Gift “To-Dont’s” for Your Geek

Posted in Geek Stuff, Random thoughts by dave on December 12, 2011 No Comments yet

It’s Christmas, and you’ve got a geek in your life. Congratulations! Maybe you’re a new boyfriend or girlfriend, bewildered by your love interest’s tech savvy, or maybe you’re a parent whose progeny has recently taken a sharp turn toward geekdom. Perhaps, on the flip-side, your long-time significant-other has always been a geek, leading to endless gift-giving frustration. In any case, DaveRea.com is here to help. This handy guide post should help get you started in navigating the strange and contradictory world of geek gift giving…

Let’s get one thing out of the way right up-front: Unless you know your geek extraordinarily well, or are a fellow geek yourself, avoid tech gifts like the plague! Chances are, your geek researches the living hell out of every technology purchase, analyzing myriad specifications and exploring minutia of compatibility. The odds are stacked – much like a ready-to-topple Jenga tower – very much against you. If you must buy technology, get ready to do your homework: you’ll need to make sure that your gadget gift of choice will play nicely with everything in your geek’s current stable of tech goodies, not to mention scope out the reviews to make sure it meets with other geeks’ approval. Simply aiming for the cutting edge isn’t enough, either – it can actually be a negative if your target hasn’t been “rooted” or “jailbroken” yet. All that said, if you’re still insistent and a fan of the “dog ate my homework” school of research, most things endorsed by Limor Fried, Linus Torvalds or Steve Wozniak are at least a good start.

Next up? Accessories. You might think you’re home free now – your geek already owns and loves their smartphone, tablet or camera of choice, so picking up some attachments should be a sure thing! “But,” as Jeremy Clarkson is wont to say, “you’d be wrong…” Geeks are nearly as choosy about their accessories as they are about their gadgets. After all – if your phone accompanies you every waking hour, how it attaches to your waistband is probably nearly as important as how it synchronizes with your personal cloud. Compounding the confusion, some accessories actually use magnets, RFIDs or Bluetooth to affect the way their host gadgets operate – something that your geek might find fascinating and useful, or annoying and intrusive.

At this point, you might be left wondering what’s left?! Thankfully, the tech world is a big place, filled with extravagances that your geek probably finds endlessly amusing or interesting, but insufficiently-essential to break out the PayPal account. It’s in this treasure trove of extravagance that we find some of the best geek gift ideas. Take clothing, for example: Consider apparel (or, if your connection with your geek is a romantic one, various undergarment permutations) from ThinkGeek.com, XKCD or that epic Pandora’s box of personal printing sites, CafePress.com. If this weren’t enough, all three of these places offer various other gift options – from cube goodies to brain teasers – that are likely to glom onto your geek’s favorite memes and offer endless amusement (or, at least, a reminder of your thoughtfulness that’ll make them smile with the warmth of knowing someone finally embraces their geekiness).

Failing this, geeks’ tendencies to go over-the-top on certain things is another great source of gift ideas. For one thing, most geeks have an ongoing unrequited love affair with security. They adore encryption, enjoy (or are at least thoroughly intrigued by) lock-picking, and – among other common threads – possibly harbor a penchant for philosophy or an enthusiasm for entrepreneurship. Some ideas to consider along these lines? Check out the latest in mechanical info-sec, locksmithing for dummies, geeky deep-think or startup savvy. If your geek has constructive tendencies, you might consider applying your gift to their creative side. A gift certificate to Adafruit, Sparkfun or your local electronics (or, if you’re crazy daring, pyrotechnics) surplus house can go a long way – and it’ll give them the opportunity to analyze and scrutinize their purchase to their geeky heart’s content.

