Saturday, September 15, 2007

Google Maps Street View

For selected streets of selected cities, Google Maps now features Street View. This allows any user to see the streets and buildings in a 360 degree panning view by simply clicking on a point on a map (of a city with Street View data).

I missed the introduction of this feature back in May 2007, but my friend Don excitedly called me yesterday when he discovered a new "Street View" button in Google Maps.

To use Street View, you must go to a map for a very large city in Google Maps, like Los Angeles. Then click the "Street View" button in the upper-right corner of the map (this button only appears on maps where Street View data exists). Any roads which appear outlined in blue have Street View imagery (zooming in and dragging around helps to see the roads with better detail).

Google's hosts its own video tutorial about using Google Maps Street View.

Though this article suggests that the camera shown from Immersive Media is used to collect data, I saw a van with a big box on its roof in a reflection of a Street View image. One of the comments from this article mentions that Google shot their own imagery in the San Fransisco area with higher quality using a van. A quick Google search of "google maps street view van reflection" got me an article with a screenshot of a great reflection of the van - I looked up the address (in Fremont, CA) on Google Maps so you can go directly to the location and see the van with impressive resolution (you can pan, tilt and zoom around in this image - try it!).

The debut of Street View raised a lot of eyebrows amongst privacy advocates, and Google has responded by allowing users to request removal of faces and license plates from image data. Originally, Google only allowed people to request removal of their own images or license plates, but apparently the policy now allows anyone to make a request. Here's Google's privacy page for Street View, which includes a link to a form to request removal of "inappropriate" imagery.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Hello, Computer?

In the world of "Star Trek," you can speak into the air and a computer does your bidding. A couple of free services, Jott and reQall, provide a number of very useful services using nothing but your voice and a cell phone call.

Though there have been many solutions for doing home-automation by voice command for years, it's been less-than-practical to do complex voice-recognition tasks while on-the-go - the computing power demands are a bit too high. However, I've been expecting our ubiquitous cell phones to bring us this capability by interfacing with remote computers for some years now. These two services use a combination of computers and humans to allow you to send text messages, email, manage appointments and more through only your voice on a cell phone.

Text messaging between telephones using SMS (Short Message Service) is a very useful way to asynchronously (not at the same time, as in a voice call) communicate with others, but not everyone is comfortable with typing text messages, however short, on the 10-key pad of their cell phone. "Thumbing" text on your phone while driving is just plain stupid. Jott lets you dictate messages by voice, which are automatically converted to text and sent as SMS or email.

Once you've subscribed and configured the services with your cell phone number, you simply call the service number from your cell and talk to use the services. (In addition to automatically converting your speech to text, Jott also includes a link to your original audio.)
I like the idea of sending email to myself from a voice call as a note-taking system - it automatically puts a thought into a paradigm I already manage regularly - text in my email. One of the failings of keeping notes on tape recorders, tapeless recorders and note pads in the past has been the need to transcribe them to a central location - a computer. I use a PDA for this constantly, but there are times when I can't or shouldn't stop to write.

reQall is a bit more phone-centric, allowing users to manage and search stored audio notes through the cell phone.

Both Jott and reQall also uses human transcribers in addition to machine, but they promise that there is full anonymity of the users. Still, this is a privacy issue that you'll have to consider. Read Jott's and reQall's privacy policies.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Finally, a Wireless Home-Theater Keyboard with Pointer

This $40 wireless keyboard finally fulfills our long search for a living-room home-theater keyboard with a built-in pointing device.

Since buying our first HDTV over a year and a half ago, we've had a back-burner project to add a Macintosh to our living room A/V rack. Actually, this has been a plan for a decade, since we first started looking at HDTVs in trade shows, wondering when their prices and performance would meet our budget and aesthetic judgement.

From time to time, there comes a task in which my wife and I need to participate concurrently on a computer, whether it's shopping for airfares, editing a new class syllabus or just researching something online. This is an awkward task at a desk, sharing monitors and finding a place to roll up a chair. Though we could be remotely viewing each other's computers over the network, this solution isn't practical when we watch long-form video on the computer together - something that's becoming more and more common in our life.

We keep an older PowerBook in our living room, and we use it daily to look up something we just heard about on television, or to continue working on a project in an alternate location to our office desks. In truth, using a laptop is actually a better solution to using a computer while watching television - if we use our television as a computer display, that precludes its concurrent use as a TV (our television doesn't support Picture-In-Picture, and this would probably take up too much desktop real estate anyway). Still, there are times when there's no substitute for big-display group-computing.

For whatever reason, there are very few wireless keyboards with any kind of pointing device (i.e., mouse, trackpad, trackball) built-in. Though there are wireless mice and trackballs, that means having to pass around, keep track of, and make room not one but two pieces floating around the living room. There are offerings with gamepad-like "rockers" cursor controllers, but that's not very appealing ergonomically.

After years of shopping, buying and returning, we've found and bought a wireless keyboard with built-in pointing system that I like. It's the BTC 9019URF Wireless Multimedia Keyboard with Dual Mode Joystick Mouse. At $39.95, it's even a bargain.

