History Repeats

I’ve got to give up swearing off things. It just backfires.

For example, when I was in grad school, far too many decades ago for comfortable remembrance, I lived in Austin, Texas. No offense intended to anyone who thinks of the place fondly, but it wasn’t for me. After I graduated, I left Texas cheerfully, and swore a mighty oath never to return.

So what happened?

My previous job–the one I left to devote myself to writing–required me to visit Texas several times a year.

The universe is a perverse place.

There are plenty of other examples, but I chose that one for a reason. You see, that previous job required me to carry an iPhone.

I’m not really an iPhone guy. I use ’em. I appreciate the effort that goes into the design, and despite my usual snarky comments about the annual WWDC, I do respect the thought that Apple puts into their devices and their software development process.

But, given the choice, I prefer Android*. I didn’t have a choice. There were sound, logical reasons why it had to be an iPhone. And, since I didn’t want to put my contacts, messages, and other private information on a work device, I wound up carrying two phones: a work iPhone and a personal Android.

* Actually, given a totally free choice, I’d go for a pre-smartphone RIM device, from before they became Blackberry. But I digress.

It was a pain in the neck. Literally. Holster technology was primitive, so I usually carried the iPhone in my shirt pocket, and I suspect the unbalanced pressure on my neck contributed to the development of left shoulder issues that plague me to this day.

It was a figurative pain as well. Double entry of contacts. Having to mute two phones every time I went to a meeting–or a movie. Juggling twice as many chargers. And so on. When I left that job, I swore a mighty oath not to carry two phones again.

You see where this is going, right? Fast forward a few years, and guess what?

No, my new job isn’t sending me to Austin. Try to keep up. My new job requires me to carry an iPhone.

Holster technology has improved. I can put one phone on each hip and preserve some kind of balance–though it does make me look a bit like an Old Western gunslinger.

Or I could try to adapt to wearing the phones vertically and put them both on one side. I’m leery of unbalancing myself that much, though. Between the weight of the phones, their cases, and the holster mechanism, we’re talking several pounds of ongoing pressure on my hip.

Any of my massage-and-or-yoga-aware readers want to chime in with suggestions?

The iPhone, by the way, is a new requirement. I just received it yesterday and I’m still trying to get it set up. Preliminary indications are that my Apple ID* is corrupted or not properly set up at Apple. Joy.

* For those of you not in the know*, the Apple ID is an account at Apple which is critical to using some Apple services with the phone. Nothing important, of course, just such minor things as backing up data to the cloud; installing apps; and using iMessage, Facetime, and Find My iPhone. Trivia.

* For those of you in the know, I can use stand-alone services tied to the Apple ID, such as the App Store, but anything that touches iCloud, such as setting up the phone, fails with an “invalid account or password” error. It’s not the phone that’s at fault: I get similar errors logging into iCloud.com with a web browser, but other web-based Apple service are fine. Including the Apple ID site for creating and changing IDs.

So it’s a bit of an adventure. I’ll spare you the saga of getting basic phone service working–let’s just say that Verizon needs to put some serious thought into their user interface. Maybe they can contract it out to Apple.

The universe’s overall message is clear.

You’ve heard the saying “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it”? I’m here to tell you that you’re in far more danger of getting what you explicitly don’t wish for.

Still Wrong

Now it’s personal.

I haven’t said anything about Black Friday and the rest of the post-Thanksgiving (and pre-Thanksgiving) shopping nonsense since, what, 2016? (Nope, just checked. It was 2015.)

Nothing’s changed for the better. And in one giant step in the wrong direction, I’m participating in the madness. Not, I hasten to say, as a shopper, but rather as a victimseller.

Let me emphasize that this is not an invitation to play guessing games about my current employer. As I said when I started the job, I want to keep a separation between my personal and paid opinions. That’s still true.

That said, yes, I am required to work tomorrow. From late afternoon into the wee hours when any rational person and most irrational ones would be in bed*. And then I’ll need to be back at work on Friday at roughly the usual time.

* Not necessarily asleep, mind you, but in bed. Those late night reading marathons are an essential part of my mental health regime, and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who finds that to be the case.

