Monday, July 28, 2008

TOTW #1: Easier Web Navigation; Better Portraits

So I think I want to start doing a 'tip of the week' posting on my blog. But each one will really be two tips... one computer-related, one for photography, audio, or video. And these aren't going to be targeted at people who already have expertise in these areas; these are for normal people. It has taken me years to figure out all of the little tricks that I use all of time time; and it will be nice to pass on some of that knowledge.

Computer Tip: Open web sites more quickly and easily.

Part 1: Most people type out in their browser's address bar to get to Google's web site. A quicker way to do the same thing is to type "google" and press [Control+Enter] on your keyboard. Your browser will automatically add the "www." and ".com" for you. This tip works for any .com web site, in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Opera, as well as Safari on Windows. Unfortunately Safari on the Mac doesn't support this feature.

Part 2: Instead of grabbing your mouse to click on the address bar in your browser, press [Alt+D] in any Windows browser (or [Command+L] on the Mac). The whole web site address bar entry should then be automatically highlighted, so you can just start typing a new site address. Then use the Control+Enter trick to get to web sites more quickly. So to quickly get to Google's home page, type: [Alt+D] google [Control+Enter]. Much faster than the "normal" way of doing things.

Multimedia Tip: Better Portrait Photos

Since I'm currently involved in a photo directory project, it seems appropriate to give a tip to get better portrait photos. This one is a little longer than I'll be making future tips, but it's full of really good information.

Getting good portraits doesn't require fancy equipment. It's all about the right lighting and getting people to relax and be themselves. Even inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras can capture good portraits.

Start with lighting... the best portraits use soft lighting coming mostly from one side of the subject. Harsh lighting such as the afternoon sun isn't flattering, and on-camera flashes produce a very flat image which hides the features that make people distinctive and interesting. The easiest way to get soft lighting is to use indirect light coming from a window or doorway, or to set your subject near a white object being lit by the sun. If you must take pictures in the sun, have the subject turn so it is at their backs, but not shining directly into your camera lens.

Have your subjects turn their bodies slightly toward the most prominent light source, but keep their head facing the camera. In addition to better lighting, the diagonal line created by their shoulders is far more interesting than the straight line created when someone is standing with their body aimed straight ahead, and it gives more of a feeling of depth to the photograph. I've found that somewhere between 25 and 45 degrees of turn is ideal, but it depends on your subject and lighting conditions. Just avoid right angles in the picture by using diagonal shoulders.

Getting people to relax is trickier; you can only do so much and the rest is up to them. Making a joke usually helps, as does adding distance between the camera and subject. People don't like having cameras right in their faces, so step back and zoom in. In addition, the extra distance helps facial features to be recorded more accurately; the wide lens angle required when too close to you subject leads to noses, foreheads, and chins that are too big, especially when compared to the smaller ears that also result. (Wide angles exaggerate distance and size differences.)

These same techniques can be applied to candid snapshots too.

That's it for this week!

There you go! Two quick tips... things that took me a while to figure out, and now I'm passing that on to you. Good luck!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Eye-Fi Wireless Storage Card

Note: This post has been edited since it was originally posted to correct what turned out to be erroneous information.   Additions are noted in [brackets] and are italicized, with incorrect information lightened in gray text and shown with a strike-through tag.

This week I purchased an Eye-Fi memory card for my digital camera.  I'm pretty sure nobody reading this blog knows what that is, but many may be interested, so allow me to explain...  It's an SD memory card for digital cameras that also has an integrated WiFi radio which automatically uploads your pictures to your computer wirelessly.  So you don't have to connect the camera to your computer or remove the card to transfer using a card reader.  It all happens on its own, in the background, automagically whenever the card is in range of your wireless network.  Or at least that's the theory.  In practice things are a little different.

I actually received two cards this week.  The first one arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and it worked for about 2 minutes before it just died.  Fortunately Amazon has a great replacement program, so they shipped one out Next Day Air for free.  Because I didn't report the first one as dead until after their Wednesday shipping cutoff it didn't go out until Thursday, so the replacement arrived Friday afternoon.

Since it's SD and my Canon 40D uses Compact Flash, I decided to try the Eye-Fi card out on my old Nikon Coolpix 5200 camera, which does have an SD memory slot.  So after configuring the card, I popped it in, took a few shots... and nothing... they didn't upload to my computer like they were supposed to.  I transferred the card into a SD-to-CF adapter and then into my Canon 40D [the officially recommended adapter has been ordered and is on its way], and it gave an error message indicating the card wasn't usable.  This is looking all too familiar from my experience on Wednesday.  But before trying to do anything else I called their tech support line and the nice woman on the other end was very helpful.  Together we were able to ascertain that my CoolPix camera doesn't supply power to the card when it isn't actively saving a photo, so no photos can be transferred wirelessly at all with that camera.  No big deal; I almost never use it anyway.

