Will I Be Left in the Tech Dust If I Don’t Own A Smartphone?

I’ve been using computers since 1971.  Mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers – labels that have long since disappeared.  I got my first personal computer in 1979.  I used FTP, Usenet, Gopher, email, years before the web, and remember being blown away when Mosaic came out in 1993.  I spent a lot of money on computer and gadgets over the years, but for some reason I don’t want to buy a smartphone.  Oh, I’d love to have a smartphone – I just don’t want the monthly bill.  And since nearly everyone else is becoming a smartphone user, will this leave me in the tech dust?

I have a poor man’s smartphone, the iPod touch and a pay-as-you-go dumbphone.  It essentially does most of what a smartphone does, and I only spend $50 every six months for 500 minutes.  I also have an iPad 2 and a Nexus 5.  I’m not totally out of it, but when I read Engadget I feel like I’m at a black tie party wearing a sports jacket and jeans, and even those are getting threadbare and moth eaten.

gsmarena_004

Now I’m reading about smart watches.  Pass.  Google glasses.  Pass.  Have I gotten too old to compute?

I am cheap, but then I’m retired.  I now spend about 99% of my time at home, so mobile devices just don’t have a compelling sell to me.  Yet, all the tech glamor is now in mobile devices.  I do use mobile apps on my Nexus 7, but I’d much prefer using most of them on my 23” monitor.

Is the bleeding edge of tech savvy now limited to on-the-go computing?  Am I joining the ranks of the cyber-Amish by not owning a smartphone.  Am I less of a geek for not wanting the latest smartphone every year?

Getting old is getting old, so I must accept that young people are going to do and know things I don’t.  BFD.  I’m not whining, but since I’ve retired I realized, more and more, I’m cutting myself off from the mainstream of people.  I’ve always done this.  Being a gluten-free vegetarian atheist has a way of isolating me from normal life.  Being a computer geek is something I’ve always identified with, so is choosing not to follow the cutting edge of tech another way to isolate myself?  (I can hear my friend Annie growling at me, “Hell yes, you moron.”) 

This reminds me of a friend who died about twenty years ago.  He had become so negative about life that he only like two things, Duane Allman’s guitar playing, and Benny Goodman’s clarinet playing.  Luckily I still love hundreds of things, but I’m starting to realize that list is shrinking.  Is that another way of defining aging – that you list of likes shrinks?

There another way of looking at though.  One I feel is more positive!  As we get older we juggle more balls, or spin more plates.  Remember those guys on Ed Sullivan that would keep plates spinning on sticks?  Back then, we called life “the 9 to 5 rat race.”  As we grew up we learned to spin more plates.  At some point in your life you realize that keeping all those plates spinning is a lot of damn work.  Then you go all Zen dog and start spinning fewer plates.  Retiring is moving into those years when you spin fewer and fewer plates.  And the positive spin I mentioned?  Well, you enjoy life more because you just keep the things you love most in motion.

JWH – 2/25/14

Understanding Identity Theft-And the Scary Implications of Stopping It

With the recent Target hacking scare, identity theft has almost become a panic.  My goal here is to explain identity theft to myself and my readers so we can avoid it, but also to reveal a surprise side-effect of stopping identity theft.  One news commentator pointed out that Europe uses Smart Cards which are more secure against identity theft, and I wondered why we don’t use them in the U.S.?  This got me to thinking about the nature of identity theft.  To simplify, here are the basics:

  • Person
  • Proof of Identity
  • Financial institution
  • Transaction system
  • Business
  • Thief
  • Fake Identity

Because we now have electronic transfer of spending instead of money, the goal of a thief is to initiate a financial transaction with a stolen information about your identity.  When you deposit money in a bank or get a line of credit from a credit company, those institutions create an identity profile of you.  To spend money requires proving your identity at a transaction location.

identity_theft

Our old fashioned credit cards are rather simple.  The POS (point of sale) validates the card to see if it’s active.  The cashier must accept proof of identity from the person using the card.  If you are standing at the Target checkout counter, they will ask for an ID, or if you are buying from Amazon, they will ask for a password.  Both are easy to fake.  There’s a reason why many credit card thieves first go to gas stations – they don’t require any proof of identity. 

Even though the Target hackers stole over a hundred million card numbers and pins, they still have to find businesses that will process  transactions without a proof of identity, or create fake credit cards and fake identities.  Because they also stole names, addresses, and personal information, PINs, this is a scary possibility.

Proof of Identity

Every person has dozens of identities.  Your school or work has a system to identity you.  Your bank, credit card companies, insurance companies, health insurer, stock broker, library, utility company, phone company, etc., all have ways to identify you.  Even if you stood right in front of each of them, they wouldn’t know you personally.  They know you by your proof of identity.  Normally this is name, address, phone number, social security number, credit card number, library card number, customer number, etc.  Often this is in the form of ID card.  All of this information is easily stolen, and easily used by thieves.  In the old days, a fake driver’s license and stolen checks or credit cards was all it took to spend someone else’s money.  Now it’s just a name, debit card number and pin.

