I’ve probably told Shannon a half-dozen times that there was an untapped iPhone app niche for impromptu baby monitor apps; it looks like that niche is now starting to get populated.

Ok, without a doubt, Shannon and I clearly will need to be buying this book as soon as it becomes available on Amazon.

eye-fi card and adapter

In part inspired by Anil’s recent series of unsolicited testimonials, and in part as a result of receiving some really interesting gifts this holiday season, I’ve decided to try to get my shit together enough to post a few short unsolicited reviews over the next few days. (Note that these are reviews, and not necessarily testimonials, since at least one of them ain’t gonna be all that glowing.) And that leads to part one, my review of the Eye-Fi wireless memory card.

First, I should explain what the Eye-Fi is (since telling my family about it over the past few days taught me that this puppy is amazing enough to defy belief for some people). Simply put, the Eye-Fi is a 2 gigabyte memory card for your camera that has a wireless network adapter built into it. (Specifically, it’s a Secure Digital, or SD, card.) You use the card the same way you’d use any memory card in your camera; when you shoot your photos, they’re stored on the card, nothing special there. What is special is that after you take your photos, the card uses its built-in wireless capabilities to send the photos you take to your computer and any of a number of online photo sharing services, all automatically. Seriously, people — it’s like magic, all for the paltry price of $99 at Amazon.

So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the user experience from the moment of unwrapping. The Eye-Fi box itself is pretty clever, with a little pull-tab on the right that causes the left side of the box to slide open and reveal the card and its USB adapter. Starting to use the Eye-Fi involves plugging the card into the USB adapter, plugging the adapter into any USB port on your computer (PC and Mac are both natively supported), and then installing the Eye-Fi Manager software that’s preloaded on the card. (Of course, the versions of the software on my card were older than the current versions available on the company’s website, but the software was smart enough to update itself without any hassle.) From there, the Eye-Fi Manager software launched a clever web-based configuration utility that had me select my wireless network and then select whichever of the supported online services I wanted to use. All in all, it took under five minutes to have the card ready to use.

Since the Eye-Fi is an SD card, I anticipated that I’d have one issue with it up front: our preferred digital camera, the Canon Digital Rebel XT, uses CompactFlash cards. I had read online that CompactFlash-to-SD adapters work fine with the Eye-Fi, though, so this was an easily-surmountable issue. After plugging the card in, our camera wanted me to format the card before it would write photos to it — but the Eye-Fi doesn’t mind being formatted at all, so this too wasn’t really an issue so much as an additional step I needed to take before being able to take pictures. Finally, the folks at Eye-Fi recommend making a change to your camera’s auto-power-off settings — because after all, the card draws power from your camera, and if your camera goes to sleep pretty quickly after you shoot a photo, the card won’t have the power it needs to wirelessly send your photos into the ether. The instructions for our camera weren’t on the Eye-Fi site, but finding the right setting was pretty easy, and under ten minutes from opening the box, my first photo was uploaded and available to me on Flickr. (Note that I set the Eye-Fi to upload all its photos to Flickr as private images, an available feature that I think is pretty much mandatory for a device that automatically uploads every image I take!)

Overall, my assessment of the Eye-Fi is that it’s an amazing and groundbreaking product that belongs in the arsenal of anyone who takes more than a handful of digital photos a week. And for people like us — people who frequently let dozens of photos sit on the camera’s memory card because we’re slightly too busy or lazy to find the card adapter, plug it into our computers, and do the dance of uploading the images online — this thing is a total dream. I’m impressed with the entire user experience, from the packaging to the setup to the nearly invisible functionality (and for those who know me well, you’ll know how rare it is for me to have nothing to fault in the user experience of a new gadget!).

BlackBerry and Google Calendar users, you may now rejoice. (Well, I say that after seeing that the new sync app merely exists — we’ll see how I feel after I use it a bit.)

To much fanfare and exuberant media coverage, Amazon launched it’s Kindle electronic book yesterday. Doing a little reading about it last night, I found myself not only underwhelmed by the reported features and functionality of the device, but also a bit taken aback by how far Amazon has gone to create a locked-in platform for reading. Rather than wax poetic about my reasons for thinking so, though, I’m fortunate — both Anil Dash and Mark Pilgrim have unknowingly served as my mouthpieces, by articulating most of my Kindle-related feelings better than my own addled brain could have managed.

