Vacation in Cuba

Just got back from a vacation in Cuba. I stayed in one of the new resorts outside of Santa Clara.

It really is a lovely country – but wow – backwards in so many ways:

1) Underemployment – visit the downtown core of any city @ 3:00pm and watch the crowds of people milling about.
2) Undersupplied – visit the shops (not the tourist ones – the ones for the locals) – the supply of goods is thin on the ground. A state store with 8 staff behind a small counter and 6 pairs of boots for sale? I’ve seen it.
3) The government is corrupt – the best dressed people in the country work for customs. Why is that? I can’t speak to the entire government – but there are clearly issues.

I’m hoping the establishment of relations with the United States will help them reform their economy – and that the freedoms and abundance we take for granted in the west will come to this little jewel of an island. I don’t think I’ll go back to Cuba, I think I’ll stick to the developed nations.

uber

Uber and UberX a Travelers Perspective

If your anything like me, you’ve probably only heard of a new ride sharing service called Uber from their exposure to irate European taxi drivers.

It seems like every time I open the BBC newsreader app there is an article about a strike in London, Paris or New York by taxi drivers in protest of Uber. So what is Uber? and why is it causing such ire? Uber is a on-demand taxi service that uses technology to revolutionize the cab experience.

Uber uses its own application for iPhones and Android phones to allow perspective riders to “call” a ride. The ride can be serviced by UberX (amateur part-time drivers in their own vehicle), Uber Taxi (standard taxi’s), Uber Black (Town cars), or Uber SUV. The beauty of the system is its simplicity: you get a “fare quote” for each of the services before you actually order the ride, when you place the order – you are shown in real time the location of your driver, his license plate, vehicle, photo and name – all within seconds of placing your order. When your ride is complete, the application immediately shows you how much your credit card was billed – and allows you to rate your experience. Its all so seamless that most users are left wondering – how did I live without this?

I’ve been using Uber for my business travel in Dallas Texas, and my personal travel in Toronto for the last month. In total I was in Dallas for 3 weeks, and Toronto for 1, all of which without a car of my own. I was using both UberX (for client travel – less expensive) and Uber Black (for airport runs, and the odd night out) – wracking up close to 300$ in Uber related expenses last month. After all that usage I can say that my impression of Uber is extremely positive.

Briefly:

UberX: Personal Cars, amateur drivers
Pro: generally pretty clean/reliable. Very Affordable.
Con: crap shoot on vehicle, had several rides in a pickup truck. Crap shoot on driver quality: Sitting on a dog blanket in the back seat and smelling the heavy odor of a pack-a-day smoker. Not available in all markets.

Uber Black: Town Cars, Professional Drivers
Pro: great cars, professional drivers, prompt, have bottled water.
Con: Expensive

Do I think Uber will change the for-hire taxi Industry? Absolutely: its safer, faster, and far more efficient. Unfortunately, it requires a credit card so a large segment of the elderly and poor will not be able to use it, and it requires a smart phone (instead of the traditional phone call) – again eliminating the poor and elderly. I do worry that it may further segregate our economy – between the haves and have-nots – especially if it decimates the current taxi industry.

Despite my misgivings – I will continue to use it – its just TOO good :)

How to get the those amazing iPhone 5s Photos

iPhone5sThe iPhone 5s is a lovely piece of kit, and is generally very easy to use. One area of functionality I get a lot of questions about is the photo taking capabilities of the phone.

You’ve probably seen those lovely photos of people jumping off a dock where they seem to hover over the water? Or those photos of people of talking to each other that seem so natural? If you’ve tried to take photos like this you’ve probably run into issues with timing and staging – it just seems impossible to get the timing just right. The good news is the iPhone 5s includes a feature called burst mode – that is deceptively simple to use – if you know its there.

The secret? Hold down the shutter or take picture button in the iPhone’s camera app – this will take a burst of photos.

You’d be amazed at the quality of shots you can capture using this trick.