You know your geek best – so bear in mind that the advice here may apply to varying degrees. Note that I haven’t mentioned gaming (a. because this is a complete Pandora’s Box in itself, and b. because if gaming is high on their list, relationships that might result in gifts probably aren’t) – though this can offer as many gift-giving opportunities as it does land-mines. Bear in mind, too, that the best gift for a geek might be something entirely and decidedly non-geeky – because even geeks need a break from geekiness once in a while. Sentimentality is not lost on us – one of my favorite gifts remains a framed duo of hair-brained invention ideas on coarse, yellowed typing paper – borne of my 6-year-old brain and transcribed by my patient-to-the-point-of-sainthood grandmother. It was a collaborative gift to commemorate my completion of grad-school: my Aunt saved the letters, and my wife had them framed. For the record: No combination of silicon, wires and software can bring quite the smile to my face that appears when I look at those notes. They’re artifacts of the past, connected to the me of the present by the hands of the people I love.

[Image credit: David Miles]

5 Ways to Fail at QR Codes

Posted in Geek Stuff, Ranting by dave on September 17, 2011 1 Comment

It’s pretty damn cool to see QR codes (finally) skyrocketing in popularity here in the ‘States. I’ve been seeing them all over the place – in magazines, on signs and displays, winking from TV commercials, backing people’s business cards, even on bumper stickers. Unfortunately, as is usually the case as any new technology makes its way into the worlds of marketing and advertising, there are bound to be some people who get the “You’re doin’ it wrong” stamp. It’s to these ambitious QR code rookies that this post is dedicated: avoid the following pitfalls, and I’ll wager your QR code campaigns will go a lot better…

  1. It doesn’t help if we can’t scan it!  It’s great that you’ve got an awesome web link with lots of data values hanging off the end, and maybe a nice long tracking ID, and that you’ve turned it into a QR code. The problem is, that code is probably 20 to 30 blocks on-a-side, and unless a user gets right next to it and holds their phone at just the right angle, they won’t be able to scan it. One of our local realtors has taken a liking to just this approach – convert a long, convoluted link into an extremely-detailed QR code, then print it about 4 inches tall and plop it on top of the sign. Most people will see it as a gray square, and the few that do recognize it as a QR code will have to get out of their cars and walk up to it. Congratulations – you’ve provided exactly the same value as the paper flyers stuffed into the box down below. The solution: If you must use a web link that’s 2 miles long, pass it through a URL shortening service like Bit.ly or Goo.gl. In addition to a nice, simple, QR code that doesn’t have to be in spitting distance to scan, you’ll get the click-through counters and analytics that those services provide out of the box.
     
  2. Keep it mobile! Few practices in advertising get under my skin more than a QR code that redirects me to a company’s old-fashioned home page. The only way these QR codes are going to be scanned is using a mobile device – most likely a smartphone or tablet. So don’t dump me to your boring, slow-to-load, optimized-for-1280-pixel-screens home page. You know I’m going to be visiting from a mobile device, so send me to a mobile web page that my device can consume. If I have to double-tap, pinch-zoom, scroll around or squint to see the page you’re sending me to, chances are my interaction with you is going to end almost immediately after I scan your code.
     
  3. Consider the context! QR codes are great, but there are some places and times where even the staunchest techie will admit they don’t work all that well. It’s really hard to scan a QR code in a dimly-lit room. Same goes for scanning from a moving car or aboard a bouncing bus. But my favorite example is the web link QR code (a long, convoluted link, of course) proudly displayed on a NYC subway car. Yay! You’ve given me a link! On a subway car where there’s no freakin’ data service! Unless that train car happens to go above-ground (which, I admit, does happen occasionally in the outer boroughs) I can’t even visit the site you want to share with me, let alone take any action on it. Which leads me to…
     
  4. There’s more to QR codes than URLs! It’s exceedingly rare that I encounter a QR code that contains anything but a web link (a.k.a. a URL). But there are lots more things you can stuff into a QR code! A quick look at the options on the ZXing QR Code Generator indicates you can store calendar events, geographic locations, e-mail addresses, contact info, or even just raw text. Mobile devices know what to do with these different types of codes – scanning the QR code on the back of my business card, for instance, will net you all my encoded contact info that you can pull into your device’s address book with one click. That NYC subway ad – which was for a classical music concert – would have been much more useful as a calendar event code: let me save it to my device’s calendar, then I can take action on it later, when I’m back in cell service or sitting at my home PC.
     
