Saturday, April 25, 2009

Culture Shock

After over ten years traveling around the world racking up frequent flyer miles, and having set foot on every continent except Antarctica, you begin to think you're immune to culture shock.

Posted to Flickr by aallan.
Sunrise over Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf.

I know the best place to eat in more than two dozen airports. I know the hidden and totally unsigned walking route between the main terminals which keeps you airside at SFO rather than sending you back through security.

I can speak fluent American as well as British English, or at least I can get the words right. My accent is unmistakable, and at least some of the time, an asset here in the States. I've stayed in some of the best, and certainly some of the worst, hotels in the world and I'm familiar with many of those little cultural taboos that catch out in-frequent travelers and cause difficulties.

Culture shock is what happens to other people...

The sight of what appeared to be a cute soccer mom, with large sun glasses and a scowl on her face, driving a black sport utility vehicle with tinted windows, being pursued at some speed by six police cruisers with sirens blowing and lights flashing down Pacific Avenue here in Santa Cruz proved me wrong.

Or rather the fact that I was the only one paying this incident any attention. The sight of one of the cops leaning out the window of the lead vehicle holding a shotgun wasn't apparently that unusual. The ambulance that raced by a few minutes later, heading in the same direction as the now long departed cavalcade of vehicles, didn't seem to be raising any eyebrows either.

Of such small incidents, and other little things, comes the large and uncomfortable feeling of disorientation that tells you you're a very long way from home. No matter how many times you visit a country, and no matter how at home you feel there, there is always the possibility that culture shock will creep up on you unexpectedly.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The decline and fall of Gizmo

Until a couple of months ago I was a fairly happy customer of the Gizmo Project, a SIP based competitor to Skype. Back in February however they sent me a support email to tell me my Call-In number was out of order.

Date: Fri, 20 Feb 2009
Subject: Attn:Regarding Your UK Number From Gizmo5
From: Gizmo5

Dear Gizmo5 Customer:

Our provider for your number in the United Kingdom is experiencing technical problems with their numbers. They are working on this issue but have been unable to provide us with a time frame for when these numbers will be functional.

To remedy this situation we have 2 options for our customers:

1. Offer you a replacement number
2. If you would like to keep your number, we will extend your expiration date to cover the time it was down once the numbers are restored and functioning normally.

Please respond to this email to let us know of your decision. We are sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused and look forward to getting this resolved quickly.

Thank you for your business,
Gizmo 5 Support Staff
Since my Call-In number was the one I used for my business I wasn't that happy. I certainly didn't want a different number, this was the one on all of my business cards after all. So crossed my fingers, and just over a week later I got a follow up email.

Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2009 00:02:54 UT
Subject: UPDATE:Regarding Your UK Number From Gizmo5
From: Gizmo5

Dear Gizmo5 Customer:

Regarding the number outage that has occured in the UK, We have received notification from our provider that service to the numbers affected should return by Monday March 2nd. They stated that everything possible is done so that it does not happen again.

Thanks again for your patience and we apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused.

Gizmo5 Support Staff

A long outage, but at least it was almost behind me? Suffice to say the 2nd of March rolled around without my service being restored. In fact Gizmo have never managed to restore my service...

...and quite frankly their level of customer service was abysmal. There was no advanced notice of any possible outage, and then notification that there was an outage was delayed after they did know about it. I learned later from colleagues that the number had gone out of service some time before the initial email I received from them about the problem. Repeated promises that it would be fixed soon, that it was already fixed when it wasn't. Weeks between answering support tickets, support tickets randomly disappearing from my list filled tickets without any reason...

The Call-In number in question has now 'expired' as the entire saga has ran past the end of my billing cycle, and I certainly wasn't going to throw good money after bad to renew a number I couldn't use. Claims that they'd,

...extend your expiration date to cover the time it was down

just didn't happen. Unfortunately availability of number portability in the UK, while normal practice for mobile numbers, is in it's infancy for landlines and relies on the complex interaction of a series of mutual handshake deals between various providers. There is no standard way to do things. So I've now got another dial-in number with a different provider. Fortunately since I'd gone with a standards based VoIP solution I could take my expensive shiny VoIP hardware along with me to my new provider. Heaven knows what I'd have done if I was relying on Skype...

I've had my business cards reprinted, and I'll now tell anyone who listens that they shouldn't trust the Gizmo Project with their business. A dead phone line doesn't give a great first impression to your customers.

An iPhone client for LookUP

I'm currently at Mac Developer Network's NSConference. So what better time to sit down and write my next iPhone application? However abandoning the cloud computing theme running through my previous applications, I've gone back to my roots and written something for the astronomers in the audience.

LookUPbeta for the iPhone

Ever since Stuart Lowe released his LookUP service it has been nagging away at the back of my head that it was an obvious candidate for an iPhone application. So tonight I sat down and wrote it...

LookUP for the iPhone and iPod touch.

LookUP is an aggregator service, allowing you to look up the position and details of astronomical objects by name. I've played with things like this in the past, in fact I wrote my own version several years ago. It just wasn't as user friendly as Stuart's...

I'll be submitting the application onto the App Store in the next couple of days as a free application. However if you want to get your hands on it sooner rather than later, after an extended time in the purgatory that is the Apple review process, I'm willing to generate a limited number of Ad Hoc distribution copies for interested parties. First come, first served.

Update: LookUP for iPhone is now available on the App Store.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Teaching kids to think

Three years ago now David Brin wrote a piece in Salon entitled, "Why Jonny can't code" bemoaning the lack of tools to teach kids programming. Nat Torkington, on his return the the world down under, was moved to do something about it and has been consistently doing something about it ever since.

I can’t imagine how people survive without programming. The alternative to knowing a little bit of code is suffering through hours of manual labour in Excel or Word. - Nat Torkington
In parallel an argument has been brewing that the problem with the high school computer science curriculum isn't in the high schools, but in the universities themselves. There is even debate whether there is there any point in trying to teach kids programming at all, and whether we should try to separate the programming sheep from the non-programming goats up front?

However I think all of these arguments are actually missing the point. In the end what University is about is to try and teach the kids to think. A degree isn't, for the most part, about the knowledge we're trying to impart to you. Although if you can hang onto that knowledge you'll probably find it useful, that isn't really the point. Instead a degree is about giving you the tools to learn things by yourself later in life when you leave the ivory towers of academia.

In the end it doesn't matter what we teach them, so long as they learn how to learn...