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Made in Taiwan

I’ve been on my current case for about 3 months. As I’ve mentioned before, it is a high level strategy case for a technology client. As a result, I’ve been able to do a great deal of fairly interesting work researching various technology markets and trends, ranging from the typical (Internet search) to the more esoteric (grid computing), as I help the client scope out successful strategies by other technology players and possible expansion opportunities.

image During the course of this research, I have been surprised by many things, but what I found most surprising on a personal level was how important Taiwan is to the global technology market.

This is a particular point of pride for me, for despite Taiwan’s pre-eminence as an economic power and it’s fascinating fusion of Western, Japanese, and Chinese influences, the island is not given the same respect or attention as Hong Kong or Singapore. Despite a vibrant political system, it has no seat on the United Nations, no diplomatic recognition by any major country, and even to the United States which guards the island as if it were its own, it is the black sheep of the US’s circle of friends.

And yet, the world as you or I know it would not be able to get along without it:

  1. Taiwan is the center of the world’s semiconductor foundry business. Because cutting-edge semiconductor factories (called fabs) are so expensive to manufacture, only the largest semiconductor firms (such as Samsung and Intel) have the annual sales numbers to justify building their own factories. Smaller players are better off outsourcing their production capacity to dedicated semiconductor factories, called foundries. Today, almost all semiconductor manufacturers use the services of a foundry to build most if not all of their semiconductors. The world’s two largest foundries, TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor) and UMC (United Microelectronics) are located in Taiwan, and together control approximately 60% of the world foundry business (the next largest foundry is only half the size of UMC, which is itself only about one third the size of TSMC!) and exert significant influence in the global semiconductor industry.
  2. Taiwan is the center of the world’s electronics manufacturing services. What many people don’t realize is that companies like Apple and Dell tend to only specialize in marketing and some design, but not in manufacturing (which would involve building a factory, gaining manufacturing expertise and skill, and other expensive and difficult things for a firm trying to stay lean and on the cutting edge). These firms thus outsource their manufacturing to specialized firms called Electronic Manufacturing Services (EMS) firms. The world’s largest EMS company by far is the Foxconn/Hon Hai conglomerate which is responsible for about 20% of the world’s outsourced electronics manufacturing, almost double that of the second largest firm. Never heard of them? You’ve certainly heard of its products: the MacBook Pro, the iPhone, the iPod, the Playstation 3, the Wii, the Xbox 360, graphics cards for AMD/ATI and NVIDIA, … the list goes on.
  3. Taiwan is the world’s original design manufacturing capital. Original design manufacturers (ODMs) go a step further than EMS firms — they actually do provide some of their own design services (which begs the question of what we’re paying Dell and HP and Apple for when they’re outsourcing design to ODMs). This is one reason that many ODMs are also original electronics manufacturers (OEMs) — companies which attach brands to the electronics themselves (think Apple, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) Of the top 10 ODMs in the world in 2006, at least 9 are Taiwanese companies (and that’s because I was too lazy to look up the last one — TPV technology) — those firms alone control nearly 70% of the global ODM market — and they include Windows Mobile phone manufacturer and Open Handset Alliance member HTC and the rapidly growing computer OEM ASUS.
  4. Taiwan is also home to D-Link and Acer. The latter of which recently is trying to resurrect dying brands of eMachines and Gateway.

Long story short — Taiwan matters, and I hope this will be the first in a series of posts that explains a bit more about the country that I come from.


10K for life

image I’m not sure if this is typical for other consultants, but I spend a lot of time reading through corporate annual and quarterly reports (called 10K’s and 10Q’s, respectively, after the SEC form names). These reports give lots of information, including a description of the business (useful for technology and biotech/pharma companies which can be difficult for the layperson to understand), snapshot of performance for the period that is reported, the relevant historical comparisons for current performance (e.g. the year before, the same quarter from the year before, etc.), and a list of risk factors for the business.

These reports are produced by public companies (and by some private companies, no doubt) for the benefit of investors who no doubt want to know exactly what they are investing in. But, I do also believe that the very process of making these reports is good for management as it forces them to think very hard about their strategy, their competitive environment, and their ability to execute.

This is why, despite scoffing when I first heard about a consultant at my firm who compiles an annual report for himself (complete with a letter to the shareholder — himself), I have recently started compiling these reports. Yes, I know this is incredibly nerdy, but hear me out. Four reasons why everyone should think about making personal annual and quarterly financial reports:

  1. It forces you to track your finances regularly. The practice of having to make annual or quarterly or semiannual reports is impossible unless there is some effort made to regularly check your finances. This is good as it alerts you to irregularities (e.g. credit card fraud) and helps to make sure that you are sticking to your financial goals (e.g. save 10% of my income every month).
  2. It lets you quickly see mistakes in your judgement. Hindsight is 20/20, but only if you look. By thinking about your past year, or quarter, or whatever period you decide to make these reports on, you are forced to think about what you could have done better. Only by routinely thinking about and being honest with yourself can you make better decisions in the future.
  3. Have an idea of where your finances are going. This has been very helpful for me as I plan out big purchases (e.g. vacations, electronics, etc.) and think about how much of my savings to put into investments month-after-month.
  4. It helps you plan for the future. This, in my mind, is the best and most important reason to do these financial reports. I made one for the 6 months since I graduated from college, and by tallying up my purchases and my income and my investments, I found that I was better off than I had thought I was. As a result, I am planning to increase the amount of money I invest in equities for this coming year. I also looked at my purchases and realized that, by making a few changes in what I buy for lunch, I could easily cut down my expenses by several percentage points.

