Saturday, December 24, 2011

Two Ships Crashing in the Night

Video chat is the future of social media.

Social media allows companionship without being present. Generally, media is fixed, meaning that it's recorded on paper, hard disks, etc. But, if we focus more on the social aspect, and less on the media part, then it can also be a live stream without necessarily being recorded such as a telephone call. While there are many aspects of social media that are entirely new, one, in particular, is very interesting to me: random video chat.

I've had several technological epiphanies in my life as I suddenly recognized that a new technology was going to be transformational and innovative.

My earliest technological epiphany was when I got my first computer - it was a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, first introduced in 1977, and I loved it. I was amazed by it's processing capability. Today, we take for granted the power of the personal computer. But, back then, we marveled at what it could do. I used to use my Model I to help my father bubble sort product serial numbers for his job when I was in junior high school.

My second epiphany was in the early 1980s when I hooked up my TRS-80 Model I to a modem for the first time. I spent the entire night logging onto bulletin board system (BBS) after BBS and I ended up pulling my first all-nighter well before high school.

My third technological epiphany was the first time that I logged on to the World Wide Web. I had been using Internet e-mail since the late 1980s, but I was late to the WWW, in the mid 1990s, since I was on active duty in the Marines and deployed to the Middle East. However, I still remember the first website that visited - it was a triathlon news site.
All of the world's information was instantaneously at my finger tips.

Random Video Chat
This leads to my latest innovative epiphany: Random video chat.

While video chat sites, such as Chatroulette, Stickam, and Tinychat, that first gained attention a couple years ago, have a bad rap on the surface, there's something about them that's amazing on a deeper level.

To paraphrase the French poet Jean Cocteau, fashion produces beautiful things that become ugly over time, whereas art produces ugly things that become more beautiful with time.

Sites like ChatRoulette truly fall into the art category.

On video chat websites, there is no shortage of men exposing themselves. I'm guessing that 90% of the visitors to these types of sites are male and it seems like a big chunk of them broadcast their crotch, as if there's much of a chance of any woman stopping to watch and partake in the show.

While these sites do have an ugly side, there's an interesting, hidden, aspect that can be very engaging and entertaining.

If you give it a try, you can make a connection with someone – a connection that's on par with a chat at the bar or cafe. The fascinating part is that the conversation can take place with people from all over the world in virtually any setting such as the living room, bedroom, classroom, or car to name a few that I've participated in.

In literally less than a second, someone has popped up on your computer screen as the both of you make a decision to stay or "next" each other. No account needs to be created, it's anonymous, and instantaneous – no need to follow, friend, or subscribe - it's just you and a random partner, mano a mano.

Most connections last less than a second, but it's not unheard of for a conversation to last many, many hours.

I'm guessing that the average age on these sites is late teens to early twenties. From time to time, I've received some unpleasant reactions when these young adults see me: the old man.

Virgin Experiences
After nexting dozens and dozens of men's crotches and being nexted, myself, I discovered that I could do better if I didn't have my camera on, after all, I'm no spring chicken. At this point, I could engage people in a conversation before turing on my camera.

One of my first chat experiences was explicitly shocking with a college senior at large midwestern university. I could see her, but she couldn't see me, so it was a one way video chat without voice as I told her about my former girlfriend who attended the same university. After I figured out how to turn on my microphone, I could talk to her and she'd type back, but she couldn't speak since her roommate was sleeping.

She was a very conservative and bright religious Muslim who grew up in the U.S. and never drank alcohol. But, she suffered from a pseudo preacher's kid syndrome due to her ultraconservative lifestyle. I was shocked when she asked me, a faceless stranger, to tell her what to do. She was, by no means, teasing me, with - she was 100% serious, trust me on that. (Suffice to say that we didn't go there and nothing happen.)

I was thinking that her story wasn't real - this was all too fast and easy - but her info all checked out via Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. Where were websites like this when I was a young, single guy???

Social video chat is the very definition of innovation, which is anything that reduces the cost of a transaction in terms of time or money – live and in person. No longer is it necessary to visit single's bars or dating sites that lead to so many dead end first dates. Now, you can experience personal connections in any safe and personal environment of your choosing.

The one night stand, perfected in the 20th Century, has now evolved into the one hour stand with video chat, "Don't worry, Baby, I'll still respect you in 60 minutes."

Memorable Experiences
Without a doubt, my first experience was unique, but I couldn't help but be intrigued.

My next stop was a classroom in Scotland as several students were huddled around a laptop during a class. We chatted for about 30 minutes until class ended.

I chatted with a high school student who was poolee in the Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program. We spent some time talking about the Marines as I related my experiences to him.

I briefly talked to a student in Singapore who had his name, Darren, tattooed on his wrist. He complained to me that, after "nexting" hundreds of people, he'd only seen two women, but I don't think he was giving up.

I actually found some people my own age who were sitting in their kitchen in Iowa drinking beer… rather, they had already drunk a lot of beer.

Watching my wife and her former college roommate try it out for the first time was priceless as guys would shower them with complements so they could talk to two women. For some reason, the guys from Turkey were the most polite.

Random Tech Support
By far, my most rewarding experience was with a 32 year old women in the Netherlands who was a school teacher. She was a little unhappy since she had recently switched from her Windows PC to an iMac and, when she synced up her iPod to the new iMac, it had erased her iPod music library.

We chatted for a bit as she imported her CDs into iTunes. She was a little frustrated poking around her new computer since she couldn't find the backspace key. When I told her that the trick to backspace on the Mac was to hold down the FN key when pressing the delete key, she promised to name her first kid after me, Joe "Backspace."

So, is it cheating if you're in a relationship and seeking social interaction in a video chat? That all depends on the rules with your significant other. Is it cheating to go to a bar and talk to another patron? Probably not, as long as it's platonic. As a matter of fact, video chat is definitely safer, cheaper, and faster than physically visiting a bar or cafe. The only downside (or maybe it's an upside) is that it's random and anonymous. But, things probably won't work out if you live in China and find your soulmate in Timbuktu.

