My Sandbox

This is all about my work/learning processes.  Basically, I like to research and plan things before I start doing.  This cuts down on rework, but delays start-up times. 


My process is complicated by the fact that I don’t like to read from pc screens (I prefer to print something out, and read from a paper copy).  This leads to lots of piles of paper around.  I also spend so much time finding interesting stuff, and making paper copies that  it seriously detracts from reading time.


I also don’t type very well.  I much prefer to write things out in longhand — I find it relaxing, and very conducive to creative thinking.


I have tried a variety of technologies over the years to improve my process (including both handwriting and voice recognition).  Google has been a big help on the research end — as has the web in general (and wikis also).  I’ve become very adept at leveraging all of these.  I currently use wireless mice and keyboards with my two main laptops  — so I can lay in bed with a keyboard in my lap, a mouse on the sheet beside me, and I’m off to the races.  One of my laptops is a media center device with a hi def tv tuner on board.


Now, back in the day when I was at Microsoft, there were two projects that I was involved with that had the potential to improve my process: Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), and the tablet PC. 


At the time MS was very high on the tablet pc, and I was too — as it would get rid of all the hundreds of hand-written things I always seem to have laying around (even though I was not trained as an engineer, I have adopted their practice of always carrying a spiral notebook with me to record important stuff — kind of a back-in-the-day Twitter).


WSS was the evolution of two previous lackluster products: SharePoint Portal Server (SPS), and SharePoint Team Services (STS).  SPS was big and ugly, and STS was a toy (and also ugly).  SPS had gotten a little traction with large corporate customers, and STS (surprisingly) had a small but very enthusiastic following within MS.  SharePoint was all about collaboration: the organizing and sharing of work product.  Another area that I though could help.


In any event WSS turned out to be a grand slam homerun, while the tablet pc was a garden variety single.  I encouraged a friend in NH to get a tablet, but it just didn’t come up to expectation.  Tablet PC’s needed to run a special version of windows, the hardware was expensive (easily $1000-$2000 more that regular laptops),  there were not a lot of tablets to choose from, and finally the handwriting recognition wasn’t all that great.  One notable thing, however, was the addition of a new app to the MS Office suite called OneNote, primarily targeted at tablet PC users (but available to all).


In the years since I left MS, WSS has proliferated among corporations everywhere  (there are over 50,000 WSS sites inside MS alone).   Since, WSS is all about collaboration, one would think it’s most useful in large corporations.  Certainly true, but WSS is essentially a small easy to set up web site with features easily customized to other purposes (blogging, document repositories to name just two) of interest to individuals and small businesses.  Many 3rd party web hosting sites provide WSS as one of their offerings.  Individuals can use WSS across the web to form ‘virtual’ small businesses — essentially ad-hoc collaborations among widely dispersed otherwise unconnected individuals.  In short WSS can be the basis of a very compelling web site for a small business like mine (in fact, MS’s own Office Live Small Business offering is based upon Sharepoint services).

I mentioned above that when the tablet PC was introduced, MS added the OneNote application to the office suite to support it (in Vista they also made all the tablet PC software available on non-tablet PC’s).  It can be used by the non-tablet-endowed crowd as well (and many have done so — bloggers and tweety birds like it).  It’s really helpful in organizing almost anything.  Let me elaborate a bit.


Imagine a pad of paper that contains an infinite number of sheets  (want blank sheets, college ruled, narrow lines, wide lines, grids — both narrow or wide, any of these, all of them — this pad’s got em).  Now imagine that any single sheet can be infinitely long and/or infinitely wide.  That’s the basic OneNote environment.   Add to it the notion of school notebooks, each with many sections, each containing many pages and subpages; and you’ve got a powerful organizing tool.


But wait — that’s not all!! (I forgot the Ginzu Knives ).  On these pages I can put just about anything: got a file on your PC somewhere, push a button and it’s on the page — don’t want the file itself — put a reference to the file.  You’re on your cell, you can push any (or all of your contacts) to a page.  Browsing the web? On a page that’s interesting? Push a button and it’s in your notebook.  Only want a part of the page? No problem just select what you want before you push.  Got a picture in your camera (or in a file, or on the web somewhere) that can go on a page.  You can talk at a page and that goes on too.  Scribble on your mouse pad the last great novel, and onto the page it goes.  Now you can imagine a page that contains voice snippets, a bunch of scribblings, pictures, typed text, web pages, fragments of this and that.  Now with your mouse you can grab some or all of these things and drag them around to different places on the page, to a page in another section (or in another notebook) to make things conform to whatever it is that blob of jelly between your ears might like.  Get the picture??