How To Stop Identity Theft

The current methods of protecting identity theft are far from perfect, but they are:

  • Keep your personal information as secret as possible
  • Use strong passwords and encourage the use of secondary pass phrases
  • Use credit cards from companies that have strong security monitoring
  • Monitor credit rating services
  • Hire a monitoring service

These efforts fall into two phases.  First, keep your information away from identity thieves, and second, stop thieves as quickly as possible when they do steal your identity.  What we really want is to stop thieves altogether. 

The best way to stop identity theft is absolute proof of identity.  This means creating a validation system to prove you are you in any financial transaction, whether in person or online.  I don’t believe Smart Cards are the solution.  Smart Cards are just credit cards with a computer chip – they make it harder for thieves but not impossible.  What we really want is biometric authentication.   This is technology that connects authentication to our biological selves – thumb print, voice pattern, retinal scan, face pattern, DNA, and so on.  Of course this means revamping our entire financial transactional system.  How does Amazon take your thumbprint?

There is new technology that might allow this transformation quicker than we thought – the smart phone.  But first some digression.

Let’s say a thumb print and voice pattern becomes the standard of identification.  How are they taken, and how are they validated?  There are a number of ways.  Smart Cards could store your voice and thumb print on a chip, and a POS terminal could take your prints and validate them against the card.  That would make things much more secure, but theoretically thieves could print fake Smart Cards with their prints recorded in them with your financial identity.  What we want is your credit card company to store a copy of your voice and thumb print, and the have the POS terminal authenticate your prints when you make a transaction.  Then we won’t need credit cards at all.  Identity will be bodily proof.

The trouble is our current infrastructure isn’t set up for this, so what would be the fastest way to transform our society into one secure from identity thieves?  Like I said, smart phones might be the answer.

There are many unique qualities about a smart phone.  The phone number, the IP address, the SIM card, the hardware address for the Wi-Fi card, etc.  All that’s needed is a way to tie your physical body to the smart phone.  Ultimately, in some science fictional future, I believe we’ll have a identity chip implanted in our bodies at birth and all our network connections will recognize us that way.  But until that future arrives, I believe smart phones are the answer.

Some smart phones can already do thumb prints, and voice prints can be done in software.  Newer phones could be designed to make biometric validation even easier.  Think of a smart phone as a genius level Smart Card.  To make a financial transaction you’d need your phone and your body.  That’s very hard for thieves to steal.  Not impossible.  A thief holding a gun to your head could make you buy things, give you money at ATMs.  But stress detectors might be added to smart phones to tell if a user is under duress.  We’re getting very close to foolproof.

Good Side Effects

If such a smart phone authentication system was developed it could have many positive side effects.  We’d have one of the best electronic voting systems possible.  It would allow for easy political referendums, or extensive public opinion polls.  This would change the nature of record keeping for school system, health insurance, all the way down to library cards.  Used in schools it would allow for instant testing and grading.  The spin-offs are endless.

Of course it would reduce identity theft.

Bad Side Effects

Identity theft is an easy way for thieves to steal from people without meeting them.  If we take this away, thieves will have to go back to being more personal about taking our stuff.  Switching to a smart phone authentication might increase robberies, muggings and burglaries.

However, the real scary thing about smart phone identity authentication is it creates a global identity card that’s extremely easy to track.  Americans have always been against a national ID card, and this system would be that to the nth degree.  Since we know the NSA is already tracking our phones, it’s not hard to imagine a whole host of governmental agencies, as well as businesses tracking our every move, communication and transaction.

It would make living off the grid almost impossible.  Anyone without a smart phone would have a very difficult time establishing any kind of identity with businesses, hospitals, insurers, libraries, credit agencies, etc.  If every policeman had a smart phone that could talk to your smart phone think of the Big Brother angle of that.

Other Solutions

Life on Earth is always evolving, and so does technology.  If we wanted, we could invent anonymous electronic spending.  Money is slowly disappearing, and with it privacy.  You can buy pre-paid credit cards and anonymous dumb phones to maintain your privacy, but that might not last for long.  If money disappears how do you buy pre-paid cards?  With direct deposit paychecks its now impossible to live without a bank account, and that requires a networkable identity, and thus a way to authenticate that identity.

People might not know it, but we’re on a path to no privacy.  For some people that might not matter, for others it matters a great deal.

JWH – 2/11/14

Is the Day of the Disc Done?

The other day I bought a new Sony BDP-S5100 Blu-ray player to replace the old LG player that was having a lot of trouble playing Blu-ray discs.  Strangely, two of my friends separately asked me the same thing, “Why did you do that, isn’t Blu-ray dead?”  Then my friend Mike wondered if it was possible to give up his Netflix disc account to just live with Netflix streaming.  My wife has already given up her disc account, and so have many of my friends.

