Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Web Secret #307: Desiderata

Desiderata - things that are needed or wanted. Mid 17th century: from Latin.

For most of my childhood, I lived between two continents: Europe and North America.

This was before the Internet, the cell phone, the personal computer.

It was a long time ago.

Calling someone "long distance" was VERY expensive. So you wrote letters. Even airmail could take 2 weeks to travel from the US to Switzerland - the two countries where I lived.

The world was much bigger than it is today.

When I was in Switzerland, I was not able to watch the latest US TV shows, or eat Cocoa Puffs, or go out for a hamburger.

When I was in the US, I could not buy Asterix comic books, eat Spaetzle, or find Caran d'Ache Neocolor.

When I was in Switzerland, I missed marshmallows and "The Brady Bunch."

When I was in the US, I missed, Muesli and Spirou.

This international upbringing makes me cosmopolitan, tri-lingual, and somewhat confused. I never entirely get the joke. Not quite American enough, not completely European.

So you might understand why for me, living in a digital and highly connected world is especially thrilling.

I can order my favorite books, sweets, pens, Euro-cultural flotsam and jetsam on line and have it delivered to my home.

I can read trashy French magazines on the Internet, watch French TV shows on YouTube, and share Carambar with my daughter.

Maybe that's the best part - I can share my European side with my children.

It almost makes up for it.

The picture that accompanies this post features the 15th century Vufflens Castle. That was the view from my childhood bedroom.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Web Secret #306: Tech Support

Note: while I mostly reference Apple products in this post, EVERYTHING I discuss is equally relevant to your Android/PC/other devices.

I get these calls from my kids: "Uh, there seems to be condensation inside my iPhone/MacBook Pro/iPad screen."

To which I respond, "Uh, did you have your device near liquids?"

Over the years they have confessed:

"The phone kind off slipped into the toilet."
"I jumped into the pool and the phone was in the pocket of my swim trunks."
"I was tanning and a wave sort of went over my iPad."
"I spilled a hot chocolate/espresso/Mocha Frappucino on my laptop."

I also get these calls:

"Uh, my phone disappeared during the Skrillex concert."
"My iPad is gone. I guess I left my dorm room unlocked."

Finally, I get these calls from my friends and family:

"Uh, my phone isn't synching."
"I can't download iTunes - it won't let me."
"My email isn't working."

This is a public service announcement:

Unless you are independently wealthy or have the tech skills of an MIT undergraduate, if you own a smartphone, laptop or tablet, you need to buy device protection insurance and pre-pay for tech support.

Yes, it's expensive. It means that iPad Air isn't $499, (like it seems when you go onto the website.) Its actually $598, because you bought Apple Cares for $99.

But here's the thing. That Apple Cares gives you the right to call Apple anytime, with any issue, and the tech on the end of the line has to hold your hand and help you fix your issue no matter how long it takes. Better yet, if your mother/daughter/friend asks you to fix her wireless printer, you don't have to. You can have her call tech support.

With respect to insurance, I promise you the first time your child informs you that their brand new iPhone 5S "got lost," and you discover that the replacement cost is over $600, you will see the light.

The good news is that you no longer have to use your carrier's insurance. There are now third party insurers like Seccuranty, SquareTrade,, and more.

You can also purchase tech support like Fixnow and iYogi.

Caveat: if you meet the criteria for an upgrade and are planning to buy the latest and greatest, you can discontinue your insurance plan. If the device breaks, you just buy a new one.

Oh, one more thing. There are now companies that will buy your old devices. They give you an estimate in a matter of seconds, they send you a box in which to pack your device, you send it in and BAM, you get money. Check out Gazelle. You'll get less than if you sold the device yourself but it's hassle free.

Just remember to scrub your device completely before sending it in.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Web Secret #305: Facebook - take three

I first introduced Facebook to my blog readers in 2009. It was sort of a "Hey, you need to pay attention to this social media channel!"

In 2013, I wrote a post about Facebook privacy issues - particularly the pitfalls of Facebook as they pertained to the mental health industry.

Now it's 2014, and I am writing about Facebook privacy AGAIN. This is because Facebook periodically changes their user interface and we have to learn how to protect our privacy all over AGAIN.

Fortunately, the New York Times published a very useful article about Facebook privacy settings a few months ago. In theory, you have a great deal of control over everything you post on the service, in practice, adjusting Facebook’s dozens of privacy controls is very annoying and confusing.

