postheadericon TECH TALK: Chromebooks Now Shipping, but Do You Care?

I’ve been holding off writing about Chromebooks ever since I played with a prototype about a month ago, but seeing as they actually started shipping today, I guess now is a good time to let you know what they are, and then let you decide if you even care. I know that after using one for a few minutes, I found the Cromia AC761 from Acer to be intriguing. (As in, how would I ever use it?)

But what is a Chromebook? Or more importantly, what is it not? Well, a Chromebook is not a laptop, netbook, or tablet - but instead, something in-between. Netbook in size and battery life (well, perhaps a bit better) and traditional software app-less like a tablet, a Chromebook is more of an Internet appliance then anything else. Like a refrigerator door that displays webpages...

But unlike a high-tech fridge door, you can easily put this device in a small bag and take it everywhere you go...providing there is 3G or Wi-Fi coverage where you want to use it. Unlike a modern laptop, the Chromebook cannot be loaded with any data, software or hardware you might have around the house or office. For example, you cannot install MS Word or upgrade memory in one of these puny beasts.

But you can load apps from Google itself, whose operating system (Chrome OS) is more like what you would find running your smart phone than anything else. On this Linux-based kernel, you can run any of Google’s web-based apps via the included Chrome web browser: Google Docs, Gmail and Picasa are a few featured. But die-hard Office users will find Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 out of the cloud and into shops soon, where theoretically you will be able to Word and Excel away until the cows come home.

In essence, if you buy a Chromebook, you are buying a web browser with all the fix in’s, plus some (depending on model): a decent keyboard (vs. the virtual one found in tablets and on smartphones), a few USB ports for connecting, say, an external hard drive for your data, a 4-in-one card reader for transferring your photos and videos from your cameras to the web, and a display-out port for connecting the Chromebook to a larger monitor or display then the on-board 12” one.

The Acer I played with was hooked (ironically) to a large-screen Samsung TV and looked gorgeous when running Angry Birds. Chromebooks have HD audio support with tinny speakers as well – they are about the size of your thumbnail, so don’t expect hi-fidelity there. But hooked to a new LCD TV, the birds sounded angry and the pig’s grunting was realistic enough.


I say ironically that the Acer was hooked to a Samsung TV because there are only two brands of Chromebooks out on the market today (not counting Google’s own prototype, the Cr-48): the Samsung
Series 5 and the Acer Cromia. Both the Samsung and the Acer differ slightly in internal hardware, as both are cast from the Google prototype’s mold.

Looking at the specs, if I were to get one of these not-tablets not-netbooks today, I would go with the Acer, only because it has HDMI output that would allow my wife to play Cityville on a large screen TV, instead of overtaxing her overloaded MacBook (whose fan I can hear right now dying in agony and in Flash (that software long-hated by even Steve Jobs himself).

Both the Acer and the Samsung run on the same processor, an Atom dual-core N570 @ 1.66 GHz, which while is not going to be very zippy playing HD movies, it will rip through YouTube videos just fine. They both have similar HD webcams, if Google Chat is what you are into, and both have the same size SSD (hard drive on a chip); both weighing in at 16GB. They also have similar batteries rated at 8.5 hours, but since they are inside the book’s body, swapping out during long periods of loadshedding is not going to happen.

Leaving specs aside, you are probably wondering by now “Well, what good is it...if you cannot put in more memory or run your favorite apps that your already use on your Microsoft or Apple PC, AND it weighs TWICE as much as any good tablet on the market today? Good question. That is the question that Google Corp. is hoping the market finds an answer for.

For example, large corporations could replace all their employees laptops with these, as they cost just USD $399 or so, and then have less stress over virus attacks. Or large numbers of light-computer users, who could get by with their smartphone in reality, might buy Chromebooks in droves – as these devices do seem a bit better at doing “just web work” then a netbook or a tablet - much less hassle and a bit of flexibility to boot.

