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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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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Guns? Really?

I’ve seen a number of articles suggesting that the problem with gun control in the US is that, while a majority of people support better background checks at time of purchase, congress is so worried about the loss of NRA funds that they refuse to pass any real laws that might restrict gun ownership. One of the best articles I’ve read, entitled “We’re Just Haggling Over Price“, suggests 90% of Americans support the enhanced checks, and that the changes would only delay purchasing by a few minutes.

While some may consider it to be a step in the right direction; I don’t. I’m sorry, but a law like that would be just another lame compromise, a bit like the Affordable Care Act was a massive compromise. Of course, the difference between the two was that the ACA was passed, but gun control laws fail every time they are proposed, no matter how many people are killed.

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Looking Back

This must be one of those moments in time when Twitter is reminding me of events long gone. The buildings I worked in during my gap year & for the first summer break while at university was the first trip down memory lane. Now I am reminded about graduation by seeing all the photos of this year’s Kent graduates at Canterbury Cathedral.

For me, that trip was 22 years ago. It doesn’t seem that long, or at least it didn’t until I started thinking about what has changed since then. Graduating in a building with the history & grandeur of Canterbury Cathedral is quite an experience. Especially when the university itself is very young (established in 1965, so only a few years older than I am). That experience, I’m sure, hasn’t changed. Nor will the excitement of dressing up in robes and finally being admitted to the degree that has been the focus of a few years of their lives. (And, perhaps, some will have the opportunity to make unwitting tourists believe students wear the robes every day, or to have a swift pint with friends while dressed in them, like we did.) But plenty has changed.

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First Job

This tweet from @robleathern that I saw in my feed this afternoon got me thinking about the buildings where my first job was located.

So, I thought I’d try to find out what the building was used for today, and even see if I could get a photo. That actually proved difficult, even though the buildings it was part of are in fact pretty historic having been the place where a number of very significant inventions were created.

I started as a trainee in the year between graduating from secondary school and before starting at university. For that year, I was to be working at Thorn EMI in Hayes, Middlesex. The first six months were in the training department, located in Vulcan House, the remainder of the year we were split into different divisions of the company, but my assignment was to Radar Division, based in the nextdoor building, Mercury House, in Hayes.

This is the best photo I can find online for the entire site:

Thorn EMI, Hayes

If you look in the lower left corner of the highlighted area, the thin building right on the boundary is Mercury House; the larger, square footprint building next to it is Vulcan House.

Right now it looks as though they either have been, or are being, converted into something called the Old Vinyl Factory, but several pictures I found online seem to suggest that both of these two are somewhat derelict now (Thorn EMI moved out of the site in the early 1990s, and we were relocated to a site in Crawley that is still in use today, although under different ownership).

I mentioned that they were somewhat historic. Before WW2, the buildings were on the cutting edge of audio recording technology. Alan Blumlein, the inventor of stereo sound recording, worked in these buildings, and the very first movie with stereo sound was shot from one of them, looking down at the railway lines alongside the site (which were still there while I was there, but no longer with steam trains!). The buildings were also home to a lot of the early development work on television, with Blumlein listed as an inventor on several TV-related patents. Pretty significant stuff, but perhaps the more significant work was still to come.

As Europe was embroiled in war, the same people shifted their focus to other technology, including the development of radar, which was so critical in the defence of the UK. Blumlein was a key developer in the top secret airborne H2S Radar system project. Sadly, he was killed in a plane crash while testing the radar in 1942; just imagine what we could have achieved otherwise. At the time, some thought the H2S project would fail without him, but it survived (and in fact was still in active use as recently as 1993). Additionally, some of his early radar-related inventions are still in use in modern radar systems.

Alameda Municipal Power Mix

We had a visit from an AMP employee/representative the other day trying to get us to sign up for their Alameda Green, 100% renewable source electricity program. That is something I have been meaning to look into for a while, and I might have signed up on the spot had it not been for one thing that seemed fishy: suddenly they are saying that the power mix for the ‘regular’ electricity is only 22% renewable, when I remember the power labels mailed in the bills showing that as being much higher.

A little digging and I found one of those power mix labels for 2012 in the AMP Flash PDF on their own website. Here’s the label if you don’t want to open the PDF:

Alameda Municipal Power Mix Label 2012

So, that clearly states it is “actual” and shows eligible renewable as 60%, and another 15% coming from large hydroelectric. Then there is the 25% from unspecified sources (most of which I suspect are non-renewable!).

