Category Archives: Technology

Thoughts about the tech in our daily lives.

A320 Down: Speculation

We all saw the news this morning. A 24 year old A320 flying for a Lufthansa-run budget airline flew straight into a mountainside in the French Alps.  It looks like, in the cryptic language of aviation, a CFIT event – Controlled Flight Into Terrain.

And of course, the overriding question is “why”.

Let’s speculate.

It could’ve been in-plane terrorism.

If Abu Jihad got into the cockpit, he could’ve flown the plane well enough to crash it. That’s not hard to do: anyone with a handful of hours on a flight sim could achieve that limited goal.  But why crash into a mountain – why not turn around and pull a 9/11 on any of the many cities along the Med coast?

It could’ve been terrorism from outside of the plane.

Perhaps as it overflew Marseilles, a person on the ground was able to damage (or take control of) the autopilot system and force it to initiate a descent.  This is where fantasy technology meets conspiracy theories, so I’ll leave it to the black helicopter crowd.

It could’ve been poor maintenance.

The plane came out of the shop yesterday. As we all know from experience with our cars, the best way to get something to break is to fix or replace a part connected to it. This was, after all, a 24 year old aircraft.  And Murphy’s law clearly states that if something can go wrong, it probably will.

So maybe it was just that – old plane, MX uncovered something marginal or broke something, which lead to sudden decompression with the predictable results.

It also could have been a software glitch.

This is much more interesting, and I think, more likely.  The A320 famously crashed when unveiled, as its “fly-by-wire” system ignored pilot inputs during a low pass over a French airfield, and calmly flew the aircraft straight into the tree tops.

Again, this is an old aircraft, and its software was developed in the 1980s. We’ve all experienced strange, impossible-to-duplicate (but nonetheless very real) events with our PCs, like when the machine suddenly decides to format a drive or delete a document or engage in some other unanticipated antics, apparently entirely at random. With all computers, but especially older computers, the bizarre is uncommon, but not impossible.

So, perhaps the avionics suddenly blue-screened, locked up the control systems by ignoring cockpit inputs, and left the pilots with no options other than riding out the inevitable.  Horrible scenario, but easily imagined.

My strange theory – unintended auto-land

I’ve got a theory, which is a variant of the “software glitch” scenario – that this airplane’s glitch caused it to initiate an “auto land” mode, and the crew was unable to override it in time.

I’m suggesting that the flight control computer decided, for an at the moment unknown reason, (but probably something in the electricals and avionics went sideways), that it was damaged and/or uncontrollable, so it chose to select its last-ditch backup option – attempt to auto-land at the nearest airfield.

Except that the avionics were damaged enough to be wrong about the location of that nearest airfield, so it flew into the mountainside that it didn’t know was there.

For me, that kind of an avionics-related event is the best explanation of why it descended, slowed to less than 200 kts, then leveled out and flew into a mountainside.

Now let’s get the facts.

I’m publishing this before 9 in the morning west coast time, and will not do any edits – not even to fix obvious typos, which is death to my inner editor.  Instead, I’ll just let it stand and see how this lines up with what those in the know will eventually tell us in the next few days.

Thank you for choosing Thrifty

It’s really odd: I used to have to choose Thrifty Car Rental when I worked as a full-time contractor for a Bay Area technology start-up. The start-up was playing the usual games (usual for the tech industry, at least) of pretending that all of its employees were actually not employees, despite issuing them business cards and employing them exclusively, full-time, for years on end, isicro-managing their every step, and requiring their daily presence at remote locations at the far ends of the civilized world.

But that wasn’t the problem.

The annoying thing was that, during the years I spent working for them (as the aforementioned full time yet magically independent contractor), I was compelled to choose Thrifty Car Rental while travelling on business. Exclusively Thrifty.

This was because their accountant wouldn’t reimburse for any other pricier brand, or even a portion of a pricier brand. Whether or not I covered the difference, didn’t seem to matter, it was a philosophical thing, apparently. I wanted Hertz, but I would’ve settled for Avis, or even Budget, for crying out loud.  Anything to avoid the stink of smoke, or to have a window that actually rolled up.

But no, she was as adamant as New Hampshire’s state motto on this point. She even said it to me outright: “Andrew, you will choose Thrifty, or you will die.”

But justice prevails, sometimes in the most oddly poetic ways. One afternoon, while processing my expense report, fate turned the tables on her “Thrifty-or-Die” motto, when she suffered a sudden and sadly fatal heart attack. Found face-down on my latest expense report, with her pen poised for approval on my Thrifty receipt, she clearly died a happy accountant, thrifty to the end.

Anyway, I had won the battle, at least in a karmic sense, but in the longer term, I ended up losing the war. This is because once in place, corporate standards are effectively immutable, and so it went with the accountant’s legacy, which was adopted by her successor and enforced with, if anything, an even greater enthusiasm for corporate thriftiness.

So, although (or paradoxically, because) I hated driving Thrifty’s filthy, high-mileage rent-a-wrecks, fate offered me no other choice: I had to rent from them, or walk. Especially after Thrifty-or-Die’s untimely yet somehow noble demise.

