Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Wired News: That's Billion, with a 'B'

Something is seriously wrong, here. The world-wide sales for ringtones last year was
US$3.5 BILLION. Ringtones! All that money spent on something that causes people to want to destroy your personal property -- particularly when you leave your cell at your desk and your coworkers have to listen to that same stupid 10-second clip playing over and over and over... >:Þ

Monday, December 27, 2004

Techno Musings: SPOT off

I blame Dick Tracy. For years, manufacturers have been trying to cram more than just timekeeping capabilities into the venerable watch. Back in middle school, a classmate had a watch that doubled as a calculator. An appealing thing until you actually tried to use the miniscule keypad on the darn thing.
Then, in 1995, Timex came out with the "Data Link" watch that flashed lines on your monitor to synchronized the watch with their proprietary PIM software on your Windows PC. The original was limited to 70 entries; newer models (yep, Timex is still producing these puppies) store several hundred entries and use USB, but the software is still proprietary.
Fast forward to the height of the PDA phenomenon, and a few daring watchmakers sold models running the Palm OS. The initial models were pretty bulky; even though later models got the size down to something more reasonable, the fact remains that -- for all of these attempts -- the wrist-borne form factor is lousy for input.
So here we are in 2004 and Microsoft comes out with the latest generation of their MSN Direct (née SPOT) technology and watchmakers have hopped on board. The watches themselves look pretty cool, and if you're lucky enough to live in one of the ten cities MS supports and you shell out $40 a year, one of these watches can display information MS broadcasts over a special FM station.
Actually, Microsoft was surprisingly close to getting it the right, but they overshot a bit. After all, this is MY watch. It's probably a few years off, but when we finally see a useful digital wrist whatever, it will be a way for your other digital gear to let you know what's going on. Instead of playing a damn ringtone, you'll be able to set up your cell phone to trigger the watch's vibrating alert and display the caller's ID. Your PDA or laptop can send you reminders about appointments you're about to miss, and your Blackberry or mobile IM device could send you the kind of information that MSN Direct is pushing.
The point is that the watch would be a display device. Sure, it might have the ability to send back a simple response to the originating device such as dismiss or snooze, but the point is that it really wouldn't know much other than something to identify it as yours and to store some basic personal preferences. Other things that this watch will need to be successful:
  • Platform agnostic -- it shouldn't care who made the device that is trying to communicate with you, just that it's conforming to a set of open standards.
  • Secure -- your devices will need some way to ensure that it is your watch they're communicating with and, possibly more importantly, there will need to be some way to prevent spammers from overloading your watch with useless junk.
  • Low power -- whatever wireless method is used to communicate with the watch (Bluetooth, wireless USB), it can't be so power hungry that you need to haul around a car battery to keep your watch running.
  • Easily rechargeable -- I really don't want to have to "dock" my watch every night. There is some promising work being done on "mats" that can recharge any device placed on it without having to have the device plugged into it. Again, an open standard would be needed.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Not always as clear as you'd like to think

We went to lunch at Panera this afternoon and Ki noticed the celophane topped toothpick in my sandwich. "Why do you have a stick in your sandwich?" he asked.
"It holds the sandwich together until I'm ready to eat it," I replied.
He mulled this over for a second, then asked "Why do you eat the stick?"


Forgive me, reader, for it has been many days since my last blog.
We've had a few changes in our family and, while I've thought about posting, by the time I had a breather to do so, I was usually too wiped out.
It's an interesting challenge to deal with a newborn the second time around. It's accompanied by the usual sleep deprevation and complete lack of a predictable schedule, but as an added bonus, you have to try to keep life as normal as possible for the elder child. All I have to say is that you really need to have good communication with your spouse. No matter how composed you think you are, you will inevitably reach the point where your very last nerve is no more. It is critical that you have a spouse who recognizes this in his/herself and can understand when you gaze at them twitchy and bleary-eyed and grunt something like an extra from the "Beer Bad" Buffy episode: "need... break... now."
We're were lulled into a bit of complacency the first week. DD was going four hours between feedings during the night and DS seemed to be taking his new role as big brother in stride. Foolish humans. DD is on the more expected "whenever I feel like it" schedule that can run anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours between feedings. DS still adores "his baby" but he's not too thrilled with his parents right now. Normally a reasonable lad when it comes to parental guidance (bedtime, picking up toys, etc.) he's become rather obstinate. It didn't help that the poor guy came down with an intestinal bug last Wednesday.
So at this point, we're in "survival mode", trying to maintain the barest semblance of sanity. The worst part is that I have to head back to work on Monday. Another week at home would be so much more helpful.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

