Monday, April 25, 2016

Suicide Prevention: The One Question to Ask

As a military officer, I received frequent training to make me a more effective leader. We started off as second lieutenants (or ensigns, in the Navy) and we were young and green. As twenty-something year-olds, we're assigned dozens of direct reports and we quickly learn how to motivate those in our charge. The training is important, but it's not until we face the actual experience that we learn how to deal with different situations.

I learned how to recognize the signs of problems outside of the workplace. How do you deal with domestic violence, depression, suicide, and death? Death was obviously the most serious, so we did everything possible to avoid it with safety briefs before long weekends and getting help to those who needed it.

One area that's always tricky is depression, which can lead to suicide. This has become more common over the last dozen years due to PTSD. Distinguishing between a suicidal gesture and a suicidal act is semantic hair splitting since both require immediate attention.

One Simple Question

But, when people are depressed, it's hard to know how bad they truly feel. How do you find out if someone's suicidal? Simple... ask them, "Are you thinking of hurting yourself?" Phrase your question exactly like this and then wait for their answer. Don't fill in the awkward silence with anything but quietness until they answer your question. You'll want the answer to be, "No," but don't lead them there if that's not where they're headed. They won't lie if they have suicidal thoughts – they want to feel better. If the answer is, "Yes," you'll need to consult with a mental health professional. Don't leave them alone, thinking that you somehow talked them out of it. Suicide watch is the immediate next step.

This is a simple, yet direct question, to ask if suicide or self-harm is suspected. In all the times I've asked it, I've never offended anyone. The Semicolon Project, which has been around since 2013, is a great resource to turn to if you, a coworker, or loved one needs help. Why a semicolon? Because a semicolon is used when an author could’ve ended a sentence but chose not to. You are the author and the sentence is your life.

Your story; it isn't over yet.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Celebrity Server Overload

On June 25, 2009, I listen to Guy Kawasaki speak in San Diego. About half way through his presentation of demos on social media he gave a shout out to the audience of 500, about me and my company, Adjix. Everyone seated at my table turned and looked at me, "Who's this guy?" I was feeling great after leaving that breakfast presentation until I got home and learned that Michael Jackson had died. I wasn't a big fan of MJ, but his music is... powerful art. What quickly got my attention was that a customer had used Adjix to link to the news of MJ's death creating a huge load on the Adjix app servers. The web and database servers were humming along, without a problem; but the apps were bottlenecked by REST calls across the Internet. With the CPU cores pegged at 100%, I began manually spinning up more app instances to balance the celebrity server overload – which lived up to my expectations.

This morning, Prince died. Prince and the Revolution were my first rock concert when I was a kid. Prince wasn't suppose to be my first... Styx was... but Tommy Shaw hurt his hand, as it was reported in the news, and the Styx concert was cancelled (not postponed).

To confirm the news of Prince's death, I went to but their servers were down, "503 Service Unavailable." That HTML error code simply means, "No more! Uncle! I'm temporarily overloaded."

After giving a little time, their servers were handling requests, again. "Damn it. Prince is dead. And he's young, too young to die this soon."

1984 and Purple Rain had a powerful impact on me. Prince was a key soundtrack to my youth. ❖

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life

Electric word life
It means forever and that's a mighty long time
But I'm here 2 tell u
There's something else
The afterworld

A world of never ending happiness
U can always see the sun, day or night

So when u call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
U know the one - Dr Everything'll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby

'Cuz in this life
Things are much harder than in the afterworld
In this life
You're on your own

And if de-elevator tries 2 bring u down
Go crazy - punch a higher floor

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Accepting the Challenge

"That's the challenge," said Sugar Jones as she raised her drink.
When I was in high school, I considered joining the Air Force. "Aim High." It seemed to be a natural fit for my high tech interests. At school, one of my classmates began sporting a military style crewcut – he'd signed up to join the Army after graduation. Shortly after that, I saw a Marine Corps recruiting ad in a magazine. The only thing I knew about the Marines was that they had, inarguably, the toughest and longest boot camp training in any of the Armed Forces. I asked my father, who had served in the Army, "Why would someone join the Marines?"

