Demystifying the Digital World – Part 2 – Background

The next part is this series was inspired by a recent article from Anil Dash, “12 Things Everyone Should Understand About Tech.” First, who is Mr. Dash? According to his own website, he is “a technology entrepreneur, activist, and writer focused on making the tech world more humane and ethical.” He is also the CEO of Fog Creek Software, a company that has been on the cutting edge of creating humane and ethical tech for almost two decades. I’ve written about Fog Creek’s advanced business practices in this blog.

Mr. Dash’s article, while long, makes several points that are helpful in understanding why the digital world has become so complex. He states, “All of the changes in our lives that happen when we use new technologies do so according to the priorities and preferences of those who create those technologies.” This means that people creating the products that we struggle with everyday are people who live their daily lives in such complex technical worlds that they don’t see the complexity anymore. The engineers who designed that TV remote with 25 buttons don’t see 25 buttons, their brains immediately filter out all but the four they need to operate it effectively.

Mr. Dash also explains that, “Tech is often built with surprising ignorance about its users” which is certainly self explanatory given the need for the thousands of “How To” websites on the Internet. The article goes on to explore several other related topics such as how tech companies make money and how this affects our experiences with their products as well as why understanding these concepts is important to changing tech for the better.  In summary though, the responsibility is on us to balance the usefulness of each piece of tech in our lives with its demands, then taking steps to reach a healthy balance. The first step is deciding which are the most critical projects to tackle.

  • Are 12,000 “precious” photos scattered across 5 computers stressful?
  • Are there 4,328 unread emails split between several email accounts making it impossible to find anything?
  • Are passwords written on dozens of sticky notes stuck to the bezel of your computer monitor?

With so many topics to cover, clearly not every article in this series will be useful to everybody, but we will start the next post with the elephant in the room, getting rid of Microsoft Windows if at all possible. This tech product is the one that seems to cause the most tech-stress in people’s lives. Interestingly, the time is long past for people needing a traditional computer. So “We need to talk about tablets.” Did you know you can get a Chromebook for under $200? There are trade offs of course so don’t go out and buy one just yet, but even these basic models can handle email, documents, photos, web surfing, and other tasks with ease.

Of course, this entire discussion assumes that you did your homework from the last post and recently backed up your computer. If not, go get a hard drive and do it. I’ll wait.

Demystifying the Digital World – Part 1 – Introduction

In the last few years, our digital lifestyles have become a major part of modern living. For example, getting a message online used to mean email and “Instant Messages” (aka IMs). Now they flood in through email, text messages, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and many other sources. These messages used to be accessed from a desktop computer, but not any more. Today most of us have at least a computer and a smartphone while some are “lucky enough” to have a computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet, and maybe even a smart watch.

Digital photos are another good example. While valuable, they end up stored on computers old and new, hard drives, smartphones, The Cloud, and sometimes combinations of these, creating messy duplicates and lost photos. Other examples include music, digital calendars, digital receipts, bank statements, and the classic problem of keeping track of important digital files. Most of these activities require software, website access, and also have apps for phones, all of which have different user interfaces.

Even when well organized, complexity can lead to things going wrong from time to time. Devices fail, software gets updated, passwords are forgotten, hackers can wreck havoc, or we can simply forget how a certain device works, especially if it is not used often. I’ll bet that 90% of homes have the WiFi password on a sticky note somewhere near the router.

Still not convinced, how about these nagging questions?

  • Television: Why are remotes so complex? Why do we need a list of procedures that looks like the checklist from Boeing 747 to use them? 
  • Computers: Why are they updated so frequently, often “automatically,” and often right when some critical task needs to be done? (Smart phones and tablets fall into the same category.)
  • Printers: Why do they beg for ink for weeks, but keep printing? Or they stop printing for no apparent reason, then spew dozens of pages of gibberish. Ours has a particularly endearing habit waiting ten minutes, then making a loud noise when it “goes to sleep,” scaring us every time.
  • Internet: Why can’t we stay online reliably? WiFi has been around for almost 20 years and routers still look like alien spacecraft.  Here’s an interesting side-note, the term WiFi actually stands for absolutely nothing (which might explain a few things). Other issues include malware and the fact we now need to keep track of passwords for dozens of websites.

After millions of years of evolution during which the most complicated problems humans wrestled with involved agriculture and animal husbandry, how have we so quickly transitioned into a world where complexity seems to be spiraling out of control?

However, grappling with complexity is not new. Confucius was quoted in the 1st century as saying “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” The famous concept of Occam’s Razor is the basis for the “preference for simplicity” in the scientific method. This sounds modern but is actually attributed to William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan friar. Some people like to quote Einstein as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” because it sounds like something he would say. It’s a great quote, but it’s not from Einstein (and the source is much more complex). Even the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) was coined by Kelly Johnson, the lead engineer who helped create some of the most complex aircraft ever built such as Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, among others.

Of course, reasonable complexity is welcome, but too much can be crippling. Therefore this series of posts will focus on providing suggestions for resolving common problems quickly and efficiently by balancing complexity and simplicity. Along the way, there will be discussions about a variety of topics from the complexity inherent in modern technology systems (for example, what is “The Cloud”) to the scholarly work being done in the field by groups such as Santa Fe Institute’s “Complexity Explorer.”

If you have a particular topic of interest, please let me know. In the meantime as a teaser, the next post will start with a couple of “digital housecleaning tips” that will help you get a jump start on doing some Spring cleaning in your digital life. Until then, if you are not backing up your computer, your homework is to read this article and do it! Remember, “To Go Forward You Must Backup!”

The Firefox Browser, Internet Freedom, Web Literacy, (yawn…)

But it’s really not a boring story at all. Back in the early days of the Internet, the first browser, called NCSA Mosaic, was born out of the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Mosaic eventually became Netscape Navigator which spawned a not-for-profit organization founded in 1998 called Mozilla. Amazingly, 20 years later, this company is still around  and is one of the leaders in the fight to keep the Internet free and open.

Hardly anybody but techies know about it, but Mozilla makes Firefox which has recently received a major upgrade into a fast, powerful, safe, modern browser than can comfortably replace Google Chrome or Apple Safari. In fact, I’m typing this article using Firefox right now and, with the addition of an Ad Blocker, it seems even faster than Safari.

However, it is their mission that really sets them apart. Their recent email “Goodbye corporate domination” starts with the question “All browsers are the same, right?” Their response to their own question is fascinating:

Not quite. Firefox is on a mission — to be faster and leaner than ever, always respectful of your privacy and open like no other browser out there. Because it’s built for people, not profit. Firefox is part of Mozilla’s mission to keep you in control of your online experience and ensure that the web stays weird, healthy and inviting to all.

This sent me down a rabbit hole of learning about the many, many ways they are working to fulfill this mission. Everything from teaching “Web Literacy” to “The Mozilla Manifesto: Principles that guide our mission to promote openness, innovation & opportunity on the Web.”

In a world where the basic health of the Internet is in jeopardy from the repeal of Net Neutrality, the wide range of online security threats, and violations of the most basic issues of privacy, Mozilla is doing an incredible job addressing these threats and educating the public.

So even if you love Safari, Chrome, or (gasp) Edge, give Firefox a try (again, an Adblocker makes online life much nicer too!). You might like it or just give them a few bucks (and Wikipedia too). They even have a handy guide to switching that takes less than a minute.

We get so much for free from “the Internet,” it feels nice to give back a bit to the people to keep it that way.

iOS Grows Up Part 2 – Mommy What’s a Computer?

Two months ago part 1 of this post ended by asking, “So what did iOS users get with iOS 11 that demonstrates that it is growing up?” While Apple’s official marketing materials provides the big picture regarding the new level of maturity of iOS 11, in this case it’s the details that tell the deeper story. This Apple ad summarizes Apple’s vision for how people will use it. The description includes the tagline “With iPad Pro + iOS 11, a post-PC world may be closer than you think” but for me it’s last lines of the video that are the inspiration for this post. A mother asks her daughter who has been working, drawing, shooting, reading, etc. on her iPad throughout the day, “Watcha you doing on your computer?” and the child responds, “What’s a computer?” Of course, replace the iPad with a cellphone and you have the digital reality of most millennials these days, but the difference for this little girl is the fact that she has been using the larger size of the iPad, the Apple Pencil, the physical Keyboard together with features of iOS 11 seamlessly and effortlessly.

But despite Apple’s optimism, there is still a long way to go before iOS can really create a “post-PC world” for the rest of us. Part of the problem is the technology. Many experts still feel that iOS has major shortcomings which the post, “The Mac Still Feels Like Home” explains well through a story about the challenges the author encountered while only using his iPad for five months. iOS 11 also has quite a few bugs which inspired a thread on Reddit with over 6,000 replies about how iOS 12 needs to fix bugs rather than add features.

The other side of the problem is the slow rate of technology adoption. Apple not only needs to provide the tools, but needs to help people adopt them. Split screen, drag-and-drop, picture in picture, and other features require large numbers of people to change the way they interact with their devices and that’s extremely hard to do.

All this said, I find more and more “non millennials” skipping a new computer and shifting their online tasks to an iOS device. Personally, I can go whole days without sitting down at my iMac. Also, little by little, I’m beginning to use the more advanced features of iOS 11 like creating a list of neighborhoods to visit for an upcoming trip by dragging and dropping links from a website in Safari to the Notes app using the iPad’s split screen mode. The screen shot below shows picture in picture of a relatively boring video I was watching while reading a relatively interesting article about the Nintendo Switch.

If you have an iPad, now might be the time to start watching some of Apple’s videos on the new features (9to5Mac has collected them in one place for convenience). They’ve been around for months and will certainly help you “Get the most out of your hands” like a Pro!

Twitter: How Many Times Have You Deleted It?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve just reinstalled it for the third time in six months. That’s my love-hate relationship with the social media company whose little birdie icon can be found on 99% of websites and many products. Even our jar of sunflower seed butter has a Twitter account (do gluten free Sunbutter stuffed banana fudge bars sound good?).

Believe it or not, POTUS is not even in the top 10 of largest user accounts. Katy Perry has that well deserved distinction. Twitter’s introduction line is “See what’s happening in the world right now.” This seems to be in conflict with recent headlines like “Is Twitter Censoring Free Speech” and the constant barrage of horrible tweets often featured on “Late Night” shows.

So why do I keep coming back to a place that seems to be full of time wasting, junkfoody verbal hate cookies? Because it’s a window into a world of communication more casually interactive than Facebook, more real-time than email newsletters, and more succinct than blog posts. Some of my favorite people not only share their thoughts as they have them, but I can also join the conversation.

The silly video below can help you get started. I only follow a few people, otherwise the stream of tweets gets overwhelming. My list includes @SteveMartinToGo (Steve Martin the comedian), @taylorswift13 (Tay Tay), @tim_cook (Apple CEO), @ElonMusk, @kottke (a wonderful blogger), @AppleEDU (Apple Education), @Firefox (Google Chrome alternative), and a few others.

So why doesn’t ElephantTech have a Twitter page…? There certainly is a dark side to Twitter as this writer explains beautifully in his post “WTF Twitter” (warning: he uses a bad word in the title), but like visiting a large city, just try to stay away from the dark alleys at night. You might find that the little blue “t” represents a better way to communicate than the little blue “f.”