Monthly Archives: August 2010

The BEST $29 I Ever Spent!

On Saturday I stopped at my local Staples and picked up a 16GB USB thumb drive, for which I paid the grand sum of $29.   I was pretty happy with that – not cheap, but a reasonable value.

But when I arrived home, I found a coupon inside for 35 free songs plus a free audio book. It was the usual ‘sign up and cancel at any time’ type of thing that I typically ignore, but I was in the market for a new audio book, and 35 songs sounded pretty good, so I signed up and started the process of downloading songs.

It didn’t take long to figure out that anything current was not included in the free offer, and the company was missing many of the major artists, so I was forced to move my time horizon a few decades.

I was starting to get annoyed until, taking a total long-shot, I entered the name TV21.  Now you almost certainly would not have heard of TV21.  They were a little known band from the U.K. in the 80’s, but I had an album of theirs called A Thin Red Line that I played to death in my teenage years.  I had searched for this album since my vinyl version went missing, and I would have paid handsomely for it.  And here it was FOR FREE!  This was a massive result.

Inspired by this diamond in the rough, I dove back into ‘panning’ for classic music from the 80’s.

Mid way through this hunt, my brother skyped me (I live in NJ and he is still in London) and we started brainstorming about the bands we listened to in our youth.

Most of what we came up with wasn’t available, but we laughed and played old music back and forth to each other.  His wife (Sandra) got in on that act and my wife…well, she’s a classical fan, so she opted to escape the office for the duration.  We ranged from classics such as Abba and a-ha, to less note-worthy offerings such as Musical Youth and Kajagoogoo (suggested by Sandra – I’m not putting my hand up to that one!)

Mixed in with that were some classic bloopers – such as the album shown as Never Mind the Bullocks – Here’s the Sex Pistols.   Clearly the spell checker didn’t like the original word and, yes, the picture on the album cover showed the real story.

My brother and I don’t talk as often as we should, but for over an hour we laughed and reminisced about old times…it was great fun!

When all was said and done my $29 netted me 35 free tunes, an album that I would have easily paid twice that for (for nostalgic reasons), and an audio book that has been on my list for a long time.  I also spent an amazingly fun hour laughing and talking with my brother and sister-in-law, and…oh yes…snagged a 16GB thumb drive.

Such a deal!  Thank you Sandisk – you made my weekend!

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Filed under Life - or something like it, The Human Condition

The Technology Jihad

There is a religious war being raged at this very moment in our homes, and in our pockets. It is a little quieter than your average war – for the most part, no-one is losing limbs to IEDs – but it is a war none-the-less.

These crusades are being fought between two main factions:

  • Those that wish to control the technology in your lives – “The Empire”, and the 800lb Gorilla in that camp is Apple.
  • Those that want technology to be free to create in new and innovative ways, without a single overlord ruling everything – “The Rebel Alliance”. The Rebels are supported by companies like Google, and by a group of loosely organized technical wizards (Jedi).

The Empire has jammed people into the box-car of conformity using slick user interfaces and the promise that you will be safer if you use their products.  As part of this they make sure that you can’t “harm yourself” by taking away features that they deem unsuitable for you (e.g. Flash video), and giving you just enough functionality that you won’t feel overwhelmed.  In a nutshell, they offer a sanitized computing experience for the masses.

This sanitation of experience is something that we seem to have adopted universally as a society.  Blogs such as Free Range Kids, show us just how much we dumb down things for our children’s protection, so perhaps we have no-one to blame but ourselves if we end up being controlled and manipulated.

But it was not always so.  Once upon a time people thought for themselves, and Apple fought on the side of good.  But Apple became corrupted by the money that is made by locking people in, and have since been consumed by the dark side.  Now they attempt to drive conformity to the Apple way wherever possible – Very interesting considering that Apple once used the slogan “Think different” and had a famous ad campaign using Orwell’s 1984 to represent the need to break the mold.  This was back in the days when the Apple still had color in its logo.

The safe, and easy-to-use, Apple products become the “Golden Handcuff” that locks you in. Once they have you, their marketing machine uses the power of the Dark Side to make sure you spend the maximum amount of money on your initial purchase, and yet still feel compelled to upgrade when the next version hits the shelves.  For example, where is the USB port on the iPad (still not there in version 2)?  And why can I tether my iPhone to my Netbook, but not to an iPad?  Obviously they want you to buy the more expensive 3G model and sign up for another monthly data plan – because recurring revenue is really where it’s at. The Force can have a powerful effect on the weak minded.

The Rebels, in contrast, are trying to create a world where you are free to use technology as you see fit. These Jedi use their amazing ability to manipulate technology (The Force) to create incredible software and then they give it away for free! But, along with great power, comes great responsibility.  Creating such an open system allows a vast array of software to be produced, but without a standard look and feel.  As a result these products often provide state-of-the-art capabilities, but are too confusing for novices to use.

The Rebel Alliance has pushed Linux as an alternative to Windows, and Android (based on Linux) as an alternative to the iPhone.  These are technically sound solutions, and the open nature of these ensures that there are plenty of apps available, many of which are free.  Unfortunately they can’t seem to get their act together and work as a team. The most successful Linux desktop (Ubuntu) is gaining ground with end-users by providing an easy to use, user interface.  But the hard-core Linux folks claim it is only for beginners (it is not) and seem to want to stick with ‘the old ways’ of using Linux just for servers.

This fragmentation of the user interface is making it difficult for Linux to gain widespread adoption. It also makes support difficult because the only way to make sure that a solution works in all instances is to go beneath the GUI – and that can mean support answers sometimes involve manually typing in commands like sudo mv /var/lib/dpkg/info/libopenal1.* /tmp”– seriously, can you imagine your mother doing that?

At the moment Linux is viable as a home computer platform only as long as you have someone slightly geeky who will take your calls. I have been slowly converting people in my neighborhood to Linux – not because I wanted to, but because they have problems with their computers and never seem to have their original OS disks.  Buying Windows is expensive so I usually leave them with a machine happily running Ubuntu, Firefox and Open Office.  So far I have converted about half a dozen people, all without complaint – but there is only so much I can do in my role as part of The Resistance!

The Rebel Alliance have had better luck penetrating the mobile phone market, and Android phones now outsell the iPhone. This makes sense in a market that has not yet created a standard look and feel.  And perhaps, The Rebels can use this platform to open a chink in the armor of the desktop space, and make some real inroads in the future.

I believe in the open source movement – I really do.  I feel as though they have justice on their side, and I use so much open source software now that the thought of actually buying software sends a shiver down my spine.

But the Rebel Alliance are vastly outnumbered by the hoards of Luddites who just want their devices to work and, in the process, are happy to fork over money for software that they could easily have gotten for free if they had known better.

The war is on, and the future is uncertain.  But, to paraphrase Ben Franklin “Those who give up Freedom for Security, deserve neither.”

Choose wisely, and may The Force be with you.

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Filed under Life - or something like it, Technology, The Human Condition

A Statute of Limitations on Hatred

Four men drinking by Maxo VankaI was drinking recently with a group of people from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and I was amazed by how many of our conversations included a narrative of past crimes committed against “their” people.

Each could name friends and relatives who still speak with deeply held passion about past atrocities, and have burning hatred of the aggressor’s entire race.  This is despite the fact that these events occurred long before any of these people were born.

Almost every group – be it a nation, a religious group, a culture – has some historic reason to hate another group.  Catholic/Protestant, English/Irish, Croatia/Serbia, Muslim/Hindu, Chinese/Japanese, Black/White, East/West.  The list goes on and on.

So what is it about hatred that allows it to not only endure, but sometimes magnify, over time?

Hatred endures because it is being passed down from generation to generation through stories of past hostility.  These stories are often embellished along the way with great emotional impact, and result is a never-ending suspicion of “those people”.

Often this passed-down hatred leads to future violence, and the cycle of hate continues.

I am not saying that we need to forget the past.  There is truth in the old saying “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”  But it is also true that those who remember the past too vividly are likewise doomed.

Some Googling finally turned up a Facebook group called We “Pass” on Passing on the Hate.  Sounds like a great idea, right?…it has a mere 20 members.  Sad, but true.

But I feel strongly about this issue.   This poison of hatred is being passed from generation to generation, and it is time for the hatred to stop. Or, to put it another way, we need a “Statute of Limitations” on hatred.

Bloggers are acutely aware of the power of the written word, and how small changes can completely alter the perception of the reader.  To give a simple example, media reports of motorcycle accidents are often phrased as “A motorcycle collided with a car that was turning left…”  But think about that – the car was turning left, therefore invading the motorcycles right of way, so who exactly was to blame here?   We need to be acutely aware of the unspoken messages we are sending, even in innocent sounds words.

When talking with your children it is not just what you say, but how you say it, that defines their perception of a group going forwards.  Here are some simple rules:

  • First, decide whether there is good reason to tell them about horrific past events.  Are they too young to fully understand yet?
  • Use words that put the timing of events in context, so phrases such as “when times were different” or “a long time ago” will help ensure your children understand that this is not how things are today.
  • Avoid using slang.  Use Black or African-American instead of Nigger, Japanese instead of Jap, American instead of Yank, British instead of Limy.
  • Don’t generalize negative traits to an entire group – such as groups being called stupid, or thieves.  Individuals have “good” or “bad” behavior, not the group.  Oh…that reminds me…Did I tell you the difference between a Blonde and a shopping cart?…”
  • As with most things, start in your own home.  Forgive other people for their past crimes.  The bigger the atrocity, the longer the time, but it should never extend beyond the memory of the person wronged.  Here are some suggestions:
    • Didn’t make the bed – A maximum of 10 minutes
    • Had an affair?  A maximum of 10 years.
    • Mass murder – A maximum of 1 generation

There have been many tragedies through the ages, but what would be truly tragic would be to lose more sons and daughters because we couldn’t leave the past in the past.

Take the advice of Gandhi, a man we could all learn from, and be the change you want to see in the world. The power is within us to make the world a better place for our children, and our children’s children.  I hope we all choose to use that power wisely.

If you like this idea – please pass it along.

Peace.

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Filed under Children, Life - or something like it, The Human Condition

A New Blog is Born – Aspergers : A Mom’s Eye View

Under normal circumstances I would be sitting here bashing out my latest crazy idea.  But this week is different.  This week I celebrate the first step in something that, I believe, will become a valuable resource for parents of children on the Autism spectrum.

Some people reading this blog will be aware that, about 2-years ago, my middle child was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome – a high-functioning form of autism.  Since finding this out, my wife, that wonderfully intelligent and sensitive woman with bad-taste in men, has dedicated herself to finding out all she can about this disorder, and working with our son to help him overcome the difficulties, and maximize his strengths.

The results have been, frankly, magical. In just 2 years Gregory has changed from a tense ball of frustration and anger, rejecting all forms of social interaction, to an incredibly loving and relaxed little boy.  I can’t tell you what a difference this has made to the entire family.

Seeing the incredible transformation that Joanne has managed to achieve with Gregory, I have encouraged her to help other people who find themselves with similar issues.  My latest suggestion was that she start a blog to document her struggle, and the techniques she has discovered, so that other people can benefit from her experiences.

This has been a constant up-hill battle.  Not because she doesn’t want to help, but because she is incredibly modest and finds the idea of self-promotion distasteful.  The most common answer to my urgings have been “But I’m not an expert” and “There are so many great resources out there, why would people be interested in what I have to say?”

Finally, probably to shut me up, she agreed to check with some other friends on whether they thought it was a good idea and…no surprise…they were 100% behind her, and Aspergers  :  A Mom’s Eye View has been born.

Fortunately, I have no such qualms about promoting Joanne and what she can achieve when she puts her mind to something.

Joanne is, without a doubt, the most intelligent person I have ever met – and I have met many intelligent people.  She has an ability to absorb information at a frightening rate, and then simplify it, such that even I can understand it.  Since our diagnosis, Joanne has read a vast number of books on the subject of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), taken classes, worked with our local schools, and attended conferences.

But, most importantly, Joanne is a mom with a child in need.  And it is this combination of a mom’s story, combined with the knowledge that she has gained, that I believe will be a powerful aid to parents who find themselves in the same situation.

So, I wanted to dedicate this week’s blog post to introducing Aspergers : A Mom’s Eye View.  I hope you will enjoy reading it, and will pass this along to anyone who is in need of support and advice.

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Filed under Children, Life - or something like it, The Human Condition

On-Demand Demands Too Much!

As a child, I remember rushing home to catch my favorite TV show, “Dr. Who”, and  I would sit, glued to the TV, as my hero fought the next batch of aliens foolishly trying to take over the world.  And, yes, we even watched the ads.

Back then, you either watched the show as it aired, caught up with friends, or pieced together what happened from the next episode.  If it was the last episode of a series, well then you were out of luck.

Those days are long past, and modern technology is providing us with an On-Demand world.  A world where tools such as DVRs, Blackberries, and laptops allow us to choose not only the time, but also the place, that tasks can be accomplished.

But beware!  While On-Demand and remote technologies can be a huge boon to productivity, they can also be a curse that eats away at your free time like a cancer, leaving you trapped in a time debt that can be as serious as any financial crisis.

Time is a commodity that is becoming ever more precious, and advances in technology are allowing us to shift tasks to a time that is more convenient.  Unfortunately “more convenient” often means getting less sleep, or moving work tasks into our precious family time.  I have news for you – being in the same room as your family with your nose buried in a laptop is NOT the same as having quality family time.  And when you find yourself skipping pages in your child’s bedtime story, because you have to get back to work, you know you need help.

The encroachment of work into our personal lives has reached the point where vacation time is now an “occupied territory”.  You know how it goes.  You go on vacation and come back to find yourself backed up with 500 unread emails, and 15 hours of recorded TV shows waiting for you.

You know that you will never clear that email backlog while you are actually in work, so you spend the last weekend of your vacation cuddled up on the sofa with your laptop, wading through the email bog, ignoring your family and listening, with half an ear, to the shows you wanted to watch.

So…the next time you go on vacation you take your Blackberry, “just to keep on top of those pesky emails”, but the siren call of the little red light draws you in every time it starts to flash, and you find yourself looking more at your emails than the scenery.  Finally your spouse reminds you that you are supposed to be spending time with the family, and threatens to throw the damn Blackberry in the toilet…which is where you find yourself checking it from that point forwards.

The pressure to be “always-on” has never been higher – and if your Blackberry is on, then so are you!  That pressure to respond immediately forces us to borrow time from the present, leaving many of us in a situation where we are not only in a serious time debt, but we can barely make the minimum payments!

So, how do you get yourself out of this backlog, and avoid repeating it in the future?  Well, here are a few tips that might help:

1.  Big Rocks

The Big Rocks story tells us that we must put the important things into our lives first.
So start by making a list of thing things that are most important to you, and then put them in order of priority.  Make sure that you involve your spouse in this step, because they almost certainly have ideas on what your priorities should be.   Knowing what your priorities are is a key step to getting things back under control.  Once you have that list, carve out time on your calendar for each “Big Rock” to ensure it gets the right attention.

2. On vacation:

Before you go on vacation, change your Out of Office message to say you are on vacation and will have no access to email.  Trust me, if you say something like “limited access”, people will interpret that to mean you are checking email and will be p’d off if you don’t respond.  And don’t reply to any emails – people talk and do tell each other that you are responding.

Leave your Blackberry behind if you can.  If you must take it, because it doubles as your phone, then turn off the emails or, at the absolute minimum, set it so that emails do not make the phone beep or vibrate.

If the work pressure is so intense that you simply cannot avoid emails, set aside a specific time of each day to check and respond to emails -and then enjoy the rest of your vacation time.

Most important – when you return, don’t spend hours wading through hundreds of emails.  Find out who sent you things and…gulp!…actually call them!  Ask them what was important, what you missed, and whether there are any emails that need to be responded to.  And then tell them you are going to ignore the rest of their emails – you will be surprised how often a 10 minute phone call can save you hours of email wading, and actually be more beneficial.

3. Email Bankruptcy:

If you find yourself so far behind with email backlog that you will never catch up – Declare Email Bankruptcy!  Mark all of your unread mails as read, move them to a folder (don’t delete them – just in case), and then ask people to re-send anything that was vitally important. This will annoy some people, but most people will find it amusing and wonder why they didn’t think of that.

4. Limit TV Recordings:

For all but your most favorite TV shows, change your DVR to keep only two episodes.  And treat the addition of future shows as if you were using a credit card.  If you can’t make substantial payments on that debt, then don’t do it!

5. Change Attitudes:

Perhaps, more than anything else, the biggest problem today is the pressure that is put on us by the changing attitudes of employers, and even co-workers, to the point where people are now expected to be available 24/7. But burn-out is a serious problem today, and this is not good for the employee nor the employer in the long run.  Remind your boss and coworkers, that home life is not only important, it is essential, and helping employees to achieve a good work-life balance can actually be a great way to attract the best talent.  Take every opportunity you can to spread the gospel of work-life balance using resources such as the Alliance for Work-Life Progress.

Used correctly, technology can provide a huge boost in efficiency.  As an example, I once downloaded 40 hours of free lectures from Berkeley onto my iPod, and turned normally unproductive commuting time into a classroom.  I passed that exam without attending a single class.  Technology is not evil unto itself, but must be managed and controlled.

If you are wary of the dark side of the On-Demand world, you can reclaim your life, your family and, just maybe, get back to watching a TV show that actually aired the same week. But, feel free to skip the advertisements

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Filed under Career, Life - or something like it, Technology, The Human Condition