Gadget Tuesday: ASUS Eee PC 2G Surf

My partner spotted one of these at the jQuery conference in Boston on Sunday. It’s a cheap ($249.99 on Newegg.com) and adequately powered (2GB) tiny (2 lbs, 7″) laptop. It’s the perfect little buddy to take with you to conferences, off-site meetings or other events.

It’s also got a solid-state disk, which means you can knock it around relatively worry-free, since nothing is going to come loose inside. It’s also got a built-in WiFi that that the manufactures claim “automatically detects and connects to the Internet at any hotspot.”

It runs Linux rather than Windows, which keeps it fast and cheap. But the downside is that you won’t have a copy of your Outlook for mail or other Windows programs you’re addicted to. Some report that it doesn’t handle video well, although the manufacturers tout sharing videos on YouTube and Flickr. It also comes pre-loaded with Skype, one of my favorite programs for the nonprofit.

Get Your Own Weblog Name

I found a great thought on one of my favorite websites Useit.com the other day, and a powerful argument for having your own name for your blog.

Jacob Nielsen says:

Having a weblog address ending in blogspot.com, typepad.com, etc. will soon be the equivalent of having an @aol.com email address or a Geocities website: the mark of a naïve beginner who shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Letting somebody else own your name means that they own your destiny on the Internet. They can degrade the service quality as much as they want. They can increase the price as much as they want. They can add atop your content as many pop-ups, blinking banners, or other user-repelling advertising techniques as they want. They can promote your competitor’s offers on your pages. Yes, you can walk, but at the cost of your loyal readers, links you’ve attracted from other sites, and your search engine ranking.

Sure, WordPress and the ilk are free, but you can have your own domain name for just a few bucks more – I’ve seen for less than $10 per year. Make the investment up front, and own your blog yourself.

Tech Support Survival Guide in 5 Steps

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[Image: Flickr user ElDave]

Sometimes, you have to hate them. When your computer stops working, it’s their job to fix it, and pronto. Who can blame you for popping a few capillaries when you’re on hold for countless minutes or waiting for a response to an e-mail you sent last week? The poor wretches whose job it is to listen to your gripes are almost asking for it. Yep, when something’s gone wrong, there’s no better punching bag than the help desk.

I’m somewhere in the middle, because I provide support for Talance’s clients and also have to appeal to our own tech pros for help when I’m having issues myself. So I know what it’s like to start kicking trashcans because you’re not receiving the help you want and also when you’re not receiving the most illuminating questions from someone confounded by technology.

Thankfully, I adore our clients, and there’s never any animosity when they call for help. But that doesn’t mean I can’t hear the frustration. So I thought I’d offer up a few items you can keep in mind when it comes to working with your tech support person. (Note: this goes for the phone company, cable company, internet company, etc.)

Step 1: Take a deep breath

Preparing yourself with the right information before calling the help desk is certainly important, but of greater significance is remaining polite when you’re on the line. As frustrating as it can be to describe a problem you don’t understand, take some deep breaths, get a glass of water, do a couple neck rolls – do whatever it takes, just as long as you are calm when you pick up the phone.

Step 2: Check the cables

Things come unplugged and you might not know about it. If your monitor is black but the computer is humming along nicely, it could be disconnected. Save yourself – and the help desk tech – a load of agony by jiggling the cables to make sure they’re in place.

Step 3: Read the manual

Remember that you can eliminate most problems with a little forethought, thus avoiding the issue altogether. An effortless glance through the manual can end a lot of help desk frustration. You might be surprised that manuals exist for the equipment on your desk. Ask around to see if you can get a copy.

Step 4: Get the serial number

Assuming you’ve read through the manual and found nothing that can help with your problem, flip to the back of it and get the serial number of the product in question. This lets the help desk zero in on the right piece of equipment.

If you’re having problems with software, note what kind of computer you have (PC or Mac), what your operating system is, what kind of browser you’re using and what you were doing when the problem arose.

Step 5: Call the right number

Relax your help desk trigger finger for a minute and make sure you shouldn’t be calling the software maker instead. It works the other way around too. Many people don’t realize that if you bought a Dell computer, that company will provide support for the Microsoft Windows operating system. This is important because Dell tech support comes part and parcel with the computer, while you’ll have to pay for Microsoft’s help (and they don’t have a toll-free number either).

