Drones: Coming Soon to a Sky Near You

Drones are “unmanned aerial vehicles”, or UAVS.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes, each being designed for one of two purposes: surveillance or warfare.

The two best-known drone models are at the extreme ends of the scale.

The average citizen can use an iPhone to conduct neighbourhood surveillance with the Parrot AR Drone 2.0. This stylish unit packs a flight guidance system and an HD video camera into a form factor about the size and weight of a large pizza.

You can pick one up at The Source for just over $300. (And, yes, that would make a tremendously appreciated gift for yours truly.)

If bombing Al-Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan is more your style, you’ll have to join the US Air Force or the CIA. It’s only within those organizations that you’ll get the opportunity to pilot the massive, missile-laden $56 million Reaper from the comfort of a base in Nevada
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Where Are Social Media’s Seat Belts?

In 2011, 15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons was allegedly raped by four teenaged boys who were never charged or prosecuted for the crime.

One of those teenaged boys shared a photo of the incident with friends online. The photo was distributed widely among their school community and beyond.

As a result, Parsons faced intense bullying on Facebook and other social media. Boys would anonymously proposition her. Girls accused her of being a slut. She was repeatedly slandered.

Unable to further bear the ceaseless assault, last week Parsons hung herself in the bathroom of her family’s home.

If the story sounds familiar, that’s not surprising.

It was only last October that Amanda Todd’s suicide drew our attention to the perils of unregulated social media use. She also took her own life after facing intense online bullying as a result of a sexual assault.

Who’s next? Perhaps the 16-year-old girl from Steubenville, Ohio, who was drugged and brutally gang raped by members of the local high school football team last year. As with the other incidents, pictures were spread via social media.

Chances are, social media will kill her too. Continue reading

Windows 8 (the touch part) is iPad, circa 2010 (barely)

The Windows 8 “Start Screen”: beautiful, but ultimately hollow.

The iPad celebrated its 3rd birthday the other day. Funny how dominant it has become in just 36 months.

I was taken back to those first moments with my first iPad back on April 3, 2010, as I explored Windows 8 on a Lenovo Yoga 13.

Not to suggest that the Yoga 13’s touch experience is as good as the first iPad’s, because it’s not. I’m referring to the act of digging through an app store to see how third party developers had pushed the capabilities of a new, unique device.

In the case of the iPad, I found the most amazing apps three years ago. The game Fieldrunners brought tears to my eyes. Omnigraffle made flowchart building physical and real. Stuff that blew my mind.

There’s nothing that awes me in the Windows 8 Marketplace. Nothing’s even made me smile. Most of the touch apps are reworks of existing (and better, and more capable) iPad apps rejigged aesthetically for the colourful Metro interface. It’s a collection of half-baked app ideas and pure, unequivocal junk. There’s no other way to put it.

I’m disappointed by this. I’m sort of blown away, actually. That in all this time, Microsoft barely managed to scrape together a response to the iPad that only begins to address the iPad experience of 3 years ago. Even worse, what little Microsoft managed to cook up has met with a dismal response from app developers. Clearly, Windows 8 excites no one.

What I’m especially disappointed with, though, is the drag that the included Windows Desktop puts on the Metro interface. You really can’t use a Windows 8 device without regularly visiting the Desktop, whether you want to or not. Metro apps redirect you there without warning constantly. It’s a dichotomous, dizzy experience that confuses and frustrates. Imagine Apple had built a “MacPad” that constantly tossed you between the Mac OS and iOS. To make matters worse, most apps have a Metro version and a Desktop version, each with a different use model, and you often don’t have control over which app will open when you want to access a resource.

But at least I understand now why Microsoft had to ship the Metro UI as a mere shellac over the traditional Windows desktop. There’s so little value to the Metro UI, and so few apps to leverage what limited opportunities it expresses, that any device shipping with just that touch interface alone would be, by and large, useless. Windows Desktop has to be on these devices just so users can actually do something with them. In short, Microsoft has no response to iOS.

I also get why Windows geeks are finding ways to hack Metro off of Windows 8. It’s largely superfluous.

Which is incredibly disappointing because I lovelovelove the Metro UI (who cares about the fact it’s not called that any more; it’ll always be Metro to me). Really. I love the idea of live tiles, and I love the organic nature of the interface, and I love the colour. It makes iOS look like a drab grab bag of stale chocolates in comparison to its joyful display.

So I’m heartbroken in a way. I wanted to fall in love with Windows 8. In fact, I preloved it. But as I use it more and more, it drives me away. It’s a selfish King Julian, all full of itself, that forgets to pay heed to the needs and interests of its loyal disciples.

It’s clear that Microsoft flubbed this one. Big time. They are so close to a compelling alternative to Apple’s system, the ideas are all there. The execution is dead wrong, however, and ultimately fails.