Fortunately–something to be thankful for–I don’t have to work today. Maqgie, regrettably, is working, but at least it’s telecommuting. So she, the fuzzies, and I are celebrating Turkey Day a bit early. (And yes, I do have deep sympathy for my cow-orkers who are working today. They will, one and all, be working tomorrow as well.)

The bird is in the oven. We’re going to try doing the mashed potatoes in the Instant Pot when the appointed hour arrives, and the other essential sides are prepped and ready.

It won’t be the peaceful celebration of sloth and indolence we normally engage in, but traditions do need to change to stay relevant.

And, let’s face it, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all of their ilk are among the traditions that badly need to have some work done. Maybe not a full facelift, but a nip here and a tuck there would work wonders.

Step One, unquestionably, is to get Black Friday the hell out of Thursday. It’s even in the name! “Black Friday“. Not “Black Thursday Night”.

You want to start the sale at midnight? Fine. Keep the store open for twenty-four hours? Abi gezunt. At least let your employees spend the day that everyone else has off with their families. Happy, rested employees are far better suited to face Friday’s onslaught and sell more merchandise.

Remember, if everyone does it, nobody’s market share is affected.

SAST 15

Some days a Short Attention Span Theater is the only option.

The West Coast Ragtime Festival is this weekend. Not much notice, I realize, but stuff happened. Nothing worthy of a story, unfortunately.

It looks like a good group of performers are on the schedule this year. There are several young players, and there are plenty of new faces among the adult performers I’m already familiar with.

The usual caveats about the unexpected apply, including the expected unexpected–this is California, Home of the Majestic PG&E Planned Power Outage and the Diabolical Unplanned Forest Fire–but I expect to be there all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday.

If you’re in the Sacramento area, drop by and say hello. Or, better yet, drop by and listen to some good music. Much more entertaining than hanging out with me*.

* Your Mileage May Vary, of course, but I feel obligated to exercise a little modesty, since the festival wasn’t organized to showcase my talents.

Moving on.

After some work-related delays and distractions and some purely writerly procrastination, I began work on the third draft of Demirep recently.

Yesterday, I reworked somewhere north of 5,000 words. I’ve always said that rewriting is faster and easier than writing* and Draft Three is the easiest one in my usual process. Even so, that’s a lot of words in one go, and it gives me hope that the book is on the right track.

* In some ways, it’s more fun, too. Finding the perfect word instead of the one that’s almost right is the good kind of challenge.

Draft Three is usually the one that goes to beta readers. That’s the real acid test for any book, of course: how does it resonate with people who weren’t involved in its conception? Will I be asking for beta readers? Probably. But not yet. This draft is still in the early stages, and I may yet decide it needs a major change of direction. Stay tuned.

Moving on again, this time to something that’s not all about me.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Apple just announced a line of 16 inch MacBook Pro notebooks.

The timing is odd. MacBook Pros are designed for a small group of professionals–tech, video, and other such industries that need big power on the go–not the general consumer market. There’s no real need to launch the line during the holiday season. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to hold off until next month and launch them alongside the new Mac Pro workstation? Let people spend their Christmas gift money on the consumer devices and then bring out the pro goodies. Aside from those people buying them in pallet loads for businesses, almost anyone buying any Pro product from Apple is going to be financing the purchase, so they don’t need that holiday cash in hand, right?

But then, I’m clearly not a marketing expert. I’m sure Apple has plenty of expertise in that area and neither wants nor needs my advice.

In any case, new MacBook Pros look like great machines. Apple’s usual premium pricing applies, but still, $2800 will buy you a lot of computer. If you’re considering getting one, though, make sure your budget includes a wheeled computer case. Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, but schlepping it around for ten hours a day (Apple claims a ten or eleven hour battery life; these machines aren’t designed for a nine-to-five workday) will put a serious dent in your shoulder.

And finally…

Speaking of those planned blackouts for fire prevention, we’ve been lucky so far.

I’m probably jinxing us by saying this, but the first three blackouts all missed us. In at least one case, it was only by a few blocks, but blackouts are not one of those situations like horseshoes and hand grenades where “close” counts.

There’s a movement afoot to force PG&E to bury all of its power lines. The reasoning is that underground lines don’t cause fires, so there’s no need to shut off the power during high winds. That may be true–as far as I can tell, we don’t have data showing complete protection–but it’s not a total fix for all of PG&E’s woes.