"Some men want a challenge," he said.

Some men want a challenge... that resonated with me, which I've written about in Six Four One. As a kid, it resonated like, "You did a good thing for a bad man," from a Bronx Tale. Since then, I've loved the challenge of boot camp, plebe year, OCS, jump school, and overseas deployments. Now, in my more seasoned years, I find myself seeking more conveniences and complaints than challenges and commendations. Every so often I need a refresher.

A couple weeks ago, Sugar Jones and I were discussing Instagram. Instagram has been around since 2010. In 2012, with only 13 employees, it was purchased by Facebook for about $1B. It's only grown in popularity since then. Instagram's key differentiator was two fold. It was simple to post and photographers could apply filters. Since cameras on smartphones, back then, weren't as good as today, applying a filter helped distract from the graininess by adding an artistic spin.

I told Sugar that I didn't like Instagram. Sugar responded with a small look of silent disbelief. "I prefer Flickr," I said, explaining that I was begrudgingly moving to Instagram.

"Why don't you like Instagram?" asked Sugar.

"Every photo has to be square," I said with disdain. I pompously believed that the artist should choose the aspect ratio.

"That's the challenge," said Sugar.

That's the challenge... Ah-ha! Those three words, which she so profoundly said, instantly sunk in.

One hundred and forty characters is the challenge of Twitter; that's what makes Twitter unique and the haiku of a new millennium. How could I have missed a similar challenge with Instagram?

To hijack and repurpose from Breaking Bad...
When I heard the learn'd Sugar.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Protecting Notes in iOS 9.3 with Touch ID

For years, I've been storing sensitive information in the Notes app on my iPhone. At today's Apple Keynote, it was announced that individual notes can now be protected (locked) with either a password or Touch ID. It's fairly simple to use, but not intuitively obvious to set up since it requires a few steps which I've outlined, below.

0. Update your iPhone to iOS 9.3.

1. Settings → Notes → Password → Enable Touch ID and enter a password to protect your notes.

2. To password (or Touch ID) protect a note, you'll need to click on the Share icon when the note is open 

You must manually lock or unlock a note. It seems, though, that unlocking a single note will unlock all of the notes (or at least it appears that unlocking a single note unlocks all the notes that were locked with the same password). I'll post updates, here, if I discover anything new.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

43 Years Ago, Today

On Saturday, March 17, 1973 my family moved from 179 8th Street, in Brooklyn, to Huntington, Long Island. My dad had friends from work help us load the moving truck. One of my dad's friends, who was on the street, loading the truck, was very special. He used to fly up to the North Pole, every December, to help Santa Claus make his toys. He told me I could go with him if my dad said it was OK.

I ran upstairs, to the fourth floor, where my dad was packing and asked, "Dad, can I go with him to the North Pole?"

"Joe, he's kidding. He doesn't really go to the North Pole," said my dad with a laugh.

I ran back downstairs to the moving truck. "My dad says you're joking."

"No, I really help Santa. Sometimes I help him feed his reindeer, too," said the guy.

This was too much. Help Santa make toys and feed the reindeer!?!

As I ran back and forth between the guy and my dad the story kept growing. Help Santa figure out who's naughty or nice. Review the "Dear Santa" letters, go for rides on Santa's sleigh, and so on. Eventually, I finally gave up. But I was so excited on that day, 43 years ago. I have yet to make the trip to the North Pole to help Santa. One day. In the mean time, I try to not take myself too seriously.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Kopi luwak: World's Most Exotic Coffee

The world's most exotic coffee, Kopi Luwak aka civet.
Two years ago, today, I took a trip to Jones Coffee Roasters in Pasadena to try the world's most exotic coffee, called kopi luwak, after seeing it on TV. It turned out that Jones' doesn't actually sell it. Since then, I've been keeping my eye out for an opportunity to try it. A few days ago, I bought some kopi luwak coffee beans, also known as civet coffee. I called on a friend, Isaac, who is a coffee aficionado, to prepare it for me. He had never tried it and he didn't have high expectations for it; he felt is was overpriced, much like Kona coffee. Kona coffee is expensive because it's the only coffee grown in the US. Kona workers are paid much higher wages than workers in developing countries, where most coffee comes from. Civet coffee isn't expensive because it's so tastily, rather it's expensive because of the bean preparation process.

I brought the beans over to Isaac's home. He was pleasantly surprised when he opened the bag and saw that the beans were a slightly roasted to a light brown color instead of black. A lighter roasted coffee bean tends to retain more flavor and more caffeine (by volume). Isaac weighed out 35 grams of beans, ground them up, placed them in a paper filter in a ceramic V60 coffee dripper, and poured hot water through the ground beans, while agitating them, as the coffee drained into his Chemex coffee maker.

Tools of the trade, including a "Breaking Bad" vacuum siphon.
We sampled the civet coffee without adding any cream or sweater. The only thing we did, to enhance the flavor, was lick a little butter before sipping the coffee. Isaac said that the fat in butter helps brings out a coffee's flavor in the same way that strawberries bring out the flavor in champagne. That's the reason why coffee goes so well with donuts.

I thought the coffee was tasty. Isaac's final verdict was, "The quality of coffee we tasted is good, professional grade. But you can get the same quality for 1/10th of the price."

If you've reached this point without understanding what makes kopi luwak so exotic, then you probably shouldn't ask. But, if you really must know.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ingenious Money Laundering

      Skyler: Are you telling me you make $7,125,000 a year?
      Walter: Seven and a half even, before expenses.
Last night, I rewatched the Problem Dog episode of Breaking Bad where Skyler and Walter White discover the challenges of laundering $274,000, every two weeks, through their newly purchased carwash.

About ten years ago, I put together an anti-money laundering (AML) compliance guide for a text message payments startup that I was raising funding for. As I read through AML case studies, published by the Treasury Department's Office of Comptroller of the Currency, one stuck out in my mind. A cartel would smuggle cocaine from Columbia into the United States. The trick was getting the money back to Columbia. The cartel's solution was brilliant. They bought gold, with the proceeds from the cocaine, and cast the gold into simple hardware tools like hammers and wrenches. Then, the money launderers finished the gold with silver colored paint to look like normal tools and shipped the wares back to Columbia. After all, who's going to question the export of everyday hardware tools?

Update: After reviewing my previous blog post, from earlier today, it dawned on me that Amazon Fulfillment Services might be a great way to launder money. Seriously... who's paying almost $20,000 for bar soap?

Amazon Prime Lessons

$20K for soap?
Last month, I signed up for Amazon Prime. Yes, I am very late to the show. I had the expectation that I could order most anything and it should ship, for free, and I'd receive it within two days. It turns out it's not that simple.

For starters, I did a quick search for Dial soap and added it to my cart. That's when I discovered, if I'm not careful, that I could end up paying almost $20,000 for simple bar soap. I also had to look, carefully, to distinguish between Amazon Prime, Amazon Prime Pantry, and Add-on Items.

Fulfillment by Amazon

Two weeks ago, a friend attended a seminar explaining how savvy entrepreneurs buy close out deals from places other than Amazon and then have their items shipped to Amazon for storage and fulfillment. At a glance, these items may look like they're being sold by Amazon, but they're actually only stored and shipped by Amazon. A third party is the actual seller. This can be a great service for an entrepreneur who has products manufactured in China and shipped to the US. Rather than the entrepreneur storing their inventory in their own garage, or leasing a warehouse, they can have the products shipped from China to Amazon for storage and fulfillment. The gotcha, for the customer, is when an entrepreneur sells an item on Amazon that Amazon already sells at a cheaper price. As the Syms Corporation used to advertise, which applies doubly so to Amazon, "An educated consumer is our best customer."

