Category: technology

Explain Watch Parties to Me

Okay, hive mind. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve seen some of the various online streaming services promote the fact that they can do watch parties. And while at first glance, that sort of seemed intriguing, I can’t for the life of me figure out what you’d actually use it for. I mean, maybe sports? If I could talk to my friends while watching a BYU game or something, that might be fun. But talking to my friends in the middle of a movie . . . doesn’t sound like the bestest thing ever to me.

Have any of you actually done one? And I suppose more importantly, have any of you done a second one after the first?

Yesterday we tried out our first real “Zoom visit” with friends or family, and I have to admit that it worked much better than I thought it would. I mean, heading into it, I was really skeptical any other Zoom anything would be enjoyable. (This, despite the fact that the get together was my idea. Desperate times, my friends. Desperate times.) Denisa suggested we hook up the laptop to our home theater system so that everyone could see the screen easily, and that worked like a charm. The audio was great, and the picture was easy for everyone to see. I’m not sure how our mic situation was, but next time I might try using an external mic to make it even better.

In the end, it worked out and felt quite like a family visit. The only real drawback is the fact that it’s hard or impossible to have any side conversations over a Zoom broadcast, and it’s not like people can just peel off and head into other rooms to visit. (Though I suppose I could make that happen. I’ve done breakout rooms, after all . . .)

Of course, it would have been good to find out that Zoom visits can actually be fun back in March or April or May, but then again, maybe they wouldn’t have been. Maybe it’s just to the point that anything other than what I’ve been doing is fun in comparison . . .

Anyway, after that much-better-than-I-thought-it-would-be experience, I wonder if maybe there’s something to “Watch Parties” that I just haven’t understood yet. So if any of you have actually tried one (for better or worse), I’d love to hear about how it went.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Movie Review: The Social Dilemma

I’d been hearing about the Social Dilemma the last while, and I finally took some time to watch it myself. It’s focused on the (mostly harmful) effect social media is having on us as a society. While I don’t think it’s a perfect film by any stretch, it does raise some very valid concerns I’ve already had for quite some time, and I think it’s an important movie for people to watch, if only to be aware of the sort of influence social media (and other technologies) can have on our lives and our societies.

The premise is quite straightforward: platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest make money by selling ads to their users. On the surface, that doesn’t seem very disturbing at all. After all, we’ve had ads sold to us on television for decades, and that hasn’t destroyed society, right? (Unless you count the fact that I can still remember the jingle for AlkaSeltzer thirty plus years after I heard it on TV.)

Then again, Facebook touts its ability to sell targeted ads, ensuring marketers can reach just the right audience. But still, I remember growing up (back in ye olde days when I actually watched normal television) that the ads I’d see on TV on Saturday morning would be different than the ones I’d see watching Murder She Wrote in the evening with the fam. (For some reason, there were far fewer ads for Transformers. Likely because adults didn’t appreciate the finer things in life.) So there have been targeted ads for quite some time. Why worry about Facebook all of a sudden?

The trouble arises in the way technology is able to profile us these days. So much of what we do is done online, and a ton of it is on social media platforms. Facebook can tell how long you look at a post, whether you click on an article, what interests you, what disinterests you. Technology is able to tell things about you that you might not have told to anyone else. (Famously. Target sent a “so you’re expecting” coupon book to a teenaged girl living at home with her parents. It’s algorithms had analyzed people’s shopping searches to recognize when someone was expecting, and it sent out ads to those people. And yes, the girl was expecting, but no, her parents didn’t know about it, and yes, this caused problems.)

Even more troubling (and something the documentary doesn’t go into) is the fact that tech companies can begin to build profiles of you even if you don’t extensively use their platforms. Even dabbling is enough. Why? Because they’re able to track patterns across huge populations. In an easy-to-understand example, if a high percentage of people who like a certain musician tend to be liberal, or who watch a TV show tend to be conservative, and then you mark down that you like that musician or TV show, then the platform begins to make certain assumptions about you. It gets to be like Sherlock Holmes, taking seemingly random tidbits of information to deduce you’re a fifty year old grandmother of seven living in Arkansas, with a penchant for action movies and a history of flatulence. All because you said you liked a certain TV show.

And that’s not even taking into account Google and its massive, massive databanks about you. What you search for when no one knows you’re searching. Google probably knows you better than almost anyone else.

Pair this knowledge about its users with the ability to sell ads to those users, and you get a dangerous combination. An unregulated combination. We recognized it’s not right to use cartoon characters to market cigarettes to children, so we made laws against it back in the day. Well, Congress is about as able to keep up with tech trends as an untrained cocker spaniel, and targeted ads online are pretty wild west right now. Yes, you’re supposed to be 14 to have a Facebook account, but even targeting ads to 14 year olds can get into icky territory.

The simple fact is that ads influence people. Anyone who says they don’t needs to explain why companies are willing to spend billions of dollars on them. And Facebook can see precisely what sort of an effect its ads has on its users. It can see which ones make a difference.

Let’s go straight to the more disturbing areas. Ads make a difference. Political ads can make people want to vote a certain way (or discourage then from voting at all). Russia has been using Facebook and other social media platforms to sow discord in American society, to great effect. If a company has the power within its grasp to sway an election one way or another (not just in America, but anywhere it has a presence), should that be something that’s enabled? Should there be some restrictions on how that power is used?

But it’s not all outside agents, and it’s not all about elections. One of the points of the film that stands out is that social media can get people to believe crazy things. The go-to example is always flat-earthers, which seems like such a blatant instance of people denying long proved facts, but not all flat-earthers are crazy or stupid. A significant chunk of them are just people who are bad at evaluating sources. As I wrote about conspiracy theories before, it’s really hard to get out of one once you’re in one, because they’re self-confirming. Any efforts to dissuade your belief can also just cement it further. If social media can propagate things like flat earth theories, then why in the world wouldn’t it be effective growing belief in everything from Pizzagate to Qanon?

The film takes a heavier hand with this than I would have liked, and I worry that can tune some people off of its message, but the core of the message is still there, and this is one of the best ways I’ve seen of getting that message across.

The question then comes up, “What now?” If you believe all of this is happening, then what should you do about it? Time to throw away all your smart phones and social media accounts? Speaking as a person who’s known about this for a while, and yet is still a tech junkie, here are some recommendations I have if you’ve seen the movie and want to adjust your life somewhat (without going into full hermit mode):

  • Do not get your news from social media. Period. Let me restate that one more time for emphasis. Do not get your news from social media. Sometimes that news will be an ad. Often it will be something shared by a friend (or a bot) and not fact checked. If the news is something that really sets you off (for good or bad), then go to one of your trusted news sites and look it up there, or at least confirm the story. I go to several news pages each day to see what’s happening. I visit the actual sites, or if there’s an RSS feed, I check the updates on Feedly. Anything that’s just funneling information your way should be suspect. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but you should treat it like a piece of candy you found on the ground. It might make you think you’d like to eat that little sweet, but maybe go to the store and buy a fresh piece instead.
  • Set boundaries on your social media use. A time limit would be nice. They are designed to soak up as much time as you will give them. The good news is that they’re generally also designed to put the most interesting things first. Read the first few stories and posts, and then move on with your life. If you find yourself constantly wanting to check the latest news, then you might have a problem. Boundaries are good.
  • Curate your feed. Again, this isn’t to say you should just unfriend anyone who disagrees with you, but I do think you’ll save a lot of stress by slimming things down. I friend just about anyone who wants to friend me. (Or at the least, I don’t refuse the request, and I let them follow me.) But to make it into my actual feed takes more work. Instead, I typically “friend and unfollow.” If you’re not someone I haven’t seen and interacted with in real life more than a day or two here and there, then why do I need to know what you’re up to? Unfollowed. Likewise, I will unfollow anyone whose posts just make me constantly think less of them. I don’t want bad interactions on Facebook to make me start disliking people in real life. Then again, as long as the person is posting some things that are worth it, I’m willing to tolerate a fair bit. I have some friends who are rabid Trump fans, believe it or not. And they’re not hidden, despite them linking to Fox News stories semi-regularly.
  • Curate what you share with others. Don’t just post something without looking into it first and confirming it’s accurate. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
  • Talk to your kids about social media, and make sure they’re aware of what it does (and shouldn’t do). I tend to think the vast majority of the country is just on Facebook or Twitter or the like and not really thinking about how it all works. It’s like electricity to them. Flick a switch, and it turns on. What technology should you be cautious around? Anything that’s free, basically. If they don’t make money from your wallet, they’re making money from you in other ways, whether by selling your data to others or selling access to you.

Anyway. Just a few thoughts. Do check the movie out, and try to look past its weaknesses. The thought behind it is very valuable. 7/10

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

The Art of the All Day Zoom

I’m in another eight hour Zoom meeting today (well, obviously not without breaks. When else would I be writing this but at lunch?). This is not my first all-day Zoom session. It’s not my second, or even my third. Over the last long pandemic era, I’ve been in many meetings that have lasted 4 or more hours. They’re not fun, but I’ve gotten to the point that I know how to handle them, more or less. And seeing as how Zoom seems to be a part of our life probably for the next ever (though the platform itself may change at some point), I thought it might be useful to offer a few helpful tips for maintaining your sanity during long Zoom meetings.

(Note: if I’m ever in a long Zoom meeting with *you*, of course, I don’t need to use any of these tactics. Meetings with you are nothing but pure bliss from start to finish. I’m talking about Zoom meetings with anyone other than you. That goes without saying, right? Right.)

  1. Hydrate. This is part of a successful approach to pretty much anything. Yes, it’ll make you healthier, but it’ll also force you to take breaks from the Zoom meeting. All that hydration has to go somewhere, and you need to stand up and step away from the meeting now and then. You just can’t sit there for eight hours staring at a screen. Trust me. (And even when I don’t have to take a bathroom break, I will sometimes just turn off my camera and stand up. It really does help.)
  2. Eat! True, sometimes this means you have to turn off your camera for that as well (or risk being the butt of jokes about whether you brought enough for everyone), but food helps me focus again. One of the tragic side effects of the Zoom era is that the days of free food are over. In a typical all day meeting, there would be some juice and muffins to start the day, and then we’d have a lunch brought in, and there might even be some cookies in there somewhere in the afternoon to seal the deal. Now? It’s all up to you. I’m still on my limited diet, so I just look forward to my banana and my peanut butter sandwich. But I definitely look forward to them. If I weren’t on a diet, I would bring some other goodies to get me through the day. But I’d set specific times when I could eat them, because otherwise I’d eat them all within the first hour. Just saying.
  3. Exercise. Not going to lie, here: sometimes I turn off my camera and mic, and I jog in place in the middle of Zoom meetings. I mean, I need to exercise anyway, and that’s something I can easily do while I’m paying attention to what else is being said. It gets the heart rate up, and keeps me from succumbing to feeling overwhelmed by the hours of Zoom meetings that still lie ahead. True, sometimes this means you have to stop jogging, turn on your camera and mic, and risk explaining why you’re so flushed, but in those cases, just meet it head on. “I was exercising. Multitasking.” I mean, everyone else on the call has just been sitting there. You’re really flexing some “I’m a person who takes care of himself” muscles when you explain that.
  4. Keep a side chat going. It helps if you identify an ally in the meeting. Someone you can send snarky messages to in the middle of everything. BUT NOTE: DO NOT use Zoom to exchange these snarky missives. Zoom is like the Eye of Sauron. It keeps a log of all messages during the chat, even “private” ones, and then it sends those messages to the person who ran the meeting. So keep your side snark to Google Chat or Facebook. You’ll thank me later.
  5. If you’re really in trouble, and the meeting has turned into one of those terrible “You have to be here but it really doesn’t have anything relevant for you” affairs, then don’t forget you’ve got the internet at your fingertips. Sometimes you can check the news or your email or do some other business. But remember (WARNING!) if you wear glasses, those glasses will betray you. Cameras these days are pretty sharp. They’ll easily show the reflection of your monitor against your glasses, and it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that what you’re looking at is something other than a Zoom screen. So be careful with this. Just saying.

But really, with those simple steps, you can make it through even the longest Zoom meeting. Speaking from experience. Though if you’re lucky, you won’t have many of those to deal with.

Now if you don’t mind, my lunch break is running out . . .

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

AirPods Pro Review

I bought some ear buds a while back, thinking they’d be an excellent way to listen to music on my iPhone. (I get an Apple Music subscription free with my Verizon account. Actually, starting next week I’ll also be getting Hulu and ESPN+ for free, in addition to Disney+. I don’t know how long these deals will last, but I’ll say I really love taking advantage of stuff that comes to me for free when I’m paying for something anyway.)

In any case, the ones I got were middle-of-the-road Jabras. Not super expensive, but not cheap ones either. I tried them out some and they were . . . fine. I didn’t like how outside sound seemed to echo in my head when I had them on, and I listen to enough different devices through the course of the day (my laptop, my phone, my iPad) that switching between all of them was a real pain. In the end, I stopped using them that much. They were nice, but not enough to get me to start listening to music regularly again.

This is surprising to me in many ways, since I used to listen to music all the time. I would go everywhere with my portable CD player and happily listen to music all day. I still listen to music plenty in the car, but I had stopped doing it throughout the day, just because it felt like too much of a pain, I suppose.

With the shift to online learning at the university, Denisa has needed to use my iPad more and more for her classes. (Along with the Apple Pencil, she can use it as an on-screen whiteboard in Zoom classes.) It’s a year and a half old, so old enough for me to justify buying a new iPad and just bequeathing my current one to her so that she can use it whenever she needs it. And when I went to buy the new iPad, imagine my surprise to see Apple was doing a deal for educators: buy an iPad, get AirPods for free. For a bit more money, I could upgrade to the pros. I’ve loved my noise canceling Bose headphones on planes. If these worked the same way, without cords . . .

I bought them. I’m a sucker for technology, and I hoped the Apple reputation for ease of use would make the difference.

I’m very pleased to say that it did. The sound on them is really impressive, and the noise cancellation is fantastic. There’s an easy way to switch between letting the outside noise filter through and tuning it out, and changing from listening on one device to another is also just a few clicks away. I can go from listening to a Zoom on my laptop to listening to my phone as I walk around campus without any real effort. Siri works well on them, too.

Consider me a happy customer. (Though since I paid half off for them, it’s not like it was a huge bar to pass.) Would I still be happy if I had paid the full price? I think so. I could see me using these on planes instead of my Bose headphones. (The one drawback is that they might get uncomfortable after 4+ hours of being in. Not sure on that yet. It seems for now that I’m getting used to them. But then there’s the issue of battery life. Recharging them halfway through a flight might be a pain. Does it override the smaller travel footprint? If I ever get to fly again, I guess we’ll find out.)

I know Apple gets a lot of disdain from some, but there’s a lot to be said for how easy it all works together when you’re all in the same ecosystem, technologically.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

And So It Begins: Ceding the Tech Support Crown to the Next Generation

For as long as I can remember, whenever there was a tech problem in a household I was a part of, I was the go to person to solve it. I’ve always enjoyed rooting around in the innards of wires, and I’ve taught myself all sorts of things, from how to build my own computer (I’ve built two now) to how to design web pages to how to set up a home theater system. It just went without saying that when the time came that something electric broke down, it would be up to me to get it back working again.

I’m still able to do that, but the last bit, I’ve found myself taking a back seat more and more to Tomas. Why? A few reasons.

First, troubleshooting electronics can be a really long, arduous process. You know what you want the things to do, but you can’t for the life of you figure out why they aren’t doing that thing. To tinkerers like myself, that means you end up delving into online forums and guides to try and make yourself as expert in the area as you can, hoping in the process that you’ll come across the appropriate solution. That takes a lot of time and patience, and I don’t often have time (or patience) for some of these issues. If there weren’t another person in the house who enjoyed this sort of thing, that would be one thing, but . . .

The second reason is Tomas really excels at the same sort of process it takes to troubleshoot. He’s good at searching online for answers and putting the results of those searches into practice. Better yet, it’s something he enjoys doing. All those years of tinkering around with technology ended up indirectly getting me the job I have today. Why? Because in addition to having a library science degree, I had tech experience, and the first job I took at UMF was for the position of IT Librarian. Having a tech support background (and being able to prove it during the interview process) gave me a real leg up. So I think it’s definitely worth it to help foster the same attitude in my kids if possible.

Of course, this isn’t without concerns. I do wonder if I won’t find myself technologically frustrated in a few years when Tomas is no longer in the house and I’m back to doing these things on my lonesome. Is this how it begins? Ten years from now, am I going to be staring at my computer in horror when it starts displaying everything in Swahili, not knowing what keystroke I made to turn it to Swahili mode, let alone how to turn it off?

Probably not. Because if there’s one thing I’ll remain good at, it’s the ability to find information online. That’s comfortably in the “Librarian” wheelhouse, and so that’s an area I’ll still be working on keeping up to strength. The biggest part of successfully handing technology issues (I’ve found) is a willingness to troubleshoot, and the ability to get over the fear that you might break something. I remember the first time I installed RAM in a computer. I was convinced I was going to crush the motherboard, and I was really surprised just how hard I had to end up pushing to get it to seat finally. (Of course, the other trick is knowing when to wave the flag and take it to an expert. Because I definitely have broken things over the years . . .)

But for now, I’m enjoying being able to outsource tech problems as they arise, shifting into a consulting role instead. Suggesting ways to fix something, or providing insight into new approaches.

After all, who else is going to tell me how to use my super-duper genius phone when I’m eighty?

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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