Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

eMate, writing, hairballs, and divorce.  §

© Aron Hsiao / 2000


In my ongoing quest to try to identify the absolute best clear-head, focus-driving writing device in existence, I got ahold of an eMate 300. I used to write on my Newton 2100 devices and still like them a great deal, but the process of pulling out the external keyboard, plugging it into the dongle, plugging the dongle into the Newton, finding a place to set both free-floating devices, then opening the Newton door, folding it over, and getting it to stand up just-so is just a tad too far to go when you have to jot (read: type) and idea down.

You end up just not doing it because it’s a PITA.

So—the eMate. Built-in keyboard, clamshell form factor. Open screen and type. That’s the sort of thing I’m shooting for. On the other hand, the device is now twenty years old, give or take. It’s not exactly plug-and-play to make them go…and they have some typical deficiencies at this point.

  1. There is a well-known hinge problem. With wear, a spring in the hinge breaks free and punctures the mylar cable leading to the display. At that point, what you have is a dead eMate 300.
  2. Virtually any original battery is completely unlikely to work by now, and they shipped with proprietary battery packs (though built from a series of AA cells, as virtually all battery packs are these days).
  3. So I’ve just spent an afternoon with a soldering iron, a Dremel, and a bunch of tools and spare parts implementing the permanent hinge repair and a complete battery pack rebuild and replacement using modern 2400mah AA cells.

It was a lot more fiddly than I thought it would be, but it’s done. I hope. For the moment, I’m typing with no problems on battery power (yes, I’m using the device right now) and the hinge seems to be functioning (though it is much more stiff than it used to be).

What do I think, now that I’m laying here typing on this thing?

Hard to say. I love Newton OS and always have. So there’s that. And the keyboard is about 80 percent of “full size,” which I love. I have come to prefer slightly smaller keyboards over the years, despite having large hands. The “full size” keyboards that so often come with Windows PCs now seem giant to me, like an exercise in finger stretching. Maybe this is a matter of me getting older and my joints not being as flexible as they used to be, I don’t know. But I’m pretty happy with the keyboard. And I really do love the simplicity. The older I get, the more “writing only” devices with stripped-down functionality and less “pixel perfect” displays seem to bring out the best in me in terms of productivity.

On the other hand, it’s slow. The Newton 2100 processor is many times faster. Also, it is severely limited in terms of memory and storage—here again the Newton significantly outclasses it.

More to the point, it’s big and heavy. I’d thought it would be smallish, but now that I have one in front of me, I can see that it’s quite a monster. It feels almost as heavy as my 17″ Macbook Pro, is wider than most 12″ display laptops are these days, and at its thickest is nearly 2″ thick.

It’s hard to imagine myself carrying it everywhere with me. It’s just too big. It demands a bag or a backpack of some kind, and will no doubt occupy most of it, whatever back or backpack I select. That is a definite no-no.

It’s also going to be a pain to get data off of it. Here I sit typing this, already beset with the vague dread of the process and hoops that I will have to confront in firing up NCX and the USB-to-serial adapter to try to get this post actually online—though if I were to start to use it all the time, the workflow would certainly grow more natural after the first few attempts.

— § —

If I sound ambivalent, it’s because I am. Here are the writing devices I’ve tried over the years, as apart from those based on Newton OS, with some notes about each. Those marked with an asterisk (*) I used to write my dissertation.

© Aron Hsiao / 2002
  • TRS-80 Model 100. This was my first dedicated writing device. I used it to write my first book (never published) and it was miraculous in the way that it got me to just pull it out at a moment’s notice and write. Endless battery life, good keyboard. On the other hand, terrible display and would be a huge pain in the ass to get data off of these days—basically required a null modem cable, a terminal emulator capable of ASCII capture, and a terminal emulator to transfer to PC, and that at a very slow speed (9600 baud). Combined with the fact that these things are still selling for hundreds of dollars today, this all makes relying on the 100 in the future a non-starter.
  • Various Windows HPC Pro/CE machines. This includes a Sharp Mobilon Tripad/Vadem Clio and NEC MobilePro machines. These were fine as far as they went, though Pocket Word was always something of a joke. But they weren’t bad. The biggest problems today are that they were terribly fragile (there just aren’t that many of them around in working condition), the keyboards were horrid at the beginning and, given their low quality, are virtually inoperable (gummed up and sticky keys) in those devices that still work, and to try to sync data out of them (given the fact that they only support unsecured 802.11b wireless, all but useless now, and unsecured SMB, also all but useless now) you have to use the Microsoft connection utilities, hard to find and harder to run, with OS support ending sometime around the Windows 98 era.
  • Various laptop computers (*). Here’s the thing about laptops. They somehow block the brain. I think it’s because of the complex UI/UX and the amount of cognitive overhead involved in booting/navigating/using a full-blown operating system and desktop environment. Linux was slightly better than MacOS, which is light years ahead of Windows for writing, but all in all I struggle to do good writing on a full-blown personal computer.
  • Various tablets with bluetooth keyboards (*). These are, in general, great. The main problems are that the bluetooth keyboards are fiddly to pull out, connect, and start typing on, that their batteries tend to only go a few hours with bluetooth on, and that they offer a bunch of distractions (yet again) to keep you from you’re writing. It’s all to easy to tap the Facebook icon without even thinking about it the moment you pause to reflect—and then never to return to your task at all after being distacted.
  • Psion 5MX. Keyboard too small. Unusable as a result. Enough said. Same goes for several other “submicro” devices that seem good in theory but useless in practice.
  • Alphasmart Neo (*). Good. Good in many, many ways. The main problems are that the screen angle is inexplicably bad for actual use (neither flat for gazing downward toward the lap as one does with a TRS-80 Model 100, nor angled enough to easily see when sitting on a desktop) and that the unit itself is really bulky and heavy for such a stripped-down device.
  • Alphasmart Dana (*). Good. Delivers a much better screen than the Neo in terms of resolution and size, but with the downside of being much less legible in many kinds of light due to its touchscreen. Heavier than the Neo as well. Also, based on Palm OS, which means—once again—both distractions and extra steps to do anything. And while the Neo gets weeks of continuous operation on a single set of batteries or a single charge, Dana gets about two workdays worth. Also, the electroluminescent backlight is worthless. Still good as a device, on the whole, but not as good as the Neo, and yet seductive enough to mess with you. And yet with both side-by-side, it’s hard not to reach for the Dana on account of the larger screen—and then long for the basic simplicity and better screen contrast of the Neo while you’r etyping.
  • Chromebook. This is good in theory, and even sometimes in practice. You get a writing app that does full-screen simple (there are several of them) and you just leave it open. Problem: you still have to manage using the “file” paradigm, i.e. “Save As” and managing your files, and all that stuff. Overhead. Also, distractions.

Gosh, I don’t know. What’s the point? They all are and require compromises. Here’s my dream writing machine:

  • Compact and lightweight (iPad mini size)
  • Clamshell with built-in, touch-typable keyboard
  • Limited OS and limited applications
  • Supports modern networks and syncs all writing to Dropbox
  • “File” management with auto-naming like Newton OS or Ulysses for Mac
  • Battery life measured in weeks
  • (Relatively) low-resolution monochrome display
  • Rugged as hell

Will I ever find something that hits all of these points?


I suppose that’s why I’m still always looking.

Best candidates right now?

  • The eMate (here I sit pounding this out and actually enjoying it). That would probably entail a return of some sort to the Newton ecosystem for me, seeing as how I also have two working Newton 2100 units hanging around.
  • The Neo or Dana (hard to choose between the two). Problem is, I tend not to pull them out and write on them. The bulk thing combined with the less-adequate screens and viewing angle makes them iffy (even thought the Dana in particular did get used to write about half of my dissertation).
  • The Chromebook. Except when the clamshell is opened they tend to be just a bit too big. And those distractions. Somehow a less “inspiring” device, when all is said and done, and I think it’s about the psychology of “I’m using a computer” vs. the psychology of “the only thing this hunk of plastic is good for is writing.”
  • Some tablet/keyboard pair. I keep finding myself using the Galaxy Tab S 8.4″ unit along with Samsung’s keyboard. It’s a definite possible. But I do also find myself absent-mindedly ending up on Flipboard, Facebook, iFunny, Crosswords, and so on whenever I sit down to use this combo for an extended period of time.

So basically, the game is still wide open. I’m always on the lookout for something that will work better. I know, I know, the quest for simplicity is misguided and this is all about discipline and will-power.

Only it’s not. You think differently. It’s the Walter Ong phenomenon. The medium that you’re using shapes the way that you think in subtle ways. And these can turn out to be quite important. That’s why when I found myself in dissertation despair, I cleared off my desk, fired up the Dana, and was able to pound things out on it that I couldn’t in all that wasted time sitting at a full-fledged computer typing out bullshit and little else.

— § —

On a related note (okay, that’s a lie, it’s about as unrelated as anything could get), when I pulled up stakes and decided to go to bed tonight, I walked into the room, flipped off the light, and laid down to write this entry—whereupon I felt something cold and distinctly wet underneath me.

My first thought was that someone (kid, animal, whomever) had peed on it and I was only just now noticing. My second thought was that water had been spilled.

I felt around with my hand and came up with something distinctly slimy and “disgusting” feeling.

Gingerly, I got up, walked over to the light switch, and turned on the light, trying not to touch my wet-and-slimy hand to the switch.

What was on the bed? And what was on my hand?

Hairball. A big, juicy, slimy, now freezing cold hairball.

This goes along with my earlier post about the reality of having pets.

It just isn’t a nice moment to lay on, and get your clothes soiled and soaked by, a cold, oozing hairball.

Not nice at all.

What this has to do with the discussion on the eMate rebuild and the later discussion on writing tools I couldn’t quite say.

— § —

This is the last weekend before the start of the school year.

My daughter begins kindergarten on Monday.

© Aron Hsiao / 2016

It’s a strange feeling. My whole life has been governed by the academic school year, so it always has some resonance for me, but this is different. It’s become a set of tasks and calendar entries to attend to. Still an event, but an event of a different, practical character, one over which I feel mastery.

I suppose this is what they mean when they say that you experience life in stages. Here is school all over again, but for the first time in my life, I am experiencing it really as a parent. And it’s different. Very different.

I must try not to lose empathy and memory for what the kids will be going through over the next few years. From where I sit as a father, it’s a minor thing, something that you do and that everybody does and that is benign and helpful and not overwhelming, and in fact, in many ways just plain easy.

I must always try to remember that it is not necessarily so for them. I was once in their shoes and I would have described it as anything but easy, after I had a year or two under my belt.

It’s a bit selfish, but I’m glad I don’t have to do it again as a student, the way that she’s having to do it now. There are certain benefits involved in being an adult, and not having to worry about school, even if you have it in your life in some way, is one of those benefits.

— § —

When I was ready to begin my eMate 300 rebuild tonight, I needed some supplies. Solder, a multimeter, a plastic AA battery tray holding four cells in a 2×2 grid in series.

I never thought I’d say this, but thank God for Radio Shack.

For a moment tonight when I pulled up to the location that I used to visit and found a Thai restaurant there, then remembered that Radio Shack had hit serious financial difficulties and shuttered much of their national operation, I was worried.

Where, in this day and age, does one buy basic electronic components retail any longer if Radio Shack is unavailable? In most municipalities, nowhere. That’s where. You’ll have to buy switches or diodes in packs of 50 or 100 when you only need one or two, then wait a week for Amazon to deliver them.

Happily, I had the presence of mind to plug “Radio Shack” into Google Maps on my phone, and was happy to find that there is still a corporate-owned store in the area, just a few miles further down the road. And they did, in fact, have the little bits and pieces and components that I needed.

I know that nobody goes there anymore and that it’s the height of uncool, but long live Radio Shack.

— § —

© Aron Hsiao / 2003

The divorce papers were officially filed today. (No, for those of you not up to speed, not the ones to start the divorce process, the ones that will make it final.)

I don’t know what to say about that.

Only that things are what they are, and that there are times in life when you realize that there is no point in trying to fight reality any longer.

Do I think it was the right thing? No.

Do I think it could be avoided at this juncture, at least by any action that I was able to take? No.

So that’s that. Sadly. More on this in the years to come, but not just now.

Just now I am trying to avoid the topic, for the most part, for various reasons.

— § —

And now it’s time for me to hit the sack. This is a hell of a post. Score one for the eMate. This doesn’t happen with the other platforms—where I start and just go. Only on Newton OS. Has always been that way.

Sleep, and then, tomorrow, an attempt to try to transfer this out of the eMate and into the Mac, where I can toss it into WordPress.

— § —

Good night, world.

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