Turning the voting kiosk into a photo booth OR How I stopped worrying and learned to love the ballot selfie

In just over 24 hours, the grueling 17-month-long election cycle will grind to a merciful halt. Even after weeks and weeks of ceaseless discussions, debates and squabbles, there are still some issues that haven’t been analyzed to death. One of those issues is the ballot selfie.

For those needing an explanation, the ballot selfie is where a voter takes a self-portrait with his or her ballot primarily to show who he or she voted for. In years past, it generally wasn’t an issue because people generally don’t take standalone cameras with them into the voting booth, much less wait for the photos to be developed and then converted into a format that can easily be broadcast to others. It became more of an issue in the past decade as nearly everyone now has a camera on their smartphones and can share anything with the tap of a screen.

States have conflicting laws about whether these self-portraits are permitted. USA Today publshed a breakdown, showing about two-fifths allow them, while two-fifths ban them and the rest is a muddle. For example, California law doesn’t currently allow them (despite a last-minute appeal by the ACLU), but a law overturning the ban will go into effect next year. Conversely, Utah allows selfies.

When I first heard about the issue about two years ago, I was generally opposed to allowing such photos. I theorized that the photos could provide proof in any sort of vote-buying arrangment. Such a thing could undermine the integrity of a secret ballot.

At the same time, that’s merely a theory. At least one federal court has ruled that it’s not a compelling reason to abridge a person’s First Amendment rights to express themselves in this manner. That makes sense — under strict scrutiny, a government needs to be able to show a compelling reason for a narrowly tailored law that abridges a constitutional right (and that the proposed law is the least restrictive means to accomplish this compelling purpose). That said, I’m not a lawyer and I’m not 100 percent certain that strict scrutiny is the standard here.

In any case, my concern about any hypothetical vote buying diminished when I thought about some of the practices around voting. Of note, if a voter incorrectly marks a ballot, I know some states allow the voter to return the mismarked ballot and ask for a clean one.

So, it’s possible for voters to take a photo of a ballot marked one way and then to ask for a clean ballot and cast their votes as originally intended. Given that possibility, it would be a pretty inefficient and unreliable way to manipulate the system. (Note: there may be ways around that, perhaps by checking the ballot receipt.)

Theoretically, someone could take a photo of a blank ballot prior to filling it out and subsequently  use Photoshop or a basic redeye tool and virtually mark the ballot as they see fit.

With those potential safeguards, I reached a measure of peace about the ballot selfie. Ideally, people use these photos to show they are engaged in civic participation, something we generally need more of in this nation.

Then again, there’s the old adage: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” We’ve certainly seen a lot of family and friends prove this saying on social media during this election cycle and posting a ballot selfie may only provide additional confirmation.

I’m tempted to take a ballot selfie myself Tuesday, but I would have to obscure my actual choices. It’s professionally unethical for me to disclose who or what I voted for and that suits me just fine (especially after what I mentioned about people proving themselves the fool).

In any case, Tuesday is the big day. If you haven’t already voted, this is your chance to have a say (balanced against others, of course). I’ll see you at the polls.

Last call for Google’s Picasa photo service

A screen capture showing Google's Picasa desktop software running on a Windows 7 computer on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

A screen capture showing Google’s Picasa desktop software running on a Windows 7 computer on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

After years of languishing behind projects like Google+ and Google Photos, Picasa is finally going to the great software and Web service cemetery beyond the clouds. Google announced last month that Picasa was being retired, and the end begins March 15 when the company stops support of the Picasa desktop app. Picasa’s online Web albums will be changing starting May 1.

I’m writing today so people may have the chance to download the Picasa’s free software for Windows and Mac before it’s taken offline. Although I started with Picasa’s Web service, the desktop software has become an invaluable way to quickly sort images and do some basic editing (although the editing tools are closer to Instagram than Photoshop). Although Google is seeking a single service that works on mobile and desktop, that solution isn’t ready today.

At first glance, Picasa is a tough sell as it was first developed when software companies were determining how to bridge software that resided on local computers with cloud services. Picasa was both a desktop app (that Google initially acquired) and an online photo service and it could be hard to explain the difference between the two to others. The two services even had different Web addresses — the app was available at picasa.google.com while the Web service was available at picasaweb.google.com.

