That Switch On Your Dashboard

Well, it’s been almost a month since I bitched about the impending End of Civilization As We Know It as brought about by drivers. That’s long enough that I hope you’ll indulge me in another rant along the same lines.

It’s not about the idiots who weave in and out at high speed. They’ve upped their game: it’s no longer enough of a thrill for them to zip across three lanes, missing four cars by no more than six inches, on rain-slick pavement. They’ve begun doing the same thing with the driver’s door open. Yes, really. Saw it myself a couple of days ago.

Nor is it about the lunatics who believe 35 is the minimum speed on residential streets, though Ghu knows there are plenty of those.

No, today’s complaint is about the people who’ve either forgotten or never learned the rules for using their high-beams. As best I can tell, based on this weekend’s random sampling, this group amounts to roughly 90% of the drivers on the road.

The rules aren’t difficult. There are only two.

  1. When approaching the top of a hill or coming around a blind curve, turn the high-beams off.
  2. When following another car–especially if you’re tailgating–turn the high-beams off.

That’s it.

They both boil down to the same bit of common sense: don’t blind a driver who might collide with you if they can’t see.

I don’t blame video games for violent behavior. But I’ve gotta admit it’s really tempting to blame them for stupid behavior.

People, there’s a reason why I haven’t hooked up my Atari 2600 in decades, and it’s not that I can’t find the cables. I sucked at “Night Driver“. Okay, yes, I made it through the other day’s unplanned real life version* unscathed. Doesn’t mean I enjoyed it, especially on the higher difficulty/no vision setting.

* Is Live Action Videogaming: Ancient (LAVA) a thing? If not, maybe it should be. If it gets a few of the idiots off the road and…uh…on the road, um…

Hang on, let me rethink this one.

Face It

Thousands–perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands–of people are deleting their Facebook accounts in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

And that’s great. I look forward with great anticipation to the day when the exodus reaches critical mass and I can delete my own account.

Keep in mind, I created my account when I started doing the writing thing. In today’s world of publishing, the best thing you can do for yourself as an author is to promote your books. And the best–the only–way to do that is to go where the people are.

It doesn’t do much good to do promotion on MySpace, LiveJournal, or any place else your potential readers aren’t. Today, that means Facebook. Yes, Twitter to a lesser extent. Much lesser.

At Facebook’s current rate of decline, I should be able to delete my account around the end of 2020. And that’s the best case scenario.

I’m assuming here that Facebook’s claimed two billion users statistic is grossly inflated. I’m also assuming that there are a million account deletions a day, which is, I suspect, also grossly inflated.

‘Cause, as Arwa Mahdawi said in The Guardian, “…there is not really a good replacement for Facebook.” She quotes Safiya Noble, a professor of information studies at USC: “For many people, Facebook is an important gateway to the internet. In fact, it is the only version of the internet that some know…”

And it’s true. Remember when millions of people thought AOL was the Internet? I think they’ve all moved to Facebook.

They’re not going to delete their accounts. Neither are the millions of people who say “You don’t have anything to be concerned about from surveillance if you haven’t done anything wrong.” Ditto for the people who still don’t regret voting for Trump and the ones who say “There are so many cameras watching you all the time anyway, what difference does it make if Facebook is watching too?”

Even if there’s a lot of overlap among those groups, that’s still hundreds of millions of accounts.

(Why isn’t the paranoid fringe–the people who literally wear aluminum foil hats to keep the government from controlling their minds–up in arms about Facebook? Is it only because they’re not “the government”? Or am I just not looking for their denunciations in the right places?)

Facebook isn’t going away any time soon. Not until the “new hot” comes along. If the new hot isn’t just Facebook under another name. Don’t forget that Instagram and WhatsApp are Facebook. They’re watching you the same way the parent company is, and if one of them captures the next generation of Internet users, it’ll be “The king is dead! Hail the new king, same as the old king!”

Unfortunately, stereotypes aside, those people who are staying on Facebook do read. And that means I need to keep my account open, touting my wares in their marketplace.