She offered me a few tips on how to get the card to work with my 40D, and we ended the call.  I put the card back into my 40D, no error this time.  So I take some pictures.  And they don't show up on my computer.  So I wait.  And wait some more.  Nope, still not showing up. 

I played with the settings on the card for what seemed like forever, and finally I see the popup on my computer screen showing the picture coming in.  But it only transfers 11% of the first picture before it just quits.  Odd.  So I play with it a while longer, and can't get it to transfer anything.  Format the card, take more pictures, wait for a transfer, nothing happens.  Do the same thing again.  And again.  Still nothing.  Re-configure the card one more time, take some pictures, and the first one starts to transfer.  Hurray!  It's working again.  Until this one gets stuck at 8%.  I give up.  So the card goes back into the computer to be reconfigured yet again, and... boom! all of the pictures transfer.  I guess it's sort of working now?

Anyway, long story short, it's got some significant quirks, and some limitations.  Its two most annoying limitations are (1) that it only transfers JPG picture files, yet I usually shoot my pictures in RAW format, and (2) the wireless network it connects to has to be connected to the Internet, even though the pictures aren't sent over the Internet.  While that may not seem like a huge limitation, my plan was to take my camera, a laptop, and the Eye-Fi card with me when I take pictures for photo directories to have those pictures transfer to the computer automatically while I'm still in the midst of taking them.  But 95% of the time when I'm doing that no Internet connection is going to be available.   Not going to work, not even with my wireless travel router.  So that's out.  [UPDATE: As mentioned in the reply to my post below (which looks like it was made by a company official, BTW), the card does indeed transfer pictures without an Internet connection.  I used it today (Sunday 7/27) to transfer pictures for a photo directory project I'm working on.  The only official restriction is that there must be an Internet connection available to configure the card for each wireless network it is to be used on.  With that said, it would be nice to have support for Ad-hoc wireless networks, and for a way to configure the card if no Internet connection is available.  (2) I still found it somewhat unpredictable as to when it would transfer pictures, waiting for between 1-5 minutes before it would start, and found myself having to remove the card for a few seconds periodically to kick start its transfer function.]

The overall idea has merit; being able to transfer pictures wirelessly from a camera to a computer would be very cool.  But the way that the Eye-Fi card is designed makes it nearly impossible to pull off anywhere but home.  And I don't know about you, but 99.7% of the pictures I take aren't taken at home.  They could have made the card work with any laptop with any wireless connection, irregardless of whether the Internet is accessible on that connection, but they didn't.  And they seemed to have botched the implementation at least to some degree even when the Internet connection requirement is met; getting it to transfer was unpredictable at best.  So I'm pretty [somewhat] disappointed in the product; they had a good idea, but screwed it up in its implementation the implementation could have been a little better.  I guess I'll keep transferring [I will still have to transfer] photos the old fashioned way [because it doesn't support RAW files] and wait for something else similar that actually does it right.  This card might be right for some, but it certainly wasn't designed for someone like me [due to the lack of support for RAW formats].

I'm not a Joss Whedon fan, I swear!

I'm really not.  I've recently stumbled into some of his productions, and enjoyed them, but I couldn't be classified as a fan. 

I joined NetFlix nearly a year ago to catch up on some of the classic and recent movies I've missed out on for one reason or another, and as I was browsing the site recommended the movie Serenity for me.  I didn't know anything about it; but it had a decent rating so I thought 'what the heck' and just added it.  It arrived in the mail about three months ago, and I watched it, and actually enjoyed it.  It was fairly evident that there was more to the overall story than what they were telling in the movie, and after searching on the Internet I found that it was the continuation of the short-lived television series Firefly.  So I logged on to and purchased both my own copy of Serenity and the Firefly series (it was only 14 episodes, so it was cheap.)

My friend Phyl and I have been watching Firefly on our Thursday night "Lost" nights (we had to have something to watch when the season of Lost ended) and it is really good too.  Highly recommended with one caveat... there are a couple scenes in the middle episodes that could have been left out of the story and we would be better off for it.  (My favorite character is Kaylee, just in case you were wondering, but Mal is pretty darn cool too.)

So when Dr. Horrible came up in the news a few weeks ago (a third Whedon production) I thought I'd give it a shot too.  And actually quite liked it.  My favorite part is the song (duet) in the beginning of Act II; I like the two characters opposing viewpoints being sung in harmony.  I've also noticed that several of the other bloggers I follow have shown interest in Dr. Horrible too.  I guess it's the cool thing to do.  Anyway, I liked it enough that I actually bought it on iTunes after the free streaming version was taken offline.  That's pretty significant, because I hadn't ever purchased any video anything on iTunes previously.

I don't think I'm going to go back and try out all of the Buffy the Vampire episodes, or even Angel, but I do like some of the stuff that Joss Whedon has been doing in the last several years.  So, I can't really consider myself a Whedon fan, but I do recommend Firefly, Serenity, and Dr. Horrible.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Interesting Phenomena

Yes, I am duplicating the title of a posting... sort of.  But it fits.

