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In response to this poll in the Cincinnati Enquirer, I wrote a letter to the editor.  Since there's no guarantee it will be published, I thought I'd put it here:

The results of your poll about Cincinnati's proposed streetcar are a good reminder that popular opinion is not necessarily a good metric when thinking about what makes cities successful or the economics of infrastructure investments.  For example, Paul Brown Stadium was a popular project, yet we've gotten back relatively little return on our $400+ million investment.  Evidence from many other cities suggests that the streetcar, in contrast, would generate large financial returns for the city and its businesses.  Cincinnati has a rich history of impressive achievements; let's get back our "can do" attitude and make the streetcar a reality.


A screwball Senator is proposing a national speed limit to save gas.

That's a bizarre suggestion for this country, which is infamous for its willingness to just let market forces work things out.

No, instead, we should just tax the heck out of gasoline and let people decide how fast they can afford to go...if they can afford to go at all.

Or better yet, let's take those tax revenues and actually invest in public transportation infrastructure. If we also reward good local development decisions, people might not require a car for 99.99% of their trips. And that would be the best situation by far.

BTW, here's a nifty Department of Energy report from April, 2008 on gasoline usage trends chock-a-block full of graphs, charts, and other statistical goodness. Enjoy!

gas_prices.jpgTime.com has positively deviated from the typical "gas prices are awful, aren't they?" approach most journalists take when writing about the fuel situation. Instead of adding to the incessant yammering about how life is going down the crapper because of $4 gas, they decide to highlight 10 positives that might come about because of it:

  1. Globalized jobs return home
  2. Sprawl stalls
  3. 4-day work weeks
  4. Less pollution
  5. More frugal use of transportation
  6. Fewer traffic deaths
  7. Cheaper car insurance
  8. Less traffic
  9. More cops out of their cars
  10. Less obesity

Now, I'm not confident all these will happen just because of high gas prices, but you have to give them a nod for at least trying to remind us that some good will likely come out of this.

Read the whole story here.

Apparently, a man rear-ended a Cincinnati city bus and then claimed he didn't see it.

A bus. You know, they're quite large...pretty hard to overlook.

And what do you think the man was driving when he hit the bus?

Yep...another bus.

At least that's one problem we shouldn't have with streetcars.

anc7.jpgI've always been curious about those noise-canceling headphones you see all the business guys wearing on planes. Do they really help that much? Are they worth the expense? After grabbing a set of ATH-ANC7 QuietPoint headphones from Audio-Technica, I can answer definitively "yes" and "yes."

The ANC7s are over-the-ear (or "earcup") headphones (as opposed to in-ear- or earbud-style phones) and they do a bang-up job blocking out noise. Even without the active (i.e., powered) noise-canceling circuitry enabled, the ANC7s do reduce environmental noise. But when you flip the switch to ON, man, it's like a veritable cone of silence has descended over you (Google if you don't get that reference). The specs say they reduce ambient noise up to 20db or 85% (I've no idea how the conversion works, so don't ask); I can tell you that 20db (or 85%) makes a heckuva difference. After a couple of recent 4-hour flights, I was noticeably more relaxed and less stressed than I usually am after such a flight, and I attribute that to the use of these headphones.

anc7acces.jpgThe ANC7 has some nice design features as well. For starters, the cord is removable, so if you only need noise canceling (i.e., you don't want them plugged into an audio source, such as when you want to sleep on a plane), then you don't have to futz with a cord. The ANC7s come with a semi-hard case, too. The case has an interior accessory pocket that stores the audio cord and included full-sized (1/4-inch) stereo and airplane (two-prong) adapters (a nice touch, Audio-Technica!). The ANC7s are powered by a single AAA battery (1 included) and I got about 15 hours of mixed use (noise-canceling only and noise-canceling + audio) from a new cell.

Unlike the Bose models (which generally run $299 and up and don't offer any better sound quality than these), the ANC7s can be used as unpowered headphones. Sound quality without noise-canceling turned on isn't great; it sounds a bit muffled, but it'll do in a pinch. However, with the noise-canceling enabled, the sound quality of these is very good; they almost give my open-air Grados a run for their money, and that's saying a lot.

So, if you travel a fair bit, or perhaps work in a noisy environment with white noise you find distracting, plunk down the $120 or so for a set of these and prepare to be amazed.

