Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Nov 26 2014

What I’m Reading: The Innovators

Published by under Books,history,Technology

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

 

I have succumbed to the world of books-on-tape and been using the 90 mile/2x daily commute from Cape Cod to Burlington to do more than listen to NPR and curse my hollow, rat-on-a-wheel existence. I’ve been a fan since my commute to and from Manhattan for Eastman Advisors, but perhaps Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t the wisest first choice for an automotive literary experience. In 2001, when I briefly did the same commute to McKinsey & Co’s short-lived TomorrowLab, I listened to lectures from The Learning Company, thinking I was being super efficient and relentlessly self-improving like Dr. Evil’s father the baker who claimed to have invented the question mark.

Audible is definitely making the commute a lot more enjoyable. I’ve tried dictating into a voice recorder and plugging the results into Nuance software’s speech recognition software, but I can’t compose via dictation and feel like an utter asshole in bumper-to-bumper holding a little red Sony recorder under my chin and pretending I am composing literary genius (note to self, search to see if any significant piece of literature has ever been dictated).

So far this fall I’ve listened to The Map Thief; Peter Thiel’s From Zero to One; and Chris Anderson’s Free, along with a steady diet of podcasts, usually Drupal and open source related. I was always impressed by the anecdote that George Gilder, the Forbes columnist and newsletter writer wrecked a couple cars out in the Berkshires because he was fond of driving around listening to technical lectures and proceedings from the IEEE and other deep-geek gatherings. The story, unconfirmed, was he put a car or two in the ditch because he’d get so wrapped up in talks about erbium-doped fiber amplifiers.

Now I’m into Walter Issacson’s breezy history of the computer, Internet, and digital revolution and I’m liking it, even if everything is old news because I’ve worked in the industry since the early 1980s and have read pretty much all the histories and biographies of the computer age. Walter’s biography of Steve Jobs was a huge bestseller and I enjoyed it very much as it taught me two things about Jobs which I did not know before: Jobs didn’t flush toilets and he banned Powerpoint.  In Innovators, Issacson does a fine job of keeping the history from falling into the rat hole of theoretical science, injects some good human drama and tales of eccentricity, and connects it all together in a way that a Millenial obsessed with hooking up on Tindr and managing their social networks might actually pause and pay some respect to the geniuses (mostly men, mostly working during the Great Depression) who invented the vacuum tube powered 50-ton monster computers that got things rolling.

He begins with the tale of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, a passionate mathematician who is regarded as the first computer programmer because of her work with Charles Babbage during his development of the mechanical calculator, the Analytical Engine during the first half of the 19th Century. Then a leap to the second half of the century, and the mechanization of the US Census by IBM’s early founder Herman Hollerith (this cutting down the analysis of the census from an eight year manual process to just one); and then to 1937 — the year it all came together in the US, England and Germany for a bunch of unconnected inventors and scientists who looked at the technology available to them and managed, through a combination of vacuum tubes, hardwired circuits, electric-mechanical relays, “memories” made out of rotating tin cans and lots of scrounging, to independently invent variations on what are now regarded as the first working computers.

There’s something about listening to the excitement caused by the Mother of All Demos (Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration of the first mouse, graphical user interface, and network in 1968), the founding of Intel by Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, the impact the MITS Altair had on the Bay Area’s hacker/maker subculture, the development of the Internet’s protocols out of ARPANET…..all familiar stories, but very chilling when told through an Android phone mounted on the dashboard of a car, a pocket computer with more storage and power that ever could have been conceived of and yet…..

That future was always in the minds of people like Vannevar Bush — the man who forged the collaboration between the military, academic and industrial research during World War II and was the “Scientist-in-Chief,” advising presidents from FDR through Eisenhower: he described the personal computer he called a “Memex” in a famous essay published by The Atlantic, “As We May Think.” Alan Kay at Xerox PARC and his vision of the DynaBook in the early 70s. Ada Lovelace speculating in the 1820s that someday there would be machines that could help create art.

The theme that fascinates me — a theme emerging from listening to Chris Anderson, Peter Thiel, and Issacson — is that the greatest invention in all of the Information Age is debatable, but the one that is most intangible is the way “innovation” is defined and happens. I personally detest the way “innovation” is tossed around by buzzwordists along with “impactful” and “pivot” like verbal styrofoam peanuts; but a tangible definition and set of conditions conducive to it occurring is coming together in my mind. Hence, Churbuck’s Theory of Innovation:

  1. Those who talk about innovation generally don’t understand it.
  2. Innovation is not a synonym for creativity or discovery — creativity and inspiration are required, but the words are not synonyms. Galileo didn’t innovate his heliocentric view of the universe — he proved through a telescope that the planets orbit the sun (and pissed off the Church in the process).
  3. Innovation strictly defined in my mind is the commercialization of invention. Bear with me, for this is the fine distinction between discovering some new truth: “Silicon doped with impurities will become a semiconductor” that’s a discovery, an invention.  Putting a logical circuit on a base of doped silicon by printing a pattern of conductive lines is an invention and can be patented. Realizing you can cram all the logical functions required by a computer’s central processing unit onto a single chip and then selling the hell out of them (as Intel did) I argue is an innovation. Science leads to discoveries. Innovation applies those discoveries to products or processes.
  4. Innovation is an “aha” moment to be sure, but it usually doesn’t happen alone, by a lone genius in a garage, but in a group of collaborators in the right combination of environment and management structures. Flat organizations based on a meritocracy are far more conducive to innovation than old command-and-control structure. Open sharing of invention and discoveries is the fuel for innovation — innovation is derived and borrowed from many sources and crushed by patents and secrecy.

I highly recommend the Thiel book — his view of what it takes to build a company, as well as Issacson’s — it’s more about the management and culture breakthroughs than anything else. Flat organizations, rewarding individual contributors with a piece of the action, and leadership that makes decisions and shepherds projects towards clear goals while deflecting distractions are as important as any factor, technical or creative. Issacson provides an excellent example: Texas Instruments took the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs and made the first transistor radios — reducing a bulky device that sat on a table and required tubes to a form factor the size of a stack of index cards. As luck would have it, the first transistor radio coincided with the emergence of rock-and-roll, and for the first time teenagers could listen, in privacy, to the music their parents hated on the living room Philco. The invention — the Regency TR-1 — was the innovation of a new “use case,” the transistor itself was introduced to the public consciousness, and the result was as profound (if not more so) than the iPod 50 years later.

It’s a long way of my saying, it’s good to stop and take stock of the invention that surrounds us and realize that in a very short span of time — 50 years essentially — we’re gone from “Shake Rattle and Roll” in our pockets, to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on our dashboards.

