Category Archives: Family and Friends

Farewell, Facebook? (or “Back to the Blog”)

When I moved to Nashville a little over a year ago, I warned friends that I was simultaneously going to use the move as an excuse to do a fade from social media like Facebook.

The reason? Facebook had changed–or maybe the people using it had changed–since I first started using it a decade earlier. What was once like a friendly bunch of water-cooler chit-chat had become increasingly strident and nasty, and less and less of it was about the goings-on in my friend’s actual lives, and more and more an exercise in either virtue-signalling (my nomination for the Official Narcotic of the New Millennium), or punching at shadows for the Outrage of the Day.

We were being manipulated, and we should have known it. It was pitting friends against friends, while looting mountains of data about our lives, attitudes, physical locations, and relationships. And increasingly, I was beginning to notice that I felt worse about my life and the people in it after I launched the Facebook application than before.

Facebook: Our Own Private Iago

My best guess as to what’s going wrong? It’s that we’ve become a generation of addicts to the dopamine rush we get when our friends signal their social approval to something we’ve done with the various “Like”s, comments, or retweets.

More, changes to Facebook’s algorithms now hide all but the most active engagements from your timeline. This slight change in the mechanics of the system had an enormous effect: encouraging incrementally more strident and over-the-top position-taking, ratcheting up the reactions of those who identify with your positions, and making invisible anyone in your life who does not feel as strongly. The lack of visibility of everyone but those who agree or disagree strongly with you then becomes a social cue that your more strident position-taking is normal, and the ratchet continues until all subtlety of discussion is lost. Suddenly, friends who agree with each other on 95% of all issues suddenly feel like blood enemies over small differences we’ve ourselves magnified to huge size.

Pocket-sized Big Brother

More recently, it’s becoming increasingly obvious how very much spying these social networks are doing on your every activity. Want a scare in your life? Go to Facebook’s Settings > General page, and click the little blue link at the bottom to request a download of all the data Facebook (admits) it has on you. The KGB and Stasi never dreamed of having this kind of tracking data that we’ve all willingly given up to Facebook, including our every movement, our relationships, beliefs, and tastes in everything from music to dishwashers.

Similarly, Google and Apple keep location maps of everywhere your phone travels, logging your every movement since your first booted up your iPhone or Android phone and let it enable Location Services.

Used Google Maps to find your way to the mall yesterday? Google remembers where you went, when you left, and whether you were speeding along the way. Asked your Amazon or Google smart speaker for anything? Your every word is now stored on their servers. It’s truly shocking how many moments of our life are being monitored. And increasingly, all these companies are willing to use all this data to do more than just sell you products.

Google already actively skews search results to put forward points of view it believes are more acceptable, even if they’re objectively less relevant and even overtly propagandistic in nature. Politically incorrect YouTube channels are being demonetized on a massive scale; Twitter has been stripping hundreds of thousands of followers from people they find objectionable; and Facebook is increasingly hiding or “correcting” news items they disagree with.

Recently, Facebook has been getting a lot of negative attention for helping facilitate the mining of personality and political data on tens of millions of people during the past election, but was actually celebrated when such mining helped a different candidate the election before. The real trouble is that all of these companies have so very much data about our personal lives, and we let them have it. This was bad when they behaved like disinterested utilities, but it’s now clear they’re willing to take sides, and there seem to be less and less restraints on using what they know about you to get results they want.

Back to the Blog

I’m still piecing my opinions together on all this (which is part of why I’m writing this blog entry–to write is to think, after all). That said, I think I’m going to be quite a bit more circumspect in my use of Facebook and other social media for the foreseeable future.

To all my friends who last saw me on Facebook (where this blog entry automatically cross-posts), please don’t take my lack of activity on the site as a sign that I don’t still love you all. I’m just becoming increasingly convinced that Facebook itself is a friend I don’t want to share many confidences with. I’ve deleted the app off all my mobile devices (this is where much of the spying comes from), and will likely be using the Facebook website more infrequently, and yes, more for business than personal reasons.

