March 2011 Archives

Random Thursday
March 31, 2011 6:42 AM | Posted in:

Some sightings around the interwebz while giving a big shout out to the A&M women's basketball team for thumping the world-class Baylor team and advancing to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in school history. (The only partial downer is that all the quotes I've seen have the Lady Bears blaming their loss on an "off night"; gee, do ya think the Ags had anything to do with that? Huh?)

  • Of course, A&M's foe on Sunday night is Stanford, the only team to beat Connecticut since the Ming Dynasty.

  • According to this report in the Wall Street Journal, a "Russian investor" just paid $100 million for a house in Silicon Valley. That works out to more than $3,000/square foot. Our mansion has 10% of the square footage, but cost under 0.5% of that price and we don't have to worry about falling into the Pacific Ocean. Of course, they probably have baby angel statues peeing into a pool, so they've got that going for them.

  • I never worked in an office where lunch thefts was a problem, but I'd be tempted to leave one of these in the fridge just on general principle. (Via the Neatoshop, only $5.95 each. Sounds steep, but what is lunch peace of mind worth to you?)

Sandwich bags with embedded fake insects

  • I'm not even a Disney fan, but this video is mesmerizing. I can't imagine how long it took to make it.



Lost Cat poster with photo of mountain lion
  • I might be able to rationalize paying $100 million for a mansion, but more than $800 thousand for a rifle? And that's a rifle that doesn't even have any sights. I guess if you can afford a gun that expensive, you can afford to pay someone else to aim it for you. If you're wondering what the market is for handmade firearms of this caliber (ha! awesome pun intended!), here's a hint: the manufacturer's website is in English and Arabic.

  • And last but certainly not least, this site has been making the Facebook rounds lately. Someone went to a lot of trouble to create the faux Sokoblovsky Farms, billed as "Russia's Finest Purveyors of Petite Lap Giraffes." And, of course, PLGs (as the cognoscenti refer to them) are the true stars of the DirectTV ads featuring the opulent lifestyle of a Russian billionaire (say, you don't suppose he just bought a house in...nah...surely not). You know, these ads:



Did you notice the PLG in the second video? It's a throwaway effect, which makes it even more special. Anyway, DirecTV's ad agency (or one of them, the Grey Group) created the website to supplement the broadcast ad campaign. It's purely a buzz-builder, as DirecTV is never mentioned in the site's text (and I had to do a WHOIS query to confirm that Grey owns the domain name and is hosting the site). However, if you click over to the Photos section and scroll down a bit, you'll see the two preceding ads embedded in the page. The strategy is working; 442,786 people before me have click on the "I Want One" button and were added to the waiting list to get their very own PLG. I plan to name mine Jerry.

The Vanishing Fire Ant
March 30, 2011 1:26 PM | Posted in: ,

Update (4/6/11) I submitted a request for a refund via CafePress's website and within 15 minutes was notified by email that they were granting it. They also said I could keep the shirts. Apparently they don't want Fire Ant-less shirts either. Anyway, the interesting thing was this statement by the customer service rep: "I have checked into the image and see the "Fire Ant" design is kind of faint and may be hard to print on the dark t-shirts." The implication is that the design is flawed, but I've previously ordered black and brown t-shirts with this exact graphic and they printed fine. But they have me worried now, so I guess I'll embolden the Fire Ant graphic and update the shirts so that no one else has deal with the issue.

CafePress sent a notice about their limited-time "storekeeper's sale" wherein those of us with virtual storefronts could order our own merchandise at a discount. Since no one else will order Fire Ant t-shirts (*sob*) I decided to refresh my own wardrobe (much to my wife's chagrin) and ordered three new black t-shirts in various colors. 

(Yes, you read that correctly; CafePress now calls them "dark t-shirts" but my store has the original description of "Black T-shirt...now comes in assorted colors!", just another thing about life that confuses and bemuses me.)

The UPS guy sneaked in sometime last night and left a package on the porch, which should give you a clue about the reputation of the Fire Ant Store; I'm surprised it wasn't discretely wrapped in brown paper. I was like a kid on the 16th morning after Christmas Day, excitedly tearing into the package. The shirts looked great, but there was something, I don't know, not quite right.

Now, here's what the t-shirt looks like on the website when you order it. Move your cursor over the photo, then drag the yellow line* to the left to see what the shirt that actually showed up looks like. (If you don't see a yellow line, just click on the left side of the image. Then, go download a decent browser to replace the old and busted one you're using.)

Notice any difference?


Now, I know that many (most) people think of fire ants as nuisances to be avoided, if not fatally killed. But, seriously, CafePress...must you go to such lengths?

*If there's a silver lining to this situation, it's that I finally found a semi-practical use for this "slide to reveal" jQuery script!

QR Codes in the Wild
March 30, 2011 7:38 AM | Posted in:

Yeah, I confess that I'm sort of a QR code junkie (although I prefer the term "aficionado," because it's more fun to say). But after this post, and following a discussion with a client about possible ways they could help achieve his organization's mission, I have a heightened awareness of how they're being used in real life.

The most recent example appears in the current edition of Spirit, the Texas A&M Foundation's quarterly magazine (you can download a PDF version here). It uses QR codes linked to YouTube videos to supplement the written articles. Below is an example:


It's an effective way to expand on subject matter in traditional media, although it requires a bit of work from the reader. This is apparently a new technique for the magazine, because the publisher has included detailed instructions on the table of contents page about how to use the QR codes.

The magazine's use of the codes works well, although I think that they should have made them larger. It took a little practice to know how best to hold my iPhone to get the software to scan them (I use RedLaser).

Handicapping DWTS, Season 12
March 29, 2011 5:57 PM | Posted in: ,

Last year, I made the mistake of predicting the outcome of Dancing With The Stars before watching any of the competitors. That was a disaster of epic, Charlie-Sheen-as-a-babysitter proportions. However, after the first viewing, my revised handicapping was pretty darned good, if I do say so myself (and I must, because no one else will). I picked Jennifer Gray, Kyle Massey, and Brandi Norwood to finish in the top three, and nailed two of them. Would have been three, but who could have predicted the Bristol Palin juggernaut?

So, illogically emboldened, and having watched TWO dances this season, I now offer my expert opinion as to how this season will unfold, thereby saving you the trouble of having to actually watch it unless you don't have anything better to do, in which case I'd advise you not to admit it.

But first...let me just observe that this year's cast is remarkable in that there are no "sleepers," no dancers in amateur clothing. I think everyone is equally new to dancing, and while that doesn't imply that they're equally talented or motivated, this should make the competition much more, uh, competitive than in the past.

And, for whatever reason, it seems that the judges have also elevated their expectations. Some of the performances in the first week would have been lauded in the fourth or fifth week of earlier seasons, and they were met with disapproval by the judges. Len, in particular, seems to be more surly than usual, and out of step with the other two judges. 

OK, here's my handicapping, based SOLELY on dancing ability and potential (that is, I'm ignoring the "Bristol Palin Factor," although the only person who might benefit from it is Kirstie Alley). The celeb name is first, followed by his or her pro.

  • Chelsea Kane & Mark Ballas - Chelsea is terminally cute, and has a wonderful on-floor personality. I think she's athletic and coordinated, and danced much better than her early scores indicate. Top 3 finisher, if Mark's weird choreography doesn't sink her.

  • Chris Jericho & Cheryl Burke - OK, this guy's a shocker. Great personality, great moves, and apparently highly motivated. Humble for a professional wrestler. I like his chances; he could well be another Emmitt Smith, but at least a top 3 finisher. (As an aside, I wish to go on record as saying Hollywood could do a lot worse than to recruit actors from the pro wrestling ranks. The Rock has established himself as a potential A-Lister, and Paul Levesque (aka Triple H) turned in a surprisingly nuanced performance in The Chaperone. I'm not a pro wrestling fan, but I'm beginning to be a fan of pro wrestlers as actors.)

  • Hines Ward & Kym Johnson - Another very likable and motivated guy. Kym is a great partner for him, and I think he's a top fiver.

  • Kendra Wilkinson & Louis van Amstel - Playboy bunny with self-esteem issues. Go figure. And yet...she's not a bad dancer, by any stretch. Top seven.

  • Kirstie Alley & Maksim Chmerkovskiy - Kirstie made a terrible impression during the cast introductions, and, frankly, everyone thought she would be this season's Cloris Leachman...you know, the obligatory "oh isn't she so brave for trying this" celeb. But Kirstie is a hoot, and is working her butt off (literally?). Big fan base (no pun intended), and I think she'll be a top fiver.

  • Mike Catherwood & Lacey Schwimmer - Lacey got to the finals with Kyle Massey last year, but poor Mike is beyond her capabilities. He'll be gone after tonight. And it's a shame, because he's a likable guy, too.

  • Petra Nemcova & Dmitry Chaplin - Supermodels typically don't do well in DWTS and Petra won't be the exception. Her tsunami-related backstory will get her some fan votes, though, and she doesn't suck at dancing, so she'll be around a couple more weeks.

  • Ralph Macchio & Karina Smirnoff - Ralph's the mystery man. He certainly wowed the audience with his first two dances, but the second one wasn't great, and the judges called him on it. I don't know whether he can continue to measure up week after week. I'll leave him in the top five, but he could squeeze into the top three.

  • Romeo & Chelsie Hightower - You're probably comparing him to Kyle Massey, but he's no Kyle. He doesn't have the personality to get the fan votes like Kyle did, but is probably as good a dancer. Gone in six weeks.

  • Sugar Ray Leonard & Anna Trebunsakaya - I had high hopes for Sugar (as Bruno calls him), but, sadly, he's this year's David Hasselhoff. TKO in three. (And it's a shame because we really need to see Anna every week. IYKWIM.)

  • Wendy Williams & Tony Dovolani - She's not quite as annoying as Niecy Nash, but every bit as dramatic. Can't judge her fan base, but based on her dancing, she'll be the second one to go.
OK, it's probably hard to figure out my predicted lineup based on the preceding, so here's a more direct version...my predicted order of finish. Check me in May!

Update: The numbers in parentheses show the actual week of exit for each celebrity.

  1. Chelsea Kane - Finals - #3
  2. Ralph Macchio (8)
  3. Chris Jericho (5)
  4. Hines Ward - Finals - #1
  5. Romeo (7)
  6. Kendra Wilkinson (6)
  7. Kirstie Alley - Finals - #2
  8. Petra Nemcova (4)
  9. Sugar Ray Leonard (3)
  10. Wendy Williams (2)
  11. Mike Catherwood (1)
Should you have the good sense to disagree with my predictions, please leave your own in the comments.
I don't know what possessed someone to do an in-depth comparison of the new Ram 3500 Heavy Duty pickup with a Delta IV Heavy rocket...but I like it!

The truck actually compares very favorably with the rocket when it comes to payload, defined for the pickup as towing capacity (25,400 pounds) and for the rocket as, um, payload (28,650 pounds). Of course, the rocket is delivering that payload to a thousand miles above the earth, and on one fuel fill-up.

And speaking of fuel, you might also want to choose the Ram based on this comparison, as the rocket gets only .00087 miles per gallon and costs $600,000 to fill up. I'm thinking the cash pay-at-the-pump option won't get used much by rocket owners. On the other hand, the rocket's tank holds 483,500 gallons of fuel (liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen...take those warnings about static electricity serious, bubba) which means you're paying less than $1.50 per gallon. Of course, that's probably without taxes.

So, what kind of performance do you get for the >$100 million price (MSRP, of course; options like running boards and chrome wheels extra but it comes with a killer GPS, standard)? Try 17 million horsepower per engine - and the rocket uses three of those bad boys - vs. the Ram's measly 350 hp. (No one's figured out how to measure torque from a rocket engine but we can assume it's full of awesomeness.) The Ram is only three seconds slower in a 0-100 mph showdown, but it sort of gets hammered in the all-important 0-17,500 mph category.

Still, as cool as it would be to pilot a Delta IV Heavy, they won't fit next to a Sonic Drive-In ordering speaker, and you can't hear the stereo once you have lift-off, so there's some significant downsides.

Redefining a Day
March 28, 2011 7:46 AM | Posted in: ,

In anticipation of the watering restrictions scheduled to begin on April 1st in Midland and several surrounding communities, I reprogrammed my sprinkler system control box on Saturday, determined to get a jump on things rather than wait until the last minute. 

Our home address ends in an odd number, meaning that we'll be allowed to water our lawn on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. I carefully updated the settings on the two programs (one for the lawn and another for the flowerbeds) to ensure that they would take place on the proper days. The lawn program would begin at 4:00 a.m. on those designated days, and the beds would be watered beginning at 7:00 a.m. I carefully selected those times to avoid both the heat of the day and potential conflicts with indoor water use.

I was feeling smug at my far-sighted preparation, until I read this (emphasis mine) and learned that I was setting myself up to be a lawbreaker. Here's the important part:
Watering also is being restricted to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. on each assigned day. An individual's designated day starts at 6 p.m. and carries into the following morning, meaning the yard of an odd numbered home could be irrigated between 6 p.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. on Thursday. Even numbered homes, in turn, could use outdoor water between 6 p.m. on Tuesday and 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Purvis said.
I'm trying to understand the logic behind defining a day as starting at 6:00 p.m. Seems like an unnecessary complication to me, in effect saying "you can water only on Wednesday, unless you want to do it on Thursday."

What am I missing here? What's wrong with an actual "midnight to midnight" definition of a day? Or is this simply another example of the apparently irresistible need of government to complicate things?

Cultural Exchange Students
March 27, 2011 7:03 PM | Posted in: ,

One side effect of learning to dance has been that our social adventures have expanded significantly. So it was that we found ourselves in a local bar last Friday evening, surrounded by curious patrons, and listening to instructions in Spanish.

OK, let's backtrack a bit. I had received an email from Richard Ortiz, a young local dance teacher who specializes in Latin steps, primarily salsa, bachata, cumbia, and merengue. Richard was publicizing a free bachata lesson followed by a social dance, and wondered if any of the members of the Ballroom Dance Society might be interested. He recognized this would be a bit of a stretch, both culturally and from a dance perspective. The latter consideration was because he teaches a club dancing style (less, um...reserved...than the typical ballroom moves); the former because the BDS membership is overwhelmingly middle-aged (to be generous and diplomatic) and Anglo.

