VW Jetta TDI
Dood! Jen and I just got a VW Jetta TDI. You’d be so proud. We’re part of the VW fold again. Plus we’re environmentally conscious now. We used to get 5 miles per foot in my H1 Humvee but now we get over 40 MPG. Plus plus, we don’t look lame doing it (see Starship Enterprise Shuttlecrafts: Prius and Insight). Plus plus plus, we got a $1300 tax credit. Crazy!
Wanted: Cheap Standard Keyboard in White
This product is annoyingly hard to find. I just want this keyboard but in a light color. It costs $7, has a wired USB connection, and has a standard key layout, which is to say, single-height Enter key, double-wide Backspace key, 1.5-wide backslash key, inverted-T layout for arrow keys, and 3x2 horizontal layout for the Insert/Home/etc keys. Why the frig did Logitech have to mess with a perfectly good layout and introduce all these stupid "hip" key rearrangements which everyone else then copied??
Three Mile Island Memories
Quoting Bob Cringely:
Here’s how it was supposed to work. Something went wrong. The computer noticed what went wrong, set off audible and visual alarms, then sent a description of the problem to a line printer in the control room. The operator would read the print-out, check the trouble code in one of many manuals, then make the adjustment specified in the manual. Simple, eh?
Too simple, it turned out.
What happened at Unit 2 was a little more complex. A cascading series of events caused the computer to notice SEVEN HUNDRED things wrong in the first few minutes of the accident. The ONE audible alarm started ringing and stayed ringing continuously until someone turned it off as useless. The ONE visual alarm was activated and blinked for days, indicating nothing useful at all. The line printer queue quickly contained 700 error reports followed by several thousand error report updates and corrections. The printer queue was almost instantly hours behind, so the operators knew they had a problem (700 problems actually, though they couldn’t know that) but had no idea what the problem was.
So they guessed.
Twelve Rules of Energy Efficient Building
Interesting piece by Scott Adams regarding energy-efficient building techniques. Noted mostly for future reference, but I’ve found it interesting to follow along as he’s been working on getting this house built (for ~5 years now, I think). The builders generally have no incentive to put time & effort into making a new home energy-efficient, because that makes it more expensive up front, which goes against the builder’s goal, which is to sell the house. So it’s not just a matter of having to pay more for an energy-efficient house; it’s hard to figure out how to design that way in the first place, since most builders don’t really know much about it.
The Passive House
Once or twice a year I see a new article about passive house design, and wonder why I don’t hear more about the idea. It seems like such an obvious and simple concept:
There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace. [...]
The concept of the passive house [...] approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.
And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses. [...]
But the sophisticated windows and heat-exchange ventilation systems needed to make passive houses work properly are not readily available in the United States. So the construction of passive houses in the United States, at least initially, is likely to entail a higher price differential.
I guess it can’t help already-built homes, though, so it’s not much good for most people.
Is Now the Time for a Gas Tax?
The other day on Car Talk, they suggested that now is the time for a (higher) gas tax. The idea is that now, when gas is only $1.70 per gallon, an extra 50 cent tax would only bring the cost up to $2.20 -- still less than half what we were paying a few months ago.
According to the Car Talk guys, a 50 cent tax would bring in $50-$100 billion per year. They suggest this could be used to help fund high-speed rail projects between major cities. They also suggest the big 3 Detroit car companies could lead these projects. Considering how well they run their current enterprises, though, I’m not so sure they’re the best candidates for the job.
It seems to me that getting lots of cars running on something other than gas should be a higher priority than setting up high-speed rail service between major cities. When the gas runs out, people who live in cities aren’t going to have much trouble getting transportation to their jobs, since mass transit within cities already exists. The real problem will be the huge amount of people who live in the suburbs and have long commutes to their jobs.
The best investment might be to work on upgrading the nation’s power grid. Whether you’re talking about alternative energy from wind and the sun, or powering a large and growing fleet of electric vehicles, there seems to be consensus that the current grid isn’t going to be able to handle it without serious upgrades.
