Thursday, November 21, 2013

How to Get the Most Out of the ISIS Mobile Wallet 20% Cash Back Promotion

First off this will only work if you have a smartphone with NFC (Near Field Communication), if you have an iPhone you're out of luck.

T-mobile, AT&T and Verizon all block Google Wallet from running on their devices (though the Nexus 5 gets around it). They block Google Wallet because they have had their own NFC based payment system in the works and they don't want competition from Google. This system is called "ISIS Mobile Wallet" and it launched a week ago (Nov. 14th).

When a new payment system is launched, the company launching the system will often spend heavily promoting the new system; to promote ISIS, 20% cash back is offered on any purchase made from now til the end of January 2014 (up to $1000). The catch is that to get the 20% cash back you must be paying through an American Express Serve account that is linked to your ISIS account. American Express Serve accounts are free to open and close but have a $1 monthly fee. This would be $200 for nothing if it weren't for the limited number of locations that can receive NFC payments and the mild hassle to set it all up. Fortunately many of the places that do take NFC payments (like Walgreen's) sell Visa gift cards which you can then use almost anywhere (and you don't pay tax on gift cards).

So here's the process, it will probably take 30-60 minutes of your time, if 30-60 minutes is worth $200 to you then go for it, otherwise don't.

1. Stop by your T-mobile, AT&T or Verizon store to get a new ISIS-compatible SIM card.

2. Open an American Express Serve account and select not to buy the plastic card that comes with the account (this makes opening the account free).

3. Download the ISIS mobile app from the App Store on your phone. Or go here for T-mo here for AT&T and here for VZW.

4. Go to Walgreen's and buy $1000 in Visa gift cards using ISIS to pay. IMPORTANT: if you don't use the ISIS App on your smartphone to pay IT WON"T WORK, here's a a video of someone paying with ISIS, skip to 1:35.

5. When you get your 20% cash back, go back to Walgreen's and buy another $200 visa gift card.

6. Close your American Express Serve account to avoid the monthly fee. Keep the app and link it to an existing account if you like this new system, otherwise ditch the app and continue merrily on your way.

It would be nice to not have to carry a wallet everywhere, that's why I'm grandstanding for NFC based payment systems.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Self Driving Cars, a Necessary Step Towards Flying Cars

At an SAE conference last February Google product manager Anthony Levandowski stated that Google's self-driving cars (SDCs for the rest of this post) would be ready in five years. Despite the myriad concerns and technical difficulties surrounding SDCs, I believe widespread acceptance is inevitable provided vehicle-accident fatality rates don't fall dramatically in the near future. Safety, convenience and efficiency will drive the adoption of SDCs.
Google SDC

In 1944 it was predicted by Oliver Parks that flying would become as ubiquitous as driving. Up to this point in history, however,  trends have been in the opposite direction. The cost of personal flight has outpaced inflation by a significant margin and the number of certified pilots as a percentage of the population has been slowly falling for the last 30 years.

Why hasn't Oliver Park's prediction panned out? It's not because we can't make airplanes that are cheap enough and good enough. Most light aircraft are less complicated and less sophisticated than most cars on the road today, given equal scales of production there is no reason why modern light aircraft shouldn't be equal to modern cars in cost. There are two main reasons that flying cars have failed:

1. Pilot training. As a flight instructor, I know first hand that learning how to fly is immensely more difficult, expensive, and time consuming than is learning how to drive. Flight training to the private pilot standard typically takes 8 months and $8,000 for a committed student. This cost in time and money is not feasible for most people... though if a national culture of flying were developed it's possible that this factor could be overcome...

2. The limited nature of the current Air Traffic Control (ATC) system.The current ATC system is scheduled to be slowly replaced by the "NextGen" system to increase efficiency, capacity and safety. Here "increasing capacity" means that the new system will be able to control maybe 12,000 flights (optimistic) simultaneously whereas the old system's capacity topped out at about 6,000. Currently there are about 5,000 flights in the air over the US at any given time. 5,000, 6,000, 12,000...
Ghetto Flying Car
These numbers are quite small compared to the number of flights that will occur if flying became as ubiquitous as driving. Currently, there are at least 125 million vehicles registered in the US (The way different states report registrations makes it difficult to tell exactly, real number probably ~double the given figure), if we take this minimum number of 125 million and assume that each car is driven for a half hour each day that puts at least 2.6 million cars on the road at an average time.  If each one of these cars became an aircraft, current ATC capacity would be exceeded by about 50 thousand percent.  A radical overhaul of air traffic management would have to occur before flying cars could become ubiquitous. And this new system would have to be immensely more flexible than the current one because... what if mom forgets the milk and has to go back to the store? What if you decide to make an impulse buy at McDonald's? To accommodate such a dense and dynamic traffic system immense amounts of very high quality data would be needed. Data about where you are, where you are going, where other traffic is and where it is going, where obstacles are and what the rules are etc. etc. Fortunately this is exactly the kind of data that is needed for self driving cars as well, recent rumors suggest that Google's self-driving cars collect and process roughly 1 Gb of data per second, wowza. It is easily imaginable that self-driving cars will eventually form a network, communicating with each other to prevent accidents and reduce traffic congestion without the need for a central control system. An extension of this system to more fully three dimensional control seems quite straight forward.

Yes! in one elegant swoop, the data collecting and interpreting tools that will power self driving cars will also solve the two biggest obstacles to ubiquitous personal flight. If self driving cars become ubiquitous, I think it is safe to assume that  the long delayed advent of ubiquitous personal flight will follow. Yayyy!

Fantastical Future Flying Car Utopia

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How to change the playback speed of a YouTube video

Often when I'm watching a YouTube video the speaker is talking much slower than I can listen. For some videos, if you have joined the html5 beta, there is an option available under the settings menu to change playback speed to .5x, .75x, 1.5x or 2x but most videos lack this option. Here is a way to change the playback speed of any video to whatever you like.

First you have to go here and opt into the YouTube HTML5 beta.

Then, while watching the video, press ctrl + shift + j   (command + option + j on a Mac), this will open the developer tools console which should look something like what you see below.

The Developer Tools Console

Paste the following text into the console and hit enter: document.getElementsByTagName("video")[0].playbackRate = 1.4

This will change the playback speed to 1.4x.

To achieve a playback speed other than 1.4x just change the last number in the string to 1.6x or .25x or whatever you like.

Note: If there are loading errors on the page you may get a bar that pops up at the bottom of the screen instead of the developer tools console. Closing the bar and trying it again should fix this problem.