The Austin Uber Backpedaling Begins

The Austin Uber Backpedaling Begins

Bang! It hasn’t even been two weeks since Uber and Lyft left the Austin market and already the Austin City Council is beginning to backpedal on their demand that ride-sharing companies do fingerprint background checks on their drivers.

The Austin-American Statesman is reporting that Austin City Council member Ellen Troxclair has suggested that Austin should make fingerprint background checks optional just as San Antonio and other cities have done. Shocking. Why didn’t the Austin City Council simply look at how other cities have dealt with this problem in the first place? Why waste hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money which resulted in nothing but loss? What do I mean by loss?

  1. The City of Austin spent who knows how much in City Council members time debating this issue as well as the cost of having an election on Proposition 1.
  2. Thousands of Uber drivers found themselves out of work.
  3. Thousands of Uber passengers had to find alternative and usually more expensive or less convenient forms of transportation.

Was there a winner here? No. Austin will almost certainly adopt optional fingerprint background checks just as other cities have.

The sad thing is that even those optional fingerprint background checks don’t solve any problems. They are purely security theater. A few people who care might feel safer but that doesn’t mean they are. Additionally, all 7 of last year’s reports of sexual assault by Uber drivers came from drunk, young women none of whom will be in a state of mind to request only an Uber driver who has passed a more rigorous background check when they stumble out of a Sixth Street bar at 2AM on a Saturday night. So even they won’t be any safer.

My original post on this caused several people to tweet at me about how Uber is some big, bad corporation with greedy investors who care nothing about passenger safety and want to squeeze their drivers while they sit in high towers twirling the ends of their mustaches. It saddens me that anyone lacks the critical thinking skills to the degree that they would believe such nonsense.

Of course Uber cares about passenger safety. If Uber had a widespread reputation for being unsafe, they would be out of business. Caring about passenger safety is good for Uber’s profit. Having said that, like many investments, there’s the law of diminishing returns.There’s a point at which riding with Uber is safe enough. As I stated in my last post on this topic, Uber is already extremely safe. You are more likely to be hit by lightning than assaulted by an Uber driver. There’s a point at which Uber won’t benefit by trying to make their service even safer and in fact will instead cost them which ultimately costs the consumer. How does that work?

Like any business, Uber is in this to make a profit. If you think that’s a bad idea, you don’t like free markets and should probably stop reading now. The more expense they have, the harder it is to make a profit. That leads either to charging customers more per minute or making less profit. They won’t do either unless they have no choice. You may think that regulations can be put in place so they won’t have a choice. That’s faulty logic. People always have a choice. If regulations make providing ride-sharing unprofitable or simply less profitable than deploying their money elsewhere, Uber and its shareholders will move on. That’s exactly what they did do when this ridiculous regulation could not be over-turned. They exited the Austin market. Would you leave your money in a savings account that paid far less interest than at another bank? Would you leave your money in a poorly-performing stock when you knew of a better one? Would you keep paying for your child’s college education when they were spending so much time partying that their grades were suffering? Of course not.

Why would Uber leave over such a silly little thing as requiring fingerprint background checks? Because it’s not a silly little thing. Uber knows better than anyone that fingerprint background checks don’t solve any significant problems but they do make the process of hiring drivers more onerous. If they don’t make sure there are enough drivers, enough supply for the demand, passengers will no longer feel that Uber is a reliable service and they will stop using it. This isn’t Uber’s first rodeo. They have been down this path before in other cities. In most every case, the city eventually receives enough complaints about Uber leaving the market that they backpedal (as Austin is doing now) and make the fingerprint background checks optional. The fact that Uber was willing to leave the market over this should tell you something.

Most people work for someone else. Unfortunately, that leads to a very one-sided view of how businesses work. It’s been tweeted at me that Uber pays less than minimum wage (they don’t) and that as a result, Uber drivers must rely on government welfare. Let’s examine that for a moment. First, we don’t know that this is even true but let’s assume that it is. Bob is an Uber driver. In our fictional scenario, Bob can’t make enough driving for Uber so he qualifies for government benefits. Why doesn’t Bob stop driving for Uber and take that high-paying corporate job he keeps getting offered? Because no such job offer exists. Bob drivers for Uber because Bob thinks thats his best option. If there was a better one, Bob would likely take it. In other words, if Bob stops driving for Uber and goes to work elsewhere, he’s likely to earn a similar amount of money which means he is just as qualified for government assistance as before. Nothing has changed. If Bob could earn more elsewhere he wouldn’t be driving for Uber. This is the same argument that has been used with Wal-Mart. I quite rarely shop at Wal-Mart nor do I own stock in the company. I’m no fan. However, if people who work at Wal-Mart could make better money elsewhere, they would do so. Since they can’t, they are no more reliant upon government welfare than they would be any where else. If they instead increase their skills to the point where they make enough to no longer need welfare, great. However, that is up to them, not their employer.

It has been tweeted at me that Uber is under-cutting taxi services. That’s a charge that is absolutely true. That’s the free market folks! That’s competition. That’s how the world becomes more efficient. Someone finds a better way and people pay for it. If the taxi services had been smarter, they would have seen Uber coming. They would have become Uber before Uber ever arrived. They didn’t because people tend to get stuck in their old habits. Companies are as guilty of this as anyone else because companies are made up of…wait for it….people! Do you want to know why Apple is the biggest publicly-trade company in the world with profit margins that other companies only dream of? Because Apple admits to something that the overwhelming majority of other companies do not: there’s someone else out there right now working on creating the product that will obsolete what we sell so we better do it first. Apple doesn’t care that the iPad might result in fewer Mac sales because they are still making money. If Apple doesn’t create it, someone else will.

