Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Ideal Cell Phone

It is the season of wishing, so I'm going to add my wishes for the perfect cell phone :-)

My iPhone has been my single most enjoyable and useful device purchase ever.  That says a lot.  And it's despite the device's shortcomings (in order of annoyance level):

  • no Flash support
  • mediocre reception and voice quality
  • tight control over application market (which keeps users from being able to buy MP3s directly from competitors)
  • dependence on iTunes software on desktop (can't update software over the air; can't even synchronize with iTunes software over the air)

With this in mind, what would a cell phone bring to the table in 2011 to move me to buy?  Here's my wish list (in order of importance):

  • Quality Design and Material.  If I'm going to plunk down $500-600 (or $200-$300 under contract) for a new cell phone, it should not exude cheapness by being made of cheap, reflective plastic.  That's the area where Apple has always shined and other devices - even with better hardware feature sets - have always failed for me.  An aluminum body with a "hefty" feel would it for me.  Throw in some gorilla glass to prevent screen scratches and I'd be ecstatic.
  • A higher resolution, slightly larger screen.  The iPhone 4 with its "retina display" certainly has the pixel resolution I want, but the 3.5" screen is really too small to let the user take advantage of the resolution - at least when surfing the web.  A 4" screen at 1024x800 pixels would be nice.
  • Flash support.  No matter what Mr. Jobs tries to lead the huddled masses to believe, Flash-based web sites are not some 'fringe" that can be ignored.  There are lots of good web sites that I can't get information from because Mr. Jobs declared Flash technology as not worthy for his i-devices.  Either Apple changes its stance (either by including it in iOS directly or giving the users the option to install it somehow), my next phone will not be an iPhone (yeah, I can hear Apple quaking in its boots - the mighty Tom is threatening :-)
  • Front- and rear-facing cameras.  The rear-facing cameras should be at least 5-megapixel.  If the manufacturer could give it an optical zoom, I'd be thrilled - I could finally ditch my separate point-and-shoot camera.  I realize that with the typical 10mm thickness of phones these days, that may be difficult, but perhaps they can accomplish it by making that part of the phone a bit thicker.
  • Over-the-air purchase & management of media as well as "sync"ing.  I've always bought all my music through Amazon (thanks to Apple's proprietary AAC format that used to be DRM encumbered).  Recently, I've started buying e-books from Amazon as well.  I can buy & manage my e-books via the Kindle application (and the browser), but I can't do the same with my music.  Whenever Apple updates the system software, I have to get out the cables, start up iTunes, and synchronize that way.  That is practically medieval in this day and age.  Common, Apple, if Android can do this over the air, you can too!  If my laptop is on, there should be a one-click ability to backup/sync the cell phone with the laptop.  Both devices have wireless and, in the case of the Mac Book Pro, bluetooth.  There's no excuse for not allowing this to happen without pesky wires.
  • HDMI Output.  These days, every TV comes with HDMI.  I'd love to be able to share the music, photos, and videos on my cell phone with my family by simply connecting it to the TV.  The cell phone could become a rudimentary media server!  I already have Netflix streaming on my iPhone.  Why not let me show it on the TV?!
  • Printing.  Have you ever felt the need to quickly print out a contact or a google map or a coupon or a boarding pass while on your cell phone?  It doesn't happen often for me, but when it does, I *really* need it. I don't know what the state of printing in the Android world is, but my iPhone can't do it.  Apple recently came out with "Air Print" - but, as usual, it's something Apple-proprietary and only works with certain newer model printers.  I want printing on my iPhone, but I'm not going to buy a new printer just so I can.
Well, these are the things *I* would look for in a new phone.  Right now I don't see a phone that has all these features.  The new 'Optimus 2x" from LG seems promising - it will have HDMI output, looks well-built (although I'd have to hold it to be sure), and will have Flash support and non-proprietary media management, thanks to it running Android 2.3.  We shall see.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Experiences with iPad, iPhone, Android, Kindle, etc.

