Monday, December 20, 2010

Followup to TSA Opt-Out Day

As I write this, I'm on a plane to Tampa Florida. Lucky for me, Austin's airport doesn't have the dubious TSA naked body scanners (also known as "pornoscanners") other airports have. Dealing with the x-ray question is just another issue adding to the tension of the airport experience, and I'm glad to avoid it entirely. We'll see if I get selected for enhanced screening on the way back.

TSA and Liberty In The News

Since I released the TSA Opt-Out Day game for Android, some interesting stories have come out. Roger Ebert has written an wonderful critique of TSA practices -- the enhanced grope and the naked body scanners. It is an entertaining read and makes a lot more sense than just about anything the TSA has ever said.

Like those before him, Mr. Ebert points out that TSA's security has the foresight of a two year old child. Oh, someone put a weapon in his shoe; now shoes are x-rayed. Ah, somebody burned his genitals with weaponized underwear; now we'll grope or x-ray travelers.

Salon recently published the outrageous story of a mother faced with the prospect of her baby getting an enhanced pat-down from the TSA. See if you can spot the flaws that make her experience security-theater harassment rather than a real attempt to prevent weapons from getting on a plane.

What really angers me is that for every reported experience like Wilson Diehl's, there are probably tens or hundreds more. Wilson's baby groping experience probably had the best outcome anyone could expect: she was inspected by a sympathetic TSA agent. Not every traveler has that luxury.

Continuing the "a TSA screener can pick you, but you can't pick your screener" theme, a former Baywatch actress was allegedly selected not-so-randomly for a TSA naked x-ray. I think Donna D'Errico rightly points out that allowing humans to select who gets enhanced screening is anything but random. You don't get to "randomly" choose your cards by thumbing through the deck when you play poker. TSA agents shouldn't get to choose who they see naked for the same reason.

The Miami Herald has a nice piece about the accountability and the balance of liberty with security. A few of the suggestions were novel to me.

Finally, Gizmodo uncovered evidence that it is possible to make several kinds of weapons invisible to naked x-ray scanners. Not that it matters. Nothing prevents terrorists from flying from an airport that isn't equipped with naked x-ray scanners.

Even in airports with the technology, it is sometimes trivially easy to avoid the line equipped with a naked x-ray scanner. If your line is asked to remove everything from the pockets, switch to the other line. So why are we giving up liberty if we get no security in return?

TSA and Safety In the News


USA Today has been trying to investigate the other side of the naked body scan x-ray issue: health and safety. They want to know what the TSA does to guarantee the safety of the x-ray scanners.

A 2008 CDC report found that the TSA was having radiation exposure problems with the normal baggage scanners that have been around for quite a long time. In some of the airports the CDC visited, TSA employees had defeated or disabled the safety features of the baggage scanners.

Who knows how they're checking and maintaining the safety features of the full-body x-rays? So far I can't find any evidence that the TSA has complied with USA Today's requests, another reason besides liberty to opt-out of a naked body scan.

AOL has also investigated the health and safety issues of the x-ray body scanners. Like USA Today, they couldn't find any good evidence that the naked x-ray scanners weren't health threats. I definitely agree with their attitude that the burden of proof lies with the TSA. Anyone who has survived grade school probably knows that the words "trust me" won't make dangerous behavior any safer.

TSA Opt-Out Day App Update

In related news, nearly a month has passed since I released my TSA Opt-Out Day game for Android phones. The App is now up to version 1.5, and it has been downloaded 1151 times. 225 of those are active installs, 19%.

I've added analytics capabilities to the app, which means I collect anonymous game usage data. One of the more interesting statistics is that the average logged frustration level is 23. The frustration score measures how many times the crotch area was touched during an inspection. Does this mean that people are getting a kick out of the enhanced screening procedures? Naughty users!

I've also added some new types of contraband to the game. Players will enjoy finding air bags, ninja stars, gel shoe inserts, snow globes, and the extremely dangerous water bottle on the passengers they inspect. All of those items are specifically mentioned on the TSA Prohibited Items List, with the exception of water bottle, banned under the general non-medical liquid quantity prohibition.

For the holiday season, I've added a festive surprise: Santa, or at least passengers dressed like Santa have decided to join the movement and opt-out of the x-ray. I suggest performing a less-invasive search so he doesn't add you to the naughty list.

Finally, I've improved the scoring system so that it gives real time user feedback. Your score increases on the fly as you discover contraband. Frustration level increases in real time as well. Hopefully these improvements will make the game a little more fun.

I hope you find the app amusing, but most of all, I hope it gets people thinking and talking about liberty and TSA policies. Only you can fix airport security.

Android-only link to the free TSA Opt-Out Day App. You can also find the app by searching for TSA in the Android Market.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Electronic Book Platform Smackdown

I can code, but I use some help becoming a better designer. So I've been wanting to read Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition for some time (note, this is an Amazon Associates link -- I get a portion of revenue generated by it).

I'm flying to Tampa for the holidays so I thought I might buy the eBook version to read on the plane. Electronic books. What could be easier and more useful, right? Let's see what the options for my iPad are.

iBooks

iBooks is a gorgeous App. It looks great and is easy to use, even if it is an Apple-centric product. You can hilight words, search, add bookmarks, and even write notes on the pages.

Don't Make Me think costs $31.99.