 

 

 

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Jul 28 2014

The New Kingmakers — book review

Steven O’Grady is the co-founder of Redmonk, a developer-focused tech analyst firm, and a very smart analyst at that. I first got to know him in 2006 via my old boss at Lenovo, the  CMO Deepak Advani who had a deep interest in Open Source and developer relations from his days at IBM. O’Grady and his co-founding partner James Governor gave us invaluable insights into the Open Source market, something that was unexpectedly crucial to Lenovo’s digital marketing focus as unbeknownst to us, one of the iconic Thinkpad laptops had been embraced as a reference platform to simplify hardware driver development for new distros.

Steven is also a great fan of all things Red Sox (his blog “Wicked Clevah” is one of the few I read) and is a striper fisherman up on the coast of Maine where he works and lives. So our orbits have overlapped on a few vectors.

This past spring he published with O’Reilly Media a very compelling argument that developers are the “new kingmakers” in contemporary IT and corporate digital strategy because of their crucial role in building value, defending against disruption, and making the technology decisions formerly reserved for procurement teams and the CIO. The result is a complete over-turning of the way organizations select and deploy technology, putting the developers in charge of the tools and standards that govern IT-enabled innovation and operations. We intuitively figured that out at Lenovo under the premise that when anyone makes a technology decision — “what phone should I buy? what laptop? what software?” — they turn to the most technical and expert person in their network. For those of us trying to build an influencer model online to sell computers, that audience was comprised of developers. Make them happy, give them what they need in terms of information and content, and they in turn will be the ones who declare if your technology is crap or not.

O’Grady nails the impact that the developer community is having on tech — from standards to commercial software to the way companies hire and retain the best coding talent they can find. His point is going to be very bleak new to the marketing teams at B2B tech companies. All those white papers and conferences and drive to get to the CEO and the COO and the CMO and the CIO ….. guess what? Developers could care less and they are the ones who matter.

In the latter half of the 20th century, developers were effectively beholden to their employers. The tools they needed to be productive — hardware and software — just were not affordable on an individual basis. Developers wishing to build even something as trivial as a website were confronted by an unfortunate reality: most of the necessary building blocks were available only under commercial licenses. Operating systems, databases, web and application servers, and development tools all required money. To get anything done, developers needed someone to write checks for the tools they needed. That meant either raising the capital to buy the necessary pieces, or — more often — requesting that an employer or other third party purchase them on the developer’s behalf.

“The new century, however, has ushered in profound and permanent shifts in the relationship between developer and employer. No longer is the former at the mercy of the latter’s budget. With the cost of development down by an order of magnitude or mode, the throttle on developer creativity has been removed, setting the stage for a Cambrian explosion of projects.

“Four major disruptions drove this shift: open source, the cloud, the Internet, and seed-stage financing.”

Basically, the point is that the company may buy one set of technology but developers will be developers and build stuff with the tools they want to use, not the tools the CIO negotiated a good price for out on the golf course.  Rather than put up with “official” technology, developers just get stuff done with the right tools — generally free tools — that get the job done.

“….the balance of power began to tilt in favor of developers. Developers, not their bosses, became the kingmakers. Technology selection increasingly wasn’t determined by committee or bake offs or who played golf with the CIO, but by what developers decided, on their own, to use.

“MySQL salespeople used to walk into businesses, for example, only to be told that they were wasting their time because the business wasn’t using any MySQL. At which point the MySQL salesperson would reply, “That’s interesting, because your organization has downloaded the package 5,000 times in the last two years.” This was and is the new balance of power. Not for every technology sector, of course, but for more every year.”

This is a very concise and accessible book — aimed at the marketers and executive management of companies who rely on developers to build their success.  In my bookshelf of tech books that matter, this one will have a long shelf life. If you’re managing digital strategy,  evaluating tech vendors, or trying to market hardware and software, this book can be digested in less than two hours and will, trust me, have an impact on how you see the new world.

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Jun 09 2014

Stepping off the upgrade treadmill – I hate my devices

Published by under Technology

Random rant expressing hatred of my technology this cloudy Monday morning…..

There was saying among reporters in the tech press in the 1980s that “The PC you want always costs $5000.

I heard this often enough from enough people who knew the business that I had to agree — the PC you could afford was about $1,000, but the one you wanted, the really, really good one that could play Flight Simulator, was $5,000. Upgrading to a new PC was a point of professional pride for a tech reporter.  PC Week gave reporters the original IBM 8088 PC, the one Charlie Chaplin introduced that started it all, an ugly grey monster with a cast-iron keyboard that was the best I’ve ever used. If you were cool you got the IBM PC one with a 10 megabyte hard disk, the IBM PC AT. I remember when the 386 chip came out and the Editor in Chief had the first one from Compaq. Definitely a $5000 machine at the time. Forbes was lost in the stone ages and it took mutinies and expense account fraud to get a PC that would actually work (and I was the senior tech editor).

Now me and the rest of the world is lugging around tablets and smartphones and notebooks and bluetooth speakers and god knows what else and no one other than a few paste-eaters give a damn what “megabyte” size it is or what magic chip makes it go faster. When the iPad arrived I took one look at the rectangle of glass and said “So much for design. Not much you can do with a rectangle.”

I think I was right. Other than the size of the rectangle — be it a phone in your hand, or a tablet in your lap — the only thing that makes one different from another is the software it runs. It’s all about the cult of the backend store these days — are you a Windows person or an Apple cultist? A follower of the Google or you’ve bought into Amazon Prime? I really don’t care if my rectangle comes from Apple or Lenovo or Samsung or Dell.

Now, as my phone contract is up for renewal and my Google Nexus 7 is running a little slower, I realize I could care less about shelling out a few hundred for the next great rectangles. Other than the fact I despise Sprint and my Samsung Galaxy S3 is infected with a mysteriously cheery ring tone that just goes off at random moments because of some ghost app I can’t be bothered to hunt down …..and the New York Times takes too long to load stories on the tablet …. I honestly have reached a complete state of device anhedonia where I could go on with the same crappy stuff for another two years, scratching it up and cracking the cases and in general not giving a damn about being seen in public with the latest drool-inducing toy. And who wants to buy new accessories for the damn things?

I think my next device is going to be a hearing aid.

 

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Jan 20 2014

I have seen the future and its name is Chromebook

Published by under Technology

Six years ago Google began positioning it’s excellent browser, Chrome, as a operating system for so-called “cloud PCs” — computers that achieved full functionality when they were connected to the internet. At the time, when I was working at Lenovo, the concept was pretty far advanced and garnered some skepticism, especially inside of Lenovo which was deeply wedded to the Windows-Intel world of traditional computing. I was part of the advanced project team under Peter Gaucher and Peter Hortensius working on our own cloud PC, a gorgeous little Richard Sapper design called the Skylight which went on to win best in show at the 2010 CES but never was sold because the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor was too feeble to give the kind of user experience the newly launched iPad delivered.

