Monday, November 5, 2007

UK Land Registry Axes Online Deeds

Good example of the downside of accessibility as UK Land Registry ends online access to deeds. Relates to something I long ago term the J. J. Gittes Dilemma, after the 1930s Los Angeles private detective immortalized by Jack Nicholson in the 1974 classic "Chinatown." It takes Jake Gittes several days and several beatings to uncover a land fraud which would--arguably--take just a few hours or even minutes to uncover on the Internet today. On the other hand, the expansion of freedom of access to 'public' records

One could argue, as I am inclined to do, that the need to access some records in person, or in writing, or through licensed channels, is not an undue hindrance to access. I have yet to find a single state official who can justify making details of my property ownership in Florida available to anyone, in any country, at any time, for any reason, with no fee, process of authorization, or record of access, which is the current state of affairs.

(I'm not even sure there are any state officials who realize that a. this is the state of affairs they have created and b. it is a problem.)

Friday, October 5, 2007

Brother Inkjet Issue Now on Blip.TV

Okay, finally found time to edit the video I make of the "empty" Brother ink cartridge and host it at blip.tv. Using a good digital kitchen scale it looks like at least 10% of the ink remains in the cartridge after the printer declares "cartridge empty" and refuses to print.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Politics and Technology: Seldom a good match

People who were appalled to hear the Internet described as a system of tubes by the man in congress charged with overseeing said tubes may take some comfort in the fact that said man, Republican Senator Ted Stevens, is currently under investigation for corruption. But Democrats cannot claim to be great technologists either.

Consider the mess that politics is making of technology in the Democratic state of New York. Many Americans don't realize that New York state, when considered in terms of land use, is largely a rural state. In other words, most of the state is countryside, dotted with farms and populated at low densities. Many of these rural communities struggle to provide enough jobs at sufficient salary levels to prevent young people from moving away. There is considerable economic blight.

Technologists may look at this situation and see a chance for technology to come to the rescue.
Let's install broadband Internet access so higher paying tech jobs can be located in rural communities and the agricultural sector can reap the productivity benefits that come from Web 2.0 services. Great idea. Proven to work in numerous places around the world. Except that the free market does not like providing capital intensive technology to rural areas. The only reason that rural communities in America have phone services is a Federal program of subsidy to enable "Universal Service" (financed by a small charge on your monthly phone bill). But there is strong resistant among broadband providers (now mainly phone companies) to expanding that program by defining broadband as essential. See Universal Service.

But surely liberal New York state could do something about this, offer subsidies, lobby for access to FUS funds. But no. The state politicians are opposed to expanding FUS to cover broadband because a. New York might be a net loser of FUS funds and b. FUS broadband would be federal, available in all states, not just New York and "thus deprive New York of any advantages in might gain from having a state scheme to increase rural broadband access."

Now, are you ready for a big cynical dose of irony? There is no state scheme to increase rural broadband access. Why? Could it be because state officials and politicos have been feeding at the trough of the big telcos, companies that can't be bothered to serve those very communities through which they route their trunk lines to connect big cities, where there are large pools of customers?

One ironic twist in the teclo lobbying fandango is that they have been selling politicians [who think the Internet is a series of pipes, remember] on satellite Internet service as a way to fill the gap for rural areas. How altruistic is that? Let rural users eat broadband via satellite, hence there is no need for use to wire them. Except satellite is NOT competitive with wired broadband. So it is not altruistic at all. Telcos pushing satellite in rural areas is not a conflict of interest because satellite is a dead-end for serious broadband.

Why? Two words. Latency and cap. Satellite Internet users have a bandwidth cap. Even if you pay Hughes Net $199 per month they won't give you more than 450 megabytes of bandwidth per day. If you watch streaming video over broadband you can easily consume 60 megabytes an hour. Imagine a family of four. They each could watch a few hours of streaming video in a day. Boom, there goes your limit. And the consequences are dire if you exceed that limit. You are throttled back to a plain old dial-up pace of connectivity for the next 20 to 24 hours. And don't think this is just about unfairness to YouTube addicts. These days we get clients asking use to download hundreds of megabytes of code and documentation per day.

Then there is the latency. It renders VPN use almost impossible. And VPN is the single most important technology for enabling telecommuting from rural areas!

And we haven't even talked about what happens when you get bad weather (you get bad connections, dropped packets, total loss of connectivity, snail pace response times). Then there So, satellite is amazing technology, no doubt about that, but is not at all comparable to wired broadband.

So, what are rural users to do? I expect that some of them will organize and lobby. Others will simply build their own alternatives and, hopefully, deprive the telcos of revenue. If you light up the valley with WiFi, for example, you could steal a bunch of revenue from cell and land line providers. Maybe then those land line owners will be more appreciative of the folk of who allow them to run their fibre through their valley without bothering to give the locals a taste.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Brother Ink Jet Ripoff: Class action coming

Here's an update on the the Brother inkjet ripoff, namely the fact that:

a. Cartridges are declared empty when there is still ink in them.
b. You can't print anything when any of the four cartridges are declared empty.

I have now documented this in two models and comments indicate others (mine are the MFC 3820CN and the MFC 420CN). I have also found a law firm that is considering a class action law suit.

Next step to post my video of this problem and the weight readings that indicate how much ink is left when Brother says the cartridge is empty (hint is more than 5%).
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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Living in Fear of GPS: Sat-nav nightmares

As a species we like to think that technology holds the answer, that technology offers advantages. But does technology offer more advantages than drawbacks? I have always argued that technology itself is neutral. Whether or not the net effect of its development is positive depends upon its users, we humans.

Case in point: GPS. On a recent trip to Britain I found a phenomenon that illustrates my point rather well: sat-nav blight. This is the appearance of an increasing number of large vehicles in small towns due to lorry [truck] drivers using GPS devices that direct them on shortcuts which may, or may not, be appropriate. Here are some examples:

Sat nav leaves cheese truck stuck.
First 'ignore your sat nav' roadsigns go up.
Traffic analysis of heavy lorries on the B1078.
Sat-nav drivers land in deep water again.
End to sat-nav blight.

Sat-nav stories.

Monday, September 3, 2007

We Are The Knights Who Say Ning?

I don't think of myself as easily impressed, so please check out this social networking site and see if you agree with me that it is awesome: ning.com.

I used this site to create a social network in about 15 minutes, complete with custom colors, video and audio uploading, slide show, forums, and membership invitations.

Did I miss something or is this not an amazing bargain (it's free) and a great leap forward for people who want create content rich communities to serve their needs?
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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Penelope Draws Near: Prepare to beta test!

And now Penelope's time is drawing near! As of 8/9/2007 the first public beta was reported to be "a few weeks" from release. This release will be a great way for lovers of Eudora to pitch in and help the developers by providing feedback.

If you're not following any of this, check my previous posting on the retirement of the Eudora email client and the evolution of the Penelope replacement.

And some readers may be asking "Why all the fuss about Eudora?" Let me try to explain. As an email client Eudora is fast and efficient. It lets you filter messages into mailboxes very easily and it lets you search any or all of those boxes in a flash, using as many criteria as you can imagine. Furthermore, it stores all of your mail and attachments in a very logical manner. All attachments go in the Attachments folder. All messages for a particular box go into an indexed text file named after the box, readily readable in an ASCII editor. I cannot recall losing a single message in 15 years due to the program 'eating' it the way Outlook is apt to do. The simplicity of file structure lets me move Eudora from one machine to another (or to a new one) without any fuss.

Eudora also does a great job of not losing or scrambling messages when a connection is dropped mid-POP. And there is a very good Junk filter. And Eudora will check all my different addresses at once. I don't think there is anything else out there that does all of that. But if there is, please let me know. I can compare it to Penelope as she enters beta.

Bluetooth Turn On: Mystery solved for Sony Vaio SZ360P and others

Over the last 30 days or so I have been breaking in a new Sony VAIO. As I have done several times in the past, I purchased one of the not quite new models (in this case, the SZ360P). This strategy lets you get a pretty decent feature set and price without paying an excessive premium.

One of the reasons I chose this model is the built-in Bluetooth. I had a Bluetooth dongle that I used on my previous Sony VAIO, but the performance was quirky at best.

When I say breaking in, I mean the process whereby you remove all the built-in rubbish that you don't need and add the programs that you do need plus the data from your previous machine. (Yes, yes, I know, if I bought an Apple Macintosh I wouldn't have all this work to do, but that is a bit of us an over-simplification, as any truly honest Mac owner a would acknowledge.)

One of the things that annoys me on any Windows machine these days is the proliferation of icons in the tray in the bottom right-hand corner. In an effort to clean this up on the new machine I apparently removed a control for the Bluetooth radio. Little did I realize how difficult it would be to get my Bluetooth capability back. The past few days I have been experimenting with voice recognition software and was considering using a Bluetooth headset to do my dictation. When I came to mate the Bluetooth headset to my Sony VAIO I kept getting a message that a Bluetooth radio was not turned on. Seeing no switch by which to turn on the Bluetooth radio I was perplexed. I went online to find out if anybody else had this problem.

Isn't it wonderfully comforting to find other people posting messages about a problem? Apparently the Bluetooth radio switch is so non-obvious that some folks had been doubting whether or not their machine actually had Bluetooth installed.

So, in the hopes of helping anybody else who has questions about the Sony VAIO Bluetooth radio switch, the following pictures are posted, starting with the Vaio Central utility seen here (this can be accessed from the Start menu or the Vaio Support Central app.

Warning! Every Sony VAIO comes with a host of built-in utility programs which clog up the Start menu. I am in the habit of either removing these from the menu or bunching them all together in their own folder. In the past some of these utilities have turned out to be quite frivolous, however, the one that turns on the Bluetooth radio is quite essential, as there is no hardware switch to do this.

What you need is the Wireless Switch Settings. This brings up a dialog which is pretty obvious. If you "Enable the Bluetooth device" you turn on the Bluetooth radio. But it would help if it actually said that, and if the "Bluetooth settings" applet which you access from the Control Panel explained that.

Success in this endeavor is at least rewarded with a cool blue light on the keyboard, just above the mechanical switch that turns on/off the Wi-Fi radio. (I guess that one extra switch for the Bluetooth would have broken the design budget).

As you exist this dialog you are treated to another, which alerts you to the addition of the new icon in the taskbar. Despite my dislike for the clutter these icons create, I am leaving this one in place. Otherwise I might have to search my own blog for instructions on how to get it back.

Note: as with Bluetooth on other devices, it is a good idea to check your settings whenever you have Bluetooth active. You don't want your notebook to be discovered and access by an unauthorized user.
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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Naturally Speaking I'm Blogging

This is my first attempt to write a blog posting using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I have only spent about an hour using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. So I don't think the program is fully trained yet. However, what the program is able to achieve so far is quite surprising. Everything that I have dictated up until this point, has been correct.

I am having slightly more trouble using the commands, however, they promise to be extremely useful, if for example, I am able to dictate a blog posting, copy it, then paste it into a blog post. At the moment, I am using the DragonPad application to do my dictation. It seems that the DragonPad is optimized for taking in spoken dictation. Later on I will try dictating directly into the blogger application.

The ideal situation would be to sit looking at the screen surfing the web with voice commands, and then using the Google toolbar to send webpages to my blog where I can add text and then post.
One of the things that I am interested in finding out is whether or not some of my recent reluctance to do typing is related to the pain it generates either immediately or after the fact. (Ever since the end of last year, my left shoulder and upper on inheriting during an off to typing.) Whether or not the pain has been a deterrent to typing, I am more determined than ever to pursue computed dictation as an input method for my writing.

