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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Am I Uncool?
Reflections after 100 columns and 59 years...

Here we are at my 101st column for silicon.com, an appropriate point to reflect on the preceding columns and where they might lead in the future.

Indeed, in my 59th year of life I have been doing more reflecting than ever before, especially as my young son recently informed me that I am not cool, and worse, I probably never have been cool. Of course, I beg to differ. Mentally, I never feel any older than 20 and my work is always projecting me into new thinking and a world of young thinkers. But as I shall explore shortly, there are certain physical limitations restricting my natural coolness.

Let me expand on why I have a self-image of coolness. All my music is in MP3 format on computers and a player in my car. I use email, SMS texts, IM, VoIP and a digital camera. I have the latest mobile phone and laptop. The range of software applications I have mastered is extensive and I do all my own network and system support. Hey, I'm an engineer and engineers are supposed to be able to walk on water, aren't they? But cool they are not, it seems.

I write a column because I have always written columns. In fact, I have been doing so on a regular basis for well over a decade but, as my son pointed out, the cool brigade blog. I'm not at all sure if my son has been chatting with my editor, but a few weeks ago she tactfully suggested that I migrate to a blog format that was more spontaneous, more with it and yes, closer to the cool threshold.

I have in no way resisted this blog transition, but I think finishing the silicon.com series of columns at a round number (100) is satisfying, as I am leaving a world of order and symmetry for a world of chaos, spontaneity and goodness knows what else. Of course, this is also signified by the fact that 101 is a doubly prime number, in base 10 and 2, and so it seemed to naturally set the stage.

Given the significant support I have enjoyed from the readership of my Uncommon Sense column over the past two years, and recognising that they too may or may not be cool, I thought I would gently ease into 'blog mode' further down the page.

But before I begin, what is a blog, where did they come from, how many are there and what happens next?

Every generation does something new, changes the paradigm and generally progresses with technology to exploit opportunities and create new modes. Mine laid down the architecture for the PC, created the internet and had a hand in the realisation of email. Following generations came up with mobile phones, SMS, PDAs, MP3, IM, chat lines, VoIP, blogs and more.

Originally it seems blogs - short for 'web logs' - were the forté of the earliest internet geeks who keep journals of their thoughts, discoveries, links and opinions. All were compiled by hand, as there were no fancy tools like FrontPage or Dreamweaver at the time. In 1999 or thereabouts, blogs became cool with companies and customers as well as social groups, which used them for discussions among remote groups. Around this time, a rash of new technologies simplified the process of creating blogs and an increasing number of servers became available to host the works of the fast-growing blogging community.

From 1999 onwards, blogging has grown exponentially and now there are an estimated 400,000 new postings and over 12,000 new blogs every day, with around 11,000 updates every hour.

What do people write about? As far as I can see, anything and everything. Is there a standard format? Not as far as I can see. Are the blogs interesting and informative? Mostly not. I'm sure Mandy's cat is a very nice animal and Mandy a caring owner, but their adventures do not interest me. Nor am I interested in Dan's recent problems with his new laptop and the store that fitted the wrong hard drive. However, one or two blog accounts from Iraq have been very interesting, as are a few blogs covering national and local events.

Are some bloggers the new wave of journalists? Is there a business model and can they get paid? Will companies be able to initiate and support blogs to their advantage? Are blogs a threat to anyone or any group? Perhaps.

Blogging is nascent - no one knows where it is all going or what the end point might be. It may be Guttenberg and the printing press versus the monarchy, government and church all over again. Even the US courts are having difficulty figuring out bloggers' rights under the First Amendment.

Just like Guttenberg, we are looking at a new paradigm with little control and no standards, but with millions of participants. So I have a slight feeling of déjà vu.

Many years ago, I had to ask the question: what should a home page be? Today I ask: what should a blog be? And like Dr Johnson with the first English dictionary, I get to call the shots. At this point, I have decided to kick off two blog entries that will be developed and expanded further in response to readers' feedback, my own experiences and the relentless advance of technology. So here goes:


My thumb won't let me be cool
13/4/05, 23.00 GMT, O'Hare Airport, Chicago, Illinois

It is unfortunate that I inherited arthritis from my mother and digits the size of bananas from my father. Try as I might, I cannot text at speed. My fingers and thumbs can simultaneously hit three or four keys on my mobile phone. So while texting is cool, I am not. I'm slow and ponderous compared to my children and I have to change my glasses to see the screen when using lower case - uncool or what?

I have looked around for a replacement phone with bigger keys and a bigger screen, but everything seems to be designed by midgets with very dainty fingers.

While on my laptop I prefer the touchpad mouse to a real thing, I am not at all happy, or comfortable, using a PDA stylus on an LCD screen. This mode lacks the essential feature of tactile feedback afforded by real keys. I, along with many others it seems, crave this feature when dealing with alphanumeric ports. Conversely, and curiously, I am at home with the LCD touch screen in my car.

But I put this down to the scale. Here, the soft keys are the size of my thumb and hard to miss, there are also very few of them and they are augmented by an audible beep, giving the feedback I find essential. And if I didn't like this mode, there is another option beyond changing my car.

For once in this world of IT I am not spoilt for choice, I am restricted through the lack of it. Right now, I see no obvious solutions on the horizon. Voice to text is still very immature and unable to cope with modest background noise situations and all other likely candidates reside in the lab, unproven and unlikely to escape. So if anyone else out there who is digitally challenged finds a solution, please post a Reader Comment at the end of this article. We really don't need to suffer the stigma of being uncool longer than necessary.


Not PowerPoint - just talking
14/4/05, 05.15 GMT, the Marriott Hotel, Boulder, Colorado

All my life, I have struggled to find ways of communicating the complex and difficult in a clear and concise way, so as to be readily understood by experts and laypeople without bastardising the truth too far. I have used many tools and techniques, including a lot of hands-on demonstrations and striking analogies. And of course, like the rest of the human race, I also use PowerPoint.

I have to now admit that if I were God for just a day I would be very tempted to delete all copies of PowerPoint with a single stroke. It seems the computer and the reliance on bullet points has killed the ability of the human race to tell a story. All too often, I sit in an audience feeling physical pain at the excruciatingly bad presentation I have to sit through. Slide after slide of bullet points delivered in a monotonic 'bore you to death and you must suffer this' manner. Arggh!

At the other end of the spectrum, at events I often find myself the last speaker of the day and/or the entire conference. And instead of watching my presentation gradually become decimated and devalued by everyone before me, I can, with the magic of my laptop, create a new customized presentation in real time in response to other presenter points and audience concerns. And this includes movies, pictures, animations, diagrams, facts and figures - and, yes, a very few bullet points.

The nightmare scenario is that you find yourself in a position where you don't have the luxury of flexibility. And it happens! The solution is to think on your feet - tell a story, sing and dance, do something different - add some value. I was at a conference this week where a friend of mine was the last man to speak. And right out of the blue he was totally outgunned - everything he was going to say had been said, every one of his slides had appeared before. Did he panic? Well, not outwardly he didn't: he strolled out to the front, revealed his dilemma to the audience and then proceeded to challenge the audience with questions.

This happened at the end of a long day, at the end of the conference when a lot of the energy had left the room and the audience was tired and ready to head home. Against all the odds, the format turned out to be a great success and revealed something of a new paradigm: Get the audience to do the presentation for you! It was simple and eloquent. Do you think the previous speaker was right on this point? Okay - hands up for, hands up against. How many people have DSL? How many have two DSL feeds? Why? And so on. At the end of the short session, everyone had gained a lot more from the conference than they would have if all had gone to plan.

As I sat there mulling over these events, I cast my mind back to the talk-and-chalk days of my college and university. Somehow, I think we have lost something that we may have to relearn - interaction and showmanship are very powerful and almost never boring. I then reflected that over the past 30 years I had watched companies, schools, colleges and universities become unbelievably boring places. It ain't just conferences that have suffered, it seems to be more general. I think we need a lot more diversity, more tools and, most of all, more energy and excitement.