Sunday, April 25, 2010

Welcome to the Smart Grid

I started work recently at a new company, ironically located just down the hill from the building Creo started in many years ago.

Tantalus is one of the small, fast-growing tech Vancouver companies working to make the smart grid real. Tantalus manufactures radio and software systems read electrical meters by radio. Well, that's half the story. Automated Meter Reading, or AMR, could be seen simply as a cost reduction exercise to reduce employment of the urban university students who jog between houses reading meters, or the more significant carbon footprint of driving trucks around rural areas to read meters of farm-houses. Tantalus' meters alone have saved an estimated 1,000,000 miles of truck travel in the U.S. in 2009. Part of the reason Tantalus' system does so well in these sparse rural regions is the nature of the radio systems they designed years ago, the uses both analog and digital techniques to create a network that allows meters to relay information from any other meter that they can reach by radio, extending the network reach by miles.

The other half of the story is that Tantalus' radio system is two-way. That turns out to be a great innovation because over the next few years, as the smart grid gets overlaid on top of the electrical grid, there will be as much communication going INTO homes and buildings as coming out of them. With radio-connected meters, utilities can have near real-time updates on the actual load on their entire system. We will see utilities imposing highly discriminated pricing regimes called time-of-use, to balance peak power demands to avoid the need to build new power plants. Customers already can sign up for connecting devices to plugs that only go on when power cost is low, or thermostats that can alter the temperature setting to save power to prevent brownouts. As one customer told me, eventually all customers will be on time-of-use, so we will want to have appliances that make good economic choices about when to use power and when not to.

Tantalus has some cool tech, some good basic science, and some good sales folk and customers. I'm glad to have ended up here and help them fuel their next stage growth.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Lost Opportunities of the 2010 Winter Olympics

It's only a few days into what is going to seem an interminable period of mess and mayhem in Vancouver, but it seems time to open the discussion about the missed opportunities that could have made this event truly world-class, and one to be remembered and appreciated by British Columbians for many years to come.

Missed Opportunity #1 - Green Transport (Olympic Lanes)
It seems that anyone with a white or silver GMC truck or SUV that weighs over a ton can get a door sticker enabling them to sail through traffic in the "Olympic Lanes". Most of us have no problem knowing busses and service trucks can move the various Olympic-related goods and people around. When you look closely though you often see the same thing - large SUVs with one large driver. Sometimes on their non-handsfree cell-phone. Are they late for a pick-up? I especially had to grit my teeth (and slam on my brakes) for the entitled driver who left their privileged lane to cut in front of me to turn left on Cambie street. Perhaps GM could offer an OnStar bumper sticker for 1-800 How's My Driving?
The opportunity to have the early production Chevy Volt electrically cruising along the route along with any bike, board, or electric cycle - that would have been an Olympic lane to capture the world's imagination. Instead we have GM commercials about huge vehicles complaining to each other about being stuck with "airport runs" (instead of using the Canada Line) and airing their huge trunks while apologizing for the smell of hockey equipment, to say nothing of their own gaseous exhausts.

Missed Opportunity #2 - Green Transport (Sea to Sky Train)
After years and billions of dollars Peter Kiewit succeeded in grabbing each end of the Squamish-Whistler highway 99 and pulling it straighter. Better time and fewer fatalities are certainly worth some serious investment. Sadly, most of the benefits have been undone for a month while the IOC cordoned off a lane for exclusive use. Thousands of small orange sticks limit visibility and create narrow lanes that undulate with little or no relation to the white lines of the road or the guardrails. The time we gained from the reconstruction has been more than lost with the poor lane control.
Of course when you consider that the road widening mainly benefits the occasional or tourist driver the decision becomes somewhat baffling. It's painfully clear that our guests should not be driving to Whistler for events. There's nowhere for 20,000 cars to park, a fact we knew would be true even before the decision to widen the highway was made.
The missed opportunity here - affordable, regular passenger railroad service to Whistler. Perhaps the railbed can't accommodate fast trains, but it's still as fast as the bus, and as anyone who was lucky enough to travel the line on the BC Rail train, or has a ticket on the privileged Alberta Train, one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Instead, coming back from Whistler last week, we drove over part of the rail-line south of Brittania that had been PAVED over for cars. What a waste.

Missed Opportunity #3 - Community Signs and Support
A few months ago the City of Vancouver bowed to pressure to pass a bylaw that allowed officials to enter private homes to take down any signs that offended the IOC guidelines. While it probably would not stand up to a court case, Vancouverites are by-and-large not feisty enough to bother getting in an uproar about it. Instead, they display the passive resistance we're known for - there are simply no indications that anyone, anyone at all - school children, families, schools, or businesses, are the least bit enthusiastic about Vancouver 2010, or the Olympics. The occasional "Go Canada Go" banner or Canada flag-as-drapery are all that we can imagine displaying without the fear of hordes of IOC police breaking down the door to tear down the kids' unlawful manilla-and-crayon sketch of 5 circles and a "Welcome to Vancouver 2010" phrase (written with a backwards "r"). Or maybe just a lawsuit from the IOC. Sumi, indeed.

