Right Up Front: 01-20-09 and a cool online sign service

I've been getting a lot of compliments lately on my license plate, my fake front license plate, as permitted under Florida law which only requires an official license plate on the rear of your vehicle.

This cell phone photo does not really do it justice as there is a hint of red around the black numbers, all sharply printed on a solid acrylic sign. And all designed by me, using the services of SignsByYou.com. If you scroll down that page you will see a blank plate. Select that and you have a fairly nifty design tool with which to create your own plate. The quality of the results and shipping time are both excellent. A good example of how technology expands personal expression.

(A word of caution: my wife was pulled over in New York state for having a "novelty plate" on the front of her Florida registered vehicle. The novelty plate, purchased in New York City, was in the style of normal New York plates and the letters were: U.S.A. Can't get more patriotic and law-abiding than that, right? Wrong. She avoided a ticket, but only after the first cop called for backup, I kid you not. So I guess you might want to avoid any custom designs that look too much like the real thing. The real kicker for my wife was the fact that the tag on her Florida plate had expired--and the policeman never noticed. Phew!)

Cool New Car Ideas: Compressed air power

Compressed air car? Yep, this vehicle is designed to tootle around town using a compressed air engine. Which means the emissions are? Cool air.

If you think compressed air is a puny power source consider that the US Navy mounted 15 inch compressed air guns on the experimental U.S.S. Vesuvius, in 1888. Today, you can buy a compressed air rifle that fires 6 rounds of 77 grain 9mm ammo at 900 fps.

So, the main limiting factor with compressed air is not power, it is supply, the need to recharge. Well, how about a small, efficient on-board powerplant that runs a compressor to recharge the holding tanks? This could be used for longer trips, typically outside of urban areas. We like it.

We'd like to see regenerative braking added to the mix. Maybe the compressor is electric, powered by lithium iron batteries, recharged by solar panels in the roof, regenerative braking, and as power source of last resort, a small diesel. BTW, kudos to BMW for putting regenerative braking into the 5-series.

Rock Your Hotel room TV: Use it as an iPod speaker system

Okay, so a lot of turned-on road warriors may have been doing this for a while. I know I've been thinking of doing for about a year but I kept forgetting to take the right cable. What is it? Playing an iPod, or other MP3 player, including a laptop, through the speakers in the hotel room TV.

About a year ago I noticed that a lot of hotels have been upgrading their TVs. Many now have stereo speakers. And quite a few have auxiliary inputs for video and audio. If you're lucky, these inputs are on the front of the box (sometimes they are exposed, other times they are hidden behind a plastic panel). With the right cable you can simply plug in your music player, switch the TV to AUX input, and get a decent room-filling sound.

On this latest trip to Malaysia I finally remember to bring along the right cable. Mini stereo plug on one end, left and right phono plugs on the other. Actually, the cable also has a video plug on each as well, handy for sending movies and photos from my digital camera to the TV screen. Not all hotel TV remotes have an AUX or alternative Video input button so you may have to select this on the front panel of the TV box.

My room at the Prince Hotel in Kuala Lumpur has a very nice Sony Triniton with stereo speakers and I am really enjoying the sound of my playlists on them. It is definitely richer than the sound on the small iPod travel speakers I have tried.

p.s. Hotels in Kuala Lumpur seem to be one of the world's best travel bargains. For $88 per night The Prince Hotel gives you a large, ultra-modern room with loads of tasteful woodwork and a superb view. Okay, you have to pay $12 a day extra if you want high speed Internet. But where else can you get a hotel this good with high speed Internet for $100? The service is first rate. The staff are cheerful and polite, attentive but discreet. Want room service to come back at 4PM because you're busy blogging. No problem and no grumbling. And no clumsy "Do not disturb signs." There's no annoying knocking on doors here--each room has its own electronic bell that guests can control from inside the room. And when you step outside your room you find the hallway is scented with aromatherapy oils.

The Geek's Commode: From the land of the electric loo

Normally I avoid blogging something more than once, but what you see on the right is a worthy exception: a high-tech toilet, a john with juice, a head that's wired, a bog with brains, it is an electric loo.

I encountered this in a hotel near Incheon airport in Korea. Maybe it struck me as amazing because I encountered it after being awake for 32 hours (apart from the sort of fake sleep you get in coach class when all the seats are full and even in you get an aisle seat you can't stretch out for fear of food carts crushing your feet).

But amazing it is, and a great example of how technology still has the power to transform a truly (hopefully) everyday aspect of our lives. And I don't just mean because it gives us more buttons to push (although there are twelve on this thing for those who are counting). I mean that this thing is transformational technology because this it does away with the need for toilet paper, which is a huge boon to the environment. Exactly how it does that I will leave to your imagination dear reader. Suffice to say, you don't want to push the buttons unless your butt is in position.

The Amazing Electric Loo: Now that's technology!

Sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand words. On the left you see the amazing electric loo that I encountered upon checking into my hotel in Seoul, Korea. The entire room was very high tech with remotes for everything (TV, lighting, DVD, VHS, heating/AC, etc).

And then I went to the loo. Wow! Not only is it electric, it has 12 buttons. A geek's commode if ever I saw one.

There was one slight problem (for me, not for Koreans, obviously). I had no idea what the buttons did. I'm not complaining. Just about everything else in the room was labeled in English as well as Korean. But not the commode control pad.

So, like any intrepid explorer (and all geeks and hackers are at heart intrepid explorers) I decided to just push some buttons. I just stood there, leaned down, and picked one at random. At which point a probe extended from inside the loo and sprayed me in the face. I am not making this up (and trying not to fall for cheap shots like "I s**t you not!"). So, I pushed some more buttons until the spray stopped, After I had dried myself off--and this is perhaps what intrepid means--I tried it again, from a sitting position. Much better! In fact, and I'm not sure of the polite say this, this thing washes, rinses and blow dries. No TP required!

24 Hours of Darkness: Flying the dark side of the world

How wrong can one man be? In my previous post--which I had the guts not to amend--I suggested that daylight would catch up with a few hours into my flight to Seoul. Well, far from it my fellow travelers. The very opposite is true. I landed in the dark at JFK on Saturday evening. The Korean Airlines 777-200 took off at 1AM Sunday. It skirted the top of the world in darkness. We landed in the dark and I got to the airport hotel in the dark. I went to sleep at 7AM Monday, with a 14 hour time difference. At which time it still dark in Korea at this time of year. So the picture above is basically the sky for the entire journey. Amazing.

On the bright side, service on Korean Airlines was excellent and the 14 hour flight is survivable in coach, even when coach is full. The inflight entertainment system was the best I've seen/heard yet. More details to follow. The folks at Incheon airport were terrific and the airport itself first rate. The hotel I picked for a day room also turned out to be a great find. More details to follow, including the amazing electric loo.

JFK Terminal One on a Saturday Night

Well, had I've more exciting nights than this, but so far it's not too bad. My trip to Kuala Lumpur started with a cool Delta Airlines feature known as "calling passengers to let them know a flight is delayed." Apparently a lot of airlines offer this, but this is the first time I have actually received a call on my cell phone from an airline in time to stop me leaving the house for the airport. It meant I was able to sit and relax at home for a while and do a few more Saturday chores during the 90 minute delay. And that also meant less time to kill at JFK.

If you have ever flown from Terminal One you may know that some of the foreign carriers don't staff their check-in desks all day. So it doesn't matter how early you get to the terminal, you'll still have to stand in line. You either wait on your feet for the desk to open, or you wait for the line to move through. The picture above is from my Treo, showing the line at Korean Air at 9:00PM, half an hour before the desks opened (and that applies to business and first class too). I had the same problem when I flew business class to Moscow from JFK on Aeroflot last year, although that flight had a fairly light load so the actual wait in line was not that long. Unfortunately, tonight's flight to Incheon/Seoul looks to be packed.

I plan to sleep as best I can although we will hit daylight after a few hours. It seems so weird to be boarding a plane on Saturday night and deplaning at 6:00AM on Monday. I have booked a room at the Incheon Hotel so I can sleep on Monday until the flight from Incheon to KL, which doesn't leave until 4:30 in the afternoon. We'll find out if it is worth the $80. And if I can't sleep, then a shower and a bit of blogging should pass the time (call me a wimp but I gave up the idea of taking in the sights in Seoul when I saw the weather forecast--freezing--while KL will be in the nineties).

Heading East, or Maybe West: Going to Malaysia

So this month I need to go to Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. I will be delivering the keynote at a conference on enterprise [information system] security. I've been there before, about 7 years ago. Back then I was living right next to LAX (right next, like the first flight of the day was my wake-up call). So getting to KL was fairly simple. Fly LA to Singapore or Taiwan and then a short hop on to KL. But getting there from Florida poses an interesting question: Fly East or West?

My final decision came down to dollars and sense. The lowest fare from Jacksonville was out via JFK, then Korean Air to Seoul, thence to KL. Return is going to be China Air to Taipei thence to LAX and JAX. All are Delta code-share and so I will rack up some nice SkyMiles. But, and it could be a sore but, the layovers are loooong, particularly on the way out. So stand by for tips on how to kill 8 hours in JFK and Incheon, Seoul.

Also stand by for photos of KL, famous for the Petronas Towers and other impressive urban architecture. Last time I was there I killed a whole afternoon in the galleria-style mall in the base of the towers. Mainly people watching. And there are plenty to watch--24 million in a country not much bigger than New Mexico (according to the CIA).

Ink Jet Printer Cartridge Rip-Off? Brother 3820CN won't print without removing cartridge that still has ink

I was going to write something nice about Brother recently because I continue to find their 3820CN to be an eminently useful machine. It makes good copies and does printing, scanning, and faxing over my home network. It has a very reliable paper feed which is unusual at this price point. Furthermore, Brother recently repaired my 3820CN free of charge even though it was, strictly speaking, out of warranty. However, something happened today that needs to be addressed.

The control panel told me the Cyan cartridge was empty (the printer has cartridges for Black, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow). I took the Cyan cartridge out and found it was not empty. I put it back in but could not get the machine to accept that there was still ink to be used up. This means I paid for ink that was not used. Furthermore, when any one of the four cartridges is empty the 3820CN will not print. It won't even print in black, as far as I can tell, if a color cartridge is reported to be empty. This means faxing is impaired because the fax confirmation will not print (even though it is a black and white document).

Now, I am not accusing Brother of anything, not yet. I am prepared to think this was an isolated incident, not a devious corporate plot to sell more ink. I have used Brother printers since 1982 (yep, way back in the good ole daisy wheel days). I will hold off any sort of judgment until I get a response to the letter I am sending them. But I am blogging what happened in case anyone else has had the same problem. Please let me know.

Meanwhile I am sending the 'not empty' cartridge to Brother to ask for a refund. And I will update this post with some pictures as soon as I can.

Hegel's Aesthetics: A handy way of looking at things

I have long been an admirer of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher (1770-1831). Like another German philosopher, Nietzsche, Hegel has tended to suffer by association. This is a pity because Hegal has a lot to teach us about art.

Whereas Nietzsche was [quite unfairly in my opinion] tainted by the admiration of the Nazis, Hegel was over-shadowed by Karl Marx--a much less perceptive thinker, IMHO--who drew on Hegelian concepts to lay the groundwork for the dialectical materialism of Lenin and that whole mess.

So Hegel deserves, I humbly suggest, serious reconsideration. Some of his thoughts and interests were very modern. He was very interested in why people think the way they do, why they hold certain beliefs , which have tended to change over time, and why they behave in certain ways, which also evolve over time (although he died the same year Darwin graduated from Cambridge and so never knew of the latter's theory of evolution).

In short Hegel was interested in explaining observed phenomena, so in some ways he was a very practical philosopher, although you don't really get that when you open up something like Phenomenology of Mind, with its dense prose and page long paragraphs.

One of the most useful concepts that I have drawn from Hegel is that of genuine and ersatz manifestations of the same phenomenon which tend to reinforce, not diminish the importance of the phenomenon. Take the modern obsession with the lives of other people. The latter half of the twentieth century was a golden age of biography. Some truly great biographies were written, genuine works of art. At the same time we saw the rise of People magazine and lower-brow populist knock-offs. In trying to understand what is happening to the human race, some philosophers might ignore populist or crass manifestations of what are, when you scratch the surface, the same yearnings as you find reflect in more serious works of art.

But to Hegel they were both of interest. The existence of the same yearnings in different forms only heightened the importance of spelling out those yearnings, in this case the desire to understand how other people live their lives, something that fascinates us because we somehow sense that the way we live our own lives is a work in progress, but a body of work nonetheless. My own interpretation of Hegel, and my own belief, is that our lives are works of art and we are hungry to know how other artists are doing.