Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Scaling Obamacare

From a technical point, there's no way that (Obamacare) could have rolled out successfully.

Scaling a website of that magnitude, with millions of users from the git-go is unheard of. Even if Google, Facebook, and Twitter engineers developed it it would have still failed to launch smoothly.

Managing Growth

Generally, rolling out large scale websites is done in stages. When Gmail launched in 2004, it required an invitation so Google could control its growth. Facebook originally rolled out only to college students at select universities. Twitter, on the other hand, had no way to control its growth and it frequently went down (AKA: the Fail whale).

Since the world's best web engineers wouldn't have been able to launch a website like Obamacare, what made government contractors think they could do it?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Mix and Match Rant

In the past, I've been highly inconvenienced when I've mixed and matched products and services from different vendors. So much so that I now avoid it by paying a premium.

To put it in perspective, consumers do not buy a car from one manufacture, the engine from another, and the service plan from, yet, a third company. Too much finger pointing. While the upfront cost may be less, the TCO is only cheaper if your time is worth nothing and you never have a problem.

I've gotten a little aggravated over the past few months when I've seen friends, who've paid good money, only to be given the runaround when there's a problem. Frustration results when reality is not in line with expectations. The one thing everyone has at the top of their list is to have their day run smoothly and being bounced between different companies with mediocre customer service is an unnecessary distraction.

You can probably read between the lines as to what I'm talking about.

Whew... now I feel better.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Best Buy's Geek Squad

Even though Geek Squad has been around for nearly 20 years I just had my first encounter with them last Thursday. The agent, Bo, was polite, but there were only two or three of them to handle the lunch time rush of customers which stretched the agents thin; and I don't think making an appointment was an option.

The problem was a finicky power adapter port on a Samsung Galaxy Note. The Geek Squad agent didn't need to troubleshoot the issue, he simply asked if it was possible to charge the phone. Since jiggling the cord made it possible to charge it under the right circumstances the agent said that he'd order a new phone since this issue was covered under the Best Buy extended coverage plan. But, which phone number was the plan under? A home phone, work phone, cell phone? Finding the coverage warranty took awhile since their database records the plans by phone number, not serial number. I asked the agent why they didn't put the plan under the device's serial number instead of the phone number and he pointed out that replacing the phone would change the serial number. Touché. So now I'm thinking that the extended warranty plan should be under both the serial number and phone number.

Once the extended warranty was found the agent pointed out that they do not transfer data from the old, defective phone, to the new phone which would arrive next week. Instead, the agent handed out a sheet of paper with instructions on how to back up the phone's data. Obviously, it's not our smartphones which are so important compared to the information on our phones. Consumers very rarely transfer data between phones so I expected this service to be offered by the Geek Squad. But, you can't have everything. Apple offers free data transfer services from PCs to Macs. I wonder if they do that for people switching from Android to iOS?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Blocking Phone Calls

What's the difference between blocking a phone number with Google Voice compared to blocking with iOS 7?

For the recipient, there's really no difference since their phone won't receive calls, voicemails, or text messages. But, for the caller, it's a slightly different experience between the two platforms.

Calls blocked with Google Voice will receive a message that the number is no longer in service.

Calls blocked with iOS 7 ring for the caller (not the recipient) and then the voicemail (or text message) just disappears (update: actually, the voicemail goes into a Blocked Calls folder on the recipient's iPhone). To the sender, it appears they were delivered.

Monday, November 25, 2013

1 Infinite Loop
My e-mail addressed used to be There was a, but it was a honeypot; any e-mail received at was automatically added to Apple's internal spam filter.

Actually, my real e-mail address was, but, since no one was using, I was able to get it as an alias. People were impressed when lowly me handed them my business card with, especially since I'd leave my job title blank.

Every few months another guy named Joseph would e-mail me to check to see if I was still working at Apple. I let him know when I left Apple in 2007 so he could be assigned the alias by the IT department (IS&T). For this, he was grateful.

Recycling the same e-mail address produced an unexpected gotcha. A couple months after I left Apple, the new contacted me and asked me to release the e-mail address from my LinkedIn profile. He was unable to use his new e-mail address with LinkedIn since it was tied to my LinkedIn account. This reminded me that all my personal accounts listing my old Apple e-mail address needed to be updated.

One nice thing about having a relationship with my successor is that, for the following few years, the new would forward me e-mails from my contacts who weren't aware that I'd left the company.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Revisiting Old Haunts

My Reston apartment.
In 1998 I began working for Apple in their federal office in Reston, Virginia. I haven't been back there in more than a decade. While living there I got engaged, got cancer, got chemo, got cured, got married, got my first home, got my first dog, and witnessed the 9/11 attacks that took place 20 miles away.

My first townhouse.
After dropping by the Apple Reston office last Friday afternoon I drove to my old apartment a block away. The quarter mile trek was simple. Figuring out how to navigate from the apartment to my townhouse, four miles away, was challenging. I would not been able to find my way without GPS navigation even though I had made that daily commute for several years. Roads that had dead ended now went through where trees and fields used to be. Simple intersections had become complex cloverleafs. And small mom-and-pop shops which once stood out from the woods were now lost amongst strip malls and multi-story buildings. I was surprised how different everything looked; the former roads, route, and rural areas looked eerily familiar like an intimate face in a crowd of people.

I signed the paperwork to build my townhouse eight months before it was completed when it was a dirt lot, freshly deforested. My planned community was nestled in the woods adjacent to the Washington & Old Dominion rail-trail next to several abandon homes. Now, these shacks are neighbors with small McMansions.