The 605 WiFi, a fifth-generation portable media player from the French electronics firm Archos, is an impressive device. It boasts a vivid, high-res 4.3" touchscreen, 802.11g Wi-Fi (more on that later), and the ability to handle a reasonably broad array of media formats (although the larger, more expensive Cowon A3 handles far more). Plus, the 605 WiFi is available with hard drives of 30, 80, and 160 gigabytes or with 4GB of flash storage (the flash model also sports an SDHC slot for unlimited expansion). This review focuses on the 4GB flash version, which can be had for under $200 online and at a few brick-and-mortar electronics retailers.

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nuvi370.jpgI've not posted about much technology recently. For that, I truly apologize. This is, after all, GearBits. So, to fill that void, here's a brief recap of some gadget and gear acquisitions over the last six months or so (and why they're my picks).

GPS: Garmin Nuvi 370
After borrowing Mitch's Garmin for a recent roadtrip to the Smoky Mountains, I was hooked. The Nuvi 370 is a terrific combination of features and portability. Text-to-speech keeps my eyes on the road and the bright screen and simple menu system makes it an easy-to-use travel aid. Plus, it's small and light enough to take with you on a walkabout, as I did recently when hiking around San Francisco.

lnt5271f.jpgTV: Samsung LNT-5271F 52" 1080p LCD
Yeah, this is a bit over-the-top, but I told my wife that I reserved the right to redo the basement TV setup if I got my promotion at work (I did). So far, it's a really nice TV. The first one died on me (the screen went weird a week into the relationship), but this second one is doing fine. Discovery HD Theater has never been more impressive, although crappy SD cable channels now look just as crappy, but bigger. Now I just need to start working on a way to justify getting a Blu-Ray/HD DVD combo player.

txsr705.jpgA/V Receiver: Onkyo TX-SR705
As part of the upgrade of the basement TV area, our old receiver just had to be replaced. It was ca. 1996, so its idea of "A/V" meant two composite video inputs. The Onkyo is a nice balance between performance (100W x 7 and 3 HDMI inputs + upconversion) and bulk. It definitely is more capable than the Yamaha it replaced (although the Yamaha still sounds great).

DVD Player: Oppo DV-981HD
The new TV quickly showed just how awful our previous DVD player was. I shouldn't have been surprised, really. After all, it was a Sony VHS + progressive scan DVD combo unit that I got from Woot.com for like $40 last year. Man, the video signal it put out, even over component, just made my eyes bleed. The Oppo, on the other hand, makes standard-definition DVDs look really quite excellent, even converting them to 1080p and outputting via HDMI. Its video-processing circuitry is optimized for getting the best possible picture quality off those 480p discs we all know and love. And it's way cheaper than a high-def DVD player.

divxconnected.jpgMedia Streamer: DivX Connected (Beta)
I was invited to be part of the public beta of the DivX Connected wireless/wired media streamer concept platform that the DivX folks are currently refining in preparation for licensed production with D-Link. Suffice to say that it's a really nice user experience; much, much better than all of the other media streamers I've used that are supposed to handle video. I hope DivX and D-Link do well with it...I'd definitely consider buying one.

Networking: TRENDnet TEG-S80TXE Gigabit 8-Port Switch
I know, wired networking is a little tame, but when you can get a reliable, all-metal, 8-port Gbit switch for $23 (after Newegg.com rebate), it's worth noting.

Oh, and I've found that MonoPrice.com has some terrific quality cables and audio parts (e.g., speaker mounts) at really excellent prices. Shipping is fast and cheap, too.

So, that about wraps it up for now. Any questions about these items, feel free to post a comment.

I have an idea. It's pretty crazy and 99% likely never to bear fruit, but I feel compelled to describe it here...just in case. And don't think this is entirely thought out...I'm imagining it literally as I type.

Imagine this: a road race around the 86-mile loop of highway circling Cincinnati, Ohio known as I-275 (map below). I-275 in Cincinnati is a divided highway ranging from 2 to 4 lanes in both directions. It wanders through three different states -- Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky -- and crosses the Ohio river twice.

i275.gif

Who could race in this event? Anyone. It would be a true road race where any road-worthy automobile may enter. Think road rally for the everyman.

But who would race in this event? That's an entirely different question. Since closing I-275 would be impossible for any period of time more than, say, a few hours (if even then), the field of cars would have to be limited to about 180. Here's how I figure that. If one lap is 86 miles and even the pokiest racer should be able to average 100 mph, that's .86 hours, or about 50 minutes around the whole loop. If you want to finish the last car in by noon (to re-open the highway), and you wanted to start each car a minute behind the previous one (so as to limit bunching up), then you could launch cars for three hours straight (e.g., starting at 8am, the last one leaving at 11am and returning just before noon).

roadrally.jpgBut, who would those 180 racers be? Well, we'd need to make sure that they know how to drive, so they would have to show that their cars are road-legal and pass a full race safety inspection (a la SCCA rules). But that would still leave thousands aching for a chance to blast through closed highways at ridiculous speeds.

