Saturday, March 02, 2013

Everyone is Fighting Their Daemons


Many economies in the world are struggling currently. It may have to do with lots of different things, and probably peak oil plays a big role here. That will probably be the topic of another post.

Living abroad, I usually read from different sources, mostly Germany, France, USA and UK. And I always get a good laugh at how other countries always know better for the others, but no one knows how to reform itself.
"France should lower its work cost, reform its pensions, simplify work laws", "Germany should try to get more children", "UK should move back to manufacturing", "The US needs to update its infrastructure".

Still, none of this happen. Or almost nothing. Interestingly enough, local journalists (as well as local people) are not so enthusiast about discussing or even promoting those topics the way they deserve. We all concentrate on gossip, tragic events, the usual political fights, but in the end, the real important issues are never really discussed.

Mainly, this is because those deficiencies are linked to much deeper anchored traumas or legends in the country history. You cannot understand the french economics without knowing that social benefits were established just before WWII, and that a good part of the rules the country now live by have been brought by De Gaulle, just after the country was freed from an invasion. The aversion of the US from a big government has also deep rooted reasons, as old as the country itself. That plays a role preventing a simple unified and - at first sight - costly infrastructure renovation. An airport is so much more standalone and self-reliable than a 500 miles high speed train way.

The good thing is, there are not much countries who haven't their own daemons. Imagine if the US had a top notch electric grid, if France had an economy so dynamic no one could counter it, or if Germany had the birth rate of the US. But it's not just the case, so every country is dealing with a limited growth, but somehow there is a glass ceiling that cannot be broken. All engineer know that every solution, whatever good it is, brings its own problems. Cultures have the same issue as well. Live with it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tech Needs To Get More Sustainable

This week, I declared the home button of my iPhone dead. It still has actually some signs of life, but it's more similar to coma. You have to press it hard up to 20 times to get back to home. Double press is even harder. So I activated the accessibility features, and now I have a white round permanently on my screen which emulates the home button. It works well, but it's still a pain to live with, as this button uses space on my screen. It's not 20 clicks to get back to the home screen, but 2. I wonder how Apple could mess so much here. After years, my Playstation controller X button still works, despite heavy use. Reports I've read mentioned that the engineering save costs on that feature. Too bad. By the way, I know defective home buttons can be fixed.

Other situation, other outcome. My Lenovo work laptop was swapping like crazy (disclaimer - I work at IBM, which sold the Thinkpad unit to Lenovo). I went to the hardware department, the woman servicing the hardware switched the memory in two minutes, and told me how she like the modular system the Thinkpad have. Not only the robustness make them liked for businesses, they are also easily serviceable by the IT departments.

Other hardware fail: recently, my washing machine failed. Computer dead. Too expensive to replace, would cost the price of a new one, said the repairer. He was a really nice guy and not searching to make money at all costs. Instead, he advised me to buy a Miele washing machine, even if used and 8 years old. Because it (arguably) lasts more than 20 years, this is a safe buy.

Miele is a German company known for building appliance that are costly but last decades with very few maintenance. Traditional German engineering, so to say. A new simple washing machine costs around 800 EUR. So this is not cheap, but in the long term this is actually a good investment versus a 500 EUR one that gets broken after 6 or 7 years.

Let's get back to the laptop and smartphone topic. I upgraded my laptop memory because the rest is fine. It's actually working great. I don't need more power. I may not order a new laptop next year, because there is no real need for it. Same for the phone. The iPhone 4 is *fine*, really - outside of the home button. The battery is still in good shape and can hold around 2 days - so much better than the iPhone 3G after the same time. Would not be the defective hardware.

What we'd need is a Miele for high tech. A german company doing the (durable) hardware and a US division doing the software, at best. I remember having had a Bosch phone a while ago, it was just great. Probably Loewe, or Bang & Olufsen are nearer to that. Too bad they don't produce laptops yet. Also they seem to be more triggered toward luxury and exclusiveness than plain, simple, boring quality.