OhBoy OHBoy , (If you call in the next 25 nanoseconds I’ll throw in for free the absolutely amazing vegomatic juicer!!!!Did I mention search?  Everything on your page can be the target of a search.  Is it handwriting? Write out a word longhand and it’ll search for it; spoken word or phrase? Speak and it shall be found.  (Obviously typed text can be found).  But wait there’s more!!! Things like pictures (or anything else on the page for that matter) can be tagged in a variety of ways and then tag-based searches are possible (much like tagging on blog pages).

MS has also added "print to PDF" and "print to OneNote" functionality to Vista/Office.  This, coupled with an eBook reader (like the kindle) can be used to provide a paper reading experience without the physical piles of paper.  (I’ll have more to say about eBooks and the kindle in a later post.)


You might see where this is all trending: take your iphone, ipod, kindle (much improved), your pda(do we still have these?), blackberry, and oh don’t forget your Nintendo DS; combine these all into one device.  Then split it in two: attach one part to your ear (stick it in), put on your shades(the other part — duh), turn on the bluetooth — need I say Minority Report? (Tom Cruise eat your heart out).


I forgot the GPS check it out from recent Wall Street Journal:  Smart Phones are Edging Out Other Gadgets


BTW this whole rant was written in OneNote, and posted through Windows Live Writer .


BTBTW After I wrote this I came across the following post from a long term OneNote user and tablet PC owner (a college student): OneNote and Me.  Oh yes One note comes with a built in yellow magic marker tool   — (much better than the Ginzu knives).  On the other hand, there goes "the dog ate my homework" excuse.

In future posts I’ll report on my experiences with all of the items mentioned herein.



Can’t Type Worth a Hoot

This is a bit of a setup piece.  Back in the summer of 1959 I took a typing course at the local high school.  One of the first things the teacher said was “don’t look at the keyboard”.  So of course (see previous post) I did — and have been looking ever since.  And so my typing skills are (speaking charitably) challenged.

Over the years I have explored a variety of ways to mitigate this deficiency.  I have used transcription services, tablet PC’s, voice recognition software, handwriting recognition devices – none of these have been particularly successful (the transcription approach was the best of these, but it doesn’t do too well in our internetted age – in fact it’s even hard to find one still in business).

It would be great if there was a cap I could put on that would turn my thoughts into text .  But until that fine day arrives, I’ll need some other approach.  Things have changed since I last looked at this so I am going to revisit handwriting recognition in Vista and Windows 7 (on tablet PC’s and using the latest generation of digital pens).  Also reviews of the latest version of Dragon Dictate have been pretty positive so I’ll be taking a look at that as well.  If I’m going to blog with any frequency, I’m gonna need something…..

“Don’t Drink the Water!”

In 1960 just before Christmas my brother and I were on our way from St Gallen Switzerland to Madras (now Chennai) India.  My mother had written us to not drink the water or “we’d be sorry”…  As it turned out we had to overnight in Bombay (now Mumbai) before flying on to Madras.  At the hotel we sat down to dinner, and the waiter served us two tall, crispy clear, beadingly cold glasses of water – just like we would get back in New Jersey.  To make a short story longer, I must confess I supped of the forbidden fluid.  Of course I came down with a bad case of bacillary dysentery, and spent the rest of my visit on the pot.  Shades of just desserts , hoist by mine own petard!  I have never heard the end of this.  Eddie never listens… 

Truth be told I made several other trips to India where I didn’t drink the water, but I still got the  dysentery.  Finally one of my friends from Dhahran turned me on to this powder from Ciba Geigy, and I never got dysentery again – in fact I now have somewhat of a cast iron stomach – I’ve been to many odd places (and even drunk the proscribed beverage ) yet nothing happens.  Still the story persists…

