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Techlife » Reader Emails

Reader Emails

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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?

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“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?”


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?


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.

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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.


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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.

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ISS  - International Space Station

“There are people up there? Real people? How did they get there? What do they eat?” and of course “How do they go to the bathroom?” These were the questions that came up the first night we went out to see the International Space Station (ISS).

Space is  a vast place that is hard to comprehend. You see stars but are told the light you are seeing is from years ago. Perplexing. Some stars we see today on Earth have not been around for millions of years. Head scratcher. Jupiter the largest planet in our solar system  is just a “bright star” as seen from Earth, but it really is more than 300 times the mass of Earth. Whoa.

Humans have long been fascinated by space travel. Children and adults often list astronaut as a career they would like to have when they grow up. One thing that brings the vastness of space a bit closer is to experience it.

Best Reader’s On The Planet

See what I did there? I said it because it is true. Techlife’s readers ask and inquire about many things. One reader loves the photos from NASA and sends amazing images every so often. A few months back the reader over some information about the ISS. I was busy and didn’t think much about it. But I bookmarked it for reading later. Turns out it was a chance to see the ISS from anywhere on Earth.

The International Space Station is third brightest object in space as seen from Earth after the sun and moon. The difference is that it isn’t found in a fixed area in the sky so the only way to see it is to know where and when to look.  NASA offers up “Spot the Station” a website for just that.

How do I see the ISS?

There are a few key facts to understanding the ISS and Spot the Station. First off the ISS orbits the Earth at an inclination of 51.6 degrees.  The ISS never travels past 51.6 degrees latitude north or south of the equator, so Techlife readers in Alaska won’t see it directly over-head.

To be notified you visit Spot the Station and sign up for either an email or text message notification which is based on the location you provide. It appears any country, state/region and city work across the globe. Then you wait.

The cryptic message delivered from Spot the Station looks like:

“ SpotTheStation! Time: Wed Jan 30 6:45 PM, Visible: 2 min, Max Height: 64 degrees, Appears: WSW, Disappears NE. ”

The quick breakdown of this message is the time is based on your timezone. A cool aspect is that messages will always be for just after sunset or before sunrise by no more than a few hours. This is the best time to catch the sun reflecting off the space station and provides an easy to find object in the dark sky.

NASA ISS Spot the Station Diagram


As the ISS is orbiting the earth it appears from below the horizon and then disappears back below the horizon. The visibility provides you with the length of time it will be easily seen. The longest I have seen is six minutes, but it was a cloudy overcast night that evening.

Spot the Station provides the maximum height in degrees, which combined with where it will appear and disappear gives you a viewing path to find the ISS. A simple hint, the horizon is zero degrees and straight above you is ninety degrees. I bisected those two spots to find the approximate 45 degree mark which helped. Also the letters of where it will appear and disappear relate to a compass markings.

What am I looking for?

The ISS is a small dot since it is more than 200 miles from the surface of the Earth. Seen with the naked eye it appears to be a shooting star. It moves pretty fast and evenly like an airplane. Mission Control calculates 4,600 sighting locations and suggests picking a nearby town if yours isn’t listed. Due to how far it is from Earth your location need not be the exact city listed.  Don’t worry if you don’t get notified for a while. Mission Control only includes what they consider “good” sighting opportunities. This means you might go a few weeks without getting notified.

It’s a great family or co-worker event opportunity and a great chance to learn more about what they are doing up on the ISS too. Let the ISS staff and Techlife know what you see.

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Great creative on Craigslist

A real ad found on Craigslist from a creative seller.

Dear Techlife,

As a long time reader, I was excited by your column “Modern Day Alchemist.” (Editor’s Note: Column titled “Modern Day Alchemy“) I had read your experience with Freecycle and while that was good, my stuff is worth money to me. So how do I turn that stuff into both empty space AND money? Your column on Ebay and Craiglist was great. It inspired me to start the process using Ebay. I have sold a few things and it seemed pretty easy. So first thank you. But then I ran into a dilemma, for a heavy item,  a TV, I don’t want to ship it so how do I know what to list it for on Craigslist?  Any help?