Video Chat's Dark Side
Random video chat doesn't come without a chilling dark side that goes far beyond the plethora of penises. While consenting adults are free to do as they please, it seems that people, especially the ladies, either forget or don't care that their video chat partner can easily record their interaction for nefarious purposes.

Even more chilling is that any child can log on to these video chat websites simply by attesting that they are over 18 with a simple check of a box. While the interaction is random and probably too distant for the possibility of a physical interaction, it's still frightening to think about how impressionable children can be.

The Future
Video chat offers a lot of possibilities. I've met many foreigners who were simply interested in practicing their English. It's also a great way for socially awkward people to learn how to speak to others. But, here's a newsflash for the guys: You'll increase your chances by being respectful, rather than rude, to to the ladies. Instead of clicking next a couple thousand times and greeting women with, "Show me your boobs!", try treating them with dignity and you'll be surprised at the results.

I think Patti Stanger should use these random video chat sites to screen her guys before appearing on Millionaire Matchmaker. She'd get a quick indication of how her client candidates treat the ladies.

Why do they come? What do they want? Well… why do we sit at the hotel bar, when on a business trip, instead of taking our drink back up to the room? We want to be social... we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

It's rather amazing to drop right into someone's personal life for a private conversation only to never hear from them again. But, if you want to try it out for yourself, you can't be shy or thin skinned. After all, it is the Internet and anything goes.

It should only be a matter of time until Facebook rolls out video chatrooms amongst friends.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Partial Panel Failure in IMC

One of the obvious differences between flying a plane and driving a car is that you can't simply stop when you have a problem. Running out of gas or having an instrument failure is serious.

I recently flew down to Annapolis, from northern New Jersey, for a couple days of board meetings. It was raining and I was in the clouds at 4,000' with a 30+ knot headwind slowing me down for more than 90 minutes. About 20 minutes outside of Lee Airport in Annapolis, my glass cockpit panel ("digital dashboard") had a partial failure, at night, in IMC (the clouds). Since the panel is digital with diagnostics, as the attitude and heading indicator tumbled, it recognized the failure and displayed a warning message followed by two big red "X"s.

As much as I love high tech, avionics failures like this aren't completely unexpected so I have traditional backup instruments. It took me a few minutes to confirm that the digital airspeed and altitude indicators were working fine since they displayed the same readings as my analog dials. As unnerving as this failure was, it didn't represent an inflight emergency.

Rather than rely on my autopilot, I "hand flew" the plane as air traffic control vectored me for the approach into Annapolis. The clouds were lower than I'd liked, but when I broke through them and saw the airport, I set myself up for landing. It took me longer than usual to get down to the runway, in the dark, so I decided to "go-around" since it's a shorter runway than I'm used to using. On my second attempt, I landed, albeit, I used up almost the entire runway since stopping in the rain took longer than normal. Unfortunately, during most of my time in Annapolis, it was pouring.

Cleared for Takeoff
When I departed Annapolis, two days later, I was hoping that, somehow, the panel problem would have resolved itself. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. But, since all of the backup equipment was working fine, I could fly home under instrument flight rules. Even better was that there wasn't a cloud in the sky as air traffic control vectored me over downtown Annapolis.

Going Solo
I called the glass cockpit manufacture who pointed me to several authorized resellers in northern New Jersey and I chose a reseller based at Sussex Airport. Yesterday's flight from Morristown to Sussex only took about 20 minutes.

Since Sussex Airport doesn't have a manned control town, pilots have to announce where they are. When I was about 12 miles away, I could hear steady chatter as pilots were announcing their positions. But, one voice stood out since it sounded like a young girl. She was obviously taking off and landing, repeatedly. Just as I was about to enter the traffic pattern, she announced her position and I saw her about a mile in front of me. This was helpful – I had never flow into this airport so I didn't know where the landmarks were to make my turns.

A typical landing pattern is entered at 45° to the runway and flown parallel to the runway, but in the opposite direction of landing, followed by a left turn perpendicular to the runway, and then, finally, another left turn, to line up with the runway. Trailing another plane, into an unfamiliar airport, makes things easier – just like following another car's taillights, in the dark, on an unfamiliar road.

As I followed the young pilot in front of me, I heard someone from the ground give her some words of encouragement. It turned out that she was a student pilot on her first solo flight. No matter how old your are, your first solo flight is both exciting and stressful since it's the first time you're flying an airplane without anyone else aboard. It's just you and your new skills, all alone in the plane. Actually, your "first solo" isn't just one take off and landing, but rather it's three in a row and it's something you'll never forget.

Ironically, I had to go to an "old school" airport for my high tech repairs. Even though Sussex Airport is only about 90 minutes from Manhattan, I definitely felt like I was at an airport deep in the country.

Of course, high tech, being what it is, meant that we couldn't reproduce the problem with the glass cockpit panel at the avionics shop. Now I'll have to wait until the problem happens again. But, I did have an opportunity to have the repair tech troubleshoot an intermittent VOR. Turns out that repairing the VOR was a simple fix which involved simply re-soldering a ground wire.

While the repair tech worked on my avionics, I had a lengthy conversation with an older pilot who turned out to be the grandfather of the 17 year old high school girl who I had followed into the airport. Her family had come to the airport to watch her solo. She initially planned to attend the Air Force Academy, but when she found out that she had to wait another year to qualify for a Congressional nomination she visited Embry-Riddle, in Florida. Embry-Riddle, also know as "The Harvard of the Sky" specializes in aviation and aerospace engineering. Her grandfather told me it was a no-brainer for her. It looks like her future holds a career in aviation.

Monday, November 14, 2011

iTunes Match: The Curve Jumping Cloud For Consumers

Apple launched iTunes Match, today. They were shooting for an October release, but they missed it by two weeks. I didn't really think about iTunes Match features until just now, when I tried it out.

