Sunday, November 05, 2017

Low-Tech Coffee

As a tech writer and a recovering software developer, I am naturally something of a technophile. I've already mentioned some of my favorite tools for writing (computer, OneNote, word processor, Skype, email, etc.) and also for camping (GPS, RV campsite apps, Wi-Fi and cellular boosters, etc.), and I have to admit that I'm a bit of a gadget hound. If it's shiny and has buttons and lights, I like it.

Now this is a phone. It only did one thing, and it did it well. And
it made a very satisfying noise when you slammed it down into
the cradle. Image used under the GNU Free Documentation

License.
On top of that, I'm old—and getting older all the time! I'd like to think of myself as middle-aged, but I suppose that would mean that I'd have to assume I could live to be 120 or 130 . . .  Not very likely to happen. But the thing about being a techie "of a certain age" is that I can remember what it was like before we all had computers and smart phones and GPS and The Facebooks and all like that. When I started writing news articles, we had to call people on the telephone to interview them! (And not on a smartphone, either; I'm talking clunky, corded phones with rotary dials.) If we wanted to check a date or a quote, we had to go to the library or local newspaper office. I mean, we had to physically go there! It was awful. All that moving around, speaking with actual people. Ugh. Very unsanitary.

Since I'm old enough to remember all of this, I'm still a bit awestruck by what the tech revolution has wrought. The idea that I can carry so much computing power in my pocket, that I can instant message someone on the other side of the country (or even the other side of the world), that my granddaughter can Facetime me to show me her newly painted room, that the little box on my dashboard (or the phone in my pocket) can tell me how to get to an exact location from 5 or 50 or 500 miles way . . . I'm still kind of shocked by all of this. I use all of these technologies daily—in fact, I'm rather knowledgeable about many of them—but they still sometimes astound me. I mean, our daughter Amy makes a living as an online fashion maven! That wasn't even a thing a few years ago.

So, yes, I do love technology: using it, writing about it, building it. And yet . . . 

Sometimes I find that the low-tech approach works better. It's simpler. Often faster. Almost always less expensive. For instance, I tend to make a lot of notes. I tell my wife that it's because my brain is always whirring away, coming up with brilliant ideas for articles, books, programs, and the like—but mainly it's just that if I don't jot an idea (or name or task) down within about 15 seconds, I'll lose it. I'll remember that I had an important idea, but it'll be gone; I'll have no idea what that idea was. I can hear the Whooosh! sound it makes as it leaves my addled brain. So, lots of notes; it's the only way I can survive. And in spite of the fact that I've tried many note-taking apps, I keep coming back to . . . I'm a little ashamed to admit this . . . a pencil and a pocket-sized spiralbound notebook. Yep. Pencil and paper. (Preferably lined paper, and preferably a #2 soft pencil.) It just works better, and it's faster. With an app, I have to tap the icon to open the app, then open a page (or start a new one), then attempt to use the tiny onscreen keyboard with my fat, clumsy fingers, then I have to save the note and quit the app. Honestly, for me, a pencil and paper is better, faster, and easier.

My favorite analog note-taking app. Complete with "stylus."
And note-taking isn't the only task for which I prefer a low-tech approach. As an avid RVer, I'm very much into all the gadgets and gizmos people use with campers, trailers, and motorhomes. In much the same way that editors argue about placement of semicolons or the use of the Oxford comma (now, don't get me started), RVers argue about the best way to do . . . well, anything. Whether it's making coffee, sealing a leaking windowframe, using solar panels, or traveling with full or empty tanks, those of us in the RV fraternity are happy to argue about all of it. (BTW, everyone at least agrees that it's best to avoid traveling with half-full tanks; too much sloshing around. That might be 150 lbs. or more of water surging fore and aft, enough to throw your rig seriously off-balance.)

But let's just concentrate on coffee for a moment. (I say "just," but that word does a serious disservice to possibly the most important liquid ever. More important even than bourbon. And that's not something I say lightly. I don't know why the inventor of coffee hasn't been canonized. Oh, wait . . .  yes, I do . . .  He was almost certainly an Ethiopian Muslim . . .   At any rate, all I can do before my first cup of coffee is grunt, and it's generally a nasty, spiteful grunt, at that.) There are dozens of ways that RVers make coffee on the road, many of them pretty high-tech. There are French presses, AeroPresses, and full-blown Braun- or Mr. Coffee-type coffee-makers. Some people take their Keurigs camping with them! (That's just . . . wrong. Those Philistines! Not that I would judge.) Not surprisingly, Coleman (a company that’s been in the camping biz for over 100 years) makes a $70 propane-powered coffeemaker; this seems to me an over-engineered solution, but again . . . no judging. Some people like to use the old-fashioned stovetop percolator. I like that. It makes sounds that remind me of the way that my mother's kitchen sounded in 1958, and it smells wonderful. And really, there's nothing very complicated or high-tech about how a percolator works. (It's just physics. My friend Rick Brown could explain it to you, if you have a few hours.) This is an almost perfect way to make coffee while camping.

Our little Melita, filter, and teapot, in our trailer, ready for business.
Photo by Lesley Scher.
But notice that I said "almost." When camping, there is usually a need to conserve water. Even if you have a ready supply of fresh water, your waste water is going to go into a holding tank, and once that tank fills up, you may have to break camp and find an RV dump station; there may be one nearby, or it may be a few miles down the road. Either way, it's a pain. No matter which approach you take, you're going to use water to make your coffee. But then you're going to use even more water cleaning up the grounds, washing out the percolator (remember trying to clean the grounds out of a percolator?), and cleaning the press or decanter or whatever you're using.