It's a little sad to see nature destroyed in the name of progress, but I am one of the guilty. Which reminds me of an old joke...

What's the difference between a developer and an environmentalist?
A developer goes into the woods to build a home. An environmentalist already owns a home that's been built in the woods.

New McMansions.
Old homes.

Legalizing Cannabis

For the first time a clear majority of Americans have favored legalizing marijuana. Although I have never used pot – despite the fact that I was diagnosed with stage IV metastasized cancer and treated with chemo for six months –  I'm sure that it's only a matter of time until it becomes mainstream as more and more states legalize it like Colorado and Washington even though it's still illegal under federal law.

When I was a kid, pot was vilified almost as badly as homosexuality. Growing up, I was taught that being gay was "sick" – a condition that needed to be cured, medically. I've never seen so much hate generated against people who want to love. Now, being gay is legally okay as same-sex marriage is accepted with pot not far behind.

Isn't smoking bad? Sure, but how many people die from a marijuana overdose? I was amazed when I saw the statistics. Overdosing from marijuana appears to be as likely as overdosing on nicotine from cigarettes: "... one would have to smoke thousands of [joints] in a short period of time to approach toxic levels." Plus, the medical benefits of pot seem to grossly outweigh the benefits of nicotine.

About two months ago I had a chance encounter with a 22 year old "drug dealer" who owned a medical marijuana dispensary in L.A. His revenues were more than $4,000/day and, after expenses, he cleared over $60,000/month. That's about three quarters of a million dollars per year for him to split with his business partner. It's an obvious understatement that pot, like cigarettes and caffeine (the world's most popular drug) are highly profitable.

Perhaps we've been caught up in the rhetoric, instead of the facts, when denouncing marijuana as former White House Fellow, neurosurgeon, and CNN Emmy award winning chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, revealed earlier this year?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Double Standard, Double-edged Sword

Double standards, when fairly applied, aren't a bad thing.

As a Marine private, I would be punished if I showed up 30 seconds late to muster. Yet, it wasn't a problem if an officer showed up late. Clearly that was a double standard – late is late, no matter your rank.

When I was a corporal I saw a fellow Marine, who was one rank lower than me, get caught shoplifting a pair of socks at the PX on Camp Pendleton. His reason for doing it? It seemed too easy to get away with it.

He ended up getting punished at office hours, reduced in rank, placed on restriction, and he had to forfeit two-thirds of his pay for a couple months.

Other than this infraction he was a model Marine – he followed orders, set a good example, and he was one of the fittest and fastest runners in my battalion of over a thousand personnel. A couple years later he applied for a prestigious assignment, embassy duty. He was accepted into the program and, not surprisingly, he did very well.

The Marines typically preach: To err is human, to forgive is divine. Neither of which is Marine Corps policy. But an enlisted Marine's ability to overcome a momentary lapse of judgment is a testimony to the belief that mistakes, even dumb ones, can be overcome.

Just to be clear, here's the double standard: Had it been a Marine officer who was caught shoplifting then his/her career would be over. A Marine officer's judgment should be impeccable. Same rules, different results. A double standard? Yes. Appropriate? You bet.

Happy birthday Marines and happy Veterans Day.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Doing it Right

One thing that gets me excited is elegant customer service which I've blogged about many times.

One thing that bums me out is the lack of dry cleaners in my neighborhood. There is not a single one near the southeast tip of Balboa Park which means I have to go downtown – not convenient or cheap.

After reading several reviews on Yelp, one dry cleaner floated to the top: Adamo. Customers spoke of the superb service from the proprietor, Mrs. Lee. But, the challenge with this cleaner is it's in a busy area of downtown so parking is difficult.

When I told Mrs. Lee that it was my first time she gave me a discount when I paid at drop off. She pointed out that it's hard to park on the street and she recommended that I call her from the curb and she'd bring out my dry cleaning. 

No Ticket Needed

As I rolled up to retrieve my dry cleaning there was a Budweiser truck double parked while the driver was unloading beer directly in front of Adamo so I pulled in behind the truck and called Mrs. Lee. 

"Hello?" answered Mrs. Lee.

"Mrs. Lee, my name is Joe Moreno. I have some dry cleaning to pickup and I'm out front behind the Budweiser truck...," I said.

She interrupted, "Oh, your stuff is here and it's all done."

"Do you need my ticket number?" I asked.

"No, I'll bring it out to you in just a minute," she answered.

Less than 60 seconds later I saw Mrs. Lee walk out of the store with my dry cleaning. As she handed it to me she pointed out that she was careful not to iron the seersucker shirt. A point I made to her when dropping it off. She also showed me where my ties were hanging too. The entire handoff took less than ten seconds.

It's impressive that she remembered not only my order, simply by name, but also the details. Everyone loves to be treated well, no matter what we're paying.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

'Cannonball Run' Speed Record Shattered

I was thrilled to see a photo of my buddy, Dave Black, in the lead article on as part of a team that broke the cross country driving record from NYC to LA in a Mercedes Benz. I just got off the phone with Dave – he and I worked together on a daily basis at Apple's K–12 division ten years ago – and he's very pleased at the favorable attention his team's received and his driving partner, Ed Bolian, is flying off to New York for an interview on the Today Show.

Dave's always been enamored with the opening scene of the Cannonball Run and he realized his dream of owning a Lamborghini last year.

There's nothing like hot women driving a hot car through the hot desert to stimulate the attention of a teenage boy.


Sure, speeding from NYC to LA is risky from both a safety and legal point; after all, they did average 98 mph and topped out at 158 mph. To that end, I'd say those who have never intentionally sped can cast the first stone. The team did some very detailed planning and Dave is experienced at high speed driving both on the race track and on the Autobahn. And, sure, they could get in trouble for this if some legal evidence is discovered and prosecuted – but I suspect that won't be the case for a couple reasons. First, no single law enforcement agency was embarrassed like the NYC police department this past summer. Second, the long arm of the law would have to prove who was driving and when.

This accomplishment, in a non-reckless manner, is a testimonial to the entrepreneurial spirit that defines Dave's life.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Conspiracy Theories Abound

When I find myself writing a long e-mail explaining something or I repeat myself on the same topic then it's worthy of a blog post.

In the past ten days I've found myself responding to conspiracy theories from several different people so now I'm more than happy to pontificate on the topic.

Generally speaking, a large public conspiracy becomes very obvious after the fact.

Moon Landings
Did we really land on the moon? Of course we did – do you really think it would have been possible to keep so many people, who participated, quiet. (Remember Capricorn One)? What would be their motivation to remain silent so many decades later? At some point in the future we'll take tourist trips to the moon to visit the Apollo 11 historic site which will look the same as it did when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin departed in 1969. But there's no shortage of people who think the Apollo moon landings were a conspiracy. These people end up getting punched in the face, literally, by a former astronaut.

What does a real life conspiracy look like? To answer that question we needn't look any further than 9/11 which was clearly a conspiracy. It's no small coincidence that four planes were highjacked at the same time with the same mission — those 19 highjackers were working together. That's what a conspiracy looks like.

On the flip side, conspiracy theories postulating that explosives were used to bring down the World Trade Center towers couldn't be further from the truth. I've heard arguments about how elegant and controlled the collapse of the towers looked, but, realistically, skyscrapers are like a house of cards. They're mostly filled with empty space and they fall in on themselves much like a house of cards we built as kids – there's no toppling them over like a tree.

Inside of a tree: rock solid; inside of a skyscraper: mostly empty.

Tin Foil Hats
Of course there are more extreme conspiracy theories where people believe the government is listening in on all of our conversations... um... you know... I hate it when they're right for the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation

Jonathan Zufi sent me a copy of his new coffee table book, Iconic. This magnum opus is as much about Apple's artistic design as it is about innovation. Turning the pages and seeing Apple's products so finely photographed brings nostalgic memories like flipping through a yearbook and seeing old, familiar, faces. For me, many of these products have a deeply personal story behind them.

As a former Apple employee, whom this book is dedicated to, I feel a special connection to every product that was released when I worked at the company. It feels more like a part of me – a personal experience – than simply a look back in history. These products were and are an important part of my life and a day doesn't go by when I don't experience an Apple product. Everything of worth that I've created in the past 15 years started with one of these products from designing web apps to selling digital photos; from creating playlists to making movies; from publishing articles to writing code.

Iconic is an Apple museum, up close and personal. OS X Server and WebObjects, Aperture and iPods, Mac minis and even packaging and prototypes – they're all in there. Iconic is to printed books as Apple products are to electronics: simple beauty.

Monday, October 28, 2013

My Civic Duty

Learning about jury duty from an "actual juror."
What better way to pass the time on jury duty than to blog about it?

I've never served on a civilian jury, but I have participated in courts-martial. In the military, the jury is referred to as the members and the foreperson is called the president. In the summer of 1996 I served as the president of a special court-martial. I had no idea what the case was about until the first witness took the stand and described her consenting sexual encounters, in detail, with the accused who was a Marine sergeant.

Some key differences between a military trial and a civilian trial is that the members (jurors) are allowed to question witnesses after the defense and prosecution are done. To avoid any inappropriate questions the members write them down on a slip of paper which the bailiff passes to the judge for review. If the judge has no concerns then both the defense and the prosecution have a chance to review the question and object before it's asked of the witness.

Another key difference about a court-martial was that we, the members, also chose the sentence for the crime. Since we found the sergeant guilty our choices varied from no punishment, other than the guilty verdict, to time in the brig (prison). As the members, we deliberated and voted on each possible punishment starting with the least severe until we had a consensus. We ended up sentencing the sergeant to reduction in rank to corporal and forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for several months. Realistically, a guilty verdict was a career ender since this conviction would give the sergeant a black mark preventing his reenlistment.

The charges against the sergeant were adultery which is rarely prosecuted unless there's a confession or overwhelming evidence such as a video. Adultery along with sodomy and oral sex are still violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In other words, these acts are crimes for active duty military personnel – even between married partners.

Well, it looks like my name was called for an eight day trial. I'm one of 47 for this trial. Let's see where it goes from here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Seeing All Facebook Updates

I was having a discussion about why we don't see all of our friends' updates on Facebook. There is no shortage of times when I haven't seen a friend's update in my Facebook feed only to explicitly check their wall to find that I've missed a slew of updates that were never displayed in my stream. This can be annoying. The best answer I've come up with is that Facebook displays updates based on how much you interact with others.

I've come up with a solution when there's someone who I really want to follow. Usually, these are friends or family who don't post very often, but, when they do, I want to know about it.

To explicitly receive all of their updates, I visit their Facebook page and mouse over the Friends button which displays a drop-down menu. On that menu I'll check the Close Friends setting and then click the Settings... option which allows me to pick exactly which updates I'll receive. Now, whenever they make an update, I'll receive a red badge notification icon in my web browser and a push notification to my iOS devices.

