The past year has brought upheaval, but it’s given me a good space to rethink my computing portfolio. Join me on Fridays as I share discoveries and new things
Over this past year of COVID-19 lockdowns, I’ve taken the opportunity to re-conceptualize my personal (and business) IT portfolio. Prior to the pandemic, I was rather haphazard about things. Even though I espoused the benefits of having a master plan and having things fit into that plan, in practice for my personal IT estate at least, it was a different story. I focused on getting things stood up quickly rather than robustly. It worked, but it sometimes incurred a price.
As video calls have taken a bigger spot in our lives in the past few weeks, here are some cheap and easy ways to up your video call game.
What a weird few weeks it’s been. I hope everyone has been safe and healthy during these interesting times. For those who have been working from home, I’m sure video calls have been a part of your life. They certainly have for me!
Since I’ve been doing this for a bit, and since I also have some things to bring from dabbling in the photographic arts, I thought I’d share some easy things you can do to help improve your video conference setup. Each one of these ideas can be done independently of each other, so as to be flexible for limited budgets, but the total cost of all five of these different interventions shouldn’t exceed $100. With a couple exceptions, you probably have the kit around your home already! Continue reading “The Friday Five: Improving Your Video Calls”
Before I get into this, I’m just going to write here that your results may vary and that I’m not responsible for any loss of data you may have as a result of this. Be sure to practice good data hygiene and backup responsibly.
My solution hinges on the “Microsoft exFAT/NTFS for USB by Paragon Software” app available on Google Play. Whilst the app is free to download, exFAT support requires a $5.99 in-app purchase. This app is unique in that it’s not a standalone file explorer, it’s an interface mechanism between the USB SD card reader and some other apps, including the default Files app on the Pixel. Here’s how it works:
If the captions aren’t viewable, the steps are as follows:
Step 1: After connecting your SD card reader to the USB-C port, launch the Microsoft exFAT/NTFS (etc.) app. Tap on MOUNT. (The UNMOUNT button is shown after the device has been mounted.)
Step 2: In the Files app, you’ll see that a new option is there: the Paragon File System. That’s your SD card.
Step 3: You can now browse your SD card and copy/move/whatever files from the card to local storage or cloud storage.
Step 4: When finished, go back into the Paragon app to UNMOUNT the device. Unplug the SD card reader and you’ll be good to go!
My explorations are still continuing because although I can easily copy-and-paste the SD card files, there is no mechanism that I have discovered so far that won’t copy duplicate files. By default, if you ask the Pixel to copy a file, if it’s a duplicate file name, it will just append a (1) next to the file name before the file extension.
Explorations are continuing! Isn’t that the great part about learning about new technology?
[Updated 16 June 2018 at bottom] Can someone explain Twitter? Not in the “you can share 140 280-character snippets of daily life” sense, but in the “what is going on with that platform?” sense? As I see it, it’s a bunch of Twitter nonsense.
Earlier this morning, I get around to changing my password on Twitter because they were leaked out. Now, I should back up to say that I signed off from Twitter at the end of 2017 because I had thought Twitter had become more noise than signal and, frankly, had outlived its usefulness for me. Not to mention that Twitter had some pretty murky reasons for defending hate speech, something that made me uncomfortable. (To be fair, their guidelines changed earlier this year.) As I thought about signing back in and breaking my Twitter silence in April, I read that they were changing their API so that my usual Twitter client, Tweetbot, would be significantly limited to access the service.
So fast-forward to this morning. As I sign in to change my password, I’m presented with this graphic:
My account, @edwardjensen, has been suspended with no reason or rationale given for its suspension. The help pages are pathetically useless, only giving roundabout reasons for suspending an account. I had not received any advance warning in my email about this suspension. It’s not that the account has been sitting dormant for too long: the Twitter account for The Downtown Phoenix Podcast (@dtphxpodcast) last updated on 31 December 2016. It couldn’t have been for content as the last post on my personal Twitter account was on 31 December 2017. Did someone report my account? Again, why wasn’t I notified?
The moral of the story is this: When you use an external service, you’re at their mercy for what they will allow or disallow and often times, it’s a random mess based on their algorithms and what those services think they want you to see. When social media started moving away from chronological post feeds to an algorithm-driven “news feed,” that’s the moment when we lost it. When social media started removing human editors from the equation to curate what happened in favor of computer processes, that’s also the moment when we lost it. When social media started pay-to-play to get more eyeballs on posts, we lost an egalitarian community message board and went to a plutocratic space.
That should give everyone pause. Because today’s Twitter nonsense might have greater ramifications for society tomorrow.
[Edited to add: On 16 June 2018, my Twitter account was unlocked. In the email from Twitter support, “[It] looks like your account got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake. This sometimes happens when an account exhibits automated behavior in violation of the Twitter Rules (https://twitter.com/rules).” In reviewing the Twitter Rules, I can’t find out what I specifically did to have Twitter’s algorithms think my account is a spammy account. That should give people even more pause.]
A couple of weeks with one of the Google Chromebooks. Is it right for you?
[Editor’s note: This blog will take a slight turn this year. To be sure, comment will still be offered on the urban condition in Phoenix as needed. But we will be starting to talk about the role of technology in daily life. This post is the first of that new focus.]
My main mobile machine is my trusty iPad Air but there are times when it’s nice to have a full laptop. I had been wanting to restart regular writing and I found that my iPad just had too many distractions on it to be useful. But finding a machine that doesn’t break the bank can be a challenge. I had always been interested in the Google Chromebook series of devices, even though I’m an Apple user through and through.
I picked up a refurbished Asus Chromebook C201 for about $140 online a few weeks ago and here are some of my initial thoughts on the device:
The Chromebook is not a home computer replacement. Chromebooks are powered by Chrome OS and the OS has only one purpose: to get to you launch the Google Chrome web browser. That’s it. There are no OS-level offline things except for the system settings and a rudimentary file browser (that has deep integration into Google Drive). It is all handled in the Chrome browser. In this sense, Chrome OS is essentially a thin client – the processing of anything you do is done on Google’s servers elsewhere. If you’re fine with that, then that’s great.
Chrome OS really works best if you’ve gone fully Google. Chrome OS’s web-based applications are tied hand-in-hand with the Google Apps suite (Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive, etc.). Other online suites do work but bear in mind you’re accessing these through whatever web interfaces they offer. You sign in with a Google Account (be it personal or issued through your workplace or school) instead of a local user account or some sort of on-premises Active Directory credentials. This gets messy if you’re using a password manager with a randomly generated password to manage your Google Account credentials!
Enterprise-level management requires an expensive additional subscription. Whenever I evaluate a piece of tech, I wonder about its integration into enterprise or managed environments. As it turns out, even if you have a paid Google Apps for Work subscription for your business users, you still need to purchase yearly per-device management licenses that range from $30 per device per year up to $250, depending on what the device does. And, unfortunately, navigating these licenses is as perplexing as navigating Microsoft license programs.
Battery life is exceptional. Considering I purchased a refurbished device, I wasn’t expecting too much in the way of battery life. I’m finding I’m getting about 7-8 hours on a full charge. Not too bad, considering the device is always connected to the Internet and therefore has to have the wi-fi radio on all the time.
If you keep in mind what this device is, it’s actually a compelling piece of technology. As a test for if a Chromebook would work for you, ask yourself this: Can you do your task within Google Chrome? If the answer is yes, then this will work. If you need a separate app, then it won’t work. I bought this device to do, really, one thing: provide a distraction-free environment for writing. Google Docs runs magnificently on this.
There are a couple limitations of this due to the nature of this system. First, if you use a separate application on your other machines for password management (e.g., 1Password), you will find that it won’t work on the Chromebook. In the case of 1Password, you’ll have to sign up for 1Password for Families or 1Password for Teams to access your password vaults. The other issue is that as offline support is an always evolving thing, offline access to your data is spotty at best. You have to pin files for offline access in Google Drive, for example, if you want to work on them where you don’t have an Internet connection. But since this device never leaves my home, this is a non-issue.
