Friday, March 30, 2007

Enclosure gets flat TV closer to wall

This is a preview, not a review.
While TVs are undeniably getting thinner, they are still not wallpaper thin; and mounting hardware and cables will put even the thinnest plasma or LCD TV several inches away from the wall. They look OK head-on, but can look really crappy from the side.

Mount-maker Chief Manufacturing has a better idea.

They make a super-sturdy steel in-wall box that can fit between your wall studs, and hold and conceal a swing-arm wall mount and cables. Instead of the usual three to six inches of separation, with the Chief MAC-500, you can get your TV within a half inch of the wall, and it will look fine from the sides.

The MAC-500 can be used in new construction, renovation, or in existing walls. The unit is compatible with most 26-40" flat-panel displays attached to a Chief JWD mount. It can handle TVs and mounts with a combined weight of up to 75 pounds.

It's designed to fit between studs installed on standard 16" centers. In an existing wall, cut out the sheetrock or other wall material and add top and bottom headers (cross beams) for support. The package includes trim to finish off the installation.

Price is about $200, not including the TV mount. It's available at BestBuy and elsewhere. You can pay an audio-video expert to install it for you, but any reasonably handy person should be able to DIY it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Free laughs

If you liked seeing Dan Akroyd pulverize and liquify a fish in the Super Bass-o-matic '76 on Saturday Night Live, you'll love seeing Tom Dickson.

Tom feeds a toilet plunger, glow sticks, iPod, footballs, pickeled pigs' feet, light bulbs, a golf club, diamonds, hockey pucks, oysters (in the shells), golf balls, a can of Coke, marbles and more into his super-strength Blendtec blender. CLICK for

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hangable power inverter for back seat computing

This is a preview, not a review.
There are lots of power inverters available, that can transform the 12 volts DC produced by your car's electrical system, into the 110 volts AC needed by PCs and other indoor gear.

They range from fist-size to book size, and they normally flop around in the car.

Team Products International, which uses the Coleman brand name, has devised a way to fight the flopping. Their new CMPW225 225 watt Powerworks inverter is a slim package that comes with straps that can suspend it from a front seat headrest, to provide power for someone sitting in the second row. It can be used for a PC, DVD player, or any device that draws 225 watts or less.

The front panel has two AC outlets with protective covers that should keep out slimy lollypop sticks, and an LED indicator light so you know its plugged in and producing juice.

The Coleman PowerWorks inverter was recognized as the “Coolest New Auto Accessory Product” at the 2006 AAPEX, a huge trade show for car parts and accessories. You can have your very own award winner, to keep the rear seat passengers busy or productive, for less than $40. It's available at and elsewhere.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Irwin's mucho macho GrooveLock pliers:
It's a Vise-Grip, but it looks like a Channellock

Kimberly-Clark wants you to remember that they are the only company that makes Kleenex tissue. 3M wants you to remember that not all transparent tapes are Scotch. The Thermos company, however, is not the only one that makes thermos bottles. RCA doesn't make RCA plugs. In the tool business, too, it's easy to get confused by company names, brand names and product names.

Channellock is a brand name that appears on many types of pliers. But it was originally the name for a specific type of tool: a multi-position, tongue-and-groove, slip-joint style pliers, patented in 1935 by the Champion-DeArment Tool Company. By 1963, the word Channellock was so synonymous with their product that the company's name was changed to Channellock, Inc. in order to preserve the trademark and capitalize on its extensive name recognition.

Vise-Grip is also a brand name that appears on many types of pliers. Like Channellock, it was originally the name for a specific type of tool: a hand-held gripping tool, sort of a combination vise and pliers patented in 1921 by farmer/inventor/blacksmith William Petersen.

He started selling the Vise-Grip Pliers out of the trunk of his car to farmers and mechanics in Nebraska. Despite the Depression, they sold well, and in 1934, the Petersen Manufacturing Company was formed. The company got a big boost in World War II. Defense industries in the US and England used thousands of Vise-Grips. Builders of the Liberty cargo ships found them so useful -– and the time pressures to finish ships so great –- that welders simply welded the Vise-Grips into the hulls rather than remove them from the pieces they were holding together. The tool then sold for $1.25.

The war saved Petersen Manufacturing because 1941 was the year that their original patent ran out. Without government contracts, competition could have destroyed the fledgling company. Bill Petersen kept inventing and improving, and marketed the Vise-Grips to new homeowners after the war.

In recent years, the company has gone through several ownership changes and mergers. Petersen Manufacturing became American Tool Companies in the mid '80s, and purchased Irwin Tool (originally a maker of drill bits) in the early '90s.

In 2002 Petersen/American/Irwin was bought by Newell Rubbermaid, which owns about a billion companies. Petersen/American/Irwin became known as Irwin Industrial Tools, and produces a wide range of tools under the Vise-Grip and Irwin labels. Irwin's cousins in the Newell Rubbermaid family include Lenox tools and tool accessories, BernzOmatic torches, Amerock cabinet and window hardware, and Shur-Line paint applicators and accessories.

Anyway, Irwin recognized the power of the Vise-Grip name, and is wisely using it as a brand for lots of tools that grip, and even some that strip (wires).

It often seems like some tools and gadgets have evolved far enough; but inventors, tinkerers and tool-users are restless and relentless, always thinking of ways to make things better.

The Irwin Vise-Grip GrooveLock pliers (DON'T YOU DARE call it a Channellock) has some important innovations, and has quickly become one of my favorite tools.

It has double the available groove positions and fifty percent faster adjusting than traditional groove joint pliers. It's fast to set up to hold what it has to, and its sliding jaw won't slip out of position when you need rotational strength.

To grip something, just slide the movable jaw inward (as you hear the reassuring ratchet clicks), and then stop sliding and start squeezing. If you need to open up the jaws to grip something bigger, press the silver Press-n-Slide button that says IRWIN on it, and the ratchet lock is released.

The GrooveLock has a well-designed all-purpose jaw that goes way beyond the original "water pump" pliers. It can grip flat, round, hex, square and irregular surfaces. It's ideal for a wide range of professional or amateur work, not just plumbing. You'll find it very useful if you mess around with cars. It can hold things while polishing or grinding or soldering or welding, it can separate stuck segments of electrical conduit, bend metal, fix bikes, chew notches out of plastic, assemble barbecue grills and light fixtures, open walnuts, and provide defense against muggers and marauders.

Few females will be impressed, but Tool Guys will think the GrooveLock has plenty of appeal. It's mostly black metal (like iron hand-forged by the village smithy) with silvery jaws, and snazzy two-tone no-slip plastic grips to take it into the 21st century.

This is a tool that's also a great big boy's toy. Even if you have absolutely nothing you NEED to do with it, it's hard not to pick it up and play with it. You can test your strength and build up your hand muscles by trying (and failing) to squeeze the handles together; and the ratcheting BUZZZZZZ sound is as intoxicating as the exhaust note of a BMW or Ferrari.

GrooveLock was initially available in 8”, 10” and 12” sizes, but Irwin recently introduced 16” and 20” monster sizes that you can use to intimidate visitors to your garage. If you're going to buy just one, get the ten-incher. The jaw opens to a hair over 2-1/4 inches. It should cost you about $20, a very reasonable price for a very useful tool with a lifetime guarantee.

CLICK for the Irwin website. (some info from

Monday, March 26, 2007

Pocket Power: Is that a battery in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?

This is a preview, not a review.
Vector’s Pocket Power is a portable, rechargeable, compact, lightweight battery pack that can be used to recharge or run all kinds of electronic gear, when you have no convenient electrical outlet. It’s good for hiking, a day at the beach, sporting events, a table at a bar mitzvah, a line for concert tickets, even a taxicab or an airplane.

You can even use it to make your neighbors jealous by lighting up part of your home for a few minutes during a blackout; and it will work as a battery charger for gadgets that have a USB connector if you do have a working electrical outlet, but you forgot to bring your normal charger.

Battery power is closely tied to battery size and weight (that’s why electric cars have had problems with weak acceleration and short distances between charges), but the Pocket Power designers seem to have arrived at a good compromise.

It’s small and light enough to schlep around, but probably not in a pants pocket, unless you're wearing cargo pants. It has enough juice to be useful for most portable electronics: cellphones, PDAs, cameras, iPods, CD players, games, etc. Run time ranges up to about six hours, depending on power demand. Things with motors, like CD players and tape-based camcorders, use more power than devices with no moving parts. Pocket Power could power your desk lamp, but only for a few minutes. Forget about plugging in a plasma.

The unit get its power from a standard 110 volt outlet (or even a 110 volt inverter in a car), stores the power in a 1.2AH NiMH battery pack, and it puts the power out through both a 5 volt USB port and a standard 110 volt electrical outlet.

Pocket Power weighs less than a pound, comes with a travel pouch, and is a great idea. It sells for less than $35 at Sam’s Club, and maybe other stores.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Mini first aid kit fits anywhere,
goes everywhere

If you can never find a Band-Aid when you need one, Johnson & Johnson has a good solution. Their First Aid To Go kit contains 12 essential first aid items in a portable, durable and refillable plastic case. It's just 4"H x 4-1/2"W x 1-1/4"D, and can easily fit in a car console, briefcase, desk drawer, gym bag, camera case, carry-on luggage, back pack, fanny pack, tool case, lunch box, laptop case, or even a pocket.

The kit includes antiseptic wipes, gauze pads, butterfly closures, and of course, the vital Band-Aid adhesive bandages. There's no medicine, though, so get a few Tylenols or aspirins and any special emergency meds you might need (including kiddie-strength stuff if appropriate), and add them to the box. Maybe add a tweezers for removing splinters, too.

Price is usually two bucks, but I've seen it recently for an amazing NINETY-NINE CENTS at Staples and Wal-Mart. Buy six, and spread them around. You won't regret it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Welcome to Moe's, a Taco Bell for grownups, with a sense of humor, and good fresh food

I have a long and not-altogether-satisfying history with Mexican food.

My earliest Mexicano memory involves a strange jar of iridescent lime-colored south-of-the-border slop with the consistency of diarrhea, which my epicurean pop picked up somewhere far from our Connecticut home.

It sat in our kitchen closet for years, because none of us kids would dare to taste it. My sister, brother and I called it GLD, our abbreviation for Green Loose Doody. (Loose Doody was our little kid term for diarrhea.)

Apparently even my mother (who eats weird stuff like kale) had reservations about the GLD. Although we were forced to demonstrate our subservience to Mom once a year by eating her horrid Shepard’s Pie, and canned Le Sueur green peas, Mom never made us eat the dreaded GLD.

As an adult, I deduced that the scary stuff was guacamole (avocado slime), but the terror continues; and to this day, I always tell the waiter to “hold the guac” when I order a fajita. If I have California Roll sushi with avocado in it, I use a chop stick to push out the green clot.

As it turns out, avocados can kill lots of four-legged mammals, and birds and fish; so guac is not just disgusting, it’s dangerous; and I’m not taking any unnecessary chances. (Confession time: I’ve never actually tasted avocado, but I know I don’t like it. I also know I don't like coffee, which I've also never tasted, but that’s a tale for another day.)

Anyway, much later in life and long after the GLD mysteriously disappeared from our house, I used to hear Johnny Carson tell jokes about Taco Bell, then available only on the west coast, while I lived on the east coast. When the chain finally opened a branch on Long Island, I made a pilgrimage, and was not impressed. I had a long wait for nothing special. Damn.

In 1972, my new wife introduced me to The Texas Taco, on Third Avenue, just a bit north of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. The restaurant belonged to ex-Texan Rosemary Jamison, who had recently upgraded from a pushcart in Central Park. The tacos and chili dogs were superb, the prices were low, the rent was high, and Rosemary quickly disappeared. We later found her running a restaurant/museum/zoo/funhouse upstate. It was a lot of fun and the food was fine, but the menu was smaller than in Manhattan, and it was a lot less convenient.

Around 1975, things got better.

My wife and I were driving back from Chicago to New York, and stopped to visit friends in Indianapolis. We discovered a Chi-Chi’s, and had such a fantastic supper, with exotic fare including burritos, chimichangas and chajitas (a Chi-Chi’s fajita), that we delayed our trip home so we could have lunch there the next day.

Our introduction to Chi-Chi’s was the beginning of many years of frustration. I asked, begged, pestered and pleaded for Chi-Chi’s to open a branch near me in Westchester County, New York. Eventually they gave in (OK, maybe they would have come anyway), and I was in heaven – some of the time.

The food was glorious. Unfortunately, management frequently changed, and not always for the better. Except for a brief period under Carol (if you’re out there, Carol, you have been remembered), mismanagement was more common than management. One time my waiter had to run to the nearby Pathmark supermarket to buy lettuce so the chef could shred it for tacos.

Gradually, items disappeared from the menu, and then the whole restaurant disappeared. The chain shrunk, too. For awhile, there was one branch a bit west of Philadelphia, where I would stop once a year on the way back from Lancaster. Eventually, it, too, closed. The chain went out of business following a 2003 hepatitis outbreak that began at one of their locations. At this time, all that’s left of Chi-Chi’s is a salsa and dip brand belonging to Hormel. And memories. And lawsuits for hepatitis.