Like most things on Facebook, it's simple, but only if you know exactly where to look.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Old School Personal Computing

Today, I was reminiscing with a Twitter buddy about old school personal computing of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Back then, I was in junior high school and I remember how exciting it was to learn how computers worked. My first computer, the TRS-80 Model I, didn't even have an operating system. When I booted the computer I was immediately placed into a BASIC interpreter. From there I could either write a program from scratch or load one from a cassette tape. In those days there was no multitasking – only one program could be loaded in memory at a time.

There were two types of programs that I could load into my computer, either BASIC or machine language. With BASIC I learned the fundamentals of computer science: variable assignments, tests, and jumps. I recall how thrilled I was to learn more advanced data structures like arrays where I could randomly pull values out of the array, systematically.

After learning this high level language I moved onto assembly language for the Z-80 microprocessor which was fast but at the expense of having formal data structures created on the heap. The Z-80 could only add and subtract so I'd have to manually loop through addition or subtraction routines to multiply and divide numbers.

One nice thing about multiplying by even numbers in binary is that it's faster to simply shift bits which is how we humans multiply by a factor of ten. Trying to figure out what 12 x 31 is in your head is not easy… trying to figure out what 123 x 100, even though they're bigger numbers, is simple to do without a calculator. Just shift the digits.

My first useful assembly language program was a memory tester that systematically wrote values to every single memory location and then read them back to make sure they hadn't changed.

Nowadays, computers are so inherently fast that low-level programming isn't required unless you need to touch the "metal" (direct memory addressing) for applications like device drivers.

Yup, the good ol' days of personal computing were simple, yet very exciting.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nostalgic for Friends and Tech

Nostalgia stimulates the brain with sentimental feelings for happy days gone by. Simple contact with friends and places from decades ago opens up a flood of memories like busting rust off an old gate hinge. Even painful memories endured by a group of people become pleasant in hindsight. Military folks, in particular, are predisposed to take pride in the very things they hate.

The past ten days have been exceptionally nostalgic for me along with hundreds of my classmates at our Naval Academy 20th reunion. Our reunion was nearly two years in the planning and it almost didn't happen due to the government shutdown. Our events were scheduled to begin on Thursday and end on Sunday with the climax being Saturday's tailgate at our home stadium in Annapolis. Since we were playing the Air Force Academy the Department of Defense was concerned regarding the perception over how the game could be viewed even though it's privately funded. Are football games between two military teams essential while non-essential federal workers are furloughed without paychecks?

Well over 1,100 people in attendance at our USNA '93 reunion.
Many of my classmates panicked when last Tuesday's official news stating that the upcoming weekend's intercollegiate sports at the service academies had been suspended. Most had bought reunion tickets and made travel plans months ago. A last minute cancellation would be costly for all of the families.

As the class president, I, along with our reunion chair and the heads of our key reunion events immediately started receiving e-mails, phone calls, texts, and Facebook messages on Tuesday afternoon asking for clarification, refunds, contingency plans, etc.

At the time I didn't realize how concerned some classmates were. But, in the interest of time I scheduled a live webcast for 9 PM EDT on Tuesday since we couldn't keep up with the deluge of requests for information. It wasn't until later that I realized how helpful the webcast was when people continuously thanked me, through out the reunion weekend, for hosting it. When I initially planned the webcast I thought that it might be a little over the top and I only expected a handful of live viewers.

We had about 70 people tuned in throughout the live webcast. My classmates could type their questions in the group chat window while we answered questions for more than half an hour. Evidentially, giving my classmates a couple friendly faces to look at while telling them everything would be okay and simultaneously answering their questions in real time was priceless. Recording the webcast for later viewing was a big win, too, especially since it could also be viewed on mobile devices.

I got very lucky with the webcast considering I only spent about 45 minutes preparing for it. I love it when technology just works.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


"I do nothing." That's what I tell people when they ask what I do for a living.

It's true in the sense that over the past six years I've worked for only eight months; and people aren't really interested in you until they're interested in you – in the mean time they want the short story. The key, when telling a story is to pull people in without shutting them out. If they're still interested then I tell them that I used to work at Apple and see where the conversation goes from there.

As I type this on a flight headed back to my 20 year college reunion at Annapolis I'm reminded that the "nothing" part goes back to Plebe Summer at the Naval Academy.

Plebes (freshmen) aren't allowed to leisurely walk down the hallways of our dorm. Instead, we have to "chop" which means we run while raising our knees up to hip level. Chopping looks ridiculous and feels a bit humiliating. It's easy to spot a plebe coming down the passageway making them easy targets for the upper class to torment.

One particularly hot afternoon, during Plebe Summer, I was chopping though the dorm, known as Bancroft Hall and affectionally referred to as "Mother B," when an upperclassman stopped me and started peppering me with questions. When my answers didn't come as fast as he liked he asked me, "What do you want to do in the Navy?"

For a guy like me, who had already served a few years in the Marines, my unfiltered response was, "Nothing, sir!"

My answer definitely caught him off guard and left a stunned look on his face as he wondered if I had been disrespectful. Within seconds I could see a flash of insight in his eyes. "Oh, let me guess, you want to be a Marine?"

"Sir, yes, sir," I replied being extra respectful as I was now treading on thin ice.

