Nexus, Schmexus

A couple of days ago, I finally took possession of my new Nexus 7 tablet. I was on the ‘pre-order’ site within minutes of it opening (about 3 or 4 weeks ago) and have been eagerly awaiting delivery ever since. The manyrave reviews the thing received heightened my sense of anticipation.

It is therefore a bit of a surprise -to myself!- to have to report that I am rather underwhelmed by it, to the point where I wonder whether I’ll actually make much use of it. Here’s why…

It’s too heavy. Sure, it’s only 340g… and that’s only 90g heavier than, say, my old Kindle 3, but hold it for an hour and you definitely notice the strain on the wrist. It’s perhaps something to do with the grip, too: there’s a natural tendency to stretch your hand open and hold the thing by the back and sides, whereas I hold my Kindle more as I would a paperback (i.e., from the bottom). The one is obviously less ergonomic than the other and after 2 hours of holding it (the average time I am on the train to work), I felt like my wrist had maybe been broken. (I exaggerate only a little!)

It’s a fingerprint magnet. I realise this is somewhat inevitable with a fondleslab, but whereas my little Samsung Galaxy SII can have a bit of protective plastic stuck on the screen to minimise the grime accumulation, I don’t have anything equivalent for the Nexus 7 (and I wouldn’t fancy trying to fit it without getting loads of trapped bubbles etc, even if I did). I suppose at some point, I’m going to have to try fitting one of these things, but I’m not looking forward to it.

By default, the auto-orientation lock is ON. Dumb point, I realise, but whilst apps on my Samsung switch between landscape and portrait as the device is rotated, that wasn’t happening on the Nexus. I actually had to google it (ironic, huh?!) and discovered there’s a re-orientation lock available in the settings panel. Once you know what to look for (it’s just an icon, no text), it’s obvious and easily unlocked… but it seems a silly default setting and the last time I had to read the manual for getting a bit of tech to work was around 1993.

There’s no case/cover. There is one allegedly available in the Google Play store, but when I try to purchase one, I am curtly told “This device is not for sale at this time”. I’m not sure if that means it’s out of stock or not. I think I was offered the option of that case at the time of purchase of the original device, so its non-presence now is probably my own fault… but in the absence of a protective cover, the thing is largely useless, unless you feel like being cavalier with it. As it is, I’ve now ordered one of the cases from this site instead, so maybe I’ll get some use of the Nexus when that finally arrives.

There’s no wireless broadband. OK, this is something I was well aware of before buying: the Nexus is able to connect to wifi networks, but not to a 3G wireless broadband (unlike, say, my relatively ancient Kindle 3). I didn’t think this would be an issue: my Samsung SII can act as a wireless hotspot/tether, so all I have to do is make the Nexus get to the Internet via the ‘phone. Except that now I’ve got both devices to hand, I realise there’s nothing I can’t browse reasonably effectively on the Samsung itself and it’s a bit daft to have one perfectly capable browser in my pocket merely acting as a connectivity conduit for the other one slowly breaking my wrists. Sure, I can *functionally* browse the web with the Nexus… but *practically*, it’s not ideal. And yup, the Nexus renders websites nice and large whereas the Samsung is tiny and requires constant zooming/unzooming… but I happen to have 20:20 vision for close reading (blind as a bat at a distance, unfortunately!), and so the Samsing held at about 20cm from my face is extremely comfortable to read as-is: I simply don’t need most websites rendered any larger than it’s already doing.

Playing movies is difficult. When I first switched on the Nexus, it began to synchronise all my apps, books and settings between it and my other Android device (the aforementioned Samsung Galaxy SII). That’s quite nice, I guess (though the size of all the downloads was a bit much for someone on a severe monthly cap), but not everything translates between the platforms: Moboplayer: I’m looking at you. Instead of playing video, the Moboplayer on Nexus said it needed a new codec pack and, in very broken English, offered me two ways of obtaining it… neither of which worked. The Android default movie player doesn’t like my MKV h264 movies, either… so I ended up having to buy the Vplayer app instead. Thankfully, I paid for it out of the $25 app store credit you get with the Nexus, but the faffing around getting to that point was not a great experience. At the end of the day, output from Handbrake (a pretty standard video encoding tool) couldn’t be played on a tablet -and I’d suggest that one of the main reasons tablets exist is to, er, be able to play video.

