Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Retro-Modern Holidays

Having two children under the age of 12 makes Christmas very fun. Everything from setting up the indoor and outdoor decorations to selecting gifts for family members, on to parties, advent calendars, concerts and even cold weather are all part of the season.

Yet every year, I look at the things that keep children fascinated. Every year, there’s something new to keep children interested. Here are some that I’ve seen:

Christmas lights — Over the past three or four years, LED (light emitting diode) lights have become all the rage. Energy efficiency is one of the main benefi ts of LEDs, but they also have a certain look to them that is different than the typical incandescent bulbs most of us grew up with.

A few days ago, we were driving around Westport and my children saw some of the old-style Christmas bulbs on a neighbor’s home. The children started asking about them and ended up thinking that the old style lights are prettier than the new LEDs.

The inside Christmas lights are also the same way. While years ago people used candles on their trees (hugely dangerous), I also remember the light bulbs we used as kids that were hot enough to stretch certain types of tinsel. While not as dangerous as candles, the incandescent bulbs we used provided a level of danger that is surprising nowadays.

The bulbs we now use are very low wattage, low heat types that are still very pretty, but don’t have much of the charm of the old bulbs. But my favorite are the liquid ones that bubble due to a bulb underneath that heats the liquid inside. In fact, that reminds me that I still have to fi nd them in our attic and put them on the tree.

Toys — Sometimes toys just don’t need any improvement. I understand the attractiveness and even compelling nature of some of the digital toys such as Wii, PlayStation, Xbox and even the portable devices, but I fi nd that many children, especially the younger ones, still like the basic toys.

I can’t help but recall past holidays and birthdays when children receive many presents and still end up playing with the wrapping paper and boxes. A few years ago, a friend of mine purchased a new TV and gave us the old box (this is before TVs were flat). As the box measured about 4-feet square, we gave it to our children, cut a few holes in it, and at different times, it became a fort, a castle, a space ship and a home. It was imagination that helped our children turn a box into a favorite play toy. That box stayed in our family’s play room for about a year before it finally fell apart. And even then our children were begging us not to throw it away.

Having grown up with board games, it’s been interesting to see how many games of that ilk now require batteries or some other form of power to operate. While some games benefit from added lights and bells, I find that the vast majority do not. What is disappointing is when a perfectly good game that can be run without electricity no longer functions because an electronic aspect has been introduced and you fi nd yourself with dead batteries.

One very interesting change over the years is the “Easy Bake Oven.” Many of you may remember them. They have morphed from a standard kitchen oven to looking like a microwave oven. But the most serious change is that an Easy Bake Oven requires a lightbulb to provide heat to bake the items inside.

Over the years, light bulbs have become more energy efficient — meaning cooler — which means they don’t work as well in an Easy Bake Oven. About a year ago we had to replace a bulb in an Easy Bake Oven. It was hard to find an old fashioned 75 watt incandescent (not energy efficient) bulb.

As we look toward celebrating this Christmas with my family, I will most of all look forward to the excitement in the eyes of my children in all the events of the holiday season.

It is with adult eyes that I watch my children as they grow and experience this changing world, sometimes improving, yet sometimes being misty-eyed about how things used to be.

Every holiday season is magical. I wish everyone a very happy holiday season and a prosperous new year.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 23 December 2009.
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Death of the Dedicated Gadget

I have always enjoyed gadgets. Google's new dictionary (www.google.com/dictionary) defines gadget as follows: "A gadget is a small machine or device which does something useful. You sometimes refer to something as a gadget when you are suggesting that it is complicated and unnecessary."

For years, specific items were engineered to perform a specific function. A hammer is a hammer. A screwdriver is a screwdriver. A saw is a saw. Every profession has its own gadgets, whether you're a doctor, accountant, road paver, carpenter or musician.

But most people nowadays refer to gadgets as being electrical in nature, such as cell phones, measuring devices, games and toys, and more.

Most gadgets do one or a very few number of things well. For example, GPS devices are great for helping you navigate. Some even work as a speakerphone for your mobile phone and will give you turn-by-turn directions.Other gadgets let you solve puzzles by using mechanical parts, buttons, lights or other challenges.

The very nature of gadgets is that they do one or just a few things really well. Gadgets can range from just a few dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on their complexity, marketability and other consumer-oriented forces.

The problem with gadgets -- just like any other new shiny object -- is that they tend to be used for a little while and then are relegated to a shelf or drawer somewhere. Even if you needed to use them, because they're all separate, they're hard to carry.

But as computer technology has shrunk, we now have mobile computing platforms that fit in your pocket. Most notably, the Apple iPhone and its "App Store" allow people to toss a large number of their gadgets and carry them in their pocket. The new Google Android operating system that's out on the Motorola Droid as well as RIM's Blackberry and Palm's devices have similar application capabilities.

Instead of mobile phones that have the ability to run applications, we've now moved to mobile computing platforms that have a telephone function. But where the telephone used to be the primary function of a mobile phone, in many instances, it's now a secondary or tertiary function.

Some of the gadgets that I think will go away almost immediately are the dashtop mounted GPS devices. I have one and it's pretty nice, but it could soon be replaced since my next telephone will have a GPS chip in it and be able to connect to a map source such as Google maps (which is constantly updated), as well as real-time traffic data. Plus, most GPS companies charge for map updates and real-time traffic data.

My daughter plays the piano, violin and harp. She has a gadget that she uses to tune her instruments. But with the iPhone's built-in microphone and the iPod touch's accessory microphone, she no longer needs to carry her electronic tuner gadget.

For carpenters and do-it-yourselfers, there's a level much like the old spirit levels to tell you when something is horizontal or vertical " -- or anything in between -- all with digital readout.

There's no need to go on about the different applications these platforms have. Apple claims to have more than 75,000 such applications available for download. The important point is that the computation power people carry in their pocket -- as well as its inherent flexibility -- is nothing short of astounding.

Your mobile phone is not just a phone. It's a full-blown computer.

While many gadgets required you to carry them around in your pocket, a carrying case, or some other method that takes up space, many new gadgets are just a screen click away.

I remember when the original Leatherman multi-tools came out. They combined pliers, a knife, screwdriver, saw and more into one useful gadget. The benefit was that they put a whole bunch of tools into a single tool. The problem was that I still like the strength and control of the individual tools.

But with mobile computing platforms, there's very little that one gives up by putting these gadgets on them. In fact, most of the gadgets are improved by the new platforms.

For people who love gadgets as much as I do, I'll miss the shelf and closet full of gadgets. Yet, having them all in my pocket everywhere I go will also be a lot of fun.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 9 December 2009.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving Thanks at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. I know, Canada has a Thanksgiving, but it's really a harvest festival and has very different roots. We enjoy having foreign guests at our Thanksgiving dinners because it is very family-oriented, remarkably non-commercial and a time of optimism.

In my family, we typically have people at the table say something they're thankful for. The typical answers involve being thankful for family, friends and health.

