22 December 2011

BlackBerry Is Looking Tasty

If you read Gizmodo you have heard it a million times:  Research In Motion = Shit.  Their products are at least five years behind, when they release something it is complete crap, they are bleeding customers, their next gen operating system may never be released because it is terrible, and the list goes on.  As far as the Apple and Android faithful are concerned, BlackBerry needs to be wiped away like the soft brown stuff from their behinds.  However, BlackBerry's parent company has never looked better.  At least as far as a take-over is concerned.

Let's start with some annoying facts:
  1. Research In Motion is still profitable.
  2. BlackBerry is still gaining customers.
The reason they still make money and companies are still buying their devices are actually pretty reasonable:
  1. BlackBerry works as well as the competition for the things a business buys them for: Phone calls, email, calendar and contacts.  They even have devices without cameras which for many businesses is a requirement.
  2. Basic BlackBerry devices (Bold, Tour, etc) tend to be more durable.  Our experience has been that they can last 4 years of heavy use, or about double what an iPhone or Android will normally last.
  3. Corporate environments would prefer that their employees not install a bunch of stuff on their phone  since that data charge gets a lot higher when they are watching Netflix.
  4. BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) allows fine grained control of everything on the device at a level the competition does not offer.
  5. BlackBerry security is second to none with every packet of information being encrypted on their personal network.
  6. BlackBerry devices can also securely access applications on the trusted network of the company.
So while consumers have long left the BlackBerry world it makes sense that many businesses are sticking with them.  That is a huge prize of large customers loyal to a set of devices that are years behind the competition.  Add to this a nice mess of patents and that BES software that businesses love and you can see the value.

Even more exciting is that RIM is profitable with a ridiculously low PE ratio that is almost unheard of in the tech industry.  This number shows the total value of the stock in multiples over earnings, so the lower the number the better.  Apple has a relatively low ratio of 14, Google is 21 and Amazon is clearly an over priced stock at 94.  Research In Motion is trading at 3.  Despite earning a profit the investors have already priced the company to fail.

There are countless organizations that I can see being quite successful taking over RIM - from software vendors like Microsoft to hardware vendors like Samsung and every company in between.  It really does not matter who buys them as long as they are willing to either clean house to enjoy the profits of existing customers or develop a new product offering within their own corporate gifts.  Either way, the BlackBerry looks like a very tasty purchase.

04 December 2011

I love me some Fire.

Want to watch movies, listen to music, read a book, subscribe to magazines or play video games on an easy to carry device?  Sure, you could buy an iPad, like everyone else, or you can pay less than half the price and do the same thing on technology that is better suited to the task.  iPad owners everywhere are looking up my home address so they can T.P. my house but let me explain before they send the Cupertino Gestapo after me.

In mid 2011 the tablet battle had been to make a device that can do nearly everything a PC can do, run it extremely quickly and to have a feature set the competition could not match.  While Apple decimated the competition, Jeff Bezos realized that most people were merely consuming media.  Apple’s approach of storing everything on the device was inefficient and required purchasing more and more gigs of storage.  (Apple could resolve part of the problem by allowing memory upgrades but then they would sell fewer tablets.)  Amazon’s answer is the world’s first cloud tablet: Kindle Fire.

When we purchased an iPad we plugged it into a computer, logged into our Apple account and then set it to start syncing all of our content to the device.  A couple of hours later our iPad was ready to use and any time we want to grab a new song or movie from our home network we connect it with the USB cable.  (iCloud has another set of problems that has not worked well for us, but that is a conversation for another day.)

The Kindle Fire was already connected to our Amazon account before we even turned it on.  Our favorite music, videos, photos and documents were in the Amazon cloud so there was no need to wait hours for it to sync or to purchase a more expensive tablet to store it.  We have as much content and apps available on our Fire as our filled iPad and still have over half of the space free which might explain why Amazon only has one 8 gig model available.

We have found the design of the Fire better for consuming media than the iPad.  Even the newer model from Apple is too heavy for holding more than an hour at a time whereas the Fire is merely the weight of a good book.  If you are primarily watching movies and reading material then the widescreen is a better perspective.  The size is also important since the Fire will fit nearly anywhere, even in a jacket pocket., whereas an iPad needs to be in your hand or a separate bag for travel.

The most important distinction between the two devices is the price.  No one needs a tablet.  While I can understand a smart phone replacing a computer for people who only need access to email and Facebook, a tablet is an accessory to a home computer.  As such, anything over the two hundred dollar price point is a significant expense given the current state of our economy.  While the iPad is a nice device, I also always felt it was way too expensive for something we use to play a game or watch a movie.  The Kindle Fire is the tablet for hobos, and while two Benjamin’s is hardly “cheap”, it is finally a price that makes sense for what a tablet does.  Heck, Amazon is so concerned about pricing that it gives away a free app every day in their store – just in case you exhausted your savings account buying the device.