It’s not necessary to copy the form that corporate annual reports come in, and it’s not necessary to do monthly reports or to make them especially pretty. What is important is to pick a schedule which sounds reasonable (I suggest every 3 months as a good balance between having to do it too often, and having to do it not often enough) and to pick a form which is reasonably easy to do but still forces you to write down your past track record and future plans (could even be scribbles on a notepad if that works for you).

Or if you’re more artistically inclined, you can do what Podravka, a Croatian food company, does which is make an annual report that is only readable after you bake it (hat tip: Eric).

But that’s just for extra credit…


It is my expert opinion that…

There are two things that can happen when a consultant is tasked to work with an unfamiliar and esoteric technology.

Either the consultant will do his or her own research, reading reports, calling experts, and asking for guidance from knowledgeable individuals and extract the relevant information for a good outsider’s perspective on the business…

OR, if the consultant is less inclined to building credibility and doing his or her job, what will happen will be more like this.


I think I am technically the rat…

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A case fit for House MD

imageI’m a huge fan of the show House MD. In particular, I love the show’s use of incredibly bizarre, but true medical cases. For example, in one of the earlier shows, House and his team make a diagnosis based on the fact that sleeping sickness can be transmitted by sexual contact. That may sound like nothing extraordinary, until it becomes emphasized that this medical “fact” is actually one reported case in a foreign medical journal. Probable? No. But, fake? Not really.

Unfortunately, consulting does not leave much time in my day for keeping up with scientific papers. I end up accumulating a pile of papers to read which just never seems to shrink. However, I was recently shook from my paper-reading stupor when A. Phan pointed me to one particularly interesting study published in the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The AFP article which summarizes the study is simply jaw-dropping:

Girl switches blood type after liver transplant

The medical study details the struggles of a 9 year old Australian girl who needed a liver transplant due to a case of “non-A-to-G hepatitis” (translation: doctors know that something serious is hitting the liver, but they have no clear idea what it is). She is given a liver transplant from a 12 year old boy who died of hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) and is positive for a normally innocuous virus called CMV (cytomegalovirus). The match is nowhere near perfect, so the girl is treated with immunosuppressants to prevent rejection.

Unfortunately, while CMV is normally harmless, it can cause problems in patients with weakened immune systems. Sure enough, the girl had to be re-admitted to the hospital 2 weeks after being discharged. Her doctors noted that the severe lymphopenia (a shortage of the blood cells needed to fight infection) that was ailing the girl prior to the transplant had persisted even 5 weeks after the transplant. The doctors had simply thought this was a combination of infection and the immunosuppressants they were giving her, so they adjusted the medication they gave her.

7-8 months after that (9 months post-liver transplant), the girl was re-admitted to the hospital for surgery due to a bowel obstruction, and it was then that they noticed that the patient’s blood, which had previously been type O-negative, had tested O-positive! This was especially incredible given that both parents were homozygous O-negative, meaning that there was no way, genetically, that the girl could produce O-positive blood. Typically, the only way a blood type switch happen is through a bone marrow transplant, which replaces the blood-making cells of our bodies with the blood-making cells from a donor — and even then, it’s accompanied by something which the girl did not suffer from called GVHD (Graft-Versus-Host Disease), where the new donor immune system thinks that the recipient’s entire body is foreign, and should thus be attacked.

image A month after that (10 months post-liver transplant), after a mild respiratory tract infection (a cold or cough), the girl started showing signs of hemolytic anemia. Literally, her blood cells were bursting — something you would expect in blood type mismatch problems. Heavy immunosuppressive therapy and constant transfusions seemed only to alleviate the problem slightly. A careful examination of her blood showed that her immune cells were more than 90% from the donor, something which was verified not only by blood type, but also by the fact that these cells had Y chromosomes (results from fluorescence in-situ hybridization to the right; red dot is a Y chromosome; green dot is a X chromosome; the cell at the top is thus XX — female — and the cell at the bottom right is XY — female).

In words that President George W. Bush might understand, the donor’s new blood cells are US forces in Iraq. The remaining blood cells from the girl are scared Iraqi’s who see strangers everywhere and are prone to using guns. The hemolytic anemia is the result of the ensuing fighting. And the immunosuppresants are some magical way (maybe supplying both sides with alcohol?) to reduce the ability of both sides to fight.

