Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Passwords Made Easy, I Promise

I have two tech tidbits before I get to the meat of this column, how to create and use secure passwords easily.

The first tech tidbit concerns the continuing saga of the animal that's invaded our house. As you may recall, the smart people at Aardvark, www.vark.com, the human-based answer line, all said that it was a mouse that was stealing the Perugina Baci chocolate. Nothing else in our kitchen was touched and there were no, um, droppings, so the only clue as to what it was came from the stolen Perugina Baci chocolate, with the shredded remains of the wrapper. Last week my daughter said she saw a mouse in our kitchen, apparently confirming what the helpful people at Aardvark had already told me. Just to be sure that my daughter hadn't mistaken the mouse for something else, I asked her what it looked like. She replied, "a mouse." Fair enough. I guess that's definitive. (She is, after all, a mouse expert, having seen a myriad of Disney movies.) A few days ago we baited a Have-a-heart trap with Perugina and peanut butter. The mouse, apparently too light to trigger the trap, stole both the chocolate and peanut butter on subsequent nights. We're awaiting the arrival of a more mouse-oriented humane trap.

Tech tidbit number two: If you haven't thought about using Picasaweb, Google's online photo sharing service that can also be used to back up your photos, here's another incentive: For a limited time Google is giving away a 4 gigabyte Eye-Fi memory card if you purchase 200 gigabytes of storage for $50. An Eye-Fi card is a secure digital memory card, normally $60, which goes in your camera. It has a unique feature: An Eye-Fi card lets you wirelessly upload your photos to your computer and to one of several online sites. No wires, very handy! You can read more about this offer at http://picasa.google.com/eyefi.html.


Passwords. Let's talk about passwords for a moment. There are two rules that everyone should follow when it comes to passwords. No, not should. Must. The first rule is never, ever use the same password in more than one place. If you use the same password in more than one place, all a crook has to do is figure out your password and then everything you own that's online becomes that crook's. Using one password requires that you trust every employee at every company where you use that password, too. And trust that people who work for that company won't lose the passwords on a stolen laptop. Et cetera, et cetera. You get the idea: One password can expose your whole life to permanent misery.

The second rule is to make all your passwords strong, using random letters, numbers, and characters. Passwords should be impossible to guess or predict. This is a good password: Iiomh!8H. This is a bad password: Palin2012. Some services bar the use of insecure passwords. If you sign up for Twitter and try to use an insecure password (insecure = stupid), you're barred from using that password. Some stupid passwords are "password," "naked," "beavis," "123456," and "secret". Insecure passwords come in all flavors. What's an insecure password? Anything that somebody can guess based on personal knowledge of you. Any word in the dictionary. Any password that does not contain at least some upper case letter, punctuation mark or number. A friend of mine used his son's name followed by his own birth year as his Facebook password. A hacker guessed his password and broke into his Facebook account. Worse still, my friend used the same password for his Gmail account. The hacker promptly impersonated my friend on Facebook and Gmail.

Here's a short article on how to make strong passwords: http://www.microsoft.com/protect/fraud/passwords/create.aspx (http://goo.gl/JDBD).

So how do you use a unique, hard-to-guess password everywhere? Get a password management program that generates passwords, stores them, and logs you into websites automatically. I use the password management program, Lastpass, http://www.lastpass.com . With Lastpass all you need to remember is a single password, and that password opens the door to all of your other passwords. Lastpass recognizes websites, so it knows to log you in: One click and you're logged on to any website. Lastpass keeps a copy of your passwords stored on your computer and on their server, encrypted, so that you can access your password-protected websites from anywhere. All of your computers and browsers are synched. Lastpass also has an anti-keystroke logger to thwart programs that are sometimes installed on public computers to record passwords by recording all keys pressed on that computer. (Oh yes, Internet cafes and hotel business center computers are popular among crooks as places to steal logon information.) Lastpass will not log you into fake websites, helping to prevent you from being phished.

Lastpass will also disable the insecure password system in your web browser. That's a handy feature: If a thief steals your laptop, without the master Lastpass password, that thief can't get into any of your password-protected services. There's a mobile version for Lastpass that fits on a thumbdrive, as well as an iPhone app. You can create secure, encrypted notes using Lastpass, too. Your confidential information can be protected and available to you everywhere. I like it. Lastpass serves me well.

Lastpass isn't the only password management software, either. Keepass, http://www.keepass.info , and RoboForm, http://www.roboform.com , are two other password management programs that get terrific reviews.

There's a bit of a learning curve involved with any password management program. But once you get the hang of it, you'll not only be protected, but you'll never forget another password again.

Turn Your Old Computer Into a New One

Before I launch into this week's tech column, I'd like to offer two tech tidbits. After last week's column in which I praised Aardvark, www.vark.com, a human-backed Internet query system, I received some emails in response to my question, "what was that animal that was stealing our Perugina Baci chocolate (and only that)?" Several helpful Aardvarkers insisted that it had to be a mouse. My wife and I set a humane trap baited with Perugina Baci chocolate, but as of today the bait hasn't been taken, so we just don't know the answer yet. Curious. My next Aardvark query may be about hyper intelligent mice that can avoid traps -- could they take over the planet?

Tech tidbit number 2: A few days ago my daughter's cell phone ended up in the wash. This was not a happy moment in our family, but I remembered reading a tip about how soaked electronics can sometimes be saved by immersing the device in uncooked rice. So with nothing to lose, I did just that, and to my surprise, my daughter's cell phone is not only clean, but it works fine. If your cell phone or other small electronic device gets soaked, be sure not to turn it on before you cover it with rice because you don't want the water to cause a short, which would mean permanent damage. Leave it in the rice overnight. Hey, this tip actually works!


Pick me! Pick me! That's what nearly every program that's installed on a Windows computer seems to be saying. Many programs not only install themselves on your computer, but like to be running all the time. They think it's a benefit to you to have the program in your computer's memory so it can load faster. Maybe, but if you only use that program infrequently, the program is just hogging RAM and causing your computer to boot more slowly. The more programs that are running, the greater the chance your computer will crash, too. The only benefit that all these auto-loading programs have is that they give you time to brew a cup of coffee --or two-- while your computer wakes up in the morning.

You can reclaim considerable computer memory and speed up your computer's start time by turning off the automatic loading in these programs. You can do that through a program that's built into Windows, MSCONFIG. In the start menu (for Windows Vista and Windows 7), type MSCONFIG and open it. If you use Windows XP, go to Start, then Run, then type MSCONFIG. Go to the Startup tab. If your computer is more than a few months old, you'll find a lot of programs listed. Uncheck all of those programs that you don't want loading every time you boot your computer. Don't worry about unchecking a program by mistake. You're not uninstalling any programs, you're simply telling programs not to start with Windows. You can always re-check applications you want to run all the time.

How to choose which programs to uncheck and which to let load with windows? Google (or Aardvark) to the rescue. Just search for the name of the program and you'll be able to read about what it does and whether or not that program is important or essential. There's also a handy list with descriptions of the 13,000 programs that like to start all the time with Windows at http://www.sysinfo.org/startuplist.php. (Don't worry, not all 13,000 programs will be starting up on your computer all the time, even though it may feel like that.) If you're still uncertain, you can uncheck it and see what happens.

Some programs, such as iTunes, insinuate themselves into loading with Windows every time you update the program. (iTunes adds Quicktime; there's no reason why you need to have Quicktime running all the time.) Another program that creeps into Windows' memory is Adobe Acrobat, which doesn't need to be running all the time, either.

Once you've parsed your computer's startup list, you'll have a faster, spiffier computer. (If you want a shinier computer, you could put it in the wash and then dunk it in rice, but a little dirt is probably a good idea when it comes to computers.) Ditching startup programs is almost like getting a brand new computer.

Better than Google

You may not have even noticed that it, but you already prefer ways of finding out the answers to questions other than using Google. If you're scratching your head and thinking, "Wikipedia?" you're wrong. If you think the answer is a trip to the public library, you're wrong. (Though the library is still a great place to get answers!) If you think that the best place is one of the other terrific reference or news websites such as www.nytimes.com, www.infoplease.com, or www.britannica.com -- you're not even close. If you think it's your mom, because she always knows best -- then you're actually close to being right.

At times --maybe most of the time-- asking a question of another human being is better, because it's more accurate than Google.

And we already do. The Cleveland Park Listserv is a great example of tapping into the collective wisdom of over 8,800 neighbors. Google "plumber washington dc" and you'll get plumber listings. But Google won't necessarily tell you if that plumber is prompt, creative, and pleasant to have in your home. The Cleveland Park Listserv is an example of an online forum that taps into the richness of human experience and knowledge.

There are hundreds of thousands of specialized forums that also let you tap into other people's wisdom. YahooGroups is the world's leader in online forums. When I have a problem with my computer, I search for a specific YahooGroup that deals with the issue I'm having, be it with Microsoft Outlook, an aging Windows XP computer, or my iPhone. There are forums on YahooGroups about health, fitness, travel, parenting, language learning, nature -- everything.

Not everyone on these forums is imbued with expertise, however. So you have to use your own brain power to figure out if the answer makes sense. Or ask your question in another place, too. It's also the case that the answers to questions that come from Googling, Wikipedia, or other static online sources aren't necessarily right. (The only two online sources that I trust with my life are the New York Times and Encyclopedia Britannica.)

What if the question that you're looking to answer doesn't lend itself well to a particular online forum, or you can't find a forum? For those problems, there are answer services. Yahoo has its own service called Yahoo Answers: http://answers.yahoo.com . Post a question and somebody will answer it, usually very quickly. Perhaps the best online answer service is Aardvark, http://vark.com. Anyone can ask a question. If you sign up to offer your expertise, you can tell Aardvark what subjects you'd like to answer questions about. The questions are then sent to you by email or IM. There's an Aardvark application for the iPhone so you have access to experts in almost every subject, wherever you are. I've used Aardvark to get answers to obscure foreign language grammar questions and to try and figure out what kind of animal was finding its way onto our kitchen counter and shredding the wrappers of Perugina Baci chocolates without eating the candy. Aardvark's uses are limitless: Imagine -- you're standing in line at the airport and see somebody wearing a type of outfit you've never seen before. Fire up your Aardvark app, describe what you see, and within minutes somebody will tell you what country that person is from. I like Aardvark so much that I created a Cleveland Park Listserv Network on Aardvark: http://vark.com/g/39fd04.

What about those questions that require an opinion, not a precise answer? For that there's Instant Jury, http://instantjury.com. Instant Jury members decide cases that people submit to the Instant Jury website. I was recently a juror in a case that tried to settle the question of whether or not emailed holiday cards are okay to send instead of paper cards. (The eCards side lost.) There's a case currently pending between a husband and wife about whether they should let their kids to crawl into bed with them in early in the morning before school.

Google is great. But people are even greater.

Backups Made Easy, Part 2

Last week I wrote about using online services to back up your data. In between that column and this one about local, in-home backups, I discovered an additional, and mostly free service that I hadn't thought of as backup service: Picasa Web Albums can be used to back up your photos. If you use Picasa as your computer's photo organizing program or editor, you can easily and automatically upload your photos to Picasa online every time you add photos from your camera or smartphone. Google recently lowered their price for online storage: 20GB costs $5 a year; 200GB is only $50 a year. Here are a couple of tips about Picasa: If you use Picasa Web Albums to back up your photos, be sure to change the setting to use the photo's original size (the default is to back up at a lower resolution), and make your online albums not automatically viewable to the world (unless you want your photos to be seen by everyone). Sign up and download Google's free photo editing and organizing software at http://picasa.google.com.

If something's good, then two of them may be even better. That's true for cheesecake and backups. Everyone should use at least two backups. Why? Because backups can fail, just as your main drive can fail. And unless you regularly check your backup software's logs, you may find yourself unpleasantly surprised one day when you discover that your backup has failed. A second backup helps prevent disaster, and preventing disaster is why we do backups.

I also strongly suggest having at least one remote backup and one local backup. A remote backup for total peace of mind, and a local backup so you can back up and restore files at lightning speed.

Backing up to an external drive is easy and fast, but not without problems. A virus that infects your computer, wiping out files, can easily destroy your external drive's backup, too. External drives aren't immune to fire or theft. External drives wear out and can die a sudden death. And the software you can get to back up your photos, music, emails, wordprocessing documents, spreadsheets and other data can simply decide not to work one day. (A program crashing and burning -- say it ain't so!)

Here's all you need to know to use an external drive as your primary or secondary backup. Buy the largest external drive drive you can afford, but at least double the size of your current hard drive. (Why double? Because that gives you the ability to back up multiple revisions of a document.) Plug the drive into your USB port, run your backup software, and that's it. The process of setting up an external drive backup should take all of 5 minutes.

For backup software, I use SecondCopy, http://www.centered.com. There are lots of other excellent backup programs for PCs and Macs including GFI Backup, http://www.gfi.com , Paragon Drive Backup, http://www.paragon-software.com , and SyncBack, http://www.2brightsparks.com. These programs vary in price and features. In addition to SecondCopy, which is very easy to set up, I've used SyncBack and can recommend it for reliability and ease of use.

Backups can be even easier with hard drives that come with a "one touch" or automatic backup program. These drives will either automatically backup your computer --no extra software needed-- or will back up your computer when you press the backup button on the drive. The TranscendStoreJet 25 Mobile, available on Amazon.com in hot red, is a 500GB drive with one touch backup. If you're a laptop user and always on the go (and don't have that much to backup), you might want to give the SanDisk 8GB Ultra Backup USB 2.0 Flash Drive, a pocketable thumb drive that does automatic backup.

It's easier than ever to back up. If you're taking pictures of your family this holiday season --and you like your family and want to keep those pictures-- then take time now to implement a backup plan.

Backups Made Easy, Part 1

I'm going to be straight with you. If you don't have a backup plan for your data, you'll eventually lose your data. Your emails, your photos, your movies, your music. It will all be gone one day unless you have reliable backups.

There are lots of ways you can lose your data. Hard drive failure is at the top of that list. Every hard drive that's made will eventually fail, some sooner than others. Whether your hard drive's number is up today, tomorrow, or years from now, that's it -- everything is gone. Computer viruses are another way that your data can go poof in the blink of an eye. Theft, especially if you own a laptop, is among the most common reasons for data loss. Software run amok is yet another way data disappears: Misbehaving programs can delete data as easily as they can create it. You can lose data and not even know it, too: Sometimes everything can seem to be fine on your computer, except for that one spreadsheet or address book that somehow got zapped. By the time you notice that it's gone, there's no hope of recovery.

There are two kinds of backups you can have -- onsite backups (external drives, network backups, USB drives) and offsite backups. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. This column will focus on remote backups; next week I'll describe some onsite backup strategies. First the negatives of remote backups:

* Offsite backups are more expensive in the long run than using an external drive, because you have to pay an annual fee. * Offsite backups are a lot slower than onsite backups. If you have tens of gigabytes of data to back up, it can take weeks to copy all of your data to an offsite backup service. * A remote backup service won't be around forever. Nothing lasts for eternity, and on the Internet a decade is a lifetime.

But on the plus side, offsite backup services are catastrophe proof and that's the idea: If the worst happens --fire, theft, a virus, a small nuclear explosion-- your data is safer than Dick Cheney was in his secure location. Many offsite backup services use incremental backups, which means that if you want to recover the version of a Word document that you saved 12 days ago, you can find that exact version.

Remote backup services vary not just by price, but by feature, too. Here are some of the features you need to consider when you compare offsite backup services.

* Does the service back up external drives? If all of your data is on your computer's main drive, that's not an issue. But if you need to back up data on external drives, that is an essential feature to have.

* How easy is it to add files and folders? Many backup services provide software that automatically selects and backs up what it thinks are important files. That's both good and bad: The automated aspect makes it easy to run the backup, but you sacrifice the ability to specify anything you particularly want backed up.

* Does the service provide alerts if backups are not completed? There's nothing worse than discovering later on that your backups never happened.

* How much space does the remote backup service allow? Some remote backup services provide unlimited space for backups -- not a bad thing if you have a lot of multimedia files.

* How easy is it to retrieve your data if you need to? How easy is it to download individual files if all you want to recover is a single file? These services vary tremendously, not only when it comes to the ease or difficulty of retrieving your data, but also the speed at which files can be retrieved.

* Is the data encrypted before it leaves your computer? If all you're backing up is music or photos, you might not need to encrypt the data. But if you are backing up private or personal information, then encryption is a must.

Here are some remote backup services you might want to look into. I've opted not to review each individually, other than a few notes about the ones I've used, since the features and pricing change regularly. Over the years, I have used Elephant Drive, Mozy, Carbonite and Livedrive. I currently use both Mozy and Livedrive, while the other members of my family use Carbonite. I like Mozy because it offers unlimited backups and will back up my external drives, too. Mozy also encrypts the data. Livedrive, which is relatively new to the backup world, also has unlimited backups (I have over a terabyte of data stored there).

Even though Livedrive doesn't store data in an encrypted form, it's great for backing up multimedia files, and it stores your backups in the familiar file folder format in a way that you can access your data from any computer's web browser. The rest of my family uses Carbonite, which I think is the easiest to use. Carbonite does not back up external drives. I've tried Elephant drive, which is among the least expensive remote backup services, but I've found their software cumbersome.

Mozy, http://www.mozy.com

Carbonite, http://www.carbonite.com

LiveDrive, http://www.livedrive.com

ElephantDrive, http://www.elephantdrive.com

Crashplan, http://www.crashplan.com

Dropbox, http://www.dropbox.com

Sugarsync, http://www.sugarsync.com

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Augmented Reality

I know I'm going to have to rewrite this column completely in as little as six months, but that's fine.  Augmented reality is so fantastic, so impressive, so useful, that I won't mind exploring it again in a short while.  What is augmented reality?  Remember the Terminator?  He could see data superimposed on top of an image, such as car model, a person's weight and height, even their name.  How cool is that?   The Terminator was released in 1985, and I'm happy to say that augmented reality --Terminator vision-- is available to all of us on our cell phones.  (Take a peek at the world through the Terminator's eyes here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MeaaCwBW28.)