Quitting Smoking

As many of my long term acquaintances and readers know I have for over 22 years been addicted to smoking Cigarettes. I smoked about 30 cigarettes a day.I would have a cigarette every hour or 2 throughout the day, and honestly I enjoyed it.

There was a time it was not only socially acceptable, but a great way to get face time with senior managers. Smoking, especially in IT, was a socially acceptable and popular past-time. I returned to a more consulting orientated role a few years ago, and found that had changed. At many clients, the number of smokers in an office could be measured on one hand, and almost never included senior management. In fact, it had become socially unacceptable, viewed with pity and scorn.

I finally had enough 3 months ago, and quit using Nicorette Lozenges. I haven’t had a cigarette since then, and will be having my last lozenge tomorrow (exactly 12 weeks after I started – per the instructions). For anyone else looking to quit I thought I’d post my notes on what helped me to quit:

  1. Tell anyone that will listen you are quitting, peer pressure helped start the habit, and peer pressure can help end it.
  2. When you are first quitting do not skimp on the lozenge or gum (1 every 1 to 2 hours at the beginning). Follow the instructions to the letter, and a higher nicotine dose in the beginning will help you later and increase your odds of quitting (counter initiative).
  3. Drink lots of water
  4. Start taking vitamins daily – especially vitamin C
  5. Start working out, starting with light exercise building to a more rigorous routine.
  6. If you can, start eating non-processed foods – make a rule – if you cook it – you can eat it.

I can attest, once your done the impact is significant. My blood pressure is down, my stamina has improved, and I’ve started to lose weight.

Todays Geeky Gadget – HighPoint Raid 1740 on OSX

osxI’ve been a lover of Apple Computers for close to 15 years, but I’ve always been a little miffed by what is often called the ‘Apple Trap’. The Apple Trap is pretty much non-existant on the newer standards based Intel Based Macs – but is still in force for the last generation of G4 and G5 based Macs.

These older systems are still Leopard compatible, and perform very well for their age, but they often require expensive single purpose upgrades. Want a Raid Card? You will spend 100$ more than the same part on Intel. Want a video card? You will spend 200$ more than the same part on Intel. Want Sata? 150$ more than the same part on Intel.

With the ‘Apple Trap’ in mind, I was pleasantly surprised that HighPoint (makers of commodity hardware raid controllers for Intel based PC’s), have created OSX drivers (G4 compatible even) for many of their controllers. For 110$ CDN I was able to add 4 hardware RAID SATA ports to my 9+ year old Apple G4 Mac. Incredible, a machine that doesn’t support hard drives larger than 128GB now has 2+ Terrabytes of SATA hard drive goodness – and its FAST.

So for those of you with an old G4/G5 Mac – take a look at the Highpoint Raid controller. My old girl is running Leopard Server and acting as a very large (and fast) NAS server – and I didn’t have to pay the tax commonly called the ‘Apple Trap’.

Todays Geeky Gadget – Mac OSX Server 10.5.7

osxI’ve been running a home server for about 8 years, almost since the day I first learned what a Public IP was, and how it could be used to share information.

I’ve experimented with several different Operating Systems and hosts for my various web services: Windows 2000 Server, Windows XP, Windows 2003 Server, Solaris on Sparc, Solaris on Intel, Linux (many distro’s), and many more. Today, I installed Mac OS X server, and moved my blog and email services over to the new platform. My initial impressions are extremely positive, so I thought I’d share what I like about it, and how it could be useful for others.

First off, I need to share a little information about the Server being used to host my OSX server. For this experiment I dusted off my old Dual 450mhz G4 PowerPC PowerMac. This machine was purchased in 2000, and was comparable to a Pentium II 350 MHZ in terms of performance. It has since been upgraded with a 128MB hard drive and 2GB of RAM – but needless to say this machine is a low power workstation.

OSX on this ancient platform runs beautifully, booting up all services and the OS in less than 20 seconds. Performance is exceptional considering the age of the platform, and has the beauty of running standard Cyrus, Postfix, Spam Assassin, Apache, Java and PHP web applications. In fact, moving my Linux based configuration to the OSX configuration was as simple as copying the database and web files. Everything worked out of the box, complete with an elegant GUI configuration utility.

