Wired: Amazon will deliver books via the sewer

I don’t find Phillip Hermes’ idea for beating the traffic jams of the future particularly attractive:

…the Urban Mole is a capsule that travels through existing networks of underground pipes in order to transport packages as diverse as groceries, signed documents and any title that appears on Oprah’s Book Club. The Mole frees up our streets and roads for important matters, like mobilizing armies against the cyborgs that will inevitably plague our future cities.

Able to move parcels as large as a shoebox, the Mole fully encapsulates its contents from surrounding wastewater…

…We like to think of the Urban Mole as a combination of Mr. McFeeley and the Ninja Turtles, skulking through sewers only to emerge when it can be of use to human civilization. But we pity the poor guy who has to open those capsules.

There really must be a better alternative…

Broken down

Today’s El País contains a cartoon, of a minister saying:

Ampliaremos la edad de jubilación a los setenta, pero no os preocupeis, a partir le los cuarenta ya no os contrataremos

(“We’ll raise the retirement age to 70, but don’t worry, we won’t hire anyone over 40.”)

Which is reflects perfectly the current thinking of nearly all European politicians and employers. Our neighbour is a head hunter for the medical industry, and she tells us it is still common to be asked to find a highly skilled professional. But not older than 35, please. If she submits a profile for someone who is older, she runs a real risk of irritating and losing the customer.

No-one has ever been able to explain how the dual attitudes that the cartoon summarises will actually help ease the pressure on the state pension funds.

The USA seems to be a little bit further down this road than we Europeans – Ruth subscribes to the Harvard Business Review and we regularly read articles pointing out that the baby boomers are going to want (need!) to carry on working past their retirement age because of the financial crisis, and that companies are starting to face a shortage of skilled labour caused by the falling birth rate. They urge companies to think about how to make themselves more attractive to older employees. Simple things like offering more flexible working hours.

On this side of the Atlantic, employers still seem to be embedded in a more ageist mindset and we notice that it is very rare for the companies where Ruth and I work to employ older people. Ruth works freelance, and gets to see a different company every couple of years, on average.

On a positive note, last weekend our 20-year old dishwasher broke down for the third time, and we went to Media Markt in the local shopping mall to buy a replacement. We both noticed that all the salesmen in the white goods department were over fifty. Maybe times are changing, but this is the first occasion that we have noticed a company apparently making a strategic decision to select older staff.

Will the DVD go the same way as the floppy?

Seth Weintraub pitches an interesting idea in Computer World:

… I think the SD card is going to replace the DVD drive on most of Apple’s laptops going forward. If you really need a DVD, you’ll be able to buy an external USB Superdrive – but that option will mostly be a safety net.

Remember when Apple killed the floppy with the iMac? This will be the same thing. You could buy external floppy but how many of you really did?

Think about it. What would you rather have on your laptop? An easily rewritable 32GB SD card the size of a postage stamp that can hold about the same amount of data as 8 DVDs or a big spinning disk that can scratch easily and takes up about 1/4th of the internal usable area in your laptop?…

Right now the cost per GB storage is in favour of the DVD (SD cards are about 20 – 30 times more expensive per GB), but SDXC cards were announced earlier this year, which will offer up to 2 TB of storage on a single card. The price per GB will certainly drop as larger cards arrive on the market. Apart from the obvious advantages for laptop manufacturers (more space for other peripherals or a larger battery), it would enable people with large collections of data – movies and music – to save a huge amount of shelf space, and allow use of storage which is smaller and more robust than external hard disks.

I think Seth is right: Apple has often moved ahead of the pack when new technology has become available, and this idea is very attractive both for Apple and their users.

Home computers have come a long way in 40 years

Kitchen_computer_adHoneywell 316 Home Computer (picture from Wikipedia)
There’s an interesting short article in Wired:

In 1969, the Neiman Marcus catalog offered the first home PC, a stylish stand-up model called the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, priced at $10,600. The picture shows an aproned housewife caressing the machine, with this tag line: “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute… …Despite countless brainstorming sessions and meetings on the subject, the only application the Honeywell team could think of for a home computer (aside from the perennial checkbook balancing) was recipe card management. So the Kitchen Computer was aimed at housewives and featured integrated counter space…”

We’ve come a long way since then, and nowadays the lucky housewife no longer has to program her kitchen computer using toggle switches either!

When I’m dead and gone…

… the executors and anyone else needing access to the documentation about my estate could have several problems. The same applies in the case of my wife, Ruth:

  • a lot of our insurance policies, contracts and so on are in German
  • the remainder are in English, so an understanding of both languages will be helpful
  • our computers at home are Macs, (many people have no idea how use a Mac, even if they are happy using a Windows PC)
  • Quite a lot of key information on our hard disks is encrypted

We have set up documentation of how to access the data on our Macs for our relations, but I think we need to do more. The situation will become more fraught for our family if / when we move to Spain, which is our long-term retirement plan – if global warming hasn’t turned the Iberian peninsula into a desert by then. Then they can add Spanish to the list of necessary languages.

Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian yesterday covers the last point on my list in his article “When I’m dead, how will my loved ones break my password?“. Worth a look if you use password managers or encrypted hardware on your home computer. And it underlines that providing secure data protection while you are alive, while allowing others access to the necessary passwords when you are no longer around or have become senile is not a trivial exercise.

And family, if you are reading this – we promise to improve the situation, but learning German will undoubtedly make life a little less complicated when the time comes!