Episode 22 News: Zombie Jamboree

Windows 8 and its new Surface tablets hit stores at the end of this week and they have at least one major fan – former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. In a busy week, Microsoft updated the Xbox 360 with new features, including Web browsing on the TV with Internet Explorer on the Xbox and voice search through the Kinect controller. The company also put its new Office Web apps on its SkyDrive cloud service and Outlook.com. The Office Web Apps allow users to share and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files in a Web browser.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note II big phone/little tablet arrived this week, as T-Mobile stores received their shipments and AT&T getting them on November 9th. Sprint, which has been added to the cellular carrier list for the iPad, continues to build up its 4G LTE network around the country.

After months of rampant speculation and rumors (garbled at times or otherwise), Apple announced a bunch of stuff this week, including a new Mac Mini, updated iMacs, a 13-inch Retina display MacBook Pro, and oh yeah, new iPads maxi and mini. (Should they just rebrand the iPod Touch the iPad Micro at this point?) Also, word has it that Apple is testing an update to iOS 6 that’s supposed to fix several issues with the software on the current crop of iOS hardware.

One of Amazon’s cloud computing data centers had a little power outage this past Monday, so if you were trying to use the Foursquare, Pinterest, Reddit or TMZ sites and couldn’t, that was probably why. Amazon Web Services was restored later, but not before several people complained on Twitter. And BlackBerry also had some woes, as a prominent Federal agency has decided to end its contract Research in Motion and issue Apple’s iPhones to its employees. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency liked the iPhone’s tighter controls over hardware and software compared to other mobile platforms out there.

Android had more security woes this week as researchers tested 13, 500 popular apps in Google’s Play store and found that 8% failed to protect bank account and social media logins. (Yes, data is worth money in many ways, and an executive at IBM has even called Big Data one of our most valuable emerging natural resources.) Another government agency had news this week as well — the Federal Trade Commission, released its official Best Practices document for companies using facial recognition technology.

Meanwhile, up on Mars this week, the Curiosity rover took its fourth scoop or Martian dirt to analyze in its onboard lab!

And finally, PopCap Games, maker of the addictive Plants vs. Zombies videogame, is teaming up with the American Dental Association to promote good oral hygiene in this candy-laden time of the year. PopCap is making coupons for free downloads of Plants vs. Zombies available for parents to dispense to trick-or-treating children as a healthier alternative to candy. Check it out here, and be sure to brush after those Halloween treats you do score next week.

Episode 22: Purple Monkey Dishwasher

J.D. and Pedro parse out Apple’s iPad Mini announcement; non-partisan voter guide websites; a review of Apple’s new iPod Touch; Microsoft’s huge week; Samsung debuts a new “phablet”; Amazon Web Services go down again plus much, much more.

Hopefully Helpful Hint: Rock the Vote

With the US elections looming and campaign advertising at a high-pitched screech, it might be hard to block out the noise long enough to get basic information about how and where to actually vote. If you’re unsure where to go or don’t know the hours your polling place is open, you can usually find out quickly. Just run a quick Web search with the terms “board of elections” and the name of your state as keywords to get specific details for voting in your area. (And check that pile of snail mail on the kitchen counter — if you’re a registered voter, you may have already received an information card in the post with the hours and address of your polling site.)

In addition to local resources, these sites offer voting tips, candidate guides, polling-place finders and more. Read up, so once you decide on the candidates you’re voting for, the follow-through is the easy part.

  • United States Election Assistance Commission
    This site offers “A Voter’s Guide to Federal Elections,” available in 11 languages. It is designed to help voters successfully navigate the federal elections process, from registering to vote to casting a ballot on Election Day. It also has a PDF with voting tips available to download.
  • Vote USA
    Backed by Google, Business Online and other groups, this informational site wants to be “one-stop shopping for voters.” While it is not associated with any election authority, Vote USA collects information from official sources around the Web. As the main page states: Get your customized sample ballot and evaluate your candidates and ballot measures. Pictures, bios, YouTube videos, social media links and, most importantly, the candidates’ positions on the issues are all presented side-by-side for easy comparison. And, all information is candidate authored or obtained from the candidates’ websites. Vote-USA has no political agenda.
  • VOTE411.org
    Run by the League of Women Voters, VOTE411.org also collects nonpartisan information on candidates in general and state-specific elections. Just enter your address into its online form to get the details on races in your district, as well as absentee ballot information; early voting options (where applicable); factual data on candidates in various federal, state and local races; ID requirements; polling place locations; voter qualifications and voting machines.

Remember, Election Day is November 6. Be there and mark your square!

Episode 21: Privacy Rants and Repurposed Gear

This week Pedro frets over his online privacy and J.D. fills us in on how to put old media players to good use. In the news the Tablet Wars of 2012 continue, European regulators take Google to the woodshed, and Facebook adds to their antivirus toolbox.

 

Episode 21 News: It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World

Another shot has been fired in the Tablet Wars of 2012 this week, as Microsoft’s Surface went on sale for pre-orders. Apple finally sent out invitations for its second fall event, to be held on October 23 — will we soon be able to stop speculating about the iPad Mini? Archos is doing the opposite of mini with its Archos Arnova FamilyPad. which reportedly sports a 13.3-inch screen.

As for this week’s helping of privacy and paranoia, Google’s privacy policy has angered data-protection officials in the European Union, Verizon Wireless is monitoring its customers’ habits and selling the data, and the Direct Marketing Association is gearing up for a campaign to convince the general public that they shouldn’t be worried about being hounded all over the Web by ads. (Okay, how long until we get biometric personalized advertisements tracking us through the mall? Really? That soon?)

Facebook, which is usually in the middle of some sort of privacy squall itself (but not this week), expanded its Anti-Virus Marketplace and added mobile offerings this week. This is all part of the site’s efforts to shore up security, which also includes the mailbox for reporting phishing attempts that was set up earlier this year. And LinkedIn, hoping to be more social itself, redesigned its profile pages this week.

That new Boxee cloud-based DVR with HDTV antenna box that was just a rumor a few weeks ago now has a price tag and arrival date: $99 and November 1.

If you bought a lot of ebooks from certain publishers, you may even get some cash back for a Boxee purchase or other goodie, thanks to the settlement from that big ebook pricing lawsuit.  If you bought a lot of digital titles between April 2010 and May 2012, check your mailbox because you may have gotten an email message from your book dealer about potential refunds. Amazon already has a FAQ page set up for its customers on the topic.

And finally, is your smartphone cool enough to be seen in public? A story in The New York Times this week takes a look at BlackBerry users who are ashamed of their devices in a world of hipster touchscreen smartphones. Seriously, folks, if you mainly just use the phone as a phone and don’t need the apps, forget the peer pressure to get a cooler phone, embrace it — and go full honkin’ retro.

 

Gear for Good

Got an old iPod, other MP3 player or cellphone that’s just taking up space in the junk drawer? Get it out of there and let someone else put it to good use. As studies from places like the Institute for Music and Neurological Function and others have shown, music therapy can be incredibly helpful for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, strokes and other conditions. One such project is called Music & Memory, which collects donated iPods for patients in music-therapy programs. The Mary E. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA has a similar initiative called TAP (Tunes for Alzheimer’s Patients) that takes donations.

Old cellphones are also in demand. Several organizations, like Cellphones for Soldiers and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, are among those that repurpose gently used mobile phones for a good cause. Some wireless carriers have their own programs like Verizon’s HopeLine and Sprint’s Project Connect. The Volunteer Guide has a list of other places where you can recycle your old phone and make a difference.

And if you’re jumping into a new Windows 8 computer soon and leaving your old desktop or laptop behind, organizations like the National Cristina Foundation accept old-but-still-functional computer gear. Before you donate, be sure to read Tech Soup’s “Ten Tips for Donating a Computer” and the Environmental Protection Agency has suggestions as well.

Another benefit of passing your old gadgets along to someone who can use it? You can finally get that junk drawer cleaned out at last.

