Monthly Archives: May 2015

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the Laws of Computing and Growing Old with Computing

My trusty ASUS laptop is dying. It takes forever to boot up even after cleaning out the startup files. It also has exhibited a few blue screens of death in recent weeks. It is over three years old, which in computer years is two generations (and it was certainly not the most advanced when I bought it). So what to replace it with? I ended up with a Microsoft Surface Pro 3? Why? Well, let me tell you.

Buying computers these days is worse than buying a car. So many bells and whistles, add-ons. Of course, the temptation is to buy the newest and coolest. Apple has lived off of that impulse for decades. But do I really need a Ferrari or BMW (though I guess a Prius is considered cool by those concerned about global warming)?

I decided to take stock of what I needed in a computer. I’m 65 and supposedly retired, but ended up starting a technical consulting and innovative development business. That’s a challenge in itself. Try explaining to a 30-year old Venture Capitalist that you really are an entrepreneur even though you collect social security and a pension. Well, that’s a story for a different time. Back to the laptop. It must handle Microsoft Office to support the business and my writing. I recently self-published my first novel, so it would need a keyboard. Those two factors rule out most tablets. At age 65, I’m victim to the Law of Age-related Laptop Weight Inversion. What’s that you ask? It’s a modification to Newton’s Theory of Gravitation, and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. It simply states that gravity has an age-related time function. At age 20, a three-pound laptop weighs a pound, or at least that’s the way it feels. By age 50, a three-pound laptop seems to weigh around three pounds, maybe a bit more. However, at 65 a three-pound laptop weighs seven or eight pounds, particularly in an airport. By the time you’re 72, its probably feels like ten or twelve pounds. Who knew that Newton’s Law of Gravitation had a time constant in it? I don’t think that not the relativity Einstein had in mind. Anyway, all of this ruminating on weight seemed to be pointing me to an ultralight. Wait, that’s an aircraft isn’t it? Ultrathin? Whatever they’re called.

I did the 21st century thing and went online, using different websites’ comparison software, and I discovered another law. You have two laptops of equal capability, but one is lighter. Which is cheaper? You would think it would be the lighter one. Less material, right? I learned that the Law of Inverse Laptop Weight ignores that factor. The lighter a laptop (usually with a smaller screen), the more it costs. I proved that empirically. The comparisons on the computer shopping websites brought that home.

After pondering all the variables in purchasing a laptop I decided I needed to touch and handle these machines to truly evaluate them. I don’t care what the purveyors of Web 2.0 think. Or is it 3.0 by now? I needed to determine how much a pound (of weight, not the British pound) was worth to me. So I decided to do the 20th century thing. Off to Best Buy we went. I dragged my wife Janeen along as my conscience in terms of cost.

Arriving at Best Buy and wandering among the machines I met the Microsoft Lady. I never caught her name. I’m not even sure what she did other than check computers for Microsoft products. For all I know she could have been a lonely old lady who liked to hang around computers but I don’t think so. She saw me looking for help and offered me some. She didn’t really care which computer I bought as long as it used Windows and wasn’t a Mac. More importantly, she was carrying a Surface Pro 3. She demonstrated how quickly it booted up. Compared to my old ASUS this machine seemed like it had a warp drive. And then I held it. Wow! My conscience spoke up. Janeen was standing at my elbow whispering in my ear about what I had said about keeping the cost down. So the Microsoft lady took me over to the cheaper laptops. I lifted one. My God! It was like lifting weights! I kept trying out different ones. Janeen grew bored and drifted off to look at cameras. Then we came to an HP 2-in-1. Their latest one. Ultra powerful. And light. Well, relatively so. Three pounds. I lifted it. No wait, ten pounds. And it cost $1100. But it was so cool with its swiveling screen and detachable pseudo-tablet. Janeen magically reappeared at my elbow and began urging me to make a decision already. “This isn’t rocket science,” she reminded me. With the help of the Microsoft Lady I realized I can get the same thing with a Surface Pro 3 and it weighed only two pounds! Of course, by the time I priced out the version I wanted with 8 gigs of memory and 256 gigs of hard drive, plus the keyboard/cover (which is extra), it came out a bit more than the HP. As expected, lighter cost more. I firmly proved the Law of Inverse Weight. Janeen sighed and gave in, happy to get out of Best Buy. I went home with my brand spanking new Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

I’ve had it for almost two weeks now. How do I like it? Like most technology I love it and hate it, with an overall lean toward love it. My biggest complaint probably has more to do with Windows 8. Once home I discovered another inverse law: the more powerful the processor, the software geeks who program it think they can make type on a screen smaller. The Surface has a default screen resolution setting of 2160 x 1440. This allows the geeks to think they can get away with 8pt font as a default. I guess they don’t know the Law of Inverse Font Size with Age. At age 20, 8 pt font seems like 12 or 15 pts while at 65 an 8pt font is really 4 pts. Windows 8 does not make it easy for you to change the defaults. Changing the resolution distorts everything plus you end up with ugly black bands around the screen. The personalization function allows you to change some font sizes but it doesn’t seem to change everything. So error messages and notifications are still too small, almost impossible to read. I can read them but at the price of squinting. I also downloaded Office365 that weekend and found that it exhibited the same law of small fonts. Outlook, in particular. I think the geeks think small is cool. It’s a struggle keeping things a size that I can read. To date there are parts of Outlook I haven’t been able to fix the font size despite repeated searches on Google.

Still, overall, I love the Surface. I even used it as a tablet at a meeting, taking notes with its stylus. (Yeah, I’m not immune to cool). Well, there goes another trusty friend, my black, bound notebook/journal. The Surface also takes up less room on my desk than the ASUS. However, another natural law prevents me from enjoying the new found spaciousness. Ever hear of the law that nature abhors a vacuum? Well, I proved its existence. My desk is as cluttered as ever.

Do I recommend the Surface? Yes. It’s a winner from a company that I grew up in the tech age with. Microsoft is 35 years old or so. In tech years that’s positively ancient. And here they are with some new innovations! Gives me hope for my own company. I can empathize with their attempts to innovate in this world of 20-something entrepreneurs. It does prove we old geezers ain’t quite dead yet.

So You Want to Write a Grant Proposal: The Rocket Science of Do’s and Don’ts

I have just finished submitting a proposal to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for my company Rocket Science Technologies. It was a long, grueling effort, first defining the technology and concept we were going to propose, assembling a team , writing the proposal, estimating the program/project, reviewing it, and then finally submitting. It was challenging, as proposals usually are. This one had its own particular difficulties because I had to put together a team not only to respond to the BAA, but who would also be available to work on the project should we win. My consulting company is built on a virtual basis. We have consultants scattered around the country. That wouldn’t work for the proposed program. We needed personnel who could work in a company lab to develop the required hardware. Fortunately, between LinkedIn and some networking we assembled a slam bang local team.

I consider myself a trained proposal writer and manager, having spent more than a decade with a company providing proposal training in support of their own internal proposal management system. I’ve also had training elsewhere with a similar process. The trouble is all of the training relies on the infrastructure of a centralized location, a department in the company (or supplied by an external consultant) that includes proposal and book managers (i.e., managers of the technical, management and cost volumes), editors, and illustrators, as well as a designated area isolated from the rest of the company for the team to work undisturbed. Unfortunately, in many of my recent proposal efforts, I didn’t have the luxury of that kind of infrastructure and support. Certainly not for this last proposal. Still, I think many of the lessons I learned in my formal training apply. It just requires a bit of ingenuity and perseverance to translate to a small team, or even to one-man band grant writer.

Here are some of the do’s and don’ts of writing a proposal/grant application I think you will find helpful that I’ve learned over the years:

Do: answer the question “why you or your company.” Don’t: do not write a technical treatise. One of the biggest mistakes engineers, scientists, doctors, and other professionals make is the belief that immense technical detail will sell a grant reviewer. Nothing could be more wrong. A proposal is a marketing document and is not a technical report. Its purpose is to convince someone to buy your services or product. Furthermore, the trend today is for page-limited, shorter proposals. The BAA I just responded to was for millions of dollars, and yet the page limit of the technical section was twenty pages. Even more telling, the section for describing our innovation was only three pages long. The remaining seventeen pages was a description of our approach to the problem, i.e., a mini-program plan, and a description of our team and its capabilities. The technical description is just a portion of what you need to win the grant. Remember, a request for a grant or proposal is usually issued to solve a problem the issuer has and can’t without your help. You need to convince the reviewer of the benefit of your solution and that you have the wherewithal to solve their problem. The answer is more than the technology. It’s you as a company or a researcher. Your background, talent, and past experience. It’s the approach you’re going to take. You must convince them they can trust you with their money. A technical treatise does not do that.

Do: create a theme. Creating a proposal theme is one of the first things you should do, even if it’s just you doing all the writing yourself. A theme contains customer benefit(s), feature(s) of your product/service/research that provides the benefit, and a collaboration that provides factual backup to prove your claims. Why is a theme important? Consider it your elevator speech, you know, the one you’re trained to give when someone asks you what you or your company does. A theme is a summary statement provided upfront to your customer that answers the question why you or why your company. It sets the tone and points the reader in the direction you want him or her to go. A theme also serves to focus your writing. Everything you do in the technical write-up should support your theme. It is also useful to write a theme statement for each of your major sections, again to focus your writing and to focus the grant’s reviewer on why you should be awarded the grant/contract. Answer the question why they should select you.

Don’t: Do not have the program/project manager/researcher manage the proposal. This was one of the things I suffered through on this last proposal. I was wearing both hats. If you’re a one-person band, so to speak, try to get someone to help with the details. The program/project manager/researcher is responsible for the technical content of the solution, the actual technical solution. The proposal manager is responsible for packaging the solution into a tight responsive document, ensuring it meets all the requirements of the grant RFP. On this recent BAA, because of the nature of the team I was wearing both hats. I found myself writing consultant non-disclosure agreements and consulting agreements while I was trying to writing the program plan and putting the proposal together Those were incompatible activities. Don’t try to do everything yourself, even if the grant seems small enough. Something will fall through the cracks if you do.

Do: make a plan and stick to it. Lay out a plan and a schedule and keep to it. You’ll be surprised how fast the 30 days allowed by the government for an RFP response passes. The plan doesn’t have to be a treatise. It can be a schedule, a proposal outline with page limits for each section, and assignments if others are working with you. (Don’t forget the themes.) You will find if you’re running a team that at some point you will need to say “no more technical work. Finish your writing for review.” There are few things in life that are quite such a hard stop as a proposal due date. Even for taxes you can get an extension. For most proposals you can’t.

Don’t:  do not skip internal reviews. Even if you’re a one-person band you need to have someone review the outline to make sure it meets all the proposal requirements, and to read the proposal at the end. Not just copy edit. It’s best if you can find someone knowledgeable but who may not be the expert in your specific field that you are. See if you can convince them that you deserve the grant. If they get lost in your technical jargon, most likely the requesting agency’s reviewers will, too. In addition, your internal reviewer may also help you make a salient point to support your position.

Oh, and good luck.