Friday, October 22, 2010

End Title Nostalgia

Performed by The Warsaw Philharmonic, perfected by Yoko Kanno

Yeah, the 7/7 live was more than a year ago, time surely flies...


The end of my undergraduate degree is not "in sight", it is here to be felt.

On Monday there was a exam review tutorial which went so well that I became somewhat depressed towards the end since it ended so abruptly.  We shared some food and drink in the end, and one of our tutors even baked miniature cupcakes for us with cheeky messages and self-promotion attached, bravo!

 Rachel is the nicest person I have ever met

Then a friend organised a shared lunch on Wednesday which was good fun filled with nice food, bad jokes and photos with stupid faces.

Thanks to all the awesome people I met at uni, you have been an inspiration to me.

Apparently Grafton campus will become a mini-limbo from next week on with construction, and with all my exams in either City or Tamaki today will be the last time for me to be on Grafton campus in a long time. I went to the last undergraduate lecture, which had a disappointingly low turnout. 

Well, they totally missed out on Graeme Finlay's review session which could not get any better.

After the lecture I printed my last assignment after adding some finishing touches while laughing at my friend's ineptness in starting a lab report that was due on Wednesday. I then went to the aforementioned tutor to talk about exams before going home on a bus which I managed to catch just in time.

Yup, I know the bus stop outside Auckland hospital has always had some construction on during the semester and the bus time display has been having issues before it suddenly disappeared overnight. Nevertheless I was able to check real-time bus arrivals on the web via, with the stoo number 1028. If you need an idea for Christmas gifts, I highly recommend getting your loved ones smartphones, which will transform the way they go about your daily lives. :P

Anyway, the rest of the day was spent on daydreaming, eating melon-flavored ice cream, reading RA Weinberg's cancer bio on my kindle to the realisation that everything I thought to have learned from a semester's work in cancer biology is already summarised in the first fifteen pages of this great textbook.

Another few changes that happened to my life this semester:

  • Craccum magazine and talkback radio have quit my life entirely. The former due to lack of time and the latter because my new phone did not have a usable FM module and I am too lazy to get a standalone FM receiver. I did manage to discover the infamous ND magazine for the medics and found them good read for they have absolutely no serious content.
  • No more new books/games/movies/etc before I could clear out my existing pile. I have too much property and I still have too much after actively trying to downsize for much of the year. 
  • I have been wearing boots for so long that regular shoes are no longer comfortable; I wore my suede sneakers today for a change and my ankles almost broke down after a short climb uphill to home. 
  • Takeaway lunch became a regular feature of my routine, especially the chicken wrap and pork turnovers from the bakery on Park road. Spending on food did not help with my wallet however it had a spectacular effect on my wilingness to study, and I could have not made to every single lecture this semester without sustenance.
  • I actually began to enjoy reading journal articles; some reviews are so well written that they answer a many lectures' worth of questions in mere minutes. Note it was before I bought my kindle and this statement is the cause, not result. 
  • Ever since my first year I realised it is possible to go into any lecture without being asked who you are. However, I did not begin to informally audit lectures till this semester for a paper I could not take due to timetable clashes. Some of my new friends in class were shocked to find that I am not actually enrolled in the course, despite turning to lectures regularly, answered a bunch of questions and even prepared a presentation in front of the class. Looking back, I really should have done this earlier, especially in the first semester when I had a huge gap between my morning and afternoon lectures. I have already made loose plans with a friend to co-appear in random undergraduate lectures next year to make full use of our time.
  • Cellphone bills skyrocketed, partly due to the $20 mobile broadband which I could not live without anymore, but most of it is actually due to text messages and calls to friends. Next year I will consider going on account, 3GB data per month for $40 is just too good to be missed. 
  • I am a happier and more sociable person in the second half of 2010. It is true that I still get the occasional bouts of depression and anger, however I am doing much better than before like I said in several previous posts.It is time to believe that you are having a positive effect on others; even if they don't seem to reciprocate your feelings, it does not imply that you are abandoned by the world.
It seems that people only came out of their shell and began to know each other before they are about to get on their own ways, and I shall be grateful that I am definitely heading back to the same place next year as a postgraduate student, hopefully for my BSc Honours. Meanwhile, I should get ready for my exams which are both close (first one on the 28th of this month) and clumped (three exams in four days, huh).