I have been self-employed most of my adult life. It’s not easy. I remember hiring my first employee (Jason, who still works for me 20 years later btw) and thinking, “What if I can’t generate enough revenue to pay his salary? That would mean he can’t pay is rent or buy food!” Being an employer is a huge responsibility. That feeling never goes away. I’ve been running my current business, Xojo, Inc., for 20 years now. While I have gotten used to the feeling of responsibility for my employees and while it’s easier to manage that responsibility than it was when I first started, I still feel it. Being self-employed changes you. It changes how you look at the world. It makes you realize that there are two-sides to everything. The best thing is being able to see any situation from all sides so you can most efficiently resolve it. We would be better off if everyone, at some point in their lives, ran their own business.

That’s not likely to happen but what can happen is for more people to apply critical thinking to situations they encounter. When faced with a problem, try to avoid immediately getting caught up in the emotions of it and instead apply some rational thinking. Try and see it from all sides. Do some research (which with the Internet is so easy now) and see if the problem really does exist and is big enough that we should spend time and resources to resolve it. Not every problem is actually worth solving. We don’t have unlimited resources. We must prioritize our activities. You can do a few things really well or a lot of things really badly. Critical thinking helps us realize this and it’s something we could use a lot more of in today’s society.

I’m confident that Uber will be back in operation here in Austin within the next 30 days or so. I’m glad for that because it’s a valuable service that I have only just begun to utilize. I’m also glad that the Austin City Council has at least one reasonable member in Ellen Troxclair.

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Uber is leaving Austin and your city might be next

Uber is leaving Austin and your city might be next

So it appears there’s a huge dearth of critical thinking in Austin, Texas. There was a vote today on proposition 1 which was attempting to repeal the Austin City Council’s requirement that ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft do extensive background checks on their drivers.

On the surface this might seem ok. After all, if Uber does more background checks, Uber passengers will be safer, right? Wrong. Uber drivers collectively conduct 1 million trips every day around the world. If Uber had 100 assaults each day it would be an epidemic that would put them out of business and yet your odds of being attached would then be 1 in 10,000. You are almost certainly far more likely to die in a car accident while riding in an Uber car than to be attacked by an Uber driver. For example, your odds of dying in a car accident are about 1 in 100. It should be needless to say that using Uber is very safe. Nothing is completely safe of course. People die in their sleep every year by being strangled to death by their sheets but that doesn’t keep us awake at night.

Let’s say you are a violent person out there looking for the best way to find your next victim. You could choose to simply find people who are home alone, break-in and assault them. If you’re smart, you’ll wear a mask and gloves so you leave little or no evidence behind. Instead, you decide to use Uber to find your next victim. Never mind the fact that everything about your transaction (your name, address, photos of your driver’s license and insurance as well as detailed photos of your car, the passengers name and address, as well as when you accepted the trip, when and where it started, the destination, the time it began and more) will all be tucked securely away on a server of which you have no access. The evidence supporting the victim’s claim that they were assaulted by you will be overwhelming. You’d have to be the stupidest person in the world to think that attacking your passenger is a good idea.

So the city council first wasted tax payer dollars coming up with this ridiculous idea in the first place then Uber has had to waste their time and money trying to fight it. Finally, the ignorant voters, only a tiny percentage of which bothered to vote, came out against the proposition. Worst of all is that the people already have a choice. If you think Uber is dangerous don’t use it.

Now Uber and Lyft will abandon the Austin market all because some ignorant city council members couldn’t be bothered to do a little critical thinking before wasting taxpayer dollars to stifle a valuable service. For those that think Uber is bluffing, they have already announced they are pulling out of Austin effective Monday morning and they have done this before in other cities. If it’s happening in a high-tech city like Austin, Texas with an very educated population, it can happen where you live as well.

Folks, we need more critical thinking. We all need to use common sense, do a little more research and spend a little more time considering our decisions before just reacting to every little headline that comes along. We should all know by now that the media is NOT aligned with our best interests. Their job is to create juicy headlines so you’ll see the ads that make them money. The next time you are outraged by a headline on Facebook or Twitter, spend an extra minute or so to determine if it makes any sense before clicking that Share button. You’ll be the better for it and you’ll be providing a valuable service by not spreading the news equivalent of cow manure.

In this world of instant 24/7 news and social media that can spread a story at nearly the speed of light, it takes an extra level of vigilance and critical thinking to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Update (5/11/16): In 2015 The Austin Police Department received 7 reports of alleged sexual assaults committed by Uber/Lyft drivers. What percentage of all fares does this represent? I’ve read there are about 5000 Uber/Lfyt drivers. Let’s assume the average driver handles only 2 fares a day to account for the many drivers that only occasionally drive. That’s 3.65 million fares a year. Divide the 7 assaults by 3.65 million and you get just under two millionths of one percent. That’s a microscopic number. This does not seem like a problem worth solving with tax payer dollars. Note that almost all if not all of those reports were made by young, drunk women. While these women certainly deserve to be able to get home without being assaulted, this problem is actually too small to be worth addressing with tax payer dollars. I don’t wish to be insensitive but we wouldn’t be willing to spend $7 million dollars to stop 7 alleged assaults, right? That means there must be a cost-benefit analysis there’s just no way the cost-benefit analysis works here. Uber knows this. They know that in a few months the Uber users will pitch a fit, the City Council will make the background checks optional and Uber will return.

Geeking out on the Nest Protect

Geeking out on the Nest Protect

I really love smart home stuff. When we built our house two years ago here in Austin, Texas I had the builder install a Nest Thermostat. The best thing about it is the motion sensor which can tell when the house is empty and set the AC to come on at a higher temperature which saves money. This past weekend I installed 8 Nest Protect smoke/carbon monoxide alarms, replacing the dumb First Alert alarms that came with the house.

Had I known I was going to write this blog post, I would have taken more pictures during the setup and installation process but I have described it very well below.