"Ok, fine. Now disappear. Shove off and get out of here," he said as I chopped into a room to catch my breath. My classmate's were equally surprised by my response to the upperclassman. Before the day was over the tale of my response had grown to "Absolutely nothing." Everyone loves a good story, even if it's about nothing.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Company Branding on Credit Card Statements

In the late 1990s I started going to races like 5Ks and marathons and taking photos of the runners as they crossed the finished line. Immediately after the race I'd set up my laptop with a dye-sublimation printer to sell the photos. When I told a friend what I was doing he described it as "instant gratification." Hence, that became the name of my company: The Instant Gratification Photo Company.  ( and then, later, I shortened it to

About a dozen years ago I started selling the photos on the web and I learned some valuable business lessons. I've already blogged about one important lesson on pricing.

Another interesting lesson was the experience of how the company name showed up on credit card statements. The full name of my company was simply too long to be displayed. So, a few weeks after a race I'd inevitably get a few phone calls from customers (usually a husband) asking, "What's this charge on my credit card from 'Instant Gratification?'" I'd get an immediate sigh of relief when I told them it was for their race photo.

This experience raised some interesting questions.
Did the name of the company ever cost me a sale? No.
Should I have shortened the company name to avoid these calls? Probably not since it just enhanced my brand at the cost of a few phone calls.

Anytime you can get your name in front of a customer is good for brand recognition, so don't forget about the credit card transaction.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Fascinating Doctors' Appointments

Over the past three years I've dieted for two weeks, annually, by virtually eliminating carbohydrates. It works very well for me as I mentioned last year. However, I've noticed an odd rash on my chest the last three times I've done this. At first I thought it was due to the heart rate monitor chest strap that I wear when running; perhaps my dog had licked it (he loved to lick salty stuff) and transferred some bacteria. But, that wasn't the cause.

A few weeks ago I tried treating one side of the rash with Cortizone to see if it responded without any luck so I made an appointment with my primary care physician. He was fascinated by the rash and said that he hadn't seen anything like that in his 24 years of practicing medicine. He gave me a few suggestions to eliminate variables that could cause it which I had already done. He joked that, perhaps, we had discovered a new disease that would get named after me and he'd get credit for the discovery. He took a photo of it and sent it to the dermatology department for a follow up appointment. 

The dermatologist diagnosed it as transient acantholytic dermatosis and saw me today to biopsy it but it was virtually gone – as soon as I reintroduced carbs into my diet it began to clear up. I suggested that it was somehow related to ketosis when I came across this piece speculating that it was prurigo pigmentosa. The dermatologist said that he had just read a medical journal article about that condition and noted that the rash was different. After we discussed the cause some more he did some research to see how ketones are excreted by the body when eliminating carbs from one's diet. It turns out that keytones come out in sweat and are likely the irritant causing the rash in combination with my chest strap.

Just like my primary care doctor, the dermatologist said he was fascinated since my visit made him have to "think" and that he might write a medical journal article about it. Unless... of course... the doctors in this medical group are encouraged to tell their patients how "special" they are. Nah... couldn't be, could it? 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Local WW II Pilot

Joe Pellerine, pilot and owner of Pacific Canvas.
Today I had to bring in my airplane's canvas cover for restitching. It was given to me by the previous owner so I have no idea how old it is. Luckily, it had the name of the original company stitched on it, Pacific Canvas of Oceanside, CA.

I called the company and spoke to an older gentleman named Joe who owned the business – he told me to bring in the canvas cover and they'd repair it for me. It turned out that it only needed an hour's worth of stitching to redo all of it so it'll be as good as new when I get it back.

As Joe wrote up my order he asked me if the canvas cover was for a boat. When I told him it was for a plane, his eyes lit up. For the better part of the next hour I eagerly listened to his experiences flying a B-25 in the South Pacific during WW II – including three crashes without getting a scratch. He loved flying so much that he'd bought three personal airplanes over the years.

He looked great for 90 years old. The only reason he stopped flying was due to heart surgery last year. He was as sharp as a tack but said that the anesthesia from his surgery had slowed him down a little as he continues to recover from it. I could have easily listened to his stories for another hour except that the Oceanside Fire Department showed up with some canvas work for Joe.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Human Innovation in High Tech

Innovation is something new – typically revolutionary – that reduces the cost of a transaction, in terms of time or money.
But is that necessarily a good thing?

The ideal application of any technology is something that enables you to be more productive while getting out of your way. This is the challenge with technology. Speaking on the phone is a great way to communicate, but subtle cues are missed such as facial expressions. Even with video chat the technology distracts and diminishes communication since users have to be concerned with trivial conditions like lighting and frame composition (i.e. how well can the other person see your face). The very enabling benefits of technology can also get in the way.

In addition to these issues is the prep period – the overhead with setting up and processing the technology. I can't see myself blink when I look in the mirror, but I can see myself blink when looking at a "live" video feed of myself on my computer.

Now we face the challenge with humanizing technology.

We see technology dehumanizing us everyday – and I am guiltier than most as seen in this video making the rounds the past few days. Rather than accepting the interruption of technology, we need to integrate it in better, more subtle ways.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Pilot Procedures and Paperwork

Last year, I mentioned how paperwork has been virtually eliminated from the cockpit due to the iPad. But, when flying through the clouds, pilots still need the old pen and paper.

There are two sets of rules pilots follow when flying an airplane: Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). In order to fly under VFR I need to be able to see a few miles and keep my distance from the clouds (the distances vary depending on the type of airspace I'm flying in).

A key limitation when flying VFR is that I am not allowed to fly into the clouds since I can't see who else might be in there. This problem is easily solved by filing an IFR flight plan since air traffic control will track me on radar and give me a specific route to fly.

