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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The Hidden Life Lesson In The Shawshank Redemption

So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” – The Eagles, Already Gone

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I thought that The Shawshank Redemption was an outstanding movie – not just for the story or the acting, but for the subtle, yet profound message that it delivered to the audience.

I wanted to discuss this allegory a little further, so I decided to take an informal poll among my friends. Most of them have seen The Shawshank Redemption – some multiple times – and all of them told me that they enjoyed it immensely. However, when I asked them what they got out of the movie, no one extracted the same life lesson that I did. However, I saw this as a good thing; I could now argue that The Shawshank Redemption is a work of art, since art affects different people in different ways.

shawshank-redemption

If you’ve never seen The Shawshank Redemption, then stop reading this blog post and watch it now. Get what you can from it and then come back. If you’ve already seen the film, then I’d like to encourage you to watch it one more time – but first allow me to tell you what I gained from it, after viewing it from (what else) The Bob Angle.

As I’m sure you recall, one of the characters, Brooks Hatlen, is released from prison after completing his sentence. Unfortunately, after being in prison for 50 years, he is unable to adjust to society again and eventually commits suicide by hanging himself.

Before his sentence Brooks was able to function fairly well in society… except, of course, for his inability to stay on the right side of the law. So what happened to his ability to cope? The answer is: Brooks’ universe shrank. While he was serving his sentence, his universe slowly started to contract, and eventually the prison walls functioned as the boundaries of his new existence. For all intents and purposes, there was nothing – or at least nothing attainable by Brooks – beyond those walls. Once his sentence was over and he was forcibly pushed past those boundaries and into the universe that we inhabit, life became too much for him to bear.

The lesson, as I see it, is this: The more boundaries there are in your life, the smaller your universe becomes. While you may be content living a circumscribed existence, you will not be able to see and enjoy all that life has to offer.

At this point, you may be thinking “I’m sorry, but this doesn’t apply to me. I’m not living inside a prison, real or self-imposed. I function well in society and there are no boundaries whatsoever in my life!

Are you sure? I’d like to propose to you that your universe is also shrinking. Not through any physical constraints such as the prison walls in the movie, but by barriers that you have unwittingly created yourself. Most of us have invisible boundaries in our lives, and we aren’t even aware of the limitations that they are imposing on us. Let me give you a few examples:

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The Transportation Universe

First of all, I must admit that I am also susceptible to these boundaries. Before I bought my first car, I used to take the bus everywhere, and began to know most of the bus routes in the city. Shortly after getting my car, I was driving to the grocery store and, without even thinking about it, I took the same route as the bus (which wasn’t the fastest or most direct way to get there). Midway through my journey I suddenly exclaimed out loud “What am I doing? Why am I driving on this street? I have a car now – I can drive on any street I like!

bus-route-map

Years of riding the bus had made me assume that the only way to get from Point A to Point B was by travelling along the bus routes. All of the other roads in the city were purged from my consciousness. My transportation universe had shrunk, and I hadn’t even noticed.

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The Employment Universe

internal-applicantsYears ago, I had a contract job working at a government ministry. One day, my manager confided to me that he wasn’t really happy in his job, but couldn’t identify another position within the ministry where he would be happy. So I helpfully suggested that he should consider extending his search to the private sector, which was where I was working previously. He had been working in the Ministry for so long that his employment universe was limited not only to the public sector, but to a single ministry within it. It never occurred to him to look beyond it.

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The Culinary Universe

When you go grocery shopping, how many items are on your list? Probably 20-30. During an average month, that list may vary and you might buy 40-50 different items. If you buy groceries fro your entire family, then you might buy 80 different items each month. How many items do you think an average-sized supermarket stocks? The answer I found online is: 50,000 different SKUs. You can choose from 50,000 different items, yet you buy only 50-80 different items each month, and likely the same ones month after month. Even if you bought 100 different items each month, that’s still only 0.2% of the store’s inventory. Think about that for a second – when you walk into a supermarket, you are deliberately ignoring 99.8% of the merchandise. Nobody is forcing you to do it. This, too, is your own self-imposed limitation.

supermarket-aisle

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The Digital Universe

If you’re a software developer and you want to spruce up your application, the best way to do this is to ask for suggestions from someone outside your company – preferably, someone who’s never used the software before. In my experience, the best and most innovative ideas come from new employees. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually makes perfect sense.

I’ve written software, and after a while, you become so intimately familiar with the code that it feels as though you’re actually living inside the application. Each screen is a different room. However, just like Brooks Hatlen, the software slowly begins to impose its own barriers. Over time, my ideas become less grandiose and are eventually limited to minor enhancements or bug fixes. I no longer consider radical changes or bold, new directions. The code has become my prison, yet I am blissfully unaware of it.

New employees (or new users) have no such boundaries, and aren’t afraid to ask “Why don’t we do it this way?” or “Wouldn’t this approach be more intuitive?“.

Back in 2006, Microsoft developers were considering making the Windows Vista startup sound mandatory. Predictably, users were not too enthused with this loss of control. However, Steve Ball, Microsoft’s Group Program Manager for Vista, was unrepentant. When asked why he was imposing his will on the users, he explained that the startup sound was actually “A spiritual side of the branding experience. A short, brief, positive confirmation that your machine is now conscious and ready to react. You can turn on your Vista machine, go eat some cereal, while your machine is cold booting and then this gentle sound will come out telling you that you can log in.

windows-vista-startup-screen

What Ball didn’t consider were the myriad real-world situations in which any sound is not desirable. For example, if you’re studying for an exam in your university library, the last thing you need is to have your train of thought broken by a Windows startup sound every time a student turns on their laptop. This is obvious to everyone, except the Windows Vista developers, since their universe has become constrained.

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The Twitterverse

Finally, there’s Twitter, which irks me because of its 140-character limit. Now, you’re probably thinking “Wait a minute – that’s Twitter’s limitation, not mine!” Actually it is our limitation because of our tacit acceptance of this limit. When we’re composing a tweet and we’re approaching 140 characters, we never think that there’s something wrong with the design of Twitter – we just assume that our thoughts need to be edited. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be a limit on the complexity of our thoughts and ideas. We shouldn’t have to force them to fit inside a ridiculously small container. Yet we do, and we don’t question it.

Imagine that you are an art gallery curator, and that your gallery has recently acquired an previously-unknown Old Master, discovered (sans frame) at a garage sale. When the painting arrives, you realize that it’s larger than you thought, and that the frame you selected for it is too small. What do you do? Buy a larger frame, or take a pair of scissors to the painting to ensure that it fits inside your container?

cropped-mona-lisa

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The Shawshank Redemption is a remarkable movie, because it illustrated (to me, anyway) that we are all, to varying degrees, living a circumscribed existence. These invisible boundaries have placed you inside a prison of your own construction, yet until this moment, you were probably blissfully unaware of it. Now, by making you aware of just a few of these constraints, you now have a choice: you can continue accepting or even ignoring these limitations, or you can identify and break down your boundaries, break out of your own personal Shawshank State Penitentiary, and start flourishing in your new, unbounded universe.

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A Record Library In The Palm Of Your Hand

As part of my ongoing effort to practise mindfulness (formerly known as stopping to smell the proverbial roses), I often take time to look around and ponder the many advances in technology – not inter-generational transformations, but ones that have occurred during my own lifetime. Since change happens slowly and often imperceptibly, we may not always be aware of the dramatic advances that have occurred since our childhood.

I’m sure that most of your are familiar with Moore’s Law: In 1965, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years. As it turns out, Moore’s forecast has been fairly accurate since 1965, and has also been applied to digital storage capacity. Moore’s Law is often quoted in computer magazines when a columnist tries to predict what computers may be capable of in the not-too-distant future.

moores-law-1

256gb-usb-driveA few weeks ago, I was browsing through Amazon.com, and saw some USB thumb drives that had a capacity of 256GB. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this, since I’ve known about Moore’s Law since the 1980s, but I was still stunned by the exponential increases in digital storage capacity.

When I was in university during the mid-1980s, I volunteered at the campus radio station. During my first year I was a disc jockey, and I had my own two-hour, weekly show. Back then, they were still playing vinyl LPs and singles, since compact discs – which had just been released – were still prohibitively expensive.

The radio station’s record library was a sight to behold – it took up an entire (fairly large) room. The other, more senior disc jockeys told me that this library contained approximately 5,000 LPs, which was larger than the libraries at most commercial radio stations. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of it, but here is a similarly-sized record library:

record-library-2a

As a teenager, I felt as if I had died and gone to music heaven; everything I could think of was in that room. There were more albums than I could possibly listen to, and new music arrived almost weekly. Unfortunately, no one – not the disc jockeys or even the station management – was allowed to borrow any of the albums or remove them from the building. However, there was one exception: if we were supplying the music for a campus pub event, then the DJs would carry two or three milk cartons full of LPs to the pub and back.

At the time, it seemed like there was more music than I could possibly listen to in a lifetime, but how much music was in that record library? If I listened to one album per day, it would take me over 13.5 years to listen to those 5,000 albums.

Today, of course, most of us listen to our music as MP3 files, and the size of our music collection is often expressed in megabytes (or gigabytes), instead of the number of albums we own. This got me thinking… if I were able to digitize the campus radio station’s entire record library, how much disk space would I need?

In order to simplify the calculations, I’ll have to start with a couple of assumptions:

  • Songs vary greatly in length, so rather than use the average number of songs (10-12) on a typical LP, I decided that a more accurate measurement would be the actual playing time of an LP. According to this source, a typical LP contains between 18-21 minutes of music per side, or 36-42 minutes per disk.
  • I encode my MP3s at a variable bit rate, averaging 128-136 kbps, which works out to just under one megabyte per minute of music. So let’s round up and assume that each megabyte of an MP3 file contains exactly one minute of music.

Therefore, the size of a typical vinyl record will be between 36-42 megabytes. The average value in this range is 39 MB, but I want to be really conservative in my calculations so I’m going to assume that every LP in the station’s record library contained a full 42 minutes of music. Therefore, each album (digitized as a 128 kpbs MP3) will be 42 megabytes.