Finally a little update to the kindle post I made last week.

Apparently I overlooked the fact that my Kindle DX is the international version (serial number starts with B0005) and actually has free wireless service in NZ. I was not able to use the browser due to some problem with region settings but finally managed to get it working.

It is a very generous for amazon to provide free 3G web access; it cost them US$0.12 per MB transmitted in the US and probably more for my AT&T powered Kindle to roam here. Would I use my Kindle DX to surf the web more regularly? Well no, and there are technical reasons apart from being unwilling to abuse Amazon's generousity: The browser on 2.5.x firmware is poorly coded in Java; it uses an obscure rendering engine that is not suited to large screens and probably does not render most web pages correctly anyway. It is a "nice to have feature", however Kindle 3 is much better in terms of browsing websites.

In more flattering note, I have managed to jailbreak the system to replace the stock Caecilia font with sans-serif Droid Fallback which is much sharper and easier to read, especially for the (ridiculously) smaller font sizes. This also brings the much needed CJK language support.(Not needed for K3 which support CJK characters out of the box, with some rightfully ugly Korean font)

The default screensavers are a mixed bag, which has since been replaced by my favorite paintings converted to the Kindle format.

The jailbreak is well documented and very easy to carry out, if you are keen please find instructions here, however take full note that this may brick your kindle and Amazon will not be happy when they find out.

I have attempted to use the kindle as a classroom tablet (very good, however you cannot take notes with pdf files) and read under direct sunlight(bad idea, the white borders had too much glare)I am also experimenting with the root shell access and see if I could get more from the device. Right now everything makes me want to actually learn Linux, did you know that you can manipulate people with shell commands?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Kindle DX Second Generation

All information is valid as of Oct.14 2010, prices are quoted in USD unless explicitly stated.

I am serious, and don't call me iPad

Finally it is here. I paid for my Kindle DX over a month ago and waited forever for it to arrive at my agent in the USA, and the trip from eastern US to Godzone only took 10 days.

Not many people own a e-reader here, less so for a Kindle DX. After my brief encounter with a half-crippled Kindle 2 earlier this year, I have always been tempted to get its bigger brother. Back then it costed over $500 and definitely out of my radar; now with many competitors out in the market, Amazon has quietly lowered their prices (often to comical effects, since for a number of days people were trying to sell used Kindles for more than new ones) and the DX is suddently a lot more affordable.

I was going to order the DX Graphite but decided against it in the last minute for several reasons:
  • Vodafone NZ signed with Amazon in August to provide 3G service for Kindle over their well-established WCDMA network. The current versions of Kindle DX relies on the CDMA2000 standard which does not exist locally, however given the highly modular design of the device it would not take them very long to release a WCDMA model for New Zealand. Although the Kiwi dollar is at a historic high point, $379 is still no small sum and I could have spent it on many other things I need than want.
  • The graphite edition boasts a superior display with 50% more contrast, however pricing policy suggests otherwise with the older generation only $20 less. A friend was kind enough to show me her latest acquisition and it made my mind: Black seems to be a tad richer compared to the Kindle 2, but I could not help but suspect that a lot of the visual improvements came from the black chassis, which has a better contrast with the white (actually gray) blanks. Clearly the new screen is nothing worth raving about nor is it worth the prenium price tag.
In the end the compormise was achieved on a factory refurbished Kindle DX, which is substantially more affordable at $289 (when I made the purchase, price has since dropped to $269) and carries the same warranty. It had to be shipped to a US address for sure, and thankfully the process was smooth except for the extended waiting period, which I could not understand until I had the package in my hands.

