Change: Technology, culture and people. Part III of III

 

The focus of this three part series has been to explore how technology has changed lives, culture and us over the past one hundred years. This isn’t the result of some grant funded academic exercise. There are no footnotes, ibids or op. cits. These observations are drawn solely from the experiences of we two septuagenarians over a lifetime of living, loving, working and paying attention. In the first two columns we talked about how one hundred years of accelerating technology and human knowledge has changed the face of American industry from  manufacturing  (steel, rubber, consumer products and industrial machinery)  to service {communication, information, transportation and finance). We discussed the “older generation,” those born between 1935 and 1965, including the “boomers” that were raised by “Americas Greatest Generation” s and grew up in small towns and city neighborhoods across a booming America. We began a discussion on the differences between that generation (53 to 83 years old) and the “younger” generation 1980-2010 (8 to 38 years), which includes “The Millennials.” Today we continue that discussion.      

Half of the “younger” generation is composed of the infamous “Millennials.” Millennials, born between 1989 and 2004, today are between 14 and 29 years old. They spent their formative years clutching tablets and smart phones. Among the adult population, as a group, Millennials are generally regarded as arrogant, emotionally unstable, socially inept, ill educated, lazy, self absorbed, disrespectful and lacking in most human attributes deemed acceptable in society or useful in the workplace. Employers complain that Millennials they have no concept of work ethic, they simply expect to be paid. Many East coast summer resorts today hire European students for seasonal staff because America’s own Millennials are unsuitable. The internet is full sites mocking Millennial’s ineptitude. Try Googling “Millennial job interviews” and you can spend a whole day cackling over Millennial lampoons.

So is this really a lost half-generation?  Have these children and young adults been victimized and rendered useless by permissive parents and a failed education system that allowed “social media” to become the real educators of our children? Many people today would say yes, that’s it.

While the stereotype of the Millennial is certainly based on some disturbing facts it is important to realize that there are many un-stereotypical Millennials who really do “have it all together.” More than likely, even the stereotypical Millennials will eventually “smell the coffee.” The “Beat Generation” of the 50s and the “Hippies” of the 60s and 70s for the most part went mainstream by the time the hit their 30s. Indeed the present day Millennials will surely live to be appalled at what they see in the next “younger” generation.

In summary, while it is true that a large part of the adult world will continue shake their collective heads at the antics of the Millennials, we should recognize the fact that we created the technology and environment that created them. We didn’t see it coming, but we never do. Each new generation enjoys and/or suffers from what the previous generations created. In the past ten years we have allowed our children to connect with the entire world of human knowledge and thought. That includes both the good and the not so good. We have also provided them with an alternative to the traditional authority of parents and teachers, constant access to their peer culture.    

So when your grandkid asks you to translate the message on her birthday card because you wrote it in cursive, just smile and do it. The next time you see a herd of Millennials silently shuffling through a shopping mall with their heads down and their faces bathed in the pale light of their smart phones, just think happy thoughts remembering those bright summer days at the ole swimming hole laughing with your friends. Would you really trade your life’s experience for theirs?    

 

Change: Technology, culture and people. Part II of III

 

Last week we discussed the explosion of technological change and the accelerating growth of human knowledge. Because change has come so fast, the last three generations of Americans, Boomers, XGeners and Milennials, each grew up in very different worlds. There have always been differences between generations but in the past those differences were mainly the result of natural changes in the way peoples think as they mature and how their priorities change with age. Until the twentieth century change came slowly. From grandpa to grandson, folks worked, lived, traveled and communicated pretty much the same from generation to generation. All that has changed.  

Demographers typically use thirty years to define a generation. Selecting what year a new generation begins is arbitrary and depends upon what the demographer is seeking to analyze or prove. For the purpose of our discussion, we’ve selected as our “Senior” generation those born between 1935 and 1965 (today they are 53 to 83 years old). We compare them with the “Latest” generation born between 1980 and 2010. (8 to 38) years old.

The half generation between these two are the “tweeners,” a not particularly interesting transition group consisting of the kids and grand kids of the “Seniors.” The “Seniors” include the “Boomers” and the “Latest” include the “Millennials.”

It is important to note that our conclusions are broad brush generalizations. There are a great many “Seniors” and “Latest” generation individuals who do not fit any stereotype. That being said, most of us will recognize the broad characteristics of each generation and appreciate the environmental factors that make them so different.

The “seniors” were the last “old school” generation. Their parents were “Americas Greatest Generation,” they endured The Great Depression and then saved World from Fascism in WWII. They built a golden age for their families. The freest and richest country on the planet’s economy was booming and life was good. Patriotism flourished. Their children grew up believing that America was the greatest country on Earth and even God knew it and blessed us. America was “small town.” Whether we lived in big cities, suburbs, small towns or family farms our neighborhood was our world. We knew the law enforcement, merchants, store owners and our neighbors. Growing up we baled hay, detassled corn, repaired our cars, painted our houses and changed our own faucets. The drug stores even had tube testers and a supply of TV tubes so we could repair our own TV sets. We were proud of our competence and independence. We went to work in the America’s factories and offices knowing that we had to earn our pay. There were no rewards for simply “participating.” We felt comfortable in the belief that we were in control of our own lives.

As time passed, little by little old skills and knowledge began to seem less relevant. Cars became too complicated to accommodate the “shade tree mechanics” and so have a lot of other things that we used to do for ourselves. Skilled trades succumbed to automation. Technological change came fast and furious. About the time you get comfortable with your computer, smart phone, software or applications along comes the next version and the old ones don’t work anymore. The changes don’t seem to make things better, just different. To make things even worse, your grandson thinks you’re doofus because you don’t Snapchat and didn’t even know that there is a feature length animation movie featuring The Emojis.

Next week we continue the battle of the generations.    

     

 

Change: Technology, culture and people. Part I of III

 

Nome and I have been going to work in the morning for over fifty years, for the past 23 years to our shop, The Computer Factory, in San Marcos. We spent our first 30 years in engineering and management with some of America’s premier “high tech” corporations. Our list includes Westinghouse, FMC, Control Data, NCR, Packard Bell, United Telecom, Belden, Volker Craig and Systems Engineering Laboratories. During those years we took part in the development, design, manufacture, distribution, marketing and support of consumer and commercial electronics. For the past two decades, at the Computer Factory, we’ve been where “the rubber meets the road” in the explosive growth of consumer computer and communications technology. When you work it every day, technological changes blend seamlessly into an unbroken line. But when you step back and look at how technology has changed the way we live, communicate and think during our lifetimes, it is absolutely mind boggling.

In the next several columns we will do a retrospective on how technology has affected us and our world. This is purely from our point of view and not an academic study in sociology. This is how we see technology changing the culture, attitudes and behavior of ourselves, customers, friends, family, community and the country. There are monumental differences in the way millennials (under 35), post millennials (Xgens or tweeners) and seniors (over 55) view the world and one another. We are going to explore some of those differences and the way they affect people in day to day relationships.

To set the tone for our discussion we take note of a couple of interesting if not startling facts. First, the “Knowledge Doubling Curve” posits that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.  According to IBM, the build out of the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.

Second, looking at the top ten most valuable American companies in 1917, 1967 and 2017 reveals long term changes in our technological focus.

In 1917 the ten most valuable American companies where: US Steel, AT&T, Standard OIL, Bethlehem Steel, Armour, Swift, International Harvester, DuPont, Midvale Steel and US Rubber.  Oil, steel, rubber and food. This was a country on the move, growing, building and expanding. Technology was focused upon those needs.

In 1967 Americas most valuable companies were: IBM, AT&T, Eastman Kodak, General Motors, Standard Oil, Texaco, Sears, GE, Polaroid, and Gulf Oil. IBM sold products to businesses not consumers, AT&T did both as did General Motors and the oil companies Eastman Kodak, Polaroid, GE and especially Sears were essentially consumer oriented.

2017 Americas most valuable companies were: Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Berkshire Hathaway, Johnson and Johnson, Exxon Mobile, JP Morgan, Wells Fargo. With the exception of Johnson and Johnson and Exxon, none of these companies produce products that you can touch or feel. Apple does sell products but they don’t make them, they are basically a sales rep for Chinese computer, phones and accessories. The other four of the first five sell services. Three of the second five companies also sell services not products.

Over the past 100 years our most valuable companies have changed from ones that produce business and infrastructure related technology to those providing business and consumer services technology. Next week we’ll begin the discussion on how technology is forcing people to change in fundamental ways.

 

 

The sky is falling, Melt Down and Specter

 

You’ve probably heard about it by now. The entire computer industry is in turmoil over the Specter and Meltdown vulnerabilities. These are recently discovered serious vulnerabilities in the CPUs (microprocessors) used in virtually all computers manufactured since the mid 1990s. For sophisticated hackers, these defects have  potentially provided access to all the information on all the world’s computers for over twenty years. Whether or not governments or criminals have discovered and used these vulnerabilities is not known, simply because anyone who had discovered and used this vulnerability would have kept it secret. Our own NSA denies previous knowledge of the problem (opportunity?) For the past several months the computer industry has been scrambling to find fixes. While these vulnerabilities exist in personal PCs the biggest concerns are in the servers and other high speed computers commonly used by governments and corporations. These computers use the same CPU as your PC but each of these powerful computers will contain dozens or even hundreds of these CPUs.

The story of how these twenty year old defects were only discovered in 2017  by four separate and unrelated groups all within months of each other is fascinating. Surely several books and at least one movie are in the offing. The defect in CPUs involve a process that has long been employed in the industry to make computers run faster, today it’s called “speculative execution.” 

Back in the late 1960’s dozens of small high tech companies were nipping at IBMs heels. Each was in the race to make the fastest mainframe computers. I was an engineer with one of those companies SEL (Systems Engineering Laboratories) in Fort Lauderdale (Florida’s Silicon Valley). We used the technique that today is known as “speculative execution” to make our computers execute tasks faster. In those days we called it making “blind calls” or “blind fetches.” The speed of computers was limited by their architecture and physics but a computer could be made to execute complex instruction sets quicker if its program could look ahead and “fetch” data that was likely to be needed in subsequent computations. This speed enhancing technique was somewhat hit or miss. While the “blind fetch” usually pulled up the files that were needed, it often pulled many other files that were not needed, these were then discarded. The methods of accessing and discarding these superfluous files have created the vulnerability.

In the early days this ‘speculative execution” was an activity of the program (software). In the mid 90s, Intel and other CPU makers encoded this process in silicon. “Speculative execution” became a part of every microprocessor (CPU).

The way computers handle the files in the process of “speculative execution” has created the vulnerability for the Specter and Meltdown exploits. The industry is working feverishly to find fixes for these vulnerabilities. Most of these fixes so far have the unpleasant side affect of slowing down the big, fast multi-microprocessor computers used by governments and industry by as much as 30%. This is a big problem for industrial and Internet servers, and governments, but not for home PC users.

These vulnerabilities don’t invade computers like a virus. The simply allow hackers to steal data.   Passwords, bank accounts, personal data and industrial and government secrets that are stored in “servers” are at risk. Home and small business computers are not likely to be hacked because the process is involved and the rewards are limited on individual PCs. While the fixes may slow down large powerful PCs, the will not have noticeable affects on individual PCs.

We all face the risk of having our personal data stolen from commercial and government networks. We may also experience unpleasant delays on Internet websites we are accustomed to using. At this point no one really knows how bad the problem is or what affect it may have on our day to day lives. We must wait and see.      

 

when your PC needs help

All of us love it when we make a customer happy. Bringing a computer back from the brink of death or saving files and pictures that the customer thought were lost forever gives us a rush. Conversely, we all feel bummed when we have to give a customer bad news. That’s why they usually make me do it.  It’s unpleasant but stuff happens. Hard drives fail, files disappear, Windows corrupts, hackers can turn your PC into their “bitch” and international crime networks can kidnap your PC and hold it for ransom.

When computers need work, the fact that it cost money is bad enough, but it’s far worse when important data, files or applications disappear. Replacing components that fail or even replacing an entire computer is fairly inexpensive and easy these days, but how do you replace a lifetime of family pictures or letters from a departed loved one. Small business owners rely on their PC to keep financial and customer contact records. Forms, business applications and other critical information needed to run the business are available only on the PC. The IRS requires small businesses and individuals to keep years of records in the event they are chosen for an audit.

The point is that the programs and data files that resides on our computer hard drives are often far more valuable to us than the computer itself. There is no way to predict when your computer will fail but there are many ways to ensure that whatever happens to your PC, your data will be safe. “Do it yourself” data storage on back-up drives, DVDs or flash drives can be somewhat effective, but those who rely on them must take precautions and constantly monitor the results to be sure these devices are working properly. The easiest, surest and safest way to ensure your data files are “cloud” based storage services like “Carbonite.”  For less than sixty dollars a year you can relax knowing that your data files are safe. Sign up, sit back and relax in the secure knowledge that your files are safe and that no further effort on your part is required.

Eventually something on your PC will fail. Most hardware problems won’t affect your data or usage patterns. Two failure modes will. If your hard drive fails or starts to fail or if your Windows OS (Operating System) becomes corrupt, it will often require some changes in the way you do things. It is a lot like getting a new PC. When applications and data files re-loaded, they never look or work exactly the way it looked and worked under the old OS. Most folks can take these changes in stride and adapt but some “freak out.” Many of we seniors underestimate our own ability to learn and adapt and so we react to change with frustration, fear and anger. That type of reaction to change is not limited to seniors.

Reinstalling windows or transferring data to a new PC is done because the old system simply cannot be made to work. There are no other choices. Helping people to adapt to these changes is probably our biggest challenge and what we are best at. Our techs understand frustration and they don’t take it personally. They know that their job is to get you back to where you can use your computer again so they are pretty patient.

Next week we’ll discuss some things that you may have used for years but that will eventually bite you in the butt. A few are Systems Mechanic, AOL, Outlook, Outlook Express and Incredimail.   

 

 

The sales prevention department.

That’s me, at least that’s what Nome and the guys call me. Actually we are all pretty good at sales prevention when it comes to preventing the sale of new PC systems. There are often alternatives to buying a new “retail” PC that give you better performance, quality and reliability.  That’s one huge difference between the way we relate to our customers and the way the employees in “big box” retail stores like Best Buy, Fry’s, Staples and Office Depot relate to their customers. The business model for these stores is based on merchandise sales. Over 90% of their revenue and all of their profits come from new product sales, less than 10% of revenue and none of their profits come from service.

With their orientation toward product sales, big box stores have little interest in providing real customer service. Even when they try, (like Best Buy’s “Geek Squad”) when it comes to computers they are woefully inept and ridiculously expensive (check out their ratings on Google). It isn’t because they aren’t good kids, they’re simply inexperienced. The high turnover in these entry level positions coupled with an understandable lack of interest by corporate management in providing real computer service renders their technicians ineffective. Computer service and problem solving is not their business, new product sales is.

Here at the Computer Factory our primary business is service, PC sales are secondary. Our revenue may be evenly split between product sales and service but we our profitability is based on how good a job we do in solving problems and providing answers. Certainly we can sell you a brand new notebook or desktop PC with Windows 7 or 10, copy your files over and give you a trade in value on your old PC. We can also repair, reformat or upgrade your old PC. We often find that repairing or upgrading your old PC is a more cost effective solution than buying a new one. We can add or replace a business or home desktop or notebook PC with a refurbished “corporate” PC of higher quality and performance than that of a new “retail” PC costing twice as much. 

We try not to let any useful computer go to waste. A notebook PC with a broken screen may not be worth fixing, but hook it up to a monitor, close the lid and plug in a mouse and keyboard and, voila, you have a perfectly usable wi-fi desktop PC for $100 dollars. Sometime,  just when money is a little tight, you may find that you need a computer for your school, home or business. Give us a chance to help, we do it every day.

Whether for home or business, our experience and flexibility make us the best place to come for solutions to any computing issues you may be having. While it is nearly always more cost effective to bring your problems in to our shop. For those things that must be done on site, our techs are the best. 

Please check out and comment on our new web site (www.thecomputerfactory.net).

Are PCs going the way of the buggy whip?

Sure they are, but not today or tomorrow. Ten years from now we doubt that you’ll be able to find anything that looks much like today’s PCs anywhere in a business or home. Home users will lead the way. In the early days of the “computer age” only businesses could afford computers. That began to change in 1981 when IBM launched the “PC age” By the turn of the century virtually every home had a PC and today nearly 80% of homes also have at least one “smart phone.”

Today, well over 90% of home computer use is Internet based and 90% of “smart phone” use has nothing to do with “telephoning”.  Both devices are essentially internet access devices. The PC has a nice big screen and a comfortable I/O setup (mouse/ keyboard) but you can’t put it in your pocket and take it with you. The smart phone is highly portable but it has a dinky screen and pinchy little touch screen controls. If you could hook your smart phone to a keyboard, mouse and big screen monitor at home you probably could throw out your PC. It’s true that you have Windows on your PC and Android or Apple on your smart phone but that makes no difference if all your applications (word processor, spreadsheets, desktop publishing, photo editing etc) are available on the Internet. You won’t need a hard drive because the internet will store all your files. Even your home printer will operate with an Internet based driver. You won’t need a PC.

This technology is available today and early adopters are starting to use it. Operationally it’s much like using a Chromebook. The technology is not quite ready for us yet, the smart phone to desktop interface hardware needs some refinement and the on-line apps need to be expanded and improved but within three years this technology will be ready for the casual home user. Gamers, designers, animators, solids modelers, video and sound editors and other “power users” will still require local processing power but for most of us. No more PC.

Business users are another story. LAN (local area network) users like most businesses will be far slower to move to network computing. Their network servers work much faster and more efficiently than the Internet. They have a considerable investment in the applications software that runs their enterprise. Nearly 80% of business networks run on Windows 7. Windows XP runs nearly 10% and Windows 10 runs a distant third. Business users will continue to require PCs for growth and replacement. But now days, they don’t need “new” PCs.

While power users will always need the latest and greatest to do their jobs more efficiently, Home or business users have nothing to gain by switching to Windows 10 or buying “new” PCs. Upgrading or repairing older PCs or purchasing half-priced “refurbished” corporate trade-in PCs is by far a more cost effective option. “Refurbs” from The Computer Factory carry “new” (one year) warranties and are as powerful and capable as new PCs.

Here at The Computer Factory we will continue to build and customize new desktop and notebook PCs for any and all applications, but “refurb” Windows 7/10 notebook and desktops are by far our hottest selling PCs for business or home.

Who the hell goes to the Computer Factory?

It’s a great question so last month we decided to find out who our customers are. Do we cater to a certain demographic, is there such a thing as someone who “looks like a Computer Factory customer.” We have been around since 1995 and Nome made the observation that our business and home customers “do seem to be getting a bit older.” “Sure” I said “but that’s a good thing, it only means that our customers tend to stick with us over the years.” “That may be true” countered Nome, “but it’s probably not a good thing if your toughest competition is the “grim reaper.”  

One way to look at your customer base is by generation. Folks born before 1945 (the end of WW2) are members of the “Silent generation” or the “Greatest Generation.” That’s the generation that raised Nome, me and the “baby boomers.” We speak their language and fit like a glove with those two generations. Folks born between 1965 and 1981 are known as Generation X. Most business owners and working folks today are “GenXers.” We notice little difference between the “boomers” and “GenXers” and we get along just fine with them too. Demographic analysts describe “Millennials” as those born between 1981 and 2015. Early “Millennials” (1981-91) seem pretty much like the rest of us but those post 1991 “millennials” are a piece of work. “California Millennials.” under 25 years old are particularly scary. The rap on these folks is that they are selfish, lazy not too bright and virtually unemployable. They are victims of a “dumbed down” education system that elevates social consciousness and political correctness over real learning like science and history. It ridicules success, competition, work ethic and traditional values. These millennials grew up in pay-for- play Shwartenegger/Brown California where everyone is some kind of victim that needs government  help. Some curmudgeons live in the hope that most “Millennials” will tumble of a cliff or blunder into traffic while glued to their smart  phones long before they can become a “voting bloc” lethal to America.

Fortunately there are plenty of exceptions to the “Millennial” stereotype. We all know many bright, interactive hard working “Millenials” who properly respect themselves and others. Our senior technician Julio Sarmiento’s children, Daisy and Rodrigo and our 21 year old technician Derek stand out as examples. The key to countering the negative influences and leadership vacuum provided by schools, governments and the Internet seems to be good parenting. “Millenials” with parents who provide leadership seem to do well. Parents who allow society to set the norms for their children’s behavior will put their children at risk.

So Nome was right. Our customers are getting older. Americans are becoming far more comfortable dealing with technology than people, especially younger Americans. We don’t trust people so much any more. We shop for products anonymously on the Internet and when we have questions or problems we “Google” them. Sometimes we find the answers we need and sometimes we don’t. “Who the hell goes to the Computer Factory?” Anyone who has a computer question or problem that can’t find an answer.

Today’s home and business computers.

There are fundamental differences between the usage patterns of home and business PC users. Those patterns have continued to diverge as home users abandon “stand alone” applications for “the cloud” while businesses hang on to their business specific, local applications.

Business PC users have “off line” (stand alone) activities that require their PCs to have local processing power. Programs for accounting, invoicing, contact management, word processing, forms and desktop publication etc are typically installed and executed on PC workstations or on LAN (local area network) connected PC servers. Business workstations typically store data files locally on hard drives. Some may also use “the cloud” for data back-up and to access “cloud” applications and data bases.

Home PC users have largely abandoned “stand alone” applications. Most home and school applications are on the WWW. Communication, banking, taxes, genealogy, research, surfing and even data storage are increasingly “cloud” based. Most users still store pictures and files on their local hard drives and most home users have a printer, but for the most part our home PCs are basically nothing more than tablets or smart phones with a big screen, keyboard and mouse.

When a PC is being used on the Internet it is using only a fraction of its memory and CPU power. The speed of the Internet connection determines the how fast the computer responds no matter how much RAM or how fast the CPU.  A ten year old Pentium IV accesses the Internet just as fast as a $2000 dollar “super gamer” PC.  

The bottom line for most home users and many business users is that buying a new computer is a waste of money.  

Unless you have a genuine need for a high end ($1200-$2000), stand-alone PC for applications like animation, video and audio transcription, solids modeling or high-end gaming, a refurbished PC will do the same job for half the cost. The i3 and i5 Dell and HP desk-top and notebook PCs that fill the retail shelves in the big box stores are technically capable of performing normal home and business applications but they are cheaply made and come with Windows10 Home. By contrast, our corporate refurbs are more robust, higher in quality and reliability and come with your choice of Windows 7 or 10 Professional. We give the same full-year warranty on these refurbs that you get on any new retail PC. A distinct advantage of our “refurbs” over retail PCs is that our refurbs have none of the bloatware (ads, pop-ups, links and trial programs), that cram retail PCs. Ours have only the things you need and they are free (Office suite and anti-virus software). Another important difference is that our warranty, repair and technical services are local and not located in some low-rent country on the other side of the planet.

So if you need to add or replace a PC or workstation for your home or business, think about stopping in either before or after you join the bottom feeders at Fry’s, Best Buy or Costco. We have solid PCs for any need starting at under $200 and ranging up to “Katie bar the Door” and we won’t let you make a mistake, Try us you’ll like us.