I’ve seen a number of people saying “If you can’t leave Facebook, at least cut down the amount of information you give them.” Which is good advice, but really tricky to do. Even if you follow all of the instructions for telling Facebook to forget what they already know, there are other things they track. You can tell them to forget what you’ve liked, but you can’t tell them to forget how long you looked at each article. (Yes, they do track that, according to credible reports. The assumption is that their algorithms give you more posts similar to ones you’ve spent a long time on.)

And then there are those apps. Those charming, wonderful apps.

I checked my settings to see how many apps I’d allowed to access my information. There were only eight, which puts me way down at the low end of the curve. It’s down to four now, two of which are necessary to have my blog posts show up on Facebook. And when I killed off two of the four, I got popups reminding me that removing their access to Facebook does not delete any data they’ve already gathered.

Should I be concerned that I didn’t get a warning about the other two?

But let’s assume a miracle. Say, half a billion accounts get closed. The FTC fines Facebook an obscene amount of money*. What happens next?

* They almost have to. How many of those 50,000,000 accounts compromised by CA belong to government officials. Officials who are now very worried about what CA–and thus whoever they’ve shared that data with, starting with the Trump family, the Russian government, and who knows who all else–has inferred about their non-governmental activities, health, sexual orientation, and so on. If the FTC doesn’t hammer Facebook, heads will roll, no matter who has control of Congress after the November elections.

Absolutely nothing. Facebook goes on. They make a show of contrition, talk up new controls they’ve put in place to keep anything of the sort from happening again*. And they keep marketing users’ personal information to anyone who might want to advertise.

* It will. We’ve seen every form of access-control ever invented hacked. The information exists, it’s valuable, therefor someone will steal it.

That’s their whole business model. They can’t change it. The only thing that might–and I emphasize “might”–kill Facebook would be for them to say, “You know, you’re right. It’s unethical for us to make money by selling your private information. We won’t do it any more. Oh, and effective immediately, Facebook will cost you $9.99 a month.”

How Lucky!

I’m starting to think Larry Niven was right.

One of the subplots in his Known Space stories involves, in short, breeding humans to be lucky. He postulates strict birth control laws combined with a lottery to distribute one-child exceptions to the laws. After several generations, there will be people whose ancestors are all lottery babies.

Whether that constitutes luck, I’ll let you decide.

But in the context of the stories, the eventual result is a group of people who are so lucky that nothing bad can ever happen to them. Even things that seem unfortunate will ultimately prove to have been the best thing that could have happened to the person.

With me so far? Okay, now consider this quote from “Flatlander,” one of Mr. Niven’s stories set before the rise of the lucky. The protagonist is watching a group of hobbyists who restore and drive old internal combustion engine cars on a stretch of freeway (which they also have to restore and maintain).

They were off. I was still wondering what kick they got driving an obsolete machine on flat concrete when they could be up here with us. They were off, weaving slightly, weaving more than slightly, foolishly moving at different speeds, coming perilously close to each other before sheering off — and I began to realize things.

Those automobiles had no radar.

They were being steered with a cabin wheel geared directly to four ground wheels. A mistake in steering and they’d crash into each other or into the concrete curbs. They were steered and stopped by muscle power, but whether they could turn or stop depended on how hard four rubber balloons could grip smooth concrete. If the tires loosed their grip, Newton’s First Law would take over; the fragile metal mass would continue moving in a straight line until stopped by a concrete curb or another groundcar.

“A man could get killed in one of those.”

“Not to worry,” said Elephant. “Nobody does, usually.”

“Usually?”

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

We don’t need no steenkin’ breeders’ lottery to breed ourselves for luck. We’re already doing it. Every time you get into a car, you’re taking your life in your hands.

The Interstate Highway System has encouraged drivers to drive faster and faster, generating impatience with anyone who doesn’t get with the program. Merriam-Webster claims the first known use of the word “gridlock” was in 1980. Certainly the phenomenon, along with “road rage” (1988), has been around longer than that.