While I’m sure I’m sacrificing some performance to have a full OSX GUI desktop running on the server, for a small workgroup or department I would highly recommend OSX Server. For newbies and old hands alike the GUI configuration and simplified setup of most web services will make you smile. If you’ve ever bashed your head against the wall trying to figure out why your fancy postfix configuration is throwing email into a null folder – you want these configuration tools.

So You Want People to Work from Home?

officeHaving worked in both large and small corporate environments I’m always amazed at how badly some organizations adapt to workers working from home for extended periods. The purpose of this post is to offer some little things organizations can do to adapt to remote workers – hopefully reducing costs and improving the employee experience.

The rationale for having staff work from home is obvious, but I thought I’d reintroduce it here just so my readers have a level set before I begin.

  1. Working from home, key staff can be retained without relocation expenses and incentives. Especially during office closures.
  2. Smaller offices can be used to support larger employee populations, by having some or all employees working from home.
  3. Employee satisfaction can be improved significantly without incurring additional compensation costs. Most employees enjoy working from home.
  4. Employee costs can be reduced, duplicating the effect of a pay raise without incurring organizational costs. No gas, no tolls, no bus fare, lunch-at-home, and reduced dry cleaning expenses add up quickly.

Once the decision is made to employ home workers, most organizations rarely think thru the consequences or changes required to their own processes for properly supporting the new class of employee.

IT and Operational Support
This is the largest change required, especially if the remote employee is in a non-technical area of the business. This is where most organizations make their biggest mistakes – especially well established work environments. To summarize:

  • Changes must be made to enable remote support of laptops and software installations. This can be done with netmeeting, VNC, or other remote desktop tools. For more drastic repairs a budget for courier services is required.
  • Not all hardware will be corporate supplied or owned. To reduce your support headaches its a good idea to supply a list of suggested hardware for things like printers, fax machines, etc. that at-home employee’s will be likely to purchase for their combined home/work use. You should also consider subsidizing this ‘shared’ suggested equipment if purchased from a approved vendor.
  • The corporate directory must support the ability to support external phone numbers and extensions. The process for updating the directory must be well published, and each employee should have the option of updating their information without going thru a support tech or 3rd party. Work at home employee’s have a tendency to change numbers more frequently – so this is important for keeping work flowing and support costs down.
  • Email and other support systems that are required for remote employment should be externally accessible with a minimum of fuss. If I have to start a VPN connection, authenticate a fat client, enter a RSA key, and double click my mail folder – Its too complicated. Security is great – just streamline it to the basics required. Security folks follow the mantra ‘more is better’ for remote employee’s ‘less is better’ – strike a happy medium.
  • All web based tools used in the office should be tested and verified working for remote use. The assumption is usually if its web based – it’ll just work – but little things have a tendency to throw a wrench in the plan. The devil is in the details – and a little up front Quality Assurance will reduce your frustrations and costs on the tail end.

HR and Organization Support
Work at home employee’s require a special kind of HR support to be effective. The advantages of reduced support/infrastructure are a dual edged sword – you save money on setting up and maintaining an employee – but the ties to a company are also more tenuous. If a morale issue develops its often difficult to diagnose. Setting up a HR Ombudsman that is proactive in communicating with offsite employee’s is critical to retaining these employees.

Recognize Special Events
It may seem a small thing, but it goes a long way to keeping at-home workers engaged. When your away from the water cooler/shared lunches little things like Birthday’s, workplace anniversaries and key project deliverables often go unnoticed – leading to a sense of isolation. Recognizing these events with a small gift or personal communication go a long way to retaining staff. Remember its always cheaper to retain an employee than it is to replace them.