So, to further pare the field, a $500 entry fee would be required. Maybe make it $1,000...or maybe auction off the spots. Alternately, and this could be done to help offset the costs of hosting the race (more on that later), the organizers could require a $X00 fee to enter a RAFFLE from which participants would be drawn. Then, each participant would have to pay the entry fee to actually race. The motivation would be the thrill, potential prize money, and some local fame.

I also imagine that you'd need a few classes of cars, primarily for sequencing the starts (you should have the fastest cars at the beginning and the slowest at the end in order to minimize overtaking and passing) and based primarily on top speeds (e.g., 180+, 160-180, 140-160, and less than 140). This would be the perfect opportunity for those rich guys with their Porsche Carreras and Mercedes SLRs to really open them up on public roads. It would also make for a really fine exotic car show.

Staging the cars could be done at an on-ramp area near I-75 and adjacent to a large commercial base of restaurants, etc. for helping support the hordes of tourists.

And that brings me to the money part. This could, if managed correctly, be a HUGE money-maker for the region. While you could you sell TV rights to the event, the tourism dollars alone would be enormous. If the race is on a Sunday morning (lightest traffic means the best time to close the highway for a few hours), then the day before, a Saturday, could be a huge parade of all the cars through downtown Cincinnati. It could be like a public Indy 500 for the everyday guy.

My biggest concern would be the ability to negotiate a way to close down a major highway loop that crosses three different states for a period of 4 daylight hours. If that could be done, the rest would be perfectly feasible, I think. And, if it could be pulled off once, the second year would be bigger, better, and easier just because a lot of the complexities would have already been worked out.

So, if anyone from Cincinnati town council or Hamilton County is reading this, please consider this idea; I think it would be at least an interesting thing to attempt. Heck, Cincinnati once proposed to be the site of the summer Olympics. This race wouldn't be one-tenth that much cost or effort, yet might still accomplish many of the same goals for the city and the region.

palm_foleo.jpgToday, Palm announced its new Foleo smartphone companion (shown, next to the Treo). You can learn about it at the Palm website and read some first impressions here, here, and here.

I'm going to reserve judgment on the Foleo until I get some hands-on time with it (you hear that, Palm? Bump me up a few spots on the review unit list, will ya?). It has some interesting points, but I'll admit to being skeptical that the market for this device exceeds a few thousand people.

But it did get me thinking just what would have been a better product (or products) to announce today that would have served a similar purpose (i.e., extending the usefulness of a smartphone like the Treo...or the iPhone)? Here are some ideas that I've seen proposed various places today:

1) Linux-Powered Tablet Treo -- Combine the radio and multimedia functions of a Treo with all the open-source goodness of a Linux kernel and a big touchscreen display.

virtual_display.jpg2) Bluetooth Virtual Display -- Giving the user a better bigscreen view of her Treo's data while only adding a few ounces to her bag seems like an interesting idea. Just one question, though: How do you interact with the Treo if your eyes are blocked by the display?

3) Clamshell Treo -- Proposed by the many who wish the Treo's 2.5" square display was a shade larger yet still pocketable, a clamshell Treo could even have two displays (a la Nintendo's DS) for double the productivity.

4) A Universal Treo-Laptop Interface -- Some have suggested that what Palm really needs to offer is a piece of hardware that would connect a Treo to any PC's USB port and automatically broker data and Internet sharing between the two devices. Imagine a continuous "smart" syncing between the two devices so that the PC could be used as an interface to the Treo's contents, or vice versa.

What's your suggestion? What should Palm have released instead of the Foleo? Or do you think it really is a viable new product category?

vrfm9.gifWhile at Target earlier today looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon the VRFM3 FM Transmitter by Virtual Reality Sound Labs. What caught my eye about this FM transmitter is the fact that it will play MP3 and WMA files directly from either a flash drive inserted into its USB port or an Secure Digital (SD) card inserted into its SD slot (see below). Of course, there's also a line-in jack for transmitting audio from another source (e.g., an iPod or Treo), but this is the first unit I've seen to offer both USB and SD interfaces. So, excited by the prospect of easy, cheap, portable, and completely wire-free tunage for any car I happen to be in, I plunked down my $49.99 and headed home to put the VRFM9 through its paces.

