Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated by the idea of three way calling, talking to two different phone lines at once. I fondly remember in 1985 being hacked into some phreak conference call that also had chains of three way calls hanging off it, I felt so cool.

Thanks to the magic of iPhone three-way calling is easy enough that I can actually use it. Most cell phones have been able to do three-way for years but I've never figured out how to do it with a traditional awkward phone UI. I'm always afraid I'll hang up on someone rather than flash the hook or I can't figure out how to rejoin the calls or whatever. It's just too hard.

Three-way calling couldn't be easier on the iPhone. During a call the screen has a bunch of buttons on it. Tap the "add call" button to put party #1 on hold and call party #2. Now there's a button "merge calls". Tap it and now everyone's talking. The screen even shows you the contact names of both parties.

Amazing how easy things can be when you have visual feedback and more input mechanisms than almost hanging up on people.

  2007-07-31 15:09 Z
Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves
In labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant tide
Comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine

And no one showed us to the land
And no one knows the wheres or whys
And something stirs and something tries
And starts to climb towards the light

  2007-07-30 16:27 Z
It looks like Bloglines is well and truly losing active users. My blog has about 500 subscribers in Google Reader and about 460 in Bloglines. So Bloglines is already behind the upstart. But how many of those 460 Bloglines subscribers are even reading anymore?

Four months ago I encouraged everyone to switch from RSS to my atom feed. About 45% of all my subscribers have switched. 40% of Google Reader subscribers have switched. But only 5% of Bloglines subscribers have.

My guess is there's a lot of stagnant Bloglines accounts that don't actually read those feeds anymore and would never do anything as active as switch subscriptions. That's too bad; Bloglines was really innovative at one time. Google Reader is awesome, I just wish it had some serious competition.

  2007-07-29 17:37 Z
While the sleek touchscreen defines the iPhone's design, one of the things I like about it are the simple mechanical buttons on the side. There's a dedicated volume rocker which instantly makes the iPhone a better music player than any iPod. But even better is the silent mode switch, an old fashioned mechanical two position switch. Slide it away, feel a satisfying click, and your phone is now in silent mode. There's even an orange dot visible for visual confirmation.

You can measure the disaster of cell phone UI by how many button presses it takes to silence the damn ringer. My first Nokia phone took 2, the Ericsson took 3, and on the RAZR it's like 17 button presses. You don't need silent mode often, but when you do you need it quickly and without a bunch of screen reading distraction. The physical switch for that is lovely.

  2007-07-29 16:22 Z
Microsoft recently has bragged about how their search traffic and market share is going up, claiming as much as a 3% share gain in a month. Impressive gains for a dog of a product? No, just a complete marketing scam. A bunch of new search traffic is garbage.

Many of the new searches are coming from casual games at Microsoft Live Search Club like Chicktionary. Go ahead, try a game, it won't hurt. It's basically Scrabble; you make words out of 7 letters. The trick is every time you make a word or ask for a hint it does an MSN Search. Kaching, instant search traffic!

But it gets worse. Microsoft is paying people to play this game; you get 20 tickets per 5 minute game and tickets can be redeemed at a value of about $1 / 100 tickets. So they're paying for search. And people are writing bots to play the game, inflating the search traffic even more. Possibly much more.

At least they aren't showing ads on these garbage game search results. So they aren't scamming their advertisers directly. Only indirectly, by artificially inflating their traffic numbers.

When I was at Google I was nervous when Microsoft started making a serious go at the search and ads business. Microsoft has a lot of smart engineers and resources and a powerful monopoly that they have a history of illegally exploiting. As it turns out MSN search hasn't been much competition to Google, although the story isn't over yet. Those Facebook and Digg deals do matter. But it's just shameful that the best MS can do for market share is to pay robots to play cartoon chicken games.

  2007-07-28 18:15 Z
The iPhone has a pretty nifty WiFi implementation. It worked great in my house with my cheap Belkin router for about 15 minutes, then never worked again. The iPhone thought it had a connection but nothing would load. Then I switched routers at home to the Netgear FWG114P and now the iPhone Wifi is fine.

Was the problem Apple's or Belkin's? Was it the ARP implementation, or the DHCP lease maintenance, or the WEP-128 implementation, or the 802.11g switching magic? How could I possibly know? Wifi is more voodoo than science and the complexity of Internet protocols is so high I'd never be able to figure out the specific problem. And if I did, I couldn't fix it anyway; all the firmware is closed. So I just keep going through routers until I find one that works.

  2007-07-27 15:28 Z
Remember in Star Trek where the unnamed ensign would walk up to Captain Picard or Sisko and hand him a datapad to quickly look at the day's orders for a quick approval? Not Kirk; his unnamed ensigns were foxier but all he got was a busted old aluminum clipboard. I mean the PADD, the Personal Access Display Device, the super futuristic thinscreen tablet computer thingy that served the role of notepad in recent Star Treks.

My iPhone is exactly like that.

My early morning coffee + newspaper + cat ritual now has a new addition, my PADD. Quick email check early in the morning with my super futuristic iPhonePADD. There's something very appealing about the smooth face of the device and the great screen that makes it welcome even in a bleary eyed morning.

Props to goldman for his lightning nerd memory of the name PADD
  2007-07-25 23:54 Z
After being vegetarian for nine years I think I particularly appreciate a good steak. And the best we've had at home are mail order filet mignon from Kansas City Steak Company. Beautiful texture, good beefy flavour, consist cuts. $25/pound isn't cheap but isn't terrible and as advertised the "triple-trimmed" means you really don't need to cut anything at all away before cooking.

There's lots of mail order steak options. We've tried many and these are by far the best. Significantly better than what we can get in our local high end grocery store, too.

  2007-07-23 23:52 Z
iTunes is bad software. I've avoided it for years but I'm finally stuck with it because of the iPhone. So now, I rant impotently.

This morning I'm informed iTunes wants to update. Maybe a patch for all the iPhone bugs? I don't know, it won't tell me what the update is for. But it insists on updating Quicktime too and spamming my desktop with Apple product icons and demanding a reboot.

Last night my sister asked me how to copy some new iTunes tracks she bought to her old iPod. Problem is she hasn't plugged the iPod into a computer in two years and doesn't have all the iPod tracks on her new computer. Any attempt to copy the new tracks over seems to involve a sync and removing all the old tracks that are not on her PC anymore. Neither of us could figure out a way to fix it in the few minutes we had; last I heard she was burning CDs and leaving the iPod at home.

The iTunes initial import of my music took forever. And was broken; it followed symlinks and m3u playlists and ended up with several copies of each of my songs. And while iTunes could identify and display the duplicates I can't find a button for "remove duplicate entries".

The whole process of managing what songs and movies are stored on my iPhone is terribly clumsy. What's wrong with just opening the stupid thing as a hard drive and copying files over?

  2007-07-21 14:45 Z
I'm a total fanboy for Tetsua Mizuguchi (水口哲也), the designer behind the brilliant games Rez, Lumines, and Meteos. All these games have simple fun gameplay combined with hypnogogic music and visual design. I've never played games with such powerful æsthetic appeal.

Currently I'm obsessed with Lumines on Xbox 360. I'm not usually a big puzzle game fan but the music and visual design is so beautiful I can't stop playing. All the bonus packs get a bit expensive on XBLA, but art this good in a game is worth it.

I'm excited about the next game his company Q Entertainment is doing; Every Extend Extra Extreme. It's an Xbox 360 adaption of a great freeware game concept.

  2007-07-19 22:33 Z
The spam on my Debian mail system is getting intolerable; 30+ stock pumping spams are getting through the gauntlet every day now. And pretty much all of that spam passed spamassassin's SPF_PASS check. So SPF seems to be adding pain but not providing much benefit for spam prevention.

The Sender Policy Framework is one of a variety of recent SMTP complications that tries to address fundamental problems in Internet email. It lets a site use DNS records to indicate what hosts are authorized to send email in their domain, making it a bit harder to forge email headers. And it seems to function; about 98% of my email seems to be doing SPF. Sadly, that includes 98% of my spam.

In other words, SPF may let you know what domain really sent the mail but that doesn't help classify spam. It does me no good to know that agedwards.com or ncat.edu or even hotmail.com actually authorized the sender's IP address. Spamassassin weights a valid SPF record as basically zero in its spam scoring, so they must have the same conclusion.

  2007-07-17 17:28 Z
Things have changed a bit at the big G; they now have serious privacy policy employees and are making public statements about user privacy. That's great. Yesterday they announced a new cookie policy, moving away from cookies that expire in 2038 (the maximum length):
In the coming months, Google will start issuing our users cookies that will be set to auto-expire after 2 years, while auto-renewing the cookies of active users during this time period.
The old policy was always cited as shorthand for Google-is-evil diatribes: "they put cookies on your machine until 2038!". I recently heard some call-in radio guest asking whether Google should pay him to store this file for them. What's the emoticon for eye rolling?

However, the cookie change will have zero effect on actual user privacy. Every time you go back to Google the cookie expiration will reset to two years. In other words, the cookie will never expire; what are the odds of you not visiting Google on your computer for two years? Maybe after the global war, when we emerge from the Vaults after the fallout is gone we'll enjoy the nuclear winter in privacy.

So in practice the new policy changes nothing. Is it evil? No. Every major web site in the world does the same thing, refreshing cookies every time you visit. And the cookie gives the user actual benefit, preferences. But now Google won't have to put up with the "2038 is evil!" inanity. Hopefully the privacy discussion will shift to something more meaningful, like why Google doesn't have a complete opt-out for cookies. Or logging.

  2007-07-17 16:23 Z
I've noticed a curious word usage on the Internet; the discussion of iPhone "applications". As in, "iChess is a great iPhone application" or the iPhone "can do mass storage and IM with help from other apps right now."

News flash: you cannot add applications to your iPhone. Apple has made the hostile decision to keep the platform closed. You can load web pages with Javascript, however. And sometimes a web page feels like an application.

It's still awfully early, but there are already a lot of iPhone webapps out there. What's emerging is an iPhone webapp has a page that looks good at 320x480, automatically navigates to an internal anchor to scroll the viewport past the address bar, uses iPhone style graphics and fonts. And most importantly, loads a lot of content in a single page so you don't have to keep going to the slow network. The Digg iPhone page is a good example of these principles.

I'm delighted there are good webapps on the iPhone. But they are not real iPhone applications. They can't access the cell phone, or SMS, or your music, or the camera, or your contact list, or your notes, or your calendar, or your photographs. They're just web pages. Users should demand better from Apple for their $600 phones.

  2007-07-15 15:57 Z
The Silverado is the kind of skeezy 70s throwback fag bar that's disappearing, the kind you don't appreciate until it's gone. Rainbow flags on the walls, dark smoky room, gay porn on TV screens everyone's ignoring, shirtless bartender boys. Because it's Portland there's decent beer, but men visit for the go-go boys, not the drinking.

The dancers work hard. Shift change every fifteen minutes, one or two up on a center stage and one in a dark cage in the back. Nominally dressed in underwear (tight, clean, and today primary colours, not white), most of the dancing is about pulling down the shorts to show a V of groin muscle and below an excalamation mark, the root. They work for tips, $1 slid into the underwear buys you a quick feel. A couple of bucks rewards the whole crowd with an eyeful of full nudity, swinging twirling floppy motions.

Sadly, the Silverado has lost its lease. The old Stark gay ghetto in Portland is disappearing to heteroyuppification, led by the removal of the downtown Henry Weinhard's brewery and the subsequent development of the Pearl District. The gay bars down there were all pretty sleazy but they were a culture. Now they are dying.

I paid my respects at the Silverado and lasted through a whole Hefeweizen until the cigarette smoke got to me. As I was leaving a remarkable young man was doing an excellent job dancing, clearly enjoying sharing his significant natural assets with the appreciative crowd. $1 seems like a cheap tip but his enthusiasm was earning him a lot of them. I added to his basketful, thanked him, and then came home and washed my hands.

  2007-07-14 06:40 Z
I'm 35. My friends and I are all sliding out of youth and into middle age. Settled down with a home, or a partner, or kids, or pets. Putting on a little weight. Worrying about insurance. And growing coarse, dark hair out of noses and ears. It's unpleasant and slightly taboo, but it's happening.

There's a simple solution: the Panasonic Nose and Ear Hair Groomer. $15 and five minutes every few weeks gets it all under control. It works great; doesn't pinch or pull, is OK to get wet, easy to take apart and clean. Works well.

Embarassing personal details shared on blog? Check. Next up: more pictures of my cat.

  2007-07-12 18:45 Z
Linden Labs has quieted down a bit since the Second Life hype and subsequent backlash of a few months ago. But the current issue of Technology Review contains some boggling statistics in their article Second Earth:
According to [CTO] Ondrejka, Linden Lab must purchase and install more than 120 servers every week to keep up with all the new members pouring into Second Life.
Second Life, meanwhile, is gaining roughly 25,000 members a day, sometimes stretching Linden Lab's ability to keep its simulations running smoothly.
Let's reality check that. 120 servers a week is 6000 servers a year, or roughly $25 million a year in hardware expenses alone, not to mention power. I sure hope they're not actually spending that. And 25,000 members a day is 9 million users a year, or just about doubling their 30 day active population in 40 days. Frankly, I don't believe those numbers. Maybe it was a really great week when the reporter called.

Snarks aside, kudos to Linden for becoming so transparent in publishing data. There's some interesting third party analysis. If I read this right, they sold L$ 136M into the game economy last month. At a current exchange rate of about 1:270, does that mean they made $500,000 in real US dollars? Still nowhere near enough to buy 120 servers a week, but at least it's real money. I may well be wrong about their economy though.

  2007-07-10 22:24 Z
I wasn't going to get an iPhone; I'm not a phone or Apple fetishist and it seemed awfully expensive. But thanks to some friends I ended up with one, and so far: wow.

The out of the box experience is fantastic. Great packaging, the battery was already charged, Apple even managed to get AT&T/Cingular to do a good job on the signup workflow. I was up and running in a few minutes.

And the phone UI is really impressive. I haven't felt the need for a manual yet (good thing, there isn't one in the box). Phone calls, email, web browsing, all easy to set up. The Internet options are good enough I think I can leave a laptop at home on short trips.

Some things are awkward; I wish it had more native apps, I don't like the Home button, ... But overall it's a very impressive product experience.

  2007-07-10 00:58 Z
I'm not the only one with home router woes; I've gotten lots of sympathy and some requests for advice. My new Belkin router is mostly working now, but at $40 I don't have a lot of faith it will last. That, and its implementation of UPnP isn't compatible with uTorrent's. Yay.

I've gone ahead and also bought a Netgear FWG114P. It's one of the blue metal box Netgear devices for business use; I've had great luck with this line of hardware before. At $120 the big feature you get is VPN support, but I'm hoping it's got better electronics too.

Another option is to buy a $65 Linksys WRT54GL; the L makes all the difference. That means it runs the old Linux based firmware that you can flash upgrade with 3rd party open source. So the software won't have stupid bugs but the hardware is still a gamble. I had a first generation WRT54G crap out on me after about a year.

One last option recommended by a reader is a Draytek router like the 2900G. They're a European brand with a reputation for high quality and extra features. I like the 2910G; two outgoing WAN ports with load balancing and failover. They're a bit spendy at around $200.

  2007-07-07 21:23 Z
Today is the 20th anniversary of my first kiss. I was on the roof with my girlfriend watching the Fourth of July displays and she kissed me and it was fireworks. True story.

It took me another year or so to figure out I'd rather be kissing boys than girls. When I came out to my former girlfriend she just said "oh yeah, I knew you were gay". I wish she'd thought to tell me!

Both of my high school girlfriends are on Facebook.

  2007-07-04 20:00 Z
I recently set up a Facebook profile. I'm pleasantly surprised by how good it is. They got a lot of little things right, as well as a few big things. Like news feeds.

At signup I did the usual tacky thing of listing twenty or so friends. The next day I logged in and found a bunch of friends requests from people I didn't even know were on Facebook. How did they find me? Via their news feed. They logged in and saw "Your friend Alice Toklas added Nelson Minar as a friend". And so they knew I was on Facebook and they added me, too.

The news feed is the single biggest innovation I've seen in Facebook. It instantly enhances the social network by letting me see things my friends do with their friends. It exposes me to new people and applications. And it gives me something new to do on Facebook every day. Clever.

Interestingly, the news feeds are also the thing that caused a giant privacy kerfuffle when first introduced. Users found it creepy that suddenly their friends were seeing what they're doing. So Facebook added a bunch of privacy options to hide your updates. Of course it all defaults to full openness, which in this case I think is the right thing. It may have been a mistake to foist news feeds on old users without some warning first, but as a new user I love them.

  2007-07-03 17:53 Z
Trying to register for web access to my health insurance account, I'm greeted with the following restriction:
Please select a User ID that is between 6 and 20 characters long using numbers and letters. It must contain at least one number and one character. You cannot consecutively repeat a character or number more than twice. Eg. AAA12345 is not allowed.
Yes, on this site my username has to have a number in it. As I remarked a long time ago my real problem with web logins isn't remembering my password, it's my username. Every site has different restrictions, the names have to be unique, it's a total pain.

I'm completely ready for Internet single signon. OpenID is looking great but adoption is very slow. I'm willing to trust a big company like Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, even my ISP to maintain my identity. Can we do it now please?

  2007-07-01 15:39 Z