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 ( 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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