I’ve got a few short takes today, to try to assuage my guilt for being a bit swamped these days (and also to get rid of a few of these tabs in my browser).

Remember the lawsuit Verizon filed against Vonage, threatening to bankrupt the upstart VOIP provider over technology the Baby Bell claimed was its own? It looks like Vonage might have finally rolled out workarounds to all the disputed tech, and also posted better-than-expected financials — which makes me pretty excited, being that I’ve been nothing but satisfied with our service from the company.

I’ve been slowly working my way through Jane Mayer’s amazing New Yorker piece on the CIA “black sites”, and it’s pretty clear that this is a must-read article for those who wish to learn how far our government has taken its torture of detainees in the all-important war on terror. The worst part of it is that at this point, there’s no question that what the public knows only scratches the surface, and that when tomorrow’s historians uncover the full details of this administration’s assaults on fundamental American liberties, we’ll either be aghast or will have long ago given up the right to express our outrage. (Let’s hope for the former.)

It’s amazing, but Apple really does look to be violating the script.aculo.us license on every single page that’s generated by the .Mac photo gallery. Either that, or they’ve struck some licensing agreement with the tool’s author, Thomas Fuchs — but seeing as how script.aculo.us is released under the extremely permissive MIT license, that’d seem unlikely for Apple to have done.

Cool — I hadn’t put two and two together, but Movable Type 4.0 is using Codepress to provide inline syntax highlighting in its template editors, and has extended the tool so that it recognizes all the Movable Type template tags. A long time ago, I bookmarked Codepress so that I’d remember to come back and take a look at it… looks like I don’t have to do that anymore. :)

Finally, this page might be dangerous for me. That is all.

But of course Apple would release a new Airport Extreme model with gigabit ethernet networking today, three weeks after I bought two of them. I hate that, but if you were waiting for them to correct the glaring gigabit omission, you can grab one at the Apple Store as of today.

By being the current big-man-on-campus, it seems that the iPhone drew some security scrutiny its way, leading to what looks like the first real malware for the device. John Gruber, who has turned into a 24/7 defender of All That Is iPhone, might have to eat a few of his words

I generally like his writing and his viewpoints, but I can’t help but wonder whether John Gruber’s missive against the enterprise’s wariness about iPhones is based more in his overt Apple lurve or in a lack of understanding of the things an enterprise has to manage on the wireless front. Far from his laser-like focus on email, when a large business thinks about services that need to be extended seamlessly to wireless devices, useful email access shares equal space with the ability to use a global address book, the need to access services on an intranet, ties into enterprise calendaring services, centrally-managed security policies, encryption (both of the contents of the device and communications between the device and other services), and the ability for the enterprise to control access on a device-by-device basis. And again, despite Gruber pointing out that some of the email issues can be solved using IMAP, there are few or no ways to solve the other issues, especially not in as unified a way as BlackBerry has done with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES).

Let’s look at a few example issues, and think of how the iPhone would compare to what BlackBerry has in place.

1. A wireless user needs to be able to send an email to a few enterprise users, none of which are in his contact list. How does that user do this?

BlackBerry: in the email app, the user creates a new email, and in the “To:” line, types in the name of the recipient and chooses the “Lookup” option. The BlackBerry queries the global address list, returns a list of matches, and the user chooses the correct one, which is then added to the recipient list.

iPhone: according to articles like this, the iPhone doesn’t understand global address lists to the point where a developer had to write a raw LDAP client for the device (which we have to assume is a web-based app, given that there’s no native API for the iPhone). So the user has to open Safari, navigate to the web page which provides an LDAP lookup of the global address list, look up the user, and either click a mailto: link to start a new email to the user or cut-and-paste the address into the email client. (And while mailto: certainly is easier, it won’t work for multiple addressees without a really slick web app that allows multiple lookups to all be appended to a single link which will then launch the email app and start a new message. And none of this takes into account the fact that a company will have to write the LDAP lookup app in the first place.)

