Inside Out and talking about feelings

23 Jun

 

rileys-emotions-inside-outSo for Father’s Day I took the kids to see the new Pixar movie, Inside Out.

I have always bee a huge fan of Pixar and its insistence on making movies that not only speak to a broad range of ages but also make a real statement that we can all learn from.

While I only saw the second and third Toy Story movies a while after they came out all of the movies from the studio (with the exception of Cars) were cinematic masterpieces. I rate the first five minutes of Up as one of the greatest pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen.

When I first saw the premise for Inside Out I was wasn’t filled with hope. In simple terms the main characters in the movie are the five emotions inside a 12-year-old girl’s head, I wasn’t filled with confidence. This is not a new concept and it can get tired very quickly. The fact that it was a Pixar movie gave me hope, because they simply do not make crap movies.

Inside Out - Emotion Poster CollaborationLuckily Inside Out does not disappoint and the grand tradition of Pixar making superb animated features remains intact.

From the cute short before the movie (about two lonely volcanoes, looking for someone to lava) to the closing credits the movie flashed by. Even the screaming child a row behind us did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the movie.

I’m not going to post any spoilers so you can read on without trepidation. (OK there is a tiny one but its not specific at all)

What struck me as I left the cinema is that this is a movie that every parent should watch with their children, probably more than once. The sheer brilliance of it is that it provides a vocabulary for children to better express their feelings. The five characters in the movie are Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger and together they make up the emotional spectrum of Riley (the child in question). If we want to help our children mature into well rounded adults they need to be able to vocalise their emotions and this movie is the fastest cheat sheet in providing real and useful vocabulary for children.

Very minor spoiler follows:

The amazing thing is that by the end of the movie it is clear that emotions such as sadness should not be seen as a bad thing. Kids have every right to be sad, they don’t need to be happy all the time, of course we want them to be happy, but nothing we as parents can do will stop them from experiencing sadness, fear, anger and disgust. This is just the nature of things. And experiences are not singular in their nature either, we are complex beings and being able to expose children to that reality in a story that is so beautifully told is a true treat.

I am not sure if Inside Out will be top of my Pixar Top Ten, but for anyone trying to raise kids in this crazy messed up world its a real godsend.

 

Digital TV: The poster child for DOC incompetence

14 Jan

If you want a shining example of the continued inefficiency of the South African department of communications you need to look no further than the migration of the country to digital terrestrial television (DTT).

I was going through some old articles I wrote and I came across one that I wrote for Fin24 in August 2008 (I couldn’t find it on the site but it was tagged as a Fin24 article so it may or may not have been published). It was a report on a briefing given by the then minister of communications Ivy Matsepe-Cassiburri and director general in the department Lyndall Shope-Mafole on the progress towards the switchover to DTT in SA.

According to the info in the article (I can’t remember what was said exactly because it was quite a while ago) we should have been able to buy DTT-enable TVs and set-top boxes by the second or third quarter of 2009. The DTT signal was supposed to be switched on by the end of 2008 and the analogue signal switched off by the end of 2011.

Fast forward to 2013 and we still don’t have digital TV up and running. Subsequent ministers have meddled with the plan and as a result we will probably (and I say this is the most charitable fashion) miss the deadline set by the ITU for turning off the analogue TV signal.

The latest debacle involves minister Dina Pule appealing a ruling by the South Gauteng High Court that e-tv, along with other broadcasters, is meant to decide how the conditional access system on the set-top boxes will work. Having had her case thrown out by the court the minister is going to further delay the roll out of DTT rather than moving quickly to ensure that decisions are made and the country can move forward.

The bigger problem that this poses is that it further delays the turning off of the analogue signal and the opportunity to use that liberated spectrum for broadband communications.

While I am not a hard-core libertarian the continued incompetence displayed by government shows that telecommunications is one area where a hands off attitude would be better for all concerned.

Cell C good, everyone else not so much (or my thoughts on acquiring an iPhone)

9 Jan

At some point in the next few months my cellphone contract will expire and I will be free of the shackles of contractual obligations and able to forage for the best cellular deal on the market.

Even though I have brief intellectual flirtation with the idea of switching to an Android phone or even a Windows Mobile device the reality is that I am far too deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem to really want to switch. That and the added value that other operating systems and ecosystems offer is not sufficiently better (or not better at all) than what I can get on an iPhone.

Right now I am on Vodacom (although with an independent service provider) and while I am not unhappy with the service I have received the simple fact is that you can get a decent deal if you take out a new contract, simply renewing a contract will get you a much smaller subsidy.

I am also not afraid of porting networks. This is in spite of my two previous experiences of porting: From Vodacom to MTN (where the phone didn’t work for the better part of the month) and from MTN back to Vodacom (where I couldn’t receive calls from MTN for about two weeks). You might say I am a sucker for extracting maximum value from my service provider.

