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Monday, January 13, 2014

My Annual CES Summary 2014

On this, my 35th consecutive Consumer Electronics Show trip, I thought back to my first visit, and couldn’t help but notice that there is almost no recognizable connection to that show in the late 70’s.  Not only was the show about 1/20th the size, as far as the number of exhibitors and the size and scope of the booths, but also the very nature of the products has changed almost completely. Then it was all hardware-based appliances that once you purchased them, you owned the right to use them outright. And they would most likely perform for you for many, many years to come. Today, most consumer electronics items are tied intrinsically to its’ software. Software that will, they admit to you upfront, “only be supported” for about a year or two. –Meaning: “it will no longer function”. ! –Yes, when you buy most products today, you must expect, and plan, to throw them in the garbage in a very few years. !?  - ‘That’s not bad enough; many products are tied to a ‘subscription model’ of service to make the item useable at all! So, after you shell out a few hundred bucks to buy it, you need to pay tens of dollars per month to use it, and, expect it to become obsolete in a ‘couple a years.!?  - ‘Times have certainly changed. Now,…. having said that, there are some pretty cool products out today, compared to when I first attended CES…

The prettiest things at the show (besides some of the hired help in the booths) were the 4K TV sets, showing the specially shot Ultra-High-Definition videos of beautiful beaches, cityscapes, etc. The first, production, affordable 4K TV’s will begin to ship later this year. These sets will up-convert and display our current Blu-ray discs a little better than standard 1080p sets, however, true 4K content may be quite a ways off, as only Netflix streaming is even announcing any plan to provide any true 4K shows on these potentially gorgeous TV sets.

The silliest thing in TV’s at CES 2014 was “curved screen TV’s”. Yes, the screen curves in toward you at the outside edges, the way old cinema screens used to in order to help the projector stay in focus by maintaining an even distance from the lens. Except, …there’s no projector. No lens. And no need! And it makes it hard to see if you’re off to one side. ? So there’s absolutely no reason to do it!? But I guess ‘having absolutely no advantage or benefit’ has never stopped features from appearing on products before. So don’t expect that to change anytime soon. But just don’t buy one of these silly TVs (unless you can think of a reason to.)

The coolest thing in TV’s was the first (very few) wide-screen (2.3:1) LCD sets (that were as large as 105” diagonal!) This, I have been waiting for, and expecting for many years. You see, our current “wide-screen, flat-panel” TV’s are no longer wide-screen. They were, compared to old, 4:3 aspect ratio TV, of ten years ago. But now all TV shows are 16:9, and that is now the narrow-screen standard. So when we watch a big-budget, wide-screen (2.3:1) feature film on our TV’s, there are black bars top and bottom, and the picture is actually smaller and less immersive than when we watch a regular, lower budget movie! -In my opinion, it should be the other way around. (and is, in my home theater) The black bars should be on the sides when watching regular movies and TV shows! Right?

So,… there’s that. TV’s. (‘always have to get the TV’s out of the way first, in any CES summary. It’s mandatory) 

Another wonderful breakthrough, and way, way over-due, - also in my opinion, - you know,… this whole write-up is just my opinion, so I’m gonna stop saying that from here on in,…ok? Anyway, the main problem with watching TV is commercials, right? Well,...that, and the problem of having to watch “when-it’s-on”, which might not fit with your schedule. So in the 80’s and 90’s we solved both of those problems simply, affordably, and eloquently, with a little thing we called a VCR. Then, they went and screwed that up by making TV digital, gloriously high-def in 1080i, and completely in-compatible with our VCRs. And they didn’t even bother to develop an HD VCR!? ‘Rude. So, in came the DVR. But no stand-alone unit, that wasn’t tied to a cable, satellite, or TIVO monthly subscription model. ‘Very rude! – Well, the (ten year) wait is over. Finally, here is a universal DVR you can buy, with free program guide, for a few hundred dollars (depending on how much recording space you want), that will let you cut the cable or sat habit, and save about $1,200/yr. !!  -See! I just saved you $1,200/yr.! ‘Don’t say it’s not worth the time to read Fred’s CES Summary!

Muse was the most high-tech, future-is-here item that I saw. I waited in line for almost an hour to try this thing out, and I was very impressed. It monitors your brainwaves with a simple looking headband, and sends the results by Bluetooth to your ‘smart device’ (phone or tablet. ios or android) and you use your favorite headphones to hear the feedback in the form of wind sounds that increase as you get agitated, and decrease as you relax. And it really works! The theory is that it helps you learn how to relax, and by using it briefly when you get home from work or whatever, you can reduce stress and thereby live long and prosper (Vulcans use them, that’s why their ears evolved, to help hold the headband in place).

MHL (“Mobile High-definition Link”) is about a thing you may already own, but don’t realize it, and may already want to use! If you have an Android phone, and want to show your pictures/videos/documents/anything onto a big TV or monitor (in 1080p!) with an HDMI input, all you need is a little adapter! (it’s even “4k ready”!) Click here to see if your phone has this ability.

Once again, Microsoft did not exhibit, and again, I think that’s strange, when they’re trying desperately to hold onto their position as the world’s most popular operating system for personal computing.? They have another, new version of their system out, again, and they say that this time it is good and won’t crash all the time. ‘Haven’t we heard this before? You’d think after 30 years of this we’d learn to give up and look elsewhere, but,… well,…O.K., ….’just one more time…’let’s see this “new” version of Windows. ‘Hmm,…same start button,…hmmm,…same massive processor and ram needed to run it,…same 20gb of OS, using up our (now expensive, because it’s solid state flash) hard drive storage space. But hey, it does touch screen! ‘Mac and Linux don’t do that! So, O.K., we’ll buy some more $1,000 machines with this stuff on it and see if it works this time. (don’t forget your anti-virus software!).  Microsoft doesn’t really need a booth because their devoted friend Intel was there, as always, showing one of every single Windows’ desktop, laptop, palmtop, tablet, netbook, ultrabook, tablet/laptop, laptop/tablet, etc., etc., etc. My favorite is the Asus Transformer Book T100, not just because it is lighter, has the longest battery life (12hrs!), and has the best reviews of any of the ‘detachable screen’ laptops, but also because it’s only $400! And it seems like that’s the most we should have to spend for something that, like I said before, has a pre-determined life span of only a few years.

The watches are coming! The watches are coming! 
We keep hearing this call-to-action cry. Well, they may, in fact, be coming, but  s l o w l y, and without much innovation as of yet. It’s no wonder Apple is waiting on theirs (as they usually do), hopefully they’ll get it right when they finally build one (as they usually do). About a half dozen different ones were shown, including Sony, Samsung, Qualcomm, Pebble, Pine, but they are all still large enough to make whichever arm you have it on tired from lifting, and they’re all still really expensive (>$200). Now,…having said that, I think they are really, really cool! And useful! – But I’m a gadget gear-head and think the giant 6”smartphones are worth carrying around all day, so, take it with a grain of salt… (what the heck does that saying refer to, anyhow?) –Just think, every time you get a text notification, instead of digging around for your phone, pulling it out, turning it on, unlocking the screen, navigating to messages, and then finally reading the message, turning off the phone, putting it away, just to read another “last night was amazing, LU!” from someone, you can just glance at your watch instead! And, you can even use ‘speech-to-text’ right on the watch to reply to the text: “Yeah, that documentary on Lowel University was great!” and you can easily correspond about a great TV show viewing with your spouse (what did you think the text was about?). They really do about half of everything we need to do on our phones daily, and that’s great, but I’m gonna wait a bit until they get a little slimmer, and a little cheaper (cus, they’ll be obsoleted in a few years anyway, as the software becomes un-supported).

I drove the BMW i3 electric car at their huge drive event, featuring over 150 cars! It drove really nice. It felt more like a $45k BMW pure electric, than our $30k Nissan electric does. (which, I guess makes sense)  /> Doc Brown (aka Christopher Lloyd) stopped by in his Delorean Time Machine, and came into the Gibson Guitar booth tent and did a promo on their stage. But then he had to get back. To the future! /> iphones are still very popular. Especially in North America. People love their simple-to-use software, and although many are looking forward to Apple’s rumored larger-screen model, most iphone users say they really like the small size, how it fits easily in their pocket and hand. However, most all of them agree that it would be nice if the battery lasted longer, and there was more storage space. And so, Mophie was born. A slightly larger case that has a battery and more flash memory in it to solve both problems! 

/>  Jamstick is a great way to learn guitar. /> There were sportscams EVERYWHERE.  I liked the Sony ones the best.  /> Here’s a terrific little scooter with high-torque, 3 brakes, stand-or-sit, 300lb. capacity, cargo room, that folds up quickly to a fairly small, portable, power-house of a “last mile” people-mover.  /> A better solution to buying one of those expensive keypad entry doorlocks for your front door, is this device that leaves your current deadbolt’s outside-key-half, and just replaces the inside-knob-half with a receiver and motor to lock/unlock. This webpage shows it just working with the supplied transmitter (or original key), but at the show, and coming soon, is a way that you can just touch the outer lock (like, even with the back of your hands when your arms are full) and the lock will open because it recognizes your smartphone by NFC.  /> I tried on one of those virtual reality headwear screens in the Sony booth. And it played a video of driving fast through a town, but when I turned my head, I could see out the side windows of the car, and when I tilted my head up or down I could see up and down, onto the dash!
 />  AIMe by Jigabot keeps your camcorder trained on whatever you’ve attached it’s infrared emitting ‘beacon’ to. /> And Comply foam pads fit onto your earbuds and keep out more noise and stay comfortable for a long time! These work great. I’ve used them for years. (get 20% off thru 1/31/14 by using code: “CES2014”)  /> 3D printing, driverless cars, and wearable technology were also huge topics at this years’ show, but, it looked to me that they were all a little ways’ off.  So I’ll save those for next year’s summary.  /> The one other major topic and category of products that everyone was buzzing about this year was “The Internet of Things”. This is actually happening right now. From connected toothbrushes to make sure your kids are brushing often and long enough, to infant clothing with heart rate monitors to reduce Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, we are connecting more and more things to more and more other things so that they can talk to each other and just send us a text if anything starts going wrong. And this frees up more of our time to go buy more stuff and connect it all together! (and then buy the new version of it in a few years, when these are obsoleted!)   

(please comment if even just something cryptic like "cool!", so I'll now if anyone reads this. Also, you can read all my old previous CES summaries and find out if any of my opinions/predictions came true!)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

How NPR changed my life.

As a kid, I never read. ‘Never did homework. Squeaked by in school with C’s. In about 8th grade, a close friend dared me to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I love a dare. I loved the film and thought, how hard could it be? I read it. It took me awhile. ‘There were big words in there I hadn’t heard before, like ‘prejudice’ (not to mention, ‘chifforobe’!?). It was good. It created better pictures in my head than the movie had. So, you’d think I’d read another book. ‘Never did. It’s still the only book I ever read (at least it’s easy to answer people when they ask me what’s your favorite book!). I grew up with an alcoholic single Mom. When she came home from work, right before she started pouring, she’d ask “did you do you homework?”. I’d say “yup” (which I sometimes had, right before turning it in), and that was the extent of my parental involvement in my literacy and education.

My teachers were worse. I always hear people talk about their favorite teachers that really made a difference in their lives and I think, “where did you go to school?”. I never had a teacher say boo to me, except something like “you ‘flunk another test and you’re going to get a ‘D’ for the semester!”. I watched TV. All the time. ‘No time for reading! After school, it was reruns of Lost in Space, My Favorite Martian, Wild, Wild, West, Beverly Hillbillies, -’important stuff! ‘Gomer Pyle, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan's’ Island. ‘About the most intellectual show I ever watched was The Twilight Zone! And I probably didn’t fully understand about half of those. And ‘PrimeTime’ wasn’t much better, from The Brady Bunch to Mary Tyler Moore.  

I Hate to admit it, but I was an ignorant, uneducated, un-interesting person, who knew every TV commercial by heart, but had no idea what ‘civil rights’ were, or where any other country was on the globe. You know, -like most Americans still today! ‘Needless to say, I was not very self-confident or outgoing during High School. After High School, I took two years’ worth of community college classes, but didn’t complete a degree due to dropping out of required classes like English. As a typical young person, I found music to be the ultimate entertainment source, though looking back, I missed most of the deep meanings of the lyrics. I listened to music all day, everyday, and even got a job where I could listen while I worked. I installed car stereos (assuming that, naturally, everyone else wanted to listen to music constantly, right?).

I started by installing CB radios in it’s boom of 1976, and then worked at a small, ‘wholesale’ radio place where we put in radios for car dealers, right on their lot, right before the car was delivered. Later I was the sole installer at a big-box retailer like BestBuy called ‘The Federated Group’. I was ‘straight commission’, could work any hours I wanted, ‘enjoyed the work, ‘didn’t have a busy social calendar, and for the first time in my life, was making good money. A no brainer! -And ‘no-brainer’ also described my intellectual level at the time. I had a good, home stereo tuner and big speakers on the wall so that I could easily listen to music while I worked on the cars. All day, every day, music, music, music. Commercials, music, commercials, music, ‘news segment -oop! (‘boring! “hope the music starts again soon. ‘what are they talking about, anyway?”)

‘One day, when annoyed by all the commercials, headline-news segments, and same music over and over and over, I spun the the big analog tuning knob all the way to the left in frustration. It bounced back from the end and stopped at around 91.5. There was a guy singing a folksy song and when it ended there was clapping and I realized it was some kind of live music show. Then the guy started talking, the way some musicians do, telling a story to introduce the next song. Only there wasn’t a next song. This guy just kept talking and talking, telling all these stories about weird funny people in some small town in Minnesota. “What is Minnesota?” I wondered. I thought it was just a mythical place they made jokes about on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. ? And what kind of radio station is this, to let some guy ramble on and on, for twenty minutes, before he gets around to playing some more music?

Then they started doing these little radio plays, like in the old-time radio days, and they were really funny and entertaining! Then satires of commercials, ...which I loved! And then all different kinds of music, and then the ‘show’ ended, but they said it was a weekly show, and I remember writing down the date/time and station frequency so that I wouldn’t miss it next week! However, it turned out that I didn’t need the reminder, because after that show was another, very interesting, but very different show where two guys talked about fixing cars, and people called in with their questions, and these guys were really funny! And then another show came on about how to start your own business, which I was kind of interested in doing, since I knew I wouldn't get a degree. And even the news on this station was interesting because they explained things really well, and talked about each topic of the news for like, 5 minutes, instead of just stating the brief title of the item for 20 seconds, never giving any details, and then just going back to more commercials.

That was the other, really amazing thing about this weird station  -  ‘NO commercials!!   None!  -  “Wut??” - It was crazy! With this new station, I could listen all day long, getting news (interesting news!), music, comedy shows, small business tips, excellent interviews of famous people, -tons of fascinating content, -’all new, everyday, ….- and absolutely no commercials to annoy the shit out of me! It was like a revelation! Like the sky opened up! ‘Needless to say, when the next week rolled around, I didn’t have to remember to switch to this station to catch that variety show,.......I was still on the station! I had never left!
And I still haven’t. And it's 35 years later!

Within a year of that revelation-event (which I consider one of the most important events of my entire life), I left that job and started my own car stereo store, and had success with it. Partly due to the info and encouragement I got from that small business show series, and partly due to the self-confidence I got from being informed, intellectually stimulated, and generally aware of the world around me. After awhile, I could keep up in conversations with highly-educated people that were surprised to find out how little schooling I'd had, or that I didn't read a lot . All by just listening to a radio station. ‘For free! While getting stuff done! Normally, people only achieve this as a result of undergoing a proper, formal education. Especially if it follows a childhood where study habits are taught in the home. But I had had neither. And neither do most Americans. And so, unless one can find a job where memorization of TV commercials is considered an important skill-set, I strongly urge everyone I know, to tell everyone they know, about this incredible free education. You just may know someone in the situation I was in, who then may someday say: “NPR changed my life”.