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Travel back in time with me, if you will, to the year 1996, and contemplate the state of technology two decades ago.
In 1996, just 20 million American adults had access to the Internet, about as many as subscribe to satellite radio today. The dot-com boom had already begun on Wall Street--Netscape went public in 1995--but what's striking about the old Web is how unsure everyone seemed to be about what the new medium was for.
In 1996, Americans with Internet access spent fewer than 30 minutes a month surfing the Web...

Via's Jurassic Web (2/24/09); coincidentally, Slate went live in 1996
Less than 10% of the U.S. population had internet access  but some of us were already trying to answer the implied question: how do you use it?

One rather obvious answer was to figure out who the likely audience might be, and then try to identify uses that might appeal to that audience. (Those folks would be known today as early adopters, a term that was actually coined in 1962 but which wasn't in widespread usage in 1996.) And, of course, the predictable answer for who likely fell into that demographic was college students.

And so some of us who were involved in on-campus college recruiting for our employer, ARCO Permian, had the brilliant idea of creating a website that would (1) explain what our company was and what it had to offer, via articulate and persuasive propaganda commentary, while (b) demonstrating our remarkable technical savvy and overall coolness.

The only flaw in the plan was that 10% number mentioned above. Even if college students had more ready access to the internet, a web-based approach would exclude a significant majority of them. The solution was simple: a WOAD, which was our acronym for "Website On A Disk." Impressive, right? OK, I just made that up, but it IS a cool acronym, with a kind of Celtic warrior vibe*.

Sadly, we elected to go with the more pedestrian "Portable Web Site" and it looked like this:

Photo of ARCO Permian Portable Web Site floppy disk
Note the totally pretentious copyright symbol

You remember floppy disks, with their two megabyte capacities (in HD format, that is) and magnephobia (no, it's not on the quasi-official phobia list, but it should be) tendencies. A floppy seemed to be the ideal medium for handing out to students who may or may not have had an internet connection.

Given the capacity limitations, the trick was to design a website that would fit on a disk. No problem, the actual site consisted of only four pages, and it totaled less than 250kb. And for some unknown reason, we had a link to a text-only version that consumed a massive 12kb. 

We also created a unique splash page tailored to each university we were recruiting from. Cutting edge stuff, I tell you. And, finally, we included a read_me.txt file on each disk providing detailed instructions on how, exactly, to open the website via browser (along with assurances that we had scanned the diskette "for viruses using Norton © Anti-Virus For Windows©, V. 3.0; even then I was a Mac user, but I resisted the urge to add that Apple folks needn't worry about such things).

I don't know if we ever actually hired anyone because of this tactic; I don't even recall getting any feedback about it. But it was a fun project to work on, and was one of the first of many, many websites I enjoyed building for years thereafter.

Oh...if you want to see what a 1996-vintage website looked like, well, you're in luck.

Winona Rider in King Arthur*In the 2004 movie King Arthur, the fierce tribe of Picts was referred to as "Woads," presumably because they made themselves look fierce by painting themselves with dye from the woad plant, and also because "Picts" sounds less than fierce. Some people with apparently nothing better to do dispute that as an historical misconception. 

Personally, I prefer to remember the movie for Winona Rider's Kiera Knightley's (oops!) Woad-ish costume, which would have easily won an Oscar for The Most Obviously Uncomfortable Costuming by a Major Actor or Actress in a Leading, Non-Musical Role (and I really do hope the Academy is considering the addition of such an award).
I received a game camera and wireless modem for Christmas and I'm impressed with both so far. The M-888 Mini Game Camera, branded by Moultrie (a company perhaps better known for its game feeders) features a 14 megapixel sensor, 100 foot infrared flash range for night photography, 50 foot motion detection range, and 720p video capability. 

Moultrie M-888 Mini Game CameraMoultrie M-888 Mini Game Camera - Open Cover

Moultrie MV1 Wireless Field ModemWhen you pair the camera with the Moultrie Mobile Wireless Field Modem (photo at right), you can monitor photos and adjust camera settings remotely via Verizon's 3G cellular network (if you plan to use it in an area which Verizon doesn't serve, it will function only as a paperweight. Also, if you're already a Verizon cell phone subscriber, you can't use that service; you must subscribe separately via Moultrie. Sorry). This obviously requires a subscription, the price for which varies according to expected data usage. I'm using the most basic plan, good for an estimated 750 photos/38 megabytes per month, priced at $9.99/month. The plans range up to $50/month for 500mb/10,000 photos, in case you live in a zoo. Moultrie also offers a "maintenance only" plan for $4.99/month that allows you to remotely view and adjust camera settings without accessing the photos.

The camera and modem setup was relatively simple. I did have to make one quick phone call to Moultrie's customer service, and by "quick" I mean that it took the woman on the other end of the call approximately 12 seconds to identify the problem and inform me that I was an idiot who probably wasn't qualified to operate a sophisticated piece of equipment like a kitchen match, much less a fancy game camera. OK, she was much more diplomatic than that, but I'm sure I've made the Moultrie Dumb Customer Support Hall of Fame for my failure to click a single button on the setup website that would have made the equipment positively sing with success.

Anyway, once the camera and modem were on speaking terms with one another, and the modem was also schmoozing with Verizon's system, the only remaining task was to find a suitable mounting spot.

I also failed miserably in this task.

My goal for the camera was to catch some of the wildlife that has migrated through our Horseshoe Bay back yard at night, but what I've succeeded in doing is photographing ALL of the car and truck traffic entering and leaving the neighborhood. I realize that in theory this doesn't sound very interesting, but the reality is that it's even less interesting than that. However, the one camera setting you can't control remotely is where the dang thing points, so until I can make it back down to HSB, I'll spend all my data on vehicles (and the occasional squirrel).

On a more positive note, the photos are good quality, even if they're boring. And I'm very impressed with the capabilities of Moultrie Mobile, the website and mobile app (iOS & Android) which function as the command centers for managing the camera, photos, and all associated settings. (By the way, you can click on the following screen captures to see a bigger image.)

Moultrie Mobile camera status window

The photo viewport functions basically like any photo management software, allowing you to view, tag, filter, edit, delete, and share photos. The camera automatically tags each photo with metadata such as temperature and moon phase (not as weird as it may seem; use it to correlate wildlife behavior). There's also a placeholder for barometric pressure, but it's blank on all of my photos, which either indicates a remarkable meteorological anomaly or a feature reserved for a different model of camera. I'm pretty sure the latter is the more reasonable explanation.

Moultrie Mobile photo management window

Moultrie Mobile picture details window

The most impressive feature of both the website and the mobile app is the connection to Adobe's Creative Cloud "ecosystem," which provides a full set of editing tools with which to tweak your photos. It's not quite a full Photoshop experience, but it's pretty close, offering adjustments such as cropping, color saturation, sharpness, contrast, brightness, selective focus (which is actually selective blurring, but that's splitting hairs). You even have the ability to remove redeye, in case you photograph any demon-possessed deer. There's also an adjustment called "Whiten," represented by a toothbrush, the purpose of which remains a mystery. I mean, you DO use it like a brush to make the picture, well, whiter, but the "why" of it escapes me. (Later edit: It does seem to allow you to make some selective adjustments to contrast, which is somewhat helpful in bringing out details in nighttime photos.)

Moultrie Mobile Photo Editor window

In summary, I'm far from being an expert on game cameras, and this one is probably going to end up being used more for security monitoring than wildlife spying, but the capabilities of Moultrie's integrated system are impressive. And I'm sure that once I can point the camera somewhere other than at the road across the fence, there will be more interesting things to view.
My tenure as a boy scout was pretty short (even counting the preposterous time I spent as a Sea Scout in landlocked Fort Stockton), but the "be prepared" mindset stuck with me. I'm blessed/cursed with an imagination that places me in the most disastrous alternatives of any given scenario, and the fact that one of those alternatives hasn't yet occurred only means that the time of its arrival is closer than ever.

Granted, some of this is paranoia, but it's also common sense. Take jumper cables, for example. I've put a set in both of our cars, because you never know when you might encounter a dead battery (either yours or someone else's). Of course, the problem with jumper cables is that you need another car in order for them to be effective. This is not a problem if you're stranded in a populated area and you don't mind calling on the mercies of kindhearted (you hope) strangers, but you don't always get to choose where your car battery gives out.

DBPOWER jump starter carry case
The unit comes in a nice zippered carrying case.
The simple solution is to also carry a portable power source, one strong enough to start a car. Fortunately, advances in battery technology have given us that capability in a small, easy-to-use the DBPOWER 600 amp jump starter, which I purchased after reading a review on this site. (Note: At the time of this writing, the unit is on sale for Prime members for half price at; just click on the preceding link.)

The lithium-ion battery that powers the device is strong enough to start a 6.5 liter gas or a 5.2 liter diesel engine. No, that won't start your Bugatti Veyron's V16 mill, but it will handle the largest engine you can get on a Ford F-150. That is impressive for a device that weights just over a pound and fits comfortably in the palm of my hand.

The DBPOWER 600 also serves as a power source or charger for home electronics, including USB-powered devices, and it has a plethora of adapters - none of which are Apple-compatible, by the way - for that purpose. It has a built-in flashlight (because batteries never die during the day) with strobe and SOS modes. And, inexplicably, it has an integrated compass...for which even my overactive imagination has thus far failed to identify a valid use.

OTOH, the compass does imply other non-car-related uses. While the carrying case is somewhat bulky, the unit itself would easily fit into a backpack for a hike or camping trip, and provide plenty of power to recharge a camera, tablet, or phone.

DBPOWER jump starter carry case
Accessories are easily retrieved.

DBPOWER jump starter
The unit itself is compact and easy to handle.

The manufacturer claims that the battery needs recharging only every four months, assuming that it hasn't been used. That's a fairly impressive standby time. It also purports to be able to jump start 30 cars before requiring a recharge. However, I'm of the opinion that if you're jumping 30 cars at a time, you're either incredibly helpful, or you're engaged in activities of questionable legality. Alternatively, if you're jump-starting your own car 30 times in succession, just go buy a dang battery, OK?

The device can be recharged either via your car's 12-volt DC outlet or a 120-volt AC plug. It does, of course, come with adapters for both.

DBPOWER jump starter controls and ports
The controls are clearly labeled and easy to use.

All of this is theoretical, of course, so I decided to put it to the test on my own vehicle, a Honda Ridgeline pickup with a 3.5 liter 6-cylinder engine. Not having a dead battery (there's never a mechanical malfunction around when you need one), I disconnected the battery leads, sacrificing my clock and radio settings for your edification. I figured this would be a true test of the device, because even when a battery doesn't have enough power to start an engine, it may still be providing some residual current that's additive to whatever the jump starter is providing. (I'm not a mechanic or an electrician, so I could be wrong about that.)

In any event, I powered up the jump starter, attached its clamps to the battery cables, and - voila! - the truck started immediately. I turned off the engine, disconnected the device, and then repeated the process. Again, the engine fired up without hesitation. And after two starts, the power level on the jump starter dropped from 99% to 98%. The 30-start-per-charge claim may actually be conservative based on this admittedly limited test.

By the way, if you've been intimidated in the past by jumper cables - knowing which to clamp to what - this device is drop-dead simple to use. You can only connect the clamps to the device one way...the correct way. Then, the red clamp goes on the positive battery terminal; the black goes on the negative. If you get them switched, the unit has circuitry to keep it from damaging your car's electronics, and that's A Very Good Thing.

DBPOWER jump starter with attached cables
Clamps attached, armed and ready for action

You can bet it will be a constant companion in my truck because, you know, you can never be too prepared. And, by the way, this would be a perfect gift for a student heading off to college for the first time.

Now, if I could only remember the code that's required to access and restore my navigation and audio system settings...

Fun with Google Earth
January 28, 2016 9:41 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the many cool features about Google Earth is the ability to step back in time to see how an aerial scene has changed. Beginning with Google Earth 5.0, introduced in 2009, "historical imagery" was integrated into the application. As far as I can tell, much of the imagery (dating back to around 1984) came from the USGS, but there are a lot of images which are dated well before that. The results are inconsistent, but here are a few of the oldest images for some well-known cities:

  • San Francisco - 1938
  • Las Vegas - 1950
  • Los Angeles - 1989
  • NYC - 1978
  • Dallas - 1995
  • Miami - 1994
  • London - 1940
  • Berlin - 1943
  • Linwood, Ontario, Canada - 1930
OK, so Linwood, Ontario, probably isn't that well-known, unless you happen to live there, but by all accounts the aerial photo from 1930 is the oldest one in Google Earth. So, there's some fodder for your next family trivia night.

I was curious about what the historical imagery would show for our neighborhood and the immediate surroundings. Our development is only about ten years old, built in what was previously open pasture, and a lot has changed during the intervening years. It turns out that Google Earth has eight distinct views of the neighborhood, dating back to 1996. That first image is black and white, and there's a seven year gap until the next image shows up. Updates are more frequent thereafter.

I decided to create an animation to show the changes from 1996 to the present. (That capability is supposedly present in Google Earth but I couldn't make it work.) I took screen shots of each unique point in time, then created an animated GIF in Photoshop. Here's the result. Note: This is a very large file and the animation may not run if you don't have a lot of bandwidth. Feel free to right-click on the image and download it to your desktop to view if it stalls.

Aerial time lapse of Midland, Texas

There's not a lot of change during the latter years, although if you live out here, you'll be familiar enough with the neighborhood to spot the differences. But one thing I had never noticed before is that the development is has a distinct shape that's oddly familiar. I can't quite put my finger on it...but maybe you can figure it out...

Woodland Park...or Jurassic Park?

Roaming the Web
January 9, 2016 7:06 AM | Posted in: ,

It's been a while since we've wandered around the web, looking at some cool new tech. Here's a roundup of some things that have come across my Twitter feed lately.

Snap - The Flying Camera

I find it very interesting that the word "drone" appears nowhere on the Vantage Robotics website. This is likely an intentional strategy to distinguish Snap from its competitors, and perhaps to also distance itself from some of the negative connotations attached to the term. Regardless of the reason, the description of this device as a flying camera seems to be completely accurate, as it's all about the quality and controllability (versatility?) of Snap's video capabilities.

And for an unskilled pilot like me, the fact that it's held together by magnets so it's not destroyed by the inevitable crash is a huge selling point!

Zeiss Smartphone Lenses

One of the most vibrant sub-industries to arise in response to the increasingly high quality of phone cameras is the creation of lenses to extend the capabilities of those cameras. For example, a company called Action Life Media sells an adapter contraption that lets you use your Canon or Nikon SLR lens with your phone. It makes for a ridiculous-looking rig, and sort of defeats the ease of use and portability that make phones the most popular photographic devices in the universe, but I suppose there's a market for such add-ons.

The high-end lens maker Zeiss obviously agrees, since it's rolling out a suite of iPhone lenses (macro, telephoto, and macro) that attach to the phone via a special bracket. If you know anything about cameras, you know the respect that Zeiss glass commands, and it's hard to think of these lenses as gimmicks. Pricing has not yet been announced, but they won't come cheap.

Danny MacAskill - Mad Cycling Skillz

If there's a better trials bicyclist in the world than Danny MacAskill, I've never heard of him (or her). The preceding video is simply the latest in a long series, every one of which will make you rethink what's possible for a bunch of metal tubes suspended between two rubber circles. I get sweaty palms just watching it.

MacAskill rides bikes made by a company called Inspired. He also provides consultation to the company for its higher-end bicycles such as the Skye Team Bike (named after the Scottish Island Danny calls home). So, even if you can't ride like him (and you can't), you can have the bike that leaves you with no excuses other than your simple lack of skill (and guts). Oh, and it will also leave you several thousand dollars poorer.

In closing...

OK, so this isn't a tech-related item, but it's always good to end a post with an absurdity. If you haven't been in the presence of a physician after they've had a few drinks, you may not be aware of the new healthcare diagnostic codes...all 68,000 of them. This is but one of the most ridiculous of the new codes; here's a list of some others. And be sure to buy your doctor the next round.

UE Boom 2 Bluetooth Speaker
January 5, 2016 7:04 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the things I hinted for at Christmas was a Bluetooth speaker. I often like to have music going while working in the yard or the garage and while both porches and the garage have wired music capabilities, I like the idea of being able to remotely program the tunes.

Photo - UE Boom 2I didn't have a specific brand or model in mind, and I really wasn't looking for anything too expensive or high fidelity (I guess that's redundant, huh?)...I just dropped the hint to MLB one weekend while we were shopping in San Antonio. She immediately disappeared into the nearby Apple Store, and on Christmas Eve I found myself the happy owner of an Ultimate Ears Boom 2.

This cylindrical bit of audio technology is exactly what I had in mind, even though I had nothing in mind. It's got a great sound - enough to fill a big room - and it links to (and is controllable by) my iPhone, iPad, and home computer. It's rechargeable via USB, and the battery is rated for fifteen hours (I have yet to test that). Other thoughtful touches include a tripod mount and an audio-in connector in case you want to use it with a non-Bluetooth system. 

And here's the icing on the cake: it's waterproof (down to ~3' for 30 minutes). I don't plan to take it into the shower, but it would be an awesome addition to a long paddleboard session on the lake. At 7" in length and weighing just over a pound, it's easy to transport. We could easily strap it to our bike, as well.

I mentioned that the speaker is controllable by a variety of devices. This is done via installation of UE's free app, and the capabilities extend beyond on/off and volume control. The app provides an equalizer feature to fine-tune the sound and an alarm function that allows you to wake up to selected songs, albums, genres, artists, or playlists. It also provides access to something called "Block Party" that lets up to three devices alternate feeding music to the speaker, presumably in a party setting. (I'm too much of a control freak to have much use for this, however.) And, finally, the app allows firmware/software updates. Note, however, you can also do this via a computer via USB connection.

You can also stream to two Boom 2s (Booms 2?) from the same device, if you want to invest more money. This won't provide stereo capability; the sound from each is omnidirectional. But it would provide multi-room capability, as well as more volume.

I'm pretty enthusiastic about this speaker, so if you're also in the market, take this as a recommendation. Oh, and did I mention that it makes a groovy bongo sound when you turn it on?

Tivo Problemo
January 2, 2016 1:13 PM | Posted in: ,

Broken Tivo iconOne of our Tivos (Tivoes? Tivii?) went out last night, right in the middle of an episode of iZombie on Netflix. One second we were watching Liv feast on a delectable dish of brains au gratin, and the next we saw that ridiculous Tivo emoji-guy and the dreaded "One moment while Tivo restarts" message. We all know that one Tivo minute is equal to two trips around Saturn, and indeed, the message never disappeared and the Tivo never restarted. Fortunately, our Plan B kicked in flawlessly and in a minute or two we were finishing the ep via Apple TV.

This morning, we went through the complicated list of things users can do when their Tivo spazzes out. To wit:

  1. Unplug the Tivo.
  2. Plug the Tivo back in.
Of course, that didn't work, so we were reduced to the Nuclear Option: calling Suddenlink user support. That turned out to not be a horrible experience, but the tech was unable to reboot the unit remotely and we scheduled a service call for next week. My guess is that we'll get a new unit.

In the meantime, the prospect of having no TV in our living room was giving half our household the heebie-jeebies, so it was up to me to come up with an alternative. Should be pretty simple, right? Just disconnect the cable from the Tivo, reconnect it to our A/V receiver, and - voila! - wasteland recaptured.

Guess what? Our four-figure-cost A/V receiver doesn't have a coax input. That would be too low-tech; it's HDMI or bust. Wait! I'll just route the cable through our Blu-Ray player and...well, rats. No coax input there, either.

Looks like I'll have to bypass the receiver and connect directly to the TV, meaning that we can't watch Telenovela in 7.1 surround sound. No big deal. It's not a cosmetically pleasing solution, because it means that a length of cable will be draped across the mantel - because, of course, the coax input is on the opposite side of the TV - but it's only temporary.

The cable is not long enough. I'll have to find another length of coax, plus a connector, to make the reach. Fortunately, I never throw anything away, other than receipts that the IRS stupidly deems critical, and I'm able to come up with both components. TV is now connected. All I have to do is put it on the right input.

And...the TV remote's batteries are dead. Because, of course, we always use the Tivo remote to control things. Off to search for AAA batteries. Fortune smiles upon us again; we always stock up on batteries around Christmas.

So...TV connected to cable? Check. Input switched to cable in? Check. Fixer Upper appearing on TV? Uh, negatory. We have to "reacquire" the active channels, a process which is apparently an unholy combination of medieval mysticism and Star Trek technology. You can almost hear gears cranking inside the TV - slooooowly - as it grinds through 300 channels to locate and electronically anchor the three that we usually watch.

It was a process only slightly less painful than a root canal, but we have again have a working TV in the living room and we can get back to the important work. Those iZombie episodes won't watch themselves, you know.

Shooting an iPad: It's what we do.
October 9, 2015 12:29 PM | Posted in: ,

My mom's iPad recently cratered. It wasn't a huge deal, since it was a hand-me-down of my 1st generation model, and I replaced it with another hand-me-down of my 2nd gen tablet.

I was able to coax it to life just long enough to wipe it clean and destroy the SIM chip, and I planned to drop it off in the dead electronics box at Best Buy for recycling. But then I had a brilliant thought: "what do guys do when their stuff breaks beyond repair?" The answer is pretty obvious. They shoot it!

I can't explain it, and I won't even try to justify it. It's just one of the rules, and I'm nothing if not a rule observer (especially if the rules are fun). So, I propped the old and busted iPad against a back porch wall and hauled out my AR-15 12-gauge shotgun .40 S&W pistol pellet gun. (I may be crazy but I'm not insane.)

Standing at an angle to avoid ricochets (remember kiddies, always be safe when shooting electronics in your back yard), I took careful aim from a distance of about fifteen feet. The results were remarkably satisfying.

iPad with bullet holes in screen

Several observations:

  • The glass screen is quite durable, and evidently shatterproof. The glass pulverized where the pellets impacted, and the impact caused spiderweb cracking, but no glass shards broke off.

  • The electronics are also durable. As you can see from the photo, the display never shut off. (As to why it's displaying in the Dutch language, well...that's another story for another time.) However, the touchscreen no longer responded to, um, touch. The on/off button did work, but the home button did not.

  • The rainbow of colors caused by the trauma to the display is actually quite pretty. (Even guys who shoot defenseless electronics have a sensitive side.)
I now sorta hate to take it to Best Buy. Maybe I'll get it framed as a companion piece to the G4 mother board.

Deciding how to categorize this post was a challenge. I started to put it in the DIY category, contemplated the Art category, and ultimately landed on a combination of Technology and Firearms, even though a pellet gun hardly qualifies as either.

New Toy: USB Turntable for Digitizing Albums
August 27, 2015 9:35 PM | Posted in: ,

Photo - Turntable

This arrived from Amazon yesterday first new turntable in, oh, about three decades. It's an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB direct drive model, and it's pretty awesome, considering my rather modest needs and expectations.
We have a turntable but it has a few shortcomings. First, it doesn't play 78 rpm records; more about why that's important in a moment. Second, it doesn't have an integrated pre-amp, meaning that it must be connected to a receiver or amplifier with a phono input. And, finally, it doesn't have USB connection capability (that should be obvious, considering that USB didn't exist in the mid-80s).
I chose this model primarily for a combination of features (all of the above) and price (I could have spent a lot more, but I'm not an audiophile and this turntable will see limited use). And I had two reasons for wanting a new turntable. I want to digitize my record collection. It's not extensive - maybe 200 albums - but it does have some sentimental value, and there are some songs that seem to be unavailable through the normal online channels. The album shown in the photo is a good example. Elbow Bones and the Racketeers had one hit in the 80s, A Night in New York, and the album where it resides isn't available in digital form on iTunes or
Photo - Label of old 78 rpm recordIn addition, while packing my father-in-law's household possessions in preparation for his move to a new home, we ran found about forty twenty-four 78 rpm records, 10" in diameter which is smaller than the 33 1/3 rpm LPs we're accustomed to seeing, and neatly organized in sleeves in two binders. The labels on most of these records say "Sample Copy - Not for Sale" or "Special Record For Radio Station." They appear to be demo records, each containing one song, provided by the recording studios for radio airplay, and my FIL has no recollection as to how they ended up in his possession. Based on some quick internet research, they seem to be from the period 1950-1952. I don't think they are collector's items, but I would like to listen to them and capture some or all of the music in digital format. So, I need a turntable that will play 78s and also easily connect to a computer.
This turntable meets those needs and more. It also has tone-arm weight, tracking, and height adjustment capability, variable pitch control, and reverse mode (so I can reality-test the presence of all those purported Satanic messages on various records). Admittedly, the pitch control and reverse mode are nothing I'll ever use, unless I plan to become a DJ in my retirement years, but they're still fun to experiment with.
And, finally, the turntable has a switchable line-out/phono-out output so that I can connect it either to my A/V receiver or to powered speakers (as shown in the photo) or a computer (via the aforementioned USB connection).
What it doesn't have is auto start/stop. You have to manually place the needle on the record and then remove it at the end of playback. AT makes a comparable model with the auto capability, but I didn't want to pay the extra money.
This is also the first record player I've bought that required assembly after unboxing. The stylus, counterweight, platter, and pad all had to be installed, and then the tone-arm balance and tracking had to be adjusted to meet the specs of the stylus (2 grams weight recommended, if you must know). The documentation of the steps for doing all of this was quite clear, in direct contravention of the international standards for stereo instructions. And accomplishment of these tasks gives me the appearance of an audiophile without needing any actual competency.
The unit ships with the free, open-source sound editor Audacity which can be used to clean the digitized sound by removing the clicks and pops that plague vinyl. It also has some special capabilities and a recommended workflow for recording and cleaning sounds from 78 rpm records. This is more complicated than you might think; well, at least it's more complicated than I expected.*
However, before I can begin the digitizing process for the 78s, I'll need a new stylus. Styluses (aka "needles") for modern 45s or LPs are narrower and will damage the grooves of 78s, as well as pick up more surface noise than usual. 78s also usually require a heavier tone-arm weight to properly track. So, I've ordered this stylus from LP Gear that's specifically designed to fit the AT cartridge that came with the turntable. It's also designed for a slightly lower tracking force than many 78 styluses and I think that will help to extend the life of the records.
My ears aren't discriminating enough, nor is my A/V system sophisticated enough to discern the legendary "warmth" of vinyl-based music (vs. the alleged "coldness" of its digital manifestation), but there's something about the physical interaction with the medium that's pleasantly nostalgic. It's similar to the difference between holding a printed book vs. reading it on a Kindle or iPad. It's not necessarily better, but the differences are worth preserving, even if for reasons that aren't entirely logical.

*Between the time I started writing this post and when I actually published it, the new stylus arrived and I installed it and tested it with the 78s; it works perfectly. I've also installed and configured the software and connected the turntable to my Mac Pro, and that is also working well. Stay tuned for some audio samples!

Hands on with the Nest Cam
August 20, 2015 6:26 PM | Posted in:

I purchased and installed a Nest Cam wifi security camera yesterday and so far I'm finding it to be exactly as advertised: easy to install and configure, and impressively useful. The device itself is small and elegantly designed.
Photo of Nest CamWe already have Nest smart thermostats in our home, and the camera integrates seamlessly into the account that monitors and controls those devices. The camera connects to your home wifi network, and the free Nest app (works with iOS and Android devices) lets you monitor the live video feed from the camera wherever you are.
Picture quality is impressive - up to full 1080p high def color with digital zoom capabilities. The camera has integrated infrared LEDs that provide night vision, and it works quite well. Even in a completely dark room the black-and-white video feed is clear and detailed.
The camera also has a microphone and speakers so you can listen and talk to anyone near it. The microphone is quite sensitive; I can hear sounds from a TV in another room across the house.
The camera can be configured to send an alert to your phone when it detects motion or sound (can be configured separately). You can create a day-by-day schedule of times when the camera will automatically turn on and off, and if you have a Nest thermostat, the camera can coordinate with that device to automatically turn on when you're away.
When it detects enough motion (or sound) to activate, it then records a short video which is stored for review. I'm not sure how long those videos are kept, or how many are accessible. Nest has an option called "Nest Aware" that allows you to store up to 30 days of videos for an annual fee ranging from $100 to $300. At this point, I don't see a need for this option so I can't comment on how well it works. However, the Nest Aware account offers some additional features like the ability to "fine-tune" the motion and sound sensitivity of the camera. For example, according to the Nest website, the camera will activate when the doorbell rings, but not when your air conditioner cycles on, because it can identify the latter as background noise. You can also export video clips into a format that can be shared with others, which I suppose would be useful if your dog is apt to do amusing things in your absence.
The camera comes with several mounting options. It can be placed on a shelf, permanently mounted to a wall, or attached to a refrigerator door or metal filing cabinet via a magnetic base. Note that the camera is for indoor use only, and must be plugged into an AC wall outlet.
You can connect up to ten cameras to a Nest location (with a limit to two locations for a given Nest account). The camera is $199, and is available at all the usual big box stores as well as online via the Nest website.
We already have a camera as a part of our security system, but it's pretty dumb and clunky compared to the Nest Cam. Even the security system installer couldn't get the camera to connect to our wifi and so we've got a separate wireless router just for that camera. I'm seriously considering replacing it with a Nest Cam.

July 25, 2015 3:11 PM | Posted in: ,

Update (June 9, 2016): I've been informed by the developer that unless I provide a credit card and start paying $30 PER MONTH, on July 8th they will delete the app described below. Since the app still sucks, I'm happily letting it expire. Sometimes even a free app isn't worth the money.

Update (July 27, 2015): The following post details some issues with the new app that caused me to withdraw my recommendation for its use. I brought those to the developer's attention a few days ago, and just received a reply. They say they are working on some of the styling issues and investigating why one article is not displaying in its entirety. More important, they have turned off the feature that caused external links to appear as links to my own articles, which I felt was misleading and inappropriate. Given this response, I withdraw my withdrawal of my recommendation. Or something. Does that make sense?

A couple of days ago, I gave a halfhearted recommendation to a new Fire Ant Gazette iOS app. I was willing to live with the weaknesses of the app - primarily the poor translation of the formatting of the blog - in exchange for the admittedly selfish and subjective "cool factor." 

However, having lived with the app a while longer, I've uncovered a couple of additional issues that have caused me to change my mind.

The first problem is the app's inexplicable tendency to leave out entire sentences. This was demonstrated in rather ironic fashion when the first sentence of the post linked above was omitted from the app version. This is ironic because that sentence contained the link to the app download page.

The second issue is more egregious, because it tries to pass off promotional material from the app developer, DWNLD, as something I've posted. Take a look at this screenshot from the app:

Screenshot of Fire Ant Gazette app
The highlighted icon is an ad link.

The portion highlighted in yellow is actually a link to DWNLD's website, but it's formatted and placed in the "Read More" section where everything else is a link to additional Gazette articles. I think this is misleading and I don't appreciate the implication that I'm somehow endorsing or recommending DWNLD's services. 

I initially thought that this is a marketing ploy for DWNLD, but I now realize that almost every post has a similar link (or links) in the "Read More" section which lead to external, third party websites linked in the specific article. Again, this is misleading, as it appears that they are links to more Gazette articles. It's also superfluous, because I already provided embedded links in the article; there's no need to randomly recreate them in the "Read More" section.

In effect, DWNLD is coopting my content, and deciding what to emphasize. I don't appreciate the editorial intervention.

I emailed DWNLD with my concerns about both of these issues, but have not received a response. Where that leaves things is that, for now anyway, I no longer recommend downloading this app. And if I can't get either an acceptable explanation or solution, I'm going to request that the app be removed from the App Store. 

I have enough trouble managing the Gazette writer without also having to manage a third party "editor."

There's an App for This
July 23, 2015 6:02 PM | Posted in: ,

Screenshot of Gazette app download page
Update (June 9, 2016): I've been informed by the developer that unless I provide a credit card and start paying $30 PER MONTH, on July 8th they will delete the app described below. Since the app sucks, I'm happily letting it expire. Sometimes even a free app isn't worth the money.

Proving there's no content too worthless to warrant such treatment, the Fire Ant Gazette now has its own app,

Lest you think I've suddenly acquired ambition and skill, let me assure you that I had nothing to do with it. A company called DWNLD specializes in creating turnkey apps from existing websites, and their apparent business model is to do this on an unsolicited basis, and then to notify the content owner of its existence. Why they chose the Gazette for this treatment is a mystery, but "desperation" comes to mind.

Not only did DWNLD (not sure why they chose to yell their name) create the app, but they did the heavy lifting to get it added to Apple's App Store so that anyone with inadequate media consumption standards can download and install it for free (sorry, Android and Windows users...this is an iOS-only joint).

Regardless of the reason, I confess that it seems pretty cool that this blog has its own mobile app. (OK, to be honest, I find it hilariously ironic that this Content Free™ site should have yet another way of delivery.)

The app isn't perfect, even apart from its questionable choice of content. For one thing, it's ad-supported, which is how DWNLD makes its money (I get nothing from those ads). So far, the ads have been non-obtrusive and inoffensive, floating at the bottom of the window, although every now and then, a dismissible full-page ad appears.

Also, the translation from my Movable Type blog layout to the app's format is quirky. Some odd line breaks appear at random, and it appears not to recognize some rather basic HTML formatting (like unordered lists). It also doesn't recognize custom style sheets. Navigation through the site is non-intuitive and so far I've been unable to determine whether I can make the app display more than a dozen or so articles (which some visitors will feel is a mercy). Based on the sketchy documentation, it appears the conversion is optimized for WordPress sites, so outlier formats get a more cavalier treatment.

Some of the links in the articles that the app picks up lead back to the actual Gazette website, in a fashion similar to the way Facebook opens website links. This tells me that DWNLD hasn't converted the entire blog, and it's a bit jarring to jump from the mobile-friendly layout into the not-so-friendly website. On the other hand, that does then allow one to access the complete navigation options for the site.

DWNLD provides a few customization options for app owners via a dashboard which is accessible either via a separate mobile app or via desktop browser. I'm still exploring those options, which appear to be limited to layout selection, fonts, and colors. There's an option to upload a logo, but I haven't mastered it because it's not appearing anywhere in the app. Theoretically, any updates to options are automatically published to the App Store.

Screenshot of app on iPhone

On the plus side, the app does a good job of displaying photos and embedded videos, and it pulls photo captions from the ALT tag, thereby reinforcing the importance of that meta data. It seems to recognize and handle jQuery scripts, such as photo slideshows, although not perfectly. The content itself is displayed in a pleasing manner, and is of course optimized for mobile viewing, something I haven't taken the time to make the Gazette's website do. But, really, that's the whole point of the app: it's not intended to be a replacement for a desktop-accessible website.

Do I recommend this app? I guess my answer falls into the realm of "sure, why not?" It has some obvious flaws, but also some advantages for mobile device visitors. If I was at all concerned about website traffic, I might worry about cannibalization, but I'm not and I don't. The app does lose the serendipity of stumbling across content via search engine, and that's a shame. But the geeky part of me is having a bit of fun figuring out how the whole thing works. And, as I said at the top, it's kinda cool to have a Fire Ant app. So if this is your cup of tea...feel free to drink deeply!

Screenshot of app download page
A Facebook friend posted a link to this New York Times article. It's a long but entertaining look at a failed* Kickstarter campaign to fund a PID-controlled espresso machine. The article is a cautionary tale about what happens when a good idea is poorly executed, and project backers feel they have been treated unfairly, if not defrauded. 

Kickstarter is the preeminent crowdfunding website, where people with ideas seek people with money, and, in a perfect world, the combination results in a commercially viable (or emotionally fulfilling) result. Some projects are spectacular successes, some are dismal failures, and most fall somewhere in the middle. 

I have backed three Kickstarter projects over the years.
Vinyl stegasaurus
Who wouldn't want a vinyl stegasaurus?
One was a cap for a pen or pencil that turned it into a stylus for use with a touchscreen device, another was a whimsical attempt to laser-cut old vinyl record albums so that they could be assembled into monsters, and the third was a titanium bicycle lock designed to be practically unbreakable as bike thieves rarely carry band saws or water jet cutting machines. All three of these projects brought their products to market; as far as I can tell, the bike lock and stylus cap are both commercial successes (the Monster Records domain name is for sale, so I assume that it, like its models, suffered an extinction-level event).

My investment in each of these campaigns was nominal. I pledged $150 to the bike lock campaign, for which I received a lock now selling for $199; a $25 pledge got me a stylus cap. The laser-cut record pledge was a bit more incautious: $120 got me two dinosaurs. And while I use the bike lock, the stylus resides somewhere in a Drawer of Miscellaneous Miscellany (we all have one, right?) and the vinyl dino puzzles are in a bookshelf, partially (OK, mostly) unassembled. 

As the New York Times article implies, crowdfunding a project carries some inherent risks. You're trusting someone you probably don't know to do what they say they can do, and you have no control over the outcome. You don't have any legal ownership in the process or product, and very little recourse if things go south. 

From my perspective, it's best to think of these projects as charitable endeavors, minus the tax deductibility of the "donation." If you think the product is innovative and useful, or the idea resonates on an emotional level (a vinyl T-rex made from a classical LP? Awesome!), then read through the business plan and let its apparent credibility and achievability determine at what level to back it. But, as with any gamble, don't bet more than you're willing or able to lose. 

As a concept, crowdfunding has much to recommend it. As an investment strategy...well, you might be better off investing in an internet startup with a sock puppet spokesthingy. 

*This project's Kickstarter page has a somewhat recent update from the creators pledging to keep the project alive. The update is a bit poignant considering it was made before the New York Times report.

LEDing the way
March 21, 2015 3:34 PM | Posted in:

I've finally decided to bite the bullet and switch over to LED light bulbs throughout the house, although I may have to set up an Indiegogo account to get it funded. Those things are seriously expensive.

I'm not sure I can justify this plan on purely economic terms. I counted more than a hundred bulbs in our house (and that doesn't include some of the desk and table lamps). LED replacement bulbs range from about $8 for a chandelier bulb to over $40 for some specialized high-wattage models. Even assuming an aggressive estimated average of only $15/bulb, this means that we'll pay $1500 to completely redo the house. The bulbs are indisputably more energy-efficient and long-lived than incandescent bulbs, but I suspect it will take a long time to recoup $1500 in electricity savings.

Things get even pricier if you want to swap out recessed lighting receptacles to the smaller ones that accommodate LED equivalents. I'm not planning to do that, because I don't think the smaller bulbs look odd in the regular receptacles, but there's always the chance that I could get overruled by the Chief Designer.

LED Chandelier BulbHowever, I really like that the bulbs put out almost no heat, and often have a higher lumen/watt ratio than standard bulbs. Most of them are dimmable, and most come in a variety of color temperatures (I tend to like cooler, less red/yellow light). You can even get bulbs to replace those 4' fluorescents in your garage, although that requires bypassing the ballast. Fortunately, that's relatively simple to do and there are a plethora of instructional videos on YouTube. And although I'm not the greenest of Gaians, I do like the fact that LED bulbs have no mercury in them (but...there's always a "but").

So, I ordered a boxful of chandelier bulbs, frosted and clear, and I've swapped out 16 of them this weekend. I've got another handful to replace outside when the rain lets up. The LEDs are longer than the standard bulbs so they were a tight fit in our ceiling fan fixtures, and the tips peek out from the inverted glass fixtures over our dining table, but the results are still pleasing. And if the propaganda literature is to be believed, we won't have to replace any of them for the planned period of our continued home ownership. (No, that's not an announcement, but 50,000 hours is a long time.)

There are a lot of places to buy LED bulbs online; I happened to pick EarthLED because of the selection, good product descriptions, and what seem to be competitive prices.

Adventures in TV mounting
January 17, 2015 3:12 PM | Posted in: ,

I bought an LED TV as a Christmas present for MLB as a replacement for the remaining CRT set in the house. That TV was installed inside the built-in cabinets in our workout room, mounted on a sliding metal platform that has a few degrees of rotation so that we theoretically could view it from anywhere in the room. In practice, however, the platform didn't extend far enough to clear the open cabinet door, and part of the screen was blocked from the view of someone on the treadmill. This was frustrating, especially to you-know-who. I fully realize that this might represent the ultimate first-world problem, but that's the way we roll.

The goals in replacing the old TV were to upgrade to a high-def, non-pan-and-scan picture as well as to place it so that we could see the entire screen from any point in the room. The latter would be a challenge, though, as the construction of the cabinet and its doors meant that not just any mounting bracket would work. I needed something with a relatively long extension but that would still fold flat so that we could close the doors when the TV wasn't in use.

TV mountI found what looked like an ideal solution on a website for Displays2Go, a "full-motion" tilting, swiveling, extending articulating arm mount that uses a gas strut for smooth and adjustable action. It also looks like something out of a Pixar animated short.

This mount extends up to 23" from the wall, the longest reach I found in a configuration small enough to fit inside our cabinet. It also allows 360º rotation, which I assume might be useful if you lay on your side while watching TV.

