Smarthome; Forgetful Inhabitant

Red Flashing LightA few weeks back I forgot to close the garage door. Not when we were leaving the house, but when we were already at home. A long time ago I upgraded lots of our house to have Insteon switches and sensors. The garage door has a switch/sensor combo on it so that I can both open & close the door from anywhere with Internet connectivity, and also see the current status on my phone. I also have it send me push notifications when the door opens or closes. When we leave the house, I am now trained to expect the closed message on my Pebble, and if I don’t get it, check.

We did that because I can’t count the number of times I was asked whether the door was closed when we were half a mile from the house, and we had to turn around and go back to check. But, when we’re at home, I don’t pay as much attention to the notifications. Hence the garage was left open one night (and my wife’s car, which was unlocked, was rifled through as were some boxes on a shelf near the open door – nothing was taken though, so I guess we don’t have anything valuable out there, or they were disturbed).

My Solution?

Since the garage door announces over the Insteon system when it opens and closes, my solution was simple: get a giant red flashing light (the one shown above) and an Insteon On/Off module to switch it on and off. Place this in the kitchen and “connect” the on/off switch to the garage door sensor via the Insteon network. Now, all the time the garage door is open, the red light flashes in the kitchen. As soon as the door closes, it goes off.

Smart home saves forgetful owner (again).

Pebble Thoughts

Black Pebble Time SteelIt is always a sad day when a company needs to trim staff, but at the same time it is sometimes very necessary to make sure expenses are inline with expected revenue. Today Pebble announced they were cutting 40 people from their workforce (25%). That’s a deep first cut, so hopefully for those left it will be the only one. The smart watch market is a strange one though. Even with the Apole watch (or perhaps partly because of it), the mass market adoption has been slow. 

What Pebble Does Well

Full disclosure here, I’ve had three Pebbles now (an original, from the first Kickstarter campaign), a Steel and now a Time Steel. For me the Time Steel is still my preferred smart watch. It isn’t perfect, and we’ll come back to that later, but it does everything I need. 

Battery life is top of the list for me. Even with plenty of notifications each day, I am getting over s week between charges. That is fantastic for somebody who carries two phones always (and sometimes more if I am testing things for work). Less devices to forget to charge every night is better. 

Close second would be the always on screen. I don’t want to have to make a conscious effort to look at the time. A quick glance gets me the time, and it is even clearer in sunlight than not. At night, I do still need to move my wrist to get the backlight, but a gentle twist works.

Notifications are the “killer app” for me, and the Pebble excels at them. If they appear on my iPhone’s lock screen, they appear on the watch. If the phone rings (very rare occurrence for my phone), I can see the caller ID on my watch & accept or decline the call (if I accept, I still need to get the phone out or put on the headset to actually talk). Since I am on AT&T, I also get the option of voice replies to text messages. That works most of the times I’ve tried it, but I don’t find myself using it much.

Waterproof. It is really waterproof. I can swim in it and not worry. 

What Could Be Better

The screen. Perhaps this is a case of the low power displays just not being as high density yet, but a really high density display (say 4x the number of pixels) would really shine. As would having the screen fill more of the face area; the large bezels are not great.

The software. Connectivity issues have been an issue for me on all my Pebbles and while the phone side is at least partly outside of their control, keeping the two devices connected and talking is job number one for a smartwatch. Additionally, not interfering with other Bluetooth devices is a must. Especially headsets and Bluetooth audio devices, both of which I have had issues with along the way. 

I would like to see some of the health information, like step counts, be included in watchfaces (maybe this can already be done and I just need to find, or write, a face that does it).

The Other Stuff

Health metrics is becoming a bigger space it seems, and Pebble was certainly late to the party. The activity & sleep tracking in the newer watches is a good start though. Personally, heart rate tracking doesn’t bother me, but that is not true for all. (If I had it, maybe I would feel differently too).

Timeline is another thing I don’t really use. The concept is good, but I am much more notification driven. Well timed calendar notifications work much better than me remembering to scan a list of events. 

Watch design is something I’ve seen Pebble be criticized for. The Time Steel looks OK to me & in fact is often mistaken for an Apple Watch at first, even by folks wearing an Apple Watch. The only real criticism of the design is the bezels. Smaller would be much appreciated! The screen really needs to get as close as possible to the outside edges of the face. I think the three new watches are a big step forward in design from the first two & I hope the design aspect will continue to improve. The look of the watch is very important. 

