A Supercomputing Future

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A Supercomputing Future”
by Kai Staats
December 2011

Today, November 18, was the closing day of SuperComputing 2011, the conference and trade show for high performance computing research, labs, and industry. For this week the Seattle Washington Convention Center hosted representation of the latest, greatest, and fastest computers in the world, an overwhelming array of blinking lights, whirring fans, and massive LCD, plasma, and projection screens demonstrating human brain power applied to the human quest to learn how all things work.

It was my first time attending since 2008, my ninth or tenth show in total, but as I have been away for three years, I experienced a jump in the otherwise, relatively steady evolution of compute power and associated research results.

As in the movie “Minority Report” there are now fully interactive touch screens the size of a wall. Up to four people may interact, moving, panning, zooming, and annotating documents, photos, and film. I was able to not only resize a movie while it played, but with one hand rotate it 360 degrees, the motion never even hesitating. The immersive 3D worlds are faster, smoother, and of course, much higher resolution. Still a bit awkward for data visualization, but the flight simulators are amazing!

The challenge of building supercomputing clusters has in many respects remained the same, the balance between data storage, bandwidth, calculations per second, and visualization an ongoing battle.

As CPUs get faster, they need to be fed data at a higher rate. The interconnect fabric (network) advances, from 10/100 ethernet to gigabit, from Infiniband to 10g-e and beyond. But then the memory bus is saturated and can’t keep up, so the speed and quantity of RAM and cache must increase too.

As CPU frequencies have for the most part stalled, Moore’s law is maintained by adding more cores, two, four, and eight on a single socket. But even this has its limitation as we reach the boundary of how small we are able to manufacture a transistor and how effectively we may move heat without building quantum machines.

We add more processors in the form of GP/GPUs, advanced accelerators which grew out of the graphics card industry. Nvidia is leading the charge. Ah! A new challenge is presented, for now we have 500 cores in a PCI slot and four slots to fill. But with 2000 cores, a million or more across an entire cluster, we find that our programming models no longer hold up for the message passing interface which moves fragments of a computational problem takes more processing power, diminishing returns due to fabric latency, OS jitters, and kernel interrupts not easily be solved.

IBM builds a rack-mount node which takes four people to carry (let alone install). HP and Dell design higher density blades which require water cooling. Cray reinvents the wheel (it’s a very nice wheel). TI brings to market new digital signal processors while the ARM processor makes enters this industry with a many-core architecture, but the OS platform remains infantile, lacking industry support for compilers and management tools.

Tired yet? I have only just begun. Super computing is super confusing and yet somehow it works. The competition is fierce, new companies claiming fastest and best their second year in the industry. Big guys buy up small guys as the small guys continue to innovate, racing to support the most advanced research in the world: bioinformatics, nuclear physics, brain mapping, three dimensional imaging of the earth beneath our feet, climate modeling, quantum interactions at the event horizon of a black hole.

We now understand more of the universe inside, immediately around, and far beyond ourselves than ever before. Our knowledge of how things work is growing at an exponential rate. We now compare the DNA of a newly discovered species with another, from wet lab to sequencing in a matter of hours, and we know how many millions of years separate the two in their evolutionary tree. We model with incredible accuracy the proteins that make up various parts of our body and the function of individual cells in the human brain. We better predict the movement of hurricanes up coast lines while the mathematical prediction of fluctuations on Wall Street continues uninterrupted.

I watched a 3D model of a protein-ligand interaction, the colors ranging from white to blue to red to represent the heat-energy in various parts of the system. It jumped, danced, and moved in apparently intelligent ways, an “arm” of the protein connecting to itself only to break again where the synthetic drug attempted to bond. The model from start to finish was over a minute in length, and yet it happens millions of times a second throughout our bodies. For a moment I felt alive in a way that is difficult to explain, picturing in my mind these molecular interactions inside of me at a scale I cannot fully comprehend.

I want to know how all of this works, all of it! –but even in ten lifetimes it is impossible to gain this understanding for the people who bring these discoveries to life are experts in increasingly narrow fields.

Next year I want to attend the show again, and as I have promised myself too many times before, read the posters, interview the grad students and professors who have traveled across the globe to present their latest findings, for their knowledge is our future, a future modeled in supercomputers.

By | 2017-10-21T16:54:57+00:00 December 10th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

Taking out the Trash

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Taking out the Trash”
By Kai Staats
4 November 2011

As Moore’s law has seen the regular doubling of processor power every two to three years, the cost of storage, both local and on-line, has declined at a steady, rapid pace, giving rise to a tremendous capacity for capturing our digital lives in words, photos, video, and sound.

What has accompanied, even compelled the need for this massive increase in storage space is in part the amount of data we generate. High resolution photos have surpassed print film while lossless audio now carries the quality of the live performance. What’s more, the human tendency to horde everything digital has been compounded by advanced searches which tend to lead to the abandonment of organization.

