Entries in technology (6)


My conversation with the IU School of Informatics Alumni Association podcast

Indiana University School of Informatics Alumni association logoI was interviewed on November 19th of last year by John Blue for the Indiana University Informatics Alumni Association's "Bits of Informatics" podcast, and I'm pleased to say it's now online for your listening pleasure. Over lunch at Aesop's Tables on a cloudy, wintry day, John and I chatted about my telecommunications and new media experiences at the Bloomington and IUPUI campuses; surround-sound production and my 2-song Capstone presentation; how I met my wife in ballroom-dancing class; and List-en up, the Angie's List podcast, which was in its infancy last fall. Though my first name's spelled incorrectly (I'm sure John will fix it soon), I got a kick out of listening to the podcast episode. It's quite strange to hear my voice in a context outside of List-en up, but it was exciting to be the interviewee rather than be the interviewer. It was a bit nerve-wracking, as well — can you tell?

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High-quality consumer products are hard to find

Global economy interconnectedWith the global economy's increasing interconnectedness, it's easier to find more consumer products at cheaper prices. But are some companies sacrificing quality for a low, low price? And do we really need all the things big-box stores stock that are supposed to make our life easier? People are concerned with the financial cost of all the things money can buy, but what about the environmental cost? Not to mention the growth our economy could see if we brought some good ol' fashioned Made in America production back to "the homeland" (I use that term even though it gives me the creeps.) Though I think it's a sad state of affairs when it seems that everyone on earth is usually considered a consumer (or potential consumer) foremost and a living, breathing human being second, when I do think of myself as a consumer, I like to think of myself as an informed consumer. I scour ratings and reviews — online and in rags like Consumer Reports — of products I'm interested in, and usually think long and hard about my potential purchase and whether it's worth it. In my opinion, the products below are not worth their weight in gold (or rather something cheaper, since gold has just hit record-high prices.) Exhibit A: Kidde Fire Extinguishers and Carbon Monoxide/Smoke Detector Kidde fire exinguisherI received a small red Kidde fire extinguisher when I moved into my house about a year and a half ago. It had been sitting on our kitchen counter, ready to save our lives, when I decided to finally hang it on the wall in its cheap plastic bracket a few weeks ago. I looked at the extinguisher's meter and was dismayed that it read "Empty." I checked the information that came with the extinguisher; it told me to contact Kidde. So I went to their website, emailed them, got a response back a few days later asking for more info about the device, didn't hear back from them, and received a white version as a replacement a few weeks later, with no note. "Great!" I thought. "I'll just get rid of the old and hang the new one up." But I opened the box and noticed it had powder covering the bottom, as if it had been used or had sat on a dusty shelf for quite some time. Then I looked at its meter. "Empty," it read. Kidde must have given me either a) a unit that someone else had but was defective or b) a unit that was sitting in storage for quite some time and wasn't checked for fullness before it was shipped out. To make matters worse, that same week our Kidde-brand carbon monoxide/smoke detector went haywire for noKidde carbon monoxide detector apparent reason. Freaked out, I ran around the house and hurriedly checked our other detectors. They were all fine, so I correctly assumed there was no CO threat. This little gizmo has a meter on it showing numbers signifying the danger level, but when it malfunctioned, it simply said "Err." I looked this up in its manual, and lo and behold, just like the fire extinguisher, it told me to contact Kidde. So I unplugged it, and though I wanted to smash it with a fire extinguisher, I simply took its battery out. Enough with Kidde. Their customer service was poor, their products were even worse, and I am NOT putting my and my family's safety in their hands. The malfunctions of the two fire extinguishers and one carbon monoxide/smoke detector are enough to deter me from buying anything from them again. Exhibit B: iRobot Roomba Vaccuum iRobot Roomba for PetsThough I'd always been skeptical of iRobot's Roomba vacuums, I was lured in by a good deal on Woot! for an iRobot Roomba Scheduler with Intellibin for Pets. Many of the shoppers who commented on this particular unit said it did a great job of picking up dog hair. I didn't have to read any more: anything that can help me maintain cleanliness with