Don't wait in line at the Post Office

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/21/2004 - 16:20

If you hate waiting in line at the Post Office to mail packages, don't. The U.S. Postal Service has online label and postage services that are just terrific. Now that I have an account with my credit card information saved, it takes about a minute to print out a bar coded shipping label complete with postage. If you get it done early enough in the day, put a sticky note on your mailbox and the postman will come right to your door to pick up the packages. Or if you are running late (as I am today with Christmas gifts), you can walk right in the post office, drop them off, and walk out. It's a wonderful benefit of having broadband, and the Postal Service is to be applauded for offering the service.

Incidentally, it's a boon for small business as well. The Web application has an address book to store frequently-used addresses, so for small to medium-sized boxes, this Web app can be your shipping department. Note to economic developers: do all the small businesses in your region know about this service and know how to use it?

Cellphones appear to damage DNA

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/21/2004 - 09:58

According to European scientists who have concluded a four year long study of cellphone radiation (the same gigahertz level frequencies used in microwave ovens, by the way), cellphone radiation appears to cause damage at the DNA level in cells, and not all of it was repairable by the cell. This means you end up with mutated cells in your body, which is one suspected cause of some cancers. Scientists agree more study is needed. The cellphone industry has no response.

Distance matters....or does it?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/21/2004 - 07:34

The Roanoke region recently competed for a Dell manufacturing facility, and lost out to North Carolina, which offered Dell a whopping $242 million in tax credits. That's an awful lot to pay for just one firm that could easily pick up and leave after a few years. Imagine what a few hundred small businesses with good business plans could do if given ten or fifteen years of tax relief.

But that's not the story today. In today's Roanoke Times, an article says that one of the issues with Dell was access to an airport that could handle long range 747 freighters--one of the biggest commercial airplanes made. Not only does Dell get parts from suppliers worldwide, they ship their computers all over the world.

This is a good example of how the global marketplace is changing things. Forty years ago, it was rare to make goods in one country and ship them to another. Most manufacturing plants made things for regional or national consumption. You can tell how much things have changed when ordinary items like paper towels and batteries come with packaging printed in three or four languages.

Geography is still important, but not the way we think. You no longer have to be close to markets, because the entire world has become a single, large marketplace. But while many products and services can be delivered via the internet, not everything can, so regions have to consider transportation facilities in a new way. In Roanoke, airport capacity was, according to the newspaper, not on the list. You can bet it is now.

Google desktop search has a security hole

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 12/20/2004 - 15:16

Google released a piece of software a few months ago that would let you use Google to search your own hard disk, with results displayed just like Google displays search results from the Web. Sounds good, right?

Aside from the obvious privacy issues (Google swears they won't do anything with the data except target ads to you better, but they can change that policy anytime they like), I'd never let a third party search my own hard drive.

Cnet has an article about a serious software flaw in the software that would let a third party capture the results of what is stored on your hard drive. Not only that, the third party could then instruct the Google software on your hard drive to do searches and return the content not to Google but somewhere else.

Google is working on a fix. The article also notes that Microsoft and Yahoo! are working on similar software. There is really zero benefit to consumers from this. Standalone software that searches the content of hard drives has been around for ages, and the Mac comes with this capability built in to the operating system. There is no free lunch here. The "free" software gives the provider (Google, Microsoft) a window into your personal and business information. Somehow the promise that they won't do anything bad with it does not convince me, and "better ads" is not something I've ever woken up wishing for....."Boy, I hope I get more and better ads from Google today!"

Birth of the Diamond Age

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/17/2004 - 09:37

Neal Stephenson, some years ago, wrote a prescient novel called "The Diamond Age," about a time in the near future when diamonds are, literally, cheap as dirt. Stephenson, who is arguably the best novelist of the past fifty years with respect to taking emerging technology trends and crafting intriguing storylines around them, imagined a world where even the most common of objects could be made from diamonds--kitchen knives, as an example, that are much sharper than razors but never need to be sharpened because of the, well, diamond-hard edge.

If it sounds far-fetched, think again. A company in Florida has been making gem quality diamonds for years, as one example. And industrial diamonds (much smaller than gems used in jewelry) are used everyday in mundane equipment like the saws used to cut slits in asphalt for traffic light control cables and telecom cables. Remember that diamonds are just a special form of carbon, one of the cheapest and most widely available materials on earth.

Now, some American scientists have developed a process to use diamond dust to create new, cheap, large screen flat TVs, using nanotechnology manufacturing techniques. These new TVs and monitors are probably several years away from production, but Stephenson's prophecies are beginning to emerge.

How about your community or region? Have you assessed current businesses for the emerging potential of the Diamond Age? Think it's so far-fetched that it's not even worth a little consideration? Remember that the raw material of diamonds is carbon. What's the most convenient and prolific source of carbon in the world?

Coal......have any coal mines in your area?

Cheap solar cells can be sewn into clothes

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/17/2004 - 08:08

European scientists have developed a new way to manufacture thin, flexible solar cells that are so lightweight that they could be sewn into clothes. Sound dumb? Not if you have to lug around a bunch of AC chargers for your laptop, your cellphone, your iPod, your camera, your PDA, and all the other electronic junk we burden ourselves with these days.

The cells are not as efficient as rigid solar cells, but the energy is free, so who really cares if all you need are a few watts to keep small devices trickle-charged. Cheap solar cells could transform the economies of impoverished nations that can't afford the expensive first world AC infrastructure.

Is your region ready? Think you don't have any existing assets that might be leveraged to manufacture this stuff? Think your workforce is not ready?

We're talking about clothing....do you have any shuttered textile plants?

As always, look ahead twenty years and ask where your region and community wants to be. Set goals, make prudent investments, and stay the course.

Wind powers the Energy Economy

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/17/2004 - 07:54

The Roanoke Time business section reports that a GE plant here is hiring 30 new electrical engineers to meet growing demand for power inverters. Inverters convert DC power to the AC power needed by the electrical grid.

GE is a major supplier of industrial inverters, and the company reports strong growth in wind energy generation is driving the company expansion.

How about your region? Have you done a systematic evaluation of the businesses in your area for potential growth in the Energy Economy? Could energy (hydrogen, solar, wind, tidal, nuclear) be an economic development strategy for your region over the next thirty years, as the world moves away from fossil fuels to other alternatives? As always, affordable broadband is going to the railhead and highway of these emerging trends. Are you ready? Do you have job force training and retraining programs in place? Are your high schools and community colleges teaching the high tech manufacturing skills that will be needed? Do those schools have a CNC program? Hint: if you don't know what that means, you're already in trouble).

Congress gives IT industry cheap overseas labor

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2004 - 14:41

The online site Human Events chronicles what it calls a "cynical" backroom deal that Congress made with the IT industry to allow more foreign IT workers in the country on work visas in the coming year.

Not surprisingly, Oracle was apparently one of the industry "leaders" behind this kick in the pants to American workers, and by extension, to American communities where those workers live. I just wrote about Oracle and it's lack of innovation. Instead of retraining perfectly capable American workers, these companies are bringing in workers from overseas, who are happy to work for half to two-thirds less than their American counterparts.

Another part of the problem was also created by the IT industry itself, during the drunken orgy of escalating IT wages during the dot-com bubble. Fueled by venture capital funds, Internet startups, over a period of three years or so, ran IT wages up to ridiculous levels. Many of those overpaid and underqualified workers were eventually laid off, but the damage was done--the average IT wage remains higher than ever.

So the companies and industry that happily inflated its own wage structure now won't take its medicine and restructure wages or find ways to use perfectly capable American workers, of whom there are plenty. Instead, these companies have run to Congress for a handout.

This kind of thinking is going to continue to depress the future of IT innovation in the U.S., and the industry itself will slow atrophy as parallel universe efforts like the Open Source movement simply eliminate the need for whole chunks of the IT industry (Oracle's problem is that it is increasingly irrelevant).

In the Knowledge Economy, you have to be either very big (e.g. Walmart, Fedex, etc.) or as Schumpeter would put it, small and beautiful (e.g. Open Source). And you have to be flexible and innovative.