2. A wireless user needs access to an online database that only exists on a company’s intranet. How does the user get to it?

BlackBerry: given that the BES provides web connectivity that can be routed through the intranet, the user only has to open the BlackBerry Browser application and enter the URL, and will be taken to the web page hosting the database.

iPhone: there’s no similar way for iPhone users to route their web requests through an intranet server; iPhones get their connectivity to the internet through Cingular, and as such, are outside the enterprise firewall, meaning that they can’t get to intranet-only web applications. There’s no info on whether Safari on the iPhone will support the use of web proxies, but even then, use of the proxy will have to be open to the entire Cingular network, opening up a whole other host of security questions and problems. So to achieve this challenge, a company has to either (a) choose to host the web app on a server accessible to the internet at large and implement web-based authentication, (b) implement a public-facing webserver which has authentication and proxies requests for the application to the intranet server, or (c) set up an HTTP proxy server facing the internet and figure out how to secure it such that only authorized iPhone users can get access.

3. A company mandates that all wireless devices need to encrypt all information they store in memory, need to auto-lock after 15 minutes, and need to auto-erase the contents of the device after a given number of incorrect password attempts. In addition, the company wants to be able to wipe a device remotely that’s reported as lost.

BlackBerry: the system administrators create a new security policy with those three rules, push the policy out to all the BlackBerry devices registered on the BES, and then restrict access to the network to only those devices which have the new policy in place. All the devices receive the new policy and implement it; any devices which have more lax security settings are barred from accessing the enterprise. When a user reports their BlackBerry as lost, the sysadmins push a command to the device to wipe its memory.

iPhone: the system administrators recognize that (as of current information) there’s no way to encrypt all the information on the device, and no way to force the device to initialize itself after a given number of incorrect password attempts, so they give up on those two. They then send an email to all known iPhone users pleading with them to set their auto-lock times appropriately, and they hope that the users read the email and follow the directions. And given that it’s unclear whether there are any mechanisms of access control for specific iPhones, they continue to hope that the rules are being followed. As for lost iPhones giving up their data, there’s nothing that would allow for remote erasing, so the company also hopes that there’s nothing sensitive on the device.

4. Finally, given that I’m a physician, something that’s relevant to my world: an organization exists in a world which mandates that all electronic communications about patient care are encrypted from end to end, and system administrators are tasked with making sure their wireless devices comply with this requirement.

BlackBerry: the system administrators install the S/MIME add-on and the enterprise security certificate chain on all enterprise BlackBerries. They then have the users install their personal secure email certificate in their chains, as well, and then users can query the enterprise directory for other users’ secure certs and can choose encryption as an option on the email composition screen.

iPhone: from the bits of news coverage and reviews I’ve found, there doesn’t seem to be any encrypted email support on the iPhone, so there’s nothing the organization can do. It’s unclear whether the phone’s mail client can require — or even support — users’ connections to an IMAP server over SSL, so in addition to the actual email, the communications channel over which that email travels might be totally unencrypted.

There are oodles more issues that could be brought up, but the gist of the matter is that no matter how much people in the enterprise crave being able to replace their BlackBerries with iPhones, the support for the devices working at the enterprise level isn’t there. And given Apple’s pretty awful track record when it comes to integrating their other products into the corporate environment, you’d be naive to think that a seamless iPhone experience in the enterprise is coming anytime soon.

Given all the Motorola RAZR 2 hoopla I’ve seen on the various gadget and tech weblogs over the past day, I feel compelled to mention that my hopes for the phone would be exactly nil, given how large and stinking a piece of poop the RAZR is. It is, by far, the worst phone I’ve ever used, and I’ve probably had a dozen or more cellphones in the past decade — I typically now just leave it at home and forward it to my work phone, and there isn’t a day I decide to take it with me that I don’t end up wanting to throw it off the 14th Street Bridge.

That is all.

For those of you out there who are just starting to wade into the high-definition TV waters, it doesn’t take long to find out that the recommended method of connecting some component or another of yours to your TV is via an HDMI cable. (It’s a single, moderately-thin, simple-to-connect cable that carries both audio and video in a pure digital format.) Let this be a warning to you: when you go shopping for a cable, be very wary of the amount you’re being asked to pay — many retailers look to be charging 300-plus percent markups on the cables, for no reason other than to increase profit margins. Rather than fall for that scam, hop online and grab a cable for under $20… your wallet will thank you.

