Why My Mom Will Never Drop Cable for Netflix and Hulu

I’ve always done my best to keep my mom savvy with the times. I’ve tried to introduce her to Facebook, YouTube, the advantages of FarmVille over solitaire — you know, modern stuff. But the only time I’ve managed to captivate her interest is when I showed her the insane selection of movies and TV shows available on Netflix and Hulu.

Whenever I’m visiting, my mom is quick to ask about the new stuff we can watch. She’ll shotgun an entire season of Frasier, or check out new movies from Starz. Heck, I even got her into Battlestar Galactica. I figured it would be no problem to combine this with her almost all-consuming interest in saving money. I took the plunge; after all, $17 per month ($9 for Netflix streaming, $8 for Hulu Plus) beats what she pays for cable by a long shot.

“Hey mom, could I convince you to drop cable and get Netflix and Hulu instead?”

My mom thought about this for awhile and said definitively, “No.”

I was surprised by the answer and asked if she’d explain. I was impressed with her response because I think it describes why Netflix and Hulu will have some difficulty drawing customers like my mom, who represents a huge number of potential viewers. Here’s what she said:

Netflix and Hulu are great and all, but I never remember how to use them when you aren’t around… and if I didn’t have cable I couldn’t watch the news!

I always suspected my mom would have trouble using even mildly technological stuff without me, but the last part really gets to the heart of the issue — without cable my mom has no way of watching her beloved local news. Sure, we could argue about how I could show my mom how to go online to check the local news outlet website and blah blah blah, but that’s just not how a lot of people my parents’ age work. They want to flip on the TV and let the news happen to them rather than clicking around a site to find stories they consider interesting.

The nightly local news seems like such a trivial reason to keep paying for cable, but the pre-bedtime ritual of listening to the local anchor is nothing to sneeze at in my mom’s opinion. I think Netflix and Hulu could make an absolute killing if they lowered the entrance barrier for local news outlets to get their content included in their set of features.

Netflix and Hulu, I’m telling you guys, advertise to local stations and create a way for them to easily stream content to your users from your services. If you do that, my mom will drop cable and never look back. I can almost guarantee you that she won’t be alone.

That said, Netflix has turned my mom into a bit of a TV hog…

How to Remove Noise from Your Podcasts with Audacity

Easily the most important aspect of your podcast, aside from its content, is audio quality. Poorly recorded or edited podcasts are impossible to listen to for any length of time, and bad sound quality will drive away your listeners no matter the value of the content you’re delivering. One of the most common problems for podcasters is ‘hissing’ or noise caused by equipment or problematic recording practices. Audacity is a free, cross-platform sound editor that will help you clean up your audio and maintain the sanity of your audience.

Generally, recording hiss is the result of overlapping cords, cheap sound cards, or some sort of environmental interference. Searching for the source of this noise can drive you absolutely crazy, and sometimes you simply won’t find it. Not to worry, here are steps to clean up low-level hissing and surrounding noise (like a blowing fan) quickly and easily.

Step 1. Import your audio

Obviously you’ll need to have Audacity installed to make use of this tutorial. At the time of this writing, I am using Audacity 1.3 (beta). Go to File and then Import to select your recorded material — it doesn’t matter if your file is stereo or mono, this tutorial will work either way.

Noise/hiss highlighted in red

Navigate your way to a particularly noise-heavy part of the recording where there isn’t a lot of other sound. For example, a few-second pause between words where this is silence plus some evil hiss. If you have chronic problems with hiss, leave a few seconds of baseline silence at the beginning of your recordings in the future.

Step 2. Noise removal

When you’ve found a representative span of noise, zoom in (press Ctrl+2) on the recording to get a clearer view of your stream. Select 1-2 seconds of noise with your cursor.

Selection of 1-2 seconds of noise

Now that you’ve selected a decidedly “noisy” portion of your recording, navigate to Effect and then Noise Removal, where you will be presented with a dialog to tweak your filter settings. With your noisy selection made, click Get Noise Profile. This establishes the noise baseline.

