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Advice for Entering College Freshmen

As it’s currently high school graduation season, I’ve been asked by a few friends (who have younger siblings about to graduate) about the advice I’d give to new high school graduates about to become college freshman. While I defer to (older :-D) folks like Guy Kawasaki and Charles Wheelan for some of the deeper insights about how to live one’s life, there is one distinct line of thought that I left with my friends’ siblings and that I wanted to share with all new high school grads/entering college freshmen:

Like with most truths about life, this will seem contradictory. First, take classes seriously. I know its not the sexiest bit of advice, but hear me out: college is one of the last places where you will be surrounded by scholars (both faculty and students) and where your one job in life is to learn how to think. Take advantage of that while it lasts, and make every effort to push your mental horizons. Second, and here’s the contradictory part: don’t take your classes TOO seriously. While I don’t mean its a good thing to fail, I’d encourage new students to never be afraid of skipping a class or a homework assignment if it means finding time for a friend or making time for a great opportunity. College is more about the friends you make and the things you learn outside of the classroom than the time you spend in/on it — and that’s why at the end, I wish I had both taken my classes more seriously and less seriously — in different ways.

I hope this is helpful and congratulations to the class of 2012!

PS: I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention the post I did a few months ago on general career advice for students 🙂

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My Next Business Card

If you’ve been listening to the radio at all in the past month, you’ve likely heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s very cute song “Call Me Maybe” (the twist at the end of the video is worth a watch alone).

Well, I just heard one of the greatest suggestions: business cards based on this song. To that end, I proposed the following rough sketch of my next business card 🙂

Hey I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my number
Benjamin Tseng
(XXX) XXX-XXXX

So call me maybe?

Good idea? Or GREATEST IDEA EVER?

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American Politics’ Obsession with College

A few months ago, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum attacked Barack Obama’s stated desire to have more Americans pursue higher education. Santorum’s reasons for doing this were fundamentally political: he wanted to portray Obama as a snobby liberal against the image he was hoping to convey of himself as a down-to-earth practical guy who doesn’t want to see money wasted on liberal indoctrination (or whatever it is Santorum thinks happens in colleges…)

While I’m no fan of Santorum’s hypocritical intentions there (anyone else notice how he neglected to mention his own college degree – let alone his MBA and JD?), I do think its worth considering the skeptical view towards American politics’ fixation (dare I say obsession?) with driving up college attendance.

shutterstock_50212558300x450This skeptical view is basically encapsulated in a single question: if the goal is to  get more Americans to go to college, why don’t we just make high school last eight years rather than four?

If we were to somehow able to achieve 100% (or even something like 60-70%) college admissions, an extended high school education (where the last four years might be more advanced and based on applications to different institutions) is basically what you would be creating.

If we think of getting the majority of kids into college in that sense, it begs the question: What would a world like that look like? I’d hazard the following two guesses:

  • First, the costs would be enormous. Even today, with many colleges being independent of the government and with many students bearing the brunt of the cost of college directly, there is huge government involvement with financing. An “eight year high school system”, even if we assumed miraculous levels of efficiency and public-private partnership never before seen in the education system and government, would likely require a huge amount of dollars spent by the taxpayer and by students – if only to provide the financial support lower-income families would need to attend higher education.
  • Second, I believe you would see the number of people going into advanced degrees (Masters, PhD’s, MBA’s, JD’s, MD’s, MPH’s, etc) would skyrocket. The reason for that is simple: if everyone goes to college – then its the same as if nobody went to college: the mark of attending college ceases to have any value in setting yourself apart from other people in the eyes of an employer. The funny thing is – one of the reasons I chose the “eight year high school” analogy is precisely because of the analogy that results: that college grads would became the equivalent of today’s high school grads: in the same trouble in terms of competing in the workforce and finding themselves needing to go to “college” (in this case getting an advanced degree).

One might even argue that a much more educated workforce is worth the cost but what this little thought experiment shows is that just extending high school by four years (the logical equivalent of getting much higher rates of college admissions) is not the obvious universal good that most politicians seem to suggest it is. The fact that students need to go to college at all to participate effectively in the workforce, in my opinion, says more about the lack of effectiveness of our K-12 system than about the value of college.

I think a more meaningful (and hopefully time-and-cost-effective) solution to our education system’s woes would actually be to address the real problems: (1) how students seem to not get enough out of K-12 to contribute to the workforce and (2) how students are forced to pursue expensive degrees just to compete.

  1. Bring K-12 quality up to what is needed for people to succeed in today’s workforce. I think this means investing in early education – study after study shows that some of the most effective education investments are those made in pre-kindergarten Head Start programs – embracing new technology-enabled approaches like Sal Khan’s brilliant Khan Academy, changing how we train and compensate teachers, and doubling down on training employable skills (like some of the ones I mentioned here). None of these are that controversial (although the devil is in the details) – what matters is being committed to the notion of increasing the value of K-12 rather than the just the years kids spend in school.
  2. Build an actually meaningful system of educational accreditation. Today, one of the most important ways to signal to employers that you can be a decent worker is a piece of paper that costs some $100,000+ called a college diploma. That piece of paper is not only extremely expensive, it also does a terrible job of elaborating what a person is good at (forcing many people to pursue further degrees). This system of accreditation really only serves colleges and the companies/people who make money off of them (i.e., admissions counselors/prep services, etc). An accreditation system which actually meaningfully communicated what people’s talents were (i.e. this person is extremely good at math, even though he did not major in math at a top 50 college; or this person is really good at machinework, even though she spent most of her last job planning events, etc) would be beneficial for both employers — who now have a better sense of who they are hiring — and workers — who can now be more discriminating about the value of their education and not needlessly participate in the rat race of tallying up schools/programs which only serve as a rubber stamp on your ability to pay expensive tuition.
These are not quick-and-easy fixes: they are after all major changes to how people/politicians view the world and require not only resources but some very slow-moving institutions to change how they think and operate, but it makes a lot more sense to me than continuing a dogma about how education should work, rather than taking a hard look at some of underlying issues.

(Image credit – SFGate/The Mommy Files)

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My Takeaways from GTC 2012

If you’ve ever taken a quick look at the Bench Press blog that I post to, you’ll notice quite a few posts that talk about the promise of using graphics chips (GPUs) like the kind NVIDIA and AMD make for gamers for scientific research and high-performance computing. Well, last Wednesday, I had a chance to enter the Mecca of GPU computing: the GPU Technology Conference.

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If it sounds super geeky, it’s because it is :-). But, in all seriousness, it was a great opportunity to see what researchers and interesting companies were doing with the huge amount of computational power that is embedded inside GPUs as well as see some of NVIDIA’s latest and greatest technology demo’s.