Benefits

There are many great reasons to buy the Nest Protect. The most important of all reasons is that if you are away from home when a fire starts, your phone will alert you of this fact which could mean the difference between a small fire and your house burning to the ground. It’s unfortunate that insurance companies haven’t yet caught up to this new technology and offer a discount for homeowners that install them. Apparently the Protect can also tell the difference between burnt toast and a real fire though I haven’t had a real world test of that yet. When we occasionally do burn things on the stove, our old smoke alarms would go off filling the house with that ear-shattering sound that can only be silenced by furiously waving a magazine at the smoke alarm until it no longer senses smoke. With the Protect, you just take your phone out of your pocket and tap a button to silence it. I’m actually looking forward to our first toast burn.

The Nest Protect has other helpful features as well. It checks itself many times a day and the app will tell you the results. If the backup battery needs to be replaced, the app will tell you rather than waiting for the battery to die and waking you up at 2AM wondering why your house is making a loud chirping sound. Each Protect has a light on it which can be set to come on when you walk underneath them. This makes for a handy night light especially in living rooms and kitchens. Don’t try to test this feature with the lights on. I almost called Nest to complain it wasn’t working when I realized that the Protect must have a light sensor so that the pathway feature doesn’t come on unnecessarily. If you have a Nest thermostat, when the Protect detects smoke, it will tell the Nest Thermostat to shut off your AC so that it doesn’t blow smoke and potentially hot embers through your house.

One a month, the Nest Protect will automatically test the smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. You can’t tell it what day to do this but you can tell it a range of hours. It defaults to between 11AM and 4PM.

The Nest Protect’s motion sensor can work with your Nest Thermostat as well such that if it doesn’t detect anyone walking under or near any one of them for an hour, it can set your Thermostat to “away” saving you money on your AC. Nest has recently added a geo-fencing feature to their app as well so it can tell when any of your phones (and thus you) are home or not and immediately switch the AC to away when no one is home. At this point, my AC really has no excuse to be on when we are away from home.

If there’s a downside to the Nest Protect, it’s the price. The alarms I was replacing cost between $15 and $30 new on Amazon. The Nest Protect is $99: each. When you need 8 of them, that’s a lot of dough. What I have told myself is that if it saved our lives or just kept a small fire from becoming a huge one, it would be worth it. There’s value in the secure feeling you get from knowing you are doing your best to protect your family.

Buying

Before you buy them, determine if your smoke alarms are wired into your house or run on a battery. This is different from them having a backup battery. They will have one of those but they may also be wired into your house, receiving their power from the house itself. This is important to know up front because Nest sells two different models, one that runs on a battery and one that is wired meaning that it uses the wires in your house for power.

I wanted to buy them locally so that in case there was a problem, I could just return them. This turned out to be more difficult than I had ever thought. I needed 8 alarms and most places I called only had a couple of them in stock. I ended up buy 3 of them at my local Best Buy (which had plenty of battery models but only 3 wired ones) and then driving 25 miles to a Home Depot in Dripping Springs to get the other 5 I needed.

If you’re not in a hurry, it might be worth just ordering them from Amazon. They sell both the wired and battery-powered versions.

Installing

I’m no electrician though I have installed some timer switches and 3 ceiling fans in our house. Having said that, I’m confident that anyone could install a Nest Protect alarm. It’s easy. Take them out of their boxes then install the Nest app on your phone and it will walk you through the setup process. It’s easier to set up them all up at once so if you’re planning to replace a bunch of them, do yourself a favor and do it all in one go. Nest provides an installation video on their site. I highly recommend watching this before you even purchase the Nest Protect. If the installation looks like something you don’t want to do, you can hire someone to do it for you. Nest can even refer you to a local installer.

The app has you identify each unit via a QR code on the back which you scan with your phone’s camera. It asks you to identify your WIFI network and enter the password. You only have to do this last part once. After that, the setup process copies this information from a Protect you have already set up to the next one. That was pretty smart. As you go along, you choose a location name from a pre-defined list for each Protect. You then write that location name on the back of the unit to help you install the right one in the right place. By choosing a location name, the Nest Protects can alert you by voice of any problems with a particular Protect unit. In my case, I had two in the living room and two in kid’s rooms. Fortunately, you can add a custom label. For example, for the kid’s rooms I added their names as the custom labels.

Once they are all set up, it’s time to actually install them. If you have wired smoke alarms like I do, you’ll need to go to your fuse box and find the switch for your smoke alarms. Hopefully your house was built with a dedicated circuit for the smoke alarms. Mine was but not all are. Turn off that switch so you don’t electrocute yourself. For extra safety you can buy a circuit tester for a few dollars at your local hardware store. It’s got two prongs (black and red) which you just touch simultaneously to the back and red exposes wires. If the light on the tester comes on, you’ve got a hot wire so you didn’t flip the right fuse switch.

The first thing you need to do is remove the old smoke alarm. Most twist off. Then you’ll need to unplug them from the wires in the ceiling (if they are wired like mine). This is harder than it sounds. It requires a bit of force and you’re doing this while perched precariously on a ladder so be careful. Next you need to remove the mounting plate for your old alarm. There’s usually two screws holding it in. Here’s where I’m going to save you a lot of time unless you’re smarter than me. It took installing 4 of them before I realized that I didn’t need to completely remove these screws! Just loosen them a bit and you should be able to rotate the mounting plate enough to remove it. Nest provides their own so you can just slip the new one on and tighten the two screws. The Nest-provided mounting plate is smooth on one side and has ridges on the other. The plate needs to be installed with the ridged side facing the ceiling or wall.

The Protect comes with its own connector which needs to be wired into your existing wiring. Your old one has to be removed first but this is easy because there are just little wire connector caps that you unscrew to disconnect the old connector from your wiring. The new Protect connector connects the same way. Then you plug the new connector into your Protect, push your Protect up against the new mounting bracket you have installed and turn the Protect clockwise until its locked into the mounting bracket. The first one will take you 15 minutes. The rest will take 5 minutes each.

Testing 1, 2, 3…

The final step is to test them. You can do this by pressing the big button in the middle of the Protect. The Protect will then speak, telling you to press the button a second time to test. At this point the Protect will give you 10 seconds to move away as the test is understandably loud but also short in duration. It will test all of your Protects at once so there’s no need to repeat this for each one. That’s it. You’re done.

