Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Been a while

A friend that now lives in Texas asked for my blogger link I realized it's been a while since I last blogged. Now my Dad's comment makes more sense. I can't beleive it's been almost two months since I've last posted.

I've had a wild time the last two months with the contracts I've been involved in, some in Virginia, some in Alaska. That's about as extreme coast-to-coast you can get and it takes its toll on your body.

Because I've been working long hours, I don't have much energy tonight. I've got pictures languishing in my camera and science-technology thoughts to write, but not tonight!

I think I'll get a one-year boxed collection of Star Trek, "The Next Generation" television series DVDs as a gift from Santa tonight.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Good to be Home

I just got back from a meeting near D.C. It's great to come home to hugs from my wife and daughter and be in their company again. Teaching kindergarteners Sunday morning was pure pleasure. We spent nearly all of the rest of Sunday doing family things together.

I'm a long-time PalmOS user, so switching to Windows on a PDA/cell phone just before a major trip was interesting, to say the least. When I get a moment, I'll post some pictures and comments about Beltway business culture, Alexandria, Virginia, WiFi, the performance of my new Pocket PC 6600 cell phone (the source of the photos of Alexandria) and a few tech tips and raised questions from my experiences traveling outside of Alaska.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Teleportation is Coming

Another technology from Star Trek is in development. On April 26th, I wrote about how we're about to see Star Trek style replicators in the form of mass-produced DFDs (Digital Fabrication Devices) link

Teleportation of matter has now been demonstrated. A team of scientists at the Niels Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University in Denmark have made a breakthrough by teleporting an object a distance of about half a meter.
CNN article
New Scientist

Hmmm...which of my stocks involve airlines? GE makes jet engines for Airbus and Boeing.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Observations on Office and Professional Authors

Saturday morning,
I sat in my office and was in the middle of busily wasting time with my productivity applications, in order to perform very simple tasks. I was buried deep in Microsoft help-screens trying to delete the indelible double-line spacing that mysteriously formatted an agenda I copied from an Outlook e-mail. When I paste it into an Outlook appointment it appears with double line spacing. (see the screen-shot) As is often the case when using Microsoft Office, I was about to "just give up and give in" when I got a interrupted. It was a welcome phone call from and old friend who happens to be a local author. I relayed my frustration. He enjoys teasing me because I often use Microsoft products "in this day and age" and "despite knowing better." (I also use Linux and he knows that.)

He is retired from the tech industry and is now a professional author. I know three in Anchorage. All of them have modern computers with XP and licenses to use Office. They all make money writing books. Not one of them uses Microsoft Word.

What do they use? Two use Word-Perfect. A third uses an MS-DOS era sharewhare program that I also used to use...about 20 years ago. Why the preference?

They consider themselves competent writers. As such, they prefer to focus on their ideas, plot twists, character dialogs and such rather than manipulating a busy computer program focused on format. Time and inspiration are their capital. Losing either one is wasteful. This means they don't want to use distracting interactive applications. No animated paperclips offering to help them with their letter. No typing two letters and pressing enter, only find that what they typed triggered an auto-text substitution. No wandering though menuing systems that start small, then after a second or two cover half the screen. They ctrl-x and ctrl-v like it's second nature.

All three like to keep their hands on the keyboard and skip the mouse...unless forced. That means having a bazillion buttons, notoriously inconsistent formatting and option menus, time-delayed cascading menus and regular interruptions from pop-up dialogue boxes with "cancel" and "okay" buttons or asking if they're really sure...is simply not their cup of tea. None of these things help them pour out their thoughts. Several of these are credited for making them lose their thoughts.


Not to pick on soley on Word. Many new open-source applications have also started to develop similar bad habits. The software seems confused as to whether it is trying to be word-processor, a web-page design tool, a desktop publishing tool or a coding editor. The result is that it's not particularly good at any of those tasks.

Okay, maybe Word is not as focused and not as fast, but it helps you produce higher-quality documents, according to a white-paper in .pdf format. That conclusion can be found on "page 3 of 2."

Saturday, September 23, 2006

3 Cylinder Wonder Car



Want to limit the amount of petroleum you use?

Prius:
My wife and I recently test-drove a friend's new Toyota Prius. She currently drives a late-model Cheverolet Impala a heavy but very comfortable sedan. I drive an all-wheel-drive Dodge minivan (for Alaska's snow) that actually gets 15-25mpg according to the computer display.

Anyway, back to the Prius. It was just as smooth as the full size GM sedan. It was significantly quieter. The seating arrangement was very roomy and comfortable, even in the back. After driving it, my wife was sold. She wanted one. I like its hacker potential, but would leave the car alone to stay married.