And so it was that I went on to become one of Thrifty’s most valued members, a “Blue Chip”, although I often felt like a blue chump, waiting in miserable lines with the other victims, dumped by a wheezing little bus in off- off- off-airport locations, all of us hoping for something with less than 50,000 miles on it and a working radio.

But time moves on, as do employees misclassified as consultants, and eventually I stopped working for that particular Bay Area high tech company, swapping it out for another. At least I didn’t have to travel nearly so much, which meant that my relationship with Thrifty entered an extended, blissful hiatus.

You can imagine my joy when Thrifty unexpectedly sent me an email today, plaintively whining that my Black Friday spending spree hadn’t included renting a 4 year old Ford Fiesta with a broken windshield.

Reflexively, I unsubscribed.  As I have been doing with a lot of other things, lately. But that’s also another story.

Anyway, the oddest thing happened.

After clicking unsubscribe, I found myself in an extended dialog with their website. I’ve learned that in many cases, you have to run this kind of gauntlet to escape from spam-Hell, but this was something of an entirely different caliber.

In most cases, unsubscribing is kind of like breaking up with a stalker: you can’t just respond with a “piss off, we’re through”. Like the stalker, the company ignores your attempt at dialog by shunting your responses to an “unattended mail box”, which is the corporate version of returning your cease-and-desist letters unopened. This way, they can keep on spamming you without guilt, or at least legal ramification.

So, accepting my fate, I dove into Thrifty’s monumental customer survey, working my way through page after page of check-boxes and “share here” dialogues, until the progress bar showed that I was finally nearing the end of what had turned into a minor death march.

And it was at this point, bathed in the light from the end of the tunnel that would surely lead me to everlasting freedom from their spam, that the website told me, simply: “Thank you for choosing Thrifty”.

Which is exactly my point.

I wasn’t choosing Thrifty – I had never chosen Thrifty.  I had been forced to it, driven unwillingly into their dank blue reception areas more times than I could ever recall. Even under hypnosis.

No, instead I had thought that I had finally achieved my shining moment, my opportunity to un-choose Thrifty at least.  I had just gotten done plowing through page after page, unchoosing Thrifty again and again, with liberal doses of “great vengeance and furious anger” worthy of Samuel L. Jackson.

But all to no avail: Thank you for choosing Thrifty

I’m sure you can understand why that canned response, thanking me for doing precisely the opposite of what I had just done, stung as such an insult.

I mean, hadn’t we just engaged in “a productive dialog to improve our customer experience”?  And if so, hadn’t that customer experience software noted any telling trends in my responses, like maybe that I had just been giving them zeroes on a scale of 1 to 10?

Anybody listening in Thriftyland?

Not getting the written responses, that I can understand, as I was dealing with a machine.  But not even paying attention to the check-marks?  What part of “lowest possible customer rating” does not compute?

I guess it’s interactions like this that we all must endure, if only for sanity’s sake. Over and over and painfully over again, we are forced to listen to insincere sincerity and impolite politeness in these corporate interactions, whether online or (worst of all), on the phone.

You know, normally, I try to go with the flow, just clicking, deleting, unsubscribing, spam-trashing, or listening to the blather before saying “No thanks, it’s nice of you to offer it for the 14th time, but I’d really rather not renew my subscription, given that the purpose of this entire phone call is to cancel it. ”

This assault on our patience and the trivialization of our responses has become part of everyone’s normal day. Like dealing with junk mail in the physical world once was, now junk content in every electronic venue imaginable assaults us from all sides.

I guess today was just one of those those times when I found myself enraged by another tedious slog through the double-speak, yearning to slash my way with a machete of truth through the dense jungle of politely meaningless interactions that clutter and waste our days.

Annoyances such as having to fill out lengthy surveys merely to be freed from a “community update” (read, corporate marketing database), or having to listen to diatribes about online security when simply trying to find out why your cable is down, once again… these are things that anger people out of all proportion, because for many of us, they are the 998th of a thousand little cuts dealt out by a depersonalized yet technologically-empowered world, every day.

So sure, in my little rant you can see that I’m climbing a mountain made of many molehills. This was, after all, a singular example from a regular, daily stream of email annoyances.

But I guess that for me, it was the combination of insincerity and time-wasting pedantry that inspired this post. I fell for the bait, I tried to share the truth with a company about my experiences with them. But why did I even bother?

In the end, it was like talking with HAL in the movie 2001: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.  But thank you for choosing Thrifty.”

The Astonishing Simplicity of Silicon Connector for Box

Somebody once said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and I’ve found that Silicon Connector for Box exemplifies the truism. Although it’s very sophisticated under the hood, you’d never know it, because it’s so simple and direct an experience for the user.

Let’s say you use Adobe InDesign, like untold hordes of others. Whether you’re a student or a grey-haired design veteran, you’re probably familiar with building things like brochures, manuals, documents… lots of stuff that gets printed as well as maybe those that don’t, like iPad apps.  But whatever you create, you know how hard it can be to share an InDesign doc with others, especially once you’ve embedded a bunch of images in it.