A screenshot shows the desktop software at the top of this blog post. Readers may contrast that with a view of the Web albums below.

Here's a look at the Picasa Web Albums service as viewed in Google Chrome on March 10, 2016.

Here’s a look at the Picasa Web Albums service as viewed in Google Chrome on March 10, 2016.

Compared with modern applications and Web services, both versions of Picasa look a bit dated but they were still generally effective.

When it came to sharing photos online, Picasa Web Albums made things simple without the clutter of other photo-sharing services, like PhotoBucket. You could embed individual Picasa images on other sites or share slideshows of entire albums. These features are not currently available in Google Photos.

The biggest advantage of Google Photos is that it can store all of your photos at a usable size (Google+ Photos had a pretty small image size limit). I’ve found it extremely convenient for locating and sharing individual photos, but I’m less inclined to share whole albums. To be fair, I didn’t choose to share many albums with Picasa Web Albums, but I miss the ability to view other’s public photo profiles and share my own.

Ultimately, I’ll likely miss the desktop software most of all, especially when it came to processing screenshots. As someone whose personal computer is a MacBook, it’s easy to take cropped screenshots with the Command-Shift-4 keyboard shortcut. On a Windows PC, it’s initially easy to take the screenshot with the PrtScn key, but then you have to go to an image app like MS Paint, paste the screenshot into the image, crop it and then save it.

Picasa for Windows allowed users to skip a couple of steps. When Picasa was running, the PrtScn key captured the desktop directly to Picasa (alas, no secondary screens). With the image already saved, it was easy to go into Picasa, edit and crop the image and export it from a bitmap to a JPEG or PNG file.

The rest of the desktop app’s tools were straightforward. You couldn’t cut out or easily modify smaller elements of an image (something that had me running to Photoshop a couple times last year). The tools were useful for basic photo editing and caption information was saved in an IPTC format, which saved a lot of time for work. Users could also add text to an image, which saved me a lot of grief when I was working on my Christmas cards.

As much as I liked the desktop software, it could get a bit difficult to manage images, especially as it tried to cope with updates from other developers. For example, it was great that Picasa was able to read Apple’s iPhotos image database, but that advantage is practically wiped out when the image database splits up images by date (instead of albums or something more useful).

Ultimately, it makes sense for Google to let go of Picasa as the desktop app was last significantly updated more than four years ago. It will also reduce some of the confusion of Google’s image programs (which will still include Google Photos and the Snapseed mobile editing apps). I hope Google Photos will pick up some of the features of the Picasa services. Google Photos offers some incredible advantages, especially with facial and object recognition, but I think it has some ways to go before it can be a suitable replacement for Picasa.

Is Google Photos the future?

Is Google Photos the future?

Pin-a-Go-Go transforms Dixon into pinball paradise

The multi-ball feature of Star-Jet pinball machine on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

The multi-ball feature of Star-Jet pinball machine on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

Looking for something with a little pop or an idea to bounce off your friends this weekend? People can find endless hours of fun with unlimited gameplay on more than 100 pinball machines at Pin-a-Go-Go at the Dixon May Fair this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The A-Go-Go pinball machine on display at the 2014 Pin-a-go-go festival in Dixon, California.

The A-Go-Go pinball machine on display at the 2014 Pin-a-go-go festival in Dixon, California.

My friends and I made the 2-hour drive to the festival last year and we were amazed at the machines on display in three large spaces on the fairgrounds. Newer novelty machines were on display and playable (like one based on the most recent “Star Trek” movies). The machines went back decades, including some of the first tables that were based on releasing a ball and watching it bounce of pins, giving the game its name.

Getting to Dixon was straightforward — it’s off of Interstate 80 between Davis and Vacaville. The fairgrounds are just south of the downtown, so be ready for a little bit of off-highway driving. Parking was free and the lot was fairly expansive.

Entry into the event _wasn’t_ free, but the $25/30 admission was worthwhile to both the attendee and the town, as the proceeds benefit local community groups. Be forewarned — much of the event is cash only, although an ATM card can be used for some transactions.

After you get in, all the machines that are playable are set to free play. If the machine is open, you can just walk up and give it a whirl. You can usually play a couple of short games before common courtesy prompts you to give the machine up to anyone waiting in line.

