The Brilliant Douglas Engelbart

Douglas Engelbart passed away recently. His name may be unfamiliar. His work is not.

Engelbart was an engineer who invented, among other things, your computer’s mouse, and, by extension, his work made the trackpad possible as well. In his conception, the mouse was a box with several buttons on top and the ability to move what he called an on-screen “tracking point.” In 1968, this idea was radically new. I encourage you to watch Mr. Engelbart in action by screening the video, now widely known as “The Mother of All Demos” in the hardware and software community because of all that he presents. Among the innovations: a video projection system, hyperlinking, WSYWIG (what you see is what you get–the basis of word processing and more), teleconferencing and more. He’s clearly having a wonderful time with this demo, very proud of what has been accomplished, keen on the possibilities for a future that we all now accept as routine.

Douglas Englebart in "The Mother of All Demos," as this hour-plus presentation has come to be known.

Douglas Engelbart in “The Mother of All Demos,” as this hour-plus presentation has come to be known.

You’re actually able to point at the information you’re trying to retrieve, and then move it

Intrigued? Here’s a look at the input station. On the right is the mouse; at the center is the keyboard; and on the left is an interesting five-switch input device that allows quick typing by holding down each of the five keys in various combinations to enter characters without using the keyboard (some of these ideas were later revised for current trackpad use).

A very early version of a computer mouse as explained by its inventor, Douglas Engelbart.

A very early version of a computer mouse as explained by its inventor, Douglas Engelbart.

Still unsure about whether this video is worth your time? Think of it as a TED Talk, circa 1968.

Hungry for more? Watch this video on the Doug Engelbart Institute website. Here, he speaks about collective learning and the need for a central knowledge repository. The video was recorded in 1998, shortly after the internet first became popular. His vision recalls the era when we all dreamed about what the internet might someday be.

The complexity and urgency of the problems faced by us earth-bound humans are increasing much faster than are our aggregate capabilities for understanding and coping with them. This is a very serious problem; and there are strategic actions we can take, collectively. – Doug Engelbart

Thoughts on Mobile, Part Three: Connecting Dots 4, 5, 6

Yesterday’s post ran long, so I decided to cut it in half. Here’s the rest of it, or the third in a series of two articles. (Something like that…)

A group video call on Skype.

A group video call on Skype.

Dot #4: Connectivity and Sharing. Here in the 21st century, we demand not only connectivity but sharing of information in real time. We fall short in whiteboard-type environments where we can see ideas and people simultaneously, and when we do, the interaction is sub-par, but this will steadily improve through Skype, Google, and new ventures. All portable devices must connect anywhere, at any time–this is a shortcoming of some apps (Evernote, for example) and some devices (most portable computers, unless a separate wireless hot spot is generated by a nearby cell phone). This is foolish retro-thinking. The next generation of computers, tablets, all devices should include built-in connectivity for WiFi, 3G, 4G, and so on. Fortunately, these devices and their related systems work very well. And, fortunately, the technology is constantly improving to allow more throughput, faster speeds, fewer problems, and increased security. What we don’t have quite yet is a kind of super-DropBox where it’s easy to share any document on any device, regardless of whether it’s in the cloud or on a specific device. VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology resembles a solution, but what we need is a more robust, full-featured, easy-to-use system. I suspect Apple and Google are hard at work developing something to do this job–they’re already on the way with Google Docs and the new iWork set for release later this year.


Dot #5: Output. This one is confusing. I own an iPad which doesn’t do well in an environment where printed documents are the standard. Most printers won’t talk to a tablet–though some now have email addresses for that purpose (yes, some printers have email addresses–seems confusing, I know). When I was using a portable computer, I often printed documents. With the tablet, I find myself storing documents and reading them on the tablet’s screen. Far less printing. Almost none, in fact. My output is, typically, an email to someone who wants or needs to read something I wrote. I do print some documents for reference, but printed documents are difficult to revise, so I tend to focus on digital copies. The file folder in my briefcase were once filled with paper, but now, not so much. Even handwritten notes are being replaced by the notes that I take on the tablet–when they’re in Evernote, they’re very easily shared with my other devices and with other people via email or shared settings.

Dot #6: Portable. For me, this means the device goes just about everywhere I go. In that regard, the iPhone (any smartphone, really) is a suitable solution, if one with a too-small screen. There is access to web and email, phone, messaging, internet, iWork documents, Evernote, the list goes on. The tablet does not go everywhere because it’s a little too big, even for someone like me who is rarely seen outside my home without a shoulder bag. There’s some minor conflict here about size: the phone ought to be larger, the iPad needs to be both small enough to carry everywhere (the iPad Mini) but large enough to provide a full page of printed material or to create diagrams or word processing documents or spreadsheets or presentations (the iPad full-size model). At first, I was sure I would need a keyboard, so I bought one and thought I’d carry it everywhere. I don’t. In fact, I use the portable keyboard only when I have a lot of writing to do away from home–not so often, as it turns out.

How long does the device need to run between recharges? Eight hours seems pretty reasonable, more is nice.

GoalZero's external solar charger is convenient, but this technology should be built into every portable device.

GoalZero’s external solar charger is convenient, but this technology should be built into every portable device.

Any accessories required, as one might carry with a portable computer? Absolutely not.

One further notion about portability: the device must be easily used anywhere. With an iPad or tablet of sufficient size, that’s anywhere at all, standing, sitting, lying down. With a portable computer, a desktop surface makes the process so much more comfortable–though some people can work with the computer on their lap (I need a fat pillow to do that, and the computer tends to slide around). The tablet can be raised or lowered to adjust for eye position and lighting; this is difficult to do with a portable computer.

Of course, everyone’s needs are different, and some people use their portable device as a power tool. For most users, I suspect this is overkill–just like a gigantic SUV might be for local grocery runs and soccer practice.

What’s next? I think we’ll see keyboards becoming vestigial, and improved touch screens as the standard for portable devices. I know the devices will become faster, contain more storage, offer better screens and longer battery power, and we all know that prices will remain quite low, but will slowly rise. There will be more pocketable devices, and attempts to move away from a traditional flat screen. OLED technology, for example, allows a screen to roll up for storage. This will be the next frontier, worthy because the size of the screen is the key determinant for portability. Once that dot becomes more flexibly defines, all of the other dots line up in support. That’s the longer-term future.


For the shorter-term future, I’d look to combining my tablet and phone into a single device that works and plays nicely with a more powerful computer (which will also evolve) in my home or office.

And what about power? Since they can be charged almost anywhere, I like solar cells. They’re small, flat, and becoming affordable. I also like charging mats. AC adapters are probably unavoidable, but better batteries make them less essential.

Sorry for the long post, and for the multiple parts. This was interesting to write, so I just kept going.

Google Glass: “technology closer to your senses”

Google Glass

You’re looking at a new invention that may revolutionize our interaction with digital devices.

Connecting devices to the body, or, at least, wrapping devices around parts of the body, will be the next big thing. Apple is developing a watch that cuffs the wrist and provides information via a curved glass display. Google is going further.

A wonderful story published in The Verge provides lots of interesting insight, for this is not simply a product concept, but a potential shift in the ways that we think about interaction between humans and between humans and machines. Here’s an excerpt:

Human beings have developed a new problem since the advent of the iPhone and the following mobile revolution: no one is paying attention to anything they’re actually doing. Everyone seems to be looking down at something or through something. Those perfect moments watching your favorite band play or your kid’s recital are either being captured via the lens of a device that sits between you and the actual experience, or being interrupted by constant notifications. Pings from the outside world, breaking into what used to be whole, personal moments.

Steve goes on. “We wondered, what if we brought technology closer to your senses? Would that allow you to more quickly get information and connect with other people but do so in a way — with a design — that gets out of your way when you’re not interacting with technology? That’s sort of what led us to Glass.” I can’t stop looking at the lens above his right eye. “It’s a new wearable technology. It’s a very ambitious way to tackle this problem, but that’s really sort of the underpinning of why we worked on Glass.”

I encourage you to go to The Verge report, watch the video (which is on the page), and start thinking differently about a future that may arrive as soon as 2014.

Success! Good Health! Longevity! Fabulous Children!

You can do it! You’ll need a college degree and you’ll need to move to a place where 21st century America’s promise shines. Seattle, the SF Bay Area, New York City,

Boston, and the ring around Washington, DC.–those are the places where innovation is held in high esteem and is most likely to be funded so that new companies can be born, grow, and change the economic picture for employees, shareholders, and those smart enough to live nearby.

These are the places where venture capitalists fund big opportunities, and if a company seems promising, a VC will often require a move to, say, Silicon Valley, or not to fund the company at all. The “thickness” of the job opportunities in the Silicon Valley (and a very small number of other places), and the thickness of people with the necessary skills to suit those needs, not only attracts the best (and highest paid) people to these centers, where their high incomes tend to generate more jobs for the local economy (usually with salaries that are higher than even unskilled high school dropouts will find at home). If you’re an attorney, you’ll make as much as 30-40% more if you work in these areas than in an old rust belt city. The same is true for cab drivers and hair stylists.

Much has been made of Google’s employee perks; they won’t play in Hartford or Indianapolis, but neither of those places, nor most other American cities, see the kinds of financial results and spillover effects in the community enjoyed by the area around San Francisco. This is becoming the area that drives the American 21st century. And it’s very difficult for other cities to get into the game.

Author and UC Berkeley Professor Enrico Moretti has just published a book that presents a compelling picture of the much-changed US economy. The title of the book, The New Geography of Jobs, undersells the concept. Yes, if you can, you should move to any of these places, where you will make more money than you will at home–regardless of whether you are a high school dropout or a Ph.D. You will probably live longer, remain healthier, provide a better path for your children, live in a nicer home, have smarter friends, smoke less, drive a nicer car, you name it… the American dream lives large in San Diego, but in Detroit or Flint, Michigan, it’s gone and it’s not likely to return any time soon.

Average male lifespan in Fairfax, VA is 81 years. In nearby Baltimore, it’s just 66.

That’s a fifteen year difference. This statistic tracks with education attained, poverty level, divorce rates, voter turnout (and its cousin, political clout), lots more.

Want to remain employed? Graduate from college.

Nationwide unemployment rates: about 6-10% for high school only, 10-14% for incomplete high school, 3-4% for college graduates.

College degrees matter…far more than you might think. In Boston, with 47% of its population holding college degrees, for example, the average college graduate earns $75k and the average high school graduate earns $62,000. By comparison, Vineland NJ–just outside Philadelphia in South Jersey, has just 13% college graduates, and a college graduate earns an average of $58,000, with high school graduates at $38,000. Yes, it costs less to live in Vineland, but over a lifetime, people who live in Vineland are leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table, perhaps as much as a half million dollars over a lifetime.

Real cost of college, including sacrificed employment: $102,000. At age fifty, average college graduate earns $80,000, but average high school graduate earns $30,000.

If a 17-year old goes to college, he or she will earn more than a million dollars lifetime. If not, it’s less than a half million.

What’s more, 97% of college educated moms are married at delivery, compared with 72% of high school-only grads. Just 2% of college-educated moms smoked during pregnancy compared with 17% with a high school education and 34% of drop-out moms. Fewer premature babies, fewer babies with subsequent health issues. Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30. By comparison: 27 percent of high school dropouts and 17 percent of high school dropouts. The market for college graduates is more national; the market for non-grads is more local.

Caught in the middle? The best thing you can do is hang out with people who are pushing their way up the productivity curve. That is, MOVE! Leave the town where things aren’t happening, and take a job, almost any job with growth potential, in a place with high potential.

While the arguments about fencing lower-income immigrants out persist, most people earning graduate degrees today are immigrants. And a high percentage of people who start significant new businesses, funded by venture capital, are first generation Americans.

Today, an immigrant is significantly more likely to have an advanced degree than a student born in the US.

Foreign born workers account for 15% of the US labor force, but  half of US doctorate degrees are earned by immigrants. Immigrants are 30% more likely to start a business. Since 1990, they have accounted for 1in 4 venture backed companies. When they start a new business, they generate high-value jobs, which brings more money into the community (not any community, only the ones with a thick high-skill / high value workforce and a thick range of desirable jobs), and the people who fill these jobs generate more jobs in the retail and services sector, jobs that pay more in the high value areas than they do at home.

A century ago, investment money went to Detroit for its car industry, and to the midwest for productive factories. That era is ending. Innovation in the health sciences, technology, software, internet, mobile, and other fields is the driver of American productivity–but not everywhere. Clusters attract the best and the brightest from metros without the necessary thickness, leaving lesser places with fewer people who can make big things happen.

There is so much more here (sorry for the long blog post, but this is a very powerful book). We need to generate more college graduates, especially more men, and especially more people with STEM expertise (science, technology, engineering, math). We need to do a far better job in educating and creating opportunity (including opportunity for mobility) among those with fewer advantages. We’ve got a lot of work to do. First step: read the book!

Did you hear what I said?

Here’s what I want from a Bluetooth headset: (a) you can hear me, (b) I can hear you, and (c) hassle-free phone pairing. For those of us who rely upon these devices, it’s tough to find happiness. And, it’s difficult to comprehend the experience of the other person on the line, the one who is supposedly listening to the conversation. It’s on item (a) that many headsets fall below expectations, but unless you ask, you have no way of knowing what the other person is (not) hearing.

I decided to experiment with two of the most highly-rated  Bluetooth devices.

Blue Ant's Q2 looks great in any color. It's small, well-designed, and sounded good to me.

Sure enough, I fell in love with its small size and wonderful incoming sound quality of the nifty Blue Ant Q2. Pairing with my iPhone: easy. Noise cancellation: in theory, great, in practice, not so great (even a gentle breeze was a problem). Fit and style: terrific; the device just hooks over the ear and looks sleek. Little button to press when making or receiving a call: sometimes, a bit hard to find, but okay with practice. Several voice control features added to a positive experience: terrific! I can ask the phone, “am I connected?” or to “redial” or to repeat all available menu commands. Finally, here’s a smart device that sounds good, looks good, and works properly. Or so  my great expectations imagined.

When I started asking people how I sounded, the comments were, at best, noncommittal and often, negative. Most often, I was told that the sound was “a little weak” and that they were hearing “some but not all of the words” and that they heard “a lot of background noise.” The more negative comments I heard, the more I experimented–trying different locations, different phones, interior, exterior, quiet, slightly breezy, in cars and trains, out walking the dog, etc. No change in the comments I received.

Since I could hear the other person so clearly, at first, I questioned the other person’s phone system, ears, sanity, whether they were using an inadequate phone or earpiece on their end, and so on. More than a month’s calls led me to the sad conclusion: although I could hear the other person, they could not hear me, not clearly, and, often, not completely.

So, I continued my Goldilocks routine by returning to an headset I had used before with some complaints. I liked the clunky big-battery-behind-the-ear, big-boom-microphone Plantronics PRO when I owned a previous model, but the incoming volume was unacceptably low. For most of February, I’ve been using the newer PRO HD, and found two improvements much to my liking. The first improvement is a better incoming sound system: every call is loud enough, and every call is clear. The second: I like the sensor that tells the headset when it is actually on my ear (if it’s not on my ear, it won’t take the call; if it is on my ear, it will answer calls automatically without requiring me to press a button).

Of course, the big test is not what I can hear, but what you can hear when you call me. I was really hoping for good results on that score–and sure enough, the PRO HD came through. Several people asked me whether I was actually on a headset because the sound was so clear. So far, not one person has complained about sound quality. For me, that’s extraordinary; I’ve been hearing complaints about my Bluetooth headsets for years.

Wind noise? Yeah, that’s still there. Better than the Blue Ant Q2, but a breezy day is a problem for an exposed microphone. On the Pro HD, the boom microphone is long and large enough to accept the equivalent of the wind muffle that location video shooters use–a soft furry condom to catch the wind–maybe that teeny accessory is on its way? And while we’re on the topic of accessories, even the PRO HD is really small, and really easy to lose. I sure wish Plantronics would develop some sort of carry-everywhere accessory to minimize the loss of its $100 device (so far, I’ve lost two of them).

This blog post is already on the long side. I’ll review Blue Ant’s Q4 speakerphone in a separate article.


Blue Ant Q2

Plantronics PRO HD

Maine School District to Buy Kindergarteners iPads

Here it comes. The first kindergarten class gets iPads. Watch how quickly the others come online–and how quickly school gets the same treatment as, say, photographic film or CDs or any of the other stuff that’s been digitized. Story in video form below, or, if you prefer, actual words written on the screen by PCMag.,2817,2383362,00.asp

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