When Google announced the launch of the Chromebook on its blog back in May 2011, they said, “These are not typical notebooks. … Your apps, games, photos, music, movies and documents will be accessible wherever you are and you won’t need to worry about losing your computer or forgetting to back up files.” That’s true. Seeing how wi-fi has become more and more ubiquitous over the past five years, the potential for these thin clients for the masses is greatly increasing. The hardware is only as good as its software, it seems, and thin client computing is becoming more and more used in enterprise environments.
I’m happy with this device. I don’t expect it to do everything my Mac can do because it can’t.
Right now (iOS 7 / OS X “Mavericks”), iCloud data storage is in, essentially, per-app containers. The new version of iCloud, called iCloud Drive, becomes more like Dropbox than per-app containers. Right now, the data I save in, say, Pages, is synchronized to my iPad in the Pages container of iCloud. iCloud Drive data is accessible in all different apps (desktop and mobile), which is a different paradigm than the current incarnation.
Commenters on my Facebook were quick to point out the usual failed Phoenix logic: “At least it’s still Phoenix instead of another town” was a chorus repeated on several occasions. It was suggested by a commenter that this was OK since Phoenix made a massive investment in the downtown-killing CityNorth project despite, as another commenter pointed out, it being a failed project. Other commenters suggested that we should work with Sprouts to have a grocery store downtown, possibly as part of the new development at Central & McDowell.
This idea that we must have economic activity all across the 550 square miles in Phoenix is killing our city and any hope we have to compete in the 21st century global marketplace that will be based on urban areas, urban activity, and urban economics. It may be very downtown-centric of me but there are two Phoenixes, if you will: there’s Phoenix proper, the urban part that is a much smaller size, say between I-17 on the west and south, SR-51 on the east, and Dunlap Avenue to the north. Then there’s the other part that I do not like to call Phoenix: the suburb of Phoenix that is subdivisions and sprawl, even if it is within the city limits of Phoenix. That other “Phoenix” is sucking all of the life from the Phoenix I know and love. When you’re both a suburb and central city, as Phoenix and “Phoenix” are, this is what happens.
All of the research and all of the trends suggest one thing: Downtowns of core cities will carry cities and regions forward, full stop. Even worse is this idea that Phoenix will succeed if our other suburban cities succeed. In a recent Twitter exchange I had with Jon Talton (@jontalton), author and Phoenix observer (and guest on an early episode of The Downtown Phoenix Podcast), he noted that “‘Regional’” is killing Phoenix. It’s the civic destruction without the entertainment value of Rob Ford.”
Other cities in our metropolitan area are certainly succeeding while downtown Phoenix falls behind. I have frequently praised Tempe for landing the new home for the U.S. national basketball team and State Farm Insurance developing in their downtown. I have publicly lauded Mesa and their former Mayor, Scott Smith, for the work done to bring quality economic development to downtown Mesa. If you would have told me 15 years ago that downtown Mesa would have a world-class performing arts center, light rail, and a nice downtown, I would have laughed at you. Outside of Arizona, we hear of developments moving specifically to downtown environments. California’s Active Network is moving their headquarters with 1,000 jobs to downtown Dallas.
What is the economic development strategy for downtown and midtown Phoenix? I fear to ask the next question, but I will: Is there one? I think it’s admirable that we are trying to have lots of incubator spaces and attract individual entrepreneurs but we need to ask: What is their economic impact compared to, say, the Sprouts Farmers Market headquarters? Or any headquarters for a major or emerging company? The lack of central-city economic stewards makes the downtown development case challenging, especially when the City of Phoenix has adopted the policy (in my estimation) that we need to spread the thin wealth of economic activity and development over the entire 550 square mile footprint.
