Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog


Car Audio/Automation

I've been sort of disappointed. We don't have our promised flying cars yet. But in addition, some of the existing tech that we do have seems sadly lacking. In an era of iPhones, video chat,  Internet video streaming, integrated digital sound systems, etc. it's quite frustrating to observe the current market for car audio devices.

My commute just recently went from a 44-miles-per-day to 130-miles-per-day and obviously, it's nice to have something going in the background be that music, lectures, sermons, podcasts, or NPR (yes, I listen to NPR!). So I've been looking at upgrading from my stock 1998 Toyota Corolla radio with tape deck to something better.

I'm struggling.

This reminds me a lot of how I viewed the pre-Treo 600 cell phone market (although to me, even phones like the Treo were disappointing). You could pick from several hundred choices all of which appeared to be designed without any standardization, attention to detail, solid feel (that horrible crunchy plastic feel that was finally cured with the iPhone), etc. As I survey the current landscape for car audio systems, I'm sort of seeing the same thing.

What I'm frustrated with:

  1. HD Radio support -- this is easy, but I hate being nickel-and-dime'd for an extra $80 to take the spiffy "HD Ready" unit to be an ACTUAL HD Radio. Let's just make this standard.
  2. Auxiliary input -- this is almost standard across the board but seems to have so many problems on many units. In many cases, it's either a very difficult interface to navigate or really bad noise on the line. With my 12 year old stock unit, I can use a cassette adapter and get sounding audio in less than 5 seconds. Why are modern units worse?
  3. Overall interface bizarreness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and user interfaces are hard to objectively rate, but very few "best practices" are ever followed in interface design for these units. Often there are confusing knobs, multiple buttons that appear to do conflicting things, and odd resets and menu navigation which means you have to press 14 buttons to switch to your iPod input.
  4. "Flavor of the week" interfaces. Come on people. iPods are neat, iPhones are neat, but don't sell me a unit because it now supports Pandora ON the iPhone itself. The one advantage is that instead of punching input to the iPhone, you punch on the car audio unit. I'm not seeing justification to drop an extra $50+ on this.

What I'd really like to see is:

  1. Let's be honest, I'd like to see Apple design an interface. They do this amazingly well. Some people may not love it (hey, everyone's different) but it would reset the industry as the development and release of the iPod and iPhone did. The combination of simple interfaces, never being "far" from common tasks, and reasonably strong and durable hardware design would be simply amazing.
  2. Upgradable firmware. Everyone has wireless these days. Many if not most people could receive wireless in their garage. Even better, why not integrate 3G/4G into these units directly? If you have connectivity, it seems quite reasonable to allow new software interfaces, new protocols, new "apps" of some sort to be used. For that matter, why reinvent the wheel -- let's use iOS or Android as the OS for these devices. If an iPad can sell for $600 with free WiFi or a $30/month 3G subscription, surely a head unit could be at the same price point. Currently, many of these units are $1,000+ and from what I've seen, offer few if any of these benefits.
  3. Get standard -- allow USB Bluetooth dongles to be used, allow WiFi USB dongles to expand simple systems, provide a web interface so you can use your laptop or home computer to configure settings and features.
  4. Related to the above, a true separation between hardware and software. I should be able to buy a unit and then buy 8 different navigation systems or audio players that all run on the same hardware. I don't want to be stuck with some name-brand piece of junk "solution" that I can never upgrade or change.

It's much easier to complain than to actually do research. I may have completely missed some models out there or companies who are actually moving in this direction. If so, please leave a comment with any details.

I know very little about Microsoft's foray into this sort of thing. Mainly because from what I understand, their Sync technology is exclusive for Ford vehicles. It sounds cool, but it's only a first step in my opinion. Voice control is great, but they seem to just be replaying the same paradigm of older systems with a few Microsoft-ish bells and whistles.

As a final note, I'll just say that I like the stock units the most -- high-end cars come with some pretty amazing units that are hard to beat so far as making the interface blend perfectly with the car itself. In addition, integrated Bluetooth that's tidily hidden away, steering wheel volume control, etc. are all great features. And maybe it's the presence of reasonable built-in units that's hurting the development of this market. Unless a big name company cuts a deal with a major car maker, it seems unlikely that after-market sales would drive enough sales to warrant some serious investment in this technology.

Any thoughts?



Looks like life is changing again... A day before my birthday, I got a 4-week layoff notice. My last day at SAIC in Kent, WA would be February 23. Thankfully, I've just got word this week that I should be transitioning to up to Poulsbo, WA to support my old division on a pretty exciting project. It's nice to stay in the company (certainly makes life a lot easier) and the new project sounds like a lot of fun -- good career experience, work that's satisfying and interesting, and working mostly with a group that I'm already pretty familiar with.

I'm excited about the future. I'm not sure where this road leads in terms of deep technical expertise vs. getting back into academics possibly with a Master's degree vs. moving towards management, but there are many opportunities and options that will be fun to explore.

