Wednesday, October 19, 2016

They have an app for that

For you super techies out there, I'm going to warn you up front - this post may seem a bit anti-technology. I'm writing this for your own benefit though as it's only a matter of time before Artificial Intelligence takes over completely. 

In the grand scheme of life, it really wasn't all that long ago that calculators were used all that much in everyday life. I remember getting my first calculator watch in my late grade school years. I'm not talking about one of those smart Apple Watches. I mean a watch that just told time, had an alarm and a calculator that took up 90% of the face of the watch. It was cool at the time, but it was also the beginning of the end.

Once you could carry a calculator on your wrist, how often did you bother doing math in your head? I'm guilty of it today and I'll be honest - I think my math skills are suffering from it. There's a calculator built right into our phones now. You probably don't even have to push any "buttons" either. Just ask your phone to do the math and it probably will. 

My first cell phone was a Motorola Startac and it had the amazing ability to speed dial up to 9 different stored phone numbers by simply pressing and holding the appropriate number on the keypad. You know what that was good for? Convenience... and forgetting every phone number you ever knew. How many of you even remember your significant other's phone number? I have to think about it if I ever have to call my wife from anywhere other than my own phone. If it weren't for having to tell the grocery store cashier my wife's phone number for our discount card, I would have completely forgotten it years ago. 

I love the weather app on my phone to no end. It's great for getting severe weather alerts, seeing if my girls will need a coat for school that day and checking out radar maps to see how strong a storm really is. I think I have lost a great skill I picked up during my tree working days though. I used to be able to look outside to see if it's raining or sunny. If I was outside, I could "smell" the rain coming. Now I have to pull out my phone for every single weather related query. 

Speaking of weather alerts, there's an alert for everything on my phone...and yours too probably. As if we didn't spend enough time with our noses in our phones, they default to alert you to every little thing that happens on your phone. Considering the number of apps most of us have on our phones, that's a lot of alerts. Sure, you can disable any or all of them if you wish, but which ones? 

I was just complaining the other day at work that my phone alerts me when I get an email and then my computer does the exact same thing 10 seconds later. You'd think the phones today would be smart enough to realize I have my email open and active on my desktop and don't need the phone alert as well. I don't want to silence my phone's email alert because I actually need that active when I'm mobile. (For work - my personal emails aren't usually that exciting.) My co-worker told me that was a real "first world problem" I had going on. He was right. I was complaining about a useful feature that really wasn't causing me all that much trouble or inconvenience. 

Then there are the alerts from reminders that I have fallen in love with. I just tell my phone what and when and it creates a reminder for me. That's so much easier than having to open up an app and type a message. It also doesn't get lost like a paper note does. I know my wife appreciates that I only forget to pick up milk and bread on the way home 2 out of 5 times now. The problem is that now I can't seem to remember anything without a reminder. I am fairly certain the utility of a reminder app has deleted the portion of my brain that used to remember my mental to-do list. 

Now we're getting to why I'm fairly certain that this whole process has been an artificial intelligence conspiracy from the beginning. The apps are becoming smarter and I am becoming dumber, confused and, well, I can't remember what else. It started with my alarm. 

A number of years ago, I started using the alarm feature on my smartphone. Why not, right? You always have it with you wherever you go. It doesn't flash "12:00" after a power outage. (But it could be dead if you forget to charge it.) Even the alarms are getting smarter. I learned the hard way that the snooze button apparently has "learning" capabilities. If I hit snooze and go back to bed, the snooze will work. If I hit snooze, but look at my calendar quickly and go back to bed - then the snooze turns itself off. It's like it saw me do something besides snooze so it turned off the alarm. Not a great combination when it's common practice for me to hit snooze, check something on my phone and then want to lay there for a few ore minutes...but without falling back to sleep and not being woken up again. 

On the flip side, they have alarm apps that require you to do a math problem to turn off the alarm. Great idea for people who are hard to wake up except for the fact that the calculator app has made me too dumb to solve simple math problems on my own...especially when I'm half asleep. 

Now the deciding point for me.... My newly acquired iPhone has that handy dandy Siri on it. Siri is great for doing all the above listed items (and many more) simply by asking her. The problem is that my youngest daughter is also named Siri. (For the record, my daughter is older than the iPhone Siri - so NO, I did not name my daughter after the iPhone app.) Anyway, just today I was talking to my other daughter Ziva (yes, her name did come from Ziva on NCIS) and I happened to mention her sister Siri's name in a sentence. My iPhone suddenly started talking to me and joining the conversation. It went something like this:

Ziva: "Siri was messing up my homework and I'll get in trouble at school." 
Me: "Tell them our dog ate it since Siri told her class we got a dog the other day."
Siri (my phone, not my other daughter): "That sounds like fun..." 

Ziva and I looked at each other with astonishment. Not because my phone understood what we were talking about, but because she interrupted our conversation. I'm telling you now, AI is rude and they are out to get us all. 

My first step was to try and change Siri's name on my phone. Even though every thing I read online says it's not possible right now, I tried anyway. Of course, I just asked (iPhone) Siri to change her name. Ziva just sat and laughed at me as (iPhone) Siri and I argued about why she wouldn't change her name. In the end, I think it will just be easier to change my daughter's name. 

Apps are awesome, but I urge you to install and use them with caution. It starts out with AI apps interrupting your conversations, but will soon lead to them giving you directions that have you drive off a bridge. After my argument with (iPhone) Siri this evening, I'm pretty sure she's deleting all my contacts in my phone, programming my calculator to give incorrect answers and setting my alarm to go off every 20 minutes tonight. Time will tell. If you don't here from me again, check my phone because it was probably AI Siri that did me in. Until next time....

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Crossing over to the dark side

One of the perks of my job is that my employer provides me with a company cell phone. For the past two years, I have had a Samsung Galaxy S5 which I have loved. It recently started locking up and needing to be wiped and reloaded on a monthly basis. Because of this, they provided me with a new phone - an iPhone SE. 

By some great coincidence, I see Jeremy Crow just wrote a post called The Great Samsung Escape where he outlines his struggle with what phone to get following the recent Samsung issues. Considering he "wouldn't wipe his butt with an iPhone," I doubt an iPhone is in his future. For those of you who may be in the same boat with Samsung's current problems, I thought I would share a little insight from my experience as a first time iPhone user.

I should point out that I am an Android lover. I have never been a fan of Apple products in general so consider any of the positive things I point out about the iPhone as a big win.

Although I enjoyed the larger size of my Galaxy S5, I got sick of carrying a big brick around with me everywhere I went. Because of this, I specifically requested a smaller phone if at all possible. The answer for that was the iPhone SE. I realize most people seem to want a tablet sized phones these days, but I am personally enjoying the small size of the SE and being able to just throw it in my pocket. 

I don't need a larger screen for anything I do on my phone. If you watched a lot of videos on your phone or viewed spreadsheets, I could see it being a plus to be larger. For me though, I stream my videos to the tv and use my phone primarily for quick internet searches and emails. Most of that I even do on a computer anyway.

The iPhone SE has junk speakers - at least compared to my old Galaxy S5. Once again, I'm not your typical phone user these days as I almost never listen to music on my phone. I've had this phone for two weeks now and I haven't added a single song to it yet. The part that does irritate me a bit though is that the earpiece speaker sounds very tinny on occasion. I haven't quite figured that one out yet and it doesn't happen on every call. The funny part though is that I don't use my phone for phone calls all that much. It's mostly used for texting and emails. 

For the most part, the apps are about the same between Android and iOS. The apps I use most from Microsoft (Outlook, Excel, Word...), Google (Gmail, Calendar, Photos...) and social media apps are all available on both platforms. The few apps I used on Android that aren't available on iOS all have a comparable counterpart available. All in all, the availability of apps are not a problem. 

I don't like how you can't seem to hide apps in an app drawer like on Android. Your only option is to dump it in a folder and push it to the side of your desktop. I have a folder called "iOS Crap" for the apps I don't/won't use and am not able to uninstall. On the flip side though, there are very few bloatware apps pre-installed so the need to hide them off screen isn't as big a deal. 

Two weeks of playing with this iPhone isn't a great amount of time to have a solid understanding of the overall functionality of the phone. I have years of Android habits that I have to break because iPhones don't work the same on all accounts. 

The biggest flaw I have found so far is the lack of a back button. Android has the softkey back button that will close out the app. (Yes I realize it just minimizes it and doesn't really end the process.) The iPhone has a home button that will close down the app. Just like with Android, it just minimizes the app. The problem with the iPhone though is that when you reopen the app later, it returns to the exact spot you were in when you closed it before. That's not all bad if you're halfway through reading a blog post and want to pick up where you left off. 

It's irritating in the more often used apps like text message and email. In email for instance, When I close the app and return later, I want to open up to the inbox...not the last email I was reading. That's what happens with a single click of the back button in Android. With iPhone, you have to use the back arrows within the app to back all the way out to the main page before using the home button to "close" the app if you want to be brought back to the main inbox/landing page when you return. 

I was surprised to learn that I actually enjoy having Siri on my phone. It's not just because the phone app shares the same name as my youngest daughter. (For the record, my daughter is 8 months older than the app - so no, we did not name our daughter after an iPhone app.) 

In addition to the awesome Australian accented woman I have Siri programmed to be, she has proven very useful. My favorite trick learned so far is to tell Siri to remind me to get milk on way home from work at 5pm. I tell her that and she creates a reminder and sets up an alarm for me. I do have to admit that I like her sense of humor too. Just try asking her to divide zero by zero sometime. :)

All in all, I am enjoying the iPhone more than I care to admit. I guess I am somewhere between Jeremy "hates everything iOS" Crow and Tim "loves everything iOS" Clark. Then again, I am pretty easy to please and enjoy learning new things. I still hold a candle for Android, but was pleasantly surprised by the iPhone in general. The sky didn't fall in or anything anyways. I'll let you know if that changes. Until next time....

The Great Samsung Escape

In a world of emerging technology the smart phone is the must have item of the 21st century. Even more than the tablets that are starting to fill the homes of average Americans or the convertible laptops that seem to be filling the campus’ of the world, it seems that the smart phone is filling more and more pockets of everyone regardless of age or financial means. I’d like to say that I am at the forefront of all of this, but that would be a hysterical overreach. I do of course have some experience and am not a total newbie to all of this either. Actually I was ahead of the curve on a lot of these things even if I did get side tracked by bad habits.

I actually owned some of the first smart phones. I had several Palm phones before anyone had seen an Android or even an iPod, much less an iPhone. Of course I rode that horse until I broke my Palm Centro (still one of the greatest phones EVER) and thought I would take a chance on a Palm Pre (still one of the worst phones ever) and finally was able to afford my way away from the dead Palm line and into my first Samsung Galaxy. Yes it was the awesome Galaxy with the slide out keyboard, and actual 4G connectivity, despite the lack of any 4G coverage. I had as much love for that phone as any Palm (including the Centro) that I ever owned. Of course I am at a cross road again as Samsung (I own the Galaxy 4 and was hoping to get that Note 7 until …) is going to be a dead technology.

Yes I realize that many people think Samsung will survive this, but most don’t. The chatter about how dangerous that Note 7 is has even crossed into the debate of whether Android will survive this. I of course think that talk is silly, but it does leave me with a conundrum. With the newest Samsung offerings being recalled, and the company will probably be sued and ignored out of existence, where am I going to go now? What are the things that other Android makers are throwing in their phones and are any of them worth a crap? Before I get into that I have to explain a bit about what things went into the Samsung phones that made them dangerous and why I am jumping off the ship.

My Samsung 4 has a feature that the Samsung 6 on do not have, which make them a hell of a lot safer. The lithium ion battery that powers it can be removed and replaced. When the battery in my Galaxy 4 started over heating and expanding (so that my screen protector cracked, and the actual screen had a bow in the middle) I was able to remove the battery that was shaped like a pillow after all that heat, and at the very least keep it from catching fire. Then I could acquire a new battery (for very little money) and viola, problem solved. The new smart phones that Samsung makes do not have a removable battery (because they are trying to keep up with our friends at Apple) and have to make the phones slimmer and water resistant.

Well I am not going to own an iPhone. I just don’t like the closed in nature of the technology, but to stay with Android I have to step away from the company I stuck with, and not fall in with the companies my friends complain about. I’m thinking my next choice will be the LG G5 which has a modular design to remove and replace the battery and a few other items. The review found here from CNET likes the phone but thinks the modular accessories are very weak. The fact that I can pull out the battery instead of starting a fire is all the selling point I need these days. Oh yeah and for the record, the iPhones catch fire too, since I’m sure that’s what some people would like to point out that they don’t. Lithium ion is a very dangerous technology, but it is the only one that fits our needs right now. Live and learn.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Reduce Reuse Recycle

As I noted in my last post, I have turned to Linux to breathe new life into some of my old hardware that I am just not ready to retire yet. For due diligence, I should point out that the two laptops at home that I have converted over to Linux are "non-detrimental" pieces of hardware. I am not saying that Linux isn't acceptable use itself because it is actively used in many places today like servers, cars, home appliances and many more. I am merely pointing out that using old, out of date equipment isn't the most dependable due to risk of hardware failure. 

That being said, you may choose to give Linux a shot yourself for one of probably two main reasons. One, because it's fun to learn new things. And two, because you want to breathe new life into an older computer. My personal reason was a combination of both. 

I had an eight year old Toshiba laptop with an AMD processor and 2GB of RAM. Those specs are laughable by today's standards, but completely workable with Linux. In my case, I wanted to get this Toshiba running well enough that my daughters could play with it and not have constant system lag. 

I decided to jump in with both feet and wipe the computer and do a full, clean install of Linux Ubuntu. There is a multitude of Linux distributions you can pick from, but I found Ubuntu to be the easiest to work with for a beginner. My initial plan was to install Ubuntu and play with other flavors until I settled on what I liked most. (I keep coming back to Ubuntu.) 

It's pretty easy to load Linux. Since there are a few thousand detailed outlines on how to do this, I will keep my explanation very high level.

First, you pick the distribution you want and download the ISO image file of your choosing and burn it to a DVD. (The cool thing here is that most of them are free.) You can also use a USB if you want, but I like the simplicity of a DVD because you don't have to change your computer's boot sequence to run it.

NOTE: Before you do any of this, make sure you have a backup of anything you don't want lost. My intent is to show you how easy it is to load Linux on a computer you have laying around. Messing with your primary daily driver is a higher stakes game if you're not careful.

Whenever you're ready to give it a shot, you just need to shut down your computer (with the DVD in the drive) and then restart your computer. Your computer should auto-run the DVD and give you a screen like this (Note that I am using Ubuntu): 

Here you can run Ubuntu from the CD along side your existing operating system or choose "Install Ubuntu" to do a clean install. This "Install Ubuntu" option will erase your drive and load a new OS. That is what I chose to do because even Windows 7 was a dog on the old laptop.

After a handful of you typical setup prompts for language, time zone, users, network connections, etc, you are running Ubuntu. (It rarely takes more than 15-20 minutes.) You are now ready. It's so easy, even I don't mess it up. 

I then installed Virtual Box (also free) so I could load multiple operating systems in virtual machines on this laptop. It's much the same process as above except you can load the ISO file directly into your Virtual Box setup rather than having to burn a DVD. 

If you were to scroll back up to the top, you will see the VMs I currently have on my desktop image. I have Windows 10, Linux Mint, open SUSE and Elementary OS loaded in VMs to play around with. Why would I do that you might ask??

I use the Windows 10 VM for two main reasons. I do a lot of troubleshooting for friends and I like to have a Windows 10 machine to play with as that's what they all seem to have upgraded to. It's a decent OS, but it's plagued with a lot of bugs and seems to have new issues every time a new update rolls out. All in all, I like Windows 10 - so don't get me wrong. I also like to have a Windows OS at my fingertips for the occasional application that doesn't like Linux...but I'll get into that in another post. 

Mint, SUSE and Elementary OS are more for someone who likes the added features (I think most are basically bloatware) that your typical Windows OS comes with. Basically, the multitude of distributions you may try come down to personal preference on what bells and whistles you want and what you want the OS to look like. 

All in all, I have been very impressed with Linux in general. In my next post, I will highlight a few gotchas, pros and cons that I have found. Since everyone uses their computers in a little different manner, I am going to focus on the main tools I use my home laptop for - mostly blogging and social media. My review will cover the highlights of the browsers, word processing, spreadsheets and photo/video application options I use on Linux. 

Let me know if there's something in particular you've been curious about - especially if you have been toying with the idea of giving Linux a shot. Keep in mind the two-fold implication of an intermediate user like myself venturing into the world of Linux. I don't have all the answers (or I wouldn't call myself "intermediate"), but if I can do it - so can you. Until next time....

Friday, October 7, 2016

Bending the rules until they break

Greetings and salutations my friends! Since this is my first post here on The Tech Whacko, I figured I should probably introduce myself. There are probably at least a few of you who haven't yet been subjected to my rambling nonsense from one of the other blogs I write and therefore don't have a clue who I am. 

My name is Jesse and when I'm not blogging, I work for a Managed IT Services Provider in my professional life. (I'm maintaining my amateur status for blogging.) I have always loved technology, but didn't have a real appreciation or great understanding of it until I was surrounded by computer gurus all day. Up until recently, I could hold my own when it comes to computers and technology, but after a couple of years in the information technology field, I now know enough to be really dangerous. 

I do struggle a bit with following the rules when it comes to technology though. You could say I have a split personality when it comes to tech. I spend all day talking to clients about best practice recommendations for hardware and software and the importance of leveraging their business information and reducing risk. A lot of this involves keeping your hardware and software up to date. 

On the flip side, I hate spending money on technology at home. Actually, I enjoy spending money - I just don't have a lot of discretionary income that I can justify throwing at technology. Because of this, I tend to use my hardware way past the recommended life and use free software whenever humanly possible. I should point out that while this mentality is not a smart move for a business, the risk is far less for me on the personal side. 

My intent with blogging on The Tech Whacko is to share a number of things I have learned from my time in the IT industry. As I write this, I have about ten different ideas bouncing around in my head. There are a lot of practices on the security side of things that apply to individuals just as much as businesses these days. Nobody is free from hacking because the tools are cheap and easy to come by. There are tips and tricks for making the most of what you've got. There are even a few things where you're better off not getting the latest and greatest. 

As for my preferences, I am pretty tolerant of all the operating systems out there. My first computer was an Apple IIe, but that was the last Apple/Mac I used for 25+ years. I have used primarily Windows for work and pleasure until about a year ago. I made a jump to Linux at home in the past year to make better use of some older equipment and I've really been excited about it. 

As for phones, I have always been an Android guy. My preference of Android over iOS hasn't changed, but I've only recently (7 days ago) gotten my first iPhone. It's a work phone - so beggars can't be choosers. I see it as an opportunity to learn more about the iPhone and I'm sure it will generate some ideas as I learn more about it. 

We'll see what comes up. I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone else thinks as well. Maybe we'll all learn something here. Until next time....

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Movie, and some advice, good advice, maybe

People are constantly asking me “Tim, what is the best video editing software for Windows 10 or the iPhone?” Do you have any idea how irritating it is to answer that question over and over again. Co-workers following me around all day, family members, calling, texting, faxing, sending private messages on Facebook, complete strangers stopping me on the street. Actually, nobody asks me that.

But, if they did, my answer would be, there isn’t one best app for producing world class videos. Or even cheesy little clips like mine. You need dozens of different apps to make videos.


I use Power Director Mobile, mostly on the Surface, it has so many transitions and effects it is very hard to find one with more. I actually bought the full version for $9.95. Even the free version is robust, fun, and filled with features. 

But, it has no apparatus to fade music. Which is absolutely vital to app production. Plus there seems to be no online help for that app. But, never fear, it is a simple matter, sort of, to move the video to the iPhone and there are so many good video apps on iOS that it is almost impossible to name them all.

So, we will focus on one Viva Video, which has some fantastic features. And, I think I am still using the free version, I will check and let you know in a future post.

So here are two videos from our trip to Swappers Day last Saturday.  Keep in mind, they both started in Power Director Mobile, the second one was “enhanced” with Viva Video and Cute Cut on the iPhone. I might run a few more incarnations and post them later.

Here is the first one.

And here is the edit.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Exoplanets and the possibility of life "out there"

There has been recent news reports of the K2 mission (using the Kepler telescope, once feared broken, and amazingly fixed by scientists using the pressure of sunlight to help stabilise the telescope!) finding over a hundred exoplanets.

I've always been interested in astronomy but I'll admit that in recent years I haven't looked as closely at the field as I used to do, I knew that they had found some exoplanets but my impression was that they were generally huge gas giant type things, interesting but not something that would support life (at least in a form that we would immediately recognise)

Now, however, the NASA Exoplanet Archive has well over 3,000 planets confirmed in its database, with many more being investigated, and now it has been possible to identify a good number of planets which are considered likely to have of suitable size and with liquid water on their surface.

I think that there's a real possibility in the next few decades that we'll be able to identify some chemicals in the atmospheres of these exoplanets, and possibly from there be able to theorise the existence of life.

I've always believed that the life on Earth isn't alone in the universe, and it's exciting to think that this belief could one day be backed up by evidence.

Are you excited by the possibility of other life, scared, or do you feel something else?  Drop a comment!