Wow…today is the day my wife and I decided to complete our vote and now we’ll drive it to the Orange County Registrar of Voters to deliver it personally (vs. using the on-purpose-slowed-down U.S. Postal service).

We love our country and democracy and take our voting right as sacred, regardless of the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt) cast on this election by that temporary occupant in the White House.

What a difference voting out here in California has been though. There were 12 Propositions on the ballot, each of which required a lot of study and consideration. The tough part is most, if not all of them, have some sort of unintended consequences which are very difficult to see in advance.

Hope everyone who votes here in CA considers these as carefully as we have, all while deeply appreciating the profound responsibility we all share in making the best decisions we can when voting.

Wherever you live in the United States, please vote…no matter what it takes to do so. If your state supports it, vote as early as you can. It’s a privilege, a right, and a duty.

I’d be remiss if I did not bring to your attention to an accelerating trend sweeping over the web right now, and one I view as timely since our attention is being pulled in dozens of directions at once and there is simply too much content to consume!

The trend is called “Web Stories” and the buzzword used to describe them is that they are “tappable” stories that are bite-sized and easy to swallow. Tappable is an obvious reference to smartphones and tablets being the primary device target for these “story containers”, but I’ve also seen some good full-browser ones being delivered too (that look good on desktops, laptops, and mobile devices). I’ve yet to see a TV-delivered container, but it makes perfect sense and am sure we’ll see some soon.

As I’ve gone through numerous Web Stories, I’ve thought that they’d be great for “How To” tutorials, general learning content, fun stories of any type, or even a replacement for the meme-driven videos we see all the time (I should note that I’m growing weary of text over video that, once you tap to listen to the video’s audio, the text remains).

ABOUT WEB STORIES
The trend is called “Web Stories” and these stories are small, self-contained, encapsulated stories about a single topic. Creating them is leveraging AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) and is a big push for Google. Why? Because the cost to them of dealing with big, bandwidth-intensive web pages is extremely high. So for some time we’ve been seeing Google trying to figure out ways to make the delivery of web content smaller and faster and so AMP was developed.

The problem historically with AMP is that it didn’t offer a whole lot to the world so people didn’t do much with it. It was also a pain in the ass to use in a website and also to build web stories. But in 2020 the world has rapidly moved toward smaller, discrete “containers” of content that would be great on mobile and the tools have evolved too.

The other driver for AMP/WebStories are data caps by mobile providers that can increase cost of bloated websites. Even with a so-called “unlimited” mobile account, almost always there is a gigabyte (GB) “ceiling” for how much bandwidth a mobile network user can consume in a single month. Usually 22 or 23GBs in a monthly billing cycle, once a user goes past that amount their mobile data connection is “throttled” and slowed down significantly. Outside 1st tier economies in the world, data speeds are typically slower and mobile connections not as ubiquitous, which makes rapid delivery of encapsulated content like Web Stories even more compelling.

Others have recognized that smaller, discrete pieces of functionality are important as well. For example, WordPress fundamentally changed how the software’s back-end content creation was done with their Gutenberg approach to creating and editing content. Even Apple has delivered this same sort of concept with App Clips in iOS 14 so we don’t have to launch an app, wade through menus, only to perform one, discrete and simple task.

There is some concern though…

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We are living in a time where the lines between free speech, and hate/fake news type speech, are blurring. Increasingly it seems that the arbiters of free speech are for-profit social media and search companies. As such, I now find myself deeply troubled by where we’re headed with what is, and is not, considered a free speech, press and peaceable assembly, as protected by the United States Constitution’s First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Throughout the Trump presidency, I have railed against The Donald’s bloviating, lying and complete misstatement of facts as well as his constant attempts toward stirring up hate and the speech surrounding it. I am so weary of him that I want to puke whenever I listen to his lies, outright anti-pandemic rhetoric, his inflating accomplishments, and specifically his child-like rantings.

My biggest issue, besides his failed leadership (especially on the pandemic), is that he also constantly provides de facto permission for his base to openly display racist, prejudiced, anti-immigrant, misogynist and “America First!” rhetoric — alongside outcries that social media and search companies are intentionally stifling ‘conservative’ speech when those posts are flagged or removed.

Though I hate to admit it, maybe Trump and conservatives have a point about that implied and expressed stifling of conservative tweets, posts and search results (NOTE: I’m intentionally not using the word “censorship” as I don’t think the flagging or removals are to that extent yet, or whether there is any truth to their belief that search results for their published missives are not displaying).