I downloaded the iTunes 10.5.1 update and let iTunes Match run while I cooked dinner. It took about 45 minutes – I wasn't really paying attention. During that time, it scanned my iTunes library to determine which of the 2,400 songs it had on its servers. Then, iTunes Match took the songs that it didn't have on its servers and uploaded them. Fortunately, I have a blazing fast ISP, so uploading about 400 songs took less time than the entire iTunes music library scan.

I Get It
Once iTunes Match was done processing my library, I "tuned it in" on my Apple TV. I didn't really know what to expect, but there on my Apple TV were all my songs nicely arranged into my playlists.

I created a new iTunes playlist on my computer and copied some songs into it. In the time it took me to move my hands from my computer keyboard to the Apple TV remote, I noticed that the TV screen flickered and the new playlist that I just created showed up on my Apple TV. Ok, now I get it.

Prior to iTunes Match, it was a bit inconvenient to push my music from my iPhone or iPad to my Apple TV; and it was also a minor hassle to keep iTunes open on my laptop so that the Apple TV could "see" my music and playlists.

Missing In Action
Some songs, though, seem to be missing and I'm not sure why. I have some voice memos that I've recored which obviously shouldn't be uploaded, aka, "This item is not eligible for iCloud."

But, I also have some songs, such as a store bought Tchaikovsky CD that I imported into iTunes 10 years ago, that weren't uploaded. The song titles show up on the Apple TV, but they're grayed out. In iTunes, next to the track name, it displays an iCloud icon with an exclamation point indicating, "This item was not added to iCloud because an error occurred." The songs are on my computer, but it's not in iCloud. I'll have to investigate some more.

Update: A former coworker from Apple just read this blog post and tweeted me the solution to my problem: "Set view options to show iCloud status column. Sort by status. Select all 'Error'. Right click to reupload." Sure enough, that did it. I now see my missing songs in iCloud and on my Apple TV.

Piracy Big Brother?
So, does Apple and the RIAA now know which of their users have pirated songs? No, it's not that simple. Nearly all of my iTunes library is either composed of songs that I bought from the iTunes store or imported from my CD collection. In the case of CD imports, iTunes Match has no way to know if the CD import was from music that I owned or "borrowed" from a friend. Of course, Apple could listen to songs that are uploaded, which aren't recognized, and determine that, perhaps, they're a concert bootleg; but that would surprise me. It would be the equivalent of Gmail reading the e-mail on their servers to gather business intelligence.

Cloud Computing
"Cloud" has become the hot buzzword in tech since 2006 when Amazon launched their Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) which allowed users to turn on a computer with the click of a mouse (ok, technically, they're not turning on a physical computer, rather, they're launching a virtual machine but it does the exact same thing as a computer and it's indistinguishable).

Amazon's EC2, along with a handful of competitors, are true cloud computing systems. Other systems, like iCloud or Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) are actually cloud storage systems - there's no real computing going on. But, that doesn't mean that they're not useful. On the contrary, they're tremendously useful.

So, what is the cloud? Simple: cloud, quite literally, means Internet, as in you're reaching out over the Internet for computing power or storage or fundamental web services such as DNS. And, you're reaching out via an API, which means that other computers can talk to and access these services without human intervention.

Abstraction: The Cloud For Consumers
Since modern computing first began during WW II, with the Mark I, layers of abstraction have been added, one on top of the other, in order to manage and reduce complexity. Each layer allows more "everyday" users to access computing power without requiring a detailed technical understanding.

Many times, when a new layer of abstraction is added, there's some resistance from hard core programmers since each layer removes some control that they once had.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was one of the first programmers to encounter this resistance when she took her library of software routines and bundled them into the first compiler. The compiler ran slower and it was less efficient than writing pure machine code. Claims of code execution inefficiencies were a somewhat valid claim since computing power was not cheap 60 years ago. However, the true expense, since then, hasn't been CPU power, but, rather brain cycles. It's much better for a computer to step through some inefficient code than to have a human take a chance at creating bugs. As my former boss at Apple used to say, "Code you don't write is code you don't have to debug."

Rather then just create another cloud storage solution, Apple has completely removed the ambiguity of the file system just as it did with iTunes and iPhoto. When you import media into Apple's "iApps", you don't need to concern yourself with where, on the file system, the file actually resides. There's no need to know if your files are located under ~/ghopper/Music/iTunes... or c:\Program Files\... With iCloud, you don't have to know which folder your content is located in, iCloud handles that for you.

There are incremental improvements and then there are revolutionary improvements. The latter are improvements that's aren't just twice as good, rather they're ten times better which usually involves a paradigm shift.

The ice trade is a perfect example of revolutionary technological improvements. In the late 1700s, only the rich had ice since it had to be harvested in the winter and then shipped like granite or marble and stored with a short shelf life. Frederic Tudor was Boston's "Ice King" and he made his fortune by harvesting and shipping ice to places that would not have otherwise had it such as the Caribbean and India.

Innovation during Ice 1.0 revolved around making sharper saws to cut the ice and inventing insulation, other than hay, to keep the ice from melting. But, if you worked in the ice business in the late 1800s, you needed to pay attention when refrigeration technology came along.

With the advent of electricity, ice harvesting was no longer necessary. In Ice 2.0, warehouses could make ice during the summer and send it out for local delivery. This is, in its truest sense, a curve jumping disruptive technology. If you were still sharpening your saw while ice was being made using refrigeration then you would have missed the boat.

Looking back, it isn't hard to realize that Ice 3.0 was the invention of the personal ice maker, aka, our home refrigerator. If warehouse refrigeration companies didn't start making home refrigerators in the first half of the 20th Century then they were probably left behind.

Technology & Innovation
So, how in the world does the ice trade tie in with Apple? Both involved clear, revolutionary, jumps in technologies, i.e. a 10x improvement over the previous way of doing business. Instead of harvesting ice, we make it at home. Instead of entering cryptic commands into a text editor, we use a mouse to drag and drop icons.

