Smoke alarm with wireless access point for hotels?

Our April trip to Florida and back entailed a bunch of stays at Hilton-family hotels with crummy Internet. The WiFi networks at Embassy Suites and DoubleTrees seem to be throttled to about 5 Mbps when they work, but coverage was spotty. Working remotely would have been impossible in most of our Embassy Suites room in Atlanta (at right), for example.

When we looked up to pray to the WiFi gods, however, we inevitably saw smoke alarms in the room. These were hard-wired back to a central station. If each device needs to be connected to power and signal, then mounted to the ceiling, why not have that device also provide WiFi service? It couldn’t add more than $20 to the cost of a smoke alarm to have it serve as a wireless access point, right? Maybe the wires back to the central station would need to be beefed up.

Something vaguely along these lines exists for the home: “First Alert Has Its Own Wi-Fi Mesh Router That Hijacks Every Connected Device With Smoke Alarm Warnings” (Gizmodo, January 2018).

Every new hotel by law must have a smoke alarm in each room, right? And every new hotel for commercial reasons must have WiFi coverage. Why isn’t there an off-the-shelf solution combining these two requirements?

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Software ideas for a Web archive?

A friend’s daughter is tasked with developing a Web-accessible archive for a multi-year collection of material that has been generated by an organization within a university. All of the material will be public, so there are no security issues and everything can be indexed by search engines. Ideally all of this can be maintained by non-programmers from Web browsers and minimal technical effort will be required for setup (though perhaps some programming would be useful/needed for an ingestion step).

The material is a mixture of PDFs, images, text, etc. She found some interesting software targeted at this very problem. Examples:

All of these provide for comprehensive tagging of each item, boolean searches, etc. But I wonder/worry that these are overkill. The collection is not especially valuable and I don’t know if people want to take the trouble to craft elaborate queries.

I was thinking that she might be better off using standard WordPress. Every item that is in the archive can become a WordPress post dated whenever the item was created (maybe this can be done via a batch process inserting things into the WordPress tables). She and anyone else involved in the project can tag items with however many tags make sense. At that point users can

  1. search with Google
  2. search by date (WordPress lets you go back and look at posts by date)
  3. search by tag

One advantage for WordPress over the above systems that are built for archiving is that WordPress is much more popular and constantly being improved (changed, anyway!). There are plugin modules available, e.g., to improve full-text searching through PDFs. For those who already have a museum collection organized, there is even a “Culture Object” plugin that is designed to import a collection into WordPress.

Readers: Better ideas?

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Life on the Google Manhattan Coding Plantation

“After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again” (NYT), by Emi Nietfeld (Harvard CS graduate):

I bought into the Google dream completely. In high school, I spent time homeless and in foster care, and was often ostracized for being nerdy.

(The product of an unsuccessful family, she herself was unsuccessful at Google, adding some weight to University of California research on heritability of success; see The Son Also Rises: economics history with everyday applications and also The Son Also Rises: Tips for Optimizing Your Life (summary: don’t expect a smooth relationship if you hire (or date/marry) someone from an unsuccessful family; if that person appears to be successful, e.g., due to having obtained an elite degree, regression to the family mean is likely).

Matrix management prevails…

The few people who’d worked at other companies reminded us that there was nowhere better. I believed them, even when my technical lead — not my manager, but the man in charge of my day-to-day work — addressed me as “beautiful” and “gorgeous,” even after I asked him to stop. (Finally, I agreed that he could call me “my queen.”) He used many of our one-on-one meetings to ask me to set him up with friends, then said he wanted “A blonde. A tall blonde.” Someone who looked like me.

(i.e., humans formerly known as “guys” who work at Google have trouble getting dates in New York City, a city with 200,000 more single women than men, according to Mini Mike (who never had any trouble finding women!))

The company encourages denunciations, but then keeps the denouncer and the target of the denunciation yoked together in close quarters while it investigates at a glacial pace:

As soon as my complaint with H.R. was filed, Google went from being a great workplace to being any other company: It would protect itself first. I’d structured my life around my job — exactly what they wanted me to do — but that only made the fallout worse when I learned that the workplace that I cherished considered me just an employee, one of many and disposable.

The process stretched out for nearly three months. In the meantime I had to have one-on-one meetings with my harasser and sit next to him. Every time I asked for an update on the timeline and expressed my discomfort at having to continue to work in proximity to my harasser, the investigators said that I could seek counseling, work from home or go on leave.