But whatever we would spend the money on, is the gas tax a good idea to begin with? I’m not anxious to hand over more money to the government, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and the "desperate times" case can certainly be made right now. There’s also the added bonus that when gas prices go up, people buy less gas, and of course reduced consumption will make the gas we have last longer.
Yesterday, a large number of Microsoft’s Zune portable music players spontaneously died in their owners’ hands.
After spending much of the day digging into the problem, Microsoft said that it had traced it to a software bug "related to the way the device handles a leap year." Apparently the Zune was expecting 2008 to have 365 days, not 366.
Though this does suck for Microsoft and for their customers who bought the Zunes, it makes me feel a little less bad about any bugs I’ve had in any of my applications.
The fix for the glitch? Patience. The company said the internal clock on the players should reset itself at 7 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday. [...] Those who were hoping to provide the soundtrack to New Year’s Eve parties had no choice but to find a friend with an iPod.
Realistically though, there’s probably not much overlap between "people who’ve bought a Zune" and "people with enough friends to host a party."
At least the Zunes came back to life a day later.
The iPhone is the New iPod
After absolutely dominating the portable media player space, Apple no doubt hoped to be able to do the same thing in the mobile phone space.
But Apple isn’t finished yet. They most likely sold another boatload of iPhones in December during the Christmas shopping season. And now, 3 days after Christmas, they will start selling iPhones in Walmart stores. There are over ten times more Walmarts than Apple Stores, so this move will put the iPhone in front of millions of new customers.
My younger sister and niece, both in their early-mid teens, got iPod touches for Christmas. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll get any cell phone other than the iPhone when their current cell phone contracts run out. I think within the next couple of years, for anyone under say 30 or 40, not having an iPhone will be like not having an iPod: possible, but not very likely.
The Fat-Powered Battery
Over the weekend we were in Maryland for Travis and Megan’s wedding. Before the wedding, I had to go to Best Buy, and this Best Buy was in a mall, which was so packed that I had to park about a quarter-mile away. As I walked towards the store, I thought, "At least I’m getting some exercise."
What I needed at Best Buy was a battery for Kim’s camera, because hers was dying and the charger was back in PA.
It occurred to me that humans and batteries are constantly dealing with the inverse of the same problem. For humans, the problem is that our bodies are so good at storing energy that we need to go out of our way to get rid of it on a regular basis. For batteries, the problem is that they can’t really store very much energy, so they need to be recharged often.
The solution is obvious: we need a way to plug our phones and other gadgets directly into our stomachs and our butt cheeks.
There Is No Automaker Bailout
Let’s be honest. This proposed
25 34 billion dollar bailout is a bailout for the United Auto Workers union.
The UAW has utterly failed at what is ostensibly its primary duty: to protect workers. It has artificially inflated the wages of those workers to the point where they’re being paid far more than their non-union competition at other automakers. Pricing your workers out of the market, out of their jobs, and driving their companies into the ground is hardly a good way to protect them.
Quoting The Wall Street Journal:
To put it concisely, the [other automakers] operate under conditions imposed by the free market. Detroit lives on Fantasy Island. ... Hourly labor costs are $44.20 on average for the non-Detroit producers, in line with most manufacturing jobs, but are $73.21 for Detroit. This $29 cost gap reflects the way Big Three management and unions have conspired to make themselves uncompetitive... Both management and unions chose to sign contracts that let them live better and work less efficiently in the short-term while condemning the companies to their current pass over time. It is deeply unfair for government now to ask taxpayers who have never earned such wages or benefits to shield the UAW and Detroit from the consequences of those contracts.
