What Else Does Fedex Know About Me?

From the creepy “How Did You Know?” file, comes this experience signing up for a personal Federal Express delivery services account for myself. In order to “validate” the new account—presumably to ensure someone wasn’t impersonating me in order to get notification of when packages were being delivered to me and thus intercept them—they ask four personal multiple-choice questions:

  1. In what month was Melanie (my wife who they mentioned by name) born?
  2. Which of the following people am I “associated” with?
  3. What was the recorded sale price of my home?
  4. Which of the listed counties have I lived in?

Each question had four possible answers. The second question listed four people and it turned out that the one I’m “associated” with is my half-sister’s fiancé. Now, to be honest, I’m not close with my half-siblings; they’re much younger than I am and from my dad’s second marriage. I knew she was engaged and I could have guessed at his first name, but I couldn’t have recalled the last name off the top of my head. But since the first name guess was on the list for only one of the people, I chose it. I was right.

What’s creeping me out is that Federal Express knew who he is, but I didn’t. But the sad reality is that, as a security measure, these questions are terrible. It’s obvious that they’re data-mining publicly available records, including social media. and if they could find that information, someone impersonating me could. In fact, I bet I could easily find the answers to questions 1, 3, and 4 for most people through some Google searching1 and question 2 if they have a fairly open social media presence (which I’m guessing they rely on in order to get that answer.)

FedEx says they don’t store this information, but that’s no comfort, because they already had it to begin with. The information came from somewhere and could just as easily be retrieved.

So what we have is a creepy Big Brother corporation that uses personal information in a creepy “we know you” way, but in a way that provides no actual security. Great. What else do they know? And if they know it, who else can get this stuff? We’re living in a new era.

  1. A spouse’s birthday would be standard social media searching and if I knew their address in order to signup for the account, the last sale price is in Zillow, among other places.

Unnecessary Verizon Backup Battery

Almost exactly 3 years ago, I started hearing a loud beep every few minutes in my home office. For the life of me I couldn’t track it down because it was so intermittent and unexpected.1 Eventually, after nearly going insane and crawling about the office, listening carefully, I tracked it down to Verizon’s backup battery unit on the Fios equipment where it comes into the house.

At the time, I determined that rather than pay an exorbitant fee to Verizon to send out a tech with a new battery so he could slide off two leads on the old one and slide two leads onto the new one, I would do it myself. I bought a replacement on Amazon for $20, swapped it with the old one and then drove around with the old one in my car for a year, trying to find a place to recycle it.

Now, you can probably guess why I’m writing this today, 3 years later. Yep, the replacement battery has died and the beeping has resumed. I couldn’t remember the details of what to get to replace the Verizon backup battery, so I went to Verizon’s web site and found the replacement instructions. But what I also found was a note that told me that I don’t need the battery backup unit!

That’s right. The Verizon backup battery unit is only there to ensure that your Verizon landline service continues to operate in case of a power outage. Except we don’t have a Verizon landline. We’ve never had a Verizon landline. This battery backup serves no purpose at all! What a waste of time and money.

Oh well, at least now I won’t ever hear the incessant beeping again.

Until my smoke detector batteries die, of course.

  1. What is it with consumer device manufacturers? If you want my attention to a rarely noticed device beep constantly. I’m looking at you too, smoke detectors.

MacBook Pro Would Not Login (File Vault Corruption)

I embarked on a scary and unexpected journey today with my MacBook Pro when it would not login when I started it. I’m writing about it here in case anyone else has a similar problem.

It began when Safari froze while I was in Facebook.1 In fact, it wasn’t just Safari. The spinning beach ball was on the screen, but nothing was moving. I couldn’t switch to other apps. One notable fact: The trackpad was still working, insofar as it was registering clicks.2

So, of course, I restarted the computer by holding down the power button until it went black and I heard the System Startup sound. Here’s where the real trouble began.

When the login screen came up, I couldn’t do anything. If I typed, nothing showed up. Well, that’s not exactly true. It was like everything was extremely slow. Eventually, one character might appear in the password box. The cursor didn’t move, although it would eventually jerk a little like it was catching. After a while, a message came up asking if I was having trouble with my password.

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Sorry, Here’s A Billboard

In late November, I sent a support request to Ring.com with a question about a couple of their products I own.1 Their site claims that they are committed to respond to every request within 24 hours. Instead, I waited four days with no response and then sent another request. Again, nothing, and I didn’t make another attempt.

Two weeks after that, I finally got a response. They apologized for failing to respond, were willing to help now, and offered to send me, as a sign of gratitude for my (assumed) patience and understanding, a complimentary “Ring Solar Sign”, which is a solar-powered version of those little alarm company signs you see on lawns as a deterrent to would-be burglars. Emphasis on “little”.

Now, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I don’t think the proper response to a customer service failure is to offer to send me something to stick on my lawn to advertise your service. I wasn’t looking for any handouts at all, just help with my problem, but am I wrong that this feels a little tone-deaf?

Anyway, not wanting to be a roadblock to getting my problem solved, I said, thanks, and then laid out my problem, saying I figured out one part, but still had trouble with the other. Their response said that the complimentary sign was on its way and we addressed my troubles.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to today when I received a package in the mail, containing the box you see above. I was curious that they would need such a large box for a little sign. So I opened it up and found this monstrosity.

