Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category.

Update on Slippery Cell Phones

In my review of my Droid Turbo, I mentioned in passing that I was frustrated by how slippery a lot of cell phones were.  I was in the Verizon store the other day killing time while they fixed something on my kids' phone, so I tried holding a bunch.

The slipperiest by far were the HTC One M8 and the LG G3.  Both, probably not coincidentally, get high marks for being attractive due to their metal or faux metal backs, but the same backs make them like a wet bar of soap to hold.  You can put a no slip case on them of course, but then if you are going to put them in a case, why buy a phone that is promoted in large part on its looks?

My Droid Turbo is OK, with no slip surface around the edges but a very slick back, at least the nylon back one I have.

The Galaxy S5 is better than average.  Its back gets a lot of grief for being ugly, but it will not slide around in the hand and is comfortable to hold.

Until this week, the no-slip champion for me was the Moto X with the bamboo case (it is real wood veneer, not some plastic fake thing).  It looks good to my eye and it is very grippy in the hand.

But there is a new champion.  I tried the Moto X with the new football leather backing (again, real football leather).  This thing is not going to slide out of your hand (unless maybe if you are Jay Cutler).  The looks are ... different, but I could get used to it.  Phones for me are a convenience item, not a fashion item.  The Moto X's only problems are a small battery and a camera that is a bit weak.  Which is why I bought the Droid Turbo, which is a very similar phone but with a bigger battery.  Just wish they had all the cool Moto Maker options the Moto X has.

Droid Turbo Review

I am extremely happy with my Droid Turbo phone on Verizon.  A few notes for those thinking about buying a phone:

Why Android over iPhone

  • I have been an iPhone guy through 2 generations of phones, and still love my iPad.  But I am exhausted with iCloud and Apple proprietary calendar and mail.  I don't use those tools, I use Gmail and other Google tools, and I got exhausted constantly farting with setup issues.  Things I had to use IFTTT to do on the iPhone happen automatically on Android.  And don't even get me started on duplicate photos in the iPhone/iCloud world.  Drives me crazy.
  • If on your desktop you live in the Apple world, buy an iPhone.  If you, like me, use Gmail, Google Calendar, Google drive and other such tools, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to switch to Android.  Google drive is woven into the operating system at many points.  And even better than on the desktop, Android is great at working with and recognizing multiple google accounts without signing in and out.  For example, in the photo viewer, you can view all your photos together from all your accounts.
  • The one downside is I don't use Google hangouts and Google+, and those are woven in as well.  I had to replace the text messaging app with something else (I use Chomp) but that is the great thing about Android - things that are fixed in iOS are customizable in Android (it is also the bad part of Android if you don't want to mess with that -- I would never put my wife on Android, for example).
  • As a downside, all the variation in phones and customizations mean that you are not guaranteed to get Android updates when they come out.  It depends on your carrier and phone manufacturer.
  • The ability to load up all my music for free (even FLAC files which they automatically convert online to high quality MP3) and stream it to my phone is way better than Apple's capability.
  • I think that most of the feature and OS leadership in the last 18 months has really be grabbed by Android.  Except for the fingerprint capability on the iPhone, everything in the iPhone 6 and iOS 8 was just catch up with Android.

The Good about the Turbo

  • Honking big battery.  Yes, it makes it a bit heavier and bulkier, but it is way lighter and less bulky than, say, and iPhone with a mophie battery case.  I never even come close to running out, even when I use it travelling as a GPS in the car for several hours.  You don't realize how much your interaction with your phone is influenced by battery life until you don't have to worry about it.  I can even leave the screen on bright all day
  • Wireless charging.  Awesome.  The mini-USB connector sucks vs. the iPhone connector because it is not reversible so it is much harder to insert.  All that goes away with wireless charging.  Love it.
  • Fast charging.  You can use the fast charger to blast a ton of life back into the phone in just 15 minutes.
  • Near stock Android.  I like this over the glossy custom overlays Samsung and Sony and every other company apply.  I did replace the front end with the Google Now front end, which is nearly identical but it has Google now cards on the leftmost screen, which I have come to enjoy.  Fun travelling in particular when it pops up photo sites or destinations near me.  Its news suggestions are tied into my browser history and are pretty spot on.
  • Near stock Android also pays another benefit - you will get Android updates much faster.  All Motorola phones (given Google's ownership) are early on the list of phones that will get Android Lollipop upgrades.

Things that are fine

  • The camera is fine.  Focuses relatively fast, takes decent pictures, but not as good as you might expect from the specs.  But competitive with other phones.
  • The screen is supposed to be a selling point, with its above HD resolution, but almost never can I tell a difference.  At some point, the eye just cannot see more pixel density.  It has some tradeoffs in that the higher pixel density can lead fonts on some websites to be almost unreadable (no one has really programmed for this high of a pixel density yet).  Also, the higher pixel count requires more power, which reduces some of the advantage of the larger battery
  • The screen is AMOLED, like the Samsung Galaxy phones.  It is a love it or hate it thing.  The colors on AMOLED tend to be oversaturated.   Ironically, I can live with that.  I am SUPREMELY fussy about the colors on my TV's and in particular on my movie projection system, but I don't care so much on the phone.  Certainly it makes the desktop bright and attractive

Things that are a negative for many reviewers but don't bother me

  • "Its ugly".  That is the #1 review comment.  Shrug.   I think it is fine.  Sure, the Moto X with the bamboo back is awesome looking.   But I am deeply into functionality here.  The curved back feels nice in the hand.
  • There is only a single speaker.  I have come to understand that millennials are fine listening to music on crappy tinny speakers.  I would never listen to music on laptop speakers, and especially not on a cell phone speaker.  I only use the cell phone speaker for occasional speakerphone calls.  And it is fine for that.

Things that do bother me

  • I wish it had a memory card slot.   I have 64MB which is likely enough, particularly since I have all my music loaded up online with Google play music and I can just stream it most of the time.  But I would feel better with an expansion slot
  • I wish it was water resistant like the Galaxy S5.  Wireless charging makes this even more doable since you can plug up the USB port.
  • I wish it had iPhone's awesome fingerprint scanner
  • Why do they have to design $800 electronic devices that break when dropped to be so slippery?  The edges are finished in some kind of rubbery stuff that is very grippy.  I wish they had done the back in the same stuff.  That fake nylon webbing stuff on mine is slick, though not wet-bar-of-soap slick like, say, the HTC One M8.

Amazingly Fast Technology Transformation

If one considers the penetration of digital film-making to be the inverse of this chart, I can't remember any technological transformation that occurred this fast.  From the WSJ

P1-BQ856_FILM_G_20140729173906 (1)

 

Incredibly, this likely understates the speed at which traditional film has been replaced, since some of these Kodak numbers likely include a bump from the exit of their rival Fuji from the film manufacturing business.

I will confess that I was among those who feared this transition, worrying that digital recordings would lose some of the special visual qualities of film.  What I failed to understand, and most people fail to understand in such technical transitions, was that whatever was lost (and it was less than I feared) is more than made up for in new capabilities in the new medium.

Ultimate Geek Accesory

The orrery watch.

wristwatch-shows-solar-system-planets-orbiting-around-the-sun-10

For a mere $245,000.

Seriously, though, if someone could make a wall clock like this for a hundredth of the price, I might buy it.  Of course this is comes from the person who has this on his wall, so I am a sucker for unique clocks.

The Patent System is Broken

Why?  Well, as one example, if you have ever scanned a document and then emailed it, this company thinks you are violating its patent and wants a license fee.

Moore's Law on Steroids: World Computing Power for One Type of Calculation is Doubling Every Three Weeks

Over at Forbes, I wrote this week about Bitcoin mining.  But don't be immediately put off.  This is not yet another article by a crazed libertarian and Cryptonomicon fan on the miracle effects of digital currencies.  Instead, I look at the crazy economics and absurdly steep capacity and technology curves of Bitcoin mining.  An excerpt:

Let’t take an example, and consider the Cointerra TerraMiner IV, a 2TH/sec machine priced at about $6000 which if purchased today would be delivered sometime in February, or about 3 months from now.  At current difficulties and exchange rates, such a machine would pay back its purchase price in less than a week, producing over $25,000 a month in Bitcoins.

A no-brainer, right?  But Bitcoin mining difficulty has been going up of late by a factor of 10 every 3 months.  Based on a mining difficulty ten times greater than today and current exchange rates, we could expect instead to be making at delivery something more like $575 a week.   Three months later we would be making a tenth of that.  If we factor in the costs of electricity, this machine will never cover its costs at current Bitcoin exchange rates.

I do not think I have ever seen a business technology obsoleted so quickly.  Essentially, the next generation of mining processors will be virtually obsoleted between the time of its sale and its delivery 3 months later.  Every three months one has to reduce his production costs by a factor of 10, in a business where cost reduction basically means throwing out all one’s existing capital assets and buying expensive new stuff.

Amazing

Like something out of a a Neal Stephenson novel.

Coolest Drawbridge

iOS7 Problems

The day of the launch of iOS7, I warned my whole family in an email not to upgrade until it had some time to prove itself.  This is why.  Apparently it is a mess, at least for some users. 

The sort of funny part is that they defend themselves by saying "at least it is not as bad as Microsoft OS launch."  We certainly have latched onto a new form of accountability in the Obama age:  "Don't criticize me because I am not as bad as the other guy."

By the way, as someone who is had been royally pissed off at Microsoft many times in the past, Microsoft has to accommodate thousands of hardware configurations and a much more loosely controlled development community.  There are fewer excuses for Apple, which develops for a single hardware platform that it totally controls.

Also, there is one other difference -- when I am unhappy with a Microsoft OS, as I was with Vista, I can simply roll back to the previous version (in that case XP).   Apple does not give users any way to roll back their iPhone OS.

The World Needs Obsessive People, Even If I Am Not One Of Them

This photo is kind of cool of a disassembled VW (via Twisted Sifter)

exploded-view-volkswagen-golf-mk2

But this response from the from a user at the Club GTI forum is simply awesome.  An excerpt:

They left the 3/4 sync hub pressed onto the input shaft, and captured by that would have to be 3rd gear, because 3rd isn't on the floor.

The selector detent bolt is missing as well.

They're short one roller bearing, unless it is in the case still.

They're missing the 13mm nut to hold the selector bracket to the selector assembly.

They show 12 of the 14 bolts used around the trans casing, missing the 2 shorter ones under the selector area.

5th gear circlip and washer are missing.

5th gear retention bolt and washer are missing.

They're short one 17mm drain/fill plug too.

etc. etc.  This is exactly the guy I want in charge of the engine overhaul on the next aircraft I fly in.

Blackberry Handset Business Apparently Valued at Zero

I don't really have a horse in this race, but I found it interesting to look at the deal Blackberry has made to sell itself to a Canadian insurance company.  The part of the business we all know and used to love -- the famous Blackberry handset business -- apparently is worth zero.

In a WSJ article, they cite the following valuations:

  • Cash on hand:  $2.6 billion
  • Patent portfolio:  $1 billion +
  • Blackberry secure phone network:  $1 billion

Given that the price for the transaction is $4.7 billion, that implies the handset / smartphone business is worth zero.  Which comes as no surprise, given Blackberry's eroding position over the last 5 years or so.

The last item on the list above seems to cause a lot of debate.  I don't know enough to participate in that debate, but it appears to me that Blackberry's one last market bastion is the enterprise market where their enterprise servers and more proprietary network gave enterprises more control over their employees devices and how they used them.  Which made their decision in 2012 to apparently obsolete their installed base of enterprise servers with Blackberry 10 all the more bewildering.

I have wondered why Microsoft didn't try to use the enterprise market as a way to get into the tablet and handset market.  It would seem to play to its strengths and neither Android nor iOS are particularly enterprise-friendly.

Changing Consumption of Technology

My kids and I were watching Zoolander the other day, and one joke I don't think they fully "got" was the ongoing gag where many of the characters had really tiny cell phones.  The movie, made in 2001, was mocking a trend at the time where people were paying premium prices to get the smallest phone possible.

zoolander

It is amazing how things change.  If you made that movie today, it would likely be written mocking the opposite effect, with people trying to talk on smart phones the size of salad plates.  Here for example is a new 6.3 inch diagonal phone.  Only NBA players who can palm a basketball need apply.

huawei-ascend-mate(image source)

Not to say there is anything illogical about this.  We now read our phone much more than we listen to it.  I am not sure either of my kids has ever made a phone call on their cell phones except to my wife and me.

Technologies That Make No Sense

The wireless electric vehicle charger.  Sure it's cool.  And convenient.   But as I understand it, the main selling point of electric vehicles is their energy efficiency (I personally like the driving feel of a torque-y electric motor, but that does not seem to be the advertised selling point).  If this is the case, then why the hell would one accept a 30% energy loss (wireless charging is generally considered to be about 70% efficient) because they were too lazy to plug in a cable?

This is against the backdrop of most electric vehicle owners having no freaking clue if they are actually saving energy and money or not (all they know is that they see the costs to fill their gas tank but don't see little numbers spinning when they fill their electric car).  As I have written before, they likely are not saving energy vs. a similar size gasoline engine car but may be saving some money due to the lower cost of fuels like natural gas and coal (vs. gasoline) used in electricity production.

Creative Destruction

CFL Bulbs Suck. However, I Like LED's

A number of years ago, there was a push by many Leftish technocrats for the government to mandate a standardized cell phone power cord.  Beyond demonstrating that there is no personal irritation too trivial for some to demand government action, this would have been an awful idea.  Why?  Because when these demands for action came, cell phone power cords were just that, power.  If a standard cord had been mandated, then current designs that use a USB connection for both data and power would have been illegal, at least without the vendor also putting in a connection for the government standard connector as well.  There is always danger to the government setting arbitrary standards, but these dangers are an order of magnitude higher when the technology is still in flux.

So enter light bulbs.  The government has decided to ban incandescent light bulbs and while not mandating them, it has actively encouraged people to purchase expensive CFL bulbs.  The only problem is that CFL bulbs suck.  The light from them has bad color qualities, many take a long time to warm up, they are hard to dim, and they contain toxic substances.  They also have nothing like the multi-year life we are promised.  I have tried CFL bulbs of many, many brands and none have consistently achieved their promised life.

But as much as I hate CFL's, I am coming to love LED-based lights.  LED lights use even less energy than CFL's and last a really long time.  The technology allows for color tweaking better than CFL's, and already the warm white LED's I am buying (color temperatures around 2900K) are better to my eye than CFL's, and there is no fast-flicker problem that gives some people headaches.  Dimable versions are coming out, and prices are dropping but they are still expensive.   About half my house is LED now, and I am told that landscape lighting is quickly going all LED.

The main cost to LED's is that they all have to have a transformer.  LED's run at low voltages, like 5v, so house current has to be stepped down at every bulb.  LED's in theory should run cool and be cheap, but they are expensive and run hot because of the transformers.

Which leads me to wonder whether we may start wiring houses for 12v in parallel to 110v.  When I grew up, nearly everything I plugged into the wall -- lights, motors, appliances -- ran on 110V.  Now, most everything (other than appliances) that I plug in the wall actually needs 5-12v  (computers, cell phones, all my audio equipment except big amps).  I don't know enough about power lines to know if this is feasible.  I am pretty sure the resistance losses for 12V DC would be too high, so it would have to be 12V AC, but a diode bridge and some capacitors is a hell of a lot smaller and cheaper than a full blown transformer.  I know my landscape lighting has long runs of 12V, that seems to work OK.  It is also a hell of a lot safer to work with.

Screwed Up And Updated to iOS6

This weekend I was driving all over the NYC area when I saw that iOS6 was available.  Stupidly, without reading reviews, I updated hoping to get the new verbal turn-by-turn directions  (the old iPhone navigation app was pretty much worthless if you are alone in the car as it did not have any verbal output).

I then spent the rest of the weekend following bizarre side roads, on tiny dirt roads, or getting instructions to turn a couple of hundred yards after I had passed the intersection.  At one point I got send off the highway on a 3 mile detour through some housing tract only to eventually be put right back on the same highway I started, about 100 yards from where it had me turn off.  I am sure that it will improve in the future, but right now the new Apple nav program is a half-baked mess.  My old Android phone was better for navigation three years ago, and I am sure Google has improved it since.  If I had to drive a lot on business trips, I would be back on Android in a second.

Diamond Age

3D desktop printers are really making progress.  My sense is that soon this will be absolutely essential for my hobby (model railroading).

Update:  You don't have to own one, a number of companies emerging that will print your designs for you.  About 5 seconds after I posted the hypothesis that I would soon need a 3D printer for model railroading, I read a model railroad blog post about ordering a custom locomotive shell from this site.  From that site saw an idea I had not thought of - custom Legos!  How often in my young Lego-obsessed days did I long for a special piece of a certain shape that did not exist.  Now, make your own!

Creative Destruction

I thought this was an interesting example of creative destruction.  Five years ago, Time and Newsweek were running cover stories about the "Blackberry" culture and how ubiquitous the device was in modern business.  Now, people are making fun of it for being outdated tech.  If only we could get the average voter to truly appreciate creative destruction.  We might have fewer bailouts and more economic growth.

By the way, Canada says it won't bail out Blackberry, which is good, but is interesting given that it did bail out the Canadian automotive sector just a few years ago.  In terms of total market value I would guess the Canadian automotive sector is way smaller than Blackberry at its peak.  Only a cynic would suggest the difference is that the auto sector is unionized and therefore politically organized to generate campaign donations and grass roots get-out-the-vote efforts, while RIM is not.  That would imply that bailouts were due to political pull rather than sound and consistent economic reasoning, which I am sure can't possibly be true.

PS- there are still good and valid reasons for enterprises, like the Administration and government agencies, to use the Blackberry over smartphones.  Just because they are out of favor with 16-year-old girls does not mean they don't have utility. Oddly, though, given this particular niche and comparative advantage, RIM seems to be obsoleting its installed base of enterprise servers.   I am not an expert, but I think a lot of enterprises would stick with Blackberry for quite a while just out of inertia and lack of desire to change.  But now that Blackberry is forcing them to rethink their whole enterprise platform anyway, it seems to allow other competitors solutions into play.  Or am I missing something?

Update:  Apparently RIM is saying the previous paragraph is incorrect, that the new servers will support all the old devices ... except for email, calendar, and contacts.  Unfortunately, this seems to encompass the entire Blackberry functionality.  I have had one or two of the devices, and you are a nut if you are trying to surf the web on one as your main usage.

Curiosity

I will give a rare kudo to a government agency.  I am sure it cost way too much, but I must say the Curiosity landing and the way it was done is extraordinarily cool.  These concept images help bring it to life.

Cool Tech...

...though not as cool as I thought at first.  I thought the machine actually arranged the bricks, but that is done by hand.  Still, it eliminates a ton of stoop work with people placing bricks at table-top level.  I am sure it is more efficient, though I want the one where the machine arranges the bricks itself.  Video at the link

 

Steampunk Radar

I thought this was an interesting, pre-radar technology that has a lot of visual appeal.  These are Japanese devices for detecting aircraft approach by listening for their motor

Apple Newsstand is a Mess

I have written before that despite being a PC guy, the iPod 2 is probably the greatest piece of gear of I have ever owned.  I take it with me everywhere.

However, the newsstand is a half-baked mess, and is so bad I can't believe they saw fit to release it in this form.  The navigation is totally non-intuitive.  I am never clear if I am going to go to the store or my list of downloaded magazines when clicking on a link.  The library seems to forget that I own certain issues, and because of the choices Apple made, trying to Kluge the thing into its apps store interface, every magazine is really its own app and the Newstand is actually nothing much more than a folder holding all the apps.  This means that the interface changes radically from magazine to magazine.  In half the magazines, I still have not been able to figure out how to navigate from inside a single issue back to the overall issue list.  And don't look for an integrated issue list across all magazines - there is none.  You have to go into every single magazine app to see what issues are available in that particular product.

Worse, the subscription system does not seem to work for many of the magazines.  I have subscribed to magazines, but that fact  is not always obvious in the interface.  And in many cases, the magazines I get to download seem to have little relationship to whether I subscribed.  For example, I subscribed to PC Gamer but am not offered any of the newest issues to download -- they show up as requiring a full price purchase.

There are other bizarre touches as well.  The newstand has a little red "2" icon in the corner, which in the apps store means there are two apps that have updates.   But I can't figure which of my magazines needs updating -- there is no icon on the individual magazines hinting they need updating somehow, and there is no "update all" button or even a button to see a list of updates available as there is in the app store.  Yes, I know the new issues are theoretically supposed to download automatically.  The NYT does.  A number of magazines don't, and I have had to go into the store and click on them to get them to download.

Finally, looking at my iphone, which should have a mirror of all the magazines I have bought on the ipad (same apple account), only about half the magazines show up.

This is just a big, big disappointing mess, all the more so because the iPad feels like the perfect device to read magazines.  I can only guess this was all driven by a desire to reuse the existing apps micro-payments infrastructure, but the result is very un-Apple.  The only reason one tolerates Apple's closed ecosystem and resulting loss of options and flexibility is because it yields predictability, particularly in the interface.  Apple has thrown that all away with Newsstand and I can't believe their user community is going to tolerate it.

Update:  I just googled the Newsstand and I get pages and pages of positive reviews.  This absolutely has to be Apple fan-boy crap.  Really, the Newsstand interface is really awful.

Update#2:  The NYTimes apps seems to work beautifully, but most of the magazines have weird interfaces.  Again, Apple does not seem to have imposed a single interface structure on magazine app developers, so they all have their own.

The Diamond Age

This is pretty cool

NeverWet Fabrics from Ross Nanotechnology on Vimeo.

Note sure why the video just went private. Check out their web site here: http://www.neverwet.com/. See the second video on the video page, never wet on shoes.

Steampunk GPS

Steve Jobs has Passed Away at 56

[source] In some very real ways, the Apple II computer changed the course of my life from being a lawyer to an engineer.  If for nothing else, I owe Mr. Jobs a lot.  Though I have never been a huge fan of the MacIntosh computers (a true power user would never tolerate a computer "for the rest of us"), I have come back around to the Apple family of late, first with the marvelous iPod and later with the iPad, still the greatest piece of gear I have ever owned.

Mr. Jobs got rich off of people like me, but far from resenting it, I feel like he was under paid.  My consumer surplus from many of the products he helped create dwarfs what I paid for them.  He made me wealthier and happier, and the world loses a lot with his passing.