But even if we go with 1980, that means roughly 130,000,000 Americans have been born only because their parents were lucky enough to survive on the roads long enough to breed. By now, we’re into at least the third generation.

And it shows. People keep finding new ways to ramp up the danger level.

Drivers are no longer content to honk if the car in front of them doesn’t move fast enough when the light changes. Now they honk and pull around the laggard, using the shoulder, adjoining lanes, and even the oncoming traffic lanes. In the rain, regardless of the presence of pedestrians, and despite the drivers in the adjoining lanes doing exactly the same thing.

Somehow, most of them survive. How lucky!

The next couple of decades are going to be interesting, but at this rate, by the time the kids born in 2050 are old enough to drive, they’ll be too lucky to ever have an accident. Think of all the money they’ll save on insurance, vehicle maintenance, and transit infrastructure!

Duck and Cover

Hopefully by now you’ve heard that Hawaii was not attacked with ballistic missiles Saturday. It was, however, attacked by poor software design or, quite possibly, poor QA.

Let’s recap here.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency erroneously sent a cell phone warning message to damn near every phone in the state. The message warned of an incoming missile attack. Naturally, this caused a certain amount of chaos, confusion, fear, and panic.

Fortunately, it did not, as far as I can tell, cause any injuries or deaths, nor was there widespread looting.

The backlash has been immense. Any misuse of the cell phone emergency warning message system is going to trigger outrage–does anyone else remember the commotion back in 2013 when the California Highway Patrol used the same functionality to send an AMBER alert to phones across the entire state of California?

Many people turned off the alert function on their phones in the wake of that and similar events elsewhere–although, let’s not forget that one level of warnings can not legally be turned off. I don’t know if HEMA used the “Presidential” alert level–certainly a nuclear attack would seem to qualify for that level of urgency–but it may be that only the White House can send those messages.

For the record, my current phone doesn’t allow me to disable Presidential or Test messages; the latter seems like an odd exclusion to me. In any case, I’ve turned off AMBER alerts, but have left the “Severe” and “Extreme” messages on. I suspect many who have gotten spurious or questionable alerts have turned those off.

Which puts those charged with public safety in an awkward position. The more often they use the capability, the more people are going to turn off alerts. I hope the people looking into a California wildfire alert system are keeping these lessons in mind.

But I digress. I had intended to talk about the Hawaii contretemps from a software perspective.

The cause of the problem, according to a HEMA spokesperson, was that “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.” Later reports “clarify” that “someone doing a routine test hit the live alert button.” I put “clarify” in quotes, because the explanation actually raises more questions than it answers.

See, for a test to be meaningful, it has to replicate the real scenario as closely as possible. It’s would be unusual to have one button labeled “Click Here When Testing” and a second one that says “This Is the Real Button.” The more typical situation is for the system to be set to a test mode that disables the connection to the outside world or (better yet) routes it to a test connection that only sends its signal to a special device on the tester’s desk.

Or heck, maybe they do have a test mode switch, and the poor schlub who sent the alert didn’t notice the system wasn’t in test mode. If so, that points to poor system design. The difference between modes should be dramatic, so you can tell at a glance, before clicking that button, how the system is set.

If it’s not poor design, the reports suggest some seriously poor test planning. Though I should emphasize that it probably wasn’t a failure on QA’s fault. They probably wanted a test mode, but were overruled on cost or time-to-launch concerns.

Wait, it gets better: now we’re hearing the problem has been solved. According to the news stories, “the agency has changed protocols to require that two people send an alert.” In other words, the problem hasn’t been fixed at all. The possibility of a mistaken alert may have been reduced, but as long as people can click on a live “Send an alert” button while testing, they will.

Better still, by requiring two people to coordinate to send an alert, they’ve made it harder to send a real message. Let’s not forget that emergency messages are time critical. If the message is warning of, say, a nuclear attack or a volcanic eruption, seconds could be critical.