vrfm9_inputs.gifAfter an initial test, I'm very impressed by how well this device works. It does exactly what you would expect, if not hope, it to do, which, unfortunately, seems to be a rarity in consumer electronics. Plus, even more a rarity are the extensive written instructions (including color diagrams) that came with the device.

vrfm9_display.gifFirst, I tried the typical external input mode with my Treo 700p as source. The VRFM9 automatically detects which source is hooked up (if music is available by more than one source, priority goes first to the external line-in, then to the USB port, then last to the SD card slot; the unit will only play music from one source) and transmits that via one of its 15 preset FM channels (8 in the low range and 7 in the high range...enough to satisfy nearly everyone nearly all the time). The two-line LCD (at right) offers some information about the FM channel being used, play mode (normal v. shuffle), source, etc. If the unit is playing an MP3 or WMA file straight off USB or SD card, it will display the artist and song title as well (assuming these tags are present in the audio file). It's a bit cryptic and not a lot of characters appear at once, but given that you likely won't be interacting a lot with this device, it's certainly adequate, if not surprisingly nice. One nice UI touch is that when you switch tracks or change the volume, the display changes to show extra-large characters (e.g., "011/045" to let you know you're on track 11 of 45 total tracks on that source) for enhanced readability.

Second, I tried a couple different SD cards. Both my 2GB and 4GB SD (not SDHC) cards worked fine. The VRFM9 will scan the card when inserted and start playing the first one it comes across. It appears to play in this order: (1) anything in the root directory, in alphabetical order by file name, (2) anything in sub-directories in alphabetical order by sub-directory, then by file name within each sub-directory. Of course, putting the unit in Shuffle mode randomizes play across all files in all directories. One odd thing I noticed was that the unit would attempt to play the two WMV files I had in one sub-directory, but it was unsuccessful as no sound was transmitted.

I then attempted to use the VRFM9 with a USB flash drive (specifically, the 4GB Patriot Xporter XT that I reviewed previously), but no joy. The unit displayed "No Source" with that USB drive. I'll hunt around for another one and give it a go when I get a chance. Another note regarding use with flash drives; not all will fit. Particularly fat flash drives may be too girthy to fit into the VRFM9's port. If there's an SD card inserted, this further reduces the space around the USB port. Most normal extension cables will work fine.

One interesting tidbit is that a USB flash card reader that mounts like an external drive will let the user effectively play music through the VRFM9 via any of the flash media formats the reader supports. But as above, music will be played from only one card at a time. I tried plugging in an external USB hard drive (full 120VAC 3.5" drive), but no dice...the unit didn't recognize that anything was plugged in to the USB port.

Controls on the unit are spartan but adequate. They all click nicely and the dual-function (click vs. hold) is reasonably intuitive.

Now, two minor complaints. First, even though the unit ratchets through about a 120-degree sweep, the LCD isn't particularly readable except at very direct angles. So, if your car's cigarette lighter/power socket is way off to the side of the center console, you may not have much luck reading the display while driving. Second, as with all FM transmitters, sound quality is not particularly good. After all, you're limited to the sound quality of FM radio, which isn't going to impress anyone. Audiophiles will want to look to other (and likely much more expensive) hardwired solutions for getting their portable audio broadcast through their cars' stereos.

Overall, I am quite impressed by this device. Not only does it do exactly what you think it should, it seems reasonably well made and is not terribly expensive. And, given that many people have at least one lower-capacity SD card or USB flash drive sitting in a drawer not doing anything, this makes for a very easy way to put it to work as a music sherpa for your car.

There are also some nice reviews of the VRFM9 over at Audioholics and Gizmos for Geeks if you're still on the fence or want more opinions.

slrc-4.jpgBusiness trips often provide nice opportunities for some travel photography, so taking both my camera and my laptop -- something none of my current bags can accommodate -- was becoming increasingly desirable to me. So, I began searching for a backpack-style bag that would safely house my DSLR and lenses while also providing room for my notebook.

I found the Case Logic SLRC-4 SLR/Computer Backpack. It's nice and quite a bargain (I found it for about $70 delivered -- the next cheapest similar alternative was a LowePro bag for about $140).

Granted, if you have a lot of gear and/or really big lenses, this may not be the bag for you. If you want to use it for toting both a camera setup and laptop (with accouterments), you'll be limited to one DSLR body, 4-5 small-to-medium-sized lenses, and up to a 15" notebook. A jumbo 300mm f/2.8 (or larger) lens just isn't going to fit. The inside is very reconfigurable in terms of allocating space for different equipment, so as long as you're not heading off to a month-long safari, you should be covered.