Many years ago, when Google first introduced Gmail, a battle ensued at my former company, my engineers believed the answer to all their email woes had finally been granted–a single repository coupled with a Google powered search.

However, month after month I witnessed a gradual degradation of response to both internal and customer email. I investigated, and at times, had to intervene.

“I sent an email last week, but have not yet received a response,” became a common theme.

“Are you sure you sent it to me?” was a common reply.

“Yes. Quite certain. Should I forward a copy to you?”

“No, no. Hold on, let me search … oh, here it is. Well, I didn’t see that one ’cause I have more than two thousand email in my Inbox and a few hundred unread,” stated with a grin and a sense of pride, as though the goal of the game was to accumulate the most unread emails.

“That seems like a problem. How about using labels and filters?” I asked.

“Why?! Look, with Gmail I just search and find any thread at any point in time,” and a quick demonstration ensued.

“But you didn’t see my email until just now, and the customer has been waiting for a reply.”

An uncomfortable silence followed, and then recognition of the problem at hand “Right.”

I knew the fight was not about Gmail vs Yahoo! or Kmail vs Apple’s Mail app. This was about implementing a system of organization that was well planned, scalable, and flexible over time.

I defended the use of folders and automated filters which delivered email to unique, associated Inboxes. He was not alone, most of my staff replaced even a minimal sense of organization with Gmail’s paradigm, despite the decrease in response time, and worse, lost communications.

In response, I initiated a competition: my more than twelve thousand email comprising the summary of ten years of communications, archived in the logic of several hundred nested folders against just a few thousand email and Gmail’s search put to good use. The goal? Find a particular email on an exact date sent to a known client about a non-ambiguous subject, granting at least three parameters by which one could search.

Challenge after challenge, I won every time. None of my employees could beat me in accuracy nor timing of information retrieval. Three, at most four mouse clicks and I could locate any email to any customer in just a few seconds.

Yes, I spent thirty minutes every now and again re-organizing my email directory structure to accommodate an increased load, or to gain a greater level of efficiency when I realized that re-sorting directories by one parameter was more effective than by another. But the time I spent in organization was more than compensated by the hours saved in daily operations and what’s more, I gained a strong visual component, a sense of ownership of my data.

What I experienced then, and to this day I believe holds true, is that the most important of all factors in an age of information overload is forming good habits of data organization and of equal importance, taking out the trash. To keep everything, all the time, independent of the number of folders, is to fail to process data on a regular basis, thereby failing to assign value across the board.

No matter where we store things, in a closet, a file drawer, or on-line, the process of managing objects and data is the same:

  1. Organize – Create a system of organization which accommodates scalable growth
    and rapid, painless retrieval.
  2. Prioritize – Assign dates, names, and/or project titles.
  3. Discard – Establish value to the data that remains.

Most methods for teaching data organization seldom discuss deletion. But the process of determining what to throw out is the same as determining what to keep, establishing a mental image that is as effective as any advanced search function.

The next time Gmail responds, “Who needs to delete when you have so much storage?!” consider the clarity of mind you will have gained through managing your data.

By | 2017-10-21T16:54:25+00:00 November 9th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

Specialization in Userland

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Living with Specialization in Userland”
By Kai Staats
7 October 2011

I crossed the U.S. / Canada border on I-5 listening to NPR’s Car Talk, Ray and Tom invoking laughter in the most stoic of listeners, as they always do. A woman called in to ask advice before she traded her beloved 1985 Volkswagon Vanagon for a Subaru Forester. She was understandably reluctant to give up the many years of stories, adventures, and dreams their family had shared driving across the land.

The woman asked about the engine and whether or not her husband could tinker with a new Subaru, doing most of the maintenance himself. Ray and Tom agreed that modern cars do not lend themselves to home mechanics as they have for all the prior years. The stuff under the hood is unfamiliar now, designed to be maintained by trained, industry specialists.

Two hours later I drove into Squamish, British Columbia, the rain washing my windshield clean of more than one thousand five hundred miles since I left home. I walked into the Adventure Center on Canadian HW99 at the edge of town. The young man behind the counter and his manager were discussing the power outage which has disabled all but one VOIP phone and computer terminal.

Neither of them was willing to experiment, fearing they might make it worse. They were waiting for the next day, Monday, when they could call support and talk to an expert.

Last week I stayed with a family friend, a professional photographer, writer, and naturalist with more than thirty years in the field. His life moves through his laptop and cell phone as he is seldom home for more than a few days at a time, and yet, the full capacity for electronic organization and collaboration unrealized.
I assisted him and his wife with switching from Yahoo! to Gmail, synchronizing Google Calendars to their Android phones, configuring email for their Internet domain, expanding their home wireless network with two Apple Airport Extreme adapters, establishing a central repository for sharing files, and connecting their home stereo system to streaming Internet radio.

I transferred user data from an old laptop to one brand new, doubled the capacity of the old laptop, reinstalled Mac OSX, and transferred user data again. They were thrilled, one of their daughters commenting over the phone, “Welcome to the twenty-first century!”

