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Tech Transitions Part 3: Fixed to Mobile Computing

February 19, 2015

This is the third in a series of posts about my progression through technology transitions, with comparisons to broader trends across the country.This one tackles the transition from fixed to mobile computing. Earlier posts dealt with the transition from scheduled broadcast to on-demand media and the transition from analog to digital.

BIG IRON

The IBM System/360 Mainframe from the 1960s

The IBM System/360 Mainframe from the 1960s

The cabinet-sized and larger mainframe computers of yesteryear earned their nickname of Big Iron. They never moved and were often tended by a priesthood of COBOL programmers. The behemoths began to shrink in the 1970s with the advent of the mini-computer, but into the late 1980s I was interacting with various University of Oklahoma’s mainframes through dumb terminals, seldom actually seeing the hulking units behind the scenes. I worked at Scholars Programs and remember when the boss switched from a dBase III database stored on a personal computer to one on a university mainframe. The mainframe could easily handle large data sets, but it was inflexible in its programming and input and output design. There was the advantage of being able to access the database from multiple terminals, but that advantage disappeared as personal computer networks arose.

The personal computer revolution had begun in the 1970s, and they were far more mobile; sometimes I would haul around what came to be called desktop systems. And It didn’t take long for laptop computers to appear, although I didn’t own one for almost 20 years after my first desktop system. We still have BIG IRON these days, but more in the form of server farms operating cloud services accessed by a variety of desktop, laptop, smart phones, and tablets.

I went mobile 30 years ago, but not with a laptop

1984/1988: Tandy PC-5 & PC-6

1984/1988: Tandy PC-5 & PC-6

I used my first desktop computer in 1978, and six years later I bought my first mobile computer for $120 ($275 in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation). It wasn’t a laptop, but instead a souped-up calculator: the Tandy Pocket Scientific Computer PC-5, programmable in BASIC, sold by Radio Shack and a clone of a Casio machine. It only had a single-line text display, but you could program in complex computations and even some primitive games.

The TI-86

The TI-86

I used that calculator and a successor model until 1998, when I replaced them with TI-86 graphing calculators, which also had a version of BASIC. Over the years I’ve worn out three different TI-86 units and have stuck with them, despite their age, because I can’t transfer their BASIC code to newer models. I use them to do the complex calculations on student labs when I am grading, and am grateful for their portability. I have bought some newer models, but I keep going back to the old 86. In fact, as I edit this post, I just finished coding some simple BASIC code on a TI-86 I bought on eBay, since my copy of one old lab program wouldn’t migrate off a failing unit. The TI-86 is dead! Long live the TI-86!

Laptop computers

I didn’t purchase a laptop computer until 1997, finally lured into paying for the luxury of a fully capable computer when on the road and at work. A laptop computer was a requirement in my master’s degree program in 1999, and I was grateful I had already invested in that first laptop ($1,900 in 2014 dollars).

Technology always races ahead. The table below shows the progression of the various laptop machines I have purchased for myself:

Year Computer Cost Then (and in 2014 dollars) Weight RAM Storage
1997 Toshiba Satellite Pro 430CDT $1,300 ($1,900) 7.4 lb 48 MB 1.26 GB
2005 Averatec 3270-EE1 $950 ($1,150) 4.5 lb 512 MB 60 GB
2008 Asus Eee PC 1000H $464 ($510) 3.2 lb 1 GB 160 GB
2010 Apple MacBook Air $1,420 ($1,530) 2.4 lb 4 GB 128 GB

Notice the continual decline in weight and increase in RAM. Storage capacity dipped a bit at the end, but I was switching from hard drives to my first solid state drive, with a performance and price premium. My use of laptop computers actually peaked in the early 2000s because my main machine at school was a laptop computer for some time, although I almost never moved it, and my use of truly mobile laptops peaked in the late 2000s, when I was making frequent solo hiking trips and would use the laptop to process photos and post to this blog. The biggest project I ever burdened a laptop with was in the early 2010s, when I edited a bunch of video on my Apple MacBook Air to help a colleague craft a state Teacher of the Year video from multiple interviews. I was amazed at how capable the tiny computer truly was, even with a more limited processor, because of its tremendously fast solid state storage.

Smart phones

A smart phone is a leap downward in size and weight from a laptop, and I remember the excitement eight years ago, in January 2007, as I watched Steve Jobs’ justifiably famous keynote where he said Apple would be introducing a widescreen MP3 player with touch controls, a mobile phone, and an internet communications device, repeating that again and again until the realization dawned that those were all aspects of a single computing device: the iPhone.

I had owned limited-function cell phones for some time, and waited until the second generation of iPhones to buy one in the summer of 2008. I’ve bought a new iPhone every two years since then:

Year iPhone Model Screen Size (diagonal inches) Storage
2008 3G 3.5″ 16 GB
2010 4G 3.5″ 32 GB
2012 5 4 64 GB
2014 6 4.7″ 128 GB

Here we see increasing storage size as well over time, but unlike my shrinking laptops, my iPhones keep getting larger screens, for which I’m grateful since that helps with my presbyopia.

Apple, of course, didn’t make the first smart phone. But its breakthrough interface and design, followed later by Google’s Android phones, helped spur a huge rise in smart phone sales. Note in the chart below how desktop sales flattened as folks adopted laptops (notebooks) and then smart phones:

Computing device sales, 1995-2010

Computing device sales, 1995-2010

The use of smart phones continued to grow until they dominated other cell phones types by 2013:

Smart phones now dominate over other cell phone types

Smart phones now dominate over other cell phone types

I’m in good company in my preference for Apple’s iPhone, and its market penetration is remarkable. Consider that only a few models of iPhone rank right up there with countless models of Android phones:

Smart phone operating systems

Smart phone operating systems

And though we see the typical generational differences in smart phone use, notice how all age groups are rapidly adopting them:

Smart phone ownership by age group

Smart phone ownership by age group

Tablets

But these days my most frequent mobile computer use might well be my iPad tablet computer. After my first iPhones, I was increasingly interested in a large-screen version of a similar device. But the devices on sale were too limited and I longed for Apple to step into that market. When they finally did that in 2010, I immediately sold off a bunch of old media to get the funds to buy the first version of the iPad. I later bought an iPad 2, then a 3rd generation iPad, and now use that 3rd generation model at school while at home I use an iPad Air 2. Over the generations, the screen size has remained stable at 9.7 inches, with me eschewing the iPad Mini’s 7.9 inch screen when that series of tablets launched in 2012.

Tablet computers have taken the public by storm; in only three years the percentage of U.S. adults who owned a tablet computer shot up from 3% to 34%:

Tablet Ownership

Tablet Ownership

Worldwide, smart phone adoption is still surging ahead, while the more expensive tablets are unstandably less popular but still growing at an admirable pace, while the traditional personal computers, a category lumping together desktops and laptops, is in decline:

Computing device sales in the early 2010s

Computing device sales in the early 2010s

vector.jpg

My desktop computer is 5 years old and still going strong

The very nature of mobile computing, with greater device wear and tear, means I replace my mobile devices more frequently than my desktop or laptop. At this writing, I’ve owned my latest tablet for about a month, and while my phone is only 6 months old, my MacBook Air laptop is over four years old, and my Windows desktop is over five years old. In fact, while I’ve owned my current desktop I’ve bought four generations of tablet computers and three generations of smart phones. And my desktop computer, enhanced with a huge solid state disk and after a power supply repair, is still going strong and shows no need for replacement.

Due to the nature of my work and my photography and website development hobbies, I will need both desktop and laptop computers for the foreseeable future, but I can see why some people can make do with just an iPad or even just a smart phone. I’m more skeptical, however, or wearable computers such as the “smart watches” now appearing on the scene. First there was the Pebble, then various Android Wear devices, and next month we can expect the Apple Watch to go on sale. I don’t have sufficient income to justify buying a smart watch that will be obsolete in a couple of years; I already spend quite enough on regular replacements of my iPhone, iPad, and Kindle devices. But it will be interesting to see people putting the new smart watches to use. Back in 2004, a student’s iPod convinced me to purchase one, and I never regretted that decision. We shall see if and when I succumb to replacing my trusty old Timex with something smarter.

The final in this irregularly scheduled series on technology transitions will address the transition from local storage to the cloud.

< Tech Transitions, Part 2: Scheduled Broadcast to On-Demand Media

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2015 in technology

 

Tenkiller Trail Trials

February 7, 2015

The first Saturday in early February 2015 was a warm day with a high around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That convinced Wendy and me to make a 270 mile daytrip to Tenkiller Ferry Lake to hike a couple of short trails on its northern and southern ends. I first visited Lake Tenkiller in quest of hiking trails back in May 2010, only to be rebuffed by the overgrown Gum Springs trail at the eponymous state park and disappointed by the paved trail through the park. Wendy and I visited the area in early November, driving along the northeastern shore of the lake as part of a Tahlequah daytrip, and promised ourselves to return later to hike three short trails scattered along the lake shore. We’d hit two of those three trails on this outing, eager for new trails neither of us had ever hiked.

Tenkiller Trip (click map for slideshow)

We left Bartlesville around 10 a.m. and stopped 55 miles down the road at the Full Moon Cafe in Broken Arrow for lunch. The food was fine, but the waitress was fairly hopeless. She did offer to compensate with a free dessert, but we passed, not needing an unnecessary dessert to weigh us down on uncertain trails. Another 70 miles of driving took us southeastward down the all-too-familiar but thankfully speedy Muskogee turnpike and across to Lake Tenkiller, passing the enormous Greenleaf Nursery as we wound our way around to the Standing Rock area on the lake’s northeast shore.

Remnant of the Standing Rock Nature Trail

Lake nature trails in Oklahoma are often poorly maintained, and Tenkiller is no exception. A 1988 article claims:

Spectacular stone formations, huge boulders and frequent glimpses of the lake can be seen along the 1 1/4-miles Standing Rock Nature Trail. This path is made up of two loops, each with two segments: Big Pine and Three Sisters on the first loop, and Big Cedar and Hi-Knob on the second.

And the Tulsa Audubon Society mentions the Standing Rock Nature Trail trail in its entry on Lake Tenkiller. But Wendy and I found no signs or marked parking areas or trailheads, only a wide spot off the road at its intersection with Whippoorwill, where a freshly bulldozed utility right-of-way led due west down to the lake shore. I found a dim trail leading directly southwest, which was sufficient for us to lace up our boots and head out. We’d only find a trace of the promised trails.

Standing Rock area tracks

Wendy find a geocache

The trail soon led by several large boulders projecting out of the soil; I don’t know if they are the eponymous standing rocks or not. The dim trail led onward, with a view of the lake through the trees, until the trail began a very steep descent to the water. As we carefully made our way down, sharp-eyed Wendy spotted a plastic box tucked under a ledge. It was a geocache; I last stumbled onto one years ago. This one was in good shape, with a notebook to log our visit and various tchotchkes. I deposited a gold dollar, while Wendy donated a little packet of fizzy rocks candy and a DumDum sucker. This cache has been in place since 2007, although its notebook log only had a few entries from recent years. We returned the cache to the ledge and I camouflaged it with some stones and pieces of bark.

Treacherous bluff

It was treacherous making our way down the eroded bluff to the shoreline, and I slid partway and Wendy skinned up one hand on an unexpected slide. As we were bandaging her hand, the wind blew off my hat, flipping it into the water of a small cove. I had to immerse my boots and lower legs to wade out and retrieve my trusty Tilley, so I spent the rest of the day squishing around in my boots.

Fossil imprints

Some fishermen were nearby, drifting along the shore, with a couple of powerboats out on the lake. The rock we were treading on had thick cracking layers we could pry apart with our bare hands. We carefully made our way upslope, and I bushwhacked about, hoping to find another segment of trail, but nothing turned up. Meanwhile, Wendy was finding rocks with embedded crystals and fossil imprints. Bushwhacking turned up no more trail segments as we made our way back to the car.

End of the trail

Curious, we then followed the bulldozed pathway leading due west down to the shore, discovering that it was an AT&T fiber optic cable right-of-way. Two fiber optic lines emerged from the soil and headed down into the lake. The fishermen who had been near us before at the end of the old trail were making their way along the shore. We climbed back up to the car and headed off for another trail. A map from 1982 shows a small nature trail loop a bit east of our initial hike, so maybe some more trail remnants are there, leading down to the end of the cove where my hat went for a float, and I wonder if a loop once climbed the knob hill southeast of where we hiked. When we return to Tenkiller for the Buzzard Roost trail we might poke around this area some more.

Overlook/Island View Nature Trail

Looking at the hours of daylight left, we saved the Buzzard Roost trail at Cato Creek for a return trip. We drove almost 20 miles down the eastern shore of the lake to cross the dam and park our car at the nearby Overlook Park. A trail there is often called the Overlook Trail, but it is marked at the trailhead as the Island View Nature Trail. It was promised to lead along the lake shore northwest to the United Methodist Boys Ranch, a group home for foster children. The Corps website says that a second leg of the trail is under construction toward the Strayhorn Landing campground, but we found that to be out of date.

Overlook/Island View trail track

Bluff

From the overlook we could glimpse the dam and a couple of islands. We found the trailhead and soon passed a bluff, but it offered a limited view of the lake below. Occasionally along the trail we could see through the winter-bared trees the lake and its islands, but the views would be largely blocked in summer.

Maintained trail

After the earlier hike along an abandoned trail, it was nice to be on a maintained trail which had decent stream crossings, including wooden bridges that show signs of both wear and maintenance. One longer bridge even had hand rails with recent repairs; the Student Conservation Association did some great maintenance on this section of trail back in 2012.

We eventually reached a fork; the right branch looked less travelled, and we took it first. Soon we reached a failed bridge, where Wendy was a damsel in distress, and I pretended I was Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, breaking the bridge at Khazad-Dum.

Damsel in distress

The trail on the other side of the bridge was much fainter, but could still be made out by its linear depression and occasional rock curbs. We passed flotsam deposited by high waters, and the trail eventually petered out where it approached a private home with its own tennis and basketball courts, with a large boat anchored nearby. We saw some large moss-covered rocks along the bluff and a large vine which had once coiled around a now-destroyed tree. Its coils resembled a snake gorging on a meal. Sharp-eyed Wendy found a rock with a heart-shaped hole.

Mossy rocks

We returned to the fork and followed the maintained trail up to the Boys Ranch trailhead. Wendy readily admits she has a poor sense of direction and was crestfallen when we reached the parking area and she realized it was the far end of the trail, not the trailhead where we had parked. We hiked under four miles this day, but steep elevation changes, faint trails, and some bushwhacking took their toll. We were both glad when we returned to the car; the winter weather has prevented us from hiking as much as we would like and our endurance has eroded.

We drove back to Tulsa for dinner at Chopsticks and then returned to Bartlesville. Tenkiller continues the pattern seen across Oklahoma, where lakeside trails vary considerably in their maintenance and a good fraction are abandoned. Arkansas has far more great trails, but few novel ones are left within daytrip range, and both Wendy and I face workloads which make overnight travel something limited to longer breaks. We both look forward to returning to Missouri and Arkansas for part of Spring Break; meanwhile we’ll enjoy familiar trails and the occasional novelty within daytrip range.

Click here for a slideshow from this daytrip

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in day hike, photos, travel

 

Tech Transitions Part 2: Scheduled Broadcast to on-Demand Media

February 6, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts about my progression through technology transitions, with comparisons to broader trends across the country.This one tackles the transition from broadcast to on-demand media. Here’s the earlier post on the transition from analog to digital.

Cutting Cable TV

Tools to Cut Cable TV

Tools I use to cut cable TV

I gave up on cable television back in 2008 and now stream most video on-demand, catching only snippets of news and the occasional PBS show in broadcast HDTV via my chimney-mounted antenna. Folks are catching up, with video on-demand streaming growing over 49% in 2014, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

Most of the streaming video I watch consists of technology podcasts and NPR audio, plus the occasional movie I’ll rent for Wendy and me. I used Netflix DVDs and Blu-Rays for years, and still have a one-disc-at-a-time account with them so I can get movies not available for streaming and enjoy Blu-Rays which have commentaries and other features the streaming services still omit. I have used Netflix’s streaming service some, but limited selection and hiccups back when I had a slower connection (buffering…) led me to prefer pre-downloading movies from Amazon onto my venerable Tivo HD.

My old Tivo HD

My old Tivo HD

That old Tivo is starting to show its age; it now crashes every week or so, forcing me to pull and re-insert the power plug and wait a long time for it to reboot to get it to work. I have a very large hard drive attached to it to boost its storage capacity, and when I have some time I might tease out the right cables from the tangle behind the console and yank that drive off there to see if that helps. I seldom watch recorded shows anymore, so I won’t mind the loss of capacity. When the Tivo finally dies, I doubt I will replace it. If I watched television regularly, however, I’d be happy that my cable service has gone to Tivo set-up boxes with their ability to easily record, pause, and fast-forward.

Amazon's Fire TV Stick from late 2014

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick from late 2014

The aging Tivo and a balky old Apple TV led me to purchase an Amazon Fire TV Stick (normally $39, but I did a pre-order special for $19). I’ve had a Google Chromecast stick for some time, but I threw it in my travel bag, thinking I might use it on the road. Hotel internet portals made that too difficult, and I haven’t used the Chromecast more than a couple of times. I should get it out and try to use it more, comparing its performance to the Amazon stick. Amazon’s stick is quite responsive and has been streaming movies without a hitch; it also has apps to let me listen to the music I’ve bought from Amazon, watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, and more. The Chromecast can likely do similar things and would support whatever music I have from Google Play, but I keep and manage all of my music in iTunes. I’ve bought quite a bit of music from Amazon over the years, set to auto-import into iTunes, so having access to those songs on the Amazon Fire stick is nice.

My Apple TVs

My Apple TVs

As for the balky Apple TV, longtime readers may recall that I bought an original Apple TV back in 2007 and have been using a 2nd-generation unit since 2011. I still use it to sling video from my iPad or iPhone to the TV via the AirPlay service, and I sometime shuffle music off my desktop computer’s iTunes music library, but anymore I watch most podcasts on the iPad, and the Apple TV interface is dated and slow compared to the Amazon one. Far worse, for several months my Apple TV has begun rebooting after I start playing something. It works fine after the reboot until another session on another day, but it is a real pain to start playing something, have the unit crash and reboot, and then have to re-select what I was playing. It wasn’t worthwhile to upgrade to their 3rd-generation 2012 unit, and Apple is long overdue for an update to this product, presumably with a new interface and more support for games and apps. I’m not sure I’ll upgrade, especially if I can figure out an easy and cheap way to access my computer’s iTunes library via my Fire TV Stick or the Chromecast. I don’t want to export my huge music library to Amazon and then pay $25/year for their cloud music service for access via the Fire TV Stick since I already pay $25/year for Apple’s iTunes Match. I presume Google has a similar plan, but I’d prefer just to stream files over my home network than the internet. I may read up on on the features of the latest Roku, which is still the most popular streaming video and apps unit in the U.S., as shown below.

U.S. Market Shares for Streaming Media Devices

U.S. Market Shares for Streaming Media Devices

Still purchasing, not streaming, my audio

I’ve been buying MP3 files for years, and completely transitioned to the format back in 2010, selling over 350 CDs after making sure all of them were ripped into MP3s in my iTunes library. MP3 killed the CD, and now streaming audio is eating into MP3 sales. Comparing 2013 to 2014, album sales were down almost 15% for CDs, but after years of growth, digital album sales dropped over 9%, and digital track sales dipped about 13%. Vinyl albums actually surged 52%, but comprised less than 4% of album sales. On-demand audio streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are surging, with over 60% growth in 2014 from the prior year. Over 164 billion songs were streamed on-demand through audio and video platforms in the U.S. in 2014.

The chart below shows streaming audio services revenues as the brown-hued bases of each column, CD sales in red, vinyl that little greenish wedge in the middle, and MP3 album and single sales the purplish tops, capped off by Synchronization.

audiosales

Falling MP3 sales over the past two years worries artists, labels, and sellers like Apple, Google, and Amazon: the profit margin on CDs is larger than on MP3s and the profit margin on streaming audio is even less. The switch from MP3 purchases to streaming had led Apple to respond with iTunes Radio and by buying Beats for its streaming service. Meanwhile, streaming services like Spotify are booming, but not generating the desired profits.

I would certainly discover more new music if I used Pandora or tried Spotify or other streaming services, but that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to me when I can instead readily access my collection of over 13,800 digital audio file via iTunes on my iPhone 6, iPad Air 2, or the 2nd Generation Apple TV. My 2014 Camry makes playing MP3 files from my iPhone in the car relatively easy via its wireless Bluetooth connection and convenient controls on the steering wheel, although voice control with the car’s own system is hopeless and the phone’s Siri voice assistant is better but still too frustrating.

I have set up a Pandora account I’ve used a few times, and I’ve sampled iTunes Radio a couple of times. But when I’m planning at work I won’t use streaming services, since that is not a proper use of the school’s bandwidth or service, and my cellular data plan couldn’t afford it. At home I’m usually busy with other things and just set my music collection to random play; I’m so busy and focused that I am reluctant to use Pandora or Spotify or iTunes Radio, fearing that random unlikable songs mixed in with a few catchy new ones might be too distracting, rather than just a pleasing musical background for my work.

When I do somehow stumble onto a new song I like or someone recommends a tune, I am more likely to play it via YouTube or an iTunes sample and then, if I like it, purchase the MP3 from iTunes or Amazon. I’m just not into the radio-play model anymore, either broadcast or streaming. My new Camry came with a trial subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio with a plethora of channels, but it was like cable TV to me: too many choices to navigate and all pretty mediocre. So I seldom listened to it and did not explore its many stations much, allowing the subscription to expire at the end of the trial period. Sirius XM has hounded me ever since via email, snail mail, and, worst of all, annoying cell phone calls. I guess they got my number through the car dealer. Such jerks! I would never recommend them even if I liked their service. So in the end, I listen to NPR on the radio, not music stations, and I stream podcasts, not music, with my mobile devices.

What next?

When school work is less hectic, I’ll experiment more with the Google Chromecast to compare its capabilities and performance with my Amazon Fire TV stick. I find myself relying more upon Amazon for on-demand video than anything else, and I’ll still buy occasional Blu-Ray discs if the film is superb and the disc includes great commentaries and features like the wonderful Extended Editions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. As for music, I’m so deeply invested in Apple’s iTunes that I’m reluctant to bother with Amazon or Google’s competing services.

My next post in this irregularly scheduled series on technology transitions tackles the shift from fixed to mobile computing.

Tech Transitions Part 3: Fixed to Mobile Computing >

Tech Transitions Part 1: Analog to Digital

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in music, technology

 

Mr. Fix-It Covers the Gutters

January 31, 2015
The River Birch in front of Meador Manor

The River Birch in front of Meador Manor

I’ve been cleaning the old metal gutters on the eaves of Meador Manor for decades, clearing them regularly of the leaves, twigs, and catkins from the annoying River Birch tree the original owner planted in the front yard long ago. I say regularly, but it has never been regularly enough; often I’d notice water pouring over the gutter edges into the beds since the downspouts and gutters themselves were clogged.

The River Birch is the prime offender here; it continuously sheds long spindly twigs and larger branches, which often fall into the gutter and trap leaves. Its long catkins fall in too, get saturated and are a heavy, sloppy mess to remove after a rain. But if you wait too long, they disintegrate into thousands of little flakes that are perfect downspout cloggers.


