Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Canada's Carriers Walking A Tight-Rope With Programmers...

You may remember that I have an ongoing disagreement with Bell Canada, over their policy to give away customer info to third parties and then refuse to reveal as to whom they have given it to.  After the last quick volley over the phone between myself and Bell Canada, I advised that their decision would ultimately cost them dearly.

Bell had made their move.  Now it was my turn.

In the days following that last conversation, an iOS static library was born.  The Carrier Degradation Framework (or the "CDF") as it came to be known, when loaded by a host iOS app would check the carrier settings and if it detected the app was running on Bell Canada, or anything related to Bell Canada (such as MVNO's like Virgin Mobile running on their infrastructure), it would start degrading the device performance, doing a number of things like spuriously turning on the GPS to make the phone hot and drain the battery prematurely, alloc memory to slow down execution of apps, put the host app to sleep, and a few other things I won't mention.

As you can see from this screen capture of a few lines of code, this isn't exactly rocket science...

The net result was when you compared two identical iPhones and the only difference was one was on Bell and one was on Rogers, the Bell phone would die of flat batteries nearly two hours before the competitor's device and the experience was generally sluggish in comparison to the Rogers one.  Combined with a simple remote signal on a web server, it could easily be remotely enabled and disabled without access to the device needed.

The creation of the CDF illustrated something big to me, which I'd not contemplated much before;  What I realised in making it is Canada's carriers can't go around brazenly aggravating the public like they used to, because in this day and age it's only a matter of time until they're ultimately going to inspire the wrong person to create a monster that's worse than the Carrier Degradation Framework, and the carriers aren't equipped to protect consumers from it.  After all, which one of the static libraries on the umpteen apps on your phone is checking what carrier it's working on and modifying it's behaviour accordingly?  

After you've wrestled with that question, now contemplate if someone like Bell Canada can fight that fire?  The answer is... they can't and don't.

In this case, Bell Canada were lucky because regardless of my know-how and my position as an unhappy customer, the CDF will be deployed somewhere where it can ultimately do some good...  But not everyone Bell Canada annoys has the moral obligations that I have, and so eventually something like this will go wild when they push the wrong buttons with someone else.  

In this case, whilst my disdain for Bell Canada continues under the circumstances, they can rest assured that the CDF wasn't ultimately how I used my turn in this game of chess.  

To conclude, the problem as I see it is this:  Bell Canada is poking the public like they Bell believes it has got the upper-hand, without thinking that the same aggravated members of the public is now writing the code for Bell's customer base.  After all, think how many iOS, Android and Blackberry apps made in Canada are created by people that don't have a beef with these carriers?

The position they're in now reminds me of this Supertramp album cover to "Famous Last Words"...

I just don't think the carrier's have realised this yet.

TTC Track Madness

This morning, this tweet caught my eye.

$104,727,250.54 for 800 metres of track?  

Let's do some math:
$104,727,250.54 / 800 =  $130,909.06 per metre.

A 2013 Rolls Royce Phantom in Canada costs $470,000.  At 5.834 metres long, it only costs 80,562.22 per metre.  At that price, you could build an 800 metre line of nose-to-bumper Rolls Royce Phantoms (totalling 137 cars), and it would only cost $64,390,000.  

That leaves you enough money ($40,337,250.54), to put a 1 ounce gold bar on each of four seats in every one of those cars, and (at $1600 per oz x 4 seats x 137 cars = $876,800) that still leaves $39,460,450.54.

At $200,000 a ticket for SpaceShipTwo flights on Virgin Galactic, you can then send the driver of every one of those 137 Rolls Royces ($200,000 x 137 = $27,400,000) on a trip into space and still have $11,960,450.54 left over.

That remaining $11,960,450.54 divided by 800 metres is still $14,950.56 per metre.  That is closer to the expectation of what construction costs should be.

Anyone that approves the original figure at the top of this article is clearly not doing so in the interests of the public, the taxpayer or according their fiduciary responsibilities.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Can we not think of a more environmentally friendly way to move panda food about?

Today we're getting some new panda's in Toronto.  Behind the usual hyperbole of news media hype, special relations speeches, research funding and all the other trappings that surround a panda loan, there's a commitment from Fedex to ship 900KG of Bamboo three times a week, from Memphis to Toronto, for the duration of their stay.

That stuck out like a sore thumb…  This is supposed to be an environmental cause, no?

Let's just take a closer look at that…

The distance from MEM to YYZ  is about 1300KM. According to the SAS CO2 air freight calculator, that lands you with a 1330KG in CO2 emissions if shipped on a standard Airbus A320.  Three times a week is 3,990KG in CO2. Per year, that's 207,480KG and over 5 years is a staggering 1,037,400KG of CO2 just to move their bamboo.

Now, I applaude FedEx for stepping up to the plate on this (I said only the other week that the same should be done about shipping Toronto's Elephants to California), but to offset this 1037.4 tonnes of CO2, if you purchase carbon credits, the going rate would be $51,870!  

Can we not think of a more environmentally friendly way to move panda food about?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cellular Service On The TTC

When it comes to cellular service, I'm a bit more connected than the average guy or gal.  I pay a lot for my service, and I really notice when it's missing… like on the subway trains in Toronto.  

How about we get it into Toronto's two and bit lines?  

Putting cellular service into tunnels isn't hard.   Q.E.D, this isn't a technical hurdle as it's already been done in many of the most complicated subway systems in the world, including Seoul and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).  Also, it's not a money problem as all that has to happen is the carriers put their systems in the tunnels, then pay the TTC rent, just like they would for putting a cellular transmitter on a building. Given the TTC is always having budget issues, you'd think they'd be welcoming people throwing money at them in a rent or rev-share fashion.  

Before anyone says it's a problem with the radios and signalling, I can only point this is why we have Industry Canada (They have regulations that dictate spectrum usage and if your radios and track signalling equipment are designed to clash with cellular signals, then they will be replaced and someone's head should be on the block).  Either way, that's easily solved by the carriers paying to replace the TTC equipment as part of the bargain.

What we're supposed to be running in Toronto is a modern transit system.  When people get on a subway train, they're stepping back into an era equal to what we had before radio waves were discovered.  That's just not right in this day and age - especially when NASA has DTN talking across the solar system and we can't get signals into tunnels that run alongside the basements of some of Canada's carrier monopolies.

So what else could the hold up be, if it's not a technical hold up or a financial one?  I can only conclude it's a political holdup (in the "palm + grease" manner).

Friday, March 15, 2013

Information and Misinformation

This morning I saw something in my twitter feed from @YStarbucksSucks that said "Starbucks' coffee contains acrylamide which is known to cause cancer.”"…  This annoyed me because people might be misinformed.

If you've never heard of acrylamide, here's all you need to know:
1) It's a compound that is found in coffee after the roasting process.  It's also found in bread after baking.  It's found in fries after frying…  In fact, almost anything that goes brown during the cooking/baking/frying/roasting process will have this compound in it, including roasted coffee beans. Thus, since humans started cooking food thousands of years ago, we've been eating it.  
2) Yes, it is a carcinogen, but only when you mass produce it and concentrate it to levels far beyond what's normally found in food.  So in the same way we have smog with numerous known carcinogens but we don't tell people to stop breathing, the same (for now) applies to your food choices.

That aside, the fact that people get misinformed was what really ticked me.

Back in the old days, it was the TV and Newspapers job to educate people.  They largely fouled this up with their constant undertones of irrational fear, hyperbole and media induced drama, but people still got more education from those sources than anywhere else.  Also, whilst this was fairly bad, at least people knew the source of where this information was being fed from, and could just switch off when common sense takes over.  

For instance, when one reporter at my local TV News channel recently started spouting that the Costa Concordia "was a modern day Titanic", it only took about two volleys in a twitter argument before I just concluded she was being irrationally dramatic, discounted her point of view, and then decided to mothball her from my mental understanding of reporters I trust.  

In social media, can you do the same?  

We often don't know who sits behind the twitter accounts we encounter, or what their expertise is in certain subjects, or what their motives are.  However, people forward information as retweets and some people are gullible enough to believe whatever information they're being fed from these new mediums.