A Problem with an Inconvenient Solution

Because the location list Nest provides is pre-defined, you can end up with multiple Protects that have the same name. I have two in the living room and I have two kid’s rooms for example. As I mentioned, they provide a custom label so you can distinguish between two with the same pre-defined location name. The problem is, you don’t define these custom labels while setting up your Protect. I don’t remember that being an option. The result is that I got them all installed only to then discover that I couldn’t tell which Protect was the one on the left side of the living room versus the right. I couldn’t tell which Nest was in my son’s room versus my daughters. The Nest app simply listed the Protects by their pre-defined location names.

After searching in vane for a button in the app I could press that would test a specified alarm or just turn the light on for a moment, anything to identify a specific Protect, I called Nest to find out what the solution was. The only solution offered turned out to be wrong. They suggested I press the button on one of the living room and kid’s room alarms then look at the alarm history in the app to see if that one shows that it was tested. That seemed easy enough but they said I’d have to wait a day before the app would show that it had been tested. Unfortunately, there was nothing in this suggestion that turned out to be true. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, when you test one alarm, you test them all. Also, the test history in the Nest app updates immediately. So this was a useless suggestion. The only real way to determine which Protect is which is to compare the serial number on the back of the unit to the one listed for that Protect in the Nest app. The setup process really should have addressed this because it would have been easy to do before I got out the ladder and installed them all.

Attention Nesters!

To the fine folks at Nest who I’m hoping will read this post, you really need to have a room at your company offices that you use to educate your engineers and support staff. Every one of them should, at least once a year, be required to go into this room, remove 4 typical alarms (installed on the ceiling, not sitting on a desk) and then install Protects and go through the entire setup process. That will greatly help them understand the situations the customers face.  You should also sell at cost each of your employees as many Nest products as they need for their home. Every Nest employee should be intimately familiar with the installation and use of your products. I run a software development tools company, Xojo, Inc., and we use our software to write our software. We hire customers as engineers. This results in our staff knowing quite well what our customers go through and ultimately creates a better user experience.

An Excellent Home Upgrade

I’ve only had the Protects installed for two days but I already think they are an excellent home upgrade. I’m installing a Rachio smart sprinkler controller soon as well. It’s my understanding that it can be set up to work with Nest so that if there’s a fire, my sprinklers will automatically come on. That’s pretty cool. I’m also anxiously awaiting the release of the Yale Linus smart lock which is supposed to work with the Nest app as well. I’ll be installing those as soon as they are available.

Gun Control: How much is reasonable?

This week President Obama issued an executive order aimed primarily at closing the loopholes that allow guns to legally be sold without a background check. Unsurprisingly, this has generated quite a bit of controversy.

Many conservatives argue that the 2nd Amendment is clear: the Federal Government should not in any way restrict our right to bear arms. Liberals have countered with a different interpretation suggesting that our Founding Fathers meant that state militias should be free to bear arms. While I can understand why liberals think that, grammatically that doesn’t make sense. If that’s what the Founding Fathers wanted, they would have been more clear.

Having said that, imagine your neighbor who has a Ph.d in physics starts building a hydrogen bomb in his garage. Are you OK with this? Now I know what you’re thinking. We have laws against that right? We do. I doubt you could find any sane person who would argue that the 2nd Amendment gives your neighbor the right to build a weapon of mass destruction within a few yards of your living room. So we all agree there is a line somewhere and atomic weapons are clearly on the other side. The 2nd Amendment does not give each of us the right to bear any type of arms. There are restrictions. So the question is what should those restrictions be?

Imagine if a driver’s license was not a prerequisite for taking a car out on the highway. How safe would you feel knowing that many of those around you may not have any clue about the traffic rules and/or may have repeatedly violated them? There have been laws in place for years that require a background check when purchasing a firearm from a gun dealer. These were designed to preclude some people from buying firearms because they have indicated a serious lack of judgment. We could argue just how big the circle encompassing them should be but that’s for another day.

Unfortunately, gun dealers are not the only place you can legally purchase firearms. They can also be purchased at gun shows and online from private citizens with no background check required whatsoever. The President’s executive order will close these loopholes. It won’t stop every bad guy from buying a gun. Nothing will stop that. Even if we outlawed guns altogether and went around collecting them from everyone that had them, there would still be bad guys with guns. Seat belts don’t save everyone either but they save enough people to warrant their mandatory use.

I haven’t convinced you? Imagine your four year old daughter running around the backyard squealing with delight on a warm summer day while you’re inside making lunch. Unbeknownst to you, her shrieks have penetrated your neighbor’s bedroom through the window he left open. After a night of heavy drinking and another one of those fights with his wife you’ve heard far too often, this felon with a history of violence is suddenly awakened and he’s fuming. Enraged, he grabs his Beretta 93R machine pistol, a weapon that fires 1100 rounds per minute, punches out his window screen and sprays your backyard.

Are you really in favor of making it easier for him to purchase a gun?

Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens

Let me say up front that this review is chock full of spoilers so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading now. Of course, if you are reading a movie review and not expecting it to have spoilers, I’m not sure what to tell you. They do.

I saw the original Star Wars (now Episode IV, a New Hope) when it was released in 1977. I was in the 8th grade. I just loved it. I wanted to see it over and over again but this was a time before movies could be purchased on VHS (that’s the 1977 version of a digital download for you youngsters except that it wasn’t digital and you couldn’t download it). After the movie, I convinced the theater manager to let me clean the aisles between showings in exchange for watching the movie over and over. It was obviously a great deal for him and it worked out well for me too as I found $40 in cash while cleaning.