That thing is almost a foot wide! And it will be lit up at night! I thought it was going to be a little sign and they send me a billboard. I suppose if I was living in some McMansion with a long driveway, you might need something that big to see it from the street, but I live in a little ranch with a postage—stamp driveway. That thing could keep my across-the-street neighbor awake at night.

So, thanks but no thanks, Ring. I think I’ll go stealth on my security and stick to the doorbells and video cameras.

  1. You can see my review here.

Favorite iOS Apps of 2016

In recent years, I’ve occasionally ended the year with some blog posts on my favorite iOS and Mac apps from the previous 12 months, although I haven’t written one recently1. These aren’t necessarily apps that have come out in the past year but the notable ones I’ve been using the most. But first, a few thoughts on how I use iOS devices.

I now own an iPhone 7 Plus, upgrading from an iPhone 6s Plus this year. I’d held off on getting the bigger phone in 2015, worrying that it would be just too large for me, because I have short, thick fingers. (I will never play violin or reach a whole octave on a piano.) I shouldn’t have worried. The new phone is amazing with an immense screen that I use two-handed and it gives me benefit of a bigger battery and the better photos in the camera that the smaller phone doesn’t have.

This year I upgraded to an iPad Pro 9.7” from my old iPad 4. I had dropped the iPad 4 months before in 2015 and cracked a corner of the screen and so had put it in a thick leather case to prevent further damage. Unfortunately, it is now prone to turning off randomly while using it and it was showing its age, running modern apps much slower than the iPhone. We also have a handful of iPad 2s and an iPad mini around the house, acquired here and there from family and friends upgrading to newer iPads, but those are mainly used by Melanie and the kids.

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College and Travel In A Time of Smartphones

Melanie and I both went to college in the early 1990s and we were just reminiscing about what campus culture was like back then and how it must be different today in the age of social media and smartphones.

When we were in college, most dorms had pay phones and sometimes dorm rooms had phones too, but the roommates had to pay for them. At our colleges, no one had email. I lived off campus for my four years at Franciscan University of Steubenville, so I had a phone in my apartments. Long distance calling was still a thing and expensive back then so I didn’t talk to my family on a whim.

In order to organize people, you had to call everyone or see them between classes and pass the word.

In Steubenville, I didn’t have cable. For my first two years I had an ancient black-and-white TV that got two channels. My last two years I had a color TV and we had basic cable, but still didn’t get all the normal channels So I totally missed the first few years of “The X-Files”, but was able to binge watch “Road Rules” on MTV instead of studying for finals one semester.

Melanie spent a semester at the University of Dallas’ Rome campus. They had one pay phone for the students to use to get and receive calls, but international calling costs… Yikes! When they were traveling about Europe, they had to rely on guidebooks, posters and pamphlets in foreign languages, and gestures and pidgin English with helpful strangers to figure out train schedules and the like. They were flying without a safety net.

Today, students can message with anyone back home or anywhere in the world from a device in their pocket. They can call home on a whim. They can look up any information they need anywhere.

Life changes. In my grandparents time, traveling to Europe took weeks on a ship, not hours on a plane. Going to college meant almost total disconnection from family for four years.

I do wonder sometimes though how a “smaller” world in which communication is so easy and ubiquitous changes the perception of travel. If it’s easier does it’s value change? Are there new lessons to learn in place of the old ones? Or does it still teach a kind of self-reliance even if help might be a phone call away?

How has social media and smartphones changed college campus life? With everybody tweeting and instagramming and facebooking everything, how does it change how people interact and socialize and connect? Our kids are years away from college, so it will be different again undoubtedly from now, but I do wonder how their experience will differ from ours.

The Tech Press is Sad So Everything is Terrible

The tech pundits are sad and it shows in their reporting.

It’s fairly evident that most tech pundits writing for the big blogs and publications and making podcasts and videos lean left in their politics. Most of them are based either in the Northeast or on the West Coast where the liberal bubble is the strongest. If you have read The Verge or Engadget over the past couple of months, for instance, their disdain for Donald Trump and Republicans have been quite clear. (Heck, even non-tech blogs, like Food52 and TheKitchn food blogs, have engaged in the misery-making.)

And so, ever since the election on November 8, much of the tech press has sounded like a bunch of emo teens whose future prospects include unemployment, student loans, and their parents’ basement. Everything sucks.

The new Apple MacBook Pros suck. Amazon’s Echo sucks. New videos games aren’t very good. Smartwatches are done. There are no more good gadgets being developed. Fitbit buying Pebble is the end of the scrappy Kickstarter success stories. Samsung’s phones are exploding (okay, that one is true.) It’s an unrelieved pottage of doom and gloom.

Plus, these supposedly tech-focused publications seem to veer off into pure politics an awful lot, editorializing on US national politics that have nothing to do with tech, perhaps in an attempt to make themselves feel better.

