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October 31, 2010

Uniquefire AA-S1 Osram

Uniquefire AA-S1 Osram


Battery: AA/14500 li-ion
Switch: Reverse clicky
Modes: 1
LED Type: Osram
Lens: Glass
Tailstands: Yes
Price Paid: $9.93
From: DealExtreme
Date Ordered: 22 Aug 2010


  • Very bright
  • Well made
  • Looks good
  • Cheap


  • Only 1 mode
  • Spindly clip

A lot of people already have this light, and there are already good reviews of it at BLF by sb56637 and on Jayki by old4570 and Don. I bought the light based on those positive reviews, because I like the form of the AKOray K-106, and I didn't have any lights yet with an Osram LED.

Features / Value: 4 out of 5

This is just a 1-mode light, so there isn't much to it, but it is also pretty cheap. It works fine on a AA battery and is quite bright on a 14500 lithium-ion battery. It has a pretty high current draw with either battery but gets hot within a few minutes on a lithium-ion.

The form factor is the same as the 3-mode AKOray K-106 (see my review) or the 5-mode Trustfire F20 (see review by sb56637). It's a nicely knurled cylinder with a thin tail piece and dual o-rings on the head. They all have a wire clip that seems a little flimsy but keeps the light from rolling. The clip on my AA-S1 seems flimsier than the one on the K-106 and also seems to be a little malformed when it was bent. I didn't notice this until I unscrewed the tail and took it off, but it wasn't easy to get back on.

The finish of the AKOray is a silvery green while the Uniquefire has more of a bronze color. The picture below (all pictures can be clicked for a larger version) shows them next to each other, with the AKOray K-106 on the left and the Uniquefire AA-S1 on the right:

AKOray K-106 and Uniquefire AA-S1

I was surprised how small the Osram LED is, much smaller than the die on my different Cree lights. I guess it is mounted on plastic because there was no isolator disk over the LED like you need on Cree LED's to keep the aluminum reflector from shorting out the LED. It definitely looks a little different and the yellow die itself has the tell-tale corner etch on the die (you may have to click the image for a bigger version to see it):

Osram LED mounted to board

Build Quality: 4 out of 5

Build quality seems pretty decent except for the clip. The reverse clicky works about right and the big square threads are very very smooth. Unlike the AKOray, the threads are not anodized, but I don't think that really matters. Most of my lights have bare threads at the head for better electrical contact. There was some kind of sticky lube on the threads and o-rings, which I will wipe off and replace. Still, at least they are trying. The lens was a little dirty, but there were no burrs or metal shavings. The anodizing and finish are pretty much perfect. There are two-orings at the head which seem to work fine and a single thinner one in the tail.

There is a glow-in-the-dark o-ring in the head between the reflector and lens that gives a neat effect after you turn the light off. The Aurora SH-035 and Trustfire XP-E F23 have this too.

Glowing o-rings on AA-S1, SH-035, and XP-E F23

Here is a comparison of threads on different lights. From left to right are the Fenix L1D, AKOray K-106, Uniqufire AA-S1, and Aurora SH-035. I like the big square threads, but the quality of the Fenix threads is probably higher. The Aurora threads are awful, so short that it doesn't even take a full turn of the head to fully tighten the light, but so far they have held up.

Threads: Fenix LD1, AKOray K-106, Uniquefire AA-S1, and Aurora SH-035

Battery Life:***

Battery life is not the strong suit of this light, but it is better than I thought it would be. With a 2000mAh NiMH Eneloop I got almost an hour of light and on a Trustfire Flame 14500 I got 35 minutes before the battery measured below 3.6V at rest. Here are the numbers. Here are numbers where I would let the light run and then periodically take the battery out to measure its voltage and take a reading of the tailcap current.

On a 2000 mAh NiMH eneloope AA cell:

Time (hr:min)Voltage (V)Current (mA)

On a 900mAh Trustfire flame 14500 lithium ion battery:

Time (hr:min)Voltage (V)Current (mA)

With the current going down with the voltage, there doesn't appear to be any regulation at first. But below 3.8V the current draw goes up as the voltage drops, indicating some kind of boost regulation at work. Don's review has a runtime graph of the output which drops off some at first and stays pretty steady before trailing off. I was surprised to get 35 minutes out of this light and battery. The light was very warm after 5 minutes and hot at 10 minutes. I did not notice the LED shifting to blue at any time so I think the LED can handle it.

Aurora SH-035, Uniquefire S10, AKOray K-106, Uniquefire AA-S1, and Fenix L1D

Light Output: 5 out of 5

I am very happy with the Osram LED. It isn't quite a neutral tint, but it isn't a cool blue either. Instead it seems just a little greenish. Not bad though. The beam itself is nice with a undefined hotspot fading as it goes outward. The reflector is orange peel and I wonder what it would look like with a smooth one. It certainly isn't as ringy as some Cree LED's, maybe a little more like a Cree XP-G.

Here are some indoor shots comparing the light to some others in my collection. First I will compare it to other lights using an AA battery. First up is the Uniquefire AA-S1 against the AKOray K-106, though I should point out that my AKOray has been modified with a XP-G R5 LED but the original 3-mode driver. You would think the R5 would be really bright, but really the AKOray has always been an underachiever on brightness, even with the upgraded LED. All of the pictures are taken with the lights on High and 50cm from the wall. The camera is set to ISO 100 and I vary the exposure to show the hotspot. Here are the lights at 1/25 second exposure. The AA-S1 is always on the left and here you can see it has a more neutral tint than the cooler K-106.