Multiply 42 MB by the 5,000 albums in the record library, and we get: 42 x 5,000 = 210,000 megabytes or 210 gigabytes.

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How Much is a Gigabyte?

This may seem like a ridiculously easy question: a gigabyte is one billion bytes, isn’t it? Well, yes and no… it depends on whom you ask. When you buy hard drives or USB drives, the manufacturers advertise 1 MB or 1 GB as exactly one million or 1 billion characters of storage, respectively. This seems logical, for those of us who grew up with the metric system, but to computer geeks, this isn’t quite accurate. In the computer world, the kilo or “k” prefix is actually 1,024 bytes (two to the tenth power), and not 1,000. This may not seem like much of a difference, but watch what happens when we start scaling upwards:

One megabyte is: 1024 x 1024 = 1,048,576 characters
One gigabtye is: 1024 x 1024 x 1024 = 1,073,741,824 characters
210 gigabytes is: 225,485,783,040 characters

Therefore, the radio station’s music library – that entire room full of vinyl albums – can easily fit onto one of those 256 GB USB drives… with room for an additional 704 albums!

Finally, if that isn’t enough to boggle your mind, consider this: thumb drives aren’t the only available format – there are now SD cards and MicroSD cards with the same 256GB capacity. Behold:

microsd-hand-comparison

Music that once filled every nook and cranny of an entire (fairly large) room now fits not only in your hand, but on the tip of your finger. This isn’t a comparison from an antiquated 1950s textbook; this colossal miniaturization happened during our lifetime, and is still continuing.

Financial planners try to impress us with what they call “the magic of compound interest” (which I don’t think is particularly magical at all – it’s just simple math). Now compare the annual growth of compound interest to the technological advances predicted by Moore’s Law, and after a couple of decades, you will also be astounded.

This is one example of mindfulness. Incredible things are happening all around us; it’s easy to be awed by your own existence by simply pausing and paying attention.

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The Return Of The Scarlet Letter

When I was in university, one of the books in my American Literature course was The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I enjoyed it, but until recently, I didn’t recognize the brilliance of the novel or see just how prescient Nathaniel Hawthorne was.

I’m sure that you’re familiar with The Scarlet Letter, since it’s on just about every English teacher’s reading list, but if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, allow me to refresh your memory.


Scarlet Letter Book CoverThe story takes place in Boston, in 1642. At the time, the city’s citizens were known as Puritans. The Puritans were a group of Protestants who felt that the Church of England had not distanced itself enough from the Church of Rome, and hence wanted to purify the Church of England by ridding it of all traces of Roman Catholicism. They demanded a very strict code of conduct, and by today’s standards they would be considered fundamentalists, or even extremists.

The book’s main character, Hester Prynne, has been charged with committing adultery. After being found guilty, her punishment is prison time, and afterwards, being required to wear a scarlet letter “A” prominently on her dress. This sentence was considered especially light, since adulterers under Puritan law are usually branded or put to death. Although it isn’t stated explicitly in the book, the “A” stands for adulteress, and wearing it in public is meant to shame Hester in front of the townspeople. Since Hester has refused to name the man involved, she must bear this shame alone.

During this course, we discussed the meaning of the letter “A”. The obvious interpretation was that it stood for adulteress, but our professor encouraged us to dig deeper and come up with additional meanings. We reasoned that it could also stand for angel, since Prynne always maintained a regal bearing, and able because Prynne demonstrated that was able to live life on her own terms, without the assistance of a man. Our professor then added his own personal interpretation: America. The letter, or at least the laws that led to its display on Hester Prynne’s dress, symbolized American culture at the time.

As I was making my way through the book, I thought that this tale was just a quaint glimpse into a long-forgotten Puritanical existence. I was glad that our modern, progressive society, now largely free of its ecclesiastical manacles, no longer behaves so sanctimoniously, and that we were now well beyond such pettiness and overt derision.

As it turns out, I spoke too soon… during the past generation, I’ve noticed a resurgence of these Puritanical practices in our society. I am now witnessing what I am going to call “The Return of the Scarlet Letter”. Much like a neighbourhood of anti-vaxxers, suddenly faced with a new outbreak of a long-vanquished disease, many people are now behaving in a manner from which I assumed we had all evolved. This unabashed schadenfreude – something I thought was beneath us as a society – is returning with a vengeance, thanks to social media.

With each passing year, it appears that we are becoming more like our judgmental 17th century predecessors. Allow me to share some of my observations:

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A Sign Of The Crimes

The first “signs” of a behavioural shift began before the advent of social media. From time to time, I would read an article about a judge who meted out an unconventional punishment to a petty thief or a misbehaving teenager. In lieu of a criminal record or jail time, the guilty party would have to stand in public beside a large sign that described their transgression.

Shaming Sign 2

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Before long, parents started mimicking these judges and delivering a similar punishment to their errant teenagers.

Shaming Sign 3

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Shaming via E-Mail Forwarding

I then noticed that e-mail was no longer being used solely as a business and communication tool. It was now wielded as a weapon and used to ridicule others. Some infamous early examples were Claire Swire, Peter Chung, Lucy Gao and Aleksey Vayner.