Lesley and I take the easy way out: We use a small Melita cone filter coffeemaker. You can get them in various sizes, but we just use the 1-cup size. Heat up some water on the propane stove, drop a filter in the Melita, add a scoop or two of ground coffee. Then place the funnel-shaped coffeemaker on your mug, pour the water in, and wait about one minute. Done. Decent coffee, no mess, nothing to wash (even the mug and coffeemaker can just be wiped clean), and no wasted water.


It's low-tech, simple, cheap, and fast. Although I'm sure that any day now, Melita will release a Wi-Fi-enabled cone brewer, and then I won't know what to do, especially if it has flashing lights. I can only be so strong.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Work "Camping"

Lesley and I just got back from two wonderful weeks "camping" on the Olympic Peninsula. I saw some beautiful scenery and had a chance to observe a couple of things I've never seen in the wild: I saw a herd of elk, peacefully bedded down in the middle of a campground in a beautiful park (Dosewallips State Park, for those who are interested; it's near Brinnon, WA.). They were stately and calm, as befits massive creatures who are secure in their grandeur, and who for some reason have decided to tolerate us puny humans. (Though they sometimes like to toy with us by surrounding some poor soul's trailer, motorhome, or tent, and then daring the camper to try and make it to his door—or flap, if it's a tent. As this is going on, one can hear in the background the quiet laughter of mischievous elk.) In any case, it's their park; we're just visiting, and it's best to keep that in mind.

This man left his trailer and came back to find it surrounded by elk.
After 30 or so minutes of grazing and snickering at him, the elk
departed and the man was able to re-enter his trailer.
The second thing I saw struck me as unaccountably sad. I've read of salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and I must have seen video of the process on Wild Kingdom or some similar show. But I've never stood on the bank of a river and actually watched these magnificent fish, battered by rocks and current as they fight their way upstream back to the very place they were born so that they could continue the cycle of life. And then . . . they die. They fought for days to get back to a very specific spot upstream in a freshwater river, they lay their eggs (or, in the case of males, fertilize a female's eggs), and then—having left their saltwater home, and having fasted throughout their upstream journey and battled heroically to revisit the place of their birth—they simply fade away and die, their mission accomplished. The banks and shallows of the river were covered with dead and dying salmon, some flailing weakly as if in protest.
This bull was bugling when Lesley shot this awesome photo. We stayed
well out of his way.

This has been going on for eons, of course, and it's part of nature. But it seems a cruel and relentless part.

As luck and commerce would have it, I didn't get to spend all that much time hiking and enjoying nature. I spent a lot of time in our trailer, editing a U.S. history book. (Occasionally I'd sit outside at a picnic table with my computer and do my work out there, at least until I was harassed by mosquitoes, bees, flies, or some other pesky nature-thing. Then I would head for the trailer and set up at our little dinette table, possibly with a cold beer to help settle my rattled nerves.)

You may have notice that I put "camping" in quotes up above. That's because it's hard to reconcile what I'm doing with the actual camping I did as a (much) younger man. In those days, a tent was a luxury; most often we'd simply hike until we were tired (which took a long time, 40-50 years ago, but which doesn't seem to take nearly as long these days), and then put down our packs, lay out our sleeping bags, and start a fire so that we could have something hot for supper. (This was very often a dehydrated meal in a vacuum-packed foil pouch into which one could mix hot water; the result was something vaguely food-like, and I recall actually being fond of a few of the meals. The mac-and-beef wasn't at all bad, and neither were the beef stroganoff or the chicken and rice. Not surprisingly, the food got to tasting better and better the longer you were on the trail. Sadly, I cannot recommend the dehydrated peanut butter.) These were the days when I learned from my friend George that all one really needed in the way of utensils and tools was a Sierra cup and a good sheath knife.

Lesley made shrimp and grits one
night. This is a far cry from dehyd-
rated mac-and-beef,
These days, though, I am old and soft, and I no longer look forward to sleeping on the ground and waking up to powdered eggs and sausage-like, patty-shaped objects of dubious origin. Instead, Lesley and I "camp" in a 19' Escape trailer that includes a 6 cubic foot refrigerator with a freezer, a two-burner stovetop, a queen-sized bed, a dinette table (removable to make another bed, should we ever persuade my granddaughter to accompany us, which is increasingly unlikely, as she now seems to have discovered boys and cars, either of which I'm sure must be much more interesting than grandparents), a sink, a small furnace, a hot water heater, and—THANK ALL THAT IS HOLY—a bathroom.

So, yes, it's hard to call this camping. Some, in fact, have called it "glamping," which is apparently a portmanteau of "glamor" and camping." We will continue to call it "camping," though, simply because I refuse to be associated with such a silly word as "glamping."

This is our trailer parked at the marina at Port Townsend, WA.
Note the antennae at upper right.
I mentioned that I spent a great deal of time working during this last trip, which brings me to a few other things I have now that I didn't have when camping back in the day. If you were to look carefully at the roof of our trailer, you would see a small collection of antennae, a pair of them, plus a single one some inches away from the pair. These are for, respectively, a Wi-Fi booster and a cellular booster. Because after all, what is camping without Internet access? In both cases, these find a weak signal and then amplify it so that it's usable. My excuse is that I use such tools to work—and it's true that during our last two trips, I spent a lot of time sending and receiving files, connecting to the online version of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS, as we lovingly call it), looking up facts relevant to the books I was editing, and otherwise engaged in various forms of digital communication as a way of allowing me to freelance from pretty well anywhere we happen to be. (One can find oneself completely without either a cell or Wi-Fi signal, but it's fairly rare, and it's usually possible to at least drive into a nearby town in order to mooch a few GBs of connectivity. At any rate, I found that I could connect most of the time, one way or the other, with some sort of usable signal.)

