postheadericon Tech Talk: Graphically Speaking

Imagery created using smartphones and personal computers seems to be one of the most popular of activities these days, judging by the amount of photos and videos posted by my friends & family on Facebook.

Even my wonderful Nepali wife, who is not at all a geek, edits her photos in iPhoto and posts them to her online albums, using special effects known only to the most pro of photo manipulators a few decades ago.

But today's easy-to-use yet highly sophisticated apps make it possible for anyone to easily imitate an Ansell Adams, or even a Picasso. And I mean anyone, to include toddlers toting iPads. But the majority of photo and video app purchasers are a bit older, yet just as enthusiastic as a 3-year old when it comes to putting their fingers in the digital paint and trying their hand at this timeless method of self expression (think the Cave Paintings of Lascaux). Future generations of anthropologists will have a field day with the digital walls we are filling today, with everything from pet poodle doodles to sophisticated renditions of Rembrandts, all done without any horses giving up a single hair for a brush, or a single crush of ochre needed to create a rainbow palette.

We truly live in an amazing time, graphically speaking...

My favorite finger painting tools of late come from Ambient Design, based in Auckland New Zealand. They sell a series of cross-device apps (for Mac, PC, iPhone & iPad) tagged ArtRage, which allow users from age 3 on up to explore painting and sketching like never before, and these tools are priced from NRs. 160 to NRs. 4000. Their top of the line app, ArtRage Studio Pro, is really a re-incarnation of Corel Painter, the once leader in natural painting software for decades past. 

I remember getting my first version of Painter back in the 80's (about $900 USD), and thought the packaging brilliant – the CDs came with a printed user guide, all crammed into a real 1 gallon paint can, where you had to pry the lid open with a screwdriver. This was a great marketing touch that could not be duplicated in today's world of App Stores and digital downloads. Put the point of the program was to replace paper and brush and messy watercolors and oils with something the more clean zeros and ones in binary code. But over the 12 versions of Painter, I never really felt I had mastered this app, as the learning curve is even steeper than with the full version of Photoshop. Even with an expensive Wacom tablet and expensive digital airbrush accessories, I never quite got the hang of it...

But this week I saw a post of a friend's toddler dabble made in ArtRage on an iPad, and decided to check out the grown up version, ArtRage Studio Pro - NRs. 5,040. Within an hour, I was off in watercolor heaven; happily dry brushing my way into an Andrew Wyeth stupor. The interface and user interaction here is incredible, and can be figured out in a matter of hours, if not less in minutes. There are stencils and stickers that can be laid down on a myriad of canvas choices, and of course, every brush known to man has been recreated in digital form, turning your touchpad into a veritable Rajput painting machine, but without the tedious weeks of crushing up gold and conch shells.

Another feature in ArtRage makes it ideal for the budding post-traditional natural brush artist: layers. True virtual layers are represented here, one for the paper used, one for tracing (where you can import a photo or other image to sketch overtop) and unlimited layers of paint and materials layers over top of that. And these layers are compatible with Photoshop, so you can bring all these layers into Photoshop for further manipulation - or go the other way  - and bring your Photoshop layers into ArtRage and combine photographic material with an infinite number of brushed effects. This back-and-forth workflow works flawlessly, as does everything else in this nicely designed app.

But of even more interest is this future possibility of digital painting; once true 3D printing is made available to the masses, we will be able to print out, say, our own interpretation of "The Song" by Childe Hassam and then hang that directly on the wall of our living room – in short, creating real canvas and oils from zeros and ones.

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postheadericon Kuire Ko Kura: Another (Happy) Brick in the Wall

Growing up is hard to do, as all of us who have gone through this process know first hand. As children, our limbs literally grow centimeters overnight, and our minds expand exponentially faster. It is quite a challenge for parents and educators to keep up with the voracious development of any child, and this has always been the case, no matter where one grew up.

Unfortunately, during my early childhood development in America, it seemed like my parents and teachers were just too burned out to even try and keep pace with my growth spurts, both emotionally and physically. I always wore pants too short and was given puzzle games too simple to keep me puzzled for more than a moment. 1960's public education in the west had already begun its decline, spiraling downward into the morass it finds itself in today, where young students are hardly safe in the classroom, fighting off sexual predators and gun-toting classmates, right along with the struggle to learn the three R's (reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic).

Yet there is good news in this part of the world, as my totally unscientific study shows: Nepali children are still wonderful, and are getting a good education if enrolled in school. Of course, Nepal still has the problems of child slavery and cruel corporal punishment (to name a few), but considering the alternative of a western-style education: spoiling, sexual abuse, and doctrine indoctrination, I know which style I would choose if I were a parent today. I would enroll my kid in Little Angels KTM over Miramonte Elementary School, California – any day of the week!

For me, Pink Floyd's words still ring true today for youngsters in the west, as it did when I was 13 and high on acid, whilst boinking my younger "girlfriend":

"We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall."

This not-so quiet song of exasperation is what I grew up with, but not so with the kids in Dhobighat / Lalitpur, who where not depressed at all this New Year's day while redecorating the neighborhood with a little bit of paint and lots of laughs. It didn't take a lot of prodding for Alice Anne Gordon, a local expat, to round up the kids and local shop owners (Swayam, Sanjol, Priya, Binita, Alisha, Ukesh, Ritika, Suhanjan, Amrita, Nita, Nira, Sanjita, Jayraj, Amisha, Yunisha, Urmila, Suraj, Sudan, Suman, Sujan and Sudhir) for a bit of mural painting. These troopers turned some drab old walls surrounding the dhara into uplifted works of art that just makes everyone smile as they walk by.

Its this spirit of youth and beauty that I see everyday in Nepal – from kids mural painting to rows of cleanly pressed school kids in uniforms singing songs – that give me hope for the next generation growing outward from this country. I know the UNICEF indicators don't look so hot on paper (for example, the Primary School Survival Rate to Last Primary Grade is only 62%) but my gut tells me that with kids achieving literacy at a combined boy/girl rate of 82%, things can't be all that bad. I'd say of my American classmates, that at least 2 in 10 couldn't read or write either by graduation, and in fact, 2 in 10 did not even survive high school without being raped, beaten, drugged or killed by their own or other's hand.

So here's a shout out to all the children of Nepal: keep up the good work with that glowing and optimistic attitude, listen to your elders, and continue to live a safe and healthy life, for the rest of your blessed life. We are all out here rooting for ya!
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postheadericon Tech Talk: Dancing with Personal Finance Apps

Well, for a long time I've avoided computerizing my personal finances as 1) I've had very few rupees to fiddle with after paying bills, and 2) I absolutely hate fiddling. But the idea of a personal finance app is so appealing to a neat freak like myself, I decided to give it a go and report back to you on the results of my testing.

First, I looked at the big gun in the arena of personal finance software: Quicken. You've probably heard of this, as Quicken has been around since the days of DOS, and I actually used this package back in 2004 on a PC. It was pretty bad. And things only got worse for maker Intuit when the UK version was discontinued in 2005 (leaving those users stranded) and during 2009 when major bugs in this application were found introducing errors into peep's checkbooks (as if balancing wasn't hard enough). 

But I decided to test out Quicken Essentials for Mac (USD $49.99) to see how things have progressed, and I was decidedly impressed with the gorgeous interface and helpful inline wizards planted there to help you quickly get a budget created and track your transactions. Unfortunately, Quicken Essentials is a stripped down version of Intuit's PC offerings: Checkbook, Starter Edition, Deluxe, Premier, Home & Business... and more. So just deciding which full-featured package to buy was enough to make me want to forget about money and go ride a motorbike in the countryside. 

After quickly giving up on Quicken, I decided to try one of the apps raved about on all the forums: iBank -which won design awards back in 2007 and seems to be the PFA of choice for mac users. Again, we have another pretty interface but with all the features you would expect: multiple accounts in multiple currencies, checkbook reconciliation, online banking (US Banks only), with portfolio and investment tracking (also US-based), plus an iphone app (USD 4.99) that allows you to enter in expenses on the go, and automatically sync up with your machine at home. I found iBank to work very well, until I started throwing Nepali Rupees into it, and mixing things up with local bank accounts and accounts that I have abroad. In short, my totals with mixed currency transactions became totally hosed.

As I am unforgiving of any accounting software that produces errors, my trial with iBooks ended there, and I moved on to what seems to be the only competitor left: Moneydance (USD $39.99). Now when I first opened up Moneydance, I was not blown away by the interface; it looked more like the excel spreadsheet that I have used for years to manage my finances - but the more I used Moneydance, the more I appreciated the lack of colorful eye candy. After all, this is software for numbers, serious numbers...

Moneydance does all the things listed above for iBank, but it does the mixing of currency extremely well. The dashboard lists your exchange rates of the day, and you can easily change the rate and currency for any transaction that you make. As with any good personal finance package, a budget can be quickly created by looking at your transaction categories and tags. Forecasts for the coming year are easy enough to generate, and everything seems to work without a lot of fuss and muss. Well, almost everything...

At time of writing, I still haven't been able to get the free iPhone app to sync with my laptop-based Moneydance. It seems the problem has been known for over a year, and the maker "The Infinite Kind LLC" has promised a better mobile app coming soon. But perhaps you would have better luck on Linux or Windows, as this same app runs on all popular platforms, and all your data is interchangeable between operating systems. However, the android app (HandyBank) that syncs with Moneydance will cost you another USD $4.99. But that app actually works.