After my local Chi-Chi’s disappeared, I heard about an “authentic” taco joint in a Latino 'hood in nearby New Rochelle. I found the place easily, but when I entered, I was unsure if I should be thrilled or terrified to be el solo gringo en la casa.

It was so authentic, that el taco could have been made from the meat of el burro.

I was totally grossed-out by the smell and texture of the meat. After one bite, I put some dinero en la tabla and retreated a la puerta. I was relieved that the other customers did not pull out machetes or six-guns to avenge my insult to the chef, but they did laugh at me.

Since then I’ve enjoyed fajitas at South of the Border and Uno, and assorted stuff at Taco Bell.

SOTB and Uno (which is more Italian or Chicago-an than Mexican) provide excellent food and a very pleasant dining experience. Taco Hell (as grouchy cousin Dave has labeled it) seems to get orders right only about one third of the time. Good employees disappear fast, as do new menu items; but if you want something with salsa, and want it fast, and want to be able to get it in almost town in the US, it could be the right choice.

I recently got another choice: Moe’s.

Moe’s Southwest Grill is a new and growing franchise chain with about 350 restaurants that offer quick (as opposed to fast) food, with eat-in, take-out, and even catering. Everything is cooked to order, just for you. Moe’s boss is Martin Sprock (not exactly Pedro Gonzales or Jose Cuervo, but as long as the food is good, I can live with a non-Latino honcho), and Moe/Martin puts the emphasis on freshness and fun.

Actually, according to MSNBC, Moe isn't a person, but MOE stands for Musicians, Outlaws and Entertainers. The chain uses dead celebs including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and others as restaurant decor (no - not their corpses, just pictures of the performers when they were alive), and as inspiration for the names of menu items.

When you enter a Moe’s, one or more voices from behind the counter will yell “Welcome to Moe’s!” The experience is less erotic than the “Welcome to Hooter’s” welcome, but most people go to Moe’s to eat food, not to ogle at jiggling breasts.

There’s a big menu on the wall (and smaller ones you can hold in your hand) that immediately establish the fun and freshness motif. Moe has outlawed lard and animal fat, and even freezers and microwave ovens are verboten. Meals are put together in front of you. Many entrees have a choice of chicken, steak, ground beef or even tofu. Other meal variations let you cut back on carbs and fat.

You don’t order a large crispy taco, or a number seven combo.

You do order an Alfredo Garcia fajita, or a Full Monty taco, or a Puff the Magic Dragon taco or a Joey Bag of Donuts, or a Homewrecker or a Sherman Klump or an Ugly Naked Guy or a Pinky Tuscadero. If you miss Hooter’s, and crave some soft-core eroticism, you can order The Other Lewinsky or I said Posse. (Say it LOUD, and try not to giggle.) Adult meals are in the $3 - $7 range.

When you place your order, the first smiling person behind the counter uses a Sharpie marker to inscribe a cryptic symbol on a piece of aluminum foil, that will carry your meal down the line. Then he or she puts a huge tortilla (if appropriate to your meal) in a tortilla warmer. When it’s warmed sufficiently, it goes onto your personal piece of foil (turned upside down so the ink doesn’t get on your food, and so the cashier can read the inscription after your food is wrapped up).

Your meal-to-be than gradually makes its way down the prep line, as food is added to the tortilla, or other ingredients are assembled, and then the foil is wrapped around it, it goes into a basket with freshly-made chips, and reaches the cashier and you. You pay, maybe drop a buck into the tip cup, get a cup to fill with your drink of choice, fill some small cups with salsa and other dips or drips, and sit down and eat, while you dig the well-selected 1960s music.

Food choices are in several basic categories: burritos (the size of a small football), tacos, quesadillas, salads, nachos, and fajitas. You can also order soup (you may have to ask for a soup spoon – sometimes only tea spoons are in the utensil holder), rice, beans, the dreaded guacamole, extra chips, or extra meat. The menu also includes a cup of fat. At $9.99, it’s the most expensive item, but it’s a joke. I think.

If you want to eat at your own place, you can call ahead (or order online for some locations), for pick-up or delivery. Moe’s also does catering, and will set up a box of burritos, or fajita, salad or nacho bars at you home or business. If you put you business card in the bowl, you might win free catering. You can also register online for a free birthday burrito. Moe’s likes to interact. He/they want to be part of your life. You can get Moe’s shirts, hats, and trinkets; use Moe’s for fund-raising; download Moe's PC wallpaper; and even get a job at Moe’s or open you own Moe's. You can actually win free Moe's food for life, if you win Moe's amateur video contest.

Moe’s attracts a wide range of customers: people who work nearby, execs talking business, cops, bikers, boomers, gen-Xers, shoppers, travelers who exit from the Interstate, hand-holding daters, and families. It’s definitely child-friendly. Kids can get kid's meals for $2.99 or $3.99. The company says it is the largest financial corporate donor of The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, so part of what you pay to put a “Homewrecker” or "Triple Lindy" in your belly, is going to help others.

Delicious food. Healthy food. Free food. Perfect salsa. No mandatory guacamole. Big portions. No long waits. Reasonable prices. Funny menus. Funnny website. Lots of choices. Good music. Social Responsibility. It seems just about perfect. Moe’s is on a mission to put a burrito in the hand of every woman, man and child across this great land of ours, and I hope they do it.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Plantronics wireless headset works with almost any phone, or no phone at all

The Plantronics CS55H is a weird wireless headset.

When I first read its description, I was puzzled. Plantronics says it works with any ordinary single-line phone (corded or cordless). It's supposed to be able to answer and hang up remotely, but it doesn't use a remote handset lifter like other wireless headsets, and it doesn't connect to a phone's headset jack.

After some careful studying, I had my "AHA!" moment.

In actuality, the Plantronics CS55H (the "Home Edition" of the more office-oriented Plantronics CS55), doesn't connect to your phone. It works with your phone.

In actuality, the Plantronics CS55H is a self-contained, almost complete, wireless telephone that can answer calls and hang up at the end of a conversation, even if you don't even have another phone. If you want to make a call, you do have to dial from your regular phone; but as soon as you're through tapping the touch-tone buttons, you can go wireless.

You can walk while you talk, or type with both hands while you talk, or shuffle through stacks of papers while you talk, or make coffee or make lunch or feed your kids or answer the door or let the dog out or go get the newspaper or the mail...while you do business or schedule tennis or a furniture delivery.

Voice quality is so good, that you can sound like a fancy-pants high-powered executive, even if you work at home in your pajamas; or if you work in a real office and you use a single-line analog phone, even without a headset jack.