PDF rendering is rubbish. This is a biggie for me: one of the main reasons I wanted to buy a tablet was for it to be able to render music scores (widely available for free in PDF format) at a speed suitable for following along with the music as it plays. I’ve tried this with the Kindle in the past and, for large parts of a score, it works OK… but then there’ll be a page turn that the Kindle thinks about for tens of seconds before it’s ready and by the time it’s displaying the new page, the music has moved on several more bars or pages. Very frustrating, and something I’d hoped the Nexus’ quad core processor would resolve. Well, it doesn’t. First, it’s still quite slow to render the PDF in the first place. But worse, it displays them in ‘toilet paper format’: each page is displayed underneath the other in a long, vertical scroll. Instead of gesturing left/right to switch pages, you now have to gesture up/down, which is unnatural and doesn’t fit the rest of the tablet/e-book ‘paradigm’. It’s also not how real scores, real books or real newspapers work -nor how Google’s own e-books behave. The real pits, though, is that the scroll is continuous: you don’t switch cleanly from page A to page B, but merely re-position the ‘toilet paper scroll’ anywhere you like between the two. This makes it easy to scroll too far and miss a page; or not enough, in which case you end up staring at the gap between the pages. The Nexus 7 is therefore unsuitable as a music score reader… and there goes about 80% of my justification for the original purchase.

I won’t have Apple in the house and I love Android on my Samsung, so this isn’t an anti-Android rant. I also appreciate that a lot of the above is either (a) highly specific to me or (b) one-off niggles that shouldn’t greatly reflect on the product’s attractions overall. But even conceding all that, I am left thinking that the Nexus is a misfit which doesn’t quite do anything I wanted it to do very well. I had to wrestle with it to play movies; I am not going to be able to wrestle it into being a suitable music score reader; it’s uncomfortable to use for a couple of hours at a time; it’s difficult to keep clean; and there’s nothing much it can do that the Samsung doesn’t do more conveniently. It might well be the best Android tablet in existence, but right now, I am genuinely at a loss to know what use I’m going to make of it.

CentOS 6.3 has been available on the mirrors for around a week -which means the CentOS devs have managed to push out two point releases of their re-compiled RHEL6.x just weeks after Red Hat themselves released the ‘real deal’ upstream. Given it took them something like nine months to replicate RHEL6.0 and many months to achieve a 6.1, their good form on the 6.2 and 6.3 tracks looks reassuring.

So much so that I’ve re-installed it as my primary desktop (though only as a dual boot with Windows, given that I’m forced to use Windows at work).

There is absolutely nothing about RHEL6.3/CentOS6.3 which is particularly exciting from my point of view. The big plusses are that it ships with LibreOffice by default, not OpenOffice; Firefox 10.x, not ye ancient 3.6; and Oracle 11.2 installs on it perfectly (a Gladstone update will follow shortly)

The big thumbs-downers are: Stellarium still doesn’t work properly on my rig when installed via yum: you still have to go the self-compile route. Twin monitors work by default, but the in-built config tool doesn’t let you choose which one is the main monitor (I like mine to be the right-hand one, which isn’t allowed). To get that sort of control, you still have to download NVidia’s proprietary drivers. And, perhaps more surprisingly, I couldn’t get Rhythmbox to play my FLAC files by default (the Movie Player application did, but not the default audio application… go figure!).

Other than those little niggles (all of which can be worked around), it’s a nice, stable, slightly boring, Gnome 2 (Thank God!) desktop that I like a lot.

Odd Numbers

Two statistics that surprised me this week:

  • The Titanic is lying on the bed of the Atlantic… but she’s only 14 times her own length down (12,415 feet v. 882.5 feet)
  • The International Space Station is in low Earth orbit… but she’s only flying about 33 times higher than your average Boeing 747 (~370km v. 11km)

Also, I am only 2 degrees of separation away from having met Adolph Hitler and Benjamin Britten, though 6 from having met Disraeli, Gladstone and William IV.

Just thought I’d mention it.

