How to access Wikipedia during the SOPA/PIPA blackout

If you are a college student, like me, and you have an assignment due tomorrow, like I do, you may have noticed that Wikipedia has taken itself down (sort of) in protest of SOPA and PIPA legislative acts. While I agree with the protest going on and commend Wikipedia for doing what they have to raise awareness, (seriously people, take some time to voice your concerns to your representatives, see Techerator’s side bar for help) some of us have more important things to do than our required reading assignments.

While Wikipedia will be “dark” for the next 24 hours, the pages that Google has cached are not. So while the information on them may not be the newest available (the info I looked up was last updated Jan 14), I’m willing to bet for almost everyone out there it will work just as well.

How to use Wikipedia via Google Cache

First, enter the search term into Google, then find the Wikipedia listing and hover your mouser cursor over it. Click the gray box with the arrow inside it.

Search the term in Google, find and hover your pointer over the search result. Click on the arrowed box that appears.

Next, go up to the top right of the preview and click the small “cached” link

This should bring you to a blackout-free Wiki Page.

Oh Wikipedia, how I missed you.

Update

It has also come to my attention that disabling JavaScript in your browser will also remove the Wikipedia blackout.

How to download a full backup copy of Wikipedia

I’ve spent plenty of time making jokes about what would happen if Wikipedia went offline in our modern, internet-dependent world – planes dropping out of the sky, no knowledge of any events before 2007, dogs walking their owners – but in all seriousness, any Wikipedia outage will affect millions of students, educators, scientists, and everyday people looking for answers to both simple and complex questions.

You’re not totally out of luck though; in this article, I’ll show you how to maintain access to Wikipedia’s information even after the site goes offline. Not only will this be useful during deliberate blackouts (like in the January 2012 protest of SOPA and PIPA), but it could come in handy in the future when presented with network difficulties, power outages, or even new internet legislation.

How to download a backup copy of Wikipedia

Before you get started, please note that the standard English backup of Wikipedia is about 7.5 gigabytes. Even on a fast connection, this database can take several hours to download depending on the amount of traffic on Wikipedia’s servers. It is safe to assume that Wikipedia’s servers will be hit with record amounts of traffic if a known blackout is approaching, so if you want to download a copy, start downloading as early as possible.

First off, don’t worry – it is both legal and free to download a backup of all content available on Wikipedia for personal use, mirroring, informal backups, offline use, or database queries. All text content in Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and the GNU Free Documentation License. Images fall under different terms, but in this guide we’re just going to be downloading the text.

While the downloadable version of Wikipedia’s database is massive, there are a few limitations: Only current revisions of articles will be downloaded, and no discussion or user pages are included.

Step 1

Download the English language Wikipedia dump. You can download the latest version of this file directly from Wikipedia or via BitTorrent (unofficial).

You can also download the Simple English Wikipedia, which is much smaller than the full Wikipedia (about 75 megabytes).

Step 2

The Wikipedia database dump is not very useful on its own, so next you’ll need to download the free application WikiTaxi (Windows only) to view Wikipeda on your computer.

(Mac users can check out Wiki Offline for about $10, but in this guide I will only be covering WikiTaxi for Windows.)

WikiTaxi is a “portable” application so you don’t have to install anything. All you need to do is extract the downloaded .zip file and you’re finished.

Step 3

After extracting WikiTaxi and your Wikipedia database download has finished, open the WikiTaxi Importer (WikiTaxi_Importer.exe). Browse to the location of the Wikipedia database you downloaded in Step 1, and then select a location to save the new WikiTaxi-formatted database file. Click Import Now! when finished.

Step 4

Close the WikiTaxi Importer and open the main WikiTaxi application (WikiTaxi.exe). Click the Options button and select Open a *.taxi Database. Locate the database you created in Step 3 and select Open.

That’s it! You now have full, offline access to Wikipedia.

 

How to Test Your Internet Connection Speed

Do you ever  wonder if you are getting the upload and download speeds promised by your provider? DSL users especially may find themselves scratching their heads wondering why their Internet connection is so slow. Many providers have their own testing tools.  But again what if their testing tools are lying to us?

Here’s an easy way to do a quick test; go to SpeedTest.net.

Once you get on the site, there are a few advertisements you need to be aware of.  Do not click on the “Start Scan Now” button.  This is not the Internet speed test, this is an advertisement.  A map will be displayed with your location identified. It will also automatically identify the closest connection to apply a test to your PC.

Starting the Test
Start the Test

After initiating the test, the test will download a large file from the remote location (identified by the test tool). The file size is known to the test so based on the time it takes to download the file it will estimate your download speed (in Mb/s). The upload test does the opposite. It puts the downloaded file on the remote server. The user does not have any visibility of the file moved. I am assuming it goes to a temp location somewhere on your PC.

When the test is complete you will see the results (see the image below). You are able to verify the results again but choosing a different remote server.  Click on the new server button and choose a different server.

You should also be able to look at the final results by clicking the icon saying “My Results”.

One useful option is to see how your speeds are compared to similar users in your area. There are also some other options that I have not yet explored, but feel free to let us know if you test them.

Happy Testing!

Network Neutrality and Where You Should Stand

The Internet has become an insurmountable force in the daily life of almost every human being on planet earth. From quick searches and online collaboration to Internet gaming and video streaming, the Internet has made many things seemingly impossible, possible. A key factor in this beautiful technology is its openness. That is where the issue of network neutrality comes into play.

This article attempts to explain the current state of this openness and the proposed laws that attempt to shake the ground of this openness and equality the Internet was built upon. By comparing and contrasting the two sets of laws, this article points the reader to a conclusion that the new network neutrality laws being proposed are unfair at best.

What Is Net Neutrality?

Today, the access to limitless information is taken for granted. At any time, almost from any place, any person can have unlimited knowledge at their fingertips. The development of the Internet has given us the ability to know anything at anytime. Whether it is to research a school project, check sports scores, or find that song that is stuck in your head, you can find it with the click of a button almost instantly. But what if that was to change?

One of the key aspects of the Internet is that any website is uploaded onto a device at the same speed as any other website would be uploaded. This fundamental idea is known as network neutrality. Network neutrality is the reason there is no discrimination from one site to another. In other words, the Internet is a level playing field where big corporations and small hometown businesses are treated equally. At this point, the speed of the Internet is not owned by anyone.  This allows for competition in business and keeps the world balanced and not controlled by a single person or corporation.

Net neutrality also allows all sources of information to be accessed without discrimination. In this aspect, net neutrality is often equated to intellectual freedom. That is, “the right of all peoples to seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction”. (Network Neutrality) Net Neutrality should always be here to makes sure that if it is on the Internet, whether it is good or bad, it can be accessed equally.

Net Neutrality Now

At present, the Internet experience most Americans are familiar with is governed by the principle of network neutrality. Despite this, many Internet users remain unaware of the important role net neutrality plays in maintaining a free and open Internet. This is largely because net neutrality is actually implemented in the equipment and connections that make up the structure of the Internet, which most users don’t often directly interact with. As a result, its effects aren’t always obvious to someone without technical knowledge on the subject of networking.

When a user accesses a web site, the content is broken up into a series of packets. These packets are then forwarded through a chain of routers, which may be owned by different ISP’s, until they arrive at their destination. When a packet of data arrives at a router, it is placed in a queue along with packets from other computers (Sharp 9). Since each of the “tubes” the router is connected to has a limited capacity to transfer data, only some packets in this queue can be forwarded at any given time. Under net neutrality, incoming packets are removed from the queue and forwarded in the order they were received. In other words, the packets are waiting in a line, and it’s strictly first-in first-out. Without net neutrality, ISP’s would be free to assign higher priority to certain packets, based on their source, destination, or other criteria. For example, packets containing video data from YouTube could be allowed to cut in line, forcing traffic from competing websites to wait longer and thereby diminishing the quality of their service. Although net neutrality is seldom noticed by the average Internet user, its effects are very real.

One sign of net neutrality in action that is the binary nature of Internet access purchases; you either have access to the Internet or you don’t. A modern ISP won’t offer access to a certain subset of all available content, as one might expect when purchasing cable, satellite, or other subscription services. All websites are made available with the purchase of Internet access, with the main difference between service packages being the total amount of bandwidth made available for the consumer to use. However, any web site or network can be accessed equally using this bandwidth, with the data transfer speeds limited further only if the server running the website can’t send data back fast enough to make full use of the customer’s available bandwidth.

The idea of having equal access to all web sites has created a level playing field for companies of all sizes to compete in. With some technical skill, any small startup company can be just as easily found on the Internet as a large company with an established web presence. Many of today’s most prominent web sites owe their existence to the principle of net neutrality. Imagine if Google had been forced to pay extra fees to Internet service providers or have their site load significantly slower than an established competitor. With competing start-ups forced into the slow lane, large corporations with enough money to make these kinds of deals would have dominated the Internet (Virtual 75-76). Consumer choice and freedom would surely have suffered as a result. Internet service providers should not be given the power to pick winners and losers in the Internet marketplace, but the removal of net neutrality would all but guarantee this corporate takeover of the Internet.

Proposed Net Neutrality Rules

Large corporate companies have been in a long and sometimes bitter battle in the United States over the proposition of new network neutrality laws. These new proposals are laws that would allow companies who act as Internet service providers(ISP’s) to moderate and charge for the speed at which data is passed between public networks. These laws also propose to allow companies to provide faster services to companies and users who pay a premium to each ISP. (Joch, 14)

Cable and phone companies say that they need to be able to control the delivery of web content to maintain the performance of their networks. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are some of the biggest proponents of these potential laws. These companies believe it is their right to control and monitor the information that flows through their networks and services, even if the user is not in direct contact with said companies. These companies also want permission to give preference to certain websites over less used websites. For example, YouTube.com would be given “special privileges” or faster access by the user over a local business website This would allow for these companies to generate more income via services provided to all Internet applications across the country. (Bogardus)

The outcome of these new laws would cause companies that provide Internet services, or content providers, to pay each ISP a premium in order to provide the content fairly to all customers. If this premium is not paid, the services could be significantly hindered by the ISP in areas where the content provider cannot afford to pay the premium fees. Along with these premium fees, companies want to be allowed to charge for “bytes” of data they supply, similarly to how people are charged for the use of gas or other physical commodities. The problem with this idea of charging for “bytes” is that the data is not a physical or limited quantity and does not require transportation in the way that other physical commodities do.

The rules that have been proposed could have detrimental affects on small businesses, college students, non-profit organizations, and the average Internet user, which encompasses most of the country. If these laws were put into effect, the Internet as we know it could be changed forever.

Policies That Should Be Protected

Proponents of Net Neutrality have put forth a piece of legislation to the FCC to look over. This is the FCC docket 09-93. In this docket, proponents of Net Neutrality say that the FCC must protect and enforce the four policies stated in the Internet Policy Statement of the Communications Act of 1934 that was amended in 2005. The four policies are things that citizens of this country take advantage of on a daily basis.

The first of these policies is that the FCC is to encourage the deployment of broadband to the country and to preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet. This means that consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice. So, this means that any users of the Internet here in the United States are able to access any website they want as long as illegal activity is not taking place. An example of this is that a user can visited Facebook as much as they wish without interference but as soon as that user crosses into a website dealing with illegal activities, such as downloading of pirated movies, the user can lose their access to the Internet.

The second policy is that the consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of the law. This means that users can use any Internet application, or application that accesses the Internet or Internet Services, as long as it is not used to violate the law. So a user is free to use Netflix as much as they want to watch movies and TV shows, but that user is not allowed to go and download movies and TV shows through an application like Bittorrent.

Policy number three that needs to be protected is the policy that says that consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network. This is a two-sided policy. First there is the concept of legal devices. A legal device is a device that is solid in retail that has gone through the proper testing to make sure it meets all standards. So a device purchased over the black market would be considered an illegal device. The second part of this policy is that of harming the network. A legal device can be used to harm a network. In this world of smart phones and mobile applications, it is easy to turn a legal device into a device intended to harm a network – hacker applications are an example of this.

The final policy that needs to be protected is that consumers are entitled to competition among Internet Service Providers, network providers, applications, and content providers. This is that, just as in the free market concept, you the user are entitled to your choice of providers. If your current provider is not meeting your standards, you can change who your provider is. These policies are the cornerstone for maintaining the open and interconnected nature of the Public Internet. The next two policies, additions the proponents of Net Neutrality believe need to be protected, are drafted to prevent the removal of Net Neutrality.

The first of these new policies is that the FCC is to require an ISP to treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner. This is how the current model of the Internet is, no matter who is the user’s ISP, that user has access to anything and everything on the Internet, as long as it doesn’t violate any of the original four policies. Opponents of Net Neutrality believe that services should be unique to the ISP, thus meaning that the user does not have access to everything on the Internet.

The last of the new policies is that the FCC is to require an ISP to disclose information concerning network management and other practices. Currently ISP’s look at header information in the packets of data coming through their routers. A new practice coming about is the concept of dissecting the packet and looking at the full content of the packet. From here, the ISP could sell the information in the packet to whomever to start creating personalized advertisements and spam emails related to what the user was looking at while connected to that ISP. This is a major break in security. The ISP has no right to look at what the user is looking at.

How Does This Affect You?

The new net neutrality laws proposed will affect the individual greatly. The new laws would drastically hinder the speed of local websites that the average person accesses on a daily basis. For example, a local news station may not be able to afford the higher Internet speeds. Therefore, the people who access these websites would be put in the slow lane. This invades the daily lives of most of the population.

The proposed Net Neutrality laws are, at the very least, unfair to small businesses. They would mean that the creators of websites would have to pay the Internet providers to run their websites at the faster speed. This makes it easy to see why it is unfair to small, start-up businesses. The larger corporations could easily pay the fee to be put into the fast lane of the Internet, but smaller companies would struggle to make those payments. This would cause those companies to lose business when their customers have the choice of waiting to access the small company’s website or instantly access the larger company’s website.

What Can You Do To Preserve The Current Model of Net Neutrality?

There is one clear way of preserving the current model. This is overthrowing the Federal Government. But since that is not how civilized people act, that way will not be feasible. So, the way to prevent change of the Net Neutrality model is that you the user write to your congressmen urging them to support keeping the current model. Also, since most people do not have time to make fighting this issue the main focus of their life, you can donate to the cause at SaveTheInternet.com.

Conclusion

Net Neutrality is one of the fundamental ideas on which the Internet is built. The internet maintains the “level playing field” status. It is clear to most people that this is the way the Internet is meant to be. No one controls it, people can just add to it. No websites are deliberately served faster than others. It should be based on the design and idea of the website whether or not people visit it, not based on which website loads faster.

With this status being threatened by big corporations, what will become of the Internet? Will the speed of the Internet be sold to the highest bidder while everyone else is left in the dust which will create monopolies like the world has never seen? Or will people voice their opinions and bring reason, not greed, back to the minds of our congressmen and save the Internet?

Bibliography

Bogardus, Kevin, and Kim Hart. “Companies Lobby Newest FCC Members on Net Neutrality Rule.” The Hill. 11 Nov. 2009. Web. 03 Apr.2011.

Broadband Network Management. Federal Communications Commission, 07 Jan. 2007. Web. 03 Apr. 2011.

Eshoo, Anna G. “The state of the Internet.” Feb 6, 2011. February 27th, 2011.

Free Press, Et. Al. Petition for Declaratory Ruling. Federal Communications Commission, 1 Nov. 2007. Web. 03 Apr. 2011.

Gerdes, Louise I. “Chapter 5: The Patriot Act Threatens Internet Privacy.” The Patriot Act: Opposing Viewpoints. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2005. Print.

Joch, Alan. “Debating Net Neutrality.” Communications of the ACM Oct. 2008: 14-16.

Melanson, Donald. “House Subcommittee Votes to Block FCC’s Net Neutrality Rules.” Engadget. 10 Mar. 2011. Web. 04 Apr. 2011.

“Net Neutrality.” Times Topics. The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2010. Web. 03 Apr. 2011.

“Network Neutrality.” American Library Association. Web. 04 Apr. 2011.

Ohm, Paul. “Viewpoint: When Network Neutrality Met Privacy.” Communications of the ACM. Apr. 2010. Vol. 53 Issue 4, p30-32.

“Save the Internet.” SaveTheInternet. Web. 04 Apr. 2011.

“Series of Tubes.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 04 Apr. 2011.

Sharp, John E. “With Net Neutrality, Freedom through Regulation Is Not an Oxymoron.”

Journal of Internet Law (2009). Print.

“A Virtual Counter-Revolution.” Economist. Sept. 4, 2010. Vol. 396 Issue 8698, p75-77.

United States, FCC Docket 09-93

Simplify the Internet with Buttons via InternetButtons.org

Being in a fast paced society, keeping things simple and efficient is key.  So it is not surprising that advances in technology and research have quite lovingly followed this same trend for the betterment of society.  If society requests a way to constantly stay connected into the world, developers improve smart phones and the applications that run on them.  It’s the same story for countless other inventions, developments, and breakthroughs: all have the end goal of making life simpler and easier.

Consequently, these same principles can be applied on a smaller scale.  Take a simple button, for the sake of argument.  Buttons appear to be a simpler way to do everything.  They automate things, program things, request things, and just plain FEEL easier.  So what does this tell us as society?  That some things (like for example our favorite internet websites and email accounts) need to be simpler by putting them into large, obvious, button form.  Well, look no further.

This is called Internet Buttons, and it makes bookmarking things simpler for the standard web user.  Okay, so it appears to be more tailored for the technologically inept and inexperienced, but rest assured this site is designed for the betterment of you and society as a whole.

This website allows for the creation of website linked buttons so that you or your un-technological family members can easily access favorite websites and email.  The site works as follows: first, select a button to create and insert the website that needs to be linked, the title, and finally the color.  Then, send it off to the main button page to be organized and placed.

Do this a bunch more times until you feel that you or your recipient has enough website linked buttons to maintain a connection to the outside world.

Alternatively, if you don’t know which buttons and or websites you think you need, then take a simple quiz (located under the “save” button) and Internet Buttons will recommend buttons and websites for you to add to your main layout.

Once you are done creating a nice button layout on your main page, hit the “save” link on the right side and proceed with first creating a personal password and then adding a photo and message for the main layout.  Then create a password to allow your potential recipient to access the your button main page.  Finally, create a personal web address to finish off the editing.

C'est fini

There you have it: a simple webpage with all the website buttons you’ll ever need.  If you are sharing your main page, give the full website link to your beneficiary, have them set that as their homepage, and wait for them to convey their gratitude.

Internet Buttons, the internet, and society: Simplicity at its best.

First Look: Logitech Revue with Google TV

Editor’s note: I am joined at the end of this article by software engineer Chris Finke, who was kind enough to share his experiences integrating Google TV with his Tivo.  Both Chris and I won our Logitech Revues through a developer contest held by Google.

The Logitech Revue with Google TV is Google’s first foray into the set-top box hardware format. The idea behind Google TV is that you can take your all of your entertainment sources, no matter how expansive, and have access to everything through a single device. After connecting your digital cable, DVR, and streaming accounts like Netflix, you can search for content through Google TV and it will find it on any of your systems.