But for myself, I see no need - because of my needs! I want a powerful device that works all day on a battery, but can do Photoshop, Office apps, and media editing - yet weighs less then 3 pounds so it can fit into my man purse and leave room for my bike keys. But I guess I will have to wait for the next incarnation (or two) for something that looks like that.
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postheadericon KUIRE KO KURA: Man Cave 2011

Man caves are increasingly common these days, indicating how far we have progressed from the Neolithic era, yes? But I have a different take on the 2011 man cave for the men in Nepal. Take for example my own man cave located in scenic Dhobighat...

Here you won’t find a 100” LG LCD nor a full-quad foosball table or the world’s most powerful subwoofer. There is no display of trophies or animal heads hanging on the walls. There are not even other men in the cave... no, my man cave is more like the one once inhabited by Padmasambhava... but with an iMac.

Cave dwellers know that looking to the light is what you do, and cave life was arranged so there was always a sentry facing out. However, in today’s modern man cave, we face in. We cavemen do face the light; only that light is shining inward from the back. In my case, the lights on the router is the only light I care about, as this box beams in everything the modern caveman needs to live, sans food and water.

Movies, games, music and all forms of entertainment are fed from the cloud, only this cloud is inside the cave and not outside floating in the skies; what we have today is a digital stratosphere that drops down all the caveman’s needs with just a few clicks on the cave keyboard or cave tablet.

The modern cave man needs not to venture out of the cave at all, and in many parts of the world, this is increasingly the case. The hunting gathering club-stomping and animal killing man of the past has been replaced by a much more timid kind of fellow, who provides for family from his PayPal account and by shopping ON Amazon, not IN the Amazon.

But being a caveman in Nepal, my own man cave is small and energy efficient (meaning enery-less). I am frugally utilitarian in my modernity – out of shear necessity! Wikipedia describes a man cave as a “sanctuary” or “man space,” usually constructed in a basement or garageand where guys can “do what they please.” Well, my man cave is nothing like that. It’s just a room where I work, and does not exclude anyone by gender; in fact, my wife decorated my cave from the local furniture shops down on Kumaripati.

So my man cave looks nothing like the grandfather of the modern man cave - Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment – and everything here is rated “G”, unlike one of my favorite TV depictions of the modern man cave: the “Sopranos” Bada Bing Room, where those TV elders gathered in nefarious manliness. Like I said, there are NO other men in my cave, unless you count my male dog...whose species have served the cave since man really began.

Basically I have an office man cave: with couch, TV, various gadgets, etc. but mostly centered around products built by the quintessential cavemen of our times: Steve Jobs. Well, actually Wozniak is the real cave man, and it was he who started the whole resurgence in man caves in the first place. He also looks more the part...

Since the days of Woz, programmers have long been known for their Neanderthal lithic accommodations at home. Places where one can spend 23 hours straight working out an algorithm or designing a database. But our stones and bones of the modern age are OSX desktops and LINUX servers with ever glowing screens and SSH in a terminal window. We bash –i commands instead of mammoths and cavewomen. All the more barbaric if that man cave is located in your mother’s basement.

But with the economy the way it is, it makes sense not to have a separate office where you can’t work in your tidy-whiteys or have your own personal wolf sleeping under your cave chair. My man cave is neo traditional, in the sense that women are most welcome – especially didi when she is coming to visit with a fresh cup of coffee. However, I do worry about the inside-inwardness of it all.

Take for example the other week, when I was holed up for over 40 hours or so (non-stop) trying to figure out how to get an e-commerce website built for (ironically) women’s fashion products. And with all this electricity we are getting these days, I feel just like what the man who first discovered fire must have felt like, as he grunted, “If I could just keep this going, I could...”

Conquer the world. That’s what real men did back then. Nowadays not so much. In the 1950’s, my father conquered the backyard instead. That was his man cave...a cave with a lawn out front. I even had an uncle who built a 40-foot yacht in his backyard cave. Unfortunately, that ship never made it to sea, as it was more like a ship in the bottle and was too large to move out once completed.