I'm economically literate and can do a lot of math in my head. It could be said that I estimate, calculate and make investment decisions for a living. With all her running around for her volunteer work, commisary runs, etc. I estimate that my wife burns about 800 gallons a year in her Impala. At a generous $3 a gallon, that's still only $2,400 for an entire year. Compare that to the cost of a Prius.

A Prius is around $25,000. New cars are a depreciating asset. As a general rule, putting money into something that's dropping in asset value and produces little income upsets me. I've done it before, but that's because I'm married and wish to stay that way. Come to think of it, that's the reason I do lots of dumb things. Even before I was married, most of the dumb things I did were in relation to a female. Back to the Prius. There's a waiting list. (I'm glad!) It bought me some time to gently point out the economics of buying a Prius, versus driving her Impala a few more years.

While we're talking about economics, asset-value and decision making, I'd like to point out that anyone with $1,000 can still buy a 50 mpg vehicle and suffer little or no asset depreciation. The reality is that cars don't depreciate forever. The value curve of an automobile, over a period of 40 years, looks like a U-shaped curve. If you want to make money on an asset you can actually use every day, buy at the bottom of the U-shaped curve.

That said, let's talk about a 3-cylinder wonder car. My dad recently purchased a 1990 Geo Metro. He beleives it will be a collector car. At my request, he supplied this photo.

What is his track record for picking out used cars that soon turn to collectible classics? In the eighties, he purchased a used VW bug and a Datsun (now Nissan) 240Z, the original "Z-car." There is some level of minor "celebrity status" if you drove either car as a teen. I had that privilege but at the time, probably didn't appreciate it.

Let's consider for a moment economic concepts such as value-curves, optimal purchase timing, asset age and future demand relative to supply. All are key to buying a collectible classic. What makes this little car from GM a consideration?

1990 Geo Metro value factors:
  • Novelty: The 1989-1994 Metro is a 3 cylinder car.
  • Maintanence: Early models were simple. They had few options.
  • Original: Most were not modified. (Who puts money into a Metro?)
  • Restorable: They share parts with several other brands.
  • Practical: Like the 240-Z and the VW Bug, a tall adult fits in a Metro.
  • Future Appeal: Oil will trade between $50-$150 a barrel in the future.
  • Future Appeal: Like the Prius, the Metro uses conventional gasoline.
  • Practical: It gets about 50 mpg.
  • Trends: Sell the SUV, buy a commuter car.
  • Accessable: Current pricing runs about $1,000.
  • Timing: Metros have bottomed-out in value.
Time will tell if these little 3-cylinder cars become collectible. In any case, I asked my dad to be on the lookout for a second one for me. I'm also looking for an early Honda CRX, and early-model Pontiac Fiero. I'll make a vacation of flying down to purchase it, visting family and driving it up to Alaska.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Techno-bureaucracy

Today, the technology most office workers use is purchased with the intent of making us more efficient and focused on productivity. At least, that's the message pushed by my industry and the theory behind the purchases of most organizations.

As someone economically literate, I often wonder if that's really true. For instance, take my phone. Please...take my phone. It replaced an obselete system that must have been, gosh...well over 18 months old.

Our system has VOIP as well as whole bunch of other convergency-industry acronyms. In addition to the requisite 12 buttons for dialing (e.g. 1-9, *,0, #) there are roughly three times as many buttons on it not directly related to dialing. They include several "multi-function softkeys" whose meaning changes in each usage context, a multi-row screen and yet more buttons to manipulate (well...sometimes, depending on context) the menu choices on the screen. I have the simple version of the phone. You should see that one that the "key-switch systems operator" uses. Roughly translated, "key-switch systems operator" is convergence industry-speak for "receptionist."

The user's manual that comes with the simple version of my phone is a thick booklet. It's a book full of text that reads something like this ...then push the appropriate [assigned function] key. Note that the actual sequence and key-group assignments will vary depending upon your configuration... Huh? Using an obselete phone, when I want to redial a number, I hit "redial."

On the "make me more efficient in my corner office" phone, re-dialing now works something like the following 12-step program:

1. Briefly scan the phone for the re-dial button. Scan it again. Okay, this time slow down and read each button.

Walk out of my office. Recognize the support staff has gone home and can no longer help me.

2. Stare at the phone for a full minute, scanning across its numerous buttons on the phone with interesting-sounding labels such as "Feature." "Feature" is a rather promising-sounding button that I really ought to check out some day but, I must attempt to stay focused to quickly find the button labelled something like "re-dial."

3. Briefly wonder if the person I wanted to quickly call back has already left his desk to go to the budget meeting with the wrong estimate I just gave him.

4. Play with the smart-menu system for a while and read the display area above each "soft key" hoping to find something like "re-dial."

5. Briefly debate whether I should interrupt yet another late-working executive or technical manager next to me or, to save them time, initiate a formal service order call to the help desk and burn the time of several successive technicians who also don't routinely use most of the phone's fancy features either.

6. Being the smart technology executive that I am, recognize that there's a better, faster, more efficient way. I just might happen to have this person's phone number in my Outlook Contacts list. All I have to do is...whoa...I'm timed out as required by the new security policy applied to my desktop computer...or domain account.

7. Wiggle the mouse and hit the shift-key while attempting to recall the latest seemingly random hardened domain password.

8. Try again...this time, checking the status of the [Caps Lock] key and type MUCH more slowly and much more carefully...Shame on me for trying to rush this!

9. Okay, again. But, this time...double-check the domain name and take extreme care with my typing while wondering if I have mentally transposed a couple of the characters in the one of more than a dozen hardened passwords I'm expected to remember and not write down or store in a file!

10. Wait a while...recognizing that I probably got locked out for a while by the security system for failed attempts. Try again.

11. Bingo! I can tell by the changing screen it's going to let me in to my computer. Great! I can be an efficient technology executive again. Okay. We're back on track.

12. Say "no" to some pop-up screen offering to be the default application for something or other.

13. Click the "Remind me to register later" option on a pop-up window for something or other, as that somehow sounds less distracting than "Register now."

14. Note that this is becoming a bit more than the estimated 12-step program for re-dialing. It appears there may be many more steps. Do not fret. This is generally accepeted. Cost and time overunns are not unusual in my industry for complex technical projects we expect to do in a hurry, such as "redial." We just chalk it up to something we call a "minor technical glitch."

15. Briefly read a pop-up warning me that some program or other is convinced that it is not running the lastest version. Click the "cancel" button because I'm a man on a mission and I need to stay focused on...um...oh yeah...starting Microsoft Outlook.

16. Briefly wonder why Outlook is not already running just like I left it before my last phone call, then shrug and click the "yellow clock icon" to launch Outlook again and wait for it to do its thing with a managed Exchange server located (literally) in a bunker on the East Coast.

While waiting on Outlook to do whatever it does with the Exchange server, breathe a little sigh of relief that I still remember why I was logging in to my computer...it was to check Outlook for something.

17. Sit and stare at the Microsoft Exchange Server's password request, recalling I recently changed it to comply with yet another security policy requiring different hardened passwords that do not match the domain passwords for systems not under our domain. Say a few choice words.

18. Rack my brains. Vaguely recall that, precisely as requested, I compliantly changed my hardened password just before the long weekend. For those of you that don't understand the implications of doing this on "systems not under our domain" ...suffice it to say that there's going to be a minor problem and delay with connecting to Exchange. Local Domain="Alaska" Exchange Server="Florida" and has a different security administrator. That's a technical glitch.

19. A smart and efficent technology executive like me is not deterred. I WILL efficiently acheive my mission and each goal, despite minor problems like this. As a technologist, I can "troop on" because I understand concepts, such as "asymetric redundancy" which, roughly translated, means "I have a handy little device on my hip that will stay synchronized with the Exchange server. " Well, at least, it will stay synchronized until the next Microsoft security patch is installed.

20. Thankfully, it's not yet Patch Tuesday (which always occurs exactly 1 day prior to the well-attended "Liquid Lunch Wednesday" at a nearby bar and grill.)

21. Reach for the belt holster and pull out my PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). Get past marvelling at the tiny little 'qwerty' keyboard. Tap the tiny little button with the green marking that powers up the color backlit touch-sensitive display.

22. Rather than view the familiar desktop littered with program icons and search for the contacts icon, stare in confusion at the full-screen animation providing me with a warm welcome and offering to walk me through the user-setup routine. Huh? Setup routine? What happened to my setup?

23. Quietly say a few choice words. Stay calm and keep a laser-like focus on the mission at hand...if I can just remember what it was.

24. Painfully note that there is no is "Cancel" option on the user set-up screen. Note with dread that pressing the house symbol has no effect.

25. Being the practical, realistic technology executive that I am, quickly recognize that the device's warm offer to walk me through the set-up process is an offer I will not be allowed to refuse. On the bright side, it assures me that user set-up process should only take a few minutes. It lied.

26. Stare at the PDA's screen and try to recall why I was desparate to get the PDA working in the first place. Recognizing that a.) it's very late, b.) I'm tired, punchy, feeling frustrated and should just drive home and get a good night's sleep.

I'm much better at efficiently by-passing my industry's productivity tools when I'm fresh.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mmmm...


There's just something special about marinated meat cooked over charcoal! We decided to cook outside the house and it turned into a spontaneous picnic.