Today's augmented reality does even more than the Terminator could conjure.   The Terminator might be able to tell if a particular person is a friend or foe by comparing the image of that person to what is in its database.  But with an augmented reality app for the iPhone, like Yelp, you can tell if a particular restaurant you're looking at has received good or bad reviews, even if you're too far away to read the restaurant's name.   (I presume that since the Terminator didn't need to eat, "restaurant vision" wasn't built into him.)

This is how augmented reality works in its simplest form, using the Yelp application as an example:  Point your cell phone at something.  Press the Monocle button, which starts the augmented reality component.  If  Yelp "sees" a restaurant where your camera is pointing, it will display text information superimposed on what you see through the phone.  Move your phone in another direction and new restaurants pop up.  If you spot something potentially delicious, click on that label and a review pops up.  Here's what Monocle looks like:

One evening I was lying in bed playing with my iPhone and turned on Monocle.  To my surprise, the iPhone "saw" through the walls of our house, and superimposed the names of the restaurants I was aiming the phone at, about a quarter of a mile away.  Excellent -- the iPhone has x-ray vision!

Augmented reality applications for smart phones phones make use of the phone's GPS, compass and accelerometer to figure out what the phone is looking at.

Yelp is just one of a growing number of augmented reality applications.  Cyclops, Bionic Eye, Urbanspoon and Robotvision are other augmented reality apps that add data to what the phone sees.

Augmented reality isn't limited to terrestrial pursuits.  With the iPhone app SkyVoyager, you can point you camera at the night sky and see the planets and stars superimposed on the screen.  As you move your phone, the objects in your phone's screen also shift. Tap on an object to get more information about that star or planet. Wondering if that bright object is Mars, Venus or an alien spacecraft on final approach to earth?  Wonder no more. 

For skiers, climbers, hikers, adventurers -- there's an app for you, too.  Curious about what that mountain that is?  Fire up the augmented reality application, Peaks, and it will reveal everything about what you're looking at.

Perhaps the most powerful augmented reality app currently available for the iPhone is Layar, which lets developers create their own augmented reality apps on the Layar platform:  This single app can have a multitude of augmented reality displays.  Using Layar you can point your phone anywhere and see restaurants, nearby Tweeps, and hotels.  You can also visualize where the government is spending recovery dollars -- if a building or building's occupant has received taxpayer dollars.  You can find apartments for rent just by aiming your phone at a building (how great is that!)  And more.

Retina is an augmented reality application for color-blind people.  The app displays the actual name of the color:

Dishpointer is an app that shows you what satellites are where in the sky.  It's fun, but also handy if you want to align your satellite TV dish.  Perhaps the most useful (sort of) augmented reality app is Car Finder, which, as you probably suspect, lets you zero in on where you parked your car.  Okay, yes you could write down your car's location on a piece of paper, but now you have an excuse never to tote a heavy, bulky pen around:

Augmented reality is still in its early stages.  But what's coming next to cell phones will blow your mind.  Imagine visiting Athens, New York City, or Washington, DC.  Point you phone that-a-way, and it will display what the city looked like 100, 500, or 2,000 years ago.  As you move your phone, the image will change, showing you exactly what was there.  Now that's an amazing way to look at history.  Or before you leave your house for work, you point your iPhone or Android phone or Blackberry in the direction of your office and instantly see where traffic is backed up.  (And of course, you can add a weather layer to show you what the weather will be by the time you get to the office.)  By moving your finger you can plot out an alternate route.  Before you leave for home from the office, you repeat the same process, only this time you tell your phone to display take out restaurants along the low-traffic route back.   If the Terminator doesn't need to cook, neither do you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Photographic Heresy: Ditch Your Digital Camera

It's time to ditch your digital camera and just use the crappiest camera you own:  your cell phone.

Digital cameras, even compact ones, can take incredibly beautiful photographs.  Works of art.  But so what?  Unless you're angling for a career in photography or want to moonlight as a photographer, making art isn't the objective.  The point of having a camera isn't to see how good a picture you can take -- it's to share photos.  And when it comes to photo sharing, cell phone outshine even the world's most advanced cameras.  It's no surprise that the most popular camera on Flickr, the world's most popular photo sharing site, is the iPhone, which excels at sharing. 

The quality gap between stand-alone and cell phone cameras is narrowing.  Cell phone cameras keep getting better and better, adding greater resolution, better lenses, auto focus, flash, image stabilization, spot-metering, red eye reduction, white balance adjustment, macro mode, and more.  My prediction:  Within 3 years the cameras on most cell phones will be as good as most stand-alone digital cameras sold today.  Perhaps even better. 

My other prediction:  Digital cameras will never be able to do the one thing that cell phone cameras can -- share photos easily. The iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile phones, Android phones all have the ability to instantly and easily let you share photos in a variety of ways:  by email, or by posting photos on Flickr, Facebook, Photobucket, Twitter, CNN, and elsewhere.  Camera phones let you send photos phone to phone, too, so you can spread those smiles no matter where your friends are.  There's even an iPhone app, PicPosterous, that will automatically upload photos you take to sharing sites without any extra action on your part.  It's always risky to make predictions about technology.  (Thomas Watson, the former chairman of the board of IBM, said circa 1948, "I think there’s a world market for about 5 computers.")  But I'm willing to bet that stand-alone cameras won't ever be as good as cell phones when it comes to adding photos to your Facebook status, your MySpace page, your blog, or just sending them to your friends.  Why not?  For the simple reason that if you want to share photos you need to be connected to the Internet, and there's no market for $50 a month always-connected cellular service just for cameras.  (Some cameras have wifi built in, and more will have it over time --and you can buy the Eye-Fi wifi memory card at www.eyefi.com-- but wifi is a long way from being universally available or free.) 

While the majority of cell phone cameras currently take only semi-decent photographs, camera phones offer the ability to tweak and edit photos before sharing them.  That is an amazing ability, one that makes you proud to share your photos.  Here four photos I took and edited with my iPhone, which show just some of the tools at your disposal when you use a camera phone:





Editing -- that's the brilliant part:  You can edit photos on smartphones, because these phones are computers.  While there's no full-featured Photoshop application for any smartphone, there is an impressive array of apps that will let you process photos and turn a so-so picture into something that is as dazzling as it is beautiful.  Some of the tricks that smartphone photo apps can do include:

* Create panoramic photos
* Crop, adjust sharpness, reduce noise, add contrast
* Convert photos to sepia or black and white, (or convert just part of a photo to black and white)
* Add frames to photos
* Work with layers
* Darken or lighten photos, increase or reduce color saturation
* Have a soft focus or glow effect
* Add "flash" to photos, especially portraits, where more light is needed
* Make 3D photos (the kind you look at with those funky 3D glasses)
* Give a photo a Polaroid look or make a retro-looking miniature photo
* Include captions with photos

And here's my favorite cell phone-beats-camera ability:  Cell phone camera photos are geo-tagged.  The GPS chip that's built in records where the photo was taken.  Click on www.flickr.com/photos/billadler/3416145488, and on the right hand side of the Flickr page there's a link to map:  Click on that and, well...that's pretty cool.  Geo-tagging means you don't have to write down the name of the bridge or building that you snapped a picture of; your cell phone camera knows where it is.  Score one for camera phones. 

You probably have your cell phone with you all the time.  Not so for your heavy digital single lens reflex camera, or even your compact camera.  So leave your regular camera behind and save your lower back from the weight of lenses and filters.  Instead, download some great photo editing applications for your cell phone camera, practice using them, and you'll have a photographic studio in your pocket.  And when you snap a photo (or video), you can share it from almost anywhere in the world.

The state of the art when it comes to cell phone cameras quality: C-.  The state of the art when it comes to editing ability: B+.  The state of the art when it comes to sharing photos from cell phones: A.  As cell phone cameras' quality and editing ability improve, replacing your stand alone camera with a cell phone camera as your main (dare I say only?) camera is the way to go.

You can read reviews of some of the best cell phone cameras at http://reviews.cnet.com/best-camera-phones

One last note about cell phone cameras.  Keep that camera lens clean.  Cell phone camera lenses usually aren't protected, and fingers have a tendency to find the center of that lens.  No amount of editing can fix a picture that's shot through a lens that has remnants of a Big Mac on it. 

Get those cell phone cameras out and start sharing your photos.


Bill Adler is the co-owner of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com, and the author of over 20 books including "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relations with Gadgets," and "Outwitting Squirrels." He is an amateur photographer, whose photos have appeared in advertisements, magazines, art shows and as the #1 photograph on Flickr

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who Stole My Web Browser?

When you make a mistake typing in a website's name, such as www.microsoft.cot, when you meant to type www.microsoft.com, you're supposed to get an error message from your web browser. Full stop. But that was so last year. Now, chances are that your ISP (Internet service provider) hijacks your web browser to its own advertising page when you make a typo.

Here's what you see when you enter microsoft.cot through RCN, a popular ISP in the Washington, DC area:

And here's what it's supposed to look like when you make a typo or type in an URL that doesn't exist:

This is your basic oops browser error message.

The technical term for what your ISP is doing is DNS (domain name system) redirect. Sometimes it's called browser redirect. The DNS is what converts the words that you type, such as usatoday.com into the actual IP address, (Type in your browser's address bar and you'll arrive at USA Today's website.)