Noise Removal dialog

Now, use your cursor and select your entire recording. This can be easily done by pressing Ctrl+A.  Finally, return to the Noise Removal Dialog and this time click OK. If you feel ambitious, mess around with the parameters for the noise filtering. I suggest just leaving them as the default values because they work quite well in every case I’ve encountered so far. After clicking OK, you may have to sit for a while, depending on the size of your recording.

Noise removal in progress

Step 3. Export your finished file

Your processed file should look considerably “cleaner” after the noise removal process is complete. Fewer oscillations and less hissing will be readily apparent if you give your recording a test run.

Recording after noise removal

Never underestimate the value of post-processing and sound quality in your podcast. Keep your audience coming back and focusing on your content rather than low-level background noise. With Audacity, you have 99 problems but hiss ain’t one. [JayZ achievement unlocked]

Use Android Apps in Windows With BlueStacks

A little company called BlueStacks is making waves after releasing an Android app player for Windows. Android developers are excited about the prospect of bring their applications to the desktop, and Android users are probably excited to have yet another venue for playing Angry Birds. The excitement surrounding BlueStacks’ software has led AMD and Citrix to invest $6.4 million in the small company.

The application is still in its alpha phase, but I had to give it a try. What I found was an unobtrusive and stable application that runs fine on my notebook and would be an absolute must-have for a Windows tablet PC. Upon installation, a small BlueStacks icon appears in the top right of the screen, and clicking (or tapping) it brings up a list of several pre-installed apps along with the option to obtain more from the BlueStacks App Channels webpage. This site provides an easy way to install more Android apps from your browser.

Opening an Android application brings BlueStacks to fullscreen mode with a menu along the bottom of the screen. This touch-enabled menu allows you to bring up application menus, the ability to rotate an app for machines not equipped with an accelerometer, and a quick way to switch between applications. Not bad at all! In fact, after about an hour of use I didn’t have any unexpected problems, which is impressive for early-stage software. The experience is very much in line with what you expect from your Android apps.

The possibilities here are exciting because suddenly Android developers have access to a massive number of users not using Android-powered phones and tablets. The types of applications that will be present in the Android app store are bound to change as developers see the opportunity to create production-grade software, rather than the fun-but-frivolous gadgets that dominate the market. Expect big things from BlueStacks, perhaps even a Windows run-time that will allow Android apps to be installed natively on your desktop. I imagine it’s just a matter of time before the BlueStacks app player is available for Mac and Linux. Android apps for all!

Jawbone UP: A Wristband and App for Improving Your Health

Remember Jawbone? The company that made such nice Bluetooth headsets they were almost cool enough to wear in public? Well, Jawbone is at it again, but get ready for something completely different. They’ve taken their tiny gadget know-how and applied it to a problem we’ve all encountered: improving our health and fitness.

Jawbone UP is a wristband that you wear to track your physical activity, meals, and sleep habits throughout the day. It works in tandem with the UP app for your iPhone, which takes information gathered from the wristband and crunches it into visual statistics to track your progress. Jawbone believes that by tracking your health decisions throughout the day (everyday), you’ll be more apt to fulfill your health and fitness goals. Fair enough, but are the features worth using?

With such a large amount of data flowing into the app, UP is able to provide some enticing functionality to keep you on the wagon. For starters, the Activity monitor shows day-to-day and aggregate statistics for your daily movement. It tracks your total steps and distance traveled, estimates calorie burn, and suggests activity goals in line with your weight loss objectives.

UP takes a simple but clever approach to tracking your meals. Rather than counting calories, UP encourages you to snap photos of every meal and, a few hours later, asks you how you feel. You’ll quickly learn which foods leave you energized and which leave you wishing you’d had a salad instead.

Sleep is probably the most undervalued health-related activity in our lives. UP puts a premium on your sleep by monitoring your hours of rest and even tracking how much you fidget in bed. Is it time for a new mattress? UP will help you attain your perfect sleep schedule, and the wristband will silently wake you at your optimal time (vibrations, ooooo…).

Do you need some competition to keep you motivated? UP includes a solid array of Challenges for you to join, either against yourself or the world. Do you have a group of friends that exercise together? Invite them to a private Challenge and see who can be the first to walk 100,000 steps or erase their slept debt. The idea is to keep your activity varied and your mind engaged to maximize your long-term health.

