Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Block Any Pop-Up From Any Site (Like Zedo.com)

Sometimes pop-up blockers just don't work. Here's how to prevent any web site from issuing a pop-up window directly in your face. Instructions here are for Chrome, but you can probably do this to any modern web browser. At least, one can dream.

  1. Go to Preferences
  2. Go to Under the Hood > Privacy > Content Settings...
    1. Alternatively, just search for "pop-up" in the Preferences search box
  3. Scroll to Pop-ups, then click Manage Exceptions...
    1. Of course, make sure the "Do not allow..." radio button is activated
  4. Add a new hostname pattern similar to this: [*.]domain.com and select Deny from the dropdown. Example: [*.]zedo.com
Again, most of the time, pop-up blockers work... but sometimes they don't. This tip was documented here so that in the rare case you get some dastardly site like zedo.com that slips past the iron curtain, at least you've got a big fly swatter waiting for that pop-up window that hopefully you'll never see after making this change.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Soluto: Easy Tech Support for Mom and Dad

Techcrunch had a great article about how to provide tech support to your loved ones (or those who you like enough to provide support). The solution is from a company called Soluto, and they bill themselves as the Anti-Frustration Software company.

Soluto started out as a downloadable app for Joe User, but eventually they figured out that Joe User just wants their stuff to work, not figure out yet another tool that will tweak their computer. So what Soluto did was pretty genius: they decided to make their solution web-based, and market it to IT professionals (the founder calls them "techie people") like me.


Now, instead of my mom having to install the software herself and make decisions about what to turn off or on, and what to do about the web browser toolbars, etc., it is me who makes those decisions, remotely. All with little to no end-user interaction.

This means I can monitor and push software updates (hello, all you lonely Windows XP Security updates!), as well as reset her default browser to Chrome and search provider to Google should she get hijacked somehow. I know, a rare thing, right? Essential computer specs are there, too, like used/free space on hard drives, CPU, how much RAM, what motherboard and graphics cards... all the essentials. Other things you can do: with the click of a button, install cool apps like Skype, Dropbox, OpenOffice, Google Talk, Evernote and more. You can see when apps are non-responsive and/or crash.

To make boot time faster, Soluto lays out all the programs that start up at boot time, and arrange them in order of time it takes to fire up. From there, you can drill down to the ones that are safe to remove, the ones that are potentially removable, and ones that are required. The desktop version of the app told you how many seconds you've saved off the boot time, but this new web-based beta does not do that as of this writing.

You also have access to the end-user's computer protection including turning the firewall on and off and managing the virus scanning side of things in addition to Windows Updates.

Does this replace being there? Almost. You can't, for example, troubleshoot printing or driver problems or anything complicated like that yet... but remember, this is in beta and there's a lot more in the works as they listen to techies like me give them feedback. For the really tough problems (printer/scanner not working, some kind of thing (virus/malware) causing incredible slowness) or the infamous "I can't find my file" scenario, LogMeIn and a good Skype connection is always as good as being there. If LogMeIn's too complicated, they just launched a service called Join Me, which is desktop sharing in two clicks.

So the days of helping family with tech support tasks just got a little bit easier. For the really advanced stuff, there's LogMeIn/Join Me. For the rest of the small stuff like pushing upgrades and common things like setting the homepage or default web browser or basic maintenance tasks and monitoring the frustration level of the people you support, Soluto provides a great solution.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Windshield Chip Repair Experience

Recently, I was filling up at my local ARCO gas station on 16th and W Streets in downtown Sacramento when I saw those pesky windshield chip repair guys doing work on some poor innocent victim's windshield. I wondered just how much she was being taken for a ride, so I walked over to the two gentlemen performing the work and asked them exactly how they can repair cracks right on the spot.

One gentleman in a yellow jacket, we'll call him Mr. K from University Auto Glass, explained to me how they inject the resin into the chip or crack, and then ultraviolet light finishes it off to form the permanent seal so it cannot spread any further. I asked how much it cost for the repair, and he quickly responded: $40 for up to three chips/cracks. He was then quick to ask if I had any chips or cracks (I did) and then we were swiftly off to begin his sales pitch.

After reviewing my windshield and my insurance card, he determined that my deductible was high enough that it didn't make sense to file a claim with my insurance company to get it repaired/replaced--I could buy two or three windshields for the price of my deductible. And so, given the choice of a $40 repair (warrantied for as long as I own the vehicle) or the chance of it spreading and forcing me to replace the windshield--not only for safety's sake but to comply with California law--I decided that he got me. I was in.

The process
He takes a razor to the pit/crack to get as much loose junk out of the tiny crevice as he can. Once that's done, he attaches some kind of apparatus to the window via suction cup. This apparatus delivers the resin to the damaged area, which the technician then hardens with an ultraviolet light. He scrapes off the extra resin with his razor, making it level with the glass, then shows me how there are no black marks (those are air gaps) which cause cracks to spread. The whole thing took perhaps 15 minutes start to finish. Pretty painless. Of course, as any good sales guy would, he professed that this was one of the best repairs he's ever seen and he was sure pretty proud of his work. I had no idea, looked like there was a lot less of a crack, to be sure, but I was expecting it to be completely invisible. What remained was a tiny dot, which is largely absent from my vision as I drive down the road.

So in that short time, his partner had helped the lady whose car had sparked my interest, they had helped me, and were scouting every car in the gas station for potential customers, which of course they found with ease.

Why I did it
Costs and benefits, for one. $40 repair vs $100+ windshield. The repair is guaranteed for as long as I own the vehicle. In fact, they stand behind their guarantee such that if I ever need a windshield replacement, they'll credit me the $40 if I buy my replacement windshield from them. But more so, I did it because of Mr. K, who was extremely up-front, transparent and forthcoming about the product/company... and because it just made sense to prevent the crack from spreading. They've really got you right where they want you--a captive audience that has to wait for gas to finish pumping, and trying to solve a problem that may become a bigger problem unless you--wait for it--act now.

The conversation
While talking with Mr. K about his job and other random stuff, I learned the following:
  • They use a Square device to process credit card payments right on the spot. (I've had my own Square for quite some time, and it was really cool to see it being used to run a business. Seeing this more and more.)
  • The product is $40, and $25 of that $40 goes to him as commission. In places like the Bay Area, where people have more disposable income, he remarked  that the same job would cost drivers anywhere from $80 to $120. Not sure if his commission increases in kind, but I'm sure it does to some extent.
  • Speaking of cost, the gas station I was at charges the auto glass company $1,500 per month for exclusive rights to that corner, according to Mr. K. Wow! By my calculations, when you minus out commissions these two guys would have to do 100 windshields per month just to pay the rent. That's a lot of windshields! They did at least three in the short span of time I was there at the station, so I suppose it's entirely possible... hence their hustle to find dinged-up windows. That, by the way, equates to about a $2,500/mo gross income for Mr. K, or about $30,000 per year. After taxes, that's about $1,750/mo or $21,000/year. Not bad for fixing windows.
  • To maintain that corner, the sales/install guys must hustle but also remember who the gas station's repeat customers are, and not to piss people off--especially those who say they do not want the service, because "you get any complaints, and you're gone."
Summary
After it was all said and done, I zipped my card with him, the Square processed it on his iPhone (not company-issued, unfortunately), an emailed receipt hit my inbox 5 minutes later, and I wished him good luck on the rest of what was as very chilly night. With a go-get-em grin, he remarked, "There's no luck in sales!" as he put a hop in his step toward his next customer. I took a few notes for this blog post, then drove toward the gas station's exit. As I departed, he waved at me and I waved at him, as if we were friends, as he stood there signing papers with his next customer of the night.

Business is good, apparently, but only if you're good at sales. And this guy was, from start to finish. The conversation was good during the repair, and he noticed me drive out and gave me a friendly wave on the way out.

So next time, I think I won't look at these hustlers the same way I used to--like car salesman waiting for their next mark. They're solving a problem that could lead to a larger one, it's convenient, and the value is right. (Except if you live in locales where the disposable income is higher... yikes!) In Sacramento, he's on the corner of 16th & W hustling every day... so go check him out if you're in the area and want to get that pesky crack fixed up so it doesn't spread and become a bigger problem than just an eyesore.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On The Wrong Path (2.0)

Path just re-launched itself with its 2.0 app and visually, it's nothing short of stunning. It's almost perfectly executed from the textured red icon and splash screen to the opening screen: your path. Just one red + button at the bottom left of the app flings out six different things you can add to your path: a photo, a person, a location (AKA a check-in), what music your listening to, random thoughts, or the times you go to sleep and wake up.