As I was preparing to write this column, I asked some of my friends about what I should write that would be topical to Thanksgiving. The real problem is that Thanksgiving is probably one of the most un-technical holidays we have.

Big advances have been boiling your turkey in peanut oil and a remote temperature sensor. Big deal.

But the idea that one of my colleagues gave me is to create a list of technologies that I'm thankful for. The idea sounded great, so here is my list:

1. The Internet: My wife and I were talking about the Internet and how it has changed so many things about our lives, from how we obtain our news and information, to how we buy things, how we communicate with friends, family and colleagues near and far, even how we consume our entertainment. It's clear to me that the Internet has truly transformed our lives for the better.

2. The personal computer: When I started my first job in computers way back in 1977, the mainframe I used filled a large room. Compared to today's computers, it did very little. The personal computer came along a few years later and brought computational power to individuals. Over the past 30 years, the value of computing has increased so dramatically -- it's essentially immeasurable. And as the cost of computers has decreased, computers have become available to more and more people, most recently as portable computers such as the iPhone.

3. Space flight: This encompasses a whole lot and I know that. Some have claimed that space exploration has delivered medical advances and electronic advances that could never have been achieved on Earth or without the desire to reach beyond our own planet. But I also look at the inspiration it gave to Americans and the world to quite literally reach for the stars. Setting lofty goals is a great way to see people excel.

4. Telecommunications: When I think about how telecommunications have changed since the party line my family had when I was a child, it's astonishing. Not only has the nominal charge of long-distance phone calls essentially gone to zero, but the cost of international calls is pennies instead of dollars per minute. Tie that in with the explosion of fax machines and now telecommunications enabling the Internet, and it's easy to see how telecommunications has changed the world.

5. Medical technology: I am blessed with a remarkably boring medical history. But when I read about advances in medicine such as minimally invasive surgery, MRIs, medicines that can address just the parts that are afflicting you, and more, it is simply staggering. Looking back on medical technology from even 20 years ago, they seem almost barbaric by today's standards.

6. Engines: Engines, motors and other power plants continue to amaze me. Whether this is an engine in an automobile, an electric motor in a kitchen appliance, or some rotating or reciprocating device, I am in awe at how people have managed to turn one form of energy -- typically gasoline or electricity -- into another type of energy that can lift, push, or produce some other value. Between cars, vacuum cleaners, airplanes and power tools, engines make life much easier for us. Even my dentist recommended that I use a toothbrush with a motor in it, saying that it will do a better job than I can by hand.

I could go on about other technologies for which I am thankful, but I am very happy to be living now when we have so many technologies making our lives more livable and fulfilling.

But on Thanksgiving, I will remind my family and the others with whom we share our dinner that no amount of technology can surpass family, friends and health.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Tuesday 24 November 2009.
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Job Hunting and the Internet

Last weekend, I was honored to be invited to lead a seminar on the use of the social networking site LinkedIn, with a focus on job hunters. The event took place at the Westport Public Library as part of the “Trends in Technology” series.

One of the first points I made was that it’s unlikely that people will find their job through job postings on the Internet. Not only are most job postings fl ooded with hundreds, if not thousands, of responses, but the level of qualified applicants is often quite high given the current poor economy.

So what’s a person to do? What is an effective way to use the Internet for job hunting?

The good news is that the Internet enables people to make connections with people and companies that they may have otherwise never known. For example, with various social networking tools, such as LinkedIn, it’s easy to find that the parent of your second grade child’s friend works at a company you’d like to target.

Many recruiters acknowledge that fewer than 10 percent of all jobs go through them. Most jobs are found by people who locate a job through advertisements or personal connections — more commonly known as networking.

Regarding LinkedIn, I made a couple of suggestions to the attendees:

First, ensure that your LinkedIn profile represents you in the way you want. This includes the appropriate comments about yourself, your previous employment, your interests and a photo, etc.

Second, stay current in your profession and link your professional work to your LinkedIn profile. For example, if you have a blog, connect your blog postings to your LinkedIn profile. If you attend a conference, put it in your LinkedIn events. In other words, provide evidence of your professional activity in a way that will convey an appropriate message to viewers of your profile.

Recent reports have indicated that hiring managers use social networking sites for two reasons:

First, to locate possible candidates to fill positions; and second, to research possible candidates that have come to the company’s attention. Information on the Internet can have a significant impact on a company’s interest in a candidate.

But job hunting is not solely an online effort. The bulk of the decision-making is made over the phone or in person.

As mentioned earlier, social networking sites can be excellent ways of finding people you know inside a company of interest to you. That interest could be because of something you know about the company, a position you heard about at the company, or some other reason that would attract you.

Social networking sites can provide you with an inside connection who may be able to help you fi nd information about the company, department, or position. Depending on how well you know the person, they may be able to help you contact the right person or even give a recommendation to an influential person inside the company.

LinkedIn is just one of the social networking sites available; others include Facebook, Spoke, eCademy, and more.

Just last week, a person with whom I had worked had been interviewed for a position at a company. After the interview, he found through my LinkedIn profile that I have a colleague at the company. He reached out to me to see if I would contact that colleague to “put in a good word for him.”

Having worked with this candidate before and having previously recommended him on LinkedIn, I was happy to phone my colleague and relay my personal experiences with the candidate. My colleague was not the decision-maker, but said he would pass along the recommendation to the person who is. I don’t expect that my recommendation will get the candidate the position, but I do expect that it will help his chances. If so, I expect he’ll be buying me lunch.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 11 November 2009.
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Pleasant Family Photo Experience

For years, I dreaded the family photo taken by the company that came to our church. Not only did the photo lack any sort of creativity (I was a budding photographer as a child), but I remember hearing my parents complain about the cost.

Plus, it was a pain. We had to dress up for the sitting, go and smile like we meant it, then come back a few weeks later when the fi lm had been processed and the proofs were ready. Then a pushy salesperson would try to sell us way too many photos that we didn’t really need.

As an adult, I have had similar reservations about the photography companies that come to our church.

It always seemed that we were paying way too much for the photos and receiving way too little.

But this weekend, I turned a corner.

Every few years, our church has invited Olan Mills to come and take pictures of our congregation.

Their commitment to the church is that every member will receive a complimentary 8-by-10 family portrait and a color directory of the church membership. Of course, they don’t make any money if people only go for the free stuff, so it’s implied that they’ll try to sell you photos of your family.

In the past, we’ve gone along with this and reluctantly purchased some of the photos for ourselves as well as some relatives.

But what has turned me around is how technology has affected Olan Mills’s ability to deliver real value for the money.

First, by making all of their photography digital, you have your photo and sales “consultation” in the same visit. I’m sure this saves Olan Mills lots of money because they only have to have people visit the site once. Additionally, I’m sure there were a lot of “no shows” for the second appointment.

Second, the ability to make shortruns of church directories means that the cost to offer these directories to congregations is far more affordable than it ever has been. And the fact that everything is digital and directto- printer means that they avoid huge costs of printing full color.

Third, retouching digital images can be automated, whereas retouching negatives or slides can be very time consuming.