As an aside, this mount is manufactured by a company called North Bayou. In the time-honored Chinese tradition of stealing being intellectually influenced by American business innovation, that company's logo is suspiciously similar to that of New Balance. Nevertheless, the quality of their product is indisputable.

I mentioned earlier that I had installed a sliding platform for the previous TV, and this was to be an integral piece in my plan. Even though the mount had a long reach, it still wouldn't have been enough by itself to clear the cabinet door. My plan was to somehow attach the mount to the sliding platform, so that the combination of both would achieve the goal. The challenge was figuring out how to do this.

It turned out to be a relatively simple matter. I would sandwich a board vertically between two pairs of metal L-brackets which would in turn be bolted to the metal platform, forming a wall of sorts to which the mount would be secured. A key factor in this approach was the fact that the TV - a 32" Samsung - weighs only eleven pounds (another side note: it replaces a 60-pound TV), so I didn't have to worry about whether this mounting system would be sturdy enough.

So, I bought a 1/2" slab of pine at Lowe's, along with the required L-brackets, and put my plan into place. It took some cyphering to decide on the right placement to ensure that everything fit in the space and cleared the doors, open and closed, but the actual fabrication went pretty smoothly. The installation? Eh, not so much. Can you spot the problem below?

TV mount installed backwards

This would have been perfect had I (1) been planning to watch TV from outside the house, and (b) had X-ray vision. Neither of those things really fit our lifestyle. In my defense...well, I'm an idiot. We'll leave it at that.

Following a couple of hours and an extended workout of my vocabulary, I got everything pretty well in place. Here's how the setup looks with the TV extended:

TV mounted

The TV went onto the mount with a minimum of fuss, but I discovered that two of the mounting bolts are apparently designed to be burglar-resistant. I hadn't gorilla-tightened them but when I tried to remove the TV to fine-tune the setup, I was afraid I was going to have to drill out the mounting bolts. For whatever comfort it provides, no one is going to waltz in and heist our TV with nothing but a pocket knife.

This is how it folds up to fit inside the cabinet:

TV mounted

At some point, I'll put a coat of black paint on the board and brackets to prettify it up a bit.

The other complicating factor in this whole setup was that all the connections on the TV are on the right side, which of course is the furtherest from the cabinet when the mount is extended. I had to drill another hole in the shelf to route the cables closer to the set.  The upside is that it gave me an excuse to use a Forstner drill bit, which is so much more efficient than a run-of-the-mill hole bit. I also had some leftover Mockett desk grommets to finish out the hole (I highly recommend their products).

Cable management will be a bit cleaner once we get a Tivo in that room and I can replace the component A/V cables that connect the TV to our antique non-HD DVR with an HDMI cable. The DVR served us admirably for at least a dozen years, but I can't remember the last time we burned a DVD in it, and the absence of HD is now a non-starter given the new TV. And I challenge you to find a non-technical, non-CIA blog post with a single paragraph containing this many acronyms.

I do recommend the articulating arm TV mount if you need the maximum amount of flexibility positioning a flat screen TV or monitor. Note the limitations though: max screen size of 42" and max weight of 15 pounds.

"Code 7 - Dinosaur on Aisle 9"
December 19, 2014 11:47 AM | Posted in: ,

You've been there. You've done your grocery shopping - which is stressful enough by itself - and waited at the end of an interminably long checkout queue, and you finally - finally! - get your groceries loaded onto the conveyor belt, ready for the checkout process to begin so you can move on to the important things in your life, and the guy in front of you, getting ready to pay, pulls out a...checkbook! *cue soundtrack from Psycho shower scene*
You know that guy, the inconsiderate relic whose car probably has hand-carved rock wheels? Yeah, I'm that guy.
Who writes checks anymore, anyway? Besides me, not very many people, according to this article, which cites a Federal Reserve study showing that the number of transactions conducted via written check decreased by more than 50% between 2000 and 2012. (There are still billions of checks written each year, but most of them are mine, apparently.) People are instead using debit and credit cards, with a few - most likely Tea Partiers or Preppers - resorting to cash. Interestingly, the value of cash transactions still exceeds that of either debit or credit cards, which makes sense if you assume that really big payments - like those for house down payments - exceed most credit card limits.
Anyway, I'm old school enough that I don't have a debit card...never have, probably never will. I've also never gotten comfortable buying groceries with a credit card...and I'm not prepared to offer any logical explanation whatsoever for that bias; it's just how I roll. I can say it's not because I'm averse to credit cards in general. Our credit card bill represents the largest single expenditure by far we have in any given month, although we always pay it in full, but I guess I grew up thinking that people who bought groceries on credit just weren't good money managers. Like I said, no supportable logic. In fact, the cash back programs that most credit card companies provide justify putting everything on a card, assuming you can pay off the balance each month.
But, lest you think I'm a hopeless dinosaur, I can't wait for the day that we can conduct all of our business via PayPal or by using NFC capabilities on our phones. How are these things different, conceptually, from debit cards? I don't know, but the fewer things I have to carry around in order to give someone my money, the better. (The phone-payment thing - like the system Starbucks uses [which I do love, by the way] - doesn't qualify because the phone isn't the key to the transaction; it's just the facilitator.)

In fact, in a perfect world, grocery checkout would involve rolling a cart full of items directly from the aisle to your car without even pausing at a payment terminal because an NFC reader at the door would instantly read, price, and debit your bank account for your purchases.

It's worth mentioning, if only to protect her if you ever get behind us in a grocery line, that Debbie isn't onboard with my preference for checks. As with most things in our marriage, she's simply humoring me [and since we never had teenagers, I rely on her for my required allotment of eye-rolling].

Insightful and/or supportive comments welcome; haterz will be doomed to an eternity of standing behind me in a checkout line. Either way: email me or slap something onto my Facebook page.
As if there's not enough biting going on at the World Cup, we now learn that the Shark Attack Capital of Brazil is Recife, where the US team lost/won yesterday. Apparently, the sharks in that area are feisty enough that the beach lifeguards do their training in a swimming pool, a practice that no doubt engenders all sorts of confidence in Brazilian beach goers.

Brazil is pretty far from Texas...but that doesn't mean we're safe, and now we can see just how unsafe we are thanks to the OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker, which shows real time updates of the movement of sharks that have been tagged for satellite tracking. Granted, it's a very cool use of technology, even if it serves to reinforce the feeling that in some things, ignorance is indeed bliss. 

This is particularly true in the case of Katharine and Betsy, sweet feminine names for cold-blooded eating machines otherwise known as Great White Sharks. These ladies have made their way 5,000 and 3,500 miles, respectively, from Cape Cod into the Gulf of Mexico, with movement roughly in the direction of Texas and Louisiana. Thanks to the OCEARCH website, you can assess whether it truly is safe to go back in the water.

Sort of. Because two questions come to my mind. First, shark tracking works only when the beasts surface long enough (at least 90 seconds) for the satellite to get a geoposition. Since sharks are fish and don't have to surface other than to snack on a tasty surfer, the truth is that we don't really know where these sharks are or are heading. And, more importantly, only a relative handful of sharks have been tagged, meaning that potentially billions more are right this minute heading for your shoreline...or riverbed...or lake house...

Fortunately for us, bicycling has been shown over the years to be a relatively shark-free endeavor. Still...

Shark attacking bicyclists

Ode to a Bulb
April 3, 2014 10:03 PM | Posted in:

I subscribe to a small number of retail email lists that notify me of "special deals" on items that are of general interest to me...primarily electronics and some sporting goods. I rarely end up ordering anything via those e-flyers, but the one exception is Best Buy's "Deal of the Day" email. I've gotten some really good savings on things like memory cards and flash drives; these items pop up on the email frequently. And now I have another product that I'll be watching for: light bulbs.

The primary lighting source in our home is 65-watt equivalent indoor flood lamps in recessed ceiling fixtures (aka canned lights). I've never counted them but I'm guessing we have about thirty, and that adds up to a pretty significant investment in light bulbs. Our current bulb of choice is that evil incandescent model that haunts Al Gore's nightmares.

I've never been enamored with CFL bulbs. I gave the swirlies a whirl in our previous house and didn't see any greater life in those bulbs as compared to incandescents, and found the non-instant-on feature quite annoying. I'm all in favor of saving energy, but just can't see the devil in incandescent bulbs that everyone claims is lurking there.

I would, however, be quite open to trying an LED bulb, even though the strings of LED Christmas lights we used in the past were ridiculously wimpy. So, when Best Buy advertised these LED indoor floods for half price, I was intrigued. I put an order in for three of them, and have been using a couple in our home office for about a week. I'm very happy with the result.

LED light bulb

Even though the bulbs are slightly smaller than the ones they replaced, they're actually brighter, and they put out almost no heat, which will be a blessing when (if?) we get into serious summer. I have no idea if their lifespan will come close to the ridiculous-sounding claim on the box, but even if it's only half as good, it will still be better than the incandescents.

At a couple of sawbucks per bulb, I'm not anxious to undertake a wide scale replacement of all our bulbs, but at half that price, it begins to make more sense. So, I'm going to keep an eye out for future deals in the daily email, and see if the bulbs will actually make a noticeable dent in our electric bills.

LogMeIn KicksMeOut
January 21, 2014 7:05 PM | Posted in: ,

A month or so ago, having grown frustrated with lengthy tech support phone conversations with various family members, we installed the free version of the LogMeIn desktop sharing app on all of our various computers. It's cut those "my window has disappeared and I can't find it" calls to a bare minimum, making everyone much happier. And then this, today:
It seems that the outfit has grown tired of offering its services to freeloaders like me, and now my only option is the "Pro" version that starts at $99/year (or $49 for the first year if you already have an account). Even though the application has been helpful when we needed it, our actual usage doesn't justify paying that much for the service. So, adios LogMeIn.

Unsurprisingly, there are several free alternatives for this sort of application, so I don't expect to miss LogMeIn. It's simply annoying to have to make the switch, and to invest the time to find the best of those alternatives.

Of course, this is anecdotal evidence of just how spoiled I've become. I quickly take for granted those companies who, for whatever reasons, offer free services or products, and then feel slighted (if not downright abused) when they decide to discontinue those things. Well, not as slighted as some people:
As much as I've tried, I can't quite work up the same sense of entitlement as Mr. Cyberaxe*. Logically, I should just be grateful for the time we had together, and recognize that all free things must come to an end. I assume that LogMeIn was hoping that its free offering would be a gateway drug to entice us to graduate to Even Better Stuff, stuff that we'd pay for, and when that didn't happen, the company decided it wasn't worth whatever trouble it was going to to maintain the service. It's a logical business decision.

I sort of doubt that many people will switch to the paid service; I doubt that I'm alone in deciding to seek out another free product to do the same job. But we all need to recognize that whatever we find, we shouldn't count on it in perpetuity.

*Given the specificity of the hashtag rant, I wonder if Mr. Cyperaxe was using LogMeIn's free service to generate revenue for himself, perhaps via his own desktop support business. It's never a good idea to build your business model on the assumption of freebies from a disinterested third party.

A Tale of Two LCDs
August 20, 2013 8:49 PM | Posted in:

Think there's no real difference between one brand of LCD computer monitor vs. another? Think again, after viewing the following images:

Comparison of same photo as viewed on two different monitors

These are screenshots of the same image as it appears on the two monitors currently residing on my desk at home. The one on the left was taken from a 10 year old 19" NEC monitor; the one on the right comes from a 2 year old 24" Dell display. Neither monitor has been calibrated; their settings are what came out of the box. I did try to improve the NEC's image by fiddling with the on-monitor settings, but what you see is the best it can do.

It's pretty obvious that the image on the right is superior in almost every respect. (If it's not obvious, you might want to make an appointment with your local optometrist. Or buy a better monitor because, dude, yours is seriously hosed.) Both monitors cost about the same amount of money (~$600), although in inflation-adjusted dollars the NEC was actually more expensive. But, then, what piece of tech equipment wasn't more expensive in 2003 than it is today?

There's no clear consensus that I can find on whether LCD displays degrade over time. At one time, I thought it was a given that they did, but most people seem to think that the only change is that the image might get a bit darker. That phenomenon alone doesn't explain the differences shown above.

I think the point here is that if you're shopping for a computer monitor and plan to do some color-critical work, it would be advisable to take a flash drive with a sample photo on it and view it on the models you're considering buying. That's easier said than done in our world of online shopping, but if you can pull it off, you'll probably find it was worth the effort. 

For me, it confirms the wisdom of my decision to use the Dell for all my Photoshop and iMovie work, while saving the NEC for activities such as web browsing.
Your grandfather probably doesn't have a pedometer, but if he does, I'll bet it's not a Fitbit. Photo - Fitbit ZipDebbie and I both acquired a Fitbit Zip via our participation in a wellness program sponsored by BP, in which the company is challenging employees and retirees (we, of course, fall into the latter group) to rack up a million steps over the course of a hundred days. That works out to 10,000 steps a day, and it's been interesting to see how wearing the tiny device acts as a motivator to try to achieve that goal.

I was initially skeptical. We're regular exercisers, and a normal workout is either a five mile run, 45 minutes on a stationary bike, or a twenty mile tandem bike ride, and I would categorize our lifestyle as "active," especially when you add in the dancing. So I figured it would be a breeze to get 10,000 steps in a day, but I also thought that I'd quickly decide that a pedometer was a lame idea and set it aside after a short time.

But the Fitbit unit itself is just a piece of the entire system, and it's the system that makes the program attractive. The unit automatically tracks your daily steps, mileage, and calories burned (based on your height, weight, and age), and resets itself to zero each 24 hours (but still counts the calories that a normal resting metabolism consumes even during sleep, which is a nice touch).

It then periodically syncs with your smartphone, tablet, and/or computer, and provides a "dashboard" that provides a nice visual status report of how you're doing. Here's a screenshot of my dashboard from a couple of weeks ago.

Screenshot of Fitbit Dashboard
Notice how I cleverly picked a day where I did good?

In the live Dashboard (which, by the way, is very nice piece of programming...very responsive), you can mouse over the bar graph to see the actual number of steps recorded for a given time period, and I find it interesting to see how activity level varies throughout the day. June 2nd was a Sunday, and other than walking around church and going to the grocery store, we didn't do much until about 3:00 p.m., when we went for a four-mile walk through the neighborhood. A normal day at the office yields 2,500-3,500 steps for me, depending on how many trips between floors I have to make via the stairs.

Even if you're not a walker or a runner, you can get credit for your activities by manually entering them via the website. The site also provides a section for tracking your diet, although I haven't done anything with it. And if you're the competitive type, you can hookup via Facebook with other Fitbitizens to do the social thing. Again, not my bag, but it may be a motivator for some.

I didn't expect that putting a Fitbit on my belt or waistband would change the way I perceive normal everyday activities, but it has. There's something satisfying about knowing that mowing the yard, or walking to the mailbox, or vacuuming the house is not only accomplishing a task that needs to be done, it's also contributing to the achievement of a goal.

It can get a little silly, though. Last night, just before bedtime, I was getting ready to retire the Zip for the night and I saw that it read 15,905 steps. I'm just OCD enough to not be able to let that go, and so I made a few laps around the living room and kitchen in order to break the 16K mark. So I've got that going for me.

There are more expensive Fitbit models; one purports to track your sleep habits, although the reviews are mixed regarding its effectiveness. Another model is in the form of a wristband, but it lacks the display of the Zip.

Having lived with the unit for a month, I would gladly pay the purchase price to have one. The basic model is $60. But BP thinks highly enough of the potential to improve health that it provided the units to employees and retirees for free.

Praising Parrot
February 9, 2013 2:16 PM | Posted in: ,

So, this is what my Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 quadricopter looked like about a month ago following an apparent total electronics failure and subsequent crash.

Wrecked Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

That thing dangling in the lower left corner is what's left of one of the motors, and the propeller that you don't see is the one that snapped off when the bird impacted the ground.

At the time of the crash, the onboard camera was recording, but the device apparently has developed the human-like ability to blank out traumatic memories because the video ends a couple of seconds before the chopper dropped from the sky. However, below you'll see a faithful re-creation of the whole event, pretty much exactly as it happened. (Warning: Some scenes contain graphic violence and may be disturbing to some watchers. Viewer discretion is advised. However, artist discretion was also advised, and look where that got us.)

Animated GIF of quadricopter crash

Immediately after this tragic event, I found on the Parrot website a number of videos for self-repair of the device, as well as a section for ordering replacement parts. It appeared I could fix it myself for about $80 (and no telling how much mental anguish). But I decided to try one outrageous strategy before embarking on that perilous journey: I emailed the company and asked them what to do.

See, as far as I could tell, I didn't contribute to the crash. The weather was calm, I wasn't trying anything crazy, and the device just shut down in mid-air. So I attached screenshots of the error message on my phone, and of the settings in the app that controlled the flight parameters...that set limits on speed, altitude, angle. All of those settings were pretty conservative since I'm a new pilot.

The company's response was gratifying. "If you can provide proof of purchase, we'll fix it under warranty." So I asked my brother for a copy of the receipt (it was a Christmas gift - a very generous gift, I might add) and boxed up the remains and shipped it to Holland, Michigan.

Allowing for shipping time both ways, I estimate that it spent only two or three days in their possession and I had it back, good as new, much quicker than I expected. And we've been terrorizing neighborhood dogs ever since.

There are a lot of companies out there that do a great job of providing customer service and support, but too often the ones that don't get all the publicity. My feedback to Parrot after getting the repaired 'copter back was that I'd put in a good word for them on the blog and my Facebook page. They lived up to their commitment, and now I have, as well.

And if you have some spare shekels, buy yourself one of these things; they're fun as all get out.

Ask and Ye Shall Receiver, or Not
November 28, 2012 9:28 PM | Posted in: ,

Have I mentioned that we got a new A/V receiver a couple of months ago? Astute Gazette readers may recall this tragic post in which I documented our tragic inability to watch 3D movies at home because of our tragically old-and-busted equipment (which was really neither, but technology is a harsh mistress).

It's a Pioneer SC-57, and it's supposedly the first all-digital amplifier to hit the consumer market. What does that mean? Danged if I know, but it sounds impressive, both in terms of specs and in actual listening. But, man, was it a major headache to hook-up and configure.

Here's how it looks inside our built-in cabinet:

Photo of Receiver

Note the three boxes atop the receiver, all of which are reminders of my shortcomings as an audiophile. The squatty one on the left side is Pioneer's WiFi receiver that theoretically allows the receiver to lock into our home network, but Pioneer's instructions for configuring it are inscrutable and so its primary purpose is to look tech-y-ish.

The two boxes with the glowing blue eyes are 50-watt Dayton digital amps, and I have mixed emotions about them. If I had more competence and/or patience, they would be unnecessary, because each of them powers a pair of stereo speakers on our front and back porches, respectively. The receiver is supposed to have the capability of doing that itself, by routing signals from two of its speaker outputs to the second and third zones, but, again, I never could get that configuration to work. I know I'm overlooking a simple setting somewhere, but after a couple of hours of fooling with it - including countless trips out the front and back doors to confirm that, yes, we have no decibels - I gave up and went to Plan B. 

Plan B is actually documented in the receiver's user guide, and while this may sound like rationalization (and it probably is), it's a superior alternative, apart from having to spend another $200 to make things work right. This approach doesn't tie up the aforementioned speaker outputs, so I can have true 9.1 surround sound (although there is that pesky detail of having only seven installed speakers). It also gives a tiny bit more control over the sub-zones as I can more quickly adjust the volume of the porch speakers via the amplifier control, whereas there's a fair amount of button pushing to do it via the receiver.

Regardless, I consider it a victory to now have functioning multi-zones, along with the 3D capability. 

Regarding the latter, while 3D is still barely out of the gimmick phase, it's still pretty cool in a nerdy way. And, best of all, it works right out of the box...or, technically, boxes, since it require three of them to give those lovely glasses their raison d'être.

Pebble: The future of watches?
April 26, 2012 6:36 AM | Posted in: ,

Meet the next millionaire-making personal-electronics phenomenon: the Pebble smartwatch.

This unassuming wristwatch is designed to interact with - control and/or be controlled by - your iPhone, iPod touch or Android smartphone, via Bluetooth. The face is so-called ePaper, a display that's visible in bright sunlight, like a Kindle, and is also backlit for viewing in the dark. The watch can access a wide variety of apps, and more intrepid owners can write their own apps to add capabilities to the device. Instead of building in all sorts of capabilities that would increase the size and complexity of the watch, it piggybacks onto your smartphone and appropriates its features. You can download any number of "faces" to customize the look of the phone - it always displays the time when it's not engaged in more exotic tasks, like measuring the distance to the pin on the 8th hole of your favorite golf course, or displaying caller ID for incoming phone calls, or keeping track of your bicycle route.