After using Moneydance for a few hours to set up my checkbook register, download my 401K investments, and configure both my Nepali and foreign bank accounts, I was very pleased with the results. I now feel I have a grasp on every rupee that I currently have in my virtual pockets, and I can see ahead into the future enough to know exactly how much more I need to make ends meet. What more can you ask from this non-sexy, no-nonsense software?

But before the music stops, I want to mention one current trend in personal finance apps: to get rid of the app altogether, and to manage your finances in the cloud, or in other words, from a website such as Mint is ad-based and free, and here they will try and sell you financial services and recommend banks based on your transaction history. The whole idea is so off-putting, I didn't even bother to sign up. After all, what would I do if the Internet went down or the power went out? I guess I would be right back to guessing how much money I had in the bank.

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postheadericon Kuire Ko Kura: My Royal Enfield ...

It's a cool Nepali April morning, about 6 AM, and I just woke up so I wouldn't be able to see far down the road even if the fog didn't exist - fog that hangs on you like the round of beers downed just a few hours ago. But it's time to head out again; it's another Poker Run and Rendezvous with the Himalayan Enfielders.

As bikers go, this group is not so raunchy as their western brethren, but certainly as loud. There's a hundred or more bikes gathering downtown, revving up for the annual ride, this time the destination is Pokhora and the Enfield Basecamp Bar and Grille there. I can almost hear them from Lalitpur, but I'm too busy trying to find my gloves.  Where did I put them? It's been months since I've been on my bike.

My 2004 Bullet sits out in the yard, looking rather ragged and neglected. All the other boys take pride in their ride, me, I mistreat my Bullet like a cruel jockey whipping his steed over the finish line, only I don't race – unless it's to get to the department store before closing time. But I've gotta clean her up a bit; there's oil dripping from the pan and the mirrors are coated in months of collected dust. It's embarrassing to have this recreated classic looking like it's been sitting still since 1964. 

I don't get out of the house much, as there is little motivation for a retired old guy like myself, unless it's to walk the dog, who has a heck of a lot more interest in the city streets of KTM than I do. While he seems to enjoy the hubbub of the daily toll taking place, I'd rather be sitting on my balcony watching the hawks hunt for marmots, or the laundry flapping in the breeze. There's nothing more inspiring than watching the strong arms of Nepali washerwomen getting work done, as I am sitting around doing frack all. 

But this once-a-year ride is something all together different than the menial ride around town. It's a trip to the outer reaches of my existence - a trip into the royal hills - an adventure in time and over bridges that you wonder how they stay standing. The Poker Run is really a ride into history, on the back of history, and over historical paths treed upon by generations of folks that could not have imagined a 500cc machine roaring through their village - as just 38 years ago there wasn't a highway, just a mule path.

We follow the same path as the Gorkas took on their way to join the British Army, and to return home after many decorated years of service. And just a few hundred meters off Prithvi Highway, little has changed since. It's always about here that I get lost in this world mostly passed over by the digitalization of the modern world. There is no need for a laptop, or even a smartphone. A cell signal is a luxury, as is anything else from the industrial digital world outside. 

Whenever I am on this ride, just once every few years, I think of these soldiers, who left their own military Enfields in motor pools, to return home to the more tranquil pool of the local dhara, and to simple rice meals served on mats, instead of that standard army chow. They went from the locomotion of the industrial age, back to the stone age, where everything (including rocks) were pounded into tools and food by the hands of simple men and women, who knew little about the wars of the world.

What they must have felt, returning and knowing what they did about the outside world, during a time when western strangers into Nepal were limited to the likes of Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf and his adventurous wife, who were here shooting footage of Gorka back in 1957, and had to walk on foot the entire way. Now, I feel like they must have – an alien from outer space (but complete with rocket technology) - as I am about to roar around terraced hillsides that flank massive gorges, millions of years in the making.

I can only conclude each ride I take back in time here, that those grand soldiers, knowing the destructiveness and suffering of the modern world, did all they could to prevent the inevitable invasion of modernization into such a peaceful land of their own. Unlike my forefathers, who attempted to recreate England in America, I romantically dream that the Gorkas tried to prevent the cruel intervention that has happened here of late.

And I know it must be horrible of me to think it right that the Prithvi washes away at points each and every monsoon, just as the rope and wood bridges would vanish each year until metal ones were strung. I think like this each and every time I pull on my riding gloves, hike up my leathers, and straddle my Royal Enfield Reverse Time Machine – all in preparation to ride back to an era when life was so simple it hurt, and more beautiful around each and every turn. 

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postheadericon ECS: Gadgets to Be (Smarter)

Do you ever think about what's coming next, especially after you plunk down tens of thousands of rupees for a gadget? Well this short review is more about what comes long after that, several generations into the future of your favorite device...where they all have become "smart." 