Kindle

The Kindle iPad app doesn't quite look as fancy as the iBooks app, but the text is quite readable, and I like the overall experience. You can write notes, save bookmarks, search. Thankfully, Kindle is quite cross-platform; you can even find versions of the app for Android.

Don't Make Me Think costs $17.59 (if you want a paperback, Amazon charges $23.32)

Google Books

Google Books for the iPad has an very Google-like minimalistic feel to it. It remembers the last page you were on for each book, but otherwise I don't see any other mechanism for marking up books: no notes, no bookmarks (except the last page you visited), no hilighting. You can search inside of books.

Google books is cross-platform, supporting lots of platforms including Android and web browsers.

I was unable to find Don't Make Me Think for sale from Google.

Nook

The Nook iPad app reminds me a lot of the Kindle app, but slower. Nook reader apps are available on a variety of platforms including Android. It seems a little sluggish to open books on iPad compared to the other readers, but it works fine once the book is open. You can add bookmarks, hilights, and notes. You can search inside of books.

Don't Make Me Think costs $31.99

Conclusion

There are a lot of variables that impact the desirability of eBooks. DRM. Usability. Long term viability. Backing up. Two that matter to me are the ability to add notes, search, and get cheap books. For this particular book Kindle is the winner for both price and features (where it seems to match the competition).

Feature-wise, Google is the loser. I love Google for many things, but this product needs work. For buying fiction, Google might work fine, but for Non-Fiction I need to be able to mark up my books with notes. Also, the book I wanted wasn't even available. I hope to see improvement from Google's product.

Price wise, both Nook and iBooks charged significantly more than a new copy of the paperback on Amazon. Fail!

The worst part of all these options is that now you can waste a good hour doing price-comparisons between electronic books, used books, and paperbacks. If one of the Electronic Book providers offered an iron-clad low price guarantee, I think they might have a chance to steal some serious market share.

This might also be an opportunity for book price comparison websites. There is money to be made saving people time and money. Just look at all the travel, restaurant, and bargain websites out there. Where is the HipMunk of ebooks?

Have you purchased electronic books on these different platforms? I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cool Android Apps

I wrote about "Must Have Android Apps" a few weeks ago. That was my list of most useful Android apps, and I still say that those apps are great. But sometimes useful feels boring. As much as I love Evernote, I can't say that it'll make your iPhone friends cry.

My list of cool Android Apps are those interesting apps that might just make your iPhone friends a little jealous that their App Store is a tame zoo rather than a teeming jungle.

Gesture Search by Google

"WTF is this", you might ask. I don't know. You draw with your finger and it finds stuff on the phone. Phone numbers, apps, music, and so on.

Weird? Yes. But useful if you have only one hand free, you can't look at a keyboard, or you're bouncing around too much to type.

SlideIT Soft Keyboard

This app should make iPhone users jealous. Sure, the keyboard on the iPhone is pretty good. But typing on the SlideIT keyboard is fun and fast. Like most other soft keyboards, you can peck at keys with your fingers. You can also draw a line between each letter of the word you want to type, and that is where speed comes into play.

It takes a few days for your brain to adjust, but sliding across the keyboard is fast. In my opinion, not having to lift the finger improves accuracy. It also improves speed because lifting a finger takes time and energy. Most of all, sliding is fun. Think connect-the-dots.

One real issue users will face with this keyboard is that their finger will block the view of the keys. If you're already very familiar with the QWERTY keyboard, this won't be a problem.

Also, the keyboard doesn't do a great job with infrequently used words and jargon. I have a tendency to use SAT vocabulary words in my texts and emails. I'm a programmer, so I also use a lot of technical jargon. The keyboard will pretty much fail on these words in slide mode until you teach it -- you'll need to hunt-and-peck them in and add them to the dictionary. I think this is a fair tradeoff.

Handcent

Handcent is a free SMS client. Your phone should already have a SMS client, but Handcent is probably better. Handcent lets you configure all sorts of fun options, including the ability to show and respond to messages on the screen even if the phone is locked. That alone should make iPhone users jealous.

Also of note, Handcent lets you change the color and frequency of the notification light. Finally, Handcent lets you customize the app appearance. I like it!

TSA Opt-Out Day

Ok, I confess. I wrote this app. I'm biased.

This app lets you try your blue-gloved hand at being a TSA pat-down screener at the Airport. The motivation behind the App was to support discussion of the US Opt-Out Day protest of airport X-Ray body scans and "enhanced" pat-downs.

One person called the app "Worst game ever". Another called it "Friggen hilarious!". Either way, the point is that I was able to get an app in the Android Market instantly because there isn't a review process in place for Android Apps. This aspect of the Android Market is bound to make iPhone users jealous.

In Android land, developers can react to world events as fast as they can write a program. For example, a developer recently released an Android app to follow the recent Wikileaks debate. The instant and experimental nature of the Android platform encourages Apps that would never make it to the Apple App Store.

Instead of suggesting a specific App here, let me suggest searching the Android Market for interesting news events in progress.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA Opt-Out Day Android Game

TSA Opt-Out Day screenshot1In celebration of National Opt-Out Day, I have written a humorous app for Android Phones (requires Android 2.1 or newer). To find it, simply search for TSA in the Android Market. If you're on your phone, you can click on this Android only link.

