Saturday, December 30, 2006

Milk Chocolate Pecan BillyBobs:
deliciously addictive

First an admission of stupidity: I love walnuts and pistachios and cashews and pignolias; but for some unknown reason, I thought I hated pecans. Last Spring, I was ravaging a can of mixed nuts with a fellow nut nut, and he informed me that what I thought were walnut pieces were really pecans; and I liked them.

Naked pecans from the can are fine, but the best way to eat them is coated with gooey caramel and melt-in-mouth milk chocolate, as sold by Malley's Chocolates in Ohio. They've been selling delicious chocolates and ice cream since 1935. The company has 17 stores, and they have obviously perfected the BillyBob recipe.

Malley's BillyBobs are deliciously addicting. Two enthusiastic eaters can easily wipe out a 14-ounce box in a few minutes. If you really don't like pecans, you can get cashew BillyBobs, too.

Prices are the same online or in-store, and shipping charges are reasonable, especially if you order two or more boxes of joy; and it would be stupid to order just one. If you spend $600, shipping is free! Ice packs are available at an additional charge for warm weather or warm climates. CLICK

Friday, December 29, 2006

Product Preview:
PC screen & keyboard cleaning sheets

PC keyboards, particularly on traveling laptops, become depositories for lots of disgusting stuff, that eventually makes it hard to type and hard to see.

Gadget-maker Bart 1 Products has just announced PEEL & CLEAN sheets that "Safely remove debris from keys and display instantly."

They're also available in mini sheets for smart phones, cell phones, GPS, etc. It seems like a good solution, and should be safer and less messy than spray cleaners. I'll tell you more after I try some.

CLICK for manufacturer's website

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Panasonic network cameras:
See there when you can't be there

In good times and bad times, people like to be assured that everything is OK; and to take action if there is trouble. Now, with a Panasonic network camera, you can easily see what's happening at your home or business when you're not there.

Use a PC, Mac, PDA, TV or cellphone, any time, any where. It will work if you are 10 feet away, or 10,000 miles away.

►Check on your children, pets, nanny, elderly parents, pool, vacation home. ►Monitor employees, warehouse, kitchen, vault, doors, cash registers, parking lot. ►You can see and hear and record what's going on. ►You can remotely pan, tilt and zoom to see exactly what you want. ►A camera can be live all of the time, or turned on by a timer or sensors. ►You can record remotely, or on an internal SD card.

Your camera connects easily to your DSL or cable internet service, with or without a wire (depending on camera model). Panasonic offers many camera choices at a wide range of prices. Be aware that the more expensive "BB" models provide sharper images and better color than the "KX" models. Some dealer have only KX cams.

Unlike old-fashioned "webcams," your Panasonic network camera does not need to be connected to a computer. Your camera can have a FREE unique web address. You can see your home or business live, from any Internet connection point in the world. All you need is a web browser.

You can use any Internet connection to see what your camera sees, from dial-up to T1, with any Internet Service Provider.

If you wonder who's stealing from your cash register, who's keying your car, or if your nanny's sleeping while your baby's crying, CLICK.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"Batman Begins":
superhero DVD made me feel super-stupid

I recently bought a Panasonic Blu-ray Hi-Def DVD player, and purchased and rented a pile of movies to play on it.

When I saw Batman Begins, I was blown away by the sharpness and detail on the screen, and the super-power coming from my speakers.

It's also a super story: the prequel to the other Batman movies. Christian Bales stars as Caped Crusader/Dark Knight Batman (the only superhero without super powers) and billionaire/wuss Bruce Wayne. He Bats better than previous Batmen Burton and Keaton.

We learn that the Boy Bruce was afraid of bats, and Young Man Bruce got ninja-like training from League of Shadows master Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). We meet Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) when he was just an honest Gotham City cop. Michael Caine plays a perfect Alfred-the-butler: calm, wise and nurturing. Morgan Freeman is Lucius Fox, a "Q"-like hardware geek at Wayne Industries who supplies Bruce/Batman with the Batsuit and the Batmobile. It's like a Hummer on steroids, and much more macho than the later batty-looking versions. There's no Robin or Batgirl. This is a serious movie.

In 1817, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about the "willing suspension of disbelief" that is necessary for the enjoyment of fiction. I'm usually able to play by Coleridge's rule, but sometimes I annoy my wife and fellow movie-watchers by yelling "BULLSHIT" while a particularly preposterous scene is on-screen. There's only one unbelievable scene in "Batman Begins," where BM uses his Bat Rope to hang from a speeding monorail train, but miraculously does not get tangled, knocked down or battered by the track support towers. Somehow, it bothered me less than a BS-y scene in the first movie, where BM shoots down an evil airplane with a hand gun.

The day after I watched the DVD, I told a friend about the movie and how great Blu-ray is. He gently informed me that Batman Begins is not yet available in Blu-ray, and I had been watching and salivating over an excellent, but ordinary, DVD.