But have no fear: the Homeland Security Service assures us that we can “trust government systems. We test them every day.”

How nice. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “Please do not push this button again.”

The Spectre of Meltdown

I’m seeing so much “OMG, the Earth is doomed!” noise about Meltdown and Spectre, the recently-revealed Intel bugs, I just couldn’t resist adding my own.

I know some of you have managed to miss the fuss so far, so here’s a quick rundown of the problem: All Intel CPUs and some other manufacturers’ chips are vulnerable to one or both of a pair of issues that were just discovered recently. That includes the Apple-designed chips in iPhones and iPads; many of the CPUs in Android phones; some, if not all, AMD CPUs; and every Intel processor from the Pentium* on.

* I find it ironic that the bug dates back to the Pentium. Turns out that chip’s early inability to do division was the least of its problems.

Both bugs are related to something called “speculative execution”. The brief explanation is that in order to give faster results, CPUs are designed to guess what work they’ll have to do next and work on it when they would otherwise be idle. If they guess right–and a huge number of engineering hours have gone into establishing how to guess and how far ahead to work–the results are already there when they’re needed. If not, the wrong guesses are thrown away.

The details are way too deep for this blog, but the upshot is that because the bugs are in the hardware, there isn’t any perfect fix possible. Meltdown can be patched around, but Spectre is so closely tied into the design of the chips, that it can’t realistically be patched at all. It’s going to require complete hardware redesigns, and that’s not going to come soon. I’ve seen articles speculating that it could be five years before we see Intel CPUs completely immune to Spectre.

Personally, I suspect that’s insanely pessimistic. Yes, it’s a major architecture change, but Intel’s motivation is huge.

More worrisome is how many other hardware bugs are going to turn up, now that researchers are looking for them. Even if we get Spectre-free Intel chips this year–which is as optimistic as five years is pessimistic–the odds are overwhelmingly good we’ll see more such bugs discovered before the Spectre fix rolls out.

It’s also worth noting that the patches for Meltdown aren’t cost-free. According to Intel, depending on what kinds of things you do, you could see your computer running anywhere from five to thirty percent slower. Let’s be blunt here: if you mostly use your computer for email, looking at pictures, and web surfing, you’re not going to notice a five percent drop. You might not even notice thirty percent–but your workload isn’t going to be the kind that has a thirty percent slowdown*. The people who will get the bigger hits are the ones doing work that already stress their CPUs: video processing, crunching big databases, serving millions of web pages, and so on.

* Unless some website hijacks your computer to mine cryptocurrency. But if that happens, you’d notice your computer slow down anyway.

So the bottom line here: Eventually, replacing your computer will be a good idea, but we’re not there yet. (And yes, given the speed and power increases we’re going to see between now and then, even if it’s possible to just upgrade the CPU, it’ll probably make more sense to replace the whole computer.) And in the meantime, unless you’re running a big server, do what you’ve been doing all along: keep your OS up to date with all the vendor patches, don’t run programs from untrusted sources, and if your search engine tells you a web site is dangerous, don’t go there!

Equifax

I’d call this unbelievable, but in 2017, the year of untrammeled greed, it’s merely par for the course.

Remember Equifax? You know, the big credit report company whose security breach exposed the personal information of millions of Americans?

The company that collects financial, demographic, and employment information, but is apparently unable to install security patches in a timely fashion or reliably tell you if your information was stolen?

The one that can’t even keep track of its own websites and sent consumers to a fake site instead of their own (unreliable) “check your information” site?

The one that initially tried to force people to waive their right to sue if they tried to find out whether their information had been stolen?

Yeah, them.

The story behind that second link suggests there’s good reason to believe Equifax is using the massive security breach–which exposed personal information on nearly half of the American population–as a revenue-generating opportunity. In short, by directing worried consumers to Equifax’ own credit freezing service, they’re lining up millions of people who will, once the initial year is up, be paying around $30 every time they need to let someone check their credit–when buying a home, a car, a cell phone, or in many cases, even when applying for a job. Nor is that fee fixed: Equifax could raise it at any time.