Build quality seems very good -- definitely better than I expected for such an inexpensive bag. Another benefit is that there is nothing about the bag that screams out "expensive technology inside!" making it less attractive to thieves.

So, if you have a modest DSLR setup and need to take your laptop with you often, check out the Case Logic SLRC-4 backpack...a good bag and a great value.

I live in a city with a name that few people not from here seem to be able to spell correctly: Cincinnati

Despite being the home of the first professional baseball team, the headquarters of Procter & Gamble and Federated Department Stores (among other large firms), and part of the name of a popular sit-com (WKRP in Cincinnati, Cincinnati seems to be regularly misspelled in various creative ways.

Using Google Trends, I found out that the most common way to misspell this city's name is "Cincinatti," but other mistakes are also common:

cincinnati.gif

Thankfully, the search frequency of the correct spelling - Cincinnati - is magnitudes higher than any of the misspellings, but it's interesting to see such widespread ignorance. Imagine that many people spelling it "Misisipi". OK, never mind.

vsw_eiffel.jpgI'll admit it; I'm a bagaholic. Few things delight me more than finding the perfect bag or case for some gadget or use.

It has to be the right size -- not too big, but not too small. It has to have the right number and size of pockets, if any are needed. It has to have the appropriate closing/fastening hardware in the right spots.

I have been known to search for months for just the right case, popping into the odd luggage store or outfitter that I happen to see, just in case something there meets all my criteria. And the more true gadget geeks I meet, the more I'm starting to realize that this is not an uncommon affliction amongst us.

When I saw the Victorinox Swiss Army Eiffel laptop bag (pictured) at a local luggage shop a few months ago, I was convinced it was my ideal "everyday" go-to-work/haul-my-laptop brief. It looked to fit my 12" Panasonic W2 perfectly, with just enough space to fit the A/C cordage below it. There were enough pockets to accommodate some folders/papers, but not too many so that it'd be bulky. And it had a couple of nifty add-ons, like a magnetic close "hidden" external pocket and some nice internal organizing compartments so all my stuff wouldn't just jostle around all higgeldy-piggeldy. Since it's made of ballistic nylon, it's both durable and light in weight (unlike most leather bags). Plus, and this is a subtle issue, the strap clips are metal while the rings they lock into are plastic. This is important because it minimizes the potential for squeaking that metal-on-metal sometimes produces, while ensures the longevity of the clips. I told you it was subtle.

But, I found an extra surprise feature once I started using the bag. It is covered by Swiss Army's Global Track ID service. Each bag covered has a unique ID permanently attached to the inside of the bag. If the bag is lost and then found by someone (someone honest, that is), all they have to do is call the toll-free number inside and cite the bag's ID code. Then, and this is where my amazement begins, Swiss Army "will notify you, arrange pickup, and then arrange for delivery of your bag-at no cost to you." If it really works like that, I'll be amazed. Of course, I'm not planning on intentionally losing this bag just to test it. ;-)

All in all, after using the bag for a while, it gets an unqualified thumbs-up. Build quality seems excellent, the strap is sturdy yet comfortable, and the bag holds just what I need with no extra bulk to get in the way. Plus, the vertical storage position (which I think will accommodate most 14" laptops as well, and maybe some 15" models) makes it much easier to carry than a regular briefcase. All in all, a very decent bag. Considering the Global Track ID service, it seems like a pretty good deal, too.

Chernobyl On Two Wheels

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kawaslena.jpg

Combine a pretty Ukrainian girl named Elena, a big ZX-11 Kawasaki, a Geiger counter and what's left of Chernobyl and you have a winning website in my book. Elena's probably ill-advised forays into the Chernobyl nuclear dead zone reap some really poignant photos and being the daughter of a nuclear physicist, her insight and commentary on the disaster is excellent. I had no idea the scope of the tragedy. Thanks to Elena, now I do.

Travel news reports are noting that in some jurisdictions, mobile phones may now be operated in calendar, photo viewer or similar mode.

The British Civil Aviation Authority has begun allowing this in planes under its jurisdiction, because they've decided that - in this so-called "flight mode" with the radio disabled - phones do not interfere with pilot systems.

Furthermore, the BCAA suggests that all airlines should let travelers perform all other non-phone functions - read and write documents, play games - on smartphones, in the same vein as laptops, handheld games, or MP3 players.

Flight crews are saying it is not their responsibility to check for "flight mode", but the BCAA says it is. The BCAA does require that phones make it clear when their transmitter is off - for example, Sony Ericsson's P900 smartphone displays "FLIGHT MODE" on its display.

It is not clear whether the US Federal Aviation Administration will follow the BCAA's lead.