Mar 14

Setting the clocks

Most people dislike Daylight Saving Time, myself included. Debates about it can get convoluted, but in my experience, the arguments against it boil down to two objections:

  • The time change gives everyone jet lag twice a year.
  • Resetting every clock you own is an annoying waste of time.

There isn’t much you can do about the first one, but it is possible to reduce the effect of the second. How? By replacing your dumb clocks with smarter ones that reset themselves automatically.

Most of us already have some of the smarter kind, although we may not think of them as clocks. Your smartphone, for example, always displays the correct time. When the twice-a-year time change happens, your phone makes the switch without any action on your part. Your computer probably does the same thing, and if it doesn’t, that’s because the feature is disabled. (In Windows, right-click the clock in the lower right corner of your screen and click Adjust date and time. Then make sure that Set time automatically, Adjust for daylight saving time automatically, and Set time zone automatically are all turned on.)

But what about the other clocks? Most people don’t know this, but you can buy clocks that know how to set themselves. I learned this a decade or two ago when I needed to replace my bedside clock-radio, and while shopping for a new one, I stumbled across an Emerson SmartSet clock-radio that automatically resets itself to the correct date and time “as soon as you plug it in and after every power interruption.” That sounded too good to be true, but I bought one, and it works as advertised. (The model I bought back then has been discontinued, but Emerson makes several similar ones, which sell for prices as low as $15.)

The instruction manual didn’t explain how it performs this miracle, but a little research revealed the answer. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and it’s in charge of providing a national time standard. The correct time from NIST’s atomic clocks is made available on the Internet (which is what computers and phones use) and by radio signal on several different frequencies. The Emerson clocks are designed to receive that signal and adjust themselves accordingly.

Emerson isn’t the only clock-maker that offers this feature, and it’s not limited to digital clocks. A couple of years ago, the analog wall clock in my kitchen stopped working (it was at least twenty years old), and I decided to see if I could replace it with a self-setting model. After a little browsing on Amazon, I ordered a La Crosse Technology clock that looked almost exactly like its predecessor, except for the words ATOMIC TIME on its face. But despite its old-school appearance, this clock listens to the NIST time signal and resets itself whenever the need arises.

At this point, I have very few clocks left that have to be reset by hand. The analog wall clock in my bathroom still requires that, but I’ll eventually replace it with a La Crosse or something similar. There’s also a digital clock in my living room that has to be set by hand. I replaced my old analog wristwatch with an Apple Watch at the beginning of this year, and it synchronizes with my iPhone. The only other holdout I can think of is the dashboard clock in my car. (My microwave oven has no clock, which is fine with me.)

Someday, I will have no clocks that need to be reset manually. Won’t it be nice to eliminate that minor annoyance from my life?

Update: Since writing this entry, I’ve realized that I have two other clocks in my kitchen. They’re built into my coffee maker and my digital kitchen scale. I normally don’t even notice these, so I suppose it doesn’t matter whether they’re correct or not. But I went ahead and reset them anyway.

Mar 12

A gift for Dad

Health update: I’m almost completely recovered from my flareup of lower back pain. Still some pain when I first get out of bed in the morning, and some stiffness when I get up from a chair if I’ve been sitting for too long. But once I’m up and moving around, I feel fine. I suspect that in a day or two, I’ll be completely pain-free. The muscle relaxant really helped, and I’ll make sure to thank Dr. Raman for prescribing it when I see her for my annual physical in a couple of weeks. Once again, I have my life back, and I’m grateful.

Recently, I was reading one of the blogs I follow, and I found myself looking at the following image, which was presented without any context or explanation.

I was immediately intrigued. A USB flash drive that looks like a vacuum tube? That’s really cool, and I want one! But is it a real thing, or just a picture someone made in Photoshop? After a quick image search, I determined that this is absolutely real, and it’s for sale on Amazon.

Sadly, my design to own one was extinguished when I saw the prices. They vary depending on storage capacity: the cheapest is $49 for 8 gigabytes, and the most expensive is $119 for 256 GB. (For comparison, you can buy a SanDisk 512 GB drive for under $50.) Those prices seemed exorbitant to me until I read the description, and learned that this thing doesn’t just look like a vintage vacuum tube, it actually is one. Each of these drives is made by hand (in Latvia) from a vacuum tube that was manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1981. A genuine collector’s item. Suddenly, the price seems appropriate when I consider the scarcity of the raw materials, and the skilled labor required to craft the finished product.

It’s still too expensive for me to buy just for my own amusement. But if my father were still alive, I would buy him one of these in a heartbeat. Dad was notoriously difficult to buy gifts for, because if he wanted something, he would usually buy it for himself before anyone had a chance to give it to him. So the trick was to find something that he wasn’t aware of, but that he would like if he knew it existed.

Dad was a ham radio operator and electronics hobbyist from the 1950s onward, when vacuum tubes were still in a lot of radio and TV sets, although transistors were gradually making them obsolete. He was quite familiar with these tubes, and I’m sure he would have appreciated the combination of retro and futuristic tech. He had fond memories of the tube-powered radios and TV sets of his youth, but he was also an avid early adopter of cutting-edge technology. It was because of him that our family had a home computer in 1976*, at a time when you couldn’t just buy a functioning computer; you had to build it from a kit.

Dad would have loved this. I wish I could have given it to him for Father’s Day. Seeing the look on his face when he unwrapped it would have been worth the price.

*Correction: Bob informs me that we didn’t get the computer (a Processor Technology Sol-20) until 1977. That’s still years before the arrival of the IBM PC (1981) and the Apple Macintosh (1984). However, a bit more research shows that several home computers that did not have to be built from a kit made their debut in 1977: the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the Tandy TRS-80.

Aug 29

Return of the Commodore 64

I missed out on the popular Commodore 64 computer entirely. I was alive at when it was unveiled in 1982, but thanks to my father’s eagerness to adopt new technologies, my family had already had a home computer for several years. Also, I was in college at that point, and since the 64 was primarily a game computer, it would have been a distraction from my studies. (I did own an Atari 2600 game console, but I gave it to my brother rather than bring it to college with me.)

When I acquired my first computer in 1983, it was an Apple //e. And in 1987, I traded that one in on my first DOS machine, an XT clone. From that point onward, I owned a series of DOS and Windows machines (and in recent years, a couple of Chromebooks). The entire Commodore 64 ecosystem was a road not taken.

But it holds the Guinness world record for highest-selling single computer model of all time, so I have occasionally wondered what I missed. I could always buy a vintage 64 on eBay, but I don’t relish the challenges of getting an obsolete computer to work in today’s world. Fortunately, there will soon be a better way: the C64, an authentic replica that looks and works almost exactly like the original .

The C64 comes preloaded with 64 Commodore and VIC-20 games, and includes a joystick controller. You can also write your own programs in Commodore BASIC. But it has USB ports and an HDMI port, so you can connect it to modern-day displays and other peripherals.

I’m tempted to preorder one (it ships in November) just to find out what the fuss was all about. But I live in a small apartment, and I already have five computers here (including the two work laptops that don’t belong to me). I’m not sure where I would put it. Still, it would be fun to have.

Jan 27

Thoughts on the Apple iPad

Apple has announced the iPad, and reactions from pundits of every stripe are now flooding the Web. The verdict is mixed at best. Apple cultists are of course proclaiming this to be the Second Coming. One of my Facebook friends shrieked, “EVERY e-book reader just became obsolete. EVERY tablet PC just became obsolete. EVERY netbook just became obsolete. EVERY low-end laptop PC just became obsolete.” Nicholas Carr declared that “the PC era ended this morning at ten o’clock Pacific time,” explaining that “what made the moment epochal was not so much the gadget itself – an oversized iPod Touch tricked out with an e-reader application and a few other new features – but the clouds of hype that attended its arrival.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person reminded of the euphoric hysteria that accompanied the launch of the Segway in 2001. Before the Segway’s unveiling, when it was still known only as Ginger, rumors ran wild. Some people speculated that it was an antigravity device. After the true nature of Segway was revealed, Steve Jobs said it might be more important than the personal computer, and that cities would be redesigned around it. Instead, it because a curiosity and the butt of jokes. And the investors who funded its development lost all that money.

For those of us who weren’t intoxicated by Jobs’s clouds of hype this time around, the iPad is distinctly underwhelming. Among the commenters at Gina Trapani’s Smarterware blog, the consensus was “Meh.” Jay Garmon dismissed the iPad as crippled by the iPhone OS, which he called “one feature that’s billed as a benefit but may prove to be more of a bug.” On YouTube, numerous people reposted videos of the CES demo of Lenovo’s U1 tablet, saying that anything iPad does, U1 does better. And after declaring the PC era ended, Nicholas Carr calmed down and admitted that the iPad has numerous drawbacks:

It still, after all, is a tablet – fairly big and fairly heavy. Unlike an iPod or an iPhone, you can’t stick an iPad in your pocket or pocketbook. It also looks to be a cumbersome device. The iPad would be ideal for a three-handed person – two hands to hold it and another to manipulate its touchscreen – but most of humans, alas, have only a pair of hands. And with a price that starts at $500 and rises to more than $800, the iPad is considerably more expensive than the Kindles and netbooks it will compete with.