Carrying on from the look of the watch, the bands on the Time range (and the original Pebble) are all standard ones, with the included band on the Time watches coming with quick release pins. My Time Steel is on a third party nylon mesh band, and there are so many options out there at every price point and in all materials that it is hard to choose. If you go with quick release (sadly not available for my nylon band, though I am planning a mod to fix that), then you can change them in seconds for a different look.

Apps on the watch are not a big deal for me. I have two that I use (assigned to the shortcut buttons): the built in Health app for tracking  sleep & activity and Leaf, an app that connects to our home Nest devices. There are lots more available, but few that I really want on my wrist. Definitely not any web content reading or video apps!

Watch faces are something I’ve tried lots of (though still a tiny percentage of what is available in the store). I have my favourites, and switch between them occasionally. I also take a look in the store quite often to see what is new. 

The Future

I hope this downsizing is indeed a “right sizing” and Pebble can keep going strong. They have come so far, and I believe continue to supply something that the other contenders still cannot match (always on screen & a week of battery life), it would a shame to see them fail now.

The mass market appeal of wearables though is much harder to pin down. Health & fitness tracking will appeal to some, but I fear the things I value most in my Pebble will never be seen as more than nice to have (if that) by most people. Maybe the key to success for now is targeting the early adopter with a slightly higher end product. Early adopters will pay  more than the mass market & will upgrade more frequently. I am hoping Pebble isn’t planning to morph into another fitness tracking company with watch features.

Apple vs Law Enforcement

I’ve said a few things about this on Twitter already, but what amazes me here is that they are not asking Apple to turn over the key, or even to decrypt the data using a key they already have. Instead, they are trying to say they can force a private company to dedicate resources to writing a special version of their software, installing it on a device and then allowing the FBI remote access to the device.

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TriNet Experiences

It has been just over a year now that we have had TriNet as our HR service at work, and my opinion of them gets worse & worse with each interaction. There are definitely a few bright points, but still my overall advice for any small company thinking about using them would be simply, don’t. That is from an employee perspective of course, but hopefully when choosing something like this the employee experience is an important element too.

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Alameda Unified School District (Enrollment Process)

I don’t know if all school districts are this bad (I have a feeling it might be a common thing, if not universal), but my experience with the Alameda Unified School District doesn’t fill me with hope for future.

Online Registration

My first attempt to start the online registration was stymied by the insistence that I use Internet Explorer (impossible since I have only a Mac and an iPad). This is frankly ridiculous as a requirement too; it was bad enough a decade ago, but today there should be absolutely no need for something as basic a web based school enrollment system to require a specific browser or platform.

To further indicate the poor quality of the IT at AUSD, on the morning when enrollment for next year’s kindergarten grade was opened, their system crashed. All appointments issued before that were then canceled and we had to complete the process a second time. Alameda’s entire population is around 75,000 people. I don’t know how many of those would have been trying to enroll their pre-schooler in kindergarten for next year, but I can’t believe it was that many.

Enrollment Appointment

Once the online process was completed, the system generated an appointment for us (which happened to be today for me). The email that they sent out included the time and date, but did not include the address of AUSD’s administration offices.

When I mentioned that at the front desk while signing in, the lady there agreed that was something that should be fixed and asked me to point it out to the “enrollment counsellor.” At the end of the appointment, I mentioned it to her and she just said it has been suggested before but the address is all over their website and it is an IT issue. Or, in other words, “Not her problem.” Apparently no interest in doing a good job; just enough to get by.

Personal Information

As part of the online process we needed to upload copies of a utility bill and this year’s property tax bill. The online FAQ for what we need to bring to the appointment included these bills as well as my ID and the kid’s birth certificate & vaccination record.

I had assumed that she would simply check my ID to make sure I was who I said I was, but no. She wanted to make a copy of it. When I asked why, and how that copy would be secured, she said she didn’t know and if I wanted to find out I would have to contact the school. In the end, she got me a vague statement from the director that the copy would be locked up and not accessible to the public. Not much of a reassurance. I will be pursuing that further.

