Saturday, October 10, 2015

FireChat, a Must if You Live in Earthquake Territory (or Hurricane, or Tornado, or...)

The most recent update to FireChat, a free and widely innovative messaging app makes it a must for anyone who lives in earthquake prone Japan (or other places where natural disasters are unavoidable.)

FireChat uses Bluetooth and peer-to-peer wifi to enable people to message each other directly, phone-to-phone. When the power goes out, cell towers will last only as long as their backup batteries work, which is not long at all. Because FireChat doesn't rely on cell towers or the Internet, FireChat makes it possible to communicate even during the most extreme disaster. Imagine that: cell phone messaging without a cellular network or the Internet.

Previously, FireChat's range was limited to 70 meters. With FireChat's recent update your message hops from FireChat user to FireChat user until it reaches its destination. It may take a while for your message to reach your family, friends, or coworkers, but it eventually will.

Free iOS and Android FireChat apps can be found at

Unlike cellular networks, which become bogged down when there are too many users, with FireChat, the more users the better it works. It's ingenious, it works and it could save your ass.

FireChat is now part of my Tokyo earthquake preparedness kit.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

International Cellular Data Roaming If You Dare

Tech Tidbit:

Do you lust after a clean inbox? An inbox with just 3 or 4 or 5 messages at most? Are you looking for an alternative to declaring email bankruptcy? Give Followupthen a whirl. Just forward whatever email you want to deal with later to,,,, and delete that email. Go ahead. Trust me and just delete it. Followupthen,, will resend the email to you at whatever time in the future you want. (I haven't tried, tempting as that may be with some emails.)

International Cellular Data Roaming

Let's talk about international data roaming rates. Or not, if you're the squeamish type.

It used to be that all you'd have to worry about was the cost of international voice. And international voice rates were relatively easy to understand. That was just a few years ago. Now we want to be able to read the New York Times on our iPhone while in Paris, Twitter from our Blackberries from the southern tip of Argentina, share travel photos with friends from our Androids while in Alaska, post status updates on Facebook, download music, podcasts and movies, check flight schedules, use our smartphone's GPS (which takes data because maps are usually downloaded on an as-needed basis), and do all sorts of other things on the Internet with our phones.

But it's gong to cost you. A lot.

Between March 2009 and January 2010, AT&T increased its international roaming data rates by 100-fold. AT&T now charges 100 times more for data when you travel overseas with your iPhone or other smartphone than it did last year.

In March 2009, I paid $60 for 5 gigabytes of data for a month of overseas roaming. In August 2009, I paid $100 for 5 gigabytes of data for a month of overseas roaming. In January 2010, AT&T started charging $119 for 100 megabytes of data for a month. At this rate, you'd pay AT&T about $6,000 for the 5 gigabytes that previously cost $60. A megabyte is 1,000 kilobytes. A single smartphone photo might be about a megabyte in size.

That's an incredible price increase. It's off the scale. AT&T went from charging about 1 cent a megabyte in March to charging $1.19 a megabyte for international data roaming. If you go beyond your prepaid 100 megabytes, AT&T's overage rate is $5/megabyte.

AT&T doesn't offer an option to pre-pay for anything more than 200 megabytes a month (for $199) when traveling internationally. With today's smartphones --they're virtual computers in your pocket-- you can breeze through 200 megabytes easily, almost without noticing. GPS maps, Facebook, sharing photos, checking email, reading the New York Times - these activities can quickly eat into your 100 or 200 megabyte allotment. And now that you can use Skype and other voice applications over AT&T's cellular network, well, you'd better have a pretty big credit card limit.

AT&T does offer one alternative, which is also pricey: For an additional $34.99 a month, you can get unlimited domestic and international data. That plan requires a year commitment, and an early termination fee applies.

What can justify a 100-fold increase in price other than a we-can-do-it-because-we-can attitude? AT&T touts their data plans as "Affordable World Packages" on its website, I guess "affordable" is one of those words that means whatever you want it to mean.

