Recently in Technology Category

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 Amazon.com 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

Photomatix
Photomatix

HDRFactory
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 NFC...it'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 Amazon.com.

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 Amazon.com).

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 TV...in 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 ("...my 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.com.

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.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Technology category.

Sports is the previous category.

Television & Radio is the next category.

Archives Index