Suddenly, in 2013, the eligible renewable drops from 60% to 22% (from this label) and unspecified sources jumps to 63%. That meant that the guy who knocked on our door was able to say that the regular program is just 22% renewable, but the green label program is 100%. Looking carefully at the 2013 label, at the very bottom there is this statement:

While AMP’s power mix exceeds California’s requirements for clean power, it has dropped due to the short-term sale of a portion of the utility’s excess renewable energy. AMP continues to own the same generation resources and, after 2016, the utility will return to providing a high level of renewable energy to customers. Even better, overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be lower after 2016 due to the projects paid for by the short-term sale of some of AMP’s excess renewable energy.

So, they sold off the “excess” renewable energy, and bought “unspecified” power back, thereby lowering the eligible renewable mix of the main product. The cynic in me might wonder whether that decision was to make the green label product look more attractive (after all, going from 75% to 100% carbon neutral is a lot less impressive than going from 37% to 100%). And after a couple of years of signing people up, the regular power mix returns to its very green levels (75% carbon neutral is much higher than the overall state average of just 23% in 2012).

This kind of “marketing” is what made me pause at the weekend. And now is giving me real pause for thought on the whole thing.

Meet Alexa, Amazon’s Assistant

I was lucky enough to get an invite for an Amazon Echo device, which arrived earlier today. Here are my initial impressions, after just a few hours playing with the device.

Setup

Surprisingly straightforward for a Wi-Fi device with only two buttons and no display. Out of the box, the Echo beacons out an open Wi-Fi network. Connect your phone to that when prompted by their setup website & follow the instructions. In moments it was on the Wi-Fi & the open network was gone (you do need your Wi-Fi password of course). 

Voice Recognition

At the end of the setup there are some example commands to try. Unlike Apple’s Siri, Alexa (the name of the assistant inside the Echo, or, rather inside the cloud app behind it) really does understand what you say. Even from across the room.

With no other user interface to speak of, Alexa really does succeed or fail on the strength of her ability to recognize voice commands. So far, she beats Siri hands down, and I think even beats Google’s Android voice recognition (which is already very good).

Functions

So far, my favourite function is the voice command access to Amazon Prime Music. “Alexa, play …” Has played the named artist, or album or playlist with only one failure, and not a recognition failure even then: the music was not uploaded into my Amazon Music account & apparently the artist is not available on Prime Music.

The weather and the Wikipedia lookups have been big hits with my three year old, but I can see the shopping and to do lists being more useful over time. As more features are added, I can see it being even more useful, especially integrations into home control systems or the ability to voice text through my connected smartphone without even lifting a finger. Things I haven’t tried yet include the news briefing and the alarms and timers.

Initial Conclusion  

For an initial version, Alexa already has a lot of things she understands (including a great response to a classic science fiction line). The beauty of the cloud app model, as I well know from Devicescape’s cloud based amenity Wi-Fi authentication capability, is that you can add features in the cloud & not even need to worry about pushing firmware updates. Since she is on my home network, the potential for her to become the voice command gateway for the home is huge. Just imagine “Alexa, dim the lights” or “Alexa, make it warmer in here.”

Crowd Funding Update

Over the last year or so I have only backed a few crowd funded projects, several on Kickstarter and several on IndieGoGo. There has always been a lot of confusion around what these platforms offer, and many people who sign up for something wrongly assume they are buying something at a discount price. What you are doing when you sign up to back one of these projects is exactly that. You are essentially investing in an idea. Unlike more conventional investments where you typically get some form of equity, in the case of these two sites what you get is a reward, but only if the project is successful.

To help set people’s expectations, here’s an update on the few projects I have backed that actually reached their funding goals and started (note to IndieGoGo users: beware of projects using the model where they get whatever funds they raise even if the goal is not reached – that might mean they lack the funds to actually deliver anything).

Pebble Smartwatch – DELIVERED

Probably one of the best known crowd funding projects, and I believe the first breakout success raising far more than their initial goal, the Pebble Smartwatch project was successful and delivered their product. They were late however: estimated in September 2012, I actually received the reward in March 2013 (six months late).

Since then they have gone on to launch a second range of products (which I bought from their website), as well as selling their initial watch through both online and brick and mortar stores. Overall, a very successful outcome for them and a mostly successful product (it still has some bugs, but mostly related to iOS limitations I suspect).

