Saturday, June 29, 2013

Quick, Cheap, and Easy Computing

Quickest, cheapest, and easiest ways to enter the post PC era...

It gets easier every day to enter the post PC era. Meanwhile PCs are getting more and more difficult to use with Windows 8. 

For example, the Barnes and Noble nook HD+ has recently been updated to be thoroughly capable of most computing tasks. There is still time to get one before Barnes and Noble exits the tablet business.

This 9 inch diagonal tablet has been reduced from $270 to $150 and newly offers a complete computing environment. The opening screen is a model of simplicity. 

A carousel at the top makes it easy to choose tasks or books or music. It becomes easy to connect to radio or recorded television. You can plug the device directly into a TV with a $25 cable. A $30 case offers a keyboard and easy portability and protection.

If you need a camera and GPS, then alternatively a Samsung Galaxy tab 2 7 will add those capabilities at $180 with a 7 inch screen.  Others are out there and more are coming.

If you are new to computers or are ready to throw out your old Windows monster these are a good place to start.

If not quite ready to go all the way to a tablet and if you are still committed to a conventional keyboard, the Chromebook laptop at $250 is another option. This last device is entirely dependent on good WiFi service, but then your telephone is dependent on telephone service.

The cheapest WiFi nowadays is Freedompop, which starts at $18 a month and has no contract requirement.. Freedompop provides you WiFi access wherever you are.

As the price increases for computers, the added benefits offer mostly represent overkill. 

All of these devices require newer but inexpensive wireless printers or access to a PC with a printer.

All of these devices are also free of  the heavy resource and support dependence of older computers which sooner or later bogs down performance and makes heavy demands on your time.  It makes a lot more sense to let the internet cloud do the heavy work.  Documents, apps..., everything is now streaming from internet.

More and more these wondrous, simple and small new devices can do what formerly required a complex device a lot of know-how. For example, even Microsoft Office can be run from the clouds using SkyDrive.  But I just dictate MS Word documents to Documents to Go.

Connecting the Dots


I am busy rearranging my equipment based on how I use it. 

That is because technology is changing fast, both in equipment and in how I use it. How did this come to be? Wouldn't I have been updating all along?

 The answer is that I could not have foreseen what would be happening. Let me address that issue first, and then explain what I am actually doing about it. 

Basically, it is getting to be more and more difficult to envision what is coming next. This is happening because technology is moving ahead much more quickly than in the past. Every new development results in 10 more developments and so many changes are happening at one time and affecting each other that the outcome is unpredictable. 

Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, calls the outcome a singularity, something no one could have predicted. A nice example of this is the development of computers. In the world of future as displayed in the 1939 World's Fair, no one anticipated the development of computers. 

And so, what you thought of as computers yesterday is entirely obsolete today and no longer relevant. 

It will be easier to see what has been happening by looking at what I am actually doing as opposed to examining all the trends which came together to force a transition. 

My iPad, which has been lying idle due to its size as compared with the newer smaller tablets, has been moved to my living room chair at my TV. The iPad is now dedicated to servicing the tv , such as by sending internet video and programming to the TV , while also finding information information as needed to supplement TV. 

Though fought by the cable industry, more and more channels are available on internet, even live channels, and especially international channels. The Wall Street Journal channel is available only online. Recorded PBS is available online. Even CNN and FOX are available online. I also use the iPad to read comfortably in an easy chair, browse Google, watch YouTube.

A smaller tablet serves me better me when I am out and around.  I use it for information needed on the go as I am actively doing something. I use it for dictating.

The iPad is thus for passive activity, while the smaller device serves for active activities. Newly the smaller tablet is starting to work more like a GPS, in the sense of being there in the background but only active when I need it, such as to remind me of things I need to do based on time and where I am and what else is knows about me.

These innovations come primarily from Google, which sees its business as innovation as opposed to selling media or equipment. Google's true business is advertising, and it needs innovation in our lives in order to do so. Google's Now program accomplishes this by coming to our assistance when we need it, such as reminding us when to take a pill and calling attention to what we may have missed or forgotten. 

This plays directly into utility for seniors. Seniors need mainly to keep in touch: with doctors, stores, banks, relatives. They need to keep connected when confined. Seniors also benefit from not needing to type or learning to use a PC.

My smaller tablet goes with me. For me this tablet has replaced the smartphone. It is usually easier to use, and a whole lot cheaper.  I can dictate text messages or Skype from it.

My home computer comes in as useful when I need to see a lot of information at one time on a website. However it is also getting handier to do that with a TV "stick" and TV.

So all these devices are being used in a way not originally foreseen, at least by me. The tower computer is slowly going away, as the laptop. The internet cloud now dominates, as does wireless.   The cloud is the focus of computing and all most of us need is a window into it.

The computer is fitting in better with our everyday lives with less action on our part and more effect on what we do. It is not surprising that our retirement community here is more and more taking a lead in using the latest technology to improve the lot of seniors. You might call it connecting the dots.  Willow Valley starts a training course in tablet in October.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Making Music Accessible on a Shoestring Budget

Here is how I assembled my music library for easy access and listening. 

My objective was to put it on the Internet cloud where I could access it from anywhere at any time and where it would be safely stored.

I first went to the Internet Archive to find music from earlier days. I especially wanted the music from the old 78s we had in the house when I was a child. I found that much of the music recorded in the 1930s was still just fine. RCA had mastered the technology of recordings by that time. It was just the old fragile and scratchy records that marred the music. 

I downloaded what I wanted from compressed files and unzipped them to include in my library. I then went to Amazon for some collections of music at low cost. For a few dollars each, I found collections of Brahms, Chopin, and so on. I selected them based on favorable comments from Amazon buyers. I then added a few CDs of outstanding quality based on the same comments.

Much of this music such as MP3s automatically went into my Amazon Cloud Player account and also to my Google player account. 

I converted individual CDs using iTunes. When the CD is loaded, a message comes up asking if it should be converted uy iTunes to MP3 format. Easy. 

The MP3's from Internet Archive, however, needed to be added to the Amazon and Google Cloud storage libraries. That required the use of two utilities. The utilities were Amazon Cloud Uploader and Google Play Manager. These are NOT to be confused with the players offered by each or the downloader apps. Google Play can be made to automatically load up anything imported into iTunes from audio CD.

Long ago I had laboriously converted LP's to MP3 files and I uploaded these also. That had been far more difficult than obtaining music from Internet Archive and Amazon. 

So, if I had not converted an LP earlier, I simply got it from the Internet Archive or Amazon.

I did have a few old unconverted audio CDs and I added them using iTunes

The result is that I can instantly access my music anywhere. I can also access the wealth of music recorded way back in the 30s but which never found its way into the record stores.


I was able to get mp3's for old and discarded 78s and LP's without locating a physical copy of them or converting, a very tedious and time-consuming job. 

I was able to assemble a huge mp3 library from collections recommended by customer reviews on Amazon. 

I was able to buy used audio CDs of outstanding performances for a fraction of their original price.

I then was able to put the entire library on a WiFi accessible WI-Drive and also Amazon and Google music storage in the cloud. The result is that I can access anything instantly anywhere for playing on any device or  set of bluetooth speakers. 

No more pulling out LP's or CDs ever.

Note: I added piano rolls and digitized sheet music from such sources as (click or tap) RagRag.  You can always just play these from a browser.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Tip of the Music Iceberg

We seniors sometimes see only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast resources of Internet and post pc tablets.

 This happened to me the other day. I had thrown out most of my old LP's, had kept my favorites, but had not played them in ages. I pulled out a few to play. 

My player was not working. It needed a new turntable belt. It was only then that it occurred to me that I might find the music on internet. It also occurred to me that I might be able to find the music of some old 78's long gone.

 I especially remember three or four albums we played at home. We did not have very many and it was a big events when we got one. It would be nice to hear them again. In fact, some of the old 78s are still in my memory so that any other performances don't seem right, such as Artur Schnabel's recording of Beethoven's 2nd piano concerto. 

I tried the biggest and most underused resource. This is Internet Archive and it includes a vast wealth of all kinds of media including books and movies. Everything is free.

Sure enough, I found most of the 78 albums from the 1930s. Indeed, I found a huge repository of Music recorded in the 1930s, more than I ever dreamed existed, far more than ever appeared in the record stores.

I could actually find many more items from the artists and composers I liked. The sound was better than I expected and in most cases had been cleaned up from 78s. I downloaded a lot for later listening. Then I looked at Amazon and found another wealth of music.

I found some vast collections of the major composers for only a few dollars each and recorded with modern equipment. In addition I was able to home in on the best recordings by reading the comments in Amazon. I had not thought to tap the the resources mainly because I had found so much on Spotify.

Then also, there is a vast library of music on YouTube, which I sometimes use.

I put all these resources together and reconstructed a library of the music I like the best plus a lot of music new to me. This now supplements all the good music I have found on Pandora based on my pre-existing likes and dislikes.

I put the new music on an eight gigabyte USB stick which plugs in to my HD Radio and gives me instant access from a remote without pulling out an old LP at all. I also made the music available on my tablets to listen to anywhere, such as in the fitness room during exercise.My new music library is accessible anywhere on Amazon's cloud player.

 I can throw out the rest of the old LP's now as I long ago threw out the moldy old 78's. And I can access any of this music without going to any trouble at all and without pulling out and loading a scratchy but delicate LP on a fussy player.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Your Best Connection to Internet

Even more important than your choice of computer may be your choice of internet service. This choice will determine what you will be able to do....and, also more importantly, where!!   When communicating with your doctor or bank, that connection must work and work well.

