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Important: Don’t Let Your Wireless Provider Spy On You

2012-10-30 2 comments

With the widespread popularity of smartphones, everyone is walking around with a computer in their pocket.  Which is awesome.  What is NOT cool is that due to flaws in the laws regarding what wireless phone provider (WPP) companies are allowed to do, your WPP company is legally allowed to spy on you and collect info on EVERY single thing you do on your phone.  What’s worse is that the companies will automatically opt you in to agree to be tracked and spied on, and it’s your responsibility to first of all realize that you’re being spied on and tracked, and second of all it’s your responsibility to opt out of it.

At this point some you might be saying “Well, I don’t do anything bad or illegal so who cares if they spy on me and track me?”  First of all, you cannot predict everything that will be done with your phone.  Perhaps in the future you’ll use it for something personal, private, or embarrassing.  Or perhaps someone borrows your phone to make a call and also uses it to do something unsavory that you’re not even aware of.  The point is you just can’t predict the future so it’s not a good idea to give them free license to spy on your personal habits.  Second, you may be saying “Even if they have that info, they’re just using it for marketing purposes, it’s not like anything bad will happen with it.”  Wrong.  The companies are allowed to use that info for whatever purpose they want, including selling it to third parties.  Additionally, the law states that if the government asks them for the info for ANY reason, they must turn it over to them.  “But I don’t break the law!” Oh really?  Did you know that the average person breaks the law at least once per day without even realizing it?  Yup, it’s true, check it out: Mr Average breaks the law at least once a day

Now don’t worry, we don’t need to start wearing tin-foil hats and living in the wilderness.  I’m going to show you how to opt out of being tracked in under two minutes, and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore and you can continue to use your smartphone without being tracked.

Each company has a slightly different process, but they all involve logging into the companies website, finding the proper page, and selecting to opt out of being tracked.  I happen to currently have Verizon, so this is what the page looks like for me (I blacked out my phone number for obvious reasons):

People are stupid for wanting sequential downloading of BitTorrent files? Then fix it, Einstein.

2012-05-02 2 comments

This is a very contentious topic and I welcome and encourage discussion, but let’s keep it civil.  The title of this article merely highlights the contentious nature of the topic.

There is a wiki-style page explaining why sequential downloading of BitTorrent files is bad.  If you don’t understand it, go research it until you do, then come back here.

Let me preface by saying that I think BitTorrent (BT) technology is amazing and I have much respect for all those who helped it be created and maintained.  I am not kicking the proverbial gift-horse in the mouth.  I’m thankful for what I’ve got.  I understand the issue of sequential downloading and how it is detrimental to the whole BT concept.  Which is why I understand the heated discussion between people requesting the feature and people explaining why the feature is bad.  I am not rehashing that debate.

What I want to do is try and intelligently think about the issue and discuss it, and to do so requires a paradigm-shift by those in the discussion.  Think about the progression and proliferation of technology.  Think about the concepts of supply and demand.  Nobody disputes that zillions of BT users want sequential downloading (zillion = a lot).  That means there is a huge demand for it.  They might not understand BT technology enough to know why sequential downloading (herein referred do as SD) is bad for BT.  But it’s easy to understand why there is a demand for it.  If we take a broader look at the history of technological progression, almost always we see that when there is a huge demand for something but our technology is unable to supply that demand, there is great incentive to innovate and improve our technology to meet that demand.

And so my call to action is this: people may be stupid for wanting SD for BT.  But the huge demand for it exists for a reason.  Rather than telling people to “not want SD”, instead innovate and create to solve the problem.  It may be that some innovation in BT technology solves the problem.  Or it may be that BT will never be capable of successfully incorporating SD, in which case a new technology is needed.  No doubt this problem will be eventually solved.  But ignoring a demand does not make it go away.  Neither does saying “there shouldn’t BE a demand.”  The demand is there, and it must, and will, be supplied.  You can argue about it until you’re blue in the face, but that’s the simple fact of the matter.  It’s not easy to solve the problem, and I have much respect for the brilliant minds behind the technology.  But pretending or insisting that a problem does not exist is not a solution to that problem.  The problem remains.  And hopefully soon, a solution will follow.