Prime Pantry and Add-on

Add-on items are another customer gotcha. Today, I placed an order for a few staple items that will be fulfilled tomorrow. A couple hours later I remembered that I needed to order one more thing (paper towels). I found some paper towels to order, but it was an Amazon Prime Pantry item which required an additional $5.99 in shipping, even if it's an Amazon Prime exclusive. So I passed on that. Next, I found some more paper towels, that were part of Amazon Prime, and not Prime Pantry. But, when I went to order it, I discovered it was an Add-on item meaning that it couldn't be shipped as a single item. I was hoping to find a way to add it to my pending order that was shipping tomorrow. But alas, I didn't find a way. In the past, I've cancelled a pending order, re-added the items I had just ordered and then included the Add-on item. Today, I decided to pass. Perhaps I'll remember to order it next time. I love that Amazon has enlisted the USPS to make delivers on Sundays but I wish there was a simpler way to modify my orders. Perhaps there is, but I don't know about it, yet???

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Nascent World of 3D Printing

San Diego Central Library Maker Space
Over the past few months I have spent a fair amount of time prototyping with a 3D printers. At the consumer level, this is still an emerging technology. One maker I consulted with aptly described it as nascent.

One of my earliest maker memories is working with clay, in elementary school, to make an ashtray. No one in my house smoked, but it was a simple enough project with utility. Fittingly, my first 3D print was related to smoking in the 21st century: vaping (think: e-cigarette vaporizer pens). These pens hold a liquid or oil which works best when stored upright, otherwise the liquid moves away from wick at the bottom of the cartridge.

Using Tinkercad, I designed a simple stand to store a vaporizer pen upright. I brought my design to the newly expanded maker space at the San Diego Central Library for printing, for free. I had no idea how lucky I got when my project successfully printed on the second attempt. Since then, I've tried about ten times to reprint it, without any luck. I then tried Fablab who referred me 3D Hubs which allows makers to upload projects to be locally printed, for a fee. The maker who printed my project said it failed and told me that I'd need a more advanced printer, so he refunded my money. I then met a guy at a Kickstarter Meetup who owned several 3D printers who offered to print my projects. His attempt to print my project also failed.

So, what does it mean when one print works, out of more than a dozen attempts? Simply that this is new technology and we're pushing its limits.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Apple's Stance on Privacy

Three days ago, Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, sent an open letter to customers stating the company's opposition to the Department of Justice's request that Apple develop software to implement a backdoor in the iPhone. The next day, The Daily Beast published an article, Apple Unlocked iPhones for the Feds 70 Times Before, which, on the surface, would lead the reader to believe this predicament is no different from the scores of previous situations when Apple unlocked iPhones for the authorities. But there's a key difference between then and now in that iOS security was weaker, in the past. Currently, Apple has not developed the technology to circumvent their own security in order to extract the encrypted data. The Department of Justice claims their request falls under the All Writs Act and the has government ordered that Apple Inc. create a special version of its iOS operating system, with certain security features removed.

Keep in mind that strong security is similar to a wall safe. The only two ways to penetrate strong security is either with the key (combination) or through brute force. Even if the hacker has the blueprints to the safe or the software source code for the encryption it doesn't help with the attack.

Hard Come, Easy Go

Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. Apple's stance against the federal government stems from the NSA's PRISM program. The Daily Beast article points out, "It wasn’t until after the revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that Apple began to position itself so forcefully as a guardian of privacy protection in the face of a vast government surveillance apparatus."

While federal officials speculate that access to the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone data might be a national security issue, that's not enough to warrant the creation of a backdoor. Keeping America safe is not the oath that elected officials or military officers take. Rather, their oath is to support and defend the Constitution. It is not a stretch to see how America could be much safer by curtailing our Bill of Rights. Saudi Arabia is a safe country to live in, with low crime.

Update 21 Feb 2016: Another point to consider is that Apple Inc. is a multi-national corporation located in different countries and jurisdictions. If one argues that Apple has to develop a special iOS version for the US government, in this single case, in the name of terrorism, then should Apple also develop special iOS versions for, say, France or China if requested? As the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson writes, “If it [the government] can tell Apple, which has been accused of no wrongdoing, to sit down and write a custom operating system for it, what else could it do?”