Monday, August 31, 2009

Feedback on the Texting While Driving Video

The NYT has an article about "Some Doubts About Scare Tactics on Drivers Who Text". Several key points stand out.
A violent ad must also instruct people on how to change their behavior, otherwise, “to erase the fear quickly, you say, ‘That’s not me,’ ” Professor Tay said. And just because an ad is popular does not mean that viewers will change their driving behavior, he said. One reason that violent ads may not work as well is that teenagers are already well aware that some activities are dangerous, said W. Kip Viscusi, who has studied risk for decades and is a professor at Vanderbilt University.
My son watched it. Although he did not take issue with the implications--texting could easily cause a fatal distraction--he also did not dwell on them. What immediately got his attention was the relatively poor production values--he said "that looks so fake". He was right of course. It was not bad, for a $20,000 budget, and was certainly gory enough, but by today's standards of special effects, it was quite unconvincing. The result, I think, was that a subtle equivalence was quickly set up in his mind--fake effects, so dismiss the whole message.
Cheryl Healton, chief executive of the American Legacy Foundation, a group that specializes in antismoking efforts, suggested that cellphones could show a prompt on their phones, reminding people not to text and drive.
A boring, boilerplate warning--really??. When does it display--every time you re-start your phone? Every time you start a text? I'm afraid this is a hoary chestnet from the classic school of good intentions, but poor results.
Kelly K. Browning, executive director of the advocacy group Impact Teen Drivers in California, has suggested an idea, Star 65 to Stay Alive, to AT&T, in which the company could set up a code of *65 to disable incoming calls and texts, and send automatic response messages like, “I’m driving right now. I’ll get back to you when I’m off the road.”
This has a little bit of merit. But just a little--it takes a lot of motivation and forethought for the user to use it. Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of the "Do Not Disturb" feature, and not just for drive-time. But as a major cure for driving while texting, I deem it unlikely to have any significant impact. (There is another product that does something like this, ZoomSafer.) However, if you combined this feature with GPS-based texting de-activation--now you would be talking!

Online Appointments - What If I Don't Want To Provide Choice #2

Tires Plus, where I generally get my oil changed, offers the ability to make online appointments. That's kind of convenient. The only problem is, they require you to specify at least 2 appointment requests. Well, that doesn't work for me. I want an appointment tomorrow around 5 pm. If that doesn't work--well, I have to go back to the drawing board. So I can understand that they might gently suggest providing a second choice, but why require it? All it does is force me to call them--something I assume they fine less desirable than a web appointment.

(I tried making 5:15 my second choice, and got a rejection saying the appoitment requests must be at least 2 hours apart.)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Texting While Driving

Texting while driving seems as dangerous as driving moderately drunk. Very scary. As the parent of soon-to-be teen drivers, that got me thinking about counter-measures. In some ideal world, the texting feature on the phone would be disabled while the key is in the ignition. That's not happening any time soon. So here is the best thing I can think of...I would like software to automatically correlate time-of-day texts are sent with the speed of the car at that time. If a text was sent at 14:42:07, and the car was going 32 mph at that time, and my child was driving at that time, then that is a problem.

This is a very reactive solution, but better than nothing.

8/30/09 Update
When I wrote the above, I was overlooking the fact that most phones have GPS built in. That would make it pretty simple, I think, to build this functionality all into the phone ( I was thinking it would require in-car software). So, searching around a little bit--here we go. For Android, we have Textecution. $9.95 though--rather pricey, and seemingly no trial or Lite option. What a great idea though. This company, and maybe the mobile carriers, need to find a way to partner with anti-texting-while-driving-advocates to get a regulatory push for this stuff.

(Google Market search note--no apps found when using the obvious search of "texting", "driving".)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Digital Dopamine

As John Ratey, the Harvard professor of psychiatry who specializes in the science of attention, told The Times's Matt Richtel for his chilling series, "Driven to Distraction," using digital devices gives you "a dopamine squirt."

Observing my children and texting--and probably, to be truthful, my own habits with email--I suspected there was a significant element of stimulation to the short-term reward system going on with receiving texts, email, etc. I think probably we should have a sabbath day from electronic communication.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Farmer's Market Broccoli

Is really good. Much less bitter than normal. Easy to eat raw.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fell for a UL

As one who prides himself on being able to spot an urban legend at 50 paces, I feel like I should fess up on the rare occasion when I fall for one. So, here it is--I fell for this email claiming that "On August 27...Mars will be as big as and bright as ourmoon. It will be that close to the earth. Anyone alive to see it will not be alive when it happens again." I made a point of putting it in my calendar, and brought the kids out to see it that night. Not as big as the moon, but there sure was a bright evening star (aka, planet) in the sky. The next night, I told Beth about it, and took her out to see it. She started to put something about it in Facebook, then thought to check first and, sure enough, found it here in Snopes.

In hindsight, there is always at least one or two signal UL clues. In this case, the "as big as the moon" part is the giveaway. In rapidly reading the email, I did remark that, but semi-consciously dismissed it as modest hyperbole (like maybe as much area and brightness as the crescent moon).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Super-Cheap Toner Cartridges

I base my choice of home laser printer primarily on cost per page. I am on my second Brother printer, for that reason. But the prices I am seeing for TN350 cartridges on Amazon are setting new records for low-cost toner. I actually bought a couple 2 weeks ago for $10/cartrdige, from JR I think. I installed one yesterday, and have probably printed 50 pages. So far, so good.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Saturday, August 08, 2009

I Thought This Kind of Mob Behavior Was the Specialty of the Left

Health Debate Turns Hostile at Town Hall Meetings

Members of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds at town hall meetings on health care.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

$10 Month for TeleNav

As noted, I just acquired an Android-based smartphone. One goal is definitely to have an all-in-one, electronic swiss-army-knife device to carry. And it does include GPS capability, along with Google maps. But if you want turn-by-turn navigation, apparently you have to sign up for TeleNav, at the hefty cost of $10/month.

I just don't see the value proposition there. I bought a very nice, widescreen GPS unit for a mere $70. So I'm supposed to pay that much for half a year to get navigation on my phone? That's crazy--it is bad enough to have to pay $25/month for a data plan.

Now you might say that hardcore travelers will pony up for the cost. I don't think so--a smartphone navigation is definitely a make-do proposition, compared to a dedicated unit.

But people seem to be paying it, so I must be missing something.

Electical Outlets should have USB connections

...for charging only, I mean. USB chargers for cell phones are wonderful. If electrical outlets accomodated USB, that would even more cut down on the number of chargers one needs to carry. Definitely a feature for a place like Starbucks to implement. (Actually, the shorcut would just be to provision the newer power strips, that have USB hubs included.)

Outlook PTO Feature - Prevent Calendar-Blocking

People are constantly messing up, and sending out their Outlook calendar PTO notifications with "Show Time As = Busy". The result is many blocked calendars. While some might welcome this situation, it is nevertheless A Bad Thing. I think Outlook needs a switch to indicate "Allow Out of Office?" appointments...if you check No, then when someone schedules an appointment on your calendar as OOO, that gets converted into Free.

I don't know, maybe that is too much feature-itis, but it sure would address a problem. The nature of my calendar usage is such that nobody really ever needs to schedule something on my behalf that has me showing as OOO.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

T-Mobile Android myTouch Review

I received my pre-order myTouch (aka, G2, or HTC Magic) 5 days ago, and have been putting it through its paces since then. The myTouch (stupid, cutesy name) is the second Android phone to hit the market in the U.S. It is definitely a geek phone. I didn't have the thing in my hands for an hour before I was feverishly downloading (mostly free) apps. I spent hours the first 3 days researching and downloading (mostly free) apps. I honestly don't think the vanilla phone would be very satisfying, either to a power user, or to a tech novice. So I definitely don't think it is in any danger of being an iPhone killer.

Rather than re-capitulate the basics that I have read in any number of other reviews, I will focus on the things I haven't seen mentioned.

Virtual keyboard. Every review talks about the ergonomic considerations of the virtual keyboard. What they gloss over is the loss of keyboard shortcuts--to me that is a very big deal. Maybe that is because most people never learn the G1 keyboard shortcuts, just as they never learn the PC keyboard shortcuts.

No PageDown Key. This is a subtle one, and probably bothers me more than most people...a signifcant use of a smartphone for me is as an eReader. Years ago, I used the PalmPilot for this same purpose. The Palm had a nice PageUp/PageDown rocker key. You could one-hand the device, with a thumb on the phone, and read pretty conveniently. With the myTouch, you can try to use the roller ball for the same purpose, but you have to twirl it a lot more, and it is still much slower. Most people will just reach up and swipe the page down, which is a real inconvenience on a tiny screen, because you have to do it about every 20 seconds.

Muting Phone Calls. I use my cell phone a lot for conference calls. I spend a lot of time on mute. So it is very important to me to be able to switch on/off mute quickly and easily. That was one of the things I hated about my previous phone--3-4 clicks to get to mute. So I had high hopes that ideally the phone itself, but if not, a third-party app would provide a super-convenient mute button. What I really wanted was a great, bug toggle button that would fill up half the screen, so you couldn't miss it. No such luck--it is still too many taps to mute a conference call. And the new 2-second timeout to lock the keypad on calls (a v1.5 feature) makes it worse.

The built-in speaker is several cuts above average. It is actually tolerable for listening to music, fine for audio, and loud enough to work okay to play podcasts in the car on the highway.

The trackball could be far more seems to scroll the cursor really slowly. As it is, I wouldn't miss it if they removed it. What I do wish they had was a "soft button", that could be configured per applcation. If nothing else, that would address my mute problem, albeit not as elegantly as I have envisioned in an app.

Okay, every review talks about two things. One, the lack of a 3.5 mm headphone jack. That is annoying, but to me, over-stated, since anyone cutting-edge enough to have an Android phone also is going to have bluetooth stereo. The other thing is the case the phone ships with. Instead of a cardboard box, you get a zippered, well-constructed case. Everybody makes a huge deal about this. To me, that is pure marketing attention-getting fluff. Nobody is going to carry their smartphone around in a case. But this small, inexpensive differentiator gets T-Mobile lots of attention.

Instead of a nice, but useless case, I would way rather have them include a second battery and battery charger! I suppose one downside with that, besides the cost, is the implication--our smartphone is such a battery hog that we had to include a second battery. Still, that would be a really nice touch (and it's something the iPhone can't do, with their sealed battery). (If they really had to economize, include the second battery and skip the stand-alone charger.)

The dedicated back key works very well--it's applications are intuitive (not just in the browser), and the IU responsiveness is very, very quick.

There are many obvious times the keyboard should pop up automatically, but doesn't. You have to do the long press on the menu key to raise it, when it is very obvious from the context of the app (composing a text for example), that you need it.

I found that some kind of Task Manager/Killer is vital. First I downloaded Taskiller, which worked very well, until it didn't. I wound up un-installing it, and it still left a residue of failed "widgets". I found another one, Task Manager, and it seems to work very well, with the added benefit of being a very easily-accessed Task Switcher.

Scrollling long lists is a real problem. One or two finger swipes is fine, but after that, it gets old. One app, PhoneBook, has a significant improvement--it pulls up a Windows-style scroll box. I don't for the life of me know why this isn't a standard part of ANdroid. Of course that is the beauty and the consumer buy-in of Android. Unlike with a traditional, carrier-captive phone--where an upgrade will only come when you get a new phone--we can hope maybe such an improvmenet will appear in a near-future release.

USB charger. Not that the myTouch is unique in this matter (I think all the new BlackBerrys have it), but this is a key item. Failure to provide a standard USB charger deserves as much criticism as failure to provide a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Just think how simplified our lives would be if all hand-held electronics charged via USB (I am particularly thinking bluetooth headsets).

Note-Taking. I downloaded a nice, free Notes app, AK Notes. This one does have the right idea, it automatically pulls up the keyboard when you start a new note. But it defaults to the Note list, requiring another click to compose a note; it would be nice to control this via Settings. You still can't beat the Palm Pilot for jotting a very quick ink-as-a-datatype note.

Speed. Performance is adequate, but not zippy. If it were 3-4 times as fast, it would really rock.

All in all, I am impressed, and I will probably keep it (5 days into my 14-day grace period). But I am already looking forward to the next generation of hardware and software. Of course, that is part of the whole Android concept--the consumer can hope for pretty continuous improvement. Hopefully Android system updates will not overly tax older hardware, I'm looking at a 2-year contract.

Okay, that's it for the first rev of the phone review. I will add some updates in a week or so, along with a review of some Apps. That's another thing most reviews gloss over. They definitely mention that apps store, and maybe comment on a couple of apps, but I get the feeling that most reviewers haven't downloaded all that many non-game apps. I on the other hand have installed a good 40 apps. Some are true apps, many are phone customizations and enhancements, the things absolutely necessary to make the myTouch feel like an iPhone-competitive, first-class device!