The computer hardware has reached maturity, and the smartphones will soon do. There is no need anymore to upgrade every two years. Too often hardware break is the only reason to buy a new item. So this the question to answer: if I want quality electronics, to what shop do I get? Or is someone going to create that soon?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Place, New Life

If you follow me on social networks then you may have noticed that, well, I was silent. Actually, I was more busy than ever - in the real life, so to say. I moved to Stuttgart. I had that plan for a long time, but if I ever supposed what it looked like, I would have done that a while ago. Life teaches...

I moved to Stuttgart this month, and I don't need to explain you that adding to the Christmas stuff and closing the work year, this is not really a human amount of stuff to execute. But I'm raving. Stuttgart is much more than I thought it would be. The place is in a roll currently. Heard of the German export dream lately? It's clearly manifesting here, and Stuttgart which was a pretty shy city until recently, seems to be in the up and comers. Why then?

Stuttgart is the German capital of the car. This is home to Daimler Mercedes, which invented the car, but also to Porsche (do I need to explain that name to anyone). Bosch, one of the main automotive supplier, is also from here. Audi is around the corner with a major plant in Neckarsulm.

So people drive around with all kind of luxury cars, mostly German, and of preference Mercedes/Porsche over BMW, the traditional enemy. Take that with a grain of salt of course, but this is very marking when you come over here. Beside that, I thought Stuttgart was not much more than a grey city between hills.

Oh, the hills! They make actually the magic of the city. As the usual, the higher you live, the more expensive it is. The hills offer such incredible views of the city! There are magnificent villas to look around, including one built by Le Corbusier. And the Bauhaus began here, also. So there is quite some architecture that you won't notice at the first look but that are actually outstanding. The hills offer some place for some wine from the city itself - and their wine is very much tasty.

Cars, Bauhaus. Stuttgart lives on a kind of simplicity melt together with excess. Things are not always what they seem to be, a lot of richness is hidden. The German "discipline" comes a lot from the south part of the country, and that still lets its marks nowadays. What do I mean with excess and modernity? Well, Stuttgart has two majors modern art museums, but no dedicated big classic museum. And the Mercedes and Porsche museums, both landmarks of architecture. That's the "do one thing, but do it well" applied.

Meanwhile, the 2000's boom has changed the city. 10 years ago, Stuttgart was still marked by its architecture from the 50's. Now, much of it has been integrally renovated, or even rebuild. New neighbourhoods have been and will appear. A new high speed train station is going to be built, integrally under the ground. And when so much is going on economically, other things follow. You know, like culture... It's not that it was ever as bad as told. Germans like to see Stuttgart as the car guys, but not with not much taste for culture. Actually, the Stuttgart opera has been named best German opera a few times for quite some times already. The theatre is getting completely renovated, there are also a few other very good concert halls, like the Liederhalle.

You get me, I'm raving about this city. And don't start me with the awesome connections opportunities, around 2 hours from Zurich and 3.5 from Paris by train. Munich and Frankfurt is around the corner, France less than 2 hours away.

So I have to say goodbye to Tübingen, the town that made me feel so very welcome in Germany. I'm still not far and will still be around there. But I needed to be in a place where I can meet more people and do more things. Now it is.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Do Speeches, Go Without Slides.

This week I had to present our latest features to a group of IBMers from tech sales and services divisions. Those are the guys working with clients to get the stuff to work - in form of demos or production systems with a defined, often customized, architecture.

They asked clearly to get as few charts as possible, so quickly I had my decision - I would make this presentation without slides. I would make it a speech. And discussion. Not a slide-based presentation, in any case.

So I just stood in front those people, and at the beginning that was a bit unusual, but as I came into the topic, two things struck me:
- People were looking at me, not the charts. They were actually listening, and I could clearly see that they weren't struggling understanding the charts - there were none. Instead, I got a bunch of questions, and we got in a deep discussion about the topic. Which was very useful for them to understand well the new features and their impact.
- You avoid the usual question: "Can I get those charts?", "what does this chart means?". Instead, the whole discussion was based on what I spoke about. Much better.

Looking backward, I see other fantastic advantages to not use any charts at all:
- It is much more flexible. If a question comes in that may influence further points, just go to those directly. You are not a slave of the chart ordering anymore. Because a presentation rarely runs as intended.
- It saves a lot of time! How many hours did you spend in your last presentation? Was it really worth it? Think about it. Getting this cool picture from a colleague, and then adapting the whole style, readapting the template. Should I mention the colleague in chart 12? etc etc, you know what I mean. Without slides, you just have to prepare yourself an outline on a few post-it. 15-20 min of work max. Mastering the topic is quite more work - but you'd have to master it as well if you use slides, wouldn't you?
- It is so much reliable! You don't need to care anymore if there is a VGA cable, or if the resolution is fine, if you have backups, etc. You only need to care not to faint, but that is also the case if you use a
slideshow ;)

Of course I am not arguing that you should never use charts. They are sometimes useful. But do you need slides for all your presentation, or are they oy needed for that for showing some particular point at one or two moments in the presentation? Try it!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Twitter and 140 characters. It's not about content.

The idea I want to expose is probably nothing new, but still I think worth to explain again - in a different light given the recent moves from Facebook and Google+.

In this post I argue that the 140 character limit has not so much to do with the fact that such short texts are fast and easy to read. Neither that it limits "chatty" comments. Rather, I think it has all to do with the visual flow. 140 characters allow to display content in boxes of very similar and regular size, and it allows to display a flow even on smaller mobile devices.

So let's discuss first how I discount the importance of text size:
- To get around the short size, people are using all kinds of hashtags, using lots of abbreviations, squeezing punctuations. That makes tweets actually hard to read. For a matter of facts, I often see people not familiar with Twitter looking at my timeline and saying "I don't understand what they write". The keyword here is obfuscation. Sure, when you're using Twitter a lot, that helps, but for the average user, that makes tweets no faster to read that longer, but clearer ones.
- Is 140 character a sanity limit against too chatty people? Probably not, they write just much more tweets to compensate (You're probably in the 10% if you know that story from 2009).

So now why has Twitter been so successful? I'll argue that its decisive advantage against Facebook and MySpace is the visual design. More specifically, it's table design. In short, Twitter is like Excel. And it's no coincidence that Excel is still one of the most popular software out there.

Table are quick to proceed, and an extremely efficient way to navigate through information - even if it's text. You can also see that with the popularity of the table in HTML since it's early days. If tag clouds were more efficient to parse, they would have dominate the web. But they are not efficient, so they stay as a neat gadget out here.

In current visual design, grids are everything. And are the base for visual consitency. The iPhone resolution is based on the grid that widgets based on. So it's really rooted into the device.

So now take a look at those screen captures:


This is Google Plus. I can only see one and a half post, and those are relatively small ones. Some post may cover many screens. Also the bottom bar is taking up more space.


This is Twitter. Despite two posts being very near 140 characters, 4 tweets are fitting on one screen. There is a difference in height between a one liner and a full 140 characters tweet, but it's not that big.

So if your goal is to follow quite a big quantity of different sources, Twitter is definitely more efficient, because it enables such a fast raster between tweets. Google is more seeking depth and content richness, which is fully ok, but in my opinion the reason Twitter is not going to disappear yet.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My IAA Report

This post comes a bit late as I have been kept quite busy lately by private stuff... So finally here it is, with a few weeks delay:

So again this time, I went to the IAA in Frankfurt. This is the biggest motor show in the world, so I thought it would be worth getting there again. And of course, I'm interested in cars, so I wanted to see the last developments.

There's a lot to report about. And I didn't try that hard to seek information. So I'll go over a few different aspects of the show.

General

Like last time, I was impressed by the sheer size of the marketing involved. Millions invested in making huge boots, with huge screens, loud music, and all the like. Well, this time again. I'll describe that in the booth section. Going there a Friday, I was surprised of the crowded attendance. It seem to have been quite a successful year for the show. So let's begin with the report:

Booths

Some things have changed obviously since two years ago. Going by some brands, my impressions:
- Audi got outside with a mega-booth that was quite impressive from an architectural view. They have an integrated driving circuit in the building, which has its effect, but the expo space inside was quite limited. It was incredibly crowded, so it was hard to even see entire cars. Two years ago, it was almost quiet at the Audi booth.

- Mercedes had a HUGE booth. It's gigantic. Very impressive scenery, actually mimicking their Stuttgart Museum. Lots of people there, but enough space to enjoy the models and go into the cars:


- BMW presented something similar to two years ago, slightly modified. They seem to still run on the investment they made two years ago - also on the environment side. No big new things there.