Note the faith in therapy (“counseling”)!

Eventually, the investigators corroborated my claims and found my tech lead violated the Code of Conduct and the policy against harassment. My harasser still sat next to me. My manager told me H.R. wouldn’t even make him change his desk, let alone work from home or go on leave. He also told me that my harasser received a consequence that was severe and that I would feel better if I could know what it was, but it sure seemed like nothing happened.

The aftermath of speaking up had broken me down. It dredged up the betrayals of my past that I’d gone into tech trying to overcome. I’d made myself vulnerable to my manager and the investigators but felt I got nothing solid in return. I was constantly on edge from seeing my harasser in the hallways and at the cafes. When people came up behind my desk, I startled more and more easily, my scream echoing across the open-floor-plan office. I worried I’d get a poor performance review, ruining my upward trajectory and setting my career back even further.

I went weeks without sleeping through the night.

I decided to take three months of paid leave. I feared that going on leave would set me back for promotion in a place where almost everyone’s progress is public and seen as a measure of an engineer’s worth and expertise.

After my leave, the manager I loved started treating me as fragile. He tried to analyze me, suggesting that I drank too much caffeine, didn’t sleep enough or needed more cardiovascular exercise. Speaking out irreparably damaged one of my most treasured relationships. Six months after my return, when I broached the subject of promotion, he told me, “People in wood houses shouldn’t light matches.”

(Note: do not invite this guy to any Hanukkah celebrations, COVID or no COVID.)

Having been inside Google’s Manhattan building, which is one of the largest in the world, I’m shocked that they engage in these multi-month investigations while leaving the unhappy co-workers together. With so many thousands of engineering positions all around the enormous building and all around the world, why not give those who are unhappy for any reason an immediate transfer? Investigate later if desired, and punish the guilty if the kangaroo court so rules, but transfer first so as to defuse the situation.

(Separately, someone I know from MIT worked at Google, became disillusioned, and, like Ms. Nietfeld, joined Facebook. For a while she would post on Facebook about how awesome Facebook was and how Sheryl made sure that it was specifically a great place for those who identified as “women”, etc. But eventually she became disgruntled with Facebook along similar lines.)

Here’s my favorite reader comment on the piece, from Eva Klein of Washington, D.C.:

Judith Martin (Miss Manners) put it best — the American workplace is too informal for its own good. We reject strict hierarchies, but at the end of the day, the bottom line reigns and there is no loyalty to any worker, regardless of how cherished they were when they contributed profits to the company.

Americans would do well to learn about the European approach — strict work and life boundaries. You won’t celebrate your colleague’s birthday or new baby at the office. But you also won’t feel a visceral tear at the heart strings if you are fired (or “made redundant”, as the lingo goes).

Another Harvard graduate (this one with a Ph.D. in research psychology (not counseling!)), the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, says that Google can and does determine the outcome of American elections, e.g., by reminding liberals, but not conservatives, to go out and vote. Google can also sway swing voters by tweaking search results (stories about Hunter Biden’s cash-stuffed plaintiff might be pushed way way down, for example). See “Big Tech’s Greatest Threat”, by Robert Epstein. Excerpts from an article that is way too long for modern attention spans:

During a period of days before the 2020 election, we found that on Google’s home page, it was sending “go vote” reminders just to liberals. That’s a powerful ephemeral message, and not a single one went to conservatives. How do we know this? Because we were recording the content our 700 “field agents” were seeing on their computer screens. That was a diverse group of registered voters we had recruited in three key swing states. Google was sending those vote reminders only to liberals. That’s a powerful manipulation that’s entirely invisible to people — unless a group like ours has found a way to monitor what people are seeing.

A preliminary analysis of the more than 500,000 ephemeral experiences we preserved in Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida, turned up some disturbing things. Number one, we found a strong liberal bias in the search results people saw on Google when they searched for political topics; this bias was absent on Bing and Yahoo. 92% of searches are conducted on Google, and we know from years of experiments we’ve conducted that biased search results can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters, and those are the people who decide the outcomes of close elections. In experiments, we can easily shift 20% or more of undecided voters after just one search by showing them biased search results.

Even before people see search results, biased search suggestions — those phrases Google flashes at you when you start to type a search term — can shift thinking and behavior. We have shown in controlled experiments that biased search suggestions can turn a 50‑50 split among undecided voters into a 90‑10 split, with no one having the slightest idea they have been manipulated.

