Movie Recommendation: Enough Said

My wife and I watched Enough Said last night. I’ve loved James Gandolfini since The Sopranos and we’re both big Julia Louis-Dreyfus fans because of Seinfeld and Veep. Catherine Keener is also here, doing a brilliant job of walking the line between uppity bitch and best friend material.

We both enjoyed the film and I highly recommend it. Doubly so if you’re a fan of Gandolfini or Louis-Dreyfus. He continues his tradition of characters that are more than meets the eye. Gandolfini has never been a looker, but he’s always had an ability to charm the pants off the camera and by extension the audience. In Enough Said his ability to disarm and endear so easily is sweet (as opposed to terrifying in the Sopranos). It’s fun to see him this way. Louis-Dreyfus is good, gorgeous, and funny as the flawed protagonist with a list of self-imposed first world problems a mile long. Supporting players Toni Collette and Ben Falcone also turn in great, but limited, performances as a bickering married couple.

It’s notable and sad that this is the last work of Gandolfini currently in release. He died in June last year. There are two more completed projects, a film and TV pilot, both listed on his IMDB page. Neither are yet available for viewing.

Spyderco Delica4 Review Photo

Review: Spyderco Delica4 Lightweight Plain Edge

I bought this Spyderco Pocket knife from Amazon (where I buy everything) in February 2012. Amazon has it listed as a Spyderco Delica4 Lightweight FRN Flat Ground PlainEdge Knife for ~$60, which is what I paid for it at the time. On the Spyderco website it’s listed as the Spyderco Delica4 Flat Ground FRN – C11F for $105.

I really like Spyderco knives and have owned close to a dozen over the years. This knife’s blue handle attracted my eye for subjective aesthetic reasons, but it’s also functional in that you can easily spot it should it fall to the ground out in nature. There just aren’t many things out there that are bright blue. (And if you do see something bright blue in nature, that’s a big warning sign–don’t eat it or touch it.)

This knife also seems to be a good size for everyday carry. When folded, It’s about 3/4 the length of your average pen or pencil and fits in a pocket nicely, clip or not. My last knife purchase before this one was a Spyderco Tenacious G-10. After carrying it for a few weeks, I found it was just a touch large for my tastes. I was never able to completely forget it was there. To me, it’s more of a campsite or trail knife.

When the Delica4 arrived via Amazon prime, natch, I was immediately pleased with the size and weight of the thing. The blue also looks great in person. Please note that you can get this knife in green. Do not buy a green pocket knife. Drop that in the woods at night and you’re boned.

Spyderco Delica4 Flat Ground FRN ~ C11F

Their FRN, or fiberglass reinforced nylon, handle feels great in the hand and won’t slip because of their excellent omnidirectional grip pattern. The blue color is not a surface ornamentation, it’s the color of the material through and through, so there isn’t any finish to collect marring or scratches over time.

The VG-10 steel blade is great. I know little about steel or the various types of steel, so here’s a link to the VG-10 Steel Wikipedia article. It basically says VG-10 is a quality Japanese steel originally created for culinary use, but has found its way into high end sport knives from Syderco, Kershaw, et al. It came to me razor sharp form the factory and holds an edge well. It gets plenty of abuse from being my EDC knife: opening boxes, assisting with the shotgunning of beers, prying at things it shouldn’t and other shenanigans. It will hold an edge for months under such conditions, but obviously your mileage may vary.

Functionally, I’ve always really liked the Spyderco thumb-hole. This blade’s thumb hole is big enough that you can flip the knife open one-handed with all but the thickest of gloves. The spine of the blade is textured (called jimping) so you can really get a good grip on it with your thumb when cutting and the pattern in the FRN handle materials resists slipping from all angles. It also comes with a clip that be attached to the blade itself in all four possible positions. Either side works, and it either be blade-up or blade-down in your pocket depending on how it’s attached to the clip.

