Tag Archives: Internet

Tech that gives you your life back

I was listening to Fresh Air on my lunch break and at the end of the program they had a review of the new Apple watch. The tech contributer concluded that the main advantage to the watch was that it allowed you to do basic things like respond to texts (often with voice-to-text), without the distractions the rest of the phone had to offer. Checking a text on a smart-phone might lead to checking Twitter, or Facebook or Instagram or the like, but on the watch you just answer and then go on your merry way.

The watch’s limited capacity is a feature not a bug.

On the one hand I totally get this. I’m a smart phone resister, and have achieved the same lack of tech distractions as an Apple watch wearer by using an old sliding keyboard texting phone that has no games, no music and little memory for pictures. Basically it’s only good for talking and texting. The phone isn’t going to distract me because it can’t do that much.

But this is a little hypocritical, since I add distractions to just about every other device I own. Because I’m an engineer, I call this sort of thing “adding capabilities” or “testing the limits” but it’s basically the same thing as adding distractions. My device of choice is the laptop computer and/or the tablet. I have hundreds of programs (games) self-installed on all of my computers and tons of personal media. And I may not have apps for Facebook, Twitter and blogs, but I do have bookmarks on my browser. Probably several dozen on my Opera speed-dial alone.

I have a group of about 6-10 sites I check in rapid succession, on reflex, many times a day.

  • Facebook
  • WordPress
  • NPR
  • My Amazon Sales stats
  • GOG.com
  • Comixology
  • Netgalley
  • Wikipedia
  • And so on

The ways I combat distraction tend to be things like airplane mode and giving each device a wide range of capabilities but a specific function. My Kindle Fire can do a lot, but I mainly use it for reading comic books, checking my comic book lists against books in store to see what I need and already have, checking lists of eBooks against physical books, and some light e-mail. My on-the-go machines are geared to writing, blogging and research, and home computers are geared more to gaming and burning.

But I’m really not much better than the average smart-phone user. I stare at a laptop instead of down in my hand, but it’s basically the same impulse. Maybe there’s something to devices that try to get us to do only the things we need to do, leaving distractions for when we have the time to waste.

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Biting into the GUI center

We’ve all had that annoying moment when the way we’ve always done things changes. If you’re a Facebook user this is pretty much a de riguer experience. Even something as simple as pasting a link from your blog can change on a day to day basis: what screenshot does it find, can you replace it with a file from your drive, does the URL show or not?

I’ve got a guy a work  (actually several) who apply skins and themes to make their Windows 7 machines look like gray box Windows 2000 machines. Not XP, 2000. Another likes to take his text editor and put it in VI style (green text on a black background). These anachronistic choices aside, at least they have the option of keeping the things the way they have always known. For many things online, it just is the way it is and there’s nothing we can do about it.

I’m a browser switcher and my current favorite is Opera. It’s fast, it’s simple, and it lets me make my own start-page. But because programmers always have to have something to do, it has become slower over time because of all the new features I’ll never use and don’t want, the location of bookmarks has changed several times in the last year, and the nice big start page boxes have been shrunk to mimic Chrome. The reason I switched to Opera is that Chrome had shrunk its link boxes to a tiny fraction of page real-estate in favor of a large search area, and now Opera has matched them. It’s gotten a little better since the initial release of version 29.0. Opera fixed a text overlay so it is under the box and not over it, making up for some of the clipping and size problems, but it’s still not what I was used to and had grown to like.

If I didn’t like the change my options were to go back to a previous version (not the easiest or most secure procedure), switch to another browser that had features I liked from Opera and nothing else, live with the problem, or write my own browser. I’m increasingly becoming convinced this last option is the best one. I can use Chrome’s rendering engine and just slap the simplest possible GUI on top. Ah, if only.

Other sites with unwelcome “better” changes:

  • The Internet Archive – Admittedly its old interface looked like something out of the 90’s, but the new look makes it harder to find what you need and takes up more space on screen. Not a good set of characteristics for the internet’s library. You can go back to the old interface, but only after sitting through the new one and who knows how long that’ll be an option.
  • Indie Royale – N0t every gaming site needs to have a black background. You were doing your own thing with tan and hand-drawn icons. The purchase bundles interface has never been right either.
  • Netflix – Took an easy to organize list and made it a jumble of icons. More visually appealing, but annoying for those of us OCD people. Why can’t we sort what we want to watch?

I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this as well, all of us programmer’s are. Sometimes we remove a feature to solve a problem with a new architecture. Sometimes we try to simplify to make it easier to find what we think you’ll need. Or we add something new because we think it is really cool. We talk to customers and we try to make the best engineering decisions. But the internet, and internet software is different. You expect changes with new OS’s or new versions of purchased software, but browser versions have largely shifted into the background, and websites are constantly changing. And it can be annoying to feel like you have no say when something you like doing one way, suddenly has to be done another.

What site or software change has annoyed you in the past?

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Generation Gap

I’ve started reading a book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith. My Dad and I are going to do a little blog back and forth on the topic in a few weeks, specifically we’ll be talkin’ ’bout my g-g-generation.

Or not.

This book is concerned with what is commonly known as “the millennials”, mostly people 18-29 (I’m 28). The book refers to this generation as the “mosaics” (1984-2004), a name which is meant to capture the wide variance in viewpoints and experience.

But I’ve never really felt like a millennial, and not just because I’m on the edge of the boundary. I’m not a gen X’er, but I feel I have more in common with people 10 years older than me than 10 years younger. Maybe a little bit of that is my current age and demographic, married guy/engineer/homeowner, but if I think about it I felt the same way even before I was any of those things.

I think there’s a split somewhere around 1997-98 or what I’ve called the “floppy” line*. The split has little to do with the floppy disk itself and more to do with the ubiquity of the internet and the always connected society. Take this quote from a recent popular post by a millennial:

“We live in a country in which you don’t exist until you’re online.” ~Source: Be Like Aslan

I work in the tech industry, in a business that supports the cloud, and that sentiment makes me shudder. I fully appreciate the fact that 99% of you would never have heard of me until I started this blog, and certainly my current vocation and avocation rely on the on-line world. But I was doing plenty of existing before sitting in front of a keyboard, or a phone or a tablet. So much of my life and my destiny were shaped by interpersonal connections in the real world (I met my wife in Bible study).

I am not a “netizen” by birthright, but children born in 1997-1998 were.

I’m not making an entitlement comment. It is the goal of parents to give their children a better world than the one in which they lived, and technological advances have always been a part of that. I just feel like I’m part of a generation that has grown up with technology, but has not been shaped by it in the same way as those 10-15 years our juniors. For me, technology is external, a tool for doing the things I want to do. It’s not a part of my life, or at least not a part of my perception of reality.

I’m living with technology, not through it.

What do you guys think? Is millennials or mosaics too broad of a catch-all term? Where would you draw the split?

*Technically I used floppy disks for classwork up until 2003 but they had been on the way out for years.

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A day at the Opera

If you’re like me and are one of the 43% (stats from http://gs.statcounter.com/) who use Chrome as their primary web browser, you’ve probably noticed their latest update:

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In addition to our “favorites” boxes we now have a large Google search bar and logo. If you begin typing in this bar you get this…

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That’s right. The logo disappears, and the text is re-directed to the top bar. In case you didn’t know, if you type random text into this top bar, it will do a Google search. Essentially all the new logo does is teach us this, in addition to slowing Chrome down, and shrinking our favorites down to microscopic size.

The screen-shots are from my netbook, the computer most affected by the change as it only has a vertical resolution of 600 pixels, a 1.6 GHz processor (when plugged in) and 1 GB of RAM. However, Chrome used to run and look great on this machine and now … well … it doesn’t. (Saved myself a quarter in the swear jar there).

Naturally I’ve been looking for alternatives. Firefox hasn’t been a good browser for at least 5 years, IE isn’t called Internet Exploder for nothing and I can’t bring myself to try Safari (too close to Macs for my taste).

But I don’t sub-title this blog Writer, Programmer, Singer for nothing, so what about … Opera.

Opera’s market share is a good deal smaller, hovering between 1-2% of global users (300 million or the population of the US so still nothing to sniff at). It’s always had a history of pioneering features: tabbed browsing, mouse gestures, and oh … yeah those favorites boxes (which Opera calls speed dial). Opera is the 3rd most popular browser on tablets, and is the power behind the internet channel on the Nintendo Wii. And the latest version 16 runs on the same code base that powers Chrome (meaning the under the hood features are still as fast).

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Ironically, the latest Opera speed dial comes with Google search built in as well, but smaller and less obtrusive. But it includes several other features that Chrome has yet to match.

For starters you can group favorites into “folders” (you can see a couple of them in the bottom right of the above screen-shot). Here’s one expanded:

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This allows you to keep a lot more links on your start page, but still compact them to a size where you can see them all.

And unlike Google, which doesn’t allow you to manually set or position these blocks, Opera makes adding your favorite sites easy.

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On any website you’ll see a couple of buttons to the right of your address bar. The blocks (highlighted in red when clicked) are what adds a site to your speed dial. Click those blocks, then rearrange as desired. The heart is your “stash”, Opera’s version of bookmarks with some added caching.

Test driving on my netbook made a world of difference. Chrome now takes 5-10 seconds to load, whereas Opera pops right up. Most sites including WordPress render normally, even streaming video sites like Netflix. Opera has less themes than Chrome, so not quite the same customized look and feel, but I’m pretty happy with the default look. It does support extensions and many other interesting under the hood options a little more technical than I’ll discuss here.

Ultimately, I’m the kind of guy who switches his primary web browser every five years or less, but this change might be worth it for you if you like Chrome, but don’t like the latest update. Give Opera a try.

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Five Reasons It’s Good The Internet Knows Everything About You

A technology company is developing texts that will self destruct after you read them (delete themselves after a fixed amount of time from 5 seconds to 6 days). It’s part of an effort to make the web impermanent  In other words they are trying to keep the internet from logging every text/picture/post/tweet you make.

Normally I would argue about why this is good, but you’ve read that post. Actually, you probably have read dozens of them. So instead I’m going to argue for why it’s good the internet knows everything about you.

1. You buy stuff and we want to sell it to you: Like it or not every purchase and every “like” on Facebook is being stored and analyzed to determine what you might want to buy next. Your e-mails are trolled and tailor made text ads are served up for you (including many delightful spam recipes . Amazon tracks your recently viewed products and serves up things people bought after looking at that item, as well as trying to predict from your wish lists, your previous purchases, and your data everywhere else what you’ve really got your heart set on. This seems creepy but it’s not. Buying is still a discretionary choice. You can ignore ads, you can skip over recommendations, but there might be times you won’t want to. If the algorithms are good enough, maybe Amazon knows about something you don’t. You might buy more than you need, but that’s not the internet’s fault.

2. You might be a criminal: Even if you’re not right now you may become one someday. Don’t you want the police to know where your favorite hangouts are and be able to gather evidence about you swiftly so you can get through the fuss of a trial and start paying back your debt to society? Okay, maybe not you, but there are plenty of criminals out there who are caught because of what they leave on the net. There are YouTube videos showing people’s real faces bragging about a robbery they just pulled off. The head of the CIA was felled by e-mail. The internet is a valuable crime fighting resource.

3. You haven’t changed that much: Yes, you might be embarrassed that 14 year old you liked N’Sync. But let’s face it, Justin if anything has gotten more awesome (from SNL appearances to wearing NPR shirts). And a good algorithm will know your current tastes probably inform your choices more than the ancient past. Actually the internet might want to clear your taste preferences older than 7 years, but on the other hand all of us get nostalgic from time to time.

4. The more you put out there, the harder you are to know: This runs a little afoul of my previous points but data glut can actually serve to defend you. You are currently reading a guy who likes soapy K-Dramas, Star Trek, The West Wing and was actually a little sad Partners was canceled. I collect Star Trek comic books, Bone, Sandman, Batman Graphic Novels and Manga (of huge variety from Oh My Goddess to Rurouni Kenshin). I play games from Raving Rabbids to Max Payne. So what do you know about me? Well, he likes Star Trek, but otherwise it might be a little hard to draw general conclusions besides “he’s a man of eclectic tastes”. He’ll watch Love Actually but not Hope Floats.

5. Without you I wouldn’t have a job: Seriously folks. Data and I are a thing. No data-centers without data. No monitoring without data-centers. Just sayin’.

Have a pleasant day. Let me know how it’s going in blog comments, facebook posts and tweets.

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