The new Plantronics CS55H Home Edition Wireless Headset System (Can you say that three times, fast, without stumbling?) works with single-line analog cordless or corded phones (see note at bottom). It combines the clarity of a traditional corded phone, with hands-free convenience, and wireless mobility.

You can move around (up to about 300 feet horizontally, and up or down two flights of stairs in our tests) without interrupting or missing a call.

The CS55H uses 1.9GHz “DECT” technology, developed to end interference to and from wireless networks. There won’t be any buzzing while you’re microwaving a burrito, either.

The noise-canceling microphone filters out unwanted noises. You’ll come through loud and clear to your friends, clients and colleagues, while eliminating the barking dog, your TV, the doorbell, crying babies, or your family’s babbling voices in the background. The long microphone boom puts the mic right near your mouth, to maximize your voice and minimize everything else. If you’re working at home, there’s no need for your boss to know that you’re watching Jerry Springer or Judge Judy or listening to Rush Limbaugh.

Voice quality, as with other recent Plantronics wireless headsets, is just plain perfect. When we did our test, however, grouchy Cousin Dave walked outside the building, and walked into a windstorm, and the microphone picked up a bit of whooshing noise.

There are two simple cures: (A) Don't talk outside in hurricanes or tornadoes; (B) If you absolutely must talk outside in a hurricane or tornado, stick a foam windscreen over the microphone, and use some strong rope to attach yourself to a utility pole or other hopefully immovable object.

The CS55H weighs almost nothing and is extremely comfortable, even for all-day use. It fits fine on either ear, with or without eyeglasses, and can be worn with its ear loop, or with the included headband if you want it to be more secure while you wander around.

Talk time is up to 10 hours after a battery charge, and it takes just three hours to charge. Easy controls on the headset allow you to just tap to answer or hang up, and you can also mute the microphone if you need to speak to someone near you without the person on the phone hearing you; or if you need to flush a toilet or yell at a kid. You can also raise and lower the receive volume remotely. Please keep in mind that you can answer and hang up remotely, by just tapping a headset button; but calls must be dialed from the phone. After dialing, you can walk away from the phone. If you don’t care about dialing, you don’t even need a phone – just the CS55H.

In addition to the hardware that goes on your head, you get a charger/stand that also includes the phone guts and some adjustable controls for fine-tuning, a small adapter pod that provides “hookswitch” control to enable picking up and hanging up, and a common 2-for-1 adapter so the CS55H and a phone can share a phone jack.

All in all, the Plantronics CS55H Home Edition Wireless Headset System is a great-sounding, easy-to-use, comfortable way to have 21st century mobility and multi-tasking, even if you use a dumb old 20th century phone. It's a great idea, and I recommend it highly. Available at

NOTE: I said that the Plantronics CS55H headset should be used with an analog phone. That means a phone that can connect to an ordinary analog phone line. The CS55H will also work fine with a cordless phone that uses digital radio transmission, or an analog phone connected to an analog port in a digital phone system, or to an analog phone used with VoIP service.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It's Spring!
Time to get a 911-only phone for your pool

If I look out my window, I see white snow, not green grass. It looks and feels like winter, but scientists say that Spring starts TODAY.

Even here in snow-covered New England, Spring means it's time to think about swimming. If you have a pool, it's important to have an emergency phone (and the phone may be required by law). If you want to keep people from using the phone to order pizza when someone might have to call for an ambulance, consider a phone that calls 911 only. (Well, actually, it can call 119, or 991 or 1199 or 111999 or 99999991111111999999991111111, or any combination of 9 and 1, but it won't reach Domino's or Pizza Hut.)

Several models are available, including a basic 911 phone, and a customizable model that can be upgraded with an armored cord and other enhancements. Guaranteed for five years or more. Made in USA. Outdoor weatherproof housings are also available, and phones that dial 911 without having to tap buttons. CLICK for

Why did Spring start sooner than expected?

While it’s true that we’ve traditionally celebrated the beginning of spring on March 21, astronomers and calendar manufacturers alike now say that the spring season starts one day earlier, March 20, in all time zones in North America. Actually, during the 20th century, March 21 was actually the exception rather than the rule.

The vernal equinox landed on March 21 only 36 out of 100 years. And from 1981 to 2102, Americans will celebrate the first day of spring no later than March 20.

In the years 2008 and 2012, those living in Alaska, Hawaii and the Pacific, Mountain and Central time zones will see spring begin even earlier, on March 19. And in 2016, it will start on March 19 for the entire United States.

There are a few reasons why seasonal dates can vary from year to year.

A year is not an even number of days, and neither are the seasons. To achieve a value as close as possible to the exact length of the year, our Gregorian calendar was constructed to give a close approximation to the tropical year, which is the actual length of time it takes for Earth to complete one orbit around the sun. It eliminates leap days in century years not evenly divisible by 400, such 1700, 1800 and 2100, and millennium years that are divisible by 4,000, such as 8000 and 12000.

Another reason is that Earth’s elliptical orbit is changing its orientation relative to the sun (it skews), which causes Earth’s axis to point progressively in a different direction — a phenomenon called precession. Since the seasons are defined as beginning at strict 90-degree intervals, these positional changes affect the time Earth reaches each 90-degree location in its orbit around the sun.

The pull of gravity from the other planets also affects Earth's location in its orbit.

The current seasonal lengths for the Northern Hemisphere are:

Winter 88.994 days
Spring 92.758 days
Summer 93.651 days
Autumn 89.842 days

As you can see, the warm seasons, spring and summer, combined are 7.573 days longer than the colder seasons, fall and winter (good news for swimmers, not so good for skiers).

However, spring is currently being reduced by approximately one minute per year and winter by about one-half minute per year. Summer is gaining the minute lost from spring, and autumn is gaining the half-minute lost from winter. Winter is the shortest astronomical season, and with its seasonal duration continuing to decrease, it is expected to attain its minimum value — 88.71 days — by about the year 3500.

Another complication revolving around the vernal equinox concerns the length of day versus night. We have been taught that on the first days of spring and autumn, the day and night are equal to exactly 12 hours all over the world.

Yet, if you check the calculations made by the U.S. Naval Observatory or the sunrise/sunset tables in any reputable almanac, you will find that this is not so. In fact, on the days of the spring and fall equinox the length of daylight is actually longer than darkness by several minutes. (info from MSNBC)

Monday, March 19, 2007

See how life was in the nuke-fearing 50's

In 1951, shortly after the Soviet Union began nuclear testing. there was major hysteria in the US about THE ATOMIC BOMB.

The feds financed Duck and Cover, a nine-minute film directed at school children, and made with the help of children in New York City. It was shown in schools as the cornerstone of the government's "duck and cover" public awareness campaign. The movie talks about when the bomb hits, not if it hits.