A few years later, the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was released. It was  great because it continued the story and introduced us to new parts and characters of the Star Wars universe. We saw Luke begin his impatient journey towards becoming a Jedi. Just as he had been anxious to leave his Uncle and Aunt’s farm to join the Academy, he’s too anxious to go help his friends in the Cloud City to stay and finish his Jedi training. Han Solo starts out as someone who cares only for his own wants and needs but later starts to realize that whether he likes it or not, these people are his friends and he cares about them. Even Darth Vader begins as completely evil but later begins to have doubts, paying the ultimate price for choosing family over the Empire. Still, the cracks in the Star Wars storyline began to show. As great of an idea as it was to have Darth Vader end up being Luke’s father, it’s pretty obviously that George Lucas hadn’t thought of that when he made the original Star Wars. If he had, Obi Wan would have had a better story to tell Luke about what happened to his father in the first movie. Instead, George finds himself having to explain why Obi Wan said that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father when in fact, he didn’t because they are the one in the same. We get this lame excuse from Obi Wan that it’s all about your point of view. “Point of view?!?”, Luke replies. Luke’s response tells us that even George Lucas doesn’t entirely buy it.

Before I talk about Return of the Jedi, a little history is appropriate. 20th Century Fox was so convinced that the original Star Wars would flop that when Writer and Director George Lucas said he would waive his director’s fee in exchange for the all of the rights to Star Wars, the studio happily agreed. Years later they realized they had made what is arguably the worst decision in movie history. In fairness to 20th Century Fox, science fiction wasn’t doing particularly well at the time. What they failed to recognize was that Star Wars wasn’t really science fiction. It was more of a cowboy movie set in space.

By the time Return of the Jedi was released, George Lucas was making so much money from Star Wars toys and such that he apparently felt the movie would do well no matter how good or bad it was. Fans just wanted another dip in the Star Wars pool. It didn’t matter if it had been pissed in. The fans wouldn’t notice. Really George? You couldn’t come up with anything better than the Empire building yet another Death Star with yet another weakness that would result in catastrophic failure? Haven’t we already seen this movie?

Many years later, George Lucas decided to go back and do 3 prequels. At that time I thought that could be interesting. A lot of backstory could be filled in to help us understand things like how Obi Wan ended up hiding out on Tatooine and how the Old Republic fell, replaced by the Empire. How did Anakin Skywalker ultimately become Darth Vader? Alas, no. We found out instead that George really didn’t care much about these things. He only cared about selling more toys so the movies suffered accordingly. The first, Episode I was especially bad in terms of the plot. C3PO and R2D2 just go along for the ride instead of being the narrators they were in the first three films. I really thought the idea of these two characters being the consistent element that tied all the movies together made a lot of sense. It’s unfortunate that it was abandoned. Over the next two films we get to see some of the worse acting in all of the Star Wars films. You can forgive Hayden Christensen as he was relatively new to acting. On the other hand, someone thought it was OK for Christensen to wear the Dark Vader outfit at the end of Revenge of the Sith looking more like teen Dark Vader than anything. Are we really supposed to believe that Christensen’s whiny voice suddenly becomes that of the ominous Lord Vader?  And who takes such a fine actress as Natalie Portman and gives her so little to work with and so little direction that she comes across like it’s her first acting job ever? The actress actually said that after making Star Wars that she thought her acting career was almost certainly over. It’s to our great fortune that she found a way to prove that even the finest actor cannot convince you they smell wonderful when covered in horse shit.

For years it looked like Star Wars was done. George had taken what began as something with a lot of storytelling potential, something enduring that could be passed down to future generations, something that could become a classic, but chose instead of sell his soul to the devil. I mean that figuratively of course. It appears that even George felt it was done, selling Star Wars to Disney for $4 billion dollars.

Then in 2013, Disney announced that the next Star Wars film was beginning production with J.J. Abrams directing. This gave me a new hope (pun intended). After all, Abrams had created LOST, Super 8 and successfully rebooted the Star Trek series. I’m a huge Star Trek fan. He took a new and very bold direction with Star Trek and it worked. I heard people say that Abrams was even better suited for Star Wars. If that was the case, there was a lot of reason to believe this new Star Wars film could easily eclipse even perhaps the original. Being better than everything after  The Empire Strikes Back of course would be trivial with the bar set so low.

 

I anxiously awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens with cautious optimism. The teaser trailer arrived and damn, it looked good! When it finally premiered, the early signs were that it was everything I had hoped it would be. Star Wars had been redeemed and could potentially live on as something great. Alas, it was not meant to be.

The movie is exciting, filled with action, great special effects, the occasional pun and most of the characters we have come to know and love along with some new ones. It’s entertaining if you don’t really care about anything other than being entertained for a few hours. The movie is broad but without depth.

I guess the first warning sign really should have been that the film was announced in 2013 for release in 2016. That’s not very long to write a script, do all the pre-production, complete filming and post production. At least, not for a film and big and as important as this. Disney was no doubt anxious to start getting a return on their $4 billion investment.

Because I had not seen these signs, I went to see the movie yesterday filled with anticipation. After about 10 minutes I started to have that same sinking feeling I’d had with the most of the other films. The Force may be awakening but my 12 year old son sitting next to me in the theater wasn’t. He fell asleep about 20 minutes into the film.

The basic story of the movie is a poor, young, orphaned girl, living on a desert planet comes into the possession of a droid that has information inside it vital to the interests of the Resistance and is is suddenly thrust into the middle of a conflict in which she has no interest. The remains of the Empire, now called The First Order, is once again run by a hideous, monstrous being and a dark, masked, cloaked figure who we later find out is related to one or more of the good guys. The Empire builds yet another enormous planet-killing Death Star only this time it’s called the Star Killer. Our heroine discovers that she has the force in her and gets into a light saber fight with the dark, masked, cloaked figure who wants to bring her over to the dark side and train her as a Jedi. She defeats him but doesn’t kill him despite the fact that he appears to be trying to kill her. Later, she helps deliver the cute droid to the resistance who, after extracting the vital information from the droid, once again finds a weakness in the Death Star, sorry “Star Killer”. They attack and despite over-whelming odds, manage to hit the target and destroy the Star Killer. At the last moment, the dark figure escapes so we know he and the Emperor, will be back.

