Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Practical Face of Robotics

Yesterday, my family went to Applebee's.  Applebee's is a solid member of the mid priced chain restaurant club also known as casual dining.  Lately, many members of this club have gone bankrupt, with 2011 being a banner year.   The last time I went to Clackamas Town Center, Chevy's, and Macaroni Grill had completely disappeared.  I would call these restaurants economic early warning indicators, like a canary in a coal mine.  Just like canaries, many of this type of restaurant are short-lived due to the trendy factor, or coping problems with competitive forces, but when many of them fail they represent symptoms of greater economic malaise.  The barriers for mid-priced chain restaurants' entry are lower than many types of businesses, being mainly creative decor, a menu differentiated from the competition, leased space, and used equipment.  Most of these restaurants seek to sell a theme and happy memories just as much as tasty food.  Other similar chains (in my mind, you may have other ideas...) are Red Robin, Buffalo Wild Wings, Stanford's, Old Chicago Pizza, McGrath's, Beaches, and many many others. 

The trip to Applebee's was eye-opening.  I tend to eat at this chain when on business because the food can be healthy and the home office accountants never quibble at the price.  Over the years, I've seen the introduction of the two meals for $20 menu, and lately the two meals for $25 additional menu.  The menu, similar to other chain players in this industry niche, generally have specials that are close to the same as items deeper within the menu.  However, the deeper menu items are always cheaper.   The fast sell must be effective.  Over the years, the portions have decreased.  The other night, I got a '7' oz sirloin that was the size of one and one half decks of cards.  With my meal, a member of the two meals for $25 club, I also received 15 pieces of potatoes, and a 1/4 cup of mixed sauteed mushrooms and onions.  I paid extra for the side Caesar Salad, which consisted of roughly a half cup of romaine lettuce, croutons, cheese and dressing served thinly on a 10 inch plate to make it look bigger.   The only item that reminded me of the old days was the appetizer; 8 mozzarella sticks.  The service was fantastic, and the atmosphere was sporty with plenty of happy people. 

I am picking on Applebee's because I was there recently.  I've seen similar techniques in operation at Stanford's, Red Robin, and others.  This type of restaurant is developing ways to survive in the face of radically increased food prices, increased labor prices, increased energy prices, a poorer consumer, and a political climate (due to Obamacare) that frowns on the calorie excesses of yesterday.  All in all, we had a pleasant visit and we will eat there again.  I feel strongly that the meal was better for our health than previously, and the number of calories in the meal didn't break the bank.  The shifts in the business are innovative trends that mean this chain and others who practice innovation will survive (Just as Joseph Schumpeter predicted), unlike those others who had to declare Chapter 7, 11, or 13 bankruptcy.  When I went to Applebee's, though, I didn't expect to see the stroke of brilliance I saw on every table. 

Every table had a 7"  Presto tablet mounted on a sturdy steel stand.  At this time, you couldn't order your main meal on the device, but you could order appetizers and desserts.  You could also play games for 99 cents.  The tablet had a card scanner on top.  I thought about the possibilities.

Robotics and automation in many forms will revolutionize how we live life.  I think the first development was the automat, first seen in the US in the 1900's.  This technique was competitive because the wait staff was not needed.  I see ordering on a tablet and then getting the food delivered to your table as an evolution in the concept, and for the restaurants using this system, a method to regain competitive ground lost to external factors.  Modern methods of automation would include the semi-automatic drink pourer in the McDonald's drive through.

I think the way Applebee's was introducing the tablet, as a method to order appetizers and desserts, was training their customers in how to use the tablet.  My first manager, Tony Barnas at McDonald's always said more than half our job was training the customer, and I've always found his words to be true.

In the future, I see this order method as the front end for more developments.  Once customers get used to ordering and paying in advance at a tablet on the table, this opens the door to other methods.  I envision a flow process that could begin with a hybrid like this:
1) Customers order and pay using the tablet.  The tablet uses suggestive selling to fill in menu holes and increase average check.
2) Staff delivers the food to the table, engage in chit chat
3) Staff encourages table turns and cleans after the party leaves

The hybrid process eliminates about a third or a half of the human staff because of no need for order takers.

