Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I was pleasantly surprised to find an unlocked HTC G1 phone, also known as the Android Developer Phone (in the box) underneath the christmas tree. 

Timing could not have been more perfect as I had been exploring smart phones. Honestly I had been leaning towards the iPhone, because it has Exchange support, required to access my emails at work. I wish my company had never made the move to the proprietary Exchange technology. 

But when I opened the box with a cool geeky Linux powered opensourced Android phone, I was overjoyed. (I already found a couple Android Exchange connector applications.)

The ADP supports GSM, GPRS/Edge, 3G, WIFI, Bluetooth : connection galore. I was on the internet via WIFI in a heartbeat. Gmail, Calendar, RememberTheMilk, Twitter and Facebook worked fabolously (although I am still hoping for an Android native RememberTheMilk application). 

Since I already owned the phone I thought all options were open for a wireless voice/data plan. Wrong

(1) 3G is not 3G . When GSM came to the US, consumers won. You could take your GSM phone from one carrier to the next and shop around. This was true as most phones were able to support various GSM frequencies. Now with 3G, carriers have their monopolies back. AT&T 3G uses a different UTMS band than T-Mobile. It took me a while to find the 3G details about the G1 phone or about the carrier networks: 
Android developer phone specs: quad-band GSM; UMTS on 1700Mhz and 2100Mhz (bands I and IV); works with T-mobile. AT&T uses bands II and V
As a result, 3G for me ment T-Mobile 3G. Let's hope that phone UTMS chips will become quad band UTMS and the consumer will reign again. 

(2) Internet-only plans are not internet-only. With my own phone in hand, I boldly stepped into the T-mobile phone store to get an internet only plan. I still have my old GSM phone and needed to figure out what the best way to transfer my family plan over. Apparently nobody had been that foolish to request this as it was a mystery how to do this. Eventually, after the T-mobile rep spent more than 30 minutes on the phone with their own back end support folks, were they able to set me up for month-to-month internet only ($39.99). If only it were true. I waited for 24 hours to have it all kick in and yet no internet. The reason: I had a G1/ADP. Those require a special internet plan, which is only offered as an add-on to a voice plan. Gotcha capitalism!  I quickly figured out that trying to get internet only was futile (I envisioned the limitations in the activation/setup menus.)

Today I am finally fully empowered: voiceplan, internet, GPRS/Edge, 3G, SMS, and even their favorite five. As we start 2009, the world is at my fingertips!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gold country

Last weekend, we spent three days in California's gold country, the Mother Lode. We visited the Southern part: Tuolumne and Calaveras counties with towns like Jamestown, Columbia, Sonora and Murphy. It was a fantastic couple of days with lots of interesting sights. Here are a couple of pictures I took.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rocking chairs in Charleston

A two day visit to Charleston, South Carolina, was my first visit to "the South". Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the US I have visited. This is where the civil war started. This is where you find one of the first submarines, the Hunley. Tobacco, crab cakes, and a slave market. The ocean front is  lined with two, three story old colonial mansions in impeccable restored state where cigar-smoking men in  seersucker suits must have debated the local politics or the state of affairs at the local papermills.
You get a feeling that life moves a little slower here. It is definitely not the rat race of the Bay Area. But by no means is this a town stuck in the past. The company I visited is cutting edge and pushing the envelope of computing. 

Although I did read that South Carolina is not a rich state, the center of Charleston gives the impression of an affluent city. Old money perhaps. Big houses, nice stores, and classy bars. I had the opportunity to eat a fantastic restaurant, one of the many upscale restaurants around. Luckily the bill  was taken care of.

Nothing says Southern lifestyle as the lines of rocking chairs facing the runway at the airport.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What I did last summer

Our house was built in the seventies. The ceiling had be sprayed with a plaster to provide sound absorbtion. This acoustic ceiling is also known as popcorn ceiling as it is very rough. It is also difficult to paint, because it is highly absorbant and can not be rolled. The way to go is spray painting it. We decided to remove it before we started painting the rooms. 

Popcorn ceiling is also known as a source of asbestos in older houses as asbestos was a good binding component. We had ours checked an no asbestos was present. This made it easier to remove. There was no need to involve an expensive asbestos removal company. 

We planned the removal of the popcorn ceiling to coincide with the summer vacation of the kids in Belgium. We had emptied the entire house into the garage (tells you we don't have a lot of stuff). We were camping out for a weekend at a friend's place. In three days, all the popcorn ceiling had been removed, the ceilings and walls had been refinished. Now our job was about to start. During four hellish evenings and nights, we primed the entire interior twice! Top to bottom, left to right. The clock had been ticking as we were about to leave to Belgium to meet up with our kids. 

After our "vacation", the finishing work awaited us: choosing colors, painting accent walls, replacing outlets and light switches, redoing the interior closets, choosing draperies (the hardest part), and hanging curtain rods in all the rooms. At out own slow pace, we finished it all in the fall. 

I enjoyed the paiting part a lot. It was a calming zen-like experience: Saturday night, all windows open, listening to this American Life stories. I'll do it again, if asked. 

Now that it is all done, the next home project awaits: redoing the bathrooms.

Car trouble

Running the support group at RTI, my ears peak for a debugging challenge. This time it is not about our Data Distribution Service or about a networking problem of an embedded system. My debugging challenge is about my 1998 Honda Civic EX (154K miles). 

The first sign of a problem showed up about three weeks ago. The check engine light came on as my wife stated the car in the morning. It started rough. The error code indicated a misfiring of cylinder 1. Once started and idling the car sounded and felt okay. Also when driving on the highway the car did not show any trouble. 

After a compression check, we did a major tune up (overdue) : oil change, new spark plugs, new spark plug wires, new distributor cap and rotor. All in all, all common electrical components were replaced. 

Two days later, the check engine light came on again. Again cylinder 1 was misfiring. My mechanic suggested to swap fuel injectors 1 and 2 to verify if the fuel injectors needed to be replaced. No change: still cylinder 1 was misfiring. 

A new distributor ruled out the distributor. The timing belt was changed around 90K miles. If the timing belt were the culprit one would expect to see all cylinders misfiring. (Unless the ocmputer saves only the first error code, and not those of all cylinders). 

My car has a VTEC engine. The valve timing is variable through a VTEC solenoid. This boosts the car power at lower and very high RPMs. My mechanic found a used VTEC solenoid to test. Again, no change: the check engine light came on at the first cold start. Low oil pressure could also affect the VTEC, but my mechanic believed this was not the case. 

I have since switched mechanics. My old  wasn't too interested in working on it. He kept me waiting a full day for a 10 minute job to swap the VTEC solenoid. He was horrible running calls, even to tell me the part was in. When you feel that he doing you a favor repairing your car, it is time to move on. 

One more data point: exhaust fume check shows clean burning. 

I am out of ideas. Anyone has a clue what might be going on? 

My new mechanic believed it could be a miniscule leak of the head gasket leaking coolant, or from a fuel injector. Either leak likely to be so small that it only shows up briefly at start up. He recommended not to worry about it and drive the car regardless. 

Friday, December 12, 2008


I recently read The Film Club by David Gilmour. In this memoir, he chronicles the story of allowing his son Jesse to drop out of school as long as he watches three movies weekly with this father. David Gilmour is a former film critic and television host. Rather than letting his son troll the streets, he starts a father-son film club. As they cover various styles and classics, they also discus a lot about life, Jesse's girlfriends, and his friends. From the book I picked up a list of classic movies I have yet to watch:
  • Duel by Stephen Spielberg
  • Fast Times at Ridgemont High with Sean Penn
  • Jungle Fever by Spike Lee with a young Samuel L. Jackson
  • Breakfast at Tiffanies
  • Mean street by Martin Scorsese
  • The shining by Stanley Kubrick
  • Notorious by Alfred Hitchcock
  • Dity Harry Magnum Force
  • Wallstreet with Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen
Amidst all the financial mess, I decided to start at the bottom and got Wallstreet by Oliver Stone from Netflix. It couldn't have been more timely. The news broke last week that Bernard Madoff's hedge fund was a giant $50 Billlion ponzi scheme

After learning about bail-outs, derivatives and credit default swaps from NPR's Planet Money blog, or after reading Michael Lewis' article about the financial mess you conclude that not much has changed. Financial companies will keep inventing products which are hard or impossible to understand. In the process, the ignorant will end up holding the bag. Even those who are cognisant they are ignorant and don't want to play, will end up holding part of the bag.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Wild California

San Jose, CA is the 10th largest city in the US with a million people. The entire Bay Area counts about seven million people. So you would think this must be a pretty densily populated area. And it sort of is. However, every so often you learn that you aren't that far from the real California wilderness. I am not talking about the annual trip to Yosemite where the late night chores include franticly cleaning up the campsite to avoid attracking the wild bears in the valley.  Right here in my backyard, you find a lot of unexpected wild life. 

Last night in the dark, as I gathered the clothes from the clothesline, I ran into our yard marsupial: our cute opossum. The first time I ran into it I didn't know what to think: it looks like a rat, with a long tail, but it is much bigger. I called everyone inside and locked the door as it calmly walked the back fence and right into our garden-shack. Animal controlled told me on the phone, not to be concerned. They won't harm you. Just leave them alone. They are an omnivore, so don't leave food or trash outside. We don't, although we do have fruit from our fruit trees falling onto the floor. 

This morning I ran into what looked like a dead raccoon in the street. (My wife thought it could have been an oppossum. Let's just hope it is not my back yard friend.) Right next it, I saw a bird I typically see in the zoo. It looked like straight out of a comic strip of Lucky Luke. I looked it up: it was a turkey vulture. These are some bug ugly birds and always right where death looms. 
Other famous visitor I ran into is the black widow. I was cleaning up the yard and touched a spiderweb and it attacked my shovel with great speed. The red hourglass shaped markings on this shiny, inky black spider were unmistakenly. Luckily it didn't come close to me. Here's the answer to a commonly asked question: 

How dangerous are black widow spider bites? If a black widow spider bites a person, do not panic! No one in the United States has died from a black widow spider bite in over 10 years. Very often the black widow will not inject any venom into the bite and no serious symptoms develop. Wash the wound well with soap and water to help prevent infection.

If muscle cramps develop, take the patient to the nearest hospital. Some victims, especially young children, may be admitted overnight for observation and treatment. There is treatment for a black widow spider bite that can take care of the symptoms. Various medications are used to treat the muscle cramps, spasms and pain of a bite. Black widow spider antivenin is seldom necessary.

Garden snakes are around although we have not run into any around the house. Tarantulla's and rattle snakes aren't very far way. When I learned of an email at my wife's work alerted them of a mountain lion near their offices in Mountain View, you are reminded that this isn't cow country but that it is still wild California.