When it comes down to the decision there are a few issues that come into play.

1)    Network coverage at my home: Vodacom coverage is not great and MTN is not much better. 8ta voice coverage is OK but without an external antenna data coverarge is weak.

Cell C is the clear winner in this race, it has a tower at a nearby shopping centre and I never see less than four bars of signal on my iPad (which uses a Cell C data sim)

2)    The combination of monthly cost and bundled services.

It is actually the cost/benefit ratio that is the real kicker because I can live with less than optimal coverage if I feel like I am getting value for money. I have found that if you moan enough to the networks they will at least make some sort of effort to improve their service at you location.

So it comes down to the offerings. I am starting with Vodacom and MTN because they have the least imagination when it comes to structuring packages.

I am topping out the budget for this exercise at R529 a month because that’s what it would cost me to get a 16GB iPhone 5 from Vodacom on an iPhone 120 package (120 minutes, 100 SMSs and 500MB of data), there are cheaper ways to get an iPhone from Vodacom, the cheapest being R399 a month on a SmartData Lite package (75 off peak minutes, 100 SMSs and 100MB of data) but considering that I can only just get by on 500MB of data that seems like a good place to set the benchmark.

MTN lists three options for the each of the iPhone variants and even though I would love a 32GB iPhone we are sticking with the 16GB for the purposes of the exercise.

For R429 MTN will give you the Anytime 200 package (R200 airtime value, 25 SMSs and 250MB of data) this is a better deal than the R399 Vodacom offering mostly because of the extra data and the fact that the airtime can be used at any time.

For R529 (the same price as the iPhone 120 package) you can move up to the Anytime 350 package (R350 airtime value, 50 SMSs and 250MB of data). Given that people like me rarely use more than our allocated amount of minutes it is really all about the data and not about the voice in these packages so at this price point I would be going with Vodacom because of the additional SMSs and the higher data allocation.

8ta is offering the cheapest way to get your hands on an iPhone 5 with the phone available for R358 on Smart Contract Basic (0 minutes, 0 SMSs and 350MB of data) with no included minutes the contract is going to cost you more if you actually use the phone but this actually amounts to 24 month interest free loan to buy an iPhone with a little data thrown in.

8ta’s highest end offering is for R458 on Smart Contract 3 (230 minutes to 8ta and landline numbers, 60 minutes to other numbers, 50 SMSs and 500 MB of data). If any of your regular calls are to landlines or 8ta subscribers those 230 minutes could come in handy.

I have left Cell C far last for a good reason, something about saving the best for last.

The little network that could is offering the iPhone 5 of Straight Up 200 for R399 (for a limited time) and with that you get 200 minutes, 200 SMSs and 500MB of data.

When compared to the Vodacom offering you are paying R129 less for 80 extra minutes, 100 extra SMSs and the same amount of data. And with the way Cell C let you bolt on additional services you could throw in an extra 500MB of data and still come in at R54 less than you would be paying Vodacom.

Sounds like a no brainer to me, in fact you would have to have a vendetta against Cell C or really crap coverage in the places you frequent not to take this deal.

Unless you are buying your iPhone for cash, in which case remember to shop around when your contract is up for renewal.

 