AA-S1 vs. K-106 NiMH 1/25th second

Now faded to 1/200th second:

AA-S1 vs. K-106 NiMH 1/200th second

Now at 1/1600th second to compare the hotspots. I have to give the advantage to the AA-S1.

AA-S1 vs. K-106 NiMH 1/1600th second

Now here is the AA-S1 up against my Fenix L1D on NiMH which Fenix claims should put out 120 lumens. The Fenix has a Cree XR-E Q5, with a slightly neutral tint to it. The camera is doing white balance corrections, so now it shows the AA-S1 as bluer than in the pictures above.

AA-S1 vs. L1D 1/25th second

Now at 1/200th second:

AA-S1 vs. L1D 1/200th second

Now at 1/1600th second. The edge barely goes to the Fenix, though the brighter spill of the AA-S1 might give it a few more lumens overall:

AA-S1 vs L1D 1/1600th second

Last comparison on a NiMH battery is my modified Aurora SH-035 which has a Cree XP-G R4 neutral LED and a 1000mA NANJG 112A driver set to 2 modes (here on High). Now the AA-S1 looks quite cool, but that's more the white balance correction than anything. 1/25th second:

AA-S1 vs. 035 at 1/25th second

Now at 1/200th second:

AA-S1 vs 035 at 1/200th second

At 1/1600th second. The AA-S1 is holding its own here against a well-driven high binned Cree.

AA-S1 vs. 035 at 1/1600th second

Okay, now I'll do some comparisons against lights using lithium-ion batteries. The output really goes up with these higher voltage batteries. First up is a Uniquefire S10 with a Cree XR-E R2 LED modified to be driven directly by the battery after the driver burned out. This XR-E is really overdriven with all of the power going to the LED:

AA-S1 vs S10 1/25th second

At 1/200th second. The S10 has a better-defined more intense hotspot:

AA-S1 vs. S10 at 1/200th second

At 1/1600th second:

AA-S1 vs. S10 at 1/1600th second

I know this is a lot of pictures of beams for a 1-mode light, but what the heck. Maybe you have one of these lights or something similar. Next up is the AKOray K-106 which has been modified with the Cree XP-G R5 cool white LED:

AA-S1 vs. K-106 Li-ion 1/25th second

at 1/200th second:

AA-S1 vs. K-106 Li-ion 1/200th second

And at 1/1600th second. Again I think the AA-S1 wins out.

AA-S1 vs K-106 Li-ion 1/1600th second

Now for the Fenix L1D. The Fenix is not designed to be run on a lithium-ion cell and loses all of its modes if you try it. But the brighness probably goes up to 180 lumens or more from the XR-E Q5 LED. And the AA-S1 is right up there with it.

AA-S1 vs. L1D Li-ion 1/25th second

AA-S1 vs. L1D Li-ion 1/200th second

1/1600th second:

AA-S1 vs. L1D Li-ion 1/1600th second

Lastly, the highly modified Aurora SH-035:

AA-S1 vs 035 Li-ion at 1/25th second

AA-S1 vs. 035 Li-ion at 1/200th second

AA-S1 vs. 035 Li-ion at 1/1600th second

Now it's time to take the lights outdoors and test them on NiMH and Li-ion batteries. The exposure is 3.2 seconds to try and get pictures that look like what it looks like in person. The potted plant is 25 feet away and the lights are aimed at the fence posts 120 feet away. First I took pictures of the different lights on NiMH batteries:

First the Uniquefire AA-S1. I don't think there is a question that it is the brightest of the bunch:

Uniquefire AA-S1 on NiMH

Now the AKOray, which is pretty awful, even with the upgraded LED (no, it's not on Medium):

AKOray K-106 on NiMH

Now the Fenix L1D:

Fenix L1D on NiMH

And finally the modified Aurora SH-035 with XP-G R4:

Aurora SH-035 on NiMH

Now I'll put a blue Trustfire 900mAh lithium-ion battery in each one, starting with the AA-S1:

Uniquefire AA-S1 on Li-ion

Now the direct drive Uniquefire S10 with XR-E R2. A little disappointing:

Uniquefire S10 on Li-ion

Now the AKOray K-106 with XP-G R5, no throw to speak of:

AKOray K-106 on Li-ion

Now the Fenix L1D on Li-ion:

Fenix L1D on Li-ion

And finally the Aurora SH-035 with XP-G R4 on li-ion, probably a little more light than the AA-S1 but not much throw:

Aurora SH-035 on Li-ion

Summary: 5 out of 5

This is an impressive light and it makes me wonder why Osram isn't a more popular choice for LED's in flashlights. It is my brightest light on a single AA NiMH battery and is right at the top of my lights running from a 14500 lithium-ion battery. The quality of the Uniquefire AA-S1 body is very good except for the spindly clip. If this thing had a low of about 10 lumens on it, it would be a fantastic light even if it drove the cost up $5 or so. As it is, the utility of a 1-mode light just isn't that much for me. I like being able to back off of the maximum brightness when I need to see something a little closer. And I also feel like if they are going to make 1-mode lights, they could at least put a forward clicky in them for momentary on, but I know the budget companies don't ever do forward clickies. Also the forward clicky mechanism is usually longer and I don't think that could be accommodated in this body or at best would prevent the light from tailstanding.