I don't know if I'm weird or not (well, okay, I know I am, but bear with me a minute...) when it comes to any of the following, but sometimes some interesting things happen in unusual ebbs and flows.  Is this common, or something unique to me?

Phenomenon #1: Overlapping Phone Calls

I wouldn't say that I get a ton of phone calls, but I'd say I get a slightly above average number of calls on any given day.  But what is strange is that they seem to come in waves.  I won't get any calls at all for several hours, then I'll get two practically on top of one another.  Then another break of a few hours, then a few more calls back-to-back.  Almost inevitably while I'm on one call someone will beep in with another call.  I don't have any idea why this would be the case, but it certainly seems to ring true (pun intended).  The same thing happens with people coming by to visit.  Nobody for several days, then all of a sudden I have three people that want to visit at the same time.

Bottom line for you, though, my faithful readers, is that if you call and I don't answer, it's probably because somebody else called me just before you did, and we're not at a good breaking point in the conversation.  Next time try calling 2-3 minutes earlier so you're the first one.

Phenomenon #2: Repeating Melodies

Another strange one... I'll be listening to satellite radio in my truck, or watching a movie, and a song I haven't heard in years will come on.  Then within days, I'll hear that same song somewhere else. 

One of the strangest of these occurrences happened a few months ago.  I was on my way to the grocery store listening to one of those "every decade" satellite radio channels and "You're So Vain" by Carly Simon came on.  I hadn't heard that song in at least 4 years, and since she's not in my regular musical rotation, it's a song I'd probably only heard a couple of times in my life.  The song ends before I get to the store, I go inside, and after I had been there about 3-4 minutes the same song came on store PA system.  Then later that night Brooke White sang it on American Idol.  Yep, I heard the same thing twice in less than ten minutes, then again later that same day, when it had been years prior to that.

Phenomenon #3: Reiterated Vocabulary

I'm not the oldest fish in the tank, but I have been around for a little while.  And I'm one who really likes to know everything going on around me, so I pay close attention to everything.  (Gets overwhelming at times.)

So in my time on this Earth I've been exposed to a lot of English vocabulary, right?  So every once in a while I hear someone, whether it be a friend, family member, on television, or whatever, use a word that I've never heard.  At least not in all of my recollection anyway.  Then within days, just like repeating melodies, I'll hear that word used somewhere else, out of the blue.  And it usually happens several times within a short period of time.  Strange?

Phenomenon #4: Waves of Vocation

Being one who doesn't like to do the same thing day after day for long periods of time, and one who loves to learn new things, I've picked up numerous hobbies, interests, and skills.  I quite like my life being that way.  The strange thing though is that the need by other people for my various skills seems to come in waves.  I might be needed for several different programming projects for days, weeks, or months at a time.  Then that will recede and I'll be needed for doing video work for multiple projects back to back.  Then that will fade and I'll be asked to do a bunch of photography.  Or audio.  Or something with cars. 

A couple years ago I had no less than 5 friends ask me to install CD players in their cars in the course of about two weeks.  And then nothing for a very long time.  One must wonder if there is a conspiracy amongst my friends, even the ones that don't know each other, to get together and all ask me to do the same things at the same time.  It's almost surreal how often it happens.

Back to the original question

So, back to my original question, am I weird, or does stuff like this happen to everybody?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Fun with a GPS

At least fun for me... for others, maybe not so much. But anyway, back to the techie posts...

Last month I got a Dash Express GPS for navigation in my truck and whenever I'm traveling. One of its cool features is its always-on Internet connection, providing up-to-the-minute traffic information, gas prices, and movie listings, but also making searches for just about anything possible since it can pull information from online; it isn't limited to just the database it has internally like other GPS devices.

Another of its cool features is the ability to add custom written applications to the device. This week I found several cool applications, including a White Pages search, so I can just type in someone's name and it will find their address and route me to them, and several local information apps, like population, community, and cultural information. I even found and installed a Twitter app.

Being a programmer myself, and always wanting my toys to do more stuff, I looked into what it takes to create my own apps for it, and it turns out that it's pretty easy. So I wrote three of my own on Friday.

The first is a reverse phone number search. So I can just type in someone's home phone number, and it will retrieve the name and address associated with that number, and map and route to them. Since it was my first app it took me a couple hours to get working. I'm still undecided as to whether I'm going to make it totally public; but for right now I've got about 25 other people that have signed up to use it.

The second one I created is a calculator. (With my two hours of experience with the first app, this one took me all of 10 minutes to put together.) Sometimes I want to calculate my gas mileage and I'm too lazy to pull my phone out of my pocket, so now I can do mathematical calculations on the GPS. It even knows trigonometry, not that I would expect anyone would use it. I made this one fully public so anyone can add it. About 20 people have installed it so far.