I’ve wondered about cancelling my Netflix disc subscription, but there are still plenty of movies, television shows and documentaries that aren’t available on streaming.  In fact, I recently joined ClassicFlix to get old movies Netflix doesn’t offer on disc or streaming.  And often I recommend films and TV shows to friends and they often report back they aren’t  on streaming, like Project Nim.

bd

Yet, I’ve got to wonder if the writing is on the wall, and if the disc isn’t under Hospice care.  I hardly ever play my CDs anymore, preferring to stream music.  And my DVD/BD collection sits ignored in a dark closet because I stream or rent.  Since the quality of streaming is constantly improving, I feel less and less need to buy Blu-ray discs.  I dropped my Blu-ray option on Netflix because the LG players was giving me so much trouble, but at ClassicFlix, Blu-ray discs are not extra, so I started getting them again.  They are wonderful, but some some HD streamed movies are nearly as good.  Movies like The Big Trail and The Apartment were just stunning in Blu-ray, so I want that quality if I can get it.

If I dropped Netflix discs and ClassicFlix discs, a whole world of video would be cut off from me.  I have added Warner Instant Archive streaming, which is like Turner Classic Movies.  I also get Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime.  I have years of streaming content waiting to be watched, and by the time I finished them all, years more of viewing would be added, maybe even the stuff I now get on discs.  If I was patient, everything will eventually come to streaming.

And then there’s the question:  Won’t canceling disc rentals and not buying discs speed up the move to everything being streamed?  Isn’t it a kind of protest against discs and a vote for streaming if people shun discs?

Blu-ray isn’t quite dead because if you want the best possible picture, Blu-ray is it, but streaming technology is nipping on its heels.  Netflix is even working on 4k streaming.  I probably shouldn’t have bought that Sony BDP-S5100 player, but hell, it was a good deal at $79.  It’s a marvel of technology, and about 1/3rd, or even 1/4th the size of the BD player.  Plus it plays BD discs MUCH faster, and it plays the discs the BG player wouldn’t.   And it also plays CDs and SACDs, and it has Gracenote built in, making CD playing more visual.  There’s even more, it has a host of smart TV features with many channels that I don’t even plan to use, because I own a Roku 3, but if I didn’t they would be very cool.

Yeah, I think, the writing is on the wall.  This will probably be my last disc player.

Back in the 1960s I often wondered what life would be like in the 21st century.  I never imagined living without LPs, or even conceived of the CD or DVD.  Yet, many science fiction books and movies imagined a future where we’d be less materialistic.  I guess that’s coming true.

JWH – 1/28/14

LibraryThing v. GoodReads: What I Want From a Book Database

My friend Mike and I have been discussing book databases.  We both use online services, but we’ve been thinking about what features would make a perfect book database to carry around on a smartphone or tablet.  I’ve tried several online programs, a few mobile apps, as well as few desktop programs.  Every book database reflects a different idea how to manage books, but none approaches the concept how I expect such a program to work.

Lists

A book database is essentially a list making program, but bookworms want different kinds of lists.

  • List of all books owned
  • List of all books we’d like to own
  • List of all books read
  • List of all books owned but unread – our TBR (To Be Read) list
  • Books in series
  • Books by authors
  • Books by genre
  • Books by subjects
  • Books by year published
  • Books by date read
  • Books by price

Because there are so many different book database programs I assume there are millions of bookworms out there with piles of books they want to manage – but manage differently from everyone else.  If listings were the only feature people wanted, then using Word, Excel, or Access would be all we needed.  Or even just Notepad.

The advantage commercial databases have is for creating super powerful lists.  I especially love the various book cover listings.  LibraryThing gives me many ways to look at my book covers, which I find very inspiring.  It often triggers a desire for what I want to read next.

librarything-cover-view

I can even change the size of the covers.

librarything-cover-view2

Personally, I want much more than a list, and I assume other bookworms do too.  But what other features are essential?

Social v. Private

The obvious next big difference is whether you want your library public or private.  LibraryThing and GoodReads are designed for social bookworms who want to find out what other people are reading, reviewing, and leaving comments about.  Book Collector, Readerware, iBookshelf, etc. are designed to catalog your collection only.  After playing with all these programs I decided I wanted to go social, although my needs might dictate needing two or more book database systems to do everything I want.  As long as you have a mobile device with a data connection, then online programs will work fine when you’re out at a used bookstore and wanting to know if you already own something.

One of the coolest features of LibraryThing is their Zeitgeist page, which shows how popular books are through various metrics.  Also, for each author, you can see how successful their books are with other readers – for example, here’s three of my favorite writers, Robert A. Heinlein, Jack Kerouac and Philip K. Dick.  This offers far more information than just listing my books.  I can see who else likes my favorite books, and read their reviews.  Checking the same authors on GoodReads shows different, but often correlating information.  See Heinlein, Kerouac and Dick again.  And if you’re a collector, GoodReads offers links to editions, like all these versions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

LibraryThing also matches my collection with other collectors and lets me know about other bookworms with reading interests like mine.  It’s rather eerie to go through a stranger’s cover display and see so many books I own or have read, or even notice we share the same larger interests in genres and subjects.