Step 6: Volunteer the correct information

The number one question to answer is, “Has this has ever worked?” Address that question first, then tell the support person what you were doing when the computer broke. With this information, he or she may determine the root of your problem before you even begin explaining it.

Remember, help desks are chronically understaffed. Understand there’s a human on the other end of the line, and they’re probably doing their best to help. Don’t be afraid to just call up when everything is running smoothly and say, “Thanks for all you do.”

How Nonprofits Might Use Twitter

In the next few years, we’re going to be hearing even more about so-called microblogging. So it’s not a bad idea to start reading about it now. Besides, many organizations are using microblogging with products such as Twitter to great effect (follow me on Twitter, if you’re curious).

An article in BusinessWeek talks about how airlines are using Twitter to handle customer support. Look at this example from the article:

Christofer Hoff tweeted his displeasure with Southwest (LUV) on Apr. 28, when his flight was delayed and his luggage disappeared. The next day he received the following message from Southwest: “Sorry to hear about your flight—weather was terrible in the NE. Hope you give us a 2nd chance to prove that Southwest = Awesomeness.” In a blog post about the incident, Hoff wrote that it was “cool and frightening at the same time.”

Think about what parallels you might be able to draw between Southwest and your own organization. Can you use a microblogging site to …

  • Notify your community about a successful fund-raising effort? (E.g., “Hurray! We just hit the $8000 mark! Help us get to $9000.”)
  • Update volunteers on an upcoming opportunity? (E.g., “Friends of the Burlington Library: we still need four people for the book sale. Bring a friend on Saturday.”)
  • Bring about social action in real time? (E.g., “Help us protest for fair wages. We’re meeting at 4th & Filmore. Bring your T-shirts and pickets.”)

Twitter or another microblogging site might not be for you and your organization. But it doesn’t hurt to educate yourself. Zappos (the company that sells shoes online) has a handy quick-start guide to Twitter, which is a pretty good intro for anyone.

Gadget Monday: Back-up with Style with SimpleTech Signature Mini

SimpleTech Signature Mini

Backups are the buzzkill of most people who work on computers. Being organized is often tedious. But spending a few minutes on a regular basis making sure that the information on your computer is safely stored somewhere else for emergency retrieval is time well spent.

SimpleTech Signature Mini makes the job a little less tedious, because this external backup device was designed by Italian sports car designers. It’s also very handy, because it’s about the size of a deck of cards, and you can bring it with you wherever you travel.

This one includes local and online backup and comes with Fabrik Local Backup software, so you can schedule automatic backups from your computer relatively easily and store around 2 GB – quite a lot – of your important information. Not all backup drives do this.

It’s also worth noting that you can use this cute thing not just for backing up documents, but you can have a handy place to put your photos, songs, or anything else you might want to bring along for a lecture or meeting presentation.

Think about using an external tool for backing up your important data. Check out this post I wrote earlier on handy tools for saving your data from yourself.

Say It with a Smiley

[This is the third in a series about e-mail. Read earlier posts under the category e-mail.]

Emoticons, short for “emotion icons,” and also known as smileys, are punctuation combinations that can help soften an informal message. Here are some frequently used emoticons and their definitions. Use them in moderation; too many can make your messages look too doodled-on.

: )happy

: (unhappy

; )wink, jest

: Dlaughing

: Oshocked

: pgiving the raspberries, poking out tongue

>: (mad

: xlips sealed

<:-|dunce

:-\unsure

E-mail Image Counts

[This is the third in a series about e-mail. Read earlier posts under the category e-mail.]

Here are a few easy tips for tidying up messy messages:

Check spelling and grammar before sending. Spell-check goes a long way toward making you sound smarter, but some people surprisingly don’t use it.

Don’t use all caps.
I thought everyone knew this, but apparently not. Type the way books read. Otherwise you’ll look like you’re yelling. DON’T DO IT. See? It looks like I’m mad at you.

Don’t use all lower case. You’re not e.e. cummings. Properly capitalize.

