Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Raise your hand if you love, absolutely love “Calvin and Hobbes” the comic strip created by Bill Watterson which ran from 1985 to 1995? Now those of you with your hands up, keep them up if you even marginally like your computer. What about when it doesn’t do what you expect? I’m not surprised how many hands went down. “Calvin and Hobbes” and your digital devices tap into emotional centers in our brain. It’s the emotion that ties us to people, places, and events.

Bill Watterson has taken a page from W.P. Kinsella’s portrayal of JD Salinger in “Shoeless Joe”. He’s near invisible publicly. Bill has been private, very private, since he retired his beloved best friend philosophers. In a connected world that’s a lot harder, so you might assume Bill isn’t connected at all. As Techlife recently learned, he may not love technology but he effectively uses email to shield himself but stay connected on his terms.

Bill apparently turned down a call from Steven Spielberg inquiring about making a feature length “Calvin and Hobbes” film. But apparently an email  from the famed director might have gotten through. How do we know? Because self-deprecating Stephan Pastis, himself a comic strip artist of  “Pearls Before Swine” and author tells the story of what happened when he emailed Bill and the story is amazing. (A must read!)

In short, he emailed Bill who shocked Stephan with the fact he was a reader and fan of “Pearls Before Swine”. He went on to astound Stephan  saying he had some strip ideas he wanted to ask him about.  The result was a collaboration, in secret, of three strips of “Pearls Before Swine”. And yes readers, this is real. After nearly 20 years of silence we were treated to three strips full of humor and art in true Bill-like fashion.

Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis with special guest Bill Watterson

The best part for Techlife readers. Bill struggles with the same technology foibles we all do. Stephan recounts working together over distance was a challenge as Bill doesn’t like scanners or Photoshop or even large email attachments. Stephan admits the joy in helping Bill over email with tech support we can’t claim to be so lucky. The novelty for Stephan even might soon wear off if the requests keep coming.

Without getting cute and suggesting Bill draw himself out of the problem or use a cardboard box he converts to a Transmogrifier. What should a private person do when they aren’t going to use social media to ask for help or don’t want to ask the neighbor girl who’s a wiz and they aren’t even a world famous beloved recluse? You need your go-to, the internet. Bill could lurk in a forum or chatroom. He could use an alias such  as Susie Derkins or Miss Wormwood. Safe behind his avatar he can ask the world, how he might go about hooking up a wireless scanner to his computer or what service is best for those extra large attachments all while remaining his private self. For all I know maybe Bill reads Techlife and is just looking for this invitation.

Dear Spaceman Spiff,

Please share with me the terrestrial mundane issues you face while navigating your home world. Is it the laconic lexicon of texting or the subject of the simple smartphone? While we can’t claim to provide answers as interesting as your immersive imagination, we’ll do our best to provide you with the weapon of knowledge to fight the ferocious forces of technology.

Techlife of the Planet Earth

BILL WATTERSON: A cartoonist’s advice by Zen Pencils

ABC Blocks by Rohan Baumann

A is for Apple. B is for Ball. C is for Car.

Yawn.

We learn these simple phonetic tools early in life. The idea is the first letter helps a developing brain associate the sound with the noun; person, place or thing. Adding to the learning a picture or drawing helps further reinforce the letter shape to the sound to the picture. It is typical to not use verbs in most cases because they are harder to visualize.

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Jackson 5 – ABC – Click to Play

Double Yawn.

“Did I  just walk back into Early Childhood Development? I thought Techlife writes about, well, Tech.” Ahh, young grasshopper this is a  good time to remind you of our mission, Techlife, where the crossroads of Technology and Life intersect.”  

“Well if you don’t get to the point soon I am going elsewhere.”

Window Blue Screen of Death

 Windows Blue Screen of Death

For years computers have had a way to speed up the way you work. Since the early days there always were a series of key combinations allowing users to perform many tasks and navigate their computer even without a mouse. The earliest two I used were CTRL+ALT+DEL and CONTROL + Open Apple + RESET.

Remember those? The first one was used for the PC and the second used on early Apple machines (pre-Mac) to reboot them. How many people remember jamming those three down hard when the computer got you upset? C’mon raise your hand. It was the ultimate power, forcing the computer to your whim. Reboot now! I command you.

Another fond memory was the first time you showed a friend or family member how to reboot the computer and them hitting each key in order and complaining because nothing happened. The magic was the combination, pressing all the keys simultaneously. Presto!

Reading a recent article about keystroke shortcuts, I thought how few of the more than 200 combinations I actually used. The problem is quantity; with so many options being able to use them regularly enough to remember them all is arduous. But then — I started to realize I am a power user, and I bet you are too.

Cat on a Keyboard by Anelis

Power User in Action

Let’s go over some basic useful time saving keystrokes combinations everyone should be using to help speed along their work. In the spirit of debate I have ranked them in order of importance.

KEY: Windows = underlined / Mac = italics / Windows & Mac = underlined italics

  1. TAB – CTRL+TAB/ALT+TAB/CMD+TAB - In Windows/Mac the TAB key combo is powerful. It does a ton to speed up access.
    1. ALT+TAB/CMD+TAB in the operating system cycles through open windows.
    2. In a tabbed browser or program, CTRL+TAB /CMD+TAB cycles through tabs.
    3. In online forms, spreadsheets and more TAB  advances to the next field.
  2. F –  Find everything. Search on a single web page, document, pdf, spreadsheet. Hit CTRL+F/CMD+F  if you like search already. You will love what you find.
  3. C, V and sometimes X - Cut, Copy and Paste are built for speed. Mostly Copy CTRL+C/CMD+C and Paste CTRL+V/CMD+V in my case. These are used many times a day. Big time saver.
  4. A - Before you copy, cut, bold, italic or underline you need to select the text. If you need it All, then CTRL+A/CMD+A is the fastest command of the bunch. Boom, you’re done!
  5. B, I, U – Style is everything. This entire column has been styled with Bold, Italic and Underline. CTRL+B/CMD+B for Bold and CTRL+I/CMD+I for Italics are used quite a lot in writing. CTRL+U/CMD+U is used to Underline text.

