Nine years

It was nine years ago today that I fell at home after passing out, and later learned I had a tumor growing at the base of my brain. Since then, it’s been good news as a drug regimen helped shrink the tumor and restore my hormone levels.

I’m still on two pills to this day, one keeps the tumor in check and the other makes my thyroid function.

Nine years on, I still remember Anil Dash posting this tweet. And I remember and thank Charlie Park for archiving all the related tweets on a site especially for it.

During my recovery, it was an amazing experience to see hundreds of people saying nice things about my work and I still periodically return to it when I need a pick me up. I’ve long said it was like getting to attend my own funeral and hear the eulogies and I’m thankful to all the nice things people said. It still keeps me going every day.

What do the new emoji mean?

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I’ve been a fan of emoji for many years, and every year I love seeing the new ones get released. They enter our phones and most of them are pretty descriptive, but you never know how people will adopt them, which of them will hit meme status, and ultimately what their meanings will entail.

To help quantify that scenario, my spouse, who is a psycholinguistics researcher that studies language, decided to start a quick survey just about the new emoji.

If you have a few minutes today, can you help us out and take the survey and give your take on the new faces of emoji in iOS 12.1?

New Hobby Horse with Erin McKean

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I just uploaded a new episode of Hobby Horse with Erin McKean. If you’ve never seen her blog Dress A Day, you’re in for a treat. Erin has spent the past 13 years documenting how she makes her own clothes, what patterns and fabrics she chooses and posts photos of the final product. She’s got a really amazing backstory too, starting as a kid when she fell in love with dictionaries and spent her life becoming a lexicographer.

Loss

I honestly have no idea how I’m going to handle it when someone that hosts a podcast I’ve listened to for hundreds of episodes over many years ends up dying.

I think about how much time face to face I spend with friends, even those I’ve known for over a decade, and then I contrast that with some podcasts where they’re on episode four hundred and something and I’ve heard them all going back many years.

Aside from immediate family, I don’t think I’ve spent thousands of hours interacting with almost anyone on earth.

Maybe I’ll feel like I did when Bowie and Prince died. Both made music that acted like a soundtrack to my life listened for thousands of hours over years, and both times it made me feel like an empty hole was just punched into me by their absence.

Voting

Most people don’t get how serious being denied the ability to vote is.

I was purged from voter rolls this year and I was pissed. I had heard about widespread, rampant voter purging and feared I was caught up in a bigger effort. I talked to my local city councilman who had connections to the county and election board and in the end we realized it was just one person reviewing past election records and he was worried my signature changed from my original Oregon voter registration from 15 years ago.

When I first showed up in the state, I was younger and took my time and probably did a legible signature, but over the years I’ve realized signatures barely matter much anymore and I’ve reduced mine to a much simpler squiggle, just to save time.

Apparently I had gotten a couple letters asking me to re-register that I missed, and the final one I saw was telling me I was officially ineligible to vote. I only had two months before today’s election day to re-register.

As I went to fill out the paperwork again, I realized how fucked up this was. It’s not “just a vote.” I was literally being denied one of our core constitutional rights by one guy with a clipboard judging me.

The gravity of it hit me on the way to the county records office. By the time I parked my car, I was fully prepared to file a lawsuit and contact the ACLU for resources if re-registering didn’t clear things up immediately.

It’s extraordinarily unfair when we remove the right to vote from anyone. Even people that served time for felonies still should keep their rights to vote when they get out. They did the time, paid the price, and still have a say in how the world works once they’ve gone through rehabilitation. They can also work as a check and balance on overzealous policing and imprisonment and should never be denied their constitutional right.

And I’ll never, ever understand anyone pushing for voter suppression of any kind. Even if the majority of people voted against my interests, every voter should be able to cast their ballots quickly, easily, and our shared goals should be as close as possible to 100% of eligible voters getting to vote in every election.

Anything less than that is fighting against a true democracy.

An IoT story

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A couple years ago, I had to have a difficult conversation with someone, all because of an Internet of Things device.

