The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

March 30, 2010

Time to Phone it in?

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 11:51 pm

For the most part, I’ve had pretty good luck with cell phones over the years.  In the nearly ten years since I bought my first one from a new defunct camera store at Southcenter Mall on something of a whim, I’m only on my fourth one so far (well, five if you count the one-month beta test of a phone for Sprint I somehow ended up in a few years ago,) and I only managed to lose one of them two weeks before my contract was up.  During the last decade, there’s been a rather interesting evolution in the mobile device realm.  At that time, cell phones were just barely beginning to branch out into functions other than basic calling, and although the Samsung SCH-8500 that I had as my first phone (and ended up keeping for more than four years) would be laughably primitive today, for its time it was a pretty high-end phone.  It could store 229 phone numbers, could display seven lines of 16 characters apiece, and most importantly, could browse the Web…  insofar as the Web could be browsed on a phone that could display all of 112 characters and a couple of cheesy 1-color  graphics at a time.  I could do a few basic functions like check my e-mail or grab the occasional sports score, but beyond that, it wasn’t really all that useful.  Still, for its time, this phone was about as high-tech as you could get, but even then, the device wasn’t much more than a glorified telephone with a few added features.

Ten years later, the nature of wireless phones has changed dramatically.  These days, smartphones (a category that didn’t even exist until the introduction of the Handspring Treo 180 in 2002) have taken over a huge share of the wireless market, doing just about everything you can possibly think of except cooking dinner and folding the laundry.  Even low-end phones these days have plenty of features that just plain didn’t exist ten years ago.  In fact, a lot of phones being sold these days are primarily data-centric devices that just happen to have somehow retained the ability to make a phone call as needed.  And yet, even with all this technology, I always seem to find myself waiting for the next big thing.

My current phone is an HTC Mogul that I got a couple of years ago to replace an older Windows Mobile phone.  During the time I’ve used it it’s served well, but at this point it’s really beginning to show its age.  More and more frequently I find it becoming unresponsive for several minutes (or even hours) at a time, with not even a reset of the phone being able to fix the problem.  There are several keys on the keyboard that only seem to work about half the time, and the D-pad on the front has also become problematic in recent times.  Battery life also continues to get shorter and shorter as the battery ages.  In short, I’m thinking it’s just about time for a new phone.

I actually hadn’t planned on using this phone for as long as I’ve had it.  Originally I had planned to replace it with an HTC Touch Pro just a few months after I got this one, but was eventually dissuaded by poor early availability and reports of poor battery life on that phone.  A year later (roughly the middle of last year,) the Touch Pro 2 came out which was supposed to fix a lot of the problems with the previous model, and I would have jumped on that if not for the fact that it came with a $350 price tag on a 2-year contract, which was quite a bit more than I had bargained for.  This means that for the better part of the last two years I’ve been sticking to what I’ve got, waiting for the next big thing that hasn’t showed up yet (or showed up for too much money, as the case may be.) 

Sure, there’s always the iPhone (as half a zillion people on just about any forum are more than willing to remind you) but I’ve been unwilling to switch carriers (especially to AT&T) to get one, and I’ve never really been a big fan of Apple products to begin with, so I’ve never really been all that interested in one.  Besides, without the iPhone’s apps there wouldn’t really be much there, and most of the apps will work just fine on an iPod Touch that doesn’t require a ridiculously expensive service plan to use.  Having worked at various times on the Windows Mobile team or other teams working on Windows Mobile apps at Microsoft, I’ve been inclined to stick with that platform for a lot longer than most people would consider to be sane.  It can be said that Windows Mobile (or Windows Phone, as it was recently renamed) has a bit of an image problem, although I tend to think this lies more in the fact that most writers who deal with phones on tech Blogs are Apple fanatics that consider the lack of an Apple logo to be a deal-breaker for any phone than with any particular fault in the platform itself.  Windows Phone 7 is on the semi-distant horizon promising to bring the platform back to relevance with a complete rewrite of the platform and a significant rethink of a lot of the paradigms that have developed in mobile phone OS design over the past few years.  What I’ve seen of this certainly looks impressive, but it’ll be at least six months before anything running WP7 makes it into consumers’ hands, and I’m not so sure my current phone isn’t going to bite the dust before then. 

