Friday, March 7, 2014

Is Contract Free the Future?

(Note from David:  Today's post is a guest post from Cindy Siebert.  Cindy is the blogger/owner of Scribbles and Musings.)


Before March 2013, the standard mobile phone plan on all four major carriers consisted of a two-year contract and a subsidized mobile phone. If you wanted to move to another carrier anytime during the two-year period of your contract, you would be charged an Early Termination Fee (ETF). Those ETFs can be more than $300. The high ETFs meant that once you were in a contract, you were essentially stuck with the provider you chose, no matter how bad the service might be. Yes, you could pay full price for the phone and avoid the contract. But you would still pay the same amount for service, which made no contract a very unattractive option. The carriers really wanted you in those contracts.

Then it happened. John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, announced that T-Mobile would become the “uncarrier”. The first step T-Mobile took was to drop contracts. You could get a payment plan for your phone, but no tying it to your mobile service. Mobile phone users loved it and the other carriers were worried. While they might have been worried, and they all responded, none of their responses included no-contract options. Finally, almost a year later, that is starting to change.

T-Mobile is having success with it’s uncarrier plan. In the fourth quarter of 2013, T-Mobile added 800,000 new customers. The other carriers see this success and are starting to respond. AT&T is advertising a $45/month mobile plan with no contract. Sprint has just introduced the “Framily” plan which includes no contracts and no early termination fees. Finally, users have lower-cost plan options when they choose to go no contract.

Even with the carriers beginning to embrace the idea of no contracts, there is another stumbling block. The price of unsubsidized phones. Most people cannot easily afford that initial investment of $700 to get a quality smartphone. Yes, you can sell the phone in the future to help cover the cost of your next phone. The lower cost plans will also help make a difference in the future. However, that initial investment is still steep. The good news is that there is help with this on two fronts. T-Mobile, Sprint & AT&T all provide installment plans for their no-contract customers. Another option is less expensive, but not less powerful, phone options.from Google and Motorola. Both Google and Motorola have no-contract phone options for under $400. One option, the Moto G, is only $179.

No contract options have existed in Europe and Asia for years. Until recently, there weren’t any great options for going contract free in the United States. Looks like that’s finally changing. Verizon seems to be the only hold out on the no contract front (and as the larger carrier in the U.S., I don’t expect that to change soon). Even with Verizon holding out, new lower priced plans and less expensive smartphone alternatives, there has never been a better time to go contract free in the U.S. It looks like the future is finally here.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Random Thoughts: History, when did World War II start.

Actually pinning down the day World War II started is not as simple as you might think. Why not start with the one that most Americans are taught in school. 

December 7th 1941
The attack on Pearl Harbor is the event that brought the US into World War II and is the day that most people in the US pick as the start of World War II. Most Europeans find this amusing, offensive, proof of Americans ignorance of history and/or a perfect example of American arrogance.  There are actually a lot of good reason to pick this date, but if you ask most Europeans they will give you the following date.

September 1st 1939 the Invasion of Poland
For Europe, this is the beginning of World War II. It was when blood was shed, when people in Europe started to die and cities burned. The people of Europe spent just over two years fighting before the US officially joined the war. The problem with this date is that it shows as much of a Eurocentric bias, if not more than, December 7th 1941 shows a US centric viewpoint. What about this date?

September 18th 1931 the Invasion of Manchuria
After the invasion of Manchuria came the invasion of China proper in 1937. The Chinese spent years fighting the Japanese before the War in Europe started. Events from this theater of war include, for example, the rape of Nanking, the use of chemical and biological weapons by the Japanese, comfort women and other atrocities that are often overlooked by westerners.  

Other potential dates for the start of WWII.
  • October 3rd 1935 the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy. The failure of the League of Nations to stop Italy is often cited as the start of World II. 
  • March 7th 1936 the remilitarization of the Rhineland. In violation of the treaty that ended WWI Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. This was the European powers first real chance to stop Hitler. 
  • October 1st 1938 the annexing of the Sudetenland. When the Untied Kingdom and France handed the Sudetenland over to Germany the world lost the last chance to prevent the war in Europe.
When did World War II start?
I asked my wife that question, she gave me the best answer I have heard for a long time. She thought for a second and said, "That depends on where you were." Of course history hates answers like that, so I have three dates I feel that are valid.

