Returning to the electric vehicle life

A few years ago, I lived in California and had a friend who had a Chevy Volt. I was fascinated by the idea that I could have a car that didn’t require gas (and also by the privileges that California gives to electric vehicles, including access to HOV lanes). I couldn’t get a charger at my apartment, so I ditched the idea until a few years later, when I needed a car and coincidentally found that GM had really attractive lease deals on the Chevy Volt. I leased one, drove it for three years, and loved nearly everything about it.

Fast forward to now. The Volt is gone, I needed a car again, and saw that Chevy was again offering very attractive incentives on the Bolt. The Bolt is a pure electric vehicle; unlike the Volt, it doesn’t have a gas motor at all. On a full charge, it can go as far as 259mi, which is farther than I intend to drive (if I need to go more than 100mi or so in any direction, it’ll be in the plane!)

The Bolt comes in two trim levels: LT and Premier. There are only a handful of options; the two that I was insistent on were DC fast charging and the fancier stereo system. I was mostly agnostic on color. A little poking around on Chevy’s website showed a ton of potential vehicles, but I wanted to minimize the amount of hassle in the shopping process. Here’s what I did:

  1. For each of the nearby dealers I found on Chevy’s website, I found their “contact me” link (most of which use a common GM-provided customer management system) and sent some variation on the following note:

Here’s what I’m looking for:

* 2020 or 2021 Bolt Premier
* MUST HAVE: Infotainment package, DCFC
* MUST NOT HAVE: black exterior
* DON’T CARE: interior color, Driver Confidence II

Financing will be a 3-year 15K mile/year lease with the Costco incentive. This is not a trade-in. Send me your best offer and whoever makes the best deal by September 30 gets the sale.

  1. Weeded out the dealers who didn’t sell Bolts
  2. Weeded out the dealers who couldn’t read or understand English and said things like “Hey, I see you wanted a Bolt– did you know about the great incentives we have right now on Silverados?”
  3. Sorted the results by price.

The two clear winners were Freeland Chevrolet and Donohoo Chevrolet. (Bonus negative mention of Rick Hendrick Chevrolet, which wrote me a $600/month lease offer on the car– including an oil-change service package and mandatory $199 nitrogen in the tires. No thanks.)

After doing a little more thinking about what I wanted to use the car for, I went back to the top three dealers and asked them to run the numbers for a purchase. Donohoo was the clear winner here. The car they quoted me had an MSRP of $43,735 from Chevy’s build-and-price page. Donohoo priced it at $37, 235. Costco members get $3,000 off purchase or lease of a wide range of GM vehicles, and Chevy itself has an $8,500 purchase incentive– so with a $1500 down payment, that brought my price out the door to $25,573.

I chose to finance through Redstone Federal Credit Union. In retrospect, this wasn’t a great choice because they were super slow. It took more than two weeks to close the loan and get a check to the dealer. As one example of their general slowness, they sent the check on a Friday using UPS Next-Day Saver, which meant the check went from Huntsville to Montgomery to Fort Payne, so it wasn’t delivered until Tuesday. Great job, guys.

So that’s the car. One final note: I paid Donohoo extra to deliver the car, and they did a great job: the car showed up as promised, with a chase vehicle to drive the driver back to Ft. Payne. It was well worth the $175 delivery charge to not have to drive down there to get it.

Because it’s an electric car, of course I needed a way to charge it. Chevy ships a “Level 1” 120-volt charger than can provide 12 Amps (12A) charging. That’s enough to add about 4 miles of range per hour… which isn’t a lot. Level 2 chargers require 240V outlets, so I hired Budget Electric to add a 240V outlet and bought a Clipper Creek Level 2 charger. Although the Clipper Creek unit cost just under double the cheapest unit on Amazon, it’s American-made, includes a three-year warranty, and comes from the same company that builds the charger that comes with the car. I had a Clipper Creek charger for the Volt and liked it quite a bit.

So far I’m delighted with the car: it’s quick and fun to drive, thanks to a 200hp electric traction motor and its short wheelbase. The infotainment system works flawlessly with Apple CarPlay; the only thing I haven’t tested is the DCFC charging capability. I look forward to a world when the only time I stop at a gas station is to buy Diet Coke.

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Training Tuesday: back to powerlifting

Hi. I’m Paul, and I haven’t lifted any heavy weights since February.

I had a pretty decent garage gym set up, with an ancient Lamar power rack and a few hundred pounds of plates that I scavenged from a bankrupt gym. It took up about a third of my garage, what with the bench, plate tree, rack, and so on. This was good.

Then I sold the rack and moved into a house with a smaller garage, only half of which I could use. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll join the local gym.” This was actually really nice; on one hand, I had to drive to and from the gym, but on the other I had way better equipment, and more of it, plus it was cheaper than my previous gym membership.

Then COVID. Uh uh, buddy, you’re not getting me in a gym, no matter how many precautions they say they’re taking. I’ve been to lots of gyms and seen my fellow gym-dwellers and… just, no.

So for the rest of the spring, I focused on running and cycling. I occasionally did strength work with my adjustable dumbbells but wasn’t enjoying it so I didn’t consistently do it. There was too much hassle around moving stuff, trying to improvise exercises at a reasonable weight, and so on. I let Matt take the dumbbells back to college when he went back in August, since his gym was closed too.

Now, of course, at any time I could’ve bought a new weight rack, but I wanted to be able to park in the garage, too. Basically I was making excuses.