We're a gadget-happy family.  My wife and I have iPhones as well as Dell and Mac Book Pro laptops, respectively.  She also got an iPad as a gift from me last September.  And she gave me a Kindle a month ago.  My daughter has a Dell laptop and iPod Touch.

My wife used to watch a lot of foreign-language web sites and movies on her little iPhone.  It was killing her eyes!  So a few months after the iPad came out, we got it.  I had resisted, hoping that a decent Android tablet would show up in September (the rumored Galaxy Tab) because I absolutely hated the fact that Flash isn't available on either the iPhone or iPad (Jobs has done an excellent job snowing people into believing that Flash isn't pervasive - just try visiting any car web site without Flash - you'll get a very limited experience...or none at all).  But, alas, when the Galaxy was finally announced at the end of that month, the price of it seemed outrageous - $600+ for a "me too" device (granted, it included 3G - but we didn't even want that)!  So we got the iPad.  My wife loves it.

Here are some of the pros and cons of the iPad relative to the other devices we own:

  • - As mentioned above, the iPad has become THE go-to device when it comes to quick web surfing or movie watching (heck, we even watch HGTV on it - we have no Cable TV :-).
  • - For quick "web lookups", we still use our iPhones - there's just no substitute: the phone is always on our bodies and that convenience overcomes any benefit of a bigger screen - in this scenario.
  • - Reading is a mixed bag: I prefer the Kindle by a long shot: it's much lighter and less eye-straining (the latter seems to be a subjective thing - my wife doesn't find it eye-straining at all; but she doesn't read for hours on end either).  Also, the weight of the iPad is a definite detriment in this use case.  After holding it for a few minutes, it gets heavy *real fast*.  You end up resting it on your lap - if you can.  My wife was trying to read with it lying bed one night and held it up to her face on its end - it tipped over and left a significant dent in her nose :-)
  • - For light web-surfing - i.e. just visiting web pages you go to on a daily basis, the iPad can't be beat (provided one of your regular web pages isn't Flash based).  Just like the iPhone, the web browser is a joy to use.  Others have mentioned "pinch-to-zoom" as some big thing - it isn't.  The best part is the "double-tap-to-zoom" - Safari then zooms to the column you double-tapped on - great for reading news sites (I think it probably does some intelligent zooming based on the HTML tags).
  • - For heavy surfing that includes editing & posting comments or blogs such as this, laptops are  amuch better choice.  I'm writing this on my MBP and I can't imagine how long it would have taken to peck out the same comment via the iPad's on-screen keyboard.
  • - Since we've had the iPad, we've gone on two car trips, including hotel stays.  We don't use it much in the car since we got the wi-fi only model (the iPhones do just fine when my daughter gets bored), but in the hotel room, it's a nice substitute for the outrageously expensive movies the hotel rents (Netflix on the iPad is great for this)...provided the hotel has free wi-fi :-)
  • Muscle Memory is seldom mentioned in reviews: if you already have an iPhone/iPod, going to an iPad vs. Android is going  to be a ZERO learning curve.  Android may be easy to use too, but you will still have to learn "the Android way" of doing things - your iPhone "muscle memory" won't help you at all.  Sounds like nit-picking?  Maybe - but for some, learning yet another user interface is not something they want to invest time in.  That's what "first mover advantage" gets you: people bought the iPhone first - and now they're more likely to buy iPads (well, also because Apple was the "first mover" not only with the iPhone, but also with the iPad!)
Some final thoughts: Apple has done a fine job integrating their systems and devices.  Until I recently switched from Ubuntu (on a Dell laptop) to a Mac Book Pro, I always bitched about how annoying Apple's iPod and iPhone were - everything required iTunes - which, of course, is not available natively on Linux (I had to start up a Virtual Machine with Windows just to start iTunes and download my newest Amazon-purchased MP3 onto my iPhone!).  But now, with my MBP, it's actually quite easy (although I still think that Apple should allow over-the-air updates of the iPhone as well as allow competitors such as Amazon to sell MP3 directly to the device - the former might still happen, but the latter never, I suspect).  So, if you already have Apple devices and are thinking of a tablet purchase, I think the iPad is a natural choice.  If you're already an Android phone user, an Android tablet is the best choice.  If you are in neither group or don't really care about one UI over another, I would also pick an Android tablet.  The Android UI is getting more and more polished with every release and in terms of functionality, Android has already surpassed the iPad (e.g. Flash support, cameras front and back).  Android tablets, unlike Apple products, will also become cheaper due to there being competition among Android vendors.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Will There Be A Double-Dip Recession?

There is an interesting (but depressing) editorial by Mortimer Zuckerman in U.S. News & World Report regarding the sad state of the Western European and US economies.  In his article, Mr. Zuckerman paints a particularly bleak picture of the US's debt burden because our children are not being educated - despite the US spending nearly twice what other countries spend - and will not be ready to take on the ever increasing debt that our and previous generations have left them through our irresponsible spending habits.

The author makes his point by way of the forecasts made by a German mathematician and philosopher of the early 20th century, Oswald Spengler.  Mr. Spengler had an intersting view of the rise and decline of western civilization and it closely mirrors what I have been thinking for a long time - I shall have to delve into Mr. Spengler's works to see what else he has to say.

Anyway, the article is highly interesting.  I recommend it highly.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How To Excite Employees - Or Not

Today we received a second round of stock options.  As before, I was disappointed by the size of the grant.  I asked others in the group how they felt about it and got a range of responses: while one person was indifferent, another saw any option grant as "found money" and, therefore, didn't care about its size.  Another developer felt like me: the grant was so small, it was useless as an "incentive": if the company were to have an initial public offering or get sold, the executives of the company would make out like bandits, while the employees will see no lifestyle-affecting windfall.

That got me thinking: what makes software developers come to work every day?  What motivates them?  The two obvious motivators are money and fear (of loss of employment).  What about things like the desire to learn new things?  The need to socialize and be with like-minded people?  Who are the people in these groups?  How does a company address these somewhat diverse groups to achieve greater productivity?

The Money Motivated.  Let's face it, most of us fall into this category to one degree or another.  Some of us are motivated by the almighty dollar because we need it to afford a certain lifestyle.  Others see it as a measure of success or appreciation by the company they work for.  In small companies, where there is little or no chance for titular advancement (another way a company can show appreciation), monetary rewards can become the only meaningful measure of appreciation.

The Fearful.  While some are motivated by money to afford a certain lifestyle, others are simply happy to have a job.  They need the job to put food on the table, to make the mortgage payment, or to pay for the children's college education.  And they're afraid of the prospect of having to look for another one.

The Curious.  There are some folks who work at a company because the company allows them to learn and/or explore new things.  These are typically people who may have become academics if it were not for their lifestyle choices (i.e. they like expensive thing) and the scarcity of academic jobs.

All but a few lone wolves have the need for socialization and interaction with other like-minded people.  When people are happy with the people they interact with, they're motivated to stay.  When dread coming to work because of who awaits them, they want to leave.

What can the management of a company do to "incentivize" these diverse groups to be more productive?

Pay More.  Unfortunately, many small companies - especially in these economic times - may have difficulty increasing salaries or paying hefty bonuses.  When direct renumeration is not possible, a company can incentivize its employees to work harder by offering stock options - i.e. the promise of a large "payout" in the future in lieu of salary increases and bonuses in the present.  But as you can see from my introductory complaint, allocating option grants can be a tricky thing: if you give employees a generous grant, they'll be happy, but the costs to the company may be high or there may not be enough shares for future allocations/incentives.  If the grant is perceived as stingy (or unfairly distributed between workers and executives), the grant becomes meaningless as an incentive tool.

Provide A Good Workplace.  An environment where people can freely interact with one another, where new ideas are welcomed, and where the workers are given enough leeway to be innovative can be a great motivator to many employees.  If, in addition, the company makes visible attempts at providing the employees with the tools (computer, comfortable chair, etc.) to make them more productive, employees will be happier and more productive still.

Do Nothing.  Some companies (typically those that have no vision and/or are just hoping to be acquired by someone and/or are ruled by bean counters) may decide to do just that.  Productivity gains are not a top priority.  The self-confident money- and curiosity-motivated employees eventually leave, leaving only the fear-motivated and the timid.  The departed are replaced by new employees who know little of the product and are, therefore, less productive and the old-timers are expected to pick up the slack.  Or not.

If you're an employee, where do you fall in the spectrum?  Is your company successful at making you happy and more productive?  If you're an executive at a small company, have I captured the essence of your predicament?  If not, comment with your thoughts!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Why are we spending so much on anti-terrorism?

September 11, 2001 was a terrible day. A couple thousand Americans lost their lives in a flash and the most powerful country on earth was shocked into realizing that two oceans did not protect it from terrorism. How did the US react? It declared war on terrorism and began not only to hunt down the perpetrators of the terrorist attack, but also to incriminate the countries that harbored these terrorists. Front and foremost, Iraq. With claims that this dangerous country not only harbored and supported terrorists, but was also in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the US declared war on the country and invaded it. With Iraq "taken care of", the US began to concentrate on another supposed haven for terrorists: Afghanistan. And, thus, the next military campaign began.

In the years between September 11, 2001 and now, the US has not only prosecuted its war on terrorism overseas, but has also begun the process of fortifying its defenses against future terror attacks. The department of homeland security was founded, countless security enhancements to the nations airports and shipping ports were added, and Americans were stripped of rights and freedoms - all to keep us safe from the terrorists.

Enough for the history lesson. I want to pose a question:
Is the war on terrorism really being fought to rid the world of Al Qaeda or is it being waged in order to keep the US military and defense related industries in business?

Before you dismisses the question as too ludicrous or cynical, let's look at some points:
  • During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the US spent hundreds of billions of dollars every year to build nuclear weapons, fighter jets, bombers, stealth planes, and hair-brained ideas such as Star Wars. Once the Soviet Union imploded, the trillions of dollars which previously flowed into the defense industry coffers began to flow less freely. But have you heard of any defense contractors going out of business?
  • No need for defense companies to fear: while the Soviet Union was in its death throes, Iraq - previously an ally of the US and whom the US even supplied with weapons (made by the same defense contractors that supplied the US military, of course) - became new enemy #1 when it invaded Kuwait. Phenomenal amounts of military munitions were spent (and subsequently needed to be replenished) in Operation Desert Storm.
  • The second Iraq war and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan cost - and continues to cost - the American tax payer trillions of dollars. Almost none of it is actually going to the Iraqi or Afghan people. Most of it goes into the coffers of the defense contractors to pay for the weapons that destroyed - and continues to destroy - those countries. And it goes to defense contractors to "rebuild" the countries' infrastructure which their weapons previously destroyed.
  • At home, we're spending billions of dollars more on supposed anti-terrorist technologies and processes. There are the full-body-scanners at airports, the thousands of new cameras in our cities, the various emergency response centers, computers that monitor all telephone conversations for subversive words, etc.
Now, one has to ask oneself: why does the US tax payer put up with these enormous expenditures? Because they're told that all these things will make them safer. And Americans, after 9/11 felt terribly unsafe. The ever-present "terrorist" bogey man was the perfect mechanism through which to keep up the fear and justify almost any expenditure.

I think the expenditure on anti-terrorist activities are way out of proportion to the dangers posed by terrorism. We're told that countless terrorist acts have been prevented because of the job our government does to protect us, but we don't know whether this is true. And even if it is, what kinds of terrorist acts are being prevented? An envelope with poison being sent to a politician is an act of terrorism, but do we need to spend trillions of dollars to protect a few citizens? European countries have faced constant terrorist acts for 50+ years without driving themselves bankrupt. How are they doing it? Not by invading other countries or waging a futile, never-ending war on an elusive, intangible enemy. Instead, Europeans have tried to prevent major terrorist acts and, more importantly, have tried to address some of the root causes of terrorism. It is much more cost effective to prevent someone from becoming desperate enough to turn into a terrorist than to prevent terrorist acts.

What are the root causes of terrorism against the United States? I don't know. But I suspect that the Israel-Palestinian situation is a major contributor. For the past half century, the US has stood as the staunchest ally and protector of Israel, a country which came into existence at the expense of the Palestinian people. A country that continues to deny the Palestinian people basic human rights. I imagine that a people whose plight is ignored by the world at large for half a century can be desperate enough to turn to terrorism.

Am I way off the mark? I invite any discussion on the subject.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New Jersey Schools Need To Face Reality

The following is a letter I wrote to my local paper in an effort to convince folks to vote down the upcoming school budget. It was published in the Examiner.

[Note: I just saw a documentary, "The Cartel: Education + Politics = $", that more eloquently makes the same points I was trying to make in this blog].  The documentary has an informative web site that provides some ideas on how parents can help make things better.]

According to the Examiner, Millstone’s proposed 2010-11 budget puts perpupil spending at around $13,000. That’s just a number. To understand whether we’re paying too much, that number needs to be put into context. According to the Census Bureau, the average spending per student in the U.S. in 2006 was around $9,138 and for New Jersey a whopping $14,630. Considering that the 2006 figures are higher than Millstone’s 2010-11 budget, and New Jersey ranks pretty high among the 50 states, it appears that we’re almost getting our money’s worth. Unfortunately, when our students graduate, they don’t just have to compete with other Americans. They have to compete with workers from other countries.
So let us compare that $13,000 spending to another highly developed country — Germany. This country spends about $7,700 per student in 2006 dollars. That’s nearly half of what New Jersey spent the same year and about $1,500 less than the average U.S. spending. Given that Germany outscores the U.S. in literacy, math, and science, things don’t look very favorable. Developing countries like China and India whose students score much higher than the U.S. in math and science spend a fraction per student of what the U.S. does.

So where does the money go? Looking at average teacher salaries for both Germany and the U.S. reveals that starting salaries in Germany are higher than in the U.S. So clearly the teachers in Germany aren’t being shortchanged. Having attended both German and U.S. schools, I suspect the money is wasted in “administration.” Germany, a country of 80 million people, doesn’t have 600 individual school districts as New Jersey does and, thus, it doesn’t have the expense of redundantly paying for the same administrative tasks 600 times. (Incidentally, if you look at another U.S. state, North Carolina, with the same number of students as N.J., you will find that that state only has 100 districts. Not surprisingly, their perstudent spending is much less than N.J.’s.)

Given the above, it is clear to me that the solution to New Jersey’s educational budget woes is not to keep firing teachers, laying off custodians, or firing bus drivers. The solution is to consolidate administrative functions across the school districts. Think about it. We have 600 superintendents making $200,000 each and they all do pretty much the same job. On top of that, thanks to Gov. [Jon] Corzine, we have another 21 county superintendents, which, ostensibly, were supposed to replace those 600 superintendents. If the 600 district superintendents were eliminated and we let the county superintendents do the job, it would save N.J. $120 million dollars per year. Many of these superintendents have their own personal secretaries. Eliminating those positions will probably save another $50 million. Those secretaries often have their own secretaries (also known as clerk typists) — more millions saved. Many, if not all the districts, develop their own curricula. Why? Can’t N.J. come up with a single curriculum for all its schools? Does every district need its own director of curriculum ($140,000)? Does every district need multiple curriculum advisers? There are probably another several hundred million dollars in savings to be had by consolidating curricula across the state. And all these savings can be had without firing a single teacher, without cutting a single academic program, without negatively affecting our children’s education.

I don’t know why school districts do not consider this alternative way of saving huge sums of money. I do know that I will not vote for tax increases until those obvious savings are taken. Tax increase proponents’ cries that a no vote is a vote against the children is a hollow one when those same individuals cut teachers and academic programs rather than redundant administrative functions.