Thursday, 29 June, 2006

Unlocking Garmin GPS Map Data

Just because you're the leader in a field doesn't give you permission to act like the 900 pound gorilla.  Microsoft is bad about this, what with their product activation and software that phones home, but at least they give you time to work around little problems.  Garmin, the leader in the GPS field, has taken some pages from Microsoft's playbook and added a few wrinkles of their own.  Their attitude towards customers is insulting.

About two months ago I got a Garmin eTrex Vista CX GPS.  It's a great little unit and works well with the bicycle.  However, the built-in maps aren't very detailed, so I purchased the newly-released City Navigator North America version 8.  In order to upload the maps to my GPS unit, I had to "unlock" them.

Unlocking consists of starting the Unlock Wizard and going through the whole registration process, for which I had to supply my name, email address, street address, and the 8-digit "coupon" number that came with the product.  After going through all of that, the Unlock Wizard hung up waiting for a response from Garmin's server.  Once I killed the program and started the MapSource software, it told me that the maps had not been unlocked.  As I feared, MapSource told me that the maps were still locked.

Trying the Unlock Wizard again was no help.  Garmin's server told me that my coupon code had already been used.  I eventually found their FAQ, which lead me to the option in the Unlock Wizard which let me retrieve the unlock code from the server, but not before I spent 30 minutes trying to contact their technical support.

A few highlights of my attempts to contact Garmin:

  • When the Unlock Wizard told me, on my second try, that my coupon code had already been used, it suggested that I visit their support Web site:  So I dutifully entered in my browser and got a "page not found" for my trouble.  If you're going to use Web server software that treats case as significant, the least you can do is make your URLs all lower-case.  Idiots.
  • The automated response system on Garmin's phone technical support line doesn't give an option for City Navigator or for any other software.
  • The form used to send Garmin a technical support query online doesn't list City Navigator as one of the products.  And you have to select a product in order to send the query.
  • Once I sent my technical support query, my browser displayed a confirmation page thanking me for using their email technical support form and informing me that "all inquiries are answered  in the order they received."  The message also said, "Please allow up to 5-7 working days for an e-mail response, as our response time is longer than normal due to an overwhelming amount of seasonal phone calls and e-mails."  Five to seven days?  I think somebody needs to hire more technical support people.

This whole experience has soured me on Garmin.  I realize that it costs money to compile the map data, but that's no reason to act like a bully and treat paying customers as though we're crooks.  As with other copy protection schemes, Garmin's unlocking mechanism needlessly annoys paying customers and does nothing to stop dedicated pirates.  Granted, they stop the casual copying among friends, but nobody has proven that such copying is a significant revenue loss to software companies, movie studios, or record labels.

I'm looking for a different source for quality GPS map data that doesn't require me to jump through Garmin's activation hoops.  Any suggestions?

Friday, 23 June, 2006

U3 Smart Drive is a Bad Idea

When my friend David Stafford bought a 2 GB SanDisk Cruzer Micro USB Flash Drive the other day he got more than he bargained for.  The Cruzer includes the U3 Smart Drive technology that lets you install software, carry data, and share information seamlessly between multiple computers.  It's pretty cool technology and may very well be the way that portable computing will go (I've mentioned the possibility here a time or three), but to have it thrust upon you is unfriendly in the extreme.  When an unsuspecting David plugged the drive into his computer, he was not very happy to see it installing software and popping up menus.

A few minutes' searching and he located the U3 Uninstall site, where he had to tell them why he wanted to remove the software, and also had to acknowledge several times that, yes, he really did want to remove U3 from his flash drive.  Once he finished running the gauntlet he got to download the uninstall program.  Which promptly crashed when he tried to run it on his dual core Athlon 64 running Windows XP.

So he brought the drive over to my old Windows 2000 build machine and plugged it in.  I went through the U3 Uninstall Inquisition and finally got the program.  Which ran fine and made me acknowledge three different times that I really and truly, unquestionably and without even one shred of doubt wanted to remove that stupid software from the flash drive.  Done.  Oh, and the whole idea of having to agree to a software license just to remove some "feature" that I didn't want in the first place is highly amusing.

I think SanDisk and any other company that's considering using U3 might want to reconsider.  Most of us who buy these drives just want an easy way to move files among computers.  We don't care about being on the cutting edge of whatever innovation they're trying to shove down our throats.  As far as I'm concerned, having U3 on the flash drive makes it less valuable to me because I have to go through the trouble of removing the crap before I can use the drive the way I want to use it.  I will make it a point now to look closely at whatever USB flash drive I'm considering so that I can be sure not to get one that has U3.