As winter started to loom larger on the calendar, I finally decided it was time. Erica and I deep-cleaned the garage to make more room on the sides, and I started shopping for a folding weight rack. I ended up buying a Rogue RML-3W. There are other brands, but after surfing around and reading reviews (including this magisterial work) I ordered the RML-3W with the wall stringers. Rogue quoted me 14-30 day shipping, but I had it in 9 days… or most of it, as the kit shipped in 8 boxes. I stacked it all up and waited for a free weekend, which happened to be this past weekend.

The basic installation procedure is straightforward: mount the two horizontal stringers to wall studs, then add the horizontal beams, then add the vertical beams. A few tips I learned along the way:

  • The Rogue instructions look like engineering drawings. If you don’t know how to read dimensions on diagrams, you’d better learn.
  • Having a chalk line and a 4′ bubble level will make the process much easier.
  • my garage has a 4″ concrete footer that sticks out about 1″ past the base of the wall. The dimensions sheet says the bottom stringer is supposed to be mounted 1 5/8″ above the floor, but it turns out that it’s OK to mount it higher if you need to– as long as it’s no more than 18″ above floor level.
  • If you mount the bottom stringer higher than the recommended 1 5/8″, don’t raise the top stringer to compensate.

I started by marking the 4 wall studs required for the stringer. You can mount the rack directly to the studs with no stringers, but the stringers make the installation much easier. They are well worth the extra $50.

Next, I laid the bottom stringer in place flush with the top edge of the concrete footer, leveled it, and drilled pilot holes in opposing corners for the lag bolts. Once it was in place, I drilled the remaining pilot holes and put the lag bolts in using a 9/16″ socket. (I couldn’t use my impact wrench because I didn’t have the right adapter.)

The bottom rack stringer in place
the bottom stringer mid-installation.

I then measured the recommended height from the floor for the centerline of the top stringer, marked it, and used my level to mark a vertical index line. If I’d had my chalk line this would have been even easier. I then held the stringer in place and drilled one pilot hole for the upper right corner, just to hold it on the wall. About this time, Tom showed up with a 9/16″ impact socket and the real fun started– about 7 minutes later we had both stringers firmly mounted to the wall.

The next step is to add the horizontal supports. This is easier with two people, but feasible with one as long as you don’t drop them. Having a 25-pound piece of 11-gauge steel hit you on the head would ruin your whole day. The supports attach with a big ol’ bolt, but they swing freely until you put the safety pins in. There are holes set to allow you to pin the supports parallel to or perpendicular to the rack, so whether folded or extended, stuff stays where you put it.

The vertical supports were the last step. I was glad to have Tom’s help because these are unwieldy– they’re narrow, tall, and heavy. Rogue ships plastic plugs that go into the bottom of each support to protect the floor. These are slightly oversized and so it will take a good bit of hammering to force them into position– expect to see a few pieces of plastic shrapnel shaved off the outside of the plug when you force it into position.

The last step is the included pull-up bar. This acts as a crossbrace, and is required when using the rack, but it’s also handy if you want to knock out a few pullups, as one does.

In the photo, you can see several things of interest (besides my stupid shoes): the orange pins are the horizontal rack safety pins, the red ones on either side of the pull-up bar are for retaining that bar, and the ends of the vertical columns are resting flat on the floor. The two J-cups are installed on the vertical supports; since the rack is only 21″ deep when unfolded, you can’t really do any exercises inside the rack. They make a version with longer horizontal supports, but it wouldn’t fit in the space I have.

The rack feels very solid but there is some lateral wiggle. This is to be expected given the design. Overall, though, the design works very well. It was easy to install, it’s solid, and, as promised, it folds to a minimal depth so I can still park my car when I’m not working out.

The only drawback I can see is that there’s no way to attach safety bars or straps unless you buy a set of spotter arms. Rogue’s site makes it sound like their strap kit will work, but of course it won’t because there’s only one place to attach the straps, and you need two. I’m shopping for a set of spotter arms and will eventually post an update once I find some that I like.

The only remaining task is to move the bars and weights from their current home in the mini-storage back here and then boom, it’s game on!

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 19: Here Comes the New Book!

This episode marks a happy occasion: the upcoming release of the 2021 version of Office 365 for IT Pros

editor’s note: we are running a sale. Buy the 2020 edition now, get the 2021 edition for free!

Tony, Vasil, and I talk about the book creation process, why the book’s a subscription instead of a single-priced purchase, how the sausage is made, and why tech editing is so important. We close out the episode by choosing our “favorite” recent O365 feature– you may be surprised to hear our choices.

 

Episode 19, all about the 2021 book!

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 18: Live from Microsoft Teams

Tony and I had grand ambitions of recording a podcast but, uh, things have been a little busy, what with all the lockdown, working-under-quarantine, and so on. We did something a little different this time– we recorded this episode in a Teams meeting with guests in attendance. See if you can spot the difference!

(programming note: we originally recorded a section planned on the coming death of Basic Authentication in Exchange Online. As Microsoft has pushed this date back until sometime in the happy future, we took that segment out since most of it was us expressing certainty that Microsoft wouldn’t push the date back.)

 

Episode 18, live from the midst of COVID-19-topia

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2019 year in review: fitness

This year was a pretty mixed bag.

First off, let’s start with the bad news: I didn’t do any triathlons. In fact, I didn’t get in the pool to exercise at all in 2019. Not even once. It just sort of worked out that way. I missed the registration deadline for the Chattanooga 70.3, volunteered as a bike sentry at Rocketman, and just generally avoided that part of the multisport world. But I’m repenting, and I’ve already signed up for Chatty 70.3 in 2020.

On the plus side, I had a pretty good year running. I finished the year with just under 1000 miles; I didn’t set a mileage goal but am pleased with the amount of time I got in. Along the way I set several PRs, including a 1:53 half marathon, a 24:30 5K, and a 53:12 10K.