The choice depends on how you use your computer or devices and your comfort with technology. You may do only email and a little browsing or you may access a fast growing variety of media through your computers and newly through your Internet attached television and tablets.

I use Internet heavily both for online voice dictation and for channels not available on cable, such as Wall Street, BBC 24 hour news, and many others. I keep all my data online for safety. I am able to use any computer or device anywhere with all my home capabilities. Effectively, my computer itself is online and my device just a window into it. 

There are free services. Wifi access is widely available, such as here at Willow Valley in selected areas. Free services, though, are limited in bandwidth, throughput, speed, and general convenience. 

The best choice for most uses would be the service that offers the best bandwidth in your home or where you live. Such a service would offer hi-def movies across internet, for example. In contrast, free service and more limited service, would support email and some browsing but not much more. 

Paradoxically, in general, the better the flow of the service, the more problems you will find with support of that flow, as follows:

To get the best and least cost service here at Willow Valley, Senior Internet, there is NO local onsite support presence, and you are on your own if there is a problem. It is up to you to provide your own equipment such as modem, router, and access point, all needed for full use of internet. You need to be technically savvy or pay someone who is, and therefore consider this situation before making a choice.

You may need all the help you can get.  Tap or click for what may need attention.

(Be aware that it is sometimes claimed by providers that problems are usually with YOUR tablet or laptop, and provider help will often focus on that problem.   However, if the device works out in public areas the problem is not with either such device.  So always check that out.)

Much more expensive but with more support, is Comcast service. Comcast will supply the hardware and support it as part of your contract. Where they provide the hardware, Comcast also makes sure that your equipment is matched and works well with their service.

Both cable services share a fixed bandwidth over a varying number of users so that the more users, the less throughput and speed at your disposal. This means that when there are fewer users using internet the performance is outstanding. In contrast, on a Saturday afternoon, with a high volume of users, there may be slowups. 

Telephone internet service, in contrast, is constant, though slower. It is ust barely able to handle movies, such as Netflix movies.  .Yet our Windstream service here provides full support on site as part of your contract. They provide and support all the equipment you will need onsite. 

Also available here, though not widely used and more limited, is cell phone 4G service. Your computer connects directly to the cell tower like a cell phone and therefore no hardware or support is required other than what they call a cellphone-sized hotpot. You connect to it just as you do with any other wireless internet service.    

I used Clearwire service for over a year with no trouble at all. I am now evaluating FreedomPop service. Although support problems are minimal, these last services are for a limited amount of usage per month and their modem or hotspot must be placed close to an outside wall or window, if not outside. 

You do have the advantage that you may take your hotspot along with you and use it throughout built up areas. For example I found it useful all through Lancaster City and Wilmington, Delaware. Your tablet can double as a cell phone.    No local support is required, and you are relieved of it, without any contract either.

In summary, if you want full use of Internet, you need to weigh support issues and costs, best before you commit. If your needs are minimal, such as just email and moderate browsing, a free service or FreedomPop may suffice.

I use Willow Valley Senior Internet service and provide my technical support myself. In addition I have the FreedomPop service at $18.00 a month for two gigabytes of data, though you can buy as much service as you need. Since I provide my own technical support, I do not have support costs. For that effort I am able to have plenty of bandwith for video and also available connection wherever I happen to be. 

For others who do not have technical savvy, and whose needs are limited, I recommend Windstream or FreedomPop. For the latter you will need to be sure you do not exceed your allotted usage or you will pay a sharp penalty. 

If you use internet heavily and do not want to support it yourself, you may want to pay for Comcast service. Comcast may apply an extra charge for maintenance. When I used Comcast I paid an extra $8 a month for outstanding service at home. 

Footnote: Throughput: 

WV public: .5-3 million bits per second, variable
Senior Internet: 0-24 mbps, variable 
Comcast: as Senior 
Windstream: 3 mbps, constant 
Freedompop: 1-5 Mbps, but 5 at my apt., constant 

Other factors: Waiting for the provider's server at the other end appears more frequent with cable than for telephone based services. That depends on how well the internet service polices itself. It is possible to substitute alternative servers, such as OpenDNS    Here are two resources to assist with Internet troubleshooting.  Tap or click for them or OpenDNS above.

How to Troubleshoot a Flaky Internet Connection

(Gina, who wrote the above, is author of Lifehacker and the power behind the delightful Lifehacker website.)

Basic Troubleshooting Guide for Internet Connection Problems/

YouTube Video on How to Troubleshoot Connections

Before trying anything else, check that all your wired connections are TIGHT!!   Try somebody else's laptop on your system.    Through the process of elimination, narrow down to the cause of problems.

Dictated to and published from my Nexus 7 using Senior Internet service and Google online supercomputer  supported voice recognition.