The doctors had a choice. Do they:

  1. Give her a drug to wipe out a big chunk of the immune cells from both donor and recipient (nuke Iraq to kill enough people, on both sides, to stop the war)
  2. Stop all immunosuppressants and just let the immune cells duke it out (take off all the handcuffs on US forces and let them wipe out the remaining Iraqi insurgents and hope that Iraq is still in one piece when it’s all over)

They went with the second strategy.

It is now about 5 years after the transplant. The girl is healthy, and no longer on immunosuppressants. Her blood is now completely from the donor, despite the lack of bone marrow transplant. There has been no sign of the GVHD which typically accompanies the sorts of bone marrow transplants which could lead to blood type switching, and it would appear that the girl’s new immune system has been “re-trained” to not recognize the liver or the girl’s body as foreign.

So, the big question in my mind is how? How could a non-bone marrow transplant lead to blood type switching? The only two things I can think of are:

  1. A virus caused liver cells from the transplant to fuse with the girl’s blood-making bone marrow cells. Why it may be possible:
    1. In biology labs, forcing cells to fuse is oftentimes done with viruses
    2. It is known that stem cells like the blood-making bone marrow cells are prone to fusing (a result which confused many early researchers who were positive they found examples of blood stem cells turning into non-blood cells)
  2. Because the boy was so young, it is possible that the transplanted liver still contained blood-making stem cells which were re-activated. Why it may be possible:
    1. The fetal blood supply is produced, at least in part, by cells in the liver
    2. Stem cells which are dormant (e.g. the cells in your skin that can produce new skin) can be activated with the appropriate stimuli (e.g. burn)

This is all just speculation on my part, and I doubt we will ever find the answer in the case of this patient (who is no doubt sick of doctors and hospitals), but things like this are reasons why I love House and why I love science.


The Blackberry’s Big O

imageI’m talking about Opera, the web browser.

Why speak of Opera when I’ve made it quite clear that I’m a big fan of Mozilla’s foxy open-source browser? The reason is that web browsers on mobile phones tend to suck.

  1. They suck because they are capable of very little. The little pages that you see on most mobile phone screens is stripped of animations, Flash, most Javascript effects, etc — neutering some websites and rendering all but the websites with custom mobile versions as hideous blobs of letters.
  2. They suck because they have horrible User Interfaces. An application does not have to have an intuitive interface like the one on iPhone to have a work-able user interface. The way that the user interface on the Blackberry browsers is designed, however, is the exact opposite of work-able. The clunky interface makes it very difficult to navigate larger web pages. The browser also makes no attempt to auto-rescale websites and sizes, or to auto-detect what user interface mode makes the most sense.
  3. They suck because they look and feel nothing like the browser on a computer. This may seem like a nit-picky point, but it lies at the heart of the problem with the mobile browser — it’s supposed to be modeled off software which we are all very familiar with, but it ends up falling short by not making a good effort to emulate, but by focusing more on the device’s limitations (limited screen-size and bandwidth) rather than the device’s potential (emulation to simulate most of the features from a desktop browser).

Opera Mini is Opera’s attempt to solve all three of these problems (hat tip: A. Ow). Opera Mini is a mini-browser Java app which speeds up the browsing experience by fetching all web-pages through a proxy server which performs on-the-fly calculations to rescale webpages and determine the best way for the user to start browsing the page. This is fed back to your phone, making the download faster and allowing the browsing experience to be smoother. Unlike the default mobile browser, Opera Mini attempts to strip down web pages as little as possible, oftentimes preserving the look and feel of the website (the Opera Mini demo shows what sites will look like in Opera Mini) including some Javascript and CSS.

I would strongly encourage people who either use the Internet on their Blackberries a lot or who want to but can’t stand the default Blackberry browser to download this.

On the part of Opera, this is quite a good business ploy — not only because this may mean they can one day capture the mobile browser market, but because I was so impressed with Opera Mini, I actually downloaded and tried the Opera browser for my laptop.


How Not to Handle Professional Services

image In consulting, the client is king. The same is true for many professional services industries. It makes the job particularly challenging, as success involves more than just getting at the correct answer to a client’s problems, but presenting it well.