So, without further ado, here are some of my reactions after attending:

    • NVIDIA really should just rename this conference the “NVIDIA Technology Conference”. NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang gave the keynote, the conference itself is organized and sponsored by NVIDIA employees, NVIDIA has a strong lead in the ecosystem in terms of applying the GPU to things other than graphics, and most of the non-computing demos were NVIDIA technologies leveraged elsewhere. I understand that they want to brand this as a broader ecosystem play, but let’s be real: this is like Intel calling their “Intel Developer Forum” the “CPU Technology Forum” – lets call it what it is, ok? 🙂
    • Lots of cool uses for the technology, but we definitely haven’t reached the point where the technology is truly “mainstream.” On the one hand, I was blown away by the abundance of researchers and companies showcasing interesting applications for GPU technology. The poster area was full of interesting uses of the GPU in life science, social sciences, mathematical theory/computer science, financial analysis, geological science, astrophysics, etc. The exhibit hall was full of companies pitching hardware design and software consulting services and organizations showing off sophisticated calculations and visualizations that they weren’t able to do before. These are great wins for NVIDIA – they have found an additional driver of demand for their products beyond high-end gaming. But, this makeup of attendees should be alarming to NVIDIA – this means that the applications for the technology so far are fundamentally niche-y, not mainstream. This isn’t to say they aren’t valuable (clearly many financial firms are willing to pay almost anything for a little bit more quantitative power to do better trades), but the real explosive potential, in my mind, is the promise of having “supercomputers inside every graphics chip” – that’s a deep democratization of computing power that is not realized if the main users are only at the highest end of financial services and research, and I think NVIDIA needs to help the ecosystem find ways to get there if they want to turn their leadership position in alternative uses of the GPU into a meaningful and differentiated business driver.
    • NVIDIA made a big, risky bet on enabling virtualization technology. In his keynote, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced with great fanfare (as is usually his style) that he has made virtualization – this has made it possible to allow multiple users to share the same graphics card over the internet. Why is this potentially a big risk? Because, it means if you want to have good graphics performance, you no longer have to buy an expensive graphics card for your computer – you can simply plug into a graphics card that’s hosted somewhere else on the internet whether it be for gaming (using a service like GaiKai or OnLive) or for virtual desktops (where all of the hard work is done by a server and you’re just seeing the screen image much like you would watch a video on Netflix or YouTube) or in plugging into remote rendering services (if you work in digital movie editing). So why do it? I think NVIDIA likely sees a large opportunity in selling graphics chips which have , to date, been mostly a PC-thing, into servers that are now being built and teed up to do online gaming, online rendering, and virtual desktops. I think this is also motivated by the fact that the most mainstream and novel uses of GPU technology has been about putting GPU power onto “the cloud” (hosted somewhere on the internet). GaiKai wants to use this for gaming, Elemental wants to use this to help deliver videos to internet video viewers, rendering farms want to use this so that movie studios don’t need to buy high-end workstations for all their editing/special effects guys.
    • NVIDIA wants to be more than graphics-only. At the conference, three things jumped out at me as not being quite congruent with the rest of the conference. The first was that there were quite a few booths showing off people using Android tablets powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra chips to play high-end games. Second,  NVIDIA proudly showed off one of those new Tesla cars with their graphical touchscreen driven user interface inside (also powered by NVIDIA’s Tegra chips).
      2012-05-16 19.04.39Third, this was kind of hidden away in a random booth, but a company called SECO that builds development boards showed off a nifty board combining NVIDIA’s Tegra chips with its high-end graphics cards to build something they called the CARMA Kit – a low power high performance computing beast.2012-05-16 19.16.09
      While NVIDIA has talked before about its plans with “Project Denver” to build a chip that can displace Intel’s hold on computer CPUs – this shows they’re trying to turn that from vision into reality – instead of just being the graphics card inside a game console, they’re making tablets which can play games, they’re making the processor that runs the operating system for a car, and they’re finding ways to take their less powerful Tegra processor and pair it up with a little GPU-supercomputer action.

If its not apparent, I had a blast and look forward to seeing more from the ecosystem!

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Thompson-gate

If you’ve been following the major tech trades, you’ll know that Scott Thompson, former head of eBay’s PayPal unit and CEO of internet giant Yahoo, has been embroiled in an embarrassing scandal about a misrepresentation on his resume. It turns out that Mr. Thompson’s resume specifically says that he had a degree in computer science from Stonehill College – something that turned out to be flat-out false, and which ultimately led to Thompson stepping down as CEO.

I may be in the minority here, but I feel that Thompson lying on his resume was probably not the biggest deal, especially since I doubt that degree made any real difference to why Yahoo hired him. But what was a heck of a lot worse was that the misrepresentation made its way into Yahoo’s 10K  — “Mr. Thompson holds a Bachelor’s degree in accounting and computer science from Stonehill College” — a filing to the SEC that Thompson signed, certifying that:

I, Scott Thompson, certify that:

1. I have reviewed this Amendment No. 1 to the Annual Report on Form 10-K of Yahoo! Inc. for the year ended December 31, 2011; and

2. Based on my knowledge, this report does not contain any untrue statement of a material fact or omit to state a material fact necessary to make the statements made, in light of the circumstances under which such statements were made, not misleading with respect to the period covered by this report.

(bolding mine)

This changed Thompson’s sin from one of “just” padding a resume to one of either (1) not carefully reading one of the most important documents a company can issue and/or (2) outright lying to the government and to Yahoo’s investors – not a good sign for a new (and now ex-) CEO. And, also seriously calls into question the Yahoo board of directors’ judgment in that they failed to do a very simple thing such as running a basic background check on a key hire.

As someone who is an investor (both in my job in venture capital investing in startups and outside of my work in the public market) and has been lucky enough to participate in board meetings for some of our portfolio companies, these are particularly alarming signs. While the underlying lie is not really that big a deal, being able to trust the executives and the board members who are supposed to have your best interests at heart is – and misrepresentations in a regulatory filing speak very poorly to a person’s thoroughness, competence, and/or credibility.

The next Yahoo CEO has a difficult job ahead – not only will he/she need to address the underlying problem of Yahoo not having a coherent vision/strategy and having demoralized workers, he/she will likely need to manage the construction of a better board of directors and the implementation of new policies and procedures to prevent this type of thing from happening again.

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Happy Mother’s Day

This year, my brother and I cheated. We did Mother’s Day one day earlier. What did we do?

    • The whole family got together at UC Berkeley
    • We had lunch at a nice Persian place, on me of course
    • We met my brother’s lovely girlfriend Andrea
    • My brother and I then gave her the present we had bought (split 50-50) for her: a shiny new tablet!

But of course, my brother outdid me completely on his present by happening to graduate and get his master’s degree from Berkeley thus officially becoming more educated than me :). Here we are with our dear mom:

Hope everyone else had a great Mother’s Day – and if you haven’t already, CALL YOUR MOM! 🙂

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Why Comparing Google Drive to Dropbox is Missing the Point

Last week, Google unveiled its long-rumored Google Drive product with great fanfare. While the gaggle of tech journalists/bloggers issued predictable comparisons of Google’s new service with online storage/syncing services like Dropbox, I couldn’t help but think that most of the coverage missed the point on why Google Drive was interesting. Yes, its another consumer-facing cloud storage service – but the really interesting aspect of it is not whether or not it’ll “kill Dropbox/Box.net/iCloud/[insert your favorite consumer cloud service here]”, but the fact that this could be the beginning of a true web “file system”.

I’ve blogged before about the strengths of the web as a software development platform and the extent to which web apps are now practically the same thing as the apps that we run on our computers and phones. But, frankly, one of the biggest things holding back the vision of the web as a full-fledged “operating system” is the lack of a web-centric “file system”. I use the quotes because I’m not referring to the underlying NTFS/ExtX/HFS/etc technology that most people think of when they hear “file system”: I’m referring to basic functionalities that we expect in our operating systems and file systems:

  • a place to reliably create, read, and edit data
  • the ability to search through stored information based on metadata
  • a way to associate data with specific applications and services that can operate on them (i.e. opening Photoshop files in Adobe Photoshop, MP3s in iTunes, etc)
  • a way to let any application with the right permissions and capabilities to act on that data

Now, a skeptic might point out that the HTML5 specification actually has a lot of local storage/file handling capabilities and that services like Dropbox already provide some of this functionality in the form of APIs that third party apps and services can use – but in both cases, the emphasis is first and foremost on local storage – putting stuff onto or syncing with the storage on your physical machine. As long as that’s true, the web won’t be a fully functioning operating system. Web services will routinely have to rely on local storage (which, by the way, reduces the portability of these apps between different machines), and applications will have to be more silo’d as they each need to manage their own storage (whether its stored on their servers or stored locally on a physical device).