This is where the 2011 man cave seems to be headed...caves carved from electronic shops and gadget stores...with cavemen that look to iTunes clouds, and not the heavenly stars above. After all, NASA is on YouTube and the entire universe is online.
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postheadericon KUIRE KO KURA: On Constitutions

This week has been extremely quite in my neighborhood of Dhobighat, with all the Bandhs and whatnot, but even without them, I always wake up to the sound of birds chirping and distant dogs barking – as well as to my own Shepard telling me it’s time to go for a walk.

Dhobighat seems thousands of miles away from downtown, where from what I gather folks are haggling over a new constitution: what it should contain, when it should be written, and who should control the process. As an expat, I feel very much an outsider on all that’s happening in the politics of Nepal this week...

But the thought of a constitution dredges up childhood memories for me - going all the way back to Governor Clinton Elementary School of Poughkeepsie NY. It was a small elementary school, very much a public school, which sat across the street from the Christ Church Cemetery that had been entombing folks as far back as the American Revolution.

We had to walk past the cemetery go get to class, and through it if we wanted to stop at the cold store first and load up on sweets. The ghosts there all whispered of a time gone, but of one where the country’s direction was certainly in question, and on everyone’s political mind.

Classes at Clinton Elementary were pretty much unmemorable, except for those in American History. It seemed that during my first 6 years or so of education, that’s all we studied, and I can still smell my old wood desk, with the unused hole for the inkwell, reminding us all we came from Ben Franklin-like stock.

When I started school at Clinton Elementary, there were 35-framed portraits of American presidents in my classroom, with the last one being John F. Kennedy. By the time I left, another had been added. JFK had been shot during my first year of school, and one of my first school memories was being sent home early that day, with the entire town hushed except for the network coverage of the assignation playing on everyone’s television set. Even the revolutionary ghosts of Christ Church Cemetery seemed to be crying a low mourning as well.

Perhaps it was this very event, another outright assignation of a sitting US President, that inspired my liberal democratic elementary school teachers to focus on the US Constitution, which was required reading (in one form or another) for grades 1-6. We each received copies on fake parchment paper. We were led through any historical marker with a placard reading “George Washington Slept Here.” We spent most all of our field trips at the Valley Forge Museum, either studying revolutionary war relics or watching reenactments of Continental Army battles with the British.

In other words, we were schooled in how America began as a rabble, and later turned into a world power.

We memorized presidents and dates. We studied each of the signers of the constitution; all 40 of them, and even went to visit the gravesites of many who were buried nearby. In short, we were led to believe that the constitution of our country was the most important document, and held the most important rules and considerations for running civil society. In addition, the folks who participated in the conditional process were the heroes of the age.

It was only in college, after hearing Howard Zinn speak on his then new book, “A People’s History of the United States,” that I came to realize the total white-washing that we had been given growing up in the ‘60s. Zinn convinced me that the founding fathers of the American Constitution were not saints, but instead, calculating businessman who used war to distract the populace from domestic issues - like the economy and jobs.

Zinn broke my idealist bubble regarding America, and I have never been able to look at the framers of the US constitution again without contempt. In fact, Zinn and his research and writings was pretty much the seed that soured my liking for any form of government at all, except for more “primitive” forms of direct democracy, as found working today in most villages of Nepal (for example).

Zinn wrote that

"Governments - including the government of the United States - are not neutral... they represent the dominant economic interests, and their constitutions are intended to serve these interests.”

Zinn died last year while swimming in a Californian hotel pool, but one of the things he said he wanted to be remembered for was this thought, which I feel is applicable to all Nepalese today. Zinn wanted people to realize that
“...power rests so far in the hands of people with wealth and guns, but power ultimately rests in people themselves, and that they can use it. At certain points in history, they have used it...”

For Nepal, now is one of those points in time that Zinn refers to.
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postheadericon ECS: Is Tech Making Our Lives Easier?

When my ECS editor first posed this topic: “Is technology making our lives easier?” I had to laugh out loud, and sure was glad that our communications are exclusively done through email - as not to embarrass. It’s not that the topic is silly; on the contrary, it’s not, but I had just spent the better part of the morning getting my email to work while on the road. I had some sort of SMTP setting wrong on my IMAP server...

Huh?

This, and problems just like this, often make me wonder if technology is indeed making our lives easier - or just frenetically more frustrating.

So I skyped my wife and asked her, “Has technology made your life easier?”

“Silly boy, of course it has,” she skyped back with a smiley face. “I can’t imagine anything easier then shopping online.”

Point taken. But while shoe shoppers on Zappos.com may find shopping for new boots easier, what about the Zapppos.com employee and DHL delivery person that must make multiple deliveries before that one shoe sale is finally completed? For example, the last time I shopped Zappos, I returned a pair of Reeboks FOUR times before I was happy. That surely must have frustrated someone...

But what I find more interesting about this question is that Technology, easy or hard, good or evil, maybe required for us to continue surviving as a species. In other words, even if we hate technology, find it difficult, wish for the olden days, etc., we absolutely need technology to carry on, as without it, we would all be in deep doo doo.

I got to thinking about this just yesterday while over at newscientist.com, where I found an interesting article about llama dung, corn and the Incas. According to research done by Alex Chepstow-Lusty, scientists have concluded that the “seed change” for the Incas (and the empire that they built) was rooted in a single new technology of the time: organic fertilizer. That’s right, llama poop allowed the Incas to switch from hunting and gathering to maize production. Once the storehouses were full of this portable, high-energy food source, the Incas had more leisure time to devote to more advanced activities, like metal weapons production and subsequent pillaging & plundering.

So goes the role of technology throughout history. Gunpowder for the Chinese, Romans and their roads, Britain and the blast furnace, America and its Manhattan Project, are all examples following along this vein. And the 21st century seed change is arguably electronics, and what they have brought about: quantum (and personal) computers, nanotechnology, biotechnology, green technologies, and space travel.

Today’s explosion of electronic devices has set off others of interest as well (besides exploding iPods and imploding nuclear reactors), and that’s the “data explosion.” Just 8 years ago it was estimated that the total amount of data online was 5 exabytes. To put that into perspective, 5 exabytes is the amount of computer storage needed to hold every single word ever uttered by a human being. Today, it is estimated that over 21 exabytes of data flow over the Internet each and every month, and that number continues to climb.

But the “amount of data” is not the only number exploding exponentially. The number of users of data is exploding as well, along with the revenue streams that all these numbers ultimately translate into. 500 million Facebook users, who click an estimated 3 billion LIKE buttons per day. 200 million Twitter users, whose base is growing at a rate of 1400% a year. 2 million Google searches each and every minute, with Google’s net worth now estimated to be over $190 billion USD. These numbers are unprecedented in anything we can find in human history.

But the real question boils back to where we began: is any of this going to help us as individuals, or better yet, as a species?

Well, let’s consider the printing press (a seed change of sorts from the middle ages) and compare that to printing and reading today. Out of the 32 million titles catalogued by the Library of Congress, 3 million of those books are now available online, and can be freely read using your mobile phone or other e-reader. There are also over 4 million online newspapers, with the average Internet user (all 2 billion or so of them) visiting at least one newspaper every time they get connected.

Unprecedented. But where is this all going?

Enough energy (in time) is spent online using Farmville and Cityville in a single day to feed and house the entire planet (if only these virtual crops hosted on Zynga could be translated into real food and shelter for the masses). But has world hunger lessened one bit since the introduction of the Internet? No.

I often have to sit back and laugh at technology (perhaps to keep from crying). I can remember a time when the remote control for a TV set was new technology, and a bit of a struggle to use. Now, I simply can’t find it. I can remember a time when I had to manually type in a table of contents for a report that I was writing; now, I can do that automatically, but only after installing the lasted version of Microsoft Word, rebooting my computer, and then scanning for virus infections for about an hour or two. I can also remember a time when I did everything without the use of a personal computer, but now I can’t do anything at all without one...

My wrists hurt (Carpel Tunnel Syndrome), my eyes are weaker (Computer Vision Syndrome) and my back pains all the time (Musculoskeletal Degeneration) - all from using a computer for the past 25 years. And while I can find out anything about everything online, I can’t seem to remember anything about anything offline.

I am sure that technology is making my life easier (somehow), but at what cost, and at what benefit to others? Perhaps it’s too early to begin looking for those answers, besides, they’re not in Google yet.
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postheadericon TECH TALK: On Going Green Tech-Wise

While technology and “going green” are given much lip service in the media and by marketers, in practice, energy savings using high-tech devices is not happening as fast as one might think.

Take electric cars for example, where some governments are providing incentives for their purchase, and as in the case of the Greenwhich Village Council UK - even that providing special parking spaces with chargers, consumers are not biting the electric bullet and making a green purchase. Electric car parking spots can be found worldwide – empty! However, electric cars can’t help us here in Nepal; with our loadshedding schedule, we would just go nowhere fast.

However, all is not lost if trying to go green tech-wise in Nepal, as there are things that you can do that will reduce your energy footprint and perhaps save you a rupee or two – or even more!

One of my favorite tips is to truly go paperless in the office and at home. There is so much software that allows for this, I am surprised that most Nepalese I work and play with have no clue about using new software to save paper, time, and energy. For example, everyone should be sharing PDF files instead of printing documents. There is just no excuse for printing to paper these days, even for mission-critical docs with signatures and stamps and such (which I know we all love here). Stamps can be digitized, and secure electronic signatures are easy to do. Just see Adobe Acrobat X on the web, if you haven’t already.

Another way to go green tech-wise is to replace aging hard drives in servers and desktops with energy saving green ones. My favorite drive these days is the Western Digital WD10EARS, a 1TB unit that has automagic spin rotation and other green features that are less of a drain on your inverter for sure. They are priced in town at about NRs.5,000 - which is even cheaper then you can find online in America (in most cases). I suspect why these drives are so cheap in Nepal is because most folks in the west don’t want to use them, just like they don’t like to use electric cars – high power performance is more important to most westerners then saving a few pennies, or saving the planet, so it seems.

Besides replacing aging power-sucking hard drives with newer, greener, and larger ones, we can also go greener by using better printing devices for those odd bits of paper that we absolutely must print. All-in-one printers save energy by consolidating many devices into one unit (printer, scanner, fax machine, etc.), as does networking home and office devices together for shared use by family, friends, and co-workers. Less devices running mean less power used – something we can all appreciate here in Nepal in a very tangible way, eh?

Another way to use less gadget juice in the office or home, is to make sure your gadget’s energy saving options are turned on and working. Screensavers, drive spin-downs, and even the off/on switch on can be scheduled on desktops, laptops, and even smartphones. I have my iMac scheduled to go off at night and come back on in the morning when I need it (according to loadshedding schedule of course). My laptop goes to sleep after 10 minutes or so of non-use. If I ignore my phone for a minute or so, that too goes nighty-nite. This concept can also be applied to office equipment; ya just gotta find the power-saving options buried deep down in the menu systems.

One last tip for going tech-green is to find yourself a USB AC Adapter, where instead of recharging a USB device (like an iPod) from your computer, you can do that from a wall socket. The savings here could be in the hundreds of watts, as using a power-hungry computer to charge an iPod or mobile phone makes little sense anyway. I recently went to Thailand and found that most power strips sold there (like the VOX 4-plug surge suppressor) go for about Nrs.700, and have one or more USB jacks built in – great for charging my iPhone when I want to leave my computer off.

Well, those are my ideas - but perhaps you have some tips as well (please add below). In general, I think Nepalis are more conscious about energy saving then most – out of necessity – although when it comes to high-tech greenery, I feel we have much room for improvement...so perhaps we can start reducing our energy footprints in our living rooms and office spaces - right away – by following a few of the tips above.
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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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