Introducing the PandaMusings Blog

While listening to Edith Piaf sing "Milord" and Lara Fabian’s "Caruso" on YouTube; I’m thinking it’s about time to get this blog off the ground
When’s the last time you physically went to a bank branch? a post office?  How many physical checks did you write this month?  How much cash is in your pocket?  How many stamps did you use this month?  Where do you shop?  How many DVD’s and CD’s have you bought in the last year?  Do you balance your checkbook?  Do you listen to radio? Where/When/What?  Do you watch TV? What/When?  What was the first computer you ever used? How big/powerful was it?  How big/powerful is the computer you’re using now?  What magazines do you subscribe to?  Where do you get your news?  Your entertainment?  How do you pay for it.  Do you have a land-line telephone?  Do you use the Yellow Pages?  Have you ever used an automatic checkout machine?
The answers to these, and many similar questions help to illustrate how markedly everyday life has changed in just the last ten years or so.  (My answers are below)  
PandaMusings will be my personal, eclectic take on what it’s like to be alive in these last days of the first decade of the 21st century.   Included will be: experience with various gadgets and websites with potential to impact everyday life, commentary on some public policy issues (I’ll try to consistently fly my airplane here above 60,000 feet and avoid much of the nastier trench warfare that infects so much of our current public discourse), reviews of music, books, and movies that I like — some new and some golden oldies, and (to provide some contrast and context) I’ll occasionally share some personal stories from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Sometimes it’ll just be some twitterish postings about what I’m doing at the moment (I’ll not ‘really’ twitter because there’s nothing I can meaningfully say in 140 characters or less).
And just to lighten it up a bit, every once in a while there’ll be a Dick Martin: "I didn’t know that!" moment.
Oh yeah, Me.  You can learn a bit from the profile (off to the left over there), and I probably will be adding other bits from time to time to help clarify a post.
My answers:
  • bank branch, couple of months ago; before that it was over three years.
  • post office, yesterday — was first time in four years btw they didn’t have what I was looking for ($0.05 stamps) — so back to the internet .
  • checks, none — last one was in March 2006.
  • $0 — I do keep $25 in the house to pay for beard/hair trim every 5-6 weeks or so.  When I last spent time in NYC back in 2002, I would take $100 out of the cash machine every day!
  • 1 — first time in more than a year.  I still have two $.037 (100 stamps) coils, and one $0.39 coil — hence the need for $.05 stamps (current rate is $0.44).
  • Shop, supermarket (Publix, Winn Dixie), Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon,, Ebay.
  • 1 CD (Essential Michael Jackson — after he died); no DVD’s — I own about 50 DVD’s and I haven’t watched half of them.  I plan to buy "La Vie en Rose", "Madame Butterfly", and "Luciano Pavarotti Forever".  There’ll be more on this in future posts.
  • I have not balanced my checkbook in over 40 years.  I currently do all my banking online, and it works great.
  • I listen to Sirius satellite radio in the car, and & in the house — more on this in a future post.
  • I do watch some TV in primetime mostly networks in fall/winter; USA, TNT, SYFY in spring/summer — more on this to come.
  • 1st Computer IBM 1620II/CDC1604.  I am writing this post on a Toshiba Qosmio G35AV600 with a dual core 1.83 Ghz processor (conservatively speaking it can probably dispatch over 4 billion instructions/sec), 2GB memory, and over 1.5TB of storage on assorted disk drives.  By comparison the 1620 had 20,000 bytes of memory, could dispatch 20K instructions/second, and had a 2MB disk drive (considered very advanced  back then).  The 1604  had 32,000 48-bit words of memory (roughly 256,000 bytes), could do 100,000 instruction executions/sec (on a good day), had 8 tape drives, and maybe 20MB of disk storage.  The 1604 was the first machine designed for CDC by Seymour Cray, and was considered one of the largest (fastest) machines of its day.  We were lucky if we could get to run without breaking for 8 hours straight (we had many programs with runtimes in excess of 500 hours — 3 weeks).
  • I subscribe to: Scientific American, Analog SF, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal (digital edition), Windows IT Pro, MSDN, Technet (digital edition), SQL Server, Communications of the ACM, and Maximum PC.  As they come up for renewal I am converting to digital or Kindle versions, or cancelling (if no digital version is available) — I will have more on this real soon now.
  • Most of my news comes from emails sent to me each day by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times (email is free — so I don’t subscribe), the International Herald Tribune, and the panel discussion blocks of Foxnews Special Report (daily 6:40-6:55PM).
  • Entertainment – I still watch TV and go to the movies, but increasingly I’m watching favorite TV shows online — in this way I can watch several episodes at one sitting;  I make use of Comcast’s video on demand service.  Mostly my entertainment comes from books which I buy online from Amazon, I also subscribe to for access to most technical computer books.  I own almost 1000 books: about 750 SciFi and mysteries, 200 computer books, and the rest physics, reference, miscellaneous.  Other than the books and $90/month to Comcast (for TV/Internet), I don’t pay for any of this.  I am very interested in viable business models around news and entertainment.
  • I do not have a landline: I have a VirginMobile prepaid cell and a Vonage account.
  • I used to use the yellow pages a lot.  These days down here in Florida the printed yellow pages are a joke; and the internet versions aren’t any better.  I’m finding the Google local search facilities increasingly useful here.
  • Automatic checkout machines were very popular in supermarkets in New England when I lived there.  I found them to be reliable and convenient.  In Florida only Home Depot uses them, and they are not very reliable.
So that’s it.  I was just going to do a short post to get this started, but as usual I’m worse than Joe Biden (sorry Joe) — this is more like a page and a half long. You can find the blog at:
Hope to see you there.