Regardless, I appreciated Richard's outreach and passed the invitation along to a group of our fellow ballroom dancers who I thought might be open to a different kind of dance style. Thus it was that eight of us turned up at the bar at Casa Madrid on Friday night, along with two other Anglo couples (none of us under the age of 40) and about ten Latinos, none of whom were over the age of 25. We were an odd group, but what we shared was a desire to learn and enjoy a new dance step.

I won't bore you with the details. Bachata is a very easy dance to learn, but like most things, difficult to master. We didn't progress beyond the most basic steps but that was all we expected. Richard is an excellent instructor, patient and encouraging, and seamlessly provided instructions in both English and Spanish to make sure everyone understood what to do.

Interlude: Here's one version of the bachata. This is NOT our version.


This is more like our version.


We did face one significant challenge. The bar area of Casa Madrid is small, and Richard's plan to gradually expand the dance floor by removing tables as bar patrons vacated the premises was sound but failed to anticipate the fact that we apparently represented irresistibly attractive entertainment... because nobody left! I figured we were the equivalent of a bad car wreck on the interstate; onlookers couldn't help but tarry and wonder at the unfolding madness.

The lesson was enjoyable, and the close quarters provided a sense of camaraderie. The students encouraged one another even as Richard encouraged all of us.

It was obvious, however, that our dancing experience varied widely. In fact, after the lesson I learned that the two non-BDS Anglo couples had never danced before, in any venue. As I visited with them, one of the women leaned forward and in a conspiratorial stage whisper confessed, "we're Church of Christ!" I laughed and told her that was OK; we're Baptist, and sometimes it seems about half the people at our dances are also Baptists. We decided that the need to dance just built up over the years until it finally couldn't be contained.

We didn't stay for the dance, primarily because of the small dance floor, and, frankly, because the music wasn't really our cup of tea. But Debbie and I plan to learn more bachata steps (and in fact we tried out a few of them at our Saturday night dance). And while I don't necessarily agree that all new experiences are valuable and edifying simple because they're different, this one was positive and we both came away glad that we took a chance and did something out of our comfort zone.

Stretching
March 25, 2011 10:49 AM | Posted in: ,

Sorry, this is not a post about personal fitness or adjusting your gullibility while watching The View

I don't know about you, but I haven't come close to mastering my profession. I suspect that's the case for most people who work in technology-related fields, as well as those whose focus is on creative endeavors (after all, who can assess when creativity has been mastered?). And when you combine the creative with the technical, the idea of learning and knowing everything about everything is simply ludicrous.

One of the decisions I make daily is which technologies I'm not going to even attempt to learn or use. Being a one-man website design/development business means that I can't do everything that every possible project might require. I've written about this before, but it's should be of paramount importance for anyone considering becoming a freelance consultant in a technical field.

Having said that, there are still times when the temptation to dip my toes into a new (to me) technology or technique is too strong to resist. Yesterday, a client asked me if I could create some animations for his client. The specifications were for either an animated GIF or a Flash movie, and a maximum file size was also specified. The artwork would be provided.

This sort of thing is not my forté. I build websites; I'm not an animator or a graphic artist. Animated GIFs are growing increasingly uncommon - the equivalent of buggy whips in the automotive age - and I have little use for Flash. And yet...

The challenge was irresistible. I had a vague idea how to create both alternatives, and I had just completed a couple of major projects and needed a break from the wonderful world of coding, so I figured, what the heck...I'll give it a shot.

Long story made short: I created a sample in each format and sent them along, and they were well received. It probably took me three times as long to do the work as it would have taken an experienced animator, but my client was happy (he's waiting on feedback from his client). Even better, I honed some skills (OK, that's an exaggeration; I began to develop some rudimentary skills) that might come in handy in the future. Or not. And that's fine, too. One thing I've learned is that learning should never stop. The stretching should never end, lest the creative muscles become frozen and inflexible.

I'll go so far as to say that learning simply for the sake of learning is worthwhile. There's a cost in terms of time and, sometimes, mental or emotional pain, but as long as the cost is manageable, I hope to keep paying it.

Zombie Movie Posters
March 23, 2011 10:25 PM | Posted in: ,

The dismayingly prolific Neatorama website has an e-commerce arm called, appropriately enough, the Neatoshop, and I just discovered that it has an entire section devoted to classic movie posters that have been reworked with a zombie theme. While I'm pretty sure you-know-who wouldn't consent to my hanging any of these on our walls (she can be so closed minded sometimes), I'll bet you could find a place for at least one of the following:

  • Deadward Scissorhands
  • The Walking Dead of Oz
  • Alice From Underland
  • Wrecks and the City
  • Who Maimed Roger Rabbit? ["She's not really dead; she's just drawn that way."]
  • Breakfast Is Tiffany
  • Gnaws
  • The Princess Died
  • ...and many, many more.
Now, who's going to step up and rework the zombie movie posters to use a Hello Kitty theme?

Oh, right...that would be too horrifying; we have to draw the line somewhere.

Where were we?
March 22, 2011 8:14 PM | Posted in:

Lots to get caught up on, as I notice that it's been almost a week since I've blathered about on this here blog-like thing. I've been making mental notes for the past several days about things to write about, but now that I'm sitting here staring at the monitor, I either can't remember them, or I can't remember why I ever thought they'd be of interest to anyone else. Of course, that's never stopped me before. And, by gosh, it won't stop me now.

  • I'm blogging via the just-released Firefox 4. Alert readers will recall that I made the switch from Firefox to Chrome a couple of weeks ago, and now I'm rethinking that decision. As is often the case with fierce competitors, Firefox has caught up with Chrome in several key areas, and while I haven't had a chance to compare their relative speeds, FF4 seems to be much spritelier than its predecessor. Should I switch back? I don't know. At some point, it seems to me that we decide, "hey, it's just a browser, and good enough is good enough." That point may be here, now.

  • Debbie's been in Denver since Sunday. She's returning tonight on a late flight, so that meant I had yet another dinner on my own. I went back to IHOP and ordered the same thing I got Sunday night after church, the waffle bacon combo: two eggs over medium, four strips of turkey bacon, hash browns, a half waffle with strawberries on the side, warm syrup, and coffee. This is serious comfort food, but the turkey bacon eases the guilt (sort of).

    I like having breakfast for dinner. I also like going to IHOP at night. The one closest to us is never crowded at dinner (it's too far from the interstate for that), so it's relatively quiet. I try to do some people-watching, although when it's not crowded, you have to do that surreptitiously or folks will think you're weird, if you know what I mean.

  • I was the only person in the restaurant with an iPad, as far as I could tell. I decided to do some random web surfing while I was there, and I had earlier reactivated my data plan with AT&T so I could do that. Have I recently commented on how annoying it is to deal with AT&T? I understand the need for tight security for accessing the data plan account; it prevents unauthorized charges to your credit card if you should be so stupid as to lose your non-password-protected iPad. But if they're going to change your password, they should at least notify you when it happens, rather than making you attempt to log on multiple times before finally giving up and clicking the dread "forgot password" link, thereby confessing to incompetence that might be justified in other areas but not in this specific instance.

  • We acted as dogsitters for a couple of days last week (I was going to say that we dogsat but that looks like a meteorological or astronomical reference), and it was a reminder that puppies and young dogs aren't for the uncommitted. She's a cute, well-trained miniature long-haired dachshund, and she was a delight to be around until 3:00 a.m. Saturday when she suddenly decided that the heart-shaped velvet candy box in the bookshelf in our bedroom was a threat of unimaginable magnitude and we needed to be apprised of it in the most vigorous and loudest ways possible. Dachshunds have remarkably piercing barks, you know. Fortunately for all of us, once the offended box was moved to the top shelf, out of sight, we were all free to breathe in relief and go back to sleep.

  • In closing, I need to tell you that my return to semi-quasi-pseudo-regular blogging has also brought a return of various and sundry companies wanting to send me free stuff to review. That's a cool perk of blogging, especially when there's no other tangible reward for doing it (your rapt attention is really sufficient remuneration, dear reader). So, I'll be posting a book review, courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers, as well as a review of software that's designed to turn your typical flat and low-contrast photos into new and improved HDR versions. Stay tuned!
In case you're wondering, none of what you just read was included in the mental inventory of what I thought I was going to write about. Some might deem this "artistic license," but in my case, it's just laziness.

The Beatless
March 17, 2011 6:37 AM | Posted in: ,

I made a couple of jesting comments on Facebook and Twitter about this article describing the first documented case of something called beat deafness, wherein a man named Mathieu "can't feel music's beat or move in time with it." But it's a bigger problem than those researchers probably realize.

I'm sure that complete beat deafness is indeed rare, but beat "hard of hearingness" is quite commonplace, based on my perception of what often takes place on the dance floor. And this is an indictment of my own skill (or lack thereof), as I occasionally have trouble finding and staying with the beat of certain songs. For example, Unchained Melody gives me fits; I find that I can get started OK, but somewhere along the line the beat just disappears. Fortunately, Debbie never seems to have that problem and can keep us on the beat - and still manage to follow my lead (a miracle in itself).

Musical beat is not just an important issue for dancers. It's also a big deal for those who provide music for dances. The most popular bands are those who know how to select music that's easy to dance to (yes, Dick, your teenaged American Bandstand reviewers knew whereof they spoke), and that implies that it has a beat that's not too fast or slow for the step it's associated with. Nobody wants to dance to a waltz that's dragging along at 50 beats per minute, or frantically zooming at 180.

I have newfound respect for musicians who have both perceptiveness and skill to make danceable music. As I mentioned yesterday, we used prerecorded music at our last ballroom dance, and I volunteered to build the playlist. While I included mostly songs that dance club members had suggested or that have been popular at previous dances, I found that some of those songs had multiple arrangements using - you guessed it - different tempos. It was harder than I expected to choose just the right tempo. If I had only used a tool that could quantify differences in tempo, perhaps I could have made better decisions.

Screenshot of BPMTapper
Guess what? That tool exists, in the form of Cadence BPM Tapper, a free desktop application (Mac-only) that allows you to play any song and "tap" along (using your space bar or your mouse button) to the beat. The app computes the beats-per-minute for the song, and if you're playing the song via iTunes, it will export the computed tempo to the BPM field in that application.

Simple, no? Well, remember my comment about beat-hardofhearingness? I've found that some songs are harder to tap along to than others. You also have to deal with the phenomenon where a song may have a very rapid tempo but the dance steps are done according to half-time. That is, a song's tempo may be 180 BPM but the steps are actually 90 BPM. So, which do you use in iTunes...180 or 90? I finally decided it didn't matter as long as I was consistent in my choice, for a given step. All rumbas must be analyzed in the same fashion, as should all triple swing songs.

I've always wondered why the BPM field in iTunes wasn't populated, and now I think I have the answer: it's harder to compute than you might think. I would guess that programming a computer to accurately assess the BPM of all possible songs would be a daunting task. The same company that built BPM Tapper also sells more full-featured applications that work on both Macs and Windows computers, as well as iPhones. Those apps will, theoretically, analyze your entire music library or playlist in batch mode, without the need for you to tap along with any of the songs. However, I've been less than impressed with the results, at least on the iPhone version.

The real value of BPM Tapper isn't necessarily in the absolute calculation, but in your ability to compare songs once tempos have been established for each. If we determine that an arrangement that's 80 BPM is too slow, then we just need to look for one that's, say, 90 BPM.

At the end of the day, I'm just glad we didn't have Mathieu manning the BPM Tapper. I suppose there's a certain amount of prestige to being the first person identified with a disorder, but I'd rather be able to dance better than Elaine.

Before/After Image Viewer
March 16, 2011 1:12 PM | Posted in: ,

The New York Times website has an incredible series of satellite photos showing the effects of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. They use a slider effect to allow you to instantly compare "before and after" images of the same scene, and it's a very effective technique.

I was curious about how they accomplished this. I assumed it was done in jQuery, and I was right. A quick search uncovered this tutorial and I couldn't wait to try it out.

I grabbed a photo from our recent visit to Hoover Dam and did some quick-and-dirty Photoshopping. I uploaded both versions, and then applied the script and CSS (which I modified slightly) from the tutorial. The result is shown below. Click on the vertical line in the photo and drag it to the left or right to uncover or cover the modified photo. You can also click anywhere on either side of the line to move it to that point. [Note: While this should work in most browsers, you must have Javascript enabled.]

I don't know whether I'll ever have a practical use for this technique in my work, but it's a cool effect.
Alert readers (and I know that includes all of you, because you don't let me get away with anything) will recall that our dance last Saturday night featured something different, something that to my knowledge had never been tried in the 20 year history of the Ballroom Dance Society: prerecorded music in place of a live band.

I'm happy - nay, ecstatic - to report that the experiment was a smashing success*. Not only did we save a bunch of money, which was the primary motivation, but we got a lot of positive feedback from those in attendance (some of whom were pretty skeptical going in).

Of course, the music playlist was instrumental (ha!) in the event's success, but we had a secret weapon that was the cherry on the sundae, the icing on the cake, the sugar in the tea. OK, you get the picture. We actually did have a band...sort of:

Photo of cutout band figures

We created this "band" from foam board, and set it up on the Midland Country Club stage with the sound equipment (basically an amp and an iPad) hidden behind the drummer. It added a bit of atmosphere that somehow made the unattended music seem less, well, unattended. In fact, there was a steady stream of people throughout the night having their photos made in front of the band (which someone dubbed "The Cutouts").

This Madmen-style of black silhouettes with minimalist white accents provides a classy effect that's surprisingly striking. The photo doesn't really do it justice. If you look closely, you'll note a pearl bracelet on the singer's wrist, and a hint of a shirt cuff on the trumpet player. The shirts on the bass and sax player and drummer are actually just two pieces of white foamboard glued to the black backing board. The bandstands are flat, but appear to be 3D because of the way they were drawn.

There's a lesson here: sometimes, you need to go a little above and beyond what's expected to help people decide to accept a significant change.

If you're interested in the playlist, I've uploaded a version of it (we made some minor changes before the dance) to the iTunes Store. This link will open in iTunes if you have it installed on your computer.

*We did learn a few things. Ten seconds is just about the right gap between songs, if you don't have a DJ. The Rascals' version of Mustang Sally is too slow. If you can hear everyone's feet on the dance floor, the music needs to be louder. You can never play too many waltzes. Who's Been Talkin' by the L.A. Blues Alliance makes for a smokin' rumba. Jaci Velasquez, who's better known for her Christian contemporary recordings, has a song called Tango that's really a cha cha...and it's another fantastic dance song. And even George Strait and Willie Nelson create some great ballroom dance music!

The Throwaway Special Effect
March 15, 2011 1:15 PM | Posted in:

Yesterday, I ran across a link on Smashing Magazine's twitter feed to an article entitled The protocol-relative URL. This is a rather esoteric topic that will be of extremely limited interest to most (all?) of my readers (it provides a technique for avoiding certain warning messages that occur when a browser calls up a secure website that contains an element from a non-secure source. See. I told you.).

I still had the article in an open tab in my browser and I was idly considering whether there was anything there worth blogging about. I happened to move the cursor off of the main content and onto the page background, which has a rather mundane dark-to-light gray gradient. Well, it's mundane until you move your cursor onto it. I'll wait here for a moment while you go try it.

[Update: An alert reader notified me that this doesn't work in Firefox or Internet Explorer. It only works in Chrome and Safari, or, I suppose, any other WebKit-based browser. Sorry about that.] 

*finger tapping*

Back already?

The website's creator, Paul Irish, is a front-end developer currently working on the Google Chrome team. He's implemented a couple of scripts that turn the background into a playground, thereby validating his website's tagline: "I make the www fun."

I love these throwaway goodies, added without apparent documentation for the benefit of anyone who might stumble across them. If you scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, you'll see that Paul intentionally left a huge bottom margin, giving us plenty of space, and one simple instruction: "play."

Good advice. Good website.
Forbes Magazine has created an interactive graphic showing population movements into and out of every county in the United States in 2008, based on federal income tax-related data provided by the IRS. A mouse click on each county reveals lines emanating from that county to every other county where people moved to or from, and showing the number and per capita income of those who moved. Here's Midland County's snapshot:

Screenshot

Here are the details behind the map:

County # of People Into Midland Avg Income Per Capita - In # of People From Midland Avg Income Per Capita - Out Net Change in Population Net Income 
Kern Co, CA 30 24,200 0 - 30 726,000
Los Angeles, CA 51 18,200 18 38,800 33 229,800
Orange, CA 23 23,200 0 - 23 533,600
San Diego, CA 50 18,800 23 13,000 27 641,000
Riverside, CA 24 30,100 0 - 24 722,400
San Bernadino, CA 38 17,200 0 - 38 653,600
Clark, NV 45 11,700 0 - 45 526,500
Maricopa, AZ 77 13,500 32 39,400 45 (221,300)
Denver, CO 21 18,600 0 - 21 390,600
San Juan, NM 24 53,700 0 - 24 1,288,800
Bernalillo, NM 21 35,600 26 21,100 (5) 199,000
Dona Ana, NM 34 18,300 18 14,200 16 366,600
Chaves, NM 24 20,100 20 13,600 4 210,400
Roosevelt, NM 24 9,200 0 - 24 220,800
Eddy, NM 42 20,400 27 18,900 15 346,500
Lea, NM 136 36,000 71 18,700 65 3,568,300
Tulsa, OK 26 36,900 31 83,100 (5) (1,616,700)
Oklahoma, OK 42 25,400 49 33,500 (7) (574,700)
Cleveland, OK 24 24,800 0 - 24 595,200
Potter, TX 41 26,800 28 25,400 13 387,600
Randall, TX 65 46,300 56 22,300 9 1,760,700
Hale, TX 26 13,900 0 - 26 361,400
Lubbock, TX 327 22,400 310 21,000 17 814,800
Hockley, TX 33 20,700 0 - 33 683,100
Yoakum, TX 57 21,100 0 - 57 1,202,700
Gaines, TX 41 27,400 30 47,500 11 (301,600)
Dawson, TX 84 13,000 67 12,700 17 241,100
Scurry, TX 46 29,600 36 21,900 10 573,200
Andrews, TX 86 19,300 76 17,700 10 314,600
Martin, TX 121 18,200 109 18,300 12 207,500
Howard, TX 157 18,800 155 19,800 2 (117,400)
Mitchell, TX 0 - 23 28,000 (23) (644,000)
Nolan, TX 12 30,200 0 - 12 362,400
Winkler, TX 34 33,700 30 17,200 4 629,800
Ector, TX 1042 25,400 902 21,000 140 7,524,800
Taylor, TX 107 30,300 75 19,800 32 1,757,100
Reeves, TX 65 18,400 41 19,700 24 388,300
Ward, TX 63 26,400 61 18,300 2 546,900
Crane, TX 38 29,700 38 52,300 - (858,800)
Upton, TX 41 44,900 27 16,600 14 1,392,700
Reagan, TX 24 21,000 0 - 24 504,000
Tom Green, TX 201 18,400 117 21,900 84 1,136,100
Pecos, TX 64 36,600 54 16,700 10 1,440,600
Presidio, TX 77 9,200 45 9,200 32 294,400
Brewster, TX 102 13,700 37 11,200 65 983,000
Brown, TX 25 22,100 20 31,200 5 (71,500)
Webb, TX 34 8,400 0 - 34 285,600
Wichita, TX 42 18,200 0 - 42 764,400
Denton, TX 62 24,200 91 30,100 (29) (1,238,700)
Collin, TX 61 26,300 98 45,200 (37) (2,825,300)
Parker, TX 20 22,400 37 34,800 (17) (839,600)
Tarrant, TX 173 26,100 280 26,100 (107) (2,792,700)
Dallas, TX 163 32,300 156 34,400 7 (101,500)
Hood, TX 27 26,300 58 75,700 (31) (3,680,500)
Johnson, TX 0 - 36 31,700 (36) (1,141,200)
Ellis, TX 0 - 22 21,300 (22) (468,600)
Smith, TX 33 27,200 28 29,800 5 63,200
Gregg, TX 0 - 18 64,200 (18) (1,155,600)
McClennan, TX 20 29,800 24 14,600 (4) 245,600
Bell, TX 56 18,200 49 18,300 7 122,500
Williamson, TX 52 28,500 78 28,100 (26) (709,800)
Travis, TX 89 21,400 107 33,200 (18) (1,647,800)
Hays, TX 34 17,800 17 32,400 17 54,400
Comal, TX 22 30,800 27 52,100 (5) (729,100)
Bexar, TX 106 21,000 159 23,300 (53) (1,478,700)
Brazos, TX 22 23,500 22 30,400 - (151,800)
Montgomery, TX 52 43,600 62 48,600 (10) (746,000)
Harris, TX 265 38,800 202 46,000 63 990,000
Fort Bend, TX 66 39,900 46 39,800 20 802,600
Brazoria, TX 26 45,300 14 77,100 12 98,400
Jefferson, TX 25 24,400 0 - 25 610,000
Nueces, TX 48 23,700 18 19,400 30 788,400
Totals 5,233 4,301 932 15,438,100

It's difficult to draw any conclusions from this data without making some shaky assumptions. There's no explanation regarding methodology or clarification regarding the source of the data. There is a footnote that explains that the IRS doesn't report inter-county moves for fewer than ten people, which does explain why it appears that no one moved in or out of Midland County from or to any states other than California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma.

