ElephantTech is Changing and Change Can Be Scary

“Change can be scary, especially when it’s not under your control, and it’s really scary when it threatens things that you find familiar and I think as the kinds of people we are… we have a really complicated relationship with the familiar and with change… we love changing things when we’re doing it. When someone else tell us “Don’t change that” we go “No no no wait, it’s good” but when they come over to us and say, “You should change this” we go “Hold on, hold on” and systemd represents a lot of disruptive change. And part of the problem with that is that getting a whole community to change, that’s really hard and it results in a kind of knee-jerk reaction to it and the problem with those kind of knee-jerks is that they lead to things like abuse and that’s not cool. You might not like systemd, but that doesn’t mean that you need to go and send death threats to Leonard.”
— Benno Rice (@jeamland) from the video below – 24 minutes

The quote above is taken from a highly technical talk on a highly technical topic, but it reads like good advice for so many of the political, religious, and societal discussions today. If the word “systemd” is replaced with “trade tariffs” or “gun control” or “climate change,” the piece would still make perfect sense.

This post is the beginning of a new direction for Elephant Tech, exploring some of the historical and psychological underpinnings of current events. Change is nothing new and despite differences in the topics, people, and speed of change, a deep dive into the human nature behind it all might provide helpful clues for understanding and addressing some of these major issues.

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 8 – Why Oh, Why WiFi?

I debated writing this article for quite a while before finally diving in because WiFi problems are some of the most frustrating in the digital world. Sometimes it can work for months flawlessly then for no apparent reason stop, become “flakey,” or otherwise misbehave in a wide variety of bizarre ways.

Googling “WiFi connection problems” returns 99,100,000 results and almost a dozen other suggestions in the “People Also Ask” section. After quite a bit of research and some interesting personal experience, it seems that there are three main categories of issues: Slow (including gradually slower and slower), Stopped, and Intermittent. To make it even more complex, the solutions to each of these situations overlap each other.  For example, a dead spot in a home can result in a connection that is slow, stopped, or intermittent. Even worse, WiFi radio waves are only about an inch long, so moving a phone or laptop slightly can make a big difference in the signal received. There can also be a dead spot right next to the WiFi router so putting a computer on the same desk right next to it might cause problems.

Specific Google searches combined with a systematic approach to solving the issue is the best way to solve 90%+ of WiFi problems. This CNET article “The most common Wi-Fi problems…” is a good starting point though I wish they had put the section “No Internet Connection” first. As usual, rebooting the WiFi router is the first step I usually take. I also like the website “Down Detector” which provides real time information on major internet service outages.

Ignore their big, scary message about cookies. They are located in the Netherlands where privacy is taken VERY seriously. Of course, if WiFi is down, how do you access a website? Simple, just turn off WiFi on your phone and use the cellular data connection, but don’t forget to turn WiFi back on or you might get an unpleasant billing surprise…

At this point, it is worth repeating that a systematic approach is best. First get closer to the router, then reboot the router, then reboot the computer, phone, TV, etc., then check to see if other devices can connect, then check Down Detector to see if the internet is down in your area, etc. etc. etc. If none of these suggestions work, then it’s time to go deeper by asking what might have changed around the time the problems began. Each requires a different approach and a specific Google search. A few examples include:

  • If you just installed a major software upgrade, do other devices like phones or tablets still connect? If so, Google the specific device that received the upgrade. If you’re having a problem, probably hundreds of others are too.
  • Maybe it’s something simple, like a cleaning spree near the router than has jostled a connection loose? It only takes a minute to mark the connections, unplug everything, and plug them back in.
  • If new neighbors moved in next door, is their router causing interference? A Google search for “wifi interference” might be helpful in this case. Baby monitors are particularly bad sources of interference as well.
  • If there was just an electrical storm and/or power outage, maybe the router was damaged? Despite usually painful wait times, some Internet Service Providers like Comcast or CenturyLink can diagnose problems like this from their end.