Fourth, if there’s a problem with a photo, such as someone who blinked at the wrong time or a shadow that causes problems, they know (and remedy) it at the time of the photo rather than when it comes out of the darkroom.

Fifth, the software that Olan Mills uses for making the sale is clearly a custom-written application. It shows you exactly what you’re going to get, you can compare and contrast photos side by side, and it calculates the appropriate invoices right on the spot.

The only low-tech aspect I saw was an old dot matrix printer that hammered out receipts on multi-part paper. (I had thought they’d be using laser printers by now.)

Sixth, you can now receive your photos on a CD. My previous visit with Olan Mills did not allow them to provide you with a digital version of the files.

But this visit, the more product you bought, the cheaper the CD became, starting at $150 if you bought nothing down to a nominal $20 if you bought more than $150 worth of their products. While I believe you are restricted to using the photos for non-commercial applications, if I want to make a print of my family or children for relatives or other purposes, having a studio quality digital photo will certainly come in handy.

Lastly, when I look at what we received for our money, I don’t think I spent any more this year than I did a few years ago. And I believe I received more value for our money than I did last time.

I still think all the photos look a lot alike, but I’ve come to the realization that in a studio setting and for a directory, that similarity is really what we want.

There are plenty of other photographers who can take a family portrait at the beach, in a park or somewhere that will be more personal. I bet it’ll cost a lot more than our Olan Mills visit, though.

But I’m glad to see that at least one of the traveling photo studio companies has embraced technology that delivers more value for the money. Sometimes technology really delivers.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 28 October 2009.
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Dilemma of Being Connected

Before the Internet became a part of everyday life, it was easy to compartmentalize it because most of us had to access the Internet via a telephone dial-up connection. As this required one to be connected to a telephone land line,

Internet access required being in a physical location and not mobile.

Eventually, high speed Internet access became available which allowed people to be connected to the Internet all the time. WiFi gave people mobility within the small WiFi "bubbles".

And the WiFi bubbles populated nicely, only in the past few years with people securing them so that passersby couldn't jump on freely.

During this same time, mobile phones continued to be more functional, have longer battery lives, and receive far better geographic coverage.

When mobile phones started having Internet access, the ability for really mobile Internet access became a reality.

All of the major cellular carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint) offer high speed wireless Internet access for personal computers and handheld devices.

At each step along the way, there have been places where people have been out of the reach of modern communications. Some have considered being "disconnected" a benefit and others consider it to be a drawback.

Some of these disconnected places include one's automobile and on airplanes.

But even these disconnected places are no longer disconnected.

I recently saw a ruggedized device that can be put in cars that creates a WiFi hotspot for a half dozen users, say a family on a road trip or business associates on a long drive. A similar device called a MyFi allows up to five people to connect to a portable WiFi hotspot, again using the cellular network to connect.

But there's been one place that's been pretty certain you won't have Internet access: on airplanes.

Lufthansa tried in flight Internet access a few years ago and stopped. But AirCell (www.aircell.com) is one company bringing in flight Internet access is back with new airlines, including Delta, USAirways, American, Virgin America, and AirTran.

I'm taking a flight to California later this week on Delta and I plan on giving in flight Internet service a try. It will be curious to see how well it works with my laptop computer and whether some of the features that require reasonably good Internet access, such as making telephone calls using Skype or watching television shows using Hulu.com will work satisfactorily.

For many people who travel a lot, being on an airplane has been a bit of a respite, if not a frustration to be out of touch for any time at all. I know some who cherish the isolation because they can focus on their work without interruptions; I know others who can't wait until they land to check in with the office, clients, and eBay auctions.

As my trip this week will be with my family, whether I get to use my computer for myself or whether my kids will want it for themselves will depend on how fast the Internet connection is as well as whether there are individual TVs at each seat.

So while airplanes seemed to be one of the last few remaining places on earth without Internet access, I know that some backpackers and explorers still manage to do without the Internet for more than a few days at a time. However, even they - if they really want it - can take satellite Internet devices with them.

Maybe the next step go going without Internet will require leaving Earth, but I've been wanting that since I saw my first rocket launch as a young boy. I guess leaving Earth will be a few years in the future still.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 15 October 2009.
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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Augmented Reality

Reality, like truth, has many different versions. Anyone who has watched the Matrix movies knows what I mean. Anyone who has ever watched "reality television" should also know how far from reality that is.

But there's an emerging technology term called "augmented reality," or AR. Here's how it works.

Computers have now become adept at taking pictures and video. We've all seen them draw maps and give directions. With GPS technology, computers know where they are. Their connection to the Internet means they have the full power of the knowledge on the Web at their fingertips. So what's needed is to tie this all together.

Augmented reality can do this.

In the examples I've seen of AR, it starts with a picture, typically a live picture. The computer will then use GPS or other location sensing technologies to figure out where it is. By using image recognition, the computer can try to determine what it's seeing, whether this be a building, a sign, a monument, or something else.

Tying all of these aspects together, the computer gets a pretty good idea of where you are and what it's seeing.

Then comes the interesting part: Helping you do something.

Say you are in Manhattan and want to get to Grand Central Terminal. Using a handheld device with AR, you can hold it up and point it at the world around you. It will then be able to tell you how to get to a subway entrance or which bus to take and where to wait for it.

If you're on vacation, AR can help you locate landmarks you'd like to see as well as provide you background information on what you're seeing.

The augmenting of reality comes into play by having the computer overlay text and/or graphics on top of the images the camera is displaying. Sometimes these augmented items just provide visual cues or they might provide additional information if you touch them. As you move the device around, the overlay information scrolls with the image. New information appears as parts of the image appear and old information disappears as the image leaves the screen.

In many ways, AR is similar to a "heads up" display that was originally used for military applications and has appeared on some high-end automobiles. Typical AR applications are being seen as iPhone or other handheld device applications, thereby reducing the cost of adoption from millions of dollars to a few dollars.

To see some examples of augmented reality, follow these links:

* http://www.worksnug.com/
* http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/editors/24147/?a=f

AR is, of course, still an emerging technology. There are plenty of challenges with the technology, such as things that move, databases that are inaccurate, image recognition that doesn't work as well as we'd like, and a lack of applications.

However, the fact that it's possible for all of these data sources to be brought together in a way that consumers can easily use bodes well for AR's adoption. The ease with which people can develop applications for handheld devices such as the iPhone will also continue to drive adoption and innovation.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 30 September 2009.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

3-D is Coming

The fact that we have two eyes on the front of our heads means that we’re intended to see things in three dimensions (3-D). But so much of what we do every day is in two dimensions (2-D).

From books to computers, to movies and television, they’re all in 2-D. But we live in a 3-D world.

While making things in 3-D isn’t hard, especially if they’re tangible, such as statues, automobiles, dishes and furniture, the challenge is to simulate 3-D with technology.

My first recollection of 3-D was with the old ViewMaster discs. They consist of a plastic viewer and some discs with stereo images on it. By pressing a lever, the disc rotates and a new set of stereo images appears. I saw a lot of Disney stories that way as a kid and was fascinated by how it worked.