This is a massive problem.  Also, I don't know what's being done to educate people about it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis and the Falklands

As a person who generally thinks that "belief" is what you fall back on when "factually knowing" is impossible, I generally don't pay too much attention to things like the Pope.  However, as a British Citizen, I do pay attention when an Argentine public figure lands an even bigger International role as a Pope.

My immediate reaction was "what's his stance on the Falklands?".

In 2006, he criticised the Argentine proposal to legalise abortion under certain circumstances, accusing the government of lacking respect for the values held by the majority of Argentines, and of trying to convince the Catholic Church "to waver in our defence of the dignity of the person".  It turns out Cardinal Bergoglio has also previously been outspoken in his support for Argentina's claim, saying “Las Malvinas are ours”.  

So much for the respect of the values of the Falklander's...

With an Argentine at the helm of the Catholic church, there's a lot of political stuff that is about to start flying, especially since the Falklands residents just had another democratic vote to remain British, not Argentine.  

We all know what happened to the papacy in the 10th and 11th centuries when the lines between religion, politics and military got all blurred….  If this pope is going to be a good one, he has to change his views to be fairer and straighten his public story up, and stick to religion, because right now Argentina just got a public megaphone that a billion people listen to, and he should not be used to sway public opinion on the Falklands.  

If they go down that route, the pope will push a new piece of latin into the public dictionary where the Falklands are concerned:  Raptus Regaliter ("royally screwed").

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Observation, Conversation, Delegation.

Warning: Adult Language In This Post.

The people I know and deal with regularly, are split into two groups.  
1) Those I can discuss a difference of opinion with.
2) Those I can't discuss a difference of opinion with.

I have friends that after a few beers we go into the deepest darkest depths of the two subjects you should never talk about in a pub (Politics or Religion), and although passions run high, we all respect each other's viewpoint even if nobody can sway anyone to their point of view.  

At the other end of the spectrum are people who flatly refuse to hear anyone else's argument, and insists that they are right… end of.  One such person I know has a viewpoint of management that represents one of these chronic "differences in opinion". 

If something is going wrong, he insists on quoting the phrase that "Shit rolls downhill", and delegates the problem down the line to make it someone else's problem to deal with.  He also preaches that other people do the same.

Personally, I see this as a cop-out where management skills and responsibility is concerned…. in my mind the analogy is wholly wrong.  To me, "Shit floats" is more apt.  If something is going wrong on your shift and it's gotten to my desk, trying to deal with it responsibly and stop it from floating further up the chain of management is the better thing to do.  If it's outside of my control, it will escalate anyway until it's on someone higher's desk and they will have to deal with it and me.  

Whilst this is an isolated example that I've illustrated, it is a good example as it embodies the type of person that I usually find troublesome.  For the sake of not rocking the boat, I've given up arguing that this is wrong, but it doesn't change my viewpoint.   On the other side of the fence, there only ever was one viewpoint.  

Being able to sway people with your opinions is a powerful thing. But, also being aware that other people have opinions that see as axioms is more powerful. Whilst they live in a myopic world and miss opportunities to better themselves and those around them, you need to use your power of observation to dodge these arguments when you notice them and spend your efforts on more positive things in life.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reporting - The next phase in our digitization of assets

As a kid I watched with awe, vinyl records going around and around and I marvelled at the fact that sound came from it.  By the age of about 7, I'd have wrecked countless records as experimented with pins, needles, staples, and any other number of small sharp things to see what the properties of each was when applied to a record.  One day, I saw a Philips vinyl video player. (As an adult, I think it was some sort of TED player) This was the neatest thing.  To think that you could have sound and video on a record was just mind blowing.  Needless to say, when the CD was first shown on TV (I would have been about 8 or 10yrs old), I was blown away by it too.  But then a funny thing happened.  We went from CD to CD-ROM, to Video Disc, to DVD, to DVD-ROM.  It almost seemed like in a space of a few years we were treating this medium like some wonder product that would last a thousand years.  The reality was, of course, that the disc format was already in question by the time we got to the release of Blu-Ray discs.

In the past 5 years though, we've nearly all abandoned physical media around the home and the workplace.  However, this doesn't mean that our things are not still stored on physical media.  Somewhere, your webmail or cloud system is sitting on a physical drive.