A bunch of wussies I must say. If Li-ion batteries are safe enough to be carried on a flight, I see no reason why they are unfit for freight.

First Impression and Ergonomics

The Kindle DX is big, bigger than one of my laptops. It is also much heavier than the 6in variant and not intended for prolonged reading held in a single hand. The best reading posture is actually to brace it with your left arm while using your own torso to support its weight, use your left hand in place for the large buttons while leaving your right hand free to manipulate the keyboard.

The control buttons are only found on the right hand side, which is fine with me. Sorry to left handed people, your own option is to turn the device unside-down and the pages will automatically flip 180 degrees to resume reading.

To maximise the screen area, the keyboard has been pressed to a tiny row which results in a top-heavy configuration that wants to capsize as soon as you attempt to type with both hands.The keyboard is usable with some support, however not comfortable enough to type long notes or write emails. The smaller Kindles has bigger keys and are more balanced for typing. The 5-d joystick is also a little fiddly and I would prefer the flat d-pad on the latest Kindle 3.

Reading on Kindle DX


The picture shows the smallest font size which is similar to your standard paperback books. Reading is pretty much similar to Kindle 2, except more words fit per screen and the "Next Page" button is going to be needed a lot less frequently. Screen refresh time is on par with the smaller kindles which is very impressive considering the screen is more than twice the size.

Project Gutenberg now publish most books in specific Kindle format, often complete with illustrations to make it more like reading a real book, although illustrations does work always fill the page as intended by the creators. 


PDF fits very well across the page and is rendered faithfully. Sometimes the words may appear a little faint so you will need good lighting to see better. 

There is also a crude zoom and pan function which makes the inevitable finer print easier to read; however it is easier to turn the device 90 degrees and read in landscape. Unlike e-readers of other brands, PDF reflow is not yet supported and you are better off jotting down notes on a piece of paper.

The screen has more an enough grayscale for manga or comic if you don't mind monochrome. I use Mangle to resize and convert image files to Kindle-friendly sizes. The major let down is the system, where it often takes several seconds to load the next page or images may simply turn up corrupted. Don't rely on it for your everyday manga reading, however it provides a decent variation to reading words.

Other Features

Most features I remembered from the Kindle 2 are still firmly in place, including the web browser and text-to-speech functionalities. A recent system update added the sorely needed function of organising books into "collections" so the days of browsing 50 pages of catalogue to find a page is a thing of the past. If you weren't fussy about warranty claims, there are plenty of documentation on various hacks and mods to do wonderful things with your kindle: Maybe you want to tether network over USB, run Busybox or even a full Linux distro? They are all possible.


Like Kindle 2, Kindle DX is a minimalist device, all you need is a micro-B type USB cable to charge and access the device. Nevertheless, Amazon did issue a few pieces of accessories; there are also a vast range of offerings from other brands to choose from.
The official Kindle 2 charger, not withstanding its tiny size it has excellent specs (100-240V input, 4.9V 850mA output). The world has certainly moved on from the era of wall warts, and MacFags will be pleased to know that these chargers will handle Apple products quite nicely - once less charger to carry.

The Amazon case, unfortunately, is a different (and depressing) story. It has two metal hinges to secure the device and cause cracks (which often renders the screen useless) over time or instantly in case of blunt force damage. Avoid them, at least the older iterations with straight hinges, and get a third-party soft case instead, preferably with a reading light so you will be able to read when your loved ones are fast asleep. On the other hand, clip-on reading lights of any origin work pretty well with the kindle DX with its wide margins for attachment.

Because the refurbished items does not come with a charger, I picked up VanGoddy's Kindle DX accessory package which include a well made silicon sleeve(shown in a previous picture), car charger and wall charger with USB cable; good deal for $24.85.

As a generally messy person and wannabe scientist, I also bought Octovo's spandex splash proof case. It is a cumbersome affair and has a few problems such as the direction key fails to line up with the printed markers on the outside. But it is still a handy case for the purpose. The black colour also solves some of the contrast problems reading in bright light.

