Monday, June 28, 2010

What happened to our country?

I had an occasion this morning before work to visit the San Mateo County (Southern) traffic court administration building.

This is where you go if you get a ticket in San Mateo county to pay the bail, turn in paperwork, what not. This is not the courthouse. This is the place where there's a velvet-rope line leading to a bunch of bank-teller-like windows with pasty faced bureaucrats that work computers. There are, oh, I don't know, 5 windows, and the building inside is maybe 10'x20'. Relatively small. I've never seen a DMV that wasn't huge by comparison.

They had a metal detector and an X-ray machine. I had to take off my belt to go hand my paperwork to the aforementioned pasty-faced bureaucrat.


Let's say I decided that my speeding ticket was the last straw and I was going to take the bastards out. If I walked in the front door with an uzi I could hose down the whole room from right there. Hell, the metal detector makes a good aiming point, actually.

In other words, the purpose of security screening is that it takes place far enough away from the thing you're trying to protect that if any funny business goes on, it has no impact on the sensitive stuff.

And what sensitive stuff? This is not the courthouse. Even if it were the courthouse, there aren't any real judges at traffic court, just administrators. Why are they wasting everybody's time (and the taxpayers' money) protecting this stupid little shack of clerks like it was a fucking airport?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Apple store funnies

I was at the Apple store today and happened to pick up an iPad that was sitting there. When I woke it up, this is the image that greeted me:

I thought I was the only one that trolled at retail stores... :)

iPhone 4: FaceTime over 3G

So my nephew and I waited in line at the Valley Fair Apple store yesterday and got the new Jesus Phone. For the most part, it has been reviewed to death all over the web and I don't have a lot to add to what has already been written. Except for one thing.

FaceTime is the new video chat feature, and it works every bit as well as advertised. As was noted, the feature has been limited to WiFi only for the moment. This means that it won't work over 3G. This raises the question as to whether or not this limitation is an artificial one, or that maybe there are problems with it working over 3G.

Well, I am one of the few who can answer that categorically. I have a MiFi 2372 on AT&T. With it, and with my iPhone connected to it, I am still using the exact same HSUPA networking as the phone would have by itself, but the phone is "fooled" into dropping 3G restrictions.

I've made a few FaceTime calls this way now, and I can report that it works just as perfectly over 3G as it does when a pair of phones are in the same room sharing a wifi hotspot. Clearly the wifi only restriction has more to do with AT&T figuring out how to price the feature rather than any sort of technological limitation.

Unless AT&T is going to attempt some sort of equally artificial pricing for FaceTime, I'm not sure why they simply wouldn't price it like any other data. I mean, mobile-to-mobile calls (to other AT&T phones) are already free. So the mere switching of those calls over to data won't impact anyone's minute count.

I suppose AT&T may have wanted to avoid swamping their network with FaceTime activity on day one, but if that's true, then we should see the feature opened up for 3G sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What Apple and AT&T can learn from Saudi Arabia

I've never been to Saudi Arabia, but if I ever go, there's one thing in particular that would be interesting to see on my way in and out.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, is the country where Mecca is located. Mecca is the site of a shrine that is the center of the universe for the Muslim faith. Muslims are instructed, once in their lifetime, to go on the Hajj, which is a pilgrimage to Mecca. There is a Hajj season every year, during which Saudi Arabia hosts millions of pilgrims who trace the Hajj route and do whatever it is that they do. I apologize to Muslims for any and all details I might be missing or getting wrong.

The King Abduliaziz airport in Jeddah is where a lot of these pilgrims first step foot in the Kingdom. And to accommodate them, they built a special Hajj terminal at the airport capable of handling 80,000 passengers at once. This terminal is entirely separate from the ordinary terminal, and travelers bound to and from Jeddah for business other than the Hajj presumably use the other terminals to conduct their business likely with little or no impact from the crowds of pilgrims beginning their pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., another year has brought us another annual pilgrimage of a different sort, as Apple released a new version of the iPhone. And even though they've run out of the phones and delivery estimates are now well past mid July, AT&T's website has still not fully recovered.

I got a replacement 3G Microcell this evening from them in the hopes that it might fix the problems we've been experiencing. Whether it will or not remains a mystery, since I need to get on AT&T's website to swap out the serial number. But I can't. Because the hordes of iPhone customers are preventing any other business on the AT&T wireless website.


So now I am going to spend all night long pressing "reload" on 10 windows on AT&T's website until one goes through.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Note to Steve

Hey Steve, how's this for a "Think Different" idea:

Next time you set a pre-order date for something everybody in the goddamn world is going to want, you set it up so that for the first 24 hours the website just logs all of the order details and then processes them offline?

P.s. Isn't it just a little embarrassing when (which is the FAIL page) can't be loaded because the server is too busy?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mythbusters - myth... exaggerated?