Northwestel’s New Internet Packages: Are They Good Enough? [UPDATED]

Northwestel introduced new internet packages today. Compared to the company’s old packages, on pretty much every level the company has upgraded the speed slightly, upgraded the data transfer volume slightly, while also nudging the price down by a hair. A little bit more for a little bit less is good, right?*

For sure. But the real question is: how do the new packages fare against comparable offerings in other regions of Canada? Let’s consider Northwestel’s packages against a relatively local service provider (if you consider mile 0 of the Alaska Highway local), Shaw, along with the Ontario offerings of Northwestel’s owner, Bell.

First off, the entry level of the service spectrum.

Provider Package Name Download Speed Upload Speed Data Volume Price Over-use Cost
Northwestel Internet 1 1 Mbps 256 kbps 1 GB $41.95 $5 for 1 GB
Shaw High Speed 10 10 Mbps 512 Kbps 125 GB $50.00 Bump Up
Bell Fibe Internet 50/1 5 Mbps 1 Mbps 20 GB $39.95 $5 for 25 GB

While you can get internet access for a relatively low cost of $42 a month, the service you receive is ridiculously minimal – to the point of being insulting. Consider that, with Shaw, for just $8 more a month you’ll get 125 times the data volume each month at 10 times the data transfer rate. Then further consider the fact that if you exceed your monthly data transfer cap, with Shaw you’ll just get temporarily “bumped up” to their next account level rather than raked through the Northwestel’s over-use penalty coals of $5 per GB. So in this instance with Shaw you’d pay an extra $15 that month for an additional 50 GB of data — about 30 cents a GB. That’s a huge difference.

But how do things look at Northwestel’s high end?

Provider Package Name Download Speed Upload Speed Data Volume Price Extra Volume Cost
Northwestel Internet 50 50 Mbps 2 Mbps 150 GB $110.95 $5 for 1 GB
Shaw Broadband 50 50 Mbps 3 Mbps 400 GB $75.00 Bump Up
Bell Fibe Internet 50/10 50 Mbps 10 Mbps 175 GB $82.95 $5 for 25 GB

Here the disparity is even more obvious, especially when you consider that this isn’t even the high end for Bell or Shaw — these packages are just mid-range by national standards. 150 GB of data per month is simply not enough data for contemporary use. With Shaw, for example, you can get as much as 1000 GB per month for just $5 more than Northwestel’s top plan.

My biggest disappointments with Northwestel’s new pricing structure are the lack of improvement on maximum uploads speeds and the company’s ridiculously expensive over-use penalty fees.

The extreme constraint of just 2 Mbps for data uploading cuts customers off from using essential online services like data backup and file storage. Plus, there’s no indication that Northwestel has resolved its service’s inability to allow simultaneous uploading and downloading, nor for its modems’ propensity to lock up when significant uploading takes place (I just spent the better part of an afternoon having Northwestel unlock one of my client’s modems that had been locked up due to heavy data uploading).

The largest ongoing problem with Northwestel’s service structure, of course, is the company’s over-use penalty fee of $5 per GB. It deserves note that Northwestel over the past couple of years has pushed this down from $10. But when Shaw and other Canadian providers currently offer unlimited data packages for around the $200 mark, and even Northwestel’s owner Bell will sell you 25 GB of data for the same price Northwestel charges for just one, it’s inarguable that Northwestel’s over-use penalty fee is nothing short of gouging a trapped customer base.

Yes, paying slightly less money for slightly more service is a good thing. But I would argue that these new packages are nothing more than a political response to pressures from the CRTC and the Yukon Government. Were Northwestel truly a competitively-spirited company working in the best interests of customers, we’d see our rates change to be more in line with national standards.

Even with Northwestel’s moderate package improvements, it’s clear that internet access in the North still lags far behind other regions of Canada in every respect and desperately needs significant improvement.

Finally, on a pragmatic note: Northwestel’s new internet packages do not automatically replace the package you currently subscribe to, as many people I spoke to today expected they would. Your old account fees and service levels will remain in place until you call Northwestel and specifically request the new, better valued services. So make sure you do that.

* UPDATE: As Patrick Goruick pointed out in a comment on the Geek Life Facebook page, these new packages aren’t really much of a deal or a change at all. For the two lowest-level packages, there is no change whatsoever. Only the two highest-level packages experience moderate increases in download speeds, usage caps, and a moderate decrease in price. Shockingly, as Patrick points out, for subscribers to the top three packages who bundle their service with television services, prices will go up (I don’t subscribe to television, which is why I didn’t notice that important fact). While I regret being remiss in recognizing these facts, they only serve to reinforce the core message of this post: when it comes to internet services, the North deserves and needs better than Northwestel.