Moonshot Memories

moon cropped

I spent last weekend at a family reunion in the upper Midwest. I visited the same farms, and saw many of the same people, that I saw in the summer of 1969—the year when Apollo XI landed on the moon. For me, that first lunar landing is tightly bound in memory with family trips to South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

A little background:  My parents left the upper Midwest (Roberts County, South Dakota, specifically) for California in the 1940s. My sister, brother, and I were born in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my parents became proud and happy Californians.

But all of my mother’s family remained in the Midwest. One of her sisters married and moved to Moorhead, Minnesota, but mom’s parents and her three other siblings lived within about 15 miles of the Claire City, South Dakota farm where mom was born. My parents took us kids back to visit these relatives just about every other summer from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. Traveling typically meant an epic road trip that began when my father got off work on a Thursday or Friday afternoon; armed with a carton of Camels and a thermos of coffee, he’d start driving from the San Francisco Bay Area with my mom and we three kids in the station wagon. He’d drive all night (he claimed that the car got better gas mileage after dark), and we’d snooze in the backseat, waking the next morning somewhere in Nevada or Utah. For two days, we’d camp—or just sleep in the car—till we got to Claire City.

But that trip in 1969 broke the drive-till-you-drop pattern.

Continue reading Moonshot Memories

Can Developers Save Earth? Can BIRT Help?

(Another one that’s lost a bit of its currency, though this is an annual event. This was my first post on the Actuate blog on April 8, 2014.)

This weekend—April 12 – 13, 2014—marks NASA’s second International Space Apps Challenge. Online and at almost 100 sites around the world—from Athens, Greece, to Zaragoza, Spain—volunteer developers, makers, and scientists will collaborate in an intense 48-hour marathon to create solutions based on 40 different challenges posed by the American space agency.

Some of the challenges involve hardware, while others are purely software development projects. This year, the challenges range from creating a greenhouse design (for growing food on Mars) to developing an app to display the force of gravity anywhere on Earth.

Read the rest here.

7 Free or Cheap Ways to Learn Data Science

(Actually, it’s more than seven — we’ve added a few in the comments.)

We all know data science is an important (and growing) field, but most of us don’t have the time or money to study it full-time at a university. But take heart: We’ve found seven free or inexpensive options for data science training.

Many of these are high-level, theoretical courses, not specific programs to train you on data science tools. All the courses require some knowledge of statistics, programming, and data concepts (and one of them requires a lot more), so read the fine print.

Read the whole post at:

Throwback Thursday: Wireless Networks, 8 Years On

“A wireless LAN can enable your employees to do their jobs more quickly and efficiently, allowing them to be more responsive to customers. Convenience is a major business reason for using a wireless network, says Craig J. Mathias, a principal with Farpoint Group, an independent wireless advisory firm. “Getting access to information and acting on it in a timely fashion is one of the last competitive differentiators,” he says.

In 2006 I wrote “Seven Steps to Wireless” for Cisco’s iQ magazine. Hard to believe how much has changed since then; wireless LANs (WLANs), then a relative rarity, are ubiquitous now. Eight years ago, organizations actually needed advice such as “Evaluate network infrastructure. Can your switches and routers handle wireless access point traffic?” and needed to be coached on various flavors of wireless security. (Well, they probably still ought to think harder about security, but rightly or wrongly that onus increasingly falls on users.)

My eight-year-old piece is perhaps timely today given the revelations from the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi that the Russian security apparatus can spy on wireless communications, including WiFi and mobile phone networks. In such a case, the dilemma facing users is daunting but age-old: Armor up, increasing complexity and reducing convenience for the sake of personal privacy? Or suck it up and let them snoop, in exchange for speed. I’m interested to see what visitors to Sochi will choose, and if we’ll even know what they choose.

On Unsubscribing

For years I’ve kept a couple of secondary email addresses for e-newsletters, website signups, and other things that require an email address but that don’t really belong in the inbox I use to run my business. I’ve let these addresses —  free accounts from the usual big online players — get clogged with messages that are not quite spam but that typically get deleted without being read.

Starting today I’m going to try something that seems daring in my cautious online world. I’m going to unsubscribe from* some of those newsletters and websites.

It’s daring (to me) because I have held fast to what used to be conventional wisdom: That clicking the “Unsubscribe” button is actually a notification to the sender that they’ve reached a real, live person. And worse, is a signal that they might want to send more messages to a given address. I no longer believe that, at least for legitimate senders. (I’m about two years behind David Pogue in coming to this realization.)

What changed my mind? Continue reading On Unsubscribing

The Personal Touch at Oracle OpenWorld

There’s plenty of worry—much of it well founded—that technology is breaking down the need, and maybe even the desire, for good old-fashioned person-to-person human interaction. Social networking, e-commerce, online advertising—they’re all enabling us to spend more time with our screens and less with our peeps, or the story goes. And what do we get in exchange? A little more speed and convenience, and a lot less privacy.

You can blame the Facebooks and Amazons of the world for this, but a share of the blame likely lies with one of the grey eminences of the technology business: Oracle. Its software is the engine behind many of the biggest businesses, with the longest reaches, in the world. Oracle’s spectacular scope and scale are on full display this week at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco. (Disclosure: Oracle is a longtime client of mine; I write for their publications, and I’m attending the show on a complimentary press/blogger pass.)

Oracle OpenWorld is beyond overwhelming. It brings tens of thousands of attendees and $120 million to San Francisco from around the world. More than 100,000 hotels rooms in the City (and many in surrounding cities) are booked. Howard Street has become an alfresco great room. The entirety of Moscone Center and several nearby venues are packed with IT guys, programmers, developers, and marketing folks, not to mention the crowds of people here to help us find our way, serve us our lunch, and otherwise care for us. All of Oracle OpenWorld’s sessions, even the small technical ones, are highly produced, with wireless microphones, large video screens, slick PowerPoint presentations, and walk-on music for the presenters, who are introduced by voice-of-god announcers. The lights and sound will induce vertigo if the crowds don’t.

But Oracle OpenWorld is more than a gathering of nerds who prefer relational databases over relationships. It’s a gathering of people, and the human touch that invariably occurs when people interact with one another is what leads me to my favorite anecdote from today.

I was attending a session about Enterprise Mobility, and was sitting next to a fellow from Japan. (At least I surmise he was from Japan; the lock screen on his iPad was in Japanese.) To his left were two guys from Latin America. (At least I assume they were from Latin America, from their speech and dress.) We were in a darkened theater looking at a bright screen, and the Japanese guy tried to take a photo of a PowerPoint slide with his iPad. He was unsuccessful; the picture was washing out. Silently, one of the Latin American guys touched his shoulder, held up his own phone, and showed the Japanese guy how to adjust the exposure by tapping a bright spot on the screen. This all happened in seconds—fast enough, in fact, for the Japanese guy to get his photo successfully before the presenter had moved to the next slide.

Perhaps this episode serves as a loose metaphor for the positive power of technology. Think about it: One person silently and quickly provided necessary information to help another person—a complete stranger, from another land—do something he needed to do. And perhaps this episode illuminates why events like Oracle OpenWorld continue to draw tens of thousands of people, even in an era when information can be delivered virtually and online for less money and hassle. Yes, digital forums and virtual meetings may be more efficient, but they don’t do a good job of putting human beings in touch with each other. That personal contact is an invaluable commodity that can’t yet be digitized.

Breaking My Own Rule

For years, I’ve advised people not to do something tech-related. And a few months ago, I did that very thing: I bought a cheap inkjet printer. Allow me to explain why I broke my own rule.

We’ll start with a little background. Not long ago, cheap printers were everywhere. There were free ones, too: When Apple wouldn’t let its retailers discount its Macs—it still doesn’t—catalog sellers, like MacMall and MacZone, would offer free printers with their Macs as an incentive to buyers. A perverse incentive it was: The printer may have been free, but the ink to feed that beast was an ongoing, potentially large, cost. An often-mentioned axiom was inkjet printer manufacturers were following Gillette’s business model: Give away the razors, and make money on razor blades.

With this in mind, I used to advise almost anyone who was shopping for a printer—and who would listen—to look past the cheap/free color printers and go with a monochrome laser printer. This was always my recommendation if the person was printing mostly text. The initial cost was higher, I’d argue, but the cost per page—a much better indicator of the printer’s ultimate cost—was lower.

I practiced what I preached. My first laser printer, an HP LaserJet 6MP purchased in 1995, is still working, but I retired it in 2010 for an HP LaserJet P2015dn because the latter prints “duplex” — that is, on both sides of the paper. (Another big money-saver, by the way.)

So why did I go hunting for a cheap inkjet in 2013? Because I was traveling for 10 days and needed to do some printing while on the road. I didn’t need a printer with a long working life, or that was super-cost-efficient over the long term; I needed something tough and reliable, with low initial cost. I got an HP DeskJet 1055 for $30 at Target, and spent that much again for another set of ink cartridges.

A little about my decision-making process: First I looked for mobile or portable printers, but I found them to be much more expensive than their technology justified. They main reason they’re costly, it seems, is because they’re battery powered. This would be a great feature for a building contractor who needed to print a work order on a job site, but I would be in a hotel room in southwest New York with reliable electric power.

Then I looked at inexpensive inkjet-only printers from online retailers. I had almost settled on the Canon PIXMA iP2702, a well-reviewed machine that I could buy from NewEgg for $30 (with free shipping) and have sent (general delivery) to Chautauqua, New York. (Our lodging wasn’t settled.) Then the HP showed up in a Sunday circular at Target, and a little poking online found it to be a generally well-regarded printer with one critical (to me) feature: the ability to print using just the black ink cartridge. (There I go, trying to save money again.) Plus, by buying it locally I could make 100% certain that it would be where I wanted it, and when—with no snafus and/or finger-pointing between USPS and a third-party carrier. The printer in its protective box took up fully half of a very large suitcase. (Fortunately, we were otherwise packing light — and flying Southwest, which doesn’t charge for luggage.)

After the fact, I’m satisfied with my decision and my choice. The printer did just what I needed it to do — that is, print — and now it’s found a home in our home office, where it does some scanning as well as occasional color printing. Yes, I still use my monochrome laser most of the time, but it’s handy to have this printer around. The moral of the story is that advice — including technical advice — has to fit the circumstances. And when those circumstances change, it’s useful to look again at our opinions and preconceived notions to make sure they still fit.