Apparently they weren’t drawing in enough business, because now they’re getting other companies to shill for them.

Last week, I got a letter from AT&T. Oddly, even though the letter is dated October 23, I didn’t receive it until November 23. Clearly, some poor printer has been working day and night to get these letters out. But I digress.

It says, in part, “There was no breach of AT&T systems or the data we maintain, but we … understand there is a possibility that your personal information might have been exposed.” It then encourages me to go to that same unreliable Equifax site to check my information and “sign up for credit file monitoring and identity theft protection.”

I can’t help but wonder what’s in it for AT&T. I doubt they get a cut of revenue–but only because this is a paper letter, so there’s no way for Equifax to track which suckers came to their site thanks to the letter.

But one odd little possibility comes to mind. If the FCC carries out its threat to repeal the Network Neutrality regulations, will AT&T start charging its customers extra to access Equifax and other credit monitoring services?

SAST 09

With just a tiny bit of luck, this will be the last Short Attention Span Theater for a while. Barring unexpected events, Like Herding Cats will go out to the beta readers this week and I’ll be able to stop stripping my mental transmission by jumping back and forth among writing, re-writing, and copy-editing.

Which brings me to the first production on today’s program. I could use another beta reader. Now, before you immediately deluge me in requests, let me remind you what beta reading is and is not.

It is not an opportunity to read a book before anyone else. Well, okay, it is, but it’s also a requirement that you read the book critically. I’m not looking for “Hey, great book. I love it!” I want to know what doesn’t work. To that end, along with the book, beta readers get a laundry list of questions like, “Were all of the plot twists properly supported, or was there a point where somebody acted out of character in order to change the story’s direction?” and “Were there any jokes that just didn’t work for you?”

I don’t expect every reader to answer every question, but these are the things I need to know to make the book better, so the more you can answer–and especially, the more faults you find–the happier I’ll be. I want beta readers to find the problems, not agents and editors!

Still interested? There’s one more qualification: you must be familiar with modern urban fantasy, by which I mean you’ve read several works in the field which were published within the past five years. “Several” means “more than one, and by more than one author”.

If you’re still interested, drop me an email. Do NOT apply via a comment on the post, by Facebook Messenger, or by Twitter reply. Thank you.

Moving on.

And, speaking of jobs, I got a weird offer in email recently.

We bought our car from a dealership, and we take it in for maintenance every six months. They’ve got my email address because I like getting a reminder that it’s time for the next visit and because they send out occasional special offers. Yeah, imagine that, advertising done right: opt-in.

So then I got this latest note from them. “Join our team!” says the subject line. Uh-huh. Job listings. And not just sales positions. They’re looking for a mechanic and for a person to check cars in and out of the service department.

Apparently they consider recruiting to be a type of advertising. The email has their boilerplate at the bottom reminding me that I opted-in to receive occasional ads.

I find it slightly amusing, but also more than a trifle creepy. Imagine if the idea catches on. “Hey, I hope you liked the espresso you bought last week. How would you like to be a barista?” “Thanks for making your last credit card payment on time. Wanna join our team? We’ve got openings in the boiler room calling the deadbeats whose payments haven’t come in.”

There’s a place for everything–and that’s not the place for job postings.

Next time I take the car for maintenance, I’ll ask how many job applicants the email generated–and firmly request they remove my name from that list.

Moving on.

It appears our cats know there’s a place for everything. And once in a while, they take a vacation from playing “Gravity’s Little Helper” to put things in the right place.
14-cmf
We’ve taught them that fish comes in cans. So yes, that’s the current incarnation of Mr. Mousiefish, carefully place in a gooshy fud can–presumably so he can be eaten later.

Moving on.

14-psps
I can’t decide if this is so meta it’s hilarious or so clich√© it’s painful. Though I lean toward the latter.

Joe, ya shouldn’ta oughta done it.

SAST 07

Happy Halloween!

We’re not planning to give out any candy this year–although we do have a couple of emergency bags in case someone shows up despite our best efforts to look like we’re not home.

There’s no particular reason we’re being anti-social, just a general lack of holiday spirit.

Beyond that, I am a little distracted at the moment. I’m neck deep in the third draft of Like Herding Cats–I’m hoping to finish before Thanksgiving–and I’m starting to run into the places where I got lazy in Draft 2. See, Draft 2 is written with a pen. On paper. So if I need to add a lengthy stretch of new text, I’ll often just make a note to myself: [Hey, Fred needs to explain why painting City Hall blue was a good idea.]

It’s not that I don’t know why it was a good idea. I just don’t want to have to read and transcribe half a page of my scribbles. And so I defer it to Draft 3, which gets done on the computer.

The downside is that it’s kind of like freeway driving at rush hour in a car with a manual transmission. Cruising along at twenty mph, transcribing the Draft 2 changes. Come to a complete halt while I check my notes–was it robin’s egg blue or sapphire blue–and then creep along at ten mph while I write the scene.

And then get off two exits down the road and circle back because I just came up with a great line that has to go into the new scene.

Anyway, distraction. So you get a bit of a Short Attention Span Theater for Halloween.

Moving on.

Am I the only person out there who got a scam spam of the 419 type from “Jeff Sessions Attorney General” recently?

I know the Trump administration is, shall we say, a trifle challenged, ethically-speaking. But really, Jeff, there are faster, easier, and–dare I say it–even legaler methods to separate fools from their money.

Now, you may say it’s probably not Mr. Sessions sending out these letters, and you’re probably right. Perhaps it’s some flunky in the Justice Department trying to curry favor–or line his pockets at the boss’ expense.

But there’s an more likely explanation. Read the letter I got:

Now ask yourself: who in the current administration is well-known for cranking out dozens of grammatically-suspect, logic-deficient electronic missives in the middle of the night?

Yup.

Donald, put down your phone and go play golf.

Moving on.

A sneak peek at Thursday’s final summation of how I did in predicting the playoffs: I got one of the two World Series teams right. Go, me!

As others have pointed out, it’s far too soon to anoint this the Best! World! Series! Ever! But it’s not too early to say it’s been a great one so far. Close games, mostly not decided until the final inning. Lots of home runs, some interesting strategic decisions to argue about, and a fascinating sideshow in the Yuli Gurriel and Bruce Maxwell stories.

We’re getting Game Six tonight and, if the Dodgers do us a solid, Game Seven tomorrow.

But.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having so much fun with this series, I don’t think even seven games will be enough. I’m hereby petitioning Commissioner Manfred to extend the World Series to twenty-three games. If we alternate two games in each city with a travel day in between, that’ll wrap it up with Game Twenty-Three on November 24, the day after Thanksgiving.

Let’s not forget that Los Angeles and Houston are warm weather cities. No worries about games getting snowed out. And really, isn’t twelve a much more satisfying number than four?

And the best part: consider the advertising tie-ins! Everyone can watch that climactic Game Twenty-Seven on the new TV they picked up that morning in a Black Friday sale.

What do you say? Who’s with me?

Cough

No, the fires aren’t that close. They are close enough to make the air distinctly smoky.

Smoky enough that schools are canceling classes and sporting events. I note that there are major college sports scheduled for the next few days: football games in Berkeley (Washington State and Cal) and Palo Alto (Oregon and Stanford) are the most notable. As of this writing, both games are still expected to go on as scheduled, which means teams are out practicing as usual. At the professional level, I see the 49ers are on the other coast to play the Team Which Needs to Change Its Name, so they’re unaffected, but the Oakland Raiders home game is still on. More evidence that football is hazardous to your health, I suppose.

Smoky enough that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued a warning for everyone, not just people with respiratory issues. They’re saying many parts of the Bay Area currently have the worst air quality they’ve ever recorded, and Friday and Saturday are expected to be worse.