Whether they’re right, or that we detest conservative’s extreme positions so much that most of us think it doesn’t matter if that objectionable speech is stifled, we at least all need to think about whether or not there is any truth to Trump and his minion’s belief. Why? That belief could affect us all where free speech is concerned if we don’t address this now — and consider those outcries seriously and figure out how to manage our online ‘assembly’ as quickly as possible.

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Apple Macintosh SE30 with Apple Standard
Keyboard and Apple Desktop Bus Mouse.

In January of 1989, Apple introduced the Macintosh SE/30, an upgrade to the SE model. This new one had a whopping 30 MBs (yes…that’s megabytes) as its hard disk drive. I bought one shortly after its introduction and thought I died and went to heaven to have that much storage for files.

At the time this machine was the best one I could afford since, when introduced, its retail cost was US$4,369 (equivalent to $9,011 in 2019) but I got a deal through a buddy that worked at Apple so saved nearly 40%.

The good news? The unbelievable productivity I gained owning it was totally worth it, especially as it allowed me to accelerate my learning of Aldus PageMaker (which was acquired by Adobe in 1994) and thus my wife and I were able to launch our company, Marketing Directions, Inc. (we began publishing newsletters and reports).

The screen was only nine inches diagonally and was monochrome…mainly because the color Mac II — which was introduced in 1987 — cost an incredible US$5,498 (equivalent to $12,373 in 2019). No way could I afford it, even with a discount, as we’d been married for less than three years and our daughter Liz was not yet one year old.

Using this new computer was liberating, especially since I could store so many files on the hard disk. That said, scrolling from side to side and up and down to perform page layout on an 8.5″ by 11″ page was kind of a nightmare. But with the dozen or so books I’d purchased on graphics, desktop publishing, page layout, and typography, I was able to muddle through, design a newsletter and reports layout, and make it work. (As a reminder, this was early 1989 and the reason I bought all of those books to learn how to create professional-level published works was because there was not a public internet available for five more years. It was also many years past before there were a robust set of needed publishing resources available online).

The desktop of Mac OS 7.6.1 with the Apple menu opened on a Macintosh 9″ screen. Copyright information is here.

When I think back on that time (now 31.5 years ago!) I’m still kind of amazed that I was able to leverage this machine in those ways. I will still emphatically state that, if it hadn’t been for the Macintosh and its innovations, our company would never have begun, it would have been unlikely that I ended up working in interactive media, computing, and internet-centric software companies for the remainder of my career. Without my embrace of the Macintosh and its technology ecosystem, I would have just been another tech geek futzing around with Windows, various gadgets, while struggling to make them work together.

A few of the original developers of the Macintosh — Steve Jobs is on the right

I also would not have met Steve Jobs and a few of the Macintosh team while a manufacturer’s rep in the early 1980s, made great friends through Apple, kept stock earned by me while working with Apple in the mid-Nineties, and accumulated enough stock after that to now have a very comfortable retirement. So thank you Steve wherever you are, to Steve Wozniak for kickstarting the company with Jobs, to every human who pushed Apple forward since the beginning, and for today’s outstanding leadership from Tim Cook and his team which is carrying Apple in to the future.

We continue to invest in Apple products and services and are “all in” to the secure, private and amazingly great Apple ecosystem.

It’s happened again: I’ve had yet another friend that lost everything on their phone when it was lost (or possibly stolen?). “Did you back it up,” I asked. He responded, “Don’t even go there…I hadn’t backed it up for almost a year.”

He lost nearly ONE YEAR of photos, videos, text messages, contacts, app data and more. With external drives and cloud backup being so cheap, I’m truly sad for him and his phone loss but can’t really muster much sympathy for him. Sorry ______ (name withheld to protect the sheepish).  😉

Our entire family routinely backs up to external drives for our iMacs and MacBooks. I’ve set up our iPhones and iPads to automatically back up over WiFi whenever home. But all of that data is then backed up to ioSafe Solo G3 waterproof and fireproof drives (I have two of them: a 3TB and a 6TB…the latter to back up my iMac’s internal 1TB SSD and the 3TB ioSafe drive with files on it). Read more about why I love these drives, and recommend them highly, in this post from last year.

Lots of my archive files are stored in my paid, 2TB Dropbox account as well (which, by the way, is a change to my attitude toward no-privacy-required archive files which I’m now willing to store in the cloud). I sync up or upload files, but I’m also using Dropbox’ selective sync capability so huge, archives of photos and videos stay in the cloud only and don’t clutter up my drives and take up space.

Also, external 1, 2, 4, 6 and even 8 TB drives are laughingly cheap right now so there is simply no excuse not to back up. In fact, as of this writing you can buy this Seagate 8TB external drive on Amazon for only $146!

So please…back up your computer and especially your mobile devices and do something about it right now.

By the way, many peaceful protestors recently arrested in the George Floyd protests still don’t have their phones back and many have been told they have no idea when they will be returned. In fact, with the proliferation of geofence warrants, arrests and phone confiscations can happen even long after a protest has concluded. If they were backed up, those persons could buy new phones and restore them.

Over the last few years, I’ve written a few times about senior citizens and technology. There is no better time than right now to figure out how you can connect with those whom you love or care about (and not just seniors!) since there are a lot of lonely and isolated people during this pandemic time.

I’d expect that you certainly don’t want your parents, grandparents, elderly family members, or other seniors — who, without question, are our most vulnerable during this pandemic and will be the last to go out or connect with others in person — to be even lonelier or more isolated than ever before!

Many people have commented on those posts of mine, but even more have used my contact form to reach out to me directly and asked questions, provided solutions they had or knew about, or reinforced my belief that online communication with others can really help.

HMM…MAYBE I COULD HELP HER?

This past week a woman sent me a long message which started off with this:

Hi Steve, I found your blog after realizing I will probably need to purchase something for my father (and mother who has dementia) to do video calls. Like you talked about in your blog it has to be as easy as turning on a device, make sure wifi is connected, and just clicking 1 button (only) to call me. The device can’t be small because Dad has vision and hearing problems. No extra apps, etc.

She also mentioned these requirements:

  • My dilemma is that I myself am disabled, and cannot easily go to a store to buy a device, set it up, pack it up and then ship it to him.
  • I also don’t want to spend over, let’s say $300-350.
  • Also, the device can’t be fidgety like a small tablet.
  • Anyway, if you have any other ideas that could fall in or below my price range, I’d love to hear. Esp if it’s geared toward disabled/seniors (e.g. big buttons/keypad/screen). It literally has to be visually and aurally very usable, clear, and with no quirky gadgets.

I thought it might be helpful for you to read most of my response to her since the solution I recommended to her might help you too.

PLEASE NOTE: I know there are a lot of other tablets, devices, and cheaper solutions, so no need to pick apart my suggestion below. Make your own suggestions in the comments.

One other consideration is this: Unless you’ve done what I’ve done in the past — set up laptops, computer towers, tablets, IP-and-mobile phones and other devices for seniors, all while coaching them on their use — then please understand that I’m hypersensitive to the need for something that just works, is easy to set up and easy for seniors to use. That is what I’ve suggested below with my recommendation.

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You are probably like me right now: torn over the “should we or should we not?” question to open up our country during this pandemic. That question made me think deeply about my own views and what are my pros and cons:

PRO SHUTDOWN

On the one hand there were, and still are, so many unknowns. But we do know that the shutdown did “flatten the curve” of infection and it’s potential to spread:

1) There was no way the U.S. healthcare system could have handled potentially 2-5 million cases with hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and the projected best case death rate of 100,000 to 200,000. Overwhelming the healthcare system was not an option.

2) The U.S. was not (and still isn’t) prepared for a pandemic with testing or even antibody testing. How many are infected is just a guess so estimating herd immunity (and even if that immunity is long-lasting) is unknown.

3) We also don’t know how many strains there are. Five have been genetically identified so far, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has indicated that — like coronaviruses are known to do — mutations *will* accelerate and, God forbid, one of those mutations will spike the mortality rate.

4) Imagine that the mortality rate did spike and the virus’ virulence becomes substantially stronger. The likelihood that, pre-vaccine over the next 12-18 months, these sorts of mutations could see death rates climb in to the low to middle single digits.

5) Those dangers are obvious, but the one we can’t get cavalier about is opening up too fast, getting complacent, and causing an exponential increase in infection. If we do, #3 and #4 above will happen (and may anyway this winter season) since we don’t have a vaccine yet.

CONS ON THE SHUTDOWN

On the other hand the shutdown is devastating the economy which is bad for everybody.

1) According to the Wall Street Journal yesterday, the U.S. economy shrank at its fastest pace ever as GDP dropped 4.8%. If we don’t start to open up parts of the economy and fast, we will slip in to a depression (and are already in a recession).

2) But beyond that statistic, this one is the real issue: searching Google on “U.S. living paycheck-to-paycheck” turns up dozens of articles that outline that 49% to 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck (some articles are from ‘news’ outlets that have political agendas, in my view).

3) Fortunately people aren’t spending as much money and are saving more (incomes are down but savings rate is the highest in 39 years, according to MarketWatch) so hopefully that will help.

4) Unfortunately, we don’t really know the current 2020 state of American’s finances. Why? The Federal Reserve performs this Survey of Consumer Finances every three years, and the last one was done in 2016 (the 2019 survey results will be published “in late 2020” according to this press release by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell).

SO WHAT TO DO NEXT?

There are a number of really smart proposals out there about how to open the economy but *very, very carefully* so that asymptomatic people don’t exponentially infect others and spike the mutations and possibly the mortality rate. Do a Google search on “proposals to open the U.S. economy” to see more.

Most people have become quite knowledgeable on how to protect themselves, even though the instructions about how to stay protected are seemingly all over the map (and Trump’s goofy and rally-like briefing outbursts don’t help). That means that most of us will instinctively know how to stay relatively safe and either not be spreaders of the virus or catch it ourselves.

We do need to get the economy back up and running but cautiously. As Morgan Stanley biotechnology research analyst Matthew Harrison put it in an April 6 op-ed, “Hope that…the U.S. has not reached crisis levels…will be shortlived, as the reality sets in that the path to reopening the U.S. economy is going to be long, and marred by stops and starts. It will be fully resolved only when vaccines are widely available in spring 2021, at the earliest.

I do wish we had smarter and more savvy leadership without personal aggrandizement as the primary goal. But this is the hand we were dealt by the Electoral College in the United States, so we’ll have to push to help our current ‘leadership’ move toward the best strategy.

Good luck to us all and stay safe.

After I wrote the post Effective Green Screen Gear You Can Buy Inexpensively, many people asked me about where I get my virtual backgrounds for usage in Zoom so I’ve added links below.

I thought I’d toss up a few screenshots of me using a few of the backgrounds I’ve downloaded. While the first one in the upper left of the image above is a composite one I created in Photoshop from two others, all the rest were downloaded from free sites like these:

But it’s not just Zoom that offers virtual background capability. Many other virtual meeting software offerings are scrambling to offer virtual background capability since people love the feature. Here are links to a few popular offerings with direct links to their virtual background help pages:

Surprisingly Google Meet or Hangouts does not offer virtual backgrounds (yet).

NEW GEAR
Hopefully it will ship before my next scheduled webinar, but the $295 Blackmagic ATEM Mini will help me go to the next level. This device will enable me to input up to four HDMI inputs (like all of my good cameras) as well as HDMI out from my laptop, iPad or iPhone.

One of the best features of this device is that it will also enable me to input virtual backgrounds directly in to the switcher. So, for example, when I switch from my laptop presentation to my live camera feed on me, its output is as a “webcam” so will show me over the virtual background of my choice. In addition, every app that accepts a webcam will see me overlayed on a virtual background.

If you’re interested in the ATEM Mini (or the ‘Pro’ version) you might want to check out a few of these videos on YouTube.

BUT IT’S NOT JUST VIRTUAL BACKGROUNDS…
Don’t look or sound like you are using a computer, smartphone or tablet for the very first time when you’re in a meeting! Even if it is your first time, practice with someone beforehand and, at the very least, LOOK AT YOURSELF so you can come across well online.

These tips are the best ones I’ve found yet on YouTube, and thought you might enjoy it:

Good luck and stay safe.

Check out the speed of our Cox Gigablast service in the image above. The speedtest on the left was a server on the Cox network close to my home, and the one on the right is a connection to a test server all the way across the country in New Jersey. This kind of speed is incredibly useful for us, especially during this time with us all working and staying in our homes. If you can get this kind of speed as well, it might be worth it to upgrade your internet connection now.

My wife and I were fine on our previous Cox internet speed (300Mbps down and 30Mbps up) but then the pandemic hit. Our online usage spiked dramatically and then our son moved home for the foreseeable future and was online all the time. Then his work figured out how to let him perform his analysis work from home, and that word “dramatically” became two words, “Oh-oh!”

That “oh-oh” was because our son would need to download HUGE files (300-600GB in size) as well as be consuming tons of bandwidth every work day. As such, I knew we’d need significantly faster speeds and a lot more bandwidth. Fortunately Cox fiber to the home was available in our brand new development, so even my slower speed was brought to the curb with fiber. But I discovered that it wasn’t simple to get upgraded to Cox’ Gigablast service, a broadband tier which promised speeds and throughput close to 1 gigabit per second download speeds and nearly the same for uploading.

An example of an optical network
terminal on the exterior of a house

Now that we knew significantly faster speeds and bandwidth was needed, I upgraded online in my Cox account. I was puzzled that, after several hours and multiple reboots of my modem and router, the speeds were the same. I then called in to technical support and discovered that I needed an optical network terminal (ONT) which would replace my modem in order to achieve these speeds.

This need for an ONT was puzzling as a Cox fiber expert had to come out a couple of months after our internet was installed as we had an outage (a crimped optical connector by the original tech cracked) and this expert indicated that I could simply go online and upgrade to get Gigablast. My expectations were then set but, after talking to customer support folks on the phone didn’t really know what was needed and why it wasn’t working, and couldn’t help me figure out what was needed. Read More

I’m seeing so many people struggling with understanding why our nation (and other nations) are essentially in lockdown, especially when “more people die of flu” and “just a tiny few have been identified so far“.

Do you understand how quickly the growth of a virus can move throughout humans? The wheat and chess board problem below is a great illustration of how exponential growth works — similar to how a virus spreads in a human population — and why the governmental reaction is happening to restrict our movements at this point in time.

THE CALIFORNIA EXAMPLE
As of yesterday, all non-essential services in my current State of California are shut down and people are mandated to “shelter in place” so as not to communicate the novel coronavirus to others. But why is this happening now?

According to How overwhelmed is California’s health care system about to be? California may not even be able to handle the surge of COVID-19 cases with the current hospital beds:

“Projections by state health officials have indicated that California hospitals could handle a surge — right now, statewide — of about 10,000 patients. But given the potential for the virus to spread so far and so fast, some models project the state could need twice that, closer to 20,000 extra hospital beds.”

A few facts about the State of California and the death rate and the state’s ventilator need is in order:

  • As of the end of 2018, the population of California is 39.56 million people.
  • Approximately 3.4% of people 60+ years of age are dying from the virus. Others in multiple younger age ranges are ending up with lung damage and both require ventilators to survive or minimize that lung damage.

Yesterday California Governor Newsom made announcements and sent a letter to the Trump administration stating that 56 percent of the state’s population — 25.5 million people — is projected to be infected with the coronavirus over an eight-week period.

With California’s citizenry being left to move about as before the virus emerged, the projection is that within two months a whopping 25.5 million people would have COVID-19 and therefore 3.4% of 25.5 million = 850,000 dead (and an unknown number of younger people with lung damage).

THE WHEAT AND CHESS BOARD – A LINEAR VS. EXPONENTIAL GROWTH EXPLANATION
The reason for the lockdowns is that the deaths are caused by acute respiratory failure requiring ventilators for those afflicted. If there aren’t enough ventilators the death rate goes way up.

The spread of a virus, especially one as communicable as this novel coronavirus, is exponential…and that’s the problem. Left unchecked (i.e., we were NOT locked down) the virus would spread exponentially.

You maybe saying, “Steve…I still don’t get how or why it would grow so fast and why the government’s numbers of people infected are so high.” It’s not your fault if you don’t understand since your brain understands linear growth easily, but your brain is NOT good at understanding exponential growth.

Linear growth is always at the same rate, whereas exponential growth increases in speed over time. If the coronavirus spread at a linear growth rate the numbers are larger than most people can understand since they are so enormous.

To understand both types of growth, let’s look at a chess board which has 64 squares on it and is one where you place grains of wheat on each square.

1) Linear growth is always at the same rate, so this is easy when you put one grain of wheat each day for 64 days. At the end of 64 days you have 64 grains of wheat.

2) How many grains of wheat would be on the chessboard when you finish with exponential growth? Since exponential growth increases in speed over time — just like a virus would spread — let’s see what happens when you double the number of grains each day for 64 days like you would if you were at the mall, in a restaurant, and moving about as you did normally before the virus hit:

  • FIRST DAY: You place one grain of wheat on the first square on the chess board
  • SECOND DAY: You double the grains of wheat on the second chess board square … so now there are two grains on that second square
  • THIRD DAY: You double the grains again and now you have four grains on the third chess board square
  • FOURTH DAY: You double the grains again and now you have eight grains on the fourth chess board square
  • FOURTH THROUGH 64TH DAY: For the next two months continue to double the grains each day and place them on each subsequent square.

At the end of 64 days you would have 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 quadrillion grains of wheat! (NOTE: A quadrillion is a thousand trillion).

THAT is why we are in lockdown and trying hard to flatten the curve, performing social distancing, and trying to stop the exponential spread of this virus until a vaccine (and other mitigation strategies) can be found.

Here’s an interesting video to give you an idea on how quickly exponential growth occurs: