Archive for March, 2007

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UAVS Considered Dangerous in Civil Airspace

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

According to this article the U.S. Air Force has lost about 40% of its Predator UAV fleet.

Of the 139 Predators delivered to the Air Force, 53 have been lost, records show.

The Predator and its siblings have really useful military applications, but they have no business in civil airspace.

Yet the Air Force and the Texas Air National Guard propose to operate these dangerous craft out of Elington Field, right in the heart of Houston!

That’s just crazy. Puting these things into one of the busiest terminal areas in the world is a prescription for disaster.

One of these Houston Predators is going to kill someone who doesn’t need killing.

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Does Twitter Violate Gresham’s Law?

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Twitter, we hardly knew ye.

I joined Twitter about a week before SXSW, and have been using it a few times a day. It’s fun, and nice when you want to share a thought or make a note in a simple, easy way.

Post SXSW Twitter is getting a lot of press attention. I’ve been wondering when spammers would take it over. I just checked out the public timeline, and this is what I saw. ‘Bargainist’ posting dozens of spam entries. I don’t see anything in Twitter’s current architecture that would preclude a tragedy of the commons.

Particular self-selected groups will be able to use twitter, but it will probably soon cease to be place to find new, interesting people. I strongly suspect that Twitter will be destroyed by spammers in exactly the same way that Yahoo Chat has been destroyed by literally tens of thousands of porn spambots. By having such ease of entry both Yahoo Chat and Twitter violate the network version of Gresham’s Law. The bad twitters well may drive away good twitters by taking over the public area and eating all the bandwidth.

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Unhelpful Microsoft help denies helpless millions help

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

As a general rule, I get bored quickly with Microsoft bashing. It’s really tiresome, and so much of it clearly due to jealousy on the part of the whiner.




    Image by caseyhelbling.

Still, MSFT isn’t a perfect company. One area where they could do better is to provide better documentation. So much of the document for the Microsoft Operating system basic application programming interface (API) consists of tautologies. For example, after years of neglect Microsoft has released an API for developers to use to control 801.11 wifi devices. This API is long overdue and gratefully appreciated by many developers whose products involve WIFI.

The name of this API is the ‘WLAN’ api. Lets look at one of the functions in the WLAN API, the one called ‘WlanSaveTemporaryProfile’. What is this function you ask. Here is the answer:

“The WlanSaveTemporaryProfile function saves a temporary profile to the profile store.”

What, you ask, is a Temporary Profile? Don’t look in the documentation, it is silent as to what a temporary profile exactly is, why you might want to save one, and (since it is apparently temporary) how long it stays around after you save it temporarily.

This kind of thing occurs all over the place in the Windows API documentation. Microsoft has ten gillion technical people, they are hiring everyone who can fog a mirror. With all those thousands of people, why can’t they put an intern to go through the documentation and beef it up a little. In particular a sentence telling you the main purpose of the api and an example would be really helpful. And don’t tell me to go to google and paw around trying to find some MSDN article from 3 years ago that discusses it. I need the context for the api in plain English!

Verity Stob says it much better than I can in this article:

Unhelpful Microsoft help denies helpless millions help

Recommended reading for everyone at MSFT, especially Bill and Steve.

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A Quick Aerospace Roundup

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

There’s been a fair amount of interesting news in the aerospace world lately. Here’s a quick round up.


1) The SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket ship attempted a launch from Kwajalein Army Range yesterday. The countdown proceeded down to T – one minute, when it was aborted. SpaceX provided an excellent webcast of the attempt. Watch their webpages for updates on the next attempt. More information is available here. Update from SpaceX website, 3/20 11:15pm CDT: “All systems are now go for launch with T-0 at 4pm California time today (Tues).”

2) The FAA has issued a notice to airmen announcing a temporary flight restriction near Van Horn, Texas for space operations. The TFR is hot from 3/22 to 3/27 for a five nautical mile radius around the Blue Origin launch facility.

3) The Airbus A-380 made its first appearance in the United States yesterday, landing at the Kennedy airport in New York and the Los Angeles International airport. According to the professional pilots at FlightInfo.com (subscription required) these aircraft used the modifier ‘super’ in front of their callsign. ‘Super’ is the new ICAO codeword indicating an aircraft that requires ten mile spacing for following aircraft in the traffic pattern. Several of the pilots observing the landing in Los Angeles noted the sudden yawing motion right at touchdown, and are speculating that a thrust reverser may have failed to deploy promptly.

4) Avweb has an account of the kind of accident that makes one ashamed to be a general aviation pilot. The NTSB report is here.

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A 915 Minute Poem

Saturday, March 17th, 2007


All my life I’ve enjoyed hearing the spoken word. Perhaps it goes back to my childhood, when my Dad would tell me stories at bedtime. He made them up himself, and they were good. Early exposure to the novels of Nevil Shute re-enforced by a Grandfather who had left Texas and joined the Coldstream Guards at the start of World War I infected me with Anglophillia at a very early age.

Back in the bad old days of one newspaper, three TV channels, and no talk radio I used to listen to a lot of shortwave radio, then the only source of what we now call ‘talk radio’. When I lived in England in the 80s I always enjoyed Radio 4, located in the basement of the RF spectrum at 200khz, and mostly spoken word.

It was while I was in England I discovered the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. These 20 (plus one unfinished) stories follow the careers of Captain Jack Aubrey, a ship commander of the Royal Navy in the early 1800s, and Doctor Stephen Maturin, his particular friend.

I’m not positive, but I think I started reading them because I found myself working with the Royal Navy and wanted to know more about their service. The Royal Navy is worthy of study by any student of the military. It is, after all, the oldest continually operating uniformed military service in the world.

I enjoyed reading the novels, but I did not fully appreciate them until I discovered that the entire series was available for rent as unabridged audio readings from Recorded Books LLC. I wound up listening to the entire cannon over the period of a year. For that year if I were driving, I was listening to POB. And then I listened again. The narrator, Patrick Tull, is know as ‘The Voice’ to O’Brian fans. Each novel includes a huge ensemble cast, always assembled fromt the four cornors of the world, often speaking several different languages.

Warning: There have been a number of recordings of the series by other actors over the years. Only Tull is able to give each and every character an individual voice that makes him or her come alive. I once made the heart-breaking mistake of buying one read by a pretender. Be careful. If you want to listen to O’Brian as it should be, then accept only The Voice.

I own a couple of the stories on home made CDs purchased via Audible.com. Perhaps it is my CD burner, but these copies don’t really hold up well over time. After a year or so I get lots of skipping and static.

The other day I happened to be in Borders, and noted that they are now selling the Recorded Book series on CD. The price has dropped from the average $75 that Recorded Books charges to around $45 for the retail version. They are the identical readings. I think I’m going to wind up buying them all.

Right now I’m listening to The Surgeon’s Mate. It has been long enough since the last time I experienced this story that it is almost new to me again.

I’m enjoying it immensly. It is a 915 minute poem.

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Embracing the Suck of Insomnia

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007



     Insomnia by bcmom.

All my life I’ve suffered from frequent insomnia. It’s far to frequent to handle with chemicals, even were I so inclinded, which I’m not.

It is midnight, I should be asleep right now, but instead I’m watching court TV. It’s making me very glad I’m not a police officer.

I wish I could think of some way to take up arms against this sea of sleeping trouble. For now though, I’m just embracing the suck of insomnia.

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Review – Highway 183a

Saturday, March 10th, 2007

One week ago the new Highway 183a opened its full length, from Highway 620 just south of Lakeline Mall, north past Cedar Park and Leander where it rejoins the original Highway 183 south of Highway 29.

The new highway is free until May, when it begins charging tolls.

During the work week I work at a regular job in the MCC building, located at Braker Lane and MoPac. Our family business has three locations on the (original) Highway 183, one in Leander, one in Cedar Park near the intersection of Highway 183 and Highway 1431, and one in Cedar Park near the intersection of Highway 183 and Cypress Creek Drive.

This geography has me driving nearly the full length of the new road on an almost daily basis. I thought I’d share a few observations on the new road.

Virtually the minute the new road opened traffic on the original Highway 183 dropped dramatically. Formerly bumper-to-bumper much of the time, every day is now Sunday morning.

The new highway is a Godsend to people commuting from Austin to Leander in the afternoons. It used to take me the best of part of an hour to get from the MCC building to Leander at 6pm. Now its half that or less using 183a. The trip is safer and I use much less fuel thanks to 183a. I haven’t traveled 183a to Austin in the mornings, but I assume it helps those commuters just as much.

One disappointment is the quality of the road surface on 183a. ‘Free’ Highway 183 south of highway 620 has a nice smooth surface. As soon as you pass 620 and enter the toll road there is a dramatic change. The road surface on 183a is very rough. The many overpasses are almost washboards in places. I was expecting something like a German Autobahn, instead the ride is like something from the third world. I certainly hope that the road’s owners plan to improve the road surface. The present 183a road surface is an embarrassment to Texas.

The big question is of course how will traffic shake out once tolls go into effect on May 1? I think most people who can use 183a during busy drive times will pay the toll. Highway 183a will cost about the price of half a gallon of gas to take the toll road.

Even assuming no value is placed on the driver’s time, it still won’t take too long waiting for the long lights on Highway 183 at Cypress Creek and Highway 1431 to burn up that half gallon.

I am a bit disgruntled with the notion that 183a will charge tolls until the end of time. I’m all for the investors recovering the $238 million costs and earning a fair return on their investment. I don’t see why Texans should continue to pay forever. It just makes no sense from the point of view of the taxpayers who used to own this right-of-way. I have to wonder why our elected leaders agreed to such a one-sided deal. It is almost as if they had something other than the best interests of their constituents in mind.

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A Good Shopping Experience

Friday, March 9th, 2007

The other day I complained about the (non) service I received from Dell.  In fairness to capitalism, I ought to mention a good shopping experience I had just the other day.

To give you the back story, our tax offices have a lots of printers, no less than one for each two tax preparers. 

At one time we had a bunch of Lexmark printers as a result of a package deal arranged by our franchisor. Over time we’ve  found the Lexmarks to be less reliable than corresponding HP models.  And to crown all, latter Lexmark models have highly protected toner carts that can’t be reliably recycled. So as the Lexmarks wear out (which they do quickly) we replace them with HPs.

One of our very last Lexmark printers gave up the ghost the other day, by jamming huge quantities of paper on every attempt to print to it.

I stopped by the Office Depot at 620 and 183 to pick up an HP 1020 printer as a replacement. We’ve found these small HP printers to be very reliable and they are cheap enough that we can afford one for each tax preparer in our seasonal store.  I also bought a new toner cart for the HP for around $50, so my purchase with tax ate up $250.

The old Lexmark used a parallel cable, the new printer needed a USB A-B cable. 

I like Office Depot, but like so many retail stores, their prices for printer and other cables are insane.  They charge over $20 for a cable that goes for less than a dollar on EBay, or five bucks at Fry’s.

So I’m checking out, and the checkout clerk asks if I need a USB cable.  “Yes I do, but I’m going to Fry’s to get it, I can’t afford yours.” 

“How much are they at Fry’s?” he asked me. 

“I’m not sure exactly, but around five bucks, certainly less than ten” I told him. 

On his checkstand is the cable I need, priced at $23, packaged in a blister pack that probably cost more than the cable. 

He hands me this cable and says “I can sell this for six dollars. Oh, and I almost forgot, you get a free ream of paper with a new printer”.

Sold!!!

The thing that really impressed me was that the checkout guy didn’t have to call a manager or keep other customers waiting while he called Fry’s to find out their price.   This was a young guy, I don’t think he was management. He was just allowed by Office Depot to use his own judgement.  He judged that it was better get my six dollars on top of a major purchase than to have me drive across town and spend money with his competitor, and leave a little unhappy with Office Depot. 

He was correct.

My hat is off to the Office Depot management for empowering a line checkout clerk to do the right thing for a customer.

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Will 2008 be like 1984?

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

Slick work by the articulate clean Democrat. The man’s got a point:



Hat Tip: National Journal

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Nightmare: Ordering from Dell

Sunday, March 4th, 2007


In our retail tax office we have several Dell Optiplex 270 computers, bought a few years ago. These are large, heavy computers. they are kind of figure eight shaped and are really meant to sit horizontally on a flat surface. There is a secret extended warranty on these models for reliability problems, but ours continue to work fine.

We have two of them that we’d like to move off the literal desktop and stand them up vertically next to our desks. Dell makes a ‘foot’ that screws into the side of the case to facilitate standing the computer on the floor.

Dell charges around $20 for this little piece of plastic. It seems like a lot to pay for something so simple, so I’d put off ordering some for months, but at last I ran out of excuses to my employees and decided to order two of them.

It was then that the nightmare started.

We are ‘Premier’ customers, so I called my Premier Customer telephone number. Sorry, it’s 7pm, and ‘Premier’ is only available eight to five.

No problem, I’ll just call the regular number. So I call the regular number. The robot starts its game of fifty questions. After a while It asks if “this order is for a business?”. Yes. “Is this order for a business with less than 400 employees?”. Yes. “You will hear two tones, don’t hang up” says the robot. I hear two tones. Then silence. After about five minutes I get a dial tone.

Try again. Game of fifty questions with the robot. “you will hear two tones, don’t hang up”. This time after about ten minutes a human. Even better, a human who speaks clear and understandable English! Yeah!!!!!!!!!

I start to tell him what I want. He stops me, he knows what I want, but I have to answer some questions. What’s my phone number? My email? My address? “I’m sorry, but I have to transfer you to another agent, I don’t handle your type of business”. I hear the two tone again. Then I get a dial tone.

“Ok, they don’t want to take orders from small business” I tell myself. I’ll just pretend to not be a business. I call the main number again. This time I don’t admit I am calling for a business.

The robot then ASKS FOR MY SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER!!!!!!!!!!! WTF????!!!!!! Do people really call Dell and just give up their social in exchange for the privilege of giving their money to Michael Dell??!!!!???? I say ‘zero zero zero’ into the phone. “That’s not a valid social security number!” accuses the robot. After I continue to argue, eventually the robot gives up and transfers my call to an ‘agent’. This agent is at the end of a very noisy phone line, and speaks with a thick foreign accent.

She doesn’t know what a GX 270 is. The only thing she can find in a monitor stand. “It’s not a monitor stand!”, I protest, “its a plastic thing that screws into the side of the case so it can stand vertically!” “We have a monitor stand” repeats the agent. We go around like this a while. This non-order has now taken 40 minutes of time I will never get back.

All this time, while my blood pressure is hitting the stops, she-who-may-not-be-named is becoming highly amused. “I found them on ebay” she tells me. My mistake is apparent. I kept calling them ‘stands’. The correct name is ‘foot’.

I ask the agent for a supervisor. She hangs up on me.

I order my feet from Ebay, and get three of them for five bucks each.

The management at Dell seems to have grabbed an idea that they need to sort their callers into bins based on some kind of status before they will deign to take the callers money. In the process they’ve erected a series of walls and hurdles the potential customer must negotiate before they are allowed the great privilege of ordering from Dell. Throw in their international phone system, which is very prone to disconnects, and you have a frustrating nightmare.

I’m sure Michael Dell didn’t really need my forty bucks for my ‘feet’. He certainly made that clear. The thing that Dell doesn’t seem to understand is that while I’m only ordering feet today, I will probably need to replace these Optiplex 270s sometime soon.

When I do, I will NOT be buying from Dell. Their hardware is fine, but I just don’t need the aggravation. HP gets my business from now on.