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Social Media As A Catalyst

The increase in the prevalence of online shaming coincided with the rise in popularity of social media. While social media has certainly altered – for better or for worse – the way we communicate, I believe that the anonymity of online communication allows us to revert to the holier-than-thou mindsets of those 17th century Puritans. We can become openly disapproving of others because no one can trace our comments back to us. Unlike the targets of our derision, our reputations won’t be damaged by our disparaging comments.

Soon, web sites dedicated solely to embarrassing others began to appear.

People Of Wal-Mart: There is a web site called People Of Wal-Mart that displays photos of Wal-Mart shoppers. Visitors are free to upload photos themselves and add them to the collection. I will admit that some of these photos are humourous – like the above photo of the suspicious loose candy, entitled Looks Legit”. However, as I’m sure you know, these are generally photos of people who are inappropriately dressed, who are behaving poorly, or who have substandard parenting skills. Essentially, these socially-challenged souls are put on display so that we can mock them. If that isn’t gratifying enough for us, there is now a rating system (1-10 stars) and a user comments section, so that visitors – under the identity cloak of online user names – can ridicule them even further.

Airline Passenger Shaming: If you behave poorly or selfishly on airplane, don’t be surprised if your photograph appears on the Passenger Shaming Facebook group or Instagram album. If your behaviour is particularly egregious, it may even be described in detail in newspaper articles.

Airline Passenger Shaming 1

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Ashley Madison Web Site Hack

Ashley Madison CoverThese days, web sites get hacked all the time, but the Ashley Madison data breach in July 2015 was different. There were no ransom requests or any attempts at monetary gain. Its user data was made public because the hacker(s) objected to its line of business, and wanted to “out” all of Ashley Madison’s customers as part of a moral crusade against the company. Over 60 gigabytes of customer information were made public, including names, address, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

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The Police Are Now Participating

More recently (as of October 2015), the practice of public shaming is being adopted by a police department in West Virginia. Anyone caught soliciting a prostitute in the city of Huntington will have his photograph displayed on a billboard, visible from one of the city’s busiest streets.

Police Shaming 1a

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Fat Shaming

In November 2015, someone from an organization called Overweight Haters Ltd. began handing out insulting cards to overweight passengers on the London subway. The cards read, in part, “It’s really not glandular, it’s your gluttony. Our organisation hates and resents fat people. We object to the enormous amount of food resources you consume while half the world starves.“.

In January 2016, after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Carrie Fisher became the target of body shaming because she no longer looked like she did in the original 1977 Star Wars movie.

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What Is The New Scarlet Letter?

Scarlet Letter 1aIn my American Literature class, we suggested that Hester Prynne’s letter “A” – in addition to adulteress – might also mean angel, able and America. I think that the letter “A” is still apt when in today’s age of social media shaming. It continues to stand for adultery (as evidenced by the Ashley Madison data breach and the police billboard displaying the names of “johns”), and I would now like to propose some additional meanings:

  • Amoral: Behaviour publicized by the West Virginia police billboard, and the miscreants forced to hold signs in public describing their transgressions.
  • Airplane: An obvious one, abundantly illustrated in the Passenger Shaming Facebook group.
  • Anonymous: The anonymity of the Internet means that it is far easier for us to shame someone in cyberspace than to confront that person face-to-face.
  • Ashley: Given their motive, I’m sure that the Ashley Madison hackers would love to see every Ashley Madison customer forced to wear a large, embroidered letter “A” on their clothes, just like Hester Prynne.

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Conclusion

The Puritans did have a harsh and antiquated form of punishment for moral crimes, but I will say this in their defense: at least Hester Prynne was limited to the scorn of her town’s inhabitants, and only of those whom she encountered in person. Today’s shaming targets are not as fortunate. Jessie Jackson is quoted as saying “The only time you should look down on a person is when you are helping them get up”, and I agree with him. Not only have we lowered ourselves to the disdainful, judgmental behaviour of the Puritans, but now thanks to the Internet, our shaming no longer has any geographical boundaries. Those who have been targeted now have to face coast-to-coast, or even global, consternation.

If it’s been a while since you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, then I urge you to re-read it. As you do, think about how you use social media and ask yourself how much our attitudes and behaviour have really evolved. Surely, we’re more enlightened and more sophisticated than the Puritans; let’s not allow these new forms of communication drag us back into the 17th century.

The No Drone Zone

On January 26, 2015, a quadcopter crashed onto the White House lawn, causing a lockdown, and renewing fears about the President’s safety. Of course, the media gleefully referred to it as a drone and included in their articles, dramatic and mildly sensationalist statements such as “this was believed to be the first time that a drone has penetrated the White House perimeter.”

Used with permission from the TPM websites, a service of TPM Media LLC.” All rights not expressly granted herein are hereby reserved.

Used with permission from the TPM websites, a service of TPM Media LLC.” All rights not expressly granted herein are hereby reserved.

As it turns out, there was nothing nefarious about the incident at all. A man called the Secret Service to admit that he was using his quadcopter recreationally, and didn’t mean for it to fly over the White House grounds.

Nevertheless, this incident has started (or perhaps rekindled) a discussion on the implementation of flying boundaries for drones. Since most drones contain a GPS, a popular solution is to load a map into the drone’s memory, and then define a number of “no fly zones”. When the drone reaches the border of one of thee zones, it will go no farther, or perhaps even fly in the opposite direction. Obviously, the entire White House property would be one of these zones, along with all restricted airspace and any other sensitive locations.

This initiative is already underway. In fact, the general public is now invited to submit locations to this No Drone Zone list by entering their address here.

At first glance, this sounds like an excellent idea, with many obvious advantages:

  • If your neighbour owns a drone and you’re worried that he might be flying it over your property and spying on you (or just simply annoy you), then you merely have to enter the GPS coordinates for each corner of your property to define the entire area as off-limits.
  • If you are a celebrity or a public figure and you’re worried that some enterprising paparazzo might fly a drone over your backyard or cottage, or maneuver a drone up the side of your high-rise condo while taking photographs or videos, then the No Drone Zone is exactly what you need.

I also like this idea, in principle, and the web site does have a FAQ that addresses many user concerns – but I also foresee a number of logistical problems that will limit its usefulness and widespread implementation. In other words, in its present form, I just don’t think it’s going to fly.

  • Let’s suppose that you’ve just bought a new house. If the previous owners set up a no-fly zone on their property, it is unlikely that they will remember to disable it. All of the activities associated with selling a house and moving its contents to a new location will likely take precedence. That means you, as a new homeowner, will have to apply to have the no-fly zone removed, and provide proof that you own the property. According to the web site’s FAQ, if you want to keep the no-fly zone in place while being allowed to fly your own drone, a fee will be charged, and you’ll have to install a piece of software in your drone.
  • No Current Business Registrations. According to the FAQ, the no-fly zone applies only to residential properties, although they promise to include businesses in the near future. As a business owner, this means that (for the time being) there is nothing to stop your competitors from flying a drone up the side of your building and taking pictures of your office and of anything visible from the windows – storyboards, marketing posters, clothing designs, engineering projects, mock-ups, prototypes or computer screens.
  • The web site FAQ states that since participation in their programme is voluntary, they can’t guarantee that establishing a no-fly zone will prevent all drones from flying over your property.
  • Drone owners must update the database regularly, and there is no incentive to do this. Most people will install Windows security updates regularly because it will protect their computer against viruses and hackers. However, I think it’s less likely that people will voluntarily update software that will impose further restrictions on their device.
  • Finally, in the United States, where one’s freedom is not only cherished but also fiercely protected, it’s unlikely that people are going to opt in to anything that limits where their drone can fly. I predict that they will be more apt to buy their drones from manufacturers who are not participating in this programme.

Quadcopter

As promising as this initiative seems, I just can’t see a large-scale adoption. Mainly because it assumes that we are all team players who are willing to make a few small sacrifices for the common good, and who won’t act in our own self-interest. If this plan is going to work, then in my opinion, the implementation needs to be wide-ranging and far more draconian:

  • Participation by all manufacturers must be mandatory.
  • Database updates will be done wirelessly and automatically.
  • Databases will have an expiry date, after which the drone will cease to function (i.e. become “bricked”) unless the latest database version has been installed.
  • An annual license fee may be charged for recreational users, and will most certainly be implemented for any commercial use of a drone, such as a pre-paid pizza delivery service.
  • All drones and quadcopters must be registered, and the owner’s personal information must be verified before it can be activated.
  • All drones and quadcopters must have an equivalent of a MAC address, so that any airspace breaches can be traced to the owner.
  • All drones and quadcopters must have the ability to be disabled remotely.
  • Photographs and videos will be either saved to an internal SD card, or transmitted to a central database (tied to the user’s account) so that there is a record of any potential unlawful activity.

And you thought that George Orwell painted a depressing portrait of a future surveillance society… I’m not particularly enamoured by my predictions either, but this is what I see.

Yes, there will undoubtedly be a hue and cry from many enthusiasts about unnecessary government interference in what they consider a harmless hobby, but I anticipate restrictions like these in the not-too-distant future, as drones and quadcopters become more popular. They are just toys now, but in my opinion, these toys will be regulated, controlled and tracked like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

Yes, it will be interesting to see whether the No Drone Zone (in its present form) takes off or stalls.

How The Altair 8800 Changed Our Lives

Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests,

By a show of hands, how many of your have heard of The Butterfly Effect? This is the theory that small changes in one part of the world can have significant and unexpected effects elsewhere. The example usually cited in that a butterfly flapping its wings in China, may eventually cause the formation of a storm somewhere else in the world. This speech is an example of The Butterfly Effect. I’m going to show you something that seems inconsequential, and then connect the dots and show you how it changed the world and transformed our lives.

Last month I attended the World of Commodore show. Among the many computers on display was an Altair 8800, from the early 1970s.

WoC Altair 8800

To the uninitiated, this looks like a very primitive and unimpressive machine, and certainly one that is easy to overlook. However it has an impressive history and pedigree. In fact, one could argue that this machine was the one that launched the personal computer revolution, and by extension, changed our world completely.

Altair 8800Altair 8800 Open Cover

The Altair 8800 was created by a company called Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS) and was introduced to the public in January 1975. It was available as a kit for $395 or fully-assembled for $650. Only 2,000 of these machines were produced. The initial version of this machine had a whopping 256 bytes of memory, and no monitor or keyboard. Its display was a series of front panel LEDs, and it was programmed using the switches below the LEDs. Some time later, MITS did offer memory expansion cards in three sizes: 1K, 2K and 3K. If you bought all three, then your Altair would have a total memory of 7K.

Altair 8800 Front Panel 1

To program the Altair, you first set your program’s starting memory location, which is typically zero. The eight LEDs circled above represent the eight bits of that memory location, or byte. Then you move these eight switches below them up or down to set each of the eight bits for that byte. When all eight switches have been set, their combined value is saved to the memory location by pressing one of the switches on the bottom row. Then you repeat the process for the next memory location. I’m sure that you can imagine how much fun programming was back in the mid-1970s.

Ed RobertsPopular Electronics Altair Cover

The founder and CEO of MITS was a man named Ed Roberts, and he developed the Altair 8800 computer, which was sold to consumers as a kit. Interest in the machine really took off when it was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics.

Gates and AllenTwo people who happened to read this issue were Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the future co-founders of Microsoft. They wrote a letter to Ed Roberts and said that they were working on a computer language called BASIC, for the 8080 processor – the same processor that the Altair used – and asked if he would like to see a demonstration. Ed Roberts was interested, so Gates and Allen flew to the MITS office in New Mexico to meet him. The meeting went well, and Roberts hired both Allen and Gates to develop a BASIC language interpreter for the Altair.

The Altair soon became popular with hobbyists and computer clubs, including the Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley. The Homebrew Computer Club held their first meetings in a Menlo Park garage, and later, as the club grew larger, at Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center auditorium.

Homebrew Computer Club

The members would attend these meetings to demonstrate the various computer and electronic projects they were working on.

One of Homebrew’s members was a young man named Steve Wozniak, and Wozniak was quite impressed with the Altair. In fact, he was so taken with this machine, that he was inspired to begin working on a new project. Here is a short, edited excerpt from his autobiography, iWoz (pg. 153-156), in which he describes the excitement that he felt during the Homebrew Computer Club meeting in March, 1975:

Steve WozniakAbout thirty people showed up for this first meeting in that garage in Menlo Park. They were talking about some microprocessor kit being up for sale, and they all seemed excited about it. Someone there was holding up the magazine Popular Electronics, which had a picture of a computer on the front of it. It was called the Altair… These people were really Altair enthusiasts. That night, I checked out the microprocessor data sheet, and then I realized what the Altair was… it was almost exactly like the Cream Soda Computer I’d designed five years before… it was as if my whole life has been leading up to this point. That night, this whole vision of a kind of personal computer just popped into my head. All at once, just like that“.

Wozniak immediately started work on his own computer design, which included a keyboard and a video screen, instead of LEDs and switches.

Apple I No CaseWoz Jobs

When it was completed, he demonstrated it to the other club members. Wozniak then showed it to his friend Steve Jobs, who saw it not merely as a hobbyist’s project, but as something that could be marketed to a much larger group of people. This computer eventually became the Apple I computer.

Apple I BoxApple I Case

The Apple I soon evolved into the a more polished Apple II, which (arguably) launched the personal computer industry – and our lives haven’t been the same since.

Apple II

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Radio Shack, and the Disappearance of the Hobbyist Consumer

Last month, I read an article that predicted the impending demise of Radio Shack. The author even suggested that 2014 would probably be the last Christmas season for the legendary electronics chain.

Radio Shack Logo

In a way, I’ll be sad to see it go. I won’t miss it – the Radio Shack that I remember disappeared years ago – but I’ll miss what it used to be.

Radio Shack Head Office

First, a little corporate history: Radio Shack’s parent company was called the Tandy Corporation. The Canadian Radio Shack stores were managed by a subsidiary of Tandy, called InterTAN (International Tandy). In 2004, InterTAN was acquired by Circuit City, and in 2005, all Canadian Radio Shack stores were renamed The Source By Circuit City. Today, they’re simply called The Source. I must admit, I don’t shop at The Source very often because they are now just like any other electronics chain.

However, the Radio Shack of my youth was remarkable – it was a hobbyist’s paradise, and I’ve missed its absence for years. The Radio Shack of the 1970s and early 1980s was more than just an electronics store; it represented a particular way of life and catered to a consumer who has all but disappeared: the hobbyist, the tinkerer and the DIY enthusiast.

Heathkit Amplifier

When I was growing up, our family stereo system was consisted of a Heathkit amplifier (pictured, above), a Heathkit FM tuner, a Gerrard turntable and some speakers that were built into the wall of my father’s den. I found out later that Heathkit wasn’t merely another audio store brand. Heathkit was a company that sold audio and other equipment in kit form. You browsed their catalogue, and either visited their store or ordered your item. The kit consisted of the parts, plus a schematic and a detailed instruction guide. You had to supply the soldering iron, solder, multimeter and any necessary tools. Except for the turntable, my father had built the family’s stereo system himself, which I found quite impressive, and a little humbling.

Heathkit's 1960 Catalogue

During the 1960s, a company like Heathkit could thrive because it wasn’t unreasonable to expect a consumer to possess a rudimentary knowledge of electronics, soldering iron basics, schematic diagram interpretation, and (given the proper instructions) basic assembly skills for something as complex as an amplifier or FM tuner. Sadly, Heathkit no longer exists – it stopped making kits in 1992.

Radio Shack Color Organ

During the 1970s, consumer hobbyist were still in abundance, and Radio Shack was the store that catered to them. During thr late 1970s, I used to love visiting Radio Shack, I would always grab a copy of their annual catalogue, and I would read it over and over again during the following months, practically memorizing everything in it. When I was a teenager, and was old enough to have audio equipment in my room, I remember buying a “colour organ” there. Mine was the 3-Channel model, pictured on the right. A colour organ was attached to the audio output of a stereo system, and flashed lights of various colours that were synchronized with the music – the louder the sound, the brighter the light. I used red for bass, green for midrange and blue for treble. The colour organ came in a kit form, and I had to solder the components onto the circuit board myself, as well as wire the lights inside the cabinet. I haven’t used it for many years, but I still have that colour organ stored away in my closet – I was very proud of it, and just can’t bring myself to throw it out.

Radio Shack 75-In-One

I also remember my parents buying me Radio Shack’s 75-In-One Electronic Project Kit. It was a breadboard with a bunch of components mounted onto it – resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors, along with a transformer, speaker, relay, battery and even a solar cell. There was also a large user’s guide that described each of the 75 projects: what they did, the electrical and electronic principles that made them work, and how to build each one. I remember building a crystal radio, and I was so amazed that I could hear AM radio stations (using a mono earbud, since the output wasn’t strong enough to move a speaker cone) from something that didn’t use a power source. It seemed like magic!

The Radio Shack staff members during the 1970s and 1980s were also very knowledgeable. If I needed some parts for a project I was working on, I could simply ask for a 10-ohm resistor or a 100-µF (microfarad) capacitor, and the salesperson would know exactly what I meant. The stereo sales staff were knowledgeable, not just about the product line, but about audio itself. If you were confused about the differences between Class-A and Class-B amplifiers, then they could enlighten you.

Radio Shack Catalogue - Kits

Radio Shack didn’t just sell electronics – a good chunk of their product line was geared toward hobbyists and encouraged learning and exploration. Radio Shack’s customers didn’t merely consume – they built things, they experimented and they let their imagination run free. In my blog post What Happened to the Technical Stereo Consumer , I lament the dumbing down of stereo advertising during the past couple of decades. Stereo magazines of the 1970s and 1980s used to assume that the consumer knew a great deal about audio; today’s advertising contains almost no useful technical information.

Today, consumer electronics have become commoditized, and planned obsolescence seems to be an inherent part of almost every company’s business plan. New models of smartphones are introduced each year, yet the differences between these models are (in my opinion) negligible. The electronics kits are long gone, and manufacturers now actively discourage experimentation. Many printer ink cartridges have chips embedded in them to prevent customers from refilling the cartridges themselves. Apple uses proprietary screws in their products to prevent customers from even opening the case and peeking inside. Batteries are often sealed into portable devices and are categorized as “not user replaceable”. Think about that for a minute: two generations ago, we built our own stereo equipment; today, some companies don’t even want us to replace the batteries ourselves!

Radio Shack Store Closing

If the author’s prediction comes true, then I’m going to miss Radio Shack – not so much for what it is today, since its Canadian version is just like every other electronics chain – but for what it used to be in my youth. Radio Shack didn’t merely sell merchandise; it sold you the tools and components that allowed you to realize your ideas.

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Cutting The Cable – Five Years Later

Coaxial CableBack in 2009, I was paying $55/month for cable television and felt that I wasn’t getting my money’s worth. As an experiment, I decided to have my cable disconnected for three months to see if I could exist without it, or if its absence and resulting stimulus deprivation would cast me into the throes of despair. Today, it’s still disconnected, and frankly, I don’t miss it at all. The adjustment to life without cable television was much easier than I thought it would be. Here’s how I’ve been managing since cutting this metaphorical umbilical cord:

Rabbit EarsThe first thing I did was locate my disused “rabbit ears” antenna and hook it up to my (CRT) television. Since my apartment is in a direct line of sight to the CN Tower, I was able to receive several local Toronto channels as well as a couple of stations across the lake in Buffalo, New York. This was pretty much the same experience I had growing up at home, yet it now felt (to quote The Love Boat theme song) “exciting and new” because now I no longer had to pay for these channels!

Casio EV-570After a few weeks, I began to think about how to manage my time more wisely. I decided to dig up my old three-inch portable television that receives over-the-air (OTA) signals. I placed it on my desk beside my computer monitor, and used it to watch the nightly news. It’s a surprisingly efficient arrangement – much better than sitting in the living room watching television – because I can do my work on the computer and listen to the news at the same time. If a news story sounds particularly interesting, then I’ll just turn my head slightly and glance at the portable TV.

In May 2011, I finally took the plunge and bought a flat-screen television. During the past several months, my 12-year-old CRT television was deteriorating quickly. It had a faulty voltage regulator and the screen image would compress and expand horizontally, according to the brightness level of the picture. It eventually became all but unwatchable, and repairs would have cost almost as much as a new television. My rabbit ears worked perfectly with the new flat-screen television, and I was even able to receive a couple of additional stations. Don’t let salesman tell you that you need to buy a special “digital” antenna for your new television set – it’s all a marketing ploy, and your regular antenna will work just as well.

August 31, 2011 marked the end of OTA analog television signals in Canada. My three-inch Casio portable television was now a paperweight. My main TV also stopped receiving analog channels, but all I needed to do was re-scan the channels again – the digital tuner automatically deleted the analog channel assignments and replaced them with their digital equivalents. Looking back, it was a good thing that I decided not to repair my old CRT. It didn’t have a digital tuner, and would have also become a paperweight on August 31.

Boxee BoxDuring the summer of 2011, after doing an abundance of research, I bought a Boxee Box streaming media player. It’s similar to an Apple TV, but in my opinion is far superior. All the the Apple TV seems to do is encourage you to buy content from iTunes – which is a wonderful business model for Apple, but not quite as endearing for the consumer. The Boxee provides an abundance of content for free, and allows you to set up and stream content (wirelessly) from your own media server. Once the Boxee Box was installed, I created a rudimentary media server on my PC and added my DVD collection to it. Boxee indexed everything, and then added cover art and episode summaries. Now I could watch any DVD I owned without having to get up from my chair.

The Boxee interface also has a television section of its own, with 200 different TV series to choose from. The 5-6 most recent shows in each series are available for on-demand viewing. These do contain commercials, but there aren’t as many of them as there are on broadcast television – typically one 30-second commercial per break. Boxee also has a movie database, but the offerings are less than impressive – I hadn’t heard of any of the films, and there didn’t seem to be that many in English.

However, there was one promising section called “Apps” – these are specialized video channels on a variety of subjects. There are a handful that require a paid subscription, but the vast majority of them are free. There is also a section with movie trailers. I’m very happy with this set-up – there are no monthly fees, and your own content is integrated seamlessly. I can watch TED Talks, YouTube videos and dozens of other offerings. It’s also recognized as an AirPlay device so you can use it to stream photos, videos or music from your iPhone or iPad to the television.

Public libraries are a surprisingly good source for DVDs. They don’t have recent movies, and their TV series selection is not as extensive as I’d like, but they do have a lot of interesting items in their collection that aren’t generally shown on television: classic movies, fitness workout videos, travel guides, PBS and CBC documentaries, and dozens of programs on a broad range of subjects: lampshade making, gardening, nutrition and restoring antiques. I visit mine whenever I’m in a serendipitous mood.

Netflix LogoI was planning to subscribe to Netflix as soon as I became bored with my current video offerings. Five years later, this still hasn’t happened. I now have so much content at my disposal – YouTube channels, Internet-only programs, movie trailers, Boxee’s apps and television shows, library DVDs, and my half dozen over-the-air television channels – that Netflix is not necessary.

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Observations and Conclusions

  • Once my cable was disconnected, my media consumption changed from a “push” model (one in which the stations push content to the consumer, according to their broadcast schedule), to a “pull” model (where I select the programs I want to watch, according to my own schedule). In my opinion, the pull model is clearly superior. I can watch what I want, when I want, and I no longer have to wait until a certain day of the week to watch a specific show. If I get behind on a series, I know that the last 5-6 episodes are available from the Boxee Box, so I can catch up whenever I like. Of course, you could do this with a TiVo, but that would mean remembering to set the machine to record each program, and hoping that its hard drive doesn’t fill up.
  • I now receive TV and movie recommendations from my friends and from IMDB, instead of television spots promoting other programs. These two sources will let me know what’s worth watching and what is a total waste of time.
  • My monthly fees have dropped to zero. While there was an initial outlay for the Boxee Box ($189), its content is free, and so are the over-the-air stations. In fact, the Boxee paid for itself within four months.
  • OTA broadcast television offers a superior picture over cable, because the signal isn’t compressed. In what is certainly a delicious irony, most people are paying money to cable companies in order to receive an inferior television signal!
  • I no longer waste time channel surfing just to see if something interesting is on. My television watching is now deliberate. I turn on the television only when there is something specific that I want to see. This is actually quite a time-saver – how many hours have you spent languishing in from of the television set, watching it without a clear goal in mind?

In conclusion, disconnecting my cable was one of the better decisions I’ve made, because it’s allowed me to discover the utility of the “push” paradigm as well as entirely new ways of consuming media. Spend a few minutes and add up what you’ve spent on cable television during the past twelve months, and ask yourself what you’ve gained from that expenditure. Step out of your comfort zone and try this three-month experiment, like I did, and then decide whether you can live without it. I’ll bet that you can!

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