Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Journey Into Geekdom

or There and Not Back Again, the tales of Jay Imerman

Tonight as I lay in the hot water of my tub at the Sheraton Le Centre in MontrĂ©al, it occurred to me - what really is the difference between me, laying in the luxury of a really nice hotel (paid for at the expense of the local utility company), digesting fine French cuisine and imported wine, and those guys laying on the brick floors of the Montreal Underground, escaping the cold because they have nowhere else to go?  What decisions and actions have led me to this point in my life?

Really and truly, the merest of things separate us.  I think back to 1975, shortly after my parents started their business they bought this thing called a Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II computer.  How many small businesses back then had a computer?  How many people back in 1970's even thought that computers would totally revolutionize every aspect of modern life (if they were aware of them at all)?  Certainly not I.  I don't even think that Gene Roddenberry put that into Star Trek - the only thing people used computers for was to talk to and run the Enterprise.  It never occurred to me then that these things would become as pervasive as toilet paper; they were just the coolest thing I had ever seen and I was instantly addicted.

My parents have always been forward-thinking, proactive, and both afraid and not afraid to embrace new ideas, new ways of doing things (if they offered a better way).  In 1991 or 1992 when I told them what a domain was, what the web was, and told them that they had to get a domain name, they did.  It took probably 10 years before it started making money for them, but when it did, it was the difference between success and failure.  I was also lucky enough to have the same parents be loving, supportive, and disciplinarians.  Their endless patience have seen me through some 11 years of developing computer knowledge and skills, only to select Biochemistry as an undergraduate major.  (What was I thinking?)

After getting goose-eggs in Organic Chemistry (that's a 0.0 grade for those non-students) and 3 years, I realized I didn't want to be a biochemist, or any other kind of chemist for that matter.  I dropped out of Michigan State University in 1987 with somewhere barely over a 2.0 GPA.  After living with my parents for what must have been (to them) an unbearable few months, they kicked me out to survive on my own.  For some reason, it had occurred to me to get a job selling those magical devices I always loved (that's what I was doing when they said it was time to go out on my own), and now I thought they would soon be everywhere.

After a couple of years selling and training in computers, it was obvious I had to finish my undergraduate degree.  I was really turned on by the small campus of University of Michigan and the option of night classes.  (Dearborn that is.)  So it wasn't hard to convince my parents to help out, and I finished up with close to a 4.0 GPA.  During that time, I had considered finding jobs, but the last job I had, I had told my boss I wanted to go back to school in the evenings and finish my degree, a goal that he applauded.  When it came down to it, though, he found it interfered with the job, and had a talk with me about my performance.  So, out with the job after a year, and I had to do something for money.  I found bulletin boards on campus with lots of opportunities for consulting, for someone who knew what they were doing, and I made a cool $25 an hour, working as many hours as I wanted (usually 20-30 a week).  Good income for the early 90's and a student.

Matriculating at UM-D was fantastic.  We were like a small family - 20 students or so per class, and the professors.  We went out together, did field trips together, and by the time I graduated, I had job offers left and right (think the boom days of IT, when anyone who had a degree in Computer Science was instantly hired and given a good salary).  I had 5 years of experience working in the industry upon Day 1 of graduation in 1993.

So it was, I got into consulting.  A profession where they pay you for your opinion.  Really!?  They pay me to play with computers, and for telling them what I think?  Can you really imagine anything much better than that?  OK, maybe a couple of things, but not much.

From consulting, my career transitioned from "hard-core" computer stuff (hardware installs, software installs, etc.), to specialized tools like Lotus Notes (business consulting), to software development and implementation, and finally, the pinnacle, to application of technology to engineering design.  I always say, I am the guy that makes the sales person's promises come true, and helps companies to implement software in a complex environment - the environment of getting people to work together to accomplish the same goals.

And so it is, I am come to MontrĂ©al.  To better skills in customizing and deploying engineering software.  At a company's expense.  If only there were no NHL strike, the Bell Centre is across the street from my room!  And so it is, the road not taken, where I so easily could have fallen into the habit of playing video games instead of doing productive things, or drinking and going to bars instead of getting married and raising a family.  Or, lavishing in a tub after eating at Le Mas de Olivier's instead of cuddling on a cold brick floor in an underground tunnel between high-rise office buildings.  Or settling for a so-so job instead of pursuing the one I wanted more.

Life is a series of choices, with actions following those choices.  Very rarely, you can point to a single choice or set of choices as pivotal.  Typically, it is a string of choices over a long period of time that have us arrive at a particular point in time.  And those choices also govern the choices available to us when outside forces intervene.  I think back to my "choice" to jump into that TRS-80 and start writing programs in BASIC.  It's funny that at 8 years old began a lifelong obsession with a technology that is so fundamental to our lives today, that we cannot even imagine a life without it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Streaming Video Services Suck Raw Rotten Eggs

Tell me, am I the only one who thinks this way?  I bet I am not - if so, share this post, and get your friends to share it - spread the word.  If these content providers hear it, they will respond.

Streaming Services Suck

Has anyone ever seen or smelled a rotten egg?  I would say in my life, there are perhaps a handful of smells that are so vile, so fetid, so nasty that the stench is what I would call much worse than a skunk at ground zero.  Among these are rotten eggs, rotten potatoes, spoiled milk (way gone, not just turning).  Number 2 doesn't even come close.

I have been using Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Apple TV for 6 months now (and YouTube for years).  Frankly, I am quite disappointed.  Not with how they work - the services are pretty good, Apple TV device, iPhones, iPods and iPads are the best at using these services.  I have AT&T U-Verse, which rocks (much better than Comcast), and it is quite good.

No, where they all go wrong (including many others I didn't mention like iTunes, Vimeo, and others) is content.  Content, content, content.

Netflix has movies.  Hulu, TV shows.  Netflix doesn't have the latest just-out movies, OK, I got it.  But let's take what I would call some American classics, must-haves.  Stripes.  Not there.  Animal House?  Nope.  Caddy Shack, National Lampoon Vacation - all of them, I mean heck, what is the point?  Hulu doesn't have a lot of TV shows, but it does better in that niche than Netflix in the movie niche.  Amazon Prime - from what I hear, definitely not enough content, but at least they bundle that with other values beyond streaming video.  So I get into the old TV shows that Netflix has, that I never watched all of them when I was a kid.  MacGyver, for instance.  I get through season 4, and poof - it's gone.  Removed from the list.  Why?  Any warning?  What jerks.

OK, so it's a web thing, why not just go to the Netflix suggestion form and request a title?  Nope, there is no way to do that.  Call their tech support, they just apologize and offer no help.

And Hulu, what exactly am I paying $8 a month for?  The ads don't go away.

So what other options are out there?  Apple TV has Vimeo, MLB, NHL, NFL, and a bunch more.  They now have WSJLive, which is cool, but the others are all subscription or pay-per-view.  Really!??  PPV!?  So people REALLY want to pay for each title, each time they watch it?  I don't think so.  In fact, I would really like to know WHO ACTUALLY PAYS FOR CONTENT IN THIS WAY?  These services are still in business, so SOMEONE must keep them afloat, but who?

Cable TV Sucks

Cable TV ain't that much better.  So I have a basic package with what, some 800 channels (double that with the HD versions)?  How many channels do the 6 of us watch - perhaps 20 or so?  I am paying what, $70 or $80 a month for 3% of the channels!?

Now let's talk about quality of service.  We all know customer service stories from cable TV companies.  Strange, they seem to have learned from telephone companies (back when AT&T was divested, and markets were locked by contract to one provider).  But I mean technical service, in this case I have a LOT of digital snow (by a lot, several programs a week is too much).  How many times have I recorded a program on DVR, only to have the playback record the stops, digital snow, and lost signals for these darned shows.  It almost makes me long for the days of the fuzzy picture, at least you could make out what was going on through the static.

If I lived in some remote area with low quality of access, I could understand.

What We Consumers Want

Here's the thing.  History has shown, if you can give people what they want (even if they don't know it until they see your product), then you can become very wealthy.  Look at Apple with the iPod, Sam's Club with warehouse prices, and so on.

WE WANT TO PICK OUR CONTENT, AND PAY A FLAT RATE FOR WHAT WE WANT.  That's right, we want to be able to pick and chose our channels.  If you like Discovery, but not A&E, then pick one.  Put together the 50 or so channels you want.  Then, you can throw in local channels, public & government access, whatever.  Give us a mix of traditional broadcast channels, and on-demand/streaming providers like Vimeo, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and more.  Or, better yet, each channel should have its own mix of live and recorded content.  Imagine turning to the ABC channel, and watching live, or watching the show from yesterday, you pick.

You can bundle packages, like a Sports package, a News package, an Entertainment, perhaps a Premium Entertainment.  But give us small bundles, and a-la-carte options.  Charge us $30 a month, flat rate, for up to 50 choice-channels (plus the others mentioned above).  Divvy your revenues as a provider service (say Google, Comcast, AT&T, Apple, whatever), and pay subscription portions out to the channels I choose.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Be In Touch With Your Home Mac System Like An IT Professional

I have a pretty sophisticated set-up at home.  Being an IT professional, I kind of have to because a) I wouldn't be able to live with myself otherwise, and b) we can do a lot of cool stuff.  I'd like to talk about one cool thing I have done, which is set up a notification system so that if something goes wrong at home, I get notified on my phone.  This is crucial as I travel often enough, I need to be able to remotely help out.  This was for very low cost (important to me!), most of the components were free.