Use a descriptive Subject line. Subject lines are summary lines. They should give a good indication of what’s to come. Still, I receive many messages that say things like, “Hi” or nothing at all. Write your message first, then come up with a good summary based on it to use in the Subject field.

Keep your temper. Don’t say anything in e-mail you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. You have to be so, so careful with e-mail. Take extra care not to sound snippy.

Overall, be selective in who you send messages to. If you’re not going to mail something to 150 people, then why would you e-mail it?

E-mail Policy for the CC Field

[This is the second in a series about e-mail. Read earlier posts under the category e-mail.]

It seems e-mail overload is inevitable as long as people reach for the sometimes sinister “cc” field. By including everyone in your address book, or even a handful of people who you might like to include in a discussion, you can create an overwhelming influx of mail. The cc field also has political issues. Some employees will include a higher up simply to make the main recipient look bad.

Here’s a simple rule to institute in your e-mail policy (your organization does have an e-mail policy, doesn’t it?): If someone needs to know something, then send it. But if it’s just nice to know, don’t cc it.

If you simply must forward a message, make sure it’s readable. This includes deleting all the irrelevant To and From fields and sending it in a usable format, even if it requires copying the contents of message attachments and pasting them into another.

E-mail Etiquette: Turn off Type-Ahead

E-mail has seemingly boundless attributes and has shaped the face of modern correspondence, but it can create unequaled debacles. In the right hands, e-mail is a speedy and effective way to pass news and keep in touch. But careless fingers can send sensitive material into the wrong in-box, clog up disk drive space and spoil relationships.

Even though everyone uses it these days, it’s worth stepping back, looking at the way we communicate with each other, and figuring out how that can be refined and improved. This week, I’ll look more closely at e-mail etiquette and practices and offer a few tips and tools to help you massage the most common missives you send in any given day.

First up: turn off type-ahead.

Most e-mail programs have a type-ahead, or auto-complete, function that remembers and stores addresses you send to. When you begin to enter a previously contacted address, your e-mail program will recognize it and offer suggestions for completing the text for you. This is meant as a time-saver, but it could get you in trouble if you continue to be nudged with the wrong address. You might jut choose the wrong one.

By sending a message to the wrong person, or hundreds of unintended recipients, you can create wasted time and disk space, not to mention a heap of trouble.

Be especially careful of group distribution lists, which can be a hazard if you work for a large organization. You may have a message – either incriminating or innocuous – that you mistakenly send to a larger group of people if you accidentally send it to a distribution list rather than an individual.

You can turn off type-ahead altogether, if your e-mail program will let you. Each one is different. Gmail doesn’t let you turn off auto-complete (someone correct me if you have different information – all I can find is others complaining about this). But you can delete stored e-mail addresses from the drop-down box by using the arrow keys of the address you want to delete, and then press the Delete button.

How to turn off auto-complete in Outlook 2003/2007:

  1. On the Tools menu, click Options.
  2. Click E-mail Options, and then click Advanced E-mail Options.
  3. Under When sending a message, clear the Suggest names while completing To, Cc, and Bcc fields check box.

Gadget Monday: Podcasting Project Perfect for Nonprofit Budget

If any of you have started podcasting or video blogging, you might have noticed a discernible difference between what you’re doing with your computer microphone and what the pros are doing when they’re making voice-overs. Namely, you’re likely to hear very pronounced P sounds as you talk into the mic.

We’ve addressed a couple different ways to get past this (such as talking past the microphone rather than into it or getting a good yet inexpensive headset), but this excellent article in Nextplease shows you How To Make Your Own Microphone Pop-Filter.

This article will show you how to make your own microphone pop-filter. A pop-filter is a small screen that goes between a microphone and your mouth to prevent sharp popping sounds (known as plosives) like “P” and “B” words from overloading the mic level and distorting.

The whole thing, which is essentially a pair of pantyhose stretched over a wooden embroidery ring, costs about $6. I’ve found similar results by stretching an old pair of hose over a hanger and placing it in front of the microphone when doing my own voice-over work.

You’ll be surprised how much this small adjustment can make a difference in the way your recordings sound.