And now, for a moment of geekery

New rule: If I have an electronic thingy (laptop, smartphone, tablet) in front of me, and you have an electronic thingy in front of you: you are not allowed to give me paper.

New rule addendum: If there is a projector in the room and you STILL try and give me paper, I get to kick you in the shins.

I'm head of IT for a biotechnology & reseach company. Which means I get to work with a lot of smart people. Smart people that have laptops and iPads. Smart people who still want to use their laptops and iPads to print out paper to hand to me. Me who also has a laptop and iPad. You get where I'm going. They're not evil. It's just habit. It's the same at offices everywhere. 

Once a year or so, my team does a comprehensive analysis of how much we spend on toner, printer maintenance, cost per page, etc, and we decide what to do about it. We print tens and tens of thousands of pages a week. We recently switched out all our printers for these really cool Xerox machines that run off of wax instead of traditional ink. Very green and cost friendly. And every print-out smells like a box of crayola. It's cool, and it saves us a bunch of money. But wouldn't it be even better if we reduced the amount of printouts we used in the first place? How many pages are printed each week that could be simply avoided? 1%? 5%? 10%? 

But other than kicking people in the shins when they make bad choices, how do you find a more gentle and elegant way to use that information more than once a year, and help people make good choices every day?

 A few years ago, a company was founded out of the MIT labs called Ambient Devices made a really nifty bit of kit called the Ambient Orb. It turned a metric into a color, and put it over in the corner of your visiion as a constant reminder. It's easier and more "ambient" than a website you have to log in to (hence the name).  And it's kind of a cool, interesting, and easy way to display information where details are less important than the general state. The beauty is in the simplifying the interface to a color that provides meaning to your metric.


Along with all that paper we consume, we also use a lot of power. We make and store biological material. We have to keep it cold.We have a lot of freezers. I mean, a lot. They use a lot of electricity. We're the single biggest consumer of electricity in the local city.  

We do a lot to make things more efficient, and have found all the big opportunies. Still, is there stuff we could do to reduce that by 1%? 3%? 5%? Probably. Switch off my monitor when I go home. Turn off the lights in the conference roomwhen the meeting is over. Those kinds of things. They add up. They accumulate into real savings, and real impact over time.  

But just like people who print stuff off, I forget to hit the switch on my way out the door.   I can log into my power company account and see my home energy consumption in almost real time, any time I want. But I don't. I check it once a month or once a quarter. The data is there. But I'm not using it to change my behavior on a daily basis because of the barrier to getting it. (which is pretty low, I must say). 

Goals to reduce waste and energy consumption by - for instance - 5% per year are pretty typical company aspirations. We're ISO 14001 certified. We have an environmental mission statement. We're officially green. But people still give me paper I don't want, and I still forget to turn off the lights. 

It got me thinking: What if we had one of those orbs at the front desk when you walk in. Green means we were on track yesterday for our 5% savings. Blue means we're between 96-99% of 'norm'. Red means we're using more paper, more electricity, more whatever than we want to use as a company. Would it change behavior to know that yesterday was a bad day, and today you could help offset it? Without impacting the business success, would it be more effective than getting an email from me once a year ranting about printers?

And how rewarding would it be to see it move back from 'disappointed red' to 'healthy green'? 

That kind of feedback mechanism is simply missing in a lot of things - we know we want to achieve X, but we have little way to know if we're doing so real time. Wouldn't it be great if we could find a way to leverage the data we already have in a way that provides that kind of visual cue to our success & commitment? 

So, I followed up on with Ambient Devices. They stopped selling the orbs commercially a few years back, but they'd 'be happy to make a special production run for me, if I committed to buy 3,000 or more. 
Um. No. 
But how hard could this freaking be? It's a glass ball with some colored lights in it. Controlled by some simple little input string. They were selling about twenty bucks worth of parts for a hundred bucks and a monthly subscription fee. 
Now I felt challenged. No way could I not build one of these things. Thanks to the internet, I found out I was not even close to the first.

I read through a few of these DIY versions, and picked up an Arduino board last week (a programmable microprocessor board), and spent some time futzing with it. It's generally programmed in C, with a few additional functions specific to the board (things like controlling the voltage going to a specific pin, or using the serial in/out for different ways of relaying information to the board). It's an open source standard, and the creativity that people have shown with it knows no ends. It looked (and really is) easy enough to pick up and have a go. But you should have seen me trying to remember how to use resistors - I'm a computer guy. The last time I did this kind of thing was in a EE class in university more than a couple of decades ago. 

Once I sorted it out with a simple connection of 3 LEDs (red, green and blue), I set up a sketch to control the intensity of each, interpreted by a standard webformat color (e.g. #ffffff), input over a terminal screen (the arduino is connected to my laptop via a usb cable).  (that's purple (#ff00ff), green (#00ff00) and red (#ff0000) below). 

I popped off the hook end of a frosted glass christmas ornament, and dropped it over the LEDs and voila. Not a bad ambient orb.

I added an ethernet shield, and gave it an IP address, and added a little web service to allow it to be controlled over the network, plugged into any network port. The LEDs weren't quite bright enough, so I added a BlinkM MaxM LED, which has about a hundred-fold intensity. Boom. Pretty up the base and we're in business. 

Now I have an indicator that I can set up in common areas as a simple, visual reminder of how we're doing on our goals. We could use this for anything, of course - it's easy to configure for any metric you care to track. I'll be happy if I stop walking out of meetings with more paper than I walk in with. 

Now if only I could figure out how to fix a string of Christmas lights without having to throw the whole thing out and buy a new one.

Personal technology for a geeky luddite

Last week, I  added a couple of new technologies to our household. I realized when I set them up that these were the first truly new technologies I had added to the house in a couple of years or more. Which might seem pretty odd for a guy in charge of IT.  But either as a sign of age, wisdom or crotchiteness, I'm much more selective about the technology that enters our house these days. It's got to meet certain criteria of both usefuleness, ease and form. 

Computers: In addition to my MacBook Pro for work, I have a 21" quad core iMac on my desk at home. Which I love for the beauty of the display as well as the processor power. I tend to keep my work stuff segregated to my laptop, though I've been known to use the large Mac for graphics or the occasional Powerpoint creation.   I gave up Windows about 4 years ago now, more or less, and though I have occasional pangs of longing for some particular bit of software or other that I can't find on a Mac, they are truly rare moments these days. 

In addition, my Bride and the Critter also have their own MacBook Air laptops. (Our local school is all Mac based). We have one Windows NetBook left in the house, as the software that runs my Bride's fancy Swiss sewing machine is Microsoft only. (I also have a graveyard of 4 or 5 old computers in a cupboard under my stairs. One day, I am going to clean that out, I promise). 


Tablets & eReaders: We have 2 iPads (both 2nd gen) in the house, and 3 Kindles. (I've written about the relative strengths and weaknesses between them before).  

If I had to break down the use, though, I'd say I use my iPad very little, and almost exclusively for work (as a handy viewer of documents and email in meetings or when I'm not in the office), occasionally to look something up quickly, and rarely for anything else. My (4 year old) son probably uses the other iPad the most, as a viewer for Netflix and/or for one of the games. Mine is a 3G iPad, and my bride's is WiFi only. If I had it to do over again, I'd probably just stick with WiFi for both. 

Even though I remain a big fan of the iPad Kindle app, my Bride & I moved to our own Kindle Touch (not Fire) this last Christmas. The Critter inherited her mom's 2nd gen Kindle for a while, but it eventually gave up the ghost, and she now has a basic Kindle that she loves as well.

 When I read, I want to read, and not be distracted by eMails or the tendency to browse or "just check this one thing". In addition, the form factor, robustness and usability of the Kindle (read on the beach, anyone?) appeals to me much better. The touch interface is still some distance behind the iPad in many ways, but for all that this is a single-purpose device, it almost certainly is the one bit of technology that I would mourn the most if I was forced to do without.  

Network & Backup: It was very early days that this became important to me. Just after we were married (18 years ago this next month), my Bride lost about a week's worth on her thesis to a failed hard drive. We were living in central Texas. The nearest computer shop was 45 minutes away, and he was unimpressed with ideas like "timelines" or "service levels". And I quote: "Well, Mr Grady, it's not the end of the world if it takes an extra few days to recover..." 

Yes, Tex. It would've been. 

However, with the advent of the 'personal cloud', I am feeling a lot better about my backup state these days.  We have several thousand photos online at this point. Many of them are stored on Flickr, but I still sync them across my network with Time Machine. (All of the computers in my house, with the excption of the one Windows netbook, are backed up this way. I have had to restore twice off of these backups, and have thanked Apple for their ease of interface both times.)  However, given the importance of so much of our electronic data. I will almost certainly add iCloud or another online backup service in the coming months as well, as a 'belt & suspenders' approach.  

Unfortunately for me, Comcast cable is really the only provider of note where I am, so I haven't been able to make the switch to Fios. Even though both are contractually throttled at around the same rate ("up to" 15mbps), fiber optic service is technically capable of higher throughput and suffers less down time than cable, historically.  It's steadily creeping out my way, though, and we'll definitely be switching as soon as it makes it to Carlisle. 

DVR: Ok. I don't care how big a luddite you are. The reason the internet was invented was so that mankind didn't have to do without TiVo anymore. 

I'm pretty sure this is how Jesus watches TV. 

Sharing & Collaboration: One of the best things we've done is start using a shared note taking application as a family. We use Evernote (since we're Mac users), and can easily update lists, tasks, share notes, etc. Add to a grocery list on the go, or take a note about a doctor's appointment. Otherwise, we'd never stay synced with all the family activities.  