Light in hand

October 25, 2010

Mr.Lite BLF AA-Y4E

When I first started learning about flashlights last year, I went to CandlePower Forums (CPF). It is a very active discussion area and there is a wealth of information there and members who know crazy amounts about flashlights. But they kind of look down their noses at people like me who buy cheap Chinese lights from DealExtreme, sometimes even showing outright hostility and intolerance towards even discussing cheap lights (for instance if you provide a link to a light you see at DealExtreme, the moderators will delete it). And if there is one thing I can't tolerate, it is intolerance. So early this year one guy got fed up and started his own discussion forum dedicated to cheap lights, called Budget Light Forum (BLF). It has been nice to have a place like that and I have posted reviews of some of the different lights I have bought. There are people from all over the world on that forum.


Lately I haven't been as into flashlights as I was for a while because really I have everything I need and at this point I'm just buying stuff to try out or compare to my other lights. But I got the bug again last week when I bought a nice light, then had to return it to the store in Smyrna. Meanwhile, the company that made that light introduced special editions of its lights using higher performance LED that nobody has been able to buy yet (very exciting). And they were using the new ANSI/NEMA FL-1 criteria to say how much light it produced with the result being the claimed lumens (light output) are actually lower than their older lights even though the new lights are 7% brighter. So I wound up researching the FL-1 standard and writing a Wiki article about it on the CPF Wiki. With all of that going on plus writing a review of the Quark light and visiting the flashlight superstore, it was a pretty much a flashlight weekend.

Then this morning I was reading that the guys at BLF finally got a new Chinese flashlight maker (Mr.Lite) who had been trying to sell them lights for a long time to make a special edition light just like they wanted. The result is the Mr.Lite BLF AA-Y4E. It doesn't really roll off the tongue, but the "AA" means it uses an AA battery, the 4 means it is 4 brightness levels (no flashy modes! that was a must), and the E refers to the Cree XR-E LED it uses. It comes in black or silver. It is almost exactly the same as the Mr.Lite J4 (reviewed here) except that it is pretty easy for them to reprogram the chip that controls the brightness levels and strobes, so whereas the J4 comes on in High, the reprogrammed "BLF" comes on in Low. The light is being sold by a Chinese mail order place called Manafont that competes with DealExtreme but sells most of the same stuff. Some of the Manafont people have been marketing their site at BLF (amazing because there are only 184 members on the forum and only a fraction of them are active), and in fact I didn't even realize the BLF light was in the works until I saw Manafont's ad on the website today.

I think it's neat that all of this came together and so, while I probably wouldn't buy this particular light on its own, I figured I should support the cause and reward the two companies involved for listening to their customers. Here is Manafont's product page and here is the BLF thread talking about the release of the new light. I should get mine in a couple of weeks.

October 23, 2010


I've been trying out a lot of flashlights over the last year or so. The most expensive light I have is made by Fenix. It is pretty nice, but a little dated. Since I bought that light, I've learned a lot more. I like the Cree XP-G R4 LED with a neutral tint. I bought a couple of these LED's and put them in flashlights and they are two of my favorites now. They aren't cool blue like most LED lights, instead having a slightly yellowish tint.

Another nice feature is momentary On which you can get if you have a forward clicky. This allows you to halfway depress the switch and the light comes on. I only have one light like that, all the rest are reverse clickies where you have to fully depress the switch and then let go before the light comes on.

I'd also like different brightness levels: one bright for distance and one dimmer for close up. Usually you can change the modes by halfway depressing the switch, but it would be nice if there was a way to set whether the light would come on in High or Low and stay that way until you reset it. The Low is very tricky: outdoors you want 10 lumens, but indoors you might want 1 or less, especially if you are reading something. Therefore it would be good if the Low mode could be set by the user.

There's only one light I know of that has all 3 of the features above. It is the Quark 123² Tactical made by a company called 4Sevens, based in Tucker (though the lights are actually made in China). It comes with several different LED's and one limited edition uses a neutral white XP-G R4 (the normal LED is a XP-G R5 which is one notch brighter; just today they introduced a new XP-G S2 which is one notch brighter still, but also cool white). It is a $70 flashlight, but I figured if it did just about everything I want, and it is a limited edition, I should go ahead and get it.

The light arrived on Wednesday. It came set to strobe and some other mode, but it was pretty easy to reset it to one of 5 different brightness levels and 3 flashing modes. I chose Max (220 lumens) and Low (4 lumens; there is an even lower mode called Moonlight that is 0.2 lumens) and took the dogs for a walk in the dark. One thing I noticed was that after I would switch the light to Low by loosening the head, then turn the light on, there would be a bright flash for an instant and then the light would be in Low. It didn't do it all the time. Most often it would happen if I had been on Max before turning the light back on or if I waited a few minutes before turning the light on (this happens a lot because I don't use the light the whole time we're on a walk). This effect is called "preflash" and it's the first time I've seen it on any of my lights. I do not like it.

I got home and researched preflash, especially for this flashlight. It seems that all of the Tactical versions of the Quark lights have preflash on lower modes. In fact there is even a second kind of preflash where if you turn the light on Moonlight, it flashes Low first. That preflash wasn't nearly as bad, but it happens every time and with all of the different Quark lights, not just Tactical ones. Here's a longer review of the light I wrote for Budget Light Forums.