Every dollar spent on labor is a dollar that the automaker can’t spend on R&D to improve its products, and can’t put towards lower prices to attract buyers. So it’s not hard to see why Detroit is getting hammered by its competition. And that competition isn’t so "un-American" as the UAW would lead you to believe:
Quoting The Wall Street Journal:
These are the 12 "foreign," or so-called transplant, producers making cars across America’s South and Midwest. Toyota, BMW, Kia and others now make 54% of the cars Americans buy. The internationals also employ some 113,000 Americans, compared with 239,000 at U.S.-owned carmakers, and several times that number indirectly. ... A government lifeline for Detroit punishes these other companies and their American employees for making better business decisions.
One person who knows how to run a business is Bill Gates; here’s his take:
"If no one else is willing to invest, why is that?" Gates told CNN ... "What is it that investors are seeing about this business model or cost structure that makes them unwilling, and why, in that case, is the government alone stepping forward in this way?" Gates asked in the Wednesday evening broadcast. "When you don’t have any private investors you really have to say, is taxpayer money going to have the desired effect?"
We’ve already given Detroit automakers $25 billion; do we really want to give another $34 billion to them, and then however many more billions they ask for after that? The law offers bankruptcy protection for businesses for exactly this situation, so let them use it.
If we the taxpayers are going to be forced to fund automotive development, the funding should not go to failing companies; it should go to companies that are successful and innovative like Tesla, which is already delivering pure-electric cars with proven technology and putting us on a path towards energy independence.
I finally upgraded to the iPhone 3G last week.
I’ve been complaining about wanting more capacity in the iPhone since before the iPhone was even released, and now, thanks to an incident involving Kim’s iPhone and some liquid, we needed a new one. She graciously offered to let me get the new one, probably to
stop reduce my complaining...
I went to the local AT&T store to do the upgrade, and the process was painless: I was in & out in 15 minutes, and they didn’t have to touch my old iPhone at all.
The new iPhone cost half as much as the original & it has twice the capacity, which is nice, and kind of amazing.
The old iPhone automatically switched to saying "No Service" up in the corner, making it effectively an iPod touch: wifi but no cell. It became Kim’s new phone, an upgrade for her since it’s an 8 GB and hers was the original 4 GB model.
I thought I’d just have to swap the SIM cards to activate the 8GB iPhone with Kim’s account, but when I did that, the phone needed to re-activate via iTunes. I wasn’t sure if this would create a duplicate account or change her phone number or something like that, so Kim took both iPhones to an AT&T store in Allentown to have them do the transfer. But they told her it was impossible (!).
The guy at the Pottstown AT&T store was much more knowledgeable and helpful. It turned out that all we had to do was move her SIM card from one iPhone to the other, then connect it to iTunes, which did go through the activation process, but used all her existing account information and existing phone number. Actually, come to think of it, we might not have even needed to do the SIM swap; maybe we could have just done a wipe/reset of the 8GB iPhone and thus caused iTunes to enter the activation mode that way?
30 Mars Phoenix Discoveries NASA Will Never Show the World
Gizmodo has a nice collection of some of the lander’s important discoveries. Here’s the best one:
Solar Energy Timeline
The result of this relentless application of Moore’s Law to the solar industry is that we can see a time in that near future when the cost of producing a watt of electricity from a solar cell on your roof will be approximately the same as the cost of delivering that same watt over a power line from an electric utility. And of course that means that 18 months after that point the solar watt will cost HALF of what the same power would cost from the electric company, which will completely change the game.
The time when that electricity cost parity will be reached, I’m told, is seven years from now. Just think of the impact that will have on electric utilities! Why would any of us continue to buy our power from them? We might use them as a giant storage battery and possibly for backup on cloudy days, but why would we use them at all for power if we can generate it cheaper at home? You can bet that’s a question the electric power generating industry is asking itself.
Am I the only one who’s disgusted by these car commercials touting "28 MPG" and "30 MPG" cars? My 2000 VW Golf has been getting 28 miles per gallon FOR THE PAST 9 YEARS. A cynical person might think that fuel economy doesn’t matter one bit to the car companies.
It seems absurd to tag this post as "Tech" when the "technology" involved doesn’t seem to have progressed at all in the past decade.
iPhone Now the Best-Selling Smartphone
...and the #2 best-selling phone overall, behind only the RAZR. (via)
When Apple debuted the iPhone App Store I immediately downloaded a few of the free apps, including 3 radio apps: AOL Radio, Last.FM, and Pandora. But I never tried any of them out, until tonight. I’m not sure why; maybe I figured that over the EDGE network they wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work well.
Tonight while driving home and listening to Macbreak Weekly, I heard Leo mention that he’s streaming his live shows and they work over EDGE. That got me thinking and I remembered that I had these radio apps.
I fired up AOL Radio. It played without skipping, but the audio quality was pretty bad. And AOL Radio stations are sort of like regular radio stations in that you pick a station/genre and then you have to take whatever it gives you.
I then tried Pandora, and the quality was not great, but was listenable, and it also played without skipping. And I quickly remembered why I love Pandora: it played Craig’s Brother, then Just Surrender, then June, then Thrice -- all bands I love. (For a quick explanation of how Pandora works: you just type in the name of a band or song that you like, and it then creates a custom "station" for you of similar music. You can give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to each track it plays. It’s remarkably good at picking stuff I like based on the songs I give it.) (Update: there’s a "high quality" setting in the app’s prefs, so I’ll have to try that while driving to see how well it plays.)
When I got home, I tried the Last.FM app; its audio quality is superb (still over EDGE) and doesn’t skip at all, though the fact that I’m not in a moving car now may have something to do with that. I’ll have to test it in the car. But I’m especially impressed with how Last.FM chooses its songs: it automatically has a "Your Library" preset consisting of all the music you’ve ever played through a Last.FM-enabled player, which I’ve been doing since 2004. The songs are streaming from Last.FM’s servers, but it knows basically all the tracks in my library, so effectively I have my whole library with me -- except that I can’t choose songs or albums; they play like a radio station.
All in all, I’m very impressed with the radio situation on the iPhone. In fact I’m surprised how good it is, especially over non-3G cell networks.
iPhone 2.1 Software Update: Podcasts Get Some Love
I got in early on the iPhone 2.1 update, and the whole process from download to finished update only took about 10 minutes. Not bad considering the fact that on the last update, some people’s phones were rendered useless for a few hours until iTunes was finally able to activate them.
Podcast lists are now displayed using the show name & title format, with the title being displayed at a smaller text size. This means that you can see more of the title on the screen, which is important for podcasts like TED where each episode has its own topic. For example, a recent episode was displayed on the 2.0.2 software as "How to survive a nu..." (IIRC), but is now displayed as "How to survive a nuclear..." Perhaps that’s not a huge change, but for some titles, 5 extra letters can make the difference between knowing or not knowing what the heck the episode is even about. The full title of this episode is "How to survive a nuclear attack - Irwin Redlener (2008)", and unfortunately there’s not a single place on the iPhone where you can view the full title like that.
Another nice new feature is that, if you select a video podcast from the Podcasts menu, instead of from the Videos menu, then it will be able to play in either vertical or horizontal mode, auto-flipping as you turn the iPhone, like many other apps do. For some reason, from the Videos menu, only horizontal mode is supported. One nice thing about this vertical video mode is again related to the title of the media: the same podcast from above displays as "How to survive a nuclear attack -...", which gives us 9 more letters of the title than the podcast listings page does. Unfortunately, in horizontal mode, the title isn’t displayed at all, which is a shame since that’s the mode where we’d be able to see the most of it! [Update: looks like this feature was actually present earlier, at least in 2.0.2, and I just didn’t notice it until now.]
One more nice touch is that for podcasts (and presumably TV shows and movies), the blue dot that appears next to items that you haven’t yet watched or listened to, and that disappears once you have, now displays as a half-empty dot for items that you’re in the middle of. That’s extremely useful for people like me who listen to lots of podcasts.