Here are the essential points:

1. YOU CHOOSE THE AUDIENCE FOR EVERY POST: Facebook has a setting on the status update box that lets you set the audience for each item posted. On the desktop version, it’s right next to the "post" button. The "Friends" setting is what you will probably use most of the time. Unfortunately, Facebook makes it easy to accidentally overshare. That’s because whatever audience you choose for a post automatically becomes the audience for all future posts until you change the setting again. So if you chose Public to share a cute photo of your new puppy, everything you post from that moment on is public. Oops.

2. BAD NEWS - PRIVACY IS CONTROLLED BY THE PERSON WHO POSTS THE ITEM: Let me repeat, the person who posts an item controls the privacy settings around it. A lot of (try most) people don’t understand the implication of this. If you post a comment or a like on a public post, it can be viewed by ANYONE, with your name attached to it. How can you tell whether someone else’s post is public? Look for the little icon next to the time the post was made. A tiny globe symbol means the post is public; the silhouettes of two people mean it’s for friends only. The bottom line: When you share content, you’re the one that determines who sees that content. When you interact with someone else’s content, they’re the ones who determines who can see that content.

3. MORE BAD NEWS - EVERYTHING YOU DO ON FACEBOOK CAN BE USED BY MARKETERS: Facebook makes money through advertising. Increasingly, that advertising is targeted based on what you say and do on Facebook. Facebook scrutinizes every like, share and data point — even things you hide on your public profile. Your birthday may be hidden, but Facebook's algorithm knows it. Sometimes your actions on Facebook, such as liking or commenting on a brand’s page or post, can even become part of an ad that is sent to your friends. "Danger, Will Robinson!"

4. WORSE NEWS - FACEBOOK CAN CHANGE ITS RULES: Facebook can and does change its privacy rules anytime they feel like it - what used to be private can suddenly becomes public. Example: the company recently made it impossible to hide your profile from searches on the service.

5. SOME GOOD NEWS - DO THIS RIGHT AWAY: If you want to undo all of your previous less than private posts, you can do so with ONE CLICK. That handy url will take you to a page that says: "Limit The Audience for Old Posts on Your Timeline." If you use this tool, (ALL) the content on your timeline you previously (unwisely) shared with friends of friends or "Public" will change to "Friends." Once your there, click on "Limit Old Posts." In addition, though you can’t opt out of Facebook using your information to target ads, you can prevent your actions from being used as an endorsement in ads by going HERE, changing the box in the middle to "No one" and then hitting "Save Changes."

You've been warned.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Web Secret #304: Blurred Lines

Blurred lines.

No, I'm not talking about the Grammy nominated hit song by Robin Thicke.

I am talking about living in a time where the line between reality and science fiction is rapidly disappearing.

When I was a high school science fiction enthusiast in the seventies, there were very clear distinctions between the world I lived in and the imaginary worlds I read about, watched on TV or in the movie theaters.

In 1950, Ray Bradbury wrote "There Will Come Soft Rains," a haunting story featured in his masterwork, "The Martian Chronicles."

The reader of the story enters a vacant house where robots continue to function, even though the inhabitants are dead and gone. Breakfast is automatically made, clothes are laid out, and voice reminders of daily activities are called out. Robotic mice vacuum the home and tidy up.

When I first read the story, 20 years after it was written, none of the technology depicted even existed. But in 2014 you can program your toaster and your coffee machine to make your breakfast, be reminded of upcoming appointments by your smart phone, and have your house cleaned by a Roomba.

In an article written 50 years ago, Isaac Asimov, another science fiction giant, wrote his predictions for the world of today in "Visit to the World's Fair of 2014." Some of his accurate predictions included:
  • "By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use." YES. Electroluminescent panels are the thin, bright panels used in retail displays, signs, lighting and flat panel TVs.
  • "Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs." YES.
  • "Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone." YES.
  • "The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books." YES.
  • "Robots will be in existence." YES. 
IBM computers have defeated chess grand masters and Jeopardy champions.

As a human, I am beginning to feel diminished. Things are changing very quickly. You can easily see what's coming around the bend in the very near future. To me, it's a short step from 3D printing jewelry and handguns to having a home appliance that prints out my lunch.

Sometimes it feels like the only thing left to conquer is outer space. But then again, I recently heard a scientist explain that our belief that we cannot travel faster than the speed of light will eventually be shown to be as wrong as our earlier belief that we could not exceed the speed of sound, or run a sub 4 minute mile.

Fortunately, I recently learned something that made me feel a lot better.

My neurologist brother told me that he had just come across a 2005 article in "Scientific American" that discussed a study showing that "when you spot a celebrity on a magazine cover, your brain recognizes the image in an instant - an effect that seems to occur because of a single neuron."

