Sunday, December 31, 2006

Podcasting and Blogging with GarageBand and iWeb

Robin Williams is truly the queen of user instruction. She takes the hard concepts and makes them accessible to novices. She's no relation to the actor Robin Williams of course, who has played a queen in the past!

“Podcasting and Blogging with GarageBand and iWeb” is a perfect guide for someone curious about blogging and podcasting. The book requires the reader to have a .Mac account and own iLife 06. Without these two essential components, the book is of almost no use. If you are able to type an email, then you'll be able to blog and podcast after reading this short book.

Unlike a lot of technical books that explain a dizzying array of options, Robin makes the tasks easy and straightforward using the tools most every Mac comes with. This is not a reference guide that gives you tips and tricks. You'll find nothing in this book about using Blogger or Wordpress nor will there be advice on which type of mic to use for a podcast. She uses strictly iLife '06 and .Mac. This is a step by step how to guide for someone who has never used a Mac or blogged before can be up and going within less than an hour.

Typical of Robin William's books, she assumes no prior knowledge of anything but Macintosh basics such as moving the cursor and opening applications. Each step contains a screen shot of exactly what to expect with outstanding layout and flow. Some readers will complain that she doesn't give the reader enough options as to how to create their podcast or blog. However, the goal of the book is to get the reader to create a blog or podcast as quickly and easily as possible. Once the reader feels they want more, then at that point they should buy an intermediate book. If someone has already created a podcast or blog before, then they probably don't need this book.

Overall, a great book for people curious about trying to create their own podcast and/or blog using software that comes with most newer Macs

Pros: Extremely easy to understand, requires no prior knowledge
Cons: Tied to iLife '06 and .Mac, offers few tips if you aren't using those told

Sunday, December 24, 2006

iPod and iTunes: The Missing Manual

You know how there are some actors whom you can trust re part of a great movie. If they are in it, you know it's good. Take Tom Hanks: practically anything he is involved in tends to be a great movie (expect of course for "Joe and the Volcano"). David Pogue and the Missing Manual series are the Tom Hanks of the technical publishing world. Even their mediocre stuff rises head and shoulders among the competition. "iPod & iTunes" is no exception to the long string of quality and informative manuals.

In particular, I was impressed with the flow of the book. Too often new iPod users feel they have to buy music from the iTunes Music Store to use their iPod and directly bypass their legal CD collection. Biersdorefer doesn't introduce the iTunes music store until chapter 7. She logically starts with the iPod itself and the proper care and maintenance thereof, making sure new users can properly use and understand their iPod before they even hook it up to the computer. The book then moves from the iPod hardware to installing the software, adding songs, photos, and videos. After the user understand all that he then introduced the music store along with advanced concepts like using the iPod as an external hard drive. Finally, she introduces basic and advanced troubleshooting. Other books I've read on iPods organize their concepts based on themes such as hardware and software, rather than the actual flow of how a user might use their iPod. While you can easily pick up any chapter and learn something, beginner iPod users would be best serviced starting at, well, the beginning (how's that for straightforward logic?).

Throughout the book, Biersdorefer uses extensive pictures and screen shots to illustrate the concepts described. I'm always impressed when an author does this, because not everyone likes to sit in front of a computer learning something. Good visuals help a reader learn a concept while not sitting at the computer. In addition, her explanations are clear and easily understandable without requiring knowledge of technical jargon.

Biersdorefer also included just about every iPod tip and trick I know such as all the idiosyncrasies of photo formats the iPod can display and how to put DVDs on iPods. I honestly can't think of a single iPod concept the beginner or intermediate iPod user needs to know that isn't covered in this book. While I consider myself an iPod expert, I still learned a thing or two and would recommend this to basic users as a book to read cover to cover to understand how to use an iPod. Intermediate users can use this manual as a reference for tools or procedures they don't often do and don't want to rely on the whim of internet searches. For example, I know I can use my iPod to do iPod presentations but I probably won't remember how to do it until my new presentation. Biersdorefer covers the topic extensively so all I have to do is pick up his book. The only iPod concepts this book doesn't cover is advanced tinkering such as installing Linux or how to boot your Mac off of it.

In general, this is a impressive book for the beginner that wants to know everything their iPod can do and a great reference manual for advanced users.

Pros: Covers it all in straightforward easy to understand language accessible to beginners without talking down to experts.

Cons: iPod not included. Waaah.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Is buying online safe?

As we get into the thick of the holiday season, a dilemma facing shoppers is whether to buy gifts online or in person. This year such traditional stores as Wal-mart and Target will be encouraging people to buy online with special discounts and online-only items. Industry experts believe this will be a unique year for online sales as more novice users will be making the internet buying plunge for the very first time.

Despite conventional wisdom, online transactions are actually more secure than in person transactions. With in person transactions you actually surrender your credit card to another individual who has a chance to record the numbers. What they do with that credit card number is outside of your control. In reality, a significant number of credit card information is stolen by rank and file employees at places like hotels and restaurants where your credit card is not swiped in your presence. Sometimes a thief will find the credit card number on a receipt you threw away. One of the newest scams is someone behind you in line copying your credit card numbers with their cell phone. In person purchases contain many opportunities where your number can be stolen.

However when buying online, your computer transmits your credit card information directly to another computer. Usually your credit card is never seen or touched by a human: ultimate security. Online purchases have no printed receipts for thieves to find in the trash. Credit card information is stolen not from personal computers, but merchant computers that have millions of transactions recorded. Sometimes the theft is via a savvy hacker, or more likely, a inside job by an employee. Credit card companies find these break ins quickly and protect your credit card before a unauthorized charge can be made.