In today’s announcement, Steve Jobs presented the iPad as a device that “bridges the gap” between smartphones and laptops. A couple of weeks ago, I might have agreed with him, but that’s when I was using a Windows Mobile smartphone with a tiny, non-touch screen and a difficult-to-use thumb keyboard. Now I’ve owned an iPhone for eight days, and if you ask me, there is no gap between it and my Acer netbook. In fact, there’s quite a lot of overlap. I’m already using my netbook less now that I have a smartphone with a multitouch display, WiFi capability, and apps that replace all of the functionality of my late lamented Palm PDA.

I don’t doubt that some people will find the iPad useful. But I can’t imagine myself as one of them. With no multitasking, no camera, no Flash support, and no tactile feedback for typing, it can’t replace a netbook for everyday tasks like surfing the Web, writing e-mails and text messages, or using Skype for a video chat. It can’t snap photos, place phone calls, or fit in your pocket like an iPhone. And the pundits who are calling the iPad a “Kindle killer” are mistaken. Yes, the iPad’s video display is gorgeous compared to the Kindle’s shades of gray — but in daylight, a backlit color screen is unreadable, while the Kindle’s e-paper display is bright and clear. And the iPad’s battery life of ten hours (according to Jobs) is no match for the Kindle’s two weeks of reading time. There’s also the price: for the $500 starting price of the iPad, you could buy two Kindles.

Sorry, but this oversized, overpriced iPod Touch just doesn’t live up to the hype it’s generated. The iPad is pretty, but it isn’t going to change the world any more than the Newton did.

UPDATE: Adolf Hitler has similar reservations about the iPad. I’m not sure whether to be pleased or deeply disturbed.

Jul 24

Video on demand

I finally got around to watching the movie Serenity recently, and I was startled to find that it contained unmistakable references to Forbidden Planet. When I asked Ruth (our household’s most passionate Browncoat) if she was aware of this, she told me that she didn’t really remember FP. I had shown it to her at some point, but probably a decade or more ago.

Obviously, I needed to screen it for her again, but we didn’t have a copy on hand. Netflix didn’t have it for instant viewing, and to my astonishment, they didn’t have it in their DVD inventory either. A search of the DVD department of Wal-Mart also came up empty. And when I went to the local Blockbuster, they informed me that none of the stores in the area had this particular film.

As a last resort, I went to They had new and used DVDs for sale, but it occurred to me that I should check their Video on Demand first. (Yeah, I know “digital downloads” is redundant, but that’s what Amazon calls them.) Bingo! Amazon has the movie as a download that you can either buy or rent. For $2.99, I was able to rent the movie and send it to my Roku player without getting out of my chair. Five minutes later, Ruth and I were watching it in our living room.

I know some people have been using Amazon VoD for a year or two, but this was the first time for me, and it was awesome. I love living in the future.

Feb 05

Prophecies: long distance

In 2061: Odyssey Three, Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

The coming of the jet age had triggered an explosion of global tourism. At almost the same time — it was not, of course, a coincidence — satellites and fiber optics had revolutionized communications. With the historic abolition of long-distance charges on 31 December 2000, every telephone call became a local one, and the human race greeted the new millennium by transforming itself into one huge, gossiping family.

Clarke made that prediction in 1987. While it hasn’t come true in a literal sense, I think he’s not far off the mark. It’s been years since the last time I paid for a long-distance (LD) phone call. My family’s mobile phone plan provides us with an ample pool of minutes. And it doesn’t cost us anything extra to use them for LD calls. So we make all of our LD calls on our mobile phones, and we’ve come to think of LD telephony as free.

Do we even need an LD carrier? Well, not under normal circumstances. But the cellular phone networks can become unavailable as a result of either excessive demand or power failure. The most likely scenario for either of those events is a disaster of some sort; New York City experienced cellular network collapse on 11 September 2001, and again during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. Unfortunately, it’s in exactly that sort of situation that you most want to place LD phone calls.

So it’s prudent to have a backup plan for doing so. But it’s silly to pay a monthly fee for an LD plan that you hope never to use. A few years ago, I called MCI (our LD carrier) to find out what could be done about that. The customer service representative offered to switch us to a plan that had no minimum fee, and I agreed.

Yesterday, I received a card from MCI informing me of a new monthly minimum. Beginning March 1, we would have to pay a $5.99 per month even if we made no LD calls at all. It was time to cancel. At first I had difficulty reaching a live human at MCI, but after ten or fifteen minutes of listening to elevator music, I remembered the gethuman 500 database that I wrote about a few months ago. Following the instructions on that site, I reached a customer service representative in a couple of minutes. After verifying that it was no longer possible to avoid the monthly minumum fees, I canceled our account.

I assumed that our LD backup plan would now be to use a 10-10 dial-around service if the need arose. But when I started to research the available dial-around services, I learned that there are still some LD carriers that have little or no monthly minimum. The best of these seems to be ECG, which offers an interstate rate of 2.5 cents per minute (much better than the 7 cents per minute I didn’t pay MCI for the calls I wasn’t making). I signed up.

ECG does charge a “regulatory recovery fee” of 59 cents per month. That’s not quite the free LD that Clarke predicted, but I think I can live with it.

Dec 28

Wii sighting

Ben points out that it’s been a long time since my last entry. Fortunately, I had an experience yesterday that is relevant to his recent article about the supply and demand of the Nintendo Wii.

I was in a Wal-Mart when an associate came on the public address system and said, “We now have the Nintendo Wii in stock.” I wasn’t interested in buying a Wii myself, but I headed for Electronics anyway because I was curious. I hadn’t actually seen Wiis for sale before, and I wondered if a mob would form and start fighting over them.

What I actually saw was rather anticlimactic. There were indeed some Wii packages visible behind the glass of the game-console display case, and a woman in that aisle had one in her cart. No other customers were there. I shrugged and went back to my shopping. When I was ready to check out, I swung by Electronics again just to see if anything had changed. The Wiis were gone, but when I asked an associate how many the store had received that day, she said “Four”. So it’s not surprising that they sold out quickly.

So that’s my firsthand experience with Wii demand: enough to make them disappear in short order, but not enough to draw a crowd.

Oct 17

Get a human

We’ve all had the experience of being trapped in an automated telephone menu system, cursing and pressing buttons at random in a desperate attempt to get a human representative to talk to you. But what if you knew exactly what buttons to press? The gethuman 500 database gives you that information for hundreds of companies and government agencies: the number to dial and which buttons to press in order to reach an actual live human being. Once you’ve done that, you’re on your own.
Source: American Digest

Oct 16

Prophecies: calculators

From 1941 to 1949, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of science fiction stories about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire. These stories were published in the magazine Astounding Stories, and in 1950 were reprinted in three volumes titled Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Collectively, the three volumes became known as the Foundation Trilogy.

When the first four stories were assembled into the book Foundation, the editor complained that the story began too abruptly, and asked Asimov to write a fifth story to precede the other four. Asimov complied, producing an account of how mathematician Hari Seldon establishes two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve the knowledge of the human race and serve as nuclei for the formation of a Second Empire. At one point in the story, Seldon is shown using the tool of his trade:

Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red symbols glowed out from the gray.

In 1950, the standard calculation tool used by mathematicians and engineers was the slide rule, but Asimov described a future in which the slide rule was replaced by something new: a handheld electronic device.

As luck would have it, I read the Foundation Trilogy for the first time in the early 1970s, just as the first pocket calculators were appearing in stores. They looked exactly like what Asimov described, right down to the belt pouches and glowing red symbols (the earliest calculators had displays that used red LEDs). Two decades before its invention, he had predicted the calculator with virtually perfect accuracy. And it did completely replace the slide rule.

A few years later, Asimov wrote a short story (“The Feeling of Power”) in which pocket calculators are so ubiquitous that people have forgotten how to perform calculations without them. This idea seemed farfetched in 1958, but today, it’s very plausible.

I should also mention that Asimov himself was a fan of the slide rule, which is not too surprising for someone who studied math and science, and received M.A. and Ph.D degrees in chemistry in the 1940s. He even wrote a book about it, An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule, which was published in 1965. Ironically, when the pocket calculators drove the slide rule into extinction, Asimov’s book went out of print.