Is there a command you use for a repetitive task? Every pull down and right click menu offers up the short cut keys for each command, sometimes the letter is underlined as well. Got a quick key combination you can’t live without or disagree with the order of these short cut key combinations? Please CTRL+V/CMD+V them here.

Coins in Hand by Claudio Jule

“So let me get this straight, they guarantee my money will be there no matter what? Then they pay me storage fees for keeping my money in a really safe place? Then they pay me even more money on the storage fees they already paid me? And finally, they do this forever? Ok I”m in.”

Thus began my childhood lesson in compound interest. (Thanks Mom!) The premise banks pay interest on their own interest was fascinating. It’s a great lesson for anyone to learn at a young age. When you learn it you aren’t taught this is part of a larger economic cycle, nor does a lesson in compound interest come with the fact it’s a homonym. To most people compound interest is associated with banks and savings, and that’s a good thing.

Another form of compound interest is what happens when economists apply statistics and math modeling to our known universe. Sound complex? Let’s set up some examples that will make it easier. As you read these keep in mind that house fly’s eye is a compound eye allowing it to see many images at once and process them all to better understand the world around them.

Camel Camel Camel

CamelCamelCamel.com Price Drop Alert

Amazon, a site Techlife readers use to purchase anything and everything has millions of customers. Each time customers buy Amazon makes adjustments to their prices and product availability. Amazon is using the compound interest of their customers to modify the data in two very important aspects of supply and demand. What if you could use that data to better understand when to buy a product at its lowest point? This is the idea behind CamelCamelCamel.com.

The site has evolved from Price Drop and Inventory Alerts to include Price History Charts, Browser Extensions, support for six different Amazon locales, personal settings and tracking tools, even importing your Amazon Wishlist and notifications via Twitter. Amazon puts big data to work for them and now shoppers can as well.

Freakonomics

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Click Image to Play

The partnership of an economist and a writer, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner are the force behind “Freakonomics: The Hidden Side to Everything“. They have books, videos, a website and even a movie about their efforts of taking a compound interest in such topics as:

As an avid fan, their formula has always been to take something understandable that most people either miss or get wrong and crunch big data to show their findings. It’s always a great read, and certainly readers feel smarter after looking at the world through their compound eye. They also have a great collection of online readers who often provide additional insight into crowd sourced, hands on opinions.

FiveThirtyEight

Another data darling is Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight. With attention grabbing headlines that pull readers into New York Times length articles this site doesn’t shy from using big data and attempting to focus compound interest on variety of subjects such as Economics, Science, Life, Sports and their original main focus Politics. This site is all data, all the time.

Even their contributors section, with currently 22 people listed, only has one sentence per person. With great content organization making use of their five general areas, often articles have a compound interest intersecting various main topics. If smart readers are sick of linkbait headlines that fail to deliver more than a slideshow of images then Five Thirty Eight is for you. They provide in-depth analysis making use of  great data repositories yet the easy to read style keeps your focus the entire length of the article. A sample headline from each main area:

Compound Interest Three different ways big data is shared with all of us in that other definition of compound interest. Which begs the big data question – “When if ever will banks interest rates rise again to make saving and compound interest once again valuable?”

Pixels by Martin Walls

I’m lazy. There I said it. Of course when I say, I’m lazy. I mean of course you’re lazy. Face it. You are.  I bet you are lazy enough you won’t even finish this paragraph.

Ha-ha! I tricked you into that one. Don’t be mad I promise the rest of the way, no tricks.

Let’s face it. We’re both lazy. More than ten years ago the Techlife office needed to store files much as we do today. We researched options and landed on a small server running a custom version of Linux and supporting RAID 1 (two hard drives that mirror each other, one dies, replace it and keep working.) Our office would diligently back-up the entire system every month taking the back-up hard drive off -site for safe keeping.

Pug Server

Three loyal readers of Techlife would often comment it was a great system for the time. But we began to see breakdowns in our process. First email back-up broke and wasn’t fixed. I got lazy. Then offsite back-ups stopped after a new PC didn’t get set-up with the backup software. I got lazy. Then the power supply in the file server died. I got scared, but was still lazy. But I did get the power supply replaced and then I got serious.

The three loyal readers each in their own way shared the same story. Hard drives are mechanical. They don’t last forever. I got more worried, but a little motivated. I did research and more research. I talked to the three readers about their areas of expertise. One is a business data back-up expert, one is a computer engineer and the third is a small business IT specialist. Each talked about RAID options (multiple hard drives setup to store data while reducing risk in case of drive failure.) They also talked about cloud storage for remote off site storage and about local back-ups as well.

With their help I setup Lazy Backup. It uses a variety of technologies but is flexible enough to allow you to mix and match your own Lazy Backup solution. Bottom line, protect your files before it is too late.