Unboxing the Logitech Revue with Google TV

The Revue is very similar to the popular Roku digital video player in both function and size. It is surprisingly light and whisper quiet, although an internal fan did briefly kick in when I first started the device. Along with the device comes a very impressive wireless keyboard (that doubles as a remote for your whole system), as well as a 6-foot HDMI cable, power cables, and an IR blaster.

The Keyboard as a Remote

The Revue keyboard is light and made of that soft-touch rubber that has become so common with modern electronics. Since this is the only input method for the system, the keyboard also features a laptop-style touchpad and mouse buttons. Navigating with the keyboard can be done through the touch pad, arrow keys, and the Channel/Page buttons.

Across the top of the keyboard are volume controls and buttons to control your TV and DVR. The most important keys on the keyboard are the magnifying glass key on the bottom left for accessing Search (available anywhere in Google TV), and the Home button on the right side of the keyboard beneath the touchpad.

Here’s a must-have tip for the keyboard: To enable tap-to-click (which you’re probably familiar with from laptop touchpads), press and hold Left CTRL + FN + Ch/Pg Up.

Setting up the Logitech Revue and Google TV

Installing the Logitech Revue hardware and configuring Google TV isn’t difficult, but plan to spend at least 30 minutes before you can actually use the device. The installation took a little longer in my case because of my entertainment system setup (and my tireless affinity for zip ties).

After you get the Logitech Revue up and running, you’ll follow a simple 12-step process to configure Google TV for your system. This includes setting up your wireless (or wired) network, installing a mandatory system update, configuring your display, and adding any peripherals you own.

Integrating with Other Devices

The big selling point of Google TV is that you can search all of your content through one device. This is, unfortunately, where I happen to be one of the worst usage scenarios ever: I’m one of those hip kids that doesn’t have cable, satellite, or a DVR. My entertainment sources include over-the-air digital antenna, Netflix Instant Watch, and Hulu Plus, so I can’t give you a very good opinion of how the Revue integrates with your entertainment system.

Google TV comes with Netflix Instant Watch software installed by default, and Hulu Plus is “on the way” which I am eager to see. I’ve used Hulu Plus through the Roku player and have really enjoyed it.

The Logitech Revue has several IR transmitters (just like your TV’s remote control uses) across the front of the device, which is how it can control your entertainment system. This lets you issue commands through the Revue, like turning off the TV, changing channels, or adjusting the volume. If your entertainment setup doesn’t give the Revue good contact with your peripherals, an IR blaster is included to give it better range.

Streaming Video Online

Until the Android Market reaches Google TV, streaming video is done through the Chrome browser app just like you would on a computer (except for the Netflix app). The system does a great job of handling Flash video, and I was able to watch shows like Conan on TBS.com without any problems. It isn’t the most refined experience though – you need to click the small “Play” button on videos, then locate the “Play Fullscreen” button to enjoy it as you would on TV.

Amazon Video On Demand can also be streamed right through the Chrome browser. I checked out Predators via Video On Demand streaming and the quality was great. Even though the streaming is done through the browser, the media controls on the keyboard work just like you’re watching a DVD.

When the Revue first came out, there was a lot of commotion about how major networks were blocking the device from streaming video online. This is true for some websites, but it has a very simple workaround: in Chrome, press Menu, go to Settings, and change the user agent to Generic. Hulu has unfortunately fixed this loophole, but many other sites have not.

Google TV + Tivo

Written by Chris Finke

I recently had several guests over to my house, and without any prompting on my part, I saw them successfully using YouTube search, Pandora streaming, and the Netflix app, which means the Logitech Revue’s learning curve is definitely low.

The main question I heard was, “Does it record TV shows?”  Upon hearing that it doesn’t, people disappointingly said, “So it’s just like… a computer… connected to your TV?” I understand that Google TV’s stated purpose is make video and the internet easily accessible, but the fact that there’s literally nothing I can do with Google TV that I can’t do in a web browser makes it less desirable and definitely not worth the $299 price.

Except for browsing the web, my Revue doesn’t do anything my Tivo doesn’t (plus my Tivo organizes my recorded TV shows); however, I would choose to use the Revue over the Tivo every single time.  On my Tivo, accessing things like Amazon Video On Demand or YouTube search can take as much as 10 seconds, with several second stutters during every menu change. On the Revue, the interaction is smooth, and the interface is polished. It’s so easy to use that my 20-month-old son knows how to use it to watch YouTube videos of his cousins – “arrow, arrow, spacebar”, and he’s got an hour of entertainment queued up.

Given this interface improvement, I wish that Google TV was able to natively browse my Tivo’s recordings through an interface like the Netflix app. The extent of Google TV’s integration with Tivo is two buttons on the keyboard: “DVR” which brings up my Tivo’s home screen, and “Guide” which switches to the live TV feed from my Tivo and activates the Tivo’s guide (which is terribly unusable).

If user experience is what Tivo could take from the Revue, a new remote is what the Revue could take from Tivo – a keyboard is a terrible form factor for controlling a TV from a couch or other non-desk surface. Logitech would be wise to mimic Tivo’s Slide Remote or find some other way to get back to a typical remote control form factor for all of the standard TV interactions but still include a QWERTY keyboard for web browsing and video search.

How I Used the Internet to Save Time and Money While Shopping

As I believe I’ve stated on most (if not all) of my past articles, I am kind of lazy. I did not line up at 2:30am on Black Friday in hopes of scoring huge deals. In addition to that, I am in college, therefore I am, let’s say, not as financially well off as I would like to be. An obvious fix for this would be to become less lazy and stand in line on Black Friday and get things for cheap. Or, I could just shop online.

Shopping online has made bargain shopping not only easy, but almost hard not to do. In the past you drove to Best Buy to look at a TV, and if it was in your price range you probably picked it up. You did this because Wal-Mart was on the other end of town and you didn’t want to risk going all the way there only to find it was more expensive and have to drive back. What a pain.

Or, you could wait until Sunday and compare sales ads. These babies told you what the hot deals were, but really nothing else. Sure that TV is only $400, but how many HDMI input ports does it have? Does it even have HDMI? Is it HD as in anything that’s not 480p or is it true 1080p HD?

Add to all of this the fact the abysmal odds of two ads from different stores showing the exact same product on sale, and it’s pretty easy to see that shopping this way also had its drawbacks.

Then came the internet

(Insert angelic voices and rays of sunshine here)

Now, going to Best Buy only takes 5 seconds. Running over to Target to check their deals only takes another 5 seconds. In 15 minutes you have run all over town and checked out every deal available. All without having to put pants on.

This obviously has its advantages (seriously, who wants to put on pants on a Sunday?), but there’s more! Ever find it a bit coincidental that the floor salesman always recommends the most expensive of whatever you happen to be looking for and, that for whatever reason it is better from their place than it would be from another store? No more!

Probably one of the best things I like about shopping online is the customer reviews. I pay a lot of attention to customer reviews because they usually point out incredibly good aspects of the product I’m looking to buy, or some potential problems about them that I might otherwise miss. Some things I take into consideration are manufactures warranty and mail-in rebates. A website may list the price of an item as $20 off with mail in rebate, but if a look at the reviews informs me that getting said rebate is a hassle, I’ll try a different product.

Another way to save money is to take advantage of sites like Woot.com. If you haven’t Wooted yet, I would strongly recommend it. Woot sells one item a day (unless a Woot Off! is going on in which they sell a product until it runs out and then move to another one). This one item they sell is usually hugely discounted from what it normally runs.

The important thing to remember with Woot is that the only way you’re saving money is when you’re buying something that you would have had to buy anyway at a higher price. If you bought every good deal that was available on Woot.com you would probably make a purchase every day (and have about 394 Roombas). Another thing to note with Woot is that sometimes they will sell refurbished products (which accounts for a better-than-average deal). It is always stated on the product information if they are new or refurbished, so it might be worth checking if the warranty is still intact, etc.

Another great place to find deals is with Gizmodo’s Dealzmodo. Once a day, the Gizmodo team puts together a list of great deals from all around the internet. The deals come in all shapes and sizes: TV’s, game consoles, iPhone apps, etc.

Gain an advantage with research

One great, money-saving way to use the internet is to educate yourself. Exactly what about that laptop makes it so expensive? Maybe it’s because it has a dedicated graphics card and a quad-core processor. It doesn’t take a lot of research to figure out that you don’t need that if you’re just going on the internet and writing Techerator articles.

The same thing applies to almost any item. If you do some research, you can often find exactly what you need and not have to pay for extras you aren’t going to use.

Research can also let you in on some secrets such as how marked-up the prices of some products are in department stores.  For instance, talk to anyone that works at a Best Buy and ask them how much mark-up is added to cables and accessories. It’s ridiculous and might make you a bit nauseous. Online sites that make their own cables and sell them without ridiculous mark-ups can literally save you hundreds of dollars.

Last time I checked, the cheapest HDMI cable I could buy at my local Best Buy was around $25 (for a 6′ cable). I recently bought a 25’ HDMI cable to go from my Xbox 360 to my projector and paid $27 at www.monoprice.com. That same 6 foot cable you buy at Best Buy will cost you about $3 at monoprice.com.

Conclusion

The internet has saved my wallet over the years. I pride myself on getting good deals, especially on electronics, and I know I’ve saved hundreds of dollars just by buying all my cables online.

What are your online money-saving secrets? Do you have a site you like to frequent because of some great money-saving deals? Let us all know in the comments.

Net Neutrality: A Lose-Lose Situation?

Question?
Question?

Much has been made about net neutrality recently. But what does “net neutrality” really mean? In a nutshell, it’s the idea that Internet Service Providers should not be allowed to discriminate against any type of traffic on their networks, for any reason. While it has many more implications, it has become a hot topic of discussion with the rise of streaming video over the internet, which Netflix and Comcast currently find themselves in the center of the fight.

On the surface, net neutrality seems like a no-brainer, but is it really? The fact of the matter is that net neutrality is a very complex issue, and no matter the outcome, we, as consumers, will be the losers.

I feel there are two distinct sides to the issue, and many people may not be aware of the legitimacy of both arguments. This is America, and information is supposed to flow freely, much like the Freedom of Speech, provided by the Bill of Rights. However, bandwidth is not free, and companies like Netflix essentially make a profit using the property of companies like Comcast. Our great country is also based on Capitalism, and both sides understandably want their share.

A Lose-Lose Situation

Suppose the government steps in and enforces net neutrality upon all ISPs nationwide. That sounds like a dream come true to most people in our 21st Century society. Who wouldn’t want to be able to stream any video over the internet on demand, in the comfort of his or her own home, or even on the road? In many cases, this is the extent of the argument, case closed.

Unfortunately, providing network bandwidth is not free. When it comes to millions of consumers streaming terabytes of video simultaneously, it becomes quite expensive. ISPs have to maintain their networks and buttress their infrastructure in order to support the dramatic load increase brought on by the advances of technology. This increase in cost reduces their profits, while Netflix’s profits soar to unimaginable heights. This is a capitalist society, and the ISPs, unsurprisingly, are not happy when their profits fall. If the ISPs are forced to allow all types of traffic, monthly fees from your friendly neighborhood cable company will go up, in order to cover their losses.

Now suppose the government steps in and says ISPs can discriminate against streaming video services like Netflix. Netflix will have to pay ISPs like Comcast a hefty sum in order to provide their services to us, the consumers. Again, this is a capitalist society we live in, and Netflix would pass the cost on to the consumer. Netflix recently increased the price of their streaming subscription, so I have no reason to believe that they would not do it again.

The Bottom Line

If freedom of information wins, we lose. If ISPs win the fight, we lose as well. I hope I’m missing the third scenario where we win. Maybe I’d settle for a tie, because I’m having a hard time seeing the consumer benefit either way.

Nobody likes higher prices, but the bottom line is that bandwidth is not free, and economics dictates that the cost will be passed on to the consumer. As streaming video technology continues to evolve, with more and more HD video becoming available as we speak, I’d like to hear what you, our readers, think about the issue.

Image provided by Discovery Education

How The Internet Has Changed (and created new) Holiday Rituals

The internet has changed lives every day. It has changed how we learn, work, and communicate. It’s also changed how we celebrate the holidays – let’s just hope that Santa doesn’t get cheap on us and start sending us presents through email.

One of the biggest ways that technology has impacted the holidays is by changing the way that we shop. When I was younger it was always a big thing for my family to go to the mall and we would split off individually to do shopping for each other. My brother and I would also get dropped off with neighbors or family occasionally so my parents could go out Christmas shopping alone. That doesn’t happen anymore – partly because we are older now and on our own, but  because we rely on the internet for shopping instead of heading to the nearest mall.

For me, the days of fighting crowds and waiting in lines to checkout are in the past as I do the majority of my shopping online. It’s not even December – yet I’ve already purchased the majority of my Christmas presents for family and friends. 95% of those gifts were purchased online through different vendors such as Woot.com, Amazon, eBay, American Eagle and Wal-Mart.

Shopping online is extremely convenient. It has evolved a lot over the years and continues to evolve every day. With security risks becoming less of a threat these days, a lot of people are opting out of shopping brick-and-mortar and turning to the awesomeness of online shopping. It saves time and energy, better deals can generally be found online than in stores, wider varieties of products can often be found online, products can be easily compared, reviews can be easily accessed and it opens up our shopping experience to a global market.

It also helps keep the magic of Christmas alive for children. I know when I was younger the magic of Christmas was ruined for me after finding multiple presents stowed away in an upstairs closet. Now, however, parents can have presents shipped to the house (sometime already gift wrapped) and they can stay in the boxes until it’s time for wrapping. While there are some perks to shopping in the store (such as tangibly feeling the product or demoing it), I think online shopping (especially online holiday shopping) is going to get even more popular as the years pass by.

I know I’m going to sound like Scrooge, but I personally hate the greeting card industry. My motive behind my hatred is because I think greeting cards are 1) expensive, 2) a waste of trees, and 3) they are generally trashed after Christmas or other occasions.

I never send out tangible greeting cards – instead I send out handy dandy e-cards (electronic card). I also like receiving e-cards more than tangible greeting cards because I don’t feel as bad deleting the email as I do when I trash greeting cards because I feel like I’m killing a tree and wasting $3.50.

