Just Relax Already

Just Relax Already (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 5-28-15)

Ah, what a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!  While I know that not everyone could take a vacation day, I hope that you were able to spend time with your loved ones, say a prayer for those who gave their life protecting our freedom, and just take moment to slow down and put things back in perspective.  It’s important that we all learn to do this.  We are exposed to plenty of drama on a day-to-day basis.  Some of it is relevant, most of it is not.  If you can’t learn to filter out the unnecessary drama, well, you’re going to end up being really stressed out.

Thanks to the Internet, we are never more than a Facebook post away from someone else’s drama.  I always figured that other people have problems just like I do, but I’m still amazed as to the extent of which others are willing to share.  Most of it is just stupid.  For example, is it really a good idea to tell the world how much you hate your current job?  My first thought when I read this type of dribble is, “Well, why don’t you fix your life?”  Of course, we all know the answer to that – the capacity to make meaningful change probably lies somewhere between uninterested and incapable.  This personal statement about oneself is indeed tragic, but why compound the problem by taking the next step? Was is really smart to let all your future friends, employers and romantic interests know that you’re an unmotivated whiner that doesn’t know how to take control of your life?

Those who work in front of a computer are especially susceptible to Internet drama invading their personal lives.  It’s unavoidable since it’s staring right at them.  Granted, employers have improved in blocking irrelevant social media (For example, by using the Barracuda Web Filter to provide comprehensive web content security for the office – CMA Technology Lunch & Learn on June 17.  Tweet me for more information.), but most folks will still get attacked by a rouge MSN homepage at some point during the day.  The drama leaps from the web and lands directly in your brain.

The body reacts to the drama much as it would to any invader entering its space.  Your hands, which were resting comfortably on the keyboard, suddenly become contorted with pain as the carpel tunnel works its way up your wrists and into the palm.  The knot at the base of your neck tightens as the stress from your entire body seeks out a place to call home.  You’re overcome with a sense of restlessness, and no longer can you sustain a comfortable sitting position.  Finally, your mind shifts from its appointed task.  Why did Nastia get voted off Dancing With the Stars?  I can’t believe they did that.  It’s just not fair!

Fortunately, a group of scientists at the University of Melbourne have discovered a way to help all of us maintain our productivity through these bouts of drama and boredom.  According to them, we all need more green pastures in our lives.  Literally.  These scientists tested 150 students by making them perform a mind-numbing task analogous to data entry.  Midway through the task, the students were given a 40 second break.  The first group viewed a city rooftop scene (ho-hum) while the second group viewed a flowering meadow garden roof (ah…).  For the remainder of the task, the group who viewed the garden roof made significantly less errors and demonstrated superior concentration.

Of course, the scientists took next step down the politically correct path of least resistance and postulated some sort of environmentally-conscious, spiritual renewal that comes from viewing nature for 40 seconds.  I think the explanation is simpler and more fundamental.  As much as we seem to enjoy getting wrapped up in other people’s drama, we also need our own drama-free zone.  Whether it’s a green meadow, a quiet beach or a server room located far away from your co-workers, we all need a place where we can block out the drama and hear our own thoughts.

So the next time you find yourself getting excited over Hillary’s deleted emails or Tom Brady and Deflategate, please just let go of the mouse and step away from the computer.  It’s time for you to go find your happy place.

Until next time@gregory_a_baker


Onward March the Robot Army

Onward March the Robot Army (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 5-21-15)

It’s another year in the books.

The school year rapidly comes to a close over the next couple of weeks.  This is the time of year when families rush to finalize their vacation plans, teenagers begin their summer jobs, and virtually everyone else starts dreaming about a long weekend or two at the lake.  Summer is a time when we slow down and take time off for personal pursuits, or alternatively, pick up the pace and wear ourselves out while on a mission to have fun.

For those kids graduating high school, this summer is different.  Sure, in one way it feels the same.  The school year is ending, just like it always does, and you’re looking forward to all the parties at the lake, just like you always do.  However, one small thought keeps occurring:  “I don’t have to go back to school!”  If you think about it, you’d probably be amazed at how this one small schedule adjustment changes your otherwise normal daily life.

But who’s going to think about it?  That’s for all those losers that have to take English Literature next year.

Another thought will also occur to these new graduates: “What’s going to happen next?”  It’s a very good question.  Think about it…if you were graduating from high school this year, and you wanted to get involved in the next big thing, what would it be?  If you wanted to create the next Google or Amazon, what would you do today?  If there was one technology that was going to define the next 20 years, can you see it?

Personally, I believe robotics is emerging as the next big technology.  With the maturity of the Internet and mobile communications, we now possess a very good knowledge of devices all over the world.  It’s only natural that we would want to take the next step.  Literally, we want these devices to move and do stuff.  In several years, we won’t see the Internet of Things as a bunch of static devices like thermostats and refrigerators connected to the Internet.  The Internet of Things will be a population of mobile and autonomous devices providing communication, transportation and who knows what other kinds of services.

Airborne drones are a great example of this new vision.  Drones are relatively new creations, but they are already synonymous with airborne photography and surveillance.  Drones are capable of performing many other tasks.  The stability of the airborne platform is suitable for communications operations.  Their maneuverability allows them to carry objects into difficult-to-access places.  Their flexibility permits rapid response and delivery speed.  The true utility of drones is currently being explored by those people that specialize in out-of-the-box thinking.  Who knows what they are going to come up with, but it’s probably going to be big.

Another example is the Google self-driving car.  This summer, the Google car goes into limited service cruising the streets of Mountain View, CA.  Google has been experimenting with self-driving since 2009, and its modified vehicles have logged nearly 1,000,000 miles on auto-pilot.  The new car, if you haven’t seen it, has no steering wheel and no pedals.  Contrary to the mainstream automakers that are slowly rolling out driver assist features, Google is taking an all-or-nothing approach.  While Google states they expect to have a finished product by 2020, widespread adoption of a fully autonomous car may take a little longer.  However, the thought of traveling to Atlanta while taking a nap is certainly enticing.

While these are big projects, the maker space is full of platforms looking for a creative mind.  Personally, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on cylonjs.com.  It’s a JavaScript framework that allows you to control multiple hardware devices (i.e., robots) at the same time.  All it takes is a PC, a few hundred dollars and some out-of-the-box thinking to instantiate a complex system of sensors, cloud controllers and moving devices.  Of course, every high school graduate has to choose his own path, but it’s tough to argue against an 18-year old with his own private robot army!

Until next time@gregory_a_baker








Vinyl is Back

Vinyl is Back (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 5-14-15)

It’s funny how names stick.  It’s been more than 30 years since the introduction of the CD and 15 years since the height of Napster, but when it comes to music we still talk about records.  Young musicians are still looking to sign a record deal, and bands still get a gold record for big hits.  A Grammy Award is still given for the Album of the Year.  Notice that there’s no mention of a platinum 8-track or golden cassette.  Whether it’s the A-side single or an unexpected B-side hit, the record is always the thing.

We all know the story of how technology disrupted the music business.  There’s no reason to pull punches here.  Digital technology totally obliterated it and redefined it.  In 1983, virtually 100 percent of all music was published either on LPs, 45’s or cassettes.  By 1993, the compact disc dominated.  More than 50 percent of all recordings were distributed on CD, and cassettes still held about 45 percent of the market.  Vinyl had all but disappeared.  At its height in 2003, CD’s owned over 90 percent of music distribution.  The iTunes Store also opened in 2003, and by 2013, downloads and streaming accounted for over 65 percent of all music sold.

The numbers are drastic, but they don’t tell the real story.  At the beginning of the 1980s, the record industry was a well-structured, corporate enterprise with a very effective process of creating hits and generating revenue.  With great thanks to the growth of cable television service, music videos emerged as a new source of consumers and revenue.  Through the 1990s, record labels expanded their reach to create rockstars across virtually all music genres – from Michael Jackson to Madonna, from U2 to Snoop Dogg, from Garth Brooks to R.E.M.  It was all such a nice system that served everyone well (especially the record companies).

The Internet came and blew all that away.  Suddenly, listeners were able to buy only the two or three good songs on an album and not have to pay $15 for the entire CD.  And did I mention Napster earlier?  While stealing music through file sharing services greatly increased distribution, file sharing didn’t help the artists recover production costs.  The record companies grew weaker as they lost control of distribution.  Today, the music industry is a more decentralized system with fans and musicians alike learning to use the Internet to find each other.

An interesting thing has happened in this emerging musical free market.  Sales of old school vinyl have increased by over 250 percent.  This fact seems bizarre on the surface.  After a little thought, however, a comeback of vinyl records just makes sense.  In this era of downloads and streaming, the experience of “owning” a song doesn’t exist.  There’s no tangible object to show your loyalty to an artist or genre, and flipping through iTunes just isn’t the same as pulling down records and looking at the cover art.  Fans want to own a piece of the artist.  And if they are going to own something, does anything represent music better than a vinyl record?

A quick Internet search reveals a number of vinyl pressing companies.  Many of these companies operate old school record presses (how they have stayed in business through the years is a mystery).  A few attempt to integrate newer technologies.  For example, they host an on-line music store that distributes MP3s of all the artists that order vinyl records.  One company, QRATES, takes modern vinyl to a new level by centering the vinyl pressing on a crowdfunding activity.  Fans of the artist place pre-orders for the vinyl.  Once the funding goals (i.e., manufacturing budget) are met, the vinyl records will be manufactured.  If the goals are not met, well, you can still buy the tour t-shirt.

When it comes to records, the old statement holds true, “What once was old is new again.”  If any readers have never heard of vinyl records or have only seen them on the history channel, go ask your parents.  They very likely have their old record player packed up in a closet somewhere.  I promise that they would enjoy nothing more than pulling it out and spinning some records, you know, old-school style.

Until next time@gregory_a_baker







Reboot (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 5-7-15)

Anyone calling an I.T. support line is likely to be asked a simple question very early in the conversation,

“Have you restarted your system?”

This question has evolved into one of the top catchphrases of I.T. support, right up there with “Is it plugged in?” and “Do you see any lights blinking?”  From the support side of the call, you can feel the user rolling their eyes in disgust when you ask for the restart.  We agree…performing a regular reboot of a computer should be unnecessary.  You are absolutely right to think that a well-designed computer should be able to run indefinitely.  There’s just one small problem.

Most computers just don’t work that way.

Oh, I can go into the technical details.  We can talk about how some applications and operating systems don’t properly release memory, or that software defects may randomly cause applications to intermittently fail.  Also, and I’m not trying to be mean here, but users have a habit of installing a lot of unnecessary stuff.  Certain operating systems (say, Linux) possess a reputation of being less susceptible to unplanned downtime than other operating systems (for instance, Microsoft).  But at the end of the day, when faced with a system exhibiting anomalous performance, user and administrators alike must face a harsh reality in this world of always-up cloud services.

Without a reboot, systems fail.

An article that truly captures the essence of this fact caught my eye this week.  The FAA released an airworthiness directive for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  This directive resulted from the determination that Generator Control Units operating continuously for 248 days will cause all AC power on the aircraft to fail.  Since the Boeing 787 is a fly-by-wire aircraft, the loss of AC power could cause the complete loss of control of the aircraft.  To avoid this condition, the FAA directive specifies a maintenance procedure.  This procedure requires an electrical power deactivation of the aircraft at intervals not to exceed 120 days.

Yes, you read that correctly.  The Boeing 787 Dreamliner requires a reboot every four months.

Now, this isn’t to say that all computers must restart every few weeks.  This past week, we held a decommissioning ceremony for a device that didn’t have a second of downtime over the last seven years.  This little HP 4/8 SAN switch was one of the first components of our cmaCloud infrastructure.  Operating a device continuously over this amount of time is quite a feat.  Anything that can go wrong typically will.  We were no exception.  Just off the top of my head,

  • Thunderstorms
  • Ice storms
  • Power loss for no good reason (This happens more often than you think)
  • Water leaks due to rain
  • Water drips due to condensation
  • Air conditioning failure
  • UPS failure
  • Generator failure

And the list goes on.  All in all, this little workhorse persevered through nine disk enclosures, two backup generators, 17 battery backups, 30 servers, and 13 different engineers.  When we bought it, I remember being worried that it wasn’t going to be worth the investment.  I can now see it was worth every penny.

Until next time@gregory_a_baker