Spring Cleaning for Profit


Dear Profit:

Your signature was so awesome it became the title to this column. What a wordsmith. Interestingly Techlife offices have a story for you, but be prepared for the twist.

Many years ago the Techlife offices bought a 36″ Sony television. In those days it was the largest picture tube on the market.  It was great TV, with a beautiful picture on a flat glass screen. The massive television weighed nearly 300lbs and was bulky and awkward. Moving the television always took at least two adults. Shortly thereafter the era of HD was unleashed. The Sony did a great job early on keeping up with the quality of the first HD sets on the market. Visitors often asked if we had a new HD TV because the picture was so crisp.

Over time HD sets improved and then the second phase of television development occurred. Thin. From plasma to LCD the surfaces became larger and the depth became smaller. The world was excited by crisp HD images on a canvas not thicker than, well, a canvas. “Thanks for the history lesson, professor. I just want to sell my TV.” I can hear you thinking.

As our story continues Techlife decided it was time to get a new thin HDTV. What to do with the Sony? As you noted Ebay is not an option leaving Craiglist.  I used two methods to research price.

Search Craigslist for the model number and compare existing listingsThis was simple but unlike Ebay, Craigslist doesn’t provide data completed sales data. Sometimes you see the same item listed a second time with a reduced price which is a clue. Craigslist can be a science.

Search Priceonomics for the model number and compare existing listings – Priceonomics is a startup (Dec. 2011) with the goal to be “the price guide for everything.”  They started out with price guides for 50,000 categories of used items including: bicycles, televisions, speakers, monitors, turntables, computers and cell phones. The “simple” goal to have price estimates for everything bought and sold. Ambitious aren’t they? As of this publication they have 21 categories and 163 sub-categories.

Great. I had a price range, I took some photos and listed it for $10 less than the lowest end of the range on Craigslist just wanting it gone.  And nothing happened. People don’t want to pay for a big bulky TV when they can buy a sleek thin one I reasoned. Next I turned to Freecycle, someone out there would want it for FREE. Of course the same problem existed. Who want’s a behemoth when svelte is in? Finally I reached out to my network and offered it to a non-profit. Happily a few group homes replied and were eager.  One showed up with a truck and picked it up.

The twist? Figure out first off if what you have is worth selling or would a donation better serve everyone. “Profit” might just be you having more free space than you had before.



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“On thine day, in thine month, in thine year, it has come pass thy new The Tab King has been crowned.”

Is Techlife really declaring it is the king of something? Well of course not loyal subjects, I mean readers. Kings are people and Techlife is but a vessel to share knowledge. And what is it again that I rule you ask? Tabs? Sit back and let me explain the kingdom of web browsing and open tabs.

Modern web browsers all employ the concept of tabbed browsing. A tab is a way of storing many browsing sessions in a shared window. Need to look up something but want to keep search window open as well, just open the search in a new tab. Visiting Facebook and need to read an article in your stream, open it in a new tab . The advantage of a new tab is your existing window remains as you left it. There is no hard and fast data on tab usage but in a recent unofficial Twitter poll, my usage of more than 60 concurrently open tabs outdistanced the rest by more than 35 tabs. (As I write this there are 73 open tabs in two browser windows.)

Why so many open tabs?

I use tabs for Techlife research of course. As well as keeping tabs on news of the day, shopping takes a few tabs for research and reviews, another for price comparison and yet another for the actual online store.

“So it came to pass that The Tab King began to worry about losing all the tabs.”

With all the open tabs Google Chrome rarely crashes and even when it does restoring the tabs is pretty easy. But yet, there are times when restoring the tabs is not easy and tabs are lost. I’m sure the astute reader says, what about Xmarks, the solution from a previous Techlife column? Bookmarking each tab is more of a chore and less a solution for short and mid term tabs.

The Elegant Evolution

Faithful reader Rob who has emailed back and forth suggested a new tool he found, TabCloud by Connor Dunn, a student at the University of Warwick, UK. This amazing tool allows a user to save the current tabs. But it does more. It lets you save them to the cloud. (Quick sidebar: The Cloud is another way of saying the internet, or more accurately not saved locally on your computer.) By saving your tabs to the cloud, TabCloud let’s a user access them anywhere.