The film is notable for Bert, the cartoon turtle who wears a Civil Defense helmet and hides in his shell, dubious science (covering yourself with a newspaper will protect you from a nuclear blast), the wretched 1950's clothing and vehicles, and completely ignoring the danger of after-blast radiation.

You can CLICK to view the film.

When I was in school, we remembered the duck and cover procedure as: get down on your knees, put your hands over your head, bend over, and kiss your balls goodbye.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Staples stairstep surge protector

There's nothing high-tech about this, but it's a very good idea that someone should have thought of before.

Most surge protectors are either strips, or flat rectangles. The #SSM-DK40 is the first protector I've seen with stairstep, or stadium seating design, that saves space by letting two cords pass over plugs or transformers. It's great for a crowded desk or workbench.

It has four non-skid rubber "feet" to keep it from sliding around, plus a power switch with a pilot light so you'll know it's plugged in and turned on. The heavy-gage power cord is 6 feet long. The four outlets are spaced far enough apart to provide space for large transformers. You get a "lifetime limited warranty" plus a $15,000 connected equipment warranty. Price is $15.98, at Staples stores or

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Micra: my tinyest tool kit

Leatherman is the BIG name in multi-function fold-up tools. Most of them are carried in belt pouches, or kept in desk drawers or car consoles. One of them is tiny enough to fit on a key chain, and useful enough to be carried everywhere (but not on an airplane!).

Since I was in first grade, I've been Mister Fixit, always expected to have the knowhow and the equipment to get someone else out of a jam, even if I couldn't always unjam myself.

In sixth grade, the school custodian came to me to borrow a screwdriver. In ninth grade, I used my emergency sewing kit to repair a kid's split pants. In adult life, I used my ever-present skinny screwdriver to unjam the push-button transmission in my mother's Plymouth, and to remove the molding from a door frame so I could escape from an unexpectedly locked closet. I haven't worn a pocket protector in many years, and my ever-present skinny screwdriver has been replaced by an even-more-useful Leatherman Micra.

Made completely of stainless steel, this mighty midget includes a spring-action scissors, knife, tweezers, nail file, nail cleaner, three screwdriver blades, bottle opener, inch and metric rulers, and a loop to attach it to your keyring. The only basic tool that it doesn't have is a pliers. If you think you'll need a pliers, Leatherman makes plenty of foldup tools with pliers, but they're bigger and heavier. (Yes, I have them, too.)

When closed, Micra is just 2-1/2 inches long, and it weighs only 1-3/4 ounces. It's available in several colors in addition to the standard brushed stainless finish.

It's extremely well-made, and has a 25-year warranty. You'll probably lose it long before you break it, especially if you forget it's on your keyring when you try to get on a plane.

I got mine at Costco, but Micra is available at lots of other physical and online stores. Price is usually under $20. Buy a few.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

World's noisiest printer actually prints fine

The Konica-Minolta Magicolor 2400W is a color laser printer. It prints fast. It prints well. It seldom jams. It's reasonably priced (under $300). There's a $50 rebate that runs until the end of March. Toner cartridges are readily available. It uses ordinary paper. It's relatively compact. It won an award from PC Magazine.

On the other hand, it's as noisy and shaky as the 1921 Oldsmobile that transported the Clampett clan from the Ozarks to Beverly Hills.

When it prints, or prepares to print, it sounds like it's about to spew its guts all over the office. It will ruin your nap, wake the dead, drown out your radio, frighten children and pets, and make you miss the good old days of quiet carbon paper.

If it didn't print so well, I'd use my Magicolor as a target for shotgun practice, and throw what's left into the cee-ment pond.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How to escape from a sinking car

It's almost April. When we were kids, we learned that "April showers bring May flowers." Too much rain at any time of year, in New Orleans or anywhere else, can also bring floods, and disaster.

Lots of people die in cars that sink or are swept away, but it is possible to escape, if you know what to do. The website of the Austin (TX) American-Statesman has easy-to-understand animated instructions for escaping form a sinking car.

I urge you to study it, remember it, and share it with every driver you know.

Monday, March 12, 2007

SHOCK: frozen pizza can taste like pizza

I grew up in New Haven, CT, and returned to the area six years ago after a 37-year absence. New Haven and the surrounding towns have a huge number of Italian-Americans. New Haven is probably the second place in the US where pizza was served. New Haveners are fanatical about pizza, which is spelled apizza, pronounced ah-beetz and sometimes called tomato pie.

When I was in college, I sometimes arranged for friendly Allegheny Airlines stewardesses to carry fresh New Haven tomato pies on the plane and meet me at the airport in Allentown.

The geographic, historical and emotional center of New Haven pizza-making is Wooster Street, still an Italian enclave after about 100 years. On weekend evenings, there are long lines of the faithful outside the doors of the two traditional rivals, Sally's and Pepe's.

"Traditional" New Haven pizzas are baked in brick ovens with coal fires. They're thin, oddly shaped, partly charred, oily, sloppy, and delicious. No two slices are the same size, and there is minimal handle for gripping a slice. A "plain" New Haven pie is served without mozzarella ("no mootz"). They're also available with toppings like clam chunks, that you are unlikely to find at Domino's or Pizza Hut.

Cousin Dave, also a pizza maven and probably a fair representation of local attitude, says PH's food is edible, if you don't think of it as pizza. "It's not pizza," he explains, "it's pizza hut."

Although the national pizza chains have done notoriously poorly in this center of authentic Italian cuisine, new apizza joints seem to sprout up every couple of days (only a slight exaggeration). Within a few miles of where I'm typing this, there have been five recent debuts, and the sixth one to be announced is within a few blocks of four others. Some local folks make quite good pizza at home. My neighbor Connie (nee Concetta, and daughter of a professional pizza-maker), even makes great pizza on her barbecue grill.

One big problem with pizza, or apizza, is portability. My favorite local pizzeria (Papa's in Milford) has two outdoor picnic tables, but no indoor tables. I can't eat there in the winter or when it's raining; and even if I drive a fast Ferrari, the pie is cold by the time I get it home. A local caterer operates The Big Green Pizza Truck. They'll bake incredibly good wood-fired pizzas in my own driveway, but the minimum fee for even one pie is about 1000 bucks.

Another pizza problem is availability. Most pizzerias are closed for at least a few hours a day -- maybe the hours when you have the strongest urge for pizza. When I lived in Scarsdale NY, I was thrilled to learn that a nearby jazz club served pizza until 2AM. As a test, I went there at 1:45 one morning. The music was great. Alas, the pizza sucked.

Yesterday, at my local Costco, I inhaled a familiar smell. PIZZA. It was not the usual cardboard-and-grease combo served at the snack bar, but something that smelled and looked remarkably like what I might get at Wooster street or from the Big Green Truck.