Sunday, 18 June, 2006


Jill put on quite a party.  She had a big party tent constructed in the back yard of her condo complex, got tables and chairs delivered, and arranged for Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch to be catered.  A DJ played music until almost midnight Saturday.  All told, she had 60 or 70 people show up for her party.

Jill ordered an assortment of foam drink holders--manufacturer overruns--from a seller on eBay.  The idea was to get a bunch of different ones so that people could identify their drinks, and also have something to take home from the party.  Not surprising, there were a few coincidences where people actually knew of the thing being advertised.

As it happened, Debra found this one.

The Sunshine RV Park is located about 8 miles from our house, literally in somebody's front yard.  About two years ago Debra and I would ride our bikes back there and watch the owner out on his little tractor, cutting spaces or digging the ditch for the water lines.  A cheaply-made sign said, "Sunshine RV Pack coming soon."  Debra and I laughed because we couldn't imagine people parking their RVs so far out in the country.

The joke's on us.  I rode by there last week and he was full.  There must be 30 or more spaces, and it seemed like every one had a trailer or motor home in it.  The place looks clean and well maintained.  If you're looking for an RV park north of Austin, you might want to investigate this one.

I've heard people say that they don't believe in coincidence--that everything happens for a reason.  That's silly.  If you put enough random things together, sooner or later you're bound to run into something familiar.  Trying to find a deeper meaning behind every coincidence is a quick way to madness.  Enjoy the serendipity, laugh a bit about the random nature of things, and move on.

Saturday, 17 June, 2006

In Troy, MI

After we got checked in to the hotel yesterday we headed out to the mall for some things that Debra wanted to get, and also to get some food since we hadn't eaten since early morning.  We drove by a White Castle store and, since neither of us had ever been to one before, decided to give it a try.  On the positive side, the service was friendly and reasonably quick.  The store was dirty, though, and the food was terrible.  That thin slice of grey mystery meat tasted as bad as it looked.  I cannot in good conscience recommend White Castle to anybody.  People tell me that they used to be very good.  I'll take their word, but I don't think I'll be back to try it again.

World Market in Troy, MI has a great beer selection.  While Debra was wandering around finding stuff for Jill's gift basket, I wandered the beer aisle.  I finally created two custom six packs of mostly local brews--stuff that I'd never seen or had heard of but never had the opportunity to try.  If I can't bring homebrew to a party, I like to bring something a little out of the ordinary.  There's always at least one other person who appreciates good beer.

Michigan traffic engineers apparently have something against left turns.  At most major intersections you can't make a left turn.  Instead, you go through the intersection, make a U-turn, and then turn right.  This maneuver is called a Michigan left.  I haven't seen this in action during rush hour, but I can't imagine it being any better for traffic flow than a normal left turn.  Nor do I see it being any safer.  On the contrary, I'd think that making those uncontrolled U-turns would cause even more accidents.

Friday, 16 June, 2006


I'm surprised that there was a direct flight from Austin to Detroit.  The Canadair Regional Jet was scheduled to stop in Detroit and then go on to Bangor, and the flight was full.  Oversold, in fact:  they were offering a flight voucher to whoever would give up his seat.  I had never considered that there would be enough demand for a direct Austin-Detroit flight.

I don't have to make stuff up.  This is the actual highway sign at the exit to where I'm staying in Troy, Michigan.  I understand that Big Beaver Road was around long before anybody decided to put an interstate highway with an exit number through, but you'd think they could have done something about this.  Make the highway curve a little more to add an extra mile, maybe?  I guess if you build enough roads you're just bound to get funny stuff like this from time to time.  There are worse things a town could be known for.

The real estate market is crazy here, too.  There are some very nice neighborhoods in Troy and Birmingham that have very neat houses, nicely manicured lawns, beautiful trees--everything you expect from a picture perfect neighborhood.  The houses are 50 years old, maybe 1,200 or 1,500 square feet, usually have a detached garage, and go for $350,000 and up.  I understand that some people like to be in the city rather than out in the 'burbs, but I can't see city living being worth quite that much.

Thursday, 15 June, 2006

Random Car Notes

  • The radiator came in via stealth Fed Ex.  That is, it showed up at the front door and neither Charlie nor I heard the truck or the doorbell.  Since nobody actually uses the front door, it sat there until Debra came home and checked the front porch for packages.  Now why didn't I think of that?
  • Changing out the radiator in a 1996 GMC Sonoma Pickup is a one-hour job that can stretch to three hours if you forget to tighten the transmission cooler lines before putting everything back together.  Tight quarters prevent a wrench from turning in there.  I ended up having to take the thing apart again.  Moral: don't get distracted or get in a hurry.
  • How often do you really have to change the oil in your vehicle?  Some manufacturers recommend 7,500 miles or more.  The oil change places recommend every three months or 3,000 miles.  I know (at least, I think) that it depends a lot on driving conditions, but I don't know for sure.  Some people say that a lot of driving in dusty areas would require more frequent oil changes.  That's a scary thing to contemplate, because I thought that the oil in the engine was pretty well insulated from the outside world.  In any case, I sure wish I could get a straight and believable answer to this question.  Anybody?
  • Speaking of cars, Debra and I are off to Detroit tomorrow for my cousin Jill's 50th birthday and a small family reunion.  I'll have the laptop but don't know if I'll have Internet access.  Don't count on hearing from me before Monday.

Tuesday, 13 June, 2006

Birthday Challenge!

It's 4-1/2 months before my 45th birthday.  As I mentioned previously, I am planning to do a birthday challenge.  In keeping with the tradition of featuring the birthday number, I am working on a list of 45 things that I wish to accomplish over the 4.5 days around my birthday.  My birthday is Friday, 27 October.  I figure I'll start my challenge on Wednesday morning and complete it on Sunday evening.  I haven't completed my list, but here are the big things:

  • 4.5 kilometer swim (provided my shoulder will allow it)
  • 45 kilometer run
  • 45 kilometer (maybe 45 miles) mountain bike trail ride
  • 450 kilometer road bike ride
  • 4500 sit-ups (45 sets of 100)
  • lift 45,000 lbs of weights
  • raise $45,000 for Summer Camp Sponsorships at the Marine Military Academy

I'm still working on the list and expect to complete it soon.  I will create a "birthday challenge" page here on my Web site, and also will announce the challenge over at  If you're interested in participating or helping out, send me an email:  jim at

Oh, and if you're wondering why, read Why A Birthday Challenge.

Monday, 12 June, 2006

Automated chat?

I went looking for a new radiator this morning (the one in my truck has sprung a leak) and I ran into something new:  a Web-based automated response system.  It's made to look like you're chatting with a real person.  This was at

Chuck: What year is your S15?
You: 1996
Chuck: Do you know the engine size?
You: 2.2 litre L4
Chuck: OK. Would you prefer quotes on an OE Style or aftermarket radiator?

And so on.  It was pretty clear from the start that it was an automated system, especially when that last question appeared so quickly after I pressed Enter.

The funny (to me) part is that after playing twenty questions with the Web site, it asked for my phone number so that a "technician" could call me and make sure that I got the right radiator.  I got the call in a matter of minutes and the guy didn't even mention the automated system.  At least it wasn't quite as frustrating as trying to deal with one of those automated response systems over the phone.

Just for kicks, I thought I'd have a little fun with the system.  I started by telling it that I had a Ford F-series pickup:

Chuck: What year is your Fseries?
You: peanut butter and jelly
Chuck: Do you know the engine size?
You: swiss cheese
Chuck: That's no problem, I think we can at least get you a price without that information. Would you prefer quotes on an OE Style or aftermarket radiator?

Sometimes I don't understand how people apply technology.  I'm hungry.

Thursday, 08 June, 2006

How much do calories cost?

Somebody recently told me that the energy required to bend over and pick up a penny cost more than a penny.  According to this person, it cost more than a penny's worth of food in order to retrieve the penny from the ground.  When I asked him where he got his information he said, "It's obvious.  Everybody knows that."  Which means that he either made it up or is repeating what somebody else said because it sounded good

I thought I'd see if I could figure out whether or not it's true.

I needed to know two things:

  1. How many calories does it take to bend over and retrieve a penny?
  2. How much do those calories cost?

According to the "Solutions Manual" that I got when Debra and I signed up at Lifetime Fitness, somebody my size burns about 50 calories every ten minutes when doing high-intensity calisthenics:  jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, etc.  That's about five calories per minute.  I don't know if squatting to pick up a penny counts as "high-intensity calisthenics," but I did find out that I can pick up 35 pennies in one minute without trying too hard.

Oddly enough, I was a little out of breath after that experiment.

I'll give my friend the benefit of the doubt and assume that I burned five calories during that minute of "exercise."  35 cents divided by five calories equals seven cents per calorie.  If it costs more than seven cents per calorie, then it costs more than a penny to pick up a penny.

There is no hard and fast answer to how much a calorie costs.  It all depends on what you eat and how much you pay for it.  But, it's possible to get a ballpark figure.