What we're watching [www]

A couple of nights ago, we rented La Dolce Vita. I'm sorry to say that I only made it 2 hours through the 3 hour "masterwork". Sure, Anita Ekberg has a very... um... enticing? screen presence, but she's not in much of the movie, is rather an airhead, and her segment is severely marred by the extremely creepy character "Frankie". Presumably, he was intended to look like a satyr with an extreme face lift; if not... . For the most part, however, the story felt very much like a version of Reality Bites for another generation -- amoral characters whining about life not turning out to be the paradise they expected. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Last night we rented the remake of The Stepford Wives. Overall, it was a mildly amusing way to waste 92 minutes. I haven't seen the original, so I really can't comment on which is better. The plot was pretty predictable and definitely lacking any suspense. The great cast – who doesn't like Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Christopher Walken? – almost makes up for the lack of script. Matthew, Nicole and newcomer Roger Bart are also all in the upcoming film adaptation of The Producers; hopefully that will be a much better film.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

It's Mozilla for me

I've finally done it. While I switched over to Firefox several months ago, I had been holding on to using Outlook as my e-mail client. My excuses were that it let me also check my Hotmail account and that I had carried it along with me through the last three changes to my ISP (TimeWarner, Adelphia, and now Verizon). After getting thwacked by a really annoying bit of spyware recently, I decided it might finally be prudent to remove the Admin rights from the account my DW and I use to logon. Urk. Outlook decided to be a chump and choke on that change. That was all the push I needed. I downloaded Thunderbird and restored Admin rights to my account long enough to import everything from Outlook. It's not perfect -- Outlook kept a bunch of my HTML messages seemed to come over as plain text for some reason -- but so far, I'm basically pleased with my decision. As for accessing Hotmail, I created a "Web Mail" folder on the Bookmark Toolbar and, with Firefox's wonderful "Open in Tabs" option, I can now check GMail, Hotmail and Yahoo in one swell foop.
Next up on the chopping block... the rest of Microsoft Office. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Election results

I... am... very disappointed! It's not that I had any illusions that Kerry was going to be a great President, but Bush? I mean, c'mon. He's such a... such a... smeg-head! Grrr.

Election results aside, this was an interesting one for me because, for the first time in my voting career, I relied solely on the internet for watching the returns. Matter of necessity, really, 'cause we're totally without any form of television service. I looked at the web sites for the three big "all news" stations: CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC. Surprisingly, MSNBC's was the worst by far -- practically unusable. Ironic given that one of its major backers is a software company. FoxNews's was the most usable, while, although more awkward than Fox's, CNN's site had the most useful information.

As a final little election tidbit, I was listening to Maine Public Radio on the way home from work this evening and caught an interesting quote from George Smith of the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine. Of the opposition's recent TV ad campaign he said (at 13:15), "...if you put on, night after night, cattle being slaughtered, bacon would be banned. " Bacon? From a cow? This genius also wants a constitutional amendment preventing wildlife management issues from being allowed on the ballot. Awfully sporting of him, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Odd decision by the Bush camp

Access to Bush website blocked from outside the US

Political Signs

Driving home from dropping off my son this morning, I noticed a zillion political signs dotting the landscape and had to wonder "what's the point?". I mean, it's not like a sign is big enough to provide any real useful information. In fact, I can only see a few possible scenarios where they'd affect voting outcome:

Sparking interest: This is the optimist's scenario -- that upon seeing a sign, the viewer will be inspired to hop on the internet and learn more about the issue or candidate. Political signs have been around for far longer than the internet, however, and it's still difficult to find anything of substance on local candidates.

Recommendations: I suppose if you saw a political sign in front of the house of someone you knew and respected, you might take that into account when making your decision. It seems equally likely, however, that the person putting up the sign might be widely viewed to be a bumbling idiot, so from a political standpoint it's likely to be a wash.

