Pat Drummond :: life & technology

December 18, 2012

Christmas bird

A young man named Fred received a parrot as a gift. The parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary.  Every word out of the bird's mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with profanity.  Fred tried and tried to change the bird's behaviour by setting an good example by speaking politely, but to no avail.

Finally, Fred was fed up and he yelled at the parrot. The parrot yelled back. Fred shook the parrot and the parrot got angrier and even more rude.  Fred, in desperation, grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer. For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed.  Then, suddenly there was total quiet.  Fearing that he'd hurt the parrot, Fred quickly opened the door to the freezer.

The parrot calmly stepped out and said, "I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions.  I'm sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate actions and I intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behaviour."

Fred was stunned at the change in the bird's attitude.

As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behaviour, the bird spoke-up, very softly, "May I ask what the turkey did?"

Merry Christmas

October 23, 2012

Rogers PVR formware update (Sept/2012) causes serious problems

In mid-September 2012, all Rogers PVRs (Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HD ) received an automated firmware update. Updates are "pushed" to your PVR and change how your equipment operates -- you have no way to stop these updates.  Replacing the hard drive was not a solution. (newer PVR model 8642HD has similar problems.)

UPDATE Oct. 24, 2012: 8300HD firmware update began rolling out 6 weeks after the problems began - better than 2010!

After the September 2012 update, the PVR hard drive cycles on and off every 5 minutes or so when it's turned "off". This activity will shorten its life considerably. This problem was named HSUD (hard drive spinning up & down) in online forums during the last firmware fiasco in the fall of 2010. That problem was not fixed until May 2011. (The 'fix' was to keep the hard drive spinning all the time.) The first post in forum #3 below lists other problems that started with the September 2012 update.

If you own your equipment rather than rent it, you will want to protect the hard drive from early failure by unplugging it when it not in use or keep it turned on all the time. You may also need to schedule a recording from 1-6 am to prevent it from automatically entering "sleep" mode (manually schedule an SD channel with 1-day retention uses least storage.)

Everyone with a cycling hard drive should call Rogers tech support 1-888-764-3771. Then tweet, blog, email your MP, MPP, CRTC and post online. Some online forums discussing the 8300HD problems:

1. HD PVR hard drive constantly spinning up (Msg #80 Sep/2012)
2. PVR Drive Cycling
3. New SARA Firmware Discussions (SA8300HD) Summary in Post 1
4. New SARA Firmware for SA8300HD Discussions - Summary in Post 1

October 12, 2012

Web designers - consider your readers

Why do website designers use gray text?

I'm puzzled by the large number of websites and blogs now using gray text colour  - especially since blogs often use themes designed by people who should know better. Text in any shade of gray is hard to read for most people.  In the last few years I have been wearing glasses to read so maybe I notice it more than those who don't need them. I guess web designers just can't seem to stop themselves from copying the latest thing - but gray text?! (I also find black backgrounds horrible to read in any colour text, but I digress.)
Easy Color Contrast Ratios

Why do website designers use small font sizes?

In addition to odd colours, web designers have a love affair with "fixed" font sizes like this that they force on the poor visitors trying to read their websites. Most people don't even know they can change the font size used in their browser, so website designers force these small fonts so their (badly designed) websites will fit in the designer's screen. The designer should be forced to view their work on a 3-inch phone screen for a real-life test of their font choices. This crime is #5 on the Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design.  They should use 1em (100%) for general text to respect the reader's chosen viewing size in their browser. Read what the W3C says about fonts.

I assume even beginner courses in web design teach the basics of CSS styles, but students should also be taught the benefit of using relative (smaller, larger) or percentage (90%) font sizes. They should also be taught to resist the temptation to reduce sizes without a really good reason.

Since styles are normally contained in separate style sheets it should make it easier to change sizes - or even remove them. It might impress the customer looking at tiny text on a 24-inch monitor, but everyone else has to learn to enlarge the text to be able to read it at all. Those who don't know how to do this just leave - less than impressed by your website.

Small and gray text

If you combine gray colour and small size text styles together, the text becomes hard to read for many people.  The only thing that helps me to read some sites without grinding my teeth is a little toolbar button that toggles between website colours and my colours: black on white - like this text you are reading right now. 

The fact is, every person who visits your website has a different screen resolution, different system display options, different browsers with different settings. Each person will see a slightly different website from the one you are looking at. If you don't understand the effects of all these, then you should do some cross-platform testing. You will be surprised. Then you will start using styles that will work for everyone. Problems for people with real sight problems are the subject of another post (which I have not yet written).

Recently I reset my browser to "normal" font size. Even then, I have to change the font size on websites just to view them properly.  The style they use actually works against a "normal" size. Or maybe designers assume that what they see is what everyone sees. It's a real problem because different browsers use a different "normal" font size and designers set their own defaults in CSS.

