Easy Way To Screencast

August 12th, 2011

I’ve used a lot of different tools for doing screencasts, but I don’t do them often because they can be such a pain to setup and edit. Here is a nice tutorial on an online screencast recorder method that looks pretty easy to use. Having a simple online option makes it a lot easier to do a one-off recording when you need it instead of trying to find, buy and install software that you’ll only use occasionally.

Safety – Mexico vs. US

January 21st, 2011

When we look at the news coming out of Mexico, it looks like the country is becoming very unsafe.  However, when people in Mexico read about news in the US, they probably think the US is a very unsafe place to live. Just in the last month, we’ve had a Congresswoman, judge and several others shot at a grocery store, an intentional school shooting, and an accidentally gun discharged in a school that hit two kids in LA.

Tips for Stranded Travelers

January 21st, 2011

The WSJ has some interesting tips for people stranded in airports.  On of the most interesting facts in the article is the way that airports are stepping up to help provide convenient services for fliers stranded in their buildings.  Some are offering showers, places to sleep, requiring restaurants to stay open if there are people stuck in the airport and even negotiating discounted rates with local hotels.  Traditionally you had to rely on the airlines for these types of services.  By having the airport step in, travelers will probably see better consistency regardless of what airline you are flying and regardless of class ticket you are holding.

Some tips from the article:

  1. Try to find out about problems ahead of time through SMS alerts, etc.  I was in an airport once where several people waiting in line would get text messages saying that a flight was delayed.  Two minutes later the airline would come out and notify everyone.  In this case the early warning didn’t help us, but it would have been convenient to get to the front of the line if we had to reschedule.
  2. Paying the cost for  day in the airport club may be well worth it.  In some cases the agents in the club are able (or willing) to help do rescheduling that wouldn’t be possible in the main concorse.
  3. Make sure you take some essentials to the airport in case you have to stay overnight.  You probably don’t want to check your battery chargers where you won’t have them with you.
  4. Ask for vouchers for food and hotels to see what is available.

Teamwork and Sports

January 19th, 2011

A friend and I walked past some kids player soccer. She stopped and looked approvingly. “This is so great for them. They’re building all kinds of teamwork and social skills that will help them in business.” I replied “You’re absolutely right. That’s why Nigeria and Argentina are the richest countries in the world.” from Philip Greenspun

Seriously, where did the idea the sports makes people great at business come from? What would happen if we put all of the money and parental involvement that currently goes into teenage sports and put them into science fairs and math competitions? Yes, you can learn some teamwork from playing sports, but that doesn’t make it better than the hundreds of other things you could do where you can learn teamwork and valuable skills.

Kids can learn teamwork in many different ways.  They can form a gang to steal other kids lunch money.  They can vandalize street signs together as a team. Team building opportunities are everywhere.  You might as well have kids doing something that is productive and will give them skills they can use in college and the work force.  I’m not saying sports are bad–just that they are overrated when it comes to building teamwork skills. Putting that effort into other things would create better and smarter students.

Try Before You Buy MBA

January 18th, 2011

An interesting side effect of online degree programs is the fact that it doesn’t really cost anything more to let another student view the lectures. Universities now have to decide if what they are selling is the lecture or the certification of knowledge.  At least one school in London is taking an interesting approach to this with their MBA program. The classes are free for anyone to watch at no cost.  If you want to start taking the exams to get the degree or ask questions you have to pay.

This is an interesting approach.  You must sign up to see the lectures so the school gets a very well qualified list of people for marketing.  Given the high cost of getting leads for MBA programs, this seems like it could be a very good strategy. It is kind of like MIT’s Open Courseware but with a justification based on the marketing value of giving the lectures away for free.

Since the cost of letting one more person watch a lecture is very very small, requiring payment to take exams toward a degree seems reasonable–that is the part that costs the university more money on a per student basis. Bill Gates predicted that within 5 years we are going to be able to watch the greatest lectures in the world for free online.  This is quite possible.  It is amazing how much is available already.

Unlimited Bandwidth

January 4th, 2011

Ten years ago I read some predictions about the future.  One of the big ones was that we’d see unlimited bandwidth in the next ten years.  Bandwidth has definitely increased, but is very disappointing how little is being done in rural areas.  In fact, places that only offer access through EVDO cellular networks are actually seeing the available bandwidth decrease and cell companies start to implement caps. Even cable companies are staring to cap usage.

If the idea of unlimited bandwidth to homes isn’t going to happen, we need to just establish fair prices for bandwidth and let people pay for what they use just like we do with electricity and water. Right now pricing to the end user seems to be designed to get the most money while limiting the consumer to using as little bandwidth as possible.

For example, if you use a EVDO modem with Sprint, the cost is about $60 for the first 5 GB.  The next 5 Gb will cost $256.  Sprint’s solution?  “Buy two cards and switch them out once you get to the 5 Gb limit on the first one.”  This is ridiculous.  The only reason they could possible have for a policy like this is because they expect people to get the cards for travel or emergencies and then not use them except when they have to.  Sprint wants you to use the card for .5 Gb per month, but charge you for the full 5 Gb.  Simple usage based pricing won’t work because then Sprint would only get $12 for all those people who only use 1 GB per month.

Modern Branding

January 4th, 2011

It is fascinating to talk with graphic designers about logo design.  A good deal of effort goes into making the design and adding meaning to it, but often just as much effort goes into creating something that they can market to their client.  Not only do they have to come up with a good logo design, they also have to sell it to the client. Generally the longer it takes to convince the client to like it, the less money the graphic designer makes. One of the stories about the BMW logo told in graphic design schools illustrates this well.

The story goes that the person who had to sign off on the logo design loved airplanes. So the graphic designer, in an effort to secure his approval, told him that the blue and white logo was designed to evoke the feeling of a spinning aircraft propeller. Since the man loved planes, a logo that reminded him of flying gave  him a positive feeling and he accepted the logo.

This story may or may not be true. However, it is told to aspiring graphic designers and the point is well taken.  You have to be able to sell your design to the client before the client can use the logo to sell their wares.

One of the more interesting logo design stories from last year was Gap’s attempt at creating a new logo.  Traditionally Gap has had their name displayed in white letters on a navy blue block.  The new design attempted to keep the “feeling” of the block, but update things with a more “modern” font.

What was amazing is that customers hated it.  And they hated it enough to do something about it by complaining until Gap changed the logo back. I agree the old logo is better, but I don’t know why customers would care what the logo looks like.  At least I don’t know why they would care enough to complain enough to get Gap to change back. I understand people complaining about  New Coke.  They wanted things to taste the same as before.  But a logo change?  Who cares?  Perhaps I just don’t have that strong of brand loyalty to Gap.  I guess I might say something if Apple or BMW suddenly decided to switch to a hideous logo design.

Wikileaks Distraction

December 3rd, 2010

It is interesting to see how much of the Wikileaks news coverage focuses on the website that published the information.  It doesn’t seem like much of a story that a news organization that specializes in leaking information posted something on the web that they were given.  That is expected.  However, it is a very big deal that someone who had access to classified information gave it to Wikileaks in the first place.  That is actually a news story and something worth reporting on.

Of course, the problem is that the more locked down everything is, the less information sharing takes place between different parts of the government.  It seems to me that the danger of not sharing info like what happened around 9/11 may be greater than the damage caused by information like this getting published on the internet every few years.

Bandwidth and Hosting

December 3rd, 2010

It is almost 2011 and we were supposed to have ridiculous bandwidth to every home in the US by this point.  The closest thing we have is fiber optic to the homes in a few markets.  The problem isn’t the cost of bandwidth, it is the trouble of getting connections to every home.  I can get a 10Mbps connection in a data center for $50 per month.  A 10Mbps connection to my house would cost me $2000 to $5000 per month.

One partial solution to this is to do your work on a hosted server where it has high speed access to the Internet and simply transmit the screen images and mouse clicks back and forth across the slower connection you have to your home. This works well for many applications, but starts running into trouble if you are trying to do something with video or very large image files.  However, it is great if you need to download a large file, do some work to it and then upload it somewhere else. It is pretty amazing what you can do with a cheap VPS hosting account.  A virtual private server is a hosted solution where your “machine” runs on the same server as a bunch of other machines.  This keeps the cost very low and you are able to start, restart, and rebuild the machine without anyone needing to physically be at the hardware device.  Bringing up a new “machine” at the hosting site often takes only a matter of minutes.  It is often only slightly slower than powering up a computer you have sitting under your desk.

Until bandwidth becomes available everywhere, this is probably the only solution for doing high speed transfers from rural America.

In many rural areas of the United States, it is difficult to get anything beyond dial-up Internet access.  The problem is that most phone companies have little incentive to expand DSL to sparsely populated areas.  The only people who seem to be able to get DSL are those lucky enough to have a COOP instead of a large corporation providing service.

The farm where I grew up has this problem.  We’ve tried a number of different solutions.  At first we just had a dedicated line for Internet set to automatically dial whenever someone tried to access the Internet.  This worked ok, but was very slow. Finally we switched over to Wild Blue’s satellite service.  It worked ok, but had very low limits on usage and the latency was very bad.  When you clicked on a page, it took quite awhile for the signal to make it up to the satellite, back down, to the server, back to the satellite and back down to our dish.  Satellites are just a long ways away and the radio delay is very noticeable.

Eventually I started looking into EVDO cards.  It wasn’t available at the farm, but there was a tower about 20 miles away. My goal was to use a cell phone booster and a 30 foot tower to try to connect with the EVDO signal in an adjacent state. Fortunately before I spend all the money on the cell phone booster, Sprint went live with a tower just a few miles from the farm.  This worked well until Sprint decided to impose a limit on the data used each month.

More recently we’ve switched to using Virgin’s pay as you go plan for Internet.  It is only $40 per month (much cheaper than Sprint) and since everything uses the Sprint network, we still haven’t had to buy the cell phone booster we thought we’d need to keep everything running.

Strangely enough, my house in town which is closer to the local antenna has a worse signal and it looks like we may need some type of cell phone booster there in order to fix the problems we are having with dropped calls. At that location I also have an EVDO connection for backup when the cable company messes up their service (which happens a few times each month). It seems to get a pretty good signal, but I can put the access point in the attic where there seems to be less interference and it seems to get a good clear signal without any type of booster or amplifier.

If you have internet access it is easy to take it for granted, but people with out good access face a lot of limitations.  This is particularly true in the area of education.  If you are located in an area with limited internet options, it is fairly likely that your educational options are limited as well. Online classes and degrees are particularly helpful to someone who is living in a rural area that would require a 2 or 3 hour commute to the nearest university.  Internet access for these areas of the country can be the difference between getting an education and not.

Whats frustrating is that telephone companies have been given huge tax breaks to bring internet to rural areas, but it simply hasn’t materialized.  Areas that are serviced by coops seem to be able to get DSL and cable connections in rural areas, but places serviced by the larger better funded companies can’t seem to get internet to farmers and other rural areas. I’m not a big fan of government controlling what these companies do, but we need to at least hold them to providing what they have been basically paid to provide.