Spyderco Delica4 Blue FRN

Here’s the official specs of my blue Delica4:

  • 7.125-inch open length
  • 4.25-inch closed length
  • 2.875-inch VG-10 steel blade
  • 2.56-inch cutting edge
  • 0.5-inch blade hole
  • 0.09-inch blade thickness
  • 2.5-ounce weight
  • FRN handle material

This is a great EDC knife. It looks good, is made up of quality materials, and is crafted with smart functional features. It’s pricey enough that Spyderco can afford to invest in making a lasting product, but it’s not so expensive that I’m afraid to use the thing.

How’s this for a final verdict: When I break this one or wear it out (which I expect will take a few more years of daily abuse) I’ll be purchasing another one. Maybe in orange

Which iPad Should I get? (iPad 3 Edition)

This is not a post for someone asking, “should I get an iPad?” This is more like an iPad buyer’s guide for those who’ve already decided they’re going to buy one.

The new iPads just came out today. They’re designated as “The new iPad” by Apple. Note the lower case “n”. It’s a naming convention that could get interesting down the line as they continue releasing new iPads. But I digress…

There are eight iPads as of this writing, you can learn more about them here at the Apple iPad product page. This leaves us with nine different options when going to buy an iPad…

  1. 16gb iPad 2 wifi – $399
  2. 16gb iPad 2 wifi+3G – $529
  3. 16gb new iPad (3) wifi – $499
  4. 32gb new iPad (3) wifi – $599
  5. 64gb new iPad (3) wifi – $699
  6. 16gb new iPad (3) wifi+4G – $629
  7. 32gb new iPad (3) wifi+4G – $729
  8. 64gb new iPad (3) wifi+4G – $829
  9. Wait for some future release of the iPad.

So the deciding factors are budget, space, wireless capability and “now or later?”

Since the new ones just came out, let’s go ahead and kill off option number nine, “Wait for some future release of the iPad.” In terms of getting the shiniest new toy before an upgrade, it won’t get any better than this.

iPad Budget & Purpose

The iPad has always been a really affordable computer, considering bang-for-the-buck from a hardware perspective as well as a capability perspective. With the new models, this just goteven better since Apple sruck to their usual m.o. by adding features and keeping the price the same.

There’s a lot that you can’t do on an iPad, but what you can do you’ll be able to do better on it than just about any other device. (This is basically Apple’s whole user experience model. Do less and just kill it, rather than just be serviceable at a bunch of stuff.)

The iPad continues to blow the doors off everything else for personal entertainment/education. It’s also noteworthy that thanks to the app store, a flexible interface and ultra portable form-factor, the iPad will continuously be updating its capabilities. Or more literally, there’s an army of developers and gadget makers that will be constantly updating the iPad’s abilities. This even includes Apple itself which is pretty great about free operating system updates that enhance their hardware’s feature set, performance and reliability.

Being affordable in a certain context, however, does not make it cheap. This thing still costs a handful of Benjamins, after all, even if you get the 16gb iPad 2 wifi for $399. And consider it’s a gadget and made by Apple. This means there’s a sure bet that it will get cheaper (or more capable for the same price) within 12 to 18 months. With those truisms as motivation, I’ll strike the two 64gb options from our list, because flash memory prices are currently plummeting like LCD screens were 3 years ago.

Conclusion:

Buying top-of-the-line when it comes to electronics is almost always a losing proposition. And if budget is a consideration at all, we don’t want to take that hit. Even eliminating the two most expensive from the range leaves us with several choices.

  1. 16gb iPad 2 wifi – $399
  2. 16gb iPad 2 wifi+3G – $529
  3. 16gb new iPad (3) wifi – $499
  4. 32gb new iPad (3) wifi – $599
  5. 16gb new iPad (3) wifi+3G – $629
  6. 32gb new iPad (3) wifi+3G – $729

iPad 2 or new iPad?

This is going to personal preference choice. There are going to be pros and cons of course.

The pros and cons of the iPad 2 are more easily summed up, so we’ll look at those first:

iPad 2 Pros:

  • Availability
  • Price
  • Is an iPad

Do you need it now? Have you been holding to buy one to see what the update looks like and are unimpressed? If you answered yes, yes, and yes; congratulations you’re going to save $100 on that iPad you’ve been holding off buying. (I hope you wanted it in 16gb. I’ll get into size issues more below.)