I have tried this several times in the past, using previous editions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking and the main competitor, IBM ViaVoice. (Interesting to note, Dragon NaturallySpeaking very easily recognizes both its own name and that of IBM ViaVoice.) Each time, I eventually gave up.

In my recent reading about voice recognition software, which I can remember testing at least 10 years ago, I noticed that several people stressed the need to persist with a voice recognition program in order to get the best performance from it. Apparently, Dragon NaturallySpeaking continues to learn as you use the program. The more you use the program, the better it works. This added incentive may be enough to keep me going through some off the rough patches.

There are several surprising side effects to using voice recognition software. Personally, I am getting quite a kick out of making the computer do something with just my voice. Having something, albeit an inanimate object, obey my every come on, well it's just rather satisfying.

(Notice that in the last sentence I used the phrase "obey my every come on" but in fact what I said was obey my every command, so you can see that there are some interesting wrinkles to be worked out.)

To review, I have now dictated thus far with only one or two mistakes. Not bad for $89 (at Staples) with fairly comfortable headset included.
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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Farewell Eudora, Hello Penelope: Your faihtful users await your email excellence

If I had more free time, like a lot more, I would consider having a farewell party for Eudora. Which Eudora? Not Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer prize winning author? No, Eudora the email program that was named after Welty thanks to her widely anthologized short story: Why I Live at the P.O.

I have used Eudora (a dialog from which can be seen above) as my main email client for about 15 years. I have faithfully paid for upgrade after upgrade, all the way to version 7. My Eudora email archives tell the story of my life for those 15 years. The version that I have used for the last few years has a superb search feature that lets me access just about any aspect of that past in a matter of seconds.

But alas, Eudora is no more. Or rather, there will be no new versions. From 1991 to 1996 the program was supported and improved by Qualcomm, the folks who make cell phones (nod if you find that as puzzling as I do). Along the way a sponsored version was developed and the latest version of that can still be found. But the paid version is no longer sold.

Thankfully, Qualcomm made the laudable decision not to simply ditch the code and strand loyal users. The company donated the code to the Mozilla Foundation. You can found out the latest at Penelope on MozillaWiki. That's right, the new name for Eudora is Penelope. And although Penelope is not quite ready yet, she is getting there.

Hence this posting. After all, the decision to hand the code to Mozilla was last year. The official end of Eudora paid edition was May of this year. But the fact that Eudora is evolving is still news to a lot of Eudora users. I mean, I am a heavy user and I only found out by accident when I went to the web site looking for a better understanding of the Junk Mail filter (yes, it has a pretty good junk mail filter as well as a great search feature).

I think there could be millions of people out there happily using some version of Eudora not realizing what has happened. So, fellow Eudorans, go the link above and bookmark it. Soon it will be time to test and perfect a successor.
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Saturday, June 23, 2007

About Brad Pitt and You: Search engine trick barks up wrong tree

Pursuing my obsession with search engines [and myself] led me to enter my name into dogpile, self-described as "all the best search engines piled into one." In other words a so-called meta-search engine that pulls results from other search engines. What I found was quite interesting and applies to everyone, so you might want to try it. Go to dogpile.com and search for your exact name plus any other person, like Brad Pitt, or a place, or a thing. As an example, I put this in the search box:

"Fred Whassaname" gold

The first result from that search is a sponsored one. The second result from that search or any other search that follows the name/gold pattern, is a page at About.com that is headed "Gold Jewelry - How to Buy Gold Jewelry." The URL of this result is:
holidays.about.com/od/fashion/a/gold_jewelry.htm.

When you go to this page via the above search you will not find any mention of Fred in the text of the page, but if you search the source code of the page you will see an interesting trick at the bottom, an html IMG SCR tag that points to page at the New York Times, a page with the name in it:

http://up.nytimes.com/?d=1/&g=T&h=76NFF02820kA
012J&hs=76NFF02820kA012J&t=2&r=http%3a%2f%2fww
w%2edogpile%2ecom%2finfo%2edogpl%2fsearch%2fweb%2f
%25252522Fred%25252BWhassaname%25252522%25252Bgold
%2f1%2f%2d%2f1%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f1%2f%2d%2f%2d%2
f%2d%2f1%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d
%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2
f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%
2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d
%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2
f%2d%2f417%2ftop%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f%2d%2f1&u=http%
3A%2F%2Fholidays%2eabout%2ecom%2fod%2ffashion%2fa%
2fgold%5fjewelry%2ehtm


In other words, the New York Times, which owns About.com, makes up pages on the fly, just to meet your search criteria. Making things up is not what one would expect from the New York Times, not after it got rid of those plagiarizing journalists. And one consequence of this nasty little search hack is that you can enter your name together with that of your favorite movie star and get a bunch of hits that appear to link you with that person. But it also means you can get a bunch of hits off:

"Fred Whassaname" felon

This raises the possibility that someone could conclude, if they just go by the number of hits, that poor Fred is a felon. There's no basis for this and somehow it just feels wrong.
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Monday, May 28, 2007

The Intuitive Interface Myth: The fault of gurus and experts

Okay, so I am officially fed up with the notion that graphical user interfaces are "intuitive" and "easy to use." There is nothing inherently intuitive or easy in a GUI. It all comes down to the design. Moving a mouse pointer over an icon and clicking it may look cool, may feel cool, but how easy is it for the average person? The answer depends on a variety of factors, like hand eye coordination and icon design. Half the time my screen has a bunch of icons on it the meaning of which is less than obvious. In other words, I have to learn what the icon means, I cannot simply intuit the meaning. Surely a word would be better? Yes, I know that you can turn on words for some icons, but this is inconsistent between applications and operating systems. And when you get to the web all bets are off. Some sites underline links, others don't. Some use rollovers, others don't. The same function is given different names on different sites, and so on and so forth.

How did we arrive at this situation, where computers and software are designed with interfaces that are non-obvious? Obstacles and not enablers? There are several parties to blame. Let's start with the industry giants and the wars between them that did not help (a great case study for MBA students--how the free market influences interface design--does the iPod dominate MP3 players due to interface? Did the windows wars between Apple and Microsoft help or hinder the interface evolution?).

Competition is great for some things, but when companies get fixated with one-upping the competition (in order to sell more product) there is a tendency to force software and hardware developers to add bells and whistles and do things different, even when an unadorned standard config is working fine. There is a whole book in this phenomenon, but consider one example, an interface issue that may well be the single greatest cause of lost productivity in the late nineties and early oughties (or whatever this current decade is called).

I'm talking about the way File Save works. Back in the old days, somewhere between the Pterodactyls and the 386 chip, it was "standard" for the File Save command to require confirmation, much the same way that the File Save As command does today. Suppose you had opened up the spreadsheet of weekly sales figures and updated them. When you selected File Save the spreadsheet application would ask you: Yes or No? The reason for this was obvious: You might want both versions of the spreadsheet, the one that you opened and the edited one . The latter might be very different. For example, the original might be the Megabank proposal which you had edited to become the Ultrabank proposal. You might have deleted a lot of information from the original on the way to the new version.

Obviously the File Save As command is for just such situations, but if there was one instruction that was drummed into the brains of early adopters of PC technology, back in the days when they were prone to disk crashes and brownouts and OS flakiness, it was this: Save now and save often. At that time, saving was not a destructive process. But it became one. And the Apple Mac was where it started. The Mac introduced "File Save with no overwrite confirmation." This meant you could have a problem if you opened a 10 page report, spent an hour re-writing the last 5 pages, hit File Save, then changed your mind about the changes. Even worse, open the document, perform Select All , Cut, File Save, and think about what happens if the machine hiccups before you Paste.

In all these scenarios there were workarounds that prevented them from being problematic, but they required a significant change in work flow. And for what? To make it easier to save work, a goal not necessarily accomplished without some hard lessons and tough data losses in the interim. Arguably things got worse when Microsoft Windows apps aped this style of File Save. (I well recall long distance arguments as a beta-tester with Borland as it struggled to choose the file save style for Quattro Pro--go with the new Excel/Mac "overwrite" style or stick with the traditional "confirm overwrite" style of Lotus 1-2-3.)

Windows aspired to be like Mac only different. That led to several File Save issues. One of the benefits of a graphical OS is the ability to convey more information in the same space. For example, an application could show if File Save was necessary by graying out and disabling the File Save command when the version of the document in memory was the same as that stored on the hard drive. But that feature has never been implemented consistently. That's a pity because it is really handy to know if changes have been made. Consider the task of editing a large image where the File Save command can take a long time to execute; performing unnecessary file saves in this situation is a real waste of time. The Canvas graphics program is one application that conforms to the "gray=saved" convention.

The current "saved" status of a document is particularly important when you are dealing with files that exist in two places, such as a web site you are editing locally before uploading. Fittingly, Dreamweaver MX is another app that uses the "gray=saved" convention.

I like the "gray=saved" convention but like a lot of interface conventions one cannot rely on it being there across apps or platforms. Why is this a problem? Because better and more consistent interfaces improve productivity and safety. We're all familiar with steering wheels. They allow us to jump behind the wheel of any car and navigate through traffic with a high level of expectation of success. They are a convention that car makers mess with at their peril, however much they want to "out-innovate" or "one-up" the competition. And we don't teach our kids to drive cars by telling them clockwise for starboard, anti-clockwise for port, because those are not the conventions used in driving cars. Port and starboard are for boats, where steering is sometimes a matter of push the tiller right to go left and so on. But in the early days of automobiles, some used tillers. Most people agree the wheel thing was a step forward and it has been the automotive interface standard for navigation for nearly a century. Maybe computers could use a similar period of interface standardization and stability.
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Monday, May 14, 2007

Can You Believe Your Own Google?

Do you Google yourself? It sounds like rather a personal question so let me break the ice here: I Google myself, about once a week. In other words, I enter my name into the Google search box to see what comes up. Why? Because I can. Because I'm a techie. And because my ability to get new and interesting consulting assignments depends, to some admittedly unquantifiable extent, on those Google results.

But lately I've become concerned that results you get IF you are logged into Google when you Google yourself are different from those that a stranger would get.

In other, hopefully less clumsy, words: the results that Google returns about you could be different on a stranger's computer from those you get on your own computer (if you are logged into Google on that computer).

I don't know this for a fact and it is a hard fact to check because the results that Google returns can change each time you plug in the same search term (at least that is my experience). So, does anyone know the answer to this one? Does Google slant the results to you if you are logged in? This is not a trivial question and in my next post I will explain why.

P.S. My hat, indeed all three of my hats, is off to Stephen Euin Cobb who often tops me in the Stephen Cobb results. Nicely done Sir!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Pentagon to Merge Next-Gen Binoculars With Soldiers' Brains

Words fail me at this point...

Pentagon to Merge Next-Gen Binoculars With Soldiers' Brains

Are you someone like me who assumed [erroneously] that the military switched from Jeeps to Humvees because Humvees were armored [and that is why they cost so much more than Jeeps]? Then you probably think hooking binocs to brains should come somewhere after putting armor on the bottom of army vehicles. I mean, did nobody in America notice the way the British had modified their Land Rovers for anti-terrorist duty in the seventies?

Technologically this next-gen stuff is cool. But I vote not to fund it until someone in that great big five-sided building stands up and says "It's about the people, stupid!"

Friday, April 13, 2007

Lovin' Our LaCie External Drive: You get what you pay for

Over the years I have put together quite a few external hard drives, typically buying a bare enclosure to put around a "spare" desktop or laptop drive that had been replaced by something larger or faster. The primary use for such drives was backup storage, like a quick backup of my laptop before heading out on a trip, or archives of image libraries and business files. These are files that do not need to be clogging up my work drive, but still need to be available quite quickly from time to time.

On the whole, the external drives that I 'built' did a decent job, but they tended to be a bit noisy. Lately a new storage need emerged on our home/office network: access to large image collections, video, and music libraries. My wife's photo art was the prime mover. She's an Apple user and bought a LaCie brand external drive from the Apple Store.

I have to say at first I was a little ticked. These are not the cheapest drives and Apple Stores are not noted for their low prices. But after using it for a couple of moneys I am impressed. It is quiet. It is fast. It wakes up and goes to sleep appropriately and does not seem to skip a beat (in fact, after some reconfigurations of our home/office network we are now using it for the 80+ gigabytes of iTunes content we have accumulated.). While LaCie drives always seem to price out slightly more expensive than the competition, this could be a genuine case of "They're worth it."

Recently I noticed some decent prices on Amazon.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Intuitive Interface Myth: Why computers aren't any easier to use than they used to be

Back in the early Post-Columbrian era I taught computer classes, hundreds of them. Four hours each, these classes covered: Computer Basics, Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and Operating System. After taking those classes you would know how to turn on a computer, create/save/print a document or spreadsheet, and make a backup copy of your work on removable media. You would also know the difference between memory and storage, RAM and ROM, and be able to answer qustions like "where does my work go wen the power goes out?"

Just 16 hours or two work days. Done and dusted. Or spend another four hours with me (or one of the dozen or so other trainers at our company) and you could build your own databases.

All of this without any "easy-to-use, intuitive graphical user interface." No hard-to-decipher icons, no tricky point-and-click devices, just simple taps on clearly labeled keys. Now, more than two decades later, a frightening number of office workers and home users have less clue about how to do their work and operate their computers than graduates of those archaic classes.

Why? The answer is going to be in some of my next postings. Meanwhile, consider this test. How easy and intuitive is A versus E? Twenty years ago option E was readily available and clearly labeled on the screen. Todays' screens are bigger, and have a lot more than two colors, but are applications any easier to use? I would argue No. Especially when if you want to talk about web apps, where almost every site has a different user interface (links are underlined, not underlined, underlined only on hover, colored differently, appear only when the arrow is over them, an icon not text, text not an icon, etc, etc).

I would hazard a guess that less than half of all people who use computers in their work today have received anything more than 4 hours of training on how to operate a computer. And that's a hazard, and accident waiting to happen, probably already happening if you dug a little deeper into the constant stream of security breaches being reported.
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Monday, March 26, 2007

Cardiologists Using MP3s for Training

In the same vein [nice pun, eh] as my posting about the $30 heart monitor comes this Newsweek story about medical students using iPods to learn the sounds of unhealthy hearts. "Rocking out to 'aortic regurgitation.'"

Which reminds me, if anyone knows what is up with the heart in this clip my friend would love to get a second opinion.

Treo 650 Dying? No shift! Treo 680 review coming soon

Alas, my beloved Treo 650 is sick. Apparently, a recent fall injured the Shift key which jams in the shifted position. This has had a ripple effect on the keyboard and functionality. I am off to England to do some consulting and will have to manage with the 650 until I return, by which time my 680 should have arrived. As they say, shift happens, sometimes too much.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Terabyte Storage Slips Under $400: Western Digital on sale at CompUSA

I blogged about the domesticated terabyte a while back, and now you can buy one for under $400 at CompUSA. As I understand it, there are two drives in the box and you can use them as a single volume or have a 500 megabyte volume drive with RAID backup/redundancy on the other. Maybe the Easter Bunny will bring me one.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Clock Update

Finally getting over that whole DST thing with the US/EU offset. Here's a nice applet that lets you set a bunch of clocks for reference based on a bunch of world city listings. And My Google has a nice clock for tracking a couple of time zones at once.

Oh, and here is how you set the clock on my JVC KD-G720 car stereo. Took me ages to find this.

Free to the World: Cobb's $30 heart sound monitor

Okay, here's a nice way to combine some simple tech items to get high value results at a low cost.

The Challenge: Doctors need a way to listen to the heart beat of patients who are experiencing episodes of irregular heart beat. Past technology has focused on recording heart beat for extended periods of time hoping to catch the episode, useful for some things, but not this intermittent, periodic problem. Plus they are costly and inconvenient to use.

The Solution: Provide patients with a small and convenient device that records heart beat on demand in a format that is easy to transmit to the doctor.

Background: A few years ago my heart started beating funny, not all the time, just sometimes. No, let me re-phrase that: A few years ago, this friend I have, his heart started to beat funny (you never know when the insurance companies will start spidering blogs for evidence of health conditions that could justify even higher premiums).

This friend went to a cardiologist whose nurse wired him [my friend] into a harness that listened to his heart and was supposed to fit under his shirt (like the kind of 'wire' you might see in a crime caper comedy). After 24 uncomfortable hours my friend reported back and a reading was taken from the listening device. But not much showed up and my friend was finding it hard to time his visits to the doctor with the odd heart beat.

So I invented a cheap portable patient-operated heart sound reporting system. I bought a $30 Wombsong foetal monitor at Walmart, the kind you use to listen to your baby before it is born. Then I connected an audio recorder via the monitor's headphone output socket.