Jawbone has created yet another compelling and attractive piece of technology that may be just what the doctor ordered. UP costs $99.00 (which includes the wristband + app), which isn’t bad when you consider how much you paid for that heart monitor watch last January. Currently, the wristband plugs into the headphone jack of the iPhone for syncing, but knowing Jawbone, it’s only a matter of time before wireless functionality (Bluetooth or radio) is added.

As Christmas approaches, the Jawbone may be the gift that keeps on giving. Solid hardware and excellent app design will keep you coming back, and hopefully lead you to a sustained healthier lifestyle.

Image credits: Jawbone.com

Google+ Pages for Businesses — the Good and Bad

Google just announced that Google+ Pages for Businesses are here, finally allowing a flood of brands and celebrities to create yet another social network outlet for interacting with customers and fans. At a glance, Google+Pages is shockingly simple and seems to offer almost no difference from the standard profile all users get upon joining, but there are a few details that are bound to make things interesting (for better or worse).

The Good

Unsurprisingly, the strength of Google+ Pages lies in Circles. Businesses can designate VIPs, team members, repeat customers, and even other people/Pages that they choose to follow. Better yet, with the Circles architecture, businesses can communicate with specific subgroups of its customer base without making it publicly visible.

Google+ Pages definitely has the upper hand on Twitter by offering the same Picasa-driven album support regular users get. Google+ Pages even trumps Facebook with easily switching between Page profiles as an administrator. And who can forget Hangouts? One of Google+’s initial draws was the ability for real-time video chat with friends. Google brought the same functionality to Pages, which is an obvious advantage that Google holds over both Facebook and Twitter. Mobile Hangouts are not yet available for Pages.

Perhaps the strongest feature of Google+ Pages as of now is what Google calls Direct Connect. With Direct Connect, Google+ users can simply enter “+BusinessName” into the Google search engine, and if a Page exists for that business or celebrity, it will automatically be added to the users’ Circles. Businesses with a Google+ Page will almost certainly enjoy priority indexing in classic search for users to access their Page.

Easily switch between your personal and business profiles

The Bad

Being in its infant stages, Google+ Pages holds the obvious downside that there is currently no way of promoting a Page within the social network. While Pages offers tools for promoting a Google+ Page from an outside website, like badges and +1 buttons, paid advertising is still unavailable.

Another key difference between Google+ Pages and Facebook is that Pages have no way of customizing non-post content. Many companies on Facebook have created customized landing pages that would be impossible to replicate within Google+. However, Google+ has released an expanding platform API, so perhaps it’s just a matter of time until Google+ Pages gets some added content flexibility.

One important issue that needs to be addressed with Google+ Pages is that there is no verification process, and just about anybody could create a profile for any business. Nab your profile before somebody else does!

A final small but annoying problem is that currently Google+ Pages only supports a single administrator per Page. If somebody finds a way to get around this, please let me know!

Limited content options for Business

Other Considerations

The big question for businesses is how Google intends to let them easily advertise to the growing crowd of 50+ million users that Google+ has accrued in its first few months. At the moment, the ease and demographic specificity of Facebook Ads is unmatched, so it will be interesting to see how Google displays ads within Google+ and streamlines its Google Adwords platform for use in its own social network.

Google+ is now a part of Google Apps, so it’s clear that Google is making a serious effort to promote Google+ as a business tool in addition to a typical social network. Google+ Pages has some ground to cover, but with promises of features being rolled out in typical Google fashion, Facebook and Twitter will have to admit there is another social player in town for businesses.

Google Music Beta Soon To Meet Google Music Store

I’ve been using Google Music (beta) for several months now, and if you haven’t already, request an invitation for yourself. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the simple interface, the surprisingly full set of features, and the nearly unlimited cloud space…but reports of the upcoming Google Music Store make this service all the sweeter.

Google announced the long-anticipated Google music download service at the All Things Digital Conference in Hong Kong around mid-October. The release is placing emphasis on the idea that the store won’t simply sell music, but will add a “twist” with social recommendations by exploiting Google’s rising star Google+, allowing users to share their favorite music with friends as a single-play track. The major concern now is timeliness and selection — Google is having a difficult time closing deals with Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, a problem that has ailed other internet music services like eMusic.