This one may have actually been fixed by iTunes 8, and not iPhone 2.1, but: when using the Remote app on the iPhone to play audio/video in iTunes on your computer, if you selected a video podcast which can also play as an audio-only podcast, iTunes would only play the audio. It now plays the video too.
And the Genius feature is really pretty sweet. When a song is playing, just tap the Genius icon and the iPhone will instantly generate a new playlist of similar songs. It’s Pandora for your own music collection. And in iTunes itself, there’s a Genius sidebar that will suggest songs that you don’t currently own, so you can buy them from the iTunes Store.
Unfortunately there’s still no friggin’ scale bar in the Maps application, but what can you do.
New Features in iPhone 3G and iPhone Software 2.0
My favorite things about the iPhone 2.0 software update:
- ability to select multiple email messages and move/delete them all at once
- iPhone can now play *.wav attachments on emails, such as the ones sent by Vonage containing voice mails from my other phone number
- Apple Remote application, which allows you to control iTunes over wifi to play music on your home stereo
- screenshots now possible, by briefly pressing the home & sleep buttons simultaneously
- ability to save images from emails and web pages
My biggest outstanding gripes:
- still no copy & paste
- still no way to search your email
- still no way to upload files to websites in Safari
- still no freakin’ scale bar in the maps application
- still no way to view the full names of songs, videos, photo albums, etc, so even moderately long (~25 character) names are impossible to read fully
- weather app still doesn’t remember the last-displayed forecast, so if you can’t get a network connection, or if the weather update fails as it occasionally does, you get nothing; it should just display the data from the last update
- still no tethering, though this is probably an artificial AT&T limitation more than anything else
I haven’t yet upgraded to iPhone hardware version 2.0, better known as iPhone 3G, because I’m waiting for them to release a 32 GB version, which I expect will happen in September or January. But here are the things I’m most looking forward to in the iPhone 3G:
- improved audio quality and increased audio volume from the built-in speaker; I hardly ever use headphones but I use the built-in speaker daily for listening to & watching podcasts, but it’s too quiet if you’re in a room with say an air conditioner, or if you’re eating crunchy cereal
- flush headphone jack: not that this is that big of a deal with the original iPhone because you just need to use a $10 adapter, but it can be a pain if you happen to be without that adapter and want to plug something into the iPhone
Ironically, the 3 biggest selling points of the new iPhone -- 3G, GPS, and "lower cost" -- don’t matter much to me. I’m on wifi 99% of the time, and when I’m not, EDGE is plenty fast, so 3G isn’t all that exciting to me. GPS is cool but the original iPhone’s "Locate me" feature using cell towers and wifi signals for location actually works extremely well, just not to the level of precision of GPS. And the "lower cost" of $199 or $299 instead of $399 or $499 (or $599 as it was when I bought it) doesn’t matter for two reasons: first, because the iPhone is such an amazing and useful device and has become such an integral part of my daily routine & workflow that I would buy the 32 GB version at $599 again if I had to. And second, the contract price has actually gone up by $10 per month, which means that over the life of the contract, the TCO is about the same anyway -- in other words, Apple is tacitly acknowledging that people really are falling for the cell phone pricing shell game that exists in the US cell phone market, and that in order to fully compete in that market, Apple has to play the same stupid game.
Cat Videos Reprise
When I first posted these videos of my little buddy a few months ago, there was apparently a problem with the way I formatted the videos, because many of you couldn’t view them. Well I’ve now fixed them, so everyone should be able to see them just fine, even on your iPhones. Let me know if not!
On a technical note, here’s the command I used to create these files:
ffmpeg -y -threads 2 -i video.avi -s 480x320 -r 29.97 -vcodec mpeg4 -g 300 -b 350k -async 50 -acodec aac -ar 44100 -ac 2 -ab 128k video.mp4
The videos came out of the camera as 640x480 AVI files consuming about 2 MB for each second of video. The conversion to 480x320 in MP4 format produced files using only 58 KB per second of video. The first file, for example, started out as a 45 MB AVI and ended up as a 1.4 MB MP4, which is a reduction of about 97%.
