Friday Feb 12, 2010

There Is No Second

During the first ever America's Cup race, then a race around the Isle of Wight, the entry from the "colonies" (named, appropriately, "America") won by a rather large margin. Sailor's yarns being what they are, the story goes that the lookout at the finish line announced that the boats were within sight. "Who is first?" asked the Queen, with "America" as the answer. "Who is second?" was a reasonable followup question.

"There is no second." As the Israelis say, "oopah." Or as my gamer son says, "pwned," although there's probably not a good translation into Swiss German for that one.

Despite starting 87 seconds behind at the gun, BMW-Oracle Racing won today's first race of the 33rd America's Cup by about five minutes, or roughly 2 miles. It is, as they say in Boston, a wicked fast boat.

I'm smiling ear to ear. I'm giggling. I'm remarkably proud of a boat to which I have no earthly connection other than the fact that it's American, I'm a huge America's Cup fan and cheer for the "home team," and it has my current and future employer's logos on the wing-as-mainsail.

Most of all, it's a remarkable feat of engineering. When you get all of the pieces finely tuned and working as a system (especially a system as complex as racing sailboat constraints), well, there is no second.

Thursday Nov 20, 2008

My Grandfather's Tree Saw

Hanging in the garage of my parent's house were two very large-toothed tree saws. Not your normal wood-cutting blades, measured in teeth per inch, as these monsters had inches per tooth, required at least two if not four hands to operate, and were intimidating to a 6th grader scraping by (no pun) in wood shop. They would have terrified the little saplings planted in my parents' front yard into their very best Ent-personation: uproot and get away. What I didn't understand was why those saws were in the garage in the first place, as there were no old-growth trees to cut and section anywhere in our neighborhood.

Sometimes you have to see the whole family tree in perspective to understand the details.

My father's family were tree-cutters in what is now the Ukraine, then part of the Austria-Hungary empire, coming to the United States in the very early part of the 20th century. The family brought the tools when they emigrated, not having to pack much else. They left the towns of Yarmolinits and Kamanayenech-Podolsky because they were, in the wise words of my aunt, "complete mud holes." I have visions of my family in Elbonian-era scenarios, minus the technology, but with impressive hand tools. Starting with little, they arrived in a country that was about to enter a Depression, and yet they managed pretty well. I often joke about "old world" values and attitudes, but they lived them. And survived really tough economic times, raised kids, built a local small business, and kept a house that kept all of the grandchildren entertained on Sundays.

Sadly, I don't remember talking to my grandfather that much. He worked hard. He lived across the street from his general store, and there was a buzzer strung from the store to the front foyer, a remote door bell that announced a potential customer was looking for gas, even if something resembling "closing time" had arrived. It never did. He had a warm, great smile, and he and Grandma would frequently switch to Yiddish to talk about the grandchildren, their own friends, or anything else that we weren't supposed to repeat to our parents.

So here's what I remember of his style, which seems appropriate for the current economic conditions:

1. Do what you do. Former Princeton basketball coach Pete Carrill used to say "if you do something well, do that a lot; if you don't shoot well, pass the ball to someone who does." You could make my grandfather's day by asking for some obscure dimension of machine screw, which would have been stored in a cardboard box, neatly arranged on a shelf with no apparent order, but he'd find it. Every time. It's what he did. Very back to basics - have spent most of this week getting out and talking to customers, sketching out ideas for clouds and analytics while also discussing how open source software is changing the landscape of developer availability. Large-bore tree saws for large-scale data problems.

2. Laugh. There's a reason I start out each day with a 5-minute dose of web comics. Not only do I injure myself less frequently than starting out on the elliptical machine, but a good chuckle sets a good tone for the day.

3. Family (and friends) first. "It's on the way" was something of a watchword on family trips. Before MapQuest, we had navigation that would have made Charlie Daniels' "Uneasy Rider" proud -- triangulating towns in central and eastern New Jersey because they were only a few miles off of a straight-line shot, in an attempt to do the travelling salesman's tour of relatives, friends and bakeries in a single trip. My grandparents always put the family first. As I told someone the other day, a really bad day in the market or at work is offset by watching an hour of youth sports or a school function.

4. Indulge in the little things. Late one Sunday night, Grandpa arrived at our house looking for a piece of fried chicken. He liked my mothers's fried chicken (the backstory is that my grandmother's fried anything involved baking, boiling, frying, more baking, and perhaps some roasting for good measure). He had a comfortable chair -- the only big, stuffed piece of furniture that the grandchildren would fight over -- from which to watch TV. Maybe that's the way to bootstrap the US economy -- get everyone to indulge in something small and consumable, whether it's books or movies or a good piece of fried chicken. Personally -- I just bought "Slap Shot Original", the somewhat goofy autobiography of Slap Shot character Dave Hanson. My lone purchase won't rescue the big box stores from the edge of a bad holiday season, but if everyone indulges maybe the news won't be as bleak. Or we won't care because we're laughing.

5. Somebody else has it worse. Owning a general store, Grandpa saw more "local color" than most people. He was quick to extend credit or payment terms in an age before credit cards and a well-distributed banking system. It's important, as nasty as the economic climate is, to ensure that we don't lose sight of those who need help in either emotional or financial flavors. It's that time of year in New York when the homeless need a hot cup of coffee for survival in the literal sense. It's worth skipping the high-end brew and getting two doses of Dunkies - one for you and one for someone who has it worse.

Sometimes all it takes is a simple acknowledgement that, as Cheech Marin once said, "things are tough all over." A full generation before my grandparents arrived from a not-quite-but-later Soviet republic, Abraham Lincoln sought to offer the nation a bit of solace from strife, conflict, political unrest and tension that had literally put the United States on the edge of dissolution. In 1863 he declared Thanksgiving a fixed, national holiday in recognition of the blessings of "fruitful fields and healthful skies". Small details to consider as we sit down with family and friends to view the larger perspective next week on the last Thursday of November.

Wednesday Aug 27, 2008

Sanuk Sidewalk Surfers

I have a bad thing about shoes: I hate them. Partly this is because my feet are slightly different sizes, partly because my right foot has a deformed fourth metatarsal (ie, my right foot's topography looks like that of the San Fernando Valley in relief), partly because my feet are so wide that it's been suggested I purchase footwear at Build A Bear (home of the perfectly round shoes). I wore flip-flops for an entire spring semester in 1983, and more recently I've been a fan of Nike's "Free" sneaker which is the closest thing to a flip flop fit for non-beach wear that I've found. Until now.

A trip to the home of the original beach flip flops introduced me to Sanuk sandals, self-described as sandals with a shoe upper -- they look like shoes, but feel like sandals, or flip-flops minus the big toe thong. I think they rely on some of the same physics as the Nike Free sneakers -- using your own foot to keep you balanced and maintain stride, rather than the physical structure of a sneaker.

Now if only that improved balance could help me get up on the surfboard.....that's one that even Software CTO Bob Brewin finds intractable.

Friday Aug 01, 2008

Deconstructing My Cell Phone

I suffer from information sprawl in a bad way. Partly this is due to loving paper notes, partly due to the proliferation of devices in tow, partly due to just not having the incentive to consolidate and clean up. My address book is a virtual data center in miniature: a little bit of everything, on every device, with every known format, operating system and application. Yes, there are even some text files that I search with grep. I've managed to combine most sticky notes, back of envelope notes, and electronic formats into a Mac OS address book, but the last frontier in data clean up remained the most formidable: my cell's phone book.

Truth be told, there's a backstory: My wife and I need new cell phones. Mine is so abused that the LCD screen has burn-in of my wallpaper and I've worn the finish off of the hinge areas. We had decided to take advantage of the fact that we have common calendar, address book and email info by getting iPhones, and were even ready to pull the proverbial trigger until my wife asked how I was planning on moving her LG VX8300 phone address book to the iPhone.

7-11 moment: Big gulp. This is the moment when I should have realized that deciding to do this electronically would lead to several hours of playing with device drivers, scripts and freeware, and the smarter answer would have been "I'll retype them manually." But that would have removed the nerdly fun. And it wouldn't have given me the satisfaction of being able to tell my current cellular carrier "No, thanks, I don't want to pay $75 to have you transfer my phone info to another of your phones." The challenge, then: extract phone book and picture data from two phones for less than $75 and before the weekend.

Plug the puppy in. Maybe this is a derivative of spending way too much time pretending to be a sound man, or buying useless cables at Radio Shack, but my first step was to buy the right USB cable to at least see the device from something with a keyboard and an operating system. First (and only) expenditure: USB Data Cable for the LG VX-8300. Under $20 with shipping.

Get the drivers. I'll admit the truth: I do most of this experimentation on an old Windows machine because I can always reload it when (not if) something goes pear-shaped and I roach my test bed. Found the drivers for the LG phone in a number of places ( this is an interesting index of available USB drivers); got the PC to see the phone on the first shot, which is far better than my experience with, say, most HP printers.

Extract the goodies. I downloaded bitpim to browse the phone's internals. Initial install of bitpim produced nothing, so I reverted to watching it fail in command line mode, installing a missing C library DLL and then making sure I had a functional python environment. Total time spent making freeware do my evil bidding: about half an hour. And with much better net net results than Randall Munroe would imply.

Inside of an hour, I had all of the phonebook entries off of my phone (about 170) and my wife's phone (almost 500), converted to CSV files and imported into our respective Mac OS address books. Now I can go back to the originally planned manual edit and cleanup, but I'm vindicated in thinking that I could save a few hours (and tedium-induced errors) with the right kit. There's a deeper, more ponderous issue here: who really owns the data on your cell phone -- you or your carrier? If it's impossible to extract the data and convert it, electronically, into another format, then effectively your carrier owns your phone book. Issues of data ownership are what got Scoble booted from Facebook, and are likely to pop up in increasing numbers as we try to move our personal pointers (and that's what phone numbers and friend information and "links" are, all due respect to entry level programming instructors who say "pointers are like phone numbers") between data realms.

Monday Jul 14, 2008

Plumbing the Depths

It was one of those weekends when I did many things, but didn't see a common theme emerge until I spent Sunday afternoon with my hands submerged in a failed attempt to blend art and plumbing and realized I'd had a trio of plumbing references as the meta data for my weekend. But I'm cutting to the chase....

Friday night: One of my all-time favorite summer activities is to announce Williamsport Little League Tournament games at the NJ District level, mixing up my own brand of John Sterling with equal parts radio DJ and CB radio operator. Given travel schedules and the fact that I'm no longer on the local Little League board, I get a chance to do about one game a summer. This past Friday night, I got to the ball field to find out that one of the teams had withdrawn from the tournament, their short post season flushed before it had begun.

Saturday night: Rush at the PNC Bank Arts Center. After having seen Rush in Philadelphia a month ago, I was expecting a repeat of the same amazing show. But having read Peart's Roadshow I should have known of the variation in venues, and how the musicians themselves often feel a show is only "adequate" or "competent", not the exhilarating experience those of us who paid $100 a ticket thought we were enjoying. Saturday's Rush show suffered from significant reductions in the lighting rigging, such that the "spaceship" type lights that normally ascend and descend toward the stage were fixed along the stage's ceiling. Much worse, the sound quality was "Delaware River mud" at best, with bass suffering from echoes and very tinny vocals (I know, I know, Geddy Lee sounds tinny in Carnegie Hall). I forgot how much the acoustics in the PNC Bank Arts Center resemble that of a concrete arena bathroom, and I can also see why Peart refuses to use corporate sponsor names when recalling stops in the roadshow.

Sunday night: I decide, after a fun-filled trip to Home Depot, to attack the two Kohler Rialto toilets in our house that are testing my patience. Toilet plumbing isn't really all that complicated, but when a former software engineer is facing a very low profile, very small tank plumbing fixture armed with a toolbelt and extension cord, only bad things can happen. In the words of Al Bundy, nobody appreciates a toilet for the work of technology that it is, and that's probably because in some designer's efforts to hide its function, it's function got too complicated. Charles Mingus used to say (with reference to jazz music) that anyone could take something simple and make it complicated; only genius could take the complicated and make it simple. This bit of plumbing was the work of the anti-genius; however; two hours, one session with the drill press, four different screwdrivers, a home-made shim, and one custom-cut fitting down the drain (literally) later, I think both toilets are functional.

If I get home to find they're not, I'm unbolting both plumbing fixtures and using them as lawn seats at the PNC Bank Arts Center. Art imitates art.

Wednesday Mar 05, 2008

Embracing Change

Sometimes we become so accustomed to the way in which we do something, or the tools used in accomplishing the task, that we forget there are continuous improvements available. Current cell phones are significantly better than the 24-month old flip phone with the marred case and cloudy camera lens that I tote around; new inkjet printers are faster and quieter (and seem to have less residue accumulating under them) than the combination scan/fax/print/stuffed animal stand that I've been using for nearly five years.

Changing something requires that we justify the cost of the change, in terms of money, learning curve, and in many cases, exchange of one comfort for another. This sounds trite, but I've now experienced this "ah ha" moment in consumer technology upgrades twice in the last few weeks.

The first was an obvious pain-over-price choice: my inkjet printer was dying a slow and painful death, resulting in a lot of magenta colored hardcopy. I print most things in black and white, draft quality, and this hadn't become a major issue, but at some point I decided that both the acquisition and operation cost of a new printer far outweighed my stubbornness in keeping my six-year old (42 internet years) printer on refurb cartridge life support. A quick trip to Staples returned a new printer that has a better fax modem, full scan capability supported by Mac OS X, and uses cartridges that cost about 2/3 of the old ones, and I had it up and running inside of 20 minutes. What was I thinking? My net cost was about $100 and an hour total of my time. But inherent in making the change was deciding that the new features, improved performance and better printer drivers were worth the effort, and my own time. Kind of obvious when you look at it objectively, but this is exactly the same argument applied to upgrading operating systems, hardware platforms, storage networks, and desktop productivity suites. Once you climb over that small potential hill, you pick up enormous kinetic energy running down the other side. We can't let the local maxima (in terms of angst) hide the more global minima (in terms of cost, frustrutration and badly tinted e-tickets) one upgrade away.

Less obvious, but of much greater personal benefit, was changing the strap on my camera. I have been using a 3-inch wide Disney themed strap since I broke one in Disneyworld 10 years ago. It's perfect Disney: nice graphics, a bit overpriced, and a perfect simulacrum of a real camera strap. But it worked, and I didn't think much about it until I got my SmugMug strap in the mail. It's light, thin, constructed of nylon webbing with some "give" to it, and in the course of replacing Mickey I noticed my old strap had started to fray where it passes through the camera cleats. Yikes. What's the big deal about a camera strap? The new one is much smaller and softer, so it packs flatter and into a smaller case (see photo, that's me taking a picture of Jim Baty taking a picture of me on the Great Wall of China. Recursion is cool). I never gave much thought to the said features until I actually used my camera for a full day. As Buddy Hackett used to say, at the end of the day, at first I thought something was wrong, as I didn't have that burning feeling (not hearburn that Hackett got from his mother's cooking, but chafing of my neck and forearm where I'd wrap the Mickey strap if I wanted flexibility in shooting). I carried my Canon on the canon of Beijing tourism with nary a nick. Second lesson learned: sometimes people who are professionals in an area really do know all of the little things. I started using the new strap on the recommendation of SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill during a side conversation at one of our Sun customer events. I had no idea how right he was -- he was giving the straps away, but in doing so, he increased my comfort in taking pictures, which made me take a ton of pictures on this Asia trip, which of course I've posted to a SmugMug gallery.

Open source camera straps? You bet. I'd make some cranky and oblique convergent comment about how Disney might figure out that open sourcing creates new consumers or drives demand, and given the number of photos taken in Disney properties there'd seem to be some synergy here, but I'm enjoying my post-image-posting without having any red neck effects.

Sunday Sep 02, 2007

Buy the Filter

Officially I'm back from Israel, and behind about a half dozen blog entries that are in various half-composed states on devices ranging from my laptop to the nightstand notepad from a hotel in Tiberias. So much to write about, but one incident early on in our trip sticks out because it was a potential high and low point.

We had taken a jeep ride along the Burma Road, an unpaved, unfinished but well-marked trail that runs from about 10 kilometers outside of Jersusalem into the city. During the 1948 War for Independence, the Burma road was built as an alternative to the main road which had been heavily fortified. It's quite a ride, particularly in a vehicle with random suspension. At our first stop, I hopped out of the back, not checking that my camera bag was properly zipped, and proceeded to watch my Canon Digital SLR camera do the Rebel yell about 5 feet onto a flat rock where we'd parked. It landed smack on the cap of the short zoom lens.

I've been waiting 22 years to prove the advice of the man who sold me my first SLR camera (also a Canon): "Always put a cheap UV filter in front of every lens. When, not if, but when you drop the camera, you'll only break the filter". He was right. The lens cap managed to crack the filter, but the glass didn't scratch the surface of the much more expensive (and vital) lens underneath. I struggled with using a longer telephoto lens for part of the day, and then invested in a few tools to fish the broken glass out of the filter, returning my favorite lens to service. The filter ring was hopelessly jammed into the lens, but at least I had functional camera equipment for the next two weeks.

Our local camera store had to use a filter wrench (looks like an oil filter wrench) to extract the old UV filter from the lens, and I'm sure they're saving the old filter ring to retell the story. Simon Phipps likes to say that we pay for things at the point of utility, when we find we need them in whatever productive aspect they were acquired. I'll add my own corrollary: We pay for risk management, whether it's service plans, insurance, or redundant parts, where the cost and time elements of a failure far outweight the costs of protecting against that failure. In short: always buy the UV filter.

Now if only I can figure out why my Digital Rebel insists on over-exposing pictures taken in desert conditions, I'll be happy. Might need another filter....

Tuesday Aug 14, 2007

How Not To Run a Loyalty Program

I'm usually a big fan of customer loyalty programs, whether it's airline frequent flyer coalitions or casino player rating cards. Anything that provides me some minor amount of personalization or benefit for expressing a preference is typically a reasonable return on my time and money.

Unless I spend so much time trying to get into the program that even having a long trip's worth of DVDs hand-delivered doesn't make up for the time wasted. Such has been my experience since Sunday trying to register for the "rewards" program at a certain big box retailer.

The short chronology:

  • Went to the store on Sunday, loading up on DVDs, extra headphones and some new music for the few weeks everyone is home before school starts. Realized I've spent enough there in the last few months to generate the first level of reward, so I grabbed a new enrollment flyer from the cashier's stand.
  • Cashier scanned my brand-new bar code, and didn't ask for any other information, directing me to the store's program website to register. Clever and time-saving, or so I thought.
  • About 10 hours later, I tried to register, and got a message that new account activation typically takes 1-2 days. And it requires the phone number I provided at time of purchase (which I didn't provide, because there was no information given about who would be calling and annoying me on that phone number if so provided).
  • I waited 48 hours, and tried again, and finally called the customer service line. I was informed that (a) it's currently taking 72 hours to enter new customers and (b) their "systems are updating" so I'd have to call back again in 2-3 hours to resolve my problem anyway. I muffled complaints about 72 hours not being equivalent to 1-2 days, and that batch updates are best done when customers are sleeping; I'm not going to badger someone in a call center bullpen when IT lets me down.
  • At this point, the likelihood that I'll ever complete the registration is asymptotically approaching epsilon. I may, if I remember before I go back to that store in a few weeks, but it's a lot less likely now that I've had three attempts locked out.

    There is an entire refrigerator-sized box of process improvement here: If you need some piece of identifying information, ask me for it, or better yet, generate it on the sales slip and let me enter it when I register. It's unique, safer, and doesn't impair my privacy (the Hard Rock Cafe and Staples do this for customer surveys and rebate offers). Don't bulk load data in the middle of the day, rendering customer service service-less. If you can send my credit card information to the merchant bank in real time, you can probably get the member number into your own loyalty system in about the same time frame. What takes 3 days for an electronic transfer? As Chris Anderson points out in The Long Tail, the right combination of real world and online properties can increase sales of less popular items, relying on the online store to capture the long tail while the real world marches the hit parade. But after three days of trying to marry the two, and spending longer blogging about my experience than actually enduring it, I just proved the longer-held theorem of customer service: people who have bad experiences share them.

  • Tuesday May 29, 2007

    Diesel Sweeties and Project Wonderful

    I'll admit it up front: I love comics but not comic books, probably the result of having bed sheets that contained three-four panels of several popular cartoons in the 70s (I only remember Peanuts and Gasoline Alley). Been a huge fan of Dilbert since the beginning, and I can even lay claim to a first-edition Matt Groening that I picked up at the "punk" record store in Northhampton, Massachusetts some fine day back in 1985.

    Warning: a lot of references below aren't exactly work safe. I've tried to hide the Clicks Most Likely To Get Filtered at least one level deep.

    My latest daily chuckle comes from R. Stevens' Diesel Sweeties. The online version is a strong PG-13 or mild R rating; the syndicated version (which has happily appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger!) is not quite PG on a saucy day. There are just so many things to love about this strip: it's pixelated, so it has that retro videogame feel; the humor including the strip titles is equal parts surly and subtle; and it's merchandised so you can share the really good panels or sub-panels. If you believe that androids really do dream of electric sheep, there's both a T-shirt and an online strip to share your point of view (click on the link in the T-shirt description to backtrack to the original comic with android dreams, the surrounding strips veer into some exercises left for the reader to explain). I'm looking forward to wearing my pixelated Maple Leaf shirt to Toronto this weekend.

    Being the nerd and n00b games theory student that I am, though, I'm equally attracted to the advertising mechanic run by Project Wonderful. They accept bids for small ads below the online DS strips, currently running about $1.50 per day, and the continuous auction inlines the top bidders. With the strip getting north of 40,000 impressions a day, that means that for about one-third of what I spend on coffee a week, I could get a quarter-million ad impressions. It's a tempting trade-off: cut down on robot juice and juice up the personal blog?

    On top of all this, DS just oozes "web next" aggregating pheromones: Stevens lets you use strips for non-commercial purposes, like posting one in your blog provided you host the image yourself (Why not? You're more than likely to link back to the online comic and drive more traffic). The T-shirts are some of the more fun atoms derived from bits, and it's how he makes money (Monetization of something that's free?!!?) I have spent more on DS T-shirts this year than on newspaper subscriptions, including my online one-timers. And the advertising model has both a floor and a ceiling that any artistes, auteurs, and low-budget bohemians can adore.

    Sunday Dec 03, 2006

    I'm Done With Copper

    I've had it with copper wiring, particularly the local loop that Verizon runs to my house. For the past 16 months, I've had nearly monthly phone calls with Verizon's repair folks, almost always starting with a rehash of previous events. The short form is that the main trunk line from the nearest pedastal to our block is out of free pairs, and the pairs that come into my house (at least two of the three) are of completely unreliable quality: hiss, hum, static, and random dropping of calls, particularly when I'm hosting my late-night staff confab. I expect some of those attributes from wireless service, but this is copper. Land line. Hard wired. Seems only the "hard" adjective is appropriate. I've had four different Verizon technicians here, running a new service line to the house (which is still sitting on top of the ground, despite two calls and three promises to bury it), diagnosing the bad line from the main distribution point, including the loading coils inserted upstream (because of our distance from the central office, making the copper line to my house look more like a transmission line, and a lossy one, at that), and, most famously, telling me the problem is with my wireless network and phones.

    It's one thing when the content of phone calls frustrates you. It's another when the phones themselves cause the frustration. I went epsilon over my tolerance for infrastructure failure this week, and setup VOIP in the house. I was done before the first half of the Rutgers-West Virginia game.

    8:00 Leave Staples with a new Linksys Vonage 2-port phone adaptor.

    8:15 Plug in the phone adaptor. Power, and one port on the wireless router.

    8:20 Provision a Vonage phone number. Before transferring anything over, and to make sure my problems really are isolated in Verizon's network, I spun up a new Vonage phone number, and then forwarded my existing Verizon number to the Vonage number. This is faster than having Vonage initiate the transfer, and I got instant gratification when it worked.

    8:25 Install a modular phone jack next to my cable modem, and use it to splice into the existing house wiring. Had to first get the old number to ring forward to the new number, then I could cut the existing house wiring free of Verizon. Two snips, one punchdown, and one screw-down block later, and my VOIP circuit now routes through my doorbell as well, using all of the existing house wiring (including two wireless phone systems, one for each floor, and a doorbell that rings the phone).

    8:35 Call my wife, noise-free (modulo 18 years of marriage). This will backfire at some future point, of course, because I won't be able to blame a bad signal-to-noise ratio when I forget to do something on the way home.

    Total door-to-door (literally) service time: 35 minutes. I've since played around with the caller ID features on the Vonage web site, turned off voice mail (since I like our clunky but fun answering machine), set up network service connection forwarding (in case Comcast drops the line, Vonage will route calls to my cell phone).

    Yes, I'm late to the VOIP game, and yes, this is about as technologically hip as discovering MP3s. But it's just so cool when it works. I've since initiated transfer of my home office line, and I'll move my fax machine over as well, cutting the cord with Verizon unless our first winter storm causes the snow plow to beat me to it.

    Sunday Feb 12, 2006

    Home Cellular Site

    Each week I discover something new about living in a flat-roofed, stucco house with an office in the basement. Stucco houses have wire mesh supporting the outer skin of the house, creating a reasonably effective Faraday cage and wreaking havoc on cell phone reception in the house. The problem is compounded in the office, where I have a tile floor and the backyard further reducing my reception.

    I've previously appealed to Verizon Wireless to improve coverage in my immediate neighborhood, using evidence of dropped calls or "No Service" icons as supporting data. Verizon Wireless customer service claims that if you have fewer than 10% of your calls dropped, you don't have a problem. We'll leave the discussion of how "Can you hear me now?" equates to exactly one nine of service to another day.

    Since the phone company wasn't going to help me with the soft cell, it was time for the hard cell. In my house. I bought a home cellular repeater, including a YAGI antenna, a nicely shielded cable and a small AC-powered transmitter from

    The YAGI antenna is supposed to go outside, aimed for maximum reception, but I'm pretty limited in surface area that has good signal and is less than 50 feet from a potential transmitter mounting point. So I screwed an old piece of painted tubing to the ceiling in the basement, fed the cable through it and mounted the YAGI antenna so it points out the window. The transmitter is hanging in my office supplies closet, far enough away from the antenna so as to prevent feedback. The entire installation took me about an hour.

    Our little Faraday cage on the hill now has five bars of cell service. No more dropped calls, no more phantom ring-once-then-die annoyances, no more racing to stand near the window when I see a Menlo Park trunk number pop up on the Caller ID. But now that I'm easier to reach, I'm busier than ever, and I'm harder to reach. A problem for repeaters of another kind.

    Sunday Jul 31, 2005

    Ring A Ding

    We're in the process of moving into a new home, just across town but it might as well be across the universe since the basic packing, moving, and refinishing work is the same. We're moving into an 18-year old house that has somewhat random wiring, including an intercom and home switchboard that required the use of powered phones that are about laptop sized and much less functional.

    A few hundred feet of Cat 5, RG59 coax and some AWG 14 later, I had gotten the basic "communications board" down to the bare minimum: 2 12-port Cat 3 panels for phones, 6 RG6 feeds for digital cable sets and cable modem, and two spare phone jacks for the alarm system and for the telephone/doorbell interface (so when you ring the doorbell, the phones ring, and you can talk to the person at the door via the phone, rather than the hoot and holler method).

    Cutting the wires and removing old home communications toys was easy. Finding out which lines ran where was more challenging, but it let me use my latest toy: a Resi-Toner TG400, a home-quality line ringer for the weekend cabling warrior. Identifying the twisty maze of beige phone cables, all alike, wasn't too hard. I popped the Resi-Toner into the wall jack I was trying to trace back. In "tone" mode, it sends a warbling tone down the line; I then retreated back to the basement where I had a regular telephone handset, substituting an alligator-clip cord for the regular telephone line cord. Ringing out the line then required little more than clipping onto successive leads from each line until I heard the phone warbling back at me.

    Something so obvious has to have a catch. I decided to start with the room furthest from the utility closet, thinking that the trips up (and down) two flights of stairs would be decidedly less fun when I was on the last line than just starting out. But after testing all 14 pairs of telephone lines, I couldn't identify the first room I had chosen. Fine, I thought, I'll RTFM; and sure enough when you use the Resi-Toner's RJ-11 output, it only sends tones on the "line 2" pair (orange/orange-white if you're a telco geek). I dealt with that curveball with a bit of brute-force engineering -- I twisted all three lines together while testing them, just in case one of the jacks was cross-wired and had line 2 on the line 1 pair.

    Expecting to breeze through a dozen room excursions, I went right back to my homebrew 3-ring circus. Tested all dirty dozen lines, again, this time checking for warble on all three pairs in parallel. No tones. Foiled again. As my grandmother would say, gornisht. Not just nothing, but you're tired and you have nothing to show for it.

    Back to my starting point. Unplug the Resi-Toner. The short RJ-11 cable I'm using as the veritable head end of my testing network looks old -- probably something I salvaged from one of four previous house moves. I hold it up to the light -- sure enough -- it's only a two-conductor cable, carrying one line (and definitely not line 2). So my Resi-Toner is warbling, but as I later explain, "I had an infinite impedance problem". "Didn't plug it in" is more accurate, but lacks engineering authority.

    New RJ-11 jumper cable from Resi-Toner to wall jack. Three pairs in parallel. I get warbles on the 2nd pair I check, wrap a nice line label around it, punch it down in my new distribution block, and write the room location on the wall next to the block. Quick sprint upstairs, move the Resi-Toner, downstairs, repeat. Once I spent the first hour figuring out why I wasn't ringing anything, I ring out the 11 phone jacks and a doorbell in about half an hour.

    Next projects: wireless 802.11g distribution, new cable TV runs, and chasing down the home speaker distribution system that has a few cables that appear headed to nowhere in particular. And I get to do all of this while dealing with a work-move impedance problem.

    Thursday Dec 16, 2004

    In Praise of the KIM-1

    I had to return a hockey parent's call tonight, and recalled the phone number without the aid of a roster or Palm lookup. The last four digits - 6502 - reminded me of my first home computer, a trusty KIM-1 powered by the MOS 6502 Microprocessor. "Trusty" is perhaps an exaggeration. The highlight of programming proficiency was making the bars in the 7-digit LED displays dance; making the KIM-1 do anything remotely interesting required soldering irons, cable, and external peripherals. Pre-dating "plug and play" was "plug and spark" along with "smoke and play" (which is distinctly not a rap reference, music fans).

    Buried in a box of books that's been moved through the complete history of dorm rooms, labs, apartments, and offices, I uncovered the MOS scripture itself, a programming guide for the KIM-1 processor. It's funny reading, nearly 30 years after its publication, with an emphasis on using a full 16-bit address space, and using indirect addressing methods when 8-bit offsets didn't cover the full data range required. Working on the KIM-1 gave me an appreciation for systems at their most primitive level. Handling I/O on the single board involved a lot of "eye" and a lot of "oh", usually preceeding some expletive in the event of the afore-mentioned smoke or sparks. At the same time, working with an OS that fit into a few kilobytes of memory, getting code out of hobby magazines (the closest thing to open source at the time), and doing stupid board tricks cemented my fate as an EE/CS major years later.

    What's the big deal? High-level operating systems, even higher level languages, compilers, interactive coding and debugging environments, and inspection tools like Dtrace, should relegate the monkish fascination with old and tiny environments to literary devices in William Gibson cyberpunk. But that's computing in the very large speaking. I'm surrounded, as I write this, by computing in the very small: a Palm pilot, a cell phone, a Sony underwater digital camera (which snapped the MOS guide portrait), an Airport Express, an iPod, and probably some RFID tags on my newest office floor covering, a collection of expedited delivery packages that announce the holiday season. I want all of these devices to be reliable, fast, and stingy with their power consumption. Many lessons to be learned from the MOS Def (and yes, that is a rap reference) 6502 world of the 70s.

    What next for the yellowing manual of my programming pubescence? Unbeknownst to her, I'm giving it to MaryMary upon her return from Prague in exchange for whatever Patrik Elias swag she brings home.

    Sunday Oct 10, 2004

    Intermediating the circles of one

    I like to shop on eBay. While others may peruse catalogs or go to department stores to find the latest in fashion and culture, I am happiest searching and swimming in the clickstream of Part of my obsession is that I'm an avid collector of Hard Rock Cafe pins, Patrik Elias hockey cards, and occasionally US coinage from the nineteenth century. It was a banner week for the pasteboard monument being built to Patrik Elias, because I am now the proud owner of one of a very few Country of Origin cards.

    Patrik Elias is something of a hero in our house. He's our favorite New Jersey Devil. He and my son share the same birthday. We have more autographed Elias jerseys, hats, cards, and 8x10 pictures than we do pictures of the four of us together. Elias signed all of those in person, on his own time, because he is a genuinely good person. As the Devils' leading scorer the past few seasons, he is a genuinely good hockey player as well. The 2003-04 NHL season was Patrik's 7th with the Devils and 8th in the New Jersey organization. His career is represented by just over 700 distinct hockey cards, a veritable mosaic of pictures, statistics and thumbnail swatches of jerseys. Country of Origin represents the 503rd in cardinal order, first in price order, addition to our collection.

    The most-quoted authority on trading cards is Beckett, authoritative server for determining value for anything that fits in a poly sleeve. Beckett lists no book value for this card. Usually that means there has been no prior sale, or the card is close to unique and no market exists for it. What's the market value of the Hope Diamond? Don't know, and not my domain. But I wouldn't trade. This little gem holds special meaning for my son and me, as we saw Elias play in the 2002 NHL All-Star game, wearing the maroon jersey with the Czech flag patch on the shoulder, one piece of which is now in our posession. And it is, according to those who don't bend it like Beckett, the only known example of the card -- the other 8 or 9 may still be sealed in factory boxes, lost, or simply hidden away in collections where they won't conjure up memories of a dad & lad trip to Los Angeles.

    I have long argued that the beauty of the internet isn't disintermediation, as those scared by early success at feared. It's re-intermediation, or in the case of eBay, creating an electronic meeting place where new kinds of intermediation occur for the first time. Without eBay, I would have been forced to go to card shows, trawl through dealer inventory, and simply hope that a 3 ounce card and a 250 pound man crossed paths with a "do you know" radix of no more than two. Through eBay's tens of millions of items, millions of users, and tens of thousands of hockey cards up for sale, two circles of one intersected. Seeing my son's face as I showed him the contents of that bubble envelope, and seeing the look of mutual understanding as he recognized where and when he'd seen that fabric square before, is something for which there is no possible feedback rating.


    Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management


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