Here’s my custom Lazy Backup recipe:

1 x Windows machine to be the network file server (can be an older machine)

1 x 1 TB WD Blue Hard Drive – $60 (my Windows machine can handle more drives as  needed)

2 x 500 GB USB External Hard Drives - $55 (I had these already and just plugged them in)

1 x Install of TightVNC (allows remote log into the machine from another computer on the network)

1 x Install of Dropbox (allows easy sync of files if needed)

1 x Install of a backup software (I use Seagate’s which came with my external drives)

1 x Subscription to Backblaze (Used for off-site cloud storage, unlimited storage, less than $4/month)

Directions: Installed TightVNC, DropBox and the Seagate back-up software to the Windows machine. Manually installed the large hard drive and plugged in the two USB external drives  into the Windows machine.  Then copied all the files from all computers on the network to the new file server and set-up sharing so that each computer has network access to their files. After this I set-up  the Seagate back-up software and scheduled nightly at 10pm half the large hard drive to back up to one USB drive and half to the other USB drive, providing on-site local back-up.  Then installed Backblaze to the Windows machine and it backs up everything, including the Windows machine file server and the two USB hard drive local back-ups all to the cloud.

The three loyal readers all agree that RAID is nice but expensive and not needed for me. This solution has four copies of the data. One main, one local backup and then remote backup of each of the locals. After the initial setup, I do nothing and all data is backed up. Everything is automated. Just set and forget. It’s the perfect back-up for lazy people.  How lazy are you? What’s your solution?

Tic Tactics Game Play

Every kid’s menu at every restaurant that provides them always includes a few games of Tic-Tac-Toe. It’s a staple. It’s simple. And it’s why you are about to be addicted to an updated classic game. Techlife has been heads down testing Tic Tactics by Hidden Variable Studios to ensure our readers would fall in love. Ok, who are we kidding we have been playing games all in the name of fun.

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Tic Tactics takes the game we all know and adds just enough complexity that adults and kids alike can play and discover what’s old is new again. Tic Tactics is a multi-player, free game for both Android and iOS. The game starts with what looks like a big Tic-Tac-Toe board, a 3×3 grid. Looking closer each square of the board is subdivided again into another 3×3 Tic-Tac-Toe board, providing a total of nine little games of Tic-Tac-Toe that make up the big board. The goal is simple, get three in a row in any direction of the big board to win.

How To Play Tic Tactics

Each player at the start of the game places nine of their X’s or O’s spread among the board. Tic Tactics won’t allow a user to complete a line in this initial setup phase, by taking away squares as you place each of your symbols. After both players have placed their initial moves, X goes first.

Each player then alternates playing a piece. The strategy is that each move impacts the full big board. When you place a piece the location corresponds to the placement of the next piece by your opponent. Place a piece in any of the  little boards’ upper right corners and the next move made by your opponent will be in the upper right corner little board.

Once a user does play three in a row on any little board they own that square on the big board. Getting three in a row on the big board wins you the game.

Tic Tactics You Won

Tic Tactics Strategy

My first time playing I had some questions and Techlife’s strategy section should help new users as well as experienced players. What happens if a little board has a “cat’s game” or a draw? If the last piece of a little board is played (9 in total) and the board is a draw, both players get to claim that board as a wildcard toward the goal of three in a row on the big board. This can include winning someone the big board.

Just because a little board is claimed, the empty squares on the little board are still in play, but they hurt you. A lot. Avoid getting into a situation where your opponent keeps forcing you to play in a little board that has already been won.

Each little board has one square that when played makes the next play on that same little board. Use these squares wisely, both on offense and on defense.

Giving up a little board isnt’ a bad thing. Be willing to sacrifice a little board.

When you start Tic Tactics you will notice your rating is 1500. This is because the game uses the Elo rating system. This system, invented by Arpad Elo allows the Tic Tactics server to try and set up fair matches between random players. Tic Tactics users can click on the person they are playing against to get a full game stats biography.

Keep your battery charged as you won’t want to put this game down.

Tic Tactics User Profile

“Is that really the best headline to use?” said my editor.

“It’s not mine,” I replied. “It is courtesy of the students of Thomas Dubick, Founder of Young Engineers of Today, LEGO Educator and engineering teacher at Charlotte Latin School.”

“I’m guessing this Techlife isn’t about pie recipes?”

“It’s the title of a TEDx talk presented by a group of Tom’s amazing 13 year-old female students. Tom read Techlife’s ‘Build It From Scratch‘ and wrote to tell me more about how he got his students immersed in learning using $35 computers known as…wait for it…Raspberry Pi.”

“Does it come à la mode?”

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Tom and Techlife sat down to discuss his work, the future, and of course a little science fiction.

Techlife: Where did your passion for technology come from?

Tom Dubick:  I have always been an early adopter of technology.  Growing up on a farm I learned to work with my hands, and I was fascinated with mechanics, from planes to cars to motorcycles.  In college my late-wife and I ate popcorn to save money so we could by our first computer, an early IBM PC.  Now I am teaching students locally and across the US programming, microcontrollers, microcomputers, and biotechnology.

TL: Where did your passion for teaching come from?

TD: Starting in the fourth grade, I was always told I should be a teacher, so of course I completely rejected the notion.  I started working as an industrial chemist and then became a programmer.  During the course of my job, I began training teachers, and they in turn recruited me to become a teacher.  I have never looked backed.

Trading aprons for circuit boards, these young engineers are excited to work with the Raspberry Pi.

Trading aprons for circuit boards, these young engineers are excited to work with the Raspberry Pi.

TL: What’s your personal history with technology? Share some firsts.

TD: In the early eighties we developed software to help semi-literate adults learn to become better readers. It was a multimedia project that used CDs.

I started using LEGOs in the classroom in the late eighties. I offered summer camps to help pay for the materials. I believe I am one of the first folks to offer LEGO camps.

Around this time, I began offering engineering, my version of an applied math and science class, that focused on inquiry and project based learning to solve engineering problems. Over the past 20 some years, the class has grown and expanded, and now in addition to teaching middle and high school students at my school, I teach enrichment “labinars” for local students and virtual classes for students across the country.

In 2002, the multi-player game Neverwinter Nights was released. It was quite popular and included a game engine that was similar to C++. My students learned to program by recreating a scene from Sword In The Stone, a book they were reading in English at the time.