Examples on news sites:
Update 2013-Jun:  This topic is mirrored in the PDQ Library: Web Design Pet Peeves.

March 01, 2012

30% of Teens are Overweight

Canada's chief public health officer said recently, "Canada is facing an obesity epidemic." Thirty years ago, about 15% of teens were overweight. Today 25% of girls and 31% of boys are overweight or obese.

Everyone blames parents, but I think there's such an obvious solution to obesity, I hesitate to mention it - education. Children who are overweight or obese are obviously not eating properly, or are eating too much manufactured food and fast food high in salt, fat and sugar. I have to assume that their parents also do not know how dangerous fast food and boxed meals are, or maybe they just don't have the courage to set standards for their kids.

When I was growing up in another province, we took mandatory weekly classes in health and physical education right through grade 12. In health class, we learned about nutrition and the types of foods required for good health, including Canada's food rules. We learned about important nutrients in food such as vitamins and minerals and the foods that contained them. Pretty basic stuff - I still remember the foods containing vitamin C listed "grass" - it really does have vitamin C, but I sure hope they weren't suggesting we eat it! The most important influence in my life-long eating habits was my mom, who grew up on a pioneer wheat farm. She made meals out of basic real food - this was what your grandmother ate. We sometimes ate canned veggies in the Saskatchwan winter. Breakfast was oatmeal or shredded wheat with fresh squeezed orange juice; lunch at school was a sandwich, apple and milk; lunch at home was boiled eggs, bread and cheese; supper was meat, potato and veggies. No snacks or desserts, but on special occasions, mom made 'flapper pie'. Took me 20 years to find the recipe - a friend in Ontario had it pasted in her recipe scrapbook. It's basically egg custard on a graham cracker crust with a meringue on top - the description hardly does it justice!

The phys-ed classes in my youth taught us a variety of exercises from basic gymnastics to dancing. I was busy with activities after school, including clubs, swimming, music lessons and even playing "scrub" at the school yard - that's pick-up baseball to the uninitiated. But I actually got most of my exercise running to school every day (I always seemed to sleep in). At 30, after some years of working in a lab, I took a fitness test - the tester blamed bood genes for my great results, but I credit my youth - not sports, but always active.

Living in a small town and close to school and work also meant I walked everywhere. Most city kids seem to get around in buses and cars and rarely walk anywhere or play ball after school. I wonder how many of these kids could do a somersault, run 2 km. or swim 200 metres. I rarely see children playing outside or doing sports - there's a soccer/baseball field near our home that is always empty. In winter, some parents make and maintain really nice outdoor ice but I never see kids playing shinny or just skating. Are they all sitting in front of computers, TV's and phones? Why are their parents allowing them to turn into couch potatoes?

The schools have really let us down. It was only recently that Ontario schools started removing machines selling junk food and soft drink from the elementary schools. Since I have never gone to school in Ontario, I was stunned - why was non-food ever allowed into schools in the first place? I guess schools saw an opportunity to make a quick buck. But by trading off our children's health seems too high a price. It's hard to imagine how parents and trustees alike went to sleep on this one.

Following Jamie Oliver's acclaimed "Food Revolution" project to improve nutrition in American schools was a real eye-opener. School administrators and food services fought him every step of the way. All they cared about was the status-quo until they learned how poor food can ruin their childrens' health. In fact, no one seemed to have any idea that prepared school food purchased from the food industry could lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases.

Canada warned of obesity epidemic: 70% of country could be overweight by 2026, nation's top doctor says (The Ottawa Citizen 28-Feb-2012)

February 09, 2012

Using Social Media for Business

Social media websites are services that provides tools for people to share information and communicate. Most of them are completely free to use. They includes Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, location-based services, blogging services, photo-sharing services and Youtube, a video-sharing service.

Your Next Customer is Online

Business people need to reach out and get connected to their customers via social media. Some sites are expanding rapidly - Twitter now distributes 2 billion postings (tweets) per month, and most users are between 25 and 54, not kids. 80% of individuals aged 16 years and older used the Internet for personal use and half the country is already using Facebook. And 85% of moms share photos of their kids online before they're two years old!

Getting Started in Social Media

Your business should get your feet wet with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a blog. Have a strategy in place, especially if you have your staff using the accounts. Your aim should be to create a community, communicate with people, and establish your brand online. It's important to commit your business just as you would for promotion and advertising. And most important of all, be transparent and authentic online.

Most of the social media sites require you to open an account. I suggest you create a new email account for your business just for social sites (you will appreciate this separation later). You can create a Facebook page for your business once your have created a personal account - the business page can be public even if your personal account is private. Facebook will delete your account if you use a fake name. Twitter postings (tweets) are completely public and can be searched by a word or hashtag (word prefixed by #). Register a short "name" since Twitter is restricted to 140 characters, including the name. LinkedIn requires an account to use it and caters exclusively to business. Make the information as accurate and complete as possible as soon as possible to you can connect with the right people.

Using Social Media Sites

Use social media sites regularly to create an identifiable presence for your brand. Don't just create an account, post once and then abandon it for weeks. Use social media Monday to Friday (especially lunchtime) when people are online - they have better things to do on the weekend.

When you post to social sites, you shouldn't just talk about your products and services. You should communicate interesting information that is useful to your customers such as how-to tips or information related to your community or your business area.

You need to create a community to win people over to your company or brand. It's tempting to be deadly serious, but maybe your staff can get together and come up with some good ideas. If you try something creative, people will find you online.

Humour is always a useful tool. You don't need to tell jokes, just be entertaining once in a while. Humour is especially useful if you make a video about some aspect of your business. If your staff has a baseball team, take some video during the game and afterwards - edited of course! And don't forget to get permission from people before publishing them online.

A Blog works with Social Media

Because Twitter is restricted to 140 characters, and Facebook posts are usually short, it can be useful to provide a link to a web page with additional information. If you are posting about your business, then a blog serves this purpose quite well. In addition, a blog belongs to your business and you have complete control over it. You can post videos and photos, and any interesting news or information. A blog can expand on problems your customers may have had and explain any new policies that your business has adopted to improve services. Be sure to set your blog to allow "comments" (and email notifications) so you can communicate with people. If your blog software allows it, be sure to setup an RSS feed so that people can "subscribe" to your new posts. A blog adds your voice to the online world. Treat it with respect but don't be afraid to use it!

Get connected to your customers online!

In the end, don't be afraid to use these terrific online services. The sooner you begin, the better, and the faster you will understand what they can do for you. They will expand your business into the online world to reach people and other businesses that you could never connect with in any other way.

How I use Social Media
I am almost retired, but still operate two websites that benefit from using social media.

Boating in Canada on Twitter
Boating in Canada Blog
The Manotick Directory on Twitter
The Manotick Directory on Facebook
Pat Drummond (Manotick Directory) on LinkedIn

February 02, 2012

Smartphones & Tablets - do you need one?

Portable Devices offer much more than a Laptop

Portable devices, such as smartphones and tablets, have capabilities that your laptop just doesn't have. And it's these features that will be the reason you will buy one, not just as an alternative to a phone or laptop. E-readers are just simple tablets tied to a media retailer via WiFi or 3G strictly for buying media. On the other side, a computer with a keyboard is the best option for a lot of typing, graphics design or anything that requires complex software.

It's obvious that portable devices are smaller and lighter than laptops and their batteries usually last longer. They do not read CDs or DVDs, but some can read flash cards or you can install one inside. They do not have hard disk drives like most laptops but use solid-state drives - more expensive but tiny, silent and use little power. There are two common connections on the portable device itself for charging and transferring files - micro USB or mini USB. Most recharge batteries using a USB connection to a computer, 110-volt wall adapter, or a 12-volt car adapter.

Connecting in a Wireless World

Most portable devices have WiFi connections so you can connect to the Internet from a home wireless router or anywhere with a wireless Hotspot, which is often offered free. Since most portable devices operate on 3G mobile connections too, they can connect from almost anywhere with mobile service to make mobile calls (if you buy voice service) and access the Internet (if you buy data service).

Buying a Portable Device

In Canada, the sales model for portable phones ties them to mobile corporations and their service plans. Phones are usually bought from one of the mobile providers (Rogers, Bell, Virgin, Wind...) and offered at subsidized cost if you sign up for three years of 3G voice and optional data service. The other option is buy an "unlocked" phone (or have it unlocked) and shop around. Once unlocked, the phone will work with a SIM card from any of the mobile providers. You can buy any of the plans, but you will not get the same help with problems or software upgrades.

How they Work

Portable devices use an operating system just like computers, but use "apps" to do various functions. These are stand-alone programs that do many useful tasks such as reading e-mail, browsing the Web, checking Facebook, watching YouTube videos or movies, translating languages, calculating expenses, calling people on Skype (with video if your device has a front-facing camera), and thousands of other tasks. Many apps are free, but others you have to buy.

Restrictions Buying Apps and Media

Apple devices must get all their apps, music and movies from Apple Corp., iTunes, etc. Android devices usually include access to Google's Android Market, although you may also buy apps from "3rd party" stores or even buy using your computer and transfer the app to the phone for installation. Kobo readers buy their media from Canadian Chapters and Indigo. Kindle readers buy their media from in the United States. You can get around the buying restrictions in most devices, but most users don't bother and just buy from the store that is provided. It's a monopoly world once you choose a portable device so buyer beware.