Tailoring suggestions is an interesting idea. I’m surprised that the effect can be as large as this guy says. Maybe it would be for product purchases. If you type “ergonomic mouse” and the first suggestion is “ergonomic mouse logitech” that could give a big boost to Logitech. But how can it help with an election? If the completion for “Joe Biden” is “Joe Biden kids in cages” that will be read by Democrats as a reminder that Joe Biden freed migrant children from their cages and by Republicans as a reminder that Joe Biden is continue to park migrants who say they’re under 18 into the same kinds of facilities as were used during the Trump and Obama administrations. Same deal with “Joe Biden higher tax rates” or “Joe Biden $2 trillion spending”.

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Why aren’t motherboards mostly USB-C by now?

I’m beginning to think that the Windows PC that I built in 2015 is ready for retirement (though if Joe Biden can be president at 78, maybe this PC can last until 2029?). In looking at new desktop PCs and motherboards I am struck by the paucity of USB-C ports (standardized in 2014). It looks as though 0 and 1 are the most common number of USB-C ports on a 2021 PC.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for all of the USB ports on a new PC to be USB-C and then use adapters for legacy components?

From The Last Castle, describing events of 1921:

Not everyone was immediately captivated with technology’s advances. Just months after Cornelia [Vanderbilt] celebrated “reaching her majority,” author Willa Cather gave a speech in which she presciently waxed philosophical on the subject of the phonograph. “We now have music by machines, we travel by machines,” she said. “Soon we will be having machines to do our thinking.”

(Note that adulthood and voting in those days came at 21, not at 18!)

The great Willa Cather expected great progress from the world’s nerds. What do we have 100 years later? A Dell XPS desktop PC, “Engineered and designed with purpose for ultimate power and expandability”, equipped with a mechanical hard drive and a feeble 8 GB of RAM (is that even enough to run Windows by itself?).

The machine has a single USB-C port and eleven legacy USB-A ports.

What if you want to spend $5,000 on an Alienware gaming desktop from Dell? You get… a 2 TB mechanical hard drive (also an SSD), a healthy 128 GB of RAM, and two USB-C ports (plus a bunch of USB-A ports).

Apple fanboys/fangirls/fanothers: even the Mac Pro includes two legacy USB-A ports (admittedly it also has four Thunderbolt ports). Why is this relic of old tech cluttering the clean design of an Apple product in 2021?

Related:

  • USB4 was standardized in 2019, but PC motherboards still don’t support it at all? (and therefore nobody should build a new PC right now because the USB4 motherboards are around the corner?)
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What is a good 32-inch 4K monitor?

Five years ago I purchased two Samsung 32-inch 4K computer monitors for $1300 each. These UD970s boasted “99.5% Adobe RGB and 100% sRGB Color Compliance”, which I thought would make them good for editing photos. They’re also reasonably bright, at 350 nits. Unfortunately, one now has a vertical line permanently stuck to cyan, about 1/3rd of the way in from the left. The other one has a flaky power supply and turns itself on and off at random.

I can’t go with a fashionable curved monitor because I had a treadmill next to a chair and, in theory, want to be able to drive setup from either the left or right side of the desk. So it needs to be a primary and secondary monitor of roughly 32″ in size.

One thing that might be interesting is a monitor with built-in speakers so that I can clear the speakers and amp (optical digital in to speaker-level out) off my desk. It is rare that I listen to anything where high sound quality is required.

Here are some ideas, based on Amazon ranking:

  • LG 32UN500-W (includes built-in speakers), VA panel rather than IPS, $350 (“Amazon’s Choice” but maybe that is based on gaming performance and I am not planning to game). 350 nits. No USB ports! In a world where everyone needs a webcam for Zoom-during-lockdown, how does it make sense to exclude the USB hub function from the monitor?
  • Samsung LS32AM702UNXZA (built-in speakers), which has “Wireless DeX” that promises “a full PC experience, without any PC” (put phone applications on the big screen), $400; see “Mobile Phone As Home Computer” (2005) for why this is close to my personal dream. Possible deal-killer: only 250 nits (also a VA panel). Three USB-A ports and one USB-C for keeping the desktop clutter-free.
  • LG 32UN650-W (built-in speakers), IPS panel, no USB. $500.
  • LG 32UN880-B (built-in speakers), IPS panel. $650. Comes with an “ergo stand” that clamps to the back of the desk, thus freeing up desk space for additional clutter. Has a handful of USB-A and USB-C connectors on the back.