Lima

Next on the list is a project to deliver a small device that connects a USB hard drive to your home network, and from there to the internet. The project was due to ship in April 2014, and still has not done so. At this point they claim to be shipping early beta units to those who volunteered to test it. I have not seen an updated delivery date in a while.

You can read more about their product at meetlima.com, but essentially their idea is that all your content should be available on all your devices. Cloud storage, but hosted on a drive you own.

Lono

Lono is a smart, connected sprinkler controller. Designed to give sprinkler controllers both remote control over the internet but also improve what has to be one of the worst user interface ever designed. Lono was meant to ship in March 2014, but still has not done so. The latest estimate is September 2014 (which, if they keep to it, would be six months late).

I have high hopes for this one as I would love to replace the crazy controller that our builder installed with something a little more high tech. It also connects one more aspect of the house to the internet.

Giroptic 360° HD Camera

My most recent, and largest crowd funding investment to date, is a 360 degree camera called Giroptic from a team in France. The Kickstarter page explains more about what the project is, but in essence it is a camera that can take full 360 degree photos in a single shot, as well as capture full 360° video.

Perhaps the best way to see what this means is to install one of their apps which are already in the stores (iOS, Android) and look at the sample videos and photos. Their estimated delivery date is November 2014; we’ll see how close to that they get – ramping up for production seems to be where many of these projects run into trouble.

 ParaShoot

Another camera project, this one had a rough start, raising a lot of money on Kickstarter only to be suspended at the last minute with little explanation from Kickstarter as to why they did so. The project then moved to IndieGoGo where it was successful in getting funded.

Originally due to be delivered in December 2013, the project is still on-going. The most recent update (within the last week) included a link to a pre-release unit review from one of the backers who opted to get a pre-release unit early. Those were originally expected in November 2013, so the project is 8-9 months late at this point.

Gecko – DELIVERED

My other IndieGoGo hardware project, the Gecko project provides Bluetooth low energy tags that can be used in a number of different ways. The tags act as virtual leashes, letting you know when they are too far from your smartphone, gesture controllers (shake them to trigger things), a remote motion sensor and, if you have a compatible camera, they can be used as a remote shutter release for you camera (with an additional adapter).

The project was due to deliver in January 2014, and my two Gecko tags arrived a few days ago (7-8 months late).

Everybody Needs a Nudge Occasionally

For many a journey is about the destination. If ever there was proof that the destination is not really the main point though it is the journey called life; the destination of that particular journey is far from its highlight. Indeed, most of us would like that particular ETA to be as far out as possible.

Waypoints

This weekend I have been away from home, suffering in the heat of Texas (although from what I can tell Alameda was not much cooler) to attend a high school graduation ceremony. While that might seem like the destination of a kid’s school life, not to mention a more meaningful transition from child to adult than perhaps the 18th birthday that almost always predates it, really it is just another waypoint in a much longer journey. The day’s ceremony, and the parties after it, represent something of a stop over on their journey, but when they (eventually) wake up the next day, the unrelenting journey of life continues.

Early Arrival

Tonight I was surfing social networks looking for things to read, when I chanced upon a retweet that almost brought tears to my eyes. Tapping into the author’s stream revealed an outpouring of emotion that I am not sure I could ever send to Twitter, about something that every parent would dread: losing a child. I don’t know the author of those tweets, I don’t even follow him on Twitter (I saw his tweet as a retweet), but I immediately felt for him and his family’s loss. I cannot even begin to imagine what that must be like; I just know his words, limited to tweet-length bursts, touched a nerve.

Nudge

So, how does any of that fit with the title of this post? On Saturday, at the graduation ceremony, it occurred to me that I have another 15 years before the little boy lying here next to me as I write this will be in that same place. That seemed like a long time while sitting there, but reading those tweets tonight reminded me that the graduation ceremony was not important; being present, and being a real part of those 15 years was.

This year, more than ever before, I really want to get to a place where I am not missing any of their growing up. Of course, the challenge there is also being able to provide for them, but solving problems is perhaps my strongest skill, and that seems to me, at least at 3am here in Texas as I struggle to sleep in the heat, like a problem well worth solving. Maybe those tweets were just the nudge I needed; though I still wish they had never needed to be written. RIP Rebecca.

PostScript

More than any, one tweet in the stream, and the photo attached to it, kept tugging on my heart: