Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How Fast is Fast?

We've come to expect high speed Internet service in our homes and just about anywhere.

The days when I was dialing up on a phone line and a modem I thought was pretty impressive. I even recall making my very first phone call over a (fast at the time) dial-up connection saying to myself: This making phone calls over the Internet will never fly.

Well, most homes here have high speed Internet connections, typically provided by Cablevision. The standard service is about 12 Mbps download speed and 2 Mbps upload speed.

Cablevision offers higher speeds through their "Boost" service that yields 30 Mbps download speed and 5 Mbps upload speed. Cablevision always says their speeds are "up to" a certain amount.

But due to some work I've been doing lately, I decided to opt for Cablevision's "Ultra" service that offers 101 Mbps download speed and 15 Mbps upload speed. Again, the numbers are "up to."

The biggest difference with these services — other than the speed — is the price. The basic Optimum Online service is about $45/month. The Boost service is an extra $9.95 per month. The Ultra service is about $99/month. The Ultra service also requires a $300 activation fee plus a $34.95 installation fee.

So when the Cablevision installer arrived Sunday morning, the installation included a new cable modem and went quite well. As I also have Optimum Voice, he had to leave a second cable modem, since the cable modem that supports Optimum Ultra doesn't support Cablevision's voice service.

After the cable modem powered up, we tested it from one of my computers. We received 35 Mbps download speed and 15 Mbps upload. Quite a disappointment from the 101 Mbps advertised.

The technician suggested that I plug a computer directly into the cable modem. By doing so, the Internet speed jumped to a blazing 75 Mbps download and the 15 Mbps upload. Much better, but that meant that could only run one computer at a time off of my home network.

What I've determined is that my Motorola router provided with my Vonage service is probably not capable of handling the high speed connection that Cablevision provides. I've reached out to Vonage to see if they have a replacement router that I can use, but I have found that downloads throughout my home network are substantially faster, including web page loads and e-mails. (Update: after replacing my router, download speeds typically measure higher than 80 Mbps.)

Within a few years, we'll all be expecting Internet speeds higher than the 100 Mbps that is considered really fast now. Google has been offering to provide Gigabit Ethernet (1,000 Mbps) to people's homes on an experimental basis.

But for now, I'm enjoying the ability to get my work done faster.

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 November 2010.
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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Indoor Games

Before I hear people saying I'm trying to turn their families into couch potatoes, let me say now that I much prefer outdoor moving around games to ones played in front of a screen. But as winter comes upon us, some days it not only better, but safer to stay indoors.

What has been very good is the creation of video games that actually engage people more than just their fingers and thumbs on the controllers.

Nintendo's Wii system introduced the first commercially successful gaming system that got people out of their chairs and involved with the games. While its video wasn't up to the high definition that many of us now take for granted, the games are very successful in a broad range of ages and interests.

For example, the Wii system has exercise games for all age levels and has sports games crossing a similar broad spectrum of people.

This year, Sony released the "Move" add-on for its PlayStation 3 device. The Move controllers are similar to the Wii in that they're wireless, but they have an optical aspect and include a small camera that watches you move and play. To identify the different controllers, the Move controllers have a colored light on top the size of a ping pong ball that turns a color when connected to the PlayStation.

The Move system is still quite new and has very few games, but expect quite a few just in time for the holiday season.

The latest entrant into the move-around-the-room gaming space is Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox 360. Instead of having controllers that you hold, the Kinect actually watches you move with a number of lenses that track your motion and even recognize your face.

Each one of these systems has created a new way to play.

Right now, these systems tend to focus on sports and activities that require significant motor skills. And, on a cold, wintry day, these can be great fun.

I fully expect that as we see these technologies in consumer electronics, we'll see many other uses, say to teach a skill such as knitting, SCUBA diving, driver training and more.

I even expect at one point, these could be used to help you assemble that Ikea bookshelf that you just bought or help would-be-Santas assemble the toys on Christmas Eve.

If the weather outside is yucky, one of these game machines can make the day a bit brighter. But if the weather is good, nothing beats a wonderful day of running around outside.

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 10 November 2010.
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Cursor is a Banana

While sitting at the dinner table the other night, my 5-year-old son looked at me and quite seriously told me: "My cursor is a banana."

Understanding every word he said, yet having no clue as to what he meant, I looked across the table at him and asked: "What?" to which he responded: "Yes, my sister helped me do it."

Still not understanding what he was saying, I asked him to show me.

He then pointed to the computer we have in our kitchen and said: "My sister helped me make my cursor into a banana."

I immediately understood that he and his sister had changed one of the "themes" of his computer login so that the various icons and colors now had a fruit and vegetable look and feel. And, indeed, the cursor is now a banana.

This started me thinking about what I talked about with my father when I was five years old.

For starters, the only "cursor" I knew of was people who needed their mouths washed out with soap.

But I started thinking about how different our children's lives are than ours. Here are a few items:

  • Children today don't know of a life without the Internet. It's just "there" and is as much a part of their home life and education as food, books and clothing.
  • Entertainment is now on demand and plentiful. With hundreds of television channels and the ability to watch what you want when you want, it's quite literally impossible to consume all of the content that they want.
  • Libraries are vastly different. They're no longer a place you go to do research. Not only is the entire Internet a library of sorts, but our traditional libraries are evolving into community centers.
  • Instant gratification is the norm. My children now expect that when we take a photo or video, they can see it immediately. The idea of taking film to be processed and receiving it back a few days later is foreign to them.
  • Music may never actually be handled other than on a device that plays it. Specifically, our children may never hold a record or even a Compact Disc. The idea of a record "skipping" is not part of their lives.
  • They will always be able to make a phone call wherever they are.
  • Terrorism is a domestic issue, and 9/11 occurred during the lifetime of most of our children.

As I watch my children and the children in my life, I'm glad to see that they do share some of the same experiences, such as:

  • Nobody needs to tell a child to put pitted olives on their fingers;
  • Jumping in a leaf pile still gives great joy;
  • Balls for every sport mean instant fun; and
  • A large cardboard box can still be a spaceship, fort, house, boat or any other adventure.

As much as I want my children to have some of the same experiences I did, it's clear to me that their lives will be vastly different as a result of the changes in technology. In many ways, their experiences will be richer. In other ways, I think they'll miss out on some important lessons.

Luckily, the lessons of humanity are what really count. I hope that all children can balance technology and humanity as they grow up. It's an exciting road to travel with our children.

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 27 October 2010.
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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Internet Access Anywhere

Many of us have become used to having Internet access wherever we go. It's no longer sufficient to have Internet access in our homes and offices.

Whether we're at the beach, at a park, in the car, on a train and even in an airplane, we are becoming accustomed to having Internet access.

Most people's mobile device (we used to call them cell phones) can send and receive e-mails and most can even have a built-in Web browser to do something resembling surfing the Internet.

The browsers built into mobile devices are not known for their robust web-surfing capabilities. I still rely heavily on my laptop computer for much of the work I do. I like a full-size keyboard and screen and don't mind carrying around a computer case in most circumstances.

Yet, somehow, my laptop computer seems like a second-class citizen because it doesn't typically have its own built-in Internet access.

To address this, there are many options for people to obtain Internet access just about wherever they are.

First, if you have a device with a data plan from a provider (mobile devices are typical examples of this), you have Internet access wherever the provider has towers. And, you have to pay for this. These plans tend to be OK for doing general e-mail and web browsing, but not much more. The current leader is what's called 3G technology, but 4G (generally referring to the 3rd and 4th Generation of wireless technology) is coming out, Sprint being the first with 4G service in some geographies (not Westport yet).

Second, most devices now have WiFi built-in. About 50 percent of the time, you can find an open WiFi hot spot where you can jump on someone's WiFi. The Town of Westport has a number of areas where it offers free WiFi, such as Compo Beach, the library and the train station. Many merchants also offer WiFi, but sometimes there's a fee to use it.

WiFi can provide speeds about as fast as the local provider's Internet service, but is subject to dropping signals and varying speeds depending on what distance and obstacles are between you and the WiFi antenna.

Third, my favorite Internet access is the old fashioned copper cable stuff that you usually find in homes and offices. While the wiring is harder and more expensive to put in than wireless solutions, it does provide the fastest, most secure solution. It's also the least mobile.

This is where things get interesting. When you take your computer with you, you have a few options for connecting to the Internet. When you take your computer and your mobile device with you, your options increase dramatically.

If you don't have a wired or WiFi connection you can jump onto, but your mobile device has a data plan, you could be in good shape.

One way is called "tethering" where you actually put a cable between your wireless device and your laptop computer and your computer talks to the Internet through your mobile device. Most wireless carriers offer ways to tie your data plan to your computer. This runs anywhere from $5 to $40 per month on top of your normal plan.

Other carriers have a feature to turn your mobile device into a WiFi hot spot. This lets you and typically up to four or five others to use your mobile device to access the Internet. The good news is that multiple people can use the signal. The bad news is that the already slow speed is slowed even further by multiple people. The really bad news is that using your mobile device as a WiFi hot spot can run the battery dead in under two hours. Oh, and there's typically a monthly fee for this service, too. Another option is to pick up something like a MyFi that is a standalone WiFi hotspot that's not tied to any mobile device. Wherever you go, if there's a mobile signal from your carrier, you have Internet service. Service plans for these run between $40 and $60 per month.

My favorite option is a product called PDANet from an oddly named company called June Fabrics (www.junefabrics.com). For a one-time $30 software license fee, you can download the software to your mobile device and laptop computer and piggyback off your mobile device's data plan for no extra monthly charges. Alas, iPhone users are not able to do any of the above without "jailbreaking" their phone, a practice frowned upon by Apple.

The dream of ubiquitous Internet is getting nearer. Right now, it just takes a bit of creativity to build it for yourself.

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 13 October 2010.
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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

TV is Dead

OK, I've said it. As a boy who grew up watching far more television than I would like to admit, TV is dead.

I remember the doldrums of summer reruns and having to watch the shows I'd already seen, but with the teasers of a brand new season that started about the time I was going back to school.

I remember the excitement of a new theme song for a TV show and new episodes of my favorite characters when the new season started.

I remember wanting to schedule my time at home so I could see a favorite show, because that's when it was being broadcast and I wanted to be able to talk to my friends about it the next day.

As the youngest member of my family, I remember being the "human remote control" ("Mark, go change the channel") — or the "human antenna" ("Mark, hold onto the rabbit ears, because the picture is best when you do it.").

I remember when the only place we could watch television was in the living room or family room — wherever there happened to be the only TV in the house.

I remember when any channel above 13 — what was called UHF — was considered sub-standard at best. Anything that was good was on somewhere from channel 2 to channel 13.

Needless to say, I'm dating myself.

Perhaps the biggest change was time shifting. This occurs when people can record a show and watch it when they want to. VCRs brought this into existence and heralded a significant change in people's viewing habits and the entertainment industry as a whole.

Time shifting has gone far beyond VCRs to include DVRs (digital video recorders) — some even being provided by the cable companies themselves. But most of the major networks, such as ABC, CBS and NBC now offer viewing of major shows through their websites or through their affiliate sites such as Hulu.com or even YouTube.com.

Cable TV also caused a major change in the way television is viewed, bringing far more channels to the typical viewer than was available over the air via the antenna on one's roof. Interestingly, cable TV is being seen by some as declining, in favor of Internet-based television and streaming video.

The point to all of this is that television used to be entertainment that we consumed that was dictated by someone who set the schedule for when we would be entertained. That's simply not the case anymore.

The new watchword is: on-demand. People can now watch television, movies, events, classes and any other items when they want and where they want.

That part about "where they want" is also huge. Again, it used to be that television was consumed from either a living room of family room in a home.

The number of screens that people have has exploded. With a typical home having at least one screen per family member (TV plus computers) plus smart phones (iPhones, Android, BlackBerry and others) that allow streaming of video, plus tablet computers (iPads most notably), the ability to watch content is far easier.

Most of these computer devices are also mobile. With wireless Internet services, it's essentially possible to enjoy entertainment wherever you happen to be.

Entertainment is alive and well. In fact, the amount of content being produced continues to increase dramatically. What is changing is how people consume the content and how people get paid for it. These are two huge challenges for the entertainment industry and I have no doubt that the models will emerge that will make entertainment viable for years to come.

But, for now, I'm glad I don't have to stand by my old television and hold the rabbit ears.

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 September 2010.
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Whole House Internet

Ah, remember the days when an Internet connection meant plugging your phone line into your computer's modem port and you had to dial up and listen to the funny tones as the modems connected? And you could use the Internet in your home anywhere you had a phone line that you didn't mind tying up for hours on end?

Oh, and you probably only had one computer in your home. And maybe even only one phone line.

Needless to say, very few people would find that an acceptable way of life nowadays.

For the typical home, we want high-speed, always-on Internet access everywhere in our home -- and perhaps even outside, too. It's not unusual for people to want Internet access in their garden, on the patio, by the swimming pool, or even in the garage.

So how does one distribute Internet access throughout the home?

Now it's expected that high speed, always on Internet access will be available throughout one's home.

If you have a relatively new home (less than 10 years old), the builder probably installed what's called "structured wiring." This distributes many different types of wires throughout your home. These wires can be Coaxial (sometimes called "coax") which is used primarily for cable TV signals and standard four-conductor phone wire.

Other types include unshielded twisted pair (UTP), sometimes Cat 5, Cat5e, or Cat 6, depending on its rated speed (the bigger the number the faster the rated speed). UTP is also mistakenly called Ethernet cable. Although UTP can carry Ethernet signals, it's also used for analog phone signals and other applications.

The final type of cable that I sometime see is fiber optic. This delivers ultra high speeds, but frankly, is still largely unused to its capacity in most homes. Plus some of the equipment to work with fiber is still far more expensive than working with other types of cables.

My recommendation when people ask me about the technology for their home is to put in as many cables as they can reasonably expect, especially for networking and whole house audio and video. Either as part of that or in conjunction with installing lots of cables, use conduits that allow wires to easily be added when a new technology comes along that requires a new type of cable.

So, for people where their homes are fairly new, distributing Internet access to various parts of the home is pretty straightforward. Simply plug your computer into your Ethernet ports in your various rooms and you're off and running.

But what about the rest of us who don't have cabling throughout our homes? We really have three options:

First, string cables to wherever we need them. Depending on your home's configuration, this can be easy or hard. If you have attic and basement space and both are unfinished, it's not too difficult to run new cables to many locations. This is my first choice for both speed and reliability.

Second, go wireless. Install a wireless access point such as the Linksys WAP610N ($109.99). There are various wireless standards, each with its own letter. The most popular are A, B, G, and N. B and G are the most popular, but N is the newest and fastest. Look for a wireless access point that supports all three standards. Many routers include wireless capabilities.

The problem with wireless is that it doesn't like going through anything except air. Ceilings, walls, floors, refrigerators and distance all reduce the speed and reliability of wireless connections. So, if your wireless access point is in the basement, even being upstairs in the kitchen will degrade the signal noticeably.

Third, use your home's electrical wires for data. While we may not have structured wiring in our homes, we all have electrical wires in our homes. Networking companies have figured out a way to send Ethernet signals across our home wiring and it works quite well.

By using a technology dubbed Powerline, you can plug in a device to your Ethernet switch and then a wall socket. Plug a companion product elsewhere in your home and you have extended your Ethernet network in a reliable way. If you want to plug in a wireless access point in the remote room, you've avoided all of the walls and other interference that's inherent in wireless networks. A Powerline kit I've used is the Linksys PLK-300 ($124.99).

I've always been a fan of copper wire for its speed and security, but by combining wired and wireless technology, it's pretty easy to provide high-speed, always-on Internet access throughout your home.

From now on, may the only time you hear the sound of a squawking modem connecting be in the movies.

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 September 2010.
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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Art of Making Things

I've always been in awe of people who can make things, whether it be a paper airplane, a wooden table, an automobile, a home, a rocket ship, a bridge, or even a pyramid.

Each one of these things started as an idea and then someone had to figure out what materials were needed, the tools required to make it, how to fold, cut, stack, glue, or staple the pieces together, and then enlist other people to help them.

When the project is completed, if the item works as intended, that's a huge accomplishment.

But people don't build as much stuff as they used to. The days of the woodshop in the garage are numbered. The days of people working on their own cars are numbered, too. And the most recent pyramid built is more of a temple to gambling gods in Las Vegas, a stark contrast to its predecessor's truly otherwordly purposes.

Luckily, we still have good carpenters who not only fix stuff in our homes, but also build fine furniture. We still have good mechanics who not only fix our cars, but who experiment on how to make lower emissions, convert energy to horsepower, reduce drag and increase acceleration.

The days of the tinkerer are seemingly over. So when Make magazine (www.makezine.com) came out a few years ago, I was overjoyed. It's a magazine for do-it-yourselfers who like to build stuff.

Typically, projects in Make are geared around electronics, but not always.

For example, in the current issue, Volume 23, there are articles on how to make a "Mosquito Death Ray;" hacking a toilet plunger to push, not pull; how to use an infrared thermometer; favorite gadgets, and more.

In previous issues, I've seen projects such as how to use a kite and a camera to take aerial photos and arrays of LEDs that kids can not only build, but also program.

With many of the projects, there are references where you can download the instructions and even companies that will sell you the kits, so it's more of an example of assembling parts rather than trying to scrounge them from different stores.

One project I find particularly ingenious is what the magazine calls "The Most Useless Machine." Basically, it's a box with a switch on top. When you turn the switch on, an arm comes out and turns the switch off, then it goes back into the box.

If you recall the toy bank that, when you put a quarter in a slot, a hand came out and grabbed it, this is pretty similar.

The difference is that with Make magazine, you not only read about it, but you can learn how to build one, often with basic tools.

I'm a strong advocate that we need to build more stuff. It's valuable learning for children and adults to know how things work, how to solve problems, and understand the basics of mechanics and electricity.

Make magazine also puts on a series of events called Maker Faire (see: http://makerfaire.com/newyork/2010/). Maker Faires are where do-it-yourselfers bring things they've made, whether they be machines, computers, Rube Goldberg contraptions, rockets, flamethrowers, boats, gadgets, or much more. Here's a link to a video from a 2009 Maker Faire -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45xt-3Z5MI4

The first east coast event is happening on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 25 and 26, in Queens, N.Y. I've not been to a Maker Faire, but am looking to attending this one. Not only are the items there fascinating, but the creativity, imagination and ingenuity that has gone into these items incredible. It's an inspiration to see first-hand that our ability to think and create is still alive.

For kids, it's a great opportunity to see things that ordinary people have built. Much like the television show CSI gets children interested in science, Make magazine and Maker Faires can expose children to other areas of interest that could spark imagination in them.

One of these days, pick up a copy of Make magazine and follow the instructions to build something. It might be the start of something great for your family. And you may discover an artist in your family.

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 1 September 2010.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Digital Etiquette

First, let me start by saying I'm no "Emily Post" or "Dear Abby." But it's often said that one of the biggest problems people have is communicating with each other.

My experience is that face-to-face communications offer the best opportunity to connect, because they involve visual (seeing the person), audio (hearing the person, especially the inflections in their voice), the ability to interact (ask questions and receive responses) quickly, and even touch (it's amazing what a handshake or an appropriate touch can mean).

For better or for worse, our electronic communications can both help and hinder our ability to communicate with other people. Certainly, electronic communications can allow us to communicate over broader distances faster, but it means we won't be face to face.

We've had challenges with communications since people existed on this planet. When we started writing letters to each other, there was the challenge of saying the right thing. Telephones provided more immediacy and the ability to tell nuance, but still was less information than face to face.

Here are some of my observations and experiences of things that have happened to me that have been less-than-effective ways of communicating in a digital age.

What day is that? I see many people saying something like: "Call me tomorrow" or "Let's meet today."

The use of relative dates rarely adds clarity. Specifically, if someone writes a message on Tuesday asking about calling you tomorrow, but you don't see the message until Wednesday, then tomorrow for them is Wednesday, but for you it might be Thursday. Oops. I find I avoid using relative dates or at least qualify them by saying: "Call me tomorrow (Wednesday)." Better yet, simply say: "Call me on Wednesday."

E-mail

Subject lines needs to be very effective. If I receive an e-mail with a subject line of "A note from Susie", that tells me nothing. For me, the subject line should explain the bottom line of the message, such as "Cheerleading Practice Moved from Tuesday to Wednesday This Week Only." The body of the e-mail can tell me why or who to contact, but I need e-mails with a useful subject line or they risk being unopened.

Who are You? I frequently receive emails from people with cryptic e-mail addresses, such as kittenlover74@gmail.com. Who is that? They then either don't sign their name or sign it simply: Susan. I happen to know a lot of people named Susan. Which Susan are you? One of the things I learned as a marketer is to always make it easy for people to contact you. Always sign e-mail messages with your full name and phone number. If this is hard to remember to do, set up your e-mail client to insert what's called a "Signature Block" that will put this information at the bottom of each email. Don't make people guess about your identity.

Voicemail

How Can I Contact you? I frequently receive voicemails from people saying something like: "Hi, this is Sally. Call me to let me know about this Thursday."

Optionally, they may add: "You have my number."

Again, people assume we know who they are and that's usually true, but if I'm picking up a message for my wife or other member of my family, I may have no clue who Sally is. Leave your first and last name. As far as returning a call, I don't always have someone's phone number. Take an extra few seconds and leave your phone number.

How Fast Can You Talk? When people do leave a phone number, why is it that they seem to double or triple the speed of their speech? If anything, speaking slowly and clearly when leaving a phone number is a good thing. Even if you do speak slowly and clearly, the prevalence of mobile phones and the inherent lack of good audio quality has prompted me to not only speak slowly and clearly, but repeat the phone number to ensure that any audio glitch won't prevent someone from hearing my phone number.

We will always have to work at communicating better, but let's not make it harder for people to understand what we're trying to say.

Remember, hearing you and understanding you are two different things. The best message is one that's received and understood as the sender had intended. That responsibility mainly lies with the sender, not the receiver.

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 18 August 2010.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Technology in the Loo

OK, I get it, talking about the bathroom is embarrassing. Some might legitimately ask why I'd spend time writing about technology in the bathroom.

The answer is really simple: there's some very interesting stuff going on in there.

What's also interesting is that some of the most dramatic technological innovations aren't taking place in America.

The Japanese, in particular, are legendary in their toilets. Everything from sprays and nozzles and air blowers and music and ... well, just Google "Japanese toilet technology" and see what pops up.

The subject is so well established that there's even a Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) entry on it.

But I wanted to talk about two technologies: automatic faucets and hand drying.

I first encountered automatic faucets in Germany back in the early 1980s. I didn't see them here in the U.S. for about another 10 years.

Automatic faucets generally turn on water faucets, but they can also be used for toilets and urinals. Typically, they have a motion sensor that detects when something is nearby.

In the case of a sink faucet, the detector turns on when it detects something nearby. In the case of a toilet, the detector waits until the object leaves before it activates.

I always wondered how these faucets work. I thought they'd either be electrical or mechanical, or a combination of both. In particular, the little sensor must require some sort of electrical power, as does the opening and closing of a valve, which could take a lot of juice.

I had wondered if the actual flow of the water would spin a little propeller, which would either charge a battery or arm a mechanism that could perform the opening and closing of the valve.

While that might be the case, most instances of automatic valves are simply battery-operated and the battery reportedly lasts about three years before it needs to be replaced.

The battery model is a great method for installing faucets in existing restrooms, as sinks typically don't have electricity available.

For new construction, the faucet companies also allow low voltage power with a battery back-up.

The value of automatic valves, of course, is to help prevent the spread of germs and disease in public restrooms.

My completely unscientific poll indicates that in most populated places in the U.S., automatic faucets have overtaken manual ones in public restrooms.

The other bit of bathroom technology is the lowly hand dryer.

Years ago, I was in a restroom with one of the old dryers where you'd push the big metal button and it would blow warm air on your hands. The dryer has two instructions printed on it: 1. Press button; and 2. Rub hands under warm air. Someone had written a third instruction: 3. Wipe hands on pants.

While I don't approve of this sort of vandalism, the person was right. The old-fashioned hand dryers simply don't work -- at least not in the timeframe that most people are willing to spend drying their hands.

But there are two devices that work pretty well.

XLERATOR (http://www.exceldryer.com/) -- This device is based on the fact that the volume of air over hands is far more important than the temperature of the air. Stick your hand under an XLERATOR dryer and it's like sticking your hand out of the car window at 60 mph.

The other device that works very well is the Dyson airblade (http://www.dysonairblade.com/homepage.asp).

Rather than having a single nozzle that shoots out air, the Dyson airblade shoots air on the top and bottom of your hands as you wave your hands through the air blades. The air from the airblade isn't nearly as fast as the XLERATOR, but it does cover more skin.

Both of these hand-drying solutions are welcome improvements over the old push button hand dryers. I rarely have to wipe my hands on my pants anymore.

As technology continues to become more and more a part of our lives, it doesn't take too much imagination to see how technology will continue to enter our restrooms. Just peek across the Pacific Ocean to Japan for a preview.

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 4 August 2010.
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Where Have All the Cameras Gone?

Over the weekend, I attended a good friend's 60th birthday celebration. It was a wonderful event for a wonderful person.

All the trappings were there: friends, family, the cake, candles, jokes about being 60 and the requisite photos of the cake and blowing out the candle.

But then a tech-savvy friend of mine made the observation that there was not one stand-alone camera or video camera being used. All of the photos and videos were being taken with what we used to call "cell phones," but are now more commonly known as "smartphones."

There was not a single Canon, Nikon, Kodak, Sony or other major photo brand of camera in sight. That floored me.

I have never considered a smartphone to be an adequate substitute for a "real" camera. Part of this is my loyalty to the 35-mm SLR format I grew up with, and my willingness to carry around an extra five or 10 pounds of camera equipment, but much of it is having seen the (low) quality of smartphones in the past.

Smartphones have made great strides of late, upping the pixel resolution of their cameras. While larger pixel resolution is good, the mere fact that the diameter of a typical smartphone camera is under a half-inch means that until the laws of physics are repealed, these cameras will never live up to their larger-lensed cousins.

But who cares?

Having been raised as a fine art photographer with role models such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, I take my photography seriously. But I've learned to divide my photography into two parts: photography and snapshots.

Photography is fine art photography with high quality, great composition, care for color clarity, tone and printmaking, etc.

Snapshots are intended to record an event, such as a BBQ, birthday party, vacation or something else where the primary reason is to record the people who attended. Snapshots are also frequently meant to be sent to someone else who could not attend so that they can see how someone is growing up or how happy they are.

It's clear to me that smartphones are intended for snapshots, not photography. That being said, I've seen some creative people doing some amazing work with smartphones.

But for most events in people's lives, a smartphone -- especially one of reasonable quality -- will do just fine. It will allow the people to re-live their event with sufficient quality that they'll smile. It will allow distant people, such as grandparents, to see their grandchildren's birthday parties or their first homerun.

It won't matter that the still image is not in ultra-high resolution, although some of the smartphones now shoot in a version of High Definition video. What will matter is that the images will bring people together in ways that took much longer and were costlier even a few years ago.

In fact, over the weekend, my 5-year-old son went to his first Little League pickup game. I did not bring either of my "real" cameras, but when he got up to bat, I pulled out my smartphone and was able to record his base hit, which his mother was able to see later that day. The fact that he was tagged out before he reached first base didn't matter -- he hit the ball.

I have complained for years about the need to carry both a high-quality still and video camera with me. While I'm not yet ready to give either of them up, I do see that we are starting to have good options, especially in the snapshot area.

While I really enjoy the high quality I receive from my large still and video cameras, I certainly like the convenience of the more portable devices.

So, keep your eyes open as the quality and convenience of smartphone photo and video technology increases. There are many opportunities for taking snapshots of wonderful events.

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 21 July 2010.
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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Everything Old is New Again

With many industries, the old adage of "whatever is old is new again" rings true. Technology is the same.

When I started in computers 30-plus years ago, mainframes ruled the computing world. All computing was centralized and we had "dumb" terminals that provided windows into the big computer.

Personal computers changed that dramatically by distributing the computing horsepower to the users. The death of mainframes and centralized computers was predicted by many people.

The pendulum swung from centralized computing to distributed computing.

And, in fact, many mainframes did disappear; although, to be accurate, most laptop computers far exceed the computational horsepower of the mainframes of decades ago. But with the development of local computing came problems of managing not only the applications, but the data.

Specifically, whenever a new version of software was released, for people to use it, the software had to be distributed and installed on people's computers. The more people out there, the more Herculean a task this became.

So when the Internet came along, the idea of a Web browser and centralized computing came back into vogue. In other words, the pendulum had started to swing from distributed computing back to centralized computing.

People discovered that managing applications and data centrally is, in many ways, far easier and cost-effective than trying to manage oodles of computers. But I'm seeing a change yet again. We now have very smart devices such as iPhones, BlackBerrys and Android smartphones. Add to that the iPad and other devices and we see something interesting.

While the centralized computing approach was meant to occur through a Web browser such as Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, we're starting to see "app stores." Each app store is a virtual location where people can buy applications for their smart devices. Most everyone has heard of apps to do banking, games, maps, etc.

By last count, the Apple Store has more than 125,000 applications for the iPhone and there are more than 50,000 apps for the Android operating system. And, unlike most Web browser-based applications, these apps run locally on a specific operating system, and are not compatible with other operating systems. For example, an iPhone app won't run on a Motorola Droid phone, and vice versa.

But what surprised me is that this seems to be the pendulum swinging back to local applications running on devices, rather than Web-based applications that run on a central computer. There are a number of very good reasons for this.

First, local applications can typically do more things than applications that run solely in a browser. This gap has closed over the past few years, but still exists in some very significant ways.

Second, as connections to the Internet continue to be more and more "always on," tying the portability of a remote device with the computational horsepower of computers that reside in large data centers makes a very attractive option.

Third, updating these local applications has become almost painless -- either they automatically update themselves or offer to be updated with little to no interaction from the user.

So now that we're seeing robust applications become local again, I'm trying to see what the next swing of the pendulum will be and what it will look like. Open platforms, such as Google's Android operating system, have a good shot at working well on multiple devices. Closed platforms such as Apple's have been solid innovators, but are not known for cross-platform compatibility.

It's all yet another reason why technology is so fascinating to follow ... you never know what will be coming next. But, I predict what comes next will look a lot like something that has come before. After all, everything old is new again.

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 7 July 2010.
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Can't We Just Talk?

Communications. You hear it a lot in the news, by psychiatrists, authors and consultants, about the best way to get people to work together and how communication is a perennial issue.

As my wife and I approach our 25th wedding anniversary in July, I can attest to the value of good communication. This, of course, we learned through years of both good and bad communication.

Technology has created many ways for us to communicate with each other. I'll stick with the one-on-one communications as opposed to mass communications, such as books, television and radio.

One-on-one communications started as face-to-face communications and I'll talk about that later.

Distance and other factors mean that we can't always communicate face-to-face. So early on, letters and mail service replaced the face-to-face communications. At one time, writing letters was an art form, and to read the many personal communications that went back and forth between people years ago, it's easy to see why they can be so highly valued.

Later on, we had the telegraph, which kinda, sorta, replaced the letter. The telegraph was more of the texting version of writing letters — short and to the point ... just the facts, ma'am.

The telephone came along and let people interact with each other live. It enabled them to hear the various voice nuances, to share a laugh, and gave them the ability to detect sarcasm, humor and other subtle changes in tone and delivery that can convey far more than the written word. And, when calling "long distance" meant speaking quickly because of the per-minute charges, even so, each message was precious when speaking with a parent, grandparent, or friend.

Eventually e-mails came along and, it seems, they have all but eliminated the personal letter. Interestingly enough, now I find that a personal note or letter sent via mail has far more value than it used to. With most people now having access to a computer, an e-mail account and spending more and more time online, it's pretty easy to zip off an e-mail to anyone, anywhere in the world, in a moment's notice.

As with any written communication, though, it lacks the ability to communicate nuances. Hence, we've developed emoticons, such as ;-) to denote a snicker; and :-( to denote sadness; and there are many others — better than nothing at all, but still a far cry from being a good way to communicate.

The advent of texting is perhaps the worst form of communication ever. While texting can be good for truly communicating just the facts, it's rife with errors in spelling, grammar and substance. Oh, and let's not forget the new acronyms, like ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing).

Another tool that's been around for a while is video-conferencing. While typically reserved for large corporations with big budgets, high-speed Internet service has enabled anyone with a personal computer and a webcam to make use of video conference as a means of communication. This has been a boon to parents who are traveling and want to say goodnight to their kids, or tech-savvy grandparents who want to see their grandchildren frequently.

Not to be outdone, a handful of companies still occupy the high-end video-conferencing space with a technology called "telepresence," which delivers high-definition video to those who can afford it.

But none of these are a substitute for in-person, face-to-face, press-the-flesh, solid communications with others. In a time when travel budgets — both personal and corporate — are restricted due to cost savings pressures, sometimes the need to meet someone in person is even greater.

In many instances, I've had a business or personal relationship that has been good, but for which we've not met in person. While these relationships have been good, they have been remarkably better after a face-to-face meeting and typically a meal or two together.

So, for me, all of the forms of communication available today simply serve as a backup for when I can't be with someone in person. After all, we are human and no technology can replace that.

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 June 2010.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Many Do We Need?

This column started as a question of how many times I need to pay for Internet access, but took a turn to how many things we need -- in many areas.

As I was paying my bills, I was counting the number of times in my life that Internet service is paid. I have Cablevision as my Internet Service Provider (ISP) for my home. It's very good and I like it. But I also have Internet service for my mobile phone. So does my wife. My oldest daughter has an e-mail, but no large data plan. That's at least four times I pay for the same Internet access.

When I go to work, my office pays for Internet service, as does my wife's employer.

When you think about it, most of these services are used very little, typically less than 1 percent of the time. During the days when people aren't home, our Internet service is not really utilized. During nights and weekends, the office Internet connections aren't used very much, too. Mobile phone Internet service is used sporadically, but not all the time.

I do like that Cablevision is providing WiFi service in public areas at no extra charge for Cablevision subscribers. A recent announcement also allows Cablevision, Time Warner and Verizon subscribers to share each provider's public WiFi hotspots at no additional charge.

Then I thought about how many computers people need. I recall when an IBM PC XT cost essentially one month's salary. That meant that if a home had a computer, there was only one.

Now, most people in a home have at least one computer of their own, sometimes two or more, especially if the adults have one for work and one for personal use. Often people will have a special computer for either gaming or high-end applications such as video editing.

Toss in a few Kindles, iPads and smartphones, as well as game consoles (Wii, PS3, Xbox, etc.) and the number of computers in a household starts to increase dramatically. Even televisions are now specialized computers that more and more are connected to the Internet.

I have no doubt that this trend of more and more electronics in the home will continue to rise, as will the service providers such as the Geek Squad and Nerds-on-Call that will help homeowners with their increasingly complex home technology.

I even look around at the number of printers in people's homes. While many printers can be attached to and shared on a network, it's still easier for people to attach a printer to every computer.

Don't get me started about phone numbers. It used to be that most homes had one phone line ... two if they had teenagers. Now, it's not unusual for a home to have at least two lines (one for home, another for a home office), perhaps a fax line. Some homes have so much going on that they even have a PBX, which can handle multiple lines with voice mailboxes for different people.

Add to the count that each person has at least one phone number for his or her mobile phone, add a Skype or Google Voice number and it's no wonder that area codes are splitting and "overlay" area codes (two area codes for the same geography, such as 212 and 646) are multiplying faster than rabbits.

And how about e-mail accounts? I recall when I received my first e-mail account. I believe it was a CompuServe account. I paid about $50 per month for it and couldn't fathom why someone would want more than one. Now, it's not unusual for someone to have four or five e-mail accounts.

At least one e-mail account could be for personal use and another one for business use. Beyond that, people may even have e-mail accounts for an online persona that could be different than their personal account; they may have one for a school or professional organization. The reasons never stop.

After all of this lead-up, it's easy to see how things have become so complicated and confusing, sometimes of our own creation, but often times due to an inability to manage our own technology.

With each iteration of technology, it often seems to be set up to manage the previous or emerging set of technology -- with mixed success.

For me, I know that I have to manage my technology usage quite actively, otherwise I find myself swimming in it. And backing out of the technology quagmire can be quite difficult.

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 June 2010.
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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bright Ideas

More than a year ago, I wrote an article about how lighting technology has been changing.

The big news at the time was that Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) were the news of the day. CFLs are also called "swirls" because of their shape that has them twisted into a graceful swirl instead of being long tubes as are so familiar in office buildings.

While CFLs heralded a new era of energy efficient lighting, typically reducing power consumption by 50 to 70 percent, all was not good in CFL land.

The first issue that came to light (pun intended) was that CFLs include minute amounts of mercury in each bulb. This makes them "hazardous waste" because of the environmental impact of mercury in landfills and, more importantly, water supplies.

As a result, CFLs should not be disposed of in the normal trash, but should be recycled in places that accept hazardous waste. The practical impact is that I don't know of any places that specifically accept CFLs for recycling or disposal.

On a more practical note, early CFLs had two annoying properties. First, they take a while to warm up, meaning that when you turn them on, they're dim for about one to two minutes before the glow comes up to normal. Second, their color has always been different than normal incandescent bulbs, resulting in lighting that is different than usual, and sometimes unpleasant to the eye.

From a cost perspective, CFLs cost more than normal incandescent bulbs -- by a lot. While I'm sure there's a good formula for calculating the low cost of an incandescent bulb and its energy consumption over its expected lifetime versus a higher cost of a CFL with its reduced energy consumption over its expected lifetime, I've not seen credible sources making the comparison.

I will say that after replacing probably close to 100 light bulbs in my home (it amazed me how many bulbs are in a home) with CFLs over the past few years, I have seen my monthly energy bill go down. Whether that's enough to offset the price of the CFLs has not been calculated.

I also found it disappointing that many of the CFLs I installed that claim a life of "up to seven years" have already failed. I actually called the manufacturer on some of the bulbs and asked for a replacement since I was only one to two years into the lifespan. I was told that the bulbs were guaranteed only for one year, but that they can last up to seven years. Hmmm, not quite the guarantee I was expecting.

The final issue with CFLs is that they don't really have all the capabilities of incandescent bulbs. Specifically, most CFLs aren't dimmable, so any dimming capabilities are only available by spending a lot more money for dimmable CFLs. And dimmable CFLs don't have the range of light that a standard incandescent bulb does.

Given my naked-eye assessment, dimmable CFLs go from 100 percent light and are dimmable to perhaps the 50 percent level and then shut off.

During my initial report on CFLs, I also mentioned Light-Emitting Diode (LED) light bulbs. They were just emerging with some prototypes and the ones I saw were good, but extremely heavy and expensive.

The electronics giant Philips has recently announced what it claims will be a good replacement for the standard incandescent light bulb (see: http://bit.ly/92rOjy) that will "deliver up to 80 percent energy savings and last 25 times longer than its century-old predecessor." I've not seen this one yet, but if the early prototypes from other companies are any indication, LED lighting should be promising.

Some of the benefits of LED lighting include more pleasant colors, dimmability and longevity. I will see if the weight issue has been addressed, since heavy bulbs make applications in things like gooseneck or desk lamps impractical.

So far, no indication is given as to the solid waste or environmental impact of LED lights. They do appear to have some pretty substantial electronics and materials that far exceed the basic components of an incandescent bulb.

I am also interested in the cost of these LED bulbs. Again, the reduction in energy consumption may end up saving money in the long run, but the up-front cost of replacing 100 or so bulbs in a home may make that savings hard to buy into.

I welcome the new LED technology and am looking forward to seeing them on shelves, especially if they prove to deliver a better lighting solution than either incandescent or CFL bulbs.

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 June 2010.
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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Modern Campground

Last week's wonderful weather had my children and me thinking about getting outdoors. Part of the benefit of the outdoors is getting away from technology. But I also believe that technology can enhance the outdoor experience.

While living outdoors runs the gamut from car camping to carrying everything on your back for long distances, a few things go a long way to making camping attractive to most.

My experience is that campers are happy when they stay warm and dry, sleep comfortably, eat decent food and have decent hygiene.

Technology addresses many of these items quite nicely.

Staying warm and dry

While there's nothing quite as good as old-fashioned goose down to keep one warm, there are many synthetic products that do an admirable job of keeping you warm on a cold morning.

Sleeping comfortably

Although staying warm on a summer's night here in New England isn't typically a problem, the technologies for comfortable sleeping bags and even inflatable air mattresses make sleeping on hard ground a whole lot softer.

Eating decent food

I recall from my days as a young boy using a traditional Coleman stove with "white gas" to make meals. The burners were finicky and had to be pumped by hand, but managed to cook a decent meal for a group. Today's stoves with propane or other fuels can provide a great amount of heat to serve up remarkably good meals. Many prepared foods are also available that transport easily and clean up well. Even if you're carrying all of your belongings on a long trip, there's little reason why everyone can't enjoy a good meal.

Keeping decent hygiene

This hasn't changed much over the years, other than finding that more and more campgrounds offer showers and toilets. I am finding portable showers that are affordable and very usable for when you want to get away from it all, but still have a hot shower every few days.

Powering up

Where I do find technology has developed is in the abundance of electrical devices at campgrounds. It used to be that you'd have flashlights and maybe a transistor radio. A tent we purchased recently has a "power port" in it. In essence, it was a hole in the tent for an extension cord to go through. Clearly people are bringing power products when they camp.

Powering these devices occurs by either power at the campsite or some portable source. If you're car camping, it's easy to purchase a "power inverter" that will turn your cigarette lighter into a 110-volt electrical outlet. This will power small devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones. Larger devices require more robust power sources, such as a generator, which can be annoying to other campers who relish the silence.

But the items I like are the solar powered chargers. You sit them in the sun for a few hours and they charge up batteries in cell phones or even laptop computers. I've even seen solar cells on backpacks and hats.

One of the items that I regularly take with me is a walkie talkie. When you're out in the woods, the mobile phone coverage can be sparse at best. Walkie talkies, because they don't require stationery mobile phone antennas, work well in a defined geographic area. Typically walkie talkies can have a range of 20-25 miles. Note that this is under the best of circumstances -- walkie talkies of that range typically work well for about one half to one mile.

Another tool that's good to have is a GPS device. It can help you navigate and track your position to prevent you from getting lost. Some of the current GPS devices include walkie talkies as well as emergency locator services that will broadcast a distress signal and your GPS coordinates to people who can come find you.

But remember, all of these devices require power, whether it be by replaceable or rechargeable batteries. Without those power sources, they do no good at all, so keep your old fashioned outdoor navigation skills intact.

No matter what technology there is, my favorite time is sitting around the campfire helping my kids make s'mores. There will never be a technology replacement for that.

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 May 2010.
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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Scarcity versus Abundance

I was wrestling the other day about which is better: scarcity or abundance.

On one hand, scarcity can lead people to value something highly and conserve it, whether it's water, electricity, gold, or something else. When something is scarce, its value typically increases, especially if there is demand for the item - we're talking basic economics here.

On the other hand, with abundance, people tend to value things less and waste them more often, or at least not be as cautious about their use. Where I grew up in California, every year there were discussions about water and droughts. In the northeast, we rarely hear much about droughts, watering our lawns too much, washing our cars too often, or reservoirs running dry.

This column is not about economics or even the environment for that matter, but my mind was working on how the availability of technology can change how society functions.

Take for example how fast computers are.

When there's a scarcity of computational horsepower, only highly valued tasks and functions are done. Specifically, when mainframes were all the computers that we had, only large projects that would speed up processing of things -- like airline reservations and business accounting functions - were performed by these giant, expensive machines.

Back then, we as programmers spent large amounts of our time making efficient use of programming and databases.

As the cost of computer power has dropped dramatically, there's an abundance of computing power available to everyone, in the form of a personal computer, mobile phone, calculator, automobile, etc. We've taken what was a very expensive resource and made it so cheap that these little computers are seemingly everywhere.

And because the computers are so cheap, we can afford to let them sit idle much, if not most, of the time.

For example, most personal computers are idle 90 percent of the time. They may be on, but while you're reading your e-mail, they're essentially sitting idle. The same is true with the GPS in your car, the mobile phone in your pocket and just about every device you own.

The significant drop in the power of computing has allowed many more people to use the power of computers. Because computing power is not reserved solely for people who can afford expensive resources, it allows many more people to use and benefit from technology.

Unlike other resources that may be wasted, such as gasoline, food and water, computing power has a very small pollution footprint. Yes, there's energy that's required to power a computer.

Due to the decrease of computational power, many software developers spend more time creating new applications rather than focusing on squeezing every bit of computational horsepower out of a processor.

I think the new focus on new applications is great for everyone. We benefit from more and more applications that help us in our daily lives and the technology becomes easier and easier to use.

Similarly, bandwidth is a resource that continues to benefit everyone.

The days of dial-up modems prevented us from doing much of anything (at least as compared to today) -- things like making free or cheap long distance or international phone calls, watching a television show or movie, or downloading music were all things that were simply not possible.

Now we take them for granted.

The best part about these technologies is that there is essentially an endless supply. We can always make more computers that will inevitably be faster than the previous generation. We can also make more bandwidth that will let us use the Internet and other technologies for purposes we can't even conceive today.

So while sometimes scarcity brings creativity and efficiency, I also believe that abundance can bring even more creativity and efficiency.

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 14 April 2010.
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tech in Trying Times

The storm that hit Westport over the weekend provides many opportunities to see how technology can play a part in getting life back to normal.

To start with, our first responders - police, fire, EMS, and town officials - have and need good communications equipment in order to coordinate their efforts. Typically radios are used, since they don't rely on wires strung on poles that can be harmed by falling trees.

Along with communications equipment, our first responders are typically equipped with portable machines such as chain saws, "jaws of life," pumps, fans and other items that will help in an emergency. Note that most of these items are self-sufficient and do not require any backups or outside support to operate.

Such is the case with how many of our homes need to be in such an emergency.

Start with telephones in our homes. While most homes still have a telephone provided by AT&T or similar "land line" companies and these phones will continue to operate without electricity, if we rely on a phone that plugs into a power outlet, say a cordless phone, when the power goes out, so will our phones.

I keep an old wall-mounted princess phone in my basement that's plugged directly into the incoming AT&T line. Tha way, if we lose power, we'll still be able to make phone calls on a land line.

If you receive your telephone service over the Internet, whether it be through Cablevision, Vonage, Ooma, or some other company, your Internet service should continue even during a power outage. Again, there are items in your home that will need power during an outage, such as your cable modem, router, switch, etc. This is where an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) -- essentially a battery -- can come in handy. Unfortunately, an UPS typically lasts a few hours, not the days or week that some people in Westport will be experiencing this week.

Neither of the above communications services will survive a tree falling on the lines that feed them to your house. This is where mobile phones come in handy. As mobile phones are wireless, as long as the cell towers stay intact, you should have phone service. Note that most cell towers have their own power generation backup systems that should allow them to continue operating without outside power for days.

Also keep in mind that many mobile phones have Internet access and can provide Internet access for one or more computers through what's called "tethering," if needed. Some new mobile phones even have built-in WiFi to provide Internet service to multiple computers simultaneously.

But communications is only one step in surviving a storm such as we experienced over the weekend.

It's always a good idea to have a few days supply of food and water on hand. Our first selectman, Gordon Joseloff, has recommended that houses have on hand two weeks of food and water.

Beyond that, having sufficient batteries and flashlights as well as required prescription medications and first aid supplies can help.

If your circumstances allow, having an emergency generator to power your home can be a wise investment.

Houses nowadays have far more electrical requirements than in years past. Beyond the obvious power requirements of refrigerators and freezers, most heaters require electricity to run pumps, motors and blowers. In the case of flooding, one needs power to run a sump pump to keep a basement dry. If you receive your water from a well, you'll need electricity to pump the water out. In our home, we have a pump to move sewage up a hill to the city sewer.

Hooking up a generator is not as simple as one would hope. If this is something you want to do, I suggest involving a qualified electrician and installer.

From what I've seen about this and other natural disasters, the good news is that during these times, we see the best and most generous of care from others. To those who have lost power or whose homes have been damaged, friends and neighbors have been very willing to offer assistance in any way possible.

To all who have helped and who continue to help our town and region recover, a heartfelt thank you.

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 17 March 2010.
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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Kid Test

Years ago when I was designing software interfaces, I used to design software using what I call the "Mom Test."

As my mother is now in her late 70s and is not a computer user, my thought was that if my mother could figure out how to use it with little guidance, anyone should be able to use it.

Most of the testing my Mom performed was for PC-based software. This was prior to most of the Internet-based software we're used to.

The Mom Test is a remarkably reliable test. I would frequently take software I was developing over to my Mom's home and see if she could figure out how to use it. My use of the Mom Test provided some very good functionality that I would never have been able to come up with on my own.

But I've discovered another test. It occurred while watching my 5-year-old son, who was playing with my mobile phone. My son doesn't yet read and is still working on identifying his letters and numbers, so the use of words does not provide guidance to him.

Of course, he wasn't making phone calls, but he was navigating the menus and applications remarkably effectively.

He was able to move his fingers to bring up menus, scroll through lists, select items and applications and generally make his way through the user interface without much difficulty.

While I was somewhat afraid at what havoc he could wreak with my handheld device, my fascination with observing him allowed me to let him continue.

What fascinated me was how quickly he picked up on how to use the computer. He was clearly more agile than I am, able to pick out icons and menu items, not knowing what they say, but obviously knowing what they do.

It had me think about just how much we've changed from interfaces in which people need to be literate to use them, to interfaces that make extensive use of icons/symbols, color, graphics and, yes, text.

I dubbed this the "Kid Test." If my son can use a device, anyone can.

It also had me reminisce about how my first interactions with computers was with punched cards, paper tape and a teletype. Now, my son is moving his fingers across the surface of a smooth panel and even talking to the computer.

So while one might think of a change to interfaces of symbols, colors, and graphics to be "dumbing down" the way we use things, I see it as a broadening of the user base, including not only young people, but others who may not be able to read our language.

This latter item reminds of the many times I've been in foreign countries and, despite my years of education, I found myself functionally illiterate. There was one time in particular when I was in Russia and, with some guidance, was able to kind of, sort of make out the language, but it was at about the same level as my 5-year-old son is now.

While I don't believe it's possible to reduce every interface to simple pictures and icons, I do believe that we've made huge strides in making interactions with computers far easier. Given the changes that I've seen in the past few decades, I trust that we will continue with even better ways to interact with computers.

So as my son develops his skills with handheld computers and perhaps even laptop and desktop computers, I can only imagine how my children's children will be interacting with their computers. I'm looking forward to what the next generation "Kid Test" will look like.

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 3 March 2010.
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