At the same time, there’s Android, Google’s entry into the Smartphone market.  Currently, the standard bearer of the platform is Google’s own Nexus One, which should soon be available for all of the major US carriers.  I actually don’t have a whole lot of experience with the Android platform at this point aside from a few brief stints of testing on an Android application at work, but there seems to be some rather impressive features in this phone that led me to give some consideration to getting one…  Right up until Sprint announced the EVO 4G last week.  Now that looks like a serious smartphone with a 480×800 screen, a built-in 8 megapixel camera which should be much appreciated by anyone sick of putting up with the grainy cameraphone pictures that seem to be plastered all over this Blog, the ability to tether up to 8 devices off the device’s 4G WiMax connection, and the ability to output to HDMI.  If not for the fact that no release date (aside from the standard vague  “Summer 2010” answer) or price has been announced for this, I’d probably already be in line to get one.  I do still get the sneaking suspicion that this phone is still several months away and will probably cost a small fortune when it does finally arrive, but by the time it does I’ll probably be sick enough of the phone I’ve got to finally just go ahead and get one.  I just hope my current phone manages to actually last that long…

March 23, 2010

142 Hours and Nothing On

Filed under: Random Stuff, Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:50 am

(Or, Why Nobody Should Ever Trust Me With Any Electronic Devices That They Would Prefer to Not Be On Fire)

It seems I may have been just a little bit premature when I made my post about a month ago about upgrading my TiVo to a larger hard drive.  Sure, it all worked out in theory, but as seems to be the case most of the time when I start tinkering with things I probably shouldn’t, something broke along the way.  In my defense, I’ll claim that it was most likely headed in that direction before I started tinkering around with stuff (the PSU was making noises a couple of days before I managed to make a nice little fiasco out of the whole thing,) but when all is said and done, I should probably figure out by now that the cable coming out of the wall usually doesn’t start magically spouting out signal errors at the exact same time I happened to open up the TiVo, void the warranty, and start tinkering around with things.  Not that it stopped me from going through two Cablecards, a tuner box, three trips to the Comcast office, and three calls to support trying to figure that part out, of course.

To make a long story short, if I just had enough sense to realize that high-pitched whining sounds coming from the vicinity of the power supply in the box generally mean there’s something wrong with said power supply, I might have also realized that getting zapped (twice) while trying to figure out where the noise is coming from was quite thoroughly unnecessary.  There was one place online that I could have gotten a replacement power supply, but it would have cost $99 plus shipping, and was inevitably backordered (shipping estimate:  see also Pigs, Flying.)  Even so, in a token futile effort to eliminate all possible sources of trouble besides the glaringly obvious, I headed for the Internet. the do-it-yourselfer’s most indispensable source of bad advice and red herrings.  One of these suggested that some obscure little “RS Uncorrected” indicator buried deep in some diagnostics screen indicated a bad cable signal.  Or at least it would if I was using a Cablecard on Verizon FIOS (which happens to be available here in Redmond, but it seems that this particular apartment complex will be getting it at roughly the same time those Tivo power supplies ship.)  Nonetheless, with a  shockingly convenient wrong answer to my problem in hand,  it was off to the Comcast office (which  just happens to be three blocks away from my apartment) for a replacement Cablecard.  This, as anyone with any idea what they were doing with this stuff would know, accomplished absolutely nothing, aside from adding a random $20 charge to my cable bill, and the picture corruption remained.  After this, work got busy for the next week or so, and I let the issue go for a while (most of the relatively short list of shows I watch regularly happened to be in reruns, so I wasn’t in too big a hurry) until this past weekend, when the 12 Hours of Sebring was on, and I really wanted to be able to watch it. 

At this point, I figured that the TiVo was pretty much going to be a loss, and that I had a couple other options:  Just give up on the whole thing and go back to the Comcast box (probably not going to happen anytime soon, since one of the primary reasons that I bought a TiVo in the first place was to get away from the Comcast DVR and its horrendous user interface,) wait on the shiny new TiVo Premiere  models that just happen to be shipping roughly two weeks from now, or try to find another TiVo HD to replace the one that I managed to fry (or at least provided a helping hand in the whole self-frying process, as the case might be.)  Figuring that either way it was going to be a while before I got the situation resolved, I made another trip over to the Comcast office where, after informing the helpful agent that yes, I am in fact paying way too much for my Internet service right now, and I happen to quite like it that way (not really, but until I figure out some way to get the stuff through a thoroughly Wi-Fi resistant solid wall, wouldn’t do me much good) I managed to procure a tuner to use until I got the TiVo issues sorted out (or until I managed to do the sensible thing and just toss it out the nearest convenient window.)    Shortly after this, I got home, hooked the tuner up, and found that I could only get sound on my HD channels, not video.  After the standard “unplug everything, wait 30 seconds, then turn it back on” procedure failed to solve the problem, I contacted support.  An Internet chat with a Comcast rep yielded the magical solution to the problem:  Unplug everything, wait 30 seconds,  then turn it back on.  Of course, this time it actually worked.  Although my years of tech support/cynicism taught me that such things are purely mythical, I’ll just claim that the guy hit the “make it work” button and leave it at that.

So, having been properly re-Hi-Definitioned for the time being, I set about trying to figure out what to do with the TiVo.  I found my answer shortly afterward in the form of a relatively cheap replacement off of Craigslist.  A couple of e-mails and a phone call later, a deal was arranged for a replacement TiVo, with the caveat that this one hadn’t ever worked properly with a Cablecard.  Having been assured it was probably a matter of a bad signal (now where have I heard that one before?) I proceeded to buy my new TiVo out of the trunk of some guy’s Prius with a The Cheat sticker on the back (after all, if you can’t trust a guy with a The Cheat sticker, who CAN you trust?) and bring it home.  Moving the Cablecard over to the new box, I found that as advertised, this new box didn’t want to bother playing nice with a Cablecard.  About 30 minutes of pointless troubleshooting later with another Comcast tech, I decided that it would probably be easier to just void another nonexistent warranty and see if I couldn’t break more stuff in the process.  Shortly afterward, I pulled the power supply from the “New” TiVo, placed it in the old one, and after calling back again to go pair the Cablecard back to the old box (in retrospect I probably should have just swapped the power supply over in the first place and called it good) the old TiVo finally sprang back to life, free of the dreaded RS Uncorrected errors and ready to return to its customary brain-frying duties. 

Not only do I finally have my TiVo back, but somewhere in the process I managed to get the hard disk upgrade to actually stick, thus increasing my storage from 20 hours of HD programs to 142 hours.  To put that in a bit of perspective, it would take six days of vegging out on the couch to watch all that, assuming you can manage to avoid pesky distractions like food and sleep.  Sure, I had to pay $100 (in unmarked bills, of course) for the replacement Tivo, and I’ve now got a second pile of slightly questionable Tivo parts strewn about the living room, but the whole thing seems to finally be fixed (for now, anyway.)   I haven’t got a clue what I’m ever going to fill that much space with, but I’d be willing to bet that somewhere along the line I’ll end up having one with 600 hours worth of HD storage on it.  After all, you never know when you’re going to need to record 900 infomercials, right?

