Silicon Valley tech companies gotta Silicon Valley. Amirite?
Apple has a new version of its HomePod device available. Much like most of its previous devices, itʼs built for people who live in the greater San Francisco area, where the weather is largely placid, boring and uneventful. In other words — entirely unlike most of the rest of the planet.
The web page about the new HomePod includes this footnote about its temperature and humidity sensors:
Well, 15°C is 59 degrees. How often do people let it get down to 59 degrees in their homes? All the time.
There is no shortage of basements in places like Green Bay, Minneapolis, and the entire nation of Canada where people have a basement that has been kitted out as a family room, or a den, or a home office and that remains unheated most of the year. One of Appleʼs scenarios for using the HomePod temperature sensor is that it can be paired with other HomeKit gear to automatically turn on a heater if it gets too cold. Great. Except that if your chosen temperature for activating the heat in your unused basement or attic rec room is below 59°, Apple admits itʼs not going to be reliable.
On the hot side, OK, itʼs unusual to have an indoor temperature above 86°. But Iʼve had it in my house many times when the humidity was low and I lived in the desert. Many days in the spring and fall when Iʼd have the windows wide open enjoying the warm breeze and low humidity, the indoor temperature would get to 86°. If the cat was sleeping, that was fine. Sheʼd eventually wake up and start complaining, and Iʼd have to close the windows and bring the temperature down to 80-ish for her. But thatʼs to be expected, since she wears a fur coat. If I didnʼt have the cat, Iʼd probably have the temperature higher. And Iʼm not alone. Thereʼs a reason millions of people retire to hot places.
The humidity range is oddly narrow, too. Iʼm sure that 30% humidity is bone-crackingly dry in Cupertino. In Nevada, itʼs a bit clammy. When I lived there, the outdoor humidity reported by the National Weather Service was regularly in the single digits. And both of my indoor humidity sensors almost always showed readings well below 30%. Both of them appeared to have the same sensor under the hood, since they both stopped reporting humidity at 10%. These werenʼt expensive high-tech scientific humidity sensors. One I bought at the Apple Store for about $100. The other came from the supermarket, and cost about ten bucks. But it was perfectly happy reporting humidity far lower than what Apple considers reliable for its equipment.
Living in the Bay Area, Apple employees canʼt possible envision indoor humidity above 70%, but guess what — thatʼs a perfectly ordinary occurrence in most of the southern United States, including Florida, New Orleans, and Houston — the fourth-largest city in the nation. According to my HomeKit-connected humidity sensor, the humidity inside my house has been over 80% five times in the last two months.
All of this continues a pattern at Apple of designing products that only work well in the very specific, very ordinary weather conditions of Silicon Valley. Things like iPod headphone cords that get brittle in a Chicago winter, and iPhones that shut themselves off in temperatures that are common for millions of people who live in desert environments.
Apple has the money, the resources, and the people to do better. Why it chooses not to remains unclear.
I've been playing chess against computers for four decades now, and have never beaten one. Not even once. Not even on “novice” levels. If a chess board had pieces more worthless and expendable than pawns, I would be one of those pieces.
But I keep playing. Atari 2600 Video Chess? Kicked my ass. Sargon Ⅱ on a Commodore 64? Took my lunch money and gave me a wedgie. Battle Chess on an IBM XT? Bought me flowers, took me to dinner, brought me home, kissed my hand and then didn't call me the next day.
Tonight I did something I have never done before: I managed to “check” a computer opponent.
The opponent was MicroChess on a KIM Uno, the modern-day incarnation of the old MOS KIM-1 machine.
The KIM did eventually beat me, but for once it wasn't the sort of Gulf War shock-and-awe defeat I'm used to.
I got the KIM because I nurse a fascination with the early days of computing, and because I found out that one can be built for under $20. That's another of my fascinations: Ultra-cheap computers.
The KIM Uno is a good way to get a taste of what it was like to compute in 1976. But it's not a faithful reproduction. It's more like a tribute than a recreation. The KIM software runs on a miniature single board computer, and has been modified in ways that make a lot of concessions to the limitations of the Arduino side of its split personality.
There are a lot of web sites on the internet that talk about the Uno, but it's clear that the people who blog about this machine put the parts together, poked in about six instructions of 6502 assembly, and then moved on to other things. If they had stuck with the KIM Uno, there would be an extensive library of modern software available for it the way there is for other new models of old computers.
One sure sign that nobody has ever used a KIM Uno for anything other than a minor plaything is that nowhere on any of the web pages flogging it do the writers mention battery life. I surmise that none of them used it long enough for that to be a concern.
The Kim Uno's primary problem is that it lack expandability. One of the greatest assets of the original KIM-1 was that it could be expanded in many ways. You could add memory. Add storage devices. Add circuits and relays and printers and terminals and pretty much anything the hobbyist could imagine. The KIM Uno leans on the Arduino's built-in serial port, and that's about its only connectivity. But even that serial port is fixed at a speed and parameters that make it incompatible with a number of era-appropriate terminals.
There is an expansion port of sorts on the KIM Uno, but it isn't documented. There's a single picture on the internet of the KIM Uno driving a small OLED display, but no information about how to do that. And worse, the KIM Uno machine driving the display isn't even running the KIM-1 ROMs. It's being used to emulate a COSMAC ELF.
