Monday, November 29, 2010

Kinect'ing With The Future

An Xbox 360 showing the Ring of Death.
While early indications for the Microsoft's latest phone OS seem less than promising it does appear that they have a big hit in the Kinect.  There has been a lot of press on this item and if you're Microsoft than you have to be pleased with the reception.  The XBox 360 is getting a bit long in the tooth at this point and finding a way to excite shoppers about the platform heading into the always important holiday shopping season is a big win for them.  This is very analogous to what Nintendo was able to do when they released the Wii, which sans the Wii controller was really just a minimally upgraded and repackaged Game Cube.  In both cases the controller and what it makes possible are more important than the technology in the console.  In fact, in the case of the Kinect I'm more interested in what significance it has when used on platforms other than the 360.

If we look at the history of human computer interaction there have been several steps.  Roughly speaking we went from toggling information in via
Each step made it easier to interact with computers and widened the audience for them.

There have been other specialized controllers of course.  the joystick, track ball, and the previously mentioned Wii controller to name just a few.  From a technical perspective the Kinect is a much more complicated and interesting device than any of those as the image below shows.

According to Wikipedia the Kinect is essentially a combination of software and hardware that makes it possible for the XBox 360 to track multiple points (AKA body parts) on multiple people in 3D space.  This in turn allows game designers to create games that require only input that a human can provide by standard movements .  This means that players could for instance interact with a virtual world via detailed 3D avatars.  From a gaming perspective the possibilities are extremely intriguing and game designers are already putting the technology to use.

You could argue that the Kinect isn't a controller at all in the sense that it isn't something you hold in your hand; and that is the revolutionary thing about it.  When combined with speech recognition it allows human beings to interact in fairly complicated ways with computers while never having to touch a controller of any kind.  Which is why I think that the XBox-360 is just the beginning.  This device, or it's descendent's are likely going to start popping up in a lot of different contexts over the next few years.  The technologies involved aren't that expensive and the CPU power needed to drive the software that fills in the gaps and knits things together isn't either.

So what is possible?  If you search on YouTube for "Kinect Hack" you'll come across many videos that show what people are up to already with the Kinect.  A couple that I especially like are...

Kinect Augmented Reality
Kinect 3D Video Capture

In the case of the second video I'm intrigued by the possibility of combining two or more similar devices to get a true three dimensional mapping of a person or place that could than be displayed and explored.  Along those lines here is another YouTube video where that sort of thing is discussed...

Multiple Kinect Coordination Ideas

And finally, one more that actually shows some early results of two Kinect's working together...

Two Kinects Working Together

It will be VERY interesting to see where this all leads.

For as long as I can recall Microsoft has claimed to be a technology innovator.  In reality they've tended to be much better known for making refinements on ideas first popularized by others.  In the case of the Kinect they clearly have a revolutionary and innovative product.  

Image via Wikipedia
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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Some History

Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Kn...
One of the many nice things about this time of year is that it often means a short break from work.  This in turn means I not only have extra time to hang out with friends and family, I also have a bit more time to think about stuff that isn't directly work related.  That in turn leads to more BLOG posts.  Today I'm thinking about big discoveries/inventions and how they impacted our lives and the lives of people doing business at the time.

Arguably the most important invention of the past seven centuries was Gutenberg's movable type printing press.  Prior to that books and papers had to be copied by hand.  The printing press played an important part in the protestant reformation but if you were a scribe it had a more personal impact.  After awhile it put you out of a job.  This wasn't the first disruptive change that humanities inventiveness brought to the world and it certainly wasn't the last.  Wars and disease get a lot of press in regards to shaping human history but innovation in both times of peace and war has played a significant role as well.

As human beings I think we have a tendency to either exaggerate or understate the importance of the events that are going on around us in comparison to what has happened in the past.  With that caveat in mind, the Internet may be even more important than the printing press in terms of the changes it has and will bring about.