While it can be pretty difficult to do this well, it should be very clear that the following pitfalls should be avoided at all costs:

  • Not being responsive to phone & email – There is nothing that spells disrespect and introduces doubt quite like being unresponsive to requests for contact. It makes the client feel like a loan shark trying to call in some loans.
  • Talking down to the client – Unless you enjoy working on answers that never go anywhere, making sure the client impedes rather than helps you in your quest for the right answer, and guaranteeing that the client never hires your firm again, stop talking down to your client, and treat them like the partners they should be.
  • Directly going against the client’s wishes – If the client says, “No, we are not going to do this,” the solution is either (a) don’t do it or (b) work with the client to arrive at a reasonable compromise. Your response should not be, “Well, we think you’re being foolish; let me now waste the next 30 minutes on our phone call pointing out why.”
  • Give unclear and round-about answers to your client’s questions – “Car salesman” does not usually bring up positive thoughts — so don’t act like one. Give clear answers to your client’s questions, not answers which suggest you are either hiding something or have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. Even if you don’t know, it’s oftentimes better to speak the truth than it is to lie and then lose all credibility when the truth does come out.
  • Make bizarre jokes about the nature of the relationship with the client. Being casual with the client to build camaraderie – good. Making jokes about possible means to increase the fees that the client has to pay – not so good.
  • Not delivering on promises. This should go without saying, but, if you promise to email something by the end of the day, and then don’t, then you apparently just don’t like having clients.

I was recently on the receiving end of all of these — in the course of one phone conversation in an interview with a carbon offset provider (as research for my firm’s Green initiative) who could have been a potential partner for us. Suffice to say, they won’t be now if I have anything to say about it.

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One of the most challenging things about the shift from one field to any other field is dealing with jargon mismatch. What’s especially jarring is trying to learn new meanings for acronyms that I already learned different meanings for.

Case in point: at my firm, consultants with MBAs who’ve proven themselves and are on track towards promotion are called Case Team Leaders — signifying their emerging role as workstream leaders in our case teams. Seeing as consultants love their TLAs (three letter acronyms), Case Team Leaders are of course called CTLs.

image On the other hand, in immunology, where I spent a reasonable chunk of my scientific time, CTLs refer to cytotoxic lymphocytes. These cells are oftentimes called killer T-cells, because of their role in seeking out and destroying cells which have been taken over by viruses or cancer.

And, even though the only thing remotely similar about the two different CTLs is a propensity to kill things that don’t quite fit :-), it still takes a reasonable amount of effort for me not to laugh when I hear that acronym being used to describe my supervisors.


Wiki at Work

Everyone, at some point or the other, is distracted at work. I’m willing to admit that on a few occasions, I have spend a few minutes here and there reading Google Reader, checking a random Wikipedia page, and even watching a YouTube video sent by a friend.

Some folks, however, take it a bit far (hat tip to A. Phan):

Japan Officials Edited Wikipedia at Work

Japan’s Agriculture Ministry reprimanded six bureaucrats after an internal probe found they spent work hours contributing to Wikipedia on topics unrelated to farm issues — including 260 entries about cartoon robots.

The six civil servants together made 408 entries on the popular Web site encyclopedia from ministry computers since 2003, an official said Friday.

This next bit really gets me (disclosure: I’m a big Gundam fan)

One of the six focused solely on Gundam — the popular, long-running animated series about giant robots — to which he contributed 260 times. The series has spun off intricate toy robots popular among schoolchildren as well as adults known as “otaku” nerds.

And of course, the no-fun Minister of Agriculture had to note:

The Agriculture Ministry is not in charge of Gundam,” said ministry official Tsutomu Shimomura.

You heard it first, America, the Minister of Agriculture is not ACTUALLY in charge of designing big Gundams — as was commonly viewed by . . . apparently people working for said minister. I smell a cover-up…

The other five bureaucrats scolded for shirking their duties focused their contributions on movies, typographical mistakes on billboard signs and local politics, Shimomura said.

The ministry’s internal probe followed recent media allegations that a growing number of Japanese public servants were contributing to the Web encyclopedia, which anyone can edit, often to reflect their views.

The ministry verbally reprimanded each of the six officials, and slapped a ministry-wide order to prohibit access to Wikipedia at work, while disabling access to the site from the ministry, Shimomura said.

NO WIKIPEDIA!?!? But . . . how ever will I have access to the collective wisdom of humanity!? Surely, Wikipedia is useful for something, Mr. Shimomura-san!

The ministry, however, did not object to their limited contributions on the World Trade Organization and free trade agreements.

Someone’s got his sights set on controlling Japanese trade policy. . . you sly devil, Shimomura-san. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.

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Blackberry 101

Despite my protests to never become “one of those Blackberry owners”, I have, for the past three months, sadly and somewhat hypocritically, become a proud owner of a Blackberry Curve.

After three months of fairly heavy usage, I’ve compiled a list of 12 suggestions and impressions for people who are looking at making a purchase or wondering what the big deal about these devices is:

  1. Get a good high-speed unlimited Internet wireless service. The Blackberry Curve is cool because it is one of the only Blackberry devices to have a camera. But, if all you wanted was a camera on your mobile device, you could’ve gotten any number of cell phones. What the Blackberry excels at is in email and Internet applications. Thus, unless you have a service that allows the Blackberry to do what it’s supposed to (mainly, email and Internet), then you shouldn’t even consider getting one of these. It’d be like buying a car but never intending to buy gasoline.
  2. Check with your firm (if this is for work) if they have a Blackberry Enterprise Server. If they are (which is probably the case if your firm uses specialized Microsoft Outlook features to handle email and scheduling), check with your firm’s tech group about which type of Blackberry service you need to purchase. Not listening to them will mean, at best, that your Blackberry device won’t be able to use some of the cooler features (i.e. scheduling meetings through Outlook), and at worse, it means your Blackberry might not work at all. Note also, that while many devices support some type of Blackberry service/software, most of these emulated Blackberrys can’t read from a Blackberry Enterprise Server.
  3. Download Gmail’s Java Application. I assume you’re using gmail, because it’s the best, free web-email I’ve seen. If you’re not, go get gmail (for the reason, refer to the previous sentence). Then, go download the Gmail Java application which allows you to use the Gmail UI features (ie labels for email, organize mail by conversations, large space limit, forwarding at will, etc.) while accessing your gmail. If your job is going to be pinging you all day, then you might as well have access to your personal email while you’re at it.
  4. To combine your Blackberry and your phone, or not to combine, that is the question. I personally don’t want to lug around two mobile devices wherever I go (assuming I only want to pay for one voice plan — which, I do, because I don’t want to pay for two completely separate phone lines for two separate yet overlapping purposes), so I bought the Blackberry and swapped out the SIM card from my old phone and popped it into my Blackberry. This meant that I didn’t get the new service plan discounts on my Blackberry purchase, but on the upside, I did not have to change my cell phone number or anything. The major downside to this is . . .
  5. The Blackberry ties you to work. On the one hand, this has been a major time-saver for me and my team. I rarely turn on my work laptop on the weekends, now, because all the essential functions (checking email, firing replies, scheduling meetings/appointments) I can do from the Blackberry — and I can do any time and in any place that has phone service. On the other hand, especially because the device is the same as my phone and hence I don’t turn it off, I never get away from the email. This of course is mitigated by . . .
  6. Turn the email notification off. For the first couple of months, I left the notification on — which meant that every time I got an email from the office, no matter what the hour (and I discovered that some workers send emails at the oddest hours), my phone would vibrate at me. It got to the point where I could feel my blood pressure rise and the stressed out “fight-or-flight’ feeling build up every time I heard the darned thing vibrate. Now that it’s off, I feel much better. But, don’t you miss out on emails that way? No, because . . .
  7. You’ll check the Blackberry compulsively. I wouldn’t say that the device is necessarily addictive — although some people would disagree — if anything, I’d say it’s a godsend during boring interludes in conversations or when I’m riding a bus or a train and I have absolutely nothing to do. You just get in the habit of checking the device for no good reason. I’ve gone hours without looking at the device without any sense of withdrawal, of course addiction is partially genetic, and maybe I just lack the “easily addicted to small handheld smartphones” genetic makeup.
  8. GPS? Some Blackberries these days come with a GPS device which makes the mapping programs (I use the Google Maps applet) much more useful and much cooler. For those devices that lack a built-in GPS, you can use the device’s Bluetooth system to connect to a nearby GPS device to feed your Blackberry your position information.
  9. Buy a microSD expansion. These devices come with more or less no memory. If you plan to use any of the features at all (including downloading big attachments, using mobile Java applets like the Gmail and Google Maps ones I just described, using the camera, or using the music/movie player features) you’ll need more memory.
  10. The device charges on USB. Very useful for charging when you have a laptop and laptop cable but didn’t bring the bulky Blackberry adaptor.
  11. Consider how fat/clumsy your fingers are when you pick a device. I’m only partially joking here. Case in point: I really liked the Blackberry Pearl, the Blackberry’s general consumption model — it looked like a phone, was much smaller than the other models. Yet, it had two letters to a key, as opposed to the standard QWERTY keyboards that the other models had. That device, while cool-looking, was just not usable for me — and I have fairly small hands. I know people who say that it’s easy to get used to, but given that these smartphones already have tiny QWERTY keyboards, I feel strongly that if your fingers are large or maybe a little clumsy, that you avoid the Pearl and buy one of the QWERTY keyboard-bearing ones.
  12. Most of you actually reading this will probably get a Bluetooth hands-free headset thing. You will look like a big dork with no life outside of work. You will probably be a big dork with no life outside of work. You have been warned.

Incidentally, if anyone’s wondering why these things are called Blackberry’s, from Wikipedia:

RIM settled on the name “BlackBerry” only after weeks of work by Lexicon Branding Inc., the Sausalito, California-based firm that named Intel Corp.’s Pentium microprocessor and Apple’s PowerBook. One of the naming experts at Lexicon thought the miniature buttons on RIM’s product looked “like the tiny seeds in a strawberry,” Lexicon founder David Placek says. “A linguist at the firm thought straw was too slow sounding. Someone else suggested blackberry. RIM went for it.”

The “Strawberry”, huh? I picture my curve, but in pink. . .