Another troubling question that needs to be asked: Where have our central-city councilpeople been? Or what about the economic development groups that are tasked with downtown’s growth? My fears are that they were, again, asleep at the wheel. At last year’s overly contentious Phoenix City Council elections, one of the candidates said that they thought midtown Phoenix needed an economic development strategy; perhaps presciently, that same candidate called midtown an “inner city.” Absent an economic development strategy, we will become one in no time.
While we focus on walkability and creative temporary uses for undeveloped land in urban Phoenix, the good quality development—the stuff we want and so desperately need—moves away from here. We can have the most walkable streets and good urban design, if there’s nothing to walk to, then what’s the point?
This needs to be a wake-up call for all of us. We need to do better.
The greenest computer is the one that’s already there. Let’s focus on repair, not replacement.
I’m going to take a little break from my discussion of downtown Phoenix issues and talk about another thing that occupies my life (and is, for all intents and purposes, my “day job”): information technology. More specifically, I’m going to talk about sustainability within technology.
One of my guiding philosophies on computer purchases is this: How repairable is the machine? In other words, what percentage of that computer’s parts can be replaced by me? And how easy is it to do that?
Prior to graduating from high school in 2006 and preparing to enter Arizona State University later that year, I received a Dell notebook computer. That machine is still running strong because I’ve been able to replace the hard drive, the battery, and upgrade the system memory as needed. The computer will be eight years old in early 2014 and, with Windows 7 installed on it, my mother uses it for her computing needs.
In 2011, I decided to make the leap over to the Apple world and invest in a MacBook Pro — which, at over $1,500, was a considerable investment. What really pushed me to the land of Cupertino was the longevity of their notebook batteries. A colleague of mine at ASU received as a high-school graduation present a MacBook and, at 5 years in, that battery was still holding as much of a charge as it did when she received it. My Dell notebook (the same one I talked about above) was about to need its third battery in six years.
Fast forward to today: the penultimate day in 2013. I’ve just replaced the original platter-style hard drive in my MacBook Pro with a solid-state drive and about to replace the battery in the machine. I’m thankful to the crew at iFixit for sharing tips on how to make the battery user-serviceable and for selling batteries. In the process, though, I’ve been scratching my head. I’ve noticed that the screws holding in the battery aren’t your normal Phillips-head screws but are, instead, tri-wing screws. Unless you have a computer screwdriver kit (and I do!), you’ll have to head off to the Apple Genius Bar to get them to install a new battery for you. Nope; no, thank you. My MacBook is out of warranty so I’m on my own.
In the process of thinking about this, I’m thinking about how user-repairable computers and other electronic gizmos are. The worst culprit in this is Apple, despite how they claim their computers are environmentally friendly. In the historic preservation world of the built environment, we say that “the greenest building is the one that’s already there.” We can take that phrase and shift it to technology: “The greenest computer is the one that’s already there.” I will refuse to purchase (or authorize the purchase of) the new MacBook Pros with the high-resolution “retina” displays because of the lack of user-serviceable parts. A look at these MacBooks shows that if a component breaks down, you’re stuck with having to get a brand new machine.
That’s silly and irresponsible. Why should I need to purchase or get a new machine just because a hard drive — a part that has been user-replaceable for many years — stops working? Or if I choose to upgrade the memory? Or if I need to replace the battery? I get Apple’s philosophy of having dedicated places to fix their equipment and catering to users with limited IT resources. But what about those places that have IT departments and oversee a fleet of hundreds of Apple computers?
And then there’s the software side of things. I was an early adopter of the iPad. It worked great until I received the third generation iPad (my father now has my original iPad). Apple made the decision to say that iOS 5 will be the last version of iOS that’s supported on the original iPad. Was it a performance thing? My reading of specifications show that the original iPad and the second-generation iPad are really close together in specification; however, the second-generation iPad supports iOS 7.
I get that my viewpoints are certainly in the minority of technology users and that there’s a business to be had in selling computers. I don’t look at a computer as something that I’ll use for a couple years before I upgrade it; I see it as something I’ll use (and possibly abuse) until I have a technological reason to need to upgrade. I’ll be that person with the decade-old MacBook out in the wild. And I’ll be OK with that.