After all, what is technology? The answer is relative. Do we think of the wheel as technology? You could say that technology is anything that was invented after you were born. You can think of it as a synonym for magic and, nowadays, when it breaks, you have to throw it away and get a new one because it can't be fixed. (I'm paraphrasing Strong Bad.) As Grace Hopper once said, "Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems."

Think Apple
At Apple, we philosophically thought of innovation as the intersection of imagination and reality. But, more pragmatically, we believed that innovation was anything new that reduced the cost of a transaction, either in terms of time or money.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Brady's Life With Duchenne Muscular Dystorphy

Brady Sherman's one of Jerry's Kids, he was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He's an exceptionally bright kid who loves all things mechanical and military, especially aviation.

I've known Brady since before he was born. His mother is my wife's best friend and college roommate.

Brady was diagnosed with DMD when he was a toddler so we all had an inkling for his life ahead which averages late teens to early 20s.

Personal Memories
One Christmas, when Brady was about five or six, he got his first two-wheeler bicycle. We worried that he might hurt himself. When Brady was ridding his new bike he, like all kids learning to ride, fell over. As the bicycle rested on top him, he made it very clear that he was uninjured. With his arms outstretched, lying face down, he professed, "I'm O-K!" We got a good laugh out of the fact that he issued this decleration with the force and effect of MacArthur's, "I shall return."

We took Brady for a flight in my plane this past summer. Since he's been in a wheelchair for the past few years, it took two attempts to get him into my Cessna. The first attempt was with his mother and I trying to lift him into the front copilot seat. Brady was a little anxious about the thought of being lifted into the plane so we tried again, about a week later, with his father and me.

When you have no use of your legs and suffer from muscle degeneration, falling is a big deal. A very big deal.

Fortunately, his dad and I were able to lift him into the plane and we went up for a flight. He got a thrill out of flying the plane when I let him take the controls. But, he only flew the plane for a few minutes. Like most people who take the controls for the first time, including me, we don't really know what to do and a short time is more than enough.

Joking Around
Brady loved a good joke, even when the joke was on him. Several years ago, my wife, Laura, and I were over the Sherman's house for a Christmas Eve party. The party was still going strong well past 11 p.m. Brady was getting very upset as he kept trying to end the party and throw everyone out. As we all know, Santa Claus will skip your house unless everyone's asleep. Years later, I still teased him about that and he always smiled and chuckled.

I taught Brady how to stick one finger in your nose while licking the other finger and then touch the licked finger to someone's face. "Watch how wigged out they'll get," I told him. We all got a big kick out of it when it tried it on his dad a few minutes later. (Well, maybe all of us except dad.)

Wishes Granted
Brady's wish was granted a couple years ago by the Make-A-Wish Foundation when he and his parents were flown to Normandy, France for a battle field tour. That's a memory to last a lifetime.

My first paid journalism article was about Brady and the training he and his family went through when they got their yellow lab companion dog. I was amazed at how well trained that dog was and how much assistance he gave to Brady.

This Morning
Yesterday, Brady fell as he was being lifted out of his wheelchair and broke his leg. He was treated and he went home with his parents. His dad slept next to him last night. This morning, Brady's breathing was very shallow and his parents couldn't wake him. Laura called me at work and told me that Brady was dying as he was being rushed to the hospital while CPR was being performed in the ambulance.

The doctors were unable to to resuscitate him.

Brady passed away this morning aged 14 and a freshman in high school.

We all thought that this moment was still years away. None of us can process this. It just doesn't seem real. He was just a kid.

While I, like most everyone, worked hard to get where I am; I too often forget that I did nothing to be born. I didn't earn being born – it quite literally befell me.

I need to be reminded that I won the birth lottery on many different levels... where and when I was born, my good health, and so on. Steve aptly described it: Life is fragile.

Last Shots
I clearly remember the last time I saw Brady. It was Saturday, September 3, when I snapped this photo of him watching Black Hawk Down. Brady loved the military and he knew more about it than any other kid I know.

Raw Emotions
Tragedies like this leave emotions very raw as waves of grief come and go, followed by anger and then laughter at fond memories.

Brady's mother best expressed one of these extremes, tonight, on Facebook, "Fuck you Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy."

Brady's final life experience was in his own bed, in his own home, under the same roof with two parents that loved him with every fiber of their existence.

But, as comforting as that sounds, at this point, I can't cry hard enough.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

SMS is Dying, Viva SMS!

My love affair with text messaging started when I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya in May 2005. I was amazed that the wireless carriers in East Africa were so much more advanced than in the U.S. What I found particularly useful was that they could text money to each other using SMS - no apps required. As soon as I returned to the U.S., I created a proof of concept, using a GSM modem, and partnered with an angel investor as we tried to raise funding from Tech Coast Angels for the now defunct Acasero.

This morning, I was very pleased to see that Amazon announced a new web service which allows anyone to send text messages from a short code. Sending an SMS from a short code, which is a five or six digit phone number, is not an inexpensive proposition. It will cost a company at least $1,000/month not including the metered costs of sending each text message. I've covered the details in this white paper that I wrote a few years ago. But, with today’s announcement from Amazon, that cost is literally reduced to pennies.

SMS is Dying
The wireless carriers' approach to marketing SMS is what I call "bad." RIM has gotten around it, for years, by allowing direct messaging from Blackberry to Blackberry. Now, Apple's iOS 5 has done something similar by allowing text messages to be sent over the data portion of device's payment plan vice the SMS portion. The wireless carriers have priced themselves out of the market when you consider that it would cost about $6,000 to download a 4 MB song if wireless data cost as much as SMS.

Viva SMS
Yet, even though SMS is dying, it's still very useful in both developed and developing countries. It will continue to serve a niche for many years to come. The key strength of SMS is that it's a push (event driven) messaging system compared to e-mail which generally has to poll a server (even with "push" e-mail utilizing the IDLE command, it's still not a responsive as SMS).

