Postful Goes Postal

Postful logoI was recently invited to join the beta test for Postful, a service whose concept is so simple you might wonder why it hasn’t already been done — email you send to Postful is printed, stuffed into an envelope, stamped, and mailed to a physical address.   What’s the point?   While anyone reading this blog undoubtedly has an email address (or several), we all still have family & friends who, for one reason or another, don’t have email yet.   Postful hopes to help bridge this digital divide…

So, for 99¢, you can fire off an email (plain text, with attached photos, or even a multi-page PDF document) and it’ll arrive as a glossy, full-color, physical letter in Grandma’s mailbox.

Perhaps most interesting (and ironic) is that, while the Internet has nearly rendered the U.S.P.S. irrelevant, it is simultaneously playing a small part in keeping snail mail propped up on life support.

I see some distinct advantages to this, but Dede doesn’t believe there’s much use or need for such a service.   So, do you think it’s just wishful thinking, or will Postful actually be useful?

Portable Power Pains

car with power cordsCars are transit, sure.   But increasingly, with all of our cell phones, notebook PCs, MP3 players, & other electronics gear, they’re also serving as mobile office & entertainment hubs.   Given that, why are we still stuck with these lousy 12-volt power ports (formally, ANSI/SAE J563) in our cars?

The Toyota Matrix (a.k.a. Pontiac Vibe) has had on-board standard 115V power outlets for several years.   Mercury Hybrid Mariner, Volkswagen Touareg, & Honda Odyssey van all have AC outlets now.   So it’s high time the other automakers get on-board with this idea.   As our dependance upon gadgets & mobility continues to exponentially increase, automakers should be adapting to meet these new needs by making power outlets a standard on all cars.   Considering that you can buy a top-notch power inverter for less than $30, surely the added expense for automakers to build that functionality right in at the factory (beginning at the drawing-board stage) would have to be nominal.

And y’know, there’s a little "Oliver Stone-esqe" part lodged deep in my primative monkey brain that wonders if there might just be some minor conspiracy at work here.   Manufacturing & marketing all those assorted power inverters & "cigarette lighter" chargers for every gizmo known to man is probably quite a profitable business, after all.   Maybe "big electronics" is in cahoots with "big oil" in a dastardly & insidious plot to keep us all hopelessly strung-out on all those annoying, blister-pack-bound, cheap whatzits & doodads for the obsolete car power port.

What do you think?   Isn’t it time for the old 12-volt power port to go away?

Lose Weight With RSS

RSS LessonOkay, okay, even as great as it is, RSS probably can’t actually help you lose weight.   That was just a catchy tabloid-style title for this post and, hey, it got your attention, didn’t it?   What RSS can help you lose, however, is WAIT.

Yup, RSS will save you time and open you up to a vast array of new content on the Internet.

What’s This RSS Stuff?

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a format for delivering regularly-changing web content.   RSS isn’t new, having begun at Netscape back in 1999, but it has really taken off in the last couple of years.   A rapidly-growing number of websites (online newspapers, weblogs, and such) now offer their content in this format – known as RSS feeds – to make keeping up with your favorites sites much easier.   RSS allows you to easily stay on top of the latest web content and saves you loads of time since you no longer need to visit your favorite sites individually.

In addition to scouring the Internet for new content, RSS also takes care of presenting that information in a standardized, easily readable format arranged in a convenient organized list, very similar to your email in-box.   You can easily scan headlines & brief article descriptions, and decide whether you want to read the article right there, mark the article read & skip it, or tag the article for later reading.

What Can RSS Do For You?

Using RSS, content from web sites delivered & constantly updated via an aggregator or feed reader application.   You simply subscribe to a site’s feed and the RSS reader automatically monitors to see when updated content has been posted.   And RSS content distribution has been further adapted to reach far beyond the original basic purposes envisioned by it’s designers.   You can subscribe to RSS feeds to monitor eBay auctions, track FedEx or U.S.P.S. packages, and even get weather updates.

The clever guys at Common Craft created an excellent 3½ minute video called “RSS in Plain English” that does a fantastic job of explaining RSS:

Getting Started With RSS

A variety of RSS readers are available but to be honest, ever since Dede nudged me into trying the browser-based Google Reader, I’ve never looked back.   Among the numerous beauties of Google Reader is that it stores your settings with your Gmail account.   So anywhere you can get to an Internet connection (at home, work, library, Starbucks, or even the lobby of a salon where your wife is getting a pedicure), your feeds travel with you, right there, ready to pick up where you left off reading.

Google Reader logo

As you surf your favorite websites, you’ll notice that many sites feature an orange button labeled “RSS” or “XML” or the now-standard RSS feed icon RSS icon.   This indicates that the site is setup with feed capabilities and be subscribed to for viewing and constant updating.

Wrapping Up & Shameless Plugs

I certainly don’t claim to be an authority – this RSS stuff is still a little new to me too – so some of you more savvy surfers may be able to add more to this, or correct me where I’m wrong.   But what I do know is that using a RSS feed reader can really boost your productivity on the Internet and I am sure that you’ll end up keeping tabs on many more websites, but in far less time than before.

Another great feature of Google Reader is that you can share feed posts with others.   Here’s a sample of shared items from my account.   Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can subscribe to the 2Dolphins RSS feed or subscribe to our Russian Adoption Journal RSS feed to stay current with our new posts.   And be sure to leave a comment if you know of other RSS feeds that’d be worthy additions to our Google Readers.

Low-Tech Learning Leaps Ahead

Baby & notebook PCOn The Bamboo Project Blog, Michele Martin recently noted an article Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops from The New York Times.   Although she cited this as a prime example of how technology cannot create change if culture remains unchanged, but there’s also an underlying theme that echoes one of my chief arguments against MIT’s OLPC project.   The article observes that many schools that had launched programs to provide laptop computers are now reconsidering because they seem to have no impact on student achievement.

Author Winnie Hu referenced studies showing no real difference on state test scores in schools with laptops – although some data suggest better math class performance from high-achieving students with laptops than those without.

Diehard proponents insist these programs are failing simply because teachers haven’t been trained to integrate the use of this technology into their classes.   But when 6 of one of the study’s control group schools (ones whose students didn’t have laptops) were offered computers this year, they opted not to accept them.

As I’ve commented before, I worry about making computer-use skills a priority for kids.   Could computers, in fact, be a barrier to kids learning to think creatively and solve problems?   Are we naive to assume that technology will magically equate to a more efficient learning environment for children?   Does this concern anyone else?   Post a comment!

Dare to Unplug

Unplug your life for a day Undoubtedly, many of us would probably find daily life extremely difficult without our PCs that we’ve come to rely upon for so many things.   But what about for just 24 hours?   How many of us have the self-control to forgo computers & Internet use for even a single day?   And what might be the effect of doing so?

Dennis Bystrov & Michael Taylor have devised a social experiement called the International Shutdown Day on Saturday, March 24th to find out.

It’s a worthwhile question, y’know — are we too wired?   Can you kick your tech addiction & unplug from your computer for even one day?

Windows Past and Present

With the release of Windows Vista not quite 2 weeks ago, Microsoft’s operating system takes its next progressive step forward. I’m still of the mind that Vista is little more than Windows XP with loads of eye candy & fluff — and Vista’s The "Wow" starts now! slogan does little to dissuade me.

But then again, the same could’ve been said for XP — internally it’s known as "v5.1," whereas Windows 2000 was "v5.0" — but I’ll readily concede that Windows XP is superior to 2000. So I’m sure that, in due time, I’ll come to love Vista too… in spite of the tremendous horsepower (don’t you dare believe the meager minimum system requirements touted by Microsoft) needed to do practically the same things that XP already does, but with less flair.

Clems & I were talking about all of this earlier this week and neither of us understand the harsh criticism that XP gets. We’re all the time reading hateful rants about how unstable and buggy the OS is, yet we just don’t see it. In fact, having used every prior version of Windows made, I think XP is, well, da bomb! Anyone who has serious complaints about XP should be relegated to working with Windows 3.1 in a networked environment for a week. That’d shut ’em up!

And in case you don’t recall just how far Bill & the Redmond gang have come with this stuff, Steve Wiseman over at IntelliAdmin has a brief writeup on The Many Faces of Windows.

For reference sake, here’s a glimpse of Windows v1.0 in 1985:

Windows 1.0 screenshot

…and the gorgeous Windows Vista now:

Windows Vista screenshot

The Heat Is On!

A couple of weeks ago, I finally worked up the courage to replace our old crank-the-dial, manually-operated, & inefficient Trane thermostat with a new eco-friendly Honeywell programmable digital thermostat.   I’ve wanted to do this for some time now, but was a little intimidated about the whole thing…


Old thermostat

New digital thermostat

Turns out, it couldn’t have been easier.   This model was about $65, features a nice Indiglo-style backlight; big, easy-to-read display; and allows 4 schedule changes for Monday thru Friday and another 4 each for Saturday & Sunday.   Y’know, all the whiz-bang stuff that any gadget-lovin’, techie dude would want…

Been thinking about doing this yourself?   Hesitate no longer!   You’ll be helping the environment and your wallet — you can likely recoup the expense of the new thermostat within a few months thanks to lower energy bills.   And it’s a very straight-forward swap that even a rookie homeowner can tackle.   Read more about the steps required at DIY Network’s Guide to Installing a Digital Thermostat.

OLPC Sparks a Debate

Reader response to a Nov. 30th article on the New York Times site reflects some of the raging debate being stirred up by MIT’s OLPC project that I blogged about last week.

Some responses have been glowing, even naively positive, calling the distribution of these $150 notebook computers to 3rd world children a pivotal accomplishment in human history, on par with Gutenberg’s movable type that made possible the mass-production of books. Enthusiastic believers are quick to suggest that ready access to the Internet will introduce and bring acceptance to concepts of racial & gender equality, tolerance, and nonviolence in developing nations.

But some comments were more rational, with common-sense concerns about doling out computers in third-world nations where — at least in the western mindset — it seems people have more immediate needs, like clean water, food, medical supplies, and basic educational opportunities. And even more felt OLPC to be a technological solution to a social problem. For example:

“Is there some vast, unrestricted pool of [financial] resources dedicated to educational enterprises in developing countries? No, the $100 laptop idea is a notion that is attracting attention — and investment — where little had existed before. In fact, rather than take (arguably imaginary) funds away from teacher training and curriculum development, this project, naive or not, offers great potential to draw supplementary funding to such endeavors. At the very least, it's laying the groundwork for a cooperative effort to produce palpable results in the education of the world's children.”

“Governments should spend the little amounts they have for education on bulking up their respective teaching communities. If these laptops only last five years but teachers can teach for 20, 30 or 40 more years, what has the most benefit to any society as a whole?”

But most of the comments seemed in sync with my biggest concern — do computers in the classroom pay off for any child, third-world or otherwise:

“The track record to date [in the U.S.] is dismal, where 95% of K-12 classrooms have Internet connections, and the average ratio of students to computers is better than 4:1. Why would technology be any more effective in the developing world? Note, by the way, that in previous generations movies, radio, & television all were touted as educational panaceas.”

“Good teachers first, computers second. Information accumulated in the absence of a conceptual foundation is confusing, not elucidating. If laptops were the key to 'learning how to learn' for the average student, America’s students would stand apart as the best & brightest in the Western world. [Yet] the data suggest otherwise. Educators have been seduced by technology [and corporate] marketing.”

“The U.S. is awash in computers, but it hasn’t done anything much to improve learning or knowledge. If anything, it has made things worse. Test scores are falling. Our youth can't do math, but can play games & surf the net just fine. Computers have proven to be a false panacea.”

“To believe 'learning how to learn' is more valuable than traditional memorization and testing flies in the face of plunging U.S. science & math scores. [And] reports of poor preparation for many recent graduates entering the workplace further fuels the debate.”

“Laptops for students means a loss of eye-contact. How is [the teacher] supposed to know if they're listening or playing Tetris?”

And of course, there were some bluntly anti-OLPC opinions:

“[$100 notebooks] will make a tremendous difference… assuming they're edible.”

“While beautiful in theory, this sounds a lot like giving out free ATM cards to Katrina victims.”

“To give [third-world children] laptops would be like giving flashlights to blind pupils led by blind teachers.”

“This seems like a good idea but might be analogous to giving everyone in the third-world a car but no money to buy gas. Eventually the computers will break and networks will fail — where’s the budget to support, replace, & maintain the computers?”

“This is simply the next link in a long chain of the abuse of the less sophisticated by the more technologically elite — to turn them into consumers of our own culture.”

So, what's your take on this?

OLPC Now a Reality

There’s been lots of buzz in the past months about MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project.   According to a WorldChanging article posted Saturday, the OLPC is now a reality — the first 1,000 units rolled off the assembly line in Shanghai and headed for Argentina & Brazil last week.

On one level, a self-powering, portable, kid-friendly computer — and for under $150, no less — is very appealing.   And sure, the idea of giving children in underdeveloped countries like Cambodia, Nigeria, Libya, & Thailand the opportunity to connect to the sum of human knowledge on the Internet seems a noble notion.   But Randy over at wisely posed a question that’s been weighing on my mind too…   Do Starving Children Really Need a $100 Laptop?

Are notebook PCs really the key to a better life (or even better learning) for children?   Countless genuises — people whose ideas changed the world — existed long before the advent of semiconductors, so it hardly seems likely that the lack of a computer will truly hamper any child’s learning ability or intellectual potential.

I’m baffled why more people can’t see that funding books, teachers, & schools is more appropriate than placing gadgets in the hands of impoverished children.   John Wood, founder of Room to Read, sensibly notes that a $2000 library can serve 400 children, costing just $5 per child.   A $10,000 school can serve 400-500 children, or under $25 each.

As I’ve wondered before, maybe we need to seriously consider the wisdom of introducing computers into kids’ lives at too early an age.   Does technology magically equate to a more efficient learning environment for children — or could it actually become a barrier to kids learning to think creatively and solve problems?