It's interesting to note that all interstate movements resulted in a net population gain for Midland County. 

It's a different story for many movements within Texas (although Midland still picked up a net of 491 from intrastate moves). The Metroplex in North Texas picked up a significant net gain from Midland County. My assumption is that the big movement (a net loss of 107 people) to Tarrant County (Fort Worth) was related to the Barnett Shale gas drilling boom that was in full swing in 2008.

Oddly enough, and probably contrary to common perception, the Houston area sent more people to Midland County than it took. We netted 63 people from Harris County.

Harris County was the anomaly for the major metropolitan regions in Texas. Midland had a net loss to each of the counties where Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin are located.

I have no idea what to make of the "average income per capita" numbers, which in total indicated that the net gain in income for Midland County was over $15 million. But that assumes that people moving in and out made the same income where they landed as where they started. At first glance, that seems to be a reasonable assumption, but it doesn't hold up given that there are so many reasons for people to move.

If you're a data hound, this provides plenty of playground to roam.

Apple's Misspelling
March 11, 2011 1:54 PM | Posted in:

Apple Inc. prides itself on its beautiful, user-friendly designs and quality workmanship, and so I was shocked - shocked, I tell you! - to discover this page in the Mac OS X Sites directory (that's where you can make a website available to the world using the Apache web server software built into OS X):

 screenshot

I realize that Mac OS X contains millions of lines of coding, and that a minor spelling error like this is hardly a crime against humanity. And, in fact, perhaps my surprise about it in this age of Diminished Grammatical Expectations is proof that Apple deserves its reputation for quality. But it's hard to believe that the error has persisted through the years. Perhaps it's a test.

A Few Tips for New Google Chrome Users
March 11, 2011 8:10 AM | Posted in:

Mozilla Firefox has been my default web browser for the past four or five years, but during the past year I've also had Google Chrome open on my second monitor and I've switched back and forth depending on which program was handier. I hesitated to jump to Chrome as my default browser even though it was noticeably faster than Firefox, primarily because I wasn't sure that I could replicate all of Firefox's features that I'd come to rely on over the years.

Icon - Google ChromeBut earlier this week I took the plunge and made Chrome my default browser, and I've been quite content with the change...once I learned a few things about how it works. I thought I'd document some of what I've learned in case you're a Firefox user who is new to Chrome, or is considering a change. None of these things are mysterious secrets, but perhaps having them in one place will make someone's life a bit easier.

  • Search engine management - One of the features of Firefox that I really like is the ability to use a dropdown menu built into the search box to select a different search engine. If I want to search Wikipedia or IMDB.com, for example, rather than Google or Yahoo, I can easily select one of them, type my search word or phrase, and that's where the search results will originate.

    Chrome, on the other hand, doesn't even have a search box. Instead, it uses the address bar (which, in Chrome vernacular, is called an "omnibar") for not only entering website URLs, but also for initiating searches. The browser attempts to interpret what you type into the omnibar, and if it looks like an URL, it takes you to the corresponding website. If it doesn't, Chrome assumes you're initiating a search, and sends the request to the Google search engine (big surprise, huh?). Once you get used to this behavior, it's pretty cool, and Chrome does an outstanding job of interpreting your wishes based on what you type. But what appears to be missing is the ability to direct your search to something other than Google.

    All is not lost. Open Chrome's Preferences, and you'll find a Search setting where you can specify the default search engine for the omnibar. However, this still didn't solve the problem, because what I really wanted to do is be able to specify a different search engine temporarily - for a one-time search - and going back and forth to the Preferences panel is not a realistic solution. The solution does exist within the Preferences, though. Click on the "Manage Search Engines" button and you'll see a list of available search engines (if you imported your Firefox settings when you started using Chrome - which I strongly recommend - that list will be the same as what you were using in Firefox), and each website will have a keyword. If you type that keyword followed by a colon (:) in the omnibar, Chrome will assume you want to search that website and will do so, instead of using your default search engine.

    So, say you wanted to search Wikipedia for "chrome." Simply type "wiki chrome" (without the quote marks) into the omnibar. Note that if you don't like the keyword assigned to a search engine, you can change it in the Preferences panel.

  • Browser state retention - Another of Firefox's features that I like is the ability to instruct it to reopen all the tabs and windows that were in use when the application was shut down. When you quit the application, the browser asks you if you want to save those settings (unless you tell it not to bug you about it). But when I started using Chrome, it wasn't obvious that it had that capability, and that was a big deal. I'll often have 20+ tabs open and if the browser crashes or I shut down my computer, I want to get those tabs back.

    The solution, once again, is in Chrome's Preferences panel. In the Basics category, there's an section entitled "On Startup." Simply check the button that says "Reopen the pages that were open last." 

  • Extensions - Finally, one of Firefox's strengths is its active community of plugin developers, who work to extend the browser's capabilities by providing customized add-on functions. There are thousands of Firefox extensions (of varying quality and usefulness), and I came to rely on several of them for day-to-day work and browsing. I didn't want to lose that functionality with a switch to Chrome.

    I was pleased to find that Chrome's extensions have multiplied rapidly with its increasing popularity, and the Chrome Web Store now "stocks" add-ons that are either identical to my favorites for Firefox, or replicate their functionality. Most extensions are free. A few of my favorites:

    • Firebug Lite - a web development extension that allows you to inspect the code of any website. (Note: the full version of Firebug is not yet available for Chrome, but they're working on it.)
    • Web Developer - another geeky tool to inspect under the hood of a website
    • View Image Info - an unimaginatively named add-on that's quite useful: right-click on any image and it will provide dimensions, file type, file size, and URL.
    • Tin Eye Reverse Image Search - Use this extension to search for other occurrences on the web of a specific image, even if it's been cropped or resized. (Note: the verdict is still out on the usefulness of this add-on.)
    • Better Facebook - This add-on extends the capabilities of Facebook and offers a lengthy array of features. Most of them aren't useful to me, but it's worth getting the extension solely for the ability to hover over any image and see a pop-up of the larger version. (Note: the initial version of this extension was fairly buggy but updates seem to have made it quite stable.)
Chrome is not completely free of quirks; it's unrealistic to expect that any software this complex would be. For example, it does not play well with my blogging platform (Movable Type 4), and it exhibits some weird behavior regarding cookies (or sessions...I can't tell which) on some websites. But, overall, I'm quite happy with the change, and I expect the browser to continue to improve. 

I also expect the competition to yield improvements in Firefox, so I'll keep an eye on that browser, too. Who knows? Another switch is always a possibility.

Crippled Netflix App (Why, o why?)
March 10, 2011 9:21 AM | Posted in: ,

Netflix is rapidly becoming the Service We Hate But Can't Live Without. I've previously documented my complaint about the woeful lack of streaming movies, compared to the company's DVD offerings, but grudgingly admit that there are some external causal factors at play.

However, the latest incarnation of Netflix's iOS app was apparently built without regard for logic, common sense, or - worst of all - consideration for its users. 

Granted, the application is very easy to use, with a clean interface and logical navigation. Netflix improved the app by including movie titles alongside every movie poster icon; in the previous version, you had to be able to read the title or recognize the poster to figure out the identity without actually clicking on it. 

Here are a couple of screenshot from the new app. The first shows the typical movie listing for a genre; in this case, I chose the Sci-Fi & Fantasy genre.



It's a straightforward listing of the important facts about each movie: title, release year, MPAA rating, running time, and cumulative Netflix viewer rating (a subjective indication of quality or at least popularity). Click on the icon to watch the movie; click on the title to get a little more information about the movie. Here's the information screen for Blade Runner.



On this page you get a very brief plot summary, the primary actors, the director, and options to either play the movie or add it to your queue. Again, very clean and straightforward.

Well, for many of us, it's too clean and straightforward, as the simplicity was achieved in part by eliminating some valuable features from the previous version of the app. Netflix has eliminated eight genres in the app vs. its website, and has dropped the sub-genres in the app, which were useful for narrowing one's choices. For example, in the previous app's Action & Adventure genre, there were 17 sub-genres (the same ones that are still on the website), making it much easier to find something of interest. In the new app, you just have one choice.

The earlier version also had a longer plot summary as well as access to viewer and critic reviews of the movie, and links to similar movies. Or, more accurately, it mirrored the Netflix website's content, shown below:



Quite a difference. Sure, the web page is busy, and not everyone is interested in all the features, but I'm not sure why Netflix decided its app users didn't need any of them.

Reasonable people may differ on these issues, but there's one area where Netflix has crippled the new app that represents an almost inconceivable backwards step: it truncates the list of available movie titles for a given genre at 100. This means that if you're browsing through the list of, say, available Sci-Fi/Fantasy films, you'll not see 75 movies in that list. If you're looking at Independent films, you'll miss 20 titles. And if you're browsing through the Action/Adventure genre, the list will omit almost 500 movies. (All of these numbers are derived by comparing the total number of streaming titles listed on the website in each genre, vs the 100-count lists in the app.)

That's not to say that the movies aren't available for streaming via the app; they're still there, but you have to know about them, and you can only find them by using the Search feature.  That's about as non-user-friendly as you can get.

It's bad enough that Netflix provides only a tiny fraction of its movie inventory for streaming, but it add insult to injury by making it significantly more difficult to find all the streaming titles via the app that's commonly used for the streaming.

I'm not the only person unhappy about the dumbing down of the Netflix app. However, I was apparently the only person who noticed the shortening of the genre listings, going by the comments in the article linked above. I'm either perceptive or obsessive, but if I'm paying for a service, I expect it to get better over time, not worse. Netflix, are you listening?

Drillcycle
March 10, 2011 6:26 AM | Posted in: ,

OK, this is just awesome. This guy Nils Ferber built a...a...well, I'm not sure what to call it, but it's a vehicle that's powered by a couple of 18-volt cordless drills. (If your first question is "why," then, sadly, this blog isn't for you.) The Drillcycle reportedly has a top speed of almost 20 mph. Click on each photo to see a larger version:



More details on this project are found here, and a description of the design and fabrication process is here.

Given the rider's position, a full-face helmet is certainly justified; one can generate a serious case of road rash even at 15 mph. 

I wonder what Nils could do with a chainsaw?

Link via Dudecraft

Georgia to Maine in Four Minutes
March 9, 2011 1:51 PM | Posted in: ,

No, I'm not referring to your teenager's driving, I'm talking about the following video, which documents a 6-month, 2200-mile hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. [Link via Neatorama]



I found this fascinating, probably because it makes the hike look a lot easier than it probably was. It also made me wish I was retracing Kevin Gallagher's steps...only on a high-end, full-suspension mountain bike. With hotels every 40 miles or so. And they wouldn't have to be luxury hotels; I'm not unreasonable. Any Best Western would do.

Well, anyway, back to the video. I've never been on any part of the Appalachian Trail, much less walked the entire route. But the dramatic changes in topography shown in this video make me question whether it's actually a completely linear representation of the route. In any event, I can see why the Trail is a huge attraction for outdoor enthusiasts. We could use something like this in West Texas.

Dr. Frankenstein Attempts to Kill His Monster
March 7, 2011 7:47 PM | Posted in: ,

The fact that Microsoft has built a website designed to convince people to stop using Internet Explorer 6 is prima facie evidence that the post title is not hyperbole.

IE6 (aka The Browser from Hell, Satan's Browser Spawn, and the Browser That Sucked The Life Out of The Universe) was created in 2001, and brought a world of hurt down on website developers due to its lack of support for commonly accepted design standards, scary lack of security features, and psychotic behavior when confronted with code that other browsers handled with aplomb. Such, um, eccentricities would have been merely amusing had not the browser enjoyed an almost 90% market share thanks to its inextricable bundling with Windows XP and other flavors of that operating system.

An entire cottage industry of coding hacks sprang up in an attempt to make websites look and work the same in IE6 as in more "modern" (read: competent, or unsucky). Making advanced designs work in IE6 could significantly increase the cost of a website, while making it much harder to maintain.

It's hard to understand why people (and even entire companies) still use IE6, other than They Just Don't Know Any Better. You could argue that they're too cheap to switch, except that the last popular browser you had to pay for pre-dates IE. In any event, Microsoft has finally stepped up to the plate - probably in reaction to its own development staff - and is attempting to entice the genie back into the bottle, which we can only hope will remain sealed for times, a time, and half a time, and then some.

Think Microsoft is just giving lip service to IE6's demise? They're going so far as to provide website owners with a widget that displays a "countdown" (it's actually just a plain, static JPG) banner showing the browser's diminishing worldwide usage...and it can only be seen by IE6 users. I was going to show it below, with the coding disabled that hides it from modern browsers, but as with so much that Microsoft produces - bless its heart - it's utt-bugly, so you'll have to go to Microsoft's download page to see it. (Of course, this could be the one time that uglier is better...the better to get the attention of the Unconvinced.)
National Geographic has analyzed certain characteristics of the Earth's approximately 7 billion human inhabitants and offers up some interesting statistics in six categories:

  • Language: 13% speak Mandarin as their first language, vs. 5% Spanish and 5% English

  • Nationality: 19% are Chinese, 17% Indian, 4% American

  • Religion: 33% are Christian, 21% Muslim, 13% Hindu

  • Livelihood: 40% work in services, 38% in agriculture, 22% in industry

  • Living Environment: 51% live in urban environments

  • Literacy: 82% are literate

They've also created a visual that represents the "typical" human inhabitant, a composite image of a man's face using 7,000 human figures (each figure representing 1 million people). The face is that of a Han Chinese man:



The magazine also compiled the characteristics of "the most typical human" (there are over 9,000,000 of them!). The results are presented in entertaining fashion in the following YouTube video.



Original link via Neatorama
I've heard a few complaints over the years about Best Buy's onerous restocking fee for product returns, but at least there's a bit of logic to the company trying to recoup the overhead of putting inventory back in stock. This evening, however, we experienced a new, illogical, and highly annoying aspect to their policy.

I bought Debbie an iPod nano at Best Buy for Valentine's Day (I know; I'm an incurable romantic) and it took us a while to figure out that it was defective. It wouldn't hold a charge, and finally stopped displaying anything at all when it was connected to a computer. Fortunately, I kept the receipt and we were still within the 30 day time period for returns/exchanges. So we took it back to the store where we bought it and asked for an exchange.

The exchange itself was fairly painless (although they were out of the graphite model I had originally purchased and she had to settle for a more plebeian chrome trim), but when it came time to finalize the exchange, the customer service rep asked me if I had received a gift card with the original purchase.

I had, indeed, received a $10 Best Buy gift card, as a result of a promotion the company was running. But, apparently, the promotion had ended, and Best Buy wanted its $10 back as a part of the exchange. That's right; we had to give them $10 in order to complete the exchange. We were too flabbergasted to even protest.

Let's recap: because we returned a defective product, through no fault of our own, we had to pay back the face value of a gift card that Best Buy had voluntarily given as a part of the original purchase. I'm at a complete loss to understand the logic or justification for this requirement.

It's funny how one slip up like this can undo years of goodwill with a customer. We won't stop doing business with Best Buy, but we will be more skeptical in future transaction.

More Suspicious Gaddafi Sightings
March 3, 2011 12:21 PM | Posted in:

Despite the mental and psychological similarities, and disregarding the proven fact that they're never seen together, I've come to the conclusion that Charlie Sheen and Muammar Gaddafi are not the same person after all.

But...Bob Dylan? Well, you tell me.

Photo - Side by side: Gaddafi and Dylan

Random Thursday
March 3, 2011 6:31 AM | Posted in:

A few random observations while silently cursing Apple for yet again making my cool stuff seem old and busted.

  • Speaking of the iPad, here's another interesting project seeking funding via Kickstarter: LetterMpress is a virtual antique letterpress application. The software is demoed in the following video.


    This certainly appears to be a beautifully crafted app, and probably a lot of fun to experiment with. I love the look of letterpress prints, and if nothing else, this project will help preserve a disappearing aspect of human creativity. I haven't decided whether to kick in a few bucks, but I'm leaning toward doing it.

  • From the "You Don't Want to Know" collection, we present...Robo-Lassie!

    Some kind of diagram

    As the folks at Neatorama put it, while it's not clear exactly what this is all about, it has the makings of the most awesome Lassie series ever!

  • From the "Truth in Advertising" department, we present the aptly-named creepy, a program that uses the geotagging information on the digital photos that you upload to map your location and plot the time of day you were there. If this bothers you, use something like GeotagSecurity to "scrub" your photos of this metadata. Personally, I don't really see the big deal, but then I'm not sneaking around with a telephoto lens trying to peer into peoples' backyards. As far as you know. [Links via PetaPixel]

  • OK, we keep coming back to the new iPad. What did you expect, really? Anyway, if you're going to replace your old and busted, less-than-one-year-old model with the new and hotness iPad 2, here's a nice tutorial on how to "sanitize" the old one before selling or giving it away.

  • This site alone is sufficient reason for why the internet should exist.

  • I confess that I've been less than kind toward Kirstie Alley on various social media regarding her upcoming appearance on Dancing With the Stars. In response to someone's hope that they'll pair the, um, bigger stars with professionals of comparable size, I posted "so, we're gonna need a bigger pro" for Kirstie. Normally, I would never make light of another person's weight issues, but, really, we all know that Kirstie's sole remaining claim to fame is her weight, and that notoriety also the only reason she was selected for the DWTS cast. In any event, I don't expect that she'll be around for very long; she was quite unimpressive during the introduction of the cast on Monday night, even before she rumbles onto the dance floor. Oops, I did it again.

  • I'm trying to figure out how this is a good idea...doing a "prescribed burn" in Crockett County, under the supervision of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Anyone else remember the Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000, another "controlled burn" under government supervision that ended up burning 48,000 acres along with 400 homes in Los Alamos, New Mexico? And as I type this, another "controlled burn" is, well, uncontrolled in Brewster County. Common sense, anyone?

Apple Store Down
March 2, 2011 9:45 AM | Posted in:

You know Apple is up to something big when you see this screen where the Apple Store usually appears:

Screenshot of browser window

I'm sure this is related to the company's announcement regarding (we think) the iPad 2 in a couple of hours.
You don't really need to be a certified geek to appreciation the implications of a three terabyte hard drive priced under $300. That's about a 50% increase over the previous maximum capacity, and enough storage to hold over 400,000 songs. Or you could store a hundred Blu-Ray movies (at 30 gigabytes each).

Unfortunately, many computers won't be able to take advantage of this extra storage without installing extra hardware or software, due to a 30-year old decision about hard drive standards. Fortunately, Mac OS 10.5 and 10.6 users don't have this limitation, so Seagate's drive will work for them right out of the box. Their biggest problem is going to be finding one of these massive drives; Seagate's website shows them to be out of stock, already.

OK, perhaps that's not the biggest problem. I suspect figuring out how to back-up one of these drives will be the real challenge. It would require 600 regular DVDs to make a copy of a full 3 terabyte hard drive.

[I had to use an Excel spreadsheet to make the preceding computations, because I can't wrap my mind around numbers this big.]

Wireless Laser Printer
March 1, 2011 8:00 AM | Posted in:

I retired our almost-eight-year-old HP LaserJet last week, replacing it with a Brother HL-2270DW wireless monochrome laser printer. The HP still worked well, but Debbie was having problems connecting to it via our network, and it was getting low on toner. When I discovered that a new, factory-fresh HP toner cartridge would cost the same as a new printer, I decided it was time for a switch.

Photo - Laser PrinterIt's taken a while to get accustomed to the new printer, but overall I'm pleased with it. It has about the same footprint as the HP, but takes up less usable space because its paper tray is completely enclosed rather than extending from the front like the HP's. The printer connected to our wi-fi network on the first try, although the process was more convoluted than it should have been. (These situations make me appreciate even more Apple's "It Just Works" plug-and-play implementations.) Debbie's MacBook also recognized the printer once the software and driver was installed.

Print quality is excellent, as expected, and the machine is pretty fast (up to 27 pages per minute). The duplexing (front-and-back) print feature works well. I've never had a printer with this capability and I like it a lot.

So, to recap: fast, high quality, front-and-back printing. What's not to like?

Well, I do have a few quibbles. First, the machine is noisy, and not just while it's printing, but even in standby mode, which lasts quite a while before it finally goes to sleep.

Second, printing envelopes or postcards is a bit tedious. You have to open a slot in front, open a tray in back, and pull down two hard-to-reach levers to facilitate the straight-through print path. Once you're finished, you have to unflip and reclose everything.

Third, manual feeding of media is problematic. There's no tray on which to rest the paper or envelopes, and thus far, the printer has had problems taking an envelope on the first try. When that happens, it pitches a little tantrum, displaying an error light and forcing a shutdown/restart. I'm probably not inserting it just right, but that shouldn't be a skill that the operator has to learn.

In summary, this is not a perfect printer, but if you can live with the quirks, it's hard to beat given the street price of $100 or less.

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