If you're an Android owner, you will even be able to view incoming text messages on the watch. Apple doesn't allow external access to such messages so this won't work for your iPhone; you can argue whether that's a good thing or not. 

I've mentioned Kickstarter a few times in the past, and have "invested" in several projects via this group-source financing tool. But the Pebble is far and away the most successful project I've run across. According to its Kickstarter page, more than 40,000 pledges now total more than 60 times the original $100,000 goal.

You can still get in on the funding for this project, which is accepting pledges for another three weeks. Depending on your level of backing, you can get your own Pebble before it becomes available to the general public.

Elliptigo Bike: First Report
April 6, 2012 6:02 PM | Posted in: ,

We took delivery of our Elliptgo bike last Wednesday and we finally had some time today to play with it a bit. Here's a video of our trial runs up and down the cul-de-sac in front of our house.

I found the bike very easy to master; after about ten minutes, I felt completely in control. Debbie is having a somewhat steeper learning curve, but that's because she's been accustomed to riding on the back of a tandem bicycle for the past twenty years and hasn't had to worry about minor details like steering, shifting gears, and braking. But, as you can see in the movie, she's doing just fine.

The bike definitely provides a vigorous workout, which shouldn't surprise anyone who's used an indoor elliptical trainer. The motion is identical, although the bike has regular handlebars so you're not getting an upper body workout. (The thought of adding those moving bars to the bike is downright frightening.)

The bike itself is well-made, with quality components. The welds are thick and uniform, probably equal to the standards you'd find on a good mountain bike. The 8-speed gear systems shifts easily and reliably and the brakes are scary good.

Photo - Roller and railOne slightly disconcerting feature is the noise of the bike, caused by the rollers attached to the "pedals" sliding up and down channels (see photo at right). I can't think of an alternate design that would eliminate that noise, but you probably won't need a handlebar bell to let pedestrians know you're coming up behind them.

The bike comes with a owner's manual chock full of warnings and alerts about the dangers of riding this contraption. There are at least six stern warnings about the fact that you are very tall when astride the Elliptigo, putting you in danger of "serious injury or death" should you forget your height and attempt to ride under short things like power lines or taxiing aircraft. As you can tell in the video, I take those warnings seriously, donning my protective Fire Ant Gazette Anti-Trauma Baseball Cap. Don't be like me, kiddies; wear a helmet.

The Elliptigo owners community appears to be a large and active one, judging by its Facebook page. The sport is now spawning support industries, such as elliptical biking shoes (although as far as I can tell, they're just repurposing some athletic shoes for this type of riding).

I don't think this will supplant our regular biking equipment, but it will certainly be a viable cross-training (and pleasure cruising) alternative. It's especially welcome for those inevitable times that running is out of the question due to injury, something I'm dealing with right now.

Bottom line: the Elliptigo bike is cool enough, fun enough, and practical enough to warrant getting another one so that we can "ride" together.

Bicycle Built for Few
February 29, 2012 9:17 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the things I've always loved about bicycles is their functional simplicity. There's not much fluff on a bike; every component is present for a reason, and - generally speaking - Photo of rear derailleurthat reason is to direct and amplify the human body's effort to move forward. Feet connect to pedals, pedals to chain, chain to wheel, wheel to pavement. It doesn't get much more simple than that. Bicycles need nothing except a rider to complete them.

And so it seems almost outlandish to read a sentence like this:

Campy says future firmwear updates may speed the derailleur's reaction.

This was a comment in the latest issue of Bicycling Magazine, taken from a brief review of Campagnolo's Record EPS gruppo (which, for the non-cyclist, is the group of components that form the drivetrain for the bike: the shifters, derailleurs, gears, etc.). The hot new thing in cycling is electronic shifting, where a touch of a button relieves the rider from the dreariness of having to touch a lever to change gears.

You know me. I'm hardly a Luddite. But...seriously? Do we really need bicycles that need batteries and - heaven help us - firmware updates? Isn't it enough that our TV sets and coffee makers now have firmware?

Some of my fondest cycling memories were of riding my old single speed bike up and down the street in front our house in Fort Stockton, attempting to hit the coaster brake at just the right instant when my rear tire was directly on top of a flattened soft drink can, in order to elicit a barely controlled skid that not only sounded like an out-of-control threshing machine, but would also generate a flurry of sparks to rival any fireworks show. OK, I made that last part up, but in my mind, sparks were flying.

Such simple pleasures. Can you actually duplicate those things on a bicycle costing $15,000 (which was the price of the test bike in the article mentioned above)? I think not. 

Really. Electronic shifting on a bicycle. This is progress?

Umm. I'll let you know how it works. ;-)

Big Toys Time
February 5, 2012 2:49 PM | Posted in: ,

It's only appropriate on this Super Bowl Sunday, a day devoted to over-the-top, larger-than-life, dumber-than-a-stump shenanigans that we at the Gazette focus briefly (in keeping with our attention spans) on some truly big toys.

I shot the following video through my pickup window on Friday, in Fort Stockton. It shows a coupla BA'd truck beds being transported through town. They came up the Sanderson Highway -- puzzling in and of itself -- and turned left onto Dickinson Boulevard where they no doubt brought all traffic in town to a halt. (I had another agenda so I couldn't be bothered to follow. So much for journalistic curiosity.) I also haven't a guess as to where they were headed. Are they using equipment like this at the nuclear waste disposal site in Andrews (city motto: "The stars at night aren't the only thing glowing around here.")?

By the way, that's a 34-wheeler doing the heavy lifting.

Then there's this. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of clear-cutting forests, you have to marvel at the engineering that goes into this machine. I wonder about two things, though. First, what's the MTBF? And second, what does the one that produces toothpicks look like?

LPG Fracs: Technology for the times?
January 20, 2012 10:08 AM | Posted in: ,

Update (1/21/12): Ran across this blog post about LPG fracing. I don't have a great ear for subtlety, but the writer seems to be entering the discussion with a distinct bias, and some of the claims are simply wrong (or misleading - an outcry over putting hydrocarbons into a rock strata where hydrocarbons already exist naturally is a bit specious). The comments are more enlightening than the actual article but it does highlight the indisputable fact that fracing is an emotional topic for many people on both sides of the issue.

The debate about the merits and hazards of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells will likely never subside, as its opponents argue that the process causes everything from fiery faucets to endless earthquakes, and its proponents claim you can drink frac fluid without suffering ill effects other than an unnatural affinity for the Houston Texans. 

Image of drilling rig in a glass of waterBut at least one argument against the process is gaining validity, and that's the undeniable fact that fracing takes a heckuva lot of water, and water is a precious commodity that's growing painfully scarce in many parts of the country. The typical frac job uses tens of thousands of gallons of fresh water (and can require more than a million gallons), and much of that is rendered non potable by the process.

Perhaps it's time for oil and gas companies to take a serious look at using liquified petroleum gas (LPG) as a replacement for water. LPG is generally a mixture of propane and butane. I ran across this article on the Unconventional Oil & Gas Center website that describes the process and a Canadian company, GasFrac Energy Services, Inc, that specializes in LPG frac technology.

Once you get past the psychological impact of thinking about pumping a highly flammable mixture under unimaginable pressures into the ground (GasFrac contends that the process is actually quite safe, although they probably make that claim from deep inside a bunker in an undisclosed location), the benefits are obvious. You're using a hydrocarbon to entice other hydrocarbons to flee their rocky bonds while eliminating not only the need for copious amounts of water, but also for CO2 which is commonly used to "energize" the frac fluid. The frac fluid becomes a part of your revenue stream as it's produced with the reservoir oil and gas, rather than being an expensive disposal problem.

I did some quick asking around the office yesterday and no one was aware of any LPG fracs in the Permian Basin, although someone thought that Pioneer Resources may have tested the process locally. If anyone has some insights in that regard, feel free to share them.

Some companies will be better positioned than others to take advantage of this technology. For example, those with gas plants in the area of the drilling operations could, in theory, produce the LPG used for fracing, and then reprocess the produced liquids stream.

As recently as a couple of years ago, the proposition of pumping LPG into the ground as frac fluid was laughable, from a cost perspective. That perspective has to be changing as natural gas prices continue to tank, and the reality of dwindling water supplies sets in. Water may still be cheaper, but it's also more valuable. 

As I reported in these pages a month or so ago, owners of oil and gas wells permitted after February 1, 2012 must disclose the ingredients of frac fluid, as well as the volume of water used in the frac operation. Those disclosures will be made public on the FracFocus website.

3D Movie a No-Show
December 31, 2011 11:00 AM | Posted in: ,

Ha...a "no-show." Get it? Movie. No-show. I kill myself, sometimes.

I'm sure you're no more surprised than I was when we couldn't get the 3D DVD to work in our setup last night. It was a comedy of errors, although we needed a laugh track because I certainly wasn't giggling.

First, I couldn't find our 3D glasses. They weren't where they were supposed to be, where I put them intentionally so they'd be easy to find. Debbie finally discovered them laying on top of the DVD player. Who stores their 3D glasses on top of their DVD player. (Ed. You, apparently. Me. Shut up.)

We fired up the DVD player, A/V receiver, and TV, and the picture opened to a 55" panoramic view of...a bunch of text in four languages telling us that in order to view this movie in 3D we needed "a 3D capable Blu-ray DVD player (check), a 3D capable HD TV (check), and a 3D capable A/V receiver (che...uh, say what?).

That receiver thing caught me off-guard; I had never considered that an HDMI-equipped A/V receiver might not be capable of handling a 3D data stream. Given that our Onkyo receiver is almost four years old, making it an octogenarian in consumer electronics years, I needed to check its specs to see what they said about 3D.

And, of course, we couldn't find the owner's manual. Of course.

I finally just downloaded the manual in PDF form from the Onkyo website and did a search for 3D. Nada. Looked at the technical specs, and learned that the version of HDMI used by the receiver is 1.3. The most current version of HDMI is 1.4. Is that a problem?

Another series of searches to find out the answer to that question led to a slew of websites and message boards on the topic, all of which read like, well, stereo instructions.

I now know more about HDMI than I ever wanted to...and I still don't know the absolute answer. HDMI 1.4 differs primarily from 1.3 in that it supports an Ethernet connection between two HDMI devices, and (AFAIK) Ethernet is not required for 3D playback. HDMI 1.4 cables are compatible with HDMI 1.3 devices, but those devices may not (will not?) be able to take advantage of whatever additional capabilities are built into the 1.4 specifications. But, still, it appears that 1.3 should be able to handle 3D.

Except for this caveat, from the Disney Blu-ray 3D FAQ (which, btw, was the most helpful resource I found in terms of being understandable by non-rocket scientists or those older than 13): In most cases, your existing HDMI high-speed cables should be able to support Blu-ray 3D, though cables over 3 feet in length may have problems.

This could be our problem, since I've run a 12' in-wall HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV. But, who knows? Should I install a new 1.4 HDMI cable, hoping that does the trick? Does our old-ish A/V receiver make 3D viewing a non-starter regardless? (If you're thinking "firmware upgrade," I applaud your geekishness, but the 1.3-to-1.4 upgrade path requires a hardware boost, too.)

There is a workaround. I can run a 1.4 cable directly from the DVD player to the TV, bypassing the receiver. But to maintain 7.1 surround sound, I'll need to run a separate optical cable from the player to the receiver (and even then, we lose the 3D surround sound that built into some movies). But the whole point of having an integrated A/V setup is to avoid having to run messy ad hoc cables. And, of course, the HDMI ports on our TV are on the opposite side from the other components. (Ed. That went without saying, didn't it? Me. Shut up.)

In summary, we ended up watching the regular 2D Blu-ray version of Captain America, and didn't miss what we didn't know about. But I have to say that any presumably consumer-level technology that's this arcane and complicated just isn't ready for prime-time. It's ridiculous to have to re-wire your system just to watch a movie.

Now, whether it's a good enough excuse to buy a fancy new A/V receiver...well, that is a legitimate question.

3D TV might be 1D too many
December 30, 2011 2:57 PM | Posted in: ,

As I may have mentioned before, for our Christmas gift to each other Debbie and I bought a new Samsung LCD/LED TV. It's got a lot of bells and whistles, including built-in WiFi and that great edge-to-edge picture that makes it look like movies are literally coming out of the woodwork. And it's also got 3D capability, via the almost-but-not-quite dorky-looking glasses that came with the set. (Does anyone still refer to it as a "TV set"?) 

The 3D thing was not a selling point for us; there's simply no option to leave it out, if you want the same overall picture quality and other features. We have yet to even try out the glasses, other than to put them on and look around the room to see if they turned an actual three-dimensional environment into a 4D one. (Sadly, they didn't.)

That's going to change, however, as we broke down yesterday and bought a 3D movie on DVD at Best Buy. It's Captain America, which we haven't seen, and which got some very good reviews from people whose opinions I respect. The darn thing cost $35, which is ridiculous, but still not much less than seeing it on an actual movie theater screen by the time you add in the required peripheral purchases.

And not only do you get a Blu-Ray 3D version, you also get the plain vanilla Blu-Ray version, as well as an old-and-busted non-Blu-Ray version, and also a digital version. So, theoretically, you could watch this movie in four different formats in four separate rooms at the same time. Does that count as 4D? (Sadly, it doesn't.)

I hope I'm not setting myself up for a big disappointment, but I'm prepared to be blown away by the awesomeness of 3D in my very own living room. I'll try to file a report on these pages, assuming I'm not trapped in an alternate universe.

QRazy Codes vs Tags
December 22, 2011 4:41 PM | Posted in:

Attentive Gazette readers understand that I'm fascinated by QR codes, those little boxes filled with random tiny squares that lead to a website when scanned on a smartphone. They're becoming ubiquitous in printed material, and yet I continue to find surprising implementations. Like this one, which I found embedded in a story in Cycle World magazine earlier today.

Sorry for the poor quality of the photo, but I'm sure you can make out the motorcycle theme, a hand gripping the bike's bar. The scattered black and white dots can be scanned to lead to the web URL shown below the image, assuming you have the right scanning software.

And that's the rub...same as it's always been. Not every scanning app can read every QR code. My favorite scanning program, Red Laser, couldn't interpret this particular design. On the other hand, Microsoft's Tag app was able to scan the graphic, and I later learned that's because this isn't actually a QR code but a Tag, which is Microsoft's implementation of the 2D bar code. (Is anyone surprised that Microsoft would come up with their own version of technology rather than cooperating with a standard that's already in place? I didn't think so.)

Sample of an MS TagYou've probably seen the traditional Tags before - they're most often squares filled with multi-colored triangles and parallelograms in seemingly random patterns. The Tags with the dots are less common; I suspect that they don't carry as much embedded information, and that's why the dots can be placed over a graphic (or embedded in one) and still be scannable.

Dots alone don't make a tag a Tag, if that makes sense. For example, the following QR code [source] was not recognized by the Tag app, but is easily scanned by Red Laser:

I continue to believe that the QR code, or at least the concept of embedded scannable graphics, has great potential, but these compatibility issues need to be ironed out before they'll ever truly be mainstream. There's no good reason why someone should have to employ two or three or four apps in order to find one that will read a given code.

TiGr Bike Lock
November 20, 2011 7:25 AM | Posted in: ,

Update (2/2012): The Tigr Lock website has launched and the locks are now available for purchase. They're not inexpensive, but they're also not cheap, if you know what I mean.

I took delivery of a new bike lock yesterday. I realize that sounds like dull news, or no news at all, but it's actually quite exciting. I've been anticipating this since I first found the project on Kickstarter. The inventor's fundraising efforts were quite successful, as he got almost three times the amount of money he initially sought, proof that his concept was attractive to a lot of people. I signed up as a backer, which is why I got one before they hit the general market.

That concept is simple: create a bicycle lock that's light and yet almost impossible to break, a combination that's the locksmith's holy grail. Most bike locks are either very bulky and heavy, or too flimsy to provide real security. And even the bulkiest locks are subject to breakage by a determined thief with a small hydraulic jack.

The TiGR lock overcomes these challenges in elegant fashion. In fact, the lock's slogan is "Elegant Bike Security." The lock consists of a 48" long, 1/8" thick strip of titanium bent in the middle. The two ends are brought together into a cylindrical lock that spins freely, meaning that it can't be twisted off. The flexibility of the long strip of titanium makes it immune to jacking, and the inherent toughness of the metal means that a thief would need a lot of time and some serious power tools to cut it. This is the sort of lock that makes thieves look for easier prey.

The length and flexibility of the lock's body means that it's easier to secure your bike to an immovable object like a light pole or parking meter.

The only downside I see to the lock is that transporting is less than, ah, elegant. It comes with a couple of velcro strap and the suggestion is to affix it to one of your bike's frame tubes. That will work, but won't look great. That's probably a small price to pay for peace of mind.

I'm not sure when the TiGr lock will be available to the public, or what the final pricing will be. I'm not sure they're set up for manufacturing in mass quantities but I suspect that will come once word gets out. The only other thing they need to fix is their QR code imprinting process, as shown in the third photo above. My phone won't scan it. That just won't do; I insist that my bike locks be scannable!

Installing a BHP
October 25, 2011 10:05 PM | Posted in: ,

Big Honkin' Plotter, that is. Or, to be less dramatic and more boring, an HP T-1300 Designjet large format plotter. Yep, that's what I [almost] singlehandedly assembled and put into operation at the office yesterday, in fulfillment of my loosely-defined IT responsibilities.

It was actually ridiculously easy, despite having 94 discrete steps in the instruction manual from unboxing-to-printing. Some of those steps were along the lines of "remove dessication packet," or "open printer cover." I didn't mind; it was a welcome change from too many do-it-yourself projects where the instructions were badly translated from Serbian, or simplified into one "assemble the unit and enjoy!" instruction, which is OK if it's referring to, say, a shovel, but not so good for a propane barbecue grill.

Anyway, while I did most of the assemblage by my lonesome, I did enlist some strong backs to help lift the almost-200-pound device to its feet, thereby avoiding any embarrassing job-related injuries. And to top it off, the darned thing actually worked after I got it connected to the network.

Still, it's one big piece of machinery. How big, you ask? You be the judge.

Aircraft Carrier vs Plotter
Items not drawn exactly to scale

Hardware Guy
October 19, 2011 9:52 AM | Posted in: ,

While the greater part of my new job involves GIS, I'm also the IT contact for the Midland office. Our IT department is centralized in Denver, and the regional offices don't have IT professionals to handle computer-related tasks. Apparently, because I had worked previously in a technocentric field, they thought I would be the right person to assume those duties.

It's a bit ironic. Website clients regularly asked me for advice or tried to hire me to work on their computer hardware or networks (which inevitably involved Windows), and I always declined to do so, stating that I "wasn't a hardware guy," or "I'm not a Windows guy." And now, of course, I'm both.

To be honest, though, I enjoy it. For one thing, while I'm not a computer professional, I do have working knowledge of most the things I'm asked to do, and during this early period where I'm in a prolonged training mode on the GIS side, it's nice to feel like I'm contributing something of value to the company.

Power ButtonI've done everything from install RAM, hard drives, and video cards to helping the Denver networking guys troubleshoot some problem communications lines. I've hooked up a digitizing tablet, swapped out a ceiling-mounted video projector, and installed several complete dual-monitor workstations, both tower- and notebook-based. And, just yesterday, I installed an HP Lefthand SAN, which is essentially a networked storage unit.

That was something of a daunting task for me. For starters, the unit weighs about 50 pounds, and it had to be installed in a server rack. So I had to install the rails first, then drop (well, that's not the best term to use when referring to an expensive piece of hardware) the unit into the rails. Once that was done, I connected the redundant power cords and the redundant networking cables to the proper switches. I then connected the unit to one of our servers so that the Denver folks could finish the configuration and place the unit in service.

Funny thing about that, though. After I had gotten all the preceding done and was feeling pretty satisfied with my accomplishment, the guy in Denver messaged me. "I'm having trouble finding the unit on the network," he said. "Can you check the connections and make sure they're all tight?"

I knew they were, but I went and checked anyway. I reported back. "Hmm..." he said, "I still can't see it. Maybe we have a bad port..."

Then he messaged back. "Uh...the unit IS turned on, isn't it?"

Like I'm supposed to think of everything? *forehead slap*

In my defense, when you plug in the power cables on that unit, lights start blinking and it gives every indication of being powered up. But it's not; you still have to press the "on" button. D'oh.

There's always something around here to ensure that I stay humble.

Customizing QR Codes
October 17, 2011 9:54 PM | Posted in: ,

So, what's this?