The name of the app is TSA Opt-Out Day, and it is free!

What is all this about?

I had the idea for this game last week when chatter about Opt-Out Day was picking up on Twitter. I thought that a fun Android App could contribute to the protest efforts by getting more people involved...

What does it do?

The game gives you the power of the TSA blue glove. Wear blue gloves at the airport and suddenly you can touch people in the strangest ways.

Your job in the app is to operate the line of passengers who opt out of the naked X-ray scanner. Feel around the passengers legs and private areas looking for dangerous banned items like gel shoe inserts, snow globes, and bottled water.

Watch out though, if you get too personal the passengers will complain to Congress. If enough passengers complain, Congress will ban enhanced pat downs and naked X-ray scans. Then you'll be out of a job.

Updates (3:08 PM CST)

Comments on the app have been great:

  • "Kinda dumb but kinda funny." - dequan
  • "Worst game ever" - william
  • "Friggen hilarious!" - Michael

Good stuff.

My brother told me that having to hit the back button for the dialogs was annoying, so I added dismiss buttons to all the dialog boxes. I also added ninja stars and a few new traveler characters. That's version 1.1 of the app, in the Android Market, for free.

Also, if you don't have an Android phone, you can get a peek at the Android Market data here. That site seems to take a while to propagate updates, but it will give you an idea.

Update (3:41 PM CST)

The initial Android Market stats are up: 483 downloads, 286 active installs. That means that 59% of those 483 have not uninstalled the TSA Opt-Out Day app. Fun!

More later...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Developing Software on the new MacBook Air 13"

A few days ago, I shared the sad story of how my MacBook died, and what I was able to recover with my backup scheme. If you recall, I was scheduled to fly to Denver about 12 hours after my computer died.

Aside from the occasional bolts of panic zapping my brain, the flight to Denver was great. I'm a software developer; I'm sure pizza deliverators get the same anxious hollow feeling from a flat tire. Assassins probably feel the same pang when they toss a warm revolver into the river.

Lucky for me, the Boulder Marriott was only a few blocks from an Apple store. To make some lemonade, at least I would get to pick out a new toy.

The Thrill of the Hunt

My first night in Boulder, I spent about an hour comparing the 15" MacBook Pro and the new (note: at the time, the second generation Air was just out. The third generation has an even faster processor. The following link is to the third generation Air.)  13" MacBook Air. I knew that the Pro had a better processor, a better GPU, could hold more RAM, and had a few more features that made it more suitable for software development.

But the MacBook Air had SSD hard drive on its side. Where the Pro would take a few seconds to open any program, the Air opened even Aperture almost instantly. Academically speaking, I know there are operations which the MacBook Pro can execute faster than the Air. If you need pure CPU or GPU power, the Pro will do the trick. If the job requires a fast FireWire external hard drive, only the Pro will do. If the job needs more than 4GB of RAM, you need the pro.

But for the every day tasks I could test at the Apple store, the MacBook Air was the fastest computer I've ever used -- and the demo model only had 2GB of RAM. The (non custom) top-of-the-line MacBook Air cost about the same as the base-model MacBook Pro.

If I were Richy Rich, I might have considered buying a custom MacBook Pro with a SSD hard drive. But that would have been a $750 upgrade. Ouch!

The decision was tough, but I decided that I wanted the MacBook Air with 256 GB SSD hard drive, and 4GB of RAM. The speed was eye catching, and so was the size.

Missing the Shot

In a painful turn of events, it turned out the Apple Store did not have the MacBook Air I wanted in stock. I was initially told they were in stock. I thought I had the Air in my clutches. The employee was wrong.

All that time deciding, and I couldn't complete the purchase. I asked when they would get more in, but apparently Apple stores get daily mystery shipments of computers. The employees have no idea which models they will get on a day to day basis.

I needed a beer. Luckily Boulder is a beer town (in fact, I happened to be in town for the Beer Bloggers Conference). A bottle of Brew Dog 5am Saint and a bottle of Alaskan Winter Ale did the trick.

The Chase

I returned to the Apple Store the next two days. Boulder Apple Store finally received the model Air I wanted Saturday morning. The Air is probably the most relieving $1,700 purchase I've ever made. Now I just had to install some software.

The Verdict

Yes, the size of the Air is amazing. The thing is tiny, minuscule, a little microtomed slice of Aluminum. I actually worry that I should get a sleeve for the Air since it actually can slide into a tiny gap between the pads of my Kata camera bag.

One unexpected benefit of the size is that the wrist rests flow into a desktop much nicer than a standard laptop. When it rests on my desk at work, it almost looks like the Air is sinking into the fake wood.

The size is tricky too. My previous MacBook also had a 13" display, but the Air's display is higher resolution and brighter. It feels larger. Well, it feels larger until you close the lid. Then you wonder how a computer fits into a tea tray.

How about speed? I've had a few weeks to develop on the MacBook Air, and the thing is amazing. Jeff Atwood is correct, a SSD hard drive will change your life. Even the slow-poke Eclipse IDE gets to the workspace selection dialog in 4 seconds. Likewise, Xcode explodes onto the screen faster than necessary, about 2 seconds to open, 2 to open a project. Aperture 3 launches in a second or two. Builds are fast too, though I'm sure your mileage may vary.

Right now I have 13 applications open, including two IDEs. Everything feels zippy and fast. More importantly, I'm much less likely to get distracted while waiting for a build to finish or tool to launch. I love it!

I don't for a second regret getting a MacBook Air instead of a MacBook Pro. Tiny and fast? This is the future.

Amazon offers a newer generation of MacBook Air than the one I own. Using one of the links from this page will help support the site.


*Moving Average Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
*Changed 22 March 2012 to add links to Amazon and explain that a newer MacBook Air is available.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Must Have Android Apps

I really enjoy my HTC Evo 4G Android Phone, but I don't think the killer apps for Android are as easy to discover as they are on the iPhone / iOS platform. Here are a few cool Android apps that I think everyone should have.

Evernote

Evernote is a cloud service for capturing, organizing, and searching notes. The cool thing about Evernote is that you can take a text or voice note on your phone, and it'll sync to their servers and to any of your other devices.

I'll often use Evernote on my phone to take quick notes when I'm chatting with friends. Maybe I'll write down a good movie to watch, a great beer to try, or an idea for my business. When I get back to my computer, I'll open Evernote to edit and flesh out the notes on a real keyboard.

I take almost all of my meeting and conference notes in Evernote. The basic service is free, the app is free, and upgrades to the service are fairly cheap. I love that my notes are backed up to the cloud and searchable.

The Weather Channel

I value The Weather Channel app for several reasons, but one of the most useful is that it will notify you if there is severe weather in your area. These days folks don't really listen to the radio or watch TV as much, so it can be useful to get a ding from the phone when there is a severe storm on the way.

In addition, you can enter a your favorite cities and quickly see the weather in San Francisco or Denver before you decide which $80 JetBlue ticket to buy. Animated weather maps seal the deal.

Astrid Tasks

My buddy Nate got me hooked on this To-Do list app, and it keeps getting better and better. Everyone has things to do, and this app makes it easy to capture those tasks. You can make this app more complex, but I simply enter an item, hit enter, and forget about it.

The best feature of this app is that it now syncs with Google Tasks. Things I enter in this app now appear in my Google Calendar.

Yelp

There are plenty of folks who have complaints about Yelp, but when it comes to finding a good restaurant or pub in a strange city, the Yelp app rules. In 3 or 4 clicks you can get a list of every cheap restaurant nearby that's currently open. Quickly scan through the reviews and go eat.

USA Today

The New York Times app is ok, but the USA Today app is more fun and more intuitive. I really like their pictures tab, which lets you browse the news through photography.

Mint.com

Mint is an online service for monitoring your personal finances. Make and account there and you can track your credit card statement, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, mortgages, and so on. The Android app lets you check your financial situation when you're in the Apple store trying to decide how much storage you can afford to get in your new MacBook Air.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Testing my Backup Solution the Hard Way

P1020536.JPGThere are probably no sounds more terrifying to the heart of a computer nerd than the sound of a hard drive failing. Clunk clunk click click clunk.

That was the sad sound I heard the previous Wednesday night as I was copying an Aperture Photo Library off of my little white MacBook. That was the night before I was to fly out to Boulder Colorado for the Beer Bloggers Conference. Oh crap.

My stomach clenched and my heart dropped as I tried to remember the last time I backed up my computer. Maybe a week or two ago, but I wasn't sure. I had almost certainly lost something significant, but without pouring through my backup system I wasn't sure what.

My Old Backup Scheme

Jumping Sword
My old backup scheme involved using SuperDuper! to backup my startup drive every few weeks. The wonderful thing about SuperDuper! is that it creates bootable backup drives.

When my MacBook internal drive failed, I booted the same MacBook right off of the backup drive. At that point, the computer looked just like it did at the last backup -- an old copy of everything, but the computer otherwise worked normally.

I should say that the computer worked mostly normally. It now required a big, fat external hard drive dangling off of a firewire cable. My MacBook was anchored to my desk.

Most of my software development work is stored in a Mercurial repository. And most of those Mercurial repositories are regularly pushed up to Kiln. Even better, I had pushed my most recent changes in one project just five minutes before the disk bit the big one! Lucky, lucky, lucky me.

My photography and video work all end up on a Drobo after editing, and I was lucky that all my photo and video work were either on the Drobo or on the SuperDuper! backup drive.

There is a big hole in this old backup solution where I could have photos or videos on my laptop that aren't backed up anywhere. Alex Lindsay regularly says something like "your file doesn't exist if it doesn't exist in at least three places." By his standards, most of my files don't exist.

My documents and notes are almost all created using Google Documents or Evernote. Both of those services are "cloud" based, meaning that I worry less about losing them. I suppose that I really don't know how safe those solutions are -- I bet Alex Lindsay would worry more than I do.

What I Lost

Remember how I said that most of my non-photo and non-video work is in mercurial? The one thing I seem to have lost was about a week's worth of changes to my #BBC10 / unofficial Beer Blogger Conference Android app. I added a lot of functionality in that time frame, so it's frustrating that I didn't regularly push the code into a mercurial repository like my other work.

I'm not sure what I was thinking, but it probably was something along the lines of "Oh, I can put off opening a FogBugz account for Moving Average. Why, that would take a whole five minutes! What are the chances that the hard drive will fail in the next week or two?" Oh, cruel fates, I feel the hot gaze of your eyes now.