God is good. Not just because things worked out in this initially stressful situation, but because he has promised to be faithful to his people and he always is. It was wonderful to experience the care and support of a number of friends, family members, and co-workers who all rallied behind me in my efforts to move forward, and provided comfort and support. My thanks to all of you. 🙂

Although I'm not sure of the details, I'm hoping that I will have some energy to move forward with a number of projects over the next year. There are some software projects that I wanted to kickoff, some more opportunities I wanted to chase down for the new business, and some fun projects around the house that I wanted to work on with Sarah.

Picture from National Geographic (

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So I'm listening to a new Pandora station this morning (Thanks Robert for the suggestion -- good stuff). The music of the particular track that I'm listening to at the moment reminds me so much of an old MS-DOS game called Privateer by Origin Systems. I remember distinctly getting the game from my Dad in 1993 and loading all 7 or so diskettes into our ancient beast of a computer. After some tweaking to fix some memory issues, we finally got it up and running. The basic gameplay is as a pilot of [initially] a small ship, flying between planets, space stations, asteroids, and other bases while choosing to play as a trader, a mercenary, or whatever you chose.

This game was amazing. The graphics of course look awful now as I review the site. But the game play was incredible. The joystick took some skill to use effectively whether you chose life as a merchant or a gun for hire. Interaction and AI wasn't great, but for the time, it was pretty good. I spent many hours playing the game and really enjoyed it. The music was "futuristic" synthesized music, probably not the best quality, but it always felt so fitting for the game. The game created an incredibly immersive world that sucked you in despite the relative simplicity compared to modern games like EVE Online. It was a good balance. I was inspired, intrigued, and entertained but not to the point that I forgot about reality altogether. Newer games definitely provide more depth than this old-time game, but I can't afford to spend an average of 2.5 hours per day (which apparently is average for EVE Online players).

I did also play Freelancer (made by the same designer after Origin was acquired by Electronic Arts) but it just didn't feel the same.

Anyone out there know or or can recommend any games like this that can balance a high level of fascination with a certain restraint that still encourages reality?

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Kill Kill Bill Bill

I'm here to say that Quentin Tarantino stole my idea.

Also you'll notice that I still have some outstanding homework to complete. My Mom returned this to me, and let me know that she's still waiting on this (notice I have one more "fig" left). I intend to fax and return ASAP -- I was home schooled -- she's not just Mom, she's the principal and apparently I shouldn't have graduated.


Twitter: A great way to complain

I was pleasantly surprised recently to find a practical use for Twitter. I'm no Luddite, but I rarely find a lot of value in Twitter that I don't find elsewhere. I'm following a lot of tech writers/bloggers/developers and that can be good for keeping up with developing trends, but I digress.

The practical feature: Complaining.

We had a miserable experience at the local Red Robin recently (South Hill/Puyallup, WA). Dirty, long wait, poor waiter service, etc. I posted this on Twitter:

Just got back from #RedRobin -- disgusting.... that place has really gone downhill. Too bad.

Notice the tag on RedRobin. I was surprised when I fairly promptly got a reply on Twitter:

@andrewflanagan Yikes! Can you please send us the details/location at [email protected]? Thanks for your help.

The beauty of this is that anyone searching on Twitter for RedRobin will find my tag and see my post and my rotten rating. I sent an email, they replied (CC'ing a huge number of Red Robin staff) and I was asked if I wanted to talk to the manager.

This is pretty good service. My blog (yes, this one) is not exactly all that busy and I could have posted here for weeks without anyone at Red Robin being aware of it (or even if they were aware, they wouldn't care since it's not exactly all that visible).

So Twitter gives you visibility. Not just to a company, but to that company's customers. I suppose it's a little bit more like picketing a store instead of sending a letter to the management (which is more like a blog entry).

I also recently had an issue getting approved for our Bizspark account with Microsoft (you get free software -- essentially an MSDN subscription -- as well as help with your start up). Again I complained, and again I got a quick response (which was very civil). Interestingly, when I followed up via email, I was asked (somewhat rudely I would say) to remove my complaining post from Twitter. I complied, since they did fix the problem, but I'm somewhat surprised by just how much visibility I got.

What are your thoughts? Will the visibility last? Any similar experiences using Twitter or other social networks?


Death of a Monitor

I have two of these at my desk:

I had for a while (since 2006 or so) and was really pleased with it. Good contrast and color, HDMI interface, very snappy. The controls are very awkward, but after initially configuring it, it was good to go. I purchased a second monitor intending to have a perfect matching set. The second monitor turned out to be a slight hardware revision that include a curved bottom bezel and a number of.... features that were quite annoying. First of all, unlike the first monitor of the same model number, it will not display it's "native" format of 1920x1200 so I'm stuck with it in 1920x1080. Not terrible, but awfully weird.

About a month ago, it suddenly started acting up. It would randomly just lose the signal and then a little later snap back on (almost like it had a loose connection). This condition went from slightly annoying to unusable within a week and then it stopped displaying at all at 1920x1080. I was able to get an image by reducing the resolution to 1280x768 but it had weird red overlays. My assumption was that it was failing and I bitterly unplugged it and went back to using one monitor. There went my productivity.

But thankfully, although I'm still mystified, the story has a good ending. I plugged my monitor back in a week ago and low and behold, the news of its death was greatly exagerated! It's been working flawlessly ever since. I think it may have been driver related but I'm just thankful it's back.

At my full-time gig, I also have dual monitors, although the overall resolution is a lot lower. I've found that it's a huge time saver... One side is my code, and the other is the dev web site. The problem is that now I'm spoiled; I tried to work recently on my 1360x768 laptop and felt like I couldn't see anything.

How about your setup? Do you use two monitors? If so, can you live without your second monitor once you've used it for a while?

Lifehacker has some great tips and links to tools for dual monitor setups.


Where Did Summer Go?

Ahh... My last post was ages ago. Lots has happened. Most of the family events have been duly recorded on our Family Blog.

I've been doing more biking, more work for the new business (especially system administration type stuff), lots of new exploration in C#, particularly in the ASP.NET MVC world, lots of time with boys who are growing up at an alarming rate, some time away with family in Iowa, as well as just the Wife and I in Victoria, B.C. for our anniversary.

I've been thinking about:

  • Writing a time tracking system for use internally with the new business. Some of the initial code is written in Ruby on Rails as well as some design docs -- oh, and a name: "Tempus Fugit".
  • Getting an irrigation system in place for the yard (plus some of those automatic hanging basket watering tubes if I can figure it out)
  • Updating my favorite online bookmark system (Scuttle) with some more modern features. Development seems dead on it and I'm thinking of forking it and moving in a slightly different direction.
  • Learning more about taxes, finances, and Quickbooks in order to do a better job with the company accounting.
  • Starting in on a new programming language -- I still haven't decided which but I feel like I'm getting complacent with C# (and some C/C++). Your ideas/recommendations are welcome!
  • Catching up on some cleanup projects around the yard (landscaping lighting needs some help in the back, Windsor block border around a bit more of the backyard, possible door in the back of the garage to the backyard, more top soil and reseeding of back yard)
  • Posting more to my blog. Fat chance.

To Christ on Golgotha

We're singing this piece for the Good Friday service tonight and I couldn't find the music online for it. It's a nice piece -- I hope it gets more attention. This is from the Zions Harfe (Zion's Harp) hymnal used by the Apostolic Christian Church.

An MP3 version of the MIDI file:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Update: Our actual performance (just verse 3):

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To Christ on Golgotha (MIDI file -- please redistribute this!)

To Christ on Golgotha,
My spirit fain would go
To Ponder on His words
and His exceeding woe.

What pain unspeakable,
in this great cry we see
"My God, My God, oh why
hast thou forsaken me?"

No Vengeance in His heart,
I hear Him plead, anew,
"Dear Father, pray forgive;
they know not what they do."

His mother weepeth sore,
He comforteth her now;
"Behold in John thy son",
"O John, thy mother know."

"I thirst," He crieth then;
There's no affliction thus,
Which He, the friend of man,
Has not endured for us.

He, "It is finished," cries.
And bows His head, The End,
"Oh Father, to thy hands,
My Spirit I commend."

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Versioning for S3

I just got this notice in my email:

We are pleased to announce the availability of the Versioning feature for beta use across all of our Amazon S3 Regions. Versioning allows you to preserve, retrieve, and restore every version of every object in an Amazon S3 bucket. Once you enable Versioning for a bucket, Amazon S3 preserves existing objects any time you perform a PUT, POST, COPY, or DELETE operation on them. By default, GET requests will retrieve the most recently written version. Older versions of an overwritten or deleted object can be retrieved by specifying a version in the request.

Amazon S3 provides customers with a highly durable storage infrastructure. Versioning offers an additional level of protection by providing a means of recovery when customers accidentally overwrite or delete objects. This allows you to easily recover from unintended user actions and application failures. You can also use Versioning for data retention and archiving.

This is some slick stuff. I'm amazed... I just wish I had more time to play with it. For now, Amazon continues to impress.

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Price Tracking

Price tracking can be confusing online. Retailers  like Amazon and Newegg (two that I buy from frequently) seem to sometimes change their prices daily. One expects prices to drop over time but this doesn't always happen. I was surprised to find that prices for Solid-State Hard Drives have actually been rising recently (although the real deals appear to have been back in October/November). Thankfully there are some tools that can help. One of them is the Camelizer -- a Firefox plugin. Alternatively, you can access the same data at the website (for Amazon) and camelegg (for Newegg). The same group also tracks prices at BackCountry, Best Buy,, and Zzounds,

Here's an example of one of the SSD's that I'm interested in:

In this digital age it's nice to have something that keeps some history around. It's easy to get information these days but it's always easy to change information (which is why I'm also a big fan of the WayBackMachine -- check out the original Google page!) We don't keep coupons, flyers, or catalogs anymore, we just remember the website.

Anyone experience this sort of problem?