Custom QR Code for Louis Vuitton website

Being the perceptive reader I know you to be, you instantly recognize this as a QR Code...sort of. Go ahead - use your smartphone scanner and see if it works for you (you should end up at a Louis Vuitton website, for better or for worse). If your scanner app won't read it, you might jump over to this website and scroll down to the much larger version and try it again.

I stumbled across that website a couple of weeks ago and it was a revelation. You may recall my obsession with QR codes. (If you need a reminder, here's some past Gazette musings, ranging from educational to observational to aberrational.) But I never realized the flexibility they offer in terms of customization. All of them I've encountered to date were sharp-edged black-and-white squares, and it is quite a revelation to learn that they'll accommodate color as well as some graphic embellishment.

As it turns out, the QR code specifications allow for some built-in error correction. Google has a pretty good explanation of the basics, but the bottom line is that you can lose up to 30% of the original embedded data and still have a scannable code. As with everything else, your mileage may vary; in the case of QR codes, the continued functionality will depend on the amount of data contained in the code, the physical dimensions of the code graphic, and the capabilities of your scanner software.

The preceding Google webpage permits the generation of a QR code via its charting API, and you can specify the level of error correction embedded in the generated code.

Anyway, I started thinking about the ways customized QR codes could be used for practical purposes. The most obvious use is to reinforce the branding of the entity employing the code. For example, the Sibley Nature Center uses as its logo a little green tortoise. If the Center wants to add a QR code to its promotional material linking back to its website, it could use one similar to this:
Custom QR Code for Sibley Nature Center website
I actually oversimplified this code in order to ensure its scannability; it should return a URL that may or may not be clickable, as it's missing the "http://" that precedes most web addresses. Your scanning app may or may not know what to do with it, but you get the idea.

As far as I can tell, color has no effect on usability; the main concern is how many scannable pixels are in the primary code. There again, this may vary with the scanning software. In any event, it's fun to experiment with this technique.

I, Cartographer
October 7, 2011 9:31 PM | Posted in: ,

Two months ago, I couldn't spell "cartographer," and now I am [on my way to becoming] one. As a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist, my duties include generating and editing maps, and I've found the learning curve to be challenging.

There are actually two different challenges. One involves learning the systems we use for mapping. Most of our engineering and geological analysis tools (for those in the know, we use Petra and GeoGraphix) include mapping modules, as do many of our online sources of production and industry activity data. Our company has a proprietary mapping application, and I'm also learning to use ArcGIS, one of the most powerful standalone GIS programs in existence. So, thus far I've used about six different programs, none of which I'd ever seen before August 22nd. Fortunately, they all employ similar conventions and processes, so the transition from one to another isn't that tricky. But like so many things in life, they're easy to learn and difficult to master.

Ancient Map
Not one of mine.
The more interesting challenge is understanding the basic cartographic theories. I've always been fascinated by maps, but I never grasped the complexities involved with creating even the most basic maps, beginning with the fundamental issue of how one translates the features located on a sphere (the Earth - more correctly defined as a spheroid) onto a flat surface (a map displayed on paper or a computer screen).

The process of converting a three dimensional representation of the earth onto a two dimensional surface is called "projection," and humans have been experimenting with different kinds of projections for more than 2,000 years, trying to come up with the "best" way of locating geographical points of interest. The thing that all projections have in common is that they don't tell the truth...that is, none of them are completely accurate 3D-to-2D translations. They all distort one or more of the following characteristics: direction, distance, shape, or area. (For a nifty comparison of the more common map projections and their uses, advantages, and drawbacks, refer to this USGS resource.)

This is not just an academic or theoretical issue. The accuracy of maps has real and often significant implications. Maps can also be manipulated to achieve specific goals or serve specific agendas.

I'm reading a book entitled How to Lie With Maps by Mark Monmonier. I recommend it both as an easy-to-read reference for basic cartography, and as a primer on how maps are used to exert social, cultural, and/or political influence in ways that aren't necessarily ethical.

Anyway, while my specific job duties don't necessarily require that I understand some of the more esoteric cartographic principles, my natural curiosity about such things has led me to delve into a wide variety of resources, and if nothing else, I've learned how much I don't know. I've delved into the world of Great Circles, rhumb lines, sinusoidal projections, graticules, and azimuths.

That seems to be the story of my life. I keep telling myself that that's a good thing; it will keep my brain young. Someday, perhaps I'll even convince myself of that.

Road Warrior Gear
July 22, 2011 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

I don't travel much on business, or conduct much business when I travel, but when I do, I have a handful of accessories that I always pack to make the trip more efficient. In addition to the usual electronics (e.g. notebook computer and iPad and associated cables and chargers), here's what I bring:

Photo - Various pieces of road warrior gear

  • eBags backpack: I switched to a backpack from a traditional computer bag last year, and I'm never going back. Besides having a plethora of pockets and pouches for storing all kinds of gears and accessories, a backpack doesn't scream "steal me because I have $2,000 of equipment inside!" Plus, a backpack frees up your hands for carrying suitcases or coffee.

  • Eagle Creek mesh bag: This is one of the handiest accessories I've run across. Everything you see in the photo (except the backpack and the table!) will fit into this three-compartment (two smaller ones are on the back side) zippered bag...along with the power adapters and cables for my laptop, phone and iPad. The mesh bag then stores nicely inside the backpack's middle compartment.

  • Kensington notebook lock: This won't prevent a determined burglar from making off with your computer, but it will thwart snatch-and-run thefts by passers-by who peek in while the housekeeping crew is busy leaving you those useless little soaps.

  • Nite Ize gear ties: I've just discovered these at REI, and I buy a pair every time I'm in a store. They're twist ties on steroids, and their usefulness is limited only by your imagination. Plus, they're fun to play with! They come in multiple sizes and the big ones are truly heavy duty. Bend them to use as a makeshift tripod for your compact digital camera, or a document holder when you're typing.

  • 1-to-3 AC adapter and 12" power cords: Hotels are getting more savvy about providing abundant AC outlets, but you still occasionally find one that just won't accommodate all your electronic charging needs. These simple accessories multiply the available outlets, and the short power cords accommodate adapter bricks.
How about you? What are your "must have" business travel accessories?
Ever heard of the "Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK)"? If you have, I bow before your superior geekiness. I had never heard of it until I decided to research how I might be able to use my Canon PowerShot S95 to shoot in time-lapse mode. Out of the box, this otherwise highly competent point-and-shoot (P&S) won't allow you to automatically take a series of photos at set intervals.

Enter the CHDK, a collection of free software that extends the firmware of many Canon compact digital cameras - but not digital SLRs - and adds capabilities to those cameras that go far beyond their out-of-the-box features. One key feature of CHDK is that those enhancements are non-destructive and non-permanent. The camera's original firmware is not altered, and the CHDK programs can be easily and permanently removed at any time. Here's a brief FAQ about CHDK that documents some of the enhancements.

Well, that's the theory, anyway. And to be honest, I couldn't find any verifiable instances where someone had hurt, let alone ruined, their camera by installing CHDK. Still, the concept and processes are inscrutable enough to give one pause before diving in. Heck, I thought about it for all of about twenty seconds before I got busy rewriting the innards of my camera. (Don't try this at home, unless you really want to.)

I thought I might post a full how-to article on installing and using CHDK, but there are plenty of good articles on the web and there's no reason to invent the wheel. If you're a Mac owner, this is a good resource; here's another that's geared for Windows users.

It might be helpful to understand the basic concepts, without going into all the gory details, so here's a quick summary of the process:

  1. Right off the bat, you need to determine the version of firmware your camera uses. This is critical to ensuring that you install the proper version of CHDK. For me, the perfect solution was ACID - the Automatic Camera Identifier and Downloader. This free program, available for OSX, Windows, and Ubuntu Linux, is an all-in-one firmware identifier and CHDK downloader program. Once you download and install ACID, you can discover your firmware version simply by dragging a photo from your camera's SD card into the ACID program's window. The program not only identifies the firmware, it provides a link for downloading the proper CHDK for your camera.

  2. You need to have a properly formatted SD card onto which the CHDK can be installed. I found another free program called SDMInst that performed that task for me with just a few click. Note that this program works only with OSX, but I'm sure there are other similar apps for Windows.

  3. After the CHDK is installed, the SD card must be locked (you'll still be able to take photos); I think this prevents the programs from being overwritten by the camera's firmware, but that's just a guess. Once this is done and the card is re-inserted into the camera, you can confirm that installation was successful by the appearance of a new boot-up screen that appears briefly on your camera's LCD screen. Here's what mine looks like:
Photo - Startup screen of S95

In addition, the CHDK installs a new menu screen that's accessible by pushing a series of buttons on the camera. On the S95, for example, pushing the print button followed by the menu button brings up the following menu:

Photo - CHDK menu screen of S95

I have no idea what most of these do, because I haven't had a chance to research them. But the sub-menus provide an inkling of their capabilities. For example:

Photo - CHDK sub-menu screen of S95

This particular sub-menu allows you to override the camera's factory settings for things like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. And, again, anything you set on this menu is reset to the factory default as soon as you turn the camera off, so there's no danger of permanently altering the configuration.

Just for comparison purposes, here's the default menu screen, pre-CHDK, on the S95:

Photo - Default menu screen of S95

Boring, huh? Prettier, yeah...but still boring. 

Now that I've got it, what do I do with it?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the reason I embarked on this weird journey was to figure out a way to equip the S95 with time-lapse photo capability. So, installation of the CHDK is simply a means to an end.

The final step in my quest to equip my camera with automatic time-lapse capability was to install an intervalometer script into the CHDK. Ultra Intervalometer is such a script, a free uBASIC program that's easily installed by simply downloading and copying into the Scripts folder in the CHDK directory on your camera's SD card. Once installed, you have to manually load the script via the CHDK menu each time you use the camera. Here's the menu screen highlighting the script that will activate the time-lapse program:

Photo - CHDK script activation screen of S95

Once this script is loaded, the following parameter screen is used to configure how you want the time-lapse production to proceed: you can set the number of shots (or specify unlimited), the time interval between shots, and how long a delay you want before the first shot is taken (thereby kicking off the time-lapse; this would be helpful if you want to start the program in the middle of the night without having to actually get up and press the shutter button). Here's what the parameter menu looks like:

Photo - Ultra Intervalometer screen of S95

The benefit of using a digital camera for time-lapse photos vs. the GoPro is that I can use the digicam's built-in settings for flash and autofocus, as well as taking advantage of the zoom lens.

I've done a very rudimentary test of the time-lapse capability and it does work as advertised. I'll post a better example at some point in the future, as well as share any additional cool applications that might be useful via CHDK. 

By the way, you can write your own CHDK scripts, if you know BASIC (I don't), and load other scripts if you know how to use a browser (I do).

Rocking the Boat
July 8, 2011 6:14 PM | Posted in: ,

Twisted Sifter's Friday Shirk Report is a guilty pleasure, a weekly compilation of 20 amusing (usually) images, 10 fascinating (usually) articles, and 5 interesting (usually) videos. The following caught my eye in this week's report

I've never spent much time considering how new ships are launched, beyond the traditional smashing of the champagne bottle against the bow. I guess I assumed most of them were simply rolled backwards into the water from a gently-sloped ramp. But as this video demonstrates, at least some of those big boats are simply tumped (look it up) into the water sideways, in a sort of sink-or-swim maneuver. 

This is a pretty dramatic and violent action, and I wonder what kind of engineering computations go into deciding whether the height and draft of the ship, and the angle of entry into the water will result in the vessel staying upright. I'd hate to be the guy who punched the wrong button on the calculator that results in a new hundred million dollar boat becoming an even newer artificial reef.

Anyway - as the guy yelled to his buddies - hey, watch this!

If, like me, you aren't sure about the difference between a ship and a boat, perhaps this article will enlighten you. I scattered the terms around willy-nilly, hoping to cover all the piers.
Ran across this video (via Neatorama) of a guy getting a tattoo of a QR code that links to a website.

My reaction? *yawn* Been there; done that.

Photo of my Fire Ant Gazette URL QR tattoo

Yeah, that's right; I've got one, too. It's the Fire Ant Gazette URL. There's only one teensy problem.

It doesn't work.

Perhaps it's the artist's failing, or maybe it's just the distortion caused by the underlying rippling muscles* (eat your heart out, Ah-nold), but my phone won't recognize and scan the code. See, that's the danger of getting permanently marked with something like this; you don't know whether it will actually work until it's too late. Good idea...poor execution.

So, what do I do now? Well, there's really only one good option. 

Rubbing alcohol. You didn't think I'd actually do something this dumb, did you? Don't answer that.

*This was actually the only place I could find that was relatively devoid of hair. I'm not about to shave body parts for the sake of a blog post. And I do apologize if this is the visual equivalent of TMI

And if you want to make a temporary statement about something, I highly recommend StrayTats for good quality, fast service and very inexpensive custom temporary tattoos. The tattoo actually did scan properly before it was applied, so the creator wasn't at fault in this case.
The post title is a little provocative but not technically inaccurate. See, MLB gave me one of these for my birthday and I finally figured out how to work it well enough to wear it on our tandem ride today through north Midland this morning. While the actual footage of the 22 mile jaunt is around 90 minutes (including some preliminary and post-ride scenes), I didn't figure anyone would actually be that interested in a tour of our fair city, so I compressed the timeline just the teensiest bit...well, by 800%, to be exact.

GoPro HD Helmet HEROIn case you're too busy to follow the link above, the "one of these" I'm referring to is a GoPro HD Helmet HERO video camera and housing, complete with a helmet mount. It's a wee little guy, weighing less than 4 ounces with battery, and under 6 ounces including the housing. It came with a couple of methods of helmet attachment, including a complicated harness that looks like something they'd put on Hannibal Lecter. I opted for the simpler - albeit no less nerdy-looking - "vented helmet straps" that weave through the holes in the typical modern bike helmet. The camera is snug and secure, but gives the wearer the appearance of, as Debbie put it, Marvin the Martian. Of course, that's a good look for me, so I went with it.

This truly is an amazing little tyke, capable of full 1080p HD video and 5 megapixel stills. With the right housing back, you can take it 180 feet underwater, and it comes with interchangeable backs that are rated for mounting speeds in excess of 120 mph on your car's hood or motorcycle handlebar. Video is recorded on a standard SDHC card (up to 9 hours on a 32 gig card). You can even program the camera to take a series of stills at fixed intervals ranging from 1-60 seconds, for that time-lapse masterpiece you've been planning.

I'd love to take it skiing, but I don't do that anymore, so cycling will probably be the most common application (although I'm considering mounting it on my lawnmower for a truly awesome view of lawn care). And maybe someday I'll have a chance to go scuba diving again. The HERO is totally coming along if that happens.

So, here's the vid from this morning, pretty much unedited except for that speeding up thing I mentioned. I might later post a more leisurely version of parts of the ride so you can see what our normal cycling routes look like, but this will have to do for now.

Light Field Cameras: Another Segway?
June 30, 2011 6:26 AM | Posted in: ,

Remember how the Segway was going to revolutionize our lives and rock our worlds? I guess the little teeter-scooter has done that, if your life revolves around leisurely touristy tours of certain major city downtown areas. Anyway, we're now on the brink of yet another life-changing technological breakthrough, the Lytro™ light field camera and while the initial hype does look impressive, I remain skeptical that this is not simply another Petite Lap Giraffe.

I don't profess to understand the science behind the concept of a light field camera, but in practice, it appears that such a camera uses software to perform certain light-capturing functions that traditional camera hardware can do well but not perfectly or completely. The result can be photos in which the point of focus can be changed after the fact, or that can be converted from 2D to 3D on-the-fly. There is a certain amount of "that's so cool!" evoked by clicking on various parts of the photos in Lytro's Living Picture gallery, and watching those parts shift into focus while the rest of the photo blurs out of focus, but I'm not sure the same effect couldn't be achieved with a clever bit of Javascript (and, indeed, it appears that the gallery is powered by jQuery with a Flash wrapper; never fear, it does work on iOS devices).

It does occur to me that this technology...this whole concept, in fact...presupposes that print is dead. Shifting points of focus, or changing perspective, or 2D/3D conversions aren't too applicable to painted pieces of paper. That's not necessarily a bad thing, or a wrong-headed approach; after all, what percentage of the photos you look at nowadays are delivered via screen instead of print? For me, it's probably over 75%, although I'm don't actually know how to go about estimating that.

Well, anyway. I'm all for technology that makes cameras smarter, faster, and more capable in low light conditions. I'm impressed by the promise of photos that offer enhanced post-camera processing flexibility. Can Lytro actually fulfill the hype by bringing to market a camera that achieves these goals? I don't know; I clicked on the "Reserve a Camera" link and got my name in the hat to find out more as things progress...but I'm also on the waiting list for one of those awesome Petite Lap Giraffes, too.

Fast Company has some insights regarding Lytro, including an interesting comparison of the company's prospects to those of Dyson, the vacuum cleaner company.
Last February I posted a brief review of Air Display, an iOS app that lets you use your iPad (or iPhone/iPod touch) as a second monitor. At the time, I had tested the app for only a short time and had done no real work using it.

For the past few days, I've been working from a hotel room in Denver and now have hours of experience using Air Display to turn my iPad into a second monitor for my 13" MacBook Pro. Or should I say, "attempting" to turn my iPad into a second monitor?

When it works, Air Display is a quite effective helper app, and increases my screen real estate by more than 50%. I use it in the following ways:

  • Menus - Adobe CS5 applications are infamous for their extensive menus which can consume your workspace and leave little room for the actual task at hand. Using Air Display, I can shift Photoshop's or Dreamweaver's menus onto my iPad and free up my entire MacBook display for the work.

  • Secondary applications - At any given time I'll have around a dozen applications open. Only a few of them are essential for the work I'm doing and I'll keep them on the notebook's screen. The others can be shifted to the iPad.

  • Separate browser tabs - Using Chrome's tear-off tab feature, I can move a browser window to the iPad while keeping the active window open on the MacBook. That's what I'm doing right now, in fact, with a separate tab on the iPad open to my previous blog post, while typing this on the notebook.
This is all wonderful in theory, but Air Display has some quirks that will drive you to distraction until you figure out how to work around them.

The initial connection process seems to be iffy. Since it requires that the Air Display apps be running on both your computer and your iOS device, if either of them aren't cooperating, you don't get a connection. I've found that after waking up my notebook and iPad in the morning, I need to quit the iPad app, and restart it - sometime a couple of times - before a connection can be made. Also, occasionally the iPad's screen will be blank (it should show your computer's wallpaper). For a while, I thought that indicated that the connection had not been made, but I discovered that dragging an application's window or a browser tab over to the iPad will, in effect, bring Air Display to life.

I also found that I had to disable my notebook's firewall in order to have a reliable connection with Air Display. I don't know if that's a quirk that's associated with the hotel's WiFi system; I didn't have that issue when I tested it at home. But if you're on the road and having problems, you might try this, assuming you're willing to live with the security implications.

And, finally, I've noticed that the longer Air Display is running and active, the slower it gets. This behavior is manifested by an increasingly jerky cursor movement, a disappearing cursor, or one that doesn't move at all. When this happens, a rebooting of the iPad and a reconnection of the Air Display software is often required to restore the original operation.

While these are not insignificant quirks, I must admit that Air Display has become an essential part of my "road warrior" toolbox. I'm willing to live with its eccentricities because when the app is working as it should, it makes a tremendous difference in my efficiency. 
That would be fact, in fact, and it's none other than founder and gazillionaire Jeff Bezos who's backing the project. 

The clock, as designed, will tick once a year, have a century hand that moves once every 100 years, and a cuckoo that, well, cuckoos once every 1,000 years. And the whole shootin' match is being assembled in a ginormous tunnel in the Sierra Diablo mountains, on land that Bezos owns and for which there isn't really any other good purpose so...why not?

This is dramatic scenery, by the way, laying just south of Guadalupe Peak, and about as rugged a stretch of landscape as you wouldn't want to traverse without a healthy supply of water and some good snake-guards.

I guess I somehow missed the fact that Bezos spent some of his formative years in Houston, and his family has ranched in South Texas for many years.

Also interesting to note is that the general contractor for this project is listed on the website as Swaggart Brothers, Inc., headquartered in Oregon, which is presumably how Bezos found them. But their website doesn't list this as one of the projects they're involved in. You don't suppose they're a little bit embarrassed by this job, do you? It's not exactly the sort of thing you brag about to your fellow hardhats in the local bar, unless it's to crow about the huge amounts of dough you're no doubt extracting from a certain eccentric billionaire.

I guess this project makes about as much sense as the Blue Origin spaceport Bezos is building in Culberson County.