Finally, a small number of WiFi problems are just nasty ones and like a nasty plumbing problem, they require professional help to solve. I can’t vouch for Geek Squad personally, but they do have a “Home WiFi” service for $99… just sayin’…

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 7 – TV

In the beginning, there were TV antennas. Big ones on the roof, rabbit ears on top of TVs, small round ones on the back of TVs, and many other shapes and sizes. Then Cable TV became popular in the 1980s which made it possible to get rid of that ugly antenna and pay a monthly fee for dozens of local and special interest channels, back then 50 channels cost around $20 / month. Over the next few decades cable and satellite TV options exploded into the market. Soon there were hundreds of channels and costs skyrocketed. By last year, it cost over $100 / month for basic service which consisted of local channels plus hundreds of “special interest” channels that were anything but interesting.

So my wife and I finally became “cord cutters.” It wasn’t just the cost that was an issue, but ugly dishes and lousy digital video recorders (DVRs) finally swayed us. It was scary at first, but in the spirit of adventure, we tried Hulu, Sling, and Google TV (unrelated to YouTube). Unfortunately despite “Cloud DVRs” and the convenience of TV over the internet, they all had serious shortcomings and still cost around $40 / month.

The solution was to go back to the 1960s technology, an ugly antenna on the roof, but with a modern twist: a standalone DVR called Tablo. Now we get local channels (including PBS) in High Definition, record what we like, and watch it when we like. For movies and many older TV shows we have Netflix, Apple, and Amazon Prime Video.

For a total of $324 we purchased:

We actually used an existing bracket and cable on the roof so we only spent $288 and many people already have something that can take the place of the Roku so the total could be as low as $225 and even lower if you can use an indoor antenna. The Tablo works with Apple TV, Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast, some Smart TVs, and even an Xbox. Monthly charges are minimal and include $5 for the Tablo digital TV Guide (not required, but useful), Netflix $8, and Amazon Video $0 (included in Prime Membership). For people who have good reception, who only rarely watch local channels, and who can live with commercials, there are $20 indoor antennas that connect to any TV made in the last decade. Done.

Of course, some people are in apartments or locations that do not receive over the air (OTA) television so it is best to start with some online research. Websites like AntennaWeb.org (or the FCC website) can predict reception based on your address. On this website yellow does not mean caution, it means a small antenna could work. If reception seems possible then take the next step. An indoor antenna (purchased somewhere with a good return policy) connected directly to a TV is an inexpensive way to confirm. We needed a rooftop antenna because of a small hill near us, but an indoor antenna still picked up several stations.

How do we like our new TV world a couple months into this experiment? We LOVE it. There are no more complex boxes behind our TV with a rats nest of wires or an ugly dish on the roof. We can watch TV from our iPads if we want and even watch recorded shows when we are away from home through the Tablo. The Roku stick works very well and streams other services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. There are tons of other streaming apps available also like Acorn TV for British shows, PBS for streaming older shows, Vajra for Buddhist TV, etc.

It is funny though how we have come full circle. At least the indoor antennas are much more interesting now. Who thought the antenna below that looks like a piece of paper could save you $100 a month?

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 6 – For an iPad?

The previous post in this series provided some compelling reasons to ditch Windows for the Google Chromebook. Chromebooks are inexpensive, easy to switch to (especially if you already use the Chrome browser), secure, and have long battery life. Why even consider an alternative like the Apple iPad?

There are several reasons. Maybe the most important of which is that using a Chromebook implies that you are not only trusting Google’s cloud computing system, but also giving Google access to your data. Despite all the businesses Google is involved in, at its heart it is an advertising company. Your data is used to tailor ads delivered to you and others. That’s the price we have always paid for “free” Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Maps, Photos, Cloud Storage, etc.

Apple on the other hand has made it perfectly clear that “Apple’s customers are not its product” and they go to great lengths to be transparent about privacy issues. However, more compelling than vague discussions about privacy is the fact that if you use an iPhone, the iPad can run the same high quality apps. This is a MAJOR advantage over the Chromebook. Take a photo on your iPhone and it magically appears on the beautiful screen of the iPad. The same for bookmarks, contacts, calendars, reminders, notes, text messages, passwords, and the other bits and pieces of our digital lives. Sure Google can do this as well, but an iPhone paired with an iPad is a powerful, very well integrated combination. You don’t even have to pay for the app again. If you bought it for your phone, you can use it on you iPad for free.

The iPad also has outstanding technical support of AppleCare, 90 days are included and up to two years if you choose to purchase it. Even though I’ve rarely used it, I have always found AppleCare to be the best support in the technology world. Even their post-support surveys reflect their commitment to helping people solve their problems quickly and painlessly. In the screenshot of a survey below, Apple asks about “Compassion for your situation.” How many times has a tech problem been so frustrating that a little compassion by the support person would have been just the ticket?