A panorama of one of the rows of playable pinball machines at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go in Dixon, California.

A panorama of one of the rows of playable pinball machines at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go in Dixon, California.

Some of the machines were provided by museums, like the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda. Many of the tables were provided by private collectors who thankfully share their treasures with others for a few days.

The playfield board for the Monopoly pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

The playfield board for the Monopoly pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

Spending a few hours among the tables gives you a more expansive view of this gaming world beyond the couple of neglected pinball machines that you might find at a pizza parlor or bowling alley. There are vendors offering parts to help keep the machines running and modernize the devices somewhat (like switching out old bulbs with LED lights). One vendor had a playfield for the old Monopoly game which underwent the LED conversion. I played that machine for years at Madison Bear Garden. I still love how it looked, especially with the upgrades.

Each of the tables includes a small white card detailing who the owner is and if the machine is for sale. Some machines trade hands over the course of the weekend (and some of those purchased devices are sometimes taken out of play once a deal is completed).  There is also a fundraising raffle of a couple classic tables, which we did NOT win last year.

The number of machines available for play are overwhelming. The main room has several rows containing dozens of tables and there are two more halls beyond that. One hall appeared to be dedicated to more vintage machines, like “Classy Bowler” or a rocket-themed game called Star-Jet which featured one of the earliest examples of multi-ball.

Backglass art for the Classy Bowler pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon,

Backglass art for the Classy Bowler pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon,

The third hall is in a separate building a short distance away and appeared to feature mostly newer machines, although there were some gems from the 1970s and ’80s, including a giant-sized “Superman” table that Atari later adapted into a failed video pinball game (which I played in Alameda).

It seemed impossible to play every single one of the machines in a day. There’s little seating so you begin to enter something of a fugue state after a few hours of standing and ceaselessly bouncing silver spheres through ramp- and trap-filled cabinets.

There is some respite — there are a handful of tables and a snack stand selling hamburgers, hot dogs and the like. On Sunday, there is the free All British Motor Vehicle Show & Swap Meet on the fairgrounds so you can enjoy a different sort of chrome than pinball. There are also clinics for people to learn the best pinball tricks (I never learned to really bump the table) and mini tournaments geared to people with different playing experiences. Basically, you’re not going to get bored here.

Backglass art for the 1978 KISS pinball game

Backglass art for the 1978 KISS pinball game

As our visit progressed, I lost track of the different pinball machines we played. Generally, the earliest tables were the hardest to play — some of the early bumpers were too short and the ball dropped out of play too quickly. The tables from the 1950s and ’60s showed a considerable amount of creativity and were fun to play as a novelty, but they were still missing a lot of features found in more modern games.

Things change after electronics take hold in the pinball world. Manufacturers also threw a lot of ideas against the wall to try to combat the rise of the arcade machines (which fell prey to home video gaming in a few short years).

There were some brand tie-in machines that looked good, but weren’t necessarily a lot of fun. Some of these boards included KISS and “Doctor Who.” The KISS machine was definitely very unique, but it wasn’t easy to get into the game before it ended. However, people will have another shot at the game because they’re bringing it back.

A portion of the playing field for 1994's World Cup Soccer pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

A portion of the playing field for 1994’s World Cup Soccer pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

Doctor Who brought back a lot of nostalgia because it was made after the series’ original run ended in 1987. The game has a complex array of options as each incarnation of the Doctor offered a different set of bonuses, but it wasn’t too hard to get into a multi-ball. It also featured a lot of moving parts (which lead to a higher rate of breakdowns, from what I hear).

World Cup 1994 is a machine that would seem be instantly dated after the competition ended 21 years ago, but it seemed to gain some relevance as soccer has surged in popularity in the United States. The machine had some unique challenges, including trying to deflect the pinball of a whirling soccer ball into a goal (just like in real life!).

Some of the playfield art for 1994's World Cup Soccer pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

Some of the playfield art for 1994’s World Cup Soccer pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

There also appeared to be some odd attempts to add sex appeal — like depicting the referee as a buxom woman in a form-fitting uniform. Throughout the history of pinball, there were many shameless attempts to use sexualized images. It is something that has regrettably continued to this day with such machines like “Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons,” which features a cute, cartoony farm theme marred by gratuitous, over-the-top references to female anatomy.