After I get at least one new one, I could maybe have some fun with the kids trying to assemble a single working Samsung out of the two broken ones (panel from one and power supply, etc., from the other?).

Here’s a question for genius readers? Why aren’t there OLED computer monitors? Problems with burn-in, you say? You’d have pixels burned to standard user interface elements? What if the monitor were 10 percent oversized horizontally and vertically? Have the 4K image slowly float among the corners, which would ensure that the pixels along the edges got some completely dark time. (LG already seems to do a weak version of this with its OLED TVs; they call it Screen Shift.) What about central pixels? Have the monitor and/or video card watch for extended periods of constant illumination (maybe it would be white since so many documents have white backgrounds) and do some selective dimming as necessary.

The LG “Ergo: design”:

Update: It wouldn’t have been simple to mount the Ergo on my particular desk, so I got the LG 32UN650-W (a $500 IPS monitor). The built-in speakers far exceeded my expectations… for tinniness. They are unusable for music, YouTube sound tracks, etc. I guess they’re a good emergency backup in case my external amp (Nuforce DIA, purchased in 2012 and now discontinued) or Audioengine P4 speakers fail and I need to be on a Zoom call. I never calibrated the Samsung monitor (the one that still works, but has a stuck line), but photos appear brighter and bluer on it. Comparing to the iPhone 12 Pro Max, on which the photos originated, the LG is a little closer.

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Happy 27th birthday to the cable modem

“Big Cable Company to Offer A High-Speed Internet Link” (New York Times, March 9, 1994):

Continental Cablevision Inc., the nation’s third-largest cable television company, said yesterday that it had begun offering a high-speed link to the Internet data network over the same coaxial cables that carry television channels into the home.

The Internet connection is initially available only to Continental customers in Cambridge, Mass., but company officials said it would eventually be offered to nearly three million customers nationwide. Continental, based in Boston, provides cable service to Westchester County, N.Y., and in California, Idaho and Michigan.

However, at a rate of $125 a month for residential customers, and higher for business customers, the service is unlikely to displace the MTV’s and the Home Box Offices at the top of a 500-channel hit parade, even in Cambridge, the sort of academic-technical redoubt where enthusiasts consider Internet access more important than the telephone.

At the same time, telephone and data-communications companies are constantly expanding the capacity of twisted-pair phone lines and speeding the installation of fiber optic lines, which also offer data-transfer speeds fast enough to handle video signals.

“Cable is a kludge,” remarked Mr. Harris of Jupiter Communications, using a computer term for an inelegant solution to a technical problem. “The market is aching to have everything in full motion, and cable is sort of a middle-of-the-road solution.”

Here we are, 27 years later, and Cambridge, thanks to the miracle of government regulation, still doesn’t have fiber to the home!

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Why didn’t coronapanic and shutdown push virtual reality over the hump?

In Virtual reality and augmented reality: the technologies of the future (March 2019) I asked

Is it fair to say that “VR/AR is the technology of the future, and always will be”?

The future arrived in March 2020, with governments around the world making it illegal to interact face to face, illegal to travel, etc. If VR were ever going to catch on, shouldn’t coronapanic and associated lockdowns have been the catalyst?

If there were complete VR experiences at most of the world’s art museums, I would buy a VR headset right now, but museum web sites don’t seem to offer more than conventional image galleries. Maybe there are a handful of museum experiences available, but certainly it is not like the freedom that we had in the physical world when the physical world (beyond South Dakota and Sweden) included freedom.

VR could also be great for mass (virtual) gatherings. Wander around in VR and form small conversation groups (but maybe this wouldn’t be as good as Zoom because you’d have to interact with avatars unless you wanted to see pictures of people with VR goggles attached to their heads.

Who has tried the Oculus Quest 2? One of my cousins loves this, but maybe that is because he has been locked into his house with wife and two (mostly grown) children (i.e., perhaps coronapanic did push him into the VR fold). No cumbersome cables (and therefore limited to two hours of battery-based usage). No need to configure a PC. No privacy issues because it is tied to Facebook, which already knows everything about you.

Related:

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Windows or MacOS better for restricting teenager activity online?

As noted in Coronapanic proved Greta Thunberg right, 2020 will go down in history as the year when adults stole the most from children (a whole year of their educational and social life in hopes that a handful of (mostly very old) adults might live a few additional years).