'96 Telecom Act a "nuclear winter"

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2004 - 12:51

Holman Jenkins, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, has an article (p. A21) about DSL and the future of that technology. Jenkins calls the '96 Telecom Deregulation Act a "DSL nuclear winter." That's probably a bit strong, but hardly anyone on either side of the linesharing issues of the telephone companies would say the law was crafted properly.

The original law forced the phone companies to share their copper lines with competitors, and it was only this fall that the FCC relaxed those rules. Again, no matter what side of the issue you are on (phone company or community), the outcome of the original ruling was to stall broadband investments by the incumbent phone companies.

As so many Federal initiatives ("We're from the government and we're here to help you..."), unintended consequences kicked in, big time. While the phone companies dithered, moaned, and complained, the cable companies upgraded their systems and captured 75% of the current broadband market, leaving DSL (the phone companies) with a paltry 15%.

Since the FCC changed the rules to free the phone companies from line sharing at wholesale prices, DSL costs have fallen dramatically--by as much as 50% in a lot of markets, and the service is generally priced below cable modem service.

But from a community perspective, the news has been bad and still looks bad. The marketplace, because of all this, has been effectively re-monopolized, but instead of a regulated public monopoly (pre 1996), communities are stuck with marketplace monopolies by the phone and cable companies.

To make things worse, in places like Pennsylvania, Verizon says it must be consulted before communities start their own broadband services. Even worse, lawmakers like Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) thinks it is just fine to give a private company control over the future of rural communities.

The solution is for communities to stay away from the service end of the business. Treat broadband infrastructure just the way communities manage roads--build digital roads, but let private companies deliver the services while paying a use fee.

Penn State says "No" to Internet Explorer

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2004 - 10:20

Penn State, one of the country's largest universities, has recommended that faculty, staff, and students stop using Internet Explorer because of persistent security flaws, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The university recommends Opera, Firefox, or Netscape. FireFox is a highly popular Open Source project. The most recent version was downloaded more than 10 million times in less than a month. It's just one of several browsers we use regularly here at Design Nine, and we can attest to the fact that it is fast, robust, and easy to use. It has excellent pop-up blocker controls that work far better than the one on IE.

Oracle runs out of steam

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/14/2004 - 07:51

My experiences with Oracle date back to the early eighties, when the database ran only on DEC's VAX system, and the company was working with AT&T to port the system to Unix. At that time, Oracle's chief software developer lived in a cabin in the woods somewhere in the northwest, and phoned in his work to the Silicon Valley company.

My Irish boss, Frank, used to get Larry Ellison on the phone weekly and scream at him about the all the problems we were having with the beta Unix port of Oracle.

Twenty years later, Oracle has run out of steam. Like IBM, the company seems to have run out of intellectual capital, and so has given up innovation and bought an applications company.

Oracle's been in trouble for a while. Like Microsoft, they had a virtual monopoly in their product space through the eighties and nineties, but have not been able to develop a strategy to deal with the increasing robustness and high quality of Open Source database systems like mySQL and Postgres. These free database systems have been quietly trimming Oracle's customer base, and it's largely Oracle's fault. The company became fat and happy charging high prices for its products when there was little competition, and any customer who could make the switch to an Open Source product has either done so already or is seriously considering it.

Instead of innovating, changing its price structure, or competing on service, Oracle has effectively given up and bought an entirely different business. Oracle is going to go away, but the company is likely to lose focus as it tries to be both a database company and a software application company. The move will accelerate the loss of customers for its database product, and like IBM, there will likely come a time when Oracle will regret the decision.

IBM gives up

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 12/13/2004 - 08:14

IBM has sold their PC business to a Chinese firm. There has been much news coverage about this. They sold it for just over $1 billion, which is a paltry sum, considering the global market.

Most of the news coverage has been about whether or not it is a "good deal" for IBM. The conventional wisdom has been saying it makes sense for IBM to get out of a cutthroatl, commodity market with razor-thin margins.

But I see something different in the sale. What I see is a company that, like much of the rest of the IT industry, is intellectually bankrupt. It's almost beyond belief that IBM, with some of the brightest people in the industry on its staff, could not come with anything new, different, or interesting to differentiate IBM pcs from a cheap clone.

PCs are horrible devices. They work poorly, are virus-prone, are hard to fix and hard to maintain, and make simple things bizarrely complex much of the time. IBM could not come with a single thing that would make the PC better? This does not bode well for the American IT industry, for it IBM couldn't do it, with the resources the company has, who else will? Gateway can't. Dell won't--Dell makes it money selling stuff cheaper than everyone else, so it won't spend a nickel on research and development.

Microsoft is still two years away from the mythical Longhorn software upgrade to Windows. Longhorn has been in development for so many years now, it's almost a joke.

The only hardware innovation is coming from Apple. Apple has been delivering a major software upgrade every year for years, and issues minor upgrades almost every other month. Apple's hardware, year after year, wins design awards for it's good looks and functionality. Apple constantly strives to make its equipment simpler to use--the new G5 iMac requires, in one configuration, just one cable--the power cable--to be fully functional. That's right, you take it out of the box, plug it in the wall, and the machine is ready for use. And Apple's hardware is now cheaper, on a feature by feature basis, than Wintel pcs.

The PaperHub--Technology hidden by good design

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/10/2004 - 10:04

I'm appalled at my own computer. The box itself is fine, sitting on the floor next to my desk, but the complete rat's nest of wires next to it is just awful. Counting power cables that power numerous peripheral devices, there are more than thirty cables that are needed just to type an email or print a piece of paper.

But things are changing slowly. As computers become a necessity of daily life, the geek design ethic (that is to say, no design, pure function) is slowly giving way to technology that is largely hidden from view. The Apple G5 iMac has been described by many reviewers as the "most beautiful computer ever made." The G5 iMac effectively has hidden the computer by concealing it entirely in the LCD screen. No boxes, no sprawl of cables, no ugly little speakers cluttering up desk space. If you buy the wireless keyboard and mouse option, the G5 iMac is completely functional with just ONE cable--the power cord.

The PaperHub is obviously inspired by the new iMac, and its styling is clearly derivative, but it would look just as good on the desk of a Windows user as a Mac user. It clever conceals a FireWire and USB hub in the form factor of a paper tray. It cuts one power supply out where you would otherwise have two, and puts all the cables in the back, behind the tray itself, where you don't have to look at them. It's simply beautiful.

The coffeehouse as office space

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/08/2004 - 19:16

Glenn Reynolds, better know as Instapundit, has an article on Tech Central Station about the emerging trend of using public WiFi hotspots as business meeting places.

I wrote about this a while back, but Reynolds makes some interesting points, including this one about the effect on the real estate market:

"On the other hand, offices are expensive. I've noticed a lot of small business people in my area giving up their offices, and having meetings in public places -- Starbucks, Borders, the Public Library, and so on. In fact, a real estate agent recently told me that the small-office commercial real estate market is actually suffering as a result of so many people making this kind of move."

Economic developers, planners, and zoning commissions need to take note--the traditional definition of the commercial business zone is long gone. The industrial and business park is changing as we speak. And residential neighborhoods are filled with businesspeople working out of their homes.

Communities can ignore these trends, but do so at their peril, especially when public funds are at stake for obsolete concepts like standalone business incubators, industrial parks out in the woods, and retail on Main Street.

Put your thinking cap on

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/08/2004 - 14:02

"Put your thinking cap on" may acquire real meaning if the brain beanie these researchers have developed comes to pass. It could be a major breakthrough for those with serious physical impairments, but it is easy to imagine all sorts of other uses as well. Unfortunately, I keep thinking of applications related to improved ways to change channels--with a "channel beanie," you would not even have to pick up the remote and stab a button...you could just think the channel changed.

What corporate America wants from its workforce

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/08/2004 - 10:22

This CNet article describes what corporate America wants from its workforce. Surprise--it's not necessarily tech-savvy youths with oversize thumbs from playing video games and keying text messages on cellphones the size of chiclets.

What corporate America wants is workers who can read and write--especially writing. Our kids are growing up and entering the workforce without the vaguest notion of how to compose a complete, grammatically correct sentence, and it's driving bosses everywhere crazy.

Email is a particular problem, as the informal style of email messages has encouraged ever more casual communication, to the point of being incomprehensible, if you look at the examples of corporate "writing" included in the article.

This reinforces the article I mentioned a couple of days ago about the study that showed that kids that spend a lot of time on the computer are dumber. Playing video games, typing code in instant messenger (r u ther, lol), and surfing the Web is not preparing our kids for the workforce.

Step one is for parents and educators to take control and stop repeating the fallacy that, "Our kids know a lot more about technology than we do." The fact that my daughter can rack up a much higher score on Super Mario Brothers does not make her smarter or more tech savvy than me. Nor do high scores on video games or the ability to send text messages on cellphones prepare them to enter the Knowledge Economy workforce.

How well do the schools in your community do in preparing your youth for the Knowledge Economy? Is there a concerted effort to make sure they can read and write at appropriate grade levels. Are you holding regular meetings with economic developers, local business leaders, and school administrators to make sure the schools are emphasizing the right stuff?

Computers missued in schools

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/07/2004 - 09:44

A large German study of computer use in schools found that computers were overused in the early grades, and not used well enough in higher grades, like high school.

The study also found that students who spent too much time on the computer had LOWER reading and math scores. This does not surprise me, as it is entirely too easy to waste time, mostly on the Web, and parents and teachers have been too quick to assume that any time on the computer is good time.

I've had many opportunities to observe K12 technology use for a decade, and I continue to see two big problems.

Firefox users see fewer ads

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/07/2004 - 09:32

A Cnet article details a surprising study that shows Firefox users see four times FEWER ads than Internet Explorer users.

Firefox is the free Web browser that is increasingly popular with Windows users because it is faster and has fewer security problems than IE. It also apparently does a much better job of blocking pop-up ads, which may account for some of the differences between the two groups.

I had to spend a couple of days working on a Windows machine last week, using IE, and I was shocked at the number of pop-ups--it was actually difficult to get work done at times. I've been rather spoiled, I decided, from Safari, Apple's browser, and Firefox. Both do a pretty good job at blocking pop-up ads; so well, apparently, that I had begun to take it for granted.

Firefox is free, and can be downloaded and installed easily.

BellSouth eyes video

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 12/06/2004 - 13:14

According to a CNet article, BellSouth plans to provide higher capacity broadband to most of its customer base in the next five years.

Video is driving the plans. The cable companies have not only captured about 75% of the broadband market, compared to the phone companies' paltry 15%, but the cable companies can offer the fabled triple play--voice, data, and video.

The phone companies are terrified. VoIP is sapping traditional landline customers all over the country, and most of those VoIP users are getting that service over cable broadband, not DSL broadband. So the telephone companies want to offer the same thing--voice, data, and video--but their weak point is the 100 year old design of the telephone infrastructure. Most phone users in this country are still getting their dial tone the way Alexander Graham Bell designed it, but those copper cables won't haul video all the way from phone company video head ends. So BellSouth has decided to go with fiber to the node (i.e. fiber to the neighborhood), and deliver the first mile (last mile) connection over copper.

This may sound like great news, but most communities are still stuck with the same two monopoly service providers they had twenty years ago; that's not choice, and two oligarchies aren't likely to drive prices down. Continuing to overbuild private networks does not level the playing field and will not attract real competition.

Pillcam an easier pill to swallow

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/03/2004 - 07:52

The USA Today had a story yesterday (page 11D) about the PillCam, a screening device that you swallow. While it travels through your body, it sends video and still images back to the doctor. The "pill," which is not much bigger than an oversize vitamin capsule, is much easier to take (literally) than an endoscopy, which requires sedation and the insertion of a tube down the throat.

It gets patients in and out of the doctor's office more quickly and with less risk. An endoscopy might still be required as a followup if the doctor decides a tissue sample is needed.

I have a great idea for a reality TV show. It's a bit like Fear Factor, where the contestants have to eat bugs, but they also have to swallow the PillCam, so we can see in real time what the little critters do once in your, um, stomach...8^).

Have a great weekend.

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