Missed Opportunity #4 - Trust
Hundreds of pedestrians trek from the Waterfront station on a pilgrimage to the Jack Poole Square to see the Olympic cauldron set alight by the Great One on opening night. When they get there, they are jailed, like protesters, locked out by a huge fence. "How could this be?" we ask, to be told it is for the security of the International Press. Security. Its presence is everywhere, a silent, ominous reminder that we are captives in our own city.

Thankfully, bright hope exists. When a guy like Alex Bilodeau can exhibit skill, then top it off with Canadian humility, and the heartfelt love he has for his brother and family, even the harshest critic has to be thankful for those rare moments. It's just sad that so many other amazingly wonderful things that could have been, were not, lost because of overzealous protectionism, and lack of political vision.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Does Adobe Have a Future?

I've long been an admirer of Adobe, and over my prepress career with Creo and Kodak I saw them go through a number of difficult transformations. The core of Adobe's difficulties is not the migration of paper media to electronic, it's that the founding CEO John Warnock, has not been replaced, and Adobe is still coasting on his innovation.

My first encounter with Adobe was through PostScript, when the company I was working for at the time bought a DEC LN03 LaserPrinter that came with the fabled "Red Book" (now online) on the PostScript language. Up to that point, the only languages that dot-matrix printing devices understood were "choose one of the 6 built-in fonts" and "print this letter at the next position." Even with the advent of the far-superior laser printer, the same protocol was supported, limiting these technical marvels' capability to seeing letters that were not just punched out of a 5x7 array of dots.

PostScript brought singular benefits to the laser printers, which had 300 dpi resolution and the capability to draw anywhere on the million bits of 8.5 x 11 paper. After a couple hours of reading that book, I was printing satellite images and marking annotations at precise latitudes, all computed in the printer by PostScript's programming power.

PostScript was a programming language based John Warnock's work at Xerox PARC. PARC is now known as the textbook model of a company that encouraged and achieved some of the finest innovation in technology, then failed to commercialize it, seeing it instead make other companies a fortune.

I had the fortunate connection to join with Stephen Herron, an independent consultant on printing technologies, who was teaching a course for Illustrator designers to "reach under the hood" of the new LaserWriter and learn tricks that Illustrator '88 was still holding back. Illustrator itself was another John Warnock invention. Having put the controls for smooth BeziƩr curves into PostScript, only font designers were using them. John's wife asked him how she could create curved objects and lines, so John had some developers create essentially a PostScript editing and creation tool. The user interface for Illustrator was a beautiful mapping from the elegance and power of the PostScript programming language into a visual metaphor. Even the abstract control points of bezier curves found a simple analogy in the tangent controls that adorn every Illustrator curve.

Stephen and I developed an application that let users design custom halftone dot shapes in PostScript. He now teaches at Emily Carr.

With PageMaker, Illustrator, and PostScript enabled by a partnership with Apple, Adobe's fortunes grew. Sadly, QuarkXPress displaced PageMaker as the professional tool for page layout, mainly because the then-CEO Tim Cook, spent many hours at a Denver prepress shop with the Nies family, learning how to coax correct CMYK separations out of a Linotronic 330. This effort cemented QuarkXPress' dominant position for almost 20 years.

John's next major invention was outlined in a paper now referred to as "Camelot." It explores the idea that since PostScript is a programming language, one could replace all the drawing operations, like LineTo, CurveTo, etc. with a command that simply writes them out to another file. The output file would not have all the subroutines and algorithms in it, it would just be a long string of commands to draw stuff. The advantages were clear over PostScript: No long programming chains, no infinite loops, fast execution, and a much simpler reader. This output format became to core of PDF - the Portable Document Format.

While John expected this to make RIPs much simpler, of course Acrobat and PDF have found a whole new market in document archiving and portability. Adobe's Acrobat division now accounts for a significant proportion of their revenue, and PDF is part of the core U.S. government infrastructure, from tax forms to archiving of electronic documents.

All this from one paper.

Look at Adobe now, several years after John's retirement. Bruce Chizen understood business and helped PDF's commercial success. The acquisition of Macromedia was a step towards bringing the print and online worlds together, but much of that effort seems to be lost on internal friction and the difficulty of bringing together two worlds each with its own history.

Adobe still has the potential to be the unifying agent for electronic and print publishing, but without the innovation from the top, new ideas only add incremental features to the product line, and it would be difficult for the Narayen-led version of Adobe to embrace the paradigm shifting ideas of its founder, John Warnock.Without that, it will either take a long time for Adobe to enable true multiplatform publishing, or someone else may do it.