When my friend felt his heart beating 'funny' he could lay this thing on his chest and record the sound. This setup could record the sound digitally, with an iPod, a Treo, or any number of digital recorders, so this friend could then, theoretically, email the file to his cardiologist (if his cardiologist would only read his email).

In Practice: It worked like this. We recorded an episode on a pocket tape recorder then transferred that to the computer, reduced the background noise with Gold Wave (a terrific shareware audio editor) and saved it as an mp3. At his next visit with his cardiologist my friend pulled out his Treo and played the recording to a very impressed doctor. Much medical enlightenment was gained.

Of course, he could also have blogged the recording like this (click arrow to play, or click the song title to play in your default player):

Heartbeat recorded on $30 device

Now, after that fleeting moment in which I dreamed of a multi-million dollar IPO of Cobb's Cool Cardio Kit [NASDAQ: CCCK] the right thing to do reared its beautiful head: share this with the world for free. Now anyone with $30 and a little bit of tech-savvy (or a friend thus endowed) can take the sound of their heart to the doctor. Hopefully some lives can be saved, as well as a lot of money better spent on other things.

But woe betide anyone who seeks to cash in on this invention, with the possible exception of the people who already make the foetal monitors and can easily re-purpose them for this (add the instructions for recording to an iPod or rework design to include an mp3 recorder and/or USB connection and/or removable flash storage).

Tech Notes:

Recording--direct to digital makes a lot of sense but a lot of digital recorders don't record to mp3 (I have used Sony and Panasonic devices that record in their own formats) and this means you often have to do some sort of conversion so that the file is in a format accessible to the doctor or the playback device. Dumping the recording to a PC/Mac app like GoldWave makes conversion easy and allows clean-up. GoldWave has this great filter that lets you select a 'silent' section and filter based on that, in other words, a moment of space between explicit sounds will show the background noise and that can be filtered out in one step. , or play the sound back from the recording device, which is easy enough to do with an iPod or Treo).

Foetal monitor--is used for the recording because it is already designed to make internal body sounds audible. There is no great rick to this, just a properly tuned pickup at the narrow end of a cone-shaped, sound-focusing opening on the bottom surface of the unit that lays on the patient's body (over the heart when used in this invention). I used a WombSong, so named because it also allows you to play music to your unborn child (a scary notion given the musical tastes of some parents). These are now available for quite a bit less than $30 and since you can get a cheapr recorder for about $10, you can still make the whole thing for around $30.

Note that this is NOT your fancy "medical quality" foetal monitoring unit. It does not need to be. Check the recording above and you will hear that this is exactly what the cardiologist needed to hear, and would probably not have heard if "my friend" had not recorded it.

Did You Survive DST? The difference in US/EU time difference is the one to watch

Hopefully everyone's technology handled DST okay last night. I got a last minute reminder to update my Treo 650 which was handled very smoothly.

I already blogged the US/EU disconnect elsewhere, but it is worth repeating here, especially for people working trans-Atlantic, which I happen to be at the moment.

I am working on a security project for a fairly large UK company, together with someone from California, as part of a team based in London. The "DST offset" makes figuring flight times and setting up conference calls tricky.

This particular project will be over before the Autumn, but check out the time lag that happens in October of this year. New York goes six hours behind London, and of course that puts LA a full nine hours behind...which is darned inconvenient. When you have a London office meeting at 4PM and that is 7AM for LA, some folks are going to be sleepy from a hard day's work and others will be dozy from a hard day's night.

So, has anyone calculated the supposed energy savings of this whole fiasco, versus the technology upgrade costs?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Clickcaster Works: A real sign that broadband and streaming are taking us to the next level

Lately I've been playing with ClickCaster, a site that offers free pod-casting and video-casting facilities. So far I am very impressed. Making and publishing a podcast was amazingly easy. You can hear the results here.

In less than 4 weeks I have had 250 feed views, 44 downloads, and 30 subscribers. That's for just my first two podcasts (statistics are one of the many nice things about Clickcaster).

Unfortunately I caught a really nasty cold about two weeks ago and really lost momentum with my recordings (yep, da cold wad dat bad id blocked my dose and bade my voice sound fuddy). I hope to put out some more podcasts mid-March.

To anyone who was experimenting with the web ten years ago over a 28Kbps modem, the ability to record good quality audio to a web site and instantly stream it is just so, well it almost chokes you up. All the elements have been around for a long time, but now they are coming together, very nicely in the case of ClickCaster.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Security Issues? Head to scobbs.blogspot.com

Right now I am trying to keep my security insights separate from my technology rants and raves. So if you are looking for security postings they are now at scobbs.blogspot.com. That will allow me to keep stuff like the electric loo separate from more serious issues like threats to data and privacy. After all, some things are more serious than others. I mean, getting sprayed in the face by an electric toilet might seem very threatening at the time, especially when you haven't slept for 24 hours. But it is not likely to usher in the end of the Internet as we know. Is it?

p.s. scobbs.blogspot.com now has several free security and privacy podcasts.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Right Up Front: 01-20-09 and a cool online sign service

I've been getting a lot of compliments lately on my license plate, my fake front license plate, as permitted under Florida law which only requires an official license plate on the rear of your vehicle.

This cell phone photo does not really do it justice as there is a hint of red around the black numbers, all sharply printed on a solid acrylic sign. And all designed by me, using the services of SignsByYou.com. If you scroll down that page you will see a blank plate. Select that and you have a fairly nifty design tool with which to create your own plate. The quality of the results and shipping time are both excellent. A good example of how technology expands personal expression.

(A word of caution: my wife was pulled over in New York state for having a "novelty plate" on the front of her Florida registered vehicle. The novelty plate, purchased in New York City, was in the style of normal New York plates and the letters were: U.S.A. Can't get more patriotic and law-abiding than that, right? Wrong. She avoided a ticket, but only after the first cop called for backup, I kid you not. So I guess you might want to avoid any custom designs that look too much like the real thing. The real kicker for my wife was the fact that the tag on her Florida plate had expired--and the policeman never noticed. Phew!)