My father now uses, at his house in Oklahoma City, the rolled polymer gutter guards you unwind and fit into the gutters to block leaves. That seems to work fine for him, but I never used it since I knew the River Birch catkins would just plop on top, dry out, and then the tiny flakes would work their way through the gaps down into the gutter.

So I was intrigued when I came across some Sweers Sheerflow Gutter Filters at Lowes. They are 3′ long and one edge slips under the shingles and the other is a continuous clip that slips over the front edge of the metal gutter to grip. The plastic guard has round holes in it, covered by a plastic screen to keep out even tiny debris. That sucker wouldn’t let the catkins through, I thought.

I was leery if they would fit my gutters, so I bought a handful and tried installing them over the gutter sections above the downspouts and at a front roof corner that funnels debris into the gutters. They installed fairly easily and were still doing fine a few weeks later. So I bought several dozen more and have installed them on all of the gutter sections.

I had to use snips to clip the plastic edges at the corners of the roof to clear some nails and the like, and to cut some of the 3′ sections to finish up each edge run since of course the gutter length on a run is never a perfect multiple of 3′.

It didn’t take very long to get it all installed and 2015 will be the test to see how well the system works. How well will heavy rains be able to filter through the screen? I’m confident the guard screens will block the leaves, twigs, and catkins, but will those darn catkins build up on top and clog the screens so that rainwater cannot get through? Will I still need to climb up and sweep or spray off catkins and the like from the tops? How quickly will the plastic deteriorate in the wide temperature range of our seasons and the merciless ultraviolet radiation of an Oklahoma summer?

It will be an interesting experiment, but I’m hopeful I’ll have to break out the ladder far less often, set it unsteadily in the soft beds and the like, and attempt to clear the gutters without breaking my neck. Some day I’ll replace that River Birch with something more suitable. The only trees left in my yard are the River Birch, the remains of an old Red Bud, and a nice always-green Cherry Laurel. I think I’d like to replace the River Birch with either a Chinese Pistache or Amur Maple, but I have a feeling it will be with me for years to come.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2015 in home repair

 

Beautiful Skies Above Elk City Lake

January 24, 2015

Wendy and I hiked 4.15 miles from the south end of the Table Mound Trail up at Elk City Lake in Kansas. The skies were gorgeous.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2015 in day hike, photos, travel

 

Tech Transitions Part 1: Analog to Digital

January 17, 2015

My experience is that my habits lag, sometimes considerably, behind the relentless improvements in technology in which I am immersed. As one of the the long-time experts in computer technology in my school district, I provide a great deal of support for teachers transitioning to new ways of doing business. Yet it is not surprising that younger generations who grow up with a new technology embrace it more quickly than those of us who already have built our lives around older models of productivity and entertainment. I am starting a series of posts to outline my progression through technology transitions, comparing that to general trends. This is the first of a projected four posts: analog to digital, broadcast to on-demand media, fixed to mobile computing, and local storage to cloud. Here I’ll look at my analog to digital transitions in video, audio, reading, and recordkeeping.

Video: VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray (and later the cloud)

Physical media for home video

Physical media for home video

I witnessed the videotape format war in analog home video back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sony’s Betamax eventually lost the battle with the inferior but more popular VHS videotape format: being better and first is no guarantee of success. I backed the winning side in that war, but only because by the time I could afford a player, Betamax was clearly the loser. (Almost 30 years later, Sony would win the high-definition optical disc format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD; I wasn’t so lucky in that conflict, investing first in a HD-DVD player and several discs, but then having to switch to Blu-ray.)

In the early 1980s, I was in high school and started college, and home video players were still too expensive for me to purchase. Instead, I would go to a video store and rent both the player and the movie. Since I had no credit yet, I’d have to put down a deposit of several hundred dollars for the player, but it seemed magical to be able to watch any of dozens of movies after growing up with only broadcast television and eventually cable TV.

I still use Kereluk's videotapes

I still use Kereluk’s videotapes

That history of renting the technology, plus the low quality of VHS recordings, meant that I seldom purchased analog videotapes. But, after I could afford a home player/recorder, I did record a few shows off broadcast and cable television. I still have a number of those tapes, and I still play an analog videotape most weekday mornings! In 1993 I began doing aerobics in the morning with Cynthia Kereluk’s Everyday Workout show, and over the next four years I filled up 13 tapes with extended-play recordings of it. I’ve been doing those 130+ workouts for over 20 years now, cycling through the tapes, hitting PLAY to work along with a tape each morning for another installment. I’m surprised all of the tapes have lasted this long, and Wendy, my sweet girlfriend, painstakingly converted all of them into digital movies for me so that I could have them even after the tapes wear out.

Now, why in the world don’t I give up on those decades-old tapes? Newer isn’t always more convenient. Having those shows on optical disc would require that I remember which episode I’d just completed, since my Blu-ray player will only remember where I left off on a disc under certain conditions. Watching them via my Apple TV or some other connection to my networked storage would require thumbing through episode listings to find the next recording. I don’t want to hassle with that when, with the old analog tape, I can always start right where I left off by just re-starting the 10-episode tape; the only inconvenience is having to rewind the tape after 10 shows and switch to the next tape on the shelf.

Video format changes from 1998 to 2008

Video format changes from 1998 to 2008

The above graph shows how the transition from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray went in the 2000s. The lower bar chart shows how video-on-demand, both downloaded and streaming, has skyrocketed in the 2010s, but it generates less revenue for the industry than physical media. Analog video is now completely dead as a revenue source, but physical media still provide the bulk of the U.S. home entertainment industry’s revenue in our country. I’ll analyze this issue in more detail in my next post in this series, the one on broadcast vs. on-demand technologies. On the home front, I still buy or rent some Blu-ray discs to access director commentaries and special features, but many of the movies Wendy and I watch are downloaded or streamed.