Really? That’s it? Haven’t we already seen this movie? This is just a rewrite of the original movie. It’s parallel is so unimaginably unoriginal that’s it would be truly unimaginable had I not just seen it. I mean, they didn’t just bring back some of the familiar characters, but actually put them back into  essentially the same story. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca are back to their old business and unexpectedly get caught up in the war. So much for a decent plot.

In some movies, a bad plot can be overcome with well-developed characters. We start with Rey, the Luke Skywalker of this film, scraping by on a meager existence on the desert planet Jakku. Soon we meet Finn, a Storm Trooper with a conscience who decides to abandon the First Order when he’s told to kill innocent civilians. Abrams apparently thinks that we don’t really need to know anything about Finn. It’s enough that we see him hesitate to kill. He comes across a prisoner which he helps to escape only because he needs him as a pilot to get away from the First Order. They crash on Jakku where Finn runs into Rey and they end up having to escape in, conveniently, the Millennium Falcon which is in mothballs nearby. The two manage to barely escape only to be captured by of all people, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Next they are attacked by some bad guys because Han once again has failed to deliver on his promises. Some hungry aliens Han is transporting are accidentally released but only seem to immediately eat the bad guys. When one manages to grab Finn, it nearly drags him through the entire ship like a toddler dragging a favorite blanket, giving Rey all the time she needs to find the right button to close the right door and save Finn. Rey helps Han fix the Falcon as if she knows it well but again, we are giving no backstory to explain why this would be the case.

After arriving at the base of the Resistance, Rey follows what sounds like a crying baby to find Luke’s original lightsaber. Upon touching it she has flashbacks which apparently require no explanation because none is given. In the Empire Strikes Back, when Luke ventures into a dark area during his training, Yoda explains it for us. This time, nada. Finn is anxious to get as far away from the First Order as possible (where have we heard this before?) but when Rey is captured by Ren (the Dark Vader of this movie), he suddenly can’t live without her and is willing to risk everything to save her.

What? Come again? They just met a few hours ago, there’s no obvious chemistry between them nor is it even clear that they like one another but suddenly he’s willing to risk his life for her? Had there been some time and reason for them to care for each other this might have made sense but they are strangers at this point.

We are told that the droid, BB-8, has a map to Luke’s whereabouts. When he shows it, we are told that it doesn’t match any known star maps. Yet later, when a map of the galaxy is displayed with the portion of Luke’s travels they do know, there’s a missing section that perfect matches the portion that BB-8 has brought with him. Huh? So the map wasn’t encrypted or drawn in some bizarre way that no one understands? How exactly are we supposed to believe they they couldn’t figure out where this part of the map goes? The resistance is apparently desperate to find Luke and they have a nice dotted line on their map to the one region of space where clearly he must be and yet they can’t find him without BB-8’s portion of the map? Abram’s is either treating us like children or doesn’t think the storyline is important at all. Again we are just asked to accept all of this as the price of admission for another dip in the Star Wars pool.

Ren takes Rey back to the Death Star (sorry, “Star Killer”) and and begins to use the force to torture her into giving him the information he wants. She’s resistant and demands that he remove his mask. Of course he capitulates, something Darth Vader would never have done, and instead of finding out that his mask hides a hideous face, he instead is a handsome, young guy so it now becomes difficult to really, truly hate him the way we did with Darth Vader. He hasn’t even killed anyone yet. Failing to get what he wants, Ren decides to try again later and leaves Rey locked up. Rey suddenly figures out that she has the Force and uses a Jedi mind trick to get the guard to let her go. Huh? Once again we are asked to accept something implausible. Rey, having had not a sign that she has any special abilities, having had no training whatsoever, can suddenly perform a Jedi mind trick that it took Luke 3 films to master?

At this point we find out that Ren is the son of Han Solo and Princess (now General) Leia who sent him off to be trained by Luke. Instead he turns to the dark side and joins the First Order. Really? Where have we heard this before? It’s Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker all over again. Leia asks Han go after their son because she knows there is good left in him, just like his dear old Granddad, Darth Vader. Unlike Vader, Ren cannot control his emotions and has a few temper tantrums. When his underlings fail him, he takes out his frustration on the hardware rather than make an example as Vader did. This makes no sense at all, though there was a funny moment where two storm troopers, coming across their boss having a fit, decide he needs some alone time and make a quick exit.

When Han comes across Ren, the only backstory we have is a few lines from Leia so we barely feel like Han and Ren are anything more than complete strangers. Just as it looks like he might be getting through to Ren, Han is killed by him. Again, no storyline to help us understand any of this. We are asked to just accept it. There were no signs at all that Ren hated Han. Clearly while Harrison Ford agreed to be in this movie, he wanted assurances that he wouldn’t be expected to be in any more of them. Chewbacca, having just seen his best and oldest friend killed right in front of him, chooses to set off the bombs he’s laid but doesn’t go after Ren to avenge Han’s murder. No, instead we get one scene back at the rebel base with Chewy looking more like he’s got a headache than mourning the loss of his best friend. Chewy was more distressed in The Empire Strikes Back when Han was left overnight outside on the planet Hoth than in this movie where Han is killed right in front of him. Leia, having sensed Han’s death, looks less like a woman whose husband (or at least the father of her children) had just died and more like someone whose lunch is repeating on her.

