Archive for May, 2007

I cut myself with the RAZR

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

In a post about Motorola, Katie Fehrenbacher writes at GigaOM:

The talk in Silicon Valley is that Zander received a lot of unwarranted praise for his role in promoting the RAZR, and his lack of product vision is only now being demonstrated after the shine of the RAZR has worn off.

If Zander is taking credit for the RAZR, that’s justification in my book for casting a board vote for Icahn. After a month of trying to using a RAZR, I decided that I liked it so much that I went back to the Nokia 6600 I had purchased in early 2004. I enthusiastically demoted it to a backup phone when I realized I had paid too much for it. (It was a gift, so you do the math.) My favorite part of trying wrap my brain around the RAZR was when I had to learn how to hack the phone and reinstall its software just to get a search function in the phone book.

Somebody once told me that the RAZR hardware was actually designed by one of the big custom manufacturers, and that the true designer of the hardware had tried to sell it to Nokia before Motorola. It was heartbreaking, because if the software was replaced with something usable, it would deserve to be the phone that everybody carries.

Initial impressions of Wi-Fi Rail’s BART service

Friday, May 4th, 2007

Last week, I learned about the Wi-Fi service on the downtown corridor for BART. I’ve been riding BART all week, in part due to the collapse of the freeway that runs between my home and the office. As a result, I’ve used the service quite a bit this week.

Wi-Fi Rail claims to cover the platforms at the four stations in the downtown corridor (Civic Center, Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcadero), plus the tunnel between Civic Center and Powell. To put this in proper context, consult the BART system map.

After using for the network for a week, here’s a few notes on how to use it to its best advantage:

  • Stay on the platform side of the train. In the downtown corridor, all the stations have a center platform, so the doors on the left side of the train open. I have sat on both the left side and the right side of the train, and I have noticed that the network performs better when I sit on the left, presumably because it it closer to the access points covering the platform, and it is closer to the metal walls of the train.
  • Sit on the first car of the train. If you’re in the lead car of the train, your 802.11 device can look for the access point as the train enters the station, not as it finishes pulling in to the station. There may also be an advantage to sitting in the first car because the signal only needs to penetrate the front of one car and not multiple cars, but that’s a speculative theory without knowing more about the placement of access points.
  • Don’t count on the network when moving. I’m not sure where the access points are, but I doubt they are on the train. There are no new devices that are apparent on the trains themselves, and the signal strength fluctuates wildly enough that it seems like the the access points are placed along the train line and not on the train cars. 802.11 doesn’t do vehicular speeds between devices all that well, unless you’ve engineered a wide area network.
  • Don’t expect anything in the tunnels. Although Wi-Fi Rail has specifically stated that they tried to cover the tunnel between Civic Center and Powell stations, I don’t see a qualitative difference between it and the other two tunnel segments. I’m able to use the network to get work done by paying attention to when the signal is good and sending data, or by queuing up data to go when a connection is restored.

Coverage is not great once you leave the platform, which restricts the buyers to BART riders who have a long wait on the platform at one of the four stations. A passenger like me who rides through the stops would hardly notice, since it’s scheduled as a five-minute trip. (Are business travelers riding to the airport a big market for Wi-Fi services?)

From a practical perspective, it seems like the only people who would be willing to spend the money are those waiting for a train, not those getting off. If you are getting off because you live close and were willing to pay the high price, a broadband connection is probably a few minutes away at home. If you’re transfering to a bus, there are hot spots at street level. If you’re transfering to the to the Muni Metro subway, forget about using electronic devices at rush-hour because the trains are so crowded.

I’ll stick with my unlimited cell data plan from T-Mobile, which offers continuous EDGE service through the downtown tunnels, and adds the ability to use any T-Mobile hot spot in the country.

Advice for people seeking signatures in books

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Microsoft’s Raymond Chen published a book in late December. Naturally, he has lots of people who ask him to sign the book. My book doesn’t sell as well as his does (as I write this, my Amazon rank is #10,314, and his is #7,720*). He has a great piece of practical advice for the aspiring author signature collector: tell us what to write!

When you stop by to ask me to sign your copy of the book, give me some idea what you want me to write. I’m happy to do it, but you have to give me something to work with.

It’s really good advice. Unless I’ve thought about what to write, it’s generally pretty hard for me to write something clever. The easiest book signing I ever did was when somebody asked me to sign a book “To X, the smartest guy I know.” I had no problem complying with his request, though I did add a twist. I put his request on the title page, but on the next page, I wrote “NOT!” in big letters. I was lucky; he loved it.

[*] Before you write and point it out, yes, Amazon sales rankings can be volatile, and don’t always reflect reality. However, I would be surprised if more people wanted to know the guts of 802.11 than to learn why Windows has been hosed by being backwards compatible.
Yes, I know the problems with Amazon sales rankings, and how silly they are.

Tales from the Useless Error Message Bucket: “It’s a driver”

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

On the train tonight, I had a suspicious blue screen. The reason I found it suspicious is that I received the blue screen and STOP error from Windows as I was using my EDGE phone. About a third of a second after the blue screen, there was a soft beep from the phone letting me know that a caller had left voice mail. I find it hard to believe that these two events were unrelated given that they occurred so close together.

When Windows came back up, the crash diagnostic tool dutifully told me that the error message I had seen was caused by a device driver. Here’s what it told me:

Follow these steps to solve the problem with a device driver

You received this message because a device driver installed on your computer caused the Windows operating system to stop unexpectedly. This type of error is referred to as a “stop error.” A stop error requires you to restart your computer.

If I had an idea of which driver had caused the system to stop, then maybe I could do something about it. The only further advice was to think about new drivers or software I might have installed. Too bad there aren’t any, and I have to chalk this crash up to the bogon capture cross-section of the laptop.