What sets the new iPad(3) apart is easily summed up in six bullets:

  • Retina Display (twice as many pixels):
    Is this a device for pleasure or utilitarian purposes? This is a big pro to me personally, but it’s definitely a luxury. Functionally you’ll be able to do 99.9% of the exact same tasks on an iPad 2 without a retina display.
  • A5X Processor (twice as fast):
    A faster processor is probably a must have for the gamers and producers that use their iPad for very hardware intensive play or for work. If you’re surfing the web and checking email, this may be no biggie.
  • Better Camera:
    Who is using the camera on iPad for anything but Facetime?
  • HD Video Playback:
    If you’re not going to watch movies on it, this is not a deal breaker.
  • Siri:
    Not to be too flippant here, but I’ve had an iPhone 4S since the day they came out and as much as I hate to say it, Siri probably works about 2 out of 5 times for me. I still check with her every couple weeks to try and detect improvements, but I still find the feature almost useless as it never connects. This feature is a non-issue for me. (I’m on ATT in Kansas City for what it’s worth.)
  • 4G LTE Wireless:
    This means really fast wireless service. This is good if there’s LTE coverage in your town and you plan to often use the iPad out of wifi range. if there’s no LTE coverage in your area and/or your iPad will primarily live in your home near the couch (as mine does) the 4G LTE of the new iPad may not be a big deal. Wireless service at all may not be a big deal.

Conclusion:

It’s hard to make a call here, but I’m going to go ahead and mark the iPad 2′s off the list. This is because you’re laying down $400 anyway. For $100 more you get a whole host of features that will make it a much more capable device all around. It will also extend it’s life dramatically as the display, which is the primary output device, isn’t going to get another bump that’s anywhere near this significance for a long time. So now there are four choices:

  1. 16gb new iPad (3) wifi – $499
  2. 32gb new iPad (3) wifi – $599
  3. 16gb new iPad (3) wifi+3G – $629
  4. 32gb new iPad (3) wifi+3G – $729

Memory Capacity

What are you going to do with your iPad? Are you going to load it up with movies and music?

The music could very well be a non-issue if your spoiled like me and have an iPhone or an iPod. The iPad isn’t going to be a primary listening device. It may be a non-issue anyway, since you can load three days of continuous audio with just 4gb.

So the question is actually, “Are you going to be watching movies on the thing?” And if you are, are you going to store them there permanently? Or are you going to store them on a computer with iTunes and just load up a couple at a time?

Some updated real-world data on iPad memory usage: I have been using my 32gb for months. My primary use case is surfing the web and writing email on my couch/in bed, or very occasionally a coffee shop. I have a couple movies on there for my duaghter along with several TV episodes.

Here’s what is actually on my (32gb) iPad 1 at this moment:

  1. 110 apps
  2. 1.1gb of songs
    I have iTunes Match
  3. The last 12 months of photos my wife or I have taken with any camera or phone, just over 1,500.
  4. About 30 podcasts
    ~1.5 hours each (Recommend The Joe Rogan Experience and The Talk Show)
  5. About 20 TV episodes and two full length movies.
    Tangled and The Lion King. If you haven’t seen Tangled, shame on you – it’s the finest Disney movie in the last decade.

With all that, my available capacity is 4.3gb, which means I could fit one more full length movie on it with all the extras. (For reference, Toy Story 3 in HD is 3.29gb and that’s with tons of extras-two behind the scenes featurettes, the short that showed before the film in theaters and some production art.)

Conclusion:

size-wise the 16gb is too small. I would filling the thing up all the time and having to make a lot choices with my content, the 32gb gives me just enough room to breathe and honestly I could clean a lot of crap off my current iPad. That I have a bunch of apps and stuff on there I don’t regularly use is a testament to the fact the size is right.