Mythbusters just aired an episode that included the myth that a sneeze goes 100 mi/hr and can travel 30 feet. The experimental results: just under 40 mi/hr and a maximum of 17 feet. They called it "busted."

So yes, at a literal level, they got somewhere around 50% of what the myth says, and 50% ain't 100%, so yes. But I think the literal numbers as stated in the myth are much less important than the message of the myth, which is that a sneeze goes faster and further than you probably expect. 17 feet is across a whole room, after all. A waiter sneezing in the corner of a restaurant could conceivably hit every diner in the place.

And this isn't the first time a myth had such a result. So I think I'd call this myth exaggerated rather than busted. I think if a sneeze went 10 mi/hr and only went 5 feet you'd be able to say it's definitely busted. But in this case, I think busted is just too harsh.

Monday, June 7, 2010

iPhone 4 and Arthur C. Clark

The story line in 2001: A Space Odyssey contains a moment where mankind discovers a large magnetic anomaly on the moon. This anomaly is centered on a large object that had been deliberately buried millions of years in the past. When the sun strikes the monolith, for the first time in ages, it suddenly transmits an intense radio signal. The monolith was a solar powered alarm, designed to notify its inventors when (if) the inhabitants of the Earth gained the technological ability and intellectual curiosity to find the device and dig it up.

In the story, the monolith, and the others that appear, all share the same physical description, though with varying sizes. All of them are featureless, black and have sides whose dimensions form a ratio of 1:4:9 - the squares of the first three integers.

A few posts ago, I ruminated on the iPad and how it was very similar to the pad-looking thing that Bowman and Poole watched TV on aboard the Discovery.

Now that we've all gotten a good look at the iPhone 4, I'm struck by how it too bears similarity to something in the movie - in this case, the monolith itself.

It's only a superficial similarity. The dimensions of the phone are not really 1x4x9. In fact, the phone is slightly too thin compared to the monolith. At it's 4.5 inch height, it should be half an inch thick instead of 0.37 inches. And at 2.31 inches wide it is slightly wider than the 2 inches that would make it like the monolith. That's leaving aside the stainless steel strip running around the thin edge full of buttons and ports, and the big home button on the front.

Still, I think anyone who is a fan of the movie who gets an iPhone 4 should for sure get a black one...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

AT&T Microcell - work in progress

It's been a while now, and I have to admit that the Microcell has not gone as well as I would like.

You'll recall that the idea was that we could get rid of Vonage by going with the unlimited Microcell calling. By doing that, we could change the $25 we spend on the Vonage line into the $20 for the Microcell plan.

It turns out, that the potential savings is even better - we've already been able to down-shift our cell plan from the 700 minute to the 550 minute plan, saving us another $10. It turns out that between us, we only make about 200 minutes of calls per month that aren't to each other or from home.

But unfortunately, the microcell isn't yet functioning well enough to make me comfortable with shutting off Vonage.

1. Every once in a while you attempt to place a call and it just fails immediately. So you have to redial a couple times before it works.

2. Every, I'd say, 3rd or 4th phone call includes periods of time when the calling party sounds all garbled. You can recognize who they are, but it's as if they're speaking in tongues.

3. The microcell, even when it's working, introduces a good quarter second or so of latency. Much more than Vonage, and enough to cause conversational collisions that are awkward.

I've been in more or less weekly contact with an AT&T engineer for about the last month now. They're earnest and nice, but they're not really telling me that they've figured out what the problem is and how to make it better.

Now, let me just spend a moment to explain to anyone who might suggest that our Internet connection might have any impact on how well (or not) this gizmo is working: The Microcell's internet connectivity is truly the best possible scenario possible in a residential setting. Really. I'm not exaggerating in the slightest. We have AT&T's best DSL offering - 6M/768K (yes, there are higher bandwidth connections you can get, but their latency and jitter are not as good. And once you have more than about 64 kbps in bandwidth in each direction, the needs of a VoIP connection are met anyway). I've programmed our DSL router to use traffic shaping to give ports 1 and 2 priority over ports 3 and 4. Ports 1 and 2 have the Microcell and Vonage boxes plugged in, and 3 and 4 have and our Airport Extreme. If I create a very large uplink load, like a speed test, I can observe the latency on ports 3 and 4 rise into the hundreds of msec, but the latency on ports 1 and 2 only go up by 10 msec or so. So the traffic shaping is working. In addition, we have a block of static IP addresses, and both the vonage box and the Microcell have public IPs without any sort of firewall in front of them. There really cannot possibly be any better scenario unless you plugged in a Microcell in at a datacenter.

And I'm not alone, apparently. These same symptoms have been spoken of by other folks out there on the Internet and in AT&T's own customer forum.

This is the problem with being an early adopter - one winds up effectively being a guinea pig. It was like this with the DirecTV DVRs too - it took them almost a year before they were reasonably usable - and we weren't even the first folks to get them.

I am still holding out hope that they might fix it. Of course, hoping is all I can really do.