December 7th 1941.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was the event that brought the last of the major players into the war and unified the war in Asia and the war in Europe into one globe spanning World War. It also brought the United Kingdom into the war in Asia. Before that event there was a war in Europe and a war in Asia. It is not a big stretch to say that on December 7th those two wars became one World War. In this case I say that December 7th was the end of the beginning of World War II.

September 18th 1931.
Japan invading Manchuria was the start of the war between China and Japan. That was the first military conflict between the two of the nations that fought WWII. This seems as valid of a start date as any. The invasion of Manchuria could be seen as the beginning of the beginning World War II. 

My choice for the beginning of World War II is November 11th 1918.
The end of World War I was the start of World War II. In Europe the decision to not totally defeat Germany combined with the failure to create a just peace was the reason for the rise of the Nazis. Germany did not feel that they were defeated but that they were betrayed. Combine that with the oppressive war reparations that the allies imposed on Germany and you have the perfect conditions for the rise of the Nazi party. In the Pacific, Japan was on the side of the allies and easily captured many of Germany's colonies. The ease of Japan's victories  inspired both the massive expansion of the Japanese navy and the rise of militarism in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s. The failure of the allies to truly end World War I did not just cause World War II but also was the reason that the World War II ended the way it did. The US believed that a just peace was the only way to secure a lasting peace at the end of World War I. After much discussion, and finally the threat by France and the United Kingdom to not pay the loans the US gave the allies during the war, the US agreed to allow the punishment of Germany. At the end of World War II, the US and other allies were not going to accept anything but the complete defeat of the Germany and Japan. After the war the US worked hard to rebuild Germany and Japan, as well the rest of western Europe and create a lasting peace and turn enemies into allies.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Favorite Websites: Making and using QR Codes.

You are probably not using QR codes but you should.
What is a QR code?
QR stands for Quick Response code, it was developed back in 1995 for use in the Japanese car industry. While there have been barcodes years, QR codes are actually much faster to scan and contain a great deal more data than a standard UPC barcode. QR codes also contain several different kinds of data. All you need to read a QR code is a smart phone and a QR or barcode reading app.

What can you use QR codes for?

Websites
This QR code links to the website of a Sushi and Thai restaurant that my wife and I happen to like. You can put a QR code like this on a Real Estate sign, poster, store window, flyer, business card, or even a company shirt. You can just snap a picture or scan the code and go right to a website. 
Contact Information
The QR code below actually holds a vCard that contains my name, email address,  and a fake street address and phone number. A QR code like this would be ideal on a business card, name tag at a conference or even the wall paper of your phone.

Your Twitter profile
Or in this case my twitter profile.

Here is a more compete list of what you can put in to a QR code.
  •  Website URL
  •  YouTube Video
  •  Google Maps Location
  •  Twitter
  •  Facebook
  •  LinkedIn
  •  FourSquare
  •  App Store Download
  •  iTunes Link
  •  Dropbox
  •  Plain Text
  •  Telephone Number
  •  Skype Call
  •  SMS Message
  •  Email Address
  •  Email Message
  •  Contact Details
  •  Digital Business Card
  •  Event (VCALENDAR)
  •  Wifi Login (Android Only)
  •  Paypal Buy Now Link
How to make your own QR code.
There are a number of programs or websites you can use to make your own QR codes, my favorite is the website http://www.qrstuff.com/. It is what I used to make the QR codes I used here. 

Let your imagination run wild.
Once you have created a QR code you can print it out on any printer. You can use an inkjet printer and a transfer paper like Avery T-shirt Transfers for Inkjet Printers and you can put a QR code on any piece of clothing. Of course you could also use any number of papers such as decal paper, business card stock, or stickers to put QR codes anywhere you see fit. Some ideas that I think would be really useful.

