Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Another "Giant Leap For Humankind": TV-B-Gone!

All it does is turn television sets off (and now, optionally, on).

Techies like to talk about designing simplified software or devices that only do one thing, really well, despite the fact that consumers evidently prefer to buy clumsy, uneven products that promise to do everything you’ll ever need (
SUVs, the “cell phone/music player/camera/web browser/micro-movie theater/GPS tracker,” MS Office...) But here’s the device that fairly defines simplicity, and in an added Thoreavian kick, offers to return a little peace and quiet to your harried life:

“Your TV-B-Gone® universal remote control resembles other TV remote controls, but is different in two important ways. First, it only has a power button that allows you to switch a TV on or off.”

“You can use TV-B-Gone® to control access to television for philosophical or practical reasons, or simply to have fun!“

—Mitch Altman, Inventor of TV-B-Gone®
Ever turned off a television that no one around was watching, and noticed that nobody noticed? But you actually did those people a favor. Subtly but definitely you helped reduce the amount of noise in their environment, with its attendant stress and drain on their biophysical components.

You see, unlike even the most insistent conversationalists you know – the ones who never seem to stop – the television does not even have to pause for a quick breath; in fact, they even edit the breaths out of the announcers' spiels. A TV never needs to sleep, either; it requires only that lifeline of electrical connection to literally continue to yell at you, vocally and visually, 24/7/365.25 (accounting for leap years).

Stress, the professional health and medical fields agree, is the number one cause of physical malfunction in "advanced" societies. Television run wild is not merely a proven source of stress, it’s practically the poster child of stress-sources! So, by putting the TV-B-Gone to prudent use -- "Click Responsibly" – you may actually be doing a significant service towards promoting the general public health.

(And we’re only half kidding.)

Trying to figure out what to get me for Christmas this year? (This question is addressed to a very small of group of people, some of which I share a last name with.) This is it. A TV-B-Gone would let me feel like Robin Hood; it'd be my bow and arrow.

And I'll really find it handy for some of the restaurants I otherwise like.

Note on the title:
(We’ve tweaked an historic quote there, but are sure that if Neil Armstrong had first set foot up yonder in recent times, he’d have put it that way. Kudos and appreciations to Mr. Armstrong, btw, for realizing that was a hugely historical moment, and rising to the occasion. He could have just said, "Roger, Houston, that's a big 10-4, we have touch-down," or something equally dull and functional.)
Related, on
"It's a Loud, Loud World"

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Public Web Surfing Advisory

Since we're on the subject of personal digital security, here’s another tip to consider. The New York Times ran a piece on the wide open Web surfing that’s available at your local wireless hotspot. That is, all your communications and actions on the net wide are potentially open to whoever has the inclination and the equipment.

“Although obsessing about computer security is a bit like worrying about a toddler — potential hazards lurk everywhere and you can drive yourself crazy trying to avoid them — the fact is, business travelers take certain risks with the things they do on most trips.”
(Thought that was a great quote.)
“’Where I’d draw the line is putting in your bank account information or credit card number,’ said Robert Vamosi, a senior editor with CNET, adding that ‘checking e-mail messages probably is not that risky,' and you can always change your e-mail password later.

"Wireless networks at airports, hotels or cafes are not as secure as most people think. 'Someone may have software on their computer that allows them to look at all the wireless transactions going on around them, and capture packets floating between the laptop and wireless access point,' he said.

"Last fall, InfoWorld magazine published an article about a security researcher who managed to collect more than 100 passwords, per stay, at hotels with lax security (about half the hotels she tested).

"…Access to your corporate network through a V.P.N., or virtual private network, (is) safer than using public hot spots. There are services you can subscribe to for about $10 a month that do the same thing."

"Web Surfing in Public Places Is a Way to Court Trouble"
(This may require free registration to read)

Published August 22, 2006
But in a show of faith in the medium, I am boldly posting this from a public wi-fi spot. Go, Tech!

A good little wireless hotspot
…although I chanced across a place yesterday that didn’t turn up in their listings, your traditional, Mom ‘n’ Pop Internet café along Fort Salonga Road. On balance, though, very useful.
(Editor's note: oh, how that headline yearned to be, “Web Surfing Naked in Public” or the like, but that would be a cheap shot, wouldn’t it? Just wanted to let you know what we didn’t do, so you could congratulate us on our great dignity and reserve.)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Getting Closer to Microsoft (for purely defensive purposes)

“Deluge of flaws” being found in Office

You are not going to see much in here that’s all warm and fuzzy on the subject of Microsoft, or even particularly friendly. But let’s be practical, everybody uses their stuff. And it’s because of that fact that this is bulletin is important, nay, crucial.

Ziff-Davis’s E-Week reports that:

"What started as an amusing eBay listing of an Excel vulnerability for sale has developed into an all-out hacker assault on Microsoft Office applications.

"Security researchers and malicious hackers have zeroed in on the desktop productivity suite, using specialized 'fuzzing' tools to find a wide range of critical vulnerabilities in Word, Excel and PowerPoint file formats."
("Fuzzing tools”? You mean, marketing? No, eWeek explains,)
"Fuzzing, or fuzz testing, is an automated technique used by researchers to find software bugs."
The article points out that as Microsoft (belatedly) got serious about security vulnerabilities in Windows, hackers and hence security researchers have moved up the software ecosystem to go after “the low-hanging fruit” in applications. Well, there ain’t any bigger trees in the orchard than Word, Excel and Powerpoint, which were originally put together with the same oblivious attitude to security as the OS.

In short, what this means is that in order to keep our lives simple, we’d all better keep in touch with all the bug fixes, "service packs," etc., for Office from the E-Empire. (That “E-“ is for “electronic” – no, honest! ; - )

(…half an hour later:) Oooh, boy, is my head spinning. Well, try this, bravely found by starting at, Gawd help us:
Security and Office: Find out how to help protect your data

This page was obtained by clicking Office under Product Families in the navigation column at left, then typing “security” into the search box. (I’m specifying all this as a disclaimer, since there’s an awful lot of stuff there, and who knows what’s the most recent and comprehensive.) There are, naturally, thousands of rabbit holes there you could disappear down, so if you’re a masochist with a week or two to spare, have at it!

Here's a case where you really might be better off hiring a professional to at least get you set up with this. (No, we don't do that; this is not a subtle sales pitch.) It'll cost you, true, but it beats the hell out of having your computer taken over by zombies, spending long hours trying to get it exorcised, and losing all your data (because few are those who back theirs up).

Just a sec -- here we need to say, BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER! This weekend! At least just copy all your own files onto CDs, preferably rewritable CD-RWs. (There, now you can't say nobody warned you, okay? And we've done our duty as digital citizens.)

How much do I hear for a hole in Excel?

That Excel vulnerability for sale on eBay was indeed pretty funny. eWeek's story on that explains,

The seller openly taunts the software giant, poking fun at the company's delays in providing fixes for known security bugs. "It can be assumed that no patch addressing this vulnerability will be available within the next few months. So, since I was unable to find any use for this by-product of Microsoft developers, it is now available for you at the low starting price of $0.01 (a fair value estimation for any Microsoft product)," the listing read.

"Microsoft representatives get 10 percent off the final price. To qualify, you MUST provide e-mail address and MUST mention discount code LINUXRULZ during checkout," it added.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Even More on 'More about Great Customer Service'

In the reader comments on Pogue's Post on Crutchfield we discussed yesterday/below, a number of people got in the spirit of it all to recommend other companies they found notable for their service and attention to customers -- which would be us.

Canon, for their cameras, IBM/Lenovo for the Thinkpad, (downloadable audio books), and Apple Computer -- especially for the free, detailed advice at the Genius Bars at Apple Stores -- were applauded. And seemingly everyone who wrote chimed in affirmatively about Crutchfield.

I can echo the experience of Apple and their Genius Bar -- although, to be "fair and balanced" about the company overall, they were inexcusably slow to offer a replacement option for iPod batteries, and it's still an expensive pain, apparently. You can’t just go down to the drugstore or wherever and buy some batteries from the Bunny, like with pretty much everything else.

Then there's the whole question of DRM, or CRAP, or even DAM; but that's a subject for later -- or maybe earlier. (Since if it's later enough, in the odd, upside-down world of 'blogs, you've already been there. Just can't get used to that, at least so far. I'll stop now with that, since I can just hear someone saying, "Oh, get over it!" But as of this date, it's later, alright?)
But more to the point, I wanted to toss in a vote for MacConnection/PC Connection. In many years of dealing with them, they too deserve the gold star for responsiveness, patient help, sending you a replacement without waiting for the defective or wrong product to be returned, etc.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

More on the crazy new concept called "Customer Service"

The witty and perceptive David Pogue, the New York Times’ personal technology columnist, has given us another excuse (Ding!) to write about the idea of really, truly focusing on taking care of your customers.

He had posed a question in his blog asking if any readers knew of a trusty website that catalogued third-party auto parts, and wrote last week that, “No fewer than 25 people… all responded the same way: ‘What you want is Crutchfield.’” He then goes on to detail the incredible attention to detail and eager helpfulness he encountered from Crutchfield, both on the Web and on the phone, since,

“When the package arrived, there was Crutchfield’s installation manual, with the company’s “we’re here to help you” toll-free number printed in 60-point type on the first page.

What are they, nuts!? They are actually *inviting* people to call them for free technical support? Don’t they have any idea how that idea will kill their revenue stream? Haven’t they learned anything from the computer industry?

I can't help wondering why nobody else has questioned the wisdom of the current "go away, customer" attitude that prevails in the penny-pinching computer and software industries. That attitude will never generate repeat customers, will never build a cult of fans and will never turn a company into the Crutchfield of its industry."
David Pogue:
A New Business Model
Business 101: Quality Customer Service Breeds Customer Loyalty
(“Pogue’s Posts” is only one corner of the far-flung Pogue publishing empire, which also includes being the creator of the Missing Manual series of computer books; this is one of those hyper-productive people who you figure there must actually be at least three or four of. )

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"The New Type Writer" (ad circa 1860's)

(Just for fun, and perspective...)

"Weight 10 pounds. Price $60. First Class in Every Respect.
For Professors and Students the Type Writer is especially valuable as it saves drudgery and aids composition.
Send for Circulars."
(An ad from an issue of the Atlantic Monthly from the 1860's, the magazine that at that time was publishing Ralph Waldo Emerson and all the New England Transcendentalists.
Courtesy of the collection of Ted and Susan Sillars.)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

No YouTube On Panera Bread’s Menu

I’ve just stumbled upon the strange fact that Panera Bread’s content filter will not let you see anything from YouTube, the homemade-video site, among other things. My laptop and I were having lunch there yesterday – I ordered their turkey artichoke sandwich, while Mac fed on the nutritious free WiFi -- and we noticed that what was supposed to be an embedded YouTube video on another site showed up as a blank space.

Well, shoot happens, and sometimes shoots don’t happen; the Internet is very much a work in progress, and video is still in the pre-standard phase. But with the URL available, curiousity drove us to slap it into the command line, and this rather creepy warning appeared:

“The SonicWALL Content Filter Has Blocked this site.
“Reason for restriction: Forbidden Category"
Sure enough, today we checked back from another i-café (this free wireless thing having freed us from our electronic cave at home), and bada-boom: there was the verboten yet entirely non-controversial video.

Panera is obviously keen on protecting their diners from any unappetizing content -- more likely, protecting themselves from lawsuits from parents whose teens might be tempted to go to there for a bagel and Suzy Creamcheese.

But all of YouTube?

SonicWall can be quite Church-Lady about the content they allow through. Some friends have a completely innocent site about "sound healing," which nonetheless was blocked in the Forbidden Category of "Cult/Occult," a classification which of course does not play in Peoria. To be fair, which I’m frankly not inspired to be in this case, they invite you to submit a rating review “if you feel this site has been blocked in error.” Just don't go to Panera expecting to find anything spicy.