See?! I worked! I have to admit that a state park is a nice place to
office. It must have been casual day...
So, I no longer own a Sierra cup OR a good sheath knife (I really wish I'd kept the one I had in the Boy Scouts), and I no longer sleep on the ground beneath the stars, listening to what I sincerely hoped at the time was the wind whistling through the pines, as opposed to, say, a bear or a mountain lion stealthily creeping up to where I lay, shivering in my cheap sleeping bag. Now I'm warm and cozy and secure in my nice bed, with the soft glow of the various LEDs in the trailer reminding me that my phone is charging, the fridge is running, the microwave clock (did I forget to mention the microwave?) is set, and the cellular booster is turned on. Now, this is not just because I'm old and soft, but because I have work to do, and these tools allow me to do it no matter where I happen to be. And I also happen to be old and soft.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Cyber Insecurity

I know what you Tweeted last summer. Also this summer. And during that particularly nasty rainstorm in the winter of 2015. In fact, I know what you posted on YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, and Flickr. (Also VK, if you happen to be into Russian social networking.) And if you posted anything while you were supposed to be hard at work in an office building or manufacturing plant, well, there's a pretty good chance that I can find that out, also.

This is a series of social media posts that originated in my old
high school over the past several days. I can click on the icons
and see who posted what. 
Of course, none of this is secret, right? You didn't really post it on the Internet and expect it to remain private, did you? I mean, c'mon, if there's anything the Web is bad at, it's maintaining your privacy; just ask any number of breached and outed and exposed criminals, trolls, Hollywood insiders, and a slew of embarrassed  AshleyMadison.com members. (Not that one might not be all four, of course.)

The Internet is great at sharing information; that's what it was made for. (No, it wasn't set up to provide a backup communication net in the event of a nuclear attack. It was invented and intended for use by university researchers looking for ways to communicate and share data.) Unfortunately, it's not so great at protecting information.

As someone who has worked on the security side of technology, I have access to some tools that might make my search a little easier, simpler, or faster, but the truth is that all of that information is out there. Everything you've ever typed. Every Google search you've ever made. (Yes, even that one.) Everything you've posted, commented, searched for, or communicated is stored somewhere; and all it takes is a little time and effort to uncover. If it's supposedly protected by virtue of it being stored on a "secure" site (think Facebook, Dropbox, your corporate network, etc.), well, I have bad news for you. As security-conscious sages (including former FBI director Robert Mueller) have said many times: "There are only two types of companies: Those that have been hacked and those that will be hacked." (I might add a subset of the first type: those that have in fact been hacked, but don't know it yet.)

Robert Mueller was the 6th director of the Federal
Bureau of Investigation. He is currently occupied
with other security-related endeavors. Image in
the public domain.
But I'm not necessarily talking about sophisticated, hardcore tech attacks here, the sort of thing that some shady operator in a basement in Odesa or Kiev or Omaha might use to force his way through a firewall or other cyber defense. Those types of attacks certainly exist. But why would anyone go through the trouble? It's time-consuming and expensive, and it requires skills that most of us don't have. And besides, there's often no need. The info is either already out there (in the form of social networking posts and other communications—many of which can easily be viewed or uncovered with a bit of sleuthing) or else it can be had simply for the asking.

That's what social engineers do. When they need the keys to the (yours, your boss's, your client's) kingdom, they just ask. Of course, they might have to lie a bit. (Well, let's say prevaricate. It sounds better.) They might (read: probably will) get in simply by emailing you a dodgy link. Occasionally, they might need to invent some pretext to get into an office: Perhaps the social engineer shows up at your place of business in a blue shirt holding a clipboard, and wearing a baseball cap with a service company logo. He either just waltzes in (if your company is foolish enough to leave its campus buildings unlocked) or else stops at the reception desk to tell the folks manning the desk that he's "here to check on your <insert name of make and model> corporate printers, to ensure that they're working correctly." Or perhaps he's (supposedly) with a janitorial service and he'd like to see if he can outbid your current provider, the name of which he just happens to know. (He also knows how much they're charging you. In fact, he seems to know a lot, more than enough to convince you that he's on the up-and-up.)

Or maybe he keeps it simple. He just picks up the phone and starts calling your employees; when someone answers, he says, "Hey, Sarah, this is Todd from IT. We're working on something here and I need to get into your system to see if you've been updated. It doesn't look like the last security update was installed, for some reason." Of course, he's using a phone-spoofing application that makes his call look as if it's coming from inside your building, so for all you know, it's legit. (Do you know everyone in your IT department? Really? Everyone?) And you wouldn't want your system to be out of date, would you? Vulnerable to attack?! If the caller is good—and professional social engineers are very, very good—odds are that "Todd" will eventually find someone to give him a password; after that, he's off to the races. And by "off to the races," I mean that he's successfully infiltrated your network. (Note that I’m saying “he,” but keep in mind that the social engineer could just as easily be female. There are some truly exceptional social engineers out there who happen to be ladies. I don’t think that they’re necessarily better liars or any more duplicitous than the guys, but perhaps we’re simply not expecting to get hacked by a woman. Whatever it is, the ones I know of or have met are very good at this.)