I felt like an idiot, but at least I was a happy idiot.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Panasonic Blu-ray Hi-Def DVD player:
Resistance is futile

I generally don't buy first-gen products. I usually wait until the second generation, with lower prices, more choices and fewer bugs. I'm also wary about investing money in electronic formats that may not have staying power. I never owned a Betamax VCR or an Elcasette or MiniDisc audio recorder, but did buy a quadraphonic receiver, a bunch of LaserDiscs and a handful of DVD-Audio discs. I've also owned a Corvair and four Fiats, but no Edsel. My crystal ball is 70% right.
The Hi-Def DVD scene is complicated and unsettled, with two competing and incompatible formats: Blu-ray and HD DVD.
  • Picture quality can be great with either, but Blu-ray offers longer playing time, and has support from more movie studios, and more consumer electronics companies and PC makers. Blu-ray also has the stupider name, and Blu-ray players cost much more than HD DVD players.
  • I like the idea that Blu-ray is supported by traditional enemies Panasonic and Sony (who were on opposite sides in the VHS vs. Betamax war), and Apple, HP and Dell.
  • On the other hand, Microsoft and Intel are backing HD DVD.
  • On the third hand, some movie studios and hardware makers are backing both formats, or neither format. Universal Studios is the only movie maker to support HD DVD exclusively.
  • And on the fourth hand, Sony's super-popular new PlayStation 3 uses Blu-Ray, so lots of people will have Blu-ray movie players in their homes, even if they bought the PS3 primarily for games.
  • And, it's also possible that both formats will disappear, to be replaced by some dark horse format, or by fast downloads.
I was prepared to let the dust settle, and wait until one format won before making the invstment.
That sensible/logical/cautious approach ended instantly, when I saw a movie being played on a Panasonic DMP-BD10. With the right movie and the right HDTV, this magnificent machine can show you the elusive hair on a pimple on the ass of a very small flea. The details and color were like Kodachrome, or a very clean window.
The remote control is sensible, 7.1 audio is absolutely outstanding, and Panasonic offered three freebie movies. The DMP-BD10 has the power of the Borg, and my resistance was futile. I paid the thousand bucks, and don't regret it. You can ask me again in three or four years. More info at the Panasonic website.

Altec-Lansing iM9 iPod boom box:
It could have been an Altec-Martini

Altec-Lansing's roots go back before hi-fi, and long before CDs and iPods, to the early days of talking pictures in 1927.

Over the years, Altec-Lansing has made some amazing speakers, for theaters, recording studios, stadiums, homes and cars. During WW2, they made an airborne submarine detection system. It was one of the first uses for the powerful "Alnico V" magnet, that was used in speakers after the war. Altec-Lansing was probably the first company to offer a speaker upgrade for car radios. I wrote about their VW Beetle replacement speaker in 1970. The company also pioneered audio equalization, and made broadcast consoles, amplifiers and microphones.

Most people use their iPods for personal entertainment, but if you don't feel like wearing headphones or want to share your sounds, the Altec-Lansing iM9 is a great choice. It's not wide enough to provide much stereo separation, but the sound quality is extremely good, especially considering its compact size. Bass is very strong. The iM9 works well on a table right in front of you, but can also play loud enough to hear 20 feet away. It has a folding stand to keep it nearly vertical on a tabletop, and works on AC or four C batteries (good for about 24 hours). It can charge your iPod, and even has an extra audio input for a non-iPod player, such as a portable Sirius or XM receiver, or a portable DVD player.

The iM9 can fill a dorm room or almost any room. I like it for traveling, and have taken mine to lots of Hiltons and Marriotts. I also use it in my garage and on my patio. It's compact, but it's pretty heavy (about four pounds -- much more than most table-top iPod speaker docks) and is a bit hard to grip (no handle) -- so don't drop it on any toes. If you do drop it, it should survive, because its guts are shock-resistant. It comes with a rugged backpack-style carry bag, which is probably OK for anyone under age 25. If you're 25 or older, use a laptop case.

The iM9 fits, syncs and charges all dockable iPods and can even connect iPod video and iPod photo players to a TV set. Price is about $150-$200. You can get it at Amazon, Crutchfield, etc. I bought mine at Costco. UPDATE 12/32/06: Costco price is now down to 100 bucks. Altec-Lansing also makes some great desk-top and table-top iPod speaker docks in the iM ("in motion") product line. CLICK

Geek Trivia: The "Lansing" in the company name belongs to James B. Lansing, who is also the "JBL" in the "JBL" audio brand, a company he formed in 1946 after leaving Altec-Lansing. "Altec" wasn't a person's name. It comes from "All Technical." Altec was a Western Electric spin-off that serviced movie theaters, and bought Lansing's company in 1941. The company changed owners and marketing direction many times over the years, and in 2005 it was bought by headset-maker Plantronics. Mr. Lansing wasn't born a Lansing. He changed his last name from "Martini." If he didn't, you might be listening to an Altec-Martini, and JBL would be JBM.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Tivoli radios: full-size sound from itty-bitty boxes

Because of the success of the Walkman and the iPod, and their imitators, it's hard to find a compact-size portable radio with a speaker, particularly one that sounds good.