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Geek's Commode: From the land of the electric loo

Normally I avoid blogging something more than once, but what you see on the right is a worthy exception: a high-tech toilet, a john with juice, a head that's wired, a bog with brains, it is an electric loo.

I encountered this in a hotel near Incheon airport in Korea. Maybe it struck me as amazing because I encountered it after being awake for 32 hours (apart from the sort of fake sleep you get in coach class when all the seats are full and even in you get an aisle seat you can't stretch out for fear of food carts crushing your feet).

But amazing it is, and a great example of how technology still has the power to transform a truly (hopefully) everyday aspect of our lives. And I don't just mean because it gives us more buttons to push (although there are twelve on this thing for those who are counting). I mean that this thing is transformational technology because this it does away with the need for toilet paper, which is a huge boon to the environment. Exactly how it does that I will leave to your imagination dear reader. Suffice to say, you don't want to push the buttons unless your butt is in position.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Ink Jet Printer Cartridge Rip-Off? Brother 3820CN won't print without removing cartridge that still has ink

I was going to write something nice about Brother recently because I continue to find their 3820CN to be an eminently useful machine. It makes good copies and does printing, scanning, and faxing over my home network. It has a very reliable paper feed which is unusual at this price point. Furthermore, Brother recently repaired my 3820CN free of charge even though it was, strictly speaking, out of warranty. However, something happened today that needs to be addressed.

The control panel told me the Cyan cartridge was empty (the printer has cartridges for Black, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow). I took the Cyan cartridge out and found it was not empty. I put it back in but could not get the machine to accept that there was still ink to be used up. This means I paid for ink that was not used. Furthermore, when any one of the four cartridges is empty the 3820CN will not print. It won't even print in black, as far as I can tell, if a color cartridge is reported to be empty. This means faxing is impaired because the fax confirmation will not print (even though it is a black and white document).

Now, I am not accusing Brother of anything, not yet. I am prepared to think this was an isolated incident, not a devious corporate plot to sell more ink. I have used Brother printers since 1982 (yep, way back in the good ole daisy wheel days). I will hold off any sort of judgment until I get a response to the letter I am sending them. But I am blogging what happened in case anyone else has had the same problem. Please let me know.

Meanwhile I am sending the 'not empty' cartridge to Brother to ask for a refund. And I will update this post with some pictures as soon as I can.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

No More Ham, Eggs, & SPAM: Blog categories revised

Okay, so I admit that I didn't get the point of categories when Blogger first introduced labels. So there I was, merrily labeling my posts with all manner of terms. For example, a post about email security had the following labels: AOL, ham eggs and spam, Microsoft, spam, TurnTide, Yahoo.

Now I have realized the error of my ways and have revised the labels to create meaningful categories. After all, if you want to find any of my posts that deal with ham or USB or AOL you can always use the Search function. I don't plan to have separate categories for those subjects.

For a start, the blog is Cobb on Technology, so there is no need for a technology label. Technology is assumed to be the subject of every post (however tenuous the link might be). There is a need for a general category that includes housekeeping posts like this one that you are reading right now.

And a humor category will denote posts that are [supposed to be] amusing or at least light-hearted. Different kinds of security are given their own category, but most of my security posts are done at scobbs.blogspot.com. A category that is likely to cover a lot of posts right here is "Gotchas."

Gotchas include all manner of quirks, snafus, annoyances, like the fact that there is no Backspace key on Macs and no grayed out File Save command in Microsoft Office apps to let you know something has been saved, or the fact that PS/2-to-USB adapters rarely work and Control-Tab doesn't work the way it should in Microsoft Word. Of course, some posts will have more than one label, like this one, which is mainly 'general' but also now contains some 'gotchas.'

So, I hope this reformed approach to labeling will be useful and make the blog more accessible.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

PS on DST: Vista is pre-fixed, Mac OS X 10.4.6 also

After my posting a few days ago on the changes to Daylight Saving Time in the US that will be happening this year, it occurred to me that I might have raised more questions than I answered. In fact--surprise, surprise--I still don't have ALL the answers. But here a few more that might be helpful.

Q. How long until the change?
A. 47 days (March 11 is the first time the new DST rules go into effect, but there is another date of importance, October 28, 2007, which is when you might have expected DST to end, but in fact it will end November 4).

Q. What about Windows Vista?
A. Vista is aware of the new rules. You have to remember that, back in the summer of 2005--when a change to DST rules was mandated--Microsoft was talking "second half of 2006" as ship date for Vista. And the perpetual optimism in Redmond probably led coders to think a large percentage of PCs would be running Vista in time for the change.

Q. What about Mac OS X?
A. The version 10.4.6 update set the clock straight, so to speak, for Mac users. BTW, that update was released in March of 2006, considerably in advance of the Microsoft patch for XP.

Q. What about my iPod? Palm? Treo?
A. I am still looking into how these devices, which all have date and alarm functions, will handle the DST rule change.

Q. What's that weird clock at the top of the post?
A. It's a clock made out of computer parts. The face is a hard drive platter and it's reflecting my hands holding the camera as I took the picture (with a Sony DSC-T1). As the song goes: "It's always 5 o'clock somewhere."
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USB in the SUV? JVC car stereo lets you plug in MP3s via USB as well as iPod

When I first saw this idea I knew I had to check it out: a car stereo with a USB port on the face plate. In other words, you can put tunes on a USB thumb drive and play them in the car. In fact, I liked the idea so much I now have a JVC KD-G720 installed in my Jeep, as shown here.

Oddly enough, JVC seems to have dropped this particular model. When I went to get a link to listing at Circuit City (which is where I got mine) the search came up empty. Over at Crutchfield the model is listed as "no longer available." There are some links here that might work. Note how happy the reviewers sound--so it is not just me. I gave the unit a good write-up on epinions and also put in aq good word for Circuit City which had the unit installed in under an hour, for under $240 including the iPod connection in the glove box.

Obviously an iPod playing through the car stereo can be a life-saver on road trips and a lot of units are now offering this, either via a simply AUX connection, or through an intelligent link, like this unit, where you can select songs and functions, like shuffle, through the faceplate controls. But it was the USB port that really caught my eye. By using a USB adapter I can quickly take the SD card of tunes out of my Treo 650 and plug them into my car radio (there is a one gig limit ,but that is still a decent chunk of music). I can do the same thing with Sony Memory Sticks--drag a bunch of songs from iTunes on my Vaio laptop to a stick and stick it in the car.

Why would I do that instead of use my iPod? Just seems easier sometimes. Several mixes that I really like are already set up on SD cards for my Treo. Besides, I have my iPod docked in my home streo a lot of the time and it is a lot heavier than a USB key...and oh heck, maybe I'm just lazy.

Anyway, if you do like the idea of using a USB drive for tunes, this is the unit to play them. If you set up six different folders on the USB device the JVC KD-G720 will treat them as different CDs (the same holds true with MP3 CDs, which this unit also plays). You get song title info displayed and a number of shuffle options (within folder, across folders).

Sunday, January 21, 2007

What Comes Next? Try Brussin's blog

There's a new tech-oriented blog on the block and I'm betting it will become a "must-read" for anyone serious about Web 2.0, Business 2.0, and the whole intersection of technology and business. The blog is called "What Comes Next" and the blogger is David Brussin.

While David Brussin might not be a household name in high tech households, I would add the caveat "yet." I've been in the high tech field for over 25 years and have yet to encounter a sharper mind than Brussin's. It was no coincidence that he was named to the 2004 list of the world's 100 Top Young Innovators by Technology Review, MIT's Magazine of Innovation. Brussin has that rare combination of a. technical brilliance (he was building serious commercial networks before he graduated from high school) and b. business acumen (he had co-founded two successful hi-tech startups before he was thirty, and both were snapped up by public companies).

Then there is c. he is very articulate. So, not only does Brussin come up with valuable and sometimes highly complex insights, he can put them into full sentences that are easily understood. Now, you sometimes meet people who have a or b or c. Occasionally you meet people with two of the three, but rarely do you encounter someone who has all three AND a sense of humor AND above average scores in tact and diplomacy.

So check out Brussin's blog. I hope you find it as interesting as I do.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Of all the Dumb Things: Patching XP for daylight saving change

For once there is an XP patch that has nothing to do with Microsoft programming errors! Thanks to the meddling of America's congress-critters, your Windows XP machine needs to be patched in the next 50 days or it will not properly reflect the change to Daylight Saving Time.

The XP patch is here but I suggest you read this Microsoft KnowledgeBase page first. It covers things that could go wrong and other Microsoft code.

When does Daylight Saving Time begin in 2007? March 11. Whaaauh? March? Yes, thanks to a law passed in August of 2005 as part of President Bush's mammoth energy bill, DST comes three weeks early in all states (except Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Arizona (with the exception of the Navajo Nation, which observes DST even in Arizona, due to its large size across three states) [deep breath]).

With all the embedded OSes out there and just about everything we use running on code these days, a lot of it date-sensitive, the probability of a miniature Y2K event in 2007 is definitely not zero.

And guess what? Congress has the right to change DST back to the way it was if they don't like these new dates. Personally, just personally, I have never liked DST and think it is more trouble than it is worth. This would seem to prove my point. About the only change worth making to the dates that have existed unchanged for the last 20 years in America would have been to bring us in line with the Europeans (see the table here). But noooo, Bush had to be different-er.
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Thursday, January 18, 2007

I'm Loving IT: Humor for geeks

Recently I was writing a column about computers and romance for the February--as in Valentine's Day--issue of a regional 'lifestyle' magazine (how I get talked into these things I don't know). Anyway, it brought to mind one of my favorite Dilbert cartoons. That same cartoon also came to mind when I was writing my previous post about 'loving technology.' But then I discovered something sad, a lot of young people had never seen the cartoon. And then I figured out why: it first appeared in 1995! Heck, some CTOs weren't even teenagers then. So, here it is:

And as an added bonus, here is a link that leads to just about every Dilbert strip ever, arranged in superbly simple one-click reading order. You can waste spend literally hours reading these.

In some ways the early- to mid-nineties were the golden age of Dilbert and I encourage you to stock up on some of the collections from that period (Shave the Whales is a good place to start). Here's a list to get you started. Enjoy! And remember, if the boss catches you reading Dilbert, you are doing anti-competitive lifestyle market research by thinking outside the box and running a straw man up the flagpole to see which way the wind blows in order to optimize the mission statement going forward, thus getting all hands onboard with the primary goal setting agenda-ism.

Monday, January 15, 2007

PS/2 to USB Adapters Don't

Just bought a couple of small converter plugs that allow you to plug a PS/2 keyboard into a USB socket. But guess what? They don't work. I have scoured the net to find out why and the basic answer seems to be that PS/2 to USB adapters are a kludge and very unpredictable (people use them for mice as well as keyboards, apparently with very mixed results).

Boo hiss I say. I wanted to use my lovely old IBM PS/2 keyboard on my laptop to reduce the wrist strain from all this blogging, but noooo. Looks like it ain't gonna happen. Now I have to go through the whole send-it-back process. What a pain. If things are known not to work reliably they should say on the package: May not work with all PS/2 devices. I would have given these things a miss and carried on my search for a good USB keyboard.