First, let's take your phone that you hold in the palm of your hand these days. Now imagine it's not, with many smart phone functions instead built right into your specs or cool shades. These devices are already in development and monikered "smart glasses," as demonstrated by the Pixeloptics Company this year at CES. Smart glasses not only autofocus your bad eyesight, but in the future our specs will replace all of our device displays, with the first no doubt being the display on your phone. How about that for hand's free driving! 

Now image a piece of ordinary paper next to your new Galaxy tablet, but it's not really a version of papyrus at all, but instead, smart paper! That's right, researchers are now in the process of making a tablet so thin and flexible, it's nothing more than a sheet of paper  - that instead of writing on, you tap and swipe and scroll. For many of you, electronic ink may already be in your hands, in the form of a Kindle or Nook, but many companies are now investing in the R&D of a Kindle or Nook that actually feels like a thin sheet of film or paper. Just think, those coffee cup rings will just wipe right off!

With all these smart gadgets to be, what about smartness itself? Researchers like Joseph Turian from Université de Montréal, believe that very soon we will have "deep learning" for all of our devices, from automobiles to xylophones. Deep learning is nothing more than extreme advances in artificial intelligence, such that "machines that learn" are being built in labs world over. These new algorithms are capable of learning from input, and adapting it's output based on what the program has learned. This will enable cars to avoid crashes and your credit card to become your personal shopping assistant. If you have Apple's Siri, the personal assistant on your iPhone 4s, then you already have witnessed the very beginning of devices that adaptively learn. Skynet may be closer then we think...

Well, when thinking about all the gadgets to be, all you have to remember is one word, "smart." 

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postheadericon ECS: Behind The Screens...

If you haven't been living under a rock these past few years, you know that the latest whiz-bang gadgets to hit the market are really cool tablets and smartphones. But what makes them so? Here is a quick look at these devices behind the screens... 

Under the brushed metal and glass cases of our new phones and tablets are some pretty amazing inventions of late: tiny but powerful microprocessors, high-resolution touch screens and teeny but large-in-capacity memory modules. Basically everything you had in your old desktop, but shrunk down as if popped out from the classic Disney movie, "Honey I Shrunk The Kids." 

For example, powering the newest of Samsung Galaxy phones this year will be quad-core processors like non other ever seen in a phone before: the Exynos 4412. This chip runs at 1.5GHz and with its four cores rivals the computing power of many laptops on the market. With all this horsepower in a phone, you would be right of wondering how your phone's battery will last more than a few hours, but that's the amazing breakthrough: Tech giants like Apple and Samsung have figured out how to infuse the power of a laptop into a smartphone or tablet processor, and still get 7-10 hours out of one charge. 

Innovations in tablet and phone displays are also driving up sales of these "mini-computers." Apple's new Retina Display introduced in phones and iPads this year comes to the mind's eye - in brilliant clarity! The new 9.7" screen in the third generation iPad has a display resolution of 2047 x 1536, and that puts over 3 million pixels on display. To put this innovation into perspective, that's twice the resolution of your new LED HD TV, and 50 times the resolution of the first computer monitor that I used back in 1984. So it's no surprise that eyeballs are flocking to these devices for picture and movie viewing, as well as easing eyestrain when reading paper-based magazines and books. 

Coupled with the amazing displays we see in today's devices, we now have gyros and accelerometers built in, which you may remember from science class in school are fundamentally different things. But when combined into one unit, can do some pretty amazing tricks. For example, your newer smartphone not only knows where you are in relation to any spot on earth (gyro), it can track your real-time movement from one spot to the next, and even measure the speed at which you are travelling (accelerometer). And of course, this opens other possibilities even when standing still, as your device can now be tilted and moved about, acting as a game controller or whatever else the whiz-bang programmers can think up. 

Another grand innovation and underlying technology making your smartphone or tablet zing these days is what's been done with mobile memory. You already know about how flash memory cards, like SD and SD Micros, help you store your photos and videos while not inserted, but the built-in memory inside your tablet or phone (LPDDR) is what allows for near instant response when you hit the power button or tap on an app. This memory uses very little power, gives off of hardly any heat, and transfers data twice as fast as the memory found in your laptop or desktop today. The size of these chips has been steadily decreasing (1GB fits on your thumbnail), while the market is ever increasing: over $16 billion USD made in just that year alone.

Even the outside of tablets and phones has been graced with some amazing tech in this new age of mobile computing: amorphous alloy technology and Gorilla Glass™ are combining to make your device impervious to scratches, smashes and corrosion, as well as making them light like feathers. Amorphous alloys used in devices today (and more to come in the future) have twice the strength of Titanium. And with the malleability of common plastics, tomorrow's devices using this tech will become near indestructible. 

So the next time you pick up your gadget, think about this behind-the-screens look, and imagine what's to come - as even what I've mentioned above is fast becoming obsolete.

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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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