(One important bit of info to know about HDMI is that the data transmitted by the cable truly is digital — it’s ones and zeros. And that means that digital cables either work or they don’t, unlike analog cables like the other video and audio cables we’re all used to which can degrade the signals they carry if they’re of poor-enough quality. So if a $20 cable works, it’s the exact same as a $100 cable which works… except $80 cheaper.)

For those of you who are salivating over Apple’s newly-announced iPhone, you might want to do a little research on Cingular, the other company you’ll be getting into bed with if you run out and get an iPhone in June. As an example, did you know that Cingular now forces you to waive all rights to trials by jury or participation in class-action lawsuits in order to become customers of its services? Or that its number of complaints per million customers is nearly double that of the next large market player (T-Mobile)?

In all honesty, the most amazing thing to me about Apple’s iPhone announcement is the exclusive multi-year pairing with Cingular, which locks Apple fans into an agreement with what might be one of the most customer-hostile companies ever. And what’s worse, can you imagine how awful it will be if the expectation is that customers go to Cingular for all techinical support of the iPhone?

I guess this’ll all play out in the coming months, but my first reaction to the whole thing is that this might be the time that Apple learns what it’s like to release what looks by all accounts to be an amazing device into a world in which the company doesn’t exert 90-plus percent control of the entire end-to-end user experience. Hopefully, it’s planning on some clever strategies to deal with this… but I can’t see the Cingular side of this going well at all.

In terms of laptops, I’m pretty solidly in the Apple crowd, having had a 12” Powerbook G4 for the past two-plus years and now having upgraded to a MacBook Pro last week. Since I moved to DC and become a member of the CrackBerry crowd, I’ve salivated over the idea that someone might figure out how to let me tether my BlackBerry to my Mac and allow me to use the data connection to access the ‘net (something that RIM supports out-of-the-box for PC users), and was pretty excited when Alex King offered a bounty for the feature and things started moving a bit. A month ago, Daniel Pasco claimed the bounty with Pulse, a product he’s developing that aims to use a Bluetooth connection to let you connect to your BlackBerry, and with my desire to see this working I’ve been following the app’s development closely. Today, Daniel posted an update with some incredibly interesting — and disappointing — information: the Bluetooth implementations are wildly different across the various BlackBerry models, with the Pulse able to sustain data rates that are more than five times faster than those the 8700g (my model) is able to pull off, and the 8700g’s rates are two times faster than the 7290. That’s really pretty amazing… in chatting with Daniel, he’s only 95% sure that this isn’t some weirdness in his testing setup, and he’s holding out hope that someone might be able to weigh in on what might be going on here.

If you’re knowledgeable in the Mysterious Ways of the BlackBerry Bluetooth Stack and have something that might point Daniel in the right direction, I’m sure he’d be thrilled if you’d go leave him a comment!

There are times when I think I’m finally reaching a reasonable level of coolness, and then there are times I see something like Sun’s datacenter in a shipping container, feel myself start to drool, and realize that I’m still the huge geek I’ve always been.

OK, this makes me pretty happy: the folks at Sling Media announced three new versions of the Slingbox today, and after a bunch of delays, are also promising the public release of SlingPlayer for the Mac within the next month. (Well, I bet it’ll be a beta version, but whatever — I’ll be able to use something to view our Slingbox TV feed from my Macs.) It’s great that the company is also finally adding HDTV support, although I’m not terribly ecstatic about that support coming as a vaporware add-on that isn’t being released until the fall, will cost more, and will only plug into the most expensive of the new Slingbox models. I guess I can’t have everything…

Wow — Vonage raised $531 million in its IPO today, and then promptly lost 13% of its value. That’s a far cry from the tech IPO days of yore, especially given that Vonage has a service it’s offering, and a business plan that involves collecting actual money from customers in exchange for that service. Then again, TiVo’s perennial profitability issues demonstrate that that’s not all you need; hell, TiVo has an outright droolworthy service (one that most cable companies haven’t come close to replicating in their own DVRs), and it has problems getting enough subscribers to stay afloat.