Tip of the hat to Neatorama
There's no doubt that television technology has made great strides. We're on the threshold of having an 85" 33-megapixel TV to hang on our walls (for most of us, it will have to be in the garage, of course), or if that's too ostentatious, you can put in an order for Samsung's new 70 incher, if you're willing to settle for a mere 8 million pixels of Dr. Phil.

Scan of Magazine Ad
But for some of us, we harken back to a simpler time, when a guy (and not just MacGyver), with nothing more than five simple tools and sweat of his brow, could build his own TV, and a color one at that, complete with an "ultra-rectangular," 25" (315 sq-inch) screen that provides almost immediate access to 24 channels, more than you'll ever need if you're expecting quality programming.

The ad on the right (click to enlarge, and to dig that cool 70s 'do) appeared in the January, 1973 edition of Cycle Magazine, complete with a postcard (postage-paid, no less) to get more information about enrolling in the Electronics Home Study School offered by DeVry Institute of Technology (a Bell & Howell School). If you successfully completed the course, you got to keep the Bell & Howell Solid State color TV that you built. Plus, as the ad revealed, "You might even end up with a business of your own in color TV servicing."

The magazine also has an ad for Record Club of America: "FREE! up to 25 Stereo LPs or 15 Tapes (cartridge or cassette) with NO OBLIGATION to BUY ANYTHING EVER!" Did you fall for that one?
Before there was Flash, the primary means of displaying movement on a web page was via animated GIFs, low resolution graphics with mostly clumsy transitions. Animated GIFs have mostly been relegated to retro-cult status, with very few serious uses for the format (although done properly, with the right graphics, they provide a quite passable substitute for a Flash banner ad). But that's changing, at least artistically, with the increasing popularity of a technique called "cinemagraphy" (not to be confused with the film-making term, cinematography). 

Cinemagraphs are animated GIFs in which only part of the scene moves. The effect can be quite subtle, and also quite striking and unexpected. Someone has referred to them as "Harry Potter style moving photos," and if you've seen any of those movies, you can probably relate to that description. Of course, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a semi-animated one is surely worth even more.

Cinemagraph by Jamie Beck
Photo by Jamie Beck; animation by Kevin Burg; posted on model Coco Rocha's blog

This is a great example of how a photo can be made even more striking with the addition of subtle movement, and the repurposing of the GIF format is brilliant: old and busted is made into new and hotness.

This example was created via a collaboration between photographer Jamie Beck and web designer Kevin Burg. This interview doesn't provide any insight into what techniques they used to create this specific image, but tutorials for making cinemagraphs are starting to pop up here and there

I'd love to try my hand at this, now that I have an HD camcorder. It appears that all you need is a suitable short bit of video and Photoshop (to be honest, while I think I knew that you could edit video in Photoshop, I've never tried it and had completely forgotten that fact). Sounds simple, right?

Actually, making an animated GIF in Photoshop is quite simple, almost point-and-click simple. The above example is a series of 35 layers, each displayed with an interval of .07 seconds, and set to loop endlessly. The key is to choose the right source image.

The downside to cinemagraphs is that they yield very large files. The one shown above is almost 400kb and I've seen some that are multi-megabyte in size. That makes them somewhat impractical for inclusion in the typical website design, although the size and composition of the image can be managed to yield smaller sizes.

We're on the map
May 6, 2011 9:20 AM | Posted in:

Way back in the summer of '09 I complained about the fact that our then-three-year-old neighborhood still wasn't appearing on Google Maps. I also wrote about contacting Tele Atlas, the company who provides the mapping data for Google and many other companies in assorted industries. And then I promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Imagine my surprise last week when an email arrived in my inbox from Tele Atlas with a status report:Thank you for contacting Tele Atlas. Based on a review of your report, we can now confirm that the change you suggested has been made. It will go out in the next release of our map database. This report is now closed.
Tele Atlas supplies maps to the companies that make devices or applications, not directly to the people who use them. We update the map we supply so these companies can incorporate the map update in their own systems. When this process is complete, your change will be made available to you. It may be possible to purchase an updated map; please contact your device manufacturer or application provider for further information.

Thanks again for your willingness to help keep Tele Atlas maps up-to-date and accurate!

The email contained a link that further confirmed the company's handling of my feedback.

I'm pretty sure Tele Atlas's response lagged behind the actual mapping updates, because our neighborhood has been appearing on Google Maps for some time, although I have no idea when it first showed up. (Interestingly, the street view still shows a photo of our three-year-old house under construction. I guess driving through the streets of Midland isn't at the top of Google's to-do list.)

It's nice to know that there are companies who do respond to feedback from clients. We'll ignore the actual response time in this case.

Coincidentally, we just received a letter from Honda informing us that an updated DVD is available for our truck's navigation system (for "just" $150). Honda uses NAVTEQ for its mapping data, and NAVTEQ's data has been more up-to-date than that provided by Tele Atlas. I guess we'll spring for the update, although we haven't made much use of the Ridgeline's nav system lately. In fact, the last time we used it, it led us miles out of our way, into the middle of a pasture instead of to the hotel adjacent to the interstate we exited in order to follow the device's instructions. OK, perhaps that's an indication that an upgrade is advisable.

Software Review: AKVIS HDRFactory 1.0
April 19, 2011 9:49 AM | Posted in: ,

High Dynamic Range (HDR) images are all the rage nowadays. A quick scroll through this showcase of HDR photography shows why: HDR images can be dramatic and hyper-realistic.

HDR images exhibit a greater range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than normally captured by a camera. The goal is to embue the image with the same dynamic range that the human eye can record (or even more, if the desired effect is artistic rather than realistic).

HDR images can be created in several different ways. The most common method is to merge normal, standard dynamic range photos in such a way as to capture the lightest and darkest details in the merged image. This merging is done via software, and we'll talk more about this approach in a moment. 

The other alternative is hardware based. More digital cameras now include an HDR feature that allows in-camera processing and creation of an HDR image. This is generally accomplished when the camera takes multiple exposures of the scene - each exposure being "underexposed" or "overexposed" - and then using onboard processing to generate a single image that incorporates the details from the extremes.

In the end, all HDR imaging is software based, whether done in the camera or in the computer. Analysis of the lightest and darkest ends of the range of luminance is necessary in order to make sure details aren't lost in the final image.

In addition, all HDR imaging requires at least two source images - again, one that emphasizes the darker end of the luminance range of the scene, and one that emphasizes the brighter end of the range. The most common method of capturing these contrasting photos with a digital camera is by using a bracketing method of exposure. Photograph a scene with the camera set for one or more stops under "normal" and then take a second photo of the same scene with a setting of one or more stops over "normal." (Obviously, unless you have a camera that can simultaneously capture multiple F-stops with one shutter click, you'll probably need to use a tripod to ensure that the photos are capturing the identical scene.)

The tricky part of the process comes after the images are captured. How can you best combine them to create the HDR image?

There are a number of applications that can be used to generate HDR images. Photoshop CS5 has a couple of different approaches ("Merge to HDR" and "HDR Toning"), but it's expensive and is overkill if all you want is a quick method of creating an HDR image.

In that case, your best bet is a dedicated application geared specifically toward HDR imaging. There are several to choose from. I've tested Photomatix by HDRsoft ($99; Mac/Windows) and it's fairly straightforward and yields good results. 

A similar, less-expensive alternative to Photomatix is HDRFactory ($69; Mac/Windows), one of the many image processing applications offered by Akvis, a Russian software company. I was recently offered the chance to test and review HDRFactory 1.0, which I installed on my Mac Pro running OS 10.6.7 (Snow Leopard).

My source images were taken using a tripod-mounted Canon Digital Rebel XT. I used the camera's auto exposure bracketing feature to take three photos, one normally exposed, and two bracketed with -2 and +2 F-stops. (For those who obsess over metadata, the -2 was F/10, the normal was F/5, and the +2 was F/4.5. All photos were 1/1000 sec. and ISO100; 31mm focal length.)

Here are the source images (normal on top):
Photo - Normal exposure
F-stop: 0

Photo - Underexposure
F-stop: -2

Photo - Overexposure
F-stop: +2

After transferring the photos to my hard drive, I opened HDRFactory (there doesn't appear to be a way to import photos directly from a camera into the application, although that's not a big deal) and selected the photos for processing. The program handles at least sixteen different file formats, including proprietary RAW formats for all major camera manufacturers. My photos happened to be plain vanilla, 7-megapixel JPGs.

Those accustomed to the elegant interfaces of most Mac OS X-native applications will find HDRFactory's layout a bit Windows-centric (I even flashed back to Mac OS 6). The interface is functional and intuitive, but hardly slick. Here's a screenshot of the basic window:

Screenshot of program window

Lots of icons and control bars. Fortunately, the application's tooltip function works well, providing a summary in the yellow box of the purpose of each icon and option as you move your cursor over each of them.

And HDRFactory is all about options. The sheer number of detailed parameter combinations and settings is staggering, and I don't profess to either understand or have tested all or even most of them. For this reason, the program is easy to use, but difficult to master - true mastery requires a solid grasp of the principles of digital imaging in general, and HDR imaging in particular. This makes it a solid choice for pros, but the ability to quickly experiment (or to use the program's built-in presets) also make it a non-intimidating option for beginners and those who just want to play around with HDR to see what can be done. For my test, I stayed with the "AKVIS Default" preset.

Of course, the true measure of image processing software is in the quality of its output. Below are comparisons of the HDR output from the three programs I mentioned above: Photoshop CS5 (two images), Photomatix, and HDRFactory. All images were generated using each program's default settings.

Photoshop - HDR Toning
Photoshop CS5 - HDR Toning

Photoshop - Merge to HDR Pro
Photoshop CS5 - Merge to HDR Pro


HDRFactory - "AKVIS Default"

As you can see, the results vary widely, and "the best" result is a matter of personal preference. However, I did notice more artifacts in the HDRFactory image (look closely at the sky around the upper branches of the tree and you'll see the subtle white pixelated artifacts; they're missing from the other versions). The HDRFactory image is also 10-20% larger than the others.

Again, I didn't experiment much with the myriad of options available in HDRFactory, but there's not a single significant technical aspect of the image that can't be easily tweaked via the program's settings. And once you find a combination of settings that you like, you can save that combination as a default option, saving considerable time for future use.

If you already have Photoshop and don't often work with HDR images, a standalone program like HDRFactory may not be attractive, but the price and control of the program make it almost irresistible for those who want a standalone HDR application. (And if you want to use it seamlessly in conjunction with Photoshop, HDRFactory comes with a plugin option. Mac users have to buy it separately; it's bundled with the standalone Windows app.)

QR Codes Already Obsolete?
April 4, 2011 2:58 PM | Posted in:

I've done a couple of recent posts about QR codes, trumpeting their use as the Next Big Thing in print-to-web interactivity, and what do I now learn? Google is abandoning the technology in favor of Near Field Communication (NFC) technology! 

So, does this mean the death of the QR technology before it even gets a chance to mature? When the world's leading tech company writes it off, you'd hardly be blamed to believing that, but I think there's quite a jump between QR and's big enough that it will be years, if ever, that NFC becomes "consumer grade" technology.

Here's a quick NFC primer, lifted from this ReadWrite Web article:
NFC is a newer wireless technology that allows devices to communicate with each other over short distances. The data transfer between the devices occurs through one of two means: either a short wave or, as is more common, a touch or tap.

The communication doesn't have to occur between two handheld devices, like two phones, however. It can also work with a mobile device and a target of some kind - for example, a point-of-sale system at a store's checkout counter or even something as simple as a tag, sticker, poster, decal or card with an NFC chip embedded. In the case of these simple targets, batteries are not required to power the NFC chips. Instead, the chips are in a passive state, waiting to be activated by another device that can generate a RF (radio frequency) field.
So, unlike QR codes, which can be easily generated and require only a printer to "manufacture," NFC is a chip-based technology, and I don't see a lot of printed circuit creating devices for sale on

In addition, the NFC reader is a hardware solution; your phone (or other mobile device) must have the capability built into it. Here's a list of the mobile phones that are currently NFC-capable. It's not an impressive list, as it lacks representation by such brands as RIM (Blackberry) and a minor player known as the iPhone. (But they are in the "rumored to be coming real soon...really" category.) Of course, the Google Nexus comes with NFC baked in. QR codes can be read by any smartphone with free reader software installed.

I do think NFC has a lot potential (and is already being implemented by various major players for mobile payment systems, where you can just wave or tap your phone near an NFC station to complete a transaction). Google's emphasis is on providing merchants with NFC-enabled window stickers or decals that allow passers-by to connect to a website to get more information about the business. This is tied to a new Google service called Hotpot, and obviously Google hopes it will someday be a revenue stream for the company.

But until the day comes when we have our own personal chip stamping machines (to go along with our flying cars), QR codes (or something similar) will be a much more accessible technology - and carry much fewer security and privacy concerns - than the NFC approach for run-of-the-mill connections between the worlds of print and web.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

QR Codes in the Wild
March 30, 2011 7:38 AM | Posted in:

Yeah, I confess that I'm sort of a QR code junkie (although I prefer the term "aficionado," because it's more fun to say). But after this post, and following a discussion with a client about possible ways they could help achieve his organization's mission, I have a heightened awareness of how they're being used in real life.

The most recent example appears in the current edition of Spirit, the Texas A&M Foundation's quarterly magazine (you can download a PDF version here). It uses QR codes linked to YouTube videos to supplement the written articles. Below is an example:

It's an effective way to expand on subject matter in traditional media, although it requires a bit of work from the reader. This is apparently a new technique for the magazine, because the publisher has included detailed instructions on the table of contents page about how to use the QR codes.

The magazine's use of the codes works well, although I think that they should have made them larger. It took a little practice to know how best to hold my iPhone to get the software to scan them (I use RedLaser).
I don't know what possessed someone to do an in-depth comparison of the new Ram 3500 Heavy Duty pickup with a Delta IV Heavy rocket...but I like it!

The truck actually compares very favorably with the rocket when it comes to payload, defined for the pickup as towing capacity (25,400 pounds) and for the rocket as, um, payload (28,650 pounds). Of course, the rocket is delivering that payload to a thousand miles above the earth, and on one fuel fill-up.

And speaking of fuel, you might also want to choose the Ram based on this comparison, as the rocket gets only .00087 miles per gallon and costs $600,000 to fill up. I'm thinking the cash pay-at-the-pump option won't get used much by rocket owners. On the other hand, the rocket's tank holds 483,500 gallons of fuel (liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen...take those warnings about static electricity serious, bubba) which means you're paying less than $1.50 per gallon. Of course, that's probably without taxes.

So, what kind of performance do you get for the >$100 million price (MSRP, of course; options like running boards and chrome wheels extra but it comes with a killer GPS, standard)? Try 17 million horsepower per engine - and the rocket uses three of those bad boys - vs. the Ram's measly 350 hp. (No one's figured out how to measure torque from a rocket engine but we can assume it's full of awesomeness.) The Ram is only three seconds slower in a 0-100 mph showdown, but it sort of gets hammered in the all-important 0-17,500 mph category.

Still, as cool as it would be to pilot a Delta IV Heavy, they won't fit next to a Sonic Drive-In ordering speaker, and you can't hear the stereo once you have lift-off, so there's some significant downsides.

The Beatless
March 17, 2011 6:37 AM | Posted in: ,

I made a couple of jesting comments on Facebook and Twitter about this article describing the first documented case of something called beat deafness, wherein a man named Mathieu "can't feel music's beat or move in time with it." But it's a bigger problem than those researchers probably realize.

I'm sure that complete beat deafness is indeed rare, but beat "hard of hearingness" is quite commonplace, based on my perception of what often takes place on the dance floor. And this is an indictment of my own skill (or lack thereof), as I occasionally have trouble finding and staying with the beat of certain songs. For example, Unchained Melody gives me fits; I find that I can get started OK, but somewhere along the line the beat just disappears. Fortunately, Debbie never seems to have that problem and can keep us on the beat - and still manage to follow my lead (a miracle in itself).

Musical beat is not just an important issue for dancers. It's also a big deal for those who provide music for dances. The most popular bands are those who know how to select music that's easy to dance to (yes, Dick, your teenaged American Bandstand reviewers knew whereof they spoke), and that implies that it has a beat that's not too fast or slow for the step it's associated with. Nobody wants to dance to a waltz that's dragging along at 50 beats per minute, or frantically zooming at 180.

I have newfound respect for musicians who have both perceptiveness and skill to make danceable music. As I mentioned yesterday, we used prerecorded music at our last ballroom dance, and I volunteered to build the playlist. While I included mostly songs that dance club members had suggested or that have been popular at previous dances, I found that some of those songs had multiple arrangements using - you guessed it - different tempos. It was harder than I expected to choose just the right tempo. If I had only used a tool that could quantify differences in tempo, perhaps I could have made better decisions.

Screenshot of BPMTapper
Guess what? That tool exists, in the form of Cadence BPM Tapper, a free desktop application (Mac-only) that allows you to play any song and "tap" along (using your space bar or your mouse button) to the beat. The app computes the beats-per-minute for the song, and if you're playing the song via iTunes, it will export the computed tempo to the BPM field in that application.

Simple, no? Well, remember my comment about beat-hardofhearingness? I've found that some songs are harder to tap along to than others. You also have to deal with the phenomenon where a song may have a very rapid tempo but the dance steps are done according to half-time. That is, a song's tempo may be 180 BPM but the steps are actually 90 BPM. So, which do you use in iTunes...180 or 90? I finally decided it didn't matter as long as I was consistent in my choice, for a given step. All rumbas must be analyzed in the same fashion, as should all triple swing songs.

I've always wondered why the BPM field in iTunes wasn't populated, and now I think I have the answer: it's harder to compute than you might think. I would guess that programming a computer to accurately assess the BPM of all possible songs would be a daunting task. The same company that built BPM Tapper also sells more full-featured applications that work on both Macs and Windows computers, as well as iPhones. Those apps will, theoretically, analyze your entire music library or playlist in batch mode, without the need for you to tap along with any of the songs. However, I've been less than impressed with the results, at least on the iPhone version.

The real value of BPM Tapper isn't necessarily in the absolute calculation, but in your ability to compare songs once tempos have been established for each. If we determine that an arrangement that's 80 BPM is too slow, then we just need to look for one that's, say, 90 BPM.

At the end of the day, I'm just glad we didn't have Mathieu manning the BPM Tapper. I suppose there's a certain amount of prestige to being the first person identified with a disorder, but I'd rather be able to dance better than Elaine.

Crippled Netflix App (Why, o why?)
March 10, 2011 9:21 AM | Posted in: ,

Netflix is rapidly becoming the Service We Hate But Can't Live Without. I've previously documented my complaint about the woeful lack of streaming movies, compared to the company's DVD offerings, but grudgingly admit that there are some external causal factors at play.

However, the latest incarnation of Netflix's iOS app was apparently built without regard for logic, common sense, or - worst of all - consideration for its users. 

Granted, the application is very easy to use, with a clean interface and logical navigation. Netflix improved the app by including movie titles alongside every movie poster icon; in the previous version, you had to be able to read the title or recognize the poster to figure out the identity without actually clicking on it. 

Here are a couple of screenshot from the new app. The first shows the typical movie listing for a genre; in this case, I chose the Sci-Fi & Fantasy genre.

It's a straightforward listing of the important facts about each movie: title, release year, MPAA rating, running time, and cumulative Netflix viewer rating (a subjective indication of quality or at least popularity). Click on the icon to watch the movie; click on the title to get a little more information about the movie. Here's the information screen for Blade Runner.

On this page you get a very brief plot summary, the primary actors, the director, and options to either play the movie or add it to your queue. Again, very clean and straightforward.

Well, for many of us, it's too clean and straightforward, as the simplicity was achieved in part by eliminating some valuable features from the previous version of the app. Netflix has eliminated eight genres in the app vs. its website, and has dropped the sub-genres in the app, which were useful for narrowing one's choices. For example, in the previous app's Action & Adventure genre, there were 17 sub-genres (the same ones that are still on the website), making it much easier to find something of interest. In the new app, you just have one choice.

The earlier version also had a longer plot summary as well as access to viewer and critic reviews of the movie, and links to similar movies. Or, more accurately, it mirrored the Netflix website's content, shown below:

Quite a difference. Sure, the web page is busy, and not everyone is interested in all the features, but I'm not sure why Netflix decided its app users didn't need any of them.