Practicing Safe Computing
Encodable.com has a great new writeup (ahem) on how to avoid viruses, spyware, and other malware on your PC. I posted it on the tech blog but wanted to specifically mention it here too, since it’s a topic of general interest.
Man gets Windows Vista to work with printer
When I first saw this headline, I thought it was saying that the guy got Vista to run ON the printer, like, in the printer’s firmware. Ridiculous, yes, but interesting.
But no, it’s nothing that exotic; it’s actually a story about how a guy was able to print stuff from Windows Vista. It’s... touching. Inspirational, really. I mean, being able to print, from your computer, to your printer... welcome to the future.
Apple announced the second iPhone today, dubbed iPhone 3G, and available July 11th. The only major new features are GPS and faster networking: it now uses 3G
HSUPA/HSDPA instead of 2.5G EDGE as the original iPhone used, though it will fall back to EDGE in areas where 3G isn’t available.
Apple also drastically reduced the cost of the iPhone, to $199 for the 8GB model and $299 for the 16GB one. Combine that with the fact that they’ll be rolling it out in 70 countries and the iPhone’s already-impressive sales figures will only get better.
A big disappointment for me is that the capacity wasn’t increased with this revision; I was really hoping for a 32GB iPhone. 16GB is still twice my current capacity, but nowhere near the full 30-40GB size of my music collection, to say nothing of the various TV shows I wouldn’t mind having on there. I guess we’ll see come July 11th whether I can resist the new iPhone in spite of it only being 16GB. Maybe they’ll announce a 32-gigger at that time??
Apple also announced version 2.0 of the iPhone software today. This is a big update which includes lots of enterprise-friendly features like Exchange support and remote wiping. It also includes the App Store, which will allow third-party developers to sell and give away applications for the iPhone, which can be downloaded directly to the iPhone. You might think of software 2.0 as being part of iPhone 2.0, but the software update will also be available for free to all iPhones, not just the new ones.
Perhaps the Dumbest Thing Written in 2008
This is so dumb as to be almost unbelievable; he’s got to be kidding, right?
Quoting Ben Charny:
Just how will Apple meet expectations? Using the patent application as a guide, Apple appears to be making room on the iPhone for flash memory, which means an end to Apple’s standoff with Adobe (ADBE) that’s kept iPhones from easily viewing a plethora of [Flash-based] Internet videos.
So let me get this straight. Dow Jones actually pays Ben Charny to write about technology, yet Charny doesn’t understand that flash memory chips are not the same thing as Adobe’s Flash software platform?
This has to be a joke. No technology writer can really be that clueless. It’s like telling someone -- with a straight face -- that if they upgrade their car’s old and busted brakes to the new anti-lock brakes, then they’ll never have to worry about locking their keys in their car again. "See? It’s got anti-lock!"
Here’s something funny from last week’s episode of Security Now, from a listener who wrote in to the show about his dying hard drive:
Quoting Steve Gibson:
A listener by the name of Alex Walters wrote, and he said, ... "A little while back, [my hard drive] started to give me the dreaded ’Backup your data now’ error." Now, he says, "I’m not a dumb person, but I hadn’t backed up my data on that drive in some seven and a half years. I was quite interested in backing up that data."
Of course, it IS extremely dumb to not backup your data for seven years.
There’s a saying among computer people that "a file doesn’t exist until it exists in two places." That’s because all drives are guaranteed to fail; the only question is when. Most drives have warranties in the 1-5 year range, so that gives you some idea of how long the manufacturers expect them to last.
The bottom line is that if you’re not backing up your data, you’re essentially saying "my data is worthless to me." In Alex Walters’ case, he was eventually able to recover the data for a mere $89 using SpinRite, but that’s not always possible.