But first, let me back up.

Soon after the advent of WiFi-connected bathroom scales, I bought one. It was a little tricky to setup, but once it was on my network, it dutifully uploaded my morning weight to the cloud. I’ve used it for years to track my moving-average weight and keep tabs on my health. It continues to function and has worked flawlessly for nearly a decade. Batteries last over a year between changes!

The company I bought it from was eventually acquired by Nokia, and their old Flash graphs of all my data stopped working and their API disappeared and then one day I was forced to download a new Nokia health iPhone app especially for it.

The app had a new UI and once I got my bearings, I noticed a tab with a red notification, marked “unknown” with over 100 data points over the course of several years. As a bit of background: the scale works by guessing who is who based on differing weights, and lets you name those people and the people in my house all had different weights when I bought it, making it easy to track us.

But there was an unknown person.

The unknown tab was interesting since the data started at a different number than any of us and then steadily fell. A lot. And there was years of data. At first, I thought it had to be data from another account on Nokia’s servers leaking into my profile. Who else lives in my house and could do this for years? I logged into the website to double check the logs.

I couldn’t think of anyone it could be. After a couple days of thinking it over, I finally noticed an obvious pattern in the data. It was only one recording a week, for years. Always around noon. Always on the same day.

Oh shit. I know who it was. It was our housecleaner.

When my spouse was pregnant with our first child, she wanted to play it safe and stay away from harsh cleaning chemicals, so we asked our neighbors and ended up hiring their house cleaner to scrub our bathrooms and spruce up our bedrooms once a week. It was a nice lifestyle splurge to pay for this service and it took a few chores off both our plates. Our housecleaner is a really nice person, and we talk regularly about how each of our families are doing, but usually we share small talk for a couple minutes before we both go back to our own work.

It’s totally natural that she jumped on the bathroom scale when cleaning the room to note her weight to herself, and there was no way for her to know it was connected wirelessly to the internet sharing her data on my account. I hated that I had years of her data without her knowledge.

I dreaded this entire situation, since it’s personal and invasive stuff. It reminds me of the time I got a house alarm installed, then promptly took off for a vacation and left the keys to a friend to house sit. When I got back, the alarm company’s iPhone app dutifully tracked every time my friend walked into and out of my house, along with recording when he went to sleep and when he woke up (he would enable it when asleep, turn it off when he woke up).

It’s extremely easy to take logs of seemingly innocuous data and paint an intrusive picture of someone’s personal life and habits, and it was no fun to have years of (very personal) data on someone without their knowledge. People are protective about their personal data and it’s natural to want to keep that stuff confidential. But my stupid bathroom scale and its stupid iPhone app removed any sense of privacy.

I promised myself that I’d tell her the next time I saw her. I wanted to apologize, explain how it happened, how it was a big accident, and that it was information I wished I didn’t have.

How do you even start this kind of conversation? I role-played different scenarios and mulled it over in my head for days.

The next week when our house cleaner arrived to clean our bathrooms, I took her aside and explained that my bathroom scale was connected to the internet and tracking everyone that steps on it. I learned through a software update that it was tracking her too for years, and I was deeply sorry for that.

To my surprise, she was kind of impressed a bathroom scale could even do that, and was fine that I saw her data. She had lost weight in a long-term program that forced her to share her weight every week with a public group, so it was par for the course.

It all worked out in the end, but I’ll never forget how much I dreaded having that conversation.

Why I continue to endure the internet of things

I don’t mind that my love of internet-connected gadgets makes me a punchline on a podcast but just to give you an idea of what it’s like, here’s my Apple Home app currently showing a bunch of failed connections because my Wemo Bridge died for no reason last week. This also means none of these lights are automatically turning on or off any more.

As I was resetting, restoring, and setting all of the lights up again, it was natural to pause for a moment to think about why I keep doing this.

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I think this all goes back to the early 1980s. My brother got one of those Radio Shack 150-in-1 electronic kits and we used it to build a variety of little machines. Once, when we figured out how the light sensor could be wired to the siren, we devised a trick.

We emptied a dresser drawer of clothing, put the kit rigged to go off inside it, and waited in the next room for our mom to put away some clean laundry in the drawer. She eventually opened the drawer, the light sensor hit, and the siren automatically wailed. I remember socks were everywhere around the room and my mom was yelling at us that it wasn’t funny.

Ever since that day, I’ve wanted computers to do all the pesky annoying tasks in my life. After the Radioshack kit, I soon graduated to putting automatic timers on lamps, but those were simple and batteries eventually wore out.

In the late 1990s, I got into x10, the new standard for lamps that let them talk to computers over electrical wires, and at one point I had an apartment in LA with a variety of light bulbs and switches controlled by my PC. Yet still, the systems weren’t very smart and mine couldn’t distinguish weekends from weekdays and I would frequently find myself in a pitch black apartment at exactly 11:00PM whether I was ready to go to sleep or not.

At some point in the early 2000s, the x10 standard grew up and a few more standards got popular, and at one point I had timers on lights around the house that were a bit smarter. I could set lights to turn on at sunset and turn off at a certain time, but I could also add +/- 15min of “drift” to automatically randomize the times things turned off and on so they didn’t look too predictable to outsiders.

A few years ago, I decided to dip back into this when internet-connected devices started appearing, and when Apple released Homekit, it kind of sent everything into overdrive for me.

Right now, I have a few hue bulbs, a bunch of Wemo wall switches, light switches, and room sensors all around the house, a garage door that connects to my wifi, and a couple August door locks. With this mix of devices and the Apple Home app, I have basic stuff like front yard and backyard lights that come on at sunset and go off later in the evening. I can daisy-chain things together to get the lights in the garage to turn on when someone opens the garage door for five minutes, but only at night. I can also do things like turn on my office light when I walk in the room and don’t auto-turn it off if I’m still inside it.

And yet.

This stuff has historically been super buggy. Things will work, then just up and die for no reason a week later. A sensor will lose the wifi connection briefly and never come back online. Things are generally improving but I feel like x10 in the early 2000s was more reliable than what we have today.

For about six months, everything worked great in Homekit. And after a rocky start, my wifi garage door actually became reliable for a good solid period of time. Then iOS 12 came out. And then Wemo updated the firmware on all their devices. Then one of my mesh-network wifi points stopped seeing the others. And for the last two months, things have randomly worked about half the time, and failed spectacularly.

I keep plugging away at this stuff, and I don’t think it’s outlandish to expect it to work, and work forever once you set things up. I think we can get there, but with our mish-mash of standards and hodge-podge devices and wifi, it’s not a smooth or predictable area of technology.

I’m still convinced technology can improve people’s lives and help everyone out, by letting us set up recipes and schedules that are truly reliable enough to be set-it-and-forget-it. It’s not asking too much to think this tech can free us up to spend our time and energy on more important things than remembering to turn on the porch light every evening.

I still think we can get there, no matter how rocky the road currently seems. At least I hope we can. I’ll keep trying, no matter how many times it fails on me.

We like sports

Ever since the new basketball season began, I’ve been considering getting a NBA all-access pass to see all the Lakers games with LeBron at the helm. For the first couple weeks of the season, almost every good game was on TV and it wasn’t too hard to catch it all. But a couple days ago I finally made the leap and bought a pass.

Yesterday, I watched three different games from about 5pm to about 10pm, and it was glorious.

The apps are pretty impressive, you can choose any game in progress, listen to audio only from either team’s announcers, and watch video on your phone or cast it to a nearby TV. My Apple Watch even piped up the first time I launched the NBA app to show me the day’s list of scores, which was a nice surprise.

I’m a little worried about the time commitment of having several games per night for the next 8 months readily available, but I am going to try and catch most Lakers, Warriors, and Trailblazer games (and Celtics and 76ers and OKC, and and and) this season.