  5. Make it worth our while! The bottom line and end goal for any ad campaign is to convince the viewer to take action. When you put a QR code in your visuals, you’ve already got your audience taking action – we’re scanning the code! So once we’ve done that, don’t just send us to the company’s home page, or to some boring campaign-specific landing page. Offer some value add. Macy’s hit the nail on the head with this one – their latest in-store campaign offers QR codes that link you to various web videos featuring designers offering fashion advice. Considering QR code early adopters (read: geeks like me) are probably the most likely to need such advice, this is pretty brilliant. Kidding aside, in a huge field of boring QR codes, Macy’s offers a post-scan experience that’s interesting and engaging, and tied directly to the products you’re browsing through and (if they’ve played their cards right) about to carry over to the cash register.
QR codes can be a very powerful tool for marketers and advertisers – but, as is the case with any technology, you have to understand their capabilities and limitations. Get it right, and you’ll engage with a new audience in a new mode. Get it wrong, and you’ll have people posting photos like this (as snapped at my local Best Buy) on Failblog…
Update 2011-10-10: Now this is some QR code innovation!

Welcome to The Twitters…

Posted in Geek Stuff, Random thoughts by dave on June 30, 2011 No Comments yet

Just in case you enjoy such things, I’ve finally gone and set up a Twitter account: @mtbkrdave

Prediction: Welcome to Reality!

Posted in Geek Stuff by dave on June 9, 2011 No Comments yet

Considering that (at least as far as I can recollect) I’ve only made one prediction here on daverea.com, it appears I am now officially 100% more reliable than Harold Camping at fortelling future events…

Back in January, while musing on the topic of sea trends and innovations in mobile technology, I predicted that mobile app rentals would emerge as a new business model sometime in 2011. The idea? Rather than require users to purchase applications that they might only use for a short period of time, offer a rental option. It’s a particularly-appealing prospect for the travel and gaming markets, where application use is often transient, and rentals offer a potential annuity revenue stream. Of course, it doesn’t take much of a leap to make the jump to a subscription model, either…

Well, this morning I got a nice birthday present: My prediction came true! T-Mobile and WildTangent (an Android game development house) have announced that they’ll be offering 25-cent game rentals! Keep up the innovation, folks – every time I read the tech news, pick up my phone or sit down at my workstation, I’m reminded we’re living in amazing times.

When Green Means Tunnel Vision…

Posted in Geek Stuff, Random thoughts, Ranting by dave on April 22, 2011 No Comments yet

(Happy Earth Day everyone…)

Occasionally, staunch environmentalists make a good point or two. But in many cases, despite their enthusiasm for the term “sustainability”, they’re just not willing to look at the big picture. Case in point? Greenpeace recently released a scorecard for the “green-ness” of datacenters operated by the world’s cloud computing behemoths. Here it is:

Greenpeace's flawed cloud computing green-ness report card

“So what’s the problem?” you might ask… According to a Greenpeace quote highlighted by Boy Genius Report, everyone’s favorite eco-terrorism troupe based their siting scores on the typical sources of electricity for the states where the datacenters are located. But if we’re going to talk genuine “sustainability” (which, by the way, eco-nuts are completely uninterested in) then you’ve got to consider a lot more factors than just the makeup of the power grid sources in a particular host state.

If we take a look at an infographic from the ever-so-transparently-named CoolerPlanet, we can see just how “green” the electricity sources in each US state are:

So greener is always better, right? Not necessarily. Greenpeace specifically bad-mouthed Apple for choosing to locate its newest datacenter in North Carolina, where the energy supply is notoriously un-green. But what were their alternatives? A California site would expose the datacenter to earthquake risks – and I’m sure your neighborhood Greenpeace operative isn’t keen on downtime for their favorite iDevice. Coastal Texas isn’t really an option due to the risk of severe weather. That leaves inland Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and New York.