A company called Aliki Foods was doing a road show -- a special event a manufacturer stages to enable Costco members to sample a new product line, and perhaps convince Costco management to stock the product.

The Aliki folks had a bunch of miniature electric ovens stacked up under an indoor tent top, and were churning out magnificent personal-size pizzas every few minutes. I stayed there, wide-eyed, wide-mouthed, in love, mesmerized, imobilized, captivated and salivating. (If I drooled on you, I hereby apologize.)

I sampled every thin-crust gem they made over a 20-minute period. I even tried toppings like sausage that I normally don't eat, and a chicken fajita variety that was decidedly un-Italian, but decidedly delicious. Every pie was spectacular. I pigged-out, but I was not the only pig. I bought a box of three Margherita pizzas (tomato, basil, garlic and three kinds of cheese) for my own freezer, for $9.99.

The package is 10 inches wide, and fits just fine in the freezer side of a side-by-side. Estimated cooking time is 8 - 11 minutes, at 425 degrees.

Strangely, pizza is not even on the Aliki website (where they have lots of other Italian foods, and even Philly cheese steaks and mac-and-cheese), so it must be really new; and you lucky folks are among the first to know about it. You owe it to your bellies to pester your nearby food sellers to stock this treasure.

Also strangely, the boss of Aliki is Michael Pappas, a Greek-American, not an Italian-American. Most Greek pizza is kind of like Pizza Hut pizza: maybe OK, if you don't think of it as pizza (the dough is too thick and fluffy, and there's not enough tomato sauce).

There's no one thing that makes Aliki pizzas so special; it's the combination of multiple good decisions, and perfect execution. The crust has the right mix of chewiness and crunchiness, and tastes like it came from an ancient brick oven on Wooster Street. Michael says "the flour we use is very high quality and the crust is hand stretched and goes through a lengthy proofing and dough retardation process for a rich flavor." The sauce is made from Michael's grandmother's recipe, which is securely locked up in a secret location, and protected by armed guards with sharp-toothed dogs. Aliki uses only fresh toppings, and highest quality cheeses that Michael can find.

The pizza varieties represent several ethnicities, including Italian, Greek, Mexican, and even WolfgangPuckian. You can get Four Cheese, Pepperoni, Margherita, Spinach & Feta Cheese, Sausage Delizioso, Chicken Fajita, or Grilled Chicken & Goat Cheese.

Aliki's pizzas are being slowly rolled out across the country, generally in warehouse clubs including Costco and BJ's, not supermarkets.

Michael Pappas credits his Greek grandparents for inspiring his great Italian foods: "I was blessed to have a grandmother who made the best food you could imagine, all from scratch. Many of the ingredients came from my grandfather’s magnificent vegetable garden. Whenever I visited them, my grandmother would always make an irresistable dish with her oven-baked bread, fresh vegetables from the garden, and spices from the old country. It always smelled so good walking into her kitchen, I can still smell all of the delightful aromas."

Michael has maintained the tradition, and yesterday, thanks to him, even Costco smelled delightful. Aliki Foods has the right recipe and terrific technique. The company is based in Old Lyme, CT -- not exactly New Haven, but close enough to have picked up the proper vibes.

Unless you live really close to a first-class pizzeria, Aliki makes the best pizza you will ever eat at home. GO GET SOME!
UPDATE: When you heat your Aliki pizza in you oven at home, just put it on the oven rack, NOT on a piece of foil on the rack. It's better to have to clean up the bottom of the oven, than to have a crust that's not fully cooked.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Plantronics binaural DECT wireless headset

The wireless headset had been sort of an un-attainable "holy grail" in the phone business. Lots of models were developed, using infrared, radio, even electromagnetic induction.

The ones that worked, usually didn't work very well. Some had heavy packs on top of your head, or in your pocket or on your belt. Others had batteries that ran out before the end of the business day. One lost communication if you picked up a paper on your desk or turned away from your phone. Many were uncomfortable, or difficult to use, or sounded lousy.

Various technical improvements over the last few years reduced the weight and improved the quality, but there was still something missing: a BINAURAL model that lets you hear through both ears and block ambient noise.

I work in an office with THREE LOUDMOUTHS. Gary sings to himself. Marshall talks to himself and screams at others. Dave screams at Marshall to shut up. It's tough to concentrate on a phone conversation, or to fall asleep for my 11am nap, with the blather and blabbing in the background.

I've been using various binaural headsets for years to block the Terrible Trio's abundant audio output, but until yesterday, I was the only one in my office who did not use a wireless headset. I was the only one who had to be tethered to a desk while talking on the phone. I was the only one who couldn't continue a conversation while taking a leak or sending a fax or heating up some microwaveable ravioli.

All that has changed with the arrival of my new Plantronics SupraPlus Wireless Professional Headset System, apparently the world's second binaural wireless headset, and the first one that I want to use. (The first binaural wireless was the Chameleon 3010B, a heavy-duty model that lacks the noise-canceling microphone that I need in my noise-infested office.)

The SupraPlus Wireless is derived from the Plantronics SupraPlus wired headsets, which were derived from the earlier Plantronics Supra headsets. The Supra family has been very popular in corporate call centers, where comfort, durability and voice clarity are critical. Plantronics has been making headsets for years, and supplied the headset that carried the most famous misquote in history, the one that should have been heard as " small step for a man...," when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969.

Anyway, back here on terra firma, Plantronics developed some excellent wireless headsets. Their CS50 is tiny, almost weightless, and has spectacular sound... but it works with just one ear, so I didn't get one.

The new SupraPlus Wireless (which, by the way, is also available in one-ear versions and with voice tube microphones, for quiet environments) combines the physical quality of the Supra line, with the mobility and voice quality introduced with the CS50.

Like a growing number of wireless/cordless telecom products, the SupraPlus uses the new DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) 6.0 technology. It operates in the 1.9GHz band, free from interference from wireless LANs, microwave ovens, electronic toilets, and other devices and systems that can mess up headsets and cordless phones operating at 2.4GHz.

The SupraPlus Binaural Wireless permits conversations up to 300 feet from a desk phone, and has no problem going through walls and floors. Talk time between charges is about 10 hours, which should get most people through the business day. The headset is 80% recharged in just 90 minutes, and fully recharged in under three hours -- no more overnight waiting periods.

Its over-the-head design keeps the headset securely on your head while you wander around; and the long boom with noise canceling microphone maximizes voice strength and minimizes the transmission of ambient sounds, such as blabbing co-workers, ringing phones, noisy machines, barking dogs, and crying babies.

The SupraPlus Wireless is usually sold with a remote handset lifter, an ingenious device that allows you to pick up and hang up your phone by just tapping a button on your ear -- even 300 feet from the phone that's back on your desk. There are also on-ear controls for volume and muting, and tones will notify you of incoming calls, out-of-range, or low battery. It comes with both foam and fake leather ear cushions, and another cushion that can be put under the headband.

Installation should take under 10 minutes. The trickiest part is positioning the handset lifter for proper raising and lowering. Find the right spot BEFORE you remove the protective strips from the double-stick tape.

You have to unplug your handset from the jack on the phone. Then you use a short cord from the SupraPlus transceiver/charger base to connect it to the jack where your handset had been plugged in. Plug in the transformer, make a couple of quick adjustments, and you're ready for liftoff. The base had one surprise advantage over the headset switchboxes I used previously. There's no switch to select handset or headset. Your handset will work normally, unless you tap the button on the headset.

A few tips: (1) If you're using a phone that can be programmed for headset or handset use, such as a Panasonic KX-T7400 series phone, keep it in the handset mode. (2) If you are using a phone that has a dedicated headset jack, like many Nortel models, plug the wireless base into the handset jack, not the headset jack. (3) DON'T try to save money by skipping the remote handset lifter. It's a vital piece of the package, and you'll miss a lot of the wireless advantage if you don't get one.

Price for the SupraPlus Wireless Binaural is over $300, but it's a worthwhile investment that will avoid messy cord snarls on your desk, save lots of time, and provide privacy when needed. Now you can talk to important clients or engage in stealth calls with illicit lovers while in the the john or outside puffing on a ciggie in a snowstorm. Available at
Plantronics has a new website,, with some wonderfully sophomoric/gross/offensive/funny short videos, that mildly promote the use of wireless headsets. Unless you're brain-dead or an old prude, you'll laugh your ass off. I particularly recommend "Ouch," "Urinal Mishap," and "Office Cowboy." Take a look, and maybe get motivated to buy a Plantronics wireless headset.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

TI calculator is vital for anyone who sells stuff

Texas Instruments would probably prefer to be known for its pioneering work in transistors and integrated circuits. The company makes advanced semiconductor products that are used in cellphones, satellites, cars, computers and Hi-Def TVs. They also make an incredibly useful $25 calculator that belongs on the desks of everyone who buys and sells things.

TI's BA-20 "Profit Manager" has been made for 10 years or more in several versions, but its important special functions have remained, providing easy answers to pricing decisions for merchants.

Preprogrammed functions quickly provide cost-sell-margin solutions; enter any two variables and the third appears instantly.

If you know your cost, and desired profit margin, you tap some brainy buttons and it tells you how much to sell an item for.

If you know your cost, and the selling price, you tap some brainy buttons and it tells you what your margin is.

Less useful, if you know your selling price, and your margin, you tap some brainy buttons and it tells you what your cost might have been.

It's solar powered, has readable buttons and display digits, and does basic math, too. My oldest one even has a digital clock. Highly recommended. Available at Amazon, Staples and other office suppliers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Altec Lansing desk-top iPod player

Lots of companies make speaker systems for iPods (and I have a bunch of them), but one of the most useful is the inMotion iM3.

It's just about the size of a paper-back book, and can fit almost anywhere. I keep mine just below the monitor on my desk at home. It's not powerful enough to fill a stadium, but it's perfect for personal listening. The unit incorporates four 28mm neodymium speakers, and puts out surprisingly deep bass, without a subwoofer.

Your iPod sits in a center cradle, with a standard iPod docking connector that provides both audio transfer and battery charging. There's also an auxiliary input, which I use for my Delphi XM portable receiver. The base has simple tap controls for power and volume up and down, and Altec even provides a wireless remote (which I've never used). You also get a carrying case, and a choice of black or white to match your pod. My 80-gig is black, but I bought a white iM3 before I knew it was also made in black.

If you don't have a convenient electrical outlet, you can run the iM3 on four AA batteries, which should give you over 24 hours of music.

Suggested retail is $130, but you can probably find it for under $100.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The best french fries I can find,
and the best well-done burgers

If you eat enough french fried potatoes, they'll probably kill you -- but you're gonna die anyway, so why not enjoy yourself before you slither down to hell?

There are lots of ways to make and eat fries.

Millions of people, particularly those first nourished on McDonald's Happy Meals, favor the chain's skinny fries. Wendy's and Burger King serve similar strips.

Waffle-cut and curly fries are recent innovations, and have loyal supporters.

Some people eat their fries naked. Most like salt and ketchup (although there is disagreement about whether the fries should be dipped into a cup of Heinz's finest red, or if the ketchup should be squirted onto the fries). Some weirdos put vinegar on fries. Brits call french fried potatoes chips. The French call them pommes frites (fried potatoes) or simply frites (fries). Former veep/doofus Dan Quayle thought potato needs an e on the end.

The best fries I ever had, were golden-and-glistening free-form hand-cut chunks available in a thousand Jewish delis in the Bronx in the 1950s; and maybe not available anywhere now. Steak fries are a poor immitation.

Second-best were the thick, crisp, crinkle-cut wedges and slices served at Jimmie's restaurant at Savin Rock in West Haven CT in the 1960s. Jimmie's is still there, but the fries don't taste as good as they used to. They are, however, probably healthier.

The worst fries I ever had were the pale, soggy, mealy, frozen things that my mother used to get in the supermarket, and would either under-cook or burn under the electric broiler.

The best fries I can get now, are the golden, crunchy, mis-shapen "boardwalk style" tater strips served at Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries. The fries come in a wide range of sizes that McDonalds would not approve of, with a rough texture that seems to help them grip the salt and ketchup. They taste amazingly good -- almost good enough to make me forget about the Bronx.

Five Guys restaurants are along the east coast from Florida to Connecticut, and as far west as Tennessee. CLICK to find one.

I had heard that Five Guys made incredibly good fries, so as an undeniable gourmand (halfway between a gourmet and a glutton), I requested a large order on my first visit (Orange CT). It was a mistake. What Five Guys label as large, could best be described as monstrous. Their regular order of fries is merely huge.

An overflowing scoop of fries is put into a Styrofoam coffee cup, then the cup goes into a brown paper bag, and then another scoop of fries is poured into the bag on top of the overflowing cup, and on top of your foil-wrapped burger or hotdog that's also in the bag.

On my first visit, I thought the fry bagger deduced that I was a special person and was worthy of an extra heap of fries. I later realized that all customers get the special treatment. Sure, they could simply invest in larger Styrofoam cups, but if everything fit and nothing overflowed, some of the fun would be lost.

It's messy. It's primitive. It's delicious. It makes people feel important. So who cares about mess?