  1. A poster for a concert, play, party, or community activity with a QR code to a VCALENDAR or website. You do not have to be limited to just one QR code you could have one with a calendar entry and one with the location.
  2. Business card with your contact information.
  3. A scavenger hunt where you hide cards or magnets with location QR Codes to the next point?
  4. A card or sticker with your WiFi logon info for your guests with Android phones.
  5. Us a QR code as your wallpaper on your phone or a link to bring up a QR Code that acts as your business card. 
  6. You could even use temporary tattoo paper and an inkjet printer to make a temporary tattoo that links to your Facebook page. 
An Application I would really like to see. 
When I go out to dinner, I hate to wait to pay my check. Why do I have to wait for the server to bring the check, comeback for a check, and then bring the check back for me to sign it? Just print a QR code on the check so I can scan it with my phone and then pay for it with PayPal, Google Wallet, or Square? The server prints out the check and brings it to me, I scan the code, check the bill on my device, and I hit pay and go. Come on people let's do it people.



Friday, February 21, 2014

Someone Needs to Make This: Wireless IV alarm system.

A relative of mine had to have emergency surgery this week and I had to listen to beeping. 

There is a real shortage of nursing staff in the US, they are overworked and do the best they can so this is not to be critical of the profession. My relative was in a lot of pain and they had him hooked to a IV machine to provide fluids and pain medications on demand. The problem is when the machine would beep loudly when it needed attention of some kind. The patient is supposed to hit the call button when it beeps the member of staff comes in and reads the screen and then fixes the problem. If the patient is too sick or can not hear the beeping the issue will go on until a staff member hears the beeping and fixes the problem. In this case an IV bag needed to be replaced so the staff member hand to come to the room, read the display, and then go back and get a new bag of IV solution. 

Safety and Regulation.
I am sure that these are super regulated and that will cause some delay in something like this into service and no one wants to make things any less safe than they are now. Hacking could also be an issue but there are ways to prevent hacking.

The Fast, Quick, Cheap, and Dirty Solution.
The simplest solution is to build a device that goes into the room and listens for the beeping, once it detects the beeping it sends a message over wifi to the nursing staffs smartphones or PDAs. The member of staff would know exactly what room to go to. The hardware costs would be under $30 for the device. A digital signal processor chip or even a simple MCU like the Texas Instruments MPS430 could listen for the beeps. In fact they have this example of doing something just like that on their website. To interface to the wifi Texas Instruments offers the CC3000 SimpleLink chip. The MPS430 cost between $.50 and $3.00 while the CC3000 costs around $12.00 each. Add in the cost of a keyboard and lcd and the bill of materials would cost about $25.00 so as a product it should cost no more than say $50. This device should take minimum medical certification since it is not attached to any medical device and should work with all the current IV machines that beep. It is also safe as far as someone "hacking it". The worse that could happen is the staff would get false alerts. If that happened they just turn off the app. The machines will still beep and the patients will still hit their call buttons.

Benefits

  • Cheap.
  • Secure.
  • Works with existing equipment.
  • Should require a minimum of certification.
  • fails safe.
Limitations
  • Staff does not know what the problem is until they get to the room and read the display.
The Smarter Version.
A smart version of this device would use the same hardware but instead of listening for the beep it would interface to the IV machine or be built in. The best solution would be for the makers of the IV machines to come up with a standard for the data and all of them use it. The key to this device is to use a one way serial interface for safety. A traditional serial interface uses a minimum of 3 connections a transmit, receive, and ground, this device would only use a ground and the transmit of the IV machine controller would be attached to the receive of MCU the IV controller can only talk and not listen.  No matter what data gets sent to over the wifi to the IV machine it can not effect the machine in anyway. One thing you do not want is for someone besides the staff to change the settings. What this version would add is the information on the screen would be transmitted to staff. They would know what is wrong before they got to the room. If they needed to get a new IV bag because it was out they could grab it on the way to the room instead of having to make an extra trip to get it. You could also have the IV machine only start beeping five minutes after it sends the message. That way the patient may never have to hear the beeping. Of course this solution will only work for new IV machines and would require more certification since it is part of the machine. I would hope that by using a hardware air gap that the certification would be simple matter. 

Why do this?
These devices will not save any lives but they could make the patient more comfortable and save the staff time. 




Saturday, February 15, 2014

Classic Science Fiction Movies: Lost Horizon

Is it Science Fiction?
Many people would say this movie is not science fiction but I think it has enough elements of science fiction to count. You have a mysterious utopian hidden society, people living for hundreds of years, and a group storing humanities knowledge so that it can rebuild civilization after it self destructs.  Sounds like science fiction to me.

The Plot.
The story centers around writer, soldier, and diplomat Robert Conway who is has one last mission to complete, the evacuation of the last few westerners from a Chinese village that is about to be over run by revolutionaries. Once that is accomplished he will return to England to become the next Foreign Minister. What he and the other westerners don't know is they are all about kidnapped and taken to mysterious mountain community called Shangri-La. 

Once in Shangri-La, the survivors soon come to love their new community and lose all interest in going back to their own lives except Robert Conway's younger brother George who wants nothing more than to get back to his old life. Soon Robert Conway learns Shangri-La's secrets, people in Shangri-La live for hundreds of years and that Shangri-La's propose is to save all the art and literature that it can to help rebuild civilization when it collapses.   

I will leave the rest of the story for you to see for yourself.

My thoughts. 
When you think about the time period one can see why people would be pessimistic about the future. The book was written in 1933 and the movie was released in 1937. By the time the movie came out, Japan had already invaded Manchuria, Italy had invaded Ethiopia, and Hitler was in power in Germany. To Europeans, Chinese, and many people Africa it might have looked like the end of the world was around the corner. The sad truth is for millions of people it really was right around the corner but not for the planet as a whole, thank goodness. It is not hard to see the idea of a peaceful, beautiful, last bastion of learning and culture as a wonderful dream. 

In my youth I thought that Shangri-La sounded wonderful.  I wanted to go and live in Shangri-La and spend my days learning and living in a beautiful peaceful valley removed for the cares of the world. Today, I can not help but feel that it is the act of a coward. If Robert Conway is such a great diplomat and leader shouldn't he stay in the world and help save the world instead of giving up and hiding? Isn't it also a bit elitist to hide while the world self destructs only to come out after all is ashes to take over and "lead" the survivors in creating a new and better world in your image? Doesn't that sound like something a James Bond villain would do?

I really love this movie and it is a true classic. I may not think that hiding from the world in Shangri-La is a good solution for the worlds problems, but I would love to retire there. The fantasy of Shangri-La has become embedded in modern culture since the book was published in 1933 to this very day. 


The 1973 remake.
The early 1970s was one yet another period of time when people seemed to be ready to give up on humanity. The fantasy of Shangri-La must have seemed attractive enough to do a remake. Of course Hollywood had to add a twist to the remake, they made it into a musical! The cast was actually full of great actors but the movie was a disaster. It just didn't work and was a flop. You can find it on YouTube but it is chopped into 10 minute segments. I have included the movie's trailer so you can see just how awkward it is for yourself.  Tibetan monks singing 1970s Burt Baccarat songs, what could go wrong? 
I suggest you skip the remake and enjoy the 1937 version for yourself. Maybe you will want to live Shangri-La or maybe you will feel like I do that we can fix our world before it self destructs. Of course it is probably true that we all dream of our own Shangri-La, After all isn't the Federation of Star Trek in many ways a Shangri-La like place. Where there is no want, sickness, or war? Well at least until the bad guys show up and try to mess everything up.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Favorite Websites:Websites you can help.


Each of these websites is composed of user generated content from people like you. Of the three, Wikipedia is the most popular and best known of the three sites.  So what can you do to help make the sites better?