I’ll likely be reviving this blog for sharing thoughts on matters of more personal concern (such as this). If I write something you want to comment on, I’d encourage you to use the blog’s comment feature, or message me directly–I may not see comments you post to Facebook. And as always, feel free to contact me via email, phone, or text — my contact info’s right on the Contact Me page at pbickford.wordpress.com.

 

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Some of What I’ve Been Up to Lately…

Back in 2010, I made the decision to restart the user experience consultancy portion of Human Computing (www.humancomputing.com). As such, I stepped back from my role running the ComicBase portion of the business, and have been focused on designing new products for some very cool clients in the enterprise, mobile, and consumer electronics spaces.


One of our largest clients this past year has been TiVo, the folks who brought us both the DVR and the ridiculously cute corporate trademark.

I’ve just completed a long contract there, which–among other challenges–saw me helping design their next generation of high-end DVRs and streaming video boxes. This was a terrific project which I was lucky enough to see through end-to-end. On it, I got to do everything from sawing apart old circuit boards and visiting Radio Shack in the middle of the night to assemble testing prototypes… to doing screen design… setting up user studies… and even working with an exceptionally clever engineer to figure out how to get the box installed (and the cable guy back on his way) in a third of the time it used to require.

Best of all, I got to meet and work with some amazingly smart folks both on the user experience team and throughout the company. I may even sign on more adventures there next year, but for now I’m very happy to be back in my robot-strewn office at Human Computing helping put the final touches on the much-anticipated (and slightly overdue) ComicBase 16–and looking forward to a terrific Christmas with my family.

On Making the Switch to Sprint

With last Friday’s iPhone 4S launch, the stars were finally aligned to allow Carolyn and me to make the move off AT&T’s accursed network onto Sprint’s. It involved paying an early termination fee and buying new phones, but after the zillionth dropped call (even with our additional Microcell), we’d had enough.

A few thoughts on making the move:

– First off, reception is _way_ better–5 bars vs. 1-2 on AT&T.

– Carolyn can probably explain the reason for it, but the switch in network types also means the call defects are different. AT&T’s GSM network would just not make calls (call failed when dialing), or drop them suddenly with no reason. Afterward, it was typically hard to get a solid connection. The two times I’ve had problems with Sprint’s CDMA network, the calls got “static-y” for several seconds, then dropped. A call-back would result in a crystal-clear connection. Is this a cell tower/band switching thing?

– Data speed seems the same or better with Sprint. I’ve noticed, however, that most of my data traffic these days is moving over Wi-Fi (Thanks for the free Wi-Fi, Starbucks!), so 3G data may not be as important as it once was.

– I went with Sprint over Verizon mostly due to the total plan cost for a family being much higher on their network vs. Sprint’s.  I hear overall good things about their network, though.

– For the first time, I recouped a ton of cash with no trouble whatsoever by selling back my now-obsolete phones. Sprint has a buyback program which instantly credits you about $250 for an iPhone 4 and $180 for the old 3Gs Carolyn had been using. Redemption was as easy as bringing in the (wiped) old phones into the store. Nice! (I also got $100 instantly on eBay for the now-obsolete Microcell I’d bought in a vain attempt to have my phone calls improved at home by routing them over my stupidly fast internet connection here. The Microcell managed to deliver 5 bars, but just as many stuttery/dropped calls as before. I never figured out why, despite two advanced troubleshooting calls with AT&T).

– If you’re thinking of moving over to Sprint, make sure to take advantage of discounts available to credit union, AAA, or military folks. I hear there are often corporate discounts as well. The discounts tend to be about 10% of the monthly bill.

Neil Sets a Math World Record (?!!)


To celebrate his 13th birthday, Neil Bickford (yes, that Neil) appears to have set the world record for computed terms of pi as a continued fraction, with 450 million terms computed–extending the old record of 180 million recorded by Hans Havermann.

See Neil’s blog for the whole story–including a lucid explanation of what a continued fraction is in the first place.