To summarize: unlike the KIM-1, the only thing the KIM Uno is good for is to play chess. But on the other hand, the KIM-1 cost the equivalent of $1,300 today dollars, while the KIM Uno can be had for less than $12 in parts. But with that reduction in price comes a reduction in possibilities. And the whole reason people got into computers in the 1970ʼs was because at the time, we thought the possibilities of technology were endless.
It seems strange to me that when filling in your personal information on the Fortnum and Mason web site that the default telephone country code is +229. Thatʼs Benin, all the way in Africa.
It would make sense for the default country code to be +44, since itʼs a British department store. Or maybe the country codes could be sorted numerically, so itʼs easier to find the one youʼre looking for. Or perhaps use the country code of the customers who generate the most revenue for the store, whatever number that may be.
But I doubt that the people of Benin buy more F&M stuff than any other country.
In the 1983 movie Trading Places, Don Ameche can be seen reading a Wall Street Journal. The back page has an ad for the Apple ][ and Apple /// with the line “The first problem they solve is what to give for Christmas.”
Thatʼs just as true today, 39 years later, as it was then.
There seem to be an awful lot of robots around these days.
Iʼm not sure if itʼs a Houston thing, or a big city thing, or just the state of the world in which we live today. But there are an awful lot of robots around. In the hospitals, in the malls, in supermarkets, and even running around on public sidewalks.
Many of them have cone heads. I wonder what would happen if I started putting Santa hats on them as I pass by.
Hereʼs an odd design choice. In macOS 13/Ventura, the Stocks program allows you to add a stock youʼre viewing to your watch list. To do that, you press the + button. To remove a stock from your watch list you press the ✓ checkmark button.
In my lifetime, a checkmark has always meant something along the lines of “yes” or “confirm” or something else affirmative. Using a check to remove something — an inherently negative action — is counterintuitive to me.
I know that Iʼm not perfect. I know that while I think my web sites work on every device, thereʼs probably a configuration out there on which they fall over. But the University of Houston/Downtown really has no excuse for this.
How is it possible for an organization to put out a public web site in 2022 that doesnʼt work on mobile phones? Itʼs bad enough that this page from UH/D is cut off on the right side, but there is no way to even scroll to the right to see whatʼs missing! And this is on a recent iPhone, not some obscure open source homebrew kit.
I preview every single web page I build for desktop, tablet, and two mobile phones. Every one. Sometimes dozens each week.
The University of Houston/Downtown brags that itʼs the second-largest university in Americaʼs fourth-largest city. Surely, someone on campus must have a smart phone to test with.
Streaming media is one of the many areas of technology that has failed to live up to its hype.
Streaming services use vague marketing words promising “unlimited” this and “endless” that. But the seldom-acknowledged fact is that if you rely on streaming music services, the music you love could just disappear tomorrow with no notice, or recourse. Thanks for the money, donʼt let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.
Just like how newspapers publish lists of whatʼs going to disappear from Netflix at the end of the month, streaming music also gains and loses music and artists regularly.
The screenshot above is Amazon Music telling me that it no longer has any songs by Comsat Angels. It knows Comsat Angels. It used to have Comsat Angels music. But not today. If you love Comsat Angels and give money to Amazon Music, youʼre out of luck.
Streaming music is the same thing as renting music. You donʼt own it. It can be taken away from you at any time.
Itʼs similar to when Microsoft abandoned its e-book store and millions of people lost the millions of books they thought they owned. A digital librarian sneaked into their homes in the middle of the night, emptied their shelves, and left behind a note reading, “Didnʼt you read page 640 of the EULA? You only rented these books. Sucker.”
This is all fine if all you care about is whatever is trendy over the last 48 hours. But people connect to books, movies, and especially music emotionally. Thatʼs why people create music. And to have those emotions yanked away from you is going to be hard on people once they realize that the things they once loved have disappeared and they didnʼt know it was going to happen.
As for the Comsat Angels, Iʼll hit the local record stores to find what Iʼm looking for. Then Iʼll own it. For real and forever.
I spend too much time pointing out the shortcomings of modern technology. Thereʼs a reason that Tech and Fail are among my most populated blathr tags.
Today, however, Iʼd like to point out what, on the surface, looks like a tech success story. But at a deeper level is the success of a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer to adapt to changes in society in order to — literally — deliver better than a tech company did.
It started a couple of days ago, when I ordered something medical from Amazon.com. In general, I donʼt buy anything that goes on or in a living being from Amazon. Between counterfeits, people selling used items as new, and a constantly-growing list of other reasons, relying on Amazon just isnʼt safe anymore. When your company canʼt even prevent selling bogus copies of books, you have a problem.
In this case, however, I ordered from Amazon because the medical thing I needed was not available from any of the CVS or Walgreens stores that I can reach, and purchasing from Walmart meant waiting two to three weeks for delivery. Walmart used to be safer than Amazon, but has recently decided to trod the same road to unreliability by embracing unknown, unverified, and dubious independent sellers.
What Amazon delivered was clearly not suitable. Instead of being in branded packaging, the item was in a Zip-Loc bag. Legitimate medical items arenʼt packaged in consumer baggies. Legitimate medical items are also not labeled by hand in ball-point pen. And they also donʼt spill their contents during shipping, unless they are seriously mishandled. The box that the item arrived in was in fine shape, and the medical item sufficiently padded.
Exasperated, I went to the CVS web site to see if perhaps the item was back in stock my local store. The CVS web site would not function. So I tried Walgreens. Except, this time instead of specifying a store that I can get to easily by train, I let the Walgreens web site pick one. And it did a splendid job.
The item I needed was in stock at a Walgreens in an area I would never think to travel to. So I put two in my cart, selected “Same day delivery” and went back to reading my New York Times.
Before I could finish the International section, there was a guy dropping a paper bag on my doorstep.
I checked my e-mail and found that the time from when I placed my order online until Walgreens notified me that my order was ready to be delivered was four minutes. Four minutes. It was picked up minutes after that, and delivered to me straight away.
The total time from when I placed the order to when I received my Walgreens order was 22 minutes. For an item that I couldn't get at a drug store near me, and that Amazon sent a counterfeit of.
Yes, I had to pay $3.99 for the delivery. But the item was a dollar cheaper at Walgreens than at Amazon, and I ordered two of them. So the cost difference was $1.99. More importantly — I got what I paid for.
Walgreens is better than Amazon. Man bites dog. The sky is green. Everything the tech bubble has been preaching about the death of brick-and-mortar is wrong.
Funny how Microsoft has no problem at all automatically opting me in to sharing my personal information with its “partners” within four seconds of me creating an account. But if I try to opt-out, it suddenly canʼt cope.
If a simple toggle of a button can bring Microsoft to its knees, why would I trust it with anything at all? Is this the power, resiliency, and scaleability of the masterful Azure “cloud” its always talking about?
When H.E.B. says the grocery delivery person is 17 minutes away, thatʼs how I know he's standing outside my door unloading his cart. It's always exactly 17 minutes. I get the text message, look for the cat acting up, and can see the shadow of the delivery person outside my door.
Consistency is a good thing. And “consistently wrong” is a type of consistency, right?
It's nice that iOS 16 lets people know the phone is too hot when it does things. It used to do things, but not tell you.
When I lived in the desert, just having an iPhone in your pocket or on a table could sometimes cause the phone to turn itself off. If you were lucky, you'd see something very quickly appear on the screen about “Entering thermal shutdown” or some such. A minute later, you were out in the desert without a working phone.
Apple, and most tech companies, build their products for the environment where Apple, and most tech companies, are located — San Francisco. When I talk to tech people who work at these companies, sometimes they simply cannot wrap their brains around weather conditions that are commonplace elsewhere.
Another example is iPhone wired headphones. Theyʼre made with plastic that gets brittle in the cold. Of course, when youʼre bundled up against the cold is when you need your headphones the most. That was how I learned about Bluetooth headphones, and got a set of Sony headphones for use with my SonyEricsson M600c when commuting on the CTA in the middle of the night during Chicago winters. Apple wouldnʼt make its own wireless headphones until over a decade later.
Today I decided to make a Sears-accurate label for my Harmony cart.
If you're not a retro video game nerd, some of those words may not make sense. To elucidate:
A Harmony Cartridge is a device that can be plugged into an 1970's-era Atari 2600 video game machine. Data files can then be loaded onto an SD card, and the SD card inserted into the Harmony cartridge so that you can play many different video games without having to swap cartridges all the time.
In the 1970's, Sears licensed the Atari 2600 and put out its own version, calling it the Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade. This is the machine that I own.
Sears also licensed Atari's video games for the machine, and sold them under its own Sears Tele-Games brand
Sears was notorious for changing the names of Atari games. Sometimes because the name that Atari chose for its 2600 game was the same as one that Sears used for an earlier video game machine. Sometimes just because. Sears was this massive company that built America's tallest building and had its own ZIP Code, so renaming a bunch of video games was no big deal.
The Harmony cart comes with a label that doesn't look like an Atari label, or a Sears label, so it kind of ruins the look of the machine. In fact, there's no label on the end at all. That's because that's where you jam the microSD card into the cart so you can play your games.
I found some fonts on the intarwebs and decided to teach myself a bit of Affinity Photo. The result is pretty good. It's far from perfect, mostly because I couldn't find a font that really matches the Sears font. Which makes sense, since Sears was a big enough company to have its own font artists.
Bauhaus appears to be the closest font, and there are hundreds of Bauhaus-inspired fonts available for free download on the internet. Sadly, most of them are corrupt, incomplete, or worse. It seems that the people who run free font web sites just copy files from one another, and don't bother to verify that the font actually works.
For the green text, I found a generic seven-segment-display-inspired font that's almost correct, except for the middle pointy bit of the capital M.
I printed out the label on glossy photo paper, which looks nice, but isn't truly accurate. To be accurate, it would be on matte label stock, sun faded, smeared with peanut butter, and have the corner peeled up a bit.
Since Sears was in the habit of renaming so many games, I decided to change the name of my Harmony cart to "Super Multi-Cart." The name just popped into my head.
Because the microSD card sticks out of the end of the Harmony cart a bit, the label doesn't lay flat. I haven't decided how to address this. My options are:
Use an X-Acto knife to cut a tiny square from the label for the SD card to poke through.
Shave the plastic off of the end of the microSD card so it doesn't stick out so far. I'll have to look into if this can be done without ruining the electronics inside.
If you're into this sort of thing, here are the Affinity Photo label files I made, so you can print your own, or improve upon what I've done:
“Insufficient” means “not enough,” it doesnʼt mean wrong. “Incorrect” is closer to what FortiClient is trying to say. This is why tech companies should hire a proofreader for anything that leaves the building, even if only on a contract basis. It makes you look amateur, and in the case of this security app — insecure.
Also, if you use “credential(s),” rather than just counting the number of credentials and using the correct word, thatʼs just lazy.
I guess someone on the iOS 16 team at Apple didnʼt check for NULL before shoving the date data into the string formatter. The lesson is, of course, that while you never trust external data, sometimes you can't trust internal data, either.
