Asking better questions

I didn’t know Aaron Swartz. I met him very briefly in December but that was all. Nevertheless it’s been a realization this last week and a half hearing from those that did know him what an amazing human he was, and how much of a loss there is for the world in his passing away too soon.

I watched online some of the memorial for Aaron that took place in New York last Saturday. I was most impressed and moved by the last speech, from his partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. There was much in what she said about the legal pressures surrounding Aaron’s last year, but what resonated most with me was this section:

Aaron didn’t believe he was smarter than anyone else, which is hard for — it was very hard for me to accept that he really believed that. He really, really believed that he was not smarter than anybody else. He just thought he asked better questions.

He believed that every single person in this room is capable of doing as much as he did, if you just ask the right questions.

Whatever you’re doing, are you confused? Is there anything that doesn’t quite make sense about what you’re doing? What is it? Never assume that someone else has noticed that niggling sense of doubt and already resolved the issue for themselves. They haven’t. The world does not make sense, and if you think it does it’s because you’re not asking hard enough questions.

If you’re in the tech sector, why are you there? What do you really believe in? If you believe that technology is making the world a better place, why do you believe that? Do you really understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with?

I’m serious. If you’re in this room and you work in the technology sector, I’m asking you that question. Do you understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with? Have you ever spent time with and listened to the people your technology is supposed to be helping? Or the people it might be hurting?

While I do believe that much needs to be done with regard to the unfairness of Aaron’s trial, there is little I can personally do about that. But the calling above is something that we all in the software development world can consider. If some of us act on this then Aaron’s passing will be a little less in vain.

The video of Aaron’s NY memorial is here. Taren’s speech is at about the 1:47 mark. Thanks to Chris Burkhardt for transcribing Taren’s speech – the full text is available here. My sympathies go out to all of Aaron’s family, friends and colleagues at this time.

5 months banking with Simple

Five months ago I opened a bank account with Simple. Here are some thoughts of how things are going so far.

tl;dr . I like Simple and will keep using them for most of my banking, but they can’t (yet) fully replace all of my banking needs.

Updated – The friendly people at Simple got back to me about a few things I mention here and I’ve put a few notes at the end, with in-line markers.

Simple (originally named ‘Bank Simple’) is a new ‘bank’ that aims to bring the usability of modern web-commerce to retail banking. I quote ‘bank’ since they are not legally a bank themselves, they are effectively a customer proxy on top of a separate underlying partner bank (currently Bancorp.)

I’ve been living in the US nearly 7 years and the customer experience of using banks here is pretty poor, most notably their websites. I used to bank with Citi and I currently bank with Chase, and for each I’ve routinely cursed their online capabilities. Things are getting better, but very slowly. When I heard about Simple I decided to give them a go.

The main benefit of using Simple over a regular bank is that they aim to provide a much better online experience, both through the website and their mobile app. With this they absolutely succeed. Both apps are fast, have a decent amount of useful features, are clean and well thought through. As an example once you’ve signed in on your mobile phone once with your full passphrase you can subsequently just use a short PIN. Try to sign on somewhere else and you’ll still need the full passphrase.

The apps also offer a lot of features to help you keep track of where and how you’re spending your money. This is less useful for me since I tend to do most of my spending through my credit cards, but I could see this being interesting for some.

Simple are also pretty good on the support front. There’s been a couple of times where I’ve needed to communicate with a human being and they’ve been efficient and friendly. They are still a relatively small company though and I’m sure that helps.

I’ve moved most of my checking account (current account in UK parlance) activity to Simple – which is mostly my regular bill payments (credit cards, rent, etc.)

There are, however, a few things I haven’t moved to Simple and for this reason I still keep a checking account with Chase. The main reason is ATM (cash machine) usage. Simple do offer free access to a large network (Allpoint) of ATMs but there are a couple of problems for me:

  • In New York City at least there are far fewer Allpoint ATMs than Chase ATMs. I did once try to find the nearest Allpoint ATM to my apartment, which is about twice as far away as my nearest Chase branch, and I wasn’t even able to find it once I got to its supposed location.
  • Allpoint ATMs tend to only allow taking out $200 at a time [1] (they are the kind of ATM you find in small stores, Walgreens, etc.) While this is sufficient most of the time for me there are occasions when I want to take out more than that. Chase will let me take out up to $500 at a time should I need it.

Simple could fix this by offering to pay fees on any domestic ATM you may want to use. Other banks do this, often up to a limited amount (e.g. the first $15 of ATM fees per month). Of course my friends in the UK are probably laughing at this point since in the UK anyone can use any ATM for free – I do miss that.

Another reason to keep a bricks-and-mortar bank account is for the very occasional times you need something from a branch. For example when I first moved into my current apartment my landlord needed a cashier’s check [2]. Recently I also needed a special kind of financial notarization when changing my brokerage accounts and my local Chase account would do that – I’m not sure if they would have if I didn’t bank there. Simple also don’t (I believe) currently offer outgoing international wire transfers which could be a deal breaker for some people.

I could likely survive without these services, especially if my wife were to keep her ‘regular’ account.

Another area where Simple don’t quite do what I’d hoped is that I wanted to move my money from one of the ‘mega banks’ to a much smaller company. While Simple are still small their partner, Bancorp, is part of US Bank – still pretty huge [3]. I doubt I’ll ever have the situation I did in the UK where I was able to have a good banking experience with an ethical bank (the Co-operative bank) but I still hold out some hope.

So, in summary, my first 5 months with Simple have been encouraging and enjoyable. If they can fix up the ATM situation I may even close my regular bank account.

[1] Simple will allow you to take out up to $500 / day from an ATM, but if the ATM you’re at will only let you take $200 / time you’ll need to perform multiple transactions.

[2] Simple will mail you a cashier’s check if you request one. The once or twice I’ve ever needed one though I’ve needed it the same day to secure the apartment I’ve been looking to rent.

[3] Apparently ‘The Bancorp Bank” (who Simple partner with) is not part of “US Bancorp” (yes, I’m confused too.) “The Bancorp Bank” is its own entity and a small – medium size bank.

Hiking with Avenza PDF Maps

The hike on Sunday gave me the first opportunity to use a new app on my iPhone in the wild – Avenza PDF Maps.

Avenza ScreenshotAvenza PDF Maps is (unsurprisingly) a map application for iOS. The key though is that it doesn’t come with it’s own maps – you download apps using its inbuilt store. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference have a great selection of hiking maps near me, and some of these are available through the Avenza app. I bought the ‘East Hudson (North)’ map for my hike at Breakneck Ridge.

Since this is a universal app I downloaded on both my iPhone and my iPad. Buying a map on one allows you to download it again on the other. Before leaving home therefore I used the iPad app to get a good idea of where we were headed. Once on the path I used my iPhone to figure out where we going. Even better there’s GPS support so you can see exactly where you are (the attached picture is a screen shot from when were on the hike.)

I’d definitely recommend this if you can get good quality maps for your hikes, even though it does feel like I’m ‘cheating’ a little!

Hiking Breakneck Ridge

With the weather finally cooling off a little in New York it was time last weekend to get out of the city and into the countryside. I’d been wanting to get back to the beautiful Hudson Valley for some time so on Sunday morning we got an early rise to head to Breakneck Ridge.

Breakneck Ridge is a hugely popular hiking spot about 50 miles north of New York City. Located in the Hudson Highlands it offers some breathtaking views, lush woodland and, even better, is easily accessible by train. There is a relatively frequent service to Cold Spring, 3 miles or so south of the Breakneck Ridge trail head, but Breakneck Ridge Station itself has trains stopping from Grand Central a couple of times on a Sunday morning. We got the later of these two, the 8:50am, which arrived a little after 10.

View from Breakneck Ridge, looking southThe popularity of this area was very apparent to us as a huge stream of hikers left the train at the tiny platform (just a couple of steps really, a platform is giving it too much standing). A quarter of a mile away the trail started and we were greeted almost immediately by the first of several steep climbs over boulders. This isn’t quite rock climbing territory, but you wouldn’t want to try doing this in flip flops or soon after a rain shower. I was certainly on all fours several times.

After each of the 5 or so climbs going up the ridge you are greeted with some fabulous views of the Hudson. Once at the top you’ve climbed 1200 feet or so in only 3/4 of a mile, so this is definitely up there in ‘strenuous’ territory, for me at least.

There are various options you have once at the top to continue your hike. Most people will take a circular route to get back to their car, but we knew we wanted to end up at Cold Spring where the return train service to Grand Central is much more frequent (about once an hour) than trying to get a train from the Breakneck Ridge stop. Knowing this we planned a route through the woods that took in another climb (part way up Mt Taurus, giving us great views of the ridge we’d just climbed) before putting us back in civilisation a quarter of a mile north of Cold Spring (click on the attached picture for the route.)Breakneck Ridge to Cold Spring

We were walking about 5 hours, with a couple of stops for food. Once back in Cold Spring we enjoyed a well earned beer at McGuires, and then an ice cream at Moo Moo’s before getting the train back to Grand Central. All in all a wonderful day out.

