Monday, April 23, 2007

A knife... a real knife... like the metal kind

Last night, on my United flight from Dulles to Portland, with the 1st class dinner, I was given the typical cloth napkin with the cutlery rolled up inside. When I unrolled it, I found the normal 2 metal forks and a metal spool as usual. However, instead of getting the little silver plastic knife that I've gotten since 9/11, I was given a real, metal knife (pictured, quite badly, to the left).

I looked to the left and right to see if the other passengers were also getting a metal knife -- they were, so it wasn't some accidental fluke.

I presume the FAA has removed the restriction on metal knives -- something long past due as they airlines have had bulletproof (not just knife-proof) doors on the cockpit.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

When is a rebate not a rebate?

When I purchased my cool Samsung Blackjack phone, Cingular had a rebate program in place offering a $100 rebate if you bought the phone and signed up for the data package.

I took them up on the offer, followed all the directions and sent in my rebate form the next day. This is the step that the cynical Conor (me) believes they hope you won't do (so they get the benefit of offering the rebate without having to give you the cash -- and it's your fault since you didn't follow through). Of course, being the pedantic person that I am, I *always* fill in the form and send it in just to make sure they pay up.

Well, today -- approx 6 weeks later, I receive the "the rebate". I was expecting to receive a check like any other rebate program that I've ever participated in. A check that I could exchange for cash at my local bank, or just deposit into my account.

However, that wasn't to be. Cingular sent me a "Rewards Card". This is a Visa debit card that supposedly carries the value of my rebate.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting, but I'm not at all happy with this. In fact, I'm downright pissed. This is some form of bait-and-switch that should be illegal. When you offer a rebate to your customer, you should provide them with a CASH rebate, not a debit account that they somehow have to figure out how to use.

For the smart ones out there who were thinking, just use the card to get cash -- no dice. I thought the same thing, but alas the rules include:

Your card is valid only in the U.S. and may not be used for cash withdrawals or at any cash dispensing machine.

It's even invalid at the gas pump. If you want to use it to pay for gas, you have to go inside the station and wait in line.

And, of course, it expires in a relatively short period of time.

What are the problems with this debit card model?

  • Cingular hopes that this is another deterrent for the user getting the full value of the rebate. At the minimum, it will slow down the transfer to cash to the user as the user finds ways to make use of the debit card until it is used up.
  • Most facilities are not setup to allow you to mix multiple payment methods, especially online merchants. This means that to get the full value, you have to find a collection of things that add up to the exact amount of $$ on the card (the card even prohibits you from adding $$ to increase it's value up to a value you would want to spend.
  • Cingular hopes that nobody will be able to use up the exact amount ($100 in my case) and so they will profit from the remaining cents left on the card. The only way to totally use it up is to find a friendly merchant who will let you use multiple cards on the same purchase).
  • I'm sure there's some slice of the transaction fee paid by the merchant that somehow makes it into Cingular's pocket (yes, cynical Conor strikes again).

In fact, as I was writing this blog entry, I went to Amazon to try to use up the entire value of the card right away. However, I ran into that "single card" problem for a purchase (so my $100.75 purchase wouldn't work as it was 75 cents over the value of the card). I ended up spending $92.86 of it (just couldn't find something worthwhile to purchase for $7.14 and so I have to remember the card and the amount so that if I do end up making a purchase again, I can use up the rest of it... Perhaps some candy at the local grocery store).

Can you tell that I really hate the idea of this bait-and-switch reward card vs getting the rebate check? Cingular you should listen up -- this is the kind of thing that Elliot Spitzer likes to go after.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gadget of the week #11

I've finally upgraded my "old" Motorola Razr (which I had been pretty happy with) and found the first Windows Mobile based phone that I actually like. I've tried several other WM phones including the Motorola MPx200 and MPx220, as well as an iPAQ H6315, but my new phone puts them to shame.

So, what did I buy? The Samsung Blackjack.

It took me a while to decide on which phone... I've looked at a number of them over the past few months and decided on the Blackjack for several reasons including:

  • It's on my provider (Cingular) so I don't have to pay the premium for an unlocked phone without subsidy.
  • Its small and light, but still has a full qwerty keyboard (though my big fat thumbs are still getting used to it).
  • It has data push available for email so I can set it up to get email from work (haven't done so yet, but one of my compatriots at Intel has gotten this done).
  • It felt nice in my hands.
  • I got it for a good price!

I've been very happy with it since I bought it. It's worked pretty much anywhere I've tried even internationally (though there's an update for it that I've yet to load that is supposed to fix problems with some international access).

Of course, once I bought it I had to go and get the typical set of accessories. I started with a belt clip leather case. I bought the one from Cingular since I wanted one right away (though since it had a plastic clip, I knew it wouldn't last long) -- then when I got home ordered a good one. My case of choice for any device is the case made by Nutshell. They claim their cases are "tough as nuts" and they are. I've had several for different devices and they have never broken in any way -- meanwhile the Motorola case from Cingular broke within 4 days (the clip broke off). See the pics below for the case.

Of course, I had to get my Gadget-of-the-Week-#5 Gomadic power/sync tip:

Which works like a charm, of course.

My other modifications include:

  • A replacement home screen. I didn't like the options that I had built in, nor was I able to find any that I liked that I could download, so I bought a copy of Home Screen Designer 2.0 and made my own. You can see it pictured above (although pictures of the phone screen just don't seem to come out very well). If you like it and want to use it yourself, you can download it from here. I will not support it, I will not provide you with any form of help installing it, and I will not provide any form of renumeration if, when you install it, it causes your phone to go up in flames (in other words, you're on your own).
  • I installed a good Irish ringtone -- a midi rendition of "The Sally Gardens" (an Irish Reel).
  • I figured out (with the help of the web, but I can't find the link anymore) how to configure it to work as a data modem for my PC (and so far Cingular does not charge me for the data minutes). The one sad thing there is that I was unable to get it to work via bluetooth. I was only able to get it to work via the USB cable and I guess I can live with that. I've used it a few times with decent success.
  • I figured out (again with the help of the web) how to substantially lengthen the battery life at the cost of slower connectivity. I'm not sure if I'll keep it that way once I get email push enabled (if I do), but for now, my battery can last several days without a problem -- before this fix, even the extended battery was wearing down by the end of a day.

I'm very happy with the phone -- been using it for a month or so at this point and it's held up great. I'll probably try to install the upgrade at some point soon as I have a trip to Brussels scheduled for next week.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bizarre Circumstances

Clearly the boy has missed his calling (or at least he can give up his day job anytime).

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A useless process

A few weeks ago, Microsoft, IBM and a number of their closest friends started the Technical Committee (TC) creation process within OASIS for the WS-Federation specification. As has been typical with the submission of the various WS-* specs to OASIS and the W3C, they proposed a charter that was an extremely ratcheted down requirement to publish the input document as close as possible to its current state (and they've gotten better with the ratcheting with each subsequent submission).

So much for the cooperative standardization process

This time, what was somewhat different than many of the previous WS-* submissions is that the functionality proposed in WS-Federation has substantial overlap with an existing standard specification which was approved as a standard more than two years ago -- SAML 2.0.

OASIS's TC creation includes a comment period which, in this case, was used by a number of OASIS participants including the likes of Nokia, France Telecom, Sun, Fujitsu, Oracle, and Neustar.

Many of the comments questioned the overlap in functionality between the 2-years-ago-standardized SAML 2.0 and the proposal.

The response to this input is recorded here. If you want the cliff notes version all you need is:

No changes to the proposed WSFED TC charter are required.

The only winning comment was Frederick Hirsch's comment about spurious characters in the charter -- this resulted in an agreement to remove them from the final charter document.

So, while there is a comment period, the proposers for the TC don't have any obligation to accept, listen to, or even pay attention to any such comments. In the session in which the comments are discussed, only the proposers can provide input, the commenters can't argue their case, nor can they do anything to impact the outcome of the treatment of their comments, even if they are being totally ignored.

OASIS and its members would be better served by a process that has some useful purpose. Asking people to provide comments and input that can be out-of-hand totally ignored is wasting their time in putting the input together, wasting the proposers time in having to organize and participate in the review meeting where they can simply ignore all input, and wasting the rest of our time in un-beleivably reading the out-of-hand dismissal 31 separate times.

So the official call for participation has been released now. The WS-Federation TC is forming under what many view as a flawed charter and a flawed standards process. Perhaps the not-so-nice response to this not-so-nice process would be to join the TC and to simply vote to block forward movement of the spec until these issues are resolved. Yeah, that's the nuclear option, but perhaps it's time to throw down the gauntlet and somehow drive some convergence in this market rather than continuing to drive separation.

Clearly I'm speaking, even more so than normal, from my non-PC personal point of view.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Making an MP3 CD...

I was on a long trip this past weekend through the mountains of Pennsylvania where there was little to no radio station coverage and it kept changing as I drove through one location to another. I had made a similar trip a week ago with a rental car from Hertz which was configured with a Sirius satellite radio receiver and it was one of the first times I really appreciated the benefit of such a device. However, I don't make this trip all that often to justify the cost of subscribing to the service.

My car, a Chevy Colorado pick-up truck, has a 6 disc CD player so I could, and did, use some audio CDs to fill in with some music, but the number of tracks is quite limited even with 6 potential discs (although I only had one disc with me).

I tried using my FM transmitter for my iRiver Clix, but depending upon where I was, the chosen frequency kept getting overridden by an outside transmitter and I had to keep moving the frequency around -- not a good thing to do driving along at 70-75MPH.

My car's CD player does support the ability to play MP3 data CDs, giving me a 10x improvement in audio quantity, so I set out to create a disc that I could use in the car with my best music. Of course, it can only play MP3 formatted files, not WMA formatted files.

My media player of choice in my computer is Windows Media Player (WMP) and I rip my CDs in 160kbps Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. I have taken great pains to go through my entire collection of music and rate each song and wanted to use some automatic playlists to select the best of the best music for my new CDs (e.g. all 4 or 5 star rated songs). That's where the problem started.

First off, WMP seems to only want to create discs that are either an audio CD (with the standard audio format and thus about 80 minutes of music on a 700MB disc) or it can create a WMA format data disc which has good compression (close to 800 minutes) but unfortunately can't play in my car. I was unable to find a way to get WMP to burn a CD in MP3 format, nor a way to get WMP to generate a directory of MP3s from one of my playlists. Some research on the web indicated that I may have gotten this capability if I purchased the Windows XP Plus! Superpack, but I didn't have that nor did I want to purchase that.

I have Roxio Easy Media Creator 7.5 (yeah, I probably should upgrade to version 9, but they ticked me off when I bought version 7 less than a month before 7.5 came out and they didn't want to give me a free upgrade to 7.5) installed and tried to use that (which does have the ability to create an "MP3 disc" -- which I'm pretty sure is exactly what I'm looking for. However, it was unable to take WMA formated files as input nor was it able to use one of the WMP playlists.

I also have iTunes installed which is able to import WMAs and is able to store files within it's library in MP3 format, but it too appeared to be unable to use a WMP playlist as input to specify the files to copy/convert, nor was I able to find a way to get it to generate an MP3 disc (audio disc yes, backup disc -- whatever that is -- yes, but MP3 disc apparently no).

However, this motley collection of tools, along with some shell scripting, was able to accomplish the task at hand. The steps are shown below:

  1. Create a directory containing the WMA files that I want to have on the MP3 disc. This was necessary so that I didn't have to manually select each song that I wanted to import into iTunes, nor re-generate my ratings/playlists within iTunes because I imported the entire WMA collection. I saved a WMP playlist containing the files of interest and ran the following script within cygwin:
     grep "\.wma" "$OLDPWD/mylist4.wpl" \
             | sed -e 's;.*"M:.My Music.;;' \
                   -e 's;"/>;;' -e 's;\\;/;g' \
                   -e "s-'-'-g"          \
                   -e "s-&-\\&-g"         \
             | cpio -pdm /cygdrive/d/data/tmp/music

    This reads the specified WMP playlist (mylist4.wpl in this case), uses SED to convert the XML into a list of files (XSLT is probably the right way to do this as the file was XML, but a) I don't have XSLT installed and b) the XML was simple enough to do this all with the SED script), and uses CPIO to copy the WMA files to a temporary directory.

  2. Import the files in the temp directory into iTunes. Be sure to change the preferences setting within iTunes to tell it to import the files in 128Kbps MP3 rather than the default AAC format.
  3. Use Roxio's Creator Classic utility to burn an MP3 disc, selecting the iTunes collection as the source (I had no other music in my iTunes installation so this made it pretty easy -- I didn't have to go poking around selecting files to include on the disc.) The default iTunes music directory in my install was "My Documents\My Music\iTunes\iTunes Music".

I presume that someone, somewhere has an easier way to do this and I would love to hear about it as I presume I will need to do this again. It's a shame that WMP didn't offer this capability directly as it certainly has the necessary codecs and could have done so -- but I presume they are more interested in spending time on their hateful DRM stuff.

UPDATE - after all this, I find out that it is only the single-disc player for my car that includes the ability to play MP3s. The 6 disc changer does not have this capability. So it was all a waste!!!

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