What a vision of the web as operating system needs is a cloud-first storage service (where files are meant to reside on the cloud and where local storage is secondary) which is searchable, editable, and supports file type associations and allows web apps and services to have direct access to that data without having to go through a local client device like a computer or a phone/tablet. And, I think we are beginning to see that with Google Drive.

  • The local interface is pretty kludgy: the folder is really just a bunch of bookmark links, emphasizing that this is a web-centric product first and foremost
  • It offers many useful operating system-like functionality (like search and revision history) directly on the web where the files are resident
  • Google Drive greatly emphasizes how files stored on it have associated viewers and can be accessed by a wide range of apps, including some by Google (i.e. attachments on Gmail, opening/editing on Google Docs, and sharing with Google+) and some by third parties like HelloFax, WeVideo, and LucidChart

Whether or not Google succeeds longer-term at turning Google Drive into a true cloud “file system” will depend greatly on their ability to continue to develop the product and manage the potential conflicts involved with providing storage to web application competitors, but suffice to say, I think we’re at what could be the dawn of the transition from web as a software platform to web as an operating system. This is why I feel the companies that should pay more close attention to this development aren’t necessarily the storage/sync providers like Dropbox and Box.net – at least not for now – but companies like Microsoft and Apple which have a very different vision of how the future of computing should look (much more local software/hardware-centric) and who might not be in as good a position if the web-centric view that Google embodies takes off (as I think and hope it will).

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3D Printing as Disruptive Innovation

Last week, I attended a MIT/Stanford VLAB event on 3D printing technologies. While I had previously been aware of 3D printing (which works basically the way it sounds) as a way of helping companies and startups do quick prototypes or letting geeks of the “maker” persuasion make random knickknacks, it was at the event that I started to recognize the technology’s disruptive potential in manufacturing. While the conference itself was actually more about personal use for 3D printing, when I thought about the applications in the industrial/business world, it was literally like seeing the first part/introduction of a new chapter or case study from Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (and inspiration for one of the more popular blog posts here :-)) play out right in front of me:

  • Like many other disruptive innovations when they began, 3D printing today is unable to serve the broader manufacturing “market”. Generally speaking, the time needed per unit output, the poor “print resolution”, the upfront capital costs, and some of the limitations in terms of materials are among the reasons that the technology as it stands today is uncompetitive with traditional mass manufacturing.
  • Even if 3D printing were competitive today, there are big internal and external stumbling blocks which would probably make it very difficult for existing large companies to embrace it. Today’s heavyweight manufacturers are organized and incentivized internally along the lines of traditional assembly line manufacturing. They also lack the partners, channels, and supply chain relationships (among others) externally that they would need to succeed.
  • While 3D printing today is very disadvantaged relative to traditional manufacturing technologies (most notably in speed and upfront cost), it is extremely good at certain things which make it a phenomenal technology for certain use cases:
    • Rapid design to production: Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques which take significant initial tooling and setup, once you have a 3D printer and an idea, all you need to do is print the darn thing! At the conference, one of the panelists gave a great example: a designer bought an Apple iPad on a Friday, decided he wanted to make his own iPad case, and despite not getting any help from Apple or prior knowledge of the specs, was able by Monday to be producing and selling the case he had designed that weekend. Idea to production in three days. Is it any wonder that so many of the new hardware startups are using 3D printing to do quick prototyping?
    • Short runs/lots of customization: Chances are most of the things you use in your life are not one of a kind (i.e. pencils, clothes, utensils, dishware, furniture, cars, etc). The reason for this is that mass production make it extremely cheap to produce many copies of the same thing. The flip side of this is that short production runs (where you’re not producing thousands or millions of the same thing) and production where each item has a fair amount of customization or uniqueness is really expensive. With 3D printing, however, because each item being produced is produced in the same way (by the printer), you can produce one item at close to the same per unit price as producing a million – this makes 3D printing a very interesting technology for markets where customization & short runs are extremely valuable.
    • Shapes/structures that injection molding and machining find difficult: There are many shapes where traditional machining (taking a big block of material and whittling it down to the desired shape) and injection molding (building a mold and then filling it with molten material to get the desired shape) are not ideal: things like producing precision products that go into airplanes and racecars or printing the scaffolds with which bioengineers hope to build artificial organs are uniquely addressable by 3D printing technologies.
    • Low labor: The printer takes care of all of it – thus letting companies cut costs in manufacturing and/or refocus their people to steps in the process which do require direct human intervention.
  • And, of course, with the new markets which are opening up for 3D printing, its certainly helpful that the size, cost, and performance of 3D printers has improved dramatically and is continuing to improve – to the point where the panelists were very serious when they articulated a vision of the future where 3D printers could be as widespread as typical inkjet/laser printers!

Ok, so why do we care? While its difficult to predict precisely what this technology could bring (it is disruptive after all!), I think there are a few tantalizing possibilities of how the manufacturing game might change to consider:

  • The ability to do rapid design to production means you could do fast fashion for everything – in the same way that companies like Zara can produce thousands of different products in a season (and quickly change them to meet new trends/styles), broader adoption of 3D printing could lead to the rise of new companies where design/operational flexibility and speed are king, as the companies best able to fit their products to the flavor-of-the-month gain more traction.
  • The ability to do customization means you can manufacture custom parts/products cost-effectively and without holding as much inventory; production only needs to begin after an order is on hand (no reason to hold extra “copies” of something that may go out of fashion/go bad in storage when you can print stuff on the fly) and the lack of retooling means companies can be a lot more flexible in terms of using customization to get more customers.
  • I’m not sure how all the second/third-order effects play out, but this could also put a damper on outsourced manufacturing to countries like China/India – who cares about cheaper manufacturing labor overseas when 3D printing makes it possible to manufacture locally without much labor and avoid import duties, shipping delays, and the need to hold on to parts/inventory?

I think there’s a ton of potential for the technology itself and its applications, and the possible consequences for how manufacturing will evolve are staggering. Yes, we are probably a long way off from seeing this, but I think we are on the verge of seeing a disruptive innovation take place, and if you’re anything like me, you’re excited to see it play out.

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Trip to Taiwan

In late March, I had a chance to take a one week trip with my parents to Taiwan. I’ve posted some of the pictures I took on Google+ (I’ll get around to properly captioning them at some point), but the trip was very meaningful for me as it was my first trip back to “the motherland” in over twenty years.

830DD97C-8BDE-4594-BBB8-48741A40EEC9Being able to see relatives I hadn’t seen in many years (some, like my grandparents, who probably don’t have much time left in this world), hear their stories about me as a baby, see sights that I have only the faintest memory of (now from a completely different vantage point), be able to actually visit the graves of my relatives/ancestors and participate in traditional ancestor worship rituals, and visit places that I had only seen in photos was very moving. And, while it was a tiring trip (I think I got way less sleep during this “vacation” than I would have in a normal week), its one that I enjoyed greatly (see picture left :-)).

Word of advice to those who want to visit Taiwan: March is a great time – warm and humid, but not excessively so :-).