First, a brief overview of my home setup.  We have 3 laptops and 2 desktops, plus our iPhones, iPad, Apple TV's, Wii, X-Box, WiFi-connected BluRay players, etc.  I also obtained an older Mac desktop to use as a server; with this, I have a 1TB RAID mirror that we do backups to, a VPN so I can connect to my home network from anywhere, and running network services (like Open Directory authentication, DHCP, DNS, and AirPrint to my older printers that are not AirPrint compatible).

So, what can we do with all this stuff?

  • Time Machine keeps all 6 of our Macs backed up hourly, automatically, so I don't have to worry about localized crashes or data loss (and since our iPhones, iPods and iPads are backed up on the Mac, we have a complete solution).
  • iTunes running on the server, and Home Sharing, means we can play our iTunes library from any mobile device, or right on the big screen with Apple TV.
  • Connect while traveling on the road, and work just like I am at home - remote control any screen on any computer on my network, print to a printer in my house, etc.
  • And more
So you can see that the server is very important.  Many things need to be kept watch - like when it is getting low on disk space, or since it is an older Mac, it is prone to overheating.  To do this, I use a variety of solutions stitched together with a VERY neat framework.  There is an app called Growl in the Mac App Store for $3.99, that provides a notification framework for the Mac.

Using Growl, in combination with a host of other Growl-compatible applets and scripts, you can monitor any aspect of your system and submit events as Growl notifications.  These notifications can be handled through notification services - some built into Growl, but I use a free notification distribution platform called Boxcar.

Boxcar ties notifications into a unified messaging platform, and delivers the messages using the method you want.  You can push them as notices to your smart phone, send them as e-mail messages, SMS text messages, you name it.  So I configured it, and downloaded the app, to notify my iPhone.

Meanwhile, the temperature problem.  I found an app that monitors the temperature of the major components of the Mac, called Temperature Gage.  It integrates with Growl, so I set up alerts at a temperature threshold where I noticed it fails (in fact, the app didn't allow me to set the right temperature, so I e-mailed the developer, and within a couple of weeks they had the new version out).  $8.89 total cost, now when the machine gets too hot, my phone buzzes.

Next, drive space.  That can be managed with the Growl command line and a simple shell script, which I schedule to run every so often using the Unix cron facility.  Cost?  Free, I found a guy who had a script written on a web post, and grabbed it, modified it a bit, and here we are.  When the space gets low, I will get a buzz on my phone.  I added the test parameter, to ensure the message reached my phone.

Now is that cool or what?  Very inexpensive, and a very sophisticated and flexible setup.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Memory Scam

Are you being scammed every time you buy an electronic device, by how much memory they say they have?  According to the definition of storage since it was invented, here's how it plays out:

  • A bit is short for "binary digit", or basically a 1 or 0.  This represents a transistor state of on or off.
  • 8 bits together form a byte.  This is the smallest unit used to represent a character on the keyboard, on the screen, etc.  Multi-byte groupings represent other more complex languages and greater data constructs, but they boil down in the end to groups of bytes.  2^8 is 256, so there are 256 values in an 8-bit grouping.
  • One K is short for one Kilobytes (or KB).  Roughly 1000 bytes, it is precisely 1024 bytes (because it is a power of 2, the base unit of computation).  It is NOT 1000, it IS 1024.  Since Google knows all, and is always correct, you can see in my screen shot this is true.
  • One Megabyte (or MB) is defined, by definition, as the next power of 2, as 1024 K.  So, it is actually 1,048,576 bytes.  NOT 1,000,000 bytes.
  • One Gigabyte (GB) is defined, again, as 1024 MB, or 1,073,741,824 bytes, NOT 1 billion bytes.
  • One Terabyte (TB) again 1024 GB.
  • One Petabyte, 1024 TB.
First, why 1024 instead of 1,000?  It's a technical (mathematical) reason, because of powers of 2.  2^10 power (remember bytes?) is 1024.  The previous one, 2^9, is 512, so that's the closest to 1,000 you can get in Base 2.

Second, how are you getting scammed?  There are devices today, that tell you that their storage is so many gigabytes.  For example, if it says it has 16 GB, but defines it as 1 GB = 1 billion bytes, then you actually have 14.9 GB.  You have been gypped out of 1.1 GB, that is more than 1 whole Gigabyte!

If you look at any operating system in the world on any device, and look at total and free storage, it computes that storage according to the rules defined in Computer Science, as I laid them out above.  It does NOT compute them according to the legal disclaimer in the packaging that came with the hard drive, phone, memory card, etc. that you bought.

I strongly urge you, if you have bought such a device, to call and complain as much and as often as you can to the manufacturer of this device.  Write letters.  In fact, perhaps we should write a letter to your federal representatives that they need to protect the consumer with legislation!  (Yes, this is so heinous we may have to resort to that.)

If you know of any companies, or specific devices, that violate this sacred law, post them here in the blog comments so we can compile a list.