“Great, relocate there!” say our tree-hugging friends. Not so fast – remember that inland Texas can throw down a wicked heat gauntlet in the summer, while Oregon, Washington and New York get downright frigid in the winters. The DOE estimates that almost half of a typical datacenter’s energy consumption is used for climate control – what happens to that number when the ambient temperature is well over 100°F? Or -10°F? Suddenly, choosing a comfortably-temperate and relatively disaster-free state like North Carolina or Virginia – despite the un-greenness of their energy supplies – doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I’m sure the stewards of these datacenters would much rather not use as much as 10X the total energy – along with all it’s concomitant transmission inefficiencies – and keep their overall consumption low.

When you start factoring in second-order causes and effects – such as the environmental impact of pulling power, water, fiber and vehicle conduits into remote places, landfill and recycling capacities, employee commute emissions, construction impact – the sites that Apple, Google, Facebook and others have chosen start to look even better. As is almost always the case, monovariatic analysis in pursuit of a pre-selected conclusion falls flat on its face when a bigger-picture view is considered.

Unfortunately, datacenters consume a lot of energy. Choosing their sites carefully – not only based on energy sources but also based on consumption – can reduce this. The people whose jobs, reputations and employers’ solvency are on the line have no choice but to look at the big picture. Ultimately the true solution for Greenpeace’s gripes is likely for them (and the rest of us) to give up their iPhones and App Stores – but then – how would they coordinate their naval blocades, nuclear power plant break-ins and cargo ship boardings?

Unique non-feature

Posted in 1-Minute Posts, Geek Stuff, Random thoughts by dave on February 4, 2011 No Comments yet

We in the open-source world hear a lot of flack about all the things open source supposedly “doesn’t do”. Looks like we can add one more thing to the list of things Linux and other open-source software offerings don’t do: provide funding for international crime syndicates.

What comes after Inbox Zero

Posted in Geek Stuff by dave on January 29, 2011 3 Comments

It seems like certain tools in our lives have a tendency to morph into lifestyles, obsessions, or even whip-wielding captors (complete with Stockholm Syndrome) over time. I can think of few better-suited examples of this than E-Mail… Most of us have an almost Pavlovian reaction to incoming e-mail when we’re at work, and thanks to smartphones, Blackberries and webmail portals, we can make our e-mail obsession immediate and ubiquitous in ways unimaginable just a few years ago.

Sometime in 2007, my thoroughly-digitized friend Pauley introduced me to “Inbox Zero” as I played with his shiny new iPhone. Curious why his e-mail inbox was conspicuously empty, he explained that Inbox Zero is a practice he follows that was dreamed up by Merlin Mann, an Internet guru who rolls with the who’s-who of the web’s cutting edge. The philosophy – and it’s definitely a philosophy – is that our time is too precious and scarce to waste letting e-mail (which, let’s remember, is a tool) dictate how we work. After letting the concept stew at “interesting” status for a while, I started using Inbox Zero at my day job in 2008. Minutes after I processed through my inbox for the first time, colleagues started asking me about my curious new practice. After a day or two, I stopped dreading opening Lotus Notes (well, except for the fact that it was Lotus Notes). And after a week, I noticed that the time I was spending on e-mail had dramatically dropped. Like, by a factor of ten.

Since then, I’ve tried my best to keep using Inbox Zero. I’ve been better at it some times than others, but in using it, I’ve noticed a hole of-sorts in the practice of Inbox Zero. The philosophy advises that we must change the way we view e-mail in order to constrain our interaction with it to manageable chunks of time. The practice, on the other hand, suggests that we should fit that interaction into “passes” or “dashes”, which we use to methodically process through our messages and address them. Therein, at least in my experience, lies the problem.

