Will the real Paul McCartney please rise from the grave?

I happened to stumble across a "Paul Is Dead" web site last week, which got me to thinking:  Couldn't we resolve all of this nonsense with DNA testing?

I suppose the challenge would be getting the purported Sir Paul to submit a DNA sample and comparing it to the known relatives of the original Paul McCartney.  And his refusal to cooperate would be viewed as proof that he is indeed not the original Paul.  So it goes with conspiracy theorists.

Today's Geek Report

Since apparently somebody reads this dreck, I feel the responsibility of posting some updates.

Updates on the Audiovox phone, based on reading the public folder at work on the topic, doing a bit of research on my own, and experimenting some more:
  • Speaker buzz - Apparently lots of people are reporting this.  This phone is at the high end of the allowable signal strength range but is within FCC-defined limits.  I'm not the only one who wonders about the impact of this on my health, esp. since I keep the phone in my front pocket, but at least I'm not affecting future generations.  The plus side is that you get a brief heads-up before your phone rings.  I still want to try this with another version of this handset.
  • ActiveSynch over USB - I unplugged the cable from the external USB 2.0 hub and plugged it directly into a USB 1.1 port on the back of the computer.  That seemed to help a lot.
  • Hang on shutdown - At least a few other people have reported this.  I think it had to do in part with how I was shutting off the phone (not waiting long enough), as it's been a lot better the past two days.  Plus I have at least one reliable workaround in the event that it really is stuck.

Anyway, today I'm back on the "keep the phone" side of the fence.  It's starting to feel like the governor's race.

Another thing about the phone is that I'm suddenly getting a lot more wrong number calls than with my previous phone, probably five in the past week.  Given that I haven't switched my old phone number over to this phone, but am having calls to that number forwarded to the new phone, I'm guessing that these calls are on the new number.  We'll know for sure once I've decided to keep the phone and get the old number ported and the new number turned off.  The most obnoxious of these calls was last night, when the caller, having realized that she had reached a wrong number, identified herself as from Trendwest Resorts and tried to start selling me something.  I didn't stay on long.

I also picked up the new Comcast HD DVR today, only to get it home and realize that they didn't include the AC cable in the box.  Damn!  I'm less annoyed by having to wait another day than by having to make another special trip to their office to pick it up.


Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As I mentioned last week, I picked up a new mobile phone. I've now had it for just over a week and am struggling with the decision to keep it or not. While there is much to like about this phone, there are also a number of annoyances which make me think I should hold out for the next version.

First, the positive. This phone gets great reception, notable in particular in my building at work, where most mobile phones get little or no signal. The form factor is small but it has a clear, readable display. Access to my work email and schedule and MSN Messenger is simple and convenient. (The same will be true for my personal email once I get Pocket MSN on the phone.) This model has become incredibly popular at work, suggesting that lots of other people like it, probably for the reasons I just noted (plus AT&T had representatives selling it in the cafeteria at work all last week). I think it is widely recognized at the first Windows Smartphone that has really gotten it right.

So what are the negatives? The most notable is that when the phone is receiving or transmitting -- either voice or data -- it causes nearby speakers to buzz. This afflicts PC speakers as well as office speakerphones (like the Polycom Soundstations that are ubiquitous in our conference rooms). Apparently this is a known issue with one of the GSM frequencies and all GSM phones cause this to an extent, but it's particularly noticeable with this phone. I still need to find out if it's unique to my particular handset or not, but with all of the handsets floating around the building it should be easy to test.

There are some minor nits as well. I have had trouble getting ActiveSync to work reliably at home. Sometimes the device just refuses to stay connected (over USB) and reports an error and I haven't been able to identify the cause or a solution. Since most of my synch'ing is over the air, this isn't a huge issue, but it is annoying. The "Lock Keypad" feature behaves strangely: Certain features still work when the keypad is locked, for example meeting reminders pop up and need to be dismissed before you can unlock the rest of the keypad. Also, the backlight doesn't seem to go on right away when you press buttons with the keypad locked, a problem in low light situations. Since I tend to keep the phone in my pocket it's important that this feature works well.

The issue that right now is leading me to believe that I won't be keeping this phone is that I cannot turn it off reliably. When I try to power it off, it shows the "Windows Mobile" screen, then the "Audiovox" screen, and then it sits there indefinitely, eventually shutting down the display but not the unit. If I try to press and hold the Power button to turn the phone off (or back on), it displays the Audiovox screen again but nothing happens. The workaround in these cases is to remove and reinsert the battery. I conservatively estimate that this failure occurs nine times out of ten; I know for a fact that I've only successfully shut down the phone properly once since I brought it home.

When I mention this problem to some people, one of the responses was, "Why do you need to turn your phone off?" While I understand the logic underlying this statement, I tend to turn the phone off at home to a) preserve battery life and b) avoid being disturbed by phone noises in the middle of the night. But more fundamentally, how can you have a battery-powered device that can't be turned off normally?! The failure of this basic scenario to work properly undermines my confidence in the whole unit.

I'm going to contact AT&T Wireless this week and give them a chance to help me solve these issues, and would consider trying a replacement handset if they offer, but I suspect that neither will resolve the problem. In this case, odds are that the phone will get returned and I'll live with my old low-tech phone for another six-to-twelve months, in anticipation of a "v3" Smartphone.

Hawk Hypocrisy, a.k.a. An "Uncle Sam" Memorial

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported Wednesday that Alfred Hamilton died this week. Hamilton's claim to fame is that he owned land adjacent to I-5 near Centralia, Washington (so named because it's halfway between Seattle and Portland) on which he posted a sign famous for right-wing diatribes. The Washington State Attorney General sued unsuccessfully to get him to remove the sign.

The notable part of the obituary is the following:
"He left [college] without graduating during World War II. 'If he graduated, he would have been drafted,' [his daughter] said. 'He quit early so he could get a deferment, and he farmed instead of going into the service.'"
So let me make sure I got this right. The man who represented his views publicly with the "Uncle Sam" moniker, who was a staunch anti-Communist, who was described by his daughter as "a fighter," went out of his way to avoid military service during World War II. It sounds like he would have fit in quite nicely in the Bush/Cheney administration.

Unabashed Materialism

I was going to write something about the toys I've been pining for, most of which haven't existed or are hard to get, and by a strange coincidence I ended up getting two of them this weekend.  And a third is on the way.

The first is a Windows Smartphone that lets me access my email (work and personal), schedule, and contacts, and run MSN Messenger.  Oh yes, and make phone calls.  Plus decent battery life and the ability to work in my office and anywhere along my commute without drop-outs.  Most importantly, the ability to fit inside a pocket because, as Carson Kressley says, a mobile phone should not be worn on a belt.  I'll omit the trials and tribulations, but after getting a number of strong recommendations for the Audiovox SMT5600 I picked one up on Friday.  I was nervous about getting it through AT&T Wireless because my past experiences with their service have been poor, but this is a GSM phone and thus uses completely different frequencies from the StarTac I had from 2000-2002. 

So far the phone seems to be meeting all of my needs, including getting a strong signal in my office, though I haven't fully verified the reception quality in key areas.  I have a bunch of minor nits with the phone but most of them are things that I just need to get used to.  The one strange and potentially annoying characteristic is that my computer speakers buzz when the phone is transmitting data.  I've noticed it at home and work and even with a Polycom speakerphone in a conference room.  Apparently this is a known issue, and I suspect there's no solution other than to have the phone keep its distance.

The second is a nice set of poker chips, something better than the red, white, and blue plastic sets you can get at what's still colloquially referred to as a drugstore.  I know that you can get nice casino-style clay chips via mail order at reasonable prices, but in quantities I wanted (300+) they always seemed too expensive.  Costco to the rescue... They are selling a 500-chip set for $60.  They're a clay-plastic hybrid, so they're not quite as nice as real casino chips, but the price seems hard to beat.  I also learned that 500 poker chips weighs a lot -- I'm guessing at least thirty pounds with the case.

The third is a dual-tuner DVR.  I've been thinking about getting a Windows Media Center 2005 edition PC, but they're expensive and hard to find in the A/V component form factor that I want.  Today Comcast announced that it's shipping a dual-tuner, HDTV-enabled, 120 GB DVR, based on the Microsoft TV platform, to customers in the Seattle area.  It will be hard to wean myself from ReplayTV, but this is worth a shot.  Unfortunately the room where I really want the dual-tuner support isn't the same as the one where the I really want the HDTV support.  Everybody should have such problems.

As long as I've gotten this far, I might as well fill out the list:
  • A reasonably priced atomic solar watch with a countdown timer and an analog face. Casio has a bunch of watches which are close but not quite there. I can get everything but the analog face in one of their G-Shocks, which I think are fugly, or I can get a Waveceptor which has everything but the countdown timer. Four alarms yes, but no countdown timer. It might seem like a fine point, but the countdown timer is just about the only feature I use on a digital watch.
  • A Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Duo with the night-and-day display, like this one. Only nine years to my fiftieth birthday.
  • M3 CSL wheels like these. I love the way they look, but I can't justify spending more than $3200 plus tax, plus figure another $1000 for new tires, and degraded ride quality to boot. Not my generation.

Great Moments in Web History: The Highway 17 Page of Shame

Playing with blogs and RSS readers has reminded me of the first really popular blog-like web site I encountered:  Emil Gallant's Highway 17 Page of Shame, featuring the Jerque du Jour.  From November 1995 to May 1996, Gallant regaled us with pictures and descriptions of "people that annoy us during our daily commute from Santa Cruz to Cupertino."  He even gained a small measure of fame in the traditional media at a time when the web was still something of a novelty.

During his most prolific period in January 1996, when he was posting nearly every day, we eagerly awaited and discussed his latest missives.  His output tailed off and ultimately ended a few months later when he took a job closer to home.

His web site is long gone but you can still access its content via the Wayback Machine.  I did a quick search for him on the web and virtually all of the references date to 1996; if he has a new web site, it's not indexed by his name.

Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?

There's an old riddle that asks the following question:  Which is more accurate, a running clock that is set five minutes behind or a clock that is stopped?  The answer is the clock that is stopped is more accurate, because it is exactly right twice a day whereas the running clock is always five munutes off.

While this is arguably an appropriate metaphor for the just-concluded presidential election, it surfaced to me more directly this week with the switch away from Daylight Saving Time.  I happen to have two timekeeping devices, a watch and a clock, whose time setting is driven by the NIST radio signal, and as of this morning neither of them had made the adjustment to PST.  Given that these devices typically attempt to synchronize at around midnight (arguably a flaw, since to account for the semiannual DST change they should synchronize at 3 AM), I would have expected them to have adjusted by Monday morning.  This suggests that they've missed at least three consecutive nightly synchronization cycles, which does not inspire confidence in their accuracy.

My understanding is that the radio signal is weak and prone to interference, which leads me to think about alternative solutions.  Given the increasing number of devices that are using this signal to set their clock, it seems like a problem worth solving.  One idea would be a device that could amplify the appropriate frequency so that the low-powered receivers in these consumer devices have better success at picking up the signal.  Another idea is a device that connects to a computer via a USB port, determines the time via the computer's clock (which itself can be synchronized via an application such as this), and transmits its own copy of the radio signal within a limited range, suitable for a typical single-family residence.

On a related note, my portable GPS has the ability to determine the current time automatically but I have to specify the time zone manually.  I don't understand this.  If the GPS has the ability to determine my exact location, couldn't it use this information to determine which time zone it is in at any given moment?  And one of my cars has a navigation system that uses a GPS, so why can't it use that information to automatically set the car's clock?

The holy grail for me is when all of the devices in my home that keep time -- clocks, watches, ovens, cameras, cars, etc. -- can employ a common mechanism for keeping their time accurate without any intervention from me.  Whether this mechanism is WiFi, NIST, X10, or something else, I don't really care.

George Bush for President

... of the Society of Former United States Presidents.  (Made you look!)

It's no surprise to anyone who knows me more than a little bit that I'm supporting John Kerry for President.  There are numerous reasons for this, both policy and style-related, and I doubt I can say anything about the race that hasn't been written in a million other blogs by a million other monkeys.  So I will attempt to be brief.

To the extent that I am something of a one-issue voter, that issue is civil liberties.  Being in a religious minority sensitizes me to issues around the "establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", and I am wary of leaders who view their or the country's provenance as descending from a particular religion or religious figure.  That wariness is amplified when religious zealotry is used as a pretense for intolerance.  True story:  Last year my son returned from his first day of kindergarten at a public school and reported to me that he had "prayed in school."  When I asked him to elaborate, he recited, "... one nation, under God, ..."

I am strongly pro-choice and will not knowingly advance the political career of anyone who opposes this position; to this end I monitor the endorsements of NARAL Pro-Choice America.  As you can imagine, on this issue alone there are vanishingly few Republicans for whom I can vote.

I believe in the role of the federal judiciary in safeguarding the rights of Americans, especially those who are underrepresented by the other branches of government.  The quality of judicial appointments is a critical issue for me in this campaign.  The Bush administration's record in this area is greatly troubling, especially in contrast to the generally moderate appointments made by Clinton.  To this end I also strongly support the return of a Democratic majority in the United States Senate.

I believe in the sovereignty of the United States and the right of the nation to defend itself.  But it's rare that "my way or the highway" is the best strategy for achieving that, especially when it's coupled with a (possibly willing) disregard for the facts at hand.  Even if you grant that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were not reasonably preventable -- and while I haven't read Richard Clarke's book yet, I'm told that he suggests otherwise -- and even if you welcome the toppling of Saddam Hussein, it doesn't look like our behavior has helped us use the historic opportunity we had to build a global coalition dedicated to fighting the forces of terror.

There are some matters on which I differ with John Kerry, but they are far smaller in magnitude, substance, and style than my differences with George W. Bush.  I don't envy anyone who has to serve as president for the next four years, but I do feel far better about the future imagining John Kerry in that role.

Meta-blog

One of the things that really bugs me about blogging (and web sites in general) is that it's hard to tell when links expire.  I've touched on this before, but I'd really like to have a blog crawler that notifies me when a link in my blog goes bad.  Alas, it's harder than it sounds, as in many cases the link still points to a valid but incorrect or meaningless location (instead of returning a 404 error).

I've also decided that I've been violating good blog style with one of my linking habits.  The issue is whether to include the definite or indefinite article (i.e. "the" or "a") in the link when referring to something, as in an interesting web site on Ralph Waldo Emerson versus an interesting web site on Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I've been using the former technique, believing that the linked portion should be limited to the useful part of the title, but on further reflection I believe that the latter looks better.  It also squares better with this note in a web copy style guide.

Now perhaps I can find editorial guidance on how to avoid creating "click here to read more" links.