About Steve Miller

Steve Miller

Stephen C. Miller is an editor, reporter and technology consultant. He writes the blog, The Future Was Yesterday: Technology in the Real World. . He has spent nearly 30 years training African journalists throughout the continent in investigative techniques.

Formerly he was Assistant to the Technology Editor at The New York Times. He retired in 2008 after a 20 year career there. While at The Times he supervised the training of reporters and editors in the use of new technologies. Miller started his career in broadcasting, spending 12 years at CBS News in a variety of positions, including Night News Manager.


He is on the Board of Directors of Investigative Reporters and Editors and is past President of the New York Association of Black Journalists. He speaks frequently on how technology is affecting journalism.


Latest Posts by Steve Miller

Nature/Human Nature

April 25, 2010 by  

Share:

Bethesda Fountain Central Park NY

It’s the 21st Century. We have jumbo jets that practically fly themselves. We have instant global communications. We have satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above Earth with imaging so precise that you can tell if the guy sitting on Bethesda Fountain in Central Park is wearing loafers or sandals.

Yet a second string volcano is Iceland, which none of us can pronounce, can spew enough ash to shut down air travel in Europe and disrupt flights around the world.

Whether or not you believe in a Supreme Being, something periodically gives us a Gibbs Slap to the back of the head. It reminds us that we are not masters of all we survey. An earthquake levels a country. A hurricane drowns major cities. Floods crack dams and destroy crops. Tornados target trailer parks. And a random methane gas explosion reminds us that coal isn’t cheap when you factor in the cost of human lives. I’m all for pushing scientific boundaries but, to paraphrase that old TV commercial, we should be careful not to try the patience of Mother Nature.

From another angle, technology can work but people get in the way. I haven’t been in the DMV for many years. On my last visit, I remember standing in line and when I got to the window being told that I was in the wrong line. In that line, after an hour, I was told that I had to have the application stamped first. That meant an hour in a third line. I get the stamp. The woman at the stamp window was kind enough to tell me to go get my picture taken before I got back in the first line. Great advice, but it took 30 minutes or so to get the picture taken. Now, I had to get an eye test. Back to the first line, which is even longer than before; my paper work is finally accepted.  I now just have to go to the cashier and pay. It’s another long line. It took six hours to get my driver’s license renewed.

Imagine my surprise when I went to a DVM in another state to get a duplicate title for a sick friend. Everything is computerized. There is a triage desk that pulls up your records and figures out exactly what you need so that you will be sent to the one employee who can take care of everything you need. I’m issued a number. Within a half an hour, I’m at the window when human nature kicks in. My id lists me as Stephen C. Miller. The power of attorney I have from my friend lists my full middle name. “I don’t know what that “C” really stands for. You have to bring in proof”, she said. She claims that the only acceptable proof would be my birth certificate. I offer my voter registration card which does have my full name but she insists it has to be the birth certificate. My birth certificate is 500 miles away.

A good dinner, a couple of glasses of wine and a good night’s sleep, I tackle the problem again. This time I ask at the triage desk if I could talk to a supervisor. Another ticket pops out and within ten minutes, I’m before the supervisor. I explain the problem. She asks if I have any other government issued ID. I show her the voter card. She accepts it and gives me a ticket that puts me at the front of the line. Five minutes later I’m out of the door with everything in order. This is a case where the technology worked extremely well but one bureaucrat slavishly following what she feels is an inflexible rule, wasted two days of my life.

No matter how advanced the technology, it still comes down to the whims of nature both human and natural.

Cleanup, Defrag, Reformat

April 9, 2010 by  

Share:

The title represents things that all Windows users should do periodically but it is about some lingering items that I haven’t written about. The title sounds a like more interesting than “Spring Cleaning.”

First the news – with a nod to Jude Biersdorfer of Tech Talk.

I spent several hours at Apple stores on April 3rd checking out the iPad. See my pre-release article. I had not been one of the fortunate few to have received a review copy in advance of the release date. I visited the Soho store mid-afternoon when things had settled down from the early morning frenzy. The store was busy but not so much that you couldn’t walk in and roam around without feeling claustrophobic. The iPad folks were divided into two groups, the payers and the players. The pay line was significantly longer that the play line.

