Category Archives: Free Software

Cutting Cable : A Week Without TV

cutting-cableA week-long experiment without cable TV resulted in some real cost savings, and some interesting family observations.

Normally the annual rate increase from Cablevision results in a call to Optimum threatening to switch to FIOS.  This inevitably leads to them placing me on a one year-long promotion, after which the cycle starts again.

This time was different .  I had wondered whether cable TV was worth the money, particularly with all the streaming options available today, and this was just what I needed to look at it seriously.   This idea was based on the following thoughts:

  1. Cable TV costs have gone up significantly
  2. We don’t actually watch that much TV
  3. We almost never watch live TV and don’t have premium channels such as HBO
  4. Cutting cable would save at least $900 per year, ever after factoring in other services needed

I didn’t want to just blindly make the leap so I signed up for a one week free trial of Hulu Plus and hid the cable TV remote controls. At the end of the week I polled the family to see what their reaction was to being without TV and the results were quite startling.

  • My Daughter (the big TV watcher) hands-down prefers Hulu.  There are shows on Hulu that she likes that are not on Cable and she can choose which episode to watch.
  • My two boys literally said “We didn’t have TV this week?”  With YouTube and the Xbox available the TV is something they just don’t use.
  • Joanne and I found most of our favorite shows, plus a whole bunch of things that couldn’t be found on cable

Aside from confirming how little TV we watch as a family there were a few other items of note.

Streaming TV is an active instead of passive activity. Instead of channel surfing until you find something that you can accept you actively have to choose.  This meant less time idly watching whatever crap happened to come along and more time watching things we cared about.

Streaming changes how you think about content providers.  Hulu Plus is a good option that fills most needs but there are many more options.  Shows that Hulu doesn’t have can often be found through other channels.  e.g.

  • Big Bang Theory is not on Hulu but is on CBS.com and with the Chromecast I can send it from a PC or laptop to any of the TVs.
  • I found lots of my childhood Sci-Fi shows on YouTube and, after nearly 40 years, managed to catch up on some of the shows that I missed!  Yes…I finally found how Blake’s 7 crew was formed!  🙂

Streaming changes where you watch TV.  I spend two hours per day commuting by bus. Now I can watch sci-fi without the commentary from Joanne about why something really doesn’t seem very likely.

It’s not all roses though.

  • There’s a lot of mature content on Hulu and yet they have no parental controls.  Since the kids can now watch anywhere in the house this is something we need to keep an eye on
  • Everyone watching different things in different rooms can cause ‘fracturing’.  I need to turn the wi-fi off every so often
  • If you are a big sports fan this might not be for you.  The only sport I watch with any regularity is Formula One and I haven’t found a suitable option for this yet
  • This could considerably cut my nap time on the bus

Despite the few negatives I called Optimum yesterday, cancelled the TV and returned the two cable boxes without giving it a second thought.

Note:  Hulu Plus will give me a bonus if other people sign up, so if you think that might be something you want to try can you please use this button to sign up.  Thanks!!

 

 

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Filed under Free Software, Life - or something like it, Technology

Meetings are not free!

Reading Russell Ackoff‘s excellent book Management F-laws recently I came across the following

“The amount of time a committee wastes is directly propotional to its size.”

Ackoff then goes on to remind us just how ineffective meetings, and particularly large meetings, are at actually getting things done.

He ends with

“Those who convene committee meetings (or any meetings) should be required to pay for the time of those who attend.”

megaphone-manI am a big believer in communication and I prefer, when possible, to do this face to face.  But with a few rare exceptions large meetings are a vast waste of people’s time and the companies money.  If a broadcast is needed there are usually more effective ways to do this with today’s technology.

The next time you are in a large meeting take a look around.  How many people are checking email on their phone or laptop, how many actually look engaged and, if it’s in the late in the afternoon, how many are struggling just to keep their eyes open?  These people probably either don’t need to be there or, if they do, don’t need to be there for the whole time.

The meeting clock

It’s easy to forget that people are being paid to be bored.  But there is something you can do about it – use a meeting clock.

This is a simple app into which you enter the number of people and an average hourly rate and then click start.  As the meeting progresses you will see a number counting up showing how much it has cost to run the meeting in real-time.

You don’t have to do this too many times before you start to realize just how much money is being wasted when people could actually be doing something productive.  I guarantee that before you know it you will be keeping meetings to a minimum, doing more one on one meetings (where real things happen) and trying to make better use of the collaborative social platforms available.

 

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Filed under Business, Career, Free Software

Free Audiobooks – LibriVox

LibriVox-poster-a2For those of you looking for audio books there is a free option that few people seem to be aware of – and by now you must all know how much I like free stuff!

LibriVox provides free audio-books from the public domain, and many of them are top quality recordings despite being read by volunteers.  

In fact…if you hunt around on the site you will find not just my dulcet tones on there but also those of my middle child.  In 2009 Gregory read a fantastic children’s book called My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

I may be just a little biased but hearing a children s book read by a 9-year-old really adds something IMHO.  I guess I am not alone because his recording has already been downloaded over 32,000 times!

Regardless of your audio book needs LibriVox has something for everyone and I would heartily recommend checking it out.  It could be just the thing to keep you sane on long drives down to the shore this summer.

 

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Filed under Children, Education, Free Software

Foreign travel this year? You need Google Translate

If you are planning on traveling outside the US this year then Google Translate is just the thing to slip into your pocket before you head for the airport.

Offering translations in over 50 languages there’s a good chance that it’s got your back wherever  you land.

Translation is performed by selecting the languages to translate between, entering the text and pressing the Go button.  The text in your target language will then appear below in large text and can even be expanded to full screen.  Touch the small speaker icon and it will speak the phrase with an accent that, while I’m sure funny to natives, is far better than I could muster.

If you’re using an iPhone or Android phone then speech entry is also possible, which might help you with the response you receive from the locals.

The one downside is that for this to work it needs an internet connection.  That’s fine if you can find a wi-fi hotspot, but if you turn on your internet connection while overseas you’re likely to run up a huge data charge by the time you get home.  Then again, if you’re trying to explain to the police why you couldn’t possibly be “The butcher of Paris” it might be worth the cost.

As a travel companion this is one app that you definitely not be without.  It’s free, easy to use, and could avoid this sort of unpleasant interaction with the natives.  

Download the app from here.

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Filed under Education, Free Software, Travel

Join Me – Should WebEx be worried?

Anyone who knows me will be aware of my passion for high-quality free software – and today I have a real cracker!

This week I was training a friend who lives on the other side of the country on how to use his new software.  I’m too cheap to pay for a WebEx account and so the search was on for a suitable alternative.  Fortunately I quickly stumbled across Join Mea screen sharing tool that promised “ridiculously simple” screen sharing and, for once, they were not kidding!

Installation was a snap.  Download a tiny 4mb file, click install and that’s it!

Sharing the screen was simple too.  Start the software, send an email with the link provided and wait for the software to tell you that people have joined.  No complicated setup, no ads, and nothing for the viewer to install as everything runs in their browser.  During sharing you can see how many people are watching, chat with people, start an internet conference call, share control of your desktop with someone and even pause things if you need to get offline for a minute.  If your viewers are on an iPad that’s no problem either!  They have an app and it works beautifully.

During my session I had some problems with my wireless network and it even handled that with aplomb, providing a nice helpful message on the screen to let me know that no-one could see what I was doing.

So what’s the down side?  Honestly…not much.

The “Basic” (read free) version has a few limitations.  You can only share your entire screen so you had better shut down your email, instant messenger and any browsers connected to ‘interesting‘ websites before you start sharing.  The Pro version provides the option to limit screen areas,  schedule sessions instead of sending out the invitation just before the session and present to more than 250 people.  None of that was a problem for me.

For me the system worked flawlessly with almost no lag and, compared to the complicated and confusing LiveMeeting and WebEx sessions I have used before this was beautifully simple.  It has therefore earned a well deserved spot on my famous Free Software page.

If I were the WebEx CEO I would buy this company out before companies start deserting them on a large-scale.  But if you are looking for a screen sharing tool that is free and “ridiculously easy” then your search is over.

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Filed under Education, Free Software, Linux, Technology, Windows

A faster PC in two easy steps.

I received a call the other night from a friend who was complaining that her PC was running horribly slow and taking forever to boot.  Naturally this  only became a real problem when her online games were so slow that she couldn’t keep up.

As is typical in these situation there were two questions running around in her head:

  1. Do I have a virus?
  2. Is my PC so old that I have to get a new one?

The answer to the first one is…possibly.  But if you have an updated anti-virus installed (and see my earlier post here if you don’t!) then you are probably safe.

The answer to the second one is…it depends on what you are doing with it.  If all you do is check in with your friends on Facebook then the chances are that there is plenty of life in the old dog yet.

So, if the PC is OK and we don’t have a virus then what could be causing such bad behavior?  The most likely answer is the dreaded Bloatware!  <cue organ music and loud scream>.  Once installed bloatware sits there sucking the life out of your poor PC forever.

Let’s start by looking at that slow boot time.

When Windows starts it loads a number of programs during the startup.  When you install software companies often add their own items to the list of programs that start every time you turn on your machine.

These can be helpful, such as a program to start iTunes when you plug in your phone, but others do nothing more than run regular checks on their software to make sure that you are running their latest version – but do you really need that running all the time?  Finally others are much nastier and can do things such as monitor your internet traffic and pass information back to the mother ship.

One clue that you have too many of these things is to look in the bottom right hand corner of your screen.  If you have a ton of little icons sitting in the tray near the clock then there is a good chance that you have too much junk in your computers startup.  Just because they are there doesn’t mean they are bad, but you should know exactly what every one of those does and make a conscious decision to keep them.

Let’s start by getting rid of any startup programs that are not adding value.  After all, once these things load they typically stick around in your computer’s memory and just get in the way.  But which ones should you keep and which should you get rid of?  A little detective work is necessary here, but don’t worry, it’s not that hard.  In most cases simply typing in the name of the program (including the .exe) into Google will pull up search results that will tell you what it is, whether it is dangerous, and whether it should be there.

Once you figure out what to keep and what to get rid of, here’s a nice little article that covers how to remove things using the built-in msconfig.exe utility or, my favorite, ccleaner.  http://www.howtogeek.com/74523/how-to-disable-startup-programs-in-windows/

Next, let’s take a look at that browser.  In the case of my friends PC she had 5 browser toolbars running.  I’m surprised she had any room to see any web pages at all!

So if your browser looks like this 

then it might be time to consider getting rid of a few things.  One way to do it is to go into your browser settings and disable them.  That works fine if you think you might want it back one day, but if you aren’t using the darn things anyway then why is it even allowed on your machine?   In those cases the better option is to to remove it completely.

Here’s a simple post that shows how to get rid of those pesky things entirely.  So here’s another post that will help you take care of that:

http://www.pcworld.com/article/241720/how_to_remove_browser_toolbars_in_internet_explorer.html

In the case of my friend about 30 minutes work (plus about 15 minutes waiting for reboots) had her PC  booting quickly and surfing like a Hawaiian native and I (naturally)  was once again the hero.

If you can follow a recipe then you can clean up your PC and have it running like new, so why put up with a slow PC ?

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Filed under Free Software, PC Problems?, Technology, Windows

My Favorite Free Software!

I love the Open Source/Free software movement.  It has provided me with some incredibly powerful tools to solve problems, not to mention hours of fun tracking down and playing with this stuff.

The following is a list of some of my favorite open source or free software tools.  It’s a mixed bag of things that can help improve productivity, solve PC problems, aid with development or just have fun.  

I’m always looking for more so please post your own favorites as comments and, assuming it makes my Geek-o-meter twitch, I will update the list as time goes on.

toondoo

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Filed under Free Software, Linux, PC Problems?, Technology