Friday, June 17, 2005

When Laptops Play Games - Part Deux

As it turns out, I didn't go to the PC Show, and I didn't buy a laptop for elder daughter.

The thought of taking part in an un-refereed scrum in order to see something that was available at the local computer store left me cold. It turns out that Acer was offering the same prices and freebies in town as out at the show. I also thought about quarterly price drops and the fact that with the summer school break, the requirement can be deferred a few months.

The main reason is that I am still trying to get over my aversion to Acer. I thought I had it under control but this article in Mobile Magazine has reawakened my trauma of dealing with Acer tech support.

Is it rational to buy a product from a company that scores "Worst Support" in a test of vendor tech support capability?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Book Recommendation - Legends

What happens when memories are manufactured instead of experienced? How do you cope with the need to be different people at different times? Can you remain sane, or does your brain melt under the pressure?

Robert Littell has written another great book covering the life of a spy. Set in the time of Gorbachov, the book wanders all over the world as the protagonist is revealed layer by layer. There is the usual attention to detail, with scrupulously accurate descriptions of places and tradecraft.

Unusually, there is a much more interesting angle as Littell tackles the psychological price paid by someone who must dissemble as a profession.

Great read.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Greater Toaster Syndrome - 3G

One of the most frequent reactions I have to new technology announcements is "I know you can, but should you?".

Unfortunately, marketing and momentum often trump common sense. We all know the famous Beta versus VHS example, in which Sony had the superior technology, but Matsushita and JVC managed to out market Sony with VHS.

But there is another problem with technology which comes from doing things because it is possible instead of because it is the best solution.

Let me give you an example.

Back in the early days of consumer computing, there was tremendous excitement about the use of television sets to receive data. The prevailing computing paradigm was centralized processing with terminals to access the host. With the main cost of the terminal being the display, some bright spark decided that since everybody had a TV, it would make sense to add a box to the TV to let it receive data. This was called videotext.

Controlling access to televisions was seen as so important that a veritable arms race ensued between governments to establish their system as the standard and therefore to take over the world. Canada had a system called Telidon based on something called NAPLPS (North American Protocol Level Presentation System), while Britain had Viewdata/Prestel. The French went off and developed Minitel. Singapore is still running their system, 20 years after everybody else gave up.

As a newly minted Trade Commissioner, I was assigned to help set-up the Telidon Marketing Secretariat and sent off to promote the adoption of Canada's standard.

There are actually two lessons I learnt from this experience. The first is never to get involved with technology promoted by a government. I don't think any other episode has so changed my opinion from mild socialism to free market economics.

The second lesson is the one I started this posting with. I call it The Greater Toaster Syndrome. It is the equivalent of sitting in your kitchen and feeling cold. You realize the toaster has a heating element, which you modify at great cost to produce enough heat to warm a room. What you end up with is a toaster that burns toast, costs too much, and makes a lousy furnace.

Telidon and the other systems were flawed because they misunderstood the way people actually lived and used their televisions. You are unlikely to throw the kids off the boob tube to start balancing your cheque book. And not many people had a phone line beside the TV that they were willing to tie up in order to access the host.

All this comes to mind because of the hype that currently exists around 3G telephony. If you believe everything that is being proposed, all other devices are about to become obsolete.

It is possible to make a phone that is also a computer, and play music, and play video, and play games, and receive radio, and act as a flashlight. With enough tinkering, you could probably turn it into a heart defibrillator and a Taser self-defense weapon as well. The point is that the resulting device is unlikely to do anything well.

There is always a danger of being accused of being some sort of Luddite, so the critical assessment of new technology risks getting flamed by the current crop of enthusiasts who have adopted the gizmo as their new religion.

My acid test question is, "nice to have, or need to have?". I hate investing in "nice to have" stuff because it goes away in tough times. Truly new "need to have" technology comes around infrequently at best, but when it does, it transforms the way people function. Think PC's, email, and cellular phones.

In cellular telephony, there was an assumption among the early operators that cellular was just wireline with mobility, for which a premium could be charged. All that changed when the Nordic countries started abandoning the concept of long distance, and charging all calls at the same rate regardless of location. What is the point of an area code when you are mobile?

The next big change came when the kids figured out that there was an embedded messaging system in GSM called SMS. Instead of talking as expected, they started "texting". Quite a few carrier revenue spreadsheets went up in flames when SMS took off.

Never underestimate inertia or group think though. When spectrum became available for 3G, and the fantasies of mobile Internet access at 2mb became common, financial bids were placed for spectrum licenses that guaranteed to bankrupt the industry. Not unexpectedly, one finds governments guiding technology in this fiasco. What Finance Minister could resist the idea of auctioning off spectrum (which no voter could see anyway), and balancing the budget at the same time?

While their customers are happily texting each other, the cellcos are trying to figure out why nobody is paying hundreds of dollars a month in data fees to download content and swap photographs.

3G has the potential to offer meaningful services, but that is not going to happen with conventional thinking. With the cellcos trying to hold onto access, devices, and content, in order to pay off their massive license debts, it is unlikely that anything innovative is going to emerge. It will take a cellco with sufficient humility to realize that good ideas come from the market, not internally.

When Bankers Go Wild - Standard Chartered

The online banking scene in Singapore can be pretty frustrating, with mediocre offerings and limited features. Recently however, Standard Chartered appeared to be offering something akin to the wonderful ING Direct, which is unfortunately not available here.

The new online only account from Standard Chartered is called e$aver, and offers the highest interest rate in town for a demand deposit. As a long time customer, I immediately logged on and attempted to open an account.

Which is when things started to go all pear shaped. To recap, I am an existing customer using an existing secure connection to access online banking. First step to place a deposit is to open a new account.

OK, I can see that it needs a separate account number, but why do I need to re-enter all my personal data? I have been a customer for 10 years.

All questions are compulsory, so if you don't answer, no account

Mobile phone number. No mobile phone, no account.

Employer, annual salary, net worth, annual income...

Hey wait a minute, I am trying to DEPOSIT money, not borrow it. Why the third degree on what would be barely passable questions for a credit card application?

It gets better.

Gender, Race. Now what the hell does gender and race have to do with bank deposits? Does Standard Chartered plan on offering differential rates and services depending on your race?

With weekly revelations of data loss by major financial institutions, this kind of data harvesting overkill is inexcusable. If you answered every question, you would be completely vulnerable to identity theft.

When I questioned the customer service rep as to why they needed so much information from an existing customer to make a DEPOSIT, she said it was a 9/11 "know your customer" regulation of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. When I suggested that it was pretty far fetched to suggest that terrorists or those funding terrorists could be identified by gender or race, things got quiet.

Perhaps bankers in Singapore are unfamiliar with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in article 2 states:

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Next stop was the MAS web site to see if there was anything concrete about information required of customers. The menus didn't provide anything, but the search engine threw up a document that looks like it covers the subject of prevention of money laundering - MAS 626. A quick read and nope, nothing about gender or race as an indicator of malfeasance.

One pretty reasonable sentence, "
The list is intended solely as an aid, and must not be applied as a routine instrument in place of common sense.", and one slightly scary sentence, "It is justifiable to suspect any customer who is reluctant to provide normal information and documents required routinely by the bank in thecourse of the business relationship."

That last one is tough. If you try and question the bank's unrestrained data collection, you risk being labelled a money launderer.

The ultimate remedy remains taking your business where it is safe and welcome.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Music Recommendation - Eva Cassidy - Live at Blues Alley

I have pretty wide tastes in music, from metal to classics, so it is not often that I am surprised by hearing a singer for the first time. I had read a story in a business newspaper about the fact that sales for an artist who had died were continuing strongly. The description of the music intrigued me enough to go buy a copy.

Eva Cassidy was not someone I had heard of during her lifetime. She died in 1996, but apparently her label has continued to issue albums. This album is of live performances at a Washington D.C. blues club.

Eva has an amazing purity and range of voice. Her song choice covers standards, blues, folk, gospel, whatever. You simply get captivated by her voice and the emotion she puts into every song.

Get this CD.

Unintended Consequences

I awoke to bird song this morning. A simple fact that is taken for granted by most, but something that has been missing from my life for the last six months.

In what was a quiet residential neighbourhood, permits have been granted for the demolition of a number of relatively new buildings. Why? I can only assume that profit is the motive, since the old buildings did not need replacing, and the new ones will change the character of the neighbourhood.

Allowing demolition of buildings in an existing residential neighbourhood has had a devastating impact on those of us forced to endure 10 hours a day of pneumatic hammers breaking concrete.

Although I have sought help from the Building and Construction Authority, the Environment Ministry, and my MP, nothing has been done to mitigate the noise. Current legislation permits operations to continue 24 hours a day within noise limits that would be considered cruel and unusual punishment if inflicted on a prisoner.

Yet today there is silence and all work has been halted. Could one assume that the organizers of the international forum in the hotel near by found the noise objectionable? Like the sudden clean ups proceeding visits by ministers, it would appear that our best hope for peace and quiet lie with continued international conferences or a VIP taking up residence.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Dead Pixels and the Art of Shopping

With the annual PC Show now on in Singapore, it is time to get serious about the acquisition of a laptop. While the show itself is a nightmare because of the poor booth layout, the occasion does stimulate the various vendors to offer "deals". So far, the price of the Acer has dropped S$300 and a bunch of freebies are being offered as well.

The normal way to buy computers in Singapore is to head to Sim Lim Square and bargain your posterior off with the various sharks that inhabit that storied building. The pricing one gets at the PC Show represents what would pass for a decent deal at Sim Lim - probably not the absolute lowest price, but one that beats retail - and with a lot less hassle.

The problem with all computer trade shows in Singapore is the seeming lack of any regulation by the authorities. The booths are arranged so closely together that it is impossible to walk down the corridors. The experience can be quite frightening if you are small, short, or in any way intimidated by crowds. If a fire or other emergency were to occur, people would die, it is that simple.

The dead pixels referred to in the title are not the victims of attending the show, but rather a problem with LCD screens. Unless great care is taken and quality standards are high, one or more pixels in a screen may malfunction. The effect is to have a dot on your screen that is always on, or conversely, black all the time. Depending where the dead pixels end up, this can be enormously irritating. For those doing pixel level graphics work, it is impossible to accept.

The manufacturers of course would have you believe that this is normal, and that they bear no responsibility for bad pixels. The analogy is that you buy a car with a windshield that has random black spots on it.

I don't think so.

As a consumer, you need to exercise discretion before you purchase. Depending on the vendor, you will get little or no sympathy if you try and return a laptop because of dead pixels. My "favorite" vendor, Acer, states on their website that anything up to 7 dead pixels is considered acceptable. Not to me!

So how do you protect yourself before the money is handed over? Clearly, buying online is not going to work unless you can get the vendor to explicitly accept your order subject to no dead pixels. It is worth a shot.

Preferably, you want to be able to test the screen yourself before taking delivery. And for that, some software helps. Over at LaptopShowcase, a program by Chris called Dead Pixel Buddy allows you to run a screen through its paces and determine whether any pixels are defective.

Armed with this little gem on my trusty USB flashdrive, I am off to the PC Show tomorrow to do battle with the forces of commerce.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

When Laptops Play Games

There should be a natural lifecycle for computers at home. The big guy (me) gets the biggest, baddest machine possible. When age (the computer's, not mine) sets in, the PC gets passed on to oldest child and so on.

Well yeah, in some other parallel universe.

What actually happens is that the big guy (me) spends a lot of time doing tech support and tweaking the biggest, baddest PC owned by oldest daughter, while continuing to get by on the 2002 model.

The explanation and blame lies at the feet of 3D games. Running Quicken doesn't suck up that many CPU cycles, but GuildWars sure does. The kids are running frame rates and CPU loads that would have crushed the average nuclear research lab 5 years ago.

And so to the point of this ramble. I need to get a laptop for elder daughter to replace her monster PC. I thought this would be relatively simple since the IBM (Lenovo) ThinkPad T series remains the best laptop out there. Unfortunately, it does not have the GPU to handle games.

There is a category called "Desktop Replacement" in most laptop reviews, but on closer examination, it appears that most of these units have very basic graphics capability. Nothing close to what is required for serious 3D play.

So far, I have been able to track down only three laptops available in Singapore that have top end graphics cards - the Dell Inspirion 9300, the Acer TI8104, and the Acer Ferrari 4000. There is another Dell, the XPS laptop which seems to be only available in the US and Canada.

I have dealt with Dell for many years and purchased thousands of their PC's for various companies I have worked for. Great people, great products. Lousy laptops. Dell, like most other vendors OEM's their laptops from Taiwanese vendors. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, just that the value add can be pretty small, and the product is not likely to have had the same scruitiny during manufacture as something assembled in-house.

Acer on the other hand has been a universally terrible experience. I bought a 19 inch monitor from them many years ago which spent a considerable amount of its life in the service shop. On liberation, it celebrated by bursting into flames and melting down. Luckily I was at home at the time and managed to contain the damage to one charred desk.

Against my better judgement, I bought a PC from Acer some years ago. What looked like a deal turned out to be a dog, with missing cache memory and low spec parts.

Since then, Acer purchased the laptop operations of Texas Instruments, and continues to differentiate their product line between Acer and Acer TI models. The one that has the gaming credentials is in the TI line. The online reveiws have all been good except for a few complaining about hellish service. Sounds familiar...

Comparing specs, the Acer comes out slightly better than the Dell at pretty much exactly the same price.

If you have any advice or experience to share about good gaming laptops, please do add a comment to this entry.