The trade off of fidelity and convenience in marketing, and how it doomed my favorite company

I’m reading a book called Trade-Off, by former USA Today technology columnist Kevin Maney. It’s primarily a marketing book.

Maney argues that all products are a balance of fidelity and convenience, and highly favor one or the other. He additionally argues that failed products fail because they attempted to achieve both, or failed to focus on either one.

An example of a convenient product is an economy car. They’re inexpensive to buy and inexpensive to keep fueled up, but don’t have much glitz and you probably won’t fall in love with it. A high-end sports car or luxury car is a lot less practical, but you’re a lot more likely to fall in love with it, and gain prestige by driving around town in it. Read more

Wookie suits at work

I have a coworker who owns a Darth Vader costume. If you ask him really nicely, he might dress up as Darth Vader to scare your kids. He’s proud enough to own that costume that he keeps a picture of himself in it on his desk.

Someone–I forget who–had the idea this past week that his cubicle neighbor ought to get a Chewbacca the Wookie suit. Because nothing goes with Darth Vader like Chewbacca, right? Several of us even reached for our wallets in anticipation of taking up a collection to fund this Chewbacca suit, and then someone threw out a stipulation–that the two of them need to wear their costumes to work.

For some reason, I still have my copy of the corporate dress code, so I got it out to see if it would be legal to wear Chewbacca and Darth Vader costumes to work. Read more

What does religion have to do with the United States falling behind in math and science?

This morning on one of the Sunday morning political shows (probably "Meet the Press"), I heard a statement that troubled me. I may be misquoting, but I heard the moderator ask how we can afford to have a vice president who believes in Creation in a time when the United States is lagging so far behind in fields like science and engineering.

I call irrelevance.I’ll tell you why the United States is falling behind in science and engineering. It has little or nothing to do with religion (or lack of it) and everything to do with society and education.

I know several engineers. Some are practicing and licensed; others have the degree but haven’t had need for the license. One is the godfather of my son. He’s in church every Sunday and I know it, because I usually sit in the same section.

You can pretty much name any large company that makes something made of metal in the United States, and chances are he’s designed a press for them. Companies buy his presses because they are reliable, safe to operate, and cost efficient. I don’t know what he thinks about when he’s designing his presses, but it’s certainly possible to design one without thinking about God once. And being well-versed in biological evolution isn’t going to make his presses any safer or cheaper.

But if we want to debate Creation vs. Evolution, I’ll drag Dad into this. I have to speak for him, because he died in 1994. Dad had bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, physics, and biology in addition to his medical degree. He was also a practicing Lutheran, so he believed in God and could find his way around a hymnal and a Bible.

Dad believed in evolution and was told more than once he was going to hell because of what he believed. But the church elders never let Dad finish his argument. He and I had this talk once, and let me tell you the last thing Dad said.

Evolution’s dirty little secret is that at the very beginning, some force had to set it in motion. Dad said God set it in motion, and the same God gave Darwin the brain to figure that out.

As someone who was much stronger in English than any science, I’m not qualified to argue with my Dad. But I can say that more people would have listened to him, and the discussions would have been more civil, if he’d said that first instead of last. Dad was guilty of burying his thesis.

In 1998, I had a conversation with another doctor, one who had known Dad. Unlike Dad, this doctor wasn’t an evolutionist. He said it’s bad science, because its earliest stages are neither repeatable nor observable. So rather than plug God into it like Dad did, he preferred to throw out the theory.

If you want to say evolution disproves God, then you have to assume that original lifeform and the world it lived in happened by chance. There’s a word for that. It’s called faith. The difference is whether you believe in chance or in God.

When engineers set out to design a car or airplane, or part of one, their personal beliefs about the origins of life don’t help them design a better machine.

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether public schools teach evolution alone or side by side with some variant of intelligent design because that’s not going to make or break mathematicians and scientists and engineers. The educational system and popular culture is what’s keeping our country from being on top of those fields.

First of all, the portrayal of anyone who has any interest in math and science in popular media needs to stop. Now. Television shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Beauty and the Geek" reinforce the negative stereotypes of anyone with those inclinations. But it’s not new. Twenty years ago the same stereotypes existed.

I knew lots of science and engineering majors in college. And you know what? Most of them didn’t wear glasses. I never saw any of them with pocket protectors. One of them enjoyed Star Trek but wasn’t obsessed with it by any means. Most of them had girlfriends, and without exception they were all what any normal person would consider good girlfriend material. And perhaps most importantly, you could sit down with any of them and have a pleasant conversation about anything you would talk about with anyone else with a college education.

So there’s no more truth to that stereotype than there is to racial stereotypes. But how much does that stereotype dissuade kids with the gift from speaking up in math or science class when they know the answer?

I know it kept me quiet. I stopped speaking up, and probably on some level I stopped trying as hard as I once did.

But the educational system also bears some blame. Do you want to know why German kids score better in math and science than U.S. kids?

Because German schools know how to teach math and science and U.S. schools don’t, that’s why.

Twenty years ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table of my parents’ house with a German national named Peter. Peter was little more than a drunk and a con man, but I still learned something from him. For some reason, a math problem came up. I attacked the problem using long division, the proper, sanctioned, U.S. method. Peter came up with the same answer I did, and he came up with it a lot faster. He showed me the German way. I’ve long since forgotten the details, but it was quick and easy, unlike long division, which was one of the most difficult and painful things I ever had to learn in school.

Why are German cars better than U.S. cars? Maybe because German schools don’t use math as a way to torture their kids. And, heaven forbid, German kids might actually grow up knowing what they can do with the math skills they’re learning.

In high school, I quit math after trigonometry. The point of no return for me was when one of my classmates was building a speaker box for a car. He knew the size of the box that would fit the car, and wanted to know the maximum size of the speakers he could fit in that area. So he asked the teacher. The teacher tried some equations, but couldn’t figure it out.

The message to me (and the rest of the class) was pretty clear. We were learning this garbage because someone else before us had to learn it, not because it was something necessary for us to succeed in life. Let’s call it for what it is: institutionalized hazing.

Today, I’m 33 years old and I can tell you what basic trigonometry is good for, but that’s only because I watch This Old House on a regular basis and I see Norm Abram and Roger Cook using trig to figure out if something they’re in the process of building is going to be square or not. But I learned so little in trigonometry in high school that it’s a miracle I even know they’re doing trig.

So if we want to keep up with the rest of the world, I have a start. First, burn every math textbook currently in use. Second, launch a crash program to translate German math textbooks into English. Third, fire any teacher not willing to use those methods and replace them with teachers who are. Replace them with people like me who struggled to get Cs under the old method.

Yes, in high school and college, I got Cs in pretty much anything that required the use of numbers. Yet today I can look at business-related data and use statistical methods to figure out how to make that business more efficient and profitable. I almost always need help with the math, but once I manage to get past that, profits increase.

I struggled in Dr. F. Tim Wright’s Statistics 31 class at Mizzou, but his word problems always sounded like a something that might happen in the real world. He’s probably the reason I have that ability today.

Right now the biggest decision my son faces on a day to day basis is what toy he’s going to put in his mouth. So I don’t know what he’s going to decide to do with his life. I know when he reaches adulthood, there will be a shortage in several fields. Medicine and engineering will be among them.

He probably has the genetic disposition to be one or the other. Four of the six generations who preceded him were doctors–his father and great-great grandfather were the two exceptions.

What he decides to do with his life will have very little to do with the personal beliefs of the next president and vice president. It will have everything to do with the kind of education he receives. If a couple of math and science teachers show him how those subjects can change the world, he might head that direction. If it’s a language or social studies teacher who ends up wielding the most influence, he’ll be a lot more likely to go that direction.

I care about that, but I’m not under the illusion that Washington D.C. has much control over it.

Modems, voice recognition and video cards

More NaturallySpeaking adventures. You must all the thinking now that my life consists of church brochures and NaturallySpeaking. That’s just about right. I work for hours on the church brochure, and then I come home and play with NaturallySpeaking.
I found a nifty menu option last night called analyze documents. Basically he conceded text files, word processing files, HTML, or almost anything else that contains text. Luckily for me, I save just about everything I write. Not so luckily for NaturallySpeaking, that amounted to 2.8 MB dating back to about 1994. So, NaturallySpeaking has now read more of my stuff than even my mother. So it now has peculiar insights into what words I am likely to use. This seems to help accuracy some, but it is no substitute for use.

I found myself impressed with it at first, and I still think it can be usable, given the right equipment, but this definitely is not Star Trek. I think we can get used to each other and become a productive team, but I find NaturallySpeaking is not the most appropriate word. It definitely works best when I speak in a pretty unnatural voice.

On a more positive note, it doesn’t seem to be affecting my word choices too badly. Dave still sounds like Dave, and to me at least, that’s a good thing.

———-

From: “al wynn”
Subject: Are there any ISA graphics cards with 4 MB or 8 MB of memory on them ?

I am looking for the fastest ISA graphics card on the market. Do you know which ones have 4 MB or 8 MB of memory on them ?

I have a SIIG SuperVGA Pro ISA graphics card (model VV-VNE212), but it has only 2 MB of memory, and max out at (1280 x 1024 x 256 colors) resolution.

I want to upgrade, and I am searching for the fastest/highest resolution ISA graphics card out there.

———-

Maybe one of my readers knows of one, but it’s been years since I’ve seen an ISA graphics card that even remotely resembled something worth having. There’s just not much of a market for ISA graphics cards, because the ISA bus is such a terrible bottleneck.

When I have seen them, they’ve been really pricey–$70 for a 2-meg card with an underwhelming Cirrus chipset. You’re probably better off replacing the system, if you want my opinion (not that you asked for it–but who does?). I’ve seen 32-meg TNT2-based AGP cards for $80, and that’s a far, far better card. You’d be looking at having to get a new CPU and memory, in all likelihood, in order to use an AGP video card (because it sounds like you’re upgrading an old 486), but just as an example, you can get an FIC VA-503+ motherboard with a 500 MHz K6-2 processor for about $130. A 64-meg DIMM is about $60. That TNT2 card is $80. (I’m getting all these prices off mwave.com). You’re looking at $300 after shipping, but you’ll have a far better system in the end. Replacing your ISA card with something better (if there is anything better available) will cost close to 1/3 of that.

———-

From: Mark Bridgers
Subject: Voice Recognition
I’m following your voice recognition trials with great interest. We have a key phrase to test it — “Recognize Speech”. It usually comes out as “Wreck a nice beach”. If your combination can get that one right, we’ll try it for some of our products.

Thanks for keeping up the site. Its great to have you back.

Mark Bridgers

———-

I am dictating this message. Here’s your acid test: recognize speech.
How’s that?
———-

From: “al wynn”

Subject: 16550 UART questions.

I am running Win95, have an external 28.8K IBM data/fax modem (model 7852 010 v.34, attached to COM2, Interrupt 3, Adress 2F8), and an internal SIIG 1132+ I/O controller card (with two 16550 UART serial ports, 1 ECP/EPP parallel port).

When I click on MyComputer/Modems/Diagnostics/MoreInfo, it shows my UART as 8250, not 16550. Do you know why ? Is the UART something on my controller card only, or my modem also has its own UART ? Do I need to upgrade my modem ?

Also, do you know any ISA I/O controller card that has an 16650 UART on it ? (Manufacturer and model number)

———-

The UART is on the controller card itself, rather than on the modem (in the case of externals). I know DOS and Windows can’t tell a difference between an 8250 and a 16450; now that I think about it some more there may have been cases of certain 550s misreporting themselves but I don’t know any specifics. The 550 is frequently integrated into other chips these days, but it might be worth cracking the case and looking–usually, the UART is a big 40-pin chip that sticks out like a sore thumb and it’s frequently socketed. If it says 16450 on it, or, even worse, 8250, you know you’ve been ripped off. If all you find is a small chip with a ton of tiny solder connections made by Winbond or ALi (I can’t think of who else makes I/O chipsets these days, sorry), chances are you do have a 16550.

Just for grins: Do both of your serial ports report themselves as 8250s?

A 16650 is overkill for a 28.8 modem, but if you think you’ll upgrade (or need the 650 for another system), the only ISA 650 card I know of is the SIIG JJ-A04121. The UPC on it is 0662774018614 if that helps. Unfortunately, it’s about as expensive as the external modem you’ll connect to it ($120 retail; mwave.com has it for $78), and it’s big-time overkill because it’s a 4-port card. I know there are other cards available, but that’s the only card I’ve run across.

Computer ethics

Damsels in distress. Every time I turn around, there’s a girl who needs her computer fixed. Not that I’m complaining. I was having a beer the other night with the music director from my church and told him about it, to which he said, “That’s not a bad situation at all to be in.” He’s right.
So that’s what I was doing Thursday. I don’t exactly get it, because I always have great luck with the PCs I build myself, but when I build a PC for a friend, we always manage to get a bad power supply, or a bad video card, or something else–even though I use the same type of components in their systems as in mine. That’s why I’m not in the computer building business, and I may get out of the business of building them for my friends. I’ll find ’em a good deal if they want, and I’ll play hardball to get a good price and the best components for them, and I’ll gladly set it up for them, but when it comes to procurring all the parts and assembling them, it may be time to give it up.

But I got dinner out of it last night and got to meet some interesting people. That was good.

Computer Ethics. I found out last night that this friend once dated an IT professional I know. I don’t know him well–I didn’t put the name and the face together until she showed me a picture (he knows me better than I know him, apparently). She knew him about eight years ago.

Eight years ago, a typical date for them was him taking her to a weekly 2600 meeting. He evidently learned everything he knew by hacking. We’re not talking writing code here. We’re talking infiltration of systems illegally. At one point he had a notebook full of private phone numbers: people like the Pope and the Prime Minister of Canada. For kicks, he’d call the numbers and record the conversations. He also had her address and phone number in the notebook. One day he left the notebook on top of his car in a parking lot, then drove off. Someone found the notebook, couldn’t believe what was in it, and turned it over to the authorities. Since hers was the only non-VIP address in it, the Secret Service showed up on her doorstep. Her parents were less than amused.

I don’t really understand this. This guy isn’t the only “reformed” hacker I know who has a high-paying, high-security, high-integrity job. And that’s a real problem. If you didn’t have integrity at 18, you probably don’t have it at 25 or 26 either. You can’t count on eight years giving you any measurable amount of maturity, let alone integrity. If you have no respect for other people’s property at 18, you won’t have much a few years later. I don’t understand why anyone hires these kinds of people. You can sum up my run-ins with the law really quickly. I’ve been pulled over three times since the age of 16. I recieved two verbal warnings and a written warning. That’s the extent of it. But I’m not sure I’d trust myself in these peoples’ jobs.

———-

From: Paul S R Chisholm

There have been a series of excellent articles, written by Martin J. Furey and published at Byte.com, describing how the sound cards and microphones can effect the success of using Dragon Naturally speaking. Rough summary: 128 MB RAM or better, PIII or Athlon (speech recognition is one of the few applications that can use that much power, and the latest versions have installation options with executables tuned to those processors), very good mike or headset, very good sound card or USB headset, perhaps Win98SE. More detail:

http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19990720S0003
http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19991020S0004
http://www.byte.com/feature/BYT19991103S0001

In particular, a PIII or Athlon is supposed to greatly reduce the training time. It’s not clear how much its power is needed once the software is fully trained.

I ordered my Dell system based on these recommendations. (I got a 700 MHz PIII.) Since I didn’t want to spend the time putting a computer together, and since Dell didn’t have much of a sound card choice, I got the USB version of NaturallySpeaking Preferred, which comes with a USB mike in a headset form factor.

I haven’t tried writing a book this way. I did write up technical review comments for a book. In my experience, I could get a rough draft out much faster than if I’d typed it; even after making a review pass, something I probably would have done anyway, and which found some truly odd typos, I think I saved time.

It’s not STAR TREK. One Byte.com reviewer “had to speak like Queen Amidala of the Naboo to make it work right”. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d lean in that direction.

I had less luck using NaturallySpeaking for total control of my PC. Mouse-clicking was surprisingly good. Saying “Press” and the name of a key was surprisingly bad. (My office mate tried this for a few weeks and had even less luck.)

I’ll leave the final word to John Ousterhout, creator of Tcl/Tk, who dictates even code but still “mouses by hand”:

http://www.scriptics.com/people/john.ousterhout/wrist.html
Good luck! –PSRC

———-

Yes, I read those articles myself after David Pogue suggested I try Naturally Speaking. So I’ve ordered an Andrea ANC-600 mic, which got good marks in the series, from www.speechcontrol.com (good price and quick delivery; the makers of the highest-rated mics say 6-8 weeks for delivery, while speechcontrol.com can get the ANC-600 to me in 4 days and the owner answers questions very quickly). Now that DNS 5.0 is out, I’m going to order it and an SB LIve! Platinum, the successor to the Sound Blaster card that came in second-best (I’m leery of buying the best-rated card, since it’s ISA and there’ll come a time when my fastest PC won’t have ISA slots), and we’ll see how that works. As for a P3 or Athlon system, that is something I’d probably get anyway, but I’ll see if the C400 has enough punch first.

As for ViaVoice, I guess I can hang it on the wall along with all those AOL and MSN CDs.

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