three large dogs wreaking havoc in my home sounds like a great product to me (the operative words being "sounds like.")Rosie I ordered the vacuum, enthusiastically read the instructions and set up the timer with the included remote. The unit made its superhero-music-sounding beeps and started up and began its seemingly wondrous duties. It was quite entertaining for a bit: my dog Aja had a grand time attacking it, at least until I stopped laughing at her antics and walked away. The vacuum's not quite as entertaining as Rosie, the vacuuming maid robot on the Jetsons, I concede. Anyways, I was really excited about not having to sweep three dogs' fur up every day. At least until the Roomba ran its course the next day. It doesn't do well with transitions between carpet and wood floors. The dirt compartment is only about as large as my fist, requiring frequent emptying. There's not much space for the grime it picks up, when it does pick it up. The unit doesn't do a good job picking up three dogs' fur: no matter how many times it sweeps through the rooms, clumps of fur and dust bunnies are always present afterward. In the Woot! comments section, people were sure to say "this won't negate your having to vacuum regularly, but it does help." But this cheapo product does not help enough. I would've been better off to save my money from it, sweep the house daily myself, and use the money saved to reward my cleanliness with a beer every day. This product, like the next one, is much better in theory than in practice. Exhibit C: Philips Norelco All in 1 Grooming System G380 Philips Norelco Grooming System G380I bought this item because I was tired of looking like one of the scruffy dudes fromSome guys from Mastodon heavy-metal band Mastodon. Well, I didn't look that hairy, but still, my face needed some regular mowing. So I decided to give this razor set a try because it had lots of cool attachments. I opened it up, charged it, and tried it out. Surprise, surprise: I was disappointed. After trimming my goatee and mustache, I had to go back with scissors to cut all the long stragglers so they matched their neighbors. I've used the razor a half dozen times so far, and the results haven't gotten any better. The attachments are quite flimsy, though I will say none of them broke when I accidentally pulled the unit's cord and sent the whole set crashing down onto our tile floor. It still works (relatively speaking) in spite of the set's shoddy appearance, so I can't fault it too much. Side exhibit Plastic window filmI bought a lot of plastic film and tape to prevent drafts from coming in through our home's old windows, but the stuff wouldn't stay on no matter how well I cleaned the surfaces or how much tape I put on. I was trying to be green and save some heating energy this way, but since the plastic didn't work, I guess instead I wasted some oil in the process of trying to make my home more efficient. Which brings me to the point that most consumer goods, even if they're "natural," contribute to loss of natural resources in some way. And so... Though I think it's important for people to have safety devices in their house (maybe not from Kidde, though), and I think iRobot's vision of hassle-free cleaning is wonderful, and I think Norelco's razor looks cheap but can take aOil barrel hit, I do think most consumer-goods companies need to focus more on high-quality products and less on selling huge quantities of product just to make more money. It's no wonder that the United States, though relatively sparsely populated, has the one of the highest carbon footprints per household of any country in the world. Go to any big-box store in your local suburb, and you'll find aisles and aisles populated with products that: a) are most likely cheaply made, b) are most likely produced with lots of oil, and c) you could most likely do without. My advice (which I need to take myself)? Do your homework before spending lots of money on something like a robot vacuum. Read reviews and ratings online, and most importantly, if you have a friend or family member with the item in question, ask them what they think and see if you can try it out yourself. If you aren't sure or are skeptical (like I was with the vacuum), don't buy it. If you buy something whose quality is disappointing, return it, sell it on eBay, or put it on Craigslist or Freecycle. If you buy a few things from a company and all disappoint, don't support that company again. And most importantly, consider where your money would be better invested (your home? a good dinner? your retirement fund?), and what impact the production of el-cheapo goods will have on your grandchildren's future on this planet.

Have you recently made a hugely disappointing purchase? Are their some companies who, no matter how many times you give them a chance, keep producing sub-par products? Do people need to stop buying so much crap? Write a comment and share your opinions!

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Open-source, affordable, green housing on the way

Everyone's been talking the past year or so about global warming, going green, etc. In terms of housing, green construction standards (such as the US Green Building Council's LEED) have been a hot topic in the U.S. and in other parts of the world (India's wealthiest resident is building a 60-story "green" home in Mumbai). It's all well and good that wealthy people like Al Gore are going green with their mansions, but what about the estimated 1/3 of the population that will be living in slums by 2030? Architect Cameron Sinclair might tell you with a straight face that those people will make decent homes out of wealthier people's "green" refuse. Sinclair, winner of 2006's TED prize, started the Open Architecture Network to spread affordable housing throughout the world — a rather impressive goal. The projects in the network are rather interesting, to say the least. According to Sinclair, "Someone's working on a $700 house. The Now House is a World War II retrofitted home that's carbon-neutral... There's a spinach-powered house, there's a grow-your-own clinic, a clinic you eat. All of these projects have to be sustainable." So even though the gap between rich and poor isn't shrinking, it's good to know that people like Cameron Sinclair are planning a future that's better for everyone.

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There ARE some good uses for blogs…

I figured I should follow up to the wave of responses I got about yesterday's post, in which I dared suggest that blogs are a waste of time (I actually didn't get any responses... Surprise!) I do realize that blogs serve some terrific purposes: they're great for podcasting, marketing, and SEO (search engine optimization) (that last link actually has some great reasons to blog). But when every other link in a typical Google Search results in a blog post (seemingly half of which are useless), the very idea of blogs can become quite frustrating. It also seems that with so many blogs (175,000 created a day, or 2 per second!), the internet will one day implode under the sheer weight of them all, like a black hole. But until that technological armageddon, I'll gladly keep adding my two cents and hope someone decides to pick 'em up.

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10 Hot Computer-Driven Careers: the Future is Bright!

Drupal and Wordpress logosAccording to's "10 Hot Computer-Driven Careers," I'll (*fingers crossed*) have a secure career for awhile. Their list, partially based on the BLS Top 30 fastest growing careers and on interviews with computer professionals, includes several jobs I've done, am doing, or am planning to do. From their list:

  • Digital Film Production Assistant and Technician Thanks to Internet TV software such as Joost and Babelgum, many dozens of video sharing sites, and of course the traditional film and TV industry - including Pay Per View and Cable - demand for video content will simply grow. While actual reel film might have its advantages and still be in use, post production-wise the trend is digital - both for movies and TV - using sophisticated computer systems that require a specialized training to use. Add to this the pending widespread use of HDTV (High-Def) broadcasting, and the distribution of content online, and additional technical careers will no doubt be available to be filled.
  • Website Network Manager / Administrator. Magazine writers don't have to know the technical details of keeping a print publication afloat. So why should writers in an online publishing network be expected to know all the admin and technical details of managing a site, even if it is CMS? With the growing number of website and blog networks, the need for people with technical skills to maintain the networks will grow as well.The ideal person will understand how to install CMS platforms such as WordPress and Drupal, maintain domain registrations, manage the content databases and backups, monitor hosting, and move servers if necessary. They might also need to know how to tweak website themes, create plugins, etc. Management skills might also be a requirement.
  • Visual and Audio Content Producers. The greatest growth in online content over the next decade will be in Video and Audio. From viral video production to visual tutorial content producers, the major differentiating factor for online businesses is going to be their ability to create compelling visual and audio content. Familiarity with high-level codes like Action Script and the ability to use video screen capture software such as Camtasia Studio and web-based embeddable video distribution services such as Splashcast, will be very marketable. In addition, the ability to storyboard tutorials and write text content increases your career opportunities, so don't neglect those English & Literature classes!
I can verify that last point: at the Stanford Publishing on the Web workshop I attended a few weeks ago, numerous tech industry heavyweights and visionaries including Kevin McKean (Consumers Union), Sean Nolan (Men's, Molly Wood (CNET), Guy Kawasaki (Garage Technology Ventures), and Robert Scoble ( all shared the opinion that video will be an integral part of the web in years to come. Thanks for the sunny forecast, and Bureau of Labor Statistics!!!

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