The Design of Car Audio Alerts

I am fortunate to own two very nice cars, a Porsche Cayenne and an Audi S6. They are both great pieces of engineering, they drive well, they are comfortable, I get a great amount of utility out of them. I have been just as happy with less expensive cars, but these are great cars.

The Audi has a beast of a powertrain, handles very well, and the interior controls and layout are very good. Out of the many OEM and aftermarket GPS systems I have used, it is in the top quartile of usability, tho a touch screen would be nice. The iPod integration is reasonably well done though could make better use of the screen in the dash. The seats are awesome. Overall a super nice car.

The Cayenne also drives well, the interior finish levels are very nice. The interior control layout is a bit of a disaster, clearly the A-Team engineers work on powertrain and suspension, and leave controls to summer interns or MBAs (I’ve been both so I’m allowed some latitude…). But still a very nice car.

Both the cars have interior audio alerts to make the driver aware of important conditions and faults. What would you imagine the shrillest, loudest alarm is for? I could imagine a lot of things that demand my immediate attention. An imminent collision. Backing into an object. Brake system failure. Maybe even the traction control system engaging, indicating unsafe driving surfaces or unsafe driving. Maybe even driving at night without headlights on. All these conditions are unsafe and could result in injury to myself or others. I could make a case for all of them to result in the loudest, shrillest interior alarm.

The Audi has excellent interior controls so of course the loudest, shrillest interior alarm is used to indicate that a rear light has failed. Not necessarily the rear brakelight, but any rear light — turn signal, operating light, brakelight. And the alarm sounds every time you start the car and cannot be silenced. And I am not sure exactly what the “shrill” scale is, but this sound is 3x shriller than any other alarm in the car.

The Cayenne is not to be outdone though! The shrillest alarm by far is used to let you know, after you turn off the car, that you have left your turn signal on. Not that the light is actually lit or visible, but the control arm on the steering wheel stalk is in the “on” position and damn it, that is just wrong. Of course, given the general goofiness of the Cayenne interior (the worst GPS ever, cup holders the size of thimbles, two control screens with functions randomly split between), this is to be expected.

OK, no one should feel sorry for me, these are two great cars, but Audi and Porsche — if you are going to spend this much care designing these cars, can’t you spend a few minutes getting this right?

My thoughts turned to the importance of design this morning on the news of Steve Jobs’ leave of absence, here is hoping he is well soon, the world needs more people who care obsessively about the details of design.

Year end link clean up

* “Poor Halo play prompts stabbing threat”: Doesn’t seem unreasonable. I’ve heard campers threatened with worse.
* “How Secure Is My Password”: No idea how accurate, but fun. 17 thousand years for my typical password.
* “Rich on photobooks”: I just always use the default in Aperture but perhaps I should branch out.
* “AR.Drone”: Why don’t I have one of these yet.
* “Declining energy quality as recession cause”: An interesting way to look at things. Not sure it actually makes sense tho.
* “Now you can swap useless Amex reward points for useless Zynga crap.”:
* “Snoopy themed Windows tablet”: Take that, Apple.
* “Spiders on Drugs”: We are asking for some serious payback from spider nation some day.
* “Umpteenth article on the death of cable TV”:, yawn. Until I can watch HD live sports without stuttering I am captive to cable/dish. Going to be a while.
* “Charles on breaking up MSFT”: Good as always.
* “Habitable planet found?”:
* “Languages you’ve never heard of”: In the future, we will all have our very own programming language.
* “Topologist suggests new form of matter”: For most of our history we’ve used the forms of matter that nature gave us. It is interesting to observe and think about what we can create as we gain mastery over atomic organization.
* “One man’s indictment of iTunes”: The thing is a giant hairball of software.
* “Exercise and aging”: Crap I need to get after it.
* “Show Me What’s Wrong”: Super useful.
* “User experience of F1 telemetry”: Always impressed with the amount of money spent on racing.
* “MacPaint and MacDraw source code”: Nostalgia.

iPad apps — first week likes, dislikes

So here is my first week of good and bad apps, I have spent way too much trying things out. My motto — “Buying iPad apps so you don’t have to!”

These look good and I actually use them:

* “iAnnotate”: As “previously discussed”:, the user interface is byzantine, but it works largely as promised — i’ve read and annotated close to 100 pdfs now. One commentor says it dies on large PDFs so not perfect yet.
* “WordPress”: Really a much better interface than the iPhone version. It is not bugfree, a lot of people including me are having problems with copy/paste. But nice.
* “Evernote”: Solid effort, works well.
* “Wolfram Alpha”: Now that the price is no longer insane, this is a great app to have. I wish it failed a little more noisily when the wifi connection was lost, but still good.
* “Pages”: Nice looking and adequately featured.
* “Kayak”: Nice extension of iPhone app.
* “Tweetdeck”: I find the portrait display to be a little odd but in landscape mode does a nice job of using screen space.
* “Weather HD”: Doesn’t display nearly enough forecast data, but it is beautiful. The night scenes make me feel like I am getting forecasts for a moon of Jupiter.
* “NPR”: I’m not a major NPR junkie but a lot of useful info in here.
* “Bloomberg”: Don’t know if this is the best stock app but it is free!
* “Soundhound”: Nice looking and faster than Shazam.
* “Minigore HD”: Beautiful, my timewaster of choice on the iPad.
* “Statsmate HD”: Might all be available in Wolfram Alpha but I find this useful as a way to quickly get stat table info.
* Apple’s calendar app. It looks beautiful.

Close but…

* “Papers”: I really really wanted this to work but I cannot get Web of Science access to work via UW proxy. Sigh.
* “Kindle”: and “iBooks”: Both look fine and I am glad I have them, but I will still do most of my reading on the Kindle, better battery life and easier on the eyes and lighter.
* Apple’s mail app. OK it works and in landscape mode has a nice message list, but not much else featurewise.
* “Marvel”: Beautiful and I could see using this, but difficult to figure out what to buy/try.
* “Crosswords”: Looks nice but fatally fatally fatally flawed. Won’t download the NYTimes daily puzzle here on the west coast at 7pm the previous evening when it is available. Pisses me off. I will stay with 2 Across even tho it is lo-res because it downloads at the right time.

Kind of a waste:

* Apple’s Contacts and Maps apps. All this new screen space and nothing notable feature wise. Yawn.
* The iPad store. I use this a lot but boy does it need work. With a kajillion apps, it is hard to find what you want, hard to remember what you’ve already mentally discarded, etc.
* Numbers. Does not have enough spreadsheet functionality to be useful.
* USA Today. No depth.
* Twitterific. All this screen space and I get one lame list.

Never used — what does that say?

* Apple’s iPod and iTunes apps. I just don’t use this as a music consumption device.
* Apple’s Notes app. This one is so lame compared to so many of the other billion alternatives.

No shows: Facebook, Byline, Tripit, RTM, Echofon

iPad file management blows

Hoisted from the “comments”:

For all the great things on the iPad, file management is currently a disaster. I’ve got two different apps that can connect to my ftp server and my iDisk, but neither one can get the downloaded documents to Pages or iAnnotate. I have to use to get files into Pages, and the desktop app for iAnnotate. If we can’t have a complete Finder on the iPad, we at least need a set of common folders that can be shared between applications.

Boy is this dead right. I can use Safari/Web Of Science or Papers on the iPad to find journal papers, but I can’t download them to the iPad and then use them with iAnnotate — I have to go to my desktop, download them, and sync them. I can comment on papers with iAnnotate, but I can’t important the comments into a Pages doc — I have to sync the annotated PDF back to the desktop, copy comments over to a doc, and then sync that back with iTunes to edit on the iPad with Pages. Geez even MS-DOS 1.0 had shared file storage.

This is way more important to me than multitasking. And in fact, I’m not even sure I care about multitasking without this.

The Nook dude at the Barnes&Nobles looked forlorn today

How bad would it be to be a Nook pusher right now? The Kindle has its adherents, the iPad is out there, why would anyone buy a Nook? I have to think that B&N is going to bail on this strategy at some point.