I was a big advocate for Lenovo to make the Skylight a Chromium-OS machine, but we went our own way with a proprietary operating environment. I remained fixated on the notion of a browser-centric user-interface and OS, and ported Chromium onto a Lenovo S10 netbook with pleasing results.

Lenovo didn’t jump onto Chromebooks (they do apparently have a education-focused offering in their catalogue, but nothing for consumers) the way Acer, Samsung and Hewlett Packard did.

I ordered a C720 from Acer via Amazon a few weeks ago and have been using it as my primary portable PC. I have say the thing is remarkable for the price; $250, offers near full functionality, and is incredibly well integrated with my Google account (as one would expect). It’s fast, based on Intel’s Haswell architecture, and is the best crappy computer I’ve ever owned.

Although I’ve tended to be a Dropbox fanatic when it comes to cloud document storage, the Chromebook is pushing me back to Google Drive, even though Dropbox is perfectly usable through its web interface on the machine. The device plays movies beautifully, has great sound, a decent keyboard (not great), and a trackpad that does what it needs to do. I find myself touching the screen out of habit born from my Nexus 7 tablet, but for notetaking, quick blog posts, and looking stuff up, the machine is probably the single best technology purchase I’ve made in years. Sure the build quality is a little plasticky, and the cover is too stiff to pop open with one hand, but the battery goes for nine hours, the thing is thin and light, and will be toting it to London tonight and leaving behind my monster corporate issued Dell notebook with no regrets whatsoever.

Yes, the machine wants an internet connection to thrive, but I can use Gmail and the Google apps offline — on a plane for example — without much problem. This is my leave-hanging-around-the-house PC.

If I were Microsoft and trying to get traction on Surface, or any of the traditional PC companies hoping to hang onto hardware margins, the Chromebook category would give me the willies. These things now account for 10% of corporate and consumer PC purchases, literally coming out of no where. At the $250 price band they become semi-disposable — all the personal data is essentially in the cloud if they are lost or stepped on —  and are far lighter to tote through an airport than a traditional notebook.

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Sep 23 2013

The America’s Cup is Actually Interesting

I may be a traditionalist when it comes to racing sailboats — I like them wooden, leaky and gaff-rigged — and I have bitched about how the America’s Cup needs to come back to Newport, Rhode Island and be raced in those oh-so-elegant 12-meters of my youth. But after spending a rapt half hour on the couch with my tablet and a half-hour of coverage from San Francisco Bay I take it all back. AC-72 catamarans are amazing things.

Catamarans have the reputation of being the jet-skis of the sailing world. The people who sail them tend to be adrenaline freaks who zip back and forth looking for speed and little else. The boats point into the wind like square-riggers, require elbow and knee pads and a crash helmet, and beg to be sailed while yelling “yee-hah.” They entered the America’s Cup under desperate circumstances in 1988 when Dennis Conner showed up in one to kick New Zealand’s ass after they showed up in a 90-foot mega yacht and convinced a judge to uphold the move away from 12-meters as perfectly legal under the terms of the “Deed of Gift” — the rules that govern the strange and venerable competition. Dennis and his catamaran sailed circles around the New Zealanders, the credibility of the America’s Cup hit an all-time low, and all semblance of dignity went out the window. But catamarans were in.

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Not that the America’s Cup was ever a fair fight. As my buddy Charlie points out, the name of the game has been getting a technical edge from the very beginning when the American’s sent an overpowered schooner over to England to kick the best butts in the Royal British Yacht Squadron. Half the battles have been in the courts, with challengers and defenders contesting the ambiguous rules every chance they get and giving full credence to the cliche of the “sea lawyer.” Winged-keels,  crews of ringers from foreign countries, billionaires with more bucks than brains … what’s not to love?

Whatever. I tip my hat to Larry Ellison for making it a total tech fest on Silicon Valley’s home waters. These boats represent the cutting edge of aquatic technology, use nothing but the wind to scream along at more than 35 mph, and thanks to overlaid graphics, helicopters, onboard Go-Pro helmet cams, and crazy color commentary that would be more in place in a UFC cage match, finally putting to rest Mark Twain’s old tired complaint that watching yacht racing is less exciting than watching paint dry or grass grow.

The US is behind — docked two races for cheating — and it’s do-or-die with them needing to win all of the remaining race to stay in the game.

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Sep 04 2013

Thriving in a ‘PC-plus’ world: An interview with Lenovo CEO Yang Yuanqing | McKinsey & Company

Published by under General,Technology

http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/high_tech_telecoms_internet/thriving_in_a_pc-plus_world

Great interview from June by McKinsey’s Gordon Orr and Rik Kirkland  with Lenovo Chairman/CEO Yang Yuanqing. Genuinely great leader who was part of the original Lenovo crew from the mid-80s.  Probably the tech sector rock star, their version of our Bill Gates/Michael Dell rolled into one.

He makes some key points about Lenovo’s rise to #1 in the sagging PC industry.

1. The company followed a “protect and attack” strategy of protecting its enterprise/commercial business in the west while attacking in emerging markets, particularly Brazil and India through acquisitions and organic growth.

2. It diversified out of PCs into mobile early and has been a scrappy player inside of China’s fierce smartphone market.

3. It isn’t reluctant to invest in R&D to differentiate its products.

4. Being Number One is a self-fulfilling brand builder, as he put it: everyone knows the name of the tallest mountain in the world, but what’s the name of the second tallest?

yangyuanqinglenovo

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Aug 17 2013

The Twilight of the Laptop

Published by under Technology

It’s been three years since I bid Lenovo adios and used my employee discount to buy my last ThinkPad, a T410s. I was a big ThinkPad booster in my day. I was paid to be. Cash incentives aside, the all black design, the red trackpoint pointer in the middle of the keyboard, the promise of a rugged, durable, non-nonsense computer was a classic alternative to the generic chromed plastic and blue indicator lights being pumped out by the competition in the PC industry’s ongoing race to the bottom of commodity computing. ThinkPads were the best laptops on the market and it was easy to market that fact.

No offense to the good designers and engineers I worked with back then, but the T410S was a lemon that took two annoying warranty trips back to the service center to solve a bad display problem and then an aggravating overheating problem that caused it to shut down and turn into a brick. I hadn’t done my homework when I bought that machine, and when I tried to breathe a second life into it with a 64 GB SDD harddrive I learned that the  original disc’s form factor was utterly weird, expensive, and ultimately impossible to upgrade. So I said to hell with it, built a great desktop tower myself with parts ordered from Newegg and haven’t looked back.