Fortunately, for those who don't want to wear headphones or earbuds, or who do want to share the music, Tivoli Audio makes some some excellent, innovative and stylish portables that actually have speakers.

Don't be put-off by the small size of the Tivoli radios. They can easily fill a room with glorious music, and you can have fun fooling people into thinking they're hearing your big-buck audio system, when the sound is really coming from something the size of a Kleenex box.

You can choose from several models. I have an analog-tuning "PAL" (Personal Audio Laboratory, $150) in my kitchen, that sometimes goes out on my rear deck. I also have a digital-tuning SongBook ($160) in my bathroom, and I keep another one in my office, and sometimes take it on vacations.

Both models have weather-resistant, rubberized cabinets (for most colors), auxiliary inputs, and can use rechargeable batteries (standard on PAL, optional on SongBook), or a 12VDC power source, or an AC adapter. Although both radios merge left and right channels through their single speakers, you can plug in stereo headphones for full channel separation.

The more expensive SongBook does not come equipped with rechargeable batteries, but it does have features that PAL doesn't have: five preset tuning buttons, a wakeup alarm, cool-blue illuminated display, and even a hang-up slot. It does not have the convenient finger-grip slot that PAL has; but it should, because unless you hold it tightly, it can slide out of your hand.

The SongBook's volume conrol knob is a particularly stupid design. It has a slippery texture and a tapered shape, and if you try to grip it tightly to adjust the sound, your fingers slip and you lose your grip! PAL's knobs are much easier to use; and instead of a digital display and electronic tuning, it has a retro vernier tuning dial with LED signal strength indicator. A $300 variation of the SongBook includes a flip-down iPod dock, and second speaker.

The whole family of products offers sensitive and selective tuning, and super-sweet sound; and I recommend them highly, despite my minor criticisms. Tivoli portable and non-portable radios are available at Target, Best Buy, Tweeter and other audio specialists. CLICK for the manufacturer's website.

GEEK TRIVIA: The PAL ("Personal Audio Laboratory") was designed by audio pioneer Henry Kloss (rhymes with gross). Henry's long history with audio began in the early 1950's when he built speaker cabinets for fellow MIT students. Henry dropped out, and co-founded Acoustic Research, where he helped develop the first acoustic suspension speaker. Next came KLH (the "K" stands for Kloss), and the Model Eight, the first highly sensitive FM table radio. Later at Advent (where I met him when I worked for Rolling Stone), Henry developed one of the first projection televisions (an Emmy winner), and one of the first consumer cassette decks with Dolby noise reduction. Next came Kloss Video in 1977, and Cambridge SoundWorks in 1988, with long-time associate Tom DeVesto. In 2000, at the age of 70, Henry emerged from retirement to once again work with DeVesto at Tivoli. Henry died in 2002.

After I had my PAL for a couple of years, it developed an intermittent audio problem. The sound would suddenly crackle for a few seconds, and then music would be replaced by silence. I'd thump it on the table, and the music would come back. When the thump-to-thump interval increased to the point where I was really annoyed, I called Tivoli to find out the procedure for getting it fixed. The Tivolian wanted my serial number. I questioned that, because the radio was clearly out of warranty, and I did not expect a free fix. Mr. Tiv said he would not give me a return authorization without the serial number. My radio was two flights down, so I said I'd call back. By the time I walked down two flights of stairs and back up, I was pissed-off enough to open the PAL and re-solder the speaker wires myself. The repair took less than a minute, and I saved about $50!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Samsung Sync A707 3G cellphone:
I said goodbye to "Hello Moto"

I bought a cool silver Motorola Razr a few years ago, on the very first day Cingular sold it. Last Spring, I gave the silver Razr to my wife, and got a cooler black Razr for myself.

A few weeks ago, the sexy, sleek and easy-to-lose black Razr disappeared. I liked my Razrs, and I could have gotten a replacement Razr for just $50 with my insurance plan. But now that Razrs are being used by cops, kids, and even pay-as-you-goers, it is decidedly less cool than it once was. It was time to shop for a new toy.

I have no need for QWERTY-keyboard-equipped Blackberries, Blackjacks or
other PDA-like phones; but I did want something cool.