We’re holed up inside, as recommended, but the house is old enough and porous enough that we can smell smoke inside. It doesn’t seem to be bothering the cats, but if it gets bad enough that we feel the need to move them someplace with better air quality control, we’ve got plenty of carriers standing by.

Nor is there any rain in the forecasts. Firefighters are on their own, with no help from nature.

On the brighter side, fires around Napa are sufficiently under control that people with critical needs will be allowed in. It’s not much, but we’re looking for any bright sides we can find.

I’m definitely seeing less automobile traffic with locals staying indoors. Can we hope that the reduction in automotive exhaust will help keep the air quality from rising above its current “Unhealthy”? I’d prefer to avoid the next level, “Very Unhealthy,” much less “Hazardous”. There’s a map here if you want to see what the current conditions are like.

Finally, I have no doubt the religious lunatic fringe is blaming the fires on God, who is, of course, punishing us decadent Californians for our liberal views on human rights. I don’t wish similar disasters on them in return–I don’t wish them on anyone–but I take a certain quiet pleasure in knowing they’ll feel at least one bit of God’s punishment themselves, a jab where it will hurt them the most: the price of sacramental wine is going to spike upward.

Again, small victories.

WQTS 11

Would you believe there’s a WQTS (Who QAed This Shit) story with a happy ending?

I’ll get there. But first, a tale that’s not so much WQTS as WTTWAGI (Who Thought This Was a Good Idea).

I’m calling out the Holiday Inn Express in Sedalia for gross violations of common sense in their handling of technology. And, just to be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about HIE hotels in general. As far as I know, these problems are unique to that particular location.

Let’s start with the hotel Wi-Fi. Finding good Wi-Fi in a hotel is a rare event, one that should be celebrated with parades and (hopefully brief) speeches by elected dignitaries. The Sedalia Holiday Inn Express’ Wi-Fi is not that sort. To be fair, once you get connected, it’s no worse than many other hotels’. It’s just that getting to that point is by far the worst experience I’ve had with, not just hotel wireless, but any public wireless.

Like most such, the SHIE uses a “captive portal” setup: once you connect, a web page launches, allowing you to enter whatever login credentials are needed. Many hotels either ask for your name and room number or a global password which changes periodically. The page is generally simple so it can display cleanly on anything from an old phone to a modern laptop.

SHIE has a huge page filled with text. That’s necessary because it offers three different ways to log in. Three.

There’s the traditional “last name and room number”.

There’s a numeric code. The web page calls it a PIN, but the envelope your room key comes in calls it an “Internet Access Code”. Calling the same thing by different names is just asking for trouble.

And there’s the third method, which requires half-again as much screen space as the other two combined. That’s because it’s only available to Holiday Inn Express Club members, and the portal login page has to explain all of the benefits of club membership, only one of which the ability connect to the Wi-Fi in any HIE hotel with your email address*.

* No password, at least not on the login page–I’m not a HIE Club Member, so I didn’t try to go any further–but the text strongly implied that all you need is your email address. Which means that if you know an HIE Club member’s email address, you can get all the free Wi-Fi you want in Sedalia. Assuming you want hotel-quality Wi-Fi. I wouldn’t want to download illegal images on something that slow, but if I wanted to launch a virus, how better than to do it through a hotel using someone else’s email address?

The login methods, all crammed onto the one login page. Any half-way competent user interface developer or QA engineer will tell you that having multiple methods of doing the same thing risks confusing your users. And indeed, while I was checking in, there was a couple at the front desk asking for help connecting their laptop to the wireless*.

* They were looking for where to enter that Internet Access Code. Remember, the page calls it a PIN. At least on a laptop they could see the whole page. Imagine how much zooming and scrolling they would have had to do on a phone before they even arrived at that level of confusion.

For the record, the desk clerk couldn’t help them. She had to call the “technical expert”. I left before I got to overhear that conversation. Must have been a doozy.

And don’t forget, by the way, that the portal was set up so you had to re-enter your login information every time you reconnected to the Wi-Fi. Go to dinner? Re-enter. Lose signal? Re-enter.

But enough about the wireless. Let’s move on to the computers in the so-called “Business Center” in the lobby. The hotel is very proud to have Microsoft Office on the computers. So proud, they put up a sign advertising it. And, to be fair, it’s a big step up from last year, when the only software on those machines was Windows itself. But let’s face it: Office is the least you can expect to find on the computers in anything that calls itself a Business Center.

I was impressed to see that the computers were running Windows 10. I was rather less impressed to see that they needed a password to use. Why bother? It’s not like the hotel was exercising any control over who uses the machines. I asked for the password at the desk–and note, by the way, that there were no signs telling would-be users how to get the password. Amazingly, the clerk knew it. It’s all lower-case, with no digits or punctuation, and it’s one of the first three words anyone of even moderate intelligence would try–and it’s not “password” or “guest”. I don’t know if they’re supposed to confirm that users are staying in the hotel, but if so, she didn’t.

So if you’re not limiting usage, why put passwords on them? If you want to exercise enough control to keep kids from tying the up all day playing games, just have the clerks glance in that direction occasionally. The computers sit in the lobby, no more than ten feet away from the front desk.

And it’s not like the password prevents people from mistreating the machines. I couldn’t use the first one I tried because some prankster had changed the password and locked everyone out of the machine. On the other machine, someone had created his own account, presumably so he wouldn’t have to remember the hotel’s password.

On many public computers, the USB ports are disabled to keep people from installing malware. Well-designed Business Centers have heavy-duty virus protection, but allow you to use the USB ports to transfer your work from your laptop to the computer. SHIE found a different security method: they put the computers under the desk, forcing users to crawl around on the floor to plug in a thumb drive. OK, so it’s not totally effective security, but it’s better than nothing.

The final blow? There’s no printer in the Business Center. Instead, there’s a networked printer hidden somewhere behind the front desk. Can you imagine what your corporate information security team is going to say about you using that printer to run off last-second changes to your presentation about buying the Holiday Inn chain?

sigh

OK, ready for that happy ending? This one really is a WQTS story.

This time last year, I wrote about Project Fi and how pleased I was with it.

I’m still happy with Project Fi, and when I heard about the Project Fi Travel Trolley shortly before my Sedalia trip I was totally charmed.

The Trolley, in case you haven’t already heard about it, is a glorified vending machine set up in several major airports around the US. It’s stocked with small items that might be of use to travelers: USB cables, luggage tags, sleep kits, playing cards, and–the real prize–fuzzy travel socks. Project Fi customers can get a free goody just by tapping their phone against the kiosk. The kiosk and your phone use NFC to validate your Fi account and generate a QR code. The kiosk then scans the code and dispenses the prize you wanted.

That’s the theory. In practice, somebody missed a bug.

Either there’s a hidden problem in the kiosk’s NFC reader, or nobody thought to test the scenario where a customer has more than one account on their phone.

Maggie and I both have two accounts on our phones. When we tried to use the Trolley, instead of getting QR codes, we got an endless series of browser windows opening, each of which informed us that we were logged into the wrong account. Logging into Google with the correct account did no good. Neither did any of several other methods we tried to convince the system we were Project Fi customers.

No fuzzy travel socks for us.

Our trip wasn’t ruined. Somehow we soldiered onward, cold toes notwithstanding. (For the record, temperatures in Sedalia were in the high eighties. Frostbite was not a significant concern.)

The happy ending?

I reported the problem to Project Fi support, who referred me to Swyft, the company that manufacturers and supports the Travel Trolley kiosks. Within minutes, I received an apology for the “bad experience,” an assurance that the issue will be investigated, and a promise to send us socks.

Now, it might just have been a bedbug letter. We’ll find out next time I fly through an airport with a Travel Trolley–I fully intend to see if they’ve come up with a fix. One can never have too many sleep masks and earplugs, after all.

But I’ll take a Happy Ending For Now–as long as I really do get my socks.