You see, social engineers are hackers of a sort, but they don't hack systems; they hack people. And people are easily hacked. We're great targets, because we're trusting and we're helpful. I hate to say it, but we need to learn to be more suspicious and wary. C'mon, people—stop being so nice, so trusting! We should all be more like those people we see writing in comments on the Internet: angry, cantankerous, distrustful. Well, maybe only a little like them. No need to get nasty or insulting.

And here I'm going to put in a plug for my friend, Chris Hadnagy. Chris runs Social-Engineer.com (and Social-Engineer.org), a penetration-testing company that specializes in using social engineering to uncover weaknesses in your company's "human network." He and his team are very good—scary good, in fact.  They can lie and wheedle and schmooze their way into almost any network. If you're wondering if your network has weaknesses, it does, trust me—especially your human network. It's porous and shaky at best, and Chris and his folks can help uncover those weaknesses. But my favorite of Chris's endeavors is the Innocent Lives Foundation (ILF). The foundation specializes in unmasking child predators and in providing useful, usable evidence to law enforcement officials so that these people can be found and prosecuted. It's a worthwhile endeavor with a talented board of directors and headed up by a guy who's the epitome of the "white hat hacker." (Also, he has a very large, vicious-looking dog, the name of which I can never remember, so I keep referring to it as "Fluffy." Someday, "Fluffy" is going to show up on my front porch and drag me out to the woods and bury me like a very large bone, and I'll never be seen again. So, if you don't hear from me…)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Amazon & Teddy Roosevelt

Many of us (including myself) have had a wonderful time for the past several years bashing those huge, soulless corporations. And for good reason, too. Many of them really do seem to lack souls; they care only about the bottom line and apparently not much about either their customers or their employees. They have managed to acquire many of the perks and trappings of person-hood, with very few of the responsibilities. (We all recall the 2010 Court decision that gave them many of the same rights as people, but it really goes all the way back to an 1886 decision determining that corporate money was protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.)

All of this is nothing new, of course. Bashing corporations and finding ways to keep them in check goes way back. My favorite corporation-basher is probably Teddy Roosevelt. In 1901, TR said, "To permit every lawless capitalist, every law-defying corporation, to take any action, no matter how iniquitous, in the effort to secure an improper profit and to build up privilege, would be ruinous to the Republic and would mark the abandonment of the effort to secure in the industrial world the spirit of democratic fair dealing."

TR was one tough dude. Read Mornings on
Horseback
 to find out just how badass he
really was.
TR was a bit of a hard-ass. Seriously. This is a guy who, in 1912, got shot just before he was due to give a speech, continued on to the venue, gave the speech, and only then went to the hospital.

One of our favorite corporate targets of late has been Amazon. The company burst upon the scene in 1994 as an online bookseller, but quickly began selling . . . well, just about everything. Today there is almost nothing you cannot buy on Amazon.com, from widgets to watches, from glasses to guitars, and from fishing tackle to fishing boats. But they occasionally engender some bad press by being a bit too heavy-handed, and there are some ugly stories about their hiring and personnel practices. (I've known some Amazon employees, and many have said that it's a meat-grinder, very competitive, and that the best person doesn't always get that promotion. Admittedly, most of the employees to whom I've spoken have been somewhat disgruntled. I haven't found any gruntled employees who are willing to talk.)

Still, I buy lots of stuff on Amazon. They have excellent prices and speedy (usually free) delivery. But most of all, they have wonderful customer service.

Some time back, I bought a generator on Amazon. This is a small, portable machine meant to be carried along in our truck when we take our trailer out "boondocking." For the uninitiated, "boondocking" is camping in unimproved areas that lack water, power, and sewer services. Basically, you're (usually) out in the middle of nowhere, often not even in any sort of actual campsite or campground. We have solar panels and batteries, and we carry our own water and sewer tanks; if the batteries ever ran down and we really needed power, we could use our generator to top off our batteries or power any 120V items that were absolutely necessary. You know, like a hair dryer. Or a microwave. Or, during baseball season, a television.

The generator in question. Image courtesy of Champion
Power Equipment.
The generator arrived in a timely fashion, left on our front porch by our friendly UPS driver, whom we never see but who must exist, because we keep finding things on our porch. After a week or so, I finally got around to taking the generator out of the box, only to find that one of the internal pieces (a combination rectifier/heat sink/circuit board, if you're curious about that sort of thing) had somehow been dislodged, either during manufacturing or shipping. My guess was that somewhere along the line, the thing had been dropped. I called the manufacturer's tech support number and got in touch with a young man named Brian, who was happy to either approve warranty repairs or send me instructions on how to repair it myself. I opted for the latter, because the nearest qualified repair facility was a good 40 minutes away and, more importantly, would not be able to get to my little generator for at least 3-4 weeks. Since I intended to leave on a trip in about 2 weeks, I opted to give it a shot, so Brian sent over instructions.

The instructions were pretty straightforward, and I managed to get the rectifier back in its slot, suffering only minor injuries in the process. But when I filled it with oil, the oil immediately began leaking from the bottom of the generator. I suspected that, when the generator was dropped (or run over by a bus, or possibly thrown through a 10th-story window), something important had cracked and now it would no longer hold oil.