Ultimately, Pin-a-Go-Go is a great event for people of all ages. Even after hours of pulling back the spring-loaded plunger to launch the pinball into play, it’s a loud, colorful buffet of entertainment that makes you want to go back for more.

Two areas where Facebook falls short on new gender identity options

Facebook should receive some kudos today for adding an option for its users to select from a range of gender identities beyond solely male or female. The Associated Press, via the Sacramento Bee, spells out the changes. However, the changes fall short in the gender identity selection field and in the somewhat related “Interested in” field.

Facebook's updated basic information settings now allow users to select a custom gender identity.

Facebook’s updated basic information settings now allow users to select a custom gender identity.

First, while “custom” gender line allows the user to type in their preferred gender identity, users must ultimately select from a list currently limited to 56, as reported by DFM Thunderdome. I tried to type in a gender identity beyond those on the list and was rejected.

If you’re used to just male or female, 56 sounds like a lot but many on the list seem to be duplicates. For example, there are cis female, cis woman, cisgender female and cisgender woman (there is a similar set for men). To a layperson and aided by the Wikipedia article on the matter, all four sound like slight variations on the concept that a person’s body type and gender identity are aligned together as female.

Through the list there are items that are apparently similar, but may also reflect key distinctions (such as between transgender and transsexual). Ultimately, it appears that Facebook wanted to give users several options on how precisely they wanted to identify themselves, but that exposes a possible shortcoming.

No matter how many options Facebook provides, it seems likely that some categories or variations were left out. That leads to me to propose the following: Why not offer users a truly blank line to fill in? If it is important for people to feel comfortable to define themselves as they see fit, what better option is there than a purely empty canvas?

Facebook already allows users this option in the potentially volatile fields of religion and political affiliation.

Most people will likely stick with the two generally accepted gender types, but the blank field will allow anyone to put any response that they feel is appropriate.

There could be some downsides. It may be harder to individuals to search for people with a specific gender identity (and it would be harder to Facebook to characterize and subsequently monetize a user’s profile along those lines). Also, there may be some chuckleheads who use the blank form to make an insensitive statement.

The first point will likely only be a minor inconvenience for users (and Facebook likely has enough data on its users to sell advertisers on). The latter point could be resolved by limiting the field to a certain number of characters and speech that violates Facebook’s terms of use should be addressed with accordingly.

The expansion of possible gender identities underscores the woeful inadequacy of Facebook’s “Interested In” field. As of now, users can only use checkboxes to indicate an interest in either males, females, both or neither. Given that users can now express themselves as 56 gender identity types or some combination thereof, this now seems like an area for expansion.

However, opening up the “Interested in” area may pose additional complications because the area seems to be more about sexuality, although genders are listed. While there isn’t an express field for it, a user’s selection in the current “Interested In” field combined with their gender identity can heavily imply whether one is straight, gay, bisexual or none of the above.

Although I initially thought it would be simple to expand the list of genders one may be interested in, I’m now unsure about the best way for Facebook to expand this category. Maybe Facebook can keep this category around for those who prefer simplicity or don’t wish to be overt, but can also add a blank field where people can outright declare their sexual orientation if they choose.

Both the gender identity and “interested in” categories can be deeply personal and it seems prudent that Facebook allows users to keep this information private. At the same time, Facebook’s expansion of its gender identity category seems to beg for adding even more options for users seeking the best way to identify themselves and their interests.

GEL-ing with the Google Experience Launcher on a Galaxy S II

Out with the old… The old TouchWiz launcher from my Galaxy SII.

Out with the old… The old TouchWiz launcher from my Galaxy S II.

I’ve been excited to try out a new home screen, or launcher, for my Samsung Galaxy S II (Epic 3G Touch).

Since April, I’ve been using the default TouchWiz launcher that came with the S II. However, I’ve recently been intrigued to try the new launcher from Google — apparently called the Google Experience Launcher or Google Home.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like I was going to be able to try it out — the new launcher was part of the latest version of Android dubbed KitKat — and Samsung wasn’t planning to publish an update to my now two-year-old phone. Even if it did, there was no guarantee it would be made available on the Sprint network.

I was pleased to discover via Android Police that the tools available to enable the new launcher would work on my phone — or any phone or tablet running Android 4.1+. I needed the latest version of Google Search and the Launcher app (provided on the Android Police website). After a quick install, I was off to the races. I thankfully didn’t need to root my device or sideload from another device because they seem like too much of a hassle.

In with the new with the Google Experience Launcher, a.k.a. Google Home. A screenshot of the new launcher on my Galaxy SII.

… and in with the new with the Google Experience Launcher, a.k.a. Google Home. A screenshot of the new launcher on my Galaxy S II.

At first, the differences in the home screens are pretty subtle. It appears to run very smoothly on my S II and seems very responsive in most actions. There’s one exception — the screen seemed to jarringly jump around when dragging icons from the list of applications to create new shortcuts on the home screens.

On a positive note, it’s a bit fun that the wallpaper seems to stretch across multiple pages. The swan and the Palace of Fine Arts subtly shift as you swipe from page to page.

One of the biggest changes is that the Google search bar is now on _every_ page of the home interface (in TouchWiz, the Google bar was a widget that the user could choose to put on their phone).

Although the search bar is always there, Google did a nice job of tweaking icon sizes and layout to maximize space and it turned out I could have more apps or widgets on my primary home screen (the old widget took up four icon positions in a row).

This ever-present search bar probably won’t endear itself to those critical of Google’s increasing intrusion into people’s lives (and privacy). It’s important to note the new launcher is apparently an extension of the Google Search app, as reported by Ars Technica. Basically, the app _is_ the new home screen for phones that choose to use it.

I understand the reservations about Google blatantly taking over a user’s home screen compared with it lurking in the background. Thankfully, one can still switch between launchers, although I’ve temporarily settled on Google’s as the default for now.

Touching the Google search bar merely opens an expanded and simple search page. This is different than Google Now or the old Search app interface. I feel it would be more convenient to switch into Google Now, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now.

Speaking of Google Now, it’s now accessible by swiping all the way from left to right.

I think one of the most useful changes is the ability to launch a voice search from the home screen by saying “OK Google.” Apparently, the new Moto X (and Droids) can do this while the screen is off, but it’s still useful.

Other things I noted is that not all widgets seem to work with this new Google home. The notification tags also weren’t showing up. My old Accuweather widget wasn’t available and I couldn’t view the widgets from the Yahoo! Weather app. I hope that this will be fixed (or is perhaps a shortcoming of how the app works on my phone).

Perhaps another sign of this launcher’s roots in the Google Search app is that the settings menu goes to the app’s settings and not the phone’s. I was used to the settings menu accessing the phone’s configuration and this more limited functionality was a bit of let down. I created a shortcut, but it’s not quite the same.

Also, the icons and text seem a tad too small for my eyes, but they don’t seem that much smaller compared with TouchWiz. It may be due to the apparently tighter layout because it looks more like a solid wall of icons unless I use a widget to break up the space (I have six more apps on my primary screen under Google Home than TouchWiz).

The differences between this and TouchWiz seem to be pretty subtle, but it’s nice to try something new. That is something that isn’t easily accomplished on iOS, where you’re generally stuck with whatever Apple gives you. Still, we’re talking about different, yet incredibly similar ways to display rows of icons and some widgets on a smartphone. I’m pretty happy with all three offerings.

Ultimately,  I’m happy I can give the Google Experience Launcher a shot. I can spruce up my old phone although I can’t have the full KitKat experience (at least until I can get the Nexus 5).

My phone thinks I live at a bar and other digital foibles

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Following my last post, I’ve made the switch from Sprint to Ting and got a refurbished Samsung Galaxy SII (Epic 4G Touch). It led to a little bit of drama when the first one I received was a dud, but more on that later.

One of the joys of getting a new-ish smartphone is trying out the new bells and whistles, including updating the phone’s Android operating system to a more recent version. That upgrade allowed me to test the updated Google Search app and came away only modestly impressed — the app’s Google Now feature aims to display cards of information based on your searches, location, preferences, etc.

It’s Google Now’s virtual anticipation that recently caught me off guard. I was about to leave work last week when I checked into the app. Anticipating that I would like to know how long it would take for me to drive home, the app displayed the approximate travel time to my “home” — Madison Bear Garden.

I was a little curious at first why Google would think I live at a bar. I could think of a couple of possibilities. I used the app at the bar one evening to look up some trivial items that came up during a discussion. Because I made that search at night when many people are at home, it’s possible the app guessed my home on my evening location — at the bar.

Thankfully it asked to confirm if the location was my home and I could correct it.

These types of tech gaffes point out how digital companies try to sort out relevant information from the bushels of data we submit everyday. While it may be wise to be cautious about such data mining, these shortcomings sometimes underscore the old programming principle of GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. The difference is that sometimes the computer gets garbage out of what we would consider to be relevant information.

Here are some other recent tech peeves I’ve observed:

  • At the consumer budgeting site Mint.com, the service says I’ve been spending a lot of money lately at Chico’s — a clothing store I’ve never purchased from and don’t recall ever being inside. Apparently the site skims recent purchases and tries to determine where they should go.
    In this case, it sees a purchase from “Chico CA” and assigns it to Chico’s. The site currently applies this to all Chico purchases. There is no option to change it other than manually editing every entry … which defeats the purpose of having the site easily display how a user’s money is being spent.
  • Facebook tries its best to guess certain information about its users, often to hilarious effect. At various times, the map on my Timeline said I was born in Chico and identified one of parents. That’s all fine if it were true — at the time I said Chico was my hometown, but that’s not necessarily where I was born. Also, my parent isn’t necessarily my biological one so that doesn’t make sense either.
    Another time, Facebook finally correctly identified the town I was born, but then indicated I was born at the city’s airport. Boy, that would be a fun story for my parents to tell me — again, if that ever happened.
  • The photos feature on Google+ uses technology to try to identify people’s faces (Facebook has a similar tool). Sometimes that tech fails in a cruel way:
Google+ doesn't believe there's a face in this image.

Google+ doesn’t believe there’s a face in this image.

Although some of these goofs can be annoying or time consuming to fix, I’m generally content to let these inaccuracies stand if they’re not causing any harm. I’m leery at providing too much information online. These errors can stand as reminders of what these companies are trying to do and how far they have to go to accomplish their goals.

Fuming after suspicious data charges from Sprint

Dollar signs are superimposed over my Sanyo/Kyocera featurephone.

Dollar signs are superimposed over my Sanyo/Kyocera featurephone.

I tilted at the windmill that is Sprint customer service two weeks ago, and came away a little poorer for it and without many answers.

When I was paying the January bill, I noticed a charge of about $5 for casual data usage. I don’t have a data plan, but I still go online with my featurephone about twice a year. January may have been one of the months I went online to check something. I wasn’t very happy at the amount, but I shrugged and paid it.

A few days later I went to the Sprint website and found another surcharge for February — about $30 for consuming 15 MBs of data. This was far too much and I had to dispute it.

I talked with four or five reps in two days. I wasn’t able to get them to drop the charge entirely or to fully explain what the possible usage may be. In speaking with them, it seemed like they didn’t care how the data was used, just that it was apparently used and someone (not them) needed to pay for it.

Every rep was more than happy to tell me that these were “valid charges.” I nearly always responded that I was disputing the validity of the charges regardless of how “valid” the charges were. That didn’t hold much water with them, nor did telling them that I’m the only person who had control of my phone at all times and no one else could’ve physically used it to access the Web.

After a few minutes, we began the art of the haggle. I said I didn’t use the data and wanted the fees removed outright — they offered to cut the surcharge 15 percent. Clearly we had some way to go.

Although I would’ve preferred the fee waived entirely for data I didn’t use, I was happy to split the difference and pay 50 percent (although I’m sure it cost Sprint very little to deliver the relatively small amount of data). Barring that, I kept asking for some information on how the data was used.

The second rep pushed the discount to 40 percent — an amount which they said was the absolute limit of what they could do. I kept pushing and found myself a mystery. Speaking with the rep, we were able to eliminate Picture Mail as the culprit — I pay a separate fee that covers that.

The rep offerred to tell when my phone supposedly accessed the Internet and provided this rundown:

Date Time Usage
Feb. 20 4:10 p.m. (PST)
Feb. 21 1:10 a.m.
2:10 a.m.
4:10 a.m.
6:10 a.m.
7:10 a.m.
9:59 a.m.  12,284Kb
11:10 a.m.
12:10 p.m.

Now, I was certain that I didn’t use the data — it’s extremely unlikely I logged on at precisely 10 minutes past the hour so often within a 24-hour period. The rep reasoned I may have had an app or service that checked in at those times (she also noted that the bulk of the data took place at 9:59 a.m., outside of that pattern).

I explained to her and the rep the following day that I have a featurephone — it’s not a smartphone where it’s easy and convenient to download apps. I wouldn’t use the browser for casual surfing, and I didn’t download ringtones or anything else.

I had to end the call on the first day … because my cellphone battery was dying.

I called back the following day and got the new rep up to speed. He offered 35 percent and was willing to honor the 40 percent from the day before (which wasn’t guaranteed). I decided to keep pushing to either get an answer about the random usage or the 50 percent discount. After a little bit of further haggling, the rep offered a $15 adjustment that basically amounted to 50 percent and I cut my losses (as I’m sure they did as well).

In the end, I’m still out $15 for data I didn’t use and no real explanation of what happened. I tried searching the Web for cases were phones were randomly checking data, but couldn’t easily find anything. I also searched my phone for any weird text message or anything other thing that could provide an answer.

This wasn’t a wonderful experience with Sprint customer service, but it’s something I won’t be suffering under much longer. My latest two-year contract with the company expires Sunday and I will be taking my services elsewhere. I had already decided to jump ship to a company that could offer a smartphone on a monthly basis without costing an arm and a leg, but this data surcharge and customer service experience sealed the deal.

Surfing Internet from train a breeze… when I could get online

Surfing the Web from the Surfliner

A window decal on a train at Los Angeles Union Station notes the arrival of Wi-Fi Internet service aboard Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner trains.

Taking the train to visit family in Southern California over the holidays gave me a chance to check out the new Wi-Fi Internet service from Amtrak. The service was convenient when it worked, but I often had problems connecting to the Web.

Dubbed Amtrak Connect, the free service is available on many regional routes including the Amtrak California services — the Pacific Surfliner in Southern California, the San Joaquin in the Central Valley and the Capitol Corridor connecting Sacramento to the Bay Area. Amtrak California rolled out the service just in time for the holiday travel season.

There was a cool surprise even before I boarded my first train. Many of the buses, which are operated by a contractor, also have Wi-Fi. When I started my trip aboard the Amtrak Thruway motorcoach from Chico to Stockton, I was able to get some work done as we sped down Highway 70. That’s something I couldn’t do if I was driving by myself.

As the San Joaquin train pulled out for Bakersfield, I sought to get online but ran into problems right off the bat. I’m not sure if it is a problem on my end, the network’s or a combination of the two.

Before getting into my difficulty, I should explain how the Wi-Fi works aboard the train. As I understand it, there is one car on the train that pulls in outside cell phone signals carrying the Internet connection. That one car then becomes the head of a local network providing the Internet connection to the rest of the cars in the train.

My issue wasn’t with the Internet connection. When it was available, it was fairly reliable and speedy for basic surfing for things such as email or Facebook. Amtrak Connect caps downloads to 10 MB and blocks some popular video/audio websites (but my Spotify streaming music app was able to make a connection although I didn’t fully test it).

There were some points where the connection lagged, but I suppose they were in areas where the cell phone networks aren’t as well established.

The biggest issue appeared to be how the Internet connection was established throughout the train. I could establish a connection in some cars, but very rarely in the cars where I was sitting for some reason. I was able to connect to the train’s network, but I wasn’t able to get the right connection to get on the Internet.

While I preferred the seats in the cars I chose (and I could do a whole series of posts about the different types of seats on these trains), I often moved to a different car for a while to get online.

I never was really able to determine what was going on. Unfortunately, I ran into this problem on nearly every train I rode during the Christmas break.

The immediate matter was that my computer couldn’t get the right Internet Protocol or IP address to connect until I moved cars, but I don’t know why. I thought it may be something on my computer because many Mac users have reported similar problems for different Wi-Fi networks (and I have had the problem at work). However, some people near me experienced the same problem.

I also thought it was possible the network ran out of addresses to give computers (but that doesn’t necessarily explain why changing cars often helped with the connection). I was riding on very full trains and I was surprised to see so many people on their smartphones and notebook computers. If that’s the case, I read it may be possible to change the network’s settings to allow more connections.

Regardless of where the problem originated, it would be nice if Amtrak Connect had some better help documents to assist people experiencing problems. Of course, if you can’t get online you may not be able to get to the documents.

When it works, the Wi-Fi is a great service to provide passengers. While many people, myself included, like to tout the ability to relax and be somewhat isolated from the hectic outside world aboard a train, Wi-Fi helps those who wish or need to stay connected or productive while traveling. It certainly helped me — I posted two blog entries while aboard the train and got the idea for this current post.


In addition to providing an amenity for passengers, I’ve read that the Internet access can also help with train operations. One component is being able to constantly relay train status data, including its location, back to a central office.

Conveniently, Amtrak Connect’s homepage provides passengers with an estimate of where the train is (although you have to reload the page to get updated locations). Unfortunately, it appears to triangulate its location based off of cell phone signals and sometimes the system gets it hilariously wrong.

This was apparent when the Pacific Surfliner sped down the coast toward San Diego. The map status showed the train running on (or under) the ocean. Based on my estimate, it was about 4.8 miles away from the actual tracks.

Rails? We don't need rails where we're going.

Rails? We don't need rails where we're going. Amtrak Connect guesses train location, sometimes to hilarious effect.

Take the ‘virtual’ out of ‘virtual strip search’ this travel season

I’ve been concerned about the new Transportation Security Administration screening procedures and many passengers’ reactions. I’m disheartened by the negativity of some of the responses. “Don’t touch my junk” has become this year’s “Don’t tase me, bro.” What has become of America’s can-do attitude?
Instead of dwelling on the negatives (and I readily admit there are many), it might be more productive to focus on solutions. First and foremost, the TSA should drop the “virtual” from what opponents are calling “virtual strip searches” and make them real.
Under this scheme, all passengers should remove their clothing and place them in bins before heading through the screening gate.
It’s a natural progression from older screening procedures. We already remove our shoes, why not remove everything else?
There are many upsides, including the fact that it would eliminate the electronic scanners that some fear exposes passengers to potentially harmful levels of radiation. It would also ax the heavy frisking is currently the alternative for those scanners.
In addition to making it harder (but not impossible) to conceal harmful objects, perhaps terrorists with nudity taboos would be deterred by the large number of naked people in the terminal. I think that my presence alone would deter at least some people.
After the screening, passengers would get their clothes back (just like their shoes today). I would rather that the TSA issue pocket-less sweatsuits for passengers to wear during the flight, but that may be too difficult to enact.
I can understand the concerns that people would have about being seen nude, but it would eliminate any direct physical contact from either electronic radiation or TSA agents.
Of course, I make my modest proposal in jest, but some are apparently planning to go through security checkpoints while wearing kilts … in the traditional fashion.
The TSA was unlikely to make everyone happy, but it should have done a better job of justifying and explaining why its new procedures are vital to the nation’s security and why any intrusion on passengers’ rights was necessary and minimized. Not only is that a good idea, it’s the law.

Tech failures: FLO’s mobile TV doesn’t go far in Chico

FLO TV unavailable
I haven’t been convinced that mobile television will catch on in the United States, but the tech demo for FLO TV doesn’t help sell the service for Chicoans.

Looking at the FLO display at a local discount store, one round purple sticker stood out — “Service not available in this area.” With one stroke, FLO undermines its key feature — the ability to watch TV on the go (channels include mobile versions of NBC, FOX, Adult Swim and others). Without a signal, you’re paying $200 for a small box that doesn’t do anything. In addition, there’s a $5/mo. subscription fee.

The sales clerk noted the service is unavailable, but also said a friend was able to get a signal in part of town. The coverage map shows some areas south of town and in the foothills can get a signal from the Yuba City area. While there appears to be decent coverage in metropolitan areas, there’s currently no FLO service between Yuba City and Eugene, Ore.

Although mobile TV appears to be popular in other countries, I think
those services are free over-the-air signals and not a subscription
service.

Failed tech demos aside, I think people will stick with streaming video sites like YouTube or whatever sites they can reach over a regular broadband cell connection. The same goes for Sirius XM’s portable TV offering via satellite — the range has to be better than for FLO, but its similar monthly fee for a limited service is probably a dealbreaker.