Other benefits of the iPad include a wonderful size, excellent battery life, and high quality hardware that is supported by software updates from Apple for years. While the lack of a physical keyboard is an issue for some people, it comes in handy on cramped flights and makes the iPad much easier to hold for long periods of time. Like any high tech product though, the iPad is not without its issues. Copy and paste can be fiddly and file management is still a bit obscure since apps typically have not supported files the same way a laptop does. Also, the iPad doesn’t have proper “windows.” Apps take up the whole screen with one exception called “split screen” which is awkward to use.

Can the iPad replace a windows laptop? The answer is a definite yes. I sometimes go days without touching my desktop computer. Is it worth the extra cost? An entry level iPad costs only $329 compared to an entry level Chromebook’s that range from $199 to $299. Not much difference considering the risk involved. Is a Chromebook from Asus better than Acer, how about Samsung or HP, which model has the better screen, keyboard, warranty, reliability rating, etc.? There is such a thing as a Google Chromebook. It is called the Pixelbook and starts at $999, a whole different category of pricing.  If you buy an iPad, you get an Apple iPad, period.

So there’s less reason than ever to keep struggling along with a Windows based computer. If you’re still not convinced, buy an iPad. Apple has a 15 day, no questions asked return policy. If you live near an Apple Store, make an appointment at the Genius Bar to help you get started. I’m 95% sure that you won’t be taking advantage of that return policy.

The next post in this series will be discussing a slightly different topic, demystifying one of the most challenging parts of the high tech world: watching TV! Stay tuned!

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 5 – For a Chromebook?

The last part of this series ended by introducing two of the most popular options for getting rid of Microsoft Windows: the Google Chromebook and the Apple iPad. I hope you had a chance to watch the video “Is this a computer?” because it provides a brief humorous summary from an expert in the field.

First up is the Google Chromebook because it is probably the most cost effective and familiar option for people who have only used Windows in the past. A Chromebook works just like the name sounds, a notebook computer (aka laptop) that runs the Google Chrome browser as its primary operating system. This fact alone addresses many of the problems that face Windows users. The change is not as jarring because chances are you are reading this post using the Chrome browser (60% of people use it to access the internet). Also, Gmail users already have a Google account that stores bookmarks, contacts, calendars, etc. If this is the case, the switch is very easy and Google even provides a handy guide. To summarize the three steps:

  1. Sign into Chrome on your Windows computer (if you haven’t already). This synchs bookmarks, passwords, and settings.
  2. Back up your files, photos and music. The links associated with each of these will take you to the associated Google service.
  3. Sign in to your new Chromebook and open Google Drive. The files, photos, and music should magically appear.

In terms of software, a Chromebook can run 80%+ of the applications people use everyday including Photos, Music, YouTube, Google Docs (to replace Office), Skype, Dropbox, Netflix, etc. Chromebooks also update quickly and automatically, have built-in virus protection, long battery life, and typically cost a fraction of the price of a Windows laptop.

Does all of this sound too good to be true? Well of course it does! Google wants to make the switch seem as easy and painless as possible or nobody would do it. What are some of the downsides of the Chromebook? First and foremost, you have to trust storing your files in “the cloud.” Google has an excellent track record for storing users’ files, but not having files stored locally makes some people uncomfortable. Related to this is the fact that storing files online means that you have to (mostly) be connected to the Internet to use a Chromebook effectively. In fact, most Chromebook’s only have 32 GB of storage compared to most modern laptops that have upwards of 256 GB. There are ways to enable offline use, but these require a bit of extra effort to setup and maintain. Finally, printing can be a hassle because Chromebooks require “Google Cloud Print” instead of the more traditional USB or WiFi connection.

Despite these drawbacks, Chromebooks still have a lot to offer at a very compelling price, which is why so many K-12 schools have adopted them for use in the classroom. (As an added bonus, this means that tech support is as close as the nearest 11 year old!)

The Apple iPad will be explored in the next post in this series. Is the best option yet to come? Maybe, but if you’re already sold on the Chromebook after reading this post, make sure to get one from a store with a 30 day return policy because despite the higher price, the iPad also offers a lot to switchers, especially considering the popularity of iOS and the iPhone.