The light was so close to being just right, but I decided I should return it. The shop I bought it from, called Going Gear, is in Atlanta and I had been meaning to go to their store ever since it opened. I even blogged about them last year. This is the same place I ordered the tiny flashlights from and I ordered another one with the Quark after losing mine (that's the problem with tiny flashlights! the new one will stay attached to my keychain).

The Going Gear store sells flashlights, knives, and camping supplies (they have emergency kits that include very small rolls of duct tape, which I thought was pretty funny). They had a sign out front saying they had something like 200 models of flashlights on display! The owner of the shop was there and he showed me a bunch of different lights, most of which I had heard of but never seen, and some really neat ones I hadn't even heard of. I don't think I realized just how it impressive it was that almost all of the flashlights I've read about over the last year were there with batteries and you could try them out. There were $400 flashlights there. I didn't find anything else that I had to have, so I just returned the Quark. I did see a couple of neat lights by Sunwayman and might get one someday. That was a brand I didn't even know about. They have a collar around the head that you turn to select the mode you want and have a forward clicky on the back. But they don't have any neutral tint LED's.

October 18, 2010

4G iPod Touch Review

I've had my new iPod for about a month. The iPod is an amazing piece of hardware. The 64GB version that I bought is overpriced compared to the 32GB version that is $100 less, but I waited a long time to get something that had 64GB, so I saved money by not getting a previous model.

The screen resolution is really amazing. It doesn't make much difference for pictures or video, but it really makes text look sharp. On most handhelds, the standard font is Helvetica or something without serifs, but this resolution is so sharp that a serif font looks fantastic. You don't see books printed in sans serif fonts, so it is nice to have that quality on a screen, even if it is a pretty small one. Even italics looks great.

The wi-fi is much faster than on my Palm TX since the Palm only supported the slower 802.11b standard instead of 802.11g. I can synchronize about a dozen documents on my computer in a couple of seconds rather than almost a minute.

So the hardware is great, but Apple software is pretty lousy. The browser is Safari and any application that shows web pages uses it too. But one thing that really bugs me about Safari is that you can not increase the size of the text in the browser. Instead you can zoom the entire page, but this is like using a magnifying glass and you have to scan left and right to read a line of text which is way too wide for the screen. Scrolling is pretty neat: you brush your finger on the screen vertically and the screen rolls and coasts to a stop. It's a neat effect, but if you want to get all the way to the bottom of a long page, you just have to brush over and over and over. There is no actual scrollbar with a scroller that you can drag to the bottom to get somewhere fast. Some of this is due to the fact that rather than use a stylus like on the Palm, you use your finger which is a much less precise instrument (though they do have an alphabetical scrollbar that shows up in the music player app and some other places). Also there is no way to skip down one page at a time. It's scroll or nothing (though some of the e-readers have a feature to turn a page). Otherwise the browser is fine.

I used the Palm as a PDA to store notes and phone numbers. These are pretty simple programs, just databases. The first Palm was introduced almost 15 years ago and it had far superior notes and phone numbers. Primarily you could categorize them both into as many categories as you wanted. And the contacts had a lot of fields for several phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and many more. There were probably too many fields honestly, but the iPod has only a couple of fields and it wasn't easy transferring the contacts in since I had more fields than fit on the iPod. PDA's are so 90's that I guess Apple figured nobody wanted anything like that. But it is something basic that would help people out.

Entering or editing text is awful. Again, this is more because of the fat writing instrument (your finger), but it wasn't a picnic on the Palm using a stylus. Just getting a cursor to the correct spot in a paragraph is no picnic. And there doesn't seem to be any way to arrow left or right. Typing is pretty miserable too. You use a pop-up keyboard with buttons that are smaller than your fingertip. So you usually get the right key, but not always.

There was not a single game loaded on the iPod. Even my older iPods with terrible interfaces for games still included games. The 3G iPod had Solitaire even though the only controls were the select button and the scroll wheel (it was awful).

To bring videos over to the iPod I had to translate them from a pretty common .avi format to one that pretty much only Apple uses. It shows a disdain for everyday users and an unwillingness to adopt standards that they didn't think of first. The video player itself is very, very basic. When watching a TV show, it is nice to be able to skip over the title credits and the player on my Palm let me use a button to skip ahead or back by some amount (that I could set!). No such thing on the iPod, partly because there just aren't very many buttons (just four: volume up, volume down, home, and power). So it's cool not have many buttons . . . until you need one. I guess they could incorporate it into the screen easily enough, but they haven't done that either. There is a scroll bar, but if the show is an hour long, it is hard to get any decent precision on where you will end up. Even a fast forward would be something. The scroll wheel on the old iPods would let you do this.

Fortunately Apple did one really smart thing and that is they allowed developers to write software for the iPod. So you can fix some of the shortcomings that Apple built into their machine, but not all of it (you can't change the default browser, you can't change how scrolling works, and I don't think there are .avi video players).

I was able to download a couple of free or very low priced games. And I was able to buy a Docs 2 Go by Dataviz which came free on my Palm and allows me to sync Word and Excel documents to the iPod (though only manually and only for one program at a time since apps aren't allowed to sync through iTunes when you connect the iPod to the computer; but at least it can be done wirelessly). I also bought a database app called HanDBase that was originally written for the Palm but now runs on the iPod, but it seems handicapped by Apple's interface.