So, now that SMS is available to the masses via a short code, what are some of the possibilities? I can think of a few, very marketable, ideas.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I'm Dreamin' of a White Halloween

It's been just over a month since I moved from Carlsbad, California to Rockaway, New Jersey. My first week here was hot, with highs around 90°. By the end of the second week, it had rained 13 days in a row. Of course I complained about the rain – until today.

The leaves are just beginning to change colors and many remain green, after all, it's still October. So, I really poopooed yesterday's weather reports of snow. Okay, maybe snow flurries, but when I heard forecasts of possible snow accumulations of several inches, I just brushed it off, "Ain't gonna to happen." Obviously, I couldn't have been more wrong.

This morning, it started snowing. It was in the mid-30s, so the flakes clumped up into postage stamp sized clusters. As the day wore on, I figured that it would warm up and turn to rain. I'd seen this movie before, especially as a kid growing up on Long Island, hoping for a snow day. At most, I expected a light dusting – it'll all be melted by late afternoon, I thought.

I moved my car out of the driveway and parked it on the street and then ran an errand in my wife's VW Bug. I was at CVS for about 10 minutes when they lost power. The store was now running on battery backup and the employees started ushering the patrons off the premises. We could make an immediate purchase while the cash registers and credit card machines still had battery power. I quickly bought two ice scraper brushes for the cars. By the time I got back to the Bug, it had an inch of snow on it.

No sooner did I brush off the windows and head out of the parking lot than I could no longer see out of the side and rear windows. Every time I accelerated, the traction control kicked in for five to ten seconds. Even more unnerving was the fact that, as the car would slide and skid sideways - ever so slowly - I'd hit the breaks and hear the antilock system clicking away for what seemed like an eternity, "Please stop, please stop, please stop."

When I got home, I parked the Bug in the driveway. As I started shoveling snow, I could hear the cracking of tree limbs, every five to ten minutes, as they came crashing down all around the neighborhood. I couldn't figure out why this seemed so strange – but something was very "different" which was causing all these limbs to fall.

It wasn't until a few hours later when I realized why so many trees were collapsing. Normally, in the winter, when it snows, trees don't have any leaves. Not only are the leaves still on the trees, but most trees still have live, green, leaves. It wasn't just the combined weight of the snow and leaves that caused the tree limbs to snap. It was also the fact that the healthy, green leaves, significantly increased the surface area of the limbs. More surface means more snow sticking to the trees, which, in turn, means the trees now need to support a heavier load.

Although there are no trees on our property, our backyard now has more than its share of limbs, courtesy of our neighbors. On top of that was the fact that the snow was very wet and clumpy and it seems like more limbs came down than would have fallen during a hurricane. (Speaking of hurricanes, it's still hurricane season here.)

Operation Driveway
After shoveling the driveway – which is a task I can't recall doing in over 25 years – it was time to move my Honda Accord from the street to the driveway. I was leery about leaving it parked on the street because of the passing snowplows plus the fact that the street in front of the house is a very steep hill. I watched several cars slide, skid, twist, and turn down the hill. They were getting way too close to my car. It seemed like it was only a matter of time before one of them would slam into my car if I left it parked on the street.

I was sure that the SUV, in the following video clip, would skid into the back of my silver Accord after watching it make several failed attempts to enter their own drive way. Fortunately, they finally gave up and parked on the street.

However, after multiple attempts, I, too, failed to get my car back in the driveway. I drove around the block three times. Each time, as I came down the hill, I simply could not turn into my driveway – the car just kept skidding straight. It certainly didn't help that the driveway is extremely narrow and it's surrounded by retaining walls on both side.

All that I could do was leave my car parked in front of the house. About once an hour, a snow plow made a pass. With each run up and down the road, they've built up a protective wall of snow around my car. It'll be a pain to shovel out tomorrow, but, for now, I welcome it. I'm guessing that about six or seven inches of snow has fallen, so far.

Next Step
My next step is to meet my neighbors and become friends with them. Two neighbors fired up their snow blowers and each plowed about half a dozen driveways; and then they plowed the sidewalks. I need to get on their to-be-plowed list.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Steve Jobs's License Plate

Yep, it's true that Steve Jobs used to drive around without a license plate. I've seen it, touched it, and photographed it.

But I think the license plate loophole theory is wrong. Otherwise Steve would have had temporary paper tags on his car (or, perhaps, he just didn't display the tags). Steve may have just driven around without ever registering his car - or, maybe, he simply didn't attach the license plates to his car. I doubt that he was getting a new car every six months. But, that's what's being reported – so, maybe it's true. I just find it hard to believe.

Walter Isaacson asked Steve about his license plate. From the horse's mouth...

I [Isaacson] said, "Why don't you have a license plate?" He said, "Well, I don't want people following me." I said, "Well not having a license plate is probably more noticeable." He said, "Yah, you're probably right. You know why I don't have a license plate?" I said, "Why?" He said, "Because I don't have a license plate." I think he felt the normal rules just shouldn't apply to him.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Insanely great life.

Thanks, Steve.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Working For The Man

I have moved from Carlsbad, CA to Parsippany, NJ. In June, my former mentor from Apple, Stas, who is now a VP at Wyndham, in New Jersey, called me from out of the blue and offered me a job working for him. The opportunity to work with Stas, again, was enticing enough to accept the job.

The company flew me out to interview for a senior product manager position. The interviews went very well and they decided to upgrade the job requisition to director. It took a few weeks to get the new position approved by HR – but when the official offer came through it was a no-brainer.

My wife flew out to New Jersey a couple weeks ago to find a place for us to live. Not only did she find a fine home, but she managed to get some great furniture from our friends and family in New Jersey.

Private Pilot Instrument Rating
Laura flew out by herself because I had a summer goal that I wanted to achieve: earn my pilot instrument rating. Last year, I was bitten by the aviation bug and I received my private pilot's certificate (license). In February, I bought a Cessna-182 Skylane. One of my big concerns, when flying around Southern California, was getting stuck somewhere because clouds or fog moved in. As a private pilot, I can only fly under visual flight rules which means no flying through the clouds.

Cessna was due to release a new, web based, instrument rating course in June, which I had been eagerly awaiting. Unfortunately, the course, which is very formal, was delayed until the very end of August. After looking at the course, I realized that I simply didn't have enough time to get through it. Rather, since the training was self paced, I realized that I wouldn't have the self-discipline to stick with it to reach my goal before the end of summer.

I took a look at my other options for completing my instrument rating and came across a ten day course. The ten day course, offered by Pilot Instrument Courses (PIC), is a fairly intense course which sends a flight instructor to you with a simulator. The simulator can be used for ten or twenty hours of training and the rest of the required flight hours are done in the airplane.

Instrument flight training on my dining room table.
I signed up for the ten day PIC training and the company sent out an instructor about a week later. While ten days may seem like a very short time, we probably squeezed in 80 hours of training over that time. My instructor, who set up the simulator on my dining room table, would come over around 7:00 or 7:30 a.m. and we'd train until about 5:00 p.m. (we'd fly the sim in the mornings and my plane in the afternoons). He'd then go back to his hotel and I'd study and fly the simulator in the evenings.

The training worked out better than I expected. The only distraction I had, once the training began, was that San Diego lost power at the end of the first day of training. Over the next couple days, I'd have to trouble shoot two Adjix servers that went down due to the power outage.

As a side note, if you're ever looking for a place to eat when the power is out then I'd recommend going to the hospital. It's the one place that always has power and a cafeteria. It worked out very well for my instructor and me.

Check Ride
Last Saturday, after completing the training along with passing the written and oral test, I had my practical test (check ride) up in Riverside, CA. The skies were incredible busy. Right off the bat, we were put into a holding pattern by air traffic control (ATC) for 10 to 15 minutes at 7,000 feet with another plane below us at 6,000' and a third one in holding at 4,500 feet.

Everything went well during the check ride except for my precision approach which required keeping the plane on a specific glide path while landing. While making my approach an ATC supervisor came on the radio and directed all aircraft to maintain radio silence while they vectored a Southwest Airlines plane that was finding its way through congested traffic. Unfortunately, I let this distract me and I wasn't able to maintain my precision approach within practical test standards. So, I was denied my instrument rating on Saturday.

While this was highly disappointing, I went back up with my instructor Saturday evening to practice my precision approaches again. I then scheduled another retest for 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning.

Fortunately, I only had to demonstrate the precision approach, on Sunday, for the retest and it went well. I was issued my instrument rating. Now I can fly through clouds!

Ferrying My Plane Coast To Coast
My next challenge was to fly my plane to New Jersey. Although my plane could fly for more than six hours on a full tank, you're really limited by how long you can go between bio-breaks. Also, I didn't want to make this flight alone since I had only received my instrument rating the previous day. As luck would have it, I had a buddy, Gus, who is a former commercial pilot and former flight instructor, so he went with me.

We left this past Monday afternoon and planned out three hour legs. We did one leg on Monday and stayed in Payson, AZ. On Tuesday, we flew two legs and spent the night in Anthony, KS. Anthony is a tiny town about 60 miles from Wichita. My plane was the only one at the airport. Landing at the Anthony Airport (KANY) was like going back to 1945.

In Anthony, KS, the FAA directory (A/FD) said to call 911 in order to get fuel. At the airport, they listed a seven digit phone number for police dispatch. When I called, the dispatcher sent out a police officer to unlock the fuel pump. I pumped the gas and gave him a check made out to the the City of Anthony. They said that they send out an officer about three times per month to refuel aircraft. Very remote yet friendly town. They even had a courtesy car, that we used, at the airport. It was the only car there – when I opened the door the keys were on the floor. The police office told us that we were free to use the courtesy car – no paperwork involved.

Spontaneous Stopover
The next night we stopped just north of Cincinnati. Gus, my mentor/copilot, did the route planning since he had experience ferrying small planes back and forth across the U.S. When he said that we would be making our next stop around Cincinnati, I told him that we had to land at Butler County Airport since it was just a few miles from my college buddy, Andy, and his family – Andy's son is my wife's and my godson.

Andy's wife took the kids to the airport and she told me that they were ready to explode with excitement when they saw our plane on final approach, land, and taxi to our tie down spot. We were fairly tired when we landed at Butler, so it was great to stay at their house and get a home cooked meal.

After leaving Cincinnati, we made one final stop at Scranton, PA, before reaching our destination: Morristown Municipal Airport. Some rain had moved into the Tristate area, and there was quite a bit of traffic. The speed at which the air traffic controller spoke was blazing fast as he vectored us in a few circles while waiting for the traffic congestion to clear up.

A new home in New Jersey.

My New Home
We landed at Morristown, I signed the paperwork for my hangar lease, and was reunited with my wife. Laura and I had spent many months apart, when I was deployed overseas with the Marines, but this time, with all that had happened in a short fortnight, it seemed like we had been apart for 10 weeks.

We'll be living in a hotel for the next three weeks until our house is ready, but, so far everything is going as planned. I'm amazed at how it's all come together. Sooner or later, we'll go back to California; but, in the mean time, New Jersey is our home.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adjix Server Problems

It's been a busy weekend for Adjix. I'd love to describe the details, but Dave Winer does an excellent job in the first two paragraphs of today's post.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How We Knew Steve Jobs Wasn't Returning: End of Life Thoughts

When Steve Jobs took his most recent medical leave, in January 2011, we knew that he wasn't coming back. This was obvious from the letter that he sent to Apple's employees. Unlike a tweet, that's casually written, his medical leave message was very carefully worded. The key was in the last paragraph:
"I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can."

If Steve had any realistic expectations of returning, that sentence would have read, I love Apple so much and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Hope is a dirty word for people like Steve Jobs.