Sitting down with either LibraryThing or GoodReads teaches me so much more about my books than just listings them out in programs like Book Collector, Readerware or iBookshelf.  However, LibraryThing and GoodReads aren’t the obvious winners.  Especially if you have a large collection of books, magazines, comics, videos, etc.  Then what you want is a library database that can catalog your entire collection.

Library Catalogs

All the programs I’ve found so far are built around books and using ISBN as a quick entry tool.  Real libraries, like public and university libraries, use card catalog software that can track any kind of media you want in your library (books, music, video), including special collection items like photographs, letters, paintings, tape recordings, etc.  Unfortunately real library software, like Small Library Organizer, also includes check out systems, which are not needed for private collectors.  There are even several open source library cataloging systems, that use standard library database formats like the MARC record for defining any media in a library collection.

The online programs LibraryThing and GoodReads can catalog huge collections, just look at the 5000 Largest Personal Libraries at LibraryThing.  I would imagine LibraryThing would be cumbersome to use for thousands of books.  If you have thousands of books I’d think you’d want a desktop program like Readerware or Book Collector – but those programs require separate programs to handle video and music.  You have to live with that, or consider going to a real library card catalog system.

What I Really Want

I don’t want to just manage my personal library as a list of books.  I want to mentally grok my library.  I have about 700 physical books, and another 400-500 audiobooks, and 100+ ebooks.  That’s too many to remember what I own.  That’s too many to remember for thinking about what to read next.  That’s actually too many to even care about.  I’m not a book miser.  I’m a book lover, and having too many children to love means I’m not giving them their proper attention.  I need to put some of my books out for adoption.

I want to book database that helps me remember what I have in my collection, and that means having a great visual cover interface.  Right now I consider LibraryThing the hands down winner.  But there’s one feature that LibraryThing or GoodReads doesn’t do that I really want, and that’s a text field where I can add my comments, reviews copied from the net, quotes from the book, etc.  I want each book to have a page I can pop for annotations.

Look at the Main Page at LibraryThing for The Catcher in the Rye.   On the left is a menu of additional information about the book.   Here’s the same book at GoodReads.  As much as I like GoodReads, I think LibraryThing is the winner.

I actually have many of my books in both databases, but it’s very hard to keep them synced.  But as of tonight, I’m going to devote myself to getting my LibraryThing catalog up-to-date.  When I get through I’m going to try to delete my catalog at GoodReads and export my updated LibraryThing listing to it, and then work harder to keep all my new purchases added to both systems.  Both programs are great.  I just love LibraryThing more.

Strangely enough, I want to delete books from my book database.  Sure, those that I’ve gotten rid of, but also books I might own, but don’t really care about.  I’ve decided that the important thing is to list the books I love, or want to read, more than just the books I own.  I want my book database to be a system for the books I want to study, remember, annotate and review.  I want to forget the forgettable titles, and memorize the great books.

When all is said and done, I want my book database to define me by the books I care about.  When I die, I want my book database to be my memorial that defines my life.  I wish LibraryThing was a true library catalog program.   I wish it could include music albums, films, and copies of famous photographs and paintings.  So all you masters of C++, fire up your editors and get to coding.

JWH – 9/25/13

Buying Vinyl Records Can Be So Goddamn Annoying!!!

I wonder if the phrase “You Can’t Go Home Again” also applies to technology too?  Can we return to living with older inventions?  Why haven’t some people rejected television and returned to radio?  There’s always some Luddites.  Just last week CBS Sunday Morning had a piece about people going back to typewriters.  Really?  Who wants to go back to carbon paper and liquid paper after using a word processing?   Who would even want to return to WordPerfect or WordStar after using Microsoft Word?

Many people want to return to vinyl records.  I’ve been trying to go home again with music too, but it’s like the Thomas Wolfe novel.  I’m having trouble.

I love shopping for old records.  I love the big 12” covers.  But nostalgia is not all its cracked up to be.

I love old records, until I play them.  If they play without incident I love the heck out of them.  But if they skip, skate, crackle, pop, hiss, it shoots my blood pressure way up and pisses me off.  It makes me want to smash the record and give up LPs for good.  But I don’t.

It’s such a crapshoot to buy old records.  Come on, how much can we expect from half-century old plastic? 

I’ve bought LPs that looked mint and they’d have a constant background hiss.  I’ve bought records for one cut, and that cut, and that cut only, causes my stylus to skate.  But I’ve also bought records covered with fine scratches that sound wonderful.  It’s weird, but the heavy beat up old records from the 1950s and 1960s often play far better than the thin, nearly new looking records of the 1970s and 1980s.

Part of my problem is my “good” turntable.  It tracks so light that any imperfection causes a record to skate or skip.  My good turntable is hooked up to my good stereo.  I buy records hoping to find the wonderful warm sound of vinyl.  I play them loud.  So when a record acts up, I hear it jarringly loud, which makes it all the more annoying.  The good turntable is designed to make the records sound better, and to protect LPs from wear by lightly tracking through the grooves.  If a LP doesn’t play well on the good turntable I put it on the bad turntable in my computer room.  This older player, with its much heavier tone arm and tracking, can often play records the good turntable can’t.  But I have to listen to problem records on my computer speakers, which are Klipsch THX and sound good, but they aren’t like listening to the Infinity floor standing speakers in the den.

Maybe I should always use old technology to play old records, and new technology to play new records.

Many audiophiles claim LPs sound superior to CDs, but I disagree.  Yeah, LPs have a warm sound that’s very appealing, but it’s not why I buy records.  Modern CDs sound technically superior by far.  I buy records to travel back in time.  I want to go to a record store and shop for a new LP discovery.  I want to flip past hundreds of albums and find one I want to take a chance on.  I want to bring that album home, put it on the stereo, kick back in my recliner and listen with all my might.  And if I get lost in the experience, thrilled by discovering something wonderful, I find blissful pleasure.

All too often now I’ll be deep in reverie and BLAM! – the tone arm slams into some microscope imperfection.   Or WEEEEEERRNT! as it slides over a portion of the cut.  This is so goddamn irritating.  This seldom happened decades ago when the LPs were new.  And even now it doesn’t happen as much as you’d imagine for such ancient technology, but it happens enough to wonder why I bother with retro tech.  Digital technology is infinitely more convenient and reliable.

Like here’s a favorite LP I fell in love with back in 1968 that I recently rediscovered and bought on vinyl, The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink by Janis Ian.  The copy I found even had the blue paper insert with a couple extra poems.

secret-life-of-j-eddy-fink

Coming home, I was so happy to have found this LP again.  I put it on with great expectations.  Then it didn’t play right.  I could have save myself a trip and $5.  It’s available to play online for free at Janis Ian’s website, and doesn’t skip there (although the site fades out the end of the song in a way so she’s not giving you’re the real thing).  I do have the same songs on a CD I bought years ago, Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings, or from Rdio, but it’s more fun to play from an LP that looks like the LP I owned 45 years ago.  Because it doesn’t play from the good turntable it ruins the whole experience and fun of buying the album.  It will play from the bad turntable and that’s a consolation, but it deflates the fun.

Does it really matter if a song comes from squiggles on vinyl, pits on a CD, or via electrons over the internet?  Why am I trying to go to a long ago past, when I have a bright and shiny present to explore?

I was buying a lot of old records.  I’ve bought 61 albums since the beginning of the year, but I’ve stopped.  I suppose I could switch to very expensive 180 gram new albums, which run $20-50, but I won’t.  I’ve gone back to mostly listening to Rdio.  It has about a million albums.  I’m not hurting for music to listen to.  It was just fun trying to find lost albums.  I just missed record stores and flipping through bins of records.  But I guess I can’t go home again.

I haven’t completely given up on vinyl.  I’m just more careful.  I’m learning to be a more savvy vinyl shopper.  I keep my eye out for LPs that have never been reprinted, or the CDs have long gone out of print too.  I use digital for most stuff, and vinyl for when digital lets me down.

I guess I’m an old fart when I claim that buying music online is not the same experience as shopping for records in a store.  That something has been lost by modern ways.  But I am willing to admit that the new ways, with modern technology, are far superior.  If I was forced to choose between Rdio and records that played perfectly every time, I’d pick Rdio.  If I was forced to choose between Amazon and bookstores, I’d pick Amazon.  The world wide web is better than CompuServe and GENIE.  I’m not crazy.  I do know a 2013 Ford Mustang is technically superior to its 1965 classic ancestor, even though people will pay far more for the older model.  Nostalgia sells, but modern technology is superior.

We might talk about going home, but now is better.  For instance, a couple weeks ago I got a heart stent.  In 1968 I’d have been shit out of luck.

JWH – 5/25/13

How to Take Notes in the Shower?

For some reason my mind just races in the shower and I get all kinds of good ideas for blog essays while scrub-a-dub-dubbing in the shower.  However, I forget most of them.  I try to hang onto at least one idea, so that after I get out of the shower, dry off, get partly dressed, exercise, get completely dressed, eat breakfast and back at the computer, I can write it down.  Often even that single idea doesn’t make it to the more permanent memory of  my word processor.  I really should learn to type in the nude while wet.

So I did a couple of Google searches, “writing notes in the shower” and “how to write in the shower?”

As you can see, I’m not the only one with this problem of wanting to take notes in the shower.  It seems showering is well known for stimulating ideas for writers.  Karen Woodward made a homemade scuba writing tablet with materials from Staples in “How To Write In The Shower.”  However, Amazon has a ready made Scuba slate that’s cheaper than Karen’s put together solution.  The problem with both solutions is erasing the board.  But one of the customer reviews at Amazon suggested a Mr Clean Magic Eraser, which my wife has been buying lately, erases the slate well.  Amazon also offers a larger Scuba slate.  I ordered the smaller one for $7.78 with free Prime shipping.

The little scuba slate turned out to be good enough for now.  Capturing my thoughts usually only takes 2-3 lines, and the small slate, about the size of of a trade paperback, can handle 4-5 notes on each side.  I write with water streaming all over me and what I’m writing.  Pretty cool.  Problem solved.

However, I noticed there were other good solutions, include Aqua Notes, a waterproof notepad specifically designed for the shower.  It’s $7.00 plus $3.99 shipping at the site for a 40 page pad, or $10 at Amazon.  I’m going to try this next if the slate doesn’t work out in the long run.  This solution could get expensive.  However it has an advantage over the slate in that you can pull off a page and take it to the computer.

I expect the scuba slate to solve my immediate problem, but I’d like more elaborate permanent solution.  I need a system for taking notes all the time, and from any location.  My iPod touch has a good voice recorder app called Recorder.  I used to own an Olympus digital recorder for dictating notes until I rocked on it with my La-Z-Boy.  Digital recorders are great for in the middle of the night note taking, but I wouldn’t want to take one into the shower, or even a steamy bathroom.

But wouldn’t it be cool to have a smart home that constantly listened to me?  Or even talked to me?  Over the years I’ve seen various science fiction movies where houses had AI butlers built into them.  Now wouldn’t that be cool?  Of course I might go crazy talking to my house all the time.  In the future they might have personal robots that I could chat with and they’d take notes, and be my very own Dr. Watson, but I can’t count on that now.

I created this blog to record my thoughts and called it Auxiliary Memory because I wanted to record my thoughts.  I forget too easily, and I’m forgetting more all the time.   I often reread my older blog posts amazed at forgetting ever writing them.  There is even a movement called lifelogging to record everything a person does in their life, see “Lifelogging 101:  How to record your life digitally.”

Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell wrote a book Total Recall:  How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything.  Bell was a researcher for Microsoft that became the subject of MyLifeBits, an early lifelogging project.

Now, I’m not actually interested in recording my whole life.  I want to record ideas.  I often write in my head thinking I’ll get up and write it all down later, but I don’t.  What I’d really like is a brainstorming recorder.  I just searched “brainstorming recording” on Google and got hits.  See, everything I think about has already been thought of before.  It’s nice to know I’m not the only one with these crazy ideas.

Ultimately I’d like a transparent way to record my thoughts, then mind map them with XMind, research and collect additional information and store that research in Evernote, and finally write it all up in an essay.  Sooner or later some savvy young inventor will invent an app that does all those things at once.

JWH – 9/26/12

How Microsoft Can Make Extra Millions When They Roll Out Windows 8

Dear Microsoft,

When Microsoft rolls out Windows 8 they could make some extra corporate chump change by selling a new version of Windows 7 that’s designed for the “I hate Windows 8″ crowd.   I have a feeling there’s going to be millions of Windows 7 fans that will swear they will give up their favorite OS when it’s pried from their cold dead fingers.

I’ve installed two pre-releases of Windows 8 so far, and I just don’t like it.  Sure it has some slick new functions, but I just don’t like the way it looks.  I keep trying Mac OS and Linux, but I prefer Windows 7 by light years.  I just don’t want Windows 7 to go away.

I build my own computers and I worry that Microsoft will stop selling Windows 7.  So Microsoft, I’d like to buy a copy of Windows 7 that I could put on any machine I build in the future.  I know that operating systems only have a limited supported life, but I’d like to stretch my use of Windows 7 until I die.   I’m 60, and I only expect to live another 15-20 years.

Y’all are still supporting Windows XP which came out in 2001, so I should at least get another 12 years out of Windows 7.  The trouble is the weird activation restrictions.  I don’t blame you for copy protecting your product but it does make my plans more difficult.  How about selling a version of Windows 7 with some kind of activation scheme that ties it to me and any machine I build for home use.  It would be nice to also be able to buy a Family pack version for 3 machines.

I know it’s mean of me to call your new baby ugly, but I’m sure you’re used to old farts not wanting to try newfangled ideas.  Just whip up some kind of marketing campaign – Windows 7 Forever – and make a few extra bucks off us stick-in-the-muds.  I really don’t want to switch to Mac OS and Linux is perennially clunky.

Thanks.

Jim

Inventions Wanted: Pinterest and Street View Mashup

What if there was a way to organize everyone’s photographs into a database we could all share and use in ways we never imagined?

Google Maps Street View is a 3D database of photos organized by location.  What if we used the street locations to pin copies of our photographs?  What if we made Street View 4D, so not only could we walk up and down virtual streets, we could walk up and down them in the past?

Here’s a March 2011 Street View photo of a house my family moved into in 1958, and left just after JFK was killed in November, 1963.

Lake Forest House

And here’s a picture of me, Patty, my sister Becky, and Jodie taken Christmas 1958.

Jimmy-Patty-Becky-Jody-Christmas-1958

As you can see, they have remodeled the house so that it doesn’t look the same (note the faucet in both photos).

Patty---Mike---Becky-April-1959

Here’s another picture with my sister and Patty older, along with my neighbor Michael Kevin Ralph who lived in the house with the awnings. 

How many people have lived in that house in the last 50 years?  What if we all pinned our photographs to that house in Street View?  I have no photographs of the inside of that house, but I’d love to look inside it.  Maybe Michael Kevin Ralph’s mother took some photos when were there.  I have a photo of a birthday party at Patty’s house down the street. 

I could use Street View to walk up and down S.W. 37th Street, Hollywood, Florida and see old friends.  I often think of that old Lake Forest neighborhood.  I could follow the way we walked to school and see photographs that were taken in long forgotten classrooms, or to the 7-Eleven or Kwik-Chek were we bicycled to get Cokes and RC Colas.

Not only would this let us return to past locations, but if we find photos pinned to old locations we might find old friends to reconnect with.  I wonder if Patty or Michael Kevin ever visits this street on Street View?

What if I wanted to go to New York City in the 1930s.  There must have been millions of photographs taken along its streets.  What if I wanted to visit where my father grew up in downtown Miami in the 1920s and 1930s.  How many photographs were taken in those years that could be pinned in this database?

If enough photographs were tagged to Street View eventually we’d have Street View maps of the past.  We could even walk into homes if we had the photos.  If we had enough photographs we could stitch them together in virtual reality simulations.

Not only could we leave photographs, but we could notes and annotate locations with our memories.

Can you imagine what we could all do with such an invention?

Hey, Google, are you listening?

JWH – 6/14/12

Simplified Tax Plans and Flat Tax Rates

Many Republicans are drawn to simplified tax plans that use graduated flat tax rates for federal income taxes.  I’m a liberal, but I also find the idea interesting.  Now the chance of such a system being implemented is very close to zero, but it’s still an interesting topic.

flat-tax-fair-tax-1

Why do simplified tax systems have no chance?  Well, if we had a flat tax, there would be no deductions.  Levying tax breaks gives lawmakers power.  Law makers have various forms of power.  They can regulate and not regulate, they can tax and not tax, they can spend and not spend.  If we went to a flat tax our leaders would lose one-third of their tools of power.  Can you imagine that?

If we went to a flat tax system think of how many millions of people we’d put out of work.  First, many that work at the IRS would be added to the unemployment rolls.  But then think of all those bean counters and lawyers that work at corporations whose careers depend on finding tax loopholes, those people wouldn’t be needed either.  Then companies like Turbo Tax and HR Block would go out of business too.  And think of all those little people who do people’s taxes every year would also be out of work.  And what about lobbyists?  There would be less work for them too.

All-in-all, if we went to a flat tax system it would put millions out of work.  Our complicated system of federal taxes is a never-ending economic stimulus package.  Is getting rid of it even possible?

The government could enact a flat tax so we didn’t even have to prepare annual tax forms – just take their cut in every income transaction.  They could come up with a graduated flat tax so most people would end up paying the same or less than what they do now and the government would earn just as much money without all the complications.  Most advocates hope they would pay less and that tax cheaters would pay more, and the privilege would pay the same as the those people without influence.  Of course that means those with connection to power would pay a lot more.  Are they really going to back such a system?

Theoretically, a flat tax would be fairer, until lawmakers tried to reintroduce the first exception, then it would get complicated all over again.  A flat tax depends on lawmakers giving up their power to help certain groups or endeavors with tax breaks.  Will that ever happen?  I don’t think so.  Can you imagine such a world?  Businesses couldn’t wheel and deal for favors.

And what if this extended to states and cities.  One tax for all.  How could states entice companies into their borders without tax break incentives?  But wouldn’t that also be fairer for competition if everyone had to pay the same taxes?  Could we survive in a society where all individuals and corporations were treated absolutely the same by the taxman?

People get home mortgage deductions because the government wants people to own homes.  That kind of social influence would be over.  Is that good or bad?

What if the government eliminated tax havens and all other forms of “legal” tax evasions so there was no way to to skip out on taxes.  Just kill off accounting chicanery, tax-law loopholes, or off-shore three-card Monte, and the issue of how much people or corporations paid in taxes were no longer an issue for debate – could we handle such a society?

For people who take the standard deduction every year a flat tax wouldn’t be a big deal, but for those people delight in adding up their deductions and lowering their tax bill, a flat tax might be a bummer.  Some people hate to pay taxes and will do anything they can to lower their tax bills.  If they can’t shoot for zero taxes I doubt they will be happy.  What happens if everyone pays the same?  I think a certain percentage of the population would revolt at such egalitarianism.

And should everyone pay the same?  Do some people do things for society that merits lowering their taxes?  Will the go-getters of society be happy if their efforts are taxed in a higher bracket than the indolent?  All flat tax proposals depend on the idea that the poor pay a flat rate less than the rich.  Could we come up with a rate and rational that will satisfied the rich?  Currently the rich live in higher tax brackets, but they get the chance to lower their taxes with our complicated tax system.  If we had a simple system, there would be no hope for them.

Right now the rich protest they pay at a higher tax rate than the poor, so they are being penalized as individuals.  We could think of that in another way, we could create a flat tax saying that norm for all humans is to make $100,000 a year.  If you are unfortunate enough to make less we’ll put you in a lesser tax rate for your suffering.  But should someone making $250,000,000 a year pay at a different rate than someone making $100,000 or $10,000?  Are we taxing the person or the income?  Is a rich person different form a poor person in the eyes of the law?  We could consider income like pollution.  The bigger the impact you have on the environment, the more taxes you pay.  It’s actually very hard to justify how to tax people.  If a person only makes $14,000 and the government makes them pay $1,400, is that the same as someone who makes $140,000 and has to pay $14,000, or someone who makes $140,000,000 and has to pay $14,000,000.  Does 14 million hurt as much to a super-rich person as $1,400 hurt someone on minimum wages?  But if the super-rich have a 20% flat tax, they’d be paying $28,000,000.  They’d still have $112,000,000 to spend that year, whereas the poor person would only have $11,200.

See how hard it is to make a fair tax system.  I suppose we could add up all the expenses for the country and then divide by the 313,000,000 people who live here, and everyone pay their fair share.  But then many people would owe more than they earn.  That’s why the rich have to pay more.

As far as I can foresee, I can’t imagine a flat income tax system ever passing Congress.

JWH 5/5/12

The Five Laws of Evolving Machines

Pay attention to machines around you.  Pretend you’re Darwin observing their habits.  It’s pretty obvious they’re evolving, and they have a parasitic relationship with us.  Biological life arose in the medium of water, machines are rising out of an ocean of humanity.  Most people think of evolution only in terms of biology, but it can be applied to cosmology, particle physics, and now mechanical evolution.  Scientists have often wondered if life could be based on something other than carbon, well, we’re seeing beings of silicon evolve right in front of our eyes.

iphone_4s

The First Law:  Machines Are Becoming More Intelligent

Like single cell animals being outwitted by multi-cell organisms, and the animal kingdom being dominated by humans, machine evolution is moving towards smarter machines replacing dumber.  Generally we think of machines as getting more complex or having more features, but if you compare an iPhone to an old rotary phone, it is more complex, does more, but more than that, it’s far smarter.  We call them smartphones and dumb phones, and the dumb phones are going extinct.

The Second Law:  Machines Are Becoming More Functional

Machines that do more are replacing machines that do less.  Modern sewing machines can do what once took several machines.  Modern refrigerators are no longer just boxes of cold.  A smartphone replaces a cell phone, portable GPS, MP3 player, PDA, camera, video camera, organizer, watch, alarm clock and could replace a laptop and ebook for some users.  My desktop ate my CD player, record player, radio and typewriter.  I can’t tell if my computer is going to eat the TV, or if the TV will eventually eat the computer.  Even a simple machine like a knife evolves to serve more functions.

The Third Law: Machines Are Evolving Towards Simplicity

Machines want to have fewer parts, especially ones that don’t move.  Charles Babbage tried to build a machine that was too mechanically complex to survive.   19th century machines were overwhelmingly complex, they had to evolve into simpler machine we saw in the 20th century.  But even those machines are too complex.  Soon solid state drives will replace hard discs, and people will abandon all forms of optical drives.  Floppy drives disappeared long ago.  But even more mechanical machines like washers, dryers, cars, HVACs, etc. are moving towards fewer moving parts.  Clocks used to be marvels of complexity, and now they are solid state circuits.  Electric cars have far fewer parts than gasoline powered automobiles.

The Fourth Law:  Machines Are Evolving Towards Efficiency

A Kindle ebook can last weeks on one charge.  A Toyota Prius uses less gas than a Edsel.  A modern air conditioner uses a fraction of electricity than a unit back in the 1950s used.  Modern jetliners can fly further and faster on less fuel than their ancestors.

The Fifth Law:  Machine Evolution is Driven by Humans

Human evolution was driven by survival of the fittest adapting to changing environments.  Machines evolve though the competitive needs of people.  One day they will evolve from their own competitive nature, but until then humans are the driving force of machine evolution.  Ultimately we’ll cross breed and form cyborgs.

JWH – 4/17/12

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