What’s the Good Word?

What’s the Good Word? (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 11-27-14)

Black Friday – What are going to be the best tech gadgets for the 2014 shopping season?  This year has been a good year for gadgets.  No one type of item has exploded into relevance, although several are making significant advances.  Here’s some ideas as you stake out your place in line.

At the top of the list are the Smart Watches.  The first generation smart watches serve mostly as an extension of your smart phone or tablet.  The functionality is somewhat limited – you can receive notifications and texts.  Your smart phone or tablet is required to respond (depending on the model).  Other applications found on various smart watches include offline music player, voice memo recorder, and speakerphone.  Smart watches also include some sort of heath monitor.  This first generation of smart watches shape up as typical Gen1 devices – a high cool factor, but just a little short on practicality.  Apple’s smart watch arrives early next year, so expect significant advancements over the next 12-months.

In addition to the smart watch, various types of fitness trackers were introduced in 2014.  These health-monitoring devices track items such as walking distance, calories, and sleep cycles.  These devices connect to your smart phone via Bluetooth where the fitness band apps will display your progress toward your personal fitness goals.  The fitness bands is one the sleeper apps in 2014.  The apps are starting to slowly catch on.  Fitness band technology will be one of the products to watch during the next year.

You’ll see a couple of new technologies as you shop for televisions this season.  The most noticeable feature is the continuation of curved TVs.  “Just like a movie theatre,” they say, the curved is either advancement or a gimmick, depending on who you ask.  A more significant technology is the OLED.  The current generation of OLED provides a picture quality better than LED or plasmas.  The screen thickness of the television is remarkable – about the same thickness as the width of a pencil.  Unfortunately, high tech TV comes at a cost – the least expensive OLED TV is $3,500.

(Aside: as you browse the television department, notice the model names. Why do manufacturers give TV names such as “55EC9300” and “DM85UXR”?  Why don’t they give them normal names like everything else?  I don’t get it.)

If you are really looking to be on the bleeding-edge of Christmas gadgets, consider getting your loved one a printer.  Now I know what you are thinking – what in the world could be new and exciting about printing?  Well, consider for a moment that these are 3D printers.  Instead of printing ink on a sheet of paper, 3D printers create 3-dimensional objects.  All consumer-grade printers use a process called fused-deposition modeling (FDM).  Using this process, very small drops of plastic are melted from a filament and placed at precise positions to create the object.  The print area of the printer determines the object’s size, typically anywhere from 6” to 8” square depending on the printer.  Most printers come with a single filament – that means you can only print in one color.  Some printers come with multiple filaments or allow you to change color during the print job.  These wonderful, bleeding-edge toys don’t come cheap – prices range from $500 to $2,000 and higher – but you mostly certainly be giving a one-of-a-kind experience.

Have a blessed holiday!  Gooble, gooble and #THWG!

Until next time… @gregory_a_baker



Science Fiction Fact

Science Fiction Fact (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 11-20-14)

Unquestionably, the fall and winter seasons are my favorite times of the year.  The days get shorter.  Cool breezes temper outdoor activities.  The gentle warmth of a fireplace replaces the scorching heat of the sun.  This is the time of year to stay inside and travel within the world of a good book.

I’ve always loved a good science fiction story.  In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure what makes a science fiction story different from any other genre.  A soap opera is pretty much a soap opera no matter how you cut it.  I think that the science fiction setting provides an extra sense of adventure.  For example, take two people discussing cheeseburgers while driving I-20 between Augusta and Atlanta.  Now take the same two people discussing the same cheeseburgers, but instead have them sailing through the empty space between Jupiter and Saturn.  Can’t you see the context changes the story completely?

OK, fine.  Maybe I just like science fiction because I’m an uber-geek.  I mean, yes, I’m pretty nerdy, but not to the level of sci-fi superfan nerdy.  I’ve never dressed up as a Storm Trooper.  I’ve never even been to a Comic-Con, although that is on my bucket list.  I’m the science fiction fan that loved Stargate SG-1, never really got into Stargate Atlantis and really wished that Stargate Universe didn’t exist.  Or at least was confined to an alternate reality.

Does that make sense?

One article that caught my attention this week posited that today’s science fiction might be experiencing an imagination gap.  Speaking at the 2014 Mindshare UK Huddle, Philip Byrne of BuzzFeed UK and Jed Hallam of Mindshare UK, discussed that science fiction has become less ambitious and less imaginative.  They attribute the decline to a culture of fear as promoted by the movie and record industry, as well as some governments.  As reported in The Guardian, Byrne stated, “Policing the internet is like putting a toll booth in the middle of an infinitely wide landscape and expecting people to pass through it and behave.”

Byrne added, “I think it’s really important to be fearless in the face of technology… we will reap more of the benefits of it by overcoming our fears, accepting it and by being ahead of the curve on it.”

A noticeable difference in tone exists between today’s offerings and those of 50 years ago.  Star Wars is a great example.  Darth Vader is undoubtedly an oppressive character.  However, at its core, Star Wars is a story of self-discovery – the journey of Luke Skywalker as he grew into greatness.  Comparing Star Wars to today’s Hunger Games, Katniss’s journey is less about greatness and much more about surviving within an oppressive system.

Has the increase of technology over the last twenty years caused a decline in science fiction?  Certainly, many technology advances render a number of science fiction concepts obsolete.  The Star Trek tricoders and communicators have been replaced by iPads and iPhones.  Video calls as portrayed in numerous movies are now commonplace.  And the “Internet of Things” is opening us up to a world of interconnected and intelligent devices – much like the Terminator’s Skynet.

Perhaps technology has advanced so quickly that the imagineers simply haven’t had time to catch up.  With many common science fiction products showing up as real stuff, who is to say what will come next?  Now that we’ve established ubiquitous communication, what can we do with it?  Now that space is becoming truly affordable and within reach, where will we really want to go?  It’s seems that significant medical breakthroughs will occur in our lifetime.  How will our species adjust? 

I’m confident that a new generation of science fiction writers are already grappling with these issues.  Their stories, yet to be told, will paint a future exploring the next generation of technology advancement.  Until then, I recommend that you spend this fall and winter getting excited about the future.  If you need some help, I recommend a re-read of one of the following science fiction series.  These are my personal favorites, and they always start me thinking about how great our future can be.

The Foundation Series, Issac Asimov

The Ringworld Series, Larry Niven

Mars Trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson

Until next time…@gregory_a_baker


The Smoke Screen of Neutrality

The Smoke Screen of Neutrality (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 11-13-14)

Technology has historically been a great equalizer, allowing the small and meek to compete against the big and powerful.  The Internet with its egalitarian access is probably the most well-known example.  A single user on the Internet possesses a stature equal to the largest multi-national corporation.  This reality appeals to our sense of equality and fairness, and it helps promote the free exercise of our God-given rights.

Politically, this vision of the Internet is being promoted under the mantra of Net Neutrality.  In short, Net Neutrality defines a set of regulatory principals that supposedly keeps the Internet open and free.  The implementation of Net Neutrality has been debated at the FCC and in the courts for the better part of a decade.  The proposals are complex and very technical, but they have a significant impact on how we receive content over the Internet.

It’s worth taking a few minutes to look at a few tenants of Net Neutrality and review some of the subtleties.  We all want a free Internet, so we need to understand how the current push may not be leading us in the right direction.

One of the first major tenants of Net Neutrality is “No Blocking.”  An Internet provider should not be allowed to block any legal content.  This tenant is not unreasonable on its surface.  The egalitarian nature of the Internet is based largely on ease of access.  Any type of arbitrary IP blocking could be considered censorship and a restriction of free speech.  No one is going to make a strong argument for arbitrary censorship.

The tricky part comes with the definition of “legal content” and the global nature of the Internet.  For example, I believe that few people in the United States would object to online activity by human rights advocates in North Korea or women’s rights advocates in Iran, actions that I suspect would be considered illegal in their respective countries.  While we in the United States would prefer a globally free Internet, in reality, enforcement will stop at the nation’s borders.

Another tenant of Net Neutrality is “No Throttling.”  Technically speaking, I’m not sure how this is even possible.  First of all, every device connected to the Internet is self-throttled based on its connection.  Some folks can afford fiber, while others are limited to cable, T1’s, DSL and other technologies.  Even the backbone connections between ISPs possess practical upper limits.  At some point, all connections become saturated and filtering/throttling must occur.

Of course, this leads to the last, and most contentious tenant – No Fast Lanes.

But first, a story.  A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of our local ISPs.  This ISP is relatively small when compared to the telecommunication behemoths of the world, but they are growing very steadily.  When we toured their operations center, we happened to walk by a couple of high-end server racks.  These racks contained a copy of the complete library of a popular streaming service.  This content provider deployed one of their Content Delivery Network (CDN) nodes in order to better service their subscribers.  Instead of traversing the entire Internet back to the central servers, their subscribers on this ISP reach back only to the CDN node.  The end user receives a quicker response and a more stable data stream.

When discussing Internet fast lanes, it’s important to realize that most Internet content is distributed via CDN nodes.  This model has evolved to satisfy the end user’s demand for content.  The CDN pushes content closer to the end user and provides a better Internet experience.  If the owner of popular content wants to invest in pushing their content closer to their customers in order to provide a better service, is that a bad thing? 

The problem comes when ISPs want to charge content providers or third-party CDN providers to access their network.  This conflict was highlighted earlier this year in the disagreement between Netflix and Comcast.  Netflix argued that Net Neutrality was violated, and Comcast should provide unfettered access to its users.  The government ultimately ruled that Comcast could charge for access, and several other companies followed soon after.

Is this a bad thing?  Well, maybe not as bad as it may look on the surface.  The move highlights a significant competitive difference between the ISP business models.  Under one model, the ISP allows third-party CDNs to establish nodes within their network at minimal cost.  Under the other model, the ISP builds their own CDN and encourages third-party content to adopt their framework.  Ultimately, the consumer will judge the service delivery of each and decide which works best.

This is the point where we should be concerned about the recent push for Net Neutrality.  Instead of allowing market forces and competition to proceed, President Obama has proposed a reclassification of Internet Service Providers.  Under this reclassification, ISPs will be regulated just like the phone companies as “common carriers.”  Most assuredly, this reclassification will result in an increase in the number of rules with which ISPs must comply.  As we witnessed with Obamacare, an increase of regulations pushes smaller companies out of the market.  I fear that the result of Net Neutrality will leave us with only one or two large ISPs per market, and the actions of those ISPs will be highly controlled and not very innovative.

With the growth of cyber-related businesses into Augusta, this town is moving very quickly toward becoming a center of innovation and growth.  We need more competition and more opportunities to explore outside-the-box ideas.  I am strongly supportive of an open and free Internet, but as proposed, I do not see how regulating ISPs as common carriers will get us there.

 Until next time @gregory_a_baker

You Can’t Fear Being Great

You Can’t Fear Being Great (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 11-6-14)

On October 31st, our quest to become a space faring species experienced a set back as the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight.  The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but it appears that the spacecraft’s feathering mode was activated while the engines were still operating.  The reconfigured vehicle could not withstand the aerodynamic stress and suffered a catastrophic failure.  One of the test pilots was killed; the other pilot was severely injured.

As tragic as this accident may be, this incident highlights the fact that space flight remains a high-risk enterprise.  This was the 55th flight of SpaceShipTwo.  Even with all the prior experience, the Virgin Galactic team does not simply jump into the spacecraft and drive to space.  Each flight still requires days, and even weeks, of careful preparation by a team of really smart people in order to achieve success.  Simply put, space travel is not a routine enterprise.

At this point in the development of space flight, I don’t see any reason why spaceflight should be routine.  Let’s review a little bit.  To orbit the Earth, a spacecraft must travel at approximately five miles per second (18,000 mph).  The amount of energy needed to reach that velocity is enormous, but it must be applied in a very controlled manner.  In addition, the spacecraft must be capable of traveling through the atmosphere at high speeds and overcome the resistance of the atmosphere.  When the spacecraft exits the atmosphere, it must survive in a total vacuum under the alternating conditions of extreme heat and extreme cold.  Getting back to the Earth’s surface is no picnic either.  It’s kind of like skipping a stone across the length of a swimming pool and having it land on a silver dollar at the bottom of the deep end.

And by the way, the spacecraft may carry a person.  It would be helpful if they survived the trip.

Propulsion, aerodynamics, structures, control systems, electronics – These are just a few of the many engineering disciplines required for a successful space launch.  Since the end of World War II, outstanding progress has been made in each of these areas.  We’ve developed sufficient knowledge and expertise to launch the space shuttle, send men to the moon and explore the other planets in our solar system.  However, these endeavors require very expensive and very complex systems.  And because of the resources needed to sustain a space program, access to space is restricted only to the richest government economies in the world.

When it comes to technology, an interesting thing happens.  Over time, technology becomes smaller, cheaper and more accessible.  The capabilities of the first mainframe computers of the 1950s are commonly found in wearable devices.  The Internet has toppled the monopoly on content distribution once held by the television networks and newspapers.  Automobile safety features that were unheard of 30 years ago are now commonplace.  As long as innovators are allowed to work, it only makes sense that space transportation will become cheaper and more accessible.

Unfortunately, we have to deal with a level of political correctness that will stifle progress.  Press coverage of the SpaceShipTwo crash is highly critical of the Virgin Galactic effort.  Some questions are appropriate – Was the schedule too ambitious?  Were the safety margins observed?  But what is the purpose of throwing around phrases such as “millionaire boondoggle thrill ride” and “Space tourism isn’t worth dying for?”  For whatever reason that I haven’t figured out yet, a number of folks seem to see a pioneering spirit as something that must be crushed and eliminated – even if it means destroying the innovations that make everyone’s life better.

As for me, I don’t listen to the trolls.  I hope that you don’t either.  When innovation succeeds, everyone wins.  So you a choice – Be the visionary that makes the future happen, or be the one that reads about it later.

Until next time… @gregory_a_baker