ISPs say that they're offering a convenience, because along with the ads come suggested alternatives for what you really were looking for. Most ISPs also give you a way to opt out of their browser hijacking, though this isn't easy, because ISPs don't want you to opt out of their advertising page. Even if you can find the hidden op-out setting, opting out of the ISPs ads still brings you to a web page that's still under the ISP's control, even though it looks like your browser's error page. In other words, when you opt out of this DNS redirect, you're not actually opting out; you're still going to a web page run by your ISP, instead of getting an error message that's entirely contained on your own computer.

When your browser, be it Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Opera, or another browser, gives you an error message (without a redirect), this what you see in the browser's address bar: simply www.microsoft.cot. When your browser is directed to RCN's advertising site your browser's error message is replaced by something that disrupts your ability to use your web browser the way you want.

What's wrong with directing you to your ISP's advertising page when you make a simple typo? Plenty, as it turns out. When you make a mistake with an ISP that doesn't deploy browser redirecting, it's a simple matter to correct your typo: Just highlight the "t" in www.microsoft.cot and replace it with an "m." When you type in a web address that doesn't exist, you have to delete or backspace over everything in the address bar --for example, www17.searchresults.rcn.com/search?qo=www.microsoft.cot&rn=T2GXqYjiwVxRWms-- and type what you wanted again. That slows down your browsing and makes using the Internet a pain, unless, of course, you never make typos. It's so much easier to fix a single letter than to retype in the entire URL again.

Another problem with browser redirecting is that it takes time for an ISP to figure out that the page you requested doesn't exist and to return an advertising or search page. In contrast, your browser's error page appears lightning fast.

Browser redirection can result in your browser being sent to a malicious website or a link on that webpage leading to a website that's teeming with computer viruses. A simple error message poses no danger to your computer; a redirect could harm your computer and you would never know that until it was too late.

It's also simply wrong. When we type in a URL we expect to go to that website. When we type in a URL for a site that doesn't exist, we expect to go nowhere. It's deceptive for ISPs to send us to their own advertising page every time we make a typing mistake.

If you use Firefox, there's a solution to this deception: the add-on, No Redirect prevents browser redirects. You can find No Redirect at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/11787 . After you install it, you'll need to add your ISP's redirection page URL to the list. Use the wild card, ".*" to exclude all redirects from your ISP. Then check the DNS Error box. Here's how I set up No Redirect for RCN on my computer:

(The instructions on how to do this accompany the add-on, too.) Yes, it's a tad complicated to stop these unauthorized browser hijackings: You can thank your ISP for that.

Fortunately, not all ISPs force redirects. (Verizon doesn't, but Comcast and RCN do.) I'm not sure if complaining to your ISP and the FCC will help, but if we don't do so, then it's certain that this deceptive practice will never stop.

Tech Toys You Will Love to Hate

I want to preview two cutting-edge technology items that could be popular gifts this holiday season. In a strange way, as you'll see, these gizmos go together.

The Withings Wifi Bathroom Scale

The first is a Withings wifi bathroom scale, http://www.withings.com. Why in the world does one need a wifi scale? Ordinary scales give us a single snapshot, but it's the trend that's important. The sooner we can spot whether or not we're gaining weight or our percent of body fat's increasing, the sooner we can scratch the Oreos off our shopping list. Conversely, if the numbers are trending down, then you can visit the pastry store on the way home from work without feeling a single iota of guilt. (Side note: The sad truth of the human condition is it that we might forget how old we are, somebody's birthday, or an important phone number, but we never forget what our bathroom scale last revealed.) The Withings WiFi Body Scale instantly records your weight, body fat percentage, and body mass index, and transmits that to the mother ship. Your data is stored on both Withing's server (where it's password protected) and your home computer.

Up to eight users can be registered for a scale, so your entire family and even some friends can partake in this high tech form of torment.

What I especially like about the Withings WiFi Body Scale is that if there ever was an incentive to have a secure wireless network at home and to use good passwords, having your weight transmitted by wifi and stored on the Internet is it. Who cares if our credit card or social security numbers are stolen? But if somebody hacks into our body fat percentage data -- now that's a crisis.

As seems to be the case for everything, there's an iPhone app for that, too, so you can see how your weight, body fat percentage and BMI trend over time no matter where you happen to be. Wondering if you should order that double cheeseburger with bacon and onion rings on the side? The Withings iPhone app knows the answer. (Good thing that international data rates are so expensive: You might not be able to afford to access your weight and fat history while on vacation in Paris. Pity, isn't it?)

The Withings WiFi Body Scale is elegant looking, beckoning its owners to step on it and reveal all. You can see pictures of this scale and read more about it at http://www.withings.com . The scale retails for $159, the cost of about 50 Starbucks lattes.

The Chumby

The Chumby is one of those gizmos that you dreamed somebody would invent and they actually did, but you just never heard about it. The Chumby, a device about the size of a coffee mug, with a LCD screen, displays widgets with a variety of information. You can choose to have weather, news, sports updates, Facebook status updates, Tweets, movie trailers, best of YouTube (yes, it does videos), your email, world webcams, New York Times headlines --pretty much anything you can dream of-- displayed on your Chumby's screen. You can even get WMATA alerts on your Chumby. From the useful to the silly, the Chumby can display it. The widgets change every minute or so, showing you what you want to see in the order in which you want to see it.

Besides news, the family calendar, and the latest insights from Slate, my Chumby shows the San Diego Zoo's Panda Cam, which is soooooo cute. I also like the Loch Ness cam widget. You never know what might appear on the Loch Ness webcam.

Take a look at what's possible with the Chumby here: http://www.chumby.com. (There's a new Chumby coming out soon, too.) The Chumby costs $200.

Like the Withings scale, the Chumby connects to your wireless network.

The Chumby does a lot more than display customizable widgets on its 3.5 inch screen. The Chumby's screen is a touchscreen, so you can interact with it: You can send emails, play games, clip news stories, and more. The Chumby is also an Internet radio that plays a wide range of stations, from Radio Paradise to the New York Times' radio. The Chumby is an alarm clock that wakes you to sounds, music or Internet radio. The Chumby is white noise machine that blocks out those sounds that are keeping you awake at night. The Chumby will play your own music through a thumb drive inserted into its USB port. That's one amazing coffee cup sized device.

But be warned: If you get the Chumby, you'll never venture away from your bed or desk and then you'll need the Withing wifi scale to tell you that you should.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Web Browsers and the District of Columbia Government

A couple of months ago the Cleveland Park Listserv debuted Kelli Miller's Advice Column. The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and so we decided to do it again: We have added a technology column to the Cleveland Park Listserv. (Read more about her column at http://goodadvice.notlong.com.) We searched for somebody to be our tech columnist, and then decided that there's no place like home: The Listserv's owner and chief technology officer will be the list's technology columnist. (That's me.) The Cleveland Park Listserv's tech column will appear on Tuesdays.

Bill Adler


Web Browsers and the District Government

In the ancient days of the Internet, circa 2000, it wasn't uncommon to see websites that were "optimized" for a particular web browser, usually Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Even some United States government websites could only be used with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, including, until a couple of years ago, the United States Postal Service's website. We've come a long way since then in terms of web design and almost all websites are viewable and usable in any browser that you choose, be it Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, Opera, Safari or some other program. Many websites instantly adapt to smartphones, too.

Except for the District of Columbia's Service Request Center. Firefox users: Go ahead, give it a try at http://311.dc.gov/cwi/Login/UI/PortalPage.aspx or through http://dc.gov. You can't get beyond the opening page, which tells you, "This site is optimized for Internet Explorer 5 or higher. This new version of the Service Request Center currently works only with Internet Explorer. An updated version with expanded browser support will be available in the near future." "Optimized" isn't even the right word: You can't do anything on that page with Firefox. Nothing at all. You can't even copy the warning: I had to retype it for this article.

An estimated 50 percent of PC users deploy Firefox; another 10 percent use other browsers, so to create such an important webpage that can only be used with Microsoft's IE is -- well, it makes you scratch your head and wonder what other technology blunders are lurking behind the curtain in the District Government.

The browser is becoming the most important piece of software on our computers. As we move into "the cloud," the browser is the tool that does it all: Email, wordprocessing, listening to the radio, photo editing, connecting with friends, and more. ("The cloud" is the term used to refer to working with data that's stored on a remote machine, rather than your own computer. When you use a service like Gmail, Microsoft Office Online or Facebook, you're computing in "the cloud.") Websites need to and can work with all browsers. To design such an important website from the ground up that doesn't work with Firefox is Internet malpractice.

So what can you do about this problem if you use Firefox or another non-Internet Explorer browser? You can call 311 for a service request or you can grit your teeth, and fire up Internet Explorer. If you do use Internet Explorer and IE asks if you want to update to the latest version, do that. Latest may or may not be greatest, but updating such a vital piece of software will help reduce your computer's vulnerability to nasty things on the Internet, such as worms and viruses.

In a future column I'll write about which browser is best, and more about cloud computing. If you have any ideas about what you would like to see the Listserv's tech column, let me know. Happy computing!


Bill Adler is the co-owner of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com, and the author of over 20 books including "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relations with Gadgets," and "Outwitting Squirrels."  You can also read his columns on the Cleveland Park Listserv.