Posts belonging to Category Technology

iBreath announced: MADD jumps shark

A company is introducing a product called the iBreath, which is a combination breathalyzer and FM transmitter for your iPod.

I heard about it this morning on KRLD.  What really got my attention, though, was the fact that MADD doesn’t like it.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving doesn’t like the iBreath saying it might encourage young people to drink as much as they can so they can make the numbers go higher and higher.

I think this statement is perfect proof that MADD has strayed from its original (and laudable) goal of preventing drunk driving and has turned into a temperance organization.  If they really still cared about preventing drunk driving, they would welcome this device as one more tool that people can use to be more responsible by avoiding driving if they’re over the limit.

I was initially taken aback that MADD would not like this device, but on further thought I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised given their recent direction.

DFW Gun Show list updates

I just sent out an email via my gun show announcement list** that there have been updates to the DFW Gun Show list that I maintain.

I added new show dates for High Caliber Shows in the first half of 2009.  I also added an entirely new show called the Big “D” Gun Show @ Mesquite Rodeo.  It is being run by the promoters of the Original Fort Worth Gun Show, and it will be held on January 24-25, 2009 at the Mesquite Rodeo Exhibition Center. 

On the technical side of things, I upgraded the site to the latest version of Expression Engine (which affects this site as well), and added an RSS Atom feed.  This will allow people to use their RSS readers or the “Live Bookmarks” feature of Firefox to keep track of changes to the site.

** I added the list one day almost on a whim as a way to let readers “subscribe” to the site.  I promised that it would be a low-volume announcement list just for updates to the list.  So despite every few days seeing notifications for a new subscription or two, I was a bit surprised to see today that I’m up to 574 subscribers.  Not bad for something I spend maybe 15 minutes every other month on…

Don’t Believe The Hype

Lies, damn lies, and FRS/GMRS range advertisements…

It seems like every new FRS or GMRS radio that comes out these days also comes with new and more highly inflated range numbers.  The one that set me off today was a TV ad from Cabela’s touting handheld FRS/GMRS radios with a 28 mile range (in camo, of course, which is another abomination against all that is holy in radio aesthetics).

Simple physics dictates that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever get anywhere near 1 mile, much less 28.  FRS is limited to .5 watts, and while GMRS can go up to 50 watts, most handhelds are likely to put out no more than 2 watts, especially using regular AA alkaline batteries.  Further, you have to have line-of-sight for the radio signal to propagate from the transmitter to the receiver.  Perhaps if you or your friend were on top of a mountain, with line-of-sight between the two of you and you used the ‘power boost’ feature found on some GMRS handhelds (which may push you up to 5 watts) you might be able to communicate over 28 miles. 

In the real world I’ve found that you can’t realistically expect more than about half a mile if there are any obstructions at all around you.  Further, the maximum line-of-sight propagation for open ground is limited to about 7 miles due to the curvature of the Earth.  If you want more than that you get into having to use a repeater mounted on a high tower (GMRS can do this, but you won’t be able to buy the equipment at Wal-Mart in a bubble pack).

Note: Edited after publish for minor restructuring.


Elwood: Illinois Nazis.
Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis. 
     —The Blues Brothers (1980)

I have no use for Nazis, skinheads or any of their ilk, be they from Illinois or elsewhere.  That’s why when I discovered that the goons over at Stormfront (that link goes to Wikipedia, as I will not link to that cesspool from here) were linking to my gun show schedule I banned them by referrer.  It won’t stop them from using the site, but it will make it more difficult for them to link here.

Partial Restoration of Service

Early on Tuesday morning something on my web host caused all PHP apps that used the flock() function to hang.  This meant that Expression Engine was essentially dead and that all I could do was add some info to the page that showed up when the internal server error finally came up (this would happen when the process was eventually killed by the web server). 

Dreamhost support couldn’t figure out why the hang was occurring, other than to note that my home directory was mounted from one of their filers and that they are moving away from this configuration to one which uses local disk space for web files.  They suggested moving my account to the newer servers and I agreed, just to get the site back up.  It seems odd to me that they couldn’t fix the hang issue, but by then the site had been down for three days and I just wanted it back up. 

So, the site is up on a new, faster, server.  Which is good.  Unfortunately the move has broken my email and I haven’t been able to receive anything since late yesterday afternoon.  I’ve heard from some that they get errors sending, but from my tests the emails appear to be going into a black hole (which is the worst possible outcome, since they appear to have been sent, but have instead been discarded without error).

So, if you have need of reaching me, leave a comment.  I will check back here from time to time to see if anything new has been added, and I’ll update this post when email is back up.

UPDATE:  Full service has been restored.  If you sent an email between approximately 4:00pm Friday and 8:00pm Saturday, please resend it.

High Flying Cell

I wrote about this sort of issue a couple of years ago, and I’m not surprised to see that some people still don’t understand not to use their cell phones on airplanes when told not to.  Perhaps it’s because some think it’s some sort of conspiracy to make you use overpriced air phones, or that others think that the FAA is being overly cautious. 

In the this latest incident, a man was given a citation for disorderly conduct because he wouldn’t get off the phone while the plane was landing.  In this case, he’s claiming that it was a “life or death” situation:

A Southwest Airlines passenger was cited by police Monday for refusing to stop talking on his cell phone during a flight from Austin.

Police were summoned by Southwest officials and met the plane when it arrived at Love Field. Joe David Jones, 50, of Austin was ticketed for disorderly conduct, police said.

But FOX 4 found out that Jones had just learned his father’s heart had stopped and he was trying to give instructions for his care.

Jones’ Austin company, Skyonic Corporation, made the following statement:

“While his plane was descending into Dallas, Mr. Jones received a message on his phone that his father’s heart had stopped beating and the hospital cardiac unit needed to speak with him immediately to make decisions regarding his fathers immediate care and resuscitation.  Mr. Jones made several attempts to call the cardiac unit prior to his success.  Upon arrival at Dallas, Mr. Jones received a citation and was released.  Mr. Jones regrets any inconvenience that his actions caused the airline or his fellow passengers but felt compelled, due to the life-and-death nature of the problem, to act as he did.  Mr. Jones is on his way to his father’s side.”

As much as it may be tempting to feel sympathy to Mr. Jones, I’m going to have to call bulls**t on this one.  First, if he’d been following the rules like he was supposed to, he would not have received the initial message.  Second, if his father was that sick, he should have known that something like this could happen.  His claim that he had to make “immediate” decisions about his father’s immediate care and resuscitation indicates a lack of planning on his part.  It’s nearly inconceivable for me to think that someone could go away in such a situation without having given instructions before hand if his father was already in the cardiac unit. 

It seems to me that we’ve become so accustomed to being instantly connected that we can’t deal with disconnected time, so everyone is tempted to think that he or she can get away with it just this one time, especially since most people don’t understand RF or electronics. 

As mentioned in the EMI study that I linked in my previous entry, cell phones on airplanes do appear to have the ability to affect aircraft systems in some cases.

Here’s one from a B737 (FYI—Southwest flies 737’s):

[…] One day departing Portland Oregon we noted that the FMC [Flight Management Computer] Map display showed a disagreement with the “raw data” VOR position. Our training is such that we would normally immediately switch over to “raw data” and assume the FMC was in error.
We would have done that except that it was a beautifully clear day and I looked out the window and was able to determine that the FMC seemed to be               right on. I called back to the cabin and asked the flight attendants to check for someone using a cell phone or computer. A few minutes later they               called back to say that a man had been using his cell phone and it was now off. Strangely (?) our VOR and FMC map now agreed.
Later in the flight the flight attendants called back and said that they had caught the man using his cell phone again but this time we had not               noticed any problems, perhaps because we were in cruise far from the ground and not paying as much attention.

Another 737:

April 30, 1997. B737-400: During level cruise, the AP pitched up and down with ROC/ROD of 400 fpm indicated. Other AP was selected: no change. Cabin was checked for PC’s and other electronic devices: nothing was found. Requested passengers to verify that their mobile phone (GSM) was switched OFF. Soon after this request all pitch oscillations stopped.

So, the next time the flight attendant asks you to turn off your phone, they’re not doing it to personally inconvenience you.  They’re doing it for the safety of the aircraft and everyone on it. 

Monitoring The Area - II

In early February I wrote about the coming 800MHz rebanding effort and how Keller would be affected.  The FCC has mandated that all public safety systems be migrated by June 26, 2008, and I had been told that this would occur for the Northeast Tarrant system on April 14th.  However, when that date came and went I started doing a little digging and came across the 800 MHz Reconfiguration Transition Administrator website, which included information about the waiver process for delaying rebanding beyond 6/26/2008.  Just out of curiosity, I entered the callsign for the system (WPFR225) into the tool and discovered that the City of Bedford (the owner of the system) had filed for a waiver ( PDF Icon ) on March 14, 2008 to extend the deadline for rebanding to December 12, 2011 because Fort Worth won’t be ready in time:

Specifically, the Licensee requests until December 12, 2011 to complete its 800 MHz rebanding.4 The public interest would be served by granting the requested waiver because it would allow Licensee to reband its 800 MHz system in a reasonable, prudent and timely manner consistent with the goals of the 800 MHz rebanding program. In support of this Request for Waiver the Licensee provides the attached Waiver Request Information Form and the following explanation of the reason(s) for not completing reconfiguration by June 26, 2008, which is consistent with the assertion that a grant of the waiver would serve the public interest:
Licensee shares a number of talk groups and is party to a mutual aid agreement with the regional 800 MHz public safety radio system operated by the City of Fort Worth. Because of the interdependencies between Licensee and the Fort Worth system, Licensee cannot complete rebanding until Fort Worth has retuned its infrastructure. The Transition Administrator also recognized these interdependencies and proceeded accordingly in generating the consolidated schedule for Region 40 following its Implementation Planning Session.

I also checked for a waiver request from Fort Worth, and found that they had submitted an interim request until June 1, 2008, at which time they would submit a request for a “permanent” waiver.  This due to the fact that they’re still negotiating with Sprint Nextel over the costs of rebanding and don’t anticipate to complete the statement of work until June 1st and won’t know until then exactly when they can complete rebanding (in other words, they gave the FCC what we refer to as a “date for a date” in the IT business). 

Given all this negotiating and delaying, I suppose there’s no longer any need to rush out and buy a $500 scanner to continue to be able to listen to Keller and surrounding cities.  Perhaps by the time they get around to actually rebanding the prices will have come down a little.

Unboxing The Tivo

While playing around with the new Tivo I noticed that they’ve added the ability for Series 2, Series 3, and HD Tivos to get content directly from Amazon’s Unbox service.  I’d heard about Unbox in the past, but didn’t really pay it much attention, since watching movies on my computer isn’t very appealing when compared to my home theater setup.  I’m also not terribly fond of their DRM scheme, which I’ve heard some horror stories about, so I didn’t want their stuff on my PC. 

But since it’s integrated into the Tivo, I took another look.  They offer both “purchase” (I put this in quotes, because you don’t ever truly own anything with DRM-infested content) and rental downloads.  Because of the DRM I would never consider them for purchase of content, so I investigated their rentals.  The first thing that struck me was the price in relation to what you actually get.  Most rentals were $3.99 or $2.99 and allowed up to 30 days to begin watching, and then either a 24-hour or 7-day viewing period (i.e. after pressing Play you have that amount of time to finish watching or to view it again).  This doesn’t seem like a very good value to me, given that I get unlimited 3-at-a-time DVD rentals for $16.99/month from Netflix.  So I wouldn’t consider Unbox as a regular rental source.

When you view an individual item in Unbox it does tell you the aspect ratio and the download size, which is helpful.  But I noticed that none of the items I viewed were available in 5.1 sound.  This is a big turnoff, especially given the price as compared to a DVD rental.  In fact, I almost gave up at this point.  However, I realized that most older classic movies were never made for surround sound, and would be fine in regular stereo. 

I decided to give it a try and registered my Tivo account with Unbox, which was fairly painless.  Once done, I decided to rent Psycho as a test of the service.  It was fairly easy to order, and the Tivo began downloading within just a few minutes (the HD has a blue light on the front to indicate a download is in progress).  I didn’t carefully time it, as I was busy with other tasks, but it seemed to take about 2 hours (which is faster than the listing on Amazon, but slower than I’d expected, given the FIOS connection; however it was still acceptable for a 2.5GB download). 

Once downloaded I sat down to watch the movie and was impressed with the picture quality.  It seemed to be pretty close to DVD quality, and I saw no pixellation, drop-outs, or pauses.  However, when I pressed Play on the remote, the DRM reared its ugly head again and Tivo had me confirm that I understood that I had 24 hours from the first time I pressed Play to finish the movie (and/or to watch it again).  Once done, the Tivo put a flashing flag next to the entry in the Now Playing list to indicate that the timer had been activated and that the entry would disappear after 24 hours.

All in all, I don’t think I’ll be using Unbox much.  I suppose that if I were to get a last-minute itch to watch a classic movie or something where I didn’t care about surround sound, I might be inclined to rent something from Unbox.  Otherwise, I’ll stick to DVDs from Netflix.

Site Upgrade

I just upgraded to Expression Engine 1.6.3 (from 1.6.0).  I had some issues with the new version of ‘index.php’, but I think I’ve ironed things out now.  If you notice anything that’s wonky, drop me a line via my contact form.

Kickin’ ‘Em To The Curb

Last year I was a bit annoyed by the so-called “upgrade” to the Verizon FIOS HD DVR.  I’d been trying to live with it to see if they’d fix the problems, but in the intervening five months nothing has changed other than they’d begun rebooting the DVR every Sunday afternoon, which finally pushed me over the edge into going back to Tivo.  This step wasn’t taken lightly, as my last experience with Tivo left me with some lingering ill will.  Despite having the most user-friendly interface, their software development maturity level seemed to be only slightly above what I encountered with the Verizon DVR.

I ordered a Tivo HD model, which I set up on Wednesday just before the FIOS tech came out to set up the CableCARDs in it.  Despite a problem with one of the cards, the installer got everything working within an hour and everything looked good when he left.  Unfortunately, later in the evening I experienced the infamous Tivo HD/S3 FIOS pixellation issue on SciFi (it made the channel nearly unwatchable).  The problem appears to be that the Tivo is more sensitive than the Verizon DVR equipment and gets overwhelmed by the strength of the RF signal coming from the ONT (which Verizon even advertised as a selling point—”+20dB hot”—in one of their commercials).  The solution is to add attenuators to bring the signal down to a level that the Tivo can handle.  I’d been following the forums on this, and knew about the fix for the problem, but forgot to buy attenuators at the same time as the Tivo.  Interestingly, the Tivo finally updated to v9.2a of the software yesterday, and it made SciFi more watchable, but there is still pixellation and the signal strength still bounces around a lot on 441MHz (which is where SciFi lives).  The article I linked mentions that the magic SNR limit seems to be 31dB, and mine is a solid 38dB.  I’ve ordered a set of attenuators to try different “strengths”.  Once I put this issue to rest, I think I can finally enjoy my limited TV time again, rather than fight with a buggy, cumbersome to use, POS DVR that misses recordings for no apparent reason and that has to be rebooted once a week. 

Update:  Added 10dB of attenuation, which brought the signal strength down to 34 or 35 dB (depending on channel, etc).  I still think it’s overdriving things a little, but the pixellation seems to have gone away (at least while I was watching last night; it fluctuates during different times of the day, though, so only time will tell for sure).