I think one of the reasons people are easily trapped into pouring time into e-mail is that it’s often the “glue” that binds their other activities. When you arrive at the office, you check your e-mail and find something actionable. You go off (either physically or mentally) and do whatever it is the e-mail demands, then return to respond or file it away. The turnaround time might be seconds, minutes or hours, but in every case you find yourself back in your inbox. When we process to zero as Merlin advises, we partially short-circuit this process by filing actionable messages into a spot that’s more worthy of our time and attention. But the problem remains: some e-mails just take a long time to address.

For me – and that’s a huge caveat – what’s lacking is a way to separate the e-mails from the actions they prompt. In my world, an e-mail can just as easily trigger a 30-second response as it can trigger a two-hour excursion into analyzing a customer’s design. In both cases, the e-mail is actionable and needs answering. But in one case, I can handle it right within my e-mail dash, while in the other I’m performing a significant (and often billable) task in order to generate a response. My answer? I think this is where having a solid means of managing tasks and projects comes in. For our professional projects, my partners and I use Basecamp to manage tasks – so when I encounter an e-mail that results in a slug of work to do, I try to distill the message into the actions it’s prompting, then capture them in Basecamp. I can then file the e-mail away for a response once the work’s done, keep my inbox at zero, and respect my existing means of selecting what to do when.

That practice needs to feed back into Inbox Zero’s philosophy: e-mail shouldn’t short-circuit your existing ways of managing your tasks and getting things done. Just because it makes a nice dinging sound doesn’t mean it gets elevated to the highest priority. Yes, Merlin does touch on this, but it’s really in the context of “the before” with respect to using Inbox Zero. E-mail in proper perspective is a must – but re-training yourself to funnel e-mail’s “actionables” into your regular workstream is just as important. Of course, this assumes you have a regular workstream apart from e-mail firefighting and task management by-heroics…and if you don’t, I can’t think of a better way to start making space for one than with Inbox Zero.

Microsoft Tags: We’re Watching You!

Posted in Geek Stuff, Ranting by dave on October 27, 2010 1 Comment

Word on the street today is that the Redmond Behemoth that most folks love to hate has managed to “tag” upwards of 2 billion real-world objects with it’s colorful 2-dimensional bar codes… Hmm – last I knew, a tag was a territory marker that gang members left with spray paint. But I digress…

Personally, I think being able to point your phone at something and learn more about it is pretty cool, especially if doing so makes life easier or faster. That’s why I have a QR Code on the back of my business card – if you scan it, not only do you get a bunch of information about me, but you can also automagically drop that information into your phone’s contact list. In case you haven’t seen one around, QR Codes look like this:

Despite the rather troublesome relationship that Microsoft has with Android, they still want the growing Droid army to be able to consume their tags – so they’ve been nice enough to release an Android app that decodes them. And that’s where things get dicey. You see, when I install the open-source Barcode Scanner app on my phone – which reads QR Codes – it doesn’t ask for much. Internet access is an understandable request, in case the QR Code contains a web address; otherwise the list of permissions is pretty ho-hum. But when I look at what Microsoft wants? Not only do they want Internet access – which, in a closed-source app, could be used for good or mischief – they also want access to my fine-grained GPS location, permission to send and view text messages, and a free pass to view what accounts are set up on my phone. Last time I checked, that stuff isn’t necessary to convert a bunch of colored triangles into something I can use.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot more QR Codes in my occasional excursions into the real world than I have Microsoft Tags. Recent sightings have included store displays at Best Buy, banners at the Rochester Jazz Festival, as well as TV, magazine and public transit ads. For all the billions of Microsoft tags that are supposedly swarming around us, I haven’t seen any – and I’m perfectly content to continue ignoring them if Microsoft’s keen to get their hands on my Android phone’s innards.

[Image: MSDN]

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