As for why you should visit Taiwan sometime? Here’s a quick bullet list:

    • Huge swaths of the island are virtually untouched by people – this is one of the few places where you can have a pure tropical environment
    • Delicious (and cheap) fruit and gorgeous butterflies (consequence of the tropical thing)
    • Excellent (and cheap) food  — especially in the night street markets
    • Very easy to get around – they borrowed Japan’s penchant for labeling everything and also Japan’s pretty effective and ubiquitous public transit
    • The National Palace Museum houses some of the finest Chinese art you’ll ever see
    • There are some very gorgeous locations to see: Taroko National Park, Alishan Mountain, temples galore, etc

So go: support the tourism industry of the place I came from :-).

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Vader for President

Four years ago, I made the case for Victor von Doom for President. Today, Darth Vader makes a similar claim:

Darth Vader: Why I am running for President of the United States of America

People of Earth,

Your current Presidential candidates have failed me for the last time. Newt Gingrich is promising you a Moon Base by 2020, rather than a moon-sized laser that can destroy planets. Mitt Romney has vowed not to “light his hair on fire” just to rally the conservative base, whilst I have actually been on fire. In lava. Rick Santorum’s campaign has shown a“darker” side recently with his ‘Obamaville’ apocalypse advert, whereas I have actually gone to the Dark Side and authorised the apocalypse of Alderaan. And the less said about Obama’s failure to “change” America into a country that proudly builds AT-ATs the better. I have no choice. As of today, I am announcing my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States of America. I AM your future President.
When elected President, I guarantee the following:

An end to “big” government. Politicians exist largely to represent different perspectives on how your country should be governed. When you carry a lightsaber and have the ability to magically choke people from a great distance with the power of your mind, very few people tend to adopt a perspective different to your own.

100% employment. Under my “No body left behind” policy, you will never again be forced to suffer the indignity and hardship of unemployment. Every person, regardless of sex, race, political affiliation or religious belief will be assured a job they can be proud of: building 100% Earth-made Stormtrooper blasters, Star Destroyers and Death Stars.

Greater fiscal responsibility. Under my reign, there will be no frivolous governmental spending on things like “universal health care”, “tertiary education”, or the “judicial system”. All public spending will be funnelled into glorious largescale projects for the betterment of all of mankind (building AT-ATs, Death Stars, etc).

I’ll bring the troops home. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force, unless the planet in question is yours. With the Death Star and/or various Star Destroyers orbiting your planet at all times, there will be no more warfare. All of your soldiers will be far too busy manufacturing weapons of mass destruction (see above).

I’ll put families first. As a widower and single father of two troubled teenagers, I know what it’s like trying to raise a family in the modern era of Facebook, drugs and intergalactic Rebellions. Between my Imperial spies, probe droids and Stormtrooper-imposed military curfews, you will know where your children are and what they are doing at all times.

Why should you elect me (assuming you have a choice)?

I’m an everyman, just like you. I’m not some privileged Ivy League billionaire who grew up with a silver spoon in their mouth. I was born in a slum on a desert planet. I was raised by a single mother forced into slavery just to make ends meet. I never knew my deadbeat father because I was conceived by the Force, or midi-chlorians, or something (I’ll admit I’m hazy on the details, that movie was an embarrassing time in my life). I left home at a very young age and took a trade as a warrior space monk. I married the first girl I ever fell in love with. I was betrayed by my best friend, who cut off my arms and legs and left me to die in lava. Just like you.

I’m a war veteran. As a decorated veteran of the Clone, and assorted other Star, wars, I have seen active combat on countless worlds. I work well as part of a team (my Master and I took over an entire galaxy by ourselves) and independently. I can and will make the hard life-and-death (okay, mostly death) decisions under intense pressure.

I know what it’s like to face challenges. Speaking as someone who’s: been called “Annie” as a little boy; had four limbs amputated by lightsaber (three by my “best friend”); been thrown into lava; been forced to live in a life-sustaining cyborg body suit; and suffered from severe asthma and the social stigma of heavy breathing, I understand more than anybody that life isn’t always easy. You will face obstacles (such as Jedi, Rebel scum, etc) on your path to greatness/your destiny as The Chosen One/the Dark Side but you can overcome.

I will secure the popular vote. Did somebody say, “Name recognition?” As the star of six autobiographical feature films, an animated television series and innumerable books, graphic novels, amusement park rides, toy and clothing merchandise, etc, I am a household name throughout the galaxy. Kids love me. Parents get me. My peers respect me (or get Force choked). With that level of popularity, there’ll be nothing to stop us this time.

I am a man of faith. It saddens me that Earth does not yet KNOW the POWER of the Dark Side. In fact, the Force is not with you most of you at all. You labour under the mistaken belief that the Star Wars saga is “just a movie”. I find your planet’s lack of faith disturbing. A few Force chokes and the odd lightsaber throw and this will be fixed very quickly.

I hate whoever you hate. Pick a minority group: happily married straight people, gay people who would like to be happily married, people with beards, pretty much any people with four fully functioning limbs. When you hate everybody like I do, the chances are we are going to agree on people we don’t like. Release your anger, America.

I have prior experience. As the second-in-charge of the Galactic Empire, I have plenty of job experience running totalitarian regimes. Running a country will be all too easy by comparison.

I’m harsh but fair. Like most parents, I have dreams for my children (co-ruling the galaxy as father and son). Like most parents, I have personally experienced the pain of my children metaphorically (and literally) cutting off my hand after I offer them those dreams on a silver platter. But like most parents, I also understand that it’s your moral responsibility to do what you know is right for the future of your children, even if it sometimes means you have to chop off one of their limbs to do it. I promise to treat you, America, as if you were my own child (the boy, not the Princess one, she’s too lippy).

Don’t listen to what other people say. Make up your own mind. Just for once, America… look at me with your own eyes. Join me and together we can rule the Galaxy.

Yours Sithcerely,
Darth Vader.

Brought to you by the “Vader 2012″ and “Vote Vader” campaigns.

Its as if millions of voices were crying out in (electoral) terror and were suddenly silenced by the righteousness of Vader for President…

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Reaction After a Week and a Half with the Galaxy Nexus

Just before SXSW, I bought myself the latest Android phone (and the first to run Google’s new Android Ice Cream Sandwich): the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. So, after using it for a week and a half, here are some of my reactions, but to make a long story short: this phone is amazing

    • The screen is gorgeous – I had always heard that Samsung’s Super AMOLED screens delivered particularly vivid colors — beats the LCD that I had on my old DROID2 without any question.
    • I will stop making fun of big screens – my previous phone, Motorola’s DROID 2, had a 3.7” screen (more or less the same as the iPhone 4). The Galaxy Nexus? A massive 4.65”! I’ll have to admit: it took a little while getting used to it — and don’t get me wrong, there are still moments when I curse my small hands 🙂 — but the difference in terms of extra screen space, ease of typing, etc is amazing. At SXSW, there was a moment when I had to use my colleague’s iPhone to enter information into a form (because his email client wasn’t working so he couldn’t send me the link). What had once been normal to me felt like the most cramped little device possible. I now begin to understand why my girlfriend wants the Samsung Galaxy Note’s massive 5.3” screen
    • LTE is blazing. I follow wireless news so I had always logically understood the numbers behind Verizon’s LTE – it was one reason I was always irked that AT&T and T-Mobile called their HSPA+ and other non-LTE/WiMax technologies “4G”. But, having never used an LTE device, I didn’t really understand the speed until I had used the LTE on my Galaxy Nexus. The speed is incredible. Its as fast, if not faster than WiFi  (depending on connection strength) – how do I know this? I could point you to a speedtest screencap, but a use case is more illustrative: when the DSL died out in my house, it was my Galaxy Nexus to the rescue as we waited on AT&T (ironic considering I’m on the Verizon network!) to swing by and fix the connection.
    • LTE is blazing part 2: There are two downsides to LTE which are worth mentioning.
        • The first is that it burns up your battery extremely quickly and has a tendency to make your phone extremely hot. On both my DROID 2 and iPhone, it would take prolonged usage of the 3G network before that type of “burn” would kick in.
        • The second is that for whatever reason (I can’t tell if its the modem/RF in my phone or if its the Verizon network or if Verizon is just trying to throttle me 🙁 or some combination), my connection stability has not been great. I get kicked off the LTE network randomly, whereas 3G-only mode (CDMA) has given me much better network stability
    • While I miss the physical keyboard of the DROID2, the combination of the larger screen, faster phone, and combination of Swiftkey and intuitive in-text-field spell-checker makes it work. The larger screen means its easier to hit the right keys at the right time. The faster phone means no more weird latency between keypresses and actual registering of those presses. SwiftKey provides remarkably good autocorrect which is also predictive of next words, and the new in-text-field spell-checker means the words that I misspelled or have obvious grammatical errors on get underlined in the textfield directly, letting me choose between a number of alternatives for the best correction.
    • One thing that took a while for me to get used to was the weird positioning of the notification light. Whereas before, the notification light was, as with the Motorola Xoom, in the upper-right corner of the device – the notification light for the Galaxy Nexus is at the bottom of the phone – which is a little strange in my opinion…
    • Significantly improved performance. That significant UI slickness gap I mentioned in my last post comparing the iPhone 4 to the DROID 2? Basically gone. I don’t know if its the new operating system, the new chip, or some combination – but I no longer have iOS envy when it comes to performance.
    • But, the Galaxy Nexus doesn’t have the greatest camera. While the software interface for the camera has been revamped (and significantly improved in my opinion) and the zero-shutter picture taking is a nice touch, 5MP and the color performance of the camera just aren’t much to write home about. Thankfully, I’m such a terrible photographer, I don’t think it really matters what camera I have 🙂 so this is kind of a wash for me.
    • Ice Cream Sandwich keeps much of what I love about Android (refer to this prior post) and adds to it. I’ve had Ice Cream Sandwich on my Motorola Xoom (Android tablet) for some time as well – but it felt more incremental over the Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system that it replaced than the dramatic change over Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system that was on my DROID2 and on most Android phones today.
        • Better notifications: two major changes from the previous version of Android – the first is that individual notifications can be dismissed with a cool swipe gesture which just works wonderfully. The second is that the settings tool can now be easily accessed from the pulldown notification menu.
        • Resizable and dynamic widgets: With the exception of the occasional buggy implementation of the email widget (which, for whatever reason, stops reflecting the status of my corporate inbox), being able to scroll through my email and calendar or play music without going into the apps themselves or to rapidly turn on/off different wireless features without going into the settings or to create shortcuts to turn-by-turn navigation to specific addresses is amazing.
        • New turn-by-turn navigation has a much more natural sounding voice.
        • The New Chrome for Android browser, while lacking in Flash and the ability to enforce a desktop user-agent (to get the desktop version of a webpage), is not only extremely slick, it brings quick Google sign-in capabilities (saving me a ton of keystrokes when it comes to Google apps or other services which require Google login), instant synchronization with all Chrome browsers across all devices, and a number of awesome gestures to manage tabs. To be fair, I think Safari on iOS still shows a performance advantage in terms of avoiding artifacts (especially while scrolling while the page is loading), but the much improved tab management and the synchronization make it a far better browser, in my opinion, than anything else out there.
        • New multitasking makes it easy to see all the apps that are open, a quick screenshot (so you know what’s going on in those apps), and the simple swipe-to-close gesture that the new notifications menu has.
        • The new contacts app (now called People) and calendar app are significantly improved. Being able to pinch-zoom in the calendar app to shift the viewing frame is very cool and extremely helpful when switching between weekends/days where I have few and long meetings versus weekdays where I have many and short meetings.
    • Battery life is still something that needs to improve. Full context: at SXSW, everybody was charging their phones by the late afternoon: it didn’t matter if you were using Android, iOS, or Windows – everybody was charging up on spare power outlets or on the FedEx guys walking around with phone-charging jackets (no joke!) that you could plug into. But, with that said, there’s no doubt in my mind that the iPhone still wins hands down in a battery life race. I don’t know if this is primarily because of the larger screen & LTE connection on the Galaxy Nexus or if there are some runaway background processes/fundamental operating system limitations that are happening, but if I were Google or some of the Android phone makers, I would focus on tackling probably the last real but still very important advantage that the iPhone has.

Net-net, I think this device is pretty awesome. Sure, the battery life is not where I want it to be, and the camera, weird positioning of the notification light, and lack of physical keyboard are things I take fault at. But, the combination of having Ice Cream Sandwich, great screen, and LTE connectivity make me agree with the Verge’s review of the product: “The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone ever made… it could be the best smartphone ever produced … Since day one, I’ve been waiting for an Android device that lived up to the promise of such a powerful OS. I think I can stop waiting now.”

(Image credit – Galaxy Nexus – Android.com)

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Mr. Tseng Goes to SXSW

Apologies for the lack of blogging these past few weeks. Part of that (although I really have no excuse) is because I got to attend famed tech, music, and film convention South-by-Southwest (aka SXSW).

It was my very first time in Austin, and I had a blast hanging out at the various booths/panels during the day and on Austin’s famous 6th Street in the evening. Granted, I just barely missed the torrential rain of the first half of the conference (and, sadly, also had to miss out on the music and film part of the festivals), but I got to see a fair amount of the tech conference, and had a few observations I thought I’d share

  • A good majority of the companies paying big bucks to market there should spend their money elsewhere. This is not a ding on the conference. Nor am I even arguing that these companies are wasting time sending representatives to the conference. My two cents is that there were many companies there who were spending their money unwisely at best – whether it be on acts of branding heroism (i.e. paying to rebrand local establishments) or holding massive parties with open bars and no coherent message  conveyed to the attendees about who the company is or why they should use the product. I must’ve attended at least three of the latter – and, truth be told, I can’t even remember the names of the startups that held those parties. Bad way to spend marketing dollars, or terrible way?
  • With that said, there were a number of companies there who definitely spent wisely (although whether or not it works is a question I leave for the marketplace). SXSW is a great venue to try to attract the attention of early adopters of consumer internet/mobile products – and it makes great sense to try to blow out marketing there as part of some major product/marketing push. Here’s two companies that I think were smart to spend a lot of money at SXSW (and, in my humble opinion, executed well):
    • nikefuelI think Nike in pushing its digital initiatives like Nike Fuel (which I plan to write a review of :-)) spent quite wisely building its brand. They had an interesting panel on using the product, an outdoors area that looked like a mini-boot camp (no joke!), a digital billboard which alternated between a appropriately color themed and a room decked out like a club where Nike employees sold the fuel band and helped new users get them set up.
    • ncom-lumia-900-cyan-front-267x500-pngI think Nokia (yes, despite my previous post, I mean Nokia) did a great job as well – they set up a Nokia Labs party area which looked like three giant domes from the outside. Right next to the entrance there was a snow machine (I assume to recreate the Finland snow?). The Nokia folks on the inside were all dressed in labcoats (keeping with the “lab” theme) and, like with Nike, there was crazy club music being played. The bar was offering a drink made with Finnish vodka called “Lumia Liquified” (Lumia is the name of Nokia’s new high-end smartphone line). And with this hip backdrop in place, the Nokia party had multiple exhibits featuring the Lumia’s unique design (there was a great display full of the drab black phones we’re used to seeing and the Lumia’s brightly colored phone standing out), the Lumia’s Carl Zeiss lens/optics, and the Lumia’s Clear Black display technology (basically using layers of polarized glass so that the display looks black and readable under direct light). Enough for me to no longer be a Fandroid? Probably not, but I definitely left the party impressed.
  • Like most tech shows, there was a main exhibition floor which I had a chance to walk through. On these floors, companies assemble at booths attempting to attract customers, business partners, investors, and even just curious passerbys. One of the booths I attended was held by Norton, makers of the Symantec security software that might be running on your computer. The reason I point it out is that, through some marketing deal, they were able to capture the heart of this comic loving blogger by co-opting the branding from the coming Avengers movie. The concept was actually pretty creative, if a bit hokey: participants had to play a handful of Norton security-themed casual games (think quizzes and simple Flash games where you use Norton widgets/tools/powerups to defend a machine from attack) to collect a series of badges. At the end of the sequence, depending on how you did on the games, you are awarded a rank and given a prize. One very fun perk for me is the photo below – guess who’s now a superhero? 🙂

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    That picture alone made SXSW worth it :-).

(Image credit – Nike fuel band – Linkbuildr)(Image credit – Lumia – Nokia)

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Pitching a VC is a Romantic Affair

processI swear the title has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day :-).

One question that comes up often when people find out that I work at a venture capital firm is “how do venture capital firms decide what they invest in?” How is it that the same firms that pick wildly successful companies like Google and Facebook can also pick the “what were they thinking” duds?

People are oftentimes surprised to hear my answer. The truth is that while there is a general perception that there is some kind of a secret formula with objective criteria and analysis, the idea that the VC decision process is a purely objective and analytical affair is plain wrong.

The analogy I like to give is that getting an investment from a venture capital firm is a lot like marriage. Yes, there are obviously objective criteria which inform the decision – is the potential spouse/founding team trustworthy? Do we share the same goals in life (i.e. kids vs no-kids or size of outcome/industry)? Are we at the right stage (i.e. ready for commitment or point in lifecycle of the startup)? What do friends/industry experts/customers say? Can both parties add meaningful value to both sides?

But, like with marriage, there is a significant emotional component to the decision as well which can’t be ignored. Things like personal chemistry or whether or not the investors involved are enchanted/charmed by the founding team and the business idea play an enormous role. An investor who doesn’t have a specific qualm about a startup but who just isn’t feeling “the love” will not push a deal forward, no matter how great of a business case is being made. Why? The business model of most venture capital firms forces individual investors to only commit to a handful of companies that they truly can commit to and stick with through thick and through thin (and, rest assured, all companies have bad times they have to survive through).

Of course, let it be clear: any decent investor who “falls in love” with a startup and later uncovers objective reasons to not go forward will fall rapidly out of love with a company – lest someone reading this gets the idea that its all about the emotions. But the lesson to take away here for entrepreneurs is that while its absolutely critical to nail the objective criteria (things like business model, team composition, market size, go-to-market strategy, product/service quality, technology, etc) – that is, after all, the bread and butter of any good startup – don’t forget that, just as with most sales/business deals, the VC process has a huge emotional piece. So:

    • Have high EQ when you approach a conversation with a VC you are interested in: fit the message to the person and if you see the interest/reaction start to go the wrong way, shift gears and adapt the message (although I should remind people to not lie – that never ends well for either party)
    • Know the VCs you are presenting to: its impossible to precisely predict what combination of things will really click with a person, but you can get hints of that by doing your research. At the minimum, it means reading the backgrounds/profiles of the individuals you will be meeting with to understand what they are interested in and what sorts of themes they tend to look for. But, keep in mind to also pay attention to what things might turn them off (i.e. if they were involved with a bad eCommerce deal and you are trying to pitch a eCommerce company, make sure your story/pitch is *very* different).
    • Talk with a lot of VCs and expect to do this for every round of financing: as with romance, you can’t expect to click with everyone, not to mention, as with romance, things can always change the second or third time around. There are definitely cases where entrepreneurs have had very successful relationships with investors they never expected in their first set of pitches as well as VCs who have passed on earlier rounds of investment (no chemistry the first time) only to eagerly participate in follow-on investments.

(Image credit – 3Forward)

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Gaze Into Your Crystal Ball

crystalballIn the Pipeline’s Derek Lowe wrote a very thoughtful opinion piece for the ACS (American Chemical Society) journal Medicinal Chemistry Letters where he does something which I encourage all career-minded working people to do: hold up a mirror to his own industry (medicinal chemistry … obviously) and then gaze into his crystal ball to see where it might go in the future:

it is now the absolute worst time ever to be an ordinary medicinal chemist in a high-wage part of the world. The days when you could make a reliable living doing methyl–ethyl–butyl–futile work in the United States or Western Europe are gone, and what mechanism will ever be found to bring them back? There’s still a lot of that work that needs to be done, but it is getting done somewhere else, and as long as “somewhere else” operates more cheaply and reasonably on time, that situation will not change.

This means that the best advice is not to be ordinary. That is not easy, and it is no guarantee, either, but it is the only semisafe goal for which to aim. Medicinal chemists have to offer their employers something that cannot be had more cheaply in Shanghai or Bangalore. New techniques, proficiency with new equipment, ideas that have not become commodified yet: Those seem to be the only form of insurance, and even then, they are not always enough.

I may be slightly biased as much of my work has been in the technology industry where large industry changes happen a little faster than in other industries so I’m particularly attuned to how those will impact companies, but very rarely do I notice people – in and out of the technology industry – give some careful thought to how their industries will change over time – and I think that’s a shame.

In the same way that the medicinal chemists from 5-10 years ago that Derek Lowe is writing about were caught off-guard by the impact of globalization, people in the postal service are watching technologies like email and internet advertising change the foundation of their jobs, people in the healthcare industry are watching new laws and regulations slowly come down the pipeline, and people in the book publishing industry are watching as eBooks and eReaders take off. I’m not claiming that these changes were obviously predictable – that’s what makes my job in venture interesting! — but, changes in science & technology, in globalization, and in demographics have and will dramatically impact every aspect of life/business and, frankly speaking, its the people who work in an industry (in the case of medicinal chemistry, it was guys like Derek Lowe) who have the best shot at gazing at a crystal ball, predicting and understanding the changes that will come down the pipeline, and, then, figuring out ways to get ahead of it (whether that means changing jobs, learning new skills, etc).

So, do yourself a favor 5-10 years from now – and gaze into your crystal ball.

(Image credit: PE2011 Facts)

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That’s Fab!

Companies rarely change successfully. I’ve blogged before about some of the cultural reasons this is true for larger companies – but much of the same holds true for smaller ones as well. But, every now and then, you do get a change which does seem to work for the better.

Take the rapidly growing flash sales site Fab.com. They started as a social networking service focused on the gay population. But, when that did not work as well as they had hoped, they then attempted to reposition themselves as a review/check-in service also focused on the gay population.