Shannon and I are switching to Vonage for our phone service when we move down to DC, so I’ve been watching the company’s IPO as a way to see how the market feels about the whole voice-over-IP thing, and about Vonage’s offering in particular. I’ll be posting my thoughts on our service as we get it running and start using it; I’m also going to be penning a review of the Vonage setup process as soon as I iron out the last remaining kinks in a new weblog I’m going to be starting up (hint hint).

My friends can be so weird.

RAZR side-by-side with V60c

About a month ago, I realized that my two-year anniversary with Verizon Wireless was coming up, meaning that I was able to receive a new free (or highly-subsidized) phone from them so long as I was willing to renew my contract. For a variety of reasons, Shannon and I had already decided that I should stick with VW (and that she should join onto a family plan with me), so I went hunting to see what phones Verizon was willing to provide as part of the deal. Having putzed around with a friend’s Motorola RAZR a little bit, I was happy to see that the phone was available to me for free; after going into a store and getting some hands-on time with its competitors, I went with the RAZR. Now that I’ve had the phone for about a month, I figure it’s time for a review.

After excitement turned to disappointment earlier, I decided to do a little bit of investigation with Verizon Wireless as to why Shannon and my RAZR phones will occasionally take pictures that are too large to send as picture messages or email attachments. And after a little bit of on-hold time, I’ve now had confirmed for me that there’s nothing that can be done about it, and that Verizon has no intention of making the decision that can actually fix the root problem. But first, let’s take a step back for a minute, and start from the beginning so as to better understand what’s going on.

Like all other digital cameras, there’s been major pressure on the manufacturers of camera phones to increase the quality and resolution of the cameras that are built into the devices. As a result, while we once had crappy, poorly-lit 320 by 240 images coming out of the phones, manufacturers quickly moved to VGA-caliber cameras (640 by 480), and then beyond, to megapixel-size images. (Hell, Samsung displayed a fairly ridiculous seven-megapixel camera phone last year.) So it’s fair to say that the cameras in phones sold by mobile phone carriers are getting better, and that the size of the image files that are being generated by these phones is steadily increasing as a result.

Now, like any other digital camera, the users of camera phones would ideally like to get those photos off of the camera. For one reason, the displays on most phones aren’t anywhere near the resolution of the cameras, and that means that in order to enjoy the higher resolution of the images, they need to be displayed on something other than the tiny display of the phone. (After all, it was just this past February that the first phone offering a 640 by 480 display was introduced — a phone which offers a camera that takes pictures at 16 times that resolution.) For another reason, people want to share their photos, and a photo which is trapped in the memory of a camera phone is the antithesis of a shared photo. Logically, camera phone manufacturers and wireless phone providers have thus given their users a variety of methods to get the photos off of the phone, methods which include sending them via some communications method like MMS or email, or allowing you to connect the camera phone directly to your computer via a cable or Bluetooth. In our story, here’s where the idiocy begins to creep into the mix.

Verizon Wireless sells camera phones to its customers, and also offers a service named Get it Now through which customers can download photos, ringtones, games, and whatnot to their phones. Most of Get it Now is a pay service; to download a single new wallpaper or ringtone to your phone, you pay somewhere between $2 and $7 to Verizon. Because of this, the company has opted to disable any method of directly connecting some of its phones to computers — such a connection would enable users to put their own images or ringtones onto the phone for free, something which would compete with Verizon’s pay service. In our case, the Verizon RAZR V3C has specifically been crippled, loaded with firmware which disables the Bluetooth protocol that would allow me to share files between the phone and my computer. For the most part, I couldn’t care less — I’m not someone who’s itching to create new ringtones and put them onto my phone. Alas, though, there’s a specific instance in which it becomes much more important to me that Verizon has decided to sell a crippled product.