The 9019URF has two big handles molded into either end - a fantastic design decision which works very well for cross-couch hand-offs. The 9019URF's pointing device is a mini-joystick. Reminiscent of the 1" tall analog joysticks on console gaming controllers, this is a perfectly usable mouse controller, falling perfectly to hand (more accurately, to the right thumb) when the user holds the keyboard by its handles. Also nicely placed are the left- and right-mouse buttons, which are positioned where the left thumb rests. Also surrounding the joystick are Scroll Up and Scroll Down buttons. Web page navigation is very natural, and clicking links and scrolling pages is accomplished with only the user's thumbs. A center-mouse button is in the extreme upper-right - very handy as I configure the Mac OS X's "Expose" window-tiling feature to this button.

The mini-joystick is a proportional controller, allowing the user to move the cursor at speeds from a crawl to rapidly zipping about the screen. Some adjustments to your system's mouse settings can help find a comfortable speed - in Mac OS 10.4, I found the maximum default speed a bit slow, and there was plenty of latitude for slower and faster configurations. I found the joystick very natural to use immediately. (BTC claims that the device can be used as a "joystick" as well as "mouse" controller, which would require installing the BTC drivers for Windows.)

The keyboard itself has pretty mediocre key switch feel - vaguely sticky. I wouldn't want to type for hours on the 9019URF, but it's serviceable.

Power for the 9019 is provided by two AA batteries - a pair of Duracells is included in the package. BTC documentation claims a battery life of "up to 5 months." They also claim a 10 meter (about 33 feet) maximum range.

The 9019URF is packaged as a Windows keyboard, but it works on a Mac, with only a few caveats. Many of the typical "multimedia and Internet" dedicated button array across the top of the keyboard have no effect in OS X. However, the Volume Up/Down, Mute, Eject, and Power buttons do work, as do all the aforementioned pointing and navigation keys.

Installation on a Mac (again, Mac OS is not mentioned as supported) was nothing - I didn't read the manual, installed two AA batteries in the keyboard, plugged the wireless transceiver's USB cable into a Mac (which asked to help identify the keyboard by pressing a few keys). That's it. Windows software on an included CD provides support for the multimedia/Internet keys.

As with all Windows keyboards on Macs (and vice-versa), the positions of the Option/Alt and Option/Command keys are reversed. In OS 10.4, Apple has cleverly added an optional Modifier Keys button and submenu to the Keyboard & Mouse pane of System Preferences (perhaps almost too clever - the Modifier Keys button doesn't appear on some systems unless an external keyboard is present). Using the Modifier Keys dialog, the user can reassign the four modifier keys to act as any other. Users of Mac OS versions prior to 10.4 can try utilities such as uControl (no longer supported, but still available) or fKeys to remap Windows keyboards for Macs.

NOTE: The 9019URF has no right-side modifier keys, but then neither do most laptops these days.

Manufacturer BTC also offers these wireless keyboards:
  • The 9019URFIII appears very similar to the 9019URF except that it uses a small USB wireless adapter (like a thumb-drive) rather than the 9019URF's box-and-USB cable wireless transceiver.
  • The BTC 9029URF III MCE, a sleeker keyboard with the same mini-joystick, but no handles (we immediately preferred the 9019's handles in the store).
  • The 9116URF is much more compact than the 9019 and 9029, but lacks the handy handles.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

AT&T (BellSouth) DSL Connection Problems

If you are a BellSouth DSL customer, have suddenly lost your Internet connection and have been presented with a "BellSouth Password Change Tool" page (when you haven't deliberately changed your password), you might need to remove the "" from your login ID. Read on...

My mother is an AT&T (formerly BellSouth) DSL customer in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. This morning (Thursday, September 6, 2007). she called me to report that she was seeing a strange message on her computer and that she couldn't pick up her (web-based) email.

The prompt was from her browser (Firefox 2 Mac) informing her that the certificate for the site "" could not be verified, and to be cautious. This appeared whenever she attempted to browse from either Firefox or Safari.

On the phone, I prompted her to continue past the certificate warning to the BellSouth page. This page is titled "BellSouth Password Change Tool." The page informed her that she was using an "unsupported browser or operating system" and that the page should be viewed with Internet Explorer on one of several Windows variants.

I walked her through checking her hardware setup: the DSL "modem," a broadband router and her computer itself. All seemed healthy. We experimentally restarted all the devices, but to no avail.

After two calls to AT&T Tech Support (in India), I was left pretty unsatisfied. I established that her account was in good standing on the first call (we'd recently had to resolve a payment method issue, so that was suspect), and the her status lights indicated proper operation. I made a second call to have them change to the password to something else, just in case the original password had been changed or corrupted without my knowledge. As expected, the Tech Support script began with suggesting that she "remove the router" - not really my first choice of operations to attempt over the phone (though I've talked my mom and mother-in-law through some amazing operations via phone call, including re-seating RAM and installing an AirPort card in an iMac/CRT!).

After having AT&T Tech Support change her password, I talked my mom through changing the AT&T password on her router (her router manages the PPPoE username/password submissions to the modem). This was not successful. We re-entered the password a couple of times. We re-entered the OLD password. No connection. Finally, with the new password stored but failing to connect, I had her change her login ID from to simply username. SUCCESS! This original login ID (with had been configured in her router for a year and a half since originally subscribing for service. We had not altered it until today.

I'm speculating that AT&T has decided to eliminate the "" part of usernames from the login IDs, but if that's true, then there will be a lot of people encountering this problem. If you're one of them, I hope you found this post. Let me know.