The Master – Modern Implications

leonardoThe Master – Part 1
When I created this blog I wanted to create a graphical logo that reflected my passions and paid homage to a personal hero of mine. If you look at the top right of my blog you will see a graphic composed from various drawings, paintings and notebooks from Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, he was widely known as ‘Master’ by both his assistants, apprentices, and employers. Leonardo’s career was primarily as a weapons master for various Nobles and Royalty. He designed some of deadliest and most creative weapons of his day. He designed canals to ship weapons and move troops, he designed missiles, multi-barrelled machines guns, grenades, mortars, tanks, and helicopters. Not all of his designs could be built with materials available in his age – but he still designed them with with intricate detail.

So how did Leonardo become the master of his trade? He studied the objects and materials around him – to guide and give hints to his final goals. Want to build a better Catapult? Study the human arm – and you end up with a trebuchet. Want to cause the most damage to the human body as quickly as possible? Study the anatomy, learn how the body functions and what its weakness are. Want to have soldiers launch missiles and weapons from the air? Study birds and flight.

In short Leonardo became the master by learning a very particular process for creativity.

1) Envision a problem – Eg. I Want to Fly
2) Identify other objects, materials or animals with an impact on your problem. Eg. Study Birds, light sturdy materials (balsa wood, aluminum, etc).
3) Experiment and play with the objects, and their properties. Eg. Build a model glider
4) Ramp up and build a prototype.

This process is a simple one, and one many of the brightest most successful people I know seem to adopt instinctively.

This is just the first installment on my treatise on creativity and the creative process. In my next installment I’ll apply the lessons of the ‘Master’ to a technology project – and show how these techniques can help IT Professionals become ‘masters’ in their own right.

Todays Geeky Gadget – Sony eReader

Sony eReaderIf you’ve watched the technology news, or read the technology section of your newspaper at any time in the last month you’ve probably heard of the Kindle 2 by Amazon. The Kindle, and its successor are electronic readers that utilize a high contrast/low power screen technology called eInk.

My interest in eReader technology dates back to 2000 when I first started reading my favorite Science Fiction books on my PocketPC. I quickly hit the limits of the technology, battery life was terrible, selection of books was limited, and even worse reading  on a screen the size of a deck of cards gave me terrible headaches.

My Birthday is March 10th, and I wanted to treat myself to a tech gadget that would save me money, yet still be ‘cool’. Living in Canada the Kindle was off-the-table, Amazon just doesn’t sell them up here. Even if available, the Kindle is designed to only work with content from Amazon.com – something that doesn’t work for someone like me with a large pre-existing library of electronic book content.

Enter the Sony PRC-505, a new eReader from Sony. It features a eInk screen with a very high contrast ratio, incredible battery life (7500 page turns), its available in Canada, and most importantly works with books in many different formats. It also works on my Mac using a Open Source Library Manager called ‘Calibre’.

Words cannot describe my impression of the PRC-505s screen. Its easily sharper and easier on the eyes than most paperbacks. Combine that with the ability to zoom in/out, change fonts and I don’t think I’ll be going back to my 2 paperback a week habit.

If your a avid reader, pick this up, its inexpensive – the books are inexpensive – and it works. No headaches, no ‘out-of-battery’ problems – and best of all? 1000’s of books with you at all times.

Optimizing WordPress

WordPressWhen I originally deployed WordPress to power ellisonline.ca I wasn’t too worried about performance. I had a pretty powerful server, and I didn’t expect too much traffic.

Unfortunately, like everything in technology, times changed and I was worried about the performance of my favorite blog (mine). I embarked on a crash course on optimizing the performance of php based sites in general, and WordPress specifically.

I believe I’ve succeeded in improving the performance of my site significantly using a few simple tools.

1) I enabled query caching in mysql (the database backend to wordpress). To do this I edited /etc/mysql/my.cnf and added the following three lines:

query_cache_size = 268435456
query_cache_type=1
query_cache_limit=1048576

This enables mysql to cache the output results of queries – making the queries returned by WordPress return quicker.

2) The second optimization I performed is I installed APC (A Perl Compiler). This compiler significantly improved PHP performance on the site.

3) Lastly I Installed and configured the WP Super Cache plugin.

These three optimizations together were more than enough to improve my response times.