July 28, 2005

Tech Tip: ICE Your Cell Phone for Emergencies

Now here's a tech tip that could help you in an emergency: Most accident victims carry no next of kin details, yet most carry a mobile phone. Should you be injured or otherwise incapacitated, consider adding one or more ICE entries to your cell's phone book. ICE stands for "In Case of Emergency", and many paramedics are trained to look for ICE entries. The emergency medical team can use them to call others to notify them of your condition. You can use "ICE1", "ICE2", etc., or "ICE - Sue", "ICE - Jim", etc. For more information, see the ICE web site.

On a similar note, I've added "Call if Found" entries for many years in my cell's contact list, although for a different purpose -- recovering my cell phone when I lose it. It's happened twice over the past few years, and both times someone called me to return it.

As you'll want these entries to be conspicuous, don't bury them in a long phone book list. Force them to the top. Since many devices sort the phone book entries alphanumerically, you'll probably need to place a special character at the beginning of the contact name. I prefer to add a period (.) as it's unobtrusive, such as ".ICE1" or ".Call if Found 1". If this doesn't work, you can try other characters or simply prefix ith with one or two "a's".

Note: If you've already added the same phone number as a separately named entry (e.g., Jim's Home), you may notice some substitution in your Caller ID and call lists -- especially if these new entries are sorted first as recommended. Where you used to see "Sue's Cell" or "Jim's Home" on your incoming call display, you may see "ICE1", "ICE - Sue", or "Call If Found 1" -- depending upon what you entered.

Unfortunately, some or all of this information could also be used to assist identity theft if the person who finds your phone is so inclined. Thus you may want to limit the amount of personal information listed. Most definitely, notify your ICE contacts that you've added them and provide them with additional instructions, such as a list of people to contact on your behalf. Also counsel your ICE and trusted contacts to be careful not to give out any truly sensitive information, even during the initial shock of hearing bad news. In this regard, I'd suggest telling them to gather as much verifiable information as possible from the caller, including name, address/location, and phone number.

Lastly, I just read "E911 is a Joke" in the print edition of the August 2005 issue of Mobile Magazine. The gist is that E911 (Enhanced 911) has a ways to go yet, as the author states it's common for cell phones to have trouble reaching 911 for several reasons. From the article:"Most major wireless carriers have long since complied with a federal law requiring cell phones to transmit location-based data to emergency call centers, which would make it easy for the authorities to find you if you need help. But that's only half the equation. Enhanced 911 (E911) data is worthless if the emergency center that receives your call lacks the technology to do anything with it. And sadly, most do."

Basically, it goes on to state that when some call centers are overwhelmed by volume, they just forward the calls elsewhere, so you may be bounced from center to center. So while E911 is a great idea, it's probably a spotty solution for the near terrm. I'd like to see the same push directed at the carriers and phone manufacturers to be focused on the local call centers, so we can eventually have a much more reliable and effective solution.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets  |  Privacy & Security  |  Trick or Treat
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July 22, 2005

Your Cell Phone Records for Sale Online

Yet another disturbing development in the erosion of privacy in this digital age: For just over $100, others can obtain your last 100 outgoing cell phone calls from your last billing cycle. All they need to provide is your name, address, and cell phone number. The Washington Post just covered this in "Online Data Gets Personal: Cell Phone Records for Sale".

These services are available online, making it even easier to get the information, and more quickly. Since the call records are maintained by the phone companies, the article discusses the legality (or lack of it) of these practices and services. Regardless, it's happening.

Topic(s):   Privacy & Security
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July 21, 2005

Digital Photography Tips

Whether used for trial exhibits or capturing a breathtaking scene, digital cameras (digicams) introduce a number of useful features which dramatically affect the results and overall impact of your photos. While their enhanced features are good tools, it's important to realize that it's the photographer who makes all the difference. So how well do we use them? The really cool part of digital photography is that we don't have to be professional photographers to use them effectively. I'm clearly in the amateur class, but have been amazed by the results -- particularly in the semi-auto modes where it's easy to vary the settings without messing things up.

"Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take,
but by the moments that take your breath away."