Case in point: while we’ve avoided the planned shutoffs, we had an unplanned outage a couple of weeks ago thanks to a blown high tension line. An underground line.

We’re now in Day Six of PG&E digging up our street and sidewalk to get access to the line and, based on a conversation with some of the workers, the job is going to stretch into December and include at least one planned outage.

Burying the lines may make them safer–though, since this is California, let’s not forget about earth movements, both slides and quakes–but it does make them harder to repair.

And there are secondary effects of outages. Ones that apply regardless of whether a protracted blackout is planned or unplanned. How many stories have we heard recently about fires and deaths caused by improperly maintained or incorrectly used emergency generators?

Before we spend decades and billions of dollars burying power lines, let’s spend a bit of time considering all the implications and hidden costs, financial and otherwise.

Now Listening

Yes, I know I’m a couple of years late on this one, but I’ve got an excuse.

I’m talking about the “Now Playing” feature on Pixel phones.

For those of you who don’t have Pixels, “Now Playing” runs in the background and identifies music playing nearby. When the phone is locked, it will display titles and performers on the lock screen.

Sure, it’s a minor feature, but it’s got its uses–which is part of the problem. Not all of those uses are necessarily for the good of the phone’s owner. But I’ll get back to that.

“But, wait,” someone out there is undoubtedly saying, “hasn’t Casey had a Pixel for over a year? Why’s he only now getting around to ‘Now Playing’?”

Simple: Until a few weeks ago, I kept the phone in a belt pouch. It couldn’t hear a thing unless I took it out. However, I’ve now switched to a phone holster-and-case combination for convenience and protection. Now “Now Playing” can hear much better.

And I’m starting to wonder about the ethics of feature.

A quick digression: According to Google, they don’t see any. The phone periodically downloads a database of songs, all recognition is done on the device, and the history is only stored locally.

The database comes from Google Play Music–it’s based primarily on what tracks are being played there. This naturally means that “Now Playing” can only recognize popular music (for some values of “popular”). (According to one source, the database is also tuned to accommodate regional preferences, based on where the phone was purchased.)

The history on my phone suggests that to be an accurate description. Many of the songs I hear on the radio in the car show up on the list, as does much of the music that other people are playing at work.

A few anime opening and closing credit songs show up. But only for very popular shows; nothing from the current season. Snippets of background music from TV shows turn up in the history.

My tastes in radio tend toward oldies channels. Not much swing shows up in my “Now Playing” history. Most of the music from the 70s and 80s does show up–but primarily the tracks that charted at some point. Fringe material, not so much. Case in point: the Dark Wave show on SiriusXM features “goth, post-punk, and industrial”. Not a single track from last week’s episode made it onto my phone. (Correction on deeper inspection: a few show up in misidentified form.)

I’m inclined to think the failures are a good thing. To some extent, some inaccuracy improves the security of the system.

Let’s face it: how willing are you to believe Google doesn’t have access to your history? Because any sort of halfway competent Big Data miner could match up that history with radio station playlists, Muzak tracklists, and other data to create a profile of your musical tastes and physical movement, especially when paired with data from Maps. Whether that would give an accurate impression of your other tastes is a matter of opinion, but how many advertisers would be willing to buy that information? Quite a few, I’d bet.

Nor does Google make it easy to clean up the history. Once you find it–buried in Settings, not in an app–you can delete individual tracks or wipe the entire history. But there’s no way to search and remove those embarrassing low points. Want to get rid of last month’s early Madonna binge? You’ll have to do it one song at a time or nuke the whole historical record.

No provision for a timed delete (“On the first of the month, delete everything older than two months.”) Not even “Wipe the entire history once a month.”

And don’t forget: it’s always listening. Well, okay, popping in once a minute or so. I imagine certain political figures would love to get their hands on a list of people whose phones are hearing a lot of Latin pop. There are all sorts of interesting, non-advertising ways to use that kind of data.

Come to think of it, Google must know at least which phones are pulling down track databases from, let’s call them “countries of interest”. Would that be data that DHS could requisition, either legally or covertly? They’d certainly find uses for it.

Sure, I’m a bit paranoid. These days that’s a survival trait.

Not paranoid enough to turn off “Now Playing”. Not yet, anyway.

Not Quite Instant

Maggie and I have succumbed.

Not to the lure of another cat. Please don’t tempt us with the thought.

No, what we’ve given in to is the latest kitchen fad. Maybe not the latest-latest, but at least the latest long-lived.

We held out against the sous vide apocalypse, but we’ve accepted the Instant Pot into our lives (and our kitchen).

Seriously, given how often we use our slow cooker, the Instant Pot was a no brainer. A six quart IP takes up about the same amount of counter space as our three quart crockpot–maybe even a bit less–and that’s important in our one-and-a-half-butt kitchen.

Is it going to revolutionize our existence? Not likely. But that extra elbow room from the doubled capacity will be very nice when we do a fauxtisserie chicken. Might even be able to do it faster. Must experiment one of these days.

Though it may be a while. We’re still learning its quirks. Heck, we’ve only used it three times so far.

Braising a hunk of cow big enough for two dinners in ninety minutes–including heat-up time and extra time for the potatoes–was nice. More work involved than in using the oven, but the savings in time and electricity make up for a lot.

The pasta dish turned out well. I’m not certain we’ll do that regularly–for one thing, it actually took longer than the traditional stovetop approach–but I’ll admit that not having to drain the pasta was nice.

The Instant Pot “one dish meal” method is not the way to go if you’re looking for a bowl of sauce with noodles swimming in it. The goal seems to be to balance the ingredients so the liquid from the sauce goes into the pasta, leaving the sauce solids bonded to the outside of the noodles. Tasty (though we’ll definitely tweak the recipe next time–more oregano at the very least) if a bit disconcerting at first.

And it does function well as a crockpot. We did chili as our first slow cook experiment. Yes, there are plenty of quick chili recipes for the Instant Pot out there and we’ll probably try some eventually. But for this test we wanted to see how it handled a known recipe.

It seems as though Low Heat is a bit lower than our crockpot’s “Lo” setting. The onions were a bit crunchier than we expected, and the meat not quite as soft was we’re used to. It’s probably as well that we used thin fajita-cut meat instead of cubes. Next time we’ll set the pot on Medium, and that should improve matters.

Our slow cooker let us set a timer–cook for some amount of time, then either turn off or, if it was on “Hi”, switch to “Lo”. We never used it. The thought of coming home to either room-temperature food or excessively-cooked food didn’t appeal. The Instant Pot, on the other hand, can be set to switch over to a “keep warm” setting after the cooking time runs out. That might just be worth a good chunk of the admission price right there.

Speaking of warming things, I hadn’t realized just how many people believe microwave ovens are tools of the Devil.

Okay, I exaggerate slightly. But only slightly. I started researching how to reheat the chili in the Instant Pot, instead of using the oven as we normally do. Nearly every site I read warned about the unspecified health hazards of microwaves–and especially reheating food in one–though none actually stated what the risks are. I conclude they’re the same risks one runs by not eating “organic” foods.

Several sites said–and I’m not paraphrasing–“Thank God for my Instant Pot!” I’m not sure how much Hephaestus had to do with the creation of the Instant Pot, but I’m sure he appreciates their gratitude. Or maybe they were addressing Hestia–a goddess of the hearth might be a more appropriate vessel for cooking-related thanks.

But I digress.

Are there Instant Pot recipes we’re not going to try? Absolutely.

As a typical example, consider lasagna. I admire the dedication and determination of all the people who’ve created Instant Pot lasagna recipes, there’s no way I’m going to try them. Every one I’ve seen requires even more effort than traditional oven-based recipes do, most of them take longer, and a significant percentage call for finishing the cooking in the oven. Why bother?

But our initial experiments with Instant Potting (Instant Pottery would be something else, I think) have been successful enough to encourage us. I don’t think this will be the sort of kitchen gadget that gets used once or twice, then shoved in a drawer, never to be seen again.

And, as soon as the weather cools off a bit further, I intend to see how the Instant Pot handles our favorite hot spiced cider recipe. I’ll report back if we figure out how to reduce the cooking time without compromising the flavor.

A Singletasker That Works

Last time I wrote about my daily-use tech tools, I praised my Surface Go as–among other things–“far more capable than I expected” and noted that “it works well as a tablet-slash-ebook-reader”.