There were about a dozen iPad’s for people to try before buying. It was a really orderly and diverse group. I met a couple from Finland, two guys from Japan and a very nice woman of undetermined origin because I didn’t recognize her accent and she didn’t seem to speak any English. The informal protocol was to spend about 10 minutes and then step aside to let the next person have a crack. I wasn’t the only one who returned to the end of the line more than once.

All told, I spend about an hour using the iPad. It’s an amazing device, well worth the hype. But was I ready to get into the pay line? The more I used it, the better I liked it. But I found myself trying to justify spending the money. What happened when I’m out of WiFi range? When I first starting writing this article, the Wifi problems hadn’t been reported yet. I could see myself spending hours looking at new apps and reading books and listening to music. Bottom line for me became whether I could do any real work on it? If I’m going to lug around another device, is this one or should I opt for one of the new eBook readers coming on the market? It’s deciding whether I want an iPad or do I need and iPad? I sure want one.

eSlick Reader

I can however, make a much better case for me needing an eBook reader. Of the new batch, I’ve been using Foxit’s eSlick. The one feature that made it standout was its ability to manipulate PDF files. My eye sight isn’t what it used to be and I’ve found that I actually can read faster on an e-reader using a larger font.  While I have no scientific data to back this up but I’m able to process faster the three or four paragraphs on the screen rather than an entire page in a book. I’m a fast reader but I seem go twice as fast electronically.

Unfortunately, with the other e-readers, increasing the font on PDF files makes the type bigger but the text doesn’t reflow. You have to scroll right or left to view the entire page. The eSlick is the only one I’ve seen so far that reformats PDF files so no scrolling is necessary. And because it has an SD card slot, unlike the iPad, I can load hundreds of documents on the card. Right now, I need utility over flash. Oh, I forgot, the iPad doesn’t do Flash.

One of the items I’ve kept meaning to write about is the MotorMouse from Motormouse USA. It’s no secret that I love wacky twists on computer accessories. My friends know of my collection of USB drives in every shape, size and color. Not so well-known is that I have mice in various sizes, colors, with blinking lights and weird sounds. So driving my cursor around with a classic red sports car was appealing to the dormant gear head in me. I’ve seen other mice in the shape of cars, but this is the first one that I think that I’d spend 50 bucks for. It’s small enough to be used as a traveling mouse but large enough not to feel like you’re using a kid’s version. The wireless USB adapter is one of those scaled down ones that fits almost flush with the laptop so you could leave it plugged in with minimal chance of losing it. The mouse itself has a slot in the trunk to store the adapter as well as doubling as the battery compartment. The mouse buttons are the sides of the front fenders and the scroll wheel is where an old school turbo charger would rise from the hood. It’s only available on the website at this point.

Keeping with the travel vein, I colossally like to take a full or at least fuller sized keyboard on the road. I’ve sort of got over it but I still have flashbacks of how good it felt to type on the keyboard of the IBM Selectric. For those too young to know, look it up. While nothing will really ever measure up, keyboard designers all seemed to have studied the Selectric and tried to recreate those elements that made it so beloved.

It’s easier to get a full-sized keyboard feeling and even sounding like the Selectric keyboard. Tactile feedback is necessary. If you can’t feel the key descend and the pop back it doesn’t feel like anything happened. That is why touch screen keyboards feel so unsatisfying. Even cell phones have tactile feedback.  And that clickety-clack sound, while unnecessary to the real working of the keys, gives another physical cue that something happened.

Trying to recreate that on a keyboard small enough to travel with is no mean feat. The Microsoft Bluetooth mobile 6000 comes really close. It makes some of the same compromises that laptop keyboards have to make, such as losing the numeric keypad and the extended wrist rest at the bottom; it does it in such a way that it doesn’t offend my Selectric sensibilities. Maybe I’m just getting used to curved keyboards. While it’s super-thin, you really feel the keys travel. It’s not that loud, you definitely hear the keys click. For the number crunchers, there is a separate keypad. I found it pleasant to get my laptop off my lap and replace it with a nearly weightless keyboard. Despite its virtues, it’s on the pricey side at nearly $90 retail. But if your job entails a lot of traveling and a lot of typing, it is probably worth it. The only real negative for me is my laptop didn’t have Bluetooth and I had to buy a $30 adapter. But that investment let me connect to some other Bluetooth devices that I had not been able to before.