Reasonable people may differ on these issues, but there's one area where Netflix has crippled the new app that represents an almost inconceivable backwards step: it truncates the list of available movie titles for a given genre at 100. This means that if you're browsing through the list of, say, available Sci-Fi/Fantasy films, you'll not see 75 movies in that list. If you're looking at Independent films, you'll miss 20 titles. And if you're browsing through the Action/Adventure genre, the list will omit almost 500 movies. (All of these numbers are derived by comparing the total number of streaming titles listed on the website in each genre, vs the 100-count lists in the app.)

That's not to say that the movies aren't available for streaming via the app; they're still there, but you have to know about them, and you can only find them by using the Search feature.  That's about as non-user-friendly as you can get.

It's bad enough that Netflix provides only a tiny fraction of its movie inventory for streaming, but it add insult to injury by making it significantly more difficult to find all the streaming titles via the app that's commonly used for the streaming.

I'm not the only person unhappy about the dumbing down of the Netflix app. However, I was apparently the only person who noticed the shortening of the genre listings, going by the comments in the article linked above. I'm either perceptive or obsessive, but if I'm paying for a service, I expect it to get better over time, not worse. Netflix, are you listening?
You don't really need to be a certified geek to appreciation the implications of a three terabyte hard drive priced under $300. That's about a 50% increase over the previous maximum capacity, and enough storage to hold over 400,000 songs. Or you could store a hundred Blu-Ray movies (at 30 gigabytes each).

Unfortunately, many computers won't be able to take advantage of this extra storage without installing extra hardware or software, due to a 30-year old decision about hard drive standards. Fortunately, Mac OS 10.5 and 10.6 users don't have this limitation, so Seagate's drive will work for them right out of the box. Their biggest problem is going to be finding one of these massive drives; Seagate's website shows them to be out of stock, already.

OK, perhaps that's not the biggest problem. I suspect figuring out how to back-up one of these drives will be the real challenge. It would require 600 regular DVDs to make a copy of a full 3 terabyte hard drive.

[I had to use an Excel spreadsheet to make the preceding computations, because I can't wrap my mind around numbers this big.]

Wireless Laser Printer
March 1, 2011 8:00 AM | Posted in:

I retired our almost-eight-year-old HP LaserJet last week, replacing it with a Brother HL-2270DW wireless monochrome laser printer. The HP still worked well, but Debbie was having problems connecting to it via our network, and it was getting low on toner. When I discovered that a new, factory-fresh HP toner cartridge would cost the same as a new printer, I decided it was time for a switch.

Photo - Laser PrinterIt's taken a while to get accustomed to the new printer, but overall I'm pleased with it. It has about the same footprint as the HP, but takes up less usable space because its paper tray is completely enclosed rather than extending from the front like the HP's. The printer connected to our wi-fi network on the first try, although the process was more convoluted than it should have been. (These situations make me appreciate even more Apple's "It Just Works" plug-and-play implementations.) Debbie's MacBook also recognized the printer once the software and driver was installed.

Print quality is excellent, as expected, and the machine is pretty fast (up to 27 pages per minute). The duplexing (front-and-back) print feature works well. I've never had a printer with this capability and I like it a lot.

So, to recap: fast, high quality, front-and-back printing. What's not to like?

Well, I do have a few quibbles. First, the machine is noisy, and not just while it's printing, but even in standby mode, which lasts quite a while before it finally goes to sleep.

Second, printing envelopes or postcards is a bit tedious. You have to open a slot in front, open a tray in back, and pull down two hard-to-reach levers to facilitate the straight-through print path. Once you're finished, you have to unflip and reclose everything.

Third, manual feeding of media is problematic. There's no tray on which to rest the paper or envelopes, and thus far, the printer has had problems taking an envelope on the first try. When that happens, it pitches a little tantrum, displaying an error light and forcing a shutdown/restart. I'm probably not inserting it just right, but that shouldn't be a skill that the operator has to learn.

In summary, this is not a perfect printer, but if you can live with the quirks, it's hard to beat given the street price of $100 or less.

Using an iPad as a second monitor
February 2, 2011 6:08 AM | Posted in: ,

I love my 13" MacBook Pro. It's portable and powerful, and capable of doing every work-related task I throw at it when I'm traveling. But...

That display is so teensy. I know; that's the compromise I made when I selected that model, but it's occasionally (OK, often) aggravating not to be able to see two open documents simultaneously. Gee, if there was only some way to add another display, but without having to lug along another piece of equipment. Life would be so good.

Air Display IconWell, effective yesterday, life is so good. Yesterday, I purchased (for the princely sum of $9.99) a little application called Air Display from the App Store thereby increasing my laptop's screen area by about 55%. Air Display allows you to connect your iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch) to your laptop or desktop computer and use it as a second (or third) monitor.

The main requirement is that the computer and the iPad have to be connected to the same wi-fi network, but once the app is installed on the iPad (and a small "helper app" put on the computer), the connection to each other is quick and sure. You can configure the app to automatically connect to your iPad when they're both in range, or you can do it manually.

And it works as advertised. There's some latency in the iPad's screen so you wouldn't want to use it for gaming or videos while functioning as a second monitor, but the resolution is crystal clear for documents and still graphics - probably even better than on my laptop.

With Air Display, I can put a Word doc on the iPad and use it to copy and paste text into an HTML doc on my laptop. Or I can monitor a website on one device while doing a blog post on the other. The really slick thing is that you can move the iPad wherever you want it - even put it in your lap - and reorient it to landscape/portrait mode and the picture automatically adjusts.

The iPad's touch screen continues to operate even while connected as a monitor, so you can navigate that device via either mouse or touch. According to the documentation, depending on your operating system, you can even use multi-touch gestures on the iPad, although I haven't tried that.

The Air Display works with both Mac and Windows machines (but check system requirements for both), and with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. And again, this app works only if you have access to a wi-fi network.

Note: Your mileage may vary, but I do find that the auto-connect feature is a bit jicky. If I use app switching on the iPad (double click of the Home button) to select a different app, and then switch back to Air Display, it doesn't always return to the original state. I'm not sure if I'm doing something wrong or if that's a bug. But when it does work, it's like having a Very Smart Monitor.

Note #2: I took advantage of Avatron's live chat support feature and the tech confirmed that the reconnect feature was somewhat dependent on the length of time you were away from the app. Jumping away for a few seconds to check WeatherBug is probably OK; leaving for a few minutes to play Angry Birds will require a reconnect. I hope they'll fix this in a subsequent release.
Broken Blu-ray discKhoi Vinh is a well-respected designer (he reworked the website for the New York Times) and is in demand as a speaker at tech and design conferences around the world. In other words, he's a bit of a geek. And thus I find his experiences with and observations about the current state of Blu-Ray to be sadly affirming of my own. Here's his money quote:
What I wanted, and what I would be willing to guess most consumers want out of Blu-Ray, is simply better looking home video. That shouldn't have been hard to do at all, but the business agenda of the entertainment and technology industries stepped in and subverted that simple equation until it became a complex mess. If you haven't yet made the switch to Blu-Ray, I would urge you to consider carefully before you do.
Khoi is expressing frustration at consumer-grade technology that has professional-grade complexity. I share his pain. Our Sony Blu-Ray disc player continues to gather dust because it refuses to cooperate with our Onkyo A/V receiver. For a long while, I blamed the receiver, and even sent it in for diagnostics and repair. It was returned after a months-long interval while the service company tried without success to replicate the problem. We still can't use the player without plugging it directly into the TV, bypassing the receiver's video circuitry (although still being able to use the digital audio). As a result, we simply don't watch Blu-Ray movies.

As Vinh observes, the Blu-Ray picture is exquisite...when it works. But in my experience, this technology is still not ready for prime time on too many levels.

Digging the QR Code
January 8, 2011 2:18 PM | Posted in:

You've seen them here and there, and you'll see them even more frequently in the future - those black-and-white squares that look like a dying dot-matrix printer spit them out. They're QR Codes, and they're tiny gateways to all kinds of good stuff.

QR Codes (the "QR" stands for "Quick Response") were created in Japan in 1994 for tracking auto parts, but their use has expanded exponentially since then. For example, many airlines now print QR Codes on their tickets/boarding passes to provide unique identifiers for passengers. Their usefulness is in the ability to provide a fair amount of information in a small space, and in an easy-to-read form.

Well, it's easy to read if you have the right scanning software. There are a lot of QR scanning apps available for camera-equipped mobile phones. If you have a phone running the Android operating system you may have something called Barcode Scanner installed on it. It's based on Google's XZing library, and variants both free and paid are available for all popular platforms. I use (and highly recommend) the free iPhone app RedLaser.

By now you may be completely confused, especially if you can't picture a QR Code. So, given that a picture is worth, well, you know, here are a couple of actual working examples. If you have a camera phone and scanning software, try scanning each and see what happens

QR Code containing my contact info
QR Code containing my blog URL
The first block contains my contact information (and a little bonus message from yours truly!). Depending on your phone platform and software, when you scan this QR Code, it may attempt to automatically add that information to your contacts. The second block contains the URL to this blog; scanning it should give you the option of opening that URL in your web browser without having to type anything else.

The uses for these little blocks of information are limited only by one's imagination. Put one on your business card or sales brochure to direct people to your website. Add them to a coffee mug or t-shirt or any other promotional material to allow your tech-savvy audience to access more information.

The last piece of the puzzle? How to generate these codes, of course. Google the phrase "QR code generator" and you'll find an amazing number of free services. The codes shown above were generated using Google's own such service.

I'm already kicking around the idea of a QR Code-equipped Fire Ant coffee mug and coaster, and maybe even a hoodie with nothing but a giant QR on the back. Those things are just for fun, but I also have a few clients who should consider using QR Codes in their promotional material. As I implied above, the technology requirements limit the audience for these purposes, but that audience will inevitably continue to broaden.

New Camera: Canon S95
December 31, 2010 10:47 AM | Posted in: ,

Wired has published its 10 Most Significant Gadgets of 2010, and there aren't many surprises. Apple landed three devices on the list: its iPhone 4, the MacBook Air, and the iPad (Wired's #1 pick), which seems to annoy some of Wired's readers to no end.

Photo - Canon S95But what really caught my eye was the inclusion of a point-and-shoot camera, Canon's PowerShot S95. Wired's editors raved about the little camera's features and especially its fast and long-zoom lens. I was excited to see it on the list because I got one for Christmas*, courtesy of My Lovely Bride.

I'm still learning how to use the camera, but first impressions are that it's a very serviceable replacement for an entry-level SLR, and for many people may be the only camera they need.

Canon has packed an amazing array of features into the pocket-sized device: 10 megapixel stills, 720p HD video, 28-105mm (equivalent) zoom lens, high speed image processor, and image stabilization. It has the ability to capture images in RAW format as well as JPG+RAW, and provides multi-aspect image mode options. The camera also accommodates Canon's HF-DC1 external flash for more control over flash photography (the link is to Canon's site, but you can get it for $100 via

The S95 allows full manual control of shooting modes, but it also has a myriad of preprogrammed modes and special effects, including the in-camera ability to replace colors in a scene, to lighten or darken skin tone, to create HDR photos, and to apply a tilt-shift effect to the image. It can even snap a photo in self-timer mode when someone in the scene winks at the camera. (Is there a big demand for that?)

One of the minor miracles of the camera is how quickly it's ready to shoot when you turn it on. I tried to measure the interval between pressing the "on" button and completion of the ready mode, but it was only about one second.

If you're looking for a carry-everywhere camera that provides the flexibility of an SLR, the ease of a point-and-shoot, throws in HD video, and is less than $400, I can't imagine a better alternative than the S95.

*Funny story about this. I opened the gift and apparently had a puzzled look, because Debbie said, "well, you put it on your wish list!" I didn't remember doing that, and she claimed that I had blogged about it just a few months earlier. I knew my memory was spotty, but didn't realize it was that bad. A day or so later she said she went back on the Gazette and found the post where I mentioned I'd like to have one...and it was from October, 2009 (and just a brief mention in a Random Thursday post at that). I felt a bit better.

Getting i on Music
December 8, 2010 5:22 PM | Posted in: ,

I saw this on Facebook earlier today but didn't take the time to watch it until my pal Jeff emailed a link to me. It's definitely worth 7 minutes of your time.

See, this is what happens when geeks are allowed into worship bands. The next thing you know, we'll have rappers doing the preaching. Oh, wait...

The times, they are a'changing, and with it, a lot of terminology. If this trend continues, will we begin to see:

  • cool guys trying to pick up girls with the line, "I'm the lead iPhoneist for ________"?

  • marching bands lining up with an iPad line?

  • iPhones providing musical accompaniment in Church of Christ worship services? ("It's not an instrument, it's a phone.")

  • an updated version of The Message where Psalm 33:2 reads Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the iPod touch.

  • adolescent boys kicking the doorstep and giving the excuse that they can't come play baseball because they have to "practice the stupid iPad"?
I started to Photoshop an iPad onto the body of a guitar for this post, but, of course, somebody already beat me to it...and it's an actual functioning instrument.

Oh, I almost forgot. If you want details on the apps used in this performance, check this out.

Quantifying Melodic Similarities
December 6, 2010 12:45 PM | Posted in: ,

I read a science fiction short story many years ago where the plot involved someone composing the last possible piece of music. Every combination of musical notes had been created. I don't recall the author (it sounds like something Bradbury or Lieber or Ellison would come up with), or even the rest of the plot and how it was resolved, but I do remember thinking how sad it would be - and that this was not an impossible scenario. There are a finite number of note combinations. That number is, of course, staggeringly large (someone has made a pretty convincing attempt to compute it) but given enough time, we could run out of melodies.

This came to mind as I continued to think about this post about the obvious (to me, anyway) similarities between songs by Joe Ely and Toby Keith. Rob left a comment linking to another comparison of two similar songs; that comparison involved an analysis that went well beyond simply hearing a tune and thinking it sounded very familiar.

And then I began to wonder what the criteria are for determining whether a melody is so similar to another that it can be deemed a violation of copyright. I suspect it's a pretty subjective judgment - but is it unnecessarily so? Music and mathematics have much in common, more so than I understand, and surely there's a way to perform an objective computation that would spit out a "percentage match" between two songs. And, indeed, a Google search for "mathematical comparison of two melodies" turns up a number of scholarly articles on the subject.

Then there's this article with the enchanting title of Statistical Comparison Measures for Searching in Melody Databases (PDF format). Such research has undoubtedly informed the technology behind such music identification software as Shazam and SoundHound, which are so scarily effective as to be, as they say, indistinguishable from magic. In fact, Slate described in layman's terms the approach employed by Shazam:

The company has a library of more than 8 million songs, and it has devised a technique to break down each track into a simple numeric signature--a code that is unique to each track. "The main thing here is creating a 'fingerprint' of each performance," says Andrew Fisher, Shazam's CEO. When you hold your phone up to a song you'd like to ID, Shazam turns your clip into a signature using the same method. Then it's just a matter of pattern-matching--Shazam searches its library for the code it created from your clip; when it finds that bit, it knows it's found your song.

Obviously, it's much more complicated than that, and Shazam's co-founder, Avery Li-Chun Wang, published a scholarly paper (PDF) describing the technology in more detail. And as good as Shazam is, some think SoundHound works even better (it will also identify melodies that are simply sung into a microphone). Unfortunately, SoundHound's explanation of its technology laps over into the magical realm with its references to "Target Crystals," and the company is obviously protecting intellectual property.

In any event, I wonder if these math-based, objective comparisons of melodies have ever been used in a court of law to determine copyright infringement, and if there are any quantified guidelines to be used by judges and juries in making such calls. Gee, if there was only some way of searching a database...

The December issue of MacWorld has a good tutorial for setting an "if found" message on the home screen of your iPhone. This is accomplished by creating an image to use as wallpaper on your iDevice, and that image is overlaid with text giving instructions regarding how to get in touch with the rightful owner of the lost device.

The example in the magazine uses the following text:

If found, please return phone to Dan Miller 415/555-5555

I'm not crazy about this example. For one thing, it's illogical; you can't return a phone to a name and a phone number. Also, I don't like the privacy implications of putting my name on my phone's screen, along with a phone number.

I think a better approach is what I've done, as shown below.

iPhone Wallpaper

No name, no extraneous text, and the phone number I actually used in place of the sample shown above is my wife's mobile phone, making it harder to cross-reference to a person. But this also has the advantage of increasing the odds of the caller actually reaching someone quickly.

I think I'm more likely to misplace or drop my phone when I'm traveling, and most of my traveling nowadays is done with my wife. Using her cell number means that we wouldn't have to wait until we got home to get information about the missing phone. I'm simply playing the odds.

While MacWorld's tutorial is directed toward the iPhone, the technique will also work for iPad and iPod touch users. The iPod's screen resolution is the same as the iPhone's (320 x 480 pixels), but the iPad's is 768 x 1024 pixels.

Here are the steps for creating your custom "If Found" message.

  1. Find a photo or image that you want to use as your wallpaper, and crop it for the device you're creating the wallpaper for (again, 320x480px for iPhone/iPod touch; 768x1024px for iPad)

  2. Use a photo editing program to overlay the cropped image with the text you want to use

  3. Save the edited image in JPG format

  4. Import the image into iPhoto

  5. Connect your iDevice to your computer, open iTunes, and on the Photos tab of your connected device, make sure that Sync Photos from iPhoto is checked, and that the event or album containing the image that you just imported is also checked. Sync your device to transfer the image to the iPhone/Pod/Pad.

  6. Disconnect the device from your computer and open the Settings panel. Select the Wallpaper setting and navigate to Last Import. Choose the image you created and click the Set Lock Screen button. You can also use the image for your Home Screen wallpaper, but it's not essential, and may not be advisable since the "return phone" text will make for a distracting background for your device's icons.

Apple to increase iTunes previews to 90 seconds
November 5, 2010 1:23 PM | Posted in: ,

It's about time, literally and figuratively. The AppleBlog reports that iTunes song previews (for tracks longer than 2.5 minutes) will be tripled in length, to 90 seconds.

I've long argued for this change. Thirty seconds simply isn't long enough to decide if you like a relatively unfamiliar song (or a familiar one in a new arrangement) well enough to pay for it. I predict that this will indeed lead to more music purchases via the iTunes Store, which is Apple's argument to music labels in support of the change.

I can think of at least a couple of occasions where I've taken a chance on a song based on its short clip, and found that the clip is the equivalent of the 30 seconds of really funny material in a trailer of an overall lame ninety minute movie.

The report says that Apple got push-back on this change from some recording labels, presumably for fear that people would either just listen to the track samples rather than buying the whole songs or somehow record them. That's a ludicrous argument, but I'd be perfectly content if Apple appeased them by providing a lower-quality sample to make such unlikely piracy even less realistic. After all, when I listen to a sample on iTunes, I'm not trying to assess the sonic accuracy and every nuance of the song; I just want to understand what I'm buying before I buy it.

Thank you, Apple, for making a rational business decision that benefits the customer.

New Toy: Voyager Hard Drive Dock
October 28, 2010 3:23 PM | Posted in:

I recently filled up a 1TB internal hard drive with Time Machine backups. I ordered a 2TB drive to take its place, and put the full, bare drive in a drawer for safekeeping.

A couple of months later, I needed to access some of the data on the old drive, so I pulled out a USB "universal drive adapter" and tried without success to connect it to my Mac Pro. I never figured out the issue, but I also didn't spend a lot of time on it since the situation wasn't critical. But it made me think that there had to be a better way to access old hard drives.

Photo of the Voyager with a mounted 3.5 inch driveEnter the Voyager family of hard drive docks, from Newer Technology. These little units sit on your desk, looking like stubby toasters, and hook up to your computer via a wide array of connectors (including USB 2, FireWire 400/800, and eSATA). They accommodate both 2.5" and 3.5" bare SATA hard drives in their "toast" slots, in capacities up to 2TB.

Mine just arrived this afternoon and I quickly unpacked it, and connected it to my Mac via FireWire 800. (The unit comes with all the connector cables, which is pretty cool in and of itself.) I grabbed the aforementioned 3.5" drive and stuck it in the slot, hit the power switch on the dock, and in less than a minute, the drive appeared on my desktop as a typical FireWire volume, and was accessible just like any external drive.

The unit is plug-and-play (on my Mac, anyway) and the drives are hot-swappable.

This is a great and relatively inexpensive solution for the problem of what to do with full back-up hard drives. Combining a Voyager dock with these stackable anti-static storage cases makes accessing back-up data easier than ever.

The baddest geek in the 'Bucks
August 20, 2010 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

So, I stumbled across this - a mock-up of an add-on iPhone QWERTY keyboard - and while it's somewhat interesting in concept, it's still far from an ideal solution for those who can't seem to master the phone's tiny virtual keyboard.

But it made me wonder whether the iPhone plays well with the dockable keyboard* that Apple markets to iPad owners. I had never even considered the idea before, so I popped my phone onto the keyboard, and sure enough, it works.

iPhone connected to Apple iPad keyboard

I can assure you that this combination will make you the baddest geek in the Starbucks, if that's your aspiration.** (And, really, why wouldn't it be?)

*And, in anticipation of your next question, the iPad's Bluetooth keyboard also pairs up and works with an iPhone. This combination is even cooler because you can set your phone off to the side while keyboarding, giving people the impression that you're typing with no obvious device to receive the input.

**While the combination may appear ridiculous, I've actually found a legitimate use for it. I have a password management app on my phone and it's a royal pain to input new entries via the virtual keyboard. The next time I have several updates, I will definitely be using the external keyboard.

Testing a jQuery lightbox script
August 19, 2010 3:57 PM | Posted in: ,

I've installed the PrettyPhoto jQuery lightbox script and I'm testing things to make sure they work properly. Click on a thumbnail and then browse the other images using the controls in the pop-up image.

This is a pretty cool application; expect to see it more often around here.

Allthorn BushAngry CloudsBetween StormsBirds

The Biggest Time-Suck Ever
August 8, 2010 10:31 PM | Posted in: ,

Only time will tell as to whether my installing the Netflix app on my iPad this afternoon will be the greatest or the worst decision of my life.*

I've already spent two hours watching a documentary on Cream** (the band, not the dairy product, although that would probably be interesting too, as long as I can watch it on an iPad).

Netflix doesn't provide every movie in its catalog for streaming, but there are enough titles of interest to suck up every otherwise-productive moment of the day. Very dangerous.

*I've been prone to hyperbole for, like, a billion years.

**Things I Learned: Ginger Baker was the driving force behind the formation of Cream (the band, not the dairy product, although I suppose it's possible he also spent time churning milk). He's also a very bitter fellow who hated bassist Jack Bruce for most of their time together. Also, Eric Clapton was planning to give Jimi Hendrix a left-handed Stratocaster as a gift on a certain night, but never was able to connect with him. That turned out to be the night Hendrix died of a drug overdose. And, finally, all three of the band members have lost significant hearing as a result of their time in front of high-powered amplifiers, and they blame Jim Marshall.

Zits and Me
July 25, 2010 2:18 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm referring not to facial blemishes but to the comic strip, which is one of my favorites due to its  ability to unerringly portray the foibles and habits of teenagers. And, apparently, me.

See, we've got this new car - a Honda Ridgeline, if you must know. It's loaded with toys - navigation package, XM radio, 115 volt auxiliary power outlet, and Honda's HandsFreeLink, a Bluetooth-based system for using your cellphone and the car's GPS without actually touching those devices. Those are all really cool things, but the owner's manual is almost 400 pages, and the configuration of the technology is not always intuitive.

So, I sat in the car in the garage for more than an hour yesterday, pairing my phone to the car's system, and [making attempts at] importing my contact list into said system. At one point, my wife felt it necessary to come into the garage and observe that I reminded her of Jeremy from the aforementioned cartoon, when he and his friend took possession of an ancient, non-running VW bus and, lacking funds and skill to make it go, contented themselves with just sitting in it. I couldn't really argue with the comparison, given the less than stellar success I was having making this hands-free thing go.

I did eventually get my phonebook imported, sort of. If your first name begins with "A" through "P" and you're in my contact list, then I can call you via the car's system, but for some reason, you who are in the dread "Q-Z" category didn't make the import. I'm really sorry, but you probably won't be getting a call from me anytime soon, at least not while I'm sitting in my garage, since I still haven't figured out how to do anything with the whole shooting match while actually driving down the road.

Baby steps. Or, at best, teen-aged steps.

Musical Interlude
April 17, 2010 10:51 AM | Posted in: ,

You don't have to be a fan of Justin Timberlake's music (I'm not, particularly) to get a kick out of the following video. It's enough to admire the combination of geekishness, musical talent, and arcane tonal implements. Oh, and cowbell. Be sure to stay with it until the keytar enters (around 4:25 or so).

Brett Domino (the head geek) will surely be an integral part of the Napoleon Dynamite sequel, if ever there is one.

Seth Godin: iPad Lessons
April 7, 2010 8:33 AM | Posted in:

This may be the first time I've referred to the iPad on the Gazette (OK, knowing how some of you are, I just confirmed this with a quick search), and I don't plan to do any additional blogging about it in the future, at least not until I get one and can then hold it out as clear evidence of my superior hipsterishness.

And even this post isn't so much about the iPad itself, as I haven't seen one in real life, much less tested one (although that hasn't stopped a disturbingly large number of people from expressing a disturbingly large amount of hate/revulsion/contempt for a small inanimate object and/or its manufacturer; really, people...Get. A. Life.). No, I simply want to point you to Seth Godin's musings about lessons other businesses, large and small, can learn from the launch of Apple's latest offering. He makes some great points about how businesses should think about their strategies and their customers. You don't have to work in the tech industry to benefit from his insights.

Heavy Sound
April 6, 2010 4:22 PM | Posted in: ,

Consider this the equivalent of a "Please Do Not Disturb" sign, as the new A/V receiver showed up a day early and I can't be bothered with trivia such as clients or work.

Here's how you know that you're about to tackle a serious piece of electronic equipment:

Photo of packing box

"At least 2 people"? Granted, it weighs forty pounds, but it sounds to me like somebody's got an overzealous legal department.

The really scary thing is that the owner's manual weighs almost as much as the receiver.

Overdue A/V Upgrade
April 1, 2010 4:02 PM | Posted in: ,

March was a good month, business-wise, and so I'm splurging on a new A/V receiver. This definitely falls into the category of "luxury" but it will fill several "needs":

  1. When we built this house two years ago I wired it for 7.1 surround sound. We had the four rear speakers installed in the ceiling at the time so they could be painted to match, but two of them have never been connected because our current receiver is an old-and-busted 5.1 model. The new receiver will enhance our listening pleasure by approximately...let's see, carry the one...20%. (The new box is actually a 7.2 receiver; I guess the .2 means that we could run two sub-woofers, but I have no idea why I'd want to do that. I value our drywall too much.)

  2. Our current receiver also does not have an HDMI connector, meaning that the digital HD cable signal is bypassing the receiver completely, going from the cable box directly to the display. So the picture is great, but the audio - well, not so much. Plus, whenever we want to watch a DVD, I have to plug a separate S-Video cable into the side of the TV, which looks ugly in addition to being less than optimal for picture quality. (I knew that eventually I'd have HDMI capabilities, so I didn't go to the trouble to run an S-Video cable through the wall to the case you're wondering.) The new receiver has six HDMI ports, which should pretty much satisfy our hi-def connection needs for, say, the next two decades, or until something better comes out next month.

  3. This means that we can upgrade to a Blu-Ray player if we so desire. Perhaps April will be a good month, too, although Blu-Ray machines are becoming almost ridiculously inexpensive, at least compared to where they started.

  4. And, finally, because the new receiver supports music streaming by Ethernet, I can finally see if the CAT-5 cable I had run from my office over to the A/V bookshelf actually works. Or, to be more precise, I can finally see if I know how to hook things up so that my computer will talk to the receiver and make sweet music together.
The biggest compromise I made with this selection is that Onkyo's receivers are "Sirius-ready" but not "XM-ready." But I don't have my XM base station connected in the house anyway, so I'm not anticipating that to be a great loss.

What I am simultaneously dreading/looking forward to is disconnecting everything from the old receiver and trying to get it all plugged into the right places on the new one. And, because of the "cascading upgrade" effect, I'll have to do this multiple times, as I move the old receiver into another room to replace and even older one, and move that even older one into a room without one at all.

Snow Foot Car
January 30, 2010 1:58 PM | Posted in:

Yeah, it's cool, but will it work in sand dunes?

One of the more Big Brotherish ideas to come down the pike in a long time is the installation of cameras at intersections to catch speeders or red light runners. At first glance, this would seem to be an ideal and objective way of dealing with lawbreakers, since there's not a lot of gray area involved in determining whether or not your car was in the intersection before the light turned red, or whether you were going faster than the posted speed limit. And while one might argue that there are theoretically mitigating circumstances for doing such things (" hamster was in labor!"), the simple fact is that those circumstances rarely (if ever) justify the risk of potentially fatal encounters at intersections.

So, the theory was that by installing cameras - and alerting the driving public of their presence - motorists' behaviors would be positively modified and the result would be fewer accidents. Well, not so fast (pun intended). In the Chicago area, a study of intersections fitted with these cameras showed either no change in accident rates, or increases in those rates, presumably from an increase in rear-end collisions as drivers suddenly realize that the intersection they're approaching has a camera and decide not to chance making the yellow light. For some states that actually bothered to check such statistics, the decision was made to ban the cameras.

It's hard not to be cynical and figure that the real reason cities want cameras at their intersections is to increase traffic citation revenue. If they were really serious about reducing accidents at such intersections, they'd either increase the amount of time the yellow light stays on, or increase the time before the green light for cross traffic switches on, or both. Both of these things have proven effective in reducing accidents at intersections.

I hope the city of Midland will be cautious in any consideration it's giving to installing such cameras.

And, in yet another fine example of the the law of unintended consequences, creative punks have learned how to use those cameras to harass their enemies.

Another Solution in Search of a Problem
December 3, 2009 2:22 PM | Posted in: ,

I may have to create a new category for these things, defined, more or less, as cool things to do which have dubious benefits. (Of course, that would probably apply to most of my life, but that's not important.)

Anyway, someone has posted step-by-step instructions for converting an AC wall outlet to USB, presumably so you can plug your iPod or iPhone directly into the wall to recharge it. At first, this struck me as one of those "why didn't I think of this?" ideas, at least until I saw the approach they are taking.

The whole project is essentially hard-wiring a USB mini-charger to an AC circuit, then gluing the mini-charger to the back of a standard wall plate. From my perspective, all you've accomplished in doing this is (1) spending 30 minutes of your time (2) playing with potentially fatal electricity to (3) replace a perfectly adaptable wall outlet with a limited purpose USB outlet, (4) using something that was meant to be plugged into said wall outlet to begin with. I mean, if you already have the mini-chargers, why limit their use to one location by integrating them into a wall plate?

I give this project a rating of one ant (out of five, in case you're keeping track). They could have at least provided instructions on how to make the outlet glow in the dark or something equally useful.

Wandering the Web
October 5, 2009 6:27 PM | Posted in: ,

We spent the last few days in scenic Weatherford, Texas (if that sounds like sarcasm, you need to drive through some of the neighborhoods south of I-20 and you'll see that I'm serious. But be sure to pack a GPS.) and thus haven't been attending to bloggerly duties. Here's some stuff I hope will make up for that.

  • We don't live far from Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico, but I've never seen the bats emerge from or return to the caves. I'll bet you haven't either, at least not like this:

The flight of the bats was filmed using an infrared camera which tracked their movements via their body heat. Amazing footage. I've watched it closely, and out of a half million bats (unaudited, I suspect, but still) I saw not a single collision. Drivers in Houston's rush hour traffic should be so skilled. (Via Wired)
  • From the sublime to the, um, not so. Here's how Terminator should have ended. (Via  Geeks are Sexy)

  • Wonder if Bruce Schneier knows about this?

  • Peace Frog is a Japanese motorcycle shop (manufacturer? customizer? hard to tell) which has assembled what appears to be a Royal Enfield with an Indian badge. Gotta love the minimalism; I'd ride one.

  • Speaking of bicycles (well, sort of) here's a lush new (to me) online-only cycling publication called The Ride (big honkin' PDF). It's mostly a series of one page essays written mostly by people unfamiliar to me, although Greg LeMond does recollect The Time Trial (surely you don't have to ask).

  • On a less light-hearted note, I continue to be disappointed, if not downright disgusted, by the names appearing on the petition to have Roman Polanski released. Wonder how many of them would be OK with their 13-year-old daughters being raped? Ah, don't answer that.

  • Last, and probably least, here's a list of 50 large corporations whose PR departments dropped the ball, social-media-wise, and allowed their names to fall victim to cyber-squatters. It's interesting that Chevron's fall-back name, @chevron_justinh, makes it sound like they've assigned their Twitter campaign to an HR intern. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

Cellphone Radiation
September 9, 2009 6:01 PM | Posted in:

As reported in this Wired article, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has analyzed almost 1,300 models of cellphones to determine how much radiation each handset emits. They've created a helpful database of their findings, and you can query that data via the widget displayed at right.

What you won't know after looking up your phone is whether the radiation level is good or bad, because, apparently, no one else knows. The assumption is that any radiation is worse than no radiation, and while the FCC sets guidelines for acceptable levels for cellphones, the EWG doesn't put much stock in those guidelines.

For the record, my iPhone 3GS emits radiation in a range of 0.52 - 1.19 W/kg*. By comparison, the best phone in the study, the Samsung Impression, emits a maximum of only 0.35 W/kg, or one-third the iPhone's level. (I'm sure that has something to do with the Impression's impressive five pound weight; those lead cases aren't light, you know. OK, just kidding.)

*watts/Kilogram - This is a measure of the rate at which a mass of tissue (that's you) absorbs energy (that's radiation)

Stalking the wily petabyte
September 2, 2009 6:45 AM | Posted in: ,

I can remember when an 80 megabyte hard drive was an extravagant, four-figure upgrade to a computer. I remember being blown away in 1998 when I learned that Microsoft's TerraServer project contained one terabyte of data.

Today, I've got three terabytes (that's ~3,000 gigabytes) of storage scattered among a handful of internal and external drives, and that's starting to feel a bit cramped. So, where do you go when terabytes are insufficient?

If you're BackBlaze, a company that provides "unlimited" online backup space for $5 per month, the next step is measured in petabytes (~1,000 terabytes or 4 quadrillion bytes, numbers that make even the US Congress look like an underachiever). BackBlaze has built and, presumably, continues to build its storage system in components that they refer to as "pods," each of which contains 45 1.5 terabyte Seagate hard drives, totaling 67 terabytes. Total cost of each pod: just $7,867. And if you want to build one for yourself, BackBlaze has helpfully provided detailed instructions. It really is a DIY project, albeit a bit more technically challenging than painting the guest bedroom.

BackBlaze has managed to get the cost of a petabyte of storage down to $117,000, or around 150% of the cost of the raw hard drives. This is a pretty amazing feat, especially considering that some of the currently available turnkey storage solutions run north of $2 million.

H/T: TechBlips via Twitter

DJs of the Future
August 26, 2009 9:06 AM | Posted in: ,

Take a Chill Pill and get your groove on
August 21, 2009 4:33 PM | Posted in: ,

We've been enjoying our neighborhood's new clubhouse and pool, but one thing that's missing from the summertime-at-the-pool experience is music. Even decades later, the smell of sunscreen* evokes memories of Groovin' or Crystal Blue Persuasion or anything by the Beach Boys, all of which were on the continuous P.A. playlist at the big pool at Fort Stockton.

The tinny little speakers in our iPhones are better than nothing, but not by much. On the other hand, we didn't want something that was too big to pack easily in a beach bag or that would have enough oomph to intrude on others whose musical tastes don't correspond with ours (to call our tastes eclectic is an understatement).

A little googling turned up a likely candidate with the catchy name of Chill Pill. This diminutive pair of speakers clip magnetically into one tidy package for storage, but when separated and connected to a sound source, put out a sound that, and I write this without the least bit of exaggeration, is amazing.

The speakers are powered by an internal lithium battery that recharges via your computer's USB port (or iPod A/C adapter).

The neatest feature? The top of each speaker is spring-loaded and with a twist they pop up a bit and provide a little boost in the bass output. They won't rattle any windows, but, again, that's not what we wanted. Still, the frequency range is pretty incredible for speakers of this size.

For $40, I have a hard time believing you'll find a better sounding pair of speakers for your iDevice than the Chill Pill. Highly recommended.

*OK, back then the preferred tanning application was baby oil. Can you say "deep fried teens"?
Our neighborhood is almost three years old, has at least 60 occupied homes with more under construction, and yet it still does not appear on Google Maps except as a label over a blank area of pasture. This omission is odd considering that the streets and lots have appeared on the City of Midland's interactive map for quite some time.

This situation begs the question, how does Google add new places to its maps and how frequently does it make updates? Google provides an input form for businesses to add their locations and information, but that's a completely different scenario than adding new city streets.

This is not simply an issue of wanting to be noticed. Well, not entirely, anyway. It has practical implications. There have been a couple of times that service providers have been unable to locate our address and have called for directions. One of them stated that while he had never heard of our street, he was confident it would be on Google Maps (wrong), or on his TomTom GPS (also wrong). Our reliance on these online services has grown more than we realize.

I found this page for reporting "bugs and omissions" to Google Maps, and I submitted an entry for each of the streets in our neighborhood. We'll see if that yields any results. Then I found this thread, entitled "How often does Google update its maps?", on Google Maps's forum. One of the commenters pointed out that Google has changed its source of map data from something called NAVTEQ (which apparently provides maps to many navigation system vendors including Garmin) to another service called TeleAtlas*, and that corrections and updates need to be submitted to TeleAtlas rather than Google. He helpfully provided a link to the TeleAtlas feedback page, where I was able to request an update to add our neighborhood's streets to the database. Again, we'll see.

In the meantime, I found that the map feature of Microsoft's new search engine, Bing, does show our neighborhood and streets. I never thought I'd see the day where Microsoft makes Google look lame, but there you go. And, of course, Bing uses NAVTEQ for its mapping data. I guess I'll have to add Bing to my toolbar, and consider dropping Google Maps if it doesn't get its act together.

*TomTom also uses TeleAtlas as the source for its digital maps.

Update (Same day, 9:30 am) - I received a reply from TeleAtlas regarding my request for a map update. Apparently, I have to draw them a map in order for them to update their map. I kinda figured that's why they were in business.

The King & Celine
August 12, 2009 8:01 AM | Posted in: ,

Considering that more than 1.5 million people have viewed the YouTube video of Céline Dion performing with Elvis Presley, this may not be news for you. But neither I nor my wife had seen it, and I figured that there were likely a few of you for whom this will also be new. I recommend it for several reasons. First, the video itself:

As I said, I find this compelling for several reasons. First, I like the song (If I Can Dream of a Better Land), which, despite its naive and vaguely hippie-ish lyrics (not to mention its questionable theology), still provides some dramatic musicality.

Second, I like both performers. Dion is one the biggest-selling female singers in history and one of the few contemporary performers that I'd pay to see in concert, and Presley's musical legacy is unquestioned. Michael Jackson may have been the King of Pop, but Elvis needed no such qualifier.

Finally, I'm intrigued by the technology that brought two performers from different generations (the original footage for this video was from a 1968 concert, the year Dion was born). The video is one of those productions where your first thought is wow!, followed closely by I wonder how they did that?" With regard to the second thought, well, to borrow a line from Apple, there's a video for that:

Some YouTube commenters excoriate the creators of this video (Hollywood technical experts David C. Fein and Marc Fusco, operating on YouTube as "2livefools") for what they deem to be unfair criticism of the techniques and quality of the "spliced video," but I think the creators are simply offering unbiased and expertly professional observations. They're making no judgments about the quality of the performances (indeed, they go out their way to comment that it appears that Dion's performance was intentionally toned down out of respect to Elvis).

  • Anyone who's tried their hand at editing videos will appreciate the effort it takes to achieve something like this. And while 2livefools repeatedly state how simple it was to create the duet, that's only because they're no doubt used to working with the latest technology (hardware and software) and large budgets. For the rest of us, this pairing of Elvis and Céline represents sufficiently advanced technology as to be indistinguishable from magic.

P.S. If you're a purist and insist on a Canadian-free version of Elvis's performance, here's the original:

David Ulin has written a thought-provoking article for the L.A. Times entitled Amazon's troubling reach in which he explores some of the ramifications of entrusting our "collective memory" (as expressed via books) to a commercial entity such as

Amazon had a recent "stumble" in which it unilaterally and without warning deleted a couple of books from its customers' Kindle e-book readers, citing "licensing issues." Amazon's founder and chairman, Jeff Bezos, later apologized profusely for doing this, but the damage to the company's credibility has been done.

Perhaps that's not a fair way to put it, though. More likely, the innocence of consumers has been punctured with respect to acquiring their books electronically, and I think that's probably a good thing. Ulin's article raises a number of interesting questions, but in the end, Amazon (or any other company in the same business) can exert only the control that we permit. As with any other purchase, an informed consumer is the best guard against commercial impropriety.

If we're really concerned that our "shared informational heritage" won't be properly stewarded by Amazon, we shouldn't be buying, er, licensing e-books from them. That's a decision each of us has to make on our own.

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