Home Video Revenue, 2006 to 2013

Home Video Revenue, 2006 to 2013

 

Audio: Vinyl and tape to MP3 (and later streaming)

Analog and digital audio media

Analog and digital audio media I once used

In junior high and high school I amassed a collection analog audio recordings, with dozens of 45 rpm singles and 33 1/3 LPs on vinyl. I even had a few awful 8-track tapes (shudder). Then digital compact discs came along. My transition from analog to digital music dates back to the late 1980s, about 20 years ahead of my transition from analog to digital home video. I remember a Christmas party at my house back in the mid-1990s when students commented on my “large” CD collection of about 40 discs. That would eventually grow almost ten times larger, filling up wall cabinets in my living room. In my cars, digital also replaced analog. I once had some big cases in my cars, filled with cassette tapes, and made and shared mix tapes with girlfriends. However, I never used a portable cassette player much.

All of that changed ten years ago when I bought my first iPod for $500. It was an amazing device, allowing me to quickly access any of a thousand songs, anywhere. One of the happiest moments of my life was a hike on a glacier on Mt. Rainier in Washington State, skipping along to Hanson’s bouncy and infectious MMMBop from 1997. That 2004 iPod was quickly succeeded by iPod Nanos in 2005 and 2007, and then a biennial series of iPhones beginning in 2008.

The iPod led me to eventually abandon CDs for the MP3 digital file format. Ripping my CDs and buying MP3 led to a collection of almost 14,000 MP3 files in my iTunes library by the end of 2014, having finished my complete transition to the format back in 2010 when I sold off over 350 CDs to fund the purchase of my first iPad tablet.

Below we see how the rest of the country also shifted from analog to digital music before 2010, with plummeting revenues as CDs gave way to lower-paying downloaded MP3s.

Music revenue sources, 1973-2009

Music revenue sources, 1973-2009

Album sales also declined, with a tremendous rise in lower-revenue digital singles in the 2000s:

Albums give way to singles

Albums give way to singles

I’ll close this section with a summary of music revenue over the past three decades, where we see the industry still heavily reliant on CD sales, even at this late stage, with digital downloads comprising the biggest portion of revenue. But, as I’ll show in more detail in a later post, digital downloads declined for the first time in 2014 as on-demand streaming continued to grow. Vinyl record sales have surged in recent years, thanks to hipsters, but they are the smallest fraction of total revenue.

Music revenue, 1973-2013

Music revenue, 1973-2013

 

Reading: Magazines, Newspapers, and Books to Internet Tablet and e-Reader

I have always been an avid reader. Back in 2010 I also sold off about 1/5 of my roughly 1,000 books, but I still have two-dozen shelves of previously-read books in my home office, with two more shelves of books I’ve purchased but not managed to read. And that is just my remaining analog collection. I bought the first Amazon Kindle e-Reader back in 2008 and have purchased and enjoyed four more of the electronic-ink units since then, and am currently paying off my latest Kindle Voyage. I have bought over 250 electronic books for my Kindles since 2008.

My early Kindles generated more comment when I was out and about than any device I’ve ever owned. Tablets like the iPad have somewhat more market penetration than e-readers, but electronic ink is still easier on your eyes for long-term reading, and much more readable outdoors. Sales of electronic books are projected to keep rising, but print books will still be dominant for years to come.

The dominance of print books continues in our own school. As we prepare to finally adopt new science textbooks in Oklahoma after a disgraceful nine-year wait, I wish our district could transition to electronic textbooks, but we lack the funding to supply each student with a device. I certainly look forward to the day when backpacks and sling bags loaded down with heavy textbooks are a thing of the past, especially since I use textbooks only sparingly in my own teaching.

Book revenues by format

Book revenues by format

I'm reading far fewer books these days

I’m reading far fewer books these days

Since 2008 I’ve read over 250 Kindle books and uncounted additional print ones, and from 2009 to 2012 I listened to dozens of audiobooks on my day hikes. But in the past three years, my personal book reading has fallen off sharply while my audiobook listening has stopped completely. Part of that is my increasing use of a tablet to read online articles along with my decision to subscribe (and later this year, probably unsubscribe) to the print edition of The New Yorker magazine. A heavy workload has also taken away much of my evening leisure time this school year. But the biggest reason for the decline in my book reading in the past few years, and also why I’ve stopped listening to audiobooks, is the welcome change of dating Wendy. On the weekends, we spend a lot of time together at home and out on the road, so I don’t need audiobooks to keep me entertained when I travel, and naturally I’d rather spend my limited leisure time with Wendy than with my Kindle.

Most of my reading these days is news via my iPad, with a morning ritual of reading the Tulsa World along with top stories from USA Today and Bartlesville Radio. I should read the local Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise in the same way, but haven’t made that transition from analog to digital yet, and I’m paying for it. As my reading habits have shifted to virtual and digital media, stacks of unread newspapers have repeatedly built up in my dining room. I’ve tried to switch to digital-only on the E-E, but was told I had to make a phone call to an out-of-town service to make a complete switchover. Having to do that via a voice call seems rather ironic and calls into question the sophistication of their digital provider, but I need to get that done before I drown in newsprint. I like the local news the paper affords me…but what do I call it when it is no longer on paper? Hmmmm…

I'm down to two print magazines

I’m down to two print magazines

As for printed media other than books, I read two weekly print magazines: Time and The New Yorker. I’ve subscribed to Time for almost 30 years, while I’ve only taken The New Yorker for a few years. Too many editions of the latter pile up, unread, despite my love for their higher-level long-form articles. So I’ll probably let that subscription lapse, hoping to spend more time with books.

Recordkeeping: Checkbooks to Spreadsheets, Paper Bills to Online, and Analog vs. Digital Gradebooks

Analog vs. digital checkbook registers

Analog vs. digital checkbook registers

I’ve kept an Excel spreadsheet of my monthly household finances for 30 years, tracking all of my bills, spending, and income. But, out of habit, I have always kept paper checking and savings account registers to help me manage my budget. I did start using my bank’s iPhone app last year, and that lets me review transactions and conduct transfers more quickly than through their website, and now I can even deposit checks by taking a photograph of them with the phone. For 2015 I’m going to try making a complete switch to digital bookkeeping by using an online spreadsheet to track my checking account. Up until now, the paper registers were more convenient since they were always handy, not requiring me to sit down at my desktop computer and fire up an Excel spreadsheet. But now I can use Google Drive or Excel on mobile devices. Since I have a personal Microsoft Office 365 subscription which lets me use Office on up to five computers, five tablets, and five phones, I’ve finally switched to using an Excel spreadsheet for my account registers.

The ecological argument for paperless billing

The ecological argument for paperless billing

I’ve had direct deposit for years, and some time ago our district finally stopped issuing paper checks and paystubs in a cost-cutting move. My own cost-cutting move was to switch to electronic bank statements since the bank started charging for paper ones. That has worked out okay, so as part of my accounting modernization, I’ve also finally given up on paper utility bills. That’s a huge change for me, since I really didn’t care about the ecological cost of paper billing, and I haven’t seen any companies passing the savings from paperless billing directly to participating customers. My bank, you’ll notice, used a stick, instead of a carrot, to get me to switch. Up until last year, I had a copy of every utility bill I’d ever received, a pointless collection of paper that I finally culled, prompted in part by the derision of my more modern girlfriend. Now I’ve signed up for paperless billing for almost all of my utilities, which should be fine since I’ve had everything on automatic payment plans for decade. The only holdout is the city, since I couldn’t find online a way to switch to paperless billing with them, even though my payments to them are already automated.

Again, Wendy’s all-digital bookkeeping helped prompt my move, although I’ve refused to give up the paper credit card bill nor paying that bill via old-fashioned checks. Keeping my card fully paid off is a point of pride for me, and I need to see how well I do at keeping up with paperless utility billing before I consider any changes on the credit card, which is not set up for automatic payments. Looks like about 1/4 of bills and statements nationwide are now paperless:

Paperless billing trend nationwide

Paperless billing trend nationwide

Why are bills and account registers some of the last things I’ve switched to digital formats? First, because an oversight or mistake can have costly consequences, I’ve been reluctant to alter tried-and-true habits. Second, because the digital formats were slightly less convenient. Paper bills have been physical reminders to keep up with my accounts, and the paper register was instantly accessible and editable, even though it required use of an old desktop calculator. Hopefully emailed reminders and the accessibility of spreadsheets on mobile devices, with instant retention of changes to the cloud and automated calculations, will make the switch worthwhile. I would hope the utilities would just email me a statement as an attachment, but more likely I’ll have to login to each service and click things to see the statements, which will a pain. The username/password system used across services is a dumb model which we desperately need to update with biometrics and other simplifying measures.

My analog vs. digital gradebooks

My analog vs. digital gradebooks

On the work front, I link to online digital versions of all of my assignments for students who lose a paper, but I still hand out and grade only paper copies of assignments. That won’t change until our school eventually provides students with computing devices.

I’m also still very analog when it comes to classroom record-keeping. I’m no Luddite on this issue: I like the feedback our online gradebook provides to students and parents, and I do take full advantage of its flags, comments, assignment links, reports, and so forth. Few of my fellow teachers have all of their assignments digitized with links already set up in a digital library in the gradebook; I create the district’s user manual for online gradebook, have provided trainings on its use, and gradebook questions in the district are often routed to me. So colleagues are shocked when I reveal that I still keep a paper gradebook. Why in the world would I do that?

I maintain a paper gradebook for three reasons. First, I am a stickler for tracking attendance and tardies, and the PowerTeacher program at school isn’t designed to help me keep close track of that at a glance during my hectic class time. Second, I hate scrolling up and down or mousing about in a digital gradebook to put in grades. So after I grade a set of papers, which I sort by the seating chart since lab groups sit together in my room, I manually write the grades into my paper gradebook. That lets me quickly type them into PowerTeacher using a numerical keypad. Finally, I like having an analog copy of the gradebook so that I never have to print nor save a digital copy of the gradebook in case of a database disaster or data breach; I always have that analog copy on hand just in case.

A Bonus Entry – Photography: Film to Files

I gave up on film photography back in 2000, as detailed in my All My Cameras history.

Assessing My Analog-to-Digital Transition

Video: Still playing daily workouts in analog format, but otherwise fully digital for many years; currently a mix of physical media, digital files, and streaming services

Audio: Completely digital by 1994; no physical media as of 2010

Reading: Printed books still preferable for some visuals, but whenever feasible I prefer a Kindle e-book; most of my reading is digital format on an e-reader, tablet, phone, or computer and soon I’ll be down to only one printed magazine and no printed newspapers

Recordkeeping: 2015 is my transition to almost entirely digital and online accounting, but classwork is still analog and I use both analog and digital grading records

Photography: Entirely digital since 2000

Will all of these areas go completely digital? Even highly visual printed books may eventually give way to high-resolution mobile screens. In my next post in this series I tackle another technology transition: broadcast to on-demand media.

Tech Transitions Part 2: Scheduled Broadcast to On-Demand Media >

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2015 in books, education, music, technology, video

 

Twixtmas in Kansas City

Late December 2014

Wendy and I decided to spend some of the time between Christmas and New Year’s, a period which I shall term Twixtmas, in Kansas City, MO. This shorter trip 200 miles north was a deliberate contrast to our longer vacation the prior Winter Break, when we drove 575 miles south to San Antonio, TX. Rather than fleeing it, we would allow winter to embrace us in its grip. It made our time together in the Paris of the Plains all the cozier. The map below provides the locations of the Kansas City attractions we visited, and you can click here for a slideshow of our trip.

Osage Hills

A couple of days before we embarked, we hiked 3.5 miles at Osage Hills, knowing that we’d soon be walking cold urban sidewalks. It was relatively warm and sunny on the bluff above Sand Creek. The Creek Loop was mushy, and Sand Creek was running well from recent rains.