Many accessories are less useful, for example, screen protector film is a waste of time and defeats the purpose of having a readable screen under direct sunlight, and do you really need a docking station to keep your kindle upright while charging?


Unlike its little brother, Kindle DX is a somewhat overpriced product that serves a more dedicated market, namely high-throughput readers and researchers who read a lot of articles in PDF format. it is not intended to be maximally portable and you probably won't fancy carrying it with you on a daily basis. If you read a lot of PDF files and/or find the generic e-readers too small for your needs, jump at it, other wise don't bother.

At this moment the Kindle 3, especially the wifi-only version remains the best deal in the e-reader market. With a little extra you can grab the 3G version for over-the-air delivery and free web access. If you weren't in a hurry, you can always wait for Amazon to release a new model that works in NZ.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

With Summer on your Doorsteps

Officially summer did not begin till the end of November, meanwhile we can listen to Hisaishi's brilliant composition and hope for the best.

I have been very busy but calm at the same time, life is so much easier if you focus on nothing but the road ahead of you. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October Political Commentary (2): Reserve Power

Nowadays people are inclined to believe that democracy is for the people and by the people, yet the earlier forms of democracy has always been a tool of the elites against the monarchy and the general population. (See Magna Carta) As a part of deal, the head of state retained rights to veto certain bills and (more in a ceremonial sense) dissolve the parliament.

Franchise was gradually extended from the aristocracy to the landed gentry, then to every tax-paying man and finally every able-minded adult. Strangely back then many liberal politicians opposed the idea of universal (male franchise), particularly in France, because their fears that the uneducated masses are uncapable of exercising political power and may, in their worse fear, elect a royalist that will end their privileged position once and for all. At the same time, the power of the monarchy was constantly eroded by the state. There is a partticularly sharp decline since the Napoleonic Wars when the Georges might have had some influence on governments, Queen Victoria delibrately refrained from politics during her later life, and the underprepared Uncle Edward was more interested in diplomacy than domestic affairs. Prime Minister could go as far as requesting the head of Balmoral castle to appoint more Peers to the House of Lords in order to pass certain laws. The only king to have rebelled against the role of glorified rubber stamp is Edward VII, and the government promptly got rid of him. (Wallis Simpson is just an excuse, they could have used his sympathy to facism or any other excuse on a later date)

Constitutional Monarchy implies that the country is ultimately governed by a constitution, of which New Zealand is definitely lacking. Apart from the ceremonial roles generally afforded to the Queen, the functions of Governor-General include:

  • Officially dissolve and open the parliament at the request of the Government, as well as appointing ministers including the PM
  • Grant Royal Assent to new laws.
By convention the Governor-General acts at the advice (emphemism for explicit instructions) of the ruling government, nevertheless he is not bound by any rule to obey. Such incident were known as "constitutional crises" where nobody knows what to do.

There is also the problem of overlapping between the legislative and executive wing in the Westminster system. In other words, the government consists of serving MPs and nearly always control the parliament. The situation is even more extreme in NZ without an upper house to check the power of proportionally elected representatives. Hence the reserve power is at the same time a good measure and equally useless.

Overall, the reserve power at the hands of the Governor-General is vague and limited at best.  The viceregal role seems to be entirely vestigial and out of place. I bet many of us were not even aware of our current Governor-General before the debate erupted.

So, who is Anand Satyanand?


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

October Political Commentary (1): Birthright or not?

The recent controversy initiated by Paul Henry's comment of whether Sir Anand Satyanand "is a New Zealander", together with the fallout from this seemingly trivial comment, prompted me to write this rather reactionary commentary.

Those of you who know me should be aware that TV watching is not a normal part of my life, however I do have a liking for Paul Henry who, like Paul Holmes, has the old fashioned quality of speaking whatever their heart says. This is especially precious in today's increasingly phlegmatic society filled with overt political correctness. Still, sometime one has to admit that many broadcasters are ill-informed about the political status of New Zealand, which in itself is a huge puddle of muddy water.

Let's hope that I shall not lose momentum while writing this series. I will modify completed sections heavily so do expect to find differences over time.


Prior to any meaningful discussion on the complex topic, we must first review Being my usual lazy self, I choose to present a modified section stolen from Wikipedia:
"As the sovereign is shared equally with 15 other independent countries in a form of personal union and resides predominantly in her oldest realm, the United Kingdom, she, on the advice of her prime minister only,appoints the governor general to carry out most of her constitutional and ceremonial duties for an unfixed period of time—known as serving At Her Majesty's pleasure—though five years is the normal convention. Once in office, these individuals maintain direct contact with the Queen, wherever she may be at the time."

In Simple English, Govern-General is a government-appointed person who acts as the Queen's stunt in her distant lands. The exact role of the regent in a constitutional monarchy will be better discussed in its own chapter. Meanwhile, I have summarised the history of the post in New Zealand:

  • There had been 35 past Governors-General under various titles.
  • Most of the early ones came from the mother country as professional administrators or later, retirees from various public or military offices. The first "Kiwi" Governor-General is probably Lord Freyberg, who was born in England and moved to New Zealand at  the age of two. The last one to have born in Britain was Bernard Fergusson, a former army brigadier whose father and two grandfathers had all served on the same post in the past. 
  • Every Governor-General since Arthur Porritt are all born in New Zealand except Sir David Bettie who was born in Sydney; nevertheless Arthur Porritt had close ties to the British Royal House during his medical practice and is probably closer to his precedents than it appears.
  • Most people mentioned here are high-class professionals such as doctors, lawyers, officers, etc.
  • Much to the point John Key made during the interview where all hell broke loose, it is usually unwise to appoint a career politician to the role of Governor-General, obviously because their previous alignment with a certain ideology is simply not suited to the non-partisan nature of our head of state. Hence I find the notion of former legislators becoming the Governor rather bizarre. The most recent example has to be Sir Keith Holyoake, who was made the Queen's representative while serving as a government minister and MP. Guess who did it? Muldoon.  
  • Overall, there is no written eligibilities for this job, and in the historical context, nativism is only a recent feature yet it seems to become the accepted norm. 
This is in stark contrast to Canada, which is a similar bi-cultural society. The established tradition is to rotate between Anglo and Québécois candidates as a sign of fairness. Nevertheless the last two Governors General appointed by Liberal governments were both foreign-born females of humble upbringing.

This concludes the mini-discussion on the history of the office. Next post will focus on its various functions.

To be continued.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Requiem Lorazepam

Three weeks to the end of semester. Instead of pulling my best effort in a heavily weighted lab assignment, I decided to take some time off and watch Bergman's classic The Seventh Seal.

It's good, I mean seriously good. The acting may seem crude and melodramatic at some point, but the bleak atmosphere is perfect. Remember this was made in 1957, the height of thermonuclear doom and gloom, slightly out of touch for people like me who grew up in the 90s; however Bergman managed to capture the pessimistic tune and present it. They did not bother too much about historical accuracy and the actors look too clean for an infamously crusty period in history, still these should not detract viewers from the plot which is very concise and well-written. 

The theme is philosophically complex however may be condensed into one Orwellian line: "Ignorance is Strength". In the end, every person who is aware, whether idealistic or cynical, with good intentions or malice, face the same bitter end while the blessed fools carry on with their normal lives undisturbed.

This also echos with Lovecraftian stories, where the characters are nearly always driven in insanity and death through their insistence to knowledge that are better kept in the dark. If the divine one turns out to be the indifferent architect, who people still believe him?


On the other hand, I am delighted to report that my stress management appears to have improved. Unprovoked emotional outbursts still happen but are less severe and further in between. Let's hope this upward path carries on into my next year.

Que sera sera