And then there were two…

  1. 32gb new iPad (3) wifi – $599
  2. 32gb new iPad (3) wifi+3G – $729

Wireless Capabilities

Where are you going to use it? Mine is primarily a couch computer, so I didn’t go for the 3G. I also take into account the fact that there’s not too many places I’d use the thing where I won’t have WiFi anyway. Most public businesses have it these days, as does my home and work. I’m not going to use the iPad a lot in my car, either. I can get to email and the internet via my phone if absolutely essential and it’s another nail in the 3G coffin.

I think 3G is only for the serious traveler. However, I sometimes wish I had the 3G even though mine is pretty much a couch computer. I’d only need it occasionally, but it would be really nice when I want it. Like if I’m on vacation and don’t want to lug around a laptop: I could take the iPad and not have to count on iffy open WiFi with weird user agreements.

The 3G service is $14-$25/month and the AT&T service is month to month with no subscription or lock in, so you could pick and choose when you have the added expense. And you can buy it straight from the iPad. Having said all that, WiFi is so ubiquitous these days, you’d have to really be a road-warrior to justify the $130 price tag.

Conclusion:

WiFi is already ubiquitous and spreading more every day. 3G is for serious road-warriors only or those with no other smart cellular device access.

The Winner Is:

32gb new iPad wifi – $599

It’s the right size, price and has the best all around feature set. Happy tapping!

When Will Being a Non-TSA Airport Become a Competitive Advantage?

From a Wired article that will surprise no one…

Female Passengers Say They Were Targeted for TSA Body Scanners:

“[The TSA agent] says to me, ‘Do you play tennis?’ And I said, ‘Why?’‘You just have such a cute figure,’” Ellen Terrell recalled to CBS News in Dallas.

Terrell said the female agent appeared to be acting on a request from male agents who were in a separate room viewing the scans and who apparently asked the agent to send Terrell back through the scanner twice because the scan was blurry.

After the third scan, Terrell said the agent seemed frustrated with her co-workers in the screening room. “She’s talking into her microphone and she says, ‘Guys, it is not blurry, I’m letting her go,’” Terrell said.

This is one of several testimonials in the article.

Even more damning is this was a behavioral pattern found among 500 complaints lodged against the TSA. The complaints were collected and reviewed in a CBS investigation. Shameful.

It’s an open secret that the TSA is security theater. Ineffective at best, dangerous at worst, and enormously expensive on both ends of that spectrum. This is all not to mention that they’re protecting us from something that, statistically speaking, never actually happens. (Yes, when it happens, it’s horrifying. There are far more dangerous things in this world that actually are quite common, like heart disease or car accidents. These are much less emotional/polarizing though, and cannot be brought to market politically with much success. But I digress.)

To me the most interesting part of this TSA farce is from a user experience and marketing perspective. The TSA allows airports to opt out of federal screening and hire private firms to do the job instead. I wonder if/when it will become a competitive advantage for airports to ditch the perverted thugs running TSA security?

Here’s a list of US airports with private security (via Wikipedia):

  • San Francisco International Airport
    (One of the top 30 in the world, by traffic.)
  • Kansas City International Airport
  • Greater Rochester International Airport
  • Tupelo Regional Airport
  • Key West International Airport
  • Charles M. Schulz – Sonoma County Airport
  • Jackson Hole Airport

If you’re flying, and have a choice between one of these airports and a TSA airport, remember to vote with your dollars.

UPDATE:

DanielBMarkham commenting at Hackernews:

Sadly, up until today TSA is not allowing airports to opt out of the system, even though the law was specifically set up to allow them to do so. The new FAA bill — which also calls for the FAA to set rules for thousands of law enforcement drones to monitor civilians sometime in the next decade or so — changes this. (random Google link:http://www.securitydirectornews.com/?p=article&id=sd2012…) A bunch have already applied — and been turned down.

Hopefully this will change.

Even if an airport uses private security, under the current system they are regulated so closely by the TSA that the experience is a wash from the traveller’s perspective. And under the new system it looks like no one is getting approval to bypass the TSA anyway. I’ll say it again: shameful.

Should I Replace My Computer/PC with an iPad?

I get asked this question a couple times a month by friends and family who know I’m a computer geek.So I’m committing the common response I give to writing…

For those in a hurry: the answer is mostly yes.*

A computer is an oven, an iPad is a microwave.