Amazon on the other hand I think is playing its hand well. At the end of the day, I doubt that Amazon cares that much about maintaining control over the Kindle hardware — it was just a vehicle for jumpstarting ebook sales. If people prefer to consume ebooks on phones or iPads or PCs or whatever, Amazon is there with the Kindle software and nice sync’ing of state across all your bookreading devices. I’d expect to see them continue to invest in the software and service asset, and it wouldn’t shock me if they sold the Kindle asset to some hardware company at some point.

Apple faces an interesting conundrum — why would you buy a book in the Apple store which can only be read on the iPad, when you could just as easily buy it in the Kindle store and read it in a dozen places?

Another thought — so many people look at the Kindle vs iPad battle as if it is some head-to-head winner-take-all cagematch. In fact tho, as the cost of electronics keeps driving down to zero, I’d suspect that rather than one unified device in my bag, I’ll have many smart devices all sync’ing to shared data in the cloud. Magazines, books, and newspapers all coexisted just fine in the old world, I carried them all in my bag. No reason why I won’t carry several different smart devices in my bag with different form factors and benefits. As long as they all sync data to the cloud, I’ll be happy (again, nice job Amazon).

Three failures — Kindle, MacBook, Google Docs

Yesterday was a brutal technology day. First, I wedged my Kindle between my rear and a chair and heard a nasty “crack”. My Kindle display has a nice shattery image on it permanently now. Sad. I had to open a paper book last night. New Kindle arrived today (thanks to Amazon Fresh trucks), and because the content is all stored at Amazon, I had my full library back working in less than a day. It sucks that e-readers are fragile (well I do weigh >200 lbs so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the Kindle’s failure, it is not sold as a stadium chair), but back and running fast.

Second, the battery failed on one of our Macbooks which is about 3 years old. But of course Apple replaced for free at the Genius bar. Because they replaced the motherboard a year ago under some dubious warranty claim after we dropped the machine, again for no charge. Really, why would a regular human buy a machine anywhere else?

Third — every week, I update a task list document on Google Docs for a mission-critical subcontractor we use, print/save as PDF, and email to the sub. It is not a complex doc but it does need to be right. Last night Google Docs kept failing during the PDF save process (which is also how to print from Google Docs, so this is a pretty important function). After many tries it worked and I forwarded the downloaded PDF to my sub without examining it. Disaster — the PDF was for the version of the task list from January 24! The sub got all the wrong materials and did the wrong things totally, I had to scramble today to patch things back up.

I use the intrinsic functions in google docs to datestamp my doc, and the delivered PDF had the january 24 datestamp in it, and the content in the pdf is completely different than what is in my current doc on google docs, and i assume is a faithful representation of the state of the doc on january 24. how did google deliver me this pdf? My best guess is that some part of the PDF rendering process failed badly in the Google server farm, and they restored from some earlier version, and the restore picked up old queued files. I really have no idea how they could have delivered a two month old PDF rendering of my doc.

Corruption of data and inability to faithfully print documents are pretty damning problems for an office suite. I really can’t imagine continue to using Google docs with this class of problem. I haven’t bothered to file a bug with google yet because, well, delivering a product with this level of data corruption for basic scenarios is pretty much a deal breaker for me.

Commendations to Apple and Amazon for creating systems and businesses that are incredibly customer-focused, even when products fail. The Google Docs failure may be an isolated incident, but I do wonder if Google has this same level of customer focus.

iPad preorder day arrives

Ok well the day arrived. I can’t quite figure out what the ipad is for. I still need to carry my iPhone for phone calls. I still need to carry my MacBook Pro for real software — Matlab, Mathematica, Aperture, LaTEX-heavy docs. I’ll still carry the Kindle for its awesome battery life. Would I carry the iPad as well??? Or are there occasional trips where I’d carry instead of the MacBook Pro?

Or maybe it is for the couch at home. But usually I again need to run real software. So what is this thing for?

So I only ordered one.