(For the curious, I know ToH, whose father shook hands with Hitler. And I had tea (and shook hands with) Peter Pears, who knew Benjamin Britten rather well. Meanwhile, Peter Pears knew Benjamin Britten, who shook hands with the Queen Mother, who shook hands with George V, and he knew Victoria, who knew Disraeli, Gladstone and William IV.)

Stephen Fry was wrong

A simple question: if I fire a bullet from a gun, and drop a bullet from my other hand (which is held at exactly the same height) at the same time, which bullet will hit the ground first? This questioned aired on an episode of Qi last night here, and got me thinking.

According to Stephen Fry, host of Qi, the fact that both bullets fall the same vertical distance, and must therefore both arrive on the ground at the same time, is “counter-intuitive”.

The trouble is, Stephen, it’s counter-intuitive because it’s wrong, and your post-programme justification is just as wrong. It’s got sod-all to do with air resistance and experimental error, either. Allow me to explain…

With apologies for my atrocious inability to draw (and thus my excellent ability to borrow bits of clipart from around the globe), the scenario being posited is as follows:

From which it is clear, I hope, that both bullets traverse the same vertical distance, from shoulder to ground, regardless of the horizontal distance traveled. It is therefore (I would have thought) quite obvious, not counter-intuitive at all, that both bullets must arrive at the ground at the same time, given that both are falling the same distance in the same gravitational field.

Except, of course, that the real situation is this:

That is, the Earth’s surface is not flat and therefore the bullet which moves horizontally finds that the Earth’s surface is dropping away from it, a little bit.

Let me put in a couple of guidelines to make it a touch clearer:

Not only must the fired bullet fall the same vertical distance, x, as the bullet dropped from the hand, but it must then additionally fall a further vertical distance, y, resulting from the curvature of the Earth. The fired bullet must therefore fall very slightly more than the dropped bullet… and therefore will arrive on the ground slightly after the one dropped from the hand.

Now, you may argue that the extra falling distance is trivial, but it isn’t. Different firearms have different ranges, of course, but a reasonable generalisation, if a bit on the conservative side, is that an unimpeded bullet can fly 1600m (1 mile, in old money). Over 1600m, the Earth’s surface curves away from the tangent (the ‘true horizontal’) by about 20cm (the old “8 inches per mile” idea, mentioned here and governed by the formula Δ=√(R²+L²)-R, where R is the radius of the Earth, L is the horizontal distance traveled and Δ is the extra vertical distance caused by the curvature of the Earth).

So, the fired bullet has to fall 20cm further than the dropped bullet. Given a gravitational constant of 9.8m/s², and assuming a standing start, that extra 20cm will take about 0.2 seconds to fall… which isn’t much, but it’s easily within accurate measurement possibilities and certainly well outside “experimental error”.

If we generalise, therefore, any object which travels a certain distance horizontally away from an origin will, on the Earth, end up having to fall further to reach the Earth’s surface than if it had been dropped exactly at that point of origin. The extra fall might only amount to a fraction of a millimetre, but it’s there and will affect ‘drop time’. Anyone suggesting otherwise must be a Flat-Earther.

Unfortunately, in various parts of the Internet, lots of people get this point gloriously confused with the practicalities of aerodynamics, wind resistance, rifling and whether the gun’s ‘kick’ when fired affects one’s ability to fire perfectly horizontally, and much else besides! Forget all that irrelevant stuff: the problem, as described, is merely one of idealised falling bodies in a gravitational field. If you idealise a flat Earth while you’re at it, sure: you’ll get Stephen Fry’s asserted result. Unfortunately, the one thing you can guarantee in a gravitational field is that your surface won’t be flat… and that makes all the difference.

Dropped bullets really do arrive at the ground earlier than fired ones, assuming only that it’s a curvaceous world lacking an atmosphere… so Stephen Fry is accordingly wrong. (But Qi is still an entertaining programme!)

Oh… and Mythbusters measured a difference but then declared it was insignificant and that the two bullets arrived simultaneously after all. They got it wrong, too (too many factors at work to detail here, but little things like air resistance, their choice of drop mechanism, their firing mechanism and so on… all mean their results are irrelevant to the hypothetical case).