Multi-use and Portabe too!

It's great to have multiple functions in a single device that fits in your pocket: camera, movie camera, mobile phone*, turn-by-turn instructions (GPS), golf course info (GPS), note-taker, calculator, voice recorder, music player, video player, alarm clock, timer, and Internet (email, web browser, Facebook), games, and lots more to come. WiFi connection to the Internet can be useful if you don't need a data plan for access on the road or cannot afford the high rates. Some mobile providers offer short term data service at daily or weekly rates, but read the details - it may be restricted to browser use only so you must use webmail instead of email apps.

Of course some devices have all the great features and some have only a few, usually reflected in the price.

Here are a few of the features that might be included in a portable device:
  • GPS - locates your geographical position to display maps, turn-by-turn driving directions (even without a data connection), geo-tracking (running, walking, parental monitoring), stolen device locator
  • Mobile wireless service - 3G voice (phone) or data (internet)
  • Camera - take digitial photos, videos (with sound), scans codes
  • Touch Controls - device controls and selection, "typing" on screen keyboards
  • Multi-Touch Controls - magnify/reduce (pinch), complex controls
  • WiFi - wireless connection to a router to access the Internet or connect to other devices on your network (control media, display screen, transfer files)
  • Bluetooth Connections - wireless connection to other bluetooth devices: speaker, headphone, headset, keyboard, mouse, computer (control. transfer files)
  • FM Radio - listen to local radio, requires a headphone cord as antenna
  • Accelerometer - detect motion for games, simulators, geo-tracking (GPS),
  • Magnetic Field Sensor - detects compass direction, used in geo-tracking and maps (GPS)
  • Orientation Sensor - detects if screen is horizontal or vertical. Used for display switching, game controller.
  • Proximity Sensor - detects your face close to the phone during calls - turns off display to prevent accidental 'touch' and turns back on when you're done so you can disconnect the call.
  • Light Sensor - can be used to control display brightness, camera exposure
My first smartphone was an HTC Tattoo running Android 1.6 and was "unlocked" - bought on eBay. It replaced a Palm IIIc. I was stunned to discover it did not have the android "Market" included in the operating system (it cannot be added), so had to locate 3rd party app stores. I used it for a while without mobile service and finally got a Rogers SIM card ($10) and pay-as-you-go plan ($100/yr.) It had many of the features above including the FM radio. I bought Ndrive, a stand-alone GPS, and bought a 16gb SD-card for the maps (and my music), with a 12-volt charger. The phone got a bit hot running like this but it worked fine. It wouldn't run the more interesting games, but I had a pile of great free apps to keep track of info and remind me of appointments. It actually had buttons at the bottom which were actually faster than touch buttons.

My second phone is a Galaxy S Captivate running Android 2.3 also unlocked. I managed to transfer Ndrive over to it and have the same voice service. It has all the features above except the FM-radio, which I miss a lot. I transferred the SIM card and activated it with Rogers and continued the pay-as-you-go plan. I can buy data service for a day or week "as required" from the phone - haven't tried that yet.

That's all folks!

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

January 18, 2012

Technology can Fail when you Need it Most

With another winter storm on the way, we discovered yet another way that technology can fail us. Two years ago we installed a very expensive automatic generator system that powers our furnace, fridge and sump pump. In the event of a power failure, it promised to prevent a flooded basement, not to mention freezing in winter. But as with most equipment, it will fail when you need it most. We decided this would solve the constant worry of another lengthy power failure (the power grid in eastern Ontario just hasn't been reliable since the 1998 Ice Storm).

So we were less than thrilled when the generator failed it's weekly test the very first time the temperatures dropped to -20C last winter. Apparently operating on propane instead of natural gas was the "cause". We installed a "heater" which was promised to solve the problem. A year later the weekly test landed on another -20C day. We hadn't heard it run its 10 minute test, so I waded through the snow and lifted the lid (who designs these things anyway!) to discover a red light labelled "overcrank". I immediately called the company and was instructed by phone to attempted a manual test. Half a crank and then nothing, not even a red light now.

The battery was suspected, but when the repair guy arrived the next morning he discovered a burned out starter. Of course the closest part was in Toronto. Although the gen is guaranteed for several years, the labour and overnight delivery still cost another few bills. So in addition to the initial cost (gen, installtion, inside electrical work and pony board, installing and filling a propane tank) you have to remember to add the annual costs (maintenance, propane fillups). Plus repairs and addons. Just another mechanical/electric beast to add to the list of "things" that end up complicating in our lives instead of making them easier.