Actually, it would be far more illustrative to use their words (see slide from Fab.com presentation below): they started as “Gay Facebook”, then tried to become a “Gay Yelp”, then shifted businesses to become a “Gay Foursquare” (after the popular social and location-based check-in service), and then tried to pivot again towards being a “Gay Groupon”.

fab2011timeline-111228104652-phpapp02-slide-9-768

But before they could try (and potentially falter again at) becoming the gay versions of the other major internet companies out there (Quora, Zynga, LinkedIn, Google, Pandora maybe?), they stumbled on something which really fit with their passions and interests – and that is the birth of the Fab.com that we see today.

So, successful changes can happen. Ideally, they wouldn’t need to take as many steps as Fab.com did, and we’re still a long way from ultimately calling Fab.com a success, but under the right reasons and with the right strategic thinking and operational chops, they can happen.

(Slideshare link)

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Boa Constrictors Listen to Your Heart So They Know When You’re Dead

Here’s to the first paper a month post for 2012!

boaconstrictor

For January I decided to blog a paper I heard about on the excellent Nature podcast about a deliciously simple and elegant experiment to test a very simple question: given how much time and effort boa constrictors (like the one on above, photo taken by Paul Whitten) need to kill prey by squeezing them to death, how do they know when to stop squeezing?

Hypothesizing that boa constrictors could sense the heartbeat of their prey, some enterprising researchers from Dickinson College decided to test the hypothesis by fitting dead rats with bulbs connected to water pumps (so that the researchers could simulate a heartbeat) and tracking how long and hard the boas would squeeze for:

    • rats without a “heartbeat” (white)
    • rats with a “heartbeat” for 10 min (gray)
    • rats with a continuous “heartbeat” (black)

The results are shown in figure 2 (to the right). The different color bars show the different experimental groups (white: no heartbeat, gray: heartbeat for 10 min before stopping, and black: continuous heartbeat). Figure 2a (on top) shows how long the boas squeezed for whereas Figure 2b (on bottom) shows the total “effort” exerted by the boas. As obvious from the chart, the longer the simulated heartbeat went, the longer and harder the boas would squeeze.

Conclusion? I’ll let the paper speak for itself: “snakes use the heartbeat in their prey as a cue to modulate constriction effort and to decide when to release their prey.”

Interestingly, the paper goes a step further for those of us who aren’t ecology experts and notes that being attentive to heartbeat would probably be pretty irrelevant in the wild for small mammals (which, ironically, includes rats) and birds which die pretty quickly after being constricted. Where this type of attentiveness to heartrate is useful is in reptilian prey (crocodiles, lizards, other snakes, etc) which can survive with reduced oxygen for longer. From that observation, the researchers thus concluded that listening for heartrate probably evolved early in evolutionary history at a time when the main prey for snakes were other reptiles and not mammals and birds.

In terms of where I’d go next after this – my main point of curiosity is on whether or not boa constrictors are listening/feeling for any other signs of life (i.e. movement or breathing). Obviously, they’re sensitive to heart rate, but if an animal with simulated breathing or movement – would that change their constricting activity as well? After all, I’m sure the creative guys that made an artificial water-pump-heart can find ways to build an artificial diaphragm and limb muscles… right? 🙂

(Image credit – boa constrictor: Paul Whitten) (Figures from paper)

Paper: Boback et al., “Snake modulates constriction in response to prey’s heartbeat.” Biol Letters. 19 Dec 2011. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1105

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Kinect for Science

(Cross posted to Bench Press)

kinect_heroWe’ve blogged before about applying gaming technology to science, but much of that has been about using games or gaming system chips. A recent Wired magazine article reveals another interesting use case: taking the capabilities of something like Microsoft’s Xbox360 Kinect system and applying it directly to science research!

Apparently, a number of groups have decided to try out the Kinect as a “poor man’s” LIDAR (a tool that can be used to see and measure where things are in three dimensions)/complicated 3D camera setups which are expensive and require sophisticated calibration/post-processing analysis.

Of course, the Kinect is not a panacea: it has much more limited range, requires researchers to build their own analytical software, and the Kinect can’t do high-speed video (yet). But, because of its much lower price, its size, and the availability of drivers because of the active Kinect hacking/DIY community (and the support that even Microsoft is providing for people using Kinect beyond gaming), a number of researchers have decided to embrace the Kinect as a scientific tool.

The article profiles two potential use cases which only begin to scratch the surface of what this technology could be capable of: mapping meltwater lakes that form on top of glaciers (see images below) and studying small body impacts in space.

Svalbard.0061

But, potentially the most valuable use of Kinect? As the Wired article puts it:

The Kinect’s best asset may be that it inspires students, Tedesco said. Rather than a daunting black box with convoluted cables and arcane software, the Kinect is something that many students are already familiar with.

“This creates a different mindset in students,” he said. “They’re not so scared about using the Kinect, and they can really get involved in learning and basic research.”

“I’m actually on my way to buy two of them right now,” he added.

(Image credit – Kinect) (Image credit – Kinect glacier map)

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A “Fandroid” Forced to Use an iPhone 4 for Two Weeks

I recently came back from a great two week trip to China and Japan. Because I needed an international phone plan/data access, I ended up giving up my beloved DROID2 (which lacks international roaming/data) for two weeks and using the iPhone 4 my company had given me.

Because much has changed in the year and a half since I wrote that first epic post comparing my DROID2 with an iPhone 4 – for starters, my iPhone 4 now runs the new iOS 5 operating system and my DROID2 now runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread — I thought I would revisit the comparison, having had over a year to use both devices in various capacities.

Long story short: I still prefer my DROID2 (although to a lesser extent than before).

So, what were my big observations after using the iPhone 4 for two weeks and then switching back to my DROID2?