I did some research, and was quickly impressed by the new A707 "Sync" from Samsung. Its 2 megapixel camera takes better pictures than the Moto Razr. It plays music and TV shows, works on four bands, uses 3G technology, does Bluetooth, and has a slot for a micro SD card. The display is super-sharp, almost like a pocket-size plasma, and the giant-size phone number display is great for eyes that are no longer 20-20.

For now, Cingular is the only carrier offering the phone, and prices range from $50 to $350, depending on contract conditions. I wasn't due for a special price, so I bought it on Ebay for $199 plus $10 for shipping, but without $12 sales tax. I took the phone (which has Cingular logos on it) to the Cingular store. The nice folks there provided a SIM card at no charge, entered the phone in their system, copied the dialing directory from my wife's phone, and it works just fine. Cingular charges $50 for a half-gig Micro SD memory card. I bought a one-gig card at Staples for $15. It will hold lots of music and photos

NOTE TO CINGULAR: The phone is much slimmer than the 1.02 inches you show on your website; and the software you provide for connecting the A707 to a PC doesn't work with the A707. I had to call Samsung, and was instructed to delete the software from my PC, and download another program, that was labeled for use with (GASP!) T-Mobile. CLICK for more.

I doubt that the flippy cover for the charger cord and headset will last more than a week. It can be difficult to open the phone with bare hands, and it's impossible with gloves on.

Super-easy way to make charitable donations,
and maybe get a free vacation.

As the year ends, lots of people realize that they have only a few more days to make tax deductable donations to charity. It's not a big deal to write a couple of checks, and lots of charities accept credit card donations and have convenient websites. However, if you want to spread money around, AmEx makes it extremely easy -- and personally profitable.

The Giving Express program connects you to over a million charitable organizations! You can search for them by name, keywords, location, or use an extensive list of categories such as performing arts, education, health care, housing, human rights, disaster relief, religion and much more. The AmEx website has financial reports, mission statements, contacts, and other information regarding the organizations.

Donating online helps nonprofit organizations reduce administrative costs so that they can do more with the money. Your dollar donations are tax-deductible and you’ll receive an e-mail receipt for your records. Plus, through December 31, 2006, you can earn double Membership Rewards points for every dollar you donate with an eligible, enrolled American Express Card.

• Give to one or more charities and nonprofit organizations
• Donate dollars with your American Express Card
• Donate Membership Rewards points
• Set up recurring donations

When you make a donation, you'll get an immediate e-mail confirmation for each transaction. AmEx will post a detailed record of all your donations on your password-protected Giving History web page, if you need a record for an IRS audit in the future. CLICK

Presidential Hot Line Phone:
Make people think you're really important,
or give it to someone who's important to you

Imagine people's reactions when your bright red phone rings, with the presidential seal on the face plate, and you pick up the handset and say, "Yes, Mr. President."

At that moment, you are probably the second most important person in the world.

Suitable for Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Whigs, Tories, anyone. Used in movies made by Paramount Pictures and Disney Studios.

SADISTIC or SARCASTIC?: Send them to Al Gore, John Kerry, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Bob Dole, Mike Dukakis, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie.

This is not an empty shell or a fake phone. It's a real high-quality made-in-America phone, warranteed for SEVEN YEARS (nearly two presidential terms), and ready to plug in and ring. Price is $80, with FREE shipping to any destination in the 50 states. CLICK

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Cedar Key:
brand-name live clams you'll definitely dig

Brand names on raw clams? While it's common to see familiar grocery names on cans of chopped and minced clams, I never saw brand names on bags of raw clams until I discovered Cedar Key live clams at a Costco seafood "road show." Frank Perdue introduced branding to chickens, so why shouldn't clams have names, too?

Cedar Key Aquaculture Farms is the largest clam farmer in Florida, and they distribute absolutely delicious littlenecks. The shells were a bit more reddish than the clams we're used to in New England (Florida sun tan, maybe?), and they definitely had less sand.

Cedar Key is the supplier to all Costcos east of the Mississippi, as well as Kash-n-Karry supermarkets in Florida and selected Winn-Dixies throughout the southeast. If your local store doesn't carry Cedar Key clams, nag the seafood manager. Costco announces their road shows a few weeks in advance, so plan to be there on the the first day, before they sell out.

Yours truly, the alleged clam expert, foolishly bought a big bag of clams and stuck them in the fridge a couple of days before going on a clam tasting trip to Cape Cod. When I got back, I assumed I'd find a stinking bag of expensive refrigerated garbage, accompanied by appropriate verbal abuse from my wife; but the clams smelled fine.

I rinsed them off, dumped them in a pot with about a half inch of water, heated them for a few minutes until the shells opened, and had some of the best-tasting steamed clams ever (plus clam juice to use later in clam sauce).

According to the tag, these clams were harvested on 3/21; but they were not eaten until 4/3. They were obviously great quality to begin with, and I compliment Cedar Key and Costco for high standards in processing, shipping and storage. Yum! CLICK for Cedar Key.