Flying IFR is more complicated than the simple "see and avoid" technique used when flying VFR. For example, what do you do if you're flying under IFR in the clouds and you lose communications? (There are specific procedures to follow in this case – needless to say it's not a situation any pilot wants to find themselves in.)

Before departing under IFR I will file my IFR clearance request and then it will be issued to me just prior to taking off. It helps to know what clearance I'll be issued ahead of time since it's a mouthful to write down, as it's being issued, and then read back as you can hear in this simulation.

IFR clearance from San Carlos (SQL) to Carlsbad (CRQ).

To make things flow smoothly I jot down CRAFT (orange oval) in a column to remember all parts of the clearance:
C – Cleared to (usually my destination)
R – Route to fly (blue rectangle in photo)
A – Altitude to climb to
F – Frequency to switch to after departure
T – Transponder code to squawk so ATC can track me on radar

My notes from a three hour flight.
While it's perfectly acceptable to get an IFR clearance issued after taking off it certainly makes things more complex since I'd have to write all this down while flying the plane. It's much easier to do on the ground. Lightening a pilot's workload is the reason commercial airlines have two pilots (the captain and first officer).

Once I'm airborne ATC will usually guide me to fly a specific route until I'm established on my flight plan. It's handy to have ATC act as a second set of eyes looking out for my wellbeing. Occasionally, ATC will give me course adjustments to deviate for bad weather, traffic, or to shorten my route. If I have no course adjustments then the only thing I need to write down are new radio frequencies as controllers hand me off from one radar sector to another.

iPads are great but for quick notes, nothing beats a pen and paper.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Urban Life Conveniences

You can't miss the Amazon Locker by the front door of 7-11.
Today I had two firsts. I commuted on the San Diego public transit bus system and, this evening, I received a package from Amazon using their Locker delivery service.

Everyone's familiar with public buses, even people who never use them. But the Amazon Locker delivery service just started last year. It's perfect for people who live and work in big cities and don't want packages left sitting at their front door.

Instead of having your package shipped by Amazon to an address, they deliver it to a bank of lockers that they own, spread throughout the city. The shipping charges seem to be no different than if the package was shipped to your front door.

7-11 Amazon Locker at bus and trolly stop.
This evening, I received a confirmation e-mail that my package was ready for pick up. So, I hopped on the bus since the nearest bus stop is just a few hundred feet from my place. The last stop on my bus route was right outside – less than 100 feet – from the 7-11 where Amazon has a Locker delivery location. A perfect synergy since they're open 24/7.

Enter your code that pops open your locker.

Picking up my package was so quick I ended up reboarding the same bus that dropped me off because the driver had a five minute break. But, since my bus fare card is unlimited there was a "read error" when I tried to swipe it which the driver dismissed when he realized that I was the same person boarding the same bus.

Both the bus and Amazon Locker services were great customer experiences  – much better than I expected. Door-to-door was well under an hour for this two mile roundtrip  Best part is that the bus ride was effectively free and I didn't have to hunt for parking downtown.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Designing a Better Electronic Book

I love iBooks but nothing beats the durability of a real book. As great as it is to carry around my e-book library on my iPad, it can never compare to the feel of picking up a real book and flipping through it. That's a physical experience sorely lacking on all e-book readers.

So, can the real world feel of a book be duplicated electronically?

Perhaps.. one day... probably. The key is that a digital book would have to feel like a real book. One way to do this is with a digital book made of pages where each is a thin, flexible film, like e-paper, that feel like real pages.

Imagine an e-book full of a couple hundred blank pages made of thin, bendable computer displays. You'd select which book to load and each e-page would display a page of your book. You'd be reading e-ink text on real pages that you could flip through, highlight, take notes, etc.; much like iBooks or Kindle. Just don't dog-ear a page. For books longer than 200 pages, you could just cycle back – page 201 would appear on page one and so on. Now that would be best of both worlds.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Photo Behind the Photo

Michael taking a photo of a stranger taking a photo.
Last month I was walking to a San Diego Tech Week event with a former Apple coworker, Michael. He has a great eye for design and his work was regularly reviewed by Steve Jobs.

As we walked down the street, a woman stopped to take a photo, through a chain link fence, of some interesting artwork. As she snapped the photo, Michael had the presence of mind to snap a picture of this stranger. He showed her the photo and they exchanged phone numbers so they could text the images to one another.
A coworker taking a photo of me taking a photo.

Less than thirty minutes later, while at the event we were attending, Michael received the photo at the top right and we marveled at the impromptu collaboration that had just occurred. 

We don't know who the woman was, but, like Michael, she too obviously has a good eye.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Joyce Maynard Just Got Married

Joyce Maynard on the far right.
Joyce Maynard just got married.

This past May I attended Joyce's writing workshop at her home in Mill Valley about 20 minutes north of San Francisco. It was a day long affair where Joyce, along with seven of us, reviewed and commented on our manuscripts. While having lunch on her deck, which overlooks Mount Tamalpais, she pointed out the regrettable reality that her fame is too closely tied to the fact that she lived with J. D. Salinger – the recluse author of The Catcher in the Rye – for the better part of a year while writing her first book. Prefacing her bio with this makes it seem she's riding Salinger's coattails which couldn't be further from the truth. Her initial fame, that caught the eye of J. D. Salinger, was a feature article she wrote for The New York Times magazine, An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life, while a freshman at Yale.

Joyce Maynard's kitchen.
I've never attended a writing workshop before Joyce's. Although I've published paid and unpaid journalistic articles, interviews, and blog posts, I wanted to work on improving my writing ever since sticking my toe in the waters of fiction writing, last summer. Although Joyce has written fiction, her true talent is the personal narrative.

I don't recall exactly how I discovered Joyce's workshop other than it percolated to the top of my Google search results. I sent off an e-mail to Joyce with great timing. She promptly responded even though she was at her rural place in Guatemala on Lake Atitlán for her ten day writing workshop with limited Internet access. After a few e-mail exchanges I was signed up for her May workshop.

Joyce taught me more about writing in one day than I had learned anywhere else.

Joyce showed me how to quickly detect when there's a story to be told:
"I used to do ________ but now I do ________."
Every time I filled in those two blanks with my real life experiences I had a story to tell.

My manuscript autographed by Joyce Maynard.
A key point she taught me was to write personal narratives that only I could write. She said, "Don't be a reporter. Tell the story that only you can tell." This concept was new to me since much of my paid writing was exactly that: reporting. Very quickly, with each one of us at her workshop, she could figure out the story behind the story. As I listened to each writer's backstory I noticed myself leaning in to hear more. As Joyce asked me a few questions about my manuscript I realized where my deeper, more personal, and interesting story really was. She even gave me a resounding opening line for my manuscript rewrite.

I clearly understood her lessons; especially about how we should use symbols in our writing. Her biggest point that hit home with me was to write less, not more, much like my favorite author, Ernest Hemingway. Leave out small, unimportant details, and let your reader conclude how to get from point-A to point-B. The idea isn't to shut out your readers, but leave out just enough to pull them in like a mystery novel.

At the workshop, Joyce told me about her upcoming wedding plans and I've been following her updates ever since.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Oversimplifying Simplicity

The Way to Eden.
I'm reading Ken Segall's thoughts and experiences while working with Steve Jobs. He's had so much interaction with Steve while at Apple and NeXT that he's a cornucopia of best design and marketing practices.

Segall talks about how "one" is the simplest of concepts. It's an intriguing philosophy – there was even an entire episode of Star Trek dedicate to this concept and its followers.

This belief in "one" is why Apple's mice, track pads, iPhones, etc., from the beginning, have only one button. One is where it all begins.

What's the simplest numeral system? It's not base 10 (decimal) since you have to memorize 10 different digits. Is it base 2 (binary)? After all, computers and human DNA use binary to store information (ones and zeros, or A-T and C-G combinations). Certainly binary is the simplest? Au contraire; how many people can convert 1010 from binary to base 10? Not simple... not simple at all.

The simplest numeral system.
It turns out that unary is the simplest numeral system for representing natural numbers – in other words, unary uses just ones. This is how a cave man would keep track of "How many?" things he owed, even before there was written or spoken language. Take a pile of rocks and for each one of something, you move a rock to another pile. Do the reverse when taking inventory.

This is how a bouncer counts people at the door or how the simplest of card counters tries to beat the house at blackjack. We've all used unary to keep track of things when we tally items with four slashes and then a diagonal.

Something Simpler?
Where I disagree with Segall's thinking is when he points out "zero is the only number that's simpler than one." Ironically, this not the case as I learned from my assembly language professor, Mr. Lee. If you think back to when we learned Roman numerals in grade school (I, II, III, IV...) you'll quickly realize that there was no numeral for zero. This is also true in other ancient civilizations' numeral systems such as Chinese and Arabic. As simple as zero seems, it's a fairly complex concept to have nothing of something – just try to ask any handheld calculator to divide by zero and you'll see that it does not compute.

Trying to be simpler than the simplest makes things more complex.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How to Become an Astronaut

What's the first step to becoming an astronaut? Apply.

Click to enlarge

It was fairly obvious, last month, that I wasn't accepted as an AsCan when the Astronaut Class of 2013 was announced, but this letter I received today makes it official.

I've never been so fond of a rejection letter for a job I truly wanted.

Surprisingly, the basic qualifications to become an astronaut are fairly simple.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Personal Services via Mobile

As I type this, Betsy and Joel are here cleaning my condo – I scheduled this cleaning with Exec Cleaning. Since I've been spending more time downtown San Diego, to be closer to the tech scene, I've started using more and more personal services that I schedule with my iPhone such as Car2Go and Lyft.

Obviously, mobile and GPS are the key elements to the proliferation of these personal services. From the get-go, user-generated content and markets were the first to democratize the World Wide Web with the launch of eBay in 1995; and now, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter brought all of it into the social media realm.

The really nice aspect of these services is, like craigslist, there can be anonymous contact between the customer and the service provider and each can rate the other. Plus, customers can see photos of their service providers before they arrive.

Betsy checking in to begin cleaning.
Leading up to my cleaning, an Exec Cleaner contacted me via in-app texting. Even better is that a Lyft driver can call me (or I can call my Lyft driver) without our caller IDs showing up on each other's phone. When was the last time that you could track a taxi as it made its way through town to your front door?

I doubt these services will be a fad. Everyone needs to clean their home and travel around town; and the nice thing is that these services are becoming easier and easier to use. Of course, there's always room for innovation. I'm sure it won't be long until we see self-driving Car2Go vehicles.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Changing Business Models Through Technology

Innovation can be defined as anything that reduces the cost of a transaction.

It has been years since I washed my car in a self-serve carwash bay. Usually I get a carwash with a gas fill-up or go for the full detailing when needed.

Since today was a warm, sunny day I decided to try the self-serve carwash route. In the past, I'd have to bring singles and use the change machine to get quarters. Each quarter might buy me 15 seconds of wash time. The problem was I had to guess, ahead of time, how long it would take me to wash my car. How long was enough? Four minutes? Six minutes? It was either a race against the clock or money down the drain.