Tablets on Fire

3 Oct

Having been the resident Mac fanboy for a number of years you would expect that I would have nothing nice to say about Amazon’s Kindle Fire, but you would be wrong.
I have had a bit of an epiphany of late, specifically regarding the future of tablets and how they will fit into our overall computing experience.
Lucky for us fanboys Amazon has created a device that could possibly be even more locked down that the Apple ecosystem. Hell even if it isn’t, the point of the Fire is to provide an access point to Amazon’s content services, which includes ebooks, movies, TV and music, so if you bought a Fire and it was more locked down that you would expect from an Android tablet you hardly have room to complain.
The most important part of the Fire is not its form factor (hardly exciting) or its operating system. One: it is designed to be a true cloud-based tablet where everything you have bought from Amazon is accessible as long as you have a network connection and two: it is dirt cheap.
Pricing the Fire at $200 is a stroke of genius as it will very effectively segment the market into three groups of people. Those that want a true multi-purpose tablet (and they will mostly buy iPads), those who will buy the Fire (because it is cheap and connected to the Amazon service), those that will buy a tablet because it is cheap (as in cheaper than the Fire) and finally those that will shell out above the odds to buy an Android tablet because they can’t bring themselves to buy an iPad.
The one thing that got me thinking, however, wasn’t anything that any vendor has released over the past year, but rather a rather engaging piece of pulpy science fiction I read.
The books are from “Trader’s Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” by Nathan Lowell and you can listen to the free audiobook version of them on Podiobooks.com.
However, part of the shipboard life detailed in the books is that most of the interaction with the ship’s systems happens via a tablet. The tablet is not described but it is clear to me that if you were expected to have this tablet on you 24/7 then a 10” tablet would be impractical.
This ties into my view of how our computing experience will change over the next few years. I think we could do it now but practically it will probably take 10 years for this to happen.
The core of our computing experience will be a portable device, either a smartphone or tablet. The desktop and the notebook will be dead and instead we will have a device that will be able to drive an HD TV, a monitor and keyboard or simply operate in stand-alone form for when you are on the move. The device will know when it is in range of an authorised display and offer you a range of options for how you would like to compute. Want a touch interface on a screen? Done. Want a full desktop computing experience for some heavy lifting or a long days work? Done. Want to watch your move on the HDTV? Done. All of it driven from a single device that smart enough to know where your data is (local, on the network or in the cloud) and able to deliver that media to the display of your choice.
You see the computing paradigm of the future is not about the device. Its about the display. Your smartphone could theoretically be powering a dumb tablet display, rather than having to buy a tablet and a smartphone and a notebook.
There are clues to this all around, look at apps like Airvideo on iOS where you can stream your video to your iPad almost seamlessly. Look at the Kindle service (spotlighted with the Fire) where you can start watching the video on your tablet and finish watching it on the HDTV.
The thing is all the building blocks are already there. What we need is the portable compute power to deliver the service (and I think we are getting pretty close) and the operating systems that can seamlessly switch from a tablet environment to a desktop environment (and I think Windows 8 might be the first big step in that direction).
In fact, I think the biggest hurdle will not be hardware or software, it will be battery life and the only way I think we can get around this is the massive deployment of a standards-based inductive charging technology.
Imagine that almost every surface that you put your phone down on (and I mean any phone) is a charging station. Your desk, your car, your coffee table. So it is less an issue of remembering to charge your phone, but rather an issue of remembering to take your phone out of your pocket or handbag when you get to a flat surface.
When it comes to tablets I think we are seeing glimpses of the future today, better voice control, better media integration and the ability for operating systems to perform in both desktop and tablet mode. We still have some way to go, but Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are showing the path forward.

Fixing maths

27 Jul

It’s a funny thing when you are passionate about things that you have historically sucked at.

This is, however, pretty much the history of things that I love. I love gaming, but I only play single player games (or co-op games) because put me up against another human being and I end up a bloody stain on the floor. I love rugby and even though I played for my school first team it wasn’t a very big school and it sounds better than it really is. I love technology, but I have no gift in the programming department. If anything describes what I do best it is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and I am a very dangerous person.

The same is true with maths and science. I am obsessed with reading about advances in science and tech, I firmly believe that the next big leap forward is just around the corner and I keep telling my kids how important it is to do well in maths. However, if you had to go back into the deep, dark past (1989 to be precise) and look at my matric certificate you will see that I got an E on Standard Grade (it was a F on Higher Grade that got converted) for Maths and a D on Standard Grade for Science.

You would think that with marks like that I would hate those subjects but the allure of numbers is something that I can’t avoid. Sitting, as I do, a few metres away from the editor of The Teacher (a sister publication to the Mail & Guardian) I hear about all the different methods that people are employing to help their kids.

There is Mathletics but that costs money, and then there is Singapore maths, which some people swear by and has resulted in Singapore producing amazing results over the years.

Then I was reading an article in Wired which introduced me to The Khan Academy. The story is basically guy starts making videos for his cousin to help her with maths, everyone else starts watching them and before he knows it The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is giving him money and he has 2 400 videos up on the site and millions of people are using his service.

The great thing is that while many other maths tutoring systems cost money Khan Academy is free and kids (and adults) can watch the videos over and over again until the get the hang of the problem. There are also tests that you can do to check how well you understand the material. Because you are advancing at your own pace the smart go quickly and the not so smart can get there when they get there.

The problem with South Africa is that in the (lets call them) less well-resourced schools kids simply do not have access to decent teachers or the internet. Any one of those would be enough to make a dramatic difference to the quality of education that they receive. If many of these kids had access to online service similar to the Khan Academy all they would really need is a tutor to help them over the hump, this tutor wouldn’t even need to be a qualified teacher, just someone that has mastered that particular aspect of the problem.

In the Wired article it is made clear that there are educators that are less than enamoured with Khan’s approach to education (and to be fair Khan says that he is not a trained teacher he is just doing what he thinks needs to be done), but in SA we don’t have the luxury of debating educational methodologies especially when it comes to maths and science.

If kids come out of school feeling like they love maths, that they are confident that they can master their exams and that they can add 2 and 2 (or x and y) then we will be better off than we are now. Maybe by figuring out how we could use, or replicate, this kind of online service in SA we would be laying the foundations for a South Africa where everyone is prepared for the future and not one where more than half the population is left behind.