Review: Altec-Lansing Backbeat 903 – Best Bluetooth Headphones Evuh?

Ever since I got my iPhone 3g, and jumped to OS 3.1, I’ve been searching for the best arrangement of comfort, functionality, price, and audio quality in a set of bluetooth headphones. I’ve tried the Apple earbuds, but I find them extremely uncomfortable. Several others have come down the mail pipeline, but until now, I wasn’t completely happy with the results.
The Altec-Lansing Backbeat 903 (also available from Plantronics under the same name is a permanently linked pair of on-the-ear headphones that provide A2DP and HFP profiles to a bluetooth host (such as an iPhone). The tether between the headsets is part antenna part audio wire. It does not hold the headphones in place, it is simply an interconnect. The headphones sit on the back of the earlobe (similar to older Jabra designs), with an audio component placed over the ear canal (slightly inside it, in fact, but not putting any weight on it).
Personally, I find this arrangement excellent, and I’m bothered that it’s not more widely implemented (in fact Jabra appears to no longer make this style, sad).
The Backbeats use a pair of behind-the-ear components. Each side has an adjustable rubber centerpiece that I found quite comfortable and unobtrusive. The left earpiece contains telephone controls that allow a simple pickup / drop of incoming calls. The right earpiece has music and volume controls.
Of all the headphones I’ve played with, the Backbeats have the most intuitive control setup. In general use, just tapping the outside of the right ear piece triggers ‘play/pause’. Tapping the outside of the left ear piece answers / drops phone calls. Volume control is via a sliding control on the bottom of the earpiece. The right-left functionality means you don’t need to remember what little doodad to fiddle when a call comes in. Left side is phone, right side is music. Simple!
What really brought it all home for me was the comfort level of the headphones. I’ve worn them for 6-8 hours a day for the last few days without feeling any discomfort. Even better, when not listening to music, the non-earfilling ear piece means I can leave the headphones on and carry on a normal conversation. One particular enjoyment was spending an entire day skiing and listening to music, where the simple outside button was easily tapped even through a ski hat and while wearing gloves.
The volume level and audio quality is excellent, even with background noise and wind – I had no problems hearing music while zipping down a trail at 25mph.
In summary, I would highly recommend these headphones to anyone who is looking for lightweight, comfortable bluetooth headphones for their iPhone or other A2DP equipped device.

Article on the State of Microsoft – “The Lost Decade”

Joe Wilcox of Betanews writes an excellent article on why Microsoft is stumbling, and how they lost their initiative after the major gains in the late 90’s and early aughts…

Microsoft executives and product managers — Chairman Bill Gates, above all of them — showed great technology vision for the new millennium. The company was right about so many trends to come but, sadly, executed poorly in bringing too many of them to market. Microsoft’s stiffness, perhaps a sign of its aging leadership, consistently proved its foible. Then there is arcane organizational structure, which has swelled with needless middle managers, and the system of group competition — and in the new century compensation — that worked well for a growth company but not one trying to manage mature markets.

Read the entire article over at… vs Thunderbird – Which one?