A new store may be just the touch that Google Music needs to become a viable replacement for iTunes or Zune Marketplace. The browser-based application comes with the basic features you’d expect in a music manager (albums, playlists, artwork) along with some nice surprises, like a “Instant Mix” tool that lets you select a single song to generate a playlist of similar music. The Google Music blog, Magnifier, offers daily free songs from all genres to jazz up your collection. The Android app lets you stream from your library without needing any local storage, though downloading to your device is an option. The ability to instantly add music to your library from your phone may give Google the bump it needs to compete with the likes of Apple and Amazon.

Google Music (beta)

Google is making a serious effort to dethrone Apple as the king of integrated music services, and with Google+ as its social ace in the hole, it may have a shot. Google hasn’t officially announced a specific date, but insists the Google music store will be here “soon.”

But one question remains:  now that Google has developed a strategy for competing with established “paid” internet music stores, will it make moves against Pandora and Spotify to really put a stranglehold on the music distribution business?

When Will We See A Chrome OS Tablet?

Some time ago, I became one of the lucky few selected to beta test the first Chromebook, the Cr-48. I didn’t expect a lot from a notebook that was nothing more than a browser, and it delivered exactly what it claimed — a fast-booting OS with a browser…and very little more. The newer Samsung and Acer Chromebooks have greatly improved specs over the Cr-48, but they still leave a lot to be desired.

Will you ever see me running around with a Chromebook purchased with my own money? Not any time soon. There is simply too much functionality that I want in my notebooks that the Chrome browser can’t deliver (yet). Buggy and prone to frequent crashing, I’m a long way from sold.

So, I don’t think the Chromebook will fulfill my needs, but what about a Chome OS tablet? Hmm…now there’s an idea.

OK, so it’s not exactly my idea. Google has been hinting toward a tablet iteration of Chrome OS since at least early 2010 when it was leaked that Google was teaming with HTC to develop and answer to the iPad. That never came to fruition, and Google once again raised our hopes by releasing a tablet rendering and suggesting that a Chrome OS tablet was coming to Verizon in late November 2010. Again, our hopes were dashed. Will we ever see the Chrome OS tablet?

Google has left a few clues to suggest that the Chrome OS tablet is somewhere in their immediate development plans:

  • The Chrome OS source code now has a revision that includes “CrOS Touch” in the user-agent string instead of just “CrOS.” According to the log, this should let websites optimized for a tablet experience easily adapt to accommodate Chrome OS tablet devices.
  • The source code also seems to be making room for a virtual keyboard written in browser-supported SVG. A touch UI keyboard would be essential for a tablet in an Apple-defined market.
  • Google has confirmed code for a Chrome OS tablet. OK, great start…but that was April.

But what about Android tablets? Is Google going to find itself in a position where it is pitting its two operating systems against each other? Combine that with lackluster early reviews for Chrome OS and you have to wonder what exactly the strategy is here. I can see a Chrome tablet succeeding but where does that leave Android tablets? And better yet — why would somebody prefer a Google Chrome OS tablet over a Google Android OS tablet?

My prediction is pessimistic. Chrome OS is a neat idea, but it has limited production use. As a tablet, the OS seems ideal, but that space is already occupied by their own Android devices.

When will we see the Chrome OS tablet? I think sometime in 2012. When will we see its demise? Probably a year or so after its release. That will have to be my position until Google can convince me they have some ideas in mind for separating Android and Chrome OS.

Add Variables, Operations, and Functions to Your CSS with the LESS Dynamic Stylesheet Language

As a programmer, the most frustrating part about working with CSS is the redundancy. If you’re designing a layout with a strict color and font scheme, you can find yourself copy/pasting the same same snippets over and over…and what if that scheme changes? You get to track down each element, which takes forever even with search/replace.  What programmers crave for CSS is the ability to give dynamic behavior to a static sheet. LESS is coming to the rescue.

