Tag Archives: tablets

From Hot Air to Second Wind (Part 2)

We begin Part 2 of ‘From Hot Air to Second Wind’ with the final paragraph of Part 1, but we encourage you to read the introduction in full before starting the conclusion, mainly because it is not the conclusion, and doesn’t come after it, either. That is one reason that it is called something with a “1” in the name. Go ahead, read it, we’ll wait for you… Okay, then, here we go:

I was becoming one guy on the job, another guy everywhere else. After about a month of looking at meeting rooms full of unhappy harried faces, I stumbled upon a realization that would make me a congruent person for the home stretch of the contest: I recognized that I had better relationships off the job, when I was uniquely, solely “me,” than on the job, when I was a group member, one of “us.” I seized on this revelation like a stick shift and slammed it into overdrive.

To this point, I had been holding meetings and occasionally passing out some memos with sales figures, contest updates, bumpersticker boosterisms. The standard corporate fare. Armed with my new, enlightened outlook, I decided to make the sales-contest memos more entertaining, more “me.”

In the final five weeks of the contest, I cranked out about 150 “entertaining” memos; that’s right, four or five a day. Now, calling these productions “memos” is both too little and too much definition; some were undisguised, unadorned comic strips or short stories. What made them memos in any Websterian sense was that they had the words “Date,” “To,” and “From” on them, and “Subject” somewhere close by, usually near the top of the first page. 

And so I distributed my parodies, plays, and perorations; fraudulent celebrity interviews and fake book reviews; drawings, clippings, and doodles; jokes, insults, rumors, and limericks. Within days I had the happiest team in the contest. They contributed ideas, took copies home for friends, showered me with compliments; I was getting to know them, and they were getting to know me.

But by the end of the sales contest, I had learned another important lesson: Stay balanced. You see, I was too busy making people laugh to concentrate on sales goals and contest rules. I forgot that the idea was for me to motivate the team to better results. The pendulum had swung too far in the other direction, and got stuck.

We lost the contest.

The Big Lesson for me was that balance is essential to a successful life. I knew enough to try to spice up the dreary, empty-hype grind of a branch sales contest; but I didn’t know when to stop with the seasoning, already. I couldn’t seem to find a balance between steady sweaty effort and stress-relieving humor. 

The Big Lesson sank in. I left the computer supply biz; within a year I was writing and publishing an agonizingly precious humor mag called “Pedantic Monthly”; a couple of years after that, having joined the new Macintosh “desktop publishing revolution,” I was flying back to Boston to help some folks bring their national political bi-weekly to that new platform; and then, for another decade after that, I had my hands full running production for a magazine publisher, consulting, composing and performing original music, and writing essays, rants, and raves just for people like you.

There is a direct line from those silly sales-contest memos to the recollection of them that you are reading now. They changed my life. Writing was too serious an undertaking for me to squander my talent on corporate memoranda.

Still, being a philologic pack-rat does have its advantages, especially when it’s close to deadline and I need even more verbiage than I’ve already crammed into whatever weighty piece I’m producing. Having produced about a pound of quixotic and querulous memos way back when, writer’s block is a non-issue. I can reach into that bulging (and forever non-digitized) Pendaflex folder of fustian and flippancy, and transform yesterday’s hot air into today’s second wind.

Ah, the benefits of recycling.

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That Was Then, This Is Now

With all the talk about how prices on this, that, and the other thing are always going up, let’s stop a moment and bow, or at least give a polite nod, toward Silicon Valley, Poughkeepsie, and Boston’s Route 128. A rather more reverent appreciation is due entrepreneurialism, capitalism, and the pursuit of happiness. Over the past 40 years, the tech titans of the FPCE (Founding PC Era) have given us the greatest ongoing upgrade at the biggest continuing discount ever. The saga of the personal computer is as fantastic a tale as any sci-fi story ever.

Progress through self-seeking

In fact, truth isn’t just stranger than fiction—it’s often got more magic and miracles in it, too. And, I hasten to add, the progress whose techie little handiwork you enjoy daily is brought to you by a whole parade of people, groups, companies, and cabals all pursuing their own ends, competing more often than cooperating, looking to make a buck, and generally proving Adam Smith right.

PC - Going Back in Time

The longer you’ve been using computers—and some of us had the original Apple, Tandy (Radio Shack), and Timex Sinclair models in the 1970s—the more you can appreciate the astonishing speed of progress. This is a tale that everyone working with computers really should know, and uses terms that everyone really should understand. If you don’t understand a kilo-this from a mega-that, you will never get the full impact of this amazing tale. So read on—you’ll be glad you did.

You can visit PC.net or one of the other great online tech glossaries when you see a new term, but I’ve written such a way that you should understand much of it in context. Some of you, of course, are true experts, so if I’ve erred in any way, by commission or omission, let me know. I’m going to demonstrate just how much technological progress has been made in “personal computing.” It really is an awe-inspiring tale.

Basic computers in 1981

IBM introduced its first consumer-level personal computer in August of 1981, running on an Intel 8088 CPU with a clock speed of 4.77MHz, or 4.77 million cycles per second. It came with either 16 or 64kB of RAM, expandable to a whopping 256kB. It connected to a TV or a monitor, and gave you storage options that included one or two 5¼-inch floppy drives, an optional 10MB external hard drive, or your own cassette recorder. The software bundle? It came with an operating system. Nothing else.

With a monitor and a single floppy drive (giving you 180kB storage per single sided disk) it cost $3005 in 1981 dollars. Depending on how you figure it—Consumer Price Index (CPI) is one common method—today it would take about $2.57 to buy what a dollar bought in 1981. Translation: That IBM-PC computer would cost $7,722.85 (in today’s dollars). Now let’s see what type of desktop computer you can get today.

High-end computers of today

Entry-level computers today are thousands of times faster and more productive than the IBM-PC. The H-P xw8400 was a high-end model in 2006, but it’s still a decent workhorse today and, arguably, is better than many newer models as an entry-level workstation. It features dual 2.66GHz quad-core Xeon processors, meaning eight separate CPUs. A single one runs almost 600 times faster than the IBM CPU, so we’re talking almost 5,000 times as fast with a rough clock speed comparison.

The xw8400’s 160GB hard drive, one-sixth the size of most desktop internal drives these days, holds close to million (932,000) times as much data as that single floppy. There are now hard drives 2TB in size selling for $80—that’s 250MB for a penny, versus the floppy’s 250MB for $7,500 ($30 per MB). That’s 750,000 times less expensive.

For the monitor, the comparison is between today’s 16 million crisp clear colors, precisely displayed by about 2.3 million pixels, with about 9,700 pixels per square inch—and a black-and-white TV with 480 wiggly lines for the entire screen. Today a 20-to-24-inch flat-panel display, bargain basement variety (which are darn good), would set you back as little as $100.

In 1985, when you could get a color MacII for $3,898 without a hard drive, or $5,498 with an internal 40 MB hard drive, you still had to buy a video card and a monitor. That would come to an additional five grand or so. Color system with 40MB hard drive: Over $10,000. Today?

How about we just say, “Infinitely more for infinitely less” and leave it at that?

Bottom line

Today, you can store a million times as much, crunch numbers thousands of times faster, and watch videos in beautiful, high-definition color. For a few hundred bucks you can buy a pocket-sized tablet incalculably more powerful than the room-sized, air-conditioned behemoth that helped send Apollo 11 to the moon—and you don’t have to be a programmer to use it, either.

Off the Grid but On the Job

It’s exciting when unpredictable mixes and mashups of today’s various technology trends converge into something new or, as often happens, new againTelecommuting is presently enjoying a resurgence of interest, a second wind, you might say.

As high-performing media and tech professionals seek lower-impact lifestyles, enlightened firms are attempting to integrate them into a workforce of both diversity and flexibility. But will companies be able to accommodate telecommuters working off the grid, in so-called tiny houses or other alternative structures?

off-grid solar-powered home

Living Large in a Small Way

The new generation of high-tech pros includes a sizable fraction of folks that are ready to commit to a lower-impact lifestyle. The formula has three ingredients that can be combined in various ways to make it all happen:

  • Smaller, more affordable, greener, smarter home designs have made it possible for today’s professionals to lessen their total “eco-impact”;
  • the proliferation of WiFi and the ubiquity of the Internet mean that distance workers can log in remotely with computers or what-have-you; and

Fork in the Country Road: Which Way for You?

Is a simpler, halfway-back-to-nature lifestyle right for you? There are many variables, but the number one priority is picking your piece of paradise. If you have land, or the means to get some, but have no patience, you can buy a Tumbleweed house-to-go and drive it right onto the property. In many states you need no building permits, because little houses on wheeled platforms are, ahem, trailers.

If you’re the kind of nature lover that needs to upload files while watering the vegetables, you’ll be glad to know there are a variety of ways to power your lifestyle in a sustainable, suitably eco-safe and -sane manner.

Power Sources of the Future… Now

For years, the only way to get sufficient power living off the grid was to use gas-guzzling, smoke-spewing generators, essentially little car engines running to charge batteries of some kind (12v DC railroad systems, battery and bulb, were a popular choice, and still are).

Today, we not only have more options, we have clean and consistent ones. We’ve been hearing it for years, but it just may be true this time around that solar is poised for a big breakthrough. As the cost of sun power continues to drop, there are other alternative sources maturing into cost-effectiveness, such as wind power.

Power requirements for a laptop and a few tech devices are not difficult to achieve with small solar arrays, but you need to evaluate your situation carefully. It may be better to get small, individual chargers (solar, hand cranks, stationary bikes, etc.) for your small devices. Your main power generator needs to support the computer and satellite Internet.

A Few Limitations, but Worth It to Some

Assuming you’re not too far into the wilderness, you may also be able to establish a WiFi connection over 3G/4G with your smartphone or mobile hot spot doohickey. Of course, Verizon and other telecoms have 3G/4G netbooks and laptops on the same kinds of monthly plans as phones.

You can probably forget the big flat-panel TV, though, and may only be able to use a few devices at a time on your “main,” although you can run some on their built-in batteries and schedule recharging. (How much simultaneous power slurping do you really need to do?) Try minimizing your power use, even as you balance your career/work obligations with your new lifestyle.

Yes, you can have your cake and eat it, too, but perhaps we should tweak that metaphor a bit. Try this: We can live and work in nature, without devouring it.

LifeTech: Cultural Issues in Tech Adoption

iPad with flags of the world

The Apple iPad is not just translated into other languages, but other cultures, as well.

Tech users worldwide bring their cultural biases to the use of new technologies. Even product safety standards are largely based on a nation or region’s reigning sociocultural values. For global companies—what firm isn’t, what with the Internet, FedEx, and consumer electronics with components from different continents?—understanding these cultural issues is essential. Working toward that understanding along with a growing number of consumer-tech firms are researchers, anthropologists, and (yes) philosophers.

Formed from culture and tradition, a people’s collective mental model defines everything, including color. In China, black borders mean a pictured person is deceased, so the first digital photo frames with thick black bezels—as on the original plasma displays—did not do well there. (White has other issues.) Everything from design and production through marketing and sales must pass the culture test, lest a product fail because people don’t “get it”—or worse, because something is silly or offensive. The classic, possibly apocryphal example? Citroën sold few cars in Holland because its name in Dutch means “lemon.”

IBM, True Blue Trailblazer

Making sure to consider all “society-based cultural factors…in the design of technology” is difficult, according to Geert Hofstede. Hofstede first studied, then strategized the international spread of IBM’s business in the 1960s and 1970s, back when “computer rental” meant paying by the hour to use what was essentially a refrigerator-sized tape deck (with no spell-check). At least IBM’s management team was smart enough to put even smarter academic researchers on the job. Hofstede developed the landmark four dimensional framework for adapting technology to particular cultures (later upped to six dimensions with long-term orientation and indulgence).

Writing in 1980, Hofstede posited four adversarial principles at work across human cultures:

  • Weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance. Some cultures, such as Greece and Japan, place great importance on avoiding ambiguity, especially in interpersonal relations. This explains the Japanese preference for video-calls, which they make in the billions on every phone, PC, and tablet available. Video-calls require being seen, but also positively ID the caller. In Scandinavia and Hong Kong, on the other hand, more ambiguity is tolerated and video-calls are less numerous.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism. The UK and U.S. cultures idealize self-sufficiency and independence, whereas Venezuela and Colombia are proudly collectivist. While people use laptops in the U.S. for a variety of personal and/or corporate reasons, a marketing campaign in Colombia would focus on group collaboration. Traits such as confidence and creativity develop in individualist cultures, while cooperation and conformity are strongly encouraged in collectivist ones.
  • Small vs. large power distance. A large “power distance” exists in cultures like India and the Philippines, where the privileged classes use all the latest tech while the powerless remain “unplugged” on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Austria, Sweden, and other Western nations—where high-tech devices are commodities that even “the poor” can afford—have “small” power distances.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity. Cultures that are task-oriented, and emphasize material success, are called “masculine.” Ones that are people-oriented, and value quality of life? They’re “feminine.” Such previous markers as the American female’s mythical affinity for frilly pink things are in flux, however: Apple’s MacBook line now includes “girly” light-as-Air models that guys seem to like just fine.

It’s James T. Kirk’s World, Not Luke Skywalker’s

If you’re keeping track, the world is turning out a lot more like Gene Roddenberry visualized it in Star Trek than how George Lucas did in Star Wars. (And isn’t trekking better than warring anyway?) While we’re still waiting on Death Stars, light sabres, and ’droids with English accents, the technology of the United Federation of Planets has been showing up for some time now—their communicator became our clamshell cellphone, their data cards our flash memory, their tricorder our iPad.

The latest time-warped delivery from the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise? Mobile, universal speech translators. Yow!

Developers have worked on universal translation for years, and a slew of apps are already running on common digital appliances—Apple products from iMac to iPhone, plus Android smartphones, tablets, etc. The goal: instant spoken translations for natural, seamless conversation, with optional onscreen text display, too.

Some voice-translation apps may offer versions for every flavor of computer operating system (OS), too—PC, Linux, OS X—so as to ensure desktop functionality. But Skype and FaceTime videophone calling with built-in, real-time universal translation remains the Holy Grail, so there are major areas of development for both “static” environments like the office (relatively settled and slower-changing) and “dynamic” ones like the mobile market (experimental and faster-changing). You’re going to see better and better apps, for all kinds of devices, starting… well, yesterday.

Jibbigo

Life moves so fast now that it does seem like “just yesterday” that the first version of Jibbigo, Spanish-English, debuted in September, 2009. Many translation apps require a constant Internet connection to access online databases, but Jibbigo is an offline app that needs no phone or data connectivity to function. It now includes 20+ language pairs available from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Developed by Carnegie Mellon professor Dr. Alex Waibel and Mobile Technologies, LLC, Jibbigo was among the first ”mobile language translation apps” and is quite simple to use. Say a phrase in your language and the words appear as text in both languages on the screens of phones or tablets—while being spoken aloud in the target tongue. Lag is apparent, and varies, but is acceptable.

Multitasking language app

Jibbigo has other features that keep it in the leading-edge position, such as free and unlimited online use, an “add name” function, so-called “Regional Bundles” for travel to various nations with neighbors you’d also like to visit, and the ability to translate both written text and speech. The iOS version plays nice with VoiceOver, so vision-impaired users can still use small devices with small screens.

Featured in an episode of Popular Science on the Science Channel in 2010, and a Nova episode dubbed “The Smartest Machine on Earth” that aired in 2011, Jibbigo has attracted plenty of notice. So has another firm with its own first-rate universal translator, a company whose name we hear quite a bit…

Google Translate

Google actually does want to dominate the planet—really, you can read about it on the web!—so it upgraded its Translate app, which began life as a standard, online-only translator. As the number of superior offline apps grew, however, Google got the message: The current version of Google Translate has more than 60 offline language packs.

While it is true that you can access most of Google’s services via any browser, whether it’s running on a MacBook Pro with that dazzling display named after your eyeball or a Google Nexus 7, translation apps are much more useful on smaller digital devices. This is why the “app model” succeeds.

Domination through, er, popularity?

Google Translate’s menu shows you every available language pack. You only download the language pair(s) you want to translate between. Although the company calls them “less comprehensive than their online equivalents,” the smaller dictionaries are still useful and will doubtless be continuously refined. Google Translate also deciphers camera input, including vertical text in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.

The app has a version for iOS, too, but as yet it has no offline mode and the development roadmap is not being shared with the public. But this—like, oh, everything else—will likely change as we continue to replicate the Star Trek tech environment. Speaking of replication, 3D printers are already producing food, so the day is coming when you just might tell your “kitchen app” that you’re ready for a cup of “Earl Grey, hot.”