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April 27, 2005

Cell Phones Designed for Kids

The New York Times did a story on the Firefly, a cell phone designed just for kids roughly 8 to 12 years old. It's voice only and can only call numbers programmed into it by the parents. There are only five buttons on it, including hot keys for phoning mommy and daddy.

Skip over the disturbing, 1950's party dress picture on mommy's hot key. What I'm wondering is for how long will parents be able to get away with giving an 8-year-old a crippled cell phone? Can they get away with it even today?

April 25, 2005

Cat Tracking 101

When I came home from work on the first day after we deployed our new cat-tracking gear, Kathleen informed me that I could already start playing with the receiver for real: Enterprise hadn't come home yet, and Zap had come home without his fancy new collar!

Of course, these collars are made for finding, so discovering Zap's collar out in the dog run behind the house was a piece of cake. Tracking down Enterprise was more interesting.

We, like most outdoor pet owners, had essentially no idea where our cats went during the day. Part of the terror of Zap's long disappearance was the uncertainty about where he might have gone: was he prone to wandering down in the greenbelt among the coyotes? With the radio collars, we could now finally answer the question. To my relief, Enterprise's signal was clearly detectable over in the next cul-de-sac (very close by cat trails, a short drive by car).

I parked at the end of that street and quickly determined that Enterprise was apparently behind one particular house. (Some friends are particularly amused by the mental picture of me, standing in the street, holding a weird electronic box, and calling out "Enterprise! Enterprise!") I didn't want to just go barging into a stranger's back yard without permission, so I rang their doorbell and, unfortunately, interrupted their dinner. I sort of showed the receiver box and explained that I thought my cat was in their back yard and asked if it was OK for me to go looking for him there. They impatiently agreed and went back to their dinner.

Now, radio waves are curious things, and they tend to bounce off of large, dense objects like houses. By the time I reached the back of their house, the signal had reversed on me; Enterprise wasn't in the back of the house at all! With a little more care, I triangulated his position more precisely and determined that the signal was coming from inside their garage. Oh dear...

I couldn't see any way around it, so I went back to the door of the house and rang the bell to interrupt their dinner again. They were none too pleased to see me, especially when I apologetically explained where I now thought Enterprise was. "How could he be in there? We only open that door to come and go!" I shrugged, waved the geeky box around, and weakly explained that that's where the signal was. Now showing some serious annoyance, they agreed to open the doors. Enterprise did not instantly emerge, of course; if anything, he probably hid more deeply. By this time, I was so intimidated by the homeowner's displeasure that I didn't even crouch down to look under their cars. I just apologized again, wrote our phone number on a card and gave it to them, asking them to call us if they saw a black and white cat. Dejected, embarrassed, and defeated, I went back home, without my cat.

Kathleen suggested we eat our own dinner and then go back over together. She reasoned that the neighbor might be more likely to help us if they'd finished their dinner and if there were two of us; face it, she said, you look a bit like a kook with the long hair and strange electronics.

After dinner, we got ready to go out but were stopped by the sudden appearance of Enterprise at the back door! We welcomed him in and I started enumerating the possibilities: (1) The homeowners had found and released him, but hadn't bothered to call us, (2) Enterprise had his own way in and out of the garage, or (3) Enterprise had never been inside the garage in the first place.

The last possibility concerned me the most: what if I'd been chasing the wrong signal? That would jeopardize our entire tracking strategy. I jumped back in the car, rode over to the other cul-de-sac and checked for the signal again. Nothing. Just a faint signal in the direction of our own house.

It wasn't so easy at first to distinguish between possibilities (1) and (2), but we have since tracked Enterprise to that same garage several times. I remember noticing, during my first reconnoitering, that there was a big bag of dog food in that garage, and Enterprise is our most food-obsessed kitty, so...

We now refer to that garage as Enterprise's "club", in the old English sense. Somehow, we've never gotten around to letting those homeowners know that he has a secret entrance.

April 24, 2005

Bad November, Part 4: Epilog

The morning after Zap came back, Kathleen said that there just had to be some technology to help us keep track of our cats' locations. I said I was sure there was, but it was probably pretty pricey.

"Do you know how much I would pay not to go through that again?" She replied quickly and emphatically, so I went Googling. I found a number of interesting hits, including one from a company that mostly sells to hunters for tracking their dogs, another one that uses GPS but is mostly for dogs and wasn't yet available, and finally something that looked more promising for us.

The LoCATor Pet Tracking System is made by a company that has for years supplied wildlife telemetry equipment and more recently made a move into the consumer space. Their cat collars are very friendly looking, unlike some of the other, more dog-oriented ones, with a small radio transmitter firmly attached. The round transmitter is roughly the diameter of a quarter and about 1/2-inch thick. It has a friction-fit plastic cover closing over a small circuit board and a flat round battery. The collars come in several bright colors and cost $50 each.

As consumer-friendly as the collars are, the radio receiver makes up for it in all-out geekiness. It's a simple rectangular metal box of the sort commonly used in electronics prototyping, about 8" by 4" by 2", with a speaker, a couple of switches that look like they escaped from the front of an oscilloscope, a meter, a potentiometer, and a push-button channel selector. The really striking thing about the receiver, though, is the large directional antenna, which is a squared-off figure eight about the size of a legal pad. A 30-channel receiver costs $200.

The transmitters simply send out an audible ping once a second on one of 30 radio channels. By setting the receiver to the correct channel and slowly turning in a circle, it's relatively easy to figure out which direction the cat (or at least the collar) is in. The pinging gets dramatically louder (and the meter needle swings more strongly) the closer you are to the transmitter, and one of the switches lets you select between long-, medium-, and close-range signal attenuation. On the long-range setting, in open country, you can pick up the signal from as much as a mile away; in our more hilly suburban area, we can detect the cats a healthy block away. On the close-range setting, a detectable ping indicates the transmitter is within about 10-15 feet. This ranging feature makes it quite straightforward to narrow the search for an errant cat from a neighborhood down to a particular shrub or hedge.

We ordered a transmitter and two collars (one for each of Enterprise and Zap, our two cats most inclined to roam), asked for UPS Red shipping, and took delivery the next afternoon, in time to put the collars on before letting Zap back out again. (We kept him indoors for a day or two after his return, just to give him—and us—some stability.)

The collars have afforded us enormous peace of mind. We now know that the cats spend most of their outside time in the next cul-de-sac over, not down in the coyote-laden greenbelt. When Zap and/or Enterprise don't come home before dark (and it's always one of those two who's truant), we know we can track them down should we decide to, and we've done so on several occasions.

Modulo a few glitches and adventures, the money spent on the receiver and four collars has been a negligible cost for the huge benefits in anxiety relief. Where once the dark was a mysterious cover for whatever cat dangers our imaginations could conjure, now it's an easily lifted veil over simple, harmless, wild kitty oats.

What a win.