Tag Archives: technology

Cutting the Cord – Two Years On

cutting-cableTwo years ago I was finally ticked off enough with the continually rising cost of cable TV and cut the cord.

I missed Formula 1, and watching Wimbledon and the US Open was problematic, but overall life was good.

Last week I finally (long overdue) decided to cancel the home phone because the only people using that were telemarketers.

The person I dealt with was (for once) knowledgeable and didn’t try to talk me out of it. Instead he put me on to a deal that included high speed internet (60mbps) AND basic TV channels.  All for a monthly price of just $54!

So, two years after cutting the cord the TV is now back…but now I pay just $54 a month instead of $200.  My wife has been happily watching Wimbledon, I watched F1 practice last night for the first time in 2 years, and we haven’t had a telemarketer call in a week!

What did we learn in the past two years?

Pick the right device.


We started by using a Chromecast because they were cheap ($35) and I believed that Google would be able to expand quickly.  To use the Chromecast you need to use an app on a phone or tablet and this caused a lot of frustration.

Want to back up 30 seconds to catch the line you missed in your soap?  Grab your phone…unlock it…open the app (which probably closed)…if it’s an IOS device wait 30 seconds while it reconnects to the chromecast…then press backup…wait while it goes through…now keep pressing because by now you are 2 minutes further than you were when you started.  Arrgh!

It’s not all bad news.  It generally works pretty well if you play things from beginning to end, has a lot of services, and I can redirect the screen from my PC browser or Android tablet on to the big TV screen.

Ultimately though we came across a Groupon to buy a Roku device and now have a much more normal viewing experience.  Easier to navigate, no apps needed, and a normal remote control that reacts instantly.  My advice? go straight for the Roku unless you want to drive your family crazy.

What did we miss?

Some shows were simply too difficult to watch and we stopped.  Big Bang Theory was playable but only after jumping through hoops.  Tennis (US Open and Wimbledon) likewise required much hoop jumping.  And Formula 1 was impossible to watch.  F1 was the biggest thing that I personally missed.

homephoneGet rid of the home phone ASAP!

The home phone cost almost as much as the high speed internet…and no-one used it.  About 6 times a day we would get calls telling us our credit card interest rate could be lower or we had won a cruise.  Why was I paying nearly $40 a month for that? 

As soon as everyone had a cell phone we should have ditched the landline but, instead, we held on to this relic far too long.

Finally there?

Overall, the current setup looks like a good deal.  It took a while for the cable companies to catch up but it looks as though we are now almost at the point I wanted to be 2 years ago and my cable bill is 1/4 of what it was.

I’m off now to watch F1 qualifying for the first time in 2 years 🙂



Filed under Life - or something like it, Technology

Building an F450 quadcopter – After the Build

flight_mapAfter our successful first flight it quickly became obvious that having a machine that can fly is just the beginning.  In the weeks that followed there were a number of change, crashes, and not an insignificant number of problems some of which are still not yet solved.

All of this occasionally has me wondering why I decided to build a quad copter instead of just plunking down money and to answer that we need to go back about 10 years to when I took my first tentative steps into the world of websites.  Back then I started a web small business with a friend and the venture lasted about two years before closing it’s doors.

Was I sad that the company closed?  No!  In those two years I had learned far more by doing than I could have learned in the same time at school, and the same applies here.

Each problem is a puzzle to be solved, an opportunity to learn and, as I have discovered, a great way to make new friends.  As I learn I like to give back to the community that helped me when I can and, as such, I plan to memorialize much of my learning here in small posts dealing with very specific subjects.  Much will not be of interest to people, but my hope is that one day someone will benefit from the time it took to put this together.

Pay it forward!


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Filed under Building Multirotors, Education

Drones changing the world

xl2000In 1996 (with some prompting I’ll admit) my wife bought a GPS for my birthday.  It did nothing!  

It told you where you were and, if you put in coördinates (long/lat) it would tell you how far away that was, and in which direction.  That was it.

I told people this was going to be huge!  They thought I was nuts!

Look around – how far away is your nearest GPS now?  I’ll lay good money it is in your pocket.

fc40For my 50th birthday (with some prompting I’ll admit) my wife gave me a quadcopter and I’m telling you again, these things are going to change everything.  

Every time I take mine out for a flight people come over, ask questions and take photos.

The technology in these is already incredible and is changing at such a fast rate it will make you dizzy.  The one I have will hover in exactly the same place with no input from the operator until the battery dies (regardless of wind), climbs to crazy heights, flies fast, takes incredible rock solid pictures and movies, can carry a payload up to 2kg, and will fly home and land itself when the battery gets low.  The next level up from mine will do all that without human input – just from a pre-programmed route.

The potential for these is almost limitless.  

Here are just a few of the amazing projects people are already working on:

A flying defibrillator that can deliver life saving tools and help in any environment in a matter of minutes.  Ambulance Drone
 3-D mapping of environments  Aerial Mapping
 Search and rescue  Search and Rescue

And this is just the start.

Soon these will carry larger loads for longer periods, will have automatic obstacle avoidance, and will even be able to work together to handle things that a single drone could not.

Right now drones either cools toys, or scary flying cameras.  But, like GPS, they will soon be so common that you’ll not even notice they are there.

That is unless a few idiot users cause this fledgling industry to be regulated into oblivion.

As prices drop, and capabilities increase, there are the usual in-duh-viduals that seem to think that rules don’t apply to them and feel it is perfectly acceptable to fly at 6,000′, near airports, or over the heads of large groups of people in stadiums.

Based on concerns caused by these fools some regulators are pushing for laws that will require a full pilots licence – yes, the ones that let you fly real planes with people in them – for any commercial application.  That is crazy!  As one great quote said, asking people to have a pilots license to fly a 3lb drone is like asking for a medical degree before allowing you to apply a band-aid.

Assuming the regulators see sense, my prediction is that 10 years from now these will be so common you won’t even look up when one flies by.  You heard it first here folks!

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Filed under Life - or something like it, Technology

Drones – Cool or Creepy?

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will have realized that I have a strong geeky side.

My first PDA was a Psion organizer which I bought in 1986.  And I owned a Magellan GPS in 1996 – that was when you put in your destination as coordinates and all it would tell you is “Its 2.3 miles in that direction”

So it was with great delight that on my birthday I unwrapped a DJI Phantom FC40 Quadcopter.

This awesome little machine has a lot going for it.  GPS positioning allows it to stop and hover if you take your fingers off of the controls, and if you lose connectivity it will fly back to where it started from and land itself.

It also has a small 720P camera that can record videos and even let the operator to see what the camera sees in real time on their phone or tablet via a wi-fi connection.

It’s huge fun seeing video of yourself peering up and views of nearby landmarks from an aerial viewpoint, but this camera seems to be the thing that causes most people trouble.

I have to admit I was a little surprised the first time I was waxing lyrical about my newest hobby only to have someone tell me they thought it was a creepy.  But several people have made similar comments and I think people are really concerned that people are going to start using these things as a new means of spying on them or peeping into their homes.

I think this surprised partly me because nothing was further from my mind.  I had visions of flying this over the local pond, capturing some high altitude shots of my house etc.

I have already heard many people asking for additional regulation to stop that sort of behavior, and other people talking about shooting drones out of the sky if they see them.

As a person with a strong belief in people’s right to privacy I’m left in a bit of a quandary.

One of the things that often happens in these types of situations is that new laws and regulations appear that don’t actually add to protection, but do make life difficult for people trying to have some honest fun or innovate in a new direction.

Let’s be clear here.  It is already illegal to peek into people’s bedrooms and it doesn’t matter whether it is done with a drone, a high powered telescope or a ladder.  

But I also see trouble looming.  What happens when someone loses control of a drone and it damages a person or property?  What about if a drone distracts a driver and causes a crash?

And what about the benefits of having drones?  They have already been used to find missing children and stranded hikers and to survey damage in dangerous areas.

All of the above have already happened.

Clearly this is a space that is going to evolve rapidly in the next few years and, for the moment, the technology is far outpacing the regulation.  And perhaps that is a good thing.  Let’s remember that many people’s impression of the early internet was that it was a place to watch porn.  Knee-jerk regulations at that time could have easily stifled the greatest engine of innovation ever created.

It seems to me that a little patience is needed to see where this goes and allow people to work the kinks out on their own before we start adding new laws to the books.

In the mean time…here’s a short video…no bedroom shots included.


Filed under Technology

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.


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

Not doing this when searching? It’s like watching ads on your DVR.

Since the DVR arrived we almost never watch live TV.  In fact, on the rare occasions when I do, I still zipping through the ads and can’t understand why the fast fast-forward button has stopped working.  When I catch myself watching ads needlessly I curse and wonder if, one day nearer my death, I’ll regret all those wasted moments.

And yet I recently discovered that 90% of people are wasting time searching the Internet because they don’t know one very simple trick.  In fact, analysis suggests that people who know this trick are, on average, 12% faster than other people using when searching the web.

So…here it is.  On any web page pressing Ctrl-F will bring up a search box where you can type in a word and immediately jump to that on the page.  Go ahead, try it now to look for the word amazing…I’ll wait.

Not only does this magic key work on ALL web browsers, but also in office tools, PDF files, and pretty much anywhere else where there is text to be searched.

And there are many other keys that can save you a lot of time too and, since I’m on a roll, I’ll throw a few of my favorites in here:

  • Ctrl-Z = Undo.   This works even in places where no undo button exists.  I can’t tell you how many times this baby has saved me.
  • Ctrl-A = Select All.  The next time you need to select everything in a document or web page, just make sure your cursor is in the text you need and use this.
  • Ctrl-P = Print.  I think that one is self explanatory but, again, it works in many places where no print button exists.

Using just these four simple keystrokes will save you hours.  The only question now is what are you going to do with all that free time?

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Filed under Education, Technology

Corporate Anti-bodies

Today’s world is full of disruptive technologies and the old ways of doing things are rapidly being replaced.

Change is nothing new; what is new is the speed at which it is occurring.  I remember when synthesizers burst onto the scene in the 70’s, musicians were deathly afraid that live music was going to die.  Thankfully musicians were not replaced by robots, but many other industries have been fundamentally changed, or have even disappeared completely.

In each case there were companies that saw the future and embraced it leaving the companies that were too slow to adapt withering on the vine.  A few recent examples include:

  • Music distribution – iTunes is by far the biggest music retailer.
  • Manufacturing – Outsourced
  • Programming – Outsourced
  • Books – e-books now outsell print books on Amazon
  • Video & DVD rental – Streaming will eventually replace DVDs.

In each of the above examples companies buried their figurative heads in the sand and refused to believe what was happening until it was too late.  Blockbuster, Borders, and Tower Records were all household names in the U.S. and have all disappeared in just a few short years.

How did companies that had such huge market domination disappear almost overnight?

The answer: Corporate Anti-bodies.

Corporate anti-bodies are people who actively work against a new order of things.  There are many reasons why people do this:  fear of the unknown, unwillingness to take risks, lack of desire or ability to learn something new.

This is not a new phenomenon.  Machiavelli wrote about this in his famous book The Prince when he said “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”  Amazingly that was written over 500 years ago!

Two of the most common reasons ideas are attacked are:

1. “It wasn’t invented here.”

In these cases “not here” can mean the idea is coming from outside the company, or even from a new or different group within the company.  Hitler was famous for not wanting to copy the technology of his enemies, often failing to take advantage of new innovations in the process.  And thank goodness!

2. “We have already spent too much money on the old ways of doing things.”

Amazingly this is often seen as a perfectly legitimate excuse not to adopt something that is better and cheaper.  In this case the concern is that people are going to look foolish for investing in the current system, but no-one seems to feel foolish for throwing good money after bad.

The pace of change isn’t going slow, so if your new ideas are going to survive you need to find ways to get the corporate anti-bodies on your side.  After all, anti-bodies exist for a reason…


One way is to look for ways to include people who might become anti-bodies in your new idea.  Many times these people are the ones that have been in the company for many years.  Use their expertise and knowledge of how to navigate the corporate mine fields, or provide access to resources that are only available through back doors – then you can make them part of the solution.  Once you have them on your side, they can do the job that anti-bodies are meant to do and actually protect YOU from invaders. 


Filed under Career, Life - or something like it, The Human Condition

The Technology Jihad

There is a religious war being raged at this very moment in our homes, and in our pockets. It is a little quieter than your average war – for the most part, no-one is losing limbs to IEDs – but it is a war none-the-less.

These crusades are being fought between two main factions:

  • Those that wish to control the technology in your lives – “The Empire”, and the 800lb Gorilla in that camp is Apple.
  • Those that want technology to be free to create in new and innovative ways, without a single overlord ruling everything – “The Rebel Alliance”. The Rebels are supported by companies like Google, and by a group of loosely organized technical wizards (Jedi).

The Empire has jammed people into the box-car of conformity using slick user interfaces and the promise that you will be safer if you use their products.  As part of this they make sure that you can’t “harm yourself” by taking away features that they deem unsuitable for you (e.g. Flash video), and giving you just enough functionality that you won’t feel overwhelmed.  In a nutshell, they offer a sanitized computing experience for the masses.

This sanitation of experience is something that we seem to have adopted universally as a society.  Blogs such as Free Range Kids, show us just how much we dumb down things for our children’s protection, so perhaps we have no-one to blame but ourselves if we end up being controlled and manipulated.

But it was not always so.  Once upon a time people thought for themselves, and Apple fought on the side of good.  But Apple became corrupted by the money that is made by locking people in, and have since been consumed by the dark side.  Now they attempt to drive conformity to the Apple way wherever possible – Very interesting considering that Apple once used the slogan “Think different” and had a famous ad campaign using Orwell’s 1984 to represent the need to break the mold.  This was back in the days when the Apple still had color in its logo.

The safe, and easy-to-use, Apple products become the “Golden Handcuff” that locks you in. Once they have you, their marketing machine uses the power of the Dark Side to make sure you spend the maximum amount of money on your initial purchase, and yet still feel compelled to upgrade when the next version hits the shelves.  For example, where is the USB port on the iPad (still not there in version 2)?  And why can I tether my iPhone to my Netbook, but not to an iPad?  Obviously they want you to buy the more expensive 3G model and sign up for another monthly data plan – because recurring revenue is really where it’s at. The Force can have a powerful effect on the weak minded.

The Rebels, in contrast, are trying to create a world where you are free to use technology as you see fit. These Jedi use their amazing ability to manipulate technology (The Force) to create incredible software and then they give it away for free! But, along with great power, comes great responsibility.  Creating such an open system allows a vast array of software to be produced, but without a standard look and feel.  As a result these products often provide state-of-the-art capabilities, but are too confusing for novices to use.

The Rebel Alliance has pushed Linux as an alternative to Windows, and Android (based on Linux) as an alternative to the iPhone.  These are technically sound solutions, and the open nature of these ensures that there are plenty of apps available, many of which are free.  Unfortunately they can’t seem to get their act together and work as a team. The most successful Linux desktop (Ubuntu) is gaining ground with end-users by providing an easy to use, user interface.  But the hard-core Linux folks claim it is only for beginners (it is not) and seem to want to stick with ‘the old ways’ of using Linux just for servers.

This fragmentation of the user interface is making it difficult for Linux to gain widespread adoption. It also makes support difficult because the only way to make sure that a solution works in all instances is to go beneath the GUI – and that can mean support answers sometimes involve manually typing in commands like sudo mv /var/lib/dpkg/info/libopenal1.* /tmp”– seriously, can you imagine your mother doing that?

At the moment Linux is viable as a home computer platform only as long as you have someone slightly geeky who will take your calls. I have been slowly converting people in my neighborhood to Linux – not because I wanted to, but because they have problems with their computers and never seem to have their original OS disks.  Buying Windows is expensive so I usually leave them with a machine happily running Ubuntu, Firefox and Open Office.  So far I have converted about half a dozen people, all without complaint – but there is only so much I can do in my role as part of The Resistance!

The Rebel Alliance have had better luck penetrating the mobile phone market, and Android phones now outsell the iPhone. This makes sense in a market that has not yet created a standard look and feel.  And perhaps, The Rebels can use this platform to open a chink in the armor of the desktop space, and make some real inroads in the future.

I believe in the open source movement – I really do.  I feel as though they have justice on their side, and I use so much open source software now that the thought of actually buying software sends a shiver down my spine.

But the Rebel Alliance are vastly outnumbered by the hoards of Luddites who just want their devices to work and, in the process, are happy to fork over money for software that they could easily have gotten for free if they had known better.

The war is on, and the future is uncertain.  But, to paraphrase Ben Franklin “Those who give up Freedom for Security, deserve neither.”

Choose wisely, and may The Force be with you.


Filed under Life - or something like it, Technology, The Human Condition

On-Demand Demands Too Much!

As a child, I remember rushing home to catch my favorite TV show, “Dr. Who”, and  I would sit, glued to the TV, as my hero fought the next batch of aliens foolishly trying to take over the world.  And, yes, we even watched the ads.

Back then, you either watched the show as it aired, caught up with friends, or pieced together what happened from the next episode.  If it was the last episode of a series, well then you were out of luck.

Those days are long past, and modern technology is providing us with an On-Demand world.  A world where tools such as DVRs, Blackberries, and laptops allow us to choose not only the time, but also the place, that tasks can be accomplished.

But beware!  While On-Demand and remote technologies can be a huge boon to productivity, they can also be a curse that eats away at your free time like a cancer, leaving you trapped in a time debt that can be as serious as any financial crisis.