It's very sad to think that, even though the end may not be days or weeks away for Steve, it's clearly very near. If there was a reasonable chance of his return then his resignation wouldn't have been effective immediately. Another tell is the fact that he mentions life in last week's resignation letter:
"I have made some of the best friends of my life at Apple."

End of life issues are never easy to confront. It changes how you perceive reality.

End of Life
When I was young, I used to look at the elderly and think, "Don't you wish that you were young so that you could see what the future holds many decades from now?" Then, I was diagnosed with late stage, wide spread cancer which had metastasized. My perception of the elderly immediately changed to, "If only I could have a chance to experience life for as long as you have." My insight into life was a complete paradigm shift.

When facing your own end of life issues, you think about some things that you never considered such as where, when, or how you want to die. For me, it was on a hill overlooking the San Clemente Pier at sunset.
Some end of life thoughts are strikingly odd. For example, when looking at a bug on a bush in the backyard I was struck by the realization that these "lower" forms of life could outlive me.

One epiphany that gave me some relief was the fact that everything in the universe has a life cycle. Death, as final as it is, is completely normal on an absolute level. It doesn't matter if you're religious or atheist – you can simply look at everything – living and non-living – from plants and animals to the stars and planets and realize that at some point in the future they will no longer be around. It's simply the way of the universe.

Fortunately, for me, my story ends, literally, with a cure for cancer. But, as robust as life is, Steve Jobs reminds us that "life is fragile."

Carpe diem.

Gray Listing Spam Blockers

Large e-mail service providers, such as Gmail, have the ability to crowd-source identifying spam since they have millions of users which results in few false positives. But, what do you use if you're a small time e-mail service provider?

A poor-man's technique to stop spam is called gray listing.

Here's one implementation of how it works...

If the gray listing e-mail service provider hasn't received any e-mails from the sender recently (say, within the last two weeks) they will tell the sender's mail server to try again later. This isn't a problem since the e-mail protocol (SMTP) is designed to keep trying for a couple days before giving up.

As long as the sending mail server waits a small amount of time (say, ten minutes) before trying again, then the e-mail will go through on the second attempt. If the sender has recently sent an e-mail to the recipient's e-mail address then the e-mail goes through on the first try since the sender's e-mail address is on the gray list. (The e-mail is black listed first, then it's white listed. Black + White = Gray)

Because of how this works, users sometimes notice the first two e-mails, sent from the same person (who hasn't sent an e-mail in the past two weeks) may be delivered out of order if the e-mails are sent within a few minutes of each other. (I've personally seen this happen, but it's rare.)

The reason that gray listing works so well is that spammers rarely configure their servers to try to deliver an e-mail more than once. If spammers did configure their e-mail servers to try multiple times then their spam servers would be overwhelmed.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Last Day At Apple

I wonder if Steve Jobs had his photo taken in front of the 1 Infinite Loop HQ like I did on my last day at Apple in 2007?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Here's to the Crazy Ones

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

East Coast Earthquake

Did you hear that there was an earthquake on the East Coast, today? Kind of hard not to hear about it.

I saw this post about the earthquake devastation in D.C. which made me laugh.

At first, when I heard all the brouhaha, I rolled my eyes and said, "Oh, please, it's only a 5.8."

But, in retrospect, I doubt that East Coast building codes are up to California's standards when it comes to earthquake-proofing their structures. On the other hand, California, which has never recorded a hurricane, would do poorly in a storm of that magnitude. It just depends on what you're used to.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Good, The Great, and The Bad Business Models

Lately, there's been a lot of complaining about AT&T because they "streamlined" their text messaging plans. In other words, they removed their cheapest plan thereby raising the rates for the casual "texter."

There are three basic business models when it comes to pricing technology over time:

1. Good: Lower your prices as your technology costs decrease like Amazon Web Services (pass along the savings).

2. Great: Keep your prices the same, but add new features like Apple (innovation).

3. Bad: Increase your prices, even as your costs decrease, without adding new features like AT&T (elasticity and conversion costs).

A college buddy, who worked for a large telecommunications company, explained the wireless carrier's business model best: Squeeze every possible penny out of every single customer.

It reminds me of the last time I ordered a home land line. The cost for caller ID was $7.99/month, but, the operator told me that this feature would be increasing to $9.99/month, for all customers, in two months. Seriously? A 25% increase just to display a 10 digit number on my phone?

From 2005 to 2009, as the costs for delivering text messages decreased, the wireless carrier oligopoly raised the prices to send or receive a single 160 character text message from 5¢ to 25¢. No new features were added – the wireless carriers simply realized that they could keep upping their prices without adding new features.

It was the iPhone that brought visual voice mail to market and it was when Google Voice relaunched Grand Central that we had the ability to send and receive free text messages using both our phone and computer. These two simple features could have been implemented by the wireless carriers years earlier.

Continually raising prices to see what the market will bear is a perfectly legitimate business model, but it really ticks off the customer. Like a big, faceless, bank, you almost hope that these companies will fail. I say almost, because any punishment, fine, or bankruptcy will be passed along to the customer.

We hate these businesses only as long as poetic justice doesn't come out of our own pocket.

Scrolling In Mac OS X Lion

One of the first things that people notice when upgrading to Mac OS X Lion is that scrolling works the opposite way that it used to worked.

Without a doubt, this will seem backwards – at first. Most people have said that it takes several days to get used to the new format. But, why change a paradigm that's work for the last quarter century?

The answer is simple and most people haven't really noticed that this is the exact same way that scrolling works on the iPhone. Before Lion, if you wanted to scroll down a web page, you'd have to grab the scroll bar and pull it down. The metaphor was that you were pulling the window down the page to view the content "below the fold."

Now, the metaphor has been changed to match the iPhone and a layer of abstraction has been removed. Instead of pulling a window down to view the content, you now pull the content up to see it. No more window model – it's just you and your content.

Give it several days to a week to see if you get used to it – it's like learning to drive on the other side of the road. If you use the iPhone, then you'll probably get used to it and not notice it in the same way that you never noticed that the iPhone worked the opposite way.

But, if you really can't stand it, you can change the settings back to always display scroll bars in the General part of System Preferences.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bark for Your Rx

Tonight, my wife asked me to get a pill for her that was in the kitchen which reminded of a funny story...

Several years ago, my wife and I were were in the kitchen just before bedtime. I had taken out a pill for the dog and put it down next to the kitchen sink. It took me about 30 seconds to get the peanut butter from the pantry so that the dog would swallow the pill. When I turned around to pick up the dog's pill, it was gone.

As my wife was putting down a glass of water, I asked her what she did with the dog's pill. Yup, you guessed it, she mistook the dog's pill for her own and swallowed it.

I called the San Diego Poison Control Center while my wife tried to "retrieve" the pill.

If you haven't had the opportunity to call the Poison Control Center then be prepared to answer a lot of questions – this is not an organization you call anonymously. But, it's more than worth the time it takes to answer their questions in exchange for the service they provide.

It turned out that there was nothing for us to worry about since the antibiotic that my wife swallowed was meant for a dog that weighed about a dozen pounds. There were no shortage of jokes about this incident that night.

Friday, July 29, 2011

I Love Big Government (Sans the Debt Ceiling)

I love big government! Seriously, I do. And I bet that our country's forefathers would love it too.

Just think about everything we have, today, that's paid for by the federal government through our taxes. I'm talking about the really useful stuff. We can drive across town or across the country without paying a penny to the federal government for using their roads – it's already been paid for. (Hmm, is this socialism? Should all roads be toll roads?) Think about potable running water, electricity, air traffic controllers, original funding for the Internet, bridge and building inspectors etc, etc. – I'm talking about our entire county's infrastructure and capacity. These are good things.

What we hate (and I'm speaking for our forefathers, too) is inefficient, ineffective, government waste. Pick your favorite government agency that you love to hate. You don't have to dig too deep to see the "rusty cannon" syndrome: Doesn't work and can't be fired.

Think about the stereotypical federal or state employee who religiously works only 9-5 (actually 8-4) and not a minute more. They're just "putting in time." I've seen this first hand – at 4:03 p.m., they are gone; like lemmings off a cliff. Not all of them, but enough to notice without looking for it. Left behind, after the bureaucrats head out the door, are the contractors. While you might think that the contractors are working late for the money, many are on a 40 hour per week budget. To go over that budget requires prior, written, approval. Long story short, the contractors end up eating their costs, in the short time, to keep their consulting gig in the long term.

When I worked at Apple iServices' iConsulting division, I was on a project at a large federal agency in the D.C. area. One day, at lunch, an Apple coworker of mine, who also happened to be a former Marine, pointed out how dull and depressing it was in the government cafeteria. The atmosphere was the complete opposite of the excitement and electricity we felt at Apple's Cupertino campus cafeteria (Caffe Macs). Keep in mind that I'm not talking about the Apple of today, either. I'm referring to the Apple of ten or twelve years ago when the stock price dropped in half, literally, overnight, during the Dot-com crash and the stock price continued down from there. Those were Apple's dark days, before iTunes, iPod, and the digital hub strategy. That was a time when Apple was 25x smaller than it is today.

Never mind politicians – they're too easy of a target. And, believe it or not, they are some of the smartest people in the context in which they operate. There's just no easy way to win an election in order to get a job in politics, at any level, from municipal through federal. Don't get me wrong – politicians are not blameless – but they really do have to work hard, from time to time – at least to get the job. Keep in mind that they get their job because we, their constituents, gave it to them. If you don't like your duly elected politician then blame your co-constituents.

In the U.S., bigger is better. I've lived off the economy in dirt poor developing countries and seen, first hand, what bad infrastructure and maintenance looks like. In these countries, you can tell the no-bodies from the some-bodies in each village because the person with the most body fat is the leader. More power equals more food. While money is good, food is better. You can't eat money. These developing governments, at all levels, are brittle and, just like the recent Arab unrest we saw earlier this year, it doesn't take much to go from order and rule of law to riots and insecurity.

No American citizen wants to sacrifice any of their own entitlements to reduce the deficit. Boaters would hate a new tax on their boats, pilots would hate to pay user fees at airports, and hard working, salt of the earth, commuters would hate car and gas tax increases. Why not tax the upper class at a proportionally higher rate? Well, that is what we do and the rich can still make a good argument, in their defense, at least in theory.

What's the solution to reduce the national debt? Practically speaking, there probably will never be one. The solution will be death. It's no different than when a person overextends themselves with mortgage and credit card debt. You either generate more income, tighten your belt, or declare bankruptcy. The problem is that, unlike an individual, the U.S. can't get bankruptcy protection and the other two options are just as unlikely.

Throughout history, every singe currency eventually becomes debased. You'd be hard pressed to find a compound interest calculator that can compute how much a dollar would be worth 1,000 years from now at 3.6% interest (the current rate of inflation). The result is so large that it "does not compute." We're literally talking about more money than the world has ever seen. (If you really must know how much a dollar would be worth at 3.6% interest over a thousand years, the answer is $2.3 quadrillion. But we're "only" talking about the "short" quadrillion scale.)

How much is all the money in the world? Around $50 trillion – or 45x less than the compounded interest of $1 a thousand years from now. Could you really see today's U.S. dollar being worth more than 45 times all the money in the world?

Perhaps Bitcoin – or something similar – will replace the U.S. dollar over the next few decades. After all, most countries use a fiat currency and Bitcoin aims to be a currency that's the equivalent of an electronic gold standard. Whatever currency replaces the dollar, hopefully, it will be a peacefully planned transition like the Euro.
My point is that working for a company that's flirting with bankruptcy, declining market share, and relevancy was still an order of magnitude better than working as a bureaucrat for the federal government.