So, I went camping without my generator. That's how brave I am. I was prepared to be out in the wilderness, surrounded by bears and wolves and aardvarks and such, and me without a hair dryer!
We have some portable solar panels much like the ones pictured here.
Alas, they will not power a hair dryer. Image courtesy of Renogy.
When we came home, I went to that portion of Amazon's website dedicated to returns and was informed that, since more than 30 days had passed, the item could no longer be returned. I sighed. I wrung my hands. I fixed my monitor with the steely gaze I had perfected as an English teacher, but none of this did any good. (Come to think of it, it hadn't done much good when I was a teacher, either.) Anyway, I wrote a note in the provided Comments box, explaining my plight, and resorting to that most heartrending entreaty of young children everywhere: "But . . . but, it wasn't my fault!" I sent it off and pretty much forgot about it, assuming that I would have to find a way to box up and lug the generator 45 miles to the repair facility, and figuring that I would not see it again for months. Or ever.

But then I got an email from a very nice young lady who works for Amazon's customer service department.

Let's digress for just a moment . . .  Have you noticed that "customer service" has become a bit of a misnomer? When is the last time you dealt with such a department and came away feeling like you actually were a valued customer and had been offered actual service? Yeah, that's what I thought. With a few exceptions (Apple comes to mind), we all dread making calls to tech support or customer service lines. It's rarely productive and never pretty.

But that's not the case with Amazon. The email from Lagna (which, quite appropriately, turns out to be a Hindu name meaning "auspicious") said that Amazon wished to “obviate” my inconvenience, followed by—and I’m paraphrasing here:

"Oh, sorry. That was unfortunate. We don't like it when that stuff happens. We're going to give you your money back. Please order a new generator, and go ahead and keep the old one; maybe you can get it fixed, use it for spares, etc. Oh, and we'll expedite the shipping on the replacement and also refund those shipping charges."

And sure enough, I ordered a new generator, which appeared on my doorstep a few days later, and my account was credited the original purchase price, plus shipping. I decided that my inconvenience had indeed been "obviated." If you’re following along here, I ended up with two generators, only one of which I paid for. The other one is broken, of course, but I’d imagine that I could get it repaired, now that time is not an issue. Or I could use it for parts or donate it to Habitat for Humanity.

Amazon has become a powerhouse, of course, largely due to its pricing, inventory, and reasonable shipping policies. But the real reason so many of us go back to Amazon is the customer service. Even before The Generator Incident, I've leaned toward Amazon because if the item arrived broken, the company took it back, no questions asked. Wrong size? No worries. Not up to your expectations? Not a big deal. Send it back. You didn't mean to order that one? Not a problem; send it back. One of their third-party vendors screwed up? Not an issue; send it back and we'll deal with the vendor.

Of course, the thing is that Amazon makes a ton of money; the company can afford to offer good customer service. Amazon knows that what it loses in sales or margin, it can make up in repeat sales to satisfied customers. And so they try very, very hard to create satisfied customers.


So, good for them, right?! But that begs a very real question: How come Amazon can afford to offer truly good customer service, but other companies, companies that also make a great deal of money selling products or services to us, seemingly cannot? What's up with Verizon and Sprint? And what about Comcast and Time-Warner and the other cable companies? How about Best Buy? Your bank?

And don't even get me started on the airlines.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the . . . llamas of war?

First, my apologies to Shakespeare. Sweet Will's Mark Antony never actually mentions llamas in Julius Caesar. More's the pity, of course. Think what a llama or two would have added to the play!

But back to business. Or in your case, a possible loss of business. That is to say, yes, you may lose your job. Technology is disrupting many industries, and people fear that their jobs will be taken over by computers, AI, robotics, etc. I wrote about the topic in Leveling the Playing Field, and my take on the subject was mostly positive. My position was (and is) that, yes, technology will obsolete many jobs, but that those job losses will be more than made up for by new jobs required by the new technology. (I realize that this is small comfort to the suddenly unemployed grocery cashier who finds that he or she must retrain in order to qualify for one of those new jobs. More about that in a bit…)

Naturally, thinking about tech disruptions and job losses made me think of llamas.

Llamas are awesome animals. They're smart, social, and loyal, and quite popular: In the U.S. alone, there are well over 150,000 llamas roaming the countryside or penned up in pastures or corrals. (There are also another 100,000 or so alpacas, a camelid related to the llama, wandering the country.)

Moose, protecting his barnyard. He was a
good llama.
Llamas are great guard-dogs. Well, I suppose technically they would be guard-llamas. At any rate, they're very protective and not many coyotes or foxes would dare invade a chicken coop or henhouse guarded by a shaggy, angry, 400 lb. beast whose heart has sworn undying fealty to the chickens he loves. (Actually, I don't know if llamas really love chickens; I just liked writing that.) My friends Linda and Dale once owned a llama named Moose whose job it was to protect their chickens, and Moose took his job very seriously; the household dogs quickly learned to stay away from Moose and the chicken coop. Moose liked nothing better than to stomp on a barnyard interloper, so along with the household dogs, all the foxes, weasels, coyotes and sundry other murderous creatures in the area also learned to stay away. (Since they had a llama named Moose, I once suggested that Linda and Dale get a moose and name it Llama, but for some reason this was not a suggestion that appealed to them.)

Anyway, almost everyone likes llamas, and that includes the Israeli army. For years, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has used them as porters to haul equipment over rough terrain. A llama, after all, can carry more than 25% of its body weight over hills and mountains, and through ravines and gullies that would stop even the hardiest of soldiers. The IDF loves its llamas.

