I use my iPhone quite heavily as an ebook reader. I read in various situations, but one of the most frequent is when I’m in bed. When you’re lying down, either on your back or on your side, it can be quite a strain on your hand muscles to grip the phone and also use your thumb to scroll the pages. So a while back, I came up with a super-cheap way to improve the situation by adding a strap that holds the phone to your hand (actually, it holds it to just your index finger). Whenever I show this trick to other folks, including seasoned, cynical tech folks, they seem impressed. So I thought I would post it for search engines to find. All you need are

  • an iPhone or iPod touch, any model
  • a case that covers just the back of your phone
  • a thick rubber band (you might need to try a few sizes to get one that’s comfy)

I tried other kinds of straps besides a rubber band, but the elasticity and rubber material both make it very comfortable and easy to grip your hand. You might need to try a few different sizes of rubber band, to get the tightness and thickness that are most comfortable for you. Lay all these items out like so:


Notice my Incipio case is looking cracked and old, after just a year! I do not recommend that brand. I think the dust inside is from all the rubber bands I’ve used :). Anyway, next you wrap the rubber band around the case. I find that if you do it at an angle, it is more comfortable for your hand and provides more alternatives for finger positions:

rubber band around case

Then, put the iphone in the case, on top of the rubber band. You may have to work some slack into the rubber band, so that the phone can nestle into the case without straining against the rubber band. The phone won’t fit all the way into the case since the rubber band has some thickness, but I don’t really notice it.

iPhone, rubber band, and case

Here it is from the back:

rear view

Now, whenever you want to hold the phone for extended periods, just slip your index finger through the rubber band.

finger in rubber band

Your hand muscles can relax, and you can much more easily use your thumb to scroll the pages of an ebook:

scrolling ebook

I’m sure a case manufacturer could do much better with a built-in strap, but so far I have yet to see a case like that. In the meantime, enjoy this trick and enjoy reading ebooks!

I have a long history with Infocom games (“text adventures” was what I called them as a kid, and “interactive fiction” is the new name). People still write these games, did you know that? There’s a big archive and an annual competition. I haven’t played any of the non-Infocom variety, though I think I ought to try one. I have copies of all the data files for all the original Infocom games from the 80s, and for years there has been an open-source program to load these files and let you play the games. It’s called Frotz. I’ve had a version of Frotz on all my computers for the last 12 years, including my various Palm PDAs. The only Infocom game I’ve ever finished in my life (making it one of like 5 games of any variety that I have ever finished) was “Enchanter”, which I played on the Palm. The latest incarnation of Frotz is for the iPhone, and so of course I downloaded it right away.

PDAs in general are not the easiest devices to type on, though, and there’s lots of typing in Infocom games. So it occurred to me that it would be really cool to speak the commands. After all, there is a limited vocabulary, which should be ideal for getting good accuracy from automatic speech recognition, and furthermore the engine should require a pretty small amount of data. On top of that, what if Frotz synthesized a (pleasant, configurable) computer voice to read you all the text in the game? Then you could set the iPhone down in front of you, close your eyes, and enjoy a nice bit of interactive fiction by having a dialog with thin air. All of a sudden the very stodgiest and oldest of technology leapfrogs three decades of competition and actually sounds futuristic! I patted myself on the back for thinking of such a great idea, and told myself I’d take a stab at it myself “one day,” since speech recognition is just a hop, skip and a jump away from machine translation.

But that’s not all, there’s a punchline to this story. It further occurred to me that I wouldn’t have been the first to think of this idea, so I did a Google search. The link I found is inside a code repository for Frotz itself, namely the iPhone version. Actually, this is just a branch of Frotz, so I checked the general Frotz SourceForge repository as well and the same file is there too. It’s a placeholder for future work on just this idea, but it’s super-vague and kind of creepy, what with the whole “commissioned by a presently undisclosed party” thing. The technology looks good, it’s all open-source stuff released by academics, which was where I figured I would start looking as well.

So who wrote this document, and when, and when do they intend to come out of the shadows with the result of their work? Who knows — but it sure is a weird end to my story.

The iPhone does not display any progress bar or countdown to let you know when the song you’re listening to will end. If you tap the screen, such a bar is temporarily displayed, but it isn’t there all the time. On the classic iPod, in iTunes, and in most other software-based music players, we’ve been getting used to having these indicators. I don’t like them because I think a song should set its own pace. I think it detracts from the listening experience to see there are 30 seconds left, because when I see that, I start thinking about how short a time that is, and will the rest of the song really fit because they have a whole other chorus to sing, etc.

I’m glad the iPhone does not show this information all the time, and I hope it becomes an option in the other players I use.

Clie TH55iPhone 3G I’ve owned a Palm or Clie device (which used the Palm OS) for 8 years. I used them as my PIM and as an eBook reader. My very first blog post was about eBooks, back in 2001. But my needs for a calendar are slim (but not zero), and my need for contact information is confined to making phone calls, which my devices couldn’t do, or sending Christmas cards, when I’m at home. So eventually my latest Clie, the TH-55, sat on my bedside table as my bedtime eBook reader.

Now I have an iPhone 3G and Fictionwise has ported my eBook reader to the iPhone platform. I’m thrilled to say the phone has subsumed all the Clie’s functionality, plus it’s a phone and an iPod. Its screen is beautiful, it’s the same size as the Clie, and the fact that it’s a phone means it now matters that I have contact info. The fact that it’s always syncing with my computer means it’s a great home for my calendar data. I’m very happy!

Now I need to think of a useful app to bring shelfcentered functionality to the iPhone!

Farewell, Clie, we hardly knew ye.

iPhone’s iPod icon I bought an iPhone 3G this past weekend (and waited 4 1/2 hours for the privilege). One of its functions is to play your music/movies like an iPod. You access this feature through a button labeled “iPod”. It has a picture of an old, non-iPhone iPod on it. This struck me as funny (haha funny). I think of the iPhone as subsuming the iPod in a device with extra functionality. But to explain to the user what this button does, it has a picture of an old iPod on it. And it’s not called “iTunes” or “Music and Movies”, or “Media” — it’s called “iPod”. So the iPod has become a piece of software, and the hardware has just become an icon.

Microsoft Excel was released in 1985 for the Mac and in 1987 for Windows. Today I was using the 2007 version. After 20 years of work by countless engineers, it cannot open two files with the same name, and the dialog is quite shameless about it. That’s a good word: “shameless.” Details are everything. Click to see the full size.

As you know, I want to stream movies and music from my PC to my TV. I have an all-star lineup of tools:

  • PC running Vista with Windows Media Player 11 (WMP11), iTunes, and Zune software
  • Xbox 360
  • PlayStation 3
  • TiVo
  • Airport Express

And a selection of Xvid, Divx, MPEG 4, MP3, and AAC files to stream. These are all extremely widely used formats, the most popular in their categories (the first three are video, the last two are audio). All the players I mentioned play these formats, at least after installing some popular codec packs.

The PlayStation 3 has the best and most responsive remote, the best music visualizations (cool effects that show on TV while you’re listening to music), and the nicest UI. And it natively supports all the formats I listed. So all I have to do is get stuff to stream to it! BUT…

  • Zune will only stream to Xbox 360
  • iTunes will only stream to the Airport Express, which is audio only
  • WMP11 will not add MPEG 4 or AAC files to its library or stream them

So today I targeted the MPEG 4 portion of this last point using these instructions. It took lots of Googling and experimentation before I finally found those instructions, but it was worth it. I closed the loop, so that I can stream the things that “should” work to the device that “should” play them! Yay!

Robert X. Cringely, my favorite tech pundit, had an interesting aside in this week’s column (which is otherwise about Apple and Blu-Ray). He ran across a use of the term ‘bug’ to mean a glitch in a technical system in a magazine article from the 1930s. I found this fascinating, since we always assume “we” invented the term when computers came along. He closes with this:

It turns out that “bug” was a common term for hardware glitches and dates back to the 19th century and possibly before. Edison used the term in a letter he wrote in 1878. This is no earthshaking news, of course, but simply reminds me how self-centered we are as an industry and there really isn’t much that’s truly new.

Read the full article.

Over this holiday break, I played through all the tutorials in one of my newer DS games Panzer Tactics. It’s a very engrossing turn-based war game, very much along the lines of Advance Wars. Panzer Tactics clicked much more with me, though, and I grasped how to deploy my units intuitively pretty quickly. I think I can take this experience back to Advance Wars as well, and have more fun with it, too. But first, I’m ready to start the real campaigns in Panzer Tactics. Then maybe I’ll go back to Korsun Pocket, which is more complicated.

The Zune software turned out not to be so great at working with iTunes playlists. It’s not a dynamic synchronization, just a one-time thing. So after asking the Zune to read my iTunes playlists, it did so, but after I changed my playlists in iTunes, the Zune did not see the change. Also, the Zune does not attempt to pull in the smart playlists, just the static ones. Even just treating the smart playlists as regular ones and pulling in their current contents would have been great, but no.

My last gripe is that there are playlists I can’t get rid of with the attractive names “__127.0.0.1” and similar. Why is the software showing me its disgusting internal details?

The possibly good news is that Microsoft have just done a major overhaul to the Zune software, and so some of these problems may be gone. On the other hand, they may be replaced with more ridiculous problems!