Neil worked for months on the custom C# program to do the computation, with additional weeks of work to prove the answer correct. A big thanks also goes to Bill Gosper who advised him throughout the project and has been a real gift as Neil’s friend and math tutor.

Secret Stuff Afoot

I sort of have an informal goal of blogging about once a week, and I have to apologize because I find lately that I’ve got nothing to talk about–or more accurately, nothing I can talk about.

We’re hard at work on the next version of ComicBase (in a way, we’re always hard at work on the next version), but this time, we’ve decided to save the big surprises for the actual release date…and that’s a secret too. All I can say at this point is that it looks really, really cool!

As for other things, well since this is a blog loosely connected to my business, I’m never going to be talking about politics, religion, or anything that’s likely to personally offend anyone I do, or am likely to do business with. Since we ship on six continents, that pretty much leaves penguins as topics of open and freewheeling conversation (Oooh! Could I tell you a few things there! [actually, not really]). I also have to respect the privacy of family, friends, and customers, so even if there’s a Really Colorful Story I could share involving any of the above, I can only do so if I change all the names…

…but let’s be honest, I’m such a geek that the work I can’t tell you about is already pretty much crowding out the personal life stuff I can’t tell you about. Sigh.

So welcome to Pete’s unintentionally muzzled, very quiet lately blog. Product announcement (and much retroactive blabbing) to follow…at a time which has not yet been publicly announced, and which I thus can’t comment on at this point.

Road Trip Report: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I was in Orlando Florida, having just spent a Bickford-family-record of 1 gerzillion bucks for for a set of two day passes to Disney World, and a 1 day pass to Universal Studios. “Sure, I may wind up in debtor’s prison with expenditures like this” I thought, ”but at least the kids will have the time of their lives…and I’ll finally get to see Space Mountain!”

So, early on Thursday morning, we jumped out of bed and drove, shuttled, and monorailed our way to the Magic Kingdom. And it really was magical: random chorus lines debarked from street cars to perform impromptu musical numbers; fireworks went off in the distance at random intervals; lines were short, and I’d even succeeded in grabbing my FastPass to ride Space Mountain—the ride that had eluded me on every trip I’d taken to Disneyland since I was a wee lad of 8. It was a really terrific day.

Then, as I headed over to Space Mountain to slide into the express line with my FastPass, my cell phone rang. It was Mark, back at the office. “Hey… I just got in and the web site seems to be down.”

“Well, try restarting the server”, I said, thinking some random glitch may have caused things to seize up since I last checked on it some eight hours earlier. I held the line, waiting for Mark’s “All Clear”. But it wasn’t to be.

“Uh… I’m getting a message here on the server about not being able to load the OS…”

“Could you read that too me again?” I asked, not quite believing what I was hearing.

He read it again.

“That’s bad. ” I said, and the warm Florida day suddenly got a lot colder.

What followed was a long series of phone calls while Mark and the crew read cryptic message after cryptic message to me, while I suggested a number of increasingly more complicated troubleshooting steps, all of which failed. The only good news was that we had multiple, current backups of the server.

By the time I got back to the hotel room, we’d essentially ruled out any troubleshooting measure short of a full system restore. But even that ran aground. (Retrospect folks: we really gotta talk about your “disaster recovery” feature…). Shiaw-Ling acted as my hands and ears from afar, working long into the night, while I remoted in to try to get the machine on its feet.

By morning, it looked like we were nearly there, but I still knew I’d have to spend the rest of the day, at best, working on it. The kids (and I will be eternally grateful for this) decided that they didn’t want to do our second day of Disney without their Dad, so they wandered around Orlando while I—having slept all of 50 minutes or so that night—tried and tried to get the server working again from my remote connection.

Alas, I failed in my efforts and, exhausted, I decided around 8 pm that I *had* to get some sleep. I was just no good to anyone. Worse with the weekend ahead of me, there was nobody to reach on the West Coast to do hardware swapping and other such work.

In the morning, I tried a few ideas I’d had overnight, then did the only reasonable thing I could think of: I set the site to forward to a “System is Down” page, and went off to spend the day with my family at Universal Studios.

