Archive for the ‘Blogging, Computers & the Internet’ Category.

Update on Slippery Cell Phones

In my review of my Droid Turbo, I mentioned in passing that I was frustrated by how slippery a lot of cell phones were.  I was in the Verizon store the other day killing time while they fixed something on my kids' phone, so I tried holding a bunch.

The slipperiest by far were the HTC One M8 and the LG G3.  Both, probably not coincidentally, get high marks for being attractive due to their metal or faux metal backs, but the same backs make them like a wet bar of soap to hold.  You can put a no slip case on them of course, but then if you are going to put them in a case, why buy a phone that is promoted in large part on its looks?

My Droid Turbo is OK, with no slip surface around the edges but a very slick back, at least the nylon back one I have.

The Galaxy S5 is better than average.  Its back gets a lot of grief for being ugly, but it will not slide around in the hand and is comfortable to hold.

Until this week, the no-slip champion for me was the Moto X with the bamboo case (it is real wood veneer, not some plastic fake thing).  It looks good to my eye and it is very grippy in the hand.

But there is a new champion.  I tried the Moto X with the new football leather backing (again, real football leather).  This thing is not going to slide out of your hand (unless maybe if you are Jay Cutler).  The looks are ... different, but I could get used to it.  Phones for me are a convenience item, not a fashion item.  The Moto X's only problems are a small battery and a camera that is a bit weak.  Which is why I bought the Droid Turbo, which is a very similar phone but with a bigger battery.  Just wish they had all the cool Moto Maker options the Moto X has.

Don't Worry, I am OK

An Unexpected Roadblock to Some of Our HR Automation

We are trying to use some of the available tools out there to better automate our application and onboarding process for employees.  Though we are not a huge employer (about 350 part-time people) we hire and fire them all every year, so there is a lot of burden for our size on the HR system.

We are running into a frustrating issue.  Most of our employees are older and often have limited computer skills, but we are getting past that.  But we tend to hire couples, and it turns out in the over-50 set that couples often share the same email address.  I can't even imagine having the same email address as my wife and having to filter through all of her business, but there it is.  Unfortunately, in the world of web accounts, must vendors use the email address as the one reliable unique identifier for a person and thus use it for the user name or expect it to be unique.

This is throwing us for a loop.  It is less of a problem in the application system because most of our couples just want to submit a single joint application anyway.  But for onboarding, they  each need their own W-4, I-9, etc.  So they need separate user accounts.

The question then comes down to this for us:  I can require them to get a second email address, but that is likely going to flummox some folks and require my manual intervention to help them.  Do I thus cause more tech support issues for myself than I save from the automation itself?

No point here, just venting on a problem I have not figured out how to fix.  And no fair saying stuff like "gmail is free and easy to sign up for, just make them get another gmail account."  I have managers who do a fabulous job for me that it took me days to teach how to log into and use Gmail.  A better and fairer comment would be "you have 20,000 applicants, make the application process require separate emails and even make it a little technically challenging so you limit your hiring pool to people who are better suited to using modern computer tools."  And yes, that may in fact be our solution.

Apple Has an iMessage Fix for Those Switching from iPhone to Android

As I wrote last week, one encountered a terrible problem when switching from iPhone to Android -- your phone number remained registered with the Apple iMessage servers as an iPhone and so that Apple tries to deliver texts from other iPhones to your new Android phone via their iMessage servers.  That does not work, and so the text just disappears into the ether, with the sender thinking it went through fine but the new Android user never seeing it.

After months and months of problems, and at least one class action lawsuit, Apple now offers a fix.  You can now de-register your phone number in the iMessage system by going to this link.  I don't know if it works and I don't know if there is any time delay.  I suddenly started receiving my texts from iPhones this weekend, about a week after I made the switch and called Apple to de-list me in their servers.

By the way, I tried to use the de-listing link.  The process involves a text back.  I never got a text back, lol.  So I am not positive the de-listing link is actually working, but since I was successful (apparently) with it last week doing it using the old method, I am not worried. I was successful using the method at the bottom of this page.