Wendy at Osage Hills (click image for slideshow)

Union Station

Union Station

The day after Christmas we headed north out of Bartlesville, stopping at the Copan Truck Stop for a huge and delicious cinnamon roll, slathered in thick icing. We arrived at Kansas City’s Union Station in time for lunch at Harvey’s. The immense Grand Hall and North Waiting Room were decked out for Christmas. At one end was a lovely, huge Christmas Tree, with more trees and nutcracker guards up high. Holiday lighting at the entrance and along the length of the North Waiting Room invited one to walk its length to arrive at a nice display at the entrance to the Model Railroad Experience.

North Waiting Hall at Union Station

Crown Center

Wendy and Maxine (and Floyd)

We took the The Link, the enclosed elevated walkways, over to Crown Center, enjoying the view of the downtown skyscrapers. We toured the Hallmark Visitor Center, where Wendy posed with crabby old Maxine and her dog Floyd. Then we walked over to the lobby of the former Hyatt hotel, the site of the infamous skybridge collapse I analyze in my Failure By Design lesson.

Country Club Plaza

Our own hotel for this stay was a few miles to the south at Country Club Plaza. I eschewed the Best Western Seville Plaza, where I’ve previously stayed, for fancier top-floor accommodations at the well-located Courtyard by Marriott, which is housed in the 1925 building which was once the Park Lane Apartments. I am always glad when an old building is successfully renovated for continued use, and judged this renovation as a great success.

Feasting at Buca di Beppo

During the trip Wendy and I enjoyed dining at Buca di Beppo and other Plaza restaurants, although I regretted not planning ahead so that we could finally have dinner out with a gracious former student living in the KC area who has repeatedly offered her and her husband’s hospitality during my infrequent visits to the area. Wendy loves KC, so hopefully we can finally connect on a future trip.

The Plaza was outlined in lights at night, although it was not nearly as impressive as the Christmas lights we saw earlier in the break in OKC.

Art Museums

Synthesis by Tom Price

We walked over to the Nelson Atkins Museum, my favorite KC destination, which was also decorated for Christmas. Wendy liked Wayne Thiebaud‘s Apartment Hill, and I thought that the Synthesis resin columns by Tom Price looked like something out of Star Trek. We quested through the museum for truly small treasures: a few items from the city’s Toy & Miniature Museum deposited in various rooms while the museum undergoes renovation. Then we enjoyed a chocolate cupcake in the museum’s Rozzelle Court before venturing upstairs where we found an interactive create-your-own-Rodin-sculpture kiosk. Both my effort, Despair, and Wendy’s creation, Strengthmake me question what was in that cupcake.

The bright sky beckoned us back outdoors, where teepees set up on the grounds contrasted with the stately nearby residences. Along our walk back to the Plaza, we discovered, on the grounds of the Kansas City Art Institute, the life-size statue of Thomas Hart Benton sculpted by Charles Banks Wilson and Nick Calcagno in 1989.

No that is NOT Thomas Hart Benton; Crying Giant shows how I feel about the Kemper

On another day we walked over to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which inevitably disappoints me. Crying Giant by Tom Otterness reflected my view of most of the works on display, while Wendy is more accepting of contemporary art and enjoyed June Ahrens’ Used and Worn display of used soap and other materials. She also got a kick out of Elizabeth Layton’s I am LovedIn it, Grandma Layton (she didn’t begin drawing until she was 68) depicted an elderly woman holding her wedding dress up to her body.

Myself, I am a great admirer of Wendy’s own creations. Just before we left for Kansas City, she completed her third paper mosaic, depicting a bear hidden amongst autumn trees. It joins her earlier depiction of a winding snake and a thunderbird, all originally inspired by the tile work we saw this summer at Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre.

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Downtown

My Treasure in the vault

We ventured downtown to tour the public library housed in a renovated bank building, including the big vault turned into a film room and a small vault Wendy had fun posing inside. Out of one window we spied two pigeons huddled together atop a stone eagle. Wendy and I agreed that snuggling was the best remedy for the cold weather.

We also drove to the very northern end of Main Street to walk the Town of Kansas Bridge which leads out over railroad tracks to a platform above the south bank of the Missouri River. A train passed under us as we walked toward the river’s edge, where stairs led to the Riverfront Heritage Trail. Signage provided history on the early years of Kansas City and told of the task of taming the riverfront bluffs in the mid-1850s. I found the stark riverfront and industrial zone unwelcoming, but Wendy liked it, posing atop a giant round concrete platform adjacent to the trail.

I wanted to drive along Cliff Drive northeast of downtown, but it was at least temporarily closed to vehicular traffic, and the surrounding area was too sketchy for me to feel comfortable with a long walk along it. A petition seeks to close the drive to vehicles permanently; I don’t live there, so I only have the out-of-towner perspective that I’d rather drive it than walk it. A beautiful sunset compensated for the inaccessibility of the planned cliffside drive.

Sunset behind downtown Kansas City

Wendy and I also visited The Scout statue overlook of downtown after dark to see the lights and the red glowing flame effect atop the tower at Liberty Memorial. The cold and the lack of a tripod prevented me from getting a sharp panorama, so we drove over to Liberty Memorial for a closer look at the tower and its top as well as nice views of Union Station and the old Western Auto sign. I was able to steady myself there for a sharper panorama of downtown Kansas City.

Union Station from Liberty Memorial

Heading Home with a stop in the 1950s

On our way back home, we stopped at the Johnson County Museum in Shawnee to tour their 1950s All-Electric House. The colors, fabrics, materials, and items of that era have been faithfully gathered together or reproduced in it. Some of the “modern features” were laughable, such as the switch to slide back a painting and reveal the black-and-white tube TV behind it, but some of the home automation features were quite similar to today’s Smart Home ideas. I think the real highlight of Shawnee for Wendy and me was their large Russell Stover store, where I stocked up on half-price milk-chocolate-coated marshmallow Santas.

Kansas City is always fun, and Wendy and I both look forward to returning there someday. Winter’s cold grip will probably keep us off the trails for awhile, but a wonderful New Year awaits.

Click here for a slideshow of this trip

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2014 in art, day hike, photos, travel, video

 
 
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