Route With The Old, In With The New

ASUS router on fireOur ASUS RT-AC66U router played out last Friday evening around 10:30. Dede was using her iPad to surf while we were watching TV and the signal went dead. When I checked the router, it had no power so I disconnected it, moved the wall wart to another outlet, and still nada. Rinse, repeat. No go. Just dead. It might’ve made sense for the router to have given up the ghost a coupla nights before when we had a fierce lightning storm and multiple power losses. But no, it gave out on a quiet Friday night.

Some of you will remember that I had sung high praises of the ASUS when I bought it nearly 3 years ago because it was fast, had better Wi-Fi range (altho we still ended up adding an Amped High Power Wi-Fi Range Extender about a year ago which dramatically increased the Wi-Fi range), and perhaps most cool, the ASUS router also functioned as a DLNA media server that allowed us to stream photos, music, and video files stored on a USB hard drive plugged into the router to devices throughout the house—like our Sony Blu-ray player connected to the main TV. With this, we were able to cobble together something akin to our own home version of Netflix, albeit without the snazzy menus.

All was well until a firmware update from ASUS broke things about 8 months ago. The Seagate USB hard drive would no longer mount and so couldn’t be accessed by the router’s media server function. I could still use the drive as a quasi-NAS to store files without fail, but could no longer stream content from it. I tried 2 other USB hard drives with the same net effect. From the comments I found on various forums, this was a common affliction that many ASUS router owners had recently begun suffering from.

So, with the ASUS down, I wasted no time heading back to my old standby, The Wirecutter to find out what I should replace the dead router with. And following a hasty trip to Best Buy early Saturday morning, I returned home with a shiny new Netgear R6400. Not only was it quick to setup, with most of the configuration being wizard-driven and easy to understand, but the attached USB drive was easy to share as a network storage device—and we have a DLNA media server once again!

The Peanut is Back!

The peanut a.k.a. TiVo remote

March is National Peanut Month and tho we’re big fans of the lowly legume (not to mention Snoopy’s gang!), we’re celebrating an entirely different kind of peanut just now…

Nicknamed “peanut” by its adoring fans, the iconic peanut-shaped TiVo remote control is once again gracing our home. And we couldn’t be happier!

We’ve always insisted that TiVo was light years beyond all other cable company DVRs. No other cable box I’ve seen has a channel guide that’s as comprehensive and up-to-date. The WishList and Season Pass features are revolutionary! And of course, you can remotely schedule recordings online. And we had all of that with our original TiVo nearly 7 years ago!

So when our cable / internet / phone service provider Grande Communications began offering the TiVo Premiere DVR to Midland/Odessa customers a few weeks ago, we immediately jumped on board. I’m happy to say that this new TiVo goes to 11 with super sharp HD, multi-room viewing, even smarter predictive recordings, and boatloads more on-demand content than we could access on our old Motorola DVR. You can even remotely schedule and control your box(es) via smartphone app!

Netflix: A Story of Greed, Apathy & Karma

As longtime Netflix subscribers, we were really miffed to learn earlier this Summer that they’d be dramatically increasing their rates. While we previously paid $9.99 per month for one DVD at a time plus unlimited streaming, the same combination would, effective September 1, 2011, cost $15.98 per month.
greedy businessman
Note that this new pricing included no additional features—in fact, they’ll have less to offer since Starz Entertainment has terminated its deal as a content partner. Netflix claimed the increases were necessary to continue to grow & improve their service. Maybe. After all, the streaming service was initially a freebie but had grown significantly, so the need to shore up the infrastructure could be legit. But the company’s unapologetic, cavalier attitude struck a sour note and many customers were understandably angered, threatening to cancel their subscriptions entirely. Given the company’s withering stock value since—especially plummeting since Sept. 1st—a lot of those rightfully disgruntled customers have followed through with their threats. (In fact, we did too!)

Today, subscribers were treated to a personal message from Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, with as backhanded an apology as you may have ever heard. He feigned remorse for how they handled the rate hike but still did nothing to earn back customer trust or instill faith in his leadership. He explains that the company is rebranding the DVD mailing portion of their service as “Qwikster” while retaining the “Netflix” brand for streaming only. This divisive maneuver is sure to aggravate customers who’ll have to bounce back & forth between the two sites, never knowing which movies will be available for streaming vs. delivered. Beyond that, this just seems like a feeble effort to distance the now-disgraced Netflix brand name from the price hike debacle. It’s a desperate move by short-sighted, greedy, leaders whose faulty management and slap-in-the-face customer service have just cost them the keys to the kingdom.

Netflix is embedded in TVs, DVD & Blu-ray players, videogame consoles, and well… just about everything but your toaster yet rather than continue to gradually build on the captive audience within that already-installed base, they spurned their loyal fans, got greedy and blew a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime market lead. Especially given how flippant the company’s management has been about all of this, it’ll be nothing short of a miracle if they ever fully recover. This is pure, swift consumer karma in action. Make room on the loser’s bench, TiVo & Palm!

Were you a Netflix subscriber before the price increase? Did you stick with ’em or jump ship?

Be sure to check out Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander put a hilarious spin on this situation:

A Sign of Our Times

I’ve discovered yet another thing that our child (and the rest of what Rob calls Generation Z) will never know during Liam’s visit to the optometrist last week.

Until now his eye exams have consisted of the doctor pretty much just shining a light through a prism into his eyes, seeing how his pupils react, and making an educated guess about the prescription needed to correct his vision. Back when Liam was 2, the doctor explained to us that with young children he couldn’t do any type of formal exam but he would be able to get better readings the older that he got. Well, with this visit, he got Liam to read a symbol chart.

Instead of the standard E’s pointing each direction chart, what’s used for toddlers and pre-K kids is a picture chart like the one below: (sorry about the image quality, it’s the best I could find on the web):

Childrens vision test picture chart

The doctor asked about the first symbol and Liam identified it as a cake. When asked how many candles, he correctly answered “3.” So far, so good.

But when the doc started on the second row, he asked about the first symbol and Liam said it was a shirt with a pocket. That’s when it hit me — Liam has no reference to know that symbol is an old-style telephone. All the phones he’s ever seen are either cordless or cell phones. I mentioned this to my friend who works at the doctor’s office and she said most kids call the telephone symbol a shirt.

I’m always amazed by things like this because it makes me wonder what else will have no meaning to our future generations.

Can Apple Save Handwriting?

apple on a chalkboardOver the past few days, two seemingly unrelated topics converged upon me and sparked some wishful thinking.

First, there’s a mounting roar of media buzz about Apple working to get a tablet PC to market by the Christmas shopping season.   It’s speculated that this book-sized, 3G-enabled, 10-inch touch screen tablet computer will have more in common with the Mac than iPod Touch or iPhone at the operating system level.

Apple’s new device is said to feature only an on-screen keyboard rather than a physical one, so it’s seems a given that this device will offer handwriting recognition, which is a mature user interface technology that’s been employed in Windows-based tablet PCs over the past few years.   Despite being a surprisingly accurate means of entering text, handwriting recognition really hasn’t found its way out of the niche market because tablet PCs have never been widely adopted.

The second topic, , has been talked about for the past few years, but has been getting lots more buzz in the blogs just recently.   Increasingly, the news media continues to forecast the demise of cursive writing, calling the once-essential skill now something as quaint as, well, using a telephone to actually speak to people.

I’ve long since been concerned that and I’m a big advocate of kids being exposed to analog technologies.   So, the ideas of Apple’s forthcoming device and handwriting recognition sort of snapped together like perfect puzzle pieces for me and I’ve become kind of excited considering the possibility…

Maybe Apple can save handwriting!

And why not?   Apple has certainly revitalized & catapulted other languishing technologies in its wake.   The iPod was by no means the first MP3 player.   The iPhone wasn’t the first touchscreen PDA — it wasn’t even the first multi-touch device, although they spun that little-known user interface into mainstream gold overnight.   Album art has been around since the invention of the record, but Cover Flow made it cool again.   Yup, Apple has a distinguished history of reusing & breathing new life into overlooked or underestimated technologies.

So maybe Steve Jobs & Co. can take handwriting recognition out of its obscure little niche and elevate it to an attractive, mainstream user interface element too.   Perhaps Apple could reinvent cursive writing as a valued technology once again.

What do you think?   Is handwriting worth saving?   Will Apple’s release of a tablet with handwriting recognition have similar far-reaching ripples to bring handwriting back from the brink of extinction?
 

From Bytes to Bits – Not Sci Fi Anymore

Snap a shot with your digital camera, tweak it on your PC, upload it to the photo processor at a nearby retail megastore, and in about an hour, you’ve accomplished what would’ve required a professional photo lab not that long ago.

Ditto for desktop publishing.   Who needs to farm work out to a professional offset printing firm when you’ve got a snazzy laser printer sitting right on your desk?

What if the same could be applied to manufacturing?   Imagine designing some new widget on your PC then within a few minutes being able to hold the actual, physical item that previously existed only within your imagination.

Well, imagine no more!

RepRap or the Replication Rapid Prototyper, is an exciting grass-roots, do-it-yourself (DIY), open-source three-dimensional printing project poised to turn manufacturing on its ear!   RepRap lets you turn an idea into an object, that is, fabricate your own small plastic items, for around $500 — or less than what you would’ve spent on a decent laser printer just 5 years ago!

Photo of RepRap printer and PC

RepRap uses Fused Deposition Modeling or additive fabrication to build plastic parts layer by layer by extruding a melted strand of biodegradable plastic filament, kind of like a very precise hot glue gun.

One of the team’s core goals is that the machine be able to reproduce the components necessary to build another version of itself.   The visionary designer Dr. Adrian Bowyer gets a bit too philosophical about this “self-replication” and the exponential growth that it may bring about but the fact that the RepRap can create more than 60% of the parts needed to build subsequent versions is quite an engineering feat.   In addition, the project team has focused on using off-the-shelf parts and adhered to open-source design, so it’s ever-evolving that RepRap owners can download plans for, and fabricate, upgrades at will!

(About 3 months ago, a RepRap equipped with a swappable head system capable of printing both plastic & conductive solder created the first electronic circuit boards, thereby even further increasing the number of its own components that the machine can create.   And the design team believes they’ll also be able to “print” with silicon polymer to produce gaskets & other flexible parts soon.)

In keeping with the overall open-source design goal, the hardware is driven by the free, Java-based Art of Illusion (AoI) 3D modeling CAD software.

This is very much a project for advanced DIY electronics hobbyists rather than the average consumer, but it’s a fascinating concept.   And for the slightly less industrious, at least one company already makes a complete, ready-to-assemble, that you can purchase for about $1,000.

Want to know more?   Check out Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s Pop!Tech conference talks:

    •   What is RepRap? Introductory Lecture – Part 1 of 2
    •   What is RepRap? Introductory Lecture – Part 2 of 2

RepRap is admittedly still a far cry from Star Trek’s instantaneous & futuristic replicators and it’s not likely to spell the end of Wal-Mart for quite some time to come.   But this kind of cheap, accessible, DIY fabrication shatters many of the traditional barriers for design protoyping & manufacturing and, given that computer-aided design shapes every manufactured item we touch, this could pave the way for vast numbers of creative minds to bring more exciting visions to reality.

Hat tip to fellow Basin blogger Joe Ewbank for mentioning RepRap in his “Stuff of the Day” post a few days ago.
 

All Atwitter

atwitter   (u-twit’ ur)   adj.  [1825-35]
Being in a state of nervous excitement;  to chatter quickly;  aflutter;  twittering

By now, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, chances are very good that you’ve heard of Twitter.   But maybe you’ve intentionally ignored the buzz or aren’t quite sure what it’s about.   Twitter is a free, real-time social messaging service.   Okay, that description may be technically accurate, but it sure doesn’t give a prospective user much to go on, does it?   And in turn, that sort of dry summary also shortchanges the service.   So, what then is Twitter, really?

twitter birdDeceptively simple, Twitter is a free online social networking platform that allows users to send & receive text updates, or "tweets," from other users whom they’ve opted to "Follow."   Think of "tweeting" as sending an instant message to a whole group of people.   So Twitter is a global conversation; a DIY chat room; a link -sharing service; a permanent cocktail party where it’s socially acceptable to join in on any conversation.   (You can also have private conversations via Twitter’s Direct Message, which are exactly like the public messages except that they can only be read by the intended recipient.)

But really, the following Common Craft video created by Lee & Sachi LeFever explains Twitter far better than I can:

Twitter was designed as multi-platform service so tweets are limited to 140 characters in length so they can be delivered to a cell phone, email account, the Twitter webpage, or any of a vast array of Twitter reader applications that can be installed on nearly any kind of computer.   You may find the 140 characters to be rather restricting at first, but you quickly become adept at writing very concise posts to work within those confines.   And I recommend using one of the free URL shortener service like is.gd to compress lengthy web addresses down to more Twitter-suitable sized URLs so you can share links with your Followers.

On Twitter, you are, of course, free to talk about anything you want, but the question, "What are you doing?" may be a bit misleading.   Oh sure, you can tweet about the awesome BLT sandwich you just ate, but a much more effective or interesting approach is to think of the question above the input box as, “What would be funny, interesting, or useful to one or more of my Followers?”   So for example, while your Followers may not be all that interested in the awesome tuna wrap you’re having for lunch, they might be quite excited to read about the incredible deal you just discovered on a .

Ready to give tweeting a try?   Pop on over to Twitter and get started!   Or if you need a little guidance, check out Darren Rowse’s How to Set Up a Twitter Account article.

So, what’re you waiting for?   Get all atwitter on Twitter!
 

Scroll With It, Baby!

This may seem a bit fundamental, but sometimes a little remedial computer skills review can offer useful new insights to even the most experienced users.

The first commercially-available scroll wheel-equipped mouse was the Genius EasyScroll mouse, released in 1995.   Mainstream adoption of the scroll wheel mouse didn’t occur, however, until Microsoft released the IntelliMouse in 1996 and subsequently began supporting the feature in the Office suite & mouse scroll wheel photoInternet Explorer browser the following year.

The mouse scroll wheel is a hybrid of sorts, acting as both a rolling input and as an additional button, activated by pressing the wheel downwards (a.k.a. "wheel-click").   Recently, a new form of scroll wheel — the tilt-wheel — has been gaining acceptance as a standard mouse feature.   The tilt-wheel is like a conventional scroll wheel but can also tilt right & left for horizontal scrolling.

So odds are, if you’re using a mouse with your computer, it has a scroll wheel.   But while this ubiquitous feature has been right there under your nose all this time, there’s probably much more to it than you know.

That humble little scroll wheel has the potential to dramatically change the way you use your computer! Especially since so much of our computer use is browser-driven these days, here are a few tricks (for Windows users) that can make a world of difference and take your mouse far beyond simple scrolling:

  1. Open hyperlinks in a new browser tab!
    Want to follow a link without losing your place on the current webpage?   Just click on the link with the scroll wheel to open it in a new browser tab!   In Firefox, you can even wheel-click items from the Bookmarks menu to open them in a new tab.   (You are using a tabbed browser, right?)   And if you Shift+wheel-click a link, it’ll open in a new tab and automatically switch to that tab.
  2. Close browser tabs!
    Just place your mouse cursor over a browser tab and wheel-click to close it quickly.
  3. "Zoom" a web page!
    Enlarge or shrink the contents of a web page by holding the Ctrl key and rotate the scroll wheel back or forth, respectively.
  4. Go forward or back on web pages:
    Instead of using the Back/Forward buttons on the toolbar, press Shift and rotate the wheel back to see the previous page or forward to go to the next page.
  5. Scroll faster:
    Press & hold the scroll wheel while moving the entire mouse forward or back to scroll very quickly up or down a page.

Know of any mouse scroll wheel tricks that I missed?   Post a comment and let me know!

Trivia:   The computer mouse recently celebrated its 40th birthday!   Although development began 5 years earlier, the mouse was first publicly demoed at the Fall Joint Computer Conference on Dec. 9th, 1968.   That first mouse, a clunky wooden box that’d forever change computer input, was built by Stanford Research Institute’s (at that time) chief engineer Bill English, based upon the design of Douglas Engelbart.
 

Dolphin Dictionary

dolphin chatterThe fictional Dr. Dolittle may soon have some very real competition, as we inch enticingly closer to being able to communicate with animals.

In an important breakthrough in deciphering dolphin language, researchers Jack Kassewitz & John Stuart Reid, associated with the SpeakDolphin project, have developed a means to visualize the high definition sonic imprints that dolphin sounds make in water. The resulting CymaGlyphs, as the images have been named, are reproducible patterns that the scientists believe will form the basis of a dictionary, with each pattern being a visual representation of a word within the dolphin vocabulary.

Underwater sound travels not in waves, but rather in expanding bubbles and beams. At the 20—20,000 Hertz frequency range audible to humans, the sound-bubble form dominates;   above 20,000 Hertz the shape of sound becomes more of a cone-shaped beam. CymaGlyphs are created by intersecting these sound beams with a membrane that the vibrations make an imprint upon, revealing an intricate architectures within the sound.   These fine details can then be captured on camera.

CymaGlyph example illustration

The research team has planned a series of experiments to record the sounds of dolphins targeting a range of objects to verify that the same sound is always repeated for the same object. Ultimately, it’s believed that this will allow them to compile a dolphin dictionary.

So given the chance, what would you chat about with Flipper?

Digitally Dismayed

As I mentioned in my Digital Daze Ahead blog post recently, analog television broadcasts will cease on February 17th, 2009.   And sure enough, it seems that many people are still unsure about whether they’ll need a digital converter box to continue receiving their favorite shows.   The government, cable companies, & many merchants have plenty of helpful advice available on the Web, but much of that info is still biased towards selling new televisions.   And opportunistic retailers are milking the public’s confusion for all it’s worth to rack up massive profits on truckloads of needless new TV sales during the holidays.

Here’s a hilarious video that perfectly captures the confusion surrounding the forthcoming switch to digital television broadcasts.   Like Clems says, it’s funny ’cuz it’s true!