Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Cell Ranger to the Rescue: A product that actually works

It is perhaps a measure of contemporary consumer cynicism that many of us regard strong product claims with suspicion. Consider the Cell Ranger that I recently purchased in hopes of regaining cell phone service up at the cottage (our provider is AT&T and my wife's Blackberry normally has 2 bars indoors--my Treo often has 2 bars as well, but lately has been failing to reconnect to the network after I return from trips down to the post office, which lies in a dead zone).

The Cell Ranger web page proclaims: "Boost your bars!" Then it asks: What Frustrates YOU About Your Cellular Service?

  • Dropped Calls?
  • Poor Call Clarity?
  • Late VoiceMail and Text Message Notifications?
  • Slow Data and Music Downloads?
Amazingly, Cell Ranger claims to "Solve ALL These Problems!" And the unbelievable part comes when you check the price: $149.99. Now that might sound like a lot of money for two bits of plastic and a wire to connect them, but there is more to the product than that. Consider the price of other products that claim to boost signal at your house and you will be hard pressed to find anything under $250, and those products tend to have a fairly industrial look to them, suggesting that implementation might require hand tools.

So I took a chance and ordered one, the USB-powered Port version. When it arrived I stuck the small magnetic antenna on the charcoal grill that sits on the porch and plugged the other end into the nearest wall socket (I happened to have a USB-to-mains connector handy). Then I conducted my first test. The Blackberry went from 2 bars to 5 when I held it near the plug. The Treo connected to the network, which it had refused to do for weeks, and then it hit 5 bars. It retained connection in all rooms of the house. In other words, Cell Ranger works!

In the next few days I will test it on a trip to the post office. If I get signal there, I will be very impressed. The setup works best if you can use your phone near the plug end while keeping the plug far away from the antenna, which ideally sits on a metal surface or object outside the house/vehicle.

The boost effect is clearly quite localized. It is stronger when you are 30 inches from the device than when you are 30 feet away. I expected this but I think the Cell Ranger web site could make it a little clearer that the device will not light up your entire house (that said, it's boosting signal nicely throughout the cottage's modestly-sized living area ).

Is it worth the price? For me the answer is yes, especially if it boosts signal in the car. I really don't want to go through the hassle of changing carriers and handsets (that is a whole other world of consumer dissatisfaction). And although I've heard that Verizon works on our hill, there is no way of telling unless they loan me a Treo for several days to test it. (Note: This thing does not currently support Sprint/Nextel networks.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

You Know You're a Geek When:

You use the words "really cute" to describe a black box containing chips. Like this eee from Asus. At only $300 and just 8.5x7x1 inches, this is thing is decidedly cool. Check it out on Wired.

Friday, August 1, 2008

You Know You're (Still) a Trainspotter When...

You know you're still a trainspotter if you get very excited when your partner says "Did you know there's a new steam train in Britain?" Being an adult now, at least chronologically speaking, you resist the urge to point out that it is a new steam locomotive (a steam train is one or more pieces of rolling stock pulled, or possibly pushed, by a steam locomotive).

I've blogged about the new Tornado elsewhere, a brand new 4-6-2 Peppercorn A1 Pacific steam locomotive that will stir the soul of any true trainspotter. But what is a trainspotter? A trainspotter is someone seeks to see or 'spot' railway equipment, primarily locomotives (steam, diesel, electric, hybrids).
Sightings of equipment are typically catalogued, often with the goal of "classing", i.e. spotting all items within a particular category. For example, a trainspotter might say "I've classed the Duchies" meaning: I have seen all locomotives in the LMS Princess Coronation Class, known as Duchies because all of them were named after Duchesses (like the Duchess of Sutherland, seen on the left in Dave Hadley's fine 2001 photo of this beautifully preserved 4-6-2).

Although "trainspotter" eventually joined other terms of derision such as "anorak" in the wearisome and over-stuffed British lexicon of denigration, I am happy to embrace it today. As I suggested back in the nineties, in my lecture to computer hackers at DefCon IV in Las Vegas, trainspotters were steam age geeks, proto-hackers, hackers of the industrial age. We traveled the land in pursuit of the engines of progress, sightings of which we obsessively catalogued in our databases. We immersed ourselves in the minutiae of the rail networks. We hacked the system, we social engineered, we trespassed, all in the name of knowledge: our desire to know all there was to know about our chosen technology.

(Note: To any readers who have seen the film Trainspotting--a good-but-not-for-squeamish movie, featuring a career-making performance by young Ewan McGregor, himself a biker-geek--forget that movie when thinking about trainspotters, there is really no connection.)

I started trainspotting as a pre-teen in the final days of steam, but laid off for a while after a brush with the law. I got back into it at 13 and for several years traveled from one end of the country to the other, on trains of course, visiting trainspotting hot spots, like stations where several different "lines" or networks connected, or sheds, the places where locomotives were serviced and stored. ("Shedding" was a real kick because there were no firm rules governing visits to sheds; a shedmaster might chase you off or invite you in, give you a tour or have you arrested, it depended on his attitude at the time.)

We usually traveled in small groups of 3 or 4, carrying flasks of tea or coffee and sandwiches our mothers had made. I'm not sure what they thought we were doing all day, but they knew we were catching the train to somewhere (that's how things were back then, parents would say "Okay boys, be careful" then drop us off at the train station). Sometimes we would save up to buy rail passes that offered unlimited travel over a period of days. Then we would pore over timetables for the entire country and execute precision planned maneovers designed to whisk us to as many hot spots as possible in a single day then get us back home in time to keep our parents from asking too many questions.

Success required intimate knowledge of geography, timetables, and station configuration. It was also helpful to have the ability to act adult and talk you way into, or out of, situations. Strategic thinking was useful as we would have to modify our plans on the fly as and when new information became available through the trainspotting grapevine (e.g. "the Hunlset sheds are practically empty this week" or "There's a new shedmaster at Fincley and he set the police after us"). Of course, you had to watch out for disinformation--other trainspotters might be try to derail your plans to class a particularly prized group of locomotives.

Which brings me back to the Duchess of Sutherland. In general, named locomotives ranked above those which had only numbers. Older locos were prized, as were some of the rarer designs. Size was not that important. A named 0-3-0 saddleback shunter of which there were only three might rate higher than a numbered 2-8-0 work horse of which there were hundreds.

By the way, the n-n-n system is a universal means of describing steam locomotives, based on the number of wheels, with the driving wheels in the middle (see Whyte system of notation). So the locomotive pictured on the left, nicely photographed by Ronald Fisher in 1960, is a 2-6-4, meaning 2 leading, non-driving wheels ahead of 6 drive wheels, followed by 4 more trailing, non-driving wheels. The wheels at the back help support the integral water and coal storage. In fact, this engine is more fully designated 2-6-4T where the "T" indicates that the water tank is integral with the locomotive (in this case on either side of the boiler). Many larger locomotives, like the 4-6-2 Duchess, had a tender to carry the water and coal.

For me, the allure of trainspotting began to fade when the powerful locomotives, steam, diesel, electric, began to give way to identical multiple units. But I retained my belief in rail as a mode of tranpsort, both high speed inter-city rail and utility lines; see my post on the Amsterdam airport train and note the image on the upper left of the blog, a TGV high speed train, photographed in the Gard du Nord, Paris, after I arrived there from Amsterdam on the Thalys, another high speed train. The lack of high speed trains in America is testament to the continuing power of oil companies and the trucking/road building lobby (favored by a certain governor turned president). Perhaps it's not surprising that I now live relatively close to decent rail service, as well as a restored train (that operates near Cooperstown). Once a trainspotter...