Thursday, July 29, 2010

Google Transit, Where Are You?

In March of this year, the Star Phoenix reported that Google Transit was going to roll out in Saskatoon. At the end of June, to be exact.

It's now the end of July, and there's no Google Transit in sight! A careful googling for clues reveals nothing - there's literally no mention of Google Transit and Saskatoon on the internet except for that one article (and on Wikipedia, citing the same Star Phoenix article). Is it really coming?

I'd love to see Google Transit in Saskatoon. Anything would be better than Saskatoon's incredibly slow, complex Click'n'Go. I recall during the extremely cold week of January 2010 the entire City of Saskatoon's website was completely unavailable for several days due to the volume of people trying to access it. Assuming the buses weren't running, I skipped class (it turned out the buses were running).

The best feature that Google Transit would bring is Google Maps integration. Plug in where you are and where you're going, and Google Transit finds the best route(s). Google Transit also works with Google Maps on smartphones - iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Android phones. This alone has the potential to massively boost transit ridership! Making routes easy to access - and more importantly, easy to search for while on the go - has the potential to significantly increase the number of riders.

Google has a knack for organizing information and making it easy to use and access. Hopefully, Google Transit for Saskatoon rolls out soon, and provides us with a better solution than Click'n'Go, dialing 975-7500, or carrying around a massive stash of brochures.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Scams

Lately, I've seen local news stories of people falling for scams and losing money, property, or both. This non-local story was on the radio this morning.

Some of these circumstances seemed like they’d be a very obvious scam. It’s got me thinking about how we trust organizations we do business with, how we determine credibility, and how we fall for scams.

Having a computer science dad, I had home internet access before lots of kids at school. Actually, before we had internet at home, I remember going to my dad’s office at the university and being allowed to search for pictures of the Simpsons and Toy Story on Netscape Navigator, then printing them on a colour laser (the unit probably cost an insane amount of money at the time).

When we got home internet access (around... ‘96 or ‘97?) my dad told me two simple rules for protecting myself online:
  • Never, ever post my name, address, or other personal information online. 
  • Never, ever trust anything online (banner ads, spam, e-commerce) - it’s ALL a scam. 
These were probably the two best pieces of advice anyone could have been given growing up with the internet in the 90s and the early 2000s.

The evolution of the internet from 1997 to 2010 has made following these rules impossible. The social web encourages disclosure of personal information, and our most trusted organizations and companies have websites that we happily plug our information into (universities, science camps, e-commerce, banks, etc). This isn’t a bad thing - I love the convenience of web-based services.

Despite the changes to the online landscape, my dad’s two rules of the internet never lost their significance, especially when new services pop up online. It’s safest for consumers not to trust organizations by default. It took me a long time to become convinced that sites like eBay, PayPal, Facebook, Google’s non-search services, Quicken Online, Twitter, and more were trustworthy enough to use. I don’t use online products without careful consideration and review (or a bogus test account).

A happy side effect of my dad’s two rules for the internet is how easily those principles transfer to “offline” business:
  • Never give your info to any company/organization, ever. 
  • Never trust any company/organization - everything is a scam. 
The point is exaggerated. I trust and do business with dozens of companies. Organizations that I am unfamiliar with have to earn my trust, be it through a positive first experience or through reputation and reviews.

Let me rephrase: There’s no social or economic obligation to trust a business by default, and consumers should never feel guilty when they (directly or indirectly) question the legitimacy of an organization. Organizations are completely responsible for earning and keeping the consumer’s trust.

Over the past few years, something unexpected has happened: I trust organizations more through the web than in real life.

For example:
  • When RBC sends me communications through my online banking inbox, I trust those messages much more than the RBC telemarketers who phone me with the same offer. How do I know those calls are from RBC?
  • When someone shows up at my door from the Heart & Stroke Foundation, the Lung Association, or another fundraising campaign, I politely turn them away and say that I’ll contribute to the cause through their website, if anything. No website, no credibility. Sorry, random dude raising money for your kids' hockey team*. 
  • When someone phones me with a survey about a service they provide for me (say, SaskTel or Shaw), how do I know I’m actually talking to a rep from that company? Send me a link to the survey, hosted directly on your organization’s website.
*I could have sworn someone pulled this scam in Saskatoon a while ago, but I couldn't find a link.