Printed Copy

Also on the list of documents to bring was a printed copy of the electronic enrollment. That seemed odd to me since they should have the electronic version. When I questioned that, I was told the printed copy was for the school and they didn’t have access to the electronic copy. There are problems I can see with this:

  1. If they need access to the information, why can they not be given access electronically? That seems like a flaw in the system. Far safer to have them access it electronically than keep a paper copy stored somewhere.
  2. If they do need a printed copy, why can the AUSD administration not print them one to put in this paper file. They were able to print copies of the bills I uploaded OK, and print other forms.

    Intradistrict Transfer

    Finally, since we were also interested in the possibility of a transfer to a school other than the one we would be normally assigned, I asked about that. That is also online, but unlike the rest of their site, the transfer request process is implemented using Google Forms and, apart from some of the questions not really handling the case of a transfer request for a pre-K student, it worked well. It is a shame the rest of the application process isn’t handled the same way.

Self Driving Cars

A while back it occurred to me that when my kids reach driving age, I might not have to teach them to drive because we might all be using self driving cars. There are very obvious benefits to that, not least of which is the improvement in safety. Too many people die in car accidents each year, and many of them are teens. Reducing those numbers would be a big step forward.

The flip side though is that while driving to & from work in heavy traffic is no fun at all, driving a roadster around a winding road, with the wind in your hair is an exhilarating experience that no self-driving car will ever be able to replace. In fact, I doubt we will even see self-driving roadsters. Most of the self driving vehicles I’ve seen so far have been more practical vehicle styles (with the possible exception of that Google one, which is just odd IMHO). My current car, while being a pretty long way from practical, puts a smile on my face every time I drive it on an open road (which is not often enough – it does around 2,000 miles a year max these days).

Extending that thought though, what happens to the premium super car companies? Does anybody believe there is a market for self driving Ferraris, Porsches or Lamborghinis? Will cars just become practical vehicles for getting from A to B?

While I suspect teaching either of kids to drive would be traumatic, part of me will be a little sad if my generation is the last one that learns to drive a car.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Episode VII of the Star Wars franchise is something few can have missed the hype & merchandising for, at least here in the US. That aside, the movie gets a solid thumbs up from me. My one line summary would be that this is episode IV for a new generation of fans. 

Spoilers after the jump though, so if you’re still trying to be surprised, don’t click through.

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AUSD & Charter Schools

I was sent an interesting email yesterday that mentioned that an Alameda Unified School District board member, in fact the board President, had made some pretty scathing comments about how she feels about California’s Charter Schools generally. The comments were made as part of the discussions surrounding the renewal of the charter for a school that has moved to Oakland (because it was unable to find a suitable space it could afford in Alameda, but is still authorized by AUSD). The renewal was approved, in a 3-2 split vote, with the president actually voting in favor of the renewal, which makes the comments even more odd.

What Ms Kahn said was:

I oppose Charter Schools generally because I think they’re predatory. I think they’re dishonest. I think they don’t give a hoot for the community that they’re in. I think their self-interest overrides everything that they do. I think they put themselves forward as a free, on the public dime, option for parents that would like to have, remove themselves from a public school into a private school, but they can do that for nothing by buying into a charter.

Obviously, Ms Kahn is entitled to her opinion on whether charter schools are a good idea or not, but as she herself said in an interview with The Alamedan prior to her election, “charter schools are here to stay.” She went on to say “like it or not, by law the district has to cooperate in the development of charters, while exercising oversight to guarantee that they are delivering what they promised.”

Predatory & Dishonest

Her comments at the board meeting on November 10, 2015 do not seem consistent with those pre-election statements. Furthermore, it is disingenuous to label charter schools generally as “predatory” and “dishonest.” From my own research, the charter schools in Alameda are committed to providing a quality education to their students, and are popular with both students and their parents. Like it or not, they are working (and, at least in the case of the Alameda ones, they seem to be working better than most of the district’s schools).

Private Education

I also found it personally offensive that Ms Kahn would imply that parents looking at charter schools are trying to get a private education on the “public dime.” Like most parents, I am looking for the best possible education for my children. If that is a charter school, then so be it. If it is a private school, then we will certainly consider it. I certainly can’t see anything that would suggest that AUSD’s schools stand out as being excellent by any measure! I can also say categorically that the charter schools we have looked at are nothing at all like private schools (I attended private schools from age 7 up, so I have some experience there).