The Madness of Software Design: Designs that Require Customizing Browser Setting to Operate

We are looking at a number of third-party internet-based software solutions for a range of things from HR onboarding to safety and training management.  With minimum wages and other government-imposed employment costs rising, we are looking for ways to automate anything we can.

We have run into a useability issue on most of this software.  As a note, my employees tend to be 55 years old and older, and so many do not have a firm handle on computer skills.  So stuff needs to be simple and just work.  Unfortunately, no one seems to be willing or able to design a system that works with default browser settings.  In particular, everyone wants to design their software to require popups.  I have no idea why.  But time after time I put a system out for a subset of my employees to test and I immediately get 19 people calling me back saying that it does not work, they can't get in, etc.  The typical problem is that most of this software seems to require that the browsers popup blocker be turned off.  Why in the world would you design software for a feature that 99% of browsers today have turned off by default?  And worse, that require users to change a setting that only exists deep in setup menus most users don't even know exist.  I am pretty capable and it took me some poking around to find the popup options in Chrome.

This makes me totally crazy.  I had a long talk today with my onboarding company trying to explain why getting rid of an hour of HR time with their software at the cost of an extra hour of IT support time for each new employee trying to access the system does not save me any freaking money.  We received access to a training and safety system for free from our insurance company but it took so much of my personal time to get each employee able to successfully log into it that we abandoned it this year, despite it having a lot of good resources in it.  I will tell you guys that despite the world of these business solutions being apparently crowded, there is still room out there for someone who can program a front-end that reliably works with a variety of browsers and systems.

Things They Don't Tell iPhone Owners

Well, I just switched from my old iPhone 4 to a Droid Turbo**, a Motorola phone that runs Android rather than iOS.

Here is what they never tell you -- Apple has devised a very clever way to make leaving the iOS world really, really painful.  Specifically, when you send a text message on an iPhone, unless you fiddled with the default settings, it gets sent through iMessage and the Apple servers.  If it is going to another iPhone, it can actually bypass the carrier text messaging system altogether, a nice perk back when texts were not unlimited but useful today mainly for international travel.

But here is the rub -- when you switch you phone line away from an iPhone to an Android device, the Apple servers refuse to recognize this.  They will think you still have an iPhone and will still try to send you messages via the iMessage servers.  What this means in practice is that you can send messages from the new phone to other iPhones, but their texts back to you will not reach you.  They just sort of disappear into the ether, and will try forever to be delivered to your now non-existent iPhone.

This is as good a guide as I can find for the problem, and better than what any Apple employee will tell you.  There are two solutions for this.  Apparently, you can go to every one of your friends and tell them to delete every text they ever sent you and delete you from their phone books and apparently new texts they send you will then skip the iMessage system and get to your phone.  The only problem is that I can't replicate this.  I spent hours with my family's iPhones today removing every text message from my number and every reference to me in their phone books.  But no dice.  Their texts still do not reach me.  Sigh.

The second solution is to call Apple and ask to have your number removed from the iMessage servers.  This was not possible even a few months ago, but there is a large class action lawsuit against Apple on this topic so they seem to at least have trained their customer service staff on this issue, finally.  I called and they readily removed me from the server, but with this caveat -- it wouldn't take effect for 30 days.  I told the rep that this was patently absurd, and she agreed.  But 30 days it will be.  So no matter what I do, every single person in my contact list who has ever texted me from an iPhone is going to think they are texting me but in fact have their texts fly off into the ether.  For 30 days.

This is clearly absurd, and folks thinking of switching to Apple should understand just how hard it is to reverse that decision.

PS-  I have always been amazed at all the goodwill Apple gets for being somehow friendlier and more open to creative individuals than Microsoft.  To me, Apple's philosophy is to host a closed totalitarian world, while Microsoft and Google (admittedly full of foibles and their own issues) have far more open platforms.  Linux guys will laugh at that, but compared to Apple, Microsoft is free love in the park.