What has happened is that the thing we interact with and understand has been taken away from us.  In the process, we've been largely deprogrammed from thinking about the reality of the thing - the usual marketing spiel is that things "have been simplified".  This is like in the old days when everyone knew beef came from cows and eggs come from chickens - but now both come in trays at the supermarket.  The physical reality of where beef and eggs come from has not changed, but the physical presentation of how it is delivered has changed considerably.

Going back to technology, you have to question what's going on?  Here's what's happening:
1) Things are being digitized.  Therefore, things we used to hold (letters, records, CD's, photos, books, etc) are all being converted to a digital format.
2) The storage of your digital things are being held away from you "for safekeeping".

So, now think about media and how it talks of the "digital curve".  They are a little right, talking about TV and print being digitized and served up from central repositories, but there's a bigger issue that's going to become a problem.  


When you have a lot of anything, be it books, music, money, patients, customers, photos, being able to take stock, account, and report on it becomes a priority.  This is going to be a big thing in a few years - we will be drowning in our own reports.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Real-Time News Tweets

Twitter can be used in one of two ways by the news media…

1)  It can be used as the hook to get you to go somewhere else to read the story.
2)  It can be used to tell you the story as it unfolds in real-time.

Nearly every outlet in North America does the first of these two.  They put out a tweet that tells you a snippet, like a headline, and then gives you a link to go and read more on their website.  When you get there, because the story hasn't fully unfolded yet, you are greeted with a page that tells you more information is coming soon, but doesn't actually give you any more information than you had from the hook tweet that brought you there in the first place.

Last night (my local time), a gunman was running around in a shopping mall in Brisbane, Australia.  I happened to be catching up on Twitter and was watching the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (@abcnews), reporting from on the scene using twitter.  The immediacy of story as it unfolded was brilliant.  Rather than wait 5 minutes for someone to edit a page with "information coming soon" on it, they literally posted second by second what was happening from the reporters who were already on the scene.

Sure, there's the big write-up to read in detail after the event, but the decision to put out a story on Twitter in that fashion as it unfolded, was a great example from the ABC that showed off how Twitter can be used in a real-time manner when cameras aren't available.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A 700Mhz Hog Wash

This morning, I was skimming through this Minister of Industry speech on "New measures to increase competition in the wireless sector".

If you've not lived in Canada, you'd probably have no idea of the shenanigans that go on up here in the wireless space, so here's a quick recap:

You basically have a duopoly of heavy hitters (Bell Canada and Rogers Wireless) and their little tag-along brother (Telus) who control nearly everything.  There is a public facade that infers a sense of competition because you can go to independent looking providers, but it's really just the same players wearing different makeup, so there's Koodo (Telus), Fido (Rogers), Solo (Bell), Virgin (Bell), Chatr (Rogers), and so on.

Having sewn up the communications market with no real competition, they've amassed a lot of control, which they exert over auxiliary areas.  For instance, Rogers owns the cable TV system which brings you sports, and they own the SkyDome (now called the Rogers Centre) and four out of the five sports teams in Toronto. 

So I come to the aforementioned speech…

It starts of with "I am proud to announce today the next steps in our government's plan to build a more competitive wireless sector—One that delivers for Canadian families by providing more choices and more access at better prices.

Ok, this sounds promising…  Maybe we're getting some outside competition to break up the current tar-ball of a national duopoly that we currently have?

After a bit of waffle, it says "Simply put, since coming to office, we have made a stronger, more competitive wireless sector a priority. And the results speak for themselves. Consumers have more choice in the wireless market than ever before. Prices have dropped, and most Canadians now have access to faster mobile speeds and the most sophisticated tablets and smartphones."…  


My prices are still the same as before, and what choice of provider do I have today to get an iPhone from that I didn't before?  Cross reference this with the "Commercial Mobile Spectrum outlook" from Industry Canada and you'll notice the words "Family" and "Families" is mentioned precisely zero times.  This is a "raise money from dead airwaves" operation. 

After a bit more waffle, it says "Third, our government is delivering on our promise to use the upcoming wireless spectrum auctions to promote four competitors in each region of the country. The first of these auctions, the 700 MHz auction, will take place on November 19, 2013."


So to rehash this in plain English, the switch to digital TV has freed up some old TV broadcast spectrum and our three major players are going to bid for 75% of this, and you're inferring that they will be ALL now be in ALL regions of the country plus one other player in each region.

Note that there's no mention of opening this up to foreign competition in either report.

The forecast is just more of the same.  Rogers and Bell will make the biggest offers, Telus will fight for 3rd place and you'll see a scrap for the 4th position from various new startup funds.

Hooray for this victory for Canadian families! Not.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Invalidating Public Input

This morning, I was led by Twitter to this...

I agree with everything it said, but there's more to the story.

I'm an Englishman, not a Canadian, but I live in Canada as a permanent resident.  This basically means I'm obligated to behave like a Canadian, pay my taxes, follow the laws, etc.  It also means that I can't vote - and my input on any election doesn't count.  

To me, this is fine.  If the only difference to Canada over whether I have one of their passports or not is the ability to vote here (think how many times they've prorogued parliament), then I'm quite happy to not bother.  People might get annoyed at my attitude over not wanting to vote in Canada, however, there's a flip side to this;  Compared to 99% of the voting public, my input into what goes on is orders of magnitudes higher.  

Those that know me well, know that if something is wrong, I will hunt down and find the person responsible for fixing it, and it will be fixed. I don't waste people's time - but I do make it very clear that not nipping things in the bud is the sensible solution.  In my nearly 15 years in Toronto, I've had many large companies held to task, fixed issues with municipal practices, altered the way city departments communicate with the public to increase clarity, got involved in emergency planning, public assistance programs, investigated the water infrastructure timebomb sitting under the city, advocated for the creation of (and used) the open data initiative, worked with the RCMP to help convict government employees, and I've helped on things I can't talk about at some of the most senior levels of government in this country.

But you'll notice there's a spectrum issue here:  I am effective at the very bottom, and very top of the chain.  The middle bit is, with few exceptions, a lock-out…  The reason is there appears to be people who don't want to listen to someone they've never heard of.  It's a bit like an old boys club.

Not surprisingly, the USA takes a different view of me. There, I'm not effective at local levels because I don't live there, and I'm not effective at the highest levels because they've more important things to worry about than some Brit up in Canada who has made some observation, but the really large middle bit is always very accommodating when I've something I want to say or contribute.  Over the years, I've spoken to many senior people in many different levels of federal government who genuinely want my input.

I have to question why this is:  Time and time again, the only thing I can think of is the attitude in the USA is to make progress for the country as a whole, whilst the attitude in Canada is something they inherited from the UK, and that's protecting the status quo for the individual.  Again, a bit like the old boys club/network.

The net result of this attitude is often the system (in the middle bit from lower provincial level to middle of the federal level) works hardest to invalid crowd-sourced input from the public, preferring to set up committees of people it already knows to look into things that it's already made up it's mind on.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Managers and the Hawthorne Effect

When you've been around businesses and projects for a while, you start to see patterns emerge. One pattern I see on a regular basis is management who think they're solving a problem, but it's really just the Hawthorne Effect at work.

If you've never heard of the Hawthorne Effect, all you need to know is that people who know they're being monitored will be more productive than those who aren't.  It's common sense really.

The most frequent scenario I see is this:  Let's say senior management are absent a lot, due to golfing commitments, vacations and other "extra-curricular" activities that means they can't put in a regular day's work at the office.  When things go awry and projects slip, they blame it on "poor communication", "lack of accountability", etc.  

If the problem is big enough, they get to the point where a meeting is called.  Then they berate everyone, lose patience, and then say that "things are going to change".  At this point, they impose a bunch of new rules, new processes, and spend a few days implementing it.  

At the end of those few days, they notice that productivity is up, people are communicating, and things are running smoother.  What they don't notice is everyone is ignoring the new processes as much as the old ones, the new rules are being flouted as much as the old ones, the workers are now all riled up because they've been berated at, and so forth.  So what's the cause of the increase in productivity? 

It's the Hawthorne Effect.  

It's nothing to do with the rules, processes and stuff like that, and everything to do with the fact that the manager is there observing what's going on.  Thus, it's really obvious what's going to happen when they think they've solved the problem and then don't turn up for the whole of the next week due to three golf commitments, and a long weekend in NYC.

