The first time through, the hole wasn’t big enough. So I did all that again, widening the hole. This seemed to work.

3-cuttingcarrierThen, I put the hard drive carrier back into the case (which unfortunately is located immediately on the other side of the wall I just hacked up). The side of the carrier nearly plugged my hole back up altogether, and now that problem had to be attacked. After checking to make sure there’d be enough clearance inside the carrier to cut a hole in the side and still have a hard drive in it without damaging it, I took to using the same process on a portion of the hard drive carrier (leaving out the first step of drilling because the carrier was designed with holes spaced across both sides). Finally, after cleaning all this up again, I put the carrier back in place, the motherboard, and connected the cables, and voila. It fit. Barely. It was still a tight fit, but at least I was no longer afraid I was going to break or damage something.


6-finishedinsidesWith that, I completed the rest of the installation. Unfortunately, that whole ordeal (including borrowing a drill from my dad due the recent death of my drill’s battery) wasted nearly three hours, so I didn’t get the power turned on until nearly midnight, and then I began the software portion of the setup process. So I went to bed around 3:00 that night, which was a wee bit later than I was planning.

Nonetheless, I now have a great-looking, great-performing new computer that will play DVDs, Blu-Rays, and any file-based media, as well as of course play and record broadcast TV (two channels at a time!) and any streamed internet programming.

Any questions or suggestions? Leave me a comment and I’ll respond!




Grammatical Pet Peeves

This will be short. I spend my entire work day on the internet reading blogs, forums, news articles, and the like. I don’t have high expectations for grammar in forums, and I have similarly low expectations for blog comments. However, the content of the blog post itself, and especially of so-called legitimate news articles, has a duty to be grammatically correct.

There are so many little things that drive me absolutely batty when reading articles on the internet. From the smallest personal blog (errors are relatively acceptable here – I’m not that cold-hearted) to the largest “news” source (such as The Huffington Post), no site is immune to the sickness that is grammatical carelessness. Below is a short list of my biggest aggravators.

  1. Its vs. It’s – There is a distinct difference. Its = possessive. The cat bared its teeth. It’s = a contraction meaning “it is.” Feel free to use “its,” as long as it’s used properly.
  2. There vs. They’re vs. Their – There = a location. They’re = a contraction meaning “they are.” Their = possessive for something belonging to “them.” They’re standing in front of their house over there.
  3. General Spelling Errors – Folks, every piece of software these days has spell check. Use it. Or dictionary.com. Or – gasp – an actual dictionary!

I know there are more, but they’re not coming to mind at the moment. I will update this post as I come up with more!

Feel free to add your own in the comments!


Windows Computing

Okay, it’s no secret I’ve been a “PC,” a Windows user, for my whole life. I voluntarily prolonged the condition upon purchasing 3 computers for myself in the past 5 years – and building myself a fourth.  Since October 2008, I’ve been evaluating a pre-beta release of Windows 7, the upcoming major OS release from Microsoft.  Now, for about the past week, I’ve been running the official beta release of Windows 7 (build 7000) on two of my three active machines (the other is just a media center, so I feel the upgrade there is less exciting).

It rocks.  It just does.  Sure, Apple fanboys may draw comparisons to the Mac OS in a few places (the new taskbar, the Aero Peek feature, and the jump lists, to name three), but the origin of some of the design features are neither here nor there.  They are (nearly all) beautifully integrated, and almost all of the new UI features actually improve the user’s experience on a functional level – in other words, it’s mostly more than just mere eye-candy.

And yet, it’s the stuff you can’t see that really makes Windows 7 the significant improvement that it is.  The kernel has been cleaned up, from the lowest levels, and it runs much more smoothly.  It is quicker upon boot-up, and most tasks seem to run faster and more effortlessly.  Hardware recognition is even better than in Windows Vista.

While it may not be 100% perfect quite yet, Windows 7 has found itself sitting among a surprising amount of praise, including specific improvements such as its ability to run on lower-level machine better than Vista and the inclusion of an awesome, troubleshooting “Problem Steps Recorder.”  When the production version of Windows 7 comes out, as with Vista when it was new, I don’t necessarily recommend everyone plop down the $200-300 to buy themselves a brand-new copy.  But for anyone upgrading a PC or buying a new one, Windows 7 is sure to improve their computing experience a lot.