The first thing I did was go to McDonald's Web site and figure out how many calories are in a Big Mac Meal.  Did you know that those two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese, pickles onions on a sesame seed bun weigh in at 560 calories?  Add large fries and a medium Coca-Cola and you're talking 1,350 calories!  Here, that meal will set you back about $4.50.  That works out to 0.33 cents per calorie.  That's right, three calories per penny.  Even with the expensive Big Mac meal, you're money ahead bending over to pick up a penny.

This turned out to be a fun and interesting area of research for me.  How much do calories cost?  Big Mac calories, at three for a penny, are very expensive and all that fat isn't very good for you.  There are less expensive and healthier choices.

I won't go through the whole list.  I will mention, though, that in general carbohydrates are more expensive than fats, and protein is all over the map.  It's too bad that my favorite food, peanut butter, has so much fat.  At 15 calories per penny for the good stuff, it's a heck of a bargain!

Sunday, 04 June, 2006

Collectible CDs?

The whole idea of collectibles is one that I've never really understood.  Why people pay huge sums of money for essentially useless artifacts is beyond me.  I get particularly annoyed when I want something, but not so badly that I'll pay the inflated collectible price for it.  On the flip side, I'm very amused when I find that something I own is perceived as having collectible value.

For example, I mentioned a while back that I'm selling some of my old books through Amazon Marketplace.  One of the books I was going to list is Michael Abrash's Zen of Assembly Language, for which I paid $30 in 1991 or so.  I'll keep that one because Michael autographed it for me.  In any case, I'm somewhat amused that there are four copies of the book listed for sale at $42.00 each.  When I first saw the book on Marketplace, people were trying to get upwards of $70.00 for it.  What's especially funny is that I sold a copy of Abrash's Zen of Code Optimization, which is an updated Zen of Assembly Language, for $15.00.  Do people actually pay more for the book that has less information?

I'm also about to start thinning out my CD collection.  So I picked the first CD on the shelf, Abba Greatest Hits.  There are five Marketplace listings for the CD, with prices ranging from $40.00 to $70.00.  Huh?  The same songs are available on the Greatest Hits: 30th Anniversary CD, which is selling new for $15.00.  Granted, the song order is somewhat different and the 30th anniversay CD has one extra song (Hasta MaƱana), but otherwise the content is identical.  Whatever.

I haven't quite decided what to do with this one.  I'm tempted to list it for $39.98 and see what happens.  I think at least one of the sellers will drop his price so that it's below mine.  Or, I could undercut the lowest price by 50% and hope for a quick sale.  I suspect, though, that there isn't a whole lot of demand for this particular album.  I just thought I'd get a few bucks and make some shelf space.  I didn't expect to be selling collectibles.  Maybe I'll list it for $3.00 just like the normal used CDs are going for and let somebody else hold out for the big bucks.

I wonder what other "collectible" CDs I'll find in my collection.

Sunday, 04 June, 2006

How to handle dead links?

I got an email message today from a reader who was trying to access the articles that I linked in my July 5, 2005 entry about Admiral James Bond Stockdale.  I had originally linked a U.S. Naval Academy site that had PDFs of the two papers and also was offering a printed booklet.  Sometime in the past 11 months, the Naval Academy restricted or removed those pages.

One of the nice things about the Internet is that most information is available in more than one place, and I was able to find replacement links.  But this incident does bring up a question that I've fought with from time to time: How should I handle broken links?

Typically, when I find or somebody tells me about a broken link on my diary pages, I'll try to fix it.  About half the time it's something that I goofed up:  a misspelling or a badly-formatted link.  Those are easy enough to fix, and I'll do it without question.  The balance of the bad links are pages that have been moved or deleted:  the information is no longer where I said it was.  I don't know the best way to handle those cases.

As I see it, I have the following choices:

  • Ignore the error.  This is the least helpful of the choices, but has the advantage of requiring no effort.  It also keeps the diary entry in its original form.  That is, it retains the historical record.  If I follow this path, I assume that if readers really want to find out about the information I mentioned, they'll go search it out themselves.
  • Fix the error by changing the link.  As I said above, most things on the Internet are available in multiple places, so changing the link to a particular document is no big deal.  However, many times I link an individual page on a site, but also make mention of the site in general.  Do I remove all mention of the previous site?
  • Fix the error by creating an addendum to the diary entry.  This is the path I chose for the Stockdale entry mentioned above.  Although I removed the links to the Naval Academy site, I did maintain mention of it.  I think this is the proper way to go in order to keep things current but also acknowledge where I first found the information.  Provided, of course, that the historical record is important at all.

This touches on another, similar, issue:  how to handle outdated or updated information.  I'll post some thoughts on that the next time.