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Privacy Filter

Confidentiality is a big part of consulting. In much the same way that the practice of medicine and law would be very different (and probably for the worse) if there was no confidentiality between parties, consulting (both the selling of cases and the actual act of providing advice) would be severely hampered without a basic guarantee of privacy.

I don’t know how other firms do it, but there are some general practices at the firm I work for. They are mostly commonsense (ie. don’t pass around sensitive information, keep your desk clear of confidential documents, use enterprise email to maintain access control over files, etc.), but my personal favorites are of course the provided Thinkpad T60 (with hard drive encryption) and the privacy filter: a 3M black film which restricts the available viewing angles for your screen. Therefore, when I’m on a plane or a train, I can do work with minimal fear that the passenger sitting next to me has just read secret corporate data.

It not only protects corporate data it also lets me surf the internet guiltlessly as passerbys have no idea that my screen is not actually a giant Excel spreadsheet but my Google Reader page :).

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Something for Nothing

Where I work, I have instant electronic access to numerous databases. While I no longer have access to Scifinder Scholar (for Chemistry papers and structures and patents) or PubMed (which indexes every biological/medical paper published), my research workhorses are now Factiva (for news and magazine articles), Euromonitor (for economic and market data), and OneSource (for general company information).

Access to these databases cost money. Lots of it. I remember balking the first time I saw the purchase price for a Thomson research report ($10,000 for some analyst’s research on an energy company) that wasn’t covered by the firm’s subscriptions.

And these databases are, if used properly, well worth the cost to the institution in question. But sometimes, you don’t need fancy-shmancy million dollar databases. I’m currently doing research which involves finding historical operating margins and I’ve found the following resources to be very useful and also very cheap (as in free) and just thought I’d introduce three of my best friends from this past week:

  • Google Finance – This is a pretty awesome tool. It’s flashy and aggregates an enormous amount of useful information. You get corporate information, stock price data (back to 1980), a quick summary of the stock performance of related companies, links to recent news articles, and a quick aggregation of top-level income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement numbers.
  • Reuters – I used to think this site was purely for news (I’m a huge fan of Reuter’s Oddly Enough which I guess isn’t exactly news), but it’s a treasure trove of financial information. Most useful of all are its industry profiles whereby it describes multiple industries, what makes them tick, and industry statistics that enable you to compare how a company is doing relative to its industry. It also lists some information for companies that are not publicly traded
  • SEC EDGAR – Any company report that has ever been filed with the SEC within the last 13 years can be found here using EDGAR, the SEC’s report search engine. This was particularly helpful when I was looking up financials for telecom companies that no longer exist because they either went out of business, changed their name, went private, or were bought out by someone else.

So useful are these sites that I’ve actually created Firefox keyword searches for them (except for Reuters where I still can’t get the keyword search to work). Now I can look up Dell’s financials with a simple “fin Dell” (to search on Google Finance) or “sec Dell” (to use EDGAR).

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A Graphical History of Religion

Something I found the other day while browsing in my archives for Google Reader, but its a graphical history of the rise and spread of today’s major modern religions Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Its pretty astonishing how different things looked just a few hundred years ago — as late as the 1400s and 1500s it was not clear that Christianity, one of the later religions relatively speaking, would grow to be the dominant religion. You can find the original here.

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Its been awhile since I’ve done one of my computer tip posts. The application I want to talk about today is something that I’ve come to be highly dependent on: Launchy.

Launchy is an application launcher which is run completely by the keyboard. You use a special keystroke combination (on my computer, it’s Windows+Space) and a textbar will popup, whereby you type in stuff and when you hit enter, it will execute your command. It was originally designed (and still functions primarily) as a Start menu replacement program which will index all your icons in your start menu so you never have to go searching for them in the start menu. For instance, instead of going to Start -> Programs -> Google -> Picasa2 -> Picasa, I simply hit Windows+Space and then type “Picasa” and Enter.

Launchy, by virtue of having indexed your files, will also start guessing which entry you want as you type. I only have to type “Pic” and it can already guess that I want to start Picasa. It performs this guesswork by tabulating which programs/entries you call up the most. In my case, I only have to type “f” and it knows I’m looking for Firefox, but if I’m trying to pull up Google Desktop, because I launch Google Talk more often, I have to type out a little further.

But, have no fear. There are two ways Launchy gets around this. The first is that Launchy will accept misspellings and re-orderings of the letters. Therefore, I can type in “Talk” and I will get Google Talk and “Desktop” and I will get Google Desktop. The second way is that if Launchy is not being sufficiently smart, you can always push the down key and Launchy will give a listing of several (up to 10 on mine b/c that’s how I’ve customized it) entries that it thinks you may be interested in.