With this in mind, here are some of the better resources I've found for getting more out of your photos. Certainly these are no substitute for practice and experience, but they'll likely give you a number of creative ideas and techniques to try:

  • Top Ten Digital Photography Tips
    I really liked this guide. Simple and easy to follow regardless of your expertise level.
  • Digital Photography Composition Tips
    This is a veritable smorgasbord of great tips, ranging from the Rule of Thirds to varying your height, composition, framing, depth of field, and much more including digital camera specifics such as histogram tips.
  • Kodak's Top 10 Tips for Great Pictures
    This is another basic but useful guide, with numerous photo examples showing how simple changes make all the difference between "boring" and "masterpiece".
On to Batteries: I vastly prefer digicams that take AA-size batteries, so the fun never ends when all my rechargeables are dead. As for maximizing the longevity of your batteries' charge and lifespan, the following sites do a great job of reviewing/ranking the latest rechargeable batteries and quick chargers.

Many batteries' stated capacities in milliamp hours (mah) are overrated, so it's helpful to know which ones live up to their claims. Also, some fast chargers cook the batteries. It's widely believed that overheating is the single largest contributor to the "memory effect", especially in NiMH batteries. As I've learned from the above, not all quick chargers are created equal -- some are much gentler on the batteries and/or do a better job of "topping off" so you'll get more use from them.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets  |  Trick or Treat
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July 19, 2005

NY Times: Floss Your Teeth & Back Up Your Hard Drive

If you've ever had hard drive problems, you're not alone. If you don't back up your system regularly, try reading this NY Times Technology article, "E.R. for Hard Drives" for some motivation. It provides real-life examples of those who've experienced hard drive failures and highlight various companies who came to their rescue -- for a fairly hefty price.

Consider the following quote:

"If all computer users backed up their hard drives, the data recovery industry would barely exist. But the routine, like flossing teeth, is practiced regularly by few.

And as hard drive capacity explodes, the consequences of catastrophic failure mushroom. Hard drives now store not just documents but photos, music and movies as well, electronically embedded on a platter spinning at 10,000 revolutions a minute (300 times the speed of an LP record); access is by a read/write head floating a hair's breadth above, and flying back and forth at 60 miles an hour.

If the head falls onto the platter or picks up a jot of dust, the data can be rendered unreadable."

I've always used the analogy of crashing a jumbo jet flying hundreds of miles per hour, just inches off the ground, without landing gear. It would leave a good-sized divot.

While post-crash data recovery rates are up dramatically from just a few years ago, hard drive reliability is still an issue. Despite improvements, hard drive failure is not a matter of If, but When -- it's only a matter of time. When it comes to precious data such as home movies and digital photos, be sure to back them up regularly to multiple types of media and physical locations. No single media will last forever. USB hard drives, flash media, optical storage (e.g., CD's and DVD's) all have different strengths and weaknesses, but I've seen them all fail at one time or another. ASP-type online services are another option, but it should never be a primary repository. Unsuspecting users have seen them wink out of existence, taking the data with them, or putting them through the seventh circle of Hades to get them back at additional expense.

Backing up home or small business PCs is not difficult, but it takes our precious time. While Windows XP allows system restore points to be generated, it doesn't help you if the hard drive dies. I've always been more partial to non-Windows backups or drive images (e.g., Norton Ghost) because they generally don't require you to reinstall Windows before you can restore your data. It's also fairly inexpensive, but like flossing, you have to remember to do it. That's the problem with most backup solutions -- We're the Weakest Link.

Thus some of my fellow bloggers are partial to solutions such as the Mirra Personal Server, and for good reason. While a tad more expensive than drive imaging, once set up, it takes a lot of the human error out the equation. It also backs up multiple PCs and can synchronize data between them. So backups should occur regularly and frequently -- very good.

However, it's an online powered device plugged into your home electrical system and computer network. Thus power-related events (e.g., lightning) that could fry your PC's hard drive could also affect the Mirra device. Accordingly, Mirra recommends that you plug it into a UPS or power strip with surge protection. Yet those devices do not always prevent extreme power surges from damaging your system (although a UPS may provide more protection against brownouts by providing some temporary power). Likely recognizing this, Mirra offers their MirraGuard data protection guarantee. It's not complete protection, but it's nice to see a company put their money where their mouth is to try to help you recover your files. I'll also note that I haven't yet used the Mirra system, but am considering it.

Which is why a combination of backup approaches, media, and locations is best. While there is a cost, compare that to the examples in the NY Times article, where recovery costs have run upwards of several thousand dollars depending on the effort required and timeframe requested. In this day and age, I still hear regularly about home and SOHO PC's crashing, virus infections, and the like -- probably even more regularly than in the past.

So back up your critical data, brush your teeth, and don't forget to floss. ;^) To morph a phrase, the data and money you save just may be your own.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
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July 12, 2005

The Palm OS is Officially Dead (RIP 1996-2005)

Perhaps PalmSource has watched too many Monty Python episodes with their recent announcement, which goes something like this: And now for something completely different: We're dropping all traditional Palm OS development immediately and switching over to Linux. Not that I have anything against Linux, and recognizing the Palm OS may have reached the end of its road, but huh?

