Category Archives: (Hopefully) Helpful Hint

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Write On

Let’s face it — English was not everyone’s favorite subject in school. Some people loved it, but others found daily classes about grammar rules, spelling, punctuation and all that little type-y stuff as about exciting as watching Windows 95 defrag itself. Sure, voice calls and video chat are modern forms of communication here in the Internet broadband era, but even then, a lot of interaction between people still takes place in written form.

If you feel insecure about your writing and grammar skills — maybe English wasn’t your thing in school or maybe English wasn’t even your first language — there’s help online. Take, for example, new Tech Writing Handbook, courtesy of the gang at iFixit.com.

techwritinghandbook

The Tech Writing Handbook is divided up into 11 chapters and one appendix. The manual guides the reader through the process of writing documentation — starting with research and building from there. The book also discusses adding photographs and other visuals to accompany and enhance your writing. Even if you don’t actually do any writing yourself, the manual is worth a look just for the logical steps it presents on how to explain a topic or task. In exchange for your contact information, you can also download a printable PDF that you can also keep on your tablet for those offline moments.

 

Need more help in wrestling the English language to the ground? Consider:

  • Purdue Online Writing Lab
    Brought to you by the English Department at Purdue University, the main Online Writing Lab page rounds up 200 free resources that cover writing (and teaching writing). You can also find information on research, grammar and mechanics, using style guides and more. You do not have to be a Purdue student to use the site.
  • GrammarBook.com
    Although it’s linked to a $15 offline grammar book, this site is a useful for its explanations of grammatical rules, including punctuation. It also has links to a blog and online videos explaining grammar usage.
  • Grammar Girl
    Need short, friendly tips to help your writing and find answers to questions like, “can I start a sentence with a preposition?” or the whole “who and whom” quandary? Call on Grammar Girl and she’ll help you out.
  • Grammarly Instant Online Grammar Check
    Have something you’ve already written and want it proofread? Grammarly is an online scanner that claims it can find and correct over 250 types of grammatical mistakes. It’s a paid service with fees currently starting at $30 a month, but you can try it free for seven days. If you don’t have a proofreader or copy editor reading behind you, Grammarly could come in handy.

These are just a few of the resources out there. You can find many other sites to help you out, like other grammar guides and online dictionaries — and mobile app versions as well.

Need a break from your studies? Chill out with a little classic Schoolhouse Rock.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Keep on the Sunny Side

herpderpThe Internet is a vast expanse of many things, including free speech in certain parts of the world. But the line between free speech, hate speech and those one-strand-away-from-being-a-houseplant trolls can get muddled, or even trampled, at times. Unmoderated comment areas have been known to pull in people who have nothing better to do than pick fights and be offensive, mixed in with those who actually have thoughtful additions to the discussion at hand. Mashable has even pondered why Internet trolls in general exist.

The comments section of YouTube however, has gotten a reputation for being a particularly wretched hive of scum and villainy in the Troll Department — it’s even generated its own set of memes. Case in point, General Mills having to turn off YouTube comments on a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial child because of the virulent racist screeds scorching the page. (Remember, if it’s a video, you posted, you can review or disable comments yourself.)

So, what else can you do?

For one, with a simple Web browser extension of your choice, you can block YouTube comments from appearing. Some of these extensions work by just disabling the comments field, while others scan the comment text for things like typos, profanity, all caps and other troll poopnoise – and then filter out the more obnoxious stuff.

The extensions that can block comments (as well as on-page advertising) include:

Chris Finke’s YouTube Comment Snob for Firefox and Chrome scans the comments and hides offensive ones that trip its filters.

If you want a more entertaining — or even educational — option consider a script or extension that replaces YouTube comments with something more enlightening.

  • Herp Derp changes all the comments to the most excellent herp derp, but you can still read a comment by clicking on it; for Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera.
  • NietzscheDerp for Firefox and Chrome also replaces YouTube comment text, but with quotes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche instead.
  • Fans of theoretical physics (or The Big Bang Theory) might like the FeynComment script for Firefox and Chrome. As shown below, it replaces YouTube comments with quotes from Richard P. Feynman.

feynman2

If you are tempted to read comments around the Web, sign up for the Don’t Read Comments Twitter feed that occasionally pops up to remind you not to go there. And if you find yourself just spending too much time on the social-media sites in general, consider one of those browser babysitters that limits your time or even blocks you from going to certain sites during the workday. The Productivity Owl gets it done for Chrome and LeechBlock does similar minding for Firefox users.

Some people like the comments section, warts and all. If you’re one of those folks, go have fun. You’ll never run out of material. But for those who are easily offended, or who just want a civil discussion, you have options. As Nietzsche himself once said, “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier and simpler,” but the same could be said about certain unmoderated Internet comments.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Picture a Better Passport Photo

If you travel internationally, you need to update your United States passport every 10 years — and this means getting a new picture taken. If you hate going to those little passport-photo places and want to have more control over what you look like on your official government documentation, you can take your own pictures with a digital camera (at least here in the US, anyway; check with your local government if you live elsewhere).

While you can take your own photo, but not just any snapshot will do. The State Department has the official passport rules and guidelines on its site, as well as a photographer’s guide and a photo composition template.

As for the photo requirements, here are some of the highlights:

  • Hand-held cellphone selfies are not allowed. The government wants professional quality pictures here.
  • Take the picture in front of a plain white or off-white background.
  • Make sure the photo presents the full head from the top of the hair to the bottom of the chin. You need to present a full-face view, facing the camera, without hats, sunglasses or other things that cover your head and face. If you normally wear eyeglasses, you can wear them, but you have to make sure there’s no glare in in the picture.
  • Use a neutral expression — no goofy faces or wacky grins — and be looking straight at the camera. Facial-recognition software likes neutral expressions.
  • Also, you are not allowed to use image-editing programs to “digitally enhance or alter your appearance in any way.” That means no overdone beauty-magazine cover retouching, zit removal or wrinkle smoothing. Just touch yourself up beforehand and take another photo.
  • The final photograph needs to be two inches tall by two inches wide — and you need to have two copies of the image. You also need to have your head centered within that space the height of the head and the eyes within a certain measurement within those two inches of photo. Full details are on the State Department Web site.

The site even has a free photo tool (shown below) that lets you prepare an existing photo on the computer for use with a passport. You basically start up the Flash-based app and select a photo stored on your computer. You can resize and rotate it if needed and crop it to 600 by 600 pixels. There’s a template on the page that helps you get the head size and proportions correct. Once you get the picture sized and cropped, you save it, print it and send it in with your passport application.

passporttoolAnd remember, if you haven’t renewed your passport in awhile, as of 2007, the State Department has only been issuing what it calls “U.S. Electronic Passports” — the kind with a computer chip embedded in the back cover. The chip stores an electronic copy of the same information printed inside the passport’s pages, including your photograph. As the State Department Web site states:

The inclusion of the digital photograph enables biometric comparison, through the use of facial recognition technology, at international borders. The U.S. e-passport also has a new look, incorporating additional anti-fraud and security features.

Curious about those electronic chips and records? Read up on the official US Electronic Passport FAQ. And then have a lovely trip overseas with your personally approved passport photo, the one you won’t be ashamed to show off at the border or customs counter.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Get More Out of Webmail

Want to make Webmail feel more like desktop mail when you’re checking your personal account at work or on a different computer? Sure, you can format messages in rich text and make folders in most services now, but here are a few other tips for managing your mail more efficiently through your Web browser.

1. Use keyboard shortcuts.

  • Gmail. Google’s mail program comes with one level of shortcuts that work automatically and another level that you have to turn on within the Gmail settings. The automatic ones are things like navigational controls for jumping around between messages with the arrow keys, that sort of thing. To turn on the second level of shortcuts, go into your Gmail settings by clicking on the gear-shaped menu icon, selecting Settings and tuning on the option for keyboard shortcuts. Once you save the changes, you get a couple dozen more shortcuts for composing mail, moving through conversations, archiving mail and so forth. Press the keyboard’s ? key to see a list of all the shortcuts.
  • Yahoo. Yahoo has all kinds of shortcuts for using Yahoo Mail, including those for composing messages, working with message lists and navigating.  Press the keyboard’s ? key to see a list of all the shortcuts.
  • Outlook.com. In Microsoft’s Webmail service, which used to be Hotmail, you can use the built-in shortcuts, or if you’re coming from Gmail or Yahoo, you can use those instead. When you’re in Outlook.com,  Press the keyboard’s ? key to see the shortcuts and get to the settings.

shortcuts

2. Drag and drop those attachments.

Most Webmail programs now let you do it this way instead of clicking the attach button and navigating through your hard drive to find the file you want to send. Gmail has more information here and Yahoo’s mail-attachment tips are here. Outlook.com still uses the Insert button, but you can choose to stick them on as “Files as attachments,” Pictures inline” or “Share from SkyDrive.”