Another negative: I broke my stupid toe in early October. I was getting out of a chair like a cowboy, swung my leg over, and whacked the end of my second right toe on the wooden chair frame. It hurt, but I ran on it for a few days anyway before it became clear what a bad idea that was. I missed the Army Ten Miler and the Marine Corps Marathon 50K because I couldn’t run or train, and then I dropped down from the marathon to half-marathon distance for Rocket City. However, at Rocket City I put up a 1:57, which I was really happy with given how much my run volume dropped off since October.

Digression about the toe: this was what is called an intra-articular fracture. My podiatrist, the excellent David Kyle at TOC, cheerfully told me “oh, that’s a real turd of an injury” and that I could run as much as I wanted without worsening the fracture– “it’s just going to hurt,” he said. It did, but it could have been much worse. Injuries suck, especially when they’re the result of my own clumsiness.

Now, on to powerlifting: I had one meet this year, in the spring. I didn’t focus as much on lifting towards the end of the year. I’d told my coach in mid-year that my 2019 goals were “deadlift 500lb” and “finish a 50K race”, and I figured I’d have time to focus on the deadlift after the Marine Corps 50K. I ended up with a few gains from last year; my squat 1RM is now at 380lb and my deadlift 1RM at 430lb. Sadly, I still have poverty bench– no gain in my 1RM there, I’m afraid. I am hoping to squeeze in one more max-test workout before the end of the year so these numbers may go up a bit, which would be nice.

Cycling… well, let’s just say I didn’t do much of it this year. I had some time on the trainer indoors, but only did one metric century. It’s become clear that riding my Cervelo P2 aggravates my right knee’s IT band somehow; despite being fitted and refitted, and changing shoes, it just ain’t right. I think I’m going to have to sell the P2 and get another bike, because I’ve consistently had this problem since I started riding it and never had the problem, even with much higher riding mileage, when I was still riding my Defy 1. I’m not nearly as powerful on the bike as I should be given a) my run fitness and b) my leg strength. This remains something to work on in the new year, just like it was in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

To end on a high note: I did PR both of the cyclorun events I did, Heel & Crank and Racin’ the Station.

Actually, a high-er note: I was fortunate to get to race and train in some amazing places this year. Besides training runs in London, Bratislava, Zilina, Las Vegas, Zurich, Palma de Mallorca, and Key West, I raced in New York City, Seattle, Stockholm, Quantico, Cape Coral, and Lynchburg, Tennessee.

More importantly, I got to race and train with my friends– thanks to Scott, Tom, Matt, Rese, Ashley, Darralyn, Brian, the Panera Pounders, and, most of all, Erica for all the miles, sweat, and encouragement. I’m looking forward to seeing what the new year brings!

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2019 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 102 I’ve read so far. Closer to the end of the month, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  1. Star of the North: terrific spy thriller set mostly in North Korea based on a simple premise: what if you found out your twin sister didn’t die, but had instead been kidnapped by the North Korean government? Remarkable characterizations and a realistic portrayal of life inside the Hermit Kingdom. 
  2. Valley of Genius: a compilation of interviews and quotes from Silicon Valley luminaries, some of whom you may never have heard of, tell the story of how Silly Valley came to be what it is today. Features the usual suspects (Jobs, Woz, Stewart Brand), but also mentions many lesser-known people whose contributions, although important, never got the same kind of visibility. 
  3. Freedom’s Forge: do you know who Bill Knudsen was? How about Henry Kaiser? What if I told you that, if not for them, there’s a good chance the US would have lost World War II? True, and fascinating, story. (Along the way, it explains the “Permanente” part of Kaiser Permanente’s name). 
  4. Those Who Wish Me Dead: part mystery, part thriller, part wilderness exploration, the plot and characterization and dialogue here are among the best I’ve ever read. Koryta makes a forest fire into a believable, and fearsome, character as part of this tale of revenge and escape. It would make a terrific movie. 
  5. Chief Engineer: it seems remarkable, maybe even preposterous, to us now that a single man could be chiefly responsible for a huge public works project, but that’s exactly true of Washington Roebling, the titular engineer and the man who gave us (among other contributions) the Brooklyn Bridge. Masterful biography of the man and his wife Emily, whose role in Roebling’s bridge-building career has mostly been skipped over but deserves wider exposure. 
  6. Creative Selection: thoughtful meditation, with lots of amusing stories, about Apple’s design process at the start of the iPhone era by one of their lead iPhone engineers, the man whose epitaph will probably read “Autocorrect Was His Fault.” 
  7. How Bad Do You Want It? Absolutely fascinating survey of what we know about the links between mental resilience and toughness and elite sport performance. Fitzgerald does a masterful job of highlighting different areas of mental development that are applicable to everyday athletes, explaining why they matter, and discussing how to develop them. 
  8. Exploding the Phone: I grew up at the tail end of the “phone phreak” era, and I’d always thought I was pretty familiar with it, but I learned a ton from this well-researched and cleverly told history… including that AT&T used to tape millions of toll calls in a project named “Greenstar” and that John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper didn’t actually invent the technique for making free calls that came to be strongly associated with him. Great stuff if you’re interested in the history of technology at all. 
  9. A Few Seconds of Panic: Most grown men would know better than to try to make it as a walk-on player in the NFL, but not sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. I very quickly started rooting for him as he made his way through Denver Broncos training camp; he had a marvelous adventure and told its story clearly and well.
  10. The Path Between the Seas: speaking of “marvelous adventure,” how abut that Panama Canal? During the nearly 45 years of its construction, countless people died,and the political and commercial maneuvering incident to getting the Canal built left marks that we still see today in the US and Panamanian governments. I knew nothing about the engineering or politics behind this work, so this entire book was a terrific learning experience for me. 

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 17: Live from Ignite 2019

Tony and I are back again, this time from steamy Orlando. Recorded in the Podcast Center at Microsoft Ignite 2019, this episode features special guests from Microsoft: Mark Kashman, grand poobah of SharePoint, and Ross Smith IV, mobility ninja. Listen in to hear about Project Cortex, Microsoft Endpoint Manager, and a few other goodies. 

 

Episode 17 from Microsoft Ignite 2019!

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 16

It’s everyone’s favorite time of the year: Ignite Season!

See the source image

In this episode, Tony and I are joined by Anna Chu from Microsoft; she has some pretty interesting answers to the questions we asked her about Microsoft Ignite, including why there’s an increased focus on developers and what she thinks the biggest change from years past is. Along the way, we also talk about the spreading evil of self-service license purchases and make a few predictions about things you might see from the show floor at Ignite.

 

Office 365 Exposed, episode 16

Good news– we’ll be recording an episode from Ignite this year, so plan to tune in week after next for more Ignite-y goodness.

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Seeking to drive adoption, Microsoft fumbles customer service

Let’s subtitle this post “A tale of two tickets.”

The other day, I got a request from one of my staff: could we please start using Shifts for scheduling his team’s on-call rotations? “Sure,” I said, little realizing what a journey that would entail. To make a long and painful story as short as possible: Shifts didn’t work in our tenant, so I filed a ticket, which took six weeks and multiple escalations before it got to someone who actually realized the problem (it was a back-end provisioning issue) and fixed it.

Six weeks. Hold that thought.

Now, a digression.

It is no big secret that Microsoft is working very, very hard to increase adoption of their cloud services. At their recent Inspire partner conference,  there was a steady drumbeat of adoption-focused messaging directed, loudly, at Microsoft partners, and many Microsoft partner and sales personnel have found that their fiscal year (FY) 2020 compensation is directly tied to increasing adoption. For example, one person I spoke to told me that in FY 2020, the target they were expected to meet was to drive Teams adoption in their target market year-over-year (YoY) up by more than 250%.

Now, really: I get it. Microsoft is selling their “three clouds” (Dynamics 365, Office 365, and Microsoft 365) as hard as they can, but the old phenomenon of “channel stuffing” rears its head when customers buy licenses for those three clouds and don’t use them fully. If you buy a bunch of O365 Enterprise E3 licenses, for example, but only use Exchange Online, Microsoft is worried that you might a) buy less expensive licenses at renewal or b) defect to Gmail. They therefore have a really strong interest in not only selling licenses for these services but ensuring that people actually use what they’ve paid for.

Not only that, if customers don’t use the licenses they already have, it’s darn hard to upsell them more expensive or more capable licenses. This is a major brake on Microsoft 365 adoption: it’s hard to sell people a new SKU for Windows 10 and Office 365 when they already have O365 licenses on a multi-year agreement and perpetual Win10 licenses on their existing devices.

Side note: Azure is of course a Microsoft cloud, and it absolutely has its own, and rather daunting, adoption and consumption targets, but since almost all Azure services are priced based on actual usage, the play in Azure-land is to get people to use more rather than to get more use out of what they’ve already bought. Thus the intense focus on topics such as “digital transformation,” which translates to “getting stuff out of your on-premises data centers and into Azure” and the various Azure security offerings (which translate to “pay us per-minute to do cool security stuff on your Azure-hosted resources.”)

To recap: Microsoft wants customers to use all of the workloads in their O365 or M365 SKUs because doing so helps them keep customers around longer and sell them more stuff. In fairness, customers can benefit too by getting better value (defined as “more productivity” or “better security” or whatever) from their existing investment, but I think Microsoft is mostly interested in this because “customers can benefit” directly turns into “customers give us money.”

With that background, you’d probably think that Microsoft is always looking for new ways to increase user adoption… and you’d be right. That explains the mail I received this morning.

It looked like a support ticket, but I figured it must just be a decent phishing attempt. After all, I didn’t open a ticket, so the “Your request…” language was suspicious. Then I read it and damn near threw my coffee mug at the monitor.

Why?

Think about it. This is Microsoft sending me a “support ambassador” to try to convince me to use more of their services, i.e. to increase adoption, in a test tenant with only 1 paid license… something which only benefits Microsoft.

Meanwhile, users in my production tenant have to wait SIX WEEKS to get an actual problem fixed, one that directly affects their ability to work. Oh, by the way, fixing that problem would drive adoption of the service! We wanted to use Shifts but couldn’t until the problem was fixed– so no need to manufacture a fake support ticket to try to get me engaged.

Apparently there are enough “support ambassadors” roaming around to waste time dunning the admin of a single-user test tenant because “[their] system detected that not all users are using the services included.” Now, of course I realize that the “support ambassadors” here are not really support engineers in the same mold as the people who answer, y’know, actual support requests. What this email really means is that Microsoft is spending money on trying to drive adoption that would be spent better on the actual support organization.

This is part of the same tiring and worrisome trend we’ve seen in Office 365 for years now, where Microsoft does questionable stuff behind their customers’ backs. Here are a few examples:

  • Contacting the tenant admin (me in this case) to drive adoption based on data I haven’t seen about what my users were doing– perhaps this would be an unpleasant surprise to admins who don’t realize that user usage data is used for this purpose
  • Faking a support ticket as a means to fool customers into thinking they should read the adoption-related propaganda. (I split this one out separately because it irritates me so much.)
  • Pushing feedback surveys directly to Teams end users. Here’s some feedback for y’all: don’t talk directly to my organization’s end users without permission. Interestingly, the Teams team has made no public comment on this feature despite the uniformly negative feedback I have heard they’ve received.
  • Sticking transport rules into customer’s Exchange Online tenants. (Hear more about that here.)
  • Magically generating O365 Group objects from distribution groups and making them appear in the GAL
  • Turning on any number of other features by default so that they appear to end users with little or no warning. I do appreciate that the roadmap communications have gotten more detailed, and more frequent, as the service has matured, but since I still don’t know exactly when feature X will hit my tenant, it’s harder to do adoption and change management than it should be.

MVPs have a reputation for giving Microsoft candid and honest feedback, so here it is in two short digestible sound bites.

First, tighten up the support organization so that it doesn’t take multiple weeks to fix any problem. I can migrate a 100,000+ user organization in the amount of time it takes Microsoft to recognize and fix simple provisioning problems.

Second, stop bypassing (or trying to bypass) the tenant admins. Be very, very judicious with which new features are on by default; provide admin controls for new features on day 1 (and not later), and don’t assume that your customers are OK with you interacting directly with their end users.

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Office 365 Exposed, Episode 15

Just a little palate cleanser this time before Microsoft Inspire gets started! Tony, Vasil, and I talk about Teams security, the Search-Mailbox cmdlet’s journey to Death Row, and whether or not emoji reactions in email are a tool of the devil.

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2020 edition of Office 365 for IT Pros now available

It’s July 1, so you know what that means… or maybe you don’t: the new edition of Office 365 for IT Pros is available. Each year, around this time, we release a new edition. herewith a rude Q&A that might be informative and/or useful (but probably not entertaining)

Q: It isn’t 2020. Why are you calling it the 2020 edition?
A: Car manufacturers do this too. Unlike cars not made by Tesla, though, we release monthly updates to upgrade and update the thing you buy today into the next calendar year.

Q: What’s different about this edition?
A: The cover has a new animal on it.

Q: No, seriously, what’s different?
A: We reorganized the content, so now there’s a separate companion volume (included with your purchase, of course) that holds some older material. This frees up space and word count for new stuff. In this edition, MVP and identity management legend Brian Desmond took over the IdM chapter from me, which automatically makes the book at least 16% better. There’s also significant new content covering new features in Planner, Teams, Intune, SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business, and the various other parts of Office 365.

Q: What are your plans for updates to this edition?
A: We’ve already covered a ton of 2019 updates in this initial edition– for example, the switch to the “Microsoft 365 admin center” branding and all of the new goodies around information protection are included. Microsoft has already publicly announced or started to RTM several major new features that we’ll be covering, including information barriers for Teams. Then there’s a whole shedload of new stuff that Microsoft has discussed under NDA that we’ll be covering once it’s publicly mentioned. Plus, there is always room for surprises, like the rainbow themes Microsoft added to the admin center, OWA, and a few other apps in June 2019.

All joking aside, we’ve got lots of new content planned for the book, and one key advantage of our book is that you’re buying a year’s worth of updates, not a single point-in-time copy. As Microsoft evolves and grows Office 365, we cover the changes to help you learn what you need to effectively plan and manage your Office 365 deployment. I hope you’ll give the new edition a look and let us know what you think.

 

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Flying Friday: Avidyne IFD540 10.2.3.1 upgrade notes

For a while now, I’ve been waiting for a new update to the GPS software in my airplane. The last major update was about two years ago, so it was about that time. Avidyne had originally planned to release this set of features as version 10.3, but it turns out that, for some mysterious reason, the FAA update process for a “major” update applies to a version update. So releasing the software as 10.3 would have required a longer certification cycle than releasing the same thing as 10.2.3.1, which makes very little sense to me given that this update touched literally every part of the IFD’s firmware and software.

After the software was finally done, Avidyne had just submitted the software for certification and… government shutdown.

Then they decided to do a separate release just for the GPS week-number rollover bug. That update could be released nearly immediately, but it didn’t include any new features. However, like all software updates for avionics in certificated airplanes, you can’t just plug in a USB stick and go; updating the software is considered to be an alteration and so requires a logbook entry signed by a certificated airframe & powerplant (A&P) mechanic. Rather than make a separate trip just for the GPS fix, I elected to wait until the full release was ready, and so when it dropped last week I immediately emailed the shop to make an appointment.

As with every other software product, this update was a combination of bug fixes and some new features. The new features that I was most interested in were the ability to stream ADS-B data from the IFD to Foreflight and the ability to load instrument arrival and departure procedures without a transition. Here’s how my first flight with it went.

First, I preflighted and flew the short hop from Decatur to Tullahoma, Tennessee, where XP Services is located. XP is a great shop: they are quick, efficient, and they do good work. When I pulled up to the hangar, the tech already had the installation instructions printed and a GPU cart waiting, which is mighty fine service for a Friday afternoon before a 3-day weekend. I went into their conference room to work while the mechanics worked through the long install procedure. It requires continuous power to the GPS, along with a bunch of separate reboots and firmware updates. The instructions have a lot of dire warnings in bold red type. I’d certainly have been capable of doing the update myself but I liked the security of having the shop do it so that I wouldn’t make a stupid mistake that bricked the unit.

The update went fine; they billed me for 1.61 hours (oddly specific, but OK, whatever) All of my settings were properly preserved, and immediately after the update I was able to load the 23 May navdata cycle without incident. I happily flew home $156 poorer but eager to see what the update brought.

Last year, the FAA announced that they would start sending additional weather data over the FIS-B data link protocol. I have a box (the SkyTrax 100) that is essentially a modem; it receives ADS-B data (which includes FIS-B weather), demodulates it, and passes it as a stream to the IFD. That box didn’t require any updates to display the new weather data (which includes lightning strike, icing, and cloud-height data) but the IFD couldn’t interpret it until this update. I really wanted the lightning data for the summer and the icing data for the winter— both of these are important cross-checks that help clarify what’s really happening inside the clouds. Once I was airborne and established, I was able to see lightning data in some storm cells off to my west, so that part of the update clearly works. The weather was sunny and clear for probably 200nm around me, so there wasn’t much else to see.

The other major feature I wanted was integration with Foreflight. Since early in its life, the IFD series has been able to wirelessly connect to external devices to upload and download flight plans, send GPS position data, and send ADS-B streams. The idea is that if you’re using a tablet app like Foreflight or FlyQ, you can use your panel-mounted GPS and ADS-B receiver to feed position, weather, and traffic data to the tablet app. For a variety of boring technical reasons that I won’t go into here, ADS-B streaming hasn’t worked properly with Foreflight until this release (although GPS position streaming and flight plan up/download did work). Now it does— those little blue arrows are other aircraft, and the radar display is live FIS-B data (including lightning data). I was also able to look at the icing level forecast, which is going to be invaluable in the wintertime for tactical weather avoidance.

IMG 0011

There’s one thing that Avidyne took away in this update, though. They previously had an aural “traffic!” announcement that was triggered when the IFD detected traffic within a certain radius. The unit still gives you a visual indication, but no more audio prompt— having it violated some FAA standard or other. However, I was happy to see that Foreflight provides audible traffic callouts based on data from the IFD– so now I probably need to decide whether it’s more valuable to have my phone or iPad connected to the AMX240 during flight.

The second thing I wanted was the ability to load arrival or departure procedures that don’t have a transition. This requires a bit of explanation. These procedures (SIDs for departures and STARs for arrival) specify a route for how you arrive at or depart from the airspace near an airport— they provide a way to transition between the terminal environment and the en route environment. For example, see this plate for the SWTEE.1 arrival procedure, which is used in Atlanta airspace to handle aircraft arriving from the west and slotting them into the correct flow for whatever airport they’re going to. ATC will usually assign the arrival while you’re still en route, and they may or may not assign a transition. For example, they could give me BIZKT.SWTEE1 (pronounced “biscuit transition for the sweet tea 1 arrival”) or LPTON.SWTEE1. So the IFD expects you to specify a transition point when you load a SID or STAR. The problem is, sometimes you don’t get one assigned from ATC (and you can’t just make up your own). When I fly in from north Alabama, my direct route will normally take me north of those routes, so typically when I’m somewhere just northwest of RMG, ATC will call me and amend my route to give me something like “direct OKRAA, thence the SWTEE1 arrival”. It’s simple enough to load the STAR and then sequence the leg I want, but keep in mind that the flight management system (FMS) in the IFD is always expecting that you’re telling it what waypoint to fly to next— so any time you have to change waypoints or insert a gap in your route, you need to be extra careful. The 10.2.3.1 update solves this problem by allowing you to load a SID or STAR with no transition, so you can just go direct to whatever waypoint ATC gives you. Simpler, with fewer opportunities to make a mistake.

Even though this update took a little longer than I would have liked, I was delighted to see how well it worked and I look forward to racking up a bunch more hours flying behind it this summer.

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Running in Bratislava

One of the joys I find in travel is running or cycling in new places. Since starting my current job, I’ve been able to run or cycle in the UK, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, the Balearics, Switzerland, and France, mostly along routes that were either intrinsically scenic or interesting because of their novelty. I was recently in Slovakia for meetings and was able to knock out a couple of runs in Zilina, but I also had the opportunity to run in Bratislava. 

Let me start with a few simple facts:

  1. One does not simply fly into Žilina. There are basically two ways to get there: fly into Vienna and drive, or fly into Krakow and drive. Both routes have their charms, but the Vienna route is a little shorter and much flatter, meaning it’s better when there is ice, snow, or rain. You wouldn’t think that’s a concern in May, but it snowed the day I arrived in country; I just routinely go through Vienna. The drive takes about 3 hours.
  2. Bratislava is only about 30mi from Vienna, and you drive right through it on the way to Žilina. 
  3. If you’re going back to the US from Vienna, all the flights leave in the early morning.

That means that I will normally have a full day of meetings, drive back to Vienna in the evening, stay at the airport, and then fly home the next morning. On this particular trip, I’d planned to get my last day’s workout in by running around the Žilina dam, but then it occurred to me that I could run in Vienna instead, as even with the drive I’d still arrive well before daylight. Then it hit me: I could run in Bratislava instead. 

A little research led me to this route, the “Bratislava Promenádna”. This is a simple loop that starts on the north bank of the Danube and runs to the west, then crosses the Lafranconi bridge to the west, which takes you to the south bank. You then run to the Apollo Bridge and cross back to the north bank. This looked like a good route to try, so I threw on my running clothes, jumped in my rental car, and drove to Bratislava with a vague idea of where I needed to go— none of the running route maps I had said anything about where to park or exactly where the route started.

A bit of driving around led me to a big shopping complex called the Eurovea that has ample parking, restrooms, and beer (more on that later). I parked there, then walked around the outside a bit until I found the river and the path adjoining it. I started running east, towards the Apollo, where I found this handy sign showing the actual route. Turns out I was running the “wrong” way, so I turned around and headed west again.

Promenádna sign

I only wanted to run about 5 miles, so I decided not to go all the way to the Lafranconi bridge. Instead, I ran to the bridge with the Bratislava UFO:

IMG 1057

Crossing that bridge put me out right near the Sad Janka park; the whole south bank is wooded and features some very pleasant and green trails. I could have detoured through the park, but I like running alongside the water whenever possible, so that’s what I did instead. (In retrospect I wish I’d gone through the park; it’s actually the oldest public park in central Europe!) There are lots of river barges moored along both banks; some are fancy cruise ship or dinner boats, while others aren’t. 

IMG 1054

As I approached the Apollo bridge, I very quickly figured out that I was going to be way short of 5 miles. Luckily there’s a cycling trail that continues further to the east, although it diverges from the river. Slovakia is plentifully supplied with all sorts of riding paths; this one was nicely paved and quite busy with runners, cyclists, and even a few rollerbladers. The area at the foot of the bridge is 1.3Km from the starting point of the loop, so with a little mental math I was able to figure out how long I needed to stay on the cycle path. Along the route I saw this cool painting on a bridge abutment.

IMG 1059

Coming back westbound, I climbed the footpath onto the Apollo Bridge, which is the newest and fanciest (and busiest!) of the four Bratislava bridges. 

IMG 1060

I had a fantastic view of the setting sun off to the west as I ran across, and I stopped to get a closeup of the Bratislava plaque on the bridge arch. I’m not sure if it’s officially a landmark or not, but it should be.

IMG 1062

From the north end of the bridge, it was an easy path back to the Eurovea, where I had a delicious dinner at the Kolkovna. This is a Czech chain of restaurants serving traditional central European food; I had a delicious goulash and a bowl of “bean soup” that was indistinguishable in ingredients from what Cajuns would call “red beans and rice” (except for not having any rice in it). Although there were many excellent beers on tap, I didn’t have any, as Slovakia has a very strict 0.0% blood-alcohol limit for driving. (Sorry if you read this far hoping to find out what delicious beer I sampled!) 

I thoroughly enjoyed the route; next time I’ll try to arrange things so I can run the full loop and maybe detour through the park. I’d also love to explore the bike paths around Bratislava more, although that will require an actual, y’know, bike,

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Microsoft Teams privacy bug: the cat and the camera

As longtime readers probably know, I have a cat. As cats do, he will sometimes jump on my desk.

Pancake, looking majestic

Pancake the cat on his royal pillow

Some of you may know that, because my job entails working with a worldwide team, I often have early-morning conference calls. To make this easier, I have a small workstation in my bedroom where I can work and be near the coffee machine. This machine is set up with a Logitech c920 webcam and a Blue Snowball USB microphone.

Most of you probably don’t know that I tend to pace when on telephone calls.

So picture the scene. I’ve straggled out of bed to grab a cup of coffee, yawn and stretch, and get on a call. I’m pacing around and speaking. Suddenly the gentleman I’m speaking to (my long-suffering counterpart, Tony Sterling, who owns our customer experience team) starts cracking up. “Dude, turn your camera off!”

Sure enough, somehow the Teams app had started showing Tony video of me pacing around in my boxers and T-shirt. Thankfully it was only him. I apologized deeply, turned off the camera, and removed Pancake from the keyboard. After the meeting, I scoured the Teams documentation to find out what the keyboard shortcut for controlling the camera was.

There isn’t one. This made me a little nervous, nervous enough to put a Post-It note over the camera lens so Pancake didn’t accidentally turn on the camera one night when I was asleep or something.

Today I was in a Teams meeting. The cat jumped on the keyboard and… voila… I got a macOS permissions dialog asking me whether Teams should have permission to use the camera. He’d done it again!

It turns out that when you’re in a Teams meeting, hitting a key will act like a mouse click on whatever control currently has focus. By default, the camera on/off button has focus. Try it yourself: join a meeting, switch out of the Teams app and back into it, and hit a key.

This is, shall we say, not a great design. I appreciate that the Teams team has provided keyboard focus selection, which is great for accessibility, but having focus default to camera on/off is a recipe for unpleasant surprises.

Lesson learned: since I can’t keep my cat off the keyboard, I’ll keep my webcam covered.

 

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Training Tuesday: Magic City Showdown powerlifting meet

(For basics on how meets work, see my two previous meet reports here and here.)

The last time I was on the platform at a meet was in June 2016. Since then, I’ve run a few marathons, done various other athletic stuff, and generally spent very little time lifting weights… and I missed it. So earlier this year, I told my coach that I wanted to do a meet in April or May, before triathlon season really kicked in. Coincidentally, there was a USPA meet scheduled for 20 April in Birmingham, so as soon as registration opened up, I signed up. What I didn’t tell my coach: I really wanted to nail my 1000lb (454kg) total for all 3 lifts, a total I narrowly missed in my 2016 competition.

Training and meet prep

Prep couldn’t have been simpler: I just did what my coach told me. I was lifting 3 days a week: one day of chest and shoulders (mostly bench, with some accessory work of shoulder presses, some tricep work, etc), one leg day (squats and deadlifts), and one full body day (squats and deadlifts plus some upper-body accessory work). This is in addition to running 30-40 miles a week. During the training phase, I improved my 13.1 PR time by more than 5 minutes and my 10K PR time by just under 3 minutes, so the lifting certainly didn’t hurt my running, but I wasn’t entirely sure the reverse was true until the first time I pulled a 405lb deadlift in my garage, a few weeks before the meet. There were a few changes from my prior powerlifting training regimen for this time. At the start of this training block, I was doing all double-overhand grip for deadlifts, but I just don’t have the grip strength to make that work for heavier weights, so over about 300lb I switched back to mixed grip. I also found that I started having problems benching after I got a Texas Power Bar.  I’m still not sure why, but my wrists developed a worrisome tendency to roll when lifting above about 80% of my one-rep maximum (1RM). This culminated in me dropping a 205lb barbell on my chest a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully it didn’t do any major damage; the safety rails on the rack caught most of the impact, but I’ve had a painfully sore spot on my intercostal muscle ever since (which my chiropractor suggested treating with swimming, as if. Has he even met me before?)

