Monday, November 25, 2013

On Medium

Ev Williams is on to something. He has been on to something for a while. I realize that on any given night I am using three of his creations. I write my blog using Blogger. I spend a bunch of time on Twitter. And since recent I am an avid reader on Medium. His Medium tagline summarizes it well: "I make systems that encourage typing and thinking (Blogger, Twitter, Medium). @ev."

I read interesting posts on Medium. About a variety of topics. I keep going back to it every night. This made me wonder what was so appealing about this new service. And more importantly, it made me wonder whether I should be writing my posts on Medium or keep posting on my blog. I was even intruiged after reading Andrew Torba's post tonight on how he reached over 100,000 views in 30 days on Medium.

Other than "new is better" and having a big name entrepreneur behind it attracting lots of attention, what does appear to make Medium great?

First of all, the current batch of writers have something interesting to say. Of course that could be coincidence. Good writers may have been suffocated among the thousands of blogs: from soccer moms and tweens to marketers posting wolf blogs in sheep skins. A new platform like Medium may be just the air good writers were looking for to distinguish themselves.

Secondly, it appears to be about simple differences, as compared with Ev's previous platform, Blogger. Medium is the new Blogger + curated contents. Medium provides groups or topics you can subscribe to. Furthermore it provides the reader with an index for new and interesting topics. That's it! That little change may be just the magic sauce which makes Medium succeed.

Lastly, the webpage's visual style is refreshing and most importantly simple. Although that may be true today, a webpage style is easily copied.  Today, it definitely helps making Medium a great publishing platform.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

He who has the most connected devices wins. Not.

Watching SmartThings' CTO Jeff Hagins TEDx presentation on #IoT adding value to people's lives made me wonder two things. First of all, if the CTO of an internet of things company has 132 connected devices, how many connected devices do I have at home. And secondly, how much value are these devices and applications actually adding to our lives.

The first question reminded me briefly of the bumper sticker I used to see: "She who has the most pairs of shoes wins". In IoT terms this would be "He/She who has the most connected devices wins". Thus, I made a list of the connected devices in our house:
  • 4 laptops
  • 5 smart phones
  • 1 tablet
  • 1 connected WII console
  • 1 web camera
  • 1 network attached storage device
  • 1 Aria weight scale
  • 1 Fitbit fitness tracker
  • 1 smart energy meter (although it is disconnected at the moment)
  • 1 smart meter (owned by PG&E). 
  • 3 media players
Total: 20.

I am obviously not winning. But fear not, Christmas is just around the corner. And let's not forget the batch of Tile devices I am awaiting to track my cat, my kids and ... ok .. I don't dare to add it my wife. However it would be great for her purse and phone. (I used to have a connected device gateway to control door sensors and lightbulbs, but as the gateway start-up went under so when the service to control the devices.)

How much value are these connected devices adding to our lives? I have to agree with Jeff Hagins: so far, these connected devices or their applications minimally impact my life. My webcam movement detection software is flawed and isn't very good at being a burglary detection solution. It does allow me to peak into my house every now and then. I don't really have any smart energy solution to speak of. The most useful application has been the connected Fitbit and Aria scale. I can easily track my weight. Although when put into perspective, that's an expensive alternative to writing down one number on a piece of paper every morning. 

I haven't jumped into the IoT pool of sexy new devices yet. I do keep an eye out for a Nest thermostat and smoke detector. Or to upgrade that old gateway with perhaps a SmartThings set up.

Regardless of how many connected devices I can amass, IoT must be more than just connecting devices to the cloud.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

#IoT in my words

Marketers turned a few too many times around on their chair. The whole Internet of Things (#IoTmarketing machine has spun out of control. So much that they don't even know any more what they really mean. You see article after article, blog post after blog post, about the differences between the Internet of Things, Machine-to-Machine (M2M), (GE's) Industrial Internet, (Cisco's) Internet of Everything, and I am sure I am forgetting a few new terms. They all have the obligatory image of a car, a cell phone, a watch, a fridge, a sprinkler on a cloud background. The articles start with IoT definitions, similar to what I used to read in an encyclopedia. Then there is "the comparison table", which will demystify any confusion between the terms. Typically it is only the starting point for endless discussions about features, protocols, and applications. My simple view on the Internet of Things will have no such comparison table, but I am keeping a cloud picture.

The Internet started by connecting computers, and allowing for data exchange and email. The real Internet came later and was about a new class of applications which hadn't been envisioned before: Websites, e-Commerce, online banking, online training, etc.

Similarly the Internet of Things starts of by connecting all kinds of devices, mostly via low-power radio. Companies don't really know yet what type of applications these will spawn. A recent announcement by Samsung illustrates the point. The best application of their connected TV is the TV adjusting the thermostat lower when watching a movie about the Artic. You also have the visionary thoughts of cars talking to each other to recommend a great taqueria in the neighborhood. Really?

Terminology and marketing speak aside, the Internet of Things boils down to two key points:

1. IoT is about hooking things up and feeding the Big Data monster

Most of the focus today is about hooking up all kinds of devices. It is a wet dream for the hardware engineers of a decade ago. Hardware projects are sexy again. Take a look at the various Kickstarter projects involving new low-power connected devices. The key challenge is indeed about keeping a small footprint, consuming as little power as possible and being able to communicate in intermittent network environments. And of course this all has to happen in a secure manner.

Although some devices will be communicating with each other, for the majority of devices it is all about feeding the big bad analytics engine in the cloud. Google, Apple, Amazon, GE's Predix, are all salivating about the opportunity to crunch and analyze your habits. Initial applications focus on visualizing the data and creating a historical picture. The various biometrics wristbands are a great example. Wait until the next set of applications will harvest data across devices or databases.

2. IoT is about building Smart(er) Systems

A lesser focus in the technology press is about how connecting more devices, systems and subsystems are creating a new set of intelligent systems. Your cars already have tens and tens of monitoring and CPU devices. A new class of electric and autonomous vehicles show how a new intelligent systems and applications are just around the corner. For many system engineers, this turns the volume up to 11. Indeed, it is challenging how the implement a control loops for these devices. It is more challenging to share data to many more consumers when real-time performance matters.

It is not just about the Jetson's mobile. Smarter systems also include systems such as an interconnected battleground with drones and soldiers with tablets, or a hospital where the infusion pumps, heart rate monitor, etCO2 monitor all talk to each other and provide the nurses station with a simplified view of the health of the patient.

Regardless of whether it is about feeding the big data monster or making smarter systems hum, it is great time to be working on the hardware, protocols or data crunching or integrating systems of the Internet of Things.

I may have this all wrong.  IoT may, as Disney's internship posting points out, actually refer to the Internet of Toys. Big Toys.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Fourth visit to Bass Lake

We visited Bass Lake, near Oakhurst and south of Yosemite over five years ago. Typically we camped out during the hot summer months on the South shore and take a dive into the warm lake to cool down. Bass Lake is an artificial lake and used for boating, jet skiing and swimming.

On our fourth trip to the Sierra national forest, we stayed on the north shore of Bass Lake, close to the dam. As it is November, all the power boaters are gone and with them their large mosquito sounds. Rather than hundreds of water vehicles, I only counted 3 boats the entire weekend. The lake was calm, which is great for fishing for rainbow trout. Most of our weekend was spent on the empty Marina View docks with our fishing poles in the water and reading a book.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Camping among the redwoods in Boulder Creek

A couple of pictures from this weekend's camp out among the redwoods in the backcountry of the Boulder Creek Scout Reservation


It's fun to drive a bunch of scouts to an outing. Besides a sing-a-long of What does the fox say, you get to learn a bit about the boys. Yesterday the topic of allowances came up. This is since recent an important topic for my son as he is responsible to pay a portion of the monthly cellphone plan. He saved and paid half of a new iPhone 5c. I added him to my plan with unlimited voice, text and internet. However he has to pay 50% of the $30 monthly service plan for his phone.

Both kids have been receiving a weekly allowance since last year. Saving is important. At this age, I want to also teach them how to spend. I use the iAllowance iPad application. I love the fact that you can set up an automatic interest for the savings account, so they can appreciate the magic of compound interest. Also it is not all about the money: you can earn stars and free ice cream.

Until recent, both kids were able to earn $3 every week. It was not tied to any chores. Now that obviously my son is coming up short to pay his monthly cellphone plan, he asked to revise the allowance amount. We are changing the allowance upwards, though with strings attached.

Here are those nasty terms and conditions:

  1. You do not earn any allowance if you do not participate in the regular household chores. If you do not do any of the basic chores such as making your bed, cleaning up your room, cleaning of the table, there is no allowance this week. 
  2. No allowance is given if you do not practice your music instruments or sports. 
  3. Your allowance includes a big portion for you to spend and learn how to spend wisely and another portion to save. 
  4. You can earn extra allowance by doing a special chore such as planting vegetables in the planter box or cleaning the car.  
  5. It is your responsibility to make sure your allowance is credited to your iAllowance account. 

Based upon an article in the Huffington post, the amount is raised to about $0.75 per year of age.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Kid's cellphone contract

The song of the summer is over: "Dad, can I have a cellphone? Da-haad". As my son is more independent and on the road without us, it is a good idea he has a means of contacting us easily. We decided to get him a cellphone. Which cellphone is appropriate is an entire different story. We jointly decided for a smart phone, for which he had to fork over 50% of the initial cost and 50% of the monthly service fee. To complete the cycle we all are accustomed to as adults, we made him sign an official service contract. I created it as a mix of freely available contracts for kids. My son was happy to sign this and even more happy when, as a surprise, we were able to give him his first phone afterwards.

Dad and Mom Mobile - Service Contract

We are excited you will be entrusted with your first mobile phone. Fun fun fun … but there are some rules. This contract between _________________ and _______________ establishes the rules and consequences regarding mobile phone usage. The rules includes, but are not limited to, the following:

Full Access - I must agree to give the device immediately to my parents when they ask for it. I will not hide the password and make it available to my parents at request. At any time, I must fully cooperate in showing them the contents of my device, including contacts, pictures, videos, text messages, or anything else stored in it. My parents may access my phone without my knowledge.

Charged - I will turn off my phone at bedtime and place it in a save location. I will make sure my phone is charged.

Take care - I will know at any time where my phone is and keep it in excellent working condition. I will not share my phone with anyone, except dad, mom, and ___________.

Family - I will not disrupt the family harmony. This means I will turn off my phone at the family table, in a restaurant, in church or when asked by my parents.

Being a person - I understand that having a cell phone is a means of communication, and is not a replacement for actual face to face interaction with my friends and family members. Therefore, when I am with others, I will make the people I am with my priority.

School - I will abide by my school’s rules regarding use of the device. I will not disrupt the class by my phone usage. It is expected I keep up your excellent grades.

Malicious usage - I will not text, email or say anything through the device I would not say in person. I will not use my cell phone to take pictures or video of nudity, violence or other unlawful activity. No porn. I will not use my cell phone for malicious purposes, i.e. bullying, spreading rumors/gossip, etc. nor will I send text messages or visit websites that are vulgar, obscene, or sexual in nature. I understand that such messages or websites are both highly inappropriate and potentially illegal.

Be careful and aware - I will alert my parents if I receive suspicious or alarming phone calls or text messages.I will alert my parents if I am being harassed by someone via my cell phone.

Responsiveness - I will always answer calls or text from my parents. If I miss a call or text from them, I will call or text them back immediately. I will not lie about where I have been or how I am using the phone.

Having a cell phone is a privilege, and it may be suspended at any time for disciplinary reasons. If suspension occurs, that does not negate your financial obligation

Financial commitment - We want you to have some ownership in your new device. While we were happy to buy this initial phone for your use, if it is lost or damaged, you will be responsible for replacing it. The ___________ is an expensive device and costs nearly $___. You have to pay $___ for your part of the device. Monthly, you have a $___ fee that covers your call use, unlimited texting and unlimited data. If you make additional purchases (e.g., through iTunes), you will be required to pay ALL related charges.

I agree to all conditions stated above and will adhere to them with a gracious and positive attitude. Any failure to comply will result in loss of phone privileges.

Date: _______________
Signed by: _______________