Ironically, the least common way credit card numbers are stolen is via electronic eavesdropping or viruses. While it does happen, it’s rare. Regardless of your credit rating, your individual information isn’t worth the hassle to steal. Attacking one individual yields just a few credit card numbers, but attacking a merchant system can yield thousands or millions of credit card numbers. It’s always more profitable to rob a bank, because as Willie Sutton said, “That’s where the money is”.

Sometimes an online store is not legitimate and is simply a scam to trick you into giving up your credit card information. Always have an idea of the type of company from which you purchase. If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is. These companies charge so little because they never deliver on the order. Looking for symbols such as those from e-Trust or the Better Business Bureau is a good idea, but that information can be faked. The best tip to know if the company is legitimate is to look for contact information about the company with a physical street address and phone number in case a problem with quality or delivery arise. When in doubt, call the company and make sure it’s actually their phone number.

Even if you are careful with your information, sometimes your credit card number is stolen, regardless of where you used it. In this case, most credit card companies don’t hold you liable for any unauthorized charges so long as you contact them promptly. They’ll also send you a new card right away regardless of whether the transaction was made on or offline. They just want to get the card back to you as soon as possible so you can do more shopping. If you are still concerned about using your card, some companies have “virtual numbers’ that can be used online without risking your primary card information. The best way to find out if your credit card number has been compromised is occasionally to check your balance online and always read your credit card statements once you receive them.

This season, one of the newest trends is for stores to allow you to shop online, pay online, and pick up the item in the physical store. This not only is convenient, but helps keep the purchase local , which is always helpful to the community. Wherever you may shop this season, rest assured that shopping online is as safe as shopping in person.

Monday, December 04, 2006

I'll have a Green Christmas

With blinding speed, companies upgrade their technology products and this holiday season will find lots of consumers with new computers, MP3 players, and printers. The hidden side effect of all this progress is tons of electronic waste. E-Waste consists of working monitors, computers, and printers that get stuck in the closet, basement, or garage until you move or decide to do spring cleaning and drag the item to the curb.

Fortunately in Lawrence, when e-waste is taken to the curb, it tends to disappear before the garbage trucks come to dump it in a landfill. A landfill is about the worst place computing technologies can go. E-waste contains lead, mercury, cadmium and other hazardous materials that affect the water we drink and the land we farm.

Before putting your e-waste to the curb, try to find a place to donate it. Lawrence is both cursed and blessed with a glut of good working computers. In Lawrence, most organizations usually won’t accept computers older than three to five years nor will they accept Macintoshes, though such computers can surf the internet and word process. To be fair, many organizations get many computers and don’t always have the IT resources to utilize donations. If you get “no” the first time, try calling a few weeks later as needs may have changed. Obviously ,reuse is not only a worthy goal but often leads to a tax deduction

If you can’t donate your e-waste, you might contact local, regional ,or national recycling companies. These places range from above board, noble and ethical to the downright sleazy. The sleazy operations charge you a small sum of money, they take what can be used to resell it for a profit and then take the left over and put it in a landfill. Ironically, the landfill might be the safest for the items as the alternative can actually be worse. Some “recyclers” take e-waste and use third-world labor to remove the valuable metals with techniques that are both dangerous to humans and the environment. These operations make sneaker sweatshops look like a walk in the park, pardon the pun. In fact, the Basel Action Network, www.ban.org, found computers from the Kansas Department of Aging in Lagos, Nigeria as well as various confidential data on donated hard drives .

To make sure your recycled computers end up in the right place, Bob Akers, Marketing Director of Surplus Exchange, www.surplusexchange.org, recommends asking five questions: 1)What happens to the items turned in to recycle?, 2)Are any retired electronics sent overseas?, 3)Can the recycling center offer a certificate of destruction?, 4) Do you have a reuse program? If so, how is it structured? 5) Are you approved by the EPA or KDHE? - Do you have letters of support on file? Non-profit recycling organizations like The Surplus Exchange are able to give you a potential tax deduction if they are able to use the equipment you donate. Given their civic mentality, they realize the value of older equipment and use older equipment to help non-profit organizations.

Even though manufacturers push consumers to buy new computers, they often ignore the impact to the environment. States such as California, Arkansas, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota have e-waste laws on the books and Washington currently has pending legislation. Seeing the trend of moving to reduce e waste, companies like Dell and Apple will take your old computer back at no charge (HP charges a fee), hopefully to be recycled. On the manufacturing side, organizations like Greenpeace are campaigning to reduce the hazardous materials used in electronics. In fact, Greenpeace has created an Apple parody site at www.greenpeace.org/apple to encourage Apple to be more “green”.

If you have trouble ecologically disposing of your computing technology don’t rule out simply giving it away on online forums such as Larryville’s swapmeet (www.larryville.com), free classified ads online (craigslist.org) and in print (ljworld.com), and Freecycle (www.lifeinlawrence.com). Free computers go quickly on these forums, working or not. Computer hobbyists love to take a crack at fixing computers.

However you choose to get rid of your e-waste, be careful of any data that is contained on the system. Items such as hard drives, PDAs, and cell phones need to be completely erased of data. If you can’t securely erase the item, work with a recycler that will. If your computer won’t boot and thus you can’t erase the hard drive, remove the hard drive and save it as a backup or have a friend completely destroy it.

Whether you decide to donate your compute, recycle, or simply give it away, you can help prevent e-waste from piling up and damaging the environment.

So the next time you look at that stack of computers in the basement or in the office closet, think about the environmental impact of those units and what you can do to make sure the e-waste doesn’t end up back in our drinking water.