I still stand by those remarks, but I have uncovered a significant flaw in the Go. A flaw not unique to that device, by the way, but endemic to gadgets.

There’s only one of it.

I’d frequently settle down on the bed to read for a while and discover I’d left the Go upstairs, connected to the big monitors. Or go upstairs to do some pre-bedtime writing, only to realize I’d been reading in the living room and left the Go downstairs.

First world problem, sure. But labeling it that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

So, following the traditional pattern, I turned to technology to solve a problem created by technology.

My first attempt involved using a remote desktop app on my aging-but-much-beloved Nexus 9 tablet to bring the Go’s display to the bedroom while leaving the computer upstairs.

It worked. Mostly. Our Wi-Fi is a little spotty, so I’d sometimes lose signal mid-page and have to wait for it to reconnect before I could finish a sentence.

And, of course, the solution would be useless outside the house on those occasions when I needed reading material, but didn’t want to take the Go with me. Like, say, waiting in line for a BABYMETAL concert.

Enter the dedicated ebook reader.

Yeah, I know: it’s a singletasker. Usually not what I want. But in this case, it makes sense to go with a gadget that’s specifically designed to do one thing.

Sure, it might be nice to have a clock on it. And a calendar. And email. But keep layering on the “would be nice” features, and I’d be back in the “why not just buy another Go” headspace.

So I resolutely ignore the dedicated band of hackers who work diligently to push the gadget into realms it wasn’t designed for.

And it’s a very pleasant experience reading on this thing–a Kobo Clara HD, by the way.

It’s tiny. Remember stuffing a paperback into your back pocket? You can’t do that with a tablet. Not even a seven-inch model, much less a ten-inch iPad or Surface Go. The Clara fits perfectly. I’m careful not to sit down with it in my pocket, because it’s not going to take well to bending, but as a place to put it while I’m walking around, it’s delightfully retro.

Despite the reader’s size, the screen is shaped much better for reading than a smartphone screen. And the display is wonderfully sharp. I can crank the font down to the point where I get almost as much text onscreen as would fit on a paperback page without having to squint. Even without my glasses.

It’s not perfect. No gadget is. Loading books onto it can be slow. And there’s only one level of sorting when looking at the list of books on it. Sort by author, say, and series display in random order. Sort by series and multiple authors get mixed together. (Side note to Kobo’s developers: Please give us two-level sorting!)

But from the perspective of sheer convenience, the reader can’t be beat. It migrates from my work bag to the bedside table, so the Go can stay upstairs on days I’m not writing at work*. And on writing days, the Clara can stay home while the Go accompanies me to the library, the DMV, or wherever else I expect to be sitting for several hours.

* During meal breaks and before shifts, not while I’m on the clock. I’m not getting paid to write, unfortunately.

Even if you’re an avid reader, I’m not recommending you rush out and buy an ebook reader. A phone with a reasonably large screen or a smallish table may be all you need. But if you find yourself reaching for your multipurpose device, only to discover you left it somewhere else so it could do something important, maybe, just maybe, you should let a singletasker into your life.

Google Looks to 2018

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Microsoft’s hardware announcements. This week, it’s Google’s turn. Where Microsoft was looking ahead to 2020, Google seems to be looking backward. Think I’m kidding? Consider the evidence:

New “Pixel Buds,” true wireless headphones that–in addition to letting you listen to music and made phone calls–allow you to talk to an electronic assistant. Regardless of your feelings about Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and HeyGoogle, these earbuds would have been revolutionary a couple of years ago; now they come off as “We’re going to jump off the same bridge as all of our friends.”

Then there’s the Pixelbook Go. Hmm. Where have we heard the word “Go” in a computer name lately? Microsoft used it for a machine that focused on portability. Sensible, even logical. Google uses it for a computer that, uh, has long battery life and was “thin”.

I don’t see the connection. (Google’s Go, by the way, is approximately twice as heavy as Microsoft’s.)

And, let’s be frank here. People didn’t buy zillions of the earlier Pixelbooks because they were too heavy. They didn’t buy them because nobody saw the benefit of a ChromeOS device at that price point. The Pixelbook Go will be cheaper, but it’s still at the upper end of the Chromebook price range.