Time is a commodity that is becoming ever more precious, and advances in technology are allowing us to shift tasks to a time that is more convenient.  Unfortunately “more convenient” often means getting less sleep, or moving work tasks into our precious family time.  I have news for you – being in the same room as your family with your nose buried in a laptop is NOT the same as having quality family time.  And when you find yourself skipping pages in your child’s bedtime story, because you have to get back to work, you know you need help.

The encroachment of work into our personal lives has reached the point where vacation time is now an “occupied territory”.  You know how it goes.  You go on vacation and come back to find yourself backed up with 500 unread emails, and 15 hours of recorded TV shows waiting for you.

You know that you will never clear that email backlog while you are actually in work, so you spend the last weekend of your vacation cuddled up on the sofa with your laptop, wading through the email bog, ignoring your family and listening, with half an ear, to the shows you wanted to watch.

So…the next time you go on vacation you take your Blackberry, “just to keep on top of those pesky emails”, but the siren call of the little red light draws you in every time it starts to flash, and you find yourself looking more at your emails than the scenery.  Finally your spouse reminds you that you are supposed to be spending time with the family, and threatens to throw the damn Blackberry in the toilet…which is where you find yourself checking it from that point forwards.

The pressure to be “always-on” has never been higher – and if your Blackberry is on, then so are you!  That pressure to respond immediately forces us to borrow time from the present, leaving many of us in a situation where we are not only in a serious time debt, but we can barely make the minimum payments!

So, how do you get yourself out of this backlog, and avoid repeating it in the future?  Well, here are a few tips that might help:

1.  Big Rocks

The Big Rocks story tells us that we must put the important things into our lives first.
So start by making a list of thing things that are most important to you, and then put them in order of priority.  Make sure that you involve your spouse in this step, because they almost certainly have ideas on what your priorities should be.   Knowing what your priorities are is a key step to getting things back under control.  Once you have that list, carve out time on your calendar for each “Big Rock” to ensure it gets the right attention.

2. On vacation:

Before you go on vacation, change your Out of Office message to say you are on vacation and will have no access to email.  Trust me, if you say something like “limited access”, people will interpret that to mean you are checking email and will be p’d off if you don’t respond.  And don’t reply to any emails – people talk and do tell each other that you are responding.

Leave your Blackberry behind if you can.  If you must take it, because it doubles as your phone, then turn off the emails or, at the absolute minimum, set it so that emails do not make the phone beep or vibrate.

If the work pressure is so intense that you simply cannot avoid emails, set aside a specific time of each day to check and respond to emails -and then enjoy the rest of your vacation time.

Most important – when you return, don’t spend hours wading through hundreds of emails.  Find out who sent you things and…gulp!…actually call them!  Ask them what was important, what you missed, and whether there are any emails that need to be responded to.  And then tell them you are going to ignore the rest of their emails – you will be surprised how often a 10 minute phone call can save you hours of email wading, and actually be more beneficial.

3. Email Bankruptcy:

If you find yourself so far behind with email backlog that you will never catch up – Declare Email Bankruptcy!  Mark all of your unread mails as read, move them to a folder (don’t delete them – just in case), and then ask people to re-send anything that was vitally important. This will annoy some people, but most people will find it amusing and wonder why they didn’t think of that.

4. Limit TV Recordings:

For all but your most favorite TV shows, change your DVR to keep only two episodes.  And treat the addition of future shows as if you were using a credit card.  If you can’t make substantial payments on that debt, then don’t do it!

5. Change Attitudes:

Perhaps, more than anything else, the biggest problem today is the pressure that is put on us by the changing attitudes of employers, and even co-workers, to the point where people are now expected to be available 24/7. But burn-out is a serious problem today, and this is not good for the employee nor the employer in the long run.  Remind your boss and coworkers, that home life is not only important, it is essential, and helping employees to achieve a good work-life balance can actually be a great way to attract the best talent.  Take every opportunity you can to spread the gospel of work-life balance using resources such as the Alliance for Work-Life Progress.

Used correctly, technology can provide a huge boost in efficiency.  As an example, I once downloaded 40 hours of free lectures from Berkeley onto my iPod, and turned normally unproductive commuting time into a classroom.  I passed that exam without attending a single class.  Technology is not evil unto itself, but must be managed and controlled.

If you are wary of the dark side of the On-Demand world, you can reclaim your life, your family and, just maybe, get back to watching a TV show that actually aired the same week. But, feel free to skip the advertisements


Filed under Career, Life - or something like it, Technology, The Human Condition