The ThinkPad still works but I don’t use it anymore and have passed it along to my son. I expected to buy another one this summer, but ….

This post is being written on a $250 Google Nexus 7 tablet with a $70 Logitech wireless bluetooth keyboard. The battery life is great. I can use it in my lap, on the porch, in the morning with my morning coffee. While I don’t like having to take my fingers off of the little keys to touch the screen and move the cursor around, I can get past all that because for $320 I have a great set up for taking notes, editing documents from my Dropbox and Google Drive accounts, watching past episodes of Deadwood on HBO Go and controlling my Sonos speaker system playing WWOZ over TunedIn radio.

I won’t buy another clamshell classic laptop ever again. I may be given one if I take another job inside of a corporation, but even then I imagine the “bring-your-own-device” to work trend will give me the freedom to show up with a tablet/wireless keyboard combo. This isn’t a retromingent screed against PCs, just a statement of personal preference backed up by one of the more vicious disruptions in computing platforms since the PC was introduced to the world in the late 70s.

The old argument that serious creation and composition would always prefer a real notebook with a real keyboard is silly. I can see myself buying a Thinkpad tablet just to get to the ThinkPad’s legendary keyboard (the way the Thinkpad engineers deliver the best keyboard experience is a great, untold story but one that few serious typist/Tpad fans would dispute), even the Microsoft Surface is a nice piece of hardware. And as I see more and more iPads and Android tablets pulled out in meetings and turned into typing devices with bluetooth keyboards, I think I’m justified in saying the sun is setting on the world of Inspirons, Pavillions, Satellites and ThinkPads.

I’ve tried external keyboards in the past, most memorably a folding contraption back in the heyday of the Palm Pilot that got maybe a grand total of three hours usage before I gave up in expensive disgust. But this stripped down combo of Android and bluetooth typing is working for me when I am away from the desktop battlestation.

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Aug 14 2013

Quaking Sands of Technology

Published by under General,Technology

So everyone has heard of Creative Destruction, the phenomenon of change that destroys incumbents and gives birth to insurgents, a repeating and accelerating cycle of technology killing its commercial antecedents while opening opportunity to a new generation of attackers. Richard Foster, a director at McKinsey, wrote a book in 2001 about the trend, finding in his research that the average tenure of the S&P 500 was shrinking from 61 years in the late fifties to 18 years today. Gone are Kodak, Palm, Compaq.

The fall of Research in Motion — aka Blackberry — is stomach churning to contemplate if you’re the CEO of a technology company over ten years old. According to the New York Times the company owned half of the smartphone market in 201?. That’s 50% market share a mere three years ago. Now, as the company dies under the assault of the iPhone and Android, it is “exploring strategic options” … aka looking for a buyer.

Jean-Louis Gassee, the ex-Apple exec, told the Times that “Buying Blackberry is necrophilia.”

From status symbol to relic in only a few years. Obviously somebody at RIM was either:

a) complacent and had the hubris that the market share was eternal or …

b) blind to the signs of technical disruption that were going to trash their business model (touch screens, app stores, media & entertainment ecosystems) …

or c) cocksure that IT departments at big companies would see the upstarts at Apple and Google for the insecure, hackable toys they were and stand by Blackberry’s vaunted BES secure server technology

Then the President bitched he wanted to use an iPhone and suddenly every corporate drone in America was pounding at the doors of IT demanding iPhone support.

If the Blackberry can blow the dominance of a market in just three years, then who is next? The minicomputer industry wheezed along for at least a decade after the introduction of the PC. The shift to solid state from analog took a decade to crush the old guard in vacuum tube monitors and spinning hard drives.  Intel’s fat and happy ownership of microprocessors is getting slapped around by ARM and aggressive competitors like Qualcomm. Microsoft? Well, that’s a tale for another day, but don’t count out the corporate inertia that is propelling that beast forward (and don’t discount the potential of the Xbox, the most remarkable accidental asset in MSFT’s arsenal). PCs are dying, just getting diversified and pushed hard into the emerging markets but I think I’ve bought my last laptop (as I am writing this on a Nexus 7 tablet with a bluetooth keyboard).

The old strategic imperative to keep 70% of the business in the cash cows, 20% in incremental improvements and 10% in bet-the-farm-over-the-horizon initiatives is a death sentence in this days of agile ready-fire-aim startups with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Innovation — the darling buzzword of management consultants in the last decade — can’t be performed by committee nor Powerpoint. For some of the technically driven behemoths acquisitions are the solution, buying up the Waze’s and Tumblr’s and hoping the integration process doesn’t squelch the spark that made those companies so hot to begin with.

Over dinner a few months ago with the CEO of Acquia, Tom Erickson, he told me he was drawn to the irresistible combination of SaaS, Cloud and Open Source. All three trends are massive disruptors that wiser people than me knew were coming over a decade ago. But the companies making the most of those disruptions are the ones with nothing to lose. As Mitch Kapor once said, the biggest impediment to progress is an installed base.

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Jul 17 2013

On trains

Published by under Technology,Travel

Cape Cod has been served by limited weekend train service this summer, the Cape Flyer, and initial reports are very positive with the operating costs close to being covered and the passengers “liking” the hell out of the thing on Facebook. It’s not the fastest train in the world, but it certainly is gaining in popularity after the nightmarish off-Cape traffic on the Fourth of July weekend that apparently backed up 25 miles from the Sagamore Bridge. The Cape has no daily passenger service to Boston or Providence, with commuters to those cities forced to drive or take the bus. The bulk of the train activity seems to be the scenic dinner train out of Hyannis and the trash train that hauls the Cape’s detritus to the generators in Rochester.

I would certainly reconsider my weekly drive to Manhattan if there were a dependable and speedy train from the Cape to NYC via Providence, but I won’t go into the terrible state of the Acela (over-priced, over-crowded, and too slow) and the general scandal of the American railroad infrastructure along the busy northeast corridor from Boston to Washington.

Two things have trains on my mind this week. First is a book by Tim Parks, an expat living in Verona, Italy who writes about his love-hate affair with Trenitalia in Italian Ways, an account of the Italian rail service he depends on for his commute between his home and his professorship in Milan. I like Italian trains — I’ve taken the Cisalpina Eurostar from Zurich to Florence and then Florence to Venice and back again to Zurich — they are slightly funkier than their French or German counterparts and Italian railroad stations are nicely chaotic. I like train-based travel accounts. Paul Theroux is the master in my opinion, largely because he’s so judgmental of his fellow passengers and makes his tales more about the eccentricities of the people on the trains than the scenery out the windows. Parks isn’t nearly as nasty and mean-spirited, I suppose because he’s lived in Italy for 30 years and doesn’t want to give too much offense. He spends an inordinate amount of time carping about the illogic of the Italian ticket/time table system and the atrocious layout and lack of directions in an Italian train station. But when he takes a cue from Theroux and describes his fellow passengers in a Sicily-bound train, all yapping away in their mobile phones, the book becomes interesting.