Everyone knows about Wikipedia and a huge number of people use it as a research tool but the number of people editing Wikipedia articles is actually decreasing. Wikipedia is also suffering from editing wars and out and out vandalism. So what can do to help keep Wikipedia a great resourse? 

Editing articles
Editing an article for content might feel intimidating, but a lot of the editing work that goes undone isn't content but grammar and cleaning up dead links. While you might not feel that you are qualified to edit an article on quantum physics, you could edit your hometown', county, or school's entry. Once you get the hang of editing, you can even create entries from scratch for parks or local events. I would avoid anything that is opinion based and pages on famous people or political figures. Many of those pages have been locked to keep the editing wars to a minimum.

How to edit Wikipedia
Here is a link to the Wikipedia editing tutorial. 

The maps on OpenStreetMaps are used by many websites and apps including Apple Maps. Contributing is actually easy. One task that anybody can do is to add information like restaurants, stores, parks, churches, libraries, schools, and government buildings. I do wish that OpenStreetMap would make editing a bit easier. You can also get apps for your smartphone to help you map roads. I do wish that Open Street Map would add walking trails, sidewalks and parks. While Google Maps, Bing Maps, and Nokia Maps are all great resources they are also all controlled by companies. You can not download any of the maps and you can not edit them. OpenStreetMap is open for all to use and to update. This means that local businesses can update their location and opening and closing times as well as add new locations. For small towns it means that every store and restaurant can be added to the map without waiting for Google or Microsoft.

How to edit OpenStreetMap.
Here is the link to get started as well as a link to some video tutorials.

Wikitravel is probably the least known of these sites, but it is the also the one you could make the biggest impact on. Who knows more about where you live than you do? You will find many of the entries in Wikitravel are just stubs or lacking in detail.  This offers a great opportunity for you to contribute to your local community, as well as the Internet. Another way to help is to use Wikitravel and let other know about the site. The more people that know about Wikitravel, use Wikitravel, and contribute to Wikitravel the better it can get. 

Editing Wikitravel.
Do not put in things like this is the best bbq or pizza restaurant in town since that is just opinion and is better left to review sites. Do include points of interest and useful information for people traveling.

How to edit WikiTravel
Here is a link to a video tutorial for Wikitravel

My Thoughts
I have contributed to each of these websites over the years, I have edited entries on the Wikipedia about the North American A-36, added some businesses to OpenStreetMaps, and edited the the entry on Port St. Lucie Florida on WikiTravel. The idea behind these sites is "many hands make light work" so pitch in and make the Internet a better place.



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Favorite Classic Movies: Best Years of Our Lives.


The Best Years of Our Lives.
This is another most see movie from the same time period as Gentleman's Agreement. This movie is brilliant in that it in many ways shows that some things never change. The characters in The Best Years of Our Lives faced many of the same issue that returning war veterans are facing today. The movie follows the lives of three returning veterans, that meet on their way home and become friends, and the issues that each of them face adapting to peacetime life. Please understand that I have not seen this movie for years so a lot of this is from memory.

The three returning veterans meet while trying to find transportation home. The three of them manage to hitch a ride on a bomber that is probably on its way to be sold for scrap. All three of them sit up in the bombardier station of the bomber, which is the setting for one of the great visuals of the move. During WWII bombers used optical bomb sights so the nose of the planes were made of clear plexiglass. The shots of from the that position, looking down at the US, are breathtaking. It is important to understand that a large number of the people watching this movie would have been veterans and their families. Those veterans had seen what the war had done to Europe and Asia, the sight of a safe prosperous, and untouched America as seen from the nose of that bomber on its way to be the embodiment of a sword beaten into plowshares would have been an inspiring sight for many of those returning veterans. The three returning veterans were a sergeant in the Army, a bombardier with the rank of captain in the Army Air Force, and a sailor that lost both his hands. When the plane lands the three of them go their separate ways but promise to keep in touch.

Sergeant Al Stephenson returns to his life a well to do banker. The fact that Al who was rich and important in civilian life was not an officer but a sergeant is reflected in his new attitude about class. Al is no longer comfortable with being limited by class in who he considers friends or in judging peoples worth. He comes home to see that his children have grown up without him and to a world far different from the one he left. You also see how he has changed as a person. The first thing that a modern viewer will notice are the clear signs of post traumatic stress.  Al drinks way too much and no longer fits in with his old life. He no longer cares about class because of his war experiences and just does not fit in with his old friends that do not share his life changing experience. Al's wife Milly has to learn to deal with these changes and is supportive of her husband that she loves.


Captain Fred Derry is a bombardier that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. In his pre-war civilian life, Fred was a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks. His job before the war was working the soda fountain at the local department store. During the war, he had risen through the ranks to become an officer and is excited to come home and start his new life and to see his beautiful wife that he married before shipping out. Fred finds that he can not find a job and his marriage was a terrible mistake.  His wife is shallow, provides no emotional support and only cares about his money, so once it is gone so is she. Combine that with the fact the only job Fred could find was working at the same soda fountain that he worked at before the war and under his old assistant, that is now a manager, this leaves Fred feeling cheated of the future for which he had fought so hard.  

For Homer Parrish, the sailor, his problems are related to the simple fact that he has no hands. He lost his hands when his ship sunk. His family and friends are as supportive as they can be and but he still has to deal with his disability. His high school sweetheart is waiting for him so that they can marry. Homer has to decide if he wants to “burden” the women he loves with a crippled husband.


How it ends.
I am not going to tell you exactly how it ends, because I do not want to spoil the movie for you. What I can tell you is that ending is not what I would call a happy ending but rather a happy beginning. 

My thoughts on this movie.
This movie is what I would consider a must see. The movie deals with subjects that I doubt would ever be covered before the war and frankly were not dealt with in movies again until the 1970s. The heroes of this movie are not flawless men that can face any challenge without flinching. They are tired men that have given more than anyone should be asked to give. They all saw friends die in front of their eyes, suffered wounds, had taken peoples lives in battle and now come home changed people. The movie deals with heroes that have to deal with  physical disabilities, divorce, and substance abuse. Those subjects were just not dealt with in movies. It is probably the first movie made where you were supposed to be happy about a marriage ending. Many of the problems that this movie deals with were the same problems that veterans of the Korean and the Vietnam war had to face, as do the veterans of the current wars. I really liked that even as the movie ended, it kept the same hopeful optimism that seems to be so much a part of that time. The veterans of WWII are often called the “Greatest Generation” not just because of what they did during WWII but what they did after the war. This movie  is a tribute to those men and seems to predict those future accomplishments. One thing that I did notice was that the two most striking visuals from the movie that impacted me the most both involved B-17 bombers. One was the fight home scene I mentioned earlier where the men rode in the nose of the bomber looking down at the landscape flying by them and the other was hundreds of B-17s, most of which were probably brand new, in a scrap yard waiting to be scrapped, and made into new prefabricated homes for returning veterans and their families. The B-17 was the plane that leveled Germany during WWII, but it was also a plane that was known for getting its crew back home when it was shot up. For US air crews the B-17 was both a killing machine but also many times their salvation.
This B-17 was rammed by a German fighter. The crew flew this plane safely back to base.

In many ways I can see the B-17s in those two segments as an allegory for those men's war-time lives. It took them home but was also going to be scrapped to make a new and hopefully better world. It was the end of the warrior's life for those men and those planes, but also the start of a new life as builders of a better world.



Best Years of Our Lives is available for purchase from Amazon on DVD.


Howard Russell, the actor that played the disabled sailor Homer Parrish was a paratrooper during WWII who lost his hands during training when a charge of TNT went off in his hands. He won two Oscars for his role in this film. He realized that roles for people without hands would be limited so he went to college and got a degree in business.  He spent his life as an advocate for disabled veterans and had a dream of creating a world wide organization to advocate for all war veterans including those of Germany and Japan. 

I will get back to some more technical articles soon but man does not live by technology alone and frankly, opinion pieces like this are easier to write.