The third one, and one that I most definitely will not be making public, is one that will look up the names, addresses, and phone numbers of anyone who lives near my current location. I can either enter a house number (it already knows what street I'm on) or request the information for everybody on that block. I don't see myself using it much, but I will definitely not be sharing it with anyone because of the 'creepiness' factor; would you like someone following you home, pressing a couple buttons on their GPS, and find out your name and phone number? I wouldn't. So that one stays safely under wraps. It was mostly a test to see just how much information I could get for free off of the Internet knowing only a lat/lon coordinate. And it's almost scary how easy it was.

Ultimately I hope to be including some of the functionality of this device into the point-of-sale system, specifically for routing drivers to their delivery destinations, and allowing store managers to keep track of drivers while they are out. I'm working with the guys who created the Dash to see if they can add some additional functionality to make those things easier to accomplish, and so far it looks promising.

It's been fun. How often do you get to buy a consumer electronics device (besides a computer) and create new functionality for it? Not too often I don't think.

The Dark Knight

We interrupt my string of geeky tech posts for this special brief movie summary.

Batman: The Dark Knight picks up shortly after Batman Begins left off... Gotham is getting cleaned up, and Batman is getting some respect from the community and at least some parts of the city government. The Joker is the main villain here (though Scarecrow makes a brief appearance just to get him out of the way, and a new villain appears 2/3 through the movie). The Joker makes his mark on the city pretty quickly, getting the best of even the city's toughest criminals. He has a way of knowing what people are going to do beforehand, and takes advantage of that, setting up traps, knowing where people are going to be ahead of time. He's also great at manipulating people mentally, able to turn people into something they never intended to be. Rachel is now dating the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent, and things appear to be serious, much to the dismay of Bruce Wayne. Bruce is struggling with his role as Batman, not only despite, but also because of his acceptance in the public eye.

I won't spoil any of the plot for those who intend to see it but haven't yet. Suffice it to say that I liked it, but didn't love it.

Heath Ledger did an absolutely amazing job as the Joker, it's too bad it's his last role. The movie definitely continues in the vein of Batman Begins, but lives up to its name with an overall darker tone. The story is good, but not excellent. There are a few "did they really need to do this?" and "that doesn't really make sense" moments; more-so than its predecessor. The special effects are excellent for the most part, especially the effects on Harvey Dent's character at the end (I won't spoil it but you'll know what I'm talking about when you see it).

It could have had one or two less action sequences would have been a better movie for it; as-is I was getting a little anxious for things to get wrapped up toward the end. It's one of those "well, things could be wrapped up right now if we wanted to... but we need to throw in another 30 minutes of story because it's a big budget picture" kinds of things. (This is one of my pet peeves of Hollywood; I wish they'd just tell the story without too many extraneous scenes or plot points.)

Probably not the best movie to come out this summer, yet certainly one with some of the highest expectations. On my new official "Doug's movie rating scale" I give it somewhere between a "See it at a matinee" or "Wait for the dollar theater" rating.

P.S. I enjoy movie trailers as much as anyone, but is 25 minutes getting to be too much?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Why I Don't Want an iPhone

I'm kind of in a geeky-technical-article-writing mood, so if geeky technical articles aren't your thing, you might as well just skip this post, and maybe a few more that follow.

Since the iPhone 3G came out last week, I've had several people ask me if I was going to get one. Well, the answer is quite simple: on a piece of paper write the two letters that follow "M" in the English alphabet. And be sure to capitalize. Then add an exclamation point or three. There are many, many reasons. I won't list all of them, but I'll hit on a few deal-breakers.

Lost Functionality

Some of the biggest are because of things I'd be losing transitioning away from my current phone (an E-TEN glofiish X500+). These are things that I actually do with my phone, and do regularly.