And the second thing that has sparked my recent interest in trains is Tesla-founder Elon Musk’s forthcoming announcement of his “hyperloop” concept — a combination of the Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table — that would make travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco faster than a jet.

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Apr 11 2013

PC sales swoon, I yawn

Published by under Technology

Lots of retweets and links to this morning’s IDC report on the PC industry falling off a cliff in the first quarter — sales are down some 13% from the previous year. Stowe Boyd blogs that the analysts need to get over it, stop using words like “worrisome”  and embrace the better world of cheap touch devices in this “Post-PC Era” that happens to coincide with the third birthday of the iPad.

“Personally, I think we should be cheering the transition to more convenient, lower-cost, gesture-based tablets. It’s not regrettable. But the IDC analysts are obviously rooting for the past, and we’re zooming into a future they don’t like much. I think they should side with the people shifting to tablets.”

Windows 8 and its lukewarm welcome is taking some of the blame. Not having upgraded myself I can’t bring myself to trash an OS that I haven’t played with, but I hear over and over that the upgrade is particularly frustrating on older, non-touch enabled PCs. In a talk I gave to the Cape Cod Technology Council last Friday morning, I led off with the obvious observation that the PC paradigm shift is the most massive upheaval the tech world has seen in thirty years, comparing the disruption of tablets on PCs to what Wikipedia did to the Encyclopedia Britannica ….. an analogy Stowe cites as well.

It’s not an all-or-nothing transition. PCs are not going to become the typewriters of tomorrow. The advantages of large screen/awesome keyboard composition will prevail. My microprocessor and storage might one day live in my phone which I’ll snap into a desktop cradle and wirelessly connect to a bluetooth full size keyboard/mouse and a big flat panel display, but as far as I’m concerned the PC experience comes down to the size of the screen and the awesomeness of the keyboard. The box itself — whether it is a clamshell laptop, a Yoga multidevice like the Surface, an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard or a big tower I built myself from parts bought off of Newegg — is irrelevant. Not to the companies that make them of course, but the “paradigm” of sitting in front of a monitor and banging on keys will remain the same for all professionals. Touch is nice for consuming, but hell on creating.

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Feb 06 2013

Fully charged

My daughter gave me a Duracell Powermat for Christmas and I’m loving it so much I bought a second one for my New York office. The system consists of a sleek base unit that can accommodate two devices, a case for my Samsung Galaxy S3, and a portable battery unit that can charge a fading phone away from the base. This is cordless charging, the same inductive technology used to recharge electric toothbrushes. I first saw it demonstrated in 2009 at Qualcomm, but it was a bit clunky and didn’t seem all that interesting at the time.

But in practice the system is awesome with a couple irritations. After fitting the case over the phone and plugging it’s male connector into the phone’s female micro-USB port (tight fit, which makes changing cases a bit of a hassle — more on that in a second) the phone can be placed on the charging base where it magnetically slips into the proper position with an audible confirmation that charging has started. I set the phone to go into “bedside” mode when its docked on the Powermat. Only two phones are supported — the Galaxy and the iPhone 4s — but the iPhone 5 case is expected sometime soon. The base units come in three, two and single device configurations. I thought the spare battery brick was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have, but on a recent vacation it was pressed into use.

The hard plastic case isn’t as rugged as an Otterbox and has to be removed if I want to dock the phone in the car cradle. I imagine Duracell has a car unit in the works, but for now I have to peel off the Duracell case to use the phone in the car for the usual GPS/handsfree/Audible/music stuff.

Duracell is pushing the technology hard, painting a picture where charging bases will be available in coffee shops, nightclubs, airport lounges, stadiums, etc.. and apparently truly wireless charging is over the horizon.

Here’s the obligatory YouTube vision of Millenial bliss:

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The double-device mat is $90 at Amazon and includes the portable battery pack and a case for a single phone.. A one-device mat is $32.

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Jan 22 2013

The Cost of Latency in eCommerce

Published by under Commerce,Technology

In the 1980s and 90s during the early years of the PC industry, there was alot of discussion of the economic impact of slow computers on user productivity.  This was driven by some IBM research out of its Thomas Watson center in 1982: The Economic Value of Rapid Response Time by Walter Doherty and Ahrvind Thadani.

“When a computer and its users interact at a pace that ensures that neither has to wait on the other, productivity soars, the cost of the work done on the computer tumbles, employees get more satisfaction from their work, and its quality tends to improve. Few online computer systems are this well balanced; few executives are aware that such a balance is economically and technically feasible.

In fact, at one time it was thought that a relatively slow response, up to two seconds, was acceptable because the person was thinking about the next task. Research on rapid response time now indicates that this earlier theory is not borne out by the facts: productivity increases in more than direct proportion to a decrease in response time. This brief describes some of this research and the implications for increasing productivity and cutting costs that are among the chief challenges of business today.”

Then ten years ago Eric Horvitz at Microsoft started looking at the impact of interruptions on PC users and how long it took them to get back on task. The entire science of interruption is interesting,. especially for the lifehacker movement that tries to deliver great productivity via various hacks and techniques to reduce interruption.

Delays and interruptions are arguably related. While you wait for a slow site to load in your browser your mind seeks something to do rather than stare at the screen, a buffering warning, or some icon of an hourglass. You switch tabs, change screens, or just give up on the poky site or service and move on to the next thing, subconsciously annoyed at your old laptop, bad internet connection, or the general crumminess of the pipe between you and your destination.

My partner Ben shared this interesting fact buried in a five-year old presentation by Amazon’s Greg Linden on the economic impact of “latency” on ecommerce. This blew me away. In a presentation he claimed “Every 100ms delay costs 1% of revenue.”

You can get the presentation at Strangeloop, a vendor in the site optimization space. Here are some other impacts of site speed on key performance indicators:

I’ll take the liberty of extrapolating that from Amazon’s most recent reported revenue of $48 billion in 2012 to mean that 100ms of performance is equivalent to half a billion dollars a year.

In my experience CTOs and  CIOs at web-centric companies have tended to give more weight to availability than performance, stressing fault-tolerance and uptime over site performance.  While they may be driven by how many “nines” their infrastructure is rated at, I wonder how many are making the investment in monitoring services and tools to determine their site load times. For ecommerce operations focused on converting browsers to checked out carts, I would argue response time as valid a function of success as A/B testing and strong content marketing and audience development.

 

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Dec 03 2012

Paying for Past PC Sins

Published by under General,Technology

The performance of a computer degrades over time and most experts will advise re-installing the operating system and restoring the machine to its factory settings as a matter of habit. They also tell us to backup regularly and floss our teeth, but who has time?

My 2010 Thinkpad is a perfectly nice run of the mill T410s with a Intel i5 3450s 2.8 GHz processor and 4 GB of RAM, a 128 GB harddisk, and built in Intel graphics. It’s rugged, it’s black, it has a trackpoint, and it does what it is supposed to be, albeit more slowly lately and with all the lethargic signs of a laptop that either needs to be replaced or revived.

The machine had some issues over the course of its life. A known defect in the display required a return to the service depot, and last summer I was so sick of constant overheating issues and black screen reboots that I sent it back with a week remaining on the warranty to have the motherboard and keyboard replaced.

Now it is just slow and sucky and needs a second life. The new keyboard means it is in top form physically, it’s just anemic and needs a cheap set of upgrades.

So the plan was:

  1. Install a solid state harddrive – SDD — because that will probably deliver the biggest performance increase, especially for fast booting and application launches.
  2. Re-install Windows 7 — but install a 64-bit version  because …
  3. I can get 8 GB of cheap memory from Crucial for $38 and only 64-bit Windows can take advantage of any ram over 4 GB.

Here’s the problem:

  1. The machine only accepts a 1.8″ SDD and prices for that weird form factor are almost as much as a new laptop in some cases. I am scouring the usual suspects — Newegg, Crucial, Amazon, eBay — but so far can’t find a cheap 64 GB SDD in the 1.8″ size other than a $117 64GB drive from Kingston. (Other option is a Thinkpad UltraBay HDD tray that will permit a standard 2.5″ drive, but that does away with my extra battery and/or DVD optical. 64 GB is fine given my complete embrace of Dropbox for my document storage and Amazon MP3s for my music storage up there in the cumulus.
  2. Microsoft won’t permit a 32-bit to 64-bit Windows upgrade online.  In the end I need to pay $70 for the retail version of the Windows 8 Professional Upgrade as that contains both versions. Thanks to Paul Thurrott I found that answer. Microsoft makes it nigh impossible to figure out with their overengineered “update” wizard tool that drives a $40 download of the 32-bit version.
  3. The RAM was ordered, installed, and sits awaiting some more headroom from the 64-bit Win8.
When done, I’m looking at spending $117+$70+$40 for a total of $230  to recharge an old and faithful machine with a lot of years left in it. I have absolutely zero inclination to invest in a new Windows machine, hate Macs, think $250 for a Chromebook is a foolish buy, and in the end, realize I am looking for a portable kickass keyboard, screen and wireless connection so I can be productive with my documents in the cloud. So why buy when I have one of the classic Thinkpads to come out of my buddy David Hill’s design organization in Japan and North Carolina. I know the X1 Carbon is the flagship, and friends who have purchased sing its praises, but the keyboard is a departure to the new “island” keys” and I can’t get over the cost-benefit hump.
As for the past-sins referred to in the title — SDDs were still a bit new and raw when I bought the machine during the summer of 2010, and being new they were a very expensive (like $500 for 64GB) option. I paid top price for this, even with the employee discount program, but should have gone 64-bit then and added the extra RAM, and also should have paid more attention to the bad graphics specs and the strange hard disk form factor. In the end, it has been a great machine, slim enough, rugged enough, but just frustrating enough to make me resent it from time to time.
Waxing philosophically on the state of the personal computing world in this year of tablet/Android/Win8/Surface upheaval — there will always remain a market for a machine with a QWERTY keyboard for people who work, write, create, etc.  It may be a tablet screen with a bluetooth keyboard, it may be a continuation of the classic laptop clamshell, it may be something unforeseen….but what will endure is a keyboard in one form or another. Just please god don’t make it a Dell.

 

 

 

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Sep 06 2012

New toy: Asus-Google Nexus 7 Tablet

Published by under General,Technology

I once vowed that the original iPad I purchased in the spring of 2009 would be my last Apple tablet, and a couple weeks ago that indeed was proven true when I bought Google’s 7″ tablet, the Nexus 7, running Android’s Jellybean operating system. Sure I was tempted by the subsequent releases of Apple’s groundbreaking tablet, but … in the end, I object to it on the basis of cost, and most importantly, the “velvet cage” feeling I have whenever I try to live in the Apple world of iTunes, iCloud, and disabled commerce functions by any app that dares to circumvent Apple’s deathgrip (Kindle, Amazon music, etc.)

I went with the 16 GB version for $250 and in the week I’ve been using it I can declare it to be the most ergonomically lovable device I’ve ever owned.  The difference between a seven-inch device and a ten-inch one is significant given that the former can be clamped in one hand and the other is a constant juggling act. There’s a reason Amazon stuck to the dimensions of trade-paperback with the Kindle, and the Nexus followed, avoiding the big pane of glass that Apple and the early Android tablet makers favored. Yes, Apple is likely to introduce a smaller tablet soon — probably a bit over 7 inches, and it remains to be seen if such a pocket-sized tablet will be priced anywhere down below $300, where Amazon is obviously subsidizing the cost of its Fire, and Google with the Nexus.

Jobs apparently “detested” the smaller form factor, but I have to disagree with the maestro on this one. As a “tweener” device between a smart phone and full screen tablet or laptop, the Nexus 7 is definitely a “Goldilocks device” that feels just right.

Asus manufactures the device and does a surprisingly good job for a Taiwanese brand I used to associate with cheap products with poor fit and finish. What advantage Asus has in being Google’s manufacturer of choice remains to be see. It certainly helped HTC when the first Google phone was released, but hasn’t done much for the Chromebook manufacturers.

The Jellybean experience is far and away smoother and more functional than any preceding Android build. The user interface is optimized for the larger screen and indeed, as I installed my preferred apps, I saw most have been updated to take advantage of Jellybean’s look and feel.

This thing goes with me everywhere. Literally in the side pocket of my suit coat. I tether it to my Galaxy S III’s hotspot when I need a data connection, use it as a bluetooth music remote driving a set of Jawbone speakers, and am tempted to dash mount it in the car.

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Jul 17 2012

Bluefin: interesting media analytics

Published by under Movies,Technology

Show me the word “analytics” in an ad and I instantly grow cynical for word feels like the refuge of the desperate trying to sell the great white whale of ROI to the tight-fisted.

Dan Lyons calls out a very very interesting technology coming out of the MIT Media Lab for correlating social chatter and user utterances with television programming. This company, Bluefin Labs, strikes a strong chord given my past interest into the role of the “back channel” among fans during televised real-time events: Red Sox games, State of the Union Addresses, the Academy Awards.

This TedTalk from 2011, by Bluefin’s founder Deb Roy, is interesting on several levels. First, it exhibits an amazing demo of data collection and analysis — in this case video footage and audio clips shot throughout his home and then processed to track the progress of his baby learning how to speak the word “water,” mapped against the context of where and when the word was learned (bathroom, near the kitchen sink, etc.). This capture model has amazing implications in terms of building an amazing “life record” and brought to mind the efforts of people like Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits project at Microsoft and Stephen Wolfram’s personal analytics analysis of his email history. I freak out when I see an old Super 8 movie of myself waddling around in sagging diaper circa 1959 at Cotuit Rope’s Beach. Imagine being able to see myself take my first steps, say “water”, etc.?

The interesting kicker to Roy’s personal experiment is the commercial application and the ability to map the Twitterverse and Social Graph to mass media events. If I was a media planner or TV stats wonk, I’d be freaking over this stuff from Bluefin.

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Jul 12 2012

Beware of Phone Makers Bearing Updates

Published by under Technology

So I have a new phone. The sleek Samsung Galaxy IIIS. It is a nice phone. It runs the latest public version of Google’s Android OS, Ice Cream Sandwich. The phone is fast, very functional, and a joy to use after my prior junkware laden HTC Evo.

The mobile carrier is Sprint. I like Sprint for the most part. The attraction was their unlimited data plan, but that’s another discussion for another day. I did a jailbreak on the Evo to get rid of Sprint’s asshatted Nascar app and other memory hogging, undeletable pieces of junk inflicted by the marketing morons, and from then on was on my own with Cyanogen. I was happy to see the new Sprint install was basically unjunked and as close to pure ICS as one could get.

Yesterday my Google News page had a link to a story that Sprint was sending out a software update to Galaxy IIIS owners which would disable the “universal search” functionality delivered through the Google search widget on the home screen. This means a search doesn’t hit just the Web, but also looks locally on the phone at contacts, documents, etc. I like this feature very much.  It spare me from going to two functions to perform searches and makes things a lot more convenient.

So why is Sprint disabling the function? Because Apple is suing Samsung and Google for patent infringement, claiming the universal search function on a phone is its idea and its alone. While the parties duke it out in court, Google or Samsung or Sprint — who knows and who cares — decided to remove the function, which means if I accept and install the pending “software update” sitting on my phone, I’ll basically make it less of a phone.

What pisses me off is the complete lack of communication from Sprint, Samsung or Google that they are going to croak a function on my phone. There’s no email. There’s no warning or explanation. Instead I get this bullshit, mislabeled as a “fix” which does nothing to reveal the surprise inside. Indeed, according to a story at the Android Authority, which refers to the disabling code as an “easter egg”, the software update is being sent out to unsuspecting Galaxy owners at Samsung’s request. The “fix” comes with absolutely no description of what it purports to fix.

My feelings about Apple? Jobs did vowed to kill Android so the Samsung lawsuit is a big one. This latest move is what I expect from Apple, along with, high prices, DRM, irrational fans, discrimination against Persians, design porn, multiple failures in the cloud …..

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Jun 07 2012

Placing a pre-order bet: Samsung Galaxy S III on Sprint

Published by under General,Technology

Two years ago, when freed from the corporate tyranny of a mandatory Blackberry, I rushed to Best Buy and put my money down on the then-sexy HTC 4G EVO, Sprint’s flagship phone and the first Android smartphone to build any sort of geek-cred.

Last fall, sick and tired of the Sprint and HTC combined crapware, I jailbroke the phone and remade it in my own image with CyanogenMod. After a week or so of fiddling to restore the GPS and hotspot functions, I’ve been more than happy with the hardware as my primary mobile device, pushing its limits with many gigabytes of Amazon music stored locally on the 32 gb microSD, and loving its multi-functions on the dashboard of my car.

But two years are up and it’s time to upgrade to a new phone. iPhones are not an option. The screens are too small for my aging eyes (So go buy a Cricket you may say), and I continue to harbor a genetic allergy to Apple products, or rather, Apple operating systems and Apple prices and Apple attitudes towards DRM.

Android has been very good to me, so off I went looking for the hot new phone that would be most faithful to Google’s reference platform while at the same time giving me access to Ice Cream Sandwich, the ability to tether other devices to its WiFi hub, and unlimited data.

That of course meant continuing on with Sprint, even if they boned me to the tune of a $500 surcharge in March 2011 for daring to use it in Canada.  Sprint’s old claims of “4G” speeds was a quaint fiction predicated on finding a WiMax signal depending on whether or not ClearWire had rigged one up. As for 4G on Cape Cod — I’ll get it about as soon as I get fiber to the old house — but I do spend enough time in midtown Manhattan to expect a fast signal should I need one.

The phone I pre-ordered this week was the Samsung Galaxy S III — a well-reviewed phone that looks fresh enough to carry me another two years without any regrets. It should arrive before July (if Apple’s attempt at an injunction fails) and will doubtlessly take a little while to set up just the way I want it.

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May 18 2012

Suckers are born every decade but I’m out of here

I wanted to keep this to myself –if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all — but here is my contribution to the pile of B.S. spreading today on the occasion of Facebook going public.

Facebook is over, about to topple over under the weight of a spectacular overvaluation, mass indifference to financial fundamentals, and most importantly my sense of the growing indifference of the generation it was supposed to serve — college students.  Facebook was famously founded as a digital replacement to the printed freshman directories of the Ivy League but has become obese with the inane status updates and vacation bragging of those same students’ parents. My generation. The one’s who pored over the original class directories in the 1970s and “posted updates” on whiteboards glued to our dorm room doors.

Wall Street is selling scale today when the trigger is pulled on Facebook at 11 AM EST — that’s dot.com hyperbole for “lots of traffic” — and while your local investment club may be all atwitter with the prospect of buying some shares, and it’s fun to count the herd of new Facebook gazillionaires now shopping for new Colnagos and bespoke skinny jeans — the smart money has been cashing out for a long time in the private market and will continue cashing out quickly at the top.  This is not Microsoft in 1984 nor Amazon in 1996. This is not a long term bet on a significant new way of doing business or even communicating. This is an investment in the 2012 edition of CompuServe and MySpace: yet another walled garden ripe to get creatively destroyed by the next big technical thing lurking over that hill known as the future.