The LESS Dynamic Stylesheet Language is a brilliant little piece of Javascript (just 34 KB!) that you can add to your web pages to bring your CSS the power of a full-blow programming language. Installation is a snap: simply include a line of code after your other stylesheets, and suddenly you have the ability to use variables, operations, and functions in your CSS. LESS is compatible with IE6+, Webkit, and Firefox and will simplify the way you code.

Variables and Operations

Let’s paint an example:  what if you wanted to set a variable to convey a constant color or size throughout your stylesheet? No problem, just employ an @variable and your coding (and updating) just got a lot faster. Need to use basic operations to scale up font size? LESS supports that, too.

Functions

Maybe you want to reduce code redundancy by assigning multiple lines of code to a single word. LESS functions have you covered. Better yet, the functions support parameter variables for added flexibility — you won’t believe how groomed your code will look.

With LESS you can reduce your coding time and simplify your updating process by eliminating redundancies and employing basic concepts that programming languages have enjoyed from the very beginning. Save time and eliminate the clutter by adding LESS to your web development tool belt.

Oink Has Arrived — Let the Social Ranking Experiment Begin

After Kevin Rose’s exit from Digg, he quickly formed a team with the goal of creating apps that would challenge the conventional social/mobile experience. He called his venture Milk, and less than a year later Oink is being unleashed among the masses.

Oink is a social ranking app for the iPhone and web that encourages users to “rank the adventure” by rating things they encounter at places they visit. For example, you may love the pizza at your local hangout, and Oink makes it simple to snap a photo and express your opinion for that particular location. Over time, opinions accumulate and items become ranked based on users’ opinion of “love,” “like,” “ho-hum,” or “dislike.”

Is Oink a competitor of any big name social networks already out there? It’s hard to say for now. Oink’s core functionality resembles that of Foursquare, and in fact may be more useful by providing not only location, but a user-ranked list of recommended items. Similarly, Oink may provide interesting competition for review sites like Yelp by providing simplified customer opinions en masse.

Currently Oink is in alpha, but it is clear that the Milk team spent a great deal of time carefully architecting the app to perform under heavy loads (no broken axles so far…).  At a glance, the app is another beautiful design by Milk co-founder Daniel Burka, who also developed the Digg identity. The experience is light and fun, and surprisingly engaging. You can quickly navigate different tags and locations to see what’s good and bad about a familiar spot.

You can pick up the Oink app for the iPhone soon — it was recently submitted to the iTunes App Store — but Milk hasn’t announced whether there will be an Android release, which will probably depend on the success of Oink’s debut. First impressions appear positive, and the tech community will be following Oink closely as it begins to implement promised features (like tag search).

So far, so good. I may end up using Oink a lot… but do I really have to call it Oinking? *dislike*

Items available at a location are ranked by users.

Untappd: An Android App Every Beer Geek Should Have

If you’re into craft beer, chances are good that you spend a good deal of time bragging to your friends about different beers you’ve tried or have on tap. Take, for instance, my text message conversation with my good friend last weekend.

Friend: “At a place with Three Philosophers on tap.”
Me: “How about you go to Hell?”

As you might imagine, people with access to certain beers have some serious bragging rights, so it’s only natural that beer geeks want to keep track of their findings and reviews of particularly hard-to-find brews.

Untappd is the perfect app for any beer enthusiast. It reminds me a lot of Foursquare, with the ability to “check-in” to certain beers as you are enjoying them. You can easily view reviews for the beer and post/archive your own, as well as ratings. It’s surprisingly common in the craft beer world to discuss a wide range of beers you’ve tasted, and dang it, reviews are hard to remember. With Untappd, you can store details about each beer (IBU, SRM, malt bill, etc.) as well as a narrative review which can easily be recalled for reference later. Even better, Untappd will offer recommendations for similar beers that you can try.

Probably my favorite feature of Untappd is the ability to see where a particular beer is on tap. In the mood for the Saison your friend suggested you try last week? No problem, just do a pub search and you’ll be soaking in it faster than you can say “It’s OK, I didn’t want a good beer anyway.”

Bragging to your fellow beer geeks has never been easier, and I give Untappd two very sober thumbs up. Improve your beer geek credibility and keep track of your brewhalla history with this very well-made (and free) app — and never forget, life is too short for light beer. Prost!