I have a modern reprint of a very early Encyclopedia set that was originally published in the mid 18th century. The three thick volumes that make up this Encyclopedia do a pretty good job of representing the sum of human knowledge (at least from the western European perspective) at the time.  Books such as these were often funded by way of subscriptions and the publication of multi volume sets took several years.  It's hard in some ways to imagine a time when so much of humanities knowledge of science and nature could be summarized in three volumes that took several years for the publisher to complete.  At that point in time it was possible for a well educated person to have a good grasp on the entire breadth of the sciences and philosophy and to have mastered more than one.

Today discoveries are being made at a much more rapid pace and the amount of human knowledge has reached a scale our ancestors couldn't have hoped to comprehend.  Truth be told, neither can most of us.  Wikipedia reports over five hundred thousand topics covered in the English language with more being added all the time.  Imagine trying to read every single one and retaining even a smattering of the knowledge gained.  Human inventiveness could cease tomorrow and this would still be an impossible task.

Now we specialize in increasingly narrow areas and when we don't know the answer to something we open a browser, head to our favorite search engine and start doing a bit of research.  We may not be experts but within minutes we have a superficial understanding and if we're diligent than within hours we've gained a level of understanding that would have taken our ancestors days to match because they didn't have the advantage of having so much of human knowledge available in a a quickly searchable format.  Anyone who is old enough to remember card catalogs and the Dewey Decimal system will have a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about, as do those doing serious academic research as not everything is digitized and online at this point.

Circling briefly back to the printing press, it is not a coincidence that the renaissance started at about the same time as the printing press came into being.  One of the changes it brought about is that it made it much easier for knowledge to be shared.  No longer did a highly skilled human being have to labor for weeks transcribing a single copy of a book.  The labor involved in setting up the movable type in the press also required time and skill but once it had been done many copies of a particular volume could be made quickly.   In the case of shorter documents that took only a single page the work involved was much less.   Martin Luther launched what would become the Christian Protestant reformation as his ninety five theses was quickly replicated and circulated throughout Europe.

I can't really point to any single thing that the Internet has contributed to that has had as profound an impact at this point, but the Internet age is still relatively young and there certainly are many emerging trends and changes underway.  The US postal service is feeling a lot of pain right now and while I believe that some of that is self inflicted it is still the case that they are in a situation where the world has changed in a way that brings into question their continued viability as currently structured.   They are not alone; an increasing amount of commerce takes place online which has brought additional challenges to brick and mortar retail chains.  Well run companies have so far weathered the storm well.  For weaker ones the results haven't been favorable.  The current economic troubles have no doubt contributed to the demise of many of these companies but increased competition has played a part as well.  It used to be the case that your primary threats were local.  Now competition can come from anywhere, even the other side of the world.

Image via Wikipedia
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Kindle V3 Extended Impressions

The Reading Room of the British Museum
I've had the Kindle V3 for a couple of weeks now.  I've read two short novels, browsed some technical books and made a dent in the recently released Mark Twain Autobiography.  I've also spent some time using a couple of Kindle applications.  At this point I feel like I have a pretty good feel for the strengths and limitations of this device.

Nothing is perfect, particularly when it is aimed at a very specific use/niche.  The Kindle is not a games machine.  It is not a great PDF viewer.  It is not a direct competitor to the Apple IPad.

I have almost no experience with other EBook readers, so I won't be doing any comparisons to Amazon's competition in that space.

The Good
The Kindle is great for reading novels.  The ability to adjust the font size, line spacing and switch between portrait and landscape makes it easy to find a comfortable configuration for casual reading.  The screen looks great in sunlight and works fine in most artificial lighting situations.

The battery life is great, even if I don't make it a habit to go around for days without plugging in my electronic toys.  With the wireless on and occasional use of the integrated light that came with my protective Kindle case I've gone several days and been nowhere near exhausting the battery.

Syncing of data (book positions for instance) works well between the various Kindle readers I use.  These consist of my Droid X, PC & Kindle.  When I open a book I've been reading elsewhere I am prompted if I want to seek to the furthest position I've read, assuming that position is different from the last time I accessed the book from that device.

Another nice feature is the ability to email PDF's and E-Books to your Kindle device.  It costs a little money, but may be worth it depending.  If you don't want to pay and are willing to wait for delivery until your device is connected to Wireless you can simply send the document to


In regards to applications, the Minesweeper application is free, and pretty much what you'd expect if you've played the one that comes with Windows.  It's a pretty good demo of what is possible with the Kindle.  the slow refresh rate on the screen and relatively meager processing power means that developers are fairly limited in what they can do so I don't expect to see a huge number of applications for the Kindle.

If you're willing to pay money Scrabble is pretty good with "Play against the computer" and "Play and pass" modes along with several variants on the standard rules of the game.  I recommend it.

The Bad
The Kindle is very poorly suited for books that use multiple fonts and odd spacings.  It's really optimized for simple text documents and does poorly in situations where the source material is complex and full of graphics. Kindle editions of technical books are OK, but not great.  The quality of the experience will depend on how detailed the graphics are.  While the PDF viewer has the ability to scale, the EBook reader does not so far as I can tell.  For small simple figures/graphics this works OK.  As you get into more complicated images it becomes a real problem as it is impossible to actually see any detail on the Kindle's small screen.  I don't know if things are improved on the DX version of the Kindle.  I hope so but am doubtful. It looks like images in the Kindle format are of a fixed size.  What you see is all you get.  If this isn't true than I question why after three generations of this thing Amazon hasn't added the ability to scale in the EBook reader.  Actually given how these books look on the PC Kindle Application I'm fairly sure images are of fixed size and resolution.

Reading the Twain autobiography has been confusing and difficult at times as well.  This book is really a scholarly collection of various Twin writings that in total tell the story of his life in his own words.  There will eventually be three volumes, but for now there is only one.  After a lengthy but interesting introduction that relates the history of Twain's efforts to write his autobiography there is a section of sometimes incomplete texts that he wrote at various points in his life.  Sometimes the texts are incomplete and stop in mid sentence.  This can be confusing when reading on the kindle as it eliminates the extra line breaks that are present when reading on the Windows Kindle viewer.  The abrupt endings are jarring but inevitable since Mr. Twain has been dead for a century now and cannot be expected to fill them in.  The poorly realized transitions when reading on the Kindle however appear to be due to limitations in the EBook format and the device itself.  It is possible that the publisher might have done a better job but given other texts I've sampled this is a common problem when dealing with anything more complicated than fairly basic text.  The transition from Twain's words to those of the collections editors should be much more visually obvious than they are on the Kindle.

That is my only significant complaint.

The Verdict
In spite of the issue mentioned in "The Bad" section I still like the Kindle.  It is great for reading novels and other simple texts.  There is still room for improvement though and I'll be looking forward to future generations of this product.  I generally try to get at least two years use out of a gadget like this so I'll likely be in the market around the time that the Kindle 5 comes around.  The DX might be tempting at some point as I have a real need to read and reference technical books and would prefer not to carry them around with me.  this assumes of course that the larger size makes complex documents easier to deal with.

Image via Wikipedia
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Outsourcing & Work Place Changes

information technology lesson :P
I spend a fair amount of time monitoring various technology and business related RSS feeds and reading articles that catch my eye.  Here are a couple of links to articles that I recently read and found interesting along with some of my thoughts.

A Revolution in The Works

The concepts discussed/hinted at here have interesting implications.  In particular I wonder what the future might be for working people if the revolution the author discusses is in fact underway.  Locality is important in the sense that there is a lot of synergy and relationship building that takes place when people are located close together.  Having a company or project strewn across the globe makes it much more difficult to generate those kinds of dynamics.  However technology continues to march forward and as we've seen before, technology often shapes culture.  For instance the introduction of the automobile, radio & television all had profound impacts here in the US and elsewhere.

Today we're seeing new technologies introduced much more rapidly and across far larger geographic regions simultaneously.  Acceptance of these changes has tended to be more rapid than in the past in many areas as the changes are generally not at odds with existing cultural norms or can be easily adapted.  I'd argue that these innovations, primarily in the area of information technology are making locality less important both from a practical perspective as well as from the perspective of culture.  Across the globe younger people in particular have a much broader common ground because of this than they did in the past.  That shared experience is going to make communications and collaboration easier in the future.  The productivity of a highly mobile and geographically dispersed company of work group is only likely to increase in the future if these changes take place.

The Hidden Dangers of Outsourcing

Like the author of the above link I feel that outsourcing does in fact make sense in some cases.  I also share the authors feeling that companies often choose poorly in outsourcing.  I don't know this for a fact, but I'd be moderately surprised if Apple has outsourced their janitorial services for instance.  Given their legendary secrecy having an outside vendor performing this function would greatly complicate the task of keeping planned products under wraps.  Having this function in house doesn't assure that no information leaks out by way of a carelessly discarded document or overheard conversation but it does give a company much more immediate control.  When dealing with outside vendors there is always additional overhead in making changes as all interactions are governed by carefully worded contracts.

Core competencies, and functions that contribute to core competencies should almost never be outsourced as these are the things that differentiate companies from each other and create the competitive advantages that make a company viable.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Kindle V3 First Impressions

Three Generations of Kindles
OK, so I'm not the first, or even the thousandth person to review the Kindle 3.  And this isn't really going to be a formal review, just a series of jumbled and somewhat random thoughts that occur to me while spending my first day or two with the Kindle.

Day One

First of all, the ease of use isn't bad and the screen certainly looks nice at normal indoor lighting levels.  I really do miss the ability to use the screen to interact with the device though.  Once mouse driven UI's became popular most people didn't want to go back to simple keyboard/CRT based interfaces and the transition to touch screens is a similar paradigm shift.  I'm not saying I hate it.  The cursor/select button is fairly easy to get used to and works reasonably well, particularly for book reading.  It just isn't as flexible/efficient as a touch screen.  I really hope Amazon adds touch screen capability to the Kindle 4.  It would add cost so the odds are against it.  Particularly given how well the current and previous generations have sold without this feature.

The form factor of the Kindle isn't bad.  With the leather case it feels a bit awkward compared to a paperback but it's much easier to hold than most hard bound books.

OK, I just read a couple of chapters in a book.  The overall experience was fine.   I don't know how it is for others, but for me, when I get into a book the pages vanish and I'm not even aware of transitioning from one to another.  That experience was intact on the Kindle.

The ability to email documents to the Kindle is kind of nice.  15 cents per megabyte doesn't seem out of line given that there is no charge for the 3G service beyond the initial $50 or so delta in cost between the Wifi only and 3G models.  AT&T, the people who provide the "free" 3G service and Amazon no doubt split that revenue. I like the fact that they require authorization on a per domain basis for incoming messages to this service.  It's a simple and reasonably secure way of preventing random spam from showing up on people's Kindle's.  There are of course ways to spook source email headers but this can be made fairly difficult if various checks are made.  I don't have a lot of experience with this feature but I assume Amazon is "doing the right thing" here.

Day 2
The ability to read PDF's is nice, but not very useful in most cases given the size/resolution of the standard Kindle.  The DX would almost certainly be a much better experience.  I'd love to have one of those, but they are spendy and it really would be limited to use around the house given the size.  I'm not sure why Amazon decided the DX should be 3G only given this.  Wireless only would drop a few bucks off the price while minimally impacting functionality.  Of course that is my use case.  Students might have a very different opinion.  Wi-Fi is widely available but there are often manual steps involved in getting authorized to use a particular hot spot.    The 3G service is almost always available without additional actions.

Hmm, I just looked at the Kindle app on my Droid X, why don't books emailed to the Kindle show up on the Android Kindle app?  That seems sub optimal.

The real value in buying Kindle editions of technical books, which tend to have a lot of graphics and charts is that they are properly formatted for the smaller screen.  It is often possible to purchase PDF's of these books, but as noted earlier the PDF's just don't work well on the small screen of the standard Kindle.  I'm working on my Cisco CCNP certification, and reading PDF's of some of the Cisco Press books is difficult.  It can be done if the contrast is turned all the way up and the page is switched to landscape mode, but barely.  Natural light certainly helps in marginal situations like this.

Final Thoughts (For Now)
Some things I'd like to see in a next generation Kindle
  • The 800x600 resolution is OK, but there is certainly room in the current form factor for both a larger screen and higher resolution.
  • I may be odd, but I don't care that much about battery life.  I'm already conditioned to plug in my mobile devices every chance I get.  I'd be willing to sacrifice at least 50% of the battery life for a larger display.
  • An SD card slot would be nice, but given the small form factor it is probably impractical.
  • Color would be very cool to have.  See link below for more info on this possibility.
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Friday, November 12, 2010

IPad, Android Tablets

Sandpaper in different grits (40, 80, 150, 240...
It's too early to tell if the plethora of 7 inch android based tablets that are starting to emerge will compete directly with the IPad, open up a new market segment of some combination of the two.  I do know that I find Steve Jobs recent comments that the smaller tablets should come with sand paper to reduce the size of the owners finger tips somewhat absurd given the success of the IPod Touch, IPhone and Android phones.  Having devices somewhere in between smart phones and the IPad in terms of size doesn't seem like market suicide to me.  I strongly suspect Jobs is just attempting to differentiate the IPad and marginalize an emerging adjacent segment to it.  Apple is successful not because they sell more devices than anyone else, but rather because they sell enough product and have superior margins.  They have established themselves as a premium brand and charge accordingly.  I'll be that the main reason they are shunning the 7 inch form factor is that they want to delay as long as possible competitive pressure to lower their prices and thus margins.   On the flip side, Apple's competitors don't seem that anxious to bring out devices that are similar in size to the IPad.

Of course somewhere between collusion and random chance is the place where most businesses operate in terms of communicating intentions to their competitors.  You sometimes have to read between the lines to see what is going on.  It isn't outside of the realm of possibility that the various product offerings and public statements being made from all sides essentially boil down to the following imagined dialog.

APPLE: We're happy with the 10 inch space for now.  We won't be bringing out a smaller version of the IPad.  To reassure you that this statement is true we're going to ridicule the whole concept so we'd have to eat crow to change course.

APPLE COMPETITION:  OK, we can live with that for now.  We think there is a viable market in the form factor between smart phones and the IPad.

APPLE: Cool, of course it goes without saying that we're going to beat the snot out of you if you invade our space.  Oh yeah, if that seven inch form factor proves lucrative enough we'll be making a future offering.


Image via Wikipedia
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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Some Random Bits

Cybertool knife by Victorinox
Droid X
My Android based Droid X phone continues to be the swiss army knife of electronic gadgets.  I recently found that it makes a pretty serviceable book light.  Given the battery drain this particular use is best saved for situations where the phone can be plugged in.  My wife gets car sick and prefers to drive, so I often find myself in the passenger seat with little to do, particularly now that navigations systems are pretty much ubiquitous.  It is getting dark early these days so having an always available book light is a good thing.  Which leads me to my next topic.

I'll be getting my very own third generation 3G enabled Kindle soon.  It'll be accompanied by the nice leather case that Amazon sells with the integrated book light, so my Droid X likely won't be spending very much time in the future doing this duty.  The Kindle isn't cheap, but for E books it is a much better value than an IPad.  The IPad is of course a more flexible device.  I do have an urge to do a TCO (Total Cost Of Ownership) on both devices though and post it in the future.

I'll no doubt be talking more about the Kindle in the fut

China & High Performance Computing
This has been discussed a fair amount in the HPC community.  China now has the worlds fastest super computer.  This is a distinction that had been held by the US since 2003.  If China had simply used commodity parts this story wouldn't be that interesting. What is notable however is that they are using a "home brewed" interconnect.  The interconnect is really the heart of an HPC system.  Bandwidth is important, but for most applications latency is even more of an issue as no work is getting done while the parts of a massively parallel application are communicating.  This interconnect is twice as fast as quad data rate Infiniband which is the current state of the art in HPC applications.  I haven't been able to find a reference that quantifies that any more precisely.  Twice the bandwidth is nice, but if the latency is similar the speedup isn't going to be anywhere near as significant for many applications.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Disneyland/Disney Vacation Club

The Roy O.Disney waiting at Mickey's Toontown ...
My wife and I had the good fortune to spend a few days at Disneyland recently.  Dis ney is an interesting case.  They are both a large corporate entity and a world wide institution.  The company fell on hard times for a number of years which eventually led to long time CEO Eisner stepping down.  The main impetus for this change in power came from an effort spear headed by Walt Disney's nephew Roy E. Disney.  In early 2004  Roy E Disney was able to get enough proxy votes to essentially deliver a no confidence vote in the next round of board elections.  It's hard to believe that this success didn't play a part in Eisner announcing his retirement.  Eventually a compromise was reached and things have been going well for Disney ever since.

One thing I recall from late in Eisner's stewardship of the Disney corporation was the obviously deferred maintenance at Dinsyland.  That didn't sit well with me and I don't think I was alone.  Some of my best childhood memories are tied to Disnyland and seeing it in anything less than tip top condition was jarring.  I was annoyed. I wasn't alone.  The number of people and insitutions that Roy E. Disney was able to sign up for his proxy fight showed that a lot of people were unhappy with the way the company was being run.  Branding provides great benefits but it also incurs responsibilities.  Neglecting those responsibilities can be very risky both to the people in charge and the long term health of the business.

As a brand Disney has an amazing range of appeal.  At the parks you'll see people from a wide range of demographic groups.  A visit isn't cheap, but it is possible for most people to make the trip and ejoy the parks.

There are things though that a compnay like this probably shouldn't do.  Imagine Disney building tall condos near the park that included free admission to the parks and other perks and selling them for top dollar.  It would potentially mean a big influx of cash in the short term but how would most people coming to the parks feel about seeing those buildings?   What kind of message would this send?  They would have more flexibility in Florida as it is a much larger area.  Disney actually does something along these lines with their vacation club.  The Disney Vacation Club (DVC) is a points based time share.  The original DVC resort and several subsequent ones were opened at Walt Disney World but today DVC has many different themed resorts that span an ever increasing geographical area.  They added Disneyland a year or two back and will have a resort opening in Hawaii soon.

I'm always fascinated by brands that somehow manage to appeal across a broad spectrum of consumers.  To me they prove that branding is not science with hard and fast rules, but rather a series of approaches that when exectued properly can nudge public perception in a particular direction.   Disneyland was Walt Disney's vision.  Having read a fair bit about his life, it seems clear that he wasn't much of a business man.  That was the provence of his older brother Roy, who was Roy E. Disney's father.  In addition to being the visionary, Walt Disney was essentially the Disney brand manager, though I doubt he'd have used those words to describe his role.  He was very good at instilling in people the idea that the Disney company was there to provide quality family entertainment and Disneyland was meant to be the physical embodiement of that concept.  This essentially made Disneyland a part of a lot of people's families.  Given that, it isn't surprising that Eisner ran into serious opposition when people felt that the company was being poorly run.

Walt Disney has been gone for nearly forty four years now, but clearly his legacy lives on.

Image via Wikipedia

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