06 December 2009

Not a Granny Smith

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to upgrade my MacBook to Apple’s latest operating system, nicknamed Snow Leopard. Theoretically, this should have been as easy as popping in the disc and clicking a bunch of “Continue” buttons. In practice, that was not true at all. The installation software said that it could not proceed because my hard drive wasn’t the disc used to boot up the computer. Hunh? Web research ensued, and I came to the conclusion that the only solution involved erasing and repartitioning my hard drive, and then installing Snow Leopard. That sounded drastic; I put Snow Leopard away.

A few days later, I called Apple support, to try to resolve this. The guy on the other end of the line was patient and helpful, and walked me through a series of tests, before coming to the conclusion that, yes, the hard drive needed to be repartitioned. Why? He didn’t know, but he acknowledged that I was clearly not the first person to face the issue. He assured me that the Time Machine backup I had made prior to the call would work as promised, and he led me through the process.

This has a happy ending: it took about a half-hour to reinstall the original Leopard operating system, another 90 minutes to restore everything from the back-up, and then another 45 minutes or so to add Snow Leopard. Time Machine restored my computer perfectly—everything, down to each tweak, setting, and file. It was a reminder of the genius nature of that system, and credit to Apple for figuring it out: a back-up system that allows both a system-wide restoration and a file-by-file exploration, under one built-in software umbrella. And now my machine runs faster, courtesy of Snow Leopard.


Earlier today, I went in to the Apple story to have them check out my iPhone. A couple weeks ago, the little switch that controls the ringer just snapped off. I’ve been able, with the aid of finger nails, to flick the stub of the switch around when desperately necessary but it is a drag.

The “geniuses” in Apple’s Upper West Side store were terrific. My phone is in great shape, and it was clear that this was both a small problem—and not a reflection of serious abuse. Plus, the phone is covered under Apple’s extended warranty program.

Or so I thought. I bought the extended warranty after I bought the phone, but the salesman at the Apple store told me that just by purchasing it, the warranty was in effect. Not so: I needed to activate it, and I hadn’t done that. Today, Apple took care of that for me—it helped that I had the receipt, showing I’d purchased it last February—and then, when finished, replaced the phone. No more questions asked. Then they let me sit there while I connected the new iPhone to my laptop and “restored” the settings from the old phone to the new one, courtesy of another smart Apple back-up tool.

Which also worked more or less flawlessly. (The less: I had to manually put my music, etc., back on the phone. A very slight inconvenience in the overall process.) It took about two hours to do the full restore, but it meant that two hours later I had my iPhone back, with all my apps, settings, old text messages...


I finally broke up with Microsoft a little more than a year ago, and thus far, Apple has not let me down. In fact, my household has converted, my extended family has converted, and my office may convert, too. Still—despite reaffirming the high quality of Apple’s products, software, and services—these two experiences highlight the frustrating nature of computers and personal technology when something goes wrong. And invariably, something will go wrong at some point.

My experiences are not unique, but that’s the point. I remain concerned that we rely too much on these machines to (help us) manage our lives, without giving due attention to the weaknesses of the systems, or of ourselves. One lesson in all this is, clearly, back-up regularly. Another is buy Apple: the products and services are better value for the money. The biggest lesson of all may be the one we will never learn: to start relying on less fragile systems, before our collective memory needs to be erased and repartitioned, with little hope of a full, restorable back-up available.

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12 October 2009

Sensible Reading

I appreciate effective combinations of quality products and good service. While it’s often more entertaining to excoriate companies that fall down on one front or another, the folks doing good work deserve recognition tooso here’s a short item of support for the creators of the my6sense app for the iPhone / iPod Touch.

I first learned about the my6sense app through a post on Mashable back in August. They gave it a rave review for its combination of features: feed reader; information sharer; and a feature called “Digital Intuition,” that over time learns your tastes and suggests other reading material based on those tastes. For me, the initial draw was the feed reader component. I have discovered, though, that the “Digital Intuition” feature works quite well: having added my own feeds, and spent time reading different items (or not), the app has learned some of my interests, and the main feed page now provides a range of different, interesting items to look at, in addition to the feeds I added myself.