American children are now supposed to be focused computer users all day at home in “remote school” with no supervision. Adults in this situation will generally get distracted with online shopping, online chatting with friends, social media, etc. But we have set up a system in which a teenager who fails to resist all of these temptations will lose a year of education.

First, I’m wondering why there isn’t a service in which someone in India or the Philippines will remote desktop into the child’s computer and stay there all day. The remote proctor can then shout out “Hey, get back to your school browser. Tiktok will not help you get into Yale.” Let the remote proctor connect to a speaker in the corner of the room to do the shouting and call the monthly service Telescreen. Perhaps for a reduced monthly fee, the folks in India/Philippines could use conventional operating system controls and alert parents on a daily or weekly basis, block out new chat sites daily, etc.

For those who want to do it all themselves, but not stand over the child/teenager every day, what operating system is best? Windows has an extensive array of controls, I think, when the parent is the Admin account and the child is a User account. Some explanations:

A friend who has a history of monitoring activity within his household (see Au pair to green card) says the following:

Windows does it perfectly. There’s a browsing and search history monitor. You can restrict by host. If his chat apps are inside the browser, you can block the host name. It knows about browsers even you don’t know about. The parent can easily see that he is spending 4 hours a day on somechat.com and then go see herself what it is and then block it with one click. It can all be done remotely.

(Some of the protections on web activity may work only if the browser is Microsoft’s own Edge program.)

How about the Macintosh? This Macworld UK article suggests that it is easy to block categories of web sites, but not individual hosts. A third-party app, bark, seems to go deeper at $100/year.

Should we ask Professor Dr. Jill Biden, Ed.D. for advice in this area?

Finally, why isn’t there a good marketplace for American parents to hire teachers/tutors from foreign countries to sit virtually with their children in the sad parody that we call “remote school”? For a higher fee, instead of a proctor who can block time-wasting activities (such as blogging!), the teenager gets a qualified teacher to look at assignments, suggest references, etc. There are markets for language tutors, right? Why not a market for a remote private teacher for one’s kids? It could be useful also for parents whose children are “homeschooled”.

Touchscreen gloves for the child who needs to be online in the snow…

From our in-house 11-year-old artist, who is not a screen-time junkie. I wonder how much paint will be coming off with the tape that she used…

Readers: What is the technical solution? Windows, Mac, Windows+App/Service, or Mac+App/Service? And why can’t we easily pay the foreigners who might be able to help our children stay focused on their schoolwork?

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Alexa and Google Home have proved that home automation is useless?

Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, a pioneer in minicomputers, disparaged microprocessors for controlling houses back in 1977:

In 1977, referring to computers used in home automation at the dawn of the home computer era, Olsen is quoted as saying “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Olsen admitted to making the remark, even though he says his words were taken out of context and he was referring to computers set up to control houses, not PCs. According to Snopes.com, “the out-of-context misinterpretation of Olsen’s comments is considered much more amusing and entertaining than what he really meant, so that is the version that has been promulgated for decades now”.

We’ve had 43 years of progress since then. The functions that he said were useless to accomplish by touching a switch are now useless to accomplish with our voices (are we truly so fat and lazy that we can’t get off the sofa to flick a light switch and need to ask Alexa to activate a light?).

I’m still kind of an enthusiast for a computer-controlled home, especially if we could have electrochromic windows and skylights everywhere around the house and/or motorized shades and brise soleil. But even in technologically advanced societies, such as Korea and Taiwan, the typical component of a house continues to be dumb, right?

Bonus… a picture of Ken Olsen’s former house, past peak foliage:

For folks who believe in the magic of American real estate as an investment: the Zillow link above says that the house was sold in 2007 for $1.9 million and is now worth $2 million, 13 years later. Up 5 percent, right? (actually 0 percent if it costs 5 percent in real estate commissions to sell) But let’s not forget that it is attracting $28,832 per year in property tax even before the ground has been broken on the nation’s most expensive (per student) school ever constructed.) The S&P 500, by contrast, was at 1,455 at the time of the sale. On October 26, 2020 it was 3,465 (up 138 percent). Instead of requiring the payment of property tax, the S&P 500 has been paying a dividend every year during this period.

What if we adjust for inflation? The house cost $2.4 million in today’s mini dollars. So it has actually lost more than 20 percent in value when you consider the broker fees that will need to be paid to unload it. (Adding insult to injury: U.S. capital gains tax does not adjust for inflation, so the unlucky owner might have to pay capital gains tax on the increase in nominal value despite the fact that there was a loss. in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.)

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