Monthly Archives: December 2010

Dragon-dictated and happy about it

image About every fifth year, I purchase some dictation software. I do this because I am a firm believer in technology, in particular the use of technology to overcome personal limitations, such as writer’s block, carpal tunnel syndrome, a propensity for procrastination, and general laziness.

About two weeks after the initial purchase, I typically experience the disappointment familiar to any technology optimist: namely, that the technology does not live up to what it says on the box.

Dictation software, for instance, typically is slow and buggy and doesn’t understand my accent. It also tends to consume all the available processing power of my laptop, a scarce resource if there ever was one, and not play nice with my existing applications.

This time, that may not happen. I am writing this using Dragon dictate software, and not only does it recognize what I’m saying, but it responds quickly and naturally to the various editing and navigation commands that I utter, mostly without looking in the manual. As a matter of fact it is a little bit like dictating to an unfamiliar and not very personable secretary. There are still some problems in the recognition department, such as the software frequently choosing the wrong tense of a verb, but that is easily fixed simply by telling the software to go back and repaired the damage.

This is the fourth time I’m buying dictation software. My first test was in 1996 and simply did not work at all. I then tried again in 1998 and lastly, I think, sometime around 2007. The stuff is gotten better, but there is always been something missing. The difference now, I think, is that the software responds fast enough for you as a user to adjust your behavior to the software almost in real time. As I’ve written before, this almost tactile response is crucial for the usability of a technology, be it on screen via a keyboard or using some other input method.

With the previous versions of this software, I have not been able to experiment enough to properly learn the most useful features of the software, restricting myself to simply entering text, often by reading handwritten notes or other files into the computer. The quick, almost tactile response from the software, along with its seeming ability to learn as we go along leads me to think that this time, for sure, things will be different.

Of course, solving the problem of word recognition and flexible editing does nothing to help with a more fundamental problems that a writer, particularly a brother unsystematic one such as myself, faces. Academic output as a function of processor speed is a flat line, as far as I know, especially if the y-axis is one of quality. But the software might help with my aching underarms, and might prove to be a way of concentrating at the task at hand, because it is very hard to jump into another window and watch a few YouTube videos or check e-mail or twitter using nothing but voice commands.

Now, if it was only available in Norwegian…

(Yes, there are a few errors here. I will let them stand as a demonstration….)

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Book nerd challenge

I normally don’t like blog challenges – distinctly 2006 – but this one is from daughter Julie, so I guess I am kind of obliged to…

Have you read more than 6 of these books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books listed here. Instructions: Copy this into your notes. Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety, italicise the ones you started but didn’t finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan (on the night stand – never seem to get around to it)
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel (yeah – good book!)
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zifon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Sum total: 51 read, didn’t count the halfways… Hmmm. Wonder if that is good and bad. And why in the world is the Da Vinci garbage on the list?

Oh well, feel free to do your own. Or not.

(Incidentally, here is a much better list.)

FIAT 500 and Structural deepening

One aspect of technology evolution, according to W. Brian Arthur’s excellent The Nature of Technology, is structural deepening: How basic technology adds features over time. Structural deepening is actually one factor which often means we underestimate technology evolution – for instance, a car today costs about as much, in relative terms, as a car did 30 years ago. What you get for your money, however, is something completely different.

A couple of months ago I was walking through the parking garage at the Norwegian School of Management – and I spotted a case of structural deepening in practice. I just had to take a picture or two with my cell phone (which has a camera – an0ther instance of structural deepening, right?):

sep2010 060

The Fiat 500 on the left is from sometime in the 60s, has an engine of about half a liter and a weight of around half a ton. The Fiat Nuova 500 on the right has 2-3 times as much engine, double the weight, is (as can be seen) a lot bigger and also a lot faster. It also has lots more technology – not only headrests, but safety belts, 7 air bags (!), air conditioning, better stereo, steel bars, crumble zones, etc. etc.) It is, supposedly, still considered a small car…

(More pictures after the break)

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Norwegian Air Shuttle: Using IT to lower costs, increase revenue, and start new businesses

(This case was written for an BSG Concours/nGenera report in March 2008, but never used. I found it while writing a report on the Norwegian IT industry, and publish it here because, well, I need a place to put it. And it is interesting – it succinctly exemplifies a company that uses IT for lowering cost (increasing the bottom line), for expanding in its current market (expanding the top line), and for creating new businesses.)

Norwegian Air Shuttle is the fastest growing low-cost airline in Europe. Its growth is built on smart market moves – supported by even smarter IT applications and use.

A Norwegian plane - white paint is cheap

Norwegian Air Shuttle was originally a small airline company leasing planes and crew – called a "wet lease" in the business – to Braathen’s, Norway’s second largest airline. When Braathen’s was acquired by industry leader SAS in 2001, it looked like the game was over for Norwegian – it had funding for less than three months’ operations.

clip_image005Bjørn Kjos, lawyer and former fighter pilot, had agreed to help the company through what everyone thought was going to be a managed bankruptcy. Instead, Kjos sought out new investors – Norwegian fishing fleet owners, accustomed to high risk and equally high rewards. With his background as a pilot and sanguine, jovial personality, Kjos personified opposition to the somewhat bureaucratic and monopolistic SAS and became popular both with his employees, the public and the regulating politicians.

The new company’s strategy was simple: To offer direct flights between city-pairs not served by SAS, and keep costs low through efficient processes and a flexible organization. Kjos was not a proponent of information technology, but knew he needed a CIO, and in 2002 hired Hans Petter Aanby, an experienced IT manager from SAS.

Hans Petter AanbyAanby needed to establish IT as a contributor to the business, and so set out to first harvest the low-hanging fruit. First of all, the company’s distribution costs were too high: Most sales came over the telephone or through travel agents, with average transaction cost of more than $35 per ticket. Aanby moved the whole process online in April 2003, removing anything confusing from the web site. The company was one of the first in the business to have customers print out their own (bar-coded) boarding passes, which simplified check-in and saved boarding time. Eventually, 85% of orders would come over the web, and only 1% through the call center. This was achieved with a small IT department and smart use of small consulting companies.

image Having demonstrated an ability to lower costs, Aanby now, with the title of CIO and EVP of Business Development, set out to increase sales. A new architecture that would allow growth in complexity without growth in costs was proposed to the board in late 2003. Airline prices vary, but it can be very hard for customers to see when it is cheap to fly. Many airlines make it hard for customers to find the cheap flights, but Aanby went the other way, giving the customers a calendar-based view of flights with prices shown. Since flight reservation systems are not set up for this kind of information extraction – each query is treated as a potential booking, thus influencing demand figures – Norwegian had to build their own database of flights and prices extracted from the transaction-oriented Amadeus reservation system. The customers responded enthusiastically, since it made it easy to change travel plans to take advantage of lower prices. The application was sold to Amadeus, and the competition eventually had to follow Norwegian’s lead and provide their own low-price calendars.

As Norwegian expanded (eventually flying more passengers outside Norway than inside,) the next step was to establish a new business out of their customer base and transaction platform: Bank Norwegian, an Internet bank that went into operation in the Fall of 2007. Drawing on a satisfied customer set, an experienced IT capability and a sophisticated, yet lean architecture, Norwegian figures it can take the transaction growth and reliability demands a banking application requires.

Kjos, now a converted IT buff, constantly talks about how Norwegian’s IT infrastructure allows the company to expand without growing costs. In August 2007, with a fleet of 22 airplanes, the company placed an order for 42 new Boeing 737 airplanes, for delivery over a five year period.

Norwegian continues to look for areas where IT can make a difference. The airline industry is extremely competitive, and the game is all about being low-cost, yet effective in how talent is employed. Norwegian consciously trains its employees to be capable of performing many tasks – any flight attendant can also do check-in or reservations, for instance, thus enabling the company to use the labor outside the 600-700 hours in the air regular flight personnel can work.

For Norwegian, the trick has to flood the company with IT support before anyone has had time to hire people. And as Aanby has put it: In Norwegian, there are really only two employee categories that are paid above market average: Pilots – and IT people.

In 2007, Hans-Petter Aanby was rewarded for his efforts by being awarded the title CIO of the Year by the Norwegian IT Magazine Computerworld.no – and Norwegian has continued to grow since, now profitably expanding its business while most of its competitors, particularly the traditional airlines, are struggling.