Simply put, your brain assigns a single neuron for every person you recognize. We can afford to do this, because recent research has demonstrated that we have about 86 billion neurons. So we have plenty to spare.

Now this is where it gets amazing. In 2012, after a great deal of work, scientists were able to get 16,000 interconnected computers to recognize just one thing - a cat.

Seems that the sentient, self aware computer of science fiction is not here yet.

We can take a breather.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Web Secret #303: Quirky

This blog post can make you rich.

Intrigued? Read on.

Way back in 2010, I wrote a blog about the up coming importance of Crowd Accelerated Innovation, AKA crowdsourcing.

Simply stated, crowdsourcing is the concept that a large group of regular people can come up with very great ideas, and thanks to modern Internet technology,  rapidly impact and change the world.

Back in 2009, a 23 year old ran with that concept, and founded New York City based Quirky.

Here is Jay Leno interviewing Ben Kaufman, Quirky's CEO on the Tonight show:

Entertainment aside, there is some creative genius out there. Here is a more serious explanation:
Any of Quirky’s community members can become an inventor or person of influence by submitting ideas and helping to determine which products Quirky will design, manufacture, and sell. Inventors who submit ideas that are then created and people who contribute to those ideas share in royalties based on product sales.

The company solicits ideas for new products via and its iPhone app. Once an idea is submitted, the Quirky community vets it, praises it, critiques it, and votes for their favorites, many of which will eventually be made by the Quirky design team and sold online and in stores.

When determining which products to make, Quirky considers factors such as uniqueness, manufacturing complexity, and intellectual property rights, yet they are committed to working on ideas both big and small that make life better. Submitted ideas are voted on by the Quirky community, as well as by employees of the company at Eval, Quirky’s live webcast that is broadcast live at every Thursday evening at 7pm EST, where new inventors are crowned.
Some of Quirky's amazing products can be viewed in their shop.

Everything about Quirky is disruptive.

I love it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Web Secret #302: 101 Gadgets That Changed The World

Popular Mechanics recently posted an article in which they listed "101 Gadgets That Changed The World," as selected by a panel of expert judges.

To make the list, a gadget had to be something you could hold in your hands, mechanical or electronic, and a mass-produced personal item. So besides the personal computer and the smartphone, what made the cut? Astoundingly, with very few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of these items were invented within the past 100 years.

Here are some of my favorites in chronological order:
  • The match: The first nonpoisonous match wasn't invented until 1910. Before that, a book of matches packed enough toxic white phosphorus to kill a person.
  • Sunglasses: Ten years after founding the Foster Grant plastic company in 1919, Sam Foster decided to focus to a new consumer product - sun-blocking eyewear. Voila! America's first mass-produced plastic lens sunglasses.
  • The blender: Who doesn't like a frozen Margarita? The blender wasn't invented until 1922, but it was Fred Waring who made the device popular by introducing the Waring Blender in 1937.
  • The zipper: The modern zipper didn't come about until the 1920s, when Goodyear put an improved version of the fastener on its Zipper galoshes.
  • The Zippo lighter: The Zippo was born in 1932. Considered indispensable, it was issued to our troops during World War II. It has become a collectible. I don't smoke and I carry one around. It makes me feel cool in a retro sort of way.
  • The sewing machine: Singer unveiled a portable version of the machine at Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress fair.
  • The ballpoint pen: The Reynolds Rocket, America's first ballpoint pen, cost $12.50 when it went on sale at Gimbels in 1945. Adjusting for inflation, that equals about $150 today.
  • The printer: Hewlett-Packard's LaserJet cost $3500 when it came out in 1984. That's $7,932.91 in today's money.
My personal favorite? The handheld GPS. Initially, GPS was the nav system for the U.S. military. The government opened up GPS for civilian use in 1983. Magellan sold the first handheld unit in 1989. Before GPS I didn't go anywhere without a map. I had 10 different road atlases in my car. Going any place new filled me with anxiety.

Now I am a fearless road warrior.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Web Secret #301: Lifehacker

In the beginning of the Internet age, a "hacker" was someone who sought to exploit the weaknesses of a computer network.

However, in time, the term "hacker" came to mean other things. I like the definition as it describes a person who combines excellence, playfulness, cleverness and exploration in performed activities.

And I like a blog called Lifehacker. Founded in 2005 by Gina Trapani, it cover a wide range of tech related topics, as well as general life tips and tricks. The Lifehacker motto is "Tips and downloads for getting things done."

It is one of those sites that you can count on to teach you something new and entertain.

Here are some typical posts: I like the concept that everyday life can be mastered.