Five Guys was founded in 1986 in Arlington, Virginia, by Janie and Jerry Murell and their sons, the "Five Guys." By 2002, the family had five restaurants in Northern Virginia. The company gained popularity among locals, and the Murells decided to franchise. There are about 100 locations now, and 1,000 more are expected. The chain has won lots of food awards.

The menu is limited. It's basically fries, burgers, and split-grilled hotdogs -- with a huge selection of free toppings. Soda gets free refills, and they even have caffeine-free Diet Coke, my current favorite "safe" beverage.

The hotdogs start out as Kosher, but since you can order them with cheese or bacon, they are sold without rabbinical endorsement. For health reasons, the burgers are cooked well-done only. If you like well-done, you'll love them. If you can tolerate well-done, you'll like them. If you hate well-done, order a hotdog. The standard burger consists of two patties on a bun. The little burger is one patty.

Nothing is frozen at Five Guys. Burger beef is ground fresh and the fries are cut fresh daily, and fried in peanut oil. The restaurant is "decorated" with bags of potatoes, and at a recent visit three of the biggest spuds I've ever seen were lying on the front counter. At first, I thought they were rocks, because I didn't know potatoes could grow that big.

You can help yourself to unlimited free peanuts to eat while you wait for your order. You'll need them for your "appetizer" course, because your burger or dog will be cooked to order. Even when they're not busy, it takes about 10 minutes, so enjoy the peanuts and start your soda. Soda refills are free.

You won't need a refill for the fries.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Valentine One police radar detector

OK. I confess. I'm a speeder. I view the posted speed limit as just a gentle advisory, not an real limit. I prefer to set my actual driving speed based on road conditions, weather, traffic, lighting, and my own degree of alertness. Sometimes I drive slower than the signs say I can. Most of the time I drive faster. Sometimes a lot faster.

Years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, I drove from Riverhead, Long Island to Manhattan in 50 minutes. During the day, it would probably have taken four hours. I didn't set out to establish a new Land Speed Record; but I won't deny that speed thrills. And besides, if you travel at 120MPH, it takes just half as long to get somewhere, as driving at 60.

I don't do anything that I consider stupid. My cars have always been well maintained. I've never crashed into anything. I don't get a lot of tickets, and I've never been put in jail or lost my license.

I'm pretty good at spotting unmarked cop cars. In the 1970s, I used a CB radio to listen for Smokie reports. I try to travel in the middle of a pack of speeders, rather than to lead the pack. I don't speed in a bright red Corvette or Ferrari. I always use a radar detector.

I've had lots of different detectors over the years, but none of them have been as effective as my beloved Valentine One.

It's a perpetual winner in car mag reviews, and has helped me to avoid lots of fines. Valentine One has an unusual design with two radar antennas (and two laser sensors) -- facing front and rear -- to scan around your car to locate each radar threat so you can adjust your driving. It almost never gives false alerts, and is ruggedly built and easy to install.

It ain't cheap, but its $399 price might be less than you'd pay for speeding fines. For that price you get the detector, plus windshield mount, visor mount, lighter adapter, coiled power cord, straight power cord, direct-wire power adapter, wiring-harness connector, owner's manual, interlocking fastener, spare suction cups, and a spare fuse. CLICK for info and ordering.

Valentine One was new in 1992. Since then, every part inside the magnesium case has been improved at least once, to keep Valentine One the top performer. Since 1994, whenever Valentine made a performance breakthrough, they offered it to past customers as an upgrade. The price varies, depending on the parts required. Upgrades include a one-year warranty; it's just like getting a brand-new detector.

Company boss Mike Valentine says, "Other radar detector makers want you to throw away your old detector and buy new. Not me. Years after the first Valentine One, I'm still working for that customer, because every Valentine One we've ever made can be upgraded to the latest technology."

Even the best radar detector doesn't provide perfect protection. On a recent 3,000 mile round trip to Florida, I had "budgeted" two speeding tickets. I was only stopped once, for doing 91 in a 70MPH zone. Smokie gave me a "courtesy warning" from the Georgia State Patrol. Thank you, officer, and yes, I'll be more careful in the future.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Pivoting monitors let you see high or wide

The standard orientation for most computer displays is horizontal or "landscape" orientation, which is ideal for spreadsheets, games and movies. On the other hand, most word processing documents and web pages, are best viewed in a vertical or "portrait" mode.

Some early computers and word processing systems used portrait orientation. But when IBM, Radio Shack and Apple introduced mass market computers, they adopted the TV's 3-high by 4-wide format, and the landscape monitor became standard.

With paper, however, the 11" high by 8-1/2" wide portrait format is standard. Just about everything published today is in portrait mode. Magazines, newspapers, letters and instruction manuals are easier to read in portrait mode. Web pages are called pages, and mimic the portrait orientation of most printed pages. Word processors use portrait mode by default. But strangely, most computer monitors are stuck in landscape mode.

Fortunately, a growing number of monitors can pivot from landscape mode for movies and spreadsheets, to portrait mode for just about everything else.

For several years, I’ve been using a 22” ViewSonic monitor. I maintain over 30 websites, and many of them share common material. If I need to copy from one site to another, I use my ViewSonic in portrait mode, and can view stacked-up web pages (with page width like on a 17” monitor) and easily copy and paste from one site to another. There’s no need to click on web browser tabs, or squeeze pages to fit in one wide screen.

The world is perverse. Except for spreadsheets, almost all business computing would be best done in portrait mode, and portrait monitors take up less desk space. But television is ubiquitous, and the powerful impact of the TV screen – and especially new wide-screen hi-def TV screens, has altered what we think of as normal.

The next time you go shopping for a monitor, look for one that pivots. You’ll scroll less and see more.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Ice-less can cooler fits almost anywhere

Brookstone’s Iceless Can Cooler is a great idea – a mini-fridge that can hold one can or bottle. I tried one on my night table, and have them on my desks at home and work.

Brookstone discontinued the cooler, but I bought a few at a Brookstone outlet store for $7.99 each. Another company is selling them for $50 each, which seems like a ripoff. You might find a similar one elsewhere for less.

It cools down to 30° below room temperature, which is fine for soda, beer or Poland Spring. It’s AC powered (but some variations may also include a 12-volt car cord. )

No chemicals. No freezer packs. Nothing complicated -- just an on-off switch and a cool blue LED power indicator.

CAVEAT: its motor makes a bit of noise. I got used to it. My wife did not; so I no longer have one on my night table. SUGGESTION: The cooling is concentrated at the bottom of the can or bottle, so shake it every so often if you don't drink quickly. OTHER SUGGESTION: Don't expect it to quickly cool a warm drink. You'll be happier if you start with a can or bottle that's already cold.