Universal Studios was also a delight, and the Simpsons Ride alone was almost worth the cost of admission. I’d never been to Universal Studios before, so I had no idea what to expect from any of the attractions, all of which added to my amazement when they all turned out to be so well executed (with the possible exception of the unintentionally hilarious “Twister”). Toward the end of the day, I called Shiaw-Ling at home and asked if she’d be willing to help out from the California end with another go-round at a system restore that night. To her eternal credit, she said yes.

That night, we labored well into the morning and actually succeeded in rolling back the server to precisely the point it was before all the trouble. The only thing missing which prevented us from resuming full operation was the need to get new SSL certificates from our Certification Authority. We put in the request for this, but the CA wasn’t working until Monday. Once again, there was nothing for me to do…so I went back to Disney World and had a great time with the family.

On Monday morning, there was still no word from our CA, but I managed to reach the CA and get the new certificates installed while riding in the passenger seat on the road up from Orlando. Other than a few mail hiccups, we were finally back on our game, after a nervewracking shutdown of almost four days.

So it’s hard to say how I feel about that leg of the trip. It was full of thrills and adventure in the theme park cities; and full of frayed nerves and dismal depression while I worked from an Orlando hotel room by modem to try to restore a machine on the other side of the country. We even contemplated aborting the whole vacation and having me jump a plane to get back to California to get the bloody server back up. I’m glad as heck it never came to that, but for a time, it felt like a near thing indeed.

And in the end, it all worked out. My terrific family stuck by their stressed-out Dad in his time of need (they even found me Dunkin Donuts and coffee for my late night work shifts), my daughter got to meet new BFF Minnie Mouse, and I finally, finally, got to ride Space Mountain with my son. And yes, the ride was everything I’d ever hope it would be. We even got to see the offices of the Daily Bugle and ride along with Spider-Man as he battled the Sinister Six at Universal Islands of Adventure. All’s well that ends well, I guess.

Road Trip Report: Neil Visits MIT

Monday

Neil, Carolyn, and Kelly at MIT

Neil, Carolyn, and Kelly at MIT

When I asked Neil which part of the trip he was looking forward to the most, his answer was clear: “MIT! MIT! MIT!” And who could blame him? Thanks to the great folks at MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten lab, Neil actually had a meeting set up to meet with the makers of Scratch, a fascinating programming language he’d been working with for the past few months to make everything from an adventure game to a Lorenz Attractor simulator. Saying Neil was excited about this is like saying I’d sorta enjoy finding a near mint copy of Marvel Comics #1 in my attic.

The MIT Bookstore

The MIT Bookstore

We all got up early and headed over to Cambridge to the MIT campus so we’d be there in plenty of time for the meeting. Beforehand, we killed a bit of time at the Coop bookstore, where Neil scored an MIT T-Shirt, and Kelly discovered the quite delightful book “Goodnight Goon”, a Halloween-style take on Goodnight Moon. We decided the book was a keeper after she read it five times in the bookstore alone. (My personal favorite part is the “Goodnight Martians Taking Over the Moon…” page with its wonderfully lurid space alien drawings)

At 11:30, we headed over to the legendary Media Lab, where the basement was home to a LEGO learning lab, as well as the “Lifelong Kindergarten” project.

The Lifelong Kindergarten Lab

The Lifelong Kindergarten Lab

In addition to Scratch’s team lead Mitch Resnick, Neil had a chance to meet with John and Evelyn, the lead programmers. They asked Neil about his projects, how he’d discovered various features of the program, and let him in on their plans for upcoming versions of the software. It was a really great time, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Neil’s already mentally preparing his admissions essays for MIT. Of course, before we ship Neil off to Massachussetts for college, I’m going to have to insist that he at least look at Cal-Tech: it’s closer to home, and I hear awfully good things about their robotics program. Luckily, he’s got a few years to decide (and we’ve got a few years to figure out how the heck to pay the kerjillion-dollar-per-year tuition at both schools!)

Neil and the Scratch Team

Neil and the Scratch Team