For work, I greatly prefer to take notes electronically. I was never organized enough to keep them tidy when I used paper, and two months after the fact, I'd be trying to find some random scrap of paper from that one discussion on some esoteric topic that triggered a thought or a visualization that I'd like to refer back to. And so often, those notes became the core of the minutes and actions from a meeting, or the basis of an email or other communication. Having them electronic from the start makes me much more efficient at following up with others. 

Cameras: I've owned at least one digital camera since 1998, and currently have 4 or 5, if I count my phone in the mix. I've tried Olympus, Sony, Canon, Nikon, HP, and probably one or two other of the cheapo point-and-click variety. Each of the kids has a digital camera now. I've got both a 'point-n-shoot' Sony still (which I never use anymore) as well as a Canon SLR (EOS Rebel Xsi) with a couple of lenses (which I love, but use less now that my camera phone doesn't suck. See below). I'm by no means an expert photographer, and my strategy remains "take lots of pictures. You'll find one you like," which translates into lots of digital file management.  With the advent of the iPhone 4, I find it harder to keep my photo library synchronized in a central place, which is meaning that I'm needing to rethink my photo management strategy, I find.  I've tried Picasa and iPhoto, and find them both to cover about 90% of an overlapping set of needs. But haven't found the one that I'm ready to switch everything to yet.  

On my wish list is a Lytro camera - which uses new lightfield technology to capture views and images. (back to my growing obsession with photography). 

Phones: I have said in the past that if it wasn't for work, I'd probably not bother with a cell phone, as I'm not a big phone talker. I don't know if that's true anymore, as the phone now does so much more than just lets you talk to folks. With Apple products in the rest of the house, it's probably not surprising that we're also dedicated iPhone users, which allows a great degree of syncing across devices. I recently had the chance to test drive the new Motorola Razr for a few weeks for free, and while there were things I liked about it, it was different enough that I'd have had to reteach my fingers new muscle memories. And the differences didn't add up to an advantage. It was just different. So it went back, and I stuck with my iPhone. 

Probably the most frequently used app (besides eMail), is Evernote, as above. Followed by JogLog - an app that keeps track of my running distance and time for me. However, the app that made me happiest on a personal level is the upgrade of the camera, and all of the associated apps that came along with photo editing and sharing. 

We have not yet given up the separate house phone, though we've talked about with increasing frequency. I'm sort of hanging on to it as a phone for my daughter to use as such things grow more likely (vs. getting her a cell phone). Though that excuse is wearing thinner with the increase in "please consider donating to our candidate" calls we get in the evenings. 

Other stuff: The biggest technology investment I have made in the last 12 months was definitely my car. I moved from a 1967 Ford pickup with manual everything, to a fully loaded 2012 Mini Cooper S, with the best technology package I could put into it. Bluetooth is my friend. And satellite radio is a life changer. I'm not sure how I ever lived before I found the all-bluegrass, all-the-time station. (I am so not kidding about this). 

And because staying in reasonable shape is an increasing focus for me as the years go by, I also just bought a new connected scale from WiThings, that lets me track and monitor my weight and BMI via an app. They also sell a blood pressure cuff that I'll probably buy in the future. Mostly so I have data I can share in my discussions with my physician, and to keep my health front of mind, so to speak. 

The technology in my house that I continue to be most impressed with (but use practically never) is the Kinect for the XBox. The kids use it to play games (although not that frequently either), but I've seen some development work for it involving remote diagnostics (letting physicians track the progress/status of their patients with multuple sclerosis, for example, when they can't make it into the office) that are truly remarkable. I bought it mostly just so I could support the continued investment in that platform, as it's one of the most revolutionary I've seen yet. (the xBox was originally purchased - and is still used overwhelmingly - for streaming Netflix on demand). 

That purchase was an exception for me, however. For all that I feel responsible for keeping up with technology and try to keep my finger on what's happening, I rarely run right out to buy most new technologies. More of my purchases are like the WiThings scale - I'm looking for technology that both suits a purpose and works with the other tools that I have.

I have very few technology "point" or "siloed" solutions in my house. For me to bring ina new t has to blend & compliment with the other tools I have or needs I manage. It's interesting to think about how the kids will use these tools later in life. I think the idea that we would have one place to store pictures (an album), one place to look at movies, one place to get recipes, etc. - none of which talk to each other - would be absolutely insane to them.

Meanwhile, I'm still struggling to figure out the voicemail menu on my Comcast service... (Why on earth is "7" the delete key? What 6 other things could I want to do to a voicemail?)

For all your chicken jugular inquiries

I rarely do this, but here were the top 10 searches that drove people to this website this week: 

  • "women killing rooster"
  • "chicken jugular"
  • "hand crank chipper blade" 
  • "cinder block hog roast"
  • "braised beef shank tough"
  • "ford pick up gilmore girls"
  • "cockled"
  • "sorghum candy"
  • "how long does it take for a salami to be overdue"
  • "focusing on the important things"

The juxtaposition of the last one with the rest makes me happy.