A number of people have asked me why I haven't posted much about Palms over the past year. The answer is simple: I just didn't see Palm going anywhere, even with the marvelous Treo as its flagship product. Don't get me wrong, as I love my Palm-based organizers with their simple ease of use. But the market has changed, and Palm has already been left behind as fairly irrelevant with the possible exception of the Treo. Much of the excitement is gone, and it's more than just market maturity. I see much more excitement over glitzy 3G camera phones and iPods -- heck, even PocketPCs (which I never thought I'd ever say). Even the cool Treos didn't catch on in the corporate world nearly as well as BlackBerries.

Perhaps that's why PalmSource's interim CEO, Patrick McVeigh, recently announced that it's shifting engineering efforts from the traditional PalmOS to a future Linux-based Palm OS. He stated, "We are delaying all development of products not directly related to this." Recall that PalmSource is the OS division spun off from then-Palm, so Palm could become palmOne and focus on the hardware. palmOne exhibited innovation with devices such as the collapsible Tungsten, the cool Treos, and recently with the voluminous LifeDrive.

PalmSource innovation? Not so much. Many moons ago, PalmOS 5 was rebranded as Garnet, and it was described as an interim platform until the "next big thing". The forthcoming PalmOS 6, Cobalt, was supposed to be their flagship smartphone OS. Sadly, it turned out to be much ado about nothing, and PalmOS 5 remained, well, clunky and limited.

Given PalmSource's previous grand OS announcements that went nowhere (e.g., Cobalt), it's really tough to think "going Linux" will change things much for PalmSource or the Palm platform. Existing Palm OS apps likely won't run on the new Linux-based OS. Last time I checked, that was well over 10,000 apps (probably closer to 15,000 now, cumulatively speaking). Marooned. You may see some new Palm program version updates, but probably not beyond the point when the existing market share starts dwindling. Software developers will likely go into maintenance mode to eek out as much revenue as possible while changing development efforts or simply moving on.

Given the inertia and entropy PalmSource experienced with the PalmOS in recent years, it's not a huge leap to consider other OS platforms. Indeed, PalmSource has publicly mentioned this possibility on various occasions. It doesn't make much sense to go develop yet another proprietary OS, which made Palm's prior acquisition of Be a head-scratcher. So, why not go with an open source OS?

The market has tried Linux PDAs before -- remember the Sharp Zaurus? It had moderately good success with the IT gearhead crowd, but never made the big splash in the consumer market. I'm certainly not saying it can't, but we haven't seen that kind of leadership at Palm in a very long, long time.

Speaking of time, per Palm Infocenter, "He [McVeigh] also put a timetable on the release of the upcoming linux Palm OS products. The version for low end and feature phones is planned to be completed by summer 2006 and a high end version for smartphone is expected to be ready in the second half of next year." I could be wrong, but I expect PalmSource to encounter more problems along the way. Not to mention I expect those dates are just for the new OS availability. Even allowing for pre-release alphas and betas, hardware manufacturers will likely need lead time to develop their devices and debug them. The Palm-based cell phones (Treos) took noticeably longer for the wireless carriers to debug, test, tweak, customize and certify for their service. Consider how long it's taken for the iTunes phone to evolve from vaporware status.

If they can get major cell phone manufacturers onboard, PalmSource may have a chance due to the larger market and becoming more of a B2B provider. Consider the news that LG just signed on to be a Palm OS licensee. Why would LG do that if the traditional Palm OS is going bye-bye? Thus some suspect LG will produce one of the early Palm-Linux phones. I wish them luck, as I really like what LG has been cranking out in cell phones.

By then I fear Palm will be a fading memory in consumers' minds. They're going to have to develop a platform that's radically better just to get noticed -- something that Palm/PalmSource has never done except in its grassroot days.

With all this said, I truly hope that abounding rumors of Palm's demise are greatly exaggerated. I felt they built a better mousetrap and their products made my personal and professional lives easier. I found Palms so much easier to pick up and use compared to PocketPCs -- particularly the Handspring line (courtesy of Jeff Hawkins, the visionary behind the original Palm, who's now back at palmOne). The Palm software and user communities reached cult status quickly. It made mobility fun. While my heart hopes that PalmSource can finally deliver, my brain has already moved on, thinking about iPods, digital cameras, and my next cell phone.

