Friday, June 22, 2018

OTR: Saying Good Bye to Facebook

Back in the early days of the online world, I was an enthusiastic participant in the world of AOL -- America OnLine. The nightly melody of my modem connecting, followed by a hearty, "You've got mail!". I discovered a whole new connected world -- and the ugliness of much of it. Long before the term "troll" was used widely, AOL hosted plenty of them in chat rooms and I learned the meaning of the phrase, "If you roll in the mud with pigs, you're going to get dirty and the pig will enjoy it." I learned early on to try not to engage with people who were just there to provoke you -- but it didn't always keep my fingers off the keyboard.

When Facebook came about, I wasn't a real early adopter. I finally joined and became somewhat addicted to it, accumulating over 300 connections to family, friends, and acquaintances. They represented almost every aspect of my life from grade school friends to former co-workers. I had one hard and fast rule -- never connect to a current co-worker.  By and large, these were folks who I knew fairly well at some point in life. Some connections were re-established courtesy of Facebook and it was fun to see what people were doing, often decades removed from when we last connected in real life.

Much of Facebook was fairly benign -- vacations and food, kids and random thoughts. Sunsets, pets, an interesting article. I posted much of the same. But over the past couple years, Facebook has become a place to vent your spleen. I've learned much about the political leanings of friends and colleagues. And I didn't always like what I saw. People that I respected as colleagues made me angry or caused me to question their intelligence. I unfriended a few at the fringe of acquaintanceship and stopped getting posts from a few others. But then I saw people that I knew fussing at each other, with others clearly posting things to incite people. While I treasured looking at Facebook for the fun and happy things, I found myself getting angry and depressed about what was out there.

The security guy inside me started to worry about posting real time pictures on vacation or during work travel. And what was left was a lot of stuff that not a whole lot of people likely cared much about.

Then all the blather started about how Facebook was selling data. While I knew that was pretty much always the case (I've used the cartoon above a lot over the years), it became much more real. I thought about pulling the plug on my account. But I kept coming back for connections with people that I truly cared about and didn't see much. I wanted to see the latest pictures or video of my grand-nephew. I wanted to see what was happening at the train museum or the Air Force Museum. But people kept making me angry.

I finally decided to pull the plug on just about everyone. Family generally got a pass. Neighbors and my longest friends got a pass. And I hung on to a few friends who hadn't ticked me off yet. Everyone else was unfriended. Well over 200 people. In the process I also realized that four of my friends were no longer with us, except on Facebook. I really didn't want to unfriend them, but it seemed silly to maintain a connection that would never be active again in this life.

I cleaned up some other things, deleting some "likes"and continued to do so in my News Feed as it settled into its new content. Suddenly, Facebook seemed a lot calmer and quieter. I was seeing content that I really cared about. And I didn't feel like I had to check in regularly to see what I had missed.

I'll continue to whittle things down as I adjust to my new view of Facebook. I want it to be about family and close friends, fun and happiness.

So if I disappeared from your feed, now you know why. No offense. You may never have raised my blood pressure, but it was time to take stock and refocus. If you're a professional colleague, you can find me on LinkedIn. Odds are, we had that connection as well. And yes, you can find me in real life, too.

Friday, June 1, 2018

OTR: Mobile Phone Mobility

I got my first cellular phone in the early 90's. My Dad had a "car phone" pretty much when they came out in the mid-80's, but the price points weren't good for me until 1994 or so. Even then, you didn't use the phone for continual talking and you were mighty careful about "roaming charges" when you were outside of your home coverage area. And those phones were heavy -- and battery life sucked.

I'm not sure that I could name all of the phones I've had since then, but I'm pretty much managed to keep the same phone numbers and service provider (Cellular One turned into AT&T) for almost 25 years. Along the way, I've also had employer-provided devices at different times, but always maintained a personal mobile phone account. At different times, I carried two phones until "BYOD" became more popular and I decided that I could use my personal phone for limited business purposes.

One of the keys along the way was that getting the cell phone from the carrier was rarely a heart-stopping financial proposition. The phones were "subsidized" and could generally be purchased (with a two-year contract) for $100 to $200 or so. That has stopped and top of the line smartphones are now a $600 to $1000 expense. Phones that are a generation removed from what's current are cheaper and there are dozens of phones out there from various manufacturers at many price points. But if you want the new iPhone or the latest Galaxy, be prepared to pay up -- or pay the phone company on an installment plan.

About a year ago, as my iPhone 5 aged and I found out that Apple had set an end of life date (no more updates), I started to think about a replacement. But the thought of dropping $600+ on a cell phone wasn't where I wanted to be. I can get a decent laptop at that price point and while my phone is always with me, I'm just not prepared for that kind of expense on something that I'll likely be looking to replace in 24 to 36 months.

At the same time, one of my daughters was going to be spending the summer abroad and needed a phone that worked locally for emergency purposes. I had decided by then that I probably needed to move away from Apple and look for an unlocked phone that had global capabilities. If I could find the right phone at the right price point, my daughter would have a phone to use for the summer abroad. When she got home, she could go back to her iPhone and I'd use the phone she had taken on her trip. It was time to shop.

Once you leave the Apple ecosystem, your only real choice is something Android. With Android, you're wedded to Google, which isn't horrible. It's just a different ecosystem. The problem, however, is that with lots of different phone manufacturers, you can't be sure what flavor of Android you're going to get and how long it will be updated and supported. But poking around Amazon, I found more palatable price points. These days, your market-leading Android phones tend to be from Samsung. The challenge of Samsung is the price points are similar to Apple. Once you get past Samsung, you see a lot of names you might not be familiar with. I knew of some of these companies from my past employer and had varying degrees of distrust of some of them. I ended up going back to look at Motorola. Even though Motorola is owned by Lenovo now (just the mobile phone company), I still know a few people there and I know the phones are still mostly designed and engineered in the US.

I turned to features. I wanted a removable memory card so I could add the amount of storage I needed for photos and apps. I always seem to be out of space on iPhones. One feature I was keen to try out was dual SIM capability. The mobile phone can hold two SIM cards and thus operate on your "home" carrier as well as another carrier. This is useful when traveling abroad because you can purchase a local SIM card and use that for calls where you are, while retaining access to your "home" number and text messages. This reduces the roaming costs abroad. However, no US-based carrier sells dual SIM phones. So I was off to Amazon. After some searching, I found a Motorola G4 with dual SIM capability (model XT1621). The phone had a nice look and after reviewing Frequency Check (, I found that it had very good support for most carriers globally -- and particularly for the country where my daughter was going. The price point was under $200. I picked up a protective case and a 128GB MicroSD card (the nice thing about Android phones is that they have expandable and removable memory capacity) for another $50 or so.

The phone arrived in a couple days. First thing I noticed when setting it up was that it was a phone designed for Mexico and Latin America, so I had to change the language setting to English. After that, it was fine, but when device updates show up, you see the update description in Spanish. A minor issue, to be sure. Android devices are easy to set up, assuming you have a Google account. What was interesting is that Google remembered my prior Motorola Android phones, even though I hadn't used Android in a number of years. So I was reunited with a few apps. Setup was quite smooth and easy. I stopped by a Target store to pick up a TracFone SIM card so I could try out the phone before committing to it. That process wasn't as smooth as I would have liked, but I was able to get the phone functioning and making calls.

I played with the phone for a week or so, getting used to the interface again and then decided to move my primary SIM card over from my iPhone. Ooops. The SIM card was the wrong size. A trip to the AT&T store solved that issue. So now I had two SIM cards functioning in the phone. What's interesting with this setup is that you can select which SIM card does what. In theory, you could have a SIM card that is used primarily for data, and one that is used for voice calls. Or you can make one used for most things, with the second just listening for calls. When you make a call or send a text, you can also select which SIM is used. I did notice, however, that you needed to put the SIM for data use in Slot 1 to benefit from high speed data connectivity. The radios associated with Slot 2 were slightly degraded, so Slot 2 is best used for voice and text only.

My daughter came home from school and I proudly showed her the phone. She poked at it for a bit and declared that she didn't like the interface. She ended up taking her iPhone with her, but only using it for wi-fi, which actually worked well. She ended up getting a local phone from her host family because she could never find a SIM card that worked right.

Since I had the phone set up, I continued to use it, ultimately upgrading to the Motorola G5 Plus (XT1681), which is also a dual SIM phone. Frequency Check confirmed that it was compatible around the globe. I've hung on to the TracFone SIM because it is a nice back up and super cheap -- although I sometimes wonder about who had the number previously because I've gotten a few odd phone calls. That phone was a little more expensive, but still below $300. That's been my everyday phone for six months. It works well, has a nice screen size, and I have few complaints. The biggest complaint is that they apparently had to remove one feature to accommodate the second SIM slot -- the magnetometer that is used as a compass. Not a huge deal, but sometimes the GPS gets confused. You also can't use one of my favorite apps, Sky Map, because the app can't track the orientation of the phone against the sky. But I live outside Chicago and you usually can't see a whole lot of stars in the night sky anyway.

The nice thing is that I've purchased two phones in one year for less than an iPhone. They work well and have greater flexibility. Both will work well in most countries around the globe, and if I want to get a local SIM card, I won't be fussing with AT&T to unlock my phone. If I get bored with the phone or see a new one, I'm not wrestling with justifying a huge price tag. If  I lose or break the phone, I'm not going to be crying over the cost to replace. I've found mobile phone mobility.

OTR: The "Free" Conference Invitation

It's been a while, but there was a period of time where it seemed like I was getting fairly regular invitations to be "qualified" to attend educational conferences for "free" -- just get to the venue and the education, lodging, and meals were "free". (You'll note that I keep putting quotes around "free".)

Most of these conferences had a technology or legal angle. Most of them held no interest for me. Finally, one came my way that actually looked pretty good. I did a little research on the organization that sponsored the event and didn't find any big red flags. Some people complained that the organization didn't pay for transportation, but that didn't seem to be a big deal.

The "qualification" process was pretty extensive and, in retrospect, boiled down to whether or not I have some authority to buy stuff and whether or not I was in the market for various things associated with the focus of the conference. As it happened, I was looking for a solution and also wanted to look across the marketplace. So I qualified. Apparently it also didn't hurt to have "Director" in my job title, as this was an "executive conference". The contract (wait, what?) came and I found out that not only did I have to commit to be there, but I also needed to have sit downs with something like six or seven vendors. (Uh. oh.) The sit downs were supposed to be for no more than ten minutes each and I could actually find the required number that I wanted to talk to. The fine print in the contract indicated that if I didn't show or failed to make the requisite number of vendor meetings, I'd be on the hook for the full price of the conference, lodging, and meals (multiple thousands of dollars). Had the lawyers take a look at the contract and sign on behalf of the company and I was good to go.

So off I went to some faux chateau winery setting an hour out of Atlanta. The venue was nice, the accommodations were fine, and there was a good crowd. The sessions were good enough, if not memorable. The meals were heavy. The days were long. The vendor sit-downs were... interesting. Think speed dating with vendors. In my itinerary, I had a schedule of vendor meetings. There were dedicated times during the day where you had to take the meetings. Picture a ballroom full of curtained 8 by 8 spaces consisting of a vendor name, a small table, and a few stackable banquet chairs. First you had to find your "date", then a chime or something started the conversation. Awkward introductions, a quick outline of what the vendor could do, then you got to talk about what you needed. Then a chime and you were off to find the next one. After the first day, the vendors were looking pretty ragged. They talked to a lot of people and I got a sense that a lot of the attendees were not planning to buy anything, so there were lots of very forced conversations. The funny thing was, while I got the usual post conference blizzard of mail and phone calls, the people I talked to generally had done a really bad job of taking notes and recalling what I was interested in. Wasn't a very effective sales process.

The lesson that I learned, though, was that when you're offered a "free" conference, you're probably paying for it in some way.

Monday, April 2, 2018

OTR: Autonomous Vehicles

I spend a couple hours of each day rolling up and down the Tri-State Tollway going to and from work. The road is pretty busy when I'm out there, with lots of trucks, but the flow of traffic, when it is moving well, is usually quite a bit above the posted speed limit. It's not quite a "black diamond" driving experience, but certainly one that will keep your attention.

I've often thought that these commutes would be perfect for autonomous driving. I'd love to be able to handle email, participate in conference calls (shared screens and all), or catch up on my reading. There would be two hours of time turned productive! Instead, I surf SiriusXM for some good music, think about issues at work, mentally compose blog posts, and so forth. I also react to the drivers around me. Trucks have a bad habit of wandering from lane to lane and driving in the lanes that they aren't supposed to drive in. Automobiles show evidence of distracted drivers, with sometimes very severe evidence in the form of a crash or two. I tend to drive very defensively and leave a fair amount of space between myself and the car ahead of me -- probably to the chagrin of other drivers. I try to moderate my speed and use that space to slow down gradually, rather than slamming on the brakes. It keeps the adrenaline level moderate -- and the brakes last longer.

In my musing, I think about all the things a driver needs to be aware of -- speed, distance, cars proximate to your own car, road hazards, things falling off of other vehicles, badly marked lanes, changes in lane availability due to construction or accidents. When I think about programming software to manage all of those variables, my head hurts. But clearly, the software and surrounding technology has been developed, because it exists in a number of forms.

The question is how good that software might be. In recent weeks, we've seen an accident involving a pedestrian who was hit by an autonomous vehicle. We've also seen a fatal accident where a vehicle utilizing some aspects of autonomy allegedly did not perform as expected. In both instances, a human driver was at the wheel, but did not take control in time to avoid the accidents. The root cause of each accident has not yet been determined. It could be software; it could be sensors; it could be integration of software and sensors; or it could be human error. It also could be something that the sensors or the software weren't prepared to identify and react to.

I think about driving on Chicago-area roads, where moon-crater potholes bloom before the tulips. Many of the same roads suffer from worn out paint demarking the lanes, or paint that was clearly not mixed to specification for use on roadways. There's a manhole in a travel lane on I-290 that was not constructed to be level with the roadway and I've learned to avoid rolling over it each day. I've learned that a vehicle having trouble maintaining its lane and speed is probably being driven by a distracted or impaired driver and needs to be given plenty of room. An exploding truck tire in front of you will result in a lot of flying debris in a hurry. Mix in some unplowed snow or something that has leaked out of a vehicle, and there are lots of things to consider when letting the vehicle find its own way down the road. How will sensors "see" through heavy snow piling up in front of them? Think about the number of cars rolling down the road with inches of snow on the roof and a just a small spot on the window for the driver to see out. What about cleaning of salt or mud or other substances that get in the way of the sensors?

Perhaps the biggest problem and barrier to autonomous driving is that the roads will remain full of human-piloted vehicles for the foreseeable future. That adds a ton of unpredictability and variability. In a homogeneous environment when all vehicles are automated, the vehicles can "talk" to each other and the rate of predictability should increase -- although that will likely require standardized communications protocols and standardized reaction programming.

Looking forward, I think about the future vehicle (possibly a shared vehicle) with no human controls on board. Each day, I let Waze guide me on the quickest route to and from work. It's a remarkable tool, but I often deviate from it. I see a train blocking the road that Waze wants me to go on. I see flashing lights on a different road and realize that an accident just happened. Whatever. I also know that Waze can't get me to the front door of the building I work in. For some reason, it points me to a nearby building.

And here's the practical question -- where will that autonomous vehicle park? I guess in that future, the vehicle will drop you off in front of the building, then go find a place to park that really doesn't matter to the human. And who will fuel or charge the vehicle? I guess maybe there will be automated fuel or charging stations that the vehicles will seek out during the work day.

The other thing is that there really will be no more opportunity to "just go for a ride", with no destination in mind, just exploring back roads or seeing things you've never seen before. If you're not steering, trying to set up a wandering route will likely cause you to spend more time with your head down in a navigation app.

I'm not saying that the autonomous future will never come -- we're just at the birth of the technology. In ten years, I'll probably laugh at this post.