Or it did, anyway. Recently, the IDF has decided to phase out the "llama corps" (that would make a very interesting shoulder patch, as well as a great name for a band), replacing it with . . . you knew I was getting to this . . . a robot. The new robot's specs are classified for the moment, but observers say that the mechanical llama (which is undoubtedly NOT what it will be called) will look and act much like the Roboteam PROBOT, which can reliably carry up to 1,500 pounds over rough terrain.

It's hard to argue with their decision. A llama can carry 80 pounds or so and needs to be fed, groomed, and rested daily; replacing it with an unsleeping, tireless machine that always does exactly what it's told and can carry about 18 times what a llama can carry just seems to make sense. And of course, the robot will never spit at you, which llamas have been known to do with some regularity. (Also, it's probably important to note that a sexually aroused male llama produces a mating sound called an "orgle." I would recommend avoiding an "orgling" llama, lest you become the object of his affections. I would imagine that robots almost never "orgle.")

This is the Roboteam PROBOT, to which the company refers as an
"All-Terrain Carrier and Recon Robot." It's definitely not as cute as
Moose. Image courtesy of Roboteam.
Then again, the robot isn't perfect. Robots are not cute or fluffy. Robots do not grow wool that can be made into coats and hats and scarves. And robots cannot (for the time being) make new robots, whereas llamas, when left to their own devices, do an excellent job of making more llamas. (Also, a baby llama is called a cria, which is about the cutest name for a llama puppy ever.) Each new robot, on the other hand, must be individually machined, assembled, and programmed, at a cost of maybe $100K each. However, I would imagine that the IDF is into efficacy and efficiency, and not so much into cute and fluffy; they're apparently willing to spend this kind of money in order to equip their troops with the latest technology, even at $100K apiece.

Of course, as with other disruptive technologies, this is going to put some folks out of work. I don't know how many llama wranglers (another good name for a band, but of course it'd have to be a country band) will be prepared to make the leap from training and grooming camelids to working with the robotic versions of Moose and his friends. The jobs will be there, of course: As robots become smarter and more ubiquitous, we'll need ever more roboticists, technical illustrators, programmers, QC engineers, designers, systems analysts, assemblers, machinists, and more. (Not to mention people to design, build, and maintain the buildings in which these new devices will be created.) In the end, technology almost always adds career options, but locally, people who are not ready to relearn, rebuild, and retrain for those new careers are going to be in for a tough time. In our parents' and grandparents' day, one worked in one career (indeed, often for one company) for a lifetime; now we're transitioning into an era in which workers must always be ready to shift gears, change companies, leave jobs, and even switch careers.

As a side note, I'm pretty sure the Roboteam developers could program PROBOT to "orgle" if they wanted. In fact, knowing programmers as I do, I would be very surprised if they haven't already done so. I mean, c’mon; there's simply no way they could resist. Someday, on some battlefield in a far-off land, a PROBOT is going to suddenly become . . . amorous. Pity the poor soldier marching beside this beast when instead of beeping placidly, it suddenly begins to "orgle."


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Birdhouses & Submarines

As some may recall, I wrote a book. (Still waiting for that call from Oprah…) The book is about how technology has become democratized and how all technology eventually ends up in the hands of the masses—and when the masses get hold of it, some great (and also a few not-so-great) things tend to happen: we build and invent and innovate in ways the creators of the technology may never have considered.

Well, one of the things the book talks about is information, and how (due largely to the invention of the computer and the Internet) information has also been democratized: that is, many, many more of us have easy access to more information than ever. (We also democratized misinformation, but that's a subject for another post.) Simply put, information is now at the fingertips of many more people than ever before; for those people, laziness is the only reason for not knowing the answer to any number of factual questions. (A couple of caveats here: First, I realize that this technology—and therefore this information—is not available to everyone; there are still plenty of people without decent [or any] Internet access, and people who can't afford computers. I mean, there are people without access to decent food and safe water; a MacBook and fast Internet access is WAY down on their lists. Second, not everything can be answered via the Internet, and the very definition of "facts" can become a bit fuzzy—especially when it comes to interpreting those facts. So, I'm no Pollyanna, just so you know, and I'm not saying that this is, to quote both Voltaire and Kris Kristofferson, "the best of all possible worlds.")

My granddaughter got to meet Kris
Kristofferson at last summer’s family
reunion. Too late to meet Voltaire, I
suppose; maybe I’ll give her a copy of
Candide.
But back to information access. It will help in this exercise for the reader to understand that I'm a dork. A complete klutz. A home repair disaster on a massive scale. Generally speaking, I can't build things. I can't fix things. I have built birdhouses in which no self-respecting bird would ever live. I once installed a garbage disposal in such a fashion that whenever the disposal turned on, so did the blender on the nearby counter. I have made multiple trips to Home Depot or Lowes so that I could buy materials to "fix" a wall or a sink, only to discover that my feeble attempts at repair, far from saving me money, had actually added to the final cost, because I then had to hire a pro to undo my repair attempts so that the wall or sink or whatever could be repaired the right way. (This is not merely expensive, it's embarrassing.)

Sadly, though I have many friends and several brothers-in-law who are irritatingly good at this sort of thing, I'm a bit of a hopeless case.