Later, Finn gets into a light saber fight with Ren. This is a fight between a former storm trooper who had probably never even seen a light saber up close and a Jedi who we assume has mastered it. Despite this, Finn seems to hold his own, at least for a while. Considering Ren’s custom light saber with it’s little mini-sabers sticking out the sides, it’s wonder that Ren didn’t kill himself. When Ren knocks Finn unconscious, rather than take the opportunity to kill this traitor to the First Order, he just stands there. Then, deciding that what he really wants his is Uncle Luke’s light saber, rather than walking over and picking it up, he instead uses the Force to will the device into his hand. With all his power and experience, the light saber is unresponsive but finally it comes loose from the snow and flies towards him, passing right by and into the hands of Rey! Wow! She really is some Jedi! I mean, it took Luke several attempts in the ice cave on Hoth but not Rey! She barely knew what the Force was a few hours ago but suddenly she’s doing things that her foe that her well-trained foe can not. She’s a quick learner because regardless of having had no training with a light saber, she has little trouble fighting Ren who as I said before is presumed to be at the minimum, very experienced with a light saber. We are asked to just accept all of this.

I had heard that the ending was a really twist. Despite the let down I had experienced so far, I figured that the ending might make the movie worth while. Since I knew that Luke was in this movie and had yet to make an appearance, surely there was quite a bit of movie to go, right? Nope. Luke is in the last 30 seconds of the movie and never utters a word. This was a decent setup for the next movie of course (like the ending of The Empire Strikes Back) but am I the only one that feels gypped?

The move title, “The Force Awakens” sounded great and I expected it to be the central theme of the movie. Instead, Rey discovers she has Jedi powers and is able to do amazing things nearly instantly. This could be accepted and even understood if there had been ANY backstory WHATSOEVER to explain why she might be a powerful Jedi. It’s not really central to the story at all. Put another way, Rey’s discovering of her Jedi powers is not really important to the story at all, let alone its central theme.

I had so much hope going into this film. Many friends had seen it and said it was great. Instead I saw a film that, while entertaining, did nothing to rebuild what little reputation Star Wars had left. It’s sad because it could have been great. If I could narrow it down to one thing, I’d say that Abrams was trying to put too much into a single film. That meant leaving out desperately needed backstory , plot details and character development.

Am I expecting too much? Is my bar too high? I don’t think so. Look at the Harry Potter series. It’s nearly perfect in just about every way one could measure it. Long after Star Wars is forgotten, the Harry Potter series will be an enduring classic. What’s the difference? The Harry Potter series was shepherded from start to finish by a single person who cared deeply for the story and only the story.

 

Is Spotify harming your Mac?

When my daughter was in elementary school, she asked me for a computer of her own. I told her that once she reached high school, I’d get her one. Last August, that day finally arrived so we went to the Apple Store here in Austin, Texas and bought her a MacBook Pro.

A few weeks ago, she started to complain that the computer was making a buzzing sound. It only happened while the computer was asleep. I checked it out and sure enough, every few minutes it would buzz and vibrate slightly like a smartphone set to vibrate. I made an appointment at the Apple Store and took it in.

The guy at the Genius Bar knew exactly what the problem almost certainly was before he even looked at it. He said, “The only moving part in that computer is the fan. Let me take it in the back and run a diagnostic.” He picked up the MacBook Pro and vanished into the crowd of customers and Apple Store employees. About 10 minutes later he reappeared and confirmed that the problem was indeed the fan. He said it would take 3 to 5 days to get it repaired and fortunately it’s covered under AppleCare. Several days later I received an email that the computer was back from repair and ready for pickup.

Yesterday morning, I noticed that her MacBook Pro was buzzing again. I took it to my desk (I work from home) and left it there, sleeping, while I worked. Every few minutes, sometimes several times a minute, it would make that same buzzing sound. Sometimes the buzz was very short (less than a second) and sometimes long (several seconds). I discussed it with Greg, one of the engineers I work with. We took a look at her Login Items in System Preferences -> Users & Groups. She had several that could no longer be found so I deleted those. This got Greg wondering about background tasks. He had me download a tool that would show them. There were only two. One was from Adobe because my daughter has the Adobe Creative Suite and that task is almost certainly checking for updates. The other was part of Spotify. Like the Adobe task, it was probably getting updated information from a server somewhere. Unlike Adobe, however, this Spotify task appeared to be running even when the computer was asleep. The computer was running on the battery and PowerNap was turned off for the battery so Spotify should not have been running at all.

Using the tool Greg asked me to download, we turned off the Spotify background task. I put the computer back to sleep and left it on my desk. It never buzzed again. So what was that buzzing that Spotify had caused? Greg is pretty sure it was the sound the SDD makes when it’s waking from sleep. This makes sense. Spotify was running a background task and upon receiving new information, writing it to disk. The problem is, it shouldn’t be doing that while the computer is asleep especially because SSDs have a limited number of reads and writes before they go bad. That number is really, really high but still, Spotify was unnecessarily reducing the life of the SSD in my daughter’s MacBook Pro. If you have Spotify installed, you might want to look into it.

I run a software company and I really appreciate feedback from users. With that in mind, I went to the Spotify website to contact them about the issue. There was no way to contact them without a Spotify account. Even the option to login with your Facebook account is not a solution because for that to work, your Facebook account must be linked to your Spotify account. It appears that Spotify only wants to hear from their own users.

If you’re a Spotify user, please contact them and point them to this post. They really need to fix this problem because they may be potentially harming Macs with SSDs without even realizing it.

As for the fan in my daughter’s Macbook Pro, it was probably coincidental that it was bad. Having said that, I’m tempted to take it back in and see what Apple thinks.

The new Apple TV (4th Generation): A good upgrade that will likely become a great one

The new Apple TV (4th Generation): A good upgrade that will likely become a great one

Apple TV A few years ago we decided to try an experiment. We disconnected our cable subscription but kept our internet. We bought an Apple TV (3rd generation) and then subscribed to both Hulu and Netflix for a combined total of $16 per month compared to the $80 per month or so we were paying for just the TV portion of our cable bill. My wife and I agreed to try it for 6 to 9 months and then decide how we felt about it.

At first, my wife was unsure this was such a good move. She was used to just turning on the TV and channel surfing until she found something she liked. With Apple TV and Hulu, she needed to actually think about what she wanted to watch and go find it. After a few months we both agreed that being able to watch what we want on demand was better. Occasionally we find a show we can’t watch because it’s not offered but that’s rare. The 3rd generation Apple TV made it pretty easy to find TV shows and movies to watch.

Yesterday I received the new 4th Generation Apple TV. It’s about the same width and depth as the old one but a bit taller and heavier.

Setting it up was quite easy. Plug in the HDMI cable for the TV, plug in the power cable and in our case, an ethernet cable since we already have it in room where our TV is anyway. As soon as you plug in the power cord, the Apple TV starts up. There’s no on/off button. The software setup was quite easy and in fact made even easier because I have an iPhone. It asked me if I wanted to set it up manually or use my iPhone. I chose the latter and it then asked me to move my iPhone closer to the Apple TV. It was then able to get most of the information it needed from my iPhone to set up my Apple TV. After that, I just answered a few questions and I was ready to go.

UIThe overall user interface of the new Apple TV is similar to the previous one. Anyone who had the old one will have no trouble with the new one. The first important difference is that all possible channels are no longer listed on the main menu screen. Instead there’s an app store where channels are treated like apps. You find one, select it and if you want to install it, select the Install button with the included Apple TV remote. I actually like this because there are several channels I never watch so having only the channels I care about on the main menu is a plus.

The new Apple TV can run apps made for it. They are basically iOS apps that have been slightly altered to target the Apple TV. I didn’t think this would be all that useful but after downloading a few games (which is about all there is at the moment), I discovered that it is actually kind of fun to play them on our big 50″ TV. The new Apple TV comes in two versions, one with 32GB of storage ($149USD) and the other with 64GB ($199USD). It cannot be upgraded and I don’t like to run out of storage so I bought the bigger one. The storage appears to be primary used for apps. However, I wonder if it’s also used to store video from the show you are streaming (from Netflix for example). More on this later.

RemoteThe new Apple TV remote is completely different from the old one. It’s got a touch-enabled area at the top that makes skimming through items on the screen a lot easier. This is also used for those times when you need to input text. On the old Apple TV, it was a slow process of clicking buttons to move the cursor from character to character. With this new remote, the characters are listed horizontally and you just slide your finger across the touch pad on the remote to find a character then tap it to select and enter it. It’s much faster than the old Apple TV. However, I found myself wondering why I can’t use the keyboard on my iPhone for text entry. Something tells me that a new version of the Apple Remote app is likely in the works to do just that.

The new remote also has Siri integration. There’s a microphone button you press and hold to activate Siri. You can then give it commands like “Show me films with Tom Cruise” or “Show me the last episode of The Simpsons”. If you missed what someone just said, you can even asked Siri, “What did he just say?” and it will rewind the video a few seconds and turn on closed captions. That’s pretty slick. Unfortunately, the Siri searching is not quite complete. As of today, it only works with iTunes, Netflix and Hulu. In the case of Hulu, it’s not complete. It couldn’t find the Korean drama my wife and I were watching. Apple has said that more channels will support Siri as time goes on. My guess is that Hulu will provide better support in the future as well. I have a friend that works at Hulu so I will be getting on him about that. 🙂

The old remote used infrared and I was reminded of this every time I went to use it just as someone was passing in between me and the Apple TV. The new remote is bluetooth so you no longer have that problem. The old remote didn’t need to be charged nor do I ever remember replacing its battery. The new remote apparently does need to be charged occasionally. Apple includes a cable for charging it. I’m told that when the battery is low, the Apple TV interface will let me know. We will see how long it lasts between charges. I don’t see this as a big deal if it’s not more than once every few weeks.

There is an included Search app that does seem to search a lot more content including Hulu’s Korean dramas so that really makes me wonder why Siri can’t find them. It could just be a bug. I’m sure there will be an update to the Apple TV software soon. No, you can’t use Siri for text input either which is a bummer.

Skimming with the new the new remote is a lot nicer than with the old one. We were watching last night when we wanted to go back a few seconds to review a particular scene. With the old Apple TV this was difficult. I often found that I would think I had gone back far enough only find out that I didn’t. Almost every time I did this I got frustrated to the point of giving up. The touch pad on the new remote makes it easy to skim by sliding your finger and the live preview lets you know exactly where you are. This is a huge improvement over the old Apple TV.

Volume Control – The remote has volume controls as well and can learn to control the volume through your TV or stereo receiver. I have had plenty of learning remotes over the years. They tend to learn in one of two ways:

  1. Hold the remotes end to end and push the same button on each at the same time. This is the most common way.
  2. The Harmony Remote is much better at this. You create an account on their website then tell them what hardware you have and how you have it configured. It then downloads a file to your computer which you upload into the remote. This is easier than holding remotes end to end and pushing buttons one by one. Still, I can see a person not entirely comfortable with technology being overwhelmed by this.

As you can imagine I was genuinely curious as to how Apple would accomplish this. Well, in true Apple style, they figured out how it really should be done. In the Settings app, you choose Devices and Remotes and then choose Add Device. The screen then asks you to hold the volume up button on the other remote until the progress bar on the screen fills completely. This takes about 1 second. Then it asks you to do the same for the volume down button. That’s it. You’re done. This was by far the easiest remote programming I’ve ever seen.

Streaming appears to work better on the new Apple TV. I say this from what is certainly quite limited experience since we have only had it for a single day. However, often when watching Netflix, even with our lightning fast internet connection (900Mbps down), it still sometimes stalls while loading up more of the show. Last night, this didn’t happen once. I wonder if some of that storage is used for the portion of the video you haven’t yet watched.

In conclusion, this new Apple TV is a very nice upgrade from the 3rd generation model. It was very easy to set up, the interface is more well though out, text input is easier though iPhone integration would make it so much better, and it’s nice to be able to play games. The Siri integration is OK at this point but I’m betting that once it’s more thoroughly integrated into the channels it will be the primary way people get to the content they are looking for. Siri is really the game changer for the new Apple TV or at least it will be soon.