  • High resolution screen. My glofiish has a VGA (480x640) resolution screen. The iPhone's is half of that (320x480). So everything would be twice as blocky and blurry.
  • Voice commands and interaction. I can say "Call John Smith at Work" and the phone does it. Or "What is my next appointment" and it reads it to me. Or tell it to "Play Natasha Bedingfield." It also reads my incoming emails and text messages aloud. Very cool.
  • Dial contacts by name or a portion of their number. On the iPhone you scroll to a contact in your contact list, or dial their entire number. On my glofiish (and other Windows Mobile devices) I can either dial a portion of their phone number or name and select them from a short list that updates in real-time. For John Smith I would dial S then M (or actually 7 and 6) and John Smith would pop up. In most cases it only takes two or three keystrokes to find the person you are looking for. On a touch-screen device, this is wonderful.
  • Automatic ring/vibrate modes. If I setup an appointment on my calendar the phone automatically goes to vibrate mode during that block of time. No surprise ringing in church or at the movie!
  • GPS with door-to-door routing. I have no less than three programs on my current cell phone that do door-to-door routing. The iPhone has none. (Not that cell phones necessarily make great navigation devices though.)
  • Full Microsoft Exchange synchronization. While the iPhone can synchronize email, contacts, and calendars with a Microsoft Exchange server, it doesn't automatically sync email folders besides the Inbox (a deal breaker for me since I have rules that move messages to the appropriate folders automatically), doesn't allow any sort of email search (phone or server-side), and doesn't allow me to access files on my network remotely like my glofiish does.
  • Remote desktop. I can connect to and use any of my computers at home from my glofiish, just as if I was sitting in front of them. And it's actually pretty fast.
  • Use phone as a modem for a laptop. With three clicks on a laptop, I can get on the Internet using my cell phone's always-on, unlimited data connection, wirelessly. Not something that just looks like the Internet, but the real Internet. iPhone? Nope... Apple doesn't want it to, and AT&T won't allow it. But anywhere I have phone coverage I can get on the Internet with my phone, laptop, or even both at the same time.
  • Use its GPS for laptop navigation software. My phone shares its GPS with laptops and other devices over Bluetooth.
  • Free calls to friends, family, business contacts. This is actually a T-Mobile thing, not a phone thing. But if I were to play by the rules and switch to AT&T as part of getting the iPhone, I'd lose my free T-Mobile-to-T-Mobile minutes, which I use very heavily.
  • Create and edit Office documents. I can not only view, but also create and edit Word, Excel, and OneNote documents. As geeky as it is, I actually do create spreadsheets right on my phone with some regularity. Having the VGA screen really helps here.
  • Battery life. I'm hearing the iPhone 3G battery has a hard time making it through a work day if it is used at all. Not much of an issue with my current phone.
  • Satellite radio. I can (and do) listen to XM satellite radio on my phone.
  • Fully-featured custom applications. Apple has placed some pretty tight restrictions on what software can run on the iPhone. Programs can't run "behind the scenes" for example. No such restrictions on the glofiish.
  • The most awesome scripture reading program isn't available on the iPhone. I use it at least every Sunday. And nothing else comes anywhere near its functionality.

And a couple things that I don't do very often, but that are missing from the iPhone:

  • Record video.
  • Send pictures, music, and video to other cell phones.
  • Listen to FM Radio.
Unnecessary Headaches

Since Apple is only allowing their phones to be used on AT&T in the US, I'd be forced to switch cell phone carriers. This would cause other headaches, not directly the fault of Apple:

  • For an equivalent family plan like I have (4 phones, 1000 minutes, unlimited data on 3 of the 4, unlimited text messages on all, free calls within the network), I'd be paying about 2.5 times as much as I currently am -- $300+/mo vs $120 (before taxes).
  • AT&T coverage isn't very good. In fact, there is virtually no AT&T coverage at my home. With T-Mobile I get a full 5 bars nearly everywhere I go on a normal basis. Apple couldn't have picked a national cell phone carrier with worse coverage.
  • Since AT&T's 3G network is still new and being rolled out, I'd be forced to use their 2.5G network. T-Mobile's 2.5G data network is about 2-3 times as fast as AT&T's 2.5G (80kbps vs 200kbps typical), not too far off of AT&T's real-world 3G speeds.
In All Fairness

There are a few things that the iPhone does that my phone currently does not. They just don't outweigh the above issues enough to make switching even worth considering.

  • Browser. Hands down the version of Safari on the iPhone is much better than Internet Explorer on my phone. There are some worthy alternatives for my phone coming out at some point, but nothing just yet.
  • Multi-touch. Pinching to zoom, etc. My glofiish is single touch.
  • iTunes. I don't particularly care for it, but a lot of people I know have their music and video in iTunes. Of course only Apple devices can play these files.
  • Accelerometer. The iPhone can sense which way it is being held relative to the direction of gravity.
  • Storage. The iPhone's storage is either 8GB or 16GB. My glofiish currently only has 4GB. (Fortunately, when 8 or 16GB MicroSD cards become common I can swap it out.)
  • Pretty interface. The iPhone's interface is certainly more esthetically designed than Windows Mobile 6.1 on my glofiish, but overall it is a lot less functional, because buttons have to be big enough to push with a finger. Personally I feel that the iPhone's interface is kind of bland, though. Screenshots here and here.
  • 3G network. If AT&T ever decides to roll out 3G with decent coverage in my area, it might double the data transfer speeds I get with my glofiish.
Am I really using Windows Mobile?

Yes, I am; WM6.1 Professional. I know that iPhone aficionados will claim that Windows Mobile is unstable and crashes a lot. That may have been true 2-3 years ago, but it just isn't the case any longer. My phone is one of the most stable devices I own. It actually crashes less than my iPod Touch.

One bit of iPod Touch followup

In my last post about the iPod Touch, I wasn't able to get the device to synchronize or display HTML email. Re-installing some software on my mail server fixed that, so I'm now getting HTML mail on my Touch.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

iPod Touch 2.0

After a long wait yesterday I was finally able to download the version 2.0 software update for my iPod Touch about 1:00 this morning. I've been at least a little anxious for a few of its new features, mainly Microsoft Exchange support, but the upgrade wasn't available on the morning of July 11th as promised. So I had a long day of repeatedly clicking the 'update' button in iTunes. Finally, 1:00am on the 12th, it showed up.