I'm an AT&T cellular customer (loyal though now very annoyed). Out of curiosity, I wanted to compare AT&T's international data rate to the other cellular carriers. T-Mobile charges a flat $15/megabyte when you roam internationally ($10 in Canada). Sprint charges $16/megabyte a la carte. With Verizon you can get a $129.00 plan that gives you 100 megabytes, or $219/200 megabytes. Overage fees apply: Don't ask. Actually asking doesn't always get you clarity. It took multiple calls just to eke out the basic international data rates, and customer service reps weren't even sure themselves. On its website, Verizon says that international data roaming rates are .002 cents /kilobyte. (Data rates are usually measured in kilobytes, a practically impossible measure to use when you're trying to calculate how much data you're going to need. I converted all of the kilobyte rates to megabytes, which are a little more comprehensible.) Verizon actually bills at .002 dollars/kilobyte. You can read about one unhappy Verizon customer's experience with Verizon's math illiteracy here: . Like me, I hope you'll enjoy the part of the conversation where Verizon's customer service rep says that the difference between the posted 0.002 cents/kb and the billed 0.002 dollars/kb rate is a matter of "opinion."

If you purchase a 100, 200 megabyte or other plan, pay close attention to your data usage. Cellular data doesn't turn off once you've reached your data limit. Instead, you get shifted to higher per-kilobyte rate. If you're in the middle of downloading a one gigabyte movie, the excess data cost could be more than $12,000. It better be a good movie. If you think I'm kidding about that kind of nightmare happening, you can read about the single movie download that cost $62,000 here: Or a $60,000 data charge here: . But the good news is that not all surprise international data bills are that high. Adam Savage of the cable television program Mythbusters had only an $11,000 bill after data roaming in Canada ( ).

So what should you do if you want to be able to surf the internet, check email, and share photos while traveling overseas? One option is to buy or rent an unlocked cell phone and buy a pre-paid SIM card in that country. But the data rates for pre-paid SIM cards are lousy. And you can't use your own phone with a pre-paid SIM card, unless it's unlocked (not always easy or possible.)

The only good option, if you want to avoid a really scary phone bill when you return, is to turn off cellular data and make prodigious use of wifi. Your hotel's wifi, wifi at the airport, Internet cafes can let you get on the Internet. Unfortunately this means that you can't be as footloose and fancy-free with data while traveling in other countries, and you need to figure out in advance where you can find wifi. (Yes, there are apps for that, too.)

Or it may be time to go back to sending picture postcards.

Tech Support in Your Pajamas

We have a lot of great computer support pros in our neighborhood. But even the best of them have to sleep for at least three hours a night. When your computer starts going haywire at 11pm or on holiday, who are you going to call? What can you do?

There are three things you can do to solve your problem. The first is, of course, Google it! Chances are good that somebody has experienced the same problem you're having, and there's a solution out there somewhere. So type into Google (or Bing or whatever your favorite search engine is) the error message or a simple English language description of your problem and see what comes back.

The second thing you can do is to find an appropriate forum and post your question there. YahooGroups has zillions of technology forums, and there are others throughout the Internet. I've had great success using computer forums.

If neither of these approaches helps, let remote tech support take control of your computer. I've used this a couple of times and there's nothing quite like having somebody do everything for you. (Unless you enjoy doing all the uninstalling, reinstalling, editing configuration files, and rebooting, over and over again.) If your computer is under warranty, your computer manufacturer may be able to do this -- ask them if they can remotely control and repair your computer. If not, you can avail yourself of a commercial remote control computer fix-it service. These services are on call 24 hours a day and are great if your regular in-home IT person (your teenager) is busy doing homework. Tech-by-remote companies can deal with a wide range of software problems, including computer viruses. As long as you can connect to the Internet, you can use a remote repair service.

PC Remote Repair,, can fix operating system and major application problems. You can call them at 866-947-7277 for a free estimate. They can also set up applications and perform wireless network diagnostic and repair. PC Remote Repair also has a $150 annual maintenance plan that includes phone support, in case you can't connect to the Internet.

Supportspace,, is an innovative service that connects you to an expert. You can either select a specific problem (such as file recovery, which costs $79) or choose an expert based on that expert's description and customer rating. I like being able to choose the tech support person rather than relying on chance.

PC On Demand,, is another service that can fix your computer remotely. PC On Demand's prices vary from $59 to $160 per hour, depending whether or not you're a previous customer or if you need immediate service.

iYogi,, is one of the top-rated remote repair services. iYogi, which employs Microsoft Certified Technicians, offers an annual service contract for $140. (They don't have a la carte pricing.) Call them for more information at 800-237-3901.

Remote Repair Net,, also tackles a wide array of computer problems. Remote Repair Net does not charge your credit card until the problem is fixed. They offer a $24.95 a month all-you-can-eat support plan, too, if your computer's software is accident-prone.

Live Tech Online Support,, will diagnose and solve your computer problems. Like the other online tech support services, they'll do most everything for you by taking control of your computer. You can get an estimate from Live Tech Online Support at 866-548-3349.

Through Crossloop,, you can hire an expert who can deal with the particular problem you're having, such as a networking problem, iPhone sync problem, or Microsoft Outlook problem.

Finally, if you happen to have a tech savvy friend or relative --a willing one-- you can install remote control software on your computer that will allow your friend to access your computer remotely and do the repairs for you at no cost (or in exchange for a nice dinner out or walking their dog for them in the rain at 6am.) Symantec's PC Anywhere,, Remote Desktop Control, , and Access PC Remote, , are three programs that you can install to let you turn a friend or family member into your computer's indentured servant.

Internet Diversions for February

Now that the snow has ended and won't be returning until 2015, I thought it would be a good time to mention a few fun places on the Internet. As we slog trough the snow on our way back to work, it's important to be able to have things to do at the office instead of work. After all, we're so used to having endless free time on our hands (when we're not shoveling); the transition from resting to working should be as slow and gradual as possible.

If you discover any good Internet diversions, please send them my way. This won't be the last column about the Internet and work avoidance.

Take The Idiot Test. (That's what it's called. I'm not implying anything about you.) The test is at . It's hard to describe this Internet-based game, but it starts off simply (and colorfully) and then gets progressively more complicated and ornery. It's strangely addicting and lots of fun. Warning: Don't try it if you're making the switch to decaf.

Radio Paradise is the best streaming Internet radio station on the planet: Tune it in and turn up the volume. Radio Paradise may inspire you to get better computer speakers. Pandora,, is my second favorite streaming Internet station. Pandora lets you create playlists based on the kind of music you like. I'm constantly discovering new music though Radio Paradise and Pandora.

If you haven't been saving computer magazines since 1980, take a look at this website with old computer ads: Don't miss the 1984 Macintosh advertisement:

RecordTripping, One of the most enjoyable and beautifully games designed I've ever found. While Alice in Wonderland is being narrated you use your mouse as a DJ uses her hands to scratch a record forward and backwards, solving five different puzzles.

Do you want to see what's going on around the world? Visit WorldWebCam,, and look at one of the hundreds of webcams of mountains, traffic, animals (go right to the source and view a pandacam in China), beaches (there's a beach on Australia's east coast that I so want to be on right now), and more.

The Onion, Need I say more?

Pick the Perp,, challenges your deepest knee-jerk assumptions and impulses. We all make instant and thoughtless judgments about people based simply on how they look. In Pick the Perp you try and guess which person out of five has been accused of a crime, based on nothing other than photos. It's eye-opening.,, is basically online training for becoming a five day Jeopardy champion. From world capitals to dog breeds to the periodic table of the elements to wine facts and more, makes it fun and easy to learn and remember stuff. It's flash cards with spunk. has "cards" for thousands of subjects. Instead of working, go ahead and memorize something useful like poker hands or Twitter terms.

Possibly the most amazing storm photos are at Be sure to check out the lightning photographs. They're so powerful, so potent that they make you want to run inside for cover even if you're looking at them from the safety of the indoors.

How many different kind of snowflakes are there? Is it true that no two flakes are ever alike? What kind of weather produces different kinds of flakes? You might have thought that you're an expert on snowflakes after the storms of 2009-2010, but there's a lot more to learn at And you can download a free snowflake wallpaper there, too.

The iPad: Why?

Tech Tidbit:

After my column last week about how your smartphone can save your life, Listserv reader Lucy Buckley pointed me to a story about a photographer who was trapped on floating ice in the North Sea. The photographer used his camera's flash to signal for help. Being able to signal for help is something that smartphones, including the iPhone can do -- if you get a strobe/flashight application.

Tech Tidbit number 2:

Do you use Instapaper? Instapaper, , is a fast and easy browser add-on that lets you easily save web pages for later reading. And if you have an iPhone, the saved pages will sync with your phone so you can read while on the go. Instapaper also has Editor's Picks -- basically the best stuff that people have been clipping and saving from the web. It's through the Editor's Picks that I learned how to survive a fall from 35,000 feet, should worst come to worst on a flight (Here's the direct link to that article: People have actually survived a fall from seven miles high.

Tech Tidbit number 3:

On the off chance that you're thinking about the weather, here are some websites to keep you informed, if not amused:

The Capital Weather Gang remains the best local weather website:

Weather Underground lets you customize how you want to see local and faraway weather information:

There's a terrific page with multiple weather windows, including satellite and radar images at

If you go to (replace 20008 with your zip code), you'll be treated to your neighborhood weather forecast directly from the National Weather Service.

And although not exactly a weather information website, here's a link to a webcam for a nice beach in Mexico: Warning: Visit that website at the risk of your own sanity.

Now to the main event, the iPad.

Since when did a new device become something that people rooted for or against? Is it because the Superbowl is over and until the baseball season starts, there's not much to entertain us?

I am rooting for the iPad, but I'm not getting one. Despite the iPad's coolness, I'm just not convinced that the iPad is something I need. Or something that anyone needs. When I compare the iPad, priced at $500 for the starter model, to a $500 netbook, the netbook wins in every category except for weight, the ability to surf the web by touching the screen, and gee-whizness. What can't an iPad do what a Windows netbook can? iPads can't play flash video, the most ubiquitious form of video content on the web, don't multitask (you can listen to Internet radio after you're done checking your email, but not during), don't have built-in cameras for Skype video calls, don't have USB ports or memory card slots. There's no Bluetooth, and typing on an iPad is going to be a pain for touch typists. These are basic features for portable computing devices.

With its beautiful screen and multi-touch scrolling, the iPad is browser-centric, and yet there are countless websites that won't work on the iPad. Pity.

While the iPad is lighter than a netbook, if you plan to do any serious typing on it, you'll need an external keyboard. And if you plan to take your iPad anywhere, you'll need a protective case. Suddenly, the iPad isn't so light and svelte anymore.

And let's not forget the fact that you can only run software that Apple approves. That might be okay for a cellphone, but for a computing device? Can you imagine if portable PCs only ran software pre-approved by Microsoft?

Then there's the real practical problem of how many devices you are going to carry when you're traveling. You need your cell phone -- the iPad doesn't replace that. A camera can be good to take along. And a laptop or netbook is absolutely necessary if you're planning to write, edit photos, place Skype calls, moderate the Cleveland Park Listserv, or perform many other tasks. Few people are going to leave their netbooks behind and just take an iPad.


What the iPad represents is potential. Revolutionary potential. iPad 1.0 doesn't impress. But it's already spurred other computer manufacturers to created their own tablet PCs. We'll soon see powerful tablets from Google and Microsoft. Before next holiday season Apple will, I believe, come out with iPad 2.0. Like converging low pressure systems that produce a giant snowstorm, all of a sudden there will be tablets everywhere. And when that happens, we won't just be surfing the Internet, doing light email, and playing Bejeweled, or even reading books. I predict that the iPad tablet --not version 1.0 but the ones that follow-- will herald the end of students suffering back ailments as they trudge around 30 pounds of textbooks. Tablets will be how we read the morning paper -- and like it. Tablets will be the way we watch movies in bed, and the way we play on Facebook. They will be our video phones and just about everything else we do while connected to the Internet. And not in ten years or even five years. Soon. Perhaps not before the snow melts, but within a year or two, some of this will happen. And that's cool.

Your Smartphone Can Save Your Life

Your smartphone can save your life. It saved filmmaker Dan Woolley's life. He was in Haiti making a documentary on poverty when the earthquake struck. Woolley was injured and buried under mounds of rubble from what had moments ago been his hotel. He had an iPhone. And on his iPhone was the lifesaving application, Pocket First Aid & CPR. Following the instructions on Pocket First Aid & CPR, Woolley made a tourniquet for his leg and a bandage for his head. He also paid heed to the application's instructions not to fall asleep if he felt he was going into shock. To keep himself awake, Woolley set his iPhone's alarm to go off every 20 minutes. He told a reporter, "I had an app that had pre-downloaded all this information about treating wounds. So I looked up 'excessive bleeding' and I looked up 'compound fracture'". Woolley was finally found by a French rescue team after 65 hours. You can watch his incredible interview on MSNBC here: .

When the single-engine Cessna carrying 19-year-old Brittany Cozart crashed in the Ozark Mountains, she wasn't able to get a cell phone signal. However, she was able to send a text message to her mother, who alerted authorities. Cozart had 22 broken bones, a collapsed lung and head injuries -- she owes her life to her cellphone. You can watch Brittany talk about her rescue on this video: . Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Shoaf was rescued from kidnappers in South Carolina thanks to text messages she sent: The police were able to determine her general location through the cell tower that transmitted her message. A Canadian woman, trapped under debris from the earthquake in Haiti, sent a text message to the foreign Affairs Department in Canada, some 3,000 miles away. A rescue team was dispatched to save her. These three people, and many others, are alive because text messages can often get through when voice transmission doesn't work.

So what should be on your iPhone? (Because I have an iPhone, I'm writing about iPhone apps. But there are similar applications for other smartphones.) What apps might save your --or a friend's life-- some day? A good first aid application, such as Pocket First Aid & CPR, PocketCPR, or WebMD Mobile is a must. The app, Army Survival, goes beyond first aid, giving you information about how to find water, make a shelter, and catch food, and makes a good addition to your safety app arsenal. With these applications you have the knowledge you need to survive in an emergency and give help to others.

Everyone should have a location-sending app such as I Am Here, Here I Am, GPS Mail, or one of the other dozens of applications that lets you send a text message with your longitude and latitude coordinates or an email with a map showing your location. You can also send a map with your location directly from the Google Maps app that's built into the iPhone, though that takes a few no-so-intuitive steps. The ability to send a map pinpointing your location is a lifesaving feature.

If the worst happens and the only emergency apps you have on your smartphone are your Twitter and Facebook apps, then by all means, Twitter for help or update your Facebook status and call for help.

Every iPhone is a flashlight, but if you want your iPhone to shine brighter, you can get a dedicated flashlight application such as Flashlight. Other flashlight apps including SOS Torch, Rescue Light, or Flashlight + Safety Light, go a step beyond simple flashlights and turn your iPhone into a stalwart signaling device, by adding a strobe light. Strobes make you easier to find.

If you travel outside of the United States, take along Call Help!, which automatically recognizes the country you are in and displays the 911 equivalent for that country.

All of these applications are worthless if your iPhone's battery dies, so when you're out and about it's a good idea to carry a battery backup so that you can keep your smartphone --and you-- alive. Turbo Charge, , uses AA batteries and gives you roughly an extra 16 hours of iPhone life. The rechargeable Kensington Battery Pack,, can extend the usable time of your iPhone even more. Both chargers are pocket-sized and lightweight. Courtesy of Gizmodo, , comes this handy tip: If you lose your cell phone charger, just go to any hotel and ask if they found a cell phone charger for whatever brand of phone you have. The most commonly lost items at hotels are cell phone chargers, and most hotels will be happy to let your rummage through their box o' chargers, whether you're a guest or not. One hotel staff member told Gizmodo: "I work for the second largest conference hotel in my city. You have no idea the size box we have of chargers left behind. Ninety percent are idiot Blackberry chargers. This works 100 percent of the time, we never verify that anyone stays here. We just let them go shopping for their charger."

Having Bejeweled and Tetris on your iPhone can help you enjoy life while standing in line at the DMV. But first aid and safety applications can save your life.

The Asus 1201N Netbook

A few tech tidbits are in order before I get to the meat of today's column. Two important programs have just received major updates: Evernote and Firefox. I've written about Evernote before. Evernote is a note-taking program that's wildly popular because it's wildly useful. Evernote lets you create and access your notes from just about any platform you can think of: Window, Mac, Linux, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and others. Evernote has a built-in web clipper, so that if you see it on the Internet, you can save it instantly in Evernote. Evernote automatically indexes your notes, making what you put in quickly findable. You can organize your notes in folders and with tags, or you can just dump in your notes haphazardly, if your life is perpetually disorganized. Evernote has some other neat tricks, too, including the ability to take photo notes -- and any words in the photo are indexed by Evernote. Imagine: Your notes (flight schedules, business ideas, draft letters to the editors, exam notes, recipes) available anywhere and everywhere you are. That's Evernote. The new version, 3.5, has an updated interface, speed enhancements, and other improvements. Get a free download at

Firefox went from version 3.5 to 3.6. Although it's only a .1 change (how do software developers measure these various version numbers anyway?), version 3.6 feels like a more substantial upgrade, at least as far as speed is concerned. The new version of Firefox is noticeably zippier when it comes to starting up and opening web pages, and it's prettier. Firefox 3.6 has "personas" -- thousands of themes to choose from. I'm not into themes -- I like my software not to distract from the content it's supposed to provide. While Firefox 3.6 is faster, it's still slower than Chrome and it still requires that you restart the browser every time you install or uninstall an add-on. Firefox hasn't yet implemented sandboxed tabs: When one tab crashes, the entire browser crashes. (In Chrome, when one tab crashes, the browser is fine.) Firefox does have one significant advantage over Chrome: When you go back a page in Firefox, the back button brings you to where you were last on that page. Let's say you're reading an article that's in the middle of a page and you click on a hyperlink in that article. When you press Firefox's back button, you return to exactly where you left off. When you press the back button in Chrome, you're brought back to the top of the page. Grrr.

This week's last tech tidbit: Gizmodo reports that somebody made a $10 text donation for Haiti earthquake relief from a demo phone at an AT&T store: . Clever, but not recommended. If you want to donate $10 from your own cell phone, text the word HAITI to 90999.

What I really wanted to write about in this week's column is my new love, the Asus 1201N netbook. I bought this taking a risk, knowing that netbooks are typically underpowered. While 90 percent of what I do with my computer is on the Internet, I still need a fairly powerful computer to edit photos and to use other graphics-intensive programs. The Asus 1201N, with the new Nvidia ION chip, can handle graphics-intensive programs; your favorite games and favorite HD YouTube videos will work, unlike with many other netbooks. This lightweight netbook, weighing in at 3.2 pounds and $484, can almost be a laptop replacement -- if you can live without a DVD drive. (You can get an external one for $55.) The keyboard is full and responsive; the screen, even though it's only 12.1 inches, is a treat for the eyes. (You do know about the F11 key, which hides all the toolbars in your favorite browser, freeing screen real estate for what really matters, right?) The Asus 1201N has a built in VGA webcam - handy for Skype. The Asus has a nifty feature called "Boot Booster," which noticeably speeds up Windows boot time. My Asus boots in less than 25 seconds. It's almost like, well, like having a Mac. The specs, in case you need to know that kind of stuff: Windows 7, 12.1 inch screen, 5 hours of battery life (mileage may vary), wifi, Bluetooth, SD card, NVIDIA ION chip, Intel Atom N330 dual-core processor,TT250 GB drive, multi-touch touchpad, 2GB RAM, and it weighs 3.22 pounds. Sweet.

Apple will be announcing its fabled tablet computer this week. I'm not taking any risks by saying it's going to be an amazing device. But I'm also not taking any risks by recommending the Asus 1201N as a netbook you can rely on for travel. If you can survive without a big screen and limited hard disk space, the Asus 1201N could even be your main computer. The keyboard is an enduring method for inputting information. Until text-to-speech recognition becomes more accurate (and that's inevitable), nothing beats the keyboard for speed and accuracy when it comes to going from thought to text. Maybe I'll eat my words later this week, but I doubt that typing on Apple's tablet will be as fast and easy as typing on a keyboard.

There's a tweak I recommend for the ASUS. The computer comes partitioned into two 125GB parts. The logic behind this is that you put your programs on the C drive and your data on the D drive, and this makes it easier to back up your computer and organize your files. I find pre-partitioned drives more of a pain than not, because the amount of space my programs and data take up are not divided equally. Fortunately, you can easily unpartition drives in Windows 7 and create one 250 gigabyte drive, and not have to worry about where where you put your stuff. For more information on how to unpartition a hard drive, visit: . Be sure to reallocate the space afterward to return to your C drive what you took away from the partitioned D drive.

You can add a little extra oomph to your Asus by sticking a 4 or 8 GB secure digital slot in the computer's memory card slot, and turning on Windows' Readyboost, which can speed up your computer's disk reading and writing, and reduce battery consumption by requiring less hard drive activity. You can read more about Readyboost here: