Changing Blue-Collar Work

WSJ writes on how technology and globalisation are changing the nature of blue-collar work (taken to mean manufacturing):

Gone are traditional assembly jobs that required little skill and less education, those tasks being automated or sent overseas to less-industrialized countries. Remaining in the U.S., as well as in most industrialized countries, are blue-collar jobs involved in making products with proprietary technology, or items that require frequent tweaks and updates. These workers make goods that are perishable or too bulky to ship and thus must be close to the market: Bread and frozen foods; custom furniture, innovation-intensive computer components or refined hospital devices using technology a company wants to protect.

Today’s blue-collar workers are more involved in customized manufacturing, coming up with solutions to a particular customer’s needs, rather than churning out standardized parts and commodities.

Workers need to be able to think globally, too. An engineer at Timken Co., a century-old bearing maker, whose team once would have been limited to his Canton, Ohio, plant, now collaborates with colleagues at a Timken plant in Ploiesti, Romania, to design and make bearings for a client in China.

The world of blue-collar work has changed as well. What once took two weeks and a dozen workers now takes two people only a few hours. Jobs once considered a lifetime commitment are now more temporary, forcing workers to stay adaptable. Many of them move from one factory or plant to another, from day shift to nights to keep up with changing demands.

50 Best Magazines

Chicago Tribune lists the best magazines in the US of the more than 17,500 being published. The top 5: Cook’s Illustrated, The New Yorker, Martha Stewart Living, Sports Illustrated and People.

The magazines I subscribe to (hard copy) from the list: Time (at No. 16), Business Week (32), National Geographic (39), Fortune (40). The one I’d like to add to that list is at No. 48.

Selling NetCreations

Business Week has a story by Rosalid Resnick of NetCreations on how she sold her company for USD 111 million. She writes:

The business itself must be scaleable with a great product, a solid management team, and long-term contracts that ensure a recurring revenue stream. Its finances must be in order. You, as owner, must network with competitors, who are your most likely buyers. You must also, as the old saying goes, “Know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” Finally, you must get liquid fast.

Great deals, in other words, don’t happen in a day. They take time, patience, preparation, guts, and many years of building relationships with potential buyers. Only then can skillful negotiating kick in and produce the desired results.

Reading the story reminded me a little of my own experience selling IndiaWorld for USD 115 million. Maybe some day I too should write about that. It ism just that I don’t like to look back much – prefer to look ahead.

Tim Bray On Search

Tim Bray has a series on Search:

Backgrounder: “Anyone who uses computers now uses search pretty well every day, so this is an important chunk of our technology spectrum. This piece covers the business and history angles; future instalments will explain how search engines work and the interfaces to them. I plan to conclude with a description of the next search engine, which doesn t exist yet but someone ought to start building.”

The Users: “What most people want is to have a nice simple field into which they will type on average 1.3 words and hit Enter, and have the result come back to them. So anyone whos building search needs to focus almost all their energy on doing an as-good-as-possible job given those 1.3 words and no other inputs.”

Basic Basics: “Heres a tour through the basics of search-engine engineering.”

Precision and Recall: “Recall measures how well a search system finds what you want, and precision measures how well it weeds out what you dont want.”

Intelligence: “Heres the problem: searching for words isnt really what you want to do. Youd like to search for ideas, for concepts, for solutions, for answers. Instead, your typical search engine moronically sorts through its postings, and tries to solve your problems by looking at which words appear where, and how often, and so on. What wed really like is an intelligent search engine. This essay is mostly about why were not likely to get one any time soon.”

Squirmy Words: “A survey of the fuzzy edges of words and their meanings and the (surprisingly moderate) consequences for search systems.”

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Information Visualisation

The Economist asks if information visualisation can become the next killer app for PCs, just as spreadsheets did 25 years ago. It believes that “Information visualisation is about to go mainstream. While it may not be the killer application some expect, ‘infoviz’ is going to help users to manipulate data in wholly new ways.

The goal of information visualisation is not to analyse data gathered from, say, tornadoes or nuclear explosions (that is called scientific visualisation). Instead, it aims to create a computer user-interface that is better than today’s desktop metaphorso that people can get their arms (or, rather, their eyes) around the ever-increasing amount of information stored in corporate computer systems, available on the internet, or kept on PCs.

Information visualisation is becoming more widespreadparticularly in corporations, as part of enterprise-software packages. For one thing, the digital plumbing is now in place. More and more data are kept in a structured way (ie, in a format that can easily be digested by visualisation programs) or can be converted into such a format by special software tools. The spread of XML (short for the eXtensible Markup Language) also makes it much easier to tag data and integrate information from different sources.

Most important, the search for further cost reductions is driving firms to use visualisation tools. Having automated many of their business processes, companies now collect huge amounts of data that they want to analyse to gain a competitive edge. After rounds of lay-offs, companies have fewer people to take complex decisionsa shortage that better software tools can help to alleviate.

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TECH TALK: An Affordable Alternative Technology Architecture for Indias BFSI Industry: Part 2

No single bank has the ability to put together an alternative platform, but if some of them co-operate, then it is doable. The challenge therefore is to put together anAffordable Technology Infrastructure Commons (ATIC) on which different banks can build their own services. This is akin to the role that an operating system plays in a computer: it encapsulates all the commonly used elements into a standardized interface called the API (applications programming interface) so as to make it easier and cheaper for others to build their applications on top.

The difference is that in this case the ATIC provides a hardware and software abstraction layer, which brings down cost of computing significantly, without compromising on the functionality in any way. So, what does the ATIC comprise of? There are three building blocks for the ATIC: thin clients, server-centric computing and open-source software.

Thin Clients are PCs without local storage and do very limited local processing. They are, in essence, network computers or PC-Terminals. They light up in the presence of the network, and are useless without it. These thin clients can either be the older, existing computers or newer, low-cost, low-configuration machines. Thin Clients make up the Rs 5,000 PC (5KPC) Ecosystem. How does one get to PCs for Rs 5,000?

New thin clients (PCs without disks, lower memory and processor configurations, and inclusive of a monitor) are available for about Rs 10,000. In fact, the base configuration needed is no more than 100 Mhz in processing power and 32 MB RAM. The machines will boot off a server on the network. So, you must be thinking, how does that get us to the 5KPC? Simple. Look around the bank.

Many banks have existing desktops which may be 3-5 years old. Ordinarily, these would need to be upgraded. The resale value of these desktops is extremely limited. These desktops are perfectly functional systems the problem is that over time, the need for faster computers is being driven by the newer software which needs greater resources. So, banks are left with little option to upgrade. Imagine now if the same desktops can be used without any changes or upgrades to provide the performance of a new computer. The new incremental investment on these desktops is zero.

So, we have Rs 10,000 for new thin clients and Rs 0 for existing desktops. Assuming a roughly even split between the new purchases and the older machines, we get an average cost of Rs 5,000. Welcome to the 5KPC world.

The 5KPC never needs to be upgraded all the processing happens on the server in the network. This is one of the reasons its administration is simplified. Think of our telephone there is rarely a need to call customer support for our telephone. For the 5KPC, the network connectivity is what makes it come alive the network provides the digital dial-tone. This simplification also ensures that the 5KPC is a zero-maintenance device. This is especially useful when these computers are deployed in remote locations (bank branches are everywhere). The 5KPC is, thus, a sealed endpoint if it does not switch on, it needs to be replaced there is no debugging it!

Tomorrow: Part 3

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