“So faithful subjects of the realm, The Tab King was worry free and the brave reader Rob granted knighthood.”


“As The Tab King began to prepare for sharing the discovery of the brave knight Sir Rob with the loyal subjects, the King made yet another discovery.”  

TabCloud has an Android application and an iPhone and iPad webapp! The apps allows a user to access their saved tabs on their mobile device as well and it is as simple to use as the Chrome and Firefox extensions.

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Here at Techlife we have had the pleasure of writing about many family and friends who needed technology assistance. Remember the reader who dropped his phone in the toilet? A fan favorite and a personal friend. How do I get so lucky knowing these folks?

As Techlife likes to pay homage to the greatest hackers, Moms, we have had past columns such as GeekDad happy for Mother’s Day and This Mother’s Day Tell the Truth. Well, now it’s personal. In a celebration of Moms’ ingenuity, I offer up How my Mom Hacked Gmail.

My mom plays this mental game with herself. Maybe you do too. “Technology is too hard, and I don’t get it,” she often exclaims. But in reality she does get it, just at her own pace. Which leads us to the recent multi-year process of getting a smart phone. Now you may be saying to yourself what special smart phone did she get that took a few years to arrive?

Well, once again this is my Mom. The smart phones have been here, it was her reluctance mentally that hadn’t turned the corner. She had a cell and a Palm and was eager to carry a single device.  After years her realization was,whatever she imagined as the perfect device still hadn’t been made apparently.

So she settled on a top of the line Android Powered G2 with Google. Immediately the questions begin. Her biggest was Palm Notes. She used the basic notes function and wanted something like it. A simple request. Searching the Market resulted in more than 1000 note apps. “But, son,” she said. Always there’s a catch, right? Hers was she wanted to access the notes even when in the basement of her work with no connection, she wanted changes to auto-sync, she wanted to search them, and wanted to organize them. So far there are still hundreds of apps that work, no problem Mom.

Life got in the way of the family helpdesk, a few days later the smart phone vs. the toilet and other tech foibles speaking circuit concluded, I checked in with Mom again and asked her how it was going.  Expecting to hear how she still had had 48 more apps to test drive in the notes. She said, “I just decided to use Gmail.” I cocked my head to the side like a dog does upon hearing an unfamiliar sound. Slowly I replied, “How does that work?”

My Mom’s Gmail Hack

  1. Visit Gmail on Desktop and log in (not all Androids can do this on the device)
  2. In the upper left click on Contacts
  3. Under the New Contact Button, scroll down to “New Group”  and click
  4. Enter a name, I chose “Notes”
  5. Click the “New Contact” Button
  6. In the “Add Name” field add a category such as Work, Home or School
  7. Click the button with the “…” and enter the Note’s subject as the last name
  8. Now begin entering your notes
  9. Upon completion, click on the groups pull down and select “Notes” and leave “My Contacts” selected
  10. Repeat for all your notes
  11. Notes are searchable on desktop and handheld and synced to Google’s back end servers

Yep, my Mom took the simplest, easiest method she knew and adapted. Creating Gmail Notes, proving once again simple beats fancy every time. If you know her, call her a geek. She earned it. Happy Mother’s Day to all those moms.


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Before Techlife or BT people asked me all sorts of questions both tech and non-tech related.  The questions were often, “How do you send an email to Bill Gates?” or “How do you hook up your modem to a pay phone like in War Games?” or “Will this version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? work with my first Mac?”

Then we entered the Techlife Era or TE and while the volume of questions has increased, the range of questions has become more varied. Many questions have shifted to opinion oriented as Google handles the more mundane tasks. Let’s answer a few of these today and make sure to take the quiz at the end of the column.

What’s the best way to save my bookmarks? – Erica L.