With 64GB of storage, one of my favorite things is that I was able to download all of Wikipedia to the iPod and I have it available whenever I want. It takes up 3 GB of space, but it is great and the developer just made a huge improvement to the software. It is also great that I can take a substantial collection of recorded movies and shows with me now whereas I could only fit a handful of them on the 2 GB SD card in my Palm. I'm nowhere close to filling up my iPod yet, but part of the reason is I don't want to convert all of my videos to Apple's format (taking up more space on my computer hard drive, plus it just takes a long time to do the conversion).

The glass screen seems to be super tough. The early Palms had glass screens, but the TX I had used a plastic one that easily scratched. This glass seems to be very tough, like gorilla glass, which can't be scratched, even by keys (though someone posed the question: what if they made keys out of gorilla glass?).

So it is a mixed bag. It is a great platform handicapped by its own genius of fewer buttons and overly simple navigation using your fingers. Today Steve Jobs was making fun of companies bringing 7-inch tablets to market, saying they should include sandpaper to file your fingers down since a 7-inch tablet has barely half the screen area of a 9-inch iPad tablet. Well, Steve, what do you think people are doing on a 4-inch iPhone screen?

October 17, 2010

iTunes Affiliate

I've been trying to do searches on apps for my new iPod lately and I kept coming across these sites that would just take content from the iTunes app store and list all of these apps. Then lately I have been writing about my favorite apps and I thought those other guys must be getting a commission on their clicks and if they can, then I should too.

So a quick search indicates that there is a program through LinkShare, whose website is linksynergy (even the link to LinkShare is an affiliate link because I get something if people sign up to become LinkShare affiliates through that link and get at least one click). The sign-up page was very spartan, just some plain text fields. I didn't think much about it until I got to the bottom and it asked me to input the letters in the image above and there wasn't an image above. It turns out my ad blocker had blocked all of the images on their website and all of the javascript because they are an advertiser. That was pretty funny. So I turned it off and everything worked fine.

LinkShare has a lot of companies they work with and then you sign up with those companies individually. Apple does not approve theirs automatically so I have to wait 3 days and see. If they approve me, I will convert my links to apps to LinkShare links and if people click on them and buy an app, I will get 5% of the purchase price (Amazon gives 4% on electronics, 6% on books, but sometimes 10% on downloads).

I really don't think I'll make any money because if you do a search for an app you don't find honest opinions or reviews of apps out there, just tons of these sites that tell you nothing more than the app store does (or give you a list of apps that you can tell the person hasn't even tried out). And they've all jockeyed to get high page rankings. Even if I get a few clicks, the apps are all so cheap ($1-10) that there isn't much to be made. However, there is also nothing to lose.

Another affiliate program I joined was for DealExtreme, the place I buy cheap flashlights. Some people at the forum I visit are actually using the links I've put in my reviews of flashlights and I'm slowly building up some commissions. But because they are cheap flashlights, most orders are less than $20. For every $10 they spend I get 1 point. And if I get 100 points, they will give me $10. So basically I am waiting to get $1,000 in sales so that I can get $10. After six months, I'm about halfway there, but they also have a 60-day waiting period before the points become effective just in case the person returns their merchandise (which happens a lot because so much of this stuff is defective or not as advertised).

The glory days of my affiliatedom are well past, though. Amazon generates less than $10 a month and AdSense is only a couple of dollars (though last month I qualified for my first $100 payment in over two years).

October 16, 2010


"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."
             - Joshua, War Games

For years I had a Solitaire game called SolFree on my Palm. When I got the iPod, SolFree was available in the app store (a lot of Palm developers moved on to become iPod developers). It is completely free (doesn't even include ads). So I figured for all the years of playing solitaire and the years to come on the iPod, I could go ahead and pay $2 to the people that make Solfree which would also get me 40 new Solitaire games. I usually don't like new solitaire games, just classic Solitaire (Klondike, deal 3) and Freecell is pretty good too. But one person who reviewed Solebon (the full pay version of Solfree; Card Shark Collection is another card game collection for $2 but it includes Euchre and a couple of other games where you play against the computer) said they played Colorado, so I tried that out and it was pretty decent once I figured out what was going on. But in order to figure out Colorado, I had to go to Wikipedia, hoping they would have more information about how to play than Solebon's help had, and also maybe provide some strategy, because at first it seemed like it was totally random and you would almost always lose.


The total randomness (just playing the cards dealt by rules with no decisions by the player) reminded me of War, a game I played as a kid and then with kids like Andrew and now Michael. I always like to tell Andrew and Michael how good they are at that game and they enjoy the compliment (and I like the irony of being good at something that is all luck). In fact, there probably aren't that many games where they can generally win 50% of the time against an adult, so in comparison to other games, they really are good at it.

So I went to the Wikipedia article on War, which pointed out it was totally random and usually only played by children. But, they also had a neat thing in the article where someone programmed a computer to play War against itself and let the program run to its conclusion 1 million times. Now it gets interesting. When you play one card against another, that is called a "battle". When the battle is tied and you put 3 cards face down, that is called a "war". In a million games, the shortest game consisted of 9 battles before the other player lost all of his cards. They must have had a lot of wars because you start with 26 cards. The longest game was 2,958 battles. At 5 seconds per battle, that game would have lasted 4 hours. There are an average of 248 battles per game with 15 wars. With the 5-second rule, the average game would last 20 minutes.

October 14, 2010

Wikipedia Templates

Today I was reading my Wikipedia Offline about the Japanese bullet trains. I was doing this because I had read an article that asked if the US would ever get high-speed rail. And it seems like Japan has had it for an awfully long time, so it's not like it's all that high tech anymore. Anyway, it quickly became obvious that I wasn't getting the whole article. Here is what I read:

The , also known as the bullet train, is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan operated by four Japan Railways Group companies. Starting with the Tōkaidō Shinkansen in 1964, the now long network has expanded to link most major cities on the islands of Honshū and Kyūshū at speeds up to . Test runs have reached for conventional rail in 1996, and up to a world record for maglev trainsets in 2003.

Here is the original article, which has a lot more facts in it, including the name of the train, the speed of the train, and the length of the rail lines:

The Shinkansen (新幹線?, new main line), also known as the bullet train, is a network of high-speed railway lines in Japan operated by four Japan Railways Group companies. Starting with the 210 km/h (130 mph) Tōkaidō Shinkansen in 1964, the now 2,459 km (1,528 mi) long network has expanded to link most major cities on the islands of Honshū and Kyūshū at speeds up to 300 km/h (186 mph). Test runs have reached 443 km/h (275 mph) for conventional rail in 1996, and up to a world record 581 km/h (361 mph) for maglev trainsets in 2003.

I wrote to the support e-mail address of the company (Avocado Hills Software) that makes Wikipedia Offline to let them know what was going on and ask that it be fixed. Much to my surprise, I got an answer back in six minutes. I figured it must be an auto-response. No, it was a detailed reply from the developer himself:

Hi Ted,

Excellent observation. I can explain this.

Something in the curly braces, {{}}, is called a template. There are two templates in your example, "Nihongo" and "convert" template. Due to the lack of foresight of its creators, Wikipedia has thousands of templates. Each template has special rules. For instance, one of the convert templates means: convert 2459 km to miles and abbreviate. Every rule for every template would have to be programmed by me, by hand in order to display everything. This simply isn't feasible. I'm trying to get the most common templates done.

As a result, if the app doesn't know how to handle the template, it doesn't show it. More exactly, I didnt include it in the database that you download to a) save space, and b) prevent any unexpected behavior. I'm still pondering the ideal way to handle this as missing numbers is pretty obstructive to reading.

What do you think?

Wow. Well, at least he is working on it. I knew Wikipedia was doing something weird with their tags because I had taken a look at the article source text to see what was going on. Here is the source for that paragraph:

The {{Nihongo|'''''Shinkansen'''''|新幹線||''new main line''}}, also known as ''the bullet train'', is a network of [[high-speed rail]]way lines in Japan operated by four [[Japan Railways Group]] companies. Starting with the {{convert|210|km/h|mph|abbr=on}} [[Tōkaidō Shinkansen]] in 1964, the now {{convert|2459|km|mi|abbr=on}} long network has expanded to link most major cities on the islands of [[Honshū]] and [[Kyūshū]] at speeds up to {{convert|300|km/h|mph|0|abbr=on}}. Test runs have reached {{convert|443|km/h|mph|abbr=on}} for conventional rail in 1996, and up to a [[Land speed record for railed vehicles|world record]] {{convert|581|km/h|mph|abbr=on}} for [[maglev train|maglev]] trainsets in 2003.

I wrote back and said it looks like an easy fix for the units at least because if you find {{convert you can just take the value after the | character, add a space, and then take the value after the next | character to get the units and don't even worry about converting. Hopefully he will get this in the next update. Before I could even send my response, he had written another response:

I'd also like to add that as of the next version all other wiki markup, including tables and mathematical formulas, will be supported.

Templates are a problem. If you go to this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_templates_by_usage
you'll see a list of templates.

It's a huge mess. Some of these templates are even nested -- templates use templates, which use other templates. I just can't feasible support all of them. What's worse is that my app is also used by people in Europe. Well, in the German version of wikipedia, the templates have different names (the names of the templates are in German!). This compounds the logistical nightmare.

So I hope that gives you an inside peak into why things are the way they are. I assure you it's not out of laziness or lack of desire!


Here is a description of Wikipedia's Convert Template.

Another weird thing that happened today that I wrote to him about in a separate e-mail was an article about the Gray Catbird because I was looking up why people say that you are "sitting in the catbird seat" if you are in a strong position. Here is what I read in that article:

This species is named for its cat-like call. Like many members of the Mimidae (most famously mockingbirds), it also mimics the songs of other birds, as well as those of Hylidae (tree frogs), and even mechanical sounds. Because of its well-developed songbird syrinx, it is able to make two sounds at the samoyed by fire in 1534 and rebuilt as a stables, keeping its former name when it acquired this new function. On old maps of Westminster, such as those by Ralph Agas (also known as Aggas), the Mews can be seen extending back onto the site of today's Leicester Square.

Somehow the article morphed into one about the Royal Mews (oddly, the Royal Mews article was unaffected). Evan writes back:

Now that is very interesting!!!

I have a really good lead on what might cause the problem. I'll investigate.

BTW, I really appreciate your feedback. Users like yourself have really transformed the app and made it a lot better! Look for another update coming in a week or two.


Any software is going to have bugs, especially when you are converting a very large and complicated bunch of work that thousands of other people have written, but it's great that developers like this are trying to solve the problem and write back so quickly when a problem is pointed out.