To be honest, I just followed the directions presented to me on-screen, doing little more than what I was told each step of the way. For as much of the effort as they had time, I engaged them in the process. But from their point of view, I am a specialist with many years expertise. Yet compared to code developers and engineers, I am just a layperson, an advanced user in user land. The many levels run deep.

It is not the doing that was the true barrier, for they can point and click as easily as anyone. The challenge is knowing where to start. Apple has not shipped with a printed manual for many years, believing their operating system is so simple anyone can just figure it out. I watched too many people struggle to know this is far from true. Searching Apple’s website is nearly useless and Google yields overwhelming results. You must know what you are looking for before you even begin the search.

Just a few days ago I stayed with a friend a few blocks from the Puget Sound. Their wi-fi went down some time ago. A friend had attempted to swap routers but to no avail for they had lost the passwords and did not know how to reset them. I explained that on the back or bottom of every router is a small button which when pressed with the tip of a ballpoint pen will reset the unit when you plug it in. The factory password will likely be “guest” or “admin” depending upon the brand.

Certainly, there are individuals in each generation willing to explore, to push their boundaries and dive into the depths of what an operating system or applications can do. But how many people have this comfort? I spent three full days upgrading my friends’ digital life, but how many working professionals have this kind of time? What’s more, If you do not know what you are missing, why would you ask for more?

We live in a world of special knowledge applied to special things. Specialization is job security at one level, and yet part of the reason we have so many unemployed.

Personally, I do not see technology as making things easier, for we are only introducing more complexity to our lives, always trying to do more. Placing a record on a turntable requires physical care, but not expertise. Connecting a digital audio archive to a wireless network and home theater requires a specialist. What’s more, the ability for one generation to teach the next is lost, for anything learned is useless in just a few years.
We have no choice but to pick and choose what we will maintain as our expertise, and to have the courage to ask for assistance for everything else. Maybe this brings us together again, or maybe it keeps us apart. What are your thoughts?

By | 2017-10-21T16:52:57+00:00 October 8th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

Looking Up

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Astronomy keeps amateurs, pros looking up”
By Kai Staats
9 September 2011

When I was in my final year of high school and first two years of college I presided over the Phoenix Astronomical Society. In those years I was privileged to meet Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy, co-discoverers of the Shoemaker-Levy comet which later plunged into the atmosphere of Jupiter.

Now more than twenty years later, Gene has passed away, his ashes scattered on the surface of the moon while David and I had long ago lost contact. This summer, I dove headfirst into a documentary film project about astronomers and astrophysicists, my desire to capture their motivation to ask where did we come from, and why? A passion for knowledge expressed through looking up.

The second day of August I joined David, his wife Wendee, and three dozen amateur astronomers at the annual Adirondack Astronomy Retreat, hosted by SUNY in the mountains of upstate New York. It was a long overdue reunion with David and a wonderful learning experience for me, having been away from amateur astronomy for far too long.

In the process of working on my film and my return to astronomy, I came to appreciate two aspects which are both compelling and complimentary to each other. Astronomy, more than any other science, offers an accessible, functional bridge between amateurs and professionals, a gateway for the next generation to be compelled to learn.

Amateur astronomy enables anyone with some experience, patience, and a little luck to happen upon an event in the night sky which aids the professional community. While professional astronomers have at their disposal more advanced telescopes, the amount of time they have with them is limited by a long cue of researchers around the world. Furthermore, professional astronomers and professors often visit local astronomy club meetings to share their latest findings, young astronomers, as I once was, are inspired by direct interaction with professional scientists.

The sheer number of amateur astronomers world-wide is astounding, literally thousands of scopes peering into the sky every night. This makes for a world-wide network of data collection devices, some manually operated, some automated through computer driven tracking systems. What’s more, the opportunity for a budding astronomer to capture his or her first photograph of a colorful nebulae or the bands and moons of Jupiter is literally at their fingertips.

For the years I have been away from astronomy the industry has changed. Certainly, motor drives and tracking systems were in use, but we found our way around the night sky using hand held maps, large, many-page star charts printed in black and white. Now, micro-computers, stepper motors, and laptops attached by USB cables enable anyone with curiosity to engage in the oldest science of humankind.

As with the discussion around GPS versus topographical maps, one can argue that to know only how to use GPS units in the wilderness is a tremendous risk, for the batteries may die, or the lost in a creek. With aviation too, pilots are trained in the original, non-electronic means of navigation before working with on-board GPS and radar guidance.

There is part of me that says the same should be true with astronomy, learn it the hard way so that it becomes ingrained and a part of you. But when I consider the excitement of a child viewing the rings of Saturn for the first time, their mouth and eyes open wide, “Wow! Did you see that? Come look!” There is no right or wrong way to open the door to a lifelong passion for learning.

If in our instant gratification world a child can be turned on to the sciences, then by any means possible, point, click, and be thrilled. If they stick with it long enough, they will eventually know their way around the night sky and be able to tell their friends, “Right there, see that fuzzy thing? It’s a galaxy that if we could see it with our naked eye would be six times larger than the moon!”

While I am now just a bit over forty, I was a kid again for those three nights, staying awake ’till 4:30 AM, barely making it to breakfast hours after dawn. I was the recipient of patient assistance for astronomers are a generous lot, each generation offering something to the next. I spent an entire night taking my first photographs of Jupiter and M27, the Dumbbell nebulae, my new Canon 60D DSLR attached directly to a 13” Meade scope. Ah! The clarity, the color—it was amazing!

Even without assistance, someone new to astronomy can attach a USB cable to a relatively inexpensive telescope, train it on the North Star, and see on-screen a map of what lies overhead while the scope automagically moves to any object chosen by the mouse. Photographs can be logged, archived, and correlated to the map, an interactive show-n-tell.

With astronomy, every night is an adventure, an exploration of some one hundred billion stars, nebulae, and gaseous birthing chambers for the next generation of solar engines, pulsars, super novae, and black holes. The mind has no choice but to open when one looks through a telescope, to look up and ask, “Why?”

By | 2017-10-21T16:51:35+00:00 September 10th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

Solar Powered Hot Tub

Northern Colorado Business Report
“Solar Powered Hot Tub”
By Kai Staats
12 August 2011

This summer I collaborated with three friends on the design and installation of a grid-tied, battery backed 5.6KW, 24 panel photovoltaic array on a 260 acre ranch near Bailey, Colorado. Despite the challenges of a relatively large-scale renewable energy project, it was an incredible pleasure beginning to end, given the stunning beauty of the location and contagious energy of the tireless individuals who were as eager to dig a seventy five foot trench as they were to learn hands-on about electrical wiring.

Twenty four, four foot deep holes filled with concrete provide the foundation to six aluminum frames which hold four panels each. We rewired three electrical boxes, migrating mission critical circuits (ie: lights, outlets, water pump, refrigerator) to the panel which is now isolated from the grid and powered by the battery-backed inverter. Best of all, there is ample power for the hot tub.

At 8,000 feet the ranch is surrounded by ten thousand foot peaks, undulating hilltops and ravines which harbor horses, deer, coyotes, bear, and buffalo. Any sense of guilt at having enjoyed such a job site is completely washed away when I consider that the power required to heat the hot tub is more than offset by the new solar PV array.

The introduction of a passive solar water heater would certainly be more efficient than converting sunlight to electricity which in turn heats the water, but as with most adoptions of technology, change is best taken one step at a time. This is true not only on the small scale of one ranch in the middle of thousands in Colorado, but also for the worldwide effort to transition to renewable energy.

Too often I hear the argument that we will never be able to rely entirely upon renewable energy sources, that the efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines is simply not high enough to produce the power required.
This skepticism is parallel to the naysayers of so many human achievements—and a failure to recognize the relatively brief history of research and the commercial application to renewable energy. As with all evolving technologies, renewable energy will not achieve full market play until market demand and the resulting mass production forces a higher level of efficiency. In this case “grid parity,” or the ability to produce energy for the same or lower cost than traditional methods such as coal, nuclear, or gas. The good news is that we have achieved this in certain markets, and are moving to find grid parity in a greater diversity of regions.

The history of photovoltaic energy production goes back to 1883 where Charles Fritts created a solar cell which converted just one percent of sunlight into electricity. In the late 1960s Elliot Berman and an Exxon research team increased the power-to-cost ratio by five fold in just two years. Fast forward and solar cells are manufactured today for roughly $1 per watt, compared to $250 in 1954. A two hundred and fifty times reduction in the cost of manufacturing in roughly sixty years without a market nearly as substantial as the housing, automobile, or even bicycle industries.

So what is holding solar power back?

I will not dive into the politics of renewable energy, for that alone could fill a few columns. At a lightly technical level there are some hurdles which have only recently been surmounted. The entry at wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell provides an in-depth journey through the history and technology of the photovoltaic principal. The basic concept, however, is this: humans see what we call the visible portion of the spectrum while silicon-based solar cells are able to convert only a portion of that light energy into electricity. While the visible spectrum represents a good bit of the energy produced by the sun, this does not constitute the full energy available for conversion to electricity.

We are missing the tremendous potential for conversion of infrared and ultraviolet light energy. Relatively recent research into combinations of elements to expand the sensitivity of the solar cell has increased the efficiency of energy conversion.

In our own backyard, the National Renewable Energy Lab is researching cells with upwards of 40% efficiency, more than forty times greater than the original solar cell just 150 years ago. While southern California and Hawaii have achieved grid parity using traditional silicon based solar cells at efficiencies at or below 20%, the near-future potential for doubling this efficiency lies in the ability to reduce cost of production, the result being that multi-spectral systems are available to you, me, and those who have solar powered hot tubs in the mountains of Colorado at a market friendly price.