It’s been about two and a half months since I got my Macbook Pro, and all in all, it’s been a productive, happy relationship. The Mac functions beautifully for all the things I need to get done, and from my side, I haven’t had to spend any time yak shaving. In fact, I can’t think of a time where I really had to dig into the filesystem or look up tech articles to get something configured on the machine. Everything just plain works.
Somewhere along the line I decided to complete the Kool-Aid conversion, and switched from using Thunderbird to using the Mac’s native mail application, collectively known as Why? Well, part of my philosophy on tech platforms is to try to not carry over preconceived notions of “how things should work”, and immediately critiquing a new environment simply because it doesn’t exactly mirror the one I’m used to.
I’ve been using for about a month and a half now, and… I’m not impressed. It works, it talks nicely to my personal IMAP server and to Exchange at work, but… sorry Apple, the UI has some pretty painful choices.
In a recent Facebook conversation (based on a tweet I sent out), folks asked what my issues with were. So, here they are:
1. The ‘file to folder’ function is irritating to use. Shortcuts change regularly (F3-space-foldername-enter – BLEAH) – it’s better than the default non-existent methods, but still difficult. (Note this is in reference to using Act-On, a plugin for that brings some of the functionality of the super-awesome Nostalgy plugin for Thunderbird)
2. Window management is poor. Composition windows are not floating in alt-tab rotation. If I want to flip back to my Inbox to view something, I have to mouse (no KB shortcuts to switch between inbox / composition / whatever)
3. No identity management – I can’t say “Compose this mail, but it’s business mail, so use my Biz address, footer, etc)
4. The thread management is WEIRD. So, If I have a single message, it’s one row in my inbox. If I have 2 in a thread, its’ THREE rows in my inbox. That makes no sense.
5. I can’t find anyway of skipping to the next unread message in the inbox. So I’ll see Inbox(1) and have to scan where in my inbox that one message is.
6. And who the heck determined that control-shift-D means “Send message” ? What, Control-Enter, a keystroke that is nigh on universal, wasn’t appropriate?
I haven’t come up with a good reason to stick with yet. One thing I do worry about is contact management. I’m not sure how to manage that path yet, or how Thunderbird contacts will interract (if at all) with the contact manager on the Mac. That being said, I don’t know if I’ve been using the contact manager at all, so it may be a moot point.
The UI issues in though are enough to have me close to jumping ship. Any reasons I shouldn’t?

OSX Snow Leopard MySQL startup problem – Fixed!

I do a lot of work on MySQL as part of the CONGO project (oh, and incidentally, as part of my full time job), so I was somewhat stymied when, after my upgrade to Snow Leopard (aka OSX 10.6.0), I was unable to start my local MySQL server – I’d get this:

yacht:~ dbs$ sudo /Library/StartupItems/MySQLCOM/MySQLCOM start
Could not find MySQL startup script!

It turns out that as part of the MySQL upgrade, the path to the MySQL installation changed (or a symlink was removed, or something to that effect) – at any rate, /usr/local/mysql no longer existed.
Easy enough to fix, just put a symlink in:

yacht:~ dbs$ cd /usr/local
yacht:local dbs$ ls -ldt mysql*
drwxr-xr-x  17 root  wheel  578 Sep  1 00:31 mysql-5.1.37-osx10.5-x86_64
yacht:local dbs$ sudo ln -s mysql-5.1.37-osx10.5-x86_64/ mysql
yacht:local dbs$ ls -ldt mysql*
lrwxr-xr-x   1 root  wheel   28 Sep  2 12:52 mysql -> mysql-5.1.37-osx10.5-x86_64/
drwxr-xr-x  17 root  wheel  578 Sep  1 00:31 mysql-5.1.37-osx10.5-x86_64

After making the symlink, the startup script ran just fine:

yacht:local dbs$ cd /Library/StartupItems/MySQLCOM/
yacht:MySQLCOM dbs$ sudo ./MySQLCOM start
Starting MySQL database server
yacht:MySQLCOM dbs$ _

I share this to ya’ll for the betterment of geek-kind. 🙂

TechCrunch’s response to The Apple/Google Voice Fiasco

There’s an amazingly good post over on Slashdot that points out this article on TechCrunch regarding Apple’s rejection continuing review of the Google Voice application. The TechCrunch article does a good job summing up my reaction to Apple’s response to the FCC.
I feel that Apple has stumbled badly here, and is facing a public relations nightmare. Google is widely… well, if not adored, certainly respected (perhaps not by Steve Ballmer of Microsoft) – and while there may be legitimate reasons to be concerned over Google’s continued growth in the industry, making flat out lies about Google Voice (a product that’s getting enormous amount of attention) isn’t going to win Apple any points.

I own a Mac. Hades Ice Skate Order placed.

I’ve blogged before about being tempted by Macs, and in some ways my iPhone could be considered something of a ‘first taste’ of Apple products. But until now I’ve fought hard against really going whole hog into the Mac world.
I has a MacBook
Until now.
I’m the proud owner of what can arguably be called Apple’s top of the line laptop – a Macbook Pro 13.
This is a huge step for me. I am not only investing a significant amount of money into a small device that could easily be considered a ‘toy’, but I’m changing over to an environment I only have a passing familiarity with – OSX.
I’ve owned it for about 24 hours, and I will say – I’ve never worked with a sexier implementation of high end computing in my life. This is by far the fastest computer I’ve ever owned, let alone as my personal workstation, but with all it’s screaming horsepower, it is beautifully designed, with an operating system and environment I find… different, but not irritating. There are things I don’t know how to do, but I’m figuring them out. I have not had a single “oh that’s just plain idiotic” moment. I’m sure they’ll come, but so far it’s just been a series of “Hmm, that’s interesting… what if I… ah, that did it. Cool.” moments.
I’m still installing things, and still setting up my tools. This machine will be my life and blood for the next 3 years, so there’s a lot of work to do to bring it into full functionality. So far I have mail and chat and web stuff working fine, next will be my development environment. After that, virtual machines for running some of the business apps I’ll be using.
A particular thanks to all the people I talked to while making this decision. There was a lot of fantastic feedback and good commentary. It helped me affirm that I’m making the right decision.
Now, off to download Eclipse and get things set up so I can work on CONGO !

Server Maintenance done – we have a new home

New server rack
This morning we moved Homeport’s 3 servers, plus the blog host, over to their new home in Mosaic’s Common House. This is something of an experiment, as we’ll be seeing how well the Charter business cable handles hosted servers. So far so good.
The move went mostly okay, with a time overrun of about an hour and a half due to a mysterious firewall problem that we finally got resolved. All services are up and running now.
It’s nice to have immediate physical access to the boxes. I know I can go into the server room and make configuration changes, add new machines, whatever. The only real problem that has cropped up so far is noise. The 5 existing servers + network hardware makes a heck of a racket (though I suspect the Rackable server is making the lions share). We may have to do some sound remediation – I mean more than the blanket I nailed up over the door.

Pidgin Tidbits : Trouble with Yahoo? Updates are in the pipeline.

A recent series of changes at Yahoo have made the Yahoo Messenger portion of Pidgin misbehave. There have been various workarounds (such as using some of Yahoo’s non-converted servers), but finally the ‘proper’ fix is in the pipeline.
I just did an Ubuntu update, and it included the patch that has been working through various versions. Thanks bigtime to the Pidgin team and the Ubuntu maintainers for backporting the fix into Ubuntu Jaunty.
For full details on the patch, see this page which discusses the issue and gives good suggestions.

Heavy Metal DVD – Awesome Documentary

One of the fun things about being settled into the new house is going through all my old movies and watching them again. I’d been putting off watching Heavy Metal for a while – through no other reason than “I want to wait until I’m in the right mood.” Last night was that Mood.
While exploring the DVD, I came across a sort of ‘making of’ documentary that I hadn’t seen before. It was Fantastic.
It was an ongoing interview with all the animators, as well as chats with Ivan Reitman and other folks involved in the film.
I found hearing the stories behind each segment, and the unabashed forwardness of everyone associated with the production (“It’s all about breasts!”) absolutely fascinating. One of the more intriguing bits was seeing the original model for Taarna going through the motions that were film-captured and animated over, including a sort of ‘half and half’ film clip – with Carol Desbiens acting out Taarna’s motions, and half of the animation filled in over her form. Absolutely riveting to watch.
It was intriguing to listen to the folks who worked on the film not making it as a ‘stoner’ film or anything of that ilk. It was science fiction fantasy material, very male oriented, targeted directly at the audience the Heavy Metal magazine was targeted at – adolescent and post-adolescent boys – particularly us sci fi geeks!
I highly recommend picking up the DVD release and watching the interviews. Really brings another level to the movie.

Tech Tip: Muting loud Hardware Beep under Ubuntu Linux

Posting this one for the masses of humanity out there that are just slobbering for a quick fix to this problem.
There’s a twitchy problem in GTK under Linux regarding sound that sometimes lets the ‘bell’ sound get handled by the motherboard beep – a sound that is INSANELY LOUD, and no amount of muting, volume adjustment, or sound board fiddling will silence it.
The beep can happen during ‘vi’ sessions, in Eclipse when ‘search’ fails to find something, in X-chat when backspacing to the beginning of the line, or in Pidgin during the same situation.
The fix is remarkably simple. Tell the X-server to mute the hardware beep:

xset -b b 0

To check to see if it’s set, use the ‘xset -q’ command:

dbs@clipper:~$ xset -q
Keyboard Control:
auto repeat:  on    key click percent:  0    LED mask:  00000000
auto repeat delay:  660    repeat rate:  25
auto repeating keys:  00ffffffdffffbbf
bell percent:  0    bell pitch:  400    bell duration:  100

That’s it! If you put this in your ~/.bashrc or whatever you use for a startup, this will mute the hardware beeping sound, but leave normal soundsystem stuff working.

“Free Memory” iPhone app Saves The Day

So I’m sure ya’ll are sitting on the edge of your seat wondering how my iPhone upgrade has gone after the the other day’s fun. Seems this wasn’t a problem limited to just me, which is cold comfort, but it is what it is.
In the end I did get the phone re-activated, and carried on with my day. After a bit I noticed that the phone was ‘hot’, and the battery was draining at an alarming rate (full to 1/4 in under a half hour). This is a sure sign of a stuck thread or process. A quick reboot is usually all that’s necessary to clear it.
Three reboots later, and a phone that wouldn’t stay charged overnight, the problem still persisted. There was obviously a problem – but I had no way of telling what was going on.
Enter “Free Memory” – an iPhone application available in the AppStore that lets you not only do a little ‘cleanup’ on cached data on the phone, it includes a process list, showing what processes are currently active. Apple is very stingy about releasing ‘utility’ type applications through the appstore, so this is a rare find.
After installing Free Memory, I watched the process list, and noticed two applications bouncing back and forth regularly in the top slot. One was ‘ReportCrash’, and the other was ‘Mail’. Things began to fall into place pretty quickly. I have a split mailbox setup, where the iPhone reads not only my IMAP folders on my personal mail server, but is also coupled to the Exchange server at work, which is set up to ‘push’ content into the phone (I get realtime meeting invites, etc directly on my phone – rather nice actually). It was obvious that there was something ‘out of sync’ here, and the push update was causing Mail to crash, which would try to update via push again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
So now I had something to focus on – Mail. Initial tests were showing that my IMAP connections were not completing successfully. I’d try to sync the 40-50 messages in my queue, Mail would crash, and it’d try again. I was having regular mail crashes under 2.2, but it was always a matter of just restarting Mail, and it would complete successfully. This time it wasn’t.
Some magic combination of changing back to my ‘view inboxes’ screen, going into Exchange, back out again, then back to IMAP seemed to clear whatever condition was causing this. My iPhone ceased eating it’s battery in half an hour, and is now nice and cool to the touch.
What do I think of the 3.0 release? It’s good. There’s nothing that completely rocks my socks off – I’ve used the cut and paste, which works fine (but as many others have said… a lot…. this is a feature that should have been in from day 0), and Spotlight is pretty nifty as well. I’ve noticed some other small things, like the SMS app no longer ‘wedges’ during a send – it backgrounds the sending so you can work on something else (like another text) while the first one is sending, etc.
My new Bluetooth headphones should be here in the next day or two, and that’s when I’ll explore the feature I most want – A2DP enabled playback. Booyah.

Apple iTunes Store failure during 3.0 update.

Well this isn’t going so well.
I’m all excited about the iPhone 3.0 update. I docked my iPhone, started iTunes and saw it download the update pretty quickly. This is good, I think – that means the servers are handing out the updates just fine.
Not so fast. The update appears to have gone just fine.
The problem is there’s another step that is apparently hammering the bejeezus out of the iTunes store, and is failing to allow the phone to be re-activated after the update. My phone currently has the USB->iTunes connection graphic on it (“Connect me with iTunes!”), with an emergency-use-only slider.
Until the iTunes store gets unpaniced, I have a useless phone.
Thanks Apple.
(**Update**: Apparently I’m hardly the only one seeing this.)
(**Update again**: It appears to be the activation server that is getting hammered. Not sure if this is an Apple problem or an AT&T problem)
(**Update the third**: I made it. You just have to keep trying on the activation screen. Eventually it’ll get through, and things look fine now.)