BUT… I now have access to information. Lots and lots of information. I have Google, I have YouTube, I have digital access to a vast network of experts of various stripes, and all of them are positively eager to tell and even show me how to do stuff. If you enter "how to" into Google's search field, you get well over 3 billion results. If you enter "how to build," you get about 244 million. "How to fix" will net you about 99 million hits or so. If you wander over to YouTube (which, not surprisingly, is owned by Google) and enter "how to adjust a carburetor," you'll see that there are some 89,000 videos on the topic. (Which is amazing, considering that cars don’t even use carburetors anymore. Must be a lot of people repairing lawnmowers, older cars, and motorcycles.)

Now, you do need to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, of course. Not all of these results are useful, accurate, helpful, or even truthful; but a great majority of them will help you get that wall built, that truck tuned, or that dishwasher fixed. (My wife once found a random part lying in our antique dishwasher. It seemed like an important part, the kind of part that a machine built to wash dishes would need. I was about to call a repair person, but by the time I got around to it, Lesley had used the Internet to track down the name and purpose of the part and read up on how to reinstall it. Result, one working dishwasher and no bill. It was a homeowner's triumph, and a serious savings, although I do occasionally have to listen to the story of how Lesley fixed the dishwasher while I dithered.) And the range of topics is incredible; there are almost 500,000 videos on building and setting up a saltwater aquarium! Are there that many people raising sharks and octopuses and such?

See this beautiful birdhouse? This is NOT the birdhouse I
built. You can tell because it’s straight and well-made and
stable, and because any bird would be proud to call this
birdhouse home. Image by Frank Vincentz,used under
the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
Anyway, we now live in Oregon with Lesley's mom, and I've made it my goal to be helpful around the house. Up to a point, this is easy. I can sweep off the deck. (We live in a forest only about 120 yards from the ocean; 8 billion pine needles fall on the house and surrounding area every time there's a puff of wind.) I can clean and organize. I can haul and move and drag stuff around.

But the other day, something awful happened. The kitchen faucet began to leak. It was terrifying. At first, I'd hoped it was a temporary thing. Maybe it would heal or something. Maybe it was simply possessed by evil spirits, and they would move on after a few days and go haunt someone else. (I made a list of people whom I thought could use a good haunting, and left it near the sink. Didn't seem to do any good.)

It kept leaking. In fact, over the next day or so, it began leaking worse; obviously something had to be done. I offered to build a birdhouse for it, but that didn't seem to help. Eventually, I knew I was going to have to try to fix it.

So, I turned to technology. First, I used Amazon's shopping app and trained my smartphone's camera on the wayward faucet. The app recognized the faucet, one of those fancy Moens with no discernible seams or protuberances, and no obvious way of taking it apart, short of smashing it with a sledgehammer or wood-splitting maul. (Which I was willing to do, but it occurred to me that Lesley's mom might not like that idea.)

But now that I knew the make and model, I went to YouTube and discovered two things: First, these things leak like crazy. Almost every one of these fancy (and expensive!) faucets eventually leaks. And second, it's easy to fix the leak! Dozens of YouTubers (I can't type that without thinking of potatoes) have made videos about how to disassemble Moen faucets. (There's a trick to it. At the very bottom of the handle is a set screw, but the opening is hidden by a small plastic cover of the same color as the faucet. If you pry that off, you can use a 3/32nd Allen wrench—yes, it has to be a 3/32nd wrench, exactly—to remove the set screw and thus the handle. Then just tighten the plastic bolt that has come lose, and which is causing the leak. Keep in mind that it's plastic; don't over-tighten it.)

 One of the dastardly faucets that caused me so much grief.
Image courtesy of Moen.
So, the Internet saved me, and all because when Vint Cerf and Sir Tim Berners-Lee and all the other Internet pioneers created what we used to call the "information superhighway," they made it possible for people to share information about their problems and, more importantly, also about solutions to those problems.


So, now I'm thinking of building a submarine. I'm sure there's a YouTube video about how to do that. (Spoiler: I was right.) 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Begun, The Agrarian Software Wars Have

First, thanks to all of you who waited patiently during my hiatus from this blog, as Lesley and I sold a house, packed up, and drove (very slowly, it seemed) to our new home in Depoe Bay, OR. A few people had asked if I had intended to get back to The Geekly Weekly, and—in spite of some freelance commitments—I have been anxious to return to blogging. (Because, frankly, it's fun. Also, my publisher says that this is a good way to sell books.)

And now, let's talk about farmers.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn't know much about farms or farmers. I figured that eggs just . . . well, showed up, somehow naturally and neatly deposited in those tidy, clean cardboard cartons. Milk was magically placed in bottles, at first, and then later on in cartons and plastic jugs. Meat was from an animal, I knew, but I liked to think of it as it came to me: clean, sanitary, packed in cellophane and Styrofoam. (And I preferred to think that nothing had died just so that I could enjoy that juicy ribeye; or that if something did have to die, it was a quick, painless death to which the animal had stoically been looking forward.) I thought of farming as something simple, elemental, and pastoral, in a Rockwellian sort of way. Farmers were close to the earth, literally and figuratively; it was, I thought, a simple, peaceful way to make a living.
A modern John Deere tractor. Image by Wikimedia user HCQ,
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
3.0 Unported license.

When I moved to Nebraska, I discovered that I was wrong about some (perhaps most) of this. I got to meet many farmers, and I worked with many men and women who had grown up on farms. They were quick to disabuse me of my naïve notions.