It took forever to download -- two hours or so. I guess Apple's servers are a bit slammed at the moment. (Side note: what's with the TV shows that came with the download? I didn't ask for those.) But it eventually finished. The frustrating part was actually installing it. iTunes starts by making a backup of everything on the Touch before completely wiping it clean of everything on it, including its firmware and software. The backup went fine, but things went downhill from there pretty fast.

Twenty minutes after it started the process of "Preparing iPod software for installation" it came up with an error indicating that the upgrade had failed. Not good. So I unplug it, hold down the power button for like 4 and a half hours to get it to power down, then turn it back on to find a screen showing just the iTunes icon and a picture of the USB connector. Yep, it's bricked. It's got no software on it, so it can't boot. It's a black & silver $400 paperweight.

I plug it back into the computer and after a couple minutes iTunes sees it and tells me I have to do a full restore. Fine. So I click through to get that started. 30 minutes later the process obviously isn't going anywhere; no indication of any activity on the iPod and iTunes has locked up. Repeat the process from the previous paragraph with the same result.

So I think, maybe it doesn't like something about the USB port I'm plugging into, so I try another. Another twenty minutes, another failure, though the error is different this time. This really isn't looking good. Try again using the same connection, same error. Fail x 5.

Finally I figure the only way it is going to work is to do the upgrade from my Mac. We already know that Apple doesn't write very good Windows software (I think this is why Apple fanboys hate Windows so much; they try to run Apple software on it.), so I copy the upgrade files over to my Mac, launch iTunes, plug in the iPod. iTunes detects it and installs the software (though it takes about an hour). Done! It worked! Whew!

I take it back to my main computer again, plug it in, and iTunes copies all of the content it backed up at the beginning of the process. It's projected to take a couple hours, but it appears to be working. Head to bed to resume the process in the morning.

So now it's finally time to take it for a spin. Since Exchange synchronization is the first thing I'm interested in, it's the first thing I set up. It's a pretty painless process; I just tell it my email address, username, password, and the name of the Exchange server, and boom!!! it's setup. I can read my email, my contacts and calendar are synchronized with Exchange / Outlook / my cell phone, supposedly in real-time. They omitted support for Notes and Tasks, but I don't use those much so not a big deal to me. Also missing is server search so I could pull up any message based on its contents. That I will miss.

So I test it out to see if it really is real-time. I launch Mail, send myself a message, and wait. About two seconds later my cell phone tells me I've got new mail and reads it aloud. At the same time the email pops up in Outlook just like it's supposed to. But it isn't to be found on the iPod. So I wait longer; maybe it just takes a while. Nope. Never shows up on its own. I have to manually refresh for it to show up.

I tried a few other things... delete an email from the iPod, mark it as read/unread, move it, etc., to see if those changes are synchronized back to my Exchange server automatically. Nope. Not a single one of them. Exchange is obviously working right because my cell phone is synchronizing in real-time. It's just the iPod that isn't.

I check a few things, and the iPod is definitely configured the way it is supposed to be for push (real-time) synchronization to work. But it isn't working. Not only that, but I have to manually click on each of my email folders (of which there are many) to see if there are any new messages. It doesn't synchronize anything besides my Inbox automatically. That's way too time consuming and tedious. Honestly, the email feature was working better using IMAP before the software upgrade. This so-called Exchange synchronization isn't working at all the way that it is supposed to. Big disappointment.

UPDATE: I did my initial Exchange testing at about 11:00 am this morning. At 3:45pm I received the first real-time synchronization alert, and mail showed up in my iPod's Inbox as it should for the first time. I'll keep an eye on it to see if it continues to work.

EDIT: I also just noticed that HTML messages aren't supported with Exchange. I thought we had moved on from 1995?

So then I open my Contacts to see if they are synchronized with Exchange. Yep. They sure are. A minimum of two copies of each one. For some of them there are as many as 6-8 copies of each. But I don't dare delete them, because that will probably delete the original off of my Exchange server. So not cool. In addition, some are showing up first name first, others are showing up last name first. It makes them difficult to find, because there is seemingly no pattern to which way they are listed. Calendar synchronization actually seems to be working right.

EDIT: Calendar synchronization was working properly. Now I have multiple copies of all of my appointments too.

So I move on to the App Store and try out a few things there. The facebook application works pretty well, but it isn't any where nearly as functional as their dedicated iPhone web interface (which also seems a tad faster too). It has also crashed on me three times, one of which rebooted and locked up the iPod completely. Hopefully they'll remedy that with an upgrade. The eBay app is actually pretty cool and snappy. I also paid for and downloaded MooCow's Band and Super Monkey Ball. Band is fun to play with, but it gets tiring because it only has a few instrument sounds; every song you create with it is going to sound the same. It also lags quite a bit from the time you press a note until the time you hear it play.

Super Monkey Ball has pretty fast animation, but the graphics really aren't very good (computer games in the mid 1990s had better graphics, and virtually everything on my cell phone looks better) and it is nearly impossible to control with the accelerometer-based tilt interface. The first few levels were passable, but I got to a level where there are no guardrails on the side of the platforms, so if you tilt even a little bit too far you roll right off. It's also difficult to know where "center" for the control is, because it certainly isn't when the iPod is parallel with the ground, so it's hard to find. And there is noticable lag between the time you move the device and when the monkey starts moving in the corresponding direction. With time I bet someone could get it, but it's really difficult to master. The part that makes it hardest is that the game keeps rotating the display, and you have to instantly react by changing the angle of tilt control to match, or you're instantly rolling the poor monkey in the wrong direction. With the delay that's hard, and since "flat" isn't the center position for the control it's quite difficult to coordinate the movement properly.

I tried a couple other apps and quickly determined that they were pretty much garbage; obviously things written either in a very short time or by inexperienced developers. So for right now, there aren't a whole lot of compelling titles in the App Store, though I'm sure that is soon to change.

The other app I tried is the iTunes remote control, which works as advertised. Since I actually don't use iTunes to listen to my music (since it won't play 85% of it) it's of limited use to me.

Music and video playback are pretty much the same as before. The complaints I had with playing music still apply. Video playback is still quite good. There's still no copy-and-paste, the interface between different apps is still inconsistent (different colors, backgrounds, different button coloring conventions, many apps don't support landscape, some are configured within the app, others through Settings), and the former smooth scrolling through long lists is now choppy. And I really really miss the "back" button found on browsers and many cell phone interfaces, especially when you get into the App Store. For example, after you download an app you have to click on several buttons to get back to where you were. On a positive note, the scientific mode of the calculator works, and in scientific mode its accuracy is much higher than available before!

Overall I'm kind of disappointed. The Exchange synchronization isn't working at all like it is supposed to, to the point of being next to worthless to me, and most of the offerings in the App Store are lucky to be classified as "mediocre at best." And since I'm using an iPod Touch instead of an iPhone I had to pay for the upgrade. Yes, I'd do it again, but I was hoping for more for my money.

At least I'll have a device to fully test any iPhone applications I choose to write, if I ever do. Though I'm kind of doubting that will ever happen because Xcode (Apple's tool for developing applications) is so primitive in comparison to the development tools I'm using on Windows it would be like taking a step back in time 15 years. And as great as my life was 15 years ago, I'd rather not have to repeat it.

I still think Apple hates me.


I saw this on my friend Drew's blog, and it sounded like fun...  (even though I'm usually not one who likes to pass these sorts of things along)  So I'll bite, and I quote verbatim:

1. As a comment on my blog, leave one memory that you and I had together. It doesn't matter if you knew me a little or a lot, anything you remember!

2. Next, re-post these instructions on your blog and see how many people leave a memory about you. It's actually pretty funny to see the responses. If you leave a memory about me, I'll assume you're playing the game and I'll come to your blog and leave one about you.  (If you're not sure if I follow your blog, leave me a link just to be sure.)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Interesting Phenomenon

So Jared and I deejayed a dance for a youth conference last night.  Overall it went pretty well despite the relatively low turnout. 

I tried out some new software I threw together just before the dance.  I always have one of my laptops with me to play music, but this time I brought and placed another laptop down on the edge of the stage for the kids to browse my music collection and make requests.  It solves a real problem for me because taking requests verbally (1) isn't that fun (some of the kids get really obnoxious when I don't play what they ask for), and (2) is harder because I can't always remember the requests. 

Using the computer presents a new and interesting problem.  Because the kids don't have to talk to someone they don't know to make a request they aren't afraid to request songs that they wouldn't request otherwise.  The anonymity makes it easier to ask for things they wouldn't normally, or shouldn't.  Like MoTab, or songs by the Muppets such as "Rubber Ducky" or "It's Not Easy Being Green," or music that just isn't appropriate for a church-sponsored activity (much less their own ears and minds).  They think they're being funny I guess.  I'm not annoyed by it, but I'm not amused either.  Maybe I should have played the songs, and announced that they were requests.  (Note #1 to self: this could backfire.) It also makes it easier for them to make the same bad requests without fear of rebuke.  (Note #2 for self: add "user rebuke" feature to this and other software.)

So among the list of around 75 requests that were made, about 2/3 of them aren't danceable, and among those 50, about 35 were songs that most of the kids wouldn't know (do kids these days know or appreciate Styx? I didn't think so!).  And if my DJ experience tells me anything at all, its that people don't dance to songs they don't know, no matter how good of a beat they have.

Bottom line, though, is that having the extra computer there made my job a whole lot easier, and only took an extra 2 minutes to setup, so should I stumble across any more deejaying jobs anytime soon I'll probably use this new system again.