As I mentioned above, the cameras in phones have been getting better, and with a 1.3 megapixel camera, the RAZR V3C is a testament to this. If you get a good sense of its optimal light conditions, the phone takes reasonable photos, and it’s usually not a problem for me to send them along to my Flickr account or via email to a friend or two. But on occasion (twice in the past 18 photos I’ve taken), the resulting photo file size will be larger than 300 Kb, which turns out to be the limit on Verizon’s network for sending or receiving multimedia files… and in these cases, because Verizon has opted to disable the phone’s ability to connect to computers and exchange files, there’s absolutely no way to get the photo off of the phone. (On the RAZR, you get an instant little dialog box that says “ATTACHMENT TOO BIG”, and that’s the end of that.) So, in the company’s quest to lock users into its own pay service for multimedia downloads, Verizon has created a case wherein there’s no way to upload certain images, images that are created via the ordinary use of the phone’s own camera.

So, I made a few phone calls this afternoon in an effort to see what could be done about all this. I spoke with a customer service woman at Verizon Wireless whose first response was to recommend that I stop taking pictures at the highest-resolution setting on the phone; she didn’t quite get why I wasn’t satisfied with that as an answer. She then promised to look into it and follow up with me, and an hour later called me back to place the blame squarely on Motorola (the makers of the RAZR V3C phone). One phone call to Motorola’s dedicated V3C support line (800-657-8909, for those who want that number) verified that the problem was Verizon’s own limit of 300 Kb on MMS and email attachments — and led to the Motorola tech expressing extreme exasperation that his company was willing to put its products in the hands of customers via a middleman (Verizon) who crippled those products before passing them on. My final call was back to Verizon, wherein a technical support agent verified the 300 Kb limit, and also verified that Verizon has no intention of opening up the Bluetooth file transfer protocols anytime soon. (He specifically made reference to the various internet discussion group threads surrounding the current firmware upgrade, and said that it does not give OBEX back to phones which have had it disabled.) He was sympathetic to the fact that I had photos on my phone that could not be sent anywhere but to the trash can, and promised me that he would submit my complaints via a “Voice of the Customer” process that’s internal to the support division of Verizon Wireless.

I guess this just highlights to me the reality of decisions that are made outside of their relevant contexts. Verizon Wireless chose to provide a revenue-generating multimedia download service, and then opted to protect that revenue generation by modifying the capabilities of its phones. In so doing, its methods of limiting the phones’ abilities has led to loss of functionality outside the scope of the multimedia download service — and made it impossible to work around that loss of functionality. And as an end-user of one of the affected phones, I now have to make choices that just don’t make any sense, like whether I want to take high-resolution photos that might not be usable on the Verizon network, or will settle for taking low-resolution photos that are able to be sent by my phone but look crappy as all hell. It’s just plain dumb.

Praise be to the gods of mobile telecommunications gadgets: Verizon has now released a firmware for their Motorola RAZR V3C phones that re-enables OBEX. (For those who aren’t hip to the lingo of Bluetooth, OBEX is the communications protocol that enables you to transfer binary objects — think pictures, ringtones, etc. — from your computer to your phone and vice versa.) You’ll have to go to an actual Verizon storefront to get the new firmware uploaded onto your phone, but the apparent additional improvement of the user interface speed will likely make the trip worth it a dozen times over.

In the original version of the firmware for the RAZR, Verizon “accidentally” left it enabled, meaning that customers could get their pictures off their phone and get ringtones onto their phones without having to use Verizon’s own pay-per-transfer service. A firmware update four to six months ago disabled OBEX, and those who cared were pretty upset; it’s good to see that Verizon has agreed to return the functionality to its RAZRs. The funny thing is that Shannon and I have recently realized that this is actually more important than it might seem — both of our phones have taken pictures in the past month that are then deemed too large to attach to an outgoing picture message, meaning that they’re completely trapped in the memory of the phone. Now, we’ll be able to free the pictures from their tiny jails, and use them however we want!

Update: well, maybe nevermind this. It looks like Verizon isn’t being as accommodating as was first thought to be the case — apparently, most people won’t get OBEX back on their RAZR phones. (It’s only people who had an older version of the firmware, the one with OBEX enabled to begin with, who are seeing it present in the latest update; everyone else is reporting the same crippled behavior.) The folks over at Howard Forums are still trying to get to the bottom of the issue, but for now, I’m not sure that anything’s different (except for the improved speed in the interface).