Farming, it turns out, is hard. It's a lot of work, and it's work that never really ends: If a farmer is not planting something, he's selling it, or tending to it, or harvesting it, or preparing the fields for the next planting. If he's not on a tractor or other piece of equipment, he's fixing or maintaining that equipment. There's almost nothing on a farm or ranch that doesn't involve some arcane set of skills and a whole lot of work. (I once accepted an invitation to go "baling hay" with a friend. It sounded like fun. It's not. It's hot, scratchy, seemingly endless work in the fields for which my puny, citified muscles were not at all prepared, and there's no rest, because the flatbed truck or trailer on which you're supposed to toss the bales—which easily weigh 870 pounds apiece—keeps moving down the field, whether you're ready or not. The woman on the trailer upon which I was attempting to toss bales of hay got a good deal of enjoyment, I'm sure, out of watching me struggle and pant. She could throw those bales around as if they were nothing; I couldn't move for days afterward.)

Farming is also expensive these days. It requires sophisticated equipment to plow, fertilize, plant, and harvest crops. (It also requires some specialized knowledge to operate such tools.) A Missouri farmer I interviewed for Leveling the Playing Field showed me a large outbuilding in which sat several large pieces of equipment: tractors, a combine, cultivators, a backhoe, etc. The farmer to whom I was speaking reckoned that he had "a few million dollars" invested in this equipment. (Of course, this is on top of the cost of land, feed, seed, fertilizer, manpower, and so on.)

The cab of a modern combine can look much like the
cockpit of a jet. Image courtesy of Challenger/Caterpillar,
Inc.
So, now we know two important things about farmers: They work hard, and even the small-scale "mom and pop" farms (of which there are frighteningly few left) cost a fair amount of money to operate.

There's something else about farmers, too: They can do, fix, build, repair, or maintain just about anything. They are the ultimate in self-reliance. They have to be. If a tractor conks out, someone has to fix it, and it has to be done now, not in a few days or weeks. If a farm truck breaks down, someone needs to get it running again, and fast. If a fence is down, someone has to rebuild it. If something falls off of a piece of complicated equipment, the farmer needs to understand how the piece is supposed to work and then find a way to reattach it in such a fashion that it once again can function, at least temporarily. Trust me, if there's ever a zombie apocalypse, you want to be very good friends with a farmer. (In fact, it wouldn't hurt if you were to find a deserving farmer right now and send him a bottle of good bourbon. You know, just to pave the way before the apocalypse actually starts. Or send me the bottle, and I will see that it gets to a deserving farmer. Sooner or later.)

The bottom line is that you don't want to piss off a farmer. But that's exactly what John Deere seems intent on doing.

The issue has to do with software. (See? Technology—you knew I'd get to this.) Many of the newer machines, even the supposedly "simple" ones, like tractors, use software. Software feeds GPS signals from the cab of a tractor to its steering and determines when to turn and where to begin the next row. When fertilizing, software consults a database, downloads data, and determines how much fertilizer to use on a given piece of land, based on how much was used last season and the resultant yield: If this piece of land didn't perform as well as expected, perhaps it gets an extra blast of fertilizer; another field may get less fertilizer than it got last year, if it didn't really seem to need as much. (Fertilizer is expensive, folks. Farmers try to use it wisely.) If the machine has mechanisms through which grain or other substances flow, that output is metered by software so that the flow remains constant, efficient, and measurable.

What this means is that when a farmer buys, say, a tractor, he's also buying a lot of software.

People have been plowing for a very long time. No software here.
Image in the public domain, compilation copyright held by Zenodot
Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free
Documentation License.
Except that he's not. Not buying the software, that is. Technically, he's licensing the software, just as you and I do when we "buy" a copy of Microsoft Excel or Adobe Photoshop. We don't really own that software; we've simply licensed the right to use it under certain conditions. (A couple of those conditions being that we're not allowed to tinker with the software, say, or make copies to sell to our buddies.)

And just as we cannot look at, reverse-engineer, or otherwise fiddle with the software we've licensed, John Deere is telling its customers (read: farmers) that they cannot repair or modify—or have their local fix-it guy repair or modify—their equipment. If your John Deere tractor breaks down, you may not be allowed to fix it, even if you know how to fix it. And you may not be able to let your cousin Warren fix it, either, even though Warren has been repairing tractors all over the county for 30 or 40 years. You might have to send the machine 100 miles away or wait for an authorized technician to get out to your farm in order to get the machine repaired.

Unsurprisingly, this does not sit well with many of the farmers—the work-hardened, self-reliant men and women who A) are used to repairing equipment right there in the field, if need be and B) don't like to be told what to do in the first place.

Who could have predicted that software and farming would collide in such a manner?

It doesn't look good for John Deere, by the way. First, in a recent court case, the Supreme Court determined that if someone buys a Lexmark laser printer, Lexmark has no right to stop the buyer from refilling toner cartridges or from buying cartridges refilled by someone else. In other words, if the buyer bought the printer, he bought the whole thing, and could do with it whatever he liked. (In the Court's words: "Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that a patent does not confer unfettered control of consumer goods to the patent owner.") It's not difficult to imagine the Court reaching a similar decision about the software that makes your tractor or combine work.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, farmers are a sturdy, realistic lot, and they don't take well to being bullied. If competing heavy machinery companies are smart, they'll simply start offering equipment that does allow the farmer or rancher more freedom to tinker, repair, or modify equipment they've bought. Many of these farmers lease new machines every year; it will not bother them one bit to be seen in a combine that happens to be Case red, Caterpillar yellow, or Kubota orange, rather than one in the more traditional John Deere green.


Don’t piss off farmers, especially when they’re your best customers.