Car Hunt: Part 1

After totalling my car last Tuesday, I’ve embarked on a week long search for a suitable replacement. Upon thinking about things, I concluded that I wanted something that fit my 6’5″ frame well, had more pep than my Camry, looked nice, good long-term reliability, and was a good deal. Gas mileage was somewhat of a consideration (don’t insert “Peak Oil” arguments/links in the comments, please), but only a deciding factor as SUVs threatened to dip highway mileage below 20 MPG.

A fun week to be sure. Over that time, I test drove an Audi A4, Ford Escape, Mazda3, Nissan Murano, Infiniti G35, Subaru Legacy, and Acura TL. I also looked at the Acura TSX, Mazda Tribute, Honda Accord and Pilot, Toyota Camry and Highlander.

A common issue was what I call the “stop light problem”. Many of these cars, at a stop light, require me to crouch and tilt my head so I can see when it turns green. I’d prefer not to do that in my next car. Many had legroom issues, including, surprisingly, some of the SUVs and every Nissan car. The Audi A4 beat everything in legroom, due to highly adjustable power seats. I’ve already decided on the type of car, and am busy working deals to get the best price, probably on a slightly used car. I’ll detail my choice and the decision process in part 2.

Auto technologies are developing at a blistering pace. The list of cool technologies I played with over this week is mind-boggling: direct injection engines, turbo, hybrid engines, Continuously Variable Transmissions, All-Wheel Drive, navigation systems. I’m hoping all of these can be found in one car by the NEXT time I’m car-shopping.


My car… totalled

Had a lovely get together with a Hyundai Santa Fe on West Paces Ferry Rd on Tuesday night. My Toyota Camry is officially “a total loss”, so I’ll be spending my Memorial Day weekend in the hunt for a new car. I have a few criteria – I must fit in it (I am 6’6″), it mustn’t be overly expensive, it must get non-sucky gas mileage, and I would prefer it to be peppier than my Camry. New or used. Any suggestions?


Live: Atlanta Java DevCon 2005

I’ll be blogging live from the Atlanta Java Users Group DevCon [conference] today. With over 200 attendees, we’re at the max capacity they can hold here. If I can get a power outlet, I’ll write a lot. If not, I’ll be writing sparingly from my Sidekick II. Matt Thompson is up next with a JavaOne preview.

Update – I found power, but no wi-fi. Looks like I have a comment for the feedback form for next year.

Update 2 – JRoller wouldn’t let me post from my phone (just saved my posts as drafts), so I’ll be trickling the posts 24 hours behind schedule.


Netflix Flexing AJAX Muscle

Netflix is now using AJAX throughout the site to display a pop-up with information on individual movies on mouseover (see picture):

It’s a well-executed, clean use of the technology. Like it or not, AJAX is here to stay – at least until Microsoft bakes something like it into IE7 in their next big attempt to monopolize the web.

Fact is, end users don’t CARE about whether something’s a hack, whether it meets your exacting architecture standards. Programming may be art, but it isn’t museum art, it’s pop art. It’s Thomas Kinkade, non Picasso. It’s meant to be consumed in large quantities, and only looked at superficially. AJAX gives a site that extra flair and usefulness, and users care more about that than whether or not the developers think the design meets their exacting standards. Time to suck it up and get comfortable with AJAX.

Click here to see it for yourself.


Star Wars: Return of the Franchise

Took in Star Wars Episode III last night at a 10 pm showing. Not bad. Not great. I found it overall enjoyable, but the challenge was that the plot hinges on a supposed love story between Anakin and Padme that is thoroughly unbelieveable. Natalie Portman has acted well before, so I’m left to conclude that Hayden Christensen isn’t a very good actor. Every seen in him tends to drag, to be awkward, but scenes with Chancellor Palpatine, Obi Wan, and Mace Windu are more tolerable since their acting chops are able to lift Anakin’s performance to near tolerable, particularly Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Kenobi.

This is the movie where the pieces snap into place, connecting you with the Star Wars you think you remember from episodes IV-VI. Kenobi becomes the powerful yet humble Jedi you’ve seen before. Anakin’s anger grows (and seething is one of the few things Christensen does well), and the sense of awe is still there as he shows up in the cape and mask of Darth Vader. Several parallel scenes are nicely interwoven in some of the best editing of any of the 6 films. Visuals are stunning, yet still obviously CGI in some places. State of the art isn’t quite to photorealism yet.

