April 29, 2011

Very Cool Move

Crunchgear reports that Bose founder Dr. Amar Bose has gifted nearly all shares of his company to MIT. With those shares, the university will

be raking in the dividends, likely to fund a few chairs, scholarships, and other recurring costs.

Paging Michael Scott

New Scientist reports that software has been developed that "understands" the long and the short of double entendres:

Double entendres have been making us laugh since the days of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but up until now computers weren't in on the joke. Chloé Kiddon and Yuriy Brun, two computer scientists at the University of Washington, have developed a system for recognising a particular type of double entendre - the "that's what she said" joke, in which seemingly innocent sentences can be transformed into lewd utterances by appending just four short words.

That's what she said.

April 28, 2011

One of My Favorite Charts

Microsoft Online Losses

This chart is updated each quarter by Business Insider. It never fails to amuse. It depicts Microsoft's quarterly operating income from online services. The long-term trend, broken only by a few quarters when losses were worse than usual, is linear and negative. It has not gotten any better in six years. You are seeing a large corporation, employing many smart people, unceasingly bang its massive head against a wall.

 

 

I guess when you have enough cash on hand and don't give a crap about your shareholders, you can do damn near anything.

update: it's also worth noting that, while Microsoft utterly blows at making money online, the company continues to haul in boatloads of income. Windows 7 and Office make them a lot of money.

Microsoft earnings for the first three months of 2011 were $5.2 billion on $16.4 billion of revenue, up 31% Y/Y. I still wonder why they allow increasingly more blood spill from their online services unit. If they can't do well themselves, why not buy someone who can?

April 27, 2011

∴ Moonraker

This week’s #5byBond watch-along covers Moonraker, the eleventh film in the Bond franchise. Summary: Bond In Space.

Moonraker was to have been the twelfth Bond film, but the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind two years before prompted EON to postpone For Your Eyes Only, and hurry this movie into production. You can still see the erroneous assertion “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only” at the end of the credits for The Spy Who Love Me (the previous film). Space was the happnin’ place.

My notes:

  • thugs in leather jackets steal a space shuttle off the back of a 747. These guys look like they’re better suited to stealing cars.
  • Jaws returns to help Bond off an airplane. His chute fails, he flaps his arms and lands on a circus tent. Awesome comedy. Jaws’ part will grow in the second half of the film, but I kinda wish they had left him in the last movie. Gags like this turn what could be a thriller into a farce. Interestingly, Richard Kiel (who plays Jaws) received a Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in this film, from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA. He lost to Arte Johnson in Love at First Bite. Ahem.
  • Bond registers surprise that Drax’s scientist is a woman. I haven’t read the Ian Fleming novels, maybe the chauvinism comes from them.
  • the centrifuge scene was pretty cool. Looks real, Roger Moore’s face had ripples in it. The thug’s crestfallen look after he failed to kill Bond was a nice touch.
  • Bond shoots the sniper in the tree. If the sniper had succeeded, how would they have explained that to the authorities? Drax knew who Bond was, so he had to know someone would come looking.
  • touchtones on the security lock to Drax’s Venice lab sound like the theme music to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another blockbuster from 1977. EON was really squeezing the space theme in this film.
  • Drax’s poison gas only affects humans. Apparently he wants to de-populate Earth. This theme repeats from the previous film, where Stromberg wanted to use nuclear weapons to annihilate Earth’s human population.
  • apparently the guy painting in St. Mark’s Square, Venice, is also an airport security guard. Re-using minor actors-that’s tops in efficiency!
  • Bond flies the Concorde to Rio de Janeiro. Late seventies, the early days of supersonic civilian travel. The flight is called BA128 (British Airways) but the aircraft wears Air France livery. Hmm.
  • what, Bond didn’t notice the woman fixing a drink at the in-room bar when he walked into the Presidential suite?
  • vodka martini, shaken, not stirred, but served in a tumbler. No class.
  • great location atop the mountain in Rio. I’d like to spend about a week up there.
  • great line: “His name’s Jaws. He kills people.”
  • Love at first sight for Jaws and his girlfriend. Nice assets.
  • The movie begins its slide into silliness when Drax and Company fly off into space.
  • The movie goes completely off the rails when space troops are deployed from Drax’s space station to do battle in the vacuum of space. Pew-pew! Pew! Ah, well.

Bond in Space! Goofy crap. Shame. Some space theater holds up well, though dated. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is a good example. This movie, not so much.

The plot is improbable from the start and goes downhill from there. It’s the over-used gimmickry and half-witty slapstick that made Bond films as much farce as thriller (after Connery left the role) that does this one in. Even the first two of Moore’s turns as Bond were better than this.

Don’t despair, though. Bond films are not equally bad. The first five were pretty darn good, and Connery’s return in the seventh was also enjoyable. But the lead actor isn’t the only key to these movies.

A common theme among Bond films, grouped by how enjoyable they were, is the director. In particular, and after Connery left for good, the first three (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man With the Golden Gun) were directed by Guy Hamilton. They are the most enjoyable of Moore’s work as Bond.

Lewis Gilbert directed the next two films (The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker). These two were more farcical and began the tradition of bad old Bond films. The next three (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and A View to a Kill), Moore’s last, were helmed by John Glen, as were the two that followed, starring Timothy Dalton. We’ll see how they turned out beginning next week. In the mean time, here’s a handy list of the EON Bond films, in order.

Up next, For Your Eyes Only.

April 26, 2011

End of an Era

In an age when some bloggers use Moveable Type software to create their content, the last of the personal moveable type machines has been made. Typewriters are no longer manufactured anywhere on Earth. From Business Insider:

We stopped production in 2009 and were the last company in the world to manufacture office typewriters. Currently, the company has only 500 machines left.

As a budding geek in the early seventies, I recall digging out our family's Olivetti portable typewriter and type-type-typing my way through page after page. I wasn't creating anything useful, I just liked banging away on the keys. I think I transcribed most of a user guide for FAA radar displays over a period of months. (I later wound up using those very displays in my career.) The move to a personal computer was a natural one for me in the early eighties. Maybe I was just used to playing with a keyboard.