 

Episode 20: Find Your Inner Code Monkey

In a Hopefully Helpful Hint segment J.D. takes a look at some inexpensive websites that will show you how to become a programmer. In the news Google pushes for quality Android tablet apps; a new rumor making the rounds claims the aforementioned Google and Apple nemesis Samsung are teaming up to develop a Nexus branded 10″ tablet; and tech giants band together to create the Web Platform Docs project, a new community-driven site for web developer documentation.

Episode 20 News: Love and Rockets

Google is getting serious about having nice-looking apps designed for tablets running the Android system posting its “tablet app quality checklist” on the Android Developer’s site this week. That could come in handy, say for developers working on something like a 10-inch Nexus tablet co-produced by Google and Samsung. (But while the big tech companies may be slugging it out in the Tablet Wars, many of the big names are joining together with the World Wide Web Consortium to create a community resource site for developers called Web Platform Docs.)

Apple’s latest iPods are beginning to ship out to customers who pre-ordered them last month and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 handsets will be available for pre-order in the US on October 21st. If Windows 8 has your attention, Acer announced another Windows 8 tablet headed to stores on November 9th  — the Iconia W510 , which joins the larger Iconia W700 tablet (due October 26th ) in the Win8Tab world.

On the malware front, Skype users on Windows machines need to keep a look out for malicious instant messages with a question about a “profile pic” and a link full of nasty software that loops the PC into a botnet. And Facebook, ever tinkering with profile layouts and everything else, is testing a new feature called “Collections” that’s aimed at retailers and those who like to shop.

Curiosity continues to rove around Mars, but that’s not the only space news this week. Despite a failed engine and a mishap with a satellite, the private company SpaceX sent up a Dragon cargo capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket with 882 pounds of supplies for the International Space Station.

Back on Earth, Boxee, a streaming TV set-top box, is said to be adding an HDTV antenna and a digital video recorder to its next model. Free over-the-air TV and plenty of Web streams could make you forget all about the cable company. And if you’re looking for something to watch on broadcast TV, check out TG Daily’s guide to genre TV this season. Who knows, some of these shows may help pass the time until the Doctor returns.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Learn to Code

A few episodes ago, we talked about iTunes U as a free source of educational courses, content and lectures from major universities. Along those lines, you can also take free computer science and programming classes from sites like Coursera and MIT’s Open Courseware.  Practical Programming in C is one such course offered on the MIT site.

Want something a little looser in format — but just as educational that you can do in your own time? Visit the Codeacademy, which is the product of a start-up company based here in New York. On its interactive Web site, you can take lessons in a few different languages including Python, Ruby, JQuery and JavaScript and learn website fundamentals.

If Ruby piques your interest, there’s also the TryRuby interactive site. It’s linked to the Code School site, where you can sign up for and try classes for free — and then pay $25 a month if you want to keep learning.

Want to learn Ruby on Rails, which is an open-source full-stack web application framework that works with the Ruby language? Try the Rails for Zombies site, also from Code School. (Zombies, we just can’t get enough of zombies — especially with The Walking Dead returning with new episodes this weekend.)

For the younger set, there’s CodeMonster from Crunchzilla. CodeMonster uses a fun way of guided interaction to teach live JavaScript programming. For example, the screen suggests you change a number. When you do, the colored box next to the code changes size so you can see the cause and effect of your programming actions. You go from colored boxes to working with basic animation and fractals. Other examples introduce standard programming concepts like expressions, functions and loops.

Another site for young programmers is <Code/Racer>, which is a multiplayer live game that teaches how to write the code for a basic Web site in HTML and CSS. If you already know how to do that, the site tests how quickly you can code.

These sites are just a few of the many options out there, but a good place to start your search for a programming language to learn. And once you get the skills down, you can flaunt the wardrobe.

Episode 19: Music and Comics: What More Could You Want?

J.D. channels her inner-superhero and gives us the lowdown on comic book tablet apps while Pedro gets into the groove with Android music players. In the news, Google passes Microsoft to become the second biggest technology company in the world; Facebook tries to calm privacy concerns; and the White House thwarts a cyber attack.