Update: Several people have asked me how the cup cakes tasted at the Lenovo Edge announcementt. Sad to say, I didn’t eat any, even the ones the bakery made special with ThinkPad written on top in chocolate. It really did smell good inside the truck though.

Out On The Edge

April 2, 2010 by  

Share:

I’ve been to product announcements in a lot of strange and bizarre venues — a biker bar, a blimp, and even inside the Brooklyn Bridge. But the announcement of Lenovo’s two new ThinkPad Edge models of laptops takes the cake, literally. It took place inside a mobile cupcake bakery. Sweet! The Cupcake Stop is a Manhattan phenomenon that parks in various parts of the city and notifies the faithful via Twitter where it will be and what are the featured confections of the day.  Appropriately, it was parked in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The Edge series is targeted at small and medium-sized businesses. SMB is the new TLA – Three Letter Acronym. This is a refreshing return to basics after a few seasons of SOHO,VoIP, WiMax, WLan, and no way to shorten “Social Media” that doesn’t induce Fanboy giggles.

, J.R. (Jay) McBain

Lenovo’s Director of Small and Medium Business, J.R. (Jay) McBain, says the new laptops “were designed from the ground up.” He goes on to say, “We didn’t strip out things from our enterprise machines.” Starting at under $600 for the 14-inch and topping out at under $900 for the 15-inch, the price is affordable for companies with few employees and even fewer resources. Implicit in Lenovo’s strategy is recognition that its prime customer base, large firms have scaled back because of a down economy and fewer employees. Click for the ThinkPad Edge specifications.

Think Pads are still considered a quality brand but the new breeds of laptop purchasers are not as willing or able to pay premium prices.  A lot of those people are out of work because of layoffs and cutbacks. They have started their own businesses or are freelancing and consulting. In either case, they still need computers but lack the money or an IT department for support. This is the niche that the new Edge line is hoping to fill. The company has provided a lot of support services combined with the built in services in Windows Vista 7.

While it seems clear that the economic climate has pushed Lenovo’s thinking toward new kinds of customers, the company, despite taking over IBM’s global market, still focuses mainly on the developed world. The Edge line, full-featured, powerful, and relatively inexpensive, is just what the rest of the world needs as well. But the distribution channels vary widely. For example, I can find dozens of dealers in Russia but only two in Uganda. And this is data gleaned from searching only Lenovo’s website.

Jon Gosier

This is not to pick on Lenovo. It actually does pretty well. But Kampala is becoming a software development center in Africa. Jon Gosier of Appfrica Labs, a leading programming incubator, has repeatedly complained about how difficult it is to get top of the line hardware without paying outrageous markups.

I know that developing new markets is tough and expensive at first. But taking a longer view could prove profitable. Any objective review of the data suggests that Africa is a growth market for technology. At some point, sooner rather than later, a lot of electronics will be sold. And consumers everywhere go for quality goods at affordable prices. And by the way, there are nearly a billion people in Africa.

Disclaimer: Jon Gosier worked on a project on which I was a consultant. I came to the project long after he had been hired by the principals. He and I have never actually met, but I am a fan of his blog http://appfrica.net/blog/

Dismantling the Tower of Babel

March 17, 2010 by  

Share:

I have no facility for languages other than knowing the word for beer in 42 dialects. This is a handicap for someone who travels frequently to countries where English or even American is not widely spoken. Usually there is a translator handy so no real problem for me. Of course, there is the issue of a 45 minute presentation taking twice as long because of the translation.

Cheriff Moumina SY

My friend Cheriff Moumina SY is a journalist from Bukna Faso. He speaks English but he’s fluent in French. I speak no French except Je voudrais une bière, s’il vous plaît. We see each other at conferences and not a lot needs to be said post-confab because he always knows where to hear live music and my making a circular motion is “another round” in any language.

Email and social networking communications are another problem. I write this blog in English but I’d like it read in other languages without the hassle or expense of hiring translators in dozens of languages. This is where Mojofiti comes in. I met Dennis Wakabayashi, by happenstance at a Meetup. He has had a number of jobs where the language barrier became an issue. “Exact machine translation may be accurate, but it loses certain colloquialisms.”  While Mojofiti is using the Google translation engine the company has added

Dennis Wakabayashi

crowd sourcing to improve cross cultural idioms by having users edit the nuances.

The feature that will be most useful for many of us is that there is an iPhone app that lets you have your text and SMS messages to be translated into the receiver’s language and vice versa. The service currently supports 28 languages. When asked directly if the service will work on other mobile phones, including a no-frills model used in much of the developing world, Wakabayashi only would say, “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does something like that.”

CORRECTION: The features of SMS, email and wire translations are in the mojofiti.com environment. The iphone App, translates text and pictures using human translation.

What makes Mojofiti useful, in my view, is the ability to click on a language icon and have the current page translated into that language. While Mojofiti allows anyone to create a blog on its site and it is working on arrangements to import existing blogs into the service.

Mojofiti is among the growing number of companies that believe in Open Source Software. A lot of what runs Mojofiti is the WordPress framework. And in the spirit of the Open Source movement, will, at some point, make its translation code available as a plug-in for WordPress websites.

In the interest of full disclosure, this site runs on WordPress

It’s Not Easy Being Green

March 7, 2010 by  

Share:

One of the problems of, ah, maturing, is that you recognize your own contradictions. I’m good at the “vision thing” but not as good with building and maintaining. That’s not to say that I haven’t planned, implemented and maintained complex technology systems but I’m satisfied with the big picture and leaving the other stuff in more capable hands.

This is where my conflict about the digital future of Haiti surfaces again. I see clearly that the immediate need of feeding, sheltering, providing medical attention and protecting the people of Haiti is paramount and needs to be done now. But I can’t help looking down the road and around the bend to what’s there or, at least, what should be there. The question I raised in Haiti’s Digital Future was who makes the decisions?

At the recent Greener Gadgets conference, I distilled the question a little further to the members of the Green Living Begins at Home panel. How would you rebuild Haiti? Jay McLellan, President and CEO of Home Automation, Inc (HAI), took a deep breath and asked, “Do we have all day?” He then went on to say that the key is the infrastructure. “Make sure you have electrical, water and communications,” he continued. He felt that designing the infrastructure for renewal and sustainability was an obvious necessity. He also told me in an interview later that the system has to be modular so that it could scale up to make neighborhoods, villages and regions self sustaining if knocked off the main grid.

“It’s an obvious place for solar,” added Kimberly Lancaster, of Green Life Smart Life. “That energy alone can power everything from refrigeration to cooling” she said. Lancaster said she would also be looking for the basic resources of water and energy and the durability of materials used in the rebuilding.

”Sarah Krasley, Manager of Sustainability at Autodesk, spotlighted missing link we, in the developed nations, continue to make when offering aid and comfort. “I think that a key is to invite the people of Haiti into the conversation around design. Find out what they need and what wasn’t working before. It’s very simple, but I think that would make a huge impact.”

Everyone on the panel nodded in agreement.

One of the first lessons I learned about planning or upgrading a system was to do a needs assessment. Why do we often forget, when doing long term good works, to follow that simple rule?

Just a remainder of how it still looks as of March 4, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Matthew Bigg

Mushroom Sauce

February 28, 2010 by  

Share:

Earth Day is April 22nd this year. Like a lot of people, I’m always there  in spirit but short of personal recycling and rages against tamper proof, meaning impossible to open, plastic packaging I really don’t pay much attention to the details. But for the past few months, I’ve been looking at ways to provide sustainable and renewable energy for electronic devices.

This led me to this year’s CEA’s Greener Gadget conference. The one product that captured my attention was EcoCradle™ from Ecovative Design. It’s a packing product aimed at replacing Styrofoam which is trademarked by Dow Chemical. The non-trademark name of the plastic is polystyrene and it’s strong, flexible and has a gazillion uses. It’s also made from petroleum and other alleged toxic non-renewable materials and will outlast cockroaches in its ability to defy any attempts to destroy it.

Ecocradle, on the other hand, is made from what Eben Bayer, Ecovative Design’s CEO, calls “nature’s packaging.” The husks for most grains like corn, buckwheat, rice and several others are used as the main ingredient of theproduct. The glue that makes it possible to turn this into an environmentally friendly packing material is made from the roots of mushrooms. Put it in a mold, add water and keep it in a dark, cool place for a week.