But the hybrid process is only the beginning.  Adding in Robots can help reduce staffing levels even more.
1) Customers order and pay using the tablet
2) Robots in the kitchen prepare the food
3) Live staff delivers the food to the table (or potentially a robotic delivery method)
4) Party leaves and robots clean the table.

This next step would also eliminate kitchen staff.  Using robots and automation would address many of the increasing costs restaurants face.  Increased food prices would be addressed through better portion control from a robot.  Increased labor prices would be addressed through fewer human workers.  Increased energy prices would be addressed through less HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) in the kitchen, less lighting for robots, and more efficient operation.  A poorer consumer could be addressed by lowering prices while increasing the quality of the food due to savings in other areas.  This is a recipe for competitive advantage in the mid-priced restaurant or casual dining niche. 

The usage of automation and robots will add further layers to the development of non-humanly staffed restaurants and other retail outlets.  In the short term this will be a great development for owners of casual dining chains.  In the long term, eliminating that much employment will have ripple effects.  These ripple effects are already becoming apparent in the disappearance of the middle class.   The usage of technology makes many middle management tasks unnecessary and enables supervisors to boss more people.  In the case of a robotic and automated restaurant, perhaps five servers and a bar tender would be needed on a shift.  The social ramifications of this development will be far reaching.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Desktop Interface Confusion Pt. 2

I loaded up Manjaro with the Spatry Cup 'o Linux features preloaded.  I used the xfce desktop, and the operating system worked flawlessly. 

Here's a few observations on the system:
  • The black on black theme looks divine.  However, I had problems seeing which options I had selected in some of the screens.  This was especially difficult when I set up a VPN.
  • The directions to set up almost anything in Manjaro are great.  
  • You will do more work setting this system up for your needs than if you use Mint, BUT you will be paid back by the rolling updates.
  • Dropbox is being difficult: while it works fine, setting up the program so Dropbox starts automatically is problematic at this point.  (Once I figure it out, though, this issue will fade quickly)
  • Calibre loaded and installed easily
  • The menus in xfce are easy to use and make sense.
  • Everything on my vintage Toshiba Satellite M type with Harman Kardon sound set up effortlessly.
  • Google Talk for Google Hang Outs went in easily, although I did encounter a few potential error codes from the package manager.  
  • The package manager has all the programs other distros have.
The features loaded on the Operating System were just what I wanted.  The combination of Manjaro with Spatry's contribution is one of the best Linux systems I've encountered. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Desktop Interface Confusion

I tried Manjaro with Openbox and I was confused.  Now, I am more confused because they aren't using Openbox anymore, it is Manjarobox.  No menus, and that tripped me up.  No Synapse or icons either.  I may have had the wrong resolution on the desktop video, but I don't think so.  Now I hear Linux Mint 17.1 is coming out, and they are addressing GUI issues within Mate.  Mint seems second nature and I like the menus in both Mate and Cinnamon.  Am I stuck in a rut, or do the rest of you experience similar problems with desktop UIs that are too avaunt guarde?  I never did well in the upgrade from Gnome 2 to 3 either.  I've used Gnome for a long long time....    Gnome 3 did work much better than Windows 8. 

Spatry with Sparty's Cup of Linux made a custom Manjaro  Linux .iso, so I think I will try out his.  He has a lot of good ideas, and I like his YouTube channel.  I also downloaded the xfce Manjaro release in case all else fails.  Manjaro, based on Arch has strengths because of the rolling upgrades.  Spatry is smart, because he is using xfce as his windows manager in the custom release.  Xfce is a great light weight window manager.  I usually avoid xfce because of limited support of multi-monitor environments.