  • Apple continues to blow me away with how good they are at
    • UI slickness: There’s no way around it – with the possible exception of the 4.0 revision of Android Ice Cream Sandwich (which I now have and love on my Motorola Xoom!) – no Android operating system comes close to the iPhone/iPad’s remarkable user interface smoothness. iOS animations are perfectly fluid. Responsiveness is great. Stability is excellent (while rare, my DROID2 does force restart every now and then — my iPhone has only crashed a handful of times). It’s a very well-oiled machine and free of the frustrations I’ve had at times when I. just. wished. that. darn. app. would. scroll. smoothly.
    • Battery life: I was at or near zero battery at the end of every day when I was in Asia – so even the iPhone needs improvement in that category. But, there’s no doubt in my mind that my DROID2 would have given out earlier. I don’t know what it is about iOS which enables them to consistently deliver such impressive battery life, but I did notice a later onset of “battery anxiety” during the day while using the iPhone than I would have on my DROID2.
  • Apple’s soft keyboard is good – very good — but nothing beats a physical keyboard plus SwiftKey. Not having my beloved Android phone meant I had to learn how to use the iPhone soft keyboard to get around – and I have to say, much to my chagrin, I actually got the hang of it. Its amazingly responsive and has a good handle on what words to autocorrect, what to leave alone, and even on learning what words were just strange jargon/names but still legitimate. Even back in the US on my DROID2, I find myself trying to use the soft keyboard a lot more than I used to (and discovering, sadly, that its not as good as the iPhone’s). However:
    • You just can’t type as long as you can on a hard physical keyboard.
    • Every now and then the iPhone makes a stupid autocorrection and it’s a little awkward to override it (having to hit that tiny “x”).
    • The last time I did the iPhone/DROID comparison, I talked about how amazing Swype was. While I still think it’s a great product, I’ve now graduated to SwiftKey(see video below) not only because I have met and love the CEO Jonathan Reynolds but because of its uncanny ability to compose my emails/messages for me. It learns from your typing history and from your blog/Facebook/Gmail/Twitter and inputs it into an amazing text prediction engine which not only predicts what words you are trying to type but also the next word after that! I have literally written emails where half of my words have been predicted by SwiftKey.
  • Notifications in iOS are terrible.
    • A huge issue for me: there is no notification light on an iPhone. That means the only way for me to know if something new has happened is if I hear the tone that the phone makes when I get a new notification (which I don’t always because its in my pocket or because – you know – something else in life is happening at that moment) or if I happen to be looking at the screen at the moment the notifications shows up (same problem). This means that I have to repeatedly check the phone throughout the day which can be a little obnoxious when you’re with people/doing something else and just want to know if an email/text message has come in.
    • What was very surprising to me was that despite having the opportunity to learn (and dare I say, copy) from what Android and WebOS  had done, Apple chose quite possibly the weakest approach possible. Not only are the notifications not visible from the home screen – requiring me to swipe downward from the top to see if anything’s there — its impossible to dismiss notifications one at a time, really hard (or maybe I just have fat fingers?) to hit the clear button which dismisses blocks of them at a time, even after I hit clear, I’m not sure why some of the notifications don’t disappear, and it is surprisingly easy to accidentally hit a notification when you don’t intend to (which will force you into a new application — which wouldn’t be a big deal if iOS had a cross-application back button… which it doesn’t). Maybe this is just someone who’s too used to the Android way of doing things, but while this is way better than the old “in your face” iOS notifications, I found myself very frustrated here.
  • selectionCursor positioning feels a more natural on Android. I didn’t realize this would bug me until after using the iPhone for a few days. The setup: until Android’s Gingerbread update, highlighting text and moving the caret (where your next letter comes out when you type) was terrible on Android. It was something I didn’t realize in my initial comparison and something I came to envy about iOS: the magnifying glass that pops up when you want to move your cursor and the simple drag-and-drop highlighting of text. Thankfully with the Gingerbread update, Android completely closes that gap (see image on the right) and improves upon it. Unlike with iOS, I don’t need to long-hold on the screen to enter some eery parallel universe with a magnified view – in Android, you just click once, drag the arrow to where you want the cursor to be, and you’re good to go.
  • No widgets in iOS. There are no widgets in iOS. I can see the iOS fans thinking: “big deal, who cares? they’re ugly and slow down the system!” Fair points — so why do I care? I care because widgets let me quickly turn on or off WiFi/Bluetooth/GPS from the homescreen in Android, but in iOS, I would be forced to go through a bunch of menus. It means, on Android, I can see my next few calendar events, but in iOS, I would need to go into the calendar app. It means, on Android I can quickly create a new Evernote note and see my last few notes from the home screen, but in iOS, I would need to open the app. It means that on Android I can see what the weather will be like from the homescreen, but in iOS, I would need to turn on the weather app to see the weather. It means that on Android, I can quickly glance at a number of homescreens to see what’s going on in Google Voice (my text messages), Google Reader, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, but on iOS, I need to open each of those apps separately. In short, I care about widgets because they are convenient and save me time.
  • Apps play together more nicely with Android. Android and iOS have a fundamentally different philosophy on how apps should behave with one another. Considering most of the main iOS apps are also on Android, what do I mean by this? Well, Android has two features which iOS does not have: a cross-application back button and a cross-application “intent” system. What this means is that apps are meant to push information/content to each other in Android:
    • android-sharing-500x500If I want to “share” something, any app of mine that mediates that sharing – whether its email, Facebook, Twitter, Path, Tumblr, etc – its all fair game (see image on the right). On iOS, I can only share things through services that the app I’m in currently supports. Want to post something to Tumblr or Facebook or over email in an app that only supports Twitter? Tough luck in iOS. Want to edit a photo/document in an app that isn’t supported by the app you’re in? Again, tough luck in iOS. With the exception of things like web links (where Apple has apps meant to handle them), you can only use the apps/services which are sanctioned by the app developer. In Android, apps are supposed to talk with one another, and Google goes the extra mile to make sure all apps that can handle an “action” are available for the user to choose from.
    • In iOS, navigating between different screens/features is usually done by a descriptive back button in the upper-left of the interface. This works exactly like the Android back button does with one exception. These iOS back buttons only work within an application. There’s no way to jump between applications. Granted, there’s less of a need in iOS since there’s less cross-app communication (see previous bullet point), but when you throw in the ability of iOS5’s new notification system to take you into a new application altogether and when you’re in a situation where you want to use another service, the back button becomes quite handy.
  • And, of course,  deluge of the he-said-she-said that I observed:
    • Free turn-by-turn navigation on Android is AWESOME and makes the purchase of the phone worth it on its own (mainly because my driving becomes 100x worse when I’m lost). Not having that in iOS was a pain, although thankfully, because I spent most of my time in Asia on foot, in a cab, or on public transit, it was not as big of a pain.
    • Google integration (Google Voice, Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Maps) is far better on Android — if you make as heavy use of Google services as I do, this becomes a big deal very quickly.
    • Chrome to Phone is awesome – being able to send links/pictures/locations from computer to phone is amazingly useful. I only wish someone made a simple Phone-to-Chrome capability where I could send information from my phone/tablet to a computer just as easily.
    • Adobe Flash performance is, for the record, not great and for many sites its simply a gateway for advertisements. But, its helpful to have to be able to open up terrible websites (especially those of restaurants) — and in Japan, many a restaurant had an annoying Flash website which my iPhone could not open.
    • Because of the growing popularity of Android, app availability between the two platforms is pretty equal for the biggest apps (with just a few noteworthy exceptions like Flipboard). To be fair, many of the Android ports are done haphazardly – leading to a more disappointing experience – but the flip side of this is that the more open nature of Android also means its the only platform where you can use some pretty interesting services like AirDroid (easy-over-Wifi way of syncing and managing your device), Google Listen (Google Reader-linked over-the-air podcast manager), BitTorrent Remote (use your phone to remote login to your computer’s BitTorrent client), etc.
    • I love that I can connect my Android phone to a PC and it will show up like a USB drive. iPhone? Not so much (which forced me to transfer my photos over Dropbox instead).
    • My ability to use the Android Market website to install apps over the air to any of my Android devices has made discovering and installing new apps much more convenient.
    • The iOS mail client (1) doesn’t let you collapse/expand folders and (2) doesn’t let you control which folders to sync to what extents/at what intervals, but the Android Exchange client does. For someone who has as many folders as I do (one of which is a Getting Things Done-esque “TODO” folder), that’s a HUGE plus in terms of ease of use.

To be completely fair – I don’t have the iPhone 4S (so I haven’t played with Siri), I haven’t really used iCloud at all, and the advantages in UI quality and battery life are a big deal. So unlike some of the extremists out there who can’t understand why someone would pick iOS/Android, I can see the appeal of “the other side.” But after using the iPhone 4 for two weeks and after seeing some of the improvements in my Xoom from Ice Cream Sandwich, I can safely say that unless the iPhone 5 (or whatever comes after the 4S) brings with it a huge change, I will be buying another Android device next. If anything, I’ve noticed that with each generation of Android, Android devices further closes the gap on the main advantages that iOS has (smoothness, stability, app selection/quality), while continuing to embrace the philosophy and innovations that keep me hooked.

(Image Credit – Android text selection: Android.com) (Image Credit – Android sharing: talkandroid.com)

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2011 in blog

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The tradition of making a wrapup blog post continues… so what did I do in 2011 as reflected by my blog posts? Well, I…

All in all, a good year :-).

Happy New Year everybody! Here’s to a great 2012 and thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading (and continuing to read) my little corner on the internet!

(Image credit – Nassau Happening))

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