A Froogle success story

I own a Zire, the low-end PDA from Palm. I’m very happy with it, but my last PDA (a Visor Edge from Handspring) had a synching cradle for my work computer and my home computer. I found this very convenient for managing my data at home in the evening as well at work. So I wanted to get a Zire synch cable for home. Most PDAs use a special custom cradle for synching, but the Zire uses only a simple cable with a USB jack on one side. The other side fits into the Zire. Was the other jack customized for the Zire? I wasn’t sure. This seemed like a good task for Froogle.

I started by searching Froogle with “zire hotsync cable“. I found a kit that included the cable and a charger for $25, but since I only wanted the cable, I was sure I could find something lower, so I went to Google and typed in the same query. From a review on one of the linked sites, I discovered that what I needed was a USB-to-Mini-USB cable. Once you have the right search words, you’re home free. Froogle found me the cable I wanted, and once I narrowed the category to Connectors & Cables and the price to less than $5, I quickly converged on a $3.25 cable
(not including shipping) at PCTek Online. Radio Shack wants $15 for the same thing. Radio Shack did a clever thing, though: they showed that the product was available in stores near me. Given that shipping brought my online purchase to $10, I might conceivably be willing to pay a “have it now” premium of $5 and just drive to Radio Shack.

Before placing my order with PCTek Online, I wanted to see if they were a credible operation. So I went (where else?) to Google searching for ratings of PCTek Online. I found this site which gave me enough confidence to place the order. I’ll let you know if it all works.

The other Mr. Potter

My sister-in-law went on a trip to England a few years ago, and her favorite stop on the whole trip was not the Tower of London, or the British Museum, or the Houses of Parliament. It was Mr. Potter’s Museum of Curiosities in Bolventor, Cornwall. Keep in mind that my sister-in-law took her hamster Frederick to the taxidermist; Frederick is now enshrined on her mantel. Walter Potter was a Victorian eccentric who liked to stuff small animals and make eloborate tableaux, like the tea party of euthanized kittens and the Rabbits Village School, “containing 48 young rabbits, mostly provided by Mr. Feast, a rabbit breeder in Beeding.” Don’t miss the photo-postcard of the monkey riding a goat.

Moved by Movable

I’m being sorely tempted to make the jump from Blogger as my blog service provider to Movable Type. Blogger is a great service, but there are a few features that I am pining for over on the other side of the fence. For example, look at Steven Johnson’s site or Matt Simoneau’s site. After every entry any reader can enter their own comments. I want that. Cooler still is the TrackBack feature. Take a look at Steven’s entry for December 12. It’s about the Google 2002 Zeitgeist page, and several people have added their own thoughts. Matt wrote about the Zeitgeist page too. If, as he talked about it, he referenced Steven’s site, then Steven’s site would automatically be updated. Look at the TrackBack log for Steven’s next entry on the LazyWeb. Nice feature.

Data weather: a tempest for your teapot

The New York Times Magazine, came out with its 2nd Annual Ideas of the Year issue. There’s lots of good stuff here, from botox parties (originally blogged here way back last April) to haunting more-real-than-real flower/scanner art. One item that jumped out at me was
News That Glows, about a simple ornamental desktop orb that changes color as, for instance, the stock market goes up and down. Green means that stocks are up, yellow means nada mucho, and red means stocks are headed down. Millions of people have trained themselves to squint at tiny numbers scrolling by on the TV or computer screen. Why not make the same information a pleasant part of your office landscape? I think this is a wonderfully sensible idea. You can think of it as “data weather” in the sense that, as important as weather is, a glance out the window is enough to see if you need an umbrella. Ambient Devices, the manufacturer of the glowing orb, has a nice description of the philosophy behind ambient displays on their website.
The late Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC fame was a longtime proponent of ubiquitous computing, ambient displays, and so-called “calm technology.” As the article says

Consider how counterintuitive this is. We’ve been cramming stock tips, horoscopes and news items onto our computers and cellphones — forcing us to peer constantly at little screens. What if we’ve been precisely wrong? It’s the new paradox of our data world. ”The way to become attuned to more information,” Weiser and Brown noted, ”is to attend to it less.”

One of the first ambient displays to receive wide notice was the
Dangling String, an artwork at PARC that showed how busy the local network was by twirling a piece of string. A quick look would reveal a whirling blur (a busy network) or a twitching but mostly limp string (light activity). It was a useful and entertaining barometer of activity in the building. Given the galloping improvements occurring in cheap display technology and wireless networking, you can expect to see ambient displays of data weather coming soon to a desktop near you.

Flash for the masses

MikeyO, the Mad Scientist and Super Genius behind Industry! pointed me to AlbinoBlackSheep, a bizarre and badly organized mess of various (mostly silly) animations. Some of the are very good though. I found this clever spoof of left-wing politics gone astray: Anthrax, The Invisible Victim. As the anthrax ambassador says, “Anthrax not responsible for death of those people. They probably ate bad McDonald’s food.”

Flash animation has put Terry Gilliam/South Park style animation into the hands of the masses.