March 18, 2010

You’ve Still Gotta Love These Guys

Filed under: Seattle, Sports — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:04 am

 

To be perfectly honest, it’s been quite a while since I’ve really followed baseball as closely as I used to.  Sure, I still keep up with the major happenings in the sport and manage to catch the occasional Mariners game on TV, but for the last few years it’s been rare for me to actively follow the game on a day-to-day basis, or to even know whether the Mariners won or lost their previous game without going and looking it up.  Part of this is because the team just hasn’t been all that exciting to follow over the past few years.  Sure you still have Ichiro and Felix, but beyond that, there haven’t been a lot of big names in the lineup to get excited about.  Last year, with a major front office shakeup, the return of Ken Griffey Jr. to the team he spent the first nine years of his career with, and the management skills of Don Wakamatsu, the M’s managed to seriously overachieve the low expectations that had been set for them following the previous season’s debacle, and even managed to pull off an unexpected winning season, and although it was only good for third in the division, it was a welcome breath of fresh air for Mariners fans who have suffered through a number of disappointing seasons.

It is with the momentum of the past season and some key signings over the offseason (including the resigning of Felix Hernandez to a long-term deal and the addition of Cy Young winner Cliff Lee that the Mariners prepare to return to the field for 2010, and even though I’ve not been following them all that closely over the past few years, for some reason I find myself looking forward to this seas0n more than I have the past few.  I somehow have my doubts that there’s going to be playoffs in the team’s future come October, but somehow I get the feeling this year’s team should be interesting to watch.  I suppose the fact that I am now working within an only somewhat ridiculously implausible foul ball’s distance of Safeco Field helps a bit in this regard.  I don’t know exactly why, but there’s just something about being able to get off work and take a short walk over to the ballpark (according to the pathing tools on Bing maps, my new desk at work is almost exactly a half mile away from home plate at Safeco as the crow flies) that sounds like fun.

Even with the optimism that comes with a new season, there’s always a little bit of nostalgia for Mariners teams gone by.  I’m sure my sisters could write whole books about the memories of the times they spent in section 317 at the Kingdome and their various A-Rod obsessions (needless to say, this was back before he turned into the juiced-up overpaid tabloid fodder he eventually became,) but to me, the most memorable Mariners teams were the late nineties teams with guys like Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer and yes, even  Alex Rodriguez (although we tend not to talk much about him these days) running the show, with a supporting cast including the likes of Joey Cora, Jay Buhner, Mike Blowers, Dan Wilson, Bobby Ayala and Jose Mesa (we don’t talk too much about those two either, to be honest.)  These are the guys who saved baseball in Seattle back in 1995 (these days, it’s a little hard to remember that the moving vans were practically half-packed for a move to Florida after two decades of relentless mediocrity and the 1994 Kingdome roof tile incident and strike.)  Back in those days, it was also quite common to see these guys doing local TV ads, including the one featuring Edgar Martinez that you see above for Eagle Hardware and Garden.  Eagle was a now long departed chain of big box home improvement stores that got bought out by Lowe’s in 1999, and leaves as its only visible legacy the big “More of Everything” signs you still see on a few of their former locations.  Although I’ve never exactly been a big consumer of home improvement paraphernalia, I much preferred the old Eagle stores to the Lowe’s stores that replaced them or the Home Depot stores that served as the competition, and I suspect that these ads may have had something to do with that.  Be sure to click through to find plenty more commercials featuring Edgar, Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson and Randy Johnson in the related videos.  I’m sure any Mariners fan of the late Nineties will recognize these immediately.

While it’s easy to see these types of things through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, I do still have to admit to having something of a soft spot for these late Nineties Mariners teams,  Yes, even more than a decade later you’ve still gotta’ love these guys.

