Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why I Am Waiting To Buy An iPad

I read all the technology blogs, including Ars Technica, Slashdot, CNET, and Wired.  The enthusiasm for the iPad and other tablets seems to be unbridled.  Everyone, it seems, has one.  And with the increase in Android based tablets and the Amazon Fire, this trend is only increasing.  I see the benefits of a tablet--they are light, portable, simple to use, and fun.  You can sit comfortably on your couch and surf the internet without the threat of a laptop melting your junk or being stuck in front of a desktop monitor.  The biggest drawback to the iPad is the price--at $500 for a new entry level model, that isn't cheap, especially since you can buy a netbook now for $200 that does even more than an iPad.

The Android tablets vary in quality from the no-name Chinese made pieces of trash to the higher end tablets like the Galaxy Tablet, which sports an amazing touchscreen, lots of memory, and is built of the highest quality.  The Android operating system is free and open source, so manufacturers will continue to innovate on hardware while the software keeps improving.  This competition will ultimately drive the price of tablets lower and lower, similar to what we are seeing with the desktop and laptop computer markets.

After spending some time using the iPad, I have to confess I am not used to working with a touchscreen.  I find them difficult to use and unwieldy.  My fingers are invariably too fat and apparently they don't register well.  Many times I press a key and it registers the wrong one.  It is very frustrating.

Next, I tested the Kindle Fire at Best Buy and couldn't get the pages to turn.  "You have to be more deliberate about how you touch the screen", the customer service guy told me.  I didn't know the Fire was so sensitive.  I felt deliberate enough.  Clearly a case of human error, no doubt.

I also have a hard time using the smaller screens to surf the web.  At home, I use a 32 inch monitor to surf the internet and to edit my photos and videos.  I am used to the larger real estate.  It is very awkward for me to use the smaller screens.

I also hate that tablets don't have regular USB connections and normal, full size HDMI connections.  If I want to hook my regular keyboard, mouse, digital camera, and other peripherals up to my tablet, I can't do it.  Worse yet, Steve Jobs has decided to make this even more difficult by using a special iPad connector to do everything with the iPad.  I hate it when Steve Jobs makes these kind of hair brained, proprietary decisions (by the way, I am happy with my HDMI port, thank you very much.  Lose the thunderbolt port on the Mac).

Some tablet computers lack front and back cameras.  This means I can't use Skype to chat with my brother and my niece who live out of town.  This rules out the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, along with most of the reasonably priced Android tablets and the first generation iPad.

I also thought having a tablet might be nice for reading.  However, after testing an iPad to read some pdf documents, I realized the weight of the tablet totally stopped that notion in its tracks.  I would be suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome in no time reading for extended periods with that kind of weight.  So for me, a tablet computer would be more appropriate for reading my office documents and shorter pieces, not reading War and Peace or Moby Dick.

The bottom line is that despite all of these concerns, I still want one, but not until several things change:

My future tablet must have the following or I won't buy it:

1.  It has to have at least one USB port so I can plug in normal peripherals.
2.  It must have an HDMI port so I can hook it up to a regular LCD monitor.
3.  It must have at least a quad core processor and 3 gb of RAM.
4.  It must have an SD card slot so I can add extra memory to it.
5.  I must have the ability to edit video and photos on it.
6.  It cannot cost more than $300.00.
7.  It must be at least half as heavy as the first generation iPad.

The new Transformer Prime is supposed to have a quad core chip in it.  It will be around $550.  This means that next year, before Christmas, it will be around $300.  If the upgraded versions of this or other tablets can meet the above specs, I am good.  Otherwise, it will be some time.  After all, the iPad just came out in 2010.  We are only on the second generation of these devices.  They have a long way to go before they are truly ready for prime time.

Steve Jobs would have hated a picky pain in the ass like me.  But then again, from the biography of him that I read, it appears he was no less picky about his devices.  Maybe next year will be my big year to invest in a tablet.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Climate Change Is Real, But It Doesn't Matter Anyway

I believe in climate change.  I believe that the consensus of scientists around the world is valid--indeed, the Earth is getting warmer, and this will have dramatic effects on local temperatures, making some warmer, some colder, seasons more erratic, drought in some places and floods in others.  Some animal species will be threatened, some coastal cities will flood, and in general, bad things will happen.  However, it is my contention that this won't literally be the end of the world.

In the early 1800's, Thomas Malthus, an economist, proposed in his writings that there would be a population boom that would lead to eventual starvation and destruction of a fair part of the human species.  At this time, the world population was nowhere near the total 7 billion lives we now know.  Malthus, like many thinkers, failed to account for the genius of human creativity and invention to help ameliorate human problems.  Left unchecked and without new innovation, then the population explosion would have been disastrous.  Fortunately, however, improvements in agriculture, pesticides, fertilizers, and biotechnology have enabled us to keep up with demand.  The world didn't end.  While the world cannot feed an endless number of people, it has been shown that once many economies throughout the world improve, the fertility rate drops dramatically.  Once people have more money, they have less children.  This means the world population will eventually stabilize, well before it is all gloom and literal doom.

Both sides of the climate change debate get bogged down on whether it is caused by humans or not.  If it is a natural trend, then there's nothing we can do about it.  If it is caused by human activity, then we need to make changes now or people will suffer and die.  I believe these arguments are a waste of time.  What we believe isn't going to change anything.  The scientific consensus is that if climate change is human-made, then we need to make drastic reductions to our contributions of carbon to the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, even if this is true, on a world wide scale the poorer, emerging nations like India and China have already stated that they are unwilling to curb their emissions of fossil fuels.  They believe that the U.S. and Western Europe already had their chances to use these dirty energies to become First World nations.  Why should the Third World suffer?  The citizens of the world are simply unwilling to make the kinds of sacrifices to their lifestyle and income that would be required to make any kind of real dent in stopping climate change.  In the U.S., Obama lacks the cojones to push any sort of climate change legislation, and the Republicans certainly won't help him on this one.  Plus, with the economy in its current state, energy restrictions and carbon taxes would only cause the economy to sink even further into the abyss.  The bottom line is that climate change legislation within the U.S. and around the globe is a no go.  Europe is too busy bailing out failing Eurozone members to bother with climate change legislation as well.

If climate change is not human-made, then there's little we can do to stop it.  The supposed bad effects of it are going to happen one way or another, so we might as well spend our energy adapting to it.  After all, the planet will still be here, it will be less habitable and more miserable, but with the right adaptions we as a species can still survive.

Perhaps innovation and creativity may save us once again.  As it stands now, we are betting on climate change ruining all the fun.  But we haven't wagered on the introduction of newer technologies to help save the day.  Each year solar technology gets better and better.  Within the next 20 years, it should be powerful enough to provide enough of our energy needs.  Advances in nanotechnology and other technologies should provide alternative energy sources that are meaningful in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.  According to Ray Kurzweil, futurist and analyst of technology progress:

"Solar panels are coming down dramatically in cost per watt. And as a result of that, the total amount of solar energy is growing, not linearly, but exponentially. It’s doubling every 2 years and has been for 20 years. And again, it’s a very smooth curve. There’s all these arguments, subsidies and political battles and companies going bankrupt, they’re raising billions of dollars, but behind all that chaos is this very smooth progression."

According to Kurzweil, within 16 years there will be 8 doublings (every two years solar technology is doubling), which is an exponential growth of this technology.  When it happens, if we can capture 1/10,000th the sunlight that falls on Earth, we could meet all our energy needs with little difficulty.

Why have fossil fuels been so prevalent despite the rapid advances in technology?  It's because they are so cheap compared to the amount of energy you get from them.  Electricity from coal is cheap, reliable, much less hazardous than nuclear power, is abundant, and sourced from the good ole' U.S. of A.  The problem is that coal is dirty.

When it comes to climate change, we must be realists.  People aren't going to make the sacrifices needed to stop climate change meaningfully.  If it is not caused by human activity, then it's going to happen regardless of what we do.  Either way, it's going to happen.  We can adapt to it, or die out.  This is what happens to all animals and species.  Whether we can meet this challenge as a human race remains to be seen.  Somehow, given our track record, I feel pretty good wagering on human ingenuity.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Publishing Industry Should Be Afraid, Very Afraid

In 1999, Sean Fanning created a little Internet sharing program called Napster.  Napster allowed users to share their music files (stored in mp3 format), thus eliminating the need to purchase entire CDs of music from the record companies.  Millions of dollars in revenue for the music companies were lost.  Until this time, record companies made huge profits selling music in a physical format, whether it be vinyl, CD, or cassette tape.  It was difficult and unwieldy to copy music effectively, so piracy wasn't a serious financial threat to the music industry.  But after Napster, music became as easy to share as clicking a button.  You could own thousands of songs for free.  As many in the market know, it is tough to compete with free.  The record companies then freaked out, sued Napster and shut it down, and went after music fans by suing them for copyright infringement.

iTunes attempted to make buying music cheap and easy, thus reducing the incentive to steal music.  The profits earned by the record companies have never quite recovered.  Yes, people still buy CDs, but many more buy music at a greatly reduced price online through iTunes.  The problem for the record companies is that the times have changed, and their old business model of selling physical media has become obsolete.

The movie industry now fears the same kind of problems.  Getting pirated movies online is more difficult than getting music because the file sizes are much larger and the process of working with different video codecs and standards confuses the average person.  As bandwidth increases and the process becomes more simple, movie piracy will increase.  This is especially so after more televisions are connected to home computers, which is the next step in the evolution of home media.

The last holdout in all of this is the publishing industry.  Thanks to the convenience, clarity and ease of use of the printed book, the publishing industry has been safe so far.  People generally don't like reading novels and other print on their laptops.  You can't curl up in your bed with your laptop because of the bulk of it.  And the eyes tend to get sore staring at LCD screens for too long.  Then came the Kindle.  While the early iterations were okay, the newer e-reader devices are greatly improved.  They are light, the text looks clear and isn't hard on the eyes, and the readers themselves are inexpensive and light.  e-books sold through Amazon are also cheaper than their paperback cousins.  If the mass adoption of e-readers continues, things are going to change for the publishing industry in the same way they have for the music industry.

Up until now, the publishing industry, like the music industry, has served as the gatekeeper of popular taste.  If it didn't invest in you, then you weren't heard.  The cost of publishing a novel or music album on a mass scale is immense, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The average person simply couldn't afford to self-publish on that kind of scale.

But with the dawn of youtube, facebook, and other means of communicating with others at a near zero cost, this is changing.  Now you can have a music video go viral on youtube, sell your album online, and make some money by selling your work online.  The same goes with the publishing industry.  You can now self-publish a novel, sell it online, and have it digitally delivered to millions of readers at almost no cost.  This could mean a great explosion of creativity and self-expression.  I for one, welcome it.

Now you have to choose between tablet computers like the iPad, which is relatively heavy to hold, and the e-reader, such as the Kindle, which is light but only has black and white text.  As time goes on, tablet computers will become so light and easy on the eyes you won't mind reading with them and accessing the Internet and doing the other things you might otherwise do on your laptop.

The problem for the publishing industry is that authors cannot make money on side item, value-added products like musicians can.  Lady Gaga can sell concert t-shirts, clothing, and other items.  She can tour.  But many authors don't have the same kind of "star power" that rock stars do.  Many authors may find themselves writing without an expectation of payment.  This means less career authors, which is unfortunate.

A related phenomena is happening to newspapers.  As online advertising doesn't command the same kind of expense as print advertising, newspapers are finding themselves broke.  This means no money for important journalists to get paid, which is bad for everyone.  The future looks uncertain for the journalism field.  We may find ourselves becoming a nation of bloggers but no full time journalists.

You may be saying, "I love my books, no one is going to replace them with an electronic device".  Perhaps you are right.  It is going to be some time before paper books are totally replaced.  However, as e-readers improve, the convenience and quality of owning these devices is hard to resist.  They are light, take up almost no space (you can hold thousands of books on one device), cheaper than paper books, better for the environment due to the reduced use of trees and truck fuel used to ship them across the country, plus they permit an interactive experience.  Paper books are static, but e-readers allow you to see moving objects, listen to sound, and engage in multimedia.  The entire experience is more interactive.

I will miss paper books when they are no longer around.  I fear the growing use of "cloud" computing, where Amazon owns the content and you have to pay a subscriber fee to access it.  I fear the growing use of digital copyright restriction, which oftentimes means you don't own the electronic copy of the media you bought.  This means the company can "take back" your digital property at any time.  It also means limits on sharing your media with others.  With paper books, you can lend a book as you see fit, you can give it away, and view it wherever you want.

In the end, some people will be smart enough to get around these types of restrictions by using their own means of hacking.  It is done with smartphones all the time--it is called jailbreaking.  Perhaps people in the future will jailbreak their books.  It will be a sad day when we have to hack our books just to read them, or to share them, but no doubt it will be the last vestige of yet another industry trying to hold onto an obsolete business model.