Adding or importing feeds in my6sense is easy, as is creating folders to combine multiple feeds into one reading page, so users can cluster technology items together, arts items together, etc. The top 20 items loaded are available offline, which is perfect for paging through on a subway ride where there’s no internet access.

BUT, the thing that really got me committed to continued usage was the response I received from the company when I did have a problem. Early on, two feeds that I tried to add would not go through. It was odd; everything worked fine except for these two specific, unrelated blogs . I got a range of error messages, some telling me that the items were there already, others just a slightly-too-cutesy “Oh noes!” Oh, noes indeed. On the verge of giving upthe app was free, after all, so I wouldn’t lose muchI submitted feedback through the app’s own feedback tool. That generated a reply within a day, with a person who was terrific on follow-through. She asked for more detail about the problem, and proposed a few different solutions; none worked. She was apologetic and, when she said that the developers were looking into the issue, I believed her. And, indeed, a subsequent update to the app fixed my issues.

At this point, there are a few small tweaks I’d like to see my6sense make, to improve the usability. One is to add side-to-side page scrolling, as in the Wall Street Journal’s app; right now, my6sense makes a reader go back to the top of the screen to change items. Another is just a little more flexibility in controlling the font size. A better automatic information category for the arts would be nice, beyond the celebrity-driven items that are built in. And the real stretch nice-to-have would be a “save” or bookmark feature, to keep track of a few things one may want to remember for later.

So there you have it. Great product, great price, and great service: if you’re looking for a feed reader and information aggregator, check out my6sense.

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06 September 2009

1 in 9 Million

If all you read was the news coverage of AT&T’s wireless services, particularly since the launch of the iPhone, the stories you’d be most likely to see would be along the lines of the big New York Times piece from 3 September, “Customers Angered as iPhones Overload AT&T,” or an item from All Things Digital about the launch of multi-media messaging ability for the iPhone. The tone of these stories, for as long as I can remember, is one of complaint and frustration among the many millions of AT&T customers, including about 9 million iPhone owners.

The thing is: I find it bizarre, and completely counter to my own experience.

I have been an AT&T customer since 1996, with vague but fond memories of the acquisition of my first phone, a seemingly brick-sized Nokia that worked so well it made me a committed Nokia user, until I got my iPhone a dozen years later. Not only did the phone work well: so did the service to which it was tied. It’s precisely because of the quality combination of the two that I have remained an AT&T wireless customer ever since.

While I spend most of my time in New York City, I have also spent substantial time away from here, from very rural parts of New England to middle-of-nowhere spots in Texas between Houston and Austin, to a range of other places around the country. Rare are the times I have found myself without service. More common has been finding myself with better service than Verizon or (more dramatically) Sprint customers.

The quality of my service or experience hasn’t changed since acquiring my iPhone, either. Sure, periodically I get calls that don’t go through; but hardly so frequently as to be a meaningful factor in my general experience, and no worse than ever or, as far as I can tell, worse than friends with other phones on other services. Sure, I have moments where the downloading of my e-mail seems to take forever; but it usually turns out that some idiot has sent me 10MB of photos, and the problem is either not AT&T’s or, frankly, not so unrealistic. The broad problems described by people in the Times and the many other articles one can find with a quick search have never been my experience. At all.

If anything, I continue to find the iPhone an amazing tool (and toy), something out of the science fiction or comic books I read as a kid
and nearly the real-world equivalent of the hand-held communicators and analyzers of Star Trek. Maybe I’m just old enough that, never having expected such technology to be realized during my lifetime, I’m grateful for how well it works, even with its flaws and failings. Few technologies are perfect, and the iPhoneas a unit, and as a tool to access the AT&T serviceseems damn good to me.

I spend a lot of time using computers of varying kinds. My threshold for poor products and services is both high enough that I stuck it out with Dell and Microsoft longer than I might have, but also low enough that newly adopted tools that just don’t work well are traded out or discarded rapidly.