They've borrowed--and in some case just lifted outright--design cues from the recently released Facebook and Gmail apps: tapping a list icon in the upper left slides the main screen off to the right and brings up Settings and other things, while tapping the upper-right Friends button slides the Path screen off to the left, revealing friends and ways to manage them. You can also swipe left or right to accomplish the same tasks.

But enough about the beautiful interface. I want to focus on the total pivot they've made from private to public. You see, Path 1.0 started out as a mobile photo sharing app with only your 50 closest friends. It was private. Why 50, you ask? Research someone had done suggested that we have somewhere between 50 and 150 "really close" friends--friends we feel comfortable sharing very personal things with. All the rest are just acquaintances, co-workers, or otherwise not our true friends. How many of these types of true friends can you think of right now? Your number is probably well below 50.

In the old Path, you could post a moment like "Nervous at Home" or "Bowling with Veronica at AMF Lanes". In other words, "Home" was arbitrary; it could be anywhere. It wasn't pinned to a map. Same with "Walking the dog at the park" ... no GPS coordinates required.

Path 2.0 changes all of that, and it really ticks me off. Now, if I want to post that I'm at home, I get to choose a location on a map. This is the experience that raised my eyebrow: I typed in Home and pressed Search... around me, all sorts of "Home" locations started popping up. My best friend lives one block down from me, and to my great surprise, I saw exactly where his "Home" was located. Thing is, he doesn't call it Home. He actually put his name on the house, but kind of stylized. If his last name were Jones, you'd see it on the map as "Joooooones House". Right there on the map for all to see! There were lots of others, too.

And that's when I discovered the next problem with this 2.0 release: unlike the previous version of Path, which required you to actually know these "loved ones" (as Path calls them) you were adding, this version of Path lets you add anybody. Lonely? Want to add an alibi to last night's events? Just tap the Person button, then start typing in a name. I added some guy named Jasun (I know Jason with an "o" but not with a "u")... who is a Path user I've never met.

Why am I up in arms about this? Simple: I'm not a privacy nut, but I see the value in valuing privacy if that makes any sense. Facebook has been largely responsible for eroding our privacy for about the last eight years.  In that time, we've watched as it has opted us into making our profiles public, presenting so many privacy settings and tweaks that we just give up and click "Accept Changes" whenever there's a new privacy change, we've wondered why they implemented Beacon, a feature which tracked your purchases at select retailers online and shared them in your news feed (this feature was later pulled due to user outrage) and Path was the exact opposite. It was the antithesis of Facebook: closed, private. Secure. Trusted.

Now, it's busting wide open and basing all its changes on "Your trust in Path..." People do not seem to be satisfied sharing intimate moments with "loved ones" as Path would like you to call them. No, instead you can post those moments to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and now with the 2.01 update, Tumblr. Intimate moments become sanitized to "every other type of moment" you're sharing on every other network on the internet.

They've expanded the reach from 50 to 150 loved ones. Think about this for a moment. Do you really have 150 loved ones? Come to think of it, do you really have 150 friends close enough that you'd like to share the most private of moments with? The answer for most of you is "no." Very few have that many people in their lives that they feel comfortable sharing private information with. Case in point: Ladies: how many people in your circle of friends do you have that you feel comfortable sharing your Sunday morning, no-make-up, wake-up face with after your kids brought you breakfast in bed and you're in your jammies? Exactly. You can probably count them on one hand, maybe two. Moments like those are worth sharing with grandparents, family, close friends... but not Facebook or Twitter, for example, where many of your "friends" on those network may not be really all that meaningful to you in real life.

So Path, once the hero of privacy, the antithesis of Facebook, has in turn gone the other direction and become yet another "me too!" photo and life/thought sharing service. It's letting you add more friends--and STRANGERS if you want--to your network; you must now geo-locate your ass if you want to add a location; and they've eliminated the action verb of what you're doing, instead opting for a Facebook and twitter and "everyone else"-like text box where you can tell everyone on Path "what's on your mind?" I mean, this is literally copying Facebook's question word-for-word.

Path has essentially become Facebook light in a world where people could really use a network that values privacy over growth. Then again, this is a Silicon Valley start-up, and the product is free. If I had to guess, Path's investors are pushing them to grow faster because they weren't growing fast enough with their closed, private structure and their 50 friend limit.

I get angry at all this, but I have to say that I haven't really used Path all that much, really... I mean, who has?

What do you think of the changes?