March 12, 2010

Random Thoughts: Lunching Around Town, The Trouble With The 545, and the Great Boysenberry Conspiracy

Filed under: Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 1:23 am

Lately my two sisters have decided to make a habit of posting daily on their respective Blogs, which has the slightly annoying effect of making me look like just a bit of a freakin’ slacker over here with my recent pace of one or two posts a week.  To be fair, they do have kids, husbands and all kinds of other stuff to Blog about on a regular basis while I’ve managed to persist in being chronically single and thoroughly predictable in my day-to-day existence, but a bit of catching up might do me some good, so here are a few random thoughts from the past week or so:

  • As my short-term stint of working in downtown Seattle continues to become increasingly less short-term (something that I am definitely not complaining about, it’s worked out really well for me,) I’ve been trying to branch out a bit and try different places for lunch as much as possible.  Not that I consider myself to be a foodie (or anything resembling one, for that matter,) and not that I have anything against chain restaurants, but with all the different places to eat near where  work, it never hurts to try different things, right?  I haven’t ventured far into the International District yet, but the place I’m working currently is moving over to a location much closer to there than to the other places I’ve been eating at, and if I don’t want to spend half my lunch hour walking to and from somewhere, I’ll probably need to consider heading in that direction.  Fortunately, a group of people far braver than myself have undertaken the task of eating at every restaurant in the International District, reviewing them, and posting the results on a Blog as the MSG150.  I’m not quite sure where I was going with this, but I just wanted to make sure I got a plug in for them, since I’ve already managed to get some good recommendations.

 

  • Although I’ve enjoyed working in downtown, I’m pretty sure I’ve already managed to complain about the annoyances of bus riding here once before.  Unfortunately, this situation hasn’t been getting better, as I’ve been finding for the past couple of weeks that it’s been taking upwards of an hour for me to get home from work on the 545 bus to Redmond, with as much as half of that time spent in the construction-addled traffic mess on Fourth Avenue.  Although people like to tout things such as eco-friendliness, use of the carpool lanes and other such highminded ideals as their reasons for riding the bus (at least that’s what the people in the ads on the side of the bus seem to be doing,) I suspect that for the vast majority of bus riders in downtown Seattle, there’s one reason to ride the bus, and that’s avoiding the cost of parking.  As it stands right now, it generally costs me $5 a day to ride the bus ($2.50 each way,) or $11 a day to park in downtown near my workplace, plus a couple of bucks worth of gas to get back and forth (let’s just call it $3, although I’m not sure what the actual cost would be.)  No matter how bad the traffic is on Fourth Avenue, if I’m taking the bus it has no choice but to slog right through the mess, plus whatever subsequent messes happen to be on I-5 or 520.  If I take my own car, I can skip the whole thing, take I-90 across the lake (generally a whole lot better than 520 from a traffic perspective) enjoy the amenities that my car has to offer along the way, and actually get home in a reasonable amount of time.  Given these two choices, is it really worth spending an hour sitting bored in traffic to save eight bucks?  I’m starting to wonder about that one…

 

  • Why is it that you only ever see Boysenberry flavored pancake syrup in pancake restaurants?  Is there some sort of law about that?  And speaking of pancakes, I’ve learned by unfortunate experience that they generally make a really lousy dinner.  It’s one of those things where deep down in your heart you know better, but you do it anyway.  Sure, you could probably make perfectly reasonable pancakes at home, but the thought of those exotic syrup flavors makes that vaguely syrup-flavored artificial glop that gets passed off as the standard-issue syrup these days pale in comparison.  Thus lacking the proper motivation for the task at hand, you head for the nearest restaurant and order up a stack of pancakes.  In the end, disappointment always ensues.  Although the meals these places usually serve up would make a passable breakfast, ordering pancakes for dinner always seems to end up a regrettable decision.  Before you know it, you start to feel like you’ve just paid eight bucks (plus a tip) for dessert, and forgot to eat dinner beforehand.  You just HAD to go for the Boysenberry syrup, didn’t you?  I’m starting to think this whole thing is one big conspiracy by the pancake restaurants to keep Boysenberry off the grocer’s shelves so people have to go to the restaurants for it.  After all, it’s not like they’re actually going for the pancakes, right?

 

  • I should probably note that the entire previous paragraph is rendered null and void by the fact that most stores here actually carry Boysenberry flavored pancake  syrup if I could be bothered to look for it on the shelf, but why let a perfectly good rant go to waste?

March 10, 2010

All Dressed Up and Going Nowhere Fast: The Not-So-Secret Life of the Department Store Mannequin

Filed under: shopping — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:31 am

 

 You see them all the time, but hardly ever give much thought to them.  That’s pretty much the idea, really.  Mannequins are designed for one purpose:  To stand around all day and (most of the time) look fashionable.  Not that the job is all fun and games, of course.  After all, how would you like have to stand around all day in public wearing nothing but underwear (or, if you happened to end up in the jewelry department, quite possibly even less?)  Furthermore, it seems almost be more the exception than the rule for mannequins these days to receive the full complement of body parts which us humans have become accustomed to as standard equipment…  Then again, as inanimate slabs of vaguely human-shaped plastic and fiberglass, they tend to be a few parts short of being capable of much complaint as well.  Mostly they just silently stand around and do the job they were designed to do, but on occasion a mannequin or two manages to stand out from the anonymous crowd.  After the jump, we’ll take a look at a few of these mannequins, all dressed up and going nowhere fast.

(more…)

March 3, 2010

Even a Broken Clock is Right 364 Days a Year

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:11 am

With as fast and  powerful as computers have become these days, you’d think a task as simple as keeping accurate time wouldn’t be a problem.  Unfortunately, you’d be wrong about that one.  What most people don’t realize is that in reality, the clocks built into our computers are generally pretty horrible at keeping time, and quite readily drift away from the correct time  by several seconds or even minutes per day if we let them (this page elaborates a bit more on some of the inherent problems with the clocks built into PCs.)  For the most part if you’re just using a PC for standard everyday stuff you won’t notice a problem because modern operating systems are set up to automatically synchronize time to a known accurate source on a regular basis, which provides a “good enough” solution for most users.  Even so, for some users who need a high level of accuracy, this might not be enough.  In extreme cases, some people might even resort to buying shockingly expensive add-on cards just to get an accurate clock on their PC.  For the other 99.7% of you out there with just the plain old clock that came on your motherboard, there’s a pretty good chance your wristwatch is going to be more accurate than your PC clock.

Of course, even in the best of circumstances it can be possible for the whole thing to just go pear-shaped and make a big mess of things.  Just this past weekend a dramatic example of this occurred as millions of older model Playstation 3 game systems (including mine, although since I wasn’t using it at the time it really didn’t affect me at all) were rendered (mostly) inoperable for 24 hours by a bug in the clock that apparently made the systems incorrectly believe that 2010 was a leap year, and confused the built-in clocks into reporting the date as December 31st 1999.  As a result, these systems were blocked from being able to access the Playstation network for having incorrect date and time info, and as a result became pretty much useless until the next day, when the clock was able to get back to dates which actually exist, and resume normal operation.  Based on what I’ve read of the problem, it sounds like this is a similar bug to the one which put original 30GB Zunes out of commission for a day at the end of 2008 due to a code bug which caused the devices to not handle the leap year correctly.  I’d like to think that incidents like these two are the exception more than the rule, but based on over six years of testing software for a living, I’m pretty certain that they aren’t.  In fact, on one of the more recent projects I worked on, we had quite a few issues with inaccurate timekeeping causing problems with our software.

And that’s not even taking into account what might happen if the clock stops working entirely.  On more than one occasion I’ve had an otherwise perfectly good piece of hardware be rendered completely useless by a malfunctioning clock chip.  This happened to one of my old PocketPCs (back in the days before someone had the bright idea of sticking a phone on one of the things, and by the way, get off my lawn) which made the thing pretty useless.  After all, back when the things rarely had any sort of Internet connectivity, one of their primary functions was to keep schedules, and if one of the things can’t be bothered to keep the time accurately, that makes it pretty much a somewhat colorful brick, right?  

Does anybody really know what time it is?  Does anybody really care?

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