3. Use integrated online storage for big attachments.

Speaking of the “Share with SkyDrive” option — got a 30-megabyte file that’s too big to attach to a normal message? The big three Webmail service all have integration with other cloud services. Microsoft’s SkyDrive can do the heavy lifting for mail attachments with Outlook.com and other mail programs. If you have Gmail, you can insert that big attachment that lives on your Google Drive to your Gmail message. Yahoo Mail recently linked up with Dropbox for similar big attachment handing.

Some things about doing mail on the Web will always be different than managing your messages with a dedicated desktop program, but Webmail does give you a lot of freedom and perks of its own. And just think how far it’s come since the original HoTMaiL’s official launch back on July 4, 1996, with its free two megabytes of storage.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Pass Me the Remote Control

“See the Start menu button? Okay, click that and go to Control Panel. No, Control Panel, over there. Do you see it? Yes, you have Control Panel, just look a little closer…”

Anyone who’s done technical support for a friend or family member over the phone has probably felt some frustration about not being able to see the computer’s screen to better assess the problem and guide the user along. Although they can often be overlooked, remote assistance tools — which let you see the other person’s screen and even take over control of the computer through your Internet connection — can make it easier for helper and helpee alike.

helpbunnyTapping in via remote assistance is not as hard as it used to be, thanks to new software and services. For example, Google recently added a Remote Desktop feature to its Google+ Hangouts group video-chat service.

There’s a little bit of set-up involved, but a guide on PC World walks you through the steps. The Remote Desktop function had been previously seen as an extension for the Chrome browser, so that’s a possibility as well for helping out from afar as well; Google has info on using it here.

If you don’t use Google+ hangouts, or the Chrome extention, the Windows operating system has its own Windows Remote Assistance feature that’s been around for at least a decade and also lets you tinker with someone else’s computer over an Internet connection; questions about it are answered here.

Mac OS X has a few ways to share the screen (including with the Messages app) so you can see what’s going on and better direct your support. Apple has its own instructions for screen-sharing in OS X 10.8 here.

Third-party remote desktop apps like LogMeIn or TeamViewer, but these can be pricey if your needs go beyond the freebie editions. There’s also a whole category of remote desktop apps for mobile devices as well, so search your app store if you want to go that way.

Because it involves surrendering control of the computer, a remote assistance solution should only be used between trusted parties — and at least one of those parties needs to know what it’s doing. Remote assistance is obviously better for diagnosing software problems that it is for hardware issues, but if you just need to tweak a setting or find a “lost” file that accidentally got saved to the wrong folder, it can be a great tool for wielding your Jedi Master technical expertise when you’re not even physically in the room.

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Time-Saving Sites

The Web is a vast place, full of information, but sometimes it takes longer to dig up the answer you need than you’d like. You do have other things to do, after all.

Take, for example, canceling services and subscriptions. Who wants to wade around in the customer-service section of a company’s site or be stuck in a caller queue for half an hour? Instead, stroll over to the WikiCancel site, which claims to be “the most current subscription, contract, and account cancellation guide.” Here, you can find links and information about canceling all sorts of things in one convenient location — it’s like one-stop stopping. Not all services are covered – for example, the page for quitting your TiVo service still needs to be written – but the site invites volunteers to contribute and write up a few cancelation instructions themselves.

wikicancel

Privacy on social media Web sites is another multi-layered topic that can vary based on what social media sites you actually use and take time to suss out. If you want to quickly see your privacy settings for a bunch of common social-media sites, visit the MyPermissions page. This free service basically creates a giant visual bookmark right in your browser that lets click through to the privacy and permissions settings for sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Instagram, Flickr and more. Once you click into your privacy settings for each page, you can make sure they’re set to the level you want for your accounts. There’s also a mobile app version for the iPhone.

mypermissions

(On a side note, Lifehacker also has a page called The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy that’s worth a read just to keep up with the ever-changing world of how much of your information Facebook gets to share with advertisers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has its own guide to protecting your privacy from Facebook’s new Graph Search feature as well.)

Having trouble getting Facebook — or any other online service — to load in your browser and wondering it it’s you or them? If that’s the case, visit the Is It Down Right Now? site, which keeps a running tab on the uptime of many popular Net sites and services. You can also check the status of other Websites by entering enter its URL into a box on the page and a fresh site-status test will be performed.

isitdown

If all goes well, you save a few minutes here and there, get some quick answers and move on to more exciting ways to spend your time on the Web.

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Playlist Inspirations

Are your playlist powers in a rut? Your music mojo feeling a little weak as you keep coming up with unexciting variations on the same old cardio workout theme or commuter mix? (Seriously, that’s enough with the “Call Me Maybe” on everything. Yes, you.) So if you want to perk up your playlists and get new ideas for songs and mixes, here a few suggestions:

  1. Many people like to publish their work as inspiration for others. You can find many a sample playlist online on Pinterest or sites devote to the art of the mix, like 8tracks, mixtaple.me and playlist.com. (Mashable has tips for using many of these sites here.)
  2. If you’re looking for workout mixes, check out fitness Web sites for ideas — FitBottomedGirls.com and Shape magazine’s online site are just two places that have some playlists to inspire.
  3. On-Demand Music services, which you can join and explore also give you access to music you may not be familiar with and knock you out of your slump with fresh tracks. Grooveshark, Hypster, Spotify, Last.fm, Pandora, Slacker Radio — they’re all out there.
  4. If you use iTunes and you’re feeling lazy, you can also use Apple’s Genius feature for making playlists automatically by algorithm. You basically click a song in your iTunes library that you want to use as a foundation for the playlist, click the Genius icon and let Apple do the mixing work for you. You can also edit or redo the results if you don’t like what you get.
  5. autoplaylistIf you like the idea of automation, but want more control over what tracks go into the mix, you can use the Auto Playlist feature in Windows Media Player or the Smart Playlists option in iTunes to tell the software what you want to hear. Once you make a new auto/smart playlist, you can tell the program what you want on it with a series of pop-up menus or text fields. You can pick tracks you have rated 3 starts or higher, use songs from a specific time period, factor in beat-per-minute and have your music program search your library for songs that meet all or some of your pre-defined criteria. The SmartPlaylists.com site, which is geared toward iTunes users, has more ideas and we’ll have links on how to use the Auto Playlists and Smart Playlists features on your show page. And remember, for this to work, you need to have really good tags in your music files.

You can also find playlist-making advice over on Lifehacker and Yahoo has a roundup of free online playlist sites. And if you just can’t think of a good name for your poppin’ fresh new mix of tracks, you can get help with that part, too, over at the Playlist Name generator site. The titles may be a bit on the goofy side — Warm Popcorn, Accidental Design, Whimsical Flesh and Insidious Sweater are just a few samples — but hey, you saved some brain cells not having to think too hard about it.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Notify Me, Cougar

Last week, we had a Hopefully Helpful Hint for the Windows 8 users and this week, we’re going to step it up for the Macfolk. OS X 10.8, also known as Mountain Lion, incorporates a number of programs and features that are also in Apple’s iOS system for its mobile devices. These programs include Notes, Reminders, the Calendar and Contacts, all of which can be linked together through Apple’s iCloud service so your Mac, your iPad, your iPhone and your iPod Touch all have the same information – in theory.

OS X and iOS have another thing in common: the Notifications Center. As on the iOS system, the Notification Center is your one-stop shopping location to see all the alerts you’ve gotten for new mail, GameCenter updates, missed FaceTime calls, Reminders, Calendar appointments, Twitter mentions and other things that you may want to know about. (Notifications on mobile phones are nothing new – in fact, the Android system had them first before iOS got on the bandwagon.)

To see the Notifications on your Mac, click the icon in the top right corner of the menu bar; it sort of looks like a pictograph of a bullet list. A panel slides out from the right side of the screen to reveal your notifications. If you’re using a Mac laptop with the multitouch trackpad, you can also see the Notification Center by swiping two fingers across from the right edge of the trackpad. Click the x icon to clear old notifications from the list.

You can configure which apps notify you and how they get your attention in the System Preferences area of the Mac. You can choose to be pestered by onscreen red-circle number badges on dock icons, by banners that slide down from the top of the screen and then go away, or by alerts that won’t leave until you make them.

NotificationsIn the Notifications preferences box, you can also choose to add sound to your alerts if you want the Mac to give you an audio cue with a notification. If you work in an open-plan cube farm, however, your co-workers may kill you unless you wear headphones all day. Then again, wearing headphones in an open-plan cube farm is the only way some people can get any work done without killing their co-workers, so a total win-win could be on the books here.