Another change to this training block: I’ve been traveling a ton. I’ve squeezed lifting workouts in at ratty hotel gyms in London, skipped them altogether in Seattle and Spain, and used really fancy facilities in Zürich. That’s a polite way of saying my training consistency has been worse than usual.

The final change was that, because of my travel and general laziness, I decided I wasn’t going to try to cut weight to make the 90kg (198lb) weight class this time. I did that successfully with my last meet, but I would’ve needed to start a week in advance, whilst traveling, and that just didn’t seem like a great idea.

The meet

As is typical, the meet director (Charlie Lyons, who exemplifies exactly what’s good about competitive strength sports) had planned two weigh-ins, both on the day before the meet. At the weigh-in, you record your official weight, pick your opening attempts, and have your gear checked. Unfortunately this required me to drive down to Birmingham in the pouring rain, then drive home again Friday night, then drive down again for the meet. Oh well. I got to bed at a reasonable time, woke up at 515a, pounded down some coffee, and headed back to Birmingham, easily making the lifter meeting. Here’s Charlie going over the meet rules with an attentive crowd.

One very interesting thing about this meet: out of the 60 lifters, maybe 20 were women. This is an unusually high number and percentage. In part that’s because there’s a great team of female lifters here in Huntsville at Core Strength and Performance, and in part because Charlie recruited pretty heavily to get women on the platform. Many of the women lifting at this meet set state records, and there were a couple of national records too– and the crowd ate it up. But I digress. Anyway: the room pictured above is the lifting part of the Diamond K facility, which is where the lifters could hang out and warm up; the meet itself was on the other side, where CrossFit classes are normally held.  Charlie gave demos of the commands that the judges would give and explained the criteria for a lift to be judged as successful. I appreciate that he started the lifter meeting on time, finished it on time, and started the meet on time: just like the dentist’s office, a little delay early in the day can build into a long delay as the day goes on.

The meet was organized into 4 flights with a single platform. I was midway through the B flight for all lifts.

The squat

I’d been feeling OK with my squats lately, so I decided to open at 145kg, which I got easily. My second attempt at 157.5kg was just as easy, so I reached a little and attempted 170kg for my third attempt– and got it. That left me with a solid 25lb PR on the first left, which felt great. Later in flight D, “The Tank” squatted 385kg, or 849lbs, which sort of put my lift into perspective. (However, I would bet money that The Tank couldn’t run a marathon, so I have that going for me, which is nice.) 3/3 with a 25lb PR was a great way to start though, so I rewarded myself with a diet Coke and some snacks.

The bench

This is where I expected a little trouble. In my last meet, I went 100kg, 105kg, and 110kg for my attempts, failing the third one. This time I wanted to start a little easier, so I opened with 95kg… and blew it by putting the bar back into the rack maybe 0.2sec before the judge gave the “rack” command. On one hand, this was a stupid mistake. On the other hand, it wasn’t a technique or strength problem, so I shrugged it off and gave the expediter 100kg as my second attempt… then nailed it. This led me to get a little cocky, just like I did in 2016. I attempted 110kg and couldn’t push it to full lockout. I was philosophical about it; the total of my two lifts so far was 275kg, and I needed 454kg to hit my goal, so I figured I could make that up on the deadlift.

The deadlift

With the squat and the bench, each time a new lifter takes the platform, the spotters have to adjust the height of the equipment and load the correct amount of weight. In the deadlift, they only have to load the weight, so it moves faster than the other events. Because I was in the B flight for bench, I had plenty of time to chit chat with other lifters and take my time warming up. The only other lifter in my age/weight class was Jeff Ray, whose openers were all higher than my final lifts– really nice guy who also happens to be strong as hell. Since we’re of a similar age, we warmed up at the same time, then before I knew it, I was on deck to lift.

First attempt was at 170kg, or 385lb. This is close to the normal top end of my training lifts but I was confident I could get it, and I did. Here’s where the math got tough. I needed 179kg on the deadlift to hit my 1000lb-goal. I picked 180kg for my second. Why so conservative? I wanted to make absolutely sure that I’d have another shot at the weight if for some reason I screwed up the lift. It turns out that my caution was unnecessary, as I blasted 180kg off the floor and locked it out with a quickness. Three white lights and bang! I’d hit my goal.

For my finishing attempt, with my goal in the bag, I selected 192.5kg, or 424lb. This was a roughly 19lb PR over my previous best garage lift. It was a little tougher than 180kg, but it came off the floor nicely. I maybe could’ve put another 5kg or so on there without a problem, but I remembered what happened when I got greedy on the bench.

The summary

At this point, I confess: I was d-o-n-e and ready to go home. At my other meets, I’ve stuck around to watch the big guys lift; it can be very competitive and the crowd gets loud when people are starting to pull 700lb or more off the ground. I figured that, on balance, I’d rather just head home given that I didn’t know any of the lifters well and didn’t have any friends or family with me. So I did, stopping en route for a well-earned Chick-Fil-A key lime shake and some fries. I was pretty wiped out when I got home, so I took a brief recliner catnap and enjoyed a quiet evening of reading.

 

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