Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Future Is Not What It Could Be



An article in September's FastCompany talks about why it seems that the future never arrives. Why do the innovations that were dreamed of years ago, such as flying cars, teleportation, moon bases and personal jetpacks not come to fruition? There are two answers to this question though I believe both are related. And, well, maybe some of these ideas (jetpacks?) weren't so great or even possible.

Innovation, or more accurately invention, matters less today then it did 100 years ago. We live in a world today where universities get their funding from corporations - to deliver concrete results and not to come up with new ideas. The days when university researchers worked on expanding human knowledge for the sake of knowledge are over. Universities are now, in businesspeak, 'hotbeds of innovation' or in plain English, 'manufacturers of salable product ideas'. The same is true of large corporations. Businesses can only afford research if it will deliver the next 5-10 years' revenue stream. Research is done today to generate future (but short term) cash. The monopolies of yesteryear were able to 'play' (they could afford to) and so acquire knowledge in ways today's companies cannot. The market economy forces them to be short-term focussed. The average tenure of a CEO - what is it now, 5 years? - forces him or her to focus on the short-term.

What about government? They used to massively fund research and make sure fundamental research was being done. Oh right, I forgot, that's the reason universities have turned to business for funding - government funding for research and education is down. Is is the rising cost of healthcare and other sprawl issues that keeps the government tight or is it the supersizing of government that's draining the coffers?

There should be a base on the moon or mars or a program to harvest minerals from asteroids in place today - or something analogous. Technically it's possible. There could be flying cars but the early years of that industry would be risky. There would be accidents until we got the kinks out of the system.

The truth is we are afraid to invent. It's risky. We may lose our competitive edge temporarily until we can commercialize the R&D. People might get hurt. We would rather remain comfortable in our wars and global economic games. Comfortable as we continue to use up the planet we live on.

There is no time to think about the future. We are too busy living in the present.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What 'sexy' means when we talk about software



Here's a post I made in response to an article about Enterprise software and its need to be 'sexy'. I don't believe enterprise software needs to look cool and flashy.

I do believe that enterprise software should absolutely be sexy! I am saying this with the understanding that when we say 'sexy' we really mean 'intuitive'. No one cares how 'cool' a piece of software looks if it's unusable and takes drilling down into multiple stacks of menus to accomplish what you want to. We think software is 'cool' and/or 'sexy' when it's easy to use. Everyone wants to spend less of their time learning the ins and outs of [non-intuitive] software and more of their time doing value-add work. We should be able to figure out what we need to do with a combination of a few clicks of the mouse and reading the help. I have been part of a successful SAP implementation and can tell you that it works beautifully. But guess who uses SAP most? The really bright people. The ones who compensate with the difficulty of learning SAP with brute-force intelligence. Not everyone who's using it is highly educated - that's not a slam or insult it's an admission of fact. These are the users that concern me. They are the ones that use the system by wrote, removing any chance that they will use it creatively or spontaneously to solve the real-world problems they face daily. As soon as its use falls outside of their procedural training they will fail. Mistakes will be made. They will not be able to apply common sense or more accurately, their basic problem-solving skills to using it to getting their jobs done.

In my mind, enterprise software has failed completely in this respect. It continues to treat its users, especially those on the plant floor, as industrial-age 'hands' - without valuable insight into the business processes of which they are the true masters. We, and they, are knowledge-workers. I predict that within the decade enterprise software as we know it will be fast on its way out. Within 25 years it will be relegated to the world today's mainframes live in. As the shift from the industrial age to the knowledge age intensifies, so will enterprise software's market share continue to shrink.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Wikipedia looking for donations to expand in 3rd-world countries



In this video Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia shows how it's being used in 3rd-world nations and emerging economies. Check it out and if you already use Wikipedia, donate. If you don't use it then start.




We also get to hear a little from the One Laptop per Child project which I've previously written about here.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nuclear Energy Makes Sense



Research seems to support the claim that we are faced with Global Warming. Everyone knows that one of the main contributors to greenhouse gasses, principally CO2 or carbon dioxide, is fossil fuels. Chief offenders include transportation (ships, trucks, cars, trains, aircraft) and power generation. As the chart below shows, about 50% of the United State's electricity production comes from coal (2003 numbers), about 20% comes from nuclear, the rest from a mix of renewable, oil, and gas - with the last two also contributing to greenhouse emissions. All in all, 70% of US power is generated by fossil fuels.


In the article, "Global boom in coal power – and emissions" The Christian Science Monitor states:
In the past five years, [the world] has been on a coal-fired binge, bringing new generators online at a rate of better than two per week. That has added some 1 billion tons of new carbon-dioxide emissions that humans pump into the atmosphere each year. Coal-fired power now accounts for nearly a third of human-generated global CO2 emissions.

So what does the future hold? An acceleration of the buildup, according to a Monitor analysis of power-industry data. Despite Kyoto limits on greenhouse gases, the analysis shows that nations will add enough coal-fired capacity in the next five years to create an extra 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year.
They go on to point out that China is not the only culprit, many other nations including the United States see coal-generated power as the cheapest option available.

An article in the Economist, "Nuclear dawn", makes the argument for nuclear power. With worldwide energy demands (and supply) expected to double in the decades to come, nuclear energy makes sense. The following chart shows the greenhouse gas output of each type of fuel used to generate electricity.


Nuclear wins out by a hefty margin. Over the decades nuclear energy has faced difficulties for numerous reasons.

None of these have to do with either its safety or risk record.

Nuclear power plants do cost billions of dollars to build. Worse, in many countries "delays due to protests or planning problems... have lengthened the construction period and enormously increased costs." This is not true of France who
After the oil crisis of 1973... decided to pursue the goal of fossil-fuel independence. With few energy resources of its own, pursuing nuclear power seemed like the best strategy. All the commercial nuclear plants operating in France today were based on technology devised by Westinghouse, which licensed its PWR design to France in the 1960s. Today the country has 59 nuclear reactors supplying 78% of its electricity.
Once operating, however, these plants use a fraction of the fuel required by other forms of non-renewable energy. The fuel in a single reactor lasts about three years. Uranium is also still in relatively abundant supply with no shortages due on the horizon.

There have been a few accidents. In 2007 a small amount of radioactive material was released into the ocean by one of Japan's reactors due to damage caused by an earthquake. The New York Times reported that "317 gallons of [radioactive water] flowed into the Sea of Japan." Aside from Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl this is one of the worst accidents to ever occur, causing a temporary shutdown of the reactor until it is repaired. We are very emotional about nuclear energy. Perhaps this links back to its use as a weapon both designed and proven as a city-killer, an agent of destruction aimed at civilians like ourselves. Many of us have lived through the cold war where the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. A more rational review of the impact of coal versus nuclear exposes a very different reality. The World Bank reports that,
the environmental cost of coal use [in China] is already beginning to take its toll, particularly through SO2 (Sulphure Dioxide) and NOx (Nitrogen Oxides) emissions which are the leading causes of acid rain. In 2002, about 34 percent (or 6.6 million tons) of China’s SO2 emissions were released from power plants. Acid rain falls on an estimated 30 percent of China’s land mass and can become a threat to agricultural output. China’s CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) emissions, second only to the United States, are also a threat to the global environment.
We don't hear about acid rain any more. It's off our radar screens. We forget about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in which 10.8 million gallons of crude were spilled into the arctic ocean resulting in the death of "250,000–500,000 seabirds, 2,800–5,000 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, as well as the destruction of billions of salmon and herring eggs." On its home page the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited states, "Our technical advisers have attended on-site at 550 spills in 90 countries." How much environmental and economic damage have these spills caused? This is just one organization among many that responds to oil spills - some of them. We also need to consider the environmental impact of strip mining, the cheapest way to extract coal from the earth. Intuitively the environmental cost of coal is far greater than that of uranium given the vastly greater volumes of the carbon fuel that must be extracted per kilowatt of energy produced.

As for nuclear power, the errors of the past need not be repeated.

One of these is the laissé faire attitude taken by politicians with regards to renewable energy. This has to be the long-term goal of any national energy strategy. Nuclear energy is a good stop-gap approach to meeting our short-term needs with minimal negative impact while we search for long-term solutions.

The self-centredness of the western world's approach to just about everything must also change. If global warming has taught us anything it's that the greenhouse gas emissions of developing countries have just as much impact on our environment as what we produce. We need to make sure that new renewal energy technologies are affordable and can and will be adopted by poorer countries. This should be the holy grail renewable energy research.

The other error we have committed is that of letting our vote be dictated by the fear, uncertainty and doubt sown by the media and dare I say the oil/coal industries. We citizens need to make more informed decisions and use our voting power to remove the roadblocks to wider adoption of nuclear power in our nations.

Friday, October 05, 2007

One laptop per child



The XO laptop project is one I've been following since it was first conceived of by MIT Professor, Nicholas Negroponte, in January 2005. It intrigued me due to its BHAG or Big Hairy Audacious Goal of creating a laptop that could be sold for $100 and would be appropriate for use in third-world countries. For now it costs $198 but the price will drop as manufacturing is honed. It may never reach $100 but it will come damned close! That alone is amazing!

What makes it so special? It has a battery that lasts for a gazillion hours...well OK, 7 or so, is good for 20,000 recharge cycles (4x your laptop) and costs 10 dollars to replace. It can connect wirelessly (of course) or through a mesh network. The mash allows it to connect with other XO laptops and communicate with them - think truly social networking (within a village for ex.). If just one of them is connected to the Internet they can all connect through this laptop...without any end-user configuration.

That's the beauty of this machine. It connects to everything without you telling it what to do. It's smart. It is also waterproof, can recharge from a $10 solar panel or a crank recharger, is as readable as a newspaper in bright sunlight, can be dropped on a rock with no ill effect and on and on and on.

A truly marvelous device. You can buy one starting November 12th for $400. You get one and a child in a poor country gets one (you also get a tax receipt).

Find out more by watching this excellent video.

or go to this website for details of how to buy one: laptop.org

Friday, August 10, 2007

Employee productivity, quality of life etc.

Great little article in the Economist this week. Here's an excerpt (well, sort-of):
AMERICANS are hard workers, but not necessarily the most productive, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. It has compared America's output per worker, and output per hour, with that of other rich countries. The average American worker produced $90,000 of output in 2006, measured at purchasing-power parity. Only Norwegians, some of whom work on oil-rigs, did better. Using output per hour, however, shows a different picture. Employees in Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and France all churn out more than Americans' $50 an hour. Proof, perhaps, that workers are motivated best by shorter hours and more holidays.


Ouch! Look at Canada - we're not fairing too well are we?

A couple of thoughts. A few years ago I visited IBM's Bromont, Quebec plant where they do semiconductor assembly and testing. We were talking about multiple shifts for plant employees and they said they'd come to the conclusion that the night shift cost more than it delivered due to low productivity and so they canceled it. They now work a maximum two shifts. This is intuitively correct and is supported by my own experiences in a plant environment.

I also have a background in software development process improvement, having implemented various process methodologies dependent on the need. One of the tenets of eXtreme Programming is the 40 hour work week. Here's the rule:
Working overtime sucks the spirit and motivation out of a team. Projects that require overtime to be finished on time will be late no matter what you do. Instead use a release planning meeting to change the project scope or timing. Increasing resources by adding more people is also a bad idea when a project is running late.

Projects that require employees to work more than 35-40 hours/week have been poorly managed. The right amount of tension should have existed from day one - tension being the gap between what is being delivered and what is expected. Too much and it turns into pressure which over a long period of time is energy-draining. The right amount and team feels inspired to work harder and comes to work energized each day.

We are quite critical of Europeans, I know I have been, in the area of economic productivity and competitiveness. If we take our eyes off what we consider to be their 'faults' we might just learn something.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Listen up!

I have been too busy and my priorities have directed what spare time I had elsewhere but for the following video.



from here

Friday, February 09, 2007

MacBook Installation

I said I'd write about my install experience so here it is.

Painless. Nothing complicated to figure out. The only difficulty I had was that the Mac didn't automatically configure and connect to my home Wi-Fi network. That would have been just a little difficult for it to do since I'm using a shared key with MAC address filtering. I spent about 2 minutes trying to find the right place to configure this. 2 minutes is not bad considering I haven't touched a Mac since 1991!

I was up and running in 1 hour and that includes the time it took me to find the address, username and password to my Wi-Fi router, find the MAC address for the Mac's card, enter it, install Firefox etc. Not bad! This took far less time then it typically takes me to set up a new Windows machine.

Once I had it up and running I wanted to get Firefox installed. It took me a second to figure out that I had to drag it to the Applications folder but I did remember an article I previously read about this so I had help. Then I had to figure out how to move the 'shortcut' to the Dock. I know my terminology is wrong - I suspect this will take longer to learn then the Mac. I figured that out in about 2 minutes so now I had Firefox on the Dock - did I say that right? 'On the Dock'? Hmm.

Then I installed Google Browser Sync. All of this took about one hour. Then I wrote my first post on the Mac from the Mac.

OK I needed a desktop productivity suite so I installed OpenOffice which was a little more complicated since there's no native OS X version (funny, I never cared until now) and you have to install X11 first. I followed the instructions and downloaded X11 from the Apple website, tried to install and then read the small print: "System Requirements: Mac OS X 10.3 through 10.3.9". Oops. I'm running 10.4, the X11 version of which is apparently on the install DVD...Which took me about 15 minutes to locate and install. [Dogs! I keep getting messed up with the CTRL-TAB, CTRL-SHIFT-TAB, CTRL-C etc. features of Windows and Mac - different] Then downloading and installing OpenOffice Mac version - all in all about 1/2 hour of work. Then I had to move my iTunes library and some personal file folders to the Mac. I also discovered this really cool feature, "FileVault" which encrypts my home folder. In Windows I had to use TruCrypt which works nicely but not seamlessly. I've also used other encryption technologies like PGP (commercial version) which a) costs too much and b) last time I used the full-disk encryption feature on my laptop, after a few weeks of use it refused to boot. Luckily there's a nifty utility that allows you to decrypt your drive...36 hours later I had my 60GB drive descrypted and could boot. Last time I used that feature! Now I know that Vista has this feature but I'm not testing Vista so for now I don't care.

I never mentioned the packaging. Slick. I'll post some pictures with my next entry.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Dumbing down of America, Part II

I have refrained from "Bush Bashing" over the years of his presidency and don't intend to do start now. What follows is more an analysis of his thinking then a criticism of him as a person.

I also need to add the caveat that it is pretty evident that the article I am about to reference has a, er shall we say bias against the president as seen in how the author has presented the budget announcement.

A while back I posted on the difficulty young people today have in obtaining a university education in the United States. This article in today's Chicago Tribune outlines the president's plan to increase military spending by 11% or $100B this year and $145B in 2008 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while calling for a reduction in federal education spending from $68B in 2007 to $58B in 2008. Increased spending in defense and reductions in education is another example of this administration's predilection for brawn over brain. It is what has led the US to where they are today (in economic terms never mind political) and why China will take over and the combined power of the east (India, China, etc.) will soon overwhelm the US. The nails in the 'leadership by might' coffin were hammered in by both Perestroika and Globalization. The Cold War's termination ended the justification for Pax Americana. Globalization of auto manufacture ended the Big 3's dominance in automotive manufacture to the point where the US industry is on the brink of collapse. After manufacturing comes knowledge creation. This is what drives the industry 5-10 years, or more, in the future where technology patents and scientific discovery result in new products. It takes time, however, so we don't really know what shift is currently in the works. Although the next 20 years will tell I don't think we should wait for the fait accomplit. Now's the time to invest in the education of our youth.

While I am clearly against the president's plans for the US, the article I've referenced really ticks me off! The budget figures have been presented to manipulate the public to respond negatively to the administration. The author claims military increases of 62%. Once you read on you discover this is compared to the 2001 budget. Then he claims the budget has been increased by $245B only to discover later that $100B is for this year while $145B is for 2008. If you're going to lambaste someone do it honestly and without prejudice or manipulation. Whatever happened to journalistic ethics? Or maybe I'm giving the author too much credit for having real convictions. Maybe it's all about sensationalism and selling newspapers.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Macintosh Review, 1st Post

I will spend the next year reviewing the Macintosh experience from a PC User's viewpoint. I used a Mac last in 1990/91 and even then not from a user's perspective. I was setting it up to run ad clips at a TV studio. Before and since then I have only used the various versions of DOS, DOS/Windows, and Windows on desktops and laptops. I started with an 8088 IBM PC in 1984/5 and am now on an IBM T60 with 1GB RAM and Windows XP. I'll go into the details of why I am doing this review in a later post.

I unpacked a MacBook Pro this evening (15" version) and got it up and running in an hour (more than average complexity wireless security + wanted to install Firefox and Google browser sync) and am now writing this post from it. I like the way it feels on my lap. Not to heavy but stable. Nice keyboard.

I'll leave it at that for now. In the next post I'll talk about my experience up to now - which basically includes the install. Remember I'm not a Mac user so some of my comments may appear a little daft to those of you who are (or who are smarter than me).

By the way, this is more about OS X then about the hardware platform although I will make some comments on it. I will be writing about usability, stability, support, interoperability, productivity and any other ity's I can think of.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Remind Me

Talking about trying new things, I saw this video referenced on a blog (can't remember which now) and ended up buying the music through iTunes.

Although I am not much one for music videos - don't like them and watch maybe 5 minutes of TV a week - this one from Royksopp really caught my eye. It's one of the most creative I have ever seen.



Monday, January 15, 2007

Try new things. It will keep you young...and make you rich

As someone approaching middle age, I have been developing a very firm conviction on the importance of trying new things. For me this includes things like learning how to dive, cooking Thai and other interesting cuisine, learning to drive standard and possibly, next year, taking up downhill skiing (haven't tried it yet) so we can go as a family. In the past few years I have also been buying new music and not just music from the eighties, like an album from Shiny Toy Guns. Even more exciting then these is our new Cappuccino machine (try new things, buy new things).

Why? We need new experiences to keep us young in terms of flexibility of thought. I have nothing against and in fact actually like aging. What I would guard against is an aging of mind - not being able to think in new ways. It's also why I read a lot.

Now, apparently, trying new things is also good for your wallet according to a behavioural economist...first time I've heard of that discipline. I still haven't quite figured out how to calculate the ROI of our Cappuccino maker.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

PS3 to beat Wii and XBOX 360 in market share

From an article on playfuls:

One research estimate indicate that "The Sony PlayStation 3 is expected to win the console war in the long term with an install base of around 75 million globally by 2010. The console is not expected to dominate as much as its predecessor, the PS2, due to late launch issues in the PAL region and the early lead of Microsofts Xbox 360."

"Boston-based research firm Yankee Group reported that the game-console war will have found a winner by 2011 and that is PlayStation 3. Xbox 360 will come second and Nintendo Wii third.

The respected market research firm predicted that by 2011, which means 5 years from now, PlayStation 3 will have more than 30 million units sold, Xbox 360 will closely follow with 27 million units and Nintendo will trail the other two giants with its Wii console, with only 11 million units."

Although I know little about Research Markets I do know the Yankee Group. They are heavily used by technology journalists and larger corporations. Their forecast should therefore be impartial as too much is riding on their reputation. Here's an article that further quotes their research.

I'm hoping to get a PS3 for my boys in early 2008...actually they'll be paying for it. I'll be paying for the peripherals like wirless Bluetooth headphones and a 1080p HDTV...

For movie lovers like myself, HDTV coupled with an HD DVD player like the PS3 makes a lot of sense. You get an HD player built into a game console which the kids can use at a cost lower than a standalone player. Conventional wisdom says to wait a year after the PS3's initial release. As was the case with the PS2, when it's first released the technology is too new and game developers are unfamiliar with it. It will take until the second generation of games before they come even close to exploiting the technology. This is especially true of the Cell processor.

Boot Camp - so what?

This post is really, really late...better late then never. I started it in April...it's been fermenting since then.

I have given a lot of thought to Apple's Boot Camp. It allows owners of newer Macintosh computers (with Intel processors) to install Windows XP or the newer Windows Vista on their Macs. This lets them run Apple's OSX for a Mac "look and feel" with access to Mac software or Microsoft Windows with access to a greater number of Windows programs.

This doesn't at first seem significant as why would Mac owners, who tend to be anti-Microsoft, want to install Windows? The reason is simple. Many Mac owners run Windows at work. Being able to use the home computer for both will be a bonus for them.

However I don't think this is the main audience. They've learned to live without Windows on Mac for many years. However, there are two other classes of users. Those that want to buy Mac but haven't due to one or two programs that don't come installed and those that may buy a Mac because it's cheaper then competing manufacturer's computers.

The first of this second group doesn't require much explanation - they can now buy a Mac and use Windows software they need for work or personal use that is not available for the Mac. The second does but is explained easily. Mac laptops are known for their ergonomic and aesthetic design. An equivalent Windows laptop in terms of quality and design would be Lenovo's Thinkpad T60. So lets compare the Macbook Pro and the T60 to see which comes out on top:

(BTW, what's up with blogger and tables? Scroll down to see the table in this post.)












Lenovo Thinkpad T60, Model



Apple MacBook Pro



Processor: 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo


Screen: 15.4” WXGA (1400x1050)


Memory: 2GB


Hard Drive: 120GB


CD: 8x CD/DVD RW


Graphics Card: ATI Mobility Radeon X1400 128MB



Processor: 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo


Screen: 1440 x 900 pixels


Memory: 2GB


Hard Drive: 120GB


CD: 6x double-layer SuperDrive (CD/DVD RW)


Graphics Card: ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics with 256MB SDRAM



$2,278 USD



$2,499 USD



The price is essentially the same if you consider the cost of the upgraded video card, which just happens to be perfect for Vista. One caveat though, you need to shell out a few hundred dollars for either XP or Vista. Even with the slight cost increase it may push users like myself to try using OSX when I wouldn't have if that's all I could run on it. It will definitely mean my next home computer purchase will be a Mac.

The other piece. OSX is equivalent to Windows Vista Ultimate, an operating system you'll have to shell out $3,99 USD for.