 

** reasons why:  I live in the Google world of Google Drive and Apps, so the OS choice is a natural.  I have never figured out iCloud.  I don't care about design elegance, which is good because this phone is as elegant as a brick.  It has a stupid large battery (it may be a tad heavy but it is way lighter than with all you guys that have mophie battery cases on your iphones).  It has fast-charging as well as wireless charging, a good screen, a decent camera, and a fast processor.  It also has a light touch on OS add-ons so it is close to stock android without all the overhead of custom skins and it will be among the first phones to get Android updates (solving the #1 problem of Android over iOS, which is the proliferation of versions across handsets and carriers that slows upgrades).  The only thing it is missing is a memory expansion card port, though you can get it in 64GB which always has been plenty for me.  The only question left is why carriers have to design their phones, these $600 devices that can't be dropped, with super-slick back covers.  The new HTC One M8 is like holding a bar of wet soap.  They all do this, except the Moto X which has a bamboo back that is awesome to hold.

Much Better Performance on Mobil Devices for Coyoteblog

With the help of several readers, I did a revamp on some of my site code that I think substantially fixed performance on mobile devices -- in particular, the large right hand margin that made the site really small is gone.  The site scales well to most of the devices I have tried, and as a bonus I learned enough about putting mobile code in CSS that the font for the main post section (not the margins) should increase automatically now on small, high density screens.

Oops, Coyote Blog's 10-year Anniversary Passed About a Month Ago

I guess as I have aged I don't tend to pay much attention to birthdays either, but as of last month this blog is ten years old.  Hard to believe.  Celebrating a decade of my inability to proof-read.  Thanks for your patients.

PS- yes, I did that on purpose.

PPS - I actually do know the difference between its and it's, for example, but I just don't always execute carefully.  However, I use "them" and "they" and "their" intentionally as a third-party singular pronoun in an effort to establish from the ground up a gender-neutral third party pronoun, because saying "he or she" sucks.

Long, Long, Long Several Weeks

I am finally back and I have mostly climbed on top of the hosting and web attack issues we have been having.  I honestly think site performance will be better, at the cost of a bit of caching that might delay new posts for a few minutes.

Many thanks to the Young Republicans of Dekalb County who hosted a fun event in Atlanta.  I particularly enjoyed meeting Don Boudreaux, whose writing I have admired for some time.  Hopefully they will have a video of the talk I can post soon.

Over the next few days I am playing with site widths to try to overcome some problems displaying on certain mobile devices.  I have been told I should give up and restart with a mobile-friendly newer template but statements like that are just raw meat, making it more likely I bang my head against the older template to try to make it work.

WordPress / Site Hell, Hopefully Getting Better

All of my websites have been a mess this weekend as there has a been a worldwide brute force attack occurring for several days on WordPress admin accounts.  I avoid most of the common mistakes (using the default user name, simple passwords, etc) so I don't think anyone has breached a site but the constant calls of the login function acts effectively like a DDOS attack, flattening my server.

I have put in place some extra code to detect brute force attacks and temporarily and even permanently ban IP's.  Since attackers don't just sit in a single IP in Russia any more but use shifting and spoofed IP's, you may at some point find yourself locked out.  Email me if that happens.

I Am Speaking in Atlanta This Friday, Come Say Hi

I am speaking at an event this Friday in the Atlanta area held by the Dekalb Young Republicans called "Cutting the Red Tape: A Forum on Overbearing Government Regulations".   Even better than my presence, I will be sharing the stage with Don Boudreaux of George Mason University and Cafe Hayek.  Anyone who has read this site will know I link Don at least once a week so it will be fun to meet him in the flesh.  Here are the full details:

When:
Oct. 17th, 2014 at 7:30 PM

Where:

Atlanta Perimeter Marriott Center

246 Perimeter Center Pkwy NE, Atlanta, GA 30346

Free Parking

Again, it is open to anyone (as proven by the fact that I am neither young nor a Republican and they are letting me speak).

Sorry for the Downtime

Had some sort of attack running all weekend against one of my more minor web sites.  Hostgator found the attack and changed our security rules, and for now we should be fine.  Sort of violating the security through obscurity rule of thumb since this was a very obscure site they were attacking.

Super-Smart!

I didn't get that big Internet payout from my year or so at Mercata, but those of us involved have this to fall back on:

Founder and CEO Steve El-Hage acknowledged that “super-smart people had tried to get the ball rolling in the past” on group buying — one of them was Mercata, which shut down back in 2001. (More recently, I’ve written about a group-buying startup called Higgle.)

It's amazing how group buying is an idea that keeps coming back.   Even pre-social media, we found it to be a better tool for driving viral marketing than for achieving any economies of scale.

My Oft-Repeated Advice -- Hold off on iOS8

There is nothing in the new Apple OS update that is particularly pressing, and even if there were, don't update on the first day.  Wait.  I gave this advice to my family for iOS7 and saved everyone a world of grief.  One would think that Apple would have a way easier time with releases than, say, Android or Windows.  Apple OS runs only on Apple devices, whereas Google and Microsoft have to deal with all sorts of hardware compatibility issues.  Nevertheless, Apple has had many issues with its round-number OS releases such that there is no reason to rush.  I suggest you wait 2 weeks, then Google "iOS8 issues" and "iOS problems" and see what you find.  If nothing scares you, then update.

Here is the problem with Apple - whether it be OSX or iOS or even iTunes - it is almost impossible to roll back.  I hated Windows Vista and Windows 8 (Windows is sort of like original-series Star Trek movies where every other release sucks more than average) but I was able to roll back in both cases.  Short of rooting your iPhone, I am not sure iOS rollbacks are even possible.

IFTTT and Zapier

The other day you may have seen some test posts here on trying to cross-post between blogs.  It turns out there are surprisingly few wordpress apps for this, and those that exist are not being maintained.  I have a ManageWP account where I can simultaneously post to multiple accounts with the same post, but that was not exactly what I was looking for.  So I thought of my IFTTT account, which I had not played around with for a while.

I am not really an expert on this space, but I have used a site / program called "If This Then That" (IFTTT.com) for several years.  What it does is set up simple rules to fire off certain actions based on triggers.  For example, I cannot stand iphoto and the absolute mess of duplicates that icloud and iphoto make, so I now have an IFTTT rule that every time my iphone takes a picture, it automatically puts it in a folder on my Google Drive account.  I have IFTTT rules based on everything from my Nest thermostat at home to highlighting items in my feed reader.

IFTTT is really easy to use, but part of that is that there are limited options.  One limitation is that for each object - eg Twitter account or WordPress Account - you can only have one version.  In other words, if I have 3 WordPress accounts, IFTTT can only recognize one so, obviously, IFTTT is not going to be able to trigger based on a post at one blog and then do something on another blog.  Which is exactly what I wanted to do.  Whenever I make a climate post at Coyote Blog, I wanted to cross-post it at Climate Skeptic.

So I tried a similar site called Zapier.  Zapier allows me to do exactly what I wanted with WordPress accounts, and for each trigger and action it seems to give me, from my limited poking around, a lot more choices than IFTTT.  For example, a lot more different WordPress events can act as a trigger.  So I am now using it to cross-post, and we will see how it works.

Overall, IFTTT is a bit more mature, it has more choices of integrations, and probably most important has both iphone and android apps that give it a lot of integration options with your phone.  The limitation to one instance of each sort of trigger or action is a limitation they have been promising to fix for years, but still have not addressed.   Zapier is more complicated to use, but for the triggers and actions it has, gives a lot more options.  Unfortunately, it does not have much, if any, iphone or android integration which I think is a huge limitation for this type of functionality.

Both are worth checking out.  They are free (up to a point) and you can create a rule without programming in less than five minutes on either, so you can see if it is something you find useful.

Again, I am not an expert on this space and if there is a third, better choice, let me know in the comments.

 

Gender-Neutral Third Person Pronoun

I am with Kevin Drum.  I got tired of using "his or her" or some other such kluge some time back.  I am using "their" until someone defines a better third person possessive pronoun that is gender-neutral (ditto "them" for "him or her").  After all, unlike French, English is a bottom-up language defined by common use rather than unchanging top-down rules.  So if enough of us use "their", it will become correct.

For those of you too young to remember, the invention of "Ms." as a generic women's prefix was one of the greatest improvements in the English language in my lifetime.  If you despair sometimes in looking down a list of names and trying to guess if the person is a "Mr." or "Ms." (remember "Pat" on Saturday Night Live), you wouldn't believe what a pain in the rear it was to figure out if one should use "Miss" or "Mrs."  for a given female.

Get A Password Manager

After reading this, everyone should be getting a password manager.

I am convinced that the best way to get someone's password is to break into crappy sites like hobbyist bulletin boards.  I am on 10 or 12.  "So what", you say?  What can someone to do to you on a bulletin board?  Not much, but since you likely have scores of passwords, and you likely don't use different passwords for every site, then that user name and password on that crappy bulletin board may also work at Citibank.  Then you are in trouble.

I got a password manager last year (lastpass) and changed every password but one to 12 digit randomized passwords that the program then remembers.  That database is protected by a complicated password I have never used anywhere else and is not a real word, and protected by two-step log in (via Google authenticator).  The only other password that is not random is my email password I have to use so often from so many mobile devices that I have a long phrase I use for it that I can remember.

This is undeniably a hassle, particularly for mobile devices where lastpass and other password managers are behind and harder to use (in part because there are not as many browser plug in abilities).

I won't say this is bullet proof, but it is much better (I hope) than where I was before.

Is it safe enough?   Here is my theory, which requires a brief joke first.  Two men are camping in the woods when an angry bear shows up, clearly ready to devour them.  One man quickly starts putting on his tennis shoes.  The other says, "You don't think you can actually outrun that bear, do you."  His friend said, "No, but I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you."  You can never be safe, but maybe you can make yourself a comparatively less inviting target.

Update:  The biggest hassle of all is changing your password on a hundred sites.  There is NO standard for where to locate the password-change links.  You will think at first smugly that surely it is all in the "my account" section of each web site.  OK, don't believe me.  You will find out.  It is a mess.   And Whitehouse.gov was one of the worst, by the way.

Your Arguments Are Totally Idiotic, Which I Know Even Though I Didn't Read Your Article

Since I am not a very large blogger, and not overtly political (most of the time), I seldom have my articles end up in organized trolling campaigns.  But over the last week I had a flood of comments on this three-year-old article about teacher salaries.  This sudden interest in an old article (particularly when many others more prominent than I have written on the topic more recently) puzzled me until I saw that the Center for American Progress had come out with a study saying that, surprise, teacher salaries were way too low.

I seldom participate in comments wars on my own articles, and prefer to post updates or clarifications in the article itself for all to see.  However, this was particularly frustrating when it was clear that most commentators were coming to the site with some preconceived notion of what the article said, and did not feel the need to actually read the article before commenting.  So, we end up with numerous folks saying "what about all the overtime work", as if I totally ignored that thought and hadn't even considered it, when there was a whole section on teacher overtime in the article.  I finally lost it when I got a comment that said "I don't know where this guy gets his numbers..."  This is a total cop-out response I see in comments all the time.  It allows one to imply the numbers are shady or unsourced without having to actually provide specific criticisms of the data.  I responded:

On the Internet, underlined bits of text, often in a different color, are called “links”.  By clicking on these “links” with your cursor, you will go to other sites.  In the case of this article, the source of data are all from the BLS, a part of the Federal Department of Labor.  The “links” will take you directly to the pages where the data was taken (though since 3 years have passed the links may lead you to newer versions of the data). 