Until that time, I am pleased to sit back after a hard day’s work and know that the warm water which gives me comfort was generated, even if indirectly, by energy from the sun. I believe the near-future holds an exciting, rapid evolution for renewable energy production, soon becoming something greater than an alternative, rather, simply the way it is done.

By | 2017-10-21T16:48:59+00:00 August 12th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Consumer’s Guide: Part 4

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology, part 4”
By Kai Staats
30 June 2011

This is the fourth and final entry in a guide to the adoption of technology into one’s personal life. This is not the typical guide that offers a comparison of the speed of wifi networks or the quality of LCD screens. Rather, this is a guide for you, a window into your own consumer behavior when considering the purchase and addition of new technology into your daily life for leisure or for work.

In the previous column we explored questions four, five and six of ten questions concerning the adoption of technology: Does it help me to better understand or improve myself? Does it help me to better understand or to help others? Does it improve my communication with others?

Since beginning this series on “A Consumer’s Guide to Technology” in April, my questioning my own consumer behavior has been further shaped by my travels and encounters which gave me opportunity to be unplugged while further connected through face-to-face conversations and the sharing of stories. During these times I was more at ease as I my mind stopped juggling the potential of a phone call, text message, or email. Instead, I was present with whomever was the focus of my attention.

I am now sitting on the living room floor of my family’s farm in rural Iowa where there is neither cell phone reception nor Internet access. Echoes of five generations of stories told here reverberate throughout the house, perfect timing to address the final four of the ten questions:

7. How did I perform this function prior to owning this device/gadget?
8. Does it improve upon a former means of operation?
9. What is the worst thing that would happen if I do not make this purchase?
10. If I wait three weeks, will I still have a need or desire to make this purchase?

My grandfather, Raymond Kruse, was a farmer, inventor, and environmental activist in this heartland community. He was an avid reader, staying current with trends in scientific research, discoveries, and consumer products. As is the case with many who lived through the Great Depression, my grandfather was conservative with his money, careful to research and purchase only the highest quality products, his intent to maintain each for use as long as possible.

I am fortunate to be the recipient of his legacy, inheriting a means of moving through the world in which material objects are not in and of themselves a goal, rather a gift to our already abundant life not to be taken for granted. Therefore when I ask myself How did I perform this function without this device? I see my grandfather’s face and hear his voice, “Kai-boy, don’t you already have one of those? Seems like the one you got is working just fine.”

Before I could answer, “Yes, but this one is faster, and has more …” I knew he had me beat. As a child, it was challenging to have my desire for instant gratification curbed, but as I grew to recognize his wisdom I learned to ask myself, Does it improve upon a former means of doing so? What is the worst thing that would happen if I don’t purchase it?

As the ultimate litmus test, I ask myself what my parents routinely asked me when I desperately pleaded that they buy the latest LEGO set, “If I wait three weeks, will I still have a need or desire to purchase it?” Often the answer to the last question satisfies the prior three in this series, my appetite for the latest, greatest technical device temporarily, if not permanently quelled.

You may ask, “Why does any of this matter?” While the full answer would likely demand a venture into the deeply ingrained psychology of consumption, I offer in response a well executed short film available on YouTube called “The Story of Electronics” which touches upon much of what I have called to attention, and expands the conversation to include the environmental impact of poor design.

One only needs to read the news to know that technology is rapidly changing the world. But the focus of this series has been on the adoption of technology into one’s personal life, I will summarize this four-part series as I began, with a quote from Langdon Miller, “The Whale and the Reactor,” 1986, “Through technological creation and many other ways as well, we make a world for each other to live in, much more than we have acknowledged in the past, we must admit our responsibility for what we are making.”

Responsibility begins with designers and ends with us, the consumers, a responsibility to the world around us, yes, but also to ourselves. It is my hope that ten questions I have asked will in some way stay with you, adopted and adapted to your benefit.

By | 2017-10-21T16:47:20+00:00 July 4th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Consumer’s Guide: Part 3

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology, part 3”
By Kai Staats
3 June 2011

This is the third in a series in what is unfolding as a guide to the adoption of technology into one’s personal life. This is not the typical guide which compares the speed of wifi networks or the quality of LCD screens. Rather, this is a guide for you, a window to your own consumer behavior when considering new technology.

In the previous column we explored three of ten questions concerning the adoption of technology and how we, as the consumer and owner are affected by our purchase and use decisions: Does it save time? Does it provide a foundation for education, entertainment, or improved safety? How do I feel when I use this product?

Having just returned from three weeks travel and volunteer work in northern Peru, I find the next three questions invigorating:

4. Does it help me to better understand or improve myself?
5. Does it help me to better understand or to help others?
6. Does it improve my communication with others?

Because I am not fluent in Spanish, I sometimes struggled to convey to those with whom I worked more than a basic concept of the projects with which I was engaged: electrical wiring, solar PV array design, and the architectural design of an open air sanctuary and meditation center.

Sarah and I intentionally traveled without electronics save a camera and old cell phone for emergency calls. Where a 3D sketch program or electronic translator could have assisted me, when communicating with the electrician and construction engineer I was reminded of the simplicity and ease of using pen and paper, even a stick for drawing in the sand.

Not long after our return to the States, I found myself in Best Buy, my mind pondering the next three questions concerning technology products:

Does it help me to better understand or improve myself? Very few consumer electronic products satisfy this question, except possibly a digital camera and computer. Through a camera, we can see the world in a new way and express ourselves artistically. Through the use of a computer, we can expand our knowledge.

Does it help me to better understand or help others? [This question has been slightly modified from the original, as published at NCBR.] When used with discretion, televisions and computers both provide a window to a greater world, a means of virtual travel to other places and opportunity to learn about people who are different than ourselves and those around us. In this respect, yes, our understanding of one another may be improved, if that is how we use these devices. To help? It is my experience that computers do play a significant role in organizing and managing projects, in sharing information.

Does it improve my communication with others? Does a mobile phone or laptop allow us to coordinate events, stay in touch, and move through our world with relative ease? Sometimes, yes. But both have a way of causing us to be distracted when we would benefit from being focused.

I often find a state of relief, nearly bliss when I leave my phone at home or in the car for I am free of the potential of an interruption and the people I am with benefit from my full attention. I experienced this several times during our journey, both with Sarah and with those whom we met along the way—educators from Holland, climbers from Colorado, and the staff of a church and clinic in Piura.

We engaged until the embers of the fire were too low to keep us warm, until the tea in our cups ran dry, and until the conversations were simply … done. It is in my experience that only a lack of technology does enable this kind of human interaction, when face-to-face encounters unfold.

The most memorable of our journey in Peru was in a stone cabin located in a high, green valley of the Cordillera Negra. At 14,200 feet elevation nine rock climbers wore multiple layers to find warmth against the sleet outside. The fog pressing against the windows was countered only by the single kerosene lantern and shimmer of the wood burning stove.

Not for one moment did I desire a cell phone, laptop, or television. The conversations carried us into the night for no digital device could fully capture or enhance the aroma of home cooked meals over a gas stove, the mixing of four languages spoken in whispers, and the sharing of that space by people who before that day had never met. We shared what humans have experienced for tens of thousands of years—our stories.

I offer that when next you find yourself reaching for your smart phone to record the moment for Facebook, stop and consider whether you will experience that time more vividly from behind the camera, or by being fully engaged in the moment, you yourself the best recording and playback medium.

By | 2017-10-21T16:45:22+00:00 June 3rd, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Consumer’s Guide: Part 2

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology, part 2”
By Kai Staats
6 May 2011

This is the second of a multi-part series in what I hope will unfold as a guide to the adoption of technology into one’s personal life. This is not the typical guide which compares the speed of wifi networks or the quality of LCD screens. Rather, this is a guide for you, the consumer, as a window into your own behavior when considering the technology you wish to adopt.

As mentioned in the prior column, Henry Dreyfuss in “Designing for People” (1955) offered five points by which products could be designed and developed: 1) Utility and Safety, 2) Maintenance, 3) Cost, 4) Sales and Appeal, and 5) Appearance.

What Dreyfuss may not have known is that Appeal would fifty years later gain a momentum so strong that consumers find themselves compelled to replace perfectly functional products every 18-24 months due to the allure of Utility and Appearance. Maintenance becomes irrelevant as nearly all consumer electronics are disposable, designed to be neither repaired nor upgraded.

What concerns me most is not the speed at which we purchase goods, but how we are affected by the use of these products. I have prepared 10 questions to get the gears turning:

  1. Does it save time?
  2. Does it provide a foundation for education, entertainment, or improved safety?
  3. How do I feel when I use this product? (or does it cause me to reduce or increase my stress?)
  4. Does it help me to better understand or improve myself?
  5. Does it help me to better understand or help others to improve themselves?
  6. Does it improve my communication with others?
  7. How did I perform this function without this device?
  8. Does it improve upon a former means of doing so?
  9. What is the worst thing that would happen if I don’t purchase it?
  10. If I wait three weeks, will I still have a need or desire to purchase it?

Despite the fact that all phone models are moving toward smart phone capabilities, let’s look at the upgrade from an older model to a smart phone as an example of how to apply the first three questions.

Does it save time? Hard to say. One could argue that you can do more in less time with so many functions at your fingertips, but as I offered last fall in “The Myth of Free Time,” we tend to just fill that space with doing more things. There are seldom, if ever, inventions which truly save time. In part because they only add complexity to our lives; in part because we just fill that void with doing more. If smart phones actually saved time, people would be using them less, not more.

Education? Entertainment? Safety? Yes. Yes. And maybe. A smart phone can provide a weather update for mountain travel, but you are likely to use it while driving which is both dangerous and increasingly illegal. Again, the potential is there, but the consumer gets in the mix and the value-ad is undermined by human behavior.

Number 3 is complex. This is one that we talk about in the form of complaint, but seem to be helpless to do anything about. Let’s ask the same question applied to other devices, and see how we respond. “How does my car make me feel?” Safe, comfortable, content, even at home, if it is in good condition and runs well. Frustrated, angry, scared, even embarrassed if it is in need of repair and often fails to perform its basic functions.

You may not believe you have a relationship with your microwave oven, but when it warms a cup of coffee or fills the kitchen with the aroma of a hot bowl of soup, chances are you have a smile on your face when the oven door opens wide. But if the buttons on your oven are temperamental, or the insides nasty due to lack of cleaning, then perhaps you cringe at the very thought of the noontime meal.

Concerning your mobile phone: Does it feel good in your hand, or is it awkward to hold? Do you find it to be intuitive and seemingly designed just for you? Or do you get lost in the interface, often wondering why your friend’s number is missing, again!? Does it always work, no matter where you go? Or does it lock-up, hang-up, and get beat-up (as you slam it against the wall)? Do you carry it with pride? Or does your body tense every time it rings because you have not, after six months, determined how to change the ring tone?

Let’s return to How does the upgrade to a smart phone benefit you? Will you immediately use text messaging, email, news feeds, calendar, camera, and video conferencing? Or will you determine that simply because these functions are available, you may choose not to use them? Most important, do you feel compelled to check email just one more time, because it is right there, in the palm of your hand? Do you often interrupt face-to-face conversations to answer a quick email? Or are you comforted and relaxed knowing that your entire digital world is within reach, at all times?

I recommend paying more attention to how you feel, in the moment, when using your phone than whether or not it has a larger memory capacity or higher resolution camera. Remember, Responsibility begins with designers and ends with consumers. Be responsible to you.

By | 2017-10-21T16:40:33+00:00 May 11th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

A Consumer’s Guide to Adoption of Technology

Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology”
By Kai Staats
8 April 2011

As I walked out of the Miramont North gym this afternoon, I felt the warmth of the sun against the cool, crisp spring air. As I approached my car, however, the roar of gasoline powered hedge trimmers and leaf blowers filled the air. The foul stench of poorly combusted two-stroke engine pollution was unavoidable.

I was overwhelmed by the contrast, having just left the relative calm of yoga class and rock climbing to witness the rapid, noxious reduction of the budding greenery. It just didn’t feel right, that the tools and methods used in an attempt to create beauty were themselves not beautiful.

When I arrived home and prepared to write this column, I struggled between two topics: the sorry state of downloaded digital movies versus hi-definition home theater appliances, or a larger, more engaging, even risky introduction to the concept of appropriate application of technology and how it affects our functional intelligence as individuals and as a species.

The former would have been too simple to compose, easily summarized as The quality of Netflix sucks. Better to rent Blu-ray Disc.

The latter, however, is a return to my Sr. year Industrial Design thesis “Confused Vanity and the Mad Dog TV” written eighteen years ago. The three chapters “Down the Tube,” “Forced Obsolescence,” and “The Power Blower Wars” take the reader into a mindset beyond form follows function, calling upon my experience as a design student and consumer, and that of several profound, world-renowned designers and technology writers.
In review of my thesis (which was great fun to read again) I was pleased to rediscover a completely relevant five-point formula for product design written by Henry Dreyfuss in “Designing for People” (1955):

  1. Utility and Safety
  2. Maintenance
  3. Cost
  4. Sales and Appeal
  5. Appearance

In the same vein, Buckminster Fuller concluded, “You have to make up your mind either to make sense or to make money, if you want to be a designer.” (Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969) How many products on the market today follow this type of formula? Of equal importance, how many of us as consumers challenge the true value of a new product before we make our purchase?

I will for the next several columns engage you in a conversation around appropriate technology, consumer products comprised of software or hardware, and how they affect us as consumers. In particular, I will explore the categories of entertainment, communication, and transportation, leaving medical, military, and safety to another time and space.

For as much as I am an advocate of advances in technology when and where they assist us in finding greater personal health and satisfaction, understanding the world around us, and moving ourselves and our things from place to place, I am increasingly wary of technology which diminishes our individual creativity, self-awareness, ability to make decisions for ourselves, and functional, real-world intelligence.

I am concerned that Google’s Gmail search keeps us from invoking the cognitive function of organizing and managing the emails we create and receive, instead encouraging a mental clutter which spills over into our virtual and physical life. I believe GPS units keep us from visualizing our world in three dimensions, causing us instead to become reliant on technology and less capable of conducting the very basic act of navigating from point A to B. I am concerned that new model cars which automatically conduct parallel parking on our behalf are in fact reducing our motor skills and ability to problem solve in real-time. If we cannot organize, navigate, nor move through our world without assistance from computers, then what exactly are we able to do on our own?
I ask, “How many of our modern technology-based products are denying us the very functions our brain offers instead of encouraging dynamic improvement of our intelligence?”

While researchers discovered a half dozen years ago that the human brain does in fact grow new cells throughout our lives, SPECT imaging conducted by Dr. Daniel Amen (Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, 1999) has demonstrated time and again that exercising the brain improves cognitive abilities, even slowing or reversing the onset of mental disorders and disease, does it not stand to reason that not using our brain also reduces our cognitive capacity?

Calling upon the research I conducted at Arizona State, I find it refreshing to read again Langdon Miller’s words, “Through technological creation and many other ways as well, we make a world for each other to live in, much more than we have acknowledged in the past, we must admit our responsibility for what we are making.” (The Whale and the Reactor, 1986)

Responsibility begins with designers and ends with consumers.

In the coming months I will guide you, the intelligent consumer, through a thought process that may alter the way you look at the multitude of products you consider for purchase, even those which you already own.

By | 2017-10-21T16:38:00+00:00 April 9th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments

The Last Will & Testament of the Book

Northern Colorado Business Report
“The Last Will & Testament of the Book”
By Kai Staats
11 March 2011

Attorney: I recognize this is hard for you, to have lost someone special, someone important to you. (pauses, looks down at the documents in his hands) In this time, we are honored by the giving of a few possessions. Of course, no amount of money, no gift could replace the time we did share with the living. However, in reading Edmond’s will, it is clear how much he did care for each of you (looks around the room).

Rebecca: Thank you. (pauses to control her tears) Our family has trusted you for as long as I can remember, to take care of our family’s (crying again) … our family’s financial security.

Tim: What did I get?

Rebecca: (angry, turning to face her son) Tim! Don’t be rude!

Attorney: (annoyed, forces a polite smile) Edmond has left each of you with something that was very important to him … as I will share with you now. (clears his throat) “To my only daughter, Rebecca, I grant you my favorite Blue ray disc, a compilation of all my favorite Lost and Friends episodes.”

Rebecca: Oh! Oh! (sobbing) Thank you. Thank you Dad (looking up and out the window).

Attorney: (nods, then continues) “To my only son, Samuel, I grant to you a USB jump drive with every photo I have ever taken,” (pauses to double check what he is reading) “of all my duck hunting trips.”

Samuel: (emotions under control) Thank you. Truly, thank you Dad. I don’t know what to say. (shakes his head, turns to give his sister Rebecca a hug, then holds her hand).

Attorney: “Finally, to Timothy, my favorite grand–”

Tim: Sooo, what’d I get?

Attorney: (ignores him) “To Tim, I leave ten million dollars, the full value of my estate.”

Tim: What?! (looks to his mother, back to the attorney) Are you sure? (tears well up in his eyes … looks down at the floor and then rises up from his chair) Are you kidding me?! What a rip-off! What about his iPod! Or his Sony PlayStation? What about all the games—he has hundreds of games! I can’t believe this! I knew he didn’t love me … he always hated me!

Just as we sort through our physical possessions every few years to determine what is needed and meaningful, and what is just junk, I believe in the end, we all will find the value of a single printed photo held behind a chipped piece of glass in a tattered wooden frame to be of greater value than the tens of thousands of digital photos accumulated over the years. For all the time spent organizing and preserving, it will be that one photo which we cherish most when the backup drives have long since spun down.

You may recall the above at the closing of my last column “The Inevitable Loss of Data & the Last Printed Photo.” It is a subject, it seems, which I am not yet prepared to relinquish.

In my Loveland home I have a ninety-nine year old piano, a couch, a chair, hand made rugs from Turkey, Namibia, and Kenya, several framed photos, some six hundred CDs, and a few hundred books. As I prepare to put my house on the market, I have become keenly aware of what is and what is not important to me. I have even asked myself, what would I secure in my will?

Today I worked for several hours from the City News cafe and book store in downtown Loveland. It’s quiet, but not still. On a cold winter day, every time the door is forced open the smell of book, magazine, and newsprint ink mixes with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee, tea, and pastries. Mmmm, I love that combination. I can’t imagine a world without dusty, ragged novels and high gloss, large format photo essays. They are for me more important than furniture, and far more important than a television (which I have never owned).

The opening scene may seem a bit over the top, yet its message is clear—what will the next generation give to their children if books and music are no longer tangible items? In my experience, when someone has spent a lifetime collecting books, the act of giving is made real by the effort required to move them, to care for them each passing year. Each generation adds their story to the one originally told. Electronic books, however, can tell only one story for there is no medium by which they may record another. Without scribbled notes in the boundaries of fading, folded pages, the eBook is but a perfect copy missing the imperfection of time.

Perhaps I am stuck, antiquated, a product of a prior generation, but it is my parent’s library as much as anything in their home which defines who they are. A few thousand books is demonstration of their lifetime of research, knowledge—my heritage awaiting rediscovery of what they learned. I want to hear the spine flex when each book is opened. I want to smell the ink mixed with the dust of their desert home, my fingers moving pages of books which they once read to me.

By | 2017-10-21T16:35:27+00:00 March 13th, 2011|Humans & Technology, NCBR|0 Comments