All things considered, I didn't lose too much. Losing the source to the #BBC10 app irks me, but I still count myself lucky. Very lucky.

The New Backup Scheme

Liquid Plasmoid Rocket
Obviously I've learned a few things during this incident, mostly that I need a automatic incremental backup solution -- one that is preferably stored offsite. I also need to ensure that all my software projects are regularly pushed into Kiln.

In terms of automatic update solutions, I'm currently looking into CrashPlan and BackBlaze. The both have inexpensive yearly cloud-based solutions. So far it seems that CrashPlan has better reviews, but I have a few concerns about the wording that CrashPlan is for "personal use only". Does that mean my photos or software on my computer won't be backed up because they might have commercial value? That's concerning.

In the mean time, all my software projects now have a home in Kiln. I run hg push a lot more often than I used to, and my Drobo will be getting my photos and videos at a faster pace. Thank goodness for my Drobo and it's terabyte of redundant storage. I'd still like to get the Drobo backed up to the cloud in case it gets stolen or my house burns down.

Final Notes

Ultimately I got what was left of my important data off of my Backup drive and into the cloud where I could get to it remotely. The outdated source for my #BBC10 app went into Kiln, as did a few other projects missing from the cloud.

I left for Colorado and the Beer Blogger Conference feeling completely naked without a laptop. I had an iPad, iPod Touch, and my HTC Evo 4G as data devices, but for software development and photo editing, those gizmos aren't very useful to me. Losing a hard drive hurts, and I spent a few days mentally kicking myself for not implementing a better backup solution.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Startup Jesters: Passion for Our Products

Humorous situations anonymized to protect sources and the fools they work for.
"I would never use a [insert product category here]. I'm too vain."
- a CEO and Founder known for publicly picking his nose
What would you do if you worked for this jester?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

BoS2010 Lightning Talkers

The official list of speakers and topics for the Business of Software Lightning Talks. Below are the twitter feeds I've been able to find so far for those speakers. Comment below if you have more data; I'll update the document as I learn more.

Oh, and here is the same list on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#list/WindAddict/bos2010-lightning

Joe Corkery

Alyssa Dver

Patrick Foley

Ellen & Adrian
Adrian: @amonter5

Brydon Gilliss

Portman Wills

Patrick McKenzie

Corey Reid

Mark Watts

Sanjay Singhal

BoS2010 Android App

Paul GrahamWant to quickly see what's happening on twitter with the #BoS2010 hashtag? Download my free unofficial BoS2010 Android App (yes, it's hosted from my HopSafari.com domain). It lists the most recent tweets, lets you click on links, and has a retweet feature.

I've just been spending spare hours since Thursday writing the app, so let me know if you find a bug. It supports Android 2.1 and above, but may require you to go enable Settings: Applications: Unknown sources -- I'm not hosted on the Android Market.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

Update: it's out for 3o seconds and already I spotted a bug. Version 1.1 released.

Update: Version 1.2 is out. Now there is a reply button in addition to retweet. Yay!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Speakers at Business of Software 2010

Consider this document the footnotes for the official Business of Software Speakers Website. To start, I suggest following the list of speakers on twitter.

The speakers of the Business of Software Conference:

Dan Bricklin

David Russo

Derek Sivers

Dharmesh Shah

Eric Ries

Eric Sink

Giacomo 'Peldi' Guilizzoni

Jason Cohen

Joel Spolsky

Mark Stephens

Paul Kenny

Rob Walling

Scott Farquhar

Seth Godin

Youngme Moon

And, don't forget to follow the conference itself on twitter:

Bugs? Suggestions? Thoughts? Comments are appreciated!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Media Math

Two engineering degrees hang from the wall in my home office. I only share this fact because it explains why I wrote this post. I'm a nerd.

My pal @Baconator linked to an NPR article about the health impact of eating meat. I started reading and got stuck on this paragraph:
"In fact, people gained about 4 more pounds over a five-year period for every extra 250 grams of meat they ate daily, according to a new analysis of a large European nutrition study. That's like adding a 450 calorie steak to your dinner every night"
Whatever does it mean? Is this data surprising at all? In which direction is it surprising, too much fat gain, or too little? I dug in my desk drawers for my engineering cap.

Basic principals
  • From the NIH, 1 ounce prime steak has 75 calories, or 2.65 calories per gram.
  • From the Mayo clinic, there are 3500 calories per pound of fat.
  • There are 365 days per year, rounding down.
My initial thoughts are that nutrition discussions have units issues. Pounds? Calories? Grams? I count at least two different measurement systems. Isn't that how we crashed those NASA probes into Mars?

And the calorie by itself has problems, just read about it in Wikipedia. Won't someone think of the poor children who have to learn this stuff?

Analysis

Let's get back to the article. It sounds like they are saying that:

250 grams meat * 5 years = 450 steak calories * 5 years

That means that:

250 grams meat = 450 steak calories

What if the meat is chicken?

250 grams chicken = 450 steak calories

How about pork?

250 grams pork = 450 steak calories

Ok, that seems odd. And wrong. Lets assume they meant that:

250 grams steak = 450 calories

Ok.

250 grams steak = 450 calories = 2.65 calories per gram steak * 250 grams steak = 662.5 calories

Huh? For every 1.5 steak calories, it seems that only 1 sticks to your belly over a five year period. There is a 33% off sale on steak calories! The paragraph seems to be saying that over five years, eating more steak is a deal. I wonder how fruits and veggies stack up against steak.

More Analysis

Ok, let's look at it from the fat gain perspective. Four pounds in five years.

calories in 4 pounds fat = 3500 calories per pound * 4 pounds = 14,000 calories

Ok, let's assume the best case, that this is like eating 450 calories of steak per night.

14,000 calories over 5 years = 450 calories * 365 * 5 = 821,250 calories

What? From this perspective, steak seems like an even bigger deal! Eating an extra eight hundred twenty one thousand and two hundred fifty calories results in only fourteen thousand calories of additional belly fat. Only 1.7% of the calories stuck!

Conclusion

So, what does this all mean? What does it prove? First, it proves that math makes no sense. Second, it indicates that I probably do not understand what the article is trying to say.

If you understand what is going on, please let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fancy & Not Fancy

Pork Fries
Some restaurants try to act fancy even though they actually tend to annoy me. Instead of complaining to the restaurants individually, I've made a list of some characteristics of restaurants I like, and some I don't like. I've made it public, for everyone's education.

Since I'm not a duke or a anthropology student, I had to make stuff up. If you disagree, you can comment or write your own counter point blog post. Oh, and for the record, most of my favorite places to eat lose points on some of these. I still love you.
  • Fancy: What kind of ice is that in my iced tea? Oh, frozen tea!
  • Not Fancy: Valet parking instead of parking.
  • Fancy: Presenting different dishes on different plates, boards, trays.
  • Not Fancy: Wasting food.
  • Fancy: Glasses to match the style of beer.
  • Not Fancy: No local beer on tap.
  • Fancy: Desserts invented by an imaginative pastry chef.
  • Not Fancy: Sysco desserts, or clones of Sysco desserts.
  • Fancy: A quiet space where you can converse at normal levels.
  • Not Fancy: Loud music.
  • Fancy: Silverware without food crusted to it.
  • Not Fancy: Making a big deal about cleaning up the crumbs I made. Sorry about the crumbs, dude.
  • Fancy: One special of the day with a good story.
  • Not Fancy: A mumbled list of eight specials.
  • Fancy: The chef visits the table to say hello.
  • Not Fancy: Nobody ever sees the chef.
  • Fancy: The chef sends a small dish to your table.
  • Not Fancy: The bread basked sits empty for ten minutes before the food arrives.
  • Fancy: A clean, well lit bathroom.
  • Not Fancy: A warm, humid bathroom with graffiti and peeling paint. Is this sixth street?
  • Fancy: Explaining and describing the dish as it arrives to the table.
  • Not Fancy: A water glass filled every time the water is a half inch below the top. Sometimes I haven't even touched it and you added more water.
  • Fancy: A water glass that is never empty.
  • Not Fancy: I have to ask to find the restrooms.
  • Fancy: Friendly staff who act like they want to talk to me.
  • Not Fancy: A dining room so dark I can't tell what color my food is.
  • Fancy: Showmanship. If you set something on fire, I'll love you forever.
What do you think? Does anybody actually like valet parking?

Friday, June 4, 2010

HTC EVO 4G vs. Motorola Droid: Cellphone Smackdown

Since I received both Verizon's Motorola Droid and Sprint's HTC EVO 4G phone at the GoogleIO conference, why not compare the two phones?

EVO:
Larger and more sensitive screen (4.3 inches)Notification light is always on when the phone is plugged in (it does not flash for notifications when charging)
Sometimes challenging to find the button to wake phone without looking
  • 4G drains the battery rapidly
  • 3G battery consumption seems typical
  • I've noticed more issues with crashing apps
  • Soft keyboard has arrows for cursor positioning
  • Can get special characters and numbers with a long touch on soft keyboard
  • Two cameras, 8 megapixel with flash, and 1.3 megapixel forward facing
  • Integrated kickstand (landscape orientation only)
  • Sense UI
  • Red trim around the rear camera and kickstand
  • Fast data connectivity and CPU
  • Available WiFi tethering app
Droid:
  • Notification light not shared with charging light
  • Hardware button for camera shutter release
  • Less precise screen
  • Positioning the cursor in text is challenging unless you use the D-pad on the keyboard
  • Easier to find button to wake phone without looking
  • It's easy to accidentally press the volume buttons when plugging the phone in
  • Slightly thicker than the EVO
  • More narrow screen than an iPhone (3.7 inches diagonal), making the portrait soft keyboard narrow
  • One camera: 5 megapixel with flash
  • Standard Android UI
  • Physical keyboard, although the keys are nearly flush to the surface of the keyboard
  • Directional pad by the keyboard
  • Gold tone on the rear speaker and camera button (which flakes off the button)
  • Slower than the EVO
  • No WiFi tethering app
Both:
  • Have capacitive touch buttons for home, menu, back, and search, although the order is different on the two
  • Use the same thin USB connector for charging and connectivity
The EVO definitely has exceeded the Droid in wow-factor and technology. On the other hand, there are a few areas where the Droid wins in the physical design department. The notification light is separate from the charger light on the Droid, and the wake/lock/power button is easier to find due to the positioning of the protruding headphone jack next to it. The lock button on the EVO doesn't protrude much, and there aren't any good landmarks to find it by touch.