Still, Apple is the single largest company on the planet right now. If it canʼt do software, what chance do I have?
SAM76 was one of many computer languages that came out in the 1970ʼs that promised to be the “next big thing,” but failed to gain traction.
It looks a bit like AP/L, with its tight syntax, but was meant for text manipulation like Lisp.
I haven't found a SAM76 interpreter to play with in 2022, so here's an example of what a SAM76 program would look like, from the May-June, 1978 issue of Creative Computing that would take a number from the terminal input, and uses recursion to print out the factorial of that number.
I'm no SAM76 expert, but I think there's a typo in this listing. I think the !%ii… is actually supposed to be !%is… to retrieve an “input string” from the terminal. But I'm happy to be proven wrong.
As you may have guessed from the ten slashes, this language is all about nesting commands. Amusingly, it doesn't matter how many slashes you close your expressions with, as long as it's enough. So just keep banging that slash key!
SAM76 is a great example of smart people dealing with the scarcity of their time. This is a language that has been optimized for teletypes, punch cards, and paper tape. The % isn't a command prompt, it's a command. (More specifically, a “warning character.”) The “mu” and “pt” and such are shortened, almost tokenized, keywords.
Sadly, there is no SAM76 entry on Wikipedia, and almost no information on the internet about it, so it will soon be erased from the public memory by search engines (*cough*Google*cough*) that choose to only show things currently trending in popular culture. Shakespeare, youʼre next.
There's a big push in large healthcare companies to make things easier for patients. It sounds dumb to have to state that, but there has not always been the institutional will to care for patients on their level. But a lot of studies and computer models have shown that something as simple as repeating instructions to a patient can improve the outcomes of treatment in a percentage of people. With so many people in the world now, even a small change can mean enormous savings in money for hospitals, insurance companies, and the patients, themselves.
Unfortunately, we're still at the beginning of the process of bringing the healthcare institutions down to the level of the people they are supposed to serve. The use of regular language and easy methods is spreading, but remains uneven.
To wit: The image above, which is the first question asked when trying to book an imaging appointment with Houston Methodist Hospital.
This is an online form for patients, not doctors. When a regular person phones Methodist to make an imaging appointment, it suggests you use this form to make the appointment online.
I am not a doctor. How am I supposed to know if I need an “MRI 1.5T Wide Bore with Contrast,” or an “MRI 3T without Contrast,”, or a “Fluoroscopy,” or something else? It turns out the type of appointment I need isn't even listed in the options.
As someone who builds healthcare web sites for a living, I understand the technical reasons why this is the way it is. But I also understand that it doesn't have to be this way.
There are people in healthcare who care quite a lot about making things easier, and therefore better, for patients. That caring and understanding rarely pervades and entire organization. But it has to.
What we see here is, in my semi-expert opinion, a breakdown in the chain of caring. Something got outsourced to an external company that doesn't have to care. Someone didn't get trained in the importance of making things easier for the patients, and let this awful thing see the light of day. Some web developer somewhere doesn't have the authority, confidence, or will to question what's been handed to him to produce. He's just there to push buttons and cash a check.
Every person at every level of a healthcare organization not only had to be told to care, but trained to care. Even, and especially, the directors and C-levels. The upper levels are told about how much money can be saved by making healthcare more accessible to ordinary people. But they aren't trained in what that actually looks like, so they are not able to spot mistakes as they're happening, so they can have the people under them correct the problems before they persist and spread. Allowing people to say “That's the way we've always done it” is evidence of a sclerotic organization.
Similarly, and as alluded to above, with the continual outsourcing of functions, you also end up outsourcing caring. Someone pasting together AJAX snippets from StackOverflow in an SalesForce application on the other side of the planet doesn't care that the web site is useless to 90% of users. They've done their job, and that's all their staffing company cares about. It's important to understand that lack of detail and care makes your healthcare company look bad, and it hurts your bottom line by making your treatments less effective, and making your doctors work more.
Everyone in a healthcare organization has to not only care about the patients, but be trained in this. Not just the hands-on people like doctors and nurses and patient liaisons. Everyone. The people who process forms. The people in accounting. And, yes, the I.T. people. Every single person in a healthcare organization affects patients in some way.
To its credit, of the dozens healthcare organizations I've interacted with in dozens of states, Methodist is among the better and more advanced with regard to how it treats its patients. But the process is incomplete.
Healthcare companies talk a lot about caring. But unless there is an ethos of responsibility to the patient that includes every single person in that organization, it's all just marketing.
I was digging the Halloween decorations out of the basement today, when I came across my old PSP gear. Joy!
Sonyʼs PlayStation Portable wasn't the first portable video game system I ever owned. I had the original Atari Lynx back in the 80ʼs. But the PSP brings back warm memories of a time in my life when I was more full of hope, and the world seemed to be filled with endless possibilities
I was in Japan in February of 2005, a couple of months after the PSPʼs launch, but two months before it became available in the rest of the world. My wife and I were riding on a subway in Tokyo when an OL (“office lady” — the female version of “salaryman”) sat down next to where I was standing. She pulled out a PSP and started playing ルミネス (“Lumines” in English). I was absolutely enthralled. I immediately said to Darcie, “Thatʼs what I'm bringing home from Japan.”
Yodobashi Camera is like the old Crazy Eddie electronics department store, except taking up a dozen floors of a skyscraper. If it runs on electricity, it's probably at Yodobashi. Anything from a Hello Kitty waffle maker to a household earthquake detector. From a refrigerator to a radiation monitor that you hang around your neck. From a transistor radio to the latest computer gear. If there was a PSP in Tokyo, I was sure I'd find it here.
Except that I didnʼt. Yodobashi was too much for me. Too many levels. Too much stuff. Precisely zero signs printed in English. I was over my head. Finally, I had to ask for help. A young man in an ill-fitting suit and an eager grin decided to take a chance with me.
My Japanese is bad. Real bad. When weʼre in Japan, my wife is in her element. She handles the shopgirls, and drags me around like a wide-eyed toddler. But I was on my own this time.
I tried to communicate very clearly and plainly, “Video games?” Blank stare. I broke out my best non-regional radio voice and enunciated as clearly as I could: “Play-stay-shun Port-a-bull.” Nervous smile.
Finally, I resorted to pantomime. I held my hands out in front of me in loose vertical fists, and pumped my thumbs up and down like I was pressing buttons.
With an expression of exuberant relief and a flourish of forearms and pointing palms, he guided me to a half-height white cabinet, bent over, slid back the glass door and popped up with a glossy white box.
With a hasty bow, he took off like jackrabbit down the warren of Panasonic boom boxes, Sony Cliés, and Sanyo voice recorders. His job was done, and he was happy to be done with me, and out of there.
That's why to this day, my wife and I call our video game machines “Peesps.”
Netflix says today marks one year since I've had Netflix. Which is not true. I've had Netflix for 24 years. But Netflix doesn't have a way to put an account on hold when you go on vacation, or move. Instead, you have to cancel your account, then sign up again when you come back home or arrive in your new place.
Amazingly, and much to its credit, when you sign up again, your Netflix queue is restored, and you're right where you left off. So I guess it's only ½ a fail.
Every time I use Microsoft Windows, I manage to find another way it simply doesn't make sense to me.
In this example, I have instructed Microsoft Outlook to “Save All Attachments” from a particular e-mail message. Instead of saving all of the attachments, it pops up a modal window asking which attachments Iʼd like to save. Well, Iʼd like to save them all. Which is why I clicked on “Save All Attachments” and not “Save some, but I'm not sure which ones I might want, so why don't you stop me in the middle of my work instead of doing what I've instructed you to do.”
There would be no shame in Microsoft adding a “Save Some Attachments…” item to its already ample menu structure.
Crowdsourcing used to be all the rage in the tech industry. It was a way to get content for your project for free. Use your automation system to ask enough people for content, and some small percentage will happy oblige. The problem with crowdsourcing is quality control.
If you let anyone contribute anything, anyone will contribute anything. I once built a crowdsourced system for people to share photographs of landmarks. A significant percentage of the photos contributed were people standing in front of a camera holding up their resumes, presumably hoping that someone searching for a photo of the Berlin Wall might magically hire them to write code in India.
In the example above, we see the result of two levels of folly. Getty Images allows anyone to upload photographs to its system in order to sell those pictures to other people. That's the crowdsourcing. Then Apple outsourced photography for Apple Maps to a bunch of entities, including Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, and also Getty Images.
The result is a photo of a city in China among the photographs that are supposed to depict the West Texas city of Midland.
The tech nerd part of me that should think, ”Oh, cool! Hobby Airport has industrial-grade floor cleaning robots!” is outweighed by the human being in me who thinks, “Well, there's one more job that some person with low skills got kicked out of.”
Not everyone in the world has the mental or physical capability to do a mid-level or high-level job. But they still need a job, and deserve the dignity that comes with employment. In the 80ʼs the justification for turning jobs over to robots was that the newly unemployed could be re-trained to fix or run the robots. But in my experience, that's only rarely true.
The more I interact with people of all social strata, the more I realize that mopping floors in an airport is a really good job for some people. One they can be good at, and proud of. That will allow them to provide for themselves, and maybe even another person or two. Iʼm not currently convinced that we should automate the humanity out of society.
Southwest Airlines encourages people to download its app for a “contactless day of travel.” You know what else is contactless? The way it was done up to now.
There's nothing about using an app that is more contactless than using a home-printed ticket, or even the old-style paper tickets. Both are read by a contactless scanner. It's not like the gate agent is going to lick your face because youʼre not using an app.
There are more disadvantages to using an app for your boarding pass than using a piece of paper:
Ask any janitor — people drop their phones in toilets all the time.
Restrooms, bars, restaurants, payment kiosks — there are a thousand ways to lose your phone in an airport.
Phones run out of battery.
Phone apps crash.
Phone apps malfunction.
Internet connectivity is required, but not guaranteed.
Internet connectivity in airports is notoriously slow and unreliable.
People run out of data on their mobile plans while waiting for their planes.
Screens time out and turn off just when someone gets to the gate agent. It happens constantly.
My observation waiting in line behind people using app-based boarding passes is that the paper passes scan more quickly, and more reliably than the phone-based equivalents.
The only reason to use an app-based boarding pass is if you enjoy forking over even more of your personal information to an airline so that it can sell that information to other people.
I am a paying passenger. I am not your recurring revenue stream.
People forget how primitive video games were in the early years. For a very long time, the only way to start a game was to press the Restart button on the console. It would be years before anyone dreamed up the idea of starting or restarting a game by pressing a button on the controller thatʼs right there in the playerʼs hand. Itʼs so elementary that people today take for granted that itʼs always been that way.
In the early years of video games, there was no such thing as sitting back and relaxing while playing a game, unless it was something with no end, like the free draw mode in Surround. You had to reach out and touch the console every few minutes when the game ended.
I see people on the internet all the time claiming that plastic cards and cash are things of the past, and no longer needed. Thatʼs only true if you never go anywhere interesting, never eat anywhere unusual, and never do laundry.
Iʼm supposed to have super-duper awesome benefits with United Airlines because I have a Chase credit card. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to see what those benefits are. Naturally, the link on the Chase web site was broken. It just looped though a login screen over and over.
Since Iʼm a paying customer, I moaned about it to Chaseʼs customer service.
I ended up booking my ticket on another airline, and forgot all about it until I got this in the the mail today. I guess someone at Chase figured it would be faster to mail me a book about the benefits than to fix the link.
I guess this ends up being a story about good customer service, because not only do I have the book, but I just checked, and the link is fixed, too.
I finally got around to fixing up the over-the-air antenna hooked up to my TV. I re-scanned and found 121 channels.
Not all of the channels are great. But that's no different than the DirecTV service I have in my apartment, for which I am obligated to pay $80 a month. Except that the majority of the dross over the air is shopping channels and infomercials, while DirecTV seems to be 90% pornography, sports, and also shopping.
The important thing is that with the over-the-air antenna, I get The!Movies!Network!, and MeTV+. I've also discovered a channel that is mostly British and Australian DIY and lifestyle shows, like Escape to the Country, of which Darcie and have long been fans. Going to have to rev that $20 ATSC DVR into high gear for a while.
Here's a table of what I found, mostly for my own reference, and subject to change with a shift in the wind.
If you're viewing this on a mobile phone, you won't be able to see the table until you hold your phone horizontally. That's because tables look like absolute pants on phones.
Sometimes if I canʼt sleep, I like to scroll through Apple Maps and see what can be seen. On this particular night, I found a flock of birds near NASA. They look like egrets or something similar to me.
Using a pay phone requires three things that are increasingly scarce:
A public payphone
Knowing the number of someone to call
There are still lots of payphones in the world, but theyʼre generally not on the streets where they can be easily noticed. Coins are so scarce that even banks have a hard time getting them. And while it used to be the case that most people knew a dozen or two phone numbers by heart, today they use a gadget to remember for them.
I understand why these things happen, but it seems like there should still be some kind of “infrastructure of last resort” for emergencies, misfortune, and those on the margins of society. New technology is great, but it still breaks too easily for us to rely on it enough in many situations.
The Eighth District police station in New Orleans has an unusual feature. Iʼve seen lots of police stations with gift shops and museums before. But inside the gift shop in this police station is a vending machine that spits out swag.
I slid my credit card through the reader, punched a button, and out popped a New Orleans Police Department ball cap. Very cool.
I think that many people donʼt know that the New Orleans P.D. sells hats, shirts, tote bags, and other branded items. At least it seems like the people who live in the Eighth District donʼt.
Early the next morning, I went to a bodega near Esplanade to get a newspaper. It was raining, so I wore my rain jacket, which is kinda-sorta safety yellow, and my new N.O.P.D. hat. There were some locals sitting around drinking coffee and shooting the breeze. The store was out of newspapers, so I asked if anyone knew where I could get one because none of the stores near my hotel had any.
“Near my hotel” let them know I was a tourist. But until then, they said they thought I was a cop. When I told them I got the hat out of a vending machine at the police station, they were not happy.
I can understand why they were upset. If I can unintentionally make people think Iʼm a police officer, imagine what someone could accomplish if they were actually trying.
Part of the Amazon Music screen says “purchased.” Another part says I canʼt download the music I paid for.
Trying again in 15 minutes didnʼt change anything. Nor did trying again in 30 minutes, or 45. An hour after my purchase I got on the blower with Amazon customer service, and was told to wait 24 hours to download the music I paid for.
Thatʼs OK for me, because I'm patient. I was able to download the music when I tried a couple of days later. But isnʼt the whole point of Amazon Music that people are supposed to have immediate, unlimited access to their music?
One of my newspapers didnʼt come today. So I tried to let the Houston Chronicle know it has a problem. Naturally, since the conglomerate that ate Houstonʼs paper of record doesnʼt have customer service people on the weekend, I have to fill out a report online. And, naturally, the web site doesnʼt work.
Even if I had to wait on hold for a while to speak to someone about it, a human being could solve the problem immediately. Instead, I have to remember to call the newspaperʼs customer service people during the week to get credit for the missed delivery.
Remember when computers were going to make our lives better?
If you ever want to know what the inside of an automatic barista machine looks like, just head to Whole Foods in Midtown Houston. Thereʼs a good chance itʼs inner mechanism is open and available for you to examine.
Iʼm not sure how many times Iʼve been to this Whole Foods store — maybe a dozen times — and the coffee machine has never been working.
Every time I go, thereʼs a repairman busy tinkering with it. Which seems like quite a coincidence. Either Costa Coffee has an employee whose job is to repair this one machine full-time, or thereʼs something about me going to Whole Foods that causes the machine to kill itself.
My apartment building has a Stockwell vending machine in the basement.
Unlike the vending machines of yore, this one is just an open cabinet with a camera that watches what you take off the shelves and uses magic A.I. fairies to send you a bill. That is, if it works. Which it doesnʼt.
I canʼt even get the Stockwell app to acknowledge that the Stockwell machine in my building exists.
I guess Iʼll spend my snack money at the convenience store across the street, instead. Where I can pay by cash, or credit card, or Apple Pay, or even food stamps if I had them. And if something goes wrong, there are intermittently friendly people to help me out, and not some Silicon Valley robot barking, “object has no attribute.”
Cheaper than Google Cloud, more relianle than Microsoft Azure
Thursday, July 15th, 2021Alive18,342days
Every ten years it seems like the tech world bring in a new batch of people who never bothered to study how things worked in previous decades, and thus end up not only reinventing the wheel, but hyping it up like itʼs the first time anyone ever thought of whatever it is theyʼre all excited about.
Timesharing → Thin clients → Web apps
Hypercard → Web sites
Brittanica → Encarta → Wikipedia
Q-Link → IRC → Second Life → Virtual reality
Rabbitjackʼs Casino → BetMGM
Also not new: Cloud computing. Check out the highlights from this 1979 advertisement for MicroNET:
MicroNET allows the personal computer user access to… large computers, software and disc storage
You can use our powerful processors
Operating time [is] billed in minutes to your VISA or MasterCharge card
You can even sell software via MicroNET.
MicroNET was a way for CompuServe to allow people to use spare capacity on its big iron computers. People could upload their personal projects, conduct business, and even develop software using the might of dozens of machines thousands of times more powerful than what they could afford in their own homes. Maintenance, backups, power supply, networking, and other infrastructure details were abstracted away from the end user so the user could concentrate on the task at hand.
Sound familiar, Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, and a thousand other virtual machine companies?
I swiped up to unlock, and instead the screen sort-of half swiped left. The lock icon, the unlock instructions, the wallpaper, and a dark overlay moved left, revealing another copy of the wallpaper underneath. Meanwhile, the time, the music panel, and the quick keys stayed put.
Fortunately, all was solved ten seconds later when the phone shit itself and rebooted.
I got a new Atari cart yesterday. Itʼs BASIC Programming.
While the word “BASIC” in the title is properly capitalized because it is an initialism for Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, the title would also work in sentence case as “Basic Programming,” because this is truly basic programming.
Lots of modern-day reviewers on the internet who are more interested in outrage clicks than thoughtful conversation deride this program as a farce or even a toy. I have the unpopular view that BASIC Programming is really quite good, both as a technical achievement and as a cultural change agent. It achieves a number of important goals:
Provided ordinary people with an introduction to programming
Provides a subset of the BASIC programming language
Has the ability to play musical notes
Has the ability to display rudimentary graphics
This is all elementary school stuff today. But when this cartridge came out in 1979, it was absolutely revolutionary. For $50, an Atari owner could get a taste of what it was like to actually program a computer. And while computers were starting to occasionally appear in well-to-do homes, they were still staggeringly uncommon, and cost about the same as a new car.
Joysticks and buttons in arcades gave wider society its first opportunity to command an electronic machine to do things. BASIC Programming gave Atari owners the ability to give an electronic machine sequences of commands, and to act on them. Moving a dot around a screen with a joystick had been done long ago through various electromechanical methods. But this was the first chance for ordinary people to actually command a machine to do more than just react to stimulus.
BASIC Programming has a limited feature set, but itʼs still an integrated development environment, not fundamentally different from what computer programmers use today. One significant difference is that BASIC Programming managed to present a fully functional I.D.E. in a minuscule 2K of memory. Thatʼs about one sixth of the words in this article.
By comparison, the current version of Microsoftʼs I.D.E. starts at 274,000 times the size of BASIC Programming, and increases rapidly from there, depending on what language you write in.
Atariʼs BASIC Programming crosses the same ocean as Microsoftʼs VS Code, but does it with a styrofoam pool noodle instead of the Queen Mary.
In addition, BASIC Programming is user-friendly in one specific way that few computers are today. Like me, it had Sister Maria for third grade Arithmetic class, where she preached, “Anything divided by zero is zero.” Try to divide something by zero in Atariʼs basic BASIC, and it politely gives you zero. Unlike modern computer systems that fall on the floor, curl up in a ball, and start quietly sobbing to themselves when asked the same question.
The one popular modern-day gripe I agree with is that the input method is cumbersome. Itʼs a pair of keypads, one plugged into each joystick port, and then locked together. I understand why it was done this way, but that doesnʼt make it easy to use.
Still, the single keypad pair is pulling more than its weight, even for the era. It is used for:
The entire common English-language alphabet: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
The numbers: 1234567890
A space character
Punctuation ., ,, ʼ, and ＂
A set of basic BASIC keywords
Mathematical and assignment operators
Cursor controls Backward and Forward
A Newline character
IDE controls for:
Just looking at the command set, thereʼs a lot of interesting points.
It has an else command. There are modern-day computer languages that donʼt even have this feature.
It has a goto command. Only recently has goto come in from the cold, and is slowly being embraced by a new generation of programmers decades after being banished to the Gulag of Oldthink.
Its keyboard has Control, Meta, Super, and Hyper modifiers, just like keyboards of today. On a modern-day keyboard you may know these as Control, Command, Option, and Hyper. On the Atari keypad, theyʼre color coded White, Red, Blue, and Green.
It has a function to slow down the execution of programs so that the programmer can understand whatʼs happening.
Imagine being someone in 1979, who has lived his entire life with paper and pencils — someone who has never seen a computer in person before — coming to the realization that the simple little program he punched in on his Atari is running so fast that he canʼt keep up with it. This was an epiphanal moment. An awakening. A sense that the cyber-commander art work on the box wasnʼt just fantasy, but an expression of the type of power being brought to ordinary people in their dens.
In addition, when you run a program, the systemʼs cursor moves through the program during execution, allowing you to follow along with whatʼs happening. This kind of functionality is an add-on in modern systems.
On a personal note, I love the idea that it has a Halt command. It brings a lot of nostalgic feelings to my tummy. Back when computers were commanded to run and then halt because of their military origins. A time when you couldnʼt start a computer without a key. When computers had mechanical odometers behind a panel so that the IBM service guy from New Paltz could write down for how many hours you used the machine, to let Big Blueʼs billing department know.
Yesterday was a quiet Saturday, so I sat down with BASIC Programming and approached it with my programmerʼs analytical mind, and without the biases of modern-day development. My conclusion is that this is really quite fun.
I started by typing in all six of the programs I could find on the internet. Unlike the days of typing in program from the backs of magazines, these all worked the first time, with moving dots and pinging sounds. Then I started to experiment on my own.
The dialect of BASIC that this cartridge uses is very much of its era. Variable assignment is done with ←, instead of =, just like in 1960ʼs and 1970ʼs computing languages like AP/L. Goto is your friend, not your enemy. And the notion of whitespace for readability goes right out the window. This will be a show-stopper for anyone used to cruising Appleʼs internal codebase.
Iʼm not musical in any way, so naturally I enjoyed stringing along rudimentary bloops and bleeps into nonsensical songs. For an afternoon, I was the e e cummings of synthpop, but I was also doing something: I was creating. This was an a-ha moment, and I felt a rainbow connection to dads of the 1970ʼs, sitting cross-legged in wood-paneled living rooms, scales drifting lazily from their eyes as the future was revealed.
If you appreciate programming elegance, the value of simplicity, or simply dig code golf, this is your course. You are forced to think about what youʼre doing. To make choices, evaluate tradeoffs, and make do with what you have. Itʼs a lot of the brain stimulus that gets some people into programming as a profession in the first place
There are a number of people who enjoy making tiny programs. Some so small that they fit into a PC-DOS boot sector. I think a few of those people might thrive within the constraints of this environment.
The biggest limitation of BASIC Programming is memory. You can only cram a few dozen symbols into the machine. Thatʼs to be expected, since the entire console only has 128 bytes of memory. Thatʼs the reality of 1979. But today, people are able to program Atari cartridges that work with comparatively massive amounts of information. One guy even sells Atari carts that are full-motion videos of popular movies. I suspect one of those clever people could find a way to make a version of this that works around the memory limitation.
The second-biggest problem is the Frankensteinian keyboard. As an input device, it was never intended for long-form content. But the cognitive overhead of shifting modes, double-checking the screen, and the constant hunt-and-peck involved make it hard to concentrate on the program, and not on the controller. Perhaps thatʼs another throwback to 1970ʼs computing, though.
Iʼm old enough to be one of those programmers who wrote their programs out on paper first (graph paper, if you were lucky), then typed it into a shared computer, and hoped that it did what was intended. Maybe if I spent more time thinking about the code beforehand, rather than writing it on-the-fly as is common today, coding in BASIC Programming wouldnʼt be so arduous.
Still, I think that with a bit of time, it would be possible to come up with a harness that links a standard Human Interface Design keyboard with the pair of Atari joystick ports to emulate the keypad. In my mind, it would take some kind of Arduino or Raspberry Pi device with a dozen I/O pins. Voltage might be an issue, but nothing insurmountable to todayʼs hobbiest.
In fact, using this method, one could actually load BASIC Programming programs stored in a host system through the Arduino-powered keypad interface. You could write a program in Microsoft VS Code, or Panicʼs Nova, and when you push to git, or the version management system of your choice, it could also be sent wirelessly to the Arduino, which then relays the keypresses into the Atari 2600.
I went for a walk today. And like a basset hound with a thyroid condition, I can use all the walkies I can get.
On the way home, my watch pinged me with “It looks like you went outside for a walk. Congratulations!” I pushed the wrong buttons trying to take a screenshot, and the message went away. If a smart watch is a jerk to you in a crosswalk and nobody sees it, can you still rant about it?
But one nearby noodle shop, confronted with competition from its neighbor, may have had the last word when it decided to give itself a “new media” edge. It decided to take advantage of rapidly dropping prices by buying a FAX (facsimile) machine; now I can send in my order for traditional Japanese soba or udon noodles directly from my home FAX machine!
Iʼm getting tired of all the lazy developers talking about how great Electron is.
I guess they donʼt have to use Microsoftʼs Azure Storage Explorer, which crashes on a weekly basis, taking down the entire machine and all of their work because itʼs built in Electron, and is not a real program.
Simplifying the stack would save development costs, management costs, and increase sales.
But nobody in tech gets promoted for making things less complicated.
When I load photos of Valley of Fire into programs like Lightroom, they automatically crank the color down 15 notches because the programmers at Adobe in Seattle canʼt conceive of a place that isnʼt as humid and grey as where they live.
For some reason I broke out Darcieʼs original 2007 iPhone. Works fine, except web browsing is a mess. So much smaller, thicker, and heavier than a current phone, but it just feels good to hold. Nice and solid. And it has places to grip it that arenʼt the screen.
Today I learned that the IT guy who wouldnʼt allow Macs or iPhones on the corporate network at a former employer because “Macs are stupid” is now free to peddle his “Windows rulz!” bullshit full time in the unemployment line because he refused to take Macintosh/Unix networking classes.