Archive for the ‘Mostly Tech’ Category

Aug 26th, 2013 1 Comment

What I Saw at the Sears Hackathon

This past weekend I attended my first hackathon as an actual competitor. The experience was intense and really interesting, addictive even. This particular event was sponsored by Sears Holdings (two big brands: Sears with about 1,300 locations, and Kmart with about 1,200 locations). They were out to tap into the Bay Area tech community to see what ideas we could come up with to energize a somewhat tired, bricks-and-mortar retailing giant.

Sears Hackathon Ad Stars Team

Sears Hackathon Ad Stars Team

On Friday evening about 250 of us listened to the Sears people describe the company, brands/products, and competitive environment. They explained what they hoped we could think about and the kind of apps and websites they already have today. We were given access to a set of APIs in their system for store location, product information, “Deal of the Day” sale items and more. They also explained the judging criteria – serious financial prizes were being awarded to winning teams.

Some people arrived in ready-made teams, and several companies with existing apps to promote and build on also participated. About half of us were there on our own so Saturday morning was a sort of speed-dating event where everyone was trying to team up with the best coders and UX designers. I met a few guys visiting from Korea for the summer, and together with one other Bay Area local we formed a surprisingly effective team. Between noon on Saturday and mid-afternoon Sunday we invented an app that features user-generated videos (product ads), in-store traffic, online social buzz and group purchasing discounts. A bit ambitious, but we streamlined our technical requirements to focus on presentation and the app ended up working perfectly.

Sears Hackathon Ad Stars Team

Sears Hackathon Ad Stars Team

Competing against 40 other teams we managed to win one of the prizes, but even without that I’m sure the guys (lots of women at this event, but none on our team) would have considered the event a huge success and great learning experience. If nothing else, we learned just how much good work can be accomplished by a focused team effort.

If you’re a programmer, UI/UX expert, product manager, or pretty much anyone else interested in a high intensity learning experience I highly recommend attending a hackathon. Here are a few observations from my weekend adventure:


Sears Hackathon Ad Stars Team

Robert Presenting The Finished Product

  • At the end each team was given just three minutes to present their idea/work to the judges. Three minutes goes by VERY quickly so don’t waste a second on your credentials, education, thanking sponsors, jokes, or personal anecdotes. Don’t even waste time introducing your team. Get right into the product. If you just spent 24 hours frantically writing the code of your life, you really should make sure the judges get to see it. The best teams made it look easy, didn’t look rushed and had time to spare. Many teams didn’t budget enough time to show off half of their code.
  • Prepare for something to go wrong during the demo and have a plan B ready to go. Static screens that you can flip through in an emergency is better than having the judges look at a blank screen for three minutes (with a blank screen behind you three minutes seems like an awfully long time).
  • Be realistic about how much you can accomplish in 24 hours. Design a project that can be described quickly and is easy for judges to grasp. Simulate complex operations instead of trying (and possibly failing) to make absolutely everything work. Plan for a situation where a team member has to drop out unexpectedly. Schedule team member assignments up front so that important, complicated things are completed on day 1, and leave day 2 for testing and polishing the product, and presentation rehearsal.
  • Do not make the judges watch you filling out forms, or going through a log in process. You will make typos and waste valuable time.

It was a lot of work with no guaranteed payoff, but I would definitely do it again. If you try someday, just remember that the last 180 seconds are the most important.

Apr 10th, 2012 2 Comments

WiPNET provides Internet over existing in-home cable TV coax wire

Anyone with a large, multi-level home or office knows that a single Wi-Fi router doesn’t always provide coverage in every room. In my case, we recently moved into a 90-year-old house with very solid walls. The router in the living room is barely visible to the iPad when I’m reading in bed, so the connection is slow, if it works at all. We also don’t want a printer in the living room so a wired solution in one of the back rooms is required.


Stringing a new Ethernet cable would be possible, but not fun. I tried several models of Wi-Fi repeaters in the past, and tested newer models when we moved into this house, but their performance and reliability were not acceptable.

Fortunately, like most houses today our place was wired with coax cable for television in every room years ago. Now a new Rochester NY company called wi3 has come out with an amazingly simple product called WiPNET. I don’t know why it took so long for someone to figure this out, because the whole thing is so obvious, and simple.