Perhaps, if the AUSD board president feels that private schools offer a better education than the district’s schools (they almost certainly do), she should make it a priority to fix that disparity rather than making disparaging comments about parents looking at charter schools instead of district ones. Furthermore, if she feels that charter schools are able to deliver a better quality education on a public education budget, then perhaps she should look into how they can do that, and what can be improved in the district’s schools to achieve the same results. (To be honest, I don’t think the charter schools are delivering as much as they could

Bylaws

AUSD board members should probably also be aware of the section of the AUSD Board Bylaws that states:

Board members shall hold the education of students above any partisan principle, group interest, or personal interest.

(From BB 9200 – Board Bylaws – Limit of Board Member Authority)

Any attempt by AUSD board members to block a charter school’s existence based purely on a personal opinion about whether charter schools in general should exist, would seem to be contrary to that bylaw (and possibly to California state law). It also seems to me that the AUSD should be celebrating successful schools in its district, whether they are directly run by the district or merely overseen as a charter.

Starbucks Mobile Order

With the tag line “No time? No line.” Starbucks rolled out their mobile order & pay app a month or so ago. I’ve used it a number of times since then, not always successfully, and my initial impressions would be that they released an MVP. I’m hoping it will get more of the features it currently lacks.

First (and second) Impressions

The first time I tried to use it, I thought it was Android only because my iPhone app didn’t show the ‘Order’ option at all. That, it seems, is because the feature only works if you allow it to access your location (and I’d turned that off for Starbucks on a previous mission to try to save battery – I rarely need a store finder, and if I do, I find the Maps app works just as well).

The second time I tried to use it, I was in a hurry and was hoping to skip the line. But it insisted the nearest store was almost two miles further away than the store that was less than a mile away. And which I know was supporting the program because I’d heard mobile orders being called out on previous visits. When we stopped at the store, the line was indeed long, leaving me wondering whether the mobile ordering system is trying to route me to a different store. If so, that’s a major fail in my opinion. The store I wanted to go to was on my route; the one the app was insisting I order from was in the opposite direction (and across the estuary in Oakland where I would also have been unable to find parking easily).

Third Time’s a Charm

The third time it worked as expected. When I arrived, the order was not ready (apparently four mobile orders had come in at the same time & overwhelmed the system). A minute or two later I had my drinks & food; all good.

Missing Features

While they seem to have done a good job on the ordering part, the payment section needs work. As far as I could see right now, there is no way to use a loyalty reward to pay for a drink. Nor is there a way to enter a “coupon” code for one of the offers they email out. Both basics for online checkout systems.

Obviously, I also can’t order & use a personal cup (though I would love to see if they could incorporate that somehow – perhaps taking the cup at the delivery area).

I have also heard from some that drink customization is near impossible unless the option is in the app. Not a problem for my simple latte drink!

Timing

Unlike other mobile ordering systems (e.g. Chipotle’s), there is also no way to add a delay to the order. If I know I am 15 minutes away when I leave home, I either have to expect a cooled down drink & food, or order while driving (not going to happen until they add voice ordering).

Will I Keep Using It?

Probably sometimes, but the timing part is going to be the hardest part to work around. It is rare that I can order 3-5 minutes away from the store.

Android Marshmallow / GMail Data Use

I upgraded my Nexus 5 to the latest Android version. 6.0 aka Marshmallow, and didn’t really think much of it. Then, on Monday, I needed to run a test on some software that required the Wi-Fi to be turned off. I noticed at the time that the GMail app was having some problems; I received regular crash notifications from it (while it was running in the background).

Then tonight I checked in on my test and was surprised to see an Android mobile data warning in the notifications area. Tapping through, I saw that in the last few days I have consumed ~5GB of mobile data. On a phone that has been sitting on my desk without me touching it. The culprit? You guessed it, the GMail app was responsible for almost the entire 5GB. In less than five days.

Massive Data Consumption

I also received an OS update this evening, and since then the GMail app seems happier. I am back on Wi-Fi now though and will continue to monitor it. Had I been on a 3GB plan, I would have been more than a little annoyed (and had to pay for the extra data). As it happens, this phone is on a 20GB shared plan, so I have some headroom.