What comes out is a shape to cradle whatever device you want protected. The company claims that it’s stronger that plastic so it’s ideal for larger units such as refrigerators or computer servers The newly formed material is not only biodegradable but is compostable and, if tossed in the back yard, will breakdown help renew topsoil.

When asked if the Ecocradle product was edible,

Eben Bayer, CEO, Ecovation

Bayer, paused took a nibble and answered, “Yes, but it doesn’t taste very good and it’s mostly fiber …,” and let the laughter fill the room.

Warming Trend

February 11, 2010 by  

Share:

Taken in New Philadelphia, PA by steve425 on Feb 10, 2010

The snow situation in Brooklyn isn’t as bad as DC, Baltimore or Philadelphia but it’s cold, windy and the weather people are gleefully warning of blizzard conditions. Though I grew up in the Midwest and took snow storms for granted, things have changed. I don’t care for the cold anymore. Perhaps it is just getting older or maybe my tolerance got baked out while living in equatorial Africa.

I was, thus, surprised when I got a note from the Sanyo people touting their SANYO eneloop kairo portable hand-warming devices. The two units were introduced to the US back in November but all this freaky weather seemed a good time to reintroduce them.. The units are rechargeable and one model uses rechargeable AA’s so the batteries can power other devices once the hand warmer if fully charged. Share the power.

The selling point is that these are better for the environment than some of the current crop of disposable hand warmers. Sanyo contends that being able to recharge the Lithium-ion battery up to 500 times is better than tossing that many regular batteries into a landfill. That point might be argued by some manufacturers who claim that their products are non-toxic and can be disposed of without harm to the planet. The marketplace will make the final decision about which approach is best but since the Sanyo products are new, that’s why I’m featuring them.

Sanyo Two-Sided Hand Warmer

The smaller unit is powered with the AA’s and warms on both sides. It retails for about $45 at theSanyo Store but some on-line stores sell it for about $10 less. It will generate heat for about 3 hours in continuous use. Recharge time is 4 to 5 hours. The case is brushed aluminum in silver or hot pink. The larger unit, which heats only one side, is egg shaped but the battery is internal. Once the maximum recharge limit is reached the unit can be sent back to a recycling center. It comes in white and pale pink.

One-sided Sanyo kairo

With one of the groundhogs predicting another six weeks of winter and all those folks heading for Vancouver for the winter Olympics,  hand warmers seem like a cool idea.

CORRECTIONS: According to a Sanyo spokesperson, the AA’s can be recharged 1000 times not 500. Also, While the AA’s can be used in other devices it cann’t be done Simultaneously. If the Sanyo device is not in use, the batteries can power other devices.

De-Gunked

February 8, 2010 by  

Share:

I occasionally break my rule against eating and drinking near the computer. The lure of munching Crunchy Cheetos while getting my daily dose of international news from BBC America becomes overwhelming. Adding to normal airborne detritus, guilty pleasure goodies give off SD’s (Snack Dust). Keyboards are magnets; with many tiny crevices for dust and dirt to hide.

Traditional solutions are to turn the keyboard upside down and shake. Not the best idea for a laptop. Also, the, shall we say, oily residue from certain foods glue the debris in place.  The canned air duster does a decent job of blowing out the gunk, but it just gives it a chance to re-circulate and resettle.  Dismantling the keyboard is tedious and time consuming; not to mention voiding the warranty on some laptops.

This brings me to Cyber Clean. It’s a cleaning compound for getting into the nooks and crannies of electronic devices. It looks and feels like DayGlo® Silly Putty®. It can be stretched over a section of a keyboard and pressed down. When you peel it back, dust and dirt adhere to it. You then roll it into a ball mashing the waste inside. You can repeat this process 20 or 30 times before the compound loses its effectiveness. It also changes color to let you know its gone bad. You can then just toss it because the company says it’s non-toxic and biodegradable.

The Cyber Clean Compound comes in  several sizes but the basic re-sealable, single pack retails for under $5.

The best thing about Cyber Clean is that it meets my lazy man’s standard for cleaning stuff:

1.       It is cheap.

2.       It is dirt simple to use.

3.       It lets me know when it is time to replace it.

4.       It can be thrown in the trash guilt-free.

Next Page »