This is connected to the now-tired meme that 2016 is the worst year ever because, I guess, Donald Trump is president instead of Hilary (and less often now, Bernie Sanders) and because a bunch of famous people died. Not that famous people didn’t die in other years, but these are famous people important to Generation X and we have now replaced Baby Boomers as the most self-important generation.

Sometimes I want to just shake them all and tell them to snap out of it. I’ve already taken a break from several podcasts, like MacBreak Weekly, which has descended into a purgatory of “Apple is doomed” rhetoric, where all of the hosts spend their time taking about which non-Apple gear they’re switching to. Instead, I’m spending my time on podcasts like Mac Geek Gab and Mac Power Users, where I can actually learn something about how to use my gear to be more productive and make my life better.

I get being disappointed after an election, but a whole industry going into a funk over it? That’s a bad sign of an industry that may be a little too monolithic in its composition.

Google PhotoScan May Let Me Finally Digitize This Box of Photos

Update: See the end of this post for more information

Google has released a new iOS and Android app called PhotoScan that lets you quickly digitize a print photo and get into your Mac Photos and/or Google Photos libraries. Watch the the video for an amusing introduction to how it works, but basically it works better than simply taking a photo with the phone’s camera by eliminating spot glare.

Anyone over a certain age has a box of printed photos somewhere in storage, in an attic or garage or shed or closet. And like most of those people, for years I’ve resolved to scan those photos into the computer, saving them for posterity and saving all that space. Ask anyone who’s suffered a devastating property loss through fire or flood or other disaster and you’ll hear that the biggest loss—apart from loss of life, of course—is the loss of photos. So I want to get those photos out of the box and into my computer and backup drives and cloud backup. Plus, having the photos in digital form means we’re more likely to see the photos in screensavers than we’re likely to pull out the box and start pawing through.

I’ve tried many times to start scanning. I’ve had flatbed scanners of various qualities, sheetfed scanners not really made for the purpose, multifunction printers. While the quality can be good, it takes forever to scan each photo. And I’ve looked into those services where you send in your photos and they scan them, but they’re expensive, you’re sending your precious photos through a delivery service usually overseas, and you still have to go through the photos to cull out the good ones from the duplicates, the blurries, and the shots out of airplane windows.

But in 30 minutes with PhotoScan last night, I scanned 57 photos, skipped dozens more, and then color-corrected and edited the photos I scanned. These photos are now safe in iCloud Photo Library, Google Photos, and Amazon Prime Photo. And I’ve—horrors—tossed nearly all of them in the trash, although I have kept a couple that I think are especially nice in their current form and would stand to be scanned using a higher quality process.

Some may think I’m crazy for throwing away the originals, especially since the PhotoScan process does not result in the highest quality digital photo, but here’s my thinking: If I never scanned the photos at all, they would remain in their boxes and envelopes, slowly fading and discoloring and decaying and soon enough their quality would soon be even worse than the scan quality. Meanwhile, I’m keeping all the negatives because they take up so little space on their own. And honestly, I’m no Ansel Adams. The world will not be worse for the lack of high quality scans of my vacation and college photos from my single days, even as the photos that document my immediate family’s history was digital from the beginning.

PhotoScan is quick and easy and worth a try. Meanwhile, here’s a sample of the results of the scan below, a photo of my brother John in Paris in 1997 during World Youth Day.

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How to Increase MacBook Pro Storage Space Without Touching a Screw

When I got my MacBook Pro 13″ last year, I purchased it with a 256GB internal solid state drive. That was a serious downgrade from my 2011 MacBook Pro which had a 240GB SSD, but also a 750GB rotational drive that I had put in place of the CD drive. I had to make some tough decisions about what I would be carrying about with me.

That worked out well for most of this year as I pared back my applications and files. I went with iCloud Photo Library and iTunes Match, keeping my very large photo and music libraries on the old MacBook Pro which now resided permanently on a shelf. But even then my new MBP’s drive was filling up, primarily due to a an Adobe Lightroom catalog containing lots of photos for work.

Replacing the internal SSD on my MBP would be too expensive (those drives have not come down in price much), so I turned to another technology that lets me use a previously unused port: the SD card slot.
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Your iPhone Could Save Your Life

Did you know your iPhone could save your life? It could if you set it up right and if the people around you know about it.

Here’s how you access your Medical Information1. While the iPhone is locked, press on the home button. (Don’t press too hard or too long or you’ll bring up Siri; just press once.) That will bring up the password entry screen. At the top of the screen, you’ll see the Emergency button. Tap that and you’ll see the emergency dialer. At the bottom left, you will see Medical ID.

Got it? Good. Now you know how to do it, show it to your spouse, to your kids, to your co-workers, anyone who may need to access it if you’re unconscious and getting medical attention.

Of course, it won’t do any good if you don’t put your medical information in there in the first place. Unlock your iPhone and open the Health app. In the lower right of the app’s main screen, tap on Medical ID. Either click on Create Medical ID or scroll down until you see “Edit” in the lower right.

Now you can enter all your various medical conditions, blood type, medications, emergency contact information, and other medical notes. I put in mine that I’m a Catholic and that they should contact a Catholic priest.

The more people that know about this, the better off we all will be.

  1. I do not know if Android or Windows Phone have this feature. They should.
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