P.S. I'm very pleased that it is once again cool to play 80s music at dances; it goes over very well.  They are much easier to dance to than most of the stuff that is popular now, much of which isn't suitable for church-sponsored dances anyway.  It's just interesting to me that the kids weren't even a twinkle in their parents' eyes when this stuff was popular but they enjoy it anyway.  If music from before I was born was played at dances when I was their age it would have been a definitive way to get everybody to leave.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

That'll be $5.77 at the Window

Sometimes we use expressions whose meanings are obvious, but can be somewhat humorous if you stop and think about what is being said.

For example... When you go to a drive-through fast food restaurant and finish giving your order, they'll often say, "That'll be $xxx at the window." There have been numerous times that I've wanted to say, "How much would it be if I paid at the back door?" Think about it.

Have you ever considered throwing something totally random into the middle of your drive-through order? "I'd like a double cheeseburger, fries, a large root beer, a light bulb, and a small strawberry milkshake." Half of the time I don't think they're really listening. And this would be a good way to find out.

I've also wanted to have some fun at sit-down restaurants too. When you go up to the host/hostess and state your name and how many in your group, it would be fun to give them a... well... shall we say, a "different" name? For example.... Birthday, Surprise, Housewarming, Christmas, or Bachelor. So when they call you, they say (probably without realizing it): "Birthday party of 5." or "Surprise party of 3." I've wanted to give the name "Donner" (with 8 ("ate") people in the party, of course) a few times but think that might be going a little too far.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

I Hate Utah Crowds

Okay, so I went to the Freedom Festival Parade in Provo on the morning of July 4th. I'm not super excited about it; it seems like they are just about the same every year, with the same bands, cars, personalities, and even floats showing up nearly every year. But my parents were in town, and my sister Cheryl and her family whom I rarely see are in town, so I'm happy to be there to see them. Great!

What follows below is actual facts, and I am intentionally not exaggerating anything stated. In fact, everything here is being downplayed because I don't want to relive this experience.

So we get there about an hour before the parade begins, standing under a tree to shade us from the heat of the sun. As the time for the parade approaches, my mom, brother, and I walk out from under the tree and take up a spot on the street. Brent and I have cameras, and we can't get good pictures from under the tree; it's just too far away with too many people in the way.

Not long after we take up our spots an older lady comes up and tells me I have to move. I think to myself, "what?" and just look at her. She tells me that there are little kids behind me under the tree (the same one we had just moved out from under because we didn't have a good view) and asks me if I care that I'm blocking their view. I said, "I care, but I am taking pictures and I need to be closer." She continues to yell at me at which point I tell her that I had just as much of a right to be there as she did. She then accuses me of being intentionally mean, and asks me why "this tall guy" (referring to Brent) needs to be there, and she walks away before I have a chance to even say anything, not that I had come up with suitable reply just yet. Brent is more accommodating than I am and he walks away back under the tree. I was frustrated because the lady didn't ask me nicely if I would move, she just told me I had to move and that I couldn't stand there.

So I think this is over. Not by a long shot. A few minutes later an older guy comes up and says he wants to sit behind his grandson. I'm fine with that, so I start to move a bit to my right to make room for his chair. At this point he makes a move pretending to put his chair down but actually uses it to start pushing me out of the way, at least 5 feet to his right, right into my mom, nearly knocking us both over, out into the space in the street reserved for emergency vehicles, law enforcement, etc. I yelled at him, "Don't push me!" but he continued to do it anyway. He was a larger man, considerably overweight, and obviously stronger than me, so he wins out. He then sits down in his chair.

My mom and I walk around him to his left and take up the spot we had before we were pushed aside. At this point the guy's two daughters start yelling at me and my mom because they feel they have the right to prevent anyone from standing anywhere in front of them because their wife/mother-in-law had had gotten there early that morning to reserve their spot under the tree. My mom, who is one of the most kind and soft-spoken people ever, realizes they are being completely unreasonable ends up getting in a yelling match with this family. Other people nearby start yelling at this family too because they had seen what was done to me and my mom. But the family just continued to argue with my mom, and completely ignored everybody else around them.

If we had been standing out in the very front where kids were sitting on the ground, yes, our location would have been inappropriate. The trouble was that from where the chairs were located there was at least 35 feet of space (nearly all of which is legitimate for crowds to stand in) to the parade route. They honestly thought that because they had setup chairs on the lawn (behind the crowd sitting on the street, behind the grassy island at the curb, behind the sidewalk) that they had the right to tell everyone that they couldn't stand in any of that space in front of them. We're talking about a huge area here... enough for a few hundred people to stand in if need be.

To top it off one of them told us that they had the right to sit in chairs on the lawn and have a clear view because she had been at work delivering babies until 1 AM. As if anybody doing their job earns them a right to tell other people where they can and can't watch the parade. And how did she know that I hadn't been up until 2 AM saving injured pets from runaway garbage trucks? Or maybe unreasonable parade spectators.

The whole thing made me mad. Which would be about the 4th time in my life I have ever gotten angry. It takes a lot to make me angry, but this family certainly pushed me over the edge.

I hate Utah crowds.

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