In brief, if you’ve slogged through episode I and II, you owe it to yourself to see Episode III with guarded expectations. In some ways, this is Lucas’ love letter to his original fans, and it almost makes up for the insults from the first two. If the last name Organa means something to you, go. If you know something about a pilot named Antilles, go. If you want to see a planet of wookies (though not nearly enough), go. If you want to be convinced once and for all that Yoda is the most masterful Jedi, and understand why he became a hermit on Degobah, go. The connection to the original trilogy will be enough for most fans to enjoy this movie.


Atlanta: Java Conference – great value

If you’re even near Atlanta, the AJUG Java DevCon 2005 is a steal at $75. It’s next Wednesday, May 25th, from 8 AM to 5:30 PM. It’s $25 more than last year’s event, but that’s probably why they don’t have such a hack speaker presenting :). The fee includes all sessions, breakfast, and lunch, and is presumably being subsidized once again by sponsors and the Atlanta Java Users’ Group. Based on the schedule so far, I’d guess they’re either replacing the keynote they had last year with an extra session, or expanding the number of concurrent tracks from 2 to 3.

Sun’s heavy local presence is certainly being felt, with John Bobowicz of on building the Java community, Roger Kitain on JSF (which he is co-spec lead of), and Matt Thompson giving a look at the future of the Java platform. JBoss will be pitching in with a presentation on Hibernate by Gavin King and a JBoss jBPM session with Matt Thompson. The Roundbox Media crew will be showing off how they’re doing some slick integration between Flash and J2EE. James Mitchell, a Struts guru who happens to be local, will be giving Struts best practices, and Keith Donald will be introducing people to Spring.

The only huge gap I see is nothing on non-Struts, non-JSF MVC. Struts is getting a bit long in the tooth, and JSF isn’t gaining as much momentum, so Tapestry (or WebWork) might be worth covering, especially with the recent release of 3.0.

I’ll be there, along with most all of our development team, and based on last year, I’d recommend it highly!


Don't buy Microsoft or EA (even if you like them)

They will use your money to destroy other things you like. I realized this today as I read how Bill Gates plans to launch Halo 3 for the next-gen Xbox the same day the PS3 launches, many months after the XBox 360’s launch. Bill says, “The day Sony launches [the new PlayStation], and they walk right into Halo 3”. He can’t even let the competition have 1 day in the sun, their opportunity to shine ever so briefly.

For EA’s history, just ask Take Two Interactive, the formerly Sega-owned game studio that makes sports games. The NFL2k series of football games had a good reputation the day it was launched on the Dreamcast, but had trouble competing with EA’s heavily entranched Madden series. Last year, Take Two not only put out one of their best efforts in the series, they undercut EA by pricing their game at $20 compared to EA’s $50 price tag. EA arrogantly ignored this difference at first, until sales data forced their hand and made them cut te price a bit to compete. Their reaction wasn’t to try and make a better game at a better price the next cycle, it was scorched earth. EA not only bought exclusive rights to NFL games, they bought exclusivity for college football and even Arena football, ensuring that competitors had NO game to produce that would allow them to maintain a high-quality football simulation engine. They could do it with made up players and teams, but the demand is for real players and people’s favorite teams. EA was out for blood.

For an example of Microsoft’s behavior in the gaming industry, ask Nintendo about Rare Ltd. Rare developed for all Nintendo systems from the original NES to the N64. They developed 8 of the top 25 games for the N64 – even Nintendo themselves, known for their quality first-party games, had only 8 in the top 25. They made 11 total games over the life of the system. Since Microsoft purchased them in 2002, they have released exactly 1 game for the Xbox. It’s apparent they didn’t buy Rare so they could have their games – they bought them so that Nintendo wouldn’t have those games. Embrace and extinguish.

Most companies seem content to compete for a bigger piece of the pie by improving their product and competing honestly. Most companies recognize that a rising tide lifts all ships – even if your slice of the pie shrinks, the pie keeps growing. Microsoft and EA want to be the only ship. They want to use the dollars you give them to sink those other companies whose products you also enjoy. In effect, when you give either company money, you’re funding a campaign to crush the other companies that make products that you like. You may like that game you just bought right now, but in the end, if these bullies have their way, you’ll have less to enjoy in the long run. Don’t do it. Don’t feed these aggressive beasts.


Yahoo Unlimited! Music Service: Snap Review

I’ve spent about a day toying with Yahoo’s new “Unlimited” music service. So far, not so bad. I’ve had my mind set on trying one of these music “rental” services ever since a friend played several hours of entertaining background music for a social gathering through the current Napster service. Yahoo’s $6.99/month price tag pushed me over the edge.

There’s plenty of goodness to be had. They claim to have over 1 million songs. There are a lot, and almost any music you can imagine. Getting all this music cleared with the labels MUST be a pain. The interface is pretty good. The search capabilities over both your personal collection of music and the content on their service is pretty good, which you’d hope, since Yahoo begin its life as a search engine. I have a broad taste in music, with many strange wrinkles to it, so their rating and recommendation engine is of particular interest to me. You can rate songs, albums, and artists, and they’ll recommend more music based on the preferences of others with common interests. You can then have your own LAUNCHcast station that will make a “radio station” out of music you’ve rated that you like and similar music. This should be useful once I get a broader base of rated music. I haven’t tried the part where you actually download the music in burnable format, but the full library of music is available for up to 3 PCs per account, and can be transferred to a WMA DRM capable player. We’ve found our RCA Lyras to be nice and compact, good battery life, and important to me – expandable. Paying through the nose for fixed-capacity players is a losing proposition. With this service, we can try them out with an unlimited library.

There are some definite down sides to the service. For one, they’re playing the Google game of taking a “Beta” product to the broad market, and it shows. The software’s a bit buggy. Yesterday, it wouldn’t let me leave the album page for a particular album, no matter what else I clicked on. The search bar doesn’t always work. Sometimes it just sends you back to the home page and you have to search again to get actual results. The back button often goes back further than you’d expect on a single click. The recommendations data isn’t very populated yet, and often simplistic. In spite of having rated 43 artists, 5 genres, 34 albums, and 157 songs, the bulk of my radio station playlist ends up being 80’s music, recommended because I like U2 or The Police. This will certainly get better as their total user base grows. Another glaring issue is some of the music that’s missing. I’m hoping Moby DOES get stomped by Obie, because half of his music isn’t available. Beck has apparently decided to pick and choose what gets released – his current single, E-Pro, is only available for purchase, not available to listen via streaming. His album “Mutations” isn’t available for streaming or download, and “Odelay!” is only half there, missing the gem “Devil’s Haircut”. Most blatant is the absence of Nine Inch Nails’ “Pretty Hate Machine”. This album is classic, seminal, central to the history of recent music, and still one of the defining records of a genre, and it’s curiously absent. I won’t dwell as much on the missing obscure music, such as Circle of Dust’s amazing “Disengage”, or decade-old Christian alternative. My criticisms center around the music that you’d expect to be there, and isn’t.

Overall, I’m gonna keep it for a month or two. The $7 price tag is half the price of the Napster and Rhapsody services, cheap enough to get my business. I’ll see how my wife likes the integration with our MP3 players, and go from there. Updates will come.


Amazon spamming my front door

One order. 15 of the same item. 15 separate packages. All shipped from the same place.

I don’t get it. In what I shall dub “The Snorkel Saga”, has made yet another mis-step. It started with a simple desire – my wife wanted to give each of her students an inexpensive yet functional snorkel. Amazon seemed to be one of the few places with snorkels under $10, so we ordered some in August – they “usually ship in 24 hours”. Suddenly after our order, they go out of stock. 2 months later, we’re asked to approve a delay, and again for 3 more months, getting apologetic promotional certificates along the way. Finally at 5 months, they cancel the order. Brilliant. They show up as in stock again. We order. Same drill. I ask customer service if they can fill my order with a different product, or a combination of 2 types of snorkel. They change the order to another type, never actually claiming to be able to fill it, and go through the approve-a-delay process again.

Fast forward to this week. We ordered 15 of these – total shipping cost $16.80. Imagine the surprise when shipping confirmations began rolling in one by one. Checking the account today, we have 15 different shipments, 15 different tracking numbers, all originating from Chambersburg, PA. Somebody needs to get their act together. They’re almost certainly taking a beating on shipping costs, and I don’t know how hard it can be to pack 15 items into 1 box rather than sending 15 different boxes. It will be funny, to be sure, to come home to 15 boxes on the doorstep, but what a hassle unpacking them all. The message Amazon is sending me is not to bother ordering items other than books, music, and games, because they have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to those things.