Fun with the new Droid Bionic

2011-10-30 2 comments

I was a devoted BlackBerry user and the Droid Bionic converted me. That says a lot right there.

First of all, I am not paid to give praise to this device nor the carrier. I am
just a customer who is so happy with my new gadget that I feel like a
kid on Christmas and I wanted to share my experience with others.

When I decided to try out the Bionic, I knew I could return it within two weeks if I didn’t like it, so I had two weeks to decide if I wanted to keep the Bionic or return it and get a different phone.

There were many things I was worried about:

-I was worried that without a physical keyboard, I would not be able to type well on the touch screen keyboard.
-I was worried that with the new OS, I wouldn’t be able to configure and tweak everything to get it working exactly the way I like it.
-I was worried about it being too big to easily fit into my pocket.
-I was worried that the battery wouldn’t last me through the day.
-And I was worried that the 4G LTE (which is one of the Bionic’s selling points) would not be available in my area.

Every single worry that I had was blown away and I am 100% satisfied with my Droid Bionic. I could not be happier with my purchase:

-The touchscreen keyboard provides a tactile response with both vibration and sound which made it much easier for me to learn how to type on a touchscreen keyboard (if you don’t like the vibration and sound, you can turn them off). Within four days I was already proficient with the touchscreen keyboard.
-Android has matured a great deal since I last tried an Android phone (about two years ago) and now the settings have all the options I desire so I can configure and customize the phone to my exacting standards (some might call them obsessively exacting standards but that’s just the way I am).
-The Bionic is bigger than my previous BlackBerry, but when I slid the Bionic into my pocket (no “That’s what she said” jokes), it fit perfectly and I have so far never had a problem with the Bionic being too bulky in my pocket; I don’t even notice that it’s there.
-Regarding battery usage: these days, every single smartphone on the market that has a large high resolution display and 4G data capability is going to have to contend with massive energy consumption, there’s just no way around it with current battery technology. So when I compared the Droid Bionic to several of my friends’ smartphones (Android, iPhone, and even Windows Phone 7), the Bionic was slightly better. They were all very close and I think it comes down to how you use your phone. There are many battery-saving settings on the Bionic that you can customize till your heart’s content. So the bottom line is that considering what the Bionic is, it does not hog battery, and in fact with the right settings it can make the battery last for a very long time.
-I’ve tried all three of the US’s major carriers in the following order: AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. Granted, different phones will produce different results, but when I got my Bionic on Verizon, I was blown away by the speed. It might have also been the Bionic’s hardware, but whenever I was in range of 4G LTE, the speed was blazing fast: better than any other in my experience. However, when I was with Sprint, the ONLY time I was in range of their 4G network was when I was at the airport, and that was for about 10 minutes. With my Bionic on Verizon’s 4G LTE, I was pleasantly surprised to be in range almost everywhere, including where I live which is a notorious “Dead Zone” for cell phone reception. (P.S. Of course I use the Bionic’s WiFi whenever possible because that’s just common sense).

I’m in love with my phone (I think I’ll marry it). But I feel obliged to find something wrong with it. However, this may be just me being too stupid to figure it out, but I can’t find a way to make a homescreen shortcut that toggles the “Data enabled” on/off. I’ve been able to do it with wifi, but I can’t figure it out for data. It may be a shortcoming of the phone, or it may be I just haven’t figured it out. UPDATE: I found a free and simple app in the Android market that allows me to add a widget to my home screen to toggle the data on/off.  It’s called “Data Enabler”.  If it’s the latter and anyone out there wants to enlighten me, please do so, and remember, “A Lannister always pays his debts.” P.S. Let’s assume I’m a Lannister.

Is Google Plus The New Facebook?

2011-09-14 4 comments

Remember Myspace?  It wasn’t too long ago that people thought Myspace would keep growing and continue to be successful.  Facebook has since taken the position as the top social network with over 500 million active users reported in 2010 and all indications seemed to be pointing to Facebook’s continued growth and success with over 750 million active users a year later.  It’s become a household name and even grandma has a Facebook account.  Meanwhile Myspace use continues to decline and many analysts have written the company off as essentially dead.

So to some people it would seem crazy to predict the doom of Facebook.  But if there’s one company that could dethrone Facebook as king of social networking, it’s Google.

Also a household name, Google’s success was originally built on its search engine, which has become so ubiquitous that the dictionary now recognizes the name as a word, as in “I just googled a great new dinner recipe.”

However the world has seen continued innovation from the search engine giant and they’ve been massively successful with other services such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Picasa (their photo software).

But Google has had their share of failures too.  The most recognized examples are Google Buzz and Google Wave.  If you don’t even know what those two things are, you’re not alone.  Google has recognized their failure and abandoned them.  Yet Google has apparently learned a great deal from their mistakes, because they’ve finally stepped into the social-networking arena with a new service that seems poised to go toe-to-toe with Facebook:  Google Plus.

In case you haven’t heard, Google Plus (sometimes abbreviated as G+) is Google’s most recent attempt to create a social networking service, and from the looks of it, it’s no wonder many are calling Google Plus the “Facebook Killer.”

With Google Plus, Google has taken cues from both Facebook and Twitter.  While Twitter is not a direct competitor with Facebook because it fulfills a different function than Facebook, Twitter is certainly a company worth studying if you’re trying to build a successful social networking service.

So what exactly is Google Plus?  To put it bluntly, it’s like Facebook, but different.  But is it better?  Can it possibly compete with Facebook?  Why should we care?  If we already have a Facebook account, do we need a Google Plus account?

The answer is, yes.  Google Plus is almost certainly here to stay.  And while it may be possible for both Facebook and Google Plus to both be successful, anyone who doesn’t use Google Plus is going to get left in the digital dust.  Why is that?  If one already has a Facebook account, why do we need a Google Plus account?  Because Google Plus does a number of things that Facebook doesn’t, and it does them well.

The most exciting feature of Google Plus so far is the group video chat, which in G+ speak are called “Hangouts.”  As of right now, these group video chats support up to ten people, and as with everything in Google Plus, they’re absolutely free.  In other words, say goodbye to Skype.  While in a G+ Hangout, a small video of each person is displayed on the bottom of the screen, and whoever is talking is displayed in a large main video in the center.  After trying out a group video chat with friends and family, it is instantly apparent that these “Hangouts” will be both fun and useful.  In addition to just having a good time talking with friends or family, the group video chats are also amazingly useful for students who need to collaborate on an assignment or study together.  The business world has already embraced these group video chats for the same reasons giving Google Plus an instant significance for a large number of people.

The next way in which G+ triumphs over Facebook is privacy and sharing.  Many people have complained about Facebook’s privacy and sharing policies.  People end up accidentally sharing things with the wrong people or even making them public so anyone can see.  This includes messages, photos, videos, and anything else you might want to share with people.  Google Plus addresses this problem with a concept called “Circles.” Once you have a G+ account, you can add other people to your Circles.  For example, you might have a circle labeled “Friends,” another “Family,” “Coworkers,” “Acquaintances,” etc.  Any time you say or share something, you can easily decide who gets to see it.  That makes it much easier to prevent you from accidentally making things visible to the wrong people, which as many people know can be very bad.

As of this writing, Google Plus is still in its “testing” phase, meaning that in order to sign up for an account, you need to be invited by someone with an account.  Google is doing it this way because they want to work all the kinks out of G+ and have a smooth service before they “officially” release it to the public.   Update: Google Plus is now officially open to the public and anyone can sign up.

So go out there and give Google Plus a try.  Because it’s extremely fun, useful, and it’s here to stay.

P.S. I’m a writer for The Corsair Newspaper and you can read my article on The Corsair website (albeit an edited-down version):  http://www.thecorsaironline.com/opinion/2011/09/14/google-plus-takes-facebook-to-the-ring/

Operation: Teach Myself Guitar

2011-04-06 2 comments

I love video games.  Who doesn’t, right?  Well, some people, but they’re not technically human anyways.

I recently purchased the Squier Stratocaster by Fender that acts as a controller for Rock Band 3.   This is the world’s first real guitar/game controller.  Unlike the previous plastic Rock Band/Guitar Hero guitars, this thing is an actual factual guitar that you can plug into an amp with and jam, as well as use as a game controller for Rock Band 3.   The guitar has sensors built into the frets that sense where your fingers are pressing down, as well as which strings you are strumming with your strumming hand.

The reason I spent my hard earned cash on this art and science amalgam is that I wanted to teach myself guitar.  I correctly assumed that I would be able to use the fact that I love video games to trick my brain into learning a difficult task.   Rock Band 3 has so called Pro Guitar Tutorial mode which slowly weans you onto the instrument with increasingly difficult fingering exercises (hold the sex jokes, I’m not talking about summer camp).  These exercises are made, like all good video games, to provide the perfect level of challenge and reward so you gradually improve your skill without becoming overly frustrated.

The ultimate goal is to be able to play the songs in the game on expert mode, which is exactly what one would play in order to play the real guitar part in that song!   Pretty sweet!  I’ve only been playing for a few weeks now, but I am already able to play most of the basic chords and I’m learning some advanced ones as well.

It has previously been discussed on this blog how video games can be used as a tool to teach us new things.  This is just one example of how such an idea can be pulled off so well.

Educational deficiencies

2011-04-02 3 comments

Many people these days are aware of problems with schools.  It’s an extremely complex issue with no easy answer.  So I’m not proposing anything or trying to make any kind of grand sweeping generalization, or claiming I know how to fix the problems.  But I want to share with you a personal example of a deficiency in my education (through no fault of my own).

I always paid attention in history class (or at the very least read all the assigned reading and did all the assigned work).  So while I may not be a history whiz, I should at least know some of the basics, right?

Today I was on wikipedia reading about the Industrial Revolution.  I’ve heard the term before, but we never covered it in school.  Someone may have mentioned it in passing, but I really knew nothing about it until I started reading about it today.  In the opening paragraph, it states “Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.”

As I learned more about the Industrial Revolution, I began to see that this statement about the importance of the Industrial Revolution is not an exaggeration.  Every single one of us lives the way we do because of what happened during the Industrial Revolution.  I learned about economic growth.  Mechanization.  Worker exploitation.  Labor unions.  Collective bargaining.  These things are huge.  They matter, in a very direct and real sense.  I’ve only skimmed the surface but now I at least have a foundation of knowledge about that subject.  So many things in our every day lives are a direct result of global changes that took place during the Industrial Revolution, and having now learned the basics of it, I have a much better understanding of the world.

So what’s my point?  Well, we’ve already talked about how we’re autodidacts. I just want to continue the conversation.  There is so much to learn out there about the universe we live in.  The more you learn, the more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that comprises our reality fit into place.  Let your curiosity guide you.  And know that there’s always so much more to be learned.  You just have to teach it to yourself.  It’s empowering.

 

EDIT 2011-10-16: The following videos about the future of education and how it can be changed for the better are both inspiring and jarring:

Both videos are TED talks regarding the current state of and the future of the educational system.  In the first video, Salman Kahn (of Kahn Academy fame) talks about how he has begun working with schools to revolutionize teaching.  The second video, which is a bit more bleak, has Bill Gates (of Microsoft fame) talking about the consequences of the budget cuts to education as well as the possibilities for fixing the problems.

 

Free yourself from your computer. For free.

2010-12-23 2 comments

I’m going to teach you to be like me.  Now you are asking yourself, “Why would I want that?”  I’ll tell you.

If you’re like me, you use a computer regularly.  Very regularly.  Like maybe bordering on too much.  Perhaps you use multiple computers, such as at home and at work.  And if you’re like me, your digital data is vastly important to you: without access to all your emails, documents, photos, website bookmarks, etc., you would be screwed and your life would be hugely inconvenienced, to put it mildly.

But unlike most of you, my computer has no importance to me.  If my computer were to suddenly get destroyed, stolen, etc., I would not fret one little bit.  And it’s not because I’m rich, because I am most definitely not rich.  So why would the loss of my computer not bother me?  I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to demonstrate something else:

If I am traveling around in my day to day life or even if I’m traveling to some place afar, I never have to think to myself, “Did I remember to bring with me my [fill in the blank]?”  Why not?  For the same reason I wouldn’t sweat the loss of my laptop.  I have freed myself from my computer.  What does that mean?  I’ll feed ya, baby bird:  What that means is that even though I am constantly on any given computer, that particular computer is just an interface between me and my digital data.  No matter where I go, no matter what computer I’m using, my data and I are connected in the same way.  That’s because my data is cloud distributed.  Cloud distribution is the key to my success, and I’ll explain exactly what that means. Cloud distribution means my data is distributed in many locations, and they’re all in sync.  However, that doesn’t mean my data is ONLY in the cloud (this is a very important distinction).  My data is also on any computer I use, so if I’m cut off from the cloud, it doesn’t matter; I still have access to all my data, and I can make changes to my data while offline.  As soon as that computer regains its connection to the cloud, my data changes are saved to the cloud and to all my other devices, just as if nothing unusual had ever happened.

Here’s how I did it, and it didn’t cost me a penny:

Before we get started, you’re going to have to make a realization.  You need to realize that some of your data is unique and/or self-generated (like documents you wrote, photos you’ve taken, bookmarked websites, emails, etc.).  This data will be referred to as your valuable data.  The rest consists of stuff that is easily searched for and gotten from the web, like maybe programs or downloaded movies.  This will be referred to as your non-essential data.  The reason for making these two categories has to do with storage space and bandwidth.  Ok, ready?  Here we go:

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Step 1.  Dropbox.

Dropbox is absolutely key to my success.  Dropbox is an application/service that offers file synchronization.  You can sign up for a free account at dropbox.com.  A free account comes with 2GB of space.  However, you can increase that to a maximum of 1̶0̶G̶B̶ 19GB(Update 2011-04-26: Dropbox increased the maximum capacity of free accounts to 19GB) by referring other people and doing various other things on the dropbox website.  I maxed mine out, and that is important because for my purposes (and probably your purposes too), 2GB is not going to be enough but 19GB will be.  Once you sign up and have your 2GB account, you get an additional 250MB (that’s .25GB or 1/4 a GB) anytime someone clicks your referral link, creates a Dropbox account, and installs the Dropbox software on their computer (Update 2011-04-26: Dropbox now gives double the referral space (500MB or .5GB or 1/2 a GB) if you prove to the Dropbox website that you have an educational email address, which is an email address that ends in .edu).  And they (Dropbox) have a way of knowing whether a computer has already been used for this purpose, so you have to do it on a new computer each time.  So spread Dropbox to all your friends and family and make sure they use your referral link so that you get credit and get the extra storage space. There are ways to take advantage of this that some people do such as going into a computer lab or similar place and using each computer to give themselves a referral, or using a virtual machine software on their own computer to get the referrals. I am not condoning those practices, I am just being realistic and telling you that there are some people who do that. Note that Dropbox also has premium accounts that give you much more space for a monthly or yearly price.  But for the purposes of this tutorial, I’m keeping my promise that everything is free, so we’ll assume you’re going with the free account.

So, you’ve created your Dropbox account, maxed out your storage space to 19GB, and installed Dropbox on all your devices (computers, laptops, smartphones, tablet devices, etc.). (Note to certain people: you might not be aware of the fact that an iPhone is a smartphone and an iPad is a tablet device. There are many different brands available; Apple is just one of them).

When you install Dropbox on your device, it gives you the option to put the Dropbox folder anywhere.  I recommend putting it in your user folder.  For example on Windows 7 point it to C:>Users>username. On a Mac this would be in harddrive>Users>username.  On Windows XP it would be C:\Documents and Settings\username.  They have it for Linux too but I haven’t used it so I can’t comment on the specifics of a Linux installation.

Now, in your Dropbox folder (which is called either “Dropbox” or “My Dropbox”), you’re going to create a folder called Documents or Docs or whatever.  Put all your documents in that folder.  Next, you’ll notice that in your Dropbox folder there’s a folder called “Photos”.  Put all your photos in that folder.  Now this next part is up to you: you create whatever folders you need to inside your Dropbox folder and put whatever files you consider to be valuable data into your Dropbox folder and its respective sub-folders. You may organize everything in your Dropbox folder any way you want, with one caveat: when you first install Dropbox and look inside your Dropbox folder, there will be a certain 2 folders in there, one called “Photos” and one called “Public”. DO NOT delete either of those folders. I’ll explain why later.

Once your valuable data is in the Dropbox folder and you have an active internet connection, the files inside your Dropbox folder will automatically be synced to any devices you’ve installed Dropbox on, as well as to your online account.  This means that you can access your data from any of your devices, with or without internet connection.  But what if you find yourself using someone else’s device? No problem.  You simply go to dropbox.com, sign in, and you have access to all your files.  Dropbox is also useful for sharing files.  Inside your Dropbox folder is a folder called “Public”. Any file that you put in this Public folder you can share by right-clicking (or ctrl-clicking), selecting “Dropbox”, then click “Copy public link”.  Now you can paste this link in an email or wherever, and people will be able to click that link and get that file.

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Step 2. Gmail / Google Apps.

If you already have a Gmail account, good.  If not, then create one (it’s free).  I don’t care if you don’t want to switch to Gmail.  You have to or you’re making a poor life decision and you’ll get left in the digital dust.  Ok, so you’ve got your Gmail account.  Note that you now have all the other Google apps like Docs, Spreadsheets, etc. and anything that you could do in the past in Microsoft Word or Excel or whatever, now you can do it all using all the various Google tools.  Now you’re no longer dependent on a computer having the right software installed on it because you’ll always have access to your Google tools.  But what about if you lose internet connectivity?  That won’t be a problem once you do enable offline access to your Google stuff. I’ll explain how to do it but in the future the steps might change as Google changes its interface. If that’s the case, you can easily find instructions by searching Google. But anyway, at the time of this writing, the steps are as follows:  Sign in to your Gmail account at gmail.com, then click on settings (in the upper right-hand corner), click “Offline”, select “Enable Offline…”, then scroll down and click “Save”.  It will ask you if you want a link to offline mail on your desktop, start menu, and quick launch.  I recommend selecting at least one of those so you can click it when you need to.  Now your email is mobile (web-based) but ALSO saved on your computer in case you lose internet connectivity.  Any changes made while offline will be automatically synced once internet connectivity has been reestablished.  Now, on your smartphone and/or tablet device, download and install Google Sync and set it up by logging in with your gmail address and password.  Select calendar and contacts, and set it to automatic.  Now your contacts and calendar automatically & wirelessly synced across your phone and any computer.  If you were to have your phone lost/stolen/broken, no need to worry about your contacts and calendar, because it’s still all in your gmail account.  Just replace your phone, install Google Sync again, and voila! All your contacts and calendar data will be in your new phone.

BONUS: For only $9/year, you can have all the benefits of a Gmail account and also have a custom domain name for your email address.  For example, instead of name@gmail.com you would have name@mydomain.com, where “mydomain” would be replaced by whatever you want.  You can find a good article on this topic at Lifehacker located here: http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2010/12/why-you-should-use-google-apps-with-your-personal-domain-for-your-google-life/

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Step 3.  Xmarks.

Simply put, Xmarks synchronizes your website bookmarks across multiple computers and browsers.  It also gives you access to your bookmarks from any device that can go on websites.

Before we go any further, it should go without saying at this time that you should be using either (or both) of the two best browsers: Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.  If you have any questions about this issue, you may find it helpful to listen to the ThoseOnBoard Podcast #0.2 – Choosing The Best Web Browser.

So now that we’ve established that you’re using either Firefox or Chrome for your web browser, go to Xmarks.com, create a free account, then install the Xmarks extension (the site has instructions on this, it’s very simple.  Xmarks is completely free, however if you want they have a premium service that you pay for and get added perks.  Just check their site if you’re interested.  Now, on your smartphone/tablet device, install and setup Xmarks as well.

Voila!  You are now liberated from your computer.  All your valuable digital data is backed up, synchronized, and readily available from any device.

Ok, so I lied a little bit when I said that I wouldn’t mind a bit if my computer were destroyed/stolen/etc.  Of course I would be angry because I’d have to buy a new one and like I said before, I’m not rich.  But I would be comforted by the fact that all my precious data isn’t gone forever.  And ain’t that somethin’?

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