October 10, 2010

Offline Browser

One of the things I liked having on my Palm was an offline copy of my blog and all of my movie reviews. At first I used AvantGo to do this, but that company went out of business and the software only worked through their web servers. Then I found Sunrise XP and Plucker, two pieces of software that would get the pages and then let you see them offline. That was a great combo and, even though the companies no longer supported their product, they worked just fine. And whereas AvantGo limited the size of your cache, Sunrise didn't care. So I got all of my blog and all of my movie reviews. I also use it to get Roger Ebert's latest reviews, and sections of the New York Times.

I hoped for something similar for the iPod Touch, but there didn't seem to be anything. There were a number of programs that would let you download the page you were looking at for use later (like Instapaper), but nothing that would get a whole site through some kind of Contents page or index.

So today I was looking around for apps and found one called Browse Later Lite which seems to do just what I wanted. I already have a New York Times app, so I didn't need it for that, but I'd like to have my blog and movie reviews, so I set those up to download the contents pages for each to a depth of 1. The movies are all text files and I was able to download 300 movies reviews in a couple of minutes. But the blog has a lot of pictures and there is no way to turn pictures off in the Lite version (the full version for $1.99 allows you to turn images off). To get all 500 entries and images (even a few MB of images I have stored offsite on my own domain) it took over an hour. Ouch. And unlike Sunrise XP, it doesn't seem smart enough to know not to download pages that haven't changed since the last time. That would save a lot of time. The total download was 27.2 MB for both sites.

The browser that you view the pages in is really Safari, so it has the limitation in Safari that you can't change the text size. So movie review pages have this tiny, tiny text. You can stretch the page to see the text in a larger size, but then you have to scroll left and right to read a line. That's a terrible interface, but that is Apple's fault. The blog entries work better since they are constrained to a narrow column that looks about right when stretched to fit across the iPod screen.

Still, this is another thing to check off of my list of capabilities that the Palm had. I still need a way to sort Contacts by category and sync it back to my computer somehow. The built-in Contacts app is just terrible.

Wikipedia in My Pocket

Before I got my iPod Touch, I heard you could download the entire Wikipedia and browse it without an internet connection. Once I got the iPod, I realized there were several different programs ("apps") that do this and I had to decide which one to get. User reviews were not all that positive for any of them. Reviews for one said that in order to do a search, you had to enter the name of the article exactly. So if you were looking for Steve Jobs, and the article was under Steven P. Jobs, you wouldn't find it. Another seemed to crash a lot. So there seemed to be downfalls on each one.

I got one called Wikipedia Offline that seemed to have better search (search is very important when you are sifting through 3 million articles) and was a little cheaper at $6 (now $9) as opposed to $10 for the other ones. But it was still buggy. It would crash some (crashes aren't that bad, the app just quits and you have to restart it) and the search was slow, giving you bogus results before usually giving you better results, but not telling you that it was still working. If I looked up Steve Jobs, I would get Steve Abbey, Steve Abbot, etc., because it only used the first letters of the search at first. Sometimes it was easier to look up Apple Computer and then find a link to Steve Jobs, so you had to be sneaky. And it didn't remember articles you had searched for before or remember your last search. And non-breaking spaces would show up in html code as   which was annoying. It didn't have pictures, tables, formulas, or even the article outline.

This week they released v2.0 and it fixed just about everything. The search is much better and now you can set the text style (serif or non-serif), size of text and even use an off-white background color if you want. And now it has the article outline plus a button to link to the original article if you have wi-fi available. The only catch was that I had to download the whole Wikipedia again because the new database is in a different format. Last time it took about 7 hours, this time it took more like 10, maybe because all of their customers were downloading again. The database still seems to be about 2.5-3.0 GB. The download was created in July, so it would have been nice to get a fresher version, but it was a free upgrade (usually it costs $1 to download a new database).

October 9, 2010

New Headphones

I have been using some Sennheiser CX300 headphones for 3 years now. I really like them and have thought about getting another pair, now that they are cheaper, about half of what I paid. When I got home Thursday there was a box that had been delivered on my doorstep that day. I didn't have any flashlights or other stuff on the way, so I wasn't sure what it was. The only thing I'm expecting is a rebate of some kind, which is what I thought it might be since the return address was "Fulfillment Center". But once I opened up the box, there was another box with headphones in it a packing list that said "iLounge Envi winner". Then I remembered that I had entered a monthly drawing on iLounge for free headphones. I had never won anything from them before, but this time they were giving away 50 pairs of headphones, so my odds had gone up substantially I guess. Even though they had my email address, they hadn't told me I had won (though I found an article later on with the winners).


The "Envi" isn't necessarily a variation of "envy" but is short for "environment." The company that makes the headpohones, RF3, makes them for cell phones saying they dramatically reduce the radiation your head receives from holding a cell phone or Bluetooth device up to your head. Or even regular headphones because part of the design is the speaker seems to be a couple of inches from your ear and the last connection is an air tube. So you never have a wire that close to your ear. I remember the old airline headphones that were just tubes that carried the sound and they were terrible.

