Sunday, October 25, 2009

GPS, At Last:

For a long time, my wife and I have wondered whether to buy a GPS. Usually, my wife did the wondering, and I did the nay-saying. I’m proud of my knowledge of streets in all the places we drive, and I’m a careful user of Google Maps. Why did I need a GPS?

But times change and at last I began to suspect that a GPS might be good for both of us. Still, we delayed our purchase. With little knowledge of GPS systems, it’s not easy to choose between the $100 kind and the $600 kind. What did we want? We opted for the lower middle, a $230 Garmin 1300T. I’ve done a little local driving with it, and I've used it for a long trip as well. I am totally fascinated at how useful I think it’s going to be. I never suspected!

My wife teased me that most of the benefits I’m excited about are mickey-mouse addons. But still, let me tell you what I’m excited about. Driving long distance, late at night, there's always a danger of getting tired and hypnotized. But the GPS helped me stay alert by showing me more of the geography of the dark regions I was driving through. Another important feature is that the GPS map shows me curves before I reach them. Driving late at night, on the Merritt parkway, say, it really helps to anticipate the curves, making my driving safer.

Okay, on to the bells and whissies.

The 1300T comes with many voices. I can learn a bit of vocabulary by using other languages on familiar routes. (A German voice drove me to work, and a French voice drove me home. I’ll try the French-Canadian voice another time. I’m even going to try Cantonese.)

The GPS can monitor my driving to show me whether I am doing the right things to save fuel.

The GPS can put my current speed or altitude (something that really fascinates me) right on the dashboard, where I can easily peek at it while I drive.

The GPS 3D map gives me context about converging roads, helping me to visualize better where I am. I need this feature even locally, where roads are definitely not straight.

I usually try to stay away from down, downtown Manhattan, where where roads are definitely not in a grid. But with my GPS, I’m not afraid of this locale anymore – I think.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An Unpardonable action (?) in a Zonealarm upgrade:

I'm not the Internet Police, so I don't get to set the rules. However, I think that Zonealarm did something that is totally unacceptable in the current version of its anti-virus software. It added a toolbar to both Internet Explorer and Firefox. It's okay for it to OFFER to add a toolbar, but it's another thing to drop it in there and wait for me to notice it. YOU HAVE TO ASK THE USER IF HE WANTS ANOTHER TOOLBAR. It's not okay to put this notice in the fine print, either.

Installing my current version of Zonealarm Antivirus (90_114) appears to have forced some bizarre behavior changes in the behavior of my home computer. I'm waiting for them to make yet another suggestion on how to recover from their upgrade, so I won't discuss my misery in detail.

One of the remarkable changes to my computer, after this upgrade, was that I can no longer run multiple “windows” of Firefox 3. I can have one window with multiple tabs. Trying to run a second window creates a situation where, when I completely exit from Firefox, I will find that it is still running, taking much of my computer's cpu to try to bring up that second window.

I “solved” that problem by noticing the Zonealarm toolbar add-on and disabling it.

In its present version, Zonealarm sought to “improve” my computer experience by interposing its own GUI into the process of downloading a file. It pops up another window, offers me choices that I have already made, shows me the progress of downloading (which firefox already shows me), and then, afterwards, asks me what I want to DO with my downloaded file. These are all waste steps that it adds to my normal procedures. As long as two years ago, there were grumbles that the Zonealarm product was morphing from a nimble, light anti-virus protection into something baroque. Perhaps the nay-sayers were right.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

WSIG: Real Country Radio

If you're tooling up US route 81 near Woodstock, Virginia, then I suggest you tune to WSIG, 96.9, Real Country Radio. They entertained me for nearly an hour with one marvelous song after another. You can listen to them on the web also: click their web site and then click the big “listen live” button. (It may take 15 seconds or so for the audio to come.)

I've sampled many country Western stations on my trips south. I haven't listened to a lot of WSIG's programming yet, but what I heard was – for me at least – exceptional. To an outsider, the lyrics of Country Western songs tend to sound banal, even though, often, they are not. The essence of CW music is that the music fits the lyrics like a glove, making every syllable seem obvious the moment you hear it. CW is a remarkable contrast to Rock, which forces its words to fit the heavy rhythms, and Blues, which often disassociates the lyrics from the rhythm altogether.

In CW, the male singers tend to sound like suave cowboys, and the women tend to sound desperate. There's a lot more variety than you may notice at first. I enjoyed one song in which the chorus was a solo on a bass guitar, with a finishing lick on a 12-stringer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Now! You can use your voice to make phone calls:

Words seriously fail me. I've just received an email that makes me smile, and I hope it will hit you the same way. Nuance, the company that makes Dragon Naturally Speaking (excellent voice-to-text products) is testing a new product for Blackberries called Nuance Voice Control (NVC). It will enable Blackberry users to – get this – send text messages by dictating them. The dictated message will be converted to text and SMS'ed (or emailed) to its recipient. Now put aside the likelihood that the phone company will probably charge more to send the text message than they would to send the equivalent vocal message. What's really special here is that Nuance has invented a way to for people to “speak” on a telephony network. “”WATSN CM HR, I NEED U.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Customer Support Hell (and Heaven):

When we bought our new dishwasher, we qualified for a $50 rebate. I hate filling in rebate forms. I know they are out to get me if I make the slightest mistake. So I agonized over my form and (I thought) I got everything right.

Weeks later, I got a very polite letter. “Hey, we want to help you,” it said, “but you submitted the wrong invoice.” Darn. I submitted the bill for the dishwasher itself, forgetting that our rebate was for the installation, not the dishwasher. I plead guilty to this mistake, but it's easy to make. It seems weird to get a rebate for the installation and NOT have to submit the bill for buying the item.

So I carefully resubmitted, just ahead of their deadline.

Two weeks later we got a weird postcard advising us that one or more of our rebate requests could not be fulfilled, or was being fulfilled for partial credit. So of course I called the customer service number. They found my file at once, almost as if they had been waiting for me. I was told that it could take them three weeks for my resubmission to get into their files (this is after 2.5 weeks by the way, so for all we knew, they were still going to get my corrected letter). But they did not have my resubmission just now. Could I FAX everything to them in the next hour or be damned? (They put it more politely than that.)

My fault again, I could find only part of my paperwork. But I did find the invoice for the installation. This is the ONE thing they did not have on file, but they insisted I file the other paperwork that they already had but I couldn't find. I begged for, and got, a one day reprieve to find my paperwork.

That was Thursday. Friday was a busy day, and I simply gave up on getting the rebate.

Now it's Saturday night. I stumbled over the remaining paperwork, and I'm now in a position to FAX EVERYTHING to them. But I won't, and here's why:

In Saturday's mail, we received the full $50 rebate.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to make time fly when you're On Hold:

I've assembled two agonizing time-consumers together, and I really like the result.

Currently, I am waiting on the phone to talk to a New Jersey state "hotline" that might conceivably help me with one of their impenetrably bizarre computer forms. It may take me a long time to get through. I've got my phone on "speaker", and now I want time to fly until I reach them.

I also have daily PT exercises to do. I hate to think of the time I'm 'wasting' while I exercise; it takes a chunk out of my every day. I can practically feel the clock spinning its dial while I try to stay calm and hold a pose for another, oh hell, thirty seconds, three times.

So that's it: I'm doing my PT while waiting for the hotline to answer my phone call. I hope they give me time to finish...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Programmers are not like other people:

I think I have blogged before about (how hard it is to do this.

One of the many ways to minimize keystrokes while abbreviating a text note is to open parentheses (and not close them.

It's usually obvious where the closing paren goes, so why not omit the keystroke? Except that in most kinds of programming, it is important to get your parentheses balanced just right. Even now as I type, I'm resisting a desire to go back and close those two parentheses.

Today when I'm not blogging, I'm writing up my plan for my radio show tomorrow (WPRB.COM and WPRB 103.3 FM in NJ and Philly; 6:00 a.m. EDT). I have divided the show into a series of 'UNIT' items. I found that in one place I spelled the word 'UINT'. That might look like a terrible misspelling to you, but to me, it's a meaningful word. It characterizes the following symbol as a representation of an unsigned integer. So there.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

I'm playing dumb. It might be fun:

I purchased a set of Whirly balls. Fortunately they were very inexpensive. Something for my grandkids to play with, I thought. These are plastic balls similar to whiffle balls, basball size. They might be fun to catch and throw. But here's the interesting part: the packaging promised some sort of game to play with the three balls, as follows:

A Hole New Game.

{Also:} the balls are intended solely for impact with each other.

I expected to find the rules of the whirly ball game inside the packaging, but there was nothing inside except the balls. So I contacted the company that makes them -- Amloid -- and asked them to email me the rules of the game. But after seeing their other mindless beach products, I have a feeling that there will be no game at all; I was just misled by their overeager labeling. I wonder what they will say in their email...