The iPhone and AT&T are not in that category. Let’s just hope that by writing this I’m not jinxing it.

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19 July 2009

Love the Bomb

If you read what I write here, then you may soon begin to notice a shift in this space. Methodical, not radical, but a shift nonetheless. The times, they are a changin’. What follows in the middle here is a bit of philosophizing (read: navel-gazing). Scroll down if you want to skip to the punch line. I’ll never know.
For years now, I have clung tightly to a particular perspective about the online universe—a philosophy, one might call it, born of my era, my own age, and my personality. Old enough to have gone through an adolescence that included computers but no internet; young enough (and technologically minded enough) to have embraced each piece of it as it arrived, and to have incorporated technology fully into my life. Old fashioned enough to believe that public personas matter, and that we must take care in cultivating them; young enough to see that the definition of an acceptable public persona has evolved and expanded greatly, and mostly for the better.

I started “blogging” on 17 September 2000, with this piece. Prior to that, I had done some web site dabbling here and there, but this piece, written while I worked at KPMG, was the beginning of something else entirely. I continued through that fall and early winter, twenty pieces written and made available to the world (archived here; my favorite remains this one), and it all felt slightly thrilling. The process was not without its ups and downs: I got up every day around 5am to write; and I had to convince a few people that my energy (and compulsion) in this arena was about meeting my own internal needs, and not a desire to create an endless stream of Times op-ed submissions.

I did it all using a name that is wholly, legally my own—and yet, not “me” as most people know me. I assumed the persona of my own initials in order to create a space for myself to write that felt publicly protected. I was hiding in plain sight. At the same time, I also drew a very sharp line around my writing world, and have largely stuck to it. Essentially, this meant not much writing about art or the world of my professional life. I have written and published a number of pieces about job hunting and career-related issues—almost one a year; 2008’s is here and the others are available through links at the bottom of that page—but that was about as close as I got. (Moreover, the hiding-in-plain-sight seemed to work too well: precious few of the people I have interviewed over the years ever seemed to have been aware of my perspectives on job hunting, interviewing, etc.) Indeed, it was in part because of the human resources part of my professional life that I felt even more strongly about being so careful about what I did online; I had plenty of examples gathered of what not to do.
All that said, it’s time for a change. Methodical, hardly radical, but a change. I recently did a personal “digital inventory,” and the degree to which I’m wired surprised even me. At the same time, I have resisted my own engagement in a few aspects of the digital world, even as I took advantage of what others did. I was stubborn where I should have been flexible, and I drew lines around what I was willing to do that made sense to me but were predicated on the idea that the outside world cares, when in many ways it surely did not and does not. And in hewing so tightly to certain kinds of “rules,” I may very well have missed opportunities that would have been good for me, and for others, too. (Heck, I still don’t really call my blogs “blogs”—because that word carries certain connotations, and I was always happier with the idea that I was just writing, for the web, on my own.)

What all this means is that I intend to use this space to more effectively and productively integrate a range of different aspects of my life—my professional life included. I’ve launched myself over on Twitter, after months of skepticism about that medium, to see whether that helps with this process or not. (It may not.) How all of this will play out remains to be seen; I work in the field of communications, and I want this to be strategic, thoughtful, stimulating, interesting, and not merely (self-)promotional.

Not much will change over on the TTAISI side. Almost nine years later, those initials and that persona are well and truly mine, and I intend to keep them, and to keep doing what I’ve been doing, whatever that is. Writing, mostly.

If all of this seems like a lot of internal drama over something not very dramatic, I won’t argue the point. A few years ago, I wrote about process issues, and to quote myself: “Engaging in a process of self-examination—freed from a concern about a specific end product—is not easy...” That’s what this is, an internal process that for me has not been so easy.

But the gauntlet is down, and off I go.

*Thanks to a certain colleague (and she knows who she is) for reminding me of a certain movie - apt in this instance, and from which I have taken my title.

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