Moving on, we have a new incarnation of the Google Home Mini. It’s now the Nest Mini, comes in a new color–blue–and has a wall mount. Supposedly it also has twice as much bass (which at least answers one of the major concerns about a device that small designed for playing music) and an additional microphone so it can eavesdrop on you more accurately.

After the “Apple is listening to you having sex” scandals, does Google really want to be promoting its enhanced listening capabilities?

The changes really feel like Google is repairing the deficiencies of something that wasn’t all that exciting or original in its first incarnation.

Of course there has to be an update to the mesh Wi-Fi gadget. The new version looks cooler. Slightly. It’s got Google Home built in, so your Wi-Fi network can listen in on youplay music and answer questions. Isn’t that what the Nest Mini and your phone are for?

Is it any faster than the previous generation? Able to support more simultaneous users? Dunno. Google didn’t say.

Again, incremental tweaks to a “me too” gadget.

And, finally, there’s the Pixel 4.

That actually has a unique feature: a radar sensor. No, not for detecting speed traps. For registering nearby motion so you can control it with hand gestures without picking it up.

I can see so many uses for that. Like changing the volume when listening to music while driving. Dismissing notifications while driving. Pausing videos while, uh, driving. Um. Let me get back to you on this one.

I’ll admit the new audio recorder with built-in speech recognition to transcribe lectures sounds neat. I do have to wonder how long it’ll be before they get hit with a lawsuit because someone figured out how to use it to transcribe song lyrics.

And, of course, there are the usual highly touted improvements to the camera, some physical and some in the software.

Granted, better and better cameras are, IMNSHO, a more useful arms race than bigger and bigger screens, but still, I have to wonder who the audience is. How many people use their phone camera in anything other than full automatic mode? Do the majority of us really need control of Google’s HDR algorithms? Or would we be better off with a cheaper phone that takes decentish pictures, while the few who actually need total control of their photos put the money they save on the phone toward a better lens for their DSLR?

Microsoft Looks to 2020

There’s nothing like a pre-announcement, right?

Take, for example, Microsoft’s forthcoming Surface Neo. Announced today for release in time for Christmas. That’s Christmas 2020.

Still, it sounds like a cool device. Aimed right at my small computer fetish. Two nine-inch screens, a detached keyboard, weight under a pound and a half. With even a half-decent CPU–which it sounds like it will have–the Neo could kill off my current favorite small machine, the Surface Go.

Of course, who knows what else will be on the market a year from now when the Neo becomes available for reals?

Interestingly, Microsoft is trying the same idea in a phone. Yep, getting back into the phone game. Only this time, they’re not trying to cram the full Windows experience into a handheld device.

The Surface Duo–also scheduled for the end of next year–is an Android phone.

Stop laughing. Microsoft Word for Android is actually solid, as is their remote desktop app. I haven’t tried the Android Excel, but the reports are good. And Android Outlook is no worse than Windows Outlook. (Yes, I know that’s a low bar to jump. So?) The point is that Microsoft has a decent track record with Android, and with a year to refine their apps for a dual-screen life, they just might score a serious win.

There’s a fair to middling chance I might be looking for a new phone around the end of next year or beginning of 2021; if the Duo reaches its full potential, it just might be enough to lure me away from the Pixel 5 (or whatever Google is pushing by then.)

Long-range planning aside, Microsoft has also announced a bunch of new gadgets that are coming out this year.

A new Surface Laptop. Two actually. One with the standard 13.5-inch screen and Intel CPU, and one with a 15-inch screen and an AMD CPU.

A new Surface Pro*. Very similar to last year’s model, but this one finally adds the USB-C port Surface fans have been screaming for. (The Surface Go has a USB-C port and it’s been great. I only wish there were two of ’em.)

* The main difference between the “Laptop” line and the “Pro” line is that the former have a built-in keyboard, while the latter use a sold-separately, magnetically attached keyboard.

Earbuds. Really? Yeah, I know Microsoft’s Surface Earphones have gotten some good reviews, but did we really need earbuds? Apparently so. Anyway, if you need earbuds that take dictation, you might give these a try.

Then there’s the Pro X. A thin-and-light laptop; it’s distinguishing feature is that it uses an ARM CPU. It should be fast, but if you need programs from companies not named Microsoft, I’d suggest holding off until we get more solid data about compatibility with existing Windows software.

Anything sound interesting to you?

The End of an Era

The mystique has come to an end.

According to multiple reports, Android will no longer have sweet-themed release names.

If this is true, Pie is a good way to go out, but it’s an interesting decision on Google’s part. Not only do they lose a wildly popular bit of their brand, but the stated reasons for making the decision don’t quite add up.

It’s a rare corporate decision that can’t be revisited. Change your logo and lose sales? Change it again to something closer to the original. Refocus on a new target market and take a bath? Bring back an old corporate spokesperson to re-engage with the original buyers (anyone remember when Snap, Crackle, and Pop vanished, only to return?)

But this is a decision Google can’t take back. If, a year from now, they announce that Android R will be named “Rice Pudding,” then retroactively the “Android Q” move will seem like a ploy to get free advertising from the media. Nor would (ahem) sugar-coating the news by claiming that Q was named Quisp (or Quince, or anything else really) within the company improve the look.

Why are they doing this? I’ve seen two claimed reasons.

The media focuses on the name rather than the new features. So? As long as users use the OS and manufacturers license the Google apps, do you think Google really cares whether the free advertising focuses on the name or the spiffy new Back button functionality?

People complained that the names weren’t inclusive enough. People switch phones for a lot of reasons, but I really doubt Google was losing business to iOS over the code names. But if I’m wrong about that, Google could improve the naming process. The company is already in the spotlight over diversity issues; improving representation in the group that chooses Android names would fall right in line with their efforts to do more improve representation throughout the company.

Of course, the reports could be wrong. Android Q will be out next month, possibly as soon as next week. Maybe we’ll find out that it’s actually named Quinoa–hey, if you can make rice pudding, why not a sweet quinoa-based cake?

Jackpot!

We all have a level of risk we’re comfortable with.

I’m okay spending ten bucks a week on the microscopic chance of winning one of the lotteries operated and widely promoted by the government. You may feel the same, you may not.

I’m also fine with investing months of my life on the even smaller possibility of hitting it big as a writer*. I know some of you think that’s an insane gamble.

* To be clear, the goal is getting my books published so people can read them and making enough money that publishers will continue to buy them. Cracking the best-seller lists and making oodles of dough is what Corporate America calls a “stretch goal”.

The point is not that I’m crazy. The point is that there are some games I won’t play, but plenty of other people do.

Case in point: the ransomware game. Now there’s one with high odds.

Sure, you might go a lifetime online and never get infected. If you stick with well-known companies that don’t run ads on their websites, you’ve got a good chance. Mind you, you need to go directly to their sites, not look them up on your search engine of choice. And, really, does anybody stick with just two or three websites?

Okay, yes, there are search engines that don’t show ads. And entertaining websites that don’t show ads and never get hacked. You might get lucky.

But ransomware is on the rise. It’s the attacks on cities that’s getting most of the media attention, because that’s something new and different. Newsworthy, by definition. But attacks on individuals haven’t stopped, and–anecdotally–are becoming more common as well.

Which shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s a great moneymaker. As with spam, all you need is one success to cover the cost of thousands or even millions of attacks. And, also as with spam, you don’t just get one victim forking over the cash (or Bitcoin).

Your profit goes up even further if you don’t actually respond to anyone who pays up. Why maintain the infrastructure to send out decryption software and keys? It’s not like a brick and mortar company, whose victimscustomers have to be able to find them. You’re hunting down your own customersvictims and not giving them a choice about doing business with you.

So, yeah, the odds in the ransomware game suck.

Install anti-virus and anti-malware software from a reputable company. Even better if it includes a browser plugin that highlights links known to be unsafe. Make sure to keep it up to date. Install a pop-up blocker as well–many attacks are made via windows that pop-up behind your main window and do their work before you even realize they’re there.

And keep multiple backups of anything you can’t stand to lose. (I keep my writing in Dropbox which backs up continuously and keeps thirty days of history so if I had to, I could go back to an older, uninfected version of every chapter of every book. I also run an hourly backup from my main computer to a second computer in another room and a daily backup to a third machine in another state. It’s not a perfect system, but there’s that level of risk thing again.)

Back up, back up, back up. (Haven’t I said that recently?)

We all have our own comfort level with risk, but I don’t know anyone who wants to hit the ransomware jackpot enough to play the game.