The iPad

Well of course I will buy one because I am a geek. That said I am unconvinced.

* I still have to carry my iPhone around because I need to make calls. Actually the iPad could free me to switch to a better phone/carrier without having to lose my apps…
* I still have to carry my MacBook around. I use real software, Aperture and MatLab and Mathematica and Photoshop and Word. With big datasets, complicated docs, etc. The limited iPad apps don’t cut it.
* So am I really going to carry around another largish device? Hmm.
* I do carry the Kindle2 around but it is a lot smaller and I get 2-3 weeks of battery life. That is the beauty of a point device.

So I am not really sure what the iPad does for me. But I am sure I will try.

All the “Amazon is dead” talk I find misguided. A, if you are a heavy book reader, the iPad is not superior — battery life, library size, readability are all Kindle advantages. B, Amazon is not stupid, you can read Kindle books on the iPad. C, the Amazon store may not be as cute as Apple’s book thing but it is way more functional. Amazon will be fine even if the Kindle hardware fades away.

Contrasting Quarters — Apple, MSFT

Apple’s quarter (NYTimes): “We’re making our most innovative products ever and our customers are responding”…”unexpectedly strong sales of Macintosh computers and a surge in iPhone purchases pushed Apple’s profit up 15 percent in the third quarter”…”PC shipments for the industry fell 3 to 5 percent over the last three months. But Apple said it sold 2.6 million Macs in the quarter, up about 18 percent from the 2.2 million it sold in the previous quarter”…”overall gross profit margin grew to 36.3 percent, from 34.8 percent in the year-ago quarter”…”Revenue rose to $8.34 billion, from $7.46 billion last year”.

MSFT’s quarter (NYTimes): “has been humbled, both by the recession and by problems of its own making”…”Year-over-year revenue and full-year sales of Microsoft’s flagship Windows software dropped for the first time”…”29 percent drop in net income”…”17 percent drop in quarterly revenue”…”warned that people should not expect a major bounce-back in technology spending when the economy recovers.”

Hmm. Apparently the economic downturn is worse among PC buyers than among non-PC buyers.

Apple to release networked HDTVs

Calacanis: Apple to release networked HDTVs – Nate Lanxon, MP3 & Digital Music Editor – Technology Blog at — this would be good. The current state of the world where you have to buy some separate box and whack it into your media center to get IP-delivered content is just not going to succeed, the mainstream isn’t going to go thru this brain damage. The IP receiver has to be built into the TV or the media receiver or some other piece that people understand and know they need.

First couple days with the iPhone2.0 software

After activation woes, the experience has been pretty good. The things I like:

* The Exchange support. Wasn’t completely obvious how to enable. You have to delete your old imap/webdav email account info, and create a new Exchange account type, and turn on the cal and contact synching. It will wipe all your on-device cal and contact info so sync up first! Getting the entourage/ical sync disaster out of my config is a very good thing.
* The App store. nice selection, a lot of good choices, and seems to work well. Apps I like so far:
** Urbanspoon. The interface is just cool
** GuitarToolkit. Chord reference and tuner, very nice
** Todo. Integrates nicely with RememberTheMilk for a complete app and website experience. Jott is great too with the nice voice interface but Todo wins for the rememberthemilk integration
** SmugShot. Replaces the iPhone camera and photo apps, and is integrated with SmugMug

Things that aren’t doing it for me:

* What is the new Contacts app for? Seems like a subset of the phone app
* The Google app. Not really clear what value this adds beyond the existing search in Safari
* Games. They look nice but the interface limitations of the device really hurt. I won’t get rid of my DS.
* Still no cut and paste?? Am I missing this somewhere?

iPhone servers crumble under activation strain

iPhone servers crumble under activation strain | Electricpig — exactly where I am at this morning. Has screwed up my entire day. Thanks much Apple. Who had the idea to disable every single freaking existing iPhone as part of this process?????

UPDATE: ok i am past that hurdle and my phone is doing a really slow re-sync. Progress.

MORE: what a freaking disaster. now itunes just crashed hard (on the mac). in the middle of a sync. not happy.