Saturday, March 22, 2014

Missing Malaysian Airlines MH370: Howdunit?

Editor (3/21/14): ITuesday's post, I predicted where the missing plane might be found, southwest of Australia. Then guest columnist, Mike H., gave us his character portrayal theory on who did it and and why. Today Mike and I go with "howdunit". There has been one common theme throughout this series; the most likely scenario is pilot suicide where the person piloting did not want the wreckage found. In recent days the search has focused on the area southwest of Australia on two pieces seen in satellite imagery. Based on our prediction, we feel that the search is in an area a bit north of where the plane is located. It is also possible that the debris will turn out to be unrelated to the missing plane. 

This article is purely the opinion of two people. But we strongly feel that this is the mostly likely theory, explains ALL the evidence made public so far and it closely matches our hypothesis on the motivation. We invite you to submit any thoughts you have on contradictions. 

Undisputed sequence of events (as of end of day 3/21/14)
  • 12:36am to 119am Co-pilot speaks to the air traffic controllers from taxiing until take off. Pilot does not say a word (based on transcript released today).
  • 109am ACARS system located at the back of the plane is turned off.
  • 119am Co-pilot signs off with "all right, good night".
  • 121am Two transponders accessible from the cockpit are turned off
  • Soon after, radar shows a turn and climb.
  • Radar shows rapid descent to 20K feet
  • Plane is tracked in one of two common passenger routes
  • Eight hours later, final ping is sent by plane.
Initial actions

Suicides are rarely planned by more than one person. The fact that the circuit breaker in the back of the plane was turned off while the co-pilot was talking to tower strongly suggests that we can rule him out. Since the cockpit door is locked, we strongly feel it was the captain or the flight engineer responsible. After the co-pilot finished his final sign off with ground control, he and the other person not responsible, left the cockpit for one of two reasons.
  1. A restroom break or other normal activity.
  2. They were told by the person flying to do something; get a glass of water, go to the back to check on the ACARS circuit breakers or other. 
At that point the cockpit door was locked and no one else except the person responsible would ever gain entry to that area. The pilot then returned to his seat and turned off the two transponders. Records show that the transponder was turned off two minutes after the final sign off. So things happened quite quickly, but there was enough time.

The murder

Radar records show that the plane then turned abruptly and started gaining altitude to 45,000 feet. There has been some speculation that this initial turn and climb was to avoid radar. We agree that the turn was due to avoid entering Vietnamese airspace and also to get to the final destination which will be discussed later. Also climbing to 45,000 feet would have minimized the odds of anyone using a cell phone to call for help. But the sudden gain in altitude was more sinister and diabolical in nature. If the two flight crew who left returned to the cockpit to find it locked they would have quickly found a way to use a satellite phone, turn the ACARS circuits back on the in the tail or find another way to alert authorities. Following our hypothesis of suicide with no trace, this gain in altitude was to quickly kill everyone on board. To do that the pilot would had to do the following:
  1. Depressurize the plane (yes, a pilot can do this for reasons such as if the oxygen supply system became noxious).
  2. Depressurize the plane. This would release oxygen masks for everyone including inside the cockpit; depressurizing the plane depressurizes the cockpit.
  3. Put on his oxygen mask. 
  4. Gain altitude rapidly. Passenger oxygen masks only have a fifteen minute supply of oxygen. At 45,000 feet the air is not breathable and a person without oxygen would be dead in less than a minute. 
The person piloting would have more than 15 minutes in his oxygen supply but would also have access to the two other oxygen masks in the cockpit, so would have been alright for up to 45 minutes to an hour. The standard 15 minute supply is designed to give the pilot the time necessary to descend to below 20,000 feet where the air is easily breathable.

It is also possible that someone in the main cabin was able to use more than one oxygen masks, but it was a fairly full flight with 239 seats taken. Plus one is not mobile when tied to an oxygen mask. Trying to break down the fortified cockpit door or go to the back of the plane without oxygen would have been impossible. After some time at 45,000 feet, the pilot would have descended to below 20,000 feet as radar records have shown it did. 

At this point he continue to fly west following standard flight paths. This step was important because he was still close to Malaysia and military radar would have paid less attention to a radar screen blip that was flying in a typical passenger flight pattern. There was a Singapore Airlines plane flying in a similar direction and it is possible the pilot shadowed this plan for a period.

Flying to the remote

Once he knew he was safely out of range of Malaysian radar, he started flying south and set the speed and altitude to levels to maximize the distance plan could fly. The ocean SW of Australia and North of the Antarctic is as foreboding and remote as it gets. No land, extremely cold, high waves, strong ocean currents, limited shipping and deep water. There is no better place on earth which is more remote or where it would be harder to mount a salvage and recovery option.


It is possible that during this time the person flying might have gone into the cabin to disable emergency beacons and equipment. But it is unlikely he would risk the chance of opening the cockpit door just in case someone was still alive. Also the thought of calmly walking through a plane full of dead people is so horrifying and morbid, it is beyond our comprehension.

Landing

Once he got as far south as possible and the plane was running on fumes, the pilot would have landed as gently as possible. There was no reason to crash into the water at high speed leaving debris strewn everywhere where it would be spotted by plane or satellite. Also by having everyone on board dead, there was no chance of emergency doors being opened or life rafts being deployed. An intact passenger jet would have floated for 30 to 60 minutes before sinking. By flying until his fuel practically ran out he also minimized any chance of oil slick. The plane sank into the sea and the captain went down with his ship. It is possible that wings or other large parts of the plane broke off as it settled and that would explain the large pieces of debris seen by the satellite. 

Final thoughts

Whoever was responsible planned well. He picked a fairly full flight which was important to limit how long passengers would survive and an overnight flight where people would have been sleeping, chose the perfect time within the flight when the cockpit would be quiet, and the time of day with radar crews paying less attention and limiting the likelihood of ground or ship based witnesses seeing the plane.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Whodunit? Whydunit? Why Captain Shah is likely responsible for the missing Flight MH370

Editor: In Tuesday's post, we focused on where the plane might be found. Based on the news today that wreckage might have been spotted southwest of Australia, the prediction appears to be correct. Today we go from "wheredunit" to "whodunit" and "whydunit". Tomorrow we end the trifecta with "howdunit" (view article). To help with the analysis I turn the floor over to my guest author and fellow armchair criminologist, Mike H. 

Why Captain Shah is likely responsible for the missing Flight MH370

--by Mike H. (guest author)

‘‘...sacrifice is necessary to achieve the goal of free democracy.’’ - 2013 Facebook Post by Zaharie Ahmed Shah, Captain MH 370

In this thought experiment, we examine the likely possibility that a pilot, specifically Zaharie Ahmad Shah, is the "mastermind" of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370. It is important to point out obviously, that all judgments should be reserved until a final determination is made by authorities. We simply conclude that this is likely a politically motivated crime pointing to Shah as the prime suspect. We cannot yet conclude whether or not he acted alone. However, signs point to him as architect of the plot. Here's why.
Much speculation and worry has been expended as to the fate of the missing Malaysian airline. There are few facts, but many theories circulating. Let's try to convince you that at this time evidence strongly points to the plane's captain, Shah, conclusively as having the motivation and the personality profile to carry out this crime. This analysis will use a principle of parsimony, meaning that if there are many hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be chosen. It's most likely that Shah acted alone and that his cockpit seniority and work habits would allow him the greatest ease to accomplish this of any of the other passengers or crew. However, plausible scenarios also exist where he could have had collaboration from a sympathizer onboard the plane making it easier to secure control and subdue passengers as well as provide some technical support for the complicated flight. 

Personality Profile

It has been suggested that Shah is a loyal employee, a caring community citizen, a good friend, and a good father. Certainly, looking into the eyes of the man, we can see a definite kindness. His online postings indicate a thoughtful, secular man, personally invested in supporting a positive future for Malaysians through positive democratic action. Nobody would call this guy a zealot; in fact Slate magazine suggested his support of Malaysian opposition political leader Anwar Ibrahim indicated he was a rationalist, possibly even atheistic. This guy's no terrorist, and in fact he's quite the western-culture buff, and loves stuff like comedians Louis CK and Eddie Izzard. That said, rationalists are by no means universally kindhearted as the Slate article implies. I would argue that rationalists have a tendency to weigh the many over the few, especially when it comes to political causes; and I would suggest also (importantly I think), that while quite hilarious, many mainstream comedians are unarguably some of the most rational, yet misanthropic folks out there. 
 
We see a smart guy with a high degree of career achievement and distinction who loved assembling complex home computers, building even more complex flight simulators, tinkering with machines and efficiency, and preparing elaborate meals of carefully prepped ingredients and final colorful products for his friends and family. He loved building things, engineering, and understanding how they worked. This shows his personality is a "systems thinker" or "mastermind" type of individual. This crime has all the hallmarks of a carefully constructed plan, much like Shah's flight simulator, or his delicious meals. None of these things paint him as a killer, but he is the type of person with a mental "blueprint" capable of crafting a multi-layered plot such as this. 

Possible Motivations

1. Dissatisfaction with Malaysian government and retaliation over the conviction and imprisonment of Ibrahim. It has been widely reported that Shah's Facebook page contained numerous critical references towards the Malaysian government in regards to the treatment of Ibrahim. In addition there are conflicting reports that indicate he attended the trial and sentencing of Ibrahim right before the flight. It has also been reported that Shah and Ibrahim are distant relatives, but there seems to be consensus they did not know one another. What is clear and not in dispute is that Shah was a supporter of Ibrahim's politics and saw the Malaysian power elite's treatment of him as unjust and hypocritical. There is considerable evidence to support the notion that he closely identified with the politics of Ibrahim and was happy to make public testimony to that effect.
2. Alleged marital discord and potential separation from spouse with multiple news sites suggested that Shah's wife had left him in the days preceding the fated flight. Without a family support structure at home, Shah was more likely to engage in fatalistic behaviors. At the very least, a spouse leaving a home may be indicative of a declining mental state or other instability. In any case, this is a motivation because it cuts his social "safety net" to some extent. It is also a motivation for him to have carried this act out with no suicide note or other telltale admission so that his family is not vilified in the media and may further be eligible for financial compensation if he cannot be proven at fault. 
3. For a career aviator; to be a part of a great mystery in the vein of Amelia Earheart is somewhat of a romantic notion to get carried away with. No doubt, this is already one of the greatest aviation mysteries of all time today. 
Other Suspects

It's quite possible that Shah acted alone. However, at this time it is not possible to rule out co-conspirators that could point to a more conspiratorial plot. Too little is known to make a judgment about what exactly happened inside the plane, and that is speculation for a future "Howdunit" article. 

To minimize the length of this article the full personality profiles of the two others in the cockpit are not included.  In summary:

Co-Pilot Abdul Hamid: Hamid has had the most suspicion cast on him because he was the last person to speak with air traffic control and the transponders in the cockpit were turned off only two minutes later.  This is still plenty of time for him to leave the cockpit and be locked out by Shah. And his personality profile does not suggest he had the planning experience needed to pull off something this complicated. He was a young guy and we hear nothing of his hobbies, other than trying to pick up hot girls. While a skilled aviator himself, apparently led a more domestic life with fewer notable extracurricular activities of this nature.
Flight Engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat: I will be surprised if the flight engineer is involved. He has a new wife, child, and good job. He is considered an "excellent employee" by his manager. His ten year experience is not in Boeing aircraft, but smaller jets like Learjet. I don't think the flight engineer had the capability to act on his own because os a lack of piloting skills. followed by him collaborating with the co-pilot, I feel a larger conspiracy is unlikely. However Malaysian authorities are currently investigating any role Selamat may have played.

The Aftermath

In the wake of the disappearance, one thing has been without question. The Malaysian government is under fire for their perceived haphazard, and blundering response to the crisis. The Chinese public and government have expressed continued great displeasure; and the patience of the world is wearing thin. The crisis has cast a bright light onto the nature of Malaysian politics and it has not necessarily portrayed the institutions favorably. Tensions have escalated recently with neighbors including Indonesia too. The Malaysian government is really in the hot seat right now.  This is a position they have never been in more than 50 years in power. One might wonder if this is exactly what Shah had hoped for; that his knowledge of the Malaysian emergency response and lax control procedures pointed to the chaos that would ensue if a plane leaving Malaysia were never found. Especially one loaded with the citizens of a powerful global player like China. In this sense, everyone has been wondering on motive, but it seems the motive is pretty clear based on the cause and effect here... 


Logical Argument why this is a "plot" and not a "co-incidence": 
To be fair, we are perhaps poorer armchair chaos theory buffs than we are armchair criminologists. However, please consider this expansion on the thought experiment we are conducting for a moment:
Chaos vs Synergy: 
The Malaysian Airlines mystery reeks of synergy and careful planning as opposed to the chaotic series of events that define most accidental air disasters. Chaos is random, fractal, non-linear -- a fire randomly happening here, an engine failing there... rarely do "accidents" happen so sequentially so as to provide the scant evidence and information that is available about the flight. For several communications systems to fail, for the plane to stop reporting location, for it to change location, to climb so many feet above operating specifications, for it to report pings ranging across Asia and into the deep Indian Ocean, under such reportedly expert flying mechanics -- this is a linear, organized sequence of event and it is beyond reason to assume that these things may happen as an accident. It's also unreasonable to assume given what we know that any other terror element had anything to gain from killing of so many except someone with strong left-leaning political views. Look at the consequences of this carefully planned mystery on the Malaysian government. It's just not probable that anyone but a pilot -- and a Malaysian one at that -- is responsible for this.  
Back to chaos vs synergy. In  regards to this case, as we know, rarely does nature create perfect shapes or geometrically precise patterns. If we look at chaos from its fractal perspective, lets consider that synergy might exist as a geometrically precise shape captured in that fractal. It must be a closed loop like an excellent machine or a master plan. If we consider synergy and chaos in this way, lets also assume that synergy is therefore an unnatural, artificial creation of intelligence, while chaos is the natural and unbounded way nature works.
Considering the Malaysia disaster -- it has such a synergy to it -- the construction of a perfect plan with many parts working together to deliver a closed loop outcome. It is a set of circumstances unlikely to have happened chaotically. Clearly it is the product of man's construction, and the evidence points to the pilot or pilots as being responsible, and again signs point to Shah as a motivated systems thinker capable of crafting a well-oiled plot like this.  

Conclusion

Of all possible scenarios suggested and possible suspects, only Shah had the combination of technical skill, personal motivation, and mental schema needed to plan and execute an act of this magnitude without venturing beyond parsimony. The disappearance has achieved a plausible political goal already which is being widely reported in the news media (though it is not being connected directly as an intentional side effect of this disappearance). 



Editor 3/24/14: It was reported today that the FBI is now focusing their investigation on Shah and his complex personal life and has found nothing suspicious in Hamid's background.  

Editor 3/21/14: Please see the new article on how exactly the sequence of events transpired matching all evidence presented to date.

References
http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/captain-zaharie-ahmed-shah-missing-malaysian-flight-mh370-pilots/1/349888.html

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Where to Search for the Missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 Plane

Like most of us I spent the last week closely following the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 jet. Crazy theories abound; UFOs, Bin Laden loyalists, selling the plane for its resale value of $40 million and kidnap ransoms. All those seem really unlikely; there are easier ways to make $40 million than kidnapping 250 people.  And if someone really wanted to steal a plane why not commandeer a cargo plane where there are few people on board.

To come up with my theory I dismissed the possibility of catastrophic failure which has been ruled out and looked at the following key facts:

1. The plane flew 8 hours.  If the pilot wanted to just kill himself, why not just make it quick and get it over with. 
2. India and Pakistan say the plane didn't go that way.  Both nations swear that no airplane crossed their coverage.  Have to take this with a grain of salt, because neither would admit holes in their radar coverage. But Afghanistan is in the vicinity and I have to believe that the US military keep track of mosquitoes flying anywhere near that area.
3. Serious piloting skills were necessary. Multiple screens of the passenger manifest has ruled them out. And let's also rule out the idea that Steven Seagal's twin brother was hiding out in the luggage compartment.
4. Black boxes transmit for 30 daysAfter 30 days they stop transmitting and the likelihood of finding plane starts dropping.
5. Meticulous planning was required. Whoever piloted the plane made evasive maneuvers to go undetected.

So drawing upon Occam's Razor "most likely scenario" thinking, it had to be pilot suicide.  One of the pilots, and I don't really care which one, decided that he wanted to go out in a way that would make the plane extremely hard to find.  Hard to find would be important for one of three reasons:

1. Following the money trail, he wanted his next of kin to cash out on some life insurance policy or death benefit, but knew that they wouldn't get anything if the plane and those pesky black boxes were ever found.
2. Suicide and taking the lives of innocent folks would bring dishonor to his clan.
3. He wanted to join Amelia Earhart in folklore.  

How would he do it?

Scenario 1In February/March, the Antarctic ice sheet is at the thinnest.  It is at the maximum width in September.  So if he could crash the plane where the ice had retreated, it would soon be covered up until a year from now. After six months of fruitless searching, the plane would be very hard to find. There is no radar down there, no cities, few ships, a moving ice field that would make salvage operations very difficult.  But there's one huge hole with this theory; the plane didn't have enough gas.  Experts are saying the plane had a 5,000 mile range since it flew 7-8 hours; and would have to had to fly 7,000 miles or 11-12 hours to get there. 
Antarctic Ice


Scenario 2. Okay, so he couldn't make it to the Antarctic, but perhaps he decided to go with the next best option.  In the diagram below we see major ocean currents with the surface current, denoted in red. The one that flows left to right right above Antarctica is of the most interest to me.  If he flew straight down for eight hours he could have made it there. Crashing the plane in that area would result in evidence drifting east in an area that few ships ply.  Eventually debris would show up in South America but by then the black boxes would have long stopped working. 


Global Ocean Currents
Where to Look?

So using scenario #2 I would fly planes directly over the current and have ships sail in the middle of the current to detect the black box signal.  If debris was spotted, determining the speed of the current and multiplying by the amount of days since the crash would give you a rough idea of where the wreckage lay.



So that's it; a plausible scenario that matches all the data points I am aware of. Please let me know of any holes you see.

Editor 3/21/14: Please see today's article on how the sequence of events might have transpired based on all evidence presented to date.

Monday, November 25, 2013

How the NFL Should Embrace Technology, Increase Viewer Participation and Make More Money

I spend way too much time drawing up trick football plays and offensive schemes that have little chance of success. So when I suggested an offensive scheme where the offensive tackle reports as tackle eligible on every single play - the idea being to lull the defense to sleep before striking - my friend, Vik, gently told me to perhaps focus on other areas of the game. So I decided to take my radical thinking and dream up how my NFL viewing experience could be greatly improved. And I came up with a way where the offensive and defensive play calls could be shared with viewers in real-time. Here's how it would work:

1. The NFL would require all teams to submit their offensive and defensive playbook to the broadcast networks in this format:


Offensive Play In layman's terms
Red-44-Blue-ZebraDeep pass over the middle to a wide receiver
Charlie-Tango-Alpha-23                          Halfback run up the middle
Z-99-XYZFake punt

Defensive playIn layman's terms
Cover-Cover-Zebra-52Cover 2 Zone
Foxtrot-Alpha-MichaelMan to man, bump and run coverage
Tango-Overly-Complex-Playcall-44All out blitz

2. As the play is transmitted to the QB and the defense, it is simultaneously transmitted to the broadcast network.

3. As the offense breaks the huddle and lines up, the network transmits both the offensive play and defensive formation to viewers in layman's terms.

Why this works:

1. It would generate tremendous interest in the pre-snap formations and increase anticipation. Let's face it; NFL football watching is all about the five seconds of live action followed by 40 seconds of waiting around; I'm trying to reduce that second number.

2. Viewers would have immediate insight into what plays were called and whether the QB totally missed his read, should have audibled, or it was just a dumb play call by the offensive coordinator.

3. You get to second guess the play calls and decisions all day Monday. Heck, this might lead to second guessing on Tuesday and Wednesday as well.

Why you might think this doesn't work and how I would make it work:

Q. If you are broadcasting the play pre-snap, couldn't the offense and defense simply have someone watching the broadcast and signal their team about what was coming up?

A. Absolutely. But note that there is a a transmission delay of five seconds, so chances are that TV viewers would see the play after the ball was snapped.

Q. Won't other teams be able to look at previous TV broadcasts and see what was called and come up with new information on what kinds of plays teams like to run?

A1. Yup. But the fact is that these days you have hundreds of ex-players coming out of the woodwork on multiple channels analyzing every play, tendency and weakness of each team. I can't turn on NFL Network or ESPN without being bombarded by never ending analyses. 

A2. Teams today spend way too much time watching film and most NFL teams would be better served spending more time practicing blocking and tackling.

Okay, so this is pretty wacky but tell me about how the NFL can increase audience participation and make more money. That's the only reason I'm still reading.

Well, here's where it gets interesting. If we have the above translation table why not allow for a fan to call a play? Say its a huge blowout and the home team is up by 25 points with five minutes to go. Well a team could hit a switch and fans could go onto some web portal where there could be a live auction to call offensive or defensive plays. So its 4th down, I pay my $1,000, or whatever, call in "fake punt" and that get's relayed to the coordinators as "Z-99-XYZ" using the table above. The money could go to charity or to NFL owner coffers. Can you imagine fulfilling football fan's fantasies this way?

Why this works:

1. There is nothing worse than watching garbage time of an NFL. For sure this would liven things up. 

2. Coaches would have someone to blame for running up scores. "Hey Coach, so why did you call the Hail Mary on the last play when you were up by 30 points?" "Well there is this kid from Make-A-Wish who really wanted to call a play and..."

3. Even if their plays weren't used, fans could prove or disprove that their play-calling was better than their team's offensive coordinator. "Hey Greg Roman, on that 4th down on the Baltimore five yard line when you threw the ball, 90% of your fans called for a run." (Yeah, I'm still bitter about the Superbowl.)

4. There are all kinds of gaming opportunities where participants could score points based on pre-snap predictions.

Why this doesn't work and how to make it work:

Q. Wouldn't gamblers who were more interested in point spreads than the actual game bid up to try and call in plays that tilted the point spread in their favor? Heck they might double down and call both the offensive and defensive plays; for instance have the offensive team throw a Hail Mary and on the same play have the defense play man to man.

A1. Ban audience participation for Nevada residents??

A2. Give the offensive/defensive coordinators first right of refusal.

In closing:

Technology and real-time interaction is pervasive. Asking the next generation of kids (raised on video games, web sites and individualism) to sit there and watch a three hour broadcast is unrealistic. I'm not going to be sitting by my phone awaiting a call from Roger Goodell. But heck every season it seems that he's watering down and wimpifiying the game more and more. Isn't it time he give something back to the fans?  

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Windows 8.1 Upgrade: Long, Difficult and with Data Loss

Upgrading from Windows 8.1 beta to the official Windows 8.1 release has been a terrible experience. I've been running on Windows 8 for a year and I like the operating system.  Yes, its a bit quirky as far as trying to create one user experience for desktops, tablets and mobile which was overly ambitious and fell short of the mark.   However it was stable, quick and usable and that's enough for me.  

Over the summer Microsoft release a beta of 8.1 with the following features:

1. Snap - the feature that lets you quickly have two windows open side by side.
2. Start button
3. Boot up in desktop mode.

It is worth noting that these were all in Windows 7 but removed from Windows 8.  While my upgrade to the Windows 8.1 beta required some time and several reboots, it was relatively painless. So you can imagine my shock and anger when I upgraded to the 8.1 official release this week and realized that all my installed software had been wiped out and required hours and hours to re-install everything. Not only that but some of my spreadsheets and other documents were also missing!

I had to re-install Office, Chrome, Acrobat, Skype and every other software I use. Then more time digging through backups for copies of my documents. Windows 8.1
 didn't even recognize my one year old Canon printer that was running perfectly under Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 Preview.  I had to search the Canon site for drivers - the way we did it in the 1990s - and install my printer again. Aren't we a little too far along to have ridiculous upgrade experiences like this?? And even if we did, why wasn't there a huge warning upfront that all apps are about to be wiped out? It turns out that only those running Windows 8.1 Preview have the app and data loss issues.

In summary, here is my advice about who should upgrade to Windows 8.1:


Your Current Operating SystemMy Advice 
Windows 7 or earlier Don't bother.  Windows 7 is a stable, solid operating system.
Windows 8 Go for it.  You can get all those features back that you liked in Windows 7.  Yippee!
Windows 8.1 Preview Definitely not.  Unless you have hours to kill and enjoy swearing and pounding your desk with your fist.

Below is the marketing video from Microsoft highlighting the new features of Windows 8.1.  It's safe to say that Microsoft is completely confused.  The video shows a person with a desktop PC yet every single featured demoed in the video is done by touch.  How many people use touch sensitive screens on their desktop?  Also none of the three features listed above are noted even though these are the top three requested improvements when Windows 8 was released.




Monday, November 4, 2013

Kindle Fire HDX 7: Lack of Camera Makes it Less than Perfect

Being a first day adopter of the iPhone and iPad, I decided to do the same with Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX 7" which came out last week. It is is a cool mini tablet with a lot to like about it but ended up falling way short in one key area - the lack of a rear facing camera.  Let's start out with what makes it great and for who.

It has a gorgeous 7" HD screen which looks better than the Retina screen on my iPad, it's slim and lightweight with a battery that lasts 11 hours.  The key new feature is free built in customer support delivered via one way video conference  It's a new service called Mayday and you just press a button and someone comes on within 10 to 20 seconds.  You can see them as shown in the screenshot below, and they can control your device and show you how to use certain features.



I tried Mayday twice with amazing results.  If you have a grand parent or anyone computer illiterate, this is true differentiator that makes this product stand out from anything else out there.  And this is coming from a huge Apple fan.

I am also a user of Amazon Prime and use Amazon for an increasing amount of purchases as  well as books and movies.  The device's tight integration with Amazon allows you to access all that content in one place could certainly simplify my life.

It's priced at $269 but for forty bucks less you can get a version that shows you an ad every time you start up. I opted for the cheaper model and its really not very intrusive and doesn't bug me.

Here is a pretty good review comparing it to other tablets out there.




There were two issues:

The biggest by far is that it has only a front facing camera.  So while its great for Skype you can forget about taking any photos or videos. I was so sure that it would have a rear camera that I didn't even read the spec closely enough prior to purchase.  My wife was also convinced that the camera must be and even spent some time looking for it! I'm guessing that most people, like us, would rather have a rear facing camera and this is a huge oversight.  Amazon probably figured that most people have smart phones which could be used for photos.  But here's what's wrong with that thinking; tablets and mini tablets with their ten hour battery life were tailor made to be used as a camera. Plus no one wants to crowd around a smartphone to watch a video. Its hard to recommend this device without one.

The interface is also not quite perfect. Movies, books and apps are mixed together in a jumbled display of different sizes that I just don't find intuitive. In the screen shot of my screen below you see two apps, a movie and two books.  It just doesn't look right and a week later, I just don't like it.




When its doing something one doesn't get a full sense of what exactly is happening or when its going to be over.  For instance when fetching movies and books from my Amazon account all I saw was a message about the content being queued and later on they were there but never got a sense of what was happening or when I would have it.

There are a couple of competitors to the HDX; Apple iPad Mini at $399 and the Google Nexus 7 at $229.  You can see a detailed comparison of all three here
Based on my usage of 7" tablets, here are my power rankings as of November, 2013:


  • Apple iPad Mini (the leader with gazillions of apps, a simple intuitive UI and five year track record)
  • Google Nexus 7 (has pretty much everything you need except all those apps)
  • Kindle HDX 7 (a must for every Amazon user but no rear camera)
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 (a distant fourth. See my review here)
In summary if you want to use your mini tablet as a camera, I would go with the iPad Mini or Google Nexus 7.  Else skip the HDX 7" version and go with the HDX Fire HDX 8.9 which has an 8.9" screen and comes with both front and rear cameras. The HDX 8.9 is a regular tablet comparable to the iPad and is priced at $379 and you can purchase directly from Amazon




Monday, October 28, 2013

Samsung Galaxy Tab 3: Move On, Nothing to See

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 is a 7" mini tablet that attempts to compete with the iPad Mini and the Google Nexus 7, but at 60% of the price. Thinking that it might be good option for a family member who needed only email, web and a camera, I picked one up at Costco for $179.  The short story is that it falls short on almost every relevant front; the camera shoots poor quality photos, the screen resolution is poor compared to other tablets, the battery only last seven hours, and the user interface leaves much to be desired. With Apple, Amazon and everyone else seeming focused on screens, I find it odd that the Galaxy screen design hasn't been updated since their last design three years ago.

There's always a warning sign when dealing with disasters like this, and in this case it was reading Samsung's sales pitch where they start off by talking about how it had the "best hand grip" of any product (see sales pitch). 

You can see a video review of this device below and there are also several blogs comparing it to the iPad Mini, Kindle HDX, Galaxy Tab 3 and the Google Nexus 7 (mini tablet reviews).



I'm a big fan of many Samsung devices and this tablet is a huge disappointment. Even at below $200 there's no way I can recommend buying one when there are so many better options out there. Only those who rate "hand grips" over all other features would want this device. Re-stating the obvious, save your money and stay away.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Duracell Quantum Batteries: Unnecessary for the 99% of Us

Recently I checked out the new Duracell Quantum battery which came out this summer.  Advertised as the "world's most advanced Alkaline battery" with the longest battery life and featuring an on device battery tester. It sounded like the latest and greatest.  At roughly twice the price of a regular brand name battery and three times the price of a generic battery, I researched it online to see if it made sense to pay the premium.  After a ton of internet searches I couldn't find any scientific studies that mentioned exactly how much better it was. I found this very odd and could find nothing even on the Duracell site.  All I could find were tons of references about how Duracell was giving away a million of these batteries to First Responders which began to sound more and more like marketing speak (Duracell Quantum for First Responders announcement).

So I decided to test the new Quantum batteries against existing batteries to see if they are worth the additional cost. The result: Save your money and do not buy the new Duracell Quantum batteries!



I view Alkaline batteries as commodity items which have changed little in the last 100 years; I tend to buy whatever is available or on sale, and have zero loyalty toward any brand. With three kids and a ton of toys, I go through batteries by the case and fill more landfills than I should. To keep up with the demand, I typically buy large packs of generic AA and AAA batteries at Costco or other discount stores. I am aware of higher end batteries such as the Energizer E2 but never considered buying them since they are expensive and are not geared toward general usage. 

There are many kinds of battery tests and some specifically say "better for point and shoot cameras" or "battery operated flash". Plus, many of the comparisons, like the one below, compare the amount of flashes and the recharge time. But seriously, how many people are using these types of devices? And does the average guy on the street really care if it takes 4 seconds or 7 seconds for his flash to go off?  Some studies rate batteries on how many years they can last in storage without losing charge or leaking. Most of us are neither emergency workers nor outdoorsmen, so this is also irrelevant.  I just want to know which battery is going to power one of my son's toy trains for as long as possible without needing a replacement.





I decided to consider everyday devices where I use batteries. Flashlights, remote controls and toys. In the interest of saving time I sacrificed some scientific integrity and scratched "remote controls" off the list; it would take me months to analyze battery usage in remotes.  I started with a simple flashlight tests; I have three brand new Duracell battery operated flashlights which are rated, per Duracell, to run for an hour at maximum illumination on three AAA batteries.  I used three types of batteries for my test, Duracell Quantum, Duracell CopperTop and Costco's Kirkland brand. Here are the results:

Duracell Quantum:
Lasted 2 hours 1 minute.
Cost: Roughly $1/battery ($21.94 for 20 on Amazon)

Duracell CopperTop Regular: 
Lasted 2 hour 24 minutes.
Cost: About $.57/battery ($11.99 for 20 on Amazon)

Costco Kirkland Brand:
Lasted 1 hour 20 minutes.
Cost: $.38/battery ($18.22 for 48 at Costco.com)

In all three cases the flashlight dimmed in the last 15 to 20 minutes and the time I measured was until the flashlight was effectively useless in a dark room. Looking at the results, the winner by a landslide was the Duracell CopperTop and NOT the Quantum. It lasted significantly longer than the Quantum and twice as long as the generic.  At less than twice the price of the generic, its a no-brainer. It doesn't make any sense how Duracell's latest and greatest battery got outperformed by their base model. 

And by the way, the highly touted "Power Meter" feature is a useless gimmick. All it's good for is to tell if a battery is fully charged or discharged.  I ran a toy non-stop until it was almost dead and the battery power still showed that the battery had 75% charge.  A re-calibration is in order.  

The Duracell Quantum might be your battery of choice for the few folks who still use a battery operated flash, want a battery that can sit in storage for 10 years or have money to burn. The rest of us can stick with the good old CopperTop or commodity batteries.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Google Chromecast: Great for Youtube and Netflix but not Ready for Prime Time

I was drawn to Google's latest consumer product, ChromeCast.  A $35 device that looks like a USB flash drive plugs into any TV with an HDMI input and allows you to easily stream internet content to your living room.  It doesn't come with a remote. Instead you use your phone, tablet or laptop for setup and control.  The short story is that I'm already using it all the time but feel that it hasn't quite lived up to its hype. While the advertising implies that it works from your iOS device, its useless on my iPhone and iPad for anything other than YouTube and Netflix videos. However this functionality alone makes it worthwhile for me. ChromeCast is definitely in the discussion if you don't have AppleTV or Roku.  The low cost and ultra-portability make it a no brainer if you have young kids or watch a ton of YouTube videos.

Here's a Google video showcasing their new product:



My three kids have grown up in the on-demand era; the majority of their TV consumption is based on recorded shows, streaming services like Amazon and Netflix and an ever increasing amount of online videos.  We enforce parental control by not allowing them to surf online unsupervised.  So before ChromeCast, the three of them would frequently huddle around a monitor in my study where I would select videos.  The other option was watching on the living room TV using our DirecTV receiver or DVD player, both of which have the ability to stream online content.  Neither solution was great; getting four chairs in my study was difficult and watching in the living room wasn't much better. It is slow and painfully inefficient to use a standard remote control as a keyboard and I couldn't queue up videos. The result was a poor browsing experience, especially with a three year old who likes switching videos every minute.

ChromeCast has solved both problems for me.  I can use my phone, tablet or laptop to search for YouTube videos and queue them up.  Worth noting that once you "cast" a video to your TV, the device you are using is freed up and the content is streamed directly to your TV.  So at that point you can turn it off, leave the room or continue to search without any disruption of what is playing. It supports HD so the picture is really fantastic even on a big screen TV if you have a cable internet connection. 

Setup is pretty easy with a slick way to install and select your WiFi connection, but maybe a bit too slick for its own good.  It failed the first time because I used my iPad 1 and halfway through it decided that it wasn't compatible with iOS 5. Should have taken a developer a minute to put that check up front.  On my second attempt with my iPad 3 it worked perfectly.  Here'a video that shows the process.  




Unlike any recent electronic device, it's dirt cheap at $35. For once you don't have to game plan how to convince your spouse. An Apple TV or Roku is $100 and both currently have more functionality and you can click here for a comparison.  However, its only a matter of time until ChromeCast can stream your local content and has wider device compatibility. If you are a Hulu customer and don't want to pay for Hulu Plus; a Chromecast and a laptop can let you stream your regular Hulu content to your TV.  

Google and other companies are also actively working to increase ChromeCast compatibility. By the end of the year we should see many more services supported. It's also small and portable.  I'm definitely taking it on trips and will be adding it to the list of questions to ask a hotel. "Do you have WiFi?  Is there a pool? Do your TVs have an HDMI input??"

Chromecast advertising implied that one could broadcast any content you can view by using a Chrome browser.  That is true for laptops, desktops and Android phones.  However, on my iOS device Google still hasn't released plugins for the iOS version of Chrome.  It also only supports iOS 6 and later; so I am unable to use my iPad or iPhone 3 with the device.  There is a Chromecast app in the App Store but it only lets you install the Chromecast. So, say I want to share Facebook photos on my living room TV, my only option would be to use my laptop. Beyond the limited iOS compatibility, the other cons are that you can't use it like an Apple TV to share your photos, videos and music.  There is no support of iOS 5 or earlier; I have no idea why they wouldn't support iOS 5 devices.  There is no technical reason to exclude iOS 5 devices.  If they want to be an Apple killer they have to do simple things like this.


In summary the ChromeCast is definitely in the discussion if you don't have AppleTV or Roku.  The low cost and ultra-portability make it a no brainer if you have young kids or watch a ton of YouTube videos.  Most TVs made in the last ten years have an HDMI input; if you don't have one then its time to get a new TV. If YouTube and Netflix content is not a current priority then there is no compelling need to get one and give time to mature.  

You can pick up a ChromeCast at Amazon or other retailer. At $35 it will definitely make for a killer Christmas present!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Top Six Features I Love about Apple iOS 7

Following my post from last week about iOS7 UI features I disliked I'm following up with what I love the most.  iOS7 is available globally on Wednesday, September 18.  The minimum requirements are an iPhone4 or an iPad 2 and it is a free upgrade.

1. Improved battery life!! I am seeing much better battery life, probably 20%-30% better, than I was previously getting.  My Iphone 4 is three years old and even after getting a new battery I had to charge it more than once a day. I was on the verge of throwing it out when I upgraded to iOS 7.  Since then the full charge can last me a day and a half and it makes a huge difference not having to run out of juice every day.  Apple has really worked hard to maximize battery life including minimizing the amount of data pulled by apps running in the background; their efforts show.


2. Things just work faster. I can't really quote any specific metrics but the new UI is snappier and much more responsive than before. Part of the credit has to be given to the new design, elements of which I criticized in my previous post.  It also works better even with 20 apps running in the background.  It really does feel like a new phone and most everything works faster than before.

3. Quick access menu! The new quick access to settings, pictured below, is something I started using daily from Day 1. I can quickly and easily access and toggle settings such as WIFI, the alarm, rotation, bluetooth, and brightness.  The one thing missing is a quick link to the 3G/2G setting, which I am continuously turning on and off to save battery life since 3G and 4G eats away at it. 



4. Camera features.  Built in filters, square images and other effects that, previously, you had to use an app like Camera+ or Instagram. It also just seems to take much better images and that logic was
 improved upon.  Also the feature that lets you browse through images is definitely a huge time saver if you take lots of images on your iPhone.

5. Safari and multiple tabs. I was using Chrome on my iOS devices just because it was better than Safari at handling multiple tabs.  However Chrome does crash quite often and I was looking for new options. Safari in iOS 7 has been vastly improved, is really stable, and comes with a wonderful graphical way to quickly flip through your tabs, just like you would with your album collection in iTunes.  Even on an iPhone it works quite well and you can quickly see what is on each tab.  A maximum of four tabs are displayed at one time but you can easily scroll through if you had more.  




6. Folders can finally have more than 9 icons! Having used iOS devices since 2007, I probably have a couple of hundred icons and apps.  And even using folders in iOS 6 I still had at least four or five screens of icons that I inevitably had to thumb through to find my rarely used apps. In iOS7 you can put more than nine icons in a folder. It still only displays nine icons but the 10th icon onwards is accessible by simply swiping to the left.  In the screen shot below you can see how my News folder has more than 9 apps, noted by the two bullet points at the bottom. This feature saves me tons of screen real estate and I was able to easily get all my stuff on two screens of icons and that's made it much more functional for me.




So those are the features that appealed to me the most. The common theme is that each item highlighted saves me time in some way. I could care less about new features such Air Drop, the compass and the iTunes redesign.  If I was going on a hike in the wilderness I would just stick to a real compass. Overall a solid upgrade and I suspect many existing iPhone 4 and 5 users will benefit from the software and will feel less of an urge to go out and buy a new phone.  F
or a full review of iOS 7 features there are several great videos on Youtube such as this one below.