The photo at right show a single WiPNET device. This mounts in the wall like a standard electrical outlet, typically wherever your cable TV connection comes out of the wall. The WiPNET box has two coax connectors and two Ethernet jacks.

I set up one of the WiPNET devices near the television in the living room, where I also wanted the Wi-Fi router. This was also a convenient place since I had one coax cable TV wire coming in to the WiPNET box, and a second coax cable TV wire going out of the WiPNET box and on to feed the rest of the house. A standard Ethernet cable was run from the router to one of the Ethernet connectors on the WiPNET device.

A second WiPNET box was placed in one of the back rooms near a desktop computer and network printer. This device was connected to the cable TV connection in that room, and then the cable box was hooked up to the second coax connector. The computer and printer were connected to the two Ethernet jacks on the WiPNET device and, like magic, they were wired into the router in the front of the house. After testing the setup for a few days I connected a second Wi-Fi router to the WiPNET device in the back of the house. That signal is strong enough to cover the backyard as well as the rooms.

The WiPNET devices have a light that glows white if the two devices are communicating Ethernet signals properly. The light glows red if there is any problem. At first I had a problem with the connection, but after removing three unnecessary cable splitters the lights glowed white. (Apparently, each cable splitter will degrade the signal a little. Too many splitters and no more signal.)

The company is new and the last time I checked in they didn’t have any retail distribution set up yet. But several home audio/video dealers around the country are carrying the products. I ended up purchasing from Design Tech Electronics in the Washington DC area.

For more information visit the wi3 website.

Apr 5th, 2010 3 Comments

The business case for the iPad

iPad standing tall and wide

iPad standing tall after 48 hours

Update: Also read part 2 of this review.

After spending most of the last 48 hours with the iPad in my hands I have to agree with Walt Mossberg that “…this beautiful new touch-screen device from Apple has the potential to change portable computing profoundly…” The folks at Apple like to shake up entire industries – iTunes and the iPod certainly changed the music business and Apple is now the largest music distributor in the world, and the iPhone showed the stodgy telecommunications industry what a phone should be, while Apple sold over 70 million so far. It’s too soon to know whether the iPad will have the same impact, but the early results suggest that it certainly has the potential.

Read the rest of this entry »

Feb 10th, 2010 1 Comment

Google announces fiber optic network test

Google Fiber Optic Test

Google Fiber Optic Test

Google today announced an initiative to build broadband networks in local communities around the US as part of a test. Quoting Google:

“We’re planning to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the United States. We’ll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.”

The full announcement can be found on Google’s blog:

If you ever wanted fiber optic broadband to your home, office, or school now is your chance. Go to the following page and submit your information:

Good luck, and let us know if you win.

Dec 31st, 2009 No Comments

2010 is the year of the Net-smart Book-tablet

Regardless of what you want to call it (smartbook, netbook, web book, e-reader) 2010 will be the year that we all realize we need a fourth computer device in our lives, and wonder how we got by so long without it. By the end of 2010 our personal IT infrastructure will fall into four categories:

Design concepts below courtesy of
Freescale Semiconductor




Desktop computer – The old standby, and still the best tool for most work. Prices are low for powerful, multi-display devices that have high quality speaker systems and can serve as a media hub for the whole office/home.

Notebook computer – The only way to travel with most of your office in a backpack. Large keyboards, decent screens and good battery life make today’s notebooks ready for serious work. Some people are starting to eliminate the desktop computer in favor of using a notebook full-time, but the most powerful are too big and heavy for frequent travel.

Net-smart Book-tablet – This is where the new category fits into the lineup. It’s a device that is smaller and much lighter than a notebook/laptop computer, but bigger than a cell phone with an 8 to 12 inch screen for easy reading. It is primarily designed for consuming media, that is: reading books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs; watching television, movies and YouTube; browsing Web sites for work, school and fun; and listening to music. Skype will allow you to use these wi-fi devices as a phone, but some will no doubt be sold with cell phones built in (the Kindle already includes a cell radio, but only for data). The current crop look mostly like small notebooks, using a clamshell design. But the old notebook form factor isn’t very convenient for reading on the couch, in bed, or in the bathroom, and weight is a big problem. Expect the new 2010 generation to be very light and more tablet-like, or have clever folding or sliding systems so they can be held flat. You’ll take this new device places you would never think to bring your notebook, but not everywhere like your cell phone.
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Dec 16th, 2009 1 Comment