What I can never work out is why some people cannot see the benefits of actually "managing" people, so when they fail to do that, they go round making the problem worse.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Making Homemade Yogurt

Anyone that has spent even a small amount of time around me will know that I like to make things, and often it's not for the sake of saving money, but so I can say to myself that "I've done that" and strike it off my list of accomplishments - and sometimes it's because I'm intrigued into how something is made or done.  

Homemade Yogurt was one of those items, but as it is really simple and very cost effective, I now do it on a regular basis.  Having young kids and being generally a family with a heavy appetite for yogurt, there was no way we'd be spending about $15 a week on a few litres the stuff.  Instead, I spend about $4 and make about $15 worth.  As for time needed, the bulk of this is done whilst I sleep.

To give you the layman's background, yogurt is milk that has had a bacteria go through it, converting the lactose (a form of sugar) into lactic acid.  In other words, it's fermented milk.  The lactic acid then acts on the major protein in the milk ("Casein" - its the bit that holds all the calcium, phosphorus, carbohydrates and amino acids) and causes it to bind into a substance that you know as yogurt.

The bit that always confuses people is if you're making your own yogurt, where do you get the bacteria?  The good news is, you just buy some yogurt at the store with "Live" or "Active" cultures (cultures = bacteria), introduce it to some warm milk and leave it for a number of hours to chew through the lactose.  Literally, that's it.  You can save a bit of your new yogurt to create the next batch, but it runs out of steam after about six re-uses... at which point you'll probably want to buy a different yogurt from the store and try experimenting with that.

You'll see a whole bunch of recipes on the Internet that call for various paraphernalia and heating pads, towels, thermos flasks, and you really don't need any of it.

So, here's the recipe that I did.

The ingredients:
  • 1 liter of whole milk.
  • 3 tablespoons of plain yogurt with "live" cultures.

The method:
  • First, heat the milk to 185°F in a saucepan over a medium heat. Keep stirring as you don't want to burn the milk on the bottom of the pan.  This is just to sterilise it of any bad bacteria you might have in it, and it breaks down the milk structure to make it easier for the bacteria to process.
  • Now, turn off the heat.  Let it cool to 110°F.
  • Add 3 tablespoons of store "Live/Active" yogurt.  Mix well.
  • Pour the milk into a suitable container with a cover.
  • Pop it into an oven with the light on.  (In my oven, the lamp alone warms things to 90-91°F).
  • Go to bed, leaving it for about 10 hours.  Do NOT jiggle, jostle or poke it once in the oven.
When you open up the oven in the morning, you're greeted with what is unmistakably yogurt.  It's warm, but it's yogurt.  The longer you leave it, the tangier it becomes, the shorter you have it, the less tangy.

The next bit is all about preference for the yogurt style;  The yogurt you're looking at has a watery substance in it - This is whey (what to do with whey other than chuck it down the sink is a topic unto itself).  You can leave it and mix it in for a very runny yogurt, or take it out, to thicken things up a bit.  I elect to take mine out using this method:

1.  Put a sieve over a bowl.  Put a paper coffee filter or paper towel in the sieve.
2.  Spoon in as much yogurt as will fit and leave it for 5 minutes to drain.
3.  Spoon it out into a (sanitised) container for refrigerating.  

If you want to go greek style, put the strained yogurt in a coffee filter and leave it to strain in your fridge overnight, to remove even more whey.

So to recap:
  • Heat the milk to sterilize it and break it down.
  • Cool the milk to the point where the heat won't kill the active bacteria from the store bought yogurt.
  • Leave it in a warm place, undisturbed, to do it's thing.
  • Optionally strain out as much or little whey as you want when it's done.
That's it.  No machines.  No fancy ingredients (though obviously, feel free to add flavours, fruit, colours, etc - if you ever wanted blue yogurt that tastes like habaneros, well now is your chance).

If you use semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, it still works just as well, just the yogurt is a little more runny due to the lesser fat amount.... and the way the store bought yogurt deals with that is thickeners... you can probably just add some milk powder or cream if you really need thicker yogurt.