Don't think the Droid wins on everything in the ergonomics department, the EVO still has a more ergonomic soft keyboard, and a more accurate and precise touch screen. Also, I'd rather use the EVO soft keyboard than the Droid hardware keyboard any day. Sorry to the physical keyboard snobs!

The free service on my Droid recently ended, and I admit I'm a little sad even though I still have free service on the EVO. I think that the way the Droid slides open and the hint of gold mesh on the back reminds me of the communicators from the Original Star Trek series. Dorky, yes, but also nice. I think I'll get over it, the EVO is pretty killer.

Win: EVO 4G

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Eats the iPhone for Breakfast: Sprint HTC EVO 4G

Google CupcakesOnly a crazy person would give away two expensive smart phones at a $400 conference. They may as well flush money down the toilet.

In unrelated news, a few weeks before the GoogleIO conference, Google mailed me a free Verizon Motorola Droid phone with 30 days of free phone service. I felt that was a really nice gift. At least, it seemed really nice until they gave me an even better phone on the last day of the conference. Google gave every attendee the unreleased Sprint HTC EVO 4G with another 30 days of service.

Now I have three phones that ring when people call my Google Voice number. It's a little nuts.

The EVO 4G gets attention. It has:
  • a huge 4.3 inch screen
  • an 8 megapixel camera with two LEDs for a flash
  • a forward-facing 1.3 megapixel camera for self portraits and conferencing
  • a kick-stand on the back for propping the phone up in landscape orientation
  • 4G WiMax data connectivity for fast internet access
  • 720p video recording
  • a HDMI video out port
  • a slick UI
If that isn't enough, people are impressed by the EVO; the phone is a conversation piece, much like the original iPhone was. On the plane back to Austin, a passenger stopped me to ask what it was. Back at work everyone wanted to touch it, and at least one of my co-workers really wants it.

One friend with an iPhone 3G looked at it for 2 minutes and fell in love. Even Jennie thinks might be better than her iPhone 3GS. And the phone is viral: "Hey John, show him the 4G phone!"

In short, it is a striking phone. People want it... until they hear that it is on Sprint only. Then they seem disappointed or wary.

Sprint: thanks for the freebie. I think the phone and the service really shine. Now for the bad news: you need clean up your image. People think that your customer service is terrible, your coverage is spotty, and that your plans are expensive.

Here are my suggestions to Sprint if they want to become the best carrier in the US:
  • Build out your 4G network big time. I get 4G in Austin in some places, but never found it in San Francisco.
  • Promise friendly customer service. Stop arguing with your customers!
  • Offer contract-free plans without subsidized phones. If your service is good, folks will stay.
  • Put together some service packages so folks can get 4G internet at home with their 4G phone for cheap.
  • Deliver the fastest Android version updates in the industry. Lots of Android users are frustrated by how long it takes for their carrier to upgrade their phones to the new Android version. You can't compete with Apple unless you get Android updates out as fast as Apple gets iPhone updates out.
  • Give everybody a free second battery with the EVO. Hey look, you can change the battery. When will the iPhone get that feature?
Some quick thoughts on the EVO 4g:
  • It is quick, as long as you don't run too many apps simultaneously. Hopefully Froyo will help with that.
  • The screen is beautiful. My iPod Touch now seems small and pitiful in comparison.
  • The on-screen keyboard is fantastic, the best I've seen on a phone. The size helps.
  • When you have 4G coverage, web pages and the maps load fast. 3G seems pokey by comparison.
  • When you don't have 4G coverage, leaving the 4G transceiver on burns batteries.
  • The device feels nice in the hand.
  • Finding the lock/unlock/power button by feel is difficult. I think the button needs to stick up more or the case needs some curves to guide the fingers.
  • The internal speaker seems nice.
  • The kickstand is cool, but I haven't used it much.
  • The red trim around the camera and kickstand is nice.
What are your impressions of the phone and Sprint's service?

* Updated 31 May 2010 with minor enhancements and commentary.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Get a Hobby

Chris McCann wrote a nice piece calling for startup company founders to get a hobby. I love it!

I enjoyed that Chris responded to his need for a hobby by adopting 30 of them. And then he made a list and started checking them off. Why start with the notion of having one hobby when you can try lots of them?

Beyond relaxation and clarity, hobbies also are opportunities to get passionate about something you might turn into a business. Maybe you can use your expertise in one field (like computer engineering) to solve a problem in another (scuba diving). Instant startup idea. By trying 30 different hobbies, an entrepreneur gets exposure to 30 different potential target markets.

I also believe that building a diverse portfolio of non-occupational experience helps with creativity. Different hobbies require different kinds of thought. Windsurfing requires the surfer to have a mental model of where the wind is coming from, how the board will react to changes in weight, and how the sail will react to changes in position. Mountain biking requires continuous planning for and reaction to the approaching terrain. The more exposure to different problem solving skills, the more your brain stretches, and your reserves of confidence build to help you get through tough patches in life.