With this newest version (1.0.3), Launchy has a feature-set which I think makes it an awesome must-have application for the PC:

  1. Start Menu indexing (as mentioned above)
  2. Misspell handling (as mentioned above)
  3. Customization – I’ve set the hotkey to be Windows+Space, but you can choose something else if you want
  4. Skinnability – I’ve skinned mine with “Black Glass” which I think looks pretty awesomem but you can pick from many:
  5. Index all types of files in all sorts of locations – This is where Launchy really starts getting useful. Launchy is fully customizable, so I have had Launchy index all my Microsoft Office files, my pdf’s, all my executable files, all my mp3’s, etc on my Desktop, My Documents, Start Menu, etc. I’ve also had it index directory names in My Documents such that I never have a problem finding files anymore, I just start typing the name of the file and in a few letters, I usually have what I want (this has also made me name my files more obvious and useful names). I can access any mp3 or any jpg or any powerpoint file from anywhere.
  6. Simple Calculator – Not quite as powerful as Google’s calculator, but you can enter simple arithmetic and it performs it for you.
  7. Quick Access to the Web – You can enter URL (requires “http://” if the URL doesn’t start with a “www.”), enter, and it’ll open it in your browser.
  8. Quick Access to Directories – The new version allows you to start typing “C:” and then an action key, tab, to traverse the directory structure on your computer. Thus, to get to my Mozilla Firefox program folder, I type “C:”, Tab, “Pro”, Tab, “Mozill”, Tab, enter.
  9. Indexes your Firefox bookmarks – It indexes your Firefox bookmark names and keywords!
  10. Indexes your Firefox Quick Searches – I’ve posted before on the magic of Firefox Keyword Searches, allowing you to quickly access any search (ie I quicksearch YouTube with “yt ” expression), and now Launchy will index your Quick Searches AND their keywords, meaning that I can now search YouTube by entering, Windows+Space, “yt”, Tab, “Superman Returns trailer”, enter.
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More Firefox

In a previous post, I explained some of the myriad reasons that I’m a big fan of Firefox and gave a list of some of the most useful extensions that I use. As I am always discovering new things, here are some of the additional discoveries I’ve made with Firefox which have made it all the more useful for me:

  1. Gmail Skins – For those who use gmail, Gmail skins allow you to customize the look of your gmail interface. I’ve turned the navigation/command bar traditionally on the left-hand-side and converted it to a one-line menu which I’ve moved to the top of the page. I’ve also disabled the invitations manager, used a new color theme (because I don’t like Google’s default), and added a side-bar to my gmail window where you can link the left-hand column of your google personal page as a side-bar to your gmail window. In my case, I’ve used this to make it easy to access my calendar, google reader feed, and the local weather on the same interface as my email.
  2. BugMeNot – BugMeNot is a service which allows you to bypass compulsory web registration on a variety of online websites and magazines by supplying free, public passwords and usernames [no premium accounts, sorry] for a variety of webpages (ie New York Times, Washington Post, etc). The BugMeNot extension lets you quickly right-click on websites to just throw in BugMeNot access information so you never have to trouble yourself with that.
  3. Mouse Gestures – Tim recommended these to me. Basically, they key your browser to react to specific gestures using your mouse. For instance, if I hold the right mouse button down and drag to the left or to the right, I move forward or backwards in the history. If I make a L-shape while holding the right button down, I close the current window or tab, if I drag up, I create a new tab, if I drag down, I create a new window. There’s even a place to download new gestures, if you want more. I’ll admit I don’t use all the gestures, but I have found the gestures make it very easy to handle multi-tab browsing, especially when I don’t feel like using keyboard shortcuts.
  4. Keyword browsing – I mentioned before that I am a big fan of the bookmark system in Firefox as it allows me to assign keywords, letting me type “reader” to get to my google reader page, “gmail” to get to my gmail page, etc. But, it was a pain to enter keywords, because Firefox, by default, does not let you enter keywords. You have to right-click on the bookmark, select “properties”, and then enter the information. The OpenBook extension changes that — now, by default, you can enter a keyword for every bookmark.
  5. Additionally, I have discovered that Firefox has keyword searching as well. Its difficult to describe in any other way than in usage, but, if I wanted to search for directions to San Francisco International Airport, before I would type “” and then type in “SFO” in the search bar. Now, in the location bar (which you can get to with a simple Alt+D or Ctrl+L), I can just type in “map SFO” and it’ll do all of that. If I want to search Wikipedia, I can type “w open source”, if I want to search IMDB, I can type “imdb Tom Cruise” — you get the idea.