And what is this with Groupon using the Gnome name for their Point of Sale?  They sent us one at work.  Nicely done, but we have no use for it because of the way our current registers work.  Still, though, they are abusing a FOSS name.  Seems the FOSS world has taken notice, by this article on the Gnome web site: Hopefully they will phase out their usage of the name and get something else. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Innovaton? Really? Don't we mean incremental innovation?

Lately, or actually for the past three years, I've been doing a lot of research and reading on innovation.  My dissertation will be about innovation's role in increasing sales during troubled economic times for technology companies. 

With that said, I was looking at Apple's latest announcements.  Frankly, everyone says they are incredibly innovative because they introduced a new iPhone 6 and a smart wrist watch.  My Samsung Note 3 is larger than Apple's offering.  And Android does several things similar to iOS.  The wrist watch Apple introduced, is similar to Samsung's offering.  Articles abound about how Apple is innovative with these offerings. 

Frankly, I perceive them as mere incremental changes, rather than true innovation.  Steve Jobs was the creative genius behind Apple products.  He can be credited with changing the micro computer business, ending the reign of PCs with the introduction of the iPad, and radically changed the smart phone from things like the Blackberry to mini tablets like the Samsung 5.  I don't see the latest product offerings as innovative, except for mildly incrementally innovative. 

The iPhone 6 is thinner (although it has a stovepipe camera), and the wrist watch is new to the Apple line.  At best, incremental innovation.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Linux Journal and Terrorism

I'm shocked.  I've subscribed to Linux Journal for almost 20 years.  I work in a business geared for kids.  I fix a machine with a large battery, and make web sites orientated for commercial success.  I've tinkered with Linux since 1994 (could it really be 20 years?), but apparently this makes me suspect.  Check out this article on Slash Dot.  And don't miss this one from Linux Journal. The NSA watches Linux Journal readers because it is an extremest forum.  Gosh, the last article I read was how to count the number of days between dates.  Seems innocent to me.  I'm going to take this as flattery.  I'm not special, but this type of attention makes me wonder.

I think I'll sign up for a few more years' subscription.


I've had a fascination with encryption since I was 12 (1973).  When I was 12, I started a code club at Junior High School.  In those days, we used Pig Latin, ciphers, and other types of hand codes. Only one other person showed up for the club meeting, but no one else understood the need for encryption back in the day either.  They all thought you merely didn't let anyone else see your written output.

That was true then, but now, everything I write is up for grabs in a public venue.  You might say email is private, and generally you are correct.  There is so much email that no one ever reads anyone else's email.  However, computers on the Internet that serve mail can scan every email as they go through.  If an email has the right words inside, then, according to Urban lore, your words will be read, or you will be put on some terror list.  My family, which has more than its share of brilliance associated with accompanying mental instability, has at least two electrical engineers who don't use email or Facebook due to security concerns.  Prior to Snowden, everyone had a fantasy that computers were secure most of the time.

Edward Snowden from Wikipedia article

Back in the day, mail was secure too.  Who could remember what went through the Postal System?  Today, everything gets logged.  With scanning, I am sure postcards are read as well.  For all I know, there could be a way to read what is inside envelopes too. 

The key concept here is everything we do is inherently insecure.  The insecurity needs to be met with better means of communicating via computer.  I suppose we could mail each other usb sticks, but is that really a practical option?  Or possibly we could put usb sticks in walls and other immovable objects for people to hook computers into. 

I would still want to encrypt the files on any usb stick.  That way I would be able to ensure only my intended recipient read the message, or used my files.  While a lot of encryption has back doors, some must still work well.  Police report encryption being a major block to accessing information on a hard drive during some of their investigations.  Still, though, odd stories persist, like whatever happened to TrueCrypt?  Suddenly one day, the project closed shop and told readers how to migrate TrueCrypt information to other encryption software.

When I install Linux, most distributions (I'm thinking Fedora and Mint) let me encrypt my hard drive.  I've no idea how well this works, but I comfort myself with the thought that if I lose my laptop, most everyone won't be able to read the information there.  Same with parts that wind up in Ghana, or somewhere else. 

What's the cure? 
So long as I have information someone else wants, then I am at risk that my information will be read by others.  I have a few ideas that may help, though.
  • Keep a computer that never connects to the Internet.  Use this computer to decrypt and encrypt items you wish to keep secure.
  • Use a VPN combined with a browser only used with the VPN.  Hint: Don't check your email or Facebook with the browser you wish to keep secure. (An exhaustive rundown of VPNs is here)
  • Use TOR combined with Vidalia
  • Encrypt email
  • Pass usb sticks by hand and then read them on your computer that doesn't connect to the Internet, or use Cold War drop methods.
  • Mail usb sticks in the mail inside a bank deposit bag so you can tell if it was disturbed.
  • Encrypt your entire hard drive
  • Consider Hush Mail, or sign up for a foreign email service.  Watch services that demand your cell phone number or other identifying information.  You might have to use your VPN to appear you are in another nation.
  • Use DuckDuckGo, not google for web searches.  Watch what you search for on a computer traceable to you.
  • Be paranoid.  Anything commercial likely has back doors.  PGP is no longer prohibited from export which means interested government parties must be able to read information encrypted this way.
In general, these thoughts may or may not work successfully.  In any event, adding layers of confidentiality should help keep information secure from most unauthorized readers.  If you don't keep everyone out, then you will be able to at least cause difficulty for those who are trying to access your confidential information and communications.

Broadening Horizons

I have too many interests to just write a Blog about technology. Once you boil down compters to their constituent parts, all that is left is how we use them as tools. Computers, mainly, are just office tools, methods to consume media, or gaming platforms. There's plenty more going on in the world than just what piece of silicon is used to create and consume media.

My interests lie in Innovation, macroeconomic effects on microeconomics, business, and how people interface with the world. Our world is changing as I write this. The latest trends include an economy that should be out of recovery into expansion, political unrest, and war. All this makes for interesting Blog posts and opinions.

The wide expanse of material means that this blog will shift more into MicroMaturity being a cultural problem, rather than simply the maturation of a sub-type of technology. Follow the key words, and read what interests you.

Laptops Look Out!!

Today, for the sake of variety, I am writing my post on a Galaxy Tab 3 10.1.  The fact I can use this to post to my blog indicates the market has changed dramatically.  The days of the personal computer are truely numbered. 

Compared to my usual rig, equipment is simple.  Rather than get the right key board case, I got one off EBay for $20.    My $20 keyboard doesn't fit quite right, but for the price I will cope.  I brought the Tab and the keyboard across the country twice, and it worked out well on the road too.  I can type quite well on this.  This makes me think the age of big computers is drawing to a close, although I couldn't perform my professional writing this way.  If I get sick of typing, I can always talk to my Tab.  This method works better than typing sometimes, but after 35 years of typing as I compose, I'm thinking I might be stuck in the typing habit.  I have a hunch this type of keyboard would work well on my phone too.  (My phone has more power than the Tab, being a Galaxy Note 3). 

I like my big computer.  I have an old gaming rig from 2007 +/- to which I hung two video cards and three monitors.  This rig is a Godsend to research and writing.  Each screen has its purpose: Source Documents, Notes and Cuts (I save all my edits because I cut too much sometimes), and newly written work.  This worked well through PhD coursework, and innumerable reports on business analysis and feasibility studies for large athletic complexes.  I use an old gaming keyboard (courtesy of Goodwill bins for $15) which I really like.  I don't like my Tab keyboard as well because it is a little small (I am a short Giant, so big keys are a must).  Sometimes I hit two keys at once, but I'm finding practice makes perfect. 

Other bloggers report using apps can help the bloggin on the tablet process.  On Tech Gyo, the author thinks that using an app to acces his desk top computer would help.  Good idea, but I found that technique lacking because of the problem of interfacing a touch screen with a regular competer.

This method works well, but I think it is time consuming compared to the regular method of writing.  In all fairness, I would get faster as I got more used to this method.  At any rate, happy blogging to all, and this use of content production puts another nail in the coffin of big desktop PCs.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Upgrade Fever

Today, I feel like I missed an important point to buying electronics for more than 30 years.  I always had to buy a new computer every three years.  Sometimes I would build one.  I remember when I was in my mid teens and had to have that LED watch that was all the rage in the late 70's.  I also had to buy the Bowmar Scienrific calculator (that one I needed in Engineering School) and the TI programmable calculator later in the early 80s.  Most of these had uses, and at the time, the difference between generations of electronic gear was sizeable.


The difference in gear between generations led me down the computer trail in the mid nineties.  I bought a PC with a 486 processor, but I had to get the one with the math coprocessor and the 159 Mb hard drive with 2 Mb memory.  As time went by, I upgraded through the generations until I stopped with the Core2Quad computer.

I have to admit that I made a lot of money from computers.  In my job in the early 90s, I had to invoice customers each month, and this process took 3+ days when I first got there.  I wrote a database in primitive Access, and suddenly we had a scheduling tool and billing took about 10 minutes.  I ran a Hockey League using accounting software and tracked people through Access to ensure effective marketing.  Still, though, I tended to buy a lot of gear.

My first inkling (that I ignored) was when we brought in an inventory system to track merchandise in the Pro Shop.  We purchased a used system using a 286 CPU and DOS.  At the time, we had Windows 3.11, and used 486s.  The ancient 286 system did just fine tracking inventory and acting as a POS (Point of Sale).

Rare Parts for Old Systems

Later, around 1997, I moved to Oregon.  I left behind my Windows 3.11 books because I was certain the new company I was working for would use Windows 95.  When I got to work in Oregon, the company used Windows 3.11 on 5+ year old computers.  I still didn't understand the difference between a computer system to get the job done and a system that was advanced.  The 5+ year old computers did the job just fine.  In 1998 or so, the company put in computerized POS computers.  These were good and had a whopping 64 Mb hard drive to run the simplified GUI (Graphical User Interface).  One day one of them blew the hard drive, and the technician had that hardest time finding one small enough.  Even though our computers were good enough, getting parts was difficult once the generations of electronics moved forward.

The Wink's Solution

Over the past twenty years, Wink's Hardware , has used an intriguing system of pads to ring up customers who have accounts.  These pads look like Apple Newtons (although they are not).

Picture Credit

One day I noticed how old the system is, and I asked one of the clerks about it.  He said they bought another store's system for parts to keep their system going.  As a result they did not have ongoing technology costs to bear.  I thought this was a smart idea.

 Our Company Over-Upgraded

Apparently, the good enough POS system at work wasn't good enough by 1999.  The company put in DSL lines and fancy computers (for the time) that ran integrated custom software for our industry.  I was relieved.  Finally, the company understood the need for keeping up with the latest and greatest hardware.  They did make one mistake (in my book), they put in a regular computer in each location as a server rather than an actual server.  This made the system work slowly.   Additionally the DSL worked only through a VPN (Virtual Private Network), so the home office could keep an eye on us.  These two problems made the system work very slowly.  As we used the system, too much user detail further bogged down operations.  After a few years, the system got very slow.  All these computers cost the company I worked for, in my estimation, over $500,000.  Unsurprisingly, the company went out of business in early 2002.  Once we started working for a new company, the makers of the software wanted to be paid more money to keep the system going.  We decided not to, and put in an old school TEC cash register system for a fraction of the cost.  The TEC registers worked, and they were good enough for what we do.

Today's Take

Today, the generations of computers have very little difference in operating performance.  (Tablets are a different beast, not addressed in this article)  The major difference in the generations lately is in lower power consumption, integrated graphics, and in the case of Intel computers greater numbers of threads that simulate cores.  This means if a person is willing to carry a slightly heavier lap top, he or she can be assured of enough power to get most jobs done.  Desktops literally don't matter when they were produced, so long as a person doesn't want to run the latest and greatest games.  (There are a lot of video editing open source programs that work on a variety of hardware)  I sold a T61P Lenovo Thinkpad to a man who loves to play older games.  He is ecstatic with the performance. Thinkpads are built like tanks and that computer still gives him pleasure even though its' production date is 2008 or 9 and we are in 2014 now.

Picture Credit

I am chuckling because LifeHacker just came out with a good article on electronic gear that is good enough.  Even Jeff Bezos, from Amazon, talks about the "upgrade treadmill."  Obviously, his company makes money from content, not hardware, so his comments are biased.  Even biased comments like these have a kernel of truth.

Moving Forward: Lessons Learned

Like many men, I projected my personality into the tools I used in my work, especially tools that also could be used for entertainment like computers.  Electronic gear somehow defined who I was, even though today this feels like an unhealthy frame of mind.  I got a lot of ego boost from what my stuff could do that other people's gear could not.  I've moved beyond this, and today I try hard to look at my electronics as tools.

When you look at electronic gear as tools, getting off the upgrade cycle is easy.  If a power saw works, then there is no need to buy the newer model.  Content is the king and the reason why we have electronics.  Electronics enable us to perform work, enjoy entertainment, or share our projects with others.  Remembering this can be difficult for me, because I always like the latest and greatest.  Buying items that get the job done always trumps having to learn new systems on new gear.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Desktop LInux

I've seen many articles about how Linux won the server market and the mobile phone and tablet market, but not the desktop market.  Mat Asay in an article on Read/Write where he studies what his hair dresser, Valerie, would want or need on a desktop.  His focus on the non-technical market is an excellent point: what do non-technical users want on a desk top? 

My wife is the closest non-technical user I know.  I gave her a machine with Linux on it about six years ago.  The machine was friendly and useful compared to Linux machines in the 90s.  The machine drove her nuts.  The little annoyances of desk top LInux would drive her crazy.  Things should work as easily in Windows.  I caved in, and put Windows on a hard drive in her machine, which made her happy.  She has Windows 8 now, running Classic Shell so the OS works the way she expects.  When I think about this, I realize that Windows 8 now has windows Managers, just he way Linux distributions do.  (Linux has xfce, Enlighten, Cinnamon, Gnome, Mate, etc.)  At any rate, she, just like Valerie is happy with her Windows 8 machine that acts just like Windows XP.  Her activities include web surfing, watching You Tube, and plenty of Facebook with Facebook games. 

That's the usage of an over 40 year old nontechnical person.  The kids, though, use a smorgasbord of Operating Systems.  Usually Windows, Mac and Android.  The interesting part about them is how they use Google Documents for their home work.  And Google Documents and other cloud services will make a huge difference in what operating System people prefer.  As Valerie found, its more about what works with your electronics than what makes them run.  She couldn't edit her photos in Mac OS, which, for her, was a deal breaker.  And this is the strength of Chrome Book because it is a thin client that uses Internet Cloud Services.  The other strength of Cloud Services is the way people can use any device to connect with others.  People are no longer limited to Windows because their school or office insist on Microsoft Office.

And truly, that is where the Linux desktop has suffered over the years.  Mainstream electronics device manufacturers make a Windows version of their soft ware and a Mac version, but never a Linux version.  Schools make rules that Macs and Windows machine can abide by, but not Linux machines.  Mainstream software and device developers do not develop for Linux most of the time because they seem to be paranoid of a free (in the Richard Stallman sense of freedom, not the sense of giving away free beer) operating system.  This held true until the destructive innovation of the Android system came along and suddenly non Windows devices became widely adopted.

The destructive innovation of Android is contributing to the undermining of the traditional Wintel duopoly.  Intel would make a new processor followed by a new operating system made by Microsoft. 
Today, Microsoft attempted to keep up with Android by making windows 8, an operating system good for any type of computer.  Unfortunately, the Valeries of the world were not ready for it.  And the same is true of the Linux desktop.