Nowadays, credit card readers are places I never considered five or ten years ago, from smartphones to parking meters; and, of course, at self-serve car wash bays. Much like Car2Go's pay-by-the-minute rentals or Amazon's pay-by-the-hour servers the self-serve carwash bays now let you pay for only what you need. Just swipe your credit card and turn the dial from pre-wash, to soap brush, to rinse whenever you're ready. A much better UX.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Neat iPhone Photography Trick

I love photography with my iPhone. Since I got my iPhone 5 I have taken well over 11,000 pictures. One thing I wish I could do is take a photo with a remote shutter release. Sometimes – especially in low light – just depressing the virtual button on the screen (or the volume control) to snap a photo is enough to blur the image.

Today, I discovered that pressing the volume button on the iPhone's earphone cable will take a photo. Very handy – especially when you're trying to take a selfie at arm's length.

Of course this works equally well on other iOS devices as well as with third-party earphone volume controls.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On the go with Car2Go

I've been looking for a better way after spending $10 – $15 each time I took a two-mile taxi trip from my place to downtown San Diego. Luckily, yesterday's San Diego celebration of Social Media Day was sponsored by Car2Go.

Car2Go lets you rent electric Smart cars by the minute, for only 38¢/minute with no minimum and the first two minutes are free. (Zipcar, a competitor to Car2Go, rents vehicles by the hour and their pricing seems more expensive and complex.) Additionally, you can drop off the car most anywhere in city. There's a $35 application fee and the most you'll pay per hour is $14 with a $73/day limit.

I was talking about this service with some buddies at this morning's San Diego Tech Coffee and they told me that the local office was only about ten blocks away. So, I hoofed it over to the Car2Go office and signed up. Normally, when you sign up it's a few days until you receive your RFID membership card in the mail. Since I walked into the office they issued my card on the spot. There was one slightly frustrating gotcha that involved obtaining a copy of my driving record, for $2, from the DMV. The DMV site was a little difficult to navigate on my iPad. Other than that, the process went smoothly. I paid my application fee and was issued a Car2Go card.

The receptionist took me out front and showed me the simple steps to get going. After a quick walk around the tiny car to check for damage, she showed me how to unlock it by placing my Car2Go membership card against the reader in the windshield which started the billing clock. Likewise, swiping your access card at the end of trip ends the billing cycle. Once I sat in the driver's seat I accepted a terms of service agreement on the display and then noted any damage while rating the interior and exterior for cleanliness.

The car key is stored next to the computer screen which I removed and placed in the ignition. I don't have much experience driving electric cars so I'll need to get used to the fact that when I place the key in the ignition and turn it, nothing happens other than the radio and air conditioner come on. Since it's all electric, the giddyup of a traditional car isn't there. Pressing on the gas pedal – I mean accelerator – has a small, but noticeable, amount of lag.

Reservations, Parking, & Refueling
The beauty of this service is that you can reserve a car 30 minutes ahead of time, via their website or smart phone app (there is no shortage of cars in my neighborhood after work hours), and you don't have to pay for parking. You can park in most any spot as long as it allows parking for more than an hour and the city parking enforcement officers don't ticket these vehicles. One other key stipulation is that there can't be a parking restriction within the following 24 hours such as a street sweeping. The city also has special electric vehicle parking spots. Additionally, the car comes with a refueling card so you can park it in specific parking lots with charging stations.

I'm in love with downtown driving now that getting there is half the fun. The only thing better will be when Car2Go has self-driving vehicles.

High Tech Food Service

Is high tech better? Sometimes, yes, but not always; especially as we try to navigate a touch tone phone menu when calling customer service.

This morning I had breakfast at a cafe where customers only interact with the cashier when placing orders for coffee. Ordering food is done via one of four iPads next to the cash register.

I had never used this system before, so today's experiences will probably be my slowest. The first step was to swipe my credit card and then select the type of meal I wanted such as breakfast or lunch. Once I selected breakfast, I could choose from a few categories such as egg sandwiches, fruit, or pastries. The choice of egg sandwich toppings was more than I expected. Generally, when I place an order with a cashier and have to select a cheese I usually only consider the basics such as American, cheddar, or Swiss; but this iPad ordering system had unexpectedly more options – after all, there are a lot of cheeses in the world. So, having more options, without being overwhelmed, is a good thing. As I selected each topping, my choices were reinforced with a photo the item.

While placing my order – a task that took about two minutes – I could feel the coffee drink line, next to me, moving much faster than I was moving as drink order, after drink order, was being placed and filled. I felt a bit like I was being left behind.

The last step when checking out was to pick up a pager, next to the counter, and enter the pager's number in my order so they could let me know when my food was ready. Once I clicked the final button I felt like something was missing even though my order was complete: I hadn't tendered payment. Don't we pay after we order? Since the first step was to swipe my credit card, payment was already taken care of.

This system felt a bit odd and it's certainly impersonal. But, I totally understand the benefits from the business's point of view. Why hold up quick and simple coffee orders because of complex and lengthly food orders? Also, customers can quickly get used to the process as they see that they have more options when ordering food.

I was struck by an irony after ordering my breakfast. We, as customers, want personal service when ordering face-to-face even though we can't hide our identity, yet we find it creepy when Google ads pop up as we surf the web based on our personal, yet anonymous, habits. But, for those who want to forgo the the HCI at this cafe, there's a lone cash register where a customer can belly up and order the old fashioned way.