- Porsche had a booth open to everyone - in contrast to other luxury & sport brands like Ferrari or Aston Martin. You may argue that those are more luxurious, I think partly this has to do with the desire from Porsche to be in the hearts of the nation. They're proud to be considered a popular car maker. I was told by friends "you can drive to work with a Porsche, not with a Ferrari". So kudos to Porsche on that. I could step in a Panamera by the way, where the brown leather on the console was quite blending the outside view. Better take that boring black, it's mostly used for a reason!

- Renault had a quite laid back, well organized booth. And it was full of elegance. Simple but beautiful cars, with original but very trendy colours. Also they have a lot going on on the green side. More on the next section. What I also really liked on their booth is both their attention to design, with quite a few concept cars that are much more original than the German ones, as well as their attention to the past. Mercedes used the history trick in the former IAA, Renault presented a fantastic R4 this year:



Design

There were not many breaking new designs to see. One effect I could notice is that corners are now a property of very expensive cars. May there be Lamborghinis, Rolls Royce, or Mercedes.
Mini is going bold with the new coupé serie. VW presented quite some interesting variations of the Up, but those are just artist works that will never land in a store.

Environment

Of course, everyone is doing a pitch on environment. Except maybe Rolls Royce. Still, I saw nothing completely new. On the evolution side though, there quite some changes to observe. For one, there were a whole hall reserved for alternative energies, said the entry panel at least (well actually, once I was in, there was only a half hall).
Personally, I think the big change now is that major cars company are now selling electric cars. Yes, Renault, I'm looking at you! Renault comes with 4 different models, some from scratch, other basing on existing traditional models. Not all are available now on the market, but should soon. Renault was by far the big company putting its electric strategy in the forefront, but Opel was there also with the Ampera, which is now available for sale, based on the Chevy Volt.
There are also some new accessories appearing: SolarWorld makes a product called the SunCarport, and as its name suggest it, it's a carport with a roof made of solar cells. So you can park your car under it, and the carport produces clean energy that can be either fed into the utilities or used to recharge the car. We'll see how that second use case goes as people usually drive away with their car at day.
Outside the "electric hall" there were a small fleet of e-cars for test drives. It struck me how silent those cars are, especially when driving slow. Sure additional sound will be needed to make them secure for pedestrians.

Tech

Actually, while there were not that much breaking news on the green side, for the me the great novelty was the explosion of driving assistants. Mercedes was doing a live demo with a full simulator to present its concept while showing a car driving on the highway.
What is very interesting here, is that a few companies now do have a technology for self driving car. Audi was mentioning the technology but I didn't see any demo.
IBM had a small booth around Smarter Transportation (disclaimer: I work there). I wonder why Google wasn't there with their self-driving technology. Tech is invading the real world. Actually, it is quite interesting that car makers are telling a lot "We're not taking you the control", because in many cases they have. Many of the tech presented on the show is actually very near self-driving tech. Audi lane assist, for example, was recently shown on TV more or less taking the car alone through a curve. We're going to see much more discussion around that in the next few years.

Also the cars do now have a very impressive connectivity. All kinds of players are connectible by default, many cars propose WLAN in the car, etc. The iPads and iPhones are invading the in-car electronics. How long before an entertainment system or even car information goes on the smartphones or tablets? Not long, I think. It's happening right now in the planes, but that's a topic for another post.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Mobile!

Thanks to Blogger, this blog is now accessible from mobile devices - smartphones, iPods and similar. Tablets should be able to use the usual desktop formatting. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Plain HTML: Back to the Roots

Forget application servers, content managers, JSF, ruby on rails... When I work on a web page or small web app for me, I try as far as possible to go with plain HTML and JavaScript. I think I need to justify myself now to why I'm mostly sticking to that tech.

- It's elegant. Probably my favorite reason - the code is all consistent because there's no other dependency than the browser. So the code can be capitalized correctly and formatted properly. It's very compact, so it has probably less bugs than in some more chatty format that many frameworks usually produce.
- It keeps you in contact with the underlying technology. And the web technology is advancing fast. Chance is your plain content will be able to do always more (CSS animations anyone?) with so less code than a non-native framework. Why using any framework function when the browser can do it alone? It's often faster and more reliable with the browser technology, and that way also doesn't need bridge technologies like external renderers (Flash! Silverlight!). Often, frameworks are a bit behind, so it's always good to be up to date and know when to do simpler.
- You can use your usual tooling. You never know when a framework will need a strange compiler or Java library that is cumbersome to get and use. That risk just isn't there with plain HTML/CSS/JavaScript. You can just start your favorite editor and push updates to the server with any tools you're comfortable with, from the file manager to an automated rsync script.

Of course, almost the same could be said of Unix tools - except that the Unix command line doesn't have ground-breaking changes anymore...

Edit 10/08/2011:
Thinking back about this post remembered me how Amazon made EC2 available as a static page host platform. Of course, EC2 doesn't imply a back to the root approach - you could use GWT's compiler, over even a homebrew code generator to produce a static site from dynamic data - but it fosters it. Github is also proposing static page hosting.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Society Of Anticipation - The Loss Of Spontaneity?

There was a very good comment this morning made on the French Radio France Inter. I like to hear this radio channel because of its very high quality content.

So the chronic - you can even listen to the French podcast - argues that iPads, iPhones, the need to consult feeds and Twitter all the time have to do with our desire to anticipate the future - at least the near one. They also link the 9/11 to the time this anticipation came to be a political decision, translating in lots of money being invested monitoring networks and all kind of monitoring data in almost real time to find out who is about to do harm. Notice that's also short before Minority Report came out. Also there is a similar trend going on in finance, and now other areas - medicine, police investigations, etc.

But one might argue also that this is no new fact, and also do to with the wide use of the Web, which allows such processes in the first time. Actually, people always wanted to know the future, that may be for winning wars or for getting the seeds planted at the right time.

One side effect of that, is that all this tech gears has quite some influence on people behaviors. It's harder to meet people spontaneously it seems to me. Many tell they're busy while they're actually probably checking out Facebook or playing online games (or blogging...). Friends used to just come by my apartment. People used to just meet at the local bar around the same time every week.

It seems to me that I meet less people that I used before I was on Facebook. I may be biased. But we should remember that personal relationships matters more than things happening online.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

How local newspapers should answer to the digital era

My local newspaper, the "Schwäbisches Tagblatt" is one that I like and that provide unique content about my town and what's happening around me. I like to read it now & then. But I almost never buy it. Why?
- It's a pain to get the physical version. I have to stop by some local store just for that newspaper. I get early to work and often come late when many shops are closed - and I work in a different area where this newspaper is not available, so lunch break is not an option to get one.
- I don't want an subscription. I'll never get the time to read the paper version entirely every day - moreover, I want diversity. Sometimes I'll read the Stuttgart newspaper, sometimes Le Monde and sometimes Forbes. I have no will to pay for stuff I'll not use. Also, in Germany, you have to put your paper in a separate trash that gets emptied only once a month, so it's also too much paper for me to keep at home.

What would I like? The same as big newspaper are providing. A model where I can buy single issues as PDF, iPad app or HTML5 page without subscription for a price well under the paper one, because there's no printing, shipping etc. included.

The Tagblatt already has quite a good online presence. With top articles, movie theater schedules and so on. It's quite good and provides a lot of value already. Still I'd like to have access to the entire content, and pay for it. I'd be more than happy to pay for it given it offers me the needed flexibility - like do Forbes, Le Figaro, and many others (not Business Week though - they offer only subscription. Probably they can afford that now they're part of Bloomberg).


But it's too expensive for small newspapers! Well, yes, if everyone do its own solution for scratch. There are more than 300 regional newspapers in Germany only. They could all use a couple frameworks to deliver their information to widely used format, and also do the payment system together.
What do I care about the local information? I care about the information that's in, not the design. There are very defined sections that most newspapers need, and I don't buy the local newspaper because it's shiny and well designed. Adopting a format like Treesaver should provide enough quality to display the information a newspaper needs to publish.

Many local newspapers are slow to move, because they have the monopoly in their area. But this could be a hard landing for many of them, like this is has recently been in the United States. Our local information matters, and I'd like to keep it alive.