Future performance of Facebook’s stock depends on the company delivering profitable revenue and like Google, Facebook gets all of its money from advertising. Google builds semi-useful stuff and search is everything. Facebook advertising does not work. I managed Facebook campaigns for a Fortune Global 100 company and have first hand experience that … Facebook …. Advertising …. Does….. Not ….. Work.

General Motors figured this out, and picking the week of the IPO to announce Facebook ads aren’t working was simply perfect. Of course the counter argument from the social media douche bags is that “Facebook is all about authentic relationships and transparent conversations between brands and customers.” Consider the source, given that the SMDB’s make their bones selling their Facebook Unique Customer Karma and Emerging Digital services (you can figure out the forced acronym) to breathless CMOs who want audience, damn it, and the bigger the better.  And consider that the public relations/digital agency world is always first on any shiny object bandwagon (can you say SecondLife) and their current solemn obsession is reporting “Social ROI” as the rest of the faddish get obsessed with big data and analytics. (If you want to watch some fun navel gazing, play pissed-off CEO and ask a Digital PR person “How much is a Facebook Fan worth?”)

Companies, aka “brands,” obsess and fret about how many fans and likes they have; spend money on third-party tools like BuddyMedia to manage their presence, and set aside a slice of their digital advertising budget to buy good old display ads to run alongside the torrent of notifications and shared links that make up Facebook’s river of content. As I read elsewhere this morning, quoting Seth Godin (whom I never quote), “The Internet wasn’t invented for advertisers.”

Neither was Facebook.

Yet, in lieu of subscriptions or some twist on Warren Buffett’s theory of a toll booth on the only bridge over the river, where is Facebook’s money going to come from to sustain a valuation in the thin, thin air of $100+ billion ? If you know, then buy some stock. Me, I’m deactivating my Facebook account in honor of the TimeWarner-AOL/Prodigy/CompuServe/Groupon/Pets.com/WebVan of 2012.

Two weeks ago I began dinging every over-sharer on my timeline or wall or whatever the Zuckerborg called it this month. Goodbye pictures of glasses of beer, notifications that Ed was at LAX, weird R-rated bikini videos from people in Turkey and India I have never met and will never meet. Goodbye SocialCam. Goodbye Tweets. Goodbye to All That. Now …..

Goodbye Facebook and hello to less noise in my life.

 

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Apr 04 2012

Big data visualization beauty

I marvel at the art of visually representing quantitative data. There have been some excellent examples over the time. I used to be particularly obsessed with Smartmoney’s heat map of the stock market which blew a lot of minds in the late 1990s, and went out of my way to try to recruit the genius who came up with it into Forbes.com (with no success). Today it seems so static and Web 1.0, but still, cavemen used to be freaked out by fire, imagine what they would do with a Bic lighter?

Uncle Fester, the collector of all that is interesting, sent me a link to a very cool wind map.  Meteorological maps are generally fairly dull and impenetrable, with their own symbolic language of isobars, beaufort scales, and occluded fronts. Indeed, weather has long been considered one of the greatest data challenges. Consider that for decades the standard was something like this:

 Not very friendly to the layman, more the sort of thing a pilot or professional could read and derive some sense of the future from. Wind is personally the single most interesting element of a weather forecast. As a former sailboat racer, I’d obsess over the probability of a wind shift occurring during a race, or, plan ahead on whether or not to take a crew to help hold the boat down if the breeze increased in velocity. Too much weight and I’d lose. Too little weight and I’d be screwed trying to keep the boat flat in the gusts.

Here’s what wind maps used to look like:

And here is what they look like today. This is beautiful and very addictive to play with. I highly recommend clicking through to see this in all of its animated glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And sorry, but I can’t forget this classic:

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Jan 20 2012

Talking to myself

Published by under Technology

Voice recognition software has been around for at least 20 years. I first played with the technology in the 1980s but was very unimpressed by its abilities, horrible set up a process, and general applicability as a technology of last resort for the handicapped were truly keyboard allergic.

I’ve tried to use the technology transcribe dictation made during long car commutes, but that never worked either. A combination of too much background noise, a lack of discipline on my part to stick with the process of correcting and training the software to recognize my voice and my peculiar way of dictation, and voice-recognition software joined they heap of otherwise optimistic stuff that science fiction promised would be useful but practice proved otherwise.

This post is being dictated with Dragon NaturallySpeaking version 11 running on a ThinkPad T410s and using a phone headset as a microphone. Since my arm surgery on Tuesday, I’ve dictated about 2000 words and so far am pretty impressed.

Dictation is a foreign mode of writing for me. I’ve used a keyboard in one form or another since I was about 10 years old and my atrocious handwriting condemned me to a typewriter. I never learned how to touch type, but over the years got up to what about 100 words per minute using a frantic index finger/thumb method that over the years as developed a sort of muscle memory of the keyboard which permits me to type without looking at the keys. When word processing technology first emerged in the late 1970s, some writers complained that the electronic ease of deletion, cut and paste, and general speed of composition reduced the value of the word put on the page, and led to a certain compositional laziness that had been moderated by the penalties of working with paper, white out, carbon paper, and the other manual vestiges of writing in the early 20th century. One can writers said the same thing about the typewriter in the 19th century, claiming it made writing “too easy” compared to pen and ink on paper.

Voice technology has come a long way in recent years, especially on android phones where Google’s voice-recognition technology in its maps and search tools are excellent. In the pre-android era, if I wanted to set a destination on the cars GPS, I needed to tediously punch in numbers, cities and states before I could put the car in motion. Attempting to set an address while underway was a recipe for a head-on collision. Now, if I want to get to my office, I simply press the microphone icon and say “go to W. 39th St., New York, NY” and Google does the rest. Voice-recognition is a lifesaver, literally, when I need to respond to a text message while driving, yet my son is fond of a pending the word “bitch” to my dictation.

My biggest complaint with voice-recognition is it forces me to enunciate and be choppy and my diction, where as when typing, I am able to pound away with relatively fluid ease and no concern over misunderstandings and goofy transcriptions. That said, I am a terrible typist and spend a huge amount of time on the backspace key correcting typos and mess ups. Another drawback of dictation is lack of privacy. I hate it when someone looks over my shoulder while I’m writing, and now my voice bellows through the house making me very self-conscious of whether or not I could be overheard by my wife or son. If I were in a cubicle in a typical office I would literally be dumbstruck.

I have no choice but to continue dictating for the foreseeable future, until my doctor gives me the all clear to start typing again.

But at least I can blog and work on memos and have some productivity that otherwise would be completely lost due to surgery.

(This entire post was dictated straight through with nothing corrected)

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