Beginning in 2009, we developed a curriculum called Fly To Learn that used X-Plane, a flight simulation software, to teach the engineering method by designing, building, and flying their own virtual airplanes. The curriculum is used throughout the country. Today the GAMA (General Aviation Manufacturer Association) uses Fly To Learn as part of a contest where the student winners build an actual small passenger airplane.

The Raspberry Pi is now a hugely popular, very affordable microcomputer the size of a credit card that people can use to explore software and hardware engineering. In 2012 my students were the first in the US to use the Pi in any classroom, across all levels.

TL: Where do you see technology education in 3 years? 10 years?

TD: 3 years - I see more engineering and programming taught in classrooms across the US. This is in part because of Common Core; it is also due to the popularity of robotics and the recognition that a four-year degree does not necessarily mean a job.

10 years - I believe we will need to re-imagine vocational education in the college prep world. Most schools in the US prepare kids for college. They are prep schools. At one time every student took vocational education classes because building or baking is an act of creation. Through these activities, students learn invaluable skills they could use outside the classroom. We assumed wrongly that if you were going to college you did not need these skills, and so vocational education classes fell out of favor and schools dropped these programs.

Imagine vocational education classes today? These might include programming, engineering and entrepreneurism. Everyone can benefit from these classes and there are tremendous work-force opportunities for students who have these skills.

TL: When did you begin addressing the need for young women to be a part of the program?

TD: From the very start.

My late wife was an engineer and many of my friends were engineers. I remember how there were very few female engineers in college. Recently my daughter graduated with a degree in applied mathematics, and it was evident in her classes that there is still work to be done. Early on I noticed my middle school engineering classes were predominately male, and this was influencing girls to not sign up. To encourage young women to pursue STEM careers, I decided to offer single-sex classes. Boys and girls still learn the same lessons and do the exact same projects, but in separated environments that foster full participation.

Young female engineer works on her $35 computer, the Raspberry Pi

Young female engineer works on her $35 computer, the Raspberry Pi

TL: How do you tell others about the origin of the Raspberry Pi? Do you use the same explanation for your students?

TD: I tell students and others alike, that the British have a similar problem that we (USA) do; not enough young people are going into the computing fields.  The British remembered inexpensive computers they used as kids.  These computers allowed them to hack, create, and explore the world of computing, and were a big influence for some to enter the computing field.  The Brits created the Raspberry Pi so that today’s kids could explore computing and later pursue technical careers.

TL: How have lessons with the Raspberry Pi evolved?

TD: The original lessons focused on the Raspberry Pi and programming.  They quickly evolved to include the GPIO pins and embedded or physical computing.  Later, we began exploring Arduinos (open-source microcontrollers).  This has all led me to become involved in the maker communities.

TL: Have any of your past or current students surprised you with Scratch or Raspberry Pi?

TD: I am constantly being surprised by what is being created by my students and others using Scratch or Raspberry Pi. Go on the Scratch website and see the quality of the some of games being created there by students. You cannot go a day without seeing some amazing hack of the Raspberry Pi. I am particularly amazed that my young students are learning to program microcontrollers and they are not even teenagers. What will they make in the future?

TL: How did the opportunity to speak at a TED event come about for you and your students?

TD: I have been helping other local schools implement engineering programs and another educator nominated me for a local TED talk.  I was asked to come back and speak again, but this time I really wanted my students to share what they were doing in class, so they put together and presented the How Girls Should Serve A Raspberry Pi talk.

TL: What was the best thing to come from the TED event?

TD: Meeting other like-minded parents and educators both at the event and online.

TL: Have any of your students surprised you with where their journey has taken them?

TD: It is still too early to tell, but several of the young ladies from the TED talk now plan to pursue technical careers.  They are actively taking the appropriate classes and so I am very excited for them.

TL: What are some resources for students, parents and educators that you suggest for learning about programming, engineering or Raspberry Pi?

TD:

TL: Star Trek or Star Wars and why?

TD: Blade Runner! Blade Runner seems almost prophetic today; climate change, the emergence of robots and loneliness in the connected age. In Blade Runner technology created to assist to us is replacing us. While most folks are struggling, the technologists are all powerful. Blade Runner with its flying cars and amazing replicants, both tempts us and warns us about technology all at the same time.

Have you used a Raspberry Pi in a unique way? Have you brought technology from practical to classroom or reverse? Have you learned to code? Share with Techlife.

EagleDeer2 by Linda Kerley, Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

Click. Click. Click. Cameras are everywhere. Mobile devices, security in buildings, and those dreaded traffic cameras. (Raises hand, I have been busted.) The warning to a new generation is “someone is always watching AND recording.” It sounds scary. How does this impact Techlife readers?

Science is all about data and more data equals more knowledge. In 2011, Linda L. Kerley (Zoological Society of London) and Jonathan C. Slaght (Wildlife Conservation Society) caught something on film that not only had never been recorded but had never been documented as possible by scientists. The pair actually found documentation stating this should never happen. But it did.

Footage and stills from devices have helped during disasters and news embargoes. Bringing unedited, raw images to governments, scientists, rescue workers and sharing them with news organizations have helped make the world a place where video and stills have improved the quality of life. (Despite my experience with a traffic cam.)

Linda and Jonathan study Siberian tigers in Russia using infrared camera triggers to track animal movement. Plagued by the same woes as the rest of us, batteries and storage, the cameras need routine visits to keep them running. During a visit to a camera Linda saw a deer carcass close by but oddly no other animal tracks were in the snow. The deer tracks showed it had been running and then it just stopped and died?

EagleDeer1 by Linda Kerley, Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

Stopped and died like your smartphone on a vacation? Cameras use a lot of power, as the screen is active during shooting and if you activate the flash that small burst can drain the battery even faster. Learn to frame and shoot quickly and reduce the use of the flash. Your device will live longer. I have set my smartphone to never use the flash.

Linda’s discovery was a scientific first.  The camera caught three images during a two second burst of a golden eagle attacking a sika deer. Golden eagles have powerful talons combined with a massive wingspan. Their stealth air attack combined with speed and talon piercing often crushes their prey quickly. Also of note was the forest attack, unusual for these open space hunters. These shots were not only a first for science in recording an event unknown to us, but they serve as reminder to scientists to keep an open mind about our world.

EagleDeer3 by Linda Kerley, Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

Click. Click. Click. From your local town to the remote forests of Russia, cameras click and whir capturing what passes before their lenses. Like Linda and Jonathan your unintended capture might result in a key historical moment. Keep your hand steady, and remember a camera is the chance to capture a moment in time. What is your most amazing photo?

 Photo Credits: Linda Kerley, Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

Scratch Programming: Imagine. Program. Share.

“I love engineering and science toys for young women,” a long time reader wrote to Techlife recently. As a mom, she was concerned how most science toys are geared toward young boys. She was sharing with me an engineering product aimed at young girls she had found. Breaking a stereotype is something many teachers, parents and grandparents think about, but find a challenge. Techlife has always believed the best new inventors need to be encouraged at a young age to explore their world, find a problem, no matter the size and solve it.

A local school in my area instead of holding a science fair holds an invention fair. It challenges students to find creative ways to solve problems. They build models of their inventions, many of which actually work. Students then present their inventions to the community and during the explanation you can hear their passion. They explain the problem they are solving and how it all worked out. From Jello ice cubes to a backpack with a a built in microwave/refrigerator to Cloudwater a device to solve the world’s drought issues these inventors were not just creative, but focused and driven.

Since 2003 students of all ages have been using Scratch to build games, share stories and create animations. (Shhh, don’t tell the students but they are really learning the building blocks to computer programming.) Students love the ability to quickly construct their ideas using a simple to understand interface of blocks. They chain the events together to build animations, sound controls, decision trees and more. Scratch has a great step by step hands-on tutorial to get users quickly building their first project and most of all understand the logic needed for a machine to process a set of instructions. Scratch offers a site built just for educators and another built just for parents as the two largest influences in a young inventor’s life.

Started in MIT’s Media Lab and offered for free, schools at all levels are using Scratch to teach the principals of computer programming. Harvard offers Scratch lessons during an introductory computer class for example, while many elementary schools have integrated it into their curriculum. With a simple tagline of “Imagine, Program, Share” the idea that anyone can do this by learning from what others have done before them is a pillar of computer science classes at any age.

The name Scratch comes from the idea that music DJs remix albums and scratch together their creations. Users of the language are encouraged to do the same. The best part of the learning is the ability to see someone’s amazing creation and not just peek behind the curtain at how they did it, but save a copy and start tinkering with the work right away. Users can see exactly who created what remix of their work, plus favorite, comment and love a project all of which builds a community. As of  this writing (Oct 2013) there were more than 2 million registered users with nearly 4 million projects shared in over 150 different countries.

As the thought everyone can build something becomes more and more prevalent, it’s a single graph buried on the Scratch site that is most telling; age of users when they registered to use the site. Impressively as you can never stop learning nearly 200 people registered when they were 80 years old. Conversely more than 3,000 registered when they were just four years old. The bulk of the age range is 12-13 with nearly 400,000 creators signing up. It’s a promising sign to see. But more amazing is what everyone is building.  Be sure to share your first Scratch with Techlife. We are ready to be inspired by your creations.

 

Settlers beats Smartphones by Dave Kaufman

Settlers beats Smartphones by Dave Kaufman

Put down that phone, I’m talking to you.”

“Can I get a moment of time when you aren’t on that thing?”

“Look at all of us, out together, but on our smartphones. So funny…and sad.”

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“I Forgot My Phone” by Charlene deGuzman

It won’t solve all of these problems but Techlife accidentally discovered a secret. Come closer, I don’t want this one getting out. Are you ready? If you find something that is engaging from start to finish people will stay engaged. Are you saying to yourself, “Not a secret, I already knew that.” Sure you did.

Today’s television dramas are all about your second screen experience. Live sporting events and rock concerts are all about telling people you are there and then looking up stats or recording your favorite song or texting the big screen. Even driving which should be engaging as YOUR LIFE (much less the lives of others) is on the line is still losing.  The smartphone wins the attention war.

“Aha!” says the detective in you, “Theater, as in the title of the column is a place where I can’t use my phone.  Be it a movie, play, opera or musical all of them request you to not just refrain from using them but to turn off the devices too.” True and most people follow these rules, but not by choice. They have to be told. Over and over.

In a crude experiment, I have discovered a form of entertainment that has people voluntarily not using their smartphones, a board game.

Settlers of Catan

I happened upon the secret while playing many, many games of Settlers of Catan. Unlike Risk or Monopoly or their popular brethren “Settlers” as it is known, is an intriguing game where the board is different each and every game. By using two randomizing elements; first movable hexagons and secondly assigning them numbers during setup, the board is unique each game. In addition while the goal of the game is a race to ten points, the multitude of combinations to achieve the goal means each player is using a different approach which changes each game.

The other part, the part that is the secret is this game uses an open outcry market. In other words there is a lot of vocal trading between players each round. The result is players stay fully engaged for the entire game. “I’m a born multi-tasker,” you might be saying thinking you can play Settlers and compose an email. Maybe something simple. But you can’t jump headfirst into your smartphone for the length of the Settlers of Catan game and expect to do well. You will miss trade opportunities and subtle shifts in strategy.