With a couple edits, one of the things I’ve learned in 2014 is that passwords are evil. Learn how to overcome the inherent problems of passwords.
[Editor’s note: The below post, “Living post-password”, was originally posted on this blog on 2 April 2013. It’s been reposted below with several updates and new insights as part of this blog’s ‘Marching Toward 2014’ series of posts.]
Passwords and passphrases. I (still) hate them.
Yes, I used the ‘h’ word. Passwords and passphrases give people the illusion of safety and security when they are one of the easiest things to crack. I cringe when I come across major banks whose login mechanisms are weaker than, say, Facebook’s mechanisms.
I’ll admit that the inspiration for this post came in November 2012 after reading the story of Mat Honan in WIRED Magazine. The article’s linked but I’ll summarize: Mr. Honan had his entire digital life wiped away because a hacker could defeat his email account password.
Do I have your attention? Good. Because for the next few paragraphs, I’ll showcase some alternatives and addition to passwords and some questions that you need to ask yourself about your own computing practices. Continue reading “Replay: Living post-password”
The world of computers and computing has changed drastically in 2013. What we thought we knew about safe computing has changed: here’s what I’ve learned.
The world of computers and computing has changed drastically in 2013. From leaked documents showing how broad a net our Federal government has cast when it comes to observing its citizens’ private communications to high-profile password leaks, what we thought we knew about safe computing has changed. I’ve learned a lot in 2013 and here are my top five lessons:
1. Passwords are inherently evil. I really don’t like passwords. They provide a false sense of security to users because they’re used inappropriately and in an unsafe manner. One of the more popular posts that I wrote this year (and I’ll repost in the coming days) is on why I don’t like passwords and some things to offset the inherent security flaws of passwords. We’ve read stories in 2013 of major corporations having their password files hacked and distributed to the Internet. Last year, we even read the tale of WIRED editor Mat Honan having his entire digital life wiped away because of his unsafe use of passwords.
2. You cannot have too much encryption. With documents surfacing that shows how our own Federal government spies on its citizens, we’ve learned that encryption should be used on a wider scale. We read stories in 2013 of how Dropbox, the popular cloud file storage and sharing service, has been hacked and documents leaked to the cloud. As free public wireless Internet access points become the norm in places like coffee shops, libraries, restaurants, stadia, airports, and hotels, we should start to heed warnings about how to take charge of what information we share online and when we do it.
3. Backup, backup, backup! Just as you can’t have too much encryption, you can never have enough backups of your data. My main computer is a MacBook Pro and I have a Mac mini that’s set up as a central server for file shares, iTunes, and Time Machine. Attached to that Mac mini is an external RAID array for keeping irreplaceable files like my lifelong photo album backed up. And that is backed up to the cloud. Paranoia? Perhaps. But when it comes to the digital world, one cannot backup their data enough.
4. When it comes to network and systems design, simplicity is key. In the previous academic year (2012-2013), I served as the head of IT for a downtown Phoenix charter school and started to lead that school’s efforts to moving toward a one-to-one system (in which each student has or has access to their own computer or tablet computer). There were a lot of things that had to be done before the school could get to that point and I determined that we needed to standardize on a few things to make management (the IT department chair’s job) easier. By simplifying things, we were able to make the computing experience that much better. As I redesign my home computer network, I’m needing to remind myself that it doesn’t need dozens of complex moving parts, just something that works and can be easily centralized and managed.
5. The best computer is the one that’s with you. In April, I wrote a post about balancing computing necessities with commuting realities. My MacBook rarely leaves the house; if I’m taking Phoenix’s streets on bicycle, then it will not be coming with me. My iPad is the machine that I usually bring with me; as it is constantly in sync with the various cloud services I use, I know that it has a current copy of my data. In some instances, I’ll bring with my XT2, a tablet PC I acquired as a cheap PC when I need to do more things than my iPad can do. Sometimes, I’ll even leave the iPad at home and just go from my iPhone. That’s traveling lean.