The typewriter remains a bit of a wonder. It possesses the creative work and engineering that went into Gutenberg's press, reduced to a few pounds of metal and plastic. With it you could create a letter, apply for a job or write the next great novel. I had my first glimpse of one in action seeing my dad fill out forms, applying for a job opening.

Times change and the utility of a personal computer, which itself serves so many more purposes, combined with a bit of software have finally killed the old technology.

Somehow, though, I can't see Hemingway banging out a tale on a MacBook.

update: apparently a few smaller producers remain in southeast Asia.

April 24, 2011

Unpleasant Fact

Seth Godin’s latest blog entry is an unpleasant, and brief, meditation on the state of unease overtaking many Americans.

New polling out this week shows that Americans are frustrated with the world and pessimistic about the future. They’re losing patience with the economy, with their prospects, with their leaders (of both parties).

What’s actually happening is this: we’re realizing that the industrial revolution is fading. The 80 year long run that brought ever-increasing productivity (and along with it, well-paying jobs for an ever-expanding middle class) is ending.

His thesis: the dream of an easy middle class lifestyle is over. The 9-to-5, Monday to Friday, evenings and weekends in the ‘burbs with the kids and all-is-well that many knew from their parents and friend’s parents growing up. I don’t know whether or not I agree with him, but I know the unease is out there. So is unemployment.

Give it a read. Does he target you? Are you (or were you) truly well-paid for following instructions? Are you still? Is the “dream” too much to ask for anymore?

Or are you a creative type? An entrepreneur? And are you well-paid for that?

An Abomination

Anchovy-stuffed olives are like swearing in church. The title says it all.

April 23, 2011

∴ New iMacs Imminent, But...

Supplies of iMac machines are drying up, even on Apple's own web store (9To5Mac). It means only one thing when Apple product supplies become constrained: a model refresh is imminent. Before picking out a shiny, new iMac when they drop, consider a strategy I've been using with my newish MacBook Pro: dual use.

The iMac and MacBook Pro are internally the same machine. Same connectors, same processors, same memory, same hard drive options (for the most part ... the iMac gives you the option of pairing an SSD with a hard drive, something you'd have to hack a MacBook Pro to achieve). There are only a couple of significant differences. The iMac possesses either a 21.5- or 27-inch display. The MacBook Pro provides mobility.

Here's how to get the best of both worlds. Rather than a new iMac, pick up a new MacBook Pro, instead. Spec it out with 8 GB of RAM and a one terabyte hard drive, or splurge on a speedy SSD. Pick a 13-inch model for greatest mobility, or a 15-inch model if you don't mind the added weight, price and awkwardness.

Now add a BookArc ($50). This moderately priced item holds your new laptop vertically on the desktop, allowing access to the optical drive and cable connectors and keeping the rear cooling vents clear while presenting the smallest possible footprint.

Next add a 27-inch Apple Cinema Display ($1000). This gives you the display area of an iMac at a fraction of the price. Remember, with a MacBook Pro in hand you already have the computer. This item gives you the big display for desktop use. Bonus: it comes with a mini DisplayPort cable that carries audio, video and USB signals from your laptop, perfect for hooking up your MacBook Pro.

You'll also want an external Bluetooth keyboard ($70) and mouse ($70). If you prefer, USB-connected Mac keyboards and mice can plug right into the Cinema Display. If you prefer the feel of your MacBook Pro's trackpad, there's always this ($70).

This works nearly as well with a MacBook Air in place of a MacBook Pro, but you're limited to 4 GB RAM and a smaller SSD. The Air's processors are significantly slower, but that should be remedied by a refresh in the next month or two.

Now fire it all up. What do you have? The equivalent of an iMac in a portable package, for a whole lot less money than the price of both, and only a few hundred more than the price of an iMac alone.

April 22, 2011

∴ Standing Work

I spend most of my work days using a computer in one way or another. And, as is the case for most computer users, that entails sitting at a desk. A recent health study, revealing the effects of sitting much of the time, got me to thinking about how much of my time beyond work hours involves being seated.

I realized that I spend almost all of my hours on my butt. Commuting morning and evening, relaxing during and after dinner, riding in the car to run errands, traveling, visiting. I run three days a week, but that’s only three or so hours every seven days. Here’s what that health study had to say about what that might mean for my health:

This is your body on chairs: Electrical activity in the muscles drops — “the muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse,” Hamilton says — leading to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes rises. So does the risk of being obese. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides — for “vacuuming up fat out of the bloodstream,” as Hamilton puts it — plunge, which in turn causes the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol to fall.(NYT via Smarterware.com)

So I joined a bunch of other people who’re tied to a desk at work, and re-set my workstation as a standing desk (that's an example, not mine) this week. Before you get the urge to say, I know, Donald Rumsfeld does this, too. He’s only one of the more well-known practitioners.

The first couple of days have been uncomfortable. The bottoms of my feet, particularly, were painful by mid-day and my legs gained a few more aches than I get from a long run. From what I read, these pains should depart by the second week. It may take a bit longer for me to find relief, though, because my telework days still involve a traditional, seated workstation.

Kelly spends most of her workday on her feet running our shop. She’s been known to complain of sore feet, too, and she’s been doing this work for over six years. So I’m wondering just how much easier this is going to get for me.

For now it advances something I’ve been thinking about for a while. It seems like every time I turn around, some other aspect of modern living is shown to be unhealthy for me. The cure is often to change that aspect in a way reminiscent of how people used to eat, work, play and live. Maybe it’s just modern living itself that’s hurting us.

∴ Health Care Follies

I visited my doctor this week. Just a routine physical exam this time, and apparently I'll make it another year. During the visit we had an interesting conversation about the cost of health care in America, and something he said struck me.

We were talking about heart disease and how the health care industry attacks it. For patients presenting symptoms of approaching heart illness such as angina, he's a fan of a diet published by Dr. Dean Ornish in 1990. The diet is a departure from the contemporary American one, which is high in saturated fats and simple carbohydrates.

My doctor quoted a medical study that uncovered a significant benefit from adopting the Ornish diet.

In this study, 28 patients followed the Ornish program (as described in the Principles section above), while a control group of 20 patients followed conventional dietary guidelines for heart disease (including restriction of fat intake to 30% of calories and cholesterol intake to 200-300 mg per day). After one year, the patients in the Ornish program showed a significant overall regression of coronary atherosclerosis (as measured by quantitative coronary arteriography), while, in the control group, atherosclerosis progressed. Patients in the Ornish group reported near complete relief from angina (chest pain), a likely result of increased blood flow to the heart. (Ornish, 1990)

In other words, adopting this diet can save a patient's life. And yet, as my doctor told me, the number one medical response to symptoms of approaching heart disease is not to send the patient home with diet counseling, or referral to a dietician, but rather a cardiac catheterization, often followed by implantation of a stent.

While the stent is valuable as a temporary fix for a blocked artery, it does nothing to move the patient into a healthier lifestyle. The artery can re-close as the patient continues his unhealthy diet. For patients who don't yet have near-completely blocked cardiac arteries, a lifestyle change is the better treatment plan.

My doctor would like to go the diet route, but as he says, if the patient fails to adopt the diet (likely) or is too close to a completely blocked artery and suffers a heart attack, a lawsuit for failure to follow the established procedure will result. Wanting (needing) to avoid a costly lawsuit, the doctor's hands are tied. The very expensive procedure is prescribed even though a far less costly, and proven, treatment exists.

We do a lot of unnecessary process in public life. Much of it is aimed at Covering (Y)our Ass, because Americans as a group don't forgive, they get even. Lawsuits are the usual result.

The question is, how do we limit litigation to what's reasonable while retaining the right to redress under the law, and how do we define "reasonable?" Or, more directly, how do we tell people that sometimes they will suffer the pains of their own ignorance, and it's their own damn fault?

April 21, 2011

Warning Shot: Imagining the Worst

Slate posted a speculative article that serves as a companion piece to mine, about the US debt. Good company to be in when you're a neophyte writer.

Slate's article imagines the worst: a default on the US debt, caused by political inability to raise the US debt limit. It's a short, easy-to-understand read. The reality won't be a short, easy-to-recover-from event if it comes to pass.

Snoozin'

Captain Dave posted another entry to his blog, Flight Level 390, a couple of days ago. Much of the article is a mild rant about a less-than-top-flight co-pilot, but the first couple of paragraphs are relevant to the ongoing media confusion over sleeping controllers.

Where am I and why am I dressed this way? Yikes! Time for oxygen, again... The alien-like head squeezer grips my skull and face allowing the regulator to flood my lungs with a pressurized stream of cool aviator's oxygen. Colors get brighter instantly and my mental acumen comes back from the brink of stupid. I look over at the co-pilot; he is looking at the food stains on his tie.
Surely he is doing just that... Because sleeping is illegal. Just ask the poor air traffic controllers who are in the media smash box at the moment.

Oxygen, the old trick of pilots going back to the days of unpressurized aircraft. Groggy? Hung over? Feeling ill? Take a hit of aircraft oxygen and bam! ...you're back to normal. For a while, at least.

Dave is driving an Airbus full of people overnight, his co-pilot has obviously nodded off, and he's groggy. It happens. It happened in a few control towers recently, too, where there was only one sleepy controller on duty. And, for a brief while, there was none.

The "problem" isn't a problem, it's human nature. It won't be solved by putting another sleepy controller on the shift. It will be solved by putting another two controllers on the shift, and letting them take turns napping. They do it at Eurocontrol (Get The Flick), it works, and we should do it here in America.

We're not paying controllers to stay awake. We're paying them to keep airplanes apart so that air travel and air commerce can proceed safely. Safety is a relative measure, one not easily met by tired, bleary-eyed controllers. I've been there. How safe do you want to be?

 

April 20, 2011

Selling the Goods

Shawn Blanc is writing about selling an app, but it's really the key to all of retail.

Which is why, at the end of the day, the single best thing you can do is make an app that people will want to use.

Good marketing gets people to show up the first time; a good product will get them to show up the 2nd time and the 3rd time.

∴ Warning Shot

An interesting thing happened in the financial markets a couple of days ago. Standard & Poor's, an investment rating company, issued a warning that they might downgrade their credit rating on US debt some time in the next two years, if Washington fails to set forth a plan to reduce that debt. The stock market took a moderate dive in response, because the possibility of a lower debt rating has immense, life-changing possibilities.

The stock decline wasn't the interesting part. The warning was. This is the first time the US has been officially warned about its credit rating by Wall Street.

Companies and governments have the advantage of being able to issue debt by selling bonds when they don't have enough money to cover their outlays. You and I have to go to a bank and ask for a loan. Bond issuers and the average Joe rely on one thing in common, though: a credit rating. The better a debtor's credit rating, the less interest they have to pay on their debt. So a top credit rating makes borrowing, or issuing, debt cheaper.

US bonds are considered one of the safest investment vehicles in the world, because they're backed by the "full faith and credit of the United States."

It is generally accepted that the U.S. government will never default on its loan obligations. The full faith and credit of the U.S. government essentially confers risk-free status to securities such as U.S. Treasuries. (Investopedia.com)

The US government has a AAA credit rating, the highest, and so the treasury can sell bonds that pay less interest than most others and investors will scarf them up. Credit ratings are really a measure of risk. US bonds carry very low risk.

The US has never come close to defaulting on its debt, but with its debt running near 100% of annual domestic production (GDP) and the demonstrated inability of Washington to agree to a plan to reduce it, doubts are beginning to creep in. S&P's warning is the first indication of the possibility of very bad economic times ahead.

If the US debt rating is reduced from AAA to AA, a single step down, the treasury will have to pay higher interest on new bonds in order to entice investors to buy them. More risk requires greater reward. That means the annual interest payments on the debt become even more expensive. And the debt load goes up.

Budgeted net interest on the public debt was approximately $240 billion in fiscal years 2007 and 2008. This represented approximately 9.5% of government spending. Interest was the fourth largest single budgeted disbursement category, after defense, Social Security, and Medicare. (Wikipedia.org)

Interest on the debt, along with all other government spending, is paid with tax revenue. Consider how much more it will cost American taxpayers to service the debt when interest rates climb due to a credit downgrade.

Consider, too, the upheaval in worldwide financial markets as investors begin moving their money, once considered safe, out of US treasury bonds. Perhaps it has already begun. A market awash in US bonds for sale makes those bonds cheaper (greater supply, less demand), so the treasury has to pay even more interest on new bond issues to make them competitive with newly cheaper existing bonds. The cost of servicing the debt spirals upward.

The hard part of getting the debt in control is what needs to be cut from Federal outlays to achieve it. The programs argued over these past few months are chump change compared to the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and interest on the debt.

Mandatory spending accounted for 53% of total federal outlays in FY2008, with net interest payments accounting for an additional 8.5%. (Wikipedia.org)

and

Several government agencies provide budget and debt data and analysis. These include the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the U.S. Treasury Department.

These agencies have indicated that under current law, sometime between 2030 and 2040, mandatory spending (primarily Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt) will exceed tax revenue. In other words, all "discretionary" spending (e.g., defense, homeland security, law enforcement, education, etc.) will require borrowing and related deficit spending. These agencies have used such language as "unsustainable" and "trainwreck" to describe such a future. (Wikipedia.org)

There's the source of our debt problem. Who will be the leader who says, "We need to re-organize Social Security and Medicare?"

There are a couple of lights at the end of this tunnel. One is getting a handle on the national debt (something we had in the late nineties), leading us away from calamity. The other is the proverbial freight train of a lower credit rating, upending our (and the world's) economy to a much greater degree than the recent recession.

April 19, 2011

Great New Panorama App

Microsoft has just released a great new app for the iPhone: Photosynth. Cult of Mac has the details:
Microsoft’s latest iOS offering hit the App Store today in the form of Photosynth; a fantastic photography application for taking 360º panoramic photos on your iPhone. It’s a free download, and one of the most impressive panorama applications I’ve tried.
I've just composed a 360-degree image of my cubicle at work. It took just a minute to stitch together the multiple images I took, and I could share them via Facebook, Bing Maps, Photosynth.net, email or SMS. Best of all, the price: free. Find it in the iOS App Store today.

April 18, 2011

Quantum Teleportation

...is the transmission of data at faster-than-light speeds using quantum-entangled "qubits." A team of scientists has just performed the first such transmission while keeping the data intact. From Engadget:

with full transmission integrity achieved -- as in blocks of qubits being destroyed in one place but instantaneously resurrected in another, without affecting their superpositions -- we're now one huge step closer to secure, high-speed quantum communication.

The long-range import of this achievement is instant communication capability. Imagine real-time conversation between Earth and Mars, or no-lag audio and video between any two points on Earth.

∴ The Spy Who Love Me

I'm playing along with Dan Benjamin and John Gruber as they critique each of the Bond films, in the order they debuted, on The Talk Show. We've worked through the first five plus one (the classic Connery films) as well as George Lazenby's attempt at the character, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. We're into Roger Moore's Bond now, having seen Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun over the past two weeks. Up this week, The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond film number ten.

This Bond film debuted in 1977. Unlike the previous films, this one starts out ridiculous. When you see the metallic ticker tape messaging gadget in his watch you know, this one is going to be a wet turd from the word go.

My notes:

  • more skiing. Lazenby started the skiing Bond thing. Sort of a car chase on a snowy mountainside, but dull. Bond has a goofy exchange of gunplay as he skis down an impossible slope, sometimes backwards (?), ending with his parachuting off a cliff. and then deploys a parachute bearing the British flag. he's supposed to be a secret agent. Must have kept the parachute in a bag or something.
  • first time we see Commander Bond in British naval uniform. up to now he's simply been a secret agent. this is probably due to the movies being made in a different order from that of the published books.
  • Stromberg (the villain) has an elevator with a plexiglass exit chute, to deliver unsuspecting victims to a shark tank. who was he expecting to visit?
  • Stromberg's goal is to start a nuclear war, so the survivors can live under the sea. hmm. the film reflects the cold war paranoia with the bomb, like the previous Thunderball where a pair of nuclear weapons were hijacked.
  • first appearance of Jaws. All 7-foot, 2-inches of him. Jaws was himself a gadget with steel teeth. he didn't seem to have any real criminal talent, though. he just breaks things. and people. he has not aged well.
  • Bond on a camel?
  • good fight scene on a Cairo roof, shorter but reminiscent of the later Jason Bourne rooftop fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum.
  • I like Max Kalba. he has a certain panache, seems a better villain than Stromberg. too bad he dies quickly.
  • too many puns and quips. Moore is debonaire, but the constant punning confuses the story. if he doesn't take the plot seriously, why should the viewer? The tough spy has become a wanker.
  • "shared bodily warmth." meh. major amasova (agent xxx, this film's Bond girl) wasn't that much of a hottie. and she smoked loaded cigs. funny how she loses her awful accent aboard the train when she says, "what happened?" I wondered the same thing.
  • british secret service and the kgb work together for the first time. detente was a popular theme in real-world relations during the seventies. i liked the cold war better.
  • why would major boothroyd (Q) maintain a lab in a pyramid? does the lab follow Bond on assignment?
  • nice Lotus Esprit. doubles as a submarine. highlight of the film.
  • Stromberg has webbed hands!
  • why did Stromberg's ship suddenly explode after the two subs were destroyed? did someone drop a match? sympathy pains?

The film goes downhill in the second half, becoming a dumb caper. Seems to be an emerging theme in the last couple of Bond films. First half, exploration of the plot; second half, dumb caper. Like the screenwriters got bored with the story, but needed a way to get from introducing new locations and gadgets to "Bond wins."

This film, too, marks the point in the franchise when going to see a new Bond film became something you did out of habit, rather than something that promised movie satisfaction. 1977 was the year Peter Benchley's Jaws hit the big screen, beginning the summer blockbuster tradition in Hollywood filmmaking. I think the Bond films that followed were akin to today's numbered sequels, a half-hearted attempt at sucking more money out of a meme without thinking about the overall quality of the product.

Up next: Moonraker. Outer space combat. Ugh.

April 17, 2011

College Degree for This Century

Virginia Commonwealth University is adding a new graduate degree program: Product Innovation. From WTOP:

The VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation will launch the new program in the upcoming school year.

...

The center is a collaboration of VCU's arts, business and engineering schools. The product innovation program would integrate curriculum from all three schools.

The key is combining the skills developed by all three schools. The companies succeeding today are those that combine design (art), technology (engineering) and marketing (business). Apple is only the most visible example.

This is a degree program with strong contemporary relevance.

Blaming the Future For Present Pain Ignores the Lessons of the Past

I'm sure this (Slashdot) played well to some of his constituents, but it's short-sighted in the extreme. Perhaps Jesse Jackson, Jr., would like to subsidize an industry whose day is passing? From his rant:

'Why do you need to go to Borders anymore?' asked Jackson. 'Why do you need to go to Barnes & Noble? Buy an iPad, download your book, download your newspaper, download your magazine.' Jackson continued: 'What becomes of publishing companies and publishing company jobs? And what becomes of bookstores and librarians and all of the jobs associated with paper? Well, in the not too distant future, such jobs simply will not exist.

Well, yes. Those jobs will exist in fewer places, and fewer people will be able to make a living at them. Young people, entering the workforce for the first time, will choose other career paths. Others will be forced to change careers in mid-stream, or see the writing on the wall (so to speak) and move on earlier. Older workers, caught in an economic upheaval brought about by technological advance, will lose their jobs and their livelihood. There will be suffering.

There will be opportunity in new industries, too. Not manufacturing, long ago moved elsewhere as Americans came to expect a higher standard of living than employers were willing or able to pay for. But surely jobs in design, content creation, and other creative industries. Jobs engineering new technologies, like the iPad. Jobs in industry not yet established. Sustainable, well-paying jobs.

Achieving successful employment requires a greater degree of education and training now than in the past. That's the natural result of sending a majority of high school graduates off to college during the past half-century. We've raised the bar. There weren't a lot of people making a living from software engineering forty years ago. Demand for new technologies combined with expanding higher education made it a viable career path. What new industries and career paths will exist forty years from today?

I wonder how many of Congressman Jackson's staff are using iPads and other late-generation electronic devices in their official duties for the people of Illinois?

April 15, 2011

There Will Be Bond

The 23rd installment of the Bond franchise, to follow Quantum of Solace, was delayed this past year by MGM's bankruptcy. No longer. Check out the LA Times' piece on the just-announced MGM-Sony production and distribution deal for the next two Bond films, and more.

I've been a Bond fan since I was a wee tot. The reward for a no-nonsense, no-hassle tooth-pulling? Bond night on ABC. Bond back then? Connery, the classic Bond. Now we have Daniel Craig, the Modernist Bond. Bond for the thinking man. Oh hell, I just want to enjoy another Bond movie. And now there will be one, in November, 2012.

Asleep At the Switch

I was thinking about how to broach the subject of air traffic controllers sleeping on the midnight shift, without getting fired from my job, during my run this morning. I still take a paycheck from the FAA, so my writing rarely touches on the subject of air traffic control. I know that only management and union officials may speak to the press, I just don't know the score when I am the press.

So I was very happy to come across Don Brown's take on the subject of sleeping controllers this afternoon. Don is a retired enroute controller from Hotlanta Center, one of the neighboring facilities to Washington Center, where I work. He was also a union safety official. He's also a very good writer.

Having been in Don's (and those sleepy controllers') shoes, I can attest to what he writes. Give it a read.

April 14, 2011

Dead Luggage Office

Unclaimed Luggage Center

I've actually been to this place, on the way to a relative's wedding in Alabama. Wasn't much more than your average Goodwill shop, but I guess you've got to get there early each day to get the good stuff.

From MSNBC:

More than 2 million of the roughly 700 million suitcases checked on U.S. airlines last year didn't arrive with their owners. The vast majority were returned within 24 hours, typically on the next flight. But 68,000 never made it. After 90 days unsuccessfully trying to reunite passenger and parcel, most airlines sell the bags here.

April 13, 2011

Nevada Home to Solar Generator/Death-Ray

Mashable has a story today about Google's $168 million-dollar investment in a solar generating plant in southern Nevada. The new Ivanpah Solar plant is designed to generate 392 megawatts of solar energy, approximately doubling the amount of US commercial solar thermal power generation.

The investment is going to BrightSource Energy, a company that develops and operates large-scale solar power plants, specifically to fund its Ivanpah project.

Ivanpah is a solar electric generating system that uses solar thermal technology and “an environmentally responsible design,” to deliver reliable, clean and low-cost power to Californians, according to the project’s website.

The plant will generate energy with a technology called power towers. Mirrors, called heliostats, are arranged in an array and aim the sun’s rays at a receiver atop a tower. The receiver generates steam; the steam causes a turbine to rotate; the rotation causes a generator to generate electricity. Because such large quantities of solar energy are being directed to such a small area, the power towers are very efficient.

The new plant is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, solar energy generation will take a giant leap forward. Current solar production is around 411 MW (2006 numbers). In comparison, the combined output of the two nuclear reactors at our nearby Lake Anna Nuclear Generating Station is around 1,790 MW. One twenty-two year old nuclear plant puts out over four times the current national solar generating capacity, and will still produce double the solar number when the Ivanpah site fully comes online. The Ivanpah site is a really big deal.

Second, Ivanpah was designated as the location for a second Las Vegas-area airport a few years ago. Planning has stalled due to declining passenger volume at McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas's primary airport, but it's still amusing to think of a busy airport operating a mile or two away from a major solar generating plant, which beams its reflected solar energy at a receiver 450 feet up in the air. I wonder if anyone thought about that?

Third-Age Glasses

I wrote a bit about the three ages of computing a couple of weeks ago, noting that augmented reality displays would eventually come to the masses in the form of fashionable eyewear. Engadget is carrying a story today about a DoD contract with virtual reality eyewear manufacturer Vuzix to produce just such a product for the US military.

the lenscrafters at Vuzix just received a cool million to develop goggles that holographically overlay battlefield data on the wearer's vision. It all sounds very Dead Space (or, you know, like a Top Secret version of Recon-Zeal's Transcend goggles), promising realtime analysis of anything within sight. The company believes the finished product will be no more than 3mm thick and completely transparent when turned off.

April 11, 2011

∴ Running With the Deer

Today is a very warm spring day in Virginia, with temperatures reaching the upper eighties. It's almost like summer here. Yesterday was cooler, but I had a neat experience that made the cool, well, more cool than today.

I was out for a run on one of our local roads, a narrow farm road that winds through the trees and fields before descending to flats through yet more farmer's fields. As I ran alongside trees I was mildly startled to see a pair of white-tailed deer, themselves startled by me and looking my way. They ran as I did, but through thick underbrush that hindered their progress, slowing them to a speed more like mine. They were just a couple of yards within the wood, and for a few seconds, a brief interval of my run, I was running alongside deer.

I'm not a particularly fast runner, average at best and slower in the past year or so than in years past. I don't feel quick on my feet, settling for a slower, but longer run when I go out. So the bit of time I spent running alongside a pair of deer was a treat.

They eventually stopped, then one ran deeper into the wood as the other gazed at me, running by. My run with the deer was over, and I hustled on down the road.

Kinda cool.

Google, Bing, Yahoo!

Who'd have thought things so comically named would be so important?

Anyway. Here's a bit of news, courtesy of Mashable:

Microsoft has secured 30% of the search market, largely at Google’s expense, according to data from Experian Hitwise.

The new March numbers claim that Microsoft achieved 30.01% of the U.S. search market share in March — 14.32% from Bing.com and 15.69% from Yahoo Search, which Bing now powers.

Here's the thing: I've tried Bing on multiple occasions, most recently on a newly-installed copy of Windows and Internet Explorer. The important thing, the only thing, is that I didn't get a useable result from Bing, but I did from Google. On the first results page. Near the top. But not the very top, in the paid results. In other words I found what I was looking for with Google, but not Bing.

Do you use Bing? Does it work for you? Because Bing doesn't work for me, never has, and I'm wondering how they've glommed onto 30% of the search market with the product they offer.

Strawberry Swing

I've liked this sweet little melody since it debuted on Coldplay's Viva La Vida album in 2008. Shawn Blanc featured the music video on his blog today, and here it is. I like it as much as the song itself.

Stay with it, it'll grow on you. It looks great in full-screen mode!

 

April 10, 2011

The Woz Returneth?

With Steve Jobs on an indefinite leave of absence, Apple's future success under his stewardship is debatable just as the company enjoys a string of wildly successful product launches. Jobs was sighted (Radar Online) leaving a California cancer treatment facility a few weeks after his leave began, leaving a hanging, malodorous assumption. I've heard more than one commentator simply avoid discussion of Jobs' health since. The concern is both personal, for the visionary leader of the consumer computing industry, and economic for the company he co-founded.

Now comes word that Steve Wozniak, Apple's co-founder with Jobs, would return to the company as a full-time employee, if asked. From Reuters:

Steve Wozniak would consider returning to an active role at Apple (AAPL.O), the company he co-founded, and believes the consumer electronics giant could afford to be more open than it is, he told Reuters. "I'd consider it, yeah," the 60-year-old computer engineer said in an interview, when asked whether he would play a more active role if asked.

This is good, on a couple of levels. Wozniak has continued to work in product engineering over the years, most recently as Chief Scientist with storage company Fusion-io. The curiosity he brought to Apple's early years would continue to serve that company well today. As importantly, Woz is a giant in the consumer computing field, alongside Jobs, Gates and Allen. The contribution his return would bring to Apple would be as much a moral re-grounding as technical leadership.

The best outcome for Apple is, of course, a return to health and work for Steve Jobs. Barring that, the return of the Woz is a close second. No current Apple manager brings his geek cred and engineering enthusiasm to the company.

April 9, 2011

Neat Wine Glasses

We've been fans of Lolita cocktail glasses, from Santa Barbara Design Studio, for a few years. They're the right size for a healthy cocktail, though the artwork can vary from attractive to garish. Perusing their web site today, I came across a new line of stemless wine glasses. Their shape is pleasing, looking like they fit well in the hand, and the artwork tasteful. Better for red wines than whites, because your hand will warm the wine.

The True Price of Free

Listening to John Siracusa and Dan Benjamin on Hypercritical just now, I heard a phrase that succinctly points to the true price of "free." John said, "If you're not paying for it, the product is you." Reminds me of the poker chestnut that if you can't tell who the marque is at the table, you're it.

Think about that. Consider the free use of something common in everyday life. Google Search, for example. Google Search users are not Google customers. They are the product being delivered to Google Adwords advertisers, who are the real customers. The price paid is attention. Time is finite, making attention a valuable commodity. So when we receive something free of charge, it's probably because we're actually paying with something more valuable than money.

It's not anything new, just a handy way to phrase it.

April 8, 2011

∴ Running For My Life

I was out for a run in the warm Virginia air of early spring yesterday, when I realized that it had been ten years since I took up running. So happy anniversary to me.

I've always been captivated by runners. Many of them make it look effortless, gliding on down the road. But a couple of past attempts at it hadn't stuck for me. I'd gotten started and worked up to a mile, but eventually I'd quit, never getting over the hump and into real distance. As much as it looked like those runners I'd admired were enjoying their workout, for some reason I didn't stick with it.

Returning from a trip to Las Vegas ten years ago, I was unhappily staring at the bathroom scale. I don't mind sharing that the dial had read 181 when we left, but now it was showing three pounds more. I had been working out at a local gym for a couple of years, mostly for strength training, but my weight had ballooned and now I was feeling downright crappy about it.

I had made my way through all of my gym's cardio equipment in the months before the trip. Now I was on the stationary bike, wondering what else I could try. (Jeez, I hated that bike. Nothing in a gym fills me with more dread than a stationary bike. The monotony of it is awful.) I noticed a couple of runners using nearby treadmills, two women who, as usual, were making it look easy by chatting as they ran. They were slim, obviously healthy, and enjoying their run. I figured I'd give it another try.

I fired up a treadmill on my next visit, dialing it up to a ten-minute mile. My first goal was a one-mile run. About halfway through I was sucking wind. My previous cardio routine hadn't put me in good enough shape for even a short run. I pushed on and finished the mile, but just barely.

I hit it again a couple of days later. And again, a couple of days after that. Gradually it got easier. I pushed up my time until I was running three miles, plateauing there for a while. It seemed like I couldn't get past a thirty-minute run, until I tried a slightly slower pace. I remember how good it felt to hit my first 45-minute mark, then an hour.

I've done a couple of registered road races since then, one a half-marathon, and run the 13.1-mile half-marathon distance just for the hell of it a few more times. Most of my runs are five or six miles long, with the occasional seven or eight-miler on warm weekend mornings in the summer.

My weight dropped about twenty pounds in the first year or two and has bounced around a six-pound zone since. I lost about three inches around my waist and everywhere else became lean muscle. Clothes fit better, and just felt better on me.

I don't know why running stuck for me this time around. Maybe it was knowing and watching other runners at the gym. Maybe it was the challenge and satisfaction of accruing more time, on a treadmill early on. Wearing an iPod helped quite a bit, making the run less monotonous. I still go out for a run without it now and then, usually in springtime, to enjoy the sounds of an outdoor run.

It's good to get off the treadmill and back out on the road each spring. And it's amazing how quickly time passes when I'm out for a good run. Most of them are good, but even after a crappy run I can look back up the road and think, "I did that."

April 7, 2011

Old-School Atari Comes to iPad

100 retro video games, from the days when arcade games ruled the mall, are now available for iPad and iPhone at $0.99 each. From Touch Arcade:

Retro gaming junkies, you may want to sit down for this. In a launch that's sending pixellated shockwaves across the App Store, Atari has just released Atari's Greatest Hits [NZ App Store], a Universal app that brings 100 (yes, one hundred) Atari games, along with the original cabinet and box art, to your iPhone and iPad.

UPDATE: This title is now available globally, and our full review can be foundhere. ]

Yes, this includes Asteroids.

April 6, 2011

Idol: Best of the Night

Jacob Lusk has a powerful, soulful voice, unique this season.
Haley Reinhart gave a good performance of Janice's Take Another Little Piece of My Heart. She's really come a long way since Hollywood week. One of the top two women (the other is Pia).
Casey Abrams if this guy isn't in the final two, there is something wrong with the voting audience. Great young musician.
Lauren Alaina did a great job with Natural Woman.
Scotty McCreery had a surprising (for him) rock performance with Elvis's early hit That's All Right. He could easily get into the top four or five if he never, ever sings a lick of country again.
Pia Toscano has a great voice and showed it off really well tonight.

There weren't any bad performances tonight, for a change. Hard to pick who's going home, but I'll say Paul.

Ouch

From Silicon Alley Insider:
The "Tiger Mom" who infuriated "American" mothers by ridiculing their lax parenting skills has another notch in her belt in the great parenting debate.

Amy Chua's daughter is now choosing between Harvard and Yale, both of which accepted her.

Blockbuster: Done

From BGR:

Pending approval at a hearing scheduled for Thursday, Dish Network will acquire Blockbuster Inc. following an auction that took place earlier this week. The company’s winning bid was approximately $320 million but the acquisition is expected to land at about $228 million in cash

Remember when Blockbuster was a multi-billion dollar company? The company that put fear in the hearts of small video rental stores everywhere? The Walmart of video?
I remember racing over to the local Blockbuster in Nashua, NH to get a movie back before they closed at midnight. And walking from my apartment on a Saturday afternoon to find something to watch that evening. Netflix, video on demand and streaming have replaced all of that, and now the mothership itself is gone. Their dominance ended years ago. Shows how long it takes for a giant to fall all the way to the ground.

 

April 4, 2011

∴ Three Ages of Computing

I have this small computer in my pocket, nearly all the time now. It's gotten me thinking about how I used to use computers a lifetime ago, at home and then in college, and how I use them now. And how we'll all be using them in the years to come. I think that's what Steve Jobs was alluding to when he spoke at the iPad 2 unveiling a couple of months ago.

Kevin Kelly recently published a book, What Technology Wants, in which he details the progress of technology and its symbiotic relationship with man. He discusses the pace of technological change, and how that pace has dramatically accelerated over the past century. My TRS-80 computer was the cat's pajamas when I was programming it in the early 1980s, but if someone had handed me a modern-day iPhone when I was programming it well into the night I'd have thought I had received a gift from the distant future. It's been only thirty years since, yet from almost anywhere I am, I'm connected to everything in the online world and every human near a telephone. Every few months, some new online service comes along to make these devices even more useful. Yet we're only living in the second age of computing.

Computing ages are marked by the way we use the technology, because the computers we desire, buy, use and eventually leave behind are just parts and plugs until we make them part of our daily life.

The first age of personal computing was about the computer as iconic device. The technology existed on an altar of sorts, usually a smallish table placed in a special place in the home. Or, just as likely, in a dedicated room in a special building on campus or in the workplace. We used the technology by going to the computer, using it, and walking away. The home computer was usually powered down when not in use.

Laptop computer sales exceeded those of desktop machines for the first time in 2008, marking the start of the second age. This age is marked by portability, where the computer stays with you. Since then it's been a mobile world. Ridiculously heavy laptops gave way to thin and light models. After a few years of single-purpose Treos and Blackberries, Apple put a mass-market multi-purpose computer in a cell phone in 2007. It's now common to see and use a pocket-sized computer. And this past year the same company inaugurated what some have called a new category of computing device, a tablet machine called the iPad.

All of these machines bear one significant thing in common: they're untethered from the desktop and no longer hold an honored place in the home or workplace. They sit on your lap as you watch television or lay in bed, and go in a bag as you leave the house. They fit in your pocket, go on vacation, carry your reading materials to the pool. They're as common as water, and getting nearly as cheap. Consider what you pay for household water in a year, and the price of a new machine with an average lifetime of three years.

The next, and third age of computing, will be marked by machines as small and embedded in our lives as to be part of our person. You will be the computer. Input devices become accessories, like ear-rings or a choker necklace. This is less science fiction than it sounds.

Consider eyewear displays, or the shoe-mounted piezo-electric power cells that can re-charge electronics by walking in them. They're expensive and uncommon, but that will change over time. They'll become more aesthetically pleasing as the electronics within are further miniaturized.

Data gloves allow users to manipulate on-screen objects in three dimensions, without a mouse. Current models are clumsy and wire-bound, but how long will it take for someone to outfit a slim pair of Isotoner-like gloves with thin, embedded wires, and gyroscope and Bluetooth chips?

Audio can be projected to a user by close-fitting ear-ware, and a microphone can be embedded in a necklace, or even a thin skin patch.

Components can be inductively re-charged on the night table.

The descendant of the smartphone computer stays in your pocket (or embedded in your body), sending a data-rich overlay to your glasses.

And you forget you are computing, and begin augmented living.

We thought it odd when people began "talking to themselves" in past years, when really they were using a hands-free device. It'll appear odd to see people gesturing to themselves, too, but that feeling will pass.

This stuff is all available today. Miniaturization takes time, but less time as the pace of technical advance continues to accelerate. The key to success is getting the pieces to act as a whole, in a way that accommodates itself to your lifestyle, rather than requiring you to accommodate yourself to the technology. Fine integration is the mark of the best smartphones and laptops these past few years. It's what drives the new market in tablet technology. As the technical bits of a device melt away, the device becomes the application you're using it for, and you forget all about the device itself. Integration is what Steve Jobs was talking about when he said

These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive. And the software, hardware, and applications need to intertwine in an even more seamless way than on a PC.

He was describing the iPad 2, but he was also describing everything that comes after. When the computer blends seamlessly into your lifestyle, to where you no longer notice it, you become the computer.

Crash Site Found

Air France flight 447, the A300 jet that crashed into the mid-Atlantic in 2009 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, has been found by robotic submarine. The French language site BEA reports:

The BEA reports that, during search operations conducted at sea in the last twenty-four hours and led by WHOI, the team aboard the ship "Alucia" located several aircraft components. These elements have been identified by investigators as belonging to the BEA A330-203 aircraft, Flight 447. Further information will be communicated later.

A press conference is scheduled for today.

April 2, 2011

iPod Nano With a Camera?

Here's a tasty iPod rumor. 9To5Mac reports on a rumor from the Chinese language site Apple.Pro showing a part supposedly for the next-generation iPod Nano. To refresh your memory, here's the current production model on the Apple web site. Below is the photo from Apple.Pro.

Rumored seventh-gen iPod Nano part

See that round hole at the top-right corner? It's just the right size for a camera lens. Imagine if the next-gen Nano could double as a point-and-shoot camera. Pretty sweet.

Just a rumor for now.

April 1, 2011

Oatmeal for Japan

Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal, a web comic, has published his first book. He's on a book tour promoting his work. It's not much of a stretch to say he's probably not rolling in the cash. And yet he's just announced that all profits from his book sales will go to the Japan Relief Fund.

After the dead are counted and the homeless sheltered, there will be thousands of Japanese people in need of basic goods and services. They've been shaken, flooded and now, radiated. This is a good time to be generous.

Buy a book and have a good, ribald laugh. Or go directly to the Relief Fund and donate. Or donate to the ARC and click the big red button, where you can direct your funds specifically to Japan relief.

If you jumped on it early and gave when the news was fresh, good on you. And thanks.

∴ 46 Verses

My mom has sung "happy birthday" to me forty-six times. It's a tradition she began when I was, well, one. It expanded when my sister came along. Every year, wherever we were, we'd get a phone call from home with a pair of voices singing the tune. But it was my mom's instigation that continued it every year.

We've continued the tradition. I sing it to my wife, she sings it to me, my sister and I always exchange a call on each other's day and now I have a niece and a nephew to sing to, too. And of course, my mom's birthday always involves calls from my sister and me, singing the old tune. It's a silly thing, but it puts voice to a deeper bond between us. I expect to sing that song to these people until one or the other of us is no more.

I've missed hearing my dad's voice on the line these past fourteen years. He had a deep, rich voice and always seemed to get a kick out of singing the song for me. I can hear his voice, now, and it brings back memories of childhood birthdays on Long Island.

The calls still come from my mom. Hearing her voice this morning, and thinking on my slowly advancing years, it occurred to me that some year I'll have a birthday come along when I won't hear her voice, singing that tune for me. I'll dearly miss it when that day comes. No-one else has sung it to me forty-six times.

Windows Rumors Begin

While Apple products routinely generate fervent rumor-mongering, Microsoft products rarely do likewise. It's probably the secrecy surrounding Apple's future product line-up, and their executive's consistent refusal to mention anything beyond what they're discussing that day that fosters a speculative atmosphere in geekland. Today brings an interesting Windows rumor, for a change.

According to BGR, Windows 8 might be released with a display akin to the new-ish Windows Phone interface. Widely praised for its simplicity and ease of use, the Windows Phone UI puts the most commonly checked items, like unread message count, right on the initial screen. One glance and you know what's waiting for your attention. No navigating to an app to check its status.

The coming operating system, which will seemingly be designed for tablets as much as it will be designed for desktop and laptop computers, will likely stray from Microsoft’s current Windows UI, but exactly how it might stray is unknown. Tech blog GeekSmack claims to have uncovered several hints in a very early build of Microsoft’s Windows 8 that points to the possibility of an alternate tile-based UI of some kind.

There are a few screen shots of the system registry from a very early Windows 8 build at the BGR link. This rumor is at the geek level, but it hints at interesting possibilities for all Windows users in the next year or so. Windows might get interesting again!

April Fools' Day

That day every year when hopefully nothing important happens. No-one would believe it.