Being a skeptical consumer is most important when money or personal information is involved. If my car dealer phones me about a recall, or London Drugs phones to say my photos are ready, or UPS shows up to deliver a package, should I worry? No. There are few practical reasons not to trust a purely informational solicitation, especially from an organization you’re connected to.

So, why do we fall for scams? Is it generational, or is it a result of our previous experiences? I don’t really know. Perhaps people are too trusting, or perhaps the enticement of money, love or reward eclipses that little internal voice that repeats, “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” I found some interesting research  from the Office of Fair Trading in the UK on who is susceptible to scams, but no one has a straight answer.

To wrap up, like the best way to protect yourself from getting scammed or ripped off is to assume that everything is a scam or a ripoff, online or offline (a word of caution: be practical, not cynical), avoid acting on impulse, and make sure that organizations earn your trust.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Movie Review: Inception (no spoilers)

I saw Inception on Monday night and if I had to describe the movie in two words, I'd say, "really good." It's definitely worth seeing. 

Is it #3 of the top 250 movies ever made, as it is currently ranked on the Internet Movie Database? Absolutely not (Rotten Tomatoes has a better consensus). I have no idea where the IMDB hype came from. But people should still check it out.

What I really liked

The coolest part about this movie was the premise - that you can steal people's secrets by entering their dreams and manipulating their minds. It sounds corny on paper, but it's well-executed in the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a "best-in-the-business" type character - he's the best at entering people's dreams. The plot of the movie follows Leo and his team as they face the biggest challenge of all - not only entering someone's dream, but planting a thought without being detected in the subject's mind ("inception"). 

There's tons of action and the concept of entering people's dreams within other dreams creates tons of uncertainty throughout the movie as you ask yourself where the characters really are (reality, dreams, or dreams within dreams). The movie is thrilling, puzzling, well-cast, and the concept of entering other people's dreams forces the audience to question what their own reality is. For this feeling alone, it's worth seeing. 

I sincerely appreciated that the producers did not bullshit the audience on how this dream-entering is possible. While they talk sciencey mumbo-jumbo about what is and is not possible within dreams, and discuss the consequences of messing with someone's subconscious, the movie does not force you to swallow a BS pseudo-scientific explanation of how entering someone's dreams is possible. The process is never mentioned and the audience just accepts that if you have a fancy-looking suitcase, it's possible. As such, the audience is spared the type of insanely impossible science that made the Core such an unbearable (yet, in its own special way, awesome) movie. 

What I didn't like

Despite the cool concept behind the movie, the first 20 minutes really drag. No spoilers, but it's the typical action-movie, "let's assemble a team" sequence. Okay, let's track down an old professor. Now let's grab the smart guy, the charmer, the token black brown guy (Indian, in this film!), and an impossibly talented cute young girl. Sprinkle lightly with action. Postpone real story until team is assembled. 

Remember in Armageddon where Bruce Willis had to track down Billy Bob Thorton, Steve Buscemi, Ben Affleck, and the other space rig-pigs? Yeah, it's that scene. Or remember in Ocean's 11, 12, and 13 where George Clooney has to track down his team? Yeah, it's that scene. Robyn accurately described this sequence as "quite boring" and that if you saw it on TV, you'd probably change the channel. 

That's really my main complaint. It's slow to start, and there are a few eye-rolling moments in the film (not too many), but again, I have to emphasize that the incredibly smart, puzzling main plot forgives these few grievances. 

Verdict

Go see it in theatres; I'd say it's worth it. Christopher Nolan (of Batman Begins, the Dark Night, Memento fame) knows how to put together a captivating, original and overall enjoyable film. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Will Smartphones Availability Edge Out Small Carriers?

Here's a thought: Will the rise in popularity of smartphones push smaller carriers out of the market?

This past week I posted about SaskTel's upcoming network upgrade in August. Wayne added a helpful comment; he'd tracked down the preliminary smartphone lineup, which includes two new BlackBerry devices and two unexciting Nokia phones.

Tech-savvy consumers want the latest and greatest in smartphones. The larger the carrier, the sooner you can get the latest and greatest devices. If you're with a small carrier, you get to play the waiting game. Or the jealousy game. Or both.

SaskTel has admitted they're working on getting the iPhone 4, but I'm skeptical that will happen. Rogers has the Sony Xperia X10 and will have the iPhone 4 (as will sister company Fido), Bell will have the iPhone 4 (though Bell doesn't do business in little ole' Saskatchewan), and Telus has the HTC Hero and the HTC Desire is coming soon.

As ill-reviewed as Rogers is here in Saskatchewan, they're the only national carrier with a full selection of BlackBerry, Android, and iPhone devices.

And why is Rogers ill-reviewed in Saskatchewan? Well, their coverage is one issue - SaskTel certainly has them beat. But once SaskTel's new network is operational, Rogers customers should be able to roam on that expanded network (correct me if I'm wrong)

Rogers also adjusts their prices and plans to compete regionally. Go to Rogers.com and select that you live on Ontario. Look at voice/data plans, and you can see that evening calling starts at 9PM. Terrible! But chance your locale to Saskatchewan and look at those plans, evening calling starts at 6PM, presumably to compete with SaskTel's provincial stronghold on the mobile market.

Guess what? Their rates aren't even that bad. I priced out a new Sony Xperia X10 and they've included a helpful bill calculator on checkout, it would be approximately what I'm paying for my BlackBerry on SaskTel.

Eight years ago, when all phones did the same thing, plus or minus a few bells and whistles, SaskTel was the obvious choice for cell phone service in Saskatchewan for their coverage. Now that line is blurred - other providers have equally great coverage and offer better devices for similar rates.

I'm not about to jump SaskTel's ship and go to Rogers (I have 2 years left on my current contract, and I can't bring myself to give up BlackBerry Messenger for an Android phone quite yet), but since no carrier has a significant coverage or price advantage, more and more decisions will be made based on device availability. Carriers will need to stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest devices to earn new business.

Friday, July 16, 2010

My Predictions For SaskTel's Network Upgrade (spoiler: lots of doubt)

Everyone and their dog is tickled pink about SaskTel’s upcoming 3G+ network upgrade, which promises to bring better speeds and better devices to the SaskTel network. And the iPhone!!! OH GAHWD, the iPhone. Read any article in the Star Phoenix or the Leader-Post about the network upgrade, and you’ll believe that the sole reason for this upgrade is to bring the iPhone to Saskatchewan (despite the fact that it’s been available through Rogers for years).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of SaskTel - I’ve been a SaskTel Mobility customer for nearly 10 years and have no significant complaints. The province-owned crown corporation kicks butt in many areas: extraordinary province-wide cellular coverage, high-speed internet (again, nearly province-wide), SaskTel Max, and competitive rates for all of their services.

However, SaskTel has a severe technology deficits in some areas that call into question their ability to su ccessfully launch this new network successfully and on time. 

1. Web Presence


SaskTel’s website is
terrible, and they
must know it. Visit SaskTel.com, then visit any other wireless website in Canada and draw your own conclusions. There’s no way that SaskTel’s tech guys are content with this bloated, Javascript-based piece of garbage.

“But it seems okay! It’s not that bad!!” - you. Yes, if you’re running IE6 on Windows ME. Here’s what’s wrong:
  • JavaScript links for EVERYTHING makes sharing links impossible. I can’t right-click then copy most links because they look like this:
    • javascript:c_d(s_0,new Array("1-16IMS8","s_7_2_16_1","SWERowId0=1-JMOXX,SWERowId1=1-16IMS8"),s_1,s_2,this) (This link, by the way, is for the BlackBerry Tour 9630 device info page)
  • Another side effect of the JavaScript links is that search engines can’t read/find SaskTel’s product pages. The result: when you search on Google for info about SaskTel products, you get terrible results. This is called Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and SaskTel doesn’t do it.
  • The ever-present search bar at the top-right of each page actually makes you select a search category. This is 2010; search is supposed to be smart.
  • SaskTel claims to support Firefox in their Supported Browsers List but anyone who has used the site with Firefox (or Google Chrome) knows this is a cruel joke. Hope you have IE installed.
Immediately after typing this list I spotted this announcement about an upcoming upgrade to SaskTel’s 
website starting July 16, ending July 19. I’m eager to see if they’ll roll out a new site, or add bloat to the existing piece of crap. I promise I will post an update. 

2. Smartphone Selection


SaskTel’s CEO h
as been using a classic formula to get his name in the paper: mention the iPhone
all the time. Maybe SaskTel will have it in August! Let's be honest with ourselves; it's not happening.

If you’re buying a smartphone from SaskTel, you have 11 choices right now. I have good news for you if you like buying obsolete crap: half of these phones are obsolete crap.

Here are some of the gems they’re selling:
  • BlackBerry Curve 8330, released 2007, even though they’re selling superior BlackBerry devices alongside it.
  • The universally-hated BlackBerry Storm, released December 2008, even though they’re selling the Storm 2 (the better, less shitty version) right alongside it.
  • Samsung Ace, released April 2008, possibly the dumbest smartphone anyone could buy.
  • Correction, the dumbest smartphone anyone could buy from SaskTel is the Palm Centro, released October 2007. Running Palm Operating System, it is now three years outdated by Palm’s new webOS devices, the Pre and Pixi (which SaskTel does not carry).
  • The Palm Treo Pro, released August 2008, another “classic” smartphone that won’t do anything modern.
“Maybe they’re saving their new phones for the upgrade!” - you. Yeah, maybe. My response: this lineup has remained unchanged for the past year, with the exception of the new BlackBerry Tour, Storm 2, and Curve 8530. SaskTel rarely gets new devices. Right now, they’re selling three modern BlackBerry devices and a bunch of crap, and it's been that way for a while. 

Apple, de
spite their ongoing iPhone 4
antenna
issues shitfest, are still concerned about their image and are not going to be selling the iPhone 4 to a carrier that is proudly selling the shitty, shitty, super-shitty Palm Centro.

So, hedge your bets. SaskTel has ~30 days until August 16, 2010, when they’re going to light up the new network. Sorry SaskTel! Here are my pessimistic predictions:
  • Some kind of launch day complication or delay that affects CDMA users.
  • Sub-standard device lineup on launch day.
  • No iPhone 4.
  • No Android devices (I would be truly sad about this one).
  • Palm Centro still available to purchase on SaskTel website.
I’m hoping that I’m wrong - I’d love to see SaskTel succeed so I could grab a next-gen (Android!?! But I’d hate to give up BlackBerry Messenger!) device on what I hope will be a very competitive data plan. Sadly, given the state of their device lineup and website, I don’t see it happening.

Extra Reading:
- SaskTel’s info sheet about the upcoming upgrade (PDF)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Year of the Flood

Woke up to this on June 30th (my room, view looking in): 

Outside my room:


Bathroom... Just lovely.


I TRIED TO ROTATE YOU WHY DON'T YOU ROTATE!!!!!!!!

Kitchen


The scariest thing: the water line in our entryway during the flash flood. This must have happened AFTER we got home from a concert at midnight and BEFORE we woke up at 6am. Thank goodness the door was mostly sealed shut.


The only, ONLY thing that got damaged? My friggin' laptop that I BARELY ever use. I started using it again recently to write blog posts at the kitchen table instead of in my room. When it didn't turn on, I let it sit in a container of rice for 24 hours. But because it had been plugged in while sitting on the dining area floor, something was fried. I opened it up and took it apart to find the damage:
Alas! I believe the only damaged chip is the one that makes the laptop not broken!

After the clean-up:


Looks good, except for the floors. 

In the end we lucked out, the only damage to personal belongings was my 6-year-old laptop (which I have been secretly itching to replace) and a few cheap floor mats. Plus my room-mate's room was completely unscathed. Plus it was dirt, and not sewage. Maybe this makes us the luckiest of all.

We have it better than what my landlord will have to deal with (considering the floors) and a heck of a lot better than a lot of people in Saskatoon had it, from what I heard on the news.