The obligatory ReplayTV post

Salon has a good piece about ReplayTV by Farhad Manjoo: Replay it again, Sam. In it, the author points out that every episode of Seinfeld (there are 180 in all) would fit on a $100 disk. The market for syndicated television programming is kept scarce by carefully managed distribution rights, thereby making cash cows out of popular shows in syndication. And so it was that this summer Turner Broadcasting was willing to pay $180 million for the syndication rights to Seinfeld, an unprecedented sum of money. That they did so just as the Napsterization of TV was getting well underway explains the widely ridiculed statement by Jamie Kellner, the CEO of Turner Broadcasting, “Your contract with the network when you get the show is you’re going to watch the spots,” he said. “Otherwise you couldn’t get the show on an ad-supported basis. Any time you skip a commercial … you’re actually stealing the programming.” He sees $180 million going straight down the toilet, because chances are, in another year or so you’ll be getting all the Seinfeld you can eat from somebody other than Jamie Kellner. Poor Jamie Kellner. He’s making sense and he’s not making sense at the same time. Somebody’s going to get hurt.

Hollywood, like the music business before it, is lashing out like a blind beast that knows only that it is in pain and in grave and mortal danger. In Hollywood, they understand lawyers much better than they understand engineers, but ultimately neither will save them.
Once again, Microsoft has the trump card here (though Apple is on a similar course), as you can read in this CNET article: Microsoft reveals media XP details. By making the TV just part of your regular old computer setup, you get a lovely software VCR/TV for free, effectively. If the software isn’t quite as nifty as TiVo or ReplayTV, it will be soon enough. You don’t need to pay TiVo. You don’t need to pay Jamie Kellner. You’ve already sold your soul to Bill Gates, so you don’t even have to suffer that indignity. I feel bad for Jamie Kellner, I really do. The same way I feel bad for Atlantic Records. I don’t know who’s going to pay for all that programming, but it’s time to buy some more Microsoft stock.

Las Ketchup is coming your way, and you don’t even know it

If you could peel back your skull and peek at the synaptic fireworks inside, it would probably resemble the view from a search voyeur page. Search voyeur pages, like the one at Metaspy, show in real time the phrases that people are typing into search engines. At Metaspy, you can choose the censored version or the spicy version, but if you’re interested in understanding the global brain, you really need to take in the full view. Predictably the world spends a lot of time searching for sex. Metatiger also has a search voyeur page. The searchers are mostly German, so given the aforementioned nature of most of the searches, this page is a good place to pick up helpful German phrases. There used to be lots more voyeur pages, but since they are diversions rather than revenue generators (not to mention matters of privacy and offensive content), it’s easy to see why they’ve mostly disappeared. Nevertheless, I find them completely riveting.

Several people forwarded me this article from the New York Times: Postcards From Planet Google. Google doesn’t have a search voyeur page, but apparently they have something like it at their headquarters. They also make a weekly compilation page, called the Google Zeitgeist (which for some reason they make difficult to find). The people at Google probably have as good idea as anybody in history ever has about what the world is collectively thinking about. Right. Now. Watching the ebb and flow of large-scale trends is interesting in itself, sort of like reading People magazine (“Michael Jackson is down this week, but digital cameras are up up up!”). Watching individual searches go by can also be surprisingly poignant. Every search is a snapshot of thought, a story, and the multitude of stories gives you a fine sense of the vastness and richness of the (frequently horny) world.
Here’s someone fishing for the answer to a homework assignment: comparison huck finn gods must be crazy. Here’s an unhappy person: declaring bankruptcy in Canada. And a puzzled person: pros and cons of alcoholism.

Amusing searches are all well and good, but what predictive value does a search engine have? The New York Times article ends with these words:

Google’s worldwide scope means that the company can track ideas and phenomena as they hop from country to country.
Take Las Ketchup, a trio of singing sisters who became a sensation in Spain last spring with a gibberish song and accompanying knee-knocking dance similar to the Macarena.
Like a series of waves, Google searches for Las Ketchup undulated through Europe over the summer and fall, first peaking in Spain, then Italy, then Germany and France. “The Ketchup Song (Hey Hah)” has already topped the charts in 18 countries. In late summer, Google’s logs show, Las Ketchup searches began a strong upward climb in the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.

Haven’t heard of Las Ketchup? If you haven’t, Google predicts you soon will.

Rarely asked, frequently viewed

Every month I get a site traffic analysis report for starchamber.com so I can see and better understand what you, the hard-working web surfer (or tireless Google index bot) enjoy reading. In general there are few surprises, but every now and then I see something that is a little puzzling to work out. A piece I wrote on alchemy back in 1996 is a perennial favorite, probably because it managed to get linked to from a popular alchemy website. But this month’s puzzler is the Star Chamber Rarely-Asked-Questions List. It’s getting a huge amount of traffic and I can’t figure out why. I’m happy for the eyeballs, just curious how they happened to roll my way. But I suppose that’s always the trick, figuring out that last bit.

In the meantime, if you have any rarely asked questions you’d like me to add to the list, let me know.