Lowest common denominator: This seems to be the likely reason that folks put up political signs -- that a significant number of voters go to the polls without any real knowledge of what they're voting on and will therefore pick a name that they recognize or a position that they think is "popular". What a way to pick a candidate.

RSS Feed of the RTP (Random Time Period)

As we close in on election day, many folks will be watching with bated breath to see whether less-than-inspiring aristocrat John Kerry can overthrow the truly moronic fascist George Bush (no bias here!). The electoral-vote site has an RSS feed which lets you quickly view how their predictions steadily decline towards W. Unfortunately, no one seems to have an answer for why we haven't had a good option for president in years. Maybe, instead of an election, we should institute a Presidential draft since, as Douglas Adams posits,
those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.
Oh, wait a minute. Is that what we already have? Is W just a right-wing nutjob version of Zaphod Beeblebrox? Was the war in Iraq his Heart of Gold? If so, someone certainly screwed up when they picked the real power -- more of an Emperor Palpatine than the wise man of Adam's Galaxy. Oh well. Where's Han Solo when you need him?

Friday, October 22, 2004

New addition to the blogging family

DW has started a blog of her own. She totally rocks! See what I mean at Going Feral.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Too much to ask? Part III

The blessed Friday finally arrives and EQ returns to hook up the dishwasher and reconnect the office. I explain the situation with the 120 in the crawlspace and suggest that he reuse that existing – and relatively recent – cable for the new dishwasher and then reconnect the office to its original circuit breaker.
"Nope, I like to use new circuits for appliances."
Fine, whatever. I've had it with this bozo and just want him the f#&k out of my house. After he reconnects the office circuit, I ask about the wire to the old range hood. Since you thought that was the only thing on the circuit, didn't you just leave it in the wall? Is that safe?
"Sure it's safe; I capped it off."
And the live 120 in the basement from the dishwasher?
"I don't have time for that".
EQ leaves and that should be the last we hear from the incompetent boor.

GC, however, submits an invoice to us for the full quoted amount, despite the fact that it included many items that were not done by GC or any of his crew. So we write a letter to explain why we aren't including the amount he requested. Among the handful of items in the list was "Work in this area was definitely not completed to our satisfaction. We took over the responsibility of installing our own lighting after seeing the quality of finish displayed in the electrician's preliminary work."

Not surprisingly, EQ calls us that evening. I answer the phone. Right out of the gate, he's belligerent.
"What the hell is this supposed to mean?"
I start to calmly go through the basis for our comments, but he interrupts with "That's it!? THAT'S your beef? What about all the time I spent putting up boards? What about all of the time I spent cleaning up the mess that the other guy left behind?"
I start to explain that the "mess" was from the kitchen, but EQ steam rolls right over that. A few futile minutes of trying to get a rational conversation going, I give up and hang up the phone. Our young son could sense my anger and frustration and was very concerned.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Too much to ask? Part II

The next time we see him, he plans to install the new box for the ceiling fixture. EQ mentions that he might have to cut a hole in the ceiling so he can run the cable perpendicular through the joists and then along them to the new location. GC will be drywalling to extend the existing soffit, so he can patch that too. Sounds reasonable enough.

At the end of the day, we check out his work so far:
  • Instead of a hole, there's an L shaped cut-out in the ceiling running from the old location to the new. Surprising, but again the CG will be doing drywalling, so... maybe they had figured this would be the easiest approach.
  • Next up, a blank cover is installed where the old fixture was... but it's not flush to the ceiling. I take a closer look and notice that the cover's bent. So I take it down, unbend it, and reinstall it. It's better, but still not quite flush.
  • Over to the lightswitches... They don't quite line up with the cover and the drywall between the new gang box and an adjacent, pre-existing one is hanging on by a thread. I take off the cover (yes, the circuit was off) and nudge one of the switches so the cover fits better.
The next day we mention the drywall and ceiling cover to GC. He fixes both with a generous application of "mud". Given that the EQ has admited to being reluctant to tackle most challenges and obviously isn't to concerned about finishing details, we decide that we'll install the new light fixtures ourselves.