FireFox rules

I just thought I’d be a nerd and explain the multitude of actually usable reasons (I don’t care that your browser renders in superHexAscii2.454 if I don’t use it) why I like Firefox:
  1. Tabbed Browsing – This is to me, hands down, the main reason that I chose to use Mozilla products from the get go (yes, I was one of those tech nerds who was using Mozilla back when their icon was a Godzilla breathing fire). One would think that with both Windows and the Mac employing some form of taskbar, that it would actually be very simple to switch between program windows when you’re browsing the web, but for one reason or another, its always a bit awkward. Tabbing, on other hand, allows you to be reading multiple pages at the same time, all in the same window. In Firefox, you can use Ctrl+T to create a new tab, you can also click Ctrl while you click on a link to open it in a new tab, use the context menu when you right click on a link to open a specific link in a new tab, or even use your midde-click button to force things to open in a new tab. It cuts down on clutter in my taskbar (and to my understanding, memory usage by your computer) and is particularly helpful when I’m doing Google or Wikipedia searches to have one tab be my search results and all the other tabs to be links in the search result.
  2. Integrated Search Engine – Firefox comes with several search engines programmed in by default on the upper-right-hand textbar in the browser screen. You don’t have to go to google or yahoo or wikipedia to do your searches, all you have to do is click on the textbar, type, and hit enter.
  3. Download manager – A lot of people already have programs like Gozilla, but Firefox comes built-in with a download manager (hit Ctrl+Shift+D) allowing a quick and easy place to find the information on the names, sizes, and locations of the files you’ve downloaded, and gives you a way to quickly pause, resume, and restart downloads.
  4. Customizability – I may never buy a Mac, but I like the way Safari looks so I’ve happened to pick a Safari/iMac like skin for my Firefox browser (and also for my Thunderbird email program which is also, by the way, made by the Mozilla people). I understand there are mods for Internet Explorer, but the fact that themes are so custom-built into Firefox and so easy to use/deploy is another plus
  5. Bookmarks – I remember trying to use the Internet Explorer bookmark manager … that’s why I never had bookmarks in IE. In Firefox, the Bookmarks manager is a great deal more intuitive (its organized in a similar fashion to Windows Explorer), and a great deal more useful. I’ve set up a lot of my bookmarks so that I can quickly type say “menu” in my location bar and it’ll jump straight to what Harvard Dining Services is offering for the day.
  6. Rendering Engine – As a person who used to have to help manage websites, I can remember the nightmare of trying to get web code to work in both Internet Explorer and Netscape — that was one of the big reasons I kept both browsers on my computer so that I could see the occasional website which did not work. For the most part, I have not seen a website that hasn’t been rendered correctly in Firefox (although I have seen many websites that just aren’t rendered well in IE).
  7. Internal Search – You hit Ctrl+F, type any phrase and Firefox starts searching AS YOU TYPE the window that you’re looking at.
  8. Extensions – I think the number two reason that I choose to use Mozilla are the wealth of extensions and addons that exist (and are, for the most part, located in a central location), making my life a good deal easier, such as:
    1. AdBlock – Lets you block banners and Flash and internal frames with just a click. It also lets you specify RegExpns and URLs of websites which feed advertisements to allow you to craft smarter blocking systems. Better still, an Extension called the Adblock Filterset.G comes built in with a list of websites and RegExpns which have more or less killed almost all the advertisements that I’ve ever encountered. I don’t even see Google Ads anymore 🙂
    2. ForecastFox – Puts weather icons in the bottom right of my screen which let me quickly check the weather. It seems kinda stupid, but its very helpful, especially on the damn east coast where the weather changes every two hours.
    3. Google Toolbar for Firefox – I have to say this is a MUCH better toolbar than the one for Internet Explorer. It provides more or less all of the same functionality (except for popup blocking but that’s because Firefox has its own popup blocker) but is more customizable and detects phishing sites (website scams where a website pretends to be your EBay account just to get your account information).
    4. IE Tab – For the occasional website that requires Internet Explorer, this extension allows you to render websites with Internet Explorer in Firefox. You can even set it so that any website which you know looks better or works better in IE (ie Windows Update, Microsoft Sharepoint servers) will by default be rendered in the Internet Explorer engine rather than Firefox’s.
    5. Sage – I used to rely on Google’s Feed Readers and my My.Yahoo start page to aggregate RSS feeds, but now, I just use Sage, which allows me to quickly scan all my RSS feeds and provides a useful SKINNABLE interface such that I can quickly read the stuff that I want to check everyday.
    6. All-In-One Sidebar – A really useful extension which takes advantage and really upgrades the sidebar that comes with Firefox. It lets you customize the Sidebar, and puts all sorts of functionality into it (ie puts your download manager there, your extension manager, etc)
    7. Deepest Sender – I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I use this extension to update my Blogger and LJ.
    8. Scrapbook – Ever wanted to save a website that you’ve really liked but know that you probably won’t get everything (ie the specific text that you’ve typed, the specific graphic that you’ve set it at, etc etc) because Internet Explorer’s save feature only saves the raw HTML and image files? Scrapbook makes it so that it saves EVERYTHING about the page.
    9. Image Toolbar – Something that I actually missed from Internet Explorer was the little icons that pop up when your mouse is over an image that lets you copy or save the image. This extension brings those icons back :-).

I actually have several more extensions installed (ie an IRC chat extension, a web developer extension, a nice Calculator which lets you type expressions [like on a graphing calculator] which it will then evaluate, and some random aesthetic and web design ones, but I think listing eight reasons and nine extensions is sufficient 🙂


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