My next recollection of 3-D was with the books and movies in which one wears the red and green glasses and then, if you squint just right, you kind of see something in 3-D. The colors are all wrong, but there’s a sense of three dimensions.

Another technology that’s been around for a long time are sheets of lenticular paper which include a number of images that present themselves as one’s location in front of the paper changes. The classic example is the postcard of a woman who winks at you as the card is tilted.

In most instances, 3-D technology requires the user to wear some special glasses or use some type of equipment to make the 3-D images clear.

Most recently, there have been some pretty good 3-D movies. I recall taking my daughter to see the Hannah Montana 3-D movie. It was quite good. The glasses used two pieces of polarizing film to separate the two images on the screen. While darkening the screen a bit, the polarizing filters leave the colors substantially intact.

Another technology that works well is to have glasses with “shutters” that “blink” in sync with different frames being displayed on a screen. If this happens fast enough, the effect is not really noticeable. The challenge is to synchronize dozens or hundreds of inexpensive glasses to the system displaying the images.

These glasses with shutters work remarkably well, especially in keeping the brightness and color true.

The next frontier is, of course, home theatre, where people continue to spend much of their entertainment time. With image refresh speeds on current TVs being quite high, the ability to have “left eye/right eye” frames is becoming practical.

Another challenge beyond just the technology is the programming that will need to change. The addition of a third dimension could change how shows are thought of and produced.

For example, 3-D works best up-close (5-15 feet). Three-dimensional movies of the Grand Canyon have a different visual impact than cards being dealt at a poker game or a camera in a race car passing other cars.

The addition of 3-D to movies adds quite literally another dimension to the producer’s and director’s toolbox of how to communicate.

In the business world, 3-D will add new ways for business people to communicate. Much as color printers and video projectors changed the way people communicate, the addition of 3-D technology will also have an impact in our offices. Expect financial reports and projections to be far more visual and creative services far more impactful.

Given the current commercial 3-D offerings in the local cineplex, I anticipate consumer grade technologies within the next couple of years. And this time, I don’t expect 3-D to be relegated to another parlor curiosity. This time 3-D will become mainstream.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 16 September 2009.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Off to College

Last week, I had the pleasure of dropping off a great person at his college. While I'm not his father, I've known him for six years and he's entering his junior year at Cornell.

This is his first year not living in a dorm. This year, he has an off-campus apartment with a roommate.

All of my parents worked at colleges or universities, so I grew up in the higher education culture. However, it's been more than a couple of decades since I graduated. And as it's been many years since I had any significant college connections, it was interesting to see how the college crowd lives nowadays and how their technology needs have changed.

I wasn't disappointed.

While I won't bore you with how it was in the "olden days," I will offer some observations of how things are done now.

First, not a chance anyone will have a land-line telephone: Mobile phones are the only way to go. Typically, students keep the phone number they received sometime in K-12. And since most mobile phone plans now include long distance, it doesn't matter what phone number you have, since it won't cost you anything extra to call long distance.

Second, Internet access is key. Even above cable TV, Internet rules. The $50/month is considered a necessary utility. If people in the same apartment can share a single Internet connection, they're all for that. There was much talk of positioning WiFi routers so that friends a couple of floors up could get a good signal. The possibility of stringing a wire into someone else's apartment to deliver Internet service was also a common discussion.

Third, televisions were nice, but not necessary. While there are certainly students with televisions, they're hardly the necessity that they once were. This is because virtually any television show or movie can be watched over the Internet. With computer monitors being upwards of 19-inches, the size of a computer monitor rivals that of a college dorm or apartment TV anyway.

Fourth, textbooks: These are going online, too. Rather than paying $100-plus for a textbook and then turning it back into the bookstore at the end of the semester for pennies on the dollar, many textbooks are being made available digitally, often times "rented" for the duration of the class. We'll see more of this as the book publishers, teachers, schools and students figure out how curriculums become more digital.

Fifth, student communications: E-mail is dead. Even making phone calls isn't as popular. Students communicate more and more with SMS texting, instant messaging and through sites such as Facebook. Have a club on campus that you want to let people know about? Set up a Facebook site and let people become "fans."

Sixth, music: OK, there is one area where I will talk about how it was in the "olden days" - stereos. These used to have a prominent location in any college dorm or apartment. Not so nowadays. Don't get me wrong, music is very important to college students, but with their MP3 players, iTunes and other sources of music, having the large stereo system just doesn't make sense anymore. Even most radio stations stream their broadcasts, so if you want to listen to NPR or the local country station, you can listen to the broadcast from your personal computer.

It was great to go back to college for a day and see how much things have changed as well as how they've stayed the same.

I don't know whether it's helped prepare me for when my 11-year-old daughter goes to college in a few years or scared me.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 26 August 2009.
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Monday, August 17, 2009

When to Upgrade?

I’m not one of those people who likes to throw good stuff away.

I typically keep my cars at least 10 years, my digital camera’s picture counter just rolled over 10,000 and my 4-year-old son is driving his big sister’s electric powered Barbie Jeep.

Part of this longevity comes from my parents’ insistence that I take care of the things so they’ll last a long time. Another part of this comes from my not wanting to spend money unnecessarily.

Luckily, in my business, I have an opportunity to try many of the new technologies without actually having to buy them.

But what happens when a new technology comes along that I really want? And what do I say when people ask me about when they should upgrade their technology? They’re tough questions. In a business, companies will typically lease equipment. When the lease is up, they can either buy out the lease or return the equipment and start a new lease with new equipment. Other than with automobiles, most individuals don’t lease things.

For most home users, a computer will work far longer than any extended warranty. There are two categories of problems people ask me about regarding their computers.

First, it’s too slow or crashes. This is a function of having loaded a lot of software over the years, typically Web downloads that are needed for video, audio, or whatever. In most instances, these downloads are needed for a specific use, but are rarely, if ever, used again. Since they reside on the computer, they can use extra processor cycles and cause confl icts with other pieces of software.

The easiest solution to this dilemma is to back up your data files, then wipe the hard drive and re-install the necessary pieces of software, typically the operating system (Windows or Macintosh) and applications such as Microsoft Office. I know for me, this is a full weekend of work to perform, so it’s not something I take on lightly. In most cases, this will free up 20 to 30 percent of a hard drive’s space, eliminate most software conflicts and speed up the computer by at least 25 percent.

Second, there’s some new software that people want to run that’s incompatible with their current computer.

For example, if someone wants to run the new Windows 7 operating system, there are certain minimum specifi - cations (CPU and memory) that are needed for it to run satisfactorily. If a computer is below those specifi cations, sometimes the software won’t load or, if it does, the performance will be disappointing. In this case, one needs to decide whether the upgrade is worth buying a whole new computer or not. Cell phones are another challenge.

These days, not a month rolls by without a new shiny phone hitting the market, sometimes it seems like there are dozens of new models — BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, or something else. You may ask yourself, do I need another computer that runs applications or am I just looking for something that makes telephone calls?

Most important to me is the monthly cost of having all these extra services. It’s not unusual for a monthly service plan that includes phone, Internet and texting to cost $100 per phone.

It’s clear to me that with the monthly cost of cell phones rising, that’s leading to more and more homes going without a traditional land line.

When it comes to cell phones, I split my loyalties between my business and personal use. I’m far more interested in a full plan for business-related use than I am for personal use, but that can mean I carry two cell phones. Ugh! And, of course, I can’t forget the time I sent my cell phone through the washing machine. That required a replacement.

My digital cameras are the final challenge. Until recently, I’ve had to maintain two cameras: one for still photos and a second one for video. Both performed their jobs admirably and neither did what the other did. This has been a real pain to carry and manage two cameras.

Now, though, with the advent of the still cameras that shoot “High Defi nition” video, I see that digital photography is pretty close to reaching the proverbial tipping point when an upgrade is desirable.

To me, I upgrade my equipment only when it’s preventing me from doing something I fi nd compelling. That point will be different for each person, but I’ve learned that the longer I wait, the happier I am with the upgrade.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 5 August 2009.
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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Social Media Goes Mainstream

The Internet has morphed again. And most of us — certainly in my age bracket — don’t get it.

It’s called “social media.” What it is depends on who you ask, but it’s generally considered tools such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and similar Web sites.

I’ve wrestled with social media and only recently have seen its value.

For example, why should I care about Twitter when each message is a maximum of 140 characters long? Why should I stare at a Facebook page and “friend” people who are already my friends?

Yes, it’s a whole new language and a new way of doing things. But that’s the point. The Internet has, yet again, enabled us to do things that we weren’t able to do before.

Here are some examples of how social media is changing the world:

• In journalism, Twitter lets anyone instantly publish anything to the world without being deemed important, meaningful — or accurate! When the U.S. Airways plane landed in the Hudson, people were notifying others via Twitter within seconds.

• In elections, the Obama campaign credits part of its success to its use of social media. Obama was able to connect to, mobilize and get out the vote of its supporters in ways that have never been used before.

• In politics, the White House is now providing technology leadership for the country. Building on its campaign success, Obama’s recent speech in Cairo was simultaneously broadcast on the major television networks, but also streamed live on the Internet and Twittered in multiple different languages, allowing the White House to have direct communications with people around the world.

• In business, companies are able to create ways of connecting with their customers in ways that don’t require an ad agency, public relations firm, or other layer. The feedback is faster — and unfiltered — which allows companies to respond quicker to both good and bad news, providing a competitive advantage.

Looking back a couple of decades, the laser printer and desktop publishing software allowed everyone to become a publisher. Newsletters for schools, groups, and companies started to increase by the boat-load.

Similarly, the Internet and social media have allowed everyone to become a broadcaster with global reach. Anyone can now connect with people both locally and globally and have instant communication with them. In many cases, people who you only know or see in print or on television are now accessible directly.

At recent conferences I’ve attended, the message has been clear. Walls of control are being knocked down. Transparency is becoming both the norm and the standard. It will also be harder for people and companies to hide the truth.

At the same time, it will be easier for people with different points of view or incorrect information to have a similarly loud voice. This is where, I believe, a person’s or company’s brand will help us determine what we should or should not believe. We will determine what sources of information we can and will listen to and trust.

The other message that is becoming clear is that people of a similar mindset will be able to connect with each other over the Internet using social media. If you have an interest in global warming, quilt making, diabetes, terraforming, pinball machines, or just about any other subject, you will find people of a like-mind with whom you can communicate.

Each of these tools I’ve mentioned (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and LinkedIn) are all free. I encourage you to sign up for them one by one and try them out. As with all things Internet, I predict that the tools will change, but the underlying functions will remain the same.

But get a start with social media or expand your knowledge of it. I predict you’ll make some new friends or become re-acquainted with some people you haven’t connected with in quite a while.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 8 July 2009.
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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Moon Forty Years Later

On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took mankind’s first steps on the moon. I remember this very clearly because I was a young boy on vacation in Utah that July. I was at my Aunt Avice and Uncle Theron’s home. Late at night, my cousins and I were glued to the television.

But this evening was the culmination of nearly a decade of a national initiative to put a man on the moon — before the Russians. It was President John F. Kennedy who committed to putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

With each launch over the course of the decade, the Gemini and Apollo programs continued to make ever more exciting events as we moved closer to our moon goal.

As we learned in the “Toy Story” movies, it was Buzz Lightyear’s space theme that had Woody become the second toy. So was it with America that the nation was behind the race to the moon.

But back to my Utah vacation. My Aunt Avice took us outside and had us look up at the night sky. I remember my Aunt Avice telling all of the children: “Look up at the moon. There are people walking on it. You’ll remember this for the rest of your lives.”

Indeed, that was a night that I have remembered for these 40 years. I don’t remember what else I did that summer, but I do remember looking at the moon knowing people were up there walking on it.

In the 40 years since that summer night, the world’s space exploration has certainly taken a very different direction than I had anticipated as I gazed at the moon. I had expected that the moon would be just the first step as we looked further beyond to Mars and other planets in our solar system before venturing far beyond.

As we all know, our space program has consisted primarily of numerous unmanned missions to Mars and the space shuttle which has been responsible for support of the Hubble telescope and the international space station.

Our mission to the moon had huge funding available for it: 4.4 percent of the federal budget versus 0.5 percent now. These programs are expensive.

No one argues that. I, for one, believe they’re worth every penny, especially when one considers the long-term scientific and medical advances that come about from “pushing the envelope” into space. I have often wished that there was a box on my tax return that would allow me to contribute some amount of money toward the space program. I would happily do so.

NASA’s next venture is the Constellation project which has as its mandate supporting the International Space Station, trips to the moon and after the year 2030, hopefully a trip to Mars.

As I look at the moon this July, I will think of that summer in Utah and continue to be amazed what has been done, what can be done and look forward to seeing the wonder in my children’s eyes as they look skyward.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Tuesday 30 June 2009.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Preserving the Memories

All memories fade. That's why keeping memories alive is an ongoing challenge, especially when technology is used - and technology is changing so rapidly.

Let me start with the bottom line: low-tech solutions work the best for longevity. The reason is that the less technology they use, the less they are subject to changes in technology that make them obsolete.

Here are some examples.

For still photographs, probably the best technology to use is black and white photography that uses silver based imaging. You will notice that some of the best archived photographs we have are black and white. This is because black and white photography predates color photography, but is mainly due to the stable nature of silver based photographs. Once properly developed, the image will last for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Color photography, on the other hand, starts to color shift after a few years. Look at almost any family photo album more than 20 years old and you'll see various color shifts, typically with a red or orange cast, that are not what was originally printed. While color photographs obviously provide more realistic images of people, they will inevitably fade.Movies are similarly affected. My history only goes back to 8-mm and Super 8 movies, but looking at them now indicates that they, too, have faded. The bigger problem with movies is finding a projector for them. I don't know of anyone who has a movie projector anymore. Transferring them to video is a good option, but can add up to some sizeable dollars if you have a lot of footage.

I've been wrestling with my own family archives for a long time. Backing files up to floppy disks was nominally successful, but that would also require transferring files from five-and-one-quarter-inch floppies to three-and-a-half-inch floppies and now to no floppies at all. CD-ROMs arrived in force more than a decade ago, only to be replaced with DVDs. Now with Blu-Ray DVDs available (albeit still quite expensive), we have yet another format to deal with.

Frankly, most people don't have time to perform the migration from one media to another. So here's what I've done.

For prints, I've tried to standardize on high-quality Epson printers, inks and papers that claim to be "archival," meaning they should last 20 or more years. I'll know in 20 or more years how good the claims are. And, since we don't have film negatives or slides anymore, what I do is put the image's file name on the print itself, so I can connect the photo back to the original file name if I ever need to.

For movies, I've standardized on standard definition DVDs. While I have a HiDef camcorder, I still can't justify the $10 per recordable Blu-Ray DVD to use as a backup. I'm hoping, although not completely convinced, that the cost of Blu-Ray media will drop dramatically so as to make creating Blu-Ray DVDs affordable. I recall when a blank CD cost $50 and now they cost pennies. I'm hoping that history will repeat itself.

The challenge I have faced is that of not only backing up data, but also reading it. To wit, although some of my early five-and-one-quarter-inch floppy disks may still be readable, I don't know anyone who has a personal computer with a floppy disk drive on it. And if they do, would I be able to move the files from that computer to something else? Probably not. The early personal computers were just that - personal. The thought of networking them was challenging; the thought of the Internet hadn't yet even been invented.

So, while my crystal ball is not perfect, I'm betting that CD/DVD drives will be around for at least a few more decades. That way, if I need to move a file from one media to another, I should be able to find a computer and some software that can do so.

Some have asked why I don't just store my data using an online storage company. In fact, I do. However, most of the online storage companies are backups of your local hard drives, which means that you have to keep the files on your hard drive so they can mirror them on their site.

The biggest problem I have is that if I were to keep all of my data online - especially video - I'd need terabytes of hard disk space, which I don't have and don't want to buy. In addition, should that company go out of business or otherwise be unavailable, I would lose my data. As a result, I keep a file folder filled with DVDs of my family videos.

So, while the shoebox of old is no longer, there's nothing saying it can't be updated to include prints from digital cameras and even movies on DVD. Some memories are worth preserving.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 17 June 2009.
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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Chuck the Keyboard and Mouse

Interacting with computers has changed over the years.

A keyboard has been the traditional way of communicating with computers. My first interaction with computers was on a teletype, but punched cards and punched paper tape were also popular. This was way back in the 1970s.

Keyboards are still around, but probably the most popular way to interact with computers came with the addition of a mouse. Now, virtually every computer has a mouse attached to it, whether it be a physical mouse, trackball, or some form of touchpad.

But all that’s changing. New and innovative ways are becoming very popular for interacting with computers.

Touch screens have been around for quite a while. Most were used for kiosks, such as what you’ll find at the Metro-North train stations for buying tickets. Touch screens are also quite popular in restaurants and other areas where a specific function is being performed.

But touch screens have not been very popular for people using computers in their homes or businesses.

This is because touch screens have typically been able only to sense a button being pressed.

New touch screen hardware and software allows computers to understand not only touches, but “gestures” such as sliding, stretching and shrinking, and other commands.

Apple’s iPhone and iTouch devices are the most common implementation of small touch screen applications. Unlocking an iPhone is done by sliding one’s finger on the screen. Owners of the device are also familiar with sliding through the album covers to find the songs they want.

Users of many of the iPhone and iTouch applications are also familiar with the device’s ability to sense motion and tilting. This is put to use in many games and also through some interesting functions, such as a bubble level like that used in construction.

Microsoft’s Surface technology (http://www.microsoft.com/surface/) is an example of how our interface with computers could also be changed dramatically. Typical demonstrations illustrate functions such as sorting photos and videos, social media applications and games in which hand interaction is more important.

Eventually, we’ll start seeing computer interactions much like Tom Cruise used in the movie “The Minority Report,” where the images were displayed in the air and he used his arms to manipulate the images. That’s still a few years off, but is a clear indication of where man-machine interfaces are going.

The iPhone and iTouch are remarkable devices and the interface is clearly impressive. What I see the interface doing is spawning many new uses of computers that were either too awkward or simply inconceivable with a traditional keyboard and mouse.

I don’t expect that the keyboard and mouse will ever fully disappear. Voice recognition technology is still a long way off so writing a letter, e-mail or text message still requires a keyboard or some similar interface. Working on a spreadsheet still requires typing in numbers and formulas. But a decade from now, I’m sure we’ll look back at these functions and chuckle at how old fashioned they are.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 3 June 2009.
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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fewer trips to the Post Office

My family loves to go to the Post Office. Not only are the postal workers friendly, but they’re always helpful and kid-friendly. Unless I stop and gab, we’re usually in and out in a few minutes.

But I don’t always have time to get to the post office to weigh a package, obtain the correct postage and generally get the package on its way. Furthermore, I’m also terrible at keeping a chart that tells me the cost of postage.

So off to the Post Office I go every so often. But what if visits to the Post Office didn’t have to happen so frequently?

Of course there’s FedEx and UPS that can ship packages for you, but sometimes just a fat envelope may not warrant one of those carriers.

So I started exploring to see how postal services have changed. The two biggest services are Stamps.com (www.stamps.com) and Endicia (www.endicia.com).

Stamps.com provides a single service for $19.95 per month that seems pretty comprehensive for small businesses. What intrigued me the most is the variety of postage and labeling options available. This includes printing not only stamps, but also shipping labels, doing mail-merges, printing directly on to envelopes and more.

Endicia offers a broader array of services, including a free service (no monthly fee, but you still have to pay for postage and consumables, specifically labels). Their services quickly move up the fee scale, starting at $9.95 per month to $99.95 per month and offer a variety of features, such as return shipping labels, business reply mail and links to UPS and FedEx.

Each company has tried to match their service to specific market segments, but is targeting people who have postage meters in their offices. And both companies succeed quite nicely.

Both services allow a digital scale to be attached to your computer and some software that looks at the destination address, calculates the appropriate postage and prints the label. This feature is attractive and works well.

In both cases, there are special labels that must be purchased to accommodate the postage software. In most instances, this can add $0.07 or more to the cost of a shipment. If you’re sending out hundreds of letters, this can add up. However, if you’re sending out a few packages a day, this premium is reasonable.

These labels are typically run through a laser, inkjet or even one of the thermal label printers such as from Dymo or Brother.

In looking at both services, I found that as a typical home user, only the free service from Endicia would be attractive, but only a bit. It lets you print postage, but not weigh packages and do some of the other items that I consider a basic necessity. Given the small volume of things I send, I’m unwilling to pay a monthly fee to have the ability to weigh and send packages from my home.

If I were running a small business in my home, either service would be worth looking into. For offices that have considered a postage meter, but may not want to get tied into the contracts that are typically required, these services also offer a nice alternative.

Of surprising note is that the United States Postal Service (USPS) offers some of the same services for free from its Web site at www.usps.com. At the USPS Web site, you can print labels and postage with no monthly fee and with no premium payment.

The Postal Service has done a very nice job at putting their business online.

Finally, U.S. postal rates went up on May 11. They could go up again in the future so buy some extra “Forever Stamps” at the Post Office (or online at USPS.com) and save yourself a few pennies for every letter you mail.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 13 May 2009.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

eBooks


Ink on paper. It’s been around for thousands of years. But computers are certainly leaving their mark on the publishing industry and how we consume books and information.

Newspapers were the first to start putting their content on the Internet. Text and photos are pretty easy to put online. Media requiring higher bandwidth, such as music and video/TV, came next as high-speed Internet connections started becoming commonplace in homes and offices.

Newspapers and magazines have a number of ways to deliver their content electronically. A Web browser provides one view that’s vastly different than the print versions. Some magazines have wanted to retain their bound look and feel and use products such as Zinio (www.zinio.com) to mimic the look and feel of a magazine on a computer.

Books, on the other hand, have always been an “offline” read. But not any more. A number of companies are now producing eBooks and eBook readers, most notably Amazon’s Kindle, which is now in its second generation - the Kindle 2 ($359). Sony’s Reader Digital Book ($349) is also providing serious competition. (Photo of Kindle 2 courtesy of Amazon.com)

What’s compelling about these products is that they let people carry large amounts of information with them in very little space and with very little weight.

The Kindle is smaller than a piece of standard paper and about 1/3” thick. The Sony device’s specs are similar.

Also key to these new devices’s success is the clarity of the screens. Even computer monitors are fuzzy by comparison to the new eBook readers. This is in large part to the screens from e.ink (www.eink.com), which provide very low power, high clarity screens, making long viewing easy on the eyes.

What the current e.ink screens don’t (yet) provide are good image quality. They do allow for some black and white images, but color images are still not available.

eBook readers aren’t new. More than 10 years ago, I published information on earlier generations of eBook readers. Unfortunately, the earlier generations had issues of screen readability, capacity, battery life, weight, and on and on.

The new generation of eBook readers are far superior. I’m just trying to figure out if they’ll catch on.

My guess is that they will, although it may take another generation or two before the devices make it mainstream. Here’s why:

First, color: You gotta have color. I say this having started with monochrome computer screens and, except for a few special situations, color is all anyone will have. I also started with monochrome printers and now color is clearly the most prevalent.

Second, multimedia: Along with color, the ability to have interactive eBooks will set them apart from their paper counterpart. For example, a travel book could include photos, as well as videos of the beaches, surfing, rides and other attractions.

Third, cost: At approximately $350, this is a hefty price to pay for a little device. It’s now possible to purchase a usable laptop computer for $350 (perhaps a Netbook) that already supports the first two items. As volumes increase, this cost will most likely go down. When it dips below $100, it will have hit the mainstream.

Fourth, applications that make an eBook compelling: Multimedia is the start, but if one looks at the success of platforms such as the iPhone/iTouch, Google’s Android and RIM’s Blackberry, it’s the applications that are helping to sell the hardware.

Fifth, re-invention of the book: The move to eBooks provides the opportunity for books as we know them to be redefined. Perhaps the eBooks could have author’s comments, other readers comments on the book (maybe even family members), as well as background material, etc. My crystal ball isn’t clear on this, but I’m excited about the potential.

The one challenge I haven’t figured out how to solve on eBooks (or Web sites for that matter), is acquiring the randomness of a magazine or newspaper. Specifically, as I read newspapers and magazines, I regularly stumble across a story, advertisement or other item that catches my attention and is of interest to me — one that I would never have sought out. The randomness of this information can be very valuable and I hope there’s a way to maintain it in the future.

In the meantime, I will enjoy carrying less printed materials when I travel or commute. An eBook reader is one way to do just that.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a Westport resident, was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 22 April 2009.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Blu-ray at the Library

A little over a year ago, I picked up a Sony PlayStation 3 game machine. While the Nintendo Wii has clearly been the game machine of choice for many households, what tipped the scales for me was the Blu-ray DVD drive in the PlayStation.

With the format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray having been won early last year by Sony’s Blu-ray, it was pretty clear that Blu-ray was the format of choice.

Just so you know, not every DVD is created the same. A standard DVD that you will pick up at Blockbuster or NetFlix, while far clearer than VHS videotape, still presents video in standard definition.

Blu-ray DVDs, by comparison, contain video in High Definition, which provides far more data than standard definition DVDs.

By way of comparison, a standard DVD contains about 4 Gigabytes of data while a Blu-ray DVD contains about 50 Gigabytes of data. All of that extra data goes primarily to providing higher quality video and audio.

But, the challenge in playing a Blu-ray DVD is that you have to have a DVD player that knows how to read the Blu-ray disc. For most people, this means buying a new DVD player or, as in my case, purchasing a Sony PlayStation 3 with a Blu-ray DVD player built in.

Unfortunately, most Blu-ray DVD players have hovered in the $300-$400 range. Over the holiday season, I saw Blu-ray DVD players drop to about $150-$200, although the high-end ones are still available.

In most cases, a Blu-ray DVD player will play all previous formats of DVDs, so you shouldn’t need TWO DVD players.

To get the most out of your Blu-ray DVDs, you’ll also need a High Definition TV (HDTV). Most new flat panel TVs are High Definition with a spec of 720p, 1080i, or 1080p, with 1080p being considered “Full HD,” although all resolutions yield remarkable images.

When I purchased my PlayStation last year, I thought I’d see what the Westport Public Library has in Blu-ray. I was disappointed to find out that they didn’t have any Blu-ray in their extensive video collection.

But boy, was I pleased when I went to the library about two weeks ago and found a whole rack of Blu-ray DVDs in their distinctive light blue jewel cases! In speaking with one of the librarians and looking up Blu-ray on the Library’s Web site, I see that the library now has about 90 different Blu-ray titles. And more are on their way.

Most movie studios are publishing DVDs in multiple formats, typically standard definition and Blu-ray. This, unfortunately, means that organizations such as the library must purchase two copies of a title in order to meet the demand for both formats, although this means that the library will have two copies for people to check out.

In looking at some of the Blu-ray DVDs in both my personal collection and from others, the visual difference is stunning – Blu-ray is clearly superior. The impact is far more noticeable with certain genres, such as action, sports, and nature, but even a “date night” movie looks a whole lot better on Blu-ray.

The main reason for the better look is the amount of data that makes up the video stream. As I mentioned, standard definition DVDs contain much less data than Blu-ray DVDs. In addition, watching High Definition movies from cable, satellite providers, or Internet sources can contain compressed video signals that can lose some or much of the crispness. But a video signal coming from a Blu-ray DVD is uncompressed with every bit and pixel in its splendid glory on your screen.

Some have said that online video services that deliver videos to your computer or television over the Internet will sound the death knell for all DVDs, including Blu-ray. I don’t disagree, but know that there are some hurdles to be overcome, especially for the videophiles that like very high quality audio and video quality. To date, none of the online services I’ve seen provide the same level of quality as a Blu-ray DVD.

So, if you have or are considering buying a Blu-ray DVD player, check out the Blu-ray discs at the Westport Public Library. Blu-ray continues to help make the home theatre experience better.

Mark Mathias is a 30+ year veteran of information technology, a resident of Westport, Connecticut, and was named by Computerworld magazine to their list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders”. This column originally appeared in Westport News on Wednesday 8 April 2009.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Continuing Typewriterless

I’ve been writing this column for more than six years. I receive a number of comments from people about the columns I write, but none more than the one I wrote in 2005 about my trusty IBM Selectric typewriter.

At the time, I still felt I needed one around for the various tasks that are needed in everyday life, including addressing packages and envelopes, filling out forms and various other home tasks.

But I actually sold my typewriter at a garage sale a few years ago and have been typewriterless ever since.

At first, it was hard to go without my typewriter, but I’ve actually managed to do without it quite nicely. Two things have helped with that:

First, I purchased a label printer that hooks up to my computer. It’s a Dymo LabelWriter 400 Turbo. With it, I can print address labels, name tags and even postage stamps.

The software integrates with my contact management software, so I can print a label to a person without having to re-type their name and address. The software even looks up their ZIP code, inserts a postal bar code and reformats the address to the U.S. Postal Service specifications.

The software allows me to do a mail merge so I can print just a few — or hundreds — of labels automatically.

Where I used to print labels on my laser printer, this label printer has completely eliminated the use of both my laser printer for printing labels as well as the need for my typewriter.

Brother also makes a competing label printer, but I’ve not given it a try.

The only downside to the label printer is that it connects to my computer via a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port rather than to the network with an Ethernet port.

I did see recently that Dymo now offers a device that allows the LabelWriter to connect to the network so that all computers in my home can use the printer, but the device costs $100, so I haven’t sprung for it, yet.

Second, Adobe Acrobat’s form filling feature makes the use of my typewriter unnecessary.

What the form filling feature does is allow the user to see a form and type on the form just where you would normally handwrite or type. The rest of the form remains uneditable.

Acrobat allows forms to have not only fields where you can enter text such as your name or company, but it also allows check boxes to select items, and numeric fields, such as order forms or tax forms.

While Acrobat has had a form filling feature for a long time, most Acrobat PDF files didn’t use the feature. This is because the creator of the form has to tell Acrobat about the nature of these fields to be filled in.

The United States federal government has made most of its downloadable PDF files fillable using the Adobe Acrobat software. Most state governments have followed suit. Cities and towns I’ve informally experienced are less consistent in their adoption of fillable PDF files.

Adobe freely distributes the Acrobat Reader software. It includes the ability to fill in forms, but not to create them. To create Acrobat documents, one of the fee-based software products is needed, typically Acrobat Standard, Pro, or Pro Extended.

Creating forms using Acrobat is pretty easy, but it does require some additional work on the part of the forms creator. The amount of extra work is based on the complexity and length of the document. I’ve seen some basic “fill in the blanks” PDF documents as well as some PDF documents that perform calculations and have a lot of dynamic content.

But my point is that as Acrobat has come into its own and I have not regretted giving up my Selectric. In fact, my mother is getting ready to downsize her home and has a Selectric sitting in her office that she’s not going to keep. As fun as it would be to have, I’m going to let a historian have it for his museum.

This column initially appeared in the Wednesday 25 March 2009 issue of Westport News.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why Not to Buy a New Computer

I love the latest techy gadget as much as the next person. They're fun to play with, show your friends and goof around with. Some of them even make it into my life, adding real value.

One of the most important items in my life is my personal computer. Hardly a day goes by that I don't use it. It has to work well or I'm in deep trouble.

My reasons for not buying a new computer have nothing to do with the current economic condition or any technical reasons. It's just a lot of work after I open the box.

I am an admitted fan of Toshiba laptop computers. Toshiba doesn't have the market share like the Dells, Lenovos and HPs, but I've used most of the major brands and Toshiba laptop computers have served me well over the years.

So when my old laptop needed to be replaced, I went out and bought a new one. I ended up with another Toshiba and the latest version of Vista - the 64-bit version.

My reasons for not wanting to replace my computer were realized in full again.

Because so much of my life is spent using a personal computer, the biggest hassle of a new computer is moving all of my old stuff to my new computer and getting it all to work.

If I didn't have to retain any old files and e-mails or integrate into a network at home or in the office, a new computer would be a breeze.

But it just ain't so.

Part of it is my own fault because I'm a packrat when it comes to saving files. Part of it is because my technical environment serves me quite well when it's running right . . . but I don't have an off-the-shelf technical environment.

The challenge starts with purchasing upgrades to most of the software, this time ensuring that it's Vista 64-bit compatible.

If there are any device drivers, such as for printers or scanners, you have to go find all of the latest drivers and install them. As my home and office environments are reasonably complicated, this takes some time . . . meaning a couple of days.

While I found that most of my equipment is compatible with the new hardware and software, I was disappointed with two major items:

First, I discovered that Quicken 2009 is not compatible with the Hewlett Packard printers I have under Vista 64-bit. A fix was announced for January and checking the Quicken Web site this morning, the fix is not yet available.

Second, I discovered that my Canon digital camera, which was purchased two years ago, is incompatible with Vista 64-bit. Where I used to be able to plug the camera into the USB port on the laptop computer, Canon support attempted to convince me that it's actually more beneficial to buy a $10 conversion gadget that will let me transfer my photos to my computer. The problem is not with spending $10, but the fact that this is an extra thing I have to carry with me.

Moving word processing, spreadsheet, photos and other files from one computer to another isn't all that difficult. Microsoft actually offers a free utility that will move your files and preferences from one computer to another. The utility will even configure your e-mail account, as long as it's a Microsoft product, such as Outlook.

As I don't exclusively use Microsoft products, moving files from one computer to another can be time-consuming and tedious at best. Most software manufacturers don't offer utilities - or even instructions - on moving applications and data from one computer to another. This necessitates taking some calculated, but necessary risks to set up the new computer. Sometimes the move doesn't work, so it needs to be done a couple of times.

I'm also an advocate of online remote backups of data. I happen to use Mozy (www.mozy.com), although there are a number of very good alternatives. The problem with a new computer is that I have to re-backup the new computer. Given that I backup more than 40 Gb of data, this easily takes a day of the computer doing nothing but sending data to the backup site over the Internet.
So, while I'm very pleased with my new computer, it's not something I relish doing frequently. In fact, I'll typically trudge along with an older computer for an extra year or so rather than face the work needed to get the new computer.

Now that I've had my new computer for a couple of months, it's almost all set up. Now I don't have to worry about a new computer for a couple of years.

This column originally appeared in the Westport News on Wednesday 11 March 2009.