While the Fire is a great step forward for tablets, there is still room for improvement.  Anything living in the cloud requires an internet connection and since there is no 3G model of the Fire you may be limited to using locally stored items (books, magazines, apps) when away from a Wi-Fi connection.  The speed of the device can also be jumpy since the processor is just barely fast enough for the job.  For web browsing the Fire is fine but the iPad is nicer.  The base OS still needs work such as cleaning up the launcher and support for Exchange Server connections.  Lastly, while the image quality is quite good it is still not nearly as good as the older Kindle models for all day or sunlight reading sessions.

For some of you the iPad is still the better choice that is worth the premium price.  It is better-crafted hardware that can do much more so it lives closer to the “desktop replacement” world than the Fire.  If you have purchased most of your content through the iTunes store then it is worth the extra cash to stay in the Apple universe.  Plus the price difference can be narrowed if you pick up an iPad from Apple’s refurbished store.

As is always the case with technology, this game is still changing.  Apple recently launched their own cloud service and supposedly has different sized tablets in the works.  Amazon has been slightly more public about their intent to release different versions of the Fire in the coming months, as well, and likely will continue to have a price point far below the iPad.  So, this is a nice review for where we are today but no one knows who will be lighting the world on fire tomorrow.

27 October 2011

Who needs a cell phone? Not me.

There are over 325 million cell phones in the United States with over a one hundred percent penetration rate.  Think about that for a moment.  You are far more likely to find someone over the age of ten with three mobiles than someone with none.  I saw a twelve year old riding a bicycle on our street and talking on a cell phone.  One friend of mine said they would be more likely to go out of the house naked than without his iPhone.  (Well, secretly I doubt he would do either.)  However, there is a cost, both monetarily and mentally, in this always-connected universe we live in.  So what if you could remain completely connected without actually carrying a cell phone?  It was possible for me and it might be for you, too.

My journey to murder my phone started a few years ago when I contemplated shutting down our cable TV bill.  It struck me that the advantages and disadvantages were remarkably similar as well as the compelling solution.  A TV subscription can set you back over a hundred bucks a month and forces you into their schedule.  What I really wanted is to watch what I want, where I want, whenever I want, and to be able to turn it all off whenever I want.  Oh, and cutting the cost dramatically would be good, too.

Streaming over the internet was our answer and thanks to the numerous options available (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon, Apple, broadcast web sites) our family was able to transition without missing a single show.  (Well, there is this dance show my wife watch that we have not found yet, but otherwise that is true.)  I admit I enjoy watching sports and my ability to do so has improved thanks to ESPN streaming, MLB TV and the countless other streaming options available.  When we traveled I was still able to watch my Phillies games, stream a Netflix show or if there was no internet connection we had plenty of shows to watch on our iPad.  It was not free.  With Netflix, MLB, Amazon and Apple eating up nearly $50 a month you are still paying, but that is half what we paid for cable and we had TV on our terms.

The switch away from a cell phone was a similar experience since it cut my monthly bill in half and opened up a data connection to all of my devices.  (Including being able to stream shows while traveling.)  Still, even if you decide to keep your mobile there are valuable tools for improving your availability that I discovered.

My starting point was a Google Voice account.  (Actually, it was GrandCentral at the time, but I digress.)  Google Voice gives you a single phone number that you can program to call all of the numbers you might be available at simultaneously – home, work, cell, Skype, Gmail and nearly anywhere else.  You can schedule exactly when you are waiting at various locations so it only rings certain devices at certain times.  Google Voice has a voicemail feature that will create a text version and email / text you notification.  It also allows for you to avoid SMS text messaging charges entirely since it can intercept those bits of data and route them wherever you like, including to your phone.  And right now it is FREE!

Surprisingly, there are very few issues (I would not even call them "problems") with the service.  The text conversions of voicemails are good enough to know what the message is about but rarely perfect.  If you are in the mafia then the confidentiality of Google transcribing your latest score might be a concern.  Google Voice has also run out of phone numbers in certain areas so they will likely start charging a few bucks annually so they can free up those accounts that are not being used.  If you want to port your cell phone number to Google Voice the cost is $20.  If you want to make phone calls on the service they charge a fractions per minute so you will want a few bucks on your account in reserve.  That said, for a few bucks a year Google Voice gives you a single number to hand to anyone that will make you instantly available.  And, yes, you can even port that number you were using later if you want to.

While falling head over heels for Google Voice I was also exploring the possibility of this almost phone like device called the iPod Touch.  The original version from Apple had no microphone abilities, primarily to differentiate it from the iPhone, but as the generations have progressed the features have become almost identical.  An iPod Touch today is a very thin (better looking?) version of the iPhone that is only a cellular connection and a couple apps away from being your phone.

Without getting too geeky, the new 4G LTE network coming to nearly every cellular network is voice over IP technology (VoIP) where your phone calls are nothing but a data stream over their network.  Why not just have a data connection and use your own VoIP connection?  You can do exactly that and it works especially well if you spend a significant amount of time at locations that already have wireless (Wi-Fi) networks for you to connect on.  In fact, the only time you may need a cellular data connection is when you are on the road.

At home and at the office we have Wi-Fi connections so I already have a data connection in the locations I spend most of my time.  While I often visit sites that have free Wi-Fi (Starbucks, hotels, etc.) they are a hassle to configure each time so I have a Verizon Mi-Fi device that I use whenever I am traveling anywhere outside those primary locations.  The iPod Touch recognizes all three networks and connects automatically so all this geeky connectivity happens with no effort other than the initial setup of putting in the security key for each network the first time.

Annoyingly, the iPod Touch cannot be held up to your ear like an iPhone since there is only a video camera where the speaker should be.  While it can be used in speakerphone mode, if you want to have a confidential conversation (as much as a phone call can be) you will need to pick up headphones with a microphone built in.  Apple has a couple of nice options available for this and there are third party headphones that serve the purpose for five bucks online, though at that price using them for playing music might be painful.

Next up was to decide on the VoIP technology.  There are dozens but I want to focus on what I believe are the two best:  Skype and Talkatone.  I recommend having both in case you find one has a poor connection quality at any given time, though I have found both to be more than adequate.  When making calls to various folks no one has known that I was not on a standard cell phone and I have found the call quality in many cases to be better, even on a 3G cellular connection.  (In addition to speed, this may be part of the reason cellular networks are switching to LTE.)  The fact is that VoIP does not use a significant amount of data bandwidth so it is surprising how well it works.

Talkatone piggybacks off of your Google Voice account and your iPod Touch will ring whenever someone dials that number.  When you call out it uses Google Voice minutes so the cost is miniscule.  They do have advertising in the application however you can pay twenty dollars annually to have that removed and get support for the product.

Skype is free to use when calling other Skype users, but since you will almost always be calling telephone numbers you can expect to pay the fraction of a penny per minute cost that Google Voice charges.  Skype charges sixty bucks annually to have an incoming phone number.  That feature could be something to consider since you can add that number to your Google Voice list and whenever Skype is open on your device or computer then incoming calls will route your way.  Skype can also forward calls to Google Voice for you so you will always be available to Skype users no matter where you are.

Google Voice also has an application that allows you to make outgoing phone calls and send / receive text messages so it is well worth having on your app list.  Messages is an application included in iOS 5 that is a nice messaging application for communicating within the iOS universe, but since it is limited at the moment to Apple devices I think Google Voice is a much better choice.

FaceTime is an application built into all iOS devices that allow for video calls to one another and will work brilliantly in this data universe you are creating.  Unfortunately, since FaceTime is Apple only that limits the calling universe in the same way that Skype to Skype calls are limited, but it works well and is an option available to you.

There are potentially additional savings to be considered beyond just one cell phone bill.  My daughter needed (NEEDED, I tell you) a cell phone and instead St. Nick brought her an iPod Touch with Skype installed.  She occasionally calls friends or her Dad at the office while taking the steering wheel in a game of Gran Turismo on the PlayStation, so it satisfied her need to terrorize a virtual universe.  When we go on a road trip she can use that same Mi-Fi I have to make calls or stream a YouTube video.  Later she will want a cell phone for hanging out with friends and maybe (MAYBE) I can hand her my Mi-Fi device and she will be covered.  Maybe.

There are other hidden advantages, too.  Since you cannot hold it up to your ear you will avoid those tickets in the State of Washington for talking on the phone and driving.  You can have a conversation and still browse data at the same time (looking at you, Verizon and Sprint).  I have yet to experience a dropped call (looking at you, AT&T).  Lastly, when traveling you will have a data connection for not just your sort-of-iPhone but also for your laptop, iPad and any other Wi-Fi devices that are along for the ride.  (No more $10 hotel data charges, my friends.)  You could add a Mophie battery case and get 5 days of usability on a device the size of an iPhone.

Now, Google Voice is something I would recommend to anyone outside the mafia, but abandoning the cell phone truly separates the geeks from those that have Battlestar Galactica screen savers.  When you buy an iPhone you are connected to the world instantly, but what I describe here takes some thought and effort to reach anything close to that magical reality distortion field.  Anyone that has felt lost connecting a Wi-Fi connection at McDonalds or Starbucks will probably need to consider Google Voice and skip this “iPod Phone”.  More important than screen saver choices, if you require a solid phone connection twenty-six hours a day then this is not for you.

I recognize those fracking caveats eliminated 99% of the population.  For those of you that caught the “fracking” reference, please give it a try and let me know how you make out.

29 March 2011

Why corporations are still not buying many Apple products.

Apple is in a position no technology company has been in previously: To control the entire technology ecosystem. With their control of flash memory resources they have built an astounding arsenal of devices that cannot be matched in price or elegance. Consumers are lining up around Apple stores to be the first to buy these devices unseen because they are confident their friends and relatives will be jealous that they got it first. Cupertino products are part fashion statement, part Star Trek gadgetry, part Jobsian magic all rolled up into a price that Americans cannot resist owning. We love them so much that Apple technology is replaced within two years, not because it needs to be, because we cannot keep ourselves from owning the latest device as soon as we can afford to. You could even argue that the demise of cable TV is a direct result of our need to save money to buy more Apple gadgets. Yet with all of this well earned success Apple continues to give the corporate workplace a middle finger salute.

Few people know this but the first question Adam asked Eve (yes, she was the biblical CIO): Why is it that we do not use Apple products here? Much like me, I suspect Eve carried an Apple computer for personal use but would not put them in their corporate pasture. I happily sport a MacBook Air, an iPad and an iPod Touch, partially as a product of making certain our remote access functions for our employees and partially because they are amazing devices. However, for every day work in the office Apple makes it impossible to seriously consider these because they refuse to address the needs of a corporate environment.

This is not necessarily a negative thing to say about Apple. Steve Jobs has proven that he can take over the market without bending over to the needs of suits. The problem for those in charge of business technology is that the suits want to carry Apple products. There are very few people who do not love to make a fashion statement and there is none finer in the technology universe than a device created with Apple magic. Still, they have not made huge in-roads for some very good reasons:

The MacBook Air is an amazing piece of hardware and my favorite computer ever made but I cannot afford to put it in our corporate environment. The first issue is OS X and the lack of native support of Active Directory and Group Policy. Computer systems in a corporate environment are managed through these core systems and while Apple could support them they refuse to do so. Still, you can (and I do) run Windows 7 on the device which is, arguably, as good as OS X so why not just do that? I will attest that I think it is the ideal laptop but the expense will run you from $1200 to $1800 which is double what a Windows 7 laptop with a manually installed SSD will cost. Smart corporations use Citrix or Terminal Services for access from a laptop which makes them glorified terminals and anything over a grand is out of the question. And, anyone who follows Apple knows that they really do not have a true corporate desktop option.

Then there is the iOS saga. An outstanding consumer operating system that has no peer, but I would argue that it has created some enemies in the corporate environment. One example is the original iOS devices used to lie to Exchange Servers saying they were storing the data encrypted locally when, in fact, it was in plain text and could easily be extracted with nothing more than an iPod cable and a computer. Were that not jarring enough Apple decided to not tell anyone and simply fix the issue with a release that left all older iOS devices unable to connect to work email, calendars and contacts. How do you think iPhone and iPod Touch users felt when their devices suddenly were unable to work with the only option to buy a new Apple device? Some are still convinced it was those big bad computer people in the basement that did it.

Any technology director worth their salt immediately banned iOS devices and the ones who are really concerned about security turned off ActiveSync when they realized a developer as large as Apple could fib and open up a gaping security hole in their corporate communications infrastructure. People wonder why Research In Motion's BlackBerry continues to sell so well in the corporate environment and in a lot of ways that Canadian company has Apple's early mistakes to thank for it.

It has been a couple years since that incident and you would think Apple would have learned their lesson, but that is only partially true. The latest 4.3 operating system with the new Safari JavaScript engine killed off access to Outlook Web Access, which just may be the only avenue available to iOS users for accessing email since the last Apple blunder may have disabled their devices from direct ActiveSync connections. Déjà vu as the trouble tickets throughout America rolled in when home employees were unable to access work on their devices. Fortunately this time Apple released a patch to fix the problem rather than forcing folks to buy a whole new device, but it is a painful reminder of why Apple products are not always a CIO's best friend.

I am a huge fan of Apple hardware and their contracts for flash memory have enabled their devices to be not only the best but the least expensive around. The MacBook Air single-handedly destroyed the Dell Adamo within weeks and the HP Envy has not had a second look since leaving Samsung to lone competitor at hundreds more than Apple's offerings. The iPad sent every manufacturer back to the drawing board and while Google's Android platform is getting close there has yet to be anyone who has truly matched the five hundred dollar marvel. Microsoft's Ballmer is still the ostrich in the corner office with his head so far up the Windows sphincter that he has yet to realize his products are universally ignored these days. That said, it is Apple's occasioanlly buggy software that continues to cause grief, or perhaps the arrogance that Apple has toward corporate policy. Either way, if Apple wants to finally eat a sizable percentage of the business world's technology needs they are going to need to check their software and arrogance before they launch it on the public.

24 March 2011

Cellular carriers are ripping you off.

Yes, it is obvious that cellular carriers are taking as much money from their customers as they possibly can, but most Americans are only marginally aware of the situation. Sure, those tiny packets of information called "text messages" actually cost nothing for the carriers to send so that is just complete profit to them. Yes, the throttling of data means that heavy users are going to either lose service or pay out the nose. Sure, some carriers (looking at you, AT&T) have major problems with dropped calls and metro areas with terrible service. No doubt the two major carriers hold all the best devices for themselves to keep local companies out of the game. Still, the major theft going on is a mystery to most.

Let us put it in a different light and see if you can catch how they are robbing us. Suppose that the only way to buy a computer with an internet connection was through your internet service provider. So, you wanted to sign up with a smaller local carrier but they do not have an agreement with Apple for the devices you want. You admit defeat and sign up with Comcast because you need a MacBook Air. Great news! Comcast sells that Macbook Air to you for only two hundred dollars! All you have to do is sign a contract for your internet service for $150 a month for two years. Everyone wins because you get a fantastic laptop at a low price and Comcast knows they have you as a customer for two years. Sure, if you leave early you will pay a two thousand dollar early termination fee, but you have no plans on moving any day soon.

If you already own a Windows laptop you want to use on Comcast they will let you carry over your device so you do not have to pay for the two hundred dollar laptop. How nice, right? Even better, you will be on a month to month at $150 a month for their service and can leave at any time without an ETF. Sweethearts.

Catch how they are robbing us?

Today to carry a MacBook Air and have a Comcast cable modem service costs $1,400 for the hardware and $40 a month. So the total bill you pay today is around $2,400 for 24 months. However, in the example above where your home internet connection is like your cellular service you are actually paying $3,800 for the two years of service - or around twice as much. But, hey, it a great deal because you only paid $200 for the MacBook Air, right?

It is understandable that someone low on cash might buy into this scenario because they cannot afford a $600 iPhone, but the vast majority of Americans know a bad deal when it is staring at them. That is why the cellular carriers, for the most part, do not allow you to see what your cell plan would cost if you bought the device outright. Yes, your phone bill might be half what it is today because they are collecting a huge premium on that "loan" they gave you for the phone.

Nearly no one knows they are being ripped off. They think the discount on the phone is just a nice freebie for being a customer for two years and are completely unaware they are paying such a high premium monthly on their phone bill for it. Corporate customers should be especially incensed because they have the money to buy devices outright for their employees and would love to have that monthly savings on their bill.

While you are seeing the lowest priced major cellular company being engulfed by one of the most expensive you should take a moment to contemplate how the cellular industry is colluding with each other to make certain we are unaware of how much money they are taking from us every single month.

16 March 2011

We need to abandon nuclear energy but only after a better option is discovered.

There is no question that we should give up on nuclear power when a better alternative comes along. Unfortunately, a better one has not appeared for the energy needs of our world and one could argue that nuclear fuel is better for the environment than the short and long term issues associated with coal and oil. As ugly as it sounds, the safety ramifications of nuclear power primarily hit the area where an accident would happen whereas the effects of coal and oil do not require an accident - they are impacting the entire planet every day we continue to use them.

The issue of radioactive waste is real but not nearly as dire as some may paint it. France has been using nuclear energy as their primary source (including selling it to other countries) for 40 years now and they have very little waste. The reason is that the cores are 95% recyclable so they re-use them again and again. Modern nuclear plant designs really have answers to all of the decades old concerns of environmental damage, whether it is human error, natural event or what to do with the bad stuff that is created in the process.

Still, the events in Japan underscore how dangerous this is, regardless of the safety systems in place. Statements that "this will never be a Chernobyl" are being laughed at by some because they could easily argue that it could be a very slow developing Chernobyl. Statements that "wow, it withstood an earthquake much larger than it was designed to but they just didn't plan for the tsunami" are equally unhelpful because this is Japan -- a major earthquake always has a tsunami in tow (they invented the word, folks) and they did plan for a tsunami in their earthquake preparation. The bottom line is that the plant did not withstand all of the elements involved in an earthquake that large and trying to separate the two events is perhaps not as helpful as it may seem. (That said, all of the people working to fix the issue in Japan are heroes in my book.)

What we have learned is that building a nuclear power plant on the Ring of Fire is dangerous and you need the best safety designs imaginable. We need to recognize that we cannot know what we do not know and plan for that. Plants older than 30 years (yes, making up a number) probably need to be retired - not because they are too old to work, but because newer technology has made their safety worthiness obsolete. We are not infallible and our road map needs to account for that.

We do need to build more nuclear power plants to replace our dependence on coal while simultaneously investing in other green technologies - but we need to learn the lessons from this event to make certain it is never repeated.

Google Maps View of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Before Accident
Is it possible to build a disaster-proof nuclear power plant?
U.S. calls radiation 'Extremely High'
Design of G.E.'s Mark 1 Nuclear Reactors Show Weaknesses

06 March 2011

The GOP appears to be declaring war on our children.

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I do not like to segregate into D versus R because the fact is that we all sit somewhere in the middle of the extremes.  There are plenty of Republicans that disagree with the war on teachers and unions that is currently taking place.  That said, Fox News is advertising the talking points of the GOP to allow the richest Americans to keep their money while stealing the future from the working class.

Our teachers are the working class living on Main Street.  Fox News has been using all of their resources to make certain the bankers and Wall Street that got us into our financial disarray were allowed to keep their bonuses and huge salaries while the tax payer rescued them to protect Main Street from a depression.  Bush and Obama's plan ultimately worked and jobs are slowly creeping back into the economy but they were forced to take a hands-off approach to the ridiculous sums of money the rich were allowed to swim in including the organizations that are alive today thanks to our taxes.

On the opposite side of the financial picture are our educators.  We used to talk about how lucky we were to have gifted teachers that work for as little.  Not anymore.  Despite what Fox News might say, this is not a debate about unions, this is a debate about letting people earning more than two hundred thousand dollars (which are not teachers) keep as much money as possible while stealing the future from those less fortunate.

In typical "Fair and Balanced" fashion they play their stories with adjustments to reality.  They will interview people to make it sound like teachers leave at two in the afternoon and only work nine months out of the year while not actually interviewing any real teachers.  (Shocker!  Many teachers spend their summer preparing for the new year, regularly work 10 hour days during the school year and spend their "free time" continuing their personal education.)  Fox continues to run stories making it sound like tax payers pay for the unions and that they require membership which could not be further from the truth.  Public Employee Unions Don't Get One Penny from Taxpayers and Can't Require Membership

No doubt, we have a financial problem in our country and the way Obama's cabinet was trying to address it was to let the Bush tax cuts on the richest Americans expire.  This was not a war against the rich, it was a war against our national debt and leaving a two and a half trillion dollar debt to our kids.  If we had let the tax cuts disappear it would have brought in over a trillion dollars in less than three years and made a nice payment on our federal credit card. Alternatively, we could have focused on adjusting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and dramatically which would have, and still can, changed our financial situation significantly.  This was also ignored, of course, because politicians are, above all else, concerned about being re-elected and cutting money from the elderly is the kiss of death.

So now some Republicans have decided we are going to balance the budget by cutting the programs that help the most impoverished Americans.  Their war is focused on stealing the pensions of teachers because people in the private sector no longer have such a retirement "luxury".  The fact is teacher annual salaries are significantly less than they could make in the private sector but they do it because they will not need to worry about retirement.  It is a trade-off that may mean a total benefits package, that includes free dental and medical, is in the 100K range.  Keep in mind these are individuals that went to college for years to achieve a Bachelors degree, teaching certificate and many also collected a Masters and some a Doctorate.  If you compare like-educated individuals in the private sector you will find teachers are significantly under paid, but they do this job because they love helping kids shape our future.  Fox News will continue to compare their salaries to people who did not attend college for 5 or more years because their case of 100K being out of whack with reality is dependent on stories that are highly inaccurate.

At the risk of stating the obvious, educators are the individuals that work with the poorest kids in our country and give them hope for a brighter future.  Teachers are shaping the future of our country every day and there is clearly an element of our society that wants to reduce their benefits to the point that the only public teachers that will remain are undereducated goons.  After all, why do they care since they will send their kids to private school?  If the anti-teacher movement succeeds this could doom our future generations and allow only the rich children to receive a proper education.

It is not enough to force the next generation to pay for our financial stupidity but now we are going to steal their quality education, too. If your family is earning less than two hundred thousand a year you better apply for new work because, if this new direction succeeds, nothing less than private school will ensure a proper education for your children.  The GOP is engaged in class warfare and the target they are painting is centered on the middle class and poor.  Our only hope is that Americans do not allow their warped vision to become reality.

05 March 2011

It is tough to tell what is true inside a reality distortion field.

And if there were not amusing enough, this article listing the countless distortions (lies?) told by Steve Jobs at the presentation of the iPad 2 is equally amusing:  Steve Jobs' reality distortion takes its toll on truth

The fact is the iPad 2 is what the iPad should have been from the start.  Oh well.  It is an amazing device regardless of the Apple propaganda machine and it will be invading our family shortly, no doubt.

04 March 2011

Reality Distortion at Fox News

Is it called "Fox News" because they make news or because they report their concocted version of the news?

All news sources have a bias.  For example, there is not much coverage of the weather conditions on Jupiter where the storms are thousands of times worse than on Earth because we like to focus on our own little orbiting rock.  Nearly all American news outlets focus only on the interests of the United States so you would be hard pressed to find an American that knows a West Indies bus was stoned by Bangladesh supporters, let alone an American that knows where Bangladesh is.  (It is a country to the East of India.)

However, Fox News takes this familiar narrative to a place never seen before.  They actually alter events to fit their personal narrative.  When a story is not going their way they will focus on a particular aspect, take quotes and cut them to make them sound the opposite of what was actually said, and one of their hallmarks is "accidentally" showing the wrong footage.  I put it in quotes because they do it so often that they either have the most inept staff on this rock or the most brilliant since they always manage to show the incorrect footage that proves their narrative.

In Wisconsin Fox is decidedly against the teachers ("unions") whom have been very peaceful, so they show footage from an unrelated protest in California where they were not:

They really despise Ron Paul because he is a Republican that pushes a Libertarian agenda and supports many of the social stances of the Democrats.  So when CPAC supported him for President overwhelmingly with shouts of joy they decided to show footage from a previous year where there were people who were not supportive.  Worse yet, they interviewed him mocking the fact that people did not like him when the opposite was true:

To make Sarah Palin's book sales look more popular they decided to use footage from her on the campaign trail rather than selling books:

To make a health care rally look far more popular they decided to pump in footage of another rally where the turn out was significantly larger:

I could sit here pointing out their distortions (the kind interpretation) all day, but you see the point.  Fox News is not just biased, they are making up the news to match their talking points.  Then, in a fashion only they could pull off, they call their work "Fair and Balanced" and regularly talk about other news sources being biased.  Without question they are but to reach the title of "Fair and balanced" you apparently have to lie.

Having said that, I am not saying you should not watch Fox News.  That Glenn Beck guy is absolutely hilarious after a couple of beers.  No, what I am saying is that if you find yourself believing anything they are saying you should visit Google News and find another perspective because often times what they are telling you may be the opposite of what is actually going on.

28 February 2011

Why do people fear something that is statistically safe?

Every time an airline crashes suddenly out of the ground pops all of the people saying "see, this is why I never fly on an airplane".  Never mind the fact that these same people drive in automobiles every day where they are a bazillion times (statistic might be exaggerated slightly) more likely to get killed.  Hell, you are far more likely to be killed doing housework in your own home - but one news story justifies being scared of flying.

Well, I can understand that to some extent.  Flying is not exactly natural to human beings and jumps around in an airplane can be a little jarring to confidence.  Still, when a plane crashes it proves nothing except that the safest form of travel is not completely immune to accidents.

I mention this because Google had an incident on their servers where 0.08 percent of their customers lost their emails in Gmail.  Sure, a small percentage but with a couple hundred million users that still leaves 16 million folks with a shocker.  Small tidbit of information that most people are missing, however.  Google has backups and is restoring all of the lost data.  So while the story is "Google lost their customers emails" the fact is they didn't.  All of the customers will get their email back but it might take them a couple of days to get it back online.

This story is not so much about statistics since if the data was lost a percentage of 0.08 in years of Gmail use is still far safer than storing your emails locally.  No, this is about grasping the facts.  Gmail did not lose the data and yet it is being framed as though they did.  So now the comment boards are lit up with folks saying, and I quote, "This is why I DONT use the cloud".  Genius.

So now we have stories piggybacking on this saying you need to backup your data.  Look, I am not saying backing up your data is a bad idea.  I highly recommend backing up anything important and email is certainly something important.  However, Gmail is already backing up your email and is proving it by recovering all of the lost data.  So, why would you back up something that is already being backed up by one of the most powerful technology companies in the world?  If you believe Google is that inept perhaps you should not be using Gmail to begin with?  Perhaps.

26 February 2011

A MacBook Air running Windows 7 is the greatest PC ever made.

When asked what type of computer to purchase my response is almost automated.  If you are not an expert and can afford the extra bucks you should purchase a Mac.  If you need the least expensive system money can buy then hop over to Costco (great return policy) and buy whatever Windows system you like because they will all be equally (un)reliable.  My years messing with Windows and OS X has drilled into my head that OS X is the superior operating system and Apple hardware was overpriced hardware you had to buy to get it.  Still, I had never personally switched my home environment to OS X so it was not a completely educated recommendation.  This is the story of my journey into the Macintosh universe.

For those that are impatient I will jump to the conclusion:  The MacBook Air has become the greatest computer I have ever owned and worth every penny.  I do not make that comment lightly because, until this system, the Amiga 3000 (released in 1990) was the finest combination of hardware and operating system (I still love Workbench OS) ever created.  However, a MacBook Air running Windows 7 is stunningly elegant, intuitive and remarkably easy to use.  In fact, I struggle to find a single reasonable complaint about this system and would recommend it highly to anyone who is moderately comfortable setting up a WiFi connection.

Yes.  I just said “running Windows 7”.  Let me explain:

When it comes to computer hardware Apple is in a class that no one can touch.  Is there phone hardware out there that compares to the iPhone (ignoring antenna design)?  Is there an MP3 player that compares to the Nano?  Is there a pocketable everything device that compares to the iPod Touch?  And there is nothing that compares to the iPad.  Better yet, despite the reputation these products are dirt cheap compared to the competition.  That elegant hardware ability extends into the Macintosh line as well; however nothing prepared me for the perfection that awaited me with a MacBook Air.  I am fairly certain dictionary publishers around the world will include a photo of the Air under the definition “perfection” in their next edition.

On the software side I admit that Apple has been hit and miss in my book.  They make their products simple but they also are often buggy and limited.  Then there are examples like iTunes that are bloated pieces of junk that would be destroyed were it not for our addiction to Apple’s amazing hardware.  But there are examples of brilliance like iOS for which no peers currently exist.

When I gave up Windows 7 for OS X I expected an astounding iOS experience.  I would limit myself to what can be done in the OS and add my needed productivity software and live with the results.  Sure, I might complain about the technical limitations but ultimately it would be easy for me to get whatever I wanted done.  No doubt becoming a “switcher” would be a painless experience and I half expected I might never return my home use to Windows ever again.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Now, some things were dandy in OS X.  Chrome works great and synced my bookmarks automatically.  Microsoft Office works just as well as the Windows equivalent for standard use.  Photoshop and Acrobat, despite being Adobe products, worked dandy.  And despite being  right about the OS being limited I found OS X to be on par with Windows 7 on ease of use.  The thing that shocked me was how buggy the experience was.  There were even roadblocks on my ability to switch Apple Windows software to the Mac such as not being able to convert my iTunes library over.  (Really, Apple?  Really?)  Here are the highlights of my adventure:

A surprising percentage of the American workforce uses remote control type applications to work on a somewhat routine basis whether it is Citrix, Terminal Services, VNC, GoToMyPC or whatever else.  Because I am a geek I am using these systems most of the day and what I found is OS X has serious problems.  At the most basic, activities like right mouse clicking seemingly never work no matter how many keys you hit or setting up the right mouse button in OS X and using an external mouse defeats the purpose of a laptop.  Heck, pressing “delete” and having it delete an email or document also was an epic fail and would have strange results.  The list goes on but suffice it to say that OS X is not an ideal environment for my day job.

When it comes to basic computing functionality the right mouse button is as basic as it gets.  Yes, there is a setting to turn it on buried in there but the operating system was not built for it.  A button opening a context menu is a significant boost to productivity and Apple seems hell bent on not showing Microsoft got something right.  If you build your software around single button simplicity it only raises the comedy of multi-touch commands.  Do not misunderstand me, I actually love multi-touch and after one day in OS X I could never live another day on a touchpad without two finger scrolling.  However, Apple has valuable screen real estate taken up with a menu bar at the top of the screen that should be abandoned for a right mouse click context menu.

Another area where Windows 7 shines is the taskbar.  It displays, launches and browses applications better than the Dock plus is easier to use, too, which is something the folks in Cupertino should take note of.  More importantly, the Dock does a poor job of tracking and finding open applications.  A number of the programs I used daily would be running but would not be retrievable or even displayed in the Dock for no reason I could comprehend.

Then there are the things Apple has no control of.  Flash, Java, Silverlight, Amazon downloads – heck, even Netflix showed hiccups and crashes that I never experienced in Windows.  Chances are this is because the parent companies are not devoting as many resources to their Mac applications but it is important to keep in mind that many of the complaints (flash[cough]) are really problems limited to OS X.

Sure, there were geeky complaints, too, but I will only bother you with the one that I think applies outside of the land of propeller heads:  The way Windows handles drive mapping and network functions is not only more powerful but is also easier to use if you are connecting to non-Apple devices.  While most home users could care less I think this distinction is important in a device that does not have huge amounts of storage for backup and access to media.  Yes, Apple has easy to use hardware like Time Capsule that dismiss the complications but if a home user might have non-Apple hardware they are connecting to then this issue is somewhat critical.

Probably my biggest complaint was the giant pimple growing on top of the MacBook Air with OS X.  Lift the lid of the Air and poof you are back at work.  Well, until you click on a web site or try to access something on the network, that is.  As it turns out it takes a second or two (or three) for the network connection to come back to life.  It seems petty but for someone who is taking breaks from working on the computer throughout the day it started as a mild irritant and within a week was infuriating to get web page load errors when I was moving faster than the computer.

I could have lived with the limitations but it seemed too close to perfection to let them go.  I love the hardware, live for the double finger scrolling and adore the instant-on availability of fmy system but the bugs were aggravating.  So, I did the unthinkable.  I purchased Windows 7 Home Premium and installed it.  Was it a two hundred buck improvement?  No.  It was worth far more.

After bootcamping into Windows 7 I found all of the bugs disappeared.  All of the web “standards” (Java, Flash, Silverlight and so forth) were back to their clean and fast running selves again.  The taskbar had returned and remote controlling other Windows systems was as easy as it ever was.  Mapping to servers and other computers was straight forward and drive mapping to our NAS happened automatically.  The biggest surprise was the advantages that traveled with me.  Yes, when Windows comes out of sleep mode from lifting open the lid it does so with the same speed of OS X but it does it without the delay to access the network.  Keyboard commands suddenly work properly.  The two finger scrolling continued to work in Windows.  And, surprise-surprise, I had two mouse buttons on the built-in touchpad!  (Really, Apple?  Really?)  Another benefit was that Windows 7, when set up properly for solid state memory, had as good or better battery life likely due to use of TRIM commands and other basic functions that OS X has yet to pick up.

Based on my experience it sure seems that the MacBook Air runs Windows better than it does OS X and had me questioning why the Microsoft Store does not sell the MacBook Air with Windows 7 pre-installed.  The combination of the two makes for the finest computer I have ever owned.  Now, I am not saying everyone should buy a MacBook Air and install Windows 7 on it.  For those that are technology challenged I highly recommend an iOS device like an iPad since it will accomplish nearly every basic computing task a home user may need.

OS X is an operating system for those that have already bought into the Macintosh universe.  It is a fine piece of software but unless you already have an OS X software library the current version seems a step or two behind Windows 7.  Sure, if you are at risk for getting malware than OS X is nice because there is less out there, but those folks should buy an iPad instead.  If you are technology challenged and need a mouse equipped system to connect to the office then get a cheap Windows laptop for work and an iPad for everything else and it will still cost less than a Mac and be risk free for computing.  However, for those who have some technology skills, I cannot imagine missing an opportunity to install the best on the best.  Yes, it is not cheap but combining a MacBook Air with Windows 7 is the computing equivalent of platinum and this half-switcher could not be happier.