Thanks to the Depraved Librarian for the news and following links, which are well worth the read (I particularly enjoyed the Pocketfactory post):

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
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July 11, 2005

How Good is Your Spyware Scanner?

This timely PC World article warns that various spyware scanners may intentionally stop detecting various adware programs. It's not because of any technical deficiency, but because adware companies are getting aggressive about being "delisted".

Delisting occurs when an antispyware developer removes a particular adware program from its detection database. At that point, it may not detect the program if it's installed on your PC. So why would anyone do that? Per the article: "Some adware companies, arguing that their software is benign, have petitioned anti-spyware firms to stop warning consumers about their software. Other companies have resorted to sending cease-and-desist letters that threaten legal action."

The real problem is that we users generally can't access the detection database, and won't be notified that a particular program has been delisted after a software update. While there could be good reasons for delisting (e.g., an adware developer cleaned up its software to be far less intrusive), there will have been a certain reliance built up over time on a particular spyware scanner's effectiveness. Also, while a particular adware developer may have cleaned up new versions of their software, prior "nasty" versions could still abound on a number of web sites, and be downloaded. Will the spyware scanner distinguish between the versions and protect against them?

Even Microsoft has been in the news today (even Slashdotted) about how Microsoft AntiSpyware downgraded the threat level of Claria's software (formerly known as "Gator" -- yes, that Gator). Here, Microsoft has the appearance of a conflict because of reports and speculation that it is looking to buy Claria. Others doubt this will really happen. Whether or not Microsoft acted appropriately is certainly clouded by the circumstances and timing. However, it illustrates how sensitive and controversial the issues have become.

These issues aren't new. Similar problems cropped up with how sites have been categorized in content blocking software, aka "censorware". Among other things, this type of software blocks young family members from accessing questionable sites. While certainly useful, it also had some questionable results. See The Censorware Project for more info. From time to time, various other sites would get caught in the "censored" net. That is, they'd be added to the list of blocked sites for having controversial or critical information posted. Some were allegedly blocked primarily because they dared to criticize the companies doing the blocking. I believe lawsuits ensued.

Regardless, the various content blocking, antivirus, and antispyware products work because we end users trust someone on the development side to find, block, and/or remove the "bad stuff". The problem is that determining exactly what is the "bad stuff" is somewhat subjective, and requires a judgment call. Sometimes it's also influenced by "cease and desist" letters and legal threats. Some may be legitimate, and others basically bullying tactics. Depending on the ability and determination to withstand such pressures, some spyware scanner developers may delist where others do not. Thus I'd advise utilizing several antispyware programs to have more complete coverage and mitigate your risk.

Obviously, antispyware developers now have more to worry about than the latest adware program. And, as a result, so do we.

Topic(s):   Privacy & Security
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July 06, 2005

Apple Adds Podcast Support to iTunes & iPods

If there was much doubt about the future of Podcasts, Apple has recognized their popularity. Beginning with the newly released Apple iTunes version 4.9, iTunes supports locating and downloading podcasts. To take full advantage of the new features, you'll likely also need to download the newest iPod firmware updater, which adds a Podcast category to your iPod's menus.

To give you a quick leg up on the new features, iPodlounge (the mecca of all things iPod) just published "The Complete Guide to iTunes 4.9, with Podcasts", and confirms the need to update your firmware as well.

Naturally, Apple is smart to integrate podcast support both in the software and devices. Easy downloading and management of podcasts is another good reason to buy an iPod. With Apple's official support, podcasts move even more into the mainstream.

I also note with mixed feelings that Apple just streamlined their iPod line to eliminate the 30GB iPod Photo, which I felt was the sweet spot for balancing pricing, thickness, and capacity. To compensate, Apple added the color display and photo capabilities to the 20GB model, and dropped the price of the 60GB. I would have preferred them dropping the 20GB instead since storage is just getting cheaper.

Topic(s):   Blogging Tips
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July 02, 2005

MP3s, Podcasts and Internet Audio Resources for Lawyers

This month's ABA Law Practice Today e-zine has perhaps one of their best "Strongest Links' column yet: Fellow bloggers and friends Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell have compiled an impressive list of "MP3s, Podcasts and Internet Audio Resources for Lawyers".

Whether you're just curious about finding and listening to podcasts, or want to create your own, Dennis and Tom have once again done a great job of saving your fingers from doing all the walking. Don't miss the sections on CLE Audio and Lawyer Podcasts. Another link not mentioned, but also useful, is Podscope, as a helpful reader posted here at LawTech Guru. PodScope is a search engine for finding podcasts, naturally.

Topic(s):   Blogging Tips
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