Field Research Results

In early field tests, 26 different people ranging from age 6 to 68 made up of 15 males and 11 females were observed during game play. Each person played at least two games with a small group playing more than 30 games and while smartphones may have been on the table or glanced at for an incoming text, only during one game did two people try to multi-task. In all other cases the players were fully engaged and 100% focused.

Techlife’s conclusion, more testing should be done. Everyone who reads this should join the experiment team. Run your own tests. Silently observe your friends and family. Can you find other ways to voluntarily engage people while they forget their smartphones for a little while? Share your secrets, we all will thank you.

 

RAM by Dave from www.opticgroove.com.au

I made up the title. Yes the words are completely made up, as if you weren’t sure. The first is a play on words of technology and the second tech knowledge.  Today’s goal is to make you smarter, we aren’t off to a great start at this point, are we?

Techlife has always been a forum for you, the readers. I just pretend to know about the technology we discuss. But there is a topic we have never addressed here your “Go-to”.

Each of us has someone who we see as our “Go-to” This is the person who makes us tech knowledge-ier.  Our “Go-to” is someone who we rely on for technology — questions, decisions, hints, tips and troubleshooting. In most cases this isn’t our “Go-to’s” main role in our life. We just view them as more knowledgeable about technology. Oh how lucky they are to know us.

Raise your hand if you are laughing because your “Go-to” is your 4 year old grandson. It’s ok. Many “Go-to” roles are filled by someone younger. Of course that choice becomes a problem when it is time to upgrade your old tower PC and you aren’t sure if trusting the 4 year old with a decision such as “Should I add more RAM or a bigger hard drive?” (Tip: Always add more RAM if your machine can handle more.)

Some of you who laughed at the 4 year old grandson as someone’s “Go-to” were a bit smug. You are thinking I have the best “Go-to” they know everything. You know they do because even a simple question turns into a complex explanation. They use fancy math equations and acronyms you have never heard of before. So as great as their answers are, they end up needing to “explain it in language you’ll understand.” Result: You nod your aching head, and reach for an aspirin. (Seriously who takes aspirin for a headache anymore?)

You may even serve as a “Go-to” yourself. Laughing inside as you spew forth advice word for word from your 8 year old “Go-to” as your listener’s eyes glaze over in a combination of thanks and fear you secretly know all to well. You always hope they never ask that scary question which makes them question your tech knowledge and your “Go-to” status in their eyes.

5 Tech Tips for Everybody

Here’s where we make you smarter, run this by your “Go-to” and let us know if they agree.

  1. Don’t sweat new hardware. PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone more than four years old? Anything you buy will be faster and work better than what you have today.
  2. Buy last year’s model. Most people don’t need the latest top of the line hardware and will do just fine with last year’s model, saving while still buying good gear.
  3. Review actual needs. Examine your requirements” and see if there is software/website/app that does 60-70% of what you need at a fraction of the cost or even for free.
  4. Try before you buy. After using software/website/app for a bit of time. You’ll know when/ if it is worth supporting the company by upgrading.
  5. Tech shouldn’t complicate life. Technology should be used to speed up tasks and improve your work/life. If you aren’t finding that to be the case stop using it.

Next time before you scream and reach out to your “Go-to” yelling about how you are about to jump off the Tech Now Ledge. Take a breath. Your “Go-to” is a thankless job. They deserve more love.

And lastly remember to double check if the power cord is actually plugged in.

Imagine gripping your handlebars tight, gunning the engine, shifting your weight while hanging on during a forward full flip of you and your motor bike all from the comfort and safety of your mobile.

bikerace

Turning back the clock to your earliest days with a Nintendo Entertainment System you may recall the classic Excitebike and exclaim, except for the flips you remember that game. Then long time fans of Techlife may recall the physics based builder Line Rider where you guide a rider and sled over a hand drawn course. It wasn’t a game as much as a chance to build your own track.

Then we have our faithful readers, you lovers of the mash-up bring us a motorbike-riding physics-based simple-line-track with user created levels and multi-player cross-platform experience. (Let’s let the rider race over the hyphens in that last sentence). How does it work? Addictivley well.

How to Play Bike Race

Visit your favorite app store and download Bike Race. Level 1 is a simple tutorial which explains the right side of the screen is “go” and the left side of the screen is “stop”. The game forgoes actual visible control elements but you shouldn’t need them. The game uses the accelerometer. Tilting left while on the ground pops the bike into a wheelie. Tilting left while in the air the rider and bike perform a backflip and tilting forward does a front flip.

You progress through each level as a time trial. Complete the level more quickly to earn the maximum three stars. Just after starting I got an invite from the loyal reader to play them in a multi-player match. Multi-player is a turn-based style game awarding you a win if you beat your opponent in head to head match of a single race. While you wait for them to race you can race other people or continue the single player racing.

Like Line Rider and the grand daddy Excitebike, Bike Race offers a track creator for those who want to build their own. Bike Race will take care of sharing them in the game and let others play your levels too. It gets addicting quickly so be careful that you have a few hours to kill before you try and build your masterpiece.

Thanks as always to the greatest readers for finding some real amazing things. We had quite a little struggle this month as reader suggestions came pouring in and made the job of curating just one a tough chore. Send those small ideas, fun things, and creativity to techlife at dkworldwide dot com.

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Motorway by Dan Metcalfe

In a jungle of endless “please hold for the next available customer service rep”, confusing phone menu trees, and brief, poorly written email exchanges acting as guides along the journey we recently burst into a pool of cool calming customer first waters. “Enough with the metaphors Techlife, I come for the meat and potatoes of these columns. ” Hey that’s a meta- nevermind. People, the energy behind change, have begun to make small shifts in their behavior at work. Each small shift is a positive push toward improving the customer experience.