I'd like to try more hobbies, but I'm not doing too bad in my checklist of things I've tried so far:
  • windsurfing
  • surfing
  • western horseback riding
  • hang gliding
  • photography
  • writing
  • cooking (I tried it, didn't say I was good)
  • violin playing
  • piano
  • crossfit
  • reading
  • concerts
  • music festivals
  • shooting
  • archery
  • boating
  • sailing
  • rowing
  • canoeing
  • swimming
  • hiking
  • caving (the touristy kind)
  • exploring new cities
  • brewing beer
  • making furniture
  • flash mobs
  • being an extra in a film
  • standup paddleboarding
  • behind the scenes tours at Disney World
  • juggling
  • indoor rock climbing
The hobbies I'd like to get some experience in:
  • scuba diving
  • flying planes
  • kiteboarding
  • wakeboarding
  • snow boarding
  • motorcycling
  • mountain climbing
  • whitewater rafting
  • hot air ballooning
  • space exploration
  • urban exploration
  • yoga
  • zip lines
  • dinosaur bone hunting
  • driving a tower crane
  • touring in a sleeper car
  • unicycling
  • unicycling offroad
  • stilt walking
  • outdoor rock climbing
What am I missing?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Falling Organizations and People versus Ideas

Jeff Atwood caught my attention on twitter a few days ago:
Pixar's cofounder on execution vs. ideas http://is.gd/5JldA
Antique Billiard BallsThe co-founder was Dr. Ed Catmull, one of the original developers of Pixar's Renderman technology, and a software pioneer in 3d animation. You can read about Catmull in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Catmull.

The Wikipedia article paints Catmull as some sort of intense computer and physics geek, but the video proves that he is also an inspiring leader. If it wasn't for the fact that I just signed up to join a killer startup company, I'd be pulling all-nighters trying to get a job at Pixar.

Here are some of my notes on his lecture:
Review materials daily. Everyone shows their stuff daily. Get over the embarrassment of having incomplete or imperfect stuff.

Reviews help you know when to stop working. When you're done you're done. Don't keep working on stuff that is good enough.

managers hate to be surprised (i.e. to find that a subordinate has worked on something without the manager's knowledge). Catmull says to the managers: "Get over it. it doesn't matter."

"Success hides problems" People put up with issues because overall things are going well, they are on a successful project. "When you're healthy and have resources, you don't need to address problems."

"We shouldn't think it's ok to be doing something which isn't great." - on the (canceled) Toy Story 2 direct to DVD effort.

"If you know the end of the movie before you start, you don't have a movie."

"If you have a good idea and give it to a mediocre group, they'll screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a good group, they'll fix it. Or they'll throw it away and come up with something else."

"The goal of 'development' is not to come up with good ideas. It is to come up with groups of people who work well together."

Competitors like to copy the wrong things.

"We have to change the way we do postmortems every single film." Because the next film, the participants will game it.

After each new postmortem, we get a new theory on how to do things. Usually it is 2/3 right and 1/3 wrong.

Pixar originally thought that "the story" was the most important thing. "But then, every studio says the same thing -- even if the story is drivel!" The motto doesn't affect behavior, just like many companies' focus on quality.

Architecture catch phrase: "Build from the inside out". Pixar worked with one architect who said it, but his building was a disaster. This shows the same problem in a different industry: everyone has the same motto but it has no impact on behavior.

"Once one can articulate an important idea into a concise statement, then one can use the statement and not have to have a fear of changing behavior."

"Why do successful companies fail? For that matter, why do golden ages end? I do believe that organizations, human organizations, are inherently unstable. They will fall over, and you have to work to keep them upright. But, they fall slowly. Most people don't notice it. They let the success hide it, and blind them. They don't see it falling over. The falling takes place slow, but the collapse is quick. You have to do constant assessment, you have to look for hard truths."

"...There are two fundamental kinds of crises. One is that you don't like what you see, so you have to make changes. And the fact that you make changes in and of itself isn't a crisis, that's just hard work. What makes it a crisis is that there are a lot of people with vested interests and with positions, and you've got to actually rearrange things and it's people butting up against each other and that's a hard thing to do. It's an emotional thing to do. If you do that then you end up making a better film.

The second kind of crisis is that you release a film, and the audience doesn't like it. Now, at that point it's too late to do anything about it. But the difference between the two crises is that the first one is self-imposed, and that's the important part."

"...We have a lot of fun together, and a lot of laughter, and our job is to keep it going."
Some more teasers to encourage you to watch the video:

"It's not good enough. We know we don't have the time, but we're going to do it anyway."

They re-worked Toy Story 2 on a tight schedule, but it was brutal. Employees were injured. Now they limit the amount of time people can work, hired an ergonomist, teach pilates, offer massages, play soccer, offer yoga instruction, and more. The drop in insurance premiums more than covered cost of new programs.


Catmull read lots of business books to get up to speed early on, but didn't get much out of them. Then he tried a business book summary service and realized that the business books were content-free. Or maybe some books had no content, and for the others maybe there is no way to distill the books in a meaningful way.

Finally, these are the operating principals of Pixar as quoted by Catmull:
  • constant review
  • it must be safe for people to tell the truth
  • communication should not mirror the organizational structure
  • people and how they function is more important than ideas
  • do not let success mask problems, do a deep assessment
These ideas shake my bones. Maybe they aren't 100% new, but they're practiced by an incredibly successful and exciting organization. How many organizations can you name that seem to have thought about their culture as much? Neil Davidson: please convince Dr. Catmull to speak at the Business of Software Conference.