The box itself is all corrugated cardboard with the shape of the headphones cut into the packaging. So no plastic at all. That's pretty neat though I'm not sure whether it is better environmentally to use 1 ounce of plastic or 6 oz of cardboard. And the headphones themselves have wood components (renewable, I suppose). They say the plastic and metal parts are made from recycled materials. So all of that is pretty neat, but the first thing I did was plug them into my iPod and listen. The ends of the headphone are similar to the Sennheisers in that there is a rubber mushroom tip on the end that fills your ear canal and turns into a woofer that can deliver really good bass if the fit is just right (so they come with three different sizes of rubber tips to fit all ears). But in spite of some excellent reviews for a similar model at Amazon (5 5-star reviews by people who have only ever posted one review; smells like astroturf), I didn't think these sounded any better than basic earbuds even with the fancy packaging and a retail price of $90. I put the bigger rubber tips on and this may have improved the sound a little. I just don't know that the air tube does much for you (though it eliminates most of the noise I get from brushing the cable which is transmitted right into my ears with the Senns).


The clips hold the buds in place pretty firmly so they definitely aren't going anywhere, but are still comfortable. And the cable is a Y cable instead of the J cable I've gotten used to where one cable goes behind your neck (kind of nice because that means you can take the headphones out and they will hang from your neck). But the Y is needed because the cable also includes a microphone which needs to be in front of you. I haven't tried that out yet.

Still, they are free, so I will take them to work as a backup set in case I forget to bring my headphones with me in the morning.

Distance Learning

I spent a couple of days in an online class this week for work. I think the guy teaching it was in Ohio. I have done video conferencing before, which feels pretty normal. I can see and hear the remote conference room and they can see and hear mine, so it isn't too bad. But this class didn't involve any video, just sound. Since it was a class on how to use software we all had to have computers, so our screens were set up to show his screen which would be either Powerpoint or the program, plus a control panel where we could type in questions. I was designated the contact person, so I had a microphone and could talk to the teacher, but nobody else had one and my microphone was usually off.

As weird as it was to be a student, I'm sure it is much harder for a teacher who has no idea if we are getting any of what he is saying. And he couldn't even see our screens, so if someone was having trouble, then other people in the class had to try and figure it out. That aspect of it is actually pretty good because it means the ones showing others how to do stuff are learning it even better than they would otherwise. Having students help each other out is really better than having a teacher do it sometimes.

The only glitch was towards the end after a break when he was doing something on his screen (which he would do when he was testing something out or getting something ready). But he kept doing it for a while before I typed him a message saying "Are you talking?" I had done this once before, but it turned out he was just playing around with something and said he told us he wasn't talking. This time I didn't get a response right away. Then a few minutes later his microphone came on and he said he had just realized his microphone had been off the whole time. He had probably been talking for 5-10 minutes while the rest of us were just talking about whatever amongst ourselves, waiting for the next session to start. Using the control panel a couple of us sent little "laughing" icons and he said "Yeah, I guess you think it's pretty funny." I think he was kind of mad I hadn't stopped him earlier by microphone, but I hated using the microphone and would get feedback or echo since my voice would play over the speaker.

I guess this is the way things work now and it is how David goes to high school, but it was kind of a weird experience for me. I never even saw what the teacher looked like.

Return of the Estonian

It has been six years since I first met the three Estonian college students that stayed with me and sold books door-to-door all Summer. I never heard much from Arni, but I heard from Martti a couple of times, and Madis wrote a year or two later to say that he and his wife had just had a baby.

This week I got an e-mail from Madis saying he was in Tampa for a conference and had a layover in Atlanta with an open ticket for the trip back to Europe. He now works for Estonian Air, the national airline of Estonia as an aircraft engineer (they contract their maintenance out, but he oversees some of that). That is great because I knew he was studying aircraft technology in school, so this is his chosen field. But they are pretty small: Wikipedia says they have seven jets. As an airline they are a big customer so he had a great time in Tampa with conference sponsors throwing all kinds of parties every night.


I picked him up at the airport after work and we drove back to my house so that I could let the dogs out. It was still kind of early so we took the dogs for a walk and then walked up to the Irish pub. As we were finishing our meals, Trivia Night started up, so I figured I might as well get an entry form while we were finishing our second beer. It was divided into 4 quarters with 4 questions each and then a bonus round. I got all of the questions right the first quarter, but missed a couple in the second. Still, at halftime Team Estonia was in second place with a bunch of other teams very close behind. However, the questions got harder about more obscure subjects and I missed most of the remaining questions (we didn't stay all the way to the end, it was so bad). Turns out, having a guy from Estonia on your team for trivia doesn't help very much. So it was me against teams of 3-8 people.

Unfortunately the next day I had to be at work to finish up a bridge I had promised to have ready, so I couldn't hang out and show Madis any sights. He decided to spend the day shopping before catching a flight back home. He didn't want to stay too much longer because he wanted to get back on Saturday and spend Sunday with his wife and (now) 3 girls.

It was great getting to see him and I'm glad he stopped by. He said that even if people didn't make much money selling books, he has recommended the experience to people. Walking around with the dogs he said he felt like he should be knocking on doors and telling them about books. I'm sure it was surreal returning to a place so far away from home that is still pretty familiar.

He said some in his group made so much money they came back for a couple of more summers. He also said that after working so intensely that a lot of them went back and just let loose, spending their money and partying for long hours to the detriment of their studies in school (they all missed the first week of school because that was when the books had to be delivered; so they had to hit the ground running). It took him a few weeks just to get his sleep schedule back to normal. That whole experience would make a great magazine article or even a book. He said there were a lot of articles written about it back in Estonia.

Previous The Estonian Series