Book Review – William Gibson’s ‘Virtual Light’

Virtual Light (Bridge, #1)Virtual Light by William Gibson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The last time I read this book was 10+ years ago. After I recently traveled to San Francisco, where a lot of this book is set, I wanted to re-read it. I remember it as being ok, but not his best, and certainly not as good as the last book in this ‘Bridge Trilogy’ – ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’.

I was also a little trepidatious about doing so since a relatively recent re-read of Neuromancer did not hold up to my memories.

It turned out though that Virtual Light is much, much better than I remembered. The concept of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge becoming effectively a shanty town I remembered as being brilliantly described, and that was the same this time. Furthermore the plot seemed to whizz by and the character development was good. The ‘historical’ sub-plot of the ‘HIV martyr’ JD Shapely was well conceived and fantastically exposed during the rest of the book.

I only give 4 stars since I think the character development could have been a little better, and also I thought that one of the key plot points (why the glasses were so valuable) was a little weak.

Another thing that works about this book now is that it was set at the time in the ‘near future’ – the early 2000’s (it was first published in 1994.) We’re obviously now past that point so instead of science fiction this book effectively becomes more speculative fiction. I enjoyed this as such since it’s good to know things didn’t turn out as bad as they could, yet on the other hand some of the themes still offer a warning about how out society could become if left to be screwed up by corporations and the upper classes.

View all my reviews

Online music stores finally fit my needs

I’ve been somewhat of a luddite up until now with my music purchases – almost all of them have been CDs – since I’ve not been a fan of buying downloaded music from iTunes, eMusic, etc. My main gripes with downloads were:

  1. Typically downloads have been lowish quality lossy formats. I rip all my music lossless for home listening
  2. Buying music as downloads has often worked out more expensive when buying full albums
  3. DRM was a show stopper – I don’t want to buy something from Apple and then not be able to play it on some other device in the future
  4. Inability to download more than once. CDs are a great physical backup
  5. Not having something tangible, e.g. CD booklets
  6. The selection on sites like eMusic, which have never had DRM for example, haven’t been a great fit for my music tastes

In the last month or so this has started changing though – I’ve recently bought 5 albums from Apple’s iTunes Store and 4 physical CDs in the same time span. What’s changed? Going through the list from above:

  1. All iTunes downloads are now 256kbps AAC. This isn’t lossless, but is close enough that with my current kit I’m not going to be able to tell the difference
  2. Its now a real toss-up as to what’s cheaper – CDs or downloads. Albums on iTunes work out normally at $10. CDs on Amazon range from $6 – $14.
  3. Apple doesn’t use DRM anymore
  4. Apple now offers multiple downloads – buy once and download again whenever you want
  5. The tangibility thing isn’t solved but really I don’t look at my CDs any more once I’ve ripped them and taken a quick browse through the booklet. They’re just gathering dust on my shelves
  6. The selection on the iTunes Store, at least for my tastes, is extensive

I don’t think I’m a total convert, and still expect to keep buying some CDs for a while (I expect I’ll buy one of the Pink Floyd box sets coming out later this year), but my days of being CD-exclusive are over.

2008 Gadgets Review – #4 – Twitter

Strictly speaking I signed on to Twitter in 2007 but never used it very much. I didn’t find a way to read it that I liked, and there wasn’t that much I found interesting to read.

This changed this year though. On the application front I started using twitterific on the iPhone. It’s a great thing to check a few times a day when I have a spare couple of minutes away from my computer and not talking to anyone else, waiting for something to happen. I’ll leave the exact details of when such scenarios occur as an exercise to the reader…

Secondly, I started getting a critical mass of people to follow who wrote enough that I always had something to read, but not too much as to be spamming 40 tweets a day. OK, not usually (*ahem* Josh Graham 😉 )

One interesting thing about Twitter is that it’s very much a uni-directional broadcast. People can subscribe or unsubscribe to my feed as they want and really it doesn’t make any difference to me, and I don’t really know about it. Compare this with Facebook, for instance, which is far more of a joint relationship – if someone removes me as a friend from their contacts, they are also removed from my contacts. If they want to add me back, there has to be a confirmation on my part, so I would see them attaching and detaching to my status feed, as it were.

Because Twitter has a looser coupling, I feel more able to put more status updates out when I want, tweet when I’m drunk (although that’s seldom a good idea), etc.

Facebook was my social networking app of 2007, Twitter of 2008. It’s likely by the end of 2009 I’ll have something else going on.

You can find my twitter feed at