E-cards have definitely become a part of my holiday tradition. I actually just sent an e-card to family on Thanksgiving and plan on doing it as Christmas gets closer.

Christmas decorating has also changed over the years thanks to increased technology and the internet. I remember when I was younger we would put that tacky, silver tinsel on the tree that would never go away. It would be the middle of July and you’d be vacuuming and sure enough you would find tinsel on the ground. We also had those ugly wicker reindeer and that plastic nativity set – which my brother burnt down one year.

In this day and age, we have inflatable and animatronics Christmas characters, LED lights that flash and that can be synchronized with music. There are even apps now, both mobile and desktop, that will allow you to turn your Christmas decorations on and off without ever touching a light switch or power bar.

Back in the day, Christmas use to be that one big holiday where everyone got together. My family would always gather at my grandfather’s house for Christmas. When I say family, I mean all my family. I would have aunts, uncles, and cousins I never got to see driving and flying in from all over the United States to be together for Christmas.

With the recent economic pressures, it’s not as easy as to jump on a plane and with gas prices the way they are driving 600 miles isn’t what it used to be. So a little holiday tradition that my family has adopted over the past few years is keeping in touch with each other via video chat, provided by Skype. Granted we couldn’t all be together on the same screen, (at least not in the past, but with Skype’s 5.0 update with 10-way video calling we will be able to do that this year), we would still Skype each other for a few minutes and say our “Merry Christmases”.

Another holiday tradition that has become one of my favorites is tracking Santa during December using NORAD Santa. NORAD Santa started back in the 50s when an advertisement ran Santa’s phone number, which actually was the number for the Continental Air Defense Command. Playing along with the hundreds of calls they received from kids looking for Santa, they tracked him on their radar system and gave updates.

That tradition lives strong 60 years later. Today NORAD Santa can be tracked via their website, their twitter and/or by their Facebook. By following the website, their status updates or their tweets, starting December 1, you will able to get information on what Santa’s up to and starting on Christmas Eve you will be able to know where Santa is delivering presents.

Last Christmas, my family really got into it and on Christmas Eve when we were all sitting around stringing popcorn for the Christmas Tree, I would get updates every few minutes from Twitter. It was neat to see where Santa was and what he was up too. At least my niece thought it was neat.

The internet has also had an impact on Christmas music. When I was younger my mom would play Dolly Parton’s Christmas over and over and over again. I can still hear Hard Candy Christmas in the back of my head. We listened to that cassette tape because it was one of the only Christmas cassettes we had. Now with the evolution of online radio and playlists, such as Pandora, Grooveshark, and Playlist.com, you can build endless Christmas music playlists, stations and queues so that you never have to hear Dolly Parton more than once.

While some traditions have faded, others have evolved and new ones have been formed – it’s obvious that the internet has had an impact on the holiday season. But is that a good thing? I think so! I’m very glad that I was born when I was. I would have hated to be alive back in the day when you had to cut down your own tree, carry it across the forest to your house, scare the squirrels out of it and then decorate with it real, burning candles. I know – it sounds exhausting.  I’m very thankful that I live in the day and age that I live in.

Because of technology, especially the internet, we have so many opportunities to communicate, be more efficient, and share in the joy of Christmas.

Holidays 2.0: How the Internet Changed (and saved) Christmas

The internet is without a doubt one of the greatest and furthest reaching inventions in the history of mankind. It allows for near instantaneous communication with people on the other side of the planet (and even in outer space). Internet connectivity has become so ingrained into our everyday lives that it’s often hard to imagine life without it.

Nearly every single day of my life begins and ends with the internet. I turn on my computer first thing after rolling out of bed and check my e-mail and Twitter feed. Throughout the day I keep connected through my smartphone; I talk with friends on Twitter, keep up to date with the latest news, and kill time between classes thanks to sites like Reddit. At work I use the internet to find solutions to tech support problems. As the day winds down, sites like Hulu let me keep up with my favorite TV shows without having to adhere to strict television schedules.

When the holiday season rolls around the internet becomes even more invaluable. Instead of having to brave the inevitable holiday rush (and, God forbid, socialize with strangers) or resort to something drastic like shopping at a 24 hour store at 3 am, I do most of my holiday shopping online from the comfort of my computer chair. Not only is it easier, faster, and more convenient getting everything delivered to you, the internet offers a much larger selection and you can even save money in the process.

In smaller cities, you’re often at the mercy of the retailers. If you’re shopping for something specific and lucky enough to find someone who carries it, you get the pleasure of paying whatever price they set. By shopping online you’re almost guaranteed to find what you’re looking for. Even better, shopping around is much easier on the internet. Many things can be found brand new for lower prices on auction sites like eBay, and there are entire sites dedicated to compiling lists of the lowest prices for products.

The internet has single-handedly changed the way we live our lives. As it continues to evolve, I look forward to seeing how it impacts our society in other positive ways.

Photo credit: alancleaver