Episode 31 News: “Give me a ping, Vasili. One ping only, please.”

whoopsLate last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert about a flaw in Oracle’s Java software that could have potentially put 850 million computers at risk. Apple, Mozilla and other companies advised uninstalling or disabling Java until an update was available and Oracle put the pedal to the metal and rushed out a fix over the weekend. Security experts, however, were still dubious about patch, lingering security issues or even the need to still run Java in the first place.

Java security flaws are also suspected in a wave of cyber-espionage attacks on computer networks used by several international governmental, scientific and diplomatic agencies The attack campaign, dubbed “Red October” by security firm Kaspersky Labs, seems to have been active since 2007 and continues — albeit without the brawny Sean Connery-Alec Baldwin star power of the 1990 film that was made from the namesake 1984 Tom Clancy thriller, “The Hunt for Red October.” (The film version is available to stream on Netflix, and if you have a Nintentdo Wii, you can also watch it there since Amazon’s Instant Video service is now available on your game console.)

In case you have too many online friends and can’t keep track of their interests, Facebook just introduced a new feature this week called Graph Search. This future tool lets you match up people on your friends list with things you are looking for, like buddies with similar hobbies — as long as they’ve shared the info publicly. Graph Search is in the beta stage and may cut into LinkedIn’s territory more than Google’s as some have speculated. Also in the social-network news: MySpace made its redesigned site available to the public this week.

John Scully, a former Apple CEO, said the company needs to adapt to a changing world by overhauling its supply chain to meet demand for cheaper smartphones in emerging markets. Competition from Samsung, which has now sold more than 100 million Galaxy smartphones, is probably adding to Apple’s angina. (Some research has even shown that younger buyers consider Samsung’s phones way cooler compared to the iPhone, which may feel like the 1990’s in reverse for the longtime Applefolk.)

But while Samsung and Apple duke it out in the profitability-and-popularity contest, Microsoft is still trying to get developers to write apps for its Windows Phone handsets. Perhaps in a whiff of reality-show excitement, the company launched a contest this week called “Window Phone Next App Star” that invites developers to create and submit their apps for judging and rating by public voters. Research in Motion is also in app-gathering mode and just got 15,000 new apps for the BlackBerry in about 37 hours thanks to a couple of Portathon sessions that invited developers to port versions of their apps for other systems to the BlackBerry OS for fun and prizes.

Meanwhile, up on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity Rover is rocking out and may be doing some drilling up on Mars. Yay, science!

Finally, we here at Pop Tech Jam note the passing of Internet prodigy and programmer Aaron Swartz, who sadly committed suicide at the age of 26 last week. Swartz, who helped create RSS at the age of 14, worked on other Web applications and was an advocate for freedom of information and open access online, was facing a Federal trial this spring for downloading millions of scientific journals, scholarly research and other documents from MIT and the JSTOR archive. While MIT has launched an internal probe of the events leading up to Mr. Swartz’s death, activists like the Electronic Freedom Foundation have called for an overall in computer crime law. Requiescat in pace, Mr. Swartz, and thank you for making the Internet a better place.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Germ Warfare

The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes travel and the general cold and flu season. Keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer close by and washing your hands frequently can help cut down on the spread of germs, but so can wiping down your gear, says WebMD.

Several companies make cleaning products designed to get the germs off mobile phones, where moist hands can spread those microbes around. This is where the whole concept of the wipe — the pre-moistened disposable cleaning cloth — fulfills its potential. Someone out there somewhere has a wipe product for just about anything, including babies, automobile interiors and even ferrets.

Celluwipes is one such moist-towlette product for your smartphone. A pack of 10 costs $3 from the company’s Web site. ZAGG sells its similar ZAGGwipes in packs of 15 antibacterial gadget-cleaning cloths for about $5.

Wireless Wipes, which are a pack o’ 12 for about $3, are made to clean cell phones, PDAs, and laptops. If you want minty-fresh hardware, these are probably the wipes for you, as rosemary peppermint is one available scent; you can also opt for pomegranate citrus or green tea cucumber.

RabbitWipes

If you work in an office where the landline is shared and more than a little grody, Fellowes sells a pop-up dispenser of 100 Phone Cleaning Wipes for about $11 at Staples and other office supply stores. You can also find cleaning kits for computer mice and keyboards that in addition to maybe killing a few germs, make the equipment all sparkly and much nicer to use. (Cleaning putty can also get in those hard to reach parts of a keyboard and other devices, plus it’s totally cool to play with.)

And when you get done cleaning, sit back and visit the Moist Towelette Online Museum to see the history of such an important product.