Some people could live with only a microwave in their house. When I lived by myself for a couple years in college, there was an oven in my apartment. Not once during my tenure did it know the warmth of a human touch. But someone serious about cooking would never get by only on a microwave, the same way someone serious about harnessing the power of a computer could never get by on an iPad alone.

Like a microwave, the iPad is new and very very good at a handful of things and terrible at everything else.

Stuff it’s good at:

  • Surfing the web
  • Short email correspondence
  • All types of reading
  • Watching movies
  • Playing games
  • Listening to music
  • Creating music
  • Finger painting (I’m serious)
  • Massive battery life
  • Intuitive interface
  • Great value for the money
  • Etc…

Stuff it’s terrible at:

  • Long form typing/coding
  • Complex image/video editing
  • Complex spreadsheet manipulation
  • Complex audio editing
  • Connecting to multiple exterior devices
  • Multitasking
  • Etc…

When microwaves really went mainstream in the 80′s (by that time about 1/4 of all US households had one) there were all kinds of lame cookbooks about how to make a turkey in a microwave or a roast or any number of other unlikely culinary candidates for your nuke box. That’s because when you have a new hammer everything looks like a nail. Have you ever eaten a roast cooked in the microwave? Yeah, neither have I, because it’s a terrible idea. If your going to be making roasts, you probably should own and operate an oven.

The iPad is new and shiny. If you love gadgets and computers, you should get one, but it’s not going to replace your desktop computer anytime soon. They’re great at a small, but important subset of computing tasks, and they make them enjoyable like no other device I’ve owned. The only skeptics I’ve met so far are people who haven’t used them.

Here’s the three-way breakdown.

  1. If you don’t care about that list of, “Stuff it’s good at” tasks up there, then you shouldn’t get one at all (obviously).
  2. If you only care about those tasks, then you should get one immediately.
  3. If those tasks are a small but important subset of what you do with computers then maybe you should get one or maybe not, it will probably come down to budget.

*Once again though, the answer is mostly yes. I say this because if you’re asking, and your budget allows for it, you should probably get one. People that do do a lot of serious computing most likely already know the answer to this question and the iPad is perfect for people who don’t do a lot of serious computing.

Digital Sharecropping: The Future of Social Media Platforms (and their Users)

I deleted my Facebook profile a few weeks ago because they unilaterally altered the terms of our agreement for the sixth time in five years. They did so in a way that explicitly benefited them over me. The original agreement went something like this (paraphrased):

Facebook: I’ll give you a private place to build something of value to you and your peers online. In exchange I’m going to show you ads.

Me: OK.

But then the agreement changed, and changed, and kept changing until I left.

I’m pretty tech-savvy and was never under any illusions about my sharecropper status at Facebook. I left when the arrangement became undesirable and in doing so, left any value I’d created with them. That’s all you can do when you don’t own the information. Right now, Facebook is the largest land owner online and 400 million+ people are sharecropping. We’re farming their land, they get a cut and it’s their way or the highway.

Social Media Sharecropping

Facebook gives us space and tools. We then create value by populating the space with user generated content. In exchange they get to extract value from the content we provide, but it’s totally different from the social value we extract. Their value is in the form of advertising and/or data mining (for other advertisers) but it’s a shared value proposition either way. This is basically the whole crux of the Web 2.0 movement. Users are adding value to the web and the owners benefit directly or indirectly which makes everything “free.” (I’m painting in broad strokes to make a point, bear with me…)

The caveat, and what makes the sharecropping allegory really stick, is that when we spend time adding value to their site and they unilaterally change the terms of the agreement there’s nothing we can do because they own the land, we just work here. It’s not easy for us to take our built up value (aka information) with us, if we can do it at all. There’s little to no data portability.

I’m singling out Facebook because they’re the elephant in the room, but there are tons of sites online where you can sharecrop or do something similar: MySpace, Flickr, Digg, YouTube, Twitter, Foursquare, Metafilter, Deviant Art, Etsy and on and on. It’s worth noting that many of these communities are more like co-ops or some other mutually-beneficial relationship with many degrees of data ownership and portability in between.