There were also a number of comments along the lines of "well, I don't make anything like those numbers" to which I was forced to respond

In a distribution of millions of values, all the values in the distribution don’t normally match the average.  Some will be above and some will be below.  Though an average is different from a median, it is fairly safe to assume that something like half** of teachers make less than the numbers in the article and half make above those numbers.  As discussed in my second update, if you are in a rural area, you are more likely to be in the “below” category.  If you are in an urban area, you are more likely to be above

** with salary data, since the floor is typically closer to the average than the ceiling (salaries can't go below zero but can in theory go infinitely high), the median is generally below the mean, so likely more than half of teachers make less than the average.

IOS App Recommendation -- Tripcase

I really am not a productivity app sort of guy.  I have a lot of games, but most apps strike me as just dedicated browsers for someone's web site.    To date I am a big user of the Kindle app and the Feedly RSS feed reader app and the Gmail app.   Oh, and Google maps (the Apple maps program still sucks).   And that is about it.

But I have been using Tripcase (free) to bring together all my travel info and I really like it.  All one has to do is forward airline, hotel, car rental, restaurant, etc confirmations to a certain email address and the program parses out what information it needs.  The only work is that each confirmation gets set up as a separate trip, but it is easy to merge three or four together to get all of one trip in a single record.  It provides a nice interface with travel information and provides notifications for such things as flight delays and gate changes.

Site Issues

Well, we had just a mess of problems here.  We have had off and on DOS attacks for a week or so, and then last night I managed to embed some oddball code in a quotation in one of yesterdays posts that caused other heartache.

After a lot of debugging, I am hoping all is well again.  I have changed the caching and security options at Incapsula, which I use as a gateway for traffic.  For many of you, you will see substantial performance improvements but at the cost of some caching which may delay your comments showing up by 10 minutes or so.

Where's Coyote?

As most of you may know, our company privately operates public parks.  Just before Memorial Day, our largest contract (which covers a lot of our overhead) was shut down by a fire in the Sedona area.  Since that time, our landlord the US Forest Service has announced it is going to keep all of these locations closed indefinitely out of fear of flash flooding (fire-damaged hillsides create a lot more runoff in eve light rain due to loss of ground cover and chemical changes in the soil that make it less permeable).  I think they are over-reacting, but it is not my decision to make.

The result of this is I have been in total operational scrambling mode and may remain so for a while, reducing the amount of blogging I do.

Where's Coyote?

I have not been posting much of late.  The combination of all our locations opening for the season and a lot of regulatory compliance work in reaction to new laws was keeping me crazy.  Then Oak Creek Canyon caught on fire near Sedona.  We operate numerous locations in the canyon, so have been consumed with evacuation and helping customers.  So I won't be around much for a while.

Sorry for the Site Downtime

For once, not a hosting issue.  Apparently a corrupted .htaccess file, since editing that file back to an older version seemed to fix things.

XKCD is Pretty Awesome today

I Am Not Sure I am Going to Update Major Software Any More

It used to be that updates of software products were something to look forward to.  I used to be a bleeding edge guy who, like as not, was using beta versions of most software.  Now I avoid updates and upgrades like the plague, particularly since companies like Apple make it virtually impossible to roll back any software update.  The four products that have scared me off of upgrades altogether are:

  • Windows 7 to Windows 8
  • Old versions of Office to the new versions with the stupid toolbars rather than menus where I still can't find what I want all the time.  On a bunch of my computers I still use Office 2002 and 2003 and it works just fine.
  • Most all itunes updates, particularly 10 to 11 which has done nothing but make critical options harder to find and make the platform, at least on Windows, less stable.  I am told people are having major difficulty with the 11.3 to 11.4 update
  • iOS 6 to iOS 7, which decreased battery life without adding any real user features.  So glad I still have not upgraded, though I am sure I will have to soon.

And don't even get me started on software like windows 8 and most of the recent Adobe products that require some sort of user login to even use the product at all.