Friday, March 17, 2006

Ruston Police Once Again Demonstrate Their Investigative Prowess

Do you know a Steve Weenig?

"So, Steve, did you run out of gas?" Such were the words of the incredibly observant Police officer earlier today. I guess I should introduce the story a little better than that. 
With Christy now working in Shreveport, she drives the wonderfully gas-efficient Kia, the car that had been my constant companion during the long commute from Ruston to Monroe at least four times a week to work. So, I was left with my trusty Ford Ranger. Well, the Ranger is now 12 years old and it's showing. It's on its third transmission, which has already passed its peak and is on it's way down the opposite slope. Arrangements had to be made if I planned on taking it above its current maximum speed of 45 mph. 
My dad offered to loan me his pickup truck for the next few months until we move to Austin. I took him up on the deal in January. I quickly found out that this pickup was not like most other cars. Rather, I discovered that this truck can run on gasoline or on ethanol (a nifty discovery seeing how Chevy has just announced that it's the only car maker to have such a model; dad's truck is a '99 Ford Ranger). Anyway, either because of its dual fuel capacity or because some oversight by a Ford engineer, this truck has no reserve fuel capacity. By that I mean that where normal cars can run for several miles (sometimes up to 50 or 60) after the fuel gauge reads Empty, this truck is completely out of gas as soon as the needle is exactly lined up with the E. This was an unfortunate discovery on my way home from work one night at 9:30 PM. Luckily, I was only about 1/4 mile away from the nearest gas station where I purchased a gas can and some gasoline. Since then, the gas can has been a permanent fixture in the back of the truck, carrying 2 gallons of extra gasoline just in case of emergency, or running out of gas on Sunday. 
Where was I? Oh yeah, the Ruston police. Well, last night I was headed to work when I noticed that I was low on gas. I filed the information away and decided that I would fill up either on the way home from work or the next morning before leaving for Monroe. Well, I filed it in one of those government folders that never turns up again. I didn't think about it again until I was late going to class and knew I had no time to fill up. I coasted into the Tech parking lot on fumes. After class, I actually made it half way home before the engine started to choke. It died on me just as I had pulled into the middle lane to turn onto my street. I proceeded to empty the spare gasoline into the tank. As I was filling the tank, gas can in my hand, gasoline fluid moving from the spare can to the tank, one of Ruston's finest pulled up behind the truck and proceeded to inspect the situation. He strolled up to me and asked, "Did you run out of gas?" I was sorely tempted, in the most excruciating way, to respond that I had just discovered too much gasoline in my tank and was siphoning some into the spare can to keep the truck from getting indigestion. 

Speeding is Dangerous

Argueably, the most broken law today is the speed limit. Others could contend that it's copyright infringement, especially if they've seen my music and DivX movie collection. But that's another topic for another day. 
With speeding so rampant nowadays, the injustice of actually getting punished for such a crime can be very frustrating. Therefore, the quesiton must be posed: why do we have a speed limit? I know, it's a stupid question because the answer is so obvious. Well, these comments are directed at Ruston's finest, who, as established above, aren't exactly running on Pentium processors. The answer is blatantly that certain speeds are dangerous to the person speeding and the other drivers on the road with the offender. 
Now, obviously, there must be exceptions to the speed limit. One (if not the only) current exception is that police officers often have the need to exceed the maximum allowable speed in order to carry out some sort of action that is in the public's best interest and safety. This is a perfectly acceptable exception and should be allowed. With one restriction. 
Since exceeding the maximum speed limit is dangerous to the public, police officers at least turn on their lights in order to alert other drivers on the road to the heightened level of danger. This measure counter acts, in the best way possible, the negative effects of the officer's need to travel at a dangerous speed. All of this makes perfect sense. This however, is not reality. That would have been nice wouldn't it?
Now is the point where you either stop reading this or wonder to yourself where I've said something that is not a part of our reality. When was the last time a police officer passed you on the interstate? Or was going the same elevated speed as everyone else through a school zone? This would fall under that exception that allows police officers to exceed the maximum allowable speed. The logical succession would follow that that police officer has his lights and maybe even his siren on. When was the last time you saw a cop do that? 
The point is that police officers often abuse their exception, but fail to turn on their lights. This fact can only lead to one of two conclusions: (1) either his lights are not on because the level of danger is not elevated by his speeding or (2) the officer is choosing not to turn on his lights even though his actions are making the roads more dangerous. 
Conclusion 1 leads into an argument that since it is not dangerous to drive at elevated speeds, the speed limit has been imposed unnecessarily and should be increased until the danger is truly increased. Wouldn't that be nice!
The second conclusion can only mean that the police officer is willfully disobeying his oath to serve and protect the public. In this case, the obvious recourse is that the officer is not fit for his public duty and cannot be trusted with the safety of the public.
The strange thing is, neither of these actions is taking place. (I love logic.) This means that, logically, those responsible for either raising the speed limits on our streets are not fullfilling their duties and should be removed from office, or that those responsible for reprimanding and maintaining the quality of our finest are not doing their job and should also be removed from office. 
And now, for my conclusion: our voters are apathetic and those in office know it. This is why they abuse the privileges we've given them: because they fear no reprimand. If you've followed the logic, I only want to make one other point: 1 + 1 = um... well, you figure it out.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

The Digitally Enhanced Automobile

With computer components becoming smaller and smaller, more and more car manufacturers should think about designing entire computers into new model cars. The only reasons I can think of that it hasn't been done yet is that either no one's brave enough to suggest it to penny pinching CEO's or that the computer parts aren't small or durable enough for a car. I think both of these reasons are kibosh.
It is obvious that people want more out of their cars. Since I spend most of my time commuting in my car (45 minutes a day), I often wonder about the different things I could do if I had a full blown pc in the car. I've actually done it from time to time with my laptop, but it proved slightly difficult for reasons I'll explain below.
Here are some of the features I would like to see in my car:
  • GPS - A lot of new cars come with GPS technology anyway. Adding GPS capability to a personal computer will allow for more extensive maps and tracking of system information. If my 16 year old son takes the car out for a spin, having a GPS on board will help me find him when he's broken down or when his girlfriend's father calls me asking where my no good son has taken his daughter.
  • ODB-II Interface - A mechanic friend of mine enlightened my mind when it came to this tool. He has a handheld ODB-II scanner that reads the information from the On Board Diagnostics computer in the car and can tell him why the Check Engine light is on. He said there is a USB version that you can plug into a computer and do the same thing. What a wonderful idea. Instead of a vague Check Engine light, that could mean anything from a loose gas cap to something serious, the computer could actually look up the English translation of the output code from the ODB-II computer and tell you how serious this problem is. With the right software, your car could even contact the local auto parts store and buy the replacement part needed, or schedule an appointment with the mechanic. It shouldn't be too difficult to design a system that does this. Couldn't be any harder than designing a TV to fit in your cell phone.
  • Command/Control Interface - While we're at it, consolidating the controls to A/C, heating, power mirrors, door locks, sunroof, lights, cruise control, and any other mechanism for which there's a cacophony of switches and buttons on current cars. Skinnable controls built into the computer could allow easy access to all the controls on a car. Seats and mirrors could be easily adjusted to memorized positions based on whoever is driving. Not to forget the dials and displays that currently plague the dashboard. You want your speed to be a digital readout instead of a dial, so be it. You don't care to see what the tachometer is reading but your husband does, fine.
  • Entertainment Console - Everyone knows the entertainment value of the computer. Couple that with the mobility and power of a car, and the resulting entertainment power is incomprehensible. Movies, Music, email, internet, instant messaging, gaming, all available from the passenger seat. With available headset jacks or the car stereo for sound, the possibilities are endless. Of course, the entertainment console would require expert design in order to meet with the demands of the users. Windows media is simple and versatile enough to do this, however it needs one basic feature that Microsoft has yet to pay any attention to. If this entertainment console could be setup to appear to be a portable device (such as a flash mp3 player, or flash card) and could connect to the media library on a home computer, the entire music library could be replicated to the car. Any changes made in the car or on the home computer libraries would automatically replicate to the other. Individual user ratings tracked in the Windows Media database would also make it easy to create playlists that the driver likes. (I like rock, my wife likes country). When my car is parked in my garage, it will automatically synchronize with the library on my home computer then shutdown until the car is started again. Music on the go, ready to go. Sounds nice doesn't it?
  • Autopilot - Of all the features I think should exist in my car, this one would be the most advantageous. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about the Night Rider car that will be able to do stunts and maneuver through the worst traffic. I wish I had a car that would keep my car between the lines on the interstate. As I've mentioned before, I commute to work, a large chunk of my day that is wasted listening to the local radio DJ's complain about how crappy their lives are. Once I set the cruise control on my car, the only thing I really have to pay attention to is how close I am to the car in front of me and keeping myself between the lines. There are currently systems out there that do these functions quite well. With a computer in the car, the interface between this system and the driver would be greatly enhanced. Imagine cruising the internet while cruising down I-20!
  • Driver Assistance - There's a huge blind spot on my dad's truck. It makes it virtually impossible to change lanes without completely turning around and sticking your head out the window to see if there's anyone beside you. Wouldn't it be nice to have a little USB webcam mounted to the front corners of your car to give you the best possible view of what's beside you? What about a camera mounted behind the car to help when backing up? Webcam - $25. USB Extension cable $7. Seeing that someone's walking behind your car before you back up - priceless.
  • Bluetooth Cell Phone Connectivity - With a couple of USB ports on your onboard computer, it would be very simple to add Bluetooth® connectivity for use as a wireless headset with your cell phone while driving. Add a couple of controls to the console and you wouldn't even have to open the cell phone to dial out. Use the Outlook contacts (already synchronized with your phone address book) to dial without ever having to remember anyone's cell phone number. Voice recognition could even make dialing obsolete.
So, why hasn't this been done yet. If you know, tell me. If I get to it first, I'll be richer than Bill himself.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Two Things

Two Things
You know, there are only two things I can't get my computer to do in a seamless fashion. Like most people (or only like most of the people I know), I have two computers in my home. I also have a PDA as does my wife. The feature I would like to eventually see my computer do for me is synchronization of information between the two computers.

The Problem
I have an extensive music collection that has grown to behemoth proportions over the last decade. Long ago, I made the decision that I would not try to keep my music organized manually. That proved to be a long and arduous process that was usually undone as soon as I opened the music in a media player that automatically retrieves information for the music from the web. So I surrendered the reins to Windows Media Player. Since that time, I haven't looked at the actual directory structure and file names of my music library. Everything I do with my music is done through the WMP interface: burning CD's, copying music to my MP3 player, listening, etc.. I used to have my computer setup with multiple users and separated settings until my wife explained to me that her settings weren't as nice as mine since she didn't know how to tweak them. Additionally, I kept my music library organized, filling in the gaps where the automatic information retriever could not. This meant that she could more easily find her music in my library than her own.

For my wife's graduation, I bought her a PDA. She liked the idea of sharing our contacts and calendar. She didn't want to have anything else synchronized so I set her PDA up to sync with my outlook and grab my contacts and calendar. Everything was great.

Recently, I bought myself a new computer.

The Current Solution
With this new variable in the equation, the problem arises again on how to make sure my wife and I are using the same music library, contact list, calendar, and also have access to each other's documents. Here are my current solutions.

With the two computers networked together in our home, it was easy to setup offline files so that her documents would be accessible from my computer, even if hers is turned off. However, it can be problematic from time to time; not to mention that it can slow down network performance while files are being synchronized.

The easiest way to synchronize Outlook data (that I've found) is to synchronize through Yahoo!'s Intellisync. I synchronize my calendar and contacts to Yahoo! and my wife does the same.

I don't have an easy solution to the music sharing problem. This is actually the aspect of my frustration that spurred me on to write this article.

I realize that the easiest solution to the document situation is to setup a server that acts as a domain controller. Actually this is what I will eventually do, once I have a place that I can put all the networking hardware with it in some closet. On the same note, I realize that I should shell out the money to purchase Exchange (built for dozens of users) so that the two users in my home can share their Outlook data. However, even with a fancy server running all kinds of media services, there is still no easy way to ensure that media library information perpetuates to all users in the domain.

The Ultimate Solution
It is at this point that I wish to comment on the inability of the programming community at large (especially Microsoft) to cope with these changes in "normal" households. The current trends for entertainment and computing indicate that in the near future, a greater majority of "normal" households will have some type of media centered computer connected to their TV and sound systems. This type of computer is normally a single user environment with enhanced computing ability (RAID, TV-tuner cards, high end graphics, etc.).

This computer presents the perfect environment in which all of the shared information could be stored. The media centered computer could act as the home/domain server. It would contain every user's Outlook data, a master media library (supporting synchronization to other pc's for faster performance and mobility), and each user's documents. This server could also include such services as web, ftp, Remote Desktop, PDA synchronization, etc.

That's great, how do we do that? Well, frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't been done already. What am I talking about? Well, the synchronization of Outlook data is quite easy between my PC and PDA. Why then, can't ActiveSync recognize another PC and synchronize the data with it? I mean, I'd only need ActiveSync on both computers and one acting as the host. The connection, once established, would be maintained and any information that changes on one would automatically be synchronized to the other through the network. No third party software needed, no user intervention. Synchronization between the calendar on my PDA through my PC to my wife's PC and subsequently to her PDA would be automatic and seamless. How hard would that be?

As for the music synchronization, that would be too hard either. Windows Media Player already recognizes portable devices connected to the computer and can (after it's setup) automatically synchronize all or part of the media library to the device. Well, I have this device that connects through the network to my computer that I would like to treat as a portable device and synchronize my media library to: it's called my wife's computer. I mean, if some little USB stick can contain the necessary guts for Media Player to synchronize to, why can't a full blown PC be the recipient of such goodness?