The Haves and Have-Nots

Digesting this concept can be tough, so I’m speaking in metaphors. If someone doesn’t know the difference between a web browser and a search engine, how are they to make the distinction of whether or not the value they’ve been curating and creating belongs to them? Maybe the better question is, does it even matter? The answer is the same as the answer to most questions; it depends.

I’m a bad candidate for sharecropping. Some are not.

Real sharecroppers are generally too poor to afford land; they’re a step above indentured servants. However, the hard cost of creating a web property these days is nominal. With free software, commodity hosting and a registered domain name; you can be up and running for the cost of a large pizza. This shifts the monetary wealth in our sharecropping metaphor from haves and have-nots, to knows and know-nots.

I am not poor at all in this new know and know-not sense. I know how to build websites, I do it all the time. Which is what leads me to the point I was at two weeks ago: staring at Facebook’s account deletion page.

I was done creating value for them. In most of my tenure as a Facebook user it was just a glorified address book to me, so I’m sure I was a low value user anyway. The point is I have other options. I can create content on the web on my own terms. I have several web properties that I unconditionally own and create value around. But wither the forced sharecropper?

Building Portable Value

The majority of people I interact with on a day to day basis  can’t build their own website; my best friend can’t, my wife can’t. True land ownership online is not an option for them. So if they want to create something online they’re left to sharecropping.

As I said before, the options are many. However, In my opinion the desirable options are few. Here are two of my favorites that I often find myself recommending to others.

Posterous – This is probably the best recommendation because it hooks into just about everything (see here) and does so with little or no technical knowledge from the user. In fact, it could be argued that Posterous’ best use is as a hub for exporting data to other sharecropping arrangements or “walled gardens”, but the key is that it does export well with no advanced technical knowledge. They also have a nice display interface themselves with lots of options.

WordPress.com – It has one-touch data export and once the data is out you can manipulate on your own terms. You do have to be technically inclined to do so, but it’s a nice feature for users who start out as sharecroppers and then build their informational wealth to a point that they’re ready to own some land. (I’m biased though, I cut my web development teeth on the open-source version of WordPress.)

There are other good options, I’m sure, but the important thing is that both of these services cater to the non-tech savvy without using it against them for data lock-in.

The Future

Some may argue this is all moot point because if a person is tech-illiterate enough they won’t care or understand why data lock-in is bad, but if they’re too tech-savvy they may just go off and build their own thing. I respectfully disagree…

It may because of articles like this, or it may be because people are just pissed they can’t get their photos out of Facebook, but there is a small middle ground that is growing; and I think it will continue to grow into the majority. They understand the importance of data portability and the concepts of an open web for one reason or the other, and they demand services that offer value in this form.

UPDATE 05.27.10

Since this post was originally written, Twitter (one of the biggest “land-owners” on the internet at this point) has rather infamously pulled the rug out from under developers (and by extension their users) a couple of different ways. They’re nicely summed up here nicely by John Gruber in his post ever-so-delicately titled Twitter’s Shit Sandwich.

Oh yeah, and I reopened that Facebook account some months ago since my agency has taken to building Facebook apps that do everything from run sweepstakes to capture demographic info and feed it to the MailChimp API. I have to manage that UX, therefore I have to have a Facebook account.*grumble grumble*

Why the DMV Website Sucks

Skimlinks Test

There is a lot of rightful complaining about inefficiency of government contracting. There exists no shortage of reasons why they’ll overpay for things: it’s not their money, cronyism, nepotism, lobbying bribes. But why are the software products so terrible? Why don’t the $550 million dollar database initiatives yield software that can do simple things like, uh, search the database?

Why is the DMV website so bad that it makes me want to go to the DMV? (Nothing else in the world can do that.)

It’s not because they’re underpaying. When it comes to government work, the deck is stacked against good software products because the bidding process is broken. And when it comes to finding and hiring good developers it breaks in a particularly insidious way.

Please Submit in Septuplicate

One of my old jobs was as a Marketing Assistant for a large general contractor. A big part of my job was putting together proposals in response to Request For Proposals (RFP’s) by companies who wanted to build a stadium, hotel, casino, etc…

We also did government jobs. I knew right when they came in because the envelopes were three or four times as thick as is typical. I dreaded them.

A large proposal for something like a 14-floor casino/hotel, would be assembled into three four-inch ring binders for presentation. They would then be sent along with an electronic copy on disc to the entity who issued the RFP. It was a lot of work, but when your asking someone to pay you 20-150 million dollars that’s not unexpected.

The completed government proposals, on the other hand, could  consist of between 15 and 30 (not a typo) ring binders. It would take me 15 minutes just to load it into FedEx via hand truck from my car. And this would be for something like a military barracks, I’m not talking about skyscrapers or stadiums. Not to mention that it was much more common with government jobs to have several rounds of RFP’s.

Firstly, it was common for government RFP’s to request five to nine hard copies of a response, where two or three was typical of a private RFP. On top of the bulk of the material we had to produce, they also had to be fastidiously put together in weird physical formats with certain labels at certain exact coordinates at the beginning and end of each section among others. It was also typical for electronic copies to be requested in software formats that were 10 years old.

Software and web development isn’t construction, but I’m willing to bet the process of bidding is similar. There is a lot of unnecessary time and effort that goes into bidding the government. (‘Helps if you know a guy, too, natch.) So when New York pays a consultant fee of $722 million dollars for time clock software that’s seven years behind schedule and doesn’t work… I think it’s a gross waste of taxpayer assets, but it doesn’t surprise me.

Filtering Out Greatness

A focus on obnoxious minutiae and septuplet hard copy requests in and of itself cannot inflate project costs seven to 10 times. But bad programers do.

This whole process is doubly sinister for software in that it’s going to be particularly distasteful to just the sort of person that would make a great developer. Good hackers see problems and are driven to solve them. They are maddened by systemic inefficiency and seek to correct it. A bidding process like this is so pointlessly wasteful and time consuming that it weeds out the exact sort of person you want working on your technical problems. Which is how you end up with terrible city government sites and on a larger scale CIA, FBI and DHSA databases that are unsearchable, and won’t talk to each other.

Of course sales and markting isn’t doing the hacking on projects of this size. Inside any company that can successfully engage in this byzantine slog that is Government contract bidding, there must exist a culture of quite acceptance of deliberate mediocrity. No matter what department it lives in, culture is nothing if not a disease. It’s infectious, and this sort of culture is the antithesis of what makes great developers great.

There’s been a lot written on exactly what makes developers great, so I’ll quote Paul Graham’s essay Great Hackers:

It’s pretty easy to say what kinds of problems are not interesting: those where instead of solving a few big, clear, problems, you have to solve a lot of nasty little ones. One of the worst kinds of projects is writing an interface to a piece of software that’s full of bugs. Another is when you have to customize something for an individual client’s complex and ill-defined needs. To hackers these kinds of projects are the death of a thousand cuts.

The distinguishing feature of nasty little problems is that you don’t learn anything from them. Writing a compiler is interesting because it teaches you what a compiler is. But writing an interface to a buggy piece of software doesn’t teach you anything, because the bugs are random. [3] So it’s not just fastidiousness that makes good hackers avoid nasty little problems. It’s more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers.

What about the government proposal process, riddled with nasty little boring problems, is going to attract great talent to work on our country’s infrastructure? Nothing.

The $400,000 dollars per year all those New York city time clock consultants were getting paid isn’t just for product development. $300,000 of it is to compensate for navigating the nightmarish government bidding process laced with procedural road blocks to newcomers, cronyism and incompetence. But throwing money at the problem doesn’t work.

People who can write functional software would find all this distasteful, much less the good ones. They aren’t going to be spitting out elegant code and creating great user experience. If they work at a company with even a pocket of culture somewhere in the building that can not only put up with this bullshit but is good enough at it to win the contracts, it’s a poisoned well.

I’m not holding my breath, but the best way to fix this would be to scrap the clunky bidding process and replace it with one that’s an interesting problem to solve.

Then again, they’ll never be able to hire the person who could do it.

 

The Real (UX/UI) Problem with iPhone Location Tracking

The issue:

The news that iPhones keep a historical log of triangulated location data in an unencrypted file spread like wildfire in the last week or so. If you’re backing up your phone to iTunes then there’s also a copy of this file your computer. It may or may not be encrypted depending on your settings.

The topic is getting a lot of attention. The over-coverage of tech darling Apple cuts both ways (see: Antennae Gate) and it’s in full force now. The new media echo chamber is up in arms, applications to access it are being open-sourced, ways to scrub it are being published (jailbreakers only need apply) and there’s a lawsuit. (Oh and Al Fraken is pissed concerned.)

The Fake Problem:

A couple of quick reasons I don’t care about this, before I talk about why I do…

I’m going to steal Andy Ihnatko’s reasons because he already said it better than I could:

  • This database isn’t storing GPS data. It’s just making a rough location fix based on nearby cell towers. The database can’t reveal where you were…only that you were in a certain vicinity. Sometimes it’s miles and miles off. This implies that the log file’s purpose is to track the performance of the phone and the network, and not the movements of the user.
  • A third party couldn’t get access to this file without physical access to your computer or your iPhone. Not unless you’ve jail broken your iPhone and didn’t bother resetting its remote-access password…or there’s an unpatched exploit that would give Random Person On The Internet root access to your phone.
  • It’s pretty much a non-issue if you’ve clicked the “Encrypt iPhone Backup” option in iTunes. Even with physical access to your desktop, a no-goodnik wouldn’t be able to access the log file.

So it’s unlikely that anyone will get this information from you unless they actually steal your hardware. If they do steal your hardware, you probably have bigger fish to fry anyway. This technology isn’t accurate enough to put you in the parlor with the candle stick because it wasn’t designed for that. When I looked at my log it couldn’t even put my in the right county in a lot of cases.

The Real Problem

Will this affect anyone else besides the neck-beards and the tech-blog pageview whores? At what point is this broken for the normal user? The answer is at the interface level, which is trouble for Apple because interface is their bread and butter.

As I see it, the real problem lies in iPhone iOS Location Services Preference Panel:

iPhone iOS Location Services Preference Panel

One of the golden rules of usability is don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep. The Location Services Preference Pane in iOS makes an implicit assertion that you can eliminate location services, full stop. There’s no asterisk or other hedging language here. It just says ON/OFF. If I slide that to OFF I’m now operating under the auspices of geo-privacy.

In what universe would the expected behavior of switching this setting to OFF not turn off a historical log tracking my location? I don’t know, but it’s certainly not this one.

At least it wasn’t until now.

Apple is known globally for setting exacting expectations and then meeting them. It’s made them tens of billions of dollars and earned them a legion of brand advocates. User interfaces that set and meet expectations well over and over build trust with users. Doing it across an multiple product lines for a decade builds that elusive UX magic they’re known for.

I trust an Apple product to be worth my hard earned cash because of a track record of putting their users first and making interfaces that do what I want and what I expect. (They actually put themselves-as-users first and everyone else be damned, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Having this preference screen flat out not work is bad and chips away at their UX. It hurts my likeliness to recommend an iPhone over something else. (Android collects this information in the exact same way, but it doesn’t keep a historical log of it. It sends it off to Google and then deletes it.)

The security threat from this location tracking log for most users is slim to none, because most user are not jailbroken and storing unencrypted backups. It certainly doesn’t affect me.

My problem with the iPhone location tracking log is that there is a user interface on the iPhone that specifically says I can opt out of behavior like this and it doesn’t work. That’s bad UX and bad UI design. This is a big ball-drop in an area that is Apple’s core strength, and they need to fix it ASAP.

UPDATE:

Apple’s Q&A response style press release on this topic came out this morning.

The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.

They aren’t tracking squat. the files everyone has been freaking out about are a subset of a massive WiFI hotspot and cell tower database that the phone stores locally for performance reasons.