Since it’s not in Amazon’s database yet (and thus not available for me to add to my wishlist), let me make a global announcement: I want the new Lego Mindstorms NXT set. Wired published a story recently about the upgrades that are being introduced with the new Mindstorms set, including a 32-bit processor, a new cross-platform programming language, USB and Bluetooth, and new sensors; it’ll be a fun toy to have in my office someday, as a diversion for kids and adults alike.

Boston Dynamics, an engineering company spun off by MIT to develop robots with human-like abilities, is currently developing an engine-driven, pack mule-like robot named BigDog that you have to see in action to believe. (That link is to a Windows Media Player-format video, which plays just fine in the OS X version of WMP.) The movement of BigDog’s four legs is amazing and a bit creepy all at the same time, but the whole package works well enough that it looks like you can actually kick the robot in the side and it’ll recover and continue moving without a problem. DARPA is sponsoring the development of BigDog, which looks like it could someday be a useful military tool for carrying heavy loads alongside troops on foot.

For the second time in just under three months, I turned on my iPod today and was greeted with the sad iPod graphic. Once again, I found myself at the Apple Store, where it was quickly determined that the hard disk in my replacement iPod had failed exactly as the first one had. Once again, my iPod was whisked away and replaced with a refurbished one. And once again, as I sat there syncing all my music to the new iPod, I watched as nearly a dozen people came through and had their iPods replaced in the exact same way mine was, all before noon.

Let’s assume that my local Apple Store replaced somewhere on the order of two dozen iPods today, that the customers at my store aren’t any different than those anywhere else, and that today wasn’t any different than any other day. Given that there are 126 Apple Stores in the United States, this would mean that Apple replaces roughly three thousand iPods a day, twenty thousand each week, and over a million a year. Could these numbers possibly be correct?

Looking at the size of the USB thumbdrives Sony announced at CES yesterday (is it possible to use the term “thumbdrive” to describe these, given that they’re smaller than a lot of people’s thumbnails?), it looks reasonably clear that if Apple decides to stick with the iPod Nano form factor, the next generation might well have the same capacity as the current regular iPods. That’s pretty amazing.

Interesting — while I certainly had a good experience with my iPod replacement over the weekend, it turns out that the iPod warranty would have allowed Apple to charge me $30 to get me back in business, ostensibly for “shipping and handling.” (Note that the Genius didn’t attempt to charge me, nor did he attempt to charge any of the other people who replaced their iPods while I was in the store.) I agree with the person who mailed the info into Macintouch — the notion of a warranty that adds some sort of service charge halfway through the warranty term feels dirty, and certainly makes the warranty a lot less valuable. Also, the charge means that adding an extended warranty to your iPod isn’t $59, it’s actually a minimum of $89 — you have to pay the $59, and then each time you need to send your iPod in for service, you’ll have to pay another $30. Bleah.

(By the way, is this the right place to beg Macintouch’s Ric Ford to create permanent links to entries of his? The link above will only work until the item leaves the front page of Macintouch; then, I’ll have to dig through his search engine and archives to find a link that might continue to work.)

Shannon and I came to Sacramento last night for a wedding reception, and on the plane, my iPod went from happily letting me navigate its menus to sadly showing me a graphic of a frowning iPod and a URL for iPod support. So when we hit our hotel last night, I immediately went online and made an appointment with the Genius Bar at the Apple Store across the street, hoping to at least get the repair process started. Today, I walked in, the guy immediately determined that the hard disk was dead, and offered to replace the iPod on the spot — a decision that was only made difficult by the fact that Shannon had the iPod engraved when she gave it to me as a Christmas/engagement present. (The alternative I was offered was to mail it back into Apple, where they’d fix it and return it to me with the engraving intact.) My desire to have the little guy back in shape ASAP motivated me to choose the on-the-spot replacement, and I’m sitting here at the Genius Bar (using the free Apple Store WiFi) while the new machine syncs up with my Powerbook.

There is one thing that’s more amazing to me than the quick, efficient service I got here, though — it’s the number of other people who’ve sat down beside me, broken iPod in hand, and had their players replaced on-the-spot too. In the last half-hour, the Genius has replaced six different iPods, ordered warrantly replacements for another two, and he tells me that he has a half-dozen other iPod-related appointments on the calendar for the remainder of the day. It makes me pretty happy to see that Apple’s willing to do fast warranty service on a walk-in basis, something that keeps its customers coming back.

It’s pretty great to me that the real, honest-to-goodness iTunes-enabled cellphone that was announced today is a phone that the folks at Engadget showed pix of over two months ago. With all the spoofs that have been floating around, it was hard to know whether the Engadget post was legit; we now know it was!

(I’m just sad that the rumored iPod Shuffle capacity and price changes didn’t pan out; a $69 512Mb Shuffle would have been incredibly hard to beat.)

So, say that I’m in the market to buy a half-dozen iPod Shuffles sometime in the next six weeks — I hadn’t decided between the 512 Mb ($99) or 1 Gb ($129) models, but nonetheless, a bunch of ‘em. And then, say that there’s been a rumor since June that there might be an upgrade coming to the iPod Shuffle line, an upgrade that you’d imagine will likely mean that the current models will disappear, and might mean that the new models will be priced differently. If you were me, would you buy now, or wait to see what happens?

I got a happy email today from the people behind my new favorite magazine, Make, saying that the magazine is now available online in its entirety! It’s only for current subscribers, but the site provides high-quality proofs of every page of content, proofs that can be viewed, printed, and (cooler still) shared with non-subscribers via email. The archives are also available and searchable, which is a cool bonus. Just when I thought the magazine couldn’t get better, it did!

A study that’s being published in this week’s issue of BMJ (neé the British Medical Journal) yet again demonstrates that using cellphones while driving increases the likelihood of being in an accident. (The full PDF of the article is also available.) The specific conclusions of the study were that use of a cellphone increases the likelihood of an accident by four times, and the risk is the same whether the driver was using the phone normally or using a hands-free set with the phone. In addition, nearly all accidents were associated with at least one injury, and nearly half resulted in two or more injuries, injuries which required visits to hospitals for care.

Living in a town like Boston, where the rules of the road have been demoted into weak suggestions, this is all the more frightening. I walk more than a mile and a half each way to and from work, and I’d say that nearly a third of the time that I’m threatened (in a crosswalk, at a driveway) by a two-ton hunk of metal on wheels, the driver of said vehicle is obviously chatting away on a phone and even more oblivious to the world around the car than the average Masshole driver. Unfortunately for me, if a driver’s use of a cellphone ends up involving me in an accident, I’m likely to be the injured one — I’m on foot, and the driver’s wrapped up in a protective cocoon of steel and plastic. That just sucks.

I’m not quite sure how I’ve never known that Moleskine has a top-flipping reporter notebook (maybe it’s new, since it’s not yet listed in Moleskine’s own catalog), but I think I need to have one. I use Moleskines to write information about pretty much every consult I do in the hospital, and it feels like a notebook that flips open at the top would be perfect for writing while standing up and talking to patients.

Fascinating — did you know that the rules for using Continental’s in-flight power outlets specify that you must remove your laptop’s battery before plugging in? No other airline (American, United, Lufthansa) seems to care; Delta even mentions the convenience of being able to charge your laptop’s battery as one of the perks of using the in-flight power outlets.

Good to know, good to know.

Remember my issues with the Linksys wireless range extender? By the looks of the discount table inside my local computer store, I’m not alone — there were easily between one and two dozen of them arrayed in a stack, all with labels saying that they were returns that were being sold at a discount. Not too shocking…

While I get that there’s a real usage-rights issue involved, I’m not too sure why there’s so much handwringing in the iPod user community about Apple shutting down iPod Download — do people know that there are literally dozens of other apps that allow users to do the exact same thing, and that have been available for quite a while? Here are the ones I was able to come up with links to in under five minutes’ worth of searching:

Oh, and if you know even the littlest bit about the command line, it’s trivial to discover that the “protection” against downloading from the iPod is implemented simply by hiding the folder that contains the tracks, so all you have to do is change into that directory and start copying.

So yeah, Apple’s behaving, well, like Apple always has… but it’s pretty easy to route around that, and it’s not that easy for Apple implement any longstanding way to prevent that.