Sunday, February 7

Transition Time

This blog has moved to

After struggling with basic text formatting in Blogger for a long time, I finally got fed up and decided to upgrade to WordPress.

Please update your feeds accordingly.

Thanks, John

Thursday, December 17

Pandora in Your Garage

I know I’ve mentioned Pandora before but here is my trick to pipe internet radio music into my garage without carrying my laptop out there.

Like many people, I had an old stereo receiver that was gathering dust. It is now set up in the garage and I sometimes listen to FM stations (less and less), or plug my iPod in and listen to podcasts or music while working on some project. I think I bought this receiver, around 1978 and it only puts out about 25 watts per channel but it still works perfectly and is ideal for the garage.

Here is how to hook up Pandora between your computer and a stereo amp somewhere else in the house.

I recommend using a length of cat5 Ethernet cable (cat3 phone cable would also work) and measure it out to go from your computer to your stereo amp, wherever that happens to be. Obviously you want to avoid running it over hot water pipes or places where it can get damaged. My cable is about 35 feet long to go from my upstairs office down to the garage below. There may be a limit to how long you can make this cable, but I haven’t noticed any signal degradation at 35ft.

Next get one of those short cables that you use to feed your ipod into a standard stereo amp. It has a mini stereo plug on one end like the one on your iPod earbuds, and a pair of RCA plugs on the other end. If you’re like me, you probably have half a dozen of these sitting in a box somewhere. If not, you can get one at Radio Shack for a couple bucks.

Cut this cable in the center and strip the wires carefully back. These are shielded wires so the left and right channel will each have a shield wire and a center conductor. They are very tiny so use care to keep as many strands of the tiny wire in play.

Strip the Ethernet cable and pick 2 pairs of wires, any two will do but they must be a twisted pair (i.e. green and white green, brown and white brown, etc).
Solder the two sections of the audio cable to the ends of the Ethernet cable. Pay attention to the colors and polarity so that both ends of the audio cable are spliced correctly using the Ethernet cable. Tape up the ends. Note: just twisting the wires together may work for a while but you will wish you soldered them before long, trust me.

Now, just plug the cable into the headphone output of your computer audio card and the other end into the AUX input of your stereo. You should initially keep the volume turned down on the amp in case the signal from the computer is too strong. I would not recommend plugging this signal into the phono input of your old amplifier. That one is designed for very small signals and may get overloaded. If you already plug your iPod into the AUX input, you can use the tape input like I do as an alternative and flip the tape monitor switch when you want to listen to Pandora.

As I mentioned, the other thing you can do with this setup is to play the music stored on your PC, such as your iTunes library into the garage and just play music from that instead of using the iPod. This concept can also be used to distribute music all over your house if you are so inclined.

In conclusion, I recommend to friends to send Pandora the $36 for a full year of unlimited music without ads and 5 hours of unattended listening. The sound quality is better as well. Pandora is one of those amazingly cool free services that I love so much that I consider the fee more of a donation like you would do for PBS. They deserve it.

Friday, November 20

Wired Strategy Revealed

When Wired magazine first came out I was entranced. Finally there was a magazine for me, one dedicated to feed my technology appetite. I subscribed immediately and looked forward to every issue. I also subscribed to other magazines for a year or two here and there, but always renewed my subscription to Wired. It remained top priority among magazines I read.

The last few years though I have become less and less satisfied with Wired. There have been months where I find nothing interesting at all and just pass it on to my daughter to put in the waiting room of her spa. This year however, I finally stopped completely. The format has changed, the content is boring, and the ad pages now seem overwhelming. It now seems like just a vehicle for ad space and showcasing products and services.

So this week the opening of the Wired store in New York fits in perfectly with what I see as their evolutionary track. Maybe they are looking to fill the gap left by Sharper Image. For their sake I hope that they don’t follow that business model too closely, although I’m not sure know why I care. I guess it’s just nostalgia for what the magazine used to mean to me.

Monday, November 16

Epson Environmental Disaster

I’m not going to apologize to all my loyal readers for failing to post for so long since I probably don’t have many loyal readers, maybe a few stumblers. I have been way too busy to think about writing humorous or not so humorous comments about the constantly changing technology landscape. C’est la vie.

But today I feel I need to take some time and speak out.

Like millions of other people, I have an inkjet printer that costs me more in ink than it does to buy a new printer every year. I equate this with the exorbitant cost of razor blades. It is the same business strategy, however I will leave that rant for another day.

The current problem I’m having is that after a couple years, my Epson RX620 all-in-one printer no longer prints. More specifically, there are lines and blank spaces and the colors are all wrong. Apparently the print head is no good because changing ink cartridges doesn’t fix the problem.

Nothing else is wrong with this printer. The paper feeds perfectly, the scanner works perfectly (I love the scanner by the way). It is just the print head. So I went online to see if I could replace the print head. I heard from someone that the print head on an Epson printer is particularly unforgiving. If you let one of the 6 ink cartridges run out, you can ruin the print head. Consequently I figured that it is something that they have at least designed to be user-replaceable.

Not so, or at least not economically. I was told by an Epson authorized parts house that the print head is only sold as part of the entire print carriage assembly and costs over $200. Keep in mind that the whole printer sells new for about $250 and a newer improved model goes for about $200. Although the print head is a high precision part, I would be surprised if it costs more than $20-$30 to manufacture in high volume – probably less. After all, HP builds a print head into their ink cartridges.