How to select a cell phone these days

Motorola DynaTAC

Motorola Cell Phone 1983

Back in the old days it was easy to buy a cell phone – if it made phone calls you were good to go. At some point the cell phone became the “smart phone” which is really code for “universal communications and entertainment device that fits in a pocket.” It’s pretty amazing really, but a short list of things I expect my phone to do these days includes:

  • Web browser
  • E-mail device
  • Contact and calendar management
  • Task managment and notepad
  • Instant/text messaging
  • GPS moving map with audible turn-by-turn directions
  • Watch television shows, movies and YouTube
  • Music player (and music store)
  • Mobile hot spot providing Internet access for multiple computers
  • Manage my Netflix movie queue
  • Still camera and audio/video recorder
  • Weather reports with animated radar images
  • Animated airline flight tracker
  • Make phone calls

Read the rest of this entry »

Jun 13th, 2009 No Comments

It’s 10 pm. Do you know where your backup is?

Sorry to be a downer at the beginning of summer, but this is important so pay attention for a few minutes. How long has it been since you made backups of important files? If you make regular backups, have you checked them to be sure they really work to recover your data? Are the only backups in the same room as the original files?

A friend called for help last week. Her computer picked up a nasty virus that left the Windows XP machine unable to boot. It was an older computer that was about due to be upgraded anyway so she bought a new model. She had nightly backups of the most important files, documents, accounting and tax records, and things like that so she was up and running quickly with no stress.

However, she had many gigabytes of photographs, videos and music that were too big for her to back up conveniently so the only copy was on the virus-infected, internal hard disk. We solved that problem by plugging her bad Windows drive into one of our Linux machines and copying the files to an external USB drive.

After solving her problem we went shopping and found that large-size backup drives have gotten really cheap. Our first stop was Staples. They have a 1 TB external USB drive for $149. A 1.5 TB drive is only $179. After that we dropped in at a new Best Buy that just opened yesterday. I don’t know if this is a short-term special, but they had a 1 TB external USB drive for only $119. That’s a lot of storage for the average user and at that price everyone can afford backup.

iDrive Backup Solution

iDrive Backup Solution

Another backup option that you should consider are the “cloud” storage providers that put your important files on their servers in a data center somewhere. That’s really good because it protects your valuable data from flood, fire, vandalism, etc. Two companies to check out for this service are Mozy and iDrive. These services are very reasonable – for about $5/month (both Mozy and iDrive will even give you 2GB for free!) you can have off-site storage for your most important files.

The solution I prefer is a combination of local and remote backup. Keep local copies of everything on one or more large USB drives. Also keep remote copies of the important stuff.

Whatever you do, have a plan for backup. It doesn’t cost much and will eventually save you a lot of time and money.

May 9th, 2009 No Comments

Take a personal Wi-Fi hotspot on the road with MiFi

MiFi portable Internet hotspot

MiFi portable Internet hotspot

UPDATE: As of early June the MiFi is also available from Sprint.

We usually recommend Sprint in the US because of their fast data network, but Verizon has a really interesting new device coming out soon that will make us get a Verizon account for the first time ever. This little thing is a wireless Wi-Fi router, like the one in your home or office, but it has a rechargeable battery and it connects to the Internet through Verizon’s 3G cell phone network.

You can now have your own personal hotspot, for multiple Internet users, wherever you need it. Think about that for a minute. Now your team has Internet access anywhere:

  • remote or outdoor job sites
  • conferences and trade shows
  • a sales presentation where you don’t have time to figure out the customer’s network

How often have you walked into a customer’s conference room and then had to crawl under the table in a skirt looking for the network connection? How often has the customer said “Sure we have wireless Internet” only to find out that you can’t get connected, as valuable presentation time is wasted?

David Pogue of The New York Times was the first to get his hands on the MiFi. Read his initial review here. David’s followup comments are available on his blog.

Verizon doesn’t have any information on their Web site yet, so we’ll have to wait and see about features in the router, battery life, Wi-Fi signal strength and more. But if this is as good as it looks, Verizon has us as a new customer.

Quick Followup:

A couple of days after writing this Sprint announced they would also be offering the MiFi, starting early in June. Read their press release.