And, you’re probably using the Cloud for asset storage. If you’re like many other designers, you already have a growing library of image assets in Box or something similar. If you use Box, you’ve got a lot of company, like about 20 million others (as well as over 180,000  corporations),  all around the globe.

If you don’t already use Box, you probably should give it a look. It’s replacing DropBox and FTP servers like wildfire: I’ve found that it works better and it’s more secure, with some serious encryption built in.

Once I made the leap to Box for Cloud storage, the question became: “how do I get my Box assets into InDesign?”  Simple: link them.

Yes, I’m talking live links.  As in HTTP-based links. When you use InDesign with Silicon Connector for Box, you just link your images (or other asset types) from Box, instead of copying them up and down.

It’s extremely simple to use.  Just open up the InDesign doc, drag in your images from the Box window, and you’re done.

Image

Image from Box account, dropped into InDesign.  Five seconds, if that.

Save the InDesign doc, and its http links persist forever. Now, when you share it with colleagues, contractors or your boss, the links just work, no matter where they are, whether down the hall or in a café in Prague.  Inside the firewall or not.  Doesn’t matter – they just work.

You know how it used to be: package, upload, download, unpackage, relink images.  It was crazy, and very time-consuming.  Now all you do is open the InDesign document. Updates are immediate: Box is the only place the images live.

And that’s all there is to it.  You’d wonder why Adobe didn’t add this feature themselves, and I did too. But it doesn’t matter now, because you can add it yourself. And you should.

Click this link for a free trial:

http://www.siliconpublishing.com/contact/boxdemo.php

Full disclosure: I work with Silicon now, and I’ve been a fan of theirs for years before I joined.  So I’m biased… but trust me, this Connector thing rocks. You won’t regret it.

iOS7ucks

I upgraded my iPhone to iOS7, as have millions of others. And I’ve learned that in this decision, I’m far from being alone in now regretting what I’ve done.  The install was pretty quick & easy, even by Apple standards, but  after the phone restarted, I was confronted with a feathery UI that looked like it was still waiting to download the rest of itself.  It was devoid of color, definition, or even fills for the icons.  Everything was traced in with such subtlety, it was like looking at something barely there at all.

I realized with an empty feeling that this was all there was ever going to be to iOS7.  I found it overly simple, devoid of any interesting details.  What had once been rich and beautiful was now visually flat, featureless and effectively monochromatic.

It was puzzling.  The design looked unfinished, as though I’d downloaded a mockup, or a set of wireframes, rather than a finished product.  Until then, Apple UIs had always been simple & elegant, visually very rich and beautiful to look at. There was a great joy to using them. But this iOS 7 stuff was completely the opposite – once sophisticated, it was now childishly simplistic, as though designed on an “Etch a Sketch” and left that way.

Disappointment fades, and we all learn to deal with what is.  Same here.  Now, the real issue in daily usage centers on screen sleep and battery management. This is truly unpredictable. After a 45 minute call earlier today, I was down 50%, from full. I thought that I had accidentally left on my WiFi hotspot and somebody had been leeching my bandwidth, but no such luck. Even the BT was off.  The phone simply gobbles down the power unless you put it to sleep relentlessly.

Under iOS6, this was a multi-day device. Now it’s a long-afternoon proposition.  There have been mornings since the upgrade when I’ve awoken to a dead phone – battery completely drained, not even a red icon left. I really don’t think it sleeps anymore: it seems to be up to various antics all night when it’s supposed to be asleep, like an excited second grader staying over at a friend’s house.  Except that the kid at least has the sense to actually go to sleep before completely running out of juice.  Not so the phone.

Now I double and triple check it every evening after it’s supposedly gone to sleep, or I just hook it up to my laptop, anticipating the inevitable when it decides to start doing its own thing at 2:45 in the morning.

I am told that there are upsides to this upgrade, but I’ve yet to see them in actual use.  Given the nearly invisible UI, I know now that the phone is effectively unusable when wearing sunglasses.  This is a big deal in Phoenix, because if the sun is above the horizon, you’re wearing sunglasses.  365 days a year.  I had the thought that since it’s now illegal to text while driving here on the Anvil of the Sun, maybe that’s where the benefit of this invisible UI comes into play: you’re forced to give up and go hands-free.

But my biggest beef is that there’s no going back. iOS7 is like Hotel California – I checked in, but now I can never leave.  Apparently there was some grace period for folks who tried iOS7 before Apple forced the rest of us to adopt it. Back then, they allowed customers to downgrade to iOS6, if they acted quickly enough after making the mistake of checking it out.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of those lucky early adopters, and since then, the great iron gates of Apple’s wisdom have clanged shut on any chance of a “downgrade” back to usability in the mobile lives the rest of us lead.

So, I’m stuck with it, and you are too, at least until the next “upgrade” is jammed down our collective throats.  Here’s hoping that the title of the article about that experience will be “iOSgr8”.