Someone obviously wants me to throw my printer in the trash rather than fix it.

Although I have had good luck with HP inkjet printers, the reason I bought this Epson model was the paper handling. It feeds in from the rear, makes a less than 90% turn and comes out the front. HP printers all feed paper from the front, make a tight 180 degree turn and return back out the front. The Epson design is better because it doesn’t seem to mess up with pre-scored business card stock and it is the only printer I’ve found that will print the 36” long photo book covers that come with the Epson storybook kits.

So here I am stuck with about $50 worth of new ink cartridges and a printer that is destined to be added to the monumental pile of dead ink-jet printers out there. I wonder how large just the ink-jet printer pile would be if you put all the dead printers in one place? What a testimony to waste!

It is very sad that we have turned into a culture that throws away so much technology that could be repaired. This is truly an environmental disaster. So much engineering goes into making these products inexpensive to manufacture. What if the same creativity was applied to making them repairable by the consumer? Granted that it is cost prohibitive to pay someone (at least in the US) to fix most appliances around the house, but why not make them so you can fix them yourself?

Some marketing analyst probably figures that would impact the sale of new printers. Believe it or not, I have actually considered buying a new Epson printer just because I already have all those ink cartridges! But come to find out, the ones for my old printer no longer work in the new models. Not only have they engineered the printer to become landfill because it is effectively un-repairable, they have engineered the ink cartridges the same way.

So the reason I take the time to write this diatribe is in the faint hope that we will evolve into more conscientious consumers with a little knowledge at our disposal and secondly that companies such as Epson will wake up and realize that people care about things like this.

In closing, here is what Epson posts on their corporate website about their environmental awareness. Judge for yourself if this is just gratuitous PR or they are really committed to the program.

Monday, March 23

10 Reasons to Change Our Calendar

I’m the kind of person who likes to see some order in my life, at least on the most basic level. I can handle all kinds of change and variation, but I like to have at least some continuity that I can hold on to. For this reason, I have always been annoyed that the number of days in a month is constantly changing and that every 4 years an extra day is jammed in at the end of February which shifts all the subsequent days for the rest of the year. It all seems so arbitrary and random, like some group of intellectuals came together a long time ago and decided to just screw with us. I hear them laughing every time I have to detail out monthly budgets or project schedules.

If you dig into the evolution of our calendar you come away with an archaic concoction of sun cycles, lunar cycles, and religious decrees. Whatever the rationale, it is obsolete, annoying and wastes a lot of money on a global scale.

Consequently, I think it is high time we dumped our antiquated 12 month calendar and substitute one that fits our modern world much better. We should start a totally new era with a calendar of 13 equal months. That’s right, 13 months. This will not only simplify our lives at a time when we desperately need it, but will save an incalculable amount of money and time. Hear me out.

Every month would have exactly 4 weeks or 28 days except for December which would have 29 days. This would provide the opportunity to designate the last day of December as a global holiday that leads into New Years Day. It would provide a formal day to review our accomplishments and make wildly optimistic plans for the coming year.

Here are 10 compelling reasons to make the change. Maybe you can think of more.

1. The first of the month would always fall on the same day of the week, let’s pick Sunday. Of course this means that each day of the month would always fall on its same weekday month to month. After a while, you would intuitively know what the date is by what day of the week it was, and vice versa. This alone would prevent millions of missed appointments and mixups. No one would ever tell you to meet him on Thursday the 18th because they would know that Thursday always falls on the 19th.

2. One week would be exactly ¼ of a month, 2 weeks, ½ of a month, and so on. Forget about multiplying 4.33 times the weekly rate to get a monthly rate.

3. Monthly budgets would be greatly simplified since every month would be the same number of days. The same thing goes for payroll.

4. Billions would be saved just on the effort spent planning out recurring events each year, not to mention money wasted buying new calendars.

5. Monthly interest charges would be consistent and easier to calculate.

6. Millions of digital devices that work with dates and time spans would be easier to code.

7. Your birthday would always fall on the same day of the week, as would all holidays. New Years Day would always fall on a Sunday. Valentines Day would always fall on a Saturday (the best day of the week for this holiday). Gone would be the variability of holiday schedules from one year to the next.

8. Regular airline, bus, train and boat schedules would be simpler to publish since the day/date would remain consistent month after month.

9. Watches could be made without the date since any 5-year-old would know that if it’s Tuesday, then it is the 10th, not the 11th.

10. Currently, financial quarters are 90, 91 or 92 days long. With the new system, each financial quarter would be exactly 13 weeks. The 4th quarter would have one or two extra days; however on those days the markets would be closed along with most businesses.

Of course, you’ve probably already thought of the glaring problem here. In order to always have January first always fall on a Sunday, what do we do about the extra day at the end of the year?

Actually the solution is simple. You give that day a new name and insert it between Saturday December 28th and Sunday January 1st. We could call it Earthday, which would culminate with New Year’s Eve celebrations.

So, the last week of December would be one day longer, consisting of 8 days ending with Earthday. Of course, every 4 years the Earthday festival would stretch out to 2 days, followed by the New Years Eve celebrations. It would be a time for renewal and hope for the future. Maybe we call this extra leap year day Kickbackday.

Related to the small problem of getting consensus on what to name the extra days, what do you call the extra month and where do you insert it? I suggest a global internet-based contest to see who comes up with the coolest month name and a rationale for which two months to insert it between.
I propose Johnuary, inserted between July and August. It just sounds right to me.