A little over three years ago Techlife’s 1,000 Loyal Customers seeded the idea of thinking about the loyal customer, instead of always seeking the new customer. We followed it up with How To Provide Amazing Support detailing  not just the “how” but also a bit of the “why.” After sending these ideas into the jungle, a funny thing happened. People remarked, “Hey, that’s not a new idea.” Of course they were right, old ideas are often good places to look for ways to deliver new experiences. Here are personal stories of how companies are providing unique experiences on old ideas.

New faster Internet for FREE – yes please

Good ideas tend to stick around and good customer experience is seeing a resurgence. Comcast, yes that Comcast, the one people loathe and complain and fill internet forums with horror stories contacted me, an existing customer. They offered me free of charge a new higher speed modem with a built in router. The new modem would allow me to access their faster internet speeds and not cost anything additional. I accepted. The package would arrive in 6-8 weeks. It arrived in two weeks. Surprise again! Then the hook up was painless and easy, surprise number three.

Vrooom! Try our best toys

A local RC car store with an indoor track trains employees to make the customer happy with a simple program. They empower the teenage staff to let customers of all ages try expensive remote control cars, even though most parents just purchase $25 cars. The goal is clearly to remove any barriers and excite customers while bucking the “you break it, you buy it” philosophy. It was a lot of fun for kids and adults. Customers love the store and want to return. Best of all the store spends next to nothing on store decor and puts all their efforts into customer service.

It’s been 4 years – We still love you

Restaurant.com this week sent me an email apologizing that a local certificate I purchased in 2009 was no longer valid because the local restaurant stopped participating in their program. The funny thing is, I thought I lost the certificate and forgot I had used Restaurant.com to purchase it, plus they already had my money. They owed me nothing.  But by contacting me more than 4 years later with nothing more than, “You should choose another gift certificate ours never expire” I went back to their site, saw all the advancements they have made including a cool smart phone app that ditches the need for printed paper.

Each of these examples has the “don’t be a dumb consumer, there’s something else at work” side. But we are smart consumers who know that if Comcast gives me a new modem, I will stick with them and maybe even upgrade to a faster speed. If an adult or child plays with an expensive RC car it might turn into a birthday wish list, which results in an $85 remote control car purchase. If Restaurant.com is eager to bring back a long time customer they use honesty while also getting to show off all the new features and maybe generate more purchases.

These three examples are great, but in the past six months I have heard of many more. Readers have shared airline successes, mobile carrier wins, toy stores making kids happy, doctors who go the extra mile, and even janitors who help well outside of their realm.  What are some of the best examples you have seen and experienced?

As The Byrds say:

So you want to be a rock and roll star?
Then listen now to what I say.
Just get an electric guitar
Then take some time
And learn how to play.

Rock Stage by Lisa

Every musician starts somewhere, usually playing music with some friends. Next thing you know someone suggests you form a band with dreams of playing to stadiums or clubs full of fans. It is that last word, “fans” that makes you into a rock and roll star. While The Byrds teach you the music side, Techlife  has four simple tools for the self promotion side of the budding rock star in you.

It seems today that a new group pops out of nowhere and then before you know it even your mom is telling you about them. It starts because everyone who’s anyone gets their microphone, guitar, Facebook Fan Page and YouTube Channel. It almost seems silly for The Byrds to include the first two, but just as silly for Techlife to not include the last two. These two are the cornerstone of today’s self-promotion movement. Direct access to your fans on a Fan Page and great music shared via YouTube are the staples of a rock star. Fans get to see and hear you, both performing music and behind the scenes of the creative process. Welcome to the life, you are a budding rock star.

Your YouTube Channel is gaining some momentum, at least your mom checks it out. But it isn’t fast enough. What you need is more exposure and the best way is simply to let fans easily listen to your music. Bandcamp is a great service for helping musicians set up simple sites with songs, albums, album art, lyrics, liner notes all in digital format. It lets the artist keep full control over their music including even selling it. Though early on give it away to fans as they will share it with more people. Bandcamp like YouTube Channels and Facebook Fan Pages let you track your fans too, seeing stats on what they like and what they love. Bandcamp also plugs right into your Facebook Fan Page making it easy for fans to see new music from you.

All this exposure and the hottest club in town calls you to play Saturday night. Then you wake up with a little drool on the side of your face. A more likely route is your visiting local venues who have open mic nights or small bars or other places that encourage live music or might consider it. Talk to the manager, have them hear your music see your fanbase and if you are lucky get a chance on a Tuesday night. This is it, your first gig. Obviously sharing the gig is key. Sure Facebook Events lets you invite fans of your Fan Page, but a little bit more exposure using Songkick and their artist tool Tourbox allows you to seed your tour date (just one right now) to Facebook, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Foursquare, Spotify, and of course your Songkick artist page.

As a bonus tool, consider crowd sourcing your first studio album. This is how all the indie bands do it these days. They reach out to their fans and use a site like Indiegogo or Kickstarter to entice their fans to help share the cost of making the first album and give them great rewards for like good seats, sitting in a studio session and even guitar lessons. (Techlife has used Indiegogo to run a camaign and supported a few cool Kickstarter efforts.) It takes creativity and work but it is another way to connect with fans.

Having all these tools makes you look like a rock star. Now comes the easy parts; put out good music and a great show and the fans will follow.

Let’s be honest these tips are really little life lessons. Not the kind you learn late in life, but the kind your mom teaches you while also teaching you how to tie your shoes (video). So you really already know the 3 Must Follow Tips. You just need Techlife to remind you of them because stick a mouse or track pad or touch screen in front of your brain and you forget everything as you are mesmerized by a glowing screen like a siren’s song.

Data Security by John Kirkbride

Search For Your Own Keys

You lose your keys. In today’s world how often do you ask someone for a simple answer when you could find that answer yourself. Ask your dad and he might say the obligatory, “Your keys aren’t lost, you’re the one who’s lost.” This is of course his way of connecting with you albeit an unhelpful one. But your mom might add, “Now if you were the keys, where would you be?” While at first this seems no more helpful, further thought in today’s Google It world and a little help from Techlife, will have you see your mom once again nailing it.

Sometimes when thinking about a search you aren’t sure where to look. But search is everywhere from email to the web to the computer file strcuture. How you find the “keys” means using the right words and phrases. Or as your mom put it, “where would you be” which means think like the search term. Use advanced search tools which can help narrow down the results in unique and different ways.

Stranger Danger Means Be Alert

You are selling that vintage 1992 jean jacket, the one your mom told you so, not to buy. Your dad just busts out laughing at you for the silly purchase, “Do you know how silly you looked when you wore that?” And your mom adds, “Who is going to want that old thing?” Once again your mom hit the nail on the head.

Know your audience. Maybe the jean jacket has become the latest gang fashion accessory and your buyer is someone to fear. The point is you don’t know. eBay takes some of the risk out of the transaction, as you aren’t going to meet the buyer, but you need to deal with them. Making sure you get paid means having a good eBay rating and watching your sale to see the buyer has a good one as well. For Craigslist another Techlife reader adds the advice, ask the buyer a few questions about the item before meeting face to face. Do they seem interested and knowledgeable? This works for buyers and sellers before you meet in that public well lit place.

Trick or Treat Smart

Logon Screen by Carl Silver

When you went trick or treating as a ghost with a sheet over your head, your mom or dad would joke with you, “Who’s that cute little ghost?”  They knew if they looked under the sheet they would find you. It wasn’t scary for them.

Today email can often appear to come from trusted sources, but hiding under that email is not the cute little kid you thought you knew such as your bank or social network, but it is pure evil attempting to steal or phish your log in user name and password. Today’s treat is simple, when an email arrives from a familiar source don’t click it. Instead in web mail tools like Gmail or desktop tools like Outlook roll your mouse over the link and inspect it.

Often you will see what’s under the ghost’s sheet and it isn’t pretty. Links from spammers are often very messy and not familiar or even worse close in name with the trusted name part of the domain or link. Links from true trusted sources often will be simple easy to understand links. Even better, open a new browser window and go directly to the trusted location yourself. New bank deposits or friend requests can often be seen in a notification section on the trusted source’s website.

All three of these tips come after talking to readers of Techlife who sent in various questions of, “How do I?” Keep the questions coming and think before search, buy/sell or click.

“Ya can talk, ya can talk, ya can bicker ya can talk, ya can bicker, bicker bicker ya can talk all ya want but is different than it was.”

What’s the population of Albania? Where does the Sears Tower rank in terms of tallest buildings? Who invented the NCAA Basketball Tournament?

Albania's Talk Page

Using our three questions and Wikipedia, the pages with our answers are Albania‘s page, Sears Tower‘s page, NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship‘s page. Easy to find the answers, and the end of the story. Let’s not be so hasty. Here’s your chance to peek behind the curtain of Wikipedia.

Today when a question comes up at work, a family gathering or the local pub there are always one or two people eager to show off their smartphone and find the quick  answer to a random work question or to settle a  family debate or determine the winner of the bar bet. Many of these seekers turn to Wikipedia, a user generated compendium of human knowledge.

Every word, link, fact, image and stat on Wikipedia has been entered by your fellow humans. But unlike encyclopedia’s of old this information is not researched by a writer and reviewed by an editor privately before it is published as an Article. Wikipedia’s transparent process allows for anyone to edit(and re-edit) any page on the entire site. This process over the years has evolved with rules and best practices. The place this starts is the “Talk” page.

The Talk page, what’s that? Let’s turn to the Wikipedia Talk Page Guidelines to find out.

The purpose of a Wikipedia talk page  is to provide space for editors to discuss changes to its associated article or project page.

Think of this page as the online conference room for editors and writers, open to the public to participate in the discourse. Of course Wikipedia adds:

Article talk pages should not be used by editors as platforms for their personal views on a subject.

What does Talk say?

Albania’s Talk page explains quite a lot about the Article page. Some notes as of this writing include the Article page on probation for disruptive edits as well as part of the Outlines efforts and WikiProjects subjects. It also details the prominence of a Albania’s facts appearing on the Wikipedia Main Page as well as a full archive of information for further research. It also contains thirteen items up for current discussion.

Some of the more colorful discussions revolve around the depiction of the country’s ancient history and the demographics and census (Techlife’s question). These occur in multiple sections of the Talk page.

The Sears Tower Talk page is a bit smaller and less controversial. It includes a brief how to and guidelines for participating on the page, access to the archives and the various WikiProjects this topic is included. Interesting to note the name of the building has been discussed “at great length” and is asked to not be brought up again.

The NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship Talk page is part of a WikiProject and and Outline effort. The majority of the Talk page is discussions. Including at the time of this writing 42 sections on things like future host cities, historical brackets, mid-majors, maps, tournament trends and past champions. One of the entertaining items relates to Kentucky’s 2012 Championship entry. Apparently some Wildcat fans were so eager to be the editor to crown them the reigning champion they edited the page before the game actually ended prompting a discussion.

And the answers:

Albania: 2.8 million as of 2011 census  

Sears Tower: Tallest when constructed, tallest in the USA, seventh tallest in the world.

NCAA: Harold Olsen.

Bonus: First line of “Wikipedia Talks” from The Music Man in “Rock Island”.

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