We don't see EQ for several days, but when we do he's hard at it for several hours. At the end of his efforts, he calls me over to tell me of his accomplishments. He's installed boards for stapling the new wires to, and he's cleaned up a mess that "the last guy" left behind in the crawlspace including tying up a 240 line and capping off the end of a live 120 that he'd discovered after getting shocked by it.
"And this, " he proudly tells me as he snips the wire from a circuit breaker, "is the old range hood. We'll use that breaker for the dishwasher."
"There's nothing else on that circuit?" I ask.
"Uh, nope, " he replies.
Later that evening, I turn on the light in the stairway up to the office. Nothing. I check the lights and outlets in the office. No juice. I check the circuit breakers; they're all on except for the one from which EQ had just disconnected the range hood. 'Doh!

The next day, I check the crawlspace. The 240 line he'd mentioned "cleaning up"? It was from the former cooktop. The live 120 line? Much newer than the rest of the wiring and, as such, easily identified as coming from the old dishwasher. Turns out that "the last guy" is synonymous with "me". Who knew?

We mention the office situation to GC, explaining that it'd be really helpful to get this back on soon. After several more days without power to the office, we ask GC when EQ is likely to return. Turns out GC has already paid EQ and is having a hard time getting him to commit to a return date.
"He'll be here on Monday" GC finally announces.
We don't see EQ until Friday.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Too much to ask? Part I

We recently had less than satisfactory dealings with a "professional" electrician. His behavior, in fact, has caused a great deal of stress in our household. Here in parts 1-3, I present the background:

The electrician in question (EQ) was brought in by a general contractor (GC) who was remodelling our kitchen. His first day at our house, while the GC is removing the old cabinets, I talked with EQ about what electrical tasks we'd discussed with GC:
Me: The refrigerator will be over here, so we need to move these lightswitches, preferably to the other side of the room.
EQ: I don't know, [rattles off a bunch of objections]. How about if I just move them to the other side of this wall.
Me: That's fine. We'd like the ceiling light moved so that it'll be centered over the island.
EQ: OK, but I'll have to put a cover where the old fixture is. Have you thought about track lighting? [goes into a lengthy explanation of what track lighting is]
Me: I'll talk it over with my wife, but we'll probably want to stick with moving the fixture. Over here, we'd like undercabinet lighting installed.
EQ: I don't know, undercabinet lighting is a lot of work [rattles off another slew of objections]. But if you want to...
Me: [realizing that it probably isn't a good idea to have this guy do something he's not comfortable tackling]. That's okay, we'll skip that.
Not the most impressive of first encounters. EQ spends the rest of his time that day moving the lightswitches. He does entertain us with his rapier wit, however: "How do you turn a dishwasher into a snowblower? Give her a shovel! Yuk-yuk-yuk"

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Death knell for newsletters?

I used to be a e-mail newsletter junkie. I still get quite a few, but have been whittling down the list as more and more sites are offering RSS feeds instead. If you haven't encountered RSS yet, it's a "pull" technology that lets web sites provide headlines or complete news blurbs in a standardized XML format that end-users like you an I can request when it's convenient for us. Rather than navigating to each site and trying to read the XML directly, however, you use an "aggregator" to configure the different feeds that it should gather and display them in a single view. My current aggregator of choice is SharpReader -- both because it's free and because, as a .NET developer, it offers me the opportunity to (someday) get in and play with the code. If you're a Mac user, there's a cross-platform option called AmphetaDesk that's received pretty good press.

So, why are news feeds better than newsletters? Anonymity for one. While news aggregators usually refer to configuring a feed as "subscribing", the site in question actually doesn't know who you are. This means one less source for clogging up your inbox (even a gmail one) with unwanted mail. The other benefit is that you're in control. Sure, you can set up rules/filters and route your newsletters to different folders within your mail client. For me at least, it is very satisfying to be able to separate my correspondence activities from feeding my news-junkie habit. I can check e-mail without worrying about getting sucked into some extensive link-a-thon. Then I can take the time to satisfy my info cravings when it's convenient.

One interesting aspect of RSS feeds is that, as a relatively new phenomenon, different sites approach it differently. Some, like zdnet, simply replicate their newsletters; this results in the same headline showing up multiple times if you subscribe to more than one of their feeds. Better sites provide more granular feeds that let you pick what you're interested in without having to wade through duplicate entries.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Welcome aboard

Hold on to your seats; it's likely to be a very strange ride.