Probably your 250 links all dedicated to velvet Elvis won’t really be missed, but I understand each person has their own curated set of important links. For years I have been a big proponent of NOT saving them in my web browser. I once read a column by writer Jim Coates (great guy who I met early in my writing career) and his advice to his readers was a simple text file saved to a thumbdrive with all your bookmarks. Today I have transitioned to Xmarks. A free service to store all your bookmarks, let you sync them to any machine and back them up.

How could I save time when taking a photo and sending it to my friends? – Jeff K.

Stop taking them. If I get another picture of Mr. Pooky dressed for Halloween I’m calling animal cruelty. But if you are taking those oh-so-creative photos on an Android or iPhone then use a smart photo sharing tool. I prefer picplz because it can post to foursquare, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and the picplz site simultaneously. That time savings coupled with filters to play with your photo adds a bit of richness. Of course I think I just made it so you can now just take more costume photos didn’t I?

Could I have a smartphone without a data plan? – Carri K.

Only if you actually are willing to buy a smartphone already! But assuming you are finally ready to make the plunge, there is a little known way to legally and ethically hack the wireless carriers. Go unsubsidized and without a data plan. Likely you have a plan today that gives you a new phone every so many months. “Maybe now I will upgrade to the smartphone,” you are thinking. Don’t. Instead be willing to shell out full price (or go on Ebay) and get a model that will work with your carrier. This hack works well for SIM card users who put their old SIM card in the new phone. Now enable wifi at home and work, and a few other frequent haunts. Your smartphone will make calls and send texts but only use data when in wifi range. Your win, no data plan costs. Also no data “all” the time.

Quiz time: Microsoft has started a catchy campaign where users trumpet, “To the cloud!” Where did this phrase originate? Leave a comment if you know. No using the cloud to find the answer.

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It is always surprising (yet really never all that surprising) when a reader contacts Techlife with a problem that leads to a massive discovery. In this case the problem was “How do I burn this?” from our friend Allan over at Scubaology.com. He had found a Grateful Dead concert he wanted as a CD.  But herein lies the surprise, it wasn’t the concert being online that surprised me, it was the location, The Internet Archive.

Ominous sounding?  Yes. Intriguing, even more so. The Internet Archive is an astounding non-profit all digital library. Like any good library, it would take hours to begin to explain the vast array of collections and how to access them.  So for this column we will stick with our aural sensibilities and examine the audio section of the Internet Archive. If you were looking for some new material for a workout, a long drive or flight around the world how does over 700,000* free digital recordings work for you?

How is that staggering amount of audio organized? I’m glad you asked:

And of course to add to the quirky yet completeness of this library The Grateful Dead is given their own top level category with 7,780 items; more items than 7 of the main categories as organized!

Within each category is of course plenty of subcategories.  I quickly sought out the Radio Programs category, which had a sub-category of Old Time Radio. I clicked on Browse by Title “A” and found 4 different collections of Abbott & Costello and in less than 10 seconds I was listening to the famous, “Who’s on First?” routine.

As with most libraries, this one appears understaffed.  It has 17 contributors for the entire audio section, which is likely why there were four Abbott & Costello collections with some repeats and some files with no descriptive text or titles.  But they also offer context for the content in the form of Top Downloads, Top Rated and Top Reviews. Each added piece of user-generated content makes the library all the more useful.  Plus there are many encyclopedia type entries along with great user generated tidbits while you listen.

Finally getting to Allan’s  request of burning a CD; Audio Player? Smartphone? CD? Streaming? However you listen the choices today of carrying your audio collections with you have made it easy to store, listen and access content. The Internet Archive’s Audio Archive Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain for example is available on the site to stream, in both low and hi-fidelity M3U format, two quality versions of the MP3 format and in an Ogg Vorbis format. Oops…did we forget to tell Allan how to burn that CD?  Ok, I’m just going to listen to one more song, I promise.

* Numbers as of 10/18/2010.  Note total item numbers might vary as with the example of Radio Programs – 1,947 items at the top level. There were eight sub-collections with a total of 4,195 items.  That is more than double the top level’s reported items.

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Travel. That single word sparks thoughts of exotic beaches, hidden towns, memories, and enjoyment. Techlife has covered unique mapping toolsmaking your own mapsfinding the perfect place to stay and more. Our diverse readership, You; often comment how much travel is a part of your life.

Meet Travelista (Techlife slang for Travel Expert) Anne Hornyak, who holds a Masters in Music; loves photography and travel; and has a day job advising Travel and Convention Bureau’s. We asked her to help Techlife readers with an education in what travel means in today’s super connected world of mobile sharing, bite size ideas, and off the path finds.

Techlife: How did you get started in the Travel and Tourism industry?
Anne Hornyak: I began my tourism career with Chicago Plus, a regional tourism office for Chicagoland. As a staff of one, I mostly managed marketing projects for the 17 Chicagoland Convention & Visitors Bureaus but also handled everything from finance to social media.

TL: What do you do today for the industry?
AH: I work mostly as a Social Media Strategist for tourism clients. I’m a cofounder of #tourismchat, a biweekly twitter chat focusing on social media in the tourism industry, and frequently tweet and blog about the same topic.

TL: Why is online travel and tourism so big? And how big is it?
AH: People love to travel and share their experiences with others. Social networks, especially Facebook, are perfect for this type of sharing. Many are also planning their trips, searching for the best discounts and then booking these trips, all online. Everything from Frommer’s to Budget Travel, Expedia to Priceline, Flickr to YouTube and travel blogs to a simple Facebook update about a friend’s recent trip…it’s all online. The travel industry is massive. Over 7.4 million U.S. jobs are directly related to it.

TL: How do you disconnect from the digital realm?
AH: I used to joke about needing a “social media detox” every once in a while but it has become rather habitual lately. Whether hiking in a state park or photographing lighthouses along Lake Michigan’s coast, I have to make time “off the grid.”

TL: What digital tips do you have for a traveler pre-trip?
AH: Research! Ask your Facebook friends and Twitter followers for recommendations and tips. Take advantage of CVBs (Convention & Visitors Bureaus) in your preferred social networks. Many of them are on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube, and have blogs and interactive websites that can help you plan your trip. Find them on your network and connect before you travel.

TL: In-trip?
AH: Have fun! If you have a smartphone, send photos and updates to your friends on Facebook and Twitter but be sure that it doesn’t get in the way of your experience. If you’re on Flickr, upload your photos regularly so you can add descriptions and geotag them accurately.

TL: Post trip?
AH: Talk about it! Create photo albums on Facebook, upload Flickr photos and YouTube videos, write a special blog post and add write reviews to TripAdvisor. Share your experience with others who are in the research stage.

TL: As of this question being written you had 3,673 Followers on Twitter who have seen 16,406 updates via your username “WhosYourAnnie“. What’s one thing you never talk about? Why?
AH: Tweets about my family and personal life are usually kept pretty vague. The internet is public and safety is the primary concern. I’ve received a few google alerts for random things I’ve tweeted about my dogs. I don’t need to give stalkers extra information.

TL: What percent of your followers and updates are related to your career?
AH: I would say that 65-75% of my followers are somehow related to the travel industry, either as travel bloggers, CVBs, or people who just like to travel and talk about it. Probably 50% of my updates are conversational replies, most of which are to friends within the tourism industry, leaving around 30% as content tweets directly related to my career.

TL: Is Twitter your main channel?
AH: Most definitely! To me, twitter is all about connecting and having conversations. It’s a little surreal but some of my closest friends, a few I have yet to meet in real life, started as twitter followers.

TL: Last question, Who’s Your Annie?
AH: I’m your Annie.

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Tell me, how I can help?

As a rule, the idea of calling or emailing a support service for help with a toaster, a lawnmower or your 1982 Emerson Lilac Purple boombox is akin to having a conversation with a bear at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  You know the metaphor, right? It takes a long time to get down to the bottom of a big endless hole.  Once there the conversation is pretty scary with you pleading that they understand.  More than likely you are left with growling.

Or there’s our way.

In a March 2010 Techlife column, we celebrated with you the reader how RDRR Labs was named a Top Android Developer by Google.  A few notes on this; RDRR Labs is a two person team including myself and a friend. Google’s definition of “top” was more than 3.5 stars and at least 5,000 downloads.  Nice qualifications.  But to us that was not “top” yet. At that time our most popular app, Timeriffic had just under a 4.5 rating and near 10,000 downloads and was available in a few languages.

We made an effort to improve. We added more languages, today we have eleven. We have added features and listened to our users and today have more than 50,000 downloads. Best of all we have increased our app’s rating to 4.56 stars and rising. And lastly we have gone on a customer service campaign and this is where the real magic has happened.

Our app is free.  We don’t need to listen to anyone. We want too. To listen even  better, we have a developed an easy error reporting tool to help us answer our users questions. And that’s where things get interesting.

A user reported our app was broken and would not work on his new Droid X. I should add his tone was more like we had stormed into his home, taken his Droid X and crushed it under our foot. In other words; he was mad. We tried a few calm replies suggesting various options to him. 20 emails later, the app was still not working. Now admittedly we didn’t have a Droid X. Could it be this one phone actually didn’t like our app? It was worth finding out.

Techlife reader to the rescue!  I sent a quick message to a loyal reader who had just been bragging about her new Droid X. She was happy to see if the app worked. She installed it and reported back it was great. I thanked her and now was really stumped. How could our app be showing errors so different from what was expected? I took another crack, with a long email detailing the steps our loyal reader had taken and how the app worked great. The email I got back was the key to the whole mystery.

Our efforts are exactly what you can do when getting or giving help. Stay calm. Look carefully at the problem from the user’s side and above all don’t give up. The email we got back detailed the issue and talked about a specific feature. A feature we didn’t offer! It was then I realized he wasn’t using our app at all! A quick exchange  and he replied how happy he was we had solved his problem. Case closed.

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Loyal Techlife reader Dan contacted me again. (Other readers feel free to follow his lead.) Dan’s company wanted to convey “some information” and he was brainstorming with me and said, “What about a graph?” Now rule 1 of brainstorming is there are no bad ideas. And as I like to add, only bad people who rip on ideas that scare them.

So I listened. You could hear in his voice that this was an idea he was really loving.  He started really getting focused on this one idea.  About this time I said “info ick.”  “Huh?” he replied.  I said take your idea one step further, Info-graph-ic.  Silence. Then even more silence. “What do you mean?”

“An infographic is a way of displaying more than data in a simple pie chart or a bar graph,” I explained.  Now fellow readers, you have the advantage here of being able to see our beautiful illustrations.  Dan needed a bit further explanation, and the definition I used was,  “An infographic is exactly as it sounds. A set or multiple sets of information that is a graphic designed to inform, entertain and simplify massive amounts of somehow related data.”  “I love it!” he burst out.

To illustrate a personal infographic, we directed him and all our Techlife readers to visit Brazil’s ionz personality map creation tool. (Click the flag in the upper right.)  With a few simple questions answered by you, nearly 50 points of data are relayed back and graphically represented against the other 66,000 plus people who have participated in these questions.  They even let you save your infographic as wallpaper for your computer.

Can anyone create an infographic?

Probably not. To effectively share unique information, you need both the information and someone with skills to help you craft your design. With many of our past columns we often offer a how-to, so this seems like a little departure from our normal advice. It is.

How to create your own infographic

Ok fine…We want you to be a success and feel good so here’s a small step by step to making a great infographic.  Be warned this is not for the timid.

Step 1 – Collect your Data  – How many engineers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Step 2 – Review your data’s key findings – Clients love Fed Ex over Bernie’s horse and buggy delivery service.

Step 3 – Pick out how multiple findings might overlap/be juxtaposed. – People who love French Fries also enjoy French Films.

Step 4 – Visually represent your data. – If this icon represents our purple hair customers then this map of Cleveland will be used to show growth of superball sales.

Wow I was wrong, just 4 steps that was easy. Next time…prepare for quick lesson in particle nuclear physics.  My sincerest apologies for that last comment to all our friends in the physics department. We all know chemistry has the grand daddy of all cool infographics – The Periodic Table of Elements.  Physicists are always lamenting that, but hey maybe now they too can make their own.

If you make a cool infographic, be sure to share it with us.  Who will be the first to design an infographic  with all the bad jokes this column has compared to useful information?

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We* are hobbyists just having fun developing for Android, but Google sure knows how to make our day.  Check out the email we got.

From: Android Market
Date: Tue, Mar 2, 2010 at 3:46 PM
Subject: Device Seeding Program for Top Android Market Developers
To: rdrr.labs@gmail.com

Subject: Device Seeding Program for Top Android Market Developers

Due to your contribution to the success of Android Market, we would like to present you with a brand new Android device as part of our developer device seeding program. You are receiving this message because you’re one of the top developers in Android Market with one or more of your applications having a 3.5 star or higher rating and more than 5,000 unique downloads.

In order to receive this device, you must click through to this site, read the terms and conditions of the offer and fill out the registration form to give us your current mailing address so that we can ship your device.

You will receive either a Verizon Droid by Motorola or a Nexus One. Developers with mailing addresses in the US will receive either a Droid or Nexus one, based on random distribution. Developers from Canada, EU, and the EEA states (Norway, Lichtenstein), Switzerland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore will receive a Nexus One. Developers with mailing addresses in countries not listed above will not receive a phone since these phones are not certified to be used in other countries.

We hope that you will enjoy your new device and continue to build more insanely popular apps for Android!

(email links removed)

RDRR Labs has:

Timeriffic with near 4.5 stars and way more downloads.
24 a beta app has 3.8 stars and way more downloads.
Brighteriffic has near 4 stars and way more downloads.

*Update 1: “We” means, a friend who does the code and Techlife’s lead writer who does visual design for Android apps.

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What is your organization’s magic number?

Searches resulting in your website? Visitors to your brick and mortar store? Subscribers to your social media page; fans, friends, feeds, readers? For each business owner the answer is different.  I propose the answer is: 1,000 Loyal Customers.

Recently an excited Techlife reader called about to start a business.  They had some great long term ideas on their success once they had tons of website visitors.  But they were missing the element of growth in their plan.  I politely listened to all their excitement and unbridled energy.   But when I asked how would they get their first 1,000 Loyal Customers they didn’t know.

A Historical 1,000

In the days of the general store in America, small towns would have a single store that carried a wide variety of  products.  Often times this store was too small to carry all the things people would need, so a proprietor would stock catalogs from various places allowing a patron to pick out items that could be ordered and shipped to the store for future pickup.  This made the customer loyal, partly because they had no where else to turn, and partly because in small towns supporting a local business was good for the whole town.

Fast forward to today, where there are megastores with megabrands advertising on megastations offering megasavings if you spend megabucks.  Three example companies that have grown into megabrands Google, Ebay and Amazon don’t manufacture any “real” products (yes Amazon does have the Kindle, to push the purchase of more ebooks.) These three company’s are general store’s of data.

What is a Loyal Customer?

A Loyal Customer for most organizations is a person who actively seeks out your brand.  Loyal customers aren’t swayed easily to switch brands.  Loyal customers refer their favorite brands to others.  Loyal customers ride out a small problem or a price increase.   Most important of all, Loyal Customer’s return again and again.

1,000 Loyal Customers is admittedly simple math which states for each employee an organization needs a 1,000 Loyal Customers who return $100 net profit each year.  Good examples of unique organizations with easy to spot Loyal Customers are local restaurants, local clothing stores, museums and summer camps.  In each of these examples if the organization releases a new product or revenue stream Loyal Customers eagerly support the effort.

Techlife was once again inspired by Kevin Kelly, who’s column on 1,000 True Fans is aimed at artists such as; painters, musicians; photographers; writers and more.  His goal is make those artists realize having a megahit is hard, but achieving 1,000 True Fans is enough to sustain the artist comfortably.

Start with One

When expanded to organizations, readers of Techlife are able to use online tools like websites and social networks to connect and build their community of 1,